In a recent piece for Jacobin, Barry Eidlin makes the case for socialist leadership of labor unions. Eidlin notes that when unions were run by socialists, they were more militant. Socialism was purged from the unions in the 1930s through 1950s, and they have become bureaucratized as a result.

Eidlin is interested in how to reignite union militancy. After all, he argues, the working class enjoys a strategic position within capitalism as “the only class that has the power to overthrow capitalism and transform society.” But making the working class into “a coherent actor capable of bringing about revolutionary change is not something that just happens.” This is why socialists have a key role to play. Without intervention from socialist forces, unions remain “reformist institutions, designed to mitigate and manage the employment relationship, not transform it.”

Ultimately, Eidlin calls for what he calls a “rank-and-file strategy,” which consists of “identifying and expanding a ‘militant minority,’” within unions. This militant minority consists of “respected, trusted shop-floor leaders” who are able to influence their coworkers. They may be socialists who strategically take jobs in key industries, or they may simply be rank-and-filers who are cultivated by socialists.

I asked Nick Driedger to respond to Eidlin’s arguments. Driedger is a former member, shop steward, Local Organizing Officer and National Organizing Coordinator for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. He is currently the Executive Director of the Athabasca University Faculty Association and a member of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Eidlin describes the decline of the labor movement and its militancy in terms of the expulsion of socialists and communists from unions during the McCarthy period. This is what caused unions to become bureaucratized and conservative. But you disagree. Why?

There definitely was a decline, and the expulsions no doubt had a negative role, but there were a lot of factors, and I don’t think [McCarthyism and expulsion] was the largest one, let alone the single driving force. There was a lot of stuff in the legislation that created the Wagner Act model [aka the National Labor Relations Board] in the U.S. and Canada that was really damaging.

If you look at the history, there were a number of socialist unions that were curtailed but not destroyed, and yet for the most part their trajectory and often their outcomes are very similar to their more conservative counterparts’.

United Electrical Workers (UEW) is still around, and they’re still ahead of the curve of the rest of the unions, but they have capitulated and made a lot of the same compromises the rest of the labor movement has.

The International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) have definitely bureaucratized. They’re still a shining beacon compared to the rest of the labor movement, and they weathered the storm to a certain degree, but in all honesty they have been compromised pretty seriously, as far as the strategy and the notion of a social mission.

I also think that Canada is really useful to look at here, because Canada is under a very similar labor relations framework, and went through a similar era of McCarthyism, but it wasn’t nearly as harsh. So the socialist leadership in the trade unions was much stronger. There were some unions that were wiped out, like the Canadian Merchant Seamen’s Union; the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers were almost obliterated; the One Big Union was almost completely wiped out. But some unions also managed to survive the McCarthyist era, and there were even some socialist unions that arose after this period, like the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), or SORWUC, which was a feminist, socialist union that organized bank tellers and restaurants and other largely women-dominated industries.

Ultimately, these unions fought back and in some cases even beat “McCarthyism” but still succumbed to the same pressures as in the U.S. Not from a populist, right-wing witch hunt, but from the slow and steady system of incentives by technocrats in the political centre and sometimes even centre-left. SORWUC, for example, met initial support but was starved of solidarity under the guise of jurisdictional fights with other unions in the Canada Labour Congress (CLC), but really that was about politics and “responsible” unionism.

So I don’t think you can just say that it was the McCarthyism and the anti-communist affidavits, and the wiping out of, as he terms it, “the militant minority,” that did it alone. That was certainly the more dramatic element, but there was a whole slew of things, and in a lot of ways I think it was the more mundane parts of the Wagner Act model that really disincentivized socialist or militant politics in unions.

What were those more mundane parts of the Wagner Act model that disincentivized militancy?

One of them is that unions are “single-party states” – this is a phrase that I am stealing from Martin Glaberman, who wrote about the decline of the United Auto Workers in this era, and their collapse into a more bureaucratic kind of unionism. Unions became a de facto winner-takes-all regime with no politically diverse perspectives. And sure, that means that socialists were wiped out.

