The Paradox of Social Democracy: The American Case (Part Two)


In the second part of a three-part essay on social democracy in the United States Robert Brenner discusses two cycles of attempted reform of American capitalism in the 1930s and 1960s, the decline of those reformist cycles, and the consequences of the crisis of American capitalism in the 1970s. Brenner is the author of many penetrating studies of global economics including: The Boom and the BubbleMerchants and Revolution, and The Economics of Global Turbulence. The essay first appeared in the 1985 edition of The Year Left: An American Socialist Yearbook. You can read parts one and three of the essay here and here.

IV Two Cycles of Reform and Decline

The whole history of the relationship among the official leaderships of reformist organizations, the Democratic Party, and the movements for reform over the past half century in the United States illustrates the dynamic outlined thus far. Since the late 1920s, we have witnessed two great cycles of reform and decline, the first running from the 1930s to the early 1950s, the second running from the late 1950s to the present. During each of these cycles, workers and oppressed people won major reforms by means of explosive mass direct action against employers and the state — in the workplaces, in communities, in the street. Through these struggles, the working class and oppressed groups imposed reforms on hitherto do-nothing Democratic Party administrations from the outside. In each cycle, the Democratic Party profited from the reforms, the mass movements, and the liberalization and radicalization of consciousness which went with them, significantly expanding its electoral base. Nevertheless, the movements were obliged to develop almost entirely outside and largely against the Democratic Party and the established reformist organizations on the basis of new leaderships, because the established, official leaderships opposed them. As the movements developed, small sections of the traditional leaderships did ‘go over.' But as they did, they functioned generally to domesticate these movements, specifically by turning them away from mass direct action and to dependence upon electoralism and the Democratic Party. In each cycle, as the movements declined — partly as a result of the officials' actions, partly for independent reasons — the leaderships succeeded in recuperating their bases for the Democratic Party, and working people and oppressed groups were left to depend upon it. But as popular militancy died down, the Democratic Party, despite its electoral majorities, was less and less successful in winning reforms. In the end, the Democratic Party's abject failure to deliver the goods opened the way to a new period of revival for the Republican Party.

The Movements of the 30s

Franklin Roosevelt acceded to the Presidency in 1933 as a pragmatist and moderate, with no clear reform program. Shortly after his inauguration, a wave of increasingly powerful workers' struggles shook the country, beginning in the auto industry in Detroit, spreading to the southern textile mills, the eastern coal mines, and the midwestern steel mills. But Roosevelt stood and did nothing, as the companies and the local repressive forces crushed one strike after another. Meanwhile, the mediation boards set up under Roosevelt's National Recovery Act attempted, in almost every case, simply to get the workers back on the job for the employers without dealing with the issues at stake. But the strike wave continued to grow, and in 1934 workers won astounding victories in three great general strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco — all of which were marked by the most massive and violent confrontations between workers and authorities. During 1935-1936, a mass rank and file movement of auto workers created the United Auto Workers and went out to defeat General Motors in the historic sit-down strikes December-January 1936-1937.[1]

The Democratic Party benefited from this broad labor upsurge and the transformation of political consciousness which it underwrote. This was evidenced in the party's unexpectedly massive and decisive midterm electoral victory in November 1934. Meanwhile, more radical forces were also gaining ground, with the Communist Party experiencing a massive period of growth and expanding influence, and the Socialists asserting themselves successfully in certain local electoral arenas. As a result of the sharp increase in the level of struggle and the consequent radicalization of the political mood, Roosevelt suddenly changed political course. In 1935, he pushed through the hitherto neglected Wagner Act and Social Security Act, the two main reform achievements of the New Deal.[2]

