Prior to the 1930s, only the AFL, organized in craft unions, represented a significant organization, though it represented only a small minority of the working class and pursued conservative policies. Industrial unions, organizing workers in mass production industries, such as auto, steel, rubber, electrical, aviation, etc., were created only in the 1930s, by the CIO, under state sponsorship, as part of the New Deal run-up to World War II, for which they were needed to assure a reliable, disciplined workforce.
While the Stalinists played a key role in the CIO and actually controlled unions representing 4 million workers by the end of the War, the onset of the cold war with Russia created serious problems for the American bourgeoisie. As the bloc leader in Western imperialism’s confrontation with Russia, it was intolerable for the U.S. to have unions loyal to the rival imperialist power control significant sectors of the American proletariat, and by 1948, the CP was driven out of the labor movement. Thus, for nearly fifty years there has not really been a left presence in the unions; nor have the leftists been able to play a significant role. All of this has complicated the process of radicalizing the American unions.
The first element in the process was revamping the national union leadership, with the replacement of the moribund, Cold War Kirkland-Donahue leadership four years ago with the energetic, younger and more demagogic John Sweeney, who brought a commitment to organizing campaigns, and militant-sounding, confrontational rhetoric, threatening to revive the strike weapon, that had been all but abandoned by Kirkland-Donahue.
The next phase was the displacement of corrupt mob-controlled union leaders and other union leaderships compromised by blatant collaboration and cronyism with the bosses during the ‘80s and early ‘90s. The commitment to revive "union democracy" from the Sweeney led bureaucracy at the top, was supplemented by a concurrent revival of base unionist activity by leftists. In New York, this was exemplified by the efforts of the Association for Union Democracy, working in concert with Trotskyists from the ISO and dissident union bureaucrats, to launch reform caucuses throughout the public sector in NYC. Indeed the rise of left movements within unions across the country is reaching epidemic proportions.
The struggle in transit in New York City in November-December revealed clearly the strengths and weakness of the proletariat in the present conjuncture. On the one hand there was a tremendous combativeness among transit workers, the beginnings of a conscious reflection among a minority of the workers, a conscious willingness to violate the Taylor law, which forbids public sector strikes in New York State, and a growing distrust of the unions.
On the other hand, this process evolved within an overall balance of forces that favored the bourgeoisie. The working class throughout the world, and particularly here in the U.S. still suffers from the disorientation that ensued following the collapse of stalinism and the bourgeoisie’s propaganda campaign about the end of communism, the end of class struggle and the triumph of capitalist democracy.
The reflux in consciousness within the proletariat is real and has important consequences for the class struggle. All the positive elements present in the transit struggle were more than offset by the general characteristics of the period, which meant that the transit workers carried on their struggle under extremely unfavorable prevailing conditions which did not favor either an open confrontation with the unions or the extension of the struggle.
The struggle did not develop in a totally isolated fashion. Workers in other industries, particularly within the public sector, were widely sympathetic to the transit workers. However, the fact that bourgeoisie was able to inflict the incredibly repressive court injunction without repercussion, without workers in other sectors rushing to the support of the transit workers, demonstrates the serious limits for the active expression of solidarity by other workers at the present conjuncture.
The bourgeoisie demonstrated that it had the upper hand through its clever use of the division of labor between the right and left in the union, to derail workers’ combativeness, stymie the strike movement, and leave workers confused and in disarray. The fact that in order to assist this division of labor within the union to be successful the bourgeoisie was forced to grant the transit workers a wage increase larger than the prevailing level in recent years, has been used to foster the illusion that a militant left base unionist movement "pays," and has served as an impetus to base unionist insurgencies in other municipal unions.
The provocative actions of the Giuliani administration in New York City in no way contradict the overall policy of the left in power to seek avoidance of open class struggle, but rather reflects the different approach taken by the right in power on the local level in New York at the City and State governmental levels. Such provocative actions have not been characteristic of the Clinton government on the national level.
With all its difficulties, the transit struggle was clearly part of the arduous process of a return to class struggle, in which the paramount task at the present moment is the rediscovery of class identity by the working class, a recognition its nature as a class for itself, and development of the self-confidence as a class that will enable workers to begin to reclaim the acquisitions of past experience. Revolutionaries must intervene in this process to expose the bourgeoisie's efforts to stymie the struggle and bolster the base unionists.