From International Socialist Review, Vol.18 No.3, Summer 1957, pp.80-84.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
For years the head of the Teamsters union was well regarded in business circles. Then he was suddenly singled out for crushing exposure. What is back of this astonishing reversal in top policy?
TWENTY years ago the great sit-down strikes and the rise of the CIO added a new and significant chapter to American labor history. Like a mighty battering ram union consciousness and union organization smashed all obstacles and conquered the open-shop fortress in basic industry. Never before had labor organization reached out so widely or deeply. In one tremendous sweep the American trade-union movement was transformed. From its backward craft-union status it became an advanced industrial organization. This regeneration was stimulated by the most powerful dynamic any movement can have; a high degree of confidence in its growing strength. But that was yesteryear.
Today we witness a sordid spectacle. The unified AFL-CIO has become a center of attention and publicity, but not because of its progress or achievements. It is the victim of attempts to reduce it to a mere fulcrum for exposure of racketeering and corruption of a section of its leadership.
Dave Beck and some of his co-officials of the Teamsters union were the first target. Let there be no mistake, however; these exposures are merely a convenient cover for far broader objectives. As always, social reaction in all forms is constrained to mask its real aims. And these exposures can be understood correctly only as a first step in a softening up process, directed against the whole labor movement, in preparation for more open attacks.
The Wall Street Journal opened its account of the Beck hearing with the observation: “Disclosures of union corruption are unloosing legislative demands to curb labor’s powers.” Arthur Krock, the Washington correspondent of The New York Times, spelled it out more clearly. One prominent reaction in the capital to the Beck revelations, according to Krock, was the “view that ‘right to work’ state laws should be adopted generally, or that the Taft-Hartley Act, which now permits the ‘union shop’ should be amended to prohibit it everywhere.” And Senator McClellan did not even bother to conceal his indecent haste when he introduced a “right to work” amendment to the pending civil-rights bill, long before the hearings of his committee were well under way.
But one hardly need doubt that when the attacks are mounted, the labor movement will know how to reassert the militantly progressive tendency which has become an inextricable part of its history.
Like all other social forces the trade-union movement is subject to the changing conditions of the class struggle. It rises to progressive heights of militancy when the pressure of deteriorating material conditions provide the combination of conscious awareness and readiness to fight for the needs of the movement, together with a leadership that is adequate for the occasion. It sinks to the level of quiescence, and even apathy, and retreats when material conditions permit greater concessions to labor and the pressure of class antagonisms ease. During recent years this is the kind of ebb tide that has prevailed. It has provided abundant possibilities for the labor leaders to extend their bureaucratic powers and privileges. And corruption, even graft and racketeering, is not an exceptional part of the usurpation of special privileges.
Among this parvenu caste, Beck proved to be an easy target for the sanctimonious senatorial exposure. His mercenary career is studded with corruption and shady deals. For outright racketeering and thievery, it must be conceded that his type of leadership furnishes a most degenerate example. Using the union treasury and union power as a base of operation, Beck engaged in the most fantastic and foul conniving over juke boxes, liquor, real estate, and union welfare and pension funds for the personal profit of himself, his family, his cousins and nephews. Some of his top associates were implicated in the same shady kind of business.
The McClellan hearings were carefully designed to create the impression that the trade unions are natural breeding grounds for corruption. This is entirely contrary to the facts of life. Corruption does not originate in the labor movement. It oozes out of every pore of the capitalist system. From this native habitat corruption seeps into the circles of the labor bureaucracy, primarily through collusion with the employers. In this field Dave Beck excelled. He became a most accomplished practitioner in the art. Teamster services were withheld to eliminate small business competitors, while the big ones were granted more generous contracts at the expense of the workers. Collusion served also to discipline recalcitrant union members. The marauding type of business unionism practiced by Beck and his associates epitomizes the worst evils of labor bureaucratism.
Dave Beck conceived union organization as a piratical business. Without compunction he proceeded to raid other unions in the spirit and practice of the buccaneering robber barons whose despoiling of the nation is a familiar part of American history. Most notorious was the attempt, in 1948, to break the Seattle strike of the Boeing aircraft workers union in hope of swallowing its membership. The attempt failed; but continual raiding tactics have brought the Teamsters into jurisdictional disputes with many other unions.
Early in his career Beck let it be known: “I have no use for class warfare.” But he and his machine never hesitated to use goon-squad terrorism to rule the Teamsters union with an iron hand. Local unions that stepped ‘‘out of line” were put under trusteeship. Almost 12 percent of the Teamsters locals – 105 out of 897 – were under such trusteeship at the end of 1955.
