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July/August 2001 • Vol 1, No. 3 •

The Labor Bureaucracy and Lesser-Evil Politics

by Nat Weinstein

The union officialdom can be divided into two basic categories: The first are the careerists—those who see election or appointment to union office as a ticket to a privileged life-style, free of the drudgery of work. This group also tends to believe in the existing social and economic status quo, and that the well being of workers is dependent on their employers’ ability to make a “reasonable” profit. These are the labor bureaucrats.

The second basic category includes those elected to union office who honestly try to do what they think is best for their coworkers. This group tends to believe that any increase in wages causes a corresponding reduction in profits and vice versa. Thus, any compromise reached, according to this viewpoint, tends to be on the terms of the side that happens to be the stronger one at the time. Some but not all in this second grouping reject the capitalist status quo and see socialism as an alternative to capitalism.

In these days, when the level of worker combativity in the United States is at one of its lowest points in history, the pro-capitalist careerists—the labor bureaucracy—dominate the labor movement. And the higher they climb in the trade union hierarchy, the greedier they get, and the more they think like corporate executives. In fact, the top layer of the labor bureaucracy tends to see itself as an integral component of the American capitalist establishment, and therefore entitled to comparable salaries and perquisites.

Thus, to the extent that labor officials abide by the class collaborationist strategy of the hardened bureaucrats on top, they are, therefore, indistinguishable from hardened bureaucrats.

But it is very important to understand that even the most hardened pro-capitalist careerists of the highest rank play no independent role and are subject to the pressures of their dues-paying members on one side and the capitalists on the other. For class conscious workers, the capitalists are the enemy class, and the bureaucrats are a parasitic encrustation on the workers’ movement and though they tend to serve as the labor lieutenants of the capitalist class, and are a major obstacle inside the workers’ movement, they are not the enemy.

The distinction is real and important to recognize. How class-conscious worker militants deal with the bureaucracy becomes very important in the real life of the labor movement. Thus, while it’s always a mistake to support one capitalist against another, it’s a legitimate tactical option to support one bureaucrat against another.

Labor and the Republicans, something new?

An article, by Steven Greenhouse, in the June 3 edition of The New York Times titled, “White House and Unions Look for Common Ground” begins with this observation: “In a mutual recognition of reality, the Bush administration and labor unions are courting each other for help on various issues, from energy policy to improved pension rules.”

In plain English, this refers to efforts by the labor bureaucracy to reach a mutually satisfactory deal with Republican Party politicians—an entity it has cast for most of the last century as the main enemy of the trade union movement and the working class.

Greenhouse reports that Andrew Stern, president of the 1.3 million-member Service Employees International Union explained why he and other top labor officials have decided to demonstrably court a few Congressional Republicans: “A lot of labor people are saying that being a wing of the Democratic Party doesn’t work for our members.”

The Times reporter notes, moreover, that the SEIU president is far from alone. Other labor officials have also reported that they are endorsing and contributing to the election campaigns of Congressional Republicans in exchange for the latter’s pledge of support to union-backed legislation. Some Republicans in Congress are happy to give confirmation that “unions are donating more to more Republican lawmakers than they have in decades.”

But perhaps these and other such agreements between union officials and Republican politicians are frowned upon by higher-ranked officials in the AFL-CIO hierarchy? Not at all.

Greenhouse, who like all other of The Time’s labor reporters reflects the anti-labor views of his employer, can’t help but show his contempt for the labor bureaucracy.

Thus, while he rushes to report that Sweeney had told union leaders, soon after Bush’s election, that labor needed to be on a “war footing” against the new Republican president, the reporter then seems to delight in underscoring the AFL-CIO president’s hypocritical endorsement of Republican politicians. Greenhouse writes: “Today, Mr. Sweeney is taking a different approach. Three weeks ago he held a dinner for 17 Republican House members and a dozen union presidents, while [with Sweeney’s approval] unions had a fundraiser for two freshman Republicans, Felix J. Grucci Jr. of New York and Mike Ferguson of New Jersey.”

The reporter also notes that the “AFL-CIO’s political action committee recently contributed to eight Congressional Republicans, and [labor] officials said it planned to donate to 10 more over the next few months.”

This courtship would appear to be a shocking reversal in AFL-CIO strategy; but only to those who still believe the myth, long-promoted as accepted wisdom by labor bureaucrats and others, that the Republicans are the bad guys, and the Democrats, the good guys.

The AFL-CIO officialdom is in a quandary because, whether or not they still subscribe to this myth, they have desperately continued to perpetuate it. But the best case they have been able to make for supporting Democrats (at least since the end of the 1970s) is that the Democrats are a “lesser evil,” rather than bonafide “friends.”

The labor bureaucracy has been forced to retreat to this rationalization only because it is widely known that a growing number of union rank-and-filers have been showing their increasing disenchantment with the Democrats by either staying home on election day or by voting for anyone but Democrats.

