From Fraser to Appelbaum

Union Officials Complain about Class Struggle

by Charles Walker

This article is from the web site Labor Tuesday for May 27, 2003. It has been edited for Labor Standard.

When many labor officials speak about class struggle in the U.S., they don’t give out a full-throated cry, hoping to inspire their ranks to greater militancy. Rather they merely lambaste the bosses for the sacrifices union members pay to nourish the bosses’ “greed.” Then they go about their job of “servicing,” as they say, the remaining ranks.

The president of the Retail Workers Union, Stuart Appelbaum, writes in the Los Angeles Times (May 9) that more than 450 workers at a Nestle chocolate plant in Fulton, N.Y. recently lost their jobs. “Did the workers in Fulton,” Appelbaum rhetorically asks, “lose their jobs because they weren’t productive enough to cut it in the global economy? Hardly. The Fulton workers had the lowest absentee rate, the best safety record and the highest efficiency rate within their division. The plant was a money-maker for the company.”

“When companies close factories,” the union leader notes, “corporate public relations flacks usually say it was an unavoidable response to the demands of the marketplace. In some instances that may be true. But the only demand Nestle was responding to when it shut down the Fulton plant was its own insatiable hunger for profit, regardless of its human cost.”

Appelbaum’s remarks may be news to a few readers of the Los Angeles Times, but his message can’t be news to the bulk of American workers. What Appelbaum calls the hunger for “insatiable profit” is the motor force that drives capitalism, and not incidentally, is also the prime reason why workers long ago formed self-defense organizations, unions, to protect themselves from their bosses’ insatiable hunger for profit, which has not grown weaker or less dangerous over time, as just about any worker can confirm.

Appelbaum does use the terms “class warfare” in his op-ed piece, but not to encourage workers to fight for their class interests. He says: “[D]iscussing the effect of corporate greed on the nation isn’t promoting class warfare. To the contrary, it is essential we speak out against it to prevent more communities from becoming its casualties.”

What Appelbaum wants his readers to do is to rightly oppose the “effect of corporate greed” on their lives, but he doesn’t want them to understand that class warfare comes with the capitalist territory and that it can’t be avoided. Class struggle or warfare means simply the fight between workers and bosses (aided by the government) over the fruits of workers’ labor power. That was clearly understood by the founders of the organized labor movement. The preambles of their unions’ constitutions spoke clearly of the battle to wrest from their bosses the full product of their labor, stolen daily under the wage scheme.

Such language was eventually dropped as unions became increasingly bureaucratized, their members increasingly marginalized. In 1955 the AFL kept its class struggle lingo out of its new constitution, as it merged with the CIO.

At one time most U.S. union officials thought they had figured out a way around the class struggle. They thought they had an unwritten social pact of sorts worked out with the higher echelons of Corporate America. In return for their collaboration with the bosses, they expected the bosses to provide at least enough concessions to justify their existence as relatively well-off and privileged “union leaders.”

Then in 1979, one disappointed union leader, United Auto Workers President Douglas Fraser, accused the bosses of conducting one-sided class warfare against all U.S. workers, despite the union tops buying into “a general loyalty to an allegedly benign capitalism…”

Fraser concluded, “the business community, with few exceptions, have chosen to wage a one-sided class war today in this country—a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society.

He went on: “The leaders of industry, commerce and finance in the United States have broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during the past of period of growth and progress.”

Fraser implied that the union movement should return to the militant stance of the 1930s, when labor waged a class struggle to organize the unorganized. But as labor commentator and one-time autoworker Frank Lovell wrote in 1987, the “union bureaucracy—including Fraser and his UAW successor—proved incapable. Union bureaucrats are conditioned to seek collaboration with the employers. They do not understand how to fight against the employers and do not believe in the wisdom or the success of class struggles.”

The breakdown of the unwritten understanding between organized labor’s tops on the one hand and representatives of big business and their government servants on the other was fostered by the growing intensification of international competition over profits, as the war-torn industry and commerce of Europe and Japan were rebuilt. Despite having nearly three decades to mobilize organized labor’s rank for a fightback, union officials from Fraser to Appelbaum have failed to do so.

As Frank Lovell implied, the union officialdom as a social layer has no intention, and can have no intention, of fighting back. If a fightback takes place before organized labor is beyond salvaging, it will be because the ranks found a way to break through the bureaucratic crust that snuffs out grassroots militancy. But such militancy, in order to be sustained, not merely episodic, will need a leadership from the trade union left, itself mobilized to promote a class struggle response to the one-sided class warfare workers have known all too well.