Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Labor’s Survival/Labor’s Revival
Working Papers on the Trade Unions

Edited by Susan Cummings & Jonathan Hoffman for the Trade Union Commission of the Proletarian Unity League

Executive Committee of the PUL



Over the past several years, Marxist trade unionists have talked more about “left-center” politics in the labor movement. The “left-center alliance” or “left-progressive unity” was the Communist Party’s general orientation towards work within the labor movement for most of the 1920s and again after 1934. Between 1935 and 1948, the heyday of the left-center alliance, a working agreement existed between the left and the center Lewis-Hillman-Murray leadership of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). When John L. Lewis and several other old-line AFL leaders bolted the AFL in 1935 to form the CIO, they turned to the left and particularly to the Communist Party for experienced militants and organizing expertise. Lewis’ calculated tolerance of the left was an essential component in the ClO’s ability to organize the mass production industries and in turn allowed the left to extend its influence within the labor movement.

The working alliance between left and center in the CIO broke down in several CIO unions during the war, partly due to the Communist Party’s war-time policy of unrestrained cooperation with management. Under the pressure of US capital’s post-war offensive at home and abroad, left-center cooperation virtually ended. In 1949 eleven left-led unions were expelled from the CIO.

But if the Communist Party’s policies during those years constitute the major historical experience in building a left-center alliance in the labor movement, a commitment to developing left-center cooperation in no way implies a simple return to the orientation of that time. Everything depends on the various concrete analyses behind any left-center approach, on the other parts of the plan to achieve it, and, once having achieved it, on work done with that orientation to build up the left in the struggle against the companies, the state, right-wing business unionists and outright mobsters in the labor movement. But even if raising the need for a left-center alliance does not say very much, it does say something: it rejects the policy of “left leadership only.”

The U.S. labor movement has a lot of experience with left leadership only. It has the experience of the Socialist Labor Party’s Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s; it has the experience of the SLP’s split-off from the IWW, and to a limited extent, certain policies of the IWW itself. Despite the positive work of the Trade Union Unity League in preparing the way for mass industrial unionism and in carrying the struggle against white supremacy into the labor government, these tendencies also affected the TUUL, particularly in its neglect of the independent unions which sprang up in the early thirties, and of the right-led AFL unions.

Over the last twenty years, the “left leadership only” policy has shown up in various dual unionist tendencies among Marxist trade unionists, especially among those left of the Communist Party USA – from the CPUSA(M-L)’s own private “union” to Progressive Labor’s dual unionist Workers Action Movement and the RU/Revolutionary Communist Party’s “intermediate workers organizations.” All these experiences prove one thing: where the left-wing has rejected united front policies and stuck to a “go-it-alone” line, it has not been able to build a mass influence for socialism or else has squandered what it managed to win (the IWW). Conversely, where the left has failed to “walk on two legs” in its relation with the center, given up its initiative, and bowed before the center’s attacks on the left, it has contributed mightily to its own isolation and destruction – (CP Policy 1941-47).

In recent years, many Marxists have opposed the very idea of a left-center alliance. They read about the need for revolutionary leadership of the working class, and they assume this means building organizations in which Marxists have the lion’s share of the leadership from the start, maintaining effective veto power over anything that mass organization might do. And they still have that leadership when their so-called mass organizations die on the vine, and they have to set up new ones.

Our criticism of left leadership only policies, does not contradict the left working out an independent program for struggle and fighting to get it implemented. Marxists have to maintain their independence and initiative at all times, and independence and initiative means leadership. But maintaining independence and initiative does not mean always taking independent initiatives, regardless of the consequences to our relations with others. We would like to exercise some leadership in building the united front with progressive workers and leaders, and in building up the influence of the left among them. We reject “left leadership only” because to exercise left leadership over wide circles of the working class, we need to build an alliance between left leadership and center leadership.

Obviously some situations call for the left to strike out on its own. The early struggles for the industrial union principle and the IWW and TUUL experiences reflected this need. When the sell-outs won’t do anything, and potential center leaders don’t have the courage or the foresight to challenge them, the left has to bypass the center leaders and appeal to the center workers despite them. The penalty for misguessing such a situation is pretty severe isolation. But the penalty for not seeing such a situation is also severe: failing to bring out the class struggle alternative, and confusing ourselves with the center leadership in the eyes of the disgusted rank and file. In most periods, only a minority of the union membership takes an active role in union affairs. The active workers include the militant left-wing, the reactionary, firmly anti-communist right-wing, and an uncommitted center. The size, influence and distinguishing characteristics of each section shift. To defend and improve the living standards and democratic rights of the workers and to advance Marxist influence and gain a hearing for socialism, we need to isolate the reactionary, anti-communist influence of the right wing, break its hold over the center, and cement an alliance between the center and the left-wing.

