The Class Nature of the Unions

SEP: Defeatist and Confusionist

“The question of the relationships between the party, which represents the proletariat as it should be, and the trade unions, which represent the proletariat as it is, is the most fundamental question of revolutionary Marxism.”
—Leon Trotsky, “Communism and Syndicalism,” 14 October 1929

In the early 1990s, the leadership of the Detroit-based Socialist Equality Party (SEP—the leading section of the “International Committee of the Fourth International” [IC]) decided that capitalist “globalization” had transformed trade unions from working-class organizations into simple agencies of the bourgeoisie. In August 2006, members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) struck against wage cuts and roll-backs, in defiance of anti-strike laws and a back-to-work court order. The SEP’s daily online publication (World Socialist Web Site [WSWS]) closely followed the events, interviewing striking teachers and reporting on union meetings and support rallies. However, in the WSWS coverage there was little evidence of the view that the DFT is irrelevant and obsolete, much less a tool of the bosses.

The SEP observed that the:

“biggest obstacle…to waging the type of struggle that can defeat the attacks of Superintendent Coleman, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Governor Jennifer Granholm and the corporate interests they represent is the leadership of the DFT and the rest of the trade union bureaucracy.”
WSWS, 9 September 2006

Accordingly, DFT militants were advised to wrest control of the strike from their official leaders:

“The first step is for teachers to take the running of the strike out of the hands of the union leadership, and campaign for the active participation of the broadest sections of workers and young people in the fight to defend public education. This includes mass picketing, sympathy strikes and solidarity rallies embracing the widest sections of workers.”

A militant, class-struggle union leadership would indeed take this approach, but how does this square with the SEP’s claim that unions today are nothing more than instruments of the corporations?

SEP vs. Trotsky on Trade Unions

In January 1998, SEP/IC leader David North gave a lengthy speech in which he argued that trade unionism and socialism were fundamentally incompatible:

“Through much of its history, the socialist movement has ardently pursued the trade unions. Yet, despite much courting and wooing, this romance has been largely unsuccessful. Despite innumerable professions of affection and concern, the socialist suitors have been repeatedly kicked in the teeth and even stabbed in the back by the objects of their desire.”
—“Marxism and the Trade Unions”

While not particularly elegantly formulated, North’s meaning was clear enough. He went on to attack the traditional Marxist view that:

“trade unions are ‘workers’ organizations.’ Thus, he who challenges the authority of the trade unions is, by definition, setting himself in opposition to the working class. The problem with this premise is that it reduces the trade unions to empty, ahistorical abstractions. That the trade unions have a large working class membership is undoubtedly true. But so do many other organizations, such as, in the United States, the Elks, the Masons, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Catholic Church.”

North challenged his leftist opponents to:

“begin to offer a serious answer to the most elementary and obvious question: ‘Why have the trade unions failed so miserably to defend the living standards of the working class, let alone raise them?’ Not only in the United States, but all over the world, the last quarter-century has witnessed a precipitous decline in the social position of the working class. The trade unions have been incapable of defending the working class against the onslaught of capital. Inasmuch as this failure has been demonstrated over several decades on an international scale, one is led inescapably to search for its objective causes both in the socio-economic environment within which the trade unions now exist and, even more fundamentally, in the essential nature of the trade unions themselves.”

The leaders of the AFL-CIO are abjectly pro-imperialist advocates of class collaboration. Yet, despite their repeated capitulations, there remains a direct correlation between unionization and working-class living standards in the U.S. If unions were purely and simply instruments of the corporations, American capitalists would not spend over a billion dollars annually to oppose workers’ organizing (see Unionization and Deunionization, John J. Lawler, 1990).

There is nothing inherently revolutionary about trade unionism. Unions do not challenge the existence of wage slavery; they merely seek to obtain more favorable terms for the sale of labor power. The great Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky observed:

“As organizations expressive of the top layers of the proletariat, trade unions, as witnessed by all past historical experience, including the fresh experience of the anarcho-syndicalist unions in Spain, developed powerful tendencies toward compromise with the bourgeois-democratic regime. In periods of acute class struggle, the leading functionaries of the trade unions aim to become masters of the mass movement in order to render it harmless.”
Transitional Program

Yet Marxists are not indifferent to workers’ struggles to unionize, or to any other attempt they make to better their lives:

“In the struggle for partial and transitional demands, the workers, now more than ever before, need mass organizations; principally, trade unions….

