Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Rod Such

Radical forum: What strategy for steelworkers’ no-strike fight?

First Published: The Guardian, November 13, 1974.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The following contribution to the Radical Forum by Guardian labor editor Rod Such is a reply to the letter that appears on this page criticizing his Oct. 2 report on the demonstrations at the Atlantic City convention of the United Steelworkers union. Such discusses the two-line struggle that has developed in the new communist movement over the question of work in the trade unions.

Guardian readers are encouraged to submit articles to the Forum on a wide variety of subjects from many ideological perspectives. Articles should present a strong point of view, avoiding sectarianism and sloganeering. Send manuscripts [typed, triple-spaced, 2000 words or less] to the Guardian, 33 W. 17th St., New York, N.Y., 10011.

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The misrepresentations and slanders in this letter are still another unfortunate indication of how self-satisfied sectarianism stands in the way of principled and forthright ideological struggle. Although a declining trend, this kind of distortion of the political line of other new communist groups remains a major barrier to the struggle for clarity needed to build a new communist party.

The Sept. 23 demonstrations outside the United Steelworkers convention in Atlantic City, N.J., did reflect a two-line struggle within the communist movement over the strategy and tactics necessary to defeat the no-strike Experimental Negotiating Agreement (ENA) in basic steel. Significantly, Blumberg does not mention that this struggle also centers around the consent decree, an agreement between the union, the Justice Department and the basic steel industry, which claims to eliminate race and sex discrimination in the seniority system.

A self-criticism of my coverage of the Sept. 23 demonstration (Guardian, Oct. 2) was my failure to bring out these differences. I also incorrectly tried to unite the two demonstrations which objectively had little in common. This subjectivist error was compounded by liberalism, which failed to take seriously the need to expose and defeat ultra-“leftism.”

Blumberg is correct in asserting that the two positions differentiate those who hold a narrow trade-unionist and reformist view from those who uphold a revolutionary, class-conscious strategy. Only Blumberg has the two sides confused. At the same time, it should go without saying that this two-line struggle does not occupy the center of the debates which do take place within the rank-and-file steelworkers movement. The view held by Blumberg is entirely on the periphery of that movement due to the fact that the Revolutionary Union (RU) has effectively isolated itself as a result of its own ultra-“left” sectarianism.


The two demonstrations had entirely different origins. The first was conceived at a May 26 convention in Chicago which drew nearly 150 steelworkers from all parts of the country, bringing together representatives of nearly all the major rank-and-file caucuses in steel, with the exception of a caucus organized by the revisionist Communist party. These included the Rank and File Team (RAFT), based in Youngstown, Ohio; the National Ad Hoc Committee, a caucus of Black steelworkers also based in Youngstown; Steelworkers for Equality, a Black caucus at the Bethlehem Steel plant in Sparrows Point, Md.; and the host organization, the District 31 Committee to Defend the Right to Strike. The October League (OL) also organized extensively for the conference.

The conference succeeded in its effort to unite the various rank-and-file forces and it established its basis of unity around the slogans, “Scrap the ENA” and “Smash the Consent Decree.” It announced plans to demonstrate outside the union convention and some of the caucuses urged participants to win delegate seats there. Ed Mann, a veteran steelworker and a leader of RAFT, observed that it was the largest national gathering of steelworker activists since the dues protest movement of the 1950s.

The RU boycotted the conference by calling a demonstration against union president I.W. Abel in Milwaukee on the same day, a demonstration which drew a handful of steelworkers, mainly RU cadre. In an apparent reference to the conference in the July issue of Revolution, the RU newspaper, RU wrote that the Milwaukee action “stands in sharp contrast to what other forces have put forward as ways to defeat the ENA, such is forming paper national organizations or committees, passing resolutions and concentrating on electing a few delegates to the upcoming union convention.” The RU later initiated a late-August conference to map its own plans for a demonstration at the union convention.

“There’s nothing wrong with sending anti-ENA delegates to the convention,” the RU wrote in July, “but it is a big mistake to conduct the struggle against the ENA according to the ground rules set up by Abel and the union bureaucracy he controls. We can’t ever rely on a few delegates or union officials–we have to build a fighting rank-and-file movement.”

I don’t know of any groups or organizations or individuals attending the Chicago conference who ever put forward the view of relying on delegates or union officials to get rid of the ENA. The RU seems to think that the idea of relying on the rank and file was born with them. But it just isn’t so. Unfortunately, the RU believes that any efforts to pursue a dual policy of “unite with, struggle against” in relation to union officials or delegates is in direct contradiction to relying on the rank and file.

The essence of the RU’s “strategy” is nothing more than sloganeering. “Build a fighting rank-and-file movement,” it says; “Build a mass conscious fighting workers’ movement,” says Blumberg; “Delegates to the convention, break from that rotten traitor Abel and join us on the picketline and rally,” reads a leaflet written by the Committee to Smash the No-Strike Deal, an RU-initiated group. This is all very fine but how is the RU going to do it? They’re going to demonstrate wherever Abel goes and as for the union convention, well, Abel can have it.

