The Spark

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

The Policy Led By the Unions

Jul 30, 1986

I. Up until now, the working class in the U.S. has not protected itself against the effects of the economic crisis and the bosses’ offensive: there has been a measurable decrease in the workers’ standard of living, both actual and relative to the bourgeoisie and other privileged layers of the population. Faced with the bosses’ offensive, the workers have not waged an effective response. Every available statistic gives evidence of the workers’ decreased combativity. Since 1977, there has been a steady downward trend in the number of strikes, in the number of strikers, and in the average duration of strikes.

It seems clear that many workers lack confidence in their own capacity to fight, at any rate, to fight successfully; and that they have the feeling that the working class can have no prospects in the current situation.

II. This skeptical feeling certainly is a result of the crisis itself, and of the effects of the long-term unemployment which weighs heavily on the whole working class, and especially on those now working. Even those workers who escaped the worst of the unemployment feel its weight when they decide whether to put themselves out in the street on strike; they can fear that tomorrow they, too, will find themselves on layoff.

Furthermore, the continued high level of unemployment combined with the bosses’ willingness to use scabs to break strikes raises the possibility that a strike will mean not only lost wages, but also a lost job. The example set by the government in the PATCO strike, when highly skilled technicians were fired and replaced despite the jeopardy to the safety of airline travel, still retains a currency in the working class today, four years later. And the PATCO example has been reinforced many times since: in almost every area of the country, there have been spectacular strikes which resulted in workers losing their jobs permanently. When workers today consider whether to accept one more round of concessions, those examples weigh in the balance.

III. The working class had come through the long period of post-war expansion not exactly prepared for the kind of fights required in a period of economic crisis and long-term stagnation like the current one. That post-war expansion, which was the expression of the triumph of U.S. imperialist domination over the rest of the world, had accustomed U.S. workers to expect a steady increase in their standard of living. It’s true, it often took a fight to force the American bourgeoisie to give over part of the increasing wealth to the working class. Nonetheless, it was a fight that the workers felt able to win. The expansion in general meant that the bosses were in need of production. Furthermore, they were also usually short of workers. This gave any group of workers, even a relatively small isolated one, some bargaining chips with which to enter the bosses’ poker game. If they were ready to withdraw their labor for some period of time, costing the bosses some production, they usually came out of their strike with noticeable improvements.

The crisis has changed all that. Surplus productive capacity has meant that the bosses can close down one plant, shift production to another, even shift their capital out of production into financial instruments or speculation. A strike, when it is confined to one group of workers, even a very combative determined group, is often an open invitation to the bosses to close down a whole plant, or even a whole company.

The workers are sensitive to this problem. But their corporatist habits, formed during the years when the imperialist expansion allowed U.S. workers to advance just by withholding their labor, are not those appropriate to dealing with it. Certainly, the awareness the workers have of their vulnerability when they fight alone could lead them to try to extend their struggles. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be uncommon today to hear workers discuss the fact that a strike would be stronger if it took in workers at other plants or even other companies. After the Chrysler strike last fall, which ended in more concessions, we heard questioning, for the first time in the plants in Detroit, of the UAW’s long-standing strategy of striking only one auto company at a time.

The difficulty is that the workers often don’t feel that it is possible to extend their strikes to other workers. It’s not their habit, it certainly is not the policy of the unions. And almost immediately, when the workers raise the question, they come up against all the legal and contractual prohibitions to generalizing their struggle, prohibitions which up until today have seemed like insurmountable barriers to most workers.

In that sense, the workers’ awareness of the need to spread their strikes – to the extent that the workers don’t also see the possibility to do so – can contribute to their feeling that it’s not possible to carry out a successful fight today. To the extent we can judge, it is skepticism which predominates among the workers today.

IV. The policies led by the unions have undoubtedly served to reinforce this feeling. In one fashion or another, in all the years since 1978, when the first major concessions were forced on the workers, the unions have generally argued that the workers had no other choice but to take the concessions.

