“The leftists go into the business unions, but they don’t come out”: books for a renewed American workers movement, part 3: Solidarity for Sale


Fitch, Robert. Solidarity for Sale: How Corruption Destroyed the Labor Movement and Undermined America’s Promise. New York: PublicAffairs Books, 2006. Hardcover, 432 pages, $7.88.

In 1997, a Bureau of Labor Standards reports revealed that New York City, where UNITE [now UNITE HERE] had its headquarters, had the worst sweatshop problem in the nation. About two-thirds of the garment shops in the city were sweatshops, in violation of wage and hour or safety standards. The stunning finding, though, was that three-quarters of the union shops were sweatshops. The results seemed to conflict with the common wisdom that ‘a bad union is better than no union.’ One day during the Christmas season, the union-led activists in a lower Broadway demonstration protested sweatshops in Mexico while dozens of UNITE workers were demonstrating literally across the street against the union’s failure to enforce their contract in a particularly revolting sweatshop at 446 Broadway.” – Solidarity for Sale, pp. 22-23

UNITE HERE, one of the favorite unions of American progressives, a staunch fighter against third-world sweatshop manufacturing, has refused for decades to enforce what remain of its contracts in New York. They’ve been selling non-enforcement to the garment bosses for so long that it would be almost dishonest to switch that up. This is just one example among many that Robert Fitch provides of how corruption has rotted away the American labor movement from within.

For most of us, corruption just means bad officials taking bribes. Fitch takes the view of classical and Enlightenment thinkers that corruption’s menace to the Republic “came not from official chicanery but from citizens giving up their autonomy, trading their rights and duties for the dole or for special status as members of Caesar’s entourage.” Rooting out corruption will take more than just replacing bad officials: “The U.S. labor movement relies on its own internal system for producing corruption. Some fraction of the membership is involved just as much as the leadership. That’s why it has lasted so long,” writes Fitch.

Corruption was built into the very structure of the American Federation of Labor (AFL)—according to Fitch—by fighting for exclusive, territorial control over specific jobs for privileged ethnic groups. The AFL began in 1886 as a split from the Knights of Labor by craft unions opposed to forming a class union, in which powerful skilled workers would lead the fight for all workers. The craft unions had a strong preference for exclusive contracts covering only their members, turning themselves into what William “Big Bill” Haywood called “job trusts.” This is also the origin of the hiring hall system, in which local union officers were able to provide steady work to their supporters, while dissidents, women, and members of racial minorities were left to starve on the benches.

American unions, according to Fitch, have a “fiefdom syndrome—a kind of protection system based on exclusive jurisdictions, exclusive bargaining, and job control. Those who control the jobs become the bosses; those who want the jobs become their clients.” These labor fiefdoms form a political structure closer to feudalism than to democracy – much less the “producer republicanism” of the Knights, or any vision of a cooperative commonwealth. (I believe Fitch was the first to describe American labor as a feudal system, although FW Ben Egerman made a similar point in a 2014 conversation.)

This is different from Europe, where union membership is voluntary and unions negotiate nationwide contracts that cover all workers in an industry. The North American “Neanderthals” of craft unionism somehow beat out the “Homo sapiens” of class unionism, making them much more susceptible to mafia domination than even their Italian counterparts.

I agree with Fitch that dues checkoff and monopoly unionism are how zombie unions keep the artificial life flowing. However, just as Staughton Lynd often does, Fitch praises the union system in Europe, missing that this system has its own ways to maintain union funding independently from the membership. Most European countries hold periodic elections for union representatives on works councils (which Fitch also supports as a model). Governments subsidize unions based on their vote shares—guaranteeing them a steady income and ensuring an independent bureaucracy, albeit perhaps a more “honest” bureaucracy.

The barren marriage of labor to the Democratic Party

In 2016, we witnessed a spectacle where most leaders of “progressive” unions gave massive support to Hillary Clinton—who opposes a $15 minimum wage and single-payer health care—over Bernie Sanders, who supports them. American unions contribute far more to the Democratic Party than European unions do to their socialist parties, with very little result in pulling the Democrats to the left. But maybe that’s the point.

In “Prisoners of the American Dream” (1986), Mike Davis argued that labor had a “barren marriage” to the Democratic Party, never having birthed a social democratic party. Fitch responds that it is barren “only by the standards of modern Western-style marriage. […] It’s more of an old-style patriarchal marriage. Union leaders are like traditional brides who must bring a dowry. […] When it comes to party affairs, the trade union role is in the kitchen.” Both sides know this relationship would be shameful if acknowledged, “making for frequent furtiveness, pretension, and hypocrisy.” In fact, union donations are made to buy influence for the specific union or its leaders, often at the expense of other unions. In many cases, donations act as a “get out of jail free” card, paid for by the membership’s dues.

“How Bottom-Up Reform Hit Bottom”

Is it possible to reform a system of corrupt unions from within? Fitch looks at the two “best” examples of union reform: the Teamsters for a Democratic Union’s (TDU) attempt to reform from below, and former Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andy Stern’s reforms from above.

As the 1960s student movement wound down, some campus-based radicals got factory jobs to bring their ideas to workers, eventually forming groups such as TDU. TDU eventually dropped their radical background, but had some success as opposition caucuses in some parts of the Teamsters. Their biggest success was in 1986, when their slate swept Local 138 in New York. When the Teamsters had their first secret-ballot election for president in 1991, TDU had better recognition (and approval) than any of the actual candidates. They backed Ron Carey, who won, and TDU became junior partners in his administration.

