Workers Vanguard No. 929
30 January 2009
Organize the Unorganized!
For a Class-Struggle Leadership of the Unions!
Why Marxists Support the EFCA
No Reliance on the Capitalist State
With Democrat Barack Obama in the White House, union officials, having invested $450 million to put him and other Democrats into office, are now eager for “payback.” At the top of their wish list is passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), also known as the “card-check bill,” which would provide for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to recognize a union without a certification election when a majority of employees at a workplace sign union authorization cards. This long-stalled bill to ease union organizing is “the most important issue that we have,” according to AFL-CIO head John Sweeney.
Notwithstanding a slight upswing in union membership in the first half of last year, the strength of the unions has been on the wane for decades. As of 2007, unions represented 7.5 percent of the nation’s private sector workforce, with the total union membership rate hovering around 12.1 percent, down from 35 percent in the 1950s. With the recession deepening, the capitalist ruling class is moving rapidly to attempt to further gut the unions, beginning with the United Auto Workers (UAW). Revitalizing the labor movement is all the more necessary as the bosses try to make working people pay for this crisis.
Dead set on keeping the unions out, conservative politicians, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and others, including large employers that have engaged in union-busting like Wal-Mart, have launched a counteroffensive against the EFCA. The headline of a New York Times (9 January) article noted, “Bill Easing Unionizing Is Under Heavy Attack.” Indeed, in 2008, business groups spent a combined $50 million on anti-EFCA ads and are now gearing up to spend an additional $200 million in the coming months. With the bosses engaged in an all-out propaganda offensive against it and the unions waging a major campaign to have it enacted, the EFCA represents a referendum on unionization.
Even though it contains an arbitration clause that we oppose, we support the EFCA, as it allows workers to organize and form unions through a streamlined card-check system, bypassing the prolonged balloting process. At the same time, the EFCA in its current form contains a contradiction. Disputes over the first contract at a newly organized worksite could be referred to government arbitrators if after 90 days of negotiations either the union or the employer invokes the option of federal mediation and then at least 30 days of mediation fail to produce an agreement. We oppose the arbitration provision because it is a form of government intervention into the unions’ disputes with the bosses. While the purpose of such a provision is to curtail class struggle, there are no legal prohibitions in the EFCA to prevent strike action during this four-month period.
Both partisans and opponents of the bill claim that its passage will bring millions of unorganized workers into the unions. In reality, the balance of forces in struggle will ultimately determine the success or failure of any unionization campaign. To the extent that the EFCA affords the possibility of strengthening the working class by organizing unions, workers should make use of it. But at the same time workers must beware the EFCA’s pitfalls and not rely on it or the capitalist state, which exists to defend the rule and profits of the capitalist class. Last month, workers at the Smithfield Foods hog slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina, voted to unionize after a more than 15-year organizing battle. Union officials credited a court-imposed “neutrality” agreement for the success, while the company spokesman claimed the result shows “that the union can win without a card check.” In fact, the key was the combativity of the workers, who engaged in walkouts and other protests to win union recognition (see “UFCW Organizes Smithfield Plant,” WV No. 927, 2 January).
In 1981, the government smashed the PATCO air traffic controllers strike in the most massive union-busting attack since before the CIO was founded in 1935. That strike could have been won, but the union tops refused to call out airline workers to shut down the airports. As we wrote in “Labor’s Gotta Play Hardball to Win” (WV No. 349, 2 March 1984): “No decisive gain of labor was ever won in a courtroom or by an act of Congress. Everything the workers movement has won of value has been achieved by mobilizing the ranks of labor in hard-fought struggle, on the picket lines, in plant occupations. What counts is power.” For a class-struggle fight to organize the unorganized!
Break with the Democrats!
Labor is on the ropes, and the criminal policies of the union tops are in no small part responsible. These misleaders have squandered the fighting strength of the unions by shackling them to the bosses’ state, especially through the instrument of the Democratic Party. At every turn, the “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class” demonstrate their allegiance to the rule of capital, promoting “cooperation” with the employers and policing the workforce on the bosses’ behalf. Meanwhile, this bureaucratic layer enjoys access to privileges and perks.