The great mass workers' movements of the 30s developed entirely outside and against the old AFL officialdom. Throughout the later 1920s, these officials watched passively as employers waged an all-out assault on the unions, exemplified in the union-busting American Plan. Even as their dues base declined, then shrank to insignificance after 1929, the bureaucrats were incapable of launching even a token counteroffensive. When the new workers' movement exploded onto the scene in 1933, the AFL tried to capture and domesticate it by seeking, in strike after strike, to get the workers to go back to work and to rely on the decisions of the courts and the federal mediation boards. With the help of AFL officials, the employers crushed the United Textile Workers strike of 1934.[3] Meanwhile, in the fall of 1933, John L. Lewis played a powerful role in limiting the militant struggles of coal miners which had spread to the captive mines owned by the steel companies); shortly thereafter in early 1934, Lewis helped derail a nascent triple alliance of the miners, the steel workers, and the railroad workers. The auto workers succeeded in creating the UAW only by breaking from the AFL and building a powerful and independent rank and file movement, with an explicit program of refusing to depend on the officials, the courts, and the mediation boards, and of relying instead on militant direct action.[4]

Ultimately, as the movement threatened to get out of hand, a small section of the old AFL leadership, led by John L. Lewis, did see the handwriting on the wall and made a break from the AFL to help found the CIO. At the same time, however, they strove mightily to contain the movement's burgeoning militancy and turn its energies toward the Democratic Party. Lewis made himself a hero by standing firmly beside the GM sit-downers in January 1937. But immediately thereafter, he cut short the Chrysler sit-down which was threatening to win even greater gains than had the GM strike. During the spring and summer of 1937, Lewis and his cohorts bent all their energies to break the wave of sit-downs and wildcats that continued to shake the auto industry. Meanwhile, Lewis ensured that the critical campaign to organize the steel industry would end in disastrous defeat when he turned explicitly to top down, conservative methods of organizing and carried out the strike under the banner ‘Trust in Roosevelt.’ The defeat of the Little Steel strike in the summer of 1937, following the infamous Memorial Day Massacre and the betrayal of the workers by one after another Democratic Party mayor and governor, coupled with the officials' successful repression of the struggle in auto, marked a turning point. Especially with the onset of the new depression, beginning in mid-1937, the dynamism of the labor upsurge was rapidly dissipated and a long process of erosion initiated.[5]

As Lewis and Co. were stifling the movements of direct action they were, simultaneously, attempting to reroute the CIO into electoral dependence on the Democratic Party. When the UAW voted not to endorse Roosevelt at its first convention in April 1936, Lewis personally intervened to get the decision reversed. Henceforward, the CIO leaders stuck ever more closely to a strategy of electoral intervention aimed at increasing their leverage on the Democratic Party. To this end, the union established in 1943 the so-called Political Action Committee: (PACs) as part of their general tactic of building local level machines to turn out the vote for pro-labor candidates in order ultimately to strengthen their position inside the Party. But if the labor movement could not win a place as coequals with the Dixiecrats and big city bosses inside the Party during the period of mass labor upsurge and of the reforms which accompanied it, it was unrealistic to expect that they could do better as the movement waned and labor's real strength correspondingly declined. During the 1940s, despite the Democrats' overwhelming electoral/parliamentary hegemony for most of the period, the forces of reform became progressively weaker. As early as 1943 Congress passed the Smith-Connally Act, which curtailed some of labor's chief weapons of struggle (providing for 'cooling off periods before strikes, injunctions in the public interest,' etc.)[6] By the end of the war, labor was unable to prevent the passage of the viciously anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, which in a single stroke wiped out much of what had been won in the 30s. By the early 1950s, the official forces of reform had presided over the total decay of the workers' movement of the 1930s, the consequent dissolution of the main forces for both reform and Democratic hegemony, the resulting dissipation of liberal and radical sentiment, and the inevitable return to power of the Republican Party.

The Movements of the 60s

The rise of a mass militant Black movement, originating in the buses and cafeterias of the Deep South, ushered in a new period reform. The Black movement, which rose and fell in the period from the later 1950s to the early 70s, followed very closely the trajectory traced by the mass labor movement of the 30s and 40s. Thus, the historic civil rights movement, ignited by the Montgomery Bus boycott of 1955-1956, and, even more, the explosive movement of Black Power, which arose in the urban ghettos of northern cities in the summer of 1964, based themselves from the start on a powerful commitment to direct action and confrontation with the white power structure. In the civil rights struggles the late 50s and 60s, tens of thousands directly stood up to the authorities in illegal sit-downs, provocative freedom marches, and unauthorized fights for the right to vote. Whole communities, especially in the South, organized themselves to resist. In the urban risings of the North between 1964 and 1967, hundreds of thousands of working-class and poor Blacks actively participated in the struggle. By the time of Martin Luther King's assassination in early 1968, the Black movement had shaken white society to its foundations, had inspired militant student and anti-imperialist movements in its wake, and had begun to ignite dynamic organizing drives in the labor movement itself. King was assassinated in the middle of an organizing campaign of primarily Black city workers in Memphis, Tennessee. A short time later, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was founded in the inner-city auto factories of Detroit.

