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


A progressive movement in labor has never been more necessary. During the 1970’s, the living conditions of the working class steadily deteriorated, highlighting the weaknesses of organized labor and its established leadership. Part of a broad political offensive, both flashy supply-side Republican economics and grand liberal schemes for reindustrialization translate a universal capitalist desire to “renegotiate” the class peace in place with business unionism - at terms even less favorable to the working class. After more than a generation of faithful service to the capitalists, the business unionist labor leadership today finds a ruling class increasingly ungrateful and unwilling to abide by the old understandings.

Discussions among labor activists seem to go from one aching difficulty to the next. But even with its glaring shortcomings, the labor movement, together with the Black movement, still holds the best hope for fighting the right-wing in this country. Labor’s current difficulties added to the divisions in the top trade union leadership. Kirkland and others still sing only of labor’s strengths, labor’s achievements, and labor’s future. But reform currents long associated with unions like the UAW, District 1199, or the UE have spread. Today, a new spirit of political experimentation – tentatively expressed in union participation in activities like Big Business Day and the September 1981 Solidarity Day – reaches into even the upper echelons of the AFL-CIO. This means new opportunities for the trade union left-wing which has long pressed for independent labor politics, for coalitions with other social movements, and for a commitment to anti-corporate alternatives.

A progressive movement of labor needs a progressive movement in labor. Over the next several years, the left will be tested by the challenge of building such a movement. At a time of growing pressure from the right, at a time when the very survival of some unions is at stake, left-wing unionists will be offered chances for long-sought influence or inclusion on powerful slates if they agree to play along. Penalties may grow for defending views that go beyond general progressivism. Left-wing officials will be pulled hard to simply join in with liberal reform currents in their unions. The unions today need the good sense and dedication of the left, but they also need much more from us.

There are encouraging beginnings of a dialogue on the left about the prospects for a class struggle alternative for labor. In recent labor gatherings of the Black left, in last spring’s Labor Notes conference, and in other forums, labor activists from across the country have started to talk and work together against take-away contracts and union-busting, for extension of democratic rights on the job, against Reagan’s economic plans, for justice in El Salvador, for greater union democracy, and other critical goals for the 1980’s. This pamphlet aims to contribute to that discussion. Drawing on some recent experience in the unions, the articles here take as their underlying theme the need to rebuild a left-wing of labor in the 1980’s.

Over the past decade, the continued Cold War cast of official labor’s policies, the ebb of the popular movements, and aggravated economic insecurities did not favor big advances for progressive unionism. Many Marxist activists compounded the left’s obstacles by speaking in apocalyptic terms about the 1970’s economic crisis and the new revolutionary leadership it would sweep in, while ignoring actually-emerging new trends among the trade union leadership. Even so, the Black workers movement of the late 1960’s began a new phase of rank-and-file insurgency in workplaces throughout the country which carried over into the 1970’s. In some places, organizing drives triumphed, caucuses took hold, and left candidates won union office.

This experience of the 1970’s – scattered progress as well as a number of dead-ends – provides a starting point for new efforts on the left today. Locally-based and in some cases fairly limited, the work described here is a product of that period. The articles are examples of our scattered progress. These are working papers about organizing rather than final statements, but they are part of a very necessary self-assertion that left-wing unionists have to make today.

The first article, “Fighting to Win: Left-Progressive Unity in the Labor Movement,” now three years old, summarizes an overall approach to labor work which activists in or familiar with the Proletarian Unity League have debated and taken as a guide in much of their work. It forms the backdrop for the specific organizing experiences detailed in the other articles. “Fighting to Win” draws from a tradition of U.S. socialist and communist trade unionism to argue the vitality of the left-center approach to building a progressive movement in labor. Some Marxist trade unionists have yet to consider this approach seriously and dismiss the idea of left-center labor unity as an ideological abstraction or historical artifact. They argue that we mainly need tactical flexibility in building alliances and a stronger orientation toward those worker-militants most ready to act in any particular struggle or crisis. Beyond that, they are reluctant to articulate a strategy. But after a decade of frequent ups and downs, of unexpected advances and even more unprepared retreats, labor activists are asking, where are we heading? What do the different labor trends represent and what should be our general approach? The left-center approach sketched out here presents beginning answers to these sorts of questions.

Interest in left-center unity policies has grown in response to the problems of a very different but more common Marxist labor policy in the 1970’s - what the author here calls “left leadership only.” The “Letter to the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) On Trade Union Issues” included in this collection records part of one debate that went on concerning an important local reform movement and criticizes the kind of erroneous thinking activists are finally rooting out. Today, the “left leadership only” approach is fairly discredited. During the last few years, in a number of workplaces and labor organizing projects, Marxist activists have been able to open up a productive discussion of these issues and draw back to change course.

