This article was originally published in Socialist Voice No. 3 (Spring 1977). It is the second of two parts.
Murray Finley is the head of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU), which has launched its campaign to unionize the Southern textile industry through a boycott of the giant J.P. Stevens Corporation. Finley states, “I believe trade unions are necessary to preserve the American way of life.” The triteness of his expression should not fool the reader into dismissing his sentiments as hollow rhetoric. His boycott campaign is proof that he really means it.
ACTWU is the result of the merger of two unions, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the Textile Workers Union, both of which were militant sections of the old CIO built by radical and combative memberships. In recent years, the union leaderships have pushed further to the right in response to the deepening crisis of world capitalism. The Amalgamated has been in the forefront of a rabidly jingoist fight for protectionist tariff barriers against textile and clothing imports. This fight is the bureaucrats’ alternative to a struggle for organizing the unorganized internationally, for higher and equal wages everywhere, for nationalizing and revitalizing the clothing industries. Such a struggle would have revolutionary implications, and needless to say, Finley and his friends do not find it practical.
What they do find practical is the only other alternative: to accept that capitalism in all its decadence is here to stay, to accept the bourgeois strategy of dividing the working class and to accept the bourgeois attempt to prop up a retrograde industry through inflated profits. However, one of the biggest threats to the wage scales of Amalgamated workers is the runaway shops in the South and their low wages. Tariff barriers are unsuitable in this case, and so ACTWU is forced into its boycott campaign.
We pointed out in Part 1 of this series that to organize a militant and righting union in the South would mean taking on the whole ruling class of the U.S., not just the local political representatives of capital but the national state. It would ensure an enormous explosion that would reverberate throughout the entire country. And that is no way to “preserve the American way of life” – capitalism and exploitation. We have already noted the historical oppression of white labor and the super-oppression of black labor in the South that the American way of life is based on. To understand the bureaucracy’s present strategy, we must sketch in the most recent developments in the Southern class struggle that endanger what the bourgeoisie and the labor bureaucrats wish to preserve.
The emergence of the New South as a whole new setting for ravenous exploitation has proved very attractive to American capitalism. But the lure could be a Lorelei. For capitalism has weakened many of the powerful props that buttress not only the South but the entire American system. The Southern working class is bigger, more united and more strategically placed than ever before.
The South is now mainly urban. Financial and industrial power rules, and even agriculture is dominated by its more technologically advanced sectors. Industry still exists and is growing in the mill towns, company towns and small-town industrial areas – especially in the textile and apparel industries – but it is the urban bourgeoisie that leads its country cousins, and not the reverse as in the Southern tradition.
Similarly, the modern industrial cities contain the greatest social weight of the working class. The old parochial, rural and semi-rural community relationships are breaking down. Much of the recent flood of immigration to the urban work-force came from the countryside in one huge leap. This sharp “discontinuity” conceals a tremendous radical potential lying just beneath the surface, a surface which seems to reflect a conservative working class consciousness at the moment. A comparison with the period leading up to the Russian revolution is illustrative.
Lenin pointed out that the backbone of the Bolshevik Party that led the 1917 revolution consisted of workers who had emerged from the stifling grip of primitive rural Russia only a few years before. Trotsky, in his History of the Russian Revolution (Chapter 1), wrote:
“In Russia, the proletariat did not arise gradually through the ages, carrying with itself the burden of the past as in England, but in leaps involving sharp changes of environment, ties, relations, and a sharp break with the past. It is just this fact – combined with the concentrated oppression of Czarism – that made the Russian workers hospitable to the boldest conclusions of revolutionary thought – just as the backward industries were hospitable to the last word in capitalist organization.”
In the past, the pattern of Southern industry was quite different from that described by Trotsky. Much of Southern industry was small, isolated and far from modern. The well-known “rural consciousness” and “individualism” of Southern workers were retained under these conditions, and they hampered the growth of collective class consciousness and struggle against the bosses. This pattern was social and far from congenital with Southern workers. Those agrarians who went North to urban Michigan with its modern auto complexes, for example, became a driving force in the creation of the United Auto Workers and the organization of the sit-down strikes in the 1930’s. Even in the South, workers in the concentrated urban centers and in the social pressure cooker of the mines developed both militant struggles and advanced class identities.
Today, the barriers to advanced class consciousness are being undermined. Just as the low level and parochialism of Southern industry, together with the vast poverty and endless drudgery of the rural and industrial laborers helps to explain the persistence (not the creation) of racism as a divisive force, so do cooperative work patterns and urban sophistication tend to operate against racism. More exactly, these conditions allow the fundamental common class interests to triumph over the racist divisions within the class.
Part of the modern immigration from benighted rural production into the industrial centers is black, and the potential for radical rebellion among black workers undergoing the social leap is greatest of all. While blacks still have the worst jobs and lower pay than whites, they are differently situated than in the past. They are located in crucial industries and at the heart of production. Further, the recent history of black struggles has created a social awareness and a political understanding beyond that achieved by white Southern workers.
