Globalization and the International Working Class: A Marxist Assessment
Statement of the International Committee of the Fourth International

Part Five

I. Mythologizing the CIO

In asserting that the answer to the crisis facing the workers' movement is for the AFL-CIO to "play hardball," Spartacist hearkens back to a mythical past of the American unions. This is based on an extremely one-sided and, therefore, false presentation of the origins and early evolution of the CIO. In reality, the seeds of the subsequent degeneration of the unions were already present in the political foundations upon which the CIO was established.

It is certainly the case that the Congress of Industrial Organizations emerged in the second half of the 1930s as the product of a mass upsurge of the industrial working class. The Depression fueled a social movement with revolutionary implications. The socio-economic catastrophe generated not only explosive discontent, it undermined the confidence of tens of millions in the capitalist system itself.

But it was by no means foreordained that this movement would be restricted to a struggle for industrial unions, rather than developing into a revolutionary, political movement, directed consciously against the capitalist system. That the upsurge never went beyond a narrow trade union form, institutionalized moreover in a labor movement based on the defense of the profit system and the political subordination of the working class to the capitalist parties, was the result, in the first instance, of the calculated actions of the CIO leadership, working in tandem with the Roosevelt administration and utilizing the political support of the Stalinist Communist Party.

Those within the top leadership of the old American Federation of Labor who broke with their fellow bureaucrats in 1935 to establish the CIO -- John L. Lewis, Sidney Hillman and others -- set out to channel the rising militancy of mass production workers into an industrial union organization that would be loyal to the profit system and would obtain the official sanction of the capitalist state. They acted in response to unmistakable signs that the working class was beginning to move along a revolutionary trajectory, and that socialist forces were beginning to win a mass audience. The year before, general strike movements had rocked three major cities -- San Francisco, Toledo and Minneapolis, and in each case socialists, Stalinists and Trotskyists had played leading roles.

Roosevelt responded by pushing through the Wagner Act, providing legal sanction for the formation of unions and establishing the National Labor Relations Board to regulate the establishment of industrial unions and bring the force of the state to bear on their political character. There is no question that his administration encouraged Lewis and company in their effort to establish an industrial union movement that would be subservient to the basic interests of American capitalism. This was of a piece with his New Deal reforms, which represented a more far-sighted defense of the profit system, against the threat of socialist revolution, than many leading American capitalists at the time were capable of conceiving or accepting. The top CIO leaders shared this basic aim, and their ability to consolidate the CIO was ultimately dependent on the sympathy of the federal government under Roosevelt.

A detailed analysis of the early years of the CIO is beyond the scope of this statement, but the most salient facts demonstrate the degree to which the consolidation of the industrial unions in America depended on the support of the federal government. Following the victory of the sit-down strike against General Motors in early 1937 -- which erupted largely behind the backs of the top CIO leaders and was, to a great extent, led by local militants and socialists -- most of the major organizing struggles of the CIO met with defeat.

The only significant breakthrough the CIO achieved in steel prior to 1941, was US Steel's agreement to recognize the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) in March of 1937, just a few weeks after the auto workers' victory at GM. And this came not as the result of a struggle, but rather a corporate decision made by US Steel executives, who concluded that SWOC would serve as a stabilizing force in the mills.

The drive to organize the second tier of major steel manufacturers, the so-called "Little Steel" firms such as Bethlehem, Republic and Inland, met with violent resistance from the employers and collapsed in the summer of 1937. By that point the CIO as a whole was foundering. The fundamental incompatibility of the right-wing political perspective and class collaborationist orientation of the CIO leadership with the aspirations and needs of the working class was already evident.

In 1938, Leon Trotsky urged the Socialist Workers Party, then the Trotskyist movement in the US, to adopt the demand for the CIO to break from Roosevelt and establish a labor party, and to elaborate a socialist program of transitional demands for such a party. He did so precisely to give the SWP a tactical lever for freeing the mass movement from the stifling framework of reformist trade unionism. The new union movement had reached an impasse, he explained, and the upsurge of the working class would either take an independent political form, or it would be driven back and demoralized.

