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Vol. 73/No. 45      November 23, 2009

Fighting for a class-struggle
course in the unions
(Books of the Month column)
Printed below is an excerpt from Teamster Power, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for November. Teamster Power tells the story of how the men and women of Minneapolis Teamsters Local 574 and their class-struggle leadership used the power they had won through three hard-fought strikes in 1934 to extend union power to cities throughout the Midwest. They helped the unemployed organize and fight for jobs, combated employer-organized frame-ups, attacks by goons, and killings of union members, and launched an 11-state campaign that brought tens of thousands of over-the-road drivers into the union. Copyright © 1973 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

In carrying out their class-collaborationist line, the union bureaucrats exercise tight control over negotiations with employers. They try to avoid strikes over working agreements if at all possible. When a walkout does take place, they usually leap at the first chance for a settlement.

Once a contract has been signed with an employer they consider all hostilities terminated. Membership attempts to take direct action where necessary to enforce the agreement are declared “unauthorized” and a violation of “solemn covenants.” In fact the bureaucrats often gang up with the bosses to victimize rebel workers.

Local 574’s leadership flatly repudiated the bankrupt line of the class collaborationists. There can be no such thing as an equitable class peace, the membership was taught. The law of the jungle prevails under capitalism. If the workers don’t fight as a class to defend their interests, the bosses will gouge them. Reflecting these concepts, the preamble to the new by-laws adopted by the local stated:

“The working class whose life depends on the sale of labor and the employing class who live upon the labor of others, confront each other on the industrial field contending for the wealth created by those who toil. The drive for profit dominates the bosses’ life. Low wages, long hours, the speed-up are weapons in the hands of the employer under the wage system. Striving always for a greater share of the wealth created by his labor, the worker must depend upon his organized strength. A militant policy backed by united action must be opposed to the program of the boss.

"The trade unions in the past have failed to fulfill their historic obligation. The masses of the workers are unorganized. The craft form has long been outmoded by gigantic capitalist expansion. Industrial unions are the order of the day.

“It is the natural right of all labor to own and enjoy the wealth created by it. Organized by industry and prepared for the gruelling daily struggle is the way in which lasting gains can be won by the workers as a class.”

As these views set forth in the preamble affirm, there was no toying with reactionary ideas about stable class relations in the trucking industry. Stability was sought only for Local 574 itself, so that membership needs could better be served. Relations with the employers were shaped according to the realities of class struggle. The concepts involved are illustrated by the union’s approach to the question of working agreements with the trucking companies.

It was recognized that contracts between unions and employers serve only to codify the relationship of class forces at a given juncture. More precisely, they merely record promises wrung from employers. If a union is poorly led, the bosses will violate their promises, undermine the contract in daily practice, and put the workers on the defensive. Conversely, a properly led union will strive to enforce the contract to the letter. It will also undertake to pass beyond the formal terms of agreement to the extent this may be practical in order to establish preconditions for improved written provisions when the contract comes up for renewal. In every case, either the unions will press for greater improvement in the workers’ situation, or the employers will be able to concentrate on efforts to nullify gains the workers have made.

Another matter related to these basic considerations is the length of time working agreements are to remain in effect. Class-collaborationist union officials, who yearn for stable worker-employer relations, favor long term agreements. They want to keep the membership locked up in a given status-quo situation for the longest possible time. Militant union leaders, on the other hand, prefer relatively short term contracts, so that gains for the membership can be registered more frequently.

In Local 574’s case the general practice was to limit agreements to a period of one year. This applied both to the negotiation of renewal terms when the August 1934 strike settlement expired later on and to the signing of contracts with companies whose employees were newly organized.

On the question of making employers keep their promises, the handling of grievances becomes vital. Here again class-collaborationist policies entrap the workers. Union bureaucrats are quick to include a no-strike pledge in contract settlements and refer grievances to arbitration. The workers lose because arbitration boards are rigged against them, the “impartial” board members invariably being “neutral” on the employers’ side. Moreover, the bosses remain free to violate the working agreement at will, as grievances pile up behind the arbitration dam.

In a similar vein, conservative union officials are prone to make a general no-strike pledge when the capitalist government proclaims a “national emergency.” They do so by bureaucratic fiat, giving rank-and-file workers no voice in the decision. Such “labor statesmanship” amounts to proclaiming an overall “truce” between the workers and the bosses. Actually no truce results at all. The capitalists simply use their government to attack the trade union movement under the guise of a “national emergency”; and the workers, deprived in such a situation of their strike weapon, get it in the neck.
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