Sometimes a seemingly arcane struggle can in reality represent an epic battle of class forces. This is the case in the struggle between the Vermont State Labor Council and the President of the National AFL-CIO Richard Trumka. Hiding behind the use of bureaucratic clauses, Trumka tried and failed to punish the only state labor council in the US, the Vermont State Labor Council (VSLC) who actively organized workers against the attempted coup by Trump and fascist backers. This was in the form of a vote taken on November 2020 to authorize a General Strike in Vermont in the event of coup. What is at stake is no less than the right of workers to defend themselves industrially against the existential threat posed by fascism.
In attempting to snuff out the spark of independent workers mobilization against the fascist threat, National AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was following in footsteps of the historical betrayals of Social Democratic forces in Italy and Germany last century, who revealed themselves to be more scared of the workers rising up than of deadly threat of fascism. The public and principled fight back by the VSLC combined with an incipient United Front solidarity campaign representing an anti-fascist layer of both Marxists and Social Democrats managed to deter Trumka from following up on his plans to discipline or even sack the leadership of the VSLC. Important lessons must be learnt from this struggle. The fight against fascism in the US means not just a struggle against the Proud Boys and the Republican Party but also against the Democrat Party and their toadies in the trade union bureaucracy like Trumka who would rather disarm the workers than fight fascism. Lessons must also be drawn from the fact that none of the high profile Marxist groups endorsed the campaign— a reflection of the disorientation of many Leftists in the face of the rising threat of fascism in the world’s dominant imperialist power.
Letter from Trumka reveals National AFL-CIO suppressed calls for a General Strike.
With Donald Trump refusing to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power in the aftermath of the November election and concocting one conspiracy after another to overturn his electoral loss, the Vermont AFL-CIO democratically passed a motion authorising a general strike should Trump act on his threat to refuse to hand over power. In retaliation the National AFL-CIO launched a politically motivated and punitive “investigation” into the vote taken by the VSLC at its annual convention on November 21st 2020.
An explosive letter was sent to the Vermont AFL-CIO on June 29th by Richard Trumka outlining the results into the “investigation”. The letter was leaked by Trumka to “In These Times”. The letter outlines how the National AFL-CIO did everything in its power to repress all organizing against Trump’s threatened coup. Secret talks were held behind the backs of the US working class and a decision was made that any talk of a General Strike must be stopped. This criminal act of class betrayal was justified that any move to resist a coup by workers would be used by Trump as pretext to declare martial law.
The full letter can be read below, but the most damning sections are worth examining in detail:
In the lead up to the presidential election, the Executive Council debated the labor movement’s appropriate response in the event then-President Trump refused to concede defeat. The Executive Council made the strategic decision to not immediately call for a general strike in such a situation in order to avoid providing Trump a reason to invoke martial law. Following this decision, I communicated to state and local federation leaders that resolutions calling for general strikes were counter to the labor movement’s electoral and democracy protection strategy, including in Zoom meetings with state and local federation leaders on October 22 and November 24.
Translation: the top leaders of the AFL-CIO, representing over thirty unions, behind the backs of the 12.5 million union members met in secret and made the “strategic decision” to suppress any organizing in the face of Trump’s efforts to overturn the election through a combination of actions in Congress, the courts, and moblilising armed fascist gangs in the streets. In Orwellian fashion such organising ran counter to the “labor movement electoral and democracy protection strategy”.
The letter continues:
Near the end of October 2020, the VSLC used the media to publicly assert its intent to hold a Vermont general strike authorization vote at a convention to be held on November 21, 2020. My staff communicated to you that the state federation was not authorized to hold a general strike vote under the Rules Governing. Staff offered several creative alternative accountability efforts in place of a general strike vote, including holding a day of action or engaging in phone banking through the National AFL-CIO around Trump’s actions. All of these suggestions were rejected by you.
Translation: The national AFL-CIO leadership working behind the scene, tried to threaten and bully the VSLC from holding a general strike vote. The national leadership was surprised and furious when the usual toothless tactics it uses to pacify workers like phone banking and “Days of Action” were rejected. Is this the kind of “action” the AFL-CIO would have wheeled out had Trump and his backers in the ruling class and his allies in the military and police succeeded in illegally clinging to the Whitehouse? “Don’t like a Presidential dictatorship? Call your Senator and complain now!” This is dark satire indeed.