Whoever talks united front in the trade unions can only mean: alliance of the left with the center. No united front policy is possible within the trade unions which is not a left-center alliance. Either a left-center alliance against the right or a right-center alliance against the left: there is no third way.


The left-wing includes more than the communists and most advanced workers – it includes all those workers who identify to some degree with the need for fundamental social change. The relationship of the center, usually liberal-democratic workers to the left-wing is more than the relationship of a broader middle grouping to a relatively more advanced section. It also expresses the relationship between workers concerned mainly with a more militant economic struggle and those who are also concerned with the fundamental political implications of the working class struggle. The right-wing workers, on the other hand, often do not see a need for militant economic struggle and union democracy and actively oppose the demands of the oppressed nationality and women workers for equal rights (including so-called “affrimative action” (Something of a misnomer, since the alternative to “affirmative action” is no action at all.).)

From the 1880s onward, the US labor movement had a left-wing that included workers who belonged to the various left-wing parties (Socialist Labor Party, Socialist Party, Communist Party and others), and also many non-party or even anti-party revolutionary-minded workers (revolutionary syndicalists such as the Wobblies, various groups of workers involved in labor party attempts, etc.). The left-wing has historically stood by three or four major propositions: (1) the need for organizing the unorganized into industrial unions (sometimes into one big union – the IWW); (2) the need for some kind of socialism, understood sometimes simply as the nationalizing of the means of production; (3) the incompatability of the interests of the employers and the workers – the need for militant mass action; (4) independence of the labor movement from the two capitalist parties, which sometimes took the form of an anti-political syndicalism, as during the 1880s and again during the height of the IWWs influence, and other times an independent socialist, communist, or militant labor party. But until the 1930s, the basic program of the left-wing accorded no priority to fighting for the national democratic rights of the oppressed nationalities. In the 1930s and again from the late 1940s to early 1950s, the influence of the Communist Party, combined with the powerful support Black organizations in particular gave the cause of labor, made this a part of the left-wing’s platform. Even then, that struggle often did not have the central importance the issue demands.

By the late 1950s, the historically constituted left-wing of the labor movement was for all practical purposes smashed. In the terms stated above, no coherent left-wing exists today. The lack of a left-wing reflects the weakness of the Marxist and other organized socialist groupings, which in turn reflects the failures so far of Marxists to draw up a balance sheet for the 1945-60 period. While still representing desirable objectives, the old platform of the left-wing is not sufficient. The labor movement did organize decisive sections of the mass production industries in the 1930s and ’40s, so merely pressing on with the campaigns to organize the unorganized into industrial unions does not carry the radical weight it once did. Left-wings within the labor movement have emerged during this period, most significantly the Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM, ELRUM, etc.), but for reasons which require further analysis, they have not sustained themselves. (The RUM repeated some of the common errors of the traditional left-wing of this country: left leadership only in the form of the demand for adherence to revolutionary program. But their isolation from the predominantly white center and right-led workers was fundamentally not of their own making.)

Though small, diffuse, and inconsistent in its anti-capitalist politics, the elements of a left-wing exist in the labor movement today, as they always do. They currently emerge in two places.

The left-wing arises in militant struggle against white-supremacist national oppression, and among oppressed nationality workers. While the best known examples of this left-wing have declined or disappeared (DRUM, ELRUM, FRUM, and HRUM), organizations of the left-wing continue to come together, and the potential revealed by the RUM still exists. Examples from the 1970s have included the Committee for Equal Job Opportunity at the ACIPCO plant in Birmingham, which conducted an underpublicized but extremely significant struggle against the Consent Decree; the STRUT organization in the Chicago/Gary area and the “40-3” organization which challenged the lack of representation of Black workers in the United Steel Workers; and the United Tremont Trades in New York, one of several groups organized in major cities to gain access to construction jobs for oppressed nationality workers. The organizations of this section of the left-wing tend to come together around political issues, (as opposed to trade union reform or the economic struggle); they have a relatively high level of political understanding; and they show a tendency to develop anti-capitalist programs.

