From International Socialist Review, Vol.20 No.4, Fall 1959, pp.102-106.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The anti-union offensive puts labor’s
officialdom on the griddle. What happened to the theory that no
conflict of interests divides bosses and workers?
THE leaders of American labor are in a blue funk. Something has gone awry. The time is out of joint. For years now they have preached and practiced the virtues of labor-management cooperation; they extolled the partnership of labor and capital which, they affirmed, was the capstone of the American way-of-life.
A few years ago, David J. McDonald, president of the United Steel Workers, literally transported by the vision of capital and labor marching arm-in-arm ever onward and upward scaling new heights of prosperity and well-being, entered into a pact of “mutual trusteeship” with Benjamin Fairless, former head of United States Steel Corporation.
It was arm-around-the-shoulder “Dave” and “Ben” in those days. To the steel workers, the mutual trusteeship pact became known as the “hearts and flowers” clause. “Dave” and “Ben” toured the steel plants breaking bread with humble stewards, committeemen, plant foremen, superintendents and local union officials, spreading the message of sweetness and light. What nostalgia those halcyon days must evoke in McDonald today with its nightmare reality of class war!
That class war is the reality today is admitted by the most ardent exponents of labor-management cooperation. But it is a most peculiar kind of war. The employers and their government have launched a savage assault on the unions. Monopoly capital has mobilized all the class forces at its command to beat the labor movement into submission. Yet the union leaders cling tenaciously to the doctrine of class collaboration.
According to the view expounded by the “labor statesmen” the United States occupies a unique position in world society. While class divisions, class antagonisms and class struggle may be the reality in other lands and among other peoples, this country is presumed to be immune to such affliction.
How then explain the class war against labor? Is it some temporary aberration that has driven the capitalist class into committing so blatant an act of folly? It would seem so judging by the explanation given by Walter Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers and vice-president of the AFL-CIO, in a recent speech:
“The National Association of Manufacturers and big business,” Reuther contends, “are waging a class struggle in America, precisely as Karl Marx wrote it would be waged. They are working overtime to prove that Karl Marx was right.”
And, Reuther added, if the American labor movement permitted itself to be sucked into responding in kind, “then we are going to do really serious damage to America and the cause of freedom in the whole world.” Under conditions of class war, right here in the US, labor confronts the ineluctable alternatives: either fight or retreat and capitulate. Which alternative does Reuther offer?
The “cause of human freedom in the whole world” is a noble and worthy goal. But what of the cause of human freedom in these United States now being threatened with crucifixion by the war of capital against labor? Karl Marx and all the great revolutionary leaders who followed him taught the workers a simple truth: the main enemy is the capitalist class in your own country! There is much validity to what Reuther says—the American capitalist class is certainly “working overtime to prove that Karl Marx was right.”
Words can scarcely be found to describe the dismay of the labor bureaucrats at this turn of events. Grown fat and soft while baking in the sunshine of “labor-management cooperation,” these summer soldiers have no stomach for a fight. Confronted by the reality of class war they flounder about in hopeless confusion. Appalled at the bankruptcy of a policy which has led the labor movement into a dead end, fearful of engaging the enemy in open struggle, they can only offer—more of the same.
Yet, exercising the prerogatives of “leadership,” and enjoying the
privileges and perquisites of office, they are obliged to explain to
their bewildered followers where and why they went wrong. If Marx was
wrong and Reuther and Meany right, how explain the fact of class war in
a country presumably free of class distinctions and immune to class
struggle? The “labor statesmen” are hard put to find a plausible
explanation, but they do try.
THE August 29 AFL-CIO News devotes a long article to the problem, printed under a five column banner head reading: “Class War Being Forced on US Workers.”
“If,” the article begins, “there is one word which characterizes the plight of the American worker during the 12-month span from Labor Day 1958 to Labor Day 1959, it is ‘uncertainty.’
“Labor-management tensions, which have always varied in their intensity, now seem to be reaching a critical point where the American worker is being pushed into a class war not of his making, not of his choice.
“Determined and powerful forces have singled out the working man and his trade union as a class. If they are successful, the hard-won security which the workingman hoped was in his grasp, the ability to provide his family with a few of the better things of life, may be at an end.
