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Vol. 75/No. 19      May 16, 2011

The ranks, not competing
labor officials, are the union
(Books of the Month column)

Below is an excerpt from A Political Biography of Walter Reuther: The Record of an Opportunist, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for May. The excerpt is from the chapter “Meany vs. Reuther” by Farrell Dobbs, which first appeared in the Jan. 16, 1967, issue of the Militant. Dobbs was a longtime central leader of the Socialist Workers Party and of labor battles in the Midwest in the 1930s that organized over-the-road truckers into the Teamsters union and helped pave the way for the industrial union movement.

When the AFL and CIO merged into one labor federation in 1955, George Meany became president and Walter Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers, became vice president of the new federation. Dobbs quotes Reu-ther in the mid-1960s as saying that the union movement “represents a smaller proportion of the American labor movement than at the time of the merger” in 1955—down from a third to a little more than a quarter of the labor force over that period. Today that figure has fallen to 11.9 percent (6.9 percent for the private sector)—and is still dropping. Dobbs helps explain why the course of the class-collaborationist labor officialdom is responsible for that decline and, most important, points toward what workers can do to rebuild union power. Copyright © 1969 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

[Let’s] get to the nub of the dispute between Walter Reuther and George Meany in the top bureaucracy of the AFL-CIO. When the two labor federations merged in 1955, Meany headed the AFL and Reuther, the CIO. Meany got the top spot in the merger, while Reuther had to play second fiddle. So—Reuther wants Meany’s job.

Only Reuther and Meany themselves can be fully aware of their personal aspirations in the current dispute and, for others, such aims are of no importance. It is the larger aspects of developments within the AFL-CIO that count. Clues to really important matters in the dispute can be found by probing into various key questions, for example: the present situation and needs of the AFL-CIO membership; Meany’s policy and what Reuther has to offer in its place. Before examining these questions in particular, a few generalizations seem in order.

The overall picture indicates that a palace revolt is developing within the AFL-CIO bureaucracy… . Meany’s policies have gotten dangerously out of gear with the needs of the union membership. Among other bureaucrats, such as Reuther, a feeling is growing that something must be done about it or the whole bureaucracy will face a rank-and-file uprising. When examined from this viewpoint, Reuther’s present line—although failing to meet the workers’ needs—reflects at least a distorted image of significant new labor trends.

Working people are showing increased concern and resentment over losses in buying power because of [Vietnam] War-inflated prices. They are worried about the growing gap between earnings and take-home pay due to tax gouging, imposed mainly to finance an unpopular war. As a result they tend to brush aside [President] Johnson’s “guideposts” and press demands for “catchup” pay increases. There is also growing pressure for an escalator clause in union contracts to keep wages abreast of rising living costs.

Other key issues impelling workers toward struggle are speedup and bad working conditions, and in some industries they are rapidly being automated out of jobs. Grievances arising over these general issues continue to mount, clogging the present defective apparatus for handling them. Under the impact of these frustrations workers have shown growing militancy across the last year, and the trend is spreading throughout the class.

At the same time the capitalist government, to meet its war needs, is preparing to strike new blows at the workers instead of making concessions to them. Johnson’s use of Taft-Hartley injunctions against strikers is on the rise, and the Vietnam War is used as a pretext. Stiffer federal laws against labor are in preparation: both new curbs on the right to strike and further government intervention into union affairs along the lines of the Kennedy-Landrum-Griffin Law.

Relying on Washington to back them up, employers are stiffening their resistance to union demands… . Monopoly corporations are spending millions for antiunion propaganda, and use of strikebreakers is on the increase. Even union bureaucrats have to bestir themselves in the face of such threats, and in Reuther’s case he must keep in mind this year’s contract negotiations in auto. Another prod is the mounting tendency among workers to engage in what might be called guerrilla warfare against the capitalists, the government—and the union bureaucrats.

In a number of cases lately the rank and file rejected contract settlements recommended by union bureaucrats, telling them to go back and get more from the company. Opposition is growing to the policy of tying the workers’ hands with long-term contracts. Also new is the degree to which bureaucrats have had to tolerate, and sometimes authorize, local strikes. Demands are being pressed for a membership vote in determining contract settlements and in deciding if grievances have been adequately handled. All told, the bureaucrats are experiencing a decline in leadership authority, and some among them feel a need to do something about it. They think a little self-reform can do the trick, but the situation is too far gone for that.

Under bureaucratic rule the unions have become wedded to the status quo on the basis of rotten compromises with the capitalist class. Internally the unions have been damaged by witchhunting carried out in the service of the capitalist government. Attempts to organize new layers of workers, few though they have been, have resulted in far more failures than successes. As Reuther admits, “Today, the AFL-CIO represents a smaller proportion of the American labor force than at the time of the merger in December 1955.”

There has been drastic loss of workers’ control on the job, which was once powerfully maintained by the militant unions of the 1930s. Organized labor now wields far less economic power than it did in the 1945-46 strike wave. On the great social issues of the day, the union movement appears more or less as a lackey of capitalism, instead of meeting its historic role as a crusader for social betterment.
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