(Editor’s Note: The 2nd piece in this post has been updated on a separate blog post. The original piece was a late draft.)
The Advance the Struggle Collective is currently engaged in high level discussion around the central political question of the unions and how revolutionaries interpret its history, its present, and how communist intervention can help develop a much-needed revitalized labor movement. The experience of the Chicago teacher’s strike, the battle in the Northwest over the fate of the ILWU, and the mass uprising of public sector workers in Wisconsin stresses both the need to defend unions from bourgeois offensives and the limitations of rank-and-file activity within actually-existing unions; on the other hand, the struggles of Wal-mart, Mi Pueblo, Hot & Crusty, and fast food workers reveals a strong rank-and-file desire for the unionization that might provide some dignity, security, and a greater platform from which to organize and increase rank-and-file confidence against the bosses. What’s the analysis and what’s the program?
In light of this, we are providing two separate pieces on unions written by AS comrades. We don’t pretend to have a uniform line on this important question yet, but we believe that by public, transparent debates we can create a healthy culture of revolutionary debate and dialogue, embracing differences while striving for higher levels of principled unity through our practice in the school of class struggle.
Unions – How do We Intervene?
NOTE: This section of the program focuses on what we do when we do orient to unions. There are entire areas of the class struggle that are just as important as the labor movement. Other areas of class struggle are dealt with in other sections of the program. They are separated from each other for analytical purposes, and NOT because they are built in isolation from each other.
Existing unions are not sufficient for general working class uplift much less proletarian revolution. However, those forms of working class organization which lay beyond these can only come about through the work of strengthening existing unions in addition to building intermediate organizations not identified with specific workplaces (these could be called “class-wide committees”). At this time, AS avoids simplistic prescriptions that champion one form over another, as the class struggle is not at all developed enough to prove where the locus of our interventions ought to be.
Our program regarding the labor movement is this:
1. Defend unions from capitalist and state attack.
This is in the interest of the particular workers under attack, but is also in the interest of all workers. As the bar is lowered for one group, it is lowered for others.
2. Transform the character of unions.
Beyond democratic rank and file control of unions, we seek to transform unions, so as to make them more porous, more linked with other workers, and active on a political plane beyond the employer and job category to which they pertain.
3. Bring unions into an overall proletarian offensive against capital, for socialism.
In connection with transforming unions through the power struggle for control within them, unions must be brought into broader class organizations, or “class-wide committees” that coordinate strikes, blockades, occupations, and other forms of take-overs of space and time.
What are Unions?
1. The most basic relationship all workers have with their employers is one of economic exploitation, meaning that they are paid below the full value of work they perform. Unions are an economic united front of workers to defend against this exploitation. The most basic function of a union is to bring the workers’ pay as close as possible to the full value of their work.
2. We do not see the union movement as the vehicle for socialist revolution, but as the most consistent arena of organized worker resistance to capital. The unionized sector of the working class is disproportionately important to class formation and class consciousness. It is, therefore, crucial to have a clear-headed approach to working within unions. Orienting toward unionized sector of the working class must never blind us to the vast majority of the proletariat that is not unionized (addressed elsewhere in this program).
3. The main property of a union is the “collective bargaining” process. This consists of the members of a union agreeing to a pay scale, articulated in a contract that is available for all to read. The collective aspect of labor unions is what employers generally dislike about them; bosses prefer to deal with each worker individually, so that they can intimidate and lie to each worker, as well as pit them against each other as a means by which to strike the lowest “bargain” for wages.
State Hegemony over Unions
4. The CIO was a split in the conservative AFL that organizationally united the proletariat as never before in the US. The CIO represented a mass split from the AFL, growing out of militant rank and file unionism of the General strikes and factory occupations of the early 30s. The CIO had a heavy marxist influence amongst the rank and file leaders, who for a period succeeded at pushing the CIO to act as a vehicle for militant struggles, but the Communist Party militants in particular, supported the CIO’s connection to the Democratic Party and the “no-strike pledge” of WWII.
