By CHARLES WALKER
The AFL-CIO leadership met for four days last February to take stock of its aims, and if necessary, fine-tune its strategies and tactics.
Socialists support many of the federation’s stated goals, which, if realized, would greatly improve the daily life of the nation’s workers, especially ethnic minorities and women. We are no strangers to struggles for job security, raising living standards, shorter workdays, and social justice for workers here and around the world. Indeed, many social improvements that workers have won originated (though not in their present watered-down state) with socialists.
But socialists who study the labor chieftains’ stratagems will find that they are necessarily at odds with the labor officials for two interrelated reasons:
First is that the nation’s highest ranking labor officialdom doesn’t address workers’ basic needs and their fulfillment outside of the social and political boundaries that the country’s corporate bosses require and depend on for their own political supremacy, their social dominance, and their paramount share of the nation’s socially created wealth.
By refusing to challenge the basic doctrines that ensure the dominion of the nation’s wealthy elite over the population’s working majority-primarily the primacy of profits and the subordination of wage labor-the labor brass continue to guide organized workers within channels that might justly be likened to the stockyard chutes that lead livestock to a forgone, unforgiving destiny.
Since the federation’s leaders don’t think that the profit system is intrinsically anti-worker, they explain workers’ differences with their bosses as a “misunderstanding.” The union officialdom seems to think that if only the bosses and their political counterparts would listen respectfully to workers’ side of things, there would be consensus and cooperation.
A case in point is that the AFL-CIO called 15 town hall meetings around the country to give “local decision makers” (including “business people and public officials”) the lowdown on how workers feel about the bosses’ opposition to unions and their attack on the 40-hour week, health care, and the like. (The hopes behind the town meeting have a lot in common with hopes that many union officials place in labor-management committees and other collaboration schemes.)
Socialists don’t believe for a moment that the bosses (the “decision makers”) are ignorant of workers’ needs, feelings, and aspirations for a decent life.
Socialists believe that the bosses’ exploitative plunder of workers’ labor has nothing to do with the bosses’ knowledge of workers’ lives, but rather with the bosses’ unceasing attempt to eliminate their business competitors before their competitors eliminate them. In a way, in the dog-eat-dog business world, workers are innocent bystanders.
Some might argue that most labor leaders never said that they were socialists, so it’s not right to hold them to socialist standards. Still, socialists and the dues-paying ranks of the labor movement probably agree that it’s a fair criticism to point out that many of the labor leaders’ day-to-day practices undermine the federation’s professed goals of improving life for both organized and unorganized workers.
For example, many current contracts allow the bosses to introduce improved machinery or plain old speedup and then fire workers as productivity increases. Labor analysts predict that 13,000 auto jobs will “disappear” under the present UAW-GM contract.
According to the federation’s own figures, 160,000 manufacturing jobs were “lost” last year under union contracts. Clearly, those job “losses” undermine the labor tops’ goal of increasing the strength of organized labor by a million workers a year.
The federation rightly says that “working families are finding that employers’ demands are encroaching more and more on family life.” Yet, unions long ago traded off the 40-hour week for the illusionary gains of forced overtime. So it’s no wonder that today’s labor leaders show no willingness to put forth the same forceful determination to win back the shorter workweek that was necessary to win it in the first place.
“And many working families,” the labor bigwigs rightly say, “lack the basics, such as health care, access to elder care, prescription drug coverage, quality education and adequate incomes.”
Of course the bosses are obviously at fault, but the failure of labor leaders to mobilize their ranks to demand that workers’ well-being be the nation’s priority allows the bosses to get away with forcing, as the labor chieftains say, too many workers into “living to work, instead of working to live.”
The labor officialdom’s refusal to break with the country’s most dangerous “labor-management” fraud, the Democratic Party, and rally trade unionists-and the 50 percent of the citizenry that sees it has no stake in the status quo and skips voting-is the greatest barrier to realizing the federation’s proclaimed goals for workers. As the federation admits, despite its heavy investment in the Democrats, the labor movement hasn’t even been able to protect the minimum wage, which has lost 23 percent of its purchasing power since 1978.
Socialists believe that as long as the labor movement relies on the Democratic wing of the boss class to protect its bacon, the labor movement is facing a dead end.