Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, has blown the cover off one of the best-kept secrets in American politics. In the interview reprinted below, he reveals that the general strike is a working-class weapon of titanic power and, moreover, that a growing number of people are demanding it. The interview originally appeared in the October 5, 1981 Federal Times, a paper covering government employment. Despite its startling content, it has been ignored by the bourgeois media. As well, to our knowledge none of the left press has seen fit to comment on it, although excerpts have appeared in trade unionist papers.
The American workers, whom Kirkland is supposed to represent, mostly regard themselves as individuals powerless to stop the erosion of what they have worked for. Here Kirkland makes plain that the opposite is true. If, as he correctly points out, a general strike could effectively stop “a coup, an invasion or the rescinding of the Bill of Rights,” then it could undoubtedly stop Reagan’s destruction of PATCO and, while we’re at it, the whole escalating attack on the working class.
That Kirkland prefers to allow Reagan to smash a trade union rather than use a powerful strike weapon is nothing new. What is eye-opening is that so great a clamor is made for a general strike. According to Kirkland’s figures, about half of his correspondents on the PATCO strike “denounce me for not calling a general strike.” And the flow of denunciations is no trickle: “I would say I have never gotten as much mail on an issue in my life.” If Kirkland is to be believed, this is a development in working-class opinion that demands serious attention.
Although the working class has been largely unconscious of its potential power, two other sets of people besides its own official misleaders are well aware of it. One group is the more astute capitalist politicians. For example, last year during the New York City transit strike, mayor Edward Koch referred to a possible general strike as a “nuclear weapon” too devastating ever to use. Of course, Koch was merely taunting the treacherous labor leaders who he knew would never act to devastate the capitalist system that their existence depends on.
The second group is the Marxists. We in the League for the Revolutionary Party have propagandized for the general strike for years, in our press, in workplaces, on the streets. We have constantly sought to educate our fellow workers about the strength of a united working class. In addition, in situations where decisive defensive action was on the order of the day (as in the transit and PATCO strikes), we have agitated for calling general strikes, face to face against the union bureaucrats.
These hacks have just as tirelessly worked both to convince workers that they are weak and to keep all strikes localized and divided. Why then does hack-in-chief Kirkland bring the general strike up now? For one thing, the misleaders have accomplished their task of demoralization so well that the capitalists can arrogantly ignore their services; Kirkland is warning Reagan that the bureaucracy is still needed to quell unrest from below.
Secondly, ·the unions have been left so open to attack that many lower-rank officials are terrified that their institutions and their own jobs are at risk. Some state federations, municipal councils and locals have called for symbolic general strikes; it is undoubtedly mainly these elements whose mail Kirkland is receiving. In any case, Kirkland knows that the idea of a general strike is in the air, so he is doing what he can to dispose of it. Implicitly, he is using the bureaucracy’s miserable record in defending workers’ rights to discourage mass action when he stresses the discomforts and disadvantages of a general strike in the interview.
But the bureaucrats’ treachery is not an argument against a general strike. It is an argument for revolutionary leadership of the unions to replace the reformist officials. Under the volatile conditions American workers now face, a general strike could break out any time; as time passes and the capitalist attacks broaden, its likelihood increases. Even if a general strike begins with the bureaucrats still at the helm, the power of the strike itself and the unity of the proletariat in action are the best educational devices to prove the lessons we communists stand for. Revolutionary leadership, which once looked irrelevant and impossible, will then appear very real indeed. As in Poland, the idea will arise of not just calling a halt to the immediate grievances but of transforming the very fabric of society.
This potential, naturally, is why Kirkland and other bureaucrats have no intention of ever carrying out such a strike. For example, the Philadelphia AFL-CIO called a one-day general strike for October 28 to defend a two-month-long strike by the local teachers union. But all signs pointed to the assumption that the bureaucrats meant not to go through with it. Sure enough, on the eve of the 28th, they accepted half a concession (no layoffs for now) and sent the teachers back to work with no pay increase. The threat of the general strike did force the city to budge, but the strike’s real threat was to the bureaucrats’ equilibrium. They were afraid above all of showing that decisive action could have squelched the attack on the teachers and shown the way to stop Reagan as well.
