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To Make Labor Unions Revolutionary

The Problem of Directing a Conservative, Stale Movement of Trade Unionists into Revolutionary Action

By Punkerslut

From RadicalGraphics.org
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ACAB: All Cops Are Bastards!

Start Date: March 11, 2011
Finish Date: March 12, 2011

A Historical Perspective of Worker Unions

"We're sorry
But you're no longer needed
Or wanted
Or even cared about here
Machines can do a better job than you
This is what you get for asking questions

"The unions agree
'Sacrifices must be made'
Computers never go on strike
To save the working man you've got to put him out to pasture

"Looks like we'll have to let you go
Doesn't it feel fulfilling to know
That you-the human being-are now obsolete
And there's nothing in hell we'll let you do about it"

          --The Dead Kennedys, 1985
          "Soup is Good Food"

     Why has the labor movement become so conservative? A century ago, it was a crime to organize a union, and when general strikes broke out, the existence of the state itself was threatened. Expropriation of the land, occupation of the factories, seizure of the goods and their redistribution to the public -- all of this could be expected whenever unions fought against Capitalists. To simply be part of the union was to be a member of some, new radical movement that was going to change the world. Yesterday, workers and soldiers clashed in a struggle over the system of private property. But today, the popular trade unions are the most institutionalized aspect of Capitalism.

     You can take any of the most historic events in labor. The General Strike of Great Britain in 1924 or the General Strike that led to the Paris Commune or the Russian Revolution. Each of them were powerful forces that made threats against both the state and the privileged class. But today, even though some of the same unions may be existence, the radicalism has dried up. Some of the traditional trade unions have become, in fact, greater props to the system that they're supposed to resist.

     In 1968, when 10 million workers in France seized their industries, all of the popular trade unions came out in opposition to them. In contrast, they chose a less democratic alternative: supporting the 5 million workers in France who still obeyed their masters. [*1] What happened to the unions that used to storm the factories, blow up machines, and flood their own mines? What happened to the trade unionists who were arrested by the hundreds for violent confrontations with the police and the military? What happened to the organized laborers at arms and munitions plants, who used to send guns to any union that went on strike? [*2]

     Members of revolutionary-minded unions during the 1930's left to fight Fascism in Spain -- and they came from Sweden, Germany, Russia, England, France, Italy, and the United States. But today, the Union of Automobile Workers (UAW) begs the government to provide financing to back up their capitalist masters. [*3] They didn't fight to get public financing for low-income housing, for regulatory bodies to better supervise corporate corruption, or for relief for homelessness, hunger, and poverty. No, the UAW today has only spoken in public affairs when it came to saving the margin of workers represented within their union. They are an aristocracy of labor.

     But what proud and dignified beginnings! The UAW was born during the era when the Congress of Industrial Organizations was trying to organize all blue-collar workers. One UAW Local in Michigan was organized during the 1930's by a Socialist Party member. His experiences involved everything meaningful in terms of workers revolutions: from investigating and discovering the union president was a hired politician working for management, to the implementation of a worker-managed industry. To quote Peter Friedlander from "The Emergence of a UAW Local, 1936-1939"...

"By the middle of the war years the company had completely lost control of the production process....Workers' control, increased productivity, and a relatively nonrepressive system of in-plant relationships constituted the three social and political pillars on which this system rested. The union took over all managerial functions on the shop floor. This fact is of far greater significance than either the unanimous resolutions favoring a labor party passed by the local or the consistent opposition to the wartime no-strike pledge..." [*4]

     Today, the UAW has no place for ideas of mass working-class unions, worker self-management, or Socialist Revolution over Capitalism. These were what it made it strong in appealing to the workers, because it genuinely spoke to their ambitions. But nobody looks to the UAW today as a representation of the working class in general, either white-collar or blue-collar, revolutionary or conformist. They see it as a clique of workers who have managed to improve their lot without any consideration for the vast hoards of workers.

