Discussion On the Future Of the American Labor Movement

The UAW Convention
Part Three—Toward A Long Term Strategy For All Fronts

by Bill Onasch

I began about a month ago to write an article about the UAW Constitutional Convention—widely known as the ConCon. I found I had to expand one article into two parts—and now three. My verbosity is not the sole explanation for this runaway inflation. Auto is America’s most important industry and the UAW the most important industrial union. Nearly all the major issues facing the U.S. working class today are expressed in some form within the crisis in the auto industry and its unions.

I dealt with the easy stuff in the first two installments—enumerating the major problems; condemning the bosses; exposing the inadequacies of the union bureaucracy; some fraternal criticism of union dissidents. Now comes the hard part—what can we do?

What Unions Can and Can’t Do
In terms of our day to day lives, unions are the most important form of organization to the working class. Unions can help us win a better share of what we produce for the boss than we can get as individuals. Union contracts also regulate the hours we work, say something about our working conditions, and guarantee fair treatment in promotions and layoffs instead of the rule of favoritism and intimidation that prevails in many unorganized workplaces. The power of the union can help individual workers adjust their grievances with the boss.

In the U.S. unions are virtually the only genuine class based mass organizations presently on the scene. This is in stark contrast to nearly every other industrialized country. In some European countries, such as Germany, unions were launched as projects of mass social democratic parties. French and Italian unions largely grew out of the anarcho-syndicalist movement. In Britain and Canada already established unions launched labor parties to pursue their political interests.

The “pure and simple” trade unionism worshiped and administered by the union bureaucracy has cost us dearly in individual terms as well as our class as a whole. In every major industrialized country working class political parties have succeeded in winning universal health care. Most have adequate social security pensions. In western Europe workers have long enjoyed four-five weeks of paid vacation, reductions in the work week with no cut in pay, paid sick leave, protection against discharge without just cause, and generous unemployment and severance benefits—all guaranteed to every worker by law.

Most also have far fewer restrictions on union organizing—leading to much higher union densities in most cases—and allow workers to use such effective tactics as mass picketing, sympathy strikes, and hot cargo and secondary boycotts—outlawed in the U.S. by Taft-Hartley.

That’s not to say these countries are worker paradise. They have their problems and the bosses are attacking many of these long held protections. But there’s no comparison between their problems and what we face in the U.S. Instead of being the envy of the world’s workers today we are viewed as “there but for the grace of God…”

European unions don’t have contentious negotiations with employers over health care and pensions—the central flash points in bargaining here, as our bosses call even present benefits “unsustainable.” Each European country’s employers and workers have the same costs for these items—there are no “competitive advantages” such as the transplants have in the U.S. auto industry. Nor are there millions of workers without health care or pensions as is the case in this country.

Here in the USA if a worker must change employers because of lay off, or the need to relocate to a different city, she/he not only give up job security and promotion rights tied to seniority; they may get worse health care—or maybe none—and will start all over accumulating retirement credits, vacation time, sick pay. We lack the guaranteed portability of basic benefits enjoyed by our counterparts in the rest of the industrialized world.

Tunnel Vision
The union bureaucracy’s emphasis on bread and butter collective bargaining, limiting political activity to lobbying and endorsement of dubious “friends,” reduces the working class to passive spectators—if not victims—rather than movers and shakers in the shaping of our society. That’s why we get the short end of the stick and, if we continue to drift, our kids’ end will be shorter yet. The great creative imagination, talents and energy of American working people will atrophy.

The Work to Rule (WTR) perspective, along with democratic mobilization of the ranks, advocated by dissidents such as Soldiers of Solidarity in the auto unions, and in other unions around the Labor Notes current, is a sound alternative approach in the collective bargaining arena. Their battles against concessions and deteriorating working conditions are of the utmost short term importance. But, over the long haul, if these are not linked with broader social and political struggles they too will be condemned to defensive skirmishes over ever narrower pockets of resistance.

