TRADE UNION MEMORANDUM
[Adopted by Third National Conference od the Spartacist League/US, 25 November 1972. Reprinted in Marxist Bulletin #9, “Basic Documents of the Spartacist League”]
I: The Struggle Against Labor Reformism and Workerism
The end of petty-bourgeois radical dominance within the left was presaged by the 1968 French general strike which clearly established the revolutionary potential of the working class for the present generation of young radicals. Around 1969, the absolute dominance of the black and war questions in the political life of the U.S. began to dissipate as the war-financed inflation generated a strike wave of major proportions. The traditional conflicts between the organized working class and capital were further revived by the economic downturn of 1970 which again made unemployment a major political issue and highlighted the irrationality of capitalism as a productive system. Caught between a strike wave generating large money wage increases and a weakened international competitive position, the Nixon administration imposed wage controls in mid-1971, thereby demonstrating that the labor movement, even under right-wing leadership, is the major enemy of the smooth functioning of the capitalist (i.e. profit motivated) system.
The inadequacy of New Left politics in the face of the general social crisis in the 1969-71 period, particularly the revival of working-class struggle, caused splits in the two key radical organizations–SDS and the Black Panthers. These splits destroyed the authority of these organizations and the general hegemony of New Left politics within the left. Arising out of the destruction of the New Left was the strengthening of those organizations adhering to proletarian socialism, in both its revolutionary and reformist forms, as well as the reconciliation of petty-bourgeois radicalism with bourgeois liberalism. The latter is most obvious in McGovern’s victory in the Democratic Party. The 1972 Democratic convention with its “tax the rich–give to the poor” rhetoric, its long-haired youth politicos, its black and women’s caucuses, conformed to the New Left populist image. A parallel development occurred in the black movement with the Spring 1972 Cleveland Black Power conference. Appropriately the dominant personality at that conference was Imamu Baraka (ex-Leroi Jones), grey eminence of Newark, who personifies the unity of 1960’s mainstream black nationalism with Democratic Party machine politics.
A significant section of the ostensible revolutionary movement is turning to the unions as their principal area of mass work. The CP has greatly revived its union activity through its youth group, YWLL, and Trade Unionists for Action and Democracy. The proletarianization policy of IS is particularly significant, since IS has become something of a barometer indicating the climate of radical public opinion. In three years, IS has gone from being the leading force behind that epitome of middle-class left-liberalism, the California Peace and Freedom Party, to moving their headquarters to Detroit and throwing their forces into various oppositional union caucuses. A parallel development is the replacement of the Panthers with their street-lumpen orientation by the Black Workers’ Congress with its point-of-production approach as the “most revolutionary” manifestation of black nationalism. It is clear that the unions are becoming a major arena of struggle between ourselves as a vanguard nucleus and the reformists, revisionists and petty-bourgeois nationalists in the ostensibly revolutionary movement.
The increasing union activism by ostensibly revolutionary organizations occurs against a background of rising class struggle and generalized rank-and-file discontent against an ancient, patently undemocratic and right-wing bureaucracy. This bureaucracy has now been rendered unstable and can be shattered. In this there is a certain analogy between the present situation and the early 1930’s. Having exhausted its historic usefulness, the central core of the bureaucracy has responded to new labor rebelliousness by moving to the right of the liberal bourgeoisie. The bureaucracy as a whole is increasingly isolated from its base and fragmented–the result of tailing after different political currents in bourgeois politics. This provides a renewed opportunity for revolutionary leadership to come to the head of mass labor struggles, displacing sections of the bureaucracy and threatening its continued existence.
While the possibility exists, however, for a qualitative altering of the relationship of forces in the labor movement in favor of revolutionary leadership, the fundamental question is whether the bureaucracy will be defeated by communism or renewed labor reformism, i.e. by revolutionists or slicker fakers. The danger of a dynamized labor reformism through the infusion of young erstwhile revolutionaires is indicated by the activities of the IS in pushing blocs with “leftist” bureaucratic aspirants, such as Art Fox, whose United National Caucus in the UAW is a classic opportunist formation replete with national chauvinism. The formation of a mass reformist labor party to head off and contain an inchoate revolutionary upsurge bypassing the existing bureaucracy is one way in which such a bureaucratic left could replace the old leadership, making the programmatic content of the demand for a workers party based on the trade unions a decisive question.
