On the Union Debate: Abstract Political Differences, Concrete Questions of What Rupture Looks Like

In this series of posts we are attempting to make public some debate that we are having inside of AS around workplace organizing, the union structure and how to approach them.  In the comment thread John Desalin posted some questions that led to a longer response from another voice within AS that we are posting here for discussion, and transparency about any differences in AS around this question.  Looking forward to more engagment from the comrades!

John Desalin said:

Comrades,

I’m glad an actual discussion is going on, and not a dogmatic rehashing of the theses of some obscure communist organization from the 1970s. We are in a new era of recomposition of the militant labor movement, and I for one welcome fresh thinking. That said, the first piece I think fell short of my expectations.

A key contradiction in the first text was a conception of a union that seemed to be more ideal than one rooted in late or decadent capitalism. Here, it is almost as if the author is saying “On one hand, they hold no hope for socialist revolution” while on the other they are elevated to becoming a possible offensive weapon against capital. I don’t see how this contradiction is resolved in the text at all. I was left wondering what exactly is the limit of the union in terms of whether or not we can see any transformation of its very structure as having a correlative impact on its functioning; apparently not.

Regards,

JD

The Fish replied:

I did not read the first piece in the same way, as containing an unexamined/unresolved contradiction….I more saw it as describing an objectively-existing contradiction, built into the union-form within capitalism. Perhaps this relates both to a certain vagueness (or more charitably purposeful simplicity) in the article and different assumptions on both of our parts.

As a somewhat tangential aside, I see no clear political differences between these two pieces, and it seems kind of funny to characterize these different methods of presentation as a “debate”, but hey let’s engage what comes up.

I thought it’s a basic aspect of Marxism, from Marx to Lenin to Luxemburg to Gramsci etc. etc., that unions CAN be an offensive weapon against capital (please see all union struggles for wage increases, union-based general strikes in Egypt, union-based struggle for the 8-hour work day). But that they also are NOT the organs through which the working class will make a revolution (see any critiques of the limitations of syndicalism, anarcho-syndicalism in the Spanish Revolution, the IWW as a viable society-wide revolutionary organization.) I assume we agree that a revolution is not the only kind of offensive against capital.

This contradiction is rooted theoretically in the tendency for the proletariat to struggle both inside of capitalism against the constant threat of a social wage insufficient to reproduce us, while also coming to greater understanding of the inherent limitations of this constant struggle and the need to destroy the current social order and build a different one. In political economy, as far as I understand this contradiction is seen in the fact that workers are both the gravediggers of capital, and as labor-power are capital themselves.

I see any union-form (even ones that are not bound by laws such as Taft-Hartley) as always containing these contradictory impulses, and generally having both represented by political currents. The right-wing of the union bureaucracy normally directly represents capital, while the left-wing usually represents the interests of workers in getting paid the value of their labor. Our role is to bring out the class war, anticapitalist, systemic critique that is ALSO immanent in any kind of union form under modern capitalism…..we do this by engaging deeply in the struggles within capitalism, and then pushing hard and effectively on their ideological and practical weak points where they can explode into class consciousness and class war.

Lately I have been trying to think through what the resurgence of struggle at the point of production would look like, and I think a key element will be “mass splits” from existing NLRB-managed unions. (I see this as the probably concrete form of the “transform the unions” mentioned in both pieces above.) Here’s what I have brainstormed on the subject:

I submit this:

No union will be both registered with the NLRB, and regularly breaking Taft-Hartley (or other labor laws) at the same time.

This would not be possible because they would be bankrupted by fines until their organization didn’t exist, and whatever else the NLRB can do to them. The key recent example is when Longview ILWU Local 21 broke labor law (having illegal pickets and blocking trains). Many members (including the local president Dan Coffman) were put in jail, and the local was fined millions of dollars that they were not able to pay. The ILWU International told Coffman that if his local kept supporting the Occupy movement and breaking the law, they would not help with the legal costs and lawyer fees. This would have bankrupted, and legally destroyed, local 21. Instead Dan Coffman bent the knee, they got the money, and they came back under the discipline of the international.

If he had refused, ILWU Local 21 would have ceased to exist…..but a new organization would have immediately emerged, probably calling itself something else (for legal reasons) based on both the fight and the betrayal by the International. This is what I would call a “mass split” in a union, as opposed to dual unionism which seeks to build a small, militant or communist alternative union starting with militants and slowly recruiting…..also opposed to either boycotting organizing in workplaces with unions or accepting them as permanent structures as they are. These mass splits will be necessary for all unions before serious gains can be made in the class struggle……but they will only happen as a result of struggle as in the above case, never as the result of leftist arguments are attempts to initiate them from scratch.

The CIO is also a historic case of “mass splits” as opposed to dual unionism, although the situation was very different and it should not be used as an example of the process I’m talking about here.

These new “mass split” unions would already have structure, history of struggle, and a recently radicalizing experience of being forced by circumstance to break with legalism. They would also be uniquely open to new allies, having just broken with the state/union establishment that had been supporting and limiting them…..a prime time to reach out to other sectors of workers, and non-work-based struggles such as housing, gender, police brutality etc.

@JD and others reading this: what do you think the processes of new workplace organizing forms coming about will look like?  How will these forms come out of / split from existing unions?  Can we give examples of times when this could have happened but didn’t, as I attempted to do above?  This detailed thinking-through would IMO greatly advance this conversation past the level of abstract posturing on which it often remains.

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3 Comments

Filed under Analysis/Theory, Debates

3 responses to “On the Union Debate: Abstract Political Differences, Concrete Questions of What Rupture Looks Like

  1. I think it’s great that y’all are having this conversation in public. A few points in reply to The Fish –

    “it’s a basic aspect of Marxism” that unions are not “organs through which the working class will make a revolution.” It’s notable that the tradition stands here in lieu of an actual argument, but leaving that aside, I wanted to point out that IWW in its heyday was largely marxist in ideology. Marxism’s a broader church than this lets on.

    I mostly agree with this – “I see any union-form (even ones that are not bound by laws such as Taft-Hartley) as always containing these contradictory impulses, and generally having both represented by political currents” – except that I think “union-form” is vague. If this just means “workers struggling under capitalism” then great, except then the earlier bit about unions being a priori nonrevolutionary doesn’t make sense.

    “a key element will be “mass splits” from existing NLRB-managed unions.” I agree. And so do some people in the mainstream unions. (If you haven’t read it, check out Joe Burns’s book.) Many of the highest points of the labor movement’s history have been times when it broke out of the limits on how to struggle imposed by law. Which means that in advocating for breaking out of those limits we are at some points in the same place as militant social democrats.

    I think you’re wrong that the CIO was what you call a “mass split.” The split happened fairly far into the CIO’s organizing history. But also, if the ‘mass split’ vision points to basically repeating the early history of the CIO then that speaks to the limits of this. The CIO wasn’t particularly radical. (Among other things, some early CIO contracts have almost identical language in their contracts to the language in company unions created by management. And the CIO largely followed the playbook defined by Lewis during his time in the UMW, and advocated policies put forward by the left wing of the social democrats like the leadership of the ILGWU and their allies in elected office.)

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  3. Pingback: Union Debate: Mara Responds to Jocelyn and James | Advance the Struggle

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