Sam Gindin on the crisis in labor
[This is a lightly edited transcript of my interview with Sam Gindin, first broadcast on June 14, 2012. The audio is here. Thanks a million to Andrew Loewen for doing the transcription.]
My next guest is the excellent Sam Gindin. Sam is an economist who spent more than 20 years in the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) Union, first as a researcher and then as an adviser to the president. He retired from the CAW in 2000 and has since been teaching in the wonderful political science department at York University, Toronto. He frequently collaborates with another Behind the News favorite, Leo Panitch.
The debacle in Wisconsin is deeply symptomatic of the crisis in American labor, and there’s no smarter commentator on that topic than Sam, even though he lives north of the 49th parallel.
Welcome Sam. The defeat of the Walker recall in Wisconsin has prompted some reflections on the state of the labor movement. What are your initial thoughts on that? I know you’re across the border in Canada, but it certainly has repercussions across North America.
Yeah, I’m interested for the same reasons everybody else is. It has repercussions here, and also my wife’s family is in Wisconsin, so we’ve been in touch with them. The main thing is—and it’s a point that you’ve made—that we have to take a look at what happened and ask ourselves some hard questions. I’m sympathetic to people who feel like “Walker won the election through the amount of money he put in; we have to try to defend the labor movement; we have to hope that people don’t get demoralized.”
But the real thing we have to do is be honest about what’s happened. And being honest means talking about the real, serious crisis in the labor movement. And it’s a crisis that’s actually been there for at least a quarter of a century. And it was especially evident when the financial crisis happened. And instead of being able to go on the offensive, labor was on the defensive. And it was revealed again with Occupy, when the labor movement supported Occupy but what was really called for was a question of labor showing that it can occupy things and that it had the power to do things.
So this is a serious crisis. And I think we really have to be honest and step back and address the seriousness of the crisis. We have to stop talking about just the economic crisis and just how bad the rightwing is when it does all the things that we expected them to do—and actually have that kind of discussion about the labor movement.
How similar are things in Canada to things in the US? I mean a lot of people will say this is an American issue, an American problem—you’ve got American individualism, the brutality of American repression of labor activism throughout the course of the last century or so.
Of course there are differences in Canada. In some ways the attack hasn’t been as aggressive. Canada doesn’t play the same imperial role that the United States plays and that leads to some differences, but the fact of the matter is that the differences are not that great in Canada. If anything we’ve been kind of converging to that same notion: of limited options, and ‘there’s nothing you can do about this,’ and lowering our expectations so that whatever happens ‘it could have been worse,’ or the Democrats—you know, ‘you have to make a choice between whoever is worse and whoever is worser.’
So I don’t think the differences are that great here and I’d even go further: I don’t think the differences are that great generally in Europe, except for some places like Greece, where there’s been a particular kind of resistance because of how much they’ve been attacked. But I think there’s been a general crisis in the trade union movement everywhere. And I think we should talk more about ‘what is it’ exactly; but I think it’s also wrapped up with a crisis on the left, which is an integral part of this.
Some of the criticisms I’ve gotten for the things I’ve written is that, first of all, not having been an organizer myself I don’t understand how difficult things are. I think I do understand how difficult things are—but the other thing is that there’s some people who seem to think what we need to do is keep doing the same thing with increased dedication and intensity. What do you think? Is that the way out of the crisis?
No. That’s part of the problem. I respect everybody who’s feeling like they’re put upon. It is difficult, and workers have immediate struggles. But seeing this as a problem of “let’s just plug on, let’s just be a little bit more committed”—if there’s anything we should learn it’s that that doesn’t get us anywhere.
This is a really serious, radical problem. Let me just say what I think it is, and what we have to talk about. There is a problem in unions, that in their very formation they were sectional organizations, that the essence of unions is that you’re defending a group of workers. You’re not actually thinking about the class as a whole, or about other dimensions of workers’ lives. On occasion, in spite of that sectionalism, you see the potential of workers because they go beyond it, as they did when they were mobilizing in Madison. But the problem is that the structure of unions, and their culture and their logic, takes them back to returning to being very instrumental. The problem with being sectional and just thinking about yourself is you also tend to think instrumentally. You look to your leaders as—you pay some insurance for being in the union, you give them some dues, and they’ll deliver. And the leaders think in terms of “well, we occasionally have to mobilize the workers but we shouldn’t exaggerate that or really open the door to mass mobilization, because we just want to mobilize them enough to make a deal.”