John F. Kennedy came to office, as had Franklin Roosevelt, as a middle-of-the-road and pragmatic Democrat. Interestingly, his narrow electoral victory over Richard Nixon was assured by the massive vote of newly-aroused Blacks which allowed him to carry certain key states. Nevertheless, during his three years in the Presidency Kennedy failed to achieve any significant social legislation, and his tenure in office was overshadowed by America's growing, if largely unheralded, involvement in Vietnam. It was clearly the deepening radicalization of the Black struggle, marked by the civil rights movement's growing opposition to the Vietnam War, and above all the urban rebellions in Detroit, Watts, Harlem, Newark and elsewhere which concentrated Lyndon Johnson's mind on his ‘Great Society' and enabled him to inaugurate a new era of reform. In 1964, Johnson won a landslide electoral victory on a rising tide of liberal and radical sentiment rooted in the Black and newly emergent anti Vietnam movements. Shortly thereafter, a suddenly reform minded Congress passed the Civil Rights Acts, the Poverty Programs, and other important pieces of reform legislation Once again, an independent mass movement had forced the Democrats to become reformers.

Like the workers' movement of the 30s, the Black movement grew up almost entirely on the basis of new leadership and new organizations. SNCC and CORE, not the NAACP or the Urban League, provided most of the dynamism that built the freedom struggles. The new Black militants had to create their movement largely over the resistance of the old, official leaderships. The NAACP refused to participate in the 1963 March on Washington unless it would be entirely legal and peaceful; it insisted that the Black movement support Johnson and his war in Vietnam; and it vehemently attacked Black Power. In the process, it precipitated a profound split between the new movement and the old guard. The chasm became unbreachable when the urban rebellion ignited the mass struggle for Black Power which ultimately issued in the formation of the Black Panther Party and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.[7]

Treading the well worn path followed by trade union officialdom in the 30s, official Black leaders did what they could to steer the explosive Black movement toward the Democratic Party. In 1964, for the first time ever, the NAACP officially endorsed the Democratic candidate and organized a voter registration drive designed to channel the newly-unleashed energies of the Black struggle toward the campaign of Lyndon Johnson for President. Nevertheless, the new civil rights organizations continued t reject electoralism and remained almost obsessively devoted to militant direct action. When the civil rights movement sought to use the ballot box, it was, as a rule, to assert the right to vote, not in an election. This is best seen in what was perhaps the civil rights movement's most dramatic electoral intervention: the struggle of the Freedom Democratic Party in Mississippi in 1964. There, against the violent resistance of the white power structure, organizers from SNCC, CORE, and other groups initially tried to compel the authorities to allow Blacks to register to vote in the Democratic Party. When they were prevented from doing this by a wave of repression, they turned to organizing an autonomous campaign to sign up Black voters for their own, official Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in order challenge the official Democratic Party delegation which was, course, firmly segregationist and reactionary. Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Party refused to seat the MFDP at the national convention, despite the official Mississippi delegation's rejection of most of Johnson's program and their generally favoring the right wing Republican Barry Goldwater for President. Nevertheless, at the time of the convention and after, the official Black leadership called upon the MFDP to compromise. More generally, they demanded that the Black movement turn ‘from protest to politics,' in Bayard Rustin's eloquent phrase, from the politics of the street to the politics of the ballot box. Nevertheless, the civil rights movement continued to reject electoralism. As Meier and Rudwick, the historians of CORE, sum up the position of both CORE and SNCC at this critical juncture: ‘Social change could come only through an independent movement that would “remain a threat to the power structure.” ’[8]

As it had from the labor struggles of the 30s, the Democratic Party benefited greatly from the Black movement, as well as from the student movement, the anti-war movement, and the small but significant rank and file movement — all of which emerged in the middle 60s on the rising tide of Black militancy. The Party also benefited from the general trend toward political liberalization and radicalization which accompanied these movements. Indeed, despite Richard Nixon's victory over Humphrey in 1968, the Democratic Party appeared to some at this time on the verge of achieving a permanent electoral majority. This was largely because demographic developments were drastically sapping the Republicans' rural strongholds and feeding the Democrats' apparently permanently reformist working-class and Black electoral base. Cushioned from capital by the unprecedented prosperity and pressed for reform by the rising mass movements, the Democrats appeared capable of delivering the goods more or less indefinitely.

