The battle at the Big Three is an acid test for those calling themselves socialists, and the rest of the left has failed miserably. The job of socialists in the labor movement is to fight for a class-struggle strategy and socialist leadership right now. The defining feature of such a leadership is its ability to guide the day-to-day workers struggle in a manner that advances the immediate and historic interests of the working class as a whole.
Crucial to this task is fighting to split workers away from the existing pro-capitalist union leaders, like UAW head Shawn Fain, who is leading the strike as though it is possible to get a “fair share” for the membership without in any way challenging capitalism itself. At the moment, Fain is relatively popular among auto workers—he has not only raised demands that would reverse major union concessions of the past but also initiated a strike against all three automakers, even if he is rolling it out in stages. The problem, though, is that the conditions of the working class cannot be qualitatively improved while respecting the objective of the U.S. ruling class to economically dominate the world. As a result, Fain’s brand of militant trade unionism is an obstacle, both to a victorious UAW strike and to making progress toward socialism.
The union demands can be won only by broadening the struggle, drawing in other workers and the oppressed masses, to land blows against the imperialist rulers and weaken their position. For that, a leadership opposed to imperialism with a concrete counterposed strategy to Fain’s is vitally necessary. Our proposal to auto workers is to organize a general strike in Detroit to end tiers, reindustrialize the country and fight for black liberation. We aim to show not just that workers struggle and the black struggle go forward together or fall back separately but also that the underlying problem is capitalism, from which it follows that a revolutionary leadership is needed to uphold the interests of the working class and black people against the class enemy.
In contrast, every single one of the so-called socialist groups in this country is pushing the pure-and-simple trade unionism (economism) of Fain and the rest of the UAW bureaucracy. Take Socialist Alternative (SAlt). Its main beef with Fain is over the scale of the strike: they cheered his earlier “aggressive approach” and now criticize his “backpedaling.” SAlt openly rejects the need for socialist leadership in the strike and instead focuses on pressuring Fain to wage more robust economic struggle—a betrayal of the UAW strike and of the socialist cause.
IG: Centrist Cover for Economism
The whole content of our article and call for a general strike in Detroit is explicitly directed at exposing the bankruptcy of economism in the imperialist epoch, and it is particularly important to unmask those who cloak militant trade unionism in revolutionary phraseology, blurring the line between reform and revolution. Notable in this regard is the Internationalist Group (IG), which concludes its UAW strike article (14 September) by declaring:
Despite this formally correct statement, the IG’s purpose is not to fight for a class-struggle leadership in opposition to the Fain bureaucracy.
How can this be? The IG advocates class-struggle leadership, but its actual practice runs counter to its stated goal. Declarations of intent, or even the sum of revolutionary-sounding statements, do not constitute a fight for revolutionary leadership. To be on that track, it is necessary to struggle to break the UAW from the reformist shackles holding it back, which can only be accomplished by proposing an entirely different strategy for the union. This is what distinguishes authentic revolutionaries from centrists who recite all manner of Marxist lessons but abdicate leadership to the union bureaucracy.
The duty of revolutionaries is to reveal to workers what it is going to take to advance their struggle by exposing the deceptions of the bureaucracy. At the moment, the primary deception is that a strike for purely economic ends by auto workers alone can substantially improve their living standards in the context of U.S. imperialism in decline. Rather than present a clear class-struggle program for the strike to win in order to cut against this economism, the IG instead feeds the deception.
When it comes to the course they advocate for the strike, the article does not in any way motivate why UAW workers need a class-struggle leadership. The IG’s main call is for an “all-out strike” to shut down the Big Three in contrast to the union leadership’s “token ‘strike’ at just three (!) plants.” To be sure, all auto workers should be out, but Fain’s rolling strike strategy is a symptom of his reformist outlook and not in itself his main betrayal. In fact, Fain is perfectly capable of expanding the scope of the strike, as he has already done. And what if he calls everyone out? Fain would then be doing exactly what the IG asks of a “class-struggle leadership” in this strike.
The IG’s call for an all-out auto strike (or for that matter SAlt’s to “escalate the strike”) does not provide a basis to build a revolutionary opposition to Fain. The key to winning the strike is not better tactics—that is, how well the battle as conceived by the UAW bureaucracy is conducted—but rather the right conception of the battle as an all-out confrontation with the ruling class. Fain launched the “standup strike” to pressure the automakers to cough up better terms at the negotiating table. The response of the IG and other left groups can be summed up as: To get better terms, apply more pressure, immediately! In other words, the problem is not Fain’s pro-capitalist perspective, which is the basis for his strike strategy, but the timetable for its implementation.
Unlike, say, SAlt, the IG makes points that go beyond simple trade unionism, but they are disconnected from the struggle at hand. For example, the IG discusses at some length how Fain won his post as part of a union-suing caucus in an election run by the Department of Labor. Opening the UAW’s door to the capitalist state is criminal—it has given the class enemy access to and control over union affairs. That said, the IG’s polemic against Fain’s history of collaboration with the capitalist state, while plenty orthodox, avoids political combat on the main issue: Fain’s economism. Union-suing is the outgrowth of this reformist viewpoint. No matter how militant, any union leader who does not aspire to workers rule will get sucked into trying to enlist the repressive state apparatus to their advantage.
Tellingly, the IG does not at any point polemicize against or outline a revolutionary alternative to the trade-union reformism of the labor bureaucracy and its left hangers-on. This is glaring when the IG addresses black oppression. Fain & Co. avoid the fight against racial oppression in the context of the strike mobilization because it is supposedly divisive to the working class. From within the narrow bounds of economism—which seeks to gain only a few crumbs from the capitalist table—advancing the cause of black people must necessarily come at the expense of white workers. This leads to not confronting racial divisions, allowing them to fester and grow and giving the bosses a mighty weapon to cut down the strike. But when the conflict is approached from the standpoint of a clash with U.S. capitalism itself, it becomes not only possible but necessary to tie the cause of working-class emancipation to the fight for black equality.
In contrast, all the IG offers is a call to link these two struggles that is entirely compatible with Fain’s strike strategy: “To win against the giant auto/truck corporations will require a struggle in which the almost 150,000 UAW auto workers, with a class-struggle leadership, connect this fight with that of all the oppressed sectors in this rotting capitalist system, and with our sisters and brothers internationally.” But you don’t need a class-struggle leadership to “connect” the UAW and oppressed more generally or issue platitudes of solidarity. The day before the strike, Fain himself declared: “We fight for the good of the entire working class and the poor.” Absent a program to break down the walls of segregation as decisive to the strike, the IG is not planting a revolutionary pole against Fain. Rather, it is giving a left cover to the union bureaucracy.
The UAW strike has the potential to be a turning point for the black and working masses in this country—the kickoff to a labor counteroffensive against a ruling class that has been relentlessly hammering at them. It is urgently necessary for socialists to build a real opposition to the trade-union bureaucracy within the UAW. In the current explosive situation, a class-struggle leadership in auto could be the foundation on which a revolutionary party in the U.S. is built.