Empty "left" phrases about trade unions

by Mark, Detroit
(from Communist Voice #9, August 1, 1996)


. Neil, of the Los Angeles Workers' Voice (LAWV) group has, in recent months, launched a critique of the stands of myself and others in the Communist Voice Organization (CVO) on the question of the trade unions. These views have reflected the growing influence on Neil of the anti-Marxist views of "left" communism, which among other things, opposes trade unions of any sort. However, at the time of my reply to Neil's attacks in the March 15, 1996 issue of Communist Voice, Neil was still trying to dodge the question of whether he supported the "left" communist theories on the trade unions. (He had already announced his support for such "left" communist positions as opposition to the revolutions this century which abolished the old colonial system and opposition to the right of oppressed nations to self-determination.) Now Neil boasts about the stand of the "lefts" against trade unions and has written a few more scattered remarks circulated on "e-mail" that reflect these views.

. Neil's present enchantment with "left" communism removes him ever-farther from a revolutionary critique of the pro-capitalist AFL-CIO trade union bureaucracy which sits like a lead weight on the workers' movement today. Today he thinks cursing the form of trade unions is the answer. A few months ago Neil was touting the stand of some trotskyite or semi-trotskyite groups that have illusions in the present trade unions and are unable to take a consistent stand against the trade union bureaucrats. Indeed, Neil painted up in near-revolutionary colors the platforms of trade union reformers who merely opposed some of the worst sellout leaders -- and [he] still does. Unable to see how certain reformist and opportunist trends are soft on the union bureaucrats, Neil was lost as to how to differentiate himself from them. Neil's turn to "left" communism allowed him to run away from the problem, but not solve it. By taking up "left" curses against trade unions, Neil could look like a radical critic of the opportunists, without jettisoning his illusions in the opportunists as consistent opponents of the trade union bureaucrats. For Neil, the problem with the opportunist groups he had illusions in wasn't their soft stand on the bureaucrats, but that they weren't opposed to unions in general.

. With this new semi-anarchist outlook, it was not surprising that Neil was obliged to launch all sorts of attacks on myself and others in the CVO. Articles by CVO members have aimed at helping the workers thoroughly break from the stranglehold of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy and encouraged their independent motion, organization and class consciousness. While Neil has had soft ears for the tunes of various reformists and trotskyists, we have taken pains to expose the bankruptcy of the opportunist left. Neil's new "left" phrases made him unable to appreciate the value of such work in building a revolutionary trend. So he mocked this work, and in so doing only confirmed his illusions in various opportunist groups. Why various left groups also are "telling the workers to be more militant" and "break with the treacherous leaders," he cried. (1) And Neil, trusting lad that he is, accepted the opportunists at their word, failing to see that the groups he mentioned (ISO and the Spartacist League) were far from consistent opponents of the bureaucrats despite their phrasemongering against them. Of course, contrary to Neil's new wise friends, we attacked the AFL-CIO bureaucracy not because they established unions, but, among other things, because they set up unions that constantly hemmed in the workers' struggle.

. Prior to my March article, when Neil was still dodging the question of whether he supported the "lefts" on the trade unions, he was unable to say anything coherent about what was new and better in his latest position. Hence, besides elevating the opportunists to ferocious warriors against the union bureaucrats, all he could do was tell lies. Mainly he just screamed that the AFL-CIO leadership does bad things and is not opposed to capitalism -- and pretended this [criticism of the AFL-CIO leaders' stand] was not our own position. And he falsely alleged that I held that if only "some communist leaders" like myself were elected to union posts, that would be sufficient to fundamentally change the unions.

. In my March article I concentrated on refuting Neil's lies and exposing his historic support for reformist and trotskyite trends who had a weak stand on the AFL-CIO officialdom. In this article I want to focus on a few of the more notable features of his new stand which show the influence of the semi-anarchist "left" communist trends.

Neil's semi-anarchist gurus

. The "left" communist trends that Neil supports include the International Communist Current, which has a U.S. section, and the Communist Workers' Organization (CWO), based in Britain. These groups undercut a revolutionary critique of the present pro-capitalist unions by denouncing the whole notion of unions. They consider the immediate economic struggle of the workers as futile and efforts to organize it as contrary to revolutionary work. For that matter, the CWO group denounces all "movements" in general except for the proletarian insurrection. Neil also had been touting the stand of the Collective Action group in Baltimore, partisans of "council communism". This outfit theorizes against the concept of a revolutionary political party, denounces as "conscious minorities" any groups which systematically try to organize the workers and develop their revolutionary consciousness, and opposes all "new ideologies or sweeping programs." They also hurl phrases against trade unions in general. Whereas ICC and CWO mock the economic struggle, Collective Action gets so dizzy over wildcat strikes that they think they disprove the need for organization or a conscious leadership of the working class movement. (2) Now let's see how Neil has been infected by the semi-anarchist bug.