That problem is fundamental to what we’re seeing in this crisis. After World War II, this wasn’t obvious, because then you could in fact make gains by being sectional. And in fact some of those gains would spread to others. The defeat after the war was the defeat of the left inside unions, and part of that was promising people that “well, you can just win things within capitalism and just being instrumental, and you don’t really need a left.” And a lot of workers accepted that.
When neoliberalism came, in the absence of a wider vision, in the absence of a left, that sectionalism was dead. You just couldn’t make gains when you’re facing not just an employer but you’re facing the state, and you’re facing the employer in an entirely different context. I don’t think the trade union movement ever came to grips with that fact. They stumbled on doing what you just raised: “well, we’ll just have to try harder, this is cyclical, it’ll get a little bit better, maybe we’ll elect somebody else.” They didn’t realize that that whole era was over and unions really had to reinvent themselves.
And then came the financial crisis, the biggest crisis we’ve seen since the 1930s. In the 1930s, unions at least had recognized the limits of craft unionism and developed a new organizational form in terms of industrial unionism. The question that was being posed by the financial crisis is: okay, what are you going to do this time? What is the new organizational form that workers might come up with, given that the organizational form that that they have, sectional unionism, isn’t capable of doing it. The public sector unions can say “we’ll put up billboards to say we support the public sector,” but nobody really believes them—they see it as opportunist.
So there’s a real question of, what might a different unionism mean? I don’t think that people who are trying to defend unions—by saying “they’re okay, don’t attack them, just plug along”—are actually doing the unions any favor. I think what really needs to be done is we have to challenge unions. And I think that was the excellent part of what you were writing about.
There’s a perception in the broad public that unions are mostly interested in themselves. The leaders seem to be very interested in their own salaries and perks, too. But it seems that the leadership thinks it has a product to sell. That product is a contract and certain privileges in wages and benefits. That seems to foster a perception among the broad public that unions just don’t care about the working class as a whole. Is that a fair perception on the part of the public?
Yes and no. If you tested the unions compared to the ruling class, to other sections of society, they might in fact be more progressive on these issues. But the reality is that it’s not enough. It’s not enough that unions might in general—that their members might in general vote more progressively, or they might care more about these things. Unions have to prove it. And you don’t prove it by passing good resolutions, and even donating some money to good causes, or putting up billboards that say we support public services. Unions have to prove it. And to prove it they have to be radically different.
So, for example, they have to consider, when we’re in bargaining maybe we actually have to put the quality and level and administration of services on the bargaining table. Unions don’t do that. In other words, we would actually be ready to strike for something that we consider a fundamental right in society. Now when you start doing that you have to educate your members differently, you have to change all your structures, your research has to be different, how you mobilize and organize has to be different. But, you know, starting to think about that would mean a radical change and a chance to actually win the public over. And when I say win the public over I actually include other unions, who are also skeptical of this, who see this as “well they just want to raise their wages, and that means raising my taxes.”
So you’ve got to win people over. And it means you have to develop a class perspective. You have to be driven by a class perspective. You can’t say “we’re organizing but the point of organizing is we want to just get more dues,” because that effects what kind of commitment you have, what kind of energy you put into it, whether you’re going to cooperate with other unions to organize people even if you don’t get them. If you have a class perspective you’d have a different take on unionization—you have to deal with this question of, “Hey, wait a second, we’re saying that we support the public but then we go on strike and take away the service, isn’t that a contradiction?” You have to start thinking about, “Well, maybe we have to do other things, so that when we really go out on a full-scale strike people will get it.”
