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Date: Fri, 7 Mar 97 11:47:51 CST
From: scott@rednet.org (Peoples Weekly World)
Subject: Building left-center unity in labor
Organization: Scott Marshall
Article: 6906

Building left-center unity in labor: key task for Communists

By Roy Rydell, in People's Weekly World
8 March 1997

For Communists, working in the trade union movement today is quite different from what it was only a year and a half ago. Under the leadership of John J. Sweeney, the AFL-CIO is attempting to rid itself of the legacy of years of the class collaborationist policies foisted on the labor movement by George Meany and Lane Kirkland, both all-too- willing puppets of the ruling class.

For years Communists trade unionists often ran into a stone wall of trade union officials - they were not "leaders" - who squashed rank and file initiative and fight-back in order to carry out the generally reactionary line of the AFL-CIO leadership.

From the days of the expulsion of the left-led unions by forces led by CIO President Philip Murray, anti-Communism became the battle cry in every union where unity between Communists and other progressives, together with representatives of the political center, made possible the campaigns that organized mass production workers in basic industry.

When the attack on the left - it was not limited "only" to attacking Communists - began, that unity was the first casualty . The bosses had a field day as they played an open role in supporting the right wing section of the labor leadership, supported anti-Communist candidates in union elections and fingered Communists workers for the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the years that followed, organizing came to a stand-still, contract enforcement suffered and membership participation in the affairs of their unions steadily declined.

As the process of re-invigorating the labor movement unfolds, Communists have a special responsibility: rebuilding of that left-center unity under the conditions of today's challenges.

When the Meanys and Kirklands were running the AFL-CIO, rank and file movements emerged in many unions as defenders and advocates of workers' rights, on the job, in their unions and in the political-legislative arena.

It was the rank and file movements in auto and steel and outfits like Trade Unionists for Action and Democracy/Labor Today that gave expression to the workers' demands. These movements ran candidates for union office, put forward contract demands and, in general, worked to mobilize the union members in behalf of these demands when the Meanys and Kirklands sat on their hands. They emerged because of concrete circumstances and were proper forms for struggle, even though some groups fell into the trap of seeing union officers, rather than "the boss" as the main enemy of workers.

The demand for affirmative action, for an end to racist practices on the job and for representation in policy- making positions by Black trade unionists came from rank and file African American workers, and especially from the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. It was rank and file women trade unionists that initiated the struggles that gave rise to the formation of the Coalition of Labor Union Women and today's "Ask a Working Woman" campaign of the AFL-CIO.

This is not to say that rank and file movements - here meaning "from the bottom up" - are no longer necessary or productive. But the present AFL-CIO approach to organizing the unorganized, to "diversity, of community outreach and increased political independence creates new opportunities for working within the framework of the union.

Sweeney won the AFL-CIO elections because he was able to mobilize central labor councils in support of his reforms. These councils, that part of the AFL-CIO structure that is closest to the membership and, therefore, more responsive to their needs are key instrumentalities for putting the policies of national AFL-CIO into effect - and are equally important opportunities for building left-center unity.

It would be foolish to say that all prejudices against Communists have disappeared inside the trade unions. But anti-Communism has certainly diminished. In a recent report, Gus Hall, national chair of the Communist Party, made the point that many trade union leaders - especially those on the lower rungs of the leadership ladder are much more willing to work with Communists. Hall emphasized that while not yet ready to advocate socialism, they will join with Communists on most questions related to the class struggle.

The energies of Communist trade unionists should be directed towards recruiting our co-workers into the Party - and that can be facilitated if Communists are seen as being the best fighters in enforcing the contract, opposing racial and sexual discrimination and in building working class unity.

-Roy Rydell, a retired seaman and trade unionist from New York City, is a frequent contributor to the World.

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