Labour Media, Neiliberalism and Crisis in Labour – Shniad

Labour media, neoliberalism and the crisis in the labour movement

By Sid Shniad
Sunday, December 03, 2006
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Our panel today is called Corporate Media Assault and Developing A Labor Media Strategy. In my view, the issue should be framed as a discussion of the corporate assault on organized labour and the rest of society, and the role that labour media can play in mounting an effective response to that assault.

Thanks to a highly sophisticated, multi-pronged corporate effort, the labour movement is in crisis. How bad is the situation? Really bad. In the U.S. today, the portion of the working population that is represented by unions is at its lowest level since the 1920s. Meanwhile, corporations are rampaging unchecked.

How did we end up in this situation, with working people facing increasingly precarious employment, declining living standards, lack of medical care and inability to organize? To answer that question, we have to look at a bit of history.

After the Second World War, Western governments embraced expansionist Keynesian economic policies in order to avoid a repeat of the Depression of the 1930s. During the resulting economic expansion, which lasted nearly three decades, unemployment remained relatively low. As a result, fear of unemployment – which normally acts as a disciplinary force keeping workers in line – ceased to play its traditional role.

By the late 1960s, a significant number of workers who were dissatisfied with their working conditions and confident of their ability to find employment in the ever-expanding economy, began to exhibit levels of labour militancy and strike activity not seen since the 1930s. This militancy, together with the social spending that had characterized Keynesian policy, combined with rising real wages to threaten corporate profitability. From capital’s perspective, this constituted a major crisis.

In 1973 David Rockefeller, working with Zbigniew Brzezinski and representatives of the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Ford Foundation, convened meetings of prominent business figures, academics and politicians to address the crisis. Out of these meetings an organization known as the Trilateral Commission took shape. The Commission, whose membership is comprised of prominent business, political and academic figures, has addressed issues of concern to the corporate establishment ever since.

In 1975 the Commission published a book called The Crisis of Democracy. The book’s authors took up the concerns that were preoccupying big capital. They bemoaned the effects of government spending in the areas of education, welfare, social security, health and hospital care. Expressing the views of the rich and powerful, they blamed the crisis of profitability on what they termed “an excess of democracy.”

Over the past thirty years, the concerns raised in The Crisis of Democracy have been taken up by a variety of right wing think tanks, politicians and institutions. Inspired by this analysis, governments around the world have attacked the Post War welfare state, waging relentless war on society generally and the working class, in particular, by curbing wages, gutting social programs, privatizing government holdings and services, deregulating corporate activity and instituting “free trade” agreements in an overall policy framework that has become known as neoliberalism.

These same forces have also mounted an unrelenting attack on organized labour, employing sophisticated union-busting tactics and putting in place an assortment of legal barriers designed to prevent workers from joining unions or achieving contracts. In the words of a 2000 Human Rights Watch report, “[American] Workers who try to form and join trade unions to bargain with their employers are spied on, harassed, pressured, threatened, suspended, fired, deported or otherwise victimized in reprisal for their exercise of the right to freedom of association.”

Internationally, the neoliberal policies that the Trilateral Commission and other, similar groups began promoting in the 1970s have been institutionalized through organizations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. All have a common purpose: to ensure that profitability is not jeopardized by the action of organized labour or government pursuit of progressive social policy. How? By redefining the role of government and restructuring the political process to impede governments’ ability to generate progressive social and economic programs.

In my view, the labour movement’s response to the comprehensive attack that capital has mounted over the past 30 years has been grossly inadequate. Organizations like the AFL-CIO have made little or no effort to address the political and economic problems besetting society as a result of neoliberalism and how addressing these problems might influence labour’s response. In the U.S., the AFL and most of its prominent labour critics have largely restricted their response to the crisis that has overtaken organized labour by treating the issue of declining union membership as a technical problem.

Stateside, the highly restricted debate about the crisis besetting the labour movement began when the SEIU released its “Unite to Win” plan for labour’s revitalization. SEIU’s plan focused on merging unions to reduce inter-union competition, improving the use of union resources, and organizing workers in different organizations’ respective core areas.

Neither the SEIU and its allies nor their critics within the AFL-CIO have focused on the political and economic forces that workers are up against and the strategies needed to confront them. The prevailing view treats the decline of unions as a phenomenon that can be adequately addressed by changing the structure of the labour central. Instead of grappling with the wider challenges posed by the neoliberal onslaught, the discussion focuses on whether the AFL-CIO should give dues rebates to unions that focus on organizing and whether the size of the AFL-CIO Executive Council should be larger or smaller. Thanks to labour’s inadequate response, capital has been left free to wage unilateral class struggle.

