Each History is Unique

Border wall crosses_1

The NAFTA border wall between the US and Mexico: Labor walks while capital flies

We are preparing for the meeting on January 14 which will bring together labor people with different perspectives on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP is the only trade agreement that Vietnam has signed that has a Labor Side Agreement. The TPP Labor Side Agreement requires some major changes in Vietnamese labor that appear to force it to become more like the US system. One of these requirements is to sign on to ILO Declarations permitting the establishment of independent, autonomous unions. This is making some people ask us questions about how things work in the US.

Joe wrote the following piece as a way of thinking through how to respond to their questions.


Now that TPP seems possible, people in Vietnam are wondering what shifting to autonomous, independent unions would be like. They ask questions like:

How do you start a new union? What if there is already a union at a workplace?
How does the AFL CIO control its members? 
Do unions compete?  Are independent autonomous unions strong?  How can someone represent the workers if they are paid by the employer? Who pays union staff? Who pays local union workplace representatives? Can blue collar workers lead unions? Can blue-collar workers lead white-collar workers? Does pluralism in unions lead to pluralism in politics?

Another question that should be asked is, “Will the changes required under TPP contribute to labor peace?” “Labor peace” is a tricky concept. It refers to a situation in which things are stable, not completely up for grabs or, in the case of Vietnam specifically, not punctuated by unpredictable wildcat strikes. But it presumes that we have already considered the over-arching question, “Is TPP going to be good for the Vietnamese and US working class?”

The planners of this discussion of the TPP-US-Vietnam Labor Side Agreement have asked for a brief introduction to certain distinctive aspects of the US labor movement. This is not meant to be a general introduction or a comparison between US and Vietnam labor practices. It is rather meant to respond to specific questions that our Vietnamese colleagues have asked, by highlighting significant aspects of the US labor movement and explaining where they come from.

How History Marks the US Labor Movement

Many aspects of class struggle, the conflict between labor and capital, are universal to all labor movements. However, every labor movement makes its own history. In its structure and functioning today, the US labor movement shows distinctive marks of having emerged during 200 years under capitalism.


  1. The American working class up until the mid 20th century was mostly immigrant or immigrants’ children. This is still true today: compared to the population as a whole, workers are immigrants and immigrants’ children, coming from Asia, Europe, and Latin America and Africa, drawn by the relatively higher wages in the US. This shapes who organizes, how they organize, what they organize, and the divisions they have to overcome in order to organize. The difference now is that native-born people are no longer rising out of the working class in mass numbers, but rather falling into it.


  1. However, much of the central labor in building the US economy, both in the period before the emergence of the labor movement in the early 1800s and after, was performed by enslaved workers, mostly black. The system of black life racial chattel slavery was largely established to divide the popular majority and ensure the failure of any challenge to the minority ruling class since the 1670’s. The racist ideology of white supremacy that justified slavery continues to impact the whole of society, justify discrimination, and divide the working class.


  1. At the same time, across US history the resistance to union organization and workers’ struggles by employers, and the government they mostly control, has been more violent and militant than in any other country in the world.


  1. Unlike most other countries, whether colonized or colonizers, the free white male citizen section of the US working class achieved political rights – the right to vote, serve on committees, hold political office – before a major labor movement had consolidated. This may be one of the main reasons why the American labor movement developed largely as a one-handed union movement. It never included a political hand as in a labor, socialist, social democratic, Communist or other revolutionary mass party. This means that the American labor movement has always had to relate to a two-party system in which both are dominated by pro- capitalist business interests.


  1. Perhaps partly because of #4, there has always been debate about what the proper role and scope the labor movement should be. Is the labor movement properly seen as only unions that bargain for members on the job as their main role? Or does it include organizations such as cooperatives, credit unions, working class housing organizations, worker centers, immigrant worker groups, and legal aid centers? Should unions concern themselves only with their own members’ needs on the job or should they speak to all the needs that workers have, individually and as a class?


Although we say “union” in both Vietnam and the US, comparing our histories should warn us that unions in each place will be different in many ways.


