Above photo: Volvo Truck workers last month. UAW 2069.
A turning point in the US and global class struggle.
Following Sunday’s massive repudiation of the second sellout contract negotiated by the pro-corporate United Auto Workers, 3,000 workers at the Volvo Truck North America’s New River Valley Plant in Dublin, Virginia, are back on the picket line. Inasmuch as the struggle of the Volvo truck workers has been scarcely reported on in the national media and all but ignored in the publications of the middle-class pseudo-left organizations, it is necessary to provide a concise review of the events leading up to Sunday’s vote.
The UAW’s betrayal
Volvo workers originally went out on strike on April 17, determined to reverse the concessions that had been granted by the UAW to the Sweden-based transnational corporation over the last three contracts. Two weeks later, on April 30, the union bureaucracy announced that a settlement had been reached and ended the strike, without workers either seeing or voting on the contract.
As details of the agreement, loaded with humiliating concessions, leaked out through the efforts of the Volvo Workers Rank-and-File Committee (VWRFC), a groundswell of opposition swept through the factory. On May 16, the agreement was voted down with a landslide margin of 91 percent against and only 9 percent for.
Refusing to resume the strike, the UAW entered a second round of negotiations. Within little more than a week, the union announced that it had reached a tentative agreement. Attempting to intimidate the workers, the union warned that a rejection of the contract would result in a six-month strike without any improvement in the terms of the agreement.
Despite this threat, as it became clear that the union had merely tweaked the language of the original rotten agreement, rank-and-file opposition intensified, culminating in Sunday’s second rejection of the union’s sellout. Once again, 90 percent of workers voted against the agreement.
Unable to contain opposition, the UAW finally authorized a resumption of the strike on Monday afternoon.
The rank-and-file insurgency
The overwhelming rejection of the UAW’s attempted sellout by a powerful contingent of industrial workers is the latest manifestation of an upsurge of working-class militancy, which is assuming the form of an insurgency against the UAW and other AFL-CIO affiliated unions.
In recent months, a wide range of workers have openly defied these organizations. In Alabama, over a thousand miners have been on strike against Warrior Met Coal since April 1. On April 9, they voted down a tentative five-year contract negotiated by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) by the astonishing margin of 1,006 to 45.
Workers are seeing these organizations for what they really are: anti-labor institutions that are “unions” in name only, and that are run by unaccountable and affluent upper-middle class bureaucrats—pulling down six-figure salaries—who have nothing but contempt for the workers they represent. These “unions” function not as defensive organizations of the working class, but as direct and enthusiastic accomplices of the corporations in the exploitation of the working class.
The collaboration of the unions with the corporations and the state has taken its most vile form in their refusal to protect workers against the danger of infection in factories, other unsafe work locations and, especially, schools during a pandemic that has claimed 600,000 lives in the United States during the last 15 months. The teachers’ union, led by Randi Weingarten (whose annual salary is $500,000), has been at the forefront of the dangerous “return-to-work” (i.e., herd immunity) campaign.
The historical background
The significance of the rebellion of the Volvo Truck workers and growing wave of rank-and-file militancy can only be fully understood when placed in a broader historical context.
This coming August 3 will mark the fortieth anniversary of the beginning of the strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). Within just a few hours of the start of the strike, President Ronald Reagan, working with a plan of action that had been prepared by the previous administration of Democratic President Jimmy Carter, ordered an immediate return to work. He threatened the firing of controllers who did not comply with his order. The overwhelming majority of strikers defied Reagan. On August 5, the Reagan administration went ahead with the termination of 11,345 PATCO members. Leading union militants were arrested and eventually imprisoned for having gone on strike.
This historically unprecedented assault on a union and rank-and-file workers by the federal government succeeded only because the national AFL-CIO flatly refused to come to the defense of PATCO. It was widely and correctly assumed by PATCO militants that the Reagan administration had received assurances from the AFL-CIO that it would not act to prevent the destruction of PATCO.
