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When will union leaders fight back?

By Paul D'Amato | March 5, 2004 | Page 9

THE 1881 preamble of the organization that later became the American Federation of Labor (AFL) spoke of "a struggle...between oppressor and oppressed...a struggle between capital and labor, which must grow in intensity year by year, and work disastrous results to the toiling millions...if not combined for mutual protection." Not many years after the AFL was formed, leading socialist Eugene Debs complained that its leaders chloroformed workers while the bosses went through their pockets.

This pattern seems to be repeated throughout the history of unions in the U.S. Rank-and-file militancy provides an initial push to form unions, but some time after they form, the leaders of those unions lose the will to fight and the unions become less effective combinations for fighting the employers.

How can we explain this phenomenon? Unions form as basic organizations for the defense of workers' conditions under capitalism. Without them, workers are completely defenseless.

Yet unions have an in-built conservatism that is personified in the bureaucracies that arise to run them. "The specialization of professional activity as trade union leaders, as well as the naturally restricted horizon which is bound up with disconnected economic struggles in a peaceful period," wrote the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, "leads only too easily, among trade union officials, to bureaucratism and a certain narrowness of outlook."

Trade union officials therefore tend toward the "overvaluation of the organization, which from a means has gradually been changed into an end in itself, a precious thing, to which the interests of the struggles should be subordinated." This in turn encourages a desire to restrain rank-and-file militancy for fear that it will threaten the organization, and therefore the position, of the union officialdom.

"From this also comes that openly admitted need for peace which shrinks from great risks and presumed dangers to the stability of the trade unions," wrote Luxemburg. The result is that union leaders often fight only under extreme pressure--when they're pushed into it by the rapacity of the employers or by the anger of their own members--and are ready to leave the field of battle as soon as they get the opportunity, even if it means accepting concessions.

"Eventually, the union leader draws so far from his members that he adopts the ethics of business; he still serves his workers, still wins wage increases and reductions in hours, but the union becomes for him a vehicle for personal enrichment as well," explained historian Sidney Lens. Lens wrote these words in 1959, when unions, though thoroughly bureaucratized and steeped in this "business unionism," were still able to win some economic gains for their members.

But over the last quarter-century, union leaders have reaped the perks of office yet done little or nothing to stem the growing "intensity" of capital's assault on labor. That's why the behavior of the union leaders who ran the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) strike in Southern California is infuriating, but not surprising.

All the elements necessary to win were in sight--solidarity from Teamster delivery drivers; efforts to use pickets to shut down all the struck companies; solidarity actions from longshore workers and widespread public sympathy; the possibility of spreading the strike to other locations to maximize pressure on the bosses. But in the end, the leadership wasn't willing to carry these efforts forward.

This conservatism was reinforced by the fact that the local union chief responsible for the strike had a conflict of interest. UFCW Local 770 President Rick Icaza is a multimillionaire real-estate investor on top of his $270,000-a-year union salary!

We cannot win struggles with leaders like Icaza. But the issue goes beyond getting better union leaders in office. Rebuilding a fighting labor movement will depend on organizing the rank and file in the unions so that they can carry the fight forward even when their own union leaders try to restrain them.

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