Workers Vanguard No. 979
29 April 2011
Union Attacked for Solidarity with Public Workers
All Labor Must Defend ILWU Local 10!
Reliance on the Democrats: Recipe for Defeat
In their call for nationwide protests on April 4, the AFL-CIO tops said the day would be one of “rising up to support workers in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and other states.” But the only genuine labor action was taken by members of Bay Area Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), who overwhelmingly stayed away from work that day. The port of Oakland was shut down for 24 hours.
Now the shipping companies represented by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) are gunning for the union with a lawsuit against Local 10 and its president, Richard Mead, demanding that the ILWU foot the bill for “damages sustained” by the PMA as a result of the port shutdown. Although no price is named, in a similar suit East Coast shipping companies are demanding that the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) pay $5 million for a two-day shutdown of the ports in New York and New Jersey last September in response to a union-busting attack on ILA jobs. According to the head of the PMA, the employers also want the courts to enforce an injunction against further work stoppages.
Local 10 longshore workers stood up against the assault on public workers unions. Now all of labor must stand up for Local 10! Stop the PMA’s union-busting attack!
That Local 10 members gave up a day’s pay in solidarity with embattled public workers unions is a real statement of the deeply felt anger and desire to fight at the base of the unions. This was also witnessed in the tens of thousands of workers who mobilized in protest outside the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, this winter. But the labor misleaders have done their level best to contain any militancy and redirect it back into support for the Democratic Party. This was the intended purpose of the April 4 “We Are One” rallies, as was baldly stated a week later by AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka in a speech to the National Women’s Democratic Club in Washington, D.C. Declaring that “the energy of working people is infectious and their solidarity and commitment are inspiring,” Trumka advised that “if Democrats are to take back the House in 2012, and to hold on to the White House and the Senate, it will be because they succeed in riding this wave.”
The price of the bureaucrats’ subordination of the unions to the political fortunes of the Democratic Party, which no less than the Republicans represents the interests of the capitalist class enemy, can be counted in busted unions, millions of unemployed and the living hell that is life for the ghetto and barrio poor and countless others who have been written off by a system based on the exploitation of labor. So beholden are the labor bureaucrats to the capitalist order that even the notion that there is a working class in this country has been deep-sixed, reflected in the pitch at the April 4 protests to “reclaim the middle class.” By the same token, the union misleaders were desperate to avoid the remotest hint of working-class struggle against the one-sided class war by the capitalist exploiters and their state.
At the “We Are One” rallies in Oakland and San Francisco, called by the Alameda and SF Labor Councils, the organizers would not even allow a speaker from ILWU Local 10, the only union whose members took any kind of actual labor action! There was no such censorship of a representative of the strikebreaking cops. One of the few speakers at the opening rally for the thousands-strong SF protest was the president of the Police Officers Association of San Francisco, who used the occasion to declare: “I am a member of labor just like you are.” Far from being “union brothers,” the cops are the armed thugs of the capitalist state whose job is to smash labor struggle. This would readily be seen if there were any real fight against the union-busting assault on public workers, just as it was seen when the SF police killed two workers in the 1934 longshore strike. The “bloody Thursday” assault by the cops was the spark for the citywide general strike that laid the basis for founding the ILWU.
The only speaker who even mentioned that Local 10 members had not worked on April 4 was the secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, Stephanie Bloomingdale. But this was not to promote any such action by others, much less to address the crying need to mobilize the power of labor in strike action to fight the assault on public workers unions. On the contrary. Bloomingdale hailed the Wisconsin judge who put a temporary stay on the implementation of the state’s union-busting bill for not letting Republican governor Scott Walker “get away” with it. But Walker did get away with it, as did the Ohio legislature, which passed an even more draconian anti-union law in the immediate aftermath.
In response to the PMA’s lawsuit against Local 10, the San Francisco Labor Council passed a resolution calling for a “mass mobilization of all Bay Area Labor Councils and the California AFL-CIO” on April 25 at PMA headquarters. But the Labor Council officials did little to nothing to mobilize their membership for this protest, which drew about 150 people. Fine words will not stop the union-busters!
The capitalist rulers have been winning the war against labor because the power of the working class has been shackled by the class-collaborationist policies of the trade-union leadership. Labor’s weapons are inherent in its collective organization—strike action, mass pickets, plant occupations, hot-cargoing of scab goods, etc. The capitalists’ arsenal is the state—the courts, cops and military. The 1934 SF general strike, and mass strikes in Toledo and Minneapolis the same year, were pitched battles between workers and cops and other strikebreakers. All of them were led by reds. The 1934 Minneapolis strikes, which forged the Teamsters as a powerful industrial union, were led by supporters of the Trotskyist Communist League of America. James P. Cannon, the founding leader of American Trotskyism, underlined the political program that lay behind this victory:
“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.
“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.”
