Monday, March 11, 2013

Socialists and the Labor Bureacracy

Calif UFCW officials giving the boss their Person of the Year award in 2009.  Workers are rightly disgusted by this.  Socialists must show those workers wanting to fight that we have an alternative strategy and tactics to this and that we openly campaign for our alternative and build organizationally for it.

by Richard Mellor

I was reading a piece put out by a left organization the other day and there was something missing in it, something that in my opinion is crucial to not omit when discussing the Unions and even the working class in general, organized or not.  There was absolutely no mention of the role, the extremely negative role, played by the Labor bureaucracy. 

This is very common.  One socialist I had a discussion with who has a Union position told me that there was no point in confronting the leadership because the mass of workers don’t go to meetings. But there is a major reason workers don’t go to meetings; they hear the same arguments from their leaders that they do from their boss; “You must be realistic, you have to give concessions, we all have to share the pain.”.

Why go to a Union meeting to hear that?  We don’t seek out confrontation with the Labor officialdom, but anyone that is serious about fighting the boss, about building a movement that can drive back this offensive of capital, will inevitably come in to conflict with the leadership whose policies are based on cooperation and Labor peace cemented in the Team Concept philosophy. This world-view which is the primary reason for the leadership’s betrayals  (their obscene salaries, perks and corruption are secondary features) maintains that workers and employers have the same interests. This doesn’t mean that we don’t support the leadership when they act in our interest or shift to the left due to pressure from below.

Another factor that drives workers in to some form of activity besides the bosses’ attacks is if they see a fighting alternative.  This is why we have to openly confront the leadership’s policies, explain why they do what they do and what they should be doing.  As we do this, we must openly build fighting caucuses within the movement that can take leadership roles and where we can, actually lead struggles on a fight to win basis. Our main enemy is the boss, but they have allies in the Labor hierarchy with their army of staffers that are used to enforce the leadership’s pro-management policies and head off any movement from the ranks that threatens this relationship the Union hierarchy has built with the employers based on Labor peace. We are fighting a war on two fronts brothers and sisters; one against the boss, and the other against the pro-management policies of the Labor leadership which is harder, more complex.

We have to help workers and Union members see where the obstacle lies.  It is not in the super conservatism of the members, or that organized Labor is weak despite the declining numbers, or that the members don’t care. We have seen some historic battles go down to defeat despite rank and file workers being willing to make great sacrifices.  They went down to defeat primarily due to the role of the Labor leadership from the highest levels on down, so we cannot ignore them in order to have a peaceful life.  I should add, that many leftists ignore them not because they’re bad people, I personally think it’s because within the left and socialist movement there is a very strong, what I would call, petty bourgeois or middle class influence. They don’t know how to talk to workers no matter what their color or ethnic background, or how to help them fight at the point of production, on the job. I think that many of these people don’t really believe that workers will fight back, that workers can lead or that the working class can govern society.  Therefore they pay lip service to the working class and use the term Rank and File a lot for the dues paying Union member, but actually orient to the left bureaucracy of the Unions, other left organizations and left academia.  They try to sidestep the working class, look for a quick substitute; in reality, they often have contempt for workers. I am not saying that the best of these elements should be ignored, but it is to the working class we must orient and sink deep roots despite all its faults if we want to stop this capitalist offensive and replace it with one of our own.

The average member hates the Union officialdom.  I’d like to share a few simple concrete examples as to why this is.

I was talking with a guy the other day; he is a black worker who wants to fight back. He went to his Union hall because he is having difficulty getting a contract. I drove him down there.  It’s a nice building worth quite a bit of money no doubt.  In the parking lot there were some nice cars.  The one I parked next to was a Cadillac Escapade or whatever it’s called. No luck, there.  He has to contact some other guy who has them.  The guy he has tried to call hasn’t been returning his calls.  Maybe he is busy in negotiations helping the boss get a better deal and can’t answer the phone.  But this worker who pays dues was told there were no contracts at the hall.  Is he supposed to believe that? It drives workers from the Union which is what the officials want. He has to travel a long way on public transport for this fruitless effort and it can be infuriating and actually turn workers against Unions.

Another friend of mine, a female worker who is a good shop steward and has been for years, was representing this other worker at the hotel. I have known her years and I know she’s a solid rank and file steward in the real sense. She could have joined the hierarchy years ago. She gets a call from the Union office.  The staffer said that the boss called the Union to complain that she was being disruptive, not cooperating.  Need I say more.

Another guy who I was helping was working with the Union in getting his hotel Unionized.  It was successful.  They have a $1 an hour raise, a five year contract with a no strike clause, Union dues to pay and he calls the office because he wants a contract and some help getting some co-workers to sign up as stewards.  They seem to be ignoring him now the Union has its foot in the door.  But he’s persistent, calls many more times and eventually the Business Agent calls back, They are not able to devote any time to the hotel at the moment as there’s the Obama election and all the staff are busy organizing, “Growing the Union”, was his term which means more revenue.

Here’s a good one.  The person the UFCW Western States Council leadership picked as their 2009 person of the year was none other than the CEO of the corporation their member’s work for Save-Mart’s Bob Piccinini. (photo accompanying this commentary)  Workers’ are not stupid; they see this class betrayal even if they may ascribe the wrong motives to it.

It is concrete things like this that occur in millions of workplaces millions of times a day. This is why the bureaucracy is hated by the average Union member. It is the role of revolutionaries and genuine activists to fight this openly help workers that want to fight build caucuses that can challenge the leadership and let workers/members see that there is somewhere to go, some force that offers an alternative to business as usual. It is a daunting task thinking that you are fighting the boss and our own leaders and many workers can’t see a way to win it.  We have to help them see that we can.

The experience during the Longview/ILWU struggle and examples like these are proof positive that the role of the Labor bureaucracy cannot be ignored.

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