In Defence of Trotskyism - IS majority documents

The nature of the trade unions

Peter Taaffe

March 2019

Trotsky commented in the 1930s following the defeat of the Spanish revolution how ideological consciousness had been thrown back, not only in the mass organisations but even in the small ‘Marxist’ and ‘Trotskyist’ organisations.

The international debate within the CWI has unfortunately already revealed the same tendencies, particularly in the arguments of the ‘Non-Faction Faction’ on crucial issues such as the consciousness of the working class today, and the approach and attitude towards their own class organisations, the trade unions.

This has been clearly demonstrated in the original and later documents of both Kevin McLoughlin on behalf of the Irish leadership, and those of Andros P on behalf of the ‘whole’ Greek EC (including himself). Their argument runs that trade unions have been empty over a considerable period – had no real internal life with little or no opposition to the national leadership – and therefore it was correct to concentrate on building an alternative force amongst other movements: women, LGBTQI+, and ‘environmentalists’ – the new ‘vanguard’. Danny Byrne has come up with an additional ‘insight: that this was a ‘cunning plan’ of the Irish comrades to turn away from dead organisations like the trade unions and assemble a force outside the existing trade union structures from the intervention amongst women and LGBTQI+, ‘educate’ them and then turn them back to the unions to provide the necessary force to regenerate a rank and file militant union.

In his ignorance of history, he imagines this to be an entirely ‘unique’ and original approach. Actually, it is precisely pure ‘Mandelism’ to seek to use radicalised students to enter the unions and ‘electrify’ the masses. Moreover, it was tried by a motley variety of sects in the past. The only effect it had was to create a mood of suspicion amongst workers of these ‘educated’ interlopers in the factories, and question why they had deigned to ‘provide leadership’ to the working class in this way.

Under the whip of our criticism of their abandonment of a class approach, including systematic trade union work, a certain rapid ‘re-adjustment’ by the Greek and Irish organisations took place. Almost overnight, in place of an absence of reports of strikes and intervention on picket lines now these magically reappeared on their websites.

However this was just window dressing, as was indicated by the remarks at the debate in Dublin on 18 February 2019 by industrial workers who bitterly complained about the systematic neglect and even abandonment of trade union work over years.

One member of the biggest Irish trade union, SIPTU, pointed to the derogatory attitude adopted towards himself and others who did attempt to pursue regular trade union activity, including challenging the right wing within the union. His report was also vindicated by a number of worker comrades in the course of the discussion, as was the fact that the paper of the Irish organisation was not systematically sold at union conferences and trade union events.

He had been going to SIPTU conferences since 2011 but there had never been an organised party intervention, except for 2016, when it was discussing disaffiliation from Labour. SIPTU is the biggest union in Ireland with a third of all organised workers. The comrade said it was basic to have organised interventions yet he felt isolated in the union. The comrade did not need reminding that SIPTU was bureaucratic and rotten!

He did not subscribe to the view that we come back when things pick up. The comrade called for an organised approach to the biggest union in Ireland as there are openings and things can be done. For example, the 2013 SIPTU conference saw one third of delegates oppose the property tax despite all of the attacks on the motion. Ten to fifteen Socialist Party members working actively in SIPTU could do great things in the union.

Yet at the 2015 conference despite being 500 yards from our Cork centre there was no party intervention. Two important motions were taken on disaffiliation from Labour and for the union to turn to parties of the left. The comrade felt that a lot of trade union work in the party has been downgraded without consultation.

These charges were of course denied by the Irish leadership.

The comrades in Northern Ireland have pursued consistent and effective work in NIPSA, which resulted in a spectacular victory for us and the left. This was achieved despite conflict with and the effective opposition of some of the Irish leadership with leading NIPSA comrades on numerous issues, over a number of years.

However in complete distinction to these denials, we now have fresh confirmation of just how the unprincipled concessions to identity politics made by the leadership of these sections are not restricted to them alone. The corrosive effect is now clearly manifested in other sections who support the orientation of the Irish organisation, of a systematic rejection of effective long-term trade union work, particularly in the US. This has been shockingly revealed in the course of debates between representatives of the International Faction and the ‘Non-Faction Faction’.