“The Bolshevik-Leninist stands in the front-line trenches of all kinds of struggles, even when they involve only the most modest material interests or democratic rights of the working class. He takes active part in mass trade union[s] for the purpose of strengthening them and raising their spirit of militancy.”

By “strengthening” the unions, Trotsky meant striving “to renew the top leadership of the trade unions, boldly and resolutely in critical moments, advancing new militant leaders in place of routine functionaries and careerists….” North explicitly rejects this approach, sneering that it is “banal” and “subjective” to imagine that the fundamental problem with the unions is “the defeatist and treacherous policies of the AFL-CIO misleaders” (Op. cit.).

In 1998, the IC published a lengthy statement entitled, “Globalization and the International Working Class,” which was, in part, a response the Spartacist League/U.S.’s (SL) description of the SEP’s position on the unions as “defeatist and abstentionist.” (For the SL’s own recent, and symmetrically revisionist, departure on the trade-union question, see our 10 July 2006 letter, on page 29.)

The IC document proposed to draw “fundamental conclusions about the class nature and political role of the official unions,” and asserted that:

“the decline of the unions cannot be simply, or even primarily, ascribed to the subjective qualities of the union leaders, but that the corrupt and reactionary character of the leaders must rather be understood, in the final analysis, as the subjective expression of more fundamental objective processes.”

Revolutionaries distinguish between the unions—which are workers’ organizations—and the parasitic bureaucrats who serve as the “labor lieutenants of capital.” The material basis for the corruption of the labor tops, and their transformation into agents of imperialist influence within the workers’ movement, has been recognized by Marxists since the collapse of the Second International in 1914. In 1933, Trotsky observed:

“Capitalism can continue to maintain itself only by lowering the standard of living of the working class. Under these conditions trade unions can either transform themselves into revolutionary organisations or become lieutenants of capital in the intensified exploitation of the workers. The trade-union bureaucracy, which has satisfactorily solved its own social problem, took the second path. It turned all the accumulated authority of the trade unions against the socialist revolution and even against any attempts of the workers to resist the attacks of capital and reaction.

“From that point on, the most important task of the rev-olutionary party became the liberation of the workers from the reactionary influence of the trade-union bureaucracy….

“As was said, the trade unions now play not a progressive but a reactionary role.”
—“The ILP and the New International,” 4 September 1933

Yet, despite this, he continued:

“Nevertheless, [the trade unions] still embrace millions of workers. One must not think that the workers are blind and do not see the change in the historic role of the trade unions. But what is to be done? The revolutionary road is seriously compromised in the eyes of the left wing of the workers by the zigzags and adventures of official communism. The workers say to themselves: The trade unions are bad, but without them it might be even worse. This is the psychology of one who is in a blind alley. Meanwhile, the trade-union bureaucracy persecutes the revolutionary workers ever more boldly, ever more impudently replacing internal democracy by the arbitrary action of a clique, in essence, transforming the trade unions into some sort of concentration camp for the workers during the decline of capitalism.”

The “class nature and political role” of the labor bureaucracy has not changed since Trotsky’s time. Consequently, a key task for socialists remains “the liberation of the workers from the reactionary influence of the trade-union bureaucracy.” The SEP/IC leaders disagree, but they put forward no serious alternative. If indeed the existing unions are no longer viable arenas for revolutionary activity, what do the Northites propose as an alternative? In “Globalization and the International Working Class,” they offer only the following tentative speculation:

“Certainly, the working class requires organizations to prosecute the day-to-day defense of its economic and social interests. But trade unions are not the only possible form of organization geared to the defense of workers’ immediate conditions. History has seen the emergence of more broad, democratic and militant types of organization, such as factory committees and workers councils, which transcend the limited realm of struggle over wages and hours and aspire to establish workers’ control over the production process.”

