The decades-long assault on organized labor has delivered tremendous results for capital and the bosses: Broadly, corporate profits have climbed at a steady rate and CEO pay has risen 997 percent since 1978.
Meanwhile, as a recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute makes clear, the assault has taken its toll on workers. Union clout has fallen sharply along with union membership, and the wages of the average employee — both union and non-union — have, as a result, largely remained stagnant.
Throughout this bitter struggle between capital and the working class, many union leaders slowly abandoned the radicalism that made labor such an integral force in the fight for racial and economic justice during the Depression years. Historians often point to the anti-communist purges of the late 1940s and 50s, empowered by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, as the most consequential rumblings of the labor bureaucracy's growing wariness toward radical politics.
And as Charlie Post has documented, labor's ability to act as an oppositional force was severely limited by what he terms "institutionalization," the process by which unions were integrated into the broader economic context and boundaries set by capital.
"Institutionalization severely blunted worker militancy," Post writes. "Strikes were limited to periods after the expiration of contracts and were restricted in tactics (no secondary boycotts, no factory occupations, etc.). During the life of the contract, all workplace struggles were channeled into the grievance procedure, which compelled workers to keep doing unfair or dangerous tasks while the complaint proceeded through the lengthy process of hearings and arbitration."
And, of course, as Post adds, "labor's political activity began and ended with supporting the Democratic Party," further undercutting its ability to force foundational shifts in the power relations of the American workplace. Union leaders increasingly came to view their organizations not as opponents of corporate power, but as partners capable of reaching mutually advantageous agreements.
While workers still benefited from union bargaining, this concessionary stance laid the groundwork for the expansion of corporate influence and for the "one-sided war" that persists today.
As corporate America and its partners in government continue their assault on labor, the opposition has become far less combative, in part due to fear of retaliation and job insecurity. This falling militancy is most noticeable when one considers what was once, and still is, one of labor's most powerful tactics: Strikes.
"Between 1990 and 2015," notes Moshe Marvit, "the number of strikes declined by more than 90 percent, from 801 in 1990 to 72 last year." Strikes are also, as Marvit observes, a measure of solidarity; labor's power has splintered over the last several decades, further emboldening the business class.
In 2016, we have seen several of these trends play out on the national stage. During the Democratic primary, many major unions quickly fell in line behind the party establishment's — and business's — favored candidate, Hillary Clinton.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), after an executive vote, endorsed Clinton in November of last year; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFCME) announced its support for Clinton a month earlier, declaring that its executive board, composed of 35 members, voted "overwhelmingly" in favor of backing the former Secretary of State; and, in a move that angered many state and local union leaders, the National Education Association also sided with Clinton, citing her "unmatched organizational strength, ground game, and fundraising ability."
Along with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), these large and influential unions represent what Warren Heyman and Andrew Tillett-Saks, both members of UNITE HERE, call "labor's burgeoning neoliberal caucus."
These four unions, Heyman and Tillett-Saks note, "broke from the AFL-CIO Labor Caucus and caucused separately" during the Democratic National Convention, displaying an enthusiasm for Clintonism that organizers and workers alike should find uniquely troubling.
Contrasted with labor's usual "thoughtful and calculating approach" to backing Democratic presidential candidates — an approach that acknowledges the limits of working within a political system engulfed by corporate money — the "neoliberal caucus" represents a faction of labor "that espouses collaboration with corporations instead of conflict and upholds free-market capitalism as reconcilable with labor's interests."
If workers and union leaders don't "do everything in their power to halt the march of neoliberal unionism," Heyman and Tillett-Saks caution, it will "march the labor movement straight into its grave."
Many have heeded this call to action; indeed, even as major unions forcefully backed Clinton, local unions and grassroots organizers led the dissenting charge, arguing that the party establishment's ability to deliver change has been crushed by the influence of corporate cash.
Dissent against labor's support for Clinton was channeled in a significant way through Labor for Bernie, a group launched in June of last year that quickly emerged as a significant force within the broad movement for workers' rights.
Bolstered early on by support from several prominent unions, Labor for Bernie used Sanders's success in bringing explicit class politics back into the national conversation as its motivating force, pushing back against much of labor's allegiance to representatives of the status quo.
"This is the first time in decades that a national movement of this scale has come together around a candidate with an unapologetic allegiance to working class concerns and aspirations," Dan DiMaggio and Rand Wilson, a volunteer with Labor for Bernie, wrote in March. "It's evident that there's broad support in unions for Bernie's platform — and that many members, fed up with their unions' legacy of 'blank check' support for corporate Democrats, want a more inclusive, democratic process for deciding endorsements."
And now the movement sparked by the Sanders campaign is looking beyond presidential politics — indeed, many of the movement's most influential activists are looking beyond partisan politics altogether, in favor of a more class-based approach.
"My advice," said RoseAnn DeMoro, the executive director of National Nurses United, "is we should see ourselves as representatives of the working class — not the executive class, not the neo-liberals."
This sentiment can be seen and felt at the grassroots level throughout the nation, as workers fight for living wages and empowerment in the face of widespread corporate plunder. And crucially, these fights for economic justice have joined the struggle for racial justice, reviving Dr. King's argument that organized labor must be at the center of progressive change, and that racial equality cannot be achieved under such a profoundly exploitative economic order.
But as long as labor is inextricably tied to a political party that is, as Hamilton Nolan has put it, "roughly equivalent to a major corporation, operating with all of the ruthlessness and profit-driven mindstate that that implies," the movement's goals — from a national living wage to paid family leave to healthcare for all — will remain little more than inspiring rhetoric.
It is clear that organized labor faces a threat not just from racist billionaire demagogues like Donald Trump, but also from a party that rhetorically pledges support for the causes of labor while simultaneously courting the favor of economic elites — those hostile to labor's most pressing aims. Going forward, it is essential to stand in opposition to these tendencies and to cultivate grassroots movements independent of a political process that is tailored to the needs of the bosses.
Because, ultimately, a political establishment whose standard-bearer "has almost exclusively been fielding the concerns of the wealthiest Americans" cannot possibly deliver the changes necessary to reverse the trends that have hollowed out the middle class, punished the poor, and lavishly rewarded the already rich and powerful.