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

The Unions:
Creations of the Workers, Tools of the Bourgeoisie

Jan 31, 1982

Up until the 1930s, the American bourgeoisie was unwilling to concede the right to unskilled workers to form industrial unions. In fact, the American bourgeoisie had been slow to grant rights to any workers, combining the use of judicial injunction with a high level of legal and extra legal violence to prevent all attempts at organization.

It was not until the strike movement of 1884-86 for the 8-hour day that the American bourgeoisie first really accepted trade unions even for the skilled workers. But during the very years when the bourgeoisie was coming to terms with the AFL, it was smashing several attempts of the unskilled workers to organize. The most important among these were the Knights of Labor, the American Railway Union and the IWW.

Representatives of the bourgeoisie openly proclaimed their unwillingness to change this position. For example, in 1901, the chairman of the U.S. Steel trust, Judge Gary, said, “We are unalterably opposed to any extension of union labor.” In a 1921 meeting, 22 state manufacturer’s associations pledged not to enter any agreement with a labor union. And in that same year, the U.S. Attorney General, Harry Daugherty, expressed the government’s backing of this attitude: “So long, and to the extent that I can speak for the government of the United States, I will use the power of the government within my control to prevent the labor unions of this country from destroying the open shop.”

This was the historic position of the American bourgeoisie.

And yet within a few short years, by the mid 1930s, the bourgeoisie was changing its position, making an almost 180° turn. It accepted what it had never accepted before, industrial unions and the organization of the unskilled; moreover, it eventually gave the new unions a place in bourgeois society, and even a certain encouragement.

What was the reason for and the significance of this change?

The Rise of the CIO

Despite its court injunctions, police, National Guard and army, the bourgeoisie in the 1930s found itself face to face with a powerful mobilization of the working class. This movement began in the depths of the depression, when unemployment had reached its worst level.

The year 1932 saw two important demonstrations marking the desperation of the unemployed, one at Ford’s River Rouge complex near Detroit, the other at the White House. Both were beaten back violently, but they left their imprint on the unemployed who began to create organizations, and who were mobilizing to stop evictions and to demand food and relief.

In 1933, more than one million workers went on strike. The most important of these were in auto. Despite the fact that the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 and Section 7A of the NRA of 1933 both already had supposedly given workers the right to organize, these strikes were bitterly opposed by most of the bourgeoisie. Since each individual strike was isolated, the workers were defeated. But the workers’ mobilization did not end. Strikes followed on strikes and began to generate support and solidarity from workers not directly implicated in the fight. In the most important strikes of 1934, in Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco, other sections of the working population and the unemployed actively mobilized to support the strikers. In the winter of 1936, the rubber workers in Akron initiated the wave of sit-downs, that is, a strike wherein workers occupied the property of the capitalists. These sit-downs began to spread to other industries. The most important sit-downs, in Flint and Detroit, mobilized massive support throughout the Midwest, and shook the auto industry, not to mention part of the steel industry, which hurried to negotiate BEFORE its mills were occupied. It was the turning point of the struggle for industrial unions. From the end of 1935 to the end of 1937, the CIO increased from 900,000 to 3,720,000 and the AFL went from 2,600,000 to 3,600,000 with most of this latter increase in industrial unions also.

The 1930s saw the workers engage in a real social struggle against the bourgeoisie. The workers created organizations appropriate to their struggles, whether it was the flying squadrons of pickets to defend their strikes, or the Women’s Emergency Brigade in Flint, both of which became the workers’ answer to the bourgeoisie’s National Guard, private goons and, in some cases, police. Factory committees organized the daily life in the factory among the workers who occupied them; organizations founded by the unemployed protected them against evictions and began to demand relief.

Given this movement, the bourgeoisie and its political representatives were faced with a choice. They could continue to try to crush the workers’ movement. And certainly, at least in the early years of the struggle this was the choice made by most of the capitalists, even if a few politicians already were proposing a different policy. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, in the last six months of 1933, “More than 15 strikers have been killed, 200 injured and hundreds arrested since July 1. More than 40 injunctions of sweeping character have been issued .... Troops have been called out in half a dozen strike districts. Criminal syndicalist charges are being used against the active strike leaders.”

