The American Federation of Labor celebrated its centenary last year. It is one of the world’s great conservative institutions, with a stability of internal rule and ideology that might make even the Bank of England gasp. Although the United States has had nineteen presidents since the founding of the afl in 1881, the Federation has had only four. Samuel Gompers, aside from being a well-known white supremacist, was remarkable for his life-long opposition to social insurance. William Green, for his part, split the American labour movement in the 1930s rather than accept the infusion of new militancy and members represented by the industrial unions. George Meany, in turn, ensured that the reunited afl-cio played its loyal role in the international crusade against socialism and radical trade unionism. Lane Kirkland—Meany’s hand-groomed successor and a Southern aristocrat by birth—preserves this traditional mould with his enthusiasm for the new cold war (he was a charter member of the ultra-hawkish Committee for the Present Danger).
Any rumination on the future of American labour must begin with these sordid and familiar facts. The sheer purdurance of the Gompersian legacy is astonishing; and, far from being the incarnation of social progress as it likes to pretend, the Executive Council of the afl-cio is more like an ancien regime in slow decay. Alone of the major Western trade-union movements, the afl-cio has presided over a steadily declining relative membership—today sunk to its 1940 level. Untouched by the progressive achievements of European unionism in the late sixties and early seventies—particularly the new concerns with workers’ control in the labour process and with the plight of the low-wage sector—the American labour movement now stands in the forefront of retreat. The epidemic trade-union ‘givebacks’ in the United States have become an open inspiration for the recent assaults by European employers’ federations upon local wage indexation and employment rights (the annulment of the scala mobile in Italy, the deindexation of wages in Belgium, the attack on the traditional eight-hour day on British railroads, and so on). Meanwhile, the London Economist has invoked Reagan’s destruction of the air traffic controllers’ union as a model for dealing with militant British unions. It suddenly seems that the malaise of American trade unionism may be contagious.
A tempting starting-point for comments like these is to refer to the ‘crisis’ of the American labour movement: indeed some good books were written on exactly this subject in the early 1960s (not to mention the 1920s). Identification of the penultimate crisis of us trade unionism has been so perennial, as have been prefigurations of its renewal, that it is important to distinguish parameters of this ‘long crisis’ from the more specific features of the current phase. For example, there has been an almost generic difference between the evolution of the postwar American and West European trade-union movements. Despite earlier cold war and confessional divisions in the European working class, the general trend since the early sixties has been towards a greater economic unification of the proletariat via the extension of welfarism and the social wage, through the steady expansion of union membership, and, particularly in the French and Italian cases, through enlarged union control on the shopfloor. In contrast, American trade unionism over the last generation has increasingly come to tolerate—and, indeed, sometimes to exploit—the divisive segmentation of the wage labour-force.
Let me suggest a few concrete illustrations of the divergent paths of the modern European and American trade-union movements:
(a) Since 1950 the struggle for a political welfare state has become, at most, a subsidiary goal of the American trade-union movement; instead the more powerful unions, such as the auto and steel workers, opted for longterm strategies of funding health and pension plans through collective bargaining. The struggle for the expansion of these ‘supplemental benefits’ has been the pivot of the entire postwar system of wage/productivity bargaining, with advantage obviously accruing to unions in oligopolistic and capital-intensive industries. As a direct consequence of this piecemeal pursuit of private welfare states in single industries, the campaign for national, comprehensive social legislation has been weakened while millions of workers in less powerful unions or unorganized sectors have been left with poor and inadequate coverage.