From Workers Vanguard No. 975, 4 March 2011
The Right to Organize Under Attack
All Labor Must Fight Assault on Public Workers Unions!
Forge a Class-Struggle Leadership of the Unions!
For a Workers Party That Fights for a Workers Government!
Millions of working people have been made to pay with their jobs, homes and meager social benefits to bail out the Wall Street and corporate magnates whose financial swindles kicked off the worst economic crisis since the 1930s Great Depression. Amid this devastation, corporate profits last year hit the highest mark in their 60-year recorded history. The banks are wallowing in money and once again handing out millions in bonuses. General Motors, whose survival was purchased through slashing the jobs, wages and benefits of auto workers, boasted nearly $5 billion in profit last year. Having bilked the public purse of countless billions for this “recovery,” Democrats and Republicans are now whipping up an outcry against public workers unions as supposedly living high off the hog at the taxpayers’ expense.
The industrial unions have been ravaged by the deindustrialization of America and the attendant one-sided class war kicked off with the smashing of the PATCO air traffic controllers union in 1981. The United Auto Workers—once the symbol of working-class power in this country—has been reduced to less than a third of its once 1.5 million members. With the rate of unionization in the private sector falling below 7 percent, public workers are now the majority of union members in the U.S. Many of them are constrained by the bosses’ laws from going on strike—and striking is the most important weapon a union has.
It is not just Republicans, high on their midterm election sweep, who are taking a sledgehammer to the unions. The Obama administration kicked things off with its assault on the seniority rights and other gains of teachers unions, followed most recently by imposing a two-year wage freeze on two million federal government workers. From the White House to state capitols and city halls across America, the capitalist rulers are out to further shackle and maim the unions, if not destroy them outright.
This is a war being fought by the capitalist rulers around the world, as workers are being forced to pay for the global Great Recession. The British Economist (6 January), reveling in the carnage, reported:
“Many governments (for example in Ireland, Greece and Spain) are cutting public-sector pay. Others (for example in Japan and America) are freezing it. Greece is increasing the retirement age from 58 to 63 and making it possible to fire public servants. Britain is cutting government departments by as much as a quarter, and is reviewing pensions.
“In the United States several rising Republican governors are keen to turn the short-term struggle over pay and benefits into a bigger battle about trade-union power. New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty have both eagerly taken on the new ‘privileged class’ of public sector workers.”
In Europe, the capitalist offensive has been met with defensive, at times massive, class struggle. Most recently, amid a nationwide general strike on February 23, demonstrators protesting government austerity in Greece were attacked by riot cops firing tear gas projectiles. But as we wrote in “Ireland Ravaged by European Economic Crisis” (WV No. 970, 3 December 2010), “the effectiveness of the workers’ struggles has been hampered by the political bankruptcy of the workers’ reformist leadership, who accept the inevitability of capitalist austerity while seeking to soften the blows.”
In the U.S., tens of thousands of teachers and other public workers have mobilized in sick-outs and protest actions in response to a union-busting bill pushed by Wisconsin Republican governor Scott Walker, which would amount to a frontal assault on public unions’ very right to exist (see article, page 1). With Republican lawmakers mounting similar plans in Ohio, Tennessee, Indiana and elsewhere, Gerald McEntee, the president of AFSCME, which shelled out nearly $90 million for Democratic Party candidates in the November elections, complained, “I see this as payback for the role we played in the 2010 elections.”
It is indeed “payback”—for the trade-union misleaders’ class collaboration, which has sapped the fighting power of organized labor by chaining it to the parties of the capitalist class enemy. No less than the Republicans, the policies of the purported “friend of labor” Democrats are determined by the capitalist class. Those Democrats who survived the midterm “shellacking,” largely thanks to the efforts of the trade-union bureaucracy, are not to be outdone in “balancing the budget” out of the wages, pensions and other benefits of government workers as well as savaging already threadbare social programs for the poor. New York Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo inaugurated his election with a one-year wage freeze on state workers, 900 layoffs and the promise of thousands to follow. In California, Jerry Brown celebrated his second time around in the governor’s office by announcing that over three billion dollars would be cut from welfare and health care benefits for the poor, as well as $750 million from services for the disabled.
