Labor needs a class struggle strategy to advance

Aug 1, 2004

A guiding principle for progressives in the working class movement has been, “If you’re not in a union, fight to get one; if you’re in a union, fight to make it fight.” Those who take up the challenge of “fighting to make the unions fight” are faced sooner or later with the question of how to deal with union leaders who do not want to fight at all.

A guiding principle for progressives in the working class movement has been, “If you’re not in a union, fight to get one; if you’re in a union, fight to make it fight.” Those who take up the challenge of “fighting to make the unions fight” are faced sooner or later with the question of how to deal with union leaders who do not want to fight at all.

This problem can lead to several kinds of mistakes, each revolving around identifying the union leadership as the “labor movement,” and basing a program on an attitude toward the union bureaucracy rather than toward the rank-and-file membership.

The challenge is greatest in dealing with the main U.S. labor umbrella, the American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations. The AFL-CIO is a voluntary federation of 61 national and international labor unions. It represents 13 million workers, which is over 80 percent of the 16.1 million unionized workers in the U.S.

On the one hand, political conservatism and hostility to struggle on the part of a large section of the union leadership breeds a certain level of cynicism toward the labor movement as a whole. The clearest example of this mistake was the dismissive attitude many elements of the “New Left” of the 1960s and 1970s expressed toward the AFL-CIO, whose leadership supported the U.S. government in the Vietnam War and was largely absent from the Civil Rights struggles (with notable exceptions on each count).

This cynicism underestimates the importance of reaching the working class where it is, making it impossible for communists to help advance the class struggle.

Closely related to this cynicism is the phenomenon of self-professed leftists, mostly outside the ranks of the labor movement, heaping criticism on labor leaders without offering practical alternatives for struggle. These groups feed off demoralization within the working class, and can never hope to lead the working class toward effective trade union struggle, much less revolutionary struggle.

On the other hand, some make the mistake of catering uncritically to the union bureaucracy, accepting its often limited program as gospel. Under this mistaken attitude, “supporting the labor movement” amounts to supporting whatever strategy or tactic a union leadership proposes, including passing off failures as successes. This erroneous attitude inevitably leads, due to the particularities of U.S. politics, toward accommodation with the Democratic Party.

Developing a correct attitude toward the labor movement is of particular importance for communists today. Organized labor is passing through an extremely contradictory phase. What is at stake—what is increasingly being discussed by labor leaders and rank-and-file union activists alike—is the continued relevance of the AFL-CIO to the vast, multinational and largely unorganized U.S. working class.

Dynamism vs. decline

What is the main contradiction facing the labor movement in 2004? There is a growing dynamism and support for organizing within the ranks of the AFL-CIO. The labor federation is more reflective of the working class, encompassing growing numbers of women, Black and Latino workers, and more supportive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members. And there are growing challenges to the traditional political conservatism of the AFL-CIO leadership, reflected by the growing number of unions that have passed resolutions against the war in Iraq and that have supported the anti-war movement.

Despite these positive developments, in any objective sense, the AFL-CIO is in decline. Though the AFL-CIO leadership has made a commitment to organizing new members, union membership as a percentage of the workforce has dropped in eight of the past nine years to 12.9 percent in 2003. That’s down from a historic high of 34.9 percent in 1954.

At the same time, the number of major strikes—those strikes involving over 1,000 workers—has dropped to historic lows. Between 1947 and 1980, there were anywhere between 180 and 470 major strikes per year, with an average of 300 per year. Between 1982 and 1995, after Ronald Reagan crushed the Air Traffic Controllers strike in 1981, that average declined to 52. Within the current AFL-CIO president John Sweeney’s term that began in 1995, the average number of major strikes continued to slide to 27 per year, with only 14 major strikes in 2003.

Cracks at the top

This great contradiction between the urge to expand and the pressures of decline is beginning to be seen at the pinnacles of the leadership of the AFL-CIO. That is what is behind the emergence of the New Unity Partnership (NUP), a group within the AFL-CIO leadership that is challenging the direction of the union federation.

The NUP currently consists of the presidents of five major unions—the Service Employees union SEIU, the Hotel and Restaurant Employees union HERE, the Needletrades and Textile Employees union UNITE, the Laborers, and the Carpenters. (UNITE and HERE merged in July to form one union, UNITE HERE.) The NUP leaders are calling for a radical restructuring of the AFL-CIO.

Andrew Stern, president of SEIU, summarized the problems that NUP leaders are trying to address when he spoke to union delegates at the national convention in San Francisco on June 22: “Our employers have changed, our industries have changed, and the world has certainly changed, but the labor movement’s structure and culture have sadly stayed the same.”

Stern singled out the AFL-CIO’s loose federative structure. The structure “divides workers’ strength by allowing each union to organize in any industry, then bargain on its own, even when workers share a common employer.

“As [the AFL-CIO] is set up today, I believe, sadly, it has no hope of uniting the 90 percent of workers who have no union at all.”