The labor bureaucrats long ago renounced the class-struggle methods that originally built the unions: mass pickets, sit-down strikes, secondary boycotts. This refusal to carry out a hard-fought battle to organize the unorganized is now a dagger aimed at the unions. In the auto industry, the government’s proposed bailout requires the UAW to agree to slash its wages and benefits to the levels of its counterparts in the large and growing number of non-union, mainly foreign-owned plants in the U.S. Even more, the government has reserved the right to revoke the loans to the automakers if the UAW were to strike at any time. In the face of this declaration of war, the UAW tops readily rolled over.
Worried about the dramatic drop in union membership and corresponding declines in union economic and political power, the sellouts atop the unions are at the same time committed to playing by the bosses’ rules. That’s why their primary recourse is to pressure the government to modify those rules. But capitalist “labor law” is ultimately designed to hold the unions captive to the bourgeois order. The war chest wasted on electing representatives of the class enemy last year was never considered by the union tops for strike funds or organizing drives. One-quarter million union members were mobilized for voter turnout, not to build picket lines or engage in strikes.
Obama’s support for the EFCA was a major selling point for the union tops. He was a cosponsor of the bill in the Senate in 2007 when it was common knowledge that the EFCA would not survive a Bush veto. The EFCA passed the House in a symbolic party-line vote, but was filibustered in the Senate. The backing this bill received from Obama and other Democrats was in the service of undermining class struggle while providing a means to increase the number of dues-paying union members, representing in the Democrats’ eyes more money and manpower for future election campaigns under the watch of the pro-capitalist labor tops. Although Democrats posture as “friends of labor,” their goal is the same as the Republicans: advancing the interests of capital.
But different sections of the bourgeoisie do not always agree. One ranking Chamber of Commerce official has promised “Armageddon” in the battle over the EFCA, which the founder of Home Depot referred to as “the demise of civilization.” Businesses have lined up blue-chip lobbying firms to block it and legal scholars to prove that it is unconstitutional. In the face of this opposition and the economic crisis, the new administration has dropped hints that it intends to hold off on the EFCA and is open to watering it down. When asked about the bill during her Labor Secretary confirmation hearing on January 9, Hilda Solis would not commit to supporting a specific method for union certification. A week later, Obama said of the EFCA in an interview with the Washington Post (15 January): “I will certainly listen to all parties involved, including from labor and the business community, which I know considers this the devil incarnate. I will listen to all parties involved and see if there are ways that we can bring those parties together and restore some balance.”
The labor tops are so beholden to the Democratic administration that some are now second-guessing whether to push right away for the EFCA for fear of alienating Obama. Recently, Obama’s transition team signaled that it would prefer dealing with a single labor federation, as opposed to both the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win coalition, which split apart three and a half years ago. In response, the presidents of 12 of the nation’s largest unions immediately jumped into talks to reunite the American labor movement. There are no principled differences between the two federations; their basic strategy is class collaboration, not class struggle. What the labor movement desperately needs is a new, class-struggle leadership.
Binding Arbitration Is a Trap!
In addition to opposing card checks, the bosses are outraged by the arbitration clause in the EFCA, as they cringe at the thought of someone else dictating the terms of employment. Stonewalling on first-contract negotiations after a union is recognized is one common means for employers to derail organizing drives. It is, in fact, the labor tops who wrote the arbitration clause into the EFCA as a means to “guarantee” a first contract without having to engage in struggle.
In his essay “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” (1940), written at the time of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, Trotsky observed: “In the United States the Department of Labor with its leftist bureaucracy has as its task the subordination of the trade union movement to the democratic state, and it must be said that this task has up to now been solved with some success.” From Trotsky’s time through today, the slavish dependence of the trade-union officials on state arbitration of labor disputes has only grown deeper.
Tailing right behind the bureaucrats are left groups like the International Socialist Organization (ISO). Demonstrating fully their willingness to accept the capitalist state as a “neutral” arbiter in the class struggle, the ISO applauds the EFCA’s arbitration clause as a means to “speed up negotiation of a first union contract” (Socialist Worker online, 30 March 2007). Binding arbitration is a trap meant to head off strikes and leave workers with no say in the outcome of the negotiations. It is no accident that the dispute over the last contract for New York City transit workers, which sparked a powerful three-day strike in 2005, ended up in arbitration after angry union members rejected the sellout strike settlement.
