The Debate on Strategy in the Anti-Budget Cuts Movement

2010 April 26
by U&S

by Mamos

As an anti-budget cuts organizer in Seattle, I am excited by the important debates Advance the Struggle (AS) has raised with their piece Crisis and Contradictions: Reflections and Lessons from March 4th.    I basically agree with the perspective that AS is putting forward;  it confirms and advances a lot of the perspectives that my comrades in Unity and Struggle have been developing, especially with our anti-budget cuts work with Democracy Insurgent in Seattle, with ella pelea! in Austin, and our comrade’s work at Berkley.  For those who don’t know, Unity and Struggle is a revolutionary organization animated by a belief in the self-emancipation of oppressed people; for more info, check out the “About US” section of the Gathering Forces blog.    I would consider Unity and Struggle and a lot of the milleiu around Gathering Forces to be part of  the “class struggle Left” tendency that AS outlines and calls for; like AS we are attempting to chart a third path that is independent from both the centrists (the “we need to meet people where they are at” folks) and the adventurists (the “Occupy Everything Demand Nothing” folks).  We appreciate the chance to dialogue with AS and other  like-minded activists around the country and we also appreciate the chance to have principled debate with comrades from the other two tendencies.

The response pieces written by Socialist Organizer (SO) and Labors Militant Voice (LMV), raise some important challenges to this third tendency and highlight some key differences between us and the centrist tendency.  It is important to note that LMV’s piece raises important critiques of SO’s piece and I engage with those here  - I have no intention of lumping them together.   I offer my notes on these responses  in the hope of furthering the debate.

What I write here is relatively unsystematic because my comrades and I are  in the middle of organizing for a strike at the University of Washington on May 3rd so I don’t have a lot of time to flesh this out. I hope comrades will forgive and correct any points here that are underdeveloped , inaccurate, or unclear. I am writing this from a first person perspective rather than formally representing Democracy Insurgent or Unity and Struggle, the groups I am a part of.   I imagine that most people in both groups would agree with the spirit of what I put forward here but we simply don’t have the time to collectively write and edit a formal response right now because of all of our organizing and study groups.

Unions, Strikes, and Working Class Consciousness

I agree with SO that tactics need to be based (among other things) on analysis of the objective conditions. I also agree tactics need to be based on an understanding of where the entire working class is at, not just its vanguard (most radical) elements. However, we can’t base our understanding of where the class is at on where the union bureaucracy  is at. The rank and file of the working class often goes a lot farther than the bureaucracy. I am not sure if Socialist Organizer would equate the consciousness of workers with the positions of the bureaucracy (my sense is no because they criticize AS for allegedly doing exactly that, which I think is inaccurate). At University of Washington , however various centrist organizers have cited the positions of the bureaucracy as examples of the supposedly low level of class struggle on campus; they have used this supposed fact as the basis for their judgement that the campus is not yet ready for strikes. They don’t understand the role of rank and file worker-leaders within the campus unions who have been the ones at the forefront of the workers struggle; these leaders are organizing themselves in and around International Workers and Students for Justice (IWSJ), For a Democratic University (FADU), and informal workgroups and networks of workers who communicate through break meetings and department meetings. If centrist activists were out there at these meetings talking and listening to more of the rank and file on a day to day basis they would be hearing calls for much more radical action, including strikes, which the union bureaucrats are squeamish about. To make it clear, I’m not trying to bait my centrist coalition partners as being middle class or anything – some of them are workers on and off campus who do good work agitating in their unions and workplaces and in some cases building opposition caucuses. I’m just saying they don’t orient consistently toward the rank and file workers who are frustrated with the bureaucracy, they don’t consistently prioritize supporting these workers’ leadership.

All that being said, I agree with S.O. that the labor bureaucracy is not the only thing holding back workers from striking. Workers also lack confidence after 30 years of employers offensives codified in near totalitarian labor law. For that reason we can’t focus ONLY on critiquing the bureaucracies’ arguments against strikes, we need to build up our confidence as workers through a series of smaller job actions that might not take the form of strikes. I don’t see why we can’t do that while at the same time agitating around the need for a strikes; we can do this by calling for strikes on big days of action like March 4th and if we get outvoted and workers don’t end up striking at least we’ve gotten the idea out there, as AS argued when they endorsed LMV’s work around the Local 444 resolution calling for a strike.

I agree with SO that we can make a tactical orientation toward pushing certain unions in current contract negotiations to strike.  That is what we are doing here in Seattle by timing the May 3rd student strike with the end of UAW local 4121′s contract negotiations on the UW campus.   However, we shouldn’t confine ourselves only to that kind of work because as the economic crisis deepens we could see wildcat strikes outside of contract negotiations or strikes among non-unionized workers and we need to support such actions.  If we think only in terms of legal strikes we’ll miss these developments and working class self-activity will catch the Left by surprise and surpass it which has happened numerous times in history.

Also, I agree with LMV that unionized workers lack of confidence to strike can also be blamed on the bureaucracy. If the considerable resources of the bureaucracy were at the disposal of and under the control of the rank and file then the rank and file might have the confidence to strike. We have heard rank and file workers say that if  lower-level elected officials who are well respected by the ranks would call a meeting and announce a strike then everyone would walk out, but these official are being effectively gagged and silenced by the bureaucracy so they cannot do that. I agree with LMV it’s important to point out WHY the ranks lack this confidence and not to blame it on the members or accuse them of having false consciousness.

I doubt AS is actually arguing AGAINST unions or conflating the entire union with the bureaucracy.   It’s not fair of S.O. to accuse them of making arguments that support capitalist union busting. We have been accused of the same thing in Seattle for simply mobilizing the rank and file to build strong fighting unions!  Rank and file mobilizations, even mobilizations to defend the union itself against the onslaught on union busting budget cuts, have threatened bureaucrats here and the bureaucrats themselves have responded in a sectarian way, accusing us of sabotaging the union, trying to prevent workers from meeting with each other or with students, red-baiting us, vocally repeating and agreeing when racist cops suggested we might be terrorists, and writing opportunistic attacks on organizers which management posted at the clock in stations leading workers to believe the bureaucrats are in bed with their bosses. We have heard progressives and liberals say we are dividing the workforce and playing into management’s hands by supporting these rank and file struggles against the bureaucracy. In reality the bureaucrats have ALREADY divided the workforce along lines of race, ethnicity, nationality, language, skill level, and factional allegiances, and are already playing into management’s hands, and all we are doing is trying to heal these wounds through rank and file, shop floor solidarity across these lines of divisions… and for that we are accused of being ultraleft and dual unionist! None of these accusations have stuck because they are ridiculous, and contrary to S.O.’s predictions, the worker militants among us have not gotten isolated from our coworkers, and the rest of the workforce does not think we’re the boys and girls who cried wolf because we are talking about strikes and direct action. If anything, people respect us more because we stand up to the bureaucrats they dislike and because we take them seriously when they do what they push as far as they can to fight management.

We recognize that these experiences are not isolated incidents. They are a result of the fact that the union bureaucracy represents, as Antonio Gramsci argued, a truce between labor and capital. The bureaucracy records the past gains of workers struggles’ to sell their labor at a higher wage on the capitalist market. However, as the Johnson-Forrest Tendency pointed out, the capitalists offered the unions gains in wages and benefits but in return expected the unions to increase productivity by helping to manage the working class. You see this today when unions have nothing to say about the “do more with less” mandate the bosses are pushing through to speed up the work process using budget cuts as an excuse.   What we are dealing with is not  just the corruption or prejudice of one union boss or another but a systematic tendency toward class collaborationism , a systematic block to workers’ attempts to control production. Yes its better to have unions than not to have them; its’ great if workers can sell their wages at a higher rate and can get some basic protections against arbitrary firing… but when it comes to budget cuts we’re talking about the very types of issues the unions are least suited to fight – issues of who controls the budget, who controls layoffs and hiring, how many people work on a particular shift, how fast they work, how their work is organized, etc.  Almost every major issue the UW custodians need to fight right now seems not to be protected by the contract so the shop stewards can’t do a lot about it. When that happens the unions need to be supplemented with new forms of organization which is what we’re trying to build.

We agree with Lenin’s argument that we need to work within the trade unions, even reactionary ones, and to challenge the leadership within these formations, rather than abstaining from union politics completely. But when we actually do that we are accused of being ultraleft. The key question is HOW do you actually do what Lenin calls for? In our view, building opposition caucuses or union reform movements is not enough. We are trying to build groups of rank and file union members that can act independently of the bureaucracy to do things like flying squad pickets, direct action on the job, workers newsletters, etc. At times these groups may try to push the bureaucracy to the Left (for example, we passed resolutions supporting March 4th), but most times these groups will also need to take action without passing resolutions or getting permission from elected union officials. For example, here in Seattle students and workers opposed speed up by storming the worksites of mangers who enforce higher production rates through harassment and retaliation. Workers also organized a memorial service in remembrance of a custodian who burned himself alive, possibly in protest of poor working conditions, and pressed the administration for an investigation even when the union bureaucracy was afraid to do so. The bureaucrats organized their own ceremony 100 yards away which only a handful of workers came to; most of the workers came to the one organized by the rank and file.

So many union members are frustrated with the bureaucratic process and alienated from union meetings that to orient to reform activities in union meetings alone would actually be sectarian and would create fewer opportunities for mass participation, especially among workers who speak English as a second language and are not versed in Roberts Rules of Order. When the members move on certain questions without consulting the bureaucrats it forces the bureaucrats to start moving, and union reform could be a welcome byproduct of increased class struggle against the bosses. But on some questions such as control of the work pace the union CANNOT reform itself because the union structure itself is ill equipped to take up these struggles. For a more fleshed out perspective on this question I highly suggest reading Sojourner Truth Organization’s Workplace Papers.

S.O. may agree with some of what I’m arguing here , I am not sure. I agree with this statement they write, at least in theory: “The Marxist approach… is to “outflank” the misleaders by focusing our attacks on the bosses, consistently calling on labor leaders to politically break with the capitalists, while, at the same time, helping to organize the ranks from below. In other words, it is necessary to combine the “united front from below” with the “united front from above.””  I would have to see what this looks like in practice though. Is it confined simply to opposition caucusing in the unions or does it also involve organizing workers who are disillusioned with union politics to fight the bosses and to fight the union bureaucrats if the bureaucrats try to defend the bosses? Is it overly focused on replacing “bad” leadership with “good” leadership, or is it about developing deeper and broader layers of rank and file leaders so that every worker can govern?

S.O. calls AS abstentionist for criticizing the labor bureaucracy. But I don’t see AS calling for abstention from union politics, only for supporting and initiating rank and file struggles. Their endorsement of LMV’s strategy around the AFSCME 444 resolution is not abstentionist at all. S.O. accuses AS of being abstentionist but then they accuse them of intervening TOO much by supporting LMV’s strategy. This is contradictory.

Militant mass minorities and the working class

S.O. cites Lenin to argue revolutionaries need to be working with the entire working class, not just its vanguard. While Lenin is right on this point, we also can’t base our actions on the lowest common denominator or the “average” of various workers’ opinions. That would be undialectical. We also don’t always need to win over the majority of a workplace or university before we call a strike. There is a long history of successful wildcats initiated by a significant mass minority of a given workplace. Should the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit have waited until more white workers were on board before they started wildcat striking against racism in the auto plants ? In reality, they started the wildcats and some white workers came around afterwards when they saw that rank and file Black workers were more serious than the UAW bureaucracy about fighting speed up and safety violations. I agree with S.O . that we can’t just imagine a small minority “inspiring” the rest of the class, but I don’t think this is what AS is saying (in fact that call such a perspective “adventurist” and they critique folks who treat workers like dry wood waiting for a spark). From what I understand, AS is arguing that the militant minority should build actions and organizational vehicles which can try to win over the majority through mass action, not just through spectacle. I agree strongly with this.

Students and Workers; Students as Workers

S.O. is right, it’s harder for workers to strike than for students to strike and it is harder for workers to pass out leaflets calling for strikes than it is for students to do so.   I  don’t see anything AS has written that would indicate they are unaware of this difference.  AS’s call for student strikes is not an attempt to replace working class self activity with student self activity and it is not an attempt to naively blur the material differences between working class students and other workers as SO implies. SO should read “Students as Positive Proletarian Actors” again more carefully, including the discussions on AS’s site about it.  Yes, many students are future workers.  Yes, many students are currently working part time jobs.  Yes many students are from working class backgrounds.  This is true of most of the student members of AS and also  Unity and Struggle.  It is not fair to bait AS as somehow separate from the working class because they emphasize these things.  It is possible to emphasize these points and still recognize the key strategic location that proletarian workers have at the point of production and to prioritize their self-emancipation.  What we need to do is unite the class struggle on campus with the class struggle off campus, as AS has argued repeatedly and has attempted to put into practice.  They write: “Students have a responsibility to spread news of their own rebellion, to encourage workers to rebel, and to help build the proletarian struggle wherever it erupts.”

One way students can do this is to call student strikes in which rank and file workers can participate, which will raise the idea of a strike among wider layers of the working class and will help back up rank and file worker militants who know the class needs strikes to stop concessions and budget cuts. This is our strategy at UW in Seattle. March 4th was a student strike but lots of custodians, tradespeople, and academic student employees came out because we organize with them and are friends with them. By calling it a student strike instead of a student walkout we were able to raise question of when to strike more sharply among workers. Every time workers said “this is amazing there are so many people here” we said “if ya’ll strike we’ll do it again in solidarity with you.”

That is exactly what we’re doing on May 3rd. Academic student employees (ASEs) in UAW local 4121 are facing tough contract negotiations and UW is demanding concessions and layoffs which will lead to overwork for Teaching and Research Assistants and large class sizes for undergraduates. We’re planning a student strike the first day the UAW contract expires, which is May 3rd. Rank and file student employees are agitating within and outside the union for an official strike. If the UAW bureaucracy does not authorize it, some rank and file ASEs may strike anyway if they have enough support. When we first started planning this there was a short wave of small wildcat strikes within WA state AFSCME/ WFSE locals against proposed statewide healthcare cuts and local budget cuts…. the legislature decided to reverse the healthcare cuts but if they had pushed them through we would have supported proposals from some of the rank and file WFSE workers for a UW wildcat or a furlough-out/ sick out and would have linked the student strike to a WFSE strike. If students want to be positive proletarian actors they need to think about how their own actions can back up other workers who want to move; by striking, students can solidify their relationships with broader layers of workers.

Revolutionary Organization and Mass Struggle

SO is right that people learn and advance their consciousness through struggle, not just through Leftist propaganda and ideological struggle between radicals and liberals. I imagine AS would agree with this; it seems like SO is misunderstanding where AS is coming from based on this one piece, without looking at AS’s overall practice which is far from confined to polemics against other Leftists. If this were really where AS is coming from why would SO call them some of the most talented and dedicated militants in the Bay Area? How would they have been able to play such a major role in the Oakland March 4th committee and elsewhere if they were focused only on polemicizing against other Leftists?

