Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Philip Raup, Jr.

Radical Forum: On Workplace organizing and the role of the CPUSA

First Published: Guardian, August 15, 1970 [The article’s title has been supplied by EROL].
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The Rank-and-File Action Conference, held in Chicago June 27-29, marked an important milestone in the development of a revolutionary workers’ movement in the U.S.

Attended by about 800 delegates, it was the first national meeting of labor militants since the late 1940’s. It was large. It was surprisingly representative of the labor movement as a whole (30% women, 25% black, perhaps 40% young, 70% blue collar, with lots of middle-aged rank-and-filers from virtually every important union in the country). It was much more than a gathering of District 65, Local 1199; AFSCME and teachers’ union activists. It was a real national rank-and- file conference – a significant event.

It reflected growing militancy throughout the labor movement. There were men and women who fought General Electric for 102 days last winter; teamsters who fought the trucking companies and their union in a six-week wildcat this spring; coal miners who sparked a walkout over safety conditions only a week beforehand. These were all no more than hard-fought defensive trade union struggles. But they mark the rebirth of a fighting Iabor movement.

Reformism loads to defeat

The conference was an important event – the first chance for real contact between different groups of militants. But it took a political direction which can only lead to defeat, to reformism, to a miscarriage of the revolutionary movement in this country. The statement of purpose posed the issues in crystal clear terms:

We are a movement in the labor movement. We exist to help build, strengthen and unify it, to help defend it from attacks by the Nixon administration and Big Business, to help democratize the trade unions through the elimination of racism in all forms and by supporting maximum control over the affairs of the unions by the membership.

We are unalterably opposed to dual unionism or anything else that divides or weakens the labor movement. We are unalterably opposed to the anarchistic idea of being against all leadership as a matter of principle. ”

This amounts to nothing more than “build strong unions.” It is precisely the line taken by the Communist party in the late 1930’s “popular front” period. After spending years building the CIO and an “alliance” with Roosevelt and the left liberals, CP activists, in the trade unions were summarily sold out and purged by the very same labor leaders they earlier supported. And there was no revolutionary base in the labor movement to protect them.

Today, the same CP (and middle-level trade union leaders sympathetic to its labor line) did much of the organizing for the rank-and-file conference. They seem to have learned nothing from history, and are determined to repeat it.

The most fundamental mistake is to center on building, strengthening and unifying the labor movement. Lenin provided the most concise answer to this argument. “A trade union policy for the working class,” he wrote, “is a bourgeois policy for the working class.” He explained that trade unions are entirely compatible with, and really nothing more than a logical development of capitalism. They are necessary to carry out “the collective struggle of the workers against their employers for better terms in the sale of their labor power.” Trade union politics are “the common striving of all workers to secure from the government measures for alleviating the distress to which their conditions give rise, but which do not abolish that condition. .”

Since the mid-1930’s the CP has consistently ignored these facts, keeping revolutionary politics clearly separate from the labor movement. Revisionist in theory, it has been reformist in practice.

No class analysis of liberals

The second mistake is labeling the enemy as “Big Business and the Nixon administration.” Today the left- liberal Democrats and the trade union bureaucracy, with very few exceptions, are class enemies of working people. The recent call for wage controls was raised first by liberal Democrats–not by Nixon, and has been endorsed by Meany, The chief Nixon anti-labor proposal (eliminating ratification of negotiated contracts by the workers themselves) was supported by building trades leaders and the AFL-CIO executive committee.

Another example: During the recent nation-wide Teamster wildcat, 15,000 drivers were fired by Los Angeles employers. In his zeal to maintain labor discipline, IBT president Fitzsimmons ordered L.A. strikers to return to work or have Local 208 put under receivership even if all the militants were fired!

The failure to analyze the real class position of liberal Democrats and trade union bureaucrats was clear at the conference. The main political resolution declared: “ .. .we recognize that there are individual Democrats and Republicans who are pro-labor, pro-peace, anti-racist and ant-repression, who merit labor’s support .... ”

Moreover, not only did a representative of Miners for Democracy spend almost five minutes praising W. Virginia congressman Hechler, but newly-elected mayor Ken Gibson of Newark was a noted speaker at the conference. Will Parry, of the Western Association of Pulp and Paper Workers, went out of his way to praise Walter Reuther “in spite of our differences.” Any group, no matter how broad-based it is supposed to be, which .. plays footsie with wheeler-dealers of this type, will never contribute to a real solution of the problems of the working class.

In other resolutions, the Conference did a respectable job of tackling many of the important problems facing trade unions today .– that was, after all, what it was called to do. It asked for united action against the recent Supreme Court ruling permitting court injunctions against wildcat strikes. It condemned Nixon-Meany plans for eliminating membership ratification of contracts. It made detailed suggestions for strengthening the shop steward system. It pledged support to the auto workers in the upcoming negotiations. It demanded nationalization of the railways.

Pacifist line on war

On the questions of the war, black and minority workers and women the conference failed, however, to deal with the real problems. The anti-war resolution called for “an immediate end to the war now, for the immediate resumption of peace talks, for the withdrawal of all our troops by Christmas ... ” and generally took a pacifist position. (“Force and violence as a policy of settling international disputes ... have proven bankrupt.”) This position is positively harmful, for most workers reject a pacifist line (“I had to fight – why shouldn’t they?”). Until workers come to see this as an imperialist war, and to understand how imperialism hurts them, solid anti-war forces among labor will be limited and timid.

