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Workers Vanguard No. 867

31 March 2006

Union Busting and Capitalist "Democracy"

For Class-Struggle Leadership in the Unions!

For a Workers Party That Fights for a Workers Government!

When New York City transit workers went on strike and crippled the financial center of U.S. imperialism last December, they had the entire capitalist government arrayed against them. Republican governor George Pataki and NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg railed against the 33,700 members of Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, which was on strike with Amalgamated Transit Union locals 726 and 1056, and engaged in racist vilification of their leaders, calling them “thuggish.” Democratic state attorney general Eliot Spitzer issued anti-union injunctions under the state Taylor Law, which bans public workers strikes. As we wrote in “NYC Transit Strike: Union Power vs. Class Collaboration” (WV No. 861, 6 January 2006):

“Like every major strike, this was a bullheaded battle between labor and capital. On one side are the bosses, their government, whether run by Democrats or Republicans, and the repressive capitalist state apparatus, mainly the courts and cops…. On the other side, the workers have their own weapons: their numbers and power based on their collective labor at the workplace, and their union organization.”

The strike, which won broad support among working people and in the ghettos and barrios, should have led the entire labor movement to join with the TWU to challenge the Taylor Law. But Central Labor Council head Brian McLaughlin, United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten and other city labor tops refused to even mouth support for the strike, much less mobilize their membership in the necessary solidarity action. Abandoned by the rest of the labor officialdom, facing fines and possible jail time, and with his phony “friends of labor” in the Democratic Party mainly ducking their heads, Local 100 president Roger Toussaint called off the strike after scarcely three days and sent workers back without a contract.

Weingarten & Co. didn’t even call to repeal the Taylor Law, at most saying that it should be “reformed” so that it can be used against the employers. But the entire purpose of the Taylor Law is to keep the public workers unions in chains. The catalyst for its enactment was the 12-day January 1966 NYC transit strike, which was carried out in defiance of the 1947 New York State Condon-Wadlin Act under which striking government workers could be fired en masse. That law was a direct reaction to a one-day general strike in Rochester in 1946, called in support of 486 government workers who had been fired for requesting union recognition, and a week-long teachers strike in Buffalo the following year.

On the eve of the 1966 transit strike, then-TWU president Mike Quill famously ripped up an anti-strike court injunction. He went to jail rather than cave in, and died shortly thereafter. The union returned to work on the condition that there be no reprisals against strikers, and the TWU won large wage gains and other advances. The Condon-Wadlin Act, which was rendered a dead letter by the strike, was soon repealed.

Republican governor Nelson Rockefeller announced that he was “determined that this should never happen again.” This is the same governor who enacted the infamous draconian drug laws that helped criminalize generations of black and Latino youth and who would order the racist massacre of rebellious inmates at Attica in 1971. The 1967 Taylor Law—officially the Public Employees’ Fair Employment Act—grew out of a commission appointed by Rockefeller to “make legislative proposals for protecting the public against the disruption of vital public services by illegal strikes, while at the same time protecting the rights of public employees.” The verbiage of evenhandedness was so much hot air. The Taylor Law affirmed the right of public workers to engage in collective bargaining. But by banning strikes, the law is intended to make the unions fight their contract battles with both hands tied behind their backs.

The Taylor Law also created the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) to intervene in contract disputes. Beneath the guise of “neutrality,” this governor-appointed agency is another weapon in the capitalist state’s anti-labor arsenal. The PERB is penalizing transit workers six days’ pay for their three-day strike under Taylor Law guidelines. On March 23, the PERB ruled to impose binding arbitration on the TWU following the membership’s rejection of a contract deal. For its part, the Toussaint leadership, which called the strike under pressure from the membership and in response to provocation by the transit bosses, is now pushing for a revote on the same rejected package.

The Fraud of Bourgeois Democracy

The massive fines levied against transit workers and the jail threats against their union leaders are an object lesson in the class nature of this “democratic” capitalist society. Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin exposed the fraud of bourgeois democracy in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918), a polemic against German social democrat Karl Kautsky, who was a bitter enemy of the 1917 workers revolution in Russia:

“Take the fundamental laws of modern states, take their administration, take freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, or ‘equality of all citizens before the law,’ and you will see at every turn evidence of the hypocrisy of bourgeois democracy with which every honest and class-conscious worker is familiar. There is not a single state, however democratic, which has no loopholes or reservations in its constitution guaranteeing the bourgeoisie the possibility of dispatching troops against the workers, of proclaiming martial law, and so forth, in case of a ‘violation of public order,’ and actually in case the exploited class ‘violates’ its position of slavery and tries to behave in a non-slavish manner. Kautsky shamelessly embellishes bourgeois democracy and omits to mention, for instance, how the most democratic and republican bourgeoisie in America or Switzerland deal with workers on strike.”