Two years later he wrote: "The rise of the CIO is incontrovertible evidence of the revolutionary tendencies within the working masses. Indicative and noteworthy in the highest degree, however, is the fact that the new 'leftist' trade union organization was no sooner founded than it fell into the steel embrace of the imperialist state. The struggle among the tops between the old federation and the new is reducible in large measure to the struggle for the sympathy and support of Roosevelt and his cabinet."1

Prior to 1941, the real membership of the CIO never reached the 2 million mark. At the beginning of that year the United Mine Workers and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, the two previously established unions that had formed the backbone of the CIO at its founding, accounted for some 40 percent of dues-paying members. The total number of workers actually brought into unions under the auspices of the CIO had rarely reached a million. The United Auto Workers, SWOC and the United Rubber Workers had a combined dues-paying membership of under 200,000, fewer than the Amalgamated Clothing Workers alone.

The year 1941 saw the real consolidation of the CIO. The labor federation and its affiliates won union contracts at Ford, the Little Steel companies, the major electronics manufacturers and other vital sectors of industry. Union security provisions, such as the automatic dues checkoff, made their appearance, as did no-strike clauses, binding grievance procedures and other measures designed to contain the militancy of the rank-and-file.

But this growth and consolidation underscored the reliance of the CIO on the support of the government, and further institutionalized the statist character of the new unions, because it was directly bound up with the preparations of American imperialism to enter World War II. The Roosevelt administration supported the union victories in early 1941 and cultivated the CIO leadership, because it saw the CIO as a necessary and critical force for mobilizing the industrial working class behind the war and imposing the labor discipline which the war would require.

The CIO leadership, for its part, eagerly sought and gratefully accepted the more aggressive backing of the federal government. It argued that union recognition and the establishment of contracts were vital to stabilizing the home front and securing the interests of American capitalism in the global conflict. Already in 1940, the UAW's Walter Reuther presented a plan for union collaboration with management and the government in the expansion and coordination of war production and in May of that year, Roosevelt appointed Hillman to the National Defense Advisory Commission.

Throughout the war the CIO's basic role was to enforce labor discipline. Immediately following Pearl Harbor, both the CIO and the AFL voluntarily adopted no-strike pledges and agreed to enforce wage controls. The CIO, through its participation in the National War Labor Board, collaborated with big business and the government to police the working class, whose militancy remained at a high level, as reflected in the scores of strikes that erupted in defiance of the no-strike pledge.

The CIO presented itself as the epitome of patriotic support for the war effort and, more generally, the "American way of life." President Phillip Murray and other CIO leaders published tracts calling for the permanent establishment of corporatist relations between the unions, the employers and the state, including the formation of industrial councils and other joint labor-management structures.

In return for its role in suppressing the class struggle, the CIO demanded the extension and institutionalization of union security measures, such as the closed shop, firm contracts and, above all, the dues checkoff. It argued that these were necessary to strengthen the union apparatus in holding the workers in check. "The union," declared one CIO tract of the period, "assumes the responsibility to see that no stoppages of work occur, that all workers adhere to the contract machinery to settle grievances peacefully, and that wages and other vital cost factors are pegged generally for the life of the contracts."2 Without a union shop and the dues checkoff, the argument continued, union officials would be forced to accommodate themselves to dissident workers, whose withholding of dues would serve as a form of blackmail.

On this corporatist foundation CIO membership rose dramatically in the course of the war, as did the treasuries of the CIO and its affiliated unions. The bureaucracy consolidated its grip over the mass of workers on the basis of its newfound wealth and the official sanction of the state.

With the emergence of the Cold War, the CIO threw off its lingering radical pretensions and aligned itself firmly behind the anti-communist crusade of American capitalism. The purge of left-wing and socialist elements, on the one hand, and the participation in US efforts to subvert radical and pro-Soviet labor organizations around the world, on the other, were the logical outcome of the political orientation of the CIO from its formation.

II. Spartacist's defense of the AFL-CIO

In an attempt to sustain their position, the Spartacists must gloss over the actual record of the AFL-CIO, especially in the course of the past two decades -- an entire historical period during which the unions have collaborated with the ruling class to impose huge setbacks on the working class. It must ignore the many expressions of a change in the relationship of the trade union bureaucracy to the working class on the one side, and the bourgeoisie on the other.

