Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Tom O’Neil

A communist view – Workers under attack: The struggle to close ranks

First Published: Unity, Vol. 6, No. 14, September 23-October 6, 1983.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

The last five years have not been easy for U.S. workers.

Our jobs are disappearing, wiped out by plant shutdowns and automation. Our unions have lost thousands of members and submitted to humiliating contract concessions. The social programs which roistered our living standards and gave some protection against unchecked capitalist exploitation have been gutted. Some 21 million workers are unemployed or underemployed, and one family in seven lives in poverty.

We now hear from the politicians, the media and the bourgeois economists that the recession is behind us. And so it is: corporate profits have soared in recent months. Unemployment, which hovered around 11% for most of last year, is now “only” 9.6%. This is supposed to be good news: a jobless rate during a period of “recovery” which is higher than peak unemployment during the worst business lumps of the last 40 years! The real message for us in this capitalist happy talk is: what working people have lost in the course of this recession will not be retimed to us, and we will be expected to bite the bullet for years to come.

This is not just a test of our endurance, it is a challenge to close ranks. Yet the unity we seek still eludes us. We need to ask why.

No sector of the working class has escaped hard times. Thousands of workers in basic industry, accustomed to relatively good wages and secure jobs, have gotten a jarring reminder of what too many other workers were never allowed to forget: that economic survival under capitalism is not something you can take for granted. Yet the economic crisis has not “brought us all down to the same level.” On the contrary, those who were worst off to begin with have been hit hardest. Half the Black teenagers looking for work can’t find it. Minority workers who lose their jobs are least likely to find new ones. Minority communities, battered by years of national oppression, are least able to withstand the shocks of mass unemployment.

This is nothing new. For generations, this country has had a large lower stratum of workers who have borne the brunt of each economic downturn. Today it includes Black foundry workers, women electronics assemblers, undocumented Mexicano workers in Los Angeles sweatshops and white workers in nonunion Carolina textile mills. Its ranks contain a high proportion of oppressed nationalities and women who, on top of everything else, are repeatedly blamed for the hardships of the working class as a whole.

Lately, capitalist mouthpieces have been assigning blame with a vengeance. Undocumented and immigrant workers are accused of “stealing our jobs” amid new cries for restrictive immigration laws. Minority demands for justice and equality are represented as attacks on white workers. “Buy American” campaigns put out the kind of crudely racist messages which inspired two white men to murder Vincent Chin in cold blood, and a white Detroit judge to let them off with three years’ probation. Wherever we look, we see the capitalists appealing to the most backward, chauvinist sentiments in the working class – sowing seeds of disunity that will spread like weeds if not vigorously opposed.

The capitalist’s divide-and-conquer game doesn’t end with racist propaganda. More and more, their collective bargaining strategies are calculated to set workers at each others’ throats. They tell union negotiators to write off the jobs of their lower-seniority members if they want to keep the rest of their people working. In effect, this means writing off most of the women and oppressed nationalities. At one Midwest plant, a contract was just negotiated giving new employees one-third what the existing work force is paid for identical work; management hails it as a “revolution for industrial America.”

Plant shutdowns reinforce division of workers along national lines, often targeting centers of minority workers’ resistance. Which auto plants were the first to close? Dodge Main in Detroit, with a predominantly Black work force, and birthplace of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in 1968. Ford plants at Pico Rivera, California, and Mahwah, New Jersey, both with high concentrations of minorities and a history of minority workers’ struggle. GM’s St. Louis assembly plant, home of a thriving Black workers’ caucus, whose members must now transfer either to a lily-white suburb or to a Ku Klux Klan stronghold in rural Kentucky, 300 miles away, if they want to keep their jobs.

Corrupted unions

These conditions lay a basis for a divided working class, but by themselves they can’t make it happen. That requires leadership – or, more accurately, misleadership.

The AFL-CIO hierarchy has been on the ropes ever since Reagan took office. His flagrant attacks on labor, and their own inability to effectively oppose him, have exposed just how weak and ineffectual the top union officials have become.

They have only themselves to blame. Since the end of World War II, organized labor’s political and collective bargaining strategies have been built on the notion that U.S. imperialism would continue to dominate the globe. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, the spoils of empire allowed business to grant generous concessions to certain sectors of the working class – mainly highly skilled craft workers and workers in the monopolized basic industries. In return, union leaders gladly accommodated to the interests of the capitalists.

Those days are gone, never to return. National liberation movements in the third world, growing competition from other capitalist countries and the challenge to U.S. hegemony from the Soviet superpower have broken the U.S. grip on the world economy and brought out all the contradictions in the domestic one. Capitalists can no longer afford the luxury of treating the labor bureaucrats like junior partners, or granting big wage settlements to stronger unions. Now they approach even the most class collaborationist union leaders with knives drawn. Meanwhile, organized labor’s traditional allies in the Democratic Party have all but deserted it, refusing to resist the capitalist drive to bolster profits at workers’ expense.

