Discussion On the Future Of the American Labor Movement

The UAW Convention

Part Two—Bureaucrats and Dissidents
by Bill Onasch

In  Part One of this article we reviewed the objective conditions shaping the 34th Constitutional Convention of the UAW and attempted to analyze the program of the union’s elected leadership. In Part Two, we continue analysis of the union bureaucracy and take a look at the dissident forces. In a concluding third installment we’ll discuss what’s needed in a comprehensive strategy for labor.

The bureaucrats in charge of the UAW offered little new at the recent conclave in Las Vegas. It was the same old, same old, of “innovative partnership,” with the employers in the workplace, and with one wing of the employers’ twin party political establishment. They stay on this message even though the union is hemorrhaging membership and faces unprecedented demands by the bosses for more concessions.

Now these people are not stupid. Nor are they like the Mob elements that dominate a few unions—they’re not getting any bribes for selling out their members. They are not evil. By all accounts Ron Gettelfinger seems like a decent guy and is certainly more tolerant of internal criticism than most of his predecessors in office.

Nor is the UAW an anomaly in the labor movement. If anything, Solidarity House is—all proportions guarded—more competent and far-sighted than most of their peers. That’s one reason why they have historically brought back the best contracts and these have held up relatively better and longer than most other industrial unions.

The Social Nature Of Union Bureaucracy
The problem lies in the contradictory nature of the distinct social grouping we call the union bureaucracy. Not a separate class playing any kind of independent role, it is a caste within the workers’ movement. They seek to be brokers in class relations in society. Basing themselves on the great potential economic and social power of the institutions they run, they appeal to the bosses to be reasonable, to resolve inevitable disputes peacefully, through compromise. They want nothing else, they know little else.

A ‘Deal’ With the Devil
While forms of union bureaucracy have been around as long as there have been unions the monolith at the top of our unions today fused around what they thought was a “social contract” with the corporate rulers of America soon after World War II. After some initial probing actions that led to a great strike wave from 1945-47 the bosses resigned themselves to accepting already established unions.

Essentially, the employers and their political allies made this argument to the union tops:

“We’ve gotten past the Depression and the War. This is now going to be the American Century. We plan to rebuild devastated Europe and Japan and we’re going to take over the markets in their old colonies as well. Here at home Americans need houses and cars and want new appliances, all the things they’ve had to go without so long. You can share in all this. Let’s stop all this contentious posturing and work together to build a prosperous Middle Class that will be the envy of the world.”

Of course, the bosses had a few conditions for the unions to accept in order to realize this American Dream, such as:

●First and foremost was uprooting the pernicious, un-American notion of class struggle. We’re partners not enemies. Like all partners we will have differences from time to time but men of good will can sort these out.

●Because the world depends on America for freedom, and American prosperity depends on free world customers, union support of bipartisan foreign policy is an absolute must.

●Since labor and management are now partners, any kind of appeal to class politics is wrong. Labor needs to express itself exclusively through the tried and true American two party system.

●Finally, to protect economic security from any remaining subversive elements still promoting class hatred the unions have to accept new labor law—re-codified in the Taft-Hartley Act.

All but a handful of top union leaders eagerly bought in to this new gentlemen’s agreement. A secure place at the table with their managing partners appealed to them. They rationalized that by becoming “players” they could ensure the best for their members. They were firmly convinced the unorganized would seek out their protection.

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Walter Reuther

Apostates Take Charge
Those unions that didn’t immediately get with the new program—such as the UE and ILWU, and several smaller unions that didn’t survive—were driven out of the CIO. Former fellow travelers of the Communist Party, such as Mike Quill of the Transport Workers Union, and Joseph Curran of the National Maritime Union, along with ex-Socialists such as the Reuther brothers in the UAW, broke with their now untouchable pariah former comrades. They in fact became among the most fervent red-baiters during the days now called “McCarthyism.”