It’s hard for me to put my finger on this point, but I am sensing there is a crucial issue somewhere in this debate over the relationship between revolutionary organization and mass organization. Correct me if I’m misunderstanding this, but SO seems to assume a large distance between these two. They say that the role of revolutionaries should be to put forward correct strategic/ tactical perspectives inside mass organizations to prove to the class that socialists are the most dedicated fighters, and from that the vanguard layers of the class will join the revolutionary party.  For one, this seems to focus too much on finding the correct leadership, on replacing good leadership with bad leadership, as if the class would be stronger if only more socialists said the right thing in coalition meetings.  What about building off of and reinforcing the militant consciousness that non-socialists bring to the table in these meetings?   I agree that revolutionary organizations and mass organizations are not the same thing and we shouldn’t try to turn every coalition, strike committee, union, etc into a revolutionary group .  I also agree that we need specifically revolutionary organizations that can put forward particularly revolutionary ideas if we want to avoid mass work being swalowed back up into economism or reformism.  BUT, what about raising perspectives in mass organizations that draw out the revolutionary possibilities latent in the current mass struggle? From what I understand, adventurists in California have been doing this and they are attracting broad layers of people who were liberals in the fall and are now ultraleft Marxist or anarchists. Doesn’t this say something about people’s radical disillusionment with capitalism and the need to agitate against capitalism within the radicalizing milieu of the anti-budget cuts movement?  (I’m talking now about activities and conversations among the millieu of the activists and the circles surrounding them, not necessarily every mass meeting or coalition program or flyer). What about recognizing, recording, intervening in, and advancing the current self-activity of the working class (including working class students), showing how it points toward things like the overthrow of management, workers’ control of the workplace, etc.? How can revolutionaries support and mentor organic militant-intellecutals from various workplaces and schools who get involved in the struggle with us? What forms of pedagogy and organization support this? These are the kinds of questions I see AS asking. It goes much further than simply proposing the right set of demands or the right strategy in a mass organization or coalition meeting. I have seen many Trotskyists systematically putting forward the right line in meetings but they still end up shutting out a lot of the new people who come around and they don’t follow up with them outside the meetings to support them and build their leadership.

I guess this comes back to an old debate about Lenin’s What is To Be Done? If Lenin is right and the working class can only achieve trade union consciousness in mass organizations then the only vehicle for developing revolutionary consciousness is the vanguard party. If that were true then revolutions should focus on a) shaping mass organizations and b) recuriting members to revolutioanry groups. If Lenin is right then revolutionary cadre should focus on building new revolutionary leaders among people who have ALREADY joined the party. But I disagree with this formulation from What is To Be Done (and Lenin himself retracted it later in his life). The working class does develop organic militants and organic intellectuals who go beyond the limits of trade union consciousness so revolutionaries need to build intermediate organizations, what Hal Draper called “centers”, which can engage with these militants and grow with them in struggle. That includes learning from them (here is where I have a growing appreciation for AS’s critical revamping of Pedagogy of the Oppressed).

In Seattle, Unity and Struggle members are building the local of our revolutionary organization but we are not trying to recruit every worker and student militant immediately into Unity and Struggle. There is a broader milleiu of revolutionary workers and students around us who have come to revolutionary consciousness through the struggle and through their life experiences. Yes we would love if as many of them as possible join Unity and Struggle but we are not assuming that they need to do that in order to be revolutionaries. We are trying to “meet them where they’re at” by supporting their revolutionary self-activity in groups like DI, IWSJ, and FADU so we can move forward together from there. I agree with how Labor’s Militant Voice put it in their response to the AS and SO pieces: ” Our role is to integrate with this movement from below, seek out the most combative and thinking layers, conduct a dialogue with these forces from which we will learn and they will learn and help organize these most thoughtful and combative layers into a cohesive fighting force.” Yes – we need to gather our forces. However, LMV incorrectly counterposes this to AS’s concept of pedagogy. As far as I can tell this is exactly what AS means by pedagogy, though AS members can clarify this better than I can.

What is success and what are we fighting for? (Thoughts on the transitional program)

I agree generally with SO that we need a transitional method that bridges the gap between reform struggles and revolution, though I imagine I would have major disagreements with them over how to apply this in practice. I dont really see how a transitional method is different from what AS is putting forward (I’ll leave it to AS members to clarify this). I agree we need to fight for reform demands but also need to expose the fact that capitalism cannot meet these reform demands, so in order for the working class to live, capitalism must die. The budget cuts fight is a crucial way to show this – I agree, it is the largest response so far to the economic crisis. Because of the crisis the system cannot do anything but cut the budget further.  We’re in for a long struggle.   So the more we fight the budget cuts the more the folks in this struggle around us will either get disllusioned and drop out of the movement or become revolutionary.  It’s our job to equip them with the theoretical tools to do the latter rather than the former and critically revamping the transitional program is part of this.

However, I think it’s important that the transitional program include demands and actions which increase working class control, not just demands for economic gains like public education and healthcare. We need to be saying, “look, in the 1930s we won all sorts of social programs but we lost control over them…. the bosses gave us union contracts and health care and in response they told us to stop trying to control our workplaces. Without that control, they could turn around and dismantle these social programs and these union contracts from the 1970s onward. This time around when we demand these things we need to make sure we have control over them so they can’t be taken away.” We need to be fighting for democratic education, not just public education; we need to be fighting for the right of students, workers, and community members to make the budget and to shape the curriculum and the work process on campus, not the bureaucrats.  And, we even need a healthy dose of what the adventurists remind us of: education and work should not be separate from play, adventure, imagination, etc.  Hell, if we can’t imagine this struggle leading to a world where work and play are not as separate as they are under capitalism, then why they hell should we be revolutionaries in the first place?

Rallies and Days of Action

I agree with SO that rallies are not as bad as lobbying… lobbying is co-optation, whereas rallies can build working class confidence. I agree we can’t fetishize strikes as the only way to advance the struggle (again I don’t think AS is doing this). But the question then is WHAT KIND of rallies? Rallies where professional activists and politicians speak at a bored crowd for an hour and then go home? Or rallies in which youth, workers, and oppressed peoples take the lead, get on the megaphone, take spontaneous actions, speak out, and build their leadership, electrifying the crowd in the process? S.O. seems to downplay the difference between these; they correctly point out the main problem with bureaucratic rallies is the Democratic Party politics represented on the stage, but that liberal capitalist hegemony is almost always also reflected by a movement cop type ethos the organizers impose on the crowd. I’m not in California and I don’t know exactly what went down in San Francisco on the 4th but the way SO describes the 3 PM high school walkout sounds great, just like AS’s description of the Oakland rally sounds great. I’d say we can support these kinds of rallies, but I don’t think it’s ultraleft to refuse to waste our limited time and resources to organize for boring rallies that that will be controlled by union bureaucrats and politicians if we have a chance to organize other more engaging actions on the same day.  The bureaucrats can’t guilt us into running errands for them in the name of “building the movement.”

At times it will make tactical sense to go to those kinds of bureaucratic rallies and try to support mass minorities in the crowd who want to go further than the people on the stage want them to. My comrades and I have done that at Palestine and anti-war rallies, and some Trotskyists have accused us of being ultraleft for doing it even when we’ve been able to win over the majority of the crowd to move independently of the bureaucratic leaders. AS advocated a similar approach in their pamphlet on the Oscar Grant uprising.  This is far from abstentionist – in fact, my guess is a lot of the centrists would say it is TOO interventionist.

In Unity and Struggle we agree with AS’s perspective of pushing for strikes but our comrades in Austin organized a rally knowing that a strike was not yet on the table (the subjective and objective conditions were not ripe yet). But the Austin rally was also more rowdy, more militant, and more fun because ellea pelea! encouraged marching through buildings,  something which centrists there were wary of (see http://gatheringforces.org/2010/03/16/march-4th-at-ut-austin/). My sense is AS’s basic challenge against centrism applies in situations where strikes are not necessarily on the table; AS is raising questions about method, not just tactics.  Our comrades in Austin built off of AS’s framework even in a situation where a strike wasn’t even discussed.

Coalition Building

I already commented on this in the comments section over on the AS site. Like SO, I am for building united front coalitions, and Democracy Insurgent does participate in the Student Worker coalition at UW which is a united font. At the same time we are trying to build “radical organizing bodies” like International Workers and Students for Justice, For a Democratic University, and Student Liberation Front which do a lot of the things that the AS piece calls for. These groups participate in the united front but do not subordinate themselves to the coalition or liquidate themselves into it. Building intermediate radical formations/ organizing centers is not incompatible with building united fronts. As I argued in my comment on the AS site, the presence of these radical organizing bodies helps prevent the united front coalition from descending into a popular front where centrists demand that radicals subordinate themselves to the liberals. In Seattle, our coalition spaces are open to liberals but not dominated by them.

I agree with SO’s point that organizing spaces which bring together only the hardcore of the radical left descend into sectarianism very fast – they need to bring in broader layers to avoid this. I can’t speak to the conditions in the March 4th city committees in California but I have seen that happen before. My sense though is AS is not trying to bring together all the hardcore leftists, they are trying to bring together revolutionaries and organic independent militants from various workplaces and schools. I think that’s the right approach.

Where to go from here?

I agree strongly with LMV’s point that we need to explain the political content, not just the tactics and process of the developing anti-budget cuts movement.  My guess is AS would be for this too, they just can’t take up everything in one piece. I am looking forward to hearing their analyses of the developing class contradictions around education and public services.  In her Mass Strike pamphlet , Rosa Luxemburg argues about how to discuss recent mass strikes in Russia with the German working class; she points out that you can’t separate discussing the form of strikes from the political content of those strikes:

“But it does not meet the case, in the presence of this interest and of this fine, intellectual thirst and desire for revolutionary deeds on the part of the workers, to treat them to abstract mental gymnastics on the possibility or impossibility of the mass strike; they should be enlightened on the development of the Russian Revolution, the international significance of that revolution, the sharpening of class antagonisms in Western Europe, the wider political perspectives of the class struggle in Germany, and the role and the tasks of the masses in the coming struggles. Only in this form will the discussion on the mass strike lead to the widening of the intellectual horizon of the proletariat, to the sharpening of their way of thinking, and to the steeling of their energy.”

I agree with LMV that the mass firing in Central Falls, RI, Arne Duncan’s media offensive, etc. are signs the ruling class is stepping up its opposition in response to our actions on March 4th and they’re not about to try and co-opt us through reform concessions because they can’t afford to right now. We need to dig in for a long and difficult war of position and we cannot claim any easy victories. This is something we need to explain to ourselves and to the militants around us as soon as possible so we don’t get burned out expecting reform victories that don’t come. It is an essential pedagogical approach to avoid voluntarism or cynicism creeping in. It is also an excellent chance to have a discussion about reform and revolution, the transitional method, and the logic of capital. Just like in the 30s and 40s, for the working class to live capitalism will have to die .

The only caveat I would make to my extension of LMV’s analysis is that we do still need to be on the lookout for the possibilities of very selective forms of co-opation being dished out to some layers of the class at the expense of others. We can’t party after the funeral for social democracy assuming that the next step is insurrection; the ruling class could come back with some highly scary form of “warfare-welfare state” that drastically narrows the circle of who counts as a citizen and provides benefits to those inside while ruthelessly cutting those outside.

I agree with LMV it would be great if California organizers call another statewide event or lay the groundwork for a national event. That would help our organizing here in Seattle, Austin, and elsewhere in the country. At the same time, what S.O. recorded about the feeling of burnout at Berkley is a serious danger. My hope is that parts of California that are newer to the struggle are less burnt out, and I’m looking forward to hearing from AS members what their assessment is since my sense is they are connected to some of the most dynamic social layers in the Bay Area. In any case, I’d rather start the fall with a well aimed, powerful jab in the eye of the capitalist class nationally then throw a bunch of exhausted and less powerful punches before finals period this spring.   At a certain point quality matters more than quantity, and it’s the only way to get to quantity. Hopefully other layers of the class will move this spring and summer which will bolster the student movement. The Left needs to make sure we’re out there organizing off campuses as well. In particular, we need to aggressively link the anti-budget cuts movement and the potentially resurgent immigrant rights movement. Democracy Insurgent is releasing a statement we worked on with memers of Mecha toward this effect and we will be participating on May 1st and in an action as part of Mecha’s national conference at UW this May. I know many other groups around the country are also making these connections which is crucial.

All in all, I think this is refreshingly thoughtful and non-sectarian discussion and I am looking forward to hearing other folks perspectives. I hope that Unity and Struggle can write a more sustained and theoretically rigorous engagement with some of the questions AS, SO, and LMV are raising as soon as we have a chance. In the meantime, thanks ya’ll for getting the ball rolling, these are the kinds of questions we need to be answering if we want to advance the anti-budget cuts struggle.

  • http://thirdreconstruction.wordpress.com James

    Just out of curiousity, what exactly do you mean by “centrist”? Both this site and Advance the Struggle use it to refer to organizations with their origins in the Trotskyist tradition. But I think it would be useful to clarify.

    The term had a pretty specific meaning for communists during the revolutionary upsurge of 1917-1923. It refered to socialists who called for revolution, but, when push came to shove, acted like reformists.

    Are you just using the term as a code for Trotskyism? Or is it just a catch-all for those groups with whom you have disagreements?

    Thanks.

  • http://advancethestruggle.wordpress.com The Fish

    U&S coming with the insight! Glad all this debate is happening, and that a U&S and DI member weighed in. A major flaw in our piece is the undercovering of Seattle, when we actually learned a lot from what DI has been going through up there. Will write more later, nice work compa!

    @ James: AS’s definitions of centrism are in the Crisis and Consciousness piece. It’s a name for a political tendency we notice, rather than a euphemism for Trotskyism. Plenty of our differences are not with centrists (for instance check out the sections of our piece which critique the adventurists). Quotes from the piece below!

    “In our last analysis of the anti-budget cut movement we identified two dominant political forces on campuses – the adventurists and the centrists (trotskyists mainly, but not exclusively). ”

    “The centrist paradigm insists on a neat and safe linear trajectory, wherein struggles organized by professional activists grow and grow and eventually blossom into a militant movement. The formula is clear: build general assemblies, organize small teach-ins and rallies, then days of action, etc. The establishment of coalitional spaces and general assemblies are the key ingredients for developing radical political class-consciousness that eventually lead towards militant direct-action (in the distant future). While it is true that building organizational forms for people to plug into is incredibly important, this approach towards doing so generally fails to tap into the intuitive militancy that the adventurists are able to relate to through their direct actions. Instead, the centrists downplay the degree of radical consciousness that already exists within large sections of the working class and argues that if a coalitional space does not approve a proposal then the movement must “not be ready” and that we must “meet people where they’re at.”

    The recognition that we must “meet people where they’re at” is crucial for tapping into the latent power and consciousness of working class people. In our view it involves having a pedagogical method (which we elaborate below) and open, accessible organizational structures geared towards bringing this latent power and consciousness to the fore. However, the centrists misunderstand “meeting people where they’re at” inasmuch as they reify (that is, treat as static and unchanging) where people’s consciousness “is at”. The centrists not only meet people where they’re at, they also leave them there. By and large their lack of a revolutionary pedagogy and orientation towards gradualism leads them to lose the opportunity to water the existing seeds of militant consciousness that people do have. By avoiding the opportunity to facilitate the growth of people’s intuitive militancy in a revolutionary direction, they end up strengthening liberal and narrow tendencies within people’s minds that stem from a lack of exposure to revolutionary ideas and strategies.”

  • http://spiritualdesert.blogspot.com Mamos

    Thanks The Fish! As usual, I’m enjoying this cross-continental collaboration.

    James, I was using the term centrist in the way that AS and The Fish lay out. I also have no intention of using the term as a code word for all Trotskyists. As far as I know Labors Militant Voice is a Trotskyist organization but their perspective does not strike me as centrist (perhaps it is in some ways, I am not that familiar with their practice, but judging from their response to the SO peice it seems they are making important challenges to centrism). Also, I have worked in coalition with Trotskyists who have not operated in a centrist way, including current and former members of the ISO, Freedom Socialist Party, and Keep Left. I have also worked in coalition with Trotskyists who have been very centrist. I tend to agree with AS on this, it seems that Trotskyists, even Trots from the same organization, operate in centrist ways sometimes and in class struggle ways at other times.

