by Don Hamerquist and Noel Ignatin
Workplace Papers

"The working class and the employing class have nothing in common."

Despite all the propaganda to the contrary, these words are as true today as when they were first written in 1906, in the Preamble of the Industrial Workers of the World. Peace, the equality of the darker peoples with the white, equality of the female sex with the male, economic security and the full development of human creativity are beyond reach so long as the vast majority of humankind those who labor to produce wealth are subjugated by the small minority who own and control the mines, the banks, the land and the factories.

Capitalism has attained technological marvels in production, transportation and communications, but the benefits of these have been denied to the people. It is up to the working class to break the power of the capitalist class and gain the benefits of modern society for all of the people. In order to do this, the working people must organize themselves as a class, politically and economically. Such organization involves two tasks:

(1) defense of the day-to-day interests of the working people;
(2) preparation of the working class to abolish capitalism.

Many workers in the past have looked to the labor unions to solve their problems. It has become increasingly obvious in recent years that the unions fail to meet the needs. The reason for their failure is that they are guided by the principle of collaboration with the employers instead of struggle against them.

Labor unions in this country hardly deserve to be called unions. Those in which members enroll voluntarily are generally not open to all of the workers in their industry the building trades unions, which deny membership to Black workers and often to any workers but the relatives of members, are the bestknown example of this type of "union." On the other hand, those unions which are open to all in the industry usually have compulsory membership based on the dues check-off system the UAW is an example of this type. Neither the existing craft nor the industrial unions meet the qualifications for a labor union freely open to all workers in a given industry.


All existing unions accept the contract system, in which labor and management agree to certain terms of employment for a given time period. In a contract, management agrees to provide a certain standard of wages, fringe benefits and working conditions. The union, for its part, agrees to keep its members working at the agreed-upon terms. The role of the union is to gain and enforce a contract with the employer. Its ability to do this depends, first, on its ability to pull a strike during negotiations and, second, on its ability to prevent strikes and slowdowns during the life of the contract.

Thus the nature of the contract demands that the union do what no workers' organization should ever do maintain labor discipline for the boss. The unions become a part of the company's apparatus, present at every point of grievance in order to prevent any disruption of production.

At the heart of the union's regulatory role is the grievance procedure, whose effect is to make direct action by the workers "illegal." Behind the grievance procedure is the arbitration machinery which has builtin conditions encouraging collaboration instead of struggle.

Even the ability of a union to fight at contract time is limited by its acceptance of the contract system. Employers, for example, are able to prepare for strikes by building up inventories through compulsory overtime during the last months of a contract. The unions are forced to accumulate huge treasuries to sustain a long strike, and these treasuries make them more vulnerable to injunctions and legal suits. They also make the unions into banks, insurance companies and real estate holders with a stake in the status quo.

The pillar of all this accumulation of wealth is, of course, the dues check-off. This measure, which was originally aimed at providing the unions with a sound financial base, has become a means of removing them entirely from any control by their members. What can one say about such an institution as the United Auto Workers, whose treasury is totally dependent on the multi-million dollar checks it receives every month from General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, the checks being called "dues" by virtue of a slip of paper that every worker is compelled to sign if he wishes to be hired?

We could go on and on. But the point is that every one of the great gains of the CIO drive to organize the mass production industries seniority, the grievance procedure, the written contract, dues checkoff, paid time for officials has been transformed into a means of strengthening the authority of management. It is not possible in this paper to review the steps in this transformation. For now, it is enough to note that the regulating role which unions always fulfilled to some degree has become their dominant aspect.

It is easy to cry "sell-out" at the typical labor agreement. Certainly sell-outs are common. But the root of the problem does not lie in bad leadership although there is plenty of that but in the institution of contract unionism itself. Indeed, one could well argue that the more conscientiously, within its own lights, the union defends the contractual interests of its members the more firmly it "rivets the laborer to capital" as "the wedges of Vulcan did Prometheus to the rock."


No solution will come through working within the existing union structure. Consider the minimal demand for the abolition of the "no strike" clause, which would not fundamentally alter the role of the union, since it would legalize strikes in cases of the employer's violation of the contract but not in cases where an inadequate contract needs amendment. In spite of its minimal character, winning the abolition of the "no strike" clause would represent an advance for the workers.