But in the face of the growing mobilization of the working class, the bourgeoisie would have had to use even more force than they had used before, entailing a significant risk. For example, if they had tried to use troops in Flint to evict the workers from the plants, they might have succeeded in breaking the strike, but they might just as well have succeeded in setting off revolts and riots across the midwestern industrial belt. There was revolutionary potential implicit in the movement for the CIO. Was continuing violent suppression the answer? An important section of the bourgeoisie, represented in the government by Roosevelt, thought not. And as the workers’ movement continued, their view prevailed among the bourgeoisie. Certainly not all capitalists acquiesced in this position: witness the Little Steel holdout, or Ford’s rearguard action against the UAW, both as late as 1941. But the bourgeoisie as a class had taken a different position. As the U.S. entry into World War II grew nearer, the bourgeois state moved to bring these recalcitrant capitalists in line.

The Bourgeoisie Sought a Different Type of Cop

If the bourgeoisie decided to accept the unions that had been created by the workers, it was in part because the bourgeoisie could see in these organizations the possibility for reining in the mobilization of the working class. But if the unions were to be used in this way, a bureaucracy must be reinforced, or created, within the workers’ own organizations. The bourgeoisie began to address the problem of taking these new unions out of the hands of the workers who had created them.

Where it could, the bourgeoisie recognized an already existing bureaucracy, such as the AFL bureaucrats who founded the original Committee on Industrial Organization, or those officials of the mine workers who constituted themselves as the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. Where this was not possible, as with those unions more popularly organized, the bourgeoisie sought to bypass the workers when it sat down to talk. So it was with John L. Lewis that the heads of General Motors concluded the talks ending the Flint sit-down.

As early as the first contracts, the companies agreed to pay this bureaucracy directly by paying for its officials in the workplaces. The companies even went so far, starting in 1941, as to collect the workers’ dues money for the union apparatus, to assure that this apparatus could function independently of the workers.

An entire layer was created, made up sometimes of hundreds of workers within a single plant, and of thousands of workers within the working class, which began to separate itself out of the working class. It was a privilege in many ways to be paid as a union official, to meet with the company, to represent the workers. Even when union representatives were not paid more than other workers and often they were paid more their job was different and they had a more desirable status. Their interests became tied to their positions: they wanted to keep their positions and make their jobs more secure and desirable. This bureaucracy became dependent on, and therefore tied to, the bourgeoisie which provided its privileges. Over the years, this union apparatus has been able to take itself out from under the control of the workers. Today union officials are either appointed by the bureaucracy or they are elected for fixed terms, during which time it is virtually impossible for workers to remove them.

The symbol of this bureaucracy has been its upper layers, who do not live like workers at all, but rather like upper layers of the professions or even like lower levels of the bourgeoisie itself, due to its high incomes. Today, 14 top union leaders each earn more than $100,000 a year in salary and allowances; the top salary goes to Roy Williams of the Teamsters, who gets $225,000 a year, plus expense money which is more than double his income. Even in the good old days of the union movement, its most important leader, John L. Lewis, was driven around in a chauffeured Cadillac and lived like a country squire.

These union bureaucrats are integrated into the social life of the bourgeoisie. Lane Kirkland is good friends with Irving Shapiro, the former chairman of Du Pont, despite the fact that Du Pont is fighting union organizing drives in 15 of its plants. When does Doug Fraser NOT appear with Henry Ford or Lee Iacocca or the Fishers at social events in Detroit?

Most importantly, these union bureaucrats are integrated into the bourgeoisie’s state apparatus, both formally and informally. While it may have been shocking to some that Doug Fraser received a seat on Chrysler’s Board for Directors, others knew that top union officials have sat on many government boards. The mark of their integration is that they sit in the chambers of the politicians when decisions are made.

Crumbs in Exchange for Social Peace

Certainly to justify itself to the working class, this bureaucracy must produce at least part of what the workers want. And it did. The bureaucracy was able to take credit for a number of gains which were the result of other factors. For example, over a period of years starting in the late 1930s, the workers’ standard of living rose; the standard of living for unionized workers rose even more. This was true as far as wages were concerned and also for such benefits as health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick pay. In addition, the union bureaucracy took credit for the social legislation that spelled gains for the working class, including social security, unemployment insurance and minimum wages. Even if these gains were not all that the bureaucrats claimed, they were in some ways substantial gains.

