Tuesday, September 11, 2018

DSA, Labor Notes and the Trade Unions

Arizona Teachers/educators fighting back.
DSA, Labor Notes and the Trade Unions
A second part to this commentary is here

Sean O’ Torain, DSA Chicago
Richard Mellor, DSA Bay Area

Comrades, sisters and brothers in DSA. We should note that an extremely important development has taken place in our organization as DSA now has 50,000 members making it the largest socialist organization in the US. 

These and other successes will inevitably make DSA a target of various forces in US society seeking to direct DSA’s momentum, some in a positive way, and some in a negative way. There are those forces that will want to temper DSA’s militancy. Naturally, the capitalist class and the Democratic Party will do so, but so will the leadership of organized labor.  We would like to make a few comments on how DSA relates to the labor movement in particular the labor bureaucracy and its left front.

In relation to this issue it’s clear from reading the Labor Day edition of DSA’s national magazine, Democratic Left, that the leadership has adopted the orientation and policies of currents like the folks at Labor Notes which reflects the left wing of the labor bureaucracy.  The magazine has articles by both Kim Moody and Jane Slaughter, both prominent figures in Labor Notes.

Neither of the contributions by these Labor Notes writers make an issue of what is the most important development in the US labor movement in decades and that is the recent teachers and educators struggles and in particular the direct action methods they used. What is also a glaring absence in their contributions is the role the leadership of organized labor has played in the defeats over the years and that in the case of West Virginia, where the teachers and educators struck in a state where strikes are illegal, the victory was made possible only by passing the official leadership.

Jane Slaughter does mention that “..we need a different kind of labor movement from the one we have now.”, and she is right in this. She adds that we have to build a “class struggle” labor movement and she’s correct about that also. She says that to be successful, union members, “…..must take over and transform their unions. That’s because many unions today aren’t so good at fighting.”.  Using this phrase to describe the labor movement’s defeats makes it appear that the members are to blame, after all, aren’t they “the union”?  But this is a conscious formulation to avoid coming in to conflict with the trade union hierarchy who’s policies are at the root of the problem.

In the wake of the Janus decision, she says that union “…leaders have shown little understanding of what it will take to right a floundering ship.”.

This is one of those rare occasions when the union leadership, the major obstacle to transforming or taking over our unions, is mentioned at all and then Jane Slaughter covers for them. It is not correct that "leaders have shown little understanding of what it will take to right a floundering ship". The labor hierarchy understands very well what it would take to right the ship. The issue is the labor leaders are terrified of doing what it would take.  That is, the mass mobilization of the existing labor movement, the reaching out to organize the unorganized and willingness to break the bosses’ laws which were put in place by their two political parties to curb the labor movement. 

Along with these two articles by Jane Slaughter and Kim Moody is an article titled, Labor, the Working Class, and Socialists by the former top labor official Bill Fletcher Jr. After graduating from Harvard, Fletcher worked for a while in a factory, was sent in to work, he put it once, and then spent most of his time in organized labor as a fairly high ranking official. He was an adviser to John Sweeney when he was president of SEIU who, when he ran for President of the AFL-CIO in 1996, talked of blocking bridges only to end up building them when he was elected, not with the rank and file of organized labor but with the bosses.  When Sweeney won the election for AFL-CIO president Fletcher continued his role as an advisor to the new president. 

The approach of these writer/activists is not to explain the policies of surrender and capitulation of the trade union leadership to the bosses’ offensive and that flowing from these policies, the AFL-CIO leadership sabotages and acts against any of its own members who seek to fight to defeat this offensive. There are too many examples of this to mention but one is the UFCW P9 strike where the local leadership fought back against the Hormel Corporation only to be removed by the national leadership and replaced by leaders that would not fight and which did in fact surrender. Or the UAW leadership’s betrayal of local leaders who launched serious strikes against the bosses, like the leaders of the local at the Freightliner factory in Cleveland NC known as the Cleveland Five. And there’s the numerous strikes where labor officials and staffers of one union force their members to cross the picket lines of another.