Bureaucrats on the horns of a dilemma

That has created a big problem for the labor bureaucracy, which finds itself a victim of a vicious cycle of its own creation. It’s one that comes directly from their central political strategy of relying on “good” capitalists to fight the “bad” ones—a strategy that to this day remains based on an alliance with the Democratic Party. Here’s how the deadly logic of that policy has got the AFL-CIO’s honchos stuck on the horns of a dilemma.

With the indispensable help of the mass media, and even the Republicans—who for their own reasons have consistently helped foster the myth of pro-labor Democrats—the labor bureaucracy has for almost 70 years mobilized all of labor’s resources to get out the vote for the Democrats during every election campaign—local and national.

But an increasing number among the union rank and file have developed the habit of not voting for those endorsed by their unions. Why? Simply because they have come to the conclusion that all they ever get as a reward for their votes and financial contributions is a kick in the hind end! The plain fact is that even if one were to believe that there was a time when Democrats truly gave workers a break, it is impossible to make a case for that fairy tale today.

So because the Democrats have not delivered the goods on promises to workers, the bureaucrats have found it increasingly difficult to deliver the votes of their members to their Democratic “friends.” And, at the same time, the labor misleadership has been unable to convince their Democratic Party “allies” to do something—anything at all—that would make it easier for them to deliver the votes of their members.

That, in a nutshell, is the character of the vicious cycle the AFL-CIO hierarchy now finds itself in. It also explains the current ploy by the latter to scare Democrats by endorsing a few Republican politicians.

But Sweeney and company are barking up the wrong tree if they think that Democrats are shaking with fright at the possibility of the labor bureaucracy switching over to the Republican Party. Why should they? They got the labor bureaucracy’s number a long time ago and have no reason to worry.

In fact, the worst that the Democratic Party can expect from the AFL-CIO misleadership is the latter’s return to old Samuel Gompers’s policy of “rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies.(1)”

(For those who might think that we have exaggerated the failure of the Democrats to enact any meaningful pro-labor legislation, history will show that in almost every case in which legislation was adopted that seemed to strengthen workers against capitalists—such as the very right to organize unions and strike—it was only after it had already been won by mass worker mobilizations on the picket lines and in the streets. These victories, moreover, were won despite bloody repression by police, National Guard, and even Federal troops ordered by Democratic Party mayors, governors and presidents.(2)

An alternative to the strategy of class collaboration

There is, of course, an alternative to the suicidal class collaborationist strategy of the labor officialdom. And that alternative is to break with both capitalist parties and mobilize the 16 million members of the AFL-CIO into a mass Labor Party, based on the unions.

Just imagine, for a moment, what would be possible with such a strategic orientation: Such a party would start off with an over 16-million-strong mass base, a huge apparatus, and organizational centers and meeting places in every major city in the United States.

With a highly organized human force of such massive dimensions, based on the already existing institutions of the AFL-CIO, such a party of the working class could become—right off the bat—the second major party in the country. And with a clear program based on advancing the interests of all victims of capitalist social, economic and political injustice, nothing could stop such a mass independent workers’ party from becoming the first party in the country. More importantly, such a mass movement could, in rather short order, put decisive political power within the grasp of the American workers and their natural allies—the great majority of America’s exploited and oppressed.

The only thing lacking for this revolutionary transformation of the social, economic and political status quo in the United States to become a reality is the will to do so and a militant anti-capitalist program that can effectively mobilize the working class and its natural allies for action in its own class interests.

We are fully aware that the orientation outlined above is far in advance of the current level of mass consciousness and might appear—at first sight—even to the most intelligent and thoughtful working people, to be an idle dream. But that would only be the case if one is entirely unaware of the history of class struggle.

History shows that the given state of consciousness is not a static and changeless thing. Mass consciousness is steadily influenced by the changing state of objective reality and the way people see themselves—that is, whether as isolated individuals as most now do, or as a social class with common interests that are in diametrical opposition to the interests of the capitalist class.

The big question is what will change how masses of people think, and therefore, how they act, and what they fight for? History teaches that a radical change in mass consciousness is triggered by radical changes in peoples’ lives. Such a radical change in mass living standards, and therefore in consciousness, was precipitated by the Great Depression. And all indications suggest that today’s rapidly deteriorating global economy is heading toward a crisis like the one that began almost 72 years ago—a crisis which, no one can deny, caused a revolutionary transformation in mass consciousness in America and the world.

Thus, the efficacy of an alternative strategy capable of mobilizing the working class in defense of its class interests as briefly outlined above, depends on the very big changes now unfolding in the world and their impact on mass consciousness.

Why the labor bureaucracy is incapable of self-reform

People can certainly change history and it is entirely reasonable to expect that if by some miracle the current leadership of the AFL-CIO were to adopt the alternative class struggle strategy we have outlined above, that that would change mass consciousness and rather easily result in fundamentally positive changes in the real world.

