I'm with Will on this one.
This comes not from any big considerations about the historical epoch but from a minimal protection that unions provide in most places I worked: from inertia, if nothing else (and usually it is nothing else) the ability of union members to talk back to the boss and work to rule without being fired because the apparatus in place for firing them is too cumbersome to be bothered with.
In the 15 years I worked in the Harvard library system (1980's/mid-1990's), I saw this first hand. Harvard managers could no longer fire people on a whim. Harvard, a "liberal" employer in a "liberal" state, fought the union drive tooth and nail with every means at management's disposal, short of back-alley violence, right up to multiple NLRB challenges to the highest level after the union won an election (1989) in which 4000 non-academic employees voted. This was not because of any wave of wildcat strikes that required a union to control the workers, but because Harvard did not want to accept a milligram of constraint on its power. The wimpy union could not have been more "class collaborationist" but the poorest paid workers got 10-20% pay increases with the first contract. Given this minimal protection on the job from management harassment and these pay increases, talking about the "decadent phase of capitalism" and the relationship of unions to the state as a reason to reject the union would have been a lot of hot air.
No one (and certainly not I) is saying that unions are potentially revolutionary or can be taken over under "revolutionary leadership"; merely that their situation must be analyzed and critiqued and countered with historical concreteness. I am for their practical supersession, in the dialectical sense of the German term "Aufhebung", which means abolish AND preserve at a higher level; historically this class-for-itself Aufhebung has been workers' councils and soviets, or perhaps will be new forms that will be discovered in practice today.
I am struck, at the very recent worker mobilizations I have attended (Madison, New York) against the latest state offensive to slash wages, benefits and services, and (in Wisconsin) to abolish collective bargaining for public employees outright, how the old boring Trotskyist groups (SWP, SL, ISO) are working the crowds with their leaflets and newspapers, with no left communist presence in sight (and I include myself in this as self-criticism). Either we talk concretely about how to intersect this manifest proletarian rage that has emerged or we may as well pack it in.
Formulations from 1919 will not do.
April 5, 2011
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