What is the Labour Bureaucracy, and What to do about it?

Presentation by Barry Weisleder for Education for Activists Conference, Trotsky School 2013.
Have your heard of the three famous guidelines for Bureaucrats? 1. When in charge, ponder. 2. When in trouble, delegate. 3. When in doubt, mumble.
Does that ring true? Still, there’s a bit more to this subject.
Indeed, there are two parts to this inquiry. The first concerns the nature of the beast. The second is about how to deal with it.
Over the past 200 years there has been considerable discussion about the emergence and growth of bureaucracy. By bureaucracy I refer to the non-propertied officialdom of various organizations.
Bourgeois sociology argues that hierarchies are an unavoidable feature of modern society. Max Weber saw bureaucracy as the most rational and effective mode of organization of large numbers of people according to rules, rather than subject to the whims of officials. Better to be governed by ‘experts’ than to be ruled by naked corruption and nepotism.
According to social democrats and neo-Stalinists, the growth and usurpation of power by a layer of full-time officials are inevitable features of mass working class parties and unions under capitalism and under any post-capitalist social order.
Ernest Mandel, like Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, provided a powerful Marxian alternative to the Stalinist, social democratic, and bourgeois theories that deny the possibility of democratic organization of workers’ struggles and workers’ power.
Mandel argued that bureaucracy is the product of specific, historically limited relations among and between humans and the material forces of production.
For him, bureaucracy in mass working class parties and unions under capitalism is rooted in the reproduction of the social division of labour between mental and manual labour. Whether the product of the up and down character of working class struggle under capitalism, or the profound material scarcity of 20th century post-revolutionary societies, the persistent division between intellectual and manual labour gives rise to a layer of full-time officials who administer parties and unions, or the post-capitalist state apparatus.
This element usually evolves into a distinct social layer with its own material interests, politics and ideology. Bureaucracy does not enhance the ‘effectiveness’ of mass workers’ organizations or workers’ states. To the contrary, bureaucracy undermines the ability of the working class either to defend its most immediate interests under capitalism, or to build a viable alternative to capitalism.
Classical Marxism discussed bureaucracy to attempt to explain the growth of reformism. According to V.I. Lenin, reformism was the ideological expression of the “labour aristocracy”, a privileged minority of the western working class whose superior standard of living came from a share of super profits extracted by the imperialist bourgeoisie in the colonies and semi-colonies. This layer of workers supported the petty bourgeois intelligentsia in the party and union apparatus who promoted reformism and social patriotic politics before World War 1.
Mandel rejected Lenin’s notion of ‘labour aristocracy’. Mandel showed that workers in the North are not bribed by ‘super profits’ extracted from workers in the South. It’s true that workers in the Northern countries are paid more. But global wage differences are the result of greater capital intensity and higher productivity of labour in the industrialized countries. In other words, better paid workers in the North are actually more exploited than poorly paid workers in the South. They are not more oppressed, but to a greater extent they are robbed of the surplus value they produce.
Mandel found more useful the analysis in Rosa Luxemburg’s work. Luxemburg located social democracy’s growing conservatism in the hegemony exercised by full-time party and union officials, not simply in the influence of middle class intellectuals.
This bureaucracy, once consolidated, placed greater importance upon the preservation of the party and union apparatus than on any attempt to deepen or extend the workers’ struggles.
Mandel located the origins of the labour bureaucracy in the episodic and discontinuous character of working class struggles under capitalism. When workers do not engage in mass struggles, or when they suffer defeats, they become more open to conservative and reactionary ideas. They make futile attempts to defend sectional interests against other sectors of the working class. It is the level of class militancy and class independence, not cultural influences like suburbanization, television and films, that determine class consciousness under capitalism.
The entire working class cannot consistently engage in strikes, demonstrations and other forms of political activity because the working class does not own the means of production. Workers are compelled to sell our labour power to survive.
Only in extraordinary, revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situations can our class broadly participate in mass struggles, which must be short, given our need to work and to be paid in order to make a living.
Only a minority of the working class remains consistently active. That minority is what we call the workers’ vanguard. That consistently active layer preserves and transmits to newer workers the traditions of mass struggle.
However, a minority of this militant minority, together with middle class intellectuals who have access to cultural skills from which the bulk of the working class is excluded, must take on responsibility for running the unions or political parties created by periodic upsurges.
There is a big risk in this: Specialization can result in a growing monopoly of knowledge. Knowledge is power. A monopoly of knowledge can lead to power over people.
During long waves of capitalist growth, workers’ conditions improve without mass struggles. This is when officials can separate themselves from the rest of the working class. Full time officers are no longer subject to alienated labour and despotic bosses. Able to set their own hours, officials seek to consolidate these privileges and create new ones. Increasingly, the labour bureaucracy excludes rank and file activists.