Theorizing against the fight for wages and working conditions

. The AFL-CIO trade union bureaucracy is a big obstacle for the workers' movement today. Not only are the union bureaucrats interested in preserving the capitalist system, they also try to keep the struggle for wages and working conditions from becoming too militant and thus undercut the workers' ability to maintain or improve their conditions under capitalism. Neil doesn't see how various reformist and opportunist trends fail to offer the workers a revolutionary alternative to the path of the bureaucrats but actually create illusions in the present unions. So he distinguishes himself by shouting "left" phrases that indict the unions for fighting over the question of the wages and benefits. For instance, Neil attacks the unions for "peddling the commodity labor power" (3) or trying to "get a few percent more of the value that the workers themselves produced and delivered". (4) Neil boasts that these are "some of the new ideas we are developing. As any honest worker and militant Marxist can see, none of this has very much to do with cozying up to the trots or any other revisionist or reformist groupings."

. But what does it mean to distinguish yourself by denouncing a fight over the value of labor power? According to Marx, it is capitalism that turns the worker, or more precisely, the workers' labor-power, into a commodity. And, in order to survive under capitalism, the worker has no choice but to "peddle" this commodity to the owners of the factories, plants, etc. Not only that. If the worker wants to prevent the capitalist from driving down their wages, she or he must fight over the value of their commodity, fight over the price of their labor-power, fight to "get a few more percent of the value that the workers themselves produced". So Neil's phrases only distinguish him by standing opposed to the fight for the workers' daily needs.

. Go to the Staley workers, Neil, or the Detroit newspaper strikers, or the janitors who participated in unionization campaigns in Los Angeles. Tell them about your new discovery. And don't use the terminology of economic theory, but tell them what that theory means in common language. Tell them how awful it is to fight for higher wages and better working conditions. Meanwhile, don't be surprised if upon your informing the workers that the union bureaucracy is defending their present-day interests, the workers don't see the point of splitting with the labor traitors you have thus prettified. A Marxist points out how the AFL-CIO officialdom not only supports capitalism, but undercuts the daily economic struggle. Marxism considers the economic struggle one front of the class struggle. Neil gives theories that denounce the economic struggle in the name of fighting AFL-CIO bosses and the capitalist system.

Are unions pointless in the present era?

. The semi-anarchist phrases against the economic struggle are closely connected to the "left" communist position on the trade unions. Groups like the ICC hold that trade unions used to be able to win gains for the workers but that is no longer possible and hence, this form of organization is pointless. Neil tries to avoid saying categorically that the trade union form is worthless, and does his best to dance around the position of his mentors. But the main direction of his arguments is against unions as a form of organization. His theorizing on the economic struggle would logically lead to conclusions against unions of any sort, not just the present type of unions. He argues that "the key thing is that most all unions today, are defenders of the wages system and are based on peddling the commodity labor power." (5) But even workers that oppose capitalism and the wages system must still fight today over the price of their labor power. Taken literally, Neil's formulation means that there might be some kind of OK unions -- provided they don't engage in the economic struggle!

. What sort of organization would Neil propose that is based on fighting for the daily interests of the workers against the employers? In general theory, Neil thinks it is sufficient to talk about "political and industrial organizations based on a program of class struggle and decisively hostile to the interests of capital." Of course all class organizations should direct the workers to fighting against the capitalists. But this formulation is insufficient. It does not answer the question of what are the particular characteristics of different class organizations.

. For instance, a communist party is a different type of organization than a trade union, though both can play a role in developing the class struggle. A party organization should include only workers and other activists who are not only interested in the struggle over working conditions, but also are dedicated to the goal of achieving the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system and working toward a communist society. Trade unions are necessarily broader organizations. They include not only the most class conscious workers but also workers who presently merely want to defend their livelihoods. Thus they include non-communist workers, workers who have illusions in capitalism or the bourgeois political parties, i.e., workers whose participation in, and consciousness of the class struggle, is more limited. The task of the class conscious activist is not to deny the need for organizations of the broader mass of workers, such as the union form of organization, but to strive for the maximum influence among the workers in the trade unions. The aim of this work is not to tell workers they have no need to fight over daily matters, but to build the strongest possible fight by developing an independent stand from the labor traitors, from the bourgeois parties, etc. This work also means showing the workers the limits of their present fight and that their liberation can only come through destroying capitalism.

