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Trends in the Trade Unions

by Farrell Dobbs


From International Socialist Review, May-June, 1968, Vol. 29 No.3-Whole, No. 186, from Tamiment Library microfilm archives
Transcribed & marked up by Andrew Pollack for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Until recently it had appeared to peoples abroad that a big majority in the United States, the working class included, supported the mad schemes of the capitalist ruling class to police and exploit the world for private profit. That picture is now changing. The true image of social reality in this nation is being disclosed as the costs of imperialist aggression hit the home front ever harder. Stirred massively by deep-seated grievances, black freedom fighters are standing up for their rights with iron determination comparable to that of independence fighters in colonial countries. As the capitalist overlords conduct a military assault on the Vietnamese, an unprecedented and steadily expanding antiwar movement has arisen at home. And now an upsurge of struggle has begun within the working class—the mightiest force in the land—as previous conditions of relative prosperity for a major segment of the workers give way to a growing sense of economic insecurity that permeates the class as a whole.

War-inflated prices and war taxes are biting into labor’s purchasing power. Pay increases won on the picket line quickly shrink as living costs continue to skyrocket. AFL-CIO economists report that an overall hike of 25 per cent in take-home pay won by industrial workers between 1960 and 1967 actually dwindled to about 11 per cent after adjustment for price increases. Present inflationary trends indicate that a point has been reached wherie more and more workers will begin to experience an outright drop in buying power and a consequent lowering of living standards. The Johnson administration is helping to accelerate that development by striving to keep wage raises limited to the rate of increase in labor productivity, setting an annual ceiling of 3.2 per cent as “still about the right figure.” This form of attempted wage freeze puts workers in the position of having to increase their output at greater profit for the capitalists simply in order to slow down the rate of decline in their own living standards.

The AFL-CIO also reports that between 1960 and 1967 corporate profits rose some 77 per cent, about seven times the net wage increase for industrial workers across the same period. Bragging about his stewardship of capitalist interests in a message to Congress last January, Johnson forecast new highs in profits for the banks and corporations. Part of it will be raked off from war production, paid from tax money shelled out by working people. Another part will be gouged out of workers through intensified speedup on the job, backed up by company actions to discipline workers who resist the pressures. Paralleling the latter course on behalf of all capitalists, Johnson has taken the lead in pressing for stronger police forces and more stockpiling of police hardware. These instruments of repression are intended for use not only against black freedom fighters and antiwar demonstrators but also against striking workers.

Meanwhile unprecedented billions of tax money are poured into the maw of the war machine while vital social needs in this country remain criminally neglected by the capitalist government. Grave national problems result in the spheres of health, housing, education and other social needs. All sections of the working class are hurt, with Afro-Americans and other minority peoples who are mainly workers suffering the most. All these factors -endangered living standards, neglected social needs, tax gouging, abusive pressures on the job, capitalist acts of repression—are coalescing to generate worker opposition to the Vietnam war. The trend gets further impetus from the increasingly apparent unjust, immoral and genocidal nature of the imperialist assault on the Vietnamese. Some trade union support to the student-based antiwar movement has already resulted, but worker opposition to the war policy and its consequences centers mainly on economic struggles within industry. In that sphere the changing mood among the workers finds expression in growing determination to put their own class interests ahead of imperialist war needs.

Stiff wage demands are being pressed by the union rank and file, as sentiment grows to fight for effective escalator clauses designed to keep earnings abreast of soaring living costs. While younger workers are especially inclined to fight hard for the demands, it is also true that union members generally are showing greater readiness to strike. Work stoppages in 1967 rose some 50 per cent above the 1964-66 average and more strikes occurred during the year than in any of the last 14 years. Several walkouts were of unusual length. Rank and file unionists did not hesitate to tie up facilities involving war production and they showed a readiness to back their leaders if they had the guts to resist government strike breaking. In several unusually bitter struggles the workers displayed great solidarity, impressive staying power and strong self-confidence.

With increasing frequency union members have been rejecting contract settlements recommended by official negotiators and sending them back for more concessions from the employers. On occasion rank and file sentiment has been emphasized by hurling adjective, eggs and even chairs at union officials. The workers are making it plain that they want full use of the union power in defense of their class interests.

Their aims collide with the basic line of bureaucratic union officials who want peaceful coexistence with the ruling class, a relationship that can exist only on capitalist terms. The clash forces the bureaucrats into some unusual gyrations. Much as they want peaceful relations with the capitalists, they must try to deliver something for the union ranks or their essentially parasitic role would stand nakedly exposed. What follows was graphically shown in the New York City sanitation strike.

