Paul Buhle's new book on business unionism


I am now reading a most interesting book by Paul Buhle, "Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland and the Tragedy of American Labor," published by Monthly Review Press and available from them for $18.00.

This book outlines the sorry history of the AFL (and later the AFL-CIO) by examining in detail the lives of three AFL presidents: Gompers, Meany, and Kirkland. What is most interesting about the book is the steadfast rejection, from the very beginning in the 1880s, by the AFL of any attempt to build a multiracial and radical labor movement of both men and women, even when such a movement was a possibility. In fact, these three "leaders" of labor did everything in their power, including (sometimes murderous) collaboration with U.S. intelligence agencies as well as with employers, to prevent such a movement from developing and to crush any movement which arose. In the process they built a "movement" shot through with corruption, racketeering, and utter lack of democracy (and one which pandered to and actively promoted the grossest racism, sexism, and homophobia), all the while feathering their own nests and those of labor bureaucrats, and, to a certain extent, craft workers in the construction trades. No price was too great to pay to keep themselves in power.

There have been millions of words written about the U.S. labor movement's "exceptionalism," its lack of radical beginnings, no labor-based politics, etc. Normally the focus is on structural factors (or in the case of conservatives, "exceptionalism" is praised as best-suited to U.S. workers' interests) such as the lack of a feudal heritage, the restrictions of labor law, the incredible diversity of the labor force, the extraordinary persecution by the state, the tremendous growth of the economy (as Werner Sombart put it, socialism in the U.S. perished on the shoals of roast beef!), etc. This book shows, however, that whatever role played by these factors, whenever the AFL or most of the CIO for that matter was faced with a choice, either to move in a more radical or a more reactionary direction, labor leaders always chose the latter. Always.

I will be writing a review of this book and I will post further thoughts on it. But two things seem clear so far. First, it is very foolish for leftists to ally themselves too closely with the current AFL-CIO leadership (though not foolish to support any progressive initiatives and policies), because it arose through the ranks of a most unprogressive (and virulently anti-leftist) organization. Second, the importance of rank-and-file struggles for union democracy can not be understated. It is in such movements, in alliance with many other grassroots movements, that the only real hope for a revitalization of the labor movement (and a radical trajectory in the larger society) lies.

I am not in this short note doing Paul's book justice. I urge you to get a copy and read it soon!

Michael Yates