. Neil prefers to leave all these questions in a haze. This not only allows him to dodge the question of the usefulness of trade unions per se (while his mentors categorically despise them).It also allows Neil to keep kidding himself that the forms of mass organizations he calls for or likes are inherently more radical than a trade union organization. Thus he undercuts real revolutionary work in two ways:

. 1) he ignores that the broad nature of the unions, its bringing together of workers whose class consciousness is just beginning, is to the advantage of the revolutionary cause; and

. 2) he downplays the role of the organization of class conscious workers in developing the fighting capacity and revolutionary consciousness of those in the mass organizations.

Should we care if the capitalists smash the trade unions?

. Another feature of Neil's absurdly "left" critique of the trade unions is that he denies, or doesn't care about, the capitalist efforts to weaken or eliminate the present trade unions. One of the features of the present capitalist offensive is to replace unionized workers with non-union workers, smash unions in various workplaces, pass more and more laws to restrict the activity of unions, etc. This does not mean that the days of union-management collaboration are gone, or that the bourgeoisie has now decided to simply sweep away all the unions. It does not mean that in the face of this assault, the present trade union bureaucracy is becoming militant class fighters. Actually, they generally cave in to this assault. But only the blind and the semi-anarchist "left" communists can deny that more and more employers consider even the present meek unions to be an obstacle to more profits. Only they can not see that the old liberal-labor politics, bankrupt as it was, gave greater leeway to the unions, and has been replaced by neo-conservatism as the main trend among both big bourgeois parties. They can't grasp that just because the AFL-CIO leadership doesn't offer serious resistance to an attack doesn't mean there wasn't an attack. Nor can they understand that the fact that the AFL-CIO leadership defends the capitalist system does not mean that their vision of capitalism is necessarily liked by important sections of the bourgeoisie.

. But when reality conflicts with Neil's semi-anarchist formulae, out goes reality. He writes: "many of the smaller capitalist firms still bitch about unionization" but "most U.S. bosses, especially in bigger shops/factories/offices . . . see the unions like a good protection racket." (6)

. It's indisputable that the AFL-CIO bosses are opposed to a resolute struggle against the capitalists and often try to placate them with concessions. But the point is, in struggle after struggle, the capitalists are no longer satisfied with the old situation, but want even more. Hence, they not only cooperate with the trade unions, but are shoving them hard and even destroying them when this is practical. Neil claims that the big capitalists aren't the ones interested in fighting the unions, only some small entrepreneurs. Can he be serious? What are firms like Staley (Tate & Lyle), Caterpillar, Bridgestone, and the Gannett and Knight-Ridder newspapers, Neil, "mom-and-pop" operations? Why are the multinationals running around the country and the world to find non-union labor? Neil and his "lefts" evidently feels all such efforts are a hoax that is secretly strengthening the unions! And if most of the employers are so anxious to have unions, why is it that so few have them? Can't they find their number in the phone book?

. Neil has the answer. He alleges that it is only the ignorance of most employers that keeps them from bringing in unions. Why the small firms oppose unions only because "their chiefs and grandmothers still belong to the John Birch Society type groups too!". (7) So that's it, Neil? The employers are just idiots who don't know anything about making profits? Perhaps the reader now thinks I have gone too far in attacking Neil. Surely, he couldn't deny that keeping unions out is a way for employers to insure higher profits. Au contraire! He argues that today's reformist unions are really just disguised "company unions" (i.e., no unions, just fake union organizations set up directly by the employer). He states: "How much different would having an OPEN company union be for the workers." And then he cites statistics which he presumably thinks prove that workers without unions are doing just as well or even better than those without unions. Neil argues: "in 1994, U.S. union workers pay dropped 3.0% while those left at the bosses' mercy with no workplace organization got smacked with a LOWER 2.7% cut in one year, worst since the early 30's!" So according to Neil, if workers only had company unions and were at the bosses' mercy, they would be better off! The only problem is that Neil's statistics only prove that he is twice as ignorant as the foolhardy employers he mocks. Even if it's true that in one year the non-union worker lost a tiny bit less percentage-wise than the union worker, the union worker is most likely still to have better wages and benefits. If I make $12/hour and my non-union counterpart makes $9/hour, I don't think I'd trade places just because I had my wages reduced 3% to $11.64. And I don't think any employer would be so stupid as to not to notice the difference, too.

