Preface by Patrice Greanville
San Gindin has filed a thoughtful and timely piece on the question of concessions by the working class. Given the importance of this topic, I think a few words are required to place it in better perspective. Concessions have cumulatively devastated labor over decades of constant assault by the American ruling class and its political minions, with plenty of help from the corporate media and the courts, in other words, the bourgeois state, which in a corporate-dominated society —it bears repeating—functions primarily as the main instrument to guarantee the rule of the super-rich and their gross advantage.
This decline has been accentuated by the betrayal of the labor cause by union leaders themselves ——not all by any means— but by a significant number who preferred the “business unionism” model to actual class struggle. The abject, frothing-at-the-mouth jingoist anti-communist George Meany easily springs to mind, but there have been others, perhaps not as notorious as Meany, like Samuel Gompers, equally nefarious for the workers’ cause. Still, concessions and all they imply is only part of the picture. Concessions, however important they may seem in the heat of the moment, fall into the narrow trench of history, and they look backward, too. There’s a broader, always not quite accidentally forgotten framework for the discussions and struggles between labor and its class foe, the capitalists, a discussion that easily transcends the short-termer’s agenda revolving around jobs, jobs and only jobs. Fact is, jobs have become a sacred cow, an inviolable talisman to beat back an escalation of the discussion for those who profess to speak for labor, and the upshot is that such witting or unwitting myopia has ended up trumping the class struggle, since it confines the tug of war between the two antagonist classes only to the natural boundary of all trade unionist efforts, the immediate amelioration of the status quo. While this task is important it should never be allowed to co-opt the overarching task of the working class which is to come to power and eliminate class divisions once and for all. Reformism, no matter how highfalutin and pretentious in terms of “realism” can never birth a true revolution. Bourgeois reformism is a historically proven cul-de-sac.
Irish activist James Fearon, affiliated with socialistdemocracy.org, has zeroed in on precisely this aspect of the struggle. His study of Lenin yields immensely valuable insights:
The attempts in Ireland to establish a trade union activist network and in Britain the determined campaigning of the Grass Roots Left, suggests that rank and file trade unionists are on the move. These developments involve a great deal of confusion in the working class and a corresponding confusion on the part of socialists. Should we unite with the trade union bureaucracy and use the reformist ideas about a “better fairer way” to gain a hearing in a wider swathe of the union movement or should we put forward a working class programme even if it is not widely accepted.? If we are to face and defeat entrenched bureaucracies we require a clear view of the political landscape within which their corruption exists. With democratic governments being replaced by technocratic juntas in Europe and a nationalist response to the Euro crisis growing, the problems facing workers cannot be reduced to trade union issues. An approach that neglects political tasks will fail to enthuse the most political workers and leave others vulnerable to the misconception that vigorous trade unionism will automatically advance the socialist revolution. With this in mind it is perhaps appropriate to revisit Lenin, who spoke very clearly on spontaneity and trade union consciousness.
Lenin argued that any intervention by revolutionary socialists into labour ‘politics’, while relating to trade union consciousness, must transcend it. No doubt within the confines of spontaneity a degree of conscious advance can be gained and Lenin’s memorable line that “there is a difference between spontaneity and spontaneity” points to a degree of development, but not one that equates to a revolutionary consciousness. Lenin forcefully argued that socialist consciousness could only be brought to the struggle by drawing on Marxism and the understanding gained from history and especially the long history of struggle by the working class. It is for this reason that socialists intervening in labour struggles must not limit themselves to simply “trade union issues”. A danger exists in that immersion in the “too narrow” field of trade union work can cause revolutionaries to lose sight of themselves as political agitators. Lenin’s criticism of “economism” emphasized the fact that this work “taken by itself, is not in essence Social-Democratic (revolutionary) work, but merely trade union work.” Whereas, trade union work should serve as “a beginning and constituent part” of socialists’ work, losing sight of their revolutionary political tasks means they abrogate their political responsibility to represent the working class in relation “to the state as an organised political force.” Failing to raise acute political demands means failing to confront all aspects of class oppression and Lenin consistently argued that, “We must actively take up the political education of the working class and the development of its political consciousness.”