It must overlook the empirical indices of the decline of the AFL-CIO, and it must disregard the fact that the decay of the trade unions is not a purely American, but rather a universal, international phenomenon. It must further grossly distort the historical attitude of Marxism toward trade unionism.

The Spartacist League's nationalist politics impel it to give political support to the American trade union bureaucracy, the most backward and openly reactionary of any labor bureaucracy in the world. In the AFL-CIO the universal tendencies of the trade unions toward bureaucratism, class collaboration and integration into the structure of the capitalist state find their crudest expression.

As a social layer, the AFL-CIO bureaucracy is distinguished by its narrowness of vision, unscrupulousness in pursuit of personal gain, parasitism, cringing before the bourgeoisie, fear and hatred of the working class, and outright criminality. The unions are led by aspiring petty-bourgeois elements who have an aversion to honest labor and latch onto the union apparatus as a means of obtaining a level of wealth and status otherwise beyond the reach of their limited talents and intelligence. In its totality, the bureaucracy embodies a social element similar to that which finds its natural abode in the ranks of organized crime, and it is by no means an accident that the American unions have been so closely linked to the Mafia.

Despite its miserable record in upholding the interests of the union rank-and-file, the basic personnel of the bureaucracy remains the same year after year. Corporate CEOs are routinely tossed aside when their performance fails to meet the expectations of their major shareholders, but the leaders of the AFL-CIO survive one debacle after another. No serious, middle-sized business would tolerate the ineptitude shown by the AFL-CIO leadership. The fact that within the unions such incompetence goes unpunished is a testament to the sclerotic character of these organizations.

In the first place, they are devoid of any real democracy. Workers who attempt to oppose the policies of the leadership are routinely intimidated and not infrequently attacked. In no area of American life are working people so bereft of democratic rights as in the unions. The immovable character of the AFL-CIO leadership is, in the second place, an expression of the deep-seated alienation of rank-and-file workers from the entire union apparatus. The chasm that separates the bureaucracy from the membership, let alone the far larger sections of the working class that stand outside the unions, is expressed in the general distrust and even disgust which workers feel for these organizations.

In their attempt to deny any objective basis for the decay of the unions, the Spartacists pile up contradictions and anomalies they cannot answer. They demand that the AFL-CIO do all sorts of militant things, including mass picketing, mass strikes, international strike action, etc. But why should anyone believe that the AFL-CIO is either willing or able to undertake such measures when it has increasingly repudiated even the most limited forms of class struggle? Why is the actual trajectory of the AFL-CIO in precisely the opposite direction?

Before telling workers they should devote their energies to forcing the AFL-CIO to carry out mass strikes, is not one obliged to give serious thought to the fact that the actual level of official strike action has been plummeting for years, reaching a historic low of 37 major strikes in 1996?

In its perspectives document, the Spartacist League advances as the center of its strategy for the unions, the demand that the AFL-CIO launch a massive drive to organize the South. This, they claim, will enable the unions to recover their lost prestige within the working class.

But they never consider an obvious problem. Shortly after World War II the CIO announced with great fanfare a drive to organize the South. It was a miserable failure. And that was in the immediate aftermath of the strike wave of 1945-46, the most massive in US history. It was, moreover, at a time when some 70 percent of the workers in basic industry were unionized, the CIO bureaucracy had yet to carry out its anti-communist purge of radical and socialist elements, and the spirit of shop-floor militancy stemming from the sit-down strikes of the late 1930s was still alive.

How is one to explain the inability of the CIO of the mid-to-late 1940s to organize the South? And if the official labor movement of that period was unable to carry out this task, why should any thinking worker harbor illusions that its present, much decayed offspring is up to the challenge?

To declare that it is simply a matter of bad leaders answers nothing. If the explanation for the past two decades of betrayed and defeated strikes, broken unions, contract concessions and declining membership rolls is the subjective qualities of the union tops, then that must mean the previous lot of union leaders -- George Meany, Walter Reuther, I W Abel, etc. -- who presided over generally rising wages and benefits and a much larger dues base, were "good." Or if one does not wish to make such a distinction in the leading personnel of the unions, then how does one account for the sharp decline? Why did the union leadership universally adopt such treacherous policies?

