Flying Squad pickets and the need for independent workplace groups

2009 November 17

By JOMO

One of the innovative things that came out of the Teamsters Rebellion in 1934, was the flying squad picket. The flying squad picket is a rapid response group of members who are ready to mobilize on short notice to provide direct support for pickets or actions. It is important for how it mobilizes many workers in real time. Farrell Dobbs talks about how the flying squad pickets then included not just union workers, but also unemployed workers and people from the community.

This sort of direct action seems particularly relevant given the times that we are in right now. Unions are weak, union busting is normalized, unemployment is rising, and social services budgets are slashed with no qualms. Many workers are losing confidence that the contract negotiation process is going to help them keep their jobs, or tide through the lows of the economic crisis. The recent resounding No vote by 75% of UAW members and up to 90% in some locals,against the concessionary UAW/Ford contract, is the clearest testament to this utmost lack of faith and indignation against the union bureaucracy. This has not happened for decades. It is clearer than day that union bureaucracies have cowered at the economic crisis and perpetuated this sense of inevitability and legitimacy of attacks on workers. This can be the only foreseeable result after decades of racism that have only too conveniently shifted the blame unto third world workers, as well as economic nationalism that is more about keeping US companies afloat rather than fighting for the working class in the US.

This raises the question: What can sufficiently fight back against this economic crisis? What kind of actions and organizations can counter these endless attacks and criminalization of workers struggles?

The flying squad pickets are one of many forms of direct action that can be taken on by rank and file workers, harking back to the times even before the grievance procedure was the norm. They have the advantage of involving workers from many different workplaces, shattering the false divisions between job classifications, and the divide and conquer strategies of management. Flying squad pickets are also powerful for mobilizing people’s energies at the moment, without letting them die out with long procedural, bureaucratic processes. They are able to give people a sense of power and control over their own fates, without relying always on an outside, unapproachable force, an overdependence on a contract which many folks can’t even read, or understand.

That said, even direct actions themselves need to be coordinated with other forms of workers self activity. Flying squads are great expressions of workers solidarity and self activity. However, they are not the be all and end all.

Flying squads and other such direct action cannot replace the need for structure and organizations that the workers need to build for themselves, by themselves. It cannot replace the communication, skill sharing, solidarity and relationships that workers need to foster with one another, whether in the same job, or across job lines. Everything that the workplace is, is meant to divide and conquer through race, gender and citizenship, through language and skill set. Sometimes the difficult truth is that people dont like each other cos they know each other too well, for too long. It takes more work than just common forms of direct action to break through the old, crusty, institutionalized social relations that capitalism has carefully cultivated within the workforce. These require more consistency, and is sometimes the most slow and tedious work.

Independent workplace groups complement direct action. People are transformed by the actions that they are involved in. We need to shatter the notion that we should only follow the rules and laws that were meant to disenfranchise us anyway. We need to emphasize that the most successful direct actions, or flying squads are those that have a sense of continuation, before, and after exciting public actions.

It is also through such formations that a consistent critique and independence from the union bureaucracy can be maintained. In our organizing in Seattle, we have encountered groups who critique us and the rank and file custodians we organize with, for not being subservient to the union bureaucracy’s conservatism and slowness. “You should see the big picture,” or “You shouldn’t be so divisive”, or “You are playing management’s game to discredit the union by not following the bylaws.” These are challenging notions to counter precisely because they come from so-called progressives and leftists. And it is all the more frustrating for that reason. The unwillingness to side with the demands of immigrant workers, and workers of color, chiding them to fall in line with a more conservative bureaucracy seems to be a little lacking on the anti-racism credentials these groups always rattle on about. No, anti-racism is not just another -ism to talk about in a “privilege awareness” training session. It actually does mean you have to side with the struggles of oppressed people and not flock to the token people of color who step on everyone else’s heads to get up the ladder. “Workers are the union” also shouldn’t just be a meaningless slogan.

Sometimes workers’ aren’t consistently more radical than the union bureaucracy. This is a sober assesment. We have many contradictions that need to be ironed out. An independent workplace group provides space for those necessary conversations to take place, for those seething frustrations to be situated within a broader political analysis of our present times. Unions are not always the dam blocking the whole flood of workers self activity and energy that is intent on tearing down management and capitalism. Activists and revolutionaries need to be careful not to read our desires for what workers self activity represent, for what it actually is. Sometimes, the demands for “cut from the top,” or “cut from management, not from workers,” become read as “eliminate all management.” This is a false representation of workers demands. We need to keep our ears on the ground and listen to what people around us are saying. This is not to say we dont keep pushing and supporting the voices of the militants, whether they be the minority of the workforce. What I do mean is that it does us no good to misintepret and charge alone. That said, it is a great transitional demand that we should support and fight for because it points to greater rank and file control over the workplace and can create openings for discussing with rank and file militants, the importance of worker’s self management.

