The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The Alternatives to Today’s Defeated Strikes:
Break the Isolation, Oppose the Union Leadership

Mar 31, 1985

In a number of recent articles, the Socialist Workers Party has portrayed the concessions being given up today by the unions more or less as a necessary product of the time period, or even as victories.

For example, the SWP characterized the settlement of a 15-day strike at Aetna Industries in the following way: “Overall, the settlement registered a significant victory for workers at Heavy Stamping, especially given the takeback demands the company had started out with.” (January 25, 1985 Militant.)

Aetna is a small company in the Detroit suburbs which supplies parts to the auto industry. The whole company has less than 900 workers, and this particular contract covered only 150 of them, those in the Heavy Stamping Division.

Like many other contracts today, it was a concession contract. The wage increases – 69¢ an hour, over three years – are not enough even to keep up with the current low rate of inflation, much less to catch up with the inflation which had accumulated over the past three years; and Aetna has no cost-of-living provision in its contract. Furthermore, the wages of all future new hires will be decreased by $1.50 an hour from the current starting pay, and the length of time before new hires will get up to the base rate was increased significantly. This is an important cutback at a company like Aetna which always runs with a high proportion of new hires – for example, almost half of the people working at Heavy Stamping at the time of the contract were workers without seniority. Finally, the sick time provisions were drastically cut: from two absences allowed a month, down to two allowed every six months.

Nevertheless, according to the SWP, “In an overall context of a weak union, poor working conditions, and pitiful wages, the workers at Heavy Stamping stood their ground, gained respect, and went back to work with a union that was stronger than it had been before.”

Ordinarily, the SWP does not go so far as to portray such a result as a victory. Nonetheless, a number of other articles written about recent strikes, even when more prudently expressed, share the view that, at the least, the concessions were a necessary evil.

For example, in the account given in the March 1, 1985, Militant of the settlement at A.P. Parts in Toledo, the SWP recounts concessions the workers there were forced to give up, after nine months of a bitter strike: $1.50 an hour wage cuts; two-year suspension of all cost-of-living payments, and then a ten cent cap on any c-o-l in the third year; elimination of incentive pay; almost a $2 an hour cut in the rates paid to new hires; fewer holidays, less vacation time, and lower vacation pay; suspensions of up to six months of the 21 workers fired during the strike; acceptance of the work rules instituted during the time of the strike when production was being run by scabs; reduction of the work force by one-third, and no immediate call-back of another third of the workers. In implicit justification of this settlement, the SWP tells of all the things the company used to try to break the strike – scabs, goon squads, cops, courts, threats to close the company, etc. And it indicates that the workers felt they had no choice. According to the SWP,

“At the ratification meeting, most workers said they were glad that the long strike battle was finally over. They felt that although the contract contains big concessions, it is not as bad as the conditions and wage cuts originally imposed by the company and that the union couldn’t hope to gain more by continuing the strike. One worker commenting on the contract, said ‘Well, it’s not like anything we had before, but I guess we’ll have to take it. I don’t know what would happen if we stayed out another six or nine months.’”

Of course, it’s understandable that after nine months of a bitterly fought strike the workers could feel that they have no choice except to go back, concessions or no concessions.

But it’s exactly for that reason that it’s even more important to examine the policy led by the union leadership; to see whether or not another policy could have been possible; to give the workers a way to see that, despite their current defeat, it is not impossible to fight, and even to win in this time period.

But this is precisely what the SWP does not do. In the long article about the A.P. Parts strike and settlement, there is not one question raised about the policy led by the UAW. In effect, the SWP endorsed the policy carried out by the UAW bureaucracy.

Even more so, since, according to them, in cases like these strikes, the main issue raised for the workers was to save the union, even if it meant giving up such concessions. For example, in the article about Aetna, this idea is given blatant expression: “At issue was saving the union. It was considered likely that if the strike continued, the company would resort to use of scab labor and other union-busting tactics. This is in fact what happened at the A.P. Parts plant in Toledo, where scabs have replaced UAW members who have been out on strike since May.” The same perspective finds expression in a headline in the March 15 Militant, “Pan Am workers strike to defend union.” This is apropos of a strike which workers have undertaken to restore concessions given in the last contract and to refuse new ones being asked by the company. And yet the focus of the article is exactly what the headline says – to save the union. This way of presenting the question does not differentiate the union from the bureaucracy.

For the workers, for whom organization is a means of defending their own interests, the union is not a goal, an end in itself. For the workers, the issue is raised differently. If saving the union means giving up concessions, then less and less will workers see a reason to have a union. In fact, among workers today beset by concessions, there is a commonly expressed view that if the unions go along with or are unable to oppose concessions, then maybe there is no reason to have a union.

This, however, is not the main issue. The main problem is to know whether the policy of the unions which led the strike was correct, whether another policy could have been possible.

The Policy of the Unions: Negotiations and Isolation

The policy of the unions in these strikes was essentially to call on the workers to put their hopes in the negotiations: the strike, the activities of the workers are important only insofar as they bring the company to the negotiating table. There was no attempt to call on the workers to organize themselves, to make the strike their own through their own daily activity. Just the opposite. Above all, there was no attempt to spread the strike, to gain the support of other workers.

