The Internationalist Group’s response to “The problematic of the union in the U.S” (1 & 2)

A reply to Advance the Struggle from the Internationalist Group, a Trotskyist organization in the US.

Submitted by klas batalo on April 10, 2013

The Internationalist Group, a revolutionary Trotskyist organization, has written a serious response to Advance the Struggle’s two documents on the unions. Many readers will probably be a little put off by the hyper Trotskyist language of the piece, nevertheless the content of the argument is one of importance. It offers sympathy with the first union piece Unions – “How do We Intervene?” And believes the other document, “Revolutionaries, Unions and the emerging Class Struggle“, has some serious problems, and anarchist tendencies. We appreciate the Internationalist’s serious response to both documents, and agree that all revolutionary formations must start to put out a public positions on how to relate to the unions. As the public can see, Advance the Struggle is still figuring out this question. That is why we published two pieces.

If all American left groups can clearly explain what role revolutionaries should play regarding unions, we can heighten the political discussion of what revolutionary work means in this historical moment. The Kasama blog wrote a critique of Fire Next Time’s flyer regarding the bus strike in New York as it was not clearly explaining what communist work means in the present. What we found missing from the Kasama critique is a proposal for how to relate to the unions in a way that is communist. The ultra-left critique of Trotskyism is this issue on unions is ignoring value, the essence of capitalist social relations. Ultra-lefts charge trotskyist of reproducing and managing value, as appossed to moving towards its negation. This movement, that some call communization, is stuck in a similar position as Kasama, as it can’t translate macro concepts such as value, communism, and communization, within real day-to-day class struggle situations. They are stuck in the abstract and cannot, as of yet, concretely explain what communist work (Kasama), or what communization means in day to day practice regarding the immediate tasks of political work that relates the class struggle and unions.

Luxemburg and Lenin were the first to seriously do this after Marx, this being an untapped theoretical/practical potential point of convergence. Luxemburg and Lenin were the first to develop a revolutionary Marxist practice, concretizing Marxist theoretical categories. Yet historically, they have been violently separated by the crystallized ideologies of the Marxist left; uncritically committed to limited traditions that have now faded into retirement. Just as labor and production were separated forming alienation in Marx’s 1844 Philosophical manuscripts, and labor and land were separated in Marx’s concept of the so-called primitive accumulation, Lenin and Luxemburg have also been separated creating an anti-organizational ultra-left that fetishizes wildcat strikes, or linear party builders in the name of Leninism. Both Luxemburg’s “The Mass Strike“, challenging the bureaucratic method of union political work in Germany, and Lenin’s “What is to be Done?” of building professional revolutionaries that insert revolutionary politics beyond unionism and economic struggles, are the two foundational works that can shed light on the union question.

Advance the Struggle will continue to write on the relationship revolutionaries should have with unions in this unfolding public discussion. We encourage all revolutionary groups to also write out documents, or pinpoint existing documents that clearly lay out how revolutionaries should relate to unions. All serious comments from your part are studied and recognized with such seriousness on our part.

Trade Unions and Revolutionary Struggle in the United States

The two pieces posted on the web site of Advance the Struggle under the heading “The Problematic of the Union in the U.S. – What Is To Be Done?” are a definite improvement on other recent statements and articles from activists in and around the (greatly reduced) Occupy movement. Both AtS texts start with the affirmation of the need to defend the unions against attacks by capital and the state, in contrast to the arguments of supporters of the Black Orchid Collective in the Pacific Northwest who have vociferously opposed calls for defense of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Those arguments were raised in a dispute that broke out in a “port working group” in Portland last November when comrades of the Internationalist Group put out a leaflet calling for defense of the ILWU and raised this as one of the basic points for solidarity action. This was in the face of the employers’ offensive aimed at gutting basic union gains, such as the hiring hall, and preparing to bring in scabs to bust the ILWU, the bastion of West Coast labor. Our stance was ABC for any Marxist, but those who objected were anarchists and liberals. Basically the arguments against us cited betrayals by the ILWU bureaucrats as a reason not to defend, and possibly to oppose, the union, for example in the article by Pete Little, “One Year After the West Coast Port Shutdown,” in CounterPunch (21-23 December). We responded in an article titled, “Why We Defend the ILWU and All Workers … Including Against the Sellout Labor Bureaucracy”.