The “Fighting to Win” article also gives critical attention to another contemporary problem for Marxist labor work. In the labor movement today, the very real pressure to help achieve some kind – any kind – of labor unity encourages an underestimation of the break needed for progressive renewal. Along with many others, the Communist Party U.S.A. has been most enthusiastic about alliances with liberal-leaning top labor leaders. Willing to accept almost any break with the old Meany-Kirkland policies as the beginning of a progressive movement, CPUSA activists are timid at best about the need for a distinctive left perspective and presence. Admittedly, as “This Company. ..This Union, Shall Not Discriminate...,’” “Notes From a Survivor,” and “Organizing for the Contract Struggle” illustrate, the left still operates in many cases in difficult union situations. But an important goal of this pamphlet, and especially these three articles is to show that possibilities for independent left organizing exist today under any circumstances, if only we can seize hold of them. The need for the left’s leadership could not be greater.

Since its 1950’s origins, each biennial convention of the AFL-CIO has come to order with organized labor’s ranks shrinking. This year’s fourteenth convention will show union workers now comprising only 23% of the total workforce. Whole industries once highly organized have now virtually disappeared from the U.S. scene, while others have followed textiles into largely non-union Southern and Southwestern operations. As this year’s UMW strike dramatized, non-union mines today account for a little more than half the coal produced in the United States. And few unionists share the official optimism that last winter’s J.P. Stevens victory heralds a new turn for Southern textile organizing.

The chiefs of business unionism are finding that despite larger commitments of money and resources, labor now loses as many representation elections as it wins. In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, the unions experienced a wave of growth in the public and service sectors, but the success of those drives owed more to the Black movement than to new ideas from labor itself. Organized labor rails against the highly sophisticated anti-union campaign strategies of modern management consultants, but its problems run deeper.

The trade union movement cannot stand still – it can only go forward or backward. The ease with which the Reagan administration has been able to reinstitute “trickle down” economics in budget and tax programs gives some indication of labor’s backward slide. At the same time, it has given further impetus to renewed labor political action. Unfortunately, even where left activists have built small bases for class struggle unionism in recent years, they have often discounted political action in favor of shop-based economic issues and internal union politics. As labor commentator Stanley Aronowitz has pointed out:

... the “left” tendency of socialists working in the unions has become narrowly economist. . . In practice, the left tendency stays aloof from both electoral politics. . . and political questions that do not directly bear on trade union concerns. It is the union leadership that asks the rank and file for support on such measures as national health insurance, labor-law reform and full-employment legislation. Socialist Review, #44, March-April, 1979.

Today the left shows a new seriousness concerning labor’s politics. Yet, no new labor militancy, whether on contractual issues or in the legislative arena, will sustain itself without a straightforward look at labor’s current disunity and its loss of credibility as a progressive social movement in the post-World War II period.

The AFL-CIO’s 1981 Solidarity Day, for example, promises the beginning of a new coalition effort with the NAACP, Urban League and other Black organizations. In an economic downturn and political crisis such as the present one, where labor leadership must begin - even from its own narrow, corporative interests – to step up the struggle against the capitalists, these alliances become more attractive. But in periods of prosperity, the trade union leadership has turned a deaf ear to the calls of Black organizations for alliances in common struggle, and in both cases has sought alliances only on its own terms. History has proven time and time again that if the left eases up its fight against white supremacy, if it fails to combat resolutely top labor’s opportunism towards the national movements, the labor movement cannot make any durable gains.

The renewed efforts to organize the South are already foundering on this political truth. The trade union movement cannot organize the unorganized in the South without taking the organization of Black workers as the foundation, and it cannot organize Black workers in the South unless it is willing to bring the full power of the Black movement to bear – to transform the economic struggle itself into a social movement. For the trade union leadership, this means an alliance with Black organizations as full and equal partners.

