Monday, August 29, 2011

PATCO: US labor's 1981 turning point

 
 
....The PATCO strike announced the definitive end of the period of relative class compromise and social reform that had prevailed in the US and other advanced industrial countries since the end of World War II. From that moment on, the capitalist class has carried out a relentless offensive to roll back the gains the working class realized over decades of struggle....
 
....first major political confrontation between the American working class and the government.
After decades in which the class struggle in America was either denied entirely or minimized, in which the American worker was depicted as having become the middle class, in which America was held up as the great exception in a world in revolutionary ferment, the PATCO strike has exploded all these myths.
....that underneath the appearance of political stability and conservatism, the most insoluble social and economic contradictions of any capitalist country have been building up....
 
....One political conclusion above all must be drawn from the PATCO strike: far from being an aberration or exception, it reveals the real essence of class relations in the United States.

....ruling class relies on the trade union bureaucrats to sabotage the fight of the working class against the government. This sabotage takes the form, not only of open strikebreaking as in the air traffic controllers' struggle, but most of all keeping the working class politically disenfranchised by supporting the capitalist two-party system.

....Having funneled untold trillions of dollars to the major banks and finance houses to cover their bad debts, governments all over the world are now demanding unprecedented cuts to social spending. No allocation of resources is permissible—for pensions, health care, education, infrastructure— that does not grow the cash hordes of the worlds' banks, corporations and billionaires.

....unions and all the old organizations of the working class have played the critical role in this social retrogression.

....same process unfolded all over the world, perhaps most similarly in the United Kingdom, where in 1985 the Trades Union Congress (TUC) looked on as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher crushed the coalminers, setting the stage for the destruction of industry and working class living standards.

[Not to defend them, but the old-line cold war labor officials did not have the imagination in any country to see that the worm had turned by 1975-1980.  These were the hacks left over after the best leading labor militants had been witch-hunted out, leaving the likes of Winpisinger, Fraser, and Kirkland to hope things would go along the way they had before.  When they cried in fear of the suicidal implications of the general strike in Fall 1981, they were of course referring to their own suicide.  Truly for these men the movement was all, the end nothing. ]

....Everywhere the old labor and Social Democratic parties completely embraced the demands of the financiers and helped line the pockets of the rich by impoverishing workers. In Africa, Latin America and Asia the old national liberation movements followed the same path, scrapping import-substitution plans and nationalized industry and competing with each other over who could provide imperialism with the cheapest labor and most lucrative natural resources.

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The tie that binds these processes is the transformation of nationally-based labor bureaucracies and political parties from formations that within narrow limits defended the interests of workers into open instruments of class oppression. Underlying this, in turn, was the unprecedented global integration of production, which had intensified the contradiction between global economy and the nation state and rendered all nationalist programs impotent and reactionary.
In the US, the official unions consciously responded to the decline in the world economic position of American capitalism by offering their services to the corporate-financial elite, collaborating in the drive to make American corporations globally competitive at the direct expense of the jobs, wages and working conditions of US workers.
 
....Nixon's attempt to impose wage controls in 1971 had failed to stem the strikes of the 1970s. The ruling elite sought a clear and decisive defeat of the labor movement. The goal was to intimidate and weaken the working class and encourage private industry to launch a union-busting campaign....
....extract the central political lessons of that experience in order to arm workers with the socialist perspective needed to insure victory in the mass struggles into which they are entering today.extract the central political lessons of that experience in order to arm workers with the socialist perspective needed to insure victory in the mass struggles into which they are entering today.
 
Rosa Luxemburg said of the working class that "historical experience is its only school mistress." She continued: "Its thorny way to self-emancipation is paved not only with immeasurable suffering but also with countless errors. The aim of its journey—its emancipation depends on this—is whether the proletariat can learn from its own errors."
 
[what error?  the strike itself, the objective limitations imposed by ruling class anti-labor course and its strategic alliance with AFL-CIO?]
 
....PATCO was one of a series of international events that signaled a global ruling class offensive against the working class. It presaged not only the collapse of the American trade unions, but of all the labor bureaucracies and political parties internationally that based themselves on nationalism and class compromise. The process that has culminated in the conversion of the American labor unions into business enterprises akin to labor syndicates was mirrored in the decision of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s to complete its counterrevolutionary mission by liquidating the property relations established by the 1917 October revolution.
 
"In short, the ruling class considers the destruction of PATCO as inseparable from its overall capitalist policy of defending the profit system with a program of unrestrained militarism internationally and savage austerity for the working class within the United States." WL 08/11/81
 
PATCO defeat sets off two distinct periods in US history. From the 1930s through the 1970s, the trade union movement in the US commanded significant authority in the working class.
had managed to wrest significant concessions from the American ruling class, which feared the emergence of working class revolution led by socialists, as had taken place in Russia in 1917. The epoch saw major improvements in living standards, the expansion of democratic rights to black workers in the South, and the creation of a limited welfare state.
 
