The AFL-CIO and existing unions in the US

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Caroline Lund, Malik Miah and Barry Sheppard say unionists should leave

Bob Gould

In response to a question at a smallish session of the Asia-Pacific Solidarity Conference in Sydney at Easter, 2005, Caroline Lund said US unionists should leave the AFL-CIO and the existing unions and form new ones, and she hoped that idea would resonate in Australia.

Lund and Malik Miah have elaborated that point of view in an article, Independent Unions: The Way Forward for US Labor, in Links, which appeared at the conference.

I start this by underlining that I have a certain respect for Barry Sheppard, Miah and Lund. In the 1980s, as part of an internal struggle in the increasingly authoritarian US SWP, after a long period of their lives as political full-timers, these three comrades were persuaded to “go into industry” and they have stayed there ever since, even after departing from the US SWP. Sheppard has now passed retirement age, but the other two are still in industrial jobs.

A person like Lund, who is still working and industrially and politically active in the intense and difficult conditions of a motor car plant, nudging the age of 60, is worthy of considerable respect and serious consideration of her views.

Respect, however, for serious socialist militants, involves taking up their ideas sharply when they are wrong, and I consider the views expressed in the Links article by Lund and Miah deeply mistaken, particular given the current political conjuncture, with the attacks on the organised working class taking place in the US and elsewhere, including Australia.

In sum, these three musketeers argue that the trade union bureaucracy in the US, and by inference in Australia, is by now so corrupt and its power over the unions so total, that any perspective of reforming existing unions is futile and militant unionists should campaign, whenever it becomes at all possible, to decertify existing unions and form smaller, independent unions.

They believe the future lies with small, independent unions that can then co-operate with each other.

A bit of history. The international influence of the Industrial Workers of the World

In 1905 the IWW was formed in the US. It initially included a very substantial existing union, the Western Federation of Miners. The IWW aspired to be an alternative to the AFL and the AFL craft unions, and initially in the US it had some success in starting new industrial unions, mainly in areas not successfully organised by the AFL.

Early in the piece IWW activists learned that it was sensible to join the existing AFL union in areas where one existed, and over time the IWW evolved into a kind of syndicalist political party, particularly after the Western Federation of Miners moved away from the IWW.

The IWW militants were important in the formation of the Communist Party in the US, but separate IWW unions eventually withered away in North America.

Another important component of the early CP was the Trade Union Educational League, led by William Z. Foster, James P. Cannon’s bloc partner in early factional struggles in the US CP. The TUEL concentrated on reform efforts in existing AFL unions, and was relatively successful in that.

Both the IWW and the Foster’s TUEL developed in a rising arc of class struggle between 1905 and 1921. The debate over trade union tactics in the US is captured in an artistic way in the important and moving Warren Beatty film, Reds.

In Australia, to which the IWW spread rapidly, the IWW never developed as a serious alternative union structure. It evolved as a kind of syndicalist political party.

IWW and syndicalist influence was very widespread in Australia between 1905 and the early 1920s, particularly during the 1917 Australian general strike, but IWW influence was totally expressed by two-union ticket-holders, who had an IWW red card and membership of an existing union.

IWW influence was particularly strong in labourers’ unions, such as the Rockchoppers and Builders Labourers in Sydney.

The early Comintern and work in the trade unions

The Miah-Lund-Sheppard proposition is very problematic in the context of the history of Marxist activity in trade unions. The first four congresses of the Comintern took a very sharp stand against red unionism of this sort and Lenin argued against it very sharply in Left Wing Communism, and Trotsky argued against it as well.

It was only with the Stalinist Third Period, from 1929 to 1934, that red or breakaway unions became the official policy of the Comintern. The experience of Third Period red unions was uniformly bad.

In the US, where the Communist Party strenuously tried to start red unions, they were a terrible flop. Few workers joined them.

The Communist Party in Britain never even serious tried to start red unions. In Australia, an attempt was made to turn a then relatively recent breakaway from the Australian Workers Union, the Pastoral Workers Industrial Union, into a red union.

Despite a certain amount of mass support for the Pastoral Union breakaway, it was not successful, and its members went back into the AWU in the late 1930s.

When the upsurge of trade union organisation started in the US in the mid-1930s the Congress of Industrial Organisations was formed as a result of several existing big unions, particularly the miners and the clothing workers, breaking away from the AFL and using their resources to help organise major industrial unions in mass-production sectors that had previously been unorganised.

