The Militant(logo) 
    Vol.63/No.20           May 24, 1999 
Transform Unions Into Tools For Struggle  

Union members frustrated with labor officials who continually block militant action by the rank-and-file will find Capitalism's World Disorder: Working Class Politics at the Millennium a handbook for understanding the growing opportunities to transform our unions into instruments of struggle against the employers, and in the process replace the current crop of bureaucrats with class-struggle leaders.

One section that addresses this begins on page 132, under the heading "Demise of the `labor-liberal' coalition." It is part of a talk given by Socialist Workers Party national secretary Jack Barnes at the end of 1994.

The "labor-liberal" coalition was an alliance - "under", as Barnes puts it, "the political awning of the Democratic Party" - of the top officials of the AFL-CIO, the NAACP and other major civil rights groups, and the executive officers of various public and private welfare agencies. "It was a coalition," Barnes says, "of apparatuses and officialdoms who derived their authority from the concessions" wrung from government by the powerful social movement that built the industrial unions in the 1930s and advanced the Black rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

In return for wage gains that the bosses found possible to grant due to the long post-World War II capitalist economic expansion, these officials blocked any independent political activity that threatened the Democratic Party. So long as the expansion continued, "the class-collaborationist illusion could be portrayed by the labor officialdom as having some basis in reality." But under today's depression conditions worldwide, this "labor-liberal coalition" dwindles fast.

"Since at least the end of World War II, there has never been a time in the United States when the employing class thought they needed the trade union bureaucracy less than they do today," Barnes notes. "The top AFL-CIO officialdom has less leverage in the Democratic Party and the capitalist two-party system.... Never has less attention been paid to their wish list of `labor legislation.' "

The weakened labor bureaucracy, with a lifestyle closer to the bosses than the ranks, tries to draw in union militants and youth to give a progressive varnish to the structures they dominate.

Barnes emphasizes, "We need to be working together in whatever ways possible with others in the ranks. That is where the power and determination will come to make real changes in the labor movement as struggles pick up - changes that go well beyond the plans of the more left-talking officials."

The weakening labor officials "more and more try to merge their unions, capable of doing little else," Barnes says.

I am a member of the United Transportation Union (UTU), working on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. In what has become typical, the top UTU officials mounted a raiding operation against another rail union - the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE). They threatened to force a representation election on the Union Pacific railroad through government intervention. Under this pressure, the AFL-CIO arranged negotiations between UTU and BLE officials, resulting in a proposal to merge the two unions into the North American Rail and Transportation Union (NATU) by the end of the year.

The BLE and UTU officials hope their bureaucratic merger will strengthen their hand in pushing through a pact patterned on one rejected by Illinois Central workers several years ago. They have pledged, Frank Wilner reports in an article in the January 18 issue of the employer publication Traffic World, to pursue a new multiyear pact with the nation's major freight railroads "in advance of the formal reopening of contracts in November." Wilner says the deal would result in "substantial" cost savings for the rail barons based on replacing the "eight-decade-old mileage-based method of paying train crews with a new formula tied to unique characteristics of individual trips."

UTU Assistant President Byron Boyd is quoted in the Traffic World article saying, "Today, the art of making a deal is to be up front and quick. You are better off being the first guy to make a deal. One stable voice in dealing with carriers would be even better."

Mergers like the UTU-BLE are meant to protect the bureaucracy, not to strengthen us against the rail barons. While the officials argue that "a new, more effective bargaining strategy is required" to counter the employers as they cut crews and erode safety to cut their costs, Capitalism's World Disorder explains that it is the increasing confidence of the ranks as they fight employer attacks, including eroding safety conditions, that points the way forward.

The union officialdom's stance encourages cynicism among a few workers who begin to say, "I don't give a damn" about safety. "But class-conscious workers must take questions such as safety seriously," Barnes argues. "Labor must convince broad layers of the population as a whole that it is the working-class movement above all that cares about these questions.... This is a fundamental matter of class pride, of self-respect, of the morale of the working class. It is a question of the working class taking the moral high ground in the battle against the exploiting class and for human solidarity."

Chris Rayson is a member of the UTU.

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