For about twenty years this arrangement appeared to many to be working well. As the tide of the American Century swelled the union boats rose with it. The living standards of the organized third of the working class did indeed become the envy of the world. And nobody did better than the UAW.

As time went by, new generations of union bureaucrats took their reserved seats at the table. They had no memory of, much less experience in leading, the turbulent battles that established industrial unionism. Of course, today’s UAW president is a “baby boomer,” literally just taking his first steps when the postwar “partnership” was being consummated. He was raised on the doctrine of the holy trinity of labor-management-government partnership and the infallibility of the international union president. Perhaps more a John XXIII than a John Paul II, he takes his papal-like responsibilities seriously.

So Long, Partner
Unfortunately for all partners concerned, the American Century fell a bit short of its projected life span. By the 1970s, reconstruction of the economies of Europe and Japan had been completed. And, of course, they were not restored to prewar standards but rather with the latest technology—often far more advanced than what was then the rule in the U.S. They not only were no longer dependent on American industry; they were poised to be more productive competitors with American manufacturing—including within the U.S. domestic market.

That’s when the deal the bureaucrats believed was sacred and perpetual began to unravel. Instead of steadily improving wages and benefits employers started demanding take-backs. They also began a massive restructuring of industry to reduce labor costs. They fled union contracts with runaway plants where they could (such as meat packing and textile) and reduced workforces with belated massive technological changes where they couldn’t (steel, rail, coal mining). And, some not only fought new unionization tooth and nail, as they had done all along with great success; they also started challenging established unions perceived to be vulnerable—some with the goal of breaking them altogether with “permanent replacement” strikebreakers. In the 1950s about one in three private sector workers were unionized; today only one in ten still have contracts.

Virtually all of the mainstream bureaucracy tries to salvage what they can of their past cozy arrangement. They accept the employer need for concessions, trying to keep them “reasonable” through joint efforts. They have bought in to workplace reforms such as “quality circles,” where the workers cooperate in eliminating jobs and working faster and “smarter.” Many have sold out their sons and daughters with two-tier wage and benefit agreements, where new workers forever toil for a greatly reduced reward. Some even actively sabotage courageous localized efforts to fight back—such as the UFCW did to Hormel strikers in Austin, Minnesota and the Paperworkers strangling of Staley workers in Decatur, Illinois.

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‘Free Trade’
But the new rough times of the Seventies and Eighties turned even worse in the Nineties with the advent of what began under the guise of “free trade,” but has come to be known as Globalization. Not only were trade restrictions that sought to protect national industries largely thrown out; more importantly, restraints of the movement of capital across borders started falling left and right. Part of this process included gutting labor rights, environmental restrictions, subsidies to family farmers, and many other social benefits vital to working people.

Even the most lethargic bureaucrats could see no good could come from this transformation. They called on their “friends” in congress to stop it, drawing successive lines in the sand around NAFTA, Fast Track, and CAFTA—losing every battle.

General Motors and Ford have built cars in Mexico since the 1920s—for the Latin American market. Since the passage of NAFTA in 1993 they have been able to supply the U.S. market from there without penalty or restriction as well. Runaway plants are no longer limited to “right to work” states. Delphi has become the second biggest private employer in Mexico (like here, Wal-Mart is number one), employing more than twice as many workers as in their U.S. “homeland.” And the bosses are just getting started.

No amount of concessions in either wages or work rules can compete with the sweet deals the “partners” of the UAW, and other unions, can find in Mexico, and elsewhere. As the base institution that supports the bureaucracy shrinks in size and clout, the bureaucrats’ usefulness to the employers also fades. The partnership party is over but, like a tipsy guest abandoned by their date, the labor statesmen can’t bring themselves to leave.