Mayor Lindsay issued a back-to-work order to the sanitation men under threat of asking use of the National Guard against them, and Governor Rockefeller said he would call out the troops “if necessary.” The strikers stood firm, demands for action in their support spread through other unions and the New York City Central Labor Council threatened to call a general strike if troops were brought into the city. As the situation then moved toward a contract settlement, curious newspaper reporters asked for an explanation of this out-of-character conduct by the bureaucrats who dominate the central council. One of them said, “We are under pressure from our members and there are certain things we must do. It’s our bread and butter.” Another unnamed official summed up the problem facing all union bureaucrats with the remark, “Reasonableness and statesmanship at the bargaining table today may elect your successor tomorrow.”

Confronted with the waning ability of union bureaucrats to police the workers, the capitalist government is stepping up its strikebreaking activities and preparing tougher antilabor laws. Alongside of special laws against specific strikes, as in the imposition of compulsory arbitration on the railway shopmen a few months ago, around 50 new bills against the unions have been tossed into the Congressional hopper. Some of these are designed to intensify direct government policing of internal union affairs. Other measures are intended to outlaw industry-wide and multi-union bargaining, to block union coalitions and mergers and to impose more rigid strike controls. One bill introduced by Senator Smathers, a Florida Democrat, would set up a special “Court of Labor-Management Relations” with power to ban whatever strikes it chose and order compulsory arbitration.

Frightened by the governmental attack, the union bureaucrats strive to assure “statesmanlike” attention to the employers’ side in labor disputes. This produces growing disharmony between official union demands and the workers’ actual needs. To make things even worse, the bureaucrats shy away from strike action that touches war production and in reality they have no stomach for any kind of a clash with the ruling class. Instead of struggling against the capitalist government when it intervenes on the side of the employers, they seek government help to get compromise settlements of contract disputes on giveaway terms, substituting that capitulatory policy for necessary use of the union power. The bureaucrats show an increasing tendency to propose “voluntary” arbitration of contract renewals and last December the AFL-CIO Executive Council said it would support wage control by the government if Johnson “determined there was a national emergency.” Workers are further hurt by the writing of no-strike clauses into contracts with employers. And if the workers are driven into walkouts because of outrageous company violations of the contract, the bureaucrats join with the bosses in forcing them back on the job.

Basically the general run of union officials clings to their role as keepers of class peace under capitalist rule, even though strong membership pressures may knock them off balance now and then. In return they hope to get modest economic concessions to appease discontented workers, primarily through collaboration with “friends” of labor in the capitalist government. Toward that end they keep the workers tied to capitalist politics in the general form of support to the Democratic Party, an instrument wholly controlled by the ruling class. This false political line, which is basic to the existing crisis of policy and leadership in the unions, requires closer examination. Before probing into it more fully, however, it is purposeful to examine the price workers are paying for misleadership and the consequent rise of new oppositons to bureaucratic misrule.

Last December the AFL-CIO reported a current membership of 14.3 million. Although up 1.8 million over the 1962-63 low point, the figure still falls short of the 1956 highwater mark of 17.5 million. From another standpoint the AFL-CIO represents only 18.6 per cent of the general labor force and it is continuing to experience a relative decline in proportion to the growing labor force. Only part of the disproportion results from expulsion by the craven federation leaderhip of unions that were subjected to smear attacks by the capitalist government, a recent example being the Teamsters. Mainly the bad showing in relation to the broad labor force results from failure to organize the unorganized, a default arising from plain dry rot in the union officialdom. This disastrous situation constitutes a state of class disunity that is expensive for all workers. The cost is especially great in the case of unorganized workers who must face the capitalist class without benefit of any union protection whatever.

The rank and file of organized labor suffers from steady erosion of union control on the job. A daily price is paid as hard-won gains, achieved through years of struggle, are gradually given away by union officials, and the situation is made even worse by an almost universal breakdown of grievance procedures. Add to that the leadership failure to defend the workers’ economic interests in the face of wartime inflation. Then consider the general leadership default on all major social issues of the day. It all amounts to a bankrupt policy course against which the workers are chafing as they resist strangulation of internal democracy that exists in varying forms and scope throughout the union movement.

