Why were Caterpillar and Staley workers defeated?

Struggle isn't hopeless,
the union bureaucrats are!

(From Detroit Workers' Voice #9, March 6, 1996,
reprinted in Communist Voice #7, March 15, 1996)


. The long struggles of the workers at the A.E. Staley corn processing plant in Decatur, IL and Caterpillar plants in Decatur and elsewhere have ended in defeat. These defeats were by no means inevitable, but were facilitated by the union bureaucrats who strong-armed the workers to surrender. Staley workers were forced to accept a rotten settlement in January and the CAT workers suffered a similar fate in December 1995. In both cases, workers have been forced to swallow huge concessions. There have been big job cuts, many strikers have not been rehired and working conditions have been gutted. All this comes on the heels of the concessions forced on Decatur's Bridgestone/Firestone workers in a settlement in the spring of 1995.

Workers show determination

. Do these setbacks show that it is pointless for workers to take on the juggernaut of employer concessions in recent years? Do they show that struggle is hopeless and all workers can do is hope the capitalists show some mercy on them? Not at all. The workers showed tremendous courage and capacity for struggle. They fought for months and years on end against corporations determined to crush them. They braved the police forces of the capitalist government who protected scabs and assaulted strikers. Meanwhile, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of Staley's lock out of workers and their hiring of scabs as permanent replacement workers. Nevertheless, the strikers had potential to deliver hard blows to the companies. They numbered in the many thousands, they were very determined and they enjoyed wide sympathy from workers around the country.

Bureaucrats sabotage struggle

. But the potential power of the workers was squandered by the union officialdom. The leaders of the United Paperworkers International Union (UPIU), involved in the Staley struggle, the United Auto Workers (UAW) who led the CAT strike, and the United Rubber Workers (URW), who were in charge of the Bridgestone struggle, did their best to sap the strikes of militancy. When it came to the employers, these bureaucrats confined themselves to timid measures. But, after their policies had helped wear down the workers, they exerted brutal pressure against the workers to force them back to work under terrible terms.

. In the case of Staley, the workers eventually voted 280-220 to return to work, but this was only after a big pressure campaign for settlement by the national level bureaucrats. The case of the CAT workers was even more shameless. New UAW head Steve Yokich ordered strikers back to work despite their recent rejection of the company's latest offer by a whopping 81%. So much for Yokich's posturing as a militant defender of the workers. Meanwhile, the new "reform" national AFL-CIO leadership under John Sweeney proved themselves to be just as worthless as the sellout Kirkland-Donahue regime they replaced. Like the old AFL-CIO leadership, the Sweeney crew gave only token support to the workers efforts. The Sweeney leadership's attitude was expressed well by new AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Rich Trumka, former United Mine Workers leader, who tried to smooth over Yokich's sellout at CAT by proclaiming it a mere "change of tactics."

Where do the dissident bureaucrats stand?

. Confirmation of the huge damage done to the struggles by the union leaderships has come not only from militant workers or revolutionary activists. Even the mild reformist local union bureaucrats note this. In the wake of the naked betrayal of the top bureaucrats, certain local union officials have hurled bitter accusations at the national sellouts. For instance, some Staley UPIU Local 7837 officials have condemned the flimsy support given their strike by the UPIU national bigwigs. There is justice in their charges. But during the strike, these same officials kept the struggle within bounds acceptable to the top union hacks and kept their complaints to a minimum. These officials now rightly point out how the top union officials sabotaged a possible victory. But even today the dissident officials' main complaint was that the top leaders were not enthusiastic enough about implementing weak "corporate campaign" tactics that scarcely differ from the policy of the top officials. The so-called "corporate campaign" tactics were actually developed as an effort to contain the workers by channeling their energies away from the most effective militant actions, such as using mass pickets to shut down plant production, a major issue in these strikes. The corporate campaigns revolve around activities like publicity campaigns to show how mean the companies are and boycotts of products. Workers are kept somewhat active. But by themselves, such activities seldom have much force, and their mobilizing power is greatly restricted without powerful mass strike actions to rally around. Despite their quarrels, the dissident local bureaucrats share with the top sellouts a fear of the type of struggle that would really mark a break with national labor traitors.

New Directions offers old "solutions"

. The New Directions Movement trend provides another example of the views of the dissident bureaucrats. They consider that the policies which led to the recent debacles were mere "mistakes," not the inevitable by-product of the basic class collaborationist stand of the mainstream officials. NDM holds that the "mistakes" can be overcome if only the top leaders have more consultation with the rank-and-file. They write, concerning the CAT strike, that everything would be fine if only "the International . . . be guided by the commitment and vision of the membership." (1) In other words, the very bureaucrats that have just shown their bankruptcy are now supposedly going to turn around and become rank-and-file fighters! Indeed New Directions was only yesterday expounding on the wonderful possibilities for the workers under the new UAW leader Yokich. (2) Now, after Yokich bludgeoned the CAT workers into submission, the New Directions trend is still holding out hopes in Yokich, stating: "NDM will support any efforts that the Yokich team makes to promote open dialogue in all the union's Locals." (3)

What way forward?

. If the workers are to defend themselves from the onslaught of employer concessions, they must not confine themselves to the limits imposed on them by the union officials, but develop their own militant policies and organization. Proletarian reorganization does not simply mean strong rank-and-file formations, however. Revolutionary workers and activists should strive to build a class political party that can help the workers build the strongest possible movement for their immediate defense as well as guide them toward their ultimate liberation through the overthrow of the whole capitalist system.


1. The Voice of New Directions, UAW National Edition Jan. 1996, p.8. (Return to text.)

2. See Communist Voice, vol.1, #5, p.12, for an example of their illusions in Yokich. (Text.)

3. The Voice of New Directions, UAW National Edition Jan. 1996, p.3. (Text)

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