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Mobilizing the power of the rank and file

“To make the unions fight for workers’ interests, rank-and-file workers must organize themselves independent of the union officials.”
— From the ISO “Where We Stand”

Unions are organizations of basic self-defense for workers, and at the same time exert a moderating influence on the class struggle.

The contradictions of union officialdom

A look at the formation of the CIO unions in the 1930s—born out of mass strikes and sit-downs—makes the first side of the contradiction clear. The efforts by CIO leaders to contain the sit-down strikes and curb militants in the unions showed the other side of the contradiction.

Rank-and-file workers are driven by conditions to organize and fight back, and they learn in the course of struggle that militant tactics—strong mass pickets, solidarity action and so on—get results. The union officialdom, on the other hand, tends toward a cautious conservatism when it comes to fighting back, for fear of risking the survival of the organization, which is the basis of its own position.

The bureaucracy’s role as a mediator between workers and bosses elevates it above the rank and file, distances it from the latter’s conditions and experiences and places it in some respects closer in outlook and lifestyle to the managers it negotiates with.

This development has reached its apex in the United States, where some union officials make hefty six-figure salaries. Edward Hanley, president of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers’ Union from 1973-1998, once had the union purchase a $2.5 million jet for his personal use while he was president—while during his tenure union membership plummeted. Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU, made more than $600,000 in total compensation in 2013. The combined compensation of the union’s top ten officials came to more than $2.7 million.

Trade union officials are not workers, but they aren’t employers either. Their job is to represent the interests of the rank and file. They therefore come under pressure, to varying degrees, to answer to the interests of their members. British Marxists Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein put it this way: The trade union bureaucracy “holds back and controls workers’ struggle, but it has a vital interest not to push the collaboration with employers and state to a point where it makes the unions completely impotent.”

That means even the most bureaucratic union leaders, if put under enough pressure from the rank and file, can be compelled to take action—though their inclination will always be to contain such action and wind it up as quickly as possible.

Cliff and Gluckstein draw the following conclusion from this, a point that relates particularly strongly to the state of today’s unions in the U.S.: “If the union fails entirely to articulate members’ grievances, this will lead eventually either to effective internal changes to the leadership, or to membership apathy and organizational disintegration.”

Apathy and disintegration has been like a disease eating at the U.S. labor movement, resulting in a low level of union membership and a weak labor movement that has yet to mobilize an effective resistance to almost four decades of employer attacks on wages, benefits and conditions.

Independent rank and file organization

The conclusion socialists draw from this understanding of the limits of the trade union bureaucracy is that the rank and file must organize itself independently of union officialdom, supporting them insofar as they represent members’ interests, and criticizing them insofar as they misrepresent those interests—always ready to act independently of the officials when necessary.

Rank-and-file organization can take a number of forms: as a campaign for union reform or new leadership; as a caucus or committee to put pressure on the leadership to act in the members’ interests; or as directly elected workplace or shop delegates that organize independently of the leadership.

The union leaders’ position as part of a distinct social layer means that even leaders that rise from the ranks often adapt and become alienated from the rank and file. For this reason, union reform movements, while crucial in awakening the rank and file and fighting for a union more responsive to the membership, cannot completely alter the nature of the trade union bureaucracy, which is a product of its social position as a strata caught between capital and labor.

A case in point is the Miners for Democracy (MFD), a rank-and-file reform movement in the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) that ousted a vicious and corrupt leader, Tony Boyle. Boyle had succeeded John L. Lewis as union president in 1963; he later rigged his own re-election in 1969 and hired gunmen to murder his opponent, Jock Yablonski.

The Miners for Democracy demanded an overhaul of the union administration, democratic elections in all districts, moving the union headquarters back to the coalfields, a new contract increasing pensions and health benefits, and a six-hour work day—all demands that a revived labor movement would certainly resurrect.

Arnold Miller, a UMWA member who had risen from the ranks to become president of the Black Lung Association, ran on the MFD ticket in 1972 and beat Boyle. After that, the MFD and other rank-and-file miners’ groups disbanded. Miller became distant from the ranks, and like his predecessors, negotiated less-than-satisfactory contracts behind closed doors, without rank-and-file input.

As the magazine Labor Notes recounted, “Five years later, as Miller began his second term in office, the UMWA leased a new, nine-passenger Cadillac limousine. This, said Miller, would allow the officers to travel with ‘proper dignity.’ The story of the limousines is symbolic of what happened to the Miller administration. Swept into office on a wave of rank-and-file anger and activism, Miller resigned in 1979, scorned by many of those who had elected him.”

The lesson is that reform movements cannot rest having elected better leaders—though this is important—but must maintain rank-and-file organization independently of whatever officials are in office.

The UMWA made a number of gains in 1972 that made the union more democratic. But even in the most formally democratic union (of which there are very few in the U.S.). there are always a layer of officials whose distinct social position, as described above, engender a tendency to dampen rank and file initiative.

Socialist support independent rank-and-file initiative and organization for a few simple reasons.

First, because, it is only through the initiative of workers themselves that confidence in their own power grows and their consciousness shifts leftward. The more bureaucratically led a strike is—built top-down, setting up only token picket lines, with only passive participation from the membership—the less it promotes those qualities that prepare workers to transform society and themselves.

Conversely, the more the organization of a strike is in the hands of workers themselves, the better the potential for victory, the greater the energy and self-sacrifice exhibited, and the greater the likelihood that the strike will have a radicalizing effect on members (the same reason that union bureaucrats discourage such initiative).

The union bureaucracy is inherently conservative, and therefore as a social layer resists not only militancy, but also, ultimately, revolution. Not so the working class. The consciousness and militancy of the working class can and does change very dramatically from period to period, but as a class, workers are capable of overcoming the “ruling ideas” of society and, through their own activity, becoming capable of fundamentally reshaping society. To do so, however, it must create more than unions—though in the first instance working-class militancy expresses itself in a growth of unions and union membership.

To move beyond the limits of unions, the working class must build organizations—preferably organizations of workplace delegates—that overcome the sectional divisions unions take for granted (between workplaces, between different skills, between different industries). And it must build rank-and-file organizations inside the unions that guide the struggle forward when the union officials act as a block to further struggle.