The role of union bureaucrats

December 9, 2010

JEFF MELTON'S letter ("Union bureaucrats will hold us back") accusing Lee Sustar of failing to recognize the difference between "high-ranking labor officials" and ordinary workers, made me smile.

For many years, Sustar has been one of the best left-wing analysts of the labor movement, and he has frequently written about the importance of building independent rank-and-file organization in the unions. Here, for example, is what Sustar wrote in a recent article in International Socialist Review:

The top union officialdom functions as a buffer between capital and labor, and, in the U.S., most embrace that role enthusiastically. Far removed from the shop floor (if they ever worked there at all--many are lifetime staffers), leading U.S. union officials have a lifestyle and social connections that tie them more closely to management and politicians than to the rank and file. While crises and splits in the union hierarchy can open the door to reform candidates and pressure from the membership, the union bureaucracy will at best vacillate unless pressed forward by rank-and-file action.

However, it's also important to remember that when union leaders like AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka make statements opposing the anti-union policies of the Obama administration, this creates an opening for rank-and-filers to call for concrete action. And when union leaders themselves call strikes and demonstrations to defend their members' interests (as they sometimes do), the main role of union militants is to push those actions further.

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky summed up the attitude of socialists in a slogan: "With the masses--always, with the vacillating leaders--sometimes, but only so long as they stand at the head of the masses." Trotsky continued: "It is necessary to make use of vacillating leaders while the masses are pushing them ahead, without for a moment abandoning criticism of these leaders."

That remains good advice for union activists today.
Phil Gasper, Madison, Wis

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