    I read your peice in Socialist Worker and I know you disagree with that. You argue the ISO for example is democratic centralist so there is less variation within it than AS believes. Perhaps you can define the term democratic centralist to clarify how you are using it; as far as I understand it, democratic centralism means that an orgnaization votes on key strategies and interventions and whatever the majority decides is binding on all members (for exmaple, in every local/ branch of the group).

    As you probably know, the Bolsheviks were democratic centralist and a lot of people within their ranks still behaved in a centrist way at times. According to Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin, which I know the ISO reads, Lenin had to confront centrist elements in his own party. Democratic centralism is not a perfect safegaurd against centrism; in some cases it may even facilitate it.

  • http://seatofempirefilm.com Shaun Scott

    This is interesting, I’d like to see a response from UAW, as the two organizations are considering, as you say, the same set of material conditions, though from slightly different perspectives.

    I had a question about what you see as the central weak point of the union’s organizational philosophy. I’m really just asking for a clarification; in particular, you describe the union simply as “bureaucrats”, and I’m wondering if this is a little excessive, seeing as though they also protest, research and recommend candidates, hold forums, represent a different but equally important strata of workers, et al.

    Also, the part towards the end about this being a “non-sectarian” discussion– is that really the case when we’re able to identify, as you do, the “centrists” and their tactics? There’s an aggravating bit of PC here that’s keeping what might be a fundamental dispute from being expressed and talked about as such.

  • http://thirdreconstruction.wordpress.com James

    Thanks to Mamos and “The Fish” for the responses to my question.

    Mamos, I don’t remember mentioning democratic centralism in my contribution to the debate. Certainly political uneveness is possible in any revolutionary socialist group, but I don’t think that was the most important dynamic at work in the lead up to M4 in Cali.

    My main point in the SW piece was that the ISO pursued the same basic perspective wherever we were building for those actions, and I think AS should look elsewhere if they want to explain the differences between, say, Santa Cruz and SF State.

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

    James,
    Sorry I must have gotten your piece mixed up with the S.O. piece. My bad. I agree with you that the differences within the ISO are not necessarily decisive here. There are more fundamental points to debate. I was just emphasizing it to show that not all ISO members are automatically centrist.

    peace,
    Matt

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

    Shaun,

    I would also like to hear a response from the UAW leadership. By the “two organizations” do you mean the UAW leadership and For a Democratic University? In terms of my critiques of the UAW, I want to make it clear I am not calling the entire union itself “bureaucrats”. I am not trying to suggest in any way that graduate students are somehow bureaucrats because of their class position; I agree with you that the UAW represents “a different but equally important strata of workers”. In my view, these workers are the union, just like the custodians, tradespeople, foodservice workers, etc. on campus are WFSE local 1488. The bureaucrats include paid staffers and elected officials who prioritize forms of struggle like closed door contract negotiations and legal wrangling that do not build the fighting capacities of the rank and file workers. By rank and file I simply mean the rest of the workers in the union who are not bureaucrats. Most workers in most unions experience some sort of tension between the rank and file and the bureaucracy. This is because, as I laid out in my piece, workers often wish to go further than capitalist labor law will allow; for example, workers may propose strikes in solidarity with other unions’ struggles, strikes to pressure the government to pass or not pass key legislation (like the May 1st 2006 immigrant rights general strike), etc. These are illegal under US labor law and under the terms of most union contracts. Because their existence is a product of labor law and contractual agreements, the bureaucracy ends up assuming the role of reinforcing these, of putting workers back in their place when they go beyond the limits imposed by the current truce between labor and capital.

    In terms of specific critiques of the UAW local 4121 bureaucracy, I think that members of the UAW rank and file can speak to this better than I can. For a Democratic University consists primarily of UAW 4121 members who want the UAW to be a powerful force fighting for all workers and all working class people on campus. They wrote an open letter to the UAW bargaining team which makes some critiques of the union bureaucracy and lays out a strategy for winning a good contract based on rank and file power: http://forademocraticuniversity.blogspot.com/2010/04/open-letter-to-uaw-bargaining-team.html

    When I say that UAW officials are bureaucrats I am just making an analysis and criticism of the role they play in the labor process. I am not judging them as hopeless; I am for working with them in coalitions at times if it helps achieve specific tactical goals. It’s good if they protest, hold forums, etc. and my understanding is that my comrades in FADU have supported a lot of these actions. FADU and the UAW officials have worked together to put pressure on the UW bargaining team during contract negotiations. This is good.

    FADU’s message though is that these smaller actions will not be enough to win a good UAW contract, let alone to stop the budget cuts which are leaving us with large class sizes, poor working conditions, and unbearable amounts of extra work. To win these things we will need strikes which can mobilize deeper layers of UAW workers. We also need strikes which can build the kind of cross-workplace solidarity necessary to advance the struggle on campus. That’s why we called the May 3rd strike on the first day when UAW’s contract is no longer operative (at which point the no strike clause in their contract is also no longer applicable). May 3rd is a student strike which builds on the momentum from the March 4th strike. We hope the UAW will realize the growing power of student mobilization and will call a strike on the same day. This will make it more difficult for the administration to claim that UAW doesn’t care about undergraduate education; they will striking side by side with undergraduates against layoffs and for small class sizes. Why does the UAW leadership not see this? Why are they not preparing for a strike? This is a lost opportunity and it makes it more difficult to build the kind of movement we all need to stop the cuts. Similarly, WFSE workers would like to support the strike because we are striking not only for student demands but also for custodians, tradespeople, and other WFSE workers demands. Many WFSE workers have said they would like to refuse to cross the picket lines and would like to join them. But they will have more protection from managerial retaliation if the picket lines are officially endorsed by the UAW leadership. If the UAW officials fail to call a strike they will be missing an opportunity to develop crucial cross-workplace solidarity among workers on campus.

    In terms of your last point, are you saying that we are being sectarian and just aren’t being honest about it? Or are you saying we’re trying too hard not to be sectarian and this is preventing healthy debate? I would say regardless this is a pretty serious dispute and we are not at all hesitant to critique each other rigorously. We are maintaining a friendly tone because many of us are working together in coalitions as part of this anti-budget cuts movement and we don’t want to jeopardize these. We may be part of different tendencies but these are tendencies within a common movement; we are not enemies. I have serious critiques of the ISO’s practice but when push comes to shove I will shake hands with them and sit down with them at a strike committee meeting to get the work done. If they are attacked by the state or by the Right wing I would get their back. So for that reason I don’t think my tone is P.C., it’s just a result of the fact that it would not help the movement for us to slog it out with more combative rhetoric and accusations.

  • http://forademocraticuniversity.blogspot.com cg

    *in the following post I refer to rank and file or union members–this is to emphasize that MEMBERS are the UNION, and union leadership or beaurocracy to denote the executive board–this is to emphasize that these are union officials tied by certain conditions, and DO NOT encapsulate the UNION as a whole*

    Thanks for a great piece, Mamos, and a great discussion so far. I just wanted to add a bit about the role of the union bureaucracy in this current struggle [**note: this post is MY perspective, NOT an organizational one**]. Right now, many grad student workers are confused and frustrated about contract negotiations and the strike. Many members of UAW 4121 do not know that they even ARE unionized, because the union local leadership has been so inactive for the past several years–and so has the membership (these are direct lines from many rank and file), and now that we are bargaining again, they have only been providing mass updates every 2-3 weeks from union leadership. Workers are confused and concerned also because in individual department meetings, which the UAW leadership has set up INSTEAD of MASS meetings, members of the bargaining team (who are the SAME people as the executive board–NOT typical even for UAW to not have some rank and file on the bargaining team, as far as I understand it.) have said very contradictory things to the membership. The lack of a clear message, and of communication has made membership frustrated. FaDU is group of rank and file–we have no special knowledge, but we are working for more democracy in the union leadership, accountability to its dues paying members and constituents, and in some cases pushing the leadership more left. We do this by talking with our colleagues about working conditions, attempting to hold mass meetings with full democratic participation, as well as smaller department meetings to plan and strategize. FaDU has at times been accused of being “not accountable” to the union leadership by calling for mass actions that confront university administrators. I think workers need to challenge the idea that rank and file need to blindly follow union leadership, or be accountable to their leaders, (think, would any good liberal say we cannot protest the federal or state govt’s for LGBT rights because it is not being accountable to Obama??) especially when rank and file have little to no knowledge about their own contracts–there are some concrete steps our local could take towards being more democratic, some of which fadu has openly called for and some not: open bargaining meetings, real mass meetings (the UAW leadership reserves rooms that are too small to even fit quorum), and other examples taken from graduate student unions across the country. Right now, grad students in UAW locals in California and elsewhere are forming their own progressive caucuses to push for more democracy and transparency from their elected representatives. Check forademocraticuniversity.blogspot.com soon for updated letters of support.

    While there is a lot the UAW leadership could do to foster a more democratic union, the rank and file also needs to mobilize and self-educate. It is in many ways rank and file’s own fault for not being more engaged, and this is part of a long-term and structural deadening of labor in the U.S. Workers wait for the union leadership or denoted “activists” to move, and then get upset if their views are not represented. Even with the most transparent union leadership, a demobilized and de-politicized rank and file will not be responsive and will continuously lose labor battles. FaDU and others not associated with FaDU but who are worker militants in their departments are working hard to re-politicize their colleagues. We need this kind of momentum if we are going to push for a good contract, yes, but also for a stronger union of workers and for better working and learning conditions across the U.

    Finally, as Mamos, others in U/S and AtS have discussed, in FaDU we believe that a strong rank and file that fights for its demands needs to exist regardless of the state of the union leadership. As Mamos laid out, there are a number of things academic workers need that are NOT covered by the contract, and that simply cannot be won by negotiating behind closed doors. Groups like FaDU and IWSJ can fight beyond the purview of labor litigation, which often takes place in long, drawn out battles that do not always result in a real change in working conditions, and at its best can continue to build a strong and active rank and file for a strong and active union.

    We believe in STRONG, FIGHTING unions, that have mass rank and file mobilization. We believe a strong fighting union supports members who are fighting for their own and their co-worker’s rights–even if they cannot do it through official union channels. Unions have done this in the past by tacitly supporting wildcats with funds and organizing, providing legal fees to rank and file organizers, etc. The questions we are facing right now at UW cannot be seen as ONLY problems of individuals in the union leadership (neither Mamos nor I are saying this–but rather making a critique of the strategy and positionality of current business union leadership more broadly), nor of the energy of the rank and file. In Washington state, most contracts have a no-strike clause. Labor law across the country is meant to deaden worker’s rights. Union busting is on the rise, and many youth have no experience with unions or any other labor organizing. We need to work to change these broader conditions by forming strong fighting organizations in our workplaces, that build rank and file power simultaneously with holding our elected union officials accountable.

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

    I’m a member of UAW and FADU. I’ve had a few recent conversations with folks on the bargaining team (I like them all as individuals and have a friendly relationship) and this is what I understand them to believe:
    1) A strike loses its power once it starts
    2) TA power lies within our ability to turn in or withhold grades
    3) A strike is a last resort & everyone wants a short strike that will inconvenience the administration but not undergrads, so a strike should be a grade strike during finals week

    So they seem to think that striking on May 3, which is several weeks before finals, would be un-strategic because the university administration will have weeks to propagandize that we are greedy spoiled grad students ruining undergrad education. I agree that UW will try to spin a grad student strike this way, but think we can counter that message through the strong ties FADU & other activists have built between workers, grad students, & undergrads. Also much of the corporate media coverage of recent activism at UW has been surprisingly positive. I think the work Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) has done to organize undergrads to support TAs will help here.

    I disagree that our power lies within our ability to grade because without us a significant number of classes at UW won’t be taught. Also, a significant percentage of our bargaining unit is Research Assistants, and an RA strike would be felt as hard on May 3 or in June during finals. I would like to see a strong RA strike because RAs bring in millions of dollars in research grants for UW and have the power to shut down much of the profit-motivate of the university.

    I also worry that if UAW leadership waits until finals to call a strike, we run the risk of the strike going into summer, when many grad students and undergrads won’t be around.

    In my conversations with other grad students, it is a struggle to show them that striking is in the best interest of undergrads because we are ensuring quality education in the future. Most TAs are dedicated teachers and want to give our students the best possible education we can. Unfortunately we feel pressured to work harder in our individual classrooms (at the neglect of our own scholarship) instead of fighting the budget cuts.

    I also would like to add a note on the relationship between UAW leadership and FADU: we all want a strong contract, and UAW leadership has encouraged us to agitate for a strike and more radical demands than the ones they can make (such as free tuition, and free health care for undergrads in our bargaining unit). I’ve heard that our actions and demands have the university scared.

  • Jamusa

    http://socialistworker.org/2010/04/28/next-steps-fight-against-california-cuts

    I see that the ISO has written a report on the Apr 24th statewide planning conference. The writing has been long active at UC Berkeley organizing. I did not attend the LA meetings so cannot make comments on the meetings though getting a meeting location was a disaster and the fractures among organizers at least at UCB didn’t bode well for the meeting. At least some next steps were agreed upon even by a small number of folks.

    As a worker at UC Berkeley I have lived through the organizing, strategy, and debates that the A/S piece on March 4th brings up. March 4th planning was the culmination of both the good, bad, and ugly of the entire year of organizing. While UCB M4 events were generally successful and helped build the Oakland rally with an inspiring march, it is clear that lack of organization and coalitions with clear focus and at least some level of political unity and purpose have seen the struggle ebb and flow, create burnout, and at worse sectarianism. But as the A/S piece and other like my analysis post on GF in October has shown the tug of two strands of organizing and philosophy…of a tailing of liberals and the union bureaucracy by some Trotskyist and other Left groups, and the occupy everything tendency which attracted a number of liberal-minded students on campus as a tendency of direct action tangibly confronting campus powers it seemed, in sometimes a voluntaristic manner. There is no doubt good and bad things that have come out of both camps, as the A/S piece shows.

    For me I feel the occupationist groupings have actually out organized the more conservative left groups in many ways, and able to pick up a layer of people new to activism…those that were liberals before Sep 24th and later seen occupying buildings in Nov and beyond. This doesn’t always many the core politics of these young folks have changed, for they have engaged in actions largely and not had the time or done the effort to learn and discuss theory and politics. That will come with time, experience, and reflection for those seeking to ask what other sustainable forms of organizing are out there once a coalition or anti-budget cuts group folds, or the movement for that matter. This is not to say the occupationist groups lack a theoretical underpinning, many do, some based more in a class struggle analysis than others, but it is uneven and a commitment to really doing the patient organizing with other students and especially rank-and-file workers has been uneven. Though they are not alone.

    The centrist formation at UCB, mainly Trotskyists but not exclusively, have played an important role in keeping the organizing and struggles going since last summer. There are many talented and good organizers among these groups that are here for the longterm. But the theory of organizing and ideologies of what they believe workers and students are possible of doing holds them back. The need for organization is a good one. The instinct to hold meeting open to as many people as possible to vote on the way forward is a good one, as some of the early general assemblies played out. But these ideas have proved to bureaucratize organizing efforts, creating overlapping meetings, and stagnating creative action. This was to counter “secret” meetings of groups like the occupationists seen as “undemocratic”. This is what we got in the late fall and spring and it proved to burn out even the dedicated activists. To be fair many of us fell into this pattern because their wasn’t clear, strong organizing of especially a student/worker formation like SWAT had been earlier in the school year.

