Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 28, 2018

Mark Janus vs. AFSCME and the need for a real trade union movement

Filed under: trade unions — louisproyect @ 6:50 pm

The  late Robert Fitch: he argued that the automatic checkoff of dues weakened unions

The left tends to see the Mark Janus vs AFSCME case under deliberation by the Supreme Court as a life-and-death battle for the AFL-CIO. It involves agency fees, the money that non-union members are required to pay in a union shop. Janus sued to prevent them from being imposed. The case was submitted by Bruce Rauner, the Republican Governor of Illinois who is just as much a tool of the Koch brothers as Scott Walker of Wisconsin who pushed through legislation that led to his state becoming an open shop alongside Indiana and Michigan, two other former trade union bastions .

In a similar case (Abood v. Detroit Board of Education in 1977), public unions were permitted to divide expenditures between collective bargaining and political advocacy but Janus claims that any money that goes into the collective bargaining bucket is tantamount to political advocacy since it can be used to press for pension benefits that would drain state and local government treasuries. Liberal outlets like Huffington Post and In These Times fret that a vote in favor of Janus would weaken the Democratic Party since it relies heavily on contributions from AFSCME and SEIU. In a long and informative article for In These Times, Mary Bottari of the Center for Media and Democracy notes:

In 2016, labor was the largest contributor to state-level Democratic candidates, accounting for at least 18 percent ($128.7 million) of their total fundraising. Unions also mobilize their workers as persuasive door knockers at election time who can explain who they are and what they fight for.

Oddly enough, the Center for Media and Democracy received 60 percent of its funding in 2011 from the Schwab Charitable Fund, a philanthropy funded in turn by liberals who have accounts with Charles Schwab & Co. Schwab is a heavy donor to the Republican Party and has even chipped in to pay Donald Trump’s legal fees over Russiagate. Twice a year the Koch Brothers host a secret conference where they and other rich bastards can discuss how to screw the working class. Charles Schwab was there at the last one along with other billionaires who donated to Trump.

I’ve been following the news reports on the Janus case but an Adam Liptak article in yesterday’s NY Times really made me sit up and take notice. He called attention to the assessment of David L. Franklin, Illinois’s solicitor general who supported AFSCME’s case:

The lawyers in the case gave varying answers to questions about what would happen if the mandatory fees were eliminated. “When these kinds of obligations of financial support become voluntary, union membership goes down, union density rates go down, union resources go down,” said David L. Franklin, Illinois’s solicitor general, who argued in support of the union.

“When unions are deprived of agency fees, they tend to become more militant, more confrontational,” he added. “They go out in search of short-term gains that they can bring back to their members and say, ‘Stick with us.’”

Let me repeat what he said with emphasis: “When unions are deprived of agency fees, they tend to become more militant, more confrontational. They go out in search of short-term gains that they can bring back to their members and say, ‘Stick with us.’”

Bingo. No wonder the Democrats and the trade union bureaucracy want to defeat Janus. His victory would threaten to turn the clock back to when the trade union movement was really a MOVEMENT.

It is not just a question of agency fees. It is also a question of the automatic dues checkoff that would not be affected by a ruling in favor of Janus. When people get enrolled in a union today, their dues are deducted from their paycheck just like health insurance and any other “benefit”. With unions failing to fight effectively for workers’ interests today either on wages or benefits, no wonder they are having trouble representing auto workers in the south.

In the 1930s, there was no such thing as union dues payroll deductions. Nelson Lichtenstein, a radical who has written extensively about the UAW, discovered that despite workers joining the CIO en masse after the sit down strikes of 1937, many left the unions when the recession of the late ’30s made it more difficult to win gains. For example over 8,000 workers had signed up with the UAW local at Fisher Body in Lansing by late 1937 but a year later only a little more than 1,000 were still dues-paying members.