Given the history of the South, it may appear fantastic that blacks have already been the leaders of important Southern strikes. One example is the organization of the broiler chicken plants in Mississippi. When dominated in the fifties by white workers these plants were unorganized, but with the coming of blacks major union gains were made. The 1972 Mead Packing strike in Atlanta was waged for union recognition and an end to race discrimination. The Mead workers, largely black, won some gains under a leadership which thought of itself – and was thought to be – Communist. In 1972 black and white woodcutters united for a successful strike against paper mills in southern Mississippi. Many of the whites had been Klan members but ended up joining the NAACP, which supported the strike. The NAACP is a liberal and non-working class organization, but the fact that whites would join an organization they had previously hated indicates the radical shifts in consciousness that workers’ struggles can promote.
Such struggles, however, have been isolated, episodic, and limited in their political content; the opportunities for the Southern working class remain largely in the realm of the potential. The South is still open shop territory and is generally a region where the bosses’ writ runs unopposed by organized labor struggles. The reason is the role played by the labor bureaucracy, both regionally and nationally.
To see this, let us return to the struggle with J.P. Stevens. The formation of the ACTWU represented a defensive step against the deteriorating ability of the Textile Workers to achieve even minimal gains in the organization of their industry. At present, only ten percent of the textile workers in the South are unionized, although there has been no lack of opportunities for growth. The organization of the Oneita Knitting Mills in South Carolina several years ago was an inspiring example of black workers leading a straggle in unity with whites, and in an industry that until recently simply did not hire blacks. The organization of the Stevens plant at Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina about the same time (despite the fact that Stevens refused to negotiate a contract) was another significant victory. But for years the TWUA had preferred to take on the small plants and companies, generally avoiding the big companies in their centers of strength.
Now the new union, for defensive reasons at least, sees the need to take on the giants. The strategy proposed for the organization of Stevens, however, is one that is paving the way for a defeat. A boycott may at times be a useful tactic. But a boycott does not use the real strength of workers at the point of production. The boycott of Farah Manufacturing Company in Texas, which had been organized by the old Amalgamated, was combined with a 22 month-long strike that ended in success. But in the proposed battle with Stevens, a notorious violator of labor laws and court decisions, not even elementary forms of workers’ strength are being used. A South-wide strike by even the small percentage of workers in the AFL-CIO would bring the vicious Stevens outfit and its bourgeois allies to their knees.
The situation is worse when the particular nature of the boycott is considered. Only one-third of Stevens goods are sold directly to the public; the bulk is intermediate material sold to manufacturers and other industrialists. Legally, the union cannot pressure manufacturers to cease using Stevens goods nor can it even urge the public not to buy goods made from Stevens fabrics because of laws against secondary boycotts. While ACTWU may win informal agreements with some of the smaller manufacturers, this strategy remains a cheap substitute for invoking the power of the workers themselves. The fact that the union bureaucrats see this limited trade union struggle lasting as long as five years is an admission on their part of the half-heartedness of their approach. Recently the ACTWU has talked about buying stock in the J.P. Stevens Corporation (to wield “influence”) and has closed down its organizing office in the important Kannapolis, North Carolina area. This only accentuates its policy of avoiding the actual mobilization of the ranks for the struggle.
With textiles still the hub of Southern industry, the class struggle in the clothing mills will have a massive impact on other regional industries, particularly the traditional ones (hence the attention being paid to the Stevens boycott). The labor bureaucracy’s perspectives on organizing here reflects their weak-kneed leadership of Southern struggles in general.
The bureaucracy’s approach to the organization of industries moving to the South (including those unionized in other regions) provides the more rounded picture. The auto industry in recent years has looked Southward. General Motors in particular has set up six plants in the last three years in the Deep South. This “Southern strategy” has been a point of contention with the union during the auto contract rounds, as the UAW has accused GM of using anti-labor propaganda to keep the union out. Irving Bluestone, vice-president of the UAW, was quoted in the New York Times (November 17, 1976) as saying that many of the jobs created in the South were simply those that were being eliminated in the Northern plants, and that the result of these actions could damage the union’s ability to bargain nationwide.
The charges are of course true, but if the bosses’ line has been successful, the UAW has to share the blame. GM, through its native plant managers and foremen, has gained from appeals to Southern chauvinism. While this chauvinism must be actively fought, it is in part a reaction to the regional oppression that we have analyzed in Part 1. The labor bureaucracy’s support for the regional discrimination has allowed GM and other companies to manipulate the feelings of the more backward workers into anti-union sentiments.
GM’s agreement, in the 1976 contract negotiations, to remain “neutral” in the UAW’s Southern organizing attempts is a joke, but a greater mockery is the UAW’s dignifying it by acceptance. George Morris, GM vice-president and chief spokesman, denied that any Southern strategy existed and claimed that the $2 pay differential between the Clinton, Mississippi plants and UAW plants elsewhere was simply a courtesy to other Mississippi manufacturers. The same Times article quoted Morris as saying, “We don’t want to have a bad reputation with other employers in the area by setting wage rates way out of line with the others. We don’t want to be a skunk at the picnic.” And he certainly wants to keep the picnic going.
