Socialist ViewPoint and analysis for working people

September/October 2005 • Vol 5, No. 7 •

Behind the AFL-CIO Split: Signs of Big Changes to Come

The split at the very top of the labor movement is shedding new light on the reactionary role played by both factions of the labor bureaucracy. The finger-pointing going on among the high and mighty leaders of labor, who blame each other for the sad state of affairs in the labor movement, is a classic case of name calling and has been recognized as such by broad sections of the workers’ movement.

But it is this side of the split that has prompted one mid-level labor official, Rose Ann DeMoro, Executive Director of the California Nurses Association, to write a sharp criticism of both sides of the divided top labor officialdom. She titles her bold statement, “The Top 10 Problems in the Labor Movement” (CounterPunch, July 21). [See elsewhere in this magazine.]

The leader of California’s nurses is the first prominent union officer in decades to raise the issue of bureaucratic methods at the top, the need to form coalitions to fight corporate America, and the need for genuine independent working class political action. She briefly comments on each of ten problems she outlines. But she leaves her readers with the most significant of her criticisms for last. She writes:

10. No discussion of non-bureaucratic strategies are on the table—including expanded coalitions with non-labor community, religious and environmental groups; active grassroots education and mobilization campaigns to challenge the corporate/far right agenda; building genuine political independence and holding the Democratic Party accountable to worker and public interests, and serious consideration of—imagine, a labor party for a labor movement.

Whatever else needs to be said in regard to the profound state of disarray at the top of the labor movement, her sharply pointed criticisms are certain to lead the trade union activists who read her essay serious thought about “non-bureaucratic” strategies.

Moreover her words—“imagine, a labor party for a labor movement”—were preceded by an explanation of independent working class political action. That’s the unmistakable implication of her proposal for organizing “expanded coalitions with non-labor community, religious and environmental groups.” Independent political action, she implies, requires much more than hustling votes and raising millions of union dollars in exchange for empty promises from capitalist candidates and wasting labor’s political power by voting for their enemies on Election Day!

Her call for mobilizing the natural allies of the working class for mass action to demand their rights and aspirations for a better future is the core of independent mass working-class political action. In a word, genuine working class political action is far more than casting a vote one day a year. It means mass political action in the streets as a way to fight for the rights of workers and other victims of the profit system all year long!

And when the American workers have built a new leadership that not only tells workers what to do, but leads them into struggle on the front lines of the class war—inside and outside the workplaces of America—then the working class will be on the road to defending itself and winning new victories.

Furthermore, a Labor Party that organizes workers and their natural allies to fight for their social, economic and human rights in the streets, is more meaningful than the policy of hustling votes for Democrats on Election Day.

Obviously, we can’t say what she may have had in mind by her reference to other “non-bureaucratic strategies,” but what she has written, points in the right direction.

The AFL-CIO’s fake “retreat” from its pro-war position

The most significant development to have occurred at the AFL-CIO convention came directly from the delegates in attendance. Among them were supporters of U.S. Labor Against War (USLAW), a union-based antiwar coalition who introduced an antiwar resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. But according to reports, before the vote was taken an amendment was introduced proposing to change the resolution’s words, “immediate withdrawal” to “rapid withdrawal.” The change only seems to be insignificant. But we have to ask, why then would anyone bother to make such an insignificant change?

Here’s why: the amended USLAW “antiwar” resolution kept the pro-war position of the AFL-CIO completely within the framework of both the Republican and Democratic Partys’ positions on the war. Thus the amended resolution means that the labor federation’s prowar position prior to this Convention remains essentially unchanged and identical to that held by the bipartisan capitalist government!

With this slick bureaucratic maneuver, Sweeney and his gang hope to give antiwar trade unionists the impression that their faction of the labor officialdom represents a more “progressive” force for change as against their competitors for leadership of the American labor movement.

However, that was only the part of this episode reported by almost all observers including the leaders of USLAW.

