In early November, Ford workers voted down by a large margin a concessions package that would have accelerated two tier hiring and given away the right to strike for 6 years.
Here are two views on the meaning of the Ford workers vote and on the role of the UAW in the offensive against autoworkers and whether it should be by-passed altogether or it can be reformed.
Auto Workers Untamed: A “No” Heard ‘Round the World
By Ron Lare
By November 1, United Auto Workers (UAW) members at Ford had overwhelmingly rejected contract modifications, in voting that concluded—not coincidentally—the day before Ford announced new profits. This was the second set of modifications to the UAW-Ford contract proposed this year. The first were voted up in March, but the members saw these as a “giveback too far.”
The concessions just voted down were to last until 2015, i.e. through the new contract still to be negotiated for 2011. They included severe limitations on the right to strike, a six-year freeze on new-hire pay that had already been cut in half, and the reduction of skilled trades classifications. The argument of the company and the union leadership was that these measures were needed to “match” the labor cost savings at the bankrupt Chrysler and General Motors corporations.
At half pay, young auto workers will not be able to buy the cars they build. With the average nonunion industrial pay in the United States substantially higher than the $14.50 that Ford new-hires currently get, what does Ford—let alone the UAW—think it’s doing? Anyone who has been subject to the discipline needed in a modern auto assembly plant knows that—short of fascism—you can’t effectively run one here for this kind of pay. The top goal of this savage pay cut is not so much immediate savings as the extermination of the UAW as a respected force on the shop floor as well as politically. Ford will raise pay later, but hopes to dictate its own terms.
Solidarity House argued for the attempt to put Ford workers in line with those at bankrupt GM and Chrysler by appealing to the downward “pattern” that now includes non-union transplant companies. As many workers said during the campaign, “Bring them up to us, not us down to them.”
The most prominent sentiment on the shop floor and around local halls was that we must vote “no” in order to hold on to the right to strike over wage raises in next year’s contract negotiations. Ford and the UAW bureaucracy countered that the union has not struck Ford since 1976. Members replied, “If it’s not that important, then why do they want to take it away from us?” There was no good answer to that.
Anger was very palpable during voting at union halls around the country. At UAW 600, local staff backed off as a line of Truck Plant voters hissed at them that they would take only Vote No leaflets.
The coming result of the vote was clear from the early count, ending in a 70% No vote among production workers and 75% No among skilled trades, for an overall 72% No vote, according to a letter to the membership from Vice President for UAW-Ford, Bob King. (UAW Solidarity House has released only percentages, not a national count. Only an internal union appeal extracted a count in 2005.)
During the Vote No campaign, the national union leadership lost political control of the most important Ford plant in the US if not the world, the Dearborn Truck Plant, one of the plants in UAW Local 600.
Full-time Truck Plant bargaining committeeperson Gary Walkowicz, who has long been a national leader against concessions at Ford, plant president Nick Kottalis, and five other Dearborn Truck Plant union officers came out with a signed statement against these concessions during the campaign. The Truck Plant makes the F-150 pickup truck and a huge proportion of Ford profits. Members there voted No by 93%. Skilled trades worker Judy Wraight was one of the authors of the Local 600-wide “vote no” leaflet quoted below. Across all Local 600 Ford plants, the vote was No 3087, Yes 823.
The new faultline in the Ford empire should be an inspiration to workers everywhere. A Ford executive responding to the vote in Kansas City — earlier and virtually equal to that in the Truck Plant — said he was “shocked.” And perhaps Ford workers have somewhat alarmed the U.S. ruling class as a whole.
The national contract rejection sprang from factors ranging from a sense that Ford had come back for concessions a time too many, to rebellion by lower-level union officers in touch with the rank and file, to a presence of radicals, including socialists, in some key plants. It is the first time a national auto contract was ever voted down by a majority of the membership!
In the wake of the rejection vote, UAW president Ron Gettelfinger said there would be no more negotiations until 2011. But two days after the vote results were announced, Reuters reported: “Ford Motor Co. will continue meeting informally with United Auto Workers leaders to discuss labor issues following the rejection of concessions by U.S. rank-and-file workers, a top executive said…”
Such talks are always said to be underway, but Ford was making a point by making this statement at this time: We’re back at concessions bargaining the day after.
