The Labor Bureaucracy
Sometimes union leaders get paid as much as a boss. They wheel and deal with the politicians in the back rooms like a boss. When it comes time to call a strike or fight hard for a better contract, sometimes you think they are listening to the boss.
But are the labor bureaucrats really the same as the bosses? The bureaucrats depend on the existence of the unions for their jobs, and so are forced to fight the bosses enough to keep unions intact. In fact, in order for the antagonisms of class society to be maintained, the existence of a labor bureaucracy is necessary.
Bureaucrats are caught between the workers and the bosses. On the one hand, they want to keep the workers quiet; because the more organized the workers are against the bosses, the more they have the power to take away the bureaucrats’ privileges. On the other hand, the bureaucrats cannot work completely for the bosses, because the bosses are generally opposed to the very existence of unions. Even buying the bureaucrats off costs the bosses money. The bosses’ struggle against the unions, however, is as much about maintaining power as it is about immediate profit margins.
The bureaucrats often take the bosses’ side. They may hold the union back, stop it from organizing new workers and encourage workers to participate in less-threatening political ac- tion. Much of the top leadership of the traditional AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions are unwilling to engage in a serious fight against the bosses. These leaders are often guilty of backroom deals with the boss that cut the workers out of the process and sell working-class interests short.
Real rank-and-file leadership is still visible in some independent unions and at the local level of some of the traditional unions. The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, International Longshore Workers Local 10, United Steelwork- ers Local 8751 (Boston School Bus Drivers), and many others around the country offer a glimpse of what the labor movement could achieve if rank-and-file workers were empowered.
The bureaucrats often support the bosses’ imperialist wars. For the labor movement, there is a real danger of drawing national chauvinistic and protectionist conclusions from objective developments that divert the struggle away from the companies. The labor bureaucrats do nothing to avoid this crisis; in fact, they usually fall prey to it by building campaigns around “American-Made” products and providing misleading information to workers about the benefits of supporting the anti- worker, pro-war Democratic Party. Many resources are divert- ed from the organizing of workers into unions and put into canvassing campaigns to support Democratic Party candidates.
How did these class-collaborationist labor bureaucrats get control of the unions, which were born out of the bitter struggles of workers for their basic rights?
The main reason they were able to gain control was by win- ning support from the more privileged and skilled workers, who do not typically suffer from national or special oppres- sions. The bureaucrats, most of whom came from this more privileged section of the working class have been bought off by the extra money and privileges that the ruling class had to offer as a result of the super-profits they had made from imperialism. They used the unions to defend these privileges before anything else. So, indirectly, the ruling class was able to buy off a part of the workers.
Still, without the unions the bureaucrats are nothing. With the growing economic crisis, the pressure is on them to act. And if they want to keep their jobs, they’re going to have to fight the bosses. Because if they can’t keep up with the struggle of the rank and file, they are going to be waiting on the unemployment lines like everybody else!
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