The consolidation of the labour bureaucracy gives rise to a distinctive political practice and world view. Preservation of the appartatus is its main goal. Bureaucrats seek to contain working class militancy within boundaries that do not threaten the system which is the basis for the officials’ fat life style.
Discussion to promote militant work place actions, mass political strikes, etc., must be quashed. The bureaucracy’s organizational fetishism grows into substitutionism. It demands workers’ unquestioning obediance to leaders who claim to know ‘what is best for the workers.’
Reformist electoral politics and routine bargaining exercises ignore the structural character of political and social power under capitalism. In other words, the politics of the labour bureaucracies under capitalism are utopian in the most negative sense of the word. Attempts by bureaucrats to broker the struggle between capital and labour constantly flounder on capitalism’s unavoidable crises of profitability, and the resulting rise in class struggle.
History confirms the thoroughly unrealistic nature of bureaucratic gradualism. In the name of preserving bourgeois democracy, the bureaucracy de-rails workers’ struggles. That opens the door to deadly reaction. Instead of workers’ revolution in Italy in 1921, in Germany in 1933, in Spain in 1939, in France in 1940, in Chile in 1973, there was fascist repression.
Rejecting militancy, the labour bureaucracy and reformist politicians have no choice but to make concessions to the employers’ offensive.
Is the bureaucratization of the mass working class organizations inevitable?
Clearly reformism will continue to be a problem until capitalism is overthrown. However, there are countervailing social forces and available safeguards against bureaucratization of workers’ parties and unions. The chief counter factor is the organization of the workers’ vanguard and the building of a mass, revolutionary workers’ party.
In non-revolutionary periods, advanced workers can keep alive traditions of militancy and solidarity, and fight for democratic safeguards. These include the election of all officers, the reduction of salaries, the promotion of free and open debate, and the representation of different currents in the leading bodies. Small revolutionary socialist groups can play a crucial role in organizing rank and file currents, and in educating the most radical workers in Marxist theory and practice.
This is the road to the revolutionary transformation of society. Concretely, this path poses a practical alternative to the reformist bureaucracy.
When we speak of the labour bureaucracy in Canada, who do we mean? We mean union officers who are paid two, three, four, five or more times the pay of the members they ‘represent’. Paul Moist, President of CUPE, is near the bottom of the luxury ladder. He was paid $159,000 in 2012. His office spent $370,000 in travel alone. Before merging into UNIFOR, the CAW had 89 officers who were paid over $100,000 a year. The leaders of the teachers’ unions and most other unions are paid between $200,000 and $300,000 a year. By Bay Street standards, that’s modest remuneration. But clearly, it puts the labour brass in a league apart from the rank and file.
Let’s consider now the record of the labour bureaucracy in Canada. The prevailing theme today is concessions. In sector after sector, from auto to steel, from forestry to railways, from the Ontario and Federal Public Service to the federal postal service, bosses get the concessions they demand from labour.
The Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union agreed with General Motors to organize special early retirement buyouts at its two assembly plants in Oshawa, Ontario. This is designed to accelerate the automaker’s drive to replace higher-paid veteran workers with workers earning low wages. Temporary workers will get about $10 per hour less than their counterparts, receive an inferior benefits program, and be barred from enrolling in the pension plan. New hires will begin work at $14 per hour below the regular-tier rate, will receive reduced benefits, and also will be ineligible to participate in the pension plan.
For OPSEU it was concessions bargaining at the outset. President Warren ‘Smokey’ Thomas offered to accept a 2 year wage freeze, without membership approval.
In fact, OPSEU members had prioritized wages in their demand setting process. Supposedly fearful that the membership would accept major concessions, a concessionary contract was signed and put to a vote. The deal introduces a two-tier wage structure, especially impacting new and young hires. There is a two year wage freeze, which represents a loss of over 4% of wages when inflation is taken into consideration. While members will continue to move up the wage grid, the 3% lower first new step in the grid will have a major impact on new hires. The deal also removes termination pay for new employees who are surplussed. These austerity concessions create a ‘divide and conquor’ situation in the labour movement, which will foster future ruling class attacks. What’s next? Unpaid internships?
In the teachers’ unions we find a particularly egregious example of class collaboration, and the strangulation of rank and file initiative.
Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association brass agreed to concessions before the Ontario Liberal government enacted Bill 115 (which suspended collective bargaining and the right to strike for education workers) – and did so without conducting a vote of OECTA members. Canadian Union of Public Employees-Ontario followed suit. Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation tops mounted token protest rallies, and simultaneously negotiated local concessionary deals. In York and Niagara districts, members voted in November 2012 to reject the deals that mirrored provincial take aways, despite heavy pressure from Federation headquarters to accept. In February 2013, OSSTF suspended its ‘political action’ protest (chiefly the boycott of extra-curricular activities, which impacted mostly on students and parents). In April, OSSTF capitulated to the province’s demands, with minor tweaks. ETFO, the last holdout, gave way on June 13. Discouraged by the unravelling of what began as a common front of resistence to austerity, education workers ratified the deals. But scandal dogs the leaders who did the dirty deeds.
Outraged members of Toronto OSSTF are demanding accountability from the District 12 Executive which donated $30,000 to four candidates contending for the Ontario Liberal Party leadership.
Members’ indignation pursued former OSSTF President Ken Coran. Coran angrily denounced the Liberals for violating collective bargaining rights. He did so right up to the front door of the Liberal Party leadership convention in February. Then Coran stood as a Liberal candidate in the byelections held on August 1. Was his candidacy a reward for services rendered?
As it turned out, Coran came a distant third in London West. The labour-based New Democratic Party surprised the pundits by winning that seat, and by making an even bigger breakthrough in Windsor-Tecumseh.
While perpetrating treachery from on high, union officials curtail democracy below. An example is the ten year ban imposed on me. I’m not allowed to attend OSSTF meetings for ten years. This is for the crime of speaking out of turn at a substitute teachers’ bargaining unit meeting in November 2012. I demanded job dispatch list data that the local executive (consisting mainly of double-dipping retirees) refused to disclose for a decade!
Here’s the background. In 2002, OSSTF officials removed the entire elected leadership of the Toronto substitute teachers’ unit on petty and false charges. They put conservative retirees in control. The right wingers surrendered an array of job security, wage and benefit gains in short order. On July 25, activists from several unions launched a Campaign to Defend Democracy in Unions and to Rescind the 10 Year Ban. On October 30 I addressed the Greater Toronto Area Council of OPSEU. It voted overwhelmingly to support our Campaign, and to ask OSSTF to rescind the 10 year ban.
In OECTA, bureaucrats imposed a two year suspension of Richard Brock, the elected President of Halton district Catholic teachers, for opposing the MOA with Queen’s Park last year. A campaign to reinstate Richard Brock is underway.
The United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters barred Brother Giancarlo Cessorronne for four meetings, until Jan. 2014, because he called the Treasurer of his Local a liar, outside of a mtg.
The fact is that the teachers’ top brass, and most of the entire labour leadership, would rather suppress militant members than fight austerity-minded bosses. Bureaucrats put a premium on tight control — even if it means weakening workers’ resistence to an agenda that harms the vast majority, including ultimately themselves.
To supplement threats at the bargaining table there is the hammer of strike breaking law. Government back-to-work legislation in 2011 broke strikes in the railway, at Air Canada, and at the post office, with scarcely a murmer from the labour movement tops. Union heads kept mass job action, which is urgently needed to counter the anti-labour offensive, off the political agenda.
Unions in Canada now encompass 31 per cent of the work force, 9 per cent less than in 1983. Average wages are lower now than in a generation. Morale is lower still.
Union leaders talk about confronting the threat of so-called ‘right to work’ laws (which would end compulsory deduction of union dues at source). You’ve probably seen the TV ad campaign, titled “Together Fairness Works”, set to the tune of ‘Sunny’. Unfortunately, it side-steps the need to fight rollbacks in wages, benefits and pensions, and the insidious lower wage rate increasingly imposed on new hires. Such measures undermine the confidence of all workers’ (especially young workers’) in unions.
Is the 30 year pattern of retreat by Labour due primarily to an inherent lack of self-confidence? Is it due to ingrained passivity, or to false consciousness on the part of working people? Are unions no longer suited to their task, as some academic ‘Marxists’ (in the GTWA) argue? Or does a sense of powerlessness simply feed off bureaucrats’ self-inflicted failures? Perhaps Labour’s retreat arises primarily from an aversion to struggle by union officials.
Plenty of evidence suggests that where a good, strong lead is offered, large numbers of people are willing to fight the austerity agenda of growing social inequality. The massive Quebec students’ uprising showed that. The global Occupy protests, and the cross-Canada Idle No More movement testify to that. What’s lacking, at the top, is a will to fight, or even to allow the ranks to discuss and exercise the option.
So, how can workers organize in a non-sectarian way to challenge both the bosses and the labour traitors? Fortunately, some positive examples exist, pointing the way forward.
In the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union, rank and file members organized a large and inspiring Solidarity Caucus. Its mission: to get OPSEU to rejoin the Ontario Federation of Labour. OPSEU stopped paying dues to the OFL without good reason. The Solidarity Caucus attracted much support. It helped to elect reformers to the union’s Executive Board, but it did not win the re-affiliation battle at the April 2013 OPSEU convention. The struggle continues.