By the middle 1970s, the mass movements of the 60s had experienced precipitous decline and, with them, the impetus for reform. Significantly for the argument of this essay, the continuing strength of the movements and of the liberal and radical ideologies to which they gave rise propelled a dramatic continuation of the general wave of reform even through the first Nixon administration. The years between 1968 and 1972 witnessed the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and dramatic increases in funding for Social Security and food stamps. But during the late 60s, the Black movement reached its zenith, and, unable to find powerful allies in a still largely dormant working class movement, found itself isolated, politically without perspective, and brutally repressed by local and national police. When Nixon began to withdraw the troops from Vietnam, the once powerful peace movement declined rapidly. For a brief period, militant rank and file movements exploded across industry and precipitated bitter struggles with employers; but they were unable in the end to produce a lasting impact on the political landscape.

Thus, by the mid-70s, the Democrats got the chance to prove once again that, in the absence of mass struggles, reformist electoral majorities bring little power to the forces of reform. As recently as 1976, the Democratic Party controlled both the White House and powerful legislative majorities. Many of its officials were committed on paper to widely ranging programs of social reform. Nevertheless, during the later 1970s, the Democrats were unable to pass a single significant piece of social legislation. Congress first gutted then passed the Humphrey-Hawkins bill for ‘full employment,’ as if to rub the noses of its sponsors in the dirt. The bill for common situs picketing was soundly defeated. National health insurance, the rallying cry of the Democratic left, never got a hearing. Perhaps most humiliating, the so-called Labor Law Reform bill, shorn of all serious anti-employer passages, was soundly defeated. Meanwhile, President Jimmy Carter put an end to the long period of rising expenditures for the urban poor, and was, after one term, succeeded by Ronald Reagan. Once again, the Democratic Party and the establish reformist leaderships had succeeded in riding out the wave of mass struggle, depriving themselves of their own base and the way to the Republicans and the right.

V Left Reformists in the Economic Crisis

The conservative tendencies of the trade union officials, the bourgeois Black leadership, and the Democratic Party politicos are often recognized. It is, nevertheless, widely assumed, especially by the new social democrats, that, given the proper backing from an active and politicized rank and file, at least the left wing among the reformist officials, under pressure from the capitalists, will take the lead in reviving mass movements. According to the widely accepted view, the trade union, politico, and Democratic Party ‘lefts' cannot help but understand that capitalism is experiencing a long term economic crisis and that there is a wide-ranging employer offensive underway restore profits. These leaders are acutely aware, moreover that the employer offensive poses a mortal threat to the basic institutions from which they themselves draw their lifeblood —viz., the trade unions, the established Black organizations, and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. On the rampage, employers have been discrediting the leadership with the rank and file, if not smashing the unions outright, thereby undermining the officials' cherished dues base. Meanwhile, through their PACs, the capitalists have been isolating the unions and the Black leaderships even inside the Democratic Party. Thus, according to this line of thinking the trade union, Black politico, and Democratic Party ‘lefts' have no choice but to resist, out of self-interest, to protect their own positions. They will, sooner or later, have to initiate action, put masses into motion, or at least create the conditions which will bring this about.

