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Date: Mon, 13 Nov 1995 11:03:52 -0500
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Subject: Spartacists: AFL-CIO Convention and Labor
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From: NY Spartacist <address withheld by request>

AFL-CIO Convention: Recycling the Sellouts; Labor Traitors vs. Class Struggle

In The Spartacist
13 November 1995

The top officialdom of the AFL-CIO met last week to pick a new president in the first contested presidential election in the labor federation in a century. But amid the atmosphere of a power fight, the "house of labor" they preside over is burning. The state of the unions is far worse than a crisis--it's a disaster. Workers, minorities and the poor are suffering an all-sided assault on their rights and living conditions. And the responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the American labor bureaucracy whose hand-picked delegates assembled under the chandeliers of the New York Sheraton.

The last two decades have seen the elimination of millions of union jobs and a huge collapse of real wages and working conditions--hitting black and immigrant workers hardest. Unions now represent 15.5 percent of the workforce (compared to 35 percent in the mid-1950s), and less than 11 percent of workers in private industry. This massive destruction of labor gains and gutting of the unions is the legacy of a labor bureaucracy which was imposed in the anti-Communist purge of the late 1940s and entrenched during the decades of the anti-Soviet Cold War. As their actions have shown, this parasitic layer doesn't defend the interests of the workers but those of the capitalist class it loyally serves.

At the Sheraton, following some frenetic last-minute horse- trading in the plush suites, a majority voted for John Sweeney, whose slate proclaimed itself a "New Voice for American Workers." His opponent, Tom Donahue, lost mainly because he was so hopelessly compromised as the second-in-command under Lane Kirkland that he couldn't even provide the illusion of change. A shake-up has been in the works since last February's AFL-CIO retreat in Bal Harbour--where strikers from labor's central Illinois "war zone" crashed the bureaucrats' party. Bemoaning their lack of clout in Washington and their declining dues base, a section of the federation's top brass got together there to plot a palace revolt. They were able to ease Kirkland into retirement in August, and now the "New Voice" bunch has taken over, with United Mine Workers (UMW) chief Richard Trumka as secretary-treasurer and AFSCME official Linda Chavez-Thompson elected to a newly created post of executive vice president.

Sweeney has promised "change," warning that the union movement was sliding into "irrelevance." But no less than his rival Donahue, he too is part of the AFL-CIO "old guard." In fact, the final vote was determined by a deal in which Donahue supporters kept almost half the seats on an expanded executive council. The styles are different: Donahue supporters on the third floor of the Sheraton were recognizable by their expensive suits, while Sweeney's troops in the basement sported red T- shirts. They have tactical differences, reflecting their bases of support: Sweeney likes to sit down on bridges, as his SEIU "Justice for Janitors" campaign has done in Washington, while Donahue--much of whose support comes from the building trades, as well as die-hard anti-Communists in the teachers and Communications Workers--talks of building bridges. But their fundamental program is the same: they act as political police of the capitalist class within the labor movement.

This is shown very concretely by the role played in recent strikes by the would-be "reformers" who promise to "rebuild labor." On September 2, as thousands of Detroit newspaper strikers and other unionists manned mass pickets at the Sterling Heights printing plant, Trumka, speaking as head of the AFL-CIO's "Strategic Approaches Committee," was droning on about "corporate campaigns" at a UAW-sponsored rally a mile away. Flags of Sweeney's "New Voice" slate were everywhere, with signs calling to cancel subscriptions to the struck Free Press and Detroit News--when what was needed was to stop production and delivery of the scab paper. Their backs to the wall, the strikers fought militant battles with cops and Vance Security scabherders, managing to stop delivery trucks for hours at a time. But officials of the Metropolitan Newspaper Unions Council headed by local Teamster leader Al Derey had earlier made a deal to let the scab trucks through, and eventually managed to wear down the strikers' resistance.

The union tops act as labor cops for the bosses politically as well, tying the workers to the capitalist Democratic Party. At the convention, Democratic president Clinton received a standing ovation from the entire bunch. And in his acceptance speech as AFL-CIO president, Sweeney called for an "American autumn" in 1996, to "re-elect a President and elect a Democratic Congress committed to the people who work hard and play by the rules"! The AFL-CIO bureaucrats have always played by the bosses' rules, leading to the present ruinous state of the unions. Labor Lieutenants of Capital, Yesterday and Today

Sweeney's message to working people was "America needs a raise." This is the old refrain of American business unionism, going back to AFL founder Samuel Gompers' one-word summary of labor's demands: "More." But working people, minorities and the poor in this country need a hell of a lot more than a raise. We need to smash the union-busting assault by the capitalists and their government. We need to defeat the bipartisan assault on social programs, from welfare to health care and education. The multiracial working class, with an increasingly important and militant sector of immigrant workers, must mobilize to stop racist attacks, from cop terror in the ghettos and barrios to California's anti-immigrant Prop. 187 and the "English only" movement nationally.

