Socialist ViewPoint and analysis for working people

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

Workers, Artists and the AFL-CIO Split

By Mike Alewitz

“Today will be remembered as the rebirth of union strength in America.” So proclaimed Anna Burger, Secretary-Treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, on the occasion of the split of SEIU and the Teamsters from the AFL-CIO.

Leaders of the Change to Win group (CTW) foresee an organizing upsurge similar to the growth of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO.) “When the CIO left the AFL, that was a spark that helped labor grow,” according to Tom Balanoff of the SEIU.

If such predictions were true, it would be great news for agitprop artists and labor activists. After all, the growth of the CIO was a tremendous inspiration to a generation of artists and cultural workers. But are we about to witness a new wave of organizing?

A Militant Tradition and Vibrant Culture

There are some great precedents for mass organizing in U.S. labor. We have a proud history. In fact, most of the world celebrates the militancy of the North American workers. May Day, the international holiday of the working class, is a commemoration of the fight for the eight-hour day and the consequent execution of the Haymarket martyrs in Chicago.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) another remarkable chapter in our history, is celebrating it’s centennial this year. The IWW was a revolutionary organization that led militant strikes of lumber, textile and agricultural workers. They conducted heroic free-speech fights. They were anti-racist.

The IWW created a vibrant popular culture. Wobs wrote songs and poetry, drew cartoons and rewrote language. They inspired a broad milieu of artists and intellectuals. New York artists, led by John Reed, organized the Patterson Silk Strike Pageant, groundbreaking theater that involved thousands.

The IWW organized hundreds of thousands, and influenced millions. Yet they had no paid organizers, consultants or professional staff.

The Rise of the CIO

After the Stock Market crash in 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression, millions were thrown out of work and impoverished. Then, as now, workers initially responded to their plight in an individual, competitive fashion. That would quickly change to collective action.

In February 1934, workers struck the Toledo Auto-Lite plant. In close alliance with the unemployed organizations, strikers engaged in a militant struggle involving up to 10,000 workers on the picket lines. They tore up the injunctions of company-controlled judges and kept out the scabs. When the National Guard was called in, they waged a pitched battle in the streets, and a propaganda campaign to win over the soldiers. The company capitulated.

In Minneapolis, Teamsters Local 574 used flying squads and went into combat to shut down the city and organize as many as 40,000 workers into demonstrations and pickets. After five weeks of battle against the cops, courts and Guard, the strikers won. In 1934 also the militant strike of 10,000 longshoremen led to the San Francisco general strike.

Workers accomplished all this without the benefit of paid organizers, consultants or professional staff. Their heroic fight laid the basis for the formation of the CIO. It was the actions of tens of thousands of workers that compelled John L. Lewis to push for the organization of the CIO, not the other way around.

The Creative Power of the Working Class

The CIO began as a movement, not an organization, that waged open class warfare. In the process of building their unions, workers developed new and creative methods of struggle. The sit-down strike was not the brainchild of a PR firm, but a grass-roots tactic developed by masses of workers in the course of their struggle to control the plants, mines and mills, and effectively stop capitalist production.

From 1936-1955, while the CIO was an independent force, there were over 78,000 strikes involving over 40 million workers. The growth of the CIO inspired art as well. Workers formed schools and conducted performances inside the occupied plants. Sit-down strikers in Buffalo formed an orchestra and serenaded the picketers massed below. When they won the strike, they transformed themselves into a marching band and led a victory parade throughout the city.

In 1936, unemployed workers seized the New Jersey State House and conducted what became known as the Siege of Trenton by the Army of Unoccupation. We would call it performance art today.

A generation of modern artists was profoundly influenced by these events, at a time when New York was becoming the center of the art world.

The Current Split in the AFL-CIO

The actions of both sides in the current split in organized labor have nothing in common with these great events. The division is not a reflection of an historic upsurge of the working class.

Unfortunately, it is an inter-bureaucratic struggle over dues dollars and personal ambition that will only serve to further weaken the labor movement. It plays right into the hands of the employers.

There is no similarity between leaders of the Toledo strike, like A.J. Muste, and someone like Andy Stern. Hoffa has nothing in common with the great revolutionary leaders of the Teamster strikes like Farrell Dobbs or the Dunne brothers. Sweeney and company are no different—they are all cut from the same cloth.

An Officialdom of Bad Taste

The heads of every single international union, both in and out of the AFL-CIO, are well-to-do careerists who have little in common with their members.

Many of these officials are millionaires; all enjoy privileges far beyond their members’ dreams. Most worked just long enough to get some credentials so they could run for office and begin their real careers as “leaders.” They surround themselves with fawning staff people, lawyers, paid consultants, Democratic Party hacks and academic toadies.

They enjoy frequent junkets and retreats, are provided free vehicles and travel, sit on the boards of insurance companies, draw multiple salaries and have lavish expense accounts.

