Unionism not a Lost Cause


The fresh generation of Marxist revolutionaries of today can’t help but feel confronted with a two sided coin. On the one hand, we are inspired by the elders around us who came out of the period of huge class struggles world wide that is epitomized by the year 1968. The world proletariat produced so many of our local heroes who to this day carry so much of the load of activism and resistance campaigns. At least that’s the case for us in AS here in the Bay Area, where we have a few important elders that have passed the torch to us and still outdo us in many ways.

On the other side of the coin, is a sense that there is a wide gulf between 2011 and the peak years of class struggle that stretched into the mid-70s. None of the histories or biographies that we read seem to contain much evidence of revolutionary thought or action during the whole decades of the 1980s and 1990s. Organizational forms and theoretical content seems to have no continuity, and we feel like we are starting from scratch.

But if we got to know some of these elders a little better and listened to their stories, we would learn a lot. They have been dedicated for their whole lives, and the class struggle never ceases. People like recently retired Jack Heyman of the ILWU is one such figure.

Check out this video which is a succinct summary of one union’s intervention in the political sphere through the best and probably only real means at the disposal of the working class: organized labor action. Voting, petitioning, and the rest of it only have a chance at being relevant within the broader context of direct, organized, labor action. Just to be clear, AS refers to much more than unions or even waged workers when we say “labor”, so although this example we are using focuses on a classic sector of the working class, we do not limit the possibility of class struggle to forms like this.

What better example of the potential of the working class to consciously intervene in the political sphere through organized withdraw of their labor-power from production (aka, strike) than the history of the ILWU here in Oakland and San Francisco? Those Marxists who dismiss the unions, the bureaucracy, and the male-majority industries as reactionary bastions, might take pause and complicate their program with this counterpoint to alleged bankruptcy of Trotskyism, the transitional method, “caste” (race and gender) integrated struggle and other pillars of commonplace marxist praxis (not that Marxist praxis is commonplace at all!).

Much of what has been written on this blog suggests that the new frontier of communist praxis is to be found in the “margins”, in sectors of the working class that in some cases have not even been defined as working class at all (eg, reproductive workers such as mothers). We hold to that assertion, but can’t go so far as to write off the role that unions, productive workers, and men have to play in the revolutionary process. Advance the Struggle is in that category of Marxists who are skeptical of the old formulas, and we are certainly humbled by the historical evidence that at least in one local case, proves that classical formulas can work to a significant degree.

This video should dispel the claim that workers organized as workers are condemned eternally to “economistic” politics, since longshoremen are firmly in the category of “aristocracy of labor”. It is settled: all proletarians can become conscious of their broad, internationalist interests and act in solidarity in militant fashion. The question is how to reconcile the skepticism of union (structured into state apparatus) with counterpoints like the one featured in the video AND how to also strategically coordinate non-union and even non-waged workers struggles with those of militant wage-earners and unionists. When this is figured out in theory and in practice, we will be well on the way to forging a truly unified proletariat.

13 responses to “Unionism not a Lost Cause

  1. I appreciate the ILWU for the consistent stand they’ve taken against apartheid, war, police brutality and capitalist attacks on unions that they’ve taken in the past year – not to mention the way in which they’ve done so for years before.

    The amount of economic violence that the just-in-time world of the contemporary capitalism is incredibly important, and demonstrates the centrality of resistance and struggle on the shop floors of productive industries (productive in the Marxist sense – productive of capital and commodities, not “productive” in a moral sense which denigrates reproductive labor). Stopping the flow of capital through its various circuits is crucial if we are to interrupt the system and carve out the social space to build the solidarity, consciousness, and organizational capacity needed to make social revolution. Likewise, building solidarities, developing consciousness, and building organizational capacity are also pre-requisites for blocking the ability of capital to reproduce itself at the pont of production.

    I want to emphasize my hunch that the composition of the productive working class in the US is likely less and less majority male than it has historically been. I’m thinking of all the women in East Oakland I’ve met who work at food processing plants, recycling plants, and metal re-furbishing plants. All these are examples of shops which are part of industries that are crucial for the reproduction of capital right here in California, and therefore are centers of daily class struggles that happen that many of us are hardly aware of.

    The challenge that serious, non-academic marxists today face is to understand the continually shifting composition of the proletariat, recognize the struggles which are brewing under the surface of everyday capitalist normality, and intervene within these struggles to support them, challenge them, and help reflect on them theoretically so that we may move forward in the class war. Learning from the ILWU is a crucial step in a longer march we’re just beginning.

  2. “The trade-union apparatus acts as the bodyguard of capital. Conducting all negotiations with management, processing all grievances through its elaborate grievance procedure, it sits at the bargaining table in a hierarchy of posts parallel at every level with that of management. In an American plant the shop steward or the committeeman represents not the workers, but the union apparatus. He is bound by the elaborate contract governing all issues of production which the union leadership sign in return for wage increases, pension plans, etc. The committeeman is responsible to the union and to management for the carrying out of this contract.”

    –C.L.R. James, in “Facing Reality” (1958)

    As a former member of Local 6, I’ve got to confirm that the rank-and-file of ILWU is one of the most militant sections of the working class in the U.S. I’d attribute it to the legacy of class unity on the San Francisco waterfront that began with the first sailor’s strike in 1850, which led to the first attempts by workers to organize onshore in 1853. Class struggle at the time was extremely violent as “labor was pitted against all of capital” and battles were class-against-class.

    The first attempt to unite all waterfront unions occurred in the strike of 1886. The 2nd waterfront strike in 1893 was defeated because a bomb was set off in front of a non-union boarding house, killing 10. The City Front Federation was formed in 1901, uniting 13,000 waterfront workers in the Sailors Union of the Pacific, Teamsters, and various longshore unions. A lock-out of Teamsters exploded into a tangle of sympathy strikes that paralyzed the port for 3 months. It became violent and 5 were killed and it ended in a stalemate, but it allowed labor to come out stronger that it had begun. At the time, San Francisco was the most highly organized city in the U.S., if not the world.

