The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 77/No. 34      September 30, 2013

Facing crisis, AFL-CIO tops
turn further from struggle
(front page)
Marking a further retreat by the current labor officialdom from any perspective of actively organizing workers into unions and bringing union power to bear, delegates to the Sept. 8-11 AFL-CIO convention overwhelmingly approved a resolution to begin incorporating nonlabor political organizations into the federation and shoring up its dues base with “workers centers.”

The labor movement can’t be “limited to workplaces where a majority of employees votes ‘Yes,” said the resolution.

The AFL-CIO will encourage “worker centers” like “OUR Walmart” and “Fight for 15” to affiliate. These union-initiated groups, which also involve students, social service organization staffers and others, have organized protests around the country calling for higher pay and better working conditions for retail, fast-food and other workers, but without organizing the ranks themselves to establish actual unions.

Liberal political organizations that share the labor federation’s orientation to the Democratic Party, including the NAACP, National Organization for Women, National Council of La Raza and the Sierra Club, are invited to join the labor federation as well.

“The crisis for labor has deepened,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told the New York Times Sept. 6. “We really have to experiment.” Nonunion affiliated workers can help lobby state legislatures for a higher minimum wage, push Congress to raise taxes on the wealthy and help press employers to improve safety conditions, Trumka said.

U.S. union membership stood at 14.4 million workers in 2012, representing 11.3 percent of the U.S. workforce, a 97-year low. In the last two decades, under the capitalists’ unrelenting assaults, union membership has declined from 20.1 percent to its current level.

In a related move, United Auto Workers President Bob King announced Sept. 6 that the union was cooperating with Volkswagen to create a German-style “works council” at the company’s Chattanooga, Tenn., assembly plant, which employs some 2,400 workers. “Volkswagen is a great company and they really believe worker representation is part of their success,” said King, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Under this proposal, workers at the Chattanooga plant would join the UAW, which would then represent them on the company-union “works council,” which would include representatives of management, salaried employees and plant workers.

To date, none of the many auto assembly plants in the South owned by German, Japanese and South Korean manufacturers has been organized by the UAW or any other union.

Meanwhile, membership in the UAW stands at 390,000, down from 1.5 million in 1979. Promoting collaboration with car manufacturers and the government to “save the U.S. auto industry,” UAW officials have promoted concession contracts, establishing divisive wage tiers. Efforts by the union tops to increase the AFL-CIO’s size by including nonunion workers and groups is not aimed at strengthening unions, but rather at stemming the loss of the officials’ dues base and regaining a measure of influence in capitalist politics, above all in the Democratic Party.

By promoting class collaboration with the bosses and election of “friendly” capitalist politicians as the unions’ main purpose, the officialdom’s decades-long class-collaborationist course has hamstrung the union movement. It has been key to the union’s continued bleeding of membership and inability to recruit new forces, at a time of capitalist crisis when workers are starting to look for a way to fight back.

Unions strong, not weak

Supporters of the Militant who distribute the paper door to door in working-class areas around the country each week are meeting workers who want to discuss what is happening in the labor movement and how the unions can be strengthened.

In these discussions, communist workers explain that the unions are not “weak,” as many labor officials claim, pointing to declining numbers. This is simply an excuse for their refusal to organize workers and use union power — instead of subordinating workers and their organizations to the bosses, their government and the capitalist Democratic and Republican parties.

The unions are not a “thing,” but an activity, a movement — a “we” of all its members. Even today the unions encompass millions of workers with enormous potential to deal major blows to the bosses.

Our unions can and will become powerful instruments to fight back against attacks by the bosses and their government when workers start to take hold of them. During a recovery in hiring after a long period of high unemployment in the 1930s, “men and women from nowhere” started to gain confidence and waged mighty battles in the plants and on the streets that built the industrial unions.
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