Towards a Communist Party labor program

BY:Bruce Bostick| June 17, 2017
Towards a Communist Party labor program

Editor’s Note: The article below is based on a presentation to a CPUSA conference on the working class and labor movement. It is one of several.

This presentation is, in my mind, too wide a topic to really do justice to developing a ‘Labor Program’ for our party.  Nevertheless, I will share some ideas in this direction. I tried to involve others, working collectively to hopefully begin the discussion.

Organized labor: Political Ground Zero in our nation

First of all, a communist program is much more than a union program, but a review of where organized labor is at this point, the ground we are on, is essential if we are to correctly access how we are to move forward.  Further, it is important to acknowledge that our party’s labor commission, labor work in general, has atrophied, with many of the important lessons our comrades and working class had learned through tough struggles needing to be updated. Unfortunately, a similar fate has befallen much of our work during the previous period of party leadership.

The U.S. labor movement is not one dimensional, but is a large tent, with varied union histories.

The U.S. labor movement is not one dimensional, but is a large tent, with varied union histories and traditions. The national leadership is generally “progressive,” and multiracial, due mainly to a decades long rank-and-file movement that our comrades played a leading role in.  A great many unionists, including leaders, now speak positively of socialism, even identifying themselves as socialist.  The old red-baiting period is done, again due to tough struggle to eliminate the anti-communist clause in union by-laws, as well as the positive experiences of communists/socialists doing hard, tough work over the past decades. The AFL-CIO, representing 13 million workers is the strongest sector, but another section, Change to Win, with SEIU as its main union, also plays an important role.

The United Auto Workers  (UAW), United Electrical Workers (UE), the National Education Association (NEA) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) all are independent, but play active, progressive, roles.  It is a diverse labor movement in numerous ways, including politically.  It is more militant, more interested in coalitions with allies than previous, but the dominant ideological influence remains ‘class collaboration,’ holding that movement back.

We probably need another word of explanation here.  The Trumka AFL-CIO leadership is positive, a product of the rank-and-file movement that changed organized labor from an openly Cold-War, anti-communist led movement, to one much more representative of their membership.  It is a more militant leadership than the old anti-communist clique that ran the federation until 1992.  The national leadership of organized labor no longer is all old, white and male, although there is still a real struggle here, that leadership now much better represents African Americans, Latinos, LGBT folks, younger people.

However, in the political arena, labor has constructed an in depth relationship of total dependence on the Democratic Party, which, while having a reformist wing, is still very much a capitalist ruling class party.  This connection, one of labor’s dependence on corporate liberals for leadership, puts our labor movement in a box where there are tremendous restrictions on labor’s ability to develop real solutions that directly aid union members and other working families. In this situation, “solutions” are limited to those tolerated by the liberal sector of that ruling class.  Health care is an example, where wide sections of the public are pushing Medicare for All, single payer, which would actually solve problems workers have here.  Corporate Democrats, however, remain tightly tethered to so-called corporate “solutions,” greatly harming organized labor’s ability develop unity with the emerging anti-Trump people’s movement.

Further, while we hear militant, progressive voices coming from our labor movement, they don’t reflect the cutting back, demobilizing of labor’s fighting arms, greatly undermining union workers confidence in their unions to represent them in any real, solid way.  Generally, labor fights over many of the national issues they face, but the militant fights on the shop floors have been cut.

As well, demands for jobs, stopping bad trade and labor deals, are generally tied to calls for tax cuts, grants or a variety of other moves designed to aid companies.  These are both examples of the continued dependence on ideas of class collaboration, harming labor’s ability to progress, at the present time.  What makes this situation difficult, confusing is the uneven level of developments, the fact that our labor movement is OUR movement of our nation’s working people, the most progressive mass movement in our nation, still is held back by dependence of seeing ‘solutions’ as coming from Democrats/corporations.

Unions ALWAYS need a rank-and-file movement.

George Meyers used to say “unions ALWAYS need a rank-and-file movement!  When leaders aren’t leading, we need to find ways to mobilize and push them.  If the leaders are leading, fighting for a progressive direction, we need a rank-and-file movement  to mobilize to help them!”

First off, many folks feel that the term “rank-and-file” doesn’t address the issue in a way people understand.  Further, today we see the labor movement as much wider than before.  Terms like “grassroots mobilization” or “involvement” seem better received, as well as representing the new, diverse labor movement today.  We need to discuss how to mobilize, involve the troops, take up and push principled issues, while at the same time fighting, supporting/building the defensive fights that are literally life and death to unions today!  In all these fights, unity of our labor movement is at the very center, the precious core of our work!