In the depth of the 1979-82 recession, when profit margins were eroding, and many companies were showing actual losses, at least on their books, the unions openly argued that if the workers were to save their jobs they had to save the companies, that is, to take concessions. It was nothing more than a particular expression of the class collaborationist stance long held by the unions in this country: the idea that the workers have something in common with their bosses, that the well-being of the workers is tied to the well-being of the bosses. Even today, after three years of recovery – recovery in profits that is – the unions can still make the argument that it is necessary for the workers to help their own bosses become more competitive – with the Japanese, for example; or, as in the case of the Hormel workers in Austin, Minnesota, with other American bosses who pay lower wages.

When confronted by today’s profits which make such arguments difficult to sell, the unions now often simply plead... weakness: the bosses, despite their profits, are determined not to give up anything and are prepared to make a bitter fight; therefore, the workers can have no hope of carrying out a successful fight themselves. According to this line of reasoning, the possibility for the workers to defend themselves depends on the bosses’ forbearance. The list of defeated strikes becomes a weapon in the hands of union bureaucrats who can’t sell concessions in any other way.

At any rate, all these different arguments lead to one and the same conclusion: the workers should not fight at a time like this, a fight will only worsen their situation.

It’s difficult to say to what extent this position of the unions has had a decisive impact on the workers’ desire to fight – because it’s also true that the worker’s lack of willingness to undertake a fight can be what allows the union bureaucracies today to take such an open, blatant stand against the workers in defense of the bosses’ interests. At minimum, it’s certain that the fact the unions have argued for eight years now – in one form or another – for the necessity of the workers to take concessions reinforces the malaise and skepticism which exist today in the working class.

V. This is not to say that there haven’t been any determined fights at all, or that there haven’t been union officials willing to propose and lead such fights, despite the policies of the international union bureaucracies. The current fight of the Hormel workers in Austin, Minnesota, which has been going on for eight months now, certainly depended in part on the willingness of local union officers headed by Jim Guyette to defy the national union bureaucracy and lead a fight; just as the eight-week strike at General Dynamics depended in part on the willingness of James Coakley to propose a fight in opposition to the upper levels of the UAW bureaucracy. To greater or lesser degrees, the same can also be said about the cannery strike in Watsonville, California, or the earlier strikes at Bath Shipyards, Wheeling-Pitt or before that at A-P Parts in Toledo or Phelps Dodge.

For the most part, these fights were all tough, bitter, long ones, going far beyond the usual habits of the unions – at least, insofar as their militancy is concerned. The determination of those workers to fight is attested to by their willingness to stay out for long periods of time: eight months already at Hormel, five months at A-P Parts, over a year at Phelps Dodge, 22 weeks and 14 weeks at Bath Shipyards; 14 weeks at Wheeling-Pitt, eight weeks at General Dynamics. Their willingness to employ more radical means than the unions have been accustomed to use in the last four decades can be seen in the fights workers made against the cops or National Guard, their defiance of court orders and their attempts to appeal to other workers for support.

VI. Nonetheless, these fights have remained isolated. It’s true that union leaders like those at Hormel or Wheeling-Pitt or A-P Parts have called on other workers – to be more precise, on other unions – to give material aid and moral support to the strikers, even to respect the picket lines. In these cases, when the strikers themselves carried out militant actions, there was a favorable response from other workers, even actions in solidarity with the strikers. But was it possible to go beyond that? On this question, we have no way to know for sure, for the simple reason that those who have led the strikes up until now, even the most militant ones, have not led a policy which really attempted to spread the strike. Even when calling for demonstrations of solidarity by other workers, they stayed within the framework of a confrontation which opposed the workers to the bosses of a specific plant or company.

The result was that, even when other workers paid attention to a strike, even when concretely they gave it solidarity, the strike remained isolated in front of the bosses, who maintain all sorts of ways, formally and informally, of reinforcing each other.

VII. By any stretch of the imagination, those strikes already concluded have not seen victory, far from it. Either they were smashed outright, with the strikers losing their jobs and the union broken; or the strikers returned finally to work, forced to take the biggest share of the concessions they had refused months earlier.