This analysis is sadly mistaken conceptually, and has been massively refuted empirically in the recent period. The fact is that the reformist leaderships have a wide range of options in responding to the employer offensive. They can, in the first place, often carry on quite prosperously for extended periods, even while their memberships suffer heavy losses. Moreover, even when the employers attack them directly, the reformist leaderships are most unlikely to respond in kind. In periods of deepening crisis like the present, to fight back effectively against the employers requires organizing the most massive and militant mobilization of unions and other mass organizations in order directly to confront the employers. But as the reformist officials are aware, to carry through such a mobilization and confrontation, they would have to risk the total destruction of their organizations and their secure positions. As a rule, therefore, the trade union, Black official, and Democratic Party ‘lefts’ will choose to sustain even serious losses, if the alternative is to stand up and confront employers and risk total annihilation. It seems to them the better part of valor to preserve their own organizations and positions at least partially intact until a new period of economic expansion allows them to take up their old positions as brokers between capital and the working class. Of course, to the degree the crisis lengthens and the employer offensive intensifies, the reformist officials' strategy proves progressively less effective; so, over the long run, the officials tend to find the ground for their very existence cut out from under them. Nevertheless, at any given moment, it appears to the officials too risky to make a stand, so they are unlikely ever to take the initiative to reverse the trend. Even as the entire labor movement disintegrated under the employers' attacks during the 1920s, and with it their own organizations and positions, the old AFL officials never offered any serious resistance. Nor are things markedly different with the officials of the current epoch despite the distant origins of their organizations in the CIO mass upsurge. When UAW President Doug Fraser made his dramatic exit from the Labor Management Advisory Board to form the Progressive Alliance in 1978, he warned that the bosses had broken their side of the deal and could expect swift retaliation from at least the left wing of reformist officialdom. But it is doubtful if Fraser's defiant posture struck much fear into the hearts of the employers. In fact, the ‘one-sided class war' of which Fraser spoke had been going on for at least a decade with hardly a murmur of protest from the ranks of labor's officialdom least of all from its ostensible ‘left' or social democratic wing.

The Rank and File Revolt 

The imposition of Nixon's ‘New Economic Policy' in the wake of the recession of 1970-1971 was the definitive sign that the economy had entered a phase of protracted crisis and that the employer offensive was well under way. The NEP could not have been more clearly designed to redistribute income away from the working class toward the capitalists. Wages were frozen under the control of the wage-price board (assisted by hundreds of thousands of capitalists). Prices were allowed to rise (as no effective mechanism was provided to enforce the mythical freeze on prices).

Meanwhile, employers stepped up their attack in almost every industry. The response was a significant wave of worker rebellion. Nevertheless, in almost every case in order to struggle it the employers, workers had to act in defiance of — and in direct opposition to — their own officials. In March 1970, over a quarter million Post Office employees defied the law and the National Guard — as well as their own leaders — to shut down the mails in over 200 cities and win big gains. Some two months later, tens of thousands of teamsters covered by the National Freight Agreement conducted the first (effectively) nationwide truckers strike in history. It was no accident that this unprecedented action was strictly unofficial — and directed not at employers but also the Teamsters bureaucracy. Over the two years, there were numerous battles of this sort — for example, the wildcat strike in telephone in New York in 1971. But by far the most spectacular and far-reaching of these rank and file struggles was waged by the coal miners. Over more than a decade, between 1965 and 1978, the rank and file miners unleashed one after another wave of unofficial mass strikes against mine bosses on the one hand and against a succession of sell-out leaderships on the other. For the present context, what is most significant about the rank and file movements among miners is that, by the end of the period, the UMW rank and file was no longer training its weapons on the gangster-type regime of corrupt Tony Boyle, but was having to assault a newly-ascendant group of self-styled reform officials, led by Arnold Miller, who had risen to power in large part on the basis of their working relationship with key elements within the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, notably ADA lawyer Joseph Rauh. Entirely devoted, like the rest of reformist officialdom, to electoralist and legalistic methods, this new ‘Miners for Democracy' leadership would prove no more willing than its predecessors to mobilize the ranks to stand up to the vicious assaults of the mining companies upon safety conditions in the mines. Like its predecessors, the Miller-MFD leadership had to be buried beneath a new wave of entirely rank and file-led resistance, which actually succeeded in holding back the corporations in the miners strike of 1977-1978.[9] The question still remains, however; were things different in the real bastions of the labor ‘left,’ above all the UAW and public workers unions, long associated not only with militancy and social unionism, but with social democracy.