An excerpt from a leaflet signed by 18 opponents of the concessions at UAW Local 600 UAW stated the following:
“The strike threat defends our money, benefits, rights—and UAW political clout…Power in Washington starts with our power right here (for true national health insurance, converting closed plants to greener jobs and alternative transportation for auto and other workers, and defending the gains of civil rights movements, etc.).
“International solidarity: CAW-Ford members like Lindsay Hinshelwood at Oakville (Ontario) assembly also organize against concessions. We need an independent Council of union reps and workers across borders, not Ford lobbying the International Metalworkers Federation Ford Network. Ford wants to lead the race to the bottom internationally.“
It remains to be seen whether unity against company attacks and rejection of timid union leadership can be converted into a sustained rank-and-file organization for action including strike mobilization, union democracy, and international solidarity. This could feed social movement unionism, helping to unite the working class and reverse the decades-long decline of the union movement in the United States.
For activists at Ford, the way forward is upward but not yet entirely clear in its details. The vote was notably dependent on a “No” or neutral position taken by shop-floor officers who had supported all the concessions up to now. Some of these officers concluded during the campaign that they could not be re-elected if they supported the latest concessions at a company returning to profitability.
What will those who followed the rank and file yesterday do tomorrow? Such questions will be prominent until union officers have to side more consistently with a rebellious rank and file. The 2010 UAW Convention delegate and other local elections, as well as the 2011 contract, are good opportunities. The UAW Convention next year is in Detroit.
Despite efforts at international solidarity against union concessions at Ford, the Canadian version of these concessions has been adopted by vote of the Canadian Auto Workers union by 83%. Today international union solidarity is required for any comprehensive fight for jobs, pay and working conditions.
(There is more coverage of this struggle at Labor Notes and Soldiers of Solidarity.)
—Ron Lare is a retired member of UAW Local 600 and former executive board member.
The Ford vote and the UAW’s defenders
By Jerry White
Last week’s defeat of Ford concessions contract—by a margin of 22,136 to 7,816—was a massive repudiation of the United Auto Workers by the rank-and-file, and a sign of the growing hostility and opposition of workers to this pro-company organization.
The “No” vote was a historic event—the first rejection of a national auto contract recommended by the UAW since 1982 and at Ford since 1976. It is, however, only an initial step.
Within hours of announcing the defeat, top UAW executives pledged to work with Ford on a daily basis to “insure that they maintain the highest levels of quality and productivity” and “remain competitive.” This can only mean the UAW intends to force through the concessions on a plant-by-plant basis using the threat of factory closings and mass layoffs.
Ford workers must draw the implications of their own actions. A struggle in defense of jobs and living standards will not be carried out by the UAW—which is no less an enemy of workers than are the corporations and the Obama administration—but against it, through the creation of new organizations of working class struggle.
In the aftermath of the “No” vote, various middle class organizations, which like to posture as “left” and even socialist, have insisted that any resistance of workers must be channeled through the UAW. Contrary to all evidence, these groups claim that the UAW can be reformed and its leadership forced to respond to the needs of the organization’s members.
A “resounding NO vote would be the first step to re-building the UAW as a union that fights for its members and all working people,” claimed one leaflet signed by two supporters of Solidarity, a self-described “socialist, feminist and anti-racist organization.” The two are also former executive board members of UAW Local 600 at the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan.
“Rank and file UAW activists should use the momentum and sense of victory that this has given us to begin building the kind of movement that can turn the UAW into a fighting trade union,” declares another statement, written by a supporter of Socialist Alternative and a UAW official at the St. Paul, Minnesota Ford plant. The program for “rebuilding the UAW,” should include the fight for a “publicly funded green jobs program” and the nationalization of the auto industry, they wrote.
“Perhaps this is the beginning of a new workers revolution, one that will gain the respect of those that negotiate on their behalf and redefine the direction of the UAW,” wrote a another local official at the Ford-Mazda plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, in a column featured on the Labor Notes web site.
The natural question that arises upon reading these statements is: What “UAW” are these people talking about?
What evidence can they present that shows the UAW is anything other than a right-wing appendage of the corporations and the state?
In 1937, the exiled socialist leader Leon Trotsky argued that the American Federation of Labor, despite its treacherous and pro-capitalist leadership, could still be defined as a “workers organization” because “within certain limits it leads a struggle of the workers for an increase—or at least against a diminution—of their share of the national income.” Should the AFL leaders, Trotsky wrote, “defend the income of the bourgeoisie from attacks on the part of the workers; should they conduct a struggle against strikes, against the raising of wages, against help to the unemployed; then we would have an organization of scabs, and not a trade union.”