Writing for Libcom, an anarchist website, Tom Wetzel provides a history of the union shop that, as you might expect, has a distinctly anti-authoritarian perspective. Like Lichtenstein, Wetzel notes that union membership was voluntary under almost all CIO contracts prior to 1942. The dues “check off” was virtually unknown in the late ’30s and dues were collected on the shop floor by shop stewards and committeemen. It is of course ironic that when the trade union movement was really a movement, it was operating under rules that are now considered inimical to trade union survival.

Echoing the concerns of David L. Franklin but from the opposite class perspective, Wetzel writes:

So long as the union’s continued existence depended upon voluntary rank-and-file support, the local union organization was under pressure to continually mobilize to get results. Grievances were pursued whether or not they were clearly justified by language in the contract, and stewards or local officers supported slowdowns or short wildcat strikes if they thought they might work.

Even when they didn’t approve of wildcat strikes or other direct action, local union officials were reluctant to condone company repression of such actions. The most active participants were almost always key union supporters in the plants. If they simply abandoned them to the company, the local officials were afraid this would discredit the union in the eyes of the workers.

Once the “union shop” had been achieved, however, the local union organization would no longer be under such immediate pressure to mobilize a constant struggle with the employers in response to worker grievances and concerns.

In voicing similar concerns but from a Marxist rather than an anarchist perspective, the late Robert Fitch has tied automatic dues checkoff to the decline of the trade union movement. In an interview with Forbes Magazine, of all places, Fitch stated:

The big problems with American trade unions are the legal foundation of exclusive bargaining, and closed-shop and automatic dues check-off. That exists in SEIU. [Automatic dues check-off] means that, unlike the European system, as a union leader, I’m no longer really dependent for my income on voluntary contributions from the workers. So I can disregard their preferences much easier. In Europe, the union leaders have to depend upon the dues that are voluntarily contributed by the members, so if the members don’t like what the union is doing, they stop paying dues, or they pay dues to another union. They can switch from one union to another.

Needless to say, people like Rich Trumka and Andy Stern have about as much interest in seeing the AFL-CIO transformed along these lines as Samuel Gompers did before there ever was a CIO. Speaking dialectically, it just may be the case that the total destruction of the organized labor movement will have to take place before a new labor movement comes about under the banner of workers power. Leon Trotsky considered such questions in an article titled “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay”:

Monopoly capitalism does not rest on competition and free private initiative but on centralized command. The capitalist cliques at the head of mighty trusts, syndicates, banking consortiums, etcetera, view economic life from the very same heights as does state power; and they require at every step the collaboration of the latter. In their turn the trade unions in the most important branches of industry find themselves deprived of the possibility of profiting by the competition between the different enterprises. They have to confront a centralized capitalist adversary, intimately bound up with state power. Hence flows the need of the trade unions – insofar as they remain on reformist positions, ie., on positions of adapting themselves to private property – to adapt themselves to the capitalist state and to contend for its cooperation. In the eyes of the bureaucracy of the trade union movement the chief task lies in “freeing” the state from the embrace of capitalism, in weakening its dependence on trusts, in pulling it over to their side. This position is in complete harmony with the social position of the labor aristocracy and the labor bureaucracy, who fight for a crumb in the share of superprofits of imperialist capitalism. The labor bureaucrats do their level best in words and deeds to demonstrate to the “democratic” state how reliable and indispensable they are in peace-time and especially in time of war. By transforming the trade unions into organs of the state, fascism invents nothing new; it merely draws to their ultimate conclusion the tendencies inherent in imperialism.



  1. There is much truth in this. It is also true that workers can engage in collective action even if they have no union. And unions without majorities, that is, without formal legal certification as bargaining agent, can also legally represent workers and engage in concerted activities. The NRA can get millions of members to bombard Congress and state legislatures with phone calls and letters. But the AFL-CIO somehow can’t do the same, much less march in the streets or encourage and support strikes. Almost no unions have meaningful education programs. Few support democracy. They actively suppress it. Read Autoworkers Under the Gun by Gregg Shotwell and learn about what a repressive entity the UAW now is. And what he says isn’t the half of it. So-called “jointness” programs (labor management cooperation schemes, which are really cooptation schemes aided and abetted by the union) have access to tens of millions of dollars that have found their way into union coffers, the result of mind-boggling corruption. I am no fan of Jane Macalevey, but in her book, Raising Expectations, she has a wonderfully telling story about picking up Rich Trumka at the airport. Trumka’s main concern was that the sandwich he had demanded be made and ready for him to eat in the car was not exactly how he wanted it. By the looks of him, he’s eaten way too many sandwiches. He’s continued as AFL-CIO chief long after his expiration date. Like a sandwich left on the counter until it has become moldy and swarmed by roaches. God, he even cozied up to Trump. I wrote this in the Notes From the Editors in the April 2017 Monthly Review:

