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Meany vs. Reuther

Basic Issues Reflected

Farrell Dobbs, The Militant

January 16, 1967

From Tamiment Library microfilm archives
Transcribed & marked up by Andrew Pollack for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The general run of hucksters who pose as “news analysts” in the capitalist press have one thing in common: They tend to reduce issues to the small change of personal conflict. They are well paid for the diversion from honest discussion of serious matters, because outlived capitalism can’t afford frank talk. Too many people would become aware of the need for a basic social change.

A deceptive appearance is given of treating things seriously without actually doing so. In the process a plug is gotten in for a basic norm of the capitalist rat race. People are taught that only one thing counts in all situations: What’s in it for Number One?

With this approach the hucksters quickly get to the nub of the dispute between Walter Reuther and George Meany in the top bureaucracy of the AFL-CIO. When the two labor federations merged in 1955, Meany headed the AFL and Reuther, the CIO. Meany got the top spot in the merger, while Reuther had to play second fiddle. So—Reuther wants Meany’s job.

Only Reuther and Meany themselves can be fully aware of their personal aspirations in the current dispute and, for others, such aims are of no importance. It is the larger aspects of developments within the AFL-CIO that count. Clues to really important matters in the dispute can be found by probing into various key questions, for example: the present situation and needs of the AFL-CIO membership; Meany’s policy and what Reuther has to offer in its place. Before examining these questions in particular, a few generalizations seem in order.

Bureaucratic fears

The overall picture indicates that a palace revolt is developing within the AFL-CIO bureaucracy, one similar to the Abel-McDonald dispute in the steel union. As was the case with McDonald, Meany’s policies have gotten dangerously out of gear with the needs of the union membership. Among other bureaucrats, such as Reuther, a feeling is growing that something must be done about it or the whole bureaucracy will face a rank-and-file uprising. When examined from this viewpoint, Reuther’s present line—although failing to meet the workers’ needs—reflects at least a distorted image of significant new labor trends.

Working people are showing increased concern and resentment over losses in buying power because of [Vietnam] War-inflated prices. They are worried about the growing gap between earnings and take-home pay due to tax gouging, imposed mainly to finance an unpopular war. As a result they tend to brush aside [President] Johnson’s “guideposts” and press demands for “catch-up” pay increases. There is also growing pressure for an escalator clause in union contracts to keep wages abreast of rising living costs.

Other key issues impelling workers toward struggle are speedup and bad working conditions, and in some industries they are rapidly being automated out of jobs. Grievances arising over these general issues continue to mount, clogging the present defective apparatus for handling them. Under the impact of these frustrations workers have shown growing militancy across the last year, and the trend is spreading throughout the class.

At the same time the capitalist government, to meet its war needs, is preparing to strike new blows at the workers instead of making concessions to them. Johnson’s use of Taft-Hartley injunctions against strikers is on the rise, and the Vietnam War is used as a pretext. Stiffer federal laws against labor are in preparation: both new curbs on the right to strike and further government intervention into union affairs along the lines of the Kennedy-Landrum-Griffin Law.

Rising militancy

Relying on Washington to back them up, employers are stiffening their resistance to union demands. Secretary of Labor Wirtz predicts that 1967 will be “a hard bargaining year,” with “a lot of argument” over cost-of-living escalators. Monopoly corporations are spending millions for antiunion propaganda, and use of strikebreakers is on the increase. Even union bureaucrats have to bestir themselves in the face of such threats, and in Reuther’s case he must keep in mind this year’s contract negotiations in auto. Another prod is the mounting tendency among workers to engage in what might be called guerrilla warfare against the capitalists, the government—and the union bureaucrats.

In a number of cases lately the rank and file rejected contract settlements recommended by union bureaucrats, telling them to go back and get more from the company. Opposition is growing to the policy of tying the workers’ hands with long-term contracts. Also new is the degree to which bureaucrats have had to tolerate, and sometimes authorize, local strikes. Demands are being pressed for a membership vote in determining contract settlements and in deciding if grievances have been adequately handled. All told, the bureaucrats are experiencing a decline in leadership authority, and some among them feel a need to do something about it. They think a little self-reform can do the trick, but the situation is too far gone for that.

Under bureaucratic rule the unions have become wedded to the status quo on the basis of rotten compromises with the capitalist class. Internally the unions have been damaged by witch-hunting carried out in the service of the capitalist government. Attempts to organize new layers of workers, few though they have been, have resulted in far more failures than successes. As Reuther admits, “Today, the AFL-CIO represents a smaller proportion of the American labor force than at the time of the merger in December 1955.”

There has been drastic loss of workers’ control on the job, which was once powerfully maintained by the militant unions of the 1930s. Organized labor now wields far less economic power than it did in the 1945-46 strike wave. On the great social issues of the day, the union movement appears more or less as a lackey of capitalism, instead of meeting its historic role as a crusader for social betterment.

Actual disagreement

Although Reuther has no answer to the problem, he does inadvertently expose the bureaucratic tumor lodged in what is alleged to be the brain center of the labor movement. This is especially so in his letter to locals of the United Auto Workers, issued December 29 on behalf of the executive board. Meany emerges in the letter as a dictator who, in disregard of industrial union views within the AFL-CIO Executive Council, has centralized all policy direction in his hands on the basis of old-line craft union conceptions. As against this, Reuther calls for sharing of leadership responsibility through “creative, frank and meaningful democratic discussion within the highest councils of the AFL-CIO.”