In my view, the labour movement should be talking about:

  • Challenging globalization both the movement of jobs abroad and the institutionalization of corporate power at the expense of the rest of society
  • Confronting rightwing governments that have attacked workers, unions and the rest of society
  • Sidestepping institutions like the National Labor Relations Board, which is structured to guarantee that unions’ attempts to organize are frustrated
  • Using unorthodox and unconventional means to organize in regions and sectors where unions are weak
  • Aligning labour’s efforts with those of the African American, Latino, Asian and immigrant communities
  • Fighting racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression and intolerance that are critical to overcoming divisions within the ranks of workers
  • Adopting a political strategy that goes beyond the prevailing focus on providing electoral support to the Democratic Party in order to advance a broader progressive political agenda
  • Building concrete forms of mutual support with workers in other countries
  • Broadening and deepening democracy within unions.

The last point needs elaborating. In addition to its other shortcomings, the current attempt to address labour’s crisis by adopting a technical approach ignores problems rooted in unions’ internal cultures and structures: their highly restricted, largely formal commitment to internal democracy; their lack of strategic focus; their absence of an inspiring moral vision; and their failure to address the barbarism that is overtaking society at the hands of neoliberalism.

Instead of a discussion of vision and strategy, we see union leaders attacking each other, expending precious time and energy impugning each others’ motives and character. (I have witnessed this personally in the aftermath of the disastrous defeat that the union I work for suffered at the hands of the Telus corporation.)

The labour movement badly needs a debate about its future and its relationship to the broader society. This is a debate to which electronic communications media can make an enormous contribution in the context of prevailing union culture, which tends to squelch thorough-going, honest debate. Ordinary members are not enlisted in free-ranging discussion. Instead, too many labour leaders surround themselves with political allies and staffers whose job it is to screen out bad news and suggestions that challenge prevailing practices. When dissenting views are raised, those who raise them often find themselves isolated and undermined. With many leaders focused on maintaining themselves in office indefinitely and with internal dissent actively suppressed, members who might be interested in making change are ignored or sidelined.

A debate about the future of labour is desperately needed, but it should be a debate which is completely reframed. It should be a debate about a vision for the future of workers and their role in the broader society. It should discuss strategies that might work in the face of the dramatic changes that are sweeping the economy, including the way that work is done and the fact that many people are not working at all. The debate should include a discussion of how to stop the use of working people as cannon fodder in unjust wars and why so many citizens living in wealthy societies find it increasingly difficult to afford basics like housing and health care.

Activists in the labour movement who are proficient in the use of electronic media have an invaluable role to play in stimulating such debate within unions and beyond. But if that is to happen, the users of these media must deploy them in a manner which challenges the status quo mentality that dominates the labour movement today. This means using these media to shed light on unions’ restrictive practices, raising taboo ideological questions, and mobilizing support for elements that are serious about making necessary changes.

I do not make these suggestions lightly. There are forces in society, including those within the labour movement, that have a stake in maintaining the status quo. We can anticipate that they will respond to efforts to challenge the status quo with extreme hostility. But we should not allow that to deter us from doing what is necessary to rebuild our institutions and to rescue our society from strangulation at the hands of rampaging corporate capital.

Those who have demonstrated courage in the face of similar adversity can provide us with inspiration for this effort. So in concluding, I would like to recount a story I encountered while vacationing in Spain recently. In the course of my trip, I visited the University of Salamanca, where there is a statue dedicated to Fray Luis de Leon in the courtyard. In 1572, Fray Luis was teaching at the university when he was charged by the Inquisition with distributing a translation he had made of the Song of Songs from Latin to Spanish so that it could be accessible to ordinary people. For this crime, Fray Luis was tortured and imprisoned.

The story has it that when he regained his freedom five years later and returned to his teaching position at the university, Fray Luis resumed his lecture at the point where it had been interrupted by his arrest and remarked “As I was saying …”

I’m not a religious person. Nevertheless, I believe that Fray Luis’s courage and determination in insisting upon people’s right to information unfiltered by Church officials can provide a model for media activists who want to be part of the effort to transform organized labour into a progressive, activist movement capable of rescuing society from the predations of neoliberalism.

This paper was presented originally to the LaborTech 2006 conference at the University of San Francisco, November 18, 2006.


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