After the Split – Which Direction for Labor?

As the dust settles after the split of the Teamsters, SEIU, UFCW, and UNITE HERE from the AFL-CIO federation at their annual convention in Chicago, the crisis facing the Labor Movement in the U.S. has only intensified. For the first time in half a century, the trade unions are officially divided into large, separate camps. Following the mass industrial struggles of the 1930s and 1940s, “Big Labor” became a force to be reckoned with. In 1955, the year the AFL and CIO merged, one out of every three workers in the U.S. were organized in the trade unions. Fifty years later, only one in eight workers are union members. What a difference a few decades of ‘business unionism’ makes!

The crisis now facing Labor is one of the most serious in its history. What must take place now is a serious discussion of Labor’s decline and how to recover the hard-fought gains we have lost. In this discussion we believe the Marxists can make an important contribution – the rediscovery of the old methods of struggle and the revolutionary roots from which the trade unions were born.

The first question facing the Labor Movement is this: how has the AFL-CIO been able to suffer such a steep decline in membership and power on the economic front? More importantly, how has this happened without a serious defense against the bosses’ attacks?

The two decades following the merger of the AFL-CIO was a period of economic upswing in the United States. This was the only time in American history that the illusory “American Dream” was somewhat real. Although sharply divided along racial lines, for the first – and only – time ever, capitalism seemed to be consistently improving the conditions of American workers. For many working class families it was possible to not only get by with just one job per household, but to earn enough to buy a house in the suburbs, and to drive back and forth to work in the city in affordable cars fueled with cheap gasoline. For the first time, the children of workers entered universities in large numbers. The suburban housing boom was largely government financed by the G.I. Bill. Of course, this was not an act of benevolent charity by the government, but rather, an investment which first and foremost benefited the real estate corporations and construction companies.

The tremendous expansion of the economy after the war was the result of the terrible destruction in Asia and Europe, and the relatively stable balance between U.S. imperialism and Russian Stalinism. The old imperialist powers of Europe suffered a tremendous loss of industrial capacity and other economic damage while America emerged virtually unscathed. American capital flowed into the old European markets. Wartime production had developed whole new industries, from plastics to nuclear power, which expanded rapidly. The government at this time financed the construction of the nation’s highway systems, urban housing projects, public transportation, public hospitals and education. Economic growth and investment within the U.S. and its export of goods and capital abroad fueled wage growth and a general rise in living standards.

This period had a profound effect on the consciousness of working people. With cars, houses, consumer goods and stable jobs, most workers began to think of themselves as “middle class.” Capitalism seemed to be “working” for the working class. The militant class spirit developed in the mass industrial struggles of the 1930s and late 1940s was submerged beneath the prosperity of the 1950s and largely forgotten. Half a century and a steady drop in living standards later, most working people still call themselves “middle class.”

This post-war period of prosperity, in addition to the McCarthyite witch-hunts which blacklisted thousands of trade unionists, had a significant effect on the trade unions, which gradually evolved an entrenched bureaucracy at the head of the movement. At the height of labor’s power, the period between 1946 and 1955, there were 43,279 strikes involving 26,510,000 strikers. One in three workers were unionized. The American working class had attained a seemingly impregnable position on the industrial front. But the new prosperity gradually sapped the militancy of the unions, and as capitalism was in effect “bringing home the bacon”, there seemed less and less need to go on strike, with a few notable exceptions.

In times of industrial ‘peace’, the working class tends to empty out of its mass organizations and leave the business of defending their interests to the leadership. During periods like this, a bureaucratic layer forms at the top of the movement, which has a choking effect on the movement as a whole. This is exactly what happened within the AFL-CIO during the 1950s, and the bureaucracy has continued to control and stifle the trade unions to this day. Starting with the Meaney leadership, the AFL-CIO bureaucracy’s right-wing, which remains its dominant wing, has always maintained close ties to not only both of the bosses’ political parties but with the highest levels of the Federal government as well, notably the State Department and the CIA. In the 1950s, the AFL-CIO, under the State Department’s guidance, established the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the International of Free Trade Unions (IFTU.) The IFTU was created to be a counterbalance to the rise of Stalinism and militant labor struggles in the so-called “third world.” Not surprisingly, the CIA-sponsored International of “Free” Trade Unions was anything but free. Among its more notable activities was involvement in the bloody coup of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973. The AFL-CIO’s foreign policy was in lockstep with that of Washington D.C., and largely still is today. During the Vietnam War the trade union tops firmly supported the war and played a large part in organizing pro-war demonstrations.

