Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Worker-Student Organizing Collective

The Trade Union Movement: A Marxist Analysis


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l) The Structural Role of Unions Within Monopoly Capitalism

There is currently a fashionable theory among certain elements of the U.S. left that unions have become inherently conservative institutions whose role is to integrate workers into monopoly capitalist society. At best, unions can be a form of social insurance against arbitrary wage cuts and similar practices, but never organs of struggle according to this view. This is true, it is argued, because (A) unions can never become more than economic defense mechanisms of workers, (B) union contracts must guarantee legality on capitalist terms because the contract is inherently a legal document, and (C) through an automatic check off of dues from workers’ paychecks, through a bureaucratic and hierarchical grievance procedure which removes grievances from the control of the rank and file, and through control over information, resources, etc., a bureaucracy inevitably develops and maintains itself largely insulated from the rank and file. Thus, the unions are structurally an appendage of the monopoly corporations; the attitude of Marxist-Leninists and other radicals therefore must be to build dual forms of struggle such as wildcat strikes, shop committees, etc., rather than attempt to reform or democratize the unions from within – so goes this theory.

While there is a great deal of truth in the above picture as a description of the practices of present day trade unions in the U.S., we disagree profoundly with the idea that this state of affairs is inevitable in a monopoly capitalist society. The present sorry state of the union movement in the U.S. is more a product of the relatively low level of class consciousness of the entire working class at this time than it is an inevitable structural fact about unions. Under conditions of greater class consciousness and class struggle, even backward and bureaucratic unions have often been transformed into genuine instruments of struggle and political education. The present ferment and change in the union movement in Puerto Rico, or even the limited degree of the positive political character of the trade unions in the Quebec region of Canada or in several European countries (where general strikes, even over explicitly political issues, are fairly frequent), demonstrates that unions need not be a mere structural appendage of the corporations under monopoly capitalism. And of course further politicization than this within the unions is a necessary and possible step, but it will only occur with the general radicalisation of the class as a whole.

There is this degree of truth in the position we are disputing: unions are indeed first and foremost economic defense mechanisms of the workers – their most natural and comprehensive form of organization.

It is also true that unions cannot take the place of a vanguard whose task is to lead the entire class in the conquest of state power. Unions are to some extent limited by the legal nature of collective bargaining and contracts – although much less in times of acute struggle where there is a corresponding reliance on rank and file power. And the necessary development of a professional trade union machinery within the unions makes the growth of a bureaucracy a constant tendency which will always be with us and which will always have to be struggled against – even in the most democratic of unions.

But despite these limitations, unions – even unions which presently are reactionary – are very important arenas for Marxist-Leninists to work in. This is true for a number of reasons: (A) to refuse to work within the unions is to abandon them to the reactionary leadership of the present AFL-CIO bureaucrats, (B) unions are by their very nature working class in their composition, containing especially the industrial and strategic sectors of the class, (C)

in areas where few unions exist (in the South and among large sectors of women and Third World workers), the organization of unions is a necessary first step in the development of class consciousness, (D) unions are inevitable in a monopoly capitalist society (short of forcible suppression such as fascism) given the objective need for workers to organise to secure even minimal protection and security, and (E) they can potentially serve as major “transmission belts” between Marxist-Leninists and the class as a whole, serving to spread in a mass way the political understanding and practical perspective necessary to move the class forward to its complete emancipation while keeping Marxist-Leninists in touch with the day to day needs of the mass of the working people.

2) The Possibilities and Limitations of Trade Unions in Class Struggle

To understand what is the possible role which trade unions can play in the class struggle, we must be very clear about what their limitations are and what is the material base for these limitations. The first limitation is the almost universal tendency towards bureaucratization. Even the most advanced and democratic unions in countries with a fairly militant and class conscious working class exhibit a bureaucracy, although one which is more sophisticated than the one which presently controls the U.S. labor movement.

Bureaucracy grows from a number of factors. As usual, errors by the left in paying insufficient attention to measures designed to curb bureaucracy play a role, but this cannot in any way explain the whole phenomena. Neither can the low level of class consciousness within the U.S. working class fully explain it, for bureaucracies also control the trade unions in other countries. There are two factors which make a certain degree of bureaucracy virtually inevitable: (A) the inherently unequal position of the working class and the capitalist class under capitalism, making the actual ability, knowledge and time necessary to genuinely and democratically control institutions or to effectively participate in politics difficult if not impossible for the average worker, and (8)the fact that, under all but the most extraordinary circumstances (that is, an immediately pre-revolutionary situation), the capitalist class controls nearly all of the most important resources which make or break the career of an individual labor leader. Through wealth, prestige, a certain degree of power within bourgeois electoral politics, etc., a vested interest in maintaining one’s position within the union bureaucracy is created. This will slowly happen by a natural process to even the best, most honest worker who rises from the ranks through the union hierarchy. Only a class conscious Marxist-Leninist, organizationally and politically responsible to an organized rank and file caucus and without a highly privileged salary and status is likely to be wholly immune to these pressures.

