A Reply to Nelson Lichtenstein: Assessing Union Leaderships

Against the Current, No. 70, September/October 1997

Michael Goldfield

IT IS NOT news that U.S. unions today are weak and in trouble, even more so than their beleaguered counterparts in other economically developed capitalist countries. Though there exist some positive developments–including inspiring organization of catfish workers in Mississippi, janitors in large cities, nursing home employees, and campus workers, among others–the overall pattern for U.S. unions remains one of weakness and decline.

Not only have unions been mostly unsuccessful in organizing many types of new service workers and those in the information and electronics industries, they have in many venues been driven out of former union strongholds. This is the case in previously highly unionized industries like coal mining, construction and meatpacking, as well as parts of trucking, airlines and newspapers.

Strikes in highly unionized workplaces have often gone down to bitter defeats. From the 1981 firing of 11,000 striking air traffic controllers to the current union busting efforts of the Detroit newspapers, the landscape is dotted with the dead bodies of defeated struggles. Were it not for the continued success of unions in the public sector, the situation would look even more bleak.

The United Auto Workers, once considered the most powerful of U.S. labor unions, representing automobile, farm and construction equipment workers, the heart of manufacturing, exemplifies these trends. Auto parts production, overwhelmingly unionized two decades ago, is now low-paid and less than one-quarter organized.

General Motors workers often put in 60-70 hours per week under intense speed-up, with many thousands disabled from on-the-job injuries. In response to their cries for relief, the UAW International allows a range of local strikes in order to let off steam, some of which gain a few concessions, but the overall situation remains unchanged.

At Caterpillar, the world’s largest manufacturer of earthmoving equipment, UAW members work under conditions reminiscent of the pre-CIO era, being fired and disciplined in large numbers for minor infractions, including wearing UAW t-shirts. And in the heart of UAW strength in the Detroit area with its many tens of thousands of unionized auto workers, the union has been unwilling or unable to mobilize its members to the degree necessary to help win the Detroit newspaper strike.

We all want to understand how the situation got this way and what can be done to change it. Is it merely the inevitable result of globalization and the rise in power of huge multi-national, conglomerate corporations?

How important is the role of the pro-capitalist, class-collaborationist labor bureaucracy in demobilizing working class struggle and undermining the possibilities of broad class responses to the many decades-long capitalist offensive against workers and their organizations?

On this latter issue, Nelson Lichtenstein and I have some profound disagreements. Writing in ATC 69, Lichtenstein characterizes my review (in ATC 67) of his Walter Reuther biography as an “attack” and accuses me of failing to understand the book and the methodology behind it. But a careful reading of his reply–including the large number of erroneous characterizations of my argument and the many vituperative remarks–suggest that I understand him and his approach all too well.

For the problem with Lichtenstein and his approach–like that of many other former leftists in the current period–is that he wants to present both a left critique of the particular shortcomings of Walter Reuther and his perspective, on the one hand, while on the other hand identifying with Reuther’s broad social-democratic ideas and agonizing over the dilemmas of pro-capitalist labor leader.

Lichtenstein mistakenly sees a large contradiction between the grandiose liberal social-democratic programmatic proposals and the admittedly bad things that Reuther does. The book is thus quite contradictory, filled with much useful information, omissions and distortions, and highly critical remarks as well as extensive apologies.

Let us begin with the apologies. Lichtenstein is highly disturbed (in a curious inversion he accuses me of “rank liberalism”) that I “find so objectionable” his “repeated assertions that Reuther and his circle were progressive; that they were in fact `the boldest spirits of the industrial union movement.'” Lichtenstein also claims in his reply “But in the whole sweep of his career Reuther opened up more space within the labor movement than he closed down.”

This claim is not supported by the evidence. Not only were Reuther and his group not “the boldest spirits of the industrial union movement,” but they closed down the space and crushed precisely those people and groups who were. The list of evidence for this claim, as even Lichtenstein should know in his clearer moments, is a long one.

In 1939 and 1940, as Lichtenstein documents, Reuther abandoned the dense shop steward system in GM and broke with and marginalized the many militants, especially Communist Party members who had been central to his earlier mass mobilization strategy. As Steve Ashby’s marvelous thesis shows, it was precisely the broad class rhetoric and social unionist gloss that enabled Reuther in 1946 to deflect deep working class anger over soaring food prices away from mass mobilization.

When Reuther’s slate took over control of the UAW in 1947, they purged leftists of all stripes, beginning with, but not limited to the CP and their allies. They clamped down on the centers of opposition, militancy, and civil rights activity within the UAW.

Any leadership with even the most minimally broad class perspective would have showcased and allied itself with the militant, civil rights-oriented workers in Local 600 at the Ford, River Rouge plant. Reuther spent years trying to crush them. The UAW also wasted enormous resources trying unsuccessfully to destroy the racially militant Farm Equipment union (FE).

When Black caucuses emerged during the late 1960s, the Reuther leadership did their best to see that the main activists were fired. Lichtenstein himself notes that Reuther regarded the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (far bolder in spirit and having a broader class perspective) as a terrorist organization.

In the civil rights movement in the South, the UAW leadership worked overtime to destroy the influence of SNCC and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), no less the League and the Black Panther Party. In local after local militants and civil rights activists from the late 1940s on were hounded, while right-wingers and racists were supported.

Lichtenstein’s claim that Reuther opened up space is thus, factually insupportable. His statements are in fact so off-base in this respect, that they must be seen by the reader as self-exposure.

