On the Labor Bureaucracy

Against the Current, No. 68, May/June 1997

Charlie Post

THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN Ernie Haberkern and myself on issues of labor history and trade union politics flow from our different conceptions of the trade union bureaucracy. Following Hal Draper, Haberkern rejects my analysis of the labor officialdom as a distinct social layer, with material interests opposed to those of rank-and-file workers.  Instead, like Draper, Haberkern equates trade union bureaucracy with trade union leadership, no more and no less.

According to Haberkern and Draper, the trade union bureaucracy’s role is shaped by the conflicting pressures any trade union leadership will face under capitalism. On the one hand, labor bureaucrats, like all union leaders, will experience pressure from “below,” from rank-and-file workers to improve wages and working conditions.

On the other hand, Haberkern and Draper claim that labor bureaucrats, like all union leaders, will experience pressure from “above,” from the employers to discipline rank-and-file workers in the interests of capitalist competition and profitability. Neither Haberkern nor Draper ever specifies what distinguishes the bureaucrat from any other trade union leader, however militant and under the control of an organized and active membership.

Haberkern’s theoretical position leads him to several misinterpretations of the labor history of the 1930s and 1940s. First, he fails to appreciate the critical, and in many respects exemplary, leadership role briefly played by the Communist Party in the creation of the CIO during 1935 and 1936, the period between the end of the ultra-left “third period” and the beginning of the reformist “popular front.”

Second, his analysis of the labor officialdom leads him to overestimate the independent contributions of bureaucrats like John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther, respectively, to the 1943 miners’ strike and the 1946 labor upsurge.

Even more importantly for socialists active in the labor movement today, Haberkern’s theoretical position leads him to advocate that socialists should confine themselves to acting as a “loya opposition…independent watchdogs, a counterweight to the formal or informal ‘caucus’ that invariably forms around the leadership of the union.”

This strategy tends to minimize the near universal need today for permanent rank-and-file organizations within the unions that are independent of the union bureaucracy. The need for such permanent organization flows from the fact that the labor officialdom, because of their distinctive material position and interests, cannot be counted on to defend even the most long established and hard won gains of the membership.

Despite their commitment to revolutionary socialist politics, Haberkern and Draper offer a theory of the trade union bureaucracy that could provide a justification for the actions of this layer over the past seventy-five years. One could easily conclude from their analysis that the labor bureaucracy’s actions are unavoidable, in fact necessary, and indistinguishable from what any trade union leadership would do under capitalism.

According to Haberkern and Draper, the union officials constitute an “indispensable buffer between the employer, the larger society, and the union.” On the one hand, the officialdom fights for the rank and file’s demands that can be won at a given time.  On the other, it provides the “necessary discipline” against the rank and file needed to maintain the trade union as an organization.

Draper asks, “Doesn’t this disciplining serve the bourgeoisie? Of course it does. But…[d]oesn’t it also serve the interest of the trade union movement? For the trade union movement to exist and not shake itself to pieces that discipline is necessary. Even a militant union leadership…will also have to discipline the ranks.” (Draper, Socialism from Below, 218)

In other words, the bureaucracy, like any labor leadership, must discipline the working class in the working class’ own interests,interests that the rank and file apparently cannot by themselves understand.

No wonder that Haberkern can assert that, as a rule, the trade union bureaucracy “defends the gains won by previous struggles” and come to the conclusion that “only in moments of extreme crisis, in a revolutionary situation, does the trade union bureaucracy play the role Post assigns to it”that is, as an obstacle to struggles for reform, let alone revolution.

Bureaucracy’s Material Interests

Draper and Haberkern’s analysis of the bureaucracy as a simple reflection of the contradictory role of unions under capitalism obscures what distinguishes the labor officialdom from an independent, militant leadership organizing the ranks of a union. Draper and Haberkern simply ignore the material, social position of the labor bureaucracy — a position that separates them from the workers on the shop floor whom they represent, and endows them with interests in conflict with those of the workers.