But remember: a lot of the time, socialists were the ones wiping other socialists out! The communist party unions were slitting the throats of socialist party unions. The IWW was done in as much by other unions as it was by the employer. And many of the other, subsequent attempts at socialist unions were too. The CIO had ruthless politics between themselves and the AFL, and even between factions within the CIO.

So this winner-takes-all system where unions became less politically contested terrain, and where unions were forced into a situation of becoming politically unitary bodies, definitely played a negative role.

But the other things disincentivizing militancy were grievance procedures that end in mandatory arbitration, NLRB-supervised strikes and lockouts, and the role all of that plays in policing the union. This incentivized a certain kind of trade union politics. When certification becomes the goal, instead of being an organic expression of working-class discontent, that allows the state to shape and mold union politics in the image it wants, to get the trade unions it desires. It’s a much less heavy-handed labor regime than exists in other countries, but it’s no less interventionist and it has very similar goals, namely: unions are supposed to be the loyal opposition to industry.

So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when you say [paraphrasing Eidlin] “unions are limited in the horizon of consciousness that they can achieve,” or “without socialist intervention, they’ll never become part of a wider socialist mission.”

How does it become a self-fulfilling prophecy to say that “unions are limited”?  

There are two dominant views of unions on the socialist left, and both of them essentially stem from Lenin’s idea of “trade union consciousness.”

One of them is that only the political party is a vehicle for mass struggle. Unions are a good breeding ground for recruits for the party, but they are fundamentally compromised and limited.

And the other one is that unions are a vehicle for mass struggle, but can only become that under socialist leadership and through intervention from a socialist party.

Eidlin takes second position. He acknowledges that there are limits to trade union consciousness – that unions are, as he puts it, an inherent part of the capitalist structure and necessarily capitalistic in their own right – and socialists need to intervene.

But the problem here is that socialists have been as much a tool of completely gutting the unions as their bureaucratic rivals.

Give me an example of socialists gutting unions.

But “gutting unions” I don’t mean getting rid of unions, but stripping them of their socialist political content – the political struggle, and political analysis of work.

Probably the best example comes from my own experience, CUPW. This union came out of the militancy of the 1960s and 1970s. It stood as a very radically democratic union, similar to UEW or ILWU. It had a rank-and-file insurgent component that was very strong, and a direct action emphasis on the floor that was pretty unique in the labor movement at the time, especially in Canada, but also for the U.S.

As CUPW developed, though, and as it became more rooted and stronger, there were political fights. The Canadian state became very concerned. They raided the union’s offices at one point, hauling out boxes of documents. The mainstream media would routinely denounce the union as communists, which wasn’t entirely untrue – there were a lot of communists in the leadership. And that pressure eventually incentivized a certain kind of trade union leader. There was a new wave of people, by the 1980s, who felt that CUPW had far too rough-and-tumble of an image, that postal workers were far too associated with violence and being insubordinate, and this insurgent group, which came frankly from the rank and file – because every union officer usually starts in the rank and file – started to make CUPW more respectable. But also, on the other side of that, the Canada Labour Congress was saying – not openly in public, but openly enough in the halls of the house of labor – that if CUPW did not step in line, they would start starving them of support, or making moves to kick CUPW out of the CLC and raid them out of existence.

So, under that pressure, CUPW steadily started electing “more responsible leadership.” And this was all thoroughly “democratic” – all of these officers were elected, and even now CUPW only pays their officers the going rate for the work they would be performing as postal workers, and not the work they would be performing as “labor relations specialists.” But this [pressure towards electing “more responsible leadership”] has eroded CUPW. For example, it now has a tiered contract. People get very upset when you point that out, but the simple fact is that people before a certain seniority date have a different wage grid and pension scheme than people after a certain seniority date. And this was a union that was born in militancy, developed in militancy. The leadership was openly, often stridently socialist. They had those politics.