On the other hand, it is quite true that the book also contains strong criticism of Reuther, although not as penetrating as Lichtenstein would have us believe. He wants us to believe that it is “a sustained attack on the Reutherite bureaucracy and its program.” Yet, “Reuther and his circle were progressives.”

And here the anguish begins. “Despite their own sincere progressive rhetoric, Reuther and his circle–mainly ex-socialists–played a disastrous role in helping shift to the right the politics of the UAW and all American liberalism, because they themselves were unwilling to make the hard choices and take the political risks that might have opened up a new set of political opportunities.  Their failure was not personal, but political and strategic.” (ATC 69: 39)

Yet Lichtenstein is unable to pinpoint for us when these “political and strategic” decisions were made.

The key decisions, as I have argued, were made during the late 1930s and early 1940s, when Reuther and his allies embraced a corporatist approach to labor management relations, and rooted his caucus in the most reactionary elements in the union. In making this switch, Reuther abandoned the mass mobilizing approach and the dense steward organization he had previously advocated.

Upon his reaching power, the UAW became among the most undemocratic and tightly controlled of unions. He also, as I noted in my review “consciously allied himself with the most racist forces in the union: the episodically militant white skilled tradesmen, the racist and FBI-linked Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, the provincial and backward supporters of Homer Martin, loyal, gangster-tied officials like UAW regional director Richard Gosser of Toledo…” all the while covered by “progressive” social-unionist, social-democratic rhetoric.

Contrary to Lichtenstein’s self-serving accusation that I think it is not important to understand labor leaders of this type, I believe it is tremendously important. What is most important, however, is to understand not only the context in which they operate, not so much their subjective beliefs (which may be tremendously sincere), but their structural relationship to capital.

Class lines are sharp divides, not ones that one can trot back and forth across by making “hard decisions.” For once Reuther set himself in a corporatist direction, once he rooted himself among the backward forces in the union, his inability to make those hard choices that Lichtenstein wishes he would have, thinks he should have, were predetermined.

Lichtenstein’s individualist analysis (even when he includes certain of the contextual influences on their decisions) is inadequate to provide a penetrating analysis. His tortured sympathy, continual disappointment and harsh assessments really have no place in the long history of socialist analyses of those who Daniel DeLeon called the “labor lieutenants of capitalism.”

Lichtenstein is so critical of the choices that individuals like Reuther made because he identifies strongly with their politics and wishes they had made the “hard choices.” Lichtenstein seems to feel that their credentials are validated because they were ex-Socialists, because Reuther “pushed on the liberal side of most policy issues,” or because all the left groups but the CP supported Reuther at times, which as the SWP came to realize had been a mistake.

Eugene Debs once said that “the role of the AFL bureaucracy was to chloroform the working class while the ruling class went through its pockets.” Debs spent little time identifying with them or worrying about their dilemmas.

It is revealing that Lichtenstein spends so much time anguishing and at times soft-pedalling what we all agree were the terrible policies of the putatively liberal, progressive, and ex-socialist labor tops. The criticisms which he makes with one hand, he often takes back or qualifies with the other.

He thinks it is the context that led them to make the wrong decisions. Rather than being terrible on issues like race, he says, they were “slow to understand,” that “Reuther was something less than a consistent, forceful racial egalitarian.” In numerous other places, as I pointed out and documented in my review, Lichtenstein even extols Reuther’s position on civil rights, despite large amounts of evidence to the contrary.

Lichtenstein is right on one point: Walter Reuther is very important in a way that former Steelworkers leader David McDonald and former Teamster president James Tobin are not. A more comparable figure is probably Jimmy Hoffa, whose Teamster regime for all its corruption also ushered in much militancy and a large amount of new union organizing.

It is for this reason that Hoffa was hated by the capitalists (probably more so than the rhetorically militant, but cooperative Reuther) and persecuted by the government for his ties to organized crime, ties the bourgeoisie has always been able to live with when it did not threaten them (witness the relations of J.F. Kennedy to gang molls, and his hiring of mobsters to assassinate Fidel Castro).

Hoffa and Reuther rate our attention because they were militant trade unionists of sorts, who had lasting allegiance from the ranks in their large and highly important unions. As leaders, however, neither compare favorably to the 1930s and 1940s leaders of the FE, the Fur and Leather Workers Union, Mine Mill, the food and tobacco union, the maritime workers, Ralph Helstein of Packinghouse, even John L. Lewis, and numerous others who were militant anti-racists, who mobilized their members on these and numerous other class issues (and who themselves were not above critical analysis).

While an understanding of Walter Reuther and the UAW is well-worth the left’s time, Nelson Lichtenstein’s love/hate relationship to Reuther, one must conclude, is his problem more than ours. Lichtenstein has abandoned the traditional radical–no less Marxist–task of trying to understand how workers might mobilize, organize, and solidarize to confront the capitalist system, an approach to which he at one time subscribed.

What is the relation of even the most liberal bureaucrats to capital (why do they inevitably downplay the fight for equality, why are they so much in favor of collaboration, corporatist approaches, in contrast to class mobilization)?

To the extent that we make identifications and consider the viability of strategies, it is important to carefully dissect the approaches (without sentimentality or holding back) of those groups that purported to be for class solidarity and opposed to capitalism and capitalists. Lichtenstein does little of this, merely satisfying himself with why the forces he regards erroneously as the most “progressive” went astray.

ATC 70, September-October 1997