The other section of the left-wing emerges mainly in the economic struggle, and often does not have a clearly distinguishable program for the working class and trade unions. It does not generally exist at a national level -groups like Teamsters for a Democratic Union are the exception. This section of the left-wing tends to come together around issues of union reform and fighting the companies (or the government in the public sector). While multinational in some cases, it rarely draws attention to the specifically racist or sexist nature of company or union practices and resists advocating demands and remedies which involve concessions to oppressed nationality or women workers as such. This section of the left-wing often has no definite political outlook, but unlike the center workers does advocate wide-ranging social change and maintains a high level of activity.

The main task for Marxists in the trade unions today is to work for the unity and organization of the left-wing. We have to unite both sections of this dispersed left-wing around a politically left-wing program, with the struggle against white-supremacist national oppression at the core of its agenda. Attempts to unite the left-wing must recognize the split within it and resolve to overcome that split by taking up the demands of the Black and Latino left-wing as the demands of the entire left-wing and the entire working class – otherwise the left-wing cannot unify. Without a left-wing, a left-center alliance is not possible both because no left exists for the center to ally with, and less obviously because little center leadership will emerge with which the left could ally.

Building and uniting the left wing must be taken up in the course of trying to lead the economic struggle. Whatever else they want, left-wing workers want to beat the employers. Because winning requires broad support among the workers, both sections of the left-wing recognize that to gain a following, the left must be ready and able to provide leadership in the economic fightback. Everywhere in the past decade that Marxists have made advances in their work, have established solid contacts, aroused interest in what they say and do, and been accepted as a legitimate voice, these advances have come hand in hand with helping to organize and fight the economic struggle.


The center contains both rank and file workers and officials. The right-wing of the labor movement represents class collaborationism and white supremacy; the left wing represents anti-racist class struggle policies. The labor movement’s center is torn between those two alternatives. When the left-wing cannot pose an alternative, the center workers are largely led by the right, and not by “independent” center leaders, because the center by and large does not have an independent leadership program.

Center leadership is progressive leadership insofar as the center is willing to work on some level with the left-wing against the companies or government. Center leadership may remain anti-communist ideologically and politically (and undoubtedly will for a long time to come); but it must be willing to work with the left. For this reason, the left-progressive alliance is another way of talking about the left-center alliance. (Even the most die-hard red-baiters will desist from attacking the left-wing for a period. They will not work with them, however.)

1. The Liberal Democrats

Since the Vietnam War, and especially since the 1972 elections and the victory of the Miners for Democracy slate, a liberal-democratic grouping has emerged inside the AFL-CIO Executive. Some – the CPUSA among others – consider that grouping together with the UAW as center leadership in the trade union movement today. The presence of four international union presidents – Douglas Fraser, Jerry Wurf, William Winpisinger, and Murray Finley (ACTWU) – in the Democratic Agenda, a liberal grouping associated with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, encouraged these hopes.

Taken as a whole, the liberal-democratic grouping in the AFL-CIO Executive Council and the UAW does not constitute a true center. With the exception of Winpisinger, they are basically a section of the right-wing, but a section with important policy differences with the hard-line business unionists (the Meany/McBride gang).

The line separating liberal-democrats from center progressives is obviously a relative one, and in certain conditions (a militant rank and file in a particular struggle situation, for example) liberal-democrats can act temporarily as center progressives. More importantly, with the emergence of a left-wing, some liberal-democrats will doubtless become progressives. But we should not confuse the liberal-democratic leaders today with progressives. Doing so would lead us to place too much emphasis on building an alliance with them, in the expectation that they will not move to wipe out the small, unorganized left-wing. For the present, the liberal-democrats are not caught between class struggle policies and class collaborationist policies – they are wedded to class collaborationist ones. The UAW’s Fraser calls on labor “to reforge the links with those who believe in struggle: the kind of people who sat down in the factories in the 1930s and who marched in Selma in the 1960s.” But he wants these alliances mainly to strengthen labor’s ability to win the same proposals advanced by the business unionist mainstream. For example, the Federation’s solution to its setbacks in organizing new plants in the South is to seek labor law reform making workers’ support even less necessary to the collection of dues money. The AFL-CIO Executive cannot conceive of an alliance with Black people’s organizations on an equal basis and will not risk building the social movement necessary to overturn Taft-Hartley; it would sooner abandon organizing the South than do either. In the case of the J. P. Stevens campaign, a focal point of the AFL-CIO’s push into the South, the top leadership has soft-pedalled strikes to win contracts even where the union has won representation elections, and is lukewarm about its own nationwide consumer boycott. Instead they have played up “isolating J. P. Stevens in the corporate world,” hardly a militant labor tactic.