And by other things I mean such as if it’s a garbage strike, and they’re asking you to drop the garbage off in a park while the strike is on, maybe you drop it off on Wall Street, because you want to make a connection between austerity and the strike. Maybe you actually think about—we’re not going to pick up garbage in rich neighborhoods because we want to make that connection. We’ve had examples of workers coming up with that sporadically, but the problem is it’s only sporadic. It has to get to what the organization is actually about.
I should say, I don’t know that you can transform unions as they are to being more than that. But I’ve been trying to think through what it might mean to think about intermediate organizations. By an intermediate organization I mean something that would be a new form of working-class organization, that would see workers as joining them, linking them across unions. Having networks of activists across unions, so it isn’t just a union with a sectional interest, but it’s workers joining something because they see it as a class interest, and that it also expresses all the other dimensions of their lives. So it’s linked to the community.
So it’s not a political party but it is explicitly trying to take on the question of class and educate around the fact that unions face systemic problems that are more than facing a particular employer.
What do you make of the fact that something like a third of union members voted for Walker?
I think there’s a division between the public and the private which is part of that, with people being won over to isolating the public sector. But it completely reflects the fact that if unions are only instrumental, sectionalist organizations, and then people are voting on the basis of “does this help me in particular, even if it screws other workers?,” with no sense of if you’re screwing other workers how that might come back to bite you in the longer term perspective. If you accept the fact that, well look, in practical terms I do want to support business because the only model we have for growth and therefore for financing public services is to support business, then workers can make a very sensible and rational decision that this is best for me given that there’s actually no alternative. No one’s talking about challenging business. No one’s talking about an alternative way of creating jobs that isn’t just some stimulus, but is actually thinking about questions of planning and conversion.
So I think that as long as people have a limited perspective on how you define the problem that shouldn’t surprise us. And the reality is that unions don’t see their role as developing that kind of a broader perspective, for the longer term. My argument would be that that kind of narrow perspective which worked in the past isn’t even actually practical anymore. It’s not that you can make an argument that “well it’s practical to just be small.” That’s what we find out is impractical. You lose your own members. They see the solution not working. And we have to start thinking bigger and more radically, because that’s the only thing that’s practical right now.
That would a revolution inside unions—a massive cultural change. And I don’t think this can happen without a left that is both inside and outside the unions, pushing this kind of thing and getting unions, even if you don’t win them over, but getting them to at least put on their own agenda strategic questions about “how should we respond?”
If you think of the Wisconsin uprising, there should have been some structures formed as this was happening, like assemblies. Where people are actually discussing things. What do we do? How do we get neighbors on side? What do we when they say this? How do we answer these questions? How do we get into the high schools and develop people because is this is going to be, you know, we’re talking about another generation that’s going to be affected. When that was ignored, and everything just got channeled into an election—which at this point you’re simply operating on their terrain—yeah, the end result isn’t that surprising. And you’re not really building things.
You can also ask the question well what would’ve happened if unions won? In these circumstances even if unions won, it would’ve been a very important victory in terms of bargaining, but the Democrats would’ve been there to make sure that you have bargaining but that you couldn’t bargain over anything significant. They would’ve reinforced that image. I mean the main thing that the Democrats did in this election was run away from actually speaking about class, defending workers, defending unions, and thinking that you could win just by demonizing the other side. So there wasn’t even that kind of education and buildup during the election.
When you say things like this a lot of union people say, “Yeah that’d be very nice but we operate under a very severe set of legal constraints. We can get fined, we can go to jail, we can be destroyed. So we just have to operate by some rules that are very much stacked against us.” What do you say to that?
Part of the problem is people not knowing their own history. Unions didn’t come out of people sitting down and practically saying, “what are the rules, what are the constraints, and how do we operate within them?” They figured out how you actually have to break rules, how you have to change them, how you have to mobilize broadly. When you look at these problems in very small ways, like workers saying, “If I just walk out of my workplace, I’ll be fired”—yeah, you will be fired, so you shouldn’t do that. But you should figure out what would we have to do so we actually have a mass base. How do we build that base?
