The International Socialists and the Labour Movement A Study in Opportunism

Barry Weisleder

by Barry Weisleder

If you disdain debates on the left, if you abhor pointed polemics, please don’t read this article. If you think arguments between leftists are more crippling than clarifying, just stop right now.
O.K. Now this article is for the rest of you. Still, I hasten to add this. We in Socialist Action devote only the tiniest portion of our energy to criticism of other leftist tendencies. We would rather organize mass political actions of working people against war, cutbacks, pollution, or for human rights. But once in a long while, chiefly in response to questions put to us by supporters and friends, we strive to clarify where we stand in relation to the practice of other small leftist organizations.This particular occasion arises from the publication of an unusually frank and revealing article in the newspaper of the International Socialists, “Socialist Worker” (March 2012 edition). The author of “What Would it Take to Stop Austerity”, Ritch Wyman, is a leading member of the I.S. There can be no doubt that he is presenting the official I.S. perspective and policy on the labour movement today.

The article cites the defeats suffered by the working class at London, Ontario over the closure of the CAW-organized Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD) plant, the defeat in Toronto where CUPE Local 416 accepted a concessionary deal with the Rob Ford municipal administration (and now we can add CUPE Local 79 to the sorry list), the setback at U.S. Steel in Hamilton, and likewise at the mining operation of Vale (formerly Inco) in Sudbury. To a greater or lesser extent, the unions involved gave way without a serious, generalized fight back against the bosses’ austerity agenda.

The article expresses dismay at the squandering of the potential of these labour disputes “to turn back the defeats”, and in the case of EDM, the failure to “take inspiration from the Occupy movement and take over their plant”, instead of reducing the fight to one of “gaining more favourable severance terms”.

Wyman correctly defends the importance and relevance of unions against various ultra-left critics. The latter often demand, from the outside, more militant action without challenging the union leadership from inside the labour movement.

Unfortunately, Wyman goes on to argue against ‘exposing’ and challenging the labour leadership inside the unions. Indeed, he presents a rationale, one that is not based on facts, to support the existing union tops. Those are the people who are, to a greater or lesser extent, responsible for curbing workers’ resistance to the current capitalist offensive.

Sure, it’s easy to fall into a kind of fatalism about the present situation in the labour movement – a situation marked by decades of concessions to the bosses. Likewise, one can cling to the view that today’s labour leaders simply reflect what is possible right now – that they are the best of what’s available. Opportunists on the left try to dress up this mistaken view with phrases like: the union leadership reflects the relationship of forces between rank and file workers and the bureaucracy inside the unions. But our question is this: Have the opportunists tested the relationship of forces?

While there is some truth to the observation that the union brass has the consent of the ranks, it is important to remember that the power of the bureaucrats derives also from the superior resources at their disposal, compared to what rank and file workers have. So it begs the question: Is the current relationship of forces immutable? The answer is clear: Things were not always as they are now, and certainly, they won’t always be as they are now. An ancient Greek philosopher wrote “Nothing is permanent, except change.” Heraclitus was right.

Can the bottom affect the top? It always has. Is organizing at the base just a matter of “shouting at union leaders”, just increasing the volume? Or is it about politically educating and organizing workers to take control of their own organizations, to steer the unions and other popular bodies away from integration into the capitalist state? We say it is the latter.

Demands cannot be imposed from the outside, it’s true. Demands should be put to the leadership, particularly by union members. They should challenge leaders to lead the members in standing up to the bosses and their wretched system. But how should demands be put, and to what end? Should demands be posed merely as a pressure tactic to get leaders to adapt, temporarily, to the wishes of the rank and file? Or should we go beyond mere pressure, and seek to actually change the direction and leadership of the unions?

We in Socialist Action argue for a bottom-up strategy, based on awakening and mobilizing the rank and file. Our strategy does not focus “solely on the leadership”. Wyman is right to decry a fixation on the leadership. But our strategy does include challenging reformist and reactionary labour leaders in union elections by fighting for key elements of a class struggle programme and by developing and presenting a team of workers willing to carry out a class struggle programme.

At this point Wyman tosses a smelly red herring onto the table. He writes to remind us that labour leaders cannot, and should not, play the role of a revolutionary organization. Unions are defensive organizations of the working class under capitalism. True, again. But what role should revolutionary workers, and their revolutionary organizations play when labour leaders and unions fail to do their duty to the working class as a whole?

