Divided We Fall: The Story of the Paperworkers' Union and the Future of Labor
The following is an excerpt from Peter Kellman's new book.
In 1987 I was working for the Maine AFL-CIO and was assigned to help Local 14 of the United Paperworkers International Union (UPIU) to prepare for, and eventually participate in, a 16-month strike against the International Paper Company. My role in the strike was that of organizer, educator, and strategist. My life for two years was inseparable from that fight. When the strike was lost, I felt a responsibility to study and document the struggle so I could explain the defeat to myself and to my brothers and sisters.
People and social movements learn from their mistakes and successes. But histories of workers' movements are rarely told and usually lost. By uncovering the history of the paperworkers' struggles in the first four decades of the 20th century, I finally began to understand why the strike of 1987-88 was lost.
The paperworkers' unions were subjected to the same national corporate activity in the 1980s as the rest of organized labor, not only then but throughout the 20th century. And so this book, through the paperworkers, focuses on the historical forces that created the institution we know today as organized labor. That institution shaped the strike of 1987-88 and determined its outcome.
In exploring this history of the paperworkers and organized labor, this book strives to answer three critical questions:
* What forces and events created today's institution of organized labor?
* What is it about the institution of organized labor that keeps labor from building a working-class movement?
* What are the positive lessons from the past that workers can draw on to propel labor into the future?
The Forgotten Question: Labor vs. Capital
Today people in the labor movement don't talk about labor and capital. We talk about labor and management or industrial labor relations. Management represents capital in the workplace and society. Labor has forfeited to capital any claims over the direction of society and it has conceded to management all issues except those of wages, hours, and working conditions. And now that the unionized industrial workforce is down to nearly nine percent of all industrial workers, management prerogatives also dominate the arena of wages, hours, and working conditions.
The big questions being debated at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries were: in whose interest would the society be run--capital or labor? Who would set the parameters of the political debate? Who would define education? Would the culture be consumer oriented or cooperative?
Although the polarization between capital and labor largely ended in the early 1920s, a public discussion that questioned the role of capital continued into the late 1940s. Then the Cold War's withering hand, McCarthyism, clamped a suffocating lid on any serious questioning of the role of capital being the dominant force in the United States. To argue otherwise was declared unpatriotic by the people in power. Many who continued to raise questions lost their jobs and some were put in jail. Unions that refused to buckle under were run out of the AFL and the CIO. "In 1949 the CIO purged unions representing 900,000 workers for refusing to purge themselves of Communist leaders and support government policies such as the Marshall Plan."1
The New Deal and the CIO greatly improved the lives of many people for many years. But what happened to the CIO? What happened to the New Deal? Neither Franklin D. Roosevelt nor John L. Lewis wanted a revolution. Roosevelt wanted to create a full-production economy that he hoped would eliminate poverty and at the same time keep most of the profits going into the bank accounts of the people he grew up with, the already rich. Lewis wanted the laboring people he grew up with to get a bigger piece of the pie, but he didn't question in any fundamental way the role of the rich in running the society.
Labor, by Lewis's standard, produces and consumes but does not contest the role of the corporate elite in deciding what is produced or consumed, what and how fast resources are extracted, what our children are taught, who our heroines and heroes are, and, most importantly, in whose interest the society is run--capital or labor? Lewis's militant--but still pro-capitalist--view of the world is commonly held by many labor people.
studying most accounts of labor history, we are led to believe that the Knights of Labor and the I.W.W. were marginal, quirky movements--not part of the modern labor movement, which supposedly began with the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and the CIO in 1937. Underlying this view of labor history is the assumption that the Knights and the I.W.W. were na´ve and immature because they dared to challenge the hegemony of the corporate state, while the AFL and the CIO were mature because they accepted the role of the corporate elite in directing our society and determining the future of our culture. The leaders of the AFL and the CIO saw the role of the state as limited to decreasing the severity of corporate harm and providing a safety net for the working class.
The membership of the Knights and the I.W.W. saw material goods as necessities--not as the purpose of existence. They rejected the notion that most human activity should be geared toward creating consumer goods. They rejected a society where those who invest money should earn a profit and those who risk and invest life and limb should only receive a wage. The Knights and I.W.W. fought for "eight hours for work, eight for rest and eight for what we will," while Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Chisholm 2 had people working 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week. The radical unions rejected the notion that corporate managers should define for the common people the very essence of life. But because the CIO accepted corporate hegemony, modern corporate/labor history tries to make us believe that the modern labor movement began with the CIO.
Just as the CIO never fundamentally questioned the liberal vision of Franklin Roosevelt, neither did the AFL-CIO of the 1980s ever raise any fundamental objections to the conservative vision of Ronald Reagan. Both eras provided excellent opportunities for organized labor to challenge the direction of the society advocated by those in power. But in neither case did labor throw down the gauntlet.
Meanwhile, the corporate managers were allowed to continue to consolidate more and more wealth and power and the unions were not. The period in which workers got more money, better benefits, and better working conditions ended in 1973 when real wages peaked in this country. Meanwhile, the corporations had Taft-Hartley and the "prudent man" 3 rule passed by Congress to prevent the unions from using the deferred wages of workers--pension and benefit funds--to buy the industries in which they work. Thus, the most important institution of the working class, the union, is legally prevented from consolidating economic wealth and power in the same way as labor's chief adversary, the corporate elite, does.
