For Union Independence from the Capitalist State! Defy Taft-Hartley!

EFCA, Bureaucrats & Democrats

On 10 March, the United States Senate began hearings on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). The bill, first proposed in 2003, failed to pass in 2007 and seems unlikely to even come to a vote this time. Both the AFL-CIO and "Change to Win" union federations, which invested hundreds of millions of dollars getting Democrats elected in 2008, had hoped that the EFCA would allow them to recoup their investment by expanding their dues base. They are bitterly disappointed to see that, once again, the Democratic "friends of labor" (including President Barack Obama, who had co-sponsored the EFCA in the Senate) have double-crossed them.

The EFCA was supposed to ease requirements for union recognition by granting automatic National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) certification wherever a majority of employees signed union cards. This "card check" would avoid a drawn-out certification process, during which employers routinely stack the vote by intimidating workers, firing union supporters and replacing them with anti-union employees. On 21 May Obama declared that the EFCA's proposed card check did not have enough support to pass, but that perhaps some "compromise" could be worked out.

If the EFCA merely introduced a card check it would be a supportable reform, but it came with a poison pill: binding arbitration to impose an initial two-year contract if no agreement is signed within a month of certification. While the bureaucratic union leadership viewed this as a bonus-expanding their membership base without risking serious struggle-class-conscious militants oppose binding arbitration on principle as a form of state control of the workers' movement.

Compulsory arbitration has one objective: preserving "industrial peace" by avoiding strikes. It was introduced in the U.S. in 1920, when the Kansas Court of Industrial Relations was created "for the purpose of preserving the public peace, protecting the public health, preventing industrial strife, disorder and waste, securing regular and orderly conduct of the businesses directly affecting the living conditions of the people" (quoted in Thames Ross Williamson, Problems in American Democracy). At that time the trade unions were opposed to compulsory arbitration for the simple reason that it took away their only effective weapon-the right to strike. The bosses also opposed the court because they did not want the government setting wage rates and conditions of employment.

Democrat 'Friends of Labor' Let EFCA Die

The virtual unanimity of corporate America in opposing the EFCA shows that big business today remains just as hostile to government intervention in "labor relations" as in the 1920s. The politically bankrupt union bureaucrats, on the other hand, who shrink from confrontation with the bosses, have veered from brandishing EFCA endorsements from Obama and Joe Biden as if they were signed contracts to squealing about being "betrayed." For example, David Macaray, formerly with the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, was singing the praises of the EFCA in February:

"But here's the astonishing part: If the parties can't reach a mediated settlement within 30 days, the FMCS [Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service] has the authority to finalize the contract. In effect, it would be binding arbitration. The notion of an outside party-a government agency, no less-setting the terms of a labor agreement would put the fear of God in management, causing them to do everything in their power to reach an equitable agreement. It's a profound improvement to the process."
—, 20 February

Macaray must know that "a government agency"—the NLRB—has been "setting the terms of labor agreements" in the U.S. for more than 70 years and it certainly has not put "the fear of God in management." In 2005, the median time for the NLRB to issue a ruling in cases of Unfair Labor Practice complaints was 1,232 days (i.e., more than three years) and the average restitution for workers who "won" was a piddly $3,800 (with a chance they might regain their jobs).

By May, Macaray was denouncing the Democrats:

"Earlier this week it was acknowledged by labor officials and Democratic insiders that the EFCA (Employee Free Choice Act), as presently written, wasn't going to pass. While the bill may be reintroduced in a different form, the crucial 'card check' component has been pronounced dead. Although labor wonks across the country were disappointed by the news, most weren't surprised by it.

"Despite all the hoopla and anticipation, skeptics had predicted long ago that this ambitious bill, which would have provided working people with far greater access to labor unions, had virtually no chance of passing. Why? Because it was too explicitly 'pro-labor.'"

"Big Business and the Democratic Party (despite its lip service) simply couldn't allow legislation this progressive to become law."
—, 22 May

At rallies around the country the union tops had pitched the EFCA with disingenuous claims that "the President wants you to join a union," a reference to a slogan used in the 1930s when Franklin Delano Roosevelt occupied the White House. There is indeed a connection between Obama's policies and those of FDR: both serve and protect big business, not the working class. Roosevelt's 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which was overturned by the courts a year after it was passed, mentioned the right of collective bargaining as a sop to the union leaders who had supported his election campaign. In 1935 the NIRA was replaced by the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act), which formally recognized the right to organize. However, contrary to reformist mythology, FDR did not give the unions anything: "this was a right won in fact by direct mass struggles-strikes," as Art Preiss noted in Labor's Giant Step.

