Learning valuable lessons about business unions

An exchange between Kdog and Brandon Oliver on the nature of the reformist unions.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on March 2, 2014

Dear IW,

My Fellow Worker (FW) Brandon Oliver’s excellent review of the play “Waiting For Lefty” (“Valuable Lessons Learned From 1935 Play ‘Waiting For Lefty,’” December 2013 IW, page 3) ended in a critical examination of the state of the official labor movement—what Wobblies often call the “business unions.” I liked that the FW hit the business unions hard (we need more of that in the IW in my opinion). I also generally agree that:

“The business unions aren’t just good unions gone bad; they are literally zombies— shells that appear to still be alive but with all of their internal dynamic and thought process gone, destroyed by repeated doses of the poison known as the National Labor Relations Act. Finally, they have become incapable of acting out of the bounds that their poisoners have set. We can’t ‘recapture’ or replace them (that is, not at administering the contract). Our task has to be to show a different path, as a permanent fighting workers’ organization.”

It would be a mistake however to conclude that there won’t be turmoil and struggle from the ranks of the business unions. Even in their decrepit state there has been a consistent pattern of rebellion emerging from under and against the bureaucracy. This can be seen in the raging class war of the Detroit newspapers strike, the [United Food and Commercial Workers] P-9 strike in Austin, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) strike at Northwest Airlines, the west coast longshore workers and the Chicago Teachers Union.

I see this pattern continuing, not ended. Militant workers will continue to TRY and use the business unions’ structures for class self-defense, and this will inevitably cause clashes with the bureaucracy and bosses. I believe we need to be prepared for these insurgencies and meet them (and/or participate in them) as Wobblies.

Sophisticated bureaucracies will not seek just to repress this militancy, but channel it into controlled protest aimed at adding more chips to the labor bosses hand at the capitalists’ table.

For these reasons, downplaying or dismissing the possibility of militancy emerging from workers in the business unions or from the business unions themselves will disorient people (including our membership and base) if and when that happens. This could in turn build up illusions in the bureaucrats (“This union is different, it IS fighting”). I think this is some of the reason the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has a different image with many radical young folks.

Twin Cities Wob

Response to Kdog

Dear IW,

I’m glad to see the response to the review of “Waiting for Lefty.” I think there were some weaknesses in how I expressed some thoughts, and K did a good job responding to those.

First of all, maybe my “zombie unionism” analogy was kind of stretched. I’m trying to address what I see as a huge blind spot in radical thought since the 1930s, which is that we ought to look at unions the same way we ought to look at anything else in society. That is, we have to look at them as historical objects that change both due to internal and external pressures. So much of the way that unions are discussed on the left is the same as they were discussed in 1934—but even by 1944 unions in the United States had been fundamentally changed into semigovernmental organizations. So much of the discourse is still stuck in 1934 and essentially boils down to two ideas: the first is that the unions are basically good organizations of the working class but with a bad, bureaucratic leadership which we have to struggle against and try to replace; the second is that the bureaucratic unions are bad unions, because they are not revolutionary, and that the working class would be better off going with revolutionary unions that know how to fight. However unions are just like anything else that humans make: they change. Sports, political parties, “art”—all of it has gone through major structural changes in the past 80 years, and so have the organizations that we call unions.

I think the question that we have to ask, in order to understand unions today, is “Who do they depend on for their existence?” Originally unions, even the worst ones, depended for their continued existence on workers who would be willing to pay dues, attend meetings and walk off the job in defense of their positions and their union power. Maybe they had undemocratic leaders, maybe they supported colonialism, maybe they excluded women, immigrants, or Blacks. These problems were certainly also present in the working class, they weren’t invented by the bosses. This led to the classic position that trade unions represented the average of the working class, and couldn’t be expected to be too radical. From a Wobbly perspective this was problematic even in the 1930s, but made sense.

But there is a global tendency that we can see in hindsight of tying unions to the state and employing class, not just ideologically but for their everyday existence. This began in Russia in the 1920s, it was fairly well-perfected in the United States between 1935 and 1947, and employed in other countries in different ways (the one I’m most familiar with would be Spain in the 1977 “Pactos de Moncloa” that paved the way for the return of capitalist democracy). The general common feature is to remove the union from depending on the workers for its everyday existence, making it dependent instead on the employers and the state for planning its budget and cutting paychecks to its staff. A contemporary example would be the money flowing from Democratic Party outfits through Madison Avenue firms into SEIU’s Fight for 15 campaign, and the total lack of dependence on fast-food workers.

So what does this mean for our practice? The key thing to realize is that the two classic approaches—replace the reformist leadership with a revolutionary leadership, or replace the reformist union with a revolutionary union—are both inadequate now. What we need is an organization which can build independently, and outside of the union structure, for a working-class fightback. This organization should organize workers where there is no union, and it should also be a visible tendency within already unionized shops that stands for a real fightback, not just changes of leadership, and which organizes and pushes for militant action on the widest class basis possible, not just symbolic pseudomilitancy.

The IWW is our best bet for this kind of organization, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

Looking forward to continuing the debate,
Brandon Oliver