Labor Party Approves Resolution Opposing Government Control of Unions

by Jerry Gordon

This article and the ones that follow were posted on the web site Labor Tuesday for September 3, 2002. They have been edited for Labor Standard.

The Second Constitutional Convention of the Labor Party, held in Washington DC on July 25–28, 2002, approved a resolution opposing government control of unions. The vote in support of the resolution was overwhelming, with only a handful of delegates opposing.

At the Labor Party’s previous convention in Pittsburgh in 1998, delegates narrowly defeated a resolution calling for support of the democratic right of unions to run their own affairs free from government control. What accounted for this dramatic turnabout in sentiment between the two conventions?

There were basically three reasons. The first had to do with what happened to Ron Carey. The government-appointed board running the Teamsters union directed that Carey’s name be removed from the ballot in the vote for the International Presidency because of alleged wrongdoing and that he be expelled from the Teamsters for life. This was done without a trial or any semblance of due process. When Carey finally had his day in court, he was exonerated of all charges.

What happened to Carey verified what opponents of government control of  unions have long contended: that the U.S. government is not some kind of neutral, fair, impartial third party which sincerely seeks to protect the interests of a union’s membership. Rather, the government is corporate-run and will use its control of unions to serve Big Business by rooting out militant union leaders. To be sure, in the case of the Teamsters the government did throw out some bad apples, but it reserved its heaviest blow to purge from the union a militant fighter who led the strike which mobilized the union’s rank and file against UPS, resulting in important gains for the membership.

A second factor in the Labor Party’s taking a stand against government control of unions was that the AFL-CIO had unanimously voted to do so at its convention last December. The Federation’s Resolution 45 states in part, “There can be no doubt that government supervision is synonymous with the destruction of free trade unions.” It went on to say, “The AFL-CIO is equally dedicated to the principle that a free and autonomous labor movement independent from government control is essential to a democratic society. In the name of due process, the government has imposed mechanisms that often undermine individual rights…and effectively accord the government the authority to dictate who may run for and be elected to union office.”

[The resolution adopted by the Labor Party titled: “In Support of the Democratic Right of Unions to Run Their Own Affairs Free From Government Control” states simply, “Be it resolved that the Labor Party concur with the position of the AFL-CIO opposing government control of unions.”]

The position taken by the AFL-CIO is fully in accord with the U.S. labor movement’s historic opposition to government intervention in the internal affairs of unions and attempt to control them. In fact, unions throughout the world are engaged in an ongoing struggle for their independence from repressive state control.

The third factor explaining the Labor Party’s vote for the right of unions to run their own affairs is that the government today is more clearly seen as labor’s enemy, seeking to weaken unions and sharply curtail workers’ rights. This is being graphically demonstrated by the government’s intervention in the contract battle between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). The government has threatened the dock workers that if they dare to exercise their right to strike, they will be subject to a Taft-Hartley injunction, new legislation bringing them under the Railway Labor Act, which will more easily permit the government to impose a contract on the PMA’s terms, the militarization of the ports through the use of the Navy and the National Guard, and whatever else is needed to bring the workers to heel.

Delegates to the Labor Party convention were also concerned about a government engaged in wiretapping, using secret evidence, conducting surveillance, spying on political and religious groups, detaining thousands indefinitely without charging them or even permitting them access to attorneys, eavesdropping on conversations between attorneys and detainees who have been able to secure counsel, infiltrating dissident groups, the gutting of habeas corpus, and so on. This is not the gang we want running our unions! If there’s a problem within a union, it is infinitely better to look to the rank-and-file membership to correct it rather than to depend on J. Edgar Ashcroft to do so.

(Jerry Gordon was a staff representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union for twenty-three years. Now retired, Brother Gordon is state chair of the Ohio State Labor Party.)

The USA Patriot Act: A Bastion for Scoundrels, A Menace for Labor

by Bob Mattingly

Across America, there’s a slowly growing realization that our constitutional birthright was disregarded last October, when both houses of Congress and the president joined together to make the deceptively named USA Patriot Act the law of the land. Legal experts say that the passage of the massive 342-page law guts our revolutionary civil protections we call the Bill of Rights. No longer, they fear, can ordinary citizens and residents expect that their rights to freedom of religion, speech, and peaceful assembly will always be protected by the law; no longer can they expect that their homes and belongings will always be legally protected from unreasonable search and seizure; and no longer can they always expect that due process will protect them from faceless accusers, kangaroo courts, and cruel punishment.

Nancy Chang, a senior attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, has written, “To an unprecedented degree, the [USA Patriot] Act sacrifices our political freedoms in the name of national security and upsets the democratic values that define our nation by consolidating vast new powers in the executive branch of government. The Act enhances the executive's ability to conduct surveillance and gather intelligence, places an array of new tools at the disposal of the prosecution, including new crimes, enhanced penalties, and longer statutes of limitations, and grants the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) the authority to detain immigrants suspected of terrorism for lengthy, and in some cases indefinite, periods of time. And at the same time that the Act inflates the powers of the executive, it insulates the exercise of these powers from meaningful judicial and Congressional oversight.”