Why has the "no strike" clause, universally hated by the workers, persisted as a fixed part of virtually every union contract? The employers generally insist on its inclusion in the contract because it ensures smooth operations. Union officials tend to support it because frequent strikes make their work harder, expose them to closer examination by their constituencies and jeopardize their prerogatives. Yet, in spite of these obstacles, some union locals have passed resolutions calling for the abolition of the clause.

These resolutions have remained on paper. The reason is not hard to discover. Those moments at which the "no strike" clause is the greatest barrier to struggle when the workers wish to strike during the term of the contract are precisely the times when it cannot be negotiated out of the contract. And those times when it can be negotiated out when the contract has expired and strikes are legal the "no strike" clause fades into the background as an issue with the potential for mobilizing large numbers of workers. It is the old story of the leaky roof: when it is raining you can't fix it and when the sun is out you don't have to.

Time and again, opposition caucuses with the primary goal of winning union elections have been proven either futile or dangerous. They are futile because the masses of workers, particularly the unskilled, the young, the Black and the women workers, are rightly cynical about unionism, and will not respond to any programs, no matter how good they sound, which offer only another version of trade unionism.

On those occasions where inner-union opposition caucuses are successful in attracting a large following, they prove to be dangerous because they can and do pull the most militant workers away from struggle with the employer into inner-union politics, thus undermining the growth of working class consciousness.


To our knowledge, the most significant exception to the sorry state of the labor movement is the League of Revolutionary Black Workers made up of its component groups DRUM, ELRUM, FRUM and others with its main present base in the Detroit auto plants. The program of the League, of ending racism and fighting for workers' power in the plants, is in the interests of all workers. This program, combined with its militant practice of direct mass action and its systematic efforts at raising the class consciousness of the workers, makes it an instructive contrast to official unionism.

Of course, the League, as its name indicates, is an organization of Black workers. We feel that it is necessary in many situations for Black workers to organize separately. It would be wrong to expect them to wait for white workers to repudiate their racial privileges and join in the fight against racism. By organizing themselves and carrying on a fight against white supremacy, Black workers are making a tremendous contribution to the struggle of the entire working class. In addition, the special oppression and experience of the Black workers makes it possible for them to provide leadership for the whole working class.


The separate organization of Black workers is not sufficient to build a working class movement able to take power in industry and in the country generally. Something else is needed, not in competition with the organizations of Black workers, but in addition to them. That something else is an organization open to all working people, that is based at the work place and that carries on a constant struggle, using all forms of direct action, in the political and economic interests of the workers as a class.

What would such an organization look like?

Membership should be universal a member once in one industry, a member always in all industries. The structure should be built along plant and industry lines that is, there should be locals in each organized place of work, and locals in the same industry should be grouped together in an industrial council.

Dues should be low an organization that relies on direct action and on-the-job strikes does not need a large war chest. Under no circumstances should the organization sign an agreement with an employer which limits its freedom of strike action in any way. Nor should "winning" pension and welfare plans which tie the worker to his present employer ever be a goal. Instead, the fight must be for universal pension and welfare plans for all workers, regardless of service to any one employer.

Aside from locals formed along purely industrial lines, the organization should encourage locals of Black and Spanish-speaking workers, and locals of women workers, as well as Black and Latin caucuses and women's caucuses within mixed locals, and any other forms necessary to ensure the freedom and independence of action of these specially oppressed groups.

It should strive to establish the closest relations and organic unity among all sections of the working class, recognizing that the principal responsibility for achieving such unity rests with the privileged group the white male workers.


One of the greatest crimes of contract unionism is that it has given legal force to the color and sex privileges of white male workers. Contract unionism, in this regard, has been both a result and a reinforcement of their tendency to place their own immediate individual and group interests over the interests of the entire working class, and to act in ways that amount to scabbing on the class as a whole. White and male supremacy, which have been built in through "seniority," "training," "qualifications" and other devices, have given a virtual monopoly of the better jobs better in terms of pay, conditions and security to white men. Their racism and chauvinism leads them to fight to preserve and extend these privileges. This attachment to special favors from the boss is the real underlying cause of disunity within the working class, which works to the detriment of the entire class, including the sectors it is supposed to protect.

A programmatic challenge to the exclusion of Black and women workers from full equal job competition with white men, which includes a challenge to all the mechanisms by which such exclusion is enforced, is a central feature of the workers' organization that we are committed to build. Without such a challenge, all talk of "revolutionary class unity" is empty.