An Inconvenient Truth
With apologies to Al Gore for expropriating the title of his well done movie, we need to examine a developing crisis for the auto industry, greater than anything yet seen, seldom discussed in polite company—Global Warming. Car and truck dependency has produced many environmental problems but Global Warming has reached proportions that cannot be ignored and requires urgent corrective action. Any serious response will have a huge, negative impact on the auto industry in its present form.

Certainly the auto bosses have nothing to offer in this regard. Historically they have been aggressive mortal enemies of mass transit and vehicles using any fuel other than fossil. Their most daring environmental offering has been the hybrid vehicle.

Honda and Toyota have long offered a pricey small car hybrid to a niche market, and seem to be content with that. Last year Ford announced a big plan to build hybrid SUVs—which is, as someone said, like ordering a diet coke to go with your Hardees Thick Burger. Gushing with praise for this “breakthrough,” the ever accommodating Sierra Club urged all good environmentalists to run out and buy a new Mariner. Alas, this year Ford is quietly pulling the plug on their massive green SUV project.

Instead, the Big Three have signed up for President Bush’s food for fuel plan—eagerly endorsed by ADM and corn belt senators. Ethanol additives derived from corn require huge amounts of fossil fuel in manufacture, reduce miles per gallon in driving, and will have unwelcome impact on the world’s food supplies and prices. Aside from those drawbacks it’s a pretty good deal.

Gettelfinger’s environmental “Marshall Plan,” dove-tailing with the Big Three’s championing of E-85, is not going to cut it either. When you come right down to it either we say “screw the environment,” or we come up with a plan to restructure the present auto industry as we transition away from car dependency.

A Good Idea From Minnesota
I spent twenty winters living in the Twin Cities. I never fully adjusted to the meteorological climate but greatly appreciated the labor climate shaped by epic struggles over the years, still remembered by workers and bosses alike. The Farmer-Labor Party of the 1920-30s was the most advanced example of a union-driven political force in this country to date. The 1934 Minneapolis Teamster Strikes have been aptly dubbed “labor’s turning point” during the Great Depression. But the proud and once mighty labor movement there has been hit hard by restructuring and the employer offensive.

The most recent target is the Ford assembly plant in St Paul. Opened in 1924, it is currently the oldest Ford plant in operation. With 1,885 hourly and salaried employees it’s a relatively small plant but, along with thousands of affected jobs in other companies tied to its operation, its slated closing will have a major impact on the local economy.

This plant has a unique feature that has given some imaginative labor and environmental activists an opening for proposing a way to salvage some good from its abandonment by Ford. All of the plant’s power is hydroelectric, generated by a dam built on the Mississippi River by the Corps of Engineers in 1917. Renewable “fuel,” zero greenhouse gas emissions, stable, predictable costs—it doesn’t get much better than this.

I first heard of an effort to salvage this plant in reported remarks by UAW Local 879 Health & Safety rep, Lynn Hinkle, at a big Town Meeting organized a few weeks before the ConCon by the Climate Crisis Coalition of the Twin Cities (3CTC). I recently received a draft of a proposal, by Alan Maki and 3CTC leader Christine Frank, motivating a broad community campaign for public ownership of the plant Ford plans to abandon and putting its present UAW workforce to work building mass transit equipment.

From the Local To the Global
This excellent local solution could and should be expanded out nationally. Unfortunately, not all auto plants are as environmentally friendly as St Paul Ford—but they all have the capacity and workers to produce socially beneficial products.

During World War II the government took charge of the auto industry (though not its profits.) Almost overnight, factories were converted to build massive quantities of planes, tanks, jeeps—an arsenal the likes of which the world had never before seen. Without that industrial mobilization the Axis powers would likely have prevailed.

There’s a different enemy today—human destruction of our environment. Defeating it requires the same kind of urgent, bold action shown during the Second World War. We don’t need war planes and tanks today. But we do need to start replacing car and truck dependency with greatly expanded rail and bus transportation. Isn’t it time to project a vision to nationalize the auto industry and convert much of it from environmentally destructive to socially needed production?

