On the Open Letter from “Impact” to Labor Activists

by Charles Walker

Some well-known left-wing labor activists centered in Youngstown, Ohio, have addressed a “fraternal,” yet critical, open letter to other labor activists and militants. [The text of the “Open Letter” accompanies this commentary.]

The letter writers rhetorically ask, “Has the strategy of electing new top leaders produced the results for which we hope? Can this strategy ever be expected to lead to a decisive break with the existing system? Isn’t what we have been doing just a warmed over Social Democratic strategy that the 20th century again and again proved to be a blind alley?”

Obviously, they believe that the strategy of seeking to replace the top leaders of various national unions (Mine, Steel, Auto, Teamsters) has not paid off. Just as obviously, their test of success is far different from the test applied by that section of the labor reform movement that is not anti-capitalist; that is to say, those unionists not yet not seeking a “decisive break with the existing system.” The veteran activists, who include Staughton Lynd, Peter Brophy, and Peter Rachleff, also assert that history demonstrates that “national” trade unions are “inherently opposed to the self-activity of rank-and-file workers.”

They ask, “Why is it that national trade unions will never be able to play a leading role in our movement to get rid of capitalism and substitute something better for it?” “Because,” they have concluded after decades of union experiences, “national trade unions are irrevocably linked to capitalism. They will inevitably find ways to make their peace with profit-making corporations. They will always stop short of fundamental social transformation.”

While not “denying” the need for union electoral politics and collective bargaining campaigns, the critics believe that there is still another path to take. “The other path takes its inspiration from the astonishing recreation from below throughout the past 130 years of ad hoc central labor bodies…” As examples, they cite the Paris Commune, the Russian soviets, the 1920s Italian factory committees, solidarity unions in San Francisco and Minneapolis during the Depression, and more recent formations in Hungary, Poland, and France.

“These were all horizontal gatherings of all kinds of workers in a given locality, who then formed regional and national networks with counterpart bodies elsewhere. Local unions can provide continuity between the moments when such ad hoc bodies come out of the ground like mushrooms. Indeed, local unions have the potential to be important building blocks and organizing centers for more spontaneous formations.”

More than just union reformers, the letter writers not only advocate the organizing of “local labor centers,” they also advocate building a “new society locally, from below.”

In my view the starting place for figuring out how anti-capitalists in the labor movement should proceed at this time is recognizing how profoundly demobilized the union ranks are and how profoundly bureaucratized the U. S. labor movement is at both the national and local levels. If the local union leaderships were in any significant number or for any significant period of time qualitatively different from the national union leaderships, the number of fights between the two levels of leaderships over contract battles and attempted trusteeships would provide plentiful opportunities for the ranks to test out proposals formulated by anti-capitalist trade unionists, as happened most notably in the 1934 Minneapolis Teamster experience.

As it is, local unions at this time present only an occasional opportunity for anti-capitalist unionists. However, I agree that local unions are likely to play a valuable role for rank-and filers during times of general labor upsurge. That was the case during the events that led to the 1934 Teamster strikes. But during a workers’ upsurge, all sorts of things become possible. Especially, when individual spontaneity becomes a collective, organized force. Then sit-down strikers scorn the bosses’ private property rights, strike-breaking cops are met with force, court orders are defied, and workers win real rights and make real gains.

Within the limitations of the U.S. labor movement’s profound demobilization and bureaucratization, what should anti-capitalist unionists do while anticipating a general upsurge by workers that will make so many things possible? Clearly, our tasks overlap with, but are not identical with the tasks of those unionists who merely seek a better deal from the bosses and realize that, even to get that, they have to take on the bureaucratic business unionism mentality that dominates union leaderships on all levels.

In brief, our primary task is to organize ourselves so that we’re able to spread efficiently and systematically our anti-capitalist views and class struggle action proposals to all who will listen. In other words, we should seek to build a left wing within the labor movement. Certainly, we should find ready listeners within the established reform caucuses and groups, provided we have the necessary critical mass to establish credibility.

But first we must take the step that must precede all others. That is, the organization of today’s anti-capitalists within the labor movement around a plan to consolidate our numbers. That means formulating an action program that recognizes the varying experiences, lessons and views that are compatible with common effort. In that way, we could set about preparing now the ground for a class struggle left wing to emerge from workers’ next spontaneous attempt to take a giant step.