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Workers Vanguard No. 1163

18 October 2019

No Illusions in Democrats! For a Workers Party!

UAW: Fight to Win!

No to Union Tops' “America Only” Chauvinism!

OCTOBER 15—Yesterday the United Auto Workers (UAW) leadership summoned the local officials who sit on the National GM Council to a Thursday meeting in Detroit. A tentative settlement in the month-long strike against the GM auto giant may soon be announced. Striking union members have held firm, expressing a willingness to fight for as long as it takes, despite the hardship of not receiving a paycheck. By collectively withholding their labor, auto workers have hit the profit-hungry bosses where it hurts—GM’s strike-related losses are nearing $2 billion. This crucial labor battle should end with the company capitulating. Picket lines must stay up until contract terms are approved by UAW members.

By all indications, the membership is at risk of being sold short at the negotiating table, including on two core issues of the strike: temporary workers and wage tiers. The prevailing opinion of the UAW ranks is no secret. Miserably low-paid, highly vulnerable temporary employment is unacceptable, an abuse of those workers and corrosive to the union. There should be equal pay for equal work. But, with the company pushing to expand the pool of temps, the union leadership has limited itself to seeking “a path for temporary employees becoming seniority members.” To hell with paths to nowhere! If the automaker maintains temps, they will remain second-class union members without recourse against firing. A stand must be taken now for an end to temporary employment and the hated tier system. Everyone should enjoy the best pay, benefits and job protections.

At this critical juncture, the UAW could gain a decisive upper hand by unleashing all its forces and extending the strike to Ford and Fiat Chrysler (FCA). With the future of the union on the line, many Ford and FCA workers have helped man the pickets at Detroit-Hamtramck and other GM plants. But the UAW leadership has extended their contracts indefinitely, keeping these fellow union members on the job under conditions of forced overtime. The two companies are just stockpiling vehicle inventory in order to withstand potential strike action. The combined struggle of Big Three auto workers would pack a serious punch and give UAW members, including the striking Aramark janitors at GM plants, more leverage to win their demands sooner. Extend GM Strike to Ford, Fiat Chrysler!

Three days ago, over 3,600 UAW members in three states went on strike against Mack Trucks for the first time in 35 years, seeking better pay and job protections. Using the strike weapon is how union members can defend themselves and their livelihoods, and score victories that resonate more widely. All the major gains that workers have ever won were achieved by mobilizing the ranks of labor in hard-fought struggle on the picket lines and in plant occupations.

Mass pickets that no scab dares cross outside Big Three plant gates, as well as off-site parking lots, would cut off Ford and FCA from vehicle inventory (and GM from any that remains). A fighting UAW leadership would mobilize the 150,000 workers who are on layoff at parts suppliers and other sections of the industry impacted by the GM strike. This would also give momentum to organizing the legions of non-union parts plants, where the automakers dictate terms. Other trade unionists and supporters from working-class, black and Latino communities would also be encouraged to help make the picket lines impassable.

Yet the UAW bureaucrats are today doing everything to isolate and not win the GM strike. They have kept the picket lines largely symbolic, allowing scab truckers and others to cross at will, and have strictly abided by court orders to limit picketing and rein in union militants. By adhering to what is deemed acceptable to the bosses and their state, the UAW tops have allowed GM to move a lot of product to dealerships. In deference to a “no strike” pledge, the union misleaders are hustling GM Subsystems workers (represented by the UAW but under separate contract) across the lines to report to work. Contracts, like treaties, can be broken. Management does it all the time. Words on paper cannot save jobs, and neither should they be an excuse to make a mockery of picket lines.

All the activity of the UAW officialdom, from diluting the picket lines to proposing a continuation of temp labor, flows from its basic political outlook: the lie that workers and their employer share a common interest in the company’s profitability. The labor bureaucrats’ allegiance to capitalism is also expressed in their support to the Democratic Party, one of the two parties of the bosses. Equally, their acceptance of the system of exploitation is at the root of their poisonously blaming Mexican workers—themselves brutally exploited, and often by U.S. corporations—for job losses here.

Regardless of whether the company is in the red or the black, it will always try to force sacrifice on its workforce. The bosses acquire ever-greater profits only through increasing the exploitation of labor. The embrace of “profit sharing” by the UAW tops is just one more example of how they try to sell the fiction that workers have a stake in boosting the corporate bottom line. The “profit sharing” scheme dangles a carrot before workers to yield to speedup enforced by the management stick. More money should just be put toward base wages!

Leadership “at the Burn Barrel”

The union bureaucrats long ago renounced the class-struggle methods that first built the unions and that are necessary to revitalize them now—mass pickets, sit-down strikes, secondary boycotts. Instead, they promote the idea that the way to defeat capitalist attacks is at the ballot box, by supporting “better” capitalist politicians, namely the Democrats. Every election cycle, millions of dollars in dues money that should be in the strike fund are thrown away to get Democrats into office, where they preside over the system of capitalist exploitation and racial oppression on behalf of the bosses. During the GM strike, more effort has been put into arranging picket-line flybys for false “friend of labor” Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer than organizing a rally that mobilizes broad support from other unions and working people.