When Beck was at the head of the West Coast Conference of Teamsters he told Joe Miller, a journalist who interviewed him, “I am paid $25,000 a year to run this outfit. [Later he received $50,000.] Unions are big business. Why should truck drivers and bottle washers be allowed to make big decisions affecting union policy. Would any corporation allow it?”
Beck rose to top leadership in the aftermath of the great drive, initiated from Minneapolis, to build the Teamsters union into a mass organization. That initiative has been recalled recently by several commentators. Paul Jacobs made the following observation in The Reporter of January 24, 1957:
“But between 1933 and 1935 a remarkable change took place in a Teamsters local in Minneapolis, a change that fundamentally affected the nature of the entire union. Local 574 in that city had come under the control of a group of Trotskyists, who in the short span of a few years established a wholly new pattern for the organization of Teamster unionism, one that has guided it to its present size and success.
“The leaders of 574 during that period were the Dunne brothers – Vincent, Miles and Grant – and Farrell Dobbs, all Trotskyists.”
In an article recently syndicated by the North American Newspaper Alliance, Sid Lens placed further emphasis on the Minneapolis initiative:
“Back in 1933 the Teamsters Union had only 70,000 members. The following year, however, a Trotskyist named Farrell Dobbs conceived the strategy which made the Teamsters what they are today. He organized the over-the-road drivers nationally, fanning out from Minneapolis, and used this economic power to rebuild the union.
“Any company which was recalcitrant faced the prospect of having its long distance hauling stalled. The union organizer was a militant and a radical, but there is no question that his unions were free of corruption. Had he remained in the Teamsters he probably would be in Beck’s place today and Beck would be only a minor figure.”
Lens described the government prosecution of Dobbs and 17 of his associates, under the Smith Act in 1940, and the rise of Beck’s star in the Teamsters firmament. He ends his observation with the comment: “What Dobbs sowed, Beck reaped.”
The corruption disclosures have reverberated through the AFL-CIO hierarchy. How did the high moguls meet the twofold challenge? No exception was taken to Beck’s collusion with the employers. Nor did his peers object to his autocratic rule of the Teamsters union, for both of these practices form an inseparable part of the lamentable record of the whole labor bureaucracy. Bourgeois respectability proved once again to be their foremost concern. They felt outraged because Beck invoked his constitutional right of resort to the Fifth Amendment – an indispensable safeguard against all witch-hunts whether these are used to destroy civil liberties or to weaken and destroy the trade union movement. Stung by the inference of guilt by association, Meany pontificated in sonorous tones about “setting labor’s house in order,” and Reuther prescribed “high standards of ethical and moral conduct.”
Alas, morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character. And the morality of the self-proclaimed paragons of virtue, sitting on top of the heap in labor’s house, follows the imperialist credo everywhere, from fortification of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime on Formosa to protection of the imperialist oil properties in the Middle East. In the name of this morality, the stalwart gentry affirm their allegiance to the prevailing order of capitalist rule and succumb to its implications. By the same precept every critical voice in the unions is stifled and refractory workers expelled. It is the morality that has class collaboration for its foundation.
The AFL-CIO hierarchy did not hesitate to offer Beck as a scapegoat in the hope of appeasing the capitalist rulers. But the failure to meet the real challenge only stands out the more obviously. There is no sign of any serious preparation to resist the threat of an anti-labor drive that is so clearly implicit in this whole affair, let alone a recognition of its existence. Without this, the actions taken against Beck by the Executive Council become a mere token of surrender on the real issue, serving notice that class collaboration will continue in effect.
This is the contradiction that grips a trade-union movement whose only reason for existence is the class struggle. And whether or not the class struggle is recognized as a fact of life of capitalist society, the union officials can discharge their obligations to the members only by policies and actions that correspond to the needs imposed by this struggle. Class collaboration pursues the exact opposite course. Starting out from the illusory objective of class peace it leads inevitably to retreats and surrender, if not outright betrayal of the needs and the interests of the workers. As a result capitalist forces are strengthened and the power of the unions is undermined. But every surrender only resurrects and intensifies the contradiction at the next successive stage.