Another report on the split convention tells the full story of the spurious “antiwar” resolution. This report is titled, “The AFL-CIO and the War,” by James Petras. (Petras covered the labor federation’s convention for the socialist magazine, Rebelión.)

With the full text of the USLAW resolution adopted by the convention in hand, Petras found irrefutable proof that the USLAW resolution as adopted by the AFL-CIO was essentially unchanged by the amendment. He showed that, in all meaningful respects, the full text of the USLAW’s, and now the AFL-CIO’s “amended antiwar” resolution was virtually identical to the thinly disguised pro-war positions of both Democrats and Republicans!

What follows is a long quote from James Petras’s report extracted from the USLAW resolution adopted by the AFL-CIO’s “split” convention:

The AFL-CIO blames the resistance for the crimes committed by “our leaders.” The AFL-CIO praises the election orchestrated by Washington under its colonial military occupation and run by its exile clients as an example of Iraq’s democratic aspirations, forgetting to mention that over 80 percent of the Iraqi people want the U.S. military out…yesterday! Once again the AFL-CIO echoes the Bush-Rumsfeld line on the occupation, the elections, the resistance and the constitution.

Following the overwhelming majority of the U.S. public, which recognizes that Bush lied in the lead-up to the war—the AFL-CIO fails to denounce the lies and multi-billion dollar theft of Iraqi assets which has taken place during the occupation. The best that the labor bosses can offer is support for a “call from members of Congress for the establishment of benchmarks in the key areas of security, governance, reconstruction and internationalization.” Call for “benchmarks” (whatever that means) when there are a raft of detailed official reports on the pillage of reconstruction spending, the privatization and handover of billions of dollars of oilfields to U.S. multinational corporations— internationalization” according to the euphemisms of the AFL-CIO—and the transfer of prisoners to Guantanamo to be tortured indefinitely (a lovely “security benchmark”).

In paragraph six, the AFL-CIO explicitly defends a continued military occupation of Iraq—purportedly based on a “broad coalition of nations.” At a time when even U.S. clients like Poland, Bulgaria, the Ukraine and most others are pulling out of Iraq, the AFL-CIO mindlessly parrots the John Kerry/Hilary Clinton parody of a multilateral colonial army, when the political basis for it has disappeared.

The military solution remains as the single most important reference point for the AFL-CIO: “Greater security on the ground remains an unmet precondition for such efforts (“building a democratic Iraq”) to succeed.” “Greater security on the ground” means U.S. soldiers, lots of them for a long time, because of “unmet preconditions,” a euphemism for massive sustained anti-imperialist resistance, which precludes the puppet regime from consolidating its rule.

The AFL-CIO resolution says nothing about socio-economic reform, job programs and channeling oil wealth into social welfare programs and real nation building—programs which would require the ousting of the U.S.-backed elite. Instead they call for police state repressive solutions. “The AFL-CIO calls on the international community (sic) to help the Iraqi people build its capacity to maintain law and order through a concerted international effort to train Iraqi security and police forces.” More secret police, torturers, mercenaries, collaborators—the AFL-CIO is on familiar ground in Iraq as it was in orchestrating the aborted coup in Venezuela, the Chilean coup and other successful ventures in imperial “law and order.”

Perhaps the worst of the worst of the AFL-CIO apologia for the U.S. imperial occupation is found in its discussion of the destruction of Iraq and the efforts at reconstruction. The entire blame for the destruction of Iraq is placed on the Saddam Hussein regime, despite the fact that all testimony and data demonstrate that living standards, employment and health were better prior to the U.S. invasion than now. [Petras’s report appears immediately after this editorial.]

What a genuine antiwar resolution would look like

In order to get an idea of what a genuine antiwar and union-building labor position would look like, we cite a short paragraph on the matter from another of the several reports on the split in the labor bureaucracy included in this edition of our magazine. This one is by a long-time rank and file trade union activist, Mike Alewitz—a well-known labor muralist. His essay is another enlightening critical analysis of the split between the two factions of the labor bureaucracy.

