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

W.C., Proletarian Unity League

A Letter to the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) on Trade Union Issues: Our Experience in One Workplace

This letter was given to trade union activists from the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) group in Spring 1979. It has been slightly edited for publication.

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Activists had been working in this same shop with the CPML for a number of years. For most of this time differences in approach to the trade union struggle in this shop made cooperation difficult. After weathering several difficult union struggles where CPML and other activists were – practically speaking – working at cross purposes, a couple of people decided to put down in writing what they saw as the political basis for their recurring disagreements – namely the CPML’s ultra-left politics.

Since the time this letter was written a debate has taken place in the CPML about its trade union policies and practice. This debate has included testimony by CPML trade union activists of the destructive effects that ultra-leftism had on their union activities; testimony similar to that provided in this letter. We recognize that, by now, the approach described here is no longer defended or practiced to the extent that it was back in 1978-79. But we hope that these ideas will contribute to present efforts to re-establish Marxist trade union work on a sound political basis.

I am glad that the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist)–CPML –has opened up the pages of the Call to debate over trade union line, and published the June 4, 1979 criticisms from the “Boston Reader.” These criticisms make an important connection between some of the practices of the CPML members and friends, and the line of the CPML. The letter makes clear that statements such as those in the Call series: “Activists have sometimes made mistakes,” must be taken further. We are not just talking about “activists.” We are talking about the pattern of mistakes on the part of the CPML and their associates which corresponds to their leading line. Criticizing random mistakes of individual activists will not uproot the problems within the line and stated policies of the CPML.

I have had the opportunity to work with and alongside the CPML in an important union battle in one shop and one local. In this work I have seen how the “left” trade union line of the CPML has often led to a wrong understanding of what is actually going on, to “left” errors on the part of members and friends on how to function within the unions themselves, and to a weakening of their ability to give good leadership.

There have been changes over time, primarily for the better. However, as you will see, some of the same old problems of “leftism” continue to afflict their understanding and work.

In a union election, a break-away slate ran against the old guard leadership in the Local. One of the incumbents, a militant fighter on the old E. Board, joined the opposition slate and was its most influential candidate. The challenger for President and some of the officers on the slate were center forces; one officer was reactionary, while two others were progressive. None could be considered a part of the labor aristocracy. The slate ran on a limited, but progressive program, including fighting against discrimination and for a more democratic union. The District opposed the slate as a threat to its domination of the Local. The incumbent President featured red-baiting in his campaign leaflets complete with warnings that the communists were trying to take over the Local.

The challengers won by a landslide. But with no thanks to the CPML. On the day of the elections, the CPML was busy handing out their own leaflet entitled: “Beware of the ’Reformers’ who are the other side of the same sellout coin!” They argued that the workers should boycott the elections because there was no real difference between the two slates.

The course of history has proven the CPML wrong. There has developed a good deal of activity in the Local including democratically run membership meetings, a stronger steward system, a newsletter open to the rank-and-file with lively and progressive content, new union committees, and several struggles against racist harassment of union members. Management has recognized the change; they have attempted to fire the progressive Local leaders. The District has recognized the change; they have attempted to discredit and paralyze the progressive activities of the Local. The reactionaries in the Local have recognized the change; they have attempted to expel the progressive leaders, ban the newsletter, and considered decertification. But not the Call. The Call continues to analyze the situation as the “rank and file” vs. the “union officials.”

For example, a Call article describes the walkout of one department as a situation where the “union officials” tried to smash the struggle and were dragged along by the rank-and-file. You would think there were no progressive leaders in the Local and that the Local and the District walked hand-in-hand. This isn’t the case. In fact, one of the officers was the first to call for an emergency meeting of all workers from that department. The stewards and the majority of the Local officers supported the walk-out, and some played a leadership role in agitating to get people to walk out, getting out a leaflet, and organizing other departments and unions in support.

The CPML’s Call for Uncompromising Struggle Against All Reformists

These are not isolated mistakes. They are the product of the line put forward by the CPML in a pamphlet entitled: “Building Class Struggle Trade Unions.” All reformers running for office were seen as sellouts. There was no distinction made between the friends and enemies of the working class:

The unions cannot be revolutionized nor the workers prepared for revolutionary struggle without waging an uncompromising battle against the reformist and revisionist labor misleaders. The bulk of material in the trade union series, therefore, is aimed against these misleaders, because they are capitalism’s main props in the workers’ movement. (p. 2)

This line makes no distinction between various types of reformists – between representatives of the labor aristocracy and honest working class leaders not won to the side of revolution. As a result CPML members have insisted on waging an “uncompromising” struggle against all reformists: against all leaders trying to reform the unions. This has left them no alternative but to stand on the sidelines of union elections when no communists (of theirs) were running. They have had to distort reality in their agitation (such as events surrounding the walk-out) to explain the struggle as a case of “union misleaders” versus the rank-and-file.