For its part, the pro-capitalist trade-union bureaucracy couples its overwhelming fealty to the Democrats with preaching one-sided “shared sacrifice” and pushing “America First” protectionist poison. With their chauvinist appeals, these “labor lieutenants of capital” help line up working people behind U.S. imperialist interests. For America’s capitalist rulers, workers are fodder for profit at home while poor, minority and working-class youth are cannon fodder abroad. The struggles of working people and minorities against capitalist exploitation and oppression cannot be divorced from opposition to all U.S. imperialist depredations.
Busting the Unions, Starving the Poor
In racist capitalist America, the spectre of the hard-working taxpayer whose pockets are being picked to fund the “undeserving” has long been raised to shred social programs seen as benefitting black people, immigrants and the poor. Now the capitalist masters are wielding this stick against public workers unions. What’s at stake is not simply the survival of these unions, many of which are made up predominantly of blacks and other minorities and women. On the line are the very lives of working people, the poor, the sick and the aged who depend on such paltry social services as this capitalist government continues to provide. There is no more vivid a snapshot of the potential impending catastrophe than Detroit.
The former Motor City, where hundreds of thousands of unionized black auto workers once had the semblance of a decent job, is now a vast urban wasteland. By some estimates, black male unemployment is nearly 65 percent. Detroit’s population has sunk from 1.8 million to 850,000, with 40 percent of the city written off as “unoccupied” by the city’s political masters. A year ago, an article in the Washington Post (3 January 2010) described conditions: “The decline of the auto industry and the nation’s economic slide have left many residents here trapped, without work, in houses they can’t sell, in neighborhoods where they fear for their safety, in schools that offer their children a hard road out.”
While black industrial workers were the first to be written off by the bourgeoisie as a “surplus population”—their labor no longer needed to produce profits and their very lives considered dispensable—such ruin now increasingly stalks the nation. Almost 14 million people are officially unemployed, and that discounts those millions trying to scrape by with part-time jobs and the millions more who have been cast into permanent joblessness.
This crisis is the product of the workings of the anarchic system of capitalism, based on production for profit derived out of the exploitation of the working class. The obscenely wealthy capitalists appropriate the results of the workers’ labor (i.e., profit) as their own, while working people are left to wonder if they will have a job tomorrow. This phenomenon was noted at the birth of industrial capitalism by Karl Marx, who described its devastating effect nearly 150 years ago in Capital: “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation at the opposite pole.”
Many workers today feel that the best they can do is to try to hold on to their jobs. But the same conditions that grind down the working class, that demoralize and set them one against the other in a fight to survive, can and will also propel the proletariat forward to unity in battle together with its allies against the capitalist class enemy. This was seen in the midst of the Great Depression in the 1930s, when, at a brief upturn in the economy, workers began to wage bitter class battles to organize industrial unions, sacrificing, if necessary, their jobs, their freedom and their very lives.
The social power of public workers is not that of industrial workers, who can directly stop the wheels of production and thus of profit from turning. But public unions include transportation, utility and other workers who provide the means and services by which the economy runs—the infrastructure vital for a modern industrial economy. For example, transit workers in metropolitan centers like New York, the San Francisco Bay Area and Chicago can cripple these financial and corporate centers.
While the bourgeois media whips up a propaganda barrage about “public outrage” against public workers unions, the truth is that if these workers waged some hard class struggle they would have plenty of allies among the unemployed, black people, immigrants and all those who have been thrown under the bus by the capitalist rulers. “Public opinion” is, in the end, determined by the ebbs and flows of the class struggle. As Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin stressed: “Whereas the liberals (and the liquidators) tell the workers: ‘You are strong when you have the sympathy of “society”,’ the Marxist tells the workers something different, namely: ‘You have the sympathy of “society” when you are strong’.”
What stands in the way of the labor movement engaging in militant class struggle is the union bureaucracy. Peddling the lie that the workers have common interests with the capitalist exploiters and their state, they have allowed the industrial unions to be hacked to pieces and are lying down in the face of the war against public unions, if not actively collaborating in it. Even when forced to offer some resistance to the assaults of capitalist politicians like Wisconsin’s governor Walker, the bureaucrats subordinate the workers to the capitalist Democratic Party, and most of them are willing to concede to virtually all the government’s economic demands to cut wages and benefits.
The Labor Lieutenants of the Capitalist Class
The leaders of the public unions pledge their allegiance to “balancing the budget” of the capitalist government, the executive committee of the capitalist class. AFSCME leader McEntee has promised that “Public Employees stand ready to help state and local governments get through the economic storm.” Joining this chorus, a spokesman for the biggest New York State government workers union, the Civil Service Employees Association, responded to Governor Cuomo’s wage freeze by stating: “It sounds like he’s trying to set a tone that we need to all do our part. We don’t have a problem with doing our part” (New York Times, 3 January).