Opposing paths

Under Lane Kirkland’s leadership, the AFL-CIO hierarchy is fashioning a strategy to rebuild its old power. Put into practice, it would leave the working class weaker and more divided than ever.

The cornerstone of the new strategy is “national industrial policy” – government, business and labor working together to restore American domination of the world market. The federal government would provide loans, tax breaks and subsidies to foster capitalist investment in modernizing run-down industries to stop overseas competitors from cutting into their market. Business would “work with” unions instead of trying to smash them. For their part, unions would hold labor costs down and keep productivity up – on the theory that, as Uncle Sam is able to undersell capitalists in other countries, jobless union members will be called back to work and prosperity will return.

Where does this “patriotic” unionism actually lead? In its campaign to “save American jobs,” the AFL-CIO tries to keep undocumented and immigrant workers out of the country. In denouncing “foreign competition,” it pushes “local content” legislation and similar import controls that would end up destroying more jobs than they create. At the same time, it diverts the struggle against the capitalists, who are responsible for layoffs into a chauvinistic campaign to “make America No. 1 again.” In its commitment to make U.S. business more competitive and hold labor costs down, it implicitly supports the capitalist strategy of pitting workers against each other for a shrinking number of jobs and widening the gap between upper and lower strata workers.

It’s hard to imagine anything more at odds with what we need today. Instead of competing for jobs, we need unity of employed and unemployed. Instead of resigning ourselves to smaller, weaker unions that stake their survival on their usefulness to the capitalists, we need to organize the lower strata, and particularly the undocumented and immigrant workers who are among the most exploited members of our class. Instead of chauvinism and flag-waving, we need multinational unity and an uncompromising defense of minority rights without which such unity is impossible.

Our problem is not just union leaders who take bad stands on particular issues or who lack the stomach for a real fight with the capitalists. We’re up against a broad, carefully thought out political outlook, one which represents a different class interest than our own.

Top union leaders in this country have traditionally seen their own fortunes as tied to those of the capitalists and made it their job to ensure that, as capitalists prosper, those workers with the most bargaining power get a piece of the action. When capitalism falters, they cut their losses and try to help business get back on its feet. Since business profits in this country depend so much on superexploitation of workers in other countries and oppressed nationalities at home, they’ve supported U.S. imperialism and encouraged the division of the U.S. working class along national lines.

The way forward

Scattered in work places, union locals, unemployed committees and coalitions across the country are individual activists who reject this view of “labor’s interests.” Many understand that it must be countered not just with a renewed commitment to militant unionism, but with an attack on the broader class interests the bureaucrats represent. They can see the corrosive effects of white chauvinism on workers’ struggles. They understand that behind each particular injustice lies the deeper injustice of class exploitation, which must be destroyed.

Yet people like this, however dedicated or capable, will be at a huge disadvantage in fighting the bureaucrats so long as the working class lacks the organization and guidance of a multinational communist party.

A communist party could develop a Marxist-Leninist analysis of what is going on in society, draw political conclusions from it and act on them in a disciplined, consistent way.

This kind of Marxist-Leninist perspective has proven valuable in the struggle of auto workers to keep their plants open. Communists and other progressives have been instrumental in raising broader issues and fighting militantly for workers’ immediate demands. They have explained why GM, Ford and Chrysler want to close down plants, not just to expose heartless corporations, but to show how these actions reflected company effort to maintain their power in the face of declining U.S. imperialism.

They were able to cut through the lies about “unfair Japanese competition,” “overpaid workers,” or “temporary economic slump.” They pointed out how shutdowns are actually built into the profit system.

They understood that the exclusion of minorities from unionized, better paying jobs is a big aspect of national oppression in this country. In cases where the threatened shutdown was an attack on Chicano and Black communities, as well as the plant’s own workforce, they were able to build a strong alliance between workers and the Black and Chicano communities that surround the plant.

Actively participating in day-to-day struggles and developing this kind of Marxist-Leninist analysis are two important aspects of building a communist party.

A genuine party will include intellectuals, other members of the petty bourgeoisie and people from all strata of the working class. A communist party must have a base in the lower strata of the working class. Workers from this strata are those who hold down the worst jobs, are represented by weak unions or no unions at all, who have in many cases known not just exploitation, but superexploitation as oppressed nationalities or women. This sector of the class has the fewest illusions about the system and is more inclined towards revolutionary struggle. With a base in the lower strata and guided by Marxism-Leninism, a communist party can unite the entire working class and its allies in the fight for socialist revolution.

We don’t have a party now. Building one is a big job. But it needs to be done – and it is up to all workers who sense that capitalism can never provide them with a decent life or secure livelihoods to see that it happens.

The alternative is to let leadership of the working class go, by default, to people like Lane Kirkland – who can be counted on to lead us, over our scattered protests, down the road to betrayal and defeat.