The State of Today’s Trade Union Movement

by Roland Sheppard  


Roland Sheppard is a retired Business Representative for Painters Local #4 in San Francisco. He was a working painter for 31 years, an elected union officer from 1979 to 1997 and a full-time elected official from 1994 to 1997. He is a socialist and a longtime social activist. The following article, written in May 2001, is based on his recent experiences.

The defeat of the air traffic controllers (PATCO) strike in 1981 marked a new turning point in the history of the trade unions in the United States. During the course of that strike, the federal government, in a bipartisan effort, seized all of the union’s funds and successfully bankrupted and broke that union. The lack of solidarity on the picket line, with the International Association of Machinists crossing the lines and the federal government using military personnel as scabs to break the strike, demonstrated the weakness and total bankruptcy of the trade union leadership. The unflinching willingness of the government to break PATCO sent a fear of death down the spine of every union bureaucrat in the nation.

The response of the AFL-CIO leadership at that time was:

(1) In the 1980s there were many local areas which unsuccessfully fought back against these policies. The Bath, Maine, shipyard workers and San Francisco construction workers, to name a few.

One of the most famous of these struggles was the P-9 strike against Hormel in Austin, Minnesota, against the two-tier system that their international union, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), took credit for inventing.

Local P-9 was one of the first UFCW unions to have this system imposed on it, and workers in the union revolted against it and elected a new leadership to oppose it. The problem with the Hormel strike was that its strategy contradicted its goals—the strikers used the “corporate campaign” strategy.

This strategy was based on placing “moral pressure” on the company to get it to agree to the workers’ just demands. The corporate campaign worked fine until Hormel decided to open the plant with scabs.

At that time the workers were responsive to a class-struggle approach and a real battle was starting. The deciding factor in this strike was the strike-breaking by the UFCW leadership. That leadership, along with the Executive Board of the entire AFL-CIO, openly opposed any solidarity actions or support of any kind to Local P-9. They prevented any sympathy strikes by other Hormel local unions, and they worked with the company to organize the scabs. In the end, they organized a scab local P-10. This strike demonstrated that the “international unions” were more committed to their social contract with the government and the bosses than to the workers who paid the dues to fund the union.

(2) The next significant action was the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) Pittston Strike in 1989. The UMWA put up a battle and closed other mines in solidarity with the strike. The UMWA, during the course of the strike, got fined over $50 million for defying injunctions against picketing, etc. Under pressure from the government and employers UMWA President Richard Trumka went into the AFL-CIO under the agreement of AFL-CIO support to the corporate-campaign tactic and the cessation of sympathy strikes. After this strike got settled and the next national contract was in place with negotiated labor-management “workers circles” to increase productivity, prevent safety strikes, etc., the Supreme Court approved reduced fines against the UMWA.

(3) Then came the Southern California Chicano drywall workers’ wildcat strikes. Residential drywall work had gone non-union after the unions negotiated piecework and a dues system based on piecework in the early 1980s. Several years later, three thousand non-union workers out of a total of six thousand predominately Chicano drywall workers went on strike. Using class-struggle methods, such as roving picket squads, these workers totally disrupted housing production in Southern California. The employers openly complained that there was no union with money to sue and no leaders to buy off.

Understanding the plight of these employers, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC) stepped in to “organize” these workers. They signed a contract with the employers and brought these workers into the jurisdiction of the Southern California District Council of Carpenters. The results were that class peace was established, work resumed, dues began to be collected, and over time, the strikers were laid off and replaced by other members of the UBC. This strike demonstrated two things: (a) Workers will organize even after a union is broken. (b) Unions like the Carpenters serve the very useful purpose of policing the work force and preventing work stoppages. A “partnership” was formed between the employers and the Carpenters union.

(The drywallers went into the Carpenters union under the control of the Southern California District Council of Carpenters when McCarron, now president of the UBC, was the chief official of that district council. McCarron sits on the board of Perini Corporation and ran a successful campaign to become president of the UBC with the support of the contractors in 1995 or 1996. The contractors liked what they saw in Los Angeles, and he is now doing their bidding nationwide.)

(4) In the past, workers could go to other international unions like the UMWA, the Teamsters, or the ILWU on the West Coast if they had a problem. Now every international union is in the AFL-CIO under the banner of “developing partnerships” between labor and management. Each of these internationals has, or is constructing, regional and multi-state councils as bargaining units. In this process they are making local unions powerless and beholden to the councils for funds to open the doors to collect dues to give to these councils and the international unions.