Democrats sometimes give lip service to labor’s cause but, like their Republican counterparts, will not hesitate to bring the hammer down on the workers and their unions. In the post-World War II period, Democratic president Harry Truman vetoed the slave-labor Taft-Hartley Act, knowing Congress would override him, only to show his true colors by invoking it twelve times in order to spike union struggle. Democrat Barack Obama first rode into office having declared support for legislation to make it easier for labor to organize. He then proceeded to bail out the banks and the auto bosses at the expense of working people nationwide, and that labor reform never saw the light of day. Auto workers felt the full brunt, no thanks to the UAW brass who lent the White House a helping hand in that job massacre and transformation of the workforce into “Tier Two” new hires and temps.

Having called the strike against GM under pressure from the ranks, the UAW “labor statesmen” declare that the law must be followed to the letter, no matter the cost. But the whole purpose of labor law is to hamstring strikes and break unions. The union tops want auto workers to believe that nothing more can be done in the face of the array of state forces backing up GM. It is true that a concerted effort to stop scabs would bring the union up against the repressive state apparatus, including the cops, courts and prisons. This reality is not an argument to lie down and roll over, but to engage in resolute militant mass action in a thought-out way, minimizing the damage in terms of fines, jail sentences and personal injury. A dozen militants alone on a picket line are sitting ducks; however, with a huge throng, it is a different ball game. All UAW members at the Big Three should be out.

The 1936-37 Flint sit-downers had to deal with arrest and physical attack, as well as court injunctions; but they fought, and won. The key difference between then and now lies not in what the bosses and their thugs today have (anti-union laws, surveillance technology and so on), but in what labor doesn’t, namely a leadership that conducts the battle as one of class against class. On the one side, the workers, with strength in numbers and solidarity, and on the other side, the bosses, their political parties and their state.

Just such a leadership, provided in turn by left-wing socialists, Trotskyists and Communists, steered to victory three 1934 citywide strikes—in Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco—paving the way for the great CIO organizing drives. These strikes were marked by pitched battles with cops, security guards and other strikebreakers. (For more, see our 2015 pamphlet, Then and Now.) In The History of American Trotskyism (1944), James P. Cannon drew the lessons from Minneapolis:

“The modern labor movement must be politically directed because it is confronted by the government at every turn.… 

“The policy of the class struggle guided our comrades; they couldn’t be deceived and outmaneuvered, as so many strike leaders of that period were, by this mechanism of sabotage and destruction known as the National Labor Board and all its auxiliary setups. They put no reliance whatever in Roosevelt’s Labor Board; they weren’t fooled by any idea that Roosevelt, the liberal ‘friend of labor’ president, was going to help the truck drivers in Minneapolis win a few cents more an hour.”

The unions are in desperate need of class-struggle leaders who fight to break the chains binding labor to the Democratic Party and put no trust in capitalist state agents, like federal mediators. Workers must rely only on their own class power. Fully harnessing that power requires building a multiracial workers party committed to the overturn of capitalism and the collectivization of the economy under a workers government.

The Fight for Jobs

The auto industry has undergone major transformations in recent decades, and is on the cusp of another. In its early years, manufacturing complexes like Ford River Rouge could turn raw materials into finished vehicles. Now it is a model of highly automated “lean production” supplied by hundreds of parts manufacturers. Over 100,000 workers were employed at Rouge at the time of the 1941 strike. Today, its hourly workforce is roughly 6,000, still Ford’s largest. With the advent of electric vehicles (EVs), whose battery packs and motors contain far fewer parts than internal combustion engines, further job-gouging is on the horizon.

GM’s ruthless and aggressive pursuit of greater “labor flexibility” in the current contract dispute is fed by its appetite to corner the emerging EV market. To maintain record profits in a situation where significantly less labor power goes into each vehicle, the bosses will try hard to throw out a section of the workforce and make everyone else work more, for less. Already this year, GM has closed three plants, and it has Oshawa, Canada, and Detroit-Hamtramck on the chopping block.

In response to these attacks, the non-answer of the union bureaucracy is to get Mexican jobs shipped to the U.S. Last week, UAW vice president Terry Dittes proclaimed: “We believe that the vehicles GM sells here should be built here.” This “America only” chauvinism is the exact wrong starting point to mount a defense of jobs. It throws up a wall dividing auto workers in the U.S. from their class brothers and sisters in Mexico, playing right into the hands of the employer, which wants to ratchet up the rate of exploitation of its workforce both north and south of the U.S.-Mexico border. UAW members should view their fight not as one of themselves versus Mexican auto workers but as one of all auto workers versus the automaker.

