“The secret world of organized labor. Now it is passing away, and I am in a panic. But how do I even discuss it?” -Thomas Geoghegan
Welcome to “Who Gets the Bird?,” a place for writing & thinking in public on organized labor in the US. Thanks for reading, subscribing, and sharing with the people in your life.
By way of welcome, I figure I should explain the title, which some will find too obvious, and others totally opaque. It comes from a famous-in-labor-circles quote from John L. Lewis, the larger-than-life president of the United Mine Workers of America from 1920-1960, and the founder of the CIO, the industrial union federation that in many ways upended the US labor movement & nearly formed a labor party.
When asked why the CIO tolerated Communists and radicals in its ranks, Lewis responded with a question: “Who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?”
Lewis himself was no leftist. His point was that the radicals could be used (like a dog) to bring the working class (a dead bird) into the unions (the hunter).
These days, our dead bird lays uncollected in some distant field, with something like 10% of workers belonging to unions. So what happens when the global hegemon has one of the least organized working classes in the world? What happens to that class? What happens to that hegemon, and to its empire?
And who gets the bird? I mean who should we collectively flip off for bringing us to where we are today? Is it Jimmy Carter deregulating trucking and airline and euthanizing the New Deal era? Is it Reagan and his sociopath apostles? Is it the Democratic Party for going along with it all, with Clinton’s successful NAFTA, Obama’s failed EFCA? Is it the unions themselves, the labor bureaucracy getting fat skimming pensions, the labor aristocracy moving to the suburbs and buying boats? Is it the left’s sectarian navel-gazing, in-fighting, and do-nothing-ism?
I don’t plan to explore these questions directly; they’re kind of too much to look at directly, like an eclipse, the shining hopes of US organized labor blocked from view by some hulking monstrosity we call the 21st century. What I hope to do here is to explore the actually-existing organized labor movement, while all of the above hums menacingly in the background. By which I mean, yes, I’d like to take you through the maze of unpronouncable acronyms, of Joint Councils and AFSCMEs and International Amalgamated United Brotherhoods. Somewhere in these glyphs and artifacts I hope to find footprints of the boot that grinds ever-downward on labor’s neck.
There is lots of very good labor writing, and I hope to not add to the pile just for the sake of clearing my throat. What does exist, in my estimation, tends towards a few broad strains, all of which are indispensable, and which don’t particularly need my contributions. [It has been pointed out that the list below is not comprehensive and is very white — true on both counts.] First, there is writing for organizers -- writing that takes stock of real fights, wins, and losses, and primarily charts a path for those who might learn from these things to take lessons into the next battle. Labor Notes, Working In These Times, Jacobin, Strikewave, writers like Mindy Isser, Jane McAlevey, Sarah Jaffe, Kim Kelly, Hamilton Nolan. Then there are the historians, plumbing labor’s brief greatnesses -- the industrial 1930s, the lawless 1890s, the rank-and-file 1960s -- for seemingly endless depths. These are too many of these to name. There is, finally, the dying breed of labor newspeople, Josh Eidelson, Dave Jamieson, Caroline O’Donovan, Rachel Cohen, Juliana Feliciano Reyes, Matthew Cunningham Cook, Edward Ongweso Jr, Lauren Kaori Gurley, and others, who break real life labor news, such as it is. I recommend you follow all of their work (and the many writers I’m sure I forgot to include here -- apologies), but I hope to do something different here.
My hope is to bring you into the world of organized labor, and to express, if only in dull approximation, what ticks within the labor-obsessed few among us. For all this talk of apocalypse, 14 million union members remain in this country, quietly conducting steward elections, holding conventions, ratifying contracts, squirming inside the boss’s shoe, occasionally landing a good bite on the heel of capital. If I have two guiding lights for this project, they are: (1) Derek Davison’s incomparable Foreign Exchanges, in its unbelievable way of distilling huge amounts of information and bringing a dope like me some limited understanding of a topic that felt previously impenetrable; and (2) Thomas Geoghegan’s “Which Side Are You On?” which is the one and only piece of writing that I’ve seen attempt to capture the sick thrill of being hopelessly in love with a wilting labor movement.
I’ll try to write something about once a week that goes a bit deeper into the world of actually-existing organized labor. This is an experiment, so we’ll see how it goes. Open to any and all feedback, questions, prompts. If you’re a union member or staffer yourself, tell me what’s going on in your union. Thanks again for reading, subscribing, sharing, whatever. Solidarity.