A Discussion in the Radical Caucus on Unions, War, Fascism, and Social Change


The Below is From Rich Gibson
Why do the union bureaucrats, and the "Unions" in general refuse to connect the war and cutbacks, or refuse to build a rank and file base of class conscious members who can evaluate their own circumstances, recognize their potential power, and make that power real and sustainable by taking direct action at work and in communities?

Because the leadership of every major union in the USA (both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win as well as the largest union in the US, the National Education Association, an independent) believes in the unity of government, business, and union bosses "In the national interest."

The former president of NEA who liked to pretend he discovered this concept called it "new unionism," though there is nothing at all new about it. It is company unionism, the unionism of every AFL-CIO affiliate since the 30's, and a key pillar of Mussolini's Corporate State.

Lenin was right in noting, in Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism, that there is a direct line from the fruits of monopoly capitalism and imperialist war to the bribery that allows creation of a labor bureaucracy, aristocracy, which in turn betrays the interests of most workers in the world, and, as we have seen, eventually betrays many workers who think they shared the bribe themselves. Lenin was wrong in thinking that peasant nationalism, or any nationalism, would somehow transcend capitalism.

Why do union bosses believe in "new" unionism? Well, in part, because the bosses of the unions are very well paid by US imperialism and are deeply involved in it. For example, the president of NEA, Reg Weaver, makes $450,000 a year and can live on his expense account. He will probably demand a raise since the soon-to-be-boss of the American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten, will make $600,000. The union bosses do not sharply attack the war, particularly not as an imperialist war and a logical and necessary result of the processes of capital, because they are on the other, wrong,  side of what is a class war, an international war of the rich on the poor, especially intense now, playing out in inter-imperialist wars.

Both NEA and AFT are active backers of US imperialism through groups like the National Endowment for Democracy and the American Institute for Free Labor Development, the AFT much the more so. NEA and AFT leaders know full well what they are doing.

The AFT is wholly undemocratic and, without violence, impossible to change---true of every union I know of other than NEA and it may also be true of NEA. The union bosses have shown repeatedly that they will spill blood to protect the employers, and their own, interests, as in the Detroit Newspaper strike, the Chrysler Mack Avenue sit down, and recently, the 800 person goon squad attack initiated by SEIUs Andy Stern on the Labor Notes conference in April this year.

So, union leaders reject out of hand the reason most people believe unions exist, and the reason most people join unions: the contradictory interests of workers and bosses. No one should automatically trust any union paid staff, and everyone should probably distrust leaders of most union large locals until they prove whose side they are one.

There is, in my eyes, no hope for the US "Labor Movement" whatsoever. The interests of the US working class and the "Labor Movement" (the AFL-CIO, CTW, NEA) are at odds. There is hope, always, for the working class, but not for the "Labor Movement."

Most people (88% plus)are not in unions. While those who must join unions in order to work should surely work within them for equality and justice, I see no reason to organize unorganized workers into unions where they gain little or nothing and most surely learn nothing positive about class struggle and the need to transcend capitalism. People need to have about two toes inside unions, and ten out.

Even if union reformers succeeded in creating more democratic and egalitarian unionism, which the last sixty years suggests is unlikely, the unions would still be structurally unable to meet the challenges of capitalism itself. The unions do not unite people; they DIVIDE people ( by craft, skill, industry, race, sex, nation, public vs private, etc.). Unions lead people to the narrowest forms of opportunism ("don't lay ME off, lay off the support workers who are in another union," etc)

There are, nearly, no progressive lessons to be learned from the Labor Movement, except when the rank and file fights the union -- with the goal of overturning it entirely. The IWW notion above, that "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common," applies to workers and their union leaders as well.

For the next six months, the union bosses will pour millions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours, into the spectacle of an election in which, from the executive committee of the rich (government), working people will be asked to choose who will oppress us best and carry out the very real promise of perpetual war most effectively. Most union leaders know this is a shell game, a vast diversion. In the words of one NEA executive who I worked with for years, "if voting mattered, they wouldn't let us do it." But it will keep people busy for awhile, and then the next four years can be spent by union bosses either blaming a Republican for the state of things, or trying to get a Democrat to "keep the promise." Unless active organizing is conducted for real power, the only promises that will be kept are more war and more inequality, more cutbacks.