The AtS pieces are grappling with one of the key issues facing communist revolutionaries in the U.S., which has been fought over for decades. While making a number of valid points, both pieces are basically empirical where what’s key is the overall theoretical understanding and programmatic conclusions. Both locate the problems with unions in their structure, and in the elaborate web of legal restrictions woven by the bourgeoisie to contain workers’ struggles. Therefore, they focus on alternative organizational vehicles as the solution, whether “class-wide organizations” or “revolutionary cells” in the unions. This misses the key point, that the failures and betrayals of key labor struggles are due at bottom not to union structures or capitalist laws, but to the lack of revolutionary leadership capable of overcoming those obstacles.

As Leon Trotsky wrote in the 1938 Transitional Program, “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.” That is as true today as it was three-quarters of a century ago.

The authors of the two pieces point to the “co-optation of unions by the state, a step followed by ever-more restrictive laws that limit tactics of labor struggle,” and to the unions “being political integrated into the laws and institutions of the state.” This is a crucial factor, and one which is ignored or downplayed by the various reformists who go along with and sometimes foster state control of labor. But the observation is not new. In his unfinished 1940 essay “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay,” Trotsky noted:

There is one common feature in the development, or more correctly the degeneration, of modern trade union organizations in the entire world: it is their drawing closely to and growing together with the state power. This process is equally characteristic of the neutral, the Social-Democratic, the Communist and ‘anarchist’ trade unions.

Trotsky explains the origins of this tendency in monopoly capitalism and the cohesion of a parasitic labor bureaucracy which sits atop the unions and fights for crumbs from the imperialists’ superprofits. He also draws important programmatic conclusions:

1) “The primary slogan for this struggle is: complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state. … The second slogan is: trade union democracy. This second slogan flows directly from the first and presupposes for its realization the complete freedom of the trade unions from the imperialist or colonial state”; and

2) “In other words, the trade unions in the present epoch cannot simply be the organs of democracy as they were in the epoch of free capitalism and they cannot any longer remain politically neutral, that is, limit themselves to serving the daily needs of the working class. They cannot any longer be anarchistic, i.e. ignore the decisive influence of the state on the life of peoples and classes. They can no longer be reformist, because the objective conditions leave no room for any serious and lasting reforms. The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.”

These propositions have been confirmed by history and are fundamental to carrying out revolutionary work in the trade unions, with very concrete consequences. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here – there is plenty of experience to draw on in fighting for class-struggle politics in the unions. Take the need for complete independence from the state as a precondition for achieving union democracy: this means, for example, that class-conscious militants do not go to the courts or the capitalist government against the unions, on principle, no matter how corrupt. Why not? Because the unions, despite the sellout misleaders, remain working-class institutions and the state represents the bosses. Put another way, the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy is an obstacle to class struggle, the state is the class enemy: between the two runs a class line which must not be crossed, just as a labor militant would never cross a picket line.

The entire experience of union reform groups in the U.S. in recent decades confirms this: Miners for Democracy, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, Steelworkers Fightback, New Directions in Transport Workers Union Local 100 (New York) – all these reform groups were backed by just about every variety of reformist “socialists,” all sued the unions in the capitalist courts or appealed to the Labor Department against the union bureaucracy, all except Ed Sadlowski in the Steelworkers won office, and all of them, without exception betrayed the working-class ranks. They had to. Once they appealed to the state, the government owned them. That is why union militants who oppose class collaboration do not participate in such lash-ups, which will inevitably betray. Whatever leftists in them think, they’re just vehicles for out-bureaucats to get in.

Instead, we fight to build a class-struggle opposition in the unions, and outside of them. That is the import of Trotsky’s second thesis. He argues that in this imperialist epoch of decaying capitalism “objective conditions leave no room for any serious and lasting reforms,” which were the bread and butter of simple trade unionism in the past. All you have to do is look around you to see all the pensions being ripped up, seniority eliminated, health care gutted to confirm his observation. The reformists of today think it’s just a matter of policy, that they can somehow resuscitate the post-World War II “welfare state.” But they are wrong. If they get into office they will be no more successful in winning reforms, or even staving off anti-union attacks than the present sellout bureaucracies – unless, that is, they are prepared to wage revolutionary class struggle against capitalism. If you want to fight against the unions being “secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the workers,” which is clearly the role the large majority of unions play today, then one must fight to turn them into “instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.”

So in our trade-union work, in the U.S., Mexico and Brazil, we Trotskyists build tendencies based on a transitional program, which oppose capitalism and imperialism and call for a class-struggle workers party and for a workers government. This revolutionary perspective is sharply counterposed to the various union reform caucuses which do not challenge the capitalist framework. For an example, see the program of Class Struggle Education Workers (CSEW) in New York which is politically supported by the Internationalist Group. To see the kind of work it does, go to its web site: So that is our framework.