“The knowing American worker sees his security threatened on the economic front, the legislative front, the political front and at the bargaining table.”
Who are these “determined and powerful forces” threatening the American worker on every front? The article explains: “One year ago these forces were noisy but their influence was limited. Today, almost as if puppets on string from an invisible hand, men of power and wealth have joined this band of extremists to demand that labor be weakened, its effectiveness undermined.”
There you have it! The source of the trouble is a “band of extremists” who are manipulating “men of power and wealth” like puppets on a string. The summer issue of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Department Digest is more explicit. An article entitled: The Anti-Labor War, affirms that, “Today’s resurgent right-wing intellectuals have declared a kind of class war.” It is these right-wing intellectuals who “have declared the class war and laid down its theoretical framework,” and “our business leaders have not lagged in putting the theories to the test.”
How can anyone make head or tail out of this nonsense? If it means anything at all it suggests that the real rulers of this country, the men of wealth and power, are being deceived into putting to the test the patently un-American class-war theories of a bunch of extremist crackpots instead of hewing to the genuine American class collaboration theories of our “labor statesmen.”
Does Eisenhower take to the air to demand that Congress adopt the anti-labor Landrum-Griffin “killer” bill? Obviously he was being misled—as we are assured by no less an authority than Louis Hollander, a high ranking official of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union.
The August 15 issue of the ACW newspaper, The Advance, publishes a speech by Hollander made to some “12,000 joint board delegates and local union officers on August 11 shortly after he returned from Washington where he conferred with AFL-CIO leaders on labor legislation.”
“It is,” opined Hollander, “a cause for sorrow that a national war hero of our country, twice elected President, should have been so deliberately misled by evil men as to accept at face value their false and misleading statements and then carry this message to the people, all the time believing and trusting sincerely in those double-dealers he has been persuaded to take into his confidence as advisors.”
The question that literally leaps to the fore is: Who is
misleading whom? Eisenhower, the National Association of Manufacturers,
the men of wealth and power, the big business interests and their
flunkies in government remain true to their class. When their class
interests are served thereby, they have no compunction about embracing
the so-called “theories” of the labor bureaucrats and utilizing their
services to bamboozle the workers. If the union leaders had
one-hundredth the class integrity, class solidarity, class loyalty, of
the exploiting class, labor would not now be buffeted from pillar to
post in demoralized confusion before the blows of capitalist reaction.
HISTORY subjects all social theories to the acid test of events. Judging by this test, what has been the result of the theory of class collaboration as applied in practice by the labor leaders? The above cited article from the AFL-CIO News reviews the events of the past year.
“Do you recall last Labor Day?” the writer nostalgically asks his readers. “The critical 1958 congressional elections were only two months away. In six states the so-called right-to-work law was on the ballot.
“Organized labor carried its message to the people. The people responded. Not only did they elect a Congress overwhelmingly committed to the cause of trade unionism but they crushed the ‘work’ law in five out of six states.”
The 1958 election result was touted as a resounding victory for labor; an irrefutable confirmation of the theory of class collaboration! The new Congress had the largest Democratic majority since 1938. The union leaders boasted that 221 incorruptible “friends of labor” had been elected to the House of Representatives alone. There was great rejoicing and no little self-congratulation in the ranks of the “labor statesmen.” That was less than one short year ago.
“Unionists had every right,” says the AFL-CIO News article, “to expect that this victory at the polls would be translated into a legislative victory. It was one of the greatest disillusion-merits of modern history.” (Our emphasis)
And what is the lesson to be drawn from this experience? “If the critical period from Labor Day 1958 to Labor Day 1959 has taught trade unionists anything,” the article concludes, “it is that their unions will remain strong and free as long as they fight for them.” But fight how? With what weapons? Against whom? Of this there is no hint. On the contrary, the labor leaders have made it abundantly clear that they have no intention of altering the course which has led, irrevocably, to “the greatest disillusionment of modern history.”
Incorrigibly committed to the preservation of the “free enterprise” system, the union leaders refuse to believe that the responsible “men of wealth and power” with whom they had so blissfully cohabited have turned against them. The elaborate structure of labor-management cooperation, so painfully constructed over the years, was erected on the cornerstone of their most cherished conviction: the identity of interest between capital and labor.
