Workers Vanguard No. 1133
4 May 2018
For Class Struggle, Not Reliance on Democrats!
Janus Case: Assault on Labor
The Supreme Court case of Janus v. AFSCME is aimed squarely at destroying public-sector unions, posing a direct threat to all of labor. A ruling against AFSCME—the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—would ban the agency shop in public employment, whereby employees who refuse to join the union must pay “agency fees” to the union, which bargains on their behalf as well as that of its members. Such a ruling would overturn the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision upholding the agency shop, and thereby make “right to work” the law of the land for all public employees. With the decisive vote in the hands of conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, a corporate lawyer appointed by Donald Trump, an anti-union decision is all but assured.
The Janus case has been bankrolled by a viciously union-busting cabal, including the billionaire Koch brothers and the far-right lobbyists of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The original lawsuit was filed by Republican Illinois governor and venture capitalist Bruce Rauner on behalf of Mark Janus, a social worker who would not join AFSCME. The case is premised on the bogus argument that having to pay agency fees is “coerced” speech and a violation of the First Amendment. This is just a cover for trying to bankrupt AFSCME and other public-sector unions and bleed them of members. The same red herring was at the center of an earlier case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which tried to strike down mandatory union fees but ended in a deadlock.
Janus is the latest attack in a decades-long war waged by the capitalist rulers against organized labor, during which the percentage of unionized workers has fallen to just over 10 percent, about half of what it was in the 1980s. Public workers are in the sights of the labor-haters because they make up the largest concentration of unionized workers in the country. Their unionization rate of 34 percent is five times greater than in the private sector.
A ruling against AFSCME would strike especially hard at black workers, who are highly represented in these unions. Black people are 30 percent more likely than whites to have a public-sector job, and for many of them, getting a unionized job in transit, sanitation or the postal service provides one of the few ways out of all-sided destitution. In the 28 states with “right to work” laws, wages are lower and workers are less likely to have health insurance or retirement benefits. It was the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, passed with overwhelming support from racist Dixiecrats (Democrats) in the open shop South, that contained a “right to work” provision allowing states to pass legislation prohibiting compulsory union membership. Taft-Hartley also banned militant strike tactics and opened up a red purge of the unions.
It is the labor misleaders themselves who have paved the way for the Janus attack. Abandoning the class-struggle methods that built the unions, the labor bureaucracy has simply lain down in the face of relentless attacks on unions while resorting to reliance on the capitalist government, the courts and the Democratic Party. In Wisconsin in 2011, tens of thousands of unionists—both public employees and others—rallied day after day at the State Capitol to beat back Republican governor Scott Walker’s attack on public unions’ collective bargaining rights. Workers were ready to strike to defend their unions. But the AFL-CIO bureaucrats demobilized the workers in favor of a campaign to recall Walker (and install a Democrat in his place). This sealed the unions’ defeat, opening the floodgates for “right to work” in former union bastions in the Midwest and elsewhere.
Today, in opposing Janus, the “labor statesmen” who run the unions present themselves as an essential force for keeping a lid on working-class struggle. Peddling the dominant argument of the labor tops against Janus, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), warned that an anti-union decision would disrupt “labor peace”! Making clear the role of the current union tops as the docile servants of the capitalist bosses, Weingarten declared in a January 19 amicus brief to the Supreme Court, “The current law [Abood decision] has preserved labor peace for four decades by balancing the interests of workers and employers.”
So beholden to the bosses’ laws, the union tops are begging Democratic politicians to prepare new laws that would mitigate a bad Janus decision. With an eye on his bid for re-election in November, New York’s Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo has enacted measures supposedly staving off the most devastating aspects of Janus, winning hearty praise from the state’s union officials. Cuomo did this by ratifying amendments to the state’s Taylor Law, which bans public employee strikes. Far from preparing the unions for some hard battles to smash the Taylor Law, the labor tops tinker with the very mechanism that keeps their members in chains.
At every turn, the union misleaders showcase their support to the capitalist system while enjoying the perks and privileges of union office, including posts inside the Democratic Party. Every election cycle, millions of union dollars and millions of union members are mobilized for voter turnout for the bourgeois “lesser evil.” This is evident as the anti-Trump “resistance” builds toward the midterm elections. The labor tops stake the fate of unions on getting Democrats into office and in the courts. A Democrat-dominated Supreme Court would likely turn down Janus, for the simple reason that Democrats recognize the key role the labor bureaucracy plays in keeping the wage slaves in line.
But when the workers get out of line and engage in class struggle, the Democrats, as much as the Republicans, bring down the hammer. In 1947, Harry S. Truman made a show of vetoing Taft-Hartley, knowing that Congress would override him, and then enforced it the following year against striking miners and other workers. In 1978, Jimmy Carter invoked Taft-Hartley against coal miners engaged in a bitter strike that lasted 110 days. Bill Clinton used the Railway Labor Act (RLA) 14 times in order to ban potential rail and airline strikes. For his part, Barack Obama effectively gutted the United Auto Workers while bailing out the auto bosses and banks. Even the smashing of the 1981 PATCO air traffic controllers strike by Ronald Reagan, a watershed defeat for labor, was carried out under a plan drawn up by his predecessor, Carter.