It is because of their material position and interests that the labor officialdom cannot be counted on to defend even the most basic gains of the past, let alone initiate struggles to advance the economic interests of their membership.

Labor bureaucrats no longer work beside their members in the workplace the union organizes. They are employees of the union, not the employers. As a result, the modern labor officials’ conditions of employment, indeed their very employment, no longer depends upon the results of the day-to-day class struggle with the employers on the shop floor and beyond. Their fate is no longer directly tied to that of the rank and file.

It is true that officials at the lowest levels are exposed to periodic elections. In and of themselves, however, local elections do not hold bureaucrats accountable to the wishes of the union’s ranks.

Sidney and Beatrice Webb clearly saw before the end of the nineteenth century, when the trade union bureaucracy consisted of a handful of officers in each union, that incumbent officials had enormous resources to perpetuate themselves in office. Today, in late twentieth-century America, these resources have been multiplied a thousand-fold for local officials willing to play ball with the rich and powerful trade union hierarchies.

The material position of the union official, at the lowest and highest levels, depends on the trade union’s success in maintaining itself as an organization, not on the success of the union in conflict with the employers.

The labor bureaucracy’s distinct position and interests lead them to avoid direct confrontations with the employers, which tend to endanger the union’s apparatus and treasury. Instead of direct confrontations with capital and the state the most effective means of securing gains for the membership the officialdom prefers to advance their members’ interests through forms of “resistance” that avoid exposing the union organization to the wrath of the employers and the state.

Such means include state-sponsored collective bargaining, legalistic grievance procedures, routine strikes that respect the limits of bourgeois legality, and lobbying and electoral campaigns on behalf of “friends of labor.” Again, such strategies, on their own, have little chance of success, particularly during prolonged capitalist economic downturns like that of the last two decades, when employers will not grant gains without huge social disruptions.

From Draper and Haberkern’s perspective, the labor bureaucracy ultimately will “have no choice” but to fight the employers, if only to defend the unions on which they themselves depend. But this perspective underestimates the extent to which union officials can and do find it in their interests to accept “partial” defeats, even the loss of hundreds of thousands of union members, rather than risk confrontations that have the potential for destroying the union.

A pattern of continual concessions is in fact common to almost all the leaderships of the major unions in the United States since the later 1970s. While unwilling and unable to organize the most elemental defense of the basic economic interests of their members, the U.S. labor officialdom has maintained, and perhaps improved, its own material privileges over the past two decades.

Clearly, the bureaucracy is not a monolith. Trade union officials have engaged in and led important struggles, even in the recent period of relatively low labor militancy. Such action is of course to be welcomed, but the point is that union militants cannot ever count on it, or premise their strategy upon its occurring.

s a rule, trade union bureaucrats move only when rank-and-file workers are already in motion independent of the official leadership. At such moments, a section of the labor bureaucracy may well seek to assume leadership in order to contain the insurgent movement within the boundaries of “normal” union activity, as occurred time and again in the struggles of U.S. mine workers during the 1960s and 1970s.

This analysis of the labor bureaucracy, contrary to Haberkern’s claims, was the basis for the early Comintern’s united front strategy and its corollary in the labor movement, the “rank and file” perspective.

Reformism and United Front Tactics

A thorough discussion of Haberkern’s understanding of Trotsky’s analysis of ultra-leftism, in the immediate postwar years and in its Stalinized version of the Comintern’s “Third Period” from 1928, is beyond the scope of this essay. Two critical points, however, need to be made.

First, neither Trotsky nor Lenin, the architects of the united front strategy first adopted by the Comintern in 1921, differed with the ultra-lefts’ evaluation of the forces of official reformism (trade union officials and the leaderships of the social democratic parties). Between 1928 and 1933, Trotsky characterized the trade union officials as a “new petty bourgeoisie,” and saw the social democratic parties as “bourgeois parties” with interests antagonistic to those of the working class.(1)

Second, Trotsky parted company from the ultra-lefts and Stalinist advocates of a “united front from below” over how revolutionaries should organize against the forces of official reformism. Trotsky condemned the “third period” Comintern’s refusal to seek joint action with the trade union officials and the social democratic leaders in concrete struggles against capital and in defense of the working class.