This is exactly what the UAW has done over the last three decades. On the basis of the program of “labor-management partnership” and “Buy American” nationalism, it has functioned as a labor police force for the employers, isolating and betraying every struggle against plant closings, mass layoffs and concessions.
As a result of the suppression of working class resistance by the UAW and the AFL-CIO, the richest one percent of the population saw its share of national income more than double—from 9 to 20 percent—since 1979.
With the multi-billion VEBA retiree health care trust fund, it has been transformed into a business, complete with Wall Street advisers and a substantial ownership stake at all three Detroit automakers.
Its top administrators—far from being responsive to pressure from below—have a direct financial incentive to extract ever greater levels of profit from UAW members in order to boost the value of their shareholdings. These executives have seen their salaries and perks increase, even as the membership of the organizations and the wages of auto workers have sharply declined.
The UAW is widely hated and despised by the workers. Yet the supposed “lefts” and “progressives” instinctively defend the UAW and declare illegitimate any action by workers independent of the union apparatus. This says more about the class character of these organizations than any of their left-sounding phrases.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when the unions were still looked upon by workers, despite their hostility to the union bureaucracy, as organizations that they could use to defend their interests, when major class battles were waged via these organizations, the middle class groups were utterly indifferent and even openly hostile to the trade unions.
At the time they generally labeled the “white working class” as racist and identified the majority of union workers with the reactionary politics of leaders like AFL-CIO President George Meany. Meanwhile, they attacked the Workers League, the forerunner of the Socialist Equality Party, for intervening in union struggles and seeking to build a socialist leadership and mobilize the rank-and-file against the bureaucracy and its alliance with the Democratic Party.
Only during and after the decisive decade of the 1980s—when the UAW and AFL-CIO turned to corporatism, helped impose concessions and mass layoffs and betrayed one strike after another—did they orient their activities to the unions, become their most enthusiastic boosters and increasingly integrate themselves into the union hierarchy. That is to say, when the social character of the unions became more openly anti-working class, and any democratic impulse from the workers was extinguished, at precisely that point these groups became the champions of the unions.
Far from “reforming” the unions, the influx of the “dissidents” and “lefts” into various positions in the labor apparatus has not had the slightest impact. The right-wing politics of the AFL-CIO—the promotion of nationalism and chauvinism, defense of US imperialism and its wars, and support for the Democratic Party—has not lessened.
Time and time again the ex-radicals sought to boost illusions in one faction of the UAW or another in order to provide supposed proof of the possibility of reforming the organization. One of their past favorites was UAW Vice President Bob King himself, the architect of the Ford concessions who was booed off the stage by rank-and-file workers during the vote.
Their promotion of the UAW today is part of a general lurch to the right by middle class groups, who have lined up behind the Obama administration and the interests of US imperialism. The subordination of the working class to the so-called “unions” is a very critical issue for America’s ruling elite, under conditions of an historic crisis of the capitalist system and an emerging revival of working class militancy and political radicalization.
The “No” vote by the Ford workers is a harbinger of the return of great class battles. The way forward for auto workers and every section of the working class is a decisive break with these reactionary organizations and the building of new organs of industrial and political struggle based on the political independence of the working class, internationalism and socialism.
This is what the middle class groups fear and oppose.
18 thoughts on “Two Views of the United Auto Workers”
For me (and I would guess Ron Lare), the question is not whether or not the UAW can be reformed into a democratic, militant and solidaristic union. Instead, what radicals and revolutionaries organizing in the workplace need to be clear about is that workers, especially those who want to fight the boss, will first look to the existing unions to organize that fight. Whatever we think about the ultimate possibility of reforming the UAW or other bureaucratic unions, if we are not active in those unions we will be isolating ourselves from the militant workers.
Another problem with Jerry White’s argument is that it lumps together the whole of the UAW, both members, local elected officials and top bureaucrats – and then says “the UAW is a right-wing appendage of the corporations and the state.” I don’t think Ron would disagree that’s true of the top bureaucrats.
The challenges to left activism in the unions have been many, but we should look at them as part of the overall decline of the left, attacks on workers in the workplace/communities/public sector, etc.