5. The National Labor Relations Board was established by the New Deal regime of FDR during the Great Depression to mediate this sharp class conflict. It established a legally protected mechanism for collective bargaining and workplace grievance procedures to work out and keep production going steadily. The NLRB registers unions and arbitrates contracts.
6. Although workers were able to use the new corporatist structure of the New Deal Era to get unprecedented wages and benefits, the NLRB turned out to be one step toward the co-optation of unions by the state, a step followed by ever-more restrictive laws that limit tactics of labor struggle. In a sense, workers, under the leadership of pro-capitalist union officials and misguided Stalinist CP militants, consented to their political defeat (despite impressive economic gains) during this period. The most blatant aspect of this political defeatism was loyalty to the Democratic Party. Despite this, workers launched wildcat strikes in defiance of the capitalists and bureaucrats. 1946 was the USA’s last general strike, taking place in Oakland, CA.
7. Objective shifts in the capitalist accumulation processes (eg, automation and outsourcing in the post-war period) were implemented smoothly by the destruction of militant organizational intervention at the base of unions (the red scare, McCarthyism, etc) and other coercive measures such as the Taft-Hartley Act which among other things, outlawed the sympathy strike tactic which lay at the heart of the wave of general strikes that swept the US in the early 30s and then in the mid 40s.
The Bureaucracy is Anti-Union
8. The combination of reconfigured production, state co-optation and legal repression paved the way for the always latent bureaucratic layer to consolidate their control at the top of union structures. A revival of rank and file agency is the key to breaking free of the bureaucratic and legal choke-hold that has prevailed over the six decades of defeat experienced by the US working class.
9. The union bureaucracies only fight capitalist attacks to protect their self-interest as a parasitic layer that sucks the blood (in the form of dues wasted on CEO-level salaries for officials and political donations, as well as restrictions on rebellious activity) from the membership. If the union is smashed, bureaucratic CEOs loose their cash-cow. Sometimes this interest corresponds with rank and file interests in winning improved work conditions, wages and benefits. Most often, however, union bureaucracies sell out workers’ demands in back room deals, that might preserve the union formally, but gut its content as a workers’ economic united front to the extent that many union members themselves either have no idea they are even in a union or have anti-union sentiments.
10. The bureaucratic parasites that stifle militancy and keep unions isolated from one another as separate fiefdoms cannot spoil our class loyalty to defend unions against capitalist interests which almost always reside in anti-unionism.
Defend Unions by Transforming Them
11. Most of the left, AS included, lacks significant membership or influence amongst unionized sectors. At our current stage, we are limited in our outside interventions due to our small size and the low level of class struggle coming organically from the proletariat generally. Main dimensions of outside support include joining unions on the picket lines, supporting union organizing campaigns, and organizing other parts of the proletariat to combine in struggle against a common enemy.
12. When we find ourselves within unions, as one worker wrote recently in a workplace newsletter of the Oakland public schools: “We must demand that our union leadership negotiate in open meetings where teachers, parents and students can all observe and have input. On top of this, we must, as the rank and file, develop the framework to be ready at a moment’s notice to withdraw support from the union bureaucracy if we feel there is even a hint of capitulation or self-interest from leaders. Whether this comes in the form of a union caucus or education committee, or something more inclusive of other sectors of workers — like a workers council, it must have complete autonomy from any of the hierarchical structures designed to limit the militancy and success of strike actions.” (Issue #4 of Classroom Struggle, p 16)
13. By building cells of militant workers within unions, which push struggle for uncompromising demands and challenge the bureaucracies to match their resolve, unions can be transformed out of their frozen impotent state. This transformative process includes opening union struggles to participation of non-union members and injecting the union into struggles outside of its the parameters of its own membership. Crucially, transformation involves breaking from the legality and proceduralism that bars unions from using winning tactics.
14. As we stated in our article, Occupy, ILWU, EGT and the Coming Class Battles (9/3/13) “The right for rank-file to negotiate during contract fights is something forgotten by a new generation of radicals that over emphasize the agency of surplus populations and street protests as the new form of class struggle or understand the labor movement as getting a job as a union organizer, or doing volunteer work for a union campaign. The new generation of radicals, avoiding these twin pitfalls, should share a political principal of fighting for rank-file participation, with a rank-file analysis, in contract fights and negotiations. Giving this political terrain to the bureaucratic leadership will only lead to the string of defeats unions have been subjected to in the last 30 years of capitalism offensive.”
