Q & A: No Amicable Divorce


Jonathan Cutler is associate professor of sociology at Wesleyan and author of Labor’s Time: Shorter Hours, the UAW, and the Struggle for American Unionism (Temple University Press, 2004). In an op-ed published recently in the Christian Science Monitor, he argues that the acrimonious split in organized labor this summer, which saw some of the largest of U.S. labor unions leave the AFL-CIO, may be just what labor needs to reverse its demoralizing slide toward irrelevancy.


Q: Your book makes clear that upheaval in the labor movement is far from new. Is the split this summer simply another chapter in a continuing saga?


Jonathan Cutler: In some ways it’s spooky how much the current conflict in the labor movement is a replay of some of the fights that took place in the 1930s. What is unusual is that we have had a relatively unprecedented period of labor unity and peace for the last 50 years. That period of unity witnessed the extraordinary decline of American labor. That’s quite a paradox. Labor is most animated when it’s most in conflict.


Q:The head of the dissident movement, Andrew Stern, compares the current conflict to labor’s upheaval in the 1930s when the CIO came into being as the result of a rift. Is that a fair comparison?


JC:I think it’s actually very apt. When John L. Lewis broke with the AFL in 1935 and founded the CIO, I believe he was, in part, trying to accommodate employer desires for a structural shift from “horizontal” national unions organized by craft to “vertical” unions, organized by company or industry. However, when Lewis and his reforms were defeated inside the AFL, he left. The competition that ensued actually forced him to become a much more interesting leader. He reached out to progressives and created a brain trust for himself. He was forced, as an unintended consequence of his own actions, to learn to play the role of the labor militant.


Andrew Stern, head of the Service Employees International Union, has been vague about his vision except for one thing: He says there are too many unions competing for the same workers, and he is aiming for major structural changes. It’s apt to say he fancies himself the new John L. Lewis. And, like Lewis, Stern seems to think his reforms would be very attractive to employers. On the other hand I think that he, like Lewis, has opened a Pandora’s Box by splitting the labor movement in two. The civil war he’s created is going to be the key ingredient in the revitalization of labor.


Q:So you see competition as the key to revitalizing the labor movement?


JC: Yes, but it’s an unintended consequence. It’s not the goal of labor leaders. I think competition among labor federations is the best shot American labor has for resuscitating what was once a vital movement in this country. In a whole host of countries around the world there are rival labor federations that battle each other for the hearts and minds of rank-and-file workers, and in those countries organized labor still thrives.


Q:What do large employers in the United States think of labor’s split?


JC: I study internal employer discourse about labor. I’ve always thought that if you want to know what’s been happening with labor, it would be interesting to ask those who need to know because their money is on the line. The employer press is not popping champagne at labor’s rift. The Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal have warned repeatedly that this could increase labor’s clout. The market sensibility of employers leads them to understand, more so than labor leaders, that it’s not about Andy Stern or John Sweeney, it’s about the transformation that will be foisted on them in a competitive environment. As employers learn to fear the rivalry, their top priority will be to establish a victor and end the war.


Q:You trace labor’s current troubles to the 1958 round of bargaining in the auto industry. Please explain.


JC: In 1958 the United Auto Workers abandoned their battle of two decades for a 30-hour work week. They walked into a recession bereft of a strategy for dealing with employee fear of layoffs and unemployment. Historically, labor had responded to unemployment by shortening the workweek; in other words, selling less labor. The shorter hours movement was a central feature for the first 100 years of the labor movement. First the 12-hour, then the 10-hour day were abolished. We went to the 8-hour day, and my book is about a movement to take the next step. I don’t think it’s possible that the leadership of the American labor movement could have conceded the hours questions if they were in a serious relationship of accountability to their own members. A key factor that destroyed accountability within organized labor was the 1955 merger of the AFL and CIO, ending the 20-year period of rival unionism. My book, Labor’s Time, argues that decline of union competition and the eclipse of the shorter hours demand are inextricably linked.


Q:Since 1958, global competition has increased enormously. Has this diminished labor’s ability to fight for shorter hours?


JC:I don’t think so. Americans work more hours annually than any other industrialized nation. We are the scabs holding back the possibility for movement, as the French learned when they tried to adopt a 35-hour week. If the American workforce took up the issue of shorter hours, it might inspire confidence elsewhere. The key exceptions are the industrializing countries where there is no democratic labor movement: chiefly China, but also Mexico. The American labor movement has been almost silent about the urgent need for free trade unionism in China and Mexico. They try to block imports instead of campaigning to unleash the repressed labor militancy within authoritarian regimes. If the American labor movement shows signs of life, one of the first things you will see is a greater international role in supporting independent unionism.