Sweeney and Trumka help build this poisonous chauvinism and racism by pushing for protectionism. "The problem," says Sweeney, "is American companies that export jobs instead of products. The solution is a union movement that fights for American workers as well as American values." No, the international working class needs unions built through class struggle in solidarity action with their working-class brothers and sisters around the world. This was the goal of the first workers international, founded in the 1860s. To defeat old-fashioned American strikebreaking, it is necessary to make common cause with Japanese and Mexican workers against the American and Japanese and Mexican bosses.

The struggle to defend the working class and minorities must be waged against the entire labor bureaucracy, which is committed to upholding capitalism and tied to the Democratic Party. We need to forge an internationalist workers party that links the struggles of workers everywhere against the capitalist bosses. To get rid of the boom-bust system of production for profit that produces unemployment and poverty-level wages, along with racist terror and imperialist war, it is necessary to overthrow the capitalist system through workers revolution. And the starting point is to oust the lieutenants of capital in the labor movement. As founding American Trotskyist James P. Cannon wrote in the 1920s:

"The fight for a class movement of the American workers is in the first place a fight against the capitalist ideology which dominates them. The labor bureaucrats of the AFL and the unaffiliated unions of the same type are the direct bearers of this ideology in the working class and must be fought as such. The labor bureaucracy is a part of the capitalist rationalization and war machine--its `labor' wing."

--"Platform of the Communist Opposition" (February 1929)

Throughout Latin America, the AFL-CIO is justly known as the "AFL-CIA" for its subversion of workers organizations and the construction of "free trade unions" under CIA control. Its government-funded "American Institute for Free Labor Development" (AIFLD) helped topple the leftist Allende government in Chile, financed anti-government unions in Sandinista Nicaragua and pro- government unions in death squad El Salvador. Financed by CIA conduits like the National Endowment for Democracy, the AFL-CIO played a major role for the U.S. bourgeoisie in pumping in millions of dollars in support of the CIA's Polish "union" Solidarnos c . Trumka himself was a major cog in the AFL-CIO's "cold war clock." In 1989-92, as the fate of the USSR hung in the balance, the UMW and AFL-CIO funneled in money and "advisers" to win combative miners to support U.S.-backed Boris Yeltsin. Union Organizing and the International Economy

To pump some life back into the near-moribund labor movement, Sweeney has vowed to spend some tens of millions of dollars to sign up new union members in an organizing drive, particularly in the Southern "sun belt." This would be a shift from the past two decades, when unions typically spent a tiny 2-3 percent on organizing work, and much of that on raiding other unions. But just throwing money at the problem won't bring the promised millions of new members into the unions. Any attempt to unionize the "open shop" South, organizing black and white workers into integrated locals, will run smack into the explosive race question. To overcome the racist poison fostered by the ruling class to keep workers divided, it will take a concerted struggle by all workers against black oppression and its enforcers, the cops and courts and their hooded fascist auxiliary in the Ku Klux Klan. In Washington, labor faces a hostile government, from the Democratic White House to the Republican Congress.

And everywhere attempts to organize the unorganized will run up against private armies of strikebreaking thugs like Vance Security, not a few of whom were active as mercenaries in U.S. imperialism's contra war in Central America (in which the "AFL- CIA" acted as the "labor" auxiliaries). Business Week bragged last year that "over the past dozen years, in fact, U.S. industry has conducted one of the most successful antiunion wars ever, illegally firing thousands of workers for exercising their right to organize." Union-busting has turned into a billion dollar industry. The result: unionized workers are now a smaller portion of the workforce than they were at the end of the 1920s--and less than when the Wagner Act was enacted in 1935.

Today Sweeney & Co. talk of replicating the mass union organizing of the late 1930s, but the explosive growth of the Congress of Industrial Unions was the result of convulsive social struggles far beyond anything the "new-old guard" at the AFL-CIO has in mind. It is a fundamental myth perpetrated by the labor bureaucracy, from CIO founder John L. Lewis on down, and one accepted by much of the left, that Franklin D. Roosevelt gave labor the "right to organize." But Section 7A of FDR's 1933 National Recovery Act and the subsequent Wagner Act were designed to derail militant labor struggle and confine it in the straitjacket of capitalist legality. The CIO was born out of the three 1934 citywide general strikes (Minneapolis, San Francisco and Toledo), all led by "reds," and the powerful industrial unions were built through militant class-struggle tactics like the sit-down strike, which all wings of the labor bureaucracy abhor today.