The role of the trade-union bureaucracy was captured by Leon Trotsky, who together with V.I. Lenin was co-leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution: “The labor bureaucrats do their level best in words and deeds to demonstrate to the ‘democratic’ state how reliable and indispensable they are in peacetime and especially in time of war.” When the “good times” were rolling on Wall Street, the public union misleaders assisted state and local governments in holding the line on increased wages and other benefits with the promise of greater pension fund contributions—a form of deferred wages. These funds in turn became a honeypot for high-rolling bankers and hedge fund managers, in league with state pension plan managers, for some of their riskiest investments, like credit default swaps and complex mortgage securities. When these imploded, pension funds were burned. State governments, many of which underfunded pension payments, are now screaming that they are being robbed by public workers, whose average pension is about $20,000 a year. Anyone who looks can see whose hand is in whose pocket.
The capitalist masters have virtually obliterated defined-benefit pensions in industry, which obligated corporations to make fixed retirement payments for private sector unions. Now they are trying to enlist these workers in the war against “greedy” public workers. An op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal (4 January) titled “Labor’s Coming Class War” declared:
“The notion that Wall Street and Main Street are fundamentally at odds with one another remains a popular orthodoxy. So much so that we may be missing the first stirrings of a true American class war: between workers in government unions and their union counterparts in the private sector.”
For evidence, this voice of finance capital points to Steve Sweeney, an organizer for the Ironworkers union, more than 40 percent of whose members are out of work. Sweeney is credited with “pushing for reform of state-employee pay and benefits” in his other capacity as the Democratic Party president of the New Jersey State Senate. The article goes on to gloat that New York governor Cuomo “may have found a surprising ally” in Gary LaBarbera—president of the 100,000-strong Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York.
Joining business and real estate magnates in the “Committee to Save New York,” which is raising millions to bankroll Cuomo’s war against government unions, LaBarbera argued: “This is not about bashing public-sector unions. But without a fiscally sound environment, we will not be able to attract new businesses to the city” (New York Times, 9 December 2010). This is but a raw expression of the labor bureaucracy’s class-collaborationist policies, which tie the fate of the workers to the fortunes of the capitalist class and its state.
In the face of a growing army of unemployed, the gutting of pensions, the lack of health care and the elimination of other social programs and benefits, the answer of the trade-union bureaucrats is to pit worker against worker in the struggle to survive. In fact, the “fiscally sound” calculations of the capitalist rulers don’t simply include savaging public unions and the poor. Taking aim at all unions, Republican politicians in the Indiana legislature earlier this month introduced a union-busting “right to work” bill modeled on similar laws in the South, where the unionization rate is the lowest in the country.
A Class-Struggle Program
It is in the crucible of heightening class conflict that a new workers leadership in the unions can be forged. This is not simply a question of militancy in defense of the existing unions. If the workers are to struggle not only in their own interests but in the interests of all the oppressed, there must be a hard political struggle to replace the present sellouts who sit on top of the unions. They must be replaced with workers’ leaders who are able to not only win battles on the picket lines but who are also uncompromising in their dedication to the liberation of humanity from the exploitation, all-sided misery and war that are inherent to a system based on production for profit rather than human need. Striving to forge such a class-struggle leadership of the unions is an integral part of the fight for a multiracial revolutionary workers party whose aim is no less than doing away with the entire system of capitalist wage slavery.
The very defense of the unions mandates a fight to organize the unorganized, from the mass of immigrant workers to the open shop South. To wage such a battle means fighting against the race-color caste oppression of black people, which is the bedrock of capitalist rule in this country. A class-struggle leadership of the unions would be rooted in the understanding that the fight for black freedom is inextricably tied to labor’s cause and would take up the defense of foreign-born workers, demanding an end to deportations and full citizenship rights for all immigrants. It would take up the fight for free, quality health care for all, for the extension of unemployment benefits until there are jobs and for all pensions to be guaranteed by the government.
During the Great Depression and on the eve of the Second World War, Leon Trotsky wrote the Transitional Program, laying out, in Trotsky’s words, “transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.” These demands are not only relevant but vital to the proletariat today.