Significantly, all the pseudo-socialist groups hailed the Philadelphia call for a general strike, and only a few warned of the bureaucrats’ treachery. But none of them thought to take the lead in demanding a. general strike – until the bureaucrats beat them to it demagogically. As we point out in our article on Solidarity Day, the left restricts its arsenal to limited actions (elections, pickets, local strikes) out of fear both of the workers and of appearing “unrealistic.” Although bureaucrats from the local level on up to Kirkland have been forced to dally with the general strike as the capitalist crisis intensifies, the fake leftists still miss the point.
Kirkland’s linking the general strike to national crises was not accidental. His failure to take even minimal steps to defend PATCO stems from his understanding that even that much would have forced the working class into a knock-down, drag-out fight with Reagan and his “law” which neither side could afford to lose. The “left,” in restricting its pressure to half-way steps, also sought to avoid a major clash – but unlike Kirkland, it pretends that a middle ground limited to militant unionism is still possible. Kirkland unveiled the general strike weapon and let the cat out of the bag. The pseudo-leftists are still holding it.
AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland says he has been flooded with wires, letters and postcards calling for a “general strike” to support the striking air traffic controllers union.
“I would say I have never gotten as much mail on an issue in my life ... about ten percent denounce me for supporting the controllers, about 90 percent are pro-controllers and about 50 percent of those denounce me for not calling a general strike,” the labor chief told reporters.
Kirkland said that despite the “tremendous” amount of mail he has received and its “overwhelmingly pro-controller” tone, he has no intention of urging AFL-CIO unions to walk off their jobs in sympathy with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization.
“I find it hard to see what constructive end would be served by an action that would punish the people of this country for the actions of an administration,” he said.
Kirkland added that only a “matter of the gravest national concern” – such as a coup, an invasion or the rescinding of the Bill of Rights – would “bring me to the point of undertaking to organize a general strike.”
And he emphasized that AFL-CIO has already “carried out all of the methods of support” sought by the air traffic controllers. During the seven weeks of the controllers’ strike, no union has ordered its members to honor PATCO picket lines, boycott flights, or strike in sympathy with the controllers.
Asked why “other unions are not respecting the PATCO picket line,” Kirkland replied that the AFL-CIO affiliates at airports are bound by “no-strike clauses” and “do not want to open their treasuries to all the corporation lawyers of the airlines.”
“I am certain that many of the unions on these properties would like to be able to bring this thing to a head by withdrawing their services, but ... the net result of it would be immediate mandatory injunctions, prosecutions, civil suits and stripping of the local treasuries.”
“In light of that, they don’t choose to do it, and I would be the last to second-guess them,” he said.
The International Association of Machinists and the Air Line Pilots Association are among the AFL-CIO affiliates representing workers in the air travel industry. Kirkland was asked whether the no-strike pledge required of federally employed air traffic controllers is as binding as a no-strike clause in a contract with a private employer. He called the federal employee agreement “a yellow dog contract” that “all government employees are required to sign ... to get the job.”
Kirkland described the PATCO picketers as “the most law-abiding group I ever saw.” He pointed out that the controllers have been scrupulous in “not picketing the work entrances for ground crews, pilots or others.”
“Their picketing the work entrances for other trades would obviously be pursued by the law, would violate injunctions, subject them to contempt of the court, arrest, etc ... The picket lines are at the work entrances for air traffic controllers, which are removed from other entrances,” he said.
Kirkland was asked about the “likelihood” that PATCO would be doomed by a Federal Labor Relations Authority decision barring the union from representing federal workers. “The union is the people,” he replied.
“If these people go back to work as a body, the union survives as long as they want it to.”