Five Borough Report June 2003
State Of The Unions: The Bush Administration's War On Labor
Rick Fantasia And Kim Voss
There was unanimous and universal praise for those (unionized)
ordinary people of the United States who had died doing their jobs on 11
September 2001. And then the Bush administration returned to its policy of
stripping workers of their rights and de-unionizing whole zones of
A quiet lull briefly settled over the United States in the weeks
immediately following 11 September 2001. The silence was a respite from the
usual din of commercial and cultural transactions. It allowed for a space
of remembrance for the many firefighters, police officers and emergency
medical technicians who had risked their lives in the collapse of the World
Trade Center, and died there. This was a heartfelt salute to the courage of
those who risk death in their everyday work.
In ordinary times it takes great power or wealth to become a hero,
but these workers were hailed for being workers. To be honored for doing
humble work is a big thing in a society where decades of neoliberal dogma
have erased workers from the social imagination. The gratitude expressed to
and for workers after 9/11 was an uncommon gesture of recognition for the
But this quiet reverence was quickly overwhelmed by the noise of
vengeance and war. The Bush administration, which had previously shown
indifference to workers and contempt for their unions, discovered that it
could use its war against terrorism to front another kind of low- intensity
warfare against workers and trades unions. New laws were quickly passed to
create a new Department of Homeland Security. This meant an enormous
reorganization of federal agencies, stripping 170,000 workers transferred
into the new super- agency of all rights to collective bargaining and civil
service protections. As the nation was still honoring the (unionized)
firefighters and policemen who had died on 11 September, President Bush was
claiming that unionization posed a national security threat.
He amplified the anti-worker tone of his presidency more after the
Republican gains in the mid-term congressional elections of November 2001.
When he could not eliminate public employee unions by fiat, he intended to
speed up the privatization of the federal workforce, permitting non-union
and low-wage subcontractors to bid for the jobs of some 850,000 federal
workers, many of whom are union members.
This assault on public sector unions came in the context of a
ferocious 25-year campaign of anti-unionism by employers and their trade
associations in the private sector, where the rate of union membership has
fallen to 9% (the overall rate of 14% is propped up by higher rates of
unionization in the much smaller public sector). In many European societies
social benefits are mandated by the state. But in the US union membership
matters very much and is hard to secure.
There are few statutory regulations upon employers, so union
membership is one of the few ways for a worker to get reasonable social
benefits and protection (paid health insurance, a pension plan, paid
holidays, a legally enforceable grievance resolution system). Gaining union
status is not easy in the US; it must be won through a process of social
combat governed by judicial rules that overwhelmingly favor the employer.
The Bush administration has used the congressional powers conferred
because of the war on terrorism against workers in the private sector. When
Bush moved to save the airline industry with a $15 B bailout against losses
suffered because of a slowdown in air travel after 9/11, he offered almost
nothing to 100,000 airline workers who had been laid off, and used the
power of injunction under the anti-labor 1947 Taft-Hartley Act to end
strikes at two major airlines. He made a rhetorical link between the
interruption of economic activity and national security.
This was reinforced in the US national consciousness in autumn 2002,
when Bush actively intervened on the side of shipping companies after they
locked out some 10,000 longshoremen from their jobs at 29 West Coast ports.
Before the lockout, the shippers had formed a coalition with some of their
biggest customers, mostly large retail chains like WalMart and Gap, and had
met a task force from the Bush administration to prepare strategy. The
administration's actions against the longshoremen's union, the
International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), were a warning to the
rest of the labor movement. In the middle of negotiations between the union
and the shipping companies, Tom Ridge, the head of the Department of
Homeland Security, and representatives of the federal Department of Labor
telephoned the head of the ILWU to dissuade the union from shutting the
ports. They warned that any strike or interruption of work on the docks
would be treated as a threat to national security and that the government
was prepared to deploy the military to replace striking workers (echoing
Ronald Reagan's actions in 1981). According to a principle elaborated by
the US defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, in the war against terrorism all
commercial cargo, not only goods directly intended for military use, would
be considered to have a military importance.