How we can build mass rank and file workplace groups with strong race, gender and anti-imperialist politics, with a focus on direct action by workers and community, that can reinforce the notion that workers ARE the union, reflecting back to workers and others, their own power? We need answers to this to respond to today’s crisis.

  • http://www.lake-desire.com/newgameplus Lake Desire

    Sometimes workers’ aren’t consistently more radical than the union bureaucracy. This is a sober assesment. We have many contradictions that need to be ironed out. An independent workplace group provides space for those necessary conversations to take place, for those seething frustrations to be situated within a broader political analysis of our present times. Unions are not always the dam blocking the whole flood of workers self activity and energy that is intent on tearing down management and capitalism.

    What do we do with the faction of workers who are to the right of the union? Organizing for my grad student union, where membership is optional, almost a third or so of the students decline membership because they are anti-union, apathetic, or scared it’ll get them in trouble from their managers or the government (if international students). I’m inclined to just ignore the unorganized right wing rank and file, but wonder if there is a way (and if it’s worthwhile) to organize the other folks see a moderate union as something too radical.

  • http://spiritualdesert.blogspot.com/ Mamos

    good post JOMO. I agree with LakeDesire that this is an important sober assessment of the strengths and challenges of independent rank and file organizing.

    I’ll try to take a stab at LakeDesire’s question…. I think we generally need to build independent rank and file groups that bring together the most militant minority which will consistently be to the left of the union bureaucracy. We have to constantly do reflection and self-education among this layer. But hopefully as these folks become consistent rank and file layers they will be able to draw from their own organic connections (friendships, a sense of an informal workgroup based on working together for a long time, etc.) with the unorganized right wing rank and file. This will not happen if the political division runs along race, gender, nationality, or job category lines as it often does. But within, for example, the Korean American custodians at UW, we can hope that the more left wing Korean American workers could try to win over some of the right wing Korean American workers to convince them to stop siding with Korean American supervisors and to side instead with their Black coworkers.

    In terms of the TA struggle, I think it’s an art of putting forward transitional demands. Folks might be right wing in the sense that they don’t see themselves as workers, are anti-union, or are scared, but there might be one specific demand that they care about that will bring them out for one action. Most of them will go home after that but maybe a handful will stick around and might start moving to the left. By transitional demands, I mean demands over basic things like printing, class sizes, academic freedom, etc…. winning these helps lessen the burden of exploitation a bit and can carve out more space for organizing…. but we also try to tie these demands to building more rank and file control over the workplace so it’s not just about reforms, its about a vision for a new society. We can say we don’t just want academic freedom, we want more control over what we study, what we research, and how we teach. Someone might be generally anti-union from a right wing perspective because they don’t care about wage increases or health care or because they’re cynical about the union’s inability to deliver the goods, but maybe they feel disrespected by their boss over the way they teach and that particular demand might resonate with them. These folks can never be the core of the organization you’re building but I imagine some of them could swirl around the group as supporters. Ultimately it’ll take a movement upsurge to get more of them involved at a mass level and to win over a majority of the workforce to the perspective of independent rank and file direct action.

  • Kingsley Clarke

    GF:
    Congratulations! I agree absolutely with the spirit of the initial call for flying squads. Nuances such as union reaction, if any, and independent organization can be confronted in the context of the action.
    For example, we had an eviction blockade Tuesday in Chicago.
    More flying squads and less flying to conferences!
    Kingsley

  • todd

    “almost a third or so of the students decline membership because they are anti-union, apathetic, or scared it’ll get them in trouble from their managers or the government (if international students). I’m inclined to just ignore the unorganized right wing rank and file, but wonder if there is a way (and if it’s worthwhile) to organize the other folks see a moderate union as something too radical.”

    Honestly, this is not about the workers being right wing or left wing. This happens in every campaign, and reflects concerns, contradictions, and material interests we have to answer. On a nuts and bolts organizing perspective, these are just the A-B-Cs we have to be able to move with and overcome.