It is very likely that the new labor reformism will be associated with a workerist ideology having its roots in New Leftism. Both the IS and Black Workers’ Congress project varieties of New Left workerism. Even the CP, despite its formal adherence to Soviet Stalinist tradition and support of bourgeois liberalism, presents its politics as a cry from the soul of the American worker. The new labor reformism will be based on a program governed by the existing political consciousness of rank-and-file activists (i.e. participatory democracy); exclusionist and federalist organizational principles based on shop-floor or union demarcations; and a denial of the vanguard party principle, that of leadership embodied in professional revolutionaries whose world-view derives outside of and in some ways counterposed to all sections of existing, nationally-limited bourgeois society.
Workerism, the identification of revolutionary socialism with the existing workers movement, is one of the major false radical ideologies against which Marxism developed. As Marx polemicized against German workerist opponents in 1850:
“While we say to the workers: you have fifteen or twenty or fifty years of war and civil war to go through, not just to alter the existing circumstances, but to change yourselves and make yourselves fit for power, you on the contrary say: we must obtain power at once…. While we draw the workers’ attention to the undeveloped state of the German proletariat, you outrageously flatter the national sentiments and social prejudices of the German artisan…. Just as the democrats make a sacred entity of the word ‘people’ I so do you with the word ‘proletariat.”‘ (Mehring, Karl Marx)
The Spartacist tendency has also developed through major struggles against workerism at critical points in its history. The RT had to fight the Art Philips-Tim Wohlforth faction which was presenting the policy “everyone into the unions” as a cure-all for the SWP’s revisionism. This policy also meant abstention from a struggle against reformism in the black movement, which had attained a mass character and occupied a strategic place in American political life. The most important factional struggle in the SL’s history was against Turner-Ellens’ black workerism, which simultaneously represented a syndicalist liquidation of Trotskyism and a capitulation to petty-bourgeois nationalism.
Workerism is based on two inter-related concepts: (1) the identification of the struggle for socialist revolution with the struggle for the sectional interests of the working class within capitalism, and (2) the belief that the communist consciousness of the vanguard derives from its participation in working-class life and struggles. The first proposition leads directly to economism or labor reformism. As Lenin noted, organically the proletariat can only develop trade union consciousness. Socialist consciousness is based on knowledge of the history of the class struggle and, therefore, requires the infusion into the class-struggle process of socialist conceptions carried by declassed intellectuals organized as part of a vanguard party. Socialist revolution does not occur through the intensification of traditional class struggle, but requires a leap from a vantage point outside bourgeois society altogether.
In its second proposition, workerism sees communist consciousness as a function of the social composition of the party. Workers are viewed as the proletarian conscience of the party. In reality the communist vanguard creates itself by breaking its recruits from the dominant social and political attitudes of whatever section of society they are part of, including the proletariat. In this sense, the communist vanguard is in, but not of, bourgeois society. The communist vanguard maintains itself through constant struggle against the enormous social and ideological pressures that bourgeois society bears down on it in all areas of party work, particularly against the backward prejudices in the working class and particularly in periods of rising class militancy when the party is seeking to expand its influence in the unions.
In a country as rampant with national chauvinism as the U.S., workerist politics will take on an anti-communist character despite the subjective desires of its adherents. A prominent and essential policy for Trotskyists is the defense of the Sino-Soviet states against American imperialism, a policy which goes directly against one of the strongest prejudices of American workers. For that reason, all tendencies breaking from Trotskyism in a workerist direction (e.g. Johnson-Forrest, Ellens) rapidly adopted an anti-defensist position, as does anarcho-syndicalism in its pure form. Moreover, our priorities, relations with other tendencies and the like are as much determined by international as domestic developments. Workerist groups tend to echo the chauvinist union bureaucracy in claiming that an organization as concerned with the class nature of the Chinese revolution or the Chilean popular front as with what is happening in the shops is an alien element in the American working class.
II: To Build a Communist Opposition in the Labor Movement
Our transformation memo projected the penetration of a section of the cadre and a good part of our membership into the unions as a priority second only to the maintenance of a monthly press. The proletarianization policy is a necessary means to create communist opposition in the labor movement and should not be viewed as a virtue in itself. For an organization of our size and tasks, we should seek to have 30-40% of our membership active in trade union work. Historically, the percentage of SL trade union activists has been well below that figure. It decreased in the past year and a half due to rapid growth and difficulty in implanting comrades in selected unions, and then rapidly increased after a series of hiring successes to the current level of 32% (in current fractions of SL members). This has caused some considerable dislocation of SL public work in the harder-hit areas, such as New York, and required the RCY to carry an exhorbitant share of the public work of the common movement, with limited forces. The problem is exacerbated by a continuing pattern of too many members in marginal or dead-end jobs instead of on campuses, in fractions or in full-time party work.
