The Humiliating Defeat of GM Workers Offers Many Lessons about Today’s Trade Unions and Tomorrow’s Labor Struggles
As we go to press, it has been announced that a tentative agreement has been reached between the United Auto Workers and Fiat Chrysler, effectively ending 2019 contract negotiations. Moreover, it has been reported that Gary Jones has resigned his position as UAW president, in an effort to avoid being removed and stripped of his pension. Look in future issues of Workers’ Path to Power for analysis on these and other important developments.
The Problem with Reforming Unions
WHEN A STRIKE ends, especially in defeat, talk inevitably turns to the future and what needs to be done. Discussion focuses on how to ensure that the failures, the betrayals and the defeats become a thing of the past. The starting (and, often, ending) point of these talks is union reform.
For almost as long as there have been unions, there have been calls for union reform. In this respect, union reform was a part of unionism itself, not a challenge to it. The reformers were there as a kind of steam valve that could be utilized to release the pressure and stresses that workers felt as a result of the unions submitting to the demands of capital.
Union reform movements continue to play this role today. They allow workers to vent the feelings of anger, frustration and betrayal they develop during the course of a defeated strike in a manner that, in the final analysis, does not challenge the unions themselves or even the bureaucratic officials running them. Indeed, these reform movements don’t even cause the bureaucratic officials enough consternation to interrupt their nightly rest.
(Some “official” reform movements, such as Teamsters for a Democratic Union, even provide a safety net for bureaucrats, giving them a path to redemption … and power).
Of course, there are reforms and there are reforms. Some might even package up their reforms as a kind of “revolution” in the union, or see the best road to reform through the switching out of one union with another. Whatever the form chosen, the content of the union and of unionism remains unchanged.
Nevertheless, we proletarian communists mustn’t be cynical when workers themselves call out for reform, even if we understand quite well that they do not resolve the fundamental problems of unions as labor contractors and mediators of the price of one’s ability to work.
We should always bear in mind that workers struggling with coming to an organic class consciousness are going to start with reform, since that is the only form of opposition with which they are familiar. At the same time, it is our responsibility to be honest with our fellow workers, to point out the sordid history of union reform, to work with them so they can analyze for themselves and understand why these movements are a dead end.
Central to this is explaining that no amount of reform can change the character of unions under capitalism as labor contractors and wage mediators. The labor laws adopted by the exploiting classes, especially throughout the 20th century, require unions to take on these roles and operate within the framework of capitalism. This was not so much a choice, but rather the price of legalization. If the unions did not accept, they would not receive legal protection or recognition by the state.
This is why unions, no matter how many reforms are enacted, how “militant” or “rank-and-file” the leadership is, or how sincere the pledges to fight for the membership, cannot act as organizations for the defense of workers’ rights and living standards beyond the most narrow of economic issues. This means that gains they might make today are under constant attack and will be reversed at the first opportunity. Moreover, many issues workers raise today, such as an end to mass precarity (e.g., making large sections of the workforce temporary), are increasingly political and require a measure of state intervention to maintain. Thus, unions won’t even seriously consider them as legitimate demands to advocate.
Unions capitulated to capital in order to become legal and their bureaucratic officials respectable. Meanwhile, workers were left to twist in the wind, subject to an intensified wage slavery and lacking any viable alternative.
Beyond Unions and Unionism
It is clear today, based on the lessons of the last century, that the existing unions and union models (corporatist/business, “rank-and-file,” “revolutionary”/syndicalist, and so on) have long since become obsolete as instruments for the workers’ class struggle, both in an historical and practical sense. No amount of reforms, “boring from within” or “capture of the summit” can change their basic character.
However, what is not obsolete is the desire for workplace organization. That basic impulse among workers to unite and defend their class interests, from the immediate to the historic — that impulse that once motivated the formation of the earliest unions, as well as other forms of workers’ organizing — is perhaps more important today than at any time in the past. Indeed, it is the self-organization of the class into its own bodies of struggle that drives the fight against capitalism today.
A glimpse of this kind of workers’ self-organization could be seen in the mass wildcat strikes of maquiladora autoworkers in Matamoros, Mexico, last February. Facing off against the bosses, the charro unions, the capitalist state and various NGO leftists who are tied to the AFL-CIO and the U.S. government, tens of thousands of workers organized to defend their own rights and livelihoods, building workers’ assemblies to organize, expand and coordinate strikes at over 85 auto parts factories around the central demands of a 20 percent raise and a 32,000 peso bonus.
After nearly two months of fighting, which slowed down (and, in some places, shut down) production in North America, the maquiladora workers won their demands. Moreover, they were joined in victory by others in the area, most notably teachers, who were able to win their own raises and bonuses.
But Matamoros is not an isolated incident. Over the last 50 years, in Europe, Asia and Latin America, some of the most intensive strikes have seen workers break with the unions, establishing strike committees, workers’ committees and assemblies as the means of waging their own fight for the well-being of themselves, their families and their class.
In periods like today, where large class battles are few and far between, the rise of these mass class-struggle bodies are inevitably a temporary phenomenon. It is only when the class is in an ongoing state of open struggle — when strikes, occupations, mass strikes, etc., occur on an almost daily basis, such as when entering a revolutionary period — that these organs look like something more permanent.
(In a period of workers’ revolution and the victory of the workers’ republic, these bodies will assume a semi-permanent character as key bodies responsible for production.)
Nevertheless, other, smaller, class-struggle bodies may emerge in these periods, such as workers’ discussion circles or agitational struggle groups. These often emerge relatively spontaneously, without any kind of prodding or outside guidance. Working with and, to the extent it is possible and principled, within these bodies is key to intervening in our class to move beyond mere unions and unionism.
At the same time, proletarian communists can have both a complementary and parallel role to that of the discussion and struggle groups. For example, we can support, encourage and publicize the formation and work of such class-struggle bodies, not only through literature, such as articles and leaflets, but also through promoting engagement with these groups by their fellow workers, both inside and outside of the workplaces they cover.
That said, our role is not simply to be a passive tag-tail of the class struggle groups/assemblies, nor is it to substitute ourselves for them in any way. Rather, our role is to intervene in these bodies and movements on a conscious, organized political basis, directly connected to the proletarian communist organization as a fraction or section, with the goal of winning our fellow workers to the program for a workers’ republic and workers’ control of production.
This would be a two-fold mission. First, educating about the history and lessons of the class struggle, and how they apply to today’s and tomorrow’s battles, especially how even seemingly narrow economic conflicts have, at their root, an inescapable political character.
Second, our organized intervention would assist the class-struggle groups in avoiding the errors that would drag them on to the path of mere unionism. Often, demoralization due to a lack of struggle can pull these groups toward desperate attempts to hold on to its numbers and even its existence. History shows this only results in them transforming into unions and losing their overall class-struggle character.
Finally, we must realize that progress will move at the pace of the class struggle, not our own. We must be realistic in our intervention, be patient and prepare for the long haul.