Rank and File Transformation, Linking with the Class
15. Any effort that succeeds at organizing rank-file hegemony in the negotiating process, let alone initiating and leading strikes and workplace take-overs, will put the union on the path toward serious confrontation with the legalistic modus operandi of modern the labor movement. It would predictably cause a mass split in a union between those that support the officialdom’s class collaborationism and those who seek working class autonomy. These new “mass split” unions would already have structure, history of struggle, and a recently radicalizing experience of being forced by circumstance to break with legalistic bureaucratism.
16. Most likely, the conditions which pushed rank and file towards intransigence in the face of their employers, bureaucratic officialdom, and the state, would be spurring similar processes amongst other sectors of the class. This would open up the possibility for militants from all sectors to link up into “class-wide committees” that coordinate common assault on capital in a framework beyond and even independent of unionism.
17. We must have no such syndicalist illusions to believe that unions transformed by rank and file intransigence, would themselves be the organizational vehicles for the socialist revolution that is necessary for abolishing the wages system (capitalism). Unions never have – and never will – play the role of revolutionary organization. Neither is it probable that the effort to split existing unions away from bureaucratism would fully triumph; it is likely that in a revolutionary situation, the revolutionary process will unfold so rapidly as to render this work redundant by the supersession of the union by higher organizational forms, or capitalist dynamism will smash transformed unions back into bureaucratic behemoths.
18. However, in non- or pre-revolutionary situations (as our own), any success in the effort to defend unions from capitalist attack by transforming their character toward rank and file control and more inclusiveness would forge new advanced cadres within the working class itself, steeled in political and economic aspects of class struggle. These most advanced members of the proletariat could, with their skills, experience, and the trust of thousands of other workers, build the broader proletarian structures (workers councils, “class-wide committees”, soviets, proletarian parties, etc) that would be the seeds of mass proletarian revolutionary organization.
19. Defense of the unions through their transformation is one important pathway through which masses of proletarian warriors will be trained. It need not precede efforts in building broader proletarian organizations. In fact the processes will have to run parallel to one another, and feed each other symbiotically. It is clear to us that this is the general outline of what work within unions has to look like.
Revolutionaries, Unions and emerging Class Struggle.
Trade Unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachment of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system.
So few revolutionaries are implanted in the landscape of over 30 million US union members, making a key task the formation of revolutionary cells amongst the rank and file of unions, which would engage in three types of political work; 1) day to day organizing and base building amongst the rank and file of that union, 2) form new working class organizations outside of the unions (like solidarity unionism or independent committees) and, 3) in rupturing moments of capitalist attack, like the “Wisconsin moment,” to lead classwide offensives against capital.
American revolutionaries currently lack an adequate perspective detailing precisely what sort of political interventions are necessary to make a revolution. Unions are locations of struggle between workers and capital, central to any potentially successful revolutionary strategy. The revolutionary left has two general strategies in dealing with the unions. One is to orient towards them as if they are another part of capital; the other is they are a viable organization of the working class that should be transformed into instruments of working class struggle. Such disagreements lead to differences in how the character and structure of the unions is outlined, the first view of them as fully co-opted and transformed by capital, the other that unions are flawed but still changeable organizations of the working class. To begin a characterization of unions, we can begin with when Marx, in 1864, when he was preparing the formation of the First international. In The Process of Production of Capital, the “missing” 6th chapter, written a few months before the foundation of the First International, Marx stated, “The trade unions aim at nothing less than to prevent the reduction of wages below the level that is traditionally maintained in the various branches of industry…The workers combine in order to achieve equality of a sort with the capitalist in their contract concerning the sale of their labor. This is the rationale (and logical basis) of the trade unions…They are insurance societies formed by the workers themselves.” Such insurance societies formed a rigid caste of functionaries that made decisions, and shaped the process of how those decisions were made, due claiming to have a technical, and organizational superiority in the management of the trade-union organization. As a result, the functionaries that operated the union developed political and class interests that diverged from the interests of the worker members of the union, and became the bureaucracy. Robert