Workshop Talks: Capitalism trashes union democracy

July 16, 2012

Workshop Talks

by Htun Lin

The “Great Recession” we’re living in will continue so long as we accept that there is no alternative to capitalism. It is a lie perpetuated by the dominant ideology.

In the past year, the Occupy Movement has given many of us hope that things can change. One idea in the movement is that if only the 99% can reclaim the wealth hijacked by the 1%, the restoration of real democracy will follow.

This puts the cart before the horse, and turns upside down the actual history of political economy. It assumes, as liberal economist Joseph Stiglitz did, that increasing inequality in America is causing the erosion of democracy. In reality, inequality is the result of the lack of democracy.


A friend, active in the Occupy Movement, recounted how the longshore workers of ILWU Local 21 at Longview, Washington, suffered a big defeat when international bureaucrats took over their local in the midst of a picket action which had forced management to the bargaining table.

What followed in Longview was a sellout contract which gave management a “partnership” clause that took away the right to strike, or to “engage in any work stoppage.” Longview management got the right to replace any workers with new hires at the sole discretion of the employer. The hiring hall, controlled by the ILWU since the 1934 San Francisco General Strike, has in effect been turned over to the employer.

What was the union left with? Its so-called jurisdiction, touted by the international’s bureaucrats as a victory. To them it means dues-paying members. Jurisdiction is preserved, but democracy is assassinated.

Workers at the docks for decades have been steadily eliminated through automation. At Longview, much of the work will be conducted by managers running computers in the control room.

In my shop union democracy died the day a Labor-Management Partnership (LMP) was imposed from the top in the midst of a strike wave over the right to provide quality care. When our local protested undemocratic practices by the SEIU International, they fired all our local officers and imposed a trusteeship.

Recently, the president of the LMP, at the conclusion of “bargaining” for a new contract (now referred to with the euphemism “common issues committees” towards “shared goals”), spoke of how the lives of working men and women (the 99%) have been made tougher by the 1% who control the wealth.


Then, with a straight face, he urged us to continue to help the employer “cut costs” in order for the company to stay “competitive.” He was essentially saying there’s no alternative if we want to keep our jobs.

The following week, he announced that he was entering into an expanded partnership with the California Hospital Association to help erode landmark quality care legislation won by nurses mandating minimum nurse-to-patient ratios.

The steady decline in work conditions didn’t happen overnight. Union officials saw themselves as nothing more than business agents focused on the economic package. They gave away our right to strike, as well as any say over work conditions, or how to use technology.

Charles Denby, an auto worker at Chrysler, editor for many years of News & Letters, and author of Indignant Heart: A Black Worker’s Journal, once spoke about a union business agent who complained to him, asking why it was that, even after he got workers better pay, more bonuses, more benefits, they were still unhappy.

Denby said that what the boss gives us in wages and benefits, he can take away. Whatever he gives us at the table, he takes back more in production. Every extra penny we get in wages, the boss more than reclaims by extracting more value (surplus labor) from us, through speedup.


Automation is the boss’s ultimate weapon, which kills not only jobs but also union democracy. For longshore workers, containerization replaced legions of their ranks. In healthcare, total information management is stripping all the human interest from our work. To accept the lie that this is necessary progress is to surrender to the dominant ideology.

Automation is our own creation. It came from our own minds, fashioned with our own hands. Yet, it is a Frankenstein’s monster that dominates us. Economic inequality also didn’t just appear by itself. It keeps being recreated so long as we have no self-determination in our daily lives in production.

Democracy on the shop floor must come first. Only then can we overcome the problem of inequality. Only by reclaiming not just our own labor power, but also the meaning and purpose of our own laboring activity, can we gain control over technology and achieve economic justice.

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