Which Way Forward for Labor?

trumkaobamaThe dramatic decline in the percentage of the organized labor force over the last 30 years is not an accident. It is largely the result of the class-collaboration policies of the labor leaders, which has put the workers in a weakened position. A complete break with this approach is needed. Only policies that recognize the irreconcilable interests of the workers and the capitalists, and which seek to organize the power of the working class for victory, can show the way forward. However, nobody in the current leadership is offering a real way out.

On September 8–11, the AFL-CIO will host its quadrennial National Convention in Los Angeles. Seeking solutions to declining union membership and a new direction for the labor movement are rightly at the top of the agenda, although the solutions the union leadership have come up with are uneven at best.

On the agenda will be the investment of resources into organizing efforts in Texas, with an eye towards organizing in states traditionally not seen as union strongholds. The need to organize the South is something the union movement clearly needs to expend more time and effort on. As company after company “off-shores” operations to what is seen as the non-union South, there has been an increase in large-scale industrial manufacturing below the Mason-Dixon line. With this bolstering of the industrial working class comes the need for organizing these workers for struggle.

The leadership proposes beginning with Texas, because they believe that demographic shifts make union organizing efforts there more achievable in the near term. The problem is that “achievability,” for some within the current leadership, is less about the successful organization of workers in these states, and more about tipping the current balance of bourgeois politics toward the Democrats, a question we will come back to shortly.

Another topic of discussion will be so-called “alt-labor” strategies, organizing efforts outside the traditional strongholds of manufacture and skilled trades, in low-wage, service sector, and retail industries, which have seen moderate successes in recent years, particularly in the past few months. Several unions, including SEIU, UNITE-HERE, and UFCW, have aided these efforts, and the potential for large-scale involvement by the entire AFL-CIO federation will be up for discussion at the convention.

Increased involvement from AFL-CIO–affiliated unions in restaurant and retail organizing efforts could bolster these campaigns and aid the union movement by increasing membership rolls. Nonetheless, some of the old guard labor leadership are reluctant to take on the organizing of low-wage workers, as lower wages mean lower dues per member, which they see as a bad organizing investment. Such a short-sighted view fails to recognize the historic role of the labor movement in organizing the working class, as a class, for struggle. Unions are strongest when they fight for all workers, not simply the ones whose jobs afford them the ability to pay higher dues. Furthermore, the solid union wages many organized workers receive were won through struggle in the first place, struggle that union representation made possible.

Taking a lead on what are currently “alt-labor” campaigns would certainly be a better use of the AFL-CIO’s resources than squandering members’ dues on the black hole that is the Democratic Party. However, the question of breaking labor’s ties to the Democrats will not be on the table for discussion at the convention. In fact, despite a recent letter jointly penned by the respective presidents of the Teamsters, UFCW, and UNITE-HERE decrying the effects the Affordable Choice Act will have on their members’ hard-won health care plans, President Obama will be a keynote speaker on the convention’s second day. Also speaking at the conference will be Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren­­—all Democrats.

It is essential that the labor movement break its ties with the Democratic Party, not only to allow for more resources to be spent on organizing the unorganized, but in order to run our own labor candidates for office. Ultimately, the AFL-CIO needs to take the lead in building a class-independent labor party. However, far from breaking with the Democrats, Richard Trumka, who is a shoe-in for reelection as AFL-CIO president, and some others within the current leadership will actually be seeking to undermine the class independence of the unions themselves at this year’s convention.

Facing decreasing membership, they seek shortcuts to organizing currently unrepresented workers by formalizing relations with liberal pressure groups, such as the Sierra Club or La Raza. Instead of mobilizing workers, leading by example, disregarding anti-union laws like Taft-Hartley, and inspiring workers to fight collectively to improve their lives by winning victories, they propose to water down the very essence of what it means to be a union member.

Trumka has stated that such “partnerships” would not preclude voting rights and membership affiliation, essentially making these groups AFL-CIO members whether they be workers or business owners. While we, as workers, may agree with certain goals that the Sierra Club or La Raza may profess, such as the protection of the natural environment or amnesty for undocumented workers, we must approach these issues from a class-independent perspective. Any alliances with such organizations must be temporary and tactical, with specific goals in mind.

An example of why this class independence is necessary can be seen in La Raza’s financial contributions from Wal-Mart, a well-known enemy of the working class and its unions. A temporary alliance with La Raza on a campaign to improve working conditions for immigrant workers does not make the union movement beholden to Wal-Mart, but if La Raza were a formal member of the AFL-CIO, the union movement would then have within its ranks a member organization partially bought and paid for by our class enemies. Ultimately, only the working class can bring about an effective resolution to the questions of immigration and environmental degradation, but fighting for progressive goals in the more near term does not require dilution of the class character of our organizations.

The crisis of capitalism is far from over, and anyone with continued illusions in the system is living in the past. Yes, we must organize the South; yes, we must organize service and retail workers; yes, we must win equality for our immigrant brothers and sisters; yes, we must fight for higher wages and benefits, free health care, and education; but on the basis of the pro-capitalist policies of the labor leaders we will never achieve this. A complete change in policy and approach is urgently needed.

Despite some important initiatives, what is being offered in Los Angeles is essentially more of the same: collaboration with the so-called “good” bosses against the “bad” ones, and subordinating class independent politics to the capitalist Democratic Party.

Workers must build a tendency in the labor movement that recognizes and acts on the enormous potential power of the working class, the need for political independence, and the need to replace capitalism with socialism. Anything less than this will mean that the working class will continue to lose ground in wages, benefits, and working conditions, and the problems of unemployment, health care, education, housing, and infrastructure will not be decisively dealt with.


Are you a communist?
Then apply to join your party!