What should workers do when their unions provide a very porous defense, or none at all?

Gratuitously, Wyman lectures us, “Trade unions exist to mitigate exploitation, not end it altogether”. So, what should workers do when their unions work hand in glove with the employers to mitigate, if not squelch, workers’ resistence?

While it is a mistake to rely on the tactic of seeking to elect more left wing leaders, does that imply the opposite policy? Does that justify abstention from union elections, or worse, providing cover for feckless, former-left bureaucrats?

No, there is an alternative to reliance on electing union leftists (who can easily become isolated in office), and there is an alternative to covering up for, or collaborating with union bureaucrats. The alternative is simple — though admitedly not easy to implement. It is to build a caucus in each union, and a network of caucuses across all unions, based on a concrete programme of class struggle politics. Only such a radical, independent formation can educate and organize our class, from the bottom up, to challenge and take control of our own organizations, to turn them into powerful weapons against the bosses and their system.
Wyman writes, “Without pressure from an organized and active rank and file base, union leaders (whether left or right) almost always succumb to the pressure of the employers.” That’s true. Well then, why does the I.S. not try to build such a movement to resist the pressure to succumb? Why does it oppose the efforts of others not only to build an ‘active base’ (which is a rather vague term), but to build an actual rank and file workers’ opposition, that is, an organization of rank and file workers based on an actual Workers’ Agenda?The evolution of Buzz Hargrove from left wing social democrat in the NDP to a right wing social democrat outside the NDP who pushes a pro-Liberal populist perspective shows the need for independent, radical, rank and file organization inside the unions. It also shows you cannot dodge the fight for a Workers’ Agenda inside the NDP if you are serious about winning and sustaining a class struggle majority in the workers’ movement as a whole.Wyman’s article reveals that the I.S. is caught in a contradiction of its own making. While rejecting a focus on the top labour echelon, the I.S. advocates defending “left wing leaders” who are not left wing — except perhaps in their rhetoric. To justify their defense of labour bureaucrats, the I.S. argues that a bloc with the bureaucrats must be made in response to a threat from “the right”. But that right wing threat is exaggerated, if not imaginary, inside our unions today.

The Unity slate led by Sid Ryan at the 2011 Ontario Federation of Labour convention is cited by Wyman as an example. But Ryan’s slate did not face an organized electoral challenge from the right wing. Ryan and most of his slate were acclaimed. The misguided boycott by Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union (OPSEU) of the OFL convention, wrong as it was, does not represent a right wing move by a right wing-dominated union. Rather, it was a case of personality politics gone mad, at the top of the OFL. But guess what? There is an equal number of class collaborationists on both sides of this dispute. At the same time, OPSEU is fighting the Ontario Liberal government, the Drummond Commission report, and the latest Premier Dalton McGuinty budget. Of course, OPSEU should fight in concert with the OFL while pushing for more democracy and fair representation in the Federation. SA members, together with other leftist and progressive forces in OPSEU, are now working to keep OPSEU in the OFL, and to step up the fight against the ‘austerity’ agenda.

It seems that the I.S.-promoted myth of a right wing challenge inside the OFL, and beyond, serves a purpose. It serves as an excuse to maintain its longstanding policy of cheerleading for ‘left’, or ex-left bureaucrats. It goes along with I.S. opposition to most examples of an articulated fight from below, from the left, against the existing union leadership and against its demonstrably class collaborationist course.

The I.S. tries to mask its craven policy with the rhetoric of ‘mobilization’ of the rank and file, of “building the confidence of ordinary workers”. It offers such boiler plate phrases aplenty. But when rank and file opposition actually occurs, the I.S. is nowhere in sight, or it has often been on the wrong side.
Here are a few examples: When SA members who were delegates to an OFL Convention in the 1980s won a huge vote for a general strike to defeat Brian Mulroney’s GST, I.S.ers were, along with the Communist Party of Canada and its so-called OFL Action Caucus, on the other side. They were on the right wing minority side, the defeated side of the vote.

