Unions must break
from capitalist politics
(Books of the Month column)
Printed below is an excerpt from The Changing Face of U.S. Politics: Working-class Politics and the Trade Unions by Jack Barnes. The Spanish edition of this book, El rostro cambiante de la política en Estados Unidos, is one of Pathfinder's Books of the Month for June. The item quoted is from the chapter titled "The turn to the industrial unions," which is the first section of a resolution adopted by the January 1985 special convention of the Socialist Workers Party. The full text of the resolution appears in New International no. 4. Copyright © 1994 by Pathfinder Press, reprinted by permission.
The unions must chart a course that advances the interests of the working class and the oppressed regardless of the profits and prerogatives of the propertied class. That is, they must break from bourgeois politics. Independent working-class political action is the class-struggle alternative to the union officialdom's current class-collaborationist course of subordinating labor's interests to the framework imposed by acceptance of the profit system.
The labor movement can pursue a consistent class-struggle course only by breaking through the illusion that the problems confronting working people can be resolved within the bourgeois electoral setup. This electoralist illusion is promoted by the bourgeoisie and its labor lieutenants, who argue that "real" politics is synonymous with election campaigns for public office.
Real politics is the opposite, however; it is concentrated and generalized economics. It is reflected in all the institutions of capitalist society. But it originates in what goes on every day in the clash of class forces in the factories, in the fields, in the streets, and on the battlefields of war. That is where the basic relationship of class forces is decided. Only by recognizing and acting on this reality can a union leadership unleash labor's political power, and alter the political course of the United States.
Such a union leadership will think socially and act politically. It will give a revolutionary direction to working people of city and countryside, confident that out of the determined struggle to defend our own class interests a new society will emerge.
Independent working-class political action points above all toward the workers and our allies establishing a government that acts to advance our interests, not those of our exploiters--a workers and farmers government. Taking political power out of the hands of the exploiters is the only way to halt once and for all the escalating attacks against the unions and against every struggle by working people and the oppressed. It is the only way to end the use of government power to advance the class interests of the exploiters at the expense of working people. It is the only way to end imperialist war, racial oppression, and discrimination against women.
The struggle to meet the most elementary needs of the working class and to defend the unions' right to exist as fighting workers organizations requires a political instrument independent of the capitalist parties that administer the state for the exploiters. The unions must break from the capitalist two-party system and forge an independent labor party that can mobilize the producers to fight for a workers and farmers government. And they must support every initiative by the exploited and oppressed that is an advance along this road.
Strategic perspectives in labor movement
How does the Socialist Workers Party advance these strategic perspectives, this program, in the labor movement?
We start from the recognition that an understanding of this class-struggle strategy among broad layers of workers can be advanced only in the course of battles against the employers and the government to defend their conditions of work, their livelihood, and their unions, and through participation in political struggles around such fundamental issues as imperialist war, national oppression, the oppression of women, and attacks on democratic rights. We actively participate in struggles on the job where we work, in battles waged by workers in other cities and industries, and in progressive protest actions initiated inside or outside the unions. We participate in and champion all working-class fights for demands for immediate relief from the effects of the capitalist crisis and for better conditions of work and life. We take these struggles to our unions in the most effective ways we can--be it raising them in our union committees, with our elected officials, or at our union membership meetings. We seek to mobilize union support and broaden the discussion on what is at stake for the labor movement in each of these battles.
As participants in these struggles, we advance broader social and class demands, explaining them through our socialist election campaigns, through the Militantand Perspectiva Mundial, through weekly public Militant Labor Forums in every city where SWP branches exist, and through discussions with other activists in these battles.
We pose the need to fight for greater workers control, exercised through the unions, over working conditions and decisions that affect workers on the job.
We explain the need for the labor movement to fight for social rights such as health care and adequate pensions for all working people. These should be government-financed on a nationwide scale, not tied to the bosses' profits on an industry-by-industry basis. The unions should take the lead in resisting the continual drive by the government and employers to make meeting these life-or-death needs the responsibility of individuals and their families.
We advance immediate, democratic, and transitional demands in different ways and combinations, depending on the concrete political situation. At all times, we seek to explain them in such a way as to increase understanding of the need for a change in which classes govern. Without the axis of our fight being to advance toward the establishment of a workers and farmers government, no series of demands, no program--no matter how far-reaching and radical--can be in fact a revolutionary program.
As we go through battles side by side with other workers, we take advantage of every experience in the international and national class struggle to explain that the capitalist system is the source of the crisis facing our class and its allies. We present a socialist perspective to those in the working class who are thinking about how to organize and lead an effective fight to advance the interests of the exploited.
In presenting this perspective, we can be very concrete, pointing to the achievements of revolutionary Cuba, where the workers and farmers took power into their own hands and used that power to uproot capitalism and begin the construction of a socialist society. We can also point to what is being accomplished by the workers and farmers government in Nicaragua today. These examples show what is possible when a government of the exploiters, which defends the interests of the capitalists and landowners, is replaced by a government of the exploited. How much more will be possible in the United States, given its great wealth and industrial and agricultural capacity, not only to benefit U.S. workers and farmers, but to help feed and raise the living standards of working people around the world!