Thus, bureaucracy – the development of a professional core of trade union administrators – is to a certain extent inevitable under capitalism. But this tendency is encouraged by individual capitalists and by the state as a whole. This is because bureaucracy serves to insulate the leadership from the mass of workers and brings them closer to the capitalist class. Through the intervention of the state in the “bargaining process” and through pressure brought to bear upon individual bureaucrats, the natural tendency towards bureaucratization becomes a vehicle for the introduction of capitalist ideology into the ranks of the workers* movement. Hence, the development of bureaucracy goes hand in hand with the development of a philosophy of cooperation with the bosses and “looking out for yourself” rather than for the broader Interests of the workers and minorities as a whole. The rank and file movement must constantly develop strategies to enable them to maintain control over their own bureaucracies.

This problem has been compounded by the growth and development of imperialism, which has pushed this bureaucratic and narrow opportunism in the labor movement to an all time high. When U.S. capitalism became monopoly capitalism, economic investment abroad became a fundamental feature of the system, The excess profits made from these exploitative investments (“superprofits” above and beyond the normal profit rates) are partly shared with an extreme upper layer of the labor force, thus bribing them into an alliance with the capitalist class. This was a conscious strategy on the part of the capitalist class. It served to provide a secure base for the cooperative “labor spokesmen” like George Meany of the AFL-CIO, lent apparent validity to the myth that “mature and reasonable” bargaining policies gave more benefits to the workers than class struggle tactics, prevented the organization of large sectors of the working class and perpetrated internal divisions within the class, such as racism.

The creation of this “aristocracy of labor” meant the development of a sector within the working class, with Interests which are different from those of the mass of workers. Because their privileged position is paid for out of the superprofits of imperialism, they have – at least in the short term – a real interest in maintaining the capitalist system, and in maintaining racism and other reactionary policies. It is this sector which forms the material base for the present “leadership” of the U.S. labor movement.

Today, the aristocracy of labor consists only of the most highly paid, privileged sectors of the workforce, and is mostly based within the AFL craft unions. It has been particularly prominent in the building construction trade unions, which have actively promoted and practiced racism, beaten up anti-war demonstrators, and carried out similar actions which have given rise to the “hardhat” image.

In general, the conditions of life of the labor aristocracy Include the following: (A) privileged conditions of work and control over the labor process to a degree which sets them apart from the typical worker a great deal, (B) such excellent pension, retirement, etc., funds that they have a great deal to lose If their present cozy relationship with the union bureaucracy and the bosses should be upset, (C) a labor market which is closed to the great majority of working people, which discriminates on the basis of race, sex and ethnicity and which operates on the basis of favoritism, giving the bureaucrats almost total say in who will and will not become a member of the aristocracy. Secondarily, members of the labor aristocracy usually have a pay scale in excess of $l7-$20,000 per year (although this is not a primary aspect and should not be applied to certain non-aristocracy sectors where the workers have, through militant struggle, won high wages). Such privileged conditions can only be maintained by paying salaries and benefits well above what can normally be paid under capitalism. In exchange, the labor aristocracy supports U.S. imperialism abroad (such as Meany’s support of the Vietnam War, or the AFL-CIO participation with the G1A in the overthrow of the Allende regime in Chile) and supports racism and other reactionary policies at home which benefit the ruling class.

Even though small in numbers (it constitutes less than 5% of the labor force), the labor aristocracy has an influence all out of proportion with its actual size. Non-aristocracy sectors of the labor movement (for example, virtually all of the CIO unions) have fallen under the influence of the aristocracy. The bureaucrats in non-aristocracy unions, such as the United Auto Workers, the United Steel workers, etc., find their natural allies for their own careerist interests in the labor aristocracy and its unions. While the membership of these unions is not bribed, its present leadership, of course, is. However, these bureaucrats are much more vulnerable than are their counterparts within the labor aristocracy sectors (such as the construction trade unions) since they have little material basis within the membership of their unions for their opportunism. Leonard Woodcock or I.W. Abel are much more vulnerable to rank and file pressure and discontent than George Meany or Peter Brennan of the N.Y. Building Trades Council.