It needs to be understood that the last thing that the trade union leadership want is a major victory by a significant section of the working class such as the teachers and educators movements. Victories inspire and spur others in to activity and would prove that the entire policy of the trade union leadership, the policy of surrender that it has carried out for the past decades since the defeat of Patco, has been incorrect and that there has been and is an alternative, that is a strategy of mass mobilization which can result in victories. 

The labor leaders understand that major victories would prove their entire strategy of surrender wrong and this would threaten the control the trade union leadership has over the 14 million strong trade union movement. There is an article on this blog on the recent strike of crane operators and other unionized construction workers that just ended in Western Washington State that explains the disastrous policies and approach of the union leadership in detail. This lays out union rules that are aimed at isolating the strike and making sure that it does not spread and show the trade union membership as a whole that victories can be won.

This article also shows an alternative.  This continuing surrender of the trade union leadership is taking place against the background of the teachers and educators movements in state after state. These have had to circumvent the existing union leadership, build from the bottom up and develop a new fresh leadership. This gets barely a mention in the editorial in the DSA magazine by the organization's national Director. This most important development in labor in decades is absent from this DSA Labor Day magazine when it should be front and center. The wonderful, inspiring teachers and educators movements and how to build on them should have been the dominating theme of this Labor Day edition of the DSA magazine. This Labor Day edition should be bursting with excitement and joy and celebration of the teachers and educator’s movements and strikes and in some cases victories. But this is not so. The question is why? 

The answer is not complicated. It is because the decisions about what should be in this magazine has been determined by the people who do not want DSA to openly and effectively take on the false policies of the union leadership as this would complicate the relationship these people have built with the this leadership over decades. This will become a problem for the DSA. It is already a problem for the DSA. Look at where it leaves the DSA at this moment of the teachers and educators wonderful inspiring movements and strikes. The reason for this is that DSA would have to vigorously decide and state which side it is on in these struggles. The side of the established union leadership and its policy of surrender, or the side of the rising teachers and educators movements with its policy of direct action, of inclusion, of violating anti-union laws; policies and tactics that are the total opposite of the strategy of surrender to capital of the trade union hierarchy. 

Watch these inspiring short videos of a presentation in Oakland CA by teachers/educators from West Virginia, Kentucky and Arizona.

This DSA Labor Day magazine edition and the authors of the articles in this magazine do not want to confront this reality so they leave the teachers and educators movements out of their magazine but for a word or two. This is a serious disservice to the working class struggle in this country and to the DSA building roots in the working class, in the rank and file of the unions and in the workplaces. 

DSA stands for, and works for organizing the unorganized. But if this work is to be successful it is necessary to recognize and explain, it is necessary for the DSA to recognize and explain, that there are different policies, different strategies of how the trade union movement should act in this period of the capitalist offensive. There are the policies of the leadership, which is to make concessions and surrender or as they call it at times, "controlled retreat". There are also the policies of those who claim to be militants, labor leaders or activists like the people who run Labor Notes and former high ranking members of the union hierarchy like Bill Fletcher who are lecturing the millions of workers and shop stewards on the shop floor, in the classroom and the workplaces of America on how to fight back without mentioning that any successful fight-back will inevitably mean the struggle against the present union leadership, a struggle Bill Fletcher avoided.

Six of the seven top staff of Labor Notes according to its website are former labor officials or staffers, this is not insignificant. Read a report from the last Labor Notes conference here.

The policies of Labor Notes and most of the other authors of the articles in this special labor day edition of our magazine are to work away trying to help workers organize but in doing so to refuse to mention the gigantic block in the way of such organizing which is the surrender policy, the Team Concept, the support for the Democratic Party, the pro-capitalist policies of the trade union leadership. The result is that the people that push these policies and organizations which adopt them end up acting as a cover for the trade union leadership. If their policies come to dominate the DSA union work then the result will be to "tame" the DSA to where it is acceptable to the trade union leadership.

The facts are clear that the policies of the trade union leadership do not work. They have led to and are leading to reduced union membership and worsening conditions for all workers. The DSA Magazine and the policies of the Labor Notes people and people like Bill Fletcher of refusing to discuss these policies of the union leaders also do not work. DSA has the responsibility to openly and honestly and in a non-sectarian way discuss these issues. And discuss these issues as part of building a fighting organized opposition in the ranks of the trade unions, in the work places and in the working class as a whole. 