Brenner states in Rebel Rank and File, “Since the officials‘ well-being depends instead on whatever it takes to secure the trade union’s health and prosperity, their overriding tendency is to confuse the defense of the organization with the defense of the membership, with the former taking precedence over the latter and tending to become an end in itself, rather than simply a means to further the goals of the rank and file.” This bureaucracy, shaping the structure of the union as a whole, became vertically integrated into the state, beginning with the formation of the National Labor Relation Board formed after, and a response to, the 1934 general strikes. After World War II, such integration only intensified. The process of the union’s vertical integration into the state, parallels the movement of the growth of intensity regarding the constantly increasing quantitative output of commodity production. The political machinery of unions merged directly with the Democratic Party, and the logic of capitalist law, severely narrowing what unions were allowed to do after 1947. Taft-Hartley was passed that year, making sympathy strikes illegal, a central act of transforming workers struggle into a class offensive. In 1950, the “Treaty of Detroit” took place, where the United Auto Workers became responsible for rationalizing the labor process to raise productivity and maximize profits, shifting the whole character of unions. Fast forwarding to 2009, the United Auto Workers bought and now owns about 65 percent of Chrysler stock and 17.5 percent of General Motors. The financialization of union pensions lead to further integration of unions into capital. The restructuring of the union system and the legal guarantee of steady flow of dues to maintain the union, eliminated the political culture of shop stewards being workplace militants who solve issues through worker action in the workplace. As a result, the class struggle content of unions before the 1950s are gone. Unions shifted by being political integrated into the laws and institutions of the state, as well as an economic integration by having to maintain a steady flow of profits. This is the opposite of what unions did during their era of formation. In 1905 with the IWW, and in 1935 with the CIO, these unions had an offensive character by organizing non organized workplaces, fighting against brutal exploitation, establishing new and emerging working class rights. Nevertheless, given the shifts within the structure of unions, their reason for existence is to maintain the collective bargaining agreement, the insurance workers have established in selling their labor-power at a rate that reduces the level of exploitation. Since, World War II, unions have become defensive organizations, and in practice the first line of defense against the boss. The contemporary elimination of unions allows capital to atomize workers into defenseless wage-slaves. As a result, capital has, and is still, on the march of busting unions, due to how the content of collective bargaining agreements is a barrier to maximizing profits. The class struggle response to this dynamic has been to still to radically transform unions into vehicles of class struggle by overthrowing the bureaucracy or develop class struggle outside of the unions. Both have equally failed.
The United States has been a political desert, with class struggle at an all time low. In the 1970s, 20% of workers were involved in strikes or lockouts, while in 2009, it was only 0.05%. The US competes with South Korea for having the most dangerous workplaces in the “advanced” capitalist world, with 14 workers killed a day. 2% of the population, seven million people, Largely Black and Latino, are awaiting trail, in prison or on parole, almost exactly numbering the loss of industrial jobs. On January 23, 2013, the New York Times, published an article titled “Share of the Work Force in a Union Falls to a 97-Year Low, 11.3%.” At the same time, as of recently, we have seen some incredible working class mobilizations; Chicago Teachers, Longview, Washington Longshore workers, and public sector workers in Wisconsin. To a lesser extent we have seen walkouts of Walmart workers, strikes of truckers in Southern California, and strikes of fast-food workers in New York. Chicago, Longview, and Wisconsin are massive reactions to union busting, while Wal-Mart workers, truckers, and fast-food workers are new workers movements against brutal unchecked exploitation. Regarding Wisconsin, Longview and Chicago, class-conscious union workers defended their unions against capitalist attack, inspiring massive working class mobilizations as a response. Yet when there was massive mobilization to go on the offensive against capital it lacked a clear strategy and deeply rooted organization of public sector workers to do so. Wisconsin led to a defeat, Longview received one of the worst contracts in ILWU history, and the Chicago teachers strike was an exceptional draw. ILWU local 21 in Longview accepted a horrific contract due to ILWU president McCallrath threatening to not pay state sponsored fees of a million dollars if the contract was not signed. Chicago was semi-successful due to mobilizing the Chicago working class as a whole, raising demands in the interest of working class youth, and elevating the politics of standardized testing, while the leadership caved into what was acceptable by capitalist law. Capital will continue to co-opt and attack unions, pushing as far as it can go in maximizing profits, while producing millions of powerless wage-slaves who live in ever more increasing precarious conditions.