Yet, in the early 1990s, Local 138 was raided into oblivion by nearby mob-dominated locals who undercut its wages. Neither Carey nor TDU—which had become completely dependent on his patronage—said or did anything to stop it. Carey was eventually expelled from the Teamsters after financing his reelection campaign by laundering money through the Democratic Party—with TDU defending him the whole time.

As Fitch concludes:

“Call it the Roach Motel syndrome. The leftists go in but they don’t come out. They enter as revolutionaries determined to create a social movement. Those who survive the ordeal of industrialization become plain and simple union reformers. But eventually, if they build a base or move up in the hierarchy, it’s because they’ve adjusted pretty thoroughly to the demands of a corrupt patron-client system.”

The “Dead Souls” of Andy Stern

Nikolai Gogol’s novel “Dead Souls” is a classic satire of 19th century Russian society. Chichikov, the main character, travels the country buying up the titles to serfs who have died since the last census. The landlords will owe less taxes, and Chichikov can mortgage the dead serfs into huge bank loans.

Andy Stern’s strategy for union growth, according to Fitch, is straight out of Gogol. Stern puts the “business” in business unionism, running SEIU like a corporation fighting for market share. To Stern’s credit, he wiped the once-pervasive mafia out of SEIU. A business union doesn’t have room for the mafia, just as it doesn’t have room for democracy.

While most unions shrink, SEIU is considered “the fastest growing union in America” (just Google it). But the “growth” hasn’t come from convincing workers to join a union in order to fight bosses. It’s come from (1) raiding other unions or pressuring them into mergers, and (2) convincing politicians to reclassify welfare recipients as workers so that the union can “represent” them and take that sweet, sweet dues checkoff.

Fitch shows case after case of this. In one example, SEIU Local 880 received a dues-checkoff agreement for 37,000 Illinois home care workers in 1990, but only got bargaining rights in 2003 after contributing $800,000 to elect Rod Blagojevich governor. That means that SEIU forced 37,000 poverty-level workers to pay dues for 13 years before the union ever actually “represented” the workers.

Of course, there are some important differences between Chichikov and Stern: “Stern’s home health care members are alive, not dead. And Stern had to pay a lot more to the politicians than the nominal sum Chichikov gives to the landlords.”


American exceptionalism—the idea that America (or American labor) is unique in important ways—has a long and complicated history. Sometimes it obscures more than it reveals. But Fitch makes a strong case that the corruption of American labor is unique and goes far beyond the vanilla reformism of European unions. He points to some of the very specific structural causes for it in the DNA of American unions, and makes a strong case that those unions can’t be reformed. Instead, he says, we need a whole new labor movement that avoids dues checkoff and monopolistic unionism.

Fitch does lay out a two-prong strategy for reviving the American labor movement. He is doubtful whether any reform can happen within the AFL-CIO, but he suggests some measures that could be fought for in union locals, such as term limits, cutting the number of officials, and making leadership a sacrifice.

He also sketches out a strategy for a new kind of labor movement built by the hundreds of millions of workers outside of the AFL-CIO, because “the point is not to fight for each tiny island, but to harvest the sea.” Some of his proposals align perfectly with the IWW’s vision: abolish exclusive jurisdiction, make union membership and dues voluntary, and throw exclusive bargaining clauses out of union contracts. He goes into more detail on these and other measures. I would strongly encourage IWW members to read and engage with it.

A more comprehensive vision for a revived American workers’ movement lies in Stanley Aronowitz’ “Death and Life of American Labor” (2014). That’s where we’ll conclude this series.

Note: This is the third part of a series called “Books for a Renewed American Worker’s Movement.” The first part of this review series appeared in the July/August 2015 Industrial Worker (“Books For A Renewed American Workers’ Movement: New IW Review Series Explores ‘The Blue Eagle At Work,’” page 6-7). The second part appeared in the Fall 2015 Industrial Worker (“Is Anything Too Good for the Working Class?” [review of “Out of the Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the remaking of the American Working Class”], page 16). All parts, including this one, are also on this blog in slightly edited forms.


9 thoughts on ““The leftists go into the business unions, but they don’t come out”: books for a renewed American workers movement, part 3: Solidarity for Sale

  1. well-written, and interesting post. thanks! I’m curious what your thoughts are towards currently existing shops in which iww membership is obligatory? is this a useful or harmful trend?


    1. Interesting question. I’m not sure if it’s any kind of trend. The majority of the contract shops where there is mandatory membership have been around awhile.

      I don’t take a hard line against signing contracts, or even necessarily against having mandatory membership when we do sign contracts. To take one example: I’m agnostic whether or not the election at Jimmy John’s in 2011 was the right approach, but we only lost it by 1 vote, and if things had gone just a little bit differently we might have been a much more respected voice in current fast food struggles. On the other hand it’s hard to point to any non-NLRB-based campaigns which have been significantly more successful at building a lasting industry presence.

      What I do think we need is a model for unionism that can be replicable, scalable, and explosive. The dominant model is none of those things.

      We also need a consistent plan for applying that kind of model. If you read the review of “Blue Eagle At Work” it actually goes into pretty specific detail about what a non-contractual union program can look like on the shop floor.


  2. Hey up, just spotted this: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/12/jane-mcalevey-unions-organizing-workers-socialism/ Not actually read it myself, so I can’t really recommend or criticise it directly, but I’d be interesting to hear your review of it if you ever get a chance (i.e. get someone else to tell me whether I should bother reading it or not). From a fairly superficial first impression it looks like something you might be interested in.


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