    The 1916 Longshore Strike had begun to garner popular support when a longshore worker was killed, but this reversed when the Preparedness Day bombing killed 10 – and Tom Mooney was framed and served 22 years in prison for it, before being pardoned. In 1934, the killing of two striking workers pushed an 83-day maritime strike of all ports on the West Coast into a 4-day general strike that completely shut down San Francisco – and Oakland too. The Teamsters were the first to agitate for the general strike, paying back the favor to the longshore workers who had struck in solidarity with them in 1901. The continuation of the tradition of class unity was the defining feature of the success of the ’34 General Strike.

    The ILWU broke from the mobbed-up East Coast-run ILA and protected its victory – and union-controlled hiring hall – with another strike in 1936. And it also began the process of desegregating the rank-and-file to fulfill the promise to African Americans to bring them into the union if they refused to scab during the general strike. Today the majority in ILWU Local 10 is non-white. And they still have some of the highest industrial wages in the U.S. I disagree that they are a “labor aristocracy” because I see their high wages, good benefits and decent working conditions as the result of struggle, based on over 150 years of class war on the waterfront – theirs being one of the several successes.

    But that tradition began to fade with ILWU leader Harry Bridges willfully agreeing to a no-strike pledge for the duration of World War II – and even pushing for a 9-year contract at the war’s end. But this wasn’t unique for just the ILWU, but nearly all unions (with very few exceptions, like the Wobbly-like “Stormy Petrel” machinists in the Bay whose crushing defeat fueled the anger that catalyzed in the 1946 Oakland General Strike) went along with longer and longer contracts, 99% included no-strike clauses that union officials voluntarily accepted, as well as demobilizing institutions like the dues check-off, bureaucratic grievance procedures, and acquiescence to “labor jurisprudence” where the state (through the NRLB) and the court system became arbitrators of labor disputes.

    The strike weapon was being surrendered at the same time the Cold War and McCarthyism were purging labor of radicals; the productivity deals of Fordism were one of many factors driving a consumerism where the myth of a classless society was being born. And the ILWU stood up to the red hunt, being purged from the CIO by the anti-communist hysteria of the late 1940s. Yet according to the accounts of working class militant Stan Weir, the bureaucrats of the ILWU were moving in a more and more conservative direction; by time of the Mechanization and Modernization Agreement of 1960, that allowed containerization and eventually moved the port to Oakland, they were no different from any other bureaucratic business union – run by “piecards” who didn’t work in the sector. To the point that Bridges and the ILWU bureaucrats betrayed the 82, mostly African American “B” men, who were purged out of the union along with Weir in 1963.

    Despite the bureaucratization of ILWU, the rank-and-file carried on the legacy of conscious actions on the docks, including forcing strikes in 1948 and the last one in 1971. But you only have to read the ILWU literature to see that the union has grown content and has actively discouraged strikes as an effective course of action. Yet one great again the union made was its ability to hold “stop-work meetings” according to its contract. That was what happened on May Day 2008, when 29 ports on the West Coast were shut down. Which is entirely admirable, but it was not based on militancy or the agency of the rank-and-file; it was due to a caucus of radicals in the union pushing to invoke this contractual privilege. Other similar actions invoke “health and safety” provisions of the contract to not cross picket lines, like with the Israeli Zim Lines ship in 2010, but it is disingenuous to allude to this being based on class consciousness or the self-activity of the rank-and-file.

    Yet the actions in the video are heroic and credit is due to the rank-and-file militants who made them possible. And it is presently important for our action in working class solidarity workers in the ILWU in defending themselves against the lawsuits filed by the PMA because of the March 4th work stoppage in solidarity with public sector workers in Wisconsin. We will inevitably be seeing more and more of these attacks on the working class, so we will hopefully be agitating for class unity in fighting back; in the process we can break down the divisions that weaken the working class, uniting ALL workers in the tradition of the great Bay Area general strikes in 1934 and 1946, where class consciousness brought all workers together to fight as ONE.

    Yet we have a lot of organizing to do, as we struggle against divisions based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, as well as bringing together unionized and non-unionized (92.1% of the workforce in the U.S.), people working and those un- and under-employed, private and public sector workers; with 11% of houses in the U.S. being empty, we should be fighting in solidarity to make sure that everyone – especially the homeless – in need has a roof over their head. With the current global economic crisis caused by the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007-2008, the ruling class has gone on the attack to further grind down the living condition of the poor and working class in order to maintain their wealth and profits. Marxist author David McNally borrows a phrase to talk of the suffering working people are subject to, while the rich continue to protect their riches, that calls the present situation “a statistical recovery and a human recession.” The working class in places like Egypt, Greece, China – and even briefly in Wisconsin – has fought back against austerity attacks, we should be too. They weren’t always the struggles of union workers and they were often illegal actions. Imagine if the wildcat of truckers a couple weeks ago at the Port of Shanghai (the world’s busiest container port) linked up with the troqueros at the Ports of Oakland and Los Angeles/Long Beach… then we’d be pushing the class war against the just-in-time global production system at one of its most vulnerable links.

  3. Hieronymous raises some great points, and I think that maybe it goes to show that the title of this post is actually incorrect and missing a crucial “?”. There’s a difference between the unionized workers and the union itself. While some (and probably relatively few) leftists dismiss unionized workers as a form of the “labor aristocracy” the reality is that the union officialdom is what should be getting called out and denounced, rather than that rank and file themselves.

    I’m interested in figuring out if Steve-o actually means that Unions themselves are not a lost cause, or if he’s actually referring to the unionized workers . . .

  4. Hieronymous, thank you for never ceasing to stress the many pitfalls of unions, especially the shackles they help place on the agency of the working class (epitomized by no-strike clauses). I will never tire of hearing you articulately lay that out.