Now, on these two texts we have some areas of agreement. Thus the first, “Unions – How Do We Intervene?” calls to “bring unions into an overall proletarian offensive against capital, for socialism” – which is fundamental, since that is exactly what reformist social democrats and Stalinists don’t do. At the same time it states that “we do not see the union movement as the vehicle for socialist revolution.” Certainly class-struggle unions will not lead the revolution – that is the task of a revolutionary party, usually by playing a leading role in mass organizations such as soviets and workers councils that arise in a revolutionary period and can be the framework for socialist revolution. But revolutionary-led unions can play an important role.

So what are the disagreements? I want to focus on six areas. First is what we might call “rank-and-fileism.” Just about every reformist social-democratic group under the sun calls for “rank-and-file” unions, caucuses, whatever, lambasting the fat-assed bureaucrats, calling for union democracy, and so on. The Internationalist Socialist Organization, Socialist Action, Socialist Alternative, Solidarity, you name it, they all do it. They want to get together with union militants by which they mean just about anyone that is for higher pay and doesn’t like the leadership. The Stalinist reformists like Progressive Labor Party do the same. Some union reform caucuses include supporters of all of these left groups, which is logical since they all have very similar reformist programs. Similarly, the first text calls for “democratic rank and file control,” “militant rank and file unionism,” “a rank-file analysis” (?) and concludes: “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.”

Okay, we seek to defeat and drive out the parasitic bureaucracy in order to take on the capitalist bosses. But to do that, you need more than appeals for rank-and-file democracy, you need a program that prepares the ranks for the kind of class struggle they will have to wage. Take the question of the capitalist parties, the Democrats in particular. This is a big deal in education unions, for example: both the union bureaucrats and would-be reformers overwhelmingly backed Democrat Obama, and Obama is leading the union-busting attack on teachers unions. The CSEW opposes any political support to any capitalist party – Democrats, Republicans, Greens, “Working Families Party,” whatever. But when our supporter in the United Federation of Teachers rose at a delegate assembly to oppose endorsing any capitalist politician, the reformist opposition group (Movement of Rank and File Educators, or M.O.R.E.) sat on their hands, with their lips zipped. Why? Because they don’t want to alienate any pro-Democratic “militant” teachers. But if they’re not prepared to do that, they can’t prepare the union membership to resist when attacked by the Democrats. What’s needed is a progamatically based class-struggle opposition rather than an amorphous “rank-and-file” caucus or other grouping.

Second, there is the question of what’s responsible for the subjugation of the unions to state control. At one point, the first document blames the workers themselves, saying:

“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.”

So workers joined the unions because of the NLRB and got bought off with higher wages? Nonsense. The organization of mass, nationwide industrial unions was achieved by sharp class struggle, in particular the three mass strikes of 1934 (San Francisco longshore, Minneapolis Teamsters, Toledo auto parts), all of them led by reds. In each case, the strikers refused to bow down to federal “mediation” and arbitration and court injunctions, or to armies of police and National Guard troops, and that was why they won. The idea that the CIO unions were built due to FDR’s New Deal is an invention of liberal sociology and history professors. The subjugation of the unions to the state was the handiwork of the pro-capitalist union misleaders, not of bought-off workers.

Third, this brings us to the key question of the origins of the labor bureaucracy, which acts as a transmission belt for the bosses and their government: the labor lieutenants of the capitalist class, as Daniel De Leon called them. To get rid of it, we have to know where it comes from. The second document, “Revolutionaries, Unions and Emerging Class Struggle,” blames the existence of the bureaucracy on the structure of unions themselves. Arguing from a phrase in the “missing sixth chapter” of Capital, where Marx refers to unions as “insurance societies formed by the workers themselves,” the document argues: “Such insurance societies formed a rigid caste of functionaries that made decisions, and shaped the process of how those decisions were made….” This is followed by a quote from Robert Brenner, a leader of the social-democratic Solidarity tendency, saying that union officials “confuse the defense of the organization with the defense of the membership.” So according to this, unions inevitably throw up a bureaucracy – it’s the hoary argument against working-class parties and unions that is a staple of bourgeois sociology going back to Robert Michels and his “iron law of oligarchy.”

Again, this is bourgeois academic subterfuge. The petty-bourgeois labor-aristocratic layer that has bound the unions to the state and to the Democratic Party, didn’t get to power by the inherent structure of the unions. The present labor bureaucracy was a result of a brutal “red purge” of mass expulsions of militant labor leaders in the late 1940s at the dawn of the anti-Soviet Cold War. The liberals worked hand in glove with McCarthyite reactionaries to drive out anyone they saw as “commies.” To fight that labor officialdom, it is necessary to fight their anti-communism head on. But the social democrats don’t because, first, they are anti-communists themselves and second, they above all want to ally with left liberals. So they twist themselves into knots trying to deal with the issue when faced with the inevitable red-baiting.

