The Spark

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

Rebuilding unions:
Changing politicians won't change the situation

Dec 15, 2003

The AFL-CIO leadership carried out some early-December rallies and demonstrations in major cities to call attention to the anti-labor attitude of the Bush administration and to put in an early plug for electing Democrats to office.

The AFL-CIO points to the great loss of jobs during the Bush administration, and also to employers' boldness in violating workers' rights to organize on the job. In New York state alone, last year, some 14,000 workers filed NLRB suits against employers who illegally interfered with organizing efforts. The AFL-CIO offers, as a solution, to elect Democrats to office so that the Democrats will better enforce the laws on the books, and pass stronger pro-worker laws.

If reality were this simple, of course, things would be lovely. Unfortunately, in the real world, the lessons of history are not on the AFL-CIO's side. Neither Democratic nor Republican administrations have ever widened workers' rights, except when forced to by workers' movements.

It was not FDR's good will, for instance, that caused his administration to legalize the rising new CIO unions. No, the workers during the l930s organized and fought their battles without the help of friendly laws or lawmakers. When the movement expanded in l937 into a wave of victorious sit-down strikes that swept the whole Midwest, only then did Congress and the president move to legalize certain forms of unionization – not to aid the workers, but to stop the sit-downs and gradually put the brakes on the movement.

Again after the second world war, no friendly politicians told employers they had to raise workers' pay to compensate for the wage freeze during the war. It took the largest strike wave in U.S. history to end the wartime wage controls and bring workers' standard of living up to reasonable levels. Only in the face of these mass struggles did employers and politicians alike give ground. Only by these means did workers win their unions, their pensions, and their standard of living.

When union leaders try to persuade workers to wait for the government's permission, they point workers into a blind alley.

Which Democratic administration, has ever come into office – with the help of union-organized votes – and then undone the anti-labor actions of previous administrations? Not a one. Mr. "I-feel-your-pain" Clinton did not reinstate the air traffic controllers fired under Reagan. Clinton, in fact, proposed an enormous 60 million dollar fine against the Mineworkers Union for carrying out a strike against Pittston Coal Company in 1989. After eight years of Democrat Clinton – four with also a Democratic Congress – neither workers nor their unions emerged stronger. Rather, their situation weakened even more.

If workers wait on politicians for help, then they will wait forever.