Friday, September 30, 2011

Trade unions and class consciousness

Below is an excerpt from Teamster Bureaucracy by Farrell Dobbs (1907-83), a central leader of the Teamster strikes of the 1930s and of the Socialist Workers Party. The title is one of Pathfinder's Books of the Month for October. This last in a four-part series recounts the strikes and campaigns by truck drivers that, in the 1930s, built the industrial union movement in Minneapolis and the Upper Midwest and helped pave the way for the CIO. Teamster Bureaucracy describes how this leadership organized to oppose World War II, racism, and government efforts to gag class-struggle-minded workers. The last chapter draws crucial lessons of the Teamster struggle for today's working-class fighters. Copyright 1977 © by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

If, during the course of their experiences in struggle, the labor militants are helped to analyze the causes of the social and economic ills facing them; if they are aided in perceiving the essence of an outlived capitalism—they will learn that the existing problems are not incidental and episodic at all, but the consequence of a deep structural crisis of the system. They will then see why governmental control must be taken away from the capitalists by labor and its allies.

Basic to such a rise in the workers' class consciousness is understanding that a fundamental change must take place in the role of the trade unions, which constitute the existing form of mass organization among the workers in this country. These broad instruments of struggle must be turned away from reliance upon so-called friends among the capitalist politicians. They must break off the self-defeating collaboration with the bosses' government, that has been imposed by bureaucratic misleaders. The unions must be transformed into mechanisms for independent and militant action by the workers all along the line. Restrictions on the right to strike must be vigorously opposed and freedom to exercise that right firmly asserted. Internal union democracy must be established so that all questions can be decided on the basis of majority rule. Then, and only then, will organized labor manage to bring its full weight to bear in confrontations with the employers at the industrial level.

Whenever conflicts of significant magnitude erupt within industry today, the government intervenes on the employers' side; and this interference is bound to intensify as capitalist decay gets worse. From this it follows that trade union action alone will prove less and less capable of resolving the workers' problems, even on a limited basis. Objectively, industrial conflicts will assume more and more a political character, and even the most powerfully organized workers will be faced with an increasingly urgent need to act on the new and higher plane of politics… .

In the process of creating their own mass party, based upon and controlled by the trade unions, the organized workers can draw unorganized, unemployed, and undocumented sections of their class into a broad political alliance. Labor will then be in a position to act both in a more unified manner and through advanced forms of struggle.

The workers will learn to generalize their needs, as a class, and to address their demands on a political basis to the capitalists, as a class. Political confrontation of that kind—for example, the nationalization of a given industry under workers' control—will raise labor action as a whole to a higher plane and at the same time impart new vigor to the continuing trade union struggles. Increased militancy within industry will serve, in turn, to reinforce activity in the political sphere. In that way interacting processes will develop through which the workers will attain greater class consciousness, more complete solidarity, and, hence, mounting ability to outfight the bosses.

Before unity of the exploited masses can be attained, however, still another of organized labor's existing policies must be thoroughly reversed. The labor movement must champion and give unqualified support to the demands of the Blacks, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Indians, and other oppressed national minorities, and of women and youth.

As Leon Trotsky1 insisted in discussions during the 1930s, the American workers must learn to act politically and to think socially if they are to attain the class consciousness and solidarity needed to defeat the exploiters. This is the opposite of the narrow class-collaborationist course pursued by the labor bureaucracy and the privileged layers they reflect. Thus, as a matter of principle, the trade union movement must use its power to actively fight for such progressive demands as affirmative action programs against racial and sexual discrimination on the job, in the union, in hiring, housing, health care, and education; the right to abortion and childcare; busing and bilingual, bicultural education: the right to a free college education for all youth.

If unconditional backing of that kind is given, the labor movement will be helping itself in a double sense. The strengthening of anticapitalist struggles on other fronts will make it harder for the employing class to concentrate its fire on the trade unions. The greater the scope of mass confrontations with the bosses' government, the more effectively will labor be able to involve its natural allies in the development of independent political action on a massive scale….

If trade unionists aid the victims of U.S. imperialism in other countries—and at the same time back all progressive causes within the United States—they will earn extensive support for their own struggles. An anticapitalist united front can thus be built, both nationally and internationally, and, as it grows in strength, the relationship of class forces will be changed to the decisive advantage of the workers and their allies.

1. Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) was a central leader of the 1917 revolution in Russia and, from the mid-1920s, the principal leader in the Soviet Union and then internationally of the fight to continue the revolution's communist course against its reversal by the privileged caste headed by Joseph Stalin.

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