III. The degeneration of the unions -- an international phenomenon

Why, moreover, are unions all over the world carrying out similar policies? Why are they embracing labor-management corporatism and handing back to the employers gains won by previous generations of the working class? In the opening article of its series on globalization, the Spartacist League acknowledges in passing the universal character of this process. It states:

"From the American Midwest to the German Ruhr, labor officials are telling their workers: 'If you don't accept a wage freeze or even a cut in wages and benefits, the bosses will close down your plant and shift production to India or Mexico.'"3

The decline in the membership and power of trade unions is clearly a global development. The American unions have seen the most spectacular decline, falling from their high of 35 percent of the labor force in the post-World War II period to 14.8 percent in 1996. If one considers only the private sector, the collapse is even more dramatic. In 1996 a mere 10.2 percent of private sector workers were union members. This is an even lower percentage than that attained by the old American Federation of Labor.

The same trend is to be seen in Europe, Japan and Australia. Between 1980 and 1990 union membership in Great Britain fell from 47 percent to 34 percent of the work force. By 1996 that figure had fallen to 25 percent. In the course of the 1980s, union membership in France declined from 17.5 percent to 9.8 percent. The total membership of the German Federation of Unions fell from 11,800,000 in 1991, the year of east-west unification, to 8,973,000 in 1996, a decline of 24 percent. In Japan unionization fell from 1980 to 1990 from 31.1 percent to 25.4 percent. By 1996, the figure in Japan had dropped to 23.2 percent. From 1986 to 1996 the percentage of workers in Australia who were union members fell from 46 percent to 31 percent.

But if this is an international phenomenon, is it not then clearly more than a matter of the subjective motives of individuals? The American trade unions, with their crude anti-communism and chauvinism, and their gangster-ridden bureaucracies, may be an extreme example, but they nevertheless embody universal characteristics of contemporary trade unions and typify the reactionary evolution of trade unionism internationally. The Spartacists never asks themselves what accounts for this remarkable uniformity.

The driving forces that have accelerated and deepened the degeneration of the unions, and brought to the fore, in their fullest development, the reactionary tendencies inherent in the trade union form of organization, are to be found not, in the subjective motives of trade union leaders, but rather in the vast changes in world economy associated with the globalization of production, the international mobility of capital and the unfettered sway of the world market over every national economy.

The Spartacist League condemns the assessment of the AFL-CIO made by the Socialist Equality Party in the US. It rejects the SEP's analysis of the enormous decline of the US labor movement over the past two decades without making any serious analysis of its own. This in itself exposes the Spartacist League's pretensions to being a Marxist organization.

The bitter defeats suffered by the working class during this period represent a strategic experience whose causes and lessons must be assimilated, if the workers' movement is to be revived on viable political and organizational foundations. A review of this record shows that the AFL-CIO's collaboration in the destruction of the past gains of the working class was the response of the trade union bureaucracy to the deepening crisis of American capitalism and the growing threat to its markets and profits from increasingly powerful international rivals.

Indeed, within a few years of the breakdown of the Bretton Woods monetary system in 1971, which signaled the end of the hegemonic economic position the US had enjoyed after World War II, the United Auto Workers and other unions made a marked turn toward the establishment of new, corporatist relations with big business. In the early 1970s, the American Big Three automakers' share of the world market was in decline. Even worse, from the standpoint of American capitalism, a large and growing portion of the domestic market was being captured by foreign companies, especially those in Germany and Japan. Similar tendencies were emerging in steel and other basic industries.

The initial attempt of US capital to confront this threat, by attacking the wages and conditions of American workers, exemplified by Nixon's wage controls of 1971-72, provoked an eruption of militant resistance. AFL-CIO President George Meany was forced to withdraw from Nixon's wage board in 1972, amid resolutions for general strike action and public calls from a number of union bodies for the launching of a labor party. In auto, a wave of local strikes broke out against the drive to cut costs by imposing speedup. Once this upsurge had been contained, General Motors, at the initiative of the UAW, instituted the first of its joint labor-management programs, called Quality of Work Life.

In 1975, the New York City unions accepted sweeping concessions and job cuts as part of a plan drawn up by Wall Street and backed by the Ford administration to avert municipal bankruptcy. This set the pattern of union give-backs that was to be initiated on a national scale a few years later.