....Since the crushing defeats of the 1980s and 1990s, strikes have virtually disappeared in the US. The lack of organized resistance by the working class has whetted the appetite of the bourgeoisie, reflected in the staggering concentration of wealth in the US that has taken place since the 1970s. Steadily, the gains of the 20th century have been reversed, a process that has accelerated since the financial crisis of 2008 and the coming to power of the Obama administration.
 
erosion of the membership rolls of the trade unions—down to their lowest share of the private sector workforce in more than a century
 
ongoing decline in the wages and wealth of working class Americans has not been reflected in a decline in the income and wealth of the union bureaucrats, thousands of whom award themselves salaries of more than $100,000 per year, and hundreds of whom take home upwards of $200,000.
unions have only deepened their integration into the Democratic Party, each election cycle funneling tens of millions of dollars to "friends of labor" who at every turn side with the corporations and the banks.
 
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in spite of their militancy and solidarity and deep support within the working class as a whole—expressed in the 500,000-strong Solidarity Day demonstration on September 19 in Washington DC—the struggle was isolated and betrayed by the AFL-CIO bureaucracy, which ordered members of other airline unions to cross the PATCO picket lines.
 
....a bipartisan operation.  ....Management Strike Contingency Force, had been drawn up under Democratic President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
....AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland said early in the struggle that he opposed "anything that would represent punishing, injuring or inconveniencing the public at large for the sins or transgression of the Reagan administration."
 
....The ferocity of the ruling class stunned workers. But Reagan's ruthlessness—which included dozens of arrests and the jailing of four militant controllers in Texas—was enabled by the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. Though the threat posed by Reagan's attack on the controllers to the entire labor movement was clear, the AFL-CIO steadfastly refused to authorize a broader working class mobilization, in spite of persistent calls for a general strike from workers. The unions instead sought to channel working class anger into support for the Democratic Party.
 
a signal to big business to launch a massive assault on the entire labor movement. Over the next decade, strike-breaking and union-busting operations were carried out in virtually every sector of the economy—air and ground transport, auto, steel, the mines, retail.
 
Every major strike battle was deliberately isolated and betrayed by the union leadership. The United Auto Workers, the AFL-CIO and virtually every other union adopted the policy of corporatism—the complete subordination of the working class to the corporations and the establishment of joint union-management structures to suppress the class struggle.
 
betrayal of PATCO marked the collapse of the trade unions and their rapid transformation into agencies of the corporations and the state.
 
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Workers League raised the demand for an emergency Congress of Labor to bring together unionized workers and unorganized sections of the working population for the purpose of establishing a Labor Party based on the unions to fight for a workers' government and socialist policies. Without the initiation of such a struggle, the party declared, the PATCO strike could not be won. If the PATCO strike were allowed to be isolated and defeated, the Workers League warned, this would set the stage for an assault on the entire working class.
 
strong sense of solidarity prevailed among workers—along with a desire for a showdown with the Reagan administration—the need for socialist political conceptions to guide the struggle was not broadly understood. This was itself a product of long historical processes. By the 1980s, decades of anti-communism promoted by the AFL-CIO had blocked many workers from knowledge of key historical experiences, including the decisive role socialists had played in building the industrial union movement in the 1930s.
 
....Phelps Dodge, Greyhound, United Airlines, AT Massey, Hormel, Caterpillar, etc., workers carried on militant and bitter struggles. It was not for lack of fight that these and other strikes in the period went down to defeat. Rather, in each case the union bureaucracy consciously worked to isolate, demoralize and defeat the strikers.
 
[Nearly as demoralizing has having WL cadre bussing around one's picket line telling strikers they their main enemy was their on class institutions, their unions, and not the boss or the boss's government.  For WL union part of the boss/state apparatus, not a working class organization that had over time degenerated in a class collaborationist course via the ascendency to control of a priveledged bureacratic layer commanding the union leadership at all levels.]
 
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Between 1968 and 1975 a series of economic and political crises convulsed world capitalism. Advanced capitalist countries were shaken by massive strike waves, which in France in 1968 reached revolutionary proportions. In 1974, a coal miners' strike drove the Tory Heath government in the United Kingdom from power. Right-wing dictatorships fell in Portugal and Greece.
 
The crisis of American capitalism lay at the center of the world crisis. In 1975, the US imperialist war in Southeast Asia came to a humiliating defeat with the fall of Saigon. A year earlier, President Richard Nixon was forced to resign from office as a result of the Watergate scandal, which was bound up with the debacle in Vietnam.
 