Faced with a resulting decline in their leadership authority, the union bureaucrats are floundering around in an effort to get off the hook of rank and file criticism. This has led to palace revolts within the official hierarchy, carried out in the hope of staving off membership uprisings against the whole ruling caste. Top officers have been dumped by unions in steel, electrical manufacturing, rubber and public employment, to cite some main examples. What the process adds up to can be summarized in the course taken by Walter Reuther, head of the United Auto Workers, who has challenged AFL-CIO president George Meany for central leadership of the union movement. The clash reflects two general types of bureaucratic outlook and method, both class collaborationist to the core. Meany symbolizes the openly reactionary AFL hack trained in the Gompers school of labor fakers. Reuther, on the other hand, typifies the slippery demagogue who learned in the CIO to mouth class struggle phrases while actually knuckling under to the corporate overlords. Neither of them offers a solution to the workers’ problems, as a look at their policies on key questions will show. [This article was written before President Johnson announced his withdrawal from the presidential campaign - ISR Editor.]

Meany is dead against a break with the capitalist politicians who are dealing labor ever-harsher blows. So slavish is his support to Johnson and the Democrats that Secretary of Labor Wirtz could term last December’s union session at Bal Harbour the “first joint convention of the AFL-CIO and the President’s Cabinet.” In the 1968 elections Meany has gone all out in backing Johnson and his party of warlords, racists, strikebreakers and capitalist profiteers. Although Reuther is somewhat cagier about support to Johnson, he has subordinated his clash with Meany to a collaborative effort to secure the election of Democrats this fall. Reuther opposes formation of an independent labor party as a “reckless, dangerous idea.” He calls for a political realignment, with conservatives concentrated in the Republican Party and liberals in the Democratic Party. The liberals, on whom Reuther would have labor continue to stake its fate, are before everything else capitalist agents. In every class showdown they will support capital against labor and the record is full of glaring examples to prove it. So Reuther’s “realignment” talk is just a glib way of pretending to disagree with Meany when they actually remain united on basic political line.

The essential identity of their political views is further revealed by their common opposition to the Afro-American concept of black power. If that concept is to have real meaning it must connote a trend toward a complete break with capitalist politics of all varieties and the launching of independent black political action. Since they flatly oppose such a political course, both Meany and Reuther echo the capitalist smear campaign—Meany more openly, Reuther more deviously—in which the concept of black power is equated with “black racism.” Compounding the felony, both practice tokenism, gradualism and deception concerning the criminal discrimination against black workers within the unions.

On the surface it would appear that they do have an important policy difference over the Vietnam war. Meany backs Johnson to the hilt in pressing the imperialist assault on the Vietnamese and he smears critics of his line within the unions with red-baiting attacks. Reuther, in contrast, has allowed identification of the UAW with the Labor Leadership Assembly For Peace, initiated and controlled by union bureaucrats who differ with Meany on the war. While its very formation reflects strong opposition to the war among union members, including growing sentiment for immediate withdrawal of U. S. troops, the LLAFP limits itself to a call for negotiated settlement of the war, carefully staying within the framework of the present tactical dispute going on in the capitalist class. To the imperialists, “negotiations” mean the obtaining of acceptable concessions from the Vietnamese and they intend to continue the war until that objective is accomplished. From that it follows that the LLAFP line violates the right of the Vietnamese to self-determination and it puts the imperialist war aims ahead of the interests of labor in this country.

Despite this basic flaw in LLAFP policy, there remains a positive side to the dispute among union bureaucrats over the war issue. It helps open the way for rank and file discussion of the question, setting the stage to battle out development of a correct policy course at every level in the union movement. At the same time forces are set into motion that will be capable of passing beyond the control of any wing of the bureaucratic hierarchy. Such a development is vitally important, because any union official who supports the war, even if he does so critically, is bound to wind up with a false line on all other matters touching the interests of the working class.

It is on the latter count that the common basic line of Meany, Reuther and the union bureaucrats in general is most plainly revealed. Meany, with his customary crudeness, provided a labor cover for Johnson’s strikebreaking in the name of the war when he accepted appointment to the Morse board that laid down compulsory terms of a working contract for the railway shopmen. Reuther tried essentially the same thing when he recently offered to submit terms for renewal of UAW contracts to arbitration, only to be turned down by the auto corporations. I. W. Abel, president of the United Steelworkers, aped Reuther by pressing for arbitration of new contract terms this year in steel, but in his case a ground swell of opposition within the union blocked the scheme. Rare is the top union official who will differentiate himself from Reuther’s weasel-worded disavowal of “resort to strike action that endangers the health and safety of the public,” or to put it another way, will uphold the unconditional right of all workers to strike in defense of their class interests. Violation of this basic labor principle cripples exercise of union power on the job and, along with the bureaucratic default in the political sphere, underlines the serious nature of today’s crisis of working class leadership.