Although a real aristocracy to back up the bureaucrats is lacking in most unions, there is, nevertheless, a core of older, better-paid, often white workers within even the non-aristocracy unions which presently tends to support the present leadership of the unions. Despite their lack of militance, these workers should in no way be seen as part of the labor aristocracy. Their objective, interest is in class struggle and ultimately revolution, but at this point such workers are slower to move in the direction of confrontation and class struggle. This is usually due to heavy financial and family obligations plus a certain degree of security and pensions which the union and its present leadership has won for them. This sector of workers will only move decisively against the present bureaucratic leaders when they are shown that class struggle methods will benefit them on a long term basis, and not just sporadically as now occurs. They must be shown that class struggle unionism will not wreck the union and the few meagre gains that they have won. They will in time become class conscious militants if a class conscious alternative to the present sell-out leadership can be built.

While imperialism and the development of a labor aristocracy make trade union work more difficult, they by no means make it hopeless. We will always have problems of this nature, even as U.S. imperialism declines and begins to attack even the labor aristocracy to a certain extent. But these are problems built into the overall conditions of monopoly capitalism and we will not avoid them by avoiding union work. Instead, we will be abandoning the masses of workers within the organized labor movement to the class collaborationist bureaucrats who presently run it.

Given the above-mentioned limitations, and within the context of the concrete situation within the U.S. (which is decidedly a non-revolutionary situation), we see that unions have a possible positive role to play in class struggle in five different ways:

1. Defend the economic interests of their membership. This is the most “natural” function of the union and one which even the bureaucrats are presently forced to carry out in at least some minimal fashion. A class struggle policy could of course carry It out better than the present class collaborationist policies which presently characterize the unions, but this is usually the most narrow and least political of all the unions* possibilities. Therefore it is the one which even the bureaucrats (and the capitalist system as a whole) are most likely to allow. However, this function must be linked with the struggle for rank and file democracy and control over the policies of the union. (By “class struggle policy” we mean relying on the working class and its own struggles to win anything that is gotten} “class collaboration policies” are those which rely on “cooperation” and “collaboration” with the bosses and the capitalist class to ensure the worker’s interests.)
2. Organize the unorganised. This is a critical task which only a class struggle leadership will pursue aggressively. Organizing the unorganized is important for a variety of reasons including the breakdown of differences within the class or between regions,, and the general beginning of class consciousness which union organizing generally brings – even if only at the lowest level.
3. Fight Racial and Sexual Discrimination. From the point of view of the entire working class, this task is absolutely essential; and of course it will never be taken up as long as the present leadership has control of the unions. This too is a struggle to break down the differences within the class and is of absolute importance not only to the specially oppressed sectors, but to the class as a whole. As the most powerful and natural forms of workers’ organizations, the unions are especially suited to take up these struggles,
4. Take Up Questions of International Solidarity. This includes preventing war moves and Imperialist aggression by the U.S. government, solidarity with the working class struggles in other advanced capitalist countries, and support for national liberation struggles. Very recent examples include union participation in the anti-war movement, the Rhodesian chrome boycott, and the struggles to stop imports of South African coal. Many other issues, such as Puerto Rico solidarity work, Chile solidarity work and support for the working class in recent struggles In Portugal are also examples of what could and should be done. Such issues will only be take up by the unions on a consistent and sustained basis when a class struggle leadership basing itself on a class analysis has replaced the present class collaborationist leadership.
5. Political Education and Independent Political Activity. This would include consistent political education on all of the above four areas, written propaganda on the major struggles of the day, stressing class-wide unity and a union stance on the necessity to break away from the two major capitalist parties (Democrat and Republican). Under advanced conditions where a vanguard Marxist-Leninist party exists, unions can even be won to accept political leadership from it. But the degree of political activity of the unions is somewhat limited and in no way can it take on all the issues that a vanguard party must take on. However, limited political involvement on a broad class basis (such as an instrumental role in the creation of a labor party) could indeed fall to unions, especially as class consciousness grows.

Given the above potential of unions in this historical period, we must then begin to formulate a concrete strategy to transform the unions so that they correspond to their potential. A class struggle policy must replace the class collaboration policy which presently characterizes the labor movement. Such a policy has two corollaries: the development of a Marxist-Leninist party which bases itself primarily among the most advanced elements of the working class, and a general raising of class consciousness among the mass of working people. It is not enough for militants to merely assume leadership of the present unions and implement progressive policies. Such a process must take place within the general revolutionary strategy of a Marxist-Leninist party and with the support, involvement and understanding of the rank and file.