And we must be clear that while these privileges cannot be broken down without a challenge to contract unionism, their elimination will not come automatically from such a challenge. Special attention must be given to ensure that demands which presently are seen, especially by white male workers, as demands of the Black or women workers become demands of all workers for the Black and female members of the working class. The slogan, "An injury to one is an injury to all," must be applied literally to the fullest extent.


The political face of contract unionism, which consists of electoral and legislative maneuvering within the framework of capitalist politics, is as bankrupt as the economic face, and for the same reasons. A workers' organization must represent the interests of the working class in the political, as well as the economic, arena. Such issues as opposition to aggressive, imperialist war, and domestic repression of the people, the winning of full freedom for the Black, Puerto Rican, Mexican, and other oppressed peoples, equal rights for women, the defense of the socialist countries, and the general fight to improve the people's livelihood are questions of the deepest concern to wage workers.

In the political, as in the economic sphere, the stress must be on direct action by the workers, to make the bosses pay for their crimes against the people. The recent mass walkout by Black workers at the Ford plant in Chicago in response to the police murders in Augusta and Jackson State is a fine example which should be extended through U.S. industry.

The central weapon of the organization we are projecting is the general political strike, and by more limited actions and propaganda and agitation the workers must be prepared to use this tactic effectively.


People who appreciate the need for an organization along the lines we have described must begin to build the foundations for it immediately.

How do we propose to work toward such an organization?

The masses of workers haven't ceased to struggle for an instant. Beginning with individual goofing-off, pilfering and absenteeism, including sabotage of production and the organized evasion of work standards, increasingly taking the form of rejection of contracts negotiated for them by their union officials, now and again breaking out in wildcat strikes and violent confrontations with government authority the workers daily demonstrate that where there is oppression, there is resistance.

We recognize the limitations of such spontaneous struggles. Except in some cases involving Black workers, they usually represent group rather than class interests and sometimes even take a reactionary turn. Without a clear idea of how local struggles fit into a total picture, the tendency of the workers involved is to fall back into the usual patterns of contract unionism and acceptance of the employers' control over their lives.

We propose to start with the struggle that exists. We do not propose to channel the energies generated in such spontaneous actions into a program of union reform. Instead, we propose to build a revolutionary mass workers' organization which can take part in on-going struggles and initiate new ones, which can develop these struggles both tactically and politically, coordinate them, transform them from group to class struggles, and change their character from spontaneous to conscious acts . . . until they are seen as a part of the path to the smashing of capitalism and the taking of power by the working class.

We expect attacks from the union officials, who will see us as a threat to their elaborate structure which guarantees "good relations" between labor and capital. To these officials we answer, "Exactly!" You have got yourself in command of a ship, the ship of contract unionism, and it is sinking. We don't intend to go down with it, and we don't think the masses of workers will either. We have begun work on a new ship and, if in the course of our work we have to tear a few planks out of your vessel, or even blow the leaky old barge to hell, so be it. As for your soft jobs and big expense accounts and fancy dinners with the bosses, we couldn't care less.

Aside from the union officials, other forces who can see no further than inner-union caucuses will call us "dual unionists," and the charge will be made that we propose isolating the most advanced workers and abandoning the mass of workers to the official union structure. But in the first place, since membership in most existing unions is compulsory, the question does not arise of individuals "leaving" them their dues will still be checked off from the paycheck, right next to the federal income tax.

In the second place, we are not suggesting that work in the unions stop. Agitation within the union can often be a useful means of helping the workers overcome their illusions about what can be done within them.

The fact is that few workers are active in the unions. Most don't bother to vote in union elections, and the recent spectacle of an open meeting of Local 65 of the United Steelworkers, "representing" 11,000 people at the South Works of U.S. Steel in Chicago, being attended by a total of sixteen members ought to teach us something. But in cases where participating in union elections, organizing to run and support candidates, fighting over union policy and other such activities within the union can be useful in organizing workers to strengthen a mass revolutionary workers' organization, by all means such activities should be undertaken. The main point is that the aim is to build an organization that can confront individual employers and the capitalist class on the basis of independent power, not to build caucuses to influence union officials.

The great labor upsurge of the 1930's led to the pushing aside of the old craft unions and the formation of the CIO. The coming upsurge of the 1970's represents a challenge to the past more profound even than that which produced the CIO. If it is to have any lasting impact, it must lead to the pushing aside of the old unions, more thoroughly than was done by the CIO, and the formation of new-type organizations. It is the task of revolutionaries to recognize this process, align themselves with it and help it to fruition.

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