. For Neil to scoff at the capitalist assault on unions only plays into the hands of the employers. The anti-union offensive aims at driving down the rank-and-file workers, both unionized and non-unionized. (It's well known that employers in heavily-unionized areas grant somewhat better conditions to their non-union workforce as a way to avoid unionization, even the weak AFL-CIO type.) Thus, it is an issue for the workers, not just the fat cat bureaucrats. That is why one does not have to be a supporter of the trade union bureaucrats to oppose this offensive. Indeed, opposing the anti-union offensive requires the workers to go beyond the pitiful resistance offered by the union officials. But Neil, drunk with his new semi-anarchist phrases, swaggers by the concerned workers and says "who cares."

Neil's new theories belittle the fight against the labor traitors

. Naturally, if the economic struggle is hopeless, and unions as such are suspect, then there really isn't much point to attacking the labor traitors for sabotaging the present-day struggles. Neil does not like the AFL-CIO leadership. But his new, allegedly superior new outlook leads him to belittle the importance of the workers breaking free from the grip of the AFL-CIO leadership and developing their own militant class organization and struggle. He writes to me: "On the unions, you think the workers merely getting angrier and shit-canning their judas leaders will gain great victories or at least hold the line against the vicious attack of capital and its political state machinery (these things would be progress, but cannot today insure victory in a major strike, lockout, etc.)." (8) And as an alternative, he proposes telling the workers that the unions are bad for trying to fight for higher wages and that they aren't against the capitalist system. What a muddle! He admits it will be "progress" to develop independence from the bureaucrats. But, he says, really this "progress" will lead only to defeat for it cannot possibly achieve any victories!

. It is not the economic struggle that is pointless, only Neil's theorizing on it. In fact, a militant struggle will tend to retard the capitalists' efforts to worsen the condition of the workers. Depending on the relative strength of the two sides clashing, workers may make some gains, may hold the line, or may merely beat back some of the worst attacks. But in any case, if the workers don't fight, their plight will be even worse. Meanwhile, how well the workers are organized is one of the key determinants of how successful their struggle is. Every time Neil mocks the stand of consistent encouragement for the workers "shit-canning their judas leaders", he weakens their chances of winning.

. Neil's theorizing is not only nonsense, but impossible for himself to uphold. Los Angeles Workers' Voice leaflets written this year call on the masses to fight on issues like opposing cutbacks in public education and social programs and tells the masses they "can't rely on the union officialdom". (9) Applying the same standards Neil applies to his opponents, shouldn't Neil also be denounced for calling on the masses to "shit-can" the bureaucrats and leading them in a futile effort to win great victories? Typically, in this leaflet, Neil doesn't even mention the unions are defenders of the capitalist system, much less make this the main appeal, though allegedly his opponents are the ones who avoid this and thereby demonstrate their bankruptcy.

Is it permissible to run in union elections?

. As mentioned in the introduction of this article, Neil has contended that I hold that if only some communists like myself get trade union posts, then the unions will be fundamentally transformed. Back in March I called this charge a lie and I continue to challenge Neil to produce any evidence of this. But the main issue raised by this charge is not Neil's ability to lie, but whether it is permissible for communists to run for offices in the AFL-CIO unions. I maintain that the main task of communist work in the trade unions these days is to build direct ties between the workers in the unions and the party of class-conscious workers (or, where no such party exists, groups oriented towards re-establishing such a party). However, I also think that it would be a mistake for revolutionary-minded workers to not participate in the present AFL-CIO unions despite their domination by a reactionary trade union bureaucracy. Such participation can be a supplement to the main task. Running in union elections, under certain conditions, is one of the ways of participating in the present trade unions so as to further spread the views of the communists among the workers.

. Simply gaining some trade union posts by no means transforms the union bureaucracy into the fighting machine of the workers, however. Indeed, even when mild reformers win some union posts, the mainstream bureaucrats often try to crush them. Therefore, the goal of a revolutionary in a trade union election is not to get a cushy post and reconcile with the bureaucrats, but to use that post to rally the rank and file against the bureaucrats. The revolutionaries must make clear to the workers the limits of what can be accomplished through the repressive union apparatus and emphasize that they can rely only on the development of their own independent class organization. As for the revolutionary unions of the future, they can only come into being when the mass struggle of the workers is so powerful that it entirely shatters the union bureaucracy, not only replacing its leaders, but does away with its overall policy, apparatus, rules, methods of organizing, enslaving ties to the establishment, etc. Whether this will require forming completely new unions, or the workers will be able to radically transform the present unions will be determined by the course of the class struggle.