But while we should not confuse the top liberal-democratic leadership with center progressives, we should not deny the significance of the fight between the liberal democrats and the business unionists. The struggle between them provides material for the political education of the left-wing and the center workers. It is the obligation of Marxists to concern themselves with every liberal-democratic question, to determine a Marxist attitude towards it, to join with other workers in bringing a practical, working class solution to that problem. For example, it matters to the left-wing whether the National Education Association merges with the business-unionist, openly racist Shanker leadership of the American Federation of Teachers, or whether it merges with the liberal-democratic-led AFSCME, and on what terms. Or whether the UAW rejoins the AFL-CIO and for what reasons.

The liberal-democrats have the main influence over the center, including those progressive workers moving to the left, and including the masses of oppressed nationality workers. Sometimes liberal-democrats indulge in militant rhetoric. They address meetings with “Comrades and friends,” and talk about “class warfare” and the bosses’ cruel drive for maximum profits. Under certain conditions, they will cooperate with progressives and even left-wingers in organizing some mobilization (the April 1975 march sponsored by the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO) or other initiatives (CLUW). When we can ally temporarily with them, we should, especially in their struggle against the craft-dominated business unionists. But in the current period we cannot conclude the more formal kinds of understandings by which we understand the left-center alliance (John L. Lewis hiring open Communist organizers, for example). For now, alliances with the top liberal-democratic leadership are still alliances with people dedicated to driving out the left. They are not alliances with an undecided middle; and they are certainly not alliances with friends.

At the local and regional level today, some liberal-democratic trade unionists are moving towards a center progressive position. Whether temporary alliances between sections of the left-wing and lower level liberal union officials leads to the emergence of new leadership prepared to work closely with the left depends upon a variety of factors, among which the strength of the left-wing itself is sometimes decisive. (Other factors include deteriorating conditions in an industry, what the union’s right-wing does in response, and how narrowly based and unresponsive the current leadership is.)

But center leadership will not only come from liberal democrats. John L. Lewis, whose hiring of Communist organizers symbolized the concluding of the left-center alliance which built the CIO, was an anti-communist business unionist and a Republican to boot. Philip Murray, head of the CIO in the 1940s, began his career as an anti-communist reactionary in the Miners Union. Upon his motion, a communist delegate to the 1923 AFL convention was illegally expelled from the Convention, After Murray became President of the CIO, Foster says that “the left-center bloc was, for some years, even more definitely consolidated, and it became virtually a working alliance.” (History of the CPUSA, p. 348). Yet Murray later presided over and fought for the splitting of the labor movement, the scuttling of the fight against racist discrimination, and the expulsion of the left-led unions.

2. The CPUSA

The further we get into trade union work, the more diverse and mature our ties with trade union militants become, the more we will run into the CPUSA. We have to be prepared for a protracted struggle and understand in practical terms where the CPUSA’s policy on the left-center alliance goes wrong. General criticisms of the CPUSA’s reformism or its support for KGB socialism are not enough. We need to explain why the CPUSA’s labor program fails in its approach to the left-wing, the oppressed nationality workers, and the working class as a whole.

Generally speaking, the CPUSA underestimates building up the left-wing, because it confuses the left-wing and progressive sections. It also adopts an uncritical stance towards the center, and confuses the top liberal-democratic leadership with the center. Indeed, CPUSA policy is marked by a never-ending search for the new John L. Lewis or the new Philip Murray to whom it can hitch its fortunes. In its 1975 policy statement, ’Toward Peace, Freedom, and Socialism,” the CPUSA asserts that “a new, militant Left trend is clearly emerging.” Some of the examples given of this militant left trend represent genuine left-wing activity, such as parts of the Black caucus movement. But most reflect center and liberal-democratic currents, with only secondary left involvement – CLUW, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists of 1975, organizing the unorganized, the challenge to the AFL-CIO’s policy on the 1972 elections from within the Executive Board, support for the UFW. All these reflect generally progressive currents, but do not add up to a militant left trend. The error here, made by more than just the CPUSA, is to mistake increased center-progressive activity and conflicts between the liberal-democrats and the business unionists for a revitalization of the left and an upsurge of the labor movement as a whole.

The weakness of the CPUSA position shows up most clearly in its one-sided emphasis on elections. Union elections show the relations among active political forces; they frequently mark periods of increased trade union activity; they are an important forum for organizing struggle. But the CPUSA attaches a completely unrealistic importance to gaining union office or allying with union officials, as if that in itself will bring about a radicalization of the trade union leadership. This posture leads the CPUSA to serve as an organizational mainstay of the center leadership, particularly at the local level. CPUSA adherents reinforce the center workers’ tendency to pin their hopes on center leadership and avoid “divisive” political issues. In the absence of a coherent left-wing, the center will generally fall prey to the right. So, in practice the CPUSA continually finds itself spurned by a series of leaders to whom it has tried to award the title of progressive leadership.