Organized labor represents the lowest percentage of workers, approximately 12%, in our nation, since prior to the organization of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s.  Corporate media sources write off labor as “powerless” and “irrelevant.”  However, unions today are the largest civil rights organization, biggest women’s, youth, retiree and progressive organizations in the nation, with over a century of experience in difficult struggles for justice.  This is an extreme crisis, with the Trump administration, GOP and some corporate Democrats, targeting our nation’s labor movement for extinction.

We need to become much better at understanding, popularizing, the fact that organized labor speaks for, fights for all of us, that all working folks, as well as their communities, rise and fall as labor does. For communists, there is an historic responsibility we have to help rebuild this essential fighting movement of our working class, that our party played a central role in building.

Building trades, historically the more conservative sector that had to be forced to integrate, bring women into the trades, is exercising strong influence at this historic moment.  This is the sector that cozied up to Trump, taking his call to ‘Rebuild Infrastructure’ at face value.  They urged support for Trump’s initiative and used threats to break from the AFL-CIO unless the fed supported the Dakota Pipeline project.  Trumka moved their way, supported that folly, harming alliances labor has developed with environmentalists!

Teachers especially, and some public unions, have been the most influenced by, most involved presently in some of the mass demonstrations and in working to build coalitions fighting to defend our hard-won gains now under attack by the Republican majority in Congress.

The USW – steel, the other manufacturing unions, have generally been the solidest, most principled, fighting section of organized labor.  Presently, however, they are generally paralyzed, in shock after an election that saw sizeable sections of their membership refuse to support the leadership’s endorsement.  Trump “high-jacked our issues,” according to USW President Leo Gerard, calling for rebuilding our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, and for ending job-community killing Free Trade Pacts.

Democrats, meanwhile, failed to prioritize standing up for industrial workers.  This situation has long term negative potential.

As well, another section that we now include in organized labor, is the wide mass movement of generally non-unionized workers fighting for unionization of food workers, minimum wage increase and other reforms.

The huge immigrant rights movement is also here.  Here workers are involved in struggles but have little consolidation into the main organized labor movement.

Another section loosely attached is the broad retiree movement, fighting to protect retirement security, now slated for destruction by the administration.  Retiree struggles can involve wide sections of the public, develop major coalitions tied to labor.

Organized labor since the election, with some admirable exceptions, have generally been shocked, “keeping their powder dry.”

The most immediate problem here is that, while wide sections of our nation are in motion, angry and taking to the streets in protest against cuts to hard won benefits, against racist, homophobic thrust of this regime, organized labor, with some admirable exceptions, have generally been shocked, “keeping their powder dry,” etc.  However, at the grassroots, shop floor, rank-and-file level, there is a strong, growing anger, interest in finding a specifically ‘union way’ of joining in the fight.  This is reflected in the passing of resolutions, calls from various sectors of labor, for a new Solidarity Day, a labor-led march on D.C.  We need to find ways to help bring labor into these struggles.

A complex political situation, full of contradictions, but for labor, dominated by major government/corporate assault on all sectors of working people’s hard-won gains.  It is the most dangerous situation U.S. organized labor has ever faced, with labor’s very right to exist now in question.  Also, however, one that presents tremendous possibilities for labor, as a movement, to grow, even lead, the huge mass movement, if they can overcome the inertia of the recent setbacks, add labor’s massive and powerful voice to the struggles.

Goals moving forward

In this difficult, contradictory, situation, it is extremely important that we mobilize and coordinate Communist workers and their allies.  As in other periods of historic crisis’s, communist understanding of the class struggle, balance of forces, potential allies and historic context, we can play a key role in helping workers fight their way out of this trap.  We cannot do this alone, only by working in coordination with allies and only after collective discussions.

It will require us to apply Marxist/Leninist understanding of this complex situation, finding a way to coordinate our work in order to expand our unity, to isolate our corporate enemy.  Different tactics need to be applied to deal successfully with the varied stages we face ahead.

Defending labor’s right to exist is where the widest sector of unions are willing to join in.

The immediate period is one of defensive struggles.  The issues here include health care, pension rights, as well as defending labor’s most basic bargaining rights, our right to exist.  It is here that the widest sector of organized labor is willing to join in.  This is official policy of labor’s main bodies.  We can use union halls, get union speakers, union resources and have members mobilized for events.  Mainly, at this point, the goal is to get labor involved in these wide defensive fights, upgrading their leadership role.  At this immediate point, most of the push for more militancy is expressed around “union” issues, those issues specific to union workers, their families, but there is a clear overlap with many fights now occurring.

We need to work with organized labor on the fights they see as in their immediate interests, including the fight to stop repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA,) the defense of healthcare rights.  This is a priority, requiring wide alliances with working class/minority communities.  Also here is the fight for retiree security. Allies can include faith groups, women, minority organizations.  In Cincinnati a couple years ago, Koch-inspired groups targeted public worker pensions for destruction.  Starting out 40 points down, a broad labor-led alliance showed how that would harm the city’s tax base, hurt public services, downgrade the education system and hurt workers living standards.  That move was defeated, by nearly 40 points.