GM has also made appeals to anti-communism, through warnings against “bringing socialist unions in.” While the UAW will be able to argue (truthfully) that it in fact is not revolutionary, it is precisely the bureaucracy’s fostering of anti-militant attitudes which contributes to the bosses’ ability to fire a rabid anti-communist mood in the South, one that identifies even minimal struggles of Southern workers as being “communist-inspired.”
And then there are the simple but basic bread and butter appeals GM has made to the workers. The companies and city fathers contend that unionization will not provide any material gains for workers. While this is a deliberate lie, the fact is that where unions exist their leaderships have been selling out workers right and left. The UAW is no exception; its leadership’s history of betrayals paved the way for massive layoffs in auto, leaving thousands of auto workers with precious little to live on. Many workers have a real reason to wonder: is a union these days worth the price of a hard struggle against the Southern capitalists? The UAW did win a representation election at the GM Guide Lamp Division plant in Monroe, Louisiana this past December – a welcome and noteworthy event. But it is the only victory thus far in the recent organizing effort.
The UAW is under pressure from its ranks to solve the “Southern problem” and maintain their jobs. If UAW organizing efforts continue to fail in the South, the tops could well bring their protectionist “solutions” back home; during the auto crisis, Woodcock blamed the layoffs on foreign imports, in effect on foreign workers. Blaming Southern workers is one option the leadership can use to blindfold the membership if auto firms continue to pick up stakes and move South.
As a general rule, the American labor bureaucrats in the last years have shunned direct confrontations with the bosses whenever possible. They have been haunted by the danger that this massive, angry and supremely frustrated working class would sense its real power. The havoc such “anarchy” would cause would mean the destruction of capitalism as the goose that, if it no longer lays golden eggs, is still the source of the only eggs there are – or so the bureaucrats believe. As a substitute, they try to curry favor with the liberal bourgeoisie and to maneuver in the “political” arena. They concentrate on lobbying, wire-pulling, giving contributions, begging, smiling, blustering, sometimes threatening, and related forms of “political action.” Their “struggles” take place in the electoral arena, safely away from the masses – i.e., support to the Democratic Party in general and most recently the candidacy of Jimmy Carter.
The bureaucracy’s own Southern strategy is an application of this approach: avoiding big confrontations while depending on the Democrats and Carter to help them out. The passivity the bureaucracy exhibits towards battling Southern capitalism is not lost on the directors of Dixie industry: “Indeed, many Southern executives now say the only thing stopping the spread of unions is that organized labor itself has run out of both organizing zeal and useful purposes as an instrument of employee advancement.” (A.H. Raskin, New York Times, August 15, 1976.) While some of this can be chalked up to anti-union propaganda by the companies, the brazenness of the Southern bosses as they note the discrepancies between the potential of Southern labor and the actions of the labor misleadership points up the treachery of the union bureaucracy.
The no-win strategy of the union bosses is evident They would like to sell the Southern bourgeoisie on the idea of a nice safe union which will indeed “preserve the American way and be as unobtrusive as possible. They are caught m a profound contradiction. Neither the local nor the national bourgeoisie is going to buy unionization of the South. It is the wage differentials and the absence of unions which provide the inducement for their investment m the South. The bureaucrats, for their part, must defend their own vested interest as union leaders and protect the existence of their unions and at least their high-seniority members. The employers’ Southern strategy undermines their position and forces them to try to organize in the South. Caught in the contradiction they move cautiously, to say the least.
The same deepening economic crisis that forced the union leaders into the Southern organizing effort militates against the bourgeoisie’s willingness to tolerate unionization. The crisis with all its ups and downs, is relentlessly pushing the capitalists and the workers towards a head-on confrontation. The bureaucracy’s present strategy of simple timidity cannot last. The bureaucracy is relatively homogeneous in its perspectives today. Under the impact of sharpened class conflict, the right versus left split already present in embryo will accelerate. A central issue will have to be the Southern question. The more conservative sections of the bureaucracy will inevitably shy away from leading any genuinely militant struggles against the bosses of Southern industry, and they will increasingly turn their organizing efforts from timid boycotts into direct appeals to the bosses to allow their kind of unionization as a way to discipline a rebellious work force. (There exists the possibility that the right bureaucrats will avoid even this kind of unionism, but the historical tendency has been for them to pose such an alternative, as we will show.)
Recently the Stevens boycott campaign launched with great fanfare a group called Southerners for Economic Justice. According to the New York Times, the participants included “the mayor of Atlanta, a state senator and several veterans of the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s.” What is remarkable is not the class collaborationist intent of the ACTWU in looking for bourgeois support, nor the fact that such a committee could be put together in the South, but rather that the attempt netted such a pathetically small catch. Even the liberal sections of the Southern bourgeoisie are lukewarm to the already tepid efforts of the labor bureaucrats and refuse to break ranks with their class brothers. As the economic crisis deepens, some politicians may yet play games with the unions, but the serious sections of the Southern bourgeoisie want no part of them. When the struggle of the workers breaks loose, some politicians and capitalists may buy right-wing unionization as a way to halt a deeper radicalization. However, the social-historical base in the South for effective conservative unionism – an entrenched labor aristocracy – is weak. Far less risky would be the time-honored Southern solutions: direct anti-union violence, and the re-instigation of systematic racial violence.