(5) The one positive example in this past period was the UPS Teamsters strike victory in 1997. Throughout the land workers supported the strike. Young people rallied to the demands of the young part-time workers for equality in wages and benefits. The battle cry was: “We are fighting for a better future.” This call struck a responsive chord among the new generations of workers who had been sold out and betrayed before they ever went to work!

The leader of this strike was Ron Carey, who was took office as president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) in 1992. (In the late 1980s and early 1990s the federal government filed a RICOH Act lawsuit to take over the IBT for racketeering. A rank and file organization, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), supported the government’s direct intervention, with the government’s right to oversee the day-to-day activities of the IBT in exchange for the direct election of international officers.)

  This illusion of reform appeared to become a reality when Carey got elected with a plurality, since the entrenched IBT bureaucracy, or “Old Guard,” was split between two candidates. From the time that Carey took office, the government, in the final analysis, had control over his actions and oversaw the union’s finances. The Old Guard retained control over the Regional Councils and had almost equal power with Carey at the international conventions, since these delegated bodies were not based on “one person-one vote” proportional representation. The average Teamster, whose contract was under the control of Regional Councils, or Joint Councils, found very little gain from the Carey election. After the UPS strike was won, the hopes of the disenfranchised and betrayed young workers were raised throughout the country.

The government moved in very quickly to quash this rise in militancy and hope for a better future. They removed Carey from office on trumped-up charges of alleged irregular spending of union funds, which court-appointed officials had the right to oversee, during his reelection campaign in 1997. This was done without a union trial and outside of membership control.

(Incidentally, direct elections in a union with over 1.5 million members are not democratic. For example, it costs over $700,000 to put out one mailing to the membership. Even though the IBT constitution gives “equal access” to each candidate, money is a very important ingredient, just as in government elections. In the recent elections, IBT President Hoffa had the support of the capitalist class and the resources of the mass media monopoly. It is also not a difficult task for the employers and/or the mob to funnel money into such campaigns. There was no equal access for the TDU candidate in the mass media.)

If all union bodies were democratic and representative of the majority of the membership and based upon proportional representation with a one person-one vote system, and with the right to recall, regional and national conventions and conferences would be more democratic and reflective of the membership, rather than high-bankrolled direct elections of officers. Better still, the membership would at least have a chance to regain control of their union.

Although Carey was an effective strike leader, he did not know how to fight the government, and he was also under the illusion that the government had intervened in the IBT for the good of the union and union democracy.

Instead of fighting his undemocratic removal from office and the union by appealing for a mobilization of the ranks, he decided to take his case to the courts instead of to the membership. Unfortunately, TDU did not oppose the government’s removal of Carey and has steadfastly continued to support government involvement in the IBT.

In its latest move to vilify Carey and punish him for the “crime” of representing and fighting for the membership, the federal government has arraigned Carey in federal court on charges that he lied to federal investigators and a grand jury when he denied that he knew of a scheme by some of his election campaign staff to launder union money into Carey’s election campaign coffers, and to line their own pockets.

Carey has stated repeatedly that he was absolutely unaware of the scam, claiming it was done behind his back by appointees he trusted. If convicted, Carey, 64, could spend decades in jail, a virtual life sentence. Carey will get his day in court, but Carey will not be judged by a jury of his peers. The Old Guard is now back in power with the support of the government and will stay in power even if Carey wins his court battle.

The capitalists, their government, and their lackeys in the trade union bureaucracy have learned the lessons of the past, whereby local struggles in 1934 by Teamsters in Minneapolis, Auto Workers in Toledo, and Longshore workers in San Francisco [followed by the sit-down strikes of 1936–37], led to the rise of the CIO and the demise of many international union officials. They are now directly intervening in local areas, with the assistance of the government, to maintain their “social contract” with capital, i.e., to prevent local struggles (“P-9s”) from developing. Today, the union membership is in the process of losing or has lost all control over their union officials and contract negotiations.

This is the logic of all reformist bureaucracies in workers organizations. Although the trade union bureaucracy is dependent upon the membership, since the members are the material base on which the bureaucracy’s privileged existence rests, the present trade union leadership has proven itself incapable of defending workers under constant attack from the employers and the government. They fear they will be hit with another PATCO if they do anything in the interests of their membership. They also fear that if they start to fight, the membership might elect new leaders, more capable of fighting, and kick them out. In this sense, the bureaucracy’s only hope for its continued existence is to form a “partnership” with the capitalists and the government to transform the unions into state unions and to completely atomize the membership.