    “More troubling still was the meeting AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka had with Trump in New York City a week before his inauguration. Afterward, Trumka said that he and Trump had “a very honest and productive conversation.” This after the union chief had sharply and vigorously condemned Trump for his anti-unionism and much else. How is it that as millions were protesting a man very likely to be the worst president since James Buchanan, the country’s top union official was meeting with him? Shouldn’t he have been leading the protests? Trumka stooped even lower when more recently he lavished praise on Trump for the president’s first address before Congress.

    In a perceptive essay for Truthout, Daniel Werst and Elizabeth Schulte argue that Trumka, like most U.S. union leaders, prefers “negotiations at the top” with minimum conflict and minimum democracy. And what they bargain for is “the terms of exploitation between employers and workers,” all the while keeping their own power and privileges intact (“What Was Trumka Doing in Trump Tower?” February 5, 2017). Trumka and those who think like him—that is, most major union leaders—will make any concession politically to maintain a seat at the table. All of which reflects decades of unions abdicating their principles, their duty to educate members, their responsibility to end all forms of discrimination, and their commitment to class struggle against their enemies.”

    As I once said about the college in which I taught: There is no low to which we won’t stoop. Substitute “most labor leaders” for “we” and you just about have the reality of modern day trad unionism in the US. At least as far as the top leadership is concerned. As Kim Moody points out in his new book, On New Terrain, at the base there is a lot of ferment and agitation, most unreported in the media, but of great importance in terms of the future.

    Comment by Michael Yates — February 28, 2018 @ 7:54 pm

  2. If I’m not mistaken, part of the rationale behind the Abood case was to promote “labor peace”, avoid strikes etc especially among civil servants. Promoting labor peace was also a big factor behind the reforms of the New Deal era, such as the Wagner Act, and setting up the NLRB, which was intended to promote collective bargaining, not be impartial. Peace, from the horribly bloody labor history of the United States, with hundreds of workers killed in strikes, such as at Ludlow, for but one example of many.

    I’m a union member myself, and have a pretty good life, for now, because of it. I know the AFL-CIO bigwigs think they’re facing extinction because of Janus, and I don’t think they’re far off the mark. But very few of the other rank and file members of our local that I talk to have heard anything about Janus. Naturally they’re appalled by it when I tell them of it. You’d think, since the unions as we know them are apparently on the verge of being wiped out, the head honchos might at least try and fire up the rank and file with some rallies, raise some hell. But no. I received one text message from the national AFL-CIO about rallies protesting Janus, but none were near me. Other than that, nothing, no call to action. The unions are awaiting their execution by Neil Gorsuch with grim resignation, no fight whatsoever, peacefully.

    The current system of labor relations in this country is a class collaborationist, antiquated wreck. But as a worker, my sold out, undemocratic business union does provide me with some protection, and decent wages and benefits. I’m very apprehensive about trying to make a living the rest of my life without it. Without a doubt, workers both need and deserve far better. But the scary part is between the demise of the old system and birth of a possible new and better one. It seems easier to hold onto old gains than to try and reverse losses. The unions couldn’t repeal Taft Hartley, which passed in 1947, when they were at their peak of power and the Democrats weren’t quite as terrible as today.

    Comment by Neil Harris — March 1, 2018 @ 2:50 am

  3. I see the argument for automatic dues check off,, but I wouldnt say the closed shop is inimical to Union and membership militancy. Not when the open shop — where employers have all the say — is the alternative.