For a Class-Struggle Leadership of Labor!
The labor bureaucracy’s many decades of subservience to the capitalists and their government have served to erode elementary union consciousness and demoralize workers. The reactionary forces behind the Janus case are banking on frustrated workers opting to quit their union in order to deny the bureaucrats dues money. This could only lead to a disastrous weakening of the labor movement. The unions remain the basic defense organizations of the working class and should not be equated with the sellout policies of their leaders. The effectiveness of unions lies in their ability to carry out actions through their collective power; workers who abandon their union become a potential reserve of scabs.
The Janus case poses defense of the unions pointblank. As we wrote after the 2014 Harris v. Quinn ruling, which excluded home health care workers from having to pay agency fees but upheld the agency shop for other public-sector workers: “Marxists defend the agency shop against the bosses’ attacks. But what we are for is the closed shop, where workers must be members of the union before being hired” (“Supreme Court Clobbers Home Health Care Workers Unions,” WV No. 1049, 11 July 2014). Our article continued: “What is needed are fighting unions that encompass all workers in a company or industry, uniting them in struggle against the bosses for improved pay, benefits and work conditions.”
The capitalists’ attacks on unions go hand in hand with the relentless ravaging of social programs like health care, education and anything else that smacks of helping working people and the oppressed. Public workers would find plenty of allies among the unemployed, black people, Latinos, immigrants and all those who have been thrown under the bus by the capitalist rulers if they take up the fight for quality health care for all, for free education, free public transit and other such demands.
This perspective requires a political fight to forge a new, class-struggle leadership of the unions—a leadership that understands that the interests of labor and capital cannot be reconciled. Such a leadership would fight to organize the unorganized. Waging this battle means fighting against the race-color caste oppression of black people, which is the bedrock of capitalist rule in this country. A class-struggle leadership of the unions would be rooted in the understanding that the fight for black freedom is inextricably tied to labor’s cause and would take up the defense of foreign-born workers, demanding an end to deportations and full citizenship rights for all immigrants.
A fighting workers leadership in the unions would be committed to waging battle on the picket lines armed with a program dedicated to the liberation of humanity from a social system based on production for profit rather than for human need. The struggle to revitalize the labor movement must be understood as part of a fight to build a multiracial workers party whose aim is to sweep away the capitalist order of wage slavery through a workers revolution that establishes workers rule.
No Illusions in the Capitalist State!
A grotesque measure of the labor bureaucrats’ allegiance to U.S. capitalism and its state is the lie sold by leaders of AFSCME and the SEIU service workers union that cops and prison guards are fellow “workers,” organizing them into the unions. This is also the case with the bureaucrats atop the Teamsters and International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), whose Local 65 organizes Los Angeles port police—the very cops who would be used to break a longshore strike. The cops are the hired thugs of the capitalist rulers, charged with repressing labor and terrorizing the ghettos and barrios. Among the victims of these so-called “union brothers” are the black and minority members of the same unions, as well as their families. Cops and prison guards out of the unions!
Fearing that Janus threatens a further drop in membership and a decline in their economic and political clout, union officials have been scrambling to re-register members through “educational campaigns.” Amalgamated Transit Union locals have combined this effort with distributing dues checkoff authorization forms, hoping to minimize disruption to the dues income stream post-Janus.
We oppose the capitalist state abolishing dues checkoff or intervening in any other way into union affairs. But the whole checkoff system, where dues are automatically deducted from paychecks, hands the bosses control over the unions’ purse strings, giving them an instrument for financial blackmail. It originated during World War II, when, in exchange for their “no-strike” pledge to bolster war production, the CIO industrial union leaders negotiated with the National War Labor Board for “union security.” Under this formula, union members were bound to pay dues, usually under a checkoff arrangement. This deal was premised on subordination of the unions to the capitalist state. Under a class-struggle leadership, union reps would collect dues, which would help to make the leadership accountable to the ranks.
Every major labor battle shows the need for unions to rely on their own independent power, including control over finances. In the heat of an eleven-day New York City transit strike in 1980, Transport Workers Union Local 100 saw its dues checkoff taken away, and restored six months later after union leaders sold out work and safety standards. After a three-day Local 100 strike in 2005, dues checkoff was revoked in an attempt to bankrupt the union; it was restored three years later in return for a no-strike pledge.
A direct contrast was the effort made by the British National Union of Mineworkers to keep hold of its financial war chest during its historic 1984-85 strike. First, the union dispersed funds to banks and trusted workers leaders throughout Europe as a precautionary measure against seizure by the courts. After Margaret Thatcher’s government tracked down those funds, the union conducted its transactions in cash.
