Workers Vanguard No. 1088
22 April 2016
Beware of Anti-Union World Socialist Web Site
We print below a contribution from a longtime supporter of the Spartacist League and former phone worker.
David North’s self-styled “World Socialist Web Site” (WSWS) faces a conundrum which they have yet to confront. For years they have gone beyond the normal revolutionary socialist criticism of the union bureaucracy as sellouts, reformists who restrict the workers’ struggles within the confines of capitalist politics. Years ago the WSWS wrote off the entire trade-union movement worldwide as simply tools of the bosses that no longer are working-class organizations in any sense. It is “a worldwide phenomenon, embracing the unions in the advanced capitalist centers of North America, Europe and Asia, as well as those in so-called ‘less developed’ countries,” they wrote:
“Under the impact of globalization, the unions have been transformed from organizations that pressured the ruling elite and the state for concessions to workers into organizations that pressure the workers for concessions to the employers. They do so in order to strengthen the global competitive position of ‘their’ national ruling elites and induce ‘their’ corporations to keep jobs at home—and thereby stanch the collapse in union membership and resulting decline in the bureaucracy’s dues revenues.”
—“The Middle-Class ‘Left’
and the UAW-GM Contract,”
12 October 2007
According to this analysis, the only thing the labor bureaucrats are interested in is preserving their dues revenue and other privileges. So how explain the launching of a strike of 40,000 workers by the CWA and IBEW against Verizon?
The strike is the fundamental, elementary basis of class struggle, sending the capitalist class into fits of desperate anger and fear. This is not the action of simple servants of capital, and could actually jeopardize the dues base of the bureaucracy, not to mention cost a bundle to sustain in the face of capitalist hostility. One can only conclude that at bottom, the CWA and IBEW really are based on the organization of workers and feel threatened by the intransigence of Verizon in the contract negotiations.
Northite arguments about the treacherous policies of the bureaucrats—the kowtowing to the Democratic party, the attempt to keep the strike contained and minimized, the impulse to surrender for peanuts, the desire for class collaboration, etc.—none of that is new behavior or a brilliant discovery by WSWS. Socialists have denounced the bureaucrats for that going back over a century. Daniel DeLeon rightly denounced the bureaucrats of Samuel Gompers’ American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the late 19th century as “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class.”
What caused the rottenness of the trade-union bureaucracy was analyzed by Leon Trotsky in the 1930s. He pointed out that it was the growth of world imperialism, and the union bureaucrats’ attempt to survive by accommodating the imperialists, that distorted the unions. The unions could no longer profit by competition between the different enterprises:
“They have to confront a centralized capitalist adversary, intimately bound up with state power. Hence flows the need of the trade unions—insofar as they remain on reformist positions, i.e., positions of adapting themselves to private property—to adapt themselves to the capitalist state and to contend for its co-operation. In the eyes of the bureaucracy of the trade union movement the chief task lies in ‘freeing’ the state from the embrace of capitalism, in weakening its dependence on trusts, in pulling it over to their side. This position is in complete harmony with the social position of the labour aristocracy and the labour bureaucracy, who fight for a crumb in the share of super-profits of imperialist capitalism. The labour bureaucrats do their level best in words and deeds to demonstrate to the ‘democratic’ state how reliable and indispensable they are in peace-time and especially in time of war. By transforming the trade unions into organs of the state, fascism invents nothing new; it merely draws to the ultimate conclusion the tendencies inherent in imperialism.”
—Leon Trotsky, “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” (1940)
This analysis holds true today because the system of world imperialism continues. Attempts by the Northites to invent some new analysis due to “globalization” offer nothing new in reality. And when some trade unions occasionally are forced into a corner and call a strike, the Northite “analysis” falls silent.
In America the labor bureaucracy shamelessly sells its soul for partial gains for a relatively small layer of the working class, while openly sacrificing the rest. And lately, they even give away past gains just to hold onto their fiefdoms. In his final years as leader of the AFL-CIO, the crusty old George Meany was asked in 1972 why the percentage of unionization of the U.S. working class keeps declining every year. “I don’t know, I don’t care,” was his terse reply, reflecting the smug attitude of the entire bureaucracy. While in the 1950s the percentage was about 35 percent, today it is about 10 percent and even lower in the private sector.
In 1929 Trotskyist leader James Cannon, speaking of the AFL, noted that the distinguishing feature of the American labor leaders is that they believe in capitalism and openly espouse it:
“The labor bureaucracy is a part of the capitalist rationalization and war machine—its ‘labor’ wing. DeLeon’s classic definition of the reactionary labor leaders as ‘labor lieutenants of the capitalist class’ holds doubly good today. The distinctive features of these labor leaders in comparison to the social-reformist leaders of Europe consists in the fact that they are outspoken defenders of the whole capitalist regime and all of its institutions, without ‘socialistic’ pretense or class-struggle phraseology. Their program is a program of stark reaction. They repudiate the class struggle in words as well as deeds. They oppose any kind of independent political action. They support the whole military program of American imperialism and will indubitably be a powerful ally of the capitalists in lining up the workers for the coming war and demoralizing the struggle against it.”
—“Platform of the Communist Opposition, February 15 and
22, 1929,” by James Cannon, Arne Swabeck, Martin Abern and Max Shachtman, republished in The Left Opposition in the U.S. 1928-31
What’s needed is a revolutionary upheaval inside the unions, ousting the old bureaucracy on a revolutionary program of world socialist revolution. Trotsky argued for a transitional program in this regard, including: 1) complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state, and 2) trade union democracy. He concluded:
“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.”
But this requires a revolutionary party with an understanding of history. As Trotsky famously said, “Those who cannot defend old positions will never conquer new ones.” This applies as well to the Northites as to the crusty AFL-CIO.