The enormous financial cost of the Vietnam War had accelerated the decline of US capitalism and the drain on American gold reserves. It was in response to this crisis that Nixon, in 1971, unilaterally removed the gold backing from the US dollar. This failed to resolve the decline of US capitalism relative to its chief European and Asian rivals, and it helped to set into motion the high inflation that characterized the 1970s.
....experienced heightened strike activity in the 1970s, in particular during the first years of the decade. Strikes raged across the US, attested to by the Bulletin, the newspaper of the Workers League, the predecessor of the Socialist Equality Party. Bulletin reporters covered hundreds of these struggles. The Workers League fought tenaciously to mobilize the rank-and-file workers against the trade union bureaucracy and its policies of class collaboration and support for the big business Democratic Party.
....contrasted sharply to the indifference of radical protest groups, which branded American workers as pro-imperialist and racist and referred to the unions as "white men's job trusts." The milieu of middle-class radicals had been moving to the right since the waning of the anti-Vietnam War protest movement in the early 1970s.
 
....Inflation played a major role in fueling the strikes of the 1970s....Although the AFL-CIO bureaucracy succeeded in blocking these struggles from coalescing into a political challenge to the two-party system, from the standpoint of US capitalism, the situation was intolerable.
 
....Volcker....: "The standard of living of the average American worker has to decline."
....interest rate "shock therapy," raising the benchmark federal funds lending rate to over 20 percent, aimed to resolve inflation and undermine the combativeness of the working class by creating mass unemployment.
 
....force the closure of large sections of US manufacturing that were no longer profitable. Over 6.8 million jobs were lost to plant closures between 1978 and 1982. Whole cities and regions—primarily those associated with mass production industries and industrial unions—were devastated, including much of the industrial Midwest.
 
....111-day coal miners' strike of 1977-1978, Carter attempted to impose a Taft-Hartley back-to-work order on the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). The miners flouted the order, burning copies of Carter's edict on the picket lines. Carter was humiliated and lost the confidence of the ruling class.
 
....UMWA once again initiated a national strike in May of 1981, just three months before the PATCO struggle, the new Reagan administration did not invoke Taft-Hartley or otherwise directly intervene. This is because preparations were already far advanced to make an example of PATCO, a small and relatively isolated union.
 
[UMWA destruction a more long-term process.  Emphasis on non-union western coal.  Emphasis on table-tip instead of underground mining.  Waiting out the demographic extinction of a two generations of rebel miners.  Continued economic isolation imposed on Appalachia.  Rise of non-union underground mining reaching higher levels during each economic recession. JR]
 
....Chrysler bailout of 1979 was a landmark....UAW told workers that this was a one-time give-back to the company, made necessary by extraordinary circumstances, and that the workers' sacrifice would return the company to profitability, after which the lost pay would be returned. As the Workers League warned at the time, the betrayal carried out by the UAW at Chrysler was the beginning of a policy of concessions that has continued and escalated ever since.
 
....Who is to pay for the breakdown of the capitalist profit system, the working class or big business? The answer of big business, the banks, the Democrats, the Carter administration and the UAW bureaucracy is, of course, the working class."
 
....Kennedy.... led the push for the deregulation of the trucking and airline industries, the consequences of which contributed to driving the PATCO workers into struggle.
 
....Carter administration officials later publicly took credit for the PATCO union-busting operation. The plan was devised in early 1980 by Langhorne M. Bond, Carter's appointee to head the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and Clark H. Onstad, chief counsel to the FAA and also a Carter appointee. As early as 1978, Onstad began to work up plans for criminalizing a PATCO strike in discussions with Philip B. Heymann, Carter's assistant attorney general in charge of the Criminal Division of the Justice Department.
 
....PATCO strikers again and again said they were compelled to strike because understaffing and other FAA policies had raised the stress level of their jobs to the breaking point. Workers raised grievances over the length and intensity of shifts, which needlessly added to their occupational stress.
....government sought one and only one outcome: the destruction of the union.
....The government responded by stepping up what PATCO President Robert Poli called its "intensive fascist tactics." By August 10, the administration had begun proceedings to decertify the union and seize its assets. At the same time, Reagan imposed massive fines on the union to bankrupt it, and a number of PATCO strikers were arrested—one of whom, Steven Waellert, was brought before a judge in chains. There were also numerous reports of FBI harassment, including midnight visits to controllers' homes. One wife of a PATCO striker reported that an FBI agent told her that the couple's effort to adopt a child would be blocked unless her husband returned to work.
 