Even where new and serious commitments to organizing the unorganized have been made, the unions’ approaches are typically far removed from the kind of social movement that attracted workers to the CIO, and certainly from the kind of organizing it will take today. Far from recognizing the dimensions of the political problems to be overcome, many labor leaders look at representation elections as strictly business propositions. “It takes about $70,000 in wages and administrative costs to keep one organizer in the field for one year. And there is no guarantee, of course, that the $70,000 will pay off,” commented UMW President Sam Church recently about the challenges of labor organizing today. Decisions if or where to launch organizing drives are based as much on cost-benefit analysis as on a commitment to bringing unionism to the most exploited workers. Unions compete fiercely, for example, for members among the better-paid teachers, nurses and professional government workers. (Liberal labor’s contemporary organizing innovation, the pension fund control movement, has the same contradictory features. In some ways, it challenges corporate power, but it also offers a way to accomplish in business terms what unions have not been able to gain through organizing.) For any labor reform movement, reaffirming the traditional goal of organizing the unorganized is clearly not enough. A top-down trade union movement, stripped of its progressive social thrust, long hostile or indifferent to the Black, Chicano, Puerto Rican and other national movements, slow-starting and half-hearted in its endorsement of women’s emacipation, strenuously anti-communist, off on the wrong track on the new environmental and anti-nuclear activism, and generally fearful of the impulses unleashed by militant mass struggle does not exert the same attraction to unorganized workers as it once did.

For labor to make such a leap, the left will have to offer a kind of political leadership in which nothing from the past is sacred, and it will have to offer it in an AFL-CIO which appears bent on carrying the image it earned for itself in the 1950’s on into the 1980’s. The AFL-CIO leadership has made nominal acknowledgement of the problem of discrimination in the labor movement while repeatedly blocking equal rights activists’ efforts to do something about it. Too often sections of the left have, in turn, backed off and moved on to less controversial issues. ’“This Company. . . This Union, Shall Not Discriminate. . .”’ was selected for inclusion here in part to show that even where the local leadership is fairly reactionary, many white workers indifferent, and the left and equal rights contingent in the union small and not well organized, it is possible to begin, and to win. Another article, “Organizing for the Contract Struggle,” discusses how contract negotiations provide labor activists with an important arena for challenging divisions and inequalities in the unions.

“Fighting to Win” argues that labor’s left-wing has itself been disunited, especially around issues of democratic rights. Without more unity on the left itself, activists will not be able to challenge organized labor’s indifference to the aspirations of the oppressed nationalities and of women. And left unchallenged, that indifference will continue to frustrate the working class and people’s unity so needed today.

The left is not entirely prepared to take on this challenge. The Aronowitz article cited above provides one example. Aronowitz thoughtfully argues for an expanded left vision of labor work, but he never quite expands the discussion to include issues of equality and multinational unity in labor’s ranks. Reviewing the “wave of union militancy that broke out in the heavy industrial sectors in the late sixties,” Aronowitz refers to efforts against plant removals, to movements for union democracy, to the voting down and striking against leadership-negotiated agreements. (Ibid., pp. 20-21.) Conspicuously absent is mention of the Revolutionary Union Movement in auto and similar challenges to racism on the job by Black workers in other industries.

Organized labor’s credibility as a spokesperson for the whole working class has been seriously eroded in the post-World War II era. To succeed today, the left will have to help guide a re-evaluation of a whole series of labor policies which have contributed to this decline. To take one example, public sector unionists are realizing that union leadership’s customary indifference to questions of service and of racist patronage in favor of the familiar union security and union jobs will save neither today. And organized labor’s “Buy American” campaigns have not only expressed a bourgeois chauvinism toward the rest of the world, they have translated into union endorsement of higher consumer costs – not more jobs – for most people in the United States. Another example: recent Bureau of Labor statistics show that the gap between “major union” contracts, generally with some kind of cost-of-living clauses, and union scales as a whole have become larger than the gap between union and non-union wage differences. But the AFL-CIO continues to hail higher union wage scales as an advertisement for unionism, even though for most workers today, they are little more than inflation protection for the few. Despite organized labor’s strident criticisms of corporate abuse, what was once the leading edge of a social movement now often appears to many working people as little more than the self-interested positioning of another bloc. This, then, is the challenge to the progressive movement in labor, and to the work of the left-wing within that movement: to build an alliance in the 1980’s which gives new meaning to working class and popular unity against corporate power.

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These are big issues, and the articles here offer a preliminary assessment of only some of them. They are intended as part of the discussion opening up on the left about labor issues and do not themselves claim to chart the road ahead. The articles are offered by the Trade Union Commission of the Proletarian Unity League from this perspective, and with the hope of eliciting comment and response. On behalf of that committee, we would like to thank those who forwarded to us these and other articles for consideration -both members and friends of the PUL - and those many others who provided critical comments, notes on other experiences, and discussion of the wider issues to aid in arriving at and refining these positions.

Susan Cummings Jonathan Hoffman for the Trade Union Commission Proletarian Unity League
August 1981