    I will preface the rest of my remarks by saying that I am very sympathetic to the viewpoint that unions are part of the problem and not part of the solution for the proletariat insofar as the proletariat’s historical mission is to have a communist revolution. BUT there are counterpoints to every generalization, and I think that the Bay Area’s ILWU locals highlight a couple of areas of utility to the strategy of intervening in unions.

    It is an exceptional circumstance that class conscious militants strategically intervene in unions effectively and stick to their guns enough to retain some fundamental precepts of marxism, such as a political commitment in action to unite with workers OF THE WORLD, and not just their own particular sector. Coordinated action with British, Iraqi, African, Palestinian, and East Coast proletarians of all races to stop the circuit of capital – no matter how fleetingly – is a feat that no ultra left and hardly any Marxists of any kind anywhere in the world are able to do in the historical period 1984-2011 so lets stop whining CLR James quotes long enough to have a non-strawman discussion here. What is really lacking in this equation is a discussion about what happened to all those enlightened workers who lived throuh this stuff?? Why was there no vanguard party or dilettentish reading group or even an enterprising grad student clique to scoop up these workers and concentrate them into a force for reproducing further worker action “from below” and reflecting on the action that had already taken so as to create new organic (meaning from the class itself, from actual workers, not professional or academic or armchair intellectuals) intellectuals from the struggle? The process of struggling and then intellectualizing the struggle is what the working class really needs, not just a string of activity, comendable as it is.

    No ultra-left has sensible program for making revolution against/despite unions and other reformist, mediating apparatuses that buffer us against a “class against class” context such as our proletarian antecedents had the good fortune (?) to have.

    In CLR Jame’s time, did ANY unions at all in the US wage anti-imperialist struggle the way the ILWU has for over 2 decades? To my knowledge, no, but if they had, he would have been wise to take his anti-union tone down a notch or two.

    “The trade-union apparatus acts as the bodyguard of capital.” Alright, then why is it that a bunch of union bureaucrats use supposedly (according to hieronymous in other posts on this blog) undemocratic methods to push an anti-imperialist agenda so consistently? Personally, I have no answer as to why , but the fact that they do is apparent to all, especially the state which just as consistently attacks them!

    It is also apparent to all that imperialism and working class complicity in it are absolutely fundamental to the reproduction of capital. So please explain hieronymous, in what way ILWU bureaucrats are acting as “bodyguards of capital” when they protest Israel, South Africa, Oakland Police Department, the US Federal Governement, etc etc etc. I get it when we are talking about contracts for baskets of remuneration (money and benefits) but I would like to be mentored here for a second on how this epithet “bodyguard of capital” applies in the case of clearly counter-hegemonic political action. Its not like by “political action” I am referring to the Obama campaign or something…

    The question here is, can unions -which consist of members and leaders- be mobilized against capital and imperialism, if so, is this a good thing for the proletariat globally, and is there some part in the overarching communist program of 2011 (if one actually existed) for communists to intervene in these union structures?

    Your answer seems to be a flat “no.” And it is true that the unions only consist of a few million workers in the US, but how many members to these solidarity networks and the like consist of? A few dozen vegan-marxist drop outs from grad school and their possibly 1ooo net contacts nationwide? Luckily, our alternatives do not boil down to more or less uncritical support of the unions, on one hand, and more or less irrelevant alternatives to unions. …

    Prrrrat, I intentionally left out the question mark in the title so as to invite more debate because I knew that the AS blog is a favorite haunting ground of naysayers that have 1 dimensional ultra left politics with no willingness to consider something practical and only gravitate toward romantic flashes of spontaneity wherever it is detectable. Im glad I left the “?” out, because I feel ready now to defend the position that while union are not the building block of socialism that most active Marxists think they are, they are not the enemy of the proletariat the way Jamesists, Hieronymous, and ultra-lefts generally think they are. As with most of the burning questions facing marxists today, we cannot take the opportunism of our contemporaries in the Trotskyist, Maoist and Stalinist milieus as an excuse to bend the stick to the extreme pole of ultra-left/anarchist rejection of all things practical.

    In short, all revolutionary Marxists (that means active and part of an organization or seeking to be, as distinct from academic or rambo individualist Marxists) ought to leave space in their program (and to be a revolutionary, a program is required even if it is unwritten although it should be so that it can be shared and debated) for “unionism” (meaning the building of unions and intervention in the struggle for the character of governance). Thats my main only point. What form that intervention in real unions (as opposed to those which are striving to be real, such as the vernerable IWW) takes is something I am open to discussing, but I am totally opposed to the position that all unions in all cases are on the side of capital and therefore enemy terrain. Im using the ILWU and people like Jack Heyman, Clarence Thomas, and Howard Keylor (all featured in the video) to show that “unionism” can produce positive fruits of a politically relevant nature to the world proletariat and its struggle toward communist revolution. To make this point is not the same as to argue that unions are basically “working class organizations” or that they are the only expression of the class FOR itself, or that we should organize huge campaigns to take back “our” unions or establish a Labor Party or any of the rest of the stuff truly pro-union marixism puts forward programatically.

    A unionism of a different type might be even more relevant than Jack Heyman’s, although I haven’t seen it. The Sojourner Truth Organization – Hammerquist in particular – has an interesting type of “unionism”, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers did too; both of these are different models of unionism, but they hold in common, a fundamental acceptance of the concept of an organization of workers as workers who need to be represented in the struggle over wages and political ideology (boss’ ideas about the world vs. workers ideas about the world). They each differ in their program as to what this representation means and where it goes, and these differences need to be concisely expressed by communists in a program so that the working class can understand where it has been and what to do today given our conditions. This has yet to be done.

    Im a little too sophisticated (some might call it confused… alright then make some sense about how you’re gonna do what you’re talking about!) to be sucked into either camp on the union question and I think AS as a whole is too. The union question is one where we don’t fall prey to “the twin pitfalls” of centrists or adventurist/ultra-lefts any more than we do regarding the educations struggle or Oscar Grant movement.

