HOW THE UNIONS KILLED THE WORKING CLASS MOVEMENT
By Dave Stratman
June 13, 2006
The US working class has been betrayed by organizations that it thought were its own and by contractual arrangements that it thought were to its benefit. The working class is trapped in a web of organizations and ways of thinking about itself which have stripped it of its power and left it fatally vulnerable to its enemies.
Beneath the ringing words of the 1908 Preamble to the Constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) lay a vision of the working class as an active revolutionary force with a deep historical purpose: to sweep away the brutal rule of capitalism and create society anew:
"The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life....
"Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,’ we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wage system.’
"It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism...."
–from PREAMBLE to the IWW Constitution
The IWW understood that, at its heart, class struggle is a struggle over the future of human society. The struggle on the job against individual employers is part of a larger class war. The "Wobblies," as IWW members were called, succeeded in organizing such difficult to organize groups as timber workers, agricultural workers, and cowboys, and they organized some of the most important strikes in US labor history, such as the Lawrence "Bread and Roses" textile strike of 1912. This strike shows much of the Wobblies’ approach to industrial organizing. When mill owners cut the pay of mill workers to $6 a week, 23,000 workers spontaneously walked out. The AFL craft unions refused to help the unskilled, mostly female and immigrant strikers, but IWW leaders "Big Bill" Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and other Wobblies rushed to their aid. Haywood describes the strike in his autobiography, Bill Haywood’s Book:
It was a wonderful strike, the most significant strike, the greatest strike that has ever been carried on in this country or any other country. And the most significant part of that strike was that it was a democracy. The strikers had a committee of 56, representing 27 different languages. The boss would have to see all the committee to do any business with them. And immediately behind that committee was a substitute committee of another 56 prepared in the event of the original committee's being arrested. Every official in touch with affairs at Lawrence had a substitute selected to take his place in the event of being thrown in jail. (Cited at /tinpan/parton/2/breadrose.html#)
The bitter, ten-week Bread and Roses Strike–"We want Bread, and Roses too"–with its picket lines of thousands of women strikers, became a national and international sensation and resulted in victory. The IWW reached a peak membership of around 100,000 in 1923. Though the IWW remained influential in the ‘30s and ‘40s, a combination of ferocious government repression, internal splits, and other factors led to the Wobblies’ rapid decline after 1924. Other unions with a democratic and "horizontal" style of organizing, however, followed in their wake.
The close of World War I through the 1930s saw an increasingly revolutionary working class movement in the US. The 1919 General Strike in Seattle began with an illegal strike by 35,000 shipyard workers against their employer–the US government; they were joined by 110 union locals. The General Strike Committee virtually ran the city for two weeks, in what the mayor of Seattle called "an attempted revolution." In the 1920s and 1930s textile strikes swept New England and the South, and strikes by hundreds of thousands of steel workers and coal miners spread throughout Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, New Mexico, Washington, and other states. Striking miners in West Virginia formed a "citizen army" of four thousand workers "led by war veterans, accompanied by nurses in uniform, and armed with every weapon they could obtain" to break through deputies’ lines and spread the strike to non-union counties in the famous Battle of Blair Mountain.
On May 9, 1934 a strike by longshoremen in San Francisco was joined by teamsters and workers in other sectors and developed into a general strike of 130,000 workers which shut down most of the shipping on the West Coast. The Los Angeles Times called the general strike "an insurrection, a ...revolt against organized government." On May 22, 1934 a Teamsters strike in Minneapolis developed into a general strike in which as many as thirty thousand workers, many of them armed, drove the police force and 500 special deputies out of the city. On May 23 a strike in Toledo, OH was put down only by a force of 900 National Guard troops. By September 5, 1934 325,000 textile workers were on strike throughout the South. As "flying squadrons" of 200 to 650 strikers moved into the Carolinas, unbelting machinery and fighting scabs, the governor of South Carolina declared a "state of insurrection" and imposed martial law. The violence spread to the New England textile mills, leading the governor of Rhode Island to declare a "state of insurrection."(See John Spritzler, The People As Enemy: The Leaders’ Hidden Agenda in WWII, pp. 58-67 for more of this fascinating history.)
