Civil Wars Ignores the Political Lessons

In the opening chapter of Steve Early’s The Civil Wars in US Labor: Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or Death Throes of the Old? (Haymarket, 2011), he states his goal for this book:  “to explore, through interviews, what my own New Left generational cohort set out to achieve in unions, what we have and haven’t accomplished, and what useful lessons might be derived from this collective experience by younger activists more recently arrived in the ‘house of labor.’” (p.21)

Early makes a solid case for democratic unions, ending the book with a call for rank-and-file controlled unions as the superior choice over corporate-style, top-down unions.

The vast majority of workers would agree with Early’s prescription, and in a democratic society, it would be a done deal. However, as with most matters under capitalism, the majority get no choice.

The major weakness of Civil Wars is that it doesn’t explain why a generation of activists failed to democratize the unions and what the next generation of activists must do differently to avoid repeating that failure.

Early does a fine job of explaining who did what to whom in meticulous detail, but he fails to locate these details in an accurate historical context.

Early describes how, after the decline of the social movements in the 1970s,

“…thousands of veterans of anti-war activity, the civil rights movement, feminism, and community organizing migrated to workplaces and union halls with the professed goal of challenging the labor establishment… the largest radical presence in the unions since the 1930s, when members of the Communist Party and other left-wing groups played a key role in the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).” (p.1-2)

Unfortunately, the 1970s was not the 1930s, and the New Left was not the Communist Party.

The 1930s followed the crash of 1929. The Great Depression created mass deprivation and the economic boom in the Soviet Union gave credibility to communists in the labor movement. The link between the labor movement and the socialist movement was key to the rise of industrial unions in America.

In contrast, the 1970s followed decades of economic expansion that enabled a sizable union bureaucracy to develop. And while the 1960s generation was radicalized by the fight for Civil Rights and the US war in Vietnam, the twin legacies of McCarthy in America and Stalin in the Soviet Union had driven socialists out of the unions and discredited the revolutionary left.

While mass movements won real gains for the working class in the 1960s, the capitalist class regrouped during the 1970s and launched a broad-based class war to regain lost ground. Cut off from the socialist tradition, the New Left was unable to counter the assaults of the capitalist class and the conservatism of the union bureaucracy.

As Early points out, the employers’ offensive was fierce and unrelenting. Companies laid off workers, attacked unions and demanded concessions. Governments of both parties supported this assault by eroding labor standards, deregulating industries, privatizing social services and supporting job migration.

The union bureaucracy was used to a more friendly terrain on which it could negotiate wages and benefits. It recoiled from the prospect of fighting an all-out class war that challenged the right of the capitalists to profit at workers’ expense.

Despite the escalating attacks, union leaders continued to uphold their end of a social contract that no longer existed. They accepted employers’ demands for concessions, no matter how deep, in the hope that once profitability was restored, they would regain lost ground. However, the employers continued to demand concessions, even as the economy boomed and profits soared.

Workers who fought back were fired, and combative unions were decertified. With a few notable exceptions, strikes were defeated, union drives failed and workers became demoralized. The proportion of workers in unions sank into the single digits.

In the face of such defeats, why have union bureaucrats consistently refused to fight? Early provides the usual liberal explanation – that union leaders are simply wedded to the wrong strategy.

A class analysis reveals something different.

The union bureaucracy cannot lead the fight against the employers, not because of wrong-headed ideas, but because the bureaucracy occupies a managerial or middle-class position between capital and labor. Its continued existence depends on the continued exploitation of union members and its role in negotiating the terms of that exploitation. The union bureaucracy cannot challenge capitalism without threatening its own existence, so it must promote conciliation.

The capitalist class understands the true nature of union officialdom. Over the past four decades, employers have relied on the compliance of union leaders to drive down the living standards of the entire working class.

Despite their passivity, union bureaucrats could not allow their membership base to disappear because they need members’ dues to sustain their elevated social position and lavish lifestyles. They couldn’t rally union members to fight the employers without compromising their own middle-class position, so the only other option was to advance themselves at their members’ expense.

To their everlasting discredit, top union officials adopted the capitalist model of turf wars, takeovers and amalgamations. Embracing this ‘compete or die’ strategy, each set of union bureaucrats fought to increase its market share, that is, to grow its own union at the expense of other unions and the labor movement as a whole.