When SA members who were delegates to Toronto Labour Council in 1990, 1991, and 1992 fought for a campaign to oppose Bob Rae’s retreat on public auto insurance, to oppose Sunday shopping, more gambling casinos, privatized highways, and eventually the infamous Social Contract, I.S.ers hid behind, at least initially, labour bureaucrats who said ‘let’s give Bob Rae more time and let’s go easy on the Ontario NDP government’. The demoralization that resulted from the lack of a real fight against Rae and his NDP government’s rotten policies cost the working class valuable time. It helped to pave the way for the Mike Harris Common Sense Revolution.

During the reactionary term of the Harris Conservative government in Ontario, the I.S. never joined the call for a province-wide General Strike to kick out the Tories. During the period of individual city-wide strikes in ten Ontario cities, 1995-97, the Socialist Worker limited itself to promoting the local city walk-outs. The I.S. posed the need for ‘socialism from below’ totally in the abstract.Years later, a very progressive, international solidarity campaign came along. It championed the rights of the Palestinian people. It fought against the occupation and brutality meted out daily by the racist Zionist state. Members of several tendencies on the left, including SA and the I.S., joined the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Apartheid Israel. But the BDS policy conflicted with the line of the United Steelworkers’ bureaucracy. Why should that be a problem? Well, the USW was and still is the union on which the I.S. depends for resources and favours. A battle raged inside the I.S. over this conflict, and over whether to participate in the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid. It led to the ouster of the Socialist Worker editor from his position, and the marginalization of he and his partner in the I.S. leadership.An older example is the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, perhaps the most militant, independent, democratic, grass roots protest movement in the province. The I.S. has boycotted OCAP for decades. Why? Because it lost a vote that pitted class conscious feminists and workers against a radical bourgeois feminist minority. The I.S. lost the vote at a large OCAP members’ assembly in the late 1990s. The fact is, before and since then, the I.S. has rarely worked in a left-based, grass roots coalition — unless it has the numbers to control it.

The I.S. dominates the Toronto Coalition to Stop the War. Much of the work the TCSW does is good. But the I.S.ers who lead it can be very manipulative. They control the timing and the agenda of its meetings so as to forestall, or block, unity in action with other anti-war forces that they do not control. The latest case in point arose in the summer of 2011. Not only did the I.S. prevent the TCSW from discussing and endorsing a U.S. anti-war movement appeal for an international October 15 day of action against the war in Afghanistan, which led to protests in several cities across the USA on that date. In addition, the I.S. made sure that forty Canadian Peace Alliance convention-goers took a circuitous street route, from Ryerson University, just to avoid a convergence with over a hundred anti-war folks, summoned by 11 organizations. The latter rallied at Dundas and Yonge and then walked to the Occupy Toronto site at St. James Park that afternoon. Earlier that day, I.S. members, acting as security staff for the CPA convention, tried to stop SA comrades from displaying anti-war and socialist literature on site; they even called the campus police to have our table removed, while just down the hall there was an I.S. display table!

Guarding what it regards as its ‘own turf’ took priority for the I.S. over democracy in the movement. It took priority over joint action with a small but exemplary anti-war united front that developed outside its orbit. Why did the October 15 Coalition develop outside the TCSW? Because the I.S. refused to organize an anti-war street action for nearly three years, and it refused for two months to discuss the proposal for unity in action prior to October 15, 2011.The global International Socialist Tendency, led by the British SWP, was born in a right wing split from the Fourth International during the 1940s Cold War. Seeking a ‘third camp’ position between Moscow and Washington, the IST adapted to pressure from imperialism, refusing to defend any of the bureaucratic workers’ states against capitalist counter-revolution. A vestige of I.S. cold war politics is its ongoing condemnation of Cuba as a ‘state capitalist’ society. That means the I.S. favours a revolution in Cuba to overturn what is, by all accounts, the healthiest workers’ state and government on the planet. At the same time, the I.S. provides no active support for the Cuban Five, the Cuban patriots who have been jailed in the USA since 1998 for exposing terrorist threats against their country and against the Cuban Revolution. You will never see the I.S. officially participate in a pro-Cuba event.Its position on the Quebec national question is no better. The I.S. supported the federalist Meech Lake Accord and a Yes vote in the Charlottetown Accord referendum – thus mimicking the line of the United Steelworkers’ top brass. In this way, the I.S. stood in opposition to the stance of most Quebec unions, the Quebec nationalist left, aboriginal women and the National Action Committe on the Status of Women – all of which rejected the federalist accords. For most of its existence, the I.S. has consistently stood against Quebec independence, the concrete expression of Quebec self-determination. As a result, the I.S.ers in Quebec are to be found in the anti-sovereignty right wing of Quebec Solidaire.