Some legal scholars hold that the USA Patriot Act rivals the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which proscribed criticism of the government and virtually nullified the First Amendment freedoms of speech and the press. Under those laws, prominent journalists were tried, and some were       convicted. Fortunately, popular anger fueled the election in 1800 of a new congressional majority, which in time repealed the remaining Acts that had not lapsed. Historians note that that the 1798 Acts were nominally enacted for one purpose, the marshalling of anti-French sentiment — but were utilized to suppress domestic criticism of government officials. Civil libertarians today warn that the USA Patriot Act, nominally conceived as an anti-terrorist measure, may well be used, as were the so-called sedition laws, for reactionary purposes against any ordinary citizen or resident protesting government policies.

New Crime: “Domestic Terrorism”

The American Civil Liberties Union states, “The law also creates a new crime of ‘domestic terrorism.’ The new offense threatens to transform protesters into terrorists if they engage in conduct that ‘involves acts dangerous to human life.’ Members of Operation Rescue, the Environmental Liberation Front, and Greenpeace, for example, have all engaged in activities that could subject them to prosecution as terrorists. Then, under this law, the dominos begin to fall. Those who provide lodging or other assistance to these ‘domestic terrorists’ could have their homes wiretapped and could be prosecuted.”

Clearly, it’s not a stretch to expect that ordinary workers on strike to defend their living standards and working conditions might be prosecuted under the USA Patriot Act as “domestic terrorists,” and not entitled to traditional constitutional protections. The Washington State Labor Council’s August convention recognized the danger to labor posed by the USA Patriot Act as undermining labor’s right to organize and “fight anti-immigrant attacks and other union-busting tactics” by the government.

The nearly 11,000 West Coast dockworkers, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), certainly must feel the threat of the iron heel of the USA Patriot Act. They have already been warned, they say, by high-ranking federal officials that attempting to strike or even slowing down in strict conformity with safety regulations and time-honored work rules could not only trigger the hated Taft-Hartley Act; it could result in the indefinite militarization of the docks. In response, the San Francisco Labor Council in late August adopted a resolution stating that the labor council delegates “strongly condemn any attempt by the government, at any level, to introduce troops or otherwise intervene in the contract dispute between the ILWU and the employers.”

No one should think that taking away workers right to strike can’t happen here. Time after time, our basic rights and liberties have been violated despite the Constitution. The mass incarceration of Japanese, American-born or not, during WWII by President Roosevelt, the McCarthy-era blacklisting of seamen, teachers, and others, the murderous attacks on Black Panthers, the ongoing mass arrests of Middle-Eastern immigrants are just a few of the constitutional violations that testify to the readiness of the nation’s ruling circles to violate our basic civil liberties.

Should the government get away with virtually taking away the dockworkers’ right to strike, it seems unlikely that the government would stop there. That conclusion is suggested by the fact that since President Harry Truman, a Democrat, first used the Taft-Hartley Act to force workers back on the job, Republican and Democrat presidents have used the infamous act 32 times, with the Democrats leading the Republicans, 23-9. The count might be higher, but some workers, seeing what happened to others, accepted concessions without a fight. By the way, a year before Taft-Hartley was enacted, Truman urged Congress to authorize him to draft into the armed forces (it was peacetime) rail workers he falsely said were striking against the government.

Washington State Labor Council Criticizes AFL-CIO

The 400,000-strong Washington State Labor Council has formally called on John J. Sweeney and the AFL-CIO to campaign against the USA Patriot Act. Moreover the council urged the AFL-CIO and its affiliates to oppose the U.S. government’s open-ended “war on terrorism” and take actions to pressure the government to stop the war. The labor body said that the AFL-CIO’s uncritical support for the war has led to the “callous withholding of solidarity from labor’s working class and poor allies in other countries.”At the same time, the outspoken state labor council lambasted the AFL-CIO leadership for its present “uncritical support for this profit-driven war [that] has derailed labor opposition to increased military expenditures, corporate subsidies and government spying and provided political cover for Democrats to jump on the anti-terrorism bandwagon.”

For a Strike Strategy Based on Class Solidarity

In 1934, the shipping bosses, backed by the widest business interests and countless officeholders around San Francisco Bay, attempted to rob the dockworkers of their right to strike. Only mass resistance by thousands of workers in the streets turned back the attack by cops and National Guard and protected their right to strike and the rights of other workers. The labor writer Art Preis, in his book Labor’s Giant Step, attributed the dockworkers’ epic victory to their recognition of the principle of class solidarity that does not shrink from mobilizing “the great mass of the working populace to active, militant defense of the picket lines.”

