[Marxism] Labor Media, Neoliberalism, and the Crisis in the Labor Movement
menecraj at shaw.ca
Wed Nov 22 17:57:54 MST 2006
Labor Media, Neoliberalism, and the Crisis in the Labor Movement
by Sid Shniad
MRZine - Nov. 19, 2006
This is Sid Shniad's presentation to the LaborTech 2006 panel on "The
Corporate Media Assault and Developing a Labor Media Strategy" (18 November
2006). -- Ed.
This panel is called Corporate Media Assault and Developing a Labor Media
Strategy. In my view, the issue should be framed as a discussion of the
overall corporate assault on organized labor and the rest of society, and
the role that labor media can play in mounting an effective response to that
Thanks to a highly sophisticated, multi-pronged corporate effort, the labor
movement today is in crisis. How bad is the situation? Really bad. In the
U.S. today, the portion of the working population that's represented by
unions today is at its lowest level since the 1920s while corporations are
on the rampage.
How did we end up in this situation, with working people facing increasingly
precarious employment, declining living standards, lack of medical care, and
inability to organize? To answer that question, we have to look at a bit of
After the Second World War, Western governments embraced expansionist
Keynesian economic policies in order to avoid a repeat of the Depression of
the 1930s. During the resulting economic expansion, which lasted nearly
three decades, unemployment remained relatively low. As a result, fear of
unemployment -- which normally acts as a disciplinary force keeping workers
in line -- ceased to play its traditional role.
By the late 1960s, a significant number of workers who were dissatisfied
with their working conditions and confident of their ability to find
employment in the ever-expanding economy began to exhibit levels of labor
militancy and strike activity not seen since the 1930s. This militancy,
together with the social spending that had characterized Keynesian policy,
combined with rising real wages to threaten corporate profitability. From
capital's perspective, this constituted a major crisis.
In 1973, David Rockefeller, working with Zbigniew Brzezinski and
representatives of the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign
Relations, and the Ford Foundation, convened meetings of prominent business
figures, academics, and politicians to address the crisis. Out of these
meetings an organization known as the Trilateral Commission took shape. The
Commission, whose membership is comprised of prominent business, political,
and academic figures, has addressed issues of concern to the corporate
establishment ever since.
In 1975 the Commission published a book called The Crisis of Democracy. The
book's authors -- Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, and Joji Watanuki --
took up the concerns that were preoccupying big capital. They bemoaned the
effects of government spending in the areas of education, welfare, social
security, health and hospital care. Expressing the views of the rich and
powerful, they blamed the crisis of profitability on what they called "an
excess of democracy."
Over the past thirty years, the concerns raised in The Crisis of Democracy
have been taken up by a variety of right-wing think tanks, politicians, and
institutions. Inspired by this analysis, governments around the world have
attacked the welfare state that was constructed in the post-war era, waging
relentless war on society generally and the working class in particular, by
curbing wages, gutting social programs, privatizing government holdings and
services, deregulating corporate activity, and instituting "free trade"
agreements in an overall policy framework that became known as
These same forces simultaneously mounted an unrelenting attack on organized
labor, employing sophisticated union-busting tactics and putting in place an
assortment of legal barriers designed to prevent workers from joining unions
or achieving contracts. In the words of a 2000 Human Rights Watch report,
"[American] Workers who try to form and join trade unions to bargain with
their employers are spied on, harassed, pressured, threatened, suspended,
fired, deported or otherwise victimized in reprisal for their exercise of
the right to freedom of association."
Internationally, the neoliberal policies that the Trilateral Commission and
other, similar groups began promoting in the 1970s have been
institutionalized through organizations like the World Bank, the
International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization. All have a
common purpose: to ensure that profitability is not jeopardized by the
action of organized labor or government pursuit of progressive social
policy. How? By redefining the role of government and restructuring the
political process to impede governments' ability to generate progressive
social and economic programs.
In my view, the labor movement's response to the comprehensive attack that
capital has mounted over the past 30 years has been grossly inadequate. The
AFL-CIO has made little or no effort to address the political and economic
problems besetting society as a result of neoliberalism and how addressing
these problems might influence labor's response. Instead, the AFL and many
of its prominent labor critics have largely restricted their response to the
crisis that has overtaken organized labor to a focus on the issue of
declining union membership.
The highly restricted debate about the crisis besetting the labor movement
began when the SEIU released its "Unite to Win" plan for labor's
revitalization. SEIU's plan focused on merging unions to reduce inter-union
competition, improving use of union resources, and organizing workers in
different organizations' respective core areas.
Neither the SEIU and its allies nor their critics within the AFL-CIO have
focused on the political and economic forces that workers are up against and
the strategies needed to confront them. The prevailing approach assumes
that the decline of unions can be adequately addressed by changing the
structure of the AFL-CIO. Instead of grappling with the wider challenges,
the discussion focuses on whether the AFL- CIO should give dues rebates to
unions that are focusing on organizing and whether the size of the AFL- CIO
Executive Council should be larger or smaller. Thanks to labor's inadequate
response, capital has been left free to wage unilateral class struggle.