    Comment by seaspan — March 1, 2018 @ 2:50 am

  4. PSC-CUNY is the rare exception, a union consistently supporting progressive movements even if they are seemingly unrelated to education. A primary focus has been obtaining better salaries and benefits for the many thousands of exploited adjuncts teaching in New York. The union has spent many months attempting to persuade members not to become “free riders” if/when the Supreme Court decides that unions may not ask beneficiaries of new and better contracts to contribute to the body that has made it possible for them to enjoy a reasonable standard of living.

    If much of the working class has become anti-union, the fault rests not only with ineffectual unions but also with a constant media drumbeat paid for by the usual suspects trying to convince the American public that unions are not in their economic best interest,

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — March 1, 2018 @ 3:23 am

  5. … unlike the European system, as a union leader, I’m no longer really dependent for my income on voluntary contributions from the workers.

    This is persuasive. The collaborationist unions are objectively reactionary and their independence from their rank and file has created a self-perpetuating and alienating established bureaucracy.

    I still can’t help fearing that their final disestablishment will have a bad effect anyway.

    The closed shop might be considered as analogous to affirmative action–if nothing else, it’s a poke in the eye of the transcendental individualist delusions upon which the manufacture of political consent in this country relies so heavily.

    Given the declining strength of labor vs. robots, etc., i can’t see revitalized labor activism arising out of the neoliberal triumph that is sure to be celebrated when this man wins his case.

    I’ve worked my whole life under the “at will” bullshit that comes from the bullshit “right to work.” This is why I continue to work and job-hunt obsessively at nearly age seventy. And I’m a lucky-dog “have-a-little” despite being a mere technical writer, which is lowly. We won’t talk about some of the things I’ve had to do to keep afloat.

    It would be a different story if the new labor activism were ready to burst forth from the dry skin of the old. But precisely the problem is that labor in this country to all appearances just now is largely both acquiescent and quiescent–isn’t it?

    I spent a lot of years in northern Ohio, which has only become more reactionary over the decades as workers are being squeezed more and more. The American individualist ideology/religion, especially when wedded to demotic Christianity, is like Islamism–a last resort and sort of comfort for the objectively desperate. I have a hard time believing that the destruction of the AFL CIO all by itself will not just make things worse.

    I would love to be talked out of this.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 1, 2018 @ 1:34 pm

  6. Striking teachers continued to fill the halls of the state capitol in Charleston on Wednesday despite the day being billed as a “cooling off” period before schools would reopen on Thursday. Many of them demanded that the unions and legislators get back to the bargaining table to improve a deal they deemed unsatisfactory.

    The arrangement Justice rolled out would give teachers and other school personnel a five percent raise, and workers employed by the state a three percent raise. Although it marked progress from the meager wage increases earlier proposed by Justice, the deal did not placate strikers’ bigger concerns over the state employee health care program.

    Justice said the state would temporarily freeze employee costs under the program, known as the Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA), while a task force was set up to develop a long-term fix to rising premiums and co-pays. But many striking employees apparently don’t trust the issue will be resolved, and fear increased health costs could wipe away their raises.

    The director of the West Virginia Education Association, one of the two state unions leading the strike, told The Charleston Gazette Mail on Wednesday that “we’ll

    Jenny Santilli, a Spanish teacher protesting at the Capitol on Wednesday, said many teachers would have rejected the deal had union leaders put it up for a vote. Santilli was upset that the health care issue remained in play, and that state workers would have to settle for smaller pay increases than educators.

    “We’re furious,” she said. “All hell is breaking loose.”


    Comment by louisproyect — March 1, 2018 @ 1:43 pm

  7. The “compelled speech” argument seems to me to open a can of worms – a libertarian can of worms, which could have legal consequences far beyond what it would mean for labor unions if the precedent was argued in other contexts. Another similar hobby-horse of the right has been that students don’t want to pay fees to campus organizations that support liberal causes, but the bigger argument, is of course about the basic legality of any form of taxation.