This is AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s stated program for the trade unions. The government is assisting the international unions in this endeavor. In return for their “favors,” the bureaucrats get to continue to collect dues, not for services to the membership, but as payment for their services to government and business.

Part of this program is the concept of forced mergers to remove local centers of resistance to class collaboration. Previous to now, local unions or regional councils could only be put under control by the international union through trusteeships for specific reasons of financial bankruptcy, financial malpractice, or corruption. Now trusteeships can be imposed for disobeying international presidents or when negotiations are at an impasse and the union is forced on strike. But better than a trusteeship is a “merger.” The right of the internationals to consolidate and merge locals and establish undemocratic regional councils has been upheld consistently by the courts in the past period. Rather than “trusteeships,” which can last no more than 18 months and are restricted by law, the internationals have been instituting “mergers.” Mergers, whether “voluntary” or forced, last forever. Each merger separates the members further from control of their union and its affairs, and it increases the control held by the officers of the “international union.”

Ironically, the top union officials are using the anti-union laws on the books to turn the unions into their opposite. If they were successful in opposing the Taft-Hartley law, the basis for their existence and programmatic justification would disappear.

In fact, the Carpenters union uses the Taft-Hartley law to raid other building trades unions. They are now preparing to split from the AFL-CIO in order to go about their raiding unfettered by any formalities of union solidarity. Since they do not recognize picket lines by other trades, and work side by side with non-union workers, they claim that if the other unions won’t organize these workers, then they will organize them and claim the jurisdiction! They then sign these workers at a lower wage scale.

For example, when I was a Business Representative for the Painters Union in San Francisco, I found a job in a high-rise building in downtown San Francisco that had both non-union carpenters and painters. I proposed to the Carpenters union officials that we do a joint picket line. They informed me that they were “too busy.” I then organized a job action and informed the building owner that the building would be closed the next day. A few hours later, the building management informed me that they had now hired a union contractor. When I went to the job site, I found that these workers were now in the Carpenters union, signed to a “modular agreement” with the pay scale more than $10 per hour below the carpenters/painters wage scale! I informed the Carpenters union officials that they were, in effect, “nothing but scabs with a union label.”

At this point in history, it is important to make an accurate assessment of the trade unions. They are in the final stage of the institutionalization of the unions as organs of the state. The hope of the UPS strike as the antithesis to this process has been temporarily dashed by the removal of Carey by the government.

The whole process of statification of the unions that was begun during World War II, delayed after the post-WWII upsurge (1945–46), then accelerated by the Cold War-based witch hunt of the late 1940s and the 1950s, including elimination of radicals and militants from leadership of the unions in compliance with the Taft-Hartley Law, is becoming complete or will be complete in the near future.

During the period of the witch hunt, the concept of partnership between capital and labor was solidified by the Democratic Party becoming the political party of the trade union leadership. [This process had begun under the Democrat President Franklin Roosevelt, during the “New Deal” and World War II.—The Editors.] The United States is one of the few countries in the world where the leadership of the unions openly belongs to and has allegiance to a political party of the ruling class.

In the 1930s, the labor upsurge did not begin until workers started to go back to work. In this recent “boom” of the economy there has been no such upsurge of the working class. One example of such an upsurge was the UPS strike, which had a leadership that appealed to all workers to oppose the concessions of the previous 15 years. The UPS strike demonstrated the willingness of the class to fight in its own interests. It also demonstrated that in the other international unions the internal bureaucratic structure has degenerated to the point that the union bureaucracy no longer feels the pressure of or the need to respond to the membership.

The “social contract” that was first initiated by the UFCW leadership during the P-9 strike is being implemented more and more widely. Basically, with few exceptions, the rights of union workers have been atomized to the point that they are prevented, by labor-management and government policy, from organizing against the class collaborationism of the trade union bureaucracy. The bureaucracy acts in place of the union as a whole. The membership just pays dues, through the dues check-off system, with no control over how the unions function. The union bureaucrats have been in the forefront of organizing the decline of the standard of living of the whole working class as part of the “partnership” with capital, with the bureaucrats receiving regular payment through the dues check-off system.