     It's not even a growing movement: the surest signs of its death and compliance with Capitalism is that the UAW and its affiliates spend millions of dollars on donating to political parties, while their absolute and relative numbers decline in absence of any organizing drives. In 2009, the UAW spent $13 million, collected from their members' union dues, to throw at politicians of the Democratic Party. [*5]

     In 2010, strikes cost the American Capitalist system only 31,500 work days. [*6] This is a longterm trend, as well, in the decline of strike activity. From 1971 to 1980, there were 225 million strike days, whereas from 2001 to 2010, with a slightly larger population, there was barely 20 million strike days. If the UAW spent their $13 on organizing workers, and paid $25 per day strike benefits, they could have afforded more than half a million strike days. And here is the greatest opposition to the conservative trade unions of Europe and the United States in particular: they simply don't seem very interested in organizing the working class against the Capitalist system. To quote Stuart Christie and Albert Meltzer from "The Floodgates of Anarchy"...

"Local militancy was always able to keep trade unionism an effective force whatever the leadership, but the First World War brought the first major showdown. Until then it was of less importance that the leadership was reformist than that union solidarity should grow, unless the leadership positively inhibited the growth of the union. This, for instance, happened in the American labor movement, which, by its insistence on craft unionism, originally adapted to the facts of the seventies and eighties [of the 1800's], became by the turn of the century so divisive as to be powerless." [*7]

     Even the complaints that I'm bringing now against the unions for being conservative have existed everywhere Socialism has developed. Most notable would be the criticism of the German Social Democrats during World War 1 against British trade unionism. The union presidents, seeing themselves in a situation where they're needed, will try to maintain that situation -- they will try to maintain and sustain the system of Capitalism, which has made a place for them live in opulence and power. To quote the Russian Council Communist, Anton Pannekoek...

"When the trade unions fought against the capitalist class for better working conditions, the capitalist class hated them, but it had not the power to destroy them completely. If the trade unions would try to raise all the forces of the working class in their fight, the capitalist class would persecute them with all its means. They may see their actions repressed as rebellion, their offices destroyed by militia, their leaders thrown in jail and fined, their funds confiscated. On the other hand, if they keep their members from fighting, the capitalist class may consider them as valuable institutions, to be preserved and protected, and their leaders as deserving citizens. So the trade unions find themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea; on the one side persecution, which is a tough thing to bear for people who meant to be peaceful citizens; on the other side, the rebellion of the members, which may undermine the unions. The capitalist class, if it is wise, will recognize that a bit of sham fighting must be allowed to uphold the influence of the labor leaders over the members....

"Trade unionism abhors communism. Communism takes away the very basis of its existence. In communism, in the absence of capitalist employers, there is no room for the trade union and labour leaders. It is true that in countries with a strong socialist movement, where the bulk of the workers are socialists, the labour leaders must be socialists too, by origin as well as by environment. But then they are right-wing socialists; and their socialism is restricted to the idea of a commonwealth where instead of greedy capitalists honest labour leaders will manage industrial production.

"Trade unionism hates revolution. Revolution upsets all the ordinary relations between capitalists and workers. In its violent clashings, all those careful tariff regulations are swept away; in the strife of its gigantic forces the modest skill of the bargaining labour leaders loses its value. With all its power, trade unionism opposes the ideas of revolution and communism." [*8]

     This was the typical attitude of revolutionary Socialists and Communists throughout the industrialized world in the 1920's and 1930's. The one exception would have been Britain and the United States, where the primary unions sprung up without even a mild influence of Socialism or workers' power. It is a revolutionary attitude, perhaps unlike any others, because it takes a direct, theoretical account of how union leaders and union members don't have the exact same desire; one retains individual power for a few because of the struggle in Capitalism, the other seeks the universal power for everyone that comes from establishing a workers' society.

     The union movement has degenerated far more since those imposing criticisms of the years past. Pannekoek's description of labor leaders blinding their workers while working hand-in-hand with management is a concise history of the US labor movement. This was only once it emerged from the depths of criminality and revolution to become an established, institutionalized force. And today, the unions have become so entwined within the Capitalist system, that there is no fighting Capitalism without fighting the Conservative trade unions.

Horizontal Decision-Making and Fighting for Social Change

"Everything else can and must be accomplished by the people themselves. Otherwise we would arrive at political dictatorship; that is, a re-instatement of the State, privilege, inequality, persecution; a re-establishment, by a long and roundabout way, of political, social, and economic slavery."
          --Mikhail Bakunin
          "The Church, the State, and the Commune"

     Established unions today have become entrenched in the system of Capitalism that they were supposed to resist. But without any Capitalism, they'll have nothing to resist. Like the masters of state, they know that there is no power if they kill the thing they're supposed to repress. Trade unionism, though, with such deep roots in revolutionary activity is not condemnable altogether. There is, in fact, much that can be done to improve the relationship of the common peoples' struggle for control over their lives and the role of labor unions within society.