Finally, just for this brief comment, the charge that “only during and after the decisive decade of the 1980s—when the UAW and AFL-CIO turned to corporatism, helped impose concessions and mass layoffs and betrayed one strike after another—did they orient their activities to the unions, become their most enthusiastic boosters and increasingly integrate themselves into the union hierarchy” isn’t true for any part of the Left that I know of. The claim that the SEP forerunner was the only socialist organization in the 1960s/70s active in unions is ludicrous. Countless maoist, syndicalist, and trotskyist groups and collectives oriented to union rank and file activism at that time. Many were displaced by plant closings, changes in political line, etc – and this was happening before the SEP claims the orientation began. I don’t know where that comes from but it’s a bizarre argument.
Hi Charlie and Isaac,
Thanks for your posts. I think this is a pivotal question workers and activists have to resolve, especially in the context of the massive attacks the working class is facing by the capitalists. Although what is vital is that unions are key players in mediating or coordinating this attack on the working class. I do not think that either of you would disagree over the role the unions are currently playing. While the general outlines are easier to agree upon, it is clear that the labor movement has to choose which way is forward in the current economic and political crisis.
For starters it has been immensely helpful for me to rely on three pivotal works: Detroit I Do Mind Dying, Punching Out by Martin Glaberman, and the Workplace Papers by the Sojourner Truth Organization. From these works I gather the following: from the end of WWII to around the early 1970s there was a compromise between labor and capital where workplace grievances and struggles were traded in for increased productivity, wages and benefits. The increase in productivity is particularly important because underlying the ability of the capitalists to increase productivity was essentially a loss of control of the workplace by the workers. This trade off was possible in the era of the long boom. I am sure both Isaac and Charlie are aware of the economic and political basis for such a period. However in the late 1960s/ early 70s capitalism entered a period of declining rate of profit which made this compromise untenable. This meant that the trade off, or labor compromise was no longer possible. While the unions in the long boom were able to win concessions from the capitalists based on workers struggles and an economic boom, in the era of declining profits this was no longer possible. This had important consequences for the trade union bureaucracy. This meant that the trade union bureaucracy momentary alliance with capitalists and workers was over. If the bureaucracy was going to be relevant to the capitalists, they had to now force wage and benefit concessions as well from the workers. I would argue that this is effectively been the general role of the bureaucracy for the last 40 years in the United States. The other major change I see is that the UAW owns shares of the big three and it also manages the VEBA fund. This means the UAW has an explicit interest in seeing the profits of the capitalist class go up (WSWS piece gets at this as well). There is something to be said about how the bureaucracy is tied to a financial vision/ sector of how profit is created; i.e. through the stock markets/ trading of paper and not at the workplace. This is tied to a larger discussion of how the trade union bureaucracy has changed ideologically and in its composition under the era of neo-liberalism. This is different than the role UAW played over forty years ago which was on taming workers struggles and bringing them to the bargaining table.
We see the attempts by the League to deal with the UAW bureaucracy in more complex forms. One way to look at the organization the League was building at the workplace is to call it an independent workplace group (IWG). The IWG is a recognition of the mediating role that unions play in the capital-labor dynamic. The IWG tries to create an independent organization at the workplace. It hopes to draw workers who are hostile to the trade union bureaucracy and workers who want to work with the union. The basis for this is the united front orientation the IWG can relate to the union. For workers who want to work with the union the IWG poses the possibility of working with the trade union bureaucracy if the latter is willing to fight for worker’s advancement and power. To the extent that it is not, the IWG is willing to fight on an independent basis. For workers who are hostile to the trade union bureaucracy, the IWG seeks to be an independent vehicle of organization that is not subordinated to the needs of the bureaucracy.
Second, I would like to analyze more carefully Charlie and Isaac’s post. Charlie says, “For me (and I would guess Ron Lare), the question is not whether or not the UAW can be reformed into a democratic, militant and solidaristic union.”
The question of whether the UAW can be reformed can only be resolved to a large extent in the course of the struggle. I at least do not have a fixed position on it in terms of what is possible in the future. At the same time, I am not for focusing workers to reform the UAW as a goal in of itself. I think that narrows the struggle and evades the question of how the UAW can actually be changed. If the UAW becomes a more radical union it will only happen on the basis of mass worker’s activity. And to the extent this happens it will not longer be recognizable in the form and content it has today. In other words, the UAW has to be completely rebuilt and I do not even know if it can survive such an upheaval.
