What’s an Outraged and Fed-Up Worker To Do?

by Charles Walker

American workers should be outraged over recent revelations that the federal government, in the person of Tom Ridge, director of Homeland Security, had the nerve to phone the West Coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), and in effect, suggest that the union negotiate a new contract with both arms tied behind its back—that is, sit down without its strike power — at the bargaining table across from wealthy shipping firms.

Subsequently, it was reported that ILWU President Jim Spinosa “has been talking not only to Ridge but also to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld” (CounterPunch, June 27). But not many workers know about the federal politicians’ obvious attempt to give the dock bosses a powerful edge in what seems to be the most risky negotiations for longshore workers since 1971. And whose fault is that?

Unfortunately, the fault is in the so-called stars of the U.S. labor movement — its top leaders. Organized workers should expect their leaders to promptly and aggressively react to any high-handed attempt by the government to hijack workers’ power, either with a law or by any other swindle. But to date, the labor movement’s tops haven’t raised an alarm; haven’t alerted workers; haven’t acted as though they give a damn.

Given the AFL-CIO’s ability to get at least some space in the mainstream corporate-owned press, John J. Sweeney and Co. could have got the word out to many workers of the government’s sneak attack on workers’ right to free collective bargaining, even as they prepared for a national barnstorming campaign to let all workers know that they had a vital stake in turning back the government’s underhanded intervention. And if that didn’t help the longshore workers, then Sweeney’s New Voices team could have promised the government that the federation’s 13 million members were determined to stand in solidarity with the dockworkers and that they would organize that solidarity.

Clearly, Sweeny’s not appealing to the solidarity instincts of the dockers’ fellow workers throughout the country is an act of pure and simple misleadership. Predictably, however, most workers, unionized or not, do not know about the government’s misdeeds on behalf the shipping bosses and related corporate interests.

It’s clear that the government’s attempt to weaken the bargaining position of the dockworkers is a threat to all workers. And it’s equally clear that an organized response by organized labor and its community allies is the only force that’s capable of defending the longshore workers’ and all workers’ right to bargain and strike, free of government bullying.

Predictably, the federation tops will do little or nothing. And some workers who still had a shred of hope that the U.S. labor officialdom was capable of rising to such an occasion will be rightly tempted to conclude that organized labor’s leadership is hopeless.

Are the Unions Hopeless?

Recently, an autoworker wrote us that she had reached that conclusion. She said that she has “been active in the UAW [autoworkers union] for 10 years, being a union coordinator (steward), putting out a newsletter, running for office, serving on the Executive Board, building support for striking workers, going through contract fights and promoting a union-wide opposition.”

But now she says, “From my experience and that of others I have come to the conclusion that the unions in this country are unreformable. They serve the companies more than they aid the workers struggle. I believe that most average workers sense this truth as well.” About the autoworkers union she says, “The UAW leadership is for cooperation with management to help make the companies more profitable. A big chunk of its staff is paid for by the companies from so-called joint union-management funds. The ‘joint funds’ pay the wages of a huge army of union appointees, who dominate union membership meetings.” Further, “The UAW internal regime is that of a one-party dictatorship. Any serious dissent is met with an attempt to buy you off or suppress you.”

Make no mistake, this autoworker is not a quitter; she’s a fighter and she has no intention of turning her back on other workers. But she is fed up with bureaucratic union misleadership, and who can blame her? Certainly not the nearly 11,000 Teamster flight attendants who recently had their local union trusteed by Teamsters President James P. Hoffa; or a growing number of carpenters whose local unions have been stripped of their real autonomy and are now little more than hiring halls; or, perhaps, the countless union members ineligible to run for union office because of blatantly undemocratic meeting attendance rules that often disqualify 95% of a union local’s members from elections.

Union organizers rightly blame anti-union laws for the declining union density. But there’s more to the decline of the U.S. labor movement than restrictive laws. For one thing, there’s the concession bargaining that continues, apparently with no end in sight as the economy contracts.

Further, the autoworker’s experiences at the hands of her “leaders” undeniably are a contributing factor in the decline of organized labor. The autoworker’s experiences are not unusual, as just about any militant union member or hopeful union activist could acknowledge. Undemocratic abuse of the union ranks, alone, is so pervasive as to raise doubts in the minds of many activists much like the autoworker that the profoundly bureaucratized labor movement under present conditions can be reformed, even in part.

Needed: An Organized Counterweight

But if the labor movement can be turned around in the absence of a general upsurge among workers like the one in the 1930s that built the CIO, it will be because there’s an organized counterweight to the bureaucracy. That is, we need a national cross-union anti-bureaucracy organization of democratic and militant unionists. The Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) has attracted thousands of Teamsters to its program for militant unionism and reform, demonstrating the felt need in the Teamsters ranks for an alternative to bureaucracy. If the nation’s mostly scattered union militants and democratic unionists could get themselves organized, surely they would be a pole of attraction that would prevent the disappointment of good union fighters like the autoworker.

One reason that TDU has done so well in a union of many locals and many contracts is that it unites otherwise scattered and unconnected Teamsters. By bringing together a few Teamsters in one local with Teamsters in other locals and fighting for one another, TDU has made possible a degree of solidarity that sustains its members, during good times and bad. Moreover, by being present all the time, TDU is always present at the right time.

TDU is merely an example of an anti-bureaucracy formation and need not be exactly copied. Actually, relative to its strength a national cross-union anti-bureaucracy body of democratic and militant unionists could serve broader purposes than TDU serves. Primarily, it could popularize the need to free workers and their organizations from subordination to and domination by corporations and the government, as well as bureaucratic parasites. It could bring support to otherwise isolated and badly outnumbered individuals, groups, and local unions. It could uplift the discouraged, and train the eager new hands. It could amass the critical weight needed to prepare the bureaucracy’s undoing and the fundamental reform of the movement.

The cry, “Organize!” has never been more meaningful than it is right now. The task today is to organize the nation’s democratic militants and activists to take on the bureaucracy, in time to turn back the advance of corporate and government dominion.