Any doubt about this will be quickly dissipated by a look at the record of the bureaucratic confederacy in relation to the Taft-Hartley Act. At the time of its introduction into Congress all the union leaders were under great pressure for some form of resistance from an aroused rank and file. In response they uttered some threats of general strike, or a march on Washington. To be sure, there was neither firmness nor conviction in their response. And they quickly retreated. Their whole attitude has been about as serious and as effective as the quack medical commercial telling us how to break the laxative habit: first take two Little Liver Pills, next take only one, and then nothing. Similarly these peerless bureaucrats: first they demanded repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, next they reduced their demand to revision of the Act, and then nothing.
But the retreats did not produce appeasement. On the contrary, they served only to heighten the attacks on the labor movement and thus to intensify its contradictions. “Right to work” laws banning the union shop followed in quick succession in one state after another. Qualitatively the labor movement has suffered greatly from these retreats.
In the trade-union movement there is a generally close interrelationship between quantity and quality. Mutually they react upon one another. During the stormy growth of the thirties a new quality made its immediate appearance. The whole movement rose to new heights of consciousness and militancy. The powerful internal dynamic – the confidence of growing strength – that was generated by these developments was still in evidence during the great strike wave of 1945-46. Numerically the trade-union membership reached its high point.
Since then, what has been the record of organizational performance by the official stewardship? Has it been less sordid than its record on restrictive labor legislation? To be sure the fraternity of bureaucrats has gained vast extension of its privileges and correspondingly handsome emoluments. Never before have the members of this fraternity enjoyed such princely salaries and huge expense accounts. Union control has become much more firmly centralized in the hands of the top bureaucrats. In negotiation of union contracts, they appear in the role of mediators rather than champions of labor. They readily give concessions, for they seek, above all, stable relations in their collaboration with management. Authorization for strikes is likewise centralized. And when strikes cannot be prevented they may often occur just at the right time to help management unload burdensome inventories. On the whole the effects have been quite well in harmony with the highest corporate aim of maximizing profits by holding labor costs to a minimum. In turn the labor leaders use centralized control as an instrument to tame the workers rather than to advance their economic interests. Thus on the fundamental issue of class collaboration there is no real difference between the leadership of the Beck type and that of the general trade-union bureaucracy. All perform the function of labor lieutenants of capitalism in the ranks of the workers.
By and large these servile leaders have succeeded in their efforts to reduce the activities of the unions to the purely business routine that accepts all restrictions as a lesser evil. True, they have had to contend with a good deal of what they consider a greater evil: militant rank-and-file action expressed in numerous wildcat strikes, and there have been some minor revolts. Nevertheless, the leaders have succeeded in maintaining a certain equilibrium sustained by crumbs of concessions that fall from the banquet table of lush profits from arms production enjoyed by monopoly capitalism. But this equilibrium has been maintained at the cost of destroying the internal dynamic that once made the movement great and powerful. Since 1946 the working population has expanded but union membership has remained stationary.
The failure to expand organizationally is a common feature of all present-day union leaders. Tiny advances made here and there are offset by losses of “runaway” shops. Most outstanding, however, is the failure to organize the South where less than one-fifth of the workers belong to unions. With the extensive industrialization of the Southern states during the last 15 years and the mechanization of agriculture, large segments of former sharecroppers and plantation hands have become transformed into modern wage workers. Simultaneously the Southern Negroes, on their own initiative and out of their own resources, have struck powerful blows against the main obstacle to union organization: the hated Jim Crow segregation system. These developments cry out for organization. Besides, the Southern wage differential remains a threat to union conditions elsewhere. Yet, “Operation Dixie,” the campaign to organize the South, launched in a blazing fanfare of publicity, is now but a faint memory. It died a-borning.
Following the unification of the AFL-CIO, another organization campaign was announced. This time it was to be “Operation White Collar.” In this field there is a potential reservoir for organization of 13 to 14 million workers. Methods and objectives of the campaign are explained by John Livingston, the director of organization, in the AFL-CIO American Federationist. Referring to the effective organization achievements during the early years of this century and during the thirties, he invokes the spirits of Gompers, Green and Murray. It is no accident that the name of John L. Lewis is not mentioned. That could spell guilt by association with the spirit of militant struggle of the thirties. Therefore, as could be expected, “Operation White Collar” has not yet got off the ground. And to initiate an organization drive in the spirit of Gompers, Green and Murray, as the patron saints, is to condemn it to death in infancy.
Progress of the trade unions depends to a large extent on their ability to extend organization to all the workers in the various branches of our highly integrated system of production and distribution. The greater their success in this field, the more effective their function as mass organs in protecting the elementary rights and interests of the workers. In this sense unions are essentially defensive in character. Their main aims and activities are centered around maintaining the standard of living theoretically granted by the capitalist system. Generally this standard includes no more than an approximation of what is required to reproduce labor power.