They showed that in Wisconsin. They were sitting in on the legislature—a massive act of defiance. All the things that we cheer when they happen elsewhere are acts of defiance. Everything about our history was an act of defiance. That requires being sober about it. It’s not just romantic. Let’s do it—it actually means asking, ‘If we can’t do certain things now, how do we prepare so that we can do them?” It does mean saying that if you want to change things, these are the kind of risks you have to take. How do we prepare ourselves to take those risks and pull it off?
Because if you accept the status quo then the thing you have to remember is that you’re not just protecting yourself right now. You’re sending a signal to them that they can keep doing it to you. And that’s what’s been going on for the last quarter of a century. You know, first they lower expectations, then you have the crisis, so then now you have to pay for the crisis and bailing out the banks. Now you get defeated. What’s going to come out of this Wisconsin thing is that there are going to be further attacks on workers in other states, and workers will be relieved because they weren’t as bad as what Walker was promising.
This is going to keep going on; it’s going to get worse. There’s no future in it. There’s no future in it for people’s kids. People have to start thinking in terms of: you have to take a stand, you have to think about what this means, and you have to prepare for it. And it is going to be risky. Everything that you raise should be addressed, you know, right on, instead of pretending that if you do these things it’ll be easy.
You’ve also said that the labor movement needs a left and the decay of the left has really damaged the labor movement. Could you elaborate on that?
It’s really difficult for me to imagine unions being transformed completely through their own dynamic. We just haven’t seen it happen. We’ve seen attacks on unions consistently now since the early eighties. And we haven’t seen bad times leading to something new. People just lower their expectations and hope that if there’s a crisis you just fix it so you can get back to what was normal before, even if that wasn’t so great. The leadership have no pressure on them to change. In fact, a lot of them have learned that since nobody blames them, maybe it’s more comfortable to be able to blame big money, or globalization, or neoliberalism. The leadership has gotten comfortable—and the membership finds it very hard to rebel when you’re looking at the world from one particular workplace and you don’t have connections to others. You know your leaders are worldly; they travel around; they know what’s going on in other places. But the workers are overwhelmed in terms of time, so it’s very hard for me to imagine that kind of rebellion.
What a left has to offer is making connections between people across workplaces, bringing in a class analysis so they seem it’s not just them. They can never win if it’s just a few of them against the state. They have to see there’s actually a class involved here. Giving them some alternatives, you know, giving them some historical memory, so they see how workers did this—in fact in more difficult circumstances in the past. Giving them some comparative analysis of what’s going on in Greece and elsewhere—how did people organize. So the left can play that role, in terms of bringing a class perspective, resources, memory into the picture. The truth is the left that we have now isn’t capable of doing that. So I think one of the questions that comes out of Wisconsin is not just “what’s wrong with unions?,” but “what kind of a left could actually do that?”
And the answer to that isn’t that we’ve got to convince workers that the politically right thing to do is to go into the Democratic Party. Because that will not develop capacities. In fact, it constrains the development of working-class capacities.
Some practical types would listen to what you just said and say, “well that’s all very nice but, you know, it’s too highfalutin’. We need some action on the ground. And all this stuff about making connections and international comparisons and class analysis is just over-intellectualizing what needs to be a much more activist approach to the problem.” What do you say to that?
At one level of course they’re right. The point of organizing isn’t that you phone up a worker and you say, “Hello, I’m so-and-so. I think we need a revolution and we need a class analysis and can you come and join me?” That’s not how people get organized. You do have to be on the ground. But you have to be on the ground in a way that has a class perspective behind it. If you’re talking about organizing and you’re thinking in terms of class, one of the questions is, “If there are so many people being laid off, what are unions doing about their members who’re being laid off?” If they can’t even organize people who were just recently their members, how would you expect them to organize anybody? And the reason they don’t do that, is because there’s no money in it.
There’s money in getting new members but there’s no money in helping your members once they stop paying dues. But if you have a class perspective it leads to something else. It leads to actively organizing the unemployed that were formerly your members. And if you don’t do it that’s where you get a lot of the rightwing populist response that you mentioned earlier. Workers say, “Well, they cared about me when I was paying dues; they don’t give a shit anymore.” And they don’t end up being very sympathetic to labor. That’s very on the ground.