Distinctive Features of the US Labor Movement

These historical forces and current pressures have given rise to a US labor movement that has distinctive characteristics, including its shrinkage in recent years. It should not be assumed that the Vietnamese labor movement shares these characteristics; on the contrary, Vietnamese labor, arising from its own history, has its own distinctive characteristics.


  1. The US labor movement is not centrally controlled or centralized, but rather loosely federated. The AFL CIO is a voluntary federation of national unions with no centralized power to give commands. The biggest union in the US is the National Education Association and it is not a member of the AFL-CIO. A group of other unions split off in 2005 but some of them are back, re-affiliated. The AFL-CIO also has state and local bodies that individual local and intermediate unions may or may not voluntarily affiliate with.


  1. Unions are organized on a multiplicity of bases, some on the basis of craft work that people did, others by industry, others have become more general unions linked by a philosophy of unionism or by just whomever they could organize. Many individual unions represent mixed models. When a new group of workers want to organize, several unions may compete for their vote in an election. Today a much great % of public workers are in unions than in private employment, a reversal of history up to the 1970’s.


  1. Most of the activity and resources of organized labor is at the level of national unions, which have local unions and usually intermediate bodies, district or state.

Most organizing of new unions takes place by these national unions, or their local or intermediate bodies. In the private sector organizing is regulated by federal labor law (NLRA) which defines a union as a collective bargaining organization with a defined bargaining unit which it is certified to bargain for with the employer. Once it demonstrates majority support in a bargaining unit through an election or other means, that union is obligated to represent all the workers in that bargaining unit whether they choose to join the union or not and the employer is obligated to bargain with it “in good faith”, but is not required to agree to a CBA. Bargaining units cannot include managers above a certain level. Therefore only one union can represent a particular group of workers in a defined bargaining unit. However the bargaining rights of this union can be challenged by another union, or by a workers’ petition for decertification to “no union”. Both of these do happen, though rarely. Unions and collective bargaining in the public sector are regulated by the various states, which vary greatly.


  1. Unions are funded by membership dues. In the US, it has been illegal since 1935 for the union to receive direct money from the employer. Depending on how much money a union has, it may pay hired staff and elected leaders to do union work and may also bargain for paid time off the job for union work to be done. However, most local activists are not on union payroll but do their waged work for the employer. They are protected in their union work by law and by union solidarity. Most unions bargain that the employer will deduct the dues from workers pay and remit it to the union monthly. Some states allow unions to charge nonmembers a fee for the collective bargaining (negotiating and grievance handling) services they receive. This issue is under great debate in the US today.


  1. Technically, all unions in the US are independent autonomous unions in the sense that they are not centrally controlled, though they must abide by both the constitutions and bylaws of their national affiliates (if they are affiliated locals) and by the regulating labor laws. Some local unions are strong, educate and actively involve their members, bargain good contracts and protect workers. Others may become “company” unions and are essentially extensions of management. Independence or autonomy, either of higher affiliation or of the government or a political party, is clearly not a guarantee of strength or good representation in the US.


  1. Union leaders both at the top and at the workplace level are elected, though by varying processes, some more open and democratic than others. Many important labor leaders came out of the workforce, were elected because they were respected and trusted and then got their training later, as they took more and more important positions. An activist union will invest heavily in education for members. Rich Trumka, president of the AFL CIO, was himself a miner and a member of the UMW, but also got a law degree.


  1. The US labor movement, as mentioned before, does not have a party. There is no single voice and no requirement that political leaders listen to labor leaders. In recent decades, especially since the 1930s, the majority of the labor movement has usually related to the Democratic Party. Many top labor leaders serve on the Democratic National Committee and other bodies. At every election, candidates go to unions and ask for resources including money, endorsements and volunteers to build their campaigns. The effectiveness and value of this practice of donating quite large sums to political campaigns is questioned by many in the labor movement. There have been many efforts to start a mass party of labor, but none have succeeded organizationally in the long run, though some have impacted the political debate substantially.


This overview should provide a historical context and answer some direct questions that our Vietnamese colleagues have asked.


Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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