The industrial unions in this country were built through hard-fought class battles in defiance of anti-labor laws. Liberals and labor reformists claim that those unions were established by the grace of Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt and New Deal legislation such as the 1935 Wagner Act. In fact, while the Wagner Act secured some legal rights for unions in private industry, it specifically excluded public employees. Creating mechanisms for state supervision of union elections and other activities, the Wagner Act’s central purpose was to undercut class struggle. It came into effect as a response to the historic 1934 citywide strikes in Minneapolis, San Francisco and Toledo.
Those labor battles, which helped spur the growth of the CIO industrial unions later in the decade, were led by reds—supporters of the Trotskyist Communist League of America in Minneapolis, A.J. Muste’s American Workers Party in Toledo and the Communist Party in San Francisco. The strikes were virtual civil wars that pitted the mass of workers against the strikebreakers and their cop protectors. Strike leaders had to take on the conservative AFL union bureaucrats, who did the government’s bidding and had enforced the craft, ethnic and racial divisions that undermine workers’ struggles. As we wrote in a series of WV articles, reprinted in our 2015 pamphlet Then and Now: “What made the difference was that the workers were politically and organizationally armed by leaders who understood that the only possible road to victory lay in mobilizing their power as a class against the capitalist class enemy.”
A few leftists have made the argument, perverse as it is, that a Janus ruling against AFSCME could actually revitalize the unions by removing bureaucratic impediments to militancy. This is the line of “Do-It-Yourself Class Struggle” by United Federation of Teachers representative Kevin Prosen in Jacobin (2 March), a project of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Prosen writes that “by gutting the institutions of the union movement,” the right wing may also be “removing the brakes on much more explosive forms of worker activity.”
Gutting the unions has not led to “renewed volatility” among workers, as Prosen projects from the expected Janus decision. Rather, the implementation of union-busting legislation has meant the decimation of public-sector unions. After collective bargaining was abolished for state workers in Wisconsin in 2011, the rate of public-sector unionization plummeted by half, from over 50 percent to under 23 percent in 2016.
Janus was a major focus of the Labor Notes Conference held in Chicago in early April that drew some 3,000 trade unionists and leftists. Supporters of the social-democratic publication Labor Notes, as well as the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and other reformist groups, talked a lot about rank-and-file (or “bottom up”) activism as the answer to the business unionism of the top labor bureaucrats. To be sure, we could use a lot more militant labor action in this country. But the key to mobilizing workers in their own class interests is to break the political chains binding them to the exploiting class. Supporters of Workers Vanguard were the only ones at the conference who raised the call to break with the Democrats and build a class-struggle workers party.
From the opening session of the conference to its close, the same groups who cheered “bottom up” organizing—the DSA, Socialist Alternative, et al.—also cheered Bernie Sanders, a capitalist politician whose “socialist” garb has helped corral disaffected youth and workers into the Democratic fold (see “Bernie Sanders: Imperialist Running Dog,” WV No. 1083, 12 February 2016). And the DSA is itself a component of the Democratic Party. For all their talk of workers “rebellion,” these outfits share the same framework as the business unionists, seeking at most a better deal under this decrepit system of exploitation. Politically, this boils down to hitching the unions’ fate to “friend of labor” Democrats and relying on the courts and other arms of the state.
Recent teachers strikes in West Virginia and other Republican-run states had Labor Notes participants touting the “red state revolts.” WV supporters were applauded when they pointed out that workers are also under the gun in the very blue city where the gathering was being held, and that the Obama administration had spearheaded attacks on teachers unions and public education, with the complicity of the labor fakers. And the ISO, despite occasional complaints about the unions relying too heavily on the Democrats, is itself complicit. They blab on about “a revival of rank and file activity” to counter Janus, but when such activity hits close to home, it’s a different story. In 2016, ISO supporter Jesse Sharkey, who is currently running the Chicago Teachers Union, called off a much-anticipated strike by the membership and rammed through a concessionary contract, selling out the very rank and file he represents.
Militant union struggle can strike important blows against exploitation and austerity. But the key lies in making the working class conscious of its historic role as the gravedigger of the capitalist system and of class society as a whole. Such consciousness does not emerge spontaneously from the day-to-day struggles of the working class, which do not in themselves challenge the capitalist mode of production, but must be brought into the proletariat from the outside through the instrumentality of a revolutionary workers party. One militant trade-unionist and WV supporter speaking from the floor at a transit workers panel put it plainly: “What we need is a break with class collaborationism. We need to rebuild the type of radical unionism that understood that workers and bosses have nothing in common whatsoever. And on the way to that, we need to build a workers party, our own party, multiracial, that will fight for black rights, for immigrant rights and for a workers government.”