VIII. Certainly, the current strike at Hormel, and others like it, are important. They show that there is a fraction of the working class today ready to make a fight, despite the difficulty of the current situation, and despite the general mood of demoralization in the working class. Such fights – given their militancy, their determination, their willingness to break the rules – can give a new morale to the working class, even when they are defeated. It is not simply the likelihood of success which brings the masses to fight; it can also be their desire to take their own fate in their own hands, to rely on their own fighting capacities. Strikes like those at Hormel, regardless of the outcome, present a picture to other workers of their own ability to fight, a picture different than what has been held in front of them for years.

But having said this is not the same thing as expecting these fights automatically to open the door to a wider struggle of the working class. There is no such automatism. And, furthermore, a defeated militant strike also carries with it the possibility of weighing on the morale of the workers, for the simple reason that it seems to demonstrate that even a militant fight is not sufficient, particularly when there is nothing which makes clear what was missing in such a fight.

IX. Experience, if its lessons are not drawn explicitly, is not enough, contrary to what many leftists seem to believe. Those leading today’s militant strikes will not automatically tomorrow become class-conscious leaders of a movement of the whole working class, all as the result of their experience in the current strikes. There is no automatic progression which brings union militants – even devoted, honest ones with a determination to fight – to raise the question of how to conduct their fight from the standpoint of the interests of the whole working class, any more than revolution is just reform taken a few more steps.

The whole training of unionist militants, all their assumptions start not from the standpoint of the working class, nor of the class struggle, but from the corporatist interests of their own sector. Even when the situation forces them to look beyond their own immediate sector, what they look to is the union movement. Union militants like Guyette and Coakley, to the extent they aren’t today being pushed to do more than they want anyway, see that the problem lies in the sorry state of the unions today.

X. If the working class today is to be able to defend itself, it will have to be on the basis of a different policy – not just a slightly more advanced one – a policy qualitatively different from that proposed today by Guyette or Coakley, a policy that in fact only revolutionaries will propose. Revolutionary militants are the only ones who base themselves on the struggle of the whole working class against the capitalist class; they are the only ones whose goal, that is, the social overturn of bourgeois society, requires the extension and unification of all the struggles of the working class. That is why, in a period where the only way for the working class to succeed is to extend their struggles, the revolutionary policy is the only one which is completely in accord with the situation, even with the immediate interests of the working class.

XI. Workers like those who are today fighting with such determination at places like Hormel could be won to follow another policy, under the condition that someone is there with them to propose that policy; that is, under the condition that there are revolutionary militants among them, able to propose this policy to them – not only to the union, not only to those who today lead the struggles, but to the workers themselves.

It’s why revolutionaries have to try to implant themselves in the working class; why we have to direct all our efforts, even when there is no struggle, toward the working class, toward the plants. We have to win the respect and the sympathy of the working class as much as possible, so that we have the possibility to contest with the union officials – even with those like Coakley and Guyette who lead fighting strikes – for the leadership of the workers’ struggles. And, of course, we have to be willing to contest with them.

Moreover, it’s by openly opposing our policy to that of the bureaucrats, that we can have a chance to win over those officials who are honest and really on the side of the workers.

XII. Today, the policy of most of the left, in the face of strikes like the ones at Hormel or Watsonville, seems to consist of, at best, providing legal support, organizing material aid for those on strike, etc., more commonly acting like cheerleaders. In fact, this all reduces to being the helpmates of the bureaucrats.

Certainly it is correct and it is necessary to be in solidarity with those who are fighting. But for revolutionaries to remain on this level is the way for them never to put themselves in the position to be able to propose their own policy, nor to propose themselves as leaders of the working class, in opposition to those leading the struggles today.

XIII. The problem that is raised in front of us is not different that the one that has been in front of us for more than 50 years now: the revolutionaries must find the way to establish and build up a revolutionary current in the working class.

We must recruit sufficient numbers of workers to revolutionary politics, forming them as conscious militants of their own class, able to lead its struggles. Without such militants, there will be no party. We must find the means to put revolutionary ideas in front of all the workers. Our audience must be the whole working class, not just those active in the unions, which represent only a tiny fraction of the working class.

We must direct our work essentially to the proletariat, and we have to give this work priority, because it is only in this milieu, in the heart of the working class, in the industrial proletariat, that a revolutionary proletarian party can be built.