Unions in the U.S. were built at the cost of the lives and livelihoods of thousands of workers in the course of bitter battles. From the Haymarket martyrs of 1887, hanged in Chicago for fighting for the eight-hour day, and the Ludlow, Colorado massacre of striking miners and their families by the Rockefeller clan’s hired guns in 1914, to the PATCO air traffic controllers fired for striking in 1981, labor has confronted the capitalist state. It has also had to battle the state’s Pinkerton and Ku Klux Klan auxiliaries. The bosses know that keeping unions out means billions in extra profit.

Time and again, workers have courageously defied anti-labor laws and court injunctions. Otherwise there would be no labor movement. This history amply demonstrates the Marxist understanding of the capitalist state as a machine of organized violence—consisting at its core of the military, police, courts and prisons—whose purpose is to protect the profits and power of the exploiters against the working people. “Democracy” in the U.S., as in other capitalist countries, is simply a facade for the dictatorship of the exploiting class. The U.S. rulers can afford this facade due to the obscene riches they’ve collected through brutal colonial plundering and other imperialist depredations.

The rulers seek to deceive workers with the notion that all citizens, whatever their class—from billionaire mayor Bloomberg to workers and homeless people—are “equal” under the law. But as French author Anatole France quipped in 1921, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” Under capitalism, Lenin wrote in his polemic against Kautsky, democracy is “a paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploited, for the poor.” Pointing to the lynching of black people then sweeping the U.S., the anti-Semitic persecution of French officer Alfred Dreyfus in the 1890s and other such examples, Lenin observed: “The more highly developed a democracy is, the more imminent are pogroms or civil war in connection with any profound political divergence which is dangerous to the bourgeoisie” (emphasis in original).

Preaching the virtues of the “democratic system,” the union tops mobilize the ranks for get-out-the-vote campaigns for Democratic, and sometimes Republican, politicians and for toothless lobbying efforts. For the unions to become instruments of militant struggle against the exploiters requires fighting against the politics of the labor bureaucracy, which places faith in capitalist politicians and state agencies.

To their credit, Quill and Toussaint defied anti-labor laws by leading transit workers on strike. But these exceptional acts ran against the grain of their own class-collaborationist outlook. Quill, who in the 1930s was associated with the Stalinized Communist Party (CP), was by the late 1940s an ardent red-baiter and became closely tied to the city’s Democratic machine. Toussaint, who is also tied to the Democrats, was elected in 2000 as the candidate of the New Directions outfit, which had treacherously used the bosses’ courts against union opponents. Notably, Toussaint did not call on the city labor tops to mobilize their ranks in support of the transit strike and never set up picket lines at other transit systems. The labor bureaucrats are quite aware that any such action would jeopardize their privileges and their connections with capitalist politicians.

Class Struggle vs. Class Collaboration: The 1930s

The model for the kind of “labor-friendly” administration the union tops seek was the 1930s New Deal government of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. Liberals and labor tops in particular hail Roosevelt’s 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA), whose section 7(a) stated that workers have “the right to organize and bargain collectively.” An article by Bob Master and Hetty Rosenstein of the Communications Workers of America (posted on the Web site of the social-democratic Labor Notes), titled “No Short-Cuts: Mobilization and Politics Must Drive Labor’s Revival from the Bottom Up,” claims that the NRA and other New Deal laws “were a critical prerequisite of the organizing success of that era” (emphasis in original). They write that these laws “crucially opened up the space for workers to organize without fear of instantaneous police or military suppression.”

In fact, the NRA was enacted in the depths of the Great Depression to save the tottering banking system, forestall corporate bankruptcies and put capitalism on the road to new profits. A revival of the economy between 1934 and 1937 spurred massive labor unrest as workers began to feel their strength. A subsequent downturn was ended through the military buildup for World War II.

