[Marxism] Review: Solidarity Divided

J Rothermel jayroth6 at cox.net
Wed Dec 24 22:03:15 MST 2008


Review: Solidarity Divided

Written by Thomas Kenny
Friday, 15 August 2008

Solidarity Divided: the Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward 
Social Justice by Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Fernando Gapasin, University of 
California Press, Berkeley, 2008, 301 pp. ISBN #978-0520-25525-8

This left analysis of the US trade union movement by Bill Fletcher, Jr. 
and Fernando Gapasin is the best book in years on the predicament of US 
unions. Every left trade unionist should buy it and read it. We are the 
ones who will take to heart its many insights.

Bill Fletcher is a career labor educator. He was Education Director of 
the AFL-CIO in the first years after the 1995 New Voice victory. He has 
been president of the TransAfrica Forum, and he is a frequent columnist 
for the Black Commentator website. His co-author Fernando Gapasin is 
also a labor educator, a former president of a southern California CLC, 
and a professor of industrial relations and Chicano studies who has 
taught at Penn State and UCLA.

Much of the book is taken up by the authors' account of the battles in 
the top union leadership in Washington DC, above all, the 1995 coming to 
power of the New Voice coalition led by John Sweeney and the 2005 
secession of the Change to Win unions. As a top AFL-CIO staffer since 
1995, Bill Fletcher certainly had a ringside seat. Fernando Gapasin's 
strength is a grasp of central labor council struggles and West Coast 

But the book's biggest contribution is its profound political analysis 
of the ills of the existing US union movement. Fletcher and Gapasin 
judge it to be in critical condition. They bluntly state their thesis in 
the preface:

"We contend that labor renewal in the US depends on the adoption of a 
different theory and practice of trade unionism than has prevailed until 
now. Such an approach must understand the neoliberal global environment, 
reexamine who should be in the labor movement (and who is currently 
excluded), and redefine the role of the union movement in a process of 
social transformation. We are not interested in perpetuating illusions. 
The reality is that, absent an alternative, transformative trade 
unionism, the US will see no trade union renewal. Rebuilding the AFL-CIO 
or even creating a new federation will have been an exercise in futility 
unless we get to the roots of the problems facing organized labor."

This is the main crisis referred to in the book's title. Solidarity 
Divided also recounts the string of lesser crises along the way. One was 
the crisis of Cold War trade unionism symbolized by George Meany and 
Lane Kirkland. In 1991 after the Cold War's end, and especially in 1994 
when Newt Gingrich's Neanderthals took over Congress, simmering 
discontent in the AFL-CIO Executive Council boiled over and by 1995 led 
to the uprising of the Sweeney "New Voice" coalition. New Voice proved 
to be a false dawn. They detail the successes and failures of the New 
Voice coalition, which went into a crisis of its own, resulting in the 
secession of the Change to Win coalition of unions in July 2005, taking 
40 percent of the AFL-CIO with it.

Change to Win has also proven to be a false dawn. While not sparing the 
lash with respect to the AFL-CIO, the authors are scathing about the 
claims of Change to Win, whose admirers in its early days fancied the 
breakaway federation to be a new CIO. The authors suggest that most of 
CtW's policies are a 21st century update of the ideas of Samuel Gompers, 

Fletcher and Gapasin do not fear the phrase "class struggle." The book 
opens with a telling anecdote about a South African trade unionist 
chiding a group of US trade unionists visiting Johannesburg. One of the 
US visitors had casually remarked that the job of a union, of course, is 
to represent the interests of its members. The COSATU member replied, 
"Comrades, it's the role of unions to represent the interests of the 
working class." At times they are in conflict. The authors are unafraid 
of the word "imperialism." Moreover, throughout their narrative, 
especially in the chapter "Left Behind," the co-authors, an 
African-American and a Filipino-American, investigate and denounce the 
racial and gender exclusion, blatant or subtle, that still mars the 
union movement and blocks class unity.

The book's sins – and there are not many – are venial sins. Their 
account of the historical role of the CPUSA in the US trade unions is 
honest and fair, though one could find details to quibble about.

The remedy they advocate is "social justice unionism." Unions should 
join together with other working-class organizations to fight for the 
broad class interests of workers. The expansion of union membership and 
contract negotiation should be only one element of the tasks of unions. 
This movement would campaign on the full spectrum of issues affecting 
the working class. Unions would both reach out to oppressed racial and 
ethnic communities and join the fight against racism and sexism as the 
path towards a united movement and toward a more inclusive and just 

It is a bold vision, though not entirely new. For this reviewer, the 
question is: who will lead the left? What or who will organize in each 
union and community "for social justice trade unions." A movement for 
social justice unionism won't arise spontaneously. Its creation requires 
leadership. This reviewer would contend that the task requires a 
revolutionary vanguard party. Fletcher and Gapasin are not far from the 
same answer, the rebirth of a conscious left. They declare:

Thus one piece of our conclusion — which will be unsettling to some – is 
that a left, anti-capitalist analysis and a reconstituted left are 
essential for the renewal of labor and the reconstruction of trade 
unionism. Try as some may to erase the role of the left in the 
successful historical moments of US and even global trade unions, their 
effort will fail.... The movement needs the inspiration of a left vision.

There is much more to admire in this book. Perhaps reflecting an 
occupational frustration of labor educators whose work all too often is 
not properly used by unions who employ them, Fletcher and Gapasin again 
and again call for a wide "debate," or they complain that a debate is 
non-existent. True enough. But Fletcher and Gapasin have misplaced 
expectations. The center forces running a movement punching below its 
weight do not have the politics to fathom the extent of the crisis. They 
will not read or debate this book. Nor will an undeveloped rank and file 
debate it – for now. It is the left current in the trade unions that 
must read it. The implication of this impressive book is that the crisis 
of the US union movement has forced us back to the ideas of William Z. 
Foster and his teacher, Lenin. It's about time.

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