In Its study of the trade union question, the WSOC has attempted to synthesize its own limited experience in workplace organizing with the historical and contemporary experience of Marxist-Leninists and leftists. The conclusions which we draw from such a study must, by their very nature, be somewhat tentative and abstract. This is due to both our own inexperience and to the general lack of revolutionary practice and analysis within the workers* movements of advanced capitalist nations. Thus, strategic principles laid out in this section are intended only to orient Marxist cadre to the basic issues involved in workplace organizing. They should be continuously re-evaluated and developed as our practice grows.

Marxist-Leninists active in the workers’ movement have two broad political tasks. The first is the building of a mass workers’ movement in this country around the principles of class-struggle unionism. The second is winning over the advanced elements among the workers to the principles of Marxism-Leninism and organizing them into a party.

A number of organizations have mistakenly divided the two tasks as if they were polar opposites. Historically, the mistake of concentrating almost exclusively upon building a mass workers’ movement and ignoring the tasks of communist leadership and winning over the advanced workers was made by the Communist Party in the 1930’s under the leadership of Earl Browder. He was responsible for making an alliance with John L. Lewis in order to build the CIO which in and of itself was a good idea. However, the specific type of alliance which Browder built resulted in the CP almost completely ignoring independent tasks and uncritically supporting bureaucrats such as Lewis. This error mistakenly confuses working class militance with revolutionary movement. It assumes that an intensification of the economic struggle for higher wages, etc, against individual employers will, by itself, become transformed into a political struggle against capitalism. This is the error known as economism.

A number of organizations have mistakenly divided the two tasks as if they were polar opposites. Historically, the mistake of concentrating almost exclusively upon building a mass workers’ movement and ignoring the tasks of communist leadership and winning over the advanced workers was made by the Communist Party in the 1930’s under the leadership of Earl Browder. He was responsible for making an alliance with John L. Lewis in order to build the CIO which in and of itself was a good idea. However, the specific type of alliance which Browder built resulted in the CP almost completely ignoring independent tasks and uncritically supporting bureaucrats such as Lewis. This error mistakenly confuses working class militance with revolutionary movement. It assumes that an intensification of the economic struggle for higher wages, etc, against individual employers will, by itself, become transformed into a political struggle against capitalism. This is the error known as economism.

In reaction to this trend, the opposite “ultra-left” error of concentrating almost exclusively on winning over the advanced workers to communism has been committed recently by many small sects and collectives, such as the recent “revolutionary wing” of the Marxist-Leninist movement. Taken in extreme, this practice results in the complete abandonment of mass line and mass practice (for example, a collective working in a shoe factory in the Northwest decided to fight economism by distributing exclusively the principles of unity of the early October League – a communist organization – and Mao Tse Tung’s red book among the workers.)

While they reject this extreme, both the October League and the Revolutionary Communist Party have made serious errors which isolate them in practice. The Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), by its rejection of the trade union as a viable form of working class organization, the strategy of “jamming” the unions and a subsequent reliance on classwide front organizations for themselves, cuts itself off from the arena of struggle where the mass of workers are to be found. Its influence is usually confined to a small handful of advanced workers who are ready to join its “front” groups, (This is far from denying that the RCP is also guilty of rightist errors, such as capitulating to white chauvinism and racism by opposing the special demands of minorities as “divisive”, and economism and “talking down” to workers in their “workers’” newspapers.)

While the October League (OL) still considers unions to be the most basic and primary form of working class organization and an arena of struggle for Marxist-Leninists, it too has taken an ultra-left turn since it criticized itself for its past rightist errors in submerging itself in uncritical support for opportunists like Sadlowski and Arnold Miller. OL’s rejection in its day to day practice of the strategy of the United Front necessarily cuts itself off from the mass of workers. Its slogan of “no united action with the revisionists”, its recent lumping together of leaders like Cesar Chavez with mea like George Meany – in short, its overly rigid and narrow criteria for determining “who are our friends and who are our enemies”, even in tactical respects in effect transforms rank and file groups into anti-imperialist organizations. Again, the result is the abandonment of mass line and the relegation of the great majority of working people to the continued leadership of opportunists and revisionists.

How, then, should Marxist-Leninists approach work in the trade union movement?

First off, as we said in Part I, the trade union is still the primary arena of struggle for Marxist-Leninists, Our primary organizational efforts should be, whenever possible, concentrated in unions. This includes:

1. Organizing unions where none exist.
2. Devising a strategy to win the unions over to class struggle and rank and file control.
3. Raising political consciousness within the context of trade union struggles.