These unions weren’t breakaways, but new unions, mainly in unorganised areas, and it can’t be stressed too much that the success of the CIO depended on the recovery from the Great Depression and on the alchemy between the support of the two big unions initiating the project and thousands of Communist, socialist and Trotskyist militants, some of whom had been in unsuccessful red unions, who took the opportunity to build the CIO.

A careful reading of Farrell Dobbs’s four books on the teamster experience in Minneapolis shows Dobbs’s great stress on the way the Trotksyists deliberately avoided, as far as possible, breaking away from existing union structures. Rather, they did the opposite, and threw themselves into expanding the existing teamster and other unions.

No breakaways for the Minneapolis Trotskyists, and even when they were under attack from the teamster bureaucracy they tried to transfer from one union federation, the AFL, to the other federation, the CIO. They didn’t engage in any fantasies about the abstract virtues of independent union structures.

In the US in the post-war period a group of left unions was expelled by the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. One of the major expelled unions, the West Coast Longshoremen, which had a massive institutional base, survived, but all the other expelled unions declined rapidly and ultimately reamalgamated with AFL-CIO unions from a position of relative weakness.

In Britain, there was the important case of the Blue Union, a minority organisation of stevedores, which managed to survive for some time in opposition to the larger Transport and General Workers Union. In the 1940s-50s, discontented stevedores and wharfies transferred from the TGWU to the Blue Union, as it was called, and Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League took a leading part in the protracted war between this small Blue Union and the much larger TGWU.

This was clearly a heroic struggle and there was some case for supporting that particular semi-breakaway, but in the end it proved impossible to sustain and it reamalgamated with the TGWU.

In recent times in Australia, attempts to break away from existing union structures have not succeeded, even when such breakaways seemed to correspond with developments or necessity.

In John Percy’s bizarre book, A History of the DSP and Resistance, Percy takes a mean and philistine sideswipe at the old Trotskyist leader Nick Origlass, a leader of the ironworkers union in Balmain. Percy says: “With the political mood drifting to the right, Origlass allowed the control of the branch to revert to the CPA.”

Percy doesn’t try to explain the context at all. Anyone interested in a more scientific and rounded account should read Daphne Gollan’s article on the Balmain ironworkers’ struggles.

The real situation was that there was no alternative for Origlass and his supporters. The upsurge at the end of World War II had ebbed a bit, the Stalinist leadership of the union had made some concessions by forming a waterfront branch, and had gone through the legal framework of the existing union structure to merge the Balmain branch with the waterfront branch, and this settlement was backed by the ACTU.

Origlass’s estimate of the situation was unquestionably accurate, and John Percy’s petty slur on Origlass is yet another example of Percy trying to rewrite history to suit his current, eccentric political line.

Five or six years ago some militants formed a breakaway from the conservative Australian Workers Union, a Shearer’s Union. This organisation has withered on the vine.

The most favourable circumstances for breakaway unions in Australia in recent times have emerged in the building trades and the metal trades in Victoria.

These instances are worth careful discussion. When the Maoist federal leadership of the Builders Labourers Federation stepped in to sack the more militant NSW branch of the BLF, led by Jack Mundey and other CPA and left ALP militants, about 25 years ago, the NSW organisation collapsed almost immediately and the members joined the federal organisation. The Mundey leadership’s estimate was that a breakaway wasn’t viable, and they were correct.

Ten years later, when the Federal Court deregistered the Maoist-led BLF in NSW, Victoria and the ACT, and transferred the coverage the labourers to the construction wing of the CFMEU (a union based mainly on tradespersons rather than labourers), the Maoist leaders tried to form a breakaway union, or more accurately to persist with the existing union unregistered. In NSW and the ACT, two of the three deregistered states, most of the members immediately joined the CFMEU.

In Victoria, most members joined the CFMEU, but about 2000 stayed with the BLF. Eventually, though, most of the mainly Maoist forces from the rump of the BLF joined the CFMEU in a negotiated settlement. Subsequently, there was a factional struggle in the CFMEU, and the DSP supported a rank-and-file ticket against the then CFMEU leadership, which wasn’t successful.

In due course, however, the mainly Maoist forces from the rump of the BLF became the more or less dominant force in the CFMEU during a complex internal differentiation. That’s the background to the emergence of the Victorian CFMEU as it currently is: a very militant force indeed.

It’s my impression that the militant forces in the current Victorian CFMEU, after all their experiences, would be extremely cautious about any organisational breakaway from the existing trade union structures in current circumstances.

In the complex battle in the metalworkers union between the militant Workers First group and the more conservative, nationally dominant, Doug Cameron group, when Cameron intervened in Victoria to take control there was initially a strike against the federal body, and it seemed to be moving in the direction of a breakaway. The militants of Workers First fairly rapidly drew back from such a course, however, and a deal was brokered in which the two opposing groups shared control of the Victorian branch.

