. The following article was produced for the occasion of the MWM national conference of May 14-15 in Detroit. It is from Detroit Workers' Voice #48, May 13, 2005. (CV #36, Sept. 2005).

What path toward an independent workers' movement?

Build the rank-and-file struggle
or illusions in the liberal Democrats?


. On October 17 last year, 10,000 workers and activists in Washington, DC rallied to the call of the Million Worker March. This call did not merely attack Bush and his neo-con cabal. It raised to some extent the issue of building the workers' movement separate from the capitalist politicians. Led by dissident union leaders, the MWM departed from the standpoint of the main AFL-CIO leaders of subordinating everything to the presidential campaign of the pro-war and pro-business Democrat, John Kerry. The AFL-CIO leadership sought to strangle the MWM, but the demo was held anyway.

. We in the Communist Voice Organization (CVO) attended the demo of last October. We knew that the break of the MWM leaders with the main AFL-CIO officialdom was only partial and temporary, and we wrote about this in our leaflets. But we also saw that the MWM had aroused interest in a section of workers who were looking to find a way to struggle. Since the October demo, we have taken part in the Detroit committee of the MWM (the MWM-Detroit), the speakout in Detroit on February 5, and various activities promoted by the MWM-Detroit. We have kept workers around us informed of the stands and activities of the MWM.

. But the MWM-Detroit has increasingly oriented its work towards allying with liberal Detroit politicians in the Democratic Party and with the trade union bureaucrats. It has ignored the lesson of the attempt of the AFL-CIO and pro-Democratic Party activists to strangle the MWM, and has instead sought to patch the rift between the MWM and the liberal circles. MWM-Detroit policy has become similar to that of the Workers World Party, which seeks to organize national movements hand-in-hand with big-name liberals and the labor officialdom. The national MWM leadership is apparently adopting the same policy. And the present conference is likely to orient the MWM towards building the National Conference of Cities, which would mean tying the workers' movement to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

. Such stands have increasingly sucked the life out of the MWM-Detroit. And it seems to have led the national MWM to an impasse. The question of orientation is the major question facing the present MWM conference.

The war on city workers and the poor in Detroit

. We think that an independent workers' movement can only be built in the course of actual struggles. Such a trend must attract new activists. Where will they come from? From a new wave of struggle.

. The city budget crisis in Detroit posed the issue of a struggle arising against cutbacks and concessions for the local MWM committee. The city government under Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has been unleashing a new wave of misery against the working masses. He has already begun massive layoffs of city workers and is demanding major wage and benefit concessions. And the mainly working class and poor residents of Detroit will see already-pathetic city services further decimated. The other pro-establishment forces are implicated in all this too, from the City Council, which is developing alternative concessions plans, to the main local union leaders who look to City Council, not the workers' struggle, to save the day.

. Only one thing can counter this onslaught. There needs to be determined mass action by city workers and other sections of the masses. Such a fight must raise the banner of "No Concessions". Instead of workers being made to sacrifice again, the rich must be made to pay for the crisis.

. When the Detroit MWM committee took up work on the city budget crisis, this was an important step. But what stand has the majority of the MWM-Detroit adopted?

Alliance with Democratic politicians and union bureaucrats

. The majority of the MWM-Detroit has supported an alliance with the liberal politicians and the union bureaucrats. No, the committee flyers don't say "Let's have an alliance with the liberals", etc. and may even include a general phrase against the Republicans and Democrats. But some members explicitly support an alliance with the liberals. And in fact that's what the present policy amounts to.

. The public stand of the MWM-Detroit has failed to expose the stand of certain liberals on the Detroit City Council who are posturing loudly against Mayor Kilpatrick's cutbacks, while quietly advocating their own brand of layoffs and wage cuts. Their promises to protect workers are touted by many local trade union leaders and have influence among the workers. Faith in the City Council opposition diverts the workers from preparing their own ranks for struggle. This is why it is an essential issue to deal with. The failure of the MWM-Detroit to publicly expose the City Council opposition has gone hand-in-hand with a reluctance to clarify for the rank and file city workers the true nature of their local union leaders. Yet, these local union officials, with rare exception, are not preparing the workers to resist these attacks.