The ‘Dissidents’
Dissident is one of those terms, like populist, that is difficult to define. When the Old Guard in the Teamsters unified around Jimmy Hoffa’s lawyer son to front their effort to tale back the IBT from the Ron Carey led reformers, he was labeled a “dissident.” As Steve Early has observed, when the victorious Hoffa joined other authoritarian bureaucrats such as SEIU’s Andy Stern, Joe Hansen of the UFCW, and the Carpenters Douglas J. McCarron, to split the AFL-CIO, the media identified them as “dissidents,” even “reformers.”

When I speak of dissidents in the UAW I am referring to a diverse, loose association of forces that oppose “partnership,” that reject concession bargaining, and that favor democratic mobilization of the power of the ranks. These are important principles, prerequisites for a successful response to employer attacks. While I criticize some of their strategy and tactics I salute them for at least their hearts and feet being on the right side.

Judging from Internet web sites and e-mail groups you would think the dissidents are a mass force. Actually those projecting this high profile probably number in the hundreds rather than thousands. Still, hundreds of dedicated activists can make a difference—and they already have.

●Agitation by UAW dissidents—and like-minded militants in IUE locals—around the demand for a strike response to abrogation of the contract at Delphi forced the company/union “partners”to come up with a Plan B. Instead of imposed concessions they hope massive buy outs—totaling over 47,000— funded by GM, will pave the way to a negotiated settlement that can get Delphi membership approval.

●Dissident efforts in a membership vote on passing on GM health care give-backs to Ford came within a hair of rejecting it. A gun shy bureaucracy has not yet felt confident about bringing the same deal to a vote at DaimlerChrysler.

●Though relatively small in size, demonstrations by UAW and IUE dissidents in a number of localities have generated a considerable amount of media attention about issues at GM and Delphi and give heart to those who want to fight back.

Beyond these unifying elementary self-defense measures there’s great diversity within the dissident camp. Most are dedicated to trying to reform their union, to get it back on the right track. But others want to abandon the UAW (and IUE, and most other existing unions for that matter.)

Time To Abandon Ship?
Dave Stratman is the ideological leader of a group called New Democracy, which has participated in a new broad dissident network, Soldiers of Solidarity (SoS). New Democracy styles itself as both anti-capitalist and anti-socialist, seeking a working class revolution based on human values of democracy and solidarity. In a post-convention article, The Tragic Fate of the Delphi Struggle, Stratman scolds fellow Soldiers who still have illusions in the UAW which he declares, “is in effect a subsidiary of the Big Three car companies.”

Stratman describes what he calls “decades of defeat,” adopting the union bureaucracy’s time line that establishes our troubles began with Reagan’s breaking of the PATCO strike. He mentions many proud struggles that were defeated in conjunction with either neglect, or active sabotage by national union leaderships. He criticizes the Hormel, Staley, and other vanquished workers for failing to form “fighting organizations outside the unions.”

He levels the same charge against the New Directions Movement, a reform caucus formed in the UAW twenty years ago. “Focusing on union reform and conducting a strategy in unity with the union guarantees that the Delphi struggle will never escape the union’s control.”

Stratman says he initially had high hopes for the struggle at Delphi through SoS. But now he says, “Unfortunately, though, this was not to be. Though it began with the appearance of being different, the current struggle at Delphi is in great danger of being only the latest in a long and tragic line. Under the leadership of Gregg Shotwell and the Soldiers of Solidarity, the movement is repeating the same mistakes as earlier struggles and seems likely to come to the same isolated and futile end.”

Some of Stratman’s criticisms are worth serious examination. SoS, and other dissidents are weak in providing a vision for what can be done beyond the most rudimentary self-defense tactics in the workplace. They do not—at least yet—have a comprehensive strategy that combines workplace, community, and political forms of struggle—sorely needed by the labor movement.

Stickin' With the Union
But Stratman is dead wrong, in my opinion, in his call for militant workers to abandon their unions to build an alternative democracy movement. He fails to distinguish between the union as an institution and the caste that is the union bureaucracy. If you’re afflicted by a tick latched on to your leg you do best to remove the parasite—not your limb.

