From the beginning of trade unionism in our country, socialists, Marxists and Communists have shown by word and deed their commitment to help build the labor movement. They saw unions as indispensable instruments of struggle to advance the interests of the workers.
The central theme of such contributions has been strengthening labor’s unity across racial, national, gender, political, religious, age and skill differences, and national boundaries, whether organized or not, employed or jobless.
Today the labor movement is fighting against the attempts of the transnationals, particularly their most reactionary sector centered in the Bush administration, to turn the clock backward on gains won.
There were periods when the contributions of socialist, Marxist and Communist unionists were of central importance, such as in the founding of the first, lasting national trade union center, the National Labor Union in 1866 by William Sylvis and other Marxists.
The AFL was founded in 1881 primarily by socialists. The leader of the great railroad strike of 1894, Eugene Debs, was a left-wing socialist who ran for President in 1912 as the candidate of the Socialist Party and received 900,369 votes – 6 percent of the vote.
In the 1930s, Communists and left forces played a key role in organizing steel, auto, electrical, the CIO, and in the fight for social insurance and the Wagner Act.
During the Cold War and McCarthyism, the monopolies were successful in splitting labor, with the CIO expelling unions with a million members (25 percent) as “Communist dominated.” This led to a period in which labor’s capacity to fight was sapped by the George Meany-type leadership, which collaborated with the monopolies.
During this period, Communist unionists, reduced in numbers, fought McCarthyism, for democratic rights and to prevent a nuclear war.
They also fought the Taft-Hartley anti-labor law. And they continued the fight begun decades earlier to organize African-American and Latino workers in united locals and to support full equality both within labor and society.
By the mid-1990s, a center-left coalition emerged dominant in the AFL-CIO, with a more fighting orientation. A new left with a small socialist and Communist component began to emerge to cooperate with center forces.
What have been the ideas that enabled Marxists and Communists to have such staying power and make such contributions to labor?
In The Communist Manifesto of 1848 Marx and Engels wrote that “the workers begin to form combinations (trade unions) against the bourgeoisie; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages … The real fruit of their battle lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers.”
In 1902, Lenin wrote in What Is to Be Done?, “Let every worker who understands the need to unite for the struggle against the employers and the government join the trade unions. The very aim of the trade unions would be impossible of achievement, if they did not unite all who have attained at least this elementary degree of understanding, if they were not very broad organizations.”
Today the AFL-CIO is stressing organization of the unorganized and the need to elect a labor-friendly majority to Congress in November, as opposed to the reactionary gang that now controls the Executive branch and the House and seeks to add at least one senator to regain Senate control.
Labor fights for jobs with a living wage, full benefits for the unemployed, for the rights of immigrants and against racial profiling and limitation of civil rights in the name of the “war on terrorism.”
It fights to save Social Security and Medicare, for extending health coverage and for public education.
The Bush administration pursues an anti-labor policy of making it harder to organize, of “cooling off” periods to prevent strikes, of watering down OSHA protections and attempts to pass state laws preventing labor electoral activity.
Simultaneously, it works to split off sections of labor as well as of the African American and Latino peoples and women with apparent “favors,” at negligible cost.
Communist trade unionists seek to strengthen trade union unity and cooperation with the African-American, Mexican American and other oppressed peoples and women in the fight against the ultraright for working people’s needs.
Communists recognize that such unity requires support for the special needs of racially and nationally oppressed and women workers. It requires rejecting anything that would pit the interests of one group of workers against another, whether here or abroad.
Communist unionists seek to show how the Bush “war on terrorism” is counter-productive, threatens the interests of working people and risks escalation, even up to nuclear war.
Communists stand for democratic trade unionism and seek no special privileges, only to be heard along with other currents in the labor movement.
They oppose those who are anti-leadership on principle, as such approaches are harmful to trade union unity and to democratic unionism.
Communist unionists work hard to strengthen a united labor movement to successfully repel the attacks of the transnationals and a reactionary administration, and thereby advance the interests of all working people.
Danny Rubin is a member of the Communist Party USA’s Education Commission. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org