This passive “wait-and-see” approach to the crucial question of how working people can organize in their own defense is presented as a bold, revolutionary policy by the WSWS. But, as Trotsky pointed out, this sort of sterile “leftist” posturing has a logic that is ultimately anti-revolutionary:

“the thought easily arises: Is it not possible to bypass the trade unions? Is it not possible to replace them by some sort of fresh, uncorrupted organization, such as revolutionary trade unions, shop committees, soviets and the like? The fundamental mistake of such attempts is that they reduce to organizational experiments the great political problem of how to free the masses from the influence of the trade-union bureaucracy. It is not enough to offer the masses a new address. It is necessary to seek out the masses where they are and to lead them.

“Impatient leftists sometimes say that it is absolutely impossible to win over the trade unions because the bureaucracy uses the organizations’ internal regimes for preserving its own interests, resorting to the basest machinations, repressions and plain crookedness, in the spirit of the parliamentary oligarchy of the era of ‘rotten boroughs.’ Why then waste time and energy? This argument reduces itself in reality to giving up the actual struggle to win the masses, using the corrupt character of the trade-union bureaucracy as a pretext. This argument can be developed further: why not abandon revolutionary work altogether, considering the repressions and provocations on the part of the government bureaucracy? There exists no principled difference here, since the trade-union bureaucracy has definitely become a part of the capitalist apparatus, economic and governmental.”
—“The ILP and the New International,” emphasis added

The SEP claims that the class character of the trade unions has changed fundamentally since the 1960s and 1970s, when they “still retained a significant element of the shop floor militancy inherited from the past”:

“the past two decades have witnessed a whole series of related quantitative changes—the level of union membership, the organizational and financial intertwining of union and management interests, the widening gap between the conditions of the workers and the privileges of the officials, the growing financial independence of the bureaucracy from the fate of the membership—which in their sum have produced a qualitative transformation.”
—“Globalization and the International Working Class”

While extremely vague about when this “qualitative transformation” supposedly took place, the IC statement hints that it may have been connected to the sell-out of the militant Hormel meatpackers’ strike in Minnesota twenty years ago:

“This betrayal exemplified not simply the subjective rottenness of the union leadership, but rather the objective transformation of the AFL-CIO into an instrument of the corporations and the capitalist state.”

One consequence of this “objective transformation,” according to the IC, is that there is no longer any point in trying to expose the corrupt, pro-capitalist leadership:

“Even in the first decades following the Second World War, the major unions in Europe claimed some form of allegiance to socialism, and the AFL-CIO in the US remained, to some extent, a focus of the militant resistance of workers to the encroachments of big business. It was one thing, under these conditions, for the revolutionary party to employ as a central tactic the placing of demands on the union leadership, as a means of exposing the trade union bureaucracy before the workers. It is an entirely different matter today, after two decades during which the unions have essentially completed their degeneration, betraying the most elementary interests of the working class and transforming themselves into outright corporatist extensions of the employers and the state.”

Aside from the skewed emphasis on the “centrality” of placing demands on the labor lieutenants of capital, the most notable aspect of the above passage is the escape hatch it contains—the unions, according to the IC, have essentially “completed their degeneration” into outright capitalist institutions. A more overt loophole appears a bit further on in the text: “There may be times and conditions, even in the present period, when it becomes necessary for the party to place demands on the trade unions.” While described as merely a “provisional and limited tactic,” it is clear that this is an attempt by the SEP/IC leaders to hedge their bets. Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel usually made sure to provide themselves a little wiggle room by including similar disclaimers in their revisionist paeans to the “New World Reality” or the “New Mass Vanguard.”

The SEP leadership seems rather sensitive to the suggestion that:

“By rejecting the claim that the existing trade unions can be revived and turned into militant, indeed revolutionary, organizations of the working class, the IC is supposedly spreading defeatism among the workers.”