Of course, these concessions were made first of all because the American bourgeoisie could well afford to make them, and second because the workers fought for them. Even before World War II, U.S. imperialism was the strongest economic power in the world. It had already expanded its investments into South America, Europe and Asia. But after World War II, its position was pre-eminent. U.S. imperialism emerged from that war the strongest power in the world, dominating the world economy. The wealth it stole from peoples around the world gave it the possibility easily to make some concessions to American workers, if it felt the need to do so.

But these concessions were not given to workers freely. They were won by workers above all because the working class had shown its willingness to fight over a long period of time. (And, we might add, a bourgeoisie which gave these concessions when workers were fighting today takes back these concessions because workers are not fighting.) Even though the bourgeoisie gave these concessions because of the workers’ mobilization, it gave them through negotiations with the bureaucrats. In this way, the bourgeoisie helped to reinforce the position of the bureaucrats within the unions. The crumbs from the banquet table of the bourgeoisie helped give the union bureaucracy its much needed influence over the workers.

The bureaucracy made itself the substitute for the workers’ independent activity, thereby integrating the unions into the bourgeois state apparatus.

From the beginning, the bureaucracy tried to convince workers to look to that state as the guarantor of their organizations, to look to Section 7A and then to the Wagner Act as the source of the unions’ legitimacy. It was implied in the organizing slogan of the United Mine Workers: “The President wants you to organize.”

It was implied in the resolution of the Ford conflict. After GM and Chrysler had accepted the union, it took four more years of struggle for Ford workers to gain unionization, despite the existence of the Wagner Act. Their struggle culminated in a massive strike organized against the bureaucracy’s wishes. It was this strike which shut down the Rouge, for the first time ever, that brought Ford to his knees. Yet, when the strike was triumphant, the bureaucracy agreed in the name of the workers to the government’s proposal to submit the matter of the union to an NLRB-conducted election. The election of course ratified what the strike had made obvious: workers had a union. But this resort to an NLRB election gave workers the illusion that the help of the state was necessary.

The Wagner Act was the first important legal expression of the fiction that the state is a neutral arbiter between the competing, but supposedly not hostile, claims of the workers and of the employers. Following on Wagner was all the subsequent legislation which furnished the government with a legal entitlement to intervene in and monitor the unions.

Again, from the beginning, it was the bureaucracy who proposed the contract as the goal to the workers. When the workers demanded that the capitalists recognize their union, the bureaucrats proposed to sign a contract with the bourgeoisie, incorporating not only union recognition, but also obligations. The company had obligations binding upon it, in terms of pay, benefits, working conditions, job classifications, and union representation. These were the sweeteners to get workers to impose on themselves certain obligations: above all, to accept the company’s right to direct the business solely as it sees fit. If the company did not meet its obligations, the workers had recourse only to the increasingly lengthy grievance procedure. In some very limited cases this grievance procedure contained the right to strike, but in such a carefully regulated way, that for all practical purposes, the workers had no recourse to any weapon during the course of the contract if they accepted what they had agreed to in the contract.

Today the grievance procedure limits almost completely the workers’ freedom of action, and substitutes a union apparatus to act for them. Almost as soon as the struggles of the working class built the unions, the desire of the working class to continue struggling was channeled into a more or less regulated letting-off-steam process. The contracts established a pattern for strikes, which would be allowed only at certain biennial or triennial periods.

In the decades following, although the number of strikes actually increased, they did not threaten the bourgeoisie in the same way. Either the strikes were channeled into legal procedures or the bureaucracy was used to break wildcat strikes. The one exception to this came during the strike wave of 1946, but by that time the bureaucracy was so strong in the major unions that it could rather easily purge the unions of militants during the subsequent McCarthy witch hunts. Of course, the bureaucracy was aided in this witch hunt by massive state intervention in all aspects of life during these years.