But labor productivity tends to rise with every advance in the technique of production. As a result the profit from additional values created increases while the share received by the workers diminishes proportionately. At the same time the capitalist mode of production creates new needs and new wants, from automobiles to the tiniest kitchen gadget. All these wants enter into the requirements of modern living although they cannot be supplied to the workers within the share of value they get under the laws of capitalist production. And the unions become instruments of the workers in the fight for a greater share of the national income, arraying the workers against the bourgeoisie. In this sense the trade-union movement has revolutionary implications.
American labor history is replete with examples of these implications. They were clearly apparent in the great upheaval of the thirties. Challenging the bourgeoisie, the resurgent labor movement became a new powerful social force. It proclaimed and simultaneously established its independence as an organization. Still this great resurgence did not achieve political independence for labor. On the contrary. While the leadership of the time was adequate for the breakthrough of union organization, it established close ties with the capitalist state power. During the subsequent years these ties became more firmly knit, particularly through the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. In return for meager concessions to labor the leaders put themselves at the service of the capitalist state. Class collaboration was elevated from its earlier rudimentary stage of collusion with the employers to the higher level of collaboration with the capitalist political state.
However, while this collaboration serves the aims of the labor statesmen who are camp followers of the bourgeoisie, for the trade-union movement it creates serious contradictions, new disappointments and frustrations. These appear in the development of organization as well as in politics. One example will illustrate the point.
The chief medium of collaboration is the coalition of these labor statesmen with the Democratic party. But it remains in effect only through their subservience. Policies and actions of the unions are subordinated to this relationship, and this is precisely the reason why the much publicized campaign to organize the South was quietly shelved.
Racial segregation is still one of the pillars of the Southern social system. It forms the axis for the divide-and-rule policy of the Dixiecrats. How could there be any effective union organization without unity in action of both white and colored workers? But this would not only clash with the rule of the Southern Bourbons, it would also endanger the labor-Democratic party coalition. And so the interests of preserving the coalition took precedence over the needs of the workers.
But the collaboration with the capitalist state is by no means confined to the Democratic party. In return for concessions to labor, monopoly capitalism, in control of state power, demands that the labor leaders serve directly as petty but active stockholders of the imperialist enterprise at home and abroad. On every question of basic issue they are no less bipartisan than are the representatives of both capitalist parties. They have given as unstinting support to the Eisenhower Doctrine as they did to the Truman Doctrine. And, eager to show how indispensable they are to the capitalist state, they become the most aggressive proponents of the cold war, and the foremost champions of the imperialist arms build-up. Any voice raised for moderation of world tensions is denounced as appeasing the Kremlin.
On the home front the labor bureaucrats adapt themselves to the demand of the capitalist government to hold the unions in line. This is the reason for the extreme centralization of power in the hands of the higher officials. Manifestations of worker militancy are stifled, wildcat strikes are outlawed, and, above all, any effort toward independent labor political action is strangled in infancy.
To the bipartisan witch-hunt, unleashed by the government, the labor bureaucrats responded with parallel measures in the unions. Militant or radical workers accused of Communist taint were fired from jobs, in collusion with the employers, or eliminated from union office. Whole unions were expelled on the same grounds. But this collaboration with the capitalist state brought disastrous consequences. The labor bureaucrats could not circumvent the logic of the class struggle. The trade-union movement, whose only reason for existence is the class struggle, is now face to face with the contradiction of the class-collaborationist policy of its leadership.
With every move to stifle worker militancy the unions were laid increasingly open to attack. Step by step monopoly capitalism, in control of the government, followed up with legislation restricting the rights and independence of the unions. From the Taft-Hartley Act through the “right to work” state laws, the road is now being cleared for more sharply restrictive legislation. The witch-hunt technique is now turned directly against the trade-union movement. The form of the procedure has changed. There is no accusation of Communism or inquiry into political association; but the objective remains the same. Congressional hearings of this kind are held to smear organizations and isolate them for persecution. Beck and his fellow freebooters were singled out as the first exposure target because they were the most vulnerable. Revelations of their plunder and pillage could be used most effectively to inflame public opinion.
The design of this game is clear to all who view it objectively except – the labor bureaucrats, the very ones who are supposed to defend the unions against such attacks. It is true that the leaders are dependent upon the working class which is the source of their positions of power. But they place their reliance and their trust in the capitalist system from which, in the final analysis, they draw their privileges. Their loyalty to this system is primary. Their loyalty to the working class is only secondary and residual. So instead of preparing to defend the unions, the labor bureaucrats capitulated.
