Trade Union Perspectives

Bill Leumer
"So the question is: How do we move forward and organize the discontent in order to build unity and allow class interests to be fought for?"

Bill Leumer

…we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to. (Karl Marx: Letter to Ruge, Sept. 1843)

Today employers, in order to survive, are compelled by the competitive nature of the capitalist system to reduce their costs of production at labor’s expense, resulting in the employers’ relentless attempts to drive down the standard of living of the American working class to ever lower levels. Profits are raised directly at the expense of wages. So the employers have a class struggle strategy. Workers need one of their own.

The fact that the employers, as a class, have not launched a full scale attack on the working class is a testament to their awareness of the still remaining potential for organized labor to be mobilized in its own defense. The set-backs suffered by labor in the recent years have been a result, it is true, of an overall employer plan that has taken the form of various assaults taking on one industry at a time, as opposed to a coordinated engagement all along the entire labor front. The result has been that labor has suffered loses in many of these battles. However, there has been a desire by the rank and file to resist these attacks and at times some have actually organized resistance. The highest example of this in the recent past was the UPS strike nine years ago led by Ron Carey. There have been other less significant struggles that have occurred at the local level. More often than not, what has been lacking during these skirmishes of resistance has been a correct strategy for winning these struggles that would involve the class struggle tactics that were employed to establish the unions in the first place.

The fact that worker resistance is expressed, albeit cautiously at times, actually indicates the need for a bold defensive united front-type policy, based on a class struggle approach, that can be implemented most assuredly if we go about it in the proper manner. By united front, what is meant is a coming together of members of the working class to fight for a specific issue or issues in their interest, regardless of their political affiliation. For example, anti-imperialist war movements are united fronts. Working people of different political persuasions come together to oppose the war. A union is itself an example of a united front since the members fight together for their common interests while putting their differences on other issues aside.

We must recognize that in general this resistance by the working class is continuously confronted by the labor bureaucracy’s strategy of class collaboration where the class interests of the workers are subordinated to the interests of maintaining the political alliance with the employers. This takes the form of supporting the capitalist Democratic Party, but it also takes the form of believing that what is good for the company is good for the workers, even if it means a pay cut for the latter, a logical conclusion if one embraces capitalism as the only possible economic system. That bureaucratic policy forms a powerful, though not insurmountable, obstacle to workers themselves as they attempt to organize effective measures against the employers. It is this class collaboration policy of the labor officials that is responsible, for all intents and purposes, for the working class being disorientated in relation to the employer offensive as well as the low level of class consciousness among the vast majority of workers.

Until a significant shift in events occurs, producing a labor upsurge and radicalization resulting in new mass working class institutions of struggle, like workers’ councils, or at the very least, new trade unions, as has been created in Venezuela, the existing unions in this country remain the only mass working class institutions in existence. Therefore, in my view, we are compelled to attempt to lead the struggles that are sure to arise within these unions when the members of the unions take on the employers and/or their government.

This orientation and united front class struggle approach mentioned above would be diametrically opposed, for example, to moralistically declaring from out in left field that the unions, per se, are essentially dead and thus inaccessible to the members’ attempts to turn them into fighting organs of struggle against the employers. These ungrounded suppositions are linked with the policy that workers should focus their aim, first and foremost, at the union bureaucratic officials by calling for their removal from office. This ultra-left, isolationist policy runs counter to proposing to the vast majority that we aim our fire directly at the employers and that we reach out to rally the members to concentrate our forces on repulsing the employer assaults on our standard of living and working conditions as the sole means of actually raising the level of class consciousness and leading masses in class combat.

This is the only arena where the working class en masse can collectively learn from its actual experiences how practically and most effectively to confront the employers and test out in real life the various competing strategies and tactics of the labor fakers versus the class struggle forces. This is how historically masses of workers do in fact learn, as opposed to learning from merely enlightened propaganda that is acquired only on an individual basis.

It is within this united front framework that I think represents the well-lit path that will actually contribute to guiding the existing working class movement toward socialism as if with a rising sun. The other approaches amount to nothing but black holes.

