Statement of the International Committee of the Fourth International
Globalization and the International Working Class

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.