Debates on the labor movement and the trade union model

In the panel and debate on “The Latin American labor movement in the face of the capitalist crisis and the pandemic”, which I shared with Romina Del Plá (PO); Lester Calderón (PTR of Chile) and José Bodas (PSL of Venezuela), from the MST / LIS and our current in the labor movement, ANCLA, we centered the debate on what politics the left needs to correctly address the problem of leadership.

By Guillermo Pacagnini

Our presentation started by analyzing three central aspects to understand the opportunity and the responsibility that the left has in the labor movement.

First, we considered the new situation that opened up in Latin America over the last year, a process that had practically not been seen since the beginning of the century, with a huge rise in the class struggle, rebellions and revolutions. The pandemic deepened that economic debacle, increasing misery and social indicators of crisis, but did not interrupt the process of mobilization. Although the great mass actions gave way to partial conflicts or local struggles in the conjuncture where the health of thousands is at stake, we have to prepare for new confrontations due to the dynamic of the situation. This is so because of the “post-pandemic plans” that imperialism, the bourgeoisie and governments are preparing. We are headed towards more austerity measures, but also to new attempts to apply structural reforms such as labor and pension reforms. Many of which were totally or partially pending due to the tough fight that the mass movement put up in Latin America. A mass movement with accumulated strength, in a situation that is a breeding ground for new confrontations.

The leadership, a determining factor and a strategic problem

The second element that we addressed in our presentation was how the bureaucratic union leaderships and reformist politics (two sides of the same coin) have been the fundamental obstacle to give continuity and development to the processes of mobilization. Without ignoring that the specific strength of the labor movement was very unequal in different countries and the central role played by the youth and popular sectors, it is evident that the absence of a class based, revolutionary leadership and the role of the union bureaucracy has been a decisive factor. For example, the role played by the leadership of the Chilean CUT in stopping the progress of revolution there. Or the tremendously negative role played by the COB in Bolivia, not only in the face of the coup against Evo Morales, but also in the organization of the resistance against the coup. Not to mention the “correista” CUT in Ecuador, that rushed to negotiate a surrender in the midst of an indigenous-popular rebellion. Or Colombia, where union leaders stopped the development of the general strikes. Or how the process of the UNT of Venezuela collapsed hand in hand with the retreat of the Bolivarian process and the need to strengthen a third independent option to confront with the sectors that integrated to the Maduro regime and those that work with the right. And in Brazil, the leadership of the CUT, under the control of the PT and the CTB, which did take not part in the awakening of working class and popular mobilization that multiplied conflicts and confronted Bolsonaro.

The role of the classist left

Against this backdrop, we highlighted the importance of analyzing the most advanced processes of organization and the militant replacement of leadership. And the politics of the classist left in them, to draw conclusions in the face of the panorama of conflicts that are coming, of struggles, with the emergence of layers of rebellious and young activism, such as the one that proved intransigent in Chile or that of the precarious workers that has been leading international work stoppages in the middle of the pandemic. The growing influence of the left in the process opens the need to debate the best politics to intervene. Starting from the general and programmatic agreements that exist in the revolutionary left, there are debates that serve to be addressed in the urgency of the hour. From their conclusions concrete tasks emerge. The advances and retreats in struggles and organization may depend on them. .

There are two issues that we consider fundamental and are the subject of permanent debate on the left: the united front and the trade union model. Both are central to the dispute against the bureaucracy and the new leadership. The need for a common understanding among left forces integrating diversity becomes key in these times. The most advanced and prolonged organization experience such as CONLUTAS in Brazil shows the shades and the struggle between the bureaucratic positions of the majority and the struggle of classist tendencies for union democracy within it. In the case of Argentina, the experience of the Plenario del Sindicalismo Combativo (PSC), is more embryonic, but it is a great step in that direction.

With the shift by the PTS, which has now joined the PSC after more than two years of developing an opposite line, it is important to take advantage of the congruence between the FIT-U, which needs to overcome the stage of being just an electoral front and root itself in the working class struggle, and the PSC which needs to deepen the agreements to overcome a more testimonial stage.

The PSC most overcome this testimonial stage to become a pole of reference and articulation of groups and recovered unions and to help in the support of struggles and to challenge the union bureaucracy. If we do not manage to act united in the struggles, if we do not reach agreements to support the new leaderships, if we do not advance in unitary, democratically integrated slates for union elections, the PSC will not progress. Unfortunately, there are more examples where forces that are members of the “Plenario” develop sectarian and divisive policies prioritizing their own construction over the development of a working class organ, such as the PO in the UTS of Córdoba and the PTS in CICOP and ATEN,

The union model

The issue of the union model, put forward by our current, had weight in the debates. Understanding the model as the transition program for the new working class democratic leadership to develop. And based on the experiences since the left has gained weight in the labor movement, many times reproducing bureaucratic vices of the old statist, top-down and single-minded union model. And this, as well as the boycott of the united front, is harmful and counterproductive when it comes to the development of union renewal processes. We insist on the need to break this prevailing culture in the working class inherited from the bureaucracy of all kinds. To do this, to dispute for a model with autonomy, union democracy, the proportional integration of the different tendencies, the gender perspective and coordination, as pillars of this models. And in this we collide with conceptions and praxis of sectors of the left that make up the FITU and the PSC. Let’s see.

The independence of the state cannot just be declamatory, limiting itself to demanding the repeal of the union association laws so that the unions are not agencies of the labor ministries. It is about not being slaves to the totally undemocratic statutes. Not to use them as an excuse for not applying workers’ democracy. Or of not considering democratizing them when the leadership of a union is won. For example, in the Tire-workers union, a great achievement of classism, we have been demanding a democratization of its statutes, an issue avoided by the current of the PO in its leadership.

The second element to highlight is the problem of union democracy. Starting from the idea that “the rank and file must decide everything”, it is incomprehensible that, when part of the left has leadership responsibility in a union, it reproduces attitudes of the union bureaucracy. Delegate bodies must function with a mandate. The assemblies have to be sovereign for everything. We need elected struggle committees when the statutory bodies are overtaken by the mobilization. It is remarkable how the PO rejects this demand. And they reiterated it again in the debate. And it is one of the key pillars not only in the face of the dispute over the union leadership. That the rank and file decides is also an educational slogan towards working class self-determination and for it to assume the leadership not only of the unions but also from the perspective of power and the dual power workers’ organizations that sustain it.

Finally, “single-thought” is also a stigma of the old model. It is more difficult to eliminate it as soon as an section or trade union is conquered. “It cannot be managed with differences”, a premise of the old bureaucracy that is reflected in new leaderships that refuse to integrate the other tendencies based on their real representativeness. In this sense, unlike the CICOP where all currents are integrated, in the body of delegates of the UF Oeste there is no decision to open up to the integration of other expressions of classism by IS that influences that leadership.

Those who assume a union position are not exempt from gender issues, so deeply rooted in the patriarchal bureaucracy. That is why marking these programmatic points with fire and putting them into practice is essential if we want to turn everything around and connect with the new rebel activism. Without which, there is no raw material for a new class leadership.

Finally, the need to coordinate, to put the conquests achieved at the service of the fight for a union or sector of the working class, is one of the key pillars of the new model that is needed and also where many times sectors of the left are missing. You cannot treat the recovered union space as a private hunting ground. Adapting to the apparatus is a pressure towards bureaucratization. There are no revolutionary unions if a conservative policy is implemented in them and they are not put at the service of the struggle and of winning new sectors against the bureaucracy.

These debates were left open. We need to advance in them so that democratic practices in the labor movement become a reality.