Opposing the treachery and cowardice of the AFL-CIO, the Workers League (predecessor organization of the Socialist Equality Party) explained what was at stake in the PATCO strike. In a statement published on August 13, 1981, in the Bulletin (forerunner of the World Socialist Web Site), the Workers League stated:
The strike by 13,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization is a historical turning point for the struggle of the working class in the United States and internationally. …
One political conclusion above all must be drawn from the PATCO strike: far from being an aberration or exception, it reveals the real essence of class relations in the United States.
The ruling class is attacking all the basic rights of workers—social services, jobs, safety regulations, living standards, and now the right to union organization—and calling upon all the repressive powers and violence of the capitalist state to enforce these attacks. [The PATCO Strike: A Warning to the Working Class]
The Workers League’s statement made four critical points.
First, it stressed that the violent action of the Reagan administration was aimed at implementing a fundamental restructuring of class relations in the United States, i.e., creating the best conditions for a massive increase in the exploitation of the working class and the transfer of wealth to the ruling elite. The destruction of PATCO was a signal for a general offensive by the corporations against all sections of the working class.
Second, it explained that the Reagan administration’s attack on workers was aimed at reversing the global economic decline of the United States and weakening the resistance of the international working class to the geostrategic interests of American imperialism.
The attack on the PATCO membership is inseparable from Reagan’s policy of global counterrevolution. American capitalism can no longer keep two sets of books, politically speaking, maintaining class compromise at home while pursuing ferocious counterrevolution and establishing and supporting military and fascist dictatorships overseas.
Third, the Workers League warned that the subservience of the AFL-CIO, the UAW, the Teamsters and other labor organizations to capitalism and its two political parties drastically weakened the working class and would lead to one defeat after another.
Fourth, the defense of the working class required the building of a new revolutionary leadership, based on a socialist perspective. The Workers League warned:
The labor bureaucracy will betray, and is betraying. The struggle against these betrayals cannot be based solely on militancy, but requires a political strategy for the struggle against the government.
The analysis made by the Workers League, regarding both the national and international consequences of the betrayal and defeat of the PATCO strike, was confirmed by subsequent events. Within the United States, the destruction of PATCO was followed by a wave of strike breaking—at Continental Airlines, Phelps Dodge copper mines, Hormel meat processing plants and AT Massey coal mines, to name only the most notorious—that resulted in a devastating decline in the living standards of the American working class.
Beyond the borders of the United States, Reagan’s destruction of PATCO encouraged capitalist governments all over the world to escalate their attacks on the working class. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s brutal defeat of the miners in the 1984–85 strike drew its inspiration from Reagan’s actions.
The extreme weakening of the position of the working class in the United States provided new credibility to pro-capitalist propaganda and contributed significantly to the climate of social and political demoralization that enabled the reactionary Stalinist bureaucracies in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China to carry out the restoration of capitalism between 1989 and 1991.
In the decades that followed the defeats of the 1980s, strikes all but disappeared in the United States. In a country that had witnessed over the course of more than a century the most violent labor battles in the world, virtually all manifestations of class-conscious struggle disappeared.
In this process, the union bureaucracy functioned as the accomplices of the government and the corporations. It repudiated any association with class struggle, fully embraced the program of government-corporate-union collaboration, and accepted the absolute priority of profits over even the minimal defense of workers’ interests.
In actual practice, these organizations ceased to be unions. In 1937 Trotsky enumerated the criteria that determined the real social character of an organization that claimed to be a trade union.
The character of a workers’ organization such as a trade union is determined by its relation to the distribution of national income. The fact that Green [then president of the American Federation of Labor] and Company defend private property in the means of production characterizes them as bourgeois. Should these gentlemen in addition defend the income of the bourgeoisie from attacks on the part of the workers; should they conduct a struggle against strikes, against the raising of wages, against help to the unemployed; then we would have an organization of scabs, and not a trade union. [Not a Workers’ and Not a Bourgeois State?]
Based on the criteria enumerated by Trotsky—opposing strikes, the raising of wages, and help to the unemployed—the AFL-CIO and its affiliated organizations (such as the UAW) cannot be legitimately described as trade unions.