Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Why unite with reformist union leaders? A debate on tactics

First Published: The Call, Vol. 8, No. 22, June 4, 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Letter from a Boston reader

In the March 12 article “Communist Organizing Tactics in the Labor Movement,” statements were made such as “... not every trade union official is reactionary” and “.. .activists have sometimes made the mistake of looking at the bureaucrats as one monolithic bloc...” While two very correct and timely evaluations, these statements run counter to the general line of the CPML as put forth in its Party Program (p. 114), which says in no uncertain terms that “the trade union bureaucrats who currently run the unions are imperialist agents.”

I believe that, at this time, communists must be trying to unite with a very broad sector of trade union officials, particularly those on local levels. My experience has shown me that there are a good number of union leaders of the local unions who are and/or have been sincere fighters, and they can become strong allies. The same is true of some leaders located higher up in the trade union bureaucracy.

The higher one seems to go, the harder it is to find honest and progressive officials willing to take up the fight of the common working person. However, this in no way means that alI the bureaucrats are bad.

Communists are struggling through times which demand maximum flexibility in the policy of tactical alliance inside the labor movement. Communists can win recognition by being the leaders in forming the broadest coalitions possible. Of course, communists cannot throw principle out the window, but let us reexamine what our principles are for a second.

When we form alliances, most of the people and officials who will enter will be reformists. The Call seems to condemn every trade union leader if he is a reformist, and this is wrong.

On whatever level in the trade union movement, communists work with reformists out of necessity. They are all around us.

So all this means that, as communists, we oppose reformism but work with reformists. Reformism is an ideology which provides no ultimate solution to the problems of capitalism. Reformists are people, on the other hand, and people change all the time.

In reading the March 12 article over and over again, I find that The Call is the one holding a “monolithic” view on the officials of the trade union bureaucracy today. Since the guiding principle seems to be that all reformist union leaders are enemies, The Call discusses united front work with union leaders only in terms of exposing these very leaders and of gaining broader access to union membership.

At times, this can be a correct tactical decision made by communists under certain conditions. But not all the time! In other situations, communists must unite in a real way with reformist union officials–with the view towards strong coalition-building and winning a victory. On this side, The Call is silent. The following quotes from the March 12 article paint a graphic picture of The Call’s one-sided policy on united front work:

“Such tactical agreements are made in order to gain access to the majority of the workers who are under the influence of sellout union leaders, so as to later expose and isolate these officials and build the fighting ability of the rank and file.” and

“Tactical agreements may be formed, but only so as to be in a stronger position to isolate and expel all these misleaders later.”

In reading over the above quotes, what union official big or small will want to unite into a coalition according to such terms as laid out? The line on united front work with the trade union bureaucrats sounds more like a plot to kill than a two-sided approach which takes up the pressing need to attempt, when conditions allow, the formation of real and effective unity among certain union leaders.

I maintain that part of the struggle against opportunism is learning how to work with a section of these sellout misleaders, bureaucrats or whatever we want to call the leaders of the trade unions today. But the line of uniting in order to just expose, as a strategy, is totally one-sided and thus unsound.

Coming from a position of relative weakness, the communist movement needs to work in alliance with a broad range of trade union forces in order to not only build our base and extend our influence, but also to win some victories and, perhaps most important of all, to gain much-needed experience.

–A Boston reader

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The Call responds

The letter from our Boston reader makes an important point: namely, that communists do enter into alliances with the reactionary labor bureaucrats not only to expose and isolate them but also to further the unity, immediate gains and fighting capacity of the working class movement.

The Call articles on communist tactics in the labor movement neglected at times to give much attention to this other aspect of building alliances with the bureaucrats. These alliances are formed to strengthen the unity of the working class movement and to assure that the communists do not stand on the sidelines of working class struggles. Rather than get isolated, the communists actively intervene in these struggles even if they are led by reactionaries.

Furthermore, such alliances are necessary because they meet with the approval of the rank-and-file workers in the conditions of the struggle. These workers can only judge who is fighting in their interests through their own experiences and not by propaganda alone.

Finally, it is important to take note of differences within the labor leadership, between different strata and different contending factions. It is necessary to unite with those forces who are real class fighters while trying to win over vacillating elements and isolating the main reactionary leaders.

In the course of making these alliances, however, the communists must maintain their independence and initiative. The alliances should be formed based on the concrete conditions and according to common platforms, instead of, as in an election campaign, on the personality of a candidate. The danger of becoming the tail on the donkey, is always present during the forming of alliances, as some forces did during the Sadlowski election campaign in steel.

In the real world, communists must rub shoulders with reformists every day. It would be absurdly “purist” to maintain that alliances could not be built with reformists for various tactical purposes that include advancing the struggle for a particular demand. This in no way handicaps the communists from being able to carry on the struggle against the ideology of reformism which would keep the working class chained to the capitalist system. Far from it–it better enables the communists to do precisely that.

The communists, however, entertain no illusions about the opportunist trade union bureaucrats. There is a reason why the higher you go in the trade union bureaucracy the more reactionary die-hards you find. These are the most corrupted, most bribed section of the labor aristocracy who owe their livelihood to imperialism’s superprofits and are the main roadblock to the working class struggle. Our long-range aim is to kick them out of positions of leadership in the labor movement and to isolate them thoroughly by building class struggle trade unions.

This is the point that our Boston reader overlooks in his criticism of the CPML program. Without ruling out tactical alliances where necessary to further the class struggle, it must still be said that these top officials who run the main trade unions today, such as Meany, Fraser, McBride and their like, are the bought-and-paid-for agents of the bosses.


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The articles on “Communist Tactics in the Labor Movement” appeared in the Feb. 19 and March 12 issues of The Call.