June 14, 2024

Original artwork: https://portside.org/2014-06-10/who-behind-national-right-work-committee-and-its-anti-union-crusade

“The class interests of the bourgeoisie inevitably give rise to a striving to confine the unions to petty and narrow activity within the framework of the existing social order, to keep them away from any contact with socialism; and the neutrality theory is the ideological cover for these strivings of the bourgeoisie.”

V. I. Lenin, Trade-Union Neutrality. Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1972, Moscow, Volume 13, pages 460-469

Today, the imperialist phase of capitalism gives rise to a whole mechanism of control that attempts to keep the working class movement within the restrictive framework of bourgeois society. The hegemony of the major parties of the bourgeoisie, opportunism, and the rise of social democracy all influence the character of trade unions today. Under these conditions, the struggle to reinvigorate the classist trade union movement and construct workplace cells inevitably brings us face-to-face with ideas that block working-class political action.

One is the belief that the workplace is an environment that should be “neutral,” that the economic struggle is classless and separate from political and ideological differences. Accordingly, the workers should “keep politics out of work” and reject the insertion of politics by the bosses and the socialist-minded workers into the fight for better working conditions. Such ideas have various proponents and manifestations, ranging from union local election campaigns promising to root out politics to business columns advising that keeping politics out of the workplace can lead to greater profits. The Teamsters president, Sean O’Brien, has asserted that “no outsiders should weigh in,“ while some well-meaning workers view both main parties as bankrupt. At one point, it was a method of organizing for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). These calls gain significance without the presence of the party of the working class.

While it is correct that workers must reject the two major parties, this notion of neutrality equates the interests of two opposed classes and obscures their antagonisms. Between the employer and the employees, there is no need for struggle. In the words of O’Brien: “find common ground.” When the labor leaders accept capitalism, they are also accepting the political and economic leadership of the bourgeoisie. By extension, this means rejecting and even attacking the necessity to break bourgeois control and lead the unions away from the union bureaucrats and towards their historical objective: abolishing capitalist rule. Such is the true meaning of “neutrality.”

“Neutrality,” or independence, of the unions in the United States was only possible from around 1827 to 1837, at the inception of the workers’ political and trade union movements. At that time, capitalism was in its early development stages, and the bourgeoisie had not yet exerted systematic influence on the unions, nor had its parties become well established. The subsequent periods contain fierce battles between the labor movement and the US ruling class, which fought tooth and nail to establish dominance.

The heroic role played by the workers throughout the history of the militant trade union movement in the US, led by the communists in many instances, is of valuable experience today in the goal of reconstituting the communist party and correctly orienting our strategy within the workplace and trade unions. The work of the historic CPUSA on this front was crucial in confronting theories of neutrality, particularly those of its leading proponent, Samuel Gompers. Similar to the struggle of Lenin and the Bolsheviks against the Economists, the communists and the workers in the US waged an ideological-political war against Gompers. Lessons from these confrontations against the counterparts of Economism, the Gomperites, are essential and must be applied by communists in the US so that we can more effectively intervene in the everyday struggles of the workers.

Here, we draw on the writings of William Z. Foster, who traced the opportunist theory of neutrality in the US to the dirty role of Gompers with his slogan “No Politics in the Union.” Gompers claimed that there is no need for a labor theory to win improvements in the conditions of the working class. However, in practice, Gompers, with other union leaders of the time, helped tie the unions to the political aims of the liberal parties of the bourgeoisie, fusing the unions to the projects of capital. This collaboration, known as the “Lib-Lab” (Liberal-Labor) Alliance, was far from neutral. It was similar to the well-known partnership between unions and the Democrats today. The Lib-Lab Alliance allowed the trade union bureaucrats, as agents of the capitalists, to carry this theory of “neutrality” to all political and economic projects of the monopolies: promoting the imperialist First World War, agreeing not to organize workers in the non-unionized industries, and, in 1925, surrendering the right to strike and renouncing the class struggle, a move which played a critical role in the massive profits reaped off the greater exploitation of workers during the “Roaring 20s” period of US capitalism.

These are the conscious and organized efforts by the capitalist class to divert the workers’ movement from delivering decisive blows. Often, this role falls to social democracy, both in its old and new forms, as a pillar of maintaining the dominance of the exploitative system. It is a grave mistake to believe that these efforts and their justifying theories, proponents, and enablers within the competing sections of the capitalist class have waned. They persist as trade union leaders engage in friendly negotiations with the bosses, align themselves and the unions with the Democratic Party, or play political ping-pong between the two major parties and sell a mirage of “humane” capitalism to the workers. Let’s consider some recent examples.

UAW leader Shawn Fain’s perverse proposal of “profit-sharing,” an attempt to distract workers and awaken petty-bourgeois ambitions, is an application of the Biden administration’s demagogy about the “middle class.” His endorsement by and for the blood-stained Biden administration, the sparing of bosses’ profits through advanced notice half-strikes, and the bargaining of a concessionary contract all indicate his true loyalties. Similarly, Teamster’s President, Sean O’Brien, a long-time ally and member of the Hoffa administration in the Teamsters, has overseen $45 thousand in donations to both the Republican and Democratic parties, an ironic and comical display of “neutrality.” Like Fain, he has led negotiations for a concessionary contract. The negotiation process reduced collective action to a mere click on a device, and the contract itself subjects workers to potential 7-day work weeks at the bosses’ discretion. Both leaders cultivate the illusion of the age-old American dream of the “middle class.” Their so-called militancy makes the contract the maximum task of the union, granting it an almost religious aspect and effectively castrating the real militancy of the workers. Thus, these shameless opportunists help facilitate the penetration of bourgeois ideology into the minds of the workers and their leaders.

Capitalists, their parties, and their government focus on the trade union movement, whether through agents or the predominant company unions (also known as ‘yellow unions’ or business unions) whose leaderships support, directly or indirectly, the policies of the governments. Calls for neutrality in the trade union movement, such as “political parties out of the trade unions,” independence, and “unions without a political identity,” are resurfacing. However, this does not mean that communists do not defend the organizational independence of unions. We militantly oppose all attempts by employers and the state to interfere in the trade union movement.

Workers continually face the consequences of an exploitative economy and its power: rent hikes, sinking wages, lack of housing, rising taxes, inflation, worsening insurance, pension cuts, inadequate healthcare, unpaid internships, tuition costs, and the privatization of education, to name a few. Legislation grants crumbs or simply doesn’t cut it; always subjecting us to alternations with every new political party that enters office. Want to do something with fellow workers? Your state outlaws strikes, as have many in the US. Want to speak up? Your legislature passes laws to curb free speech and expand repressive police powers. Public sector workers, like teachers, continuously face the reactionary advances of the state governments. One can hardly ignore the role of Ron DeSantis. Consequently, workers are constantly clashing, not only with each capitalist but also with the government and the bourgeois parties.

In coordination with trade union leaders, the state and federal governments have dealt severe blows to the heart of union functioning and to local union operations. Gatherings, assemblies, and workplace visits by union leaders have disappeared, while lifeless congresses and anti-democratic selections of executives and representatives without discussion or struggle abound. They replace the collective union struggle with electronic methods of organizing: online elections, email surveys, and similar tools, all touted as forms of “modernization.” These changes reflect deliberate decisions that have weakened the militancy of workers’ organizations, highlighting the deep penetration of the ruling class’s interventions. 

So, it’s not a secret that there is no such thing as neutrality in the workplace. You may not be interested in politics, but your boss is, and they are using it to beat you down.