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July/August 2003 • Vol 3, No. 7 •

Who Can Be Trusted to Defend Workers Rights?

By Charles Walker

If U.S. trade union officials have ever testified before a congressional committee urging new laws to provide more union democracy and accountability to their ranks, we don’t remember when that was. But we do know that from time to time, rank-and-file union members trek to the nation’s Capitol Building seeking legislative remedies to bureaucratic abuse and worse perpetrated by their union’s leaders. Just recently, a working carpenter—who said that he’s also a member of Carpenters for a Democratic Union—asked a Congressional Committee to force union officials to inform and, much more than that, to educate union ranks about their rights as union members, as specified in the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (sometimes called the Kennedy-Landrum-Griffin Act, or just the Landrum-Griffin Act).

We have no doubts as to the honest intent that lies behind the carpenter’s testimony. He wants a democratic union; he wants a strong union. But along the line, he picked up the notion that the Democratic and Republican politicians, who sup at corporate America’s table, also want democratic and strong unions for U.S. workers. We say that because he told the committee that the 1959 labor law wasn’t working the way that he thought the lawmakers intended. In other words, he’s concluded that U.S. unions are neither more democratic nor stronger, despite the legislation, which partly strengthened Taft-Hartley restrictions against both unions and their ranks, especially when seeking to strike, or otherwise defend their living standards.

The 1959 labor law fits into a pattern of anti-labor legislation and court rulings since the early 1940s that have brought the once independent U.S. trade union movement just a few steps short of being a labor-disciplining agency of the state; a state organized by and based on the primary interests of its ruling class, the bosses. The 1959 law did include something new, a so-called Bill of Rights for union members. Undoubtedly, that part of the legislation—a bit of sugar in the vinegar—helped reduce public opposition to the bill.

But more importantly, the “Bill of Rights” served to delude workers that the government wanted strong and democratic unions.

A well-known former Teamsters official, Farrell Dobbs, a key leader of the 1934 Minneapolis strikes that transformed the International Teamsters Union and helped prepare the ground for the Depression Era workers’ upsurge that to date was the high point reached by U.S. organized labor, wrote, “When capitalist politicians pretend concern about bureaucratic abuses of democracy within unions…the real aim is to raise false hopes that the rank and file can rely on the government to uphold their rights. It is a trick designed to get workers to accept government intervention in internal union affairs” (The Militant, January 1967).

In 1997, the government, misusing authority derived from a racketeering act, passed without reference to unions, ousted Teamsters President Ron Carey, in the wake of the highly-effective strike against United Parcel Service. There could be no mistaking the real interest of the government in the welfare of union members, when the government, then under Democrat President Bill Clinton, orchestrated the undemocratic removal of the Teamsters’ strike leader.

No politician raised an objection to Carey’s removal, and as a matter of fact, no union bureaucrat even mentioned bringing the power of labor’s ranks to Carey’s defense. Only twelve clear-eyed jurors kept Carey from being further victimized by the government’s frame-up, but by then, the Teamsters bureaucracy was fully back in power, and the ranks stripped of its short-lived militant and democratic leadership.

There are groups, such as the Assn. for Union Democracy, that act primarily, though not exclusively, to gain the support of governmental agencies, in their efforts to reform U.S. labor. They frequently lobby Congressional committees, attempt to pressure the Labor Dept. and file lawsuits. Occasionally, their efforts result in a partial victory that serves workers’ interests. But their efforts, conducted now for many decades, have failed to make a dent in the problems that the union ranks endure; while at the same time, they sow the harmful illusion that workers generally can rely on the government in their quest for a full measure of justice.

There’s nothing wrong in principle with workers demanding that the government respect their rights, or even enforce their rights. The Civil Rights movement achieved some important gains for minorities in the courtroom. Or more precisely, the courts recognized the power of the Civil Rights movement and tailored their decisions involving the rights of minorities to full and equal membership in unions, when those minorities had demonstrated their power by massive demonstrations in the streets. That’s what’s missing from the efforts of reform groups seeking governmental support—massive rank-and-file power displayed at work sites and in the streets of America.

For as experience has shown, massive workers’ power has resulted in large-scale beneficial changes for workers, unionized or not. Many of the legal gains that workers still enjoy, as well as some holdover contract clauses, are the fruit, not of lobbying, but of much earlier massive strikes and huge protests.

Of course, those rights are subject to adverse change as soon as the bosses and their twin political parties regain some initiative. For example, in most states a majority of workers can establish a union that covers all workers; but in a still growing number of misnamed right-to-work states the union shop has been outlawed, as permitted by the Taft-Hartley Act—also called the Slave Labor Act. That act allowed the government to cripple the west coast dockers this year when they were seriously challenged by shipping bosses.

The Kennedy-Landrum-Griffin law was once called by union labor a “killer law,” partly because it invalidated contract clauses that allowed workers in so-called neutral companies to refuse to handle products from a struck company, such products being deemed “hot cargo.”

Clearly, these laws have caused union bargaining power today to be weaker than it otherwise would be. Recently an administrative judge with the National Labor Relations Board, charged with enforcing the nation’s key labor law, ruled that carpenter union banners identifying nonunion bosses were illegal under the nation’s secondary boycott law. The union rightly believes that it has a first amendment right to inform the public that the companies in question use a nonunion contractor. The NLRB “decision overturns at least a decade of previous NLRB policy that accepted the banners as an expression of free speech,” reported the San Diego Union-Tribune (May 14).

There’s no doubt that U.S. workers are between two rocks and a hard place. It’s clear just from the few but telling examples cited here that corporate America and its political gofers don’t want democratic unions for the simple reason that democratic unions mean strong unions. At the same time, workers’ unions, particularly at the higher levels, are profoundly bureaucratized, held in check by a labor autocracy that does pretty well for itself, as a very junior partner in the corporate and governmental setup that runs the U.S. and seeks to run the rest of the world.

But the current prolonged economic stagnation and high levels of unemployment will ultimately give rise to a labor upsurge with the power once again to turn the tide in labor’s favor.

In the 1930s labor upsurge, union democracy surged as well. In any event, a labor upsurge no matter when it comes will require experienced and prepared activists and leaders ready to guide the emerging worker insurgents through the many complex tangles, legal and otherwise, that will confront them.

That preparatory work can and should begin now. Worker militants and dedicated union officers can organize into a democratic, militant wing of labor, readying an organized force, while reaching out and inspiring all workers, unionized or not, with a kind of leadership so sorely needed by U.S. workers today.





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