In “What’s In Store in the Obama Era?” (Socialist Worker online, 20 January), ISO leader Lance Selfa takes stock of the “full-out opposition” to the EFCA, adding: “As this opposition arises, it will put Obama and the Democrats to the test.” At bottom, the aim of the ISO is little more than that of the union tops: to resurrect Democratic Party liberalism and to make Obama “fight.” We say: Break with the Democrats! For a workers party!
The EFCA and the Working Class
A coalition of 500 business associations has started to run ads seeking to discredit the EFCA as “undemocratic” for taking away the “secret ballot.” The truth is that certification elections are commonly drawn out for months or even years, including when Democrats sit on the labor boards, giving the bosses time to intimidate and terrorize pro-union workers. Employers fire workers in a quarter of all organizing campaigns, threaten workers with plant closings or outsourcing in half and employ mandatory one-on-one anti-union meetings in two-thirds of unionization drives. All these tactics are illegal, but the bosses almost always get away with it or receive a slap on the wrist from the NLRB. From 1999 to 2007, 86,000 workers filed charges over anti-union firings—few ever get their jobs back.
This union-busting is often backed up by the forces of the bosses’ state and racist reaction. Historically, organizing in the open shop South meant confrontations with county sheriffs and the Ku Klux Klan. In 1995, an organizing drive at a Perdue poultry plant in Dothan, Alabama, failed after a KKK-style cross-burning at the plant. Shortly before an unsuccessful 1997 certification vote at Smithfield in Tar Heel, “N----r go home” was painted on the side of the union trailer. Recently, anti-immigrant workplace raids by la migra, such as at Agriprocessors in Iowa, have helped break up union organizing campaigns. There will be no effective defense against union-busting unless the labor movement becomes a powerful champion of black rights and takes up the fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants.
The reformists in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) have actually lined up with the Chamber of Commerce and its ilk in advocating NLRB-run elections over card-checks as “the most effective way for workers to express what they want regarding unionization” (Militant, 9 April 2007). The SWP goes so far as to put a positive spin on union-busting, writing, “Winning such a vote in face of company intimidation efforts means the rank-and-file has become convinced, through its involvement in the struggle, of the need to organize.”
In practice, today most workers gain union recognition through card checks. About 300,000 workers joined unions through card checks in 2007 whereas some 60,000 workers gained membership through elections. Normally for a company to respect the card check, it demands of the union concessions, including sweetheart contracts and “neutrality” agreements where the union foregoes the right to attack or even criticize the company. For the union bureaucrats, such compromises are business as usual.
To broaden support for the EFCA, the two main labor federations have circulated petitions within the unions. The AFL-CIO petition states: “This crucial legislation will protect workers’ freedom to choose a union and bargain, without management intimidation.” The third, and final, provision of the EFCA would increase the penalties for “unfair labor practices” by the bosses. But it is a dangerous illusion to think that the EFCA would safeguard union organizing efforts against employer interference. The union-busting industry of lawyers, spies and security goons rakes in $4 billion annually. If the rules for union certification were to change, so would their tactics. Already there is movement to make it easier to decertify the unions.
The fundamental purpose of the labor boards is never that of enforcing the rights of workers but rather maintaining “labor peace,” which entails preventing strikes or settling them quickly if they break out. These government boards are in effect strikebreaking agencies even if they occasionally rule against the bosses. Moreover, the EFCA will not prevent employers from unleashing their panoply of union-busting laws and tactics against labor struggle.
While the AFL-CIO petition also speaks of the “middle class,” a term meant to blur the line between labor and capital, union militants could sign it and note their objections. Change to Win’s petition obliterates this line by stating that the EFCA is “about preserving the American Dream and ensuring that the economy works for all of us.” This is a lie about and support for capitalism, and should not be signed. In fact, the capitalist system is based on the exploitation of the wage slave, as Karl Marx explained in Wage-Labour and Capital (1849): “A rapid increase of capital is equivalent to a rapid increase of profit. Profit can only increase rapidly if the price of labour, if relative wages, decrease just as rapidly.”