. The main view in the MWM-Detroit is that the rank-and-file workers will be mobilized in large numbers if only events are endorsed or called by the union officials or City Councilpersons. But the numbers haven't come. And the price of alliance has been silence about the treachery of the liberals and union officials. So who's benefiting from this alliance? The city workers and poor of Detroit? Activists who want an alternative to the liberals? No. It's the liberals themselves who get to parade around as heroes while plotting against the workers.

Democratic Mayor and City Council vs. the workers

. Detroit is a prime example of how the Democrats, not just the Republicans, are enemies of the workers. The city is totally run by the Democrats, and has been so for decades. But while the political establishment of Detroit is solidly Democratic, candidates for city offices technically run as non-partisan.

. When liberal white Democratic officials ran the city, the oppression against the masses was so bad they rose up in the famous 1967 rebellion. Black Democratic mayors and city councilpeople replaced them. This cooled down the struggle, but these new Democratic officials served the same corporate masters as their predecessors. From "radical" Democrats like Coleman Young to Clinton-style Democrats like Dennis Archer, they have all shoved concessions down the throats of city workers, made sweetheart deals with the corporations, ruined city services, continued police terror, etc.

. The present mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, is continuing this pro-capitalist tradition. He has made it clear that city workers and public services will be in his cross-hairs. This year alone, 700 city workers have been laid off. And Kilpatrick wants thousands more. He also wants 10% pay cuts from workers and concessions on benefits.

. How is this different than what Bush does? Bush says there's no money for vital social programs because he wants corporate tax breaks for the rich and needs hundreds of billions of dollars for wars to defend the US world business empire. Kilpatrick says there's no money for public services but ignores that hundreds of millions of local city tax dollars a year are handed over to the banks who grow rich financing Detroit's debt. He doesn't call attention to the countless billions made by the Big 3 auto companies off the sweat of Detroit area workers. He forgets to mention the corporate tax breaks for GM's Poletown plant, the $70 million tax breaks to Compuware, or the city funds that will help pay for pizza-baron Mike Ilitch's baseball stadium. And while Bush touts privatization of everything from the military to social security, Kilpatrick has been privatizing city services with a vengeance. Kilpatrick complains about Bush's program starving the cities. But he carries out the same class program of the rich against the poor.

. With total control of Detroit city government, local Democrats are nonetheless sticking it to the masses. If the liberal Democrats of Detroit are taking up the neo-liberal economics of Bush, this only shows that any promotion of the Democrats is against the workers' interests.

. But the Detroit political establishment is not just the mayor and his bureaucrats. It also includes the City Council. Four of the eight Detroit City Council members promote themselves as opponents of Kilpatrick and his budget plans. And they are widely promoted by certain members of the Detroit MWM committee who call these politicians the "Fab Four". While not all members go that far, the dominant position is to refrain from public criticism of these politicians, who are presented as defenders of the city workers and Detroit residents. So let's look at where the Fab Four actually stand of the budget crisis.

Sugarcoating concessions as "equality of sacrifice"

. To add some sugarcoating to their stand, the Fab Four talk about "equality of sacrifice." This is a time-worn policy used by businesses, capitalist politicians and union bureaucrats to get the workers to swallow concessions. For instance, some of the Fab Four say if workers take concessions, the banks should also accept a minor reduction in the interest payments they receive for financing the city debt. And, like Kilpatrick himself, they call for high city officials also taking a 10% salary cut. But it's a fraud to equate a minor imposition on the banks, who will continue to make hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and officials who will continue to live high on the hog, with the sacrifices of the workers who barely get by and have been sacrificing year after year via layoffs and wages freezes. "Equality of sacrifice" means nothing more than making the workers bear the brunt of the budget crisis.

. The MWM-Detroit too has called for the banks to make concessions. But it has not exposed the effort to impose concessions in the name of "equality of sacrifice."

Cheerleading for pro-concessions politicians

. While overall the MWM-Detroit has failed to publicly condemn any of the pro-concessions stands of Kilpatrick's opponents on City Council, some members have been outright cheerleaders for these liberals. Among the most enthusiastic supporters of the Fab Four are supporters of the Workers World Party, a pseudo-socialist group that comes out of the Trotskyist tradition. One of the Detroit MWM leaders, Cheryl LaBash, writing in the Workers World newspaper, has written several recent articles hailing JoAnn Watson and other allegedly "progressive" City Council members. LaBash specifically praised Councilwoman Watson's call "for the banks and bondholders to accept the same 10% reduction that's proposed for city workers." (published 3/30/05 on WWP web site) Thus, she hails Watson's stand for worker concessions under the phony banner of "equality of sacrifice." Inside the MWM, LaBash has time and again opposed criticism of the Fab Four or the union bureaucrats.