The response of the AFL-CIO tops to the battering received by labor has been a bureaucratic reshuffling. There has recently been a series of union mergers, with more in the offing. The International Ladies' Garment Workers and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers joined to form UNITE. Latest to announce a merger were the UAW, the Machinists and the United Steelworkers, who just took in the Rubber Workers earlier this year. This will form a union of almost two million workers--but the UAW, IAM and USWA used to have a million members each. The New York Times confidently predicts: "Nor will substitution of a mega-sized union do anything to stop the 20-year slide in real wages.... The international market increasingly arbitrates compensation." In fact, the catastrophic decline in the American labor movement over the past 20 years is directly related to significant structural changes in the U.S. economy, especially its manufacturing sector.

The sharp losses experienced by corporate America in the 1974-75 world slump exposed the declining competitiveness of U.S. industry compared to its Japanese and West European rivals. American capital then sought to jack up the rate of exploitation by shifting manufacturing operations to low-wage countries in East Asia and Latin America and to the "open shop" South and Southwest within the U.S. These geographical moves were then used to pressure the AFL-CIO bureaucrats into conceding giveback contracts and two-tier wage systems, scrapping union safety and work rules, etc. The growing integration of Mexico--where manufacturing wages are even lower than in Taiwan and South Korea--into the American industrial economy culminated in the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. In the first year of NAFTA, the real hourly wages of the 77 million production workers in the U.S. declined another 3 percent.

While shifting production abroad, corporate America has engaged in relentless layoffs at home. Unions can no longer as in the past make gains in periods of economic upturn by taking advantage of employers' increased demand for labor. Today, periods of economic upturn are marked by rising corporate income and profits combined with stagnant or even falling wages. Corporate downsizing and government cutbacks have forced millions of workers to survive by taking marginal, part-time, temporary or home-based jobs, the kind of jobs that weren't unionized even in the 1940s and '50s.

As long as capitalism exists, the capitalists will move capital--and jobs--to where the profits are greatest. This means that a fighting labor movement must extend beyond heavy industry and government to include the burgeoning sweatshop and minimum- wage service jobs. Moreover, the increasing integration of the North American market under NAFTA, while intensifying the superexploitation of Mexican workers, has also opened increased possibilities for sharp class struggle against the North American bourgeoisie. In auto, for example, a strike at the GM plant in Ramos Arizpe, Mexico reverberates in the Midwest and Canada. The capitalists' "just in time" production without stockpiling inventory makes them extremely vulnerable to strike action. But the protectionism and anti-immigrant racism of the labor bureaucracy stands as a roadblock to this kind of united class struggle.

While the California AFL-CIO came out against anti-immigrant Prop. 187 last year, it was the labor federation that campaigned so hard for the employer sanctions provision of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, in order, in their racist language, to "stem the tide of illegal immigrants" (AFL-CIO News, 22 August 1994). The labor tops have echoed the call of liberal Democrats like Senators Feinstein and Boxer for more Border Patrol agents and for militarizing the border. Much is being made of the rapid growth of the SEIU in recent years, especially among immigrant workers. A lot of this rise has come from mergers. And where immigrant workers have waged bitter fights to win unions they have been bureaucratically hamstrung by the SEIU tops. The well-known SEIU Local 399 in Los Angeles, a showcase of the "Justice for Janitors" campaign, has been placed in trusteeship by Sweeney after immigrant activists defeated the incumbent bureaucracy in a union election.

There have been some significant shifts in the composition of the union movement of late that are indirectly reflected in the infighting among the bureaucrats over the AFL-CIO's top slot. Time magazine (30 October) highlighted "The Battle to Revive the Unions" and noted "a new militancy is taking hold in the workplace." The Wall Street Journal (1 September), which follows labor with particular interest from the other side of the class line, headlined "Some Unions Step Up Organizing Campaigns and Get New Members." The article began: "The U.S. labor movement has been doing something surprising lately: winning a few." It noted that in the last two years, union membership actually went up by 3 percent to 16.7 million. The new recruits are mainly immigrant Hispanic and black workers in service industries and low-wage sweatshops. This will eventually reflect itself in the labor bureaucracy. But the promotion of women, black and Hispanic officials in the name of diversity will not in itself turn the unions into "fighting machines" for the working class. The key is program.

For a Class-Struggle Workers Party!

In Leon Trotsky's final work, "Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay," left unfinished when a Stalinist assassin struck him down in August 1940, he noted that when the American CIO was created, "the new `leftist' trade union organization was no sooner founded than it fell into the steel embrace of the imperialist state.... In the United States the Department of Labor with its leftist bureaucracy has as its task the subordination of the trade union movement to the democratic state, and it must be said that this task has up to now been solved with some success." The rising CIO bureaucracy tied the working class to its class enemy through the agency of the Democratic Party. Through support to their "own" bourgeoisie in the Second World War, and especially through the postwar red purge, the bureaucracy set out on the course which has brought the labor movement to its knees today.

