by Karl Belin

Writing for Left Voice in a March 28 article entitled “All Power to the Rank and File,” William Lewis makes the case for a renewed and concerted effort to carry out socialist work in the trade union movement. We thank Comrade Lewis and Left Voice for publishing the article, as we share the desire to see such an effort take shape. In fact, a serious and strategic orientation by socialists toward the trade unions is vital to both the unions and to socialism.

It is precisely this urgency which reveals the limitations of Comrade Lewis’ short article, and the many articles like it, which have appeared with increasing regularity in the socialist press since the Republic Windows and Doors occupation in Chicago nearly a decade ago. Few, if any, have made the kind of concrete proposals so desperately needed by socialists in the trade unions today.

We welcome Comrade Lewis’ reopening of this discussion in light of the Trump administration and the deep crisis of organized labor which he describes. In our reply, we hope other socialists will find a useful starting point in developing the strategies necessary for rebuilding a militant labor movement. We hope other socialists who are serious about work in the unions will join us in carrying the discussion forward with further analysis and new proposals.

Super-Concentrated Economic Power

Comrade Lewis correctly points out that, while relatively small, organized labor still wields significant strength in the United States:

“[Unions] still represent nearly 15 million workers, and though strikes overall are at their lowest, a number of protests and strikes such as the 2011 Wisconsin Uprising, the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike and the 2016 Verizon strike galvanized the nation and were demonstrations of our latent power.”

The 15 million workers in unions today are often found in industries with the highest level of worker productivity. From mining, to manufacturing, to telecom, the number of workers in the former strongholds of labor has decreased significantly while the profits extracted from their labor have soared. The most common narrative, of offshoring and foreign competition, has played a role in diminishing the numbers of workers in the traditionally unionized industries. But it does not tell the whole story.

Shipping is just one example of an industry in which a relatively small number of workers exercise tremendous power. Containerization and automation have played the most significant role in reducing the number of longshore workers from their former heights to a mere handful. On the West Coast, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), an independent union outside the AFL-CIO, represents 33,270 members. These western port workers have been some of the most militant in the country. An additional 65,000 Atlantic, Gulf, and inland port workers are represented by the conservative International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA). In total 98,000 union workers control over 99 percent of all overseas cargo.

These kinds of statistics begin to give a picture of what a seriously organized, well disciplined cadre of socialists could accomplish in a given union with a united program. Slates of red candidates for union office could open a new era for worker organizing. By directing union resources towards new organizing drives and expanding already existing locals, socialist trade union leaders can revitalize the trade union movement and put down an immediate challenge to the ossified bureaucracy. Imagine, for example, an orchestrated campaign to unionize the new mega factories cropping up throughout the Southern US.

The Ripest Fruit

Of course, with the limited resources of the socialists in the United States, we must analyze carefully where our small numbers can have the greatest impact in the near term. To begin that process, we have to take a look at the overall terrain of today’s unions.

Less than 11 percent of US workers are currently union members. In the private sector, this number is even lower, with only 6.7 percent. Admittedly, these numbers are not encouraging at first (or second, or third) glance. However, simple arithmetic is no indication of the complexity of the class struggle. For example, the union density for French workers stands at just 7.7 percent, despite the fact that the French working class has carried out dozens of recent large scale industrial actions and even the March 31, 2016 general strike, which shut down the country.

There is one group of workers in the United States which maintains a relatively high level of union density. They are also the workers who have come under the most brutal and direct attacks from the Obama and Trump administrations alike — public sector workers, 35% of whom are already in unions. Attacks on public service workers in areas like transit, water treatment, and infrastructure have had direct, devastating consequences on workers and poor people across the country. From transit deserts to lead tainted water, there is room for socialists to link the problems of everyday life to capitalist exploitation and austerity.

Unfortunately, some private sector unions, desperate to cut deals in short-sighted attempts to save jobs, have supported and even participated in some of these attacks on their union sisters and brothers in the public sector. For example, New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney (D), also a top leader of the Ironworkers Union, teamed up with Gov. Chris Christie (R) to attack state workers. And the building trades’ and others’ support for right-wing, pro-Big Business politicians continues to undercut the broader labor movement. A campaign for solidarity between private and public sector unions is a key area where socialists can play a leading role while offering an analysis of the hemorrhaging union rosters and hyper-exploitation of the working class.

While the private sector has fewer and fewer organized workers, there are some key areas where socialists can find openings and prepare the ground for a campaign to revitalize the movement. Shipping, as mentioned above, could be a potential area of intervention. The ILWU has carried out a significant number of militant actions. Now, because of the power and militancy demonstrated by these workers in the 2014-2015 round of contract negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association, a new bill has been introduced in the Senate called Prevent Labor Union Slowdowns (PLUS) S.702. American Shipper, a journal of the port bosses, reports:

“The three Senators [Jim Risch, R-Idaho; Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; and David Perdue, R-Ga] said S.702 would change the National Labor Relations Act, defining a labor slowdown by maritime workers as an unfair labor practice, and would prevent massive financial damage to the food and other industries. A similar bill, S.1630, was introduced in June 2015.”