One glaring example of this theoretical retreat is manifested in a letter which was sent by A of the US National Committee and part of the national leadership, to Lenny Shail from the England and Wales section and Matt Dobson from the Scottish section, who have given permission to quote from this letter on this crucial issue.

A firstly reports: “I’m just finishing up being out in Oakland for our massively successful intervention into the teachers strike here.” This strike, which has been widely reported in labour movement circles in the US and in the press, is very significant and is not just restricted to the West Coast but follows a series of strikes by teachers and others in many areas, representing possibly the re-emergence of the US working class. This in turn could hold out the possibility of important gains for a genuine Trotskyist Marxist organisation which had a clear programme and perspective for the struggle, and seeks to intervene in these disputes in a rounded-out Trotskyist manner.

A tells us of the intervention in the Oakland teachers strike but fails to display any of these qualities in his letter. He has certainly not learned the right lessons from the teachers’ strikes and those of others in the US recently.

He writes in criticism of us: “The comrades in the faction have retreated into a reactive, mechanical approach towards what is an incredibly complicated period for the working class. I raised at our NC that the risk of Grantism – applying a formula from a past political period to the current situation – is becoming inherent in the approach of the faction… I think this is reflected in the approach comrades have outlined in reference to the trade unions and working class struggle in general. The comparison has repeatedly been made between today’s situation and the situation in the mid-late 1960s – a situation in which there existed filled out mass reformist and Stalinist parties, trade unions and most importantly a large activist layer among the working class with a socialist consciousness”.

Bryan Koulouris made a similar comparison at our recent National Congress that in essence ‘Mandelism’ arose from a previous period whose chief characteristics according to him were those now described by A.

Every word here is a mistake and some are two! It is an oversimplification to describe the 1960s in this fashion and to lump in the quite different situation of the US at that stage with what existed in Europe and elsewhere. There certainly was not a ‘broad socialist consciousness’ in the US or elsewhere for that matter. The consciousness in the US was predominantly of reformist illusions in capitalism and it could not be otherwise given the biggest and largest boom of capitalism in its history. Even in Europe it was the ideas of ‘socialist’ reformism that held sway even, and particularly, in the mass Stalinist parties which were semi-reformist. There was, it is true, a certain support for the long-term idea of ‘socialism’, particularly amongst the more developed layers of the working class in the trade unions and at the base of the nominally ‘socialist’ or ‘Labour’ parties. It was this basic consciousness which led to Gaitskell’s attempt in 1959 to eliminate Clause IV, Part 4 of the Labour Party’s constitution, which enshrined the basic idea of socialism.

Mandelism is for us as Marxists shorthand for describing how even some formally-speaking ‘Trotskyists’, those who followed Ernest Mandel, sometimes in a ‘non-revolutionary’ period like the early 1960s can opportunistically and impatiently look for other forces than the working class to play the main role in social change and revolution: the peasantry, guerrillas, students, as ‘detonators of revolution’. In so doing, they abandoned in practice a revolutionary perspective. Such opportunist trends can appear not just in periods like the early 1960s but in any period including, and particularly, in a period of social upheaval and revolution. Moreover they can be manifested not just in outright ‘reformist’ forms but in centrism and the different varieties of centrism. All revolutions, not just the Russian Revolution but also the German and Spanish revolutions have revealed these trends , particularly in the leaderships of revolutionary organisations, which unless defeated and consistently warned against in advance can have disastrous results for the prospects of a future working-class victory. Therefore such ideas in our ranks have to be prepared against by us and fought tenaciously in advance in theory and particularly where they appear as a danger to the prospects of a successful socialist revolution.

