Statement of the International Committee of the Fourth International
Globalization and the International Working Class

The degeneration of the unions—an international phenomenon

Why, moreover, are unions all over the world carrying out similar policies? Why are they embracing labor-management corporatism and handing back to the employers gains won by previous generations of the working class? In the opening article of its series on globalization, the Spartacist League acknowledges in passing the universal character of this process. It states:

“From the American Midwest to the German Ruhr, labor officials are telling their workers: ‘If you don’t accept a wage freeze or even a cut in wages and benefits, the bosses will close down your plant and shift production to India or Mexico.’” [1]

The decline in the membership and power of trade unions is clearly a global development. The American unions have seen the most spectacular decline, falling from their high of 35 percent of the labor force in the post-World War II period to 14.8 percent in 1996. If one considers only the private sector, the collapse is even more dramatic. In 1996 a mere 10.2 percent of private sector workers were union members. This is an even lower percentage than that attained by the old American Federation of Labor.

The same trend is to be seen in Europe, Japan and Australia. Between 1980 and 1990 union membership in Great Britain fell from 47 percent to 34 percent of the work force. By 1996 that figure had fallen to 25 percent. In the course of the 1980s, union membership in France declined from 17.5 percent to 9.8 percent. The total membership of the German Federation of Unions fell from 11,800,000 in 1991, the year of east-west unification, to 8,973,000 in 1996, a decline of 24 percent. In Japan unionization fell from 1980 to 1990 from 31.1 percent to 25.4 percent. By 1996, the figure in Japan had dropped to 23.2 percent. From 1986 to 1996 the percentage of workers in Australia who were union members fell from 46 percent to 31 percent.

But if this is an international phenomenon, is it not then clearly more than a matter of the subjective motives of individuals? The American trade unions, with their crude anti-communism and chauvinism, and their gangster-ridden bureaucracies, may be an extreme example, but they nevertheless embody universal characteristics of contemporary trade unions and typify the reactionary evolution of trade unionism internationally. The Spartacists never asks themselves what accounts for this remarkable uniformity.

The driving forces that have accelerated and deepened the degeneration of the unions, and brought to the fore, in their fullest development, the reactionary tendencies inherent in the trade union form of organization, are to be found not, in the subjective motives of trade union leaders, but rather in the vast changes in world economy associated with the globalization of production, the international mobility of capital and the unfettered sway of the world market over every national economy.

The Spartacist League condemns the assessment of the AFL-CIO made by the Socialist Equality Party in the US. It rejects the SEP’s analysis of the enormous decline of the US labor movement over the past two decades without making any serious analysis of its own. This in itself exposes the Spartacist League’s pretensions to being a Marxist organization.

The bitter defeats suffered by the working class during this period represent a strategic experience whose causes and lessons must be assimilated, if the workers’ movement is to be revived on viable political and organizational foundations. A review of this record shows that the AFL-CIO’s collaboration in the destruction of the past gains of the working class was the response of the trade union bureaucracy to the deepening crisis of American capitalism and the growing threat to its markets and profits from increasingly powerful international rivals.

Indeed, within a few years of the breakdown of the Bretton Woods monetary system in 1971, which signaled the end of the hegemonic economic position the US had enjoyed after World War II, the United Auto Workers and other unions made a marked turn toward the establishment of new, corporatist relations with big business. In the early 1970s, the American Big Three automakers’ share of the world market was in decline. Even worse, from the standpoint of American capitalism, a large and growing portion of the domestic market was being captured by foreign companies, especially those in Germany and Japan. Similar tendencies were emerging in steel and other basic industries.

The initial attempt of US capital to confront this threat, by attacking the wages and conditions of American workers, exemplified by Nixon’s wage controls of 1971-72, provoked an eruption of militant resistance. AFL-CIO President George Meany was forced to withdraw from Nixon’s wage board in 1972, amid resolutions for general strike action and public calls from a number of union bodies for the launching of a labor party. In auto, a wave of local strikes broke out against the drive to cut costs by imposing speedup. Once this upsurge had been contained, General Motors, at the initiative of the UAW, instituted the first of its joint labor-management programs, called Quality of Work Life.

In 1975, the New York City unions accepted sweeping concessions and job cuts as part of a plan drawn up by Wall Street and backed by the Ford administration to avert municipal bankruptcy. This set the pattern of union give-backs that was to be initiated on a national scale a few years later.

With Carter’s appointment of Paul Volcker to head the Federal Reserve Board in 1979, the ruling class initiated a deliberate policy of deflation and mass unemployment. It used the threat of plant closures and joblessness as a bludgeon against the resistance of the working class. The AFL-CIO and the UAW entered into an alliance with big business and the government to drive down the wages and conditions of the working class, so that American corporations could cut costs and intensify their exploitation of American workers, thereby improving their ability to compete with their foreign rivals. This was signaled in 1979-80 by the UAW’s acceptance of contract concessions and Chrysler’s agreement to bring UAW President Douglas Fraser onto the corporate board of directors, as part of the government-backed bailout of the automaker. Thus, the nationalist and pro-capitalist policies of the unions led directly to their collusion with big business, in the corporate offensive against the working class that continues to the present.


Workers Vanguard, January 24, 1997