The purpose of Section 7(a) and other such regulations and laws, especially the 1935 Wagner Act, was to head off workers struggles by setting up and reinforcing labor boards and arbitration mechanisms. Even before the NRA took effect, miners union leader John L. Lewis, who compared the law to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, sent organizers into the coal fields, shouting “The president wants you to join the union.” But Section 7(a) essentially repeated language already contained in such laws as the Railway Labor Act and the Norris-LaGuardia Act. As Art Preis of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) noted in Labor’s Giant Step (1964), “Labor already had that right to organize—whenever it exercised the right and fought to maintain it.” It took bitter, determined struggle for the mass union organizing drives to win.

Combined with the victory of fascism in Germany, the impact of the Depression sowed the seeds for a leftward radicalization of the U.S. working class. The year 1934 saw three citywide strikes: one led by Communists in San Francisco, the Trotskyist-led Minneapolis Teamsters strikes, and a general strike led by left-wing socialists in Toledo. Further struggles over the next few years led to the formation of the CIO industrial unions, in many cases under the leadership of self-described communists or socialists. A key tactic was the sit-down strike, with workers occupying a factory or warehouse in open defiance of capitalist property rights.

The Minneapolis strikes demonstrated the ability of labor, led by class-struggle militants, to prevail against the union-busting bosses and the capitalist state. Led by Trotskyists of the Communist League of America (CLA—precursor to the SWP) working through the AFL Teamsters General Drivers’ Local 574, the strikes began with a work stoppage by coal yard drivers in February. Mass picketing shut down the yards completely, winning union recognition in just three days.

This laid the groundwork for a general strike of drivers and warehousemen in May, which also won in short order. Local 574 dispatched flying picket squads to fight strikebreakers. A two-day battle in the City Market ended with the flight of the entire police force and special deputies in what strikers dubbed “The Battle of Deputies Run.”

The bosses retaliated by provoking a third strike in July, which lasted over a month. They were aided by International Brotherhood of Teamsters president Daniel Tobin, a reactionary craft unionist and notable FDR supporter, who started a red-baiting campaign against the strike leadership. Local 574 organized support among women, the unemployed, farmers and professionals. CLA leaders James P. Cannon and Max Shachtman flew in to help produce a daily strike paper, The Organizer, which countered the lies of the capitalist press.

Despite the imposition of martial law and the strikers’ exhaustion, the third strike solidly established the union and the authority of its leadership. Previously an open-shop town, Minneapolis became a solid union town. The 1934 strikes also spurred the growth of the Teamsters into a powerful, national industrial union. Tobin, meanwhile, repeatedly tried to drive Trotskyists out of the union leadership. This was achieved only through the government’s Smith Act prosecution of SWP leaders—including those involved in the strikes—in the early 1940s for their opposition to U.S. imperialism during World War II.

The Trotskyists’ tactics flowed from their revolutionary Marxist program and its crucial component, the independence of the working class from the capitalist state and its politicians. Summing up the experience, Cannon wrote in The History of American Trotskyism (1944):

“The strikes of that period brought the government, its agencies and its institutions into the very center of every situation. A strike leader without some conception of a political line was very much out of date already by 1934. The old fashioned trade union movement, which used to deal with the bosses without governmental interference, belongs in the museum. The modern labor movement must be politically directed because it is confronted by the government at every turn. Our people were prepared for that since they were political people, inspired by political conceptions. 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 of its auxiliary setups….

“Our people didn’t believe in anybody or anything but the policy of the class struggle and the ability of the workers to prevail by their mass strength and solidarity.”

New Deal Labor Wars

The AFL craft-union federation, which had lost substantial ground between 1920 and 1933, grew slowly (even compared to company unions) in the course of the upsurge of labor struggle. The citywide strikes in 1934, which broke craft boundaries and grasped the weapon of class struggle, pointed to the need for a broader union organization structure. And the fact that the strikes had been led by leftists alarmed AFL leaders like John L. Lewis, who was determined to cut off Communists and Socialists from gaining leadership of the radicalized workers. Lewis became the founder of the Committee for Industrial Organization (later renamed the Congress of Industrial Organizations), which formalized its break with the AFL in 1938. Despite his political conservatism and contempt for union democracy, Lewis was at the same time a more farsighted bureaucrat who perceived the need to organize industrial unions in the mass production industries (steel, rubber, auto, etc.).