Nevertheless, the boycott strategists of today (and the even more conservative strategists who will be employed tomorrow as the class struggle heightens) have a precedent to rely on in aiming their campaign at the bourgeoisie instead of the ranks of the workers. That is the old CIO’s million-dollar Southern Organizing Drive that was designed to crack open the union-busting South in 1946. It was ballyhooed as a crusade. Just as the reformists and Stalinists throughout the world marched with the workers far enough to maintain control, sections of the CIO around Walter Reuther ran a very militant line in order to capture the growing workers’ movement that crested at the end of the Second World War. One part of the CIO program was to protect the union ranks by an energetic organizing attempt in the South, then dominated by the Dixiecrats who represented small town business and agrarian plantation capital.
Unionization of the South, then as well as now, would have had revolutionary consequences for economic power in the United States. Unionization would have meant a head-on attack on the racism that cemented the Solid South and hence propped up bourgeois politics throughout the country. It would have knocked the cheap labor prop out from under the American class structure. It would have upset the delicate relationship between the growing urban centers of capital tied directly to Wall Street and the more primitive sections of the bourgeoisie. However, the Cold War and the witchhunt that eradicated not only the Stalinist but also the revolutionary elements in the union movement set up the conditions that enabled the CIO to retreat. Furthermore, the developing imperialist prosperity allowed gains for the workers which relieved the immediate pressure on the bureaucrats to organize the South.
In the meantime, however, the AFL had lined up openly with the reactionaries to oppose the CIO’s organizing drive. William Green, then the top boss of the AFL, proclaimed:
Workers of the South ... are patriotic Americans. They cannot feel at home in any organization which seems incapable of cooperating with industry and spends most of its time in trying to destroy private industry. They have nothing in common with the foreign philosophies of the CIO.
Green warned the bourgeoisie that it needed the AFL in the South to keep out the menace of the CIO. Referring to “communist forces” and calling the CIO “carpetbaggers with their repulsive program of trouble and turmoil,” the AFL sought to unionize the South by pleading its case to the corporations as a defense against the danger of a massive radical onslaught. George Meany stuck in his oar as well. The present head of the joint AFL-CIO was in the 1940’s Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL. His contribution was to brand the CIO as “an organization of communist fifth columnists.” Most significantly, the rapidly conservatizing CIO itself soon joined in the same anti-communist campaign. Organizing Director Van A. Bittner replied to the AFL: “Let me make one thing clear. There is no place in the Southern campaign for a single, solitary Communist! This organization of ours is an American organization fighting for America.”
Murray Finley’s dedication to the “American way” is vintage. The points in common between the crusade of the 1940’s and the campaign of the 1970’s also include inane attempts to stimulate Southern chauvinism, a weapon that can only boomerang. For example, the Stevens boycott literature publicizes an alleged quote from a union member: “Why should we allow a Massachusetts-founded and New York-based company to come down here and act as if they owned us as well as the mills?” The CIO in the forties said that it was “... backing Southern capital in its efforts to establish Southern owned and controlled industries.” The “there’s nobody here but us Southern fried chickens” approach fools nobody and reinforces the division between Southern and Northern workers. The headquarters of the Stevens boycott and of the ACTWU happen to be located in New York City, at Union Square (“Union” not in honor of trade unions but of the Union Army in the Civil War!).
The CIO’s Southern organizing drive petered out. Its betrayal set back any notion of a proletarian black and white struggle in the South, and left the door open for the petty-bourgeoisie to take the lead and set limits to the black struggle when it did erupt. The present organizing drive is also trying to sell itself as a protection for the bourgeoisie even more than for the workers. But there is a significant difference. In the 1940’s, there had been a recognizable and recent radicalism in the CIO, including real reds. The danger of a mass movement in the South was visible to the bourgeoisie. The sell-out job done by the AFL and then the CIO might have been a logical defensive step for the bourgeoisie to take, if it hadn’t proved redundant as the prosperity grew and the radicalism diminished. Today, because of the conservatism of the labor leadership and the apparent quiescence of the workers in both North and South, there is no reason why any serious element in the bourgeoisie would want to buy union protection. Their greatest fear is that even a “cautious” unionization drive could touch off the volcano that is building up beneath the surface of events.
However, the direction in which events are moving is also different than in the 1940’s. Radicalization is in the offing. Economic decline and not sustained prosperity is the projection for the future. The bureaucrats will do their best to avoid the consequences of class struggle, but unable to prevent it, they will seek to stem the tide. In short, Meany, Finley, Woodcock & Co. may soon have to sell their “preservation of the American way” ore aggressively in the bourgeois market, even if they wallow in a timid approach now. Meany’ promise of “all out support” to the passive boycott strategy means that he favors whatever moves are needed to defuse a situation fraught with dangers of “anarchy.” His experience as a red-baiter and ally of Southern businessmen in the forties will come in handy now.