How can the CPML expect to build unity with the left-wing leaders in the trade unions if they don’t even acknowledge their existence; or if they explain every good move such leaders make as simply reformists succumbing to the pressure of the rank-and-file? Who do they plan to build unity with in the trade unions if not with the left workers? Who do they plan to win over if not the center workers? The fact is, the CPML has no united front policy for its trade union work. United fronts require the ability to compromise while maintaining communist independence and initiative. United fronts require that we distinguish our friends from our enemies; to unite all that can be united against our main enemy. As long as the CPML refuses to build left-center unity in the trade unions against the company, as long as they continue to see the situation as simply the CPML and the rank-and-file against the sell-out unions and bosses, as long as they see no center forces to unite with, as long as they unite only to expose (forgetting to build unity where unity must be built), as long as they continue in such a direction they will leave the trade union movement in the hands of the labor aristocracy and their supporters. They can dream of the day when revolutionaries and the rank-and-file take over the union whole-hog. But they will have failed to do the patient work of building unity through struggle that will train the working class and organize it, making it actually capable of recapturing the trade unions.

CPML: Representative of the Rank-and-File

There is a popular bourgeois concept of the trade unions as “service organizations.” You pay the union officials to represent you, and you then expect them to deliver the goods. By putting hats on everyone in elected union leadership as trade union bureaucrats, sell-outs, etc., the CPML builds a similar false wall between union leaders and the rank-and-file – only from the “left.” The CPML’s view is that the bureaucrats are pushing us down, but the rank-and-file is surging up. As they put it in one leaflet written well after the elections of the new E. Board: “After time and time again of listening to the union leaders and our bosses tell us not to fight back, we are taking matters into our own hands.”

Now we’re for the masses taking matters into their own hands – and on a scale much broader than local trade union struggles. But when they do it, whether in a single trade union or in society as a whole, the masses need leaders. And when progressive leaders emerge in the trade unions, they generally aren’t content to stand on the sidelines taking potshots. They want to wrest leadership of the trade unions away from the reactionaries in order to strengthen the struggle against the company. This means (among other things) running in union elections and really trying to win. Should communists attack these leaders when they win victories, or should we work closely with them to help the masses “take matters into their own hands?” Should we propagate the anarchist notion that the masses are better off without progressive trade union leaders, or should we fight to strengthen both the progressive character of that leadership – insofar as it really is progressive – and build the masses’ active support for it?

Recently, due to increased attacks from management on the working conditions of the membership and the influence of some agitation and organizing, some of the members of the Local have been doing exactly what the CPML advocates: taking matters into their own hands. This is a good thing: it is good for the people to be organizing in their departments against management’s offensive. At the same time, there was much to be concerned about in this situation. Some workers were interested in fighting for the better-paid workers alone, with the view that they deserved more than other workers because they were more highly skilled. There was a lot of anti-union talk, and talk about decertification or joining non-union associations. Struggles erupted spontaneously on an isolated basis, but no broad union-wide support was organized behind these departments. This weakened the impact of these struggles. The situation provided management with the opportunity to bypass the union, negotiate with individual departments and so build resentment among workers, proving to some the lesson that workers do better without the union.

How did the CPML see its responsibility in this situation? It carried out no agitation to defend the union from management attack, or to counter the prevalent views that the more skilled workers should go it alone. At least as important, the CPML didn’t bother to join in with the progressive leaders to chart a consistent course for the progressive current in the Local. Instead, the CPML contented itself with simply “fanning the flames.” And, as one member bluntly put their views, the disorganization within the union wasn’t “their responsibility” because they had more important things to do.

There is nothing magical about being in union office. When progressives are elected to union office, it generally represents at least a willingness of the rank-and-file to support progressive policies. It doesn’t mean that the people in office can automatically implement whatever line they want to, or that they can be left with full responsibility to organize the union. The more disorganized the progressive forces are, the more the leadership is forced to compromise. All left forces in the trade unions have to shoulder some responsibility here.