This is the “partnership” that the trade union bureaucracy has been creating to police the working class. We have to understand that this has been done behind the backs of the working class and that the working class has suffered the consequences of the decline in its standard of living without a fight due to its systematic atomization. 

A graph on the web site www.inequality.com demonstrates how effective this partnership has been in lowering the standard of living of the working class. The bottom 40% of the population had a drop of 76.3% in household net worth from 1983 to 1998! The only households that have kept up with inflation in net worth have been in the top 1% of the population! (Click here for the graph) As older “first tier” workers retire or leave the job market, these figures will become even more dramatic as these workers are replaced by part-time, lower-tier workers with fewer benefits. The prosperity of the 1990s is based more on these facts than the health of the capitalist economy.

When the younger workers begin to struggle for their rights and full equality, some of the key demands will be based on the following concepts:

All these points are needed in order for workers to begin to regain what has been lost. They open up the possibility of democratic workers control over production and all economic decisions facing their lives, and the necessity for the construction of a socialist society.

(The following passage from the Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, written by Leon Trotsky and adopted as the founding program of the Fourth International in 1938, has stood the test of time. [In the translation, “he” has been replaced by “they” to get away from unintended sexist language.—The Editors.]

“Trade Unions in the Transitional Epoch”

In the struggle for partial and transitional demands, the workers now more than ever before need mass organizations, principally trade unions. The powerful growth of trade unionism in France and the United States is the best refutation of the preachments of those ultra-left doctrinaires who have been teaching that trade unions have “outlived their usefulness.”

The Bolshevik-Leninists stand in the front-line trenches of all kinds of struggles, even when they involve only the most modest material interests or democratic rights of the working class. They take active part in mass trade unions for the purpose of strengthening them and raising their spirit of militancy. They fight uncompromisingly against any attempt to subordinate the unions to the bourgeois state and bind the proletariat to “compulsory arbitration” and every other form of police guardianship — not only fascist but also “democratic.” Only on the basis of such work within the trade unions is successful struggle possible against the reformists, including those of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Sectarian attempts to build or preserve small “revolutionary” unions, as a second edition of the party, signify in actuality the renouncing of the struggle for leadership of the working class. It is necessary to establish this firm rule: self-isolation of the capitulationist variety from mass trade unions, which is tantamount to a betrayal of the revolution, is incompatible with membership in the Fourth International.

At the same time, the Fourth International resolutely rejects and condemns trade union fetishism, equally characteristic of trade unionists and syndicalists.

(a) Trade unions do not offer, and in line with their task, composition, and manner of recruiting membership, cannot offer a finished revolutionary program; in consequence, they cannot replace the party. The building of national revolutionary parties as sections of the Fourth International is the central task of the transitional epoch.

(b) Trade unions, even the most powerful, embrace no more than 20 to 25 percent of the working class, and at that, predominantly the more skilled and better paid layers. The more oppressed majority of the working class is drawn only episodically into the struggle, during a period of exceptional upsurges in the labor movement. During such moments it is necessary to create organizations ad hoc, embracing the whole fighting mass: strike committees, factory committees, and finally, soviets.

(c) As organizations expressive of the top layers of the proletariat, trade unions, as witnessed by all past historical experience, including the fresh experience of the anarcho-syndicalist unions in Spain, developed powerful tendencies toward compromise with the bourgeois-democratic regime. In periods of acute class struggle, the leading bodies of the trade unions aim to become masters of the mass movement in order to render it harmless. This is already occurring during the period of simple strikes, especially in the case of the mass sit-down strikes, which shake the principle of bourgeois property. In time of war or revolution, when the bourgeoisie is plunged into exceptional difficulties, trade union leaders usually become bourgeois ministers.

Therefore, the sections of the Fourth International should always strive not only to renew the top leadership of the trade unions, boldly and resolutely in critical moments advancing new militant leaders in place of routine functionaries and careerists, but also to create in all possible instances independent militant organizations corresponding more closely to the tasks of mass struggle against bourgeois society; and, if necessary, not flinching even in the face of a direct break with the conservative apparatus of the trade unions. If it be criminal to turn one’s back on mass organizations for the sake of fostering sectarian factions, it is no less so to passively tolerate subordination of the revolutionary mass movement to the control of openly reactionary or disguised conservative (“progressive”) bureaucratic cliques. Trade unions are not ends in themselves; they are but means along the road to proletarian revolution.