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Toward a Workers' Democracy

When Workers Take Control

by MARK VORPAHL

Many of today’s social expectations and political outlooks of the Labor Movement, and workers in general, were formed in the post World War II economic expansion. While the economy was expanding and there were steady jobs to be had, it appeared to be enough for many people to focus on improving their immediate community or individual union and expect that, if things did not get better, at least they wouldn’t get drastically worse.

Those days are long gone. Since the World War II expansion, the nation’s wealth and power have grown dangerously concentrated in a few hands. This has been accompanied by 30 years of a declining standard of living for workers and a devastating drop in union membership. The total control big business has gathered over the political system has assured that their priorities rule the day at the cost to society as a whole. This accumulative process has resulted in a new historical phase of accelerating attacks against previous gains, such as Medicare and Social Security, and requires from workers a different outlook than that developed after World War II.

Unfortunately, the old habits persist to varying degrees with especially damaging results in the slow-to-change world of the unions.

Given the challenges of the period we have entered, workers’ consciousness and their organizations’ policies must transform if workers are to reverse these crippling effects on their standard of living. The alternative is to fail to fight back against corporate dominance and face ruin. To understand what is happening and to go on the offensive, workers need to learn to think socially and act politically, not simply as isolated individuals, but as a collective power.

The Unions’ Role

A few have theorized that unions are an inadequate, outdated form of organization unable to encourage this development. They have become too tangled with the big business state’s machinery of control and too constricted by labor law enacted to protect the interests of the 1%. In addition, some reason that the general political assault against workers’ living standards and rights can not be fought against one industry at a time, as unions are set up to do, but require a broader political alliance to conduct the struggle.

Many of these points have merit. However, the undeniable truth is that the unions remain this nation’s only form of working-class organization with social weight behind them. In the current period there is little chance of a breakthrough for workers in challenging corporate rule without them, no advance in constructing better fighting organizations without Labor built into the foundation. Any social movement that isolates itself from the unions rather than patiently working with and within them is doomed to whither on the vine.

Class Independence

If workers are going to learn to think socially and act politically, this will require, most importantly, a struggle to transform the policies of Labor. What must be the guiding light of this transformation? Class independence up and down the line.

This means recognizing that there is no common cause between workers and the big business elite. Their enrichment has come at the cost of our communities’ and families’ ability to live securely, and they are pursuing this class war with increasing audacity. If we are to meet this challenge, it is necessary that workers learn to think socially by taking action that unites our interests against those that exploit us.

And if workers are to act politically on the basis of class independence, that requires that they do not allow their fate to be determined by politicians who take their votes and money while fattening their campaign funds with even more corporate contributions. If we are to unite against those that exploit us, that means we must stand opposed to those politicians who partner with big business, regardless of their campaign promises.

In a May 20 speech, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka sounded as if he were advocating class independence for the unions. “We have listened hard, and what workers want is an independent labor movement that builds the power of working people in the workplace and in political life.” Yet in the same speech he talked about “retaking state houses” in Wisconsin. (1) What else could that mean other than re-electing Democrats to office?

He went on to declare: “Our role is not to build the power of a political party or a candidate… If leaders aren’t blocking the wrecking ball and advancing families’ interests, working people will not support them.”

Unfortunately, this declaration comes in the same period that the AFL-CIO endorsed Obama’s campaign for president. But Obama has not only stood aside while the wrecking ball has decimated the standard of living of working people, he has taken a turn at swinging the ball himself by declaring that he is open to cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, that single-payer health care is off the table, he extended the Bush tax cuts for the rich, he has promoted charter schools, he has created the biggest Defense budget in U.S. history, and so on.

Both the Democratic and Republican Parties’ financial survival depends on Wall Street. Any talk of creating an independent workers’ movement while supporting these corporate parties is double speak. Any posturing to hold these politicians accountable is wishful thinking because their careers depend on delivering the goods to big business, as opposed to addressing workers’ needs.

Old Habits Die Hard

The truth is that today class independence is not the policy of most of the union leadership. They are still living in days gone by where the corporations and their politicians were willing to buy class peace by making deals with the unions to benefit their membership. Though today the corporations are firmly focused on increasing their profits by attacking these benefits and wages, Labor’s top officials promote strategies that fall far short of drawing a class line. For example, the union officials advocate making concessions without putting up a fight and agree with Democrats that “shared sacrifice” is required by labor.

As the corporations have firmed up their political control and financial resources, the failure of Labor to use the tactics that once made it strong, such as strikes that stop production and workplace occupations, has resulted in a sharp decline in unionization. “Why resort to these tactics when we have been able to get good contracts in the past without them?” appears to be the Labor officials reasoning, despite all evidence to the contrary.