At a time when GM is restructuring globally, such an approach would set the stage for international labor solidarity action, especially in North America, where the automaker’s production is highly integrated. Parts from manufacturers in places like the Matamoros maquiladora zone, where some 50,000 union workers waged successful wildcat strikes earlier this year, are added to vehicles in the U.S., and conversely, parts made here are destined for assembly plants in Mexico. The same is true in the case of Canada. This interlinking makes the joint struggle of unionized GM workers in the U.S., Canada and Mexico all the more possible, and impactful. With Texas a key hub in the North American “auto alley,” Latino auto workers in that state, including at GM’s massive Arlington plant, represent a potential human bridge connecting the struggles against the industry bosses in the U.S. to those in Mexico.

The notion peddled by the UAW bureaucracy that “the vehicles sold here should be built here” is a cancer on the union. In the 1970s, when Asian and German automakers first made major inroads into the U.S. market, prompting the Big Three to close obsolete plants and move production out of the Midwest, the union tops raised a hue and cry over supposedly unfair “foreign competition” rather than wage a fight for jobs against the auto giants. They made scapegoats of workers overseas, calling for protectionist legislation with harsh trade sanctions for foreign-brand vehicles not assembled in the U.S. Toyota, Volkswagen and others obliged and set up shop here, overwhelmingly in the South, opening non-union production sites since flooded with temps, a preview of GM’s vision for its own plants. The proportion of auto workers who are union today is half what it was in 1979.

Auto is far from the only industry in which the bosses are threatening to further slash jobs. What is posed is a fight for a shorter workweek with no loss in pay. By having the available work divided evenly among everyone, workers would benefit from improvements in productivity, while unemployment would be eliminated. But such felt needs of workers and the oppressed run right up against the inability of the capitalist system to satisfy them.

Demands against the devastation of the working class, such as for a sliding scale of hours and wages, were outlined in the 1938 Transitional Program, the founding document of the Trotskyist Fourth International, which declared: “If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish. ‘Realizability’ or ‘unrealizability’ is in the given instance a question of the relationship of forces, which can be decided only by the struggle.” It’s absolutely necessary to beat back attacks by the bosses. But the goal must be a wholly different type of society, a workers America where the factories and other productive wealth have been ripped out of the hands of the tiny group of capitalists through a socialist revolution and put at the disposal of the vast majority.

The Truth About Reuther

This summer, the UAW tops launched an online petition urging the postmaster general to issue a stamp to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Walter Reuther, UAW president from 1946-70, and his “extraordinary life and work.” The mythology surrounding Reuther aside, his main “work” was to consolidate a stable bureaucracy that could be an effective guarantor of labor discipline for the automakers. Decisive in this regard was his embrace of U.S. imperialism’s Cold War against the Soviet Union and avid witchhunting of reds. Enforcing the loyalty oaths mandated by Taft-Hartley, Reuther purged the UAW of the Communists, socialists and others who had led its formative class battles.

Reuther’s climb to power was marked by rank opportunism and class collaboration. As a newly elected UAW executive board member, he maneuvered at the 1936 union convention for the overturn of a resolution that was against the Democratic administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt and was for a labor party. Amid the tumultuous class upsurge, many of the more politically conscious workers had become receptive to the task of forming a workers party in opposition to the two capitalist parties. But CIO leaders diverted this budding radicalization into the Democratic Party. The Stalinists of the Communist Party (CP) were instrumental in this regard, having turned to giving support to the supposed “progressive” FDR the previous year. Reuther later became a fixture in the Democratic Party.

Once the Reuther machine was ensconced, the one-year contract was eliminated; shop-floor methods of resolving grievances (for example, stopping the line) were replaced by arbitration; and management gained virtually unchallenged control of safety conditions, like line speed. The widely touted 1950 auto contract, known as the “Treaty of Detroit,” gave union members a cost-of-living adjustment but tied wages to productivity. Summarizing the worldview of the union bureaucrat, Reuther subsequently pronounced: “We don’t believe in the class struggle. The labor movement in America has never believed in the class struggle.”

Reuther is sometimes hailed for his association with Martin Luther King Jr.’s pacifist liberalism in the South. But his much-vaunted social activism was nothing more than a campaign to pressure the Democrats to grant black people some type of formal equality and tamp down black militancy. At the same time, he was fundamentally indifferent to racist practices in the auto plants, and in the UAW itself. Reuther was especially hostile toward the militant Local 600 at Ford River Rouge, the battleground of the 1941 strike where Communists and black workers were concentrated. During that strike, CP organizers made a special effort to recruit black workers en masse to the union, convincing both them and white workers that they had common class interests. These black workers took their place as rock-solid union militants, only to have Reuther, working in tandem with the House Un-American Activities Committee, expel many of them the next decade.