    The other problem with the centrist groups is their uneven relationship to the progressive union bureaucrats on campus. They ebbed and flowed from outright support of the union bureaucracy, to criticism, and back again to support. What they, and really all groups so far at UCB, have failed to seriously organize rank-and-file workers like has been done at UW. This is a major task to be done, but overcoming progressive union bureaucrats that even engage in direct action largely on their terms and not planned from below is a tricky task. These centrist though are the supportive of the union bureaucracy as they themselves seek these positions, or are in them already. Many of the Trotskyist groups seek to be the progressive bureaucrats of the future. They cannot see or believe in the ability of working folks to be self-managing…of students to organize themselves from below. And the ones that claim they do feel we need to take it slow, with a vanguard formation leading the way.

    We need a rejection of these ideas and really show our power as workers and student from below. We need durable coalitions that know they are coalitions and not organizations. But we also need independent organizations of students and workers putting forth a vision of theory and organizing that the A/S articles suggest, and that Mamos lays out per the experience at UW. A new and improved Student/Worker formation based on self-management, rejecting the union bureaucracy, and in it for the longhaul needs to be built at UCB and throughout CA. Hopefully these discussions can be had as we convince folks that have been through it the past year while bringing in new layers.

  • http://spiritualdesert.blogspot.com Mamos

    Academic student employees at UW just voted for their union (the UAW) to join the May 3rd campus strike against budget cuts. Props to For a Democratic University for pushing this the past few months. Now we just need to pressure the UAW officials to honor this vote and to officially join the strike! Everyone please email them at: uaw4121@uaw4121.org. The sooner the better! The strike on Mon will happen even without them but it will be much stronger with them!

  • Will
  • todd

    Great piece. It’s good to see non-sectarian engagement with strategy amongst the left. I enjoyed the AS piece, and I think this takes it to a higher level.

    On the intermediate level- I recently wrote an article making arguments that the intermediate level (organizing amongst conscious militants to coordinate at the mass level during ruptures and in the periods between such for the development of revolutionary consciousness through struggle) is the strategic site in the US at this time to develop mass movements and bring us closer to revolution. My thinking on this is derived from the strategic work done by my organization and collectively developed as part of our experiences in MAS organizations and trying to build intermediate networks of militants, so I have to give credit there to it being an individual article but reflecting collective praxis and theorizing. I’d be interested to hear more about your experiences with intermediate organization. My article is here:
    http://anarchowhat.blogsome.com/2010/03/13/the-intermediate-level/

    I’m not sure if others heard about the teacher wildcat in Miami recently? Basically the state legislature passed a merit-pay bill. Teachers had been lobbying to no avail. There were no real union meetings, no major actions, and no indication of any struggle. It seemed like nothing could stop it, then in Miami alone (ahem one of the most supposedly reactionary places in the US) a call came from spontaneous unorganized networks for a wildcat sick-in. In the end it turned out no groups were responsible, and there was NO left presence outside of Miami Autonomy and Solidarity to my knowledge. The union condemned the action, met with management and politicians to try and avert the strike, and ultimately reduced it’s impact slightly.

    The strike went off and pulled out probably 30-40% of the workforce in an illegal strike against the contract and state law. It was strike against a change in working conditions and the imposition of further standardized testing. Interestingly the strike and anger surrounding it moved all the politicians to support the strike locally and the governor came out in support of the strike on paper, and vetoed the bill 2 days later (it’s slightly more complicated than this, but basically true).

    First like you say, the left missed this all together. In most cases I’d say they were caught unaware and didn’t think of this as political. Those who did made no attempt to have an organized presence (a handful of social democrat leaning leninists). We were able to build relationships with potential militants from the struggle, but were aware that in all likelihood a speedy victory would undermine building lasting organization (which is 90% assured now). When MAS’s analysis of the strike is finished I will send it out. The lead up to it is here
    http://miamiautonomyandsolidarity.wordpress.com/2010/04/08/185/

    last small note, I think many people have a wrong conception of democratic centralism. One of the keys was having all decisions by the central committee binding on all lower bodies. Without the component of central decision making bodies (with debate by the base) it isn’t democratic centralism.

    “The Sixth Party Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (Bolsheviks) held at Petrograd between July 26 and August 3 1917 defined democratic centralism as follows:

    1. That all directing bodies of the Party, from top to bottom, shall be elected;
    2. That Party bodies shall give periodical accounts of their activities to their respective Party organizations;
    3. That there shall be strict Party discipline and the subordination of the minority to the majority;
    4. That all decisions of higher bodies shall be absolutely binding on lower bodies and on all Party members.”
    keep up the good work.

  • http://whatinthehell.blogsome.com Nate

    I’m still digesting all this but just on the democratic centralism tip, people can see Don Hamerquist’s recent essay on Lenin and his essay on Althusser for democratic centralism in action (re: the CP-USA, which DH belonged to a long while back). Binding votes and all, that’s not democratic centralism, it’s sensible majoritarianism. :)

  • JK

    Since the University of Washington May 3rd Campus Strike has come and gone, I’d like to continue this discussion including some of the lessons we’ve learned. I’m a member of For a Democratic University (the rank and file grad student group mentioned in earlier comments) and a strike organizer, but I’m just speaking for myself here. I think there are many possible reasons for why turnout was much lower than expected, but here I’d like to focus on one of those reasons.
    As discussed above, the May 3rd strike was called to coincide with (what seemed at the time) a likely UAW 4121 strike following the expiration of our contract. Despite quite a bit of pressure from a small but militant active rank and file, UAW leadership extended bargaining for a week and a half rather than calling a strike. The strike committee had long before decided to organize independent of what the UAW leadership did, but in retrospect I don’t think we succeeded at that. I think that many people who planned on coming were not clear that this was a student strike (we did not advertise it this way). In fact, if right-wing trollers on online campus newspapers are any measure, some folks think that the Student Worker Coalition is just the unions’ shock troops. When students (both grad and undergrad) heard that UAW didn’t call a strike, they thought the whole thing was canceled. That is my suspicion, anyway.

    My question is, was it a bad idea to try to organize a student strike in conjunction with a possible union strike? After all, if the UAW had called a strike, it probably would have been huge, and there would have been a good chance that we could’ve had hard picket lines that would really have shut down campus. At the same time, we put ourselves at the mercy of a thoroughly undemocratic and nontransparent union bureaucracy (even by trade union standards, I’m starting to learn), and FaDU expended quite a bit of energy pushing the leadership when we could have been strengthening our connections with other campus workers and undergrads or doing even more rank and file outreach than we were already doing.

    Just to be clear, I’m not questioning the strategy of a student strike, which March 4 showed can be quite powerful. I’m just wondering if it was a mistake to time it with the end of UAW bargaining.

  • http://whatinthehell.blogsome.com Nate

    hello again comrades,

    I finally read through the AtS, SO, and LMV pieces then read this post closely and all the comments. At the moment I only have enough energy to say — thanks so much for all this. This is really serious engagement with important issues, I’ve learned a lot from reading it. I’ll post up a response of substance as soon as I’m able. Also, in case y’all haven’t seen it, the group Amanecer has put up interviews with two campus radicals about the March 4th stuff, here:

    http://especifista.wordpress.com/2010/05/06/fighting-for-education-two-organizers-share-their-experiences-about-the-student-movement-the-building-occupations-and-march-4th-2010/

    take care,
    Nate

  • JOMO

    Hey JK,
    Thanks for getting this discussion going. It’s been a week since the strike and I have had some time to think about things.

    It seems like you are asking 2 questions:
    1) Did we let the union bureaucracy lead our strategy and take too much of our time in organizing for May 3rd/were we the union’s shock troops and
    2) Would the strike have been more effective if it was a student strike that did not coincide w the end of the contract?

    First, to give some context on why we decided to organize a strike:
    We first proposed the idea of a May 3rd strike when there were news of wildcats popping off in different parts of the state because of the healthcare cuts that the legislature was trying to impose. It was also in conjunction with the all take aways contract that the UAW had first gotten from the university, where about 200-600 TA/RA positions were slated to get cut. It was also right after March 4th where we had 800-1000 students and workers turn out. It seemed then that there were strong political and practical reasons to organize for a strike that coincided with the end of UAW contract. With news of budget cuts going left and right, we thought the anger and resistance against them could likely be high on campus, that could possibly push or even bypass bureaucratic politics.

    I saw us organizing this strike to try to achieve a few goals. 1) Very concretely to push for a better contract. The strike was seen as a way to demand that from the university. 2) Popularize and normalize rank and file power and actions 3) Build connections between workers and students ax campus and 4) Politicize the campus around the budget cuts issue that puts power in our hands, not in the hands of bureaucrats — thus the idea of a strike that can shut down and prevent the university from functioning without student and worker labor power. This would be a different narrative from appealing to the legislature, or the university administration which also functions as management for campus workers

    1) Did we let the union bureaucracy use us as shock troops? Did we spend too much time trying to court the union bureaucracy?

    I think it is safe to say that for many of us, this was not our intention or purpose. We wanted to build a strike that was called by rank and file members across workplaces, that consolidated the relationships bw students and workers ax campus. How then did we end up writing open letters to the bureaucracy, and let them coopt our militancy? [I believe many of us think that the gains that the UAW leadership made in the contract negotiations with the university (as divisive as they are in granting only TA positions but not RA positions), are also gained BECAUSE of the organizing we did for the strike, the publicity, the media wars, etc. ]The union bureaucracy could not have won this deal through the closed door negotiations they were doing. And, the union knew that. They knew they could use FaDU’s power to win that.

    Our intention is not to let the union b. play us like this, but we ended up looking like a willing partner to this back and forth tug a war w the union bureaucracy. I think the reason is because that is where many of the membership is. Many rank and file workers, not for ideological reasons necessarily, but for material reasons, will not take a strike seriously unless it is called for by the union. They risk getting fired if they come out. I think at this point it is useful to use the conceptual frameworks laid out in A/S blogpost around the question of consciousness. Unlike more conservative groups, we werent willing to say, No, people aren’t ready, we should not even agitate for a strike. Unlike groups that dont meet people where they are at, we were also not willing to say: fuck all y’all who need union sanctions. What we did instead was play this tug a war game with the union brueaucracy IN FRONT OF ALL OF THE RANK AND FILE. Everyone saw the open letters; everyone saw the union bureaucracy putting a front page on the Daily to say NO STRIKE. At a time when people’s consciousness and confidence to strike out on their own independently of the union bureaucracy, we did well by displaying and putting forth all the drama and closed door negotiations of the bureaucracy. We are in a tricky place where we are trying to move away from the bureaucratic politics, but not everyone is there yet on saying F-you to the bureaucracy cos they represent concrete material things. I would say rather than seeing this as us becoming the union’s shock troops, we should look at it as: we exposed the union bureaucracy for what it could not do; for how it sold out the rank and file militancy. We need to pose the question to all rank and file members: which side are you on? I dont think this needs to be raised in a sectarian way, but it needs to be raised confidently. We need to claim the gains of the contract as OUR gains, not the union b’s gains. We need to organize to put out this perspective.

    My point is that our vision for building a labor movement that strengthens rank and file power, that does not put it subservient to bureaucratic and authoritarian politics, is a war of ideas as much as it is a warfare that requires numbers. This requires a long journey and many battles. In the short term, we can look like the union’s shock troops. We can also look like we capitulate too much to the union bureaucracy. But we need to take stock of WHY we did certain actions. How does it at the same time: meet people where they are at — in this case peoples’ needs to see and learn from the flame war w the union bureaucracy; and also PUSH peoples’ consciousness away from bureaucracy as legitimacy. What may look like capitulation in the short term might actually be building blocks for a different vision and narrative in the long term.

    I think this ties to the 2nd question: should we have called a student strike that is on a different timeframe altoegther as the union contract?

    In my mind, this would be March 4th all over again. TA/RAs would walk out in support of a student strike, which would be great! As would custodians and trades. However, it seems too “safe” to keep the struggle in that realm. It would not raise the contradictions of: What does it REALLY take to fight the budget cuts? What does rank and file unity and cross workplace organizing mean? What is successful about May 3rd is that workers (custodians and trades and TA/RAs) came out for one another. They didnt meet each other on the picket line only through their solidairty with students. Not to say that the latter is not important. It is, but we have made that point on March 4th, and now we need to look at the other angle of the struggle — workers unity. Another March 4th style action doesnt raise the contradictions for many workers of — what does the bureaucracy represent in my workplace struggle and solidarity with other workers? it is us being able to move forward on this issue that will also make us relevant to the increasing numbers of workers across the country and the world who are facing attacks on a mass scale.

    When I think back to conversations we had in the beginning about organizing for the May 3rd strike, we knew the UAW leadership might not call for a strike the same time. I dont think we put all our eggs into that basket. We were counting also on undergrads from the March 4th turnout to come out so it would be a student strike against budget cuts regardless. We failed in this aspect for various reasons — many of which were also logistical [such as 8am Monday morning, location far from main campus etc]. I also think that the deeper political reason for why students didnt come out was that it seems to me that key student sectors we wanted to bring out are still very tied to the bureaucracy on campus. I believe people cared about the TA struggle but they did not see the strike as a legitimate independent thing if their professors, or their advisors didnt push for them to go. This is a real thing and to move forward we need to carve out a space where there is more recognition and legitimacy for rank and file initiated actions that professors/advisors etc will support, as well as a space where students are more politicized in their affinity with workers and TAs on campus, rather than moving only when it is sanctioned by the bureaucracy.

    For me, what May 3rd showed was not that our strategy was off, but that we are still in the very early stages of breaking down the institutionalized divisions bw workers and students; that we are in the early stages of building rank and file confidence, solidairty and power that can actually bypass or tell the brueauracy what to do rather than the other way around.

    What is crucial now is HOW do we talk about May 3rd w people who are similarly wondering: what happened from March 4th to May 3rd? We need to fight our war of ideas the same way that the admin, Human resources and union bureaucracy do everyday. We need to put our a shared analysis that forefronts the direction we are headed toward and the important but not physically visible gains we made on May 3rd.
    We need to continue to set up spaces where students see their struggles as intertwined w that of other campus workers, and similarly among campus workers as well.

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

    Excellent questions JK and excellent notes Jomo, I generally agree with what you lay out here.

    I think the main reason the strike was smaller than expected was that the UAW declared they wouldn’t strike despite the fact that the membership voted TWICE to strike. The campus paper then published an article saying the strike was averted even though many rank and file workers and students were still planning on walking out with us despite the lack of an official UAW sanction for it. Finally, professors and students circulated a lot of confusing emails saying the strike was called off which meant a lot of our supporters didn’t know we were still striking and didn’t come out. Then when there wasn’t critical mass on the picket lines, folks who are more on the fence didn’t feel comfortable getting involved because it seemed less of a mass phenomenon than March 4th and their friends weren’t out there on the line. A lot of people dropped by over the course of the day but didn’t stick around for long.