  5. Steve…oh!, I think you’ve misread some of what I wrote. But I find this topic to be crucial and thanks for keeping the discussion going. Right off, let me make my position crystal clear, which brings up Wisconsin. I’ll borrow an expression from Staughton Lynd about unions, but twist it a little because he actually said it about labor law (which I’ve replaced with “UNION”). Here’s my rewriting:

    “The best way to think of the UNION is as a shield, not a sword. The UNION is not an especially good way to change things. But it can give you some real protection as you try to change things in other ways.”

    And not all unions are the same, but ALL unions are subject to the SAME pacifying labor law that privileges contracts, negotiations, arbitration, the NLRB, courts and electoral strategies OVER direct action, strikes, solidarity and class consciousness. Hence every union in the U.S. (except the IWW) gives a substantial percentage of dues payers’ money to their class enemies in the Democratic Party – and most unions even give a little money to Republicans. In the last general election, AFL-CIO unions contributed $400,000,000 to the elections industry. The SEIU gave $85,000,000 to the Obama campaign alone. And yes, my former sisters and brothers in the ILWU were extorted of their dues for the Democratic Party too.

    So my “un-nuanced” position around such things isn’t just a laundry list of complaints, but is based on having been in both the ILWU and the SEIU and seen how these unions work first-hand. Speaking of which, I was at Yoshi’s jazz club in San Francisco’s Fillmore last night, handing out fliers with a fired hotel worker comrade, letting patrons know about how the boycotted Hotel Frank is being used by Yoshi’s for out-of-town musicians (see here for my detail: http://www.hotelfranksf.info/ ). The place was packed and it seemed like every politician, past and present, who ever served in City Hall was there. Supervisors like Ross Mirkarimi and Scott Wiener, former Bayview Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, and even Democratic Party kingpin/real estate industry lackey Willie Brown was there too (if you want to know how badly Slick Willie gentrified and sold out the city with his patronage machine politics and his handouts to real estate interests, just search the Bay View newspaper archives about how he practically gave housing developer Lennar the Hunter’s Point shipyards for free, along with all his other gifts to robber barons). So I couldn’t tell if it was a Democratic Party event, a City of San Francisco event, a Fillmore neighborhood jazz event – or with all the suits and ties on men and evening dresses on women, some kind of high society event. Instead, it was an ILWU event honoring Leroy King, a member of Local 6 Pensioners’ Club, a decades-long member of the San Francisco Redevelopment Commission, and one of the very few good guys in that institution whose legacy was total-clearance urban renewal – or as it was popularly known, “Negro removal” – projects. Leroy was instrumental in stopping the A-2 redevelopment project in the Fillmore/Western Addition, after the devastation of the first, A-1 phase, amounted to ethnic cleansing and the removal of low-income, working class housing for African Americans (see an excellent account of that history: http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=The_ILWU_and_Western_Addition_Redevelopment_A-2 ). This pushed him to participate in the building of affordable co-op housing, like the St. Francis Square complex on Geary across the street from Japantown.

    But my point is that the “labor statesmen,” the piecards from the SF Labor Council, were indistinguishable from the Democratic Party politicians. Hell, I’m willing to bet that they send their kids to the same private schools, golf at the same country clubs, get their coke from the same dealers, and sleep with the same high-end sex workers. Further, I bet a 6-figure salary for supposedly “representing” workers isn’t much different from the pay for hacking for the Democrats – it might even be higher by the looks of their silk tailored suits as they schmoozed at Yoshi’s last night. I even was surprised to see my former ILWU business agent, along with nearly every Local 6 and Local 10 piecard, at the event. It could pretty accurately be summarized as a Popular Front between labor, the Democratic Party and the Chamber of Commerce because representatives of the latter were there too.

    But long-time ILWU leader Harry Bridges wasn’t so conscious of the housing needs of the working class, be they of current workers or retired ones living off pensions or Social Security. Mayor Alioto appointed Bridges to the Port Commission, where he was part of rubber stamping urban clearance projects that destroyed working class housing in Manilatown with the infamous bulldozing of the I-Hotel, as well as the destruction of SRO hotels and cheap apartments in South of Market (SOMA). But it must be remembered that the ILWU leadership after World War II threw their lots with the collective bargaining regime and the conservatism that that implied; they crushed any rank-and-file attempts at direct action or striking. The building trades had always been uncritically pro-development, but with the perks developers were throwing at the ILWU they jumped on the bandwagon too – and got the kickbacks as well. How else do you imagine they got that monstrously ugly box of an International headquarters building, on the bulldozed site of a former neighborhood, at Franklin and Geary?

    Here’s what Chester Hartman writes in “City for Sale: The Transformation of San Francisco”:

    “For the many retired trade unionists living in the area [SOMA], organizing their fellow residents against the bulldozer harked back to organizing efforts in building the labor movement three and four decades earlier. TOOR’s [the anti-gentrification group’s acronym: Tenants and Owners in Opposition to Redevelopment] elected chair was eighty-year- old George Woolf, an organizer and first president of the San Francisco-based Alaska Cannery Workers’ Union and earlier president of the Ship Scalers Union (later an affiliate of the ILWU). Woolf was intimately involved in the San Francisco progressive labor movement in the late 1920s and 1930s and had his front teeth knocked out during the city’s 1934 General Strike. After his retirement in 1954, he organized his fellow ILWU retirees into the Pensioners’ Club, a ‘union with the union.’* He described himself by saying, ‘I’ve lived my life so that I can look any man in the eye and tell him to go to hell.’ His attitude toward the Redevelopment Agency was uncompromising. A newspaper interview with George Woolf note that ‘it was a casual remark by Redevelopment director M. Justin Herman which started him in battle.’ Herman had reportedly called the residents of the South of Market area ‘nothing but a bunch of skid row bums.’ Woolf was indignant — ‘I’m not a bum and I resent being discredited and discounted.’ He responded by helping to create TOOR.” (pp. 69-70)

    *footnote 1: “Woolf’s historic relationship and close ties to the ILWU were of no avail in seeking help from his union. He wrote ILWU international president Harry Bridges asking for support and got this 26 November 1969, reply: ‘Dear George: I want to tell you frankly that I don’t feel sympathetic to the position outlined; and the enclosed fact sheet from Redevelopment truly does set forth the facts as far as I have been able to check. Harry.'”

