The Problematic of the Union in the U.S. – What is to Be Done? (Part 1)

The first article, by Advance the Struggle, submitted with the intention of sparking a debate on intervention and relation by left and anti-state revolutionaries to the unions.

Submitted by klas batalo on April 10, 2013

The Advance the Struggle Collective is currently engaged in high level discussion around the central political question of the unions and how revolutionaries interpret its history, its present, and how communist intervention can help develop a much-needed revitalized labor movement. The experience of the Chicago teacher’s strike, the battle in the Northwest over the fate of the ILWU, and the mass uprising of public sector workers in Wisconsin stresses both the need to defend unions from bourgeois offensives and the limitations of rank-and-file activity within actually-existing unions; on the other hand, the struggles of Wal-mart, Mi Pueblo, Hot & Crusty, and fast food workers reveals a strong rank-and-file desire for the unionization that might provide some dignity, security, and a greater platform from which to organize and increase rank-and-file confidence against the bosses. What’s the analysis and what’s the program?

In light of this, we are providing two separate pieces on unions written by AS comrades. We don’t pretend to have a uniform line on this important question yet, but we believe that by public, transparent debates we can create a healthy culture of revolutionary debate and dialogue, embracing differences while striving for higher levels of principled unity through our practice in the school of class struggle.


Unions – How do We Intervene?

NOTE: This section of the program focuses on what we do when we do orient to unions. There are entire areas of the class struggle that are just as important as the labor movement. Other areas of class struggle are dealt with in other sections of the program. They are separated from each other for analytical purposes, and NOT because they are built in isolation from each other.


Existing unions are not sufficient for general working class uplift much less proletarian revolution. However, those forms of working class organization which lay beyond these can only come about through the work of strengthening existing unions in addition to building intermediate organizations not identified with specific workplaces (these could be called “class-wide committees”). At this time, AS avoids simplistic prescriptions that champion one form over another, as the class struggle is not at all developed enough to prove where the locus of our interventions ought to be.

Our program regarding the labor movement is this:

1. Defend unions from capitalist and state attack.

This is in the interest of the particular workers under attack, but is also in the interest of all workers. As the bar is lowered for one group, it is lowered for others.

2. Transform the character of unions.

Beyond democratic rank and file control of unions, we seek to transform unions, so as to make them more porous, more linked with other workers, and active on a political plane beyond the employer and job category to which they pertain.

3. Bring unions into an overall proletarian offensive against capital, for socialism.

In connection with transforming unions through the power struggle for control within them, unions must be brought into broader class organizations, or “class-wide committees” that coordinate strikes, blockades, occupations, and other forms of take-overs of space and time.

What are Unions?

1. The most basic relationship all workers have with their employers is one of economic exploitation, meaning that they are paid below the full value of work they perform. Unions are an economic united front of workers to defend against this exploitation. The most basic function of a union is to bring the workers’ pay as close as possible to the full value of their work.

2. We do not see the union movement as the vehicle for socialist revolution, but as the most consistent arena of organized worker resistance to capital. The unionized sector of the working class is disproportionately important to class formation and class consciousness. It is, therefore, crucial to have a clear-headed approach to working within unions. Orienting toward unionized sector of the working class must never blind us to the vast majority of the proletariat that is not unionized (addressed elsewhere in this program).

3. The main property of a union is the “collective bargaining” process. This consists of the members of a union agreeing to a pay scale, articulated in a contract that is available for all to read. The collective aspect of labor unions is what employers generally dislike about them; bosses prefer to deal with each worker individually, so that they can intimidate and lie to each worker, as well as pit them against each other as a means by which to strike the lowest “bargain” for wages.

State Hegemony over Unions

4. The CIO was a split in the conservative AFL that organizationally united the proletariat as never before in the US. The CIO represented a mass split from the AFL, growing out of militant rank and file unionism of the General strikes and factory occupations of the early 30s. The CIO had a heavy marxist influence amongst the rank and file leaders, who for a period succeeded at pushing the CIO to act as a vehicle for militant struggles, but the Communist Party militants in particular, supported the CIO’s connection to the Democratic Party and the “no-strike pledge” of WWII.

5. The National Labor Relations Board was established by the New Deal regime of FDR during the Great Depression to mediate this sharp class conflict. It established a legally protected mechanism for collective bargaining and workplace grievance procedures to work out and keep production going steadily. The NLRB registers unions and arbitrates contracts.

6. Although workers were able to use the new corporatist structure of the New Deal Era to get unprecedented wages and benefits, the NLRB turned out to be one step toward the co-optation of unions by the state, a step followed by ever-more restrictive laws that limit tactics of labor struggle. In a sense, workers, under the leadership of pro-capitalist union officials and misguided Stalinist CP militants, consented to their political defeat (despite impressive economic gains) during this period. The most blatant aspect of this political defeatism was loyalty to the Democratic Party. Despite this, workers launched wildcat strikes in defiance of the capitalists and bureaucrats. 1946 was the USA’s last general strike, taking place in Oakland, CA.

7. Objective shifts in the capitalist accumulation processes (eg, automation and outsourcing in the post-war period) were implemented smoothly by the destruction of militant organizational intervention at the base of unions (the red scare, McCarthyism, etc) and other coercive measures such as the Taft-Hartley Act which among other things, outlawed the sympathy strike tactic which lay at the heart of the wave of general strikes that swept the US in the early 30s and then in the mid 40s.

