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November 2003 • Vol 3, No. 10 •

Former Sweeney Aide Calls for An Organized Left-Wing

By Charles Walker

Bill Fletcher, a former aide to AFL-CIO president, John J. Sweeney, has proposed that organized labor needs an organized left-wing; and, moreover, that left-wing needs “a vision of a different USA, and indeed a different world.” Speaking at the September Labor Notes national gathering, Fletcher reminded his audience, a fairly representative gathering of the labor-left, that we “act as if the existence of an organized left, and specifically an organized left anti-capitalist political party is a nice idea but not particularly essential in order to carry out our tasks.”

Fletcher argued that much of the fight to organize workers during the Great Depression years was also a fight for a larger demand, popular democracy. Like then, today’s struggle to organize and defend organized labor’s gains also should be connected to a struggle for democracy. But the start of those struggles mustn’t be left to grassroots spontaneity. Rather, the labor-left should organize as a social movement, preparing the ground and engaging the opposition.

“Too many of us today,” he asserted, “act as if we need no such organization and no such vision.” Drawing on labor experiences during the 1930’s, Fletcher stressed that, “What the organized left brought to the pre-CIO period was not simply trade union strategy but a connection between what was going on in the trade union movement and what was taking place in other movements.”

One of the organizations that Fletcher mentioned briefly that brought a vision of a different USA to the labor movement was the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL), principally led by William Z. Foster, a veteran labor organizer. If Fletcher had had more speaking time, he might have pointed out how the TUEL, which lasted only seven years in its original form, accomplished much more than the combined accomplishments to date of the largest present day left-led union caucuses.

The TUEL led difficult major strikes and won some that would have challenged the typical efforts of the Samuel Gompers types of its time; it recruited thousands of members in its short life-span, advocating democratic, rank-and-file unionism, the end of union leaders’ cooperation with the boss class, industrial unionism, workers’ political independence (a labor party), anti-racism, and international workers’ solidarity.

Its founding declaration stated that the TUEL “is campaigning against the reactionaries, incompetents, and crooks who occupy strategic positions in many of our organizations. It is striving to replace them with militants, with men and women unionists who look upon the labor movement not as a means for making an easy living, but as an instrument for the achievement of working class emancipation. In other words, the TUEL is working in every direction necessary to put life and spirit and power into the trade union movement.”

Fletcher noted that the TUEL failed when it adopted a dual unionism policy. He neglected to put that stage in the TUEL’s history in full perspective, by not mentioning that the dual unionism policy and a huge dose of sectarianism was imposed on Foster, a member of the American Communist Party, and his U.S. labor activists by the so-called Third Period line of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which branded many labor militants and radicals not affiliated with the Communist Party as “social fascists.”

Fletcher did note other policy faults of the TUEL, but many of those might have been modified during the course of the 1930s workers’ upsurge, just a few years later, if the TUEL had stuck to its original intentions; and others might not have been faults, but policies well suited for the upcoming militant times. For example, the TUEL had a clear line on the fundamental need for real independent political action by workers. The TUEL proposed a break from Gompers’ line of reliance on capitalist politicians and parties, and, in turn, advocated the formation of a labor party. The TUEL also had a keen understanding of the bureaucratic set-ups that many unions had become, and was a forceful opponent of trade union bureaucrats. While it’s true that the TUEL is a mixed model for today’s labor militants, its example is much more of a lesson on what labor militants should be doing, than avoiding.

However, Fletcher is quite right to stress the need by labor militants for certain types of tactical flexibility and understandings. As in the TUEL period, today’s unions are bureaucratized, no doubt more so now, than then. Nevertheless, united fronts on many issues within the labor movement are not only possible, but also vital and necessary. Fletcher is quite right to remind us all that the political consciousness of workers, though subject to radical changes, today is relatively conservative.

But, workers’ moods and attitudes are not uniform and as layers of workers try to cope with a prolonged stagnant economy and begin to move away from acceptance of the status quo, the presence of an organized left with a vision might make the difference between a snuffed out upsurge, or the continuation of momentum. In this connection, it’s tantalizing to speculate upon the impact that such an organized left with a vision might have had on the Teamsters Union and the nationwide UPS strike, led by then-Teamsters president Ron Carey.

Fletcher didn’t take up the nature of the present U.S. labor officialdom and its likelihood of self-reform. Clearly, the character of trade union bureaucratism and its strengths and weaknesses must underlie any program for turning the U.S. labor movement around. So too, there must be clarity on the political responsibilities of an organized labor left with a vision. In sharp distinction with the official politics of the labor officialdom, it must be understood that the palliatives unions sometimes win by backing capitalist politicians and parties are far outweighed by their costs. Certainly, the bipartisan rush to attack Afghanistan and Iraq, in order to secure oil and empire, recently reconfirmed that calculus.

Fletcher deserves a lot of credit for presenting his views on an organized labor left with an anti-capitalist vision at the Labor Notes conference, which has yet to take up the question of marshalling its united strength as a counterweight to organized labor’s bureaucratic degeneration; and, as well, a counterweight to labor’s political dependency on corporate America’s parties and politicians.

Fletcher mentioned that he had consulted with other union partisans, as he prepared his talk. That indicates that he is not alone in believing that the time has come for the labor left to organize itself into a coherent whole, dedicated to the proposition that organized labor needs a new vision.

For sure, many details will need to be debated and decided before labor’s left-wing is an organized force up to the job of presenting an alternative to the labor movement’s hardened bureaucratic officialdom. But hopefully, Bill Fletcher’s speech will kick-start a new movement to strengthen organized labor from the ground up.





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