The growing working class movement seemed to threaten the survival of the capitalist system itself. The federal government responded with a plan to tame the working class by legalizing industrial unions and regulating them within a framework which would make workers more controllable. In 1935 Congress passed the Wagner Act, which granted workers collective bargaining rights within a process regulated by the federal government, and created the National Labor Relations Board to enforce "fair labor practices." There were three provisions of the Wagner Act which, according to labor historian Staughton Lynd, many unionists of the time found particularly threatening: "1) exclusive representational status for the majority union; 2) the dues check-off (in which the company collects dues from employees on behalf of the union); and 3) the closed shop." Each of these provisions favored the more conservative national unions over more radical, community-based unions. (Staughton Lynd, "We Are All Leaders": The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930s, p. 9)
Also in 1935 John L. Lewis, former president of the United Mine Workers Association, brought a number of AFL union leaders together to form the CIO, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, on the basis of industrial unionism–that is, unions that admit all workers, unskilled as well as skilled. Lewis was a life-long Republican who felt that the working class upheavals of the mid-thirties presented a "dangerous state of affairs" that might lead to "class consciousness" and "revolution." Lewis pictured industrial unions as a means of controlling insurgent workers to insure labor peace. He assured the Senate committee sponsoring the Wagner Act, "Allow the workers to organize, establish strong governmental machinery for dealing with labor questions, and industrial peace will result."(Quoted in Lynd, p. 8)
The CIO unions, writes Lynd, had four fundamental characteristics which contributed to its destructive effects on the working class: "First, national CIO unions were from the beginning, and aspired to be, ‘semi-public institutions, licensed by the state.’...Second, national CIO unions from the beginning practiced top-down decision-making....[with power vested in] full-time officers and staff representatives, paid by the national union....Third, whereas the rank-and-file unionism of the early 1930s emerged from and depended on direct action inside and outside the shop, national CIO unions from the beginning sought to regulate shop-floor activity not approved at higher levels of the union....Finally, from the beginning the national CIO leadership ardently sought to discourage independent labor politics and to tie the CIO to the Democratic Party." (Lynd, pp. 12-14. Emphasis in original.)
The CIO unions, along with the conservative AFL craft unions which they were meant to complement, have played the role they were designed to play by the government and Big Business. They have reduced the vibrant, grass-roots working class movement which once shook capitalism to its foundations to a demoralized and demobilized mass, shattered beyond recognition if not beyond repair.
Instead of a vision of the working class as an active force with a revolutionary mission, the AFL-CIO unions promote a vision of workers as simply a special interest scrounging for a piece of the capitalist pie. The AFL-CIO unions present capitalism as legitimate and permanent, and see their role as to make it function more smoothly in a government-regulated, pro-business process. The capitalist unions function as arms of management. Their role is not to build solidarity but to undermine it, not to mobilize workers but to demobilize them, not to strengthen the working class but to divide workers from each other, strip them of their power, and divert them from their historic revolutionary mission.
The consolidation of the labor movement into capitalist-dominated unions has meant the collapse of popular understanding of class struggle and the end of an organized working class movement that challenged the values, power, and legitimacy of capitalism. Unionized workers occupy the most central roles in the US economy and government–auto and steel; airlines, trucking, and rail transportation; communications; government services; teaching and nursing; and others. Yet these unionized workers, who hold the levers of economic and social power in their hands, have been so demoralized by their unions and so cut off from other sectors of the working class, union and non-union, that they have been unable to mount any effective defense against the brutal capitalist offensive of the last thirty years on every area of working class life–on wages, on health care, on pensions, on government social programs, on public education, on people’s desire for peace. When union members have attempted to fight back, they have been betrayed by their unions in a series of bitter strikes and lockouts–PATCO, Hormel, Staley, Caterpillar, Detroit News, Accuride, and others. Meanwhile the unions have promoted class-collaborationist programs like "Team-Building" and "Quality Circles" designed to unite workers with their bosses to compete against other workers. At this writing the United Auto Workers (UAW) is in court colluding with GM and Delphi to rob UAW retirees of their pensions.(Interestingly the proportion of French workers in unions is nearly 35% lower than American workers. Yet in the 1990's and recently French workers have mounted massive resistance to the attacks of capital.)
