Bill Fletcher calls for an organization of Labor Left Wing

Jon Flanders jonathan.flanders at
Wed Nov 5 07:59:40 MST 2003


 LABOR TUESDAY! for November 4 & 11, 2003

 By Charles Walker

 Bill Fletcher, a one-time aide to AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney,
has proposed that organized labor needs an organized left-wing; and,
moreover,that left-wing needs "a vision of a different USA, and indeed a
different world." Speaking at the September Labor Notes national
gathering, Fletcher reminded his audience, a fairly representative
gathering of the labor-left, that we "act as if the existence of an
organized left, and specifically an organized left anti-capitalist
political party is a nice idea but not particularly essential in order
to carry out our tasks."

 Fletcher argued that much of the fight to organize workers during the
Great Depression years was also a fight for a larger demand, popular
democracy. Like then, today's struggle to organize and defend organized
labor's gains also should be connected to a struggle for democracy. But
the start of those struggles mustn't be left to grassroots spontaneity.
Rather, the labor-left should organize as a social movement, preparing
the ground and engaging the opposition.

 "Too many of us today," he asserted, "act as if we need no such
organization and no such vision." Drawing on labor experiences during
the 1930's, Fletcher stressed that, "What the organized left brought to
the pre-CIO period was not simply trade union strategy but a connection
between what was going on in the trade union movement and what was
taking place in other movements."

 One of the organizations that Fletcher mentioned briefly that brought a
vision of a different USA to the labor movement was the Trade Union
Educational League (TUEL), principally led by William Z. Foster, a
veteran labor organizer. If Fletcher had had more speaking time, he
might have pointed out how the TUEL, which lasted only seven years in
its original form, accomplished much more than the combined
accomplishments to date of the largest present day left-led union

 The TUEL led difficult major strikes and won some that would have
challenged the typical efforts of the Samuel Gompers types of its time;
it recruited thousands of members in its short life-span, advocating
democratic, rank-and-file unionism, the end of union leaders'
cooperation with the boss class, industrial unionism, workers' political
independence (a labor party), anti-racism, and international workers'

 Its founding declaration stated that the TUEL "is campaigning against
the reactionaries, incompetents, and crooks who occupy strategic
positions in many of our organizations. It is striving to replace them
with militants, with men and women unionists who look upon the labor
movement not as a means for making an easy living, but as an instrument
for the achievement of working class emancipation. In other words, the
[TUEL] is working in every direction necessary to put life and spirit
and power into the trade union movement."

 Fletcher noted that the TUEL failed when it adopted a duel unionism
policy. He neglected to put that stage in the TUEL's history in full
perspective, by not mentioning that the duel unionism policy and a huge
dose of sectarianism was imposed on Foster, a member of the American
Communist Party, and his U.S. labor activists by the so-called Third
Period line of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which branded
many labor militants and radicals not affiliated with the Communist
Party as "social fascists."

 Fletcher did note other policy faults of the TUEL, but many of those
might have been modified during the course of the 1930s workers'
upsurge, just a few years later, if the TUEL had stuck to its original
intentions; and others might not have been faults, but policies well
suited for the uncoming militant times. For example, the TUEL had a
clear line on the fundamental need for real independent political action
by workers. The TUEL proposed a break from Gompers' line of reliance on
capitalist politicians and parties, and, in turn, advocated the
formation of a labor party. The TUEL also had a keen understanding of
the bureaucratic set-ups that many unions had become, and was a forceful
opponent of trade union bureaucrats. While it's true that the TUEL is a
mixed model for today's labor militants, its example is much more of a
lesson on what labor militants should be doing, than avoiding.

 However, Fletcher is quite right to stress the need by labor militants
for certain types of tactical flexibility and understandings. As in the
TUEL period, today's unions are bureaucratized, no doubt more so now,
than then.

But that doesn't mean that the officialdom is unvarying
identical. Which means that united fronts on many issues within the
labor movement are not only possible, but also vital and necessary.
Fletcher is quite right to remind us all that the political
consciousness of workers, though subject to radical changes, today is
relatively conservative. But, here too, workers' moods and attitudes are
not uniform and as layers of workers try to cope with a prolonged
stagnant economy and begin to move away from acceptance of the status
quo, the presence of an organized left with a vision might make
the difference between a snuffed out upsurge, or the continuation of
momentum. In this connection, it's tantalizing to speculate upon the
impact that such an organized left with a vision might have had on the
Teamsters Union and the nationwide UPS strike, led by then-Teamsters
president Ron Carey.

 Fletcher didn't take up the nature of the present U.S. labor
officialdom and its likelihood of self-reform. Clearly, the character of
trade union bureaucratism and its strengths and weaknesses must underlie
any program for turning the U.S. labor movement around. So too, there
must be clarity on the political responsibilities of an organized labor
left with a vision. In sharp distinction with the official politics of
the labor officialdom, it must be understood that the palliatives unions
sometimes win by backing capitalist politicians and parties are far
outweighed by their costs. Certainly, the bipartisan rush to attack
Afghanistan and Iraq, in order to secure oil and empire, recently
reconfirmed that calculus.

 Fletcher deserves a lot of credit for presenting his views on an
organized labor left with an anti-capitalist vision at the Labor Notes
conference, which has yet to take up ever the question of marshalling
its united strength as a counterweight to organized labor's bureaucratic
degeneration; and, as well, a counterweight to labor's political
dependency on corporate America's parties and politicians for the
equivalents of handouts.

 Fletcher mentioned that he had consulted with other union partisans, as
he prepared his talk. That indicates that he is not alone in believing
that the time has come for the labor left to organize itself into a
coherent whole, dedicated to the proposition that organized labor needs
a new vision. For sure, many details will need to be debated and decided
before labor's left-wing is an organized force up to the job of
presenting an alternative to the labor movement's hardened bureaucratic
officialdom. But hopefully, Bill Fletcher's speech will kick-start a new
movement to strengthen organized labor from the ground up.

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