A makes a similarly gross error when he ascribes to supporters of the International Faction what he calls ‘Grantism’ – I believe A is a former member of the ‘Grantite’ IMT and is in theoretical flight from his past – which he describes as “applying a formula from a past political period to the current situation”. Not everything Ted Grant did was right but he did play an invaluable role in defending the core of Marxist-Trotskyist ideas and perspectives in one of the most difficult political periods in history. And I was at one with him in this and still A in defending the central role of the working class – in opposition to identity politics. A would not be a member of the CWI if we – Ted Grant, myself and other comrades – had not walked away from the Mandelites’ false ideas and perspectives and turned towards the working class particularly the youth. Facile throwaway comments about a ‘formula’ demonstrates that he has understood nothing about the movements of the working class and how they relate to their basic organisations even in the US. Marxism basing itself on the working class as the main force of the socialist revolution is not a ‘formula’. It should be seen as the bedrock of a principled Trotskyist organisation.

He is condemned out of his own mouth when he writes: “Even with some union workers, whose unions are so thoroughly bureaucratised in many instances they ceased to have the characteristics of a workers’ organisation (this is the case with much of SEIU on the West Coast, whose biggest revenue comes not from membership dues but through investments in the biggest private hospital group in California – actually causing them to come out against a national single-payer healthcare system! There are some similarities with the UAW in the former auto manufacturing regions but not entirely). If we were to say in this instance to a radicalising SEIU worker involved in political demonstrations and movements that the trade unions could/should play a decisive role, it would be completely not understood as they don’t see their union as a vehicle for struggle. In this way, I think the argument about one third of Irish workers being in unions doesn’t mean much if they’re so thoroughly rotted that the consciousness is not even seeing them as useful for anything and we have to take that into account even if we know that those organisations could be used in a certain way if they were healthy”.

There you have it! Some workers do not see their union as a ‘vehicle’ for struggle which has ceased to have the “characteristics of a workers’ organisation”. Some, indeed many, of the unions in the US are bureaucratised, and some of them heavily so. Wow! Really we have to wait for A to inform us that the unions in the USA are hampered by a bureaucratic caste. And so are the unions in Britain, in Europe, in Africa and Latin America, etc. And this is enough for his sweeping conclusion that the official unions are cancelled out as effective weapons of struggle. We should not make demands on these bureaucratic trade union leaders. The message is that it is not possible for workers to fight effectively and reclaim these unions. Is this really the position of the industrial comrades in the US in the Teamsters, ATU and other unions?

Many are fighting to change the unions. A denies the history of the US section and some of its current work. It has laboured away over decades to try and create a basis for Marxism, and of course successfully linking this in the past to the idea of a new ‘labour’ or workers’ party. There is a clear turning away here from the working class organisations. The unions can play a key role within the socialist revolution, including in the US. In working within these organisations we have recognised the existence of the bureaucratic caste, as in the US, perhaps more so than in other countries. But what we also concluded that it was still necessary to recognise the unions as having a dual character: bourgeois at the top – ‘labour lieutenants of capital’ – but resting on a worker base. We have at all times tried to counterpose the base of the unions to the tops in order to push forward independent working class action. We have many examples of success in this regard; witness our successes in the NSSN and the PCS in Britain, and many others.

Moreover, the recent strike wave shows the possibility of this being repeated in the US and elsewhere. Vox, a liberal website based in the US, as have our comrades, reported on the strike of teachers in Oakland California. Vox wrote: “The Oakland strike gives momentum to a national trend playing out in red and blue states across the country. More than 100,000 public school teachers in six states have walked out of class in the past year, rebelling from years of stagnant wages, crumbling infrastructure, and deep budget cuts to education… So far, in 2019, teachers in three major cities have gone on strike, including Oakland, and nearly all of West Virginia’s teachers did too. The Los Angeles teachers strike shut down the nation’s second-largest school district for more than a week in January… More than 2,000 teachers in Denver went on strike for three days. The school district ended up giving educators an extra $23 million in pay and agreed to overhaul the compensation system, which relied heavily on annual bonuses.”

There have also been some informative, good reports on Socialist Alternative’s site too. The comrades write: “The Democratic Party establishment, backed by the billionaire class, has had an agenda of privatization and turning public schools into charter schools. Up until recently, this has been done behind closed doors, but the [Oakland Education Association (OEA)] has shed light on their plan and brought it fully out in the open for all of Oakland to now see and understand…

“Attacks on public education are happening all across the state. If the whole labor movement unites behind all teachers union locals, both AFT and NEA, up and down California for a one-day strike or sick-out to undo the state’s endorsement of the charterization of public schools, this would be a tremendous first step in building the state-wide movement that is necessary to stop the education privatization agenda of the billionaire class.”