Charlie says, “Instead, what radicals and revolutionaries organizing in the workplace need to be clear about is that workers, especially those who want to fight the boss, will first look to the existing unions to organize that fight.” I think the question is more complicated than this. It is true that many workers who want to fight will look towards the union as the proper organization for struggle. However the reality of the UAW’s bureaucracy has to be dealt with. Workers can pour immense amounts of time and energy without getting much in return. There is also the question of what type of struggles build worker’s self confidence and break out of economism. But the other key point I see is that there are other workers who want to fight, but at the same time do not want to work with the unions at all. These workers have been screwed by the union and have stopped seeing the union as an organization that defends their interests. Activists who align themselves to the union too closely will not be able to win the latter layer. So what is the resolution to this impasse? In my understanding, it is the independent workplace group. It has the potential to bring both layers into one organizational form. Simply arguing that workers who want to fight will want to go to the union precludes the formation of such an organization and sets the terms of the struggle on the UAW. In this era, as the WSWS piece argues, this is an unbelievable orientation considering the UAW bureaucracy has become essentially managers at the workplace as well.
Charlie also says, “Whatever we think about the ultimate possibility of reforming the UAW or other bureaucratic unions, if we are not active in those unions we will be isolating ourselves from the militant workers.” I do not think anyone is arguing to organize completely outside the union. I think workers should still attend union meetings and consider the strategic role unions can play in advancing the struggle. In other words the question of dual unionism is not being posed in this specific moment. I think the question is more about a strategic orientation towards the unions which at the same time builds independent workplace power of the workers. What organizational forms does this take? It is only through the union?
In terms of what Isaac writes, “Another problem with Jerry White’s argument is that it lumps together the whole of the UAW, both members, local elected officials and top bureaucrats – and then says “the UAW is a right-wing appendage of the corporations and the state.” I think this is generally a very good point. Layers of the union will be split as Ron Lare argues. I think workers need to have a strategic orientation to those locally elected officials who break with the higher ups in the trade union bureaucracy. The other key point is can workers relate to these breakaway officials on an independent basis. The interests of the elected officials and the rank and file union members will differ. So how does this get resolved in an organizational and political manner? I think I have laid out my general orientation earlier, so will not repeat the same argument.
I agree with well over 90% of what Will has written about the history of the US unions and the role of the labor bureaucracy, and the need to organize rank and file activists– the tiny militant minority today– independently and against the bureaucracy. The question is where and how to organize. I agree with Lare and my comrades in Solidarity that radicals and revolutionaries need to organize that militant minority where it is found– within the existing unions. If we do not, we will isolate ourselves from those militants. Clearly, the most successful organizing of that militant minority in the US since the 1970s– in the form of Teamsters for a Democratic Union– has taken that form. Put simply, we should not confuse our understanding of the labor officialdom and its relation to capital and the state with that of rank and file militants who want to fight.
a few thoughts.
“However in the late 1960s/ early 70s capitalism entered a period of declining rate of profit which made this compromise untenable.”
Is this a result of an “objective” decline in the rate of profit, or an expression on the economic plane of a change in the political relations of force between capital and the proletariat at that time ( development of independent mass struggles in the metropole, the anti-colonial movements etc), which entailed a capitalist counter attack as a necessity for the ruling class?
also considering the low rate of unionization especially in the United states, it seems that to some extent material conditions have made this debate a great deal less relevant then it may have been for say the early third international trying to relate to the huge social democrat structures in west europe.
perhaps its more important now to pose the question of how to organize independent working class resistance structures of the non-unionized majority?
not posing this question in an “either/or” sense of course….
The decline of profitability in the mid 60s and today is rooted in the increasing mechanization of production– not the changing relationship of class forces (http://homepage.newschool.edu/~AShaikh/The%20current%20economic%20crisis.pdf;%5D
Even though the unions are much, much weaker than in the 1960s/1970s, workers looking to fight their boss usually first look to the existing unions as that instrument…
“Even though the unions are much, much weaker than in the 1960s/1970s, workers looking to fight their boss usually first look to the existing unions as that instrument…”.
maybe so, but much of the working class also looks towards electoral politics as a means of improving conditions.
the question at hand is if the role of the revolutionary minority is to reinforce these hegemonic attitudes or attack them not only verbally but in practice.