It is a law of social development, in periods of deepening class struggle, that the bureaucracy which rests upon petty-bourgeois strata within the working class is subject to the pulls of the two fundamental, polar classes in society. In counterposition to the rightward push of one section, a left-wing section of the bureaucracy develops which reflects the upsurge of the workers in a vacillating way in order to lead it and deflect it. Like the right wing, the left wing will be acting in response to pressure from the ranks, from both Southern workers and workers in more advanced regions. By doing their best to prevent workers from reaching the revolutionary conclusions that will solve their basic problems, they too will strive to maintain “the American way.”
The most likely form this strategy will take will be to channel the militancy of the ranks so that the unions serve a “useful purpose as an instrument of employee advancement.” That is, their strategy is militant trade unionism. The ideal model for the program and strategy of the left bureaucracy goes something like this: Southern workers should be paid wages roughly equivalent to those of workers nationally. In order to achieve this, the Southern workers must go through the same struggles that other workers went through; that is, a new CIO-type movement of militant industrial unionism should be established in the South, where it never had been successful in obtaining a real foothold.
The left bureaucrats would thus be proposing a re-creation of the wage and class structures of the North. They would, in effect, be counterposing a struggle for limited democratic and trade union rights to the necessary struggle for the working class’ vital needs. The left bureaucracy, even more than the right, will press for heavier involvement of the bourgeois state in the trade unions in the future, in order to contain the ranks. They will not openly place the coming struggles in this framework, neither in the way they formulate demands nor in the way they attempt to lead militant struggles. And it is hardly preordained that they can effectively co-opt struggles in time to head off levels of greater militancy. Their exact course will be dependent on the precise tempo of the class struggle and the abilities of revolutionaries to intervene decisively. But the need to co-opt workers who will be forced by circumstances to seek radical solutions to gain even minimal reforms will force the left bureaucracy to put forward militant solutions within the confines of bourgeois society.
What makes it possible for us to predict this course is the fact that it has already been outlined in advance by those who will be among the left bureaucrats’ chief supporters, the centrist groups. The centrists are those leftists who attempt to conceal pro-capitalist policies under a revolutionary guise. Unlike reformists (like the present labor tops) centrists are “for” revolution, but like the reformists they objectively attempt to restrict the class struggle to within the bounds of capitalistlife. To them, revolutionary struggle “must occur, but not before a stage of democratic reform struggles, For Southern workers, the scheme runs like this: Stage 1 is the struggle for solidification of trade unions and the general winning of democratic rights by Southern workers. Stage 2 is promised to be the struggle for revolution. The centrists need not express this conception in an explicit form. Variants of this conception are put forth, corresponding to the particular politics of individual groupings. It is the basic pattern that we are concerned with.
In fact, left groups have not particularly concerned themselves up until now with specific perspectives for Southern labor. Consideration of the South has hardly been ignored, however, as any analysis of black liberation must at least take into account the history of blacks in the South which means largely a history of the South itself. And for groups like the Maoist October League and the Communist Labor Party, their views on black liberation have led them to distinguish the South from the rest of the U.S. in a totally incorrect way.
The October League considers that a “black nation” exists in the South residing in the “black belt” portions, this is a continuation of the analysis put forward on the black question by Stalin in the late twenties. The CLP takes this notion even further by claiming that the South is an internal colony of the US and advocates self-determination for both whites and blacks in the “Negro Nation” of the black belt – in effect calling for Southern secession from the union.
As we noted in Part I, the South has never been an internal colony of the U.S. except during the post-Civil War period of military occupation. As well, the oppression of blacks never took a national form in the U.S.; and the trend is further away from such a development, since blacks have become more absorbed into the working class, and the black migration from the South has meant that blacks form the majority in fewer and fewer actions of the region. It is instructive to note that there has never been a serious or popular nationalist movement that arose in the “black belt.”
Revolutionaries do not advocate “national” independence for blacks. We do say that blacks have the right to self-determination, but even here we differ with the OL on its meaning. For us, the policy is used to demonstrate to blacks that a workers’ state would protect and secure the rights and freedoms of blacks, including the right to secede – as part of the task of uniting blacks around a revolutionary working class solution to capitalist oppression. For the OL, self-determination is a minimal and utopian demand on the capitalist state.
The class struggle itself is responsible for the lack of attention given the “Southern question” by the left. Until recently, most left groups had little presence in the South, as the immediate level of struggle has been lower than elsewhere. As well, the mechanics of the Southern class struggle didn’t appear to have an immediate impact on the class struggle in other regions. Thus Southern labor struggles did not have the pressing importance on the left that they are now creating.
