An indication of the study group’s political objective is its call for the replacement of workers’ unions with work councils. It maintains that unions are too adversarial, and that work councils, by contrast, are more collaborative, and they give workers a stake in running the company (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 63). It acknowledges that unions once “checked the power of corporations” (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 10), thus facilitating the improvement of wages and working conditions; and that, accordingly, unions played a central role in the social contract. In these acknowledgements, the study group implicitly is recognizing the role of power in protecting the social and economic rights of workers, and the importance of unions in providing workers with power. However, inasmuch as the political objective of the study group is to conserve the power of the political establishment, it evidently seeks to disempower further an increasingly alienated working class; and it seeks to pacify the working class through concrete economic concessions.
Nevertheless, the right course of action for the nation at the current historic junction is not rescuing the political establishment through the further disempowerment and the pacification of the working class. Rather, the right course of action is the empowerment of the working class and other political sectors, through popular education that enables understanding of the nation’s problems in historical and global context; and that calls the people to the defense not only of their particular sectors but also of the nation and of humanity.
The call of “power to the people” is as old as the nation itself; historically, various popular sectors sought to overcome restrictions on its power. As is well known, the United States for many years severely restricted the power of the popular sectors by limiting the vote to men, whites, property holders, and the educated. These restrictions gave rise to popular movements that were able to eliminate such barriers. By the late 1960s, the universal franchise existed in practice, even if some problematic issues remained. The universal franchise, in conjunction with the social contract, gave an image of a highly democratic nation.
However, the works of the sociologist C. Wright Mills (1951) and the political scientist G. William Domhoff (1967; 1979) revealed the democratic image to be false. They persuasively argued that that a political/economic/military elite comprised by 0.5% of the population effectively controlled the institutions of the nation, including the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. This largely invisible phenomenon was made possible by the dependency of politicians on elite financial support and by elite controlled opinion shaping organizations that framed the issues of public debate.
In the 1970s, the nation confronted stagflation, government debt, relative economic decline, and global anti-neocolonial movements of resistance. In reaction, the power elite in the early 1980s acted decisively in defense of its short-term interests, ignoring the basic concrete human needs of the working class and the long-term wellbeing of the nation. And it was able to distort the public discourse in defense of its action. With the popular sectors lacking the political power to prevent this turn, the fundamentally undemocratic character of the nation became manifest.
Given the historic collaboration among Big Labor, Big Business, and government in the heyday of the social contract, it seems a bit disingenuous for the Opportunity America/AEI/Brookings Study group to refer to unions as adversarial. It is true, however, that U.S. labor movement to a considerable extent has been combative in defense of workers’ interests. But the adversarial relation between labor and management and between labor and government was driven by the aggressive attitude of management and government toward the rights of workers, which often has included resistance to unionization itself.
However, regardless of the extent to which unions are adversarial, they are a necessary component of the empowerment of workers, and power is necessary, as the report implicitly acknowledges, for the protection of social and economic rights. Accordingly, all workers, of all occupations and levels of education, should form unions, unifying all in each place of work; and they should elect their own leaders at the local level, who in turn elected delegates to speak in defense of workers in the society and before management and government.
Strong unionization is not necessarily adversarial; it depends of a variety of factors. In Cuba, for example, 99% of workers belong to a union; and the unions have a cooperative relation with management, government, and other popular sectors. It is a situation of state ownership of companies, so that the government, controlled by the elected delegates of the people in a system of indirect elections, appoints the management. Both government and management support unionization, and they seek cooperative relations with the union leadership, elected by the workers. To be sure, management focuses on concrete goals with respect to production or providing a service, whereas as the unions focus more on wages and working conditions. But this difference of interest occurs in a context in which the government is committed to both goals; and it expresses itself in the context of common commitment to larger goals, including the wellbeing of the people, the sovereignty of the nation, and the continuing development of the Revolution. In Cuba, even educated workers in the professions belong to unions; they are organized in their places of work, united with non-professional staff. It is a system of strong unionization, and it is far from adversarial.
The genuine renewal of our nation requires various dimensions, but among them is renewed support for unionization, not only for workers with less than a college degree, but for all workers, including professionals. Places of work provide an excellent locale for popular participation and popular education, which could include the development of a union culture of support for other popular sectors, for the long-term wellbeing of the nation, and in defense of humanity. Inasmuch as the working class is now fifty percent white and fifty percent persons of color, unionization would help overcome racial divisions and prejudices. Folks working together for their common good and for the good of the nation would experience that their prejudices disappear, for they would discover that human qualities, both good and bad, are well distributed across color lines.
The unpatriotic and amoral conduct of the political establishment since 1980 makes clear the need for the people to take power from the political establishment through the formation of alternative political parties or political organizations. An alternative political party can rise to power only through politically intelligent proposals; among them should be a call for the unionization of all workers. Unions not only can defend the rights and interests of particular workers. They also are a mechanism for generating popular participation and creating a revolutionary union culture that is committed to all popular sectors and to the good of the nation.
Domhoff, G. William. 1967. Who Rules America? Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
__________. 1979. The Powers That Be. New York: Vintage Press.
Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.
Opportunity America/AEI/Brookings Working Class Study (OA/AEI/BI). 2018. Work, Skills, Community: Restoring opportunity for the working class. (Opportunity America, the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and the Brookings Institution).