    *footnote 2: “Mendelsohn’ s [another retired former working class militant fighting gentrification as a member of TOOR] attempts to secure union support were no more successful than Woolf’s John Elberling, later to become head of TOOR’s housing development group, provided this vignette: “Before he died in 1988, Peter Mendelsohn showed me TOOR’s letter to Harry Bridges appealing for help to stop Redevelopment’ s demolition.. .. ‘We are your Brothers,’ they wrote. ‘We fought the bosses together. We stood with you against the police and the strikebreakers on the Embarcadero during the General Strike. We sailed with you in the Merchant Marine during the War. The Redevelopment Agency is taking our homes. It’s all we have. We need your help.’ Bridges had returned the original letter, with a handwritten answer in the margin, ‘Sorry, but I’m on the other side [in] this, Harry.’ Peter cried. I asked him the next week for a copy, but he said he burned it
    because he was too ashamed.'” (p. 70)

    These total “slum” clearance projects were given the neutral sounding name of “urban renewal,” but when done to destroy the heart of African American neighborhoods –as was done in nearly every major urban center across the U.S. – the effect was the same: ethnic cleansing. Harry Bridges not only endorsed this gentrification, he participated in its planning and implementation.

    And once again, I agree that those actions of the rank-and-file in Steve Zeltzer’s video in the original post were exemplary. Highlights to me were the boycotts of ships with war materiel to El Salvador, the boycotts of South African ships, the boycott of the Neptune Jade, and the Crowley Tug IBU wildcat action in Redwood City. As I pointed out before, I’m a former member of ILWU and I met the militants who sparked those action. Many are still my good friends and comrades. But I can also insure you that low-level piecards and International bureaucrats did EVERYTHING they could do to try – unsuccessfully – stop these actions. I heard the same about the last “real” strike of the ILWU, in 1971. The details are fuzzy, but that strike was a lingering conflict about how the Mechanization and Modernization Agreement of 1960 (see this fantastic history: http://www.processedworld.com/carlsson/chris/chris_carlsson_progress_club.pdf ) would be implemented and how it would reduce the workforce by a factor of 90% and not only create a second tier for future generations of longshore workers, but lock in the gains of the previous contracts in such a way that once the generation benefitting from them were gone, the means to get them could NEVER be repeated – namely by removing the strike weapon.

    But “stop-work meetings” don’t build consciousness, because they’re not based on struggle. They are a powerful gain the union achieved in the past and they can be put to good use, as in the May Day 2008 port closures, the Oscar Grant closing of the Port of Oakland, and the refusal to unload the Israeli ship. But we have to remember that May 2, 2008 the port was back to business as usual, the day after the Oscar Grant demo the port was operating as normal, and the day after the Gaza solidarity protest the Israeli ship DID get unloaded. That did NOT happen with the Neptune Jade and according Albert Lannon’s book, “Fight of Be Slaves,” the ship was boycotted at every port after Oakland and ended up being abandoned and its cargo sold for salvage at some port in Taiwan.

    Don’t get me wrong, there are some good fucking militants in ILWU; there are lots of rank-and-file fighters that I work with everyday in SEIU, despite being one of the worst class collaborationist unions that ever existed (just read Andy Stern’s memoirish “A Country That Works: Getting America Back on Track” to see that his vision for the union is that same as the bosses’). But at a meeting of grocery workers the other day, rank-and-file UFCW members described the result of the defeated 2003-2004 Southern California Grocery Strike as the creation of 3 tiers in the stores. And these comrades are class conscious militants who have spread the fighting spirit to other workers in their sector, and outside their sector, to fellow workers in unions and to those without. And they made a crucial point: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics website, the unionization rate of the private sector is 6.9%. They pointed out that this is skewed because it only counts workers who are “officially” employed; if you factored in the unemployed and underemployed, the figure would drop well below 5%.

    So if we are class struggle militants, communists, or revolutionaries (and I’m not as beholden to labels as you, steve… on!, because I think at worst, your use of them is as a divisive wedge to keep people apart, rather than build class unity), we need to be concerned with the situation of the 95% of working class people without a union, as well as with working class people without a job or home.

    I’ll finish on a positive note, because you’ve painted me as anti-union which I clearly am not – but I will be clear that I am pro-class struggle and think that E. P. Thompson is correct when says that you don’t even have the category of class until you have the struggle. It is in the process of the battle in class society that people find not only their class interests, but develop class consciousness. Marxist pedagogists like Lev Vygotsky confirm this with his cognitive ideas about learning; we learn as an active process and out of it comes consciousness. I like how Marty Glaberman puts it, that consciousness is posited by intellectuals as “overwhelmingly a matter of the mind, of verbalization” when instead – following Marx – it isn’t what someone says, but what they DO.

    I think it’s disingenuous to call working class self-activity “ultra left” or “adventurism” because for the workers engaged in it the action isn’t an ideology but their response to the class war – and often begins with fights for bread and butter issues of survival. The best example I can think of is the wildcat strike by 16,500 non-union (until Carter signed the deregulatory Motor Carrier Act of 1980, making them “independent contractors,” most in this sector had been unionized truck drivers) troqueros at the combined Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex on May Day 2006 that completely shut down the busiest container cargo port in the Western Hemisphere by a factor of 95%. It was only for a day, but it took months for the shipping companies to clear up the logistical backlog created by that one day action. And you might assert that they were “unorganized” and hence ineffective, but the proof is in the pudding. Like the Italian autonomists said in the 1970s, “organization” is nothing more than “organized struggle.” And the consciousness of those workers doesn’t disappear, but remains with them to inform the next wave of struggle they engage in, but at a higher level. Perhaps in California we’ll have our Egypt – today in Spain a Tahrir Square-like action is occurring right now (see this: http://acampadabcn.wordpress.com/ ) – or Wisconsin moment. I expect our troquero comrades in Los Angeles and Long Beach will know exactly what to do.

