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Get Militant or Die: Labor Unions in the Age of Crisis

Strongly-worded letters and lobbying campaigns only weaken the power of labor. To survive the interlocking economic, biological, and ecological crises already underway, working people will have to turn their unions into organizations for class struggle. 

James Dennis Hoff

April 3, 2020
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Matt Rourke | Associated Press/Sou Mi

On March 27, nine of the biggest unions in New York State (including those representing nurses, clerical workers, public school teachers, retail workers, and university faculty and staff) sent an open letter to Governor Cuomo regarding the projected 2021 budget shortfall and the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus epidemic. The letter — a masterpiece of euphemistic doublespeak and misdirection — is a perfect example of everything that is wrong with the labor bureaucracy. After several paragraphs of mawkish praise for Cuomo and liberal prattle about how the rich and poor are all in this together (how we will all have to “tighten our belts” as it were), the authors politely “urge” the Governor to ask the very wealthy to “reach just a little bit deeper” to cover the budget gap. While this demand to fund the budget through small increases in taxes on the very wealthy is better than nothing at all, these measures are embarrassingly insufficient. In the face of what is shaping up to be the biggest economic and health crisis the world has faced in a century, working people need unions that are ready to fight for the whole class. 

Unfortunately such deferential and timid tactics are pretty standard practice for most labor bureaucrats . Rather than challenging Cuomo’s leadership, rather than utilizing the direct power of working people to make and win demands for the entire class — as unions in France and Italy have done — the signatories to this letter have instead chosen to ingratiate themselves to the Governor and the legislature, reinforcing the fallacy that the state is and can be a fair arbiter of class conflict. Such a conciliatory approach is not only ineffective, it has, over time, led New York unions and unions across the country down a path toward weakness and irrelevancy.Unless there is a radical shift in tactics spearheaded by the rank and file, it will surely lead to even more economic disaster for working people. 

The Budget Game

Since before the health crisis struck NYC, Governor Cuomo had already been making noises — as he does every year around this time — about necessary cuts to the budget. But now that the fallout of the virus is beginning to take a financial toll on the state, he has started to use it as an excuse to cut the budget even more. Facing a supposed $6 billion shortfall before the outbreak, the governor had already rejected calls to increase taxes, particularly on his friends in the real estate industry. Instead, as Left Voice reported, he has proposed massive cuts to the Medicaid budget, which will further devastate public hospitals across New York. Since the outbreak, he has insinuated that further cuts to education will also be needed to close the widening budget gap. While these cuts would be hard to bear under any circumstances, they will be especially difficult following the decades of austerity budgets that have left public services such as schools, hospitals, the MTA, and colleges and universities woefully underfunded and unprepared for the crisis. In fact, just since 2000, New York State lost almost 21,000 hospital beds, and not one of them has been restored during Cuomo’s two terms as Governor. The city is now, according to some estimates, as much as 87,000 beds short of the needed capacity to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. Meanwhile the Governor has made it clear that he has zero intention of raising taxes and has repeatedly argued that any new taxes on the wealthy or on Wall Street would lead to capital flight, a claim that doesn’t seem to be supported by any actual evidence, but which nonetheless shows where the governor’s priorities are and just how much political power capital wields in Albany when compared to working people.

In this climate the tepid demands from union leaders show how weak and unprepared they have been historically to address these annual manufactured budget crises and why playing the budget game is a terrible way to build real power. For years, New York unions, often under the direction of their national affiliates, have endorsed and helped collect millions of dollars for local, state,and federal Democratic Party candidates in the hope of receiving in return some political influence when it comes to state budgets or labor legislation. The Democrats have, for their part, given very little in return. Nationally, inequality has skyrocketed, union membership has been decimated, and reactionary anti-labor laws have flourished in states across the country. Even with a state-wide Democratic Party trifecta (Governor, Senate, and Assembly) New York budgets have continued to be slashed, unions have failed to grow, and working people in general have continued to suffer. During this same period, New York has not seen a major disruptive strike in the public or private sector since the TWU strike of 2005. 

This inaction has led to a situation where most rank and file union members are largely alienated from class struggle and regard their unions as mere service providers. As a consequence, many unions, such as the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), which represents more than 30,000 workers at the City University of New York, have a difficult time getting even 500 members out to a rally, much less building the organizational infrastructure needed for a successful strike. Meanwhile, UFT leaders have openly discouraged any kind of job-related actions out of deference to the state’s anti-union Taylor Law, which forbids strikes by public sector unions. By playing the budget game in Albany every year and refusing to challenge the no-strike clause of the Taylor Law, these unions have given up their one real source of power: their ability to withhold their labor to win real gains for themselves and for the class as a whole.

