Building trades bureaucrats met with Trump to discuss free trade and infrastructure spending. Can these labor lieutenants of capital fight for their members or will they sell us out?
On Monday (1-23), a group of Building and Construction Trades Union bureaucrats met with Trump to discuss his vision of infrastructure investment, which he claims will create millions of middle class jobs. These union misleaders, including the head of the AFL-CIO Building Trades, Sean McGarvey, Carpenters’ head Doug McCarron, Laborers’ top Terry O’Sullivan, the Sheet Metal Workers’ Joseph Sellers and Mark McManus, the head of the union that represents plumber and pipefitters, the United Association (UA). Trump had previously met individually with AFL-CIO honcho Richard Trumka and the Teamsters’ Jimmy Hoffa, Jr.
These bureaucrats almost uniformly praised the new President’s plans for infrastructure construction and a couple noted that Trump is someone they have worked with before on his many development projects. They failed to recall his blatant rip off of union contractors in Atlantic City, where more than 200 contractors and subcontractors went unpaid or only recouped pennies on the dollar.
During discussions, union tops brought up the impact on working families of pending legislation, introduced by Arizona Republican Jeff Flake in the Senate, that would gut the Davis-Bacon prevailing wage law that requires projects receiving Federal money to pay the prevailing or union wage. Trump said he was familiar with the provisions of the law but would not commit himself to veto it if it came to his desk. In statements during his campaign and before, Trump has made statements praising right-to-work laws. Trump has also stated that US workers make too much money. In areas where unions are weak, he has built projects using nonunion labor. Trump has also put a freeze on Federal hiring in place through an executive order.
Union leaders praised Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Withdrawal from the TPP is positive for workers in the US and abroad, but Trump’s agenda includes many of the savage attacks on workers and environmental laws that would have come to pass under this agreement in different forms. Trumps cabinet appointments of plutocrats signals attacks on the gains of working people.
This meeting is a skilled attempt to divide the organized labor movement between the manufacturing unions and public sector unions on the one hand and the building trades on the other. The trades have traditionally stood on the right wing of the labor movement and have avoided taking positions on social issues. On environmental questions, they have supported projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL Pipeline in the name of job creation, which has put them at odds with other unions.
The right-wing Breitbart website understands the political significance of this meeting, noting that the meeting splits the Democrats’ coalition by “directly going after one of the Democrat party’s sacred cows.” VP Mike Pence, Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway and Press Secretary Spicer were present for the meeting.
These misleaders will be defenseless when their new “friend” goes after Davis-Bacon and pushes through a national right to work law.
Class collaboration, business unionism and the nature of the bureaucracy
The Trades also have a history of excluding oppressed national minorities — acting as white labor trusts. The construction unions have also been complicit at times with attacks on public sector unions. In New Jersey, Senate President and Ironworkers Union bureaucrat, Steve Sweeney, joined in Governor Chris Christie’s attack on teachers and state workers. In New York State, construction unions supported Democrat Chris Cuomo’s attack on public sector unions. In San Francisco, building trades blocked with the police union to oppose a resolution in support of Black Lives Matter. The building trades very often cite the employers as our “partners” in the business. This has led to a situation where construction unions are top-down labor agencies that are more often than not undemocratic. The bureaucracy functionally act as “labor lieutenants of capital.” Membership participation in the life of the unions is discouraged.
While socialists see the organizations of the working class, the unions, as essential to the struggle for justice, we also understand the contradictory role of the labor bureaucracy.
From the Socialist Workers Party education bulletin study guide for the book Teamster Rebellion:
“The trade-union bureaucracy is the governing and administrating layer within the union movement with its own privileges and power. Whatever the social origins of individual bureaucrats, it is essentially petty-bourgeois in social outlook and role. It acts to preserve its privileged position at the expense of the working class and in collusion with the capitalist class. Throughout this whole struggle this layer in the unions tried as best it could to prevent the struggle, to compromise the basic issues in the battle, to rely on the government while opposing the mobilization of the working class.
At the same time this bureaucracy rests upon the trade unions, which are working-class organizations. It needs these unions for its own survival. This contradiction had to be played upon time and time again in the effort to get the necessary support from different unions to make the strike successful. At each point the pressure of the masses in action was brought to bear upon this layer.
The layer is not completely homogeneous. It comes in part out of the working class, and different individuals are more responsive than others to the initiatives of the working class, especially on the lower levels. Exploiting these differences became crucial for the struggle.”
Why we need a class struggle unionism
Socialists see the ranks of organized labor as key to the struggle for a new society. Without the working class, the building of a socialist society isn’t possible. This means working inside the unions, even the reactionary ones, to build a class struggle oriented leadership. This new leadership will be built on the principles of solidarity, class independence, mass action, and the defense of the right to organize and strike against both the bosses and the government. A class struggle unionism must defend the needs of the whole class, including a higher minimum wage and single payer health. We have to demand union democracy. We need a leadership that fights.
Labor is key to the fightback against Trump’s agenda. The class war will intensify in the coming years and unity of the movement is more urgent than ever. The other side will try to weaken us by splitting the labor movement on sectoral lines.We must overcome illusions that deals can be cut with the exploiting class and its government if we are to win.