South Africa and China
To compare our situation with other countries, it is worth examining recent strike waves in China and South Africa. The wildcat strike wave that swept the platinum belt in South Africa in 2012 was ignited by the South African police sponsored murder of mine strikers. The leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the union of the strikers, sided with the police. This caused the rank and file to split from the NUM and form worker committees. Striking workers won a 22% raise, the largest in South African history, unleashing a strike wave that was unified on that demand. These strikes, not sanctioned by the union, were wildcat strikes, forming new working class organizations. Such worker committees coordinated the strike movement throughout the country. China has also caught the world by storm, as it is reported that it has 1,500 strikes a day. Unions in China are almost without exception either controlled by the state or by the boss. Workers go on strike, engage in informal collective bargaining, and choose their own representatives and the official union acts as an intermediary with the boss. These wildcat strikes have actually been very effective at getting big wage increases. But it has not been able to transform existing unions or form its own organizations of class combat and political struggle, something equivalent to the South African worker committees. One striking Chinese worker who participated in the Honda strikes of 2010 stated in a interview by Rena Lau in Restructuring of the Honda Auto Parts Union in Guongdong, China: that, “we should put our union executives to a fresh vote…the others were also in favour of the idea.” These movements demonstrate the centrality of forming serious class combat based working class organization that will first struggle within their own unions, and only when all possibilities are exhausted will rank and file militancy lead to rupturing with the unions to form new working class organizations of class struggle. If South Africa is an ending point, China represents the beginning.
When unionized American workers defend their union rights against attacks by capitalist employers, like in Longview Washington or Wisconsin, it inspired significant sections of the working class to support such a defense, ultimately leading to the formation of an offensive movement. The classwide offense begins with increasing the defense, inside the union ranks to outside the union, mobilizing as much of the working class as it can. If unions define the defense, it will be channeled into the state: lawsuits, letters to politicians, press conferences, resulting in defeat. Union workers who defend their unions do so for two reasons: to defend their narrow individual interest, but also to defend organizations of the working class. In order to cultivate the latter, we should be clear to defend unions against capitalist attacks, coupled with advocating the formation of a working class organization that can actually fight for the class as a whole as a simultaneous movement. American unions have a broad range of differences, with the ILWU shutting down the ports against imperialist war and controlling their own hiring process to the UAW who own the majority of Chrysler and enforce speed ups. Each union, demands a particular strategy to deal with their own unique complexity. Socialist who have been trying to transform their unions have lived in a bureaucratic proceduralist swamp for decades. Leftist who sought a new labor movement outside of unions have also been met with only defeat. As of now, we cannot measure with precision the union’s capacity for transformation, and when a rupture will need to take place, until moments of open class conflict. But with that said, we must challenge the transformation of the unions perspective, and a rupture from the unions perspective, as two bankrupt programs for developing class struggle.