As the centrists turn towards the South, the more pronounced will be their stagist conception of the workers’ struggle. Other left groups provide evidence for this. The Revolutionary Communist Party, in the June 1976 issue of Revolution examined the union campaign at J.P. Stevens. It correctly attacked the ACTWU strategy for being weak and not relying on the workers’ power. And in noting the move of shops to the South, Revolution concluded that the working class must “fight to organize the unorganized in these regions in such a way as to develop the strength, consciousness and unity of the working class from coast to coast.” While one can argue little with the statement itself, the RCP offers no other way to do this than through purely trade union perspectives, and indicates that such a fight defined in this way must be a general strategy: “The fight to organize Stevens and spread unionization throughout the South is extremely important to the whole working class in fighting the capitalists’ attempts to use the conditions in this area to weaken unions everywhere and to pull down the wages of all workers.” (Emphasis added)
The Revolutionary Socialist League also covered the fight with Stevens in brief articles in the June 15 and July 15, 1976 issues of the Torch. While noting that “mass militant action” is necessary for Stevens workers, the Torch not only failed to criticize the union leadership’s boycott strategy but in fact hailed it as “an important first step in cracking the southern textile industry.”
The Torch no longer provides a broader political view of the class struggle in the South. The days prior to the expulsion of the LRP when we put forward such an overview (as in the Torch series of late 1974) are long gone. As Socialist Voice has previously observed, the RSL leadership has adapted to a typically centrist, stagist view of revolutionary development: today, the struggle for trade unionist and democratic demands; revolutionary politics will be appropriate only in the indefinite future. One form such an approach takes is playing the role of tailist and cheerleader for workers’ struggles, rather than offering a revolutionary direction. In the Stevens case, the RSL is actually celebrating a course of action by the bureaucrats which will be a major step towards defeat, along the lines of past organizing attempts by the tops.
In contrast, the RCP at least complains that the bureaucrats’ strategy is inadequate. But like all Maoists, the RCP adheres to a two-stage program of “revolution” not so different from the RSL’s, despite its formal insistence that one stage is sufficient for the special case of the superpower United States. Its call to “spread unionization throughout the South” is a variant of the model we ascribed to the left bureaucrats as well as an application of the Maoist minimal first-stage program. If examined beyond its surface value as a “good idea,” it turns out to pose a task of immense difficulty for Southern workers, one that is in fact a roadblock. Such a struggle could not successfully be carried out. Either the struggle for unionization must be accompanied by a more advanced stage of struggle on the way to a revolutionary seizure of power, or it will end in defeat.
This is another way of stating the application of permanent revolution to the South. The bourgeoisie is incapable of allowing Southern workers to get even what workers in other regions have gained. This is not due simply to objective economic capabilities but to the key political role of the South and the bourgeoisie’s fear that a movement, with its threatening implications for U.S. capitalism, will get out of hand and so must be crushed. Any attempt to duplicate the struggles and gains of workers in more advanced regions must tackle the very structure of Southern society, supported by Wall Street. Though this structure has changed somewhat as we have seen, it has remained firm in the principle of keeping workers down and in the systematic exploitation of blacks. The struggle, even if begun under the banner of trade union and democratic demands, necessarily requires a more profound struggle.
Another centrist group with a special version of stagism is the Spartacist League. In its reprinted founding document, Black and Red – Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom, the SL calls for a “Southern organizing drive backed by organized labor,” and continues, “The demand for a Southern drive is complementary to the demand for a Freedom Labor Party, and, if achieved, would lay the material basis for such a party by creating an organized Southern base.” The Freedom Labor Party notion is previously described as a means “to go beyond needed reforms and pose a real challenge to the Southern system and the basic structure of society.” Moreover, “The creation of a South-wide Freedom Labor Party would serve as a tremendous impetus for similar action by Northern workers.”
The Spartacists have added a new ingredient to the recipe for Southern stagism: a labor party. This tactic is taken from the Marxist arsenal, true enough, but the Spartacists turn it into a reformist maneuver, not a revolutionary one. And because of the undeniable weakness of Southern unions, the SL is forced to insert a prior stage as a base for the projected labor party, a union organizing drive. Thus the SL has cooked itself up a four-stage theory for the South: first, a unionization drive to lay the basis for, second, a South-wide Freedom Labor Party; then a nationwide labor party, and last, presumably, a revolutionary party.
Their call for a labor party cannot be palmed off as one that “really” means a revolutionary party, because the idea of a special revolutionary party for the South is absurd. Unlike the Spartacists, Marxists never call for a reformist labor party as an intermediate step or a solution, since it is neither. The only real answer to the economic and social problems faced by the workers is revolution, and for that a revolutionary party is necessary. At certain times when the workers are moving towards independent class political action, revolutionaries can raise the slogan of a labor party. Rather than opposing the revolutionary party to the organization that workers are striving for whose nature is not yet determined, Marxists urge that it be a revolutionary party. The struggle for a labor party is in large part a struggle to decide the party’s goals.