While often shrewd, few, if any, are creative thinkers. They do not write books, make art or add to the body of human culture. They tend to be ignorant of the history of our movement. Like most bureaucrats, they are hostile to new, critical or challenging art. They have a strong tendency to embrace kitsch and exhibit bad taste.

Their shallowness is exemplified by a project currently underway at the George Meany Center, the AFL-CIO’s labor college. They are building a grand new building. It is not being dedicated to Joe Hill or Lucy Parsons or Eugene Debs. It is being dedicated to Lane Kirkland—former head of the federation and the ultimate bland functionary.

A Record of Failure

The labor officialdom has a record of complete failure and neither side of the current dispute is willing or capable of seriously organizing any workers.

While unions like the SEIU may claim dramatic growth in membership, there is a difference between organizing workers for empowerment and signing up more dues-paying members.

Staff-driven unions like SEIU, CWA and others sign up members in big amalgamated locals structured to prevent workers from exercising genuine power. Often times the ranks do not know who is in their local, and many workers are even unaware of their membership. In essence, these unions are not organizing workers—they are organizing the employers to collect dues. The payback is labor peace.

Where workers still exercise some control over production, such as in the construction crafts, the top officials are using the current divisions to disenfranchise their membership. McCarran of the carpenters union is leading that effort, which is why he is a fellow traveler of CTW. Under the guise of streamlining the union to establish more effective organizing, local bodies, where some power still lies with rank and file members, are stripped of their power.

Unions Don’t Organize Workers

There is not an ounce of difference between the program of the Stern-Hoffa gang and the Sweeney-Trumka-Chavez gang.

They both pledge to continue to give millions of dollars to the Democrats. They will then pay millions to lobby against the Democrats’ anti-labor policies. It is a pathetic policy of failure.

They have no solutions. They whine about labor law reform, but it is a smokescreen for their impotence. The laws were worse for the IWW and the CIO, but it didn’t stop them. The problem is a lack of political independence, courage and vision.

Hiring more college students, no matter how bright or dedicated, will not organize anyone. Having a younger or more “radical” staff will make no difference. No corporate campaign strategies, no charts and graphs from the folks at the Meany Center, no catchy jingles or slogans will lead to success. There are no magic organizational solutions.

The reason is simple: Unions don’t organize workers—workers organize unions. Only workers can organize themselves—anything else makes them mere spectators to bureaucratic maneuvering.

How We Can Win

The problem is political, not organizational. And at the heart of the political failure of the AFL-CIO is the refusal to lead the fight against the war.

It took fifty years, and enormous pressure from the ranks, for the AFL-CIO to muster up the courage to question whether workers should slaughter each other on the battlefield. It won’t mean much unless it is backed up with action.

If Sweeney or Stern were seriously interested in organizing workers, the solution would be quite simple. Here is one scenario:

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 student organization 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.

Announce that we are not leaving Washington until our demands are met. You’d see a change in governmental policy real quick.

Help is On the Way

It’s unlikely that one of our esteemed leaders is going to make such a bold move. But not to worry, help is on the way.

The problems facing working people will continue to fester. The contradiction between what is possible, and what exists, will deepen. Hatred of the war, and the lies it engenders, will continue to grow.

History has shown what will happen. The working class will do what it always does. Our class will fight for its life. We will arise to challenge the employers, and in the process we will sweep aside these freeloading functionaries.

Workers will create new methods of struggle and new organizations we cannot begin to imagine, just as the IWW and CIO were unimaginable before workers brought them into being.

When that happens, artists and intellectuals will be inspired in their daily struggle to find new meaning in their work. They will see that there is an audience for a more relevant art. They will become part of something that exists beyond studio walls.

We Don’t Have to Wait

Artists and cultural workers will be an important component of those future struggles, but we don’t need to wait, for the process is already beginning—most clearly expressed in the anti-war movement and fight for immigrant rights.

It is not enough for artists to be pro-union or pro-peace. Too often, artists go hat in hand to beg crumbs from bureaucracies devoid of pride or imagination, bureaucracies that champion only nondescript and uncritical art.

Artists, on the other hand, must become more critical and visionary. Our starting point must be international solidarity and working-class independence.

When faced with betrayals like this split, we can expose the frauds that masquerade as leaders. We can use our art to look beyond these petty individuals to reveal the truth about a dying capitalist system. We can be a clear voice for revolutionary change. We can imagine a new world.

As for Sweeney/Stern—take a lesson from John L. Lewis. He was a labor aristocrat. But he saw the writing on the wall and rose to the historic occasion. That is why we remember his name.

Unlike your divisive fight for personal advancement, a true call to principled action would be a genuine spark that could ignite a conflagration and lead to a new chapter in labor history.

If you don’t do it, others will.

Mike Alewitz is the Artistic Director of the LaBOR aRT & MuRAL PRoJECT

Top | Home | Contents | Subscribe | Email Us!