Fourth, there is the question of anti-labor laws. Yes, unions today are hog-tied by the Taft-Hartley Act, Landrum-Griffin Act, etc. But the capitalist ruling class has always sought to outlaw workers’ struggle. Let’s not forget that prior to the 1930s, unions often had to face far harsher state “criminal syndicalism” laws, but that didn’t force the revolutionary syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World to be integrated into the state. The key here, as always, is revolutionary leadership. Class-struggle unionists oppose any and all capitalist government control of, registration of or interference in unions or other workers organizations. We don’t rely on rigged NLRB-supervised elections or even card checks, but on militant workers action to organize unions. We don’t call for dues checkoffs, which potentially lets employers or the government cut off union funds. Moreover, to win any serious labor battle today, union leaders and members are going to have to defy draconian fines and be prepared to go to jail.

So will “workers committees,” “class-wide committees” or “revolutionary cells in the unions” be able to avoid such laws where unions can’t? Not a chance. If they invent a new tactic, it will be outlawed tomorrow. When sit-down strikes took place in 1937, by 1938 the NLRB had outlawed them and by 1939 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them illegal. What was key was the workers’ willingness and ability to fight off the forces of capitalist repression, which the union workers at Flint GM, Akron rubber, Woolworth’s and many other companies did.

Why is Wal-Mart not unionized? Because the UFCW exists? No, it’s because the UFCW tops are beholden to capitalism. If the NLRB or a court tells them to call off their pickets, they do. Would an IWW or local collective do any better? Try it and count the seconds before security guards hustle you out the door and hand you over to the cops. There is no organizational form or gimmicky tactic, no flash mob that can get around the need for preparing the union ranks to take on the capitalist state. The one recent successful sit-down strike, at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago in late 2008, was not a wildcat action or led by some ad-hoc network but was due to months of preparation by the United Electrical Workers, including taking workers to occupied plants in other countries. They knew the risks and they were ready and willing when the time came.

Fifth, there is the evaluation of recent struggles. On EGT in Longview, Washington we are in agreement that this was no victory for the ILWU, despite all the hoopla from the union tops, the reformist left and Occupy who initially proclaimed victory. At the time, the Internationalist Group got hold of a copy of the port agreement and warned about all the dangerous givebacks there, and then when ILWU members finally obtained the agreement with EGT, we denounced the concessionary contract. We also went after the ILWU misleaders who negotiated it behind the backs of the membership (who never voted on it) and the pseudo-socialists who covered for the bureaucracy, and who excused or even endorsed the bureaucratic disruption targeting ILWU members at an Occupy-sponsored solidarity with Longview rally in Seattle on 6 January 2012.

The huge, militant and unprecedented workers mobilization in Wisconsin ended in defeat, but it was not due to the fact that it was union-led. Without the unions, there would never have been a weeks-long occupation of the state capitol. To win would have required a general strike, which everyone was talking about and was possible, but did not happen because the “progressive” union leadership sold out the struggle to the Democratic Party … and the reformist socialists on the scene didn’t challenge them. Occupy and anarchist and anarchoid tendencies make a fetish out of the general strike and “wildcat” strikes. But here was a case where a real general strike actually could have taken place, which even if it were messy would have electrified workers nationwide (and thrown Wisconsin into turmoil). What was lacking was a revolutionary leadership with roots in the unions to make it happen.

On the Chicago teachers strike, we have a difference. The second document calls it “an exceptional draw.” We underscored the importance and militancy of the strike, and a comrade flew to Chicago to show solidarity. But the settlement was a sellout, and we said so plainly while the rest of the left was talking with marbles in their mouth, or outright hailing this defeat as a “victory.” The “reform” union leadership accepted teacher evaluations based on student test scores, agreed to ripping up seniority protection on layoffs and did nothing about closing schools, mushrooming class size or any of the other community issues they raised but never seriously intended to fight for. The CORE caucus leading the union (including supporters of the ISO, SAlt, PLP and other left groups) agreed to this contract because they weren’t prepared to go against Illinois law and the Democratic Party. Frankly, the only reason to call this a “draw” is to alibi CORE. In the aftermath, the CTU leadership endorsed the reelection of Democrat Obama. (See our article, “Chicago Teachers: Strike Was Huge, Settlement Sucks” [September 2012]).