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Labor Day, September 7, 1981, in New York City, where more than 250,000 workers demonstrated. The 2,000 PATCO members who marched front and center were cheered wildly
....September 19, "Solidarity Day," an estimated 500,000 workers descended on Washington, DC....AFL-CIO had originally called the demonstration not to oppose the policies of the Reagan administration, but to support the Solidarity movement of Polish workers against the Stalinist regime in Warsaw....workers seized on the opportunity of the demonstration to stage a mighty protest against Reagan. The onslaught against PATCO was front and center. Some workers held signs drawing comparisons between the state repression of the Stalinists in Poland and the state persecution of the PATCO workers.
....AFL-CIO bureaucracy categorically refused to take up such a struggle, and gradually the fighting spirit in the broader working class died down.
....October 22, 1981, the Federal Labor Relations Authority stripped PATCO of its certification to represent air traffic controllers
....July 2, 1982, a federal bankruptcy court dissolved PATCO.
 
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The AFL-CIO trade union officials argued that any extension of the strike to cover workers in the airline industry or beyond would be "suicide." They argued that Reagan was responsible for the move against PATCO, and so it would be necessary to appeal to Democratic congressmen and prepare to defeat the Republicans in the 1982 elections, with AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland referring to Election Day as "Solidarity Day II."
 
....Workers League put forward a diametrically opposed position. Its call to reject Reagan's demands, to expand the strike throughout the airline industry and into a general strike, corresponded with the thinking of workers far more than the defeatist position of the bureaucrats. But the Workers League insisted this required a political struggle against the bureaucracy and the two-party system. A new party had to be built, a Labor Party rooted in the working class and based on socialist principles. To achieve this, the Workers League campaigned among workers for the calling of an emergency Congress of Labor.
WL 08/04/1981"....The Reagan administration has been engaged in the last six months in an economic and social counterrevolution, aimed at repealing the social legislation and programs won by the working class during the last 50 years, driving up unemployment, wiping out all restrictions on capitalist exploitation such as safety regulations, and destroying the living standards won by decades of trade union struggle. This has been topped with the passage of the biggest tax cut in history geared entirely to the requirements of the big corporations and the rich."
 
....Reagan, the article noted, was "speaking for the entire ruling class," a fact also understood by much of the news media, which whether liberal or conservative overwhelmingly condemned the air traffic controllers.
....Canadian Air Traffic Controllers' Union documented a list of 41 unsafe incidents on routes between the US and Canada or near the Canadian border after only one week of the strike, including a number of "near-misses."
..... Many strikers told the Bulletin that they viewed their struggle as being waged on behalf of the entire working class. Were they to lose, they said, the union-busting campaign would spread throughout the economy. For these same reasons, many controllers and rank-and-file workers in other industries realized that PATCO could not be left to struggle alone.
....fact when the strike began the AFL-CIO Executive Council and General Board was in session. The meeting concluded on August 6 with no plan for assisting PATCO. On the contrary, the union heads sent clear signals to the Reagan administration that they were prepared to collude in the crushing of PATCO.
....AFL-CIO President Kirkland publicly rejected the call for a general strike, declaring, "It's easy to be a midnight gin militant and call for a general strike, but if you're a responsible leader you have to appraise the consequences."
 
[True, but people are going to start wondering if each new turning point and each new challenge and opportunity always get the same response: "Vote for the Democrats." JR]
 
....The perspective of the AFL-CIO, to pressure Democratic politicians into backing the strike, only served to demoralize the strikers and disorient the broader working class. There were some pronouncements of support for the strike from Democrats, but just as many condemned the strike. Detroit's Democratic mayor, Coleman Young, held up by the UAW in particular as a "friend of labor" and a former autoworker himself, accused the strikers of "holding the nation hostage" over "outrageous" demands, going so far as to call Reagan a "hero" for standing up to PATCO.
...."....total bankruptcy of the bureaucracy's policy of class collaboration. Historically it is finished." It continued, "However, the more clear it becomes that the defense of basic rights won by the working class requires a struggle against capitalism, the more desperately does the bureaucracy cling to capitalist policies."
 
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....The ban on the rehiring of PATCO strikers, imposed by Reagan and a Democratic-controlled Congress, was officially lifted by the Clinton administration in 1993. But even after this, less than 10 percent of those fired were ever rehired.
....The conditions of overwork and fatigue that gave rise to the strike have only worsened. Last April, a scandal was whipped up by the media over incidents of air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job. President Obama was quick to join in scape-goating the controllers.
....In early 2008 there were 11,000 FAA air traffic controllers in the US—less than the number working in the industry at the time of the PATCO strike.
....FAA, which has suffered significant budget cutbacks, has only 1,100 inspectors to look after 625,000 pilots, 5,200 repair stations and 81 airlines.
 
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[It should go without saying, but I had better spell it out anyway: reading and taking notes on an article from the SEP website does not imply endorsement of its line, or that I have gone SEPtic.  The PATCO article is very useful if the reader is able to maneuver around the "If they had only listened to the Workers League" interludes, or at least weight them properly in the overall assessment.  JR]
  
08/29/2011
 

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