The “Southernization” of Labor

CIO leaders, fearing the same prospect of black workers linking up with Communist labor organizers, scuttled the last major attempt to organize the South, the grossly named 1946-53 “Operation Dixie.” In its first 18 months, over 400,000 new members had flocked to the unions. But those gains were soon reversed because the organizing drive was predicated on not antagonizing the Southern business elite and ruling Dixiecrats. Mobilizing union power in opposition to racial oppression, the bedrock of American capitalism, was off-limits, and black organizers and reds were excluded from the campaign.

The CP, despite joining Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition and helping head off the independent political organization of the working class, had in various locations across the South recruited black and white workers together to the unions. These successes were made possible by confronting head-on legal segregation and the pervasive threat of Klan terror. Even as their own unionization campaign foundered, the anti-Communist bureaucrats moved to destroy these integrated union locals. One CIO organizer bitterly commented: “All this energy and all this money is being used that should have been out here being used to organize something else. It did about as much to prevent us from succeeding in the South as anything management did.”

The labor historian Michael Goldfield dubbed the failure of Operation Dixie “one of the great tragedies for American labor” (The Color of Politics [1997]). Indeed, as a vast low-wage, open shop region, the South is a weight dragging down organized labor as well as the cause of black freedom.

The betrayals of the trade-union tops have caused a “Southernization” of American labor. Since 2012, so-called “right to work” laws have taken root in one-time union strongholds in the Midwest, including Indiana and Michigan, with the aim of reducing labor’s numbers to trace levels. The ten largest unions in Michigan, aside from the UAW, have lost one-third of their combined membership since the state went “right to work.”

Such laws banning the union shop, first passed in the World War II period to prevent the rise of integrated unions in the South, are a testament to the intertwining of labor rights and black rights in the U.S. The initial push for them came from a Texas-based Christian evangelical organization headed by one Vance Muse, a white-supremacist and virulent anti-Communist. Texas officially became a center of “right to work” reaction in 1947, during the early stage of “Operation Dixie.” GM’s manufacturing facility in Arlington opened seven years later. Located between Dallas and Fort Worth in a city named after Robert E. Lee’s Virginia home, it was nonetheless from the get-go solidly union. The great struggles against the automakers of the two preceding decades had firmly established the right of the UAW, codified in its national contracts, to represent the workforce at any new Big Three plant.

In recent years, one UAW unionization campaign after another in the South, including at VW in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Nissan in Canton, Mississippi, has gone down to defeat. The entirely legalistic strategy of the union tops and their begging for company “neutrality” are not about to break the resistance of the employers, who have victimized UAW activists with impunity and browbeaten other workers into submission. That strategy also prevents the union from decisively answering the fascist groups that have distributed racist flyers against the union campaign in Canton, where the plant workforce is predominantly black. The Nazi scum need to receive a message expressed in terms they will understand.

As for labor officialdom’s losing campaigns against “right to work” laws in Michigan and Indiana, they consisted entirely of trying to pass ballot measures and elect Democrats. On 11 December 2012, some 12,000 trade unionists and their supporters converged on the Michigan Capitol in a last-ditch effort to stop the anti-union legislation. Chants rang out: “Shut it down!” Instead, workers were treated to empty speeches from Democratic politicians like Gretchen Whitmer. In her quest to reach the governor’s mansion last year, Whitmer talked up the need to repeal “right to work” and received the enthusiastic endorsement of the UAW and other union tops. Now that she is there, nothing has changed.

With the GM strikers finally flexing some labor muscle, non-union auto workers in the South are taking notice. When the union shows it is strong, united and determined, its support among potential new members, and working people more broadly, can grow by leaps and bounds. The union should seize the moment and redouble its organizing efforts. As part of the class-struggle fight needed to organize the South, the unions will have to put front and center the fight for black rights, as well as full citizenship rights for all immigrants. And not just in the South. Throughout racist capitalist America, the bosses consciously wield racial divisions within the working class to undermine organizing and bust unions.

The program of reliance on the Democratic Party must be rejected and defeated. It is not simply an obstacle to labor struggle but also prevents the working class from fighting for the society it deserves. We in the Spartacist League/U.S. are dedicated to forging the revolutionary workers party that can politically arm workers and lead them in their struggles, culminating in the sweeping away of the capitalist system of production for private profit. Such a party would champion the cause of all the exploited and oppressed, emblazoning on its banner the fight for black liberation, which is strategic to the American workers revolution. Only the expropriation of the capitalists and creation of a planned economy under workers rule can lay the foundation for a new social order in which workers of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds directly share in, and determine how to use, all that their labor creates.


Workers Vanguard No. 1163

WV 1163

18 October 2019


No Illusions in Democrats! For a Workers Party!

UAW: Fight to Win!

No to Union Tops' “America Only” Chauvinism!


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