With Carter's appointment of Paul Volcker to head the Federal Reserve Board in 1979, the ruling class initiated a deliberate policy of deflation and mass unemployment. It used the threat of plant closures and joblessness as a bludgeon against the resistance of the working class. The AFL-CIO and the UAW entered into an alliance with big business and the government to drive down the wages and conditions of the working class, so that American corporations could cut costs and intensify their exploitation of American workers, thereby improving their ability to compete with their foreign rivals. This was signaled in 1979-80 by the UAW's acceptance of contract concessions and Chrysler's agreement to bring UAW President Douglas Fraser onto the corporate board of directors, as part of the government-backed bailout of the automaker. Thus, the nationalist and pro-capitalist policies of the unions led directly to their collusion with big business, in the corporate offensive against the working class that continues to the present.

IV. A wave of defeats and betrayals

But American capitalism demanded still more from its labor lieutenants. When Reagan fired the PATCO air traffic controllers in 1981, signaling a turn on the part of the ruling class to outright unionbusting, the AFL-CIO isolated the strikers and allowed them to be smashed. Under no conditions would the bureaucracy sanction a struggle against the capitalist state. It sought to demonstrate its loyalty to the ruling class and its readiness to countenance any depredations against the working class, so long as its own position was preserved.

PATCO set the stage for the wave of defeated and betrayed strikes which continues to this day. Big and small, they number in the hundreds. The 1980s, in particular, saw some of the most bitter labor struggles since the 1920s and 30s, as workers sought to resist the assault on their wages, benefits and working conditions. But while the employers, with the backing of the government, revived the use of strikebreakers and private paramilitary forces, resulting in the deaths of strikers in a number of major struggles and the injury of hundreds more, the trade union bureaucracy isolated and sabotaged one strike after another. Scores of strikers were railroaded to long prison terms in labor frameups, under conditions in which the unions refused to publicize their cases and abandoned the victimized workers to their fate. In this way, the AFL-CIO unions systematically worked to break the militancy of the working class and help impose the demands of big business. As it oversaw the smashing of strikes and breaking of unions, the AFL-CIO handed back to the corporations previous gains in wages and working conditions won over generations of struggle.

The wages and benefits of American workers, once the highest in the world, fell below those of workers in most of Europe and Japan. With the aid of the AFL-CIO, the American ruling class transformed the US into a cheap labor haven for international capital. The prolonged boom in American corporate profits and stocks of the 1990s has been based on this erosion of working class living standards.

As union rolls declined, the combined result of corporate downsizing, unionbusting and the growing disillusionment of masses of workers with the AFL-CIO, the bureaucracy sought to establish a new, even more collusive relationship with the employers. It adopted the program of corporatism, denying any fundamental conflict between the interests of workers and employers. By means of joint union-management programs and structures, the AFL-CIO placed the union apparatus at the disposal of the capitalists and their drive to intensify the exploitation of the work-force.

The basic political framework for this renunciation of any form of independent working class struggle was economic nationalism, i.e., the call for American workers to unite with their American employers against foreign competition. The AFL-CIO indulged in flag-waving chauvinism and racist demagogy against workers of other countries, who were accused of stealing American jobs.

The trade union bureaucracy sought to insulate its economic and social interests from the impact of the economic crisis and its own treacherous policies, including the narrowing of its membership and dues base. It established new financial relations with corporate employers and investment bankers, in the form of profit-sharing arrangements, representation on corporate boards, "workers' buyouts" and "employee stock ownership plans," union-management funds and joint business ventures, and other devices. It increasingly functioned more as a labor contractor than a representative of the workers, using the jobs, wages and working conditions of union members as bargaining chips, as it negotiated for its own interests with corporate CEOs, offering wage and benefit concessions in return for shares of stock and positions on corporate boards.

A study published at the end of 1991 showed that, between 1970 and 1987, private sector union membership fell 36 percent. But the total income of the unions from all sources rose by 16 percent. This is partly explained by a sharp rise in the per capita income of the unions taken directly from the membership in the form of dues, fees and other membership payments. The bureaucracy has further compensated for the loss of membership through an increase in direct subsidies from the government. When all government funds to the unions are added up, they amount to nearly $1 billion a year. In addition, the bureaucracy receives considerable returns on its billions of dollars in assets, in the form of interest, dividends and rental income. On these economic and political foundations -- financial investments and direct subsidies from the capitalist state -- rests a very privileged petty-bourgeois layer, constituting the bureaucracy of the official unions.

