From Bridge City Militant No. 4 (Spring 2017)
The labor movement in the United States is under full-scale attack, and its leaders are laying down and playing dead. They have no plans to fight the rightist capitalist onslaught spearheaded by Donald Trump. Worse yet, having been burned by their support for Democrat Hillary Clinton, top labor leaders are doing everything they can to play ball with labor-hater Trump.
In an interview with Fox Business Network, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka praised Trump’s cancellation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and his talk of rebuilding infrastructure. “If he does something that’s good for the economy and workers, we’re going to be behind him,” he summed up, adding lamely: if not, not. Others were totally positive. When Trump called construction union leaders to the White House in late January, the head of NABTU (North America’s Building Trades Unions) Sean McGarvey crowed, “The respect that the President of the United States just showed us… was nothing short of incredible…. We have a common bond with the president.”
Laborers’ International Union president Terry O’Sullivan issued a press release saying “LIUNA is ready to work with the new Administration in the coming years to strengthen our country.” Doug McCarron, president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, was downright fawning. After Trump declared “I love Doug,” McCarron gushed to the media the president’s inaugural speech was “a great moment for working men and women in the United States.” But behind the love fest, working people will get screwed by a president who has declared that wages in the U.S. are too high, has fought unions at his Las Vegas hotel and elsewhere and supports union-busting “right to work” laws.
Various commentators have argued that the construction union leaders are being played. For sure. But then they are also getting played when they regularly back the Democrats. Labor will always get screwed so long as it is chained to the parties of capital. But forging those chains is how the sellout labor bureaucrats got in office, and how they got where they are today: facing the abyss.
The paralysis of union tops in the face of threatened “right-to-work” legislation or a potential Supreme Court decision that would do the same to public sector workers, is a declaration of bankruptcy. It demonstrates again that their fundamental loyalty is to the capitalist system, not the working people they claim to represent. What’s needed is to build a fighting opposition inside the labor movement based on a program of sharp class struggle, against the suicidal class collaboration of the present pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy. There’s got to be a clean sweep, or the unions are going down.
“Right to Work” and Racist American Capitalism
A year ago, labor unionists breathed a sigh of relief as the U.S. Supreme Court, by a 4-4 tie vote, killed Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association by letting stand the ruling of the appeals court. Funded by deep-pocketed anti-union “think tanks,” the lawsuit sought to cripple the unions financially by outlawing the “agency shop,” the requirement that employees at an organized workplace pay union dues or an equivalent. The target was public sector unions (representing 35% of the workforce) which because of their political connections have been able to withstand the union-busting onslaught that has decimated labor in the private sector, where union membership is down to 6%.
Now anti-union forces are gearing up for another attempt with a new Supreme Court. Meanwhile, in January Kentucky enacted a double-whammy “right-to-work” law coupled with a “no-right-to-strike” provision for public employees. Missouri passed its “RTW” law in February (it already had a public sector strike ban). And on February 1, a bill for a National Right to Work Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by two of the most reactionary Congressmen in the country, Steve King of Iowa and Joe Wilson of South Carolina. If neither of them is formally part of the right-wing Republican Freedom Caucus it is because this pair stands even further to the right.
Wilson is a Tea Party asset and a virulent immigrant-basher whose main claim to fame was to yell “you lie” (about immigration reform) at Barack Obama during a 2009 presidential address in Congress. Steve King is, if anything, an even more unabashed racist, sporting a Confederate battle flag on his desk, claiming Obama favored blacks and saying that “white people” have a “superior culture.” He declares that Islam is “antithetical to Americanism,” says that “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” and wants to eliminate citizenship for all those born in the U.S. in order to produce an “America that’s just so homogeneous that we look a lot [sic] the same.”
It’s no wonder that spewing out such garbage, King is a hero of fascist and fascistic “white nationalists.” He is not only opposed to gay marriage, but even to civil marriage. And it’s entirely predictable that such a race-hater would also be a labor-hater. The fact is that the campaign for open-shop “right to work” laws, now threatening a nationwide offensive, was championed from its beginning by racist ideologues who oppose unions because in order to be effective, the unions must organize black and white workers together.