     The most important step is to abolish the exclusiveness of the unions. Unions during the 1970's in the United States encompassed nearly one out of four workers; but today, it's only one out of ten, at most. It is exclusive by its very nature. Those who have a connection the union can get a job, but the masses are pushed out and ignored. The greatest proof of this is that you can go to any major union, tell them that you're a poor worker in need, and every one will provide the same, essential response: "We're well staffed now. But, if you can get a job on your own, you're welcome to pay union dues." The conservative nature of the trade unions today is anti-working class.

     There should be an expansion in the scope of the union's coverage of society. First, it needs to spread to below. Capitalists are fond are setting up "day labor" services where cheap laborers are exploited for minimum wage; and it's an irony, that these people end up being strike-breakers, earning less than the unions they're tearing apart. Andy why should they care otherwise? The union pushed them away when they asked for work and help. Breaking up that type of union is as much anti-capitalism as is striking against Capitalism to begin with.

     How could you call such a poor, miserable worker a 'scab'? Where were the so-called union men when Capitalism was denying the working class a right to work and the land? Those union workers were, in their turn, scabs to the entire working class. "Prohibitive initiation fees are established that force men to become scabs against their will. Men whom manliness or circumstances have driven from one trade are thereby fined when they seek to transfer membership to the union of a new craft," Eugene V. Debs spoke at the first convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905. [*9] Or, to quote Karl Kautsky, who had formed part of the early German and Russian resistance to the Capitalist trade unions of America and Britain...

"The more such an aristocracy of labor leaves the unskilled, unprotected, unorganized parts of the proletariat to shift economically for themselves, the more these come to be the breeding centers of scabs who stab organized labor in the back on every occasion and thus paralyze every decided action." [*10]

     Every type of "technical problem" will be used to argue against the integration of the most exploited of the working class into the labor movement. Typical employment of the AFL-CIO, for instance, focuses on long-term work, such as the jobs of skilled machinists or professional teachers, whereas those who work in offices, do clerical work, or even the fast food industry is ignored entirely. When all unions have fought for job security and the right to work, how is this going to appeal to a new generation that seeks the right to quit? Myra Wolfgang, a vice president of one of the AFL-CIO unions, described the trend in a 1971 interview published in Dissent Magazine...

"Here they are, working in a restaurant and we come along and give them a big speech about job security. You know, they should join the union so they'll have security on the job. But they're thinking of just one thing -- to make enough money to get the hell out of the job." [*11]

     In the same piece, she admitted latter that the main reason why she thought young people joined the union was "because they would like to have someone around to call the boss an s.o.b." But this would be an unacceptable form of unionism, she says. Oddly, she felt it acceptable to oppose an Equal Rights Amendement that would outlaw sexist discrimination. [*12] The unions have not be willing to adapt to these new changes in social or economic trends, which have been perpetually building since 1960. They have not adapted to a working class that won't be happy by being the miserable toys of a capitalist class. The alternative of working class solidarity, expressed by long-term employment and subservience to employer and union boss alike, sounds like no alternative to todays' radical thinker.

     The trade unions developed as a response to having no control over their work, which was the greatest determinant in how they lived outside of the factory. The employers could not offer a place of employment where each worker was well-paid and given safe conditions. Unionizing was the only alternative to an unbendable situation that offered the common people no way to change their lives. Opposition to traditional, conservative unionism develops naturally along the same lines of thought.

     To become revolutionary, a trade union movement must spread itself in all directions of the working class. It must not isolate itself to one particular segment, erroneously called "white collar" or "blue collar," "skilled" or "unskilled," "regularly employed" or "seasonably employed," and "waged" or "salaried." The union must make agreements with employers not for job stability, but for the right to job transfer -- to leave one place of employment and be able to find another, when you want, through the union. They shouldn't be fighting for divisions along craft unions, but should seek to join together all who fall under the category of subservient to the master class.