Thus the past two decades have witnessed a whole series of related quantitative changes -- the level of union membership, the organizational and financial intertwining of union and management interests, the widening gap between the conditions of the workers and the privileges of the officials, the growing financial independence of the bureaucracy from the fate of the membership -- which in their sum have produced a qualitative transformation.

In the AFL-CIO apparatus, workers today confront a hostile force, whose well-being is contingent on ever worsening conditions for the working class, including the vast bulk of union members.

When Spartacist defends the AFL-CIO as "the mass organization of the working class" it never ventures outside the realm of empty abstraction. But any objective, historical review of this organization demonstrates that it has become an instrument of the trade union bureaucracy, not the working class. Indeed, on more than one occasion over the past 15 years, the AFL-CIO has worked openly to break strikes.

It is only necessary to recall one of the pivotal struggles of the 1980s to grasp the actual relationship between the AFL-CIO and the working class. When in 1985-86 striking Hormel workers in Austin, Minnesota rejected a concessionary wage agreement negotiated by the national union and sought to spread their strike to other meatpacking plants, the national union, with the full support of the AFL-CIO, publicly denounced the strikers, ordered workers to cross their picket lines, ousted the local leadership and seized control of the local, negotiated a sweetheart contract and reconstituted the local with a new membership consisting of Hormel workers who had crossed the picket line and returned to work. This betrayal exemplified not simply the subjective rottenness of the union leadership, but rather the objective transformation of the AFL-CIO into an instrument of the corporations and the capitalist state.

V. Strategy and tactics, Marxism vs. opportunism

Alongside the charge of defeatism, Spartacist marshals against the SEP and the ICFI the allegation of abstentionism in relation to the struggles of workers in the unions. This is a red herring. As any reader of The International Workers Bulletin in the US and the press of the IC sections around the world knows, our movement has never failed to intervene aggressively in the trade unions, defending the interests of the workers against the attacks of the employers and the treachery of the union bureaucracy.

What Spartacist really means by abstentionism is the SEP's refusal to base its interventions in the unions on the tactic of placing demands on the union leadership. If we fail to direct the workers along this path, they declare, we are guilty of capitulation by default to the union officialdom.

This charge highlights a fundamental and principled issue that distinguishes Marxism from the Spartacists and all other varieties of petty-bourgeois opportunism. Marxists proceed at every point from a revolutionary strategy that is derived from a historical perspective and a scientific analysis of the development of world economy and the international class struggle. The principal consideration in the elaboration of this strategy is the education of the working class, that is, the struggle to raise the political consciousness of workers to the level of the objective tasks placed before the proletariat by the crisis of capitalism.

Transformations in economic, social and political relations, from the most basic forms of production to the institutions of the bourgeoisie and the forms of organization of the working class, must be taken into account. The elaboration of such a perspective can only be based on the historical and dialectical materialist method of Marxism. The mere citation of precedent and amassing of quotations settles nothing.

Tactics, as important as they are, must be worked out on the basis of such a scientifically grounded revolutionary strategy. They must be consistent with this strategy and serve its ends.

This conception is entirely foreign to the petty-bourgeois "radicals". Their politics are of an entirely conjunctural character. For them, nothing is higher than the immediate tactic, whose raison d'etre is political expediency. To the extent that they seek a Marxist coloration for their opportunist practice, it is based on an eclectic and ahistorical approach, which treats Marxism as a dogma -- an approach entirely alien to the method and spirit of Marxism.

A prime example is the uncritical and politically reactionary orientation of Spartacist toward the trade unions, or, to be more precise, toward the trade union bureaucracy. There may be times and conditions, even in the present period, when it becomes necessary for the party to place demands on the trade unions. But to elevate this provisional and limited tactic to the status of a strategy, far from educating and strengthening the working class, is to spread the most harmful illusions among workers and bolster the most reactionary forces. To tell workers that they must place demands on the unions to do things that these organizations are neither willing nor able to do, is not to enlighten, but rather to confuse, miseducate and, ultimately, demoralize the masses.