Did any of the Chicago participants who got elected as union delegates seriously believe they were going to overturn the ENA at this union convention? No. Did they see it as an opportunity to educate other steelworkers and bring them into the struggle, to expose the antidemocratic and class-collaborationist character of the Abel leadership, to make valuable contacts at these once-every-two-years conventions which bring together union members from all over the country and from every industry represented by the union, not just basic steel? Yes. Of course, the “ground rules” were in Abel’s hands, but these rules are a measure of Abel’s weakness and when invoked, rank-and-file delegates have a good opportunity to learn from their own experience, as well as from the left’s propaganda work, that the union leadership does not intend to let the membership chart the union’s course. And, in fact, this is precisely what happened when Abel refused to consider a roll-call vote on the unpopular dues increase resolution.

The attitude the RU took towards convention delegates is significant. An RU leaflet passed out at the convention said they could unite with those delegates who oppose the ENA and the consent decree. But what about those who are honestly unconvinced? The RU has a convenient excuse for not taking up this difficult educational task. It said they could unite with those delegates who oppose the ENA and consent decree is to act as a “pressure group.” Instead, the RU will rely on the rank and file. How does this differ tactically? The RU is beginning a petition campaign among the rank and file for one thing. But how does the RU explain that the groups it slanders for not relying on the workers long ago gathered over 10,000 rank-and-file signatures on anti-ENA petitions?

The RU and Blumberg like to pretend that there are two diametrically opposed views over who constitutes the forces in opposition to the ENA. One view, according to the RU, seeks to confine the struggle only to steelworkers, while “their” position is that the ENA represents an attack on the entire working class and all working and oppressed people must be rallied against it. The Chicago participants represented some of the most advanced and conscious forces within the Steelworkers union and it doesn’t take much more than a militant trade unionist to understand that “an injury to one is an injury to all” or that bosses don’t like strikes and would like to use the example of the ENA to do away with them altogether. But apparently some believe that this idea sprang originally from the brow of the RU leadership.

There were differences within the Chicago conferences (a second one was held Aug. 17) over the makeup of the planned demonstration. Some groups feared that if the demonstration did not consist mainly of steelworkers, it would give Abel a convenient handle to try and discredit the rank-and-file movement by charging that it has no support among steelworkers. Even this view, however, did not deny the importance of rallying other workers. It was a question of where to place the emphasis. In any event, the central slogan agreed upon for the demonstration was, “Dump Abel, End all attacks on working and minority people.”


The RU maintains that its position goes beyond a narrow, trade union perspective by showing the ENA is a preparatory move for an attack on all working people. But this position is entirely compatible with trade union consciousness and, in fact, fails to grasp the essential significance of the ENA. In the late 1920s Georgi Dimitrov put forward the Marxist-Leninist view of why the monopolists attempt to impose compulsory arbitration, exposing these schemes as part of the fascist danger inherent in state monopoly capitalism, an attempt to transform the trade unions “into organs of bourgeois state power.”

In 1937 William Z. Foster warned, “Many employers . . . believe that the halcyon days of the open shop are about over and they think that the best way to cripple the unions would be to force compulsory arbitration and other forms of legal control upon them. ... all of which tend in the general direction of state-controlled -fascist unions.” The ENA threatens to transform the United Steelworkers into little more than a company union and it represents a fascist assault on the democratic rights of all working and oppressed nationality people.

Besides belittling the importance of exposing Abel’s sabotage of union democracy, the RU has also played down the struggle against the racist consent decree. It mistakenly sees the consent decree as an effort to divide steelworkers by allowing Black and Latin workers to bump white steelworkers out of higher-paying jobs. But the consent decree is nothing more than a racist hoax, an effort to maintain the Jim Crow status quo by keeping the rigid, discriminatory seniority system which has left Black, Latin and women steelworkers locked into the worst and lowest-paying jobs.

In the pages of Revolution, the RU has failed to show why a plantwide seniority system is in the interests of both Black and white steel workers and on the question of “bumping” it sides with white chauvinism by refusing to take up the special demands of Black and Latin steelworkers against past and present discrimination. The consent decree retains “line of progression” seniority, which means minority workers with many years seniority will stand little, if any chance of gaining their rightful place ahead of white workers with far less seniority.


The Sept. 23 demonstrations, both the morning rally, which drew 100 people, and the afternoon rally, which drew 150, offer important lessons to the new communist movement. Both showed that the communist forces active in the two rallies still lack a mass base among steelworkers. To the extent that the morning rally was able to achieve unity among the rank-and-file caucuses, however, it points the way forward to the task of consolidating an organized core of rank-and-file activists capable of building a mass struggle against the ENA and consent decree. To unite all who can be united will require winning white workers to take up the special demands of the oppressed minorities as their own. This is the only way to defeat the company and union ploy of “divide and conquer.”

So long as the RU continues to follow its present course, it will remain standing on the sidelines in its “pure” isolation while empty calls to action amount to nothing more than decapitating effigies of I.W. Abel. Headless puppets mean very little unless combined with a policy of mobilizing the rank and file to move the unions to the left and driving the labor aristocrats out of the labor movement. And sloganeering will not win the advanced workers in this struggle to seeing the necessity for a new communist party, the principal weapon the steelworkers need today.