We’re not talking about a militant minority or reform caucus. Leadership was rotated among a cluster of leftist factions. This was not right-wing bureaucrats holding the union back (although there was often plenty of that kind of rhetoric about political opponents). The simple fact is that everybody on there were socialists. People who were part of communist parties or Trotskyist political groups, or refugees from other countries who came out of revolutionary traditions there, like Chile and India and the Philippines. And they were subject to the same pressures. And the results have been not as bad [as elsewhere in the labor movement], but they are more or less the same.

So the bottom line is that there are structural reasons why unions become bureaucratized. It’s not because the socialists lose positions of leadership.

It can’t just be reduced to positions of leadership, and it’s can’t just be reduced to a political minority. CUPW did not have a socialist minority. There is a socialist hegemony in that union, even today. There is a general framework, in their constitution, in their bylaws, in the debates on the convention floor, of socialist politics of a mass character.

And yet CUPW leadership will allow their workers to be legislated back to work, for example?

Well exactly. And ultimately, if you look at the penalties for it – the officers are facing hundred-thousand-dollar-a-day fines and all that – this isn’t timidity or a lack of moral fiber. There is a necessity of breaking those laws and fighting back, but you can’t just simply write [the union officers’ reaction] off as bureaucratization.

Explain to me how you and Eidlin differ. Because towards the very end of his article, he says elected union officials have specific, material reasons why they can’t be militant: they need to “deliver” their side of the bargain with management, i.e. to talk workers down, and they can’t put the union’s long-term existence in jeopardy with things like injunctions and fines and jail time. But then he says “this does not mean that union staff and leaders have no role to play in a rank-and-file strategy.”

What Eidlin’s actually saying — and it’s hard for me not to engage in a strawman if I’m going to present his argument — but probably what he is saying is that there is a breeding ground for militancy and revolutionary consciousness in union struggles, but unions can’t actually solve this problem.

There’s this dichotomy in a lot of socialist politics that goes back to Lenin, where the union represents everything limited and particular, but, for some reason, political parties are imagined not to be subject to these limits, and instead represent a universal interest.

This just strikes me as absurd. First off, they’re not talking narrowly-defined electoral political parties; they’re talking about sophisticated groups with a political program. But even then, the simple fact is, if you’re leading the struggle, you’re going to be subject to the same pressures. And frankly, you’re going to make the same compromises. When these parties are in state power, they make the same compromises.

Labour Militant, in Liverpool, had to make compromises in order to maintain power on Liverpool City Council. This was a Trotskyist group that’s considered one of the templates. Syriza in Greece had to capitulate to the Troika.

There isn’t an ideological answer to pressures and to capitulation and struggle. These are strategic questions. And it doesn’t actually help to say, “Well the unions are compromised, they’re an inherent part of capitalism, they have a horizon of possibility and interest, but the party represents our ability to transcend and move past that.”

What’s your answer to the alleged reformist nature of unions? I take it you disagree with him that unions are bounded, limited, reformist organizations.

It’s not so much that unions aren’t bounded, limited, reformist organizations; it’s that any organization under capitalism that fails to topple capitalism runs the risk of collapsing into a bounded, compromised, reformist project. That is no different for a tenant’s union, a political party, a theory group, a leftwing think tank, or for anything else. This is just the nature of struggle and power.

We are all struggling and trying to find a way to push past the limits of what we have right now. But I think that there is far, far more potential in trade unions than what they are currently realizing, and I think far more potential than any of the political parties can actually deliver.

Because it’s not actually a matter of thinking through the problem or having the correct analysis. It’s about organizing the working class so that they can wield the power that they have, the power that’s inherent in their structural position within capitalism, to push for demands, build power, and put more of the wealth they produce – and more of society – under their own democratic control.

What limits unions, and what makes it difficult, is the legal framework that’s imposed on them, because it incentivizes a certain kind of unionism that makes them narrow and sectionally focused. It rewards that behavior.

