Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Communist organizing tactics the labor movement.
Part 2–How to expose the union misleaders

First Published: The Call, Vol. 8, No. 10, March 12, 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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How can we fight effectively against the sellout trade union bureaucrats?

Can we utilize splits and divisions within the ranks of the labor misleaders to the advantage of the rank and file?

Is it permissible to form tactical agreements and alliances with one or another section of the union leadership at times? And if so, on what basis can they be made?

These questions form an important part of communist tactics in doing trade union organizing. Without a correct approach to these questions, organizing within the labor movement cannot go forward.

As we stated in the first half of this series (See Feb. 19 Call), our Party’s strategic or long-term aim is to expose, isolate and drive out the misleaders of labor and turn the unions into fighting organizations of the working class. The Party seeks to win the majority of workers to the cause of socialism in the course of the class struggle, in opposition to the pro-capitalist line of the union officials.

While not every union official is a reactionary, the top bureaucrats in general act as bribed agents of’ the capitalists within the workers’ movement. In order to successfully lead the people to overthrow the capitalists, communists must direct their main blow at these union misleaders because they are the chief roadblocks to working-class unity and action.

It is a well-known fact, however, that relatively few workers today think that ousting the likes of AFL-CIO President George Meany from the unions is necessary–or at least few think it is possible to do so. The labor movement overall is in a period of relative ebb, and while scattered outbursts of rank-and-file struggle have occurred in recent years, there is no large-scale effort to challenge the control of the labor lieutenants of capitalism.

While today the stranglehold of the misleaders is certainly strong, activists have sometimes made the mistake of looking at the bureaucrats as one monolithic bloc, and of ignoring the tactical advantages which can be gained from utilizing the splits and divisions within their ranks.

Developments in labor’s fight against President Carter’s 7% wage freeze–the key battle in the coming year–showed that divisions among the reactionary bureaucrats can be very useful to the rank and file.

For example, one section of the union leadership –represented by oil union head Grospiron, the IAM’s Winpisinger, the DRW’s Bommarito and others publicly opposed the Carter wage plan soon after it was announced late last year. Largely, this was because they were afraid of losing their base among the workers if they supported Carter’s plan.

Their opposition stemmed from rank-and-file pres sure within their unions to come out against Carter. Workers were and are angry at the prospect of having to live with double-digit inflation on a single-digit wage increase. Some union leaders knew they “would catch hell,” as Grospiron put it, unless they opposed the wage plan at least in words.

Communists and shop-floor militants made use of these statements of opposition from various union bigwigs, even as they warned against relying on the misleaders to defeat Carter’s “anti-inflation” program themselves. Activists pointed out that only an organized rank and file could bust Carter’s limit.

In local after local, our Party and others helped distribute leaflets and pass resolutions against the wage freeze that used the statements of these union officials to help convince the majority of workers to oppose the Carter wage plan. These labor leaders still have a large degree of influence among the rank and file.

In a number of UAW locals, activists used the public opposition of some of the union higher-ups to generate resistance to union president Fraser’s “critical support” for the wage freeze. Many locals have now passed resolutions and gone officially on record against Fraser’s capitulation to the White House.

The mounting opposition to the Carter wage freeze in the labor movement eventually forced the White House to make some concessions, including the exclusion of maintenance costs on existing benefits from the 7% limit on wage and benefits. Business and government leaders acknowledge that labor’s reaction has “put the Carter program in jeopardy.”

While the split inside labor officialdom over the wage freeze was useful to the rank and file overall, this didn’t mean that the union bureaucrats had changed their sellout nature. Oil union President Grospiron, for example, finally caved in to White House and oil company demands and negotiated a contract in January well within Carter’s 7% guidelines. The union membership was neither sufficiently mobilized nor organized to overturn his betrayal in this case.

We should not only recognize the importance of utilizing splits among the top bureaucrats, we must also at times make tactical agreements and alliances with one or another section where this can be useful.

Such tactical agreements are made in order to gain access to the majority of 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.

The Party’s approach is different from that of the phony “communists” in the CPUSA, who promote their favorite reactionary bureaucrats as part of their “left-center coalition.” Essentially, the CPUSA revisionists claim that they the “left”–should unite with a section of the top misleaders who, according to CPUSA National Chairman Henry Winston, are not “pro-company, pro-class collaborationist elements.”

