Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Requiem for Late Unionism

by QMS. 2010.

Late unionism is that stage in the development of the trade-union movement where the contradictions of its economic, institutional and cultural form culminate in a structural crisis which it is incapable of resolving. It corresponds and is a direct reaction to late capitalism, the current expression of the structural crisis of the world economic system. Late unionism can be recognized not only by its ever-increasing inability to fulfill the needs of the working class, but also by its inability to comprehend the nature of its own crisis. The path to this stage of development is a complex and lengthy one, the analysis and understanding of which is highly contested. But the statistics are not debatable.

The political economy of late unionism. The principal agents of late unionism are popularly known as ‘business unions’. A great deal has been written about business unionism, both throughout history and today. By and large business unions are characterized by their capitulation to business. In a classic recapitulation of Georg Hegel’s famous master-servant dialectic, labor comes to resemble capital. As Guy Debord wrote in Society of the Spectacle, “the representation of the working class has become the enemy of the working class.” Or, as 1950s Teamster president Dave Beck famously asserted, “unions are big business.”

But despite this awareness in the realm of ideas,there has been no effort to my knowledge to take business unionism at face value and apply a frank materialist analysis to unions as this analysis is commonly applied to capitalist firms. As business unions grow to resemble their corporate counterparts more and more, this seems increasingly possible. Just as there is a capitalist regime of accumulation, there is subsidiary unionist regime of accumulation. If their motives are distinct, and if profits and dues are different animals, their methods of accumulation are strikingly similar.

The rising organic composition of capital analyzed by Marx which results in a declining rate of profit has a direct corollary in unions today. Just like corporations, unions are increasingly investing in fixed capital, that is, resources that do not directly generate new value. The increasing primacy of service providing (carried out by ‘business agents’), health fund and pension fund managers, along with the increasing importance of research departments and computer database technicians in unions today, contribute nothing directly to the accumulation of new capital (through the form of members’ dues) in the union coffers. Organizing, whose corollary in the business world would be investment in new production, is a very small percentage of the budget of business unions. All of this is difficult to quantify, however, because unions also share with corporations a vested interest in burying the numbers, if for different reasons.

The tendency towards monopoly and financialization are evident in the union world as well. In aggregate, unions today like corporations are growing more through mergers and re-affiliations than through new organizing. Meanwhile, union credit cards and finance plans are on the rise. The investment of union funds in the stock market is particularly consequential. In the stock market, the accumulation of capital by both corporations and unions all gets thrown in the pot of the global economy, effectively tying the interests of union members with the interests of capitalist accumulation. If a falling rate of density as a result of increased composition of fixed union capital is as difficult to prove today as a falling rate of profit, it is enough for now to point out that the resemblance is there, and that the consequences for the working class are... inauspicious. In his book False Promises, Stanley Aronowitz writes:

“If the trade union remains an elementary organ of struggle, it has also evolved into a force for integrating the workers into the corporate capitalist system... Even the most enlightened trade union leader cannot fail to play his part as an element in the mechanisms of domination over workers’ rights to spontaneously struggle... The struggle at the point of production has become regulated in the same way as have electric and telephone rates, prices of basic commodities, and foreign trade... The trade unions have become an appendage of the corporations because they have taken their place as a vital institution in the corporate capitalist complex.” (1)

The aesthetics of late unionism. Late unionism can be identified in different times and places, and its characteristics are not only manifested in quantitative economic terms. Late unionism also has a definite aesthetic. Today they can be observed expressed and distilled in some of the architecture and sculpture of Detroit, Michigan. I made the following reflections while attending the US Social Forum in the summer of 2010.

Detroit may be the capital of late unionism in the US today. Some incredible symbols of late unionism are on public display in the downtown area. I think they demonstrate and illuminate the character of late unionism very clear ways. This is a monument in downtown Detroit near the riverfront:

This sculpture is a remarkably honest representation of what has happened to labor in the United States. It is a monument to Joe Louis, who, in celebrity form, next to the UAW-Ford building, symbolizes the fighting spirit of the urban working class. (Joe Louis’ own experience of exploitation and debt, while not immediately relevant to late unionism, is a relevant, complementary narrative.)

What does it represent? Could it be any clearer? The alienation of labor -- from mind, from heart, from anything but its abstract labor power. The disembodiment and enslavement of this labor, separated from its body and soul and from nature. The co-optation and use of this labor by big business and imperialism. And finally, hardest to stomach of all, the collaboration of labor unions in this terrible process.

It is a shameful monument, but an honest one, one that stands to remind us all of how the labor movement got into the mess it’s in today. Perhaps its shame can motivate and reanimate our needs and appetites for solidarity, a different configuration of power, and the fire which we must risk kindling if we want to make a change. An organizer said to me as we marched past it: “One day we’ll raise that fist up.” I wonder.

Case study: The UAW. The development of late unionism is perhaps nowhere better examined than in the United Auto Workers (UAW). The UAW has gone from blazing the cutting edge of the world labor movement with sit-down strikes in the 1930s, to blatant betrayal of its membership in the 21st century. Today, UAW members have been repeatedly driven to demonstrate outside their own union headquarters in protest of the leadership’s collaboration with employers.

You walk into the UAW-Ford building in Detroit and you wonder whose building it really is. In the lobby there is a bronze statue of two men in suits shaking hands across a table. On the wall are display cases of union certifications and contracts. In the conference room there are twin podiums with UAW and Ford logos. A long series of large photographs encircle the room, juxtaposing UAW
presidents and Ford CEOs.

“A central focal piece of this magnificent facility is the life size bronze statue of Walter Reuther and Henry Ford II shaking hands across the Ford bargaining table. It is a most notable gesture in our business of labor/management cooperation.”

Has class collaboration ever been more brazen, more proud of itself, more institutionalized? Has more detailed attention ever been given to its aesthetics? Here we find class collaboration as culture, as weltanschauung, as epistemology, as praxis, as credo.

The city of Detroit as it stands today is a monument to the audacity of this arrested dialectic, this deadlock of politics, economics and imagination called class collaboration. There is no alternative infrastructure. There is only an architecture of sterile seduction, shining darkly from the GM citadel, where private property displays its power and exclusive charm. It towers over the city as both embarrassment and curse of a system too deadly to know it is dying. Its shadow is an architecture of sprawling decay. It bears allegiance only to the ruling ring of finance capital.

One cannot help but think in advance of the famous poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley. GM and UAW together are the two legs of stone which are crumbling in the disintegrating compact of late unionism. And so Ozymandias is the story of Detroit, and of the USA economy at large.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

We may come to declare another world possible, even necessary, but we are inside both an infrastructure and an aesthetic contrary to our purpose. Perhaps at times it may be necessary to build a new world outside the shell of the old. That's how they built the CIO. Let's do better next time.

1. False Promises, The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness, by Stanley Aronowitz, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1992