“Dampening the powder” of working class resistance – the role of Social Democrats in Italy
Social democratic organizations like trade unions resting upon the working class for support, contend that reforms can always be won within capitalism through the electoral process alone. They oppose any independent mobilization of workers as a class in struggle for demands that actually threaten capitalist class rule. The cowardice of social democratic bureaucrats like Trumka in the face of fascism is nothing new. It echoes down to us from 20th Century history. The first fascist movement to seize power was Mussolini’s in the early 1920’s. Leon Trotsky, the great Russian Revolutionary wrote in 1932 of the Italian Social Democrats:
“To the last hour, they restrained the workers with might and main from giving battle to Mussolini’s bands. It availed them nothing. The Crown, along with the upper crust of the bourgeoisie swung over to the side of fascism. Convinced at the last moment that fascism was not to be checked by obedience, the Social Democrats issued a call to the workers for a general strike. But their proclamation suffered a fiasco. The reformists had dampened the powder so long, in their fear lest it should explode, that when they finally and with a trembling hand applied a burning fuse to it, the powder did not catch.”
The German Trade Unions in the ADGB perhaps provide the most tragic and profound example of where appeasement by organised labor to fascism leads. On the day that Hitler was handed the Chancellorship by President Hindenberg, the German Communist Party put out a call for a joint General Strike which was actively campaigned against by both the SPD (Social Democrats) and the ADGB. The Unions went even further to appease the Nazi’s and on 1st May 1933, on the renamed May Day National Labor Day (from May Day), the ADGB had workers march under the banner of the Swastika. On May 2nd, the Nazi’s raided the office of the ADGB, banned independent trade unions and sent its leaders to Dachau. Such appeasement in face of fascism is suicidal for both the working class as a whole and even the treacherous bureaucrats who disarm them.
The Solidarity campaign for VSLC – An incipient United Front strategy against fascism
Firstly, it should be stated that Trumka’s backing off punishing the VSLC is a significant victory. This victory was due to the principled and public way that the VSLC fought back. Rather than stick to the usual backdoor channels, President David Van Deusen and the VSLC, through both social and labor media, went public to explain the politics of the dispute and why it mattered. Part of the strategy was an appeal for solidarity from beyond the labor movement.This solidarity was manifested through two open letters. One letter was signed by twenty-six leaders of the New Left in the US from the 1960’s and 1970’s. Another open letter was signed by ten socialist, anti-fascist and workers organisations and around thirty individuals from not only within the US, but from around the world. Another important development was the passing of a motion by the Central Vermont DSA Chapter in solidarity with the VSLC.
The VSLC and President Van Deusen were very active in promoting these acts of solidarity on social media. That these acts of international solidarity by relatively small groups likely played a role in the calculations of Trumka in backing down shows the weakness of Social Democrats and their fear of the working class. To Trumka these groups, although small, represented the potential power that could be mobilised if he seriously moved against the VSLC. This is the same fear that saw Trumka, the Democrats act so decisively to begin with to suppress general strike organising.
The mobilisation of these small groups and individuals in defence of the right of US labor to organise industrially against the threat of fascism was an incipient type of the United Front that Trotsky urged be organised in German in the 1930’s between the Social Democratic (SPD) and the Communist Party (KPD). He urged Marxists to appeal to the Social Democrat workers to protect each other and to fight together against the mutual fascist threat. Within the united front member groups would maintain their political independence. Trotsky described this as “marching separately but striking together”. These small groups and individuals, some of who were revolutionary Marxists which signed the letter, were standing with the best anti-fascist layers as represented by the VSLC against not just the fascists but against the dominant Social Democrat leadership of the national AFL-CIO which actively sought to disarm the workers. This is a strategy that must be built on.
It must be asked why this solidarity action come from the relative fringes of the Left? The open letter signed by US and international leftwing groups was initiated by classconscious.org, a small Trotskyist website with three editors from the US and Australia. Where were the larger, more prominent Trotskyist formations such as Left Voice, Socialist Alternative and the International Marxist Tendency? Why did only one DSA chapter enter the struggle? Where were the anarchists such as the IWW and ANTIFA? How can one explain the silence of so many leftists on this issue?