It’s my distinct impression that the militants of Workers First would be strongly disinclined to break away and start any kind of new union, and they are very wise to avoid like the plague any idea of a breakaway union.

The Australian DSP often uses rhetoric similar to that of Lund and Miah in Links, but in practice its scattered militants who are active in unions make no attempt to form breakaways, because in current conditions serious trade unionists would be barking mad to do so, and almost everyone can see that.

One group in Australia and the US, the World Socialist Website/Socialist Equality Party has taken the Lund-Miah line of thinking a small step further. For the past eight or nine years they have been repeating a mantra that the trade unions are totally bankrupt, workers should leave them, and the only task is to build the SEP as the world party of socialist revolution.

While this group’s website gets a lot of hits, judging by the modest size of their public meetings that I’ve attended, repeating this mantra constantly hasn’t led to any increase in their influence. If anything, the SEP’s influence has declined.

Lund and Miah in their article paint a picture, which is reasonably accurate, of a very defensive situation facing the organised working class in the US, Australia and other advanced capitalist countries. They overstate it a bit, and concentrate mainly on substantial strike defeats over 20 or so years in the US, implying that it has been mainly a period of working class defeat, which is not entirely accurate.

There is, however, a large element of truth in their stress on the defensive situation facing the working class, but why advance such a splitting, essentially disruptive organisational approach to the trade unions in such a defensive context?

Lund presents a schema in which workplace union certification votes in the US could be followed by the formation of new, independent unions. Everything I know suggests that’s bullshit. In most situations, votes for decertification will turn out to be votes to have no union, regardless of the subjective motives of those advocating decertification. In most situations, the likelihood that decertification votes will be followed by the formation of a new union seems to me a complete pipedream.

In Australian conditions, projecting the idea of breakaway unions or new unions is political and industrial lunacy. The Liberals, who will control the Senate from July, are threatening to seize federal government control of the state industrial systems and to seriously diminish the right to organise in unions.

The eight state and territory Labor governments are opposing such moves. There are some defeatist undertones to the response of the ACTU leadership, but most unions are also opposing the Liberals’ reactionary proposals.

To introduce metaphysical schemas about new unions in these defensive conditions is generally reactionary from the point of view of the interests of the working class.

At the small session on US socialist regroupment at the Asia-Pacific Solidarity Conference, at which Lund outlined her schema, she and Barry Sheppard waxed rhetorical about the irreversible and irredeemable crimes and betrayals of the existing US unions and the AFL-CIO.

The also talked rather bitterly about their view that the many leftists and radicals who work in existing unions structures are having themselves on, and were adapting to those structures.

Even if there’s an element of truth in that, it’s hardly a new phenomenon. It’s one of the problems of the ebb and flow of the class struggle.

I’m struck by the weird timelessness of the Lund-Miah-Sheppard proposals. Why choose this defensive period as a moment to advance a schema about breakaway unions, almost outside space and time?

I understand why the DSP leadership dabbles in extravagant rhetoric attacking existing trade union structures, and why the SEP advances a full-blown perspective that the workers should leave the existing unions and join their political organisation as the only instrument of working class struggle. In both cases, these groups are interested above all else in the internal life of their respective sects.

The extravagant rhetoric is used to convince those who can be convinced that the only thing to be done is to join the chosen sect as the “global leadership of the working class”.

I can also understand, at the human level, why Sheppard and Miah put forward some kind of perspective for breakaway unions. Sheppard and Miah operate in a very unusual situation, in which a long-standing craft alternative to an existing bureaucratised general union has had some success, and they have participated in that. I’m prepared to defer to their greater knowledge of that particular industrial situation (although I would be very interested to know if there are any socialists in San Francisco who have a different view about this industrial situation).

In the Marxist movement, historically, one of the worst diseases affecting individual militants, and particularly self-appointed leaderships, is the tendency to grab hold of some example from a situation in which you have a vested interest, or which you can interpret to suit some tactical decision you have already made. Such monomanias are often tinged with opportunism and are a very poor guide as to how to proceed in serious matters affecting the broad interests of the working class.

Lenin and Trotsky always stressed that Marxists had to live by their principles, but that they also had to proceed from a serious investigation of the immediate conjuncture facing the working class and the Marxist movement.

In that spirit, I assert that the working class, the Marxist movement, and particularly Marxists active in a serious way in trade unions, need some schema about forming independent breakaway unions like the proverbial hole in the head.