Hey ex-kapd, Charlie,
This will be brief so if any of it is unclear, I’ll be happy to expound.
I agree very much with ex-kapd’s caveat on the falling rate of profit. Harry Cleaver does a very exceptional job in his Introduction to Reading Capital Politically to place primacy on the self-activity of the working class in compelling a reorganization of capital toward induction of labor-saving technology, the turn to financialization, etc. If the working class didn’t fight back, create its own forms of struggle (beyond the sanctions of the union, though the rise of unions are partly to be explained by such resistance), and in general act as a fetter on the absolute sway of capital, Detroit would still be Motor City.
I feel the trouble with Cleaver is he seems to have a tendency towards subjectivism and that the self-activity of the working class determines everything. I don’t think he tried hard enough to account for some of the things Kim Moody introduces into the subject of, e.g. labor saving technology and what have you. But the struggles of the working class have to be seen as being objectified into the new class relations, production techniques, neoliberalism, etc. something I don’t think Moody considered. When the capitalists introduce new technology they are factoring in whatever brakes the working class have put on their ability to create more surplus value leading to profit.
Moody nor Cleaver it seems can be taken independently. We need a synthesis of the two so that we don’t fall into either subjectivism or economic determinism.
Living out here in the Bay Area, the only auto plant in the area (and maybe in Cali) NUMMI is closing this Spring. 1,000s of workers are being laid off, a good number are people of color. Manufacturing jobs like this are harder to come by in the Bay Area, and their descent wages are not found in the service industry, where many laid off NUMMI workers will likely find jobs…if they find any at all.
Above is a link to a UAW meeting of these laid off NUMMI workers, showing two views from the rank and file and from the “leadership” table of rank and file yelling at their misleaders in UAW for showing little to no fight. Notice how this is too much for the union bureaucrat who lashes out at the rank and file…as he himself is to be laid off. If this is not a microcosm of the state of organized labor and specifically that in auto I don’t know what is. A sad state of affairs!
What we need is a radical reorientation by rank and file workers drawing off the histories of struggles as noted by posts by Will and other above, like the LRBW, writings of Stan Weir and Marty Glaberman, and Selma James showing workers self-activity and creating groups and structures to defends workers that are outside the union bureaucrats seeking to keep the peace. As you can see from the video, it’s hard to keep the peace when the ship is sinking. It’s clear though the SF Chronicle, a conservative paper, is out to air the dirty laundry of organized labor…and the comments show that. But what rank and file organizing that was done (I’m sure there was some but not aware of all the organizing at NUMMI) is expressed as anger and frustration at the union bureaucracy and each other.
As job and public infrastructure are under wholesale attack in CA, hopefully fightbacks on campuses, schools, workplaces and neighborhoods like the convergences planned for March 4th are a start.
Looks like these workers won’t be looking to the UAW for jack shit. Holy shit, man.
Those fuckin bastard officials even called the cops and tried to say the hecklers were put there by management. Right… and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers were a management front as well….
Charlie, I agree to some extent that at this stage some unionized workers are still looking to unions to fight back. We are seeing this among state workers we are organizing with at University of Washington and I’m also seeing it in my own industry, education. This is not necessarily because people have “illusions” or false consciousness. It is because we do not yet feel our strength and don’t yet have the confidence to take mass independent rank and file action across the breath of large sections of the class. Locally there have been moments of rank and file upsurge and confidence but it hasn’t lasted or congealed yet into something bigger.
So in the absence of alternatives folks still lean on the grievance procedure, shop stewards, etc. even though they generally know that these mechanisms are broken and management and the union bureaucrats don’t really take them seriously. We are seeing a unionized workplace in which management acts as if the union didn’t exist.
I would say that for this reason the majority of workers aren’t supportive of the union because it is profoundly broken . Many don’t go to union meetings because they are highly alienating, and perceived as a waste of time. Also, some union officials play ethnic patronage and divide and conquer, and the most oppressed layers of immigrant workers are often excluded from power in the union.
But despite this reality, most workers are also not yet excited about building alternative formations. When a minority of workers do build an alternative that shows it can win my sense is that many of these workers will rally around it.