They indignantly reject the accusation of “abstentionism in relation to the struggles of workers in the unions”:

“As any reader of The International Workers Bulletin in the US and the press of the IC sections around the world knows, our movement has never failed to intervene aggressively in the trade unions, defending the interests of the workers against the attacks of the employers and the treachery of the union bureaucracy.”

But if the unions are nothing more than “corporatist extensions of the employers,” why should the ostensibly revolutionary SEP be involved in them at all? As far as we know, the SEP/IC has no supporters actively engaged in trade-union work anywhere, so their “aggressive interventions” are only of a literary character.

TWU, UPS & Ontario ‘Days of Action’

While unions in North America today are much less combative than in the past, there have been serious struggles in recent years. The WSWS hailed the “illegal” transit strike that rocked New York City in December 2005 as “a new stage in the class struggle” of immense “international significance.” In its 21 December 2005 statement, the SEP correctly observed: “The greatest obstacle to the victory of the transit workers comes from their own union leadership.” Noting that “Local 100’s parent union, the TWU International, has branded the walkout as illegal and unsanctioned,” the SEP concluded:

“Nothing could more graphically demonstrate the way in which the official trade unions have been transformed into instruments for suppressing workers’ struggles and blocking any challenge to American capitalism.”

The TWU leadership’s attempts to derail the strike certainly demonstrated craven loyalty to the ruling class, but the actions of Local 100, which briefly panicked Wall Street, illustrated the potential power of organized labor, and showed that rank-and-file militancy can, at least episodically, override the class collaboration of the official leadership. The WSWS concluded that the transit strike showed that workers need “a new leadership and a new political strategy to carry forward their struggle.” We agree. But instead of advancing the perspective of a political fight to oust the pro-capitalist bureaucrats and forge a new leadership in the unions on a class-struggle program, the WSWS connected victory in the TWU strike to “building the SEP”:

“If this strike is to be successful, transit workers must be guided by a perspective that rejects the social, economic and political assumptions of the financial oligarchy and its political parties. The unending demands for reductions in the living standards of workers clearly demonstrate that their interests are incompatible with the requirements of the capitalist profit system.

“We call on transit workers and all other sections of working people who agree with this perspective to contact the World Socialist Web Site and join us in building the Socialist Equality Party.”

In August 1997, as the SEP was writing its obituary for the AFL-CIO, 185,000 Teamsters struck United Parcel Service (UPS—a company that handles 80 percent of the packages delivered in the U.S.). In its 25 August 1997 statement on the strike, the SEP noted: “the whole of corporate America has lined up behind UPS and backed the company’s intransigent position in the contract talks.” The statement suggested that this confrontation could herald “a new period of explosive class struggles in America,” and correctly observed:

“the UPS strike, uniting white, black, Hispanic, native-born and immigrant workers on picket lines from New York City to California, demonstrates that the basic division in American society is not race or ethnicity, but the social cleavage between those who must work for a living and those who profit from their labor.”

The UPS strike demonstrated that even in the United States, the most powerful imperialist country in the world, with the most politically-backward working class, the unions are still able to inflict pain on the bosses. The SEP condemned the Teamster bureaucrats’ “slavish support for the profit system and fanatical opposition to socialism,” and observed that “the present struggle at UPS, like every other struggle of workers today, is an attempt to recoup the losses which workers have suffered as a result of the trade union bureaucracy’s complicity.” True enough, but the UPS strike, like the more recent strikes of the TWU and DFT, also showed that even in the U.S., the unions still have the capacity to serve as vehicles of working-class struggle.

Two months after the UPS strike, in October 1997, tens of thousands of workers, responding to a call by the AFL-CIO’s Canadian affiliates, shut down the city of Windsor, Ontario, directly across the river from Detroit, to protest attacks by the right-wing provincial government. The Windsor shutdown was the ninth in a series of one-city “Days of Action” across Ontario organized by the labor tops (see “Resistance & Betrayal,” 1917 No. 19, 1997). The SEP ran a short report entitled “Anti-Tory protest paralyzes Windsor” in the 3-16 November 1997 edition of The International Workers Bulletin (IWB, the forerunner of the WSWS).