Since the so-called Oil Crisis of the mid-1970s, the American working class has seen its wages, living conditions and economic security steadily decline. The introduction of containerization in shipping made it possible for the big corporations to export industrial plant overseas to countries where workers had few or no democratic rights and rock bottom wage levels. Manufacturing – the backbone of any industrial economy – now accounts for just 11.3 percent of all employment in the U.S.

While many corporations simply shuttered factories, others introduced a whole series of measures to raise productivity; from robots replacing welders in auto plants to organizing workers into “teams” that compete against one another to continually raise productivity. The American working class is now the most productive in the world, but under capitalism new technologies that could be used to lighten labor are used instead to replace it. Millions of industrial workers were laid off and “downsized” in the 1980s and 1990s because the bosses were pushing each individual worker to do the work of three others. The bosses’ assault against our wage levels and living standards could not have gone forward without a direct attack against our mass organizations on the industrial front – the trade unions. Take for example the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which was set up as part of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act and is charged with arbitrating strikes and lockouts. The NLRB, which had always been mostly composed of business representatives with only token trade union representation, was “reformed” under Reagan and became 100 percent composed of corporate lawyers.

The past 25 years have seen a continuous onslaught against the unions and the right to join a union. The opening shot came during the PATCO strike in 1981, where President Reagan, with the support of Congress, including the “labor friendly” Democrats, broke the strike with an injunction and used military personnel as strike breakers. The 19,000 air traffic controllers were subsequently banned from ever working in the industry again, the union’s leadership was arrested, and their trade union was disbanded. The position of the AFL-CIO leadership when faced with this direct attack was criminal. Their only response to this threat was a formal protest! While millions of rank and file workers would have been prepared to come to the aid of their brothers and sisters in PATCO, the Meaneyite leadership refused to even consider the thought of “breaking the law” by calling for solidarity strikes.

The right-wing bureaucrats are the most law-abiding citizens ever seen on the face of the earth when it comes to confronting the bosses and their state, even when the latter break their own laws whenever it suits them. The conduct of the bureaucracy during the PATCO strike was unfortunately not an exception, but the rule. When Federal authorities directly interfered in the internal affairs of the AFL-CIO in 1991, when it presented largely false corruption charges against moderate President Lane Kirkland, the leadership again refused to respond in any meaningful way. In fact, it is more than likely that elements of the right-wing were involved in the affair.

When he was elected to the AFL-CIO Presidency in 1995, John Sweeney pledged to revive Labor’s fortunes and strike out in a new direction. He closed down the AFL-CIO’s old international department and replaced it with the ‘Solidarity Center’. He pledged to make organizing new layers of workers the movement’s top priority and to take on the biggest anti-union employers. However, Sweeney & Co.’s new direction was still the same old business unionism policy of collaboration with the bosses and itheir government with only a few cosmetic changes. The vaunted ‘Solidarity Center’ receives over 90 percent of its budget from the U.S. government and was deeply involved in the April 2002 coup d’etat which briefly removed Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez from power.

The domestic policies of the Sweeney leadership are no different than those of the old Meaney leadership. Despite coming to power on a pledge to organize new industries and sectors of the economy, funding for organizing still lags far behind political contributions to the Democratic Party. The enormous gap between political contributions and funding for organizing was among the grievances cited by those unions that recently left the AFL-CIO, although they don’t in principal disagree with supporting the Democratic Party.