1935 also saw the passage of the Wagner Labor Relations Act. While the AFL officials hailed the Wagner Act as the “Magna Carta of Labor” because of its nominal recognition of union rights, its purpose was to set up mechanisms for integrating the unions into the capitalist state. The NRA, which was voided by the Supreme Court in 1935, had only flirted with that task. The Wagner Act stated in its preamble that its goal was to remove “sources of industrial strife and unrest” and gave the newly created National Labor Relations Board wide powers to determine which unions would be recognized as bargaining agents. During the Cold War beginning in the late 1940s, these powers were used to destroy leftist-led unions.

The New Deal’s facade of cooperation between labor and capital offered no protection against violent strikebreaking. Preis observed, “The Wagner Act proved no more effective than section 7(a) in protecting the workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively. It took a couple of million workers in the 1936-37 sit-down wave to actually seize that right by the seizure of hundreds upon hundreds of factories and other places of work.” 1933 to 1938 were the years of the most ferocious assault on American labor in its history, with hundreds of workers killed and tens of thousands arrested or otherwise victimized. In the 1937 “Little Steel” strike, led by the CIO Steel Workers Organizing Committee, police killed ten workers near the gates of Republic Steel in South Chicago in what became known as the “Memorial Day Massacre.” When Lewis called Roosevelt to protest, the president declared “a plague on both your houses.” The governors of Indiana and Ohio dispatched militia units to disperse pickets.

On the part of the CIO tops, including the social democrats and Stalinized Communist Party, the New Deal coalition was a betrayal of the interests of the working class. It headed off the evident possibility of forging an independent workers party—a perspective fought for by the Trotskyists—by corralling workers behind phony Democratic “friends of labor.” Under the umbrella of the Democratic Party, the CIO tops were joined to not only the liberal wing of the capitalist class in the North but also the Southern Dixiecrats, whose rule was buttressed by KKK terror against black people and unionists.

For the CP, political support to Roosevelt and the Democratic Party was the application on U.S. soil of the “Popular Front” strategy adopted by Stalin’s Comintern in 1935 following Hitler’s rise to power. Hitler was allowed to seize power without a shot being fired as a result of the betrayals by both the reformist German Social Democracy and the Communist Party. The German CP criminally refused to fight for a united front with Social Democratic workers against the Nazis, based on the Stalinist Third Period idiocy that the Social Democracy was the “left wing” of fascism. Making an about-face, the Stalinists put forward the class-collaborationist strategy of the Popular Front—i.e., coalition with the “progressive” bourgeoisies around the world.

Leon Trotsky, co-leader with Lenin of the October Revolution, commented in his unfinished 1940 essay “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” (written shortly before his assassination by a Stalinist agent), “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.”

U.S. imperialism’s mobilization for World War II further solidified the ties of the labor bureaucracy to the state. The labor leadership agreed to wartime wage controls and a no-strike pledge. In support of the imperialist war effort, the CP even opposed A. Philip Randolph’s proposed 1941 “March on Washington” for black rights. John L. Lewis broke from Roosevelt and in 1943 led the miners on strike in defiance of the no-strike pledge. But Lewis’s break was in the direction of the Republicans.

For Proletarian Class Independence!

Emerging victorious after the war, the U.S. rulers shortly afterward launched the Cold War against the Soviet Union. At home that meant the purge of reds and other militants from the unions and anti-Communist hysteria throughout society. After a strike wave in 1945-46, the biggest in U.S. history, social-democratic labor tops like the United Auto Workers’ Walter Reuther joined with the government in driving out Communists, Trotskyists and other militants who had built the CIO. Resistance to the purge was undermined by the CP’s previous betrayals, such as their support to the Smith Act prosecution of Trotskyists and their enforcement of the WWII no-strike pledge.

The witchhunt was codified in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which had the dual aim of driving reds from the unions and banning militant union tactics. Among the actions outlawed were secondary boycotts or sympathy strikes, which had played a crucial role in the formation of the unions, and strikes by federal government employees. New York’s Condon-Wadlin Act banning public workers strikes was passed the same year. Millions of unionists denounced Tart-Hartley as the “Slave Labor Law,” and when the bill was passed on 23 June 1947, over 200,000 miners walked out in Pennsylvania, Alabama, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. Lewis was moved to declare that the labor movement would have been better off if neither the Wagner nor the Taft-Hartley Acts had ever been passed.