Trotsky opposed the Stalinists’ creation of “red” unions around the full program of the Communist parties (workers power, etc.) and their refusal to call on social democratic party and union leaders to take common action against fascism.

The “rank and file” perspective represents an application of the united front strategy. On the one hand, the strategy assumes that the trade union officials cannot be counted on to mobilize the rank and file. On the other hand, it recognizes the necessity of seeking an alliance in action with trade union officials to further the struggle and expose the officials’ unwillingness to fight.

Revolutionary socialists and other radicals and militants seek to organize the “active minority” of workers on a permanent basis in their own independent groups within the unions. These autonomous groups (newsletter committees, stewards networks, caucuses, etc.) attempt to educate and organize the union’s membership to fight for its own interests, regardless of the wishes of the union bureaucracy.

Rank-and-file organizations seek common action with the union leadership, but retain their organizational independence from these leaders in order to either amass sufficient pressure on the officials to fight, or to win a majority of the membership to struggle against the wishes of the officials.

As the militants of the British shop stewards’ movement during the first world war (one of the inspirations for the U.S. Trade Union Education League in the 1920s) argued, “We will support our leaders to the extent they support us.”

It was this rank-and-file perspective that the CP, in a pragmatic manner, put into practice between 1934 and 1936 in the auto, machine making, electrical appliance, rubber, maritime and longshore industries, thus preparing the ground for the organization of the CIO.

In this period Communist workers, in an informal united front with other socialists and radicals, entered the AFL Federal locals and built formal and informal networks of rank-and-file workers who led struggles against the employers usually in opposition to wishes of the AFL officialdom.

The best documented case of the CP’s “united front” strategy is in the auto industry.(2) Communists and other radicals, working within the bureaucratized Federal locals, built shop-floor committees and an industry-wide rank-and-file movement (the “Progressive Caucus”) on a program that called for autonomy from the trade union officials and reliance on militancy rather than federal mediation and the courts.

By leading a series of critical strikes, the CP-led rank-and-file movement laid the basis for the creation of an independent, democratic and militant auto workers’ industrial union, the UAW.

Haberkern, like Draper, tends to ignore the immediate, post-“third period” phase of the history of the CP, and to focus instead on the CP’s collaboration with John L. Lewis during the subsequent “popular front” period. Haberkern claims that “the CP played a significant role in the labor movement…in the early CIO (where they worked closely with Lewis)” and contends that “there are very valuable lessons to be learned from…[this] experience…”

Hal Draper’s evaluation of the CP’s collaboration with John L. Lewis between 1936 and 1940 is similarly positive: “They [CPers–CP] went in and tolerated Lewis’ dictatorship. they lived under it and it was very hard to do. But what they got was invaluable experience which they could not have gotten in any other way. They got something else — something that comes from organizing workers on the job who know that you have fought for them —  moral authority. They got their credentials as militant trade unionists while they were tolerating Lewis’ dictatorship.”(3)

Haberkern and Draper’s analysis ignores the disastrous impact the CP’s “tolerating Lewis’ dictatorship” had on the CIO after 1936. As I pointed out in my essay, the first fruits of the CP’s “center-left coalition” with Lewis were in the auto industry. Not only did the CP bend to Lewis’s demands that the UAW endorse FDR’s reelection in 1936, but CP organizers in Flint attempted to end the historic sit-down strike before GM recognized the UAW.

By the spring of 1937, the CP’s alliance with Lewis led them to use their tremendous prestige among auto workers to derail the unofficial sit-down strikes at Chrysler. The defeat of the “Little Steel Strike” in 1937 flowed directly from the refusal of CPers working as Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) staff organizers to challenge the strategy and tactics of the “Lewis dictatorship,” which called for “trust in Roosevelt.”

