Caroline Lund, Malik Miah
and Barry Sheppard say US unionists should leave the AFL-CIO and the
existing trade unions
By Bob Gould
In response to a question at a smallish session of the
Solidarity Conference in Sydney at Easter, 2005, Caroline Lund said US
unionists should leave the AFL-CIO and the existing unions and form new
ones, and she hoped that idea would resonate in Australia.
Lund and Malik Miah have elaborated that point of view in an article, Independent
Unions: The Way Forward for US Labor, in Links, which appeared at the
I start this by underlining that I have a certain respect for Barry
Sheppard, Miah and Lund. In the 1980s, as part of an internal struggle
in the increasingly authoritarian US SWP, after a long period of their
lives as political full-timers, these three comrades were persuaded to
"go into industry" and they have stayed there ever since, even after
departing from the US SWP. Sheppard has now passed retirement age, but
the other two are still in industrial jobs.
A person like Lund, who is still working and industrially and
politically active in the intense and difficult conditions of a motor
car plant, nudging the age of 60, is worthy of considerable respect and
serious consideration of her views.
Respect, however, for serious socialist militants, involves taking up
their ideas sharply when they are wrong, and I consider the views
expressed in the Links
article by Lund and Miah deeply mistaken,
particular given the current political conjuncture, with the attacks on
the organised working class taking place in the US and elsewhere,
In sum, these three musketeers argue that the trade union bureaucracy
in the US, and by inference in Australia, is by now so corrupt and its
power over the unions so total, that any perspective of reforming
existing unions is futile and militant unionists should campaign,
whenever it becomes at all possible, to decertify existing unions and
form smaller, independent unions.
They believe the future lies with small, independent unions that can
then co-operate with each other.
A bit of history. The international influence of the
Industrial Workers of the World
In 1905 the IWW was formed in the US. It initially included a very
substantial existing union, the Western Federation of Miners. The IWW
aspired to be an alternative to the AFL and the AFL craft unions, and
initially in the US it had some success in starting new industrial
unions, mainly in areas not successfully organised by the AFL.
Early in the piece IWW activists learned that it was sensible to join
the existing AFL union in areas where one existed, and over time the
IWW evolved into a kind of syndicalist political party, particularly
after the Western Federation of Miners moved away from the IWW.
The IWW militants were important in the formation of the Communist
Party in the US, but separate IWW unions eventually withered away in
Another important component of the early CP was the Trade Union
Educational League, led by William Z. Foster, James P. Cannon’s bloc
partner in early factional struggles in the US CP. The TUEL
concentrated on reform efforts in existing AFL unions, and was
relatively successful in that.
Both the IWW and the Foster’s TUEL developed in a rising arc of class
struggle between 1905 and 1921. The debate over trade union tactics in
the US is captured in an artistic way in the important and moving
Warren Beatty film, Reds.
In Australia, to which the IWW spread rapidly, the IWW never developed
as a serious alternative union structure. It evolved as a kind of
syndicalist political party.
IWW and syndicalist influence was very widespread in Australia between
1905 and the early 1920s, particularly during the 1917 Australian
general strike, but IWW influence was totally expressed by two-union
ticket-holders, who had an IWW red card and membership of an existing
IWW influence was particularly strong in labourers’ unions, such as the
Labourers in Sydney.
The early Comintern and work in the trade unions
The Miah-Lund-Sheppard proposition is very problematic in the context
of the history of Marxist activity in trade unions. The first four
congresses of the Comintern took a very sharp stand against red
unionism of this sort and Lenin argued against it very sharply in Left
Wing Communism, and Trotsky argued against it as well.
It was only with the Stalinist Third Period, from 1929 to 1934, that
red or breakaway unions became the official policy of the Comintern.
The experience of Third Period red unions was uniformly bad.
In the US, where the Communist Party strenuously tried to start red
unions, they were a terrible flop. Few workers joined them.
The Communist Party in Britain never even serious tried to start red
unions. In Australia, an attempt was made to turn a then relatively
recent breakaway from the Australian Workers Union, the Pastoral
Workers Industrial Union, into a red union.
Despite a certain amount of mass support for the Pastoral Union
breakaway, it was not successful, and its members went back into the
AWU in the late 1930s.
When the upsurge of trade union organisation started in the US in the
mid-1930s the Congress of Industrial Organisations was formed as a
result of several existing big unions, particularly the miners and the
clothing workers, breaking away from the AFL and using their resources
to help organise major industrial unions in mass-production sectors
that had previously been unorganised.
These unions weren't breakaways, but new unions, mainly in unorganised
areas, and it can't be stressed too much that the success of the CIO
depended on the recovery from the Great Depression and on the alchemy
between the support of the two big unions initiating the project and
thousands of Communist, socialist and Trotskyist militants, some of
whom had been in unsuccessful red unions, who took the opportunity to
build the CIO.