The AFL-CIO strongly supported the Democrats and the Clinton Administration, even as this “labor friendly” party of big business was gutting the social welfare system and signed the anti-worker North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) into law. While the AFL-CIO leadership loudly criticized NAFTA as an attack against the workers of North America, they continued to give millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers to the party responsible for this attack.The Sweeney leadership has roundly failed to revive the Labor Movement. This isn’t the result of the personalities or qualities of the leadership (or lack thereof,) but of the policy of ‘Labor-Management Partnership’ and the bureaucracy’s entrenched position which they can only maintain at the expense of the rank and file and the health of the movement as a whole. When faced with increasingly aggressive employers, the ‘leadership’ offers cooperation, which in practice – as many union members can attest to – is nothing short of outright betrayal. Over the past decades, betrayal of the rank and file in favor of the bosses has become the primary activity of the bureaucracy. These people are more interested in keeping their perks and privileges than in fighting for the working class. If these career bureaucrats had the interests of the rank and file at heart, the AFL-CIO today would not be faced with a steep decline and a split.

The break up of the AFL-CIO came as a shock to many trade unionists and activists. These four unions alone represent over one third of the federation’s 13 million members. The Teamsters and SEIU alone account for more than $20 million of its estimated $120 million annual budget. Their “Change to Win Coalition” has since been joined by the Carpenters Union, which left the AFL-CIO in 2001. First and foremost, the split is a reflection of the crisis facing the Labor Movement. Since Sweeney’s election in 1995 the AFL-CIO has presided over a net loss of over 800,000 members. The policies of the Sweeney ‘leadership’ have already led to disaster, and in reality could eventually lead the AFL-CIO into oblivion. However the solution cannot come from a permanent and bureaucratic split of the movement. The working class needs maximum unity to take on the bosses.

The workers instinctively understand this – the hard-knocks school of work and trade unionism teaches every worker this lesson. The way forward is to come off of the defensive and to take the offensive. It is true that in order to do this, new ideas and tactics for organizing, industrial struggle, and political work are needed. But whose task is this? The history of the Labor Movement over the past 50 years has been the sorriest in American history. The bureaucracy has literally choked almost all the life out of the trade unions, and is incapable of even maintaining its membership levels. Instead, the bureaucracy throws endless sums of money at the Democratic Party and even to such CIA-front organizations as the National Endowment for Democracy. The AFL-CIO bureaucracy is bound to the capitalists and the state by a million strings – these people are just as parasitic as their capitalist “bosses” and stand condemned before the working class and history.

They have successfully ground one of the world’s strongest Labor Movements into the dust. It is important to remember that Stern, Hoffa & Co. are cut from the same cloth as Sweeney and the clique firmly implanted in the highest offices of the AFL-CIO. Stern, in fact, was for many years Sweeney’s protégé in the SEIU. The solution is not to break from the mass industrial organizations of the working class simply because a self-interested bureaucracy has congealed at the top, nor is the solution to rush to a smaller federation which is controlled by the same types.

The split was not the result of a mass upsurge of working class organization and militancy, or the result of a mass rank and file movement towards the formation of a political party by and for working people. On the contrary, it was chiefly organized by a handful of union careerists with little or no organization-wide discussion or any plans for increased democratic participation by the millions of rank and filers that make up the unions. The new formation offers no new political perspective and does not reject supporting the Democratic Party. It is understandable and healthy that millions of trade union members are frustrated by the long decline in membership, and want more energy and resources poured into organizing.  But this vital work cannot be entrusted to this or that bureaucratic clique.

At a time when labor has already been backed into a corner, we need all force and maximum unity at the point of attack. But we also need an honest, democratically-accountable leadership at the head of the movement that is ready and willing to fight in the interests of the working class. The militant rank and file of the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win unions must fight to clean out the self-interested and careerist leadership currently dominating the movement. This is the only way forward.

The American working class can be proud of its rich history of trade unionism and struggle. What the current generation of the working class must do is re-tie the knot of history that was broken after the 1930s. If the Labor Movement in the U.S. is to reinvigorate itself and charge forward, it is absolutely vital that we break the stranglehold of the Democratic Party over our unions. The need to unionize the unorganized, and for democratic rank and file control in our unions, goes hand in hand with the demand for a mass party of Labor, armed with a program of socialist demands that can truly meet the needs of the working class. Once the giant of Labor awakens, no force on earth can stop it.


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