Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

David S. for the Trade Union Commission, PUL

Political Action in the Labor Movement: Beyond “Trench Warfare”


First Published: Forward Motion, March 1982.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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With growing boldness, the U.S. ruling class is unfolding a major attack on the labor movement. As part of this attack, employers are tightening up “labor discipline,” defeating union drives and hanging tough in contract negotiations. But this is only part of the picture. What is striking about the present crisis is the extent to which labor’s fate is being determined by factors outside of the various grievance and contract struggles, union drives, etc. Some of the most dramatic blows of all are being inflicted as a result of investment and disinvestment decisions made by the major banks and corporations over which the unions have no control; as a result of pro-business legislation being passed in state legislatures and in Congress; as a result of the widespread public disillusionment with the labor movement as a source of ideas and practical initiatives for economic and social well-being.

While the unions grapple with employers one-on-one, the major capitalists shuttle their capital around the country and the world at dizzying speed and unilaterally make plans for economic investment which will change the face of U.S. industry. While trade unionists knock themselves out organizing for higher wages, the ruling class cuts the ground out from under them by riding the crest of inflation, pressing for “tax relief that mostly favors business, cutting budgets for public programs and social services. While sections of labor take small steps to deal with unemployment among oppressed nationality youth and overcome discrimination, the proponents of Reagan economics push to do away with the minimum wage for young workers and the courts threaten to wipe out affirmative action plans altogether. While workers try to defend themselves from fatal or crippling health and safety hazards on the shop floor, the employers and their politicians move to gut OSHA which provided important leverage in gaining company compliance. While workers strike and sacrifice in a thousand ways to defend their standard of living, the capitalist media argues broadly and effectively that they are being greedy and selfish. Almost everywhere we turn, we run up against the same situation: labor has little political clout, and so must constantly retreat or forfeit the fruits of its occasional successful struggles.

In other advanced capitalist countries, the labor movement is a political force to be reckoned with. There have been times when this has been true to some extent in the U.S. as well. But today, U.S. labor is easily outflanked and overriden at the political level. The reasons for this are to be found primarily in the policies of the conservative leaders of the trade unions–that is, of what is rather loosely referred to as “Organized Labor.”

The narrowness and opportunism of the business unionists has resulted in the isolation of the trade unions from broad sections of the U.S. people. No longer is “Solidarity Forever” understood as the rallying cry of a progressive cause. In fact, public sentiment against strikes and large wage settlements often runs high. The trade unions are all too often viewed as greedy self-interest groups that care, at best, about only a small minority of citizens. According to the New York Times (7/5/76), the percentage of the public “expressing confidence” in “organized labor” dropped from 22% in 1966 to 10% in 1976. The unions have lost credibility not only among the “middle classes,” but also among those workers who the business unionists have so often ignored or opposed–oppressed nationality workers, women, the unemployed. Certainly non-union workers as a whole are wary about joining up. According to a University of Michigan study, 70% of these workers think that union leaders “do what is best for themselves rather than what is good for their members.” The percentage of workers voting in favor of union representation in NLRB elections has declined steadily through the late ’60s and ’70s. Even among unionized workers, the feeling of participating in a progressive movement, which was once widespread, has been largely replaced by cynicism and competitiveness. After years of slavish subservience to liberal politicians in the Democratic Party, and of dictatorship within their unions, the business unionists are now admitting that they no longer command political allegiance even within the ranks of their “own” organizations. Savvy ruling class politicians regard them as paper tigers, unable to get out the vote for their dearest causes, let alone organize any militant protest. The lock-out of labor in the 1980 elections was an indication of how far this trend has progressed.

American workers must learn to despise the business unionists for their betrayal in the political arena. But assigning the blame will not, by itself, reverse the isolation of the labor movement. Under current conditions especially, the Left-wing of labor has to agree that failure to devote serious attention to political action amounts to an abdication of leadership on our part. We are, after all, locked in a long and bitter war with the capitalists. Is it enough to slug it out with them in the trenches, while enemy aircraft strike unopposed deep behind our lines?

If we do follow such a shortsighted strategy–if we insist on taking a narrow view of our tasks–we may find ourselves living a nightmare. After all our strenuous and painstaking shop floor organizing, we may indeed make our way into trade union office–only to preside over a series of wage cuts, runaway shops, lost jobs and lost benefits, surrounded by an indifferent or hostile public. If anyone doubts that this is a realistic possibility, consider the current devastation of the public sector unions–once the rising star of the labor movement–wherever the “politics of austerity” holds sway. Unless we relish the thought of basing our reputations on negotiating good severance benefits or minimizing contract takeaways and layoffs, we’d better address the broad political forces which are shaping our future.