A careful reading of Farrell Dobbs's four books on the teamster
experience in Minneapolis shows Dobbs’s great stress on the way the
Trotksyists deliberately avoided, as far as possible, breaking away
from existing union structures. Rather, they did the opposite, and
threw themselves into expanding the existing teamster and other unions.
No breakaways for the Minneapolis Trotskyists, and even when they were
under attack from the teamster bureaucracy they tried to transfer from
one union federation, the AFL, to the other federation, the CIO. They
didn't engage in any fantasies about the abstract virtues of
independent union structures.
In the US in the post-war period a group of left unions was expelled by
the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. One of the major expelled unions, the West
Coast Longshoremen, which had a massive institutional base, survived,
but all the other expelled unions declined rapidly and ultimately
reamalgamated with AFL-CIO unions from a position of relative weakness.
In Britain, there was the important case of the Blue Union, a minority
organisation of stevedores, which managed to survive for some time in
opposition to the larger Transport and General Workers Union. In the
1940s-50s, discontented stevedores and wharfies transferred from the
TGWU to the Blue Union, as it was called, and Gerry Healy's Socialist
Labour League took a leading part in the protracted war between this
small Blue Union and the much larger TGWU.
This was clearly a heroic struggle and there was some case for
supporting that particular semi-breakaway, but in the end it proved
impossible to sustain and it reamalgamated with the TGWU.
In recent times in Australia, attempts to break away from existing
union structures have not succeeded, even when such breakaways seemed
to correspond with developments or necessity.
In John Percy’s bizarre book, A
History of the DSP and Resistance,
Percy takes a mean and philistine sideswipe at the old Trotskyist
leader Nick Origlass, a leader of the ironworkers union in Balmain.
Percy says: “With the political mood drifting to the right, Origlass
allowed the control of the branch to revert to the CPA.”
Percy doesn’t try to explain the context at all. Anyone interested in a
more scientific and rounded account should read Daphne
on the Balmain ironworkers’ struggles.
The real situation was that there was no alternative for Origlass and
his supporters. The upsurge at the end of World War II had ebbed a bit,
the Stalinist leadership of the union had made some concessions by
forming a waterfront branch, and had gone through the legal framework
of the existing union structure to merge the Balmain branch with the
waterfront branch, and this settlement was backed by the ACTU.
Origlass’s estimate of the situation was unquestionably accurate, and
John Percy’s petty slur on Origlass is yet another example of Percy
trying to rewrite history to suit his current, eccentric political line.
Five or six years ago some militants formed a breakaway from the
conservative Australian Workers Union, a Shearer’s Union. This
organisation has withered on the vine.
The most favourable circumstances for breakaway unions in Australia in
recent times have emerged in the building trades and the metal trades
These instances are worth careful discussion. When the Maoist federal
leadership of the Builders Labourers Federation stepped in to sack the
more militant NSW branch of the BLF, led by Jack Mundey and other CPA
and left ALP militants, about 25 years ago, the NSW organisation
collapsed almost immediately and the members joined the federal
organisation. The Mundey leadership’s estimate was that a breakaway
wasn’t viable, and they were correct.
Ten years later, when the Federal Court deregistered the Maoist-led BLF
in NSW, Victoria and the ACT, and transferred the coverage the
labourers to the construction wing of
the CFMEU (a union based mainly on tradespersons rather than
labourers), the Maoist leaders tried to form a breakaway union, or more
accurately to persist with the existing union unregistered. In NSW and
the ACT, two of the three deregistered states, most of the members
immediately joined the CFMEU.
In Victoria, most members joined the CFMEU, but about 2000 stayed with
the BLF. Eventually, though, most of the mainly Maoist forces from the
rump of the BLF joined the CFMEU in a negotiated settlement.
Subsequently, there was a factional struggle in the CFMEU, and the DSP
supported a rank-and-file ticket against the then CFMEU leadership,
which wasn’t successful.
In due course, however, the mainly Maoist forces from the rump of the
BLF became the more or less dominant force in the CFMEU during a
complex internal differentiation. That’s the background to the
emergence of the Victorian CFMEU as it currently is: a very militant
It’s my impression that the militant forces in the current Victorian
CFMEU, after all their experiences, would be extremely cautious about
any organisational breakaway from the existing trade union structures
in current circumstances.
In the complex battle in the metalworkers union between the militant
Workers First group and the more conservative, nationally dominant,
Doug Cameron group, when Cameron intervened in Victoria to take control
there was initially a strike against the federal body, and it seemed to
be moving in the direction of a breakaway. The militants of Workers
First fairly rapidly drew back from such a course, however, and a deal
was brokered in which the two opposing groups shared control of the
It’s my distinct impression that the militants of Workers First would
be strongly disinclined to break away and start any kind of new union,
and they are very wise to avoid like the plague any idea of a breakaway
The Australian DSP often uses rhetoric similar to that of Lund and Miah
in Links, but in practice its
scattered militants who are active in
unions make no attempt to form breakaways, because in current
conditions serious trade unionists would be barking mad to do so, and
almost everyone can see that.