Attacks such as these leave an opening for both agitation from inside the unions against this existential threat, as well as to building solidarity campaigns from outside to recruit union workers to the ideas of socialism.

Another aspect of de-unionization has been the casualization of work previously done by skilled or semi-skilled, organized workers. Telecommunications workers have faced this trend for more than 20 years. In the 2016 Verizon strike, company managers, as well as Verizon Wireless retail workers, were used as strikebreakers and quickly learned first hand how overworked those represented by the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) truly were. As Dan DiMaggio reported in Labor Notes:

“Thirty-nine thousand Verizon strikers returned to work June 1 with their heads held high, after a 45-day strike in which they beat back company demands for concessions on job security and flexibility, won 1,300 additional union jobs, and achieved a first contract at seven Verizon Wireless stores.

“Walking into work the first day back chanting ‘one day longer, one day stronger’ was the best morning I’ve ever had at Verizon,” said Pam Galpern, a field tech and mobilizer with Communication Workers Local 1101. “There was such a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. People were smiling and happy. It was like a complete 180 degree difference from before the strike.

The CWA and Electrical Workers (IBEW) won a 10.5 percent wage increase over four years, increased contributions to their pensions, protections against outsourcing of call center jobs, and a reversal of the sub-contracting of some pole work.

Verizon will also eliminate the hated Quality Assurance Review system, an effort to micromanage the workday. Managers would bring techs in for two- to three-hour interrogations about their daily activities and dish out 30-day unpaid suspensions. In the months leading up to the strike, QAR infuriated technicians in New York City.”

Healthcare workers, particularly nurses, have been the tip of the spear when it comes to militant mass actions for private sector workers. Campaigns for safe staffing, new unions, and even Medicare for all have seen a surge in rank and file participation from workers in the health industry. Doctors and Physician’s Assistants, increasingly “workerized,” can also become a potentially explosive subset of the working class in the coming struggles and will be vital to the struggle for a single-payer system.

A third category of potentially fertile ground for socialist work in the trade unions lies in the so-called “new models of organizing.” These projects, like the App-Based Drivers’ Associations for Uber and Lyft drivers, have opened whole new cross sections of the working class to union membership. Meanwhile, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) have taken real steps forward in fighting for the rights of incarcerated workers. Their early fast food organizing drives have also set the tone for organizing today, along with the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) Fight for 15 campaigns across the country.

It is no coincidence that on three separate occasions since Trump’s inauguration, just three months ago, the capitalist media has been forced to wrestle with the concept of a general strike in the United States. This is a reflection not only of the “do or die” circumstances of a battered labor movement, but of the interest of a new generation of US workers in getting organized. For socialists to adopt a dismissive attitude to such developments would be a terrible mistake.

Working From the Outside

With today’s low union membership, it is only natural that so many socialists find themselves outside the ranks of organized workers, searching desperately for a way into the “House of Labor.” How do we connect with union members’ job-specific struggles? How do we learn the jargon? Why should union workers listen to a bunch of non-union outsiders? The experiences of a few socialist groups in recent years have provided successful examples of how to overcome these and other hurdles.

During the 2015 re-election bid of Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant for Seattle City Council, the 5,000 member Seattle Education Association (SEA) took militant strike action to usher in the new school year. Correctly, Socialist Alternative suspended morning canvassing for all campaign workers and volunteers, sending them instead to the picket lines. Nearly the entire campaign apparatus was directed toward strike support and intervention. Members and supporters walked picket lines, gave speeches, and flooded city hall in support of the strikers. Meanwhile, members of Socialist Alternative and the International Socialist Organization inside the SEA’s reform caucus, Seattle Equality Educators (SEE), raised the slogan of a mass march for the striking teachers. Subsequently, the streets of Seattle became a sea of red, when thousands turned out to support the strike by marching on the school administrators’ offices.

A more far-reaching example of socialist trade union work from the outside can be found in the 2010-2014 struggle for public transit in Pittsburgh. A campaign, led by the International Marxist Tendency, International Socialist Organization, and the Economic Justice Committee of the Thomas Merton Center, held a series of demonstrations in 2010 against impending 35 percent cuts to transit services in the county. After the first successful actions, unions like the ATU, UFCW, and UE got involved in the organizing committee and Pittsburghers for Public Transit (PPT) was formed. This mass campaign put a tremendous amount of pressure on the Democrat-controlled city, county, and state governments, which eventually came up with enough additional money to reduce the cuts to 15 percent. A number of rank and file members of the ATU became radicalized throughout PPT’s various campaigns for funding, expansion of transit and paratransit services, and in defense of the union over the next few years. In the last three union elections, several self-identified socialists won leadership positions in the union ranging from Boardman (steward) to Recording Secretary. PPT continues to exist today.