Finally, there is the vital question, posed in the title: “What Is To Be Done?” The reference to Lenin’s seminal work on the need for a party of professional revolutionaries is obvious. But in the two pieces, there is no mention of a party. There is talk of “revolutionary cells” and of a “revolutionary organization,” but nothing about a party. This can only be understood as a capitulation to the anti-party prejudices of the anarchist and semi-anarchist currents in the Occupy movement. Instead what is proposed is some sort of “class-struggle organization” engaging “workplace battles and social movements.” This sounds like the “social movement unionism” that reformists such as the ISO promote. Certainly, class-struggle unionists must take up the fight against all forms of capitalist oppression. But in order to link up struggles of class-conscious workers with those of oppressed African Americans, Latinos and immigrants, to defend the rights of women, homosexuals and indigenous peoples, the vital element is a Leninist-Trotskyist party that acts as a tribune of the people, a champion of all the oppressed.

The main difference between the two texts on the AtS web site seems to be over the question if it is possible to transform the unions into instruments of struggle against capitalism, the first saying yes, the second saying no, and therefore one must build revolutionary cells to prepare for a “union rupture to build worker committees.” The “rupture” terminology is borrowed from the anarchists and anarchoids, who think that “independence” from and breaking with the unions is the ultimate in revolutionary chic. Workers committees and councils and similar forms of mass organizations encompassing even the most backward sections of the working people will only appear in a revolutionary or near-revolutionary situation, at which point the possibility of surpassing the limits of trade-unionism will be posed in reality. To pose building soviet-like councils under current, decidedly non-revolutionary conditions is a fantasy that will only aid the bourgeoisie. To refuse to defend the ILWU today can only aid the maritime bosses and grain-handling conglomerates.

Can we transform the unions into instruments of revolutionary struggle, as Trotsky called for? In some cases yes, in others no, but we should certainly seek to. The railway workers and teachers unions in Russia, representing labor aristocratic and petty-bourgeois layers, fought against the revolution even after the Bolsheviks had triumphed. But even in unions with a substantial presence of a labor aristocracy, like the ILWU, it is possible to achieve important gains (such as the union hiring hall) and to wage class struggle against the imperialist rulers in open defiance of their laws. Examples are the May Day 2008 ILWU West Coast strike against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the 1999 coastwide ILWU port shutdown in conjunction with a work stoppage by teachers in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil demanding freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal. Such struggles are not fortuitous, they are the result of determined efforts by a resolute minority fighting on a Marxist program, and in these cases the Internationalist Group played a role working together with union militants.

The IG has a good deal of experience of fighting for class struggle politics in the unions as well as among non-unionized workers. While we have had some successes, we have also experienced setbacks and have had to fight defensive struggles, confronting the sellout policies of the bureaucracy. Even having a correct program is no guarantee that a small revolutionary vanguard organization can change the course of the class struggle. But victories can be won. Recently, we have been actively involved in the successful struggle of immigrant workers at the Hot and Crusty bakery restaurant in New York who against all odds defeated a lockout and won a union contract with a union hiring hall. Currently we are actively participating in the strike by New York City school bus drivers, the most militant union struggle in New York since the 2005 NYC transit strike. This is what fighting for class-struggle unionism today means in the concrete.

Will there be a “rupture” or “mass split” in the unions? Perhaps, but this is a tactical and conjunctural question: it depends on the circumstances. The goal is not to have minority unions of the most combative sectors, which can weaken the workers movement as a whole, as has occurred in Brazil with the split of the left-led Conlutas tendency from the majority CUT union federation. So now the reformist leftists can be bureaucrats in their own unions – hardly a victory. (Our Brazilian comrades opposed the split, but are now an opposition in the Conlutas-affiliated Rio teachers union.) In other cases, such as the emergence of the CIO in the U.S. in the 1930s or the appearance of strike committees of mine workers independent of COSATU after the massacre at Marikana last August, a split is a necessary step to escape from the dead hand of a moribund union bureaucracy. In Mexico, where most labor organizations are in fact agencies of police control, it is vital to break the corporatist stranglehold and build unions independent of the capitalist state. But everywhere we fight on a class-struggle program against all forms of class collaboration, for independence from the capitalist state and for a revolutionary workers party, without which all historical experience teaches that there will be no revolution.

As a fighting Trotskyist prograganda group, the Internationalist Group seeks to build the nucleus of that party, and as such we are engaged in the struggles of the working class. We defend the unions against the capitalists and their state, while fighting within the existing mass organizations of the working class on a class-struggle program to oust the bureaucrats, break with the Democrats and build a workers party and open the road to a workers government. Out of this fight will come the worker cadres who will be key to actually carrying out a socialist revolution.

for the Internationalist Group

13 February 2013

Originally posted: February 18, 2013 at Advance the Struggle