The NUP’s draft program, made public by a rank-and-file caucus of the Carpenter’s union, outlines their plan for addressing these structural problems. NUP leaders made their first public comments in a Business Week article on September 5.

The key concept for the NUP leaders is what they call “market strength”: having a “critical mass” of unionized workers within one industry in a given geographical region. One model is the hotel industry in Las Vegas, where 90 percent of the workers in the booming hotel industry belong to HERE’s Culinary Local 226.

The NUP’s main proposal is to devote vast resources—up to 77 percent of the AFL-CIO’s national budget—to organizing campaigns aimed at bringing more workers into the union movement. Other components of the current national AFL-CIO budget which do not support that goal, including health and safety and civil rights, would be slashed. (The draft document hints that some of these cut projects should still be funded by individual AFL-CIO member unions.)

A further element of the NUP proposal is to radically restructure the AFL-CIO from its current 65 member unions into a handful of industry-wide unions to avoid several unions competing for members—and contracts—in the same industry.

NUP leaders are currently lobbying their plan with other union presidents. They have hinted that they will fight for this program at the 2005 AFL-CIO national convention, and they may challenge Sweeney’s leadership in the national elections at that convention. Some hint at leaving the AFL-CIO completely. (The Carpenter’s Union already walked out of the AFL-CIO in 2001, complaining it was not providing enough resources for organizing.)

Limits of the NUP

For rank-and-file militants, the NUP has little to offer. True to its origins far from the shop floor, solutions to the problems facing the labor movement are framed in terms of budgets and restructuring.

Many of the positive aspects of the plan are wrapped in language more suited to a corporate boardroom than to a union hall: Union vice presidents referred to as “chief operating officers” and workers referred to as “markets.” The fact that the original public announcement of the NUP came in capital’s Business Week is itself a dangerous sign of the leaders’ orientation toward the bosses.

The “unity” of the partnership is founded on the worst sort of political opportunism. Carpenter’s president Douglas McCarron has distinguished himself by appearing with George Bush at Labor Day events, and the NUP program refers to meeting with Republican strategist Karl Rove. Four of the five NUP union presidents bought tables at a 2003 Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. While breaking the traditional bond between labor and the big business Democratic Party remains a fundamental challenge, sidling up to the most shameless defenders of corporate exploitation is hardly a step in the right direction.

How the struggle within the labor leadership plays out will be seen in the months to come. But for communists, socialists and other militants to intervene, new strategies and tactics need to be developed and advanced. These strategies and tactics must both address the need of the labor movement to deal with the immediate economic concerns of the union members—bargaining over the terms of labor’s exploitation—and advance the overall class struggle against the bosses and the state.

New tactics needed

Take for example the strike—labor’s ultimate economic weapon. The decline in the number of strikes reflects first and foremost the climate of arrogance on the part of the owning class: bosses are increasingly willing to close the doors and withstand a strike if unions refuse to make concessions. But the decline also points to the fact that the labor movement as a whole has not yet developed new tactics that can turn the strike into an offensive weapon as well as a defensive shield.

A major factor that needs to be addressed is the increasing concentration of capitalism in the U.S. It is rare that a boss will own a single factory, plant or shop. One boss or corporation will own vast holdings spread over wide geographical areas, often from coast to coast. This allows bosses to measure losses in one plant or shop against gains in another.

On top of that, a handful of major banks increasingly own and manage the country’s major corporations. Capital is able to deploy far greater resources and coordination against individual strikes and labor struggles.

This was the problem, for example, facing the six-month strike by grocery workers in California that began in October 2003. The target supermarkets—Vons/Pavillions, Ralphs and Albertsons—may not be household names for those outside the West Coast. But the owners are national supermarket giants like Safeway and Kroger, each earning record profits. The bosses aimed at shifting healthcare costs onto the workers and creating a two-tier wage system.

A heroic struggle on the part of the 59,000 workers won widespread support from unorganized workers and community groups across the state. For several weeks, Teamsters honored picket lines and refused to make deliveries. But ultimately the strike never went beyond the traditional union-employer bounds. The result: while current workers held off the worst part of the health care cuts, the bosses won the two-tier system.

The capitalist class has been on the offensive for well over two decades, gaining strength from the technological revolution and the new world markets opened by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe. The greatest crisis facing the AFL-CIO has been the inability to develop a response to this offensive.

New forms of struggle to enhance the strike as an effective weapon need to be developed. For example, tactics like shop takeovers and plant occupations directly confront the bosses’ biggest strikebreaking weapon—the use of replacement workers, called scabs. While such tactics have been occasionally employed in individual struggles, they need to be expanded and generalized to face the national and international character of capital ownership.

The success of strategy and tactics should be measured both by the degree to which they expand worker solidarity inside and outside the unions. Tactics should draw a clear line between the workers and their allies in the community on the one side, and the bosses, government and police on the other.

The ability of communists to help lead these struggles can make a decisive contribution to revitalizing the labor movement and preparing to turn around the bosses’ nearly three-decade anti-labor offensive.

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