Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Report from Labor Conference workshop

Organizing the Unorganized

First Published: The Call, Vol. 3, No. 1, October 1974.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Atlanta, Ga.–Organizing the unorganized workers was a major workshop topic at the recent October League-sponsored Southern Labor Conference. This question is of particular importance in the South, where the number of unionized workers is very low. This is a direct result of the national oppression of the Afro-American people in the South.

The current leaders of the U.S. labor movement have only paid lip service to organizing the South. In practice they have stood against it. Why is this so?

The bureaucrats running the trade unions today have long supported U.S. imperialism’s exploitation of Third World countries. Meany, Abel, Fitzsimmons & Co. were the loudest supporters of U.S. aggression in Vietnam long after the majority of the American people had turned against it. The incredibly high “super-profits” extracted from the Third World enables the imperialists to bribe a small upper section of the working class to support their policies and defend their interests. Meany and friends represent this small bribed strata, “the labor aristocracy” as Lenin called it.


This “arrangement” between the labor aristocracy and U.S. imperialism extends to the plantation South as well because it is the historic homeland of the Afro-American people. These labor leaders have left the South largely unorganized, creating for the imperialists a vast source of cheap, non-union labor within the borders of the U.S. Organizing these workers is of great importance to the entire labor movement and a real blow to the imperialist system.

First, organizing unorganized workers will protect the already unionized workers. It will strengthen their bargaining position and help to protect their jobs against “the runaway shop.” More importantly, organizing the unorganized will bring larger numbers of unskilled and semiskilled, national minority (Afro-American, Chicano, etc.) and women workers into the labor movement. These groups are historically the least unionized, but, they are often the most militant and revolutionary-minded. Bringing larger numbers of these workers into the trade unions will provide a firmer basis for moving the unions to the left and fighting the influence of the labor aristocrats.

There are two different approaches to organizing the unorganized workers, and these two approaches reflect the struggle between two lines in the labor movement. One approach is the method of the union bureaucrats when they take up the question at all. They do not try to stimulate the initiative and enthusiasm of the workers and do not create a spirit of self-reliance. Rather, they frequently push the line of “rely on the experts,” “rely on our lawyers,” on the NLRB, etc. And, they never take the opportunity to raise the class political consciousness of the workers by taking political issues to them, such as the Dump Nixon Movement, the anti-war movement, or the struggle against deportations.

A revolutionary approach is just the opposite, developing self-reliance as the workers’ main strength and using the organizing struggle, when workers are most open to political ideas, to bring political issues directly into the labor movement. This too is the time to develop militant, fighting leadership. The workshop agreed that a united front approach to “getting the job done” was correct. That is, struggle should be waged with the middle forces in the unions and with the union leadership to take up this task, as some of them have. This is important in terms of material and organizational support as well as avoiding unnecessary splits within the labor movement. It was clearly pointed out that these forces cannot be relied on to do the actual organizing. This would be a rightist error. The actual work and initiative would have to be taken by the left and most progressive sections of the labor movement or it won’t get done at all.

The questions of dual unionism and independent unionism are especially important for the South because the workers are often faced with the outright refusal of many established unions to organize there. There are many advantages to affiliating with the established labor unions. It increases the solidarity and strength of workers to belong to an international, there are certain material advantages and, most important, it allows the “fresh blood” of the newly organized workers to have a greater effect on the labor movement as a whole, making it more difficult for the right-wing bureaucrats to play their reactionary role. Dual unionism, i.e., making a principle of separation from the established labor movement, always serves to split and weaken the labor movement in the long run.

Sometimes, however, it may be necessary to form “independent” unions where established unions refuse to organize. There were two main dangers here that were discussed at the workshop. On the one hand, the danger of making separation a principle, and on the other “unity at all costs.” While the workshop agreed that organizers should always push for affiliation with existing unions, they should not do so on unprincipled terms, or under conditions that would actually weaken the workers’ ability to struggle.

This workshop and others like it at the conference covering work with women, the farmworkers, organizing in various industries such as steel and textile, the national question and the building of a new revolutionary communist party brought together organizers from the most important struggles going on today in the South. The shared experiences and principled ideological struggle made it possible to reach a high level of unity on numerous questions and points the way for even greater unity in the future.