As long as the CPML holds to a view that the class struggle in the trade unions is simply a question of the rank-and-file against the “union officials and bosses,” they will liquidate the struggle against different political influences that exist within the working class as a whole, rank-and-file included. Their view implies that the class as a whole (once corrupt leaders are eliminated) is presently willing and able to fight for its own interests. They will continue to speak only to the most left forces, not noticing or working to counteract the drift of middle and backward workers. They will propagate an anarchist view of class struggle that leaders of the reform struggle are always enemies in our ranks.

Defending and Strengthening the Unions

In the CPML’s series on the trade unions, they identify three tasks: (1) exposing the trade union misleaders, (2) raising the concrete demands of the workers, and (3) bringing forward an independent Marxist-Leninist view and recruiting workers to Marxist-Leninist organization. None of these is wrong, but because of the CPLM’s view of the workers’ concrete demands which excludes the very concrete demand for union representation, they have contributed to the disorganization in the union. They have encouraged dissatisfaction with the union by taking a complacent attitude towards anti-union sentiment. They have failed to defend the best fighters in the union against attacks.

Since the new slate got into office, management has attempted to harass those trying to give progressive leadership to the union. Stewards have been suspended, demoted and denied transfers. The most outright attack was the firing of an E. Board member simply for going on a union grievance. This was an attack on the right of unions to represent the workers against management. Even if the union leader had been a reactionary, we should have come out and supported his or her right to represent the worker, and the worker’s right to the representative of his or her choice. In this case, the officer was far from reactionary.

No article appeared in the Call about this attack on the worker’s rights. The CPML’s first response was to say that if one head was cut off, another would grow; that the workers’ real defense was to have a stronger contract committee. It’s true in a very general sense that the working class develops new leaders through struggle. But heads don’t grow on trees, neither do leaders, and the working class is weakened when it loses a leader. Only anarchists think that the masses are able to rise up through their own militancy and that leaders are expendable.

The CPML doesn’t think the working class doesn’t need any leaders. If one of their own leaders is under attack, they are quick to come to his or her defense. So why not the union leaders who represent a broad united front of the workers? Do they think the trade unions have to be revolutionary before they deserve defense? That it isn’t a revolutionary’s job to agitate and organize for the union? Defend the union’s leaders even when they don’t agree with them 100%. Be the union’s leaders?

The CPML doesn’t liquidate all workers’ organizations. They built the Fight Back Committee here for a couple of years, even though the workers didn’t “understand the need for it.” (The notion that “the workers don’t understand the need for if was one of the reasons given for building the contract committee instead of organizing a defense for the fired union officer.) They’ve promoted the CPML itself among the broad masses by putting out agitation signed by the CPML on such “revolutionary” issues as pay for blizzard days. If the CPML doesn’t flinch from promoting their own organization, then why is the union now too advanced an organization for most of the workers to wholeheartedly defend? The CPML must not grasp the importance of unions as the basic organization of the working class. What could be more concrete than the right of workers to union representation? Than the defense of a worker to hold union office? Even on the most narrow grounds, the CPML should be aware that the existence of a union and of progressive forces in the leadership has made it possible for their members to function openly in our workplace without summarily being booted out. All forces (including the CPML) are responsible for rallying the workers to support the union when under attack.

I hope the CPML soon comes to grips with the contradictions of their trade union line; contradictions that argue for working within the trade unions but which leave supporters and members with a wrong way of assessing friends and enemies within the labor movement.

The response in the Call to a “Boston reader” takes a step in this direction: “It is necessary to unite with those forces who are real class fighters while trying to win over vacillating elements and isolating the main reactionary leaders.”

As communists, we cannot hope to win the labor movement to the side of revolution if we are not willing to have united front policies for this work. How else do we expect to be able to move among the varied political forces in the labor movement? The struggle to revolutionize the trade unions will be a battle to win the majority of the workers’ movement to the view that the capitalist class is their chief enemy. To do this, the left-wing of the workers’ movement must be strengthened and won to the need for a party to lead the revolutionary struggle. The left-wing must work with and lead center forces to carry out a clear class struggle program. And the reactionaries must be isolated and thrown out.

It is too simple to think we can isolate the reactionaries by exposing, exposing, exposing. In winning the trade unions to the side of revolution, communists must be willing to defend the unions as well as progressive leaders. We must be willing to enter into united fronts with various forces. Does the CPML agree with this or not? Concretely, the practice at our shop shows the low level of this understanding. If united fronts are necessary, the CPML must clarify for itself with who, under what circumstances and for what ends it will unite with other labor leaders. To fail to answer these questions, clearly and concretely, will doom the CPML’s trade union work to repeating the mistakes we have witnessed here. It will lead to their isolation and further disorganization within the working class. It will mean a further advantage for the bourgeoisie.