In the U.S. today, the labor movement is under the control of bureaucrats, opportunists and class collaborationists. The basic organisational form needed for organizing within this context is the rank and file caucus. The rank and file caucus seeks to unite all militant workers within the workplace or union around a strategy of class struggle and aiming at the seizure of power within the union. (The idea that rank and file caucuses should remain a “permanent opposition” within the union is defeatist and demoralizing. It stems from either the anarchist mistrust of leadership or the revisionist fear of taking power and thereby exposing themselves.)

Basically, a rank and file caucus is a united front. The principles guiding its structure and organization should be similar to those laid out in the WSOC principles of unity. The level of unity within the rank and file caucus will, of course, vary from workplace to workplace according to the concrete conditions. It should, however, at all times be high enough to allow for the principled participation of Marxist-Leninists, be in firm opposition to racism and sexism, and tend to exclude careerists and opportunists.

At this stage of the struggle the reliance on rank and file caucuses as the primary organizational form has certain definite advantages: (A) it puts Marxist-Leninists and advanced workers into direct contact with large numbers of working people and enables them to develop and articulate a line capable of mobilizing working people in struggle, (B) It allows Marxist-Leninists to make contact with advanced workers and to prove the correctness of their world outlook within the context of mass struggles, and (C) being an ongoing organization based in the workplace, it does not depend upon spontaneous outbursts of militance at one place or another, but rather carries on day to day struggle.

A caution should of course be added against the dual unionist approach. This consists not only in organizing competitive unions but also in focusing a struggle in such a way so that it becomes objectively anti-union or considers the union structure to be a greater enemy than the bosses themselves (identification of union bureaucrats as social fascists, etc.). At certain stages of the struggle, it may become necessary in order to preserve what the workers have won to lead a union out of a reactionary federation or international. This should be done, however, only when the integrity of the organization is maintained.

Besides rank and file caucuses, other types of organization are also necessary both to win over advanced workers and to lead mass struggles. On the shop level, Marxist-Leninists should attempt to set up some kind of ongoing organizational relationship with the most advanced workers. This could include common study groups, “cells” or “fractions” for common consultation on strategy and tactics within a rank and file caucus, and involvement of advanced workers in political struggles outside of the workplace. Marxist-Leninists should also participate in (or initiate where none exist) certain classwide organizations concerned with specific struggles and issues. Organizations such as Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), committees against unemployment, organizations of nationally oppressed workers, etc. are a necessary complement to the rank and file caucus. They enable struggles to be fought around mass issues which are of a wider nature than the immediate workplace. These organizations should be mass organizations and have principles of unity similar to those of a rank and file caucus. Where organizations exist which are controlled by opportunists (such as CLUW), it is usually necessary to organize a caucus or fraction to struggle against misleadership.

Another important organizational form is that of the classwide fightback organization. These organizations ma; engage in support work for strikes or organizing drives, working class political action, work against the budget cuts, etc. In general, they have a somewhat higher level of unity than rank and file groups, encompassing several points of the class struggle program. They are desirable because they bring workers from different workplaces together, articulate the notion of class solidarity and to some extent overcome the danger of economism implicit in a purely trade union struggle.

In initiating such organizations, Marxist-Leninists in the past have committed two types of errors: l) Using these organizations as substitutes for rank and file caucuses. Many organizations, not having cadre in workplaces, attempt to build their ties to the workers from the top down. They set up organizations such as the Alaska Workers’ Alliance which, they hope, will attract militant workers, Without day to day contact with workers however, these organizations attract little more than those who already consider themselves leftists. 2) Using the organizations as front groups or extensions of the political party. The most outrageous example of this error was made by the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), whose Workers’ Action Movement (WAM) embodied almost every aspect of the Party program except the call for the dictatorship of the proletariat. The CL and the RCP have also made similar errors in initiating their various “fightback” groups which are dominated by the party and consist almost overwhelmingly of people who are either party members or on the verge of joining. This approach restricts the base of fightback organizations and “rips off” advanced workers from the mass struggles that they should be participating in.

In our mass work, the question of our relationship to “middle forces” will necessarily come up. These forces include the so-called “progressive unions” (District 1199, District Council 65, etc.) and opportunist and revisionist “rank and filers” leading a struggle against union bureaucracy.