 Labor cannot win even the smallest grievance without unity.

It is important that our fight for unity be upgraded, as well.  Unity cannot be viewed as only a tactical question.  Labor cannot win even the smallest grievance without unity. When we upgrade our understanding of the importance of unity to our movement’s success, our fight is strengthened and these lessons are passed on, strengthening the mass movement’s understanding as well.

Within that context, the fight against racism takes on far greater importance.  Racism is, has been, the number one weapon of the ruling class to divide workers and make obscene profits.  Our party has historic experience, responsibility, in this struggle.  We need to find ways, as our party has done in the past, to help all workers understand racism as the corporate institution it is, designed and used to divide working people.  While this poison has many sides, it is against all workers’ interests!  Helping show working folks how racist poison harms us all has helped win victories in the past.  This is an historic contribution by our party, and the labor movement, to the wider people’s struggle at a time that corporate sources present racism as personal, a personality disorder.

Also, while fighting to defend our gains, there are no hard/fast rules that we never propagate real, long-term solutions.  Popularization of ‘Medicare for All’ fits very well, when not counterpoised, into our fight against repealing ACA.

The steelworkers convention just concluded, calling for ‘Unity—to Win,’ and for “holding Trump’s feet to the fire” regarding his campaign demands.  The only way to do this is to build a concrete fight for a real government program to rebuild our nation’s crumbling infrastructure as a key, organized goal of our movement.  We need to have our movement outline the need to target African American, other minority communities, for jobs in rebuilding infrastructure, with Green Energy at its center.  USW also made the issue of recruiting unionists and allies to run for office a priority.  In this regard, Comrade Denise Weinbrinner, part of a multiracial, labor–based coalition running for city council in Pittsburgh, with strong support from the USW & SOAR, was elected, this past week.  The fight for retiree security is a key one, with the goal of ending the cap on Social Security taxes as a central, now widely accepted goal, one we’ve supported for some time.

Across our nation, new independent forms are springing up, running candidates, pushing the Democratic Party to return to its progressive, pro-labor, New Deal past.

While at the USW convention, a group of ‘Yes We Can,’ mainly Sanders supporters, ran full, multi-racial slates for city council, school board in Columbus, Ohio.  Running on progressive planks, they eliminated Republicans and are on the ballot, with incumbent Democrats, for November’s general election.  They also voted to affiliate with Working Families Party.  Examples of progressive electoral independence are popping up all across the nation.

We need to fight to create solidarity with others’ struggles.  This concept, that ‘your fights are our fights,’ is central to creating a new, positive situation going forward.  This was the base for Ohio labor’s fight, in 2011, to defeat SB 5, the Republican majority’s legislation to break public union’s right to bargain collectively.  Responding to the legislation, organized labor built a huge coalition, ‘We Are Ohio,’ that took the fight to the corporate reps.  Huge rallies were a daily occurrence, and Ohioans turned out to vote.  SB 5 went down in flames, losing by over 30 points.We CAN win these fights, even where our enemies have the votes.  I’ll do like George Meyers advised year’s ago, and discuss what I know, was part of, (so Ohio examples are prominent here).   Right after the November elections, Republicans, buoyed by Trump, GOP wins in Ohio, pushed right-to-work.  Ohio’s AFL-CIO mobilizing its members, allies, packed the hearing rooms, held rallies, had delegations at rep’s offices.  Citing the SB 5 fight, GOP withdrew the bill.

In GOP-dominated Westchester County, north of Cincinnati, they then tried to push a similar bill for the county.  Unions, again, mobilized their members, families and friends, packed council meetings and the bill was pulled.  The key here is that labor worked to mobilize its ranks, reached out to faith, minority allies, retirees and others, as opposed to running a ‘top-down’ campaign directed from elsewhere.  This is a cornerstone of labor’s work in Ohio, where the AFL-CIO president told the national that he’ll accept “no more paratroopers!”  Organizers coming In to work for labor must get apartments in communities they are involved in and must stay two years.

These fights highlight a key issue for labor, if we are to move forward.  Much of labor’s outreach has been marked by top-down, undemocratic, relationships with allies. Generally, as well, when labor’s part of the fight was done, their involvement with allies ended also.  This approach MUST be killed, dead!  Fights, involvement, needs to come from below, as much as possible, with labor buying into struggles for the long, not just the short run!

There are calls in labor  for a new ‘Solidarity Day’ be called by unions, bringing the wider mass movement under labor’s big tent.