The CPUSA’s trade union policy has two additional problems. A left-liberal section of the trade union movement today favors cuts in military spending to free up funding for socially useful programs at home. The CPUSA tries to parlay this sentiment into support for the Soviet Union’s aggression around the world. We need to challenge the CPUSA’s emphasis on detente, explain the real danger of war, and show what the people of the United States can do to postpone it. Second, left-wing activists have to deal with the CPUSA’s sectarianism. Sectarianism is by no means restricted to the CPUSA, but because of their expertise and position, they can be very effective at it. Party organizers are often willing to sacrifice mass participation in order to keep control, as the later decline of the Steelworkers Fightback organization attests. They can be vicious in dealing with independent left-wingers, and at times aid the right in getting rid of Marxist activists officially portrayed as paid agents of the company.


Center leadership generally emerges where the left-wing has shown the potential of winning real gains through militant struggle. The left-wing may not actually win these gains and hold on to them; in the absence of an alliance with a significant center, this is usually not possible. (Otherwise, the need for the left-center alliance would not arise.) But the left-wing has to show that potential, particularly in periods not marked by giant upsurges (the immediate post-World War I radicalization would be one such exception). This was the pattern behind the building of the CIO. Conservative and social-democratic leadership (Lewis and Hillman) became convinced of the gains to be won by breaking with the reactionary AFL leadership in part from the experience of the TUUL unions and the independent unions. This general rule also applies to the willingness of liberal-democratic leadership to enter into short-term, informal working agreements with the left-wing, or to simply stop attacking them for a while.

Center leaders generally come from two places today: true reformists like Ed Sadlowski and the “palace guards.” “Palace guards” are former members of right-wing cliques who bolt from their leaders and try to seize leadership of rank and file activity. Jock Yablonski, a former henchman of Tony Boyle who ran against Boyle in the name of increased rank and file representation, and whose murder gave the Miners for Democracy slate a big push is a recent example. Sometimes “palace coup” attempts which do not threaten any real political changes can still make a difference. Though the CPUSA’s estimate of Jimmy Hoffa as the new leader of the center should not be taken seriously, Hoffa’s contradictions with the Fitzsimmons gang provided an opening for Teamster activists to begin to take back their union.

Liberal-democrats take apparently militant stands, and a reformist center emerges from the right-wing for three main reasons:
(a) to secure their own base, which gives some indications of running away from them;
(b) to gain backing for the staging of a palace coup. We sometimes have an interest in giving an independently-based, critical support to this, and always try to take advantage of it;
(c) to wage struggle against the company: this can be for a combination of good reasons (the presence of some class instinct) and to accomplish goals (a) and (b). For example, if a union leader loses a strike, he risks getting dumped at the next election by one of his associates; or if he wins a strike, or emerges as a “militant” local leader, he may have a shot at one of the no-work appointed jobs, or at a district or even International post.

Some left-wing activists assume that every militant statement or action on the part of right-wing or center leadership comes about because they are afraid of losing their base. Further, they assume this base is deserting the leader in question for left-wing class struggle positions. Both of these assumptions are usually false. And the practical conclusions drawn are also often false: that militant talk on the part of the union leadership is a sign of the left-wing’s growing strength.

When leadership takes a militant stance, we have to evaluate the opportunities for some kind of formal or informal alliance for struggle against the company or the government (and with it, sometimes struggle against another section of the leadership). In some cases, activists have failed to maintain their independence and allowed militant stances to pass by without organizing to see that they are backed up either with action (not likely in many cases) or with allowing the left to “help” in building some activity (more likely). But more often the Marxist left has made abstentionist errors. If after a trade union leader takes a step to the left, we continue to pour on the invective and fail to ally with him or her in any way, a united front is impossible. This can take one of several forms.

The know-it-alls: “Well, well, what do you know? What a surprise to see Phil Green call for an organized picket line. . .“or”On Tuesday, we said. . . now loand behold Phil Green has come out for. . .” Sometimes this sort of reminder is immediately necessary, but more often it is not: people remember, and lessons can be drawn at the appropriate time. We cannot come on like we just invented class struggle.

The “watch out” style: “Phil Green has. . . but we have to be on our guard, because we all know Phil Green. . .” “So, Phil Green has finally decided we need an organized picket line. What exactly does he mean by that? This newsletter will keep the rank and file informed on all the new maneuverings of Phil Green. . .”

