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Workers Vanguard No. 1015

11 January 2013

Defend the Unions Through Class Struggle!

No Reliance on the Democrats!

Michigan Passes Union Busting “Right to Work” Law

With over 10,000 trade unionists chanting “Solidarity forever!” in protest outside the State Capitol in Lansing on December 11, the Republican-controlled government enacted a law making Michigan a “right to work” state. As in Indiana, where a similar law went into effect a year ago, the bill’s backers cynically portrayed it as a job creation measure in a manufacturing region ravaged by decades of deindustrialization and now reeling under the weight of the economic downturn. This was the flimsiest cover for its clear purpose: to cripple the unions financially and sow division within the workforce by making dues payments optional.

Michigan, home to the United Auto Workers (UAW) and once a stronghold of multiracial union power, joins 23 other open shop states, concentrated in the South, the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, where average wages are considerably less than elsewhere in the country. This disparity represents a major profit bonanza for the bosses. Riding high, the union-busters are crowing: “If it can happen in Michigan, it can happen anywhere” (Bloomberg News, 13 December). The dominos could very well continue to fall unless the “right to work” crusade is met with sharp class struggle by the unions.

The day before its passage, President Barack Obama, taking a cheap opportunity to posture as a “friend” of labor, intoned that the Michigan “right to work” bill meant the “right to work for less money.” He certainly knows of what he speaks. The bailout of U.S. automakers in 2009 that he orchestrated was all about making UAW members “work for less”—or not at all—so that the industry would again turn a profit. We opposed the bailout from the outset, warning that it “will be purchased through the further destruction of the jobs and livelihoods of working people” (“Bosses Declare War on UAW Workers,” WV No. 926, 5 December 2008). Indeed, plant closures and mass layoffs followed, clearing the way for the employment of new hires and temps at half the pay of senior workers when the companies again added jobs.

For UAW head Bob King, though, Obama “saved” the auto industry and its jobs with the bailout, turning a major blow against the union into a badge of honor for the White House. The union bureaucrats poured tens of millions into Obama’s re-election campaign and feted him on the floor of auto plants in Midwest battleground states, while reviling the Republican candidate Mitt Romney for declaring in 2008: “Let Detroit go bankrupt.” In fact, the bailout deal explicitly allowed the Treasury Department to revoke its loans to GM and Chrysler—i.e., throw the automakers into bankruptcy—in the event of an auto workers strike to resist the bloodletting. After relinquishing the tools of class struggle, the servile UAW tops sold the bailout deal to the membership by posing the choice: “voluntarily” concede or be thrown to the mercy of the bankruptcy courts.

These sellouts not only sacrificed their members on the altar of restoring the competitive edge and profitability of American capitalism but also opened the door to further attacks on labor as a whole. “Right to work” forces redoubled their efforts in places like Michigan, while state and municipal governments controlled by Democrats and Republicans alike took aim at public workers across the country. One such massive assault in Wisconsin two years ago galvanized protest by trade unionists from across the Midwest, who turned out in the tens of thousands week after week. But far from seizing the opportunity to unleash labor’s strike weapon, the union officialdom channeled the outpouring of militancy into a toothless and losing bid to recall Republican governor Scott Walker in favor of a Democrat. This prostration before the “lesser evil” capitalist Democratic Party resulted in the gutting of the public employee unions.

Michigan’s union bureaucrats served up more of the same strategy of tying labor’s fortunes to capitalist electoral mechanisms. In a bid to prevent “another Wisconsin” amid a growing anti-labor chorus, they put a referendum on the November ballot to supposedly enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution. In an abject display of the bureaucrats’ role as “labor statesmen,” they included a provision authorizing lawmakers to ban public employee strikes! Even with such reassurances, the ballot measure sparked an all-out propaganda counterattack and failed. The bosses then smelled blood. On December 4, Republican governor Rick Snyder announced that “right to work” was “on the agenda.” A week later, it was law.

Giving some left coloration to the labor bureaucracy’s electoral strategy, the reformists of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) dress up the Michigan ballot initiative as an “independent political action” (“What Went Wrong in Michigan?”, 19 December 2012). The ISO claims it failed mainly due to the lack of sufficient activism, unlike the successful 2011 Ohio referendum on collective bargaining for public workers in that state. As we wrote in “Obama’s Re-election: The Shell Game of Lesser Evilism” (WV No. 1013, 23 November 2012):

“The rights of workers to organize, strike, picket and shut down production have never been codified in the Constitution. The reason is simple: they collide with the only actual guaranteed rights in this society, the property rights of the capitalist owners that are the foundation for the profits they extract through the exploitation of labor. Everything of value that workers have won has been gained through hard-fought, often bloody, class battles against the employers and their state.”

The Class-Struggle Road

One such example is the very forging of the UAW. In the course of the 1936-37 Flint, Michigan, sit-down strike, workers occupied the GM Fisher Body No. 1 and No. 2 plants and shut production down tight for weeks. On 11 January 1937, strikers fought off an attempt by city cops in riot gear to retake the Fisher No. 2 plant in what became known as the Battle of Bull’s Run. The next month, sharp military maneuvers allowed a phalanx of workers to occupy Chevrolet Plant No. 4, precipitating a crisis for the company, which capitulated ten days later and recognized the union. Wives of the GM workers and other supporters, forming a Women’s Auxiliary, played a crucial role throughout these class battles.