Typically, at election time, the I.S. urges a vote for the NDP. You may even find I.S. members working for local NDP provincial and federal election candidates. But you will never find the I.S. joining the fight for socialist policies inside the NDP. Neither will you find them trying to hold NDP officials accountable for their actions inside the party or the labour movement. What’s wrong with that? Well, that policy is the equivalent of giving the NDP and labour bureaucrats a blank cheque. It’s the worst kind of electoralism in which a leftist can engage – giving support without utilizing any resulting credibility to make one’s criticisms known, and to organize for change. What’s the point of helping to elect the NDP if you don’t advance socialist policies and the vital principle of democratic accountability inside the only mass, labour-based political party in North America?

Now, here’s a related scenario. What should socialists do when the NDP does not run candidates as a party, such as at the municipal level, where independent labour political action is the weakest? The record of the I.S. here is pretty shameful. It failed to fight for a labour City Hall in Toronto in 2011. Instead, it backed the candidacy of Joe Pantalone, who was part of the David Miller Liberal-NDP administration, heavily identified with user fee hikes, service cuts and the first wave of attacks on 30,000 city workers, which precipitated the infamous ‘garbage strike’ in the summer of 2010. So, why did the I.S. back the hapless, cutbacks-tainted Pantalone? Because that was the line of the labour bureaucracy, including the reformist cabal that runs the Toronto Labour Council, in which a leading member of the I.S. has participated uncritically for decades.

SA took a different tack. We campaigned to get labour and the Toronto NDP jointly to convene an open Toronto municipal convention. Its purpose would be to debate and adopt a programme and to select workers’ candidates for a Workers’ Agenda and a Labour City Hall. Had the I.S., the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly, and other tendencies on the left worked together in that effort, it might have counteracted some of the demoralization engendered by the Miller disaster. It might have laid the basis for an earlier and stronger fight against the reactionary Rob Ford regime.Further on the topic of independent labour political action, the I.S. does not support the effort inside OPSEU to affiliate the union to the NDP. There is an ongoing effort by socialists in that union, which over the past six years has twice come close to capturing a majority at the OPSEU convention. So, the I.S. does not try to dis-affiliate unions already linked to the NDP. And it does not try to affiliate other unions. It just sits on the fence, when it comes to the issue of independent labour political action.Very telling is the vacillating stance of the I.S. on coalition with capitalist parties. The I.S. took an ambiguous political line at rallies in support of the NDP-Liberal coalition seeking to unseat the Harper government in 2009. Its members were seen at Toronto City Hall waving CLC placards in favour of that coalition, at the very rally when Stephane Dion and Jack Layton spoke side by side. Later, the I.S. wrote articles critical of the bourgeois pact, but it never accounted for its initial soft line, which treacherously tried to identify with populist opposition to Harper’s governing minority, and tried to dance on both sides of the class line, on that issue.

Socialist Action argues for, and works to build a programmatically-based class struggle cross-union movement that fights in union elections and challenges labour sell-outs every step of the way. The I.S. opposes such efforts.

I.S. members participate in the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly (a clutch of leftists, with very few rank and file workers involved). The GTWA has done some good work, promoting union solidarity and propagandizing for ‘free public transit’. But the reformist GTWA (whose leaders believe it is possible to ‘reform’ the capitalist state from within, and whose policies include favouring more regressive taxes and user fees, for example, to discourage the use of cars) is no substitute for a body committed to promoting class struggle unionism. It is dominated by ex-labour bureaucrats and academics who have yet to challenge the bureaucracy, concretely, in any union in Canada.

As Wyman wrote, “Only the mass activity of the working class itself can make radical, sweeping change.” We think, however, that mass activity must be linked to a transitional programme for workers’ liberation. Mass sentiment for change can be harnessed by a class struggle leadership, from below, to resist reformist and bureaucratic diversions, and to strike the blows that can win concrete gains and ultimately smash the system of capitalist rule.