The folly of this thinking can be observed on a number of different levels. Again, all too often Labor officials announce in advance that they are willing to make concessions in order to appear reasonable to the bosses. For instance, in the struggle against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s plan to gut the public unions, both the presidents of the Wisconsin Education Association and AFSCME Council 24 announced that they were willing to be good team players with Walker at their membership’s expense. Both stated that they were willing to accept his financial attacks on their unions if he backed off his proposed gutting of their collective bargaining rights. Being an effective class-conscious predator, Walker took this announcement as a confession of weakness and continued on. (2)

Rarely do unions adequately prepare for strike action while entering into contract talks. When the going gets tough, they instead roll out the corporate campaign. The purpose of this tactic is to create wide solidarity with other community organizations in order to pressure the employer to take a more reasonable approach to the union’s demands. It is a necessary tool to win; however, it is most frequently used as a substitute for organizing a strike that can shut off the employer’s stream of profits. Without the necessary preparation for this, the results of a corporate campaign in terms of moving the employer will be modest at best. As long as the profits continue to roll in, the company will have little reason to respond to workers’ demands.

Yet preparing for a strike well in advance of a contract expiration date makes many Labor officials uncomfortable because it undercuts their ability to appear as reasonable arbitrators between the interests of the workers and the employer.

The Democrats

Connected to this mistaken outlook that it is still possible to collaborate with the big business heads to advance union members’ interests is the Labor officials support for the Democratic Party. There is no greater hindrance to transforming the unions into independent organizations for militant workers’ action. Vast resources are squandered on electing this corporate party’s politicians with little to show for it.

Even more damaging is how this policy subordinates the needs of workers and Labor to the priorities of big business. The union tops often speak of the need to get a seat at the table by supporting the Democrats. What they don’t address is that the price of admission is the sacrifice of our class independence, the gagging of our voice, and the lowering of our standard of living.

For many rank-and-file union members and unorganized workers, the Labor tops habitual support for Democratic Party politicians make them appear to be an appendage of this party, thereby discrediting them. This creates an obstacle for Labor to fight on behalf of all workers’ issues and the unions’ survival.

It is becoming clearer that the unions cannot repel the corporate assault on workers’ standard of living on their own. They must dedicate resources towards building a broad social movement based on working class issues. They must rely on themselves and massively confront Wall Street, the banks and corporations, as well as both political parties. If they try to rely on Obama to solve their problems and refuse to mobilize independently of the politicians for solutions to their problems, such as taxing the rich to fund a massive federal jobs program, because these demands upset both parties’ corporate sponsors, then the unions will justifiably be viewed as insincere and not be able to gather the necessary support.

Workers’ Democracy

Arising out of the need to transform the policies of Labor towards broader outreach and class independence, the need for greater workers’ democracy within the unions is paramount. The membership needs to have the final say after all opinions on the most important issues have been discussed. If the membership does not understand how these issues affect them, do not feel that their viewpoints have been expressed, or do not have the opportunity to challenge the leadership, they will simply stay at home rather than come to a meeting. This isolates the leadership from rank-and-file control and promotes the development of an elite mentality that separates the leadership from the membership’s needs.

If Labor’s policies are going to change to rise to today’s challenges, it cannot be done without some stress and storm within the leadership bodies of Labor and their cozy relations with the corporate dominated Democratic Party. Rank-and-file members need to organize themselves within their unions to demand democratic control of their leadership in order to adequately defend themselves and to make gains.

In order for workers to have a national independent political voice they must build a broad united effort around demands that can galvanize the majority such as “Jobs not cuts,” “Medicare for all,” “Tax the rich,” and “Fully funded education and social services.” To make sure that voice is heard the support for these demands must be demonstrated with the largest mobilizations possible as well as other organizing tactics. Once unity is achieved in this way, it will be possible to take these efforts to a higher level and create a Labor Party to facilitate this grassroots organizing and combat the twin corporate parties to achieve a better world for everyone.

Mark Vorpahl is an union steward, social justice activist, and writer for Workers’ Action – www.workerscompass.org. He can be reached at Portland@workerscompass.org

Notes.

1. http://www.aflcio.org/Blog/Political-Action-Legislation/Trumka-Working-People-Want-a-Strong-Independent-Labor-Movement

2. “Opposing sides meet as Capitol protests enter sixth day” in the “Wisconsin State Journal at http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/local/govt-and-politics/article_a05349be-3be1-11e0-b0a1-001cc4c002e0.html

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