Where Labor Went Wrong

Everybody should read “Runaway Inequality” by Les Leopold. Don’t wait for somebody from the Communications Workers of America to invite you to one of their classes on it.


Some of the best stuff is in the beginning. The forward is by Chris Shelton, President of the CWA. The middle parts of the book are mostly statistics about how inequality rose after America selected a new business friendly government policy in 1980. The other really great stuff is near the end

I particularly like Chapter 22: “When unions decline, inequality soars and we all lose.” On page 288 Leopold says, “Wealth inequality and unionization levels are intertwined.” You probably knew that but it’s good to see it in print.

What happened?

Then he goes into the reasons for the great union decline from its heady power of 1946, when Americans won strikes more than ever before or since. Leopold apparently doesn’t have the nerve to say it outright, but he lists, in a dispassionate way, several “theories” about how union leadership could have done better. I’ll shorten them and make them more blunt:

  • The decline started in 1947 when unions cooperated with the anti-communist witch hunt and expelled some of their best leaders.
  • Unions shouldn’t have worked closely with the CIA
  • The merger of the AFL and the CIO didn’t work out for the members
  • Unions shouldn’t have supported the War in Vietnam
  • Unions became bureaucratic and undemocratic
  • All unions haven’t learned community organizing techniques
  • Unions aren’t linking up with unions in other countries

Even though Leopold didn’t really commit to it, I thought it was a pretty good list. It probably should have included something about how unions largely ignored and still ignore the civil rights movement, but it’s still a pretty good list.

Right after the list, the author gives the underlying reason for all the problems: “Unions and the rest of us are on the losing side of a gigantic class war — a war that we have to recognize, discuss and address if unions are to grow again.”

In other words, we can list the things union leaders did wrong all we want, but the underlying reason for the decline was aggressive anti-worker policies of the boss class. Even if we’d had the best leadership in the world 1947-1995, it would have been very very hard to withstand the combination of government/boss aggression and the post war “good time” prosperity that allowed opportunist labor leaders to get pretty good contracts for their members — while slowly sinking into isolation from everybody else.

By 1979, unionized American workers were the envy of the world, even though our numbers were dwindling fast. In 1980, the party was over. I don’t think many union leaders figured it out, and some of them still haven’t. They still expect the bosses to act “reasonably.”

The essence of the problem

What it boils down to is this: From 1947 to 1995, the bosses were able to isolate the organized sector of the American working class from the rest of us. I picked this up from an earlier book by a prof in California named Lipschitz, “Rainbow at Midnight,” and from talking to people who lived through it. The new book, with CWA backing, will force unionists to look at the problem and see what we did wrong. Even if it did nothing else, the book would be worth the $20.

But Les Leopold actually does a lot more in “Runaway Inequality.” He makes serious suggestions as to how we can turn the situation around and return to the kind of militant union progressivism that succeeded for the CIO 1935-1947. The progressive leadership of the AFL-CIO, 1995 to present, can and probably will implement these ideas.

I can’t wait!

–Gene Lantz

Click here for more of these ideas




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