While the Spartacists do recognize that a political solution is necessary, like the other centrists they place a unionization stage ahead of the party. This is a dangerous inversion which can only lead the workers to disaster. The whole trend of modern decadent capitalism is towards the incorporation of unions into the state. The national government intervenes already in the most minute details of the unions m the rest of the country in order to hedge them in, and will certainly do so in the South unless the workers’ struggle reaches the political plane and challenges the bourgeois state. Even the union bureaucrats recognize that politics determines the conditions of unionism, for their chief legislative goal under President Carter is the Thompson bill that would cut through company stalling in representation elections, according to Business Week magazine (February 7, 1977). But this is just the bureaucrats’ defense of their own interests. A real unionization drive in the South requires revolutionary measures, from a policy of armed self-defense of the working class to ward off the bosses’ thugs and police, to a political campaign that will rouse the support of the entire working class and the masses of blacks in the South. Otherwise, the state’s use of violence and the bosses’ attempts to use racism as a weapon to divide the workers will triumph, bloodily, once more.
The only way to achieve even such a fundamental, minimal necessity for the Southern workers as trade unions is through politics. The centrists are in fact the only school of thought in the workers movement which believes that a stage of industrial organizing should precede any political stage. The labor bureaucrats, as we have shown, know that organizing unions is a question of who controls the power of the state; that is why they kneel at Carters footstool. Revolutionaries counter with the overthrow of the capitalist state and its replacement by a workers’ state as the only solution.
Lenin pointed out, in his struggle against “economism” (the early form of reformism in Russia), that the “economist” strategy of sticking to trade union and economic demands while avoiding political struggles in reality left politics to the liberal bourgeoisie. This meant, in effect, support to the liberals by accepting such a division of labor. The “economists” consciously intended only to postpone revolutionary arid independent working class political action, but they in fact capitulated to the liberals’ domination of the workers movement. This for Lenin spelled disaster, since he knew that the liberals would inevitably betray the working class.
Today the centrists follow the same “economist” line. The union stage which will lead to a “labor party,” a “freedom labor party” or even a “revolution” in the bye and bye accepts the bureaucracy’s political domination of the movement and its strategy of electoralism through the Democratic Party. The centrists may well reek with hostility to the Democrats at every breath as the Russian “economists” did in the beginning to the liberals, but their failure to fight for an alternative permits the present domination by the bureaucrats and therefore by their bourgeois political masters. The centrists’ hostility serves only to keep their formal skirts clean.
Few as they are, the centrists infect the crucial advanced layer of the working class that can in the future determine the political direction of the class as a whole. The centrists strategy paves the way for the future left bureaucrats to grab the leadership when the workers break out of their present straitjacket. And these elements, like their right-wing brothers, would rather see the workers smashed than permit a collision with the bourgeois state or with the Democrats (although if absolutely necessary, the lefts may be forced to move towards a reformist labor party on a bourgeois program in order to control the ranks).
Revolutionary politics is determined by the objective situation, what is materially necessary and materially possible for the working class. The reformist “economist” centrists instead tail the current levels of class consciousness, which is largely determined by the divisive, hesitant, chauvinist and “practical” struggle led by the bureaucrats and their Democratic Party allies. The result, just as in Russia, will only mean disastrous defeats for the workers unless revolutionaries can head them off.
All the factors which a potential South-wide unionization struggle bring into play point to our conclusion: the struggle must break out of the fetters in which it is now held. The national tie-ups of the Southern bourgeoisie, the penetration of the bourgeois state into the trade unions, the central position of blacks within the proletariat, the use of the South as a weapon against workers in other regions, even the present backwardness of Southern workers – all mandate a wider struggle.
We discussed how General Motors propaganda about the unions not providing for workers played a part in defeating organizing drive in Southern auto plants. The worker is partly convinced not only by the UAW’s sell-outs but by the labor bureaucracy in general. The unions in the South all too often negotiate sweetheart contracts at Oneita, for example, a wage increase of a few cents over three years was not tied to any cost-of-living provisions or job protection. Nearby, the miners are being sabotaged by the union leadership in trying to fight for better conditions. If many Southern workers are convinced today that “the union ain’t worth the fight,” they will be convinced tomorrow that the fight ain’t worth the confines of simple trade unionism. Formal logic dictates that the worker must take the “next step” of trade unionism and trade union consciousness. Marxism however, demonstrates how this “next step” must be transcended from the start as the workers pass through it in the process of reaching revolutionary consciousness and conclusions.
The reformists and centrists will attempt to prevent such conclusions from being reached and will actively fight the actions based on those conclusions. Though subject to the pressures of the ranks, the confirmed reformists can be pushed only so far. They will ultimately ally directly with the capitalists in an attempt to smash a revolutionary offensive by the workers. To pose a trade unionist stage for workers to go through as the centrists do, means establishing a basis for the left bureaucracy. Or else it means that the centrists substitute themselves for the left bureaucracy. Either way, it is the task of revolutionaries to defeat these pretenders to the revolutionary leadership of our class.
The starting point of a revolutionary approach to any question is to “say what is” to the working class. In regard to the South, workers must be told what we have stated here: that permanent revolution is the necessary political strategy in the South and that revolutionary leadership is necessary in the coming struggles if they are to be successful.