Our party should at all times be aimed at reaching out to develop the struggles of the masses in order to win over the majority of the working class to a class struggle perspective. The implementation of this policy will lead to the creation of a mass revolutionary party of the American working class. It is important to remember that our party is only a part of the working class (I think we have just under 60 comrades in a country of 280 million, and two Teamster comrades in a union of 1.4 million). As such the party cannot act solely on the basis of its own will; the subjective requirements of the working class of necessity must also be taken fully into account. In other words, the party cannot act in place of the class as a whole.

The working class must make the revolution. The revolutionary party is but an instrument in the establishment of the working class becoming the ruling class. Having a correct program, while essential, must not alleviate the recognition that the vast majority of the working class has little or no comprehension of our program whatsoever.

So the question is: How do we move forward and organize the discontent in order to build unity and allow class interests to be fought for?

At the fourth congress of the Red International Labor Unions that met in Moscow in 1928, Lozovsky, the nominal head of this organization, proclaimed the “united front from below” as the policy to be used in relation to trade unions in all capitalist countries. What he meant by this is that he and his co-thinkers would refuse to work with the current official “leaders” of the union but appeal to the rank and file to abandon their leaders in favor of Lozovsky and his affiliates. He justified this line in theoretical terms by referring to “the growing together … of the trade unions and the capitalist state,” as making necessary, “new forms of class struggle.” The implication of this approach was that the main enemy was considered to be the trade union bureaucracy. In other words, there was to be no alliance made with these agents of the capitalist state, even for immediate working class demands or mutual self-defense as long as the unions were led by these enemies of the working class. This united front from below was understood as something that excluded the pro-capitalist social democratic “leaders” from the get-go, and where the vast majority of the working class who followed these misleaders were simply expected to somehow be converted by this brilliant flash of deduction whereby it was decreed that the unions and the state simply came together and, poof, the workers would simply opt for a new leadership and new forms of class struggle. Workers, however, are not sheep and thus do not mindlessly follow self-selected shepherds.

Of course, this policy never amounted to anything but a dismal disaster because the united front from below is no real united front. That is because it asks workers to break with their existing “leaders” as a precondition for unity when they obviously do not yet share the critical views of revolutionary socialists made against their current “leaders.” It is important to grasp the need to break workers from their traditional conceptions and “leaders” by means of experience, their own actual real life experiences as workers collectively attempting to defend or improve their conditions. Mass consciousness is changed by mass experience. So, for example, just because workers in unions feel the adverse effects of the class collaboration policy of their officials, this does not mean that they are explicitly conscious of its causes. Our task is to make explicit what is merely implicit. For socialists like ourselves, operating in mass working class institutions today in America and seeking to win a majority of the working class to the struggle for socialism where virtually none share our views, we must absolutely and unequivocally be seen as advocates of class unity in relation to the employers. And that is our principal task – to win over the majority of the working class to our side. In order to make socialism into a material force in the class struggle, the strategy and tactics of the transitional approach are required. We are now in a preparatory period, admittedly, that we think will lead to mass struggle actions in the future. The prerequisite for success is implementing a policy designed to win over the majority of the working class to a sane class struggle approach.

The way to begin to establish the party as a material force in the trade unions is by employing basic party-building tactics. These tactics are determined, not on the basis of subjective hopes or wishes concerning the future course of the conflict between the working class and the capitalists, but rather on the basis of the circumstances that actually exist.

As James P. Cannon (one of the founders of American Trotskyism) said at one point: “The most important of all questions for a political group or party, once it has established its program, is to give the correct answer to the question: What to do next? The answer to this question is not, and cannot be determined simply by the desire or whim of the party or the party leadership. It is determined simply by the objective circumstances and the possibilities inherent in the circumstances.” (History of American Trotskyism, page 118)

The circumstances that we are basically confronted with today are these: the employers as a class are on a relentless campaign to lower the standard of living of the American working class in order to enhance profits. Those sitting on top of the unions are in a political alliance with the employers, which takes the form of support to the Democratic Party and acceptance of concessionary contracts without putting up a fight.

This class collaboration policy of the trade union bureaucracy, for all intents and purposes, is supported actively by some, passively by many, or at best, tolerated by most workers in this country today. Aside from the few revolutionary Marxist forces, the vast majority of the working class is under the sway of bourgeois ideology or what could be called manufactured public opinion. In other words, virtually no one in this country sees any alternative to capitalism or the reigning outlook of the pro-capitalist trade union officials. Yet, we know capitalism is fraught with contradictions, most importantly, the conflict between workers and capitalists. Maintaining the political alliance of the trade union officials and the employers requires subordinating the interests of the workers to the profit needs of the bosses. Unlike the immediate post World War II era when concessions could be made to workers without significantly affecting profits, today, due to increased competitive pressures, US capitalism is not in the same economically dominant position and therefore can no longer grant concessions on a regular basis and survive.