The last thing that union bosses want is a mass of class conscious active rank and file members who can determine, on their own, strategies and tactics in communities, recognizing choke points of power, and who are willing to sacrifice, including breaking contract laws for example, in order to make schools and other work places ungovernable--matching those actions with freedom schooling where possible. Capitalist democracy, not democracy but its perversion, isolates people in voting booths, where necessary change can never be won or sustained. Power won at work and in communities through direct action, strikes, wildcats, walkouts, etc, creates sustainable power and invaluable lessons that last lifetimes.

There are alternatives which we have seen in practice. There is massive resistance in high schools (many shut down here in the south side of San Diego on Mayday due to the combined actions of school workers and students). Detroit teachers have wildcatted twice in massive strikes in the last decade and in a few instances strikers were able to conduct freedom schools teaching kids things that actually matter, unlike most schooling.

In addition, the passivity of the nineties is slowly transforming. People are now positioned to fight back because they must fight back in order to live (California Grocery Workers and the massive immigrant rights demonstrations of 2006 for example) . Still, the diversions are almost endless.

Yesterday,  May 3, the mostly academic leaders of the defunct Scholars Artists and Writers for Social Justice (the usual suspects like Aronowitz et al) took out a 1/2 page ad in the New York Times asking Andy Stern of the Service Employees International Union (mobbed up for decades) to be more democratic. Making a fetish of democracy will never transform the completely undemocratic, corrupt, sold out unions,  nor will an ad in the NYTimes, which Stern's minimum wage members will probably never see. This flatly silly kind of action demonstrates just how little these failed academics know about our present circumstances or organizing anything, as would the complete collapse of SAWSJ demonstrate.

At issue in our era is whether people will fight back in separate isolated groups, allowing us to be picked off one at a time in order of who makes the next best target (as has happened with the mental health system, the welfare system etc) or whether we will be able to forge a response as a class.

In the US, in my eyes, it makes sense to target the key choke points of schools, the military, the health system, and transportation as this is where people are best positioned to fight, though I have no crystal ball, make no predictions about where the next battle will come.

Still, the reality of the emergence of popular fascism has to be recognized as quite possible. Hyper nationalism, racism, sexism, mysticism, the search for a charismatic leader, and violence are written all over US society and the unions that mirror it, especially promoted in a hot house atmosphere of the election. Should things emerge fast, the union halls will be good places for people to go pick up their Brownshirts.

Those who want to read more on how the unions disintegrated might look here

Those who want to follow up on NED or AIFLD might check my own work, Paul Buhle, or Kim Scipes.

And there is more here under "Labor and Unions" http://www.richgibson.com/gibson.htm

The Rouge Forum has operated for a decade inside, and outside, of NEA and AFT http://www.richgibson.com/rouge_forum

On the Schools to War Pipeline from Counterpunch : http://www.richgibson.com/schoolresistance.htm
best r

A Response from Tony

From Anthony Obrien

At 04:49 PM 5/5/2008, you wrote:
There's a lot to say here!  I think Rich's post was very one-sided, 
though I grant and would perhaps go even further with his critique of 
unions as the only or main platform for radical transformation. All I 
want to say is that unions can be schools of radical transformation 
(Lenin said "revolution," but let's leave the concept more open). 
They are necessary defensive weapons--ask anyone who does not have 
one--and if they go into real battle everyone learns a lot about what 
other, more powerful, weapons are needed. If you do health and safety 
or grievances you quickly learn the need for a fighting union!  If 
you mount a successful strike you learn the power of unionized 
workers, even though the strike doesn't get half of what you really 
want, and reforms can all be taken away. That itself teaches one a 
lot. A good union teaches beyond itself, beyond its own limits, if 
there is Left leadership (I mean leadership up and down the union, 
not just top elected or staff positions, though left-wingers can hold 
some of those, even now, at least for a time).

Having spent 12 years organizing in an academic union I can say I've 
certainly learned the limits of unions, limits fully inscribed in 
labor law and state power, as well as in ideology and consciousness.  
But I've also learned that we in the PSC at CUNY are far from testing 
those limits--e.g., mounting an illegal strike--and that we can do a 
lot within those limits that no ad hoc academic group or discipline-
based academic group can do. We actually held May Day events on 11 of 
our 20 campuses as union events--not academic teach-ins--in 
solidarity with the ILWU and Iraqi GPWU.  We gave out more than 
10,000 union flyers to students and our colleagues explaining May 
Day, the dockworkers' strikes, and the war budget's links to bad 
contracts, recession, budget cuts, and tuition hikes. We signed 
people up to our antiwar committee  and got tens of thousands of 
signatures on our "CUNY Rising" postcards against the budget cuts. In 
other words, the union can be a platform for a lot of organizjng that 
links students to their own teachers/staff and other workers.  We can 
teach union and we can unionize teaching.