There can be no question about the advisability of booting Beck and similar scoundrels out of the trade-union movement. But that can be done effectively and thoroughly only by the rank and file. Theirs is the task of eliminating all bureaucracy from the unions and replacing the corrupt and treacherous officials with leaders who are loyal to the unions and who identify their interests with those of the workers. An inseparable part of this task is the restoration of union democracy. For only the conditions of free expression, without fear of reprisals, will provide the unity of action that is so essential for the unions to be of genuine service to the working class.
But the real target of the attack initiated by the McClellan committee exposure is not the officials but the unions themselves. And the efforts of the AFL-CIO hierarchy to settle everything within the upper circle by eliminating Beck and effecting a quiet reshuffling of offices, will not buy immunity. The failure to center attention on the problem of how to meet the attack will serve only to confuse the workers about its real meaning. The attempt to duck this main issue does not attenuate the problem but aggravates it. Regardless of intentions, it serves the very objective that is clearly implicit in the whole affair; namely, to cripple in advance any resistance to the assault on the unions themselves.
Changing economic conditions are at the foundation of this onslaught on the labor movement. The boom, long sustained by unprecedented arms expenditures, shows increasing signs of tapering off. Elements of crisis appear as a result of productive forces outstripping a market saturated with goods and deformed by inflation, high taxes and installment buying. Monopoly capitalism is apprehensive about diminishing profits. And, facing this dilemma, it resorts to its time-honored method of attempting to get out of the contradiction by unloading the consequences of economic decline on the backs of the workers. To do so, union opposition must be eliminated or at least reduced to a minimum. For this purpose the efforts of various governmental agencies have been coordinated so that the initial blow may set an impressive precedent for further attacks. From the McClellan committee comes the announcement that other unions besides the Teamsters will receive the exposure treatment. And, as part of the coordination, the Department of Labor timed a special report for this particular occasion. It implies that excessive wage increases have been the key cause of the rise of prices in the last decade. Following the specious type of reasoning that is so common in such reports, it insists that “real labor costs” have increased because average wages and salaries of working people as a whole have risen far faster in the last decade than has their productivity. This report has been submitted to the Congressional Joint Committee, which is making a study of the relationship of wages, prices and productivity. It can be expected that this study will concentrate on “excessive” wage increases, ignoring the fact that these have merely followed, and still lag behind, the excessive rise in the cost of living. To be sure, the combination of these developments marks the opening of a new stage of increasingly strained relations between the unions and the capitalist government.
Within the trade unions these strained relations will be reproduced in growing antagonisms between the privileged bureaucracy and the rank and file. Whatever power and control over the unions the leaders possess is contingent essentially on their capacity to obtain concessions from capitalism and from its state machine. Conversely, as concessions diminish or disappear, the leaders are stripped of their power of arbitrary control. The dilemma that will increasingly confront these labor bureaucrats is a reflection of the developing crisis of capitalism itself. They will face the alternative: either to cease their reliance upon and their support of the capitalist state, or bring relations with their own rank and file into jeopardy.
As the onslaught on the trade-union movement unfolds, the political character of the class struggle will be the more clearly demonstrated. But it is precisely in the field of political action that the class-collaboration policy of the leadership has brought the most disastrous consequences. Retreats and capitulation in face of anti-labor legislation have been rewarded with new kicks in the teeth. Labor’s political demands have seldom got beyond the stage of a polite hearing. And, what is far more serious, through the alignment with the Democratic party and with bipartisan capitalist politics, labor’s political influence has fallen to a new low, despite its power as a great social force. More than anything else, this is due to the bankrupt political policy of its leadership.
What is sorely needed now is a decisive political turn – the adoption of a political policy that is in harmony with the objective needs of the workers and their political class power. A ringing declaration of labor’s independence from the capitalist parties would give serious pause to those who are engineering the assault. The formation of a labor party would provide the political weapon that has now become indispensable to the working class. Moreover, the real significance of such a step would be as far reaching as once explained by Trotsky:
“The class, taken by itself, is only material for exploitation. The proletariat assumes an independent role only at that moment when from a social class in itself it becomes a political class for itself. This cannot take place otherwise than through the medium of a party.”
When this objective is translated into action another significant chapter will be added to American labor history. Once again the trade-union movement will be transformed; but this time from political backwardness to political consciousness. It will have resurrected the militantly progressive tendency which already forms an inextricable part of this history.
Last updated: 19.12.2005