So this brings us to the strategic question of what should revolutionaries be doing in our workplaces? Charlie Post seem to be suggesting orienting toward union reform, working within the unions to change them. But recognizing that many workers are still tied to the unions does not necessarily mean that our main work should be orienting to union meetings, caucusing, etc. In other words, I agree with Charlie Post’s diagnosis (to some degree) but not with his solution. Instead of that solution my comrades and I are trying to build up independent rank and file organization like International Workers and Students for Justice here in Seattle. We don’t attack or dis the union because most workers still feel the need for it. We are not left sectarians or dual unionists. But instead of union reform work we organize with militant rank and file workers – BOTH the workers who wish to reform the union AND the workers who are so pissed off with the union that they don’t see the point of going to meetings or trying to reform it. IWSJ aims to bring both of these groups together to fight management, whether the union wants to support this fight or not.
This may lead to union reform – we hope it does – but as several folks on this thread have suggested, only advancing the class struggle will actually reform the unions. OR it will possibly create healthier and more militant unions to replace them – the jury is out on that. But if we call ourselves revolutionaries our struggle needs to go beyond either reforming or replacing the unions – we need to build rank and file power and organization, through the course of various transitional struggles, constantly asserting greater and greater attempts to control production itself.
Follow-up to NUMMI plant closure and struggles by rank-and-file to hold their local UAW to task for drawing out negotiations for final payouts after the plant closes in April. In organizing the March 4th actions, folks are trying to link with these workers. I guess NUMMI workers were called to a last minute union meeting today, so as we see with many union democracy is at a premium. It’s tough thought b/c many left organizers are trying to jump on the ship of solidarity with these workers. That’s great, but it’s tough though b/c just now they’re coming on long after the plant decided to close instead of when the announcement was first made. And it seems the UAW is not very critical of GM which ditched NUMMI with two weeks notice. This is in part b/c UAW now owns a large stake in GM. Talk about business unionism!
The initial subject of this discussion is an emerging potential for working class resistance to a prolonged experience of class accommodations that uniformly have turned out to be defeats. One strand, thankfully it appears to be a minority, suggests that this should be channeled into union reform where unions currently exist and implies support for parallel approaches to organizing where they don’t. But that approach rests on little more than the very partial and limited truth that activated workers, “…will first look to the union.” It ignores that there have been hundreds of such union reform and revitalization efforts over many decades just in this country without any example – specifically including the TDU experience – that might reasonably be called a strategic success. While some leftists may be unaware of this reality, it will hardly be news for autoworkers.
These union reform politics fit comfortably within a social democratic perspective preoccupied with incremental “successes”. Unfortunately, they also have a foothold among radicals and revolutionaries. For a case in point, read the last paragraph in Shawn Hattingh’s otherwise excellent description of the current wildcat mine occupations in S. Africa. (ZNet, 2/3/10).
For a very good treatment of the underlying political issues from an anarcho-syndicalist perspective, I’d recommend the 2009 paper, “Strategy & Struggle” by the Brighton Solidarity Federation.
Unity in Struggle members in general take an approach that is more critical of union reform caucusing and is more focused in building independent rank and file workplace organizations, along the lines of what you laid out in your STO pice “Trade Unions and Independent Organizations”. Myself, Jomo, Gila, Bao, CG, and other readers/ writers around Gathering Forces are involved in these efforts in Seattle. Some of us are building a rank and file worker and student organization to fight budget cuts/ privatization of the University of Washington. It’s called International Workers and Students for Justice. As I lay out above, we are open to workers who want to focus on union reform but we actively seek out rank and file militants who want to go a lot farther than that and we try as much as possible to focus on fighting management through direct action.
I would say that union reform work not only leads to defeat but it is also a PRODUCT of defeat as you suggest in Trade Unions and Independent Organizations. We have seen at times of rank and file mobilization people are willing to move without the union backing the action. But at moments when the rank and file is not as confident because of management and police retaliation then people cling to the union bureaucracy for support and then want to try and reform it if it doesn’t offer that support.
Thanks for the links… I’ll have to check those out when I get a chance.
Aufheben has what I think is a good critique of Cleaver (and Negri), as well as a useful overview of the history of workerist theory, which includes an analysis of the subjectivism vs. economic determinism problem raised by Krisna above (#11, 2003, ‘From Operaismo to “Autonomist Marxism,”’
Thanks for sharing that. I’ll be looking over it soon.
Looks like the old link is broken. Here’s a functioning one: