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


The task of building up and unifying a left-wing in any union is protracted and does not proceed in a straight line. Reactionaries will not stand by quietly as the left builds working relationships with other progressives. Rarely does the left have the opportunity today to win one victory and just move on to the next. For longer or shorter periods of time the left may be forced to turn its attention to beating back attacks by the right-wing in the union.

The right-wing still has considerable power at all levels of most unions. Even where it has faced setbacks and defeats in elections, it will likely remain active, working for its return. The old guard will attempt to aggravate and play upon divisions in the union between skilled and unskilled, men and women, and especially white and oppressed nationality workers. It will try to build up a base of support among more privileged and more conservative union members; it will threaten and coerce progressives so they will not work with the left; and it will at times cooperate with the company in rearguard actions intended to destabilize the situation in the union – through decertification drives, time-consuming and financially-draining legal challenges, etc. In this way they hope to keep the challengers busy shoring things up rather than pushing ahead.

These notes draw out some tactical guidelines about how to deal with right-wing attacks. The lessons are based on experiences in a very conservative shop where the left had been tiny and the Local had not had a militant, progressive grouping active for many years. Nevertheless, the tactical lessons laid out should prove useful in many other situations. The article does not concern itself with issues and activities relating to building up the left per se. Obviously the left will not survive long if it is never able to gain momentum around a program of struggle against the employer. This article focuses on how the left can survive and even prosper in a highly defensive situation.

The attacks on any left-wing union official will come, sooner or later, from the right-wing in your union. Weathering – and besting – those attacks can be a disaster, a waste of time, or an opportunity to maintain and solidify the left-wing’s ties to the workers. It all depends on your tactics.

Our experience in one shop with such attacks has been a little more intense than the norm. Over the course of a single year, the left had to fend off several major attacks by union reactionaries – all targetted at unseating a single left-wing union officer.

Without going into too many specifics regarding the various attacks, charges and responses from us, we can assure you that they were generally well-planned and coordinated and that each responded to a real effort to organize the rank and file behind progressive change. Following the tactical guidelines summed up here, we turned back each attack to the advantage of the progressive forces.

(1) DEFINE THE ISSUE. DONT LET THE RIGHT-WING DEFINE IT FOR YOU. When right-wingers go after you, they will try to frame their attacks in terms most favorable to their position and most damaging to the left. In many cases the issue the right focuses on is a very minor matter – a red herring – intended to draw attention away from, or to undermine, left initiatives. The worst thing that the left can do is to let the right define the issue and spend all of its time defending itself on their terms.

Shortly after he first assumed union office, this particular Local officer was attacked for giving certain information to rank and file workers. Local leaders decided this was antiunion activity and tried to get rid of him. We managed to redirect the public debate from whether the specific information had been given out to whether a union officer’s duty is to keep the membership informed of their rights as well as their obligations. In a second case, he was attacked when he publicly acknowledged the privileged working conditions enjoyed by a certain small, favored section of the workers in the plant. But activists refocused the issue on the destructive effects of favoritism on the union and the need for a regulated job promotion system and away from the issue of whether union members should be criticized by union officials.

The rank and file is often confused during the initial stages of a right-wing blitz, and will want to know the “other side” – our defense to the charges. But it’s easy to misread what people are asking. Often their question is not so much “Is it true?” as “Why are they saying this about you? What’s really at stake here?” Workers who can provide the necessary cushion of support against these attacks may start out liking and respecting parts of what the unionist under attack has done, while having a somewhat negative, if fuzzy, opinion of the old leadership. To turn back an attack we need to clear up this fuzziness by defining the issues under attack.

This does not mean saying: “I am being attacked because I represent a whole new type of unionism” or some similar pompous rhetoric, to which workers will undoubtedly respond: “This guy is weird.” The starting point should be – what prompted this specific attack? What is the issue that people are interested in? Make that your issue and urge your co-workers to take it up and do something in your defense.

(2) DON’T PUBLICIZE YOUR MISTAKES. LEAVE THAT TO YOUR ENEMIES. Sometimes in the course of a struggle or a campaign activists make an error in judgment or don’t have the facts exactly right. Because the left prides itself on its honesty, activists may feel compelled to publicize their mistakes to the union membership. But honesty is one thing and naivete another. When the right-wing is breathing down your neck it’s no time to go around beating yourself for your shortcomings.

Put first things first. Keep things in perspective and don’t let your mistakes become the issue. Second, when right-wingers are out to get rid of you, don’t admit anything – certainly not in writing – that you don’t need to. In questioning your activities before a union trial board the reactionaries are rarely seeking a “just determination of the facts.” They are too busy measuring your neck size. So don’t give them any more rope than you have to. Sure, if the right-wing is likely to be able to prove a factual mistake, you’d better not go around proclaiming it isn’t so. But the thing to remember and to remind other people of, is that your factual error, your false step, does not change the basic problems you were trying to deal with in the first place.

When attacked for giving out certain information to the rank and file, this left-wing officer did not say one way or another whether he had given it out, since he regarded the whole attack as a pretext. When attacked for publicly criticizing certain privileged workers – a situation which the company seized on – our friend refused to concede that he had made an error in judgment, though if he had it to do over again he would have done things differently. After you’ve weathered an attack is time enough to assess your mistakes and open them up for discussion with rank and file workers.

(3) RED BAITING IS AS EFFECTIVE AS YOU MAKE IT. Defining the issue under attack presupposes that people will listen to you. And that presupposes that you have done your job as a union official in all ways: that in addition to organizing struggle around what you think important, you strive to give real meaning to the notion of union service on all the small, everyday items from shop floor grievances to insurance problems. If you have done this – and if you have made progress on your organizing issues, using tactical sense and winning new people to see their stake in these issues red baiting simply will not be an effective weapon in the hands of the right. The members will allow you to define the stakes.

Our experience in a deeply reactionary shop – one of the worst in the area – confirmed this. The masses look at the record to determine if someone fits their notion of a good trade unionist. In a very threatening situation, complete with coordinated company and union attacks, right-wingers plastered red-baiting flyers all over the plant. Yet despite the absence of any well-organized left, many workers got angry with the set-up in progress. The red-baiting campaign backfired as many workers saw it as confirmation of what we had been saying – that the right was more interested in railroading the opposition than in defending the interests of the union membership.

A word of warning. Don’t forget that you are under attack because some people figured that you were in a weak and defensive situation. Nine out of ten times they’re right. Don’t think you can “turn things around” by suddenly coming out of the closet by publicly acknowledging your full political credentials as a left-winger, socialist, communist or whatever. If it hasn’t seemed possible up until now to function as an open communist or socialist trade union official, the height of a red-baiting campaign is probably not the time to start.

(4) SHOOT A BEAR WITH A SHOTGUN AND YOU HAVE AN ANGRY BEAR. SHOOT A BEAR WITH A RIFLE AND YOU HAVE A GOOD DINNER. In other words, pick your target carefully, and when you make your move, go for the jugular. The workers will respect you, your enemies will respect you, and you will, as the commercial says, feel good about yourself. But choose right and shoot cleanly.

When you develop your counterattack, figure out who is the most vulnerable among the enemy forces, and who may be useful to you later on. If you hold forth with ringing broadsides against all officialdom – or even all of the right – you might as well forget it. Again – if they didn’t think they had you, they probably wouldn’t have attacked. Ifs your job to splinter the enemy, not give him new allies.

Look hard at the situation. You will not always want to attack the leading opposition. In one unusual situation, a moderate in the leadership led an attack on us. But we steadfastly refused to attack him, concentrating instead on the (in this situation) uncommitted Local president, who had the power to determine the disposition of the charges. Why? Two reasons. For one, the president didn’t like this other official either, and would just as soon make him look like an ass by dropping the case against us. We knew this and so attacked the president for even considering pressing the charges. Second, and just as crucial, we assessed our attacker as honest; someone who we could and needed to work with down the road. So we avoided attacking him directly and simply put out a “progression of facts” flyers on the case which made him look silly. People started coming up to him asking what the hell he was trying to do. He walked away from the case feeling that he had made himself look like a jerk. He is now a staunch ally of ours on the Local committee – but would have never forgiven us a grudge if we had gone after him.

In a second situation, the overwhelming majority of officials went after our official, but our attack concentrated on a single, relatively puppet-like individual caught in a compromising position around the case. This allowed the union hierarchy to make this individual a scapegoat and slide out gracefully as we gained backing among the workers. It also made another union official who we never named, but who was caught in that same compromising position eternally grateful to us.

(5) STICK TO THE FACTS: LET THE MASSES DRAW THEIR OWN CONCLUSIONS. This is not to say that we shouldn’t express and fight for our opinions in the course of a defense. We should. But don’t characterize the opposition as reactionaries, suck pumps or what not. They probably are, but, particularly if they are union officials, the masses don’t like to hear it – they’d rather say it themselves. You come away with a certain air of decorum and (if it’s true) of being someone interested in preserving some semblance of union solidarity.