How can the labor movement dig itself out of the hole it finds itself in today? Certain approaches are already being tried. For instance, some unions (including the Garment Workers, AFSCME, the Communications Workers) are buying television commercials to promote themselves to the public. Unfortunately, we can be pretty sure that the current crop of ads will not usher in a new era of popularity for labor. They tend to be superficial public relations jobs, which ignore the hard political questions that must be confronted if labor is to win meaningful mass support. But at least they show some appreciation for the need to appeal to a wide audience. In the meantime, liberals have been floating various proposals for coalitions with women’s and civil rights organizations. These are much more substantial as possible solutions than TV ads, and they offer the Left considerable latitude for organizing and political agitation. Then, there are the attempts to run labor figures for elected office. One example was the 1972 gubernatorial campaign of Wilbur Hobby, President of the North Carolina AFL-CIO. Hobby ran on a broad platform addressing some questions of equal rights for oppressed nationalities and women, education and housing. This again has some definite positive elements.

Leftists can surely extend and give more content to these kinds of activities, as well as develop other means for rebuilding the labor movement as a popular cause. But we can’t just seize on one or another isolated tactic as a cure-all. Eventually, we will have to develop a Left-wing program for political action, addressing such issues as energy policy, affirmative action, reindustrialization, the role of government in the economy and the danger of war, as well as the more “orthodox” issues like health and safety rights in the workplace and repeal of Taft-Hartley. A full set of tactics will have to be derived from this program and a careful examination of the concrete conditions facing us.

We are not prepared to put forward either a complete program or a full set of tactics. But we can make some observations about what needs to be emphasized in the area of political action. And we can point to a few of the practical implications of pressing forward in this direction.

First of all, it is essential that we fight for a broader and deeper definition of the labor movement. Broader in the sense that labor is more than the approximately 20’A of workers who are in unions today. (Down from 355? in 1950, by the way.) It includes the unemployed, non-union wage earners, and working class families as a whole. The labor movement must begin to address social and political questions as the representative of all the workers. And deeper, in the sense that the labor movement is not a movement at all without the mobilization of the working class masses. It will be a challenge to defeat the tradition of top-down initiatives that reflect the business unionists’ complacent reliance on liberal politicians.

Second of all, we must promote principled unity between the labor movement and other progressive movements. Even leaving aside the overall political implications of such unity, the labor movement needs allies to survive the Right-wing offensive and to grow. One illustration of this fact is that where effective unionization has been carried out in the South and Southwest it has been carried out to a significant extent in conjunction with the Black Liberation Movement and other movements of oppressed nationalities. For example, the history of the United Farmworkers indicates how much organizing power can be generated when the struggle of labor and the oppressed nationalities are merged.

Unity among the progressive movements will take many forms. We should actively seek them all out. But electoral politics seems to deserve special attention. Elections are the most basic form of political activity for most people in this country. What’s more, the ongoing crisis of American liberalism has caused cracks in the political landscape, and opened up new opportunities for breaking the grip of the Democratic Party over the reform movements. These opportunities are increasingly being exploited by activists in the Black Liberation Movement, by electoral groups like the Citizen’s Party, OPIC in Ohio, DARE in Detroit, the Boston People’s Organization and the People’s Independent Coalition in New Jersey. These forces are struggling to formulate a positive program and working towards an independent third party. Though still a long way off, a third party is becoming the subject of more and more interest in the labor movement. In this general context, the electoral arena shows great promise as a place where broad, principled unity can be built among progressives, and where a break can be made with the reactive, localist, single-issue organizing so typical of the Left in the 1970s.

In our labor work, then, we should be bringing to the fore the question of independence from the Democrats (and Republicans)–the need for a third party. This is not to say that we should be inflexible in our electoral tactics–it will undoubtedly be necessary to work within Democratic Party politics sometimes. Nor is it to say that we see a third party as synonymous with a Labor party. In fact, while it’s not clear exactly how a third party will be formed, leadership in independent politics is likely to continue to come from the Black Liberation Movement as a whole and from other new progressive movements.

Third, we must unite with, and help build the influence of “cutting edge” struggles within the labor movement. Despite the need for working in united fronts, the Left’s ability to actually influence the direction of labor’s political action depends in large measure on developing unity, organization and an independent base for our own forces. So while we must definitely work in what is now considered the “mainstream” of labor political action: all-union coalitions, labor councils and so forth–we also have to recognize the narrowness of this mainstream, as it is presently constituted. The dominant Right-wing typically ignores or opposes struggles which are central to the Left, and to the future of labor, such as affirmative action. This means that our political action work will necessarily have one foot in the current “mainstream” and one foot out. The goal is to eventually change the character and definition of the mainstream, pushing more advanced political questions to the forefront as conditions permit.

Turning our attention to political action means shifting our resources to some degree away from contract and grievance struggles, and towards types of organizing which are generally less familiar to sections of the Left. These types of organizing include upgrading our work in labor coalitions around plant closings and the like, in CLUW, and in support of democratic rights struggles in the labor movement. It means becoming part of trade union political action committees. Also, working in progressive electoral organizations as representatives of labor. As a long-range task, we should be working to rebuild labor’s own electoral capacity on a new basis. One way to begin to do this might be to campaign actively in the shops against vulnerable anti-labor candidates, adapting some of the “hit-list” techniques used with such effect by the Right in recent years.

But stressing political action implies more than just shifting practical resources. It also means widening our practice of the united front in the labor movement. Political action work provides a medium for developing a range of alliances. For instance within the trade unions, many Leftists have observed that liberal democrats, like Douglas Fraser of the UAW, tend to show one face to the outside world, and another to their own memberships. In fact, these people have become notorious for making progressive-sounding statements at their conventions and in the press, while repressing and selling out the rank and file on grievances and contracts. A turn towards political action is likely to provide more of a field for flexible unity with these liberal democrats, even as we challenge their “progressive” credentials. While we will certainly run into opposition from them when we try to actually mobilize workers around political issues, and when we up the political ante, we will also very likely find ourselves supporting certain of their statements and working with them in coalitions. This is a good thing. If we do our work well, we will be in a better position to resolve the contradiction between the liberal democrats’ lofty statements and their sorry practice, in favor of the former. Undoubtably, we will find that some union leaders are open to new ideas in these hard times–and not just because of “pressure from the rank and file.” In the meantime, united front work in the labor movement will lead to material advantages for the Left’s political action organizing. This, in fact, is exactly what happened in the course of the campaign against Proposition 2-1/2 in Massachusetts (although on a limited scale). Top labor leaders dominated and bankrolled the Vote No on Question 2 Committee. But they depended to a certain extent on the Left, and other progressives, to do the grassroots organizing. So these people, who are generally the implacable enemies of the Left on the shop floor or in the union hall, ended up giving us money and supplies, and handing over leadership of the campaign in certain locals.

We are aware that getting fully involved in political action will strike some on the Left as a destructive diversion from the job of building up a base around shop floor issues. It is argued in some quarters that first we have to establish ourselves as leaders and fighters in the day-to-day spontaneous struggles in our locals before anyone will listen to what we have to say about political action. This is the same kind of argument we have run into regarding the fight against discrimination. Our view in both cases is: yes, work in the day-to-day spontaneous economic struggle is essential. It is an indispensable condition to achieving any of the Left’s objectives in the labor movement. But is it not the case that you have to put in a certain number of years doing it as a precondition to anything else; or that you have to win “X” number of grievances before you can open your mouth about other issues. Actually, on a number of shop issues, real breakthroughs may be helped along by, or may even depend on, involvement in regional and national conferences and contacts with other labor activists with common goals. But more to the point, we do not believe that workers automatically assume that the shop-floor spontaneous struggle is the central focus of improving their conditions. People are interested in political issues. Some even see them as more important than grievance issues, and see the union as irrelevant to the extent that it does not deal with the broader questions that concern them.

Properly targeted and carried out, in tune with the political consciousness of the workers, political action organizing can be an important factor in building our influence and base. That, at least, is what we observed in our own limited work. It’s what we’ve observed historically, in the campaigns of progressives like Eugene Debs or in the struggle for unemployment insurance. And it’s what we’ve seen more recently in the health legislation struggles of the Black and Brown Lung Associations, in the United Farmworkers’ battle for legislation helping them organize in the fields, in the Texas Farmworkers’ struggle against Taft-Hartley, in the public unions’ participation in anti-cutback coalitions, in the fight against Right-to-Work in Missouri, in the fight for equal rights in the construction trades in various cities. What we think the evidence shows, in fact, is that there is the potential for serious mass-based organizing–rank and file organizing–around political action issues in the labor movement.

No, in our view the question is not whether political action organizing can work, but whether the Left as a whole is going to play a strong role in advancing it. We would argue that we must. Just consider what will happen if we don’t. The ruling class is advancing relentlessly on all fronts, probing for labor’s weak spots, and stinging us again and again. How long will the workers respect us as leaders if we don’t help mobilize an all-around defense?

March 1981

Thanks for some of the facts in this article to Jay Pellon, from Labor Study Project Report No. 1.