The key organizational form for intervention in the unions is the caucus, the nucleus of an alternative, revolutionary union leadership, uniting members of the vanguard with those union activists who agree with that section of the party program for the labor movement. We strive to build the caucus in as political a way as possible. The growth of our caucus will not be primarily through the recruitment of politically backward militants drawn to us because of our leadership in local struggles. Rather, the caucus will grow through political struggle with other left and militant union formations leading to a process of splits and fusions. Thus, we project our caucuses growing in a manner similar to, although not identical with, the party. However, the establishment of our cadre as recognized militants with real constituencies is the essential building block and core of our caucus. Without such a base of reputable militants, our caucus actions would either be empty rhetoric or tail-ending forces much stronger than ourselves. The caucus program is a program for leading mass struggles. In general, caucus recruits should be of a significantly higher political level than that defined simply by the caucus program.
Recruitment to the caucus is not solely the task of the caucus, but that of the party as a whole. Relevant Workers Vanguard articles and their distribution at strategic plants and union meetings is an important part of caucus-building. Equally important is the direct party contacting and recruitment of known union oppositionists, particularly those associated with external radical organizations.
The character of any labor struggles we lead is exemplary. That means its principal value is not in the direct expansion of our social base, but as a verification of our political line in the eyes of advanced workers and the radical movement. Therefore, we seek to concentrate on building national caucuses in key national unions. Local organizers may have to resist the impulse to implant comrades in easily accessible or “hot” local situations, which, however, are ultimately isolated or transitory. In general, we seek to avoid scattering, and concentrate our forces in a few of the indicated local situations, so as to maximize our ability to intervene with a stable organizational structure.
Our perspective for work in the unions is necessarily long-range; therefore the acquisition of industrial skills is vital in order to maintain an industrialized core which has mobility, minimum Job security and protection, if not from all grueling, dead-end jobs, at least from their unlimited duration. The responsibility lies with the local committees not just to continue to organize industrialization of our members, but to systematically plan their skills acquisition and up-grading to be roughly in keeping with the general pattern of advancement in the various industries.
In this period, our intention is to concentrate in four national unions: Intermediate Industry (II), transport., communications and public employee.
Intermediate Industry (II)–It is probably the most important single union in the country industrially and politically. It is here that the debates between the tendencies of the working-class left, long held in sterile isolation from the class, promise to most rapidly develop into a serious competition for leadership of an important section of the class, thereby restoring a direct basis for judgment of mutually exclusive programs in and by the course of the class struggle, and posing the possibility of the re-establishment of a mass base for revolutionary leadership in the working class. This union is thus a key part of the perspective of transforming the SL from a propaganda group into the nucleus of a vanguard party. Having ridden in on a seasonal wave of hiring augmented by artificial election-year stimulation of the economy, however, our fraction still has but a fragile toe-hold, and could be wiped out easily. After having survived one year of the seasonal lay-off pattern, our fraction will have become qualitatively more secure.
A union with an important radical past, virtually all its early leaders were affiliated with various left-wing organizations. Most of the ostensibly revolutionary organizations concentrated forces in this union so that it became the principal industrial battleground for the left. Out of this battleground emerged a slick social-democratic regime that transformed the union into one of the pillars of the country’s liberal establishment. A strong radical current remained in the union into the McCarthy period. And, unlikemost other unions, small groups associated with the left maintained a certain continuous existence through the present.
Currently, the industry is facing serious import competition, which it is attempting to counter through qualitatively speeding-up the normally harsh pace of production and enlisting the union bureaucracy in its efforts to improve production. This has produced intolerable working conditions leading to wildcats in key plants, and to the virtually total isolation of the bureaucracy in the impatient ranks, as exemplified by virtual non-attendance of union meetings. Nevertheless, the union bureaucracy has managed to isolate and de-fuse these strikes, but the situation remains explosive in a number of key plants. Due to the grueling physical nature of the work (which produces an enormous turnover), the labor force is overwhelmingly young, volatile, and experiencing the intensified generational conflict of this period. In the main Midwestern centers, the industry employs large numbers of young Southerners who provide a certain base for Wallaceite racist-populist demagogy. A very significant portion of the labor force is black. In the late 1960’s, the union was the most important base for industrial black nationalist formations, which reflected the genuine grievances of this most oppressed section of the work force, but also intensified racial polarization in the shops.