I'm saying there's a hell of a lot of terrain we could be covering 
way before butting into the limits of unionism, real though they are. 
André Gorz came up ages ago with the tantalizing notion of "non-
reformist reform," and perhaps one can work one's heart out as a left-
winger in a union in a spirit something like that, acknowledging 
limits but working within them in order to transgress them in some 
other form of practice which theory and history suggest. Also, unions 
in  our specific industry (how many MLAers do you know who think of 
higher ed as an industry?) are practicing politics in alliance with 
students, an alliance not on a par with dockworkers or rebels in the 
military, but powerful nonetheless, as the anniversary of May '68 
should remind us. All this also involves intense internal political 
struggle in the union, because all of the good positions we take have 
to be fought for, over and over again, against the prevailing 
academic winds. That's an exciting battle too.

This just scratches the surface, but as someone immersed with a few 
hundred others in the practice of radical academic unionism I wanted 
to suggest that Rich's stance is a bit remote from practice, salient 
though his political points remain. On the ground there is a lot 
more  to be done than criticism of syndicalism and pro-capitalist 
union misleaders. Maybe more RCers might want to think about union 
action as a lived politics integrated with the critique of ideology 
and pro-worker, antiracist pedagogy.  If any AFT members want to come 
to Chicago for the AFT convention, July 11-14, we can promise you a 
lively four days of hot and strong political struggle and very little 
sleep. You don't have to be a delegate to jump into battle with the 
AFT leadership, and to try to win over three thousand rank-and-file 
delegates to good politics. It's a bit like the MLA, but you'll be 
amazed how much more political it is, now after three conventions 
where we, UTLA, and other allies have dared to struggle, gaining 
ground every time. It's exciting stuff.

Attached is one of the PSC may Day flyers. At two of the rallies we 
read out the message from the Iraqi port workers. Syndicalism isn't 
everything we need, but boy, can you do a lot with it in these dark 
days! That may be why a few of the students who organized with us 
over the years are now training or working in unions--they are no 
slavish believers in syndicalism, I can tell you!


Rich Gibson's Reply to Tony:

Anthony's criticism deepens the conversation.

It may be that the absence of context in my initial post sets up differences that may, or may not exist, or may go unnoticed. And the addition of context allows us to expand the discussion beyond the empire's unionism, a horse dead enough that I don't choose to beat it much more here but point readers back to my original post below.

I will add that faculty unions of all kinds are simply jokes among top staff in NEA and AFT. And, faculty of all kinds, following the logic of US unionism as it is today, will trample students for a two percent raise, will urge regressive taxes for a one percent raise, and will give up whatever there is of academic freedom in order to align their curricula with k12 NCLB standards in order to win student FTE's---and faculty are doing that all over the US right now. Beneath unionism for faculty is careerism, opportunism of all sorts. Faculty unions are hardly schools for revolution or "radical transformation." Nor are they of much use as a defense weapon. As much as anything else, unionized faculty add another enemy to the hierarchy they already face.

Some people may be better off because they have a union, and many are not. What is "better off"? That could refer to income (unions like SEIU, UNITE, the Laborers, and others---most of them mobbed up---organize people, deduct dues, bargain the minimum wage, and call that victory--phooey--but data indicates that unionized people make more money by a tad). That could refer to job security. If that is the argument, I'd say it is false. Look at the job security of industrial union members. Nearly none. What would have happened if those workers were not represented by the completely sold out UAW, Steelworkers, etc? Who knows? Could they have done worse?

Or, individual job security: unions rarely, very rarely, file individual grievances to save jobs. Arbitration is costly and it disrupts the cozy relationships that union hacks and employers have. More, unions lose two-thirds of the arbitration cases they file, in part because union hacks are incompetent, and in part because arbitrators are biased. I would happily fire my union,not pay dues, and rely on my own expertise, or a labor lawyer, to defend my rights under a "just cause," clause that I could negotiate on my own---and many, many people in both the public and private sector have those clauses whether their employer knows it or not.