This doctrine was primary and fundamental to their entire view of the world they lived in. True, there were recognized differences, friction often developed, occasional spats, and more than one sham battle. But these were considered in the nature of family quarrels, subordinate to the cementing principle which bound them together.
The outlook of the present union officialdom has been conditioned by some 20 years of mutually beneficial relations with the captains of American industry. These were years of unprecedented prosperity and expansion for American monopoly capitalism. Forgotten were the savage union repressions of the twenties and the fierce class battles of the early thirties which gave rise to the modern labor movement. The men of wealth and power had presumably mellowed. The unions became an accepted institution of American life.
True, there always remained some recalcitrant employers who never
became reconciled to the new state of affairs and the benighted
Dixiecrat South. But these were looked upon as the lunatic fringe of
the capitalist class. It is apparently this “band of extremists” to
whom the labor leaders now refer as the ringleaders of the class war.
THE ninth annual meeting of the Industrial Relations Research Association, held in Cleveland, Dec. 28-29, 1956, dealt with the changes that had occurred in the American labor movement over the past 20 years. George W. Brooks of the International Brotherhood of Pulp, Sulphite and Paper Mill Workers union, submitted a paper to the meeting entitled: Observations on the Changing Nature of American Unions. It begins:
“The most important factor affecting labor unions is the attitude of the employer. This is particularly true in the United States, where workingmen depend exclusively upon the union (among forms of labor organization) for the articulation and achievement of their aspirations. Here, to a far greater degree than elsewhere, the employer is the source of all good things.
“This sound working rule has acquired during the past 20 years a firm ideological base, a virtually complete acceptance of that set of beliefs which may be roughly described as ‘capitalism.’ This ideological structure is buttressed by a specific faith in the capacities of American management, shared alike by trade union members and trade union leaders.
“It must not be supposed,” adds Brooks, “that the trade union leader has always led his members into these beliefs, although this has no doubt happened in some cases.”
This change in the attitude of the employers, according to Brooks, was reciprocated by a corresponding change in the attitude of the union leaders.
“Some observers,” he remarks, “have professed inability to understand why, in the light of the attitudes of unions a quarter of a century ago, the union representative was so ready to walk through the open door. The question reflects a misunderstanding of what was happening a quarter of a century ago, and not of what is happening now. Before the passage of the Wagner Act, unions were traditionally anti-employer. But the earlier ideologies were not theirs by choice. They were forced upon the unions by systematic employer anti-unionism ...
“When anti-unionism was abandoned in the forties and fifties by significant segments of American industry, a new world was created for the unions. For it now turned out that the imperative requirements of the union—the regular flow of new members and dues—could be underwritten by the employer with considerably more reliability than was possible under earlier arrangements. Unions were in many cases relieved, almost suddenly, of work that used to occupy 90 percent of their energies. Even the task of organizing was simplified. For in our expanding economy, most of the expansion is in the form of new plants by established firms.
“The outstanding changes for the union, in its own mind,” remarks Brooks in summarizing this section of his paper, “is its success. This colors every action and attitude of the leadership. Labor leaders see their achievements mirrored in the new attitudes of management. They have every reason to believe that the trends of the last 20 years are all to the good, and that their systematic encouragement will lead to more good.”
Needless to say, the labor leaders have done everything they could to further the “systematic encouragement” of the partnership between the union bureaucrats and corporate management. In an article published in the June issue of Harpers magazine, Bernard D. Nossiter, labor writer for the Washington Post and Times Herald, describes how the partnership has functioned.
The partnership pattern, says Nossiter, “varies greatly from one industry to another. Even where it is the most advanced, the liaison between the supposedly rival institutions is far from solid. It is more often a furtive and uneasy alliance between the top bureaucrats of the unions and the corporations—an arrangement that neither party can publicly admit and that most of the participants insist is just gossip.”
From the body of evidence recently assembled, Nossiter maintains that: “The tacit collaboration between management and union officers has been thriving all through the period of postwar prosperity.”
“Like any couple,” he points out, “the corporate and union partners have their spats. Moreover, the need to conceal their illicit if pleasurable goings-on requires them periodically to denounce each other. And, as in the most harmonious affairs, there is a master and his mate. The company executives get the most money, as shown by a glance at the relative incomes and capital gains of such pairs as Roger Blough, chairman of United States Steel and David McDonald, president of the United Steelworkers; or Jack L. Smead, president of Consolidated Freightways, and James R. Hoffa, president of the Teamsters Union.”
