A ferment is bubbling up in US society. It is a ferment partly born of the crisis of the US capitalist class, who has largely lost control over its presidency; a ferment born of the out-of-control attacks of the racist and fascist lunatics; a ferment born of desperation on the part of sections of the working class. That ferment was most recently visible in the massive counter-demonstrations against the fascists, first in Boston and then in San Francisco and Berkeley.
Beneath the Surface
It’s important to bear in mind that process when we survey the state of affairs of the unions this Labor Day. That’s because what we see, if viewed in isolation, can be pretty depressing. Nevertheless, in order to see things clearly, and in order to be able to play a role in producing the necessary changes, we have to be brutally clear headed about this state of affairs.
And what a year it’s been since Labor Day 2016! Who would have expected that in a year from then we’d be living under a Trump presidency, complete with a revived fascist movement? Not one that is about to become a mass force, but one that is a serious threat nevertheless.
One of the most prominent events for the unions was the defeat of the UAW organizing drive at the Nissan auto plant in Canton, Mississippi. There, the leadership followed the pattern set through their failed organizing drive in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2014. In that instance, they reportedly signed a “neutrality agreement” which committing the union to helping VW “maintain and where possible enhance the const advantages and other competitive advantages.” In other words, the UAW was going to help VW keep the wages low. You couldn’t have a better example of the labor/management collaboration strategy – a strategy that is driving the unions and the working
class in general right over a cliff. Having learned absolutely nothing from that defeat, the UAW leadership took a similar approach in the case of the recent Nissan organizing drive. Evidently they were unable to obtain such a “neutrality agreement” so what they did was pitch the organizing drive as a continuation of the civil rights movement of the 1960s (since most of the workers at the plant are black) instead of a fight for better wages, benefits and working conditions. Meanwhile, they put forward the slogan “Pro Nissan; pro union”. (See photos.) The message of this slogan is that the union is not an organization through which workers can fight the employer for better wages and conditions. How could anything different be posed, though, since the top pay for more recently hired workers under the UAW’s two-tier agreement at other plants in the North is around $20 per hour, which is below the wage for Nissan workers in Canton!
Union Collaboration in Politics
This company/union collaboration also plays out in the political world, even to the extent of partially supporting Trump. For example, when Trump announced his renewed attacks on the environment, in the form of cutting back on pollution regulations for new cars, he had UAW president Dennis Williams sitting by his side, offering visual support for Trump and the auto manufacturers (see photo). As far as Trump’s trade policy of in effect immiserating workers in Mexico or China to supposedly help workers in the US (which it won’t), Williams said this policy is “right on”.
It’s little different elsewhere. 2016-17 saw a boom time in construction. Normally, that would be the ideal situation for the building trades to wipe out non-union construction. Instead, as we reported, we are seeing non-union construction sites growing in major cities throughout the US. As one Carpenter Union “organizer” put it, what the union is doing is pouring water through a one inch hole into a bucket with a three inch hole in the bottom. You can imagine how much
water remains. How could it be any different, when the policy of building trade unions like the Carpenters follow the policy of encouraging their workers to be “the most productive… in the industry,” as expressed by Carpenter president McCarron.
And just like with the UAW’s Williams, the building trades gave Trump a photo op, posing with him in support of any and all construction that Corporate America wants. Will that include supporting “The Wall”? Don’t bet against it.
And the AFL-CIO overall? When the arch reactionary enemy of the working class and bigot Donald Trump was elected, AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka put out a statement “congratulating” Trump and saying “we hope to work with President-elect Trump…” More recently, a series of corporate executives resigned from Trump’s “Manufacturing Advisory Council” after Trump in effect defended the KKK and other fascists. Finding that it was okay by the corporate CEO’s, Trumka also resigned. And what did he have to say about this affair? He said he was going to “pray for” Trump. Yes, that’s right. Not a hint of outrage or, even less, of a fight. He’s going to pray for Trump!
And how about at the local level of the unions?
On the one hand, we have the horde of paid staffers. Some of them might mouth “progressive” ideas, but at the end of the day they must carry out the policies of those who hired them. And that local
leadership? Their attitude can be seen in the contracts they are negotiating. Grocery store clerks are complaining that they haven’t had a raise in years and that the union representatives are failing to back them up when they have a conflict with management.. Carpenters in several areas are now seeing contracts without any pension plan in them.
Missing in Action
Again, the same refusal to organize a fight against the employers is seen in the political arena. From the protests against racism and against the police to the protests against Trump and the fascists, the unions have been more or less missing in action. True, they are often happy to send one or two of their local leaders to speak at the rally. There, these leaders brag that they “represent X-thousand workers”, but they forget to add that not one in a hundred is present at that rally. Why? Because this same union leader did nothing to mobilize the members. How could they, after all, when the members are so disgusted with the contracts these same union leaders are pushing down their throats?
It may be bitter medicine to accept, but accept it we must if we want to figure out how to change it. So, to return to the original question: How can this sorry state of affairs be changed?
One way or another, the crisis in US society will grow and with it the movement against Trump will develop, reaching a fever
pitch. It might come about through some environmental or industrial disaster that kills thousands and is a result of the deregulation. Another possibility is that Trump’s role as a money launderer for the Russian mafia will hit the public arena and with it, the fact that such money laundering is absolutely rampant within the real estate industry. This could lead to a mass outrage and feeling of disgust that would dwarf anything we saw during the Nixon/Watergate scandal (which is exactly why the US capitalist class is doing everything they can to keep the issue under wraps). Or it could be through a war or through something else that is completely unpredictable.
One way or another, though, the entire social situation on which the US labor bureaucracy gained control in the first place is crumbling. That means that their grip on things is no longer tenable in the long run. Unfortunately, almost all the established socialist left has accommodated themselves to the present situation and in effect accepts the union leadership as it presently stands. They do nothing to organize against them. That too will have to change.
But change it must so change it will.
Right now, the union leadership has succeeded in largely discouraging the members from fighting for change. This cannot last forever. Here are some ideas for a program for transformation of the unions that we hope will be useful as a new mood grips the union rank and file.
Program for Working Class Activists and Socialists:
- Link any contract struggle with a wider struggle for an immediate $5/hour raise for all with full benefits and pensions. Link this with a mass organizing drive to organize the unorganized. For a return to the methods of the 1930s – mass picket lines, work place occupations, mass defiance of the union busting laws and judges.
- Organize among the membership to make the unions immediately drop the company/union collaboration in favor of working class-wide solidarity instead.
- Build direct links with workers around the world, starting within the same industry. Union activists should demand that their leadership do this, but with the internet they don’t have to wait. For international solidarity in deeds, not just words.
- For the unions to join with the protest movement against racism, sexism, attacks on immigrants and attacks on the environment. Make this a working class issue!
- For the unions to break with collaboration with the employers not only in the industrial field, but also the political arena. Break with all wings of the Democratic Party and start down the road of building a mass working class party through running independent, working class candidates for local office on a program that explicitly links up the local issues with the necessity of building a mass, working class party.
Podcast of Oaklandsocialist on WRFU discussing this and related issues.
Note: For an in-depth view of the unions, see this pamphlet.