I said before that I think people who are forced to join unions should work in them, in order to meet others, and to smash those unions. Organizing the unorganized simply feeds the beast and is a mistake in our context.

Those who blindly support unionism, or union "reform," as well represented by the dishonest ad in the New York Times from Aronowitz et al, calling for "democracy" in SEIU, days after SEIU"S Andy Stern had organized a goon squad of 800 thugs to attack the Labor Notes conference, are misleading those who for whatever reason still respect some of their work.

The benchmark question to me is: is the union forging a base of class conscious people able to analyze their circumstances, recognize their key points of power, prepared to take mass action in solidarity, making considerable sacrifice, aiming at equality and justice? In the case of every major union in the US, the answer to that is "No." Unionism buttresses the thousands of forms of selfishness that keeps the system of capital alive.

While I surely think people should have pay, benefits, job security, good working conditions, today in our current context, those are not won by unions. Indeed, unionized people do not have those things because the union leaders and the structures of the unions serve employers. That is why employers like Henry Ford organize plants for the UAW, and SEIU is welcomed by health bosses in California.

Unions in the US are not the unions of Lenin's time and they are not even the unions of the US in the thirties--which served as the foundation of the rot today. US unions are mainly schools for reaction. That is not one sided. It is the main thing unions do. Our era is distinct, as each era is.

So what is our context?

I see our current context as being best described as the emergence of fascism. Here is a short piece I wrote some time ago, that I would revise some if I wrote it now, but it is generally what I think fascism is http://richgibson.com/fascism.html Greg Myerson has written eloquently about the emergence of fascism and, perhaps, he will post some of his work to the list.

That context lends a sense of urgency that others may not feel. If we have an unlimited amount of time (and in the most abstract sense, we may---or not), then I would probably propose a slightly different analysis---but not much.

If, however, fascism is emerging as a popular and world wide movement, quickly, then things look a bit different.

Secondly, I think the idea that is not in Anthony's post, but it pretty common, that most people in the US are opposed to the wars, that progress is being made against neo-cons, that the recent Mayday demonstrations on the docks are indicative of something growing, that the immigration rights movement is another harbinger of steps forward, etc---all that is not nonsense, but I disagree.

Most people in the US are writhing in racism, nationalism, sexism, and mysticism. Most US people are, like the war criminal troops who they so gleefully support, opposed to losing these wars and if the US ruling classes nuke Tehran, they will be out in the streets howling and waiving their flags, as they did in 2001. Why, after Vietnam, was that possible? Mainly because the people were betrayed by the left. Unionism, which is in every instance imperialist unionism, did not help. I demonstrated in my earlier post the relationship of US unions as institutions, and the people who run them, working in tandem with the violence that is the US empire.

The "left" is doing nearly nothing about that even now, and the result of all the bogus union movements, the CP dominated UFPJ, the Answer Coalition, and the rest, is a "movement" that has neither numbers nor the ability to analyze current conditions and make good decisions about what to do. That is not a bizarre combination, but a logical outgrowth of the combined opportunism and sectarianism that drive all those groupings.

Opportunists arrive, maybe, with lots of people who know nothing important; sectarians come with no people. They're two sides of the same coin and have a similar result: a nearly complete absence of a mass, active, class conscious movement willing to make serious sacrifices, losing jobs to jail to spilling blood, in order to demolish the system of capital, retain what of it that might serve us, and create a world where people can leave in reasonable freedom, be creative, share, in caring communities.

Remarkably, the "left" managed to have about 10% as many people in the streets for the March actions this year as there were when the wars began, and the immigrant rights movement matched that. Smaller numbers would be less tragic if the remainder knew something significant, but the "left" abolished the notion of class struggle (which US unions oppose) which means whatever movements there are, are both tiny and hollow, stupid.

Indeed, the social movements, like the preposterous World Social Forum mimic the unions in dividing people into racial, national, and other groupings and pretend that, later, those people can march together, truly challenging a well armed vicious enemy with a central command, and an integrated military.

That bogus "movement" makes a fetish of democracy, as if pluralism is democracy, while the unions make a mockery of democracy (see the UAW caucus system, or closer to home, the similar system in AFT, or the fact that candidates to top NEA officers commonly spend $200,000 dollars campaigning). In this example, as with an endless stream of others, unionism buttresses the thousand forms of selfishness that keeps the system of capital alive.