It is noteworthy that today we also see workers’ dissatisfaction with declining living standards, which gives rise to the desire to resist. Yet, we few revolutionaries seem to be to a large extent powerless to change things and are forced to raise the question: What can we do to attempt to change things in order to actually turn things around in such a way that the American working class is won to the struggle for socialism, given the array of powerful forces opposed to this orientation? We can employ a united front type class struggle approach as a solution. In my view, it is the adoption of this policy that will differentiate those that merely talk of revolution and those revolutionaries that take this step as the first act of a practical method of winning over the majority of the working class through mass trade union work. It should be noted, as Lenin once said, this type of real, “revolutionary work is very difficult, painful and slow.”

This approach, simply put, is based on a recognition that the revolutionaries do not have a constructive means to influence the working class except by uniting with them through their existing trade union organizations, misled as they may be, around issues that are of immediate concern to them. This means we also must recognize that we are capable of struggling for influence over the trade union membership despite the difficulties, if we adapt ourselves to the current concrete conditions that exist in this country today so that we may in the near future be able to organize workers against the capitalist class itself.

As Trotsky once put it:

To fight the proletariat must have unity in its ranks…. Consequently the tactic of the united front is not something accidental and artificial – a maneuver – it originates, entirely and wholly, in the objective conditions governing the development of the proletariat. The words of the Communist Manifesto which state that that the communists are not to be opposed to the proletariat, that they have no interests separate and apart from the proletariat as a whole, carry with them the meaning that the struggle of the party to win over the majority of the class must in no instance come into opposition with the need of workers to keep unity within their fighting ranks.

Trotsky also said, “The historical interests of the proletariat find their expression in the Communist Party – when its policies are correct. The task of the Communist Party consists in winning over the majority of the proletariat; and only thus is the socialist revolution made possible…. And the party can’t demand the right to lead the proletariat.” No, “the task of the party consists in learning, from experience derived from struggle, how to demonstrate to the proletariat its right to leadership.”

It seems to me that the essence of the above remarks means that when we operate in the unions we should encourage members to turn to the union to organize themselves against the employers’ concessionary demands that are aimed at reducing our standard of living. In doing this, we are explicitly calling on the union officials to lead this struggle. In this sense the united front is not seen as merely exposing social democratic opponents as misleaders, although at times this is necessary, but it can also be a genuine attempt to initiate joint actions, especially with lower level echelons of union officials who are most susceptible to pressure from the ranks. When a labor upsurge occurs, the pressure from the ranks is sure to get a positive response from the best of the officials who are attempting to lead a defense of the members’ interests.

What we would advocate is that a campaign be set into motion by the elected union officials that would educate the members, as well as the potential allies of the union, of the importance of what is at stake in order to prepare for a serious test of wills of the workers versus the employers. The most important part of this campaign effort will be mobilizing the membership around the immediate issues in dispute that will then allow the union to reach out to other unions and those unorganized for support. If or when the union officials do not respond to the will of the mobilized members, then it will be clear what must be done next, that is to say, to replace them with new and proven leaders. For us it is not a question of whether or not to replace the misleaders sitting on top of the union but rather how to go about leading the mass of the trade union members in real life.

It is in this concrete situation, where the membership of the unions has yet to establish as its aim the replacement of the current union officials, that what has historically been termed the flanking tactic should be employed. The flanking tactic amounts to this: Instead of beginning by denouncing the union bureaucrats as class traitors, one calls on the union with its current misleaders to mount a fight against the concessions demanded by the employers. In such a situation, the bureaucrats must choose whether to put up a fight or be exposed as opposing the fight. It is this tactic that is a concrete example of the united front/class struggle approach of socialist workers and their allies. The flanking tactic is based on the expectation that the misleaders will usually resist organizing the members to put up a struggle against the employers because that fight conflicts with their policy of class collaboration. Demanding that workers begin by attacking the officials, instead of the employers, can be misconstrued as our merely seeking to replace them, thus diverting the focus away from the employers. Such an approach can do nothing but aid the overall class collaboration policy of the union officials.