PS. The breakaway union idea is advanced partly, apparently, as some kind of corrective to the bureaucratization of the existing trade union structures and their integration in the capitalist state. Isn’t it the case that in the real world, not the ideal world of the schema, small, weaker, independent unions would be even more subject to all the pressures for bureaucratisation, etc, in the unlikely event that any of them ever got going?


Availability of Links

Norm Dixon is a mild-mannered, pleasant-enough bloke, but he becomes a raging leopard in cyberspace sometimes. It’s not my fault that, for quite sensible reasons associated with trying to promote hard-copy sales of Links (with which I have no quarrel) the DSP chooses not to put Links up on the web until they’ve exhausted the possibility of hard-copy sales.

I understand why they do that. Nevertheless, it puts someone like myself, who wishes to take up the issues raised in the article, at a certain disadvantage.

The article that I wrote a couple of days ago, which is available in full on the web, speaks for itself.

I was at considerable pains to give an accurate and fair summary of the views expressed by Lund and Miah in the article, and Barry Sheppard verbally. That will be demonstrated when those interested manage to get the article that’s discussed, one way or another.

My alternative would have been to scan the whole thing into a web page, which I chose not to do, in deference to the legitimate desire of the DSP to get some sales for their magazine.

In fact, as in the instance of John Percy’s book and Barry Sheppard’s book, I’ve got them plenty of publicity for their publishing project. They ought to thank me for that, really, but I doubt that they will, given the heat rather than light that they tend to generate when having a discussion with me.

Norm says that my account should be discounted because I, in his words: “on the say-so of Gould, who see everything written through the prism of defence of the social democrats’ monopoly of `labour movement’ politics”.

Norm here is slandering me on two levels. Firstly, a debate as to whether it’s a sensible tactic in current conditions to place primary emphasis, tactically, on splitting or decertifying existing unions in the hope of creating new ones, does not hinge at all on one’s view of tactics towards Social Democracy, unless you are required to initially agree with the standpoint of the DSP, Sheppard, Lund and Miah on these matters, which is an extremely peculiar standpoint.

That is why I went to considerable pains to give a careful historical overview of these issues, in the US, Australia and internationally, so readers can form a view for themselves in some historical framework.

Does Norm say that my article lies about the views advanced by Lund and Miah? That’s what he implies, and he should come out and say so, and try to justify that view rather than beating around the bush.

The second level on which Norm slanders me is his bald statement that I defend a Social Democratic monopoly of politics. I’ve spent my whole political life challenging the conservative Social Democratic monopoly of politics, often from within the labour movement.

Associates of mine have been, and are, active in a number of rank and file projects challenging assorted trade union bureaucracies, on a few occasions with quite spectacular success and on a number of occasions without success, and in some situations without success at the level of winning positions but with considerable success at influencing industrial outcomes from the rank and file level.

Several associates of mine have spent the larger part of their lives in such activity, and Norm is well aware of that.

The difference between us is that I have in recent times constantly challenged the zany, now 20-years-ongoing Third Period ultraleftism of the DSP leadership in relation to the official labour movement, which is now by far the longest Third Period binge in the history of the Australian labour movement, and probably any other labour movement.

I don’t want to press this too far, because I’m well aware of the current conflicts within the leadership of the DSP over strategic matters to do with the Socialist Alliance, in which two currents are battling for hegemony and possibly in this conflict Norm is one of the good guys, so to speak, who puts on a very belligerent posture in the public arena for reasons basically to do with the current internal conflict in the DSP leadership.

That brings me to the question of the extremely enigmatic post by Doug Lorimer on the Green Left discussion site drawing attention to the letters and statements of Cannon, gathered by George Breitman’s group in a pamphlet, Don’t Strangle the Party.

The question clearly raised in Lorimer’s post is whether the modern DSP functions internally more or less on the basis of the 1965 US SWP organisational resolution, or the more civilised, political and elastic conception advanced by Cannon in expressing his misgivings?

Last year’s expulsion of LF from the DSP would suggest that the first alternative prevails currently in the DSP.

This is also suggested by the fact that the current argument in the DSP leadership is generally confined to the leadership, although it’s possible that the argument is extending more generally into the DSP membership, which would be a healthy development, in my view.

In any case, I’d make the general point, particularly to Norm, who isn’t such a bad bloke intrinsically, despite his bellicose cyber-presence, wouldn’t it be far better to express a clear view, and engage in the debate on the industrial issues raised by Caroline Lund et al (and given de facto recognition by the DSP leadership), rather than making easily refuted inferences that I’m distorting their views?

Discussion (Green Left)

Discussion (Marxmail)

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