As Haberkern says, the 1943 miners’ strike, which effectively ended the “No Strike Pledge” in U.S. industry, was led not by the revolutionary socialist movement, but by John L. Lewis and his bureaucratic machine in the UMW. However, Lewis and the UMW officialdom did not initiate this strike, but responded to a rank-and-file rebellion among miners.

The first blow against the “no strike pledge” by coal miners came in December, 1943, when 20,000 anthracite coal miners in eastern Pennsylvania engaged in an unauthorized, “wild-cat” strike against both Lewis’ fifty percent increase in UMW dues and the National WarLabor Board’s (NWLB) “Little Steel”-wage control formula.

The strike was led by “an insurgent anti-Lewis Tri-District Mining Committee” which, as Nelson Lichtenstein has shown, “commanded extraordinary support. For almost a month, the miners remained out, first in defiance of UMW orders, then despite a NWLB back-to-work directive, and finally in the face of a presidential appeal to return to the pits.”(4)

In much the same manner he and other dissident AFL officials attempted to contain the radicalism of the early CIO, Lewis thus took up the battle against the “no strike pledge” and the “Little Steel” formula in order to maintain his “dictatorship” over the UMW.

In what Nelson Lichtenstein called “co-optation in a classic and brilliant form,” Lewis deflected the rank-and-file insurgency away from a challenge to the bureaucracy’s control of the UMW by assuming leadership of the 1943 miners’ strikes.(5)

Similarly, as Haberkern says, Walter Reuther did lead the 1946 UAW strike against GM. But this is another case where a layer of union officials assumed leadership of a struggle to contain rank-and-file militancy and keep it within the bounds of bureaucratic unionism.

In the wake of V-E day, autoworkers intensified “wild-cat” strike activity and local officers, who had constituted the backbone of the movement against the “no strike pledge,” were agitating for an industry-wide strike to increase wages, resolve grievances, and improve working conditions.

The Kelsey-Hayes auto parts strike in the fall of 1945 was the high point of this unauthorized, rank-and-file-led rebellion in auto. Although they threatened operations at Ford’s Highland Park and River Rouge plants, the UAW bureaucracy refused to authorize the Kelsey-Hayes strike. Instead, they and the company bought newspaper ads urging a return to work and removed the Kelsey-Hayes local’s elected leadership. The bureaucracy’s moves, supported by both the CP and Reuther wings, allowed the company to break the UAW and win the strike.

In the wake of the Kelsey-Hayes defeat, Reuther put forward his plan for a strike against GM, a plan that “would harness the restless energy of the auto workers, restore legitimacy to top union authority, and advance his own fortunes in the internal union cramble for office.”(6)

Despite the radicalism of Reuther’s main demand, a 30% wage increase without an increase in the price of cars, the 113-day GM strike of November 1945 through March 1946 promoted the centralization of authority in the UAW (from stewards, committeemen and local officers to the International Executive Board) and established the post-war pattern of collective bargaining over wages, hours and fringe benefits to the neglect of shop-floor issues.(7)

Haberkern would be hard pressed to come up with examples of trade union bureaucrats organizing the effective defense of their members’ interests during the last twenty five years. Faced with the most sustained employers’ offensive since the 1920s, the entire leadership of the AFL-CIO and its international unions have essentially rolled over without a fight.

The Reutherite leadership of the UAW led the way, by breaking “wild-cat” strikes against speed-up and against racism in the early 1970s, derailing a union-wide movement led by militant locals for a full-scale confrontation against GM in the wake of the famous Norwood and Lordstown strikes against GMAD in 1973, and opening the flood gate of “concession bargaining” and “labor management” cooperation in the 1980s.