    Comment by Rebecca Hill — March 1, 2018 @ 2:28 pm

  8. from a longtime union activist – I don’t agree with this argument and I didn’t agree with Fitch when he wrote his book Solidarity For Sale. It had a lot of good reporting on some trade union funny business and Fitch was a sincere guy no doubt but both these perspectives are built on what I consider a fantasy – that the average union member is just a suppressed revolutionary being held down by a corrupt union heirarchy. Arguing that Janus will be good for union militancy is like arguing that repression is good because it makes people angry. If Right To Work made unions militant then the American South should have a more militant union movement than New York or California. In its own evil way, the South is industrializing by promising a docile non unionized work force. Cheering this on, at least from my experience, is an old lefty miscalculation that something bad will lead to something good. Not always true.

    Comment by Dennis Brasky — March 1, 2018 @ 2:48 pm

  9. It is not a question of Janus being “good”. It is rather understanding how the trade unions have to become a movement in order to survive. They are being challenged to defend themselves and the old way of doing business will not work.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 1, 2018 @ 3:00 pm

  10. I don’t think there is any doubt that the union dues check has not been good for the trade union movement in general and worker militancy in particular and it goes hand in hand with a more critical problem that has long gotten away that is the ability to settle grievances on the shop floor up to and including work stoppages. Take the Lynn G. E., the Riverworks in the days before the check-off the dues were collected by the department stewards with some help from two plant wide roving stewards in the case of G.E they were Joe Turkowski and Jake Zarambe. These stewards were elected by the department members and dues were very difficult to collect if the union was doing a poor job and on a day to day basis the score card for doing a good or poor job is how is the union settling disputes right at the point of production. Before the check off the grievance process was many times immediate and more confrontational with the steward and the foreman settling disputes. The union always wanted to settle disputes at the point of production while the company always wants to get the disputes taken off the shop floor and into off cite offices. Over time G. E. has succeeded and now has first step, second step, third step grievance resolution meetings in some cases years later. However, in the pre check off days if the company refused to resolve disputes with immediacy work stopped. This of course encouraged discussion and settlement and promulgated the collection of dues by the stewards. The automatic dues check off was a sinister sign post for the soon to be inability and unwillingness to settle grievances quickly at the point of production. It helped push everything toward the pathetic business unionism we see today. The working class from a class consciousness and struggle point of view was better off a century ago than they are today and the dues check off played a tiny role in that.

    Comment by Michael Tormey — March 1, 2018 @ 4:21 pm

  11. Dennis Brasky: I think I understand “where you’re coming from” as they say but don’t agree that the anti-dues-check argument necessarily assumes the average worker is a revolutionary held back by the corrupt union. What would that even mean? Is anyone here that dumb really?

    There was a huge union-based rally in DC in 2010 that was supposed to bring the membership of a broad swathe of unions together with Internet radicals and other activists etc. around the Reflecting Pool. SWP had a literature table. This was the era when future Clinton voters and fans of Jon Stewart got together with the exemplary Garrison Keillor to rally in vast numbers (god help us) for “sanity” on the ni gauche ni droite model of left-right equivalence.

    All the internet “radicals” poured scorn on the union rally, even though it was of a good size–not as big as the 215,00 Stewart fans that rallied for him, but bigger than the recent reboot of the Women’s March in the same location. The whole thing just came and went without much effect.

    I was hugely disappointed–at the time I still belonged (if very briefly as it turned out) to the National Writers’ Union, which is a local of the UAW. I certainly didn’t see my fellow unionists at the time as Che Guevaras in disguise–or myself either for that matter. The attendance of unaffiliated lefties (I call them “internet leftists”) was tiny. Stupid bastards.

    Personally, I think there was a huge opportunity missed and I think the blame for that lay primarily with the union organizers, who had the organization and funds to reach out but really didn’t want to challenge the bureaucratic structures of the unions. But the self-righteous unaffiliated Internet left also have to be blamed because they wanted to have their bourgeois cake and eat it too and just couldn’t stop prancing around in tights and flexing their highly toned buttocks in praise of “sanity.”