An Emergency Program for the Unions

While ensuring adequate funding for public services is important, it is beyond shameful that, at a time when the working class is facing its most pressing challenge since the Great Depression, the biggest unions in the state are asking for so little. The lives and livelihoods of millions of working people are on the line, and union bureaucrats cannot be bothered to make even the most basic demands to protect their workers and other working people across the system from potential economic ruin. This is especially surprising for the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), whose members have been hit hard by the quarantine, not to mention the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), whose members risk illness or death every single working day.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Taken together, the eight unions that signed onto the letter to Cuomo represent a total of 2.5 million workers and are thus in a unique position to win real concessions from the state in this time of crisis. From schools, universities, and hospitals to state and city offices, utilities. and construction, these unions, along with students and the broader working class, have the ability to shut down the entire state if they put their minds to it. Taxing the rich to fund the next budget might temporarily provide some relief from public sector layoffs, but as organizations of the working class, unions must fight for more than merely the immediate interests of their members. When the entire economy comes crashing down, as it likely will, when millions of New York workers are unemployed and on the verge of eviction, what then? 

Working people need guaranteed wages and protection from layoffs; they need access to safe and stable housing and a moratorium on all rents and mortgage payments; and most importantly — especially in the midst of this health crisis — they need free and accessible medical care. And it is a profound failure of the leaders of these unions not to be making more radical demands upon the state. However, it is most important, in the short term at least, that unions fight to protect the immediate health of working people by demanding that all non-essential production be halted and that productive resources be repurposed in order to face the crisis, such as GE workers recently did. If the capitalist owners and the state can’t meet these basic demands, then the workers themselves, with the help and support of unions, need to take over their workplaces, their schools, their apartment buildings, and their hospitals, and put them to use feeding, clothing, housing, and providing medical care for working people, with not a dime for the capitalists.

Defeating the Labor Bureaucracy

One of the most disheartening contradictions of all this, however, is that several of these unions, including RWDSU, PSC CUNY, and NYSNA, have a reputation of practicing social justice unionism — at least on paper. For instance, many of them have taken strong political positions on Medicare for All, fossil fuel divestment, immigrant rights, and minimum wage increases, but such positions are rarely backed up with any action beyond letter-writing campaigns, lobbying, and maybe the occasional canned civil disobedience demonstration designed for the television cameras, that do nothing to build the actual power and organization of working people.

This is because most labor leaders are largely disconnected from the struggles of ordinary working people and think of themselves not as workers but as mere representatives of their members, tasked with nothing more than negotiating better benefits and wages. And  they believe that the best way to do this is to insinuate themselves within the larger representative system of bourgeois government in order to maintain the stability and safety of their organizations and their own positions as leaders within those organizations. By spending millions of dollars and thousands of hours lobbying for Democrats, they focus on buying friends within the system rather than challenging the system itself. In other words, most labor leaders are standard bearers of the status quo and their view of the world is the view of a bourgeois politician. As representatives, they feel tasked with providing a service to their members and little more. If they do well, if they win what they consider decent contracts or manage to pass legislation that is generally amenable to labor, they feel vindicated in dismissing or squashing any more radical demands that might arise from the rank and file that threaten the stability of their leadership. To the labor bureaucrat, a union is just another special interest group, one of many competing entities seeking to win the greatest possible share of a shrinking pie. For them, the boss is not a class enemy, but merely a competitor to be bested within the law. Labor peace is traded for crumbs, and when strikes are demanded, they are brief and the demands are minimal. 

But again, it doesn’t have to be this way. Unions have historically played massive roles in workers’ struggles, especially in times of real crisis and unrest. And even today we are already seeing the beginnings of a larger struggle in the spontaneous rank and file wildcat actions by workers on the frontlines of the pandemic at workplaces like Amazon, Fiat-Chrysler, Whole Foods, and Instacart to name just a few. This is a promising development and shows that workers are willing to take action to protect themselves and their families even when their leaders are not. Most of these strikes, however, have so far been limited to small numbers of often unorganized workers who can face fierce retaliation. To win the kinds of demands needed to survive this crisis, workers will have to learn again how to push their entire unions toward more large scale struggles. 

To do this, rank and file members need to shake off their dependence upon established leaderships and build political organizations independent of the Democratic Party that can directly challenge both the state and the collaborationist union bureaucracy. Union leaders must be forced to take on more radical demands, and rank and file workers and unions must prioritize the unity of the working class by forging a united front  with non-unionized workers, undocumented immigrants, and the unemployed in order to directly challenge the state. This is the only way that working people will be able to build the state-wide and city-wide strike actions that are going to be needed to defend working people from the horrors on the horizon, including: mass evictions, mass layoffs, mass incarceration, and crackdowns on homeless and indigent populations, immigrants, and the poor. 

As the economic crisis drags on, these conditions are only going to get worse and the real consequences of business as usual are going to become more and more apparent to ordinary working people. Breaking the spell of leadership will be tough, but it is an essential part of any program to transform our unions into organizations capable of really fighting for the interests of the class. 


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James Dennis Hoff

James Dennis Hoff is a writer, educator, labor activist, and member of the Left Voice editorial board. He teaches at The City University of New York.


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