The centrists and reformists carry pro-bourgeois programs into the workers’ movement. To this, revolutionaries must counterpose the program on the Fourth International, the Transitional Program, as the appropriate program for an epoch in which the proletariat is the only class capable of solving fundamental democratic tasks. It is a program which connects the reform and democratic desires of the workers to the need for socialist revolution to fulfill these desires.
The transitional demands demonstrate how the proletariat in power, the workers’ state, would solve the problems facing the working class today. These include a sliding scale of wages and hours – this means to divide the available work up among the available workers with no cut in pay and providing for jobs for all. The workers must not be made to pay for the decay of capitalism; nationalization of the banks, corporations and large firms under workers’ control, to point to the alternative to bourgeois nationalization schemes and other bourgeois strategies to “solve” the crisis of capitalism; a workers government, since only the power of the proletariat organized in its own state provides the real starting point for solving the basic needs of the masses.
Other revolutionary demands include equal pay for equal work – abolish the Southern-wage differential; abolish racial discrimination. The struggle for democracy and democratic demands is a necessity for revolutionaries, who point put that they can be fully secured only through the socialist revolution and the workers’ state. Revolutionaries also understand that there are sharply different levels of oppression within the Southern working class, based upon geographical distinctions within the South, racial lines, craft lines, unemployment rates, and the like. Many of the most oppressed workers who are not immediately susceptible to union organization (like the unemployed) would be the steamrollers of a militant upsurge if they had the opportunity. The proletariat needs dual institutions like workers’ councils (soviets) for many reasons, including the ability of such formations to attract the most oppressed layers of the class. The rural poor can also be brought into the workers’ councils. Councils of the unemployed should be an immediate demand leading in this direction; union action towards such councils is necessary.
Revolutionaries must also intervene in the immediate burning questions that are dividing Southern workers from workers in other regions, including an active fight against regional chauvinism. For example, we do not think building a plant in the South is in itself “worse” than building a plant in other regions; we do not reinforce and capitulate to the anti-Southern chauvinism of workers outside the South that their relative privileges and labor leadership are responsible for. What we do oppose is that this comes at the expense of other workers. In particular cases, we may oppose the farming out of work to the South from where are layoffs. Generally we raise the demand that the trade unions organize the South, and ultimately link our positions to the struggle for jobs for all through the sliding scale of wages and hours.
To campaign for the above demands, programs and conceptions, critical as that is, is not enough. The present circumstances – the objective situation, balance of forces, consciousness of the masses – must be taken into account. Revolutionaries must fight for the revolutionary program in a form appropriate to present conditions and must consider the various important tactical questions that the present conjuncture in the Southern class struggle poses.
The obvious lack of organization that exists in the Southern working class must be taken into account. We do not abstain from or oppose what at this time would be limited but progressive and important gains for Southern workers – the organization of trade unions. We will give critical support to the present union organizing drives, while at the same time exposing the hesitations, vacillations, class collaboration and inevitable betrayals by the misleaders. For example, we support the merger of the TWUA-ACW as a defensive step against the capitalist attacks, but we counter the miserably weak approach to organizing textile workers as well as the fundamental loyalty to capitalism. We also demand that other unions carry out organizing drives in the South: the labor bureaucrats must be held responsible in their capacity as leaders. It is the limitation of the struggle to a CIO-type stage that we oppose.
Due to their particular oppression, revolutionary workers in the South will form a vital component of the proletarian vanguard of the U.S. A unity between black and white Southern workers will be forged, based primarily on the interest of the most oppressed. White workers will be won to fight racism, not by soft-pedaling the issue, but by a militant defense of blacks seen as necessary defense of all workers against the capitalist attacks. Because of their position in industry and their history of struggle, blacks have gained greater consciousness and combativity than whites, underneath the present calm. The black worker is not in the situation of having to wait for whites to defend his rights or for a white-led movement in the working class to arise. Blacks will play a major role in the fight against the inevitable attempts by the bourgeoisie to divide the workers and restore lynch law. The vanguard of the politically advanced and revolutionary workers will undoubtedly contain black workers out of proportion to their numbers.
The lurking danger for the workers is the one we have discussed at length coming from within the movement. “Common sense” argues that the Southern class struggle must pass through its democratic and trade unionist stage before reaching its revolutionary stage. “Common sense” was also on the side of the Mensheviks in Russia, who foresaw a democratic capitalist stage before the socialist revolution. Interestingly enough, the October Revolution was accomplished when only a tiny minority of workers were organized into trade unions.
The South of today is not Russia of 1917. But both belong to an epoch which assigns the completion of the democratic tasks to the revolutionary proletariat. To say that the class struggle must go through a democratic stage is to pave the way for betrayal. In the South the circumstances are even more graphic, for here the Menshevik strategy means that the workers will be betrayed before even achieving what workers in other regions of the U.S. have already won.
The class struggle in the South has the potential to be the geographical tinderbox of the American revolution, being the “weakest link of imperialism” within the most advanced metropolitan country. But if the misleaders of the workers are able to confine the struggle, the South may be used as one of the bosses’ most efficient cutting edges against the working class. It is the task of revolutionaries to ensure that history decides in favor of our class.