    The UAW bureaucracy was able to stand firm against our pressure to strike because the administration threw them a bone by making some reforms/ concessions in order to de-mobilize us. Most notably they kept the 447 TA positions in the College of Arts and Sciences that they were threatening to cut. This made it seem like the union bureaucracy was winning at the bargaining table so a strike wouldn’t be necessary. The bureacracy kept saying that a strike is only effective before it starts, as a threat, and once it actually starts it no longer has any power. In reality it was our mobilization for the strike that actually stopped these budget cuts, but the fact that the rulers made these reforms also helped the bureaucracy demobilize a lot of folks who would have otherwise supported a massive cross-sector strike that could have shut down a lot of the campus and would have achieved a lot more than a few reforms at the bargaining table. So, as with all reform “victories”, this was a mixed blessing. It shows we have a lot of power and we scared the shit out of the rulers but it also shows that they are still willing to use a mix of carrot and stick/ concessions and repression to try and prevent a mass movement from breaking out here. They are learning from the mistakes of the UC bureaucracy for sure because they don’t want the political crisis to spread from California to here. I think in my writings in the past, including my March Forth Seattle piece here on GF I underestimated their willingness/ ability to dish out these kind of selective reforms – May 3rd really taught me that lesson.

    All in all though, the action was still a success to some degree for the reasons Jomo lays out. As Jomo says many rank and file workers across campus participated or supported the strike in various ways even if for security reasons they couldn’t all come out to the picket lines.

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

    Here is a great video of the May 3rd strike that a comrade of ours from DI made:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iE3d-tnBRL0

    We are also carrying on an important debate/ dialogue with the local insurrectionist tendency about the nature of the May 3rd action over at their website. I’d encourage folks to engage in the conversation:

    http://arcticcirclecollective.info/articles/8/what-we-demand-instead-is-life?commented=1#c000023

  • nonstudent

    I’ve heard that the UAW 4121 strike authorization vote was extremely weak. Specifically, I’ve been told that despite a long period of balloting, tons of phone calls and even home visits, less than one thousand members voted, so it was maybe 25% of the membership (sorry, I don’t have precise numbers). I think this is one of the main reasons why David Parsons & co. (whom some of you like to call ‘the union bureaucracy’) did not want to call a strike. In other words, the strike would fail because the membership wasn’t ready, and then the union would lose credibility and be on the road to ruin. I hope FADU folks can relate to this fear, given the turnout for the attempted student strike on May 3rd. Sure, official union support would have given May 3rd a boost, but not as big a boost as you might think. A student group can afford to call a ‘strike’ and have it fail. If that happens to a union, the union is finished.

    That said, the 4121 leadership deserves serious criticism for
    1) not being open about their motives and weaknesses, out of excessive fear of tipping their hand to management; and
    2) not agitating, educating and organizing the membership nearly enough or nearly far enough in advance to prepare for a possible strike. To do this properly would have required enlisting active involvement and initiative from a broad range of activists at UW, and I suspect the overly centralized and control-freak character of the 4121 leadership hurts their ability to do this.

    Meanwhile, it’s great to see people making a serious attempt to build rank & file self-managed workers’ struggles. We absolutely have to be able to get beyond the limitations of unionism. But we shouldn’t let bitterness around May 3rd prevent us from keeping a nuanced view of how unions work. For example, at the local level, calling the UAW 4121 leadership a ‘bureaucracy’ is extreme exaggeration. How many paid officials and staff are there – two? Certainly the UAW international is a festering mass of decay and company-unionism, but the local functions fairly autonomously and is nowhere near as bad as that.

  • nonstudent

    To clarify, lest my comment above be taken for defeatism: I do still think that in late May / early June, with some hard agitating work and a little help from an intransigent Administration, the union could be capable of carrying out a devastating strike.

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

    nonstudent, UAW never released the percentage of members who voted to authorize the strike, just that those who did vote were 90% yes.

  • http://constellationdefiant.wordpress.com jubayr

    nonstudent,

    i think your 2 criticisms of the role played by the union bureaucracy are correct, but it’s one thing to see them as due to poor strategizing on their part, and something else to these decisions as indicative of their class position and the role played by the union bureaucrats within capital.

    the latter, i believe, is behind why many here have called them union bureaucrats. the union bureaucracy plays in reducing worker struggles to pure economism. the struggle for rank-and-file militancy and organization is an attempt to overcome this, and transform the union into an organization of working class struggle.

    the failures that you point out are precisely the reason they are called the union bureaucracy: it is because their vision of unionism is not centered around rank-and-file self-activity.

    2 other things:

    first, could you go into more what you mean by the union being “finished” if a strike fails?

    second, do you think there were possibilities for the advanced layer of the workers who voted for the strike to radicalize and organize the less active union members?

    i think if the strike would have been called the other workers would have abided by the decision and supported it. the question/challenge at that point would have been for the organizers to develop ways to keep them active.

  • http://whatinthehell.blogsome.com Nate

    Jubayr, I can’t speak to this situation in particular, but respectfully, two things –

    First, you write “the failures that you point out are precisely the reason they are called the union bureaucracy: it is because their vision of unionism is not centered around rank-and-file self-activity”

    I expect that this is just a matter of wording and that there’s more to this, in your view, but as worded here it sounds like the problem is simply that of who occupies the roles. In that case, the problem sounds less like bureaucracy and a problem of structure and more like bad leadership that could be fixed by changing the minds of the people involved or getting new leaders voted in. I don’t think that’s what you really mean, though.

    About strikes finishing unions, I don’t know about this situation and I suspect ‘finishing’ is overstated, but failed strikes can be a major blow. At my work there was a strike a few years ago of four different locals, timed deliberately together out of principles of solidarity and out of a correct power analysis that more workers together=more power. The employer still won, unfortunately, for a variety of reasons. In the aftermath we saw major problems – management was emboldened at the low level to attack union and workplace activists, management at the higher level was able to push through the cuts that led to the strike and was emboldened to set even deeper cuts on the table, employees (in the unions and outside) were largely demoralized and demobilized, and there was a temporary threat of a decertification campaign by disgruntled members. And there’s the financial hardship of already underpaid people going without pay, which made many feel more threatened and hesitant to stand up to management after the strikes. I don’t know if this is what the other poster had in mind, but I think these are examples of some costs of failed strikes.

    take care,
    Nate

  • nonstudent

    Jabyr, to respond to your comments about the class position of the union bureaucracy within capital: I’d agree that these ideas can be useful for broadly understanding the role of conventional trade unionism (or ‘business unionism’) within society, and when charting a course for working class movement building. But trying to interpret specific actions of particular individuals using that level of analysis is like doing brain surgery with a chainsaw.

    Meanwhile, when we talk about the ‘rank & file’ in this case we’re talking about graduate students, whose class position can also be a bit tricky…

    As for a failed strike ‘finishing’ the union, ok I was probably overstating the case a bit…although it can and does happen sometimes.

    Jabyr, you asked “do you think there were possibilities for the advanced layer of the workers who voted for the strike to radicalize and organize the less active union members?”

    Yes, the were and still are possibilities for this, but it’s a huge job that’s barely begun. It may take a long-term effort. It definitely takes leadership, in the broad sense of the word – hopefully in the form of a cross-union rank & file leadership that can act independently of ‘the union’ when necessary.

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

    nonstudent,
    The way we’ve been using “bureaucracy” is not meant to refer to the behaviors of individuals or the level of division of labor/ paid staff /etc. of a particular local. Instead we are talking about the entire system of legal trade unionism as it exists today – focused as it is on contracts, grievances, courtroom wrangling, behind closed doors negotiations with management, paying off the Democrats who don’t do shit in return, etc. All of these things take power away from rank and file workers and place them in the hands of specialized functionaries who we call bureaucrats. Dave Parsons (UAW 4121 president) is not a some dude in a big office with 3 secretaries but he is a bureaucrat because the role he plays enforces labor law and labor law is designed to hold back workers from fighting for their own interests. For example Parsons has to abide by the no strike clause of the contract which prevents rank and file workers from wielding a key weapon of struggle against management. My problem is not just with Parson’s unwillingness to break it but with the fact that the clause exists in the first place.

    Yes it’s true business unionists engage in bureaucracy but so do “social “unionists, progressive union officials who might talk a good game about rank and file power. The UAW back in the day was considered a “social” union in contrast to more corrupt and bureaucratic unions. But look where it ended up after 50 years of working within the constraints of labor law. Our beef is not just that the UAW leadership doesn’t encourage rank and file power – that’s only part of it. Our beef is also with the entire way the contract negotiation system is set up which makes it nearly impossible for workers to use their union to effectively fight budget cuts, layoffs, work speed up, etc. The May 3rd strike was an attempt to break out of that set up, something which we were only partially successful at doing. But we need to break out of it big time as soon as possible or the working class is going to continue to get clobbered.

  • http://socialistworker.org Alex Schmaus

    Comrades-
    Please read the ISO response to Advance the Struggle-

    http://socialistworker.org/2010/05/19/march-4-and-the-next-steps

  • http://spiritualdesert.blogspot.com Mamos

    Todd,
    Sorry it took me so long to respond to your comment. I just posted this comment on your excellent article on the intermediate layer. I’m reposting it here as well:

    —————————–

    Your article emphasizes that the intermediate layer is crucial for building both revolutionary and mass organizations. I couldn’t agree more; this is the layer that Unity and Struggle refers to when we talk about “political centers” or the “center model”. We mean fighting groups of revolutionaries plus militants from the intermediate layers, who can help advance struggles that could take on a mass character, and will also help ground projects of revolutionary organization in real working class fighting milieus. Here I’ll take up a few key quotes from your article and comment on them:

    1) “An intermediate level organization could come to unite class conscious workers around a strategy within their industry, workplace, etc. The intermediate level organization would not have the unity of a political organization, since its basis is bringing together militants for a common practice that doesn’t require everyone having the same ideology and political program. Likewise, if we required every member in a mass organization to share a high level of class consciousness and militancy (independently of the ebb and flow of struggles), we would be doomed either to fractions or paper tigers.”

    That’s why we have advocated building independent workplace groups along the lines of what Don Hamerquist lays out in his article “Trade Unions and Independent organizations.” These are groups of rank and file militants who may not agree precisely on ideology but do have a basic sense of taking direct action to wage the class struggle against the bosses on the job without waiting for the union bureaucracy to act. But precisely because struggles ebb and flow, sometimes these groupings will be militantly opposed to the union bureaucracy as such but at other times they will be sucked back into being a progressive caucus trying to get the union to protect rank and file militants from retaliation. This is not just because of the power of the bureaucracy to co-opt workers; it also has to do with the rise and fall of confidence and consciousness among the rank and file itself at various points in the struggle. Rank and file groups need to be flexible enough to include both dedicated militants who are well on their way to revolutionary politics as well as folks who are only willing to work outside the union bureaucracy in the current moment for tactical reasons (beef with the current leadership, etc.). That core is what ya’ll call the intermediate layer, and the broader periphery will come around at times making the group a mass organization for a time but then might leave again and the group will just be an intermediate group.

    2) “There’s also a revolutionary (or at least leftist) level before the revolutionary organization – there are people with ideas and actions who exist before they come together into a conscious revolutionary body.”

    This quote is an important challenge to those who would narrowly follow Lenin’s What is to Be Done. Lenin argued that workers outside of the revolutionary party will only attain trade union consciousness. This article acknowledges that folks come to revolutionary ideas often before they join revolutionary organizations. Revolutionary organizations grow out of milieus of militants who radicalize in struggles and start to look for more revolutionary politics. At the same time, this also avoids the problems of relying only on spontaneity; it recognizes that there is uneven development within the class and that not every worker is automatically revolutionary right now. The key focus is on how the militant minority of workers (the intermediate layer) can influence the rest of the class. Vanguard parties remove this militant minority from its organic context to the point where they are alienated from the rest of the class and stand above it; spontaneity dissolves this militant minority into the class as a whole. The approach that your article lays out avoids both problems.

    3) “During low points of struggle then, the intermediate level presents an alternative. While we may not be able to sustain radical mass organization at all times, we can bring together the most conscious elements of the mass movements together with the most active and grounded elements of the revolutionary movements to provide continuity, organization, coordination, and education between struggles. The intermediate level organization then is the memory, training ground, and nursery of developing consciousness in struggle, which is not possible within the ebb and flows with the mass movements, and which has different activity and unity from the political level [of revolutionary organization] . Unlike the mass movements, the intermediate level does not seek to become the vehicle for mediation between capital and the working class, and because of this it has space for activity and development that the mass movement can not. That said, in practice the intermediate level should arise from and remain directly bound to the mass level. The intermediate level gets its vitality and strength from the lessons, challenges, and strength of the struggle, and maintains its unity through that fight. Abstract coalitions of self-identified leftists wanting to do things at the mass level is a recipe for dead end reading groups more than anything else. ”

    I couldn’t agree more with this. It explains perfectly our experiences here in Seattle, and it’s striking that ya’ll are having the same experiences on the opposite side of the country! This explains why we have focused more in recruiting folks directly to groups like International Workers and Students and Justice and For a Democratic University instead of to the Student Worker Coalition. The SWC has taken on a mass character during times of upswing (like March 4th) but since the struggle has ebbed it has been mostly organized Leftists which makes it more and more of an alienating space for new folks. The danger is that us Leftists can start blaming each other for why the SWC is not a mass organization instead of simply recognizing it has to do with the ebb and flow of struggle and our real activity now should be to consolidate the intermediate layer and prepare for future upsurges. IWSJ and FADU represent this intermediate layer – the most dedicated rank and file militants who built the mass actions this year are still in or around these groups even though broader layers have fallen away. But IWSJ and FADU members still have organic social ties to those broader layers, including informal workplace groups, ethnic communities, etc. So if we really consolidate and develop our skills and consciousness as IWSJ and FADU members we should be able to mobilize with those broader layers again no problem when the time is right. So if the SWC itself is ever going to take on a mass character again it won’t be by Leftists microcalibrating SWC’s recruitment methods… it will come through building groups like IWSJ and FADU which will in turn re-animate SWC and breathe vitality into it when the layers we’re organically connected to start to move again.

    4) “During the early 2000s the IWW in Portland had a series of victories in non-profit social service shops, ultimately winning contracts for a hand full of workers in small shops. While the shops remained organized in name, the social service industrial union branch that was built out of these shops swelled with unorganized social workers. Effectively the industrial union began to function as a network of social service worker militants rather than a representative body of employees (except for the handful of workers under contract). Membership peaked at around 200 for a period. With the strategy oriented primarily towards gaining contracts in small shops in an era of budget cuts, the project was to fail. However, during the peak one of the contract shops was threatened with a massive budget cut by the county, threatening the services provided and the workers deeply. Because this industrial network existed, the industrial union branch was able to organize a section of the social service industry to take action at county budget hearings. The hearing was picketed, and the county backed down. Social service workers from across the industry uniting for a public display of the contradictions of capital in it’s mangled approach to trying to serve society. This was press that the county was not in the mood to deal with. The county instantly restored full funding. While this was merely a transitory experience, it demonstrated an alternative to the contractual model of building unions. Ultimately the contract shop was not able to move beyond this activity as a defensive move, and expand their gains and reach, but it served as an example for organizers who participated and took the lessons of that struggle to a different approach. In this case the inability to see beyond the union building project was to be the death of the intermediate network, which otherwise may have been able to expand, clarify itself, and presented a rallying point and challenge to austerity and capitalism.”

    This is a crucial example for folks attempting to fight the anti-budget cuts struggle off campus which really needs to happen . So far the movement off campus has focused on big public sector unions like AFSCME locals, public school teachers, etc. These places are key but unorganized nonprofit workers are important as well. Many of these folks are women of color and are highly exploited by the nonprofit industrial complex. The nonprofits tend to absorb folks who would otherwise be part of an “intermediate layer” of militants; folks join them because they want to make tangible gains for their communities but then their energy gets absorbed through highly stressful exploited overtime labor and the structure of the nonprofits requires them to hold back from more militant action that is necessary to actually fight for the community. Organizing as workers against exploitation in nonprofit jobs can help break this stranglehold. It can also pave the way toward developing a network of intermediate layer militants who would be in a position to link up with other intermediate militants among the folks who receive services from the nonprofits. Hopefully those folks can start to organize as well, similar to the unemployment councils of the 30s that organized folks on relief as workers instead of as objects of charity to do direct action, including strikes, against the government’s attempt to cut services or to use the services to discipline folks. I know that folks in the recent Democracy Insurgent Women’s Retreat were talking about how to organize nonprofit workers – I’ll share your article with them for sure.

