The following article first appeared in Proletarian Revolution No. 57 (Summer/Fall 1998).
Transport Workers Union Local 100 (New York City subways and buses) reran its Executive Board election this May. The vote last November featured fraud by the bureaucratic old guard led by president Willie James. New Directions, a “rank and file” reform opposition slate backed by Solidarity and other leftists, had threatened to file a suit with the U.S. Labor Department to overturn that contest. Apparently, given the government’s intervention into the Teamsters, the old-guard TWU International leaders got scared and mandated a new election.
ND was presented with a golden opportunity. James had just lost a major lobbying campaign in the New York State legislature to win a big pension improvement. The local’s treasury was for the first time several million dollars in the red, and the leadership was blocking attempts to track the money. Finally, ND had exposed James’s secret agreement to accept certain new management rules for electronic technicians, giving up seniority, grievance and other long-standing rights without a vote of the affected members, a clear violation of the contract.
In fact ND was rather confident they would win. But they blew it; this time the James Team beat them by about 52 to 48 percent, a slightly reduced margin. ND picked up one Board seat, making the new line-up James 25, ND 21.
A partial explanation for ND’s defeat is the fraud and slander once again committed by the bureaucrats. Most glaring was the James Team’s mass mailing of campaign leaflets in official Local 100 envelopes postmarked by the Local’s postage meter. James’ backers also engaged in crude red-baiting. And the James leadership accused ND of being strike-happy, knowing that the ranks in transit, like most workers, have lost their confidence in strike action.
This charge, however, was false. A couple of ND leaflets did cautiously state that Local 100 would have to strike against concessions in the 1999 contract. But more often ND issued long statements about their intention to fully inform, consult with, educate and mobilize the members in ‘99 – to do what, they didn’t say.
This gets to the deeper reason why ND failed to win. Opposition leaderships that rest on a mobilized membership have beaten established bureaucrats, who always use the corrupt tactics like those of the James team. The core problem is political: ND failed to present a bold alternative to James. Their hesitation and wavering about the need for a strike, their inability to put forward a way to win a strike and their failure to mobilize workers around issues like workfare meant that many workers saw no reason to shift their vote. After all, if you’re going to play class collaboration, why not stick with a tried and true player who has established connections with the politicians.
Many ND leaders consider themselves socialists, but for them socialism is a goal reserved exclusively for private discussion, judged to be far beyond the understanding of ordinary workers. Or perhaps they believe that the trade unions do not need a revolutionary program and leadership. In any case, they don’t tell the members about socialist ideas, and fighting capitalism is no part of their electoral program.
Further, ND candidates present themselves as bold insurgents, but they have actually held the majority of posts in several divisions for as long as five years. They did not try much to run on their past record, and with good reason – their accomplishments have been quite modest, mostly more efficient grievance-filing. The election issue of their union bulletin, Hell on Wheels, included among ND’s list of accomplishments that they had prevented an “ill-considered” job action in one division. In the absence of any mass action proposals in their campaign, this claim served to reassure more conservative workers, as well as union officials and management, that ND posed no danger.
The most reprehensible aspect of ND’s campaign was its repeated call for government intervention in the union. This was particularly outrageous in the light of the recent Teamsters debacle: the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), co-thinkers of ND, helped bring the FBI and courts into their union. (See Government Out of the Teamsters, PR 56.) TDU, once the poster group of the labor reform movement, suffered a dramatic decline in membership and reputation as a result. New Directions is now the pride of the reformist-centrist left, although this defeat must hurt.
Revolutionary-minded workers need to break from this approach and build revolutionary caucuses in the unions, not dead-end reformist outfits. Toward this end, Eric Josephson ran for the Executive Board in Track Division as an open socialist and supporter of the LRP. Despite very limited resources and time, his campaign scored a modest success, gathering about 6 percent of the votes in that division. Most workers who voted for Eric are not revolutionaries but were attracted to his candidacy because he stressed the necessity for mass action as the only way forward.
Josephson’s campaign focused on the main immediate attacks on TWU members and connected them to a range of anti-worker and racist attacks. His leading demands were:
Eric’s campaign also raised key issues he has fought around in the TWU in recent years. He fought for union mobilization against the racist police attacks in New York. He opposed forced labor by welfare recipients (in the “Work Experience Program,” or WEP) and called for united action with WEP workers.