The Bush administration has adroitly used regulatory mechanisms as a
powerful weapon against the unions. In contrast to the administration
policies on the environment and corporate governance, where the White House
has fiercely opposed any regulation of air and water quality, food safety,
and business practices, the Labor Department issued new regulations in
December 2001 that will require unions to itemize every expense over $2,000
on organizing workers, striking, and legislative or political activities.
This means an administrative nightmare that will cost millions of dollars
and weigh down their already overburdened staff in bureaucratic practices
that have limited US unions for decades.
In Bush's current budget, funds have been dramatically increased for
auditing and inv estigating unions while funds
for enforcing health and safety laws, child-labor regulations, and
violations of the minimum wage have been cut. The unions have responded to
this. At the end of February, the leadership of the AFL-CIO registered its
opposition to the war on Iraq.
This was unprecedented, because the labor movement has for 50 years
been a strong voice for military intervention, a dependable ideological
combatant throughout the cold war. Anti-communism was obligatory for entry
into the top leadership of almost all US trade unions (and most US
institutions), and there was a recognition that millions of the jobs that
sustained industrial unionism depended on the policies of postwar
"military Keynesianism". The attack on anti-war demonstrators by
hundreds of construction workers in New York City in 1970 gave the working
class a militantly pro-war image.
This has now changed. Since 1995 a
younger and more militant leadership group, with roots in the more dynamic
service sector unions, and less burdened by the cold war imperative, have
taken over leadership of the labor federation. The change is reflected in
the willingness to break with the Bush administration on Iraq. The shift is
not only evident at the top, but throughout the movement, where a
longstanding ideological curtain of self-censorship has been lifted and the
accusation of being "soft on communism" has lost its bite
(although forces on the right are trying to provoke fears with the charge
of being "soft on terrorism"). The result is a more critical
voice from the labor movement, and opposition from new organizations that
have emerged as vehicles of labor mobilization.
Besides the executive council's resolution against the war, the
leaders of 400 labor groups, representing nearly 5 million union members,
signed an even stronger resolution calling the drive to war a "pretext
for attacks on labor, civil, immigrant and human rights at home" and
warning that the main victims of war "will be the sons and daughters
of working class families serving in the military and innocent Iraqi
Once the war began, the open opposition muted, as a curtain came
down over all debate, in deference to an enforced tradition of national
unity and support always invoked when US troops go to war. When they
entered Baghdad, a lunchtime rally to "support our troops" was
held on the site of the World Trade Center (organized by the conservative
New York building trades unions), drawing over 10,000 union workers.
If the positions of the unions have changed, so has the US military
since 1973. It is half the size it was at the height of Vietnam, with 1.4
million active duty members, and an almost equal number of reservists. The
draft, discontinued at the end of the Vietnam War, gave way to the current
"volunteer" force, a term that perhaps misdescribes the social
compulsions at the intersection of civilian and military labor markets.
This is most evident with African-Americans, for whom the US army has been
a central institution of social maintenance and mobility.
The US military is overwhelmingly working-class, from all racial and
ethnic backgrounds, 90% of whom enter the forces with just a nigh school
diploma, and come from families with a median income of $33,000 a year -
about one-third below the average income.
It is ironic that working-class soldiers will come home from Iraq to
a socio-economic reality that has been shaped by the costs of a huge
military establishment. Americans pay for an annual military budget of $400
B and rising - yet they go without national health insurance or affordable
child care, and have an educational system full of inequities.
As US troops entered Baghdad, the administration was quietly
proposing changes to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act to exclude
millions of workers from overtime pay for work over 40 hours a week. By
reclassifying previously protected workers as managers and administrative
employees, and removing overtime protections from workers in aerospace,
defense, health care, and hi-tech industries, the Bush administration is
handing to employers who are already laden with gifts an especially
generous handout. The workers, including those soon to be discharged from
military service, will pay for this gift.
-- Excerpted from Le Monde diplomatique June 2003