The problem facing all misleaders, as opposed to those honest officials attempting to defend the interests of the membership, is, in order to maintain the collaborative relation with the employers and be of some use to them, they have to, at the very least, appear to their own rank and file that they are able to secure them new gains, defend past gains, or minimize concessions, demanded by the employers. In any conflict with the employers, the misleaders will reveal their inability to lead a real struggle capable of any success. So the flanking tactic is to advocate concentrating all the union’s attack directly on the employers and this in turn will expose the misleaders before the whole membership if and when they do not take up the challenge to fight in the interests of the members.

This united front/class struggle approach is consciously designed to show the ranks that the socialists and their allies are more capable of defending the members’ immediate needs than the current misleaders. And it also most importantly shows that defending our living standard requires not only a struggle against the employers’ attacks, but also a struggle against the class collaborationist policy of the trade union officials. So if they do not choose to lead the fight or if they choose to conduct it in a defeatist manner, then the members will recognize, through their own experience, the need to replace the misleaders in order to develop the fighting capacity of the union. The transformation of the union into a fighting instrument under the control of the members is possible only to the extent that the experience of the majority of the ranks produces a rise in their class consciousness so that it is they who are directing and implementing this transformative process. Thus, the highest priority of the party is to raise the level of the consciousness of the workers.

Eventually, we will no longer be talking about the need to change the level of the consciousness of the workers; their raised consciousness will have matured and become a material force that has the potential to change the entire social landscape. And when the principal activists witness this transformation of the consciousness of the membership, they will then understand the need of a revolutionary combat party such as ours and will want to join. Socialists will have a much more conducive environment to the acceptance of their arguments that these reforms will only be temporary as long as capitalism exists and that socialism alone will provide a genuine solution to the plight of the working class.

Therefore, in my view, taking this step of employing the flanking tactic becomes absolutely necessary because the vast majority of union members do not yet share our class struggle, revolutionary Marxist frame of reference. Consequently, the basis of any action of the members must first and foremost be directed against the employers. No amount of enlightened propaganda can substitute for the lessons learned by workers from their own experience of actual class combat they conduct against the employers.

Within the context of a massive and sustained assault on our standard of living with the aim of bolstering the profits of the competing capitalists, we must comport ourselves as those trying to save the unions from dying of impotency due to the misleaders’ acquiescence to the employers’ profit priorities. We must oppose any tendency, from either the right or the left, to abandon the unions from becoming the instruments of struggle of the masses of unionized workers. We must not waver in our opposition to the misguided tertiary ultra-leftism that asserts that the unions, the only working class institutions in existence, are hopeless simply because the class collaborationist officials have entrenched themselves in the top offices. No, the unions can and will be transformed into institutions that defend the class interests of the members, not by referring to the unions with meaningless or inexplicable abstract sounding phrases, but by organizing a defense of the living standards against the employers’ assaults as the main point of reference.

The role of class struggle fighters, in my view, is to organize the fight against the employers clearly on the basis of a class struggle approach as the only practical means of combating the trade union misleadership policy of class collaboration. We will make the best gains under the current circumstances by being advocates of altering the lopsided relations of class forces by using the existing class institutions, the unions, which is the only place in which workers are organized today.

This is the framework we operated in when I was president of my machinists local. And we in fact succeeded in greatly raising the level of consciousness of the workers in the local, evidenced by the fact that they were one of the few locals in the entire country to turn down a contract. What this meant was that we succeeded in winning the membership, who were positioned in a crucial sector of the economy, to a rejection of the policy of class collaboration with the employers. Because of this, we had influence with the other unions at GE and Westinghouse because, when they saw we were not prepared to accept concessions, they began to follow our lead. Therefore we were able to reach out to them with the idea of extending our gains. Had conditions been propitious (they were not since the defense industry was soon to be significantly reduced), we could have moved beyond the defense sphere to other sectors of the economy. Eventually we could have raised the level of working class consciousness in the direction of socialism by building a class struggle left-wing throughout the union movement that could have positioned itself to challenge and replace the whole AFL-CIO misleadership.

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About the Author: Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.), former member of IBT Local 216 and was a pro-Carey TDU member. He is a writer for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org.