    A few on both sides sort of tried but in the end hearts weren’t in it on either side and now the traditional unions are facing destruction.

    Nobody was going to hand out rifles and head for the Sierras. Preposterous. But something could have happened that didn’t and it’s a damn shame. I hope it isn’t too late to fix this–the teacher protests in Charleston cited above are hopeful, but will not lead anywhere without autoworkers and trades and crafts unions et al ditching Samuel Gompers and pitching in in a way that hasn’t been seen in decades.

    Union members don’t have to start out as revolutionaries to build bridges to a broader movement–but bridges are exactly what Rich Trumka and his kind don’t want to build and never have wanted to build–and what can’t perhaps be built as long as they are running the sinking ship.

    It’s a miserable situation.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 1, 2018 @ 5:56 pm

  12. “Speaking dialectically, it just may be the case that the total destruction of the organized labor movement will have to take place before a new labor movement comes about under the banner of workers power.”

    Sadly, I’ve come to a similar conclusion, but I find it alarming, because there is no guarantee that it will ultimately empower workers. The loss of the organized labor movement can also result in a hegemony of capital that lasts beyond our lifetimes. But, perhaps, this is happening, anyway.

    Comment by Richard Estes — March 1, 2018 @ 8:25 pm

  13. Afterthought: I think the legal argument that unions without dues check become more militant may be mostly a ploy to scare a panel of reactionary justices. What’s the evidence? I doubt if it’s true nowadays (though I hope it is) and I doubt if the Bastards in Black would buy this argument anyway.

    If the one percent in this shithole country really wanted to buy class peace, we’d have the social democracy Sanders keeps talking about instead of Trump World and Bezos World. Today’s dumb fat pricks can’t imagine that they’d need anything as wimpy as class peace. Maybe seventy years ago their grandfathers thought differently.

    Like I say–I really want to be proved wrong here.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 1, 2018 @ 9:57 pm

  14. At this moment in history the unions especially AFSCME and SEIU need the dues check off just to keep the structure tottering along. The absence of the check-off would throw the bureaucrats into chaos but of course would have negligible affect on the rank and filer except he or she would save a few bucks. There is no class consciousness in the trade union movement or the American working class and just a scintilla of trade union consciousness exists. That was not the case when the dues check off was instituted. In 1929 the IWW was moribund and less than 3 million workers out of an industrialized work force of over 35 million were organized and most of them in the craft unions. If the overwhelming majority of workers knew unions at all it was through company unions. Then came the depression and the formation of the CIO and by 1946, 2 million industrial workers most with little experience were out on strike at the same time. That is when a seemingly small thing, the dues check-off, helped take the fight off the factory floor as in grievance settlements and a more direct action approach were replaced by talking and stalling and arbitration and mediation which becomes a new sinister sign post. In the old days , pre check-off, if the union was not strong enough to prevail on an issue on a given day the last thing you wanted is to let an arbiter decide the dispute because it becomes defacto locked in and every time the decision is not what you would prefer. Much better to bide time and then attack again on the issue when you are stronger and better educated. It is not accidental that the companies agreed and ran the check-off system through payroll and turned over the dues money to the union in a lump sum, the price for it was less militancy and less conflict at the point of production. Hand in hand with the inability to settle grievances arbitration has taken over for struggle When a union loses the ability to stop work to settle grievances a big step is taken toward accommodation. Today the leadership American trade union movement is a disgrace. Pathetic as they were themselves Gompers and Reuther were leagues better than what exists today it’s sad.

    Comment by Michael Tormey — March 1, 2018 @ 11:56 pm

  15. So Michael–if you’re right–it still seems inevitable that the unions will lose this case. What then?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — March 2, 2018 @ 12:35 pm

  16. I believe the unions will “win” the case. It is always better for the employing class to have tame unions and a quiescent labor force than what unknown would come into existence with the demise of the current group of functionaries and toadies that purport to lead the labor movement.

    Comment by Michael Tormey — March 2, 2018 @ 7:14 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: