Books for a renewed American workers movement, part 1: “The Blue Eagle at Work”

[Introduction: This is the first in a series which will focus on three books which I think are particularly useful to reviving a fighting labor movement in the US. They are: The Blue Eagle at Work: Reclaiming Democratic Rights in the American Workplace, Charles Morris, 2005; Reviving the Strike, Joe Burns, 2011; and Out of the Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the Remaking of the American Working Class, Thaddeus Russell, 2001. I hope to convince every labor radical and IWW branch to keep these in their library, but more importantly I hope that we in the IWW can take lessons from these books and make them part of our program. – LLW]


The Blue Eagle at Work: Reclaiming Democratic Rights in the American Workplace: Charles Morris, 2005.

If you’re like me, the first question you’ll have about this book is about the boring title. What does it even mean? Blue Eagle at Work? Why not Black Cat on Strike? In fact, this title caused me to overlook this book for a long time in favor of flashier books about struggles taking place far away. When I finally got around to reading it, I found it myself full of new thoughts about what a renewed workers movement could look like in the US.

Morris is a practicing labor lawyer with several decades of experience, and his book is a lengthy explanation focusing on a close reading of US labor law. I know it sounds boring, but bear with me a little longer. According to Morris, US labor law has always recognized members-only unionism (also called minority unionism). It may be more accurate to say that members-only unionism was a common practice, which was legally recognized in the ’30s and ’40s, and was never prohibited after. The landscape of the ’30s and ’40s, in which workers were generally free to join one or another union, or none at all, and in which unions were only responsible to the workers who freely chose to join them, sounds like the pluralist set-up in some European countries such as Spain which get labor intellectuals such as Staughton Lynd so excited. (More about that later.)

As Morris describes members-only unionism, it is based on voluntary membership, and does not rely on NLRB-recognized exclusive representation (which recognizes exactly one union as the representative of an entire bargaining unit) and mandatory membership (whether through the dues check-off or other means). According to him, this form of organizing is enshrined in the 1935 NLRA, and there is no legal reason why it would not still be a protected form of concerted activity. Although it may have been considered “pre-majority” organizing in 1935, intended to lead to a stable, mature, majority union organization, there is no legal requirement that a minority union take any specific steps towards majority status (such as an NLRB election).

This seems promising for the narrative of “solidarity unionism”, which we tell ourselves can lead to permanent, stable workplace organizations which do not rely on recognition or legitimacy from companies or the government. Staughton Lynd does a good job of explaining the pitfalls of unionism based on exclusive representation contracts, mandatory membership, and the no-strike clause and management prerogative clauses which come from the first two:

The critical elements of [the post-1935] model are: exclusive representation of a bargaining unit by a single union; the dues check-off, whereby the employer deducts dues for the union from the paycheck of every member of the bargaining unit; a clause prohibiting strikes and slowdowns for the duration of the contract; and a “management prerogatives” clause giving the employer the right to make investment decisions unilaterally.

In combination, these clauses in the typical contract give the employer the right to close the plant and prevent the workers from doing anything about it. So long as collective bargaining agreements conform to this template, the election of reformers — an Arnold Miller, an Ed Sadlowski, a Ron Carey, a John Sweeney, or a Rich Trumka — will not bring about fundamental change.

Yet a form of unionism which doesn’t rely on exclusive representation or mandatory membership seems so distant from our world of absentee, dues-bloated unions and raiding over bargaining units, we might as well just daydream about socialism. The question is, if the government never changed labor law to exclusive representation and mandatory membership, how did we get from there to here? Morris tells us that when the NLRA was developed in the early-to-mid 30s, members-only non-majority unionism was a common practice; according to contemporary research it represented the majority of contracts signed before WW2. Morris argues that the NLRB election process and elections which allowed for exclusive representation rights, especially combined with dues-check off, quickly became “addictive” (his word) for union bureaucrats who realized that it was a much quicker way to rapidly add a dues base, and secure that dues base against competing unions.

The narrative here is compelling, but Morris does not draw any theoretical conclusions. This deserves much more attention, but I think that there is an important theoretical point here. There are three classic revolutionary positions about the unions, which can be summarized as:

  1. Syndicalist: We need to replace the hierarchical, pro-business unions with directly democratic, anti-capitalist ones;
  2. Left communist: all unions, after a certain period, by having to represent the “average”, non-revolutionary worker and accept compromise, have had to make their peace with capitalism and end up defending it;
  3. Trotskyist: unions are genuine organizations of the working class, but with leaders who represent and defend capitalist interests, who must be replaced by revolutionary leaders.

I think all of these positions have some validity, but also recognize that they come from before 1935, that is, before the NLRA, before exclusive representation and mandatory membership became the model for unionism in the US, and brought no-strike clauses and management rights clauses with them.The problem with all three of these positions, or at least the caricature that they have become when upheld by modern leftists, is that they are very black-and-white, and almost magical in their lack of nuance – they are certainly not materialist. What Morris’ narrative provides is a story of precise steps that pro-business union leaders were able to take, to completely remove the union from the control, financial and otherwise, of the membership and make it a pillar of capitalism. Of course these pro-business leaders didn’t act alone – their path was cleared by the ruling class guiding them. I think it can be shown that in every western capitalist country, there has been a process of stabilization which involved the government, capitalists, and union leaders working together to create a situation where the unions were completely removed from the control of the members. This is how Joe Burns, in Reviving the Strike, was able to quote so many conservative union leaders talking about the importance of retaining the strike weapon and independence from the government in language that would never be used today even by “liberal” union leaders – those conservative union leaders came from before the period when unions were removed from membership control. They may have been conservative, but they were a reflection of a conservative sector of the working class – one that was nevertheless clear about the effectiveness of the strike weapon.

In the US, the recipe for removing membership control was exclusive bargaining and mandatory membership. In many European countries, such as Spain, it has been done by subsidies from the government and corporations, allowing unions to still have voluntary membership without challenging or changing the overall functioning of the system. When Staughton Lynd gets so excited about the voluntary membership in Spain, and the relative plethora of minority unions there, he somehow avoids pointing out that the capitalist state nevertheless operates a stable labor system there. The reason is, almost all of the minority unions receive subsidies, and their goal is to take market share from the majority unions to receive bigger subsidies – not to challenge the “Union-industrial complex”, as one small radical union puts it [“Empresas de servicios sindicales” in Spanish].

In other words, if we want to be materialists, then let’s be materialists. That means following the money. It’s too easy to say, in vague terms, that the unions have left the control of the workers and become tools of capital and the state – or else that the unions are and always have been genuine workers organizations with bad leadership. Let’s go further. We can see, if we take a step back, a nearly universal process, where capital, the state, and the trade union bureaucrats work hand to remove the financing of the union from the hands of the workers, or to remove the ability of the workers to stop financing one union and start financing another. It is done by different methods in different countries and periods, and it is not always fully complete, but it is unmistakably a general trend.

As I said, though, this deserves more detail another time. Let’s return to the book. Although he unwittingly provides insight into how unions got to be what they are today, Morris not a radical, he is a New Deal democrat, of the sort that one thought disappeared at least two generations ago. The sincerity of his New Deal politics shows both how low the modern Democratic party has fallen, as well as how much of what passes for radical thought today is barely New Deal-ism, eighty years too late. For example, Morris talks about Industrial Democracy, a term that today is only used by radicals as a shorthand for a post-capitalist society. Morris, however, uses it in the same way that Senator Wagner did. Industrial Democracy for Morris or Senator Wagner does not mean workers’ control over production, any more than political democracy means workers’ control over society. For Wagner and Morris, industrial democracy is a system of power-sharing between classes in the plant and company, complete with checks and balances, just as political democracy is a system of power-sharing between classes in the larger society. For Morris, the tragedy of American labor law regime seems to be that it missed the chance for the sort of workplace representation that was the norm in post-WW2 Germany and Western Europe generally.

But nobody would dispute the quagmire that American labor is in, or the bankruptcy of the laws governing it. The question is, how can American workers break the shackles, or perhaps how can they organize in a way that avoids the shackles altogether?

Here again I want to point out Joe Burns’ excellent Reviving the Strike along with Russell’s Out of the Jungle. In fact, I would recommend reading all three of these books back-to-back-to-back. Morris’ book gives primers on left-hand jabbing while Burns’ is a lesson on right-hand knock-out swings. Burns shows us how working people can wage large-scale struggles against capital and win, avoiding the losing tactics of the past seventy years, and inspire hundreds of thousands, even millions of new workers to form workplace organizations. Morris gives a convincing schema for how those millions of workers could control their organizations in the day-to-day, without relying on the trap of NLRB elections, or contracts with mandatory membership and dues-checkoff clauses. Along with this, Russell reminds us that working people under capitalism are not concerned with making the system run smoothly, and will not fight for that – they want more of the good things in life, and any labor movement that wants to have a chance of inspiring allegiance by the thousands, has to prove that it is fighting for a materially better existence, not for a well-drassed capitalism (however liberal the dressings are).

In the scenario Morris outlines, a new type of union could form based on a workplace committee, and at some point simply declare its existence as a union (either quietly, to other workers, or out loud, to the boss) without bothering with an NLRB election. He also confirms that section 7(a) protecting concerted activity would offer the very modest legal protections of the NLRB to such workers. So far, most of my Fellow Workers in the IWW will be with me – we have seen this before, plenty of times, since the Starbucks Workers Union started in 2004. By the way, the timing is interesting here, since Morris’ book was released in 2005, just around the same time that the Starbucks Workers’ Union in Manhattan withdrew its NLRB election petition, in favor of solidarity unionism. I think this switch by the SWU wasn’t the only thing that brought the IWW on the solidarity unionism track, but it was something of a watershed, and the idea became much more popular afterwards.

We have much less confidence about what comes next.

According to Morris, such an organization would have a few more legal protections, which, modest as they may be, have yet to be systematically and strategically used by an organization such as ours. First of all, it could negotiate and make agreements directly with the employer on behalf of its members (without having to announce ahead of time who those members are). Second, it could exercise Weingarten rights, which guarantee a right to have a shop-steward present during potentially disciplinary meetings with management.

The negotiation power of a members-only non-mandatory union, or MONMU (the technical description of this kind of organization), might seem limited. But that is only in the abstract. Returning to Burns, negotiation power is only as limited as the union’s will to really strike and its ability to convince the workforce to do so. Anyways, a MONMU could sign an agreement covering whichever workers voluntarily join it, which could have two effects – it could convince more workers to join, or it could have the employer extend those conditions across the workplace for the ease of simplicity. Both would be victories.

The Weingarten argument is more interesting. Weingarten means you have a right to have a shop-steward present with you at potentially disciplinary meetings. The courts have interpreted this to only apply if you have a union, and it only gives you a right to bring your shop-steward, not anyone else. That is a recent court interpretation – for a long time, it meant simply that you could have a co-worker present with you at a potentially disciplinary meeting, and applied whether or not you had a union. According to Morris, that recent change from the courts could actually spur on MONMU organizing – imagine a MONMU which has 20 members out of 100 workers, but only 2 or 3 shop stewards, who are the only members of the union known to management. The union has “instant membership” that the shop stewards can give to workers on the shop floor. If a worker is called to a potentially disciplinary meeting, even if they aren’t yet a member, they say they want the shop steward – the boss has no way to know if the worker is a member, the steward gives the worker instant membership, and the steward has the right to be there.

This is a good sketch of how a different type of union could form a permanent, sustained, militant workplace organization in non-union workplaces. If there’s a weak part to Morris’ book, it’s this: I would have liked to see more consideration of how a fighting organization could operate within partially organized industries as well. There are plenty of workplaces and industries with one union which does nothing, and where an independent organization could accomplish a lot to change things. Some of these workplaces have two-tier contracts, where “B card” union members are exploited by the union; some allow temp workers who are not represented; and there are some industries, such as rail, where there are multiple competing unions. Railroad Workers United is a great example of the kind of independent organization we can form in these situations, but it would have been nice to see more information about how these independent organizations can conquer a right to exist within the workplace, in the day-to-day.

OK. The right to negotiate, the right to be present at disciplinary meetings – these are modest things and will not inspire tens or hundreds of thousands of workers to join new (old) types of unions. It is mass struggles, which win important gains, which will do that, as Burns points out, and only if these struggles win a better life, as Russell reminds us. What Morris usefully does is to show that there is a legal basis for a different type of union to exist in the day-to-day without the crippling drugs of NLRB elections, exclusive representation clauses, and mandatory membership. A different type of union can fight, it can win, and it can continue to exist without necessarily going down the same route as the existing ones.

But none of that will happen by magic. For any of this to happen, we as workers have to make it happen, as we make everything else happen. We in the IWW can play our part, but we have to consciously and democratically incorporate these lessons into our official strategy, and transform them from ideas into reality.. I don’t see anyone else who will.

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9 thoughts on “Books for a renewed American workers movement, part 1: “The Blue Eagle at Work”

  1. I find it interesting that a labour lawyer is able to provide such an insight into the US labour framework. In the UK we’re currently facing the imposition of new laws which make it likely that strikes by trade unions are likely to decrease significantly. I’m interested to see how small unions such as the UK IWW and IWGB will cope with this. It looks likely that worker strategy will have to change significantly, possibly using the shop committees formed by IWW union sections to carry out strike and industrial activity independent of their union.

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