US Labor in Trouble and Transition: The Failure of Reform from above, the Promise of Revival from Below

By Leitch, Richard | Capital & Class, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

US Labor in Trouble and Transition: The Failure of Reform from above, the Promise of Revival from Below


Leitch, Richard, Capital & Class


Kim Moody US Labor In Trouble and Transition: The Failure of Reform from Above, the Promise of Revival from Below Verso, 2007, 296pp. ISBN: 978-1-84467-154-0 (pbk) £20

In this, his third book on the state of the labour movement and trade unions, Kim Moody returns to the prospects for US labour that he first dissected twenty years ago in An Injury To All (Moody, 1988). There, he argued that its dominant mode of operation-business unionism-had been shattered by a set of fundamental economic shifts, enhancing the greater geographical and political reach of capital. These needed to be confronted by a new 'social movement union' orientation whose seeds were growing in a number of places. Bringing the material up to date, the new book continues this basic pattern of context, implications and response.

The last three decades have, says Moody, turned the US worker's world upside down: 'Not only had the nature of work changed, so had what it produced or moved around and where it did so' (p. 36)-as had who was actually doing the work. Taken together, these factors have created major new problems for union organisation and power, in the workplace and beyond.

Moody acknowledges that the collapse of manufacturing employment and the shift of economic activity to the service sector has meant unions having to organise far beyond their old industrial heartlands, into the expanding areas of business services, healthcare, leisure and hospitality, finance, insurance and real estate. He insists, however, that the trend does not dislodge the central strategic role that manufacturing and distribution retain in the modern US economy.

As for the modern labour process itself, this has come under fierce attack with the advent of 'lean production', which carries with it a range of muchnoted trends designed to increase the 'flexibility' of the production process and its workforce: downsizing, outsourcing and the reorganisation of work time (in the form of an array of non-standard, contingent forms of work). The result: 'a brutal intensification of work' (p. 35), spreading from manufacturing to the rest of the economy.

Geographically, this new 'economic mix' is increasingly centred on the US South as a production and distribution centre. Major new technological developments in the distribution sector are also being deployed to break the power of old union bastions in longshore and transport sectors, and they include 'intermodal' transportation (containerisation) and the techniques of 'supply chain management' to track the movement of goods and thence the working patterns of its workforces, thus creating further organising challenges. Lastly here, Moody notes the current demographic transformation of the US workforce as a result of an influx of Latino and Asian migrant labour to staff basic labour tasks across the economic sectors. In the Latino case, these victims of US foreign and economic policies (interventions in Central America, and the imposition of free-trade programmes) have found themselves predominantly shunted into low-paid, insecure employment in major US cities.

Not surprisingly, the impact of all these developments on working-class living standards and union power has been drastic. For the unions, the 1980 high point of 20 million organised workers was rapidly followed by a severe decline in membership and density levels, with over 9 million members lost in the private sector over the last three decades. All too often-and too conveniently-this is attributed to industrial decline, says Moody. For in many cases, falling union rolls reflect not a loss of employment but a geographical restructuring of the industry, which unions fail to follow 'from city to suburb, North to South' (p. 106). The end of the militant upsurge in the 19805 saw the mainstream unions of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO) prioritise a survival strategy of concessions, partnership and mergers in place of any new organising-a story Moody covered at length in An Injury To All.

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