Because of past experience, Nossiter expressed his skepticism about the current steel industry dispute. In his article, written before the union was forced to strike, he says:
“The current goings-on in the steel industry would seem to belie this analysis. The union and the companies have been verbally belting each other with apparent enthusiasm as their wage contract runs to an end on June 30. But appearances can be deceiving. Economists can recall that the industry forced a strike in 1946 to pry loose a price increase from OPA. Many suspect that the periodic outbursts of industrial warfare are a cover under which the companies only appear to resist wage increases. Then, after a comparatively brief strike to work down the inventories steel customers have built up in fear of a stoppage, the companies reluctantly settle for a substantial increase in wages and fringe benefits. Finally, as John Kenneth Galbraith, of Harvard, has pointed out, the companies use this settlement as an excuse to boost prices enough to cover the wage increase several times.”
This technique, he adds, “has become so well publicized in Washington this year, however, that a new script may have been written for the 1959 bargaining.”
The current dispute is being conducted along the lines of a “new script” all right. But this time it is written in Wall Street and Washington without the collaboration of McDonald.
In a chapter entitled: How the Partnership Works, Nossiter explains how the “union captains perform different services for their corporate colonels, depending on the degree of concentration in the industry. However,” he affirms,
“... they all work with each other, regardless of whether the industry is concentrated or competitive. The trucking industry has rushed to defend both Beck and Hoffa. In coal, the incorruptible Lewis will be memorialized by both miners and operators. New York’s garment manufacturers have learned to love David Dubinsky, president of the Ladies Garment Workers Union; on the Pacific Coast, Harry Bridges has no bigger booster than the Pacific Maritime Association unless it is the ILWU stevedores;” etc., etc.
“Some observers,” concludes Nossiter, “see in this
harmony a new age of enlightenment. The reality is a little less
appealing. These union leaders, in varying degrees, perform important
services for their industry’s employers. They discipline dissidents and
prevent wildcat strikes. In expanding industries, they fight for wage
gains which enable the industry to obtain a more than off-setting
increase in prices. In competitive industries like trucking and ladies
garments, they make it harder for new firms to start up and compete
with established companies. In big industries, the rising wage-price
structure makes the capital requirements for potential new firms almost
prohibitive. In many industries, union leaders argue vigorously for
technological change, persuading the membership to accept the machines
that will put their less fortunate colleagues out of work.”
NOSSITER’S thesis is that “Big Business” and “Big Labor” have entered into collusion to mulct the public by restricting production and raising prices. In exchange the union leaders are given concessions with which to placate their membership and buy their acquiescence. For these concessions the union bureaucrats perform many useful services for the corporations. His remedy is to call upon the government to protect the public from this “unholy alliance” by exercising some form of control over wages and prices in what is delicately referred to as “concentrated industries,” and by extension to economic planning.
From his study of the tendency in American capitalism toward increased monopolization, Nossiter concludes that “the march toward rationalization—an industrial structure with fewer corporations and considerable private planning—appears unlikely to be halted. All over the globe,” he observes, “men are planning their material arrangements to overcome the obsolete problem of material want.” In economically backward countries, in the more advanced capitalist countries of Europe, in what he calls the “Communist nations,” men “have turned from reliance on impersonal market forces to some conscious and public planning of investment, prices and wages.”
As for this country:
“More of this goes on in the United States than is generally understood. Tax laws play a potent part in investment decisions. The planning of a General Motors, United States Steel, or a Standard Oil (New Jersey) plays a decisive part in the Nation’s economy. The question now posed is whether these private corporations will be allowed to continue making decisions of vast public consequence without some kind of informed public surveillance.”
Nossiter is not too optimistic about the ability of government to regulate and control the monopolies in the interest of “the public.” All past attempts to do so have failed. “The critics,” he remarks, “point to the long history of Federal regulation. They note that in time, the ‘independent’ commissions become willing vassals of the industry they are regulating.”