Virtually every ORO is present in the union, with many groups having recently colonized in, so that there exist a number of small left caucuses, and a more fertile ground for eventual opponents work than on many campuses. In addition, there are significant remnants of the black nationalist formations. However, the only major national oppositional caucus is a classic opportunist swamp, led by an ex-radical, with a catch-all program and social-patriotic posture. However, the caucus does formally stand for such standard left positions as “30 for 40,” immediate withdrawal of the U.S. from Indochina, and a labor party. Recently, this caucus has received support from one of the more significant ostensibly revolutionary organizations, which has been colonizing its young members into the industry.
Women are being systematically hired into the industry for the first time since the general exclusion of women from the work force after World War II, and this has aided our ability to get hired. Part of a general “public relations” tactic being undertaken by major corporations in several fields and the federal government, the women in II–still relatively few in number–are being used as a way of conservatizing and introducing divisions into the work force (through such methods as giving women easier jobs ahead of higher-seniority males). Not eliminating the need for communists to raise inclusion of women in the work force as an immediate programmatic demand, this tendency instead provides an opportunity for us to concentrate on such issues as child care, sex discrimination and equal pay for equal work in a union which has traditionally stood for these demands and which, because of the unusually high solidarity naturally engendered in the work situation, provides an opportunity to turn the companies’ attempts at divisiveness into their opposite.
In initiating activity in this union, there were some reservations that the extremely arduous nature of the work would burn out our comrades. However, we have decided to push ahead as a major priority, while being sensitive to the problems and dangers involved. After intensive discussion, we arrived at a caucus-building perspective which is highly indicative of our general conceptions of union work. We projected a year’s time to consolidate our forces, develop a core of recognized militants and establish a public fraction presence. During this period, we would not engage in entry tactics, united fronts or other maneuvers with oppositional formations, since, given our very weak state, this would be de facto liquidationist and would tend to strengthen the more established formations. However, we will seek opportunities to criticize other oppositional caucuses and differentiate our fraction from them.
The danger we face at the hands of unscrupulous opponents, and the general need for security, was underlined when one of our members was fired for being a communist, disguised as a lay-off, just before completing the company probation period, probably because he was recognized by a member of a Stalinist ORO, which then passed the information on to its-contacts in the union bureaucracy. Despite the complete violation of seniority of the “lay-off,” and the longtime presence of radicals and left-wing activity in the plant, hard evidence of outside communist association was sufficient to accomplish this victimization.
The central character of the industry’s Midwest base area makes colonization of this area essential for the establishment of a viable fraction. This in turn requires the building of a complete branch, including provision for student work on nearby campuses, general public propaganda work, etc. Despite the heavy investment of resources and manpower required for this, and the as-yet fragile character of our fraction, the importance of this union to our exemplary trade union work and transformation into the nucleus of a vanguard party eliminates any doubt that we should undertake this move as soon as possible, consistent with our other central priorities (press expansion and augmenting the staff of qualified cadre in the center), hopefully by the Summer of ,1973.
Transport- A union with a Stalinist-radical history, the central leadership made the usual decisive right turn with the onset of the Cold War period. Spurred on by a worsening economic position, the leadership became increasingly corrupt, violent and dictatorial so that today it is one of the most bureaucratic unions in the country. Thus, the struggle for internal union democracy has played a large part in all oppositional formations, including ours.
The overriding problem facing the union has been the shrinkage of U.S. merchant transport due to foreign competition and “runaway” U.S. carriers.The deterioration of its economic base has eroded the union’s position, a trend qualitatively accelerated in the past 3-5 years. As a result the membership is relatively old and there are severe restrictions against new members. The membership is simultaneously open to radical solutions to the problem of maritime unemployment and desperately conservative. Thus, it is one of the unions in the country in which pension rights and benefits are major issues.
The main blows of our fraction have been directed at bureaucratic chauvinism. In addition to demands for a shorter work week, the call for the immediate nationalization of the industry and the creation of an international transport union have been extremely relevant to internal union politics. Equally important has been the struggle to eliminate the rigidly institutionalized “second-class citizenship” imposed on newer, younger members. Given the character of the membership, recruiting to our caucus has not been easy. Moreover, the union may very well be destroyed by the capitalist strangulation of the industry.
As this threat became clear with events of the past year, it was necessary to both step up the intensity of our caucus’ warning of the imminent demise of the industry under the treacherous, social-patriotic policies of the bureaucracy, and to re-affirm that, apart from the fate of the union caucus, we will seek to maintain a core of communist workers. The transport industry is a strategic international industry containing among the most militant and class-conscious groups of workers in every country. Historically, such communist workers have played a uniquely valuable role as internationalizing agencies in their national working classes.