Creating a Militant, Radical, and Democratic Union Movement
Most of today's union leaders have trouble dealing with the idea that unions can only survive if they challenge the existence of a corporation. The way they see it, it's the corporation that feeds the membership, not vice versa.
In the 1970s, Ray Rogers developed a union strategy called the "Corporate Campaign" and successfully used his tactics against the J.P. Stevens textile corporation. This strategy sets the union on a path that will lead to the destruction of a corporation if it doesn't come to terms with the union's demands. But this approach goes against the grain for most union leaders because the unions' bottom line in our society, as defined by the National Labor Relations Act, is to deliver industrial peace for the corporation, not to threaten or contest the existence of those corporations. As a UPIU international vice president once said to me, in spite of the fact that the International Paper Company had just locked out 1,200 workers for a year and permanently replaced another 2,000, "We can't destroy this company; we have contracts with it at other locations." In the late 1970s, organized labor proceeded to isolate Rogers and neutralize his militant tactics.
Another problem union leaders have with the Corporate Campaign is its emphasis on the mass mobilization of the membership. Union leaders who are trained to sit down with management to negotiate contracts are, for the most part, very ill at ease with an active membership. In fact, many find an active membership threatening. There are several reasons for this relationship between the leadership and the membership, but the most important is the way most unions are structured.
In most unions and union organizations like the AFL-CIO, the campaigns run by those seeking national office are conducted not amongst the membership at large but among those local leaders who cast large numbers of votes based on the size of their locals. The result is that only a handful of people decide who speaks for labor in this country. And that handful is generally pretty far removed from the everyday life and pressures of actual rank-and-file union members.
Consequently, people seeking leadership in these union organizations go to the meetings of, interact with, and learn the skills necessary to win elections among the union's elite, and therefore usually have no reason to learn the skills of mass public debate and organizing to keep their jobs. This contributes to the scarcity of high union officials who are able to speak effectively at public meetings, motivate and active their own membership, or deal appropriately with the media. These leaders are spawned in an institution where they play an insider's game. This is what the institution of organized labor trains its leaders to be: inside players and inside politicians, not mass organizers or mass leaders.
Organized labor presently operates with a vision that assumes a society where corporate managers make the decisions in the plant about what is to be made and how it is to be made. And on the outside it accepts a system in which corporate-financed think tanks, media, foundations, trade organizations (their unions), and political contributions are used to control the political process and determine how the overall society will function, not just the one in the workplace. So organized labor's activity is aimed at dealing with the problems of adding members and getting better wages and benefits for them, which is based on the belief that we live in a democracy governed by the rule of law and labor obeys the law. The theory is if you don't like the laws, organize and change them through the electoral process.
This has been the operating theory of the AFL since its 1947 convention. Despite the AFL's position that Taft-Hartley was unconstitutional, George Meany's claim that it was "the law of the land" and must be obeyed eclipsed the previous theory that labor is bound to disobey unconstitutional laws. The new theory has tied labor's body and soul to the mast of a sinking ship because it is based on a lie. Workers don't have rights. Meany was content to live off a large membership that would soon begin a half-century decline that labor has yet to reverse.
If we want to live in a democracy, we must make a radical departure from the vision of the CIO and the AFL. You can't have a democracy when one group accumulates profits and the other works for wages, because the one that gets the profits will use that money to become more and more powerful, and that power will be exercised and accumulated in both the political and the economic realm. That is why union membership in this country peaked in the 1950s and real wages for 80 percent of the population have been declining since the early 1970s, along with the quality of family life and the environment. That is why our governments are being privatized and our public schools and public radio are now covered with corporate advertising. As the rich get more powerful they use that power to take more from the rest of society--to invade more of our space, to exploit more of our labor. With the corporatization of our hospitals, prisons, and welfare programs, the rich are even profiting from our misery.
The good news is that labor is very effective in its day-to-day tactics. Unions do organize workers. Unions do represent workers. Unions do motivate members to vote in political elections. But these tactics are based on a false vision of America, followed by a strategy that has failed to halt labor's decline.
This is why today we need a new framework to view our history and a militant, radical, democratic movement to resist the tyranny of today's corporate elite. This movement needs to build a collective vision of a new society based on the needs, aspirations, and survival of the inhabitants of this planet. This would lead us to a society very unlike the one we have today, which is based on the liberty of the few to exploit the many.
© 2003 Peter Kellman. Divided We Fall: The Story of the Paperworkers' Union and the Future of Labor is now available from Apex Press. Price: $29.95 plus $4.00 shipping. Send check to: Apex Press, P.O. Box 337, Croton-on-Hudson, NY 10520.
Excerpt published in By What Authority, Vol. 5, No. 3 - Fall 2003, A publication of the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy. POCLAD is a project of the nonprofit Council on International and Public Affairs.
1. Who Built America? Working People and the Nation's Economy, Politics, Culture, and Society, Volume Two: 1877 to Present. Pantheon Books, 1992.
2. Hugh Chisholm was instrumental in the 1898 merger of 17 leading paper mills into a paper trust called International Paper Company, which was the largest producer of newsprint at the time. Today International Paper Company is the largest paper company in the world and the largest private land owner in the US. Chisholm served as president of the corporation from 1898 to 1907.
3. The "prudent man" rule became law in 1974 when the Employee Retirement Income Security Act was passed. This strengthened the business community's control over the use of pension capital by putting more restrictions on labor's involvement with the funds and by further refining the terms of investment to mesh with the needs of a private capital system.