Although the lessons of history and experience speak against it, Nossiter suggests that a new beginning be made in the form of “non-coercive” restraint through public pressure. One of the foremost proponents of this type of intervention, the liberal bourgeois economist John Kenneth Galbraith, lays down “three principles” for this type of intervention:
“(1) Limited: It should apply only to firms and unions in concentrated industries which have a decisive share of the market power.
“(2) Simple: Perhaps a government panel should require these corporations and unions to justify in advance each proposed price and wage increase. The panel would then make specific recommendations in the light of agreed-upon national goals.
“(3) Conciliatory factfinding: At least at first we might rely on panel findings to mobilize public opinion to serve as a restraint on union and corporate managers. If this did not work, then sanctions or penalties would be in order.”
Several liberal Democrats in Congress have already introduced bills embodying Galbraith’s “three principles.” Senator Estes Kefauver, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly, has introduced a bill to establish a Department of Consumers. These steps are supported by a small group of liberal Congressional Democrats and Republicans, some of whom have been demanding that Eisenhower set up a “fact finding committee” to settle the steel strike. “Some of these legislators,” remarks Nossiter, “may be longer on intelligence than influence.” It is to this coterie of bourgeois liberals that Nossiter attributes a “quiet revolution in economic thought,” which has “three leading ideas” as follows:
“(1) Oligopoly, not competition, has become the dominant mode of American economic life. In their search for profits, oligopolists tend to restrain production and employment and raise prices.
“(2) The traditional antagonism between unions and management in oligopolistic or concentrated industries is disappearing. Conscious and unconscious collusion takes its place, lifting wages for some and prices (including stock prices) for others.
“(3) The public interest in economic affairs has long
been established in theory and practice. Business enjoys outright
subsidies like tariffs and tax gimmicks, and makes large sales to
government. Unions are also supported by government through complex
codes guaranteeing organizing and bargaining rights. Therefore it is no
real departure to insist on a public interest in the key wage and price
THERE is merit in the considerable factual evidence adduced by Nossiter to support the charge of collusion between the union bureaucrats and corporate management. But his conclusions are totally false and the proposed remedy completely ineffectual. The basic fallacy of the liberals of all persuasions is their view that government is an impartial, independent and benign arbiter of the social conflicts that arise in class society; that government stands aloof, or should so stand, from the clash of economic interest between the contending class forces unless and until the “public interest” is involved. Government must then intervene, paternalistically at first, as advisor and mediator, but with all of the coercion of state power if need be to uphold the interest of the “public”; i.e. the whole people.
It is this view that afflicts the liberals with a peculiar form of social and political astigmatism which enables them to assign equal responsibility to capital and labor for the present state of affairs. How can anyone, for example, familiar with the events of the past decade, justify government intervention in the unions on the basis of the argument that: “Unions are also supported by government through complex codes guaranteeing organizing and bargaining rights.”
This statement may have had the appearance of validity under the Wagner Act in the days of the “New Deal.” Closer examination, however, discloses that the labor codes of that era performed the function of (a) “guaranteeing” only those rights labor had won through its own independent struggles, and (b) permitting the government to gain a grip on the unions and open the process of destroying their independence. But the result of government intervention since Taft-Hartley has left no room whatever for any illusions. Government intervention plainly revealed its true purpose—to virtually arrest the organization expansion of the unions and to straitjacket their bargaining rights. The recently enacted Landrum-Griffin-Kennedy so-called “labor reform” law extends the punitive provisions of Taft-Hartley.
Thus, government intervention in union affairs, at least since 1946, no longer even gives the appearance of being either impartial or benign. While it is true that government regulation of industry has been a farce, government intervention in the unions has served to shackle labor, to undermine its independence, to weaken its capacity to defend the workers standard of living, to circumscribe its ability to expand, to strengthen the stranglehold of the monopolists on the economic life of the country.
Far from acting as an impartial arbiter between capital and labor, government has acted as a tool of big business, a creature of the monopolists. How could it be otherwise? Those who exercise economic control, those whose planning “plays a decisive part in the Nation’s economy,” wield the nation’s political power. Sometimes they do it directly, as through Eisenhower’s millionaire cabinets; sometimes indirectly through some form of coalition between the labor lieutenants of capitalism together with assorted varieties of liberals.
