The following letter to the editor was sent to Red & Black Notes in response to an article by Loren Goldner analyzing the California grocery workers strike which was published in issue #19 of that publication. Internationalism.
While we wouldn't use the same words or formulations, there are certainly many things in Loren Goldner's 'Notes on Another Defeat for Workers in the US: The Los Angeles Supermarket Strike of 2003-2004,' which was published Red & Black Notes #19, that are on the right track. For example, we agree that the grocery workers' fight was an important strike for American workers in the struggle to resist capitalist attacks on their living standards in the form of cutbacks in their medical benefits and that it ended in a serious defeat. It's also accurate to say that the strikers were militant and enthusiastic, and that other workers were sympathetic and wanted to demonstrate their solidarity. Who could disagree with observations that the unions followed the same 'localist and legalist strategies of so many losing strikes of previous years,' that the union kept the strikers 'under control, and that 'no mass meetings were held to discuss strike strategy.' And it is clear that 'the decisive factor in the defeat was the absence of any challenge to the union strategy from the UFCW rank-and-file.'
However, the article falls terribly short in explaining why this terrible defeat occurred. Goldner doesn't seem to understand why the unions persist is such disastrous tactics year after year. He thinks perhaps that 'they underestimated the willingness and ability of the three chains to lose millions of dollars in order to break the power of the unions,' or that 'it is possible that the UFCW leadership in Southern California thought they could win, based on the early momentum, not realizing that the supermarkets had national backing and a national strategy.' Essentially, Goldner's explanation boils down to this: the union leaders underestimated, they didn't realize, they didn't understand. In other words, they made mistakes. A possible implication of such an analysis could be that different union leaders smart enough understand their adversaries and to use different strategies and tactics could have won the strike - though of course Goldner's article does not specifically advocate such a reformist, leftist view.
This kind of analysis is totally inadequate. It reflects a wrong understanding of the class nature of trade unions in this period of capitalism. First of all, this struggle was not an attempt to 'break the power of the unions,' as Goldner suggests. It was all about cutting the standard of living of the working class, pure and simple. It is usually the unions and their leftist choir groups that raise the 'union busting' slogan as a way to divert attention from the true nature of the bosses' attacks on the workers, often as a way to celebrate an allege 'victory' when the union's 'security' is maintained even as the workers suffer wage cuts and layoffs. If anything, in this strike, it was the power of the unions that was used effectively to defeat the strike and help American capitalism as a whole, and not just the three national corporations involved, to achieve a significant victory in scaling back the medical benefits for American workers.
The supermarket strike failed because the strike remained firmly under union control from start to finish and trade unions are no longer organizations of the working class. Unions once were defensive organizations of the working class in an earlier period capitalist development, but for nearly a century since the period of the First World War they been integrated into the state apparatus of capitalism. As we wrote in Internationalism 130, "unions are part of the capitalist state, the arm of the ruling class, charged with the specific function of controlling the working class, and rendering its anger, combativeness, and solidarity harmless for capitalism. The lesson that workers must remember is that the way to advance the struggle is to push aside the unions and take control of the struggle into their own hands." In the supermarket strike, the unions and the union leaders didn't make any mistakes; they did the job that they are supposed to do for capitalism - and they did it quite well.
Internationalism June 24, 2004.