Nor were other ostensibly “progressive” union officials much better. The “socialist” William Winpisinger of the International Association of Machinists (IAM), despite his calls for resisting concessions and a new vision of unionism, refused to organize solidarity work stoppages among IAM members at the major airlines during the PATCO strike in 1981. While such actions could have stopped Reagan’s breaking of the air traffic controllers strike, they risked confrontation with the state.

The ascension of the Sweeney-Trumka leadership in the AFL-CIO has not changed the social and material position of the labor bureaucracy or its distinctive interests.(8) Their behavior during the Detroit newspaper strike is quite instructive. Together with the local officials of the striking newspaper unions, Sweeney and the AFL-CIO leadership demanded that the strikers “respect the law” and not break the court injunctions against mass picketing.

While preventing a possible court looting of union treasuries, the refusal to break the law and engage in mass picketing to stop scabs allowed production to continue unimpeded and led to the strike’s defeat. It is all too typical of the new leadership that they have called the “ACTION! Motown ’97” demonstration in Detroit, which the newspaper strikers demanded months ago, for this summer, after the unions had offered to return to work.(9)

The job of socialists today, as in the past, is to help organize a rank-and-file movement within the unions that is critical of the methods of bureaucratic business unionism and promotes militancy, solidarity and union democracy. While today the main job of such a reform movement “from below” would be to educate and organize a “militant minority,” rank-and-file groupings can promote an alternative vision of “class struggle unionism” and prepare for large scale struggles in the future.

This vision is not simply “a projection of our fantasies,” as Haberkern would have it. Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the New Directions Movement in the UAW and the New Directions Caucus in Transport Workers Union, Local 100 (New York bus and subway workers) have all been built as independent rank-and-file groupings, educating and organizing workers in an alternative vision of democratic and militant unionism. All have achieved some measure of success in organizing and mobilizing union members independently of the leaderships of these unions.

TDU is the best example of an independent rank-and-file organization in the US labor movement today. TDU’s decade of independent organizing of teamsters for struggle against both the employers and the corrupt and authoritarian Teamsters’ bureaucracy prepared the ground for the election of Ron Carey in 1992. With Carey’s election, TDU did not dissolve into the new union administration, but has maintained its independent organization and mobilization of rank-and-file Teamsters.(10)

Today, many on the left (Ernie Haberkern certainly not included) have gravitated toward the “new” AFL-CIO leadership around Sweeney and Trumka. Most radicals are arguing that this change “at the top” will (depending upon these folks’ level of optimism) either “spark” or “open space” for militancy “from below.” A clear understanding of the social character and historical development of the labor bureaucracy is one crucial element in combating these tragic misconceptions.


  1. See, for example, “The Only Road” and “What Next,” in The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (Pathfinder, 1971), 153, 281, 318.
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  2. Despite its tendency to degenerate in later chapters into an apology for every twist and turn of the CP in the UAW, Roger Keeran’s The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Unions (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), especially Chapters V-VI, is the invaluable source.
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  3. Draper, “Marx, ‘Marxism,’ and Trade Unions,” Socialism From Below, 241.
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  4. Nelson Lichtenstein, Labor’s War At Home: The CIO in World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 157.
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  5. Ibid., 158-161. A similar analysis is presented by the blatantly pro-Lewis writers, Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren Van Tine, John L. Lewis: A Biography (New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 1977), 415-420.
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  6. Lichtenstein, op. cit., 224.
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  7. Ibid., 221-230.
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  8. See Jane Slaughter’s excellent analysis, “John Sweeney’s New/Old AFL-CIO,” ATC 67 (March-April 1997), 7-10.
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  9. J. Slaughter, “Business (as Usual) Unionism in Detroit,” The Nation (April 14, 1997), 10.
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  10. TDU again played a crucial role in Carey’s narrow 1996 reelection. For a discussion of TDU’s continuing role see H. Phillips, “Teamster Reformers 2, Old Guard 0,” ATC 67 (March-April 1997), 3-6.
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ATC 68, May-June 1997