The chief characteristic of all middle forces is their tendency to “waffle”. They are caught between the left and the right – susceptible to pressure from both the working class and the labor aristocracy/capitalist class. This does not mean that all those who vacillate within the workers’ movement are the same. We must begin to distinguish between opportunists and “honest forces”. Opportunists vacillate because they do not wish the movement to assume a class struggle character. They will take a militant position only when constant pressure is applied from the ranks and will abandon that position as soon as it is in their interests to do so. Honest forces are those who vacillate because they do not have sufficient r understanding of the conditions of the struggle. Their identification is with the working class, however, and they can be won over to a class struggle position. We must not reject out of hand the question of unity with any type of middle force. We must be aware, however, of the type of forces with which we are uniting. The type of unity and our practice within a movement should be determined by the class position of the forces involved.

In relation to progressive unions, it would be sectarian to assert that there is no difference between a union such as the Teamsters and the United Farmworkers, There are real political and economic differences between the approaches of progressive and reactionary trade unions. A tactic of limited or conditional support for the leadership of these unions s not a reformist error under certain conditions. Marxist-Leninists also have a responsibility to defend these unions against attacks made upon them by the ruling class. This must be done, of course, within a context of ongoing work which does not neglect the task of pointing out In a non-dogmatic manner the limitations of these unions, the need for a clear class struggle program, and the ultimate necessity of Marxist-Leninist leadership. Under no circumstances should the principle of independent rank and file organization be abandoned (or degraded into the formation of a “loyal opposition” without an independent program or strategy for taking power).

Our attitude toward opportunists out of office should be similar. Under certain conditions (usually when it appears that victory is near) opportunists assume leadership of legitimate mass movements for the democratic control of unions. The bankruptcy of these opportunists is witnessed by the Miller regime in the United Mine Workers which has been using undemocratic methods, capitulating to rightists and selling out the rank and file movement – the only real basis for its power in the first place. But to refuse to work within these movements merely because they are led by sell outs is to isolate oneself from the mass workers* movement. Marxist-Leninists must work within these movements, at times even giving critical support to middle forces such as Sadlowski in his bid for the presidency of the United Steel Workers. Marxist-Leninists must not, of course, spread illusions about these people. They should continue to maintain an independent program and organization. The main question is whether or not rank and file interests and a class struggle approach can be furthered or damaged by such tactical alliances. If we can further our struggle through tactical alliances, we must? always making sure that we are using the opportunists for our purposes, not the other way around.


l) Initial orientation to workers for building organization in the shop

Often Marxist-Leninist organizations or individuals engage in workplace organizing have a rather unclear notion of who they should initially orient themselves toward. If they do have a position on this it often is taken without prior investigation.

Three groups are frequently looked to: l) Black and Latin and/or young workers, 2) opposition forces within the union, or 3) the de facto leadership of departmental and shop struggles which arise on a day to day oasis. Each have important strengths, but the possible limitations of each group should not be ignored so that one fixates on any particular group of workers. Young and nationally oppressed workers are often more open to revolutionary theory because experiences outside the shop have radicalized them. But this does not necessarily mean that they will understand the centrality of the working class in the revolutionary process, or that they will easily see the need to have a long-term, stable organization of a mass character in the shop. The inner union opposition may exhibit the dangers of careerism and the various forms of opportunism. Many a militant leader of intra-union opposition primarily has his or her own career in mind and will sell out as soon as it is adventageous to do so. A person in the third category is one everybody “looks to” when there is a problem on the shop floor – it may or may not be the shop steward. These workers usually have a good sense of collective power and understand the need for broad unity. However, the possible shortcoming here is likely to be a pragmatic and short-sighted political outlook which completely fails to provide the longer term overview necessary to guide the struggle to a higher level of development. Of the three groups, the third probably comes closest to the definition of advanced workers as self-conscious leaders of the class but we cannot ignore the shortcomings. All too often, the workers with the highest degree of general political consciousness are the least involved in the practical struggle and vice versa.

In sum, different groupings of workers are likely to show different strengths and weaknesses. In many situations, the different categories of workers are not all that distinct. But the likely weaknesses of each group of workers cannot be ignored – otherwise one is likely to make costly mistakes, A solid core for either open mass rank and file groups or more advanced study circles should exhibit an openness to a revolutionary analysis of the entire system, be aware of the centrality of the working class and the importance of organization and capable of providing leadership on the shop floor. All of these characteristics must be developed as one of the initial prerequisites for any Marxist-Leninist work in the workplace. It is rare that we would encounter an “advanced worker” in pure form with all of these characteristics already.