This is class war, an international war of the rich on the poor that is more and more intense every day. The unions' denial of that reality is, from the outset, enough to reject them, but their leaders' clear decision to join and profit from joining the other side redoubles that reality. Their structures which divide people more than unite them amplifies it. As does the fact that some of the biggest unions, the Teamsters, the Laborers, Unite Here, are little more than criminal enterprises and extortion rackets.

If we are to look at education, the American Federation of Teachers oversaw the nearly complete destruction of the k12 systems in the most urbanized, segregated, areas in the US, and did nearly nothing but demand salaries and protection for teachers. The more suburban NEA, failing to hear the old saw, "an injury to one is an injury to all," stood by and let that happen, in part because NEA is not too interested in adopting the problems of many inner cities. But NEA and AFT are really the only organized groupings that one would expect to fight back because they appear to have an interest in that, and they did not. They did the same thing with the wreckage of the California State University system, only deepening the inequality that "public" education fosters.

The trip from here, emerging fascism, to there, communism of some sort, is going to be horrific, whether we set out with deliberation or just stumble along. Capital is a worldwide nightmare now, and it is only going to get worse. If those of us who are willing to fight back should somehow prevail, the world will not be better, materially, perhaps for generations. To dreamily promise people a better material life in the near future through social change is simply to mislead people. It will not happen. In the battle to overcome capital, the ruling classes will poison their own wells, blow up there own factories, unleash whatever they can to stay in power, and they will not quit even when they are vanquished. Their habits will live on. Fighting mainly for personal gain, and not to be rid of this system---a hallmark of unionism--only deepens the pit we now fall into. What gets people to make the sacrifices necessary for a better world?

No one can answer that in an email post, but in part the answer is what has driven social movements for hundreds of years: an ethic of equality. And a willingness to sacrifice--fight.

For faculty, sacrifice would range from getting fired for organizing sit ins or disrupting John Yoo's classes to not writing that good book on Plato to be risking a job by saying something true at a professional conference, etc. So you lose your job? So what? What would you say to a  professor in Germany in 1932? Organize a faculty union that sees unity with fascist German bosses as paramount? Many people will have seven or more "careers," many will be fired, many will be in jail, and blood will be shed. If that is not to be considered, then people should write that fine book and watch fascism emerge while they bicker with a publisher.

As I said earlier, if you have to be in a union you may as well work in it, and pump the revo--make class war. But you should realize that prof unions are just sandboxes full of poison sand and the goal is to smash that sandbox and the ground it sits on, not build it. It is key to build outside groups that unite students, profs, community people, etc voting and making decisions inside their meeting, etc. It is key that those people learn how to do strategy and tactics: something they will not learn in US unions (which, Anthony, do not strike and when the do, they lose, because their leaders want to lose--a la the California Grocery Strike, the Detroit Newspaper strike, etc).

The Rouge Forum ( www.rougeforum.org) does that. We helped lead the wildcat teacher strikes in Detroit, led the school shutdowns in San Diego on Mayday, the walkouts against standardized racist tests, organized conferences of workers, students, teachers, and profs, together. We have not pretended that one can teach one's way out of capitalism, as with most school reformers. We are far too small, far too poorly organized, but we have done this for ten years and no one else has in the US.

We rightly see this as class war. Unions do not. How many students will be voting in the summer Chicago AFT meeting? Not many, if any. Why? Because they do not pay dues, capital's bottom line. And capital's unions' bottom line too. There will probably be as many students voting as there are AFT leaders now in jail for embezzling members' funds (DC, Florida, etc) , for child molestation (Florida), etc.

Yesterday was VE Day. It was largely ignored in the press. It was, in 1945, a day of massive celebration representing the terrible sacrifices that millions of people made in order to smash fascism, to kill fascists.

Sadly, fascists were treated gingerly in Germany, East Europe, France, Japan, and elsewhere, largely restored to power. Very few living Germans or Japanese, by 1945, had not been active fascists. Stalin's and Bolshevik decisions made before,during, and after WWII made the USSR an empire of social fascism.

What of that? Well, we have evidence that fascism cannot solve the problems it claims to solve, and that people will fight to the death to defeat it. We should recognize that the system of capital and fascism are married to one another. We should also know that in victory, masses of people have not been too ruthless, but far too kind.

Our task is to connect reason to power and to make that fight again, in hopes that it does not need to be made yet again.

We have, now, an off chance on winning.

All the best