Local 100 is critical for the class struggle in New York, and this electoral battle had national importance. The Josephson campaign raised important trade union issues and broader political questions that both James and New Directions ignored. While he did not take the sectarian approach of insisting that workers agree with the LRP’s communist program in order to vote for him, Josephson consistently explained the connection between the building an immediate defense based on united working-class action and the need to build a revolutionary party of the working class.
The only other left organization to oppose New Directions as well as the James Team was the Spartacist League (SL). But while the SL claims to favor a union mobilization against racist attacks and a fight against state intervention in the unions, in reality they consistently abstain from the struggle in the TWU.
Given their characteristic combination of opportunism and sectarianism, it was no surprise that the SL rejected any support to Josephson’s campaign for a mass action program. The SL’s reasons are instructive, even though they are just recycled old lies about the LRP and are irrelevant to the basis of the campaign.
First, the SL claimed that the LRP “crossed the class line” in supporting the Polish Solidarity movement against the Stalinist regime in the early 1980’s. But it was correct to defend this mass workers’ organization against the state capitalist bosses. We condemned the union leaders, who were both pro-imperialist and stood only for reforming the Stalinist state. It was the SL that crossed the class line, calling on the Soviet army to crush the workers’ movement.
Second, the SL cited the LRP’s “disgusting position” of “opposing efforts to implement racial integration of the schools during the fight over busing in Boston in 1974-75.” In reality, our tendency marched in defense of the bused students in the face of the racist mobs, and we defended Blacks’ right to choose which schools to go to. But we also warned Black workers not to trust the middle-class integrationist misleaders who taught reliance on cops, federal troops and the courts. The SL, in contrast, endorsed the capitalist courts’ plan, “implemented” via its police power, that assigned Black students to schools not of their choice as cannon fodder for social engineering. (See The Spartacist School of Falsification, PR 55.)
The SL’s third reason was that the LRP has said that “‘revolutionaries’ might be compelled to ‘join in common action’“ with Louis Farrakhan. They point out that he is a reactionary, pro-capitalist demagogue – as if we did not know his record. Indeed, in our article in PR 50, after a long political exposé of Farrakhan and the Million Man March, we cited the possibility that, during the inevitable mass struggles that Blacks will initiate in response to the mounting racist attacks, Farrakhan might lead such mobilizations in order to preserve his leadership. If such actions were attacked by the cops or the Klan, we know which side we’d be on, using the time-honored Bolshevik tactic of military defense against the racists. We have challenged the SL several times to say where they would be; they do not reply.
Several threads run through the Spartacists’ attacks on the LRP. One is their contempt for the consciousness of the working class, shown by their habitual falsifications of their left opponents’ political positions. Another is that their points appear as irrelevant to the union campaign. While they explain how New Directions would mislead the union, they say nothing about why Eric would not be a fighting representative for workers’ interests. But isn’t that the issue?
The key thread is the SL’s reluctance to engage in united mass action while using Bolshevik tactics to split the base from the top. The politics of the leadership is what determines the SL’s attitude to any struggle. Walesa is pro-West, so down with Solidarity. They applaud integration, so the bourgeois busing plan is supported at whatever cost to the fight for better schools. Farrakhan is rotten, so the masses he misleads are expendable. The LRP is no good, so its fight for mass action in Local 100 can be ignored.
The often messy class struggle offers a fearsome threat to the bureaucratic routine of a hermetically sealed sect. For example, during the campaign to defend James Frazier, a Black TWU member, from a police frame-up in 1994-95, the SL’s sectarianism came to the fore: they refused to join the LRP and others in fighting for a TWU defense campaign. Instead they called on the transit workers to join their own small front group, the Partisan Defense Committee.
It is no accident that with more supporters in Local 100 than we have, for years the SL has done nothing in the TWU. It prints a newspaper biweekly, but aside from this article it did absolutely nothing to intervene in a critical election in which militants were being misled by New Directions. The SL doesn’t even mention its own transit cadre as an alternative, proof of the fact that they weren’t offering one.
If the SL had even tried to act like Bolsheviks, its supporters would have honestly spelled out their differences with the LRP in order to expose Eric to workers looking for a way to fight back. Instead, they covered their inaction with a lying article written for the record, and posed no alternative that militants could support. Once again the SL proved in practice its inability to intervene in the class struggle and show the way forward to workers.