In his piece titled, “Workers, Artists and the AFL-CIO Split,” [See elsewhere in this edition of Socialist Viewpoint.] Alewitz gives a convincing description of how honest working-class leaders would organize an effective campaign to oppose the war and advance the class interests of workers and their allies. At the same time, such a campaign launched by the labor movement would also serve as a springboard to mobilizing labor’s millions for the struggle to stop the war now and point the working class toward a genuine campaign to reverse some 50 years of setbacks and defeats. He writes:

Call for a march on Washington to demand an end to the war, hands off Social Security, and money for jobs and education. Call on every local, central labor council, civil rights organization, church, women’s group, and students to mobilize for the action. It would be a massive demonstration. At the rally, appeal to the thousands assembled to be volunteer organizers, in their own place of work, in a great new crusade to rebuild the labor movement. Workers would respond, as they always do when given the chance.

The rest of Alewitz’s essay is a hard-hitting outline of what an effective class-struggle strategy for the labor movement would look like.

Where do we go from here?

One of the biggest mistakes of some union leaders and activists, is either giving up entirely on the highly bureaucratized American labor movement, or the equally mistaken policy of taking sides, as they have, with Sweeney’s congenitally predisposed gang of self-serving careerists.

While there are few labor activists who have declared that the AFL-CIO is dead and propose the formation of a new democratic and militant union movement, there are all too many like those leading USLAW who have chosen to serve as apologists for the Sweeney faction and against the virtually identical Hoffa-Stern gang. Critical support to one side or another in disputes between labor leaders would be justified only if there was a meaningful difference between the two bureaucratic gangs—but none whatsoever exists.

However, among those who see no justification for critical support to one gang of bureaucrats or the other, a few have drawn the equally erroneous conclusion of declaring “a plague on both houses of labor.”

But the rich history of the workers’ movement has provided its verdict on this defeatist tactic, which has earned the descriptive characterization, “ultra-left sectarianism.” That is, rather than openly breaking politically with all class collaborationist misleaders in the labor movement, the sectarians break organizationally with the great majority of the union membership—who for reasons, right or wrong, remain loyal to their unions but not necessarily to its misleaders.

It’s true enough that those passing themselves off as “progressives” often lace their conservative policies with more militant-sounding language—as has been demonstrated above, in regard to the Sweeney faction’s fake antiwar position. It’s also a fact that the Hoffa-Stern faction has put itself out of the running for the support of rank-and-file union activists by openly advocating more proactive class collaboration with all employers in an industry by promising reduced costs of production in exchange for even-more employer-friendly union contracts.

What’s the real reason for the split?

Ironically, both factions of the AFL-CIO officialdom have for over 50 years proudly declared that their role was to work together as full-fledged partners with capitalist America for the benefit of both labor and capital! However, what they have left unsaid is how did they hope to organize the unorganized in partnership with those who live off the unpaid portion of the wealth produced exclusively by the working class and other victims of capitalist exploitation and oppression?

Can they be ignorant of the fact that workers, organized or not, are in a constant struggle with their employers over wages, hours, benefits and working conditions? This fact is something workers cannot help but learn from daily experience and without Karl Marx having to tell them the facts of life in capitalist America!

In fact, even the mass media have openly acknowledged that the only real obstacle to a united labor federation is that both factions want to be top dog. But both refuse to organize the unorganized the only way history has proved possible—by organizing them in a struggle for union recognition and the best contract that can be won after a successful strike.

To be sure, those union officials more interested in winning dues-payers than in leading a struggle for the best contract possible tend to go for whatever concessions employers may offer to avoid the test of strength that a strike entails. But unions organized without proving the fighting spirit of their members in a strike, have no real bargaining power until tested in a strike.

The verdict of history is that such National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) unions, as they used to be known, with no real sense of their real power and bogged down by a compliant leadership, rarely go very far beyond minimum wage contracts with the employer maintaining total control on the job. Whereas unions born in struggle prove to be far better able to defend their class interests and maintain at least a modicum of union protection on the job.

