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United Front and the Fight Against the Union Bureaucracy

The workers’ united front does not mean peaceful coexistence with the union bureaucracy. It warrants knowing when to break with it. The positions achieved by leftists or socialist groupings within unions or shop-floor committees cannot be prioritized over principled fights.

Juan Cruz Ferre

September 19, 2016
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Photo: From the documentary Still the Enemy Within, directed by Owen Gower.

In the face of attacks from the capitalist class, revolutionaries often call for a workers’ united front: an alliance among working-class organizations with the purpose of fighting back against the bosses’ attacks (by “bosses” or “capitalist class,” I do not exclusively mean employers and firms, as these attacks are often implemented by the State and its institutions, ie., national and state legislatures, municipal governments and councils, the judiciary system).

In the United States today, “working-class organizations” largely means labor unions–since there is no labor party and the revolutionary left does not hold mass influence. These working class mass organizations are greatly weakened by decades of employers offensive against the working class. However, they still have millions of members.

The united front can be a defensive measure, for example, to a ban on labor strikes, anti-union laws, or police brutality. The widespread labor resistance that rallied in defense of the right to collective bargaining in Wisconsin 2011 can be considered a united front. It also gained the support of students and community organizations.

Why should revolutionaries call for a united front tactic to resist these kinds of attacks?

First, to allow workers to fight united as a class against any assault on their rights. Second, the more rights we have as workers, the better positioned we are to fight for more–in terms of both morale and democratic rights.

But apart from this, the united front allows revolutionaries to gain experience using working-class fighting methods–mobilizations, strikes, roadblocks, pickets–with a large sector of workers, not only those already under their influence.

This last aspect of the united front is central for revolutionaries: it has strategic consequences. While engaging in battles alongside reformist organizations, revolutionaries gain opportunities to speak directly with workers and communities in struggle, share their ideas, and most importantly, demonstrate through experience that they are the most resolute fighters and will continue the fight to the end, whereas the union bureaucracy will sooner or later betray.

During the Wisconsin uprising, after a month of intense struggle that included the occupation of the capitol buildings in Madison, daily protests, teachers’ sick-outs and demonstrations of over 100,000, officials from the main unions involved decided to pull the plug.

Despite labor’s extraordinary show of strength and the massive popular support, the union leadership abandoned almost all action and decided to divert energies toward a recall campaign against Scott Walker. This proved to be a dead end.

The example of Wisconsin is far from an isolated case. It’s the norm.

Let’s take the fight for a $15 minimum wage, a defensive fight against the decades-long decline in real wages. The SEIU, the union behind the Fight For 15 campaign, has managed to deploy a nationwide showdown around this progressive demand. However, since the beginning of the presidential elections, SEIU officials have backed Hillary Clinton, a candidate who made clear she did not endorse the $15/hr demand.

Union officials’ throwing support to Clinton is a move against the significant increase for the lowest-paid workers that they are ostensibly pushing for. This is a classic example of union leadership lining up behind the Democratic Party and the capitalist class that controls it.

A major task for left-wing militants is to wrest the union from the hands of the bureaucracy and win them back for workers.

To cite a more blatant example of capitulation, this time by Rusty Hicks, head of the Los Angeles County AFL-CIO Federation of Labor: after years of campaigning for a $15 minimum, LA City Council grudgingly passed a wage hike (that will not take full effect until 2020). Within a few weeks, Hicks called for a special exemption for union members from this (apparently unreasonably high) minimum wage. The justification was that employers would supposedly feel more compelled to sign contracts with unions if they can pay lower wages.

Union Bureaucracy

Union officials assume the task of representing workers and are supposed to advance their demands in opposition to the bosses and the State. At the same time, union executives form a privileged layer, often receiving material benefits above and beyond the remuneration of their rank-and-file base (ie., six-figure salaries). Thus, the leadership often becomes detached from the base, acquiring its own goals and interests. This union bureaucracy can be found throughout the world, though it has become especially pervasive and firmly-planted in the United States.

Leaving aside the ultra-left refusal to work inside the unions, the united front tactic is sometimes used by left groupings as an excuse for peaceful coexistence with union bureaucrats. However, it should be all about confronting and exposing them. A major task for left-wing militants is to wrest the union from the hands of the bureaucracy and win them back for workers. This necessarily means a tooth-and-nail fight against the union bureaucracy, not a gradual conquest of positions in the context of a long-term cohabitation. As we wage this fight, we can accomplish the strategic goal intrinsic to the united front: to win over the majority of the working class to revolutionary socialism.

The united front tactic was discussed at length during the 4th Congress of the Communist International. The resolutions of the Congress stated:

The united front tactic is simply an initiative whereby the Communists propose to join with all workers belonging to other parties and groups and all unaligned workers in a common struggle to defend the immediate, basic interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie. Every action, for even the most trivial everyday demand, can lead to revolutionary awareness and revolutionary education; it is the experience of struggle that will convince workers of the inevitability of revolution and the historic importance of Communism.