Certainly strikes are sometimes disruptive to the bourgeoisie, but all in all the activity of the working class has been well integrated into the orderly functioning of the economy. The bourgeoisie had bought itself the kind of labor peace it wanted to carry on its affairs.

Transmission Belt for the Policy of the Bourgeoisie

Not only had the bourgeoisie found labor peace, it had also found in the union apparatus a support for its policies during political and economic crises. It was the bureaucracy which systematically defended the policy of the bourgeoisie within the working class.

When the American bourgeoisie went to war, or rather sent the workers to battle to defend the bourgeoisie’s interests, it was the union apparatus which convinced workers to continue to follow the bourgeoisie’s orders. Immediately after Roosevelt led the United States into World War II, the leaders of the CIO not only pledged their support for the war, but they also pledged their willingness to impose economic sacrifice on the workers for the war effort. This included acceptance of both a wage freeze and a no-strike pledge. In order to aid U.S. imperialism to fight for control of the world, the union bureaucracy enthusiastically agreed to police the working class. The role it played in World War II in and of itself more than justified the recognition the bourgeoisie had given to this bureaucracy during the 1930s.

After World War II came the Cold War, the Korean War, the Viet Nam War, and a host of little “police” actions. In each case, the bureaucracy took the position that what was good for U.S. imperialism was good for the working class. Only very late in the Viet Nam War, when sections of the bourgeoisie itself had begun to question the wisdom of that war, did any section of the bureaucracy oppose the war.

And what was true abroad was just as true domestically, as far as the policies of the bourgeoisie were concerned. During the struggles of black people in this country, when a section of the working class was fighting against the discrimination and violence it faced, what did the union bureaucracy do? With minor exceptions, nothing. A part of the bureaucrats stayed on the sidelines and did nothing to support the black movement, except for a few words of encouragement. The other section of the bureaucracy fought actively against the black movement.

Today the bourgeoisie has a severe economic crisis on its hands. To protect its profits, the bourgeoisie has called on the working class to make the necessary sacrifices. The working class has already taken the brunt of the chronic inflation and the unemployment without any union response. Now in industry after industry the bourgeoisie is forcing through cuts and removing even the protections the working class had won in the past. The bourgeoisie uses the bureaucracy to force through these cuts, to act as its cop in the working class while it dismantles the past decades of gains workers had won.

For the bourgeoisie, there is no question but that the bureaucracy will toe the line, will enforce the cuts on the workers. If the bureaucracy balks at this command, the bourgeoisie threatens to carry out a war against it, as illustrated by the PATCO strike. The leadership of PATCO had originally opposed the strike and delayed it for two months, giving the government time to prepare. Yet finally the leadership of PATCO went along with the determination of the controllers to fight. For the government, even this was intolerable. Today it is out to break PATCO, to make an example to the other bureaucrats of what happens if a union decides to disobey the government in these times.

The PATCO strike is an example of where the policy of the bureaucrats has led the workers. When workers accept the fiction that they can have a union only when the government extends its recognition, the workers morally give a weapon to the government. When the government wants to discipline a section of the working class, it can withhold its recognition or withdraw its recognition from their union.

During the good times, the union bureaucracy was able to play a double role. It had to discipline the working class, but at the same time it was allowed to dole out a few crumbs, sometimes substantial ones. But today, in the current economic crisis, the bureaucracy has only one role in society: police force for the bourgeoisie.

Today if the working class does not want to be more and more exploited and eventually lose all it won in the past through struggle, it must prepare itself to fight. It will have to create an organization, ready to intervene not only on the economic level but also on the political.

Will that organization be the old unions? Will it be new unions which the working class builds to replace the old ones, as the workers in the 1930s replaced the AFL by the CIO? Will it be an organization different than the unions? The working class might fight within any of these frameworks, but one thing is constant: in order to fight, the working class will have to oppose this current bureaucracy and get rid of it.

And if it doesn’t want to repeat the experiences of the CIO, that is, to build an organization only to have it taken over by a bureaucracy, the working class will have to keep itself organized. More importantly, the working class will have to have a different goal this time: not to compromise with the old society but to destroy it and replace it with a society created by the working class. Finally, it means the working class must do more than just build a union.

Reprinted from Class Struggle #8

January, 1982