The “It’s a trick” style: “If Phil Green is a militant leader, I’m Santa Claus.” “Phil Green is trying to fool everyone into believing. . . The more militant he looks, the more dangerous he is.”

If Phil Green can do nothing to gain him some respite from our attacks – short of praising us and calling for all out support for the program and leadership of the True Rank and File Caucus - then he has no reason to take a step our way either to gain backing for a palace coup, or because he sees a way to break with the right and find some more honest place for himself in the struggle. This is all the more true since this is exactly what the right-wing is always telling the rank and file: that the reds are only really interested in revolution, not the union or the wage increases; have nothing to do with them, they only want to use you. Refusing even momentary compromises with leaders making fakes to the left reinforces the “crazy” label the right tries to pin on the left-wing. Abstentionism also prevents us from winning allies in the lower-level leadership (among stewards and officials alike). We are not crystal-ball readers, and ifs often hard to tell whether a formerly conservative unionist is testing the waters to see if the left-wing really is not so crazy and antiunion after all or if he is just faking a little militance.

We always have to work out and maintain our own point of view. But if we never tone down the volume, Phil Green will only step left when he thinks his base is slipping away into someone else’s hands – Phil Green’s secretary-treasurer’s, maybe the left-wing’s – and he thinks that he needs to bide his time before making a move against us. Regardless of what we say in theory, unrelenting attacks on folks like Phil Green mean forswearing the united front from above.

To win a hearing for the left-wing among workers who think that Phil Green is not a bad guy we have to talk to Phil Green, whether before people in meetings or in leaflets. Workers who still trust Phil Green do not trust people who will not make any attempt to get along with him, who talk about him like he works 3,000 miles away, and who never address him in terms like, “Oh, come on, Phil, you don’t really believe that. . .”


The programs of struggle, demands, and forms of organization necessary to build left-center unity depend not only on tactical considerations related to the left-center alliance itself, but also on fundamental questions of socialism in the United States. Among these, the struggle against white supremacist national oppression stands out. To a large degree, the problem of left-center unity is the problem of unity of oppressed nationality and white workers, just as to a large degree uniting the left-wing and raising its leadership to a political level is also a problem of building the unity of oppressed nationality and white workers.

In the 1960s and 1970s the labor movement faced a series of internal challenges. This activity was partly – and is today increasingly – a product of changes in the structure of the US economy and dissatisfaction with the business unionists’ response. But these challenges were also a product of the impact on labor of the Black liberation and other national movements and following them, of the women’s movement. During those decades the labor unions became both a target and a vehicle for these movements. A target because of the business unionists’ hidebound conservatism on issues of equal rights; a vehicle because the oppressed nationalities and women were determined to carry the struggle for equal rights into the workplaces. The labor movement has changed as a result. In the Steelworkers, Electrical workers, and other unions, change came under pressure from sections of the rank and file and the threat of legal action. A few liberal unions, like the Hospital Workers Union District 1199 and AFSCME, responded more directly.

But neither the liberals nor the hard-liners could entirely absorb this struggle, and since the 1960s a rank and file movement has emerged within sections of the organized labor movement. In its organized forms, this movement is split into two parts: the Black caucus movement, which emerged in response to racist discrimination within the workplaces and has ebbed somewhat over the last few years; and what is usually referred to as the rank and file movement which often includes many oppressed nationality workers, but does not lay any special emphasis on the fight against racist discrimination. Instead the rank and file movement usually comes together around issues of union reform and a more militant economic struggle. In some places, rank and file caucuses have developed which have a multinational character and give emphasis to the fight against discrimination. Marxists are frequently found in these.

Rank and file movements express themselves in a number of ways: good contract committees, election slates, single-issue organizations. They may also make inroads into the union apparatus itself, gaining union office, winning seats on the negotiating team, working on union committees, etc. No single organizational form is appropriate to every mass situation; different workplaces have different histories of struggle. Still, a characteristic feature of the rank and file movement has been the formation of caucuses.

When helping build rank and file caucuses, activists generally face two alternatives: the rank and file caucus as the vehicle for the left which then enters into alliances with center forces; the rank and file caucus as the vehicle of the left-center alliance. As a goal, we should aim to make rank and file caucuses vehicles of the left-center alliance. Under current conditions, because the left is underdeveloped and center leadership weak, this will often take the form of left-center unity in struggle – rather than a firm alliance. The program of this left-center unity or alliance is class struggle unionism, summed up in the understanding, “struggle pays.”