In summarising the strike, the comrades write: “Unfortunately, the OEA leadership’s presenting of the TA as a decisive victory for the strike did have the effect of partially undercutting this important democratic measure, but robust discussion and debate occurred anyway. Meetups of teachers at various schools and clusters of schools based on region were set up by rank-and-file teachers, and statements were circulated via email and social media…

“If unions locally and nationally began to use the example set by Oakland teachers we could begin to stop attacks on our living standards and win victories in our workplaces, as we rebuild a fighting labor movement. Both the LA and Oakland strikes, which had a sharp political character and mobilized working class communities in a common struggle to fund public education and end privatizations, also point towards how we build a mass movement centered on the social power of the working class to win Medicare for All, affordable housing for all, free college and an end to mass incarceration.”

What is this but a call for the unions at all levels to mobilise for action both locally and also nationally by placing demand on the leadership of the unions at all levels? We support the initiative of rank-and-file activists but we also have to have a perspective for transforming the unions nationally, which A effectively writes off. Crude rank-and-filism alone will not succeed in Socialist Alternative becoming a major force in the US unions.

A’s letter reveals a disturbing vindication of what we originally raised in relation to Ireland, and has now spread to other sections, of at best the downgrading of the role of the working class and its organisations, particularly the trade unions and looking towards other forces to do the job. How else to explain his cloudy not to say inexplicable ‘formula’: “We must also avoid the mistakes (?!) of social democracy in looking to subordinate entirely the issue of special oppression, I think the false polarisation by the faction unfortunately has encouraged this. I was extremely disappointed with the balance of the article on Scottish Equal Pay victory for instance and attribute it entirely to the factional situation.”

His points in relation to this battle are farcical and way off the mark. Matt Dobson and Philip Stott have pointed out that our comrades played a leading role in this strike. Through this, we were able to get strikers to attend Socialism 2018 in London. This was a strike mainly of working class women, who instinctively and correctly appealed to the male workers to join them in the struggle. It was not, as Danny Byrne, in his eager embrace of identity politics, suggested, just “a feminist strike”. Moreover the strike was successfully led by our comrades in Scotland who quite correctly linked up the movement of the women and demands on conditions, equal pay and so on with the male workers. At the same time, they brought forward the ‘special oppression’ of women in general which resulted in increased support for the strike and the growth in the influence of our party.

The clear suggestion of A and others who agree with him is that our comrades in Scotland should have artificially injected into the strike additional demands related to ‘special oppression’ which the women workers had not first raised themselves. These workers understood the vital necessity of firstly winning and maintaining a common front with other workers. We have had a long history in Britain of fighting against separatism and for working-class unity in the workplace: fighting to overcome the splits between skilled and unskilled workers, racial and national divisions, etc. this is in contradistinction to the ultra-left sects who invariably intervened in workers’ struggles in a ham-fisted manner, particularly in those case like in Northern Ireland.

The approach of A and other US comrades who have attacked our work in Glasgow is no different of that of the SWP and union bureaucrats in Birmingham, who have constantly attempted to divide mainly female striking homecare workers from mainly male bin workers by constant and repeated claims that the homecare workers are only under attack because they are women. This is despite a small number of male homecare workers included in the workforce, and despite the repeated huge attacks facing the bin workers and other sections of the council workforce. Only through our comrades’ interventions were we able to win support and achieve a momentous joint strike day with huge hundreds-strong joint picket lines, against the position of the SWP and local UNISON bureaucracy.

This letter by A is a concession to identity politics at a time when the working class is stirring and there is a growing class polarisation which is developing in the US. This is not to ‘ignore’ or to ‘downplay’ – as the Non-Faction Faction suggests that we do – the special oppression of all specially oppressed layers but to skilfully link these together with the general struggles of the working class.

We say frankly that unless the approach of A is corrected, the US organisation will not be able to face up to the task of winning the decisive sections of the organised working class or the mass of workers to its banner.