In doing so the central question has to be answered. Why does the trade union leadership act as they do - that is surrender to the bosses’ offensive and to this end use their control over the union movement to deny the working class major victories?  Some explain this as the trade union leadership having big salaries and good benefits and secure jobs and with these privileges and perks having bought into the capitalist system. This is certainly a factor in explaining why the trade union leaders will not fight to win. But it is not the central and fundamental reason.

The central and fundamental reason is that the trade union leadership does not believe that the working class can build a new, a different society. They believe that capitalism is the only system. They believe that all struggles must be kept within the bounds of capitalism. They believe that when, as now, the capitalist class demands more and more profits and demands the workers take reduced living standards so they can have more and more profits, then nothing can be done. After all, the capitalists own the industry and they have to be allowed to rule. This is what determines their policies. From this position, they believe that if the working class is to challenge in any kind of serious manner the demands of capitalism, this would lead only to chaos and as part of this would lead to a threat to their own privileged positions within the existing capitalist system. 

These issues, these realities of work in the trade union movement and to organize the unorganized must be included in the discussion among the 50,000 members in DSA on trade union work. When tens of thousands of the DSA membership see that the approach put forward in the recent Labor Day edition of the magazine does not work they must be aware that there is an alternative and hopefully adopt this alternative and help build for this alternative. If this is to be so then this must be part of the present development and discussion in the DSA and trade union work.  It is important that this discussion take place in a non-sectarian and non-abusive manner and that all ideas have the opportunity to be heard.   

Sean O'Torain (John Throne) is a socialist and labor activist and participant in the Bogside uprising in Derry in 1969 active on the Bogside Defense Committee. His latest book, We'll Take  a Cup of Kindness Yet is about his life and activism and in it he explores and reflects upon the methods of the self-styled revolutionary organizations and their failure to have a significant influence in the working class. For more details about the book and to order it as well as his previous book, The Donegal Woman go to the link on the right or visit  

Richard Mellor is a retired Heavy Equipment Operator. He has been a long time union activist, socialist and former member and tank and file leader of AFSCME Local 444 representing the blue collar workers at a water utility in the San Francisco Bay Area. He also edited and co-published Afscme Activist, an national opposition newsletter in that union in the mid 1990’s.

The authors are the co-founders of the blog, Facts For Working People.


  1. Very well stated. I agree. Btw, i joined the DSA last month but have been unable to attend any local meetings yet.

  2. I think the critique of the current and recent leadership among the unions is spot on: they can't imagine a world where capitalism is, if not eliminated, at least forced to share power and profit equally with the workers who produce the goods and services and the consumers that buy them. In other words, laws, cultural norms and moral philosophies that require profit sharing, community and worker voting membership on boards of directors, people's banks that invest according to standards set by the community, and co-operative production.
    How to move the US and the world toward socialism? I know some DSA-ers want to establish a labor party. I worry those efforts, like progressive 3rd party efforts in the past, will guarantee more and more Republican victories, and look where that's taking us. I haven't given up on taking over the Democratic party and moving it gradually and painfully to the left. This is an issue socialists can agreed to disagree about.
    Thanks, TImothy Sheard, editor Hard Ball Press, mentoring and publishing working class writers.

  3. Thanks Tim for your comments. On the issue of the DSA and the trade unions, the DSA is faced with an important decision in deciding how we relate to the union officialdom. We either look to the rank and file and the new leadership that is beginning to emerge that has adopted policies that can win which includes by-passing the established pro-capitalist/management union hierarchy, or continue down the same path of avoiding a conflict with the present leadership that is inevitable if we are to help build a movement to drive back the capitalist offensive, intensified under Trumpism. The leadership of DSA has clearly chosen to give a significant voice to that current that represents the left wing of the labor bureaucracy that has refused to wage a struggle against the disastrous policies that have led to labors decline and that have actually led to the rise of Trump.