Another issue being pushed forward in union circles is the call for a new ‘Solidarity Day’ be called by unions, bringing the wider mass movement under labor’s big tent.  This could become a flag to rally around, helping both organized labor and the new wide mass movement.  We, as communists, understand that labor/allied leadership can provide stability, resources, long-range outlook to the movement, while the mass movement offers a wave of new militant, forward looking fighters that can help revitalize our nation’s labor movement.  The present huge mass movement is generally spontaneous in nature.  Ties to organized labor, as we’re discussing, can help the mass movement develop stability, have resources and tie into labor’s fighting history.

From resistance to working peoples government

A next stage of struggle, again, not separated by walls, is moving from resistance to the defeat of Trump/extreme corporate right, creating the ability to build a working people’s government.  We need to help workers develop socialist/revolutionary consciousness during the period, preparing to go forward.  Some of the demands/goals of this period can include;

  •  Real national health care—Medicare for All.
  •  Reform of labor legislation, creating a real right of workers to organize without company interference, with stiff penalties for labor law violations.
  •  Guaranteed income for all, paid for by taxing the top 1%.
  •  Free education for all.
  •  Green energy based infrastructure, with basic industrial, union jobs targeting minority communities.
  •  National program for building affordable housing, with homes targeting minority communities.
  •  National industrial program, with public ownership of main manufacturing facilities and national production goals.
  •  Cutting military, with jobs going into rebuilding inner city communities.
  •  Apprenticeships with union jobs for inner city youth as part of rebuilding cities.
  •  Real, guaranteed, retirement security for all.
  •  Shorten the workweek, maintain pay levels.

Finally, labor needs to move toward a new, international, labor movement that can successfully confront capital’s international organization.

While there are no blueprints, as we move into the more mature stage of this development, we will need to overcome resistance from the more conservative sectors of labor, find ways to include wider sections of labor in the fight.

This is a period in which we need to help workers understand the need to suppress the ability of huge corporations to be able to control elections, and government if we are to succeed.  Presently, the severe limitations of our democracy have become obvious.  Corporations, the wealthy, are able to control the entire system. From choosing candidates, to total control of the media to actually being able to buy elections, we have democracy for the corporate capitalist ruling class, with regular working people having little input and no control.

The coming period is one that we must raise the issue of real democracy, working-class democracy, where new institutions, controls will be required to both empower working people to have myriad ways of involving themselves in public life as well as limiting, controlling the power of corporations so that they can no longer control, warp, our government to their will.  Socialism, with working people, their allies, actually taking power, can go further, eliminating the poisonous influence of corporations over government entirely.

Building the Communist Party in the working class

Recruiting workers to the Communist Party will strengthen the party, making it more stable, more based in the class struggle.  It also will strengthen, be welcomed by the trade union movement, as having a stronger Communist Party also means a stronger, more militant, educated labor movement.

As we help develop worker’s fights/organization, we need to help them develop class consciousness and revolutionary consciousness.  Only when we actually fight for, achieve control of the government, will we be able to protect our hard-won gains.  Only with workers, their allies, in control will we be able to finally institute real changes in the interests of our people, without wealthy corporations undermining them.  The taking of power by workers, their allies, is socialism!

A stronger Communist Party also means a stronger, more militant, educated labor movement.

In targeting the recruitment of workers, we need to look at updating Wm. Z. Foster’s concept of ‘Industrial Concentration.’  In other historic periods this had meant concentrating on a steel mill, auto plant.  In today’s struggles, we should look at what the largest, most important, union-organized section of the workforce in our area.  This might be, instead of a mill or auto plant, a hospital, college or some other mass industry.  Our clubs can target, concentrate on the large facility, building a program to upgrade their leadership in mass movement, involve workers from that group in struggles and working to recruit workers from that unit to the Communist Party.


In closing, I hope that this presentation can serve as a starter for further discussion on how to organize, recruit workers to our party.  Further, it is successful if it can help spur the revitalization of Communist labor work.  Our party has been in the center of every great step forward our nation’s people have made.  Let us hope this is a beginning to again successfully fighting to change our nation, for using our rich resources, in order to make people’s lives richer and more rewarding.


Photo: Marilyn Bechtel




    Bruce Bostick is a retired steelworker and labor activist in Ohio.

Related Articles

For democracy. For equality. For socialism. For a sustainable future and a world that puts people before profits. Join the Communist Party USA today.

Join Now

We are a political party of the working class, for the working class, with no corporate sponsors or billionaire backers. Join the generations of workers whose generosity and solidarity sustains the fight for justice.

Donate Now

CPUSA Mailbag

If you have any questions related to CPUSA, you can ask our experts
  • QHow does the CPUSA feel about the current American foreign...
  • AThanks for a great question, Conlan.  CPUSA stands for peace and international solidarity, and has a long history of involvement...
Read More
Ask a question
See all Answer