Multinational Monitor

JUN 2003
VOL 24 No. 6


Winning is Possible: Successful Union Organizing in the United States — Clear Lessons, Too Few Examples
by Kate Bronfenbrenner and Robert Hickey

Biotech Food Flacks: Canadian Consumer Group Goes to Bat for Biotech
by Aaron Freeman


Countering Privatization: Defending the Public Sector in an Era of Privatization Run Amok
an interview with Bobby Harnage

Workers at Risk: The Dangers on the Job When the Regulators Don’t Try Very Hard
an interview with Margaret Seminario


Behind the Lines

The Grand Plan

The Front
Biotech Food Fight - Tobacco Treaty Triumph

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News



The Grand Plan

Grover Norquist, the most important conservative strategist this side of White House adviser and chief Bush aide Karl Rove, wrote a stunning op-ed in the Washington Post in early June.

In a piece titled "Step-by-Step Tax Reform," Norquist out a long-term vision for a low, flat federal income tax, and a strategy for achieving it.

"The Bush administration -- wisely -- has not proposed fundamental tax reform in a single piece of legislation," he wrote. But every year, he wrote, the administration is pushing -- and will continue to push -- a tax bill that "moves us toward fundamental tax reform."

Norquist explained that Bush could operate incrementally, over the long haul, because of gerrymandering that he argued will give the Republicans long-term control of the Congress.

Here is the kicker: Similar plans are at work in other areas of top priority to conservatives and the corporate sector, Norquist wrote. "One sees this longer time horizon not only in the annual tax cuts that move slowly toward a flat rate income tax, but also in the decades-long move to free trade in the hemisphere and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick's call for zero tariffs on manufactured goods within 10 to 15 years, the focus on transformation in the Defense Department, reforms in personnel management and the Social Security changes that will take a generation to phase in."

And, Norquist might have written if he was providing a comprehensive list: To break the back of organized labor, the single most important countervailing force to corporate power. Business has always hated unions, of course, but there has been over the last several decades a decentralized but concerted campaign to curtail and eventually destroy organized labor as a force in the workplace and, relatedly, as a source of political power.

Whether the implementers of this strategy really had in mind a long-term plan at the time the current campaign took hold in the 1970s, and whether they thought they could ever achieve as much as they have in a few decades, is unclear. But there is little doubt that corporate political strategists now operate with a grand plan to whittle down organized labor to an irrelevance in U.S. workplace and political life.

Deindustrialization -- due largely to unregulated global trade and a long-term overvalued currency -- has eliminated millions of union jobs in the manufacturing sector, dramatically shrinking labor's core strength. It is a stretch to argue that the policies encouraging deindustrialization were motivated by a desire to eliminate union jobs, since major manufacturers have suffered greatly in the process as well.

But the shedding of millions of union jobs via devastation of the industrial sector has been a crucial background factor facilitating the more intentional elements of the grand plan. These have focused especially on undermining unions' ability to organize new workers and include:

  • The routine firing of union supporters, and other actions of intimidation and blatant illegality in union organizing campaigns. Employers fire one in 10 union supporters in union organizing drives in the United States.
  • The evisceration of labor law enforcement. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) fails utterly to uphold what few rights workers have in the United States. NLRB processes are cumbersome, and decisions from the Board have been particularly slow under a Bush administration that has left Board seats unfilled for extended periods. Time is always on the side of the employer, as simple worker turnover undermines the union's base of support.
  • Trade policy with the free movement of capital as its centerpiece has given employers the ability to threaten to close their plant and move elsewhere if workers choose to unionize. Employers make this threat in more than half of all union organizing drives. The threat is all the more powerful because workers know of so many friends and neighbors who have in fact lost jobs to factories that closed and moved abroad.

Corporations' anti-union crusade has shrunk union representation to well below 10 percent of the private sector workforce.

Now they are going after the public sector. That's what Norquist's allusion to "reforms in personnel management" references. As American Federation of Government Employees President Bobby Harnage discusses in an interview in this issue, the Bush administration is now adopting a series of administrative reforms intended to privatize nearly half of the federal workforce, and to deprive many of the rest the benefits of union representation.

About the corporate sector's success in carrying out the grand plan, it must be said that the unions themselves have been complicit. Over the long haul, they have failed to invest sufficiently in organizing (with some important exceptions), they have been too timid in contract negotiations and in political battles, and they have been overly bureaucratic and insufficiently open to democratic energies from below.

Unions' failure to invest in organizing and carry out effective organizing campaigns is confirmed in the article in this issue by Kate Bronfenbrenner and Robert Hickey.

But what must not be overlooked is Bronfenbrenner and Hickey's more hopeful -- and empirically informed -- message. Despite all of the obstacles they face -- despite the corporate grand plan -- where unions run comprehensive organizing campaigns employing a broad range of strategically sound approaches, they can still win.


Mailing List


Editor's Blog

Archived Issues

Subscribe Online

Donate Online


Send Letter to the Editor

Writers' Guidelines