The UAW 

During the early 70s, in close conjunction with Nixon's NEP, GM introduced its famous GMAD speed-up system into its auto assembly operations. This made headlines around the world and helped make the question of work the center of national discussion. It also provoked a new wave of working-class revolt in auto. Most notable, perhaps, was the six month fight at Lordstown, Ohio, where GM tried out its 100 car per hour assembly line. But an equally long and bitter 26 week strike took place in Norwood, Ohio. Toward the end of 1972, rank and file pressure succeeded in forcing representatives from St. Louis Local 25 to demand a national strike of all GMAD plants. At meeting of the UAW's GMAD council in Detroit, local presidents went so far as to ratify this plan.

The response of UAW President Leonard Woodcock and of the UAW staff could not have been more destructive. Instead of organizing the national GMAD strikes demanded by the members, they instituted the so-called ‘Apache strategy.’ This call for local strikes, announced in advance, to run in successive weeks at different GMAD plants for two or three days at a time Given the advance warning and the shortness of the strikes, GM was easily able to adjust its operations to make sure that these were not disrupted. On the other hand, it was hard to conceive a tactic better designed to disorganize and demoralize work militancy. It broke their embryonic drive for unity; forced them to face the employers one at a time; and was almost calculated to prevent victory. It showed the workers precisely where their leaders stood, and succeeded in its purpose of breaking the movement.

If the auto workers had somehow failed to get the message their liberal/socialist leadership was sympathetic to the corporation’s problems, things were made perfectly clear over the next few years, as socialist Doug Fraser himself took center stage. In the summer of 1973, Black workers dramatically seized control of a Detroit Chrysler plant to protest deteriorating conditions, terrible overheating, and racist foremen. To everyone's surprise, they won an initial victory. But when they (ill-advisedly) attempted the same sit-in tactic a second time, union officials were ready. Fraser led more than 1000 UAW staff in smashing physically the picket line outside the occupied plant and dispersing the movement.

The process of social unionist sell-out has, of course, reached its climax with the recent series of concessionary contracts. These began in 1978–1979, with the famous contract to save Chrysler, negotiated by Doug Fraser as part of the bailout engineered by the Carter administration. That agreement was followed in GM and Ford by a series of give-back deals, supposedly temporary, to tide the companies over the serious recession of 1979-1982. But the return to prosperity and record profits in auto, union officials have failed to reverse their approach. On the contrary, in the contract negotiated in September 1984, the UAW gave GM the green light to pursue its far-reaching plans both to shift much of production to Japan and Korea and to modernize drastically its remaining American operations, even though these policies will decimate the auto labor force. Once again, the utter dependence of the labor officialdom, left and right, on ‘their’ corporations' profitability could not have been more definitively expressed.[10]

The Public Workers Unions

The pattern in the public sector unions has paralleled that in auto. There, an explicitly 'social democratic' leadership has assumed command to an extent probably unequalled anywhere in the labor movement. Jerry Wurf, president of AFSCME, and Victor Gotbaum, leader of New York's giant District 37, were both members of DSOC, and District 37 is loaded with DSAers at the local president and staff level. Nonetheless, these leftists constitute the hard core of the conservative wing of public sector unionism. Ironically, it was the ‘apolitical' locals that were most responsible for the pressure from the ranks within AFSCME during the 70s. The militant strikes waged by public employee locals in response to the city and state governments' versions of the employer offensive during the middle and late 70s had to take place independently of the 'more advanced' and more ‘radical' leadership.

This has been particularly true in New York, which entered the 70s as the nation's stronghold of public employee unionism, When the crisis struck in 1975, the rank and file responded vigorously, only to be crushed by their 'left' leaders. In that year, sanitation workers walked out on a nearly unanimous wildcat. The leadership, however, refused to budge, and allowed the strike to be smashed. In the teachers union, the membership voted an official strike, but were forced back to work after one week by their officials (this time headed by conservative ‘socialist' Albert Shanker).

In the wake of these and other defeats, social democratic officials were free to help turn the city over to the direction of the banks and corporations via the Municipal Assistance Corporation (MAC). They have cooperated in the gutting of municipal services to the working-class poor with barely a rhetorical whimper. Tens of thousands of jobs have been surrendered, remaining ones Taylorized. Class sizes of 40 or more in the New York City schools is common. Firehouses have been close while the number of fires grows. A large proportion of public hospital beds has been eliminated. Meanwhile, for their cooperation in saving the city from financial ruin, unionized workers have been compelled to accept a succession of increasingly concessionary contracts while watching their unions reduced to a shell.

