The AFL-CIO is primed for a possible split at its upcoming quadrennial convention. A coalition of unions, led by the Services Employees International Union (SEIU) and including the Teamsters, Laborers, United Commercial Food Workers, and UNITE HERE are threatening to leave the federation if it does not adopt a broad set of “reforms” ostensibly designed to once again make the union movement a powerful force in national and international politics.
What are workers and revolutionaries to make of these events? Do they harbinger the possible revitalization of the unions as organs that could once again defend the interests of the working class and serve as weapons of the downtrodden in the 21st century quest for global justice?
From a revolutionary Marxist perspective, the answer is a clear no. Unions may have been the unitary form of working-class self-organization in the period of capitalist ascendance, when workers could come together to confront and win reforms from a still historically progressive capitalism, however, with the rise of capitalist decadence, when the system becomes a brake on the further development of the productive forces, the unions were transformed into weapons of the state to instill shop-floor discipline among the workers. They do so by pursing a capitalist agenda while pretending to speak the workers’ language. From the point of view of the theory of capitalist decadence, unions have been irretrievably lost to the working-class as a mode of organization. They are no longer proletarian institutions and no change of leadership or political direction can alter this fact.
If the working-class is ever to carry out its historic mandate to overthrow the capitalist system and build a world human community beyond capital, the union is just one of the capitalist institutions it will have to confront, defeat and ultimately surpass.
Nevertheless, this does not mean the recent turmoil in the AFL-CIO is not unimportant. These events ultimately need to be seen in the context of the overall political life of the bourgeois class. In many ways, the fact that the AFL-CIO might split is a reflection of the wider difficulties of the American ruling class to control and manipulate its political system.
What we are witnessing today with the unions is the complement of the turmoil and disorder that have infected the overall bourgeois political arena. From the botched election of 2000 to its hesitancy to rally behind a candidate in 2004, the American bourgeoisie is encountering increasing difficulty in coordinating its democratic mystification, of which the unions are a key element.
What we are seeing today is not the equivalent of 1995 when current AFL-CIO president (at the time president of SEIU) John Sweeney ousted Lane Kirkland in an effort to radicalize the union’s image in the eyes of the working class. SEIU’s program is not appreciably more radical appearing than other unions. While they do call for spending more money on organizing, consolidating unions, and confronting Wal-Mart, there is no visible plan to call for strikes, mass protests or other actions. On the contrary, most of SEIU’s program involves organizing more workers and consolidating smaller unions in order to have more influence in national politics. In other words, SEIU seeks to bring more and more workers into the union trap so as to increase their own weight in intra-bourgeois political scheming and bureaucratic competition.
This does not compare to the 1930s, the era of the CIO and its philosophy of mass industrial unionism, when the Roosevelt administration actively cooperated with the unions in order to gain greater control of the working-class and enroll more workers into these capitalist institutions as part of a long-term vision to quell class struggle.
Today’s turmoil in the AFL-CIO does not reflect some well-thought out strategy by the main factions of the ruling class. On the contrary, it reflects the very decomposition that is eating away at capitalist society and complicates the decisive historic action of either the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. SEIU and its allies are not threatening to break away from the AFL-CIO in line with any plan to radicalize the unions. Rather, their posturing has more in character with a selfish power move to improve their own union’s standing. In other words, they are considering jumping ship and going their own way. As the largest union in the country, the SEIU leadership probably think they can do better on their own than have to deal with the dead weight of the AFL-CIO and its regulations.
This tendency for “every man for himself” is reflective of the entire period of capitalist decomposition where the discipline of the state over the various factions of the bourgeoisie is beginning to break down. This is the exact process that is at work today within the AFL-CIO and workers should have no illusions about it.
The simple fact of the matter is that the American bourgeoisie is unable to keep its unions on the same page, very similar to the fashion in which it was unable to rally behind a clear candidate for President in 2004, leading to the debacle of a second term for George W. Bush. Today, SEIU sees the opportunity to grab more power for themselves and that is exactly what they are attempting to do, very similar to the way in which Bush and his team saw the opportunity to become President when the Florida vote came back so close, despite the fact that in 2000 most of the main factions of the bourgeoisie backed Gore.
One should not interpret these events as some indication that the democratic sphere or the unions have once again become relevant to the working class. Due to the very nature of the unions, it would be impossible for the working class to exploit this turmoil to its advantage. Moreover, the fact that the American bourgeoisie is experiencing difficulty to control its political apparatus does not mean that a total loss of control is imminent. In fact, it is not even certain that SEIU and company will leave the AFL-CIO. The possibility still exists that a back-door solution could be found, whereby SEIU’s program and the egotistical needs of its leaders are accommodated within the AFL-CIO.
Nevertheless, these events are significant as they mark a definite acceleration in the decomposition of the bourgeoisie’s political apparatus. Workers and revolutionaries need to be aware of this. They cannot allow themselves to be drawn into the increasing drama of bourgeois politics by allowing themselves to believe they have a stake in its outcome. Either way, split or not: the AFL-CIO and SEIU will both remain enemies of the working-class. This is an historic fact that no degree of reform or reorganization can change.