Statement of the International Committee of the Fourth International
Globalization and the International Working Class

Spartacist’s defense of the AFL-CIO

In an attempt to sustain their position, the Spartacists must gloss over the actual record of the AFL-CIO, especially in the course of the past two decades—an entire historical period during which the unions have collaborated with the ruling class to impose huge setbacks on the working class. It must ignore the many expressions of a change in the relationship of the trade union bureaucracy to the working class on the one side, and the bourgeoisie on the other.

It must overlook the empirical indices of the decline of the AFL-CIO, and it must disregard the fact that the decay of the trade unions is not a purely American, but rather a universal, international phenomenon. It must further grossly distort the historical attitude of Marxism toward trade unionism.

The Spartacist League’s nationalist politics impel it to give political support to the American trade union bureaucracy, the most backward and openly reactionary of any labor bureaucracy in the world. In the AFL-CIO the universal tendencies of the trade unions toward bureaucratism, class collaboration and integration into the structure of the capitalist state find their crudest expression.

As a social layer, the AFL-CIO bureaucracy is distinguished by its narrowness of vision, unscrupulousness in pursuit of personal gain, parasitism, cringing before the bourgeoisie, fear and hatred of the working class, and outright criminality. The unions are led by aspiring petty-bourgeois elements who have an aversion to honest labor and latch onto the union apparatus as a means of obtaining a level of wealth and status otherwise beyond the reach of their limited talents and intelligence. In its totality, the bureaucracy embodies a social element similar to that which finds its natural abode in the ranks of organized crime, and it is by no means an accident that the American unions have been so closely linked to the Mafia.

Despite its miserable record in upholding the interests of the union rank-and-file, the basic personnel of the bureaucracy remains the same year after year. Corporate CEOs are routinely tossed aside when their performance fails to meet the expectations of their major shareholders, but the leaders of the AFL-CIO survive one debacle after another. No serious, middle-sized business would tolerate the ineptitude shown by the AFL-CIO leadership. The fact that within the unions such incompetence goes unpunished is a testament to the sclerotic character of these organizations.

In the first place, they are devoid of any real democracy. Workers who attempt to oppose the policies of the leadership are routinely intimidated and not infrequently attacked. In no area of American life are working people so bereft of democratic rights as in the unions. The immovable character of the AFL-CIO leadership is, in the second place, an expression of the deep-seated alienation of rank-and-file workers from the entire union apparatus. The chasm that separates the bureaucracy from the membership, let alone the far larger sections of the working class that stand outside the unions, is expressed in the general distrust and even disgust which workers feel for these organizations.

In their attempt to deny any objective basis for the decay of the unions, the Spartacists pile up contradictions and anomalies they cannot answer. They demand that the AFL-CIO do all sorts of militant things, including mass picketing, mass strikes, international strike action, etc. But why should anyone believe that the AFL-CIO is either willing or able to undertake such measures when it has increasingly repudiated even the most limited forms of class struggle? Why is the actual trajectory of the AFL-CIO in precisely the opposite direction?

Before telling workers they should devote their energies to forcing the AFL-CIO to carry out mass strikes, is not one obliged to give serious thought to the fact that the actual level of official strike action has been plummeting for years, reaching a historic low of 37 major strikes in 1996?

In its perspectives document, the Spartacist League advances as the center of its strategy for the unions, the demand that the AFL-CIO launch a massive drive to organize the South. This, they claim, will enable the unions to recover their lost prestige within the working class.

But they never consider an obvious problem. Shortly after World War II the CIO announced with great fanfare a drive to organize the South. It was a miserable failure. And that was in the immediate aftermath of the strike wave of 1945-46, the most massive in US history. It was, moreover, at a time when some 70 percent of the workers in basic industry were unionized, the CIO bureaucracy had yet to carry out its anti-communist purge of radical and socialist elements, and the spirit of shop-floor militancy stemming from the sit-down strikes of the late 1930s was still alive.

How is one to explain the inability of the CIO of the mid-to-late 1940s to organize the South? And if the official labor movement of that period was unable to carry out this task, why should any thinking worker harbor illusions that its present, much decayed offspring is up to the challenge?

To declare that it is simply a matter of bad leaders answers nothing. If the explanation for the past two decades of betrayed and defeated strikes, broken unions, contract concessions and declining membership rolls is the subjective qualities of the union tops, then that must mean the previous lot of union leaders—George Meany, Walter Reuther, I W Abel, etc.—who presided over generally rising wages and benefits and a much larger dues base, were “good.” Or if one does not wish to make such a distinction in the leading personnel of the unions, then how does one account for the sharp decline? Why did the union leadership universally adopt such treacherous policies?