  6. A further balance sheet is necessary since Steve… oh!’s post had so little factual detail and was mostly romantic mythologizing. We need to look back at some history. ILWU leader Harry Bridges went through countless legal ordeals about whether or not he was a member of the Communist Party, but this didn’t matter because he ran the union as though he was taking marching orders directly from Moscow. Which included uncritically supporting – even endorsing – the racist imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II (even though his second wife was Japanese American; after Bridges death, she married the lawyer for the PMA) in loyalty with the program of the CP and CIO. Bridges and all the other ILWU picecards enthusiastically supported the no-strike pledge in World War II, even taking the position that any strike, no matter what the cause, “aided Hitler” (see “Longshoremen’s Bulletin”, March 10, 1942).

    You’ve got to remember that as a young Australian, Harry was a Wobbly and the honored tradition of the IWW had been contracts weren’t necessary with mobilized militancy on the shopfloor. Even the “Stormy Petrels of West Coast Labor” (see the excellent article by Richard Boyden called “The San Francisco Machinists and the National War Labor Board” in “American Labor in the Era of World War II”, edited by Sally M. Miller and Daniel A. Cornford), the sister organizations of machinists of IAM Lodge 68 in San Francisco and CIO Steel Workers Organizing Committee Local 1304 in Oakland, didn’t have contracts even though they were a highly-skilled craft union. Their strength was based on class consciousness and they flaunted that at management who begged them to collectively bargain and sign contracts. Their refusal was based on the idea that contracts would hold them back and prevent them from fighting for even more. Even during World War II, they refused lucrative contracts, effectively telling the boss “we don’t want your stinking contract — because we’ll just strike at the end of the month and force you to give us another raise!”

    During World War II, even ILWU vice-president Lou Goldblatt was toeing the pro-Moscow Communist Party line where the fight against fascism in Europe was supremely more important than class struggle at home. He affirmed the IWLU’s position in denouncing the Stormy Petrels, saying “We on the labor side don’t want to see any resumption in the San Francisco Bay Area… of the type of collective bargaining that prevailed six or seven years ago [the massive wave of sit-down strikes] when you had a constant economic contest [and] one of the best strike records that anybody ever had in the country. We think we have had enough of that… We don’t want the resumption of guerilla warfare which will inevitably result if this board [War Labor Board that was trying to crush the Stormy Petrels] fails to act…” (“ILWU Executive Session Minutes”, June 2, 1942, p. 401). It took until 5 years after the end of World War II for the combined effort of the state, the collective bosses and the collaboration of the “official labor movement,” including the AFL, the CIO, and Bridges and the ILWU, but also the Communist Party, to finally destroy the kind of class war from below that the Stormy Petrels embodied. But through the war years, these machinists in 2 different unions racked up more job actions than any other sector in the entire U.S. Some of their stellar militants had learned the ropes in the IWW-style “syndicalist hothouse of Chicago” before coming west.

    Basically, I was uncritical of the Bridges myth until I attended the Bay Area memorial service soon after Stan Weir’s death (he died in Southern California, but most of his adult life was lived up north). There I met his widow Mary, his kids and grandkids, as well as the “B” Men he fought with against Bridges and the whole ILWU bureaucracy (with a couple defections). Here’s a brief version of their betrayal: soon after the Modernization & Mechanization (M&M) deal in 1960 that containerized the Port of San Francisco (and through expansion for the Vietnam War supply effort sent it across the Bay to the more spacious Port of Oakland), Stan and 81 mostly African American longshoremen were fired. Here’s the story from Stan’s obituary:

    The “B” Men’s Struggle

    In 1959, the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) created a new hiring category in San Francisco. “B” men would work irregularly and have the dirtiest jobs, with the promise of promotion to “A” status after a year. Until that promotion, they were second-class citizens, barred from participation in union meetings.

    […]Stan went to work on the waterfront and became one of three representatives of the approximately 700 “B” men.

    Over the next four years, the promised promotion did not occur. Harry Bridges, president of the union, fired the other two reps. When Stan called for a replacement election, Bridges eliminated representation entirely.

    In 1963, Stan and eighty-one other “B” men seen as Bridges’ opponents were peremptorily fired. Their united battle to recover their jobs led to a seventeen-year lawsuit that was unsuccessful.


    I was blessed to meet this beautiful interracial working class extended family at the memorial. It was truly wonderful to see Stan’s grandkids play with their friends who were the grandkids of the other “B” men. And even better was hearing the critique of the ILWU from those cast off by Bridges’ megalomania. I also met longshore workers who made the cut and continued working for Local 10, but who were even more critical of the union. One told me of the rank-and-file having to fight tooth-and-nail against the union boss’s obedience to contractual no-strike clauses to pull off the last strike the ILWU ever had, in 1971.
    But what this comrade told me wasn’t enough, so I visited the ILWU archives at the International headquarters in San Francisco. The head librarian/archivist at the time, Gene Vrana, was very helpful — as he’d been on other research visits. But when I mentioned I wanted documentation on the ’71 strike, he soured. I said he couldn’t find anything but then lectured me about why I was always asking about strikes, saying “Don’t you realize that they’re [strikes] a thing of the past?” And this was only about 5 years ago. He went on to praise how ol’ Harry and his underlings like Goldblatt had won such huge gains, that were locked into contracts at the result of collective bargaining, that strikes would “never” be necessary again. It was clear that, at least since ol’ Harry was trying to come out of World War II with a 9-year contract, this has been the ILWU party line ever since.