(6) YES, MOBILIZE THE MASSES. In a defensive situation, it’s critical to mobilize mass support. And when you’re weak, ifs even more important to mobilize support effectively – to stretch your dollar and gain the most mileage out of what you can do. The most critical task initially is to create an atmosphere that will retard the momentum of the attack and allow you to walk around and agitate in confidence. In one situation, our official was literally watching out for his life for a period of about a month, in and out of the shop. It took us awhile to realize that we were not reaching people effectively because we felt terrorized by the right – and that where large numbers of workers aren’t involved, ifs difficult to feel inspired to a spirited defense. This is a cycle of anxiety and depression that needs watching. You may have to be very careful in some situations about what agitation to develop, but you cannot afford to be intimidated from agitation itself.

We found that varied tactics, low level tactics, any tactics that the workers would take up were necessary. Do not engage in tactics that do not have a good – very good – chance of success. A failure will put the scent of blood in the reactionary wind.

Marshalling sentiment against your “target is enormously effective, even if it only means having all sorts of sincerely confused center workers bombarding him with questions like, “Why don’t you just let the guy do his job?” In one case we forced an attacker to stay on his job for close to two weeks. He was afraid of the constant interrogations and stayed in hiding. Other successful tactics included a signed letter of support, rallying select groups to go to union meetings, a broad petition. We found it useful to avoid predictability, and instead hit and run, enlisting unexpected sections of the workers. In one instance, we were attacked for taking up a fight against white chauvinism, and responded by concentrating on getting white middle-of-the-road workers to sign a general petition of support for our work. At the same time, we made some real inroads on agitating around the issue at hand.

Overall, our most important tactic was the shopworn agitational flyer. Make it snappy. Make it factual. Make it hurt.

(7) WHERE YOU CAN’T FIND SUPPORTERS, AT LEAST FIND SUPPORT. There are situations where active support may be hard to come by. But there are other kinds of support. Sometimes getting someone not to do anything can be a form of support. Especially when we are under attack, we need to bring all positive factors into play while minimizing or neutralizing the negative factors.

In our situation, we could build very little support from other union officials until the company actively and openly joined with the right in the union. But we didn’t let this stop us from seeking out and finding certain contradictions in the union leadership to play on. Particularly if you have a reputation for being bold yet flexible in your tactics you may well be able to convince some far-sighted reactionary to sit out a particular struggle; or a more moderate right-wing official to actually lend you a hand behind the scenes. For example, when some organizing work we did had aroused the wrath of the right, and they were out for our friend’s blood for his role in it, we intimated to the District reps that if they didn’t put the lid on the Local leadership, then they had better start boning up on the “conspiracy to violate” laws. They knew from experience that we weren’t bluffing, and things settled down soon afterwards.

(8) “LET’S HAVE IT OUT WITH THESE M-F’S RIGHT NOW!” NO, LET’S NOT. You’ve done everything right so far. Their case is virtually destroyed, their “facts” crumbled by your brilliant defense. Workers have rallied to your side, inspiring you, as they say, to move on and roll over.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you’d better forget it.

As your defense forces build, some left-wingers may begin to murmur that we should switch over to the counter-offensive. (And make no mistake, the tit-for-tat thrusts you’ve made up until now were no counteroffensive, but a demonstration that you could hit back when hit first.) This is an exhilarating, inviting and dangerous sentiment.

Workers have rallied around you because you were under attack. They have watched your work and are willing to struggle so that you can continue it (or, in rarer cases, to participate with you in its continuation). This is a good sign, a vote of confidence, but don’t get overconfident.

The “Take ’Em On” Syndrome assumes two forms. In one, the workers urge you to force the trial, have the hearing or showdown or whatever, so that they can go up to the hall and show those bastards once and for all, etc. This is merely another variation on the “the worse it gets the better it gets” theme. You don’t want a trial. You don’t want a hearing. You want this business dropped so you can get back to work. That’s your mass line and your bottom line. You may have support at the trial, but why give the reactionaries another battlefield, one they’ll be likely to control?

A second possible scenario is to want to go on to “seize the initiative.” This, too, is generally a mistake in situations where we are fighting for survival. You are weak and they are strong. You may have demonstrated the capability to sustain a defense, but that doesn’t mean that your forces will now move to mount an offensive. If you had been capable of organizing as strongly for an offensive, you probably wouldn’t have been in this situation in the first place, right? And while the process of defending yourself from attack may have solidified some support, remember that that support is qualitatively different from the sort needed to lead an attack of your own.

A final word on this point. Part of your defense forces are there simply because they don’t like union members attacking other union members (including or especially officials). As you agitate for your defense, remember to frame things in terms of the advantage the company is gaining from the situation. After all, your real objective is to get back on the track and advance against the company policies that prompted the attack against you in the first place, isn’t it?