  • todd

    Thanks Mamos for the kind words. You bring up important points, and I’m in full agreement with the points you raise. I’m glad to see Unity and Struggle is producing a high level of strategic thinking and grappling with issues that often go unnoticed by the traditional left. It is interesting that there seems to be a convergence on these points, not merely in the libertarian left of the US but internationally as well.

    In Miami Autonomy and Solidarity we developed some of these ideas at the same time as the Brazilian FARJ (anarchist federation of Rio), and early Brighton Solidarity Federation put forward a related proposal in Strategy & Struggle.
    http://www.anarkismo.net/article/14067

    Anti-austerity struggles seem to be in the ascendancy generally, and the libertarian left is well positioned to build a practice within the struggles around social services, health care, and education. It’s my hope that we will be capable of sustaining the momentum to develop such an intermediate organization in the near term (or centers as you call them).

  • http://mywebtown.com sandy
  • Kevin S.

    Hi comrades,

    I am way behind on all this, but anyway there has been some discussion about this piece in the WSA (me, Nate, Todd among others) and so I want to offer up some thoughts here. My apologies I can’t deal with everything here, it’s a lot of good stuff and I hope my comments don’t come off as being more disagreeable than they are meant.

    Thanks a lot for writing and publishing this. Impressive contribution, from folks who are doing impressive work…. Said from one student organizer to another.

    From the part on ‘Unions, Strikes, and Working Class Consciousness’:
    “”I doubt AS is actually arguing AGAINST unions or conflating the entire union with the bureaucracy. It’s not fair of S.O. to accuse them of making arguments that support capitalist union busting. We have been accused of the same thing in Seattle for simply mobilizing the rank and file to build strong fighting unions! Rank and file mobilizations, even mobilizations to defend the union itself against the onslaught on union busting budget cuts, have threatened bureaucrats here and the bureaucrats themselves have responded in a sectarian way, accusing us of sabotaging the union, trying to prevent workers from meeting with each other or with students, red-baiting us,[....]

    We recognize that these experiences are not isolated incidents. They are a result of the fact that the union bureaucracy represents, as Antonio Gramsci argued, a truce between labor and capital. The bureaucracy records the past gains of workers struggles’ to sell their labor at a higher wage on the capitalist market. However, as the Johnson-Forrest Tendency pointed out, the capitalists offered the unions gains in wages and benefits but in return expected the unions to increase productivity by helping to manage the working class. You see this today when unions have nothing to say about the “do more with less” mandate the bosses are pushing through to speed up the work process using budget cuts as an excuse. What we are dealing with is not just the corruption or prejudice of one union boss or another but a systematic tendency toward class collaborationism , a systematic block to workers’ attempts to control production. Yes its better to have unions than not to have them; its’ great if workers can sell their wages at a higher rate and can get some basic protections against arbitrary firing… but when it comes to budget cuts we’re talking about the very types of issues the unions are least suited to fight – issues of who controls the budget, who controls layoffs and hiring, how many people work on a particular shift, how fast they work, how their work is organized, etc. Almost every major issue the UW custodians need to fight right now seems not to be protected by the contract so the shop stewards can’t do a lot about it. When that happens the unions need to be supplemented with new forms of organization which is what we’re trying to build.”"

    I have a few rather mixed up thoughts about all this, so I am just going to plunge in and hope this all makes sense.

    1. “The Unions”

    I am little bit unclear where it is headed when talking about “the unions,” as in, what mean exactly is meant by “the unions.” In the first paragraph the point is made about not conflating the entire union with the bureaucracy. In the second paragraph though we see a lot of standard talk about unions as strictly a kind of contract agency, and claims that “the unions” are not suited for certain types of struggle (such as against the budget cuts). Maybe I am supposed to assume that by “the unions” is simply meant non-militant unions?

    I notice a lot of people on the radical left (especially anarchists but also left-wing commie types) have a tendency to over-generalize about certain trends within labor. It would be like someone claiming a hundred years ago that the unions only organize skilled craftsmen and are therefore not suited for organizing in big industry. We know that unions can do all sorts of things, even single specific unions have historically made huge changes in their organization, tactics etc. So I don’t get this idea that unions are not suited for certain types of shop floor struggle, such as budget cuts (of all things!). Unions have fought in the past over things like hiring/firing power (as in: union hiring hall), workplace re-organization, fights against speed-up etc.

    I find it surprising that those things are labeled least suited for “the unions” to fight, unless, again, we are supposed to assume it’s meant only non-militant unions, or maybe “bureaucratic unions” (which would conflict with the earlier point about not conflating the entire union with the the bureaucracy). Maybe I am missing something?

    2. “Class Collaborationism”

    I have seen this argument before in several places, including from anarchists and Trotskyists – that all unions, or rather “the unions,” have an inherent trend toward class collaborationism. The first thing I want to say is, I disagree with this way of looking at it. The union as an organization is not inherently collaborationist. Rather, two specific things lead to collaborationism: i.) ideological preference, the same that sees top-down bureaucracy as necessary and that supports alliances with capitalist political parties; and ii.) short-term material interest of the workers themselves. It is not in the self-interest of an individual worker to spend their entire life combating management, because the odds of winning are low, and even if you win, the repercussions are typically greater than the payoff. So for someone to spend their life organizing, it is either because they are workaholic or a zealot, usually both.

    The semi-exception is for paid career organizers, who have a direct material stake in the collective bargaining regime. But it would be a mistake to not recognize why paid organizers exist – because most folks are not willing/able to do the work it takes to organize, unless someone is willing to pay for it (which people often are, if it will make the work life better). None of which is an inherent quality of unions, but rather is an inherent factor in the class struggle, period. The same factor, in fact, that keeps most workers from joining “new forms” of rank and file organization that are supposed to “supplement” the union, or indeed from simply taking over the union. The same factor that led to the creation of the bureaucracy in the first place.

    Which brings me to the second point, in regards to this part:

    “”Yes its better to have unions than not to have them; its’ great if workers can sell their wages at a higher rate and can get some basic protections against arbitrary firing… but when it comes to budget cuts we’re talking about the very types of issues the unions are least suited to fight – issues of who controls the budget, who controls layoffs and hiring, how many people work on a particular shift, how fast they work, how their work is organized, etc.”"

    To start with, I would argue that issues such as speed-up, hiring/firing and “who controls the budget” (depending on what that means) are all part of what it means to sell the worker’s wages at a higher rate. But aside from that, which is a parenthetical issue, plenty of contracts do deal/have dealt with things like layoffs and hiring, work pace and organization (including shifts) etc., or if not dealt with in the contract, they are dealt with in court or on the shop floor by the union. So, again, I think this is over-generalizing from the experience at UW. The next point, which follows from that, is that struggles over “who controls the budget, who controls layoffs and hiring, how many people work on a particular shift, how fast they work, how their work is organized, etc.” are just as apt to end in class collaboration as struggles over wages or job protection (which, on a side note, seems to me quite clearly part of “who controls layoffs and hiring”). Especially when framed as a budget cuts issue – how the workers deal with budget cuts is an entirely different question from how to expropriate all the means of production etc. So even if you are framing unions as class collaborationist, it still seems like something that unions could easily deal with.

    Next quote:

    “”When the members move on certain questions without consulting the bureaucrats it forces the bureaucrats to start moving, and union reform could be a welcome byproduct of increased class struggle against the bosses. But on some questions such as control of the work pace the union CANNOT reform itself because the union structure itself is ill equipped to take up these struggles.”"

    I like the first half of this a lot. I would even take it a step further and say that the worst possible end for the bureaucracy is to lose their local altogether, and so the best leverage workers have against the bureaucrats is the threat of splitting off either into another big union, or forming their own union. The job of rank and file organizations should be to activate the membership by taking independent action, and use this to either pressure the official union into militant action and/or reform, or if the union fails to do so (or indeed attacks the rank and file), then break off and form an independent union out of the initial rank and file committee (that or join a different union).

    The second half is just a rehash of the earlier quote, but to add another point, based on the above, I would say that what this sentence fails to recognize is that the union structure CAN be reformed through militant rank and file activity. Not that activity in one local is going to bring down the whole bureaucracy and put power in the hands of rank and filers everywhere, but the more that rank and file workers take action for themselves and organize independently, with or without the bureaucracy’s approval, the more that the bureaucracy crumbles and the workers either take over the existing unions, or form new ones. Often you get a mixture of both, as happened with the early CIO which was a mix of old unions that bolted the AFL and new unions created specifically by the CIO. Even in old AFL unions, huge changes took place as a result of rank and file actions and pressure from the CIO.

    One final comment…

    I like and absolutely agree with the part about ‘Students and Workers; Students as Workers.’ I think it sums up all the broad points quite well. I think the one and only limit, and one that’s probably explained by the above points, is it nowhere seem to mention student unions. Probably, again, because of how you treat unions earlier. Interestingly, you make a great case for why the use of words like this is valuable and can affect what goes on in the workers’ unions:

    “”One way students can do this is to call student strikes in which rank and file workers can participate, which will raise the idea of a strike among wider layers of the working class and will help back up rank and file worker militants who know the class needs strikes to stop concessions and budget cuts. This is our strategy at UW in Seattle. March 4th was a student strike but lots of custodians, tradespeople, and academic student employees came out because we organize with them and are friends with them. By calling it a student strike instead of a student walkout we were able to raise question of when to strike more sharply among workers. Every time workers said “this is amazing there are so many people here” we said “if ya’ll strike we’ll do it again in solidarity with you.””

    I would argue that the same rationale applies to calling for a students’ union, and organizing side-by-side with the workers not only when it comes to strikes but consistently, organizing rank and filers as an independent union. I think doing that, and calling it that, can go a long way to changing how non-student workers think about what a union is (or should be), what kind of union they want, what a union can/should do etc…. More than that, by building union organization and waging union struggles, it creates a context where unorganized workers will fight to unionize, and unionized workers will fight for bigger gains and to take control of their unions. Which is, obviously, why you say to call for student strikes and call them by that word, but you stop short of calling for a student union. The French student rebellion of 1968 was, to some extent, an attempt at just that (without huge success, although they did get the CGT to call a brief strike), and it was specifically organized by student unions which called themselves such.

    Having said all of that, I liked this article quite a lot, agree with much of it and think it’s a great piece to start discussions.

    Thanks again.
    - Kevin

  • todd

    Kevin, it’s good to see discussion of this stuff. I think you highlight a weakness in GF’s post, which is that they are making historical-grounded arguments, but assume the reader is aware of the history and context. I think that move is what’s leading to the disagreement, and it could be more solidly laid out the history and practices which drive these ideas rather than the mere form of the union.

    -unions not suited for certain fights: What they are arguing isn’t that no unions have fought on this, but today in the US unions are not built to fight there. There’s historical reasons for this. When you sit down to negotiate a contract there’s certain things that are mandatory (wages and the like) and non-mandatory stuff (working conditions…). Nearly every contract in the whole US has labor peace agreements that restrict workers abilities to fight outside of negotiating periods. In Canada CAW once tried to eliminate no-strike clauses from their contacts, fought bitterly, and lost. The likelihood in the present climate of unions trying to fight for good contracts with working conditions in there and no labor peace would be utopian, they would be crushed, the mediators would side against them, and everyone (save the workers) would say it’s out of line and unreasonable bargaining. Now unions could buck the law and go out on a limb, legally they could have their treasury seized and sometimes leaders jailed. The bureuacracies have vested interests in preventing this, and repeatedly act in the union’s interests not workers. This is true even of “militant” unions like the ILWU say. So you could re-read their argument to say, given the nature of contractualism and the existence of union bureaucracy which has often opposing interests to the workers, unions are not the best equipped for these fights.

    -class collaborationism: This is similarly historical. The short version, unions have evolved towards collaborationism not just in the US but Europe too over 30+ years. This arose with the keynesian state, and has been eclipsed but with the rise of SEIU and other pro-collaborationist unions, the strategy is entrenched. Structurally it relies on the swollen bureaucracy that has interests in protecting itself. This is an inherent push towards collaborationism. The more nuanced argument is that having a mediating bureaucracy whose role is facilitate the sale of labor power under capitalism has an inherently reformist function. Now unions could do away with bureaucracy, could refuse to mediate (CNT does), only exist through assemblies, etc., but unions as we know them are in effect collaborationist, and are driven in that direction by both their funding, their structure, the balance of power between management and the unions, the level of class struggle, etc.

    -conditions of work: I basically dealt with that above, but you are right some contracts have this stuff. But if you look closely, UAW is the paradigm, it usually involves a trade. Economic benefits are swapped for speed ups and less control in production. This is the history of UAW for example or the construction trades where union contracts guarantee production but more on the end of ensuring workers won’t slow or mess it up. UPS has mandatory amount of boxes moved in its contracts for example, and this is used against workers with tracking devices. It may be that in some industries, education perhaps, you see some more workplace conditions integrated into the contractual regime. But as a strategic point, we need independent power if we want to win those fights. Building up unions will not effectively build the power we need to carry those fights, and unions have a long history of coopting those struggles. Without the intermediary organization, strategically unions will win and workers lose.

    -reforming the unions: I’m with GF here. The history of this approach is not good. We have 80 years behind us of socialists of every creed attempting this, with not a lot to show for it. The reality is that we have to recognize that proletarian struggle is not a recipe, it has distinct historical periods. We can reform unions only once we have the strength through worker mass fights already. Generally unions are ruptured or transformed instead and rarely reformed (the early IWW, CIO). In this time we need to focus on building militants through struggles, and intermediate organizations of those militants so that when we see struggle reaches a tipping point we have the organization on the ground to build libertarian mass movements.

  • http://www.iww.org nick d

    “So many union members are frustrated with the bureaucratic process and alienated from union meetings that to orient to reform activities in union meetings alone would actually be sectarian and would create fewer opportunities for mass participation, especially among workers who speak English as a second language and are not versed in Roberts Rules of Order.”

    I was talking about this with Nate and Todd and they wanted me to relate a story from my experiences in the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. I’m involved in what for lack of a better term can be called a union reform caucus in my postal workers local, its core leadership was people of colour and they managed to hold on to the presidency of our local for aabout ten years.

    I remember the President, a fellow from Chile telling me once that if it wasn’t for the union his English would never have been as good as it is now. He also said that working in a political organisation in Chile is what gave him the ability to engage in politics here, it is what gave him the skills and ability. Most of the rest of the reform caucus were either Chilean and from a left tradition or various kinds of communists from India.

    I think a lot of folks on the left make a big deal out of Roberts Rules and often opt for more informal decision making processes but I think this misses the point on what the problem is. In my experience having a secondary organisation (in this case a reform caucus, and prior to that political organisations in their home countries) provided the education required to engage in politics in a formal democratic setting.

    Anyways I think Roberts Rules, and understanding and using majoritarian decision making is really important, what made the difference for these workers is they had the confidence and ability to engage on this terrain and to win. What gave them the ability to do this was their involvement in groups that had one foot outside the union arena and had experience in Roberts Rules.