Concerning black and other minorities, the conference resolution condemned racism as a “crime against humanity and against each individual who makes up the human family.“ It later explained, however, that racism serves the enemy by dividing workers, and that white workers are hurt materially by giving lower wages to blacks. It was in fact impressive to see white, middle- aged teamsters, construction workers, miners, etc., sincerely trying to fight racism.

But they – and most of the blacks present as well – missed the boat. In the specifics of the resolution, emphasis was continually laid on the “rights“ of oppressed minorities to hold jobs and union offices (rights which are already legally guaranteed to no avail), and did not mention preferential hiring and advancement, or immediate quotas for union leadership.

Most damaging, though, was the support given to black caucuses combined with a hard position against any kind of dual unions. In effect this is a condemnation (and was seen as such) of the League for Revolutionary Black Workers (Detroit), the Concerned Transit Workers (New York) and other groups who have been forced to set up independent black-led groups and to fight the union.

Clearly no one wants to setup dual unions, but today concern about splitting the labor movement over racism is absurd. We are already divided. What white workers must do is to prepare a real basis for future unity against the bosses. This means not only fighting racist attitudes among white workers, but eliminating white supremacist practices in the unions and fighting racist practices of the employers. Until this happens in fact – and not just in paper resolutions – militant blacks cannot be expected to see the use of “allying“ with white workers. And so far it has not happened.

At the conference, Ola Kennedy of the Concerned Steelworkers told how USW president Abel repeatedly refused to talk to them, and how in the Chicago-Gary area blacks were given an unchangeable quota of six union staffers. Even militant rank-and-file caucuses have done little to fight for the interests of black workers, The program of the UAW United National Caucus (distributed at the conference) doesn’t even mention racism, much less make a single proposal to fight it! In these circumstances, it is probable that black caucuses will be a waste of effort in most unions.

The conference’s attack on dual unions affects white workers, too. As more and more the union bureaucracies show their determination to force labor discipline, wildcat strikes will reach epidemic proportions. The real fighting alliances will be done outside the union structure and against union leadership. Caucuses cannot permit that because it opens them to charges of treason. Serious radical workers cannot afford to ignore the unions. But to work primarily inside the union movement is a formula for defeat. In the coming period an important part of radical organizing among workers will involve direct action at the work place, sometimes semi-clandestinely and almost always outside the union structure.

Position on women

The positions taken on the “rights of women workers” were even more clearly “liberal” in orientation. Of course, many good demands were raised, such as for 24-hour child care centers, equal pay, right to any job. paid maternity leave, information on contraception, special measures to fight male chauvinism and advance women to leadership in unions, etc.

But in the more fundamental questions of the social position of women, the conference took the head-in- the-sand CP line viewing the family as a progressive (!) institution. “The family unit is [being] undermined,” the conference resolution stated. “Motherhood for working mothers must be elevated to a respected and honored place in society. . . .”

Another proposal told women workers to be especially active in working for better schools, decent housing, adequate health facilities, etc. – in other words, keep to the’ areas where women have been active for years. The conference condemned the equal rights amendment on the grounds that special protective legislation should be extended to men. One woman even declared on the floor that prohibitions against long hours were necessary so that women could fulfill their family duties.

A woman from the Young Workers Liberation League made a biting attack on the “bourgeois feminist movement,“ condemning it for “trying to castrate men,” ignoring the needs of working women, and splitting the working class. To make the conference complete, dinner was served by women, a rank-and-file newspaper was handed out (Miners’ Voice) with an ad for donations featuring a nude woman, and the only woman workshop leader was for the ... women’s rights workshop! Consciousness on the problems of the oppression of women could have used some raising.

Thus, in sum, on virtually every important issue, the conference took a liberal reformist position. This represents a complete sell-out of workers’ interests. Allying with liberal Democrats, fighting dual unions, defending rank-and-file rights, encouraging black caucuses while opposing “dual unions” and strengthening the family constitute a program for turning the labor movement into a reformist tail of the bosses, their politicians and their labor leaders.

Nevertheless, a militant rank-and-file movement is today both objectively possible and necessary. As a real mass movement, revolutionaries cannot reject it simply because of bad politics. For all its liberal politics, the conference had more real life and potentialities than any number of recent anti-war conferences. Nation-wide conferences like this are an important opportunity to contact other radical workers, and to agitate for socialist politics. At present, this kind of movement is practically the only kind of setting in which such agitation can be carried on.

Workplace organizing must concentrate on fighting the bosses, and the unions will be primarily arenas for class warfare against the labor bureaucracy. Of course, without sustained organizing of action groups at the workplace there will be no possibility of preventing this from becoming a liberal, reformist, CP-oriented movement. But radicals are now beginning to organize at the workplace in significant numbers. What is needed is a real move into the shops, contact with other groups of radicals organizing in the same industry, advanced struggles which go beyond the limits of trade unionism –and a willingness to struggle in mass organizations such as the unions or the rank-and-file movement.