Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Communist Party, USA (Marxist-Leninist)

Principles, Structure, Movement: The Building Blocks of Revolutionary Unionism


First Published: Unite!, Vol. 6, No. 21, November 15, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The young woman brought her case to the Conference on Union Democracy, recently held in Detroit. The union rank and file had elected her and others, on a militant ticket, to the leadership of a hospital workers’ local in the capital. The SEIU International had promptly placed the local in receivership, trying to block the election. Now, after a lengthy struggle, the woman had regained her office and was asking, “What structural changes must be made in the old unions to build new fighting unions?”

Indicative of the fact that the revolutionary opposition within the reformist trade unions has not fully grasped a new program of revolutionary trade unionism, the answer did not come easily. When it did, it came in pieces. From one corner came the answer, “New faces in high places is not enough. There must be structural changes.” From another corner, “Structural changes are not enough, there must be new principles as well.” And finally, “principles and structure are not enough, there must be a movement built upon them, an ongoing movement, not just on this issue or that, but a movement for a new unionism.”

One month ago, UNITE!, expressing the views of the CPUSA/ML, discussed the principles of revolutionary unionism (as presented for example, by the Trade Union Action League). It spoke to the necessity to organize the unorganized, build trade union and multi-national unity, and to pursue the independent political goals of the working class in the struggle against the system of wage slavery. In this second article, the Party will discuss important directions for the struggle to build a revolutionary trade union organization, the kinds of structural changes that a revolutionary trade union opposition must fight for within the reformist unions, and the kind of structure that would characterize a democratic, revolutionary trade union.

A whole new apparatus must be built in order for unions to serve the rank and file. This effort has three main directions. First, building the union organizations, on the basis of power residing in the rank and file, governing the relationships between the rank and file and their leaders, and guaranteeing the fullest union democracy; Second, the rank and file must be mobilized to actively participate in their unions. And thirdly, trade union unity must be built, transforming the labor movement from its weak and disorganized state into a single, organized center nationally and internationally.

A new and democratically elected leadership must emerge from the revolutionary movement against the capitalists and their treacherous mouthpieces who now hold our unions hostage. An end must be put to the privileges and special powers which attract traitors to office. Union officers must receive the same rate of pay as those they represent and no more. They must be prohibited from holding government or corporate positions. Restrictive qualifications for candidacy must be removed, such as the anti-communist clauses and outrageous length of membership requirements, so as to enable the most qualified to run on the basis of their class stand and revolutionary program. Even more important, the fullest trade union democracy must be extended to the rank and file, enabling them to choose their leadership. At present, for instance, in the giant United Steelworkers, democracy is gutted by a rigged election system which perpetuates the tenure of the treacherous McBride clique. Further, shop stewards must be elected, as must the editor of the union’s newspaper, so that these positions will become extensions of the will of the rank and file, rather than mouthpieces for the policy of an isolated clique of officials. Of course, all union officers must be subject to a recall procedure which is accessible to the rank and file.

Second, every effort must be exerted to organize and mobilize the rank and file. It must be admitted that to a large degree, most union members are not mobilized, not committed to a union which they feel is their organization. Such a rank and file cannot successfully carry on the militant mass tactics that are so necessary today.

Most importantly, the actual waging of the struggle against the capitalists must be taken out of the company’s offices, must be taken beyond the secretarial (and ineffective) processing of grievances to be waged on the shop floor where the rank and file can participate. In addition, a committee system should be instituted to bring the rank and file into activity, to build commitment to the union. Social committees, health and welfare committees, committees for real political education, committees of public review of union finances, a women’s committee and a committee for the rights of national minority workers and for the implementation of affirmative action programs, are some of the methods of mobilization.

These committees cannot be like the empty shells that exist in many unions today. For example, political education committees in most unions simply tell the rank and file how to vote and collect money for capitalist politicians. A real political education committee would elaborate a continuing program of educational activities aimed at winning the rank and file to the principles of revolutionary trade unionism and to meet the demands of building a mass political movement.

In addition, contract negotiations must be opened up to the rank and file, democratized, and the right to collectively discuss and ratify a contract must be guaranteed. These and other rights should be concretized in a Rank and File Bill of Rights which would be the foundation of any union organization.

Third, a glaring fact about the present structure of the trade union movement is that it is numerically weak and divided. Not only are the majority of workers outside the unions today, but the existing unions are disastrously divided. The revolutionary opposition within the reformist unions must place a high priority on the goal of trade union unity. In order to increase the fighting capacity of the working class, we must fight to organize all workers into a single trade union center. The process of industrial organization, begun in the ’30s must be continued and brought to completion. The domination of the small craft unions in the labor movement must be ended. They must be joined to the giant industrial unions whose “unskilled” majority must be in control of the new union center. In the process of welding the union movement into a single organization, regional labor councils might be built, out of all unions, to actually lead the struggle in a particular area. These councils would come together in a series of strategy meetings to which representatives of all sectors of the trade union movement must be drawn. In the revolutionary trade union movement in Spain, for instance, representatives of all major industries and areas of the country meet once a month to plot strategy against the capitalist class!

New unions must place a priority on organizing. First, organizing their own membership beyond the collection of dues, to a commitment to a program and organization which they view as their own. Also, the section of the class in unions, a mere 22% (the lowest figure in decades) must be increased. For this reason, the unorganized and unemployed workers must be targeted, for they are the vulnerable underbelly of the trade union movement.

No single union can undertake such an effort, which points up the need for trade union unity all the more. In the process of building a single trade union center, the national movement must be put in the closest contact with the international revolutionary trade union movement, a development which will be a mighty weapon against the multi-national capitalist corporations. Only in this way will the labor movement be able to meet the political tasks demanded of it by the attacking capitalist class. And in this way will arise the experience which will make the working class capable of some day exercising workers’ power, of ruling the country, after socialism is won.

These are some of the structural changes we must fight for in the labor movement today, in order to implement a revolutionary program and build a new movement. Further, revolutionary unionists cannot be satisfied with the limited precepts of “building the new unions with the shell of the old”, or its opposite, “to hell with the old unions”. Revolutionary unionists should concentrate efforts at building a revolutionary opposition within the reformist unions, while never limiting our activity to the traditional channels of the existing reformist trade unions. Naturally, all such efforts will meet with the stiffest opposition from the traitors within the unions, the reformist union bosses, as the experience of the young woman from Washington points out.

A wealth of tactics must be developed to build a massive opposition within the existing trade unions and to organize the unorganized workers. The CPUSA/ML believes that the Trade Union Action League is taking an important first step in this process.

The work of the Party in the factories and in the trade unions, aims by both propaganda and action to win the workers to the struggle for revolutionary unionism and for socialism. That is why we support the building of the revolutionary trade union opposition and fight for structural reforms so necessary to implement a winning program for the working class.