    I guess my point here is that the answer to formal majoritarian processes is not less formality (and though you didn’t say this I want to say abandoning majoritarianism is a bad idea too). The answer is using the caucuses to 1). train members in formal decision making processes by encouraging folks to read the bylaws, running your own meetings on these processes etc. 2). To push for the union to include developing members in this manner through the local through their education programs (not just leadership courses), but also rotating chairs at meetings etc.

  • http://www.iww.org nick d

    Just a couple other things. I completely agree that orienting around union meetings in 90% of cases is sectarian practice. When you do engage in meetings its best to plan it like you would an action. Define the roles before hand, anticipate the bureaucratic moves that will happen after and go in with a clear goal in mind.

  • cg

    hey all just fyi FaDU has written a response to our “temporary agreement” and voted no on it. see forademocraticuniversity.blogspot.com

  • http://whatinthehell.blogsome.com Nate

    Just want to piggyback on Nick’s comment about Roberts Rules of Order – one tactic that you might consider for dealing with the problem is to get a motion on the agenda that the local conduct a Roberts Rules training or more than one, and include a concise Whereas stating that many people don’t understand the procedure currently and that this is unacceptable because it limits democracy. If the leadership really want to abuse their relatively monopoly of procedural knowledge they might do something like hold it at a weird time or fail to publicize it, if you think about those kinds of moves you can minimize them by stipulations in the motion. And if you turn people out for the meeting you can have the votes to get it passed. Not that this is an end-all be-all kind of thing, but it could make a small difference on the issue of abuse of procedure.

  • Kevin S.

    Todd,
    Sorry for the slow response. I agree broadly with your historical argument (and that that’s where GF are coming from), but I think there are certain mistakes you make which effect the conclusions you take from it.

    “” -unions not suited for certain fights: What they are arguing isn’t that no unions have fought on this, but today in the US unions are not built to fight there. There’s historical reasons for this. When you sit down to negotiate a contract there’s certain things that are mandatory (wages and the like) and nonmandatory stuff (working conditions…). Nearly every contract in the whole US has labor peace agreements that restrict workers abilities to fight outside of negotiating periods. In Canada CAW once tried to eliminate no-strike clauses from their contacts, fought bitterly, and lost. The likelihood in the present climate of unions trying to fight for good contracts with working conditions in there and no labor peace would be utopian, they would be crushed, the mediators would side against them, and everyone (save the workers) would say it’s out of line and unreasonable bargaining. Now unions could buck the law and go out on a limb, legally they could have their treasury seized and sometimes leaders jailed. The bureuacracies have vested interests in preventing this, and repeatedly act in the union’s interests not workers. This is true even of “militant” unions like the ILWU say. So you could re-read their argument to say, given the nature of contractualism and the existence of union bureaucracy which has often opposing interests to the workers, unions are not the best equipped for these fights. “”

    I agree with the descriptive part of this argument. I disagree with the implied take that somehow unions have it harder now or are in a riskier position than they were in their heyday. The unions of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s were harassed, attacked, cornered and posed with uncomfortable choices every bit as much as they are today. The unions were also often just as corrupt or authoritarian as nowadays. I also want to point out that workers have the same “vested interests” in not risking their livelihood to “buck the law and go out on a limb.” Most workers are not even unionized; the ones who are nearly all in standard business unions and act according the rules set down by the union, the company and the government. Often the union struggles to get the workers out to protest, and that’s not just because of bad tactics or because they are disillusioned with the leadership. The average individual worker has similar interests to the union in keeping work running smoothly.

    Now you can argue that workers also have interests in sabotaging production as a way to win gains etc., but the same goes unions. The only big difference is that a union is an organization with a collectivist outlook and methods, with the ability to put down individual worker rebellions or to call out the workforce for mass collective action; and with this power of mass leverage and collective operation, comes also political pressures and/or motives that individual workers do experience in the same way. This is saying nothing about bureaucratization, which again is not something inherent to unions but rather to all forms of class struggle (Glaberman compared the CIO bureaucracy to bureaucratization in the USSR, with the idea that union bureaucrats had a similar role to the party bureaucrats in hijacking the worker’s gains).

    One other thing I want to argue – what is in “the union’s interests” should not be confused with the bureaucracy’s interests. I think the article makes a good case for this when it says not to conflate the entire union with the bureaucrats. Maybe it is a side point, but I think it makes a difference whether we are arguing for workers to fight against the union, or to resist bureaucratizing in the union. I know a lot of anarchists and ultra-leftists choose to come out against “the unions” and this has become a standard line within the movement, but I think it’s a mistake that only confuses people and makes our job more difficult when it comes to labor organizing.

    “” -class collaborationism: This is similarly historical. The short version, unions have evolved towards collaborationism not just in the US but Europe too over 30 years. This arose with the keynesian state, and has been eclipsed but with the rise of SEIU and other pro-collaborationist unions, the strategy is entrenched. Structurally it relies on the swollen bureaucracy that has interests in protecting itself. This is an inherent push towards collaborationism. The more nuanced argument is that having a mediating bureaucracy whose role is facilitate the sale of labor power under capitalism has an inherently reformist function. Now unions could do away with bureaucracy, could refuse to mediate (CNT does), only exist through assemblies, etc., but unions as we know them are in effect collaborationist.”"

    I don’t think this is an adequate understanding of bureaucratization. I think it’s an easy way to see it, because there’s nothing directly “false” in there and it makes for a simpler perspective as to why unions are mostly bureaucratic, one that fits in with a perspective that says the workers all have an interest in destroying capitalism but have been prevented by some organizational defect. The problem with this is that it assumes all or most workers were/are trying to destroy capitalism, which in fact they were/are not. The bureaucracy with its collaborationist drive is a reflection of what most workers believe in and do: compromise. Even the most militant strikes (even if totally successful) still end in a compromise between labor and management, a compromise that is most easily implemented through the use of various union reps (shop stewards, business agents, lawyers, bureaucrats etc.) to police agreements and run grievances through. The lack of such a system would weaken labor, unless the working class were militant enough to take over the means of production today. Right now, that’s not the case because most workers are not confident enough, nor particularly interested in doing so, because it easier to compromise on certain economic benefits and let management run production.

    My point here being that while yes bureaucrats have their own interests and happily screw over their rank and file, even so, it is not unions in the abstract that are collaborationist but the workers, which contract unionism and bureaucratization reflect.

    “” -reforming the unions: I’m with GF here. The history of this approach is not good. We have 80 years behind us of socialists of every creed attempting this, with not a lot to show for it. The reality is that we have to recognize that proletarian struggle is not a recipe, it has distinct historical periods. We can reform unions only once we have the strength through worker mass fights already. Generally unions are ruptured or transformed and rarely reformed (the early IWW, CIO). In this time we need to focus on building militants through struggles, and intermediate organizations of those militants so that when we see struggle reaches a tipping point we have the organization on the ground to build libertarian mass movements.”"

    I agree with this 100%. I think I may have been unclear before about organization and tactics. I would argue against a strategy of running reform slates to win back the union. I agree with you and with GF about forming independent “intermediate” organization to fight around shopfloor issues as a way to activate the workers and shake up the bureaucracy. In some individual cases, it may be worth running a union slate to make our job easier with the rank and file, but that should become a priority and even in those cases the program should be militant unionism and rank-n-file outreach, rather than merely “reform” (which usually reads as “cleaning house” i.e. clean up corruption and build a democratic union). The latter may be nice, but it does little to build rank and file militancy nor does it pose enough of a challenge in the form of independent activity. The former prioritizes collective action over political reforms, although it has a secondary ability to win reforms by challenging the bureaucracy.

    Of course, I may be totally off and not know what I’m talking about at all, since my direct experience is so limited. One other thing I want to argue though is that debates on union organizing which only deal with big established unions in already organized workplaces, are way too narrow a basis for theorizing about unions. The fact is that less than a tenth of American workers are unionized, and a good number of those are members of inactive. powerless or pro-management unions which can hardly be called “the” unions. If we are going to talk about unionism, we have to also talk about the role of new and/or independent unions, as well as the IWW, as outlets for organizing non-unionized workers or for replacing corrupt/pro-management unions. I think the dual-carding strategy is an interesting place to start for that sort of debate.

    However, I am drifting off now from the original topic….

    - Kevin

  • Kevin S.

    Two corrections:

    “and with this power of mass leverage and collective operation, comes also political pressures and/or motives that individual workers do NOT experience in the same way.”

    and

    “In some individual cases, it may be worth running a union slate to make our job easier with the rank and file, but that should NOT become a priority and even in those cases the program should be militant unionism and rank-n-file outreach, rather than merely “reform” (which usually reads as “cleaning house” i.e. clean up corruption and build a democratic union).”

    Sorry, I think faster than I type and then fail to proofread adequately.

    One other point I want to make in clarification. I actually think your (both Todd and GF) historical assessment is accurate enough as to the last fifty years’ trend in unionism. But trends are one thing and specifics are another, not to mention that a “trend” is just that – it’s not an end-all-be-all appraisal of what is possible in organized labor, it’s a summation of where unions have been heading in most cases. To mistake a trend for an unchanging rule with no room for specific context, nor to recognize that it can be fought with some limited success in many cases, ends up surrendering certain fights that are not yet over.

    The weird thing is that a lot of union bureaucrats make the same argument about trends in organized labor, as an excuse for not waging certain fights. If, as a union leader, you think that unions cannot win struggles over work pace or budget cuts, you will try instead to come up with a compromise with management. By the same token, if as a rank-n-file activist you think the union isn’t suited for waging such fights, you will not waste effort trying to push the union that way and will instead put all your efforts elsewhere. I think there’s a good case for “intermediate” (as Todd calls it) organizing, but I think it’s a mistake to throw our hands up as to what a union can fight for. Because the likelihood of winning those fights is greater if the union can be pushed to act on it.

    To be honest I don’t think we are far off from each other on this. I think the theory you have presented obscures the actual practice, as evidenced by GF’s attempts to put pressure on the union at UW. But I do think there are dangers in the theory as it eventually may catch up with the practice, with likely bad results, in my humble opinion.

  • http://saveonline.endoftheinternet.org/ Brooklyn

    Todd,
    Sorry for the slow response. I agree broadly with your historical argument (and that that’s where GF are coming from), but I think there are certain mistakes you make which effect the conclusions you take from it.

    “” -unions not suited for certain fights: What they are arguing isn’t that no unions have fought on this, but today in the US unions are not built to fight there. There’s historical reasons for this. When you sit down to negotiate a contract there’s certain things that are mandatory (wages and the like) and nonmandatory stuff (working conditions…). Nearly every contract in the whole US has labor peace agreements that restrict workers abilities to fight outside of negotiating periods. In Canada CAW once tried to eliminate no-strike clauses from their contacts, fought bitterly, and lost. The likelihood in the present climate of unions trying to fight for good contracts with working conditions in there and no labor peace would be utopian, they would be crushed, the mediators would side against them, and everyone (save the workers) would say it’s out of line and unreasonable bargaining. Now unions could buck the law and go out on a limb, legally they could have their treasury seized and sometimes leaders jailed. The bureuacracies have vested interests in preventing this, and repeatedly act in the union’s interests not workers. This is true even of “militant” unions like the ILWU say. So you could re-read their argument to say, given the nature of contractualism and the existence of union bureaucracy which has often opposing interests to the workers, unions are not the best equipped for these fights. “”

    I agree with the descriptive part of this argument. I disagree with the implied take that somehow unions have it harder now or are in a riskier position than they were in their heyday. The unions of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s were harassed, attacked, cornered and posed with uncomfortable choices every bit as much as they are today. The unions were also often just as corrupt or authoritarian as nowadays. I also want to point out that workers have the same “vested interests” in not risking their livelihood to “buck the law and go out on a limb.” Most workers are not even unionized; the ones who are nearly all in standard business unions and act according the rules set down by the union, the company and the government. Often the union struggles to get the workers out to protest, and that’s not just because of bad tactics or because they are disillusioned with the leadership. The average individual worker has similar interests to the union in keeping work running smoothly.

    Now you can argue that workers also have interests in sabotaging production as a way to win gains etc., but the same goes unions. The only big difference is that a union is an organization with a collectivist outlook and methods, with the ability to put down individual worker rebellions or to call out the workforce for mass collective action; and with this power of mass leverage and collective operation, comes also political pressures and/or motives that individual workers do experience in the same way. This is saying nothing about bureaucratization, which again is not something inherent to unions but rather to all forms of class struggle (Glaberman compared the CIO bureaucracy to bureaucratization in the USSR, with the idea that union bureaucrats had a similar role to the party bureaucrats in hijacking the worker’s gains).

    One other thing I want to argue – what is in “the union’s interests” should not be confused with the bureaucracy’s interests. I think the article makes a good case for this when it says not to conflate the entire union with the bureaucrats. Maybe it is a side point, but I think it makes a difference whether we are arguing for workers to fight against the union, or to resist bureaucratizing in the union. I know a lot of anarchists and ultra-leftists choose to come out against “the unions” and this has become a standard line within the movement, but I think it’s a mistake that only confuses people and makes our job more difficult when it comes to labor organizing.

    “” -class collaborationism: This is similarly historical. The short version, unions have evolved towards collaborationism not just in the US but Europe too over 30 years. This arose with the keynesian state, and has been eclipsed but with the rise of SEIU and other pro-collaborationist unions, the strategy is entrenched. Structurally it relies on the swollen bureaucracy that has interests in protecting itself. This is an inherent push towards collaborationism. The more nuanced argument is that having a mediating bureaucracy whose role is facilitate the sale of labor power under capitalism has an inherently reformist function. Now unions could do away with bureaucracy, could refuse to mediate (CNT does), only exist through assemblies, etc., but unions as we know them are in effect collaborationist.”"

    I don’t think this is an adequate understanding of bureaucratization. I think it’s an easy way to see it, because there’s nothing directly “false” in there and it makes for a simpler perspective as to why unions are mostly bureaucratic, one that fits in with a perspective that says the workers all have an interest in destroying capitalism but have been prevented by some organizational defect. The problem with this is that it assumes all or most workers were/are trying to destroy capitalism, which in fact they were/are not. The bureaucracy with its collaborationist drive is a reflection of what most workers believe in and do: compromise. Even the most militant strikes (even if totally successful) still end in a compromise between labor and management, a compromise that is most easily implemented through the use of various union reps (shop stewards, business agents, lawyers, bureaucrats etc.) to police agreements and run grievances through. The lack of such a system would weaken labor, unless the working class were militant enough to take over the means of production today. Right now, that’s not the case because most workers are not confident enough, nor particularly interested in doing so, because it easier to compromise on certain economic benefits and let management run production.

    My point here being that while yes bureaucrats have their own interests and happily screw over their rank and file, even so, it is not unions in the abstract that are collaborationist but the workers, which contract unionism and bureaucratization reflect.

    “” -reforming the unions: I’m with GF here. The history of this approach is not good. We have 80 years behind us of socialists of every creed attempting this, with not a lot to show for it. The reality is that we have to recognize that proletarian struggle is not a recipe, it has distinct historical periods. We can reform unions only once we have the strength through worker mass fights already. Generally unions are ruptured or transformed and rarely reformed (the early IWW, CIO). In this time we need to focus on building militants through struggles, and intermediate organizations of those militants so that when we see struggle reaches a tipping point we have the organization on the ground to build libertarian mass movements.”"