Where labor has its own political organizations, as in Europe, it enters into coalition arrangements with the capitalists, often through direct participation in the cabinets. In this country, the partnership takes the form of a coalition within the framework of the Democratic party. In periods of social crisis the labor “statesmen” are directly drawn into the government apparatus as in the period of the economic collapse under the New Deal and in the tripartite boards under the War Deal. These periods terminated with the end of the war and the great class battles of 1945-46.
The enactment of the Taft-Hartley law in 1947 signified the beginning of the close of an era. Government “paternalism” toward labor gave way to punitive restrictions and onerous regulations. The postwar period of expansion and prosperity made it profitable for the monopolists to continue the policy of labor-management cooperation, the results of which have been amply described above. But the process of increasing prices three-fold on the basis of granting a wage increase cannot continue indefinitely.
The privileged position occupied by American capitalism in the postwar world market is drawing to a close. American capitalism faces a shrinking world market, a world in which the colonial peoples are in open rebellion against imperialist domination, a world in which the tremendous technological advances in the Soviet Union and growing strength of the Soviet bloc together with the increased competition from rehabilitated Germany and Japan has further narrowed the field for American capitalist exploitation. The ominous future has been further adumbrated by the recurrent pattern of recessions each one going deeper than before.
There is no stability for American capitalism upon which rests the
entire structure of the world capitalist order. Under the
circumstances, monopoly capitalism seeks to assure class stability at
home by depriving the unions, the only mass organization of the
American workers, of the possibility of independent action.
IN a series of notes on trade union problems, written by Leon Trotsky before his assassination, the tendency of monopoly capitalism to fuse with the state power and the conditions under which the reformist labor bureaucracy was permitted to retain its privileges, were brilliantly analyzed.
“The intensification of class contradictions within each country,” wrote Trotsky, “the intensification of antagonisms between one country and another, produce a situation in which imperialist capitalism can tolerate (i.e., up to a certain time) a reformist bureaucracy only if the latter serves directly as a petty but active stockholder in its imperialist enterprises, of its plans and programs within the country as well as on the world arena. Social reformism must become transformed into social-imperialism in order to prolong its existence, but only prolong it and nothing more. Because along this road there is no way out in general.”
There has been no more ardent supporter of State Department foreign policy than the American labor bureaucracy. This has not spared it the blows of reaction at home, for, as Trotsky points out:
“Monopoly capitalism is less and less willing to reconcile itself to the independence of the trade unions. It demands of the reformist bureaucracy and the labor aristocracy who pick the crumbs from its banquet table, that they become transformed into its political police before the eyes of the working class. If that is not achieved, the labor bureaucracy is driven away and replaced by the fascists. Incidentally, all of the efforts of the labor aristocracy in the service of imperialism cannot in the long run save them from destruction.”
The current antics of the American union bureaucrats indicate that they have no intention of abandoning their policy of class collaboration despite the savage employer-government anti-labor offensive. They propose to adapt themselves to the Landrum-Griffin-Kennedy measure just as they adapted themselves to Taft-Hartley. They hope to ride out the storm and resume where they left off with business as usual.
However, the union bureaucrats confront a serious dilemma. The stability of the bureaucracy rests on its ability to extract some concessions for services rendered. Failure to do so threatens disaffection in the ranks and engenders opposition moods and movements. Therefore, they must make a show of resistance.
A show of resistance by the union tops threatens to unleash a stormy movement from below. A case in point is the militant challenge to the leadership of Teamster Local 85 in San Francisco recently. Because Hoffa has been made the target of reaction he has been compelled to seek rank and file support by advocating militant union action and loosening the bureaucratic grip over the drivers. Taking advantage of the situation the drivers in Local 85 took command of a strike struggle and in the face of the hostility of the leadership, the press and the employers, won a significant victory. This is of enormous symptomatic significance. Other examples can be cited, such as the independent labor mobilization to defeat the Ohio Right-to-Work bill last year, etc.
Whether through capitulation or resistance, cracks and crevices will be opened up in the bureaucratic crust for trade union militants to begin the organization of a left wing opposition. A genuine left wing formation will emblazon on its banner the Marxist sign of the class struggle. For only by transforming the unions into revolutionary instruments in the struggle for state power will American labor be able to avoid the holocaust of imperialist war, depression and fascist barbarism.
Last updated: 27.1.2006