    Some IWW organizers developed the concept of See the union Hear the Union Know the Union. Some workers will just know the union off the bat. Others will need to be convinced. The large majority though will need to see the union in practice to be moved. Our organizing needs to reflect this, and try to build workplace movements not based on convincing people of ideas, but transforming workers through struggles that build capacity and consciousness. Writing people off because they express concerns or are hard to convince would be a crucial misstep, though grad students honestly will be plagued with these sorts of concerns and handwringing.

    It would also be a mistake to think that the role of revolutionaries is merely to build unions, which I think this article is good to distinguish itself from. More objective power or organizations of workers doesn’t translate to working class power necessarily. As revolutionaries, our interventions in workplace struggle are directed at building the conditions for the transformation of society. This means our contribution to the labor movement needs to be focused on developing conscious worker-militants organized and reflecting upon the lessons of the class struggle towards a praxis.

  • http://spiritualdesert.blogspot.com/ Mamos

    Todd,
    Excellent point. Looking back on this now I agree with you it’s a bit off to try to map workers according to a “left vs. right” framework. Folks are more complicated and contradictory than that. We have seen worker militants who want to build rank and file organization that goes further than the union turn around and attack the union from a pro-management perspective. We have also seen workers who appeared to be timid or pro-management become militants in the course of struggle. I think it’s helpful to remember that many folks will need to “see” organization in practice before they’re convinced to move as you point out. Of course, we should recognize reactionary, patriarchal, racist, or ethnic chauvinist tendencies among workers and call them out in the course of community building, but this is different from trying to polarize around a set of abstract ideas which you rightfully warn against (Don Hamerquist makes a similar warning in his Workplace Papers essays which have influenced us quite a bit).

    I also think it’s crucial that revolutionaries don’t abandon the class when the going gets tough. In any labor work there is a rise and file of workers’ self-activity and self-organization. We’ve had upsurges of serious militancy among custodians here in Seattle in the recent past but right now folks are intimidated by management retaliation, restructuring,etc. and by the fact that students, other University staff, etc. are not moving as fast as them, leaving them overexposed. It’s crucial that we keep showing up, socializing with other workers, fighting small battles to resolve grievances directly on the shop floor (which we just had a small victory doing), etc. Some workers will get involved again only when they see this consistency and long term effectiveness of independent workers’ organization, or workers-student-grad student organization in our case.

    In the meantime, the key is to develop, as you say, “conscious worker-militants organized and reflecting upon the lessons of the class struggle towards a praxis.” That sums up our main work right now.

  • JOMO

    Hey Todd,
    Thanks for your contribution. I agree with you and Mamos that these nitty gritty situations are what revolutionaries have to be involved in. Otherwise we will just be building happy leftist milieus that have no power to change the conditions of society.
    I think it is important however to distinguish this sense of needing to meet people where they are at, with the popular frontish ideas of many progressives and even revolutionaries. Revolutionaries still need to keep pushing methods and tactics that break bourgeois conceptions of legality and acceptability, shifting the power back to the working class and everyday people as the agent of change. This is an art. We shouldnt push so hard that we become dogmatic assholes just spouting the same ol line. But we should also discuss and strategize with folks and show how their assertion of power and pushing bouegrois legality can also be successful.

  • Nate

    hi all,

    Great discussion. In case anyone cares, Todd’s “see the union” bit is referencing a column that Adam W wrote, its on this page – http://whatinthehell.blogsome.com/workers-power-columns/

    On the more important stuff than web links, I think Mamos makes a great point about long term involvement rather than moving on when the struggle dies down. I agree completely. I feel like a lot of the left does a sort of struggle chasing thing, running for wherever there’s a fire, but leaving when things start to cool off.

    Jomo, on what revolutionaries need to do, I agree with you in the long term or middle term, but personally I think it’s more important to be taking steps toward those middle term goals than it is to prefigure those goals. Wow that was muddy. Let me try again. Some comrades have implied that I’m a gradualist or slowcialist but I think it’s more important to meet people where they’re at and move them as many steps as possible than it is to get our methods/tactics right (or, left!) in the sense of breaking with bourgeois conceptions. To my mind, the aim is like Todd said. I think we want to get workers to experience breakthroughs more than we want breakthrough tactics. If the latter helps us with the former, awesome. If not, then we should ask if it’s the right move or not.

    take care,
    Nate