In many situations the left-center alliance cannot take a single organizational form. Where an oppositional caucus of center or both center and right forces has grown up, and where a militant Black or other oppressed nationality caucus has emerged on its left, conditions for uniting the left and the center may not exist. Activists should then work within or with the Black caucus, working out programs of united action with the oppositional caucus, while maintaining left organizational independence and initiative. As the left begins to lead the center workers, overcoming the oppositional caucus’ indifference or hostility to issues of white-supremacist discrimination, conditions for a single rank and file left-center caucus can emerge.

The left-center alliance is a contradictory process; building it means handling these contradictions well. If we mishandle them, no left-center alliance will be built. Either the left will not maintain its role as the class struggle alternative, and the center will drift into the arms of the right; or the left will forsake its role as builder of the left-center alliance, and the center will stay with the right. The first problem occurs when a broad alliance topples a corrupt leader, but takes no account of the strategic interests of the working class (notably, of the need for constantly escalating struggle against white supremacist national oppression and against the oppression of women) and the new left-supported leader takes over where the last one left off. The second problem occurs where the left conducts determined, advanced campaigns against national and sex discrimination, but fails to put forward demands which the less committed center can understand and work with; meanwhile the right re-cements its alliance with the center. Standing on the sidelines in a campaign for union reform because the reform leaders do not understand racism is foolish. The point is to bring that struggle to the union reform effort – to use the struggle against discrimination as a way of deepening the content of union reform, and to use union reform as a way of broadening the struggle against racist discrimination.

Rank and file caucuses shouldn’t be vehicles of the left alone. Marxists sometimes build rank and file caucuses as a vehicle of the left to push forward the struggle against white supremacist national oppression. The argument goes that the oppressed nationality workers have been the main and leading force of this struggle in the workplace and any attempt to build a left-center alliance or left-center unity will necessarily compromise this struggle.

The reverse is also true. Except in plants where oppressed nationality workers represent a large majority of the workforce, failure to build up left-center unity usually (though not always) leads to isolation of the oppressed nationality workers. In the League of Revolutionary Black Workers’ case, success came in plants where Black workers made up 60 and 70% of the workforce (Dodge Main and Eldon Axle). Where Black workers made up a definite minority (Ford-FRUM), their work did not score big successes.

Demands around racist discrimination (and around wider class issues relating to national oppression, the oppression of women, or any number of other issues) require the left to act independently of the center in some cases, being careful not to break the alliance unnecessarily. But Marxists, and white Marxists in particular, have a special responsibility to convince the center to make the fight against racist discrimination one of the main planks of the left-center platform. The left-center alliance depends on the success of this effort.

The Marxist left needs to maintain independence and initiative within the left-center alliance. As part of the broader left-wing in the unions, Marxists help the left exercise its independence with regard to the center – to keep the center from straying from the agreed upon program of struggle and to see that every victory or new understanding is used to raise the stakes. But sometimes Marxists also need to exercise their independence and initiative in regard to sections of the left itself. A Marxist program of struggle for the unions goes beyond the general left-wing program. This need comes up particularly in regard to those left-wing workers with a strong class struggle orientation towards the economic struggle but a weak class struggle understanding of national oppression and the oppression of women. Marxist workers must also show that Marxism helps militants remain firm on all issues of principle in the struggle against white-supremacist national oppression and in winning white middle workers to anti-racist positions. Obviously the forms Marxist independence from the left takes differ greatly from those forms adopted in the unity/struggle relationship of the left with the center.

In developing rank and fiie caucuses, Marxists have to watch out for four problems. Each of them reduces the caucus to the revolutionary minded workers alone, or even to the partisans of various Marxist groups.

1) The revolutionary agitation group. It is easy to fall into this error for a couple of reasons. First, many politically sophisticated and radical workers are pessimistic about the possibilities for and potential of mass struggle. Agitation – saying what you think, sometimes degenerating into simply sounding-off – can substitute for mass struggle, since it helps organize the left-wingers’ energies. Second, revolutionary agitation groups develop because of the inexperience and unclarity of Marxists from small organizations with limited other activity or literature. At times, in order to carry out their educational work, they have turned rank and file caucuses into agitation groups and everything into building revolutionary organization. When this starts to happen, we have to remember: if you want the caucus leaflet to put forward a substantially Marxist analysis, one which Marxists could find no fault with, then you must be prepared to have the caucus consist only of Marxists and their sympathizers. But such “caucuses” already exist, and you may belong to one – they’re called socialist or communist organizations.

