Over the past decades the employers’ offensive has been fierce and unrelenting. Companies laid off workers, attacked unions and demanded concessions. Governments of both parties supported this assault by eroding labour standards, de-regulating industries, privatising social services and permitting job out-sourcing.The union bureaucracy was used to negotiating wages and benefits. It recoiled from the prospect of fighting an all-out class war to challenge the right of employers to profit at workers’ expense. So it accepted employers’ demands for concessions, no matter how deep, in the hope that once profitability was restored, lost ground could be regained. Emboldened by the weakness of the unions, employers demanded more concessions, even as the economy boomed and profits soared. In essence, the union bureaucracy imposed the employers’ agenda on their own members. Workers who fought back were fired and black-listed. With few notable exceptions, strikes were defeated, union drives failed and workers became demoralised. The proportion of workers in unions sank. As a result, workers continue to lose ground.
Employers could not have defeated the working class without the support of the union bureaucracy. All traditional trade unionists, radical and conservative alike, understood that an effective strike had to stop production. However, by the 1980s, most union officials had adopted “a management-inspired view” of striking, where workers abide by the law, rely primarily on moral pressure, and are easily defeated. Without the traditional tactics of solidarity and stopping production behind them, none of these strategies have proven powerful enough to make an employer suffer economically and resulted in a weak labour movement that functions within the existing system instead of trying to breaking free of that system. Over the decades, employers have relied on the compliance of union leaders to drive down the living standards of the entire working class. Seeking to protect their power base, and unwilling to fight the employers, union bureaucrats choose instead to sacrifice the class they profess to represent and to their ever-lasting discredit, union officials adopted the capitalist model of turf war, each set of union bureaucrats fighting to increase its membersip and dues share, to grow its own union at the expense of other unions and the labour movement as a whole. Millions of dollars of union funds and countless union-hours were squandered on lawyers, consultants and advertisers not to fight for workers’ rights but to battle other unions and to dominate the rank and file. Applying management union-busting tactics, bureaucrats attacked any local branch and any militant who fought for democratic control of their union. The many were sacrificed to benefit the combined power of the capitalist class and the union bureaucracy few.
The union bureaucracy is a structure apart from the working class and with a separate interest – preserving itself. The union bureaucracy cannot lead the fight against the employers, not because of wrong ideas, but because (unlike its members) the bureaucracy has a stake in the capitalist system. Breaking laws would bring fines that would deplete union funds and threaten officials’ salaries and careers. Union bureaucrats cannot challenge the labour laws that hold workers down without risking the union assets that fund their careers. In other words, protecting their wealth and social status is more important than protecting their members. Bosses scheme to put union bureaucrats in their pockets and make them tools of management. Many union officials have become full partners in the exploitation of workers. You expect the boss to shaft you. You don’t expect your union leader to stab you in the back.
Fortunately, unions are more than buildings, golf courses and bank accounts. All of these could be lost without losing the essential core of unionism – class solidarity. If fighting to win means sacrificing union “assets,” then that is what must happen. Unions cannot allow themselves to be held back by a bureaucratic structure that protects its wealth more than its members. However, unions cannot be democratised, or remain islands of democracy, in a class-divided society. All capitalist social institutions are constructed to prevent the working-class majority from exercising any real control over the matters that shape their lives. The demand for democratic unions can only be realised in the context of the fight for a truly democratic society – one that is collectively controlled by the majority working class
Unions and social movements such as Ocupy that joined forces to advance working-class concerns we would be a mighty force. Unions are currently too weak to challenge the employers, let alone lead a more general class uprising. Bogged down today’s unions are incapable of advancing their members’ economic demands, let alone championing the political rights of workers and the oppressed.
When our brothers and sisters are laid off, we should refuse as much overtime as possible. No more favors. No more rush jobs. Workers rule when they work to rule. Work to rule is a method of slowing production by following every rule to the letter. Work to rule is an invocation for workers to govern collectively, to control the conditions of their labor. When workers work to rule, human rights take precedence over property rights. When workers work to rule, the bosses find out who really runs the plant, who keeps the machines humming, production flowing, and the money coming in. We’ll get change when we break all the rules that keep us chained to the machine that extracts money out of poverty, illness and war. We’ll get change, real change, when workers lead the way.