Eidlin seems to be describing just that – building the power of the working class – when he talks about the “rank-and file strategy” and the “militant minority” and radical caucuses. He says that part of the idea of the rank-and file strategy is for socialists to get jobs in “core” industries, but then he also says there’s a broader sense of rank-and file strategy, which is that you have an expanding militant layer in the working class and in workplaces, that has this ability to move their peers to action. So tell me where you disagree with that, or what you would take issue with there.

I think first off the issue is: what do you do with that? You organize your coworkers, you kick the bureaucrats out, and you take over the union… Then what? 

Note that this is not something that hasn’t been accomplished anywhere. It has. And it leads to the same dynamic that I described with the postal workers (CUPW). There may be some initial gains, there may be an improvement over the previous attempts, but because you’re failing to break with that labor relations regime, ultimately, you get ground up, and to a certain degree, you’re just waiting and occupying those officer positions until the next upstart group of radicals comes along and displaces you. Or the next upstart group of conservatives! Because the conservatives are just as happy to call an incumbent a “bureaucrat” as the radicals are. And a lot of workers will nod sagely and be like, “yeah, they’re bureaucrats.”

Why can’t militants stay militant once they get into power?

I think part of it is, people have unrealistic expectations of what union office actually gives you.  People think that leadership is a matter of having the sash and the tiara, that by virtue of getting elected to a position, you have all this credibility, and everybody’s going to listen to you – and it’s simply not true.

You need to actually, simply organize the floor. And it’s not that you can’t do it as a union officer, but it also not the case that being a union officer contributes to it. So if you think that becoming a union officer is going to help you organize, when you are unable to organize prior to that, you’re in for a hell of a shock.

Really, what needs to happen, is people need to organize the floor. And again, I don’t think that they need to organize the floor as a socialist minority. I think the more socialists the better, fine. And I socialists should be open and vocal about their politics, and that they’re going to have reception among the working class. The simple fact is, there’s a lot of latent socialist sentiment in the working class by virtue of the way capitalism structures their work and their lives. This isn’t a total spontaneity, obviously – political groups have a role in all of this – but I also think that it’s a real danger to underestimate what’s already going on in working people’s day-to-day lives, and the dynamic that’s going on.

So, go out, organize, fight against the boss, get concessions, watch how the legal system grinds you up and diverts you, and point it out. That should be the starting-point of your political analysis, and the most salient, relevant aspect of it. You need to actually get into the thick of it, and get ground up, and actually see the dynamic, the way the system hurts people, in order to illustrate it, because otherwise you’re just stuck with vague Trotskyist terms like “bourgeois legality” and stuff like that. Instead of actually saying, “No, this is how the labor board actually intervenes, and takes us out at the knees.”

What is the difference between the “militant minority” strategy Eidlin talks about and your strategy of “organizing the floor”? What do you want to see happen?

You need to organize people at work, with the goal of getting everybody in on job actions. Direct action that takes on the boss directly. And the union does not actually have that much to contribute to that. If you’ve got a union contract in place, by all means, rely on the discipline language to protect against retaliation, but the grievance procedure is going to do everything it can to hamstring your activity, because it exists to supplant that. So, taking over the grievance machine – which is what most unions are: the grievance and contract-negotiation machine – doesn’t actually contribute to the direct action. You need to actually organize actions on the floor and build infrastructure around that.

I think that Eidlin has a very set strategy. Because almost every group that, again, comes from Lenin has a kind of pat strategy that’s not that dissimilar to this: you run for union office, preferably on a slate, you and your comrades, you do the local right and run it in a socialist manner. And the workers come and they see that your party provides the proper leadership and backs your party, and your party grows and expands. And the more it grows and expands, the more you recruit, and the closer you are to revolution. I think that’s the formula.

For me, it’s: you get involved in struggles, you bring everybody in, and you build organizations through those struggles, and you draw out the revolutionary politics that are latent in those struggles themselves. You build those revolutionary politics and you develop them, you build alliances with other struggles in other workplaces and other social movements, and you push that agenda forward that way, while keeping the basis of the organization, the ideological development, and the political leadership grounded in the actions and struggles and setbacks themselves. And you don’t offer easy answers or abstract “political” solutions to concrete, immediate problems.