Towards the formation of Revolutionary Cells
As the union debate has been focused on singular possibilities, transformation or rupture, the left has no proposal of how to actually do either successfully. As a result, we must pull the lens back and realize there are over 30 million workers in the US that are members of unions, with very few revolutionaries implanted in such a landscape. Informal groups of workers that are unified and engage in common acts of resistance can somewhat alter the power relations at work. Working class organization coupled with working class acts of resistance, forms working class power, the antithesis of capital. The powerless landscape of wage-slaves within almost dead unions will begin to unravel with the formation of class struggle organization. The power of such an organization will have to be able to challenge the leadership of unions who closely collaborate with capitalist employers. It must also prepare for rupturing moments, like with the situation of Wisconsin, where capitalist employer attack leads to an unleashing of a classwide movement with a potential for an offensive. Such an organization could do work as a union caucus, but is not shaped and limited by that model. Such an organization would engage in political work both within and without the workplace, engaging workplace battles and social movements, becoming a bridge between these two worlds. The striking truckers in Southern California, the Walmart workers who engaged in walkouts, and the NYC fast food workers who engaged in a one-day strike, need an organization that corresponds to their emergent struggle. Such an organization would concretely support the formation of new class struggle organizations according to these emergent struggles. Such a political rank and file organization within the unions would be a revolutionary cell. Its content is the concentration of working class power, its form is the campaigns it unleashes as an outcome of the strategy developed. As the revolutionary left in the US is tiny, we also have to plan for fostering the development of individual class consciousness workers into such militants to build and lead such political cells. In addition, they will make apparent the degree to which the structure of the union, organized as it is in accordance with, and modeled after, capitalist legal frameworks that inherently suffocates working class militancy. This is a political intervention union caucus cannot do, or have not done, and those that advocate union transformation usually ignore. The focus on union transformation from its record of cooptation has not seriously challenged the union’s vertical integration into the state, nor the economic integration into capital. But those that have called for a rupture within the unions have also proven flat, and divorced from the energy and dynamics of working class struggle. The task at hand is to prepare for these coming capitalist attacks on unions, highly located in the public sector, with the formation of revolutionary cells within the unions that can combine the network building of day to day agitation, with rupturing moments of upsurge. This is where the community organizer meets the insurrectionist at the base of the union. The quality and quantity of such militants, unified with a strategy, form the degree of working class power that such a revolutionary cell embodies.
The majority of workplaces are non-union and can fire workers at will. The day-to-day agitation within the workplace, should be followed by a public political fight that demands the right to organize in all workplaces, coupled with democratic rights at work that support organizing of workers against the boss. The unions claim to lead this fight through their friends in the Democratic party, or their lawyers in the courts. We must begin, and develop, this fight in the streets and in the workplaces, squarely against electoralism, the state and the Democratic Party. That is how the working class will feel its strength against the capitalist state. It is central that the working class must fight for the right to strike as a class to begin to grow as a real force against capital. The experience and training of class conscious workers actively fighting for their working class rights in general, through real organizing campaigns, will expose how the capitalist class has the power, and begin to answer what it will take to overthrow such power. It will also expose how union bureaucracies will always try to hijack such movements, take the organizing out of the hands of the workers, and place it into the domain of the state. Strikes also expose one, the “neutral” institutions in how they serve the capitalist boss’ interest, and two, how workers who don’t work, force society to grind to a halt. Behind every defensive strike that transforms into an offensive one, the hydra of revolution also lurks, sending chills down the spine of the capitalist. The great 1877 general strike was the first strike of that character within this country. Once workers have the confidence, organization, and political strategy to defeat their boss, this movement can then challenge the capitalist system on a much larger level. Since we must begin from where we actually are, the movement of forming rank and file revolutionary cells within the unions is a prerequisite to get to this larger historic battle. Advance the Struggle aspires to accomplish such a historic task, being central groundwork in making a revolution in this country.
10 Point Program for Revolutionary Cells in the Unions:
1. For a defense of unions against capitalist attack. .
2. For a political struggle against the bureaucracy and capitalist law that force unions to be enslaved by the will of capital.
3. To expose the structure of unions that has been transformed by capital and the state to not be able to serve the interest of the working class.
4. For the day-to-day work of developing networks, organization and confidence amongst the scattered demoralized union rank and file into a class struggle formation.
5. For the preparation of crisis moments of capitalist attack, like the “Wisconsin moment,” unleashing a class-wide offensive against capital.
6. For the struggle against capitalist law that makes organizing and class struggle militancy illegal, unleashing a movement of worker rights built by the working class, for the working class.
7. For the rank and file to push for union transformation to its limits and linking it with a union rupture to build worker committees.
8. For the cultivation and development of individual militants to engage and do this political work to create such revolutionary cells.
9. For a working class control of automation in the workplace, where workers can benefit from the fruits of technological development.
10. For a political perspective of against the state, the agent of the capitalist class as a whole, to lay the groundwork for its overthrow to place the working class as the class in power.