The goal of the IWW was to organize the working class to throw off the chains of capitalism. It refused to negotiate contracts or to accept the dues check-off, because it knew that these practices undermine workers’ power and make unions beholden to the company. Many CIO locals continued this practice of "struggles around demands, rather than negotiating contracts." Lynd writes, "John Sargent, the first president of the 18,000-member local union at Inland Steel, recalled, "Without a contract we secured for ourselves agreements on working conditions and wages that we do not have today ....If their wages were low there was no contract to prohibit them from striking, and they struck for better wages. If their conditions were bad...they would shut down a department or even a group of departments to secure for themselves the things they thought necessary." (Lynd, pp. 5-6)
The goal of today’s unions is to negotiate a contract with the employer and to obtain dues and other funding in any way that they can. Accepting the legitimacy and permanence of capitalism, they promote the capitalist view that the welfare of workers depends upon the welfare of the corporations: "What’s good for GM is good for the country." Worse, the unions promote the capitalist vision in which the role of ordinary people in society is to be wage slaves, the upper class's "hired help," grateful for a job serving upper class purposes, never to be the masters of society with the power to shape it with working class values of equality and solidarity.
Negotiating a contract is the opposite of building a movement. To obtain a contract for specified wages and working conditions for its members, the union guarantees the employer labor peace for the duration of the contract. To succeed in its role as negotiator, the union must prevent its members from resisting the class enemy through strikes, slow-downs, or any other means of exerting working class solidarity against the employing class during the contract period. As long as the contract endures, the union must enforce the demobilization of its members from the class war.
The unions’ alliance with capitalism as well as the contractual process give the union a stake in undermining the psychological and political health of its members and in undercutting their relationships with each other. Spontaneous solidarity actions undertaken by members on their own initiative are the bane of union officials. Union officials encourage workers to see themselves as weak and to believe that their power comes from union structures and processes, so as to minimize shop-floor solidarity and condition the members to rely on union officials and formal grievance procedures rather than on their own solidarity and initiative to resolve problems. Undermining worker solidarity and persuading workers that they are powerless on their own become key strategic goals of the unions and key effects of the unions on the working class.
At the same time, the union becomes a mouthpiece and agent for the company, striving for greater "competitiveness." The union stake in weakening its own members comes not only from its need to control them but also from the company’s need to see that the members accede to pay-cuts, speed-up, assaults on their health care and pensions. Meanwhile the unions assure the workers that whatever sacrifices the company requires of them now to improve its profits, they will someday reap the rewards of this best possible of systems in the best possible of worlds.
Union structures were designed from the very beginning to deform the relationships of union members to each other and to the rest of the working class. Unions are vertically organized to minimize relationships and solidarity between union members in different locals, maximize the power of national union staff and officials over local unions, and fractionalize the working class.
Away from the workplace the role of the unions is no less destructive. Unions train workers not to rely on themselves as agents of change with direct action, whether on the job or in society. Instead they steer their members into the arms of the capitalist political parties and encourage workers to rely on politicians and courts. The AFL-CIO has long acted as paid agents of capitalism abroad through its American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD). The "labor movement" has long colluded with capital by supporting wars fought to protect US corporate interests.
The central myth on which contemporary unions depend is that workers’ power comes not from their friendships and solidarity but from union structures. The most destructive effects of the unions have been on the self-concept of the working class. Workers have been led to think of themselves as helpless, to believe that their strength comes from institutions outside themselves, and to lose sight of their revolutionary mission. This is the central myth, these are the views, that must be contested.
At the present moment in history, capitalism has once more in the eyes of millions, perhaps billions of people worldwide, become a disaster from which the human race must escape, and many people are actively trying to imagine or find a path to an alternative. The question of revolution is once more on the agenda. It has again become clear that "the working class and the owning class have nothing in common" and that "It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism."
The working class can never recover its strength unless it is clear on the real role of the unions. Please share this paper with friends and co-workers. Discuss your own and other workers’ experiences with unions. Talk about ways for workers to get out of the trap we are in.
There are many people here and around the world who are thinking and talking about these problems. We need to link up. If you would like to join us in this discussion, please contact us at or visit our web site at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our web site at www.newdemocracyworld.org .