Civil Wars describes in great detail the corruption, back-stabbing, power-grabbing, opportunistic alliances that have marked these turf wars among American unions.

Early explains how the corporate model of organizing was presented as a means to advance workers’ interests (“justice for all”) when it was actually fought at their expense. Millions of dollars in members’ dues and countless union-hours were squandered on lawyers, consultants, politicians, smear campaigns, court battles, settlements, and security forces – not to fight for workers’ rights but to battle other unions and to dominate the rank and file.

The struggle for better contracts, for Medicare-for-all and for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act were all sacrificed to expand the control of high-paid union bureaucrats.

Civil Wars documents how difficult it was to transform unions into power bases for a self-serving bureaucracy. Standing in the way were militant union locals and rank-and-file activists who rely on their unions to defend them at work.

Applying the most disgusting tactics, bureaucrats used members’ dues to finance an attack on any local and any militant who fought for democratic control of their union.

The many were sacrificed to benefit the few. This is the social dynamic of capitalism – a word that does not appear in Early’s book, but is key to any real understanding.

During the Cold War, capitalism severed the link between the cause of labor and the fight for socialism. This link has never been rebuilt, and this explains the sorry state of the US labor movement today.

The tradition of socialism as democratic working-class control was rediscovered too late in the 1960s. When capital launched its war against the working class, the revolutionary left was too small and inexperienced to counter it. With the unions in retreat and the working-class demoralized, the left split.

One segment of the left, to which Early belongs, “went into unions to change the balance of power between labor and capital by first changing power relationships within unions themselves.” (p.16)

The other segment worked to build a base on college campuses in the hope of being able to inject revolutionary politics back into the labor movement when it rose again.

How successful were these strategies?

From the abundance of evidence in Early’s book, we can conclude that the dedication, hard work and personal sacrifice of union activists is an insufficient social force, on its own, to counter the combined power of the capitalist class and the union bureaucracy. Labor militants need the political support of a revolutionary socialist movement.

Sadly, but inevitably, socialist organizations that built a base on campuses became dominated by middle-class academics and professionals who offer abstract, not real, leadership. And they continue to wait for the labor movement to revive.

We can be certain that capital will continue to assault labor, and workers will continue to defend their rights. Whether workers prevail will depend on the extent to which they develop socialist consciousness and socialist organization. When the working class is on the ascendance, this can happen spontaneously. When the class is on the defensive, workers need the intervention of socialists to show them what they are capable of achieving.

Our most urgent task is to reconnect the labor movement with the socialist tradition. For this to happen, labor activists need socialist politics and socialist organizations must reconstitute themselves to place those who lead in the workplace in the leadership of the organization.

Instead of using his knowledge and experience to rebuild the vital link between the cause of labor and the struggle for socialism, Early attacks it. In the final chapter, he promotes the most vulgar anti-Marxism, equating the victory of the workers’ state in Russia under Lenin with its crushing defeat under Stalin.

Like other books that address the state of US labor (Solidarity Divided, Labor in Trouble and Transition), Civil Wars rejects a political solution to the class war in favor of reforming ‘the house of labor.’ As Early documents so well, this strategy has failed in the past. And it will continue to fail because political problems cannot be solved by economic means.

Unions are organizations of economic defense. No matter how well they work together (and their jurisdictional divisions prevent this) unions cannot lead the class because they must represent every worker in the bargaining unit, regardless of those workers’ political views. And capitalism is highly effective in convincing workers to adopt political views that conflict with their class interests.

The two key lessons that flow from Early’s book are ones that he ignores.

The working class must organize separately from other classes, especially from the middle-class union bureaucrats and the middle-class professionals who dominate the social movements. Only by organizing separately can the working class become strong enough to make tactical alliances with other classes.

The working class needs its own independent political party, a revolutionary socialist organization that is dedicated to winning the class war against capital by bringing the working class to power.

Susan Rosenthal is a life-long socialist, retired physician, union member, and the author of POWER and Powerlessness (2006). Sick and Sicker: Essays on Class, Health and Health Care (2010), and Rebel Minds: Class War, Mass Suffering, and the Urgent Need for Socialism (2019). She can be reached at: Read other articles by Susan.