At a place like Aetna, this is especially notable. Even though Aetna workers produce for auto, they are not organized together with those workers at the Big 3. The company itself is small, and each division is under a separate contract, with different expiration dates. The policy of the UAW was to take the 150 workers of the Heavy Stamping Division out alone. That is, the UAW took these 150 workers out, isolated from any support, exactly in the time period when the bourgeoisie has shown it is willing to take long bitter strikes by much larger numbers of workers, such as at Phelps Dodge, which today is in its 18th month of a strike; in the time period when workers with much greater economic leverage to be used against the bosses, such as the CWA against AT&T, find themselves unable to protect themselves.

The SWP points to this isolation, when explaining why, in their opinion, the Aetna workers had no choice but to accept a concessionary contract.

But this is exactly the point. Especially in such a time period, when every boss is seeking to protect his profits, through a frontal attack on the workers’ standard of living and working conditions, the problem is for the workers to find the way to break out of their isolation, that is, for them to extend their struggles to other workers.

There are certainly enormous numbers of workers whom could be addressed by the strikers at a company like Aetna. What Aetna took from the 150 Heavy Stamping workers is what it is in the process of taking from the rest of its work force. And Aetna is not the only company producing in auto, imposing such a contract. Those hundreds of thousands of workers in auto, even though many are much better paid than at Aetna, have also taken concessions, as have many other workers in the Detroit area.

Those workers who began the strike at Aetna Heavy Stamping Division could have been organized to go out every day to talk to workers at the other Aetna plants; at the GM and Chrysler plants right next door to Aetna, for which Aetna produces parts; at all the many hundreds of plants in a city like Detroit. They could have discussed with the other workers, saying to them, “our fight is also your fight”; showing them that all the workers have common enemies, that we all have a common interest in joining one common struggle, that we need to support each others’ struggles, and moreover we should all be together in the same struggle. They could have proposed joint action, hard actions which show that the workers are determined not to pay the cost for the bosses’ crisis; demonstrations, during which the workers invade the streets, the areas where the bosses frequent, making the bosses uncomfortably aware of the workers’ anger.

Of course, this is not to say that such a policy would have found a response from other workers. The working class as a whole – despite a few militant strikes here and there – remains apparently stunned by the ferocity of the bosses’ attack; most workers are not ready to fight for themselves, or at least not able to find the way to do it. In fact, each sector of the working class feels its own isolation, imprisoned within the perspective of the contractual system which spaces out the time for strikes, according to the various expiration dates of the various contracts.

At any rate, we have no idea what might have happened if such a policy had been proposed, for the simple reason that it wasn’t. There was no attempt on the part of the UAW to extend this strike beyond the 150 workers immediately involved. And what was true of the UAW’s policy at Aetna was true across the board, in every strike it has led; and what is true of the UAW is true of every union in the country. There is no attempt to use the strength of the working class as a whole, no attempt to call on support from other sections of the working class.

The one time the UAW did do this, at the very beginning of the A.P. Parts strike in Toledo, it quickly recoiled from what it had set in motion: a demonstration that attracted three thousand workers and forced the company to shut down its production for three days. That demonstration itself was very limited: the UAW simply asked for a show of support from other workers. It did not ask them to join the struggle. Even so, when it saw the response, the willingness of the workers who came out in support to battle against the cops, it called an end even to that kind of limited action. Despite scab production for nine more months, it never again put out another call like that.

The Role of Revolutionaries

If the working class is to defend itself in a period like today – even more, if it is to advance in its consciousness of its own historic role and possibilities – the workers must act together. They must find a common response to the bosses. They must feel directly the possibilities of their own forces and their own organized power.

The role of revolutionaries is to propose to the working class to go in this direction.

Maybe the revolutionaries are weak today, with little implantation and less influence in the working class. Maybe in most cases, there are no revolutionary militants in a plant, with sufficient ties and influence among the workers to be able to lead a different policy from that proposed by the bureaucrats. But even in this case, that does not mean that we should give our tacit approval to the policy carried out by the bureaucrats, it does not mean we should tail after them.

Obviously our main problem is to find the way to have revolutionary militants participate in the struggles of the working class, giving an alternative policy to that of the bureaucrats, opposing not only their policies, but also the methods they use to prevent the self-organization of the workers: fighting for the workers to decide things for themselves, to organize their own struggles, to construct their own organization.

If revolutionaries start from the fact of our weakness and from that derive a stance of not opposing the bureaucracy, even in the words we write, it amounts to giving up the possibility in advance of ever being able to do so. Certainly, words on a piece of paper are not the tools which allow revolutionary militants to oppose the bureaucrats and to carry out a different policy in the working class. But they show the direction in which we intend to go, the policy we want to lead.

Furthermore, it’s not necessarily true that even a small organization, smaller than the SWP even, could not find the way in a certain number of struggles to lead a different policy, if its militants had the perspective that this was their goal, and that to do this they had to oppose the policy of the bureaucracies. In fact, it’s in so doing that we have the possibility to escape our weakness, by putting forth a policy which is revolutionary, that is one which coincides with the interests of the working class.

Certainly, if the workers are not ready to fight, what we say, what we propose will not effect a struggle. But their readiness to fight can change very quickly. Revolutionary militants in their midst could quickly find themselves at the head of the workers’ struggles – if they continually probe to find out what the workers are ready to do, if they are able to propose a policy which corresponds to the requirements of the different struggles today. That is, if the revolutionary militants propose a policy which aims to break the isolation of each different strike, the isolation which has been the main reason so far for the defeats suffered by the workers.