And also:

It is particularly important when using the united front tactic to achieve not just agitational but also organisational results. Every opportunity must be used to establish organisational footholds among the working masses themselves (factory committees, supervisory commissions made up of workers from all the different parties and unaligned workers, action committees, etc.).

As we wage this fight, we can accomplish the strategic goal intrinsic to the united front: to win over the majority of the working class to revolutionary socialism.

Unions can serve as strongholds or “trenches” for workers in bourgeois democratic societies, as described by Antonio Gramsci. But labor unions and other worker organizations in Gramsci’s “integral state” also take on the role of policing the working class from within. Sometimes this becomes explicit and public, as in the 1950s when American union leadership forced members to make anti-communist oaths. Usually though, the suppression of radical unionism is assured through bribery and corruption, co-optation or ostracism.

For this reason, the stance for revolutionary socialists within the unions is in opposition to the bureaucracy. Richard Hyman dubbed this orientation towards unionism, “unions as a school of war.” This means considering unions as a space to develop working-class capacity to organize for class struggle, to advance revolutionary ideas and convince workers of the need for revolutionary politics.

A United Front Against Racist Police Brutality

The struggle against racism in the United States has demonstrated its potential as a space of indictment of the current political system, for political organization and radicalization.

At the same time, the struggle against racism has long been a central problem for unions. Often, we see the unions put up tepid or no resistance against racism. Union leaders over the years have even acted as proponents of anti-worker, racist and imperialist attacks (i.e., the denial of full and equal rights for undocumented workers, the proliferation of subcontracting and multi-tiered payment systems, the mass super-exploitation of incarcerated people who are disproportionately Black and indigenous, capitalist urban development that displaces people of color, and the waging of imperialist wars through the decades).

As Michael Yates put it , “The labor movement needs to get its own house in order around race.”

Despite much talk about fighting racism, even by Richard Trumka, the top union bureaucrat in the US , there haven’t been any large scale actions in this regard. Oakland portworkers went on strike “against police terror” on May Day 2015, and some locals have marched to protest racist killings by police. However, no major union has called or even threatened to strike against police brutality.

How can unions denounce and fight against racist police brutality, when they also represent the cops?

Philando Castile was killed by a police officer in Minnesota. His union of 14 years, Teamsters Local 320 also represents cops in the same district. Unions are supposed to fight for the interests of the working class. But how can unions denounce and fight against racist police brutality, when they also represent the cops? In this context, the demand, cops out of our unions gains utmost relevancy.

The Teamsters have a democratic rank-and-file caucus: Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). How does their vision of democracy relate to the fight against racism and police brutality? The TDU, all radical caucuses, rank-and-file workers, and supporters should join us to fight for cops out of our unions.

In LA, there is a new, local initiative to introduce the strike as a weapon against police brutality. Strike Against Police Terror (StrAPT) is a working-class collective that organizes the most oppressed including Black, trans, undocumented immigrant and disabled people to fight back against police brutality with the most powerful measure workers have: the strike.

Offensive-defensive, a dynamic relation

There is no question that workers in the US have been on retreat for at least fourty years, if not longer. The unionization rate has fallen accordingly to a historic low of 11 percent today. We need to defend unions from the attacks of the government and ruling class. However, this cannot be mistaken with defending union officialdom, which is to a large extent responsible for the disarray of unions.

We should not conceal or condone unions’ racist practices (e.g., east coast port workers who kept their locals segregated throughout the first half of the 20th century). We must harshly criticize officials’ unwillingness to organize undocumented immigrant workers and fight for their conditions; and criticize their unwillingness to mobilize broadly against police brutality. We must differentiate ourselves from the sexist, racist and corporatist attitudes of the labor movement over the years.

Revolutionaries must fight within the unions to gain a hegemonic position over the different factions and tendencies within the labor movement–namely, reformists and bureaucratic leadership. In doing so, workers come to see revolutionary socialists as those who are capable of providing a definitive solution to their problems through a strategy to end capitalist exploitation.

Only by putting up a principled and relentless battle starting now against racism, sexism and all forms of oppression, will the most oppressed sectors of the working class be “won over” to a revolutionary program.

As mentioned earlier, the united front is usually proposed as a defensive tactic. However, no good defense fails to contain within it plans for a future attack. Securing a position in a union by muting criticism or colluding with the bureaucracy is the same as abandoning any perspective for an offensive.

The shift to the offensive will take place in a revolutionary situation. It requires workers’ united front formations to operate democratically, gain broad extension (e.g., in the form of workers’ councils, inter-factory coordination) and gain recognition by the masses of workers. Within these formations, revolutionaries will fight for their program to win the majority and defy the rule of capital–the capitalist state.

The fight against the union bureaucracy is part of this long-term strategy.

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