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Unions, Lenin, and the American Way (Part I)

American trade union tactics have roots in Lenin's USSR. (This is part one of a seven-part essay.)

by
Oleg Atbashian

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October 11, 2009 - 12:09 am
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My earlier article “Obama the Pitchfork Operator: A Remake of the Soviet Classic” pointed out the similarities between Obama’s and Stalin’s methods of governing by pitting unions against businesses. Many readers have emailed me asking to write more and compare the roles of the unions under socialism (as it existed in the USSR) and capitalism (as it exists in the USA). This essay is an expanded response to their questions.

The “card-check” debates in the U.S. Congress reminded me of my own experiences with trade unions in the USSR, where organized labor was part of the official establishment and union membership was universal and mandatory. It also reminded me of how that system’s seemingly magnanimous goals — fairness, economic equality, and social justice — in real life brought forth a rigged game of wholesale corruption, forced inequality, and grotesque injustice.

Years later, the same Orwellian misnomers are catching up with me in America. One of them is called the “Employee Free Choice Act” — a piece of legislation that deprives workers of free choice by replacing private balloting with publicly signed cards in the presence of pushy union organizers. Bad as it is, card check is only a means to a larger end. Proponents of “redistributive justice” would love nothing more than to use a forced expansion of labor unions as a vehicle to deliver America straight into a utopian swamp, where they will gain extraordinary powers while the rest of the nation will be doomed to repeat the Soviet scenario of slow death from social, economic, and moral decay.

Defeating the card-check bill alone will not affect the ideology that has spawned it, just as curing a symptom of a disease will not remove the infection. It is the ideology that we must address and learn to recognize in its various manifestations.

No matter where I worked in the USSR, I was always a union member without so much as a formal notice — starting with the student union in college and then on to whatever union was assigned to the state-run enterprise that hired me, regardless of the job description. The only indicators of this one-sided relationship were monthly union dues, automatically deducted from my measly wages. It was like paying alimony for a fling I never had. To be fair, in the early 80s, I did go on a union-subsidized one-week tour of Uzbekistan — mostly because a friend knew someone at the union office who owed him a favor. But that was it.

Every time I visited a union office in the USSR, I saw the same prominently displayed poster: “Trade unions are a school of communism — V.I. Lenin.”

At the time it seemed like a sweeping exaggeration, similar to other Lenin gems like “communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country,” which any student of arithmetic could reformulate as “Soviet power is communism minus the electrification.” But recent events in American politics have made me wonder whether the union movement might actually be all that Lenin’s quote implies and more — a school, a workshop, and a gateway to communism.

Ideologically, both unionists and communists share the slogan of “economic equality and justice” — two incompatible concepts, given that just rewards make people economically unequal, while forced economic equality leads to great injustice. The pursuit of these contradictory goals in real life results in a dreary outcome. Since absolute equality is unattainable for reasons we will discuss later, forcing it on a society only replaces natural inequality with forced inequality. In this sense, the difference between the two movements is in their radius: communists fancy a forced “economic equality and justice” for all, while the unions limit it to the select group composed of their members.

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