In the essay quoted above, Trotsky pointed to the key task of revolutionaries in the labor movement in the imperialist era:

"The trade unions in the present epoch cannot simply be the organs of democracy as they were in the epoch of free capitalism and they cannot any longer remain politically neutral, that is, limit themselves to serving the daily needs of the working class.... They can no longer be reformist, because the objective conditions leave no room for any serious and lasting reforms. The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat."

The past two decades, during which the American trade-union leadership presided over the wholesale elimination of jobs and destruction of labor gains, putting the survival of the unions in peril, have fully confirmed Trotsky's analysis. This could only happen because the labor bureaucracy, a privileged petty- bourgeois layer sitting atop the unions, defends the interests not of the workers but of their exploiters. As socialist Eugene V. Debs said of Samuel Gompers, "The role of the AFL leadership is to chloroform the working class while the capitalist class goes through its pockets."

A genuine fight to revive the union movement must be based on complete independence of the unions from the capitalist state and the capitalist parties, raising a revolutionary class- struggle program. This centers on the fight to build a workers party, one which defends the black, Hispanic and Asian working and poor people of this country, and fights to join in action with workers internationally. This is in sharp contrast to the kind of "labor party" that is bandied about by various social- democratic leftists and dissident bureaucrats. As we have pointed out (see "Why `Labor Party Advocates' Doesn't Advocate a Labor Party," WV No. 622, 5 May), the purpose of such outfits is to act as a pressure group on the Democrats. This was exactly what Labor Notes (October 1995) advocates in calling for supporting Sweeney as a lesser evil:

"It would make a lot more sense for unions to rattle a few sabres rather than kiss and make up with the Democratic Party and be taken for granted all over again.... Why not lend support to the founding convention of Labor Party Advocates to throw a real scare into phony friends of labor next year?"

Or as LPA founder and longtime Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers top official Tony Mazzocchi, made clear from the get-go: "Organizing Labor Party Advocates is not going to retard the re- birth of the Democrats. On the contrary, it will encourage it."

Bourgeois politics/elections have never offered anything more than the illusion of change--today the illusion is gone. A taste of the kind of struggle that is needed to revive the unions and forge a class-struggle workers party was seen in the labor- centered demonstrations last August initiated by the Partisan Defense Committee in the campaign to save political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, on death row in Pennsylvania. These demonstrations won the support and active participation of a number of unions, including Mail Handlers, AFSCME, SSEU, 1199 Hospital Workers, Teamsters and others in New York, and in the Bay Area the ILWU longshore and warehouse workers, SEIU, Typographical Workers, Postal Workers and Teachers unions.

Together with the picket-line battles against cops and scabs in the Detroit newspaper strike, such actions indicate that there is movement at the base of labor which the Sweeneys and Trumkas are working overtime to tame and contain. The fight to mobilize the unions in the struggle to abolish the racist death penalty is critical as we seek to build a workers party that acts as a "tribune of the people," in Lenin's classic phrase. With a generation of minority youth condemned to "life" in the ghetto and the prison, or death by "legal lynching" and cop execution, with welfare mothers facing a genocidal budget ax, a fighting labor movement can be built only by championing the cause of all the oppressed.

To mobilize labor in struggle for its class interests must include the fight for a shorter workweek at no loss in pay, to fight unemployment and the bosses' union-busting drive for "two- tier" contracts; for union defense guards against the scabherders, for mass picketing and plant occupations to win strikes instead of bowing to the bosses' laws; for labor/black mobilization to stop the KKK and other racist terrorists who are an immediate obstacle to any serious attempt to organize the South; for full citizenship rights for all immigrants, legal or "illegal," to unite the working class regardless of its origins; for labor action against imperialist marauding, from the Persian Gulf and Haiti to Bosnia; for a political mobilization of the working class to build a workers party that fights for a workers government to expropriate the capitalists and establish a planned economy.

As Trotsky noted more than half a century ago, such a program of transitional demands, challenging the capitalist system itself, "is not only the program for the activity of the party but in its fundamental features it is the program for activity of the trade unions." For the working class to mobilize in struggle against the all-sided economic and social and racist attacks launched against it by the capitalist rulers of this country requires a leadership. In the first instance, this means that there must be a political fight within the labor movement itself to sweep away all wings of the pro-capitalist labor traitors. As Trotsky wrote: "In the epoch of imperialist decay the trade unions can be really independent only to the extent that they are conscious of being, in action, the organs of proletarian revolution."

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