. Another MWM member and longtime WWP backer said that national MWM leader Clarence Thomas wanted Watson to speak before the national MWM conference. When this was opposed by a CVO supporter, who said it was outrageous to ask a supporter of wage concessions to speak at the MWM conference, LaBash and others led the MWM-Detroit meeting to pass a resolution permitting Watson to be a speaker at the conference. Meanwhile, the March 24 issue of the Detroit News carried a letter to the editor from LaBash defending Councilwoman Sharon McPhail from charges of being an anti-white racist, while failing to say a word about McPhail favoring massive job cuts for city workers.

. Such stands aren't restricted simply to the WWP. Another local MWM member constantly hails the Fab Four both in articles to local newspapers (where he sometimes writes under the pen name "John Henry") and on local MWM e-mail lists. In the April 24-30 edition (p.6) of the Michigan Citizen newspaper, John Henry gushes that "the Fab Four represents the most progressive political alliance in recent memory."

. Such support for the liberal politicians, and accommodation of this by others, has meant that the MWM-Detroit has no public stand against the treachery of the City Council opposition. True, in one flyer there is mention that some unnamed elected political leaders have to be replaced. But who and why no one is supposed to know.

Stand of the local union bureaucrats and MWM-Detroit's response

. Likewise, there's a phrase in the MWM flyer on the budget crisis saying most union leaders aren't helping the workers. But again, which ones? Does that include the leaders of the city unions? Indeed, the only reason any phrase got in critical of the politicians and union leaders was as a sop to the few MWMers who fought for exposing city council and the union leaders.

. Yet, the truth is the vast majority of the city workers union leaders are not preparing the workers for a serious struggle against concessions. Nearly all of them avoided demonstrations on April 12 and16 held by a coalition opposing budget cuts. The union bureaucrats aren't focused on how to mobilize the workers, but on the empty promises of the City Council liberals. For example, on February 21 hundreds of angry city bus drivers went to a City Council hearing to denounce Kilpatrick's budget cuts. Henry Gaffney, president of the bus drivers ATWU local, took the floor. Did he use the opportunity to call for mass actions? Did he attack the pro-concessions stand of the Fab Four? No. He had a friendly exchange with Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, allowing her to posture as a friend of the workers. He even blamed the budget cutbacks in part on discounts for handicapped riders! The most "militant" thing Gaffney did was promise to punish Council members who supported budget cuts at the polls in November. Of course by then, in the absence of struggle, the workers will have already been ravaged by the cutbacks.

. Meanwhile, there's strong evidence that the union leaders are taking up the "equality of sacrifice" baloney. The latest example is a quote from Leamon Wilson, president of AFSCME Local 312 in the May 8- 14 Michigan Citizen (p.A3). Wilson states "before we can give up concessions, the mayor has to give up the books." So Wilson says concessions are OK if only the mayor provides budget figures that show they are needed.

. The problems with the MWM-Detroit's stand on the labor bureaucrats echo the problems that exist in the national MWM leadership. The national MWM leaders somewhat differentiated themselves from the mainstream union officials with biting comments against the two big capitalist parties and criticism of AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. But at the same time, the MWM leaders lavished praise on any union leader who gave mere verbal support to the October 17 rally in Washington, DC., ignoring that these same union leaders were ardently supporting pro-war and pro-business Democratic candidate John Kerry. Thus, for instance, they promoted the SEIU president Andy Stern, though Stern was turning the SEIU into a campaign machine for Kerry. They were not oriented toward rallying the rank-and-file workers in these unions, but toward the rotten national leaderships of the SEIU, AFSCME, the APWU, etc. They created the illusion that a powerful new workers' movement would arise through an alliance with these timid union officials. Support for pro-Democratic union leaders was bound to undermine a consistent stand against the Democrats. And the MWM-Detroit 's alliance with the liberals proves this.