Against the catastrophe of mass unemployment, which threatens the devastation of the working class, Trotsky called for a shorter workweek at no loss in pay to spread the available work and for a massive program of public works. A fight to rebuild the decaying infrastructure of America—the roads, dams, subway systems, schools and hospitals—would unite private and public unions together with the unemployed in a common struggle for jobs and the rehabilitation of decent services for the population. It would also mobilize the power of labor in the interests of the ghetto and barrio poor in the rotting inner cities, striking a blow against the racial and ethnic hostilities whipped up by the rulers to divide and weaken working people.
General Motors claimed that it could no longer afford to pay union pensions and health benefits for retirees and new hires. Based on this fraud, the auto barons got bailed out. The average wages and benefits of many of the surviving union membership are on a par with those of workers at non-union plants. Earlier, the airline, steel and industrial magnates also declared bankruptcy and were assisted by the courts in ripping up union contracts. Now a proposal is being mooted to allow state governments to declare bankruptcy so that they too can cancel their “debt obligations,” like the billions they owe in pensions. To expose such highway robbery by the corporations, the banks and the government, Trotsky argued that the workers demand that the capitalists open their books and “reveal to all members of society that unconscionable squandering of human labor which is the result of capitalist anarchy.”
Against the swindles of the finance capitalists who control the economy, Trotsky called for the expropriation of the banks: “Only the expropriation of the private banks and the concentration of the entire credit system in the hands of the state will provide the latter with necessary actual, i.e., material resources—and not merely paper and bureaucratic resources—for economic planning.” Trotsky was not talking here about the capitalist state, which exists to defend the rule and profits of the bourgeoisie. As he put it, “the state-ization of the banks will produce these favorable results only if the state power itself passes completely from the hands of the exploiters into the hands of the toilers”—i.e., a workers government.
No Illusions in the Capitalist State
The trade-union bureaucracy peddles the myth that the capitalist state is “neutral” and can be made to answer the needs of the working class if purported labor-friendly Democrats are put in office. They claim that the very organization of industrial unions was due to legislation enacted by the Democratic Party government of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, rather than the hard-fought struggles of the workers.
Specifically, the labor tops point to the 1935 Wagner Act, which they claim granted industrial workers the right to organize. The Wagner Act was passed in the aftermath of three victorious citywide strikes in 1934—all of them led by communists—that led to the founding of the CIO industrial unions. It was designed to head off the organizing drive by union militants and “reds” and to set up a government mechanism to subordinate the unions to the capitalist state. As Trotsky wrote in his 1940 article, “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay”:
“In the United States the trade union movement has passed through the most stormy history in recent years. The rise of the CIO is incontrovertible evidence of the revolutionary tendencies within the working masses. Indicative and noteworthy in the highest degree, however, is the fact that the new ‘leftist’ trade union organization was no sooner founded than it fell into the steel embrace of the imperialist state. The struggle among the tops between the old federation and the new is reducible in large measure to the struggle for the sympathy and support of Roosevelt and his cabinet.”
The very leaders of the new industrial union movement, including the Stalinist Communist Party, crippled it through their support to Roosevelt. The Communists and other militants were rewarded by being driven out of the unions in the red purges of the late 1940s and early 1950s, which solidified the power of the unvarnished pro-capitalist trade-union bureaucracy that has since driven these unions into the ground.
Well into the second half of the 20th century, union organization of government workers was uncommon if not outright prohibited. If the 1935 Wagner Act partly acknowledged and sought to regulate organizing rights and collective bargaining in private industry, it specifically exempted public employees from the right to join unions without reprisal. FDR himself wrote that the idea of strikes against the government “by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable.”
In 1962, John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10988, granting most public sector employees the right to collectively bargain. Kennedy’s order specifically prohibited strikes, as did Richard Nixon’s 1969 order modifying it. In 1970, over 200,000 postal workers went on a nationwide wildcat strike. Nixon called in the military, but quickly learned you can’t sort the mail with bayonets. The strike led to the formation of the American Postal Workers Union and the right to collective bargaining by postal workers. However, the ban on strikes remained and was strengthened by the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA).
The misleaders of public workers unions present the formation of their unions, too, as the result of the largesse of the Democratic Party. The son of the author of the Wagner Act, former New York City mayor Robert F. Wagner, is credited with giving city workers the right to organize in 1958. In fact, their right to organize was won in a climate of rapidly increasing militancy, beginning with a 1955 sanitation strike led by AFSCME DC 37 against autocratic Parks Commissioner Robert Moses.