The Bureaucracy is Anti-Union

8. The combination of reconfigured production, state co-optation and legal repression paved the way for the always latent bureaucratic layer to consolidate their control at the top of union structures. A revival of rank and file agency is the key to breaking free of the bureaucratic and legal choke-hold that has prevailed over the six decades of defeat experienced by the US working class.

9. The union bureaucracies only fight capitalist attacks to protect their self-interest as a parasitic layer that sucks the blood (in the form of dues wasted on CEO-level salaries for officials and political donations, as well as restrictions on rebellious activity) from the membership. If the union is smashed, bureaucratic CEOs loose their cash-cow. Sometimes this interest corresponds with rank and file interests in winning improved work conditions, wages and benefits. Most often, however, union bureaucracies sell out workers’ demands in back room deals, that might preserve the union formally, but gut its content as a workers’ economic united front to the extent that many union members themselves either have no idea they are even in a union or have anti-union sentiments.

10. The bureaucratic parasites that stifle militancy and keep unions isolated from one another as separate fiefdoms cannot spoil our class loyalty to defend unions against capitalist interests which almost always reside in anti-unionism.

Defend Unions by Transforming Them

11. Most of the left, AS included, lacks significant membership or influence amongst unionized sectors. At our current stage, we are limited in our outside interventions due to our small size and the low level of class struggle coming organically from the proletariat generally. Main dimensions of outside support include joining unions on the picket lines, supporting union organizing campaigns, and organizing other parts of the proletariat to combine in struggle against a common enemy.

12. When we find ourselves within unions, as one worker wrote recently in a workplace newsletter of the Oakland public schools: “We must demand that our union leadership negotiate in open meetings where teachers, parents and students can all observe and have input. On top of this, we must, as the rank and file, develop the framework to be ready at a moment’s notice to withdraw support from the union bureaucracy if we feel there is even a hint of capitulation or self-interest from leaders. Whether this comes in the form of a union caucus or education committee, or something more inclusive of other sectors of workers — like a workers council, it must have complete autonomy from any of the hierarchical structures designed to limit the militancy and success of strike actions.” (Issue #4 of Classroom Struggle, p 16)

13. By building cells of militant workers within unions, which push struggle for uncompromising demands and challenge the bureaucracies to match their resolve, unions can be transformed out of their frozen impotent state. This transformative process includes opening union struggles to participation of non-union members and injecting the union into struggles outside of its the parameters of its own membership. Crucially, transformation involves breaking from the legality and proceduralism that bars unions from using winning tactics.

14. As we stated in our article, Occupy, ILWU, EGT and the Coming Class Battles (9/3/13) “The right for rank-file to negotiate during contract fights is something forgotten by a new generation of radicals that over emphasize the agency of surplus populations and street protests as the new form of class struggle or understand the labor movement as getting a job as a union organizer, or doing volunteer work for a union campaign. The new generation of radicals, avoiding these twin pitfalls, should share a political principal of fighting for rank-file participation, with a rank-file analysis, in contract fights and negotiations. Giving this political terrain to the bureaucratic leadership will only lead to the string of defeats unions have been subjected to in the last 30 years of capitalism offensive.”

Rank and File Transformation, Linking with the Class

15. Any effort that succeeds at organizing rank-file hegemony in the negotiating process, let alone initiating and leading strikes and workplace take-overs, will put the union on the path toward serious confrontation with the legalistic modus operandi of modern the labor movement. It would predictably cause a mass split in a union between those that support the officialdom’s class collaborationism and those who seek working class autonomy. These new “mass split” unions would already have structure, history of struggle, and a recently radicalizing experience of being forced by circumstance to break with legalistic bureaucratism.

16. Most likely, the conditions which pushed rank and file towards intransigence in the face of their employers, bureaucratic officialdom, and the state, would be spurring similar processes amongst other sectors of the class. This would open up the possibility for militants from all sectors to link up into “class-wide committees” that coordinate common assault on capital in a framework beyond and even independent of unionism.

17. We must have no such syndicalist illusions to believe that unions transformed by rank and file intransigence, would themselves be the organizational vehicles for the socialist revolution that is necessary for abolishing the wages system (capitalism). Unions never have – and never will – play the role of revolutionary organization. Neither is it probable that the effort to split existing unions away from bureaucratism would fully triumph; it is likely that in a revolutionary situation, the revolutionary process will unfold so rapidly as to render this work redundant by the supersession of the union by higher organizational forms, or capitalist dynamism will smash transformed unions back into bureaucratic behemoths.

18. However, in non- or pre-revolutionary situations (as our own), any success in the effort to defend unions from capitalist attack by transforming their character toward rank and file control and more inclusiveness would forge new advanced cadres within the working class itself, steeled in political and economic aspects of class struggle. These most advanced members of the proletariat could, with their skills, experience, and the trust of thousands of other workers, build the broader proletarian structures (workers councils, “class-wide committees”, soviets, proletarian parties, etc) that would be the seeds of mass proletarian revolutionary organization.

19. Defense of the unions through their transformation is one important pathway through which masses of proletarian warriors will be trained. It need not precede efforts in building broader proletarian organizations. In fact the processes will have to run parallel to one another, and feed each other symbiotically. It is clear to us that this is the general outline of what work within unions has to look like.

Originally appeared: February 11, 2013 at Advance the Struggle