“Right to work” as a deceptively-named political movement was launched in the 1940s in Texas by a prolific right-wing political organizer named Vance Muse. Muse’s modus operandi was to rake in funds from some of America’s most powerful capitalist families – the Sloans (General Motors), Pews (Sun Oil), and Duponts, along with leading southern grandees – while hobnobbing with fascist groups like the Klan and “silver shirt” leader Gerald L. K. Smith. Muse organized a Georgia convention of a “Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution” in 1934 chaired by former National Association of Manufacturers president John H. Kirby and featuring Smith and other fascists.
Two years later, Muse launched the Christian American Association in Texas. According to the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas Online, “The Christian Americans worked for passage of right-to-work laws in sixteen states,” starting with Florida and Arkansas. According to “Limiting Labor: Business Political Mobilization and Union Setback in the States” by Marc Dixon in the Journal of Policy History (Vol. 19, No. 3, 2007):
“The Christian American Association was the first in the nation to champion the ‘Right-to-Work’ as a full-blown political slogan. Vance Muse became intrigued by the use of the Right-to-Work term in a 1941 Labor Day editorial in the Dallas Morning News that called for an open-shop amendment to the constitution. After traveling to Dallas and consulting with the editor, Muse was encouraged to use and promote the idea of Right-to-Work. This became their primary cause and they campaigned extensively for Right-to-Work legislation throughout the country, and especially within Texas.”
Muse and the fascist forces he mobilized with industry backing opposed unions because, in Muse’s words, the agency shop meant that “from now on, white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.” (Gerard Colby, Du Pont Dynasty: Behind the Nylon Curtain ) Muse was joined in his efforts by his older sister Ida Darden, who was notable as the publicity director of the Texas Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage in 1916, and the editor of the Southern Conservative newspaper from 1950 to 1961, which campaigned against unions, civil rights, modern art and Hollywood movies.
Christian American lobbying led to laws in Texas limiting picketing and other union activities. But while far-right and fascist organizations such as Muse’s groups were early and strident advocates of open-shop laws, they were not alone. Dixon writes that by 1947, when “right to work” was made law in Texas, its major backer was the Texas Manufacturers Association, headed by Herman Brown of the Brown & Root construction firm. By this time, the TMA kept its distance from Vance Muse and allied far-right groups. And the anti-labor forces were not the only ones to make racist appeals. In opposing “open shop” laws, Harry Acreman of the Texas AFL “invoked race as an issue, arguing that Right-to Work would end segregation in southern workplaces,” as Dixon noted.
Ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal, labor officialdom has been in the Democrats’ pocket. While the Republicans opposed unions outright, FDR sought to hogtie them with government control, from the 1934 Wagner Act to the WWII War Labor Board. The kept labor bureaucracy went along with its wartime no-strike pledge, while the government jailed the Minneapolis Teamster leaders and Trotskyists for opposing the imperialist slaughter. Since a mainstay of FDR’s “New Deal coalition” were the Southern Dixiecrats, in opposing anti-labor legislation the craven union misleaders appealed to these racists for support. That doomed the postwar attempt to organize the South (Operation Dixie), which could have succeeded had the CIO fought Jim Crow segregation.
That was when employers’ “right-to-work” drive could have been stopped cold. Instead, you got the “open shop” South, a bastion of anti-unionism. And under the Democratic administration of Harry Truman, the 1948 Taft-Hartley Act was passed outlawing the closed shop and banning communists from union leadership positions. Although the AFL and CIO tops claimed to oppose that “slave labor” law, they refused to strike against it, meekly submitting to the dictates of capital. Meanwhile, as part of the anti-Soviet Cold War, liberal Democrats purged the unions of the “reds” who had built them, laying the basis for the subsequent witch-hunting associated with Republican senator Joseph McCarthy. And McCarthy’s chief witch-hunter, Roy Cohn, was the mentor of Donald Trump.
Forge a Class-Struggle Leadership of Labor to Defend All the Oppressed
Today, the drive to roll back the remaining gains of the industrial unions that were born in the class struggles of the 1930s is intensifying in the context of a political crisis of U.S. imperialism. A bogus “democracy” elevates a fake-populist billionaire and woman-hating media personality into the Oval Office. Once ensconced, Donald Trump promises a skeptical Wall Street (which considers him unreliable and favored Democrat Hillary Clinton) mountains of golden loot from the federal treasury, while throwing a few crumbs to some gullible labor fakers. His arch-racist attorney general Jeff Sessions vows to ratchet up police repression. And whipping up anti-immigrant hysteria, he reinforces the key structural element of American capitalism since it was founded on chattel slavery: the division of American workers along race-color lines and the brutal racial oppression of black people.
So how do the AFL-CIO leaders plan to fight the threat of national “right-to-work” legislation or court-ordered “open shop” rules that would cripple unions? Answer: they don’t. There are no plans for mass mobilization, besieging Congress and the Supreme Court or jamming Wall Street to shut down the center of world financial capital. At most they talk of stepping up “education” campaigns to convince workers to join the union. Even at that level union leaders remain beholden to the bosses, relying on dues check-offs which give management the power to turn off the financial spigot whenever it wants. In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers won’t get union dues subtracted from salaries in January until March. A class-struggle leadership would collect the dues itself.
The only way to defeat this anti-labor onslaught is not to seek a new “New Deal Coalition” that would continue to subordinate the working class to one party of racist U.S. imperialism, but to drive out the pro-capitalist bureaucracy that chains the unions to the Democrats and forge a class-struggle leadership of labor that defends all those oppressed by capitalism.
In the Pacific Northwest, CSWP has played a leading role fighting the threat of “right-to-work” union-busting. In September 2013, Wyatt McMinn, vice president of Local 10 of the International Union of Printers and Allied Trades (IUPAT) and a CSWP spokesman was arrested and threatened with a year in jail for protesting a meeting of the union-hating Freedom Foundation. The class-struggle unionist, a founder of CSWP, was eventually found not-guilty, a victory for labor solidarity and the more than a dozen union and labor councils that endorsed his defense.
Two years later, in the fall of 2015, as Friedrichs loomed at the Supreme Court, members of CSWP, elected from their unions as delegates to the Oregon state AFL-CIO convention, brought a motion that “area unions should prepare a major region-wide stop-work action against this effort to impoverish workers.” The resolution won significant support but was shot down by the state AFL leadership, which has repeatedly refused to fight union-busting with industrial action, instead devoting itself to lobbying Democrats. One of their main arguments is that opinion polls show “the public” as being hostile to unions. But as the experience of the 2011 labor uprising in Wisconsin against an anti-labor governor showed, once unions began acting like defenders of workers, public support soared … and then plummeted when protests were called off in favor of voting for Democrats.
“Above all, every union needs to begin preparing to fight the coming union-busting onslaught in the streets and in the workplaces. We need to form committees in every local and every workplace to prepare to tie up metro Portland like the workers in Wisconsin shut down Madison in 2011 – but Wisconsin shows that we can’t let the fight be diverted into the dead end of electoral support for the Democrats or any capitalist party. We need a class struggle workers party: not just a vote-getting apparatus but a party to organize and lead the fight for the oppressed and exploited, using the powerful weapons that our class has.”
The AFL-CIO tops went on to throw millions of dollars to Hillary Clinton and her pro-“right to work” vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine. This set the stage for a demagogue like Donald Trump to reap protest votes from workers and the unemployed suffering the ravages of the capitalist economic crisis, and the bipartisan job-killing policies implemented by Obama that have devastated the industrial “rust belt.” Class-struggle unionists called instead to break the Democrats’ stranglehold on labor, and in August 2016 Painters Local 10 passed a groundbreaking resolution calling for “No Support to the Democrats, Republicans, Or Any Party of the Bosses,” and instead “call[ing] on the labor movement to break from the Democratic Party, and build a class-struggle workers party.” This, and not belly-crawling before Congress, the courts and the capitalist politicians, is the way to bust the union-busters! ■