The second question is: What does the Hoffa-Stern gang hope to gain by forming a rival labor federation? From the outset, we can rule out a revitalized militant, labor movement willing to mobilize the membership to defend its rights. This is based on the Hoffa-Stern group’s own stated insistence on maintaining an uninterrupted partnership with the employers.

But this poses still another question, since there is no difference in the two sides’ basic strategy and tactics: how do they hope to realize their claim of more effectively organizing the unorganized?

They simply seek to free themselves from AFL-CIO rules, which limit raiding by one union against another. This has been a long-standing curse on labor solidarity imposed on the labor movement by the most unscrupulous labor bureaucrats. The fact is, however, that raiding continues, but since the Sweeney gang is the majority faction, they bend the rules barring raiding in their favor.

So now we come to the answer of the question of why the Hoffa-Stern gang split. It’s simply to improve their chances for winning the raiding war and recruiting mainly at the expense of competing sister unions—solidarity be damned!

Okay, does that justify the support of the Sweeney faction against its adversary? We think not since that is only a derivative result of the main problem, class collaboration—practiced to its fullest by both sides.

To split, or not, is a question of tactics, not principle

Let’s take a look at one of the best examples of a good split, where the advantages far outweighed the disadvantages. That is, the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ (CIO) forced separation from the AFL.

Industrially organized unions like the United Mine Workers (UMW) had long before the 1930s existed inside the AFL. The founders of these unions had learned that it was the only way the semi-skilled miners—could be organized.

These industrial unions, to be sure, were allowed to stay inside the AFL so long as they paid their per-capita taxes to the parent union federation. However, when the AFL’s eight powerful industrial unions in mining and other mass-production industries joined together to form a federation inside the AFL for the express purpose of organizing the burgeoning millions of industrial workers in the giant auto, steel, electrical and rubber industries in the heartland of industrial America, they crossed the invisible line beyond which the AFL bureaucracy was unwilling to let them pass.

The UMW and the seven other AFL industrial unions had organized themselves into what they called the Committee for Industrial Organization. Its stated purpose was to organize the many millions of industrial workers wherever workers had been inspired to follow the example of the three class-struggle strike victories in Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco the previous year. Those three strikes proved that class-struggle methods carried out by unions that organized every worker, not just skilled workers, in the given industry’s workforce was the way to win strikes against stubborn employer resistance. This resistance included hired professional strikebreakers, cops and even the National Guard when the bosses and their government thought it necessary.

But when the top AFL officialdom placed one obstacle after another, including the threat of expulsion, in their way, they had no choice but to split to form a separate labor federation and get down to the business of a mass organizing campaign.

After the CIO was formed in November 1935, labor historian Art Preis, reported in his history of the rise of the CIO, Labor’s Giant Step, what happened next:1

The Little Steel defeat was the first serious setback for the CIO. It slowed them up but did not halt the CIO’s drive. The eight unions with 900,000 members that formed the CIO…grew to 32 international unions with a membership of 3,718,000 by September 1937. The AFL Executive Council in September announced a total AFL membership of 3,600,000—less than that of the CIO. However, the AFL leaders claimed 1,000,000 new members, demonstrating that the impetus given to organized labor by the CIO’s campaign had benefited the AFL as well.

In other words, the lesson of the CIO’s tactics proves that advocates of a militant trade union strategy should not lightly split from even the most conservative international union or labor federation unless they have no other choice. And had their organizing committee been able to stay inside the AFL and still follow their chosen path they would have been in the best of both worlds. That is they could organize all workers in the given industry, skilled and unskilled alike, and also remain in the best position to win the support of the rank and file of their AFL sister unions, for their organizing campaigns and for their strategic orientation as well.

Another prime example of why the policy outlined above is best was reaffirmed by Ron Carey, a long-time militant union leader of the largest New York Teamster Local encompassing all United Parcel Service (UPS) drivers and inside workers in the city’s UPS distribution centers.

The Carey leadership of the New York Teamster local had earned the reputation of honoring the picket lines of all unions inside the labor federation—something that could be said of few other unions.