A similar warning is in order regarding a fixation on specific tactics as the way to approach and win over workers in the shop. (The RCP’s fixation on the “single spark method” of substituting individual high points of struggle for day to day ongoing work is one example, but many other left organizations share a similar fixation.) For example, the argument that an organizer must always put his or her politics “up front” leads to nonsensical and sectarian ways of organizing. It is a hangover from the student movement with its overemphasis on “winning” or “losing” arguments (which should never be equated with genuinely converting someone to your political position). Likewise, the attempt to pick the “key issues” in a plant has a great deal of validity (for example, the struggle against racism is likely to be a key issue in the majority of large Industrial concentrations), but a fixation on “key issues” irrespective of the consciousness in the plant can be damaging. The issues which are central in the long run may not be the initial issue to start on. In many cases it will be, but the issue which is agitating the workers in the plant has to be taken up, regardless if it is the long term critical issue or not. Of course tactics flow out of strategy and key issues must be at the forefront of our overall work, but we should never let our feelings of moral obligation override our political good sense in picking initial issues of work. Similar warnings about over-reliance on written propaganda must also be made, although again this is a useful and important device.

2) Mass Work and Cadre Building

Here there are two obvious errors to avoid. One is submerging oneself in mass work, open rank and file caucuses, and Issues of broadest scope while neglecting the task of independent Marxist-Leninist work and cadre building to create a strong nucleus of Marxist-Leninists in the workplace. This liquidation of the task of winning the advanced workers to Marxism-Leninism and to the organization is one form of the “rightist” error. Study groups should not be postponed until mass work is highly developed, because this means neglecting the crucial task of consolidation of the advanced (which will eventually hurt mass practice also). And postponement often means long-term or permanent neglect, especially as other things become more pressing.

The opposite error is to concentrate on cadre-building and Marxist-Leninist study circles to the exclusion of mass practice. Often this is seen as a “separate stage” to precede any mass practice or rank and file work. This is virtually always a “left” error; it means automatic isolation and usually leads to a sterile and dogmatic understanding of Marxism since the ideas learned are not being put into practice.

Simultaneous mass work through caucus work and similar forms and cadre building through study circles is the ideal goal. However, given the ultra-left stance of many Marxist-Leninist organizations, we must emphasize that, if at all possible, we must always present a public face which addresses itself to the broad concerns of the masses of workers (through caucuses, mass activities, etc) – which is addressed to both advanced and intermediate workers. There may be situations where mass activity is impossible, but this is not a desirable situation. It should certainly not be our consolidated policy to ignore mass work until we have built up a number of cadre. Furthermore, the best way to reach the advanced and to have a better chance in consolidating with them is by contact through mass struggle. The advanced will only be won to Marxism-Leninism as a living science to concretely solve the problems of the working class if it is demonstrated that it is applicable in mass struggle.

Even among those who understand the above and who therefore build caucuses and other mass forms, “left” errors are frequently made. This Includes setting the level of unity too high so that it is unrealistic, overconcentration on outside or secondary issues, overestimatlon of the support of the masses which leads to adventurist tactics, allowing polemics within the Marxist-Leninist movement to overshadow mass issues, etc. The usual consequence is isolation and this error is most frequently made when one is already isolated because it flows from a lack of contact with and understanding of the level of consciousness of the msses.

The “right” error includes failing to combat racist and sexist attitudes and practices for fear of losing support, failing to fight careerism, “talking down” to other workers, allying with opportunists in a manner which sacrifices principles, “hanging back” and accepting defeatist attitudes, or failing to fight for acceptance of Marxist-Leninist ideas. This error is most frequent when a real influence in a union is possible and the pressure to bend principles in the interest of further support is the greatest, but it can also occur in times of isolation.

3) Union Elections

Union elections can be an important tool for advancing rank and file interests, but only if used correctly. Virtually all serious chances for the rank and file to challenge the bureaucracy today are at the local level, because of how firmly entrenched the bureaucracy and how disorganized the rank and file resistance presently is. Therefore the elections which we will focus in on here are local elections.

Union elections should not be ignored or boycotted as part of one’s general policy, because this means abandonment of the entire union apparatus to the bureaucrats. There are many problems with participation in elections – especially the problem of betrayal and sell-out – but these problems can be dealt with while a boycott policy usually means no use of the union’s structure at all.

The advantages of winning elected union posts center around greater accessibility to the workers as a whole and the degree of power inherent in the position which offers some possibilities to unleash class struggle at a local level. The disadvantages include the likelihood of being tied to the union bureaucracy in some way, the possibility of being put in receivership by the international if you really do use the union structure for class struggle purposes and the possibility of betrayal by a “rank and filer” once elected.

