Jacobin magazine promotes fraudulent “democratic unionism”

A recent article in the Democratic Socialists of America-aligned Jacobin The magazine, “Democratic Unions Get the Goods” by editor-in-chief Alex Press, is the pseudo-left’s latest attempt to bolster the shattered credibility of unions.

New York University graduate workers on strike [Credit: WSWS]

The article appears in a defined historical context. All over the world, the working class is engaging in social struggles, driven by opposition to mass inequality and poverty, as well as the murderous policies of most of the world’s governments in response to the pandemic.

One of the most striking features of this upsurge is that it increasingly takes the form of a rebellion against the unions. In one struggle after another, workers face not only attacks from the company, but also attempts by unions to isolate their struggles and unilaterally impose agreements favorable to management.

In the United States, the most significant expression of the rebellion against unions is the Volvo Trucks strike in Dublin, Virginia. After rejecting two clearance sale contracts imposed on them by the United Auto Workers, Volvo Trucks workers took the initiative to form a grassroots committee to challenge the UAW’s betrayals and break a blackout from the United Auto Workers. fight, which has not even recognized by the UAW international or reported in the national press.

This strike was also not recognized by Jacobin, for the same reason, the UAW does not recognize it: it is terrified of it. Within the editorial staff of Jacobin and within the DSA leadership there is not a small number of union leaders, aspiring union leaders and advisers, all of whom depend on the union apparatus and whose positions are threatened by a rebellion against it.

The purpose of “democratic unionism” advocated by Jacobin is to find new ways to trap workers and keep them within the confines of the union apparatus.

In particular, Press argues for an “open negotiation” format during contract negotiations. Unions should aim, he said, to “get every worker to show up for negotiations at least once, if only for an hour at shift change.” Such procedures are needed, Press argues, to counter workers’ cynicism about secret, closed-door bargaining sessions, claiming that the “open bargaining” model is based on “full transparency”.

In particular, Press quotes a lengthy article written by Jane McAlevey, writer for the Nation magazine, former staff and board member of the Service Employees International Union and current Senior Policy Fellow as UC Berkeley Labor Center. McAlevy’s report is based on four “open negotiation” case studies: the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA); the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA); UNITE HERE Local 26 in Nevada, which covers hotel and casino employees in Las Vegas; and the NewsGuild-CWA, which is part of the Communications Workers of America. In addition, Press cites the example of the United Auto Workers Graduate Student Organizing Committee (UAW-GSOC) at New York University.

The fraudulent nature of the “democratic unionism” advocated by Press and McAlevey is given by their own examples. The NJEA sabotaged strikes in 2018 and 2019 to impose surrender contracts. The MNA is currently isolating a strike by Saint Vincent nurses in Worcester, Massachusetts, leaving them without strike pay. UNITE HERE Local 26, which forced a sold-out deal in 2018 to avoid a strike, played a key role in the Democratic Party leadership’s maneuvers to sabotage Bernie Sanders’ campaign in the party’s Nevada caucuses. last year, the right-wing striker for his support for universal healthcare.

The most egregious example, however, is the UAW-GSOC, which, according to the press, led the strike at NYU this year to a “win” of a $ 6 an hour pay rise. In fact, this fell far short of the strikers’ demands, and the union resorted to the most undemocratic methods, first to isolate the strike in NYU from a strike in Columbia just a few miles away, delaying the compilation of the vote. strike at NYU for weeks to give the union a chance to end the strike in Columbia first and then unilaterally end the strike just before the final classification period when it would have been most effective. The DSA, however, is well represented within the GSOC leadership at NYU.

As for the case studies cited by McAlevey, their claims about the transformative potential of their “open negotiation” model are unwittingly exposed by the study itself. To take just the example of the NJEA, the whole process was tightly controlled by the union, which forced teachers to choose between reduced health care premiums without a substantial increase in pay or no improvement in health care and a slightly higher salary increase — two compensatory proposals that left the basic economic status of teachers unchanged.

Meanwhile, the union reserved the right to “escort our own [people] outside “if they”[stepped] out of line and [said] something in a meeting. McAlevy absurdly presents as a massive victory a local deal with a meager 3.9% three-year pay rise without any improvement in health care.

In other words, Press and McAlevy’s “open negotiations” are a role-play aimed at putting a “democratic” veneer on a process that is no more democratic than any normal contract ratification meeting, where union bureaucrats control the microphone and throw “opposed to sell off.”

McAlevy and Press’s memoir on “democratic unionism” is the ignominious result of a decades-long project to “democratize” unions. These campaigns, which produced labor factions such as Miners for Democracy, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, Steelworker Fightback and many others, aimed to renew the nationalist and anti-communist agenda of the unions under conditions in which the unions turned into agents. management, working with business and government to close factories and lay off jobs.

For a time, these factions managed to attract substantial support among sincere workers who hated bureaucracy. But the evolution of these groups was not determined by the militancy of their supporters but by the class character of their program. Wherever they got jobs, they turned out to be no better, and in many cases worse, than the bureaucrats they replaced.

To take a prominent example, Richard Trumka, the outgoing president of the AFL-CIO, was elected in the early 1980s as president of the United Mine Workers on the Miners for Democracy ticket. Its lasting legacy has been to destroy the union as a mass militant organization (but not the UMWA bureaucracy or its assets, which have reached $ 200 million). Now his likely successor in the AFL-CIO is Sarah Nelson, president of the flight attendants union and member of the DSA.

However, it is striking how far McAlevey and Press’s brief on “democratic unionism” is unrelated even to the claim to appeal to rank-and-file workers or even vague or dishonest criticism of the existing union. leadership. Indeed, given that Jacobin has long whitewashed the true record of unions, readers of the magazine may be baffled by their use of the phrase. Is it possible, they might ask, that “undemocratic unionism” is in fact the rule?

As always, there are also mercenary interests at work. The “open negotiation” model requires the hiring of an army of consultants, outreach coordinators and other small government officials. McAlevey herself offers her services on her website and also builds the credibility of layers of the bureaucracy as “reformers”, launching careers at higher levels of the union.

At the end of the day, “Democratic unions get the goods” not for workers but for McAlevy and other well-heeled layers in and around the union bureaucracy.

The first condition for a true workers’ democracy is the independence of the workers from the trade union bureaucracy. Against the narrow nationalist and pro-capitalist view of the unions, workers must struggle to develop the widest possible international ties with workers around the world, on the basis of a common struggle against capitalism.

The organizational form to achieve this is through grassroots committees. These committees must insist that workers have real control over the bargaining process. But this can only happen through organizational sleight of hand, but through workers establishing their own separate authority and against the gangsters of the union apparatus.


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