On the contrary, the task of Marxists is to elucidate clearly to the workers the nature of the organizations that falsely claim to represent them, and to explain the inevitability of a collision between the working class and the trade unions. The political and theoretical work of the SEP is aimed at preparing the working class for this collision and laying the basis for the emergence of new and higher forms of working class struggle.

Certainly, the working class requires organizations to prosecute the day-to-day defense of its economic and social interests. But trade unions are not the only possible form of organization geared to the defense of workers' immediate conditions. History has seen the emergence of more broad, democratic and militant types of organization, such as factory committees and workers councils, which transcend the limited realm of struggle over wages and hours and aspire to establish workers' control over the production process.

More than a century of historical experience has demonstrated that trade unions in and of themselves cannot provide the means for the working class to organize a struggle against the capitalist system. For this, the working class requires, above all, a mass socialist party, organized on an international scale, whose strategy and tactics are guided by Marxist theory.

Spartacist's perspective leads inevitably to the politics of the popular front, i.e., a political alliance between the working class and "left" or liberal sections of the bourgeoisie. In the course of their polemic against the ICFI, the Spartacists all but openly embrace this type of orientation. Thus they quote Dan Gallin, the general secretary of the International Union of Food and Allied Workers' Associations, who complains that the global mobility of capital "weakens the power of national democratic pressures from labour parties and trade unions."

Spartacist comments: "Gallin, who is at least more intellectually honest than North, openly argues for a popular-frontist perspective of 'building a broad-based people's movement' to counter the effects of 'globalization.'

"But neither does North denounce the union misleaders for not mobilizing the economic power of the workers' movement and popular political support against the capitalist offensive."4

These lines from the Spartacist League raise the obvious question: what is the difference between its perspective of the trade unions "mobilizing the economic power of the workers movement and popular political support against the capitalist offensive" and the "broad-based people's movement" against globalization advocated by Gallin? In fact, there is no essential difference. The political perspective of the Spartacist League is fundamentally the same as Gallin's.

VI. A crude apology for bureaucracy

Not only do the Spartacists echo the reformist and nationalist politics of the trade union officialdom, they quite consciously seek to defend the bureaucratic apparatus against the growing anger of the rank and file. They give voice to the bureaucracy's fear that the Marxist movement will gain an ever-wider hearing among disaffected workers. One characteristic passage in the Spartacists' polemic reflects the consternation of the more conscious representatives of the trade union bureaucracy.

Spartacist complains: "On the one side, they [the ICFI ] denounce the unions as 'failed organizations,' thereby seeking to appeal to workers fed up with the bureaucracy's endless sellouts and angry and frustrated over falling living standards. On the other side, they try to make themselves look good by posing as sympathetic to workers engaged in struggle."5

In the end, Spartacist's attack on the ICFI reveals itself to be a rather long-winded attempt to justify the crudest of apologetics for the trade union bureaucracy. In the course of their articles, they rally behind the United Auto Workers bureaucracy and denounce The International Workers Bulletin for characterizing UAW President Stephen Yokich and the local UAW leaders as the real scabs in the union's surrender to Caterpillar in December of 1995. They attack the British section of the ICFI for exposing the bogus "international solidarity campaign" mounted by Stalinist shop stewards and union bureaucrats to cover their betrayal of the Liverpool dockers. And they fawn on Arthur Scargill, the pro-Stalinist leader of the British National Union of Mineworkers, who played the central role in the defeat of the 1984-85 miners' strike, and has since presided over the decimation of the union, from 183,000 members to less than 10,000 today.

Finally, they denounce the Workers League, the forerunner of the Socialist Equality Party in the US, for refusing to line up behind the AFL-CIO's chauvinist campaign in 1993-94 against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The Workers League opposed the NAFTA agreement, characterizing it as an imperialist scheme to completely subordinate the Mexican economy to the needs of the US transnationals and Wall Street financial institutions. But the Workers League gave no support to the AFL-CIO's anti-NAFTA crusade, which was based on economic nationalism and the promotion of right-wing demagogues like Ross Perot and Patrick Buchanan. As the Workers League explained, the campaign of the AFL-CIO expressed the interests of neither American nor Mexican workers, but rather the reactionary standpoint of the trade union bureaucracy and more backward sections of capitalist industry, which feel threatened by the increasing globalization of the economy. Instead, the Workers League advanced the perspective of a united struggle of American, Canadian and Mexican workers against the North American bourgeoisie.