The strike was part of a broader industrial union organizing drive sparked in part by three citywide general strikes in 1934—all led by reds—in Minneapolis, Toledo and San Francisco. As the unionization drive, which resulted in the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) swept through industries in the late 1930s, the union shop took hold. But even then the leaders of the CIO, including its reformist Communist Party and social-democratic components, hitched the unions to the New Deal coalition of Democratic president Franklin Roosevelt, at a time when an advanced layer of the working class was receptive to the notion of an independent workers party.

Today’s labor bureaucrats barely pay lip service to the class-struggle methods that built the unions. Beholden to the capitalist profit system, the UAW’s King and his ilk offer up the unions as willing “partners” of the bosses, sapping labor’s fighting strength and demoralizing the union membership. A case in point is the chauvinist “America first” protectionism long peddled particularly by the UAW tops. Promoting the fortunes of U.S. auto companies against their foreign rivals poisons the well of international labor solidarity with workers toiling in auto plants around the world.

In the wake of the Michigan “right to work” defeat, the union misleaders have announced a campaign to replace Republican lawmakers with Democrats in 2014—i.e., preferring the blows to be struck by a gloved fist. In Detroit, Democratic mayor David Bing has imposed layoffs and wage cuts on teachers and city workers while slashing basic city services to the bone. Across the country, Democrats like California’s Jerry Brown, New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel have been out front in similar anti-labor attacks.

The difference between the two capitalist parties is only one of approach. Take the smashing of the PATCO air traffic controllers union in 1981. It was conceived by the Democratic Carter administration and implemented by Ronald Reagan. Benefitting from union money and get-out-the-vote efforts, Democrats might stop just short of outright crushing the unions, at least as long as they remain under the watch of the docile “labor lieutenants of capital.” Turning back the ruling-class war against labor will require breaking labor’s political subservience to the Democrats and the capitalist order.

Detroit: Capitalist Devastation

Ever since their profit margins narrowed in the 1970s, mainly due to Japanese competition, the Big Three have carried out repeated waves of plant closures in the Rust Belt, moving a good deal of production to low-wage areas in the open shop South as well as other countries. Michigan’s urban landscape is a testament to this decay and immiseration, a direct result of the capitalist system of production for profit. Once the hub of the U.S. auto industry, Detroit is now a wasteland that lost one quarter of its population from 2000 to 2010.

As the last hired and first fired in racist capitalist America, black workers have been particularly hard-hit, a situation made worse by the financial meltdown in 2008. Over the next three years, black male joblessness in Detroit hovered at 50 percent. The jails were overflowing, and the housing market imploded.

To forestall bankruptcy, three years ago Mayor Bing hatched a plan to cut off city services, including road repairs, streetlights and garbage collection, to the 20 percent of Detroit that he deemed expendable. Now, with the city teetering on the brink of insolvency, the governor is angling to appoint an emergency manager (EM) for Detroit. Under the terms of another bill rammed through the legislature at the end of the year, the state can place municipalities and school districts into receivership. The EM appointee will have the power to void union contracts outright and liquidate city assets. The same legislative session also enacted a pair of vicious laws attacking women’s fundamental right to abortion.

If Detroit is put into receivership, a wide swath of the state’s population, including a majority of its black residents, will be subject to the diktats of unelected officials, as cities like Flint, Pontiac and Benton Harbor already operate under an EM. A taste of what the State of Michigan has in store can be gleaned from its takeover of Detroit Public Schools (DPS) in 2009. Out to bust the teachers union, the EM in 2011 sent a layoff notice to every teacher and other salaried DPS employee. Nearly one half of the city’s schools have closed down in the last five years.

In Michigan, as elsewhere, struggles by labor to revitalize the unions would find many allies among the ghetto and barrio poor by taking up the fight for jobs, quality housing, education, health care and more. Even in devastated Detroit, black workers still form the backbone of the city’s proletariat and could serve to link the power of the working class to the simmering anger of the ghettos. Throughout the country, it is crucial for labor to actively defend the rights of immigrants, an increasingly important component of the working class. Any struggle to unionize the open shop South will directly pose the need for labor to combat anti-black racism and anti-immigrant bigotry.

The labor tops give a nod to the crucial need to replenish the ranks of labor by organizing the unorganized. In Michigan alone, since 1989 union membership has fallen by a third, from 26 to 17.5 percent of the workforce. But the bureaucrats confine their actions to what is deemed permissible by the capitalist state and its gamut of labor laws and regulatory bodies like the NLRB.

The class-collaborationist framework of the labor bureaucracy and its reformist tails has led to disaster for the working class. We Marxists put forward the revolutionary strategy offered by the Transitional Program, in which Leon Trotsky declared: “If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish.” The burning necessity is for a proletarian revolution to rip the productive wealth of society out of the hands of the greedy capitalist rulers and build a collectivized, planned economy where production is based on social need, not profit. The way forward lies in forging a multiracial revolutionary working-class party dedicated to the overthrow of the decaying capitalist system.  


Workers Vanguard No. 1015

WV 1015

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