Today, organized labor may be facing its most challenging job, protecting the right to strike. Some say the spirit of 1934 is dead at the highest reaches of the labor officialdom. If so, then we must look forward to fighters and leaders from the ranks to match the challenges that corporate America has in store for our nation’s workers; for we must not surrender.


Labor Day and the AFL-CIO Is Mobilizing 

Labor Day marks the end of summer, and sometimes a drop in gas prices at the pump. Labor Day also means that the AFL-CIO will gear up to mobilize its members for the fall elections destined to take place in a contracting economy marked by both legal and illegal corporate sleaze that’s fueling workers’ anxiety. The Los Angeles Times (Sept. 1) reported, “About 45 percent of adults say the economy is either performing fairly badly or very badly.”

AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney says, “Things have changed dramatically for working people. There’s a reversal in attitudes about the economy and about job security.” AFL-CIO research, he says, shows that public anger has grown as revelations about corporate scandals continue to make news.

Sweeney, reported the AP (Aug. 30), plans an “unprecedented” effort to mobilize union voters, spending $33 million dollars in the current two-year election cycle. That should buy a lot of doorbell ringers, phone banks, and precinct watchers, but will the results ease workers’ anxiety about jobs and health care, pensions and Social Security? If so, that too would be unprecedented.

Sweeney undoubtedly would say yes, provided the Democratic Party is the majority party after the ballots are counted. Undoubtedly, Sweeney would dismiss as utter cynics those workers who say that voting for Democrats is much like using a pedestrian walk device at many intersections: Pushing the button may make you feel better, but it doesn’t work!

But those workers’ “cynicism” can’t be lightly dismissed given workers’ experience with the Democratic Party. Even Sweeney has to admit that he was pushed out of shape by Democrat Bill Clinton’s successful championing of NAFTA. And more recently, the Democratic majority in the Senate was critical to the passage of new fast track legislation, fiercely opposed by organized labor.

Whether the Democrats are the majority party or not after November is not for certain; but one certainty that Sweeney can count on is that a smaller percentage of workers is bothering to register and vote. Experts and pollsters explain that more and more workers feel that voting for the two boss parties is not going to change their situation for the better. So part of Sweeney’s election strategy depends on changing those workers’ minds to the extent that they’ll see their own interests and security in a victory for the Democrats.

But even with $33 million dollars to spend, Sweeney’s not likely to have an easy sell. That’s predictable partly because Sweeney can’t convince all his fellow officers at the top of the union movement to stay in step. The Teamsters, the Bricklayers, and the Laborers are reported to be meeting at the White House at least once a week. The Carpenters union is giving 43 percent of its contributions in Senate races to the Republican Party (Washington Post, March 31). Dennis Rivera, a major leader in Sweeney’s own union, the SEIU, stunned many observers this year when he announced that he and his New York local union with 210,000 members would for the first time endorse and support the election of a Republican governor, George Pataki.

Sweeney can’t publicly admit it, but the best he can expect is that a Democrat majority will provide some political cover should a restive union membership begin to do more than grumble. But truth to tell, the Democrats have little more political cover to offer Sweeney than what the profit-needy corporations permit, as California’s hard-pressed field workers recently should have learned, when the Democrat governor, Gray Davis, spurned their pleas to sign a bill the United Farm Workers union says would enable them to get signed contracts with growers that have stalled negotiations, in some cases for more than a decade.

A Labor Day Snapshot  

“Americans this Labor Day are just thankful to have a job. The nation's unemployment rate is hovering near a seven-year high, and new jobs are not being created as the bleak economy teeters on the cusp of recovery and recession. ‘To working families, it looks a heck of a lot like a recession,’ economist Jared Bernstein said. Kmart, Polaroid, Enron, WorldCom, US Airways are among large employers seeking bankruptcy protection. American Airlines, Charles Schwab, the Williams Cos., Coca-Cola, and Nokia recently announced layoffs.”

—Associated Press, August 31, 2002

What Is the Strategy for Labor?

“With unionization in the private sector stalled at only 9% and increasing attacks on organized labor by the Bush Administration post 911, concern is being voiced about whether the AFL-CIO has a viable strategy to revive the labor movement. The labor movement is facing a hostile President at war with the world, who is now drawing on the chauvinism of the post 911 period to wage his war on the workers. Bush is continuing to deunionize federal workers who will be folded into the new Dept. of Homeland Security and is interfering with the West Coast longshore union's negotiations. While the AFL-CIO is trying to channel the new populist anti-corporate sentiment in the country post Enron into legislative victories, it has been afraid to confront the White House on its war on the workers. Is labor dead in the water? What is the strategy for labor?”

BuildingBridges, Sept. 1, 2002