In The International Workers Bulletin of September 20, 1993, we wrote:

"American workers must join forces with workers in Mexico and Canada to combat the North American-wide organization of capital expressed in the North American Free Trade Agreement. Workers throughout North America must join forces with workers in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe in the struggle against transnational corporations that operate on every continent...

"Joint action among the workers of the US, Canada and Mexico, many of them employed by the same multinational corporations, requires first of all an insurrection against the official labor organizations, the AFL-CIO, the Canadian Labour Congress, the Mexican CTM, and the establishment of direct links and coordination among the workers in all three countries, ranging from common strike action to broader, united political struggles."

The Spartacist League singles out this article for attack. Significantly, it concentrates its fire on the opening sentence:

"American workers must not line up behind either side in the capitalist debate over NAFTA, but must adopt an independent class standpoint which is based on the genuine, i.e., international, interests of the working class."

Spartacist dismisses the notion of a working class opposition to NAFTA which is independent of the AFL-CIO and opposed to its chauvinist politics as "neutrality" toward US imperialist domination of Mexico. In other words, no working class struggle is conceivable -- or permissible -- outside of the framework of the trade union apparatus. This, of course, is precisely the standpoint of the labor bureaucracy and its sponsors in the bourgeoisie.

In Spartacist's denunciation of the independent standpoint of the working class and the perspective of internationalism is concentrated the twin pillars of its politics: nationalism and support for the trade union bureaucracy.

One final aspect of Spartacist's promotion of trade unionism and the AFL-CIO bureaucracy merits consideration. In common with all of the other middle-class organizations that emerged from the student protest milieu of the 1960s, it exhibits a curious evolution in relation to the AFL-CIO. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the unions, despite their reactionary leadership and political orientation, still retained a significant element of the shop floor militancy inherited from the past, the Spartacist League, and the radical "left" in general, virtually ignored the struggles inside the labor movement.

The late 1960s and early '70s, in particular, saw a series of massive strikes and insurgent movements inside the factories and work locations. In the aftermath of Nixon's wage freeze of August 1971, strikes broke out in auto, on the docks and in other industries, and rank-and-file opposition to union participation on Nixon's wage panel began to assume nationwide proportions, eventually forcing AFL-CIO President George Meany to leave the board.

But the general attitude of Spartacist and the rest of the middle-class "left" was to denounce the industrial working class as racist, and characterize the unions as "white job trusts." At a time, therefore, when the working class inside the unions was being politically radicalized and moving in opposition to the bureaucracy, and the latter was in deep crisis, the Spartacist League took the position that to place political demands on the unions was to support Meany and the bureaucracy.

They bitterly attacked the Workers League for raising the demand that the unions break from the Democratic Party and establish a labor party based on a socialist program. For its part, the Workers League fought for this demand in the unions as a means of exposing the bureaucracy and educating workers on the need to establish their political independence. In 1971, 1972 and 1973 the Workers League held well-attended conferences of workers and young people to develop the fight for an independent party of the working class based on socialist policies. Spartacist adapted itself to the McGovern campaign and those layers within the petty-bourgeois protest movement that were backing the South Dakota Democrat.

But as the degeneration of the unions assumed an increasingly finished form, Spartacist became ever more infatuated with the AFL-CIO. Precisely at the point where the bureaucracy had extinguished the last traces of rank-and-file control and embraced the program of corporatism, and the moribund character of the unions was expressed both in their shrinking dues base and their systematic betrayal of workers' struggles, Spartacist and the rest of the middle-class ex-radicals became the most stalwart defenders of the hegemony of the AFL-CIO over the working class.

This convergence of the trade union bureaucracy and the " radical left" expresses the movement of class forces, i.e., the coming together of specific petty-bourgeois layers in opposition to an independent movement of the working class.

Table of Contents | Part Six | WSWS

To Order

Front Page