One group in Australia and the US, the World Socialist
Website/Socialist Equality Party has taken the Lund-Miah line of
thinking a small step further. For the past eight or nine years they
have been repeating a mantra that the trade unions are totally
bankrupt, workers should leave them, and the only task is to build the
SEP as the world party of socialist revolution.
While this group’s website gets a lot of hits, judging by the modest
size of their public meetings that I’ve attended, repeating this mantra
constantly hasn’t led to any increase in their influence. If anything,
the SEP’s influence has declined.
Lund and Miah in their article paint a picture, which is reasonably
accurate, of a very defensive situation facing the organised working
class in the US, Australia and other advanced capitalist
countries. They overstate it a bit, and concentrate mainly on
substantial strike defeats over 20 or so years in the US, implying that
it has been mainly a period of working class defeat, which is not
There is, however, a large element of truth in their stress on the
defensive situation facing the working class, but why advance such a
splitting, essentially disruptive organisational approach to the trade
unions in such a defensive context?
Lund presents a schema in which workplace union certification votes in
the US could be followed by the formation of new, independent unions.
Everything I know suggests that’s bullshit. In most situations, votes
for decertification will turn out to be votes to have no union,
regardless of the subjective motives of those advocating
decertification. In most situations, the likelihood that
decertification votes will be followed by the formation of a new union
seems to me a complete pipedream.
In Australian conditions, projecting the idea of breakaway unions or
new unions is political and industrial lunacy. The Liberals, who will
control the Senate from July, are threatening to seize federal
government control of the state industrial systems and to seriously
diminish the right to organise in unions.
The eight state and territory Labor governments are opposing such
moves. There are some defeatist undertones to the response of the ACTU
leadership, but most unions are also opposing the Liberals’ reactionary
To introduce metaphysical schemas about new unions in these defensive
conditions is generally reactionary from the point of view of the
interests of the working class.
At the small session on US socialist regroupment at the Asia-Pacific
Solidarity Conference, at which Lund outlined her schema, she and Barry
Sheppard waxed rhetorical about the irreversible and irredeemable
crimes and betrayals of the existing US unions and the AFL-CIO.
The also talked rather bitterly about their view that the many leftists
and radicals who work in existing unions structures are having
themselves on, and were adapting to those structures.
Even if there’s an element of truth in that, it’s hardly a new
phenomenon. It’s one of the problems of the ebb and flow of the class
I’m struck by the weird timelessness of the Lund-Miah-Sheppard
proposals. Why choose this defensive period as a moment to advance a
schema about breakaway unions, almost outside space and time?
I understand why the DSP leadership dabbles in extravagant rhetoric
attacking existing trade union structures, and why the SEP advances a
full-blown perspective that the workers should leave the existing
unions and join their political organisation as the only instrument of
working class struggle. In both cases, these groups are interested
above all else in the internal life of their respective sects.
The extravagant rhetoric is used to convince those who can be convinced
that the only thing to be done is to join the chosen sect as the
“global leadership of the working class”.
I can also understand, at the human level, why Sheppard and Miah put
forward some kind of perspective for breakaway unions. Sheppard and
Miah operate in a very unusual situation, in which a long-standing
craft alternative to an existing bureaucratised general union has had
some success, and they have participated in that. I’m prepared to defer
to their greater knowledge of that particular industrial situation
(although I would be very interested to know if there are any
socialists in San Francisco who have a different view about this
In the Marxist movement, historically, one of the worst diseases
affecting individual militants, and particularly self-appointed
leaderships, is the tendency to grab hold of some example from a
situation in which you have a vested interest, or which you can
interpret to suit some tactical decision you have already made. Such
monomanias are often tinged with opportunism and are a very poor guide
as to how to proceed in serious matters affecting the broad interests
of the working class.
Lenin and Trotsky always stressed that Marxists had to live by
their principles, but that they also had to proceed from a
serious investigation of the immediate conjuncture facing the working
class and the Marxist movement.
In that spirit, I assert that the working class, the Marxist movement,
and particularly Marxists active in a serious way in trade unions, need
some schema about forming independent breakaway unions like the
proverbial hole in the head.
PS. The breakaway union idea is advanced partly, apparently, as
some kind of corrective to the bureaucratization of the existing trade
union structures and their integration in the capitalist state. Isn’t
it the case that in the real world, not the ideal world of the schema,
small, weaker, independent unions would be even more subject to all the
pressures for bureaucratisation, etc, in the unlikely event that any of
them ever got going?