Generic nationalization is not a panacea. We wouldn’t want to see the kind of nationalization of auto carried out in Britain in the 1970s when failing British Leyland was kept alive only long enough to re-privatize profitable bits and pieces. For nationalization to work in the interests of working people it would have to encompass the entire industry—Big Three and transplants alike—with union contracts kept in place. Workers in the industry, along with environmentalists and other community stakeholders, would need to have a real voice in both strategic planning goals and day to day management.

Party Time
The alternative vision I have sketched out—winning universal health care; establishing adequate portable benefits by law; repealing the Taft-Hartley restrictions on our ability to organize, strike, and boycott; public ownership and control of the main engine of our economy—will not be accomplished overnight. As long as we are ruled by the present political Establishment, and hamstrung by union bureaucrats hoping to be partners with the boss, it will not be accomplished at all.

We will not move forward until the American working class has at least one mass political party of our own. We need something similar in principle to what workers have built in many European countries. In fact, I think having the advantage of assessing the lessons of the European experiences, we can avoid many of their problems—and leap-frog into an even better kind of party.

There have, of course, been various abortive attempts to build labor based parties over the years. Most prominent were the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party and the American Labor Party in New York state. Those efforts were eventually lured by siren song into that graveyard of all progressive movements—the Democrats.

Ten years ago, in the fallout from NAFTA, there was an impressive revival of this long fermenting idea. 1400 delegates from endorsing unions, and community based chapters, decided to upgrade an advocacy group, Labor Party Advocates, to the Labor Party.

The Founding Convention made clear this was to be a very different kind of party. Unlike the cynical mainstream politicians it did not make the impossible claim of representing “all the people.” It pledged to represent only the interests of the working class majority. It accurately labeled the Democrats and Republicans as parties of the bosses.

That gathering went on to adopt a Call for Economic Justice, a comprehensive program addressing most of the principal issues of concern to American workers today.

In 1998 a second convention, also attended by about 1400, further clarified the party’s different perspective with the adoption of an Electoral Policy. The introduction to this policy declared,

“The Labor Party is unlike any other party in the United States. We stand independent of the corporations and their political representatives in the Democratic and Republican parties. Our overall strategy is for the majority of American people — working class people — to take political power.…Although we accept electoral politics as an important tactic, we do not see it as the only tool needed to achieve working class power. Unlike other political parties, the Labor Party will be active before, during and between elections, building solidarity in our communities, workplaces and unions.”

That convention decisively rejected proposals for cross endorsement schemes, such as those of the ersatz independent Working Families Party, that project a mix of running occasional candidates of your own for minor offices while continuing to primarily endorse Democrat “friends.”

“The Labor Party will support only candidates for office who are Labor Party members running solely as Labor Party candidates. The Labor Party will not endorse any other candidates.”

With the strategic recognition of the subordinate role electoral politics plays in class struggle, a tactical decision was made to contest elections only when and where LP could win, or at least wage a credible campaign. This choice was made to avoid frittering away precious resources on token campaigns that would brand LP as yet another disgruntled fringe group. Instead, emphasis was put on issue campaigns such as Just Health Care, Free Higher Education, and Campaign for Worker Rights. When the Iraq war broke out the Labor Party was an early endorser of US Labor Against the War.

Distractions and Contractions
George Will once observed that NFL football games appeared to be boring committee meetings punctuated by brief bursts of violent physical activity. Every shop steward knows this would be an apt description of union life in the workplace as well. It’s also not a bad characterization of the pace of building a mass working class party from scratch.

Many of those coming around the Labor Party during its formative period had high expectations of immediate dramatic results. They were not prepared for the grind of persistent, patient organizing that is indispensable in putting together any lasting mass movement.