A year earlier they had provided more extensive coverage of the Toronto shutdown:

“On Friday tens of thousands of workers stayed home from work, paralyzing the city’s buses and subways, and forcing many area businesses, government offices, schools and factories to suspend operations. Some 300 sites across metropolitan Toronto were targeted for picket-ing, including the transit system, which carries about 2 million riders daily. Workers set up pickets at transit locations in defiance of a court-injunction, forcing the authorities to close down the system.

“The following day more than 150,000 anti-Tory protesters converged on the Ontario Legislature in one of the big-gest demonstrations in Canadian history. Marching along-side teachers, hospital workers, service workers, steel workers and auto workers were native people and student youth.

“This two-day action was the culmination of a series of protests called by the Ontario Federation of Labor (OFL) over the past year. Previously rallies were held in London, Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo and Peterborough.

“The virtual shutdown of Canada’s biggest city on October 25 and the massive turnout the following day revealed a rising tide of working class opposition to the policies of the Harris provincial government, as well as the federal administration in Ottawa. At the same time, the two-day protest exposed the political bankruptcy of the OFL and the union-based New Democratic Party (NDP), and the necessity for the Canadian working class to build a new political party and adopt a socialist perspective in order to successfully fight the attacks of big business and its political representatives.”
IWB, 11 November 1996

It is quite true that the blinkered, class-collaborationist labor tops are “politically bankrupt” and therefore unable to effectively beat back capitalist assaults, but the ability of the unions to shut down one city after another across Ontario hardly squares with the notion that they no longer have the capacity to resist attacks by the bosses. The strikes that paralyzed Ontario’s cities, like those that shut down UPS, the New York subways and Detroit’s schools, were not initiated by hypothetical “committees of action,” “workers councils” or “factory committees.” They were carried out by unions affiliated to the AFL-CIO.

Revolutionary Trade-Union Work: ‘Struggle for Influence’

Revolutionaries have never insisted that class struggle can only proceed through pre-existing union structures. Indeed, Marxists have always sought:

“to create in all possible instances independent militant organizations corresponding more closely to the problems of mass struggle [in] bourgeois society; not stopping, if necessary, even in the face of a direct break with the conservative apparatus of the trade unions.”
—Leon Trotsky, Transitional Program

But independent organs of mass struggle only arise in periods of sharply intensifying class struggle. In the U.S. and other imperialist countries today, a working-class upsurge would inevitably be reflected in the growth of militant sentiment within the existing unions. In a major text he was working on when he was assassinated in 1940, Trotsky argued that revolutionaries must “struggle to turn the trade unions into the organs of the broad exploited masses and not the organs of a labor aristocracy.” He explicitly addressed those, like the SEP, who would write off the existing unions:

“in spite of the progressive degeneration of trade unions and their growing together with the imperialist state, the work within the trade unions not only does not lose any of its importance but remains as before and becomes in a certain sense even more important work than ever for every revolutionary party. The matter at issue is essentially the struggle for influence over the working class. Every organization, every party, every faction which permits itself an ultimatistic position in relation to the trade union, i.e., in essence turns its back upon the working class, merely because of displeasure with its organization, every such organization is destined to perish. And it must be said it deserves to perish.”
—“Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay”

The WSWS neither “turned its back” on the DFT strike, nor did they treat the struggle between the teachers and the school board as a squabble between two “instruments of the corporations and the capitalist state.” But this flies in the face of all their claims about the qualitative transformation of the unions—a contradiction that should cause some SEP members to wonder why, if the unions are “organically incapable of carrying out any serious struggle on behalf of the working class,” the DFT strike ever occurred. Certainly anyone visiting teachers’ picket lines who suggested breaking with the union would have been regarded as crazy and/or an agent of the employer. Yet that would be a logical corollary of the SEP’s position.

Confronted with actual class struggles led by unions, the SEP’s propaganda has at least tended to side with the workers and their organizations against the bosses. However, despite this, they have yet to repudiate the absurd policy of writing off the unions as agencies of working-class struggle. It would seem that, in the SEP/IC, the maintenance of the political prestige of the “uniquely correct” leadership takes precedence over everything else.