Working in the Union Movement

Since 1995, the American union movement has been on a progressive bend. The 2013 convention opened up even more opportunities to be helpful with the fundamental organizing unit of the working class.

But how?

Work with Unions

Since 1995 when the Sweeney leadership interrupted the usual transition in the AFL-CIO, America's union movement has become more and more approachable. In 2013, the AFL-CIO passed even broader resolutions. They intend to cast aside narrow point-of-production organizing and, instead, include everybody who works for a paycheck, one way or another. For the first time since the early days of the Committee for Industrial Organizing, or maybe for the first time ever, anybody, everybody, is being brought into the America labor movement.

It seems like a good time to ask, "What are some best practices in working with union people?" We asked that in Dallas at a meeting on December 4. At first, we had more questions than answers.

1) What is the nature of unions? What is "trade union consciousness?" Is it revolutionary, counter-revolutionary...? Is it important to work with unionists?

2) What strategies and tactics have worked in the past? What didn't work?

Were Communists on target when they organized unemployed people in Detroit in 1934, even though some of them got killed? Were they on target in 1948 when they supported a more progressive candidate against the unions' choice -- Harry Truman?

3) Unions often suffer serious disagreements. How would you handle some of the current quarrels within the house of labor?

4) Do unions need and/or seek advice from communists?

5) What is the effect of Red Baiting? How serious is it? How would you handle it?

Then we started working on answers, and here is what we decided:

1. On the nature of America's unions

Unions are defensive in nature. They protect their own members against the immediate aggressions of their bosses. Unions had their origins in burial societies or insurance cooperatives. Although they may take on projects for the common good, they will almost always choose their own members if there is a conflict. A good example was the American Airlines merger. The U.S. Justice Department opposed it as approaching a monopoly. The American Airlines unions strongly supported the merger, without mentioning the common good. Similarly, the union organizing a nuclear power facility near Dallas is one of the strongest proponents for nuclear power.

"Trade union consciousness" is usually mentioned in a quote to the effect that working masses would never be able to rise higher without help from deliberate revolutionaries. It's overlooked that workers with "trade union consciousness" have achieved a much higher level than many knee-jerk activists, because they appreciate the fundamental role of the working class and they believe in organizing against the bosses.

Unions may not be revolutionary, but they are nevertheless the indispensable and fundamental organizing unit of the working class. Only the most careless activists would overlook the opportunity to work directly with them.

2. What works? What doesn't?

Like working with any other group or organization, the first step is to evaluate situations and trends. Communists were certainly correct in bringing the unemployed in Detroit together, especially because the auto workers were normally unemployed while their factories re-tooled (they still are). When Wyndham Mortimer went to Flint to organize the UAW, he already knew a lot of the best militant workers because they had been in the unemployed councils.

With 20-20 hindsight, one might question the Communist Party's decision to support Henry Wallace against the Democrat Harry Truman in 1947. Certainly, the Communist Party fell on very difficult times afterward, and they could have used some more friends in the labor movement.

3. What about fights within the house of labor?

In Dallas, two unions are competing to organize the city workers. Only one of them is in the AFL-CIO. The two flight attendants unions being merged into American Airlines have a very public battle in progress. But Communists always look to the good of the entire class. We usually do our best to stay out of intra-labor struggles. When we're forced to take sides, we try to "disagree without being disagreeable."

4. Do unions seek advice from Communists?

In this period, it would be unusual for a labor union leader to seek advice from a Communist just because he/she is a Communist. On the other hand, it isn't at all unusual for a labor leader to seek advice from someone who has shown their loyalty to the workers and their willingness to do the work of the labor movement. Only the most arrogant and isolated sectarians believe that union leaders are eagerly awaiting their advice.

5. What about red baiting?

Red baiting has been a disaster for America's working class. When it comes up, it needs to be dealt with most carefully, because it can be extremely destructive, not only to Communists but to the entire class. Tactics for dealing with it, like all tactics in the class struggle, are not to be found in formulas but in careful consideration of the situation, the trends, and the overall potential for damage.

Even though the new and progressive leadership of the national AFL-CIO removed the "anti-communist" clause from its constitution in 1997, some national unions, local councils and local unions still have unchallenged red-baiting in their constitutions and by-laws. We aren't past the witch-hunt, at least not completely. It's best when red-baiting doesn't come up. When it does come up, it's usually best for our class if it isn't exacerbated.

6. What should we be doing?

Serious revolutionaries may want to try to get a union job, or to organize a union. That opportunity isn't always available, but everyone can join and try to join an appropriate organization associated with the union movement. Standing aside while these important changes occur in the working class is not a good option.

Worthwhile quotes:

"We have no interests outside those of the working class." --Marx & Engels

 "...the development of the proletariat did not, and could not, proceed anywhere in the world otherwise than through the trade unions, through reciprocal action between them and the party of the working class."  --V.I. Lenin

“Walter Reuther, then a young organizer and officer of the United Auto Workers, made a comment....: ‘Now the bosses are raising a scare – the Red Scare. They pay stools to go around whispering that so-and-so, usually a militant union leader, is a Red. What the bosses actually mean, however, is not that he is really a red. They mean they do not like him because he is a loyal, dependable union man, a fighter who helps his brothers and sisters and is not afraid of the boss. So let us all be careful that we do not play the bosses’ game by falling for the Red Scare. No union man worthy of that name will play the bosses’ game. Some may do so through ignorance—but those who peddle the Red Scare and know what they are doing are dangerous enemies of the union.’” quoted on page 118 of UE History “Them and Us.”

Further Study: Short lesson at


"Marx & Engels on the Trade Unions" International Press.

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  • Thanks to Jim Lane for showing us how our recognized union leaders like Walter Reuther understood the perils of anti-communism, years ago.
    A study of the trade union and workers struggles in the United States of America will show that the socialists and communists were and are the warp and woof of that movement. This movement included women, Asians, Latinos, Natives, Islanders and Africans. Nothing can change this fact, it was then, it is now, and it will be.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 12/06/2013 11:05am (9 years ago)

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