Some ostensibly Marxist groups did not want to touch this issue because rhetoric aside, they politically subordinate themselves to the national AFL-CIO bureaucracy and the Democratic Party. They wish to appeal to the so called “progressive” wing of the bourgeoisie, and are not interested in mobilising the working class independently.
On the other extreme were the sectarians who refuse to work within trade unions and do not distinguish between class collaborationist forces such as Trumka and progressive layers as represented by the leadership of the VSLC.
Other left groups declined to sign because they continue to downplay the risk of fascism in the US. Many continue to dismiss the significance of January 6th as a buffoonish riot rather than an attempted coup. This is despite the ever increasing evidence of the complicity of elements of the military, police and intelligence agencies. Not even evidence that the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff was fearful that this was a “Reichstag moment” has shaken their views. They mistakenly believe that recognising Trump and the faction of the ruling class backing him as fascist logically entails supporting or being an apologist for the capitalist Democratic Party. This is an echo of the “Social Fascism” slogan of the KPD in Germany in the 1930’s which undermined the fight against the Nazis.
Groups such as ANTIFA simply reveal their petty bourgeois orientation in dismissing the importance of organising trade unions and workers in the fight against fascism.
Moving forward such obstructions to united front work against the threat of fascism in the US must be overcome; and the incipient networks that were formed in the solidarity campaign for the VSLC must be built upon.
Slanders of Trumka.
Whilst the perfidy of Trumka and the national AFL-CIO was fully revealed in their letter to the VSLC and therefore should be distributed widely, it must also be acknowledged that it contains a number of slanders against the VSLC leadership. David Van Deusen addressed these on social media in the following statement:
“The letter from Trumka is misleading on various points and was clearly written with the anticipation that it would leak to the public. First off, the Vermont AFL-CIO has been GROWING membership. We have gained 1200+ new members since United! took office. Second, of course we have a small state membership compared to other states (even if we are growing); with the exception of Wyoming, and with A population of just over 600,000, we are the smallest state in the nation. And finally, I was on one of the two calls Trumka ref’s; this is the first I have heard about the notion that he worried that a General Strike would be used as the excuse to have the military take over. Further, in my mind, if we were that close to a coup, obviously the appropriate action would have been the use of our most power tool (ie the strike). Democracy does not defend itself.”
The fight against the threat of fascism continues
It is impossible to know what impact the suppression of general strike organising by Trumka, outside of the VSLC had without entering the realm of the counter-factual. Whilst we now know that despite the sidelining and disarming of the working class, Trump did eventually surrender the Presidency. However the lack of virtually any mass protests or the threat of any industrial action from the working class contributed to the air of impunity that emboldened the mob of thousands were allowed to rampage through the Capital building on January 6th.
Since leaving office the air of impunity continues. The Democrats in their pathetic appeals to bipartisanship and unity with the fascist conspirators across the aisle have revealed their full impotence. There has been zero consequences for Trump, other Republicans, police or military figures who conspired to organise and facilitate the attack on the Capital. Trump has tightened his grip on the GOP and Republicans are on a legislative rampage of voter suppression in the State Legislators. Trump is again mobilising his base with mass rallies and fascist speeches against socialism.
Ultimately the threat of fascism in the US is not abating because it is a both a product and an end point for the crisis facing capitalism and in particular US Imperialism. The US ruling class continues to flood Wall St with free money as the working class sinks further into immiseration, a process greatly accelerated by the covid pandemic. It simultaneously prepares for a potential World War against Russia and China in a desperate effort to stave off its failing hegemony. The logic of these processes pushes the US ruling class towards a form of rule that is capable of smashing all working class resistance. Similar processes are at work in other capitalist nations around the world as the ruling classes stare down the threats from their rivals and worry about the rise of socialist revolution from below.
In this context the victory of the VSLC against Social Democratic forces that seek to subordinate the working class to the Democrat Party must be built on. The independent mobilisation of the working class against fascism, including organising within trade unions must continue. The networks that formed in this campaign must be built upon. Those Leftists who continue to be in denial about the ongoing threat of fascism are only serving to chloroform the working class. As Rosa Luxembourg stated “History is the only true teacher, the revolution the best school for the proletariat.”It is in this spirit that the lessons of the solidarity campaign for the VSLC must be learnt to inform building a real workers movement against fascism.
Full letter from Richard Trumka sent to David Van Deusen on June 29th