A hard-won and popular strike by welfare social workers in 1965 was followed by the victorious 1966 transit strike, in which Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 leader Mike Quill tore up a court injunction ordering the strike to end, famously announcing on his way to jail, “The judge can drop dead in his black robes and we would not call off the strike.” That strike spelled the end of the 1947 Condon-Wadlin Act forbidding public worker strikes in New York State. Defiance by Quill and other bureaucrats notwithstanding, union officials generally hide behind the ubiquitous no-strike laws like the Taylor Law, which, with its massive fines and jail time for union leaders, replaced Condon-Wadlin in New York.
In 1981, as 13,000 PATCO air traffic controllers went on strike, Ronald Reagan dusted off plans hatched by his predecessor, Democrat Jimmy Carter, and fired the entire workforce, dragging their leaders off to jail in chains. His basis in law was the 1978 CSRA. Organized labor could have beaten back Reagan’s strikebreaking, but the union bureaucracy refused to mobilize labor’s power to shut down the airports. The smashing of PATCO became the model for the capitalists’ decades-long drive to gut the labor movement and intensify the rate of exploitation to prop up their flagging profitability. For the labor tops, the PATCO surrender became their model as well, ushering in decades of give-back contracts and two-tier wage systems with lower pay scales for newly hired younger workers.
It is a measure of the union bureaucracy’s fealty to the capitalist state that AFSCME and other public sector unions organize the very police forces whose purpose is the violent suppression of the workers’ struggle. The economic whip of unemployment and increasing destitution for the working class and oppressed has gone hand in hand with the vast expansion of police powers in the U.S., where the main growth industry has been prisons. Yet the sadistic jailers of the overwhelmingly black and Latino youth in America’s overflowing prisons are themselves often union members.
These hired guns of the capitalist state have no place in the workers movement. Just look at this country’s prison guards, who are organized by AFSCME, SEIU, Teamsters and other unions. In California, they have been the moving force in the racist “war on crime” and such reactionary laws as “three strikes, you’re out,” which have made the state of California a world leader in the number of people behind bars. But there is little bellyaching from the budget slashers over the billions that are poured into maintaining the prison hellholes. These are a critical part of the edifice of organized violence by which the capitalist state enforces its rule.
For a Workers Party That Fights for a Workers Government!
The 2005 New York City TWU strike, which garnered widespread public support, all but shut down this world financial center for some 60 hours. A key strike issue was defense of the union pension for new hires, which was under attack by the bosses long before the current recessionary “budget crisis.” The workers, who had walked out in defiance of the slave-labor Taylor Law, were stabbed in the back by the leaders of other New York City unions and the TWU International leadership and, in the end, sold out by their own union misleaders. This has had a corrosive effect on the workers, breeding cynicism. Nonetheless, notwithstanding the massive fines meted out against the union and its membership under the Taylor Law, the workers kept their pension—because they struck.
This helps to illustrate why billions have been spent over the past decades to wipe out even the semblance of organized labor. Even such a minimal, if supportable, law as the Employee Free Choice Act—which would allow workers to organize through a simple card check as against the prolonged “secret ballot” procedures that give employers additional time to mobilize to crush pro-union sentiment—ignited a well-funded corporate barrage in opposition and is now all but dead. The reason is a simple calculation. Despite the sellouts of the labor tops, a unionized worker continues to make a median wage that is $200 more a week than a non-union worker.
The unions are elementary defense organizations of the working class against unbridled exploitation. The question of turning them into fighting organizations for the working class, which will take up the fight for black freedom, for immigrant rights and for the defense of those whose very lives have been written off by the exploiters and their state, is a political one. As Trotsky wrote more than 70 years ago: “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.”
Two possible roads lie before the working class. There is the bureaucracy’s acceptance that the workers must “sacrifice” to preserve the profits and rule of American capitalism, which has led to disaster. Or there is the class-struggle road of mobilizing the power of the working class in the necessary battles against the capitalist masters. In the course of such struggle, under a leadership that arms the working class with an understanding of the nature of capitalist society, the workers will become imbued with the consciousness of their historic interests as a class fighting for itself and for all of the oppressed. Such consciousness requires a political expression. That means the fight to build a multiracial revolutionary workers party whose purpose is not only to defend the working class against the menace of its own devastation but to rid the planet of the source of that devastation, capitalism itself, and the state that preserves it.