September 27, 2013
To make the unions fight for workers’ interests, rank-and-file workers must organize themselves independent of the union officials.
— From the ISO “Where We Stand”
IN OUR last article, we described the contradictory nature of trade unions—that they are organizations of basic self-defense for workers, and at the same time exert a moderating influence on the class struggle.
A look at the formation of the CIO unions in the 1930s—born out of mass strikes and sit-downs—makes the first side of the contradiction clear. The efforts by CIO leaders to contain the sit-down strikes and curb militants in the unions showed the other side of the contradiction.
Rank-and-file workers are driven by conditions to organize and fight back, and they learn in the course of struggle that militant tactics—strong mass pickets, solidarity action and so on—get results.
The union officialdom, on the other hand, tends toward a cautious conservatism when it comes to fighting back, for fear of risking the survival of the organization, which is the basis of its own position.
The bureaucracy’s role as a mediator between workers and bosses elevates it above the rank and file, distances it from the latter’s conditions and experiences and places it in some respects closer in outlook and lifestyle to the managers it negotiates with.
This development has reached its apex in the United States, where some union officials make hefty six-figure salaries. Gus Bevona, who once ran New York City’s 65,000-member building service workers’ union in the 1980s and 1990s, made more than $400,000 a year—and received a $1.5 million retirement package after he was forced out under pressure from a lawsuit filed by dissidents.
A former president of the hotel and restaurant union, Edward Hanley, had the union purchase a $2.5 million jet for his personal use while he was president.
Trade union officials are not workers any more, but neither are they employers. Their job is to represent the interests of the rank and file. They therefore come under pressure, to varying degrees, to answer to the interests of their members.
British Marxists Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein put it this way: The trade union bureaucracy “holds back and controls workers’ struggle, but it has a vital interest not to push the collaboration with employers and state to a point where it makes the unions completely impotent.”
That means even the most bureaucratic union leaders, if put under enough pressure from the rank and file, can be compelled to take action—though their inclination will always be to contain such action and wind it up as quickly as possible.
Cliff and Gluckstein draw the following conclusion from this, a point that relates particularly strongly to the state of today’s unions in the U.S.: “If the union fails entirely to articulate members’ grievances, this will lead eventually either to effective internal changes to the leadership, or to membership apathy and organizational disintegration.”
Apathy and disintegration has been like a disease eating at the U.S. labor movement for the past few decades, resulting in a low level of union membership and a weak labor movement that has yet to mobilize an effective resistance to three decades of employer attacks on wages, benefits and conditions.
Paul D’Amato, author of The Meaning of Marxism, looks in detail at the “Where We Stand” statement of the International Socialist Organization.