Photo: SEIU President Mary Kay Henry (credit Gage Skidmore)
By the Editorial Board
The $2 trillion spending plan being pushed through Congress by the Biden administration known as “Build Back Better” (BBB) has sparked a contentious debate among ruling class politicians, with Republicans characterizing it as a radical, ‘socialist’ agenda, and the Democratic Party framing it as a major victory for the working class. The truth of the matter is that this bill is neither socialist nor pro-worker; it only helps to prop up US imperialism as well as one of the Democrats’ biggest allies—the sellouts known as yellow unions.
The spending bill includes new provisions as well as others that were previously part of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (referred to as the PRO Act). Among these provisions are a $250 tax deduction for union members’ dues and harsher penalties for employer health and safety violations. It also allows the National Labor Relations Board, which is the toothless government agency meant to enforce US labor laws, to levy fines of up to $100,000 against employers for unfair labor practices like retaliating against workers for organizing and trying to illegally bust union drives.
Biden has claimed that he intends to be “the most pro-union president leading the most pro-union administration in American history,” amid a surge in strikes and other labor disputes across the US. This claim is merely a gesture to the existing unions in the US, which are not tools of class combat, but of class conciliation. While Biden’s union provisions in the spending bills will have mostly inconsequential impacts for the working class as a whole, they are meant to strengthen the collaborationist unions’ mirage that they fight for workers’ interests, when in reality they work to preserve US imperialism.
In the US, unions have been transformed from organizations of the working class, meant to struggle against the capitalists for better working conditions and better pay, to organizations led by sellouts of the workers, known as the labor aristocracy. These union leaders have ascended from the ranks of the working class to positions of capitalist authority—they have a seat at the table with the capitalists and politicians that manage US imperialism and, as such, have firmly sided with the interests of the imperialists against those of the workers.
The labor aristocracy is a direct byproduct of US imperialism’s plunder of the oppressed countries around the world. Through their lackey rulers in oppressed nations, imperialist countries such as the US dominate the Third World economically and politically, maintaining conditions that allow US monopolies to exploit extremely cheap labor and extract resources. This creates superprofits for the US imperialists, who, at times, set aside a small portion for the highest stratum of the working class: the labor aristocracy. The gifts to the yellow unions in Biden’s spending bill should be seen as part of these crumbs to keep union leaders on the leash of the imperialists.
Unions in the US who serve imperialist interests are sometimes referred to as “yellow unions,” also known as “company unions,” which are essentially unions that are dominated and controlled by employers. The term originates with the unions in France in the early 1900s which deliberately chose the color yellow to demarcate themselves from the ‘red’ unions associated with socialism. Although company unions are formally outlawed in the United States, these yellow unions continue to do the work of the capitalists by collaborating with employers and the State rather than fighting against them.
The BBB bill includes a $4,500 tax credit for people buying electric cars from manufacturers that employ union labor like Ford and General Motors. In this concrete example of collaboration and betrayal, Biden’s faction of the imperialist ruling class incentivizes purchases of expensive electric vehicles from the monopolies that work with the yellow unions, increasing their profits, and the yellow unions help dress up gigantic monopolies such as the big automakers as friends to workers.
The yellow unions are not fighting organizations of the workers, but a tool to smooth over workplace grievances and keep strikes tame and domesticated, acting as mediators between the big capitalists and the workers. They strategically create the illusion that the best way for the workers to get what they want is by working with the bosses, collaborating with the capitalists against their real interests, and using this to control the working class. These labor aristocrats pose as allies of the workers, while in reality keeping them from struggling when it endangers the union leaders’ relationship with the bosses, and only supporting strikes when their control over the workers is threatened. They take modest concessions from the bosses during negotiations, using their influence to pressure desperate workers into accepting these minor gains, and then frame them as major victories, even when the union’s rank-and-file membership disagree.
Even though union membership has steadily declined over the past 50 years, the unions and the labor aristocrats that lead them still hold significant political influence. According to the non-profit Center for Responsive Politics, nearly 90% of the $260 million spent by unions in the 2020 election went to Democratic politicians. The yellow unions wish to co-opt the political force of the working class and their demands, rerouting them back into the swamp of sham elections and the Democratic Party. In doing so, they are able to keep the whole system of exploitation in place and steer the workers away from the struggle for revolution and seizing political power for themselves.
When discussing Democrats and Republicans, there is no pro-worker side: both are anti-worker and simply use different means to achieve their ends. This is imperialist politics as usual—the election winners always reward their backers, and in this case Biden is relying on the labor aristocracy as a key bloc of support, and is using his spending plan to funnel resources their way. Despite the empty words of politicians like Biden, at the end of the day, he is simply another chief of staff for US imperialism—playing on the surge in labor struggles over the past year is just another tool of the trade for him.
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