    If rank-and-file longshore workers in Local 10 don’t want to suffer the fate of UAW autoworkers (who had their wages cut in half, benefits slashed down to nearly nothing, and even pensioners were cheated out their just due) or public sector workers in Wisconsin, they better learn how to mobilize themselves on the shopfloor to fight back. The humiliating legacy of the 2002 lockout showed how incapable they are of defending themselves. Add to that the atrocious sell out by the ILWU international of the Boron miners in Local 30 to end a months-long lockout in 2010, including the union organized symbolic demos at British Consulates in Los Angeles and San Francisco, groveling before Senator Diance Feinstein to intervene, but also REFUSING to boycott the borax mined by scabs from being loaded on ships at the Port of Los Angeles. Right now the PMA is suing and locking out ILWU workers again over the March 4, 2011 shut down of the ports in solidarity with the struggle of public sector workers in Wisconsin, but if they can’t mount an organized defense they WILL finally get crushed by the PMA when the Longshore Division’s contract comes up for renewal in 2014 (I sincerely hope this doesn’t happen). Symbolic “stop-work” and rulings by “health-and-safety” arbitrators won’t make up for the lack of militancy of the rank-and-file.

    Which brings up the June 20, 2010 protest of the ship from the Israeli Zim Shipping Line. In Sweden, they blocked an Israeli ship for over a week. At the Port of Oakland, the Stalinist in ANSWER had prearranged a deal with the Oakland pigs that wouldn’t go beyond 24 hours – and they threatened anyone who tried to continue picketing after that. Here’s a critique I wrote back then:

    Just a quick glance at the players in the above article shows how this “action” was nothing but an exercise in media-driven vacuity. A better definition would label it as a pseudo-protest by the Popular Front of pro-Democratic Party Labor Councils from Alameda and San Francisco Counties and the Stalinists in ANSWER. Also, throw in all the usual suspects of sectarian leftists of the Trot and liberal variety and all their so-called “labor” front groups.

    Here are some reasons why it was not only not radical, but wasn’t even significant at the level of symbolism:

    1. ANSWER declared “victory” in a press release at noon, even though the ship didn’t arrive unitl 6:00 p.m.
    2. Everything, literally EVERYTHING, was pre-arranged with the consent of the Oakland pigs.
    3. Following on #2, ANSWER had their own security goons who worked closely with the pigs, including enforcing specific demands to police the protesters. Here’s what a comrade observed:
    “I also listened in while a cop pointed at the anarchists and told one of the labor leaders that all the ANSWER security was on board with enforcing a ‘no mask’ rule because ‘those people aren’t here for your cause, they’re just here to cause trouble.’”
    4. The involvement by rank-and-file port workers was from nil to non-existent. Only 3 or 4 members of the longshore union, ILWU Local 10, had any part in the planning. No one from any of the other maritime sectors at the port participated in any way.
    5. The refusal to cross the picket line didn’t happen. An arbitrator ruled it was unsafe, allowing the ILWU workers to go home with pay. Many did even this begrudgingly because there was no guarantee that they’d get paid at the overtime rate for working on Sunday.
    6. Once the work order was canceled, ANSWER still tried to get people to march in circles for the TV cameras even though it was pointless.
    7. ANSWER’s deal with the pigs and management was only for the two shifts on that day (Sunday June 20th) and only intended to delay the ship for 24 hours. The spectacle organizers even claimed they were doing that to “help” workers and make sure they could return to work the next day. Here’s another account from the protest by the same comrade:

    “But Xxxxx was there and said that he and some others wanted to come back for the next shift at 5 am and continue setting up pickets as long as the Zim ship was trying to dock. He was shut down by the ANSWER leader who said they had decided on a 24-hour picket at a previous meeting. I imagine a major reason mainstream labor supported the action was because they knew (with ANSWER’s guarantee) that it would be tightly circumscribed and enforced by ANSWER security and the left trade union bureaucracy.”

    So the lesson is that whenever a Popular Front of ANSWER goons join with union officials endorsing things that won’t piss off their Democratic Party allies, we’re going to have a lame and toothless action that looks good when it gets spun by the corporate media.


    Here’s what a comrade from Advance the Struggle wrote about it at the time (in response to activists declaring it a victory literally hours before the fucking ship ever arrived):

    Great victory today????
    Uh, ok. Lets reflect. Yes people did show up, thats good and the work order was cancelled, thats also good. A picket line???? Thats a stretch. What role did the port workers play in this action? We only know it was minimum at best. Is this OK? Does that not matter? The port workers labor-power bring in a billion dollars worth of commodities a day. The times the workers had shutdowns for one day, global capital has felt the effect. But the left cannot mobilize such workers because it has professional protest groups coupled with other left groups implanted in union officialdom to take action for the workers. Is the bay area left covering the entrances without any port workers a real picket line? If it is, thats a stretch of the definition. Once there is a merger between the revolutionary left (as a program) and the workers struggle (beyond economic demands and unionist logic) then we can see real struggles develop that can threaten the global system of capital along with challenging zionism. But the left has a long way to go, and if it doesnt acknowledge this and it assumes that we’re there already, then its reproducing illusions in its own limited position. The left needs to face reality. In ’04 the port truckers had a wildcat strike. Because the teamsters were manipulating behind the scenes, most of the left tailed the union officialdom, or, on the hand, the anarchist brought food. There was a lack of orientation towards the actual point of struggle and a lack of relationships with the workers to even begin to discuss that point.

    What would today been like if the workers called for the strike, and the union officialdom and the left had to tail that process? The action would have had a thousands times more energy and business papers around the world would have commented about it in worry. Consciousness would penetrated through out the working class without one newspaper being sold.

