Big Labor in Big Trouble


Industrial Democracy in America: Ideological Origins of National Labor Relations Policy, by Howard Dickman, La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 446 pages, $32.95/$16.95

The New Unionism: Employee Involvement in the Changing Corporation, by Charles C. Heckscher, New York: Basic Books, 302 pages, $22.95

Quick! Who made the following statements?

"There is one common feature in the development, or more correctly, the degeneration, of modern trade union organizations throughout the world: their drawing closely to and growing together with the state power.…In the eyes of the bureaucracy of the trade union movement, the chief task lies in pulling [the state] over to their side.…The unions leave almost no room at all for democracy, which, in the good old days when free trade ruled in the economic arena, constituted the inner life of labor organization.…[Under Franklin Roosevelt], the Department of Labor with its leftist bureaucracy has as its task the subordination of the trade union movement to the…state, and it must be said that this task has up to now been solved with some success."

Most readers will probably ascribe these thoughts to a bold libertarian—someone like Howard Dickman. Wrong! These phrases were written by an irreconcilable Marxist, none other than the illustrious old Bolshevik Leon Trotsky. And they were written in 1940.

The decay of unions as a public institution and a crisis of confidence among union members and supporters are not new trends. What is novel today is the extent of disillusionment, criticism, and plain cynicism about unions and their aims.

Trotsky wrote even before 1940 that trade unions were being transformed into a kind of "concentration camp for workers." He was not alone in this analysis. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, radical socialist and anarchist thinkers, as well as some far-sighted labor leaders, warned that the unification of big government and big labor would lead to bureaucratization, stultification, and decline.

That time is now here. In Industrial Democracy in America, a brilliant history of U.S. government labor policy, Howard Dickman explains it as "the triumph of fascist syndicalism."

"Fascist syndicalism" is a provocative term. Dickman justifies it by comparing U.S. policies with those of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who imposed a single, governmentally authorized union in the workplace, crushing all others. Dickman shows how establishment of the "American system of industrial democracy" in the mid-1930s—with the National Labor Relations Board mandating majority rule and single-union representation—resulted in a system closely resembling that set up by Mussolini.

For example, in today's fading industrial America, once the NLRB has certified a union as bargaining agent, workers have almost no opportunity, should they feel dissatisfied with the representation they are receiving, to change unions or to exercise pressure from below. The parallel between this situation and that of totalitarian Italy is striking: in both cases the friendly authority of the state tells workers who their representative will be, and there is almost no appeal.

Dickman is woefully correct in tracing much of the thinking of NLRB pioneers during the New Deal to a model suspiciously like that of Mussolini (and Hitler, who also imposed a unitary, statist "labor front"). But the original example for Mussolini and Hitler as well as the followers of Roosevelt was communist, not fascist—the state unions of the Soviet Union. The leftist reformers who set up the NLRB would probably have felt much more comfortable with Lenin than with Mussolini in their creation of a state-ordered unionism.

Many in the established American labor movement did oppose Rooseveltian state unionism, but nearly all were out of the old American Federation of Labor and were targeted by the left as "reactionaries." As late as the 1950s, isolated radical labor leaders like Harry Lundeberg, a legendary anticommunist warrior of the West Coast waterfront, called for no government interference in the union-employer bargaining process.

Other union radicals of an anarchist bent found themselves arguing before the Supreme Court in the company of "right-to-work" ideologues who condemned all unions. Both groups opposed compulsory deduction of union dues by the employer—the so-called checkoff. Lundeberg's Sailors' Union of the Pacific has to this day not adopted the checkoff.

Other union radicals of an anarchist bent found themselves arguing before the Supreme Court in the company of "right-to-work" ideologues who condemned all unions. Both groups opposed compulsory deduction of union dues by the employer-the so-called checkoff. Lundeberg's Sailors' Union of the Pacific has to this day not adopted the checkoff.

Dickman intelligently describes a partnership between labor and government that has greatly increased public suspicion of unions. The United States is the only major industrial nation where the labor movement is identified among the general public with corruption and even organized crime. It is also, significantly, the only major industrial nation where the government has imposed a sole-union structure in each workplace or trade. Should it be any surprise that the decay of union democracy seems, among labor unions in the noncommunist world, most advanced in the United States?

Unlike past crises in labor history, the present demoralization has produced no radical "alternative" to the existing union leadership. In The New Unionism, Charles C. Heckscher, utilizing a study commissioned by the Communications Workers of America (AFL-CIO), examines some possibilities for the transformation of today's labor institutions. But Heckscher offers nostrums based on European examples—union representation on corporate boards and worker participation in day-to-day decision making.

The problem with such reforms is that the crisis of today's unions lies less in the worker-employer relationship than in the worker-union official relationship. Employer and union adoption of participatory schemes in the workplace or boardroom can do little to help a situation where union bureaucrats are viewed as a caste of corrupt, cynical bosses in their own right. Indeed, it may further complicate it.

It is curious that books like Heckscher's, in assessing the crisis of the union movement, seldom address the most important developments in worldwide labor during the 1980s: the emergence of Solidarnosc in Poland and the split in the British miners' union that produced the Union of Democratic Mineworkers. Recently, other equally dramatic examples of labor's organic crisis have unfolded. For example, last year a massive French railway strike was organized by young workers who completely bypassed the established unions.

In Poland, among British miners, and in the ranks of French railroaders, union members developed a criticism of the way unions, under the tutelage of established leftism, had functioned. Polish workers battled against state-dictated unions whose only role was to deliver orders to the labor force from the local Communist government and its Soviet masters. The British miners fought against the ultraleftist adventures of "their" leader, Arthur Scargill, who led the miners into a long and disastrous strike. In France, the railway workers rebelled against a bureaucratic, unresponsive union leadership that seemed unable to take any initiatives in the interest of its members.

It would probably be foolhardy to predict the directions that labor representation will take in times to come. But as Dickman shows, the thinking behind the present system, at least in the United States, is archaic and oppressive. And as Heckscher demonstrates, there is a need for new solutions. Big Labor must now admit that it is in big trouble.

Contributing Editor Stephen Schwartz is the author of Brotherhood of the Sea, a history of the Sailors' Union of the Pacific, and he contributed to the Institute for Contemporary Studies volume Unions in Transition, edited by Seymour Martin Lipset.