Roosevelt postured as a friend of the unions in order to contain the enormous wave of "illegal" sitdown strikes and plant seizures that gave birth to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The impetus for this labor revolt was provided by three illegal leftist-led general strikes in Toledo, San Francisco and Minneapolis. Farrell Dobbs, a Trotskyist militant who played an important role in the Minneapolis strike, subsequently observed:

"Class collaborationist union officials hailed the Wagner Act as 'Labor's Magna Charta.' This, of course, was utter nonsense. Their lavish praise of the new law was really an expression of hope that it would enable them to keep the workers suckered into reliance on the capitalist government as a substitute for use of union power against the bosses."
Teamster Power

Today, unlike in FDR's time, the American bourgeoisie is not facing a large-scale labor insurgency. The existing system serves the capitalists well, and the only reason for them to go along with a card check or make any other concessions would be to deflect an upsurge of labor militancy.

The EFCA represents an extension of FDR's Wagner Act and the subsequent Taft-Hartley (1947) and Landrum-Griffin (1959) laws that banned mass pickets and "secondary" strikes (solidarity actions such as "hot-cargoing") and granted federal courts the power to issue strike-breaking injunctions. The tools that built the industrial unions in the 1930s (mass picketing, workplace occupations and secondary boycotts) must be taken up once again if American unions are going to regain lost ground. The reason that these tactics are illegal is because they work. Every major gain labor ever made has come by struggles that ignored the limits set by the employers and their state.

In his important 1940 essay, "Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay," Leon Trotsky outlined how, in the age of monopoly capitalism, trusts, syndicates, consortiums, etc., concentrated control of economic activity in a small number of oligarchic interests bound up with and dependent on the state. He also discussed how, in a parallel process, a pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy was consolidated that sought to free itself from democratic rank-and-file control while simultaneously seeking to preserve and extend its position by gaining influence over government policy rather than through direct confrontations with capital. The bureaucrats historically embraced state intervention in "regulating" labor relations, and only wanted a role in shaping the legislation. The weakness of the labor movement in the U.S. today is directly attributable to the union bureaucracy's slavish legalism, its political dependence on the Democratic Party and the subordination of the union to the agencies of the imperialist state. As Trotsky wrote: "The primary slogan for this struggle [against the bourgeoisie and the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy] is: complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state."

Selling Out 'Undocumented' Workers

The EFCA promised to increase both back pay awards and penalties for employer discrimination, yet did not challenge the Supreme Court's 2002 ruling (Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. NLRB) denying back pay to undocumented workers fired for engaging in union activity. This was no mere oversight. The chauvinist trade-union bureaucracy refuses to stand up for equal rights for the 12 million "illegal" immigrants in the U.S., three quarters of whom are from Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America. The failure of the union leadership to fight for full citizenship rights for all-including the undocumented-is of a piece with their preference for begging the Democratic wing of the ruling class to rewrite its labor legislation rather than risk taking on the bosses.

The current capitalist crisis is characterized by widespread job losses, falling wages, housing foreclosures and collapsing pensions. This has generated enormous anxiety among working people and created conditions where tumultuous social upheavals are an immediate possibility. Inevitably, attacks on the working class hit the most oppressed strata hardest, as rightist demagogues seek to blame rising unemployment on "illegal" immigrants "stealing" jobs. In fact, in recent years wages and working conditions in several traditionally open-shop cities, including Los Angeles, have improved somewhat as an influx of immigrants from countries with more militant traditions has revitalized the local labor movement.

The potential significance of this phenomenon was dramatically demonstrated by the May Day 2006 protests, when over 1.5 million people took a day off work in opposition to legislation targeting undocumented workers. This "day without immigrants" closed down schools, retail stores, meatpacking plants and even the port of Los Angeles where truck drivers (mostly unorganized immigrants) refused to work. It was the largest demonstration in the U.S. since the Vietnam War.

The size of the protest and its level of organization shocked the U.S. bourgeoisie and demonstrated the enormous potential that exists for mass working-class resistance. In an implicit recognition of the increasing importance of Latino immigrants within American trade unions, the AFL-CIO provided some logistical support in the background, but the bureaucrats did not want to be publicly identified with an illegal action that many participants referred to as a "general strike." The timidity of the union misleaders not only reflects their subservience to the ruling class, but also their fear of an upsurge from below. If the labor movement spearheaded a serious fight to win equal rights for undocumented immigrants, the groundwork could be laid for organizing millions of the unorganized. Yet the corrupt parasites atop the unions have no appetite for a fight, and are rightly fearful that they could easily be pushed aside in any large-scale eruption of militant labor struggle.