The National Conference of Cities

. A new debacle brewing from the stand of alliance with the liberal politicians is support for the National Conference of Cities (NCOC). The NCOC is an alliance of groups with some liberal politicians from the Detroit City Council calling for more federal funds for the cities. According to the NCOC's Detroit Call, donations to the NCOC go to the offices of City Council president Maryann Mahaffey. So in addition to Mahaffey being an NCOC endorser, she appears to be the leader of this effort. Moreover, the NCOC emphasizes the liberal leadership in its literature. Its call for endorsements says "Add your name to those of Detroit City Council president Maryann Mahaffey, City Council member JoAnn Watson, and many other local and national leaders to build this effort."

. The NCOC Call says Bush should stop feeding the war machine and fund the cities. That sounds like a good idea. Who could object to opposing the Pentagon and more funds for social programs? And wouldn't it be great if struggles against concessions were linked to struggles against war? But the Call doesn't declare "no concessions" or talk about struggles against concessions and cutbacks like that faced by Detroit city workers and residents. So the Call doesn't help struggle. But it might help politicians present meekly lobbying the Bush administration for a few crumbs, and voting for Democrats who promise to beg for the crumbs on our behalf, as the path for relief.

. Thus, the picture painted by the call of the NCOC is that the whole problem would be solved if only we could get rid of Bush. It says nothing about the big city Democratic mayors who also represent the rich and starve the masses. It's not enough to talk about funds for the cities, when the funds that do go to the cities are in the hands of crooks like Mayor Kilpatrick who will use the funds for privatization, corporate welfare and high-living for city officials. Indeed, it's hard to see how Kilpatrick himself could object to a call that blames everything merely on Bush.

. As well, the NCOC Call only denounces the war machine on the grounds of its cost. It doesn't argue that the occupation of Iraq was in itself unjust, or denounce the US world empire for its brutality and exploitation of our class sisters and brothers around the world. It only says that the war machine drains resources from the cities.

. No doubt many people, when they come to question the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, say that it's not worth the sacrifice in money and lives. But underneath this, they also have, or are beginning to have, an objection to the purpose of the war. If the anti-war movement is to have any vitality, it has to be based on opposing wars for oil and empire, and not only on worrying that war is a strain on the budget. It has to help people move from upset over the hardships of war to also opposing the goals of the Pentagon's wars. After all, if there were billion dollar bailouts for the cities, would this make the wars any more acceptable?

. Indeed, confining things to the financial cost of the war makes it easier for the Call to avoid any mention of the pro-imperialist policies of the Democratic Party and the pro-war votes of the Congressional Democrats. After all, these politicians, while voting to strengthen the war machine, claim to also want more money for the cities. Thus, the narrow outlook of the Call would hamstring, not build, the anti-war struggle. It ends up blurring the difference between that anti-war activists and the pro-imperialist Democratic politicians.

. Clearly, the NCOC isn't designed to rattle the capitalist establishment. Instead it proposes to unite activists with the liberal wing of the establishment.

. The NCOC claims it will build a national movement. And if the local workers' struggles could merge into a powerful national movement that would be great. But how is a strong national workers'' movement going to arise? In alliance with the Democratic budget-cutters and liberal advocates of worker concessions? No way. It can only develop by encouraging an actual struggle of the workers and poor against every attempt to impose concessions and cutbacks. A militant struggle by, for example, Detroit city workers would encourage workers elsewhere to stand up and fight. A conference to unite activists with politicians who are demanding concessions to the workers will be an obstacle to a national workers' movement.

. Unfortunately, various MWM members are jumping into this alliance. National MWM Co-chair Clarence Thomas endorses the NCOC. Detroit MWM member David Sole, president of UAW Local 2234, signed his name to the solicitation for endorsements of the NCOC that hypes the liberal Detroit City Council politicians. And the MWM-Detroit recently voted to endorse the NCOC, too.

Building the independent workers' movement

. Thus, the MWM faces a serious issue of where it is going. This is the main problem facing this conference, and it will determine the role of the MWM in the future. Our group, the Communist Voice Organization, believes that the only path forward is building an independent workers' movement. If this is really to be a workers' movement, it must be independent of the bourgeois politicians and the stifling AFL-CIO bureaucracy; it must have the guts to tell the workers the truth about the politicians and the labor bureaucrats from the start. The MWM demo of last October seemed a start in this direction, but since then the MWM seems to have been backsliding.