So long as bureaucrats like Ed Sadlowski of the USWA and Winpisinger of the IAM support “detente,” nationalization and other liberal programs, the revisionists praise them as “working-class fighters.” The “left-center coalition” is their strategy for relying on one section of the misleaders to overthrow the other.

In contrast, communists work to expose the betrayal of Winpisinger, Sadlowski and other CPUSA friends. Tactical agreements may be formed, but only so as to be in a stronger position to isolate and expel all these misleaders later.

Many factors must be considered in making such tactical alliances–the relative strength of the rank and file forces, the particular issue around which an agreement is to be made, the extent to which the misleaders have already been exposed, etc.

How important each of these factors will be in deciding whether or not to form an alliance will vary, depending on the concrete conditions. The main thing to see is that the class-conscious workers enter into them when it’s to their advantage.

If communists refuse united action on a project that is definitely to the rank and file’s advantage, they will find themselves merely standing on the sidelines of the struggle, criticizing while no one listens. Rather, working in such a united front gives communists the ability to help build up the strength of the rank and file and expose the misleaders’ betrayal in a way that the majority of workers can understand.

This lesson was sometimes learned the hard way. In San Francisco’s Culinary Local 2, for example, some activists at first refused to participate in a significant union election that pitted a slate led by reformist David McDonald against the old-guard machine headed by Joseph Belardi.

Some of the activists actively boycotted the election and put forward an independent program. Others passively stood on the sidelines and boycotted, and this was even worse. In both cases, these boycotts stemmed from the activists’ views that strategically neither side in the election represented the interests of the workers.

Tactically, however, this was a sectarian approach. The great majority of workers saw McDonald’s election as a positive step that reflected their demand for a change within the union. So when these militants refused to enter into a united effort to kick out Belardi, in this case, they were really “boycotting” the union membership. This left them isolated from the workers.

After workers criticized them, and after they saw how Belardi’s removal paved the way for the biggest upsurge in rank and file struggle against the bosses in ears, they corrected their approach and joined forces with the Rank and File Committee and others who had backed McDonald. These comrades soon played an important role in the Zims Restaurant strike and other Local 2 battles which took place.

The tactic of forming alliances is not just useful with the reactionary bureaucrats. It is also necessary with those reform elements and honest rank and file workers who, while not agreeing with the communists’ program, are still interested in working together to change conditions in the shop and union.

But while it’s clear that forming alliances with some labor leaders can be useful in fighting for the workers’ interests, this doesn’t mean that communists give up their freedom to criticize these officials or stop waging struggle against them when necessary.

Soon after McDonald’s election in Local 2, for instance, the international union leadership placed the local in trusteeship and suspended union democracy in an effort to quell the rank and file upsurge. McDonald capitulated to the international, hoping he could use the international to keep his membership in line while still hanging onto his job.

Communists and activists publicly criticized McDonald and urged the rank and file to organize itself to do away with the trusteeship. After McDonald was dumped by the top bureaucrats, and in order to keep his influence among the membership from declining further, he made an official apology to the rank and file.

In criticizing the misleaders, including ones we make agreements with, communists should avoid general denunciations and unproven charges. Often this type of “machine-gun exposure” backfires on the revolutionary forces and workers look upon them as sectarians and chronic complainers.

Freedom to criticize–and knowledge of how and when to do so is only part of the independence and initiative which communists exercise within any united front agreement with the labor leaders. There are other components of independent communist work.

During the Sun Shipyard strike struggle in Philadelphia in January, for instance, communists carried out organizational work independent of that done by the local officials they had tactical unity with.

Workers were brought to union meetings by revolutionary activists, even while the union heads tried to keep the members away and uninvolved. And when the local leadership refused to organize any type of mass picketing or strike activity, it was the CPML and others who took the initiative and build a “speak-out” rally in front of the gates.

Activists also carried out independent education work during the strike. The bureaucrats, for example, refused to address the issue of discrimination at Sun Ship. But communists distributed Call articles citing discriminatory practices and calling for unity between the various nationalities of workers. Rank-and-file leaflets explained the need for militant strike tactics and community support while the union heads tried their best to stifle any discussion of these questions. Using The Call and in discussions with the strikers, Party members were able to make advances in expanding the influence of the CPML at Sun Ship.

To summarize this series on communist tactics in trade union organizing, these tactics must flow from strategy. Just as the fight for socialism would be empty and hollow without the struggle for day-to-day demands, so communist strategy in the labor movement must be served by effective and flexible tactics.