Q:Shouldn’t labor be focusing on issues such as medical insurance and pensions instead of shorter hours?


JC:The idea of a shorter workweek is an attractive end unto itself, particularly since white-collar workers don’t even have a 40-hour cap. It’s actually the old unionized blue-collar worker who still gets time-and-a-half after 40 hours. I would also suggest that the shorter- hours movement is a strategic weapon in labor’s arsenal that makes all other demands possible. When employees have leverage in the labor market, by tightening the supply of labor relative to demand, they become sellers in a sellers’ market. They can walk with a certain swagger. It is that swagger that was lost in 1958. Once you lose the strategic pivot for managing the threat of unemployment, then the threat of every recession, or structural unemployment, or outsourcing makes you give away healthcare, pension, or wages. Organized labor becomes organized begging.


Back in the 1950s, organized labor thought that we would be moving toward socialism or some form of state-managed economy and so has been caught unawares by the extraordinary revival of laissez-faire capitalism around the world. Communism is dead. Long live the labor movement. I think that the return of market capitalism could represent a great opportunity for imagining what a labor movement might look like–and did once look like–having shed the old, bankrupt socialist agenda.


Q:You’re implying that organized labor has not been nimble in responding to challenges.


JC:The idea that organizational competition yields more nimble movements is very well articulated in other spheres of life, including religious life. Some scholars have argued that one of the reasons America is so religiously active is the degree of disestablishment between church and state and the degree of unfettered competition among religious movements. In France, everyone is Catholic but no one goes to church. You have the empty shell of religion just as in the United States you have the empty shell of organized labor.


Q:Still, you have to concede that the issue of shorter hours is not on the table.


JC: It is absolutely not on the table. But now we have the return of civil war, of competition, within labor. Will be that a sufficient condition for the return of shorter hours as a part of labor’s strategic arsenal? I don’t think it’s inevitable. It’s one of those indeterminate moments of possibility.


Q:Has globalization made it harder for organized labor to exert leverage through strikes?


JC:There are several sectors insulated from the global mobility of capital: transportation, retail, health, education, public sector work, leisure, as examples. You can’t take your UPS driver and ship that job to Mexico. The list of components of the economy that will not move is larger than the discourse about globalization sometimes implies, so there is still a lot of leverage to be had. But even in sectors with leverage, if the unemployment rate is terrible, you can walk out and your employer will not even blink so long as you can be replaced by someone desperate for your job. Teamsters’ jobs may be insulated from the global flow of capital, but they are not insulated from the global flow of labor that floods labor markets and curbs the pretensions of labor.


Q:Is labor operating in a hostile political climate, and is that good or bad for its health?


JC:Labor knows where it stands in relationship to the Bush administration and is in a fighting mood. Labor has been so wedded to the Democratic Party that the leadership has refused to balk even when the Democrats sold them out. Clinton and his administration were able to do things–welfare reform, for example–that I don’t think Republicans could have pulled off. The loyalty that labor demonstrates toward the Democrats gets them almost nothing in exchange.


Most people assume that the forces of organized labor, divided, will be weakened politically. I think it will be a time of competition among labor leaders to demonstrate their political clout. Necessarily, it will be a time of imaginative rethinking of labor’s relationship to political parties. It will be a return to the old idea that you reward your friends and punish your enemies, whoever they may be. Loyalty to a political party is a blind alley.


Q:The leadership of the dissident labor movement isn’t necessarily Democratic, is it?


JC:Jimmy Hoffa Jr., one of the leaders of the Change to Win Federation, is a Republican with leanings toward the Buchananite, protectionist wing of the Republican Party. Buchanan understands the importance of reducing the supply of labor, but he advocates accomplishing that goal through immigration restrictions rather than shorter hours. If labor and progressives cannot articulate viable alternatives to the very real questions of the labor market, the Right will find its own responses and the country will lurch to the right.The Left gets the right-wing factions it deserves.


Q:Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of labor?


JC: I have gone from devastated and completely demoralized to watchful. It’s early to be optimistic, but I am quite surprised that the most important precondition for vitality has actually emerged in the last few months. I am not a huge fan of Andy Stern, but the consequences of his actions will resonate far and wide.


Q: What signs of progress will you be watching for?


JC:Most people are hoping that maybe the factions of labor will reconcile and learn to coexist. I’m praying for the opposite. I’ll be watching for signs that the rivals will not merely exist separately, but will try to poach each other’s members and compete for new members. The current members have been ill served by labor. It’s been a lousy movement. Raiding between unions would be a great early sign. Ultimately, the payoff would come in greater union membership and better contracts.


Download a PDF of the complete article HERE