Friday, October 28, 2016

The Union Hierarchy and the Road Not Taken

Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

The short commentary above isn’t an attempt to detail all the major union struggles that took place in the 1980’s. But it is clear for those of us that lived through this period and participated in many of them that there was an attempt to overcome the obstacle of the stifling bureaucracy atop organized labor and drive the capitalist offensive back. The smashing of PATCO and the refusal of the labor hierarchy to take any significant action against it let the floodgates open and the bosses’ felt extremely confident that their offensive could go on with no threat from them.

There were a few more sparks in the nineties but defeat after defeat, betrayal after betrayal saw the number of strikes annually gradually decline.

By the 1990’s the trade union hierarchy, in AFSCME certainly, found that they could not champion the Democratic Party in quite the same way. Bill Clinton stabbed them in the back by signing NAFTA and threw working class women off welfare through his welfare to work program and often in to what should have been union positions. The stress in the electoral sphere was more often than not supporting candidates that supported working families as opposed to any party as most working class people had no faith in either of them. This didn’t change the union leadership’s deathly marriage with the Democrats though.

As I say above, the road not taken by the strategists atop organized labor has led to the present situation and the rise of Trump. OCAW’s Tony Mazzochi and his push for a Labor Party was eventually taken over by the bureaucracy with the assistance from the various left groups that vegetate on the fringes of the labor and working class movement. Once a section of the bureaucracy got involved in LPA, the left entered it in droves and it wads downhill from there.

I remember OCAW president Bob Wages speaking to a Labor Notes crowd before the LPA convention. He used the term comrades as they do in the labor movement in Britain and talked about Mayday. He poked fun at the moribund bureaucracy that heads the AFL-CIO of which he was a member. He got great cheers from the Labor Notes crowd, many of them part of the left bureaucracy themselves who salivate at the thought of a new, more left figure emerging out of the right wing leadership that dominates. But to my recollection as an AFL-CIO executive board member Wages went in to that body and supported Clinton, he refused to lead a struggle or open up a debate over the Labor Party issue and their support for the Democrats. The LPA/LP became a dead duck.

As I mention in the video, I was the editor of the Ascme Activist which clearly had the potential to become the voice of a genuine rank and file opposition, a “united front” in AFSCME. At the 1996 convention in Chicago those of us that had been building it and getting it out to union members, elected an editorial board. I was a member of Labor Militant at the time, the former name of Socialist Alternative. S.Alt with the guidance of the CWI leadership in London, now determined that the Afscme Activist was not a United Front but the organ of the Labor Militant/CWI. They did this for factional reasons. The two delegates to that convention who supported this new position voted against the forming of an editorial board and including the rank and file members that had built the newsletter so far in the leadership of the group and demanded I turn over the subscription list to them. It was not my decision to do that but then decision of all the people in the United Front and so I was expelled for breaking Democratic Centralism.

Soon after, a crisis hit Afscme as in NYC, where some 127,000 workers in DC 37 were Afscme members, rank and file teachers and Teamsters were moving in opposition to Rudy Giuliani and his savage attack on the public sector. Afscme officials were caught stuffing ballots and heads began to roll. A genuine rank and file caucus would have been in a unique position to make tremendous gains in one of the largest unions in the AFL-CIO.

So it is not simply the trade union hierarchy but most of the left that also bears responsibility for the road not being taken, a road that could have changed the course of events. The trade union leadership are deathly afraid of a victory. For them it can lead only to chaos. Imagine the difference entering negotiations with one’s employer knowing that recent victories included huge wage and benefit increases. This would change the dynamic as the hierarchy argues that only concessions are possible, that gains can’t be made. Not only do they refuse to fight, they consciously sabotage victories, consciously undermine an offensive against the bosses.


Tony Budak said...

Thank you Richard for a very accurate historical overview. Thanks again and again.
Tony Budak

Richard Mellor said...

Dear Tony, thank you for all the support and help you have given me over the years, you probably don't realize how important this relationship with you and your work has been to me. The union helped me to keep my head above water, helped me survive the drug craze of the late 70's early eighties and allowed me, as organization and collective power does, to have some influence in the workplace and the world around me. I started to write. It was quite juvenile at first but I plodded on. You gave me a forum and also a lot of encouragement. I will always be grateful to you, Tony. You've always been on the right side of history.