A lot of impatient activists became attracted to the 2000 Nader presidential campaign. Others turned their attention to issue movements. The community based chapters of the Labor Party, once impressive in a number of cities, began to shrink in both size and visible activity.

The relative success of the Nader campaign both alarmed and enraged the mainstream union bureaucracy, pushing them even further away from considering political independence.

Some of the national unions that had been Labor Party stalwarts fell victim to the merger mania that has excited the union bureaucracy. The Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers were gobbled up by the Paperworkers—decidedly unfriendly to the Labor Party project largely initiated by OCAW. The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees is now part of the Teamsters—and brother Hoffa is not a champion of a new worker party. Some smaller LP affiliates have had to scale back their commitment of resources to the party because of their own difficult financial situations.

Case For the Labor Party Still Open
The Labor Party is not today the mass working class party we need. After a hopeful beginning it has been challenged by setbacks and doubt. Some who profess agreement with the need for such a party question whether this particular project is still viable, is it worth committing to?

That’s a fair question. I offer no money-back guarantees that the present Labor Party project will overcome all the obstacles that confront it and go on to realize the goal of organizing the working class to take political power.

But neither will I contribute to any self-fulfilling prophecies of doom. The objective need for a labor party has never been more acute. It would be a shame to write off the program, perspective, and hard working activists assembled by the Labor Party, hoping that the wheel can be somehow reinvented by others at some future time.

In the meantime what other political alternatives for labor are out there? Look for good Democrats? Try to add a class struggle reorientation to the “core values” of the Greens? Or just “ignore” politics—passively absorbing the blows of government power, brought to bear against us in many forms by the bosses?

Rally ‘Round the Palmetto
Actually, there is some new wind in the Labor Party sail around preparations for the first LP electoral activity. It’s developing in what would appear an unlikely venue in the Palmetto State—South Carolina.

Relying on volunteers, nearly all local residents, the Labor Party collected more than 16,000 signatures on a petition to obtain official party status in South Carolina and is waiting for expected certification by the election board. In the course of petitioning at shopping centers, flea markets, and carnivals, the party found a good response in the working class community and established committees in about a quarter of the state’s counties.

While unions are few and far between in the state the Labor Party has solid support from the South Carolina state fed, the Charleston longshore local, the biggest ATU local in the state, and locals of national LP affiliated unions.

A founding convention of the South Carolina State Labor Party has been scheduled for late September in Columbia. It’s expected to have a good mix of delegates from both unions and brand new Labor Party County Committees, largely composed of unorganized workers.

If this can be done under very difficult conditions in South Carolina why could it not be replicated in traditional bastions of organized labor, such as New York, California—Michigan?

We need to pursue WTR in the workplace. We need to build issue movements such as those for immigrant rights, against the war, Globalization, environmental destruction. But, above all, we need to tie our defensive and protest actions into an opposition that fights the bosses and their politicians over control of the future of our society. In my opinion, building the Labor Party is the indicated next step in that direction.

July 10, 2006

Part One

Part Two

About the Author Of This Series
The webmaster of the kclabor.org website is a paid-up member of UAW Local 1981—the National Writers Union. During the 70-80s, while employed at Litton Microwave’s Minneapolis operations, he was elected to various positions in UE Local 1139, including Shop Chairman and Local President. In 1980 he took a union leave from the plant to work on a successful UE organizing drive at a Litton runaway plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. When Litton began shutting down its four Minneapolis plants Onasch was selected to be a worker representative in a Dislocated Worker Project administered by Minneapolis Community College—where he became a member of the Minneapolis Education Association. Returning to his home town of Kansas City in 1989, he soon began a 14-year stint as a Metro bus driver. During that time he published a rank and file newsletter, Transit Truth, chaired a union Community Outreach Committee that organized public protests against cuts in transit service, helped organize a privatized spin-off at Johnson County Transit, and served a term as Vice-President of ATU Local 1287. He has also been involved in US Labor Against the War and the Labor Party since those organizations were launched.

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