The I.S. asserts the need for a revolutionary workers’ organization in society. Good. But why not help to constitute an organized class struggle left wing in the unions? That’s exactly what the early Communists in Canada did when they launched the Trade Union Education League (TUEL) in the 1920s. And why not, as we insist, foster a class struggle left wing in the labour-based NDP as well?

Why not, indeed! Could it be because having a revolutionary organization active in the field of political practice would be a block to career advancement up the bureaucratic ladder? Yes, class struggle politics should be an impediment to opportunism in practice. As the I.S. demonstrates, in a negative way, the formation of a class struggle left wing is exactly what is needed, not only to engage the independent and ‘sideline’ abstaining left to work together to transform our unions, but also to keep everyone so engaged loyal to socialist principles. Now that would be a worthwhile contribution to “what it will take to stop austerity”.

If you are interested in making such a contribution, in the best possible way, we invite you to join Socialist Action. If you are not presently prepared to join a revolutionary organization, then make common cause with those who are working to build a principled, united left in the unions and in the labour-based NDP.

The point is not to depend on winning the NDP or the unions to socialism. It is very unlikely, if not impossible, for those bodies to be radically transformed. The point is to win their ranks, to win their voters, to win their supporters, their co-workers and family members to the class struggle, to socialism. Why? Because unless we do so, there will be no socialism. And to give up on the socialist goal is to condemn civilization and nature to destruction.

The class struggle left wing in the unions is still at an embryonic stage. Socialist Action, along with our friends in OCAP, in anarcho-syndicalist circles, and some independent radical unionists made a start on this road by launching the Workers’ Solidarity and Union Democracy Coalition about seven years ago. It has held forums regularly at OFL and CLC convention sites, sponsored militant resolutions, and appeared at important labour struggles.

The Workers’ Solidarity basis of unity is the following:
1. Resist labour concessions and social cutbacks.
2. Support struggles for union democracy, to make unions more accessible, accountable, transparent and participatory.
3. Take back our unions and turn them into fighting organizations.
4. Rely on our own strength, and renew or create our own organizations, from the bottom up, to fight for the interests of working people and against corporate profit and power.
For more background on Workers’ Solidarity, see Appendix 1 below. We invite you to join the WS&UDC. Help us to make it a revolutionary factor in the life of every union.Inside the NDP, the class struggle left wing is more fully developed. It is well known across the country, thanks to its audacious tactics, its outspokenness, and its high visibility in the media. The NDP Socialist Caucus is based on its Manifesto for a Socialist Canada. It publishes an attractive magazine, Turn Left, and it hosts one of the most popular web sites on the Canadian It is a prominent force in opposition to capitalist ‘austerity’, and in demanding that the richest 1% pay for the crisis of their system. The SC played an important role in winning the NDP to a ‘Canada Out of Afghanistan’ policy in 2006, and succeeded in keeping ‘socialism’ in the party constitution preamble in 2011.