—James P. Cannon, The History of American Trotskyism (1944)
If the unions are to wage the battles necessary for their own defense and in the interests of all the oppressed, they must be mobilized in opposition to the capitalist state and independently of all of the political parties of the class enemy—Democrats, Republicans and Greens. That means a political struggle to get rid of the sellouts sitting on top of the unions who strangle the workers’ fighting spirit. It is in the crucible of the class struggle that a new leadership of the unions can be forged. This is not simply a matter of militancy but, as Cannon pointed out, a question of political program. What is needed is a leadership that will arm the workers with an understanding both of their social power and their historic interests to free all of humanity from the exploitation, all-sided misery and war inherent to a system based on production for profit. Forging such a leadership is in turn an integral part of the fight for a multiracial revolutionary workers party whose aim is no less than doing away with the entire system of capitalist wage slavery through socialist revolution.
“Progressive” Labor Tops: Different Talk, Same Walk
In an interview on KPFA radio the day after the April 4 protests, ILWU Local 10 executive board member Clarence Thomas said that “one of the reasons” no Local 10 member was allowed to speak “is because the Democratic Party is not in favor of workers taking independent action.” True enough. But when asked if he was opposed to the unions continuing to pour millions into backing the Democrats and funding Obama’s re-election campaign, Thomas responded that the unions should support only those Democrats who would be “accountable” to the working class. In short, behind all the seemingly radical rhetoric that has historically been a trademark of the “progressive” labor tops in Local 10 is the same old shell game of peddling the Democrats as a party that can be made to serve the interests of the working class and the oppressed if, in Thomas’ words, their feet are “held to the fire.”
Last year, the Local 10 leadership pulled out all the stops to mobilize the ranks for the election of Democrat Jean Quan as mayor of Oakland. Boosted as a “friend of labor,” Quan was the headline speaker at the Oakland April 4 rally. Denouncing Wisconsin governor Walker for stripping public workers unions of the right to bargain for their members, Quan contrasted the good offices of her administration, declaring: “We will have layoffs but they will come as part of collective bargaining.” It would be hard to find a more chemically pure expression of the role played by the Democratic Party. The Republicans revel in taking out the knife to slaughter the unions. The Democrats hand the knife to the union bureaucrats to slash the wages and benefits of their members in the name of “preserving collective bargaining.”
That’s exactly what the union leaders following the Democrats, who had already agreed to such givebacks, were willing to do in Wisconsin. In California, the bureaucrats promote Democratic governor Jerry Brown, who has axed millions from social programs for the poor, as a man they can do business with.
But Quan’s appeal for the unions to sacrifice more jobs did not go down well with much of the crowd at the Oakland rally. She was drowned out in a chorus of booing, a response aptly described by one reporter as reflecting “a schism between the labor leaders who invited Quan to headline their rally and rank-and-file workers impatient with years of government cut-backs” (Bay Citizen, 4 April). It is precisely such burgeoning anger that the labor tops are working overtime to head off.
At the same time, calls for a “general strike” have been coming from left-talking bureaucrats like Ken Riley, president of ILA Local 1422 in Charleston, South Carolina. Heading into an “Emergency Labor Meeting” held in Cleveland on March 4-5, which was called to “explore together what we can do to mount a more militant and robust fight-back campaign to defend the interests of working people,” Riley said, “I don’t see any other way than a general workers strike.” But there was no call for any such action coming out of this meeting, which drew some 100 of the more radical-sounding and even “socialist” labor fakers and their hangers-on. Rather, the best they could choke out was that labor “must go to the streets,” meekly adding that “where possible” the participants would promote “industrial actions” on April 4.
Evidently, they did not find it “possible.” Instead, the April 4 protests are being portrayed as helping build “momentum” toward a general strike. This is simply to provide some militant-sounding cover for a program these labor fakers share in common with the top AFL-CIO officialdom: reliance on the capitalist state. The “perspectives” approved by those attending the Cleveland meeting advise: “There is plenty of money available without demanding givebacks from public employees, but this requires changing our nation’s priorities to raise taxes on the rich, redirect war dollars to meet human needs, and more—all demands that we must place on the federal government.” Far from building momentum for any kind of real labor action, much less a general strike, such appeals serve merely to dissipate and divert the workers’ anger into the illusion that the government can be pressured into serving their needs.
A central chant at both the SF and Oakland rallies was “tax the rich!” The banks, corporations and other capitalist enterprises are sitting on mountains of cash, the ill-gotten gains of a system based on the exploitation of labor for the profits of the few. But the working class is not going to get its hands on this money by appeals to the federal government, whose purpose is not to “meet human needs” but to defend and increase the profitability of American imperialism.
Capitalist governments might temporarily increase tax rates for the rich to meet the needs of the ruling class as a whole, such as gearing up for war or bailing out their economies at times of crisis. And in the face of class or other social struggle, the rulers may shell out some money to buy social peace. But once such peace is purchased, the benefits gained through struggle come under attack, and all the more so in times of economic crisis like today. What they take out of the hides of the working class and oppressed at home they invest in waging war against the workers and oppressed abroad to expand their spheres of exploitation and their domination around the globe. These “priorities” cannot and will not change short of getting rid of the profit system in which they are rooted.