     The union shouldn't fine its own members and carry out disciplinary measure that is normally the supervisor's job. And when a worker quits their job because the conditions in which they labor do not uplift themselves as civilized human beings, the union shouldn't fine them -- the union should defend them. The AFL-CIO, however, has itself accepted the position of co-supervisor; it fines its own members for violations of the company's policy, even such as discussing unions. [*13] [*14]

     Every worker, from the day-laborer who serves a new capitalist everyday, to the temp worker serving out shifts of six-month labor, should be part of the union. But today's traditional trade unions can see no use or value in bringing in such hoards of exploited into their own ranks. The trade unionist who has sat upon an iron press for three decades has only saw fit to bring in other people to their movement. They saw factories across the street, as in the CIO drives of the 1930's, and organized those factories, too.

     Today, they look at their factory windows and see temp labor hired in construction and day-laborers in the farm fields, but that same sympathy doesn't come to them. There are no trade unionists coming out of the factories, half-covered in stains of black oil and lugging a wrench on the pants, handing out union pamphlets to workers digging potatoes This image doesn't exist. And here, you get the image, that these trade unions are really thinking about the "return" they'll get before investing in union drives. The image of Capitalism comes to mind, where redundant and useless individuals try to clutch on to the miserable and dying powers -- received in another era under dictatorships.

     So many workers are in small establishments, in temp work, in semiskilled jobs, or waiting to make that jump to the university. The union may even consider forming its own union-temp agency. If organized labor doesn't find creative, intelligent, and articulate ways to embrace the whole of the working class, then organized labor will decay as it should. If it doesn't find a way to make its organization into one that will improve the immediate and the longterm interests of all of the working class, then it will cease to be a working class organization.

     Nor should one's vision be angled entirely toward those below the union movement. Scientists, teachers, biologists, statisticians, and mathematicians typically have short-term work, as well. While the Blue-Collar worker may maintain a salary higher than a professor, they're expected not to leave the same position in their factory for at least four decades. This is not true for those outside the union movement with no skill, as well as for those who have university qualifications. Among the workers, the lower and the upper class don't have the same connection to job security as that small, dwindling center of middle-class trade unionists. If these professionals are not unionized, then they'll be capitalized.

Revolutionizing the Union Movement

"Unions project, even if only embryonicly at times, class cohesion, confidence, fighting capacity, and working-class unity. When these characteristics are heightened in time of broad struggle and extended organization, all social movements of poor and oppressed people may gain. When they reach low levels -- as in the United States today -- these other constituents are usually less successful.

"To achieve certain broader goals, but even to defend their narrow economic interests in times of crisis, unions must reach out and ally themselves with other constituencies. Their success often depends on it. While their tendency to take up the interests of these other constituencies is neither natural nor inevitable, there is a certain logic to it. Their reliance on numerical strength for greater economic and political leverage suggests such a course. Their overlapping interests and need for unity -- most oppressed constituencies have representatives within the working class (e.g. nonwhites, women, youth) or close ties to the working class (the unemployed, the physically disabled) -- often require it."
          --Michael Goldfield, 1987
          "The Decline of Organized Labor in the United States" [*15]

     It may be logical to look at today's conservative trade unions and believe that there is some value in overthrowing them, forming our own independent class-unions, or both. It's hard to say how things will necessarily turn out. In 2005, when the largest national trade union in the United States seemed more secure than ever, there was a split: with the Change to Win Federation in opposition to the remaining AFL-CIO. However, the new organization seems like it is has only awaken to the problem that unionism is dying -- they hardly have any understanding why, and their attempted fixes are half-hearted. Their emphasis is on union organizing, on doing more of the old. There is not much new.

     Whatever happens to the old unions, something new is needed, and not a "more of the old" type of new. Essentially, it is the same conclusion that the Industrial Workers of the World made in response to the AFL-CIO when it was established in 1905. That old type of unionism is no longer sufficient to meet our needs today as workers organized against the power of our masters. This is our conclusion, too, to the hybrid craft-industrial style unionism of the AFL-CIO.

     Craft unionism was the first style of unionism, from the 1800's, which taught that every laborer should organize with those of the same skill. This allows them to create a "bottleneck" effect, where all production is stopped, because everyone who can do one small part refuses to work. But as industry changed, Industrial Unionism came to the foray with the CIO, where all workers of an industry are brought into the union. This became necessary, because machinery kept reducing the skill level of any worker, such that craft unions had no effect, because there was no way to monopolize that skill.