Here are some of the policies advocated by the NDP Socialist Caucus:
Put people, and the preservation of nature, before profits. Nationalize the banks, mining companies, Big Oil and Big Auto. Create jobs through public investment, public ownership, democratic planning and workers’ control. Convert industry, transportation, and homes to green energy efficiency. Rapidly phase-out nuclear power and tar sands development. Repair our disintegrating roads, bridges, railways and port facilities. Make Employment Insurance more generous and accessible. Raise the minimum wage to $17/hour. Shorten the work week to 30 hours without loss of pay or benefits. Double the benefits in the Canada Pension Plan and Guaranteed Income Supplement. Abolish student debt. Make all education free. Fund health care and the arts. No corporate bail-out. Open the company books. Steeply tax corporations, speculators, and the rich. Abolish the HST. Uphold aboriginal land claims and local self-governance. Abolish the Senate and institute direct Proportional Representation in Parliament. Stop the deportations, full rights for migrant workers. Impose boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israeli apartheid. End the occupation of Afghanistan and Haiti. Hands off Libya. Reduce the Canadian military to a disaster-relief and rescue force. Get Canada out of NATO now!
Capitalists complain about low productivity. It’s a lie, and a diversion. It is also a delusion to think that economic expansion will fix everything, that there is a market solution to the recurring crises of capitalism. There is no market solution. The capitalist market created the problem. Only by taking control of the major means of production, only by instituting broadly participatory, democratic planning, only by effecting a rapid green conversion to meet human needs, fully in tune with nature, does humanity have a hope of survival.
That means challenging the pro-capitalist direction of the labour and NDP leadership. It means fighting for an NDP government committed to socialist policies. It means opposing an NDP coalition with the Liberal Party or with any capitalist party. It means fighting for a Workers’ Agenda and a Workers’ Government, and organizing to win that programme inside the unions and the NDP. It means fighting for freedom for oppressed nations, for eco-socialism, feminism and LGBT liberation.
None of that is possible without a leadership committed to doing it. Central to that is the forging of a new leadership of the working class and oppressed nations that can win.
For a full exposition of SC policies and perspectives, see the Manifesto for a Socialist Canada, and visit the archive of SC resolutions submitted to past NDP federal and provincial conventions on the SC web site. Most importantly, join the NDP Socialist Caucus today.By joining democratic, rank and file-driven, radical policy and action coalitions, like Workers’ Solidarity and the NDP Socialist Caucus, you encourage other leftists, including I.S. members, to do likewise. Moreover, your decision to join will strengthen the effort to push unions and the NDP towards a workers’ agenda.
Once again, while these bodies are unlikely to transform the NDP and the unions, they can and ultimately will enable the working class to take up class struggle politics.
That will permit rank and file workers to settle accounts with decaying capitalism, as well as with the bureaucratic misleaders of our class. It will hasten the construction of a revolutionary workers’ party capable of leading the way to a cooperative commonwealth for all.
(This article was written April 2012, in Toronto)
Appendix 1:
Workers’ Solidarity and Union Democracy – Basis of Unity Statement
Urgently Needed: Workers’ Solidarity
To Resist Concessions and Win Union Democracy
A very disturbing pattern of union concessions to the bosses’ agenda has taken hold of the labour movement across the Canadian state. Even unions with a ‘progressive’ reputation have reached contract settlements that erode or utterly abandon job security, wage protection, health benefits, and severance pay, while sacrificing equal rights for new hires. Increasingly union officials are teaming up with management. Both in the public and private sectors, they are working together to impose bad deals on workers, and to cripple or crush workers’ resistance to the corporate agenda by curtailing union democracy and local autonomy.
When union leaders refuse to advance legitimate grievances, when they turn a blind eye to employer discrimination and unsafe working conditions, when they seize control of local bargaining units to remove democratically-elected local leaders and then give away decades of hard-won union gains, they show which side they have chosen.
Workers know that it is we who built our unions, and it is the rank and file which must reclaim the unions to fight for all workers’ needs — for the unionized and non-union, employed and unemployed. In 1991 over twenty labour and community organizations joined together to launch a Workers’ Solidarity Coalition in Toronto. Its initial purpose was to organize support for key public sector strikes involving postal workers and federal public service employees. These were strikes which challenged a major Tory initiative to attack labour and public services. We were relatively successful in that fight. Now the stakes are higher. The global neo-liberal agenda is more extensive, more intensive, and it is relentless. And increasingly, union officials are caving in to it, and turning their fire on union members who resist concessions. That is why we need Workers’ Solidarity more than ever.
We have taken the initiative to launch a militant cross-union movement, in alliance with community-based groups and local activists.
Our aim is to:
1. Resist labour concessions and social cutbacks.
2. Support struggles for union democracy, to make unions more accessible, accountable, transparent and participatory.
3. Take back our unions and turn them into fighting organizations.
4. Rely on our own strength, and renew or create our own organizations, from the bottom up, to fight for the interests of working people and against corporate profit and power.
The Workers’ Solidarity and Union Democracy Coalition, launched at a conference held in Toronto on October 16, 2004 made its debut at the CLC Convention in Montreal, June 13-17, 2005, and at the OFL Convention in November 2005. Currently we are campaigning for public ownership of basic industry and energy resources, in support of OCAP’s Raise the Rates campaign, and for greater democracy in the unions. We invite you to attend our public forum for OFL delegates/observers. It is open to all interested persons. To join and/or endorse the Coalition, please contact us at: 416 – 588-9090 and/or e-mail to: