In this election season, confusion and subterfuge are the order of the day. Candidates and parties vie for our attention, each claiming to be uniquely qualified to represent the interests of the majority. We know they’re lying but, as when observing any skilled illusionist, it can be difficult to spot the sleight of hand.
One trick they rely on is getting us to focus on individual personalities rather than the social forces they represent. If a candidate is intelligent, articulate, personable and skilled at using populist rhetoric, we are meant to be dazzled and distracted. We are taught to ignore the organization and class forces that stand behind a candidate. Once you agree to view things in this way, it becomes impossible to keep your eye on the ball. Once we accept that the individual is what counts most, our manipulation is a foregone conclusion.
Many sense that our electoral system is broken; that the Democratic and Republican parties are corrupt and dishonest. But just how the two major parties keep a lock on the system is not well understood. Money is a big part of it, as both parties are wholly owned subsidiaries of Wall Street and the super rich. But a key ingredient in our political enslavement is the narrative we’ve been sold as to what the Democratic Party is and what it fundamentally represents. (The same can be said for the Republican Party, but it’s convenient to focus on the Democrats because, lately, they fool more of the people more of the time.)
A key chapter from American labor history helps to unmask the Democratic Party and place it in its proper perspective.
Monumental labor battles in the 1930s—led by autoworkers, steelworkers, miners, truck drivers, longshore workers and others—resulted in the building of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The birth of industrial unionism was a watershed in U.S. history that led to significant gains for working people. The right to organize, , the right to strike, the eight-hour day, the minimum wage, social security, unemployment insurance, Medicare and all of the gains associated with Roosevelt’s New Deal were a direct result of this militant labor upsurge.
When working people organize and fight for their rights, that’s good for labor, but it’s a major threat to corporate profits. Since one of the most effective tools for advancing workers’ rights is a strong, independent labor union, corporations have always done everything they could to impede and derail union organization. One of their most insidious schemes was the “company union”.
Also called “yellow unions” and “employee representation plans”, the idea behind the company union was simple. The bosses would create an organization that looked like a union but was totally controlled by the company. A few small concessions might be offered—a token wage increase or a discount at the company store—as an incentive to join the fake union. These minor inducements were referred to by more conscious workers as “sucker bait”. The goal was to trick workers into thinking that they already had a union and so be less favorably disposed when genuine, independent union organizers came calling. Far better, the bosses reasoned, to offer their employees a nickel if it would undercut the workers’ ability to organize and be in a position to demand ten times more. Known union militants were blacklisted from both the companies and from the company unions.
One of the earliest company unions was set up by John D Rockefeller, Jr. in 1915 at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. The move followed the infamous Ludlow Massacre, where striking miners and their families were attacked by the National Guard and private thugs at the company’s behest. Nineteen were killed, including four women and eleven children.
As public outrage flared and federal intervention was threatened, Rockefeller launched a company union, calling it his Employee Representation Plan. The battered mine workers reluctantly accepted the plan. From there, the scheme spread to the Pueblo Steelworks and then to a number of industries throughout the U.S. and Canada. By 1928, some 1.6 million workers were corralled into company unions. Meanwhile, recruitment to real unions stalled.
The company union movement reached its zenith in 1934, covering close to three million workers—more than the total represented by real labor unions. Then things changed dramatically. Historic labor battles in Minneapolis, San Francisco and Toledo took on the corporate colossus and won! The militancy spread and the industrial union movement grew. The dramatic unfolding of these heroic battles should be studied by every schoolchild. By 1935, the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act was passed. Among other things, the Act outlawed company unions, saying employers could no longer “dominate or interfere with the formation or administration of any labor organization or contribute financial or other support to it”.
Think about that. The momentum and power of the 1930s labor movement was such that they managed not only to win battles and build independent unions in the face of everything the corporations threw at them, they also succeeded in forcing a recalcitrant government to outlaw company unions altogether. The power of the labor movement forced the government to recognize these duplicitous entities for what they were.
What about today? Company unions are still illegal, but their cousin, the company party, lives on.
Unions, it is said, are economic organizations, while political parties are, well, political. This false dichotomy has been used by labor misleaders to argue that working people ought not look to their own organizations to fight for political power, but should instead rely on “friendly” parties that specialize in politics. This leaves working people without a horse in the race, completely reliant on one or another party that’s owned and controlled by big business, Wall Street and the one percent.
But, controlled as we know them to be by the ruling rich, the Democratic and Republican parties are the very equivalent of company unions in the political sphere. They employ the same techniques and serve the same purpose. Their goal, above all, is to prevent the emergence of a real, independent party, based in and beholden to the working class; a party that would carry the power of organized labor into the political sphere; a party that would augment the fight for economic issues—for jobs, wages, working conditions—by adding its weight to the most pressing political issues facing working people—war, racism, inequality, injustice, economic exploitation and environmental destruction.
Just like company unions, the Democrats and Republicans (the company parties) offer the illusion of inclusiveness. Where necessary, they will offer crumbs and promise concessions (sucker bait), all with the aim of keeping us in the fold and preventing the emergence of an alternative structure that would have the power to fight for and win the economic and political changes we need and deserve.
If the point of the company parties is to keep the majority politically impotent—to prevent working people from building their own political organization—then supporting those parties in any way, shape or form is like playing for the other team. In the parlance of the labor movement, it’s like crossing a picket line.
Which Side Are You On?
This is the crime of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Dennis Kucinich, Paul Wellstone and all other liberal Democratic Party pretenders. They are like strikebreakers in the political sphere. Their personal strengths and weaknesses don’t matter. What matters is that they are carrying the ball for the other side, helping to score points for the opposition.
If we say that supporting a company party is to cross a principled line, we are not appealing to abstract symbolism or moral purity. There are very real consequences for the American people, just as there are tangible consequences when scabs cross a picket line or a person chooses a particular side in a pitched battle. Politics, like so many things under capitalism, is a zero-sum game. Working people can only gain their political independence at the expense of the company parties. The Democrats and Republicans, like the company unions they mimic, exist primarily to confuse, deceive and, above all, to stave off the advent of independent working-class political action as long as possible.
There was never any thought of transforming company unions into something more genuine and democratic. Everyone recognized that by their very nature, such a reformation was impossible. Genuine unions had to be built separately. So it is with today’s company parties. They can no more be transformed then could their older cousins. They must be replaced.
Were organized labor to take the hundreds of millions of dollars it gave and the multitude of foot soldiers it provided to the company parties in the last election cycle, and use those resources instead to field its own candidates for local and national office, it would be the beginning of the end for the Democrats and Republicans.