The following year, Democratic president Truman, who had made a show of vetoing Taft-Hartley knowing he would be overridden, invoked the law against the miners, packinghouse workers and other unions. Injunctions banned particular strikes, penalized picketers, or, in the case of the International Typographical Union, which was striking five Chicago daily newspapers, prohibited uttering words in furtherance of a strike. In 1999, a Taylor Law injunction against the TWU similarly barred unionists from voicing the word “strike.”

A further blow against labor was struck with the 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act, aimed primarily at shackling the power of the Teamsters by banning provisions in union contracts giving workers the right to refuse to handle struck goods. The law authorized sweeping government and court powers to intervene in union affairs and finances—a legal sledgehammer that threatened the whole labor movement. In the name of union democracy, the law’s “Bill of Rights” section encouraged legal actions against the unions by protecting members who sued their union from being disciplined. The law has been used repeatedly to drag the government and courts into the unions in the name of fighting “corruption” (see “Association for Union Democracy: Lawyers for Government Union-Busting,” WV No. 738, 30 June 2000).

The Feds assumed sweeping powers in the 1990s over the Teamsters, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees and the Laborers unions, as well as a number of local district councils. In every case, the government filed or threatened to file a “racketeering” lawsuit, using the 1970 “Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations” (RICO) law. Supposedly enacted to fight gangland crime, RICO became the government’s union-busting weapon of choice. In almost every case, Feds and prosecutors were aided by elements within the unions who filed lawsuits using Landrum-Griffin protections.

The Spartacist League has always stood on principle against suing the unions or otherwise inviting the capitalist state to intervene in union affairs. In contrast to virtually every other organization claiming to be Marxist, we gave no support to Arnold Miller, who won the presidency of the United Mine Workers in 1972 through a “reform” movement—Miners for Democracy—that relied on government intervention into the union. Similarly, we opposed Teamsters for a Democratic Union which, supported by Labor Notes, Socialist Action, the International Socialist Organization and other reformists, engineered lawsuits that paved the way for the government’s takeover of the union.

Currently, five TWU Local 100 vice presidents have lawsuits pending against the Roger Toussaint leadership of Local 100. Toussaint’s own past involvement in the union-suing New Directions caucus is consistent with his close relations with Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) head Patrick Lynch, who has appeared regularly on TWU speaker’s platforms. The job of the cops is to safeguard the bosses’ profit system. The PBA and other police “unions” are enemies of labor and minorities. Cops, courts out of the unions! Labor must clean its own house!

By their appeals to the bosses’ state, union-suing “oppositions” and their ostensibly socialist supporters undermine the very purpose of unions—to defend workers from the bosses—and demonstrate that they are fundamentally no different from the corrupt bureaucrats they seek to replace. Labor needs a leadership based on the independence of the working class from the bosses’ state and political parties. Such a leadership would support the building of a workers party to lead all the exploited and oppressed in the fight for a workers government, under which industry will be ripped out of the hands of the capitalists and a planned, collectivized economy will be built, with production for social need and not private profit. As Trotsky wrote in his 1940 essay: “In the epoch of imperialist decay the trade unions can be really independent only to the extent that they are conscious of being, in action, the organs of proletarian revolution.”


Workers Vanguard No. 867

WV 867

31 March 2006


Down With Racist U.S. Imperialism!

For Socialist Revolution on Both Sides of the Border!

Full Citizenship Rights for All Immigrants!

Joint Declaration of the Spartacist League/U.S. and the Grupo Espartaquista de México


Racist Hysteria Against Ghetto Youth: Tool to Derail Struggle

Mass Protests Shake France

No to a New Popular Front!

For a Multiethnic Revolutionary Party to Fight for Workers Rule!


Imperialist Capitalism and the Trade Unions

(Quote of the Week)


Chicago Transit

Mass ATU Meeting Authorizes Strike, Bureaucrats Turn Tail

Dump Binding Arbitration!


Union Busting and Capitalist "Democracy"

For Class-Struggle Leadership in the Unions!

For a Workers Party That Fights for a Workers Government!


French Trotskyists Say:

Down With Racist "First Employment" Law! Defend Ghetto Youth!

(Young Spartacus pages)


U of C United-Front Rally Demands:

Drop Charges Against Anti-Military Recruitment Protesters!

(Young Spartacus pages)


Revolutionaries and World War II

Imperialism and the Myth of the "Democratic" War Against Fascism

Part Two

(Young Spartacus pages)