The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

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

Once again, the AFL-CIO Asks the Working Class to Look to the Democratic Party

Jan 31, 1982

The AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor - Congress of Industrial Organizations) held its latest convention in mid-November of last year. The federation delegates discussed the deepening economic crisis, with its accompanying high unemployment. They attacked David Stockman’s program of cutbacks that put the burden of the crisis squarely on the backs of the working class and the poor. And they denounced the Reagan administration’s anti-labor stance, exemplified by the firing of the 11, 500 members of PATCO.

At the convention, the leaders of the AFL-CIO pledged to defend the unions and the working class against these attacks. But they raised the problem that the defense cannot be carried on in isolated fashion, company by company. Doug Fraser, president of the UAW (United Auto Workers), said at the convention, “We will not and we cannot recover from the depression in the auto industry unless we change the economic policy of the administration.” They came back to the point that the labor movement must find political means of responding.

We agree that the workers face problems which go beyond the individual factories and individual industries of the trade union structure, and that is even more true today with the economic crisis. The working class needs to mobilize as a whole class. And it needs to intervene on the political level to challenge the overall policies of the government.

But the question remains as to what kind of political action. The AFL-CIO proposed to direct its energy toward preparing for the next national elections. For example, it even designated them as “Solidarity Day II.” Concretely, it examined ways to increase its influence in and support of the Democratic Party.

Lane Kirkland, the president of the AFL-CIO, made the position of the federation very clear in an interview with the New York Times at the time of the convention. “We’ve enhanced, expanded our participation role – and I think the effectiveness of our role – in the Democratic Party. We have offered those same good offices to the Republican Party, but I’ve not been struck by their enthusiasm.”

What the AFL-CIO is proposing to do represents certain changes in at least the official stance of the AFL-CIO toward the political parties. Previously, on the formal level if nowhere else, the AFL-CIO did not endorse a political party ahead of the candidate selections, nor did it back a particular candidate in the primary elections. More important, with the exception of a few

unions like the UAW, the AFL-CIO did not enter directly into the structure of the Democratic Party. Of course, legally, the unions as such cannot enter the political parties, but also, they did not push to integrate their people so much into the party apparatus.

The new perspective envisions that the AFL-CIO will commit many more resources to the Democratic Party, and that it will have its own people working more inside the Democratic Party to determine candidate selection and policies. As some of the speakers at Solidarity Day alluded to, they want to get their money’s worth back from their investment in the Democratic Party. They want to play a leading role in it. At both the convention and Solidarity Day, speakers indicated they believed the Democratic Party had not been responsive to labor because the unions did not control it.

To what extent the AFL-CIO will be able to integrate itself more into the Democratic Party remains to be seen. But putting this question aside, what can we expect even if they do succeed? Will this kind of political action provide a defense for the working class against the government attacks?

Can Old Dogs Learn New Tricks?

Although the discussion at the AFL-CIO convention ignored it, an example of what the AFL-CIO is proposing already exists in the state of Michigan. And that example gives some idea of what the working class might expect.

Beginning as far back as the 1940s, the UAW, entered and played a role inside the apparatus of the Democratic Party. Because of the massive concentration of the union’s membership in one geographic area, the UAW has been able to play a leading role for years.

In the mid-1960s, a study that was done showed that the UAW in Detroit alone had 500 local union members working through CAP in fund raising and other activities for the Democratic Party. In addition, there were 5 to 10 UAW staff members assigned to work in each party district as coordinators. UAW members acted as district chairmen and as party officials. As a result of this activity, the UAW controlled 73 per cent of the precinct leadership positions. This in turn, gave the UAW the majority of the delegates at the state Democratic Party conventions. There is nothing to indicate that the situation has changed appreciably since the study was done.

The UAW endorses candidates for the primary. Besides lending its support to the candidate, an endorsement can mean access to the local union structure of the UAW for campaigning. It can mean skilled union staff to manage campaigns, office secretaries, UAW-

sponsored media exposure, as well as other additional finances. The UAW is the highest single contributor to the Democratic Party in Michigan. The result of all this is that the UAW has a powerful means to keep the Democratic Party politicians in check.

If there ever was a situation where the unions should be able to control the Democratic Party, to make it responsive to the needs of the workers, it should be in Michigan.

Yet today, what do we see in Michigan? This Democratic Party, supposedly controlled by the UAW, has led the attacks on the workers to protect the interests of the capitalists – just as takes place in other states. Some of these attacks were carried out with the support of the UAW, such as granting General Motors a 200 million dollar loan and a 125 million-dollar tax break. This money was used to level the homes of 3500 people in Poletown, many of them UAW members, for a plant that may never be built. But even where the UAW opposed certain actions, the cut backs have taken place anyway. The most recent example was with a new system of worker’s compensation that will save the capitalists millions by taking it out of the health, safety, and incomes of the workers. In addition to all its normal lobbying, the union organized a demonstration at the state capital. And when it appeared likely that the bill would pass, even through the Democratic-controlled legislature, the UAW began to publicly threaten the Democratic politicians who were supporting the bill. Yet despite all this, the bill passed.

Even when they are in the position to control the machinery of the Democratic Party, the UAW doesn’t demand that the Democrats serve the workers. No wonder that the AFL-CIO never refers to the example of the UAW in Michigan. The situation there shows very clearly that the political action of the AFL-CIO has proposed for the working class is a dead end.