As our oldest and best-established fraction, our leading comrades in this union have played an indispensible role in the establishment and growth of our trade union work generally, both before and during our effort at transformation, and have in addition been called upon to perform other party functions. This alone has held our caucus back from playing fully the role which it has acquired as the only viable alternative leadership group. Thus for no other reason were we prevented from having a well-known delegate at the recent (rarely-held) convention, which instituted an important new tactical turn of the bureaucracy to save its own neck by incorporating unrelated workers (heretofore used as separately-organized voting cattle to keep the central bureaucrats in power) into the union. Recent modest growth of our fraction through hiring efforts, recruitment and incorporation of more members into full membership in the union provides the basis for reversing this tendency in the next period and allowing the caucus to play a full political role.
Communications–The union was consolidated in the post-war period, the bureaucracy being formerly based on a company union and in the far right wing of the labor movement. It worked closely with the company and the government anti-communist apparatus, being a major funnel of CIA funds into the labor movement. Since the mid-1960’s, the industry has experienced considerable expansion requiring an increased labor force and a resultant inflow of young workers. The combination of youthful radicalism with the general rise of rank-and-file militancy in the late 1960’s produced numerous and large wildcat strikes, notably an exceptionally long and bitter one in New York City. The bureaucracy’s policy of starving wildcat strikes out has left a certain residue of demoralization. However, this large and growing union with its youthful and dynamic membership will undoubtedly be in the vanguard of a new upsurge of labor radicalism.
The main base of our caucus is the West Coast. It has established itself as a real oppositional pole and recruited potential communist cadre. In particular, it has won over a group of women militants originally organized around radical feminist politics. This is significant because a main element in our caucus program is the elimination of the rigid sexual division within the industry, with large numbers of women workers being in company unions. Attempts to extend the West Coast base through implantation in other areas has, as yet, not been successful. However, the creation of a nationwide caucus in this union remains a basic priority in our industrialization policy.
The importance of our caucus to the life of the union, and the extent of its threat to the uniquely debased and cynical local officialdom, has prompted both a high degree of ORO-backed left social-democratic demagogery and the most vicious, depraved and physically violent attacks ever suffered by our members in the trade unions. Burdened both by inexperience and the ravages of the recent spate of clique departures, our local leadership is nevertheless performing valiently and courageously under intense pressure.
In addition to the SL, a closely competing left-wing organization has made the union one of its major caucus-building targets. We have already engaged in sharp struggles with this tendency on the West Coast. It is likely that the communications union will be a major battleground between the SL and this “revolutionary” left social-democratic tendency.
Public employee- This large section of the labor force has been generally unorganized and is facing uncommon economic pressures due to the fiscal crisis of state and local government. Therefore, the public employee union is the most rapidly growing in the country and is quite likely to become the largest. Due to the presence of many young college graduates the union is relatively politically open and has mirrored the campus radicalism of the 1960’s. It was the first major union to take an anti-war position and its bureaucracy has played a key role in the liberal anti-war movement. With its growth and organic ties to the state apparatus, it has become one of the most important unions in Democratic Party politics.
As part of its general expansion, the union has absorbed a number of police and prison armed forces, thereby breaking the long-standing Gompersite (!) tradition against allowing the main strike-breakers into the organized labor movement. With the union’s liberal image and significant black and minority membership, this will be an explosive issue and one which our caucus has and will continue to focus on.
Located in the most radical section of the union, in which organizing drives against a reactionary state bureaucracy are the key question, our caucus has stood forth both as exemplary organizersand oppositionists, combatting the central bureaucracy’s efforts to quell the organizing and acquire large dues-paying membership blocks through mergers with company-union “associations,” and has made a noticeable impact at state and national conventions. In an arena heavily penetrated by OROs., our comrades have had an opportunity to conduct work and recruitment on a high level. While we will have to gut the leadership of this caucus in order to implement our more central perspective for work in II, we will retain the caucus for its excellent short-term recruitment perspective.
Due to its social composition and relatively open character, direct recruitment to the party will be easier than in other unions. For the same reasons, it will be a union in which there will be the most open competition between organizations claiming to be revolutionary. Since the union is easily accessible to our membership, it will be used as a back-up for members who can’t get into more selected fractions rather than as a primary target for implantation.
24 November 1972
[Adopted by Third National Conference, 25 November.,1972]