Trotskyists and the 1935 Wagner Act
Especially since the days of the New Deal, the trade-union bureaucracy has perpetuated the myth that the right to organize was won as the result of the passage of liberal labor legislation. Enacted at the height of the Great Depression in 1933, the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) supposedly “guaranteed” the “right to organize and bargain collectively” in its Section 7(a), added as a sop to the craft AFL leadership. Seizing on it, labor organizers urged workers that “the President wants you to join the union.” Intersecting the biggest strike wave since the early ’20s, these organizing drives met with a tremendous response, with many taking these promises as good coin. However, the open shop was not smashed, and in most industries NIRA government/company codes were drawn up that simply ratified existing conditions. As a result of the failure by the AFL tops to strike against such codes, tens of thousands of workers deserted the unions they had only recently joined.
In 1934, three victorious citywide organizing strikes set the stage for the rise of CIO industrial unionism: one led by Communists in San Francisco, the Trotskyist-led Minneapolis Teamsters strikes, and a general strike led by left-wing socialists in Toledo. The Trotskyists in Minneapolis mobilized the city’s proletariat and its allies in mass struggle, including pitched battles with scabs, cops and National Guard troops. In assessing the strikes, Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon noted in The History of American Trotskyism (1944):
“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 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. They weren’t deluded even by the fact that there was at that time in Minnesota a Farmer-Labor Governor, presumed to be on the side of the workers.”
Intent on preventing the new wave of labor organizing from falling under the control of union militants and “reds,” the Roosevelt administration moved quickly to set up a government-sanctioned mechanism to subordinate the unions to the capitalist state. The result was the 1935 National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act, hailed by union officials as the “Magna Carta of Labor” to this day. The EFCA, like most other federal labor laws, is written as an amendment to the Wagner Act, which established the NLRB and the framework for sweeping federal regulation of labor relations and empowered the government to carve out bargaining jurisdictions and run certification elections.
During the last big push by the union tops for labor law reform some three decades ago, we wrote: “Trotskyists opposed the Wagner Act as a threat to labor’s ability to strike” (“California Farm Labor Bill Threatens Right to Strike,” WV No. 128, 8 October 1976). In fact, as far as we know, the Trotskyists neither explicitly supported nor opposed the Wagner Act. An October 1935 New International article by John West (James Burnham) argued:
“Marxists must be vigilant with respect to it [the Wagner Act]. An attitude of simple denunciation of the Bill as a strike-breaker is not sufficient, and would serve only to confuse union workers and to isolate the Marxists. It must be connected with the lessons of Section 7a, which might be summarized: Take anything it offers, but never depend on it; depend only on independent class activity.”
Section 9(c) of the Wagner Act provided that the NLRB could certify unions by relying on a secret ballot election or “any other suitable method.” One commonly used “other suitable method” at first was card checks. But actually organizing required the mobilization of millions in militant class struggle, sparked by the 1936-37 Flint sit-down auto strikes. The CIO tops, including social democrats and Stalinists, betrayed the evident opportunity to forge an independent workers party by tying the unions to the Democratic Party of Roosevelt and the New Deal.
By the late 1930s, the NLRB was less and less willing to grant card-check recognition. In the wake of the post-World War II strike wave, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which outlawed secondary boycotts and sympathy strikes, allowed states to pass “right to work” laws and demanded loyalty oaths from union officials. A majority of Congressional Democrats voted for this union-busting law. The new provisions were used in short order to strangle strikes and purge militants and “reds” from the unions. This law, as well as later NLRB and court rulings, also made card-check recognition far more difficult. Belying the trade-union bureaucrats’ nominal opposition to Taft-Hartley, an AFL-CIO fact sheet on the EFCA states, “just as the NLRB is required to seek a federal court injunction against a union whenever there is reasonable cause to believe the union has violated the secondary boycott prohibitions in the [Taft-Hartley] act, the NLRB must seek a federal court injunction against an employer whenever there is reasonable cause to believe the employer has discharged or discriminated against employees
during an organizing or first contract drive.”
In the 1930s, the thousands of militants who considered themselves communists propelled the great industrial union organizing drives forward. Motivated by their ideals of building a society where those who labor rule, they knew that spiking the bosses’ attacks on black people and immigrants was crucial. The fight to organize the unorganized could be the crucible in which a revolutionary workers party is forged. Such a party is indispensable to uniting the working class and leading it in the revolutionary overthrow of the bosses’ rule.