Socialists in the Trade Unions

Of course, socialists are not reduced to solely doing work from the outside of the union movement. Many of us are already members of unions or could be members of unions, either through organizing drives or by taking union jobs. But with so many socialists already in unions, why have we been reduced to, on a good day, an individual at a local meeting intervening from the floor? Why have we not been able to take the lead in unions where there are many or even just a few of us? Comrade Lewis makes the case for independent, class struggle unionism:

“With our backs up against the wall, there is the opportunity to strike out. But, first we must rebuild our forces. To remove those who want us to flatter and beg, instead of fight. To pull, kicking and screaming the leaders in our unions who would have us double down on the failed strategy of reliance on the Democratic Party to defend us, instead of relying on our own power.”

Organizing the unorganized, with special attention paid to workers in the South, would bring fresh layers into the unions, unburdened by decades of business unionism. A vision of political independence for the working class can lift a worker’s sights, from defending an already concessionary contract, to building an alternative to the bosses’ two parties. Socialists running for and winning union offices, taking only the average wage of the members and returning the remainder to fund independent political action and strike funds can throw down the gauntlet to the Cadillac crew in power in most unions today.

In major cities across the country, there are several unions where socialists from various organizations can be found. In places like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other metropolitan areas, socialists have played a limited but important role in teachers’, nurses’, and truck drivers’ unions. The limitations to their interventions, partly because of sectarianism, but also largely due to a deprioritization of union work, only serve to show what coordinated efforts to build a socialist current in the labor movement could achieve.

A straightforward program and demands linking industry-specific issues to a systemic analysis of capitalism and its alternative can propel socialists to the forefront of the effort to reinvigorate the labor movement. With organization and a role to play in their unions, thousands of workers in the US can become mobilized for action.

Build a Socialist Trade Union Conference!

Before we can hammer out these tactics, slogans, and campaigns, socialists must first sit down and discuss the questions like we once did. A conference of socialists trade union activists with the purpose of developing a program and strategy for a red front in the labor movement is required. By its very nature, such a conference requires attendance from all socialist organizations with a serious approach to mass work. Most importantly, the conference must bring together the most experienced socialist trade unionists with the energetic and creative new generation of activists joining the movement.

The idea of a socialist union conference is nothing new. In fact it is an idea that has its origins in the time of Karl Marx’s Communist League. Such conferences were also a useful tool for American socialists in the 1930s, when the Workers Party of the United States led by James P. Cannon and A.J. Muste held a series of “Active Workers Conferences” to help solidify the work of the party and to orient the socialist cadres in the trade unions. The experience of the workers’ struggles in Minneapolis, Toledo, and San Francisco through the decade, with socialist leaderships, paved the way for the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and its model of building large, militant industrial unions as opposed to the old cloistered model of craft unionism. Workers who attended these conferences could be found in every major labor struggle of the inter-War years, from the campaign to organize poultry farm laborers in Georgia to the Flint sit-down strikes, which crippled the auto industry.

What set these Active Workers Conferences apart from other labor gatherings, such as the modern Labor Notes Conference, was the clarity and sharpness of the participants’ class politics. These were not “social justice trade unionists,” but revolutionary socialists working and recruiting in the unions. Their goal was not only to make their Locals more militant, but to win leadership positions at all levels and transform these organizations from bottom to top. They held sessions not only on effective negotiating skills, but also on how to take power. This is the distinction between a socialist trade union orientation and the kind of “economism” which mires itself in the shallowest aspects of trade unionism: deal cutting and “practical politics,” which usually results in begging for scraps from Democrats.

International participation can go a long way in injecting some much needed militancy and help us develop an internationalist perspective. Particularly important are representatives from Latin American, Caribbean, African and Southern European unions, which have faced decades of severe exploitation, intimidation, and austerity at the hands of their own bosses and North American and Western European banks and multinationals. As Maurizio Landini, leader of the Italian metalworkers’ union (FIOM), put it in 2015:

“The policies of the European Commission and the Troika in Italy are calling into question democracy, workers’ rights, education, healthcare, state owned assets, culture, and justice.”

Opening a dialogue with these experienced class fighters will give new insight on organizing in direct confrontation with state forces — an experience outside the living memory of much of the US labor movement, but which will become an increasing reality of our work in the Trump era.

By sharing experiences from their workplace and internal union struggles, class conscious workers can begin to generalize their experiences and develop actionable program points for union reform movements, campaigns to defend services, and organizing drives. Cross-union committees of militant rank-and-file delegates at the local and regional levels can build strike solidarity and provide the backbone for efforts to organize the unorganized. They can serve as organizing hubs for future independent political campaigns.

Our movement has to get beyond the old bureaucratic organizing models and find new creative solutions to organizing challenges. Ultimately, the rebirth of the labor movement is about more than wages and hours. It’s about the construction of a new society based on social and economic justice, not private profits. Building a fighting labor movement requires socialists at the forefront.


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