Work in the workplace and in other mass situations goes far beyond socialist education. The people need ways to organize themselves and struggle against their daily exploitation and oppression. Without programs of struggle, and organizing work to make them a reality, revolutionary ideas cannot take root.

2) Talking to ourselves and doing it ourselves: a version of “left leadership only.” Caucuses remain very narrow, with just Marxists and their close sympathizers keeping them alive. A number of factors account for this widespread phenomenon, including objective ones. Here we want to single out three.

First, some caucuses make the level of unity too abstract and too complicated. This is different than setting the level of unity too high. That also happens, but it’s a bit easier to spot. Making the level of unity too complicated means placing too much and too abstract an emphasis on points of unity and having too many of them. A caucus has to stand for something. But there is a tendency to make what it stands for simply a long list of “points.” A worker faced with this list has to ask him or herself what it all adds up to, what really lies behind the nine or ten points you have to agree to in order to belong to the caucus. The caucus stands for certain ideas, but it also stands – and this is more important – for doing certain things.

Secondly, some caucuses demand too great a commitment of time, particularly at the beginning. All struggle involves sacrifice. But a caucus can only proceed as far and as fast as its members are willing to carry it. Rattling off all the good things a caucus could do or should do, and then passing out the assignments can overwhelm most people with families, ordinary social lives, and balky cars. We cannot make the level of activity higher than the progressive workers will support. Commenting on this problem, the book Two, Three, Many Parties of a New Type? Against the Ultra-Left Line says:

From the excitable perspective of petit-bourgeois revolutionaries, everything needs to be done today, and if the masses aren’t ready to do it, we should do it for them. In a situation marked by a low level of spontaneous mass struggle and the continuing strong hold of bourgeois reformism, this voluntarism quickly results in the Marxist-Leninists monopolizing effective leadership functions in mass activities, which in turn leads to the complete exhaustion of overextended cadre. But most importantly, it means depriving the masses of their own political experience in setting a direction for their own revolution, (p. 170)

Third, and this can be subtle – the combination of the first two points, the level of unity and the level of activity. In order to operate effectively in a caucus, you have to understand the points of unity, and their relevance to both the content and the level of activity. To decide on what to do, you have to be at home with the level of unity, be able to explain the necessity for some course of action in relation to it. The more involved the “points of unity,” the higher the level of activity, the more you have to master in order to do anything effective within the caucus, or feel you really belong there.

3) Pet tactics or issues. This refers to the practice of going into mass situations, including caucuses, with one or two prefabricated demands or tactics and demanding that the caucus act on them. Judging the success or failure of a caucus solely in relation to direct action and orienting all work around direct actions is one example of this. PLP made another variant of this famous with their “30 for 40” campaigns. It reaches the level of the absurd when one organization insists that workers adopt the demand “Work or Wages” as opposed to “Jobs or Income Now,” simply because another group is identified with that slogan.

4) Affiliationism or endorsementitis. This affliction results in trying to subordinate almost all work in the rank and file caucus to getting it to affiliate with this or that Marxist-sponsored workers organization, or to endorse their march, their conference, etc. Affiliationism and endorsementitis sabotage the work of building left-center unity in two ways. First, they complicate and raise the level of unity of the caucus, and complicate or raise the level of activity requried. To belong to the caucus then means agreeing with affiliation to an unfamiliar organization many people consider too radical for them or it means agreeing with a slew of endorsements. People wonder whether you have to put up with this kind of thing in order to work with the caucus. Second, these things draw off much of the left wing’s energy.

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In conclusion, our general task is to gain a real foothold in the working class, and establish communism as a legitimate current in the labor movement in the eyes of most workers. A legitimate current means workers who deserve to be heard, to have a chance to put forward their views and programs for struggle, and not just be shouted down or ignored. Marxists’ best chance for this lies in the left-wing workers, who are most likely to take what they say seriously. So they have to seek out this left-wing, which is today dispersed and disunited, join with it and help it organize itself, raising its perspectives to a revolutionary political level. To do so, Marxists have to win a hearing for their views, both from the working class as a whole and from the left-wing (because the left-wing will only listen if they see that the Marxists know how to gain a hearing from the same people the left-wing wants to move). And much of the left-wing and other workers will only listen where Marxists put forward a recognizably labor point of view - a perspective on how to build the economic fight-back. That doesn’t mean we limit ourselves to the economic fight-back, but only that we have to put forward our views and plans for that, or few people will listen to anything else. Leadership in the economic fight-back is essential – without this the Marxists will never gain a hearing. But without political leadership on issues like segregation and racist terror, the oppression of women, war and peace, and national independence, leadership in the economic struggle will come to nothing.