. In our work with the MWM-Detroit, we have encouraged MWM members to work among the rank and file rather than rely on the union bureaucrats. We have consistently called for discussion in the MWM-Detroit of what orientation will advance the workers' struggles. We have attended demonstration promoted by the MWM-Detroit and informed workers, in our own agitation on the Detroit city workers' struggle about the MWM-Detroit. And we have carried out our own agitation at workplaces, demonstrations and elsewhere on the city crisis, the Iraq war, and other issues.

. We believe that workers and activists of different beliefs and trends can unite in various struggles and broader types of organization. But nothing durable can be built on verbal allegiance to class independence while in practice something else is going on. Unity will arise among activists who are taking up the tasks necessary to revive the workers' movement. What follows are some of the crucial tasks.

. Go to the workers and poor directly. Many activists think that alliances with the union officialdom and getting them to endorse their cause is the key to organizing the workers. Not so. There is a gulf between the policy of the union officials and the interests of the rank and file. The union bureaucrats are verbally in favor of some worthwhile reforms, but they aren't interested in a militant workers' movement fighting for them. Look, for example, at how Andy Stern and the SEIU leadership "supported" the October 17 MWM march in words, but had the rank and file campaigning for Kerry in deeds. And there's also the issue that there is not even weak organization among the vast majority of workers and poor.

. Thus activists must reach workers by going directly to the plant gates, by developing contacts inside the workplaces, by distributing literature in the working-class communities, etc. At union-called meetings or pickets, appeal to the rank and file. The key thing isn't contact with the union officials. It's contact with the workers and developing ties with those interested in a real struggle.

. Expose the Democrats and the AFL-CIO officialdom. Efforts to reach the workers and poor must call attention to the sabotage of the workers' movement by the Democrats and the union officials. The Democrats and the AFL-CIO officialdom don't want a militant workers' movement. The union officials, when they do not simply accept concessions, sap the fighting capacity of the rank and file. Just look at how they sabotaged the 1995 Detroit newspaper workers' strike by obeying court orders to dismantle militant mass pickets that were putting the heat on newspaper management. There's no sense talking about class independence or a militant workers' movement without exposing the forces that are undermining this.

. Various activists raise the issue of a workers' political party. No doubt the workers need their own political stand and party. But faith in the Democrats or those with similar politics is harmful. The workers need their own party, but it must be a party that places militant class action in the fore. Some MWMers support the Labor Party. But the Labor Party, for all its talk of independence from the Democrats, still says "it would be naive to expect that labor and its allies can afford to completely abandon its relationship with the Democratic Party." (See Labor Party web site article "After the Elections: What Next?" by Labor Party National Organizer Mark Dudzic). And the Labor Party relies on a section of the bankrupt union bureaucracy.

. Encourage independent forms of organization. In order for the militant sentiments of workers to have force, they need organization which can provide an alternative to their present official forms. They need rank-and-file networks of various kinds in the workplaces, within the unions and in the workers' communities. There is no simple formula for this. What's important is to find forms that provide active participation by the workers and tap into their desire for class action. For example, in some circumstances, it may be possible to set up networks of workers that carry on activity inside a workplace. Or there may be cases where ways can be found to link up workers who reject the sellout policies of the union leaders during a strike or other struggle.

. Independent organization in no way means being "anti-union". Actually it is organization independent of today's suffocating labor bureaucracies that allows the workers' struggle to develop. And this lays the basis for real fighting unions in the future.

. Rely on mass action. The workers' cause has never really advanced without relying on militant mass action. Protests, strikes and rebellions that defy the capitalist establishment are what will change the status quo. But the AFL-CIO leadership uses the union apparatus as a campaign headquarters for two-faced politicians. And it's no better when MWM leaders promote liberal politicians. Activists should lend their support to mass actions of the workers. They should encourage the workers to resist efforts of union officials or liberal community or movement leaders to tone down their actions to what's acceptable to the powers-that-be.

. The task of organizing the workers independently is not likely to immediately result in sweeping victories. Under present conditions of lull in the class struggle, independent worker organization will be relatively small. But protracted work in this direction can push forward the sporadic struggles that break out today. And work to build class independence is the only thing that can lay the groundwork for the major class battles of the future.

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