Driven into action by the consequences of misleadership, new formations are arising within the unions in opposition to the entrenched officialdom. These groupings usually spring up round one or another concrete issue, often of narrow dimensions, and they do not at present tend to assume lasting character. If temporarily dissolved, however, they may well reappear after a time, again fighting on some specific issue. Their instability results mainly from lack of a developed program and experienced group leadership. Although yet to achieve the orientation necessary for a showdown with the bureaucrats, it is significant that such formations are beginning to appear in the union movement generally, including a growing opposition to Reuther in the UAW.

In part the new internal union situation stems from changing membership composition in terms of both age and occupational categories. The union movement is becoming younger. Official figures show that nearly half the current AFL-CIO members are under 40 and about half of those are less than 30 years old. A widening age gap results between the rank and file and the self-perpetuating top bureaucracy, as shown by the fact that few members of the AFL-CIO Executive Council are under 60. The young workers tend to be most critical of faulty union policies, they want to assert their independence and they are quicker than older union hands to join rebel movements. This changing internal situation narrows the bureaucrats’ base of support which has been built primarily on more conservative older workers, still on the job or retaining a voice in union affairs after retirement.

Another new factor is introduced by a developing trend toward unionization among so-called white-collar workers, especially in the case of teachers and public workers in general at various levels of government. As a rule these workers are among those who have long been getting the short end of the stick economically and many of them are up in arms about it. There is a pronounced upsurge, for example, in teachers’ strikes. Across a ten-year period through 1965 there were only 35 walkouts by teachers. Then in 1966 alone 36 work stoppages occurred in the schools. From that time on there has been further acceleration of the trend, both in its national scope and in the number and intensity of strike struggles waged by teachers. The embattled teachers and other public workers fighting for their rights have had to face vicious forms of government strikebreaking that pose point-blank to the whole union movement the crucial need to develop a winning labor strategy.

Organized workers struggling to defend their interests are up against a capitalist class that has a stranglehold on the nation’s economic life, monopolizes the political scene through its two-party system, has a subservient government at its command and stands generally united in using its power to fight the labor movement. To combat this monstrous ruling class the workers need to take united action, predicated on an effective labor program and exercised on the principle that an injury to one is an injury to all. This need stands poles apart from Reuther’s threat to split the AFL-CIO in a bureaucratic hassle with Meany when not one issue of basic policy is involved. It would be far better if instead Reuther first concentrated on leading national UAW action to clear up so-called “local” injustices to the workers that are in fact common to the whole auto industry. Having set that kind of a good example for other union officials, he could then pass from simply making speeches about coalition bargaining to actually doing something to make it a meaningful reality.

All the union bureaucrats, without exception, bear responsibility for the fact that workers are split up into separate unions within single companies to say nothing of single industries. A good start toward overcoming that harmful situation could be made by forming tight coalitions of the unions involved and then using that combined power to serve the workers’ needs in a stand-up fight against the employers and their government. All union bureaucrats bear guilt for capitalist successes in dividing workers along racial lines. Leaders worth their salt would, through education and example, combat race prejudice in labor’s ranks as self-defeating for the working class as a whole. They would fight militantly to assure full equality for black workers in the unions, on the job and throughout society.

All union bureaucrats tend to stress so-called “fringe benefits” in union contracts, related to unemployment compensation, retirement pay, health care and general social welfare. This is done in a way that saddles upon the union ranks responsibilities that should be met entirely by the capitalists and their government. It taps off pressures that organized labor should be putting on the government for action to meet the social needs of the whole working class. Many other violations of labor principles are committed by misleaders in the unions, among them the aiding and abetting of capitalists by joining in witch-hunts against worker militants who come under attack from the ruling class.

These grave leadership defaults must be corrected if labor is to develop a winning strategy, but that won’t be done by bureaucrats who believe they have a stake in capitalism and are hopelessly wedded to collaboration with the ruling class. The task falls upon the oppositional formations now arising in the union ranks. They will have to shape the necessary policies and put forward militant leaders capable of carrying them out. Time and further experience will be required to develop an adequate program and mobilize sufficient forces to do the job. In the process, struggles over narrow specific issues will pose other and broader problems. Combinations of limited beefs will begin to meld into a body of class struggle perspectives. Out of all this must come a cohesive force of union fighters, firmly knitted around a clearly-defined programmatic outlook, ready to take on the capitalists in a class showdown and prepared to sweep aside any misleaders who stand in the way.

While the exact program that will be developed remains subject to rank and file decisions, reached democratically, it is possible to anticipate the general lines along which key points will emerge under the pressures of urgent class needs. These include rank and file control over union affairs; escalator clauses in all contracts, formulated to keep wages fully abreast of rising prices; reduction of the work week with no cut in pay; full compensation for jobless workers, including youth unable to find a place in the labor force; defense of the unconditional right to strike; complete union independence from government control; equal rights for all workers in the unions and on the job; full union support to the Afro-American freedom struggle in every sphere; immediate withdrawal of U. S. troops from Vietnam.