Failure to present a revolutionary programme to workers in struggle can be expressed by affording trade union struggles a “political character”. As in Lenin’s time this theoretical flaw does not “so much deny the political struggle as bow to its spontaneity, to its lack of consciousness”. This position is partly arrived at because spontaneity itself produces a degree of politicisation due to the fact that “the workers themselves are beginning to understand who the government supports”. Confronting the state can as easily, however, end in compromise. Accumulated economic demands will not automatically spill over into revolution and it is the objective of socialist revolutionaries to “convert” these “flashes of political consciousness” into the struggle for socialism. The central economist theoretical mistake that “politics always obediently follow economics” is correct only in relation to reformism, revolutionary socialism will not develop spontaneously. Lenin argues that adapting to trade union consciousness means subservience to bourgeois politics; “The spontaneous labour movement by itself is able to create (and inevitably will create) only trade unionism, and working class trade union politics are precisely working class bourgeois politics”. Or to put it another way, socialists who limit the demands they place before the workers’ movement to ‘trade union issues’ are degrading socialist politics to simple reformism by objectively “converting the labour movement into an instrument of bourgeois democracy.”
Yes, as Fearon indicates, to confine the whole global struggle against capital to mere concessions of one kind or another, to temporary relief from the tightening garrote, is to choose vassalage and eventually death. Trade unionism looks backward because in the first place it is non-Marxian, and by that I mean it chooses to remain ignorant about history’s forces, chiefly the class struggle, and secondly because, in Luddite fashion, it refuses to recognize that technology, being only applied science (and the desire of human knowledge irrepressible), is here to stay. Thus anyone sensible can bet that technology in the form of ever more refined automation will go on eliminating jobs because all modern technology is designed with maximum efficiency as its main selling point. This will happen no matter how loudly anyone protests. So the real issue is not how to preserve a static pool of jobs or stop science; the pool is liable to shrink regardless of what we do. The real issue is how to preserve and expand incomes, while working less, not more, both of which are made possible by higher productivity. Productivity is a friend of humanity, not its enemy. Problem is, as any Marxian knows, under the capitalist system social relations, due to the cockamammy way in which the national income is distributed, almost the entirety of this gain is appropriated by the ruling 0.001%. This means that while a puny minority grabs an ever larger share of the social pie, the losing side is presented with more unemployment and more underemployment, in effect a denial of access to such gains. With such political rules in effect the richest percentile’s income continues to rise while those of the middle class remain flat or decline, and those of the poor plummet. Does this picture sound familiar?
In reality, the fact is that in an egalitarian, worker-dominated nation (read real socialism), the question of jobs, which after all are only a mechanism to share in the national pie, with the salaries and wages being simply claims on the mountain of goods and services turned out by the entire productive apparatus of society, of which they are the critical component—would take a back seat to the more important question: how is humanity to distribute the increasing amount of goods made possible by nonstop improvements in technology and productivity? A former colleague, Dr. Susan Rosenthal, summed up the dilemma thusly:
By 2000, U.S. workers took half the time to produce all the goods and services they produced in 1973. If the benefits of this rise in productivity had been shared, most Americans could be enjoying a four-hour work day, or a six-month work year, or they could be taking off every other year from work with no loss of pay. (See, Globalization: Theirs or Ours?)
She didn’t need to mention that under such conditions unemployment in all its forms would quickly become history, and the road would open—at last—to envisage the true potential of humanity.
Wrap your minds about that little fact for a while.—Patrice Greanville
Concessions Have Gutted Organized Labour
At the end of the 1970s, just before the era of concessions began, the U.S. section of the United Auto Workers included some 700,000 members at the Big Three (GM, Ford and Chrysler). In each subsequent round of bargaining, the union accepted concessions in exchange for the promise of ‘job security.’ Today, after three decades of this charade – sold by the union as well as the companies – there are 110,000 UAW members left at these companies, a stunning loss of almost 85 per cent of the jobs.
The Canadian section of the union resisted this direction for a time. In fact, it was tensions over the response to concessionary demands that led in 1985 to the Canadians breaking away from their parent and establishing the Canadian Auto Workers. As it turned out, the new union did somewhat better in terms of jobs for a significant period, but today their numbers too are dramatically down: from some 70,000 at the end of the 1970s to under 21,000 today, a fall of some two-thirds.
Since the early 1980s, real productivity in the Canada-U.S. auto industry (i.e. after discounting for inflation) has more than doubled. Real wages, on the other hand, have actually fallen in the U.S. and only increased moderately in Canada.
Worse for New Hires
For new workers, the change is even more shocking. An American autoworker hired at the Big Three today will be working at a lower inflation-adjusted wage than he or she would have gotten a half-century ago. In Canada, the real starting rate will now be 12 per cent below where it was when the Canadians split from the Americans a generation ago. And whereas new workers could expect to reach the top rate in 18 months then, they will now have to wait 10 years.
There are four crucial lessons to be taken from all this.
First, it is simply not credible to argue that concessions are a strategy for autoworkers ‘ultimately’ achieving a better life. Concessions not only increase inequality and dampen demand, leaving corporations reluctant to invest, but also are a diversion from addressing what really needs to be done to create jobs.
Second, the great productive potential of this sector cannot be met if we restrict that potential to making cars. With productivity improvements in the auto industry of 3 per cent per year when long-term demand is growing at less than 2 per cent per year, jobs will inevitably shrink over time – and this is aside from whether we really want or can sustain more cars on the road.
Rather than watching the disappearance of the productive assets we have in this sector, we should be talking about how to convert its flexible tools and equipment, creative engineering capacity and proven worker skills into meeting the obvious needs that environmental pressures will imply through the rest of the century.
Such transformations will have to include not just our energy and transportation systems, but also our factories and offices, the nature of our homes and appliances. This cannot happen, as experience shows, through reliance on markets and unilateral corporate decisions; a sustainable future demands placing some notion of democratic planning back on the agenda. (The technical feasibility of such changes was demonstrated as long ago as World War II when industries were converted to war production and back again in remarkably short periods.)
Renewed Labour Movement?
Third, it is hard to imagine a significant move in this direction without a push from a renewed labour movement. Unions themselves need to radically rethink their structures and role as representatives of working people. It isn’t enough to lament corporate and government attacks or to look to better PR or technical fixes. Two-tier wages for the same work, for example, alienate the very young workers on whom unions depend for their revival, and that lack of solidarity within the workplace destroys credibility in promises of broader solidarities beyond the workplace.
Unions will have to demonstrate in practice that they are leaders in the fight for needed social services, that they have ideas for job creation, and that they are ready to put their organizational resources into winning such directions. The right has radically and aggressively championed an agenda that has brought greater inequality and greater insecurity for working people. Only an equally radical and determined response can reverse this course.
Finally and more generally, we must come to grips with the fact that private investment is not going to lead us out of the immediate economic crisis. Though productivity has grown and costs have been restrained, the resultant hordes of cash – as has been much noted – are only sloshing around in corporate treasuries or in the financial ether. Neither further cuts in interest rates nor tax cuts will change this reality. Only direct government intervention in massive infrastructural spending and the expansion of needed public services will create jobs – and induce the private sector, in spite of itself, to meet the consequent spending. •
Sam Gindin is retired from the CAW, where he served as assistant to the president. He is the co-author with Leo Panitch of the recently released The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of the American Empire (Verso, 2012). This article first appeared in the Toronto Star.
“What if I told you” is paraphrased from the Matrix movie… it’s not an exact quote, but it sounds like something the Morpheus character would say to Neo.
And the second quote about “class struggle” is by Marx and/or Engels from the Communist Manifesto:
Hence the image of Marx (as Morpheus) reminding us all about the most important and inescapable fact of our existence in a class-divided society – class struggle.
TWO ORIGINAL COMMENTS
#4 Garry Lawrence 2012-09-27 09:17 EDT
Sam on the Mark(x) about Concessions
Insightful anaylsis – as usual. Our union bureaucrats are very short sighted not to mention stuck on reformist solutions to capitalism. I’m not sure the current crop of leaders have the political desire to rise their role in the capitalist system and ferment class struggle. Union activists must enourage young people – not be complicit in slashing their wages! I have faith in our youth to transform not just our unions but our society.
Nice picture of Karl too. Was that a quote from Karl or Sam? (I didn’t see a reference) :-)
#3 Jim Reid 2012-09-27 09:08 EDT
To blame concessions alone for job loss in the auto industry is a huge stretch that ignores key factors such as imbalanced trade, foregn competition producing vehicles in North America, hugely restrictive rights to organize, especially in US right to work states and the arrogant, narrow behaviours of D-3 companies that until 10 years ago put out an inferior product. As well the move to automation and outsorcing of everythng from parts production to who cleans the toilets has also been a key driver in the reduction of D-3 auto jobs.
It is the Unions reaction both in Canada and the US that brings into question their efficacy and their continued role of representing autoworkers both inside and outside of the Union. The previous CAW orthodoxy of no concessions and fighting back has given way to self preservation. To what end? We know that history teaches concessions beget concessions and that may be the most valuable point of the article. The question is what will stop the Union’s slide to irrelevance.
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