Unfortunately, such miracles only occur in the world of fantasy. Sweeney and company are absolutely incapable of any break whatever with capitalist politics, much less one so far-reaching as the launching of a mass Labor Party based on the trade unions. Why can we safely make such a prediction?

Primarily because AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney and his high-ranking general staff fear workers at least as much as they fear the bosses. And they know that once masses of workers are mobilized for action and begin to feel their power in numbers, stopping them is like stopping a mile-long freight train going downhill.

But that is not to say that they don’t fear the capitalists and their government any less. That was plain as day when the government cracked down on Teamster president, Ron Carey, a few years ago, and the labor bureaucracy from Sweeney down to every top AFL-CIO official failed to utter a word of protest, much less act in defense of trade union independence from the bosses and their government.

Why did they crack down? Because Carey violated the most sacred rule of the boss class and its government—a rule that reads: “Thou shalt not mobilize masses of workers to defend their class interests in the streets and workplaces of the nation!”

Carey violated that capitalist commandment not only by leading his Teamsters out on a national strike against the United Parcel Service, the largest package delivery company in the country, but he transgressed even further against the bosses rules of class war. He appealed to the entire working class to back the Teamsters’ fight against part-time, low-paying jobs for UPS’s youngest and most exploited workers, and for decent jobs for all American working people.

And Carey’s biggest crime of crimes was that he organized his 185,000 UPS Teamster members in mass picketing of UPS distribution centers designed to stop the billion-dollar corporation in its tracks as they attempted to herd scab truck drivers through Teamster picket lines.

In other words, unlike the normal procedure of AFL-CIO bureaucrats to meet strike-breaking with token pickets, under strict orders to stand aside and let scabs through picket lines, Carey met the challenge in the only way strikebreaking has ever been stopped, by shutting it down tight.

The labor bureaucracy, from President Sweeney on down through the rest of the cowardly and traitorous AFL-CIO hierarchy, stood by, failing to lift a finger of opposition to the capitalist government as it struck Carey down from his elected position as Teamster president, slandered him and, though they could not convict him of a single illegal act, expelled him from his union for life.

And for what? Because he led his Teamster brothers and sisters in a national strike that stopped thousands of UPS delivery trucks and distribution centers across the length and breadth of the country. And despite the line up of the entire capitalist class, its mass media, and the government, striking Teamsters with the younger and lower-paid part-time workers in the lead, dealt UPS bosses a major defeat and won a major victory for the entire working class.

Had Sweeney and his gang done their duty and put up a fight against this outrageous and unprecedented government assault on the democratic right of union rank-and-filers to choose its own leadership, and determine its own policy, the road to a mass labor counter-offensive might well have been opened up. The promising rank and file union movement set into motion by that strike victory against UPS, if allowed to flower, could have brought the long retreat of the American workers and their unions to a dead halt.

Don’t mourn, organize!

Joe Hill, the legendary working class fighter and author of so many labor songs loaded with the lessons and wisdom that comes straight out of the hearts of workers in struggle, left us with this inspiring watchword: Don’t mourn, Organize!

Another battle was lost when Teamster President Ron Carey and his union was betrayed by the high and mighty leaders of what is potentially the world’s most powerful labor movement, the AFL-CIO. But the class war goes on. And there will always be those among our class that will remember the lessons of such defeats, as well as the many victories.

And most importantly, there will always be those who will go back into the history of class struggle based on the truism that in order to know what must be done next, we must know what happened before. That’s always the way that the lessons of the past are kept alive and serve to guide the ongoing generations of rebel workers.

And the task of the most conscious sectors of the workers movement is to do everything it can to facilitate and accelerate this vital part of the historic process. And that’s all that the small force of advanced workers that exist today can and must do in the world as it is today.

That’s why even now, when the workers, fighting spirit is caught up in history’s ebb tide, it’s necessary to continue the struggle to raise mass consciousness toward the goal of constructing a new revolutionary working class leadership. Tides, like everything else also change and that too will change. But it would be a big mistake to wait until the class struggle tide begins to surge. What little can be done now will count for much, much more when more favorable objective events begin working to raise mass consciousness.

At the same time, it must be understood that the current state of worker consciousness limits the small vanguard that exists today to a largely educational function. But even a small force must be ready to intervene in even the most modest actions that spontaneously erupt as best we can. Moreover, we must stand ready to initiate such actions when in the course of events such opportunities to advance the class interests of workers and their natural allies present themselves.

That’s what this magazine is all about. Welcome to the future!

1. Samuel Gompers was the first president of the American Federation of Labor (the AFL in the combined labor federation now known as the AFL-CIO). Gompers coined the phrase “reward your friends and punish your enemies” back in the last quarter of the 19th century. Like his counterparts of today, Gompers was one of the first major figures in the American labor movement to systematically advance the strategy of class collaboration based on the notion that there is a community of interests between labor and capital.

2. For a full account of the anti-labor role of both capitalist parties in the period since the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 until 1955 see Labor’s Giant Step, by Art Preis, Pioneer Publishers, New York.





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