A key point remains that must be central to the whole program. Working class needs dictate a complete break with capitalist politics and the formation of an independent labor party based on the unions. Imperative though it is to use the full union power on the job, the workers’ interests cannot be adequately defended by fighting at that level alone. Gains won on picket lines are taken away by capitalist manipulation of the national economic, political and social structure. Even the right of toilers to withhold their labor is violated under the capitalist dictum that “You can’t strike against the government.”

President Roosevelt used that old saw, aiming it first at public workers, as the opening gun in a government attack on the powerful unions that arose out of the labor upsurge in the 1930s. Behind it lay the fantasy that the government is some kind of a mystical force standing above social classes, mediating impartially between them with a benevolent eye toward the good of all. Things didn’t work out that way. Events showed that a government run by capitalist politicians always lines up with the employers against labor and that this applies to all politicians of the capitalist class, whether Republican or Democratic, liberal or conservative.

Roosevelt and his successors in the White House, backed by each successive Congress, have worked consistently to undermine labor’s right to strike. One device used is fake “government seizure” of struck facilities to make it a fight “against the government.” Laws such as the Taft-Hartley Act are used for general strikebreaking purposes and, where these fall short of capitalist aims, special laws are passed to break specific strikes. Court injunctions are being used to an increasing degree. Strikers are jailed, massive fines levied against unions and government agencies cooperate with employers in bringing damage suits against workers’ organizations.

Further assaults on the right to strike are now in the making, again with much concentration at the outset on public workers. Walkouts by workers in government employment, among whom there is a mounting wave of militancy, are held illegal in every state, either by specific statute or common law. Federal employes are required to sign an infamous “yellow dog” agreement, a thing traditionally fought by labor, pledging that they will not go on strike. For them a walkout means subjection to felony charges. Since every public worker faces the government as the direct employer, the attack on their legal rights will do much to explode the myth that the government is an entity standing above the classes. Workers will better understand its true role as a repressive capitalist instrument whose assault on the right to strike is aimed at the whole labor movement. This in turn will help to politicalize the workers’ struggles in defense of their class needs, rights and organizations.

Blows received from their “friends” in government are already alienating workers from the Democratic Party to which the union bureaucrats have kept them tied. For years organized labor supported the Democrats as a virtually solid class bloc, but that is now starting to change. Increasingly distrustful of capitalist politicians and lacking their own class party to support, growing numbers of workers are shifting toward lesser-evil choices between Democratic and Republican candidates for public office, more as a form of protest action than with any hope of getting a change for the better. Even this device is wearing thin, as room for such lesser-evil choices grows narrower and narrower. For those who care to see, a basic turn in union policy has become an obvious necessity.

Yet the union bureaucrats, who seem incapable of either learning or changing, cling stubbornly to their coalition with the Democrats. Some may flirt with a Republican candidate here and there in local elections, but virtually to a man they work to keep labor tied to the Democrats in national politics. Most of them go along with Meany in his politically obscene campaign in support of Johnson. Those who don’t support Johnson turn to a Kennedy or a McCarthy in the Democratic stable. Trying to divert attention from the crimes of Johnson and all the Democrats against the workers, they have contrived a scare campaign about a Republican plan to attack labor, pretending that the same thing wouldn’t happen if the Democrats get back into office in the 1968 elections.

No matter which gang of capitalist politicians are elected, Democrats or Republicans, government attacks on the unions will be intensified. Workers exercising their right to strike will find themselves in a head-on collision with capitalist officeholders. They will stand disarmed politically, watching the top union hacks beg unsuccessfully for a little mercy from the White House and Capitol Hill. New lessons will be in the making, teaching that pure-and-simple unionism has run its course. Workers can’t fight effectively through their unions if at the same time they go to the polls and vote for political agents of the very employers against whom they are doing battle.

Fight the workers must and will, however, and in coming union struggles over economic issues they will learn the need to launch an anti-capitalist political offensive. Impulses toward the formation of an independent labor party will gain momentum. Once that step is taken and the workers step onto the political arena In their own name and with their own anti-capitalist party they will find many allies—minority peoples, students, working farmers, technicians, people in the professions, youth denied the right to work, members of the armed forces—all who are dominated and exploited by the capitalist overlords. With the aid of these allies labor will be able to take the governmental power. Only when that is done can our country be run in the interests of those striving for human advancement, with freedom at last from the oppressive rule of capitalist parasites who feed on human misery.

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