But then, we could have seen the same thing by looking at the politicians the federation proposes as the leaders of the supposedly new Democratic Party. The candidates they propose for office are the same old politicians as before. The AFL-CIO paraded its preferred candidates for 1984, Kennedy and Mondale, as the convention keynote speakers.

They must hope that the working class has already forgotten that Mondale, along with Carter, another “Democratic friend of labor,” headed the Democratic Party Administration between 1976 and 1980. Kennedy was the architect of the new criminal code which not only legalizes many repressive actions of the government against individual liberties, but also contains many further restrictions on the unions themselves and on organizing activities of the workers. Kennedy and Mondale are both politicians who have long records of service, service for the bourgeoisie.

Yet it is for these same old bourgeois politicians that the AFL-CIO convention urges union members and their allies to “mobilize” and “march to the polls in unprecedented numbers.” It is for these politicians that the convention committed an additional 6.5 million

dollars a year from new dues assessments on member unions. And more important for these politicians, the AFL-CIO has also committed its troops to do the legwork. From the local to the

national level, the AFL-CIO plans to strengthen the Democratic Party structure through voter registration drives and then through election campaigning.

Who Will Benefit?

The political action proposed by the AFL-CIO holds out benefits for certain groups of people. First of all, it will aid that section of the Democratic Party that had maintained its ties with the trade union movement, the Kennedy’s and the Mondale’s, and place them up front as its leading candidates for office.

Beyond this, the Democratic Party as a whole stands to gain as well. Today the Democratic Party has a problem which stands in the way of its return to power on a national level. In recent years, the Democratic Party has been less and less able to turn out a working class vote. In 1980, it reached its worst point so far: all indications are that well over half of the working class saw little difference between the parties and simply abstained. And without a certain regular participation by the working class, the Democrats will lose to the Republicans who regularly turn out the petty-bourgeoisie, the professionals, the most skilled layers of the working class, and the technicians.

If the Democrats are to win future elections, they have to convince the working class somehow that they are a real alternative to the Republicans, even though on the level of political program they have nothing different to propose. The AFL-CIO is giving to the Democrats a ready-made excuse for their poor performance in the past. The bureaucrats can say, now that we are there, the Democratic Party will change and become our party. The Democratic Party can hope to trade on this idea and Reagan’s performance to once again turn out votes from the working class.

Finally, there are the union officials and staffers who also could become beneficiaries of the AFL-CIO’s entrance into the Democratic Party. Today, because the economic crisis has cost some unions hundreds and thousands of dues-paying members, these unions will have to cut back on the number of people on the union payroll. Perhaps a number of those who are cut could slide over into paid positions within the Democratic Party. Organizers, functionaries, and staffers are needed in this bureaucracy as well. And there are always the political and governmental jobs that can be opened up.

The Working Class Needs a Party – but It Needs a Workers Party

The Democratic Party politicians and the union apparatuses may benefit from this plan, but above all it will serve the bourgeoisie. One more time the union bureaucracy is looking for

the means to tie the working class to the Democratic Party, to prevent it from fighting in its own interests.

If we had any doubt that this is a proposal designed to serve the bourgeoisie, all we need to do is look at the policy the AFL-CIO is proposing for this rejuvenated party.

They talked about the need to restore some of the budget cuts, such as the extended

unemployment benefits and some of the federal job training programs. (Where the jobs would be for the 9 million retrained unemployed workers is never stated.) But they accept the need for the cuts in other social programs. They did not challenge the huge military outlays. They called for loan guarantees – for the corporations. And they want to see continued tax cuts for the corporations, but at a slightly lower rate. In fact, with one important exception, it is the old program of the old Democratic Party. And that exception is their call for import restrictions, something which even the unions themselves used to recognize would not save jobs.

These are the policies the Democrats implemented while in office from 1976 to 1980. During those 4 years, the program of the Democrats did nothing to reverse the economic crisis – just the opposite, they helped to aggravate it. More important, the Democrats’ program protected the interests of the bourgeoisie at the expense of the wages, benefits, and working conditions of the working class.

What the AFL-CIO does today on the political level is what they have been doing all along on the economic level. In a certain sense these proposals serve to mask what the union bureaucrats have done. No matter that the bureaucracies have imposed sacrifices on the workers. No matter that contract after contract has been renegotiated; no matter the long string of concessions by the unions in auto, steel, rubber, railroads, airlines, and elsewhere. The union officials tell us they couldn’t avoid it because of the political situation.

So this new proposal of theirs is first of all an excuse for what they have already done to the workers. But in the more basic sense, the two things are two sides of the same coin; the bureaucrats tie the workers to the bourgeoisie through the unions, and then through the Democratic Party.

The proposals made by the leadership of the AFL-CIO are not at all a way to initiate nor reinforce the struggles of the working class. No wonder, since this bureaucracy does not prepare to organize and struggle, not even on the economic level, not even the traditional struggles that

the unions are supposed to lead. In no way will such bureaucrats propose a real political struggle to the working class, a struggle which requires more effort and more willingness to oppose the bourgeoisie.

Nonetheless, the working class needs to enter the political field. But it needs to do it

under its own banners: it needs to organize struggles with its own party, for its own program. For the working class to do this, it can’t count on union bureaucrats who today are not even willing or able to defend the contracts they themselves negotiated in the past.