Wednesday, May 18, 2011

For Class-Oriented Unionism: Lessons of the WFTU Congress

The following article was written by a member of the US Delegation to the 16th Congress of the World Federation of Trade Unions.  It was first posted at and I am pleased to publish this important piece of writing on the Virtual Picket Line. 
In Solidarity,
For Class-Oriented Unionism: Lessons of the WFTU Congress

Written by Bill Donnelly

I participated as an observer delegate in the 16th Congress of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) in Athens, Greece, from April 6-9, 2011. I left Athens inspired by the bold, class-oriented unionism on display at the Congress. WFTU assembles 210 organizations with 80 million members (a 13-million member increase since the last WFTU Congress, in Havana in December 2005) in 120 countries, organizing workers in such strategic sectors as energy, metals, transportation, food, and education.

WFTU General Secretary George Mavrikos's address to the Congress, on the first day of its work, following the spirited opening ceremonies at an Olympic sports arena the evening before, put forward two main lines of direct relevance to contemporary trade union activity in the capitalist countries:

• Firm, unwavering opposition to class collaboration

• A focus on actions to build class, internationalist unity.

Union brothers and sisters with labor organizations in over 100 countries, with 32% of the delegates being women, made concrete proposals designed to act on WFTU's platform and priorities.  For example, a brother from India addressing the Congress described why strike and other actions that in effect function as de facto negotiations—which can favorably set the terms of any formal negotiations taking place at the same time or after—should be used against capitalist management instead of "dialogues" with no end.

A delegate from South Africa spoke of the urgent need to articulate offensive, and not merely defensive, demands in resistance to capital's austerity programs. She pointed to the importance of coordination through WFTU between trade unions in the imperialist countries and workers' movements in countries of what she referred to as the "global South." The South African sister amplified this with a call for coordinated actions against the multinational corporations.

The Congress was an international, multiracial event in more than just the composition of the delegate body (598 representatives and 213 observers cast secret ballots in the election of a 40-person Presidential Council, 24 of whose members are new). The leadership role in this Congress by workers' representatives from many different nations, including especially the leadership role of trade unionists from Greece and Syria, highlights the implications of the law of uneven, spasmodic economic and political development of capitalist countries discovered by Lenin.

At this time it is comrades from nations other than the major imperialist countries who play a leadership role in analyzing and generalizing the development of internationally significant trade union activity. We in the imperialist countries have a responsibility to begin to acquire the same perspective and implement a class-struggle approach, in order to further the cause of international working-class solidarity.

The presidents of Bolivia, Cuba, Cyprus, Syria, and Venezuela sent greetings to the Congress. Almost all of them , like Syria's Dr. Bashar al-Assad, lead countries targeted by imperialist aggression in one form or another. This underscores the necessity of real international solidarity opposing interference in countries seeking to develop independently of imperialism.

This World Trade Union Congress could not have been the success it was without the All-Workers Militant Front (PAME) of Greece. It generously assisted the stay of the almost one thousand people who traveled from around the world to Athens for this event. PAME organizes the struggles of hundreds of thousands of workers in Greece, in the public and private sectors—no matter whether the workers are Greeks or immigrants.

PAME's George Perros, of its executive secretariat, drew attention to some burning issues facing the world trade union movement. He urged delegates to return to their home countries with a commitment to expose, isolate, and win fellow workers away from the class collaborationist International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Referring to the capitalists and the imperialists, he said: "We are not servants of their war against the working class. We want the working class to be the ruling class, and to socialize the means of production."

WFTU General Secretary George Mavrikos affirmed: "We have chosen to be soldiers of the working class. With that is a responsibility." In the forefront of our responsibility, said Mavrikos in a speech the next day, is the requirement to confront the yellow- and CIA-oriented trade unions head on. In practice this means we in the U.S. must condemn and break with the opportunism and corruption stimulated by "our own" imperialism's labor lieutenants of capital, those, as Mavrikos ably indicated, whose briefcases stuffed full of dollars and euros are employed to undermine and dismantle the trade union movement the world over.

Instead of such corrupt misleaders, Mavrikos said, "we want trade union leaders who are role models and examples." To this end, Mavrikos reminded us all that we need to exercise self-criticism, and also understand that "experience is something collective," as he put it. What I took from this last point especially was that the insights of the 16th Congress belong to the entire international working class, like an arsenal we can all use to arm ourselves.

In addition to strike and other activity, outcomes in the bourgeois electoral system gauge the developing strength of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) in the ongoing deep crisis of the capitalist system. In the most recent elections in Greece, two rounds of local elections in November 2010, nationwide percentage results for the Communist Party showed it with 10.85% of the vote, an increase of 3.3% from the 2009 parliamentary elections. In Athens the Party netted 13.74% in the first round of voting in November's local elections. The Party's trade union work aims to build the All-Workers Militant Front (PAME). Together with organizations of self-employed tradesmen and craftsmen, poor farmers, students, and women, PAME unites in a social alliance, in which the Party also develops its vanguard role, based on a platform of common struggle to overthrow monopoly capitalism.

A member of the Communist Party with whom several U.S. delegates spoke, age around 30, described how PAME, the All-Workers Militant Front, puts class-oriented unionism into practice.  Union dues are collected in person, face-to-face—no reliance on employers or banks to collect these funds. After the second step of the grievance procedure, workers go on strike if they remain collectively dissatisfied—no entanglement with arbitration procedures and all the individualistic and legalistic habits and ideologies they feed. Written contracts tend to about two pages long—not the hundreds of pages crafted over years of near-constant negotiation with which we are familiar in the United States. There is no certification of bargaining units by the regime of the class enemy, unlike in the U.S., where labor organizations literally are capitalist-state-controlled through various Federal statutes, and in many cases have anti-Communist provisions written right into their own national and local constitutions that actually go further in proscribing reds than even the U.S. Code mandates.

PAME struggles for the class in the same facilities where yellow unions, an old term broadly referring to class collaborationist unions that should perhaps be resurrected, also operate, disregarding any of their claims of exclusive agency, because even while the bourgeois state and capitalist employers favor unions other than the All-Workers Militant Front, the Front doesn't care what they decree and organizes where it deems necessary anyway. Finally, and most importantly, unions with the All-Workers Militant Front are integral components of a struggle for socialism, with the open, transparent goal to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, which will expropriate the means of production from the capitalists and make them the property of the proletarian state.

The class-oriented unionism of PAME and its vanguard Communist Party which I learned about at the WFTU Congress is in stark contrast with U.S.-style business unionism, which is also a "red tape unionism" on account of its bureaucratic procedures that unwittingly affect both rank-and-file workers and local union leaders who get pulled into class collaboration thereby. Over 15 years after hard anti-Communist Lane Kirkland was dethroned at the AFL-CIO, U.S. unionism by and large finally seems very comfortable with talk of "social justice," but almost all of our unions in practice still relate to workers essentially as customers or prospects of an insurance-like mutual aid society and pre-paid legal plan with duties only to protect jobs and benefits. Unions that function as the typical U.S. union does, with a pinched world outlook, not surprisingly readily serve as transmission belts for political directives from U.S. imperialism, through the offices of its Democratic Party operatives.

Going to the WFTU Congress in Athens gave me the sufficient political-ideological distance from the U.S. labor movement to see how even the most dedicated of U.S. unionists are typically enmeshed in class collaboration, in spite of their intentions.  The WFTU Congress helped me understand that class collaboration is not even mainly a subjective factor. It is in fact primarily objective. Class collaboration is built into the very practices of U.S. unions, which often devote much of their time to negotiations that drag on, almost ritualistically, one after the other, year after year, and to grievance/arbitration and Unfair Labor Practice cases that also find ways to occupy the time of even the most militant here. In the U.S. are many trade unionists who honestly do not see themselves in the mirror of class collaboration, yet because their struggles are wholly engaged with its ways and means they gravitate objectively toward class collaboration nonetheless.

There is a kind of institutionalization of class collaboration, facilitated by the capitalist state (e.g., through the NLRB) channeling workers' complaints into grooves that help misdirect the entire class. When the AFL-CIO's misnamed "Solidarity Center," with ample U.S. government funds, "educates" unionists from around the world (many of whom come to the 47-acre suburban campus of the National Labor College near Washington, DC for this purpose), it infects other peoples, through a sort of globalized disorientation process, with the ways of the yellow- and CIA-oriented unionism long entrenched in this country.

The working class and its allies fight valiantly in Wisconsin and other states to preserve the right to collective bargaining. As it were, they're fighting to keep their chains. Collective bargaining, as it exists in the U.S., objectively restricts workers' struggles, thereby limiting them to manageable proportions. Thereby, the opportunity for Communists in the trade unions to build class and revolutionary consciousness is minimized. Admittedly, the present collective bargaining system represents "chains" less painful to the workers than the actual handcuffs with which extremist state and federal legislators aim to shackle unionists in Wisconsin and elsewhere, when they resist the abolition of public sector collective bargaining.

The mistake is to assume the present inadequate form of collective bargaining is forever. Not so. It developed under concrete historical circumstances. It can change. The workers' movement therefore must go beyond merely reaffirming collective bargaining rights won in the mid-20th century. Regrettably, for now, many leaders of U.S. trade unions, given their economism (i.e., the confining of struggle to mere economic demands), seem unable to give adequate answers to the questions raised by Wisconsin, except recall petitions.

"This does not mean that we a priori limit the class struggle," as Aleka Papariga, the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, told WFTU delegates attending a cultural program of revolutionary workers' music and song at the Party's national headquarters in Athens on April 7. She added, however, that "reality demonstrates that a movement can tire out easily, that it can be assimilated or broken, when it is limited strategically to a struggle for some defensive demands, in a period when whatever gains that had been won or conceded are being abolished. In this way the trade union movement is in danger of being led to being scorned and discredited and to eventually losing its fighting character and becoming completely degenerate, as has happened unfortunately in the USA." True that.

Those of us from the USA who went to the WFTU Congress have not only immense tasks ahead of us but also a continuing obligation to learn from the WFTU and the All-Workers Militant Front, even if it doesn't yield significant or maybe even measurable results in the short term. People who would reject this as impossible or unwise because we can never be "like PAME" miss the point.

Of course, no one can mechanically "apply PAME" here in the U.S., or other countries for that matter. What we must do in the U.S., I believe, is try to develop class-oriented unionism, of which the most instructive examples I've seen thus far were at and around the recently concluded WFTU Congress. I suspect those who will say nothing like that can ever be done really don't want it to happen here in the first place.

I hope to meet soon with interested sisters and brothers to discuss collectively the further steps we, especially but not only those who were part of the delegation, could take in this country against class collaboration and for a class-oriented unionism USA.

The contributor is an elected union official in the United States.

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