This edition of Socialist Viewpoint focuses once again on what promises to be a major confrontation between autoworkers and their unions against General Motors and its pseudo-independent spin-off, Delphi Corporation. No matter how this attempt to reduce autoworkers’ wages and benefits by 50 percent or more turns out, it promises to affect the entire auto industry immediately.
And whatever happens in auto will also set an example for the entire organized and unorganized American working class.
As things stood initially, the objective relation of class forces did not favor autoworkers. In fact at the very outset most informed observers saw GM/Delphi’s arrogant demands as ending in another slam-dunk victory for Corporate America, as has been the pattern for at least the last seven or eight years.
However it soon became clear that something new had been added to the usual scenario. That is, the real force behind union power, the rank-and-file members, have suddenly sprung into life, This threatens to upset the class-collaborationist applecart of bosses, bureaucrats and the entire capitalist establishment.
But the organizers of the movement that now calls itself Soldiers of Solidarity did not start from scratch. They have been applying the lessons they have gleaned from the hundreds-of-year history of the socialist and labor movements.
In addition to what can be learned from books, there is still a living link between the veterans of the great strike victories of the 1930s. In fact, tens of thousands of militants involved in the great sit-down strikes against General Motors in 1938 are still alive and well—and more than willing to pass on what they have learned to the next generation of fighters for the rights of America’s exploited and oppressed.
The only thing uncertain is the extent to which today’s Soldiers of Solidarity will re-inspire the American workers in their power as a class and the impulse they will give to the formation of a class-struggle left wing in the unions.
Most importantly, such a class-struggle force—along with a leadership worthy of the task—history teaches, is indispensable to the task of overcoming the labor bureaucracy. The role these bureaucrats play has been aptly described (more than a hundred years ago) as the “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class.”
The emergence of a rank-and-file movement whose leaders and members are openly “talking the talk and walking the walk” of class struggle is something we have not seen since the greatest-ever labor upsurge of the Great Depression.
History shows that the best leaders come from the ranks
It is also important to highlight the role of the rank-and-file-based class-struggle leadership that led the three citywide strikes by Autoworkers in Toledo, Teamsters in Minneapolis and Longshoremen in San Francisco in 1934. These three historic strike-victories served as the spark that detonated the explosion of class struggle in that decade; an upsurge that did not end until the most powerful industrial union movement in American history had been built.
It’s important to keep in mind that such a force, based on the mass-production industries is where the power of capitalism is concentrated. But for the same reason, it also serves as the point at which the power of the workers is also concentrated.
Another important fact we must not forget is that, unlike thhe present labor leadership, the leaders of the capitalist class pay great attention to history and its lessons. And it is their understanding of history that has evidently forced GM/Delphi bosses to modify the arrogant stance they adopted at the outset of their declaration of heightened war on American workers.
But this modification adopted by Delphi bosses is merely a tactical maneuver. That is, their prime strategic objective—to impose a drastic reduction in wages and benefits—has not been changed in the slightest. It remains as it was from the first—a demand for the complete surrender by the UAW to GM/Delphi’s initial demands. and if they succeed, the ruling class will have gone a long way toward recapturing all that is left of the major conquests of the last great upsurge of workers in American history.
GM bosses have good reason to fear that this remarkable development could be the beginning of something like the tide-turning events that had occurred in 1934. But because they bit the bullet when this assault was initated they can’t afford to back down now lest it appear that the relative handful of SOS class-struggle militants has forced them to retreat! Consequently, they know that if they do not nip this threat in the bud it may well grow into a mighty force—as such tide-turning events have done more than once before in labor history.
Even if all SOS is able to do is set a convincing example of the potential power of the strategy and tactics of class struggle, as against class collaboration, it would send a message that will become louder and clearer in the weeks and months ahead—a power that can only be fully unleashed by fighting according to the objective laws of war. And that message is simply that no war—and the class struggle is indeed a war—can be won if workers abide by the rules imposed by their class enemy! In fact, the great labor victories of the 1930s were won essentially by violating the one-sided rules of war set by the capitalist class and its bipartisan government.
In fact, of all the crimes against workers committed by the labor bureaucracy, the most serious is its refusal to allow labor’s rank and file to violate the rules of war set by the bosses and their government. This refusal has resulted in a steady decline in the living standards of American workers, a decline more rapid than that suffered by workers in the other advanced industrial countries of the world.
In other words, what labor bureaucrats have been calling “win-win” contractual agreements negotiated with employers, can now be clearly seen to be a euphemism for a decades-long policy of giving away far more in concessions than what had been gained.
It’s also important to remember that all of labor history testifies to the fact that employers will use any means necessar to defeat striking workers when the stakes are as high as they now are—including murderous force and terrorism!
As Jay Gould (1836-1892), one of the “Robber Barons” of the 19th century, had said in reference to a Knights of Labor strike in 1886: “I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half.” And in that regard, nothing has changed.
Gregg Shotwell, one of the leading spokespersons for SOS has stated in one his most recent series of reports to its members and supporters, “Don’t Be Fooled, GM-Delphi Is Out for Blood!” And in his latest report, he argued:
“The clock is ticking. Preparation for strike should accelerate and our opposition to concessions should be loud and clear. Start Organizing Support. We have less than two months to reduce inventory. Anyone who isn’t working to rule is working to ruin. Overtime will extend the picket line not the party.” In our opinion, Shotwell is a natural workers’ leader such as comes on the scene only rarely in the lifetime of any given generation of workers. He knows his labor history and has absorbed its lessons. More importantly, he is one of the most talented educators we have seen in many a year. He speaks in a style one often reads and hears in unions, which is his great strength and helps explain the success of SOS which, however, is only at the very beginning of its fight to stop and reverse decades of setbacks and defeats suffered by the American working class and its unions.
But by any measure, he is an outstanding example of a first-class labor organizer, educator and agitator devoted to advancing the interests of his class. And since our objective is to spread the message of what could become a mass movement of left-wing class-struggle fighters, we grant this movement’s spokespersons the poetic license such talented and original writers deserve:
Thus, the reader will notice that we have not tampered with his use of three-word phrases such as the one cited above—“Start Organizing Support”—which is only one of many such phrases capitalized in the same way as is this movement’s title—Soldiers of Solidarity.
At the same time we have tried to clarify terms recognized by autoworkers and other union activists as well, with bracketed explanatory notes and footnotes.