For the workers to reclaim the wealth that is the product of their labor, they have to break the power of the bourgeoisie and its state. That means fighting for a workers government that will expropriate the expropriators and put the wealth of this society to serving the needs of society under a planned socialist economy.
Bureaucrats Feeling the Heat
It’s not just left-talking labor bureaucrats who are mouthing the words “general strike.” In his column in the March issue of the ILWU’s Dispatcher, the union’s International president, Robert McEllrath, wrote: “Holding a rally is usually the first thing we think of. It’s good to feel pumped-up for a few hours or even a few days, but they’re soon over and then people ask: ‘now what do we do?’ If the answer is, ‘hold more rallies,’ then maybe we need to think harder, because our goal has to be about winning public support, and if rallies don’t help us accomplish that goal, maybe we need to be doing other things such as a general strike across the United States with support from all unions and labor.” This is an extraordinary, indeed unheard-of, statement coming from an official in the upper echelons of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy, for whom the very mention of working-class struggle is to be avoided like the plague. While it lacks credibility, it is a measure of the desperation of at least some of the union misleaders as they feel heat from the ranks.
The industrial unions have been ravaged, with the rate of unionization in the private sector now below 7 percent. Public workers are now the majority of union members in the country, and the laws being brought down against them challenge their survival. Asking “Will we be able to win over workers—many who once belonged to unions—but have since seen their pay, benefits, and job security go down?” McEllrath argues: “The stakes in this fight couldn’t be higher, as it may determine whether the labor movement continues to shrink or survives long enough to organize and grow in the future.”
While the ILWU holds real social power in its hands, the union itself is an increasingly isolated bastion of labor organization in a sea of unorganized workers on the docks and the inland warehouses. The union leadership has done little to nothing to organize these workers.
Standing amid the wreckage that their sellout policies have produced over the past 30 years and more, McEllrath is expressing the bureaucrats’ concern for their own survival, which is, after all, dependent on having dues-paying members. To preserve their status, it is possible that they could be moved to take some kind of strike action. But that would not change their fundamental loyalty to the capitalist system, particularly as represented by the Democratic Party, which includes the labor officials among its key components. Following his musing over a general strike, McEllrath makes clear its purpose, arguing that “if we want more politicians to stand with us, then we’ll need to rally a lot more troops to our side.”
For a Multiracial Revolutionary Workers Party!
The April 4 protests were called in conjunction with the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, who was killed in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was supporting a strike by black sanitation workers. The photos of these black workers with picket signs reading “I Am a Man” are a searing statement of the integral link between the struggles for labor rights and black rights. But while much was made at the protests of King’s dedication to labor’s cause, the truth is that King was a spokesman for reliance on the capitalist government, seeing the courts and the Democratic Party as the vehicles for legal reform of the racist status quo.
The myth that black people could achieve equality within the confines of racist American capitalism was ripped apart when the civil rights movement “came North.” Here the forcible segregation of blacks in the ghettos was not a matter of a legal code but was and is rooted in the very foundation of capitalist rule in America. When the black masses in the Northern ghettos entered the struggle—fighting for real equality, for jobs, for decent housing and schools—the role of King and others in the liberal leadership of the civil rights movement was one of fearful containment. Thus, King supported the troops sent in to brutally suppress ghetto upheavals in the 1960s.
With the deindustrialization of large swaths of the U.S., the ghetto poor who once supplied a “reserve army of labor” to be employed when the bosses needed them have been written off as a “surplus population” by the capitalist rulers, their labor and very lives no longer seen as necessary for the production of profit. But black workers remain a militant backbone of organized labor—from the ILWU to the public workers unions—and are critical to linking the power of the working class to the simmering anger of the ghettos. If the unions are to fight for their very existence, they must take up the defense of the ghetto and barrio poor by fighting for jobs, quality housing, education, health care and more, and must as well defend the rights of immigrants, an increasingly important component of the working class. Organizing the unorganized is a life-and-death question for labor everywhere. Crucially it means a fight to break the open shop South, directly posing the need for labor to combat anti-black racism and anti-immigrant bigotry.
Many workers no longer buy the lie peddled by the trade-union bureaucracy and its “socialist” water boys that the election of Barack Obama would bring “change” they could “believe in.” The massive protests in Wisconsin inspired many to believe that finally there might be some fightback against the war on their unions, their families and their livelihoods. The leaden hands of the labor bureaucracy are trying to drown any such impulse. It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a real explosive potential here. But to transform that potential into some successful class struggle poses the question of leadership. The labor misleaders must be ousted and replaced with workers’ leaders who will link the fight to defend the unions to building a multiracial revolutionary workers party. This is the necessary instrument to lead the struggle to free the working class and the oppressed from the chains of exploitation, poverty and imperialist war.