     Today, though, Craft Unionism is almost wholly dead, and Industrial Unionism has been declining since the 1970's. Both Craft Unionism and Industrial Unionism were a form of workers' resistance to the particular conditions of Capitalism. Since conditions have changed so much, it is time for a new type of unionism, one that embraces every laborer. Perhaps what is needed is a General Unionism, Class Unionism, or Worker Unionism.

     The limitations of craft and industrial organizing have shown themselves. The only thing that can truly inspire tho workers today toward action is a form of resistance that matches itself to their practical situation. Conservative trade unions have failed to do this, and they will continue to decline as long as they continue that route.

"I favour the labour movement because I believe it to be the most effective way of raising the morale of the workers and because, too, it is a grand and universal enterprise that can be ignored only by those who have lost their grip on real life."
          --Errico Malatesta, 1926
          "Further Thoughts on Anarchism and the Labour Movement"



*1. "The Beginning of an Era," from the Situationist International Archives, Translated by Ken Knabb, Internationale Situationniste #12, September 1969, CDDC.VT.edu .
*2. "Watchful Waiting," by Margaret Sanger, Source: The Woman Rebel, Vol. 1, No. 3, May 1914, 24 , Margaret Sanger Microfilm C16:0538, NYU.edu . "Women of the Socialist party! If there is no fighting spirit among you impelling initiative other than to imitate the gentle suffragists, then at least take your cue--follow the lead of those whom you would represent. The protests of the Cigar Makers and Typographical Union and the Miners of Wyoming consisted in sending arms and ammunition to the striking miners of Colorado, and these are good enough examples of working-class solidarity for all to follow." *3. "Union Keeps Special Privileges Through Taxpayer Bailout of General Motors," by Hans Bader, June 3, 2009, OpenMarket.org .
*4. "The Emergence of a UAW Local, 1936-1939: A Study in Class and Culture," by Peter Friedlander, 1975, the University of Pittsburgh Press: Feffer and Simons, Inc., London, page 91, chapter 6: "Consolidation."
*5. "Obama's auto policy: All in the Democratic family," by Timothy P. Carney 05/05/09 11:00 PM, published by the Washington Examiner, WashingtonExaminer.com, "President Barack Obama’s auto industry policy promises to heighten the influence of lobbyists and to open the door to ethical transgressions and even outright corruption. By naming as car czar a financier who is also a Democratic fundraiser steeped in cozy business-government relationships, and by replacing the traditional bankruptcy procedures with the will of politicians, Obama has injected Detroit with all the elements of crony capitalism."
*6. "Work Stoppages in 2010," by anonymous, published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, February 10, 2011, BLS.gov .
*7. "The Floodgates of Anarchy," by Stuart Christie and Albert Meltzer, published by PM Press: 2010 Edition, originally published 1970, page 39, chapter 3: "The Labor Movement."
*8. "Trade Unionism," by Anton Pannekoek, 1936, International Council Correspondence, Vol.II, No.2, January 1936.
*9. "Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World: First Day, Morning Session," Tuesday, June 27, 1905, Marxists.org .
*10. "Trades Unions and Socialism," by Karl Kautsky, 1901, Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.1 No.10, April 1901; Translated: E. Dietzgen.
*11. "Young Women Who Work: An Interview with Myra Wolfgang," interviewed by Bernard Rosenberg and Saul Weinman, reprinted in "The World of the Blue Collar Worker," edited by Irving Howe, published by Quadrangle Books: A New York Times Company, 1972.
*12. "An Equal Rights Amendment Would Be Harmful: Testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments," by Myra Wolfgang, May 6, 1970, JackieWhiting.net .
*13. "Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process under Monopoly Capitalism," by Michael Burawoy, 1979, published by the University of Chicago Press.
*14. "The Emergence of a UAW Local, 1936-1939: A Study in Class and Culture," by Peter Friedlander, 1975, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press: Feffer and Simons Inc., London, ISBN: 0-8229-3295-4.
*15. "The Decline of Organized Labor in the United States," by Michael Goldfield, 1975, published by the University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, ISBN: 0-226-30102-8, page 75, chapter 4: "The Significance of the Trade Union Decline."

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