His militant reputation led to his being chosen by the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU)—a militant rank-and-file union caucus—to be its candidate for president of the Teamsters International Union in its 1992 election. Carey and the TDU went on to win a stunning national-referendum type Teamster election in 1992. Such a monumental victory was made possible in part because the Mafia-connected and pro-employer Teamster bureaucracy could not unite behind a single candidate. The bureaucracy was confident that one of its two candidates would gain a plurality against any TDU candidate, but it was Çarey who managed to eke out a bare plurality of votes and he was elected president of the 1.4-million member Teamster’s International Union.

For the next four years Carey followed his traditional militant union policy, assisted by a small army of TDU activists and International union officers swept into their posts on the Carey-led TDU slate. In its reelection campaign, the Carey/TDU leadership team won a decisive victory over the still powerful Teamster bureaucracy, which this time was united behind a single candidate—James Hoffa Jr.—at the end of 1996.

Hoffa was a formidable candidate only because he was the son of Jimmy Hoffa, who had been an effective organizer and leader of a militant Detroit Teamster local in the 1930s. Hoffa senior also served on an eleven-state organizing campaign of over-the-road long-distance truck-drivers in the largely unorganized Northwestern states under the leadership of Minneapolis Teamster local 574’s leader Farrell Dobbs. Dobbs was one of the leaders of the historic Teamster strike of 1934 which together with similar strikes in Toledo and San Francisco triggered the great labor upsurge of the 1930s.

Hoffa went on to become president of the Teamster International.

But even after Hoffa Senior became closely linked to the Teamster bureaucracy and joined them in milking union funds, he continued to serve his members better than any other Teamster president before or after him, with the exception of Ron Carey.

Being the son of the highly respected militant trade unionist, Hoffa Jr. was hired as one of the union’s lawyers. And though he had never worked a day as a Teamster, he was made a member of the union so that the Teamster bureaucracy could field a united and seemingly respectable candidate to run against Carey. And despite a massive campaign for Hoffa and against Carey conducted by the capitalist media monopoly, Carey nevertheless was reelected with a clear majority at the end of 1996, rather than the plurality he had won four years earlier.

Carey proved that he was no ordinary labor leader barely three months after his reelection when he led the first national strike victory by any union in decades in the spring of 1997 against his local’s old adversary, the United Parcel Service.

But that story, along with his ouster by a government-appointed kangaroo court of corporation lawyers, has already been told in great detail more than once in these pages.

In Conclusion

If one were to follow the logic of the above analysis of the deepening labor crisis of today, an effective counter-offensive is, indeed, possible. This is largely because of the 58 years of setbacks and defeats since the labor bureaucracy helped capitalist America impose the Taft-Hartley Act and its new rules of class war on the workers. It has so demoralized and demobilized the vast majority of the union rank and file that most union activists have come to believe the myth advanced by bosses and bureaucrats alike that the world has changed to the point that strikes no longer have the power they once had.

Consequently, it will take a sudden drop in mass living standards to force the masses into action, if for no other reason than that they have lost so much that they have little else to lose by rising up to engage the enemy in struggle.

But that’s exactly the point of this editorial. That is, the problem is not that capitalism has become objectively much stronger relative to labor. It’s because labor is weaker relative to capitalism because of the low caliber of union leadership!

In other words, the real reason for the weakening of the American labor movement is not because of any decline in the power of workers to change the world. It is essentially its failure to solve the global problem of building a leadership that has the will and understands the laws of class struggle.

To be sure, pessimists among us will not be swayed toward a renewed confidence in the historic power of the world proletariat by the bankruptcy of the labor bureaucracy’s strategy of class collaboration. But the many workers in America old enough to remember the power of workers made evident in their great strike victories of the 1930s and ’40s, are fully capable of drawing the lessons from today’s crisis of leadership, and passing it on to their children and grandchildren!

As the saying goes, even the darkest clouds often have a silver lining, and so does the one clouding the skies today.

1Labor’s Giant Step, by Art Preis, Pioneer Publishers, New York, 1964.

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