. Since March, Neil has continued to try to dodge the issue of whether revolutionaries can make use of trade union elections. He has implied that there's something wrong with it, and his ideological gurus despise the idea. But Neil will only say things like "those that settle into getting elected on a 'push the leaders to the left' plank are really wasting the workers time and efforts." (10) Yes, Neil, we ourselves oppose the idea that winning a few posts will convert the union leaders to militant leftists. But what about running in the elections so as to oppose all illusions in the trade union bureaucracy? That is what I am talking about. So far Neil only shouts abuse while running away from a straightforward reply.

"Left" communism and support for reformism

. Neil has had exaggerated hopes in any number of groups that basically have a reformist approach to the AFL-CIO union bureaucracy. He will get upset if a left-wing group openly hails the union bureaucrats. But he is liable to become disoriented when confronted by a group that curses some bureaucrats or fights against them in a very limited way. He talks about such groups as if they were revolutionary or near-revolutionary when they actually have not broken free from a reformist approach to the pro-capitalist trade unions. Neil continues to have difficulty differentiating his views from the views of reformist-dominated mass organizations or from the certain groups of the trotskyite-Cliffite milieu.

. For example, even after his conversion to the semi-anarchism of the "left" communists, Neil hypes the reformist MFUD/BAFU groups in the Los Angeles area Service Employees International Union. Last year he called them a "class struggle alternative" and a "militant rebel union" and he was still touting BAFU in late March, 1996. (11) But the only evidence Neil can produce to back up his claims shows that these groups merely oppose some particularly bad union leaders, not the union bureaucracy as such, and call for "better benefits" as well as some reforms which would make the union a bit more democratic. Neil now strongly hints that it violates proletarian principles for a communist to run for trade union office, but to this day has nothing but praise for the reformist platform that these groups used to run in the union elections. We can also cite Neil's stand on the Chicago Workers' Voice group whose mushy stand on the reformist trade union trends and the opportunist left we chronicle elsewhere in this issue. Neil has been a close ally of the CWV group and remains silent on their efforts to reconcile with opportunism in the workers' movement.

. Why then has he become enchanted with the "left" phrasemongerers who mock the idea of trade unions, or even reject the fight for immediate economic demands as futile. Does Neil oppose all struggles for partial demands? Well, in theory he has been advising activists to follow semi-anarchists like the ICC and the CWO who consider all struggles for reforms impossible since the 20th century began. But in practice, Neil doesn't necessarily reject all partial struggles. In 1995 Neil was still arguing that there was a point to struggles that aimed at certain reforms. A couple of months ago, he was still carrying agitation in favor of a fight on certain immediate issues like the budget cutbacks in Los Angeles.

. But though Neil's instincts have kept him around the mass movements, he has not been able to figure out what separates a Marxist stand in these movements from the stands of the more militant-looking reformist and left-wing trends. "Left" communism or council communism (Collective Action) provides Neil a way out -- a set of empty anarchist phrases to look more revolutionary than thou, while not actually being able to distinguish between a revolutionary course for the class struggle and the more militant wing of reformism. In particular, phrases against parties, trade unions, and the leadership of struggles by class conscious groups are appealing to Neil as they offer a simple, if mindless, "answer" to what is wrong with the left and the pro-capitalist trade union bureaucracy.


1. E-mail message of February 1, 1996. (Return to text.)

2. See the "Introduction" to Collective Action's pamphlet From the bottom up -- three texts by Anton Pannekoek, February, 1996. (Text)

3. E-mail message of March 29, 1996 entitled "Unions -- for or against capitalism". (Text)

4. E-mail message of December 5, 1995. (Text)

5. "Unions--for or against capitalism", March 29. (Text)

6. "Unions -- for or against capitalism", March 29. (Text)

7. Ibid., for all quotes in this paragraph. (Text)

8. E-mail message of December 5, 1995. (Text)

9. LAWV's leaflet "Make the rich pay! Defend public education!," Feb. 3, 1996. (Text)

10. E-mail message of March 30, 1996 entitled "Unions/SEIU". (Text)

11. See Neil's article in Communist Voice, vol.1, #5, Nov. 15, 1996, pp.14-16, and the March 30 e-mail message "Unions/ SEIU". (Text)

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