If certain basic methods and objectives are adhered to, the disadvantages can be neutralized or partly neutralized and significant growth in rank and file power can result from participation in union elections. First, the key posts to aim for: l) the shop steward’s position is important because this person Is in the most direct contact with the rank and file on a day to day basis. The shop steward is the first one to handle a worker’s grievance. But his or her position is limited in usefulness if the higher union officials are hostile and bureaucratic. Even the ability to handle grievances can be very limited} a militant steward alone is very vulnerable. 2) Head of the Grievance Procedure (Chief Steward, Grievance Chairman). This is an important position because most of the ultimate power over handling grievances ends here. This is important to help militant stewards and to force other stewards to be more effective. 3) President or Business Agent of the Local. This is the top position in any local – it is most important because the real power rests here, and of course, it is the most difficult position to win. This is the critical post for the overall power of the local to conduct a class struggle policy.

The ability to run for any and all of these positions will depend upon the strength of the rank and file caucus. Contesting for the Presidency of the local will be difficult until some degree of strength is built up. But in any case certain principles should be followed. First, if at all possible, running for a position should be done from the basis of an organized rank and file caucus. Under circumstances that are extremely underdeveloped It may be chat running for (and possibly winning) an elected union position may be a way to build a rank and file caucus, but the best position is to run candidates from an already organized caucusĄ And when candidates are run, the following rules should be applied: l) all candidates must publicly stand on the platform or program of the caucus as a whole. No candidate should be allowed to sidestep controversial issues in the caucus program in the interest of being more broad-based in his or her appeal. This is especially Important in matters of principle, such as a determined struggle against racism. Candidates should be chosen on the basis of their understanding of and commitment to class struggle unionism. 2) part of the caucus program should be around internal union reforms, which will curb the tendency towards reformism and bureaucracy. These include short terms of 1 to 2 years, effective provisions for recall by the rank and file, redaction of union salaries to levels comparable to those of the represented workers, curbs on the use of official union resources for re-election campaigns, etc., and 3) If one or more candidates are victorious, effective measures to continue responsibility to the rank and file caucus must be Implemented. The caucus should never disband or rely on their elected officials to carry the ball. An organized rank and file is the best insurance against sell outs and betrayals by their owncandidates once elected.

Even these measures are not likely to be 100% effective in preventing betrayal by an elected “rank and filer”. The only real guarantee against betrayal is if a class conscious Marxist-Leninist, running from the basis of a highly organized and conscious rank and file, wins. Those are ideal circumstances which will be difficult to approximate until we have advanced the struggle well beyond its present state.

Finally there is the question of alliances. These may be necessary under certain circumstances. If 3 candidates are running – an incumbent bureaucrat, an independent and the candidate of the rank and file caucus and if the independent candidate takes progressive stances, a split in the progressive vote may result In the election of the worst candidate. Under these circumstances the caucus should try to discuss with the independent candidate the setting up of a common electoral front. This will require an attempt to reach unity on the major matters of principle – on the question of class struggles unionism. If this can be done and agreement is reached, the best candidate should be run. If the candidate takes some progressive stands but refuses to accept certain central matters of principle (such as wavering on the question of a determined stand against racism and sexism), the caucus should run its own candidate anyway. Such a candidate will inevitably turn out to be a sell out and an opportunist bureaucrat.

If support for a candidate not in the caucus is in order, the caucus should still maintain an independent perspective and make its support for the candidate contingent and critical, if no matters of difference exist, the candidate should obviously be asked to join and help build the caucus. There are also times when a caucus may not want to (or be able to) run a candidate for every office. In such cases support for other candidates should always be critical, depending on their adherence to basic principles.

In all cases, the caucus must rise above the usual way of running a campaign – on the basis of personalities, being a “nice guy” and so on and so forth – and must use the campaign as an opportunity for mass education on the issues. This may be its most important function even if its candidates lose this time around.

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Worker-Student Organising Collective (WSOC) is a Marxist-Leninist organization based In New York City, We have engaged in organizing in workplaces, against cutbacks in N.Y.C., within the women’s movement, and in international solidarity movements. We welcome comments about and criticisms of this booklet. Other WSOC publications include “Principles of Unity”, “Cutbacks in N.Y.C.”, and a booklet outlining our analysis of women’s oppression is forthcoming. For more information about WSOC, contact us at (212) 866-6758 or by writing to:

P.O. Box 1064 – Cathedral Sta.
New York, New York 10025