SEIU: New Frontiers of Bureaucratic Business Unionism

One of the biggest backers of the EFCA was the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has a high concentration of Latino immigrants in its ranks. After spending some $67 million on Obama's presidential campaign-more than any other union-the SEIU today has net assets of only $34 million (Wall Street Journal, 19 May).

At the SEIU's quadrennial convention in May 2008, this massive give-away to the Democrats was approved by delegates who were told that the payoff was assured because Obama would be "a U.S. president who is committed to leading the movement for worker's freedom to form unions and who will make it a priority to get the Employee Free Choice Act passed by Congress" (Resolution 107).

Convention delegates also approved the leadership's "Justice for All" program that includes several measures to tighten centralized control. A key mechanism for this is the introduction of "member resource centers":

"Local unions that have already established Member Resource Centers are now providing members prompt access to trained organizing staff that provide members information in their own language, help solve job-related problems using 21st century technology 24/7, and engage members in the core activities of our union…."
—Resolution 204a

Grievances that used to be handled by shop stewards elected in each workplace are now supposed to be dealt with through centralized call centers under the direct control of the SEIU tops. In a parallel move, the bureaucrats have also created an "Organizing Corps" of college students that:

"will be a new group of temporary organizers modeled after the Peace Corps or Teach for America. It will be aimed at people interested in doing social justice work for a portion of their life, but who are unsure of what work they want to do long term."
—Resolution 205a

So instead of entrusting unionization drives to experienced field organizers, the SEIU leadership proposes to use student temps with no connection to the membership and no long-term stake in the union. The students may not be as effective, but from the point of view of the bureaucrats they have the "advantage" of being less likely to build a base in the membership that could potentially provide a point of support for internal opposition.

The "Justice for All" plan will also give the national leadership control over the finances of each branch and turn elected local leadership posts into full-time staff positions. To serve as a local union officer, workers will have to quit their jobs, thereby becoming dependent on the goodwill of the national office, which reassigns staffers at will and terminates anyone deemed uncooperative.

The bureaucrats' plans to remove political power from the base and introduce highly centralized organizing mechanisms (which are to include advertising in capitalist mass media and write-in campaigns) go hand in hand with a strategy of attempting to increase their weight within the Democratic Party. The only time the union tops seek to mobilize their ranks is when they want to provide a crowd at a rally. The failure of the EFCA, which was the centerpiece of the SEIU bureaucrats' "practical" politics, dramatically illustrates the dead end represented by "21st Century" business unionism.

The Left and the EFCA

Much of the left hailed the EFCA as a major step forward. The Communist Party praised it as a bold initiative, while the International Socialist Organization wrote:

"The [EFCA] legislation could play a role similar to Section 7(a) of President Franklin Roosevelt's National Recovery Act, which enshrined into federal law the right to organize and buoyed the formation of mass industrial unions. Labor organizers seized the moment to argue that 'the president wants you to join the union'…."
Socialist Worker, 20 February

Socialist Action, a U.S. affiliate of the moribund United Secretariat, was somewhat more skeptical, but still supported the EFCA. The Spartacist League (SL), which usually stands to the left of the ISO and Socialist Action, found common ground with them on this issue. While warning that "binding arbitration is a trap," the SL nonetheless concluded that it was necessary to support the EFCA because the near-unanimous opposition of the American bourgeoisie meant that it "represents a referendum on unionization" (Workers Vanguard, 30 January).

To our knowledge, the only tendency, apart from ourselves, to oppose the EFCA was the Internationalist Group (IG)*, which recalled the opposition of the American Trotskyist movement to FDR's 1935 Wagner Act. The SL responded to the IG with a piece entitled, "The IG and National Association of Manufacturers Oppose the EFCA" (Workers Vanguard, 24 April). While admitting that articles in the Trotskyists' New Militant had been "scathingly critical" of the Wagner Act, the SL claimed that they "do not, in fact, explicitly oppose the bill." In making this assertion, the authors of this crude piece of hackwork blithely ignored the 4 May 1935 New Militant article photographically reproduced by the IG that characterized the Wagner Act as "a Noose for Labor." To our way of thinking, describing FDR's law as "a Noose for Labor" is about as explicit as it gets.

To turn the tide and begin to win real gains, the workers' movement needs a leadership that is prepared to challenge not only the capitalists' anti-labor legislation but the entire system of exploitation for profit as well. The unions have to start playing hardball with the bosses. This means a complete break with the Democratic party of racism and imperialist war, ousting the labor bureaucracy and a fight to forge a revolutionary workers' party committed to uniting the oppressed and exploited in a struggle to smash capitalist rule and open the road to an egalitarian, socialist future.

*Shortly after finalizing this text we learned that the League for the Revolutionary Party also opposes the EFCA.

Posted: 30 June 2009