In my view, the labor movement should be talking about:
* Challenging globalization, i.e. both the movement of jobs abroad and the
institutionalization of corporate power at the expense of the rest of
* Addressing the activities of right-wing governments and their attacks on
workers, unions, and the rest of society
* Organizing in regions and sectors where unions are weak
* Aligning labor's efforts with those of the African American, Latino,
Asian, and immigrant communities
* Fighting racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression and
intolerance that are critical to overcoming divisions among workers
* Creating a political strategy that goes beyond the prevailing narrow focus
on electoral politics to advance a broader progressive political agenda
* Building mutual support with workers in other countries
In addition to its other shortcomings, the prevailing bureaucratic focus
ignores problems rooted in unions' internal cultures and structures: their
highly restricted, largely formal commitment to internal democracy; their
lack of strategic focus; the absence of an inspiring moral vision; and their
failure to address the barbarism1 that is overtaking society as a
consequence of the application of neoliberal policies.
Instead of a discussion of vision and strategy, we see union leaders
attacking each other, spending time and energy impugning each others'
motives and character.
(I have witnessed this personally in the aftermath of the disastrous defeat
that the union I work for suffered at the hands of the Telus corporation.)
The labor movement badly needs a debate about its future and its
relationship to the broader society. This is a debate to which electronic
communications media can make an enormous contribution in the context of
prevailing union culture, which tends to squelch thoroughgoing, honest
debate. Ordinary members are not enlisted in free-ranging discussion.
Instead, too many labor leaders surround themselves with political allies
and staffers whose job it is to screen out bad news and suggestions that
challenge prevailing practices. When dissenting views are raised, those who
raise them often find themselves isolated and undermined. With many leaders
staying in office indefinitely and with internal dissent actively
suppressed, members who might be interested in making change are ignored or
A debate is desperately needed, but it should be one which is completely
reframed. It should be a debate about a vision for the future of workers
and their role in the broader society. It should discuss strategies that
might work in the face of the dramatic changes that are sweeping the
economy, including the way that work is done and the fact that many people
are not working at all. The debate should include a discussion of how to
stop the use of working people as cannon fodder in unjust wars and why so
many citizens living in wealthy societies find it increasingly difficult to
afford basics like housing and health care.
Activists in the labor movement who are proficient in the use of electronic
media have an invaluable role to play in stimulating such debate within
unions and beyond. But if that is to happen, the users of these media must
deploy them in a manner which challenges the status quo mentality that
dominates the labor movement today. This means using these media to shed
light on unions' restrictive practices, raising taboo ideological questions,
and mobilizing support for elements that are serious about making necessary
I do not make these suggestions lightly. There are forces in society,
including those within the labor movement, that have a major stake in
maintaining the status quo. They are likely to respond to efforts to
challenge the status quo with extreme hostility. But we should not allow
that to deter us from doing what is necessary to rebuild our institutions
and to rescue our society from strangulation at the hands of rampaging
Those who have demonstrated courage in the face of similar adversity can
provides us with inspiration for this effort. So in concluding, I would
like to recount a story I encountered while vacationing in Spain recently.
In the course of my trip, I visited the University of Salamanca where there
is a statue dedicated to Fray Luis de Leon in the courtyard. In 1572, Fray
Luis was teaching at the university when he was charged by the Inquisition
with distributing a translation he had made of the Song of Songs from Latin
to Spanish so that it could be accessible to ordinary people. For this
crime, Fray Luis was tortured and imprisoned.
The story has it that when he regained his freedom five years later and
returned to his teaching position at the university, Fray Luis resumed his
lecture at the point where it had been interrupted by his arrest and
remarked "As I was saying. . . ."
I'm not religious, but I believe that Fray Luis's courage and determination
in insisting upon people's right to information unfiltered by Church
officials can provide a model for media activists who want to be part of the
effort to transform organized labor into a progressive, activist movement
capable of rescuing society from the predations of neoliberalism.
1 The following item from the March 2006 issue of Harper's Magazine may
serve to illustrate my comment about barbarism:
ROCK OF AGES
From a statement made in September 2005 by George Earl Lewis of Chickasha,
Oklahoma, who had been arrested after selling two grams of crack cocaine to
an FBI informant. Lewis, who is seventy-four years old, receives about $600
per month in retirement benefits and pays $350 a month for his wife's cancer
medication. He was given a ten-year suspended sentence.
I, Mr. George Earl Lewis, do agree that what I've done was not right
concerning the law. I do not deny the fact whatsoever. However, I did what
I did simply to keep my wife Thelma up in her medications and to pay any
bills owed due to her illness. She was diagnosed with cancer. Her Medicare
doesn't pay all of her expenses. So what I did was simply trying to meet the
needs of my wife, whom I love very much. I can assure you that I have
learned a valuable lesson. I will do all I can simply to live on our
income, which is my retirement check . And pray that God will have mercy on
me, to see me through this ordeal.
If granted probation, I plan to continue to mow yards during the summer and
fall, and, whenever I am able, to pick up cans. I will continue to live
with my wonderful wife whom I been married to for twenty- nine blessed
years. I will slowly learn how to read and write the best way I can. I
will spend time at home with my wife, looking at TV, and sitting outside
together. Mainly the only activities I have are mowing yards, running
people around, looking at TV, and sitting in the yard with my wife in the
cool of the evening.
[Sid Shniad is Research Director of Telecommunications Workers Union.] URL:
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