    I agree with this 100%. I think I may have been unclear before about organization and tactics. I would argue against a strategy of running reform slates to win back the union. I agree with you and with GF about forming independent “intermediate” organization to fight around shopfloor issues as a way to activate the workers and shake up the bureaucracy. In some individual cases, it may be worth running a union slate to make our job easier with the rank and file, but that should become a priority and even in those cases the program should be militant unionism and rank-n-file outreach, rather than merely “reform” (which usually reads as “cleaning house” i.e. clean up corruption and build a democratic union). The latter may be nice, but it does little to build rank and file militancy nor does it pose enough of a challenge in the form of independent activity. The former prioritizes collective action over political reforms, although it has a secondary ability to win reforms by challenging the bureaucracy.

    Of course, I may be totally off and not know what I’m talking about at all, since my direct experience is so limited. One other thing I want to argue though is that debates on union organizing which only deal with big established unions in already organized workplaces, are way too narrow a basis for theorizing about unions. The fact is that less than a tenth of American workers are unionized, and a good number of those are members of inactive. powerless or pro-management unions which can hardly be called “the” unions. If we are going to talk about unionism, we have to also talk about the role of new and/or independent unions, as well as the IWW, as outlets for organizing non-unionized workers or for replacing corrupt/pro-management unions. I think the dual-carding strategy is an interesting place to start for that sort of debate.

    However, I am drifting off now from the original topic….

    - Kevin

  • Pingback: What in the hell … :: … is the role of a communist? :: July :: 2010

  • Frank

    Dear Mamos and all,

    I didn’t realize that you had written this until very recently, but since none of the issues have gone away in the last six months I think that it remains worthy of attention by all revolutionaries. It was also exciting for me to read because based on my own practical organizing experience and theoretical study (along with that of my political trend, the Communist Voice Organization) I’m in firm agreement with some crucial stands that you take, as well as with your democratic method. But I also have questions about, or disagree with, some other things that you say. I‘ll take these up in this comment, which will for most part treat your article chronologically. I should add that I didn‘t realize that you had already received 40 comments. Hence, a few of the things that I raise have already been discussed, and perhaps resolved.

    —–

    I haven’t yet read AS, so I’m not sure what it conceives of as the “class struggle Left” tendency, nor am I sure what it practically means by “attempting to chart a third path that is independent from both the centrists (the ‘we need to meet people where they are at’ folks) and the adventurists (the ‘Occupy Everything Demand Nothing’ folks).” But it’s certainly true that we need to advance the proletarian class struggle, which you‘re doing at the U.W. And to do this we must chart a path independent of reformism (presumably, the “meet people where they are” folks) and anarchism (presumably, the “demand nothing” folks). This is indeed leftist.

    Revolutionary work obviously involves meeting people where they are. That’s what Marxist-Leninist united front tactics are about. That’s why we generally spend so much time dealing with tactical considerations, methods of approach, etc., in our agitation, slogans and discussions. But the reformists (whether avowed reformists or pseudo-revolutionaries) use this truth to excuse trailing behind what exists, and often also to intimidate others into adopting their reformist practices. It’s therefore very nice that you point out that “we can’t base our understanding of where the class is at on where the union bureaucracy is at” because the reformists (including pseudo-revolutionaries, or revisionists) often do precisely this.

    In my view, charting a path independent of these twin vices of the working class movement (reformism and anarchism) necessitates building the independent organization of the most class conscious revolutionaries above all else. It involves experimenting with intermediary forms of organization that can draw more people into action in the immediate practical struggle, and forms through which to deal with revolutionary theory as well. It involves finding forms of struggle other than strikes, as well as mass forms through which to wage successful strikes. It involves working out tactics with which to deal with the labor bureaucrats and (often) oppositional union factions that have a line that appears a little more militant. And it generally involves rallying the rest of the class to support a strike or other struggle, while in your case rallying a two-way support between students and workers has been a pressing issue.

    You’ve been doing all of these things, which are really great things. And while I’m in no position to weigh all of your successes and failures, the fact that you’ve been red-baited, slandered as ultra-left, dual unionist, etc., indicates that you’ve had successes in your work. The labor bureaucrats and opportunists wouldn’t send up such cries were you not rallying some section of the workers to act in their independent class interests.

    But because I have not read most of your leaflets, listened to you in meetings with workers, etc., one thing that I left out of the above list is that building a truly independent trend among the workers also necessitates a constant critique of reformism and anarchism—tactfully and tactically done, done in the right time and conditions (where it will be understood and “stick”), etc. Perhaps you agree and are already doing this, but I mention it because you can’t chart a really independent path without doing this work.

    On the labor bureaucrats—

    You say that Gramsci argued that the union bureaucracy represents a truce between labor and capital, and that the bureaucracy records the past gains of workers struggles’ to sell their labor at a higher wage on the capitalist market. But is it not the agreement or contract between the workers and employers that actually represents the truce between labor and capital, while the labor bureaucracy represents else?

    Historically, even very militant unions with a high level of rank and file activity have needed more-or-less full time people to take care of paperwork, produce agitation, and organize. Such officers, etc., are not necessarily bureaucrats. But in the 20th Century we saw a self-serving trade-union bureaucracy grow up first in the imperialist countries, and later in the former colonies and semi-colonies. In this country it has long been high-paid and often staffed by college educated professionals who have never been workers. It’s their “career.” And from the time the UAW helped Carter railroad the first concessions on the autoworkers in the name of saving “American” jobs (1979), this bureaucracy has been evermore openly exposing itself as the little helper of the employers, the class enemy. (I’m not including various small, independent unions in this discussion.) It promotes the theory of common interest between labor and capital, and in fact represents the bourgeoisie in the workers movement. Thus, members of my trend often simply refer to the union leaders as the “labor traitors.”

    But some of your formulations about the labor bureaucrats seem to underestimate their treachery. I realize that this may have to do your being in a rush when writing, but since it’s such an important question insofar as strategy is concerned I‘ll pursue it a little more.

    I, for example, believe that we have to be oriented toward eventually smashing up the entire AFL-CIO/CTW apparatus—a process that that is going to proceed in fits and starts, and that is going to take many, many years to accomplish. Indeed, it is hard to imagine this happening until the eve of the revolution itself. Of course this does not mean that we should not work in the present unions, or refuse to support reform efforts by workers within them, etc. Nor does it mean that we should always take the stand that organizing drives must result in independent unions (let alone red unions). That depends on what the workers want, what they’re up for. The issue is to not hold or create any illusions about the present trade union bureaucracy.

    So I like numerous of the stands that you take. For example:

    -you see the need to work in reactionary trade unions;

    -“the labor bureaucracy is not the only thing holding back workers from striking;”

    -“we can’t focus ONLY on critiquing the bureaucracies’ arguments against strikes, we need to build up our confidence as workers through a series of smaller job actions that might not take the form of strikes;”

    -“the bureaucrats have ALREADY divided the workforce along lines of race, ethnicity, nationality, language, skill level, and factional allegiances, and are already playing into management’s hands;”

    -you take seriously the workers who stand up to the bureaucrats and push as far as they can to fight management;

    -you stand up for groups taking action without passing resolutions or getting permission from elected union officials;

    -“building opposition caucuses or union reform movements is not enough;”

    -opposition to being overly focused on replacing “bad” leadership with “good” leadership;

    I‘m not so sure that you agree with me concerning strategic orientation. For example, you write a passage that seems to say that you do NOT think the bureaucrats are in bed with the bosses (the incident you relate about management posting something written by the bureaucrats by the time clocks), or you say that there’s only a “systematic TENDANCY toward class collaborationism,” or you say the bureaucrats “are already playing into management’s hands”—which could be taken as saying that they’re well-meaning but erring. And you seem to hold out hope that the bureaucrats will reform themselves under a little pressure from below: i.e., “When the members move on certain questions without consulting the bureaucrats it forces the bureaucrats to start moving, and union reform could be a welcome byproduct of increased class struggle against the bosses.” (Please correct me of I’m wrong about these things.)

    Moreover, I think that you risk being blindsided if you actually think that you can “push the bureaucracy to the Left” rather than have it adopt a left posture under which it maneuvers to counterattack.

    Resistance struggles—

    In his “Wages, Price, and Profit,” Marx characterized strikes as necessary guerrilla battles, or resistance to the general downward tendency of things under capitalism. And he said that the trades unions of his time worked well as centers of resistance against the encroachments of capital.

    Of course, today the dominant trade unions have become class-collaborationist instruments of the exploiters (I think). So I therefore think that we need to over time build new centers of resistance, and that trade unions organized on the basis of a class struggle policy are the logical form of mass organization for this. But what can the trade union form of organization do?

    You seem to address this general question when listing a number of things that you say “unions are least suited to fight” on. And in this list you include “how fast they (the workers) work.”

    But unless you strictly mean today’s class-collaborationist bureaucracies, I think this is wrong. Even now contracts often contain job-definition language that can be used by the workers to resist speedup through job-combinations, etc. And, while we oppose a narrow, craft mentality, craft contracts can be turned on the bosses when they try to make workers in one craft do tasks that another craft is supposed to do. Thus, when the workers are in a fighting mood on this issue the labor hacks will sometimes, if under enough pressure, go along with such things as working “by rule.”

    Overall, the struggles against job-combinations/speedup, around safety, etc. are pretty elementary (though necessary) forms of resistance that workers spontaneously take up every day. My trend has had a lot of experience in encouraging and organizing them because the bureaucrats of the present unions refuse to do so. But this only illustrates the importance of building organization independent of the trade unions, not whether the trade union form, in general, can effectively resist such things as speedup. In fact, I think that class-struggle trade unions would certainly fight on this front, and, in fact, since unions encompass all (or most all) of the workers at a place, that they’re the perfect form for doing so.

    This is not to deny that even with class-struggle unions, revolutionaries wouldn‘t still have to be organized independently, and often take the lead in this particular form of guerrilla resistance. Moreover, history has proven that even to have such unions for any length of time in the imperialist era requires the independent work of revolutionaries organized into their own party. The trade unions are ultimately led by the parties, and ours usually by the Democrats.

    Caucuses, union reform movements, etc.

    The CVO trend in many ways grew up opposing what we called the “rank and file committee“ line. According to this line (which was preached by various neo-revisionists, most of whom ended up as social democrats) revolutionaries should NOT take revolutionary politics addressing all fronts of the class struggle to the workplaces, and they should not build their own party organization there. Instead, they should narrow their focus to just the economic struggle, and build a committee that acted a little independently of the union bureaucrats in order to wage it. And if they actually criticized the bureaucrats it was usually weakly done, while often they just trailed behind them.

    In contrast to this, we said that we had to take revolutionary politics to the working class, and developed a national newspaper, local papers, and leaflets to do this with. Our agitation addressed the pressing international, national and local issues, and sometimes cultural issues. It dealt with all three basic forms of the proletarian class struggle: the economic struggle, the political struggle, and the theoretical struggle. And we distributed it at the major factories and other workplaces in our cities, as well as in Black and other national-minority neighborhoods, and a few schools.

    But in combination with this class-wide agitation we understood that in order to really organize we had to concentrate in definite “material bases” (numerous large factories, a hospital or two, some schools and neighborhoods). And by the latter ‘70s our basic units were being built around work in these bases. Our line on what to do in them was different than any other political trend of the time, however.

    I will here interject that I think that it’s obvious that we no longer have a proletarian-revolutionary party in this country. On the one hand we have various sects that call themselves parties. On the other hand, although the CVO has a large history it is now in fact a small group, while Democracy Insurgent, Unity and Struggle, and Advance the Struggle are also small groups. But for all this I think that we need to think as party people, and keep alive (and spread to others!) the party concept and spirit in all our work. Without this we will ultimately fail in carrying forward our historical tasks.

    That said, in contrast to those who saw party building as something to be done in their parlors by an elite, we stood for building a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist party in the class. Thus, our orientation in the workplaces was to build a pro-party trend there. To accomplish this we coupled literature distribution at factory gates with, over time, discreet building of distribution networks on the inside. We mobilized workers to participate with us in anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and other struggles in our areas—including the struggle between political trends over what was to be done. We mobilized them to attend public meetings as well as private study groups that dealt with political affairs and revolutionary theory.

    Of course, building the pro-party trend in the workplaces also involved paying attention to immediate issues confronting the workers (like speedup, safety violations, racial discrimination, and contract struggles), and helping develop the fights around them. This either involved working out and suggesting our own tactics for fighting, or supporting and popularizing good tactics that the workers had already evolved. It involved not just working out and popularizing contract demands, but careful exposures of how the labor bureaucrats were working to dampen or sabotage the workers’ resistance struggle. And often in defiance of the labor hacks, it involved working out or supporting good strike tactics in order to really shut down production.

    So this side of the work involved writing agitation too, but often with the help of pro-party workers, some of whom joined our party. It also involved distribution at workplace entrances combined with discreet inside distribution through larger and looser networks than we used for other party materials. It sometimes involved organizing sticker campaigns, which workers really liked doing. And it involved establishing various kinds of fighting committees—from formal and long-lasting ones that fought on such issues as health and safety, to temporary and informal ones that used imaginative tactics during strikes, or confronted the union leaders when there were big meetings, etc.

    So the latter were certainly rank and file committees, but they were not organized from a framework that detached the economic struggle from the overall class struggle, or by shamefaced socialists who kept their “socialism” to themselves because they thought socialism was repellant to the basic U.S. working class. A related issue is that the struggle in the workplaces has its ups and downs, often with long periods when almost nothing is going on. What were the “revolutionaries” with the rank-and-file committee line supposed to do in such periods? From their framework, the answer was to be good trade unionists.

    Now I’ve been writing this in the past tense because this is experience that I have intimate knowledge of, especially when I was your age. But it’s important to stress that even though we were never in more than a dozen cities (although important ones) we had the advantage of having a national trend (actually an international trend) and then a party in those years. More, we could have never have had such a party were it not for the profound mass movements that shook the country and world in the ’60s and early ’70s (which our comrades came out of), coupled with the opening rounds of developing a critique of modern revisionism that were fired then (which we participated in). But you do not have either of these advantages, and while the pace of the mass movements is quickening, it’s unlikely that a real storm is going to develop in the near future.

    I think this present situation just drives home the necessity for active groups like ours to develop discussion among themselves and forge the links we can. And, indeed, our (today) small and more loosely organized group remains active in the working class following the same line I wrote about above in the past tense. Hence, if you look at http://home.flash.net/~comvoice/DWV.html you’ll soon figure out that we’re concentrated in the Post Office, where we agitate on local, national and global affairs, as well as work issues. We’re trying to build the CVO trend there, have outside and inside distribution of leaflets, have workers attend the Detroit Workers’ Voice Discussion Group (a few of the recent presentations can be found at http://home.flash.net/~comvoice/New.html or on my F.B. page), etc. You’ll also see that we’re intimately involved in the struggle against postal management’s fierce attacks on postal workers, where we’re playing an important role, and sometimes single-handedly playing a leading role. The tactical thinking behind why certain things are said in the leaflets, or the many interesting things that developed with the union bureaucrats when comrades organized the March mass picket, or many other details about how they’re organizing are not on the web page, of course.

    I want to next comment on the questions of transitional program and related issues, as well as on what Lenin said in “What is to be done?” But since my schedule is such that I won’t get to that for a week or two I’m dividing this comment into parts.

    With high regard,
    Frank Arango

  • http://spiritualdesert.blogspot.com Mamos

    Frank,
    Thank you for the detailed, thoughtful, and sophisticated engagement. Unfortunately I don’t have the time right now to write a response that would do your comment justice. I wrote up some very rough notes that aren’t yet fit for public consumption and I’ll send them to you shortly as a kind of provisional response.

    peace,
    Mamos

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