If you’re talking about making a breakthrough and organizing homecare workers, who do exactly the same thing as homecare workers in institutions that are unionized do but do it privately, you have to get cooperation among unions. It would be a massive project. And if you got cooperation, it’d be a very on-the-ground, hands-on response to organizing low-paid, immigrant women. It’s very concrete. But to do that you’d need this cooperation among unions. And you’d actually have to talk about, “What kind of a union do you want, where does class fit in, why are you doing this?” And if you don’t want to talk about that you won’t do it. This notion of ‘let’s just go out and do it the old way and it’s on-the-ground’—that’s what I consider really idealist. It’s not working! You do have to think bigger.
That’s part of the role of the left: it’s to be a bridge—responding to practical and immediate things, but putting them in that kind of a larger context. Because without that kind of larger context we’re losing and we’re going to continue to lose. What’s really abstract is pretending that these kinds of questions don’t matter.
Is there really any hope for a model in which the goal of union activity is organizing a group of workers to get a contract and then have them pay dues for union membership? This is the central model of American unionism. Could this survive another generation, or has this got to go?
I don’t know if it has to go. But we need another kind of organization, which doesn’t mean this one has to go. It might mean that if we in fact had workers’ assemblies and spaces and places where workers were actually mobilizing and organizing around class, that might begin to have an impact on unions. Injecting that into unions might actually demonstrate to them that you actually need some kind of strategic thinking to even be effective at what you’re trying to do. So it may be that there’s a way of renewing unions—but only because you’ve actually responded to the times, and learned something, and said, “We need new forms of working-class organization.”
I just got back from Montreal. It’s fascinating because it’s one of those moments where in retrospect you can say it was predictable—there was a lot of student organizing and mobilizing before. But they’ve had marches of around 300,000 people. They’ve been fighting around the cost of tuition. Quebec has the lowest cost of tuition in the country and yet they’ve been fighting around it because they think it should be a public good that’s free. So what recently happened is they began to actually go into neighborhoods, banging pots, and what’s happened is neighbors have come out to join them. Nobody would’ve predicted this. They would’ve thought they’d be, you know, isolated as spoiled university kids.
You begin to see that once people begin to see that something’s possible, it opens everything. There are people on the streets supporting them. People in the bars run out and join the demo, There are all kinds of discussions taking place. People are actually talking about capitalism, because they’re being forced to as they do this. And the students have been running assemblies—democratic spaces in every university, in different faculties, to make decisions about where to go and what to do and about tactics. And then this is now being imitated to some extent in some of the communities, where people are forming community assemblies to talk about broader issues. Not just tuition fees but the educational system or why there are cutbacks. As struggles take place, you get surprised and things emerge. Then the question is well what do you do next to sustain it?
If you’re sober you have to be pessimistic. But there’s a quote that’s usually attributed to Gramsci—I don’t know if he actually said it—that the challenge is to have no illusions but not get disillusioned. That’s the trick. It’s just one of those historical moments where we have to figure out how to do something. If you think of the periods since The Communist Manifesto it’s always been as if there were some answers that somebody had: unionization, insurrection, forming communist parties, forming social-democratic parties.
Now we have to come up with our own answers because those answers weren’t real answers. It’s very difficult to live through this period because there’s no answer on any shelf to take, and we don’t have an example abroad to say why don’t we just do it like so-and-so.
It’s an incredibly difficult period, but I think capitalism has really been delegitimated. I don’t have any trouble talking to workers, telling them that capitalism is a barrier to human development. They nod their heads. They’re just not sure how to change it or have confidence in changing it; but it does mean that there’s an opening if we can organize and figure out how to organize and take advantage of it. And that’s a difficult challenge. It is crucial that we take our heads out of the sand, stop pretending that if we just keep trying, and defend workers, that things will change. That’s actually becoming a barrier to change. I say that with real respect for the fact that while you’re doing this of course all kinds of struggles are going to take place, and of course we should support them. But we should also be pointing to their limits.