Caribou, Jobs, and Union Bureaucrats  

by Charles Walker


When a jobless worker takes a backbreaking, even demeaning job at less than a “living wage,” it is not only understandable — it makes good economic, strategic sense, right? Who would tell a desperate worker to starve rather than labor for a pittance? But what makes good strategic sense for an isolated individual up against the economic advantage of even small-time bosses (not to mention corporate giants) certainly doesn’t make the same good sense for workers who have joined together into unions, seeking better jobs and wages.

Organized workers worldwide have showed time and again that their combined power is capable of great, even historic victories over ruling elites. For example, in the U.S. during the Great Depression and again in the early post–World War II years, organized workers forced significant concessions from the country’s most powerful corporations. Millions of Americans stood up against the giant corporations, exercised their natural right (not some paper right) to organize unions, and refused compulsory labor by carrying out militant strikes that at times defied the bosses’ so-called property rights (as in the sit-down strikes that occupied plants). During those days it seemed to some unionists that nothing could halt the march of organized labor — but itself.

Unfortunately, not only was organized labor’s march halted — the labor movement began an incremental retreat that continues to this day. Labor’s retreat is marked by a decline in union membership, and a constant rise in the cost of living for workers, though that’s somewhat masked by the increase of two-income households. Underlying organized labor’s retreat is the abandonment, in practice, if not in name, of the strategy that relied on the power of mobilized workers in action.

The Strategy of Mobilized Workers in Action

That strategy has been replaced by the practice of substituting workers’ “representatives” for the workers themselves. In turn those “representatives,” a relatively small minority of organized labor, have ditched all hopes (if they ever had them) that workers can or should even try to achieve great victories over their bosses. Consequently, today’s union “representatives” justify their relatively privileged, hierarchical positions by gaining small concessions for some workers when they can — though sometimes, as we’ll see below, at the expense of other workers.

On the economic field the name given to the strategy of relying on mobilized workers acting in their own interests is class struggle unionism. Its polar opposite is the method of today’ labor “representatives” — class collaborationism, also called business unionism.

Class collaboration’s false premise holds that workers and bosses share an identity of interests far, far greater than any differences that are bound to arise. The collaboration between bosses and union officials often takes the form of joint labor-management boards or “teams” and plant committees, or tripartite commissions, that despite their stated aims have been found to hold down wages and abridge the right to strike. In the U.S. the Democrat and Republican parties are the political equivalent of job “quality circles,” collaborative traps where the bosses’ big bucks far outweigh the influence of the unions’ numbers.

Sweeney Backs Bush on Alaska Oil

On August 1, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney gave a world-class exhibition of class collaboration when he publicly lined-up behind President Bush’s threatened despoliation of an oil-bearing portion of a major Alaskan coastal plain wildlife refuge that’s a wondrous natural treasure and, incidentally, home to calving caribou. While Sweeney might not be able to tell a caribou from a reindeer, he probably doesn’t have anything against the threatened caribou, or against the peoples who have depended on the caribou for ages, much as some Native Americans once depended on the bison of the Great Plains.

Sweeney just wants to see some jobs created, and no doubt agues that that’s what organized workers want their leaders to do. Clearly there’s an urgency to create jobs in a world where workers are faced with massive global joblessness. Where nearly one-third of the world’s workforce is either jobless, underemployed, or earns less than it takes to escape poverty.  But Sweeney and his crowd — which includes the like-minded bureaucrats that sit atop the Teamsters, the Laborers, the Operating Engineers, the Coal Miners, and the Seafarers, among others — believe that it’s smart for workers to sell a piece of mankind’s natural heritage to the bosses, undermine an ancient way of life, and endanger workers’ lives with increased global warming for a handful of jobs, for “forty pieces of silver.”

In short, Sweeney and company act as though what’s good for the oil and power barons is good for their union’s members and their families. And of course the bosses and their political henchmen agree. “This endorsement [by Sweeney] just underscores what we have been saying all along: This [Bush] energy bill is good for American workers, it’s good for American jobs, it’s good for America’s economy,” said James Hansen, Republican chairman of the House Resources Committee.

A Workers’ Job Program Needed

While the strategy of Sweeney and company isn’t the strategy of a single jobless, unorganized worker forced to shift for himself, it certainly isn’t the militant strategy that would be possible if the AFL-CIO’s 16 million workers mobilized. Combined with their families and potential allies, these millions are the nation’s majority.  But Sweeney’s strategy consists of settling for what the bosses will give him without a fight, rather than what the might of organized labor is entitled to. Put another way, Sweeney is selling workers the bosses’ jobs program, not fighting for a workers’ job program.

Of course there are dues-paying workers who will say, “What the hell, a half a loaf is better than nothing. At least it’s a job. Nothing is perfect.” But those dues-paying workers are merely reflecting the fact that their unions are not the fighting organizations that their grandfathers and fathers could count on to stand up to bosses, courts, and cops. So with their power shackled, or left untapped, by their misleaders, and not having the perspective of mobilizing themselves to fight, the workers settle for what the static relationship of forces allows them to aspire to (that is, the relationship of forces without the weight of a fighting membership on the scales).

If the weight of a fighting membership was placed in the balance, workers could reasonably demand that wage increases be tied to an accurate gauge of inflation; that productivity gains be used to reduce the workweek with no loss of pay, rather than force workers to endure unemployment with a fraction of regular wages; that idle plants and equipment be put to work, as long as there were unfulfilled human needs, rather than just when there was a profit for the boss; and of course that joblessness be eliminated by permitting the sharing of all the socially useful work. That would be a workers’ program for jobs.

Instead of a workers’ program for jobs, Sweeney and his bureaucratic cohorts continue to maneuver workers into backing the bosses’ attempts to place the burdens of their profit-driven social system on the backs of workers, their loved ones — and the caribou.