Nothing is said by Reuther about involving the AFL-CIO ranks in “meaningful democratic discussion” of problems so vital to them. It is plain to see that he shares with Meany a desire to keep any discussion bottled up in the Executive Council. A question therefore arises. What program does Reuther have to offer in “democratic” discussion among the bureaucratic elite, and how will it square with the needs of the working class?

Vietnam issue

The most vital question facing the working class is the Vietnam War. It is being fought for the sole benefit of profiteering capitalists in this country, who intend to make the workers pay the bill. That is why anyone who supports the war has to wind up with a false line on all other matters affecting the working class. Trade unionists who are becoming aware of this fact also begin to perceive that a grave problem of leadership is involved.

This was evidenced at a recent Chicago conference of unionists opposed to the war. After several speakers had stressed Johnson’s duplicity on the Vietnam issue, a unionist said: “We know about the problem of Johnson. Now tell us what to do about the problem of Meany.” This dissatisifed unionist was referring to Meany’s swift and unqualified approval of every vicious step Johnson takes in escalating the imperialist assault on the Vietnamese people. What then can be expected from Reuther, who terms Meany “narrow and negative” on foreign policy?

In the December 29 letter Reuther says, “There is no basic difference between the UAW and the AFL-CIO in the commitments to resist Communist aggression.” This statement identifies Reuther with Meany in upholding the lying propaganda gimmick used by U.S. imperialism to justify its criminal acts.

Wherever oppressed peoples abroad strive to control their own affairs, Washington labels the struggle “Communist aggression” and intervenes militarily against them. That means Reuther’s “criticism” of the imperialist mobsters reduces itself to a question of the tactics they use. He winds up allied with capitalist “doves” who hope to defeat the Vietnamese by forcing them to “negotiate” under brutal military pressure. Thus, his advocacy of a “negotiated settlement” violates the Vietnamese right of self-determination, and it has the effect of putting imperialist war needs ahead of the American workers’ interests.

AFL-CIO members take a different view in one important respect. Despite the Vietnam War, they are pressing for strike action to keep wages abreast of runaway prices. In the sharpening class struggle that results, Meany has reacted by advocating a no-strike pledge at “war-essential” plants and “voluntary dispute-settling machinery” in short, unconditional surrender to the warlords. On this count “statesman” Reuther calls for “a comprehensive economic and collective bargaining program to achieve equity for American wage earners on a basis consistent with the total needs of the economy.”

Leaves room for LBJ

Capitalists are notorious for putting their profits foremost among “the total needs of the economy.” So readers of the UAW letter are left wondering how much “equity” workers would get under Reuther’s policy and how they would go about fighting for it. A clue is offered in a subsequent passage of the letter. It advocates a “program to enable workers in critical and vital public service industries to achieve equity comparable with other workers under circumstances in which workers in these industries will not be forced to resort to strike action that endangers the health and safety of the public.”

But any strike that can be connected with Vietnam, no matter how remotely, is held by Johnson to “endanger the health and safety of the public.” That means Reuther invites Johnson’s Taft-Hartley injunctions. Like Meany, he violates a basic labor principle that calls for unconditional defense of the right of all workers to strike in support of their class interests.

Concerning the freedom struggle of Black people, the letter calls for “equal rights and equal opportunity not only at the community level and through legislation but within the labor movement itself.” When it comes to the deed, however, Reuther shares with Meany responsibility for the crime of denouncing advocates of Black power, which is to say he lines up against the militant wing of the Black freedom fighters. Like other union bureaucrats, he has failed to act forthrightly in combating attempts to stir up racial antagonisms within the working class. Because of such false policies, all workers, Black and white, suffer injury to their basic class interests.

Demagogic stand

Like a Democrat running for office, Reuther seeks to divert political attention from basic class issues by stressing reform aims that lend themselves to tokenism and gradualism. He does so through demagogic stress on important social needs such as improved education, social security, and health care; also on problems like urban renewal, air and water pollution, etc. This in turn gives him a bridge toward collaboration with liberal capitalist politicians, a subject he has failed to mention in criticizing Meany’s policies.

The fact is that Reuther has no important differences with Meany on the question of keeping labor enslaved in capitalist politics. At the 1966 UAW convention he denounced any attempt to break away from the Democratic Party, asserting that he was “not going to flirt with that kind of reckless, dangerous idea of forming labor’s own political party.” He said, “Labor must seek a basic realignment of the two major political parties, which would get all the reactionaries in the Republican Party where they belong and make the Democratic Party a truly liberal people’s party.” This “realignment” fantasy is simply a demagogic device to keep labor tied to a party run by a gang of strikebreakers, racists, and warlords.

On every major count Reuther’s policies show that AFL-CIO members would have nothing going for them in any “democratic” debate he might have with Meany inside the Executive Council. What the workers need is a genuine left wing in the unions based upon rank-and-file militants. To be effective the left wing should be constructed around a program of concrete demands. These should include:

Full and unfettered membership discussion of all problems confronting the workers, and rank-and-file control over all union affairs.

A cost-of-living escalator in union contracts to offset rising prices.

A reduced workweek with no cut in pay. Unemployment compensation at union wages for all jobless persons eighteen or over, whether or not they have been previously employed.

Equal rights in the unions and on the job for Black workers and for members of other minorities. Full union support to the civil rights struggle as a whole.

Bring the troops home now. Use the money spent for war to meet social needs here at home.

Build an independent labor party based on the unions.