February 2009   

Why Marxists Oppose All Government
Intervention in the Unions

One group that falsely lays claim to the heritage of Trotskyism, the Spartacist League (SL), recently published an article, “Why Marxists Support the EFCA” (Workers Vanguard, 30 January). Without saying so directly, this “corrects” the SL’s previous position against the “card check” bill (see WV, 8 December 2006). It also revisits an article in Workers Vanguard (8 October 1976), back when it stood on the program of revolutionary Marxism. That article noted that in 1935 when Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), “Trotskyists opposed the Wagner Act as a threat to labor’s ability to strike.” According to today’s “post-Trotskyist” WV, “In fact, as far as we know, the Trotskyists neither explicitly supported nor opposed the Wagner Act.” This is so much horse manure.

In the first place, the 1976 Workers Vanguard article extensively quoted from the Trotskyists’ New Militant (6 July 1935), which wrote:

“Under this bill a National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] is to be set up to ‘enforce’ collective bargaining, etc. Thus the way is paved for eventual greater control of government over the unions.... [T]he basic concern of these government agencies is never that of enforcing the rights of the workers, but that of maintaining ‘industrial peace,’ in other words, preventing strikes or if they break out somehow, ‘settling’ them, getting the workers back to work as quickly as possible.

“Thus these government boards become in effect strike-breaking agencies even under the best conditions. The workers will not get salvation from the Wagner bill. They must now as ever fight the entire system for which it stands. They will get nothing except that which they can take by their organized strength and militancy.”

Trotskyists in the 1930s didn't oppose the Wagner Act? See for yourself. Article from the New Militant (4 May 1935).

The 1976 WV article also pointed out that in 1935, the “even the Communist Party came out against the Wagner Act.” It quoted the CP’s Daily Worker (6 July 1935) saying:

“The Wagner Bill does NOT guarantee (except in words) the right to organize.... On the contrary, the bill sets up compulsory arbitration machinery that can be used to prevent and break strikes and to tie labor hand and foot.”

And if the editors of WV had bothered to check, they would have found another article in the New Militant (4 May 1935), titled “The Meaning of the Wagner Bill – A Noose for Labor.”

While opposing the Wagner bill, the Trotskyists did say that its passage could give the impression “that unionization will get government support and so to stimulate organizing campaigns and strikes.” In that case “militants will take advantage of the situation” so that workers can “learn the true nature and function of all capitalist governments.” Genuine Marxists (i.e., Trotskyists) oppose any mechanisms of government control of labor, whether by card check or NLRB-supervised “elections.” A real union organizing drive would rest on mobilizing the workers’ strength in action, including possible strike action. Given the balance of forces and the need for unions to function in the capitalist legal framework, it may be necessary to make use of or participate in such procedures. But the tactical issue of how to deal with mechanisms for government certification once they are law is very different from calling for passing a law that slightly modifies but maintains those mechanisms.

The latter-day Spartacist League now says that while supporting the EFCA, it opposes the compulsory arbitration provisions, which provide for an initial two-year contract imposed by the government if the union and employer cannot agree. However, in order to pretend that this is not such a big deal, the SL claims that “there are no legal prohibitions in the EFCA to prevent strike action during this four-month period” of negotiations leading up to the binding arbitration. This ignores legal precedent that will surely be used against the workers. The Supreme Court has ruled (in Gateway Coal Co. v. UMW, 414 US 368 [1974]) “that the arbitration clause created an implied no-strike clause,” and thus a strike was not legally protected and could be ruled an unfair labor practice. And even if the union could legally strike, under the EFCA the outcome would still be subject to arbitration!

The SL’s argument is just eyewash to hide the fact that it is supporting a bill to modify, but still retain, a key element of state control of the unions under the NLRA. Since one can assume that in hard-fought cases the employers will not agree to a contract, in practice this means that, while pretending to oppose binding arbitration, these pseudo-Trotskyists favor a system that will result in two years of government-dictated contracts.

It is telling that while the latest WV article quotes from Trotsky’s 1940 essay on “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay,” it doesn’t mention the demand that he considered key, for “complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state.” This is no academic matter. The most militant major labor struggle under U.S. jurisdiction in recent years, the strike by the Puerto Rican Teachers Federation (FMPR) in February-March of last year, was precisely against the colonial government’s Law 45, which bans strikes by public employees. The SEIU then sought to oust the FMPR using the union certification procedures of that law similar to those of the NLRA (see “Puerto Rican Teachers: Unbought and Unbowed,” The Internationalist No. 27, May-June 2008). The militant teachers union was decertified, but the ranks were able defeat the government-back SEIU affiliate in the subsequent election because they were prepared to defy this anti-labor law.

If the “card check” bill is passed (and the new administration has not been pushing this), it may make union organizing somewhat easier. However, many companies unionized under this procedure in recent years have been offered sweetheart deals by the unions in exchange, particularly by the SEIU. It is also possible that the election of Barack Obama with his vague talk of “change” could encourage some labor activists to struggle. This played a role in the recent Republic Windows and Doors plant occupation in Chicago (see “Chicago Plant Occupation Electrifies Labor,” The Internationalist supplement, 15 December 2008). But any effort to wage serious labor struggle in key sectors – such as the auto plants slated to be closed and the undermining of the health and pension fund being demanded of the UAW – will require a leadership built on a program of hard class struggle that is prepared to oppose the Obama government down the line. And that means ousting the present sellout labor bureaucracy whose entire policy is to chain the unions to the bourgeois Democratic Party and the capitalist state.

See also:  Obama Presidency: U.S. Imperialism Tries a Makeover  (23 February 2009)
The “Obama Socialists” (23 February 2009)
Not a “New New Deal,” But a Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (23 February 2009)
Barack Obama vs. Black Liberation  (23 February 2009)

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com