Despite their sorry state today our unions still embody past conquests of our class, retain our collective memory, and provide forms and resources with potential for launching effective struggle. If the UAW, and other unions, are really “owned, lock, stock, and barrel” by the bosses, as Stratman maintains, then they would be welcomed by employers. But, for some reason, the bosses continue to bitterly resist union organizing and often try to break the established ones. Both the bosses and the majority of unionists understand the nature and potential of unions better than Stratman and his New Democracy.

I can understand the frustration that leads some to think we would be better off to launch something new. After all, some argue, the CIO was a new movement in response to the inadequacy of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). But that represents a distorted historical oversimplification.

Some of the CIO unions were brand new, including the UAW. They mainly grew in response to worker struggles in industries that were effectively ignored by most of the old school craft unionists of the AFL.

But the CIO also included an important core of established unions that split from the AFL over the need to organize these new industries. During its formative period, the CIO was dominated by the United Mine Workers, itself a highly bureaucratized union. While some new unions, such as the UAW and UE, were built from the ground up by workers in those industries others, such as the Steelworkers and Packinghouse Workers, had bureaucratic leaderships appointed by the Mine Workers from the beginning.

It should be noted that there were also important struggles by and in the AFL during the 1930s, above all the Minneapolis Teamsters. And, in response to CIO successes, the AFL began significant industrial organizing as well.

By 1955, with the class struggle on the ebb, the differences between bureaucratic leaderships in the two federations narrowed to the point that the AFL and CIO could merge.

Unfortunately, there are not today masses of restive industrial workers, ignored by unions, just waiting to be organized by a new movement. Few are chomping at the bit to get into bold battles like the sit-down strikes of the 1930s. Militants who abandon the difficult union struggles today to summon the proletariat to follow them instead will soon find themselves isolated. In the process, they will have also strengthened the hand of the bureaucracy in existing unions.

Whatever their other shortcomings, Gregg Shotwell, and the folks around New Directions, deserve the highest commendation for continuing their relentless struggle to transform the UAW into a democratic, fighting organization.

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Gregg Shotwell

When Will We Rule?
A few weeks before the UAW convention several hundred dissidents from many different unions gathered in suburban Detroit for the biannual gathering of the clan around Labor Notes. One of the featured speakers was Gregg Shotwell, whose talk was entitled, Workers Will Rule When They Work To Rule.

It was an excellent exposition of the power workers command, when properly organized, on the shop floor. Controlling the flow of the source of the bosses profit, demonstrating the ability to turn it on or off, is our oldest and still powerful tactic. I have seen this force at work and can testify that nothing is more effective in establishing working conditions, settling grievances, exerting pressure during contract negotiations.

Nevertheless, I was somewhat disappointed with the limited focus of this talk, compelling as it was. I recognize a certain amount of poetic license was taken to come up with a catchy title. Still, “work to rule” broadly defined doesn’t even get us “rule “on the shop floor—management still retains some essential “rights”—just a voice.

Certainly work to rule is not going to prevent our plants being sold off or closed. It will not wrestle control of access to health care away from the insurance companies bleeding us dry. Work to rule will not organize the ninety percent of private sector workers outside unions. Now will it stop the spread of Globalization, end the war in Iraq, slow down environmental destruction, or any of the other crucial broader issues confronting the working class today.

Now I wouldn’t expect brother Shotwell to come up with the answers to all questions in the span of a brief popular talk. But the fact is that little of substance was advanced during the entire Labor Notes conference, or in the program advanced by the dissidents in the auto industry, other than workplace tactics.

The escalating class war between the employers and workers requires a comprehensive strategy, embracing a number of fronts—not merely tactics on one front. I don’t claim to have all the answers. But I will offer some opinions about the basics of such an urgently required strategy as a contribution to a needed broader discussion.

However, this means I must go to a third—and I swear, final—installment in this runaway article that began with the UAW convention.

June 28, 2006

Part One

Part Three

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