In OECTA, in March, convention delegates defeated and replaced the President who signed the bad deal and denied members a vote.
Meanwhile members of OSSTF and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario formed a cross-union caucus, the Rank and file Education Workers of Toronto. REWT initiated actions to protest government policies, and is now demanding accountability from officials who approved funding and other forms of collaboration with the governing party which attacked teachers’ rights.
And in the Toronto substitute teachers’ bargaining unit, we have an Action Caucus, which was launched in 2003 when local control was undemocratically usurped. Our Action Caucus has been successful at winning policy and action resolutions at unit meetings. It has come close to getting its candidates elected. The ten year ban on me reflects the bogus executive’s fear of losing control.
In CUPE, rank and file members formed a Return to Militant Labour caucus, which was active at the CUPE national convention just days ago.
And keep in mind the brilliant example of Sister Lindsay Hinshelwood who ran for Unifor president at the Unifor founding convention in August. She ran directly from the floor, without a fancy campaign, standing against concessions, for democratic principles, and she got 17.5% of the votes cast.
So…. what do these various experiences suggest?
  1. The fight against capitalist austerity and union concessions requires rank and file organization in all the unions to promote mass job action to win a Workers’ Agenda.
  2. Rank and file organization should be based on policies, not personalities. It should actively strive to replace the current mis-leaders on political grounds. Abstention from struggle in the union arena, or giving political support to this or that wing of the bureaucracy, are a betrayal of the fight against austerity and concessions.
  3. To change the overall direction of our unions, it is necessary to build a cross union, class struggle left wing. This has been the approach of revolutionary socialists in the unions in Canada and the USA since the 1920s, pioneered by the Trade Union Education League. The TUEL, which was active prior to the Stalinist degeneration of the Communist Party, provides an example that every worker-socialist should study.
How will a new generation of workers repair the damage done by the bureaucracy?  Not by the so-called ‘left centre unity’ tactic advanced by the Communist Party.  That tactic chains workers to the whims of liberals and opportunists.  Also dead wrong is the Toronto Labour Council’s nearly exclusive focus on defeating Tim Hudak’s Conservatives who threaten so-called right to work legislation.  Don’t forget: Liberals are Tories too.  Liberals curtailed collective bargaining, suspended the right to strike, and prorogued the Legislature.  It is capitalist austerity that we must fight and defeat.  Clearly, it will take more than an election to do it.  It will take class struggle, plant by plant, community by community, through mass action, mass resistance and general strike action. That course logically leads to the fight for a Workers’ Government.
We have serious battles ahead. Included is the fight against the new so-called ‘free trade deals’ and against federal Omnibus Bill C-4. Needed today is a cross-union, class struggle caucus.
Typically, union bureaucrats lack confidence in the membership. That’s why they did not want to chance a strike vote in the case of OPS bargaining. The idea that labour will turn things around ‘when the economy recovers’, or that a struggle against management will occur without the union rank and file challenging and overcoming the union bureaucracy, are grand delusions. Class struggle opposition in each union is no abstract ideal; it is an urgent necessity to avoid an accelerating descent into labour hell.
Workers know that it is we who built our unions, and that it is the rank and file which must reclaim the unions to fight for all workers’ needs — for the unionized and non-union, for the employed and unemployed.
In 1991 over twenty labour and community groups 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. Unions deserve to have every class conscious worker, every progressive person, feminist, youth, senior and environmentalist on their picket lines. Those 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. That is why we need Workers’ Solidarity more than ever. We need a militant cross-union movement, in alliance with community-based groups and local activists. A class struggle opposition builds itself upon a defined membership. It challenges the current leadership. It is based on a clear programme and a firm set of principles.
The programme of the Workers’ Solidarity and Union Democracy Coalition declared: 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 was re-launched at a conference held here in 2004. It remained an embryo. But its birth is anxiously awaited, now more timely than ever.
I can summarize this talk with the following points: There is a tendency towards bureaucratic domination of our unions in capitalist society, but it is not insurrmountable. Bureacuracy has been, and will be overcome by organizing from the bottom-up.
What can we do today? Build a rank and file caucus in every union and social justice movement. Build a network of militants to oppose concessions and capitalist austerity. Challenge the current labour leadership. Support the Campaign to Rescind the 10 Year Ban in OSSTF, the 2 Year Ban in OECTA, and similar campaigns.
Together, we can prove that the corporate agenda, and labour sell-out policies, can be blown away by a strong wave of class struggle. Let’s force the labour leadership to lead that fight, or get the heck out of the way. This entails the construction of a militant, radical, well-organized left wing in the unions and the NDP. To that task Socialist Action is absolutely committed. If you agree, join us today.