Winpisinger, PATCO, and Solidarity Day

Although the images of the miners, auto, and public service union leaderships have been tarnished by their conduct throughout the employer offensive, International Association Machinists (IAM) president William Winpisinger remains a hero of the new social democratic left. A member of DSA, Winpisinger will, at a moment's notice, call for just about any progressive reform measure and (between elections) will even demand that labor break from the Democratic Party. He remains a favourite speaker at DSA conferences, and at the roundtable discussions of intelligentsia.

But ‘Wimpy' has never tried to conceal his contempt for rank and file organization, past, present, and future: ‘The leadership of a union is almost always an accurate reflection of the view of the membership,’ he said in an interview with The Guardian paper not long ago. What about the Teamsters, he was asked, surely a different case? ‘Perhaps not,’ he replied. ‘It’s up to the membership to change the situation.’ Then, concretely, does Winpisinger support the rank and file movement in that union? No, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) represents, in his words, 'outside forces.' They asked me to back them,' he said. ‘But I asked myself, hell, what's to stop a bunch like that from coming in here and doing the same thing?’ In addition, Winpisinger denounced moderate steelworkers union reformer Ed Sadlowski, and said he supported that union's notoriously reactionary leadership. He saw no merit, he said, in Sadlowski's charge that the USW staff had been undemocratically mobilized to stop Sadlowski, asking ‘What's wrong with that? Doesn't the staff have democratic rights too?’ Winpisinger added Sadlowski had ‘burned his bridges' by running for USW president on a 'screw management platform.’ ‘I view that as a i of irresponsible populism,' said Winpisinger.[11]

Far more significant than his words, however, have been Winpisinger's deeds. Over the recent period, Winpisinger has shown that he and the rest of the labor officialdom, both right and left, are one when it comes to cutting short any movement toward a mass militant fight back against the corporations. In the summer of 1981, Reagan fired the opening shot in his newly stepped-up war against the labor movement when he simply abolished the Professional Air Controllers Organization (PATCO) for daring to go out on strike. Coincidentally, at about the same the AFL-CIO was planning its so-called Solidarity Day demonstrations, aimed at kicking off the traditional electoral/legislative effort against Reagan. To everyone's surprise, some three quarters of a million workers showed their potential power by attending the March on Washington, while tens of thousands of others demonstrated at the largest local labor day demonstrations in decades. PATCO had large and militant contingents at all these demonstrations.

Here was a clear opportunity for the labor leadership to bring the spontaneously aroused labor movement behind PATCO and to launch a counter-offensive against the employers and Reagan. Not surprisingly, however, the AFL-CIO officials, across the board, failed to do anything. In particular, Winpisinger refused to call on his membership to honor PATCO's picket lines. The powerful IAM airline mechanics could certainly have shut down the airports and, had Winpisinger been willing to act, called upon the rest of the labor movement to rally behind them in support of PATCO and against Reagan. What was Winpisinger's excuse for scabbing on the pilots? Exhibiting the shopkeeper mentality for which the labor officialdom has become famous Winpisinger explained that supporting PATCO would have bee illegal and would have been risky for the union, threatening it apparatus, especially because the top AFL-CIO leadership had decided not to help (as if it ever had or ever would). In the upshot, the entire labor movement was, yet another time, shunted back onto the electoral road, initiating the ill-fated campaign which reached its predictable and disastrous dénouement in the recent Mondale fiasco.

A Two Pronged Strategy?

To the extent that the advocates of a new social democracy base themselves, as they must, on already-existing social democratic and reformist forces, particularly any wing of the trade union officialdom, they pose for themselves a classic dilemma. Historically, the trade union officialdom has furnished the ‘political proponents of a social democratic politics with a ready-made working-class base. But since the turn of the twentieth century these same officials, in the U.S. and around the world, have asserted their sole right to speak for and to control this base within the party, while setting themselves systematically against those militant rank and file upsurges which have, periodically offered social democracy in particular and the left in general it best opportunities for transforming working-class consciousness in a radical direction.[12] DSA leader Michael Harrington recognized the dilemma in an interview a number of years ago ‘If you say to me, is it possible that someone who is now member of DSOC in the union movement will be so fixed and anchored in the bureaucracy that they will be appalled by the rank and file movement and try to put it down? I guess, sure, it’s happened before and I suppose it will happen in the future. What will we do then? I hope we will go with the rank and file... but I'm sure that some of us might fail the test. There's no way you can anticipate.’

Less willing than Harrington to depend solely upon good intentions — and perhaps more concerned than he about a trade union bureaucratic interest within social democratic parties — some of the current advocates of a new social democracy have posed a more nuanced, two pronged approach to the problem: ally with the ‘progressive' officials inside the party, they suggest, but, at the same time, organize the ranks, independently and from below, in the workplace and the industrial context. This tactic might be worthy of consideration, if there already existed a strong independent rank and file movement which was in a position to act on its own and to influence political organizations. But today no such movement exists. The question, therefore, is whether at the present moment, when the key problem is precisely to bring such a movement into existence, it will be possible simultaneously to work with the trade union ‘lefts' in building social democracy and to attack these same ‘lefts' while building the rank and file movement. Can anyone seriously contend that the Frasers, Wurfs, Winpisingers and their ilk will, at this juncture, ally with people on a political project when they know that these same people are simultaneously opposing them in ‘their own unions’? To ask this question is to answer it. This explains why even the embryonic social democratic movement in the U.S. has failed to challenge in the slightest way the hegemony of its trade union officials in their own special sphere, despite these officials' already long record of bureaucratic discouragement of independent rank and file initiative and militancy. The new social democrats have already, in other words, ratified the ‘two pole' structure of separated jurisdiction which has marked social democratic parties from the beginning, and helped mightily to perpetuate their self-destructive dynamic.

Read parts one and three


1. On the mass strike upsurge of the 30s and the response of the employers and the government, see Art Preis, Labor's Giant Step (1972) and Irving Bernstein, The Turbulent Years (1969).

2. On Roosevelt's new activism, in response to the mass movements and radicalization of 1934, see W.E. Leuchtenberg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963).

3. On the trade union officials' passivity under the employers' offensive of the later 1920s and beyond, see Irving Bernstein, The Lean Years (1961), as well as The Turbulent Years.

4. S. Lynd, ‘The Possibility of Radicalism in the Early 1930s: The Case of Steel’, Radical America (November 1972); Roger Keeran, ‘Communists and the Auto Workers. The Struggle for a Union, 1919-1949 (University of Wisconsin Ph.D. dissertation, 1974), chapter IV.

5. Keeran, ‘Communists and the Auto Workers', pp. 292ff. ; Preis, Labor's Giant Step; R.R. Brooks, As Steel Goes . . . (1940).

6. Keeran, ‘Communists and the Auto Workers', p. 215; Bert Cochrane, Labor and Communism (1977), p. 107ff. ; Mike Davis, ‘The Barren Marriage of American Labor and the Democratic Party', New Left Review, no. 124 (November–December 1980).

7. A. Meier and E. Rudwick, Core. A Study in the Civil Rights Movement 1942-1968 (1975), parts II and IV; Clayborne Carson, In Struggle. SNCC and the Black Awakening (1981), esp. pp. 83-95 and 218-220.

8. Meier and Rudwick, Core, pp. 282, 272-281; Carson, In Struggle, 111–129.

9. For a superb account of the miners' struggles of the 60s and 70s, see Paul Nyden, 'Miners for Democracy: Struggle in the Coal Fields' (Columbia University Ph.D. dissertation, 1974).

10. For an interesting account of the latest, very important agreement in auto, see Eric Mann, 'Send in the Robots: How UAW sold out its membership 1984 . . . ‘, L.A. Weekly (4-10 January 1985).

11. Ben Bedell, ‘Winpisinger's Wimpy Socialism, The Guardian (20 February 1980).

12. For a classic account of these dynamics, see Carl E. Schorske, German Social Democracy 1905–1917 (1955).