    The political weapon of labor-power is something not seen for decades. That does not mean we should forget about its potential power. May 1 ’06 gives us a glimpse of its power.


    The previous anti-apartheid actions at the ports were based on working class agency, not on technicalities declared by arbitrators. Here’s what Howard Keylor wrote how the solidarity actions in 1984 were based on rank-and-file militancy, in response to the victory declaration about the “picket line” on June 20, 2010:

    A ‘picket line’ played no role in the 11 day boycott of South African cargo on the Nedlloyd Kimberley at pier 80 in San Francisco in 1984. The large number of people who assembled twice daily at the pier gates were there in support of the longshoremen who were twice daily dispatched to the ship, went to the ship, looked at the South African cargo, told supervisors that they were refusing to handle the cargo and then went home. This was a longshore workers initiated and implemented action. A picket line is set up to prevent workers or scabs from entering the work site. This was NOT the scenario in 1984.

    In 1986, when longshore ILWU Local 10 was still under a federal court injunction against taking concerted union action on apartheid cargo a large group of anti-apartheid activists blockaded the entrance to pier 80 when another Nedlloyd Line vessel was docked with South African cargo. For two shifts the blockaders fought off police attacks. The contract area arbitrator ruled that the longshoremen were justified in not entering the pier on the basis of the “health and safety” provisions of the contract. On the second day the blockade was broken by Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s Tac Squad who arrested over a hundred demonstrators including myself, ending the blockade.

    I was one of the two longshoremen along with Brother Leo Robinson who were in overall charge of implementing the 1984 boycott action by longshoremen. We were singled out as the two main “co-conspirators” for the action in the Federal Court injunction which ended the strike. It was my motion which was adopted as amended by the Local membership which authorized the boycott.

    Perpetuation of this myth that longshoremen did not work the South African cargo on the Nedlloyd Kimberley for 11 days because they were prevented from going to work by a picket denigrates the courage and devotion to international solidarity expressed by the entire San Francisco longshore local who knew that what they were doing was in violation of the Taft-Hartley “slave labor” law and the contract with the employers. Ships Clerk Local 34 also played a key role in that illegal strike action.

    Let’s not rewrite history!

    Howard Keylor (retired ILWU Local 10)

    There’s a need to reinvigorate the class war tradition of longshore workers like Howard Keylor, or the tradition of ALL port workers uniting, regardless of craft or sector, like they did on the waterfront of San Francisco during the strikes 1886, 1893, with the City Front Federation in 1901, or in 1916. Or the way in 1919 in Seattle and San Francisco longshore workers refused to load armament ships to supply the attacks on the Russian Revolution. Even the Albion Hall group that first met in San Francisco in 1933, at the worst of the Depression (with unemployment at its all-time high of 24.9%), began by fomenting job actions on the docks, things like slow-downs, sabotage, and quickie strikes. Within a year those efforts paid off in the 83-day West Coast Maritime Strike, which in turn resulted in the 4-day San Francisco General Strike. In examples like these, militants advocated working class agency as a means to the end of consciousness and heightened class struggle.

    Sadly, during the 8-day wildcat at the Port of Oakland by troqueros in 2004, nary a unionized longshore or maritime worker was to be seen – unlike all those militant strike in the 19th and early 20th century that unified workers in ALL waterfront unions. I went to most of the planning meetings for the 2008 May Day action at the 29 ports on the West Coast, and as I said before, a totally admirable event. But no one ever thought to reach out to other port workers, except through official union-to-union channels. So some of us rank-and-file militants got to the Port of Oakland around dawn in the weeks before May 1st and fliered the troqueros with bilingual (English/Spanish) announcements of the ILWU coastwide action, as well as fliers about a nationwide wildcat of long-haul truckers going on at that time mostly in southeast U.S. states. There was NOT a single short-haul port trucker who was aware of the May Day action, even though something like 80% of the ones I talked to were completely supportive. Which is sad, since longshore, railroad and long-haul truckers interact with the troqueros everyday. If the PMA and the ruling class attempts to undo the gains longshore and maritime workers won the 1934 General Strike, they’re going to need the solidarity of ALL waterfront workers, union or not, organized into horizontal network for struggle. Sadly, unlike the (distant) past, that doesn’t exist today.

    Symbolic actions only lead to the spectacular dead-end of media attention, the “awareness” that liberal/social democratic activists constantly celebrate. But you can’t achieve radical ends with symbolic — and reformist — means. To paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg, you can only learn to fight by fighting.

  7. freddy demuth

    My main question is why you wrote this piece now, in the way you wrote it.

    Since the beginning of industrialization, self-serious Marxists have seen male skilled workers positioned at chokepoints in the economy as ‘proletarian actors.’ It’s weird to me that you choose to put yourself in this tradition – the common sense mainstream of the labor movement and organized marxists of all stripes for 15o years – against a small current who are interested in developing a broader understanding of where value is produced, how we can recompose new forms of organization as capital restructures itself, and how the rest of us – the vast, unorganized waged and unwaged majority of the working class – can build power where we’re at to attack capital and build the basis of a post-capitalist society through struggle.

    I agree that the ILWU has progressive elements that can sometimes act as a vessel to concentrate and extend working class self-activity and prefigure some kind of post-capitalist society. But parts of this seem disingenuous when you say:

    [None of the histories or biographies that we read seem to contain much evidence of revolutionary thought or action during the whole decades of the 1980s and 1990s.]

    …because they do, except that the “revolutionary thought or action” took the form of often violent rank-and-file insurgencies against bosses and unions in order to deepen and broaden strikes against austerity (see Rachleff’s “Hard-Pressed in the Heartland about the Austin P-9 strike, for example http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2010/rachleff210810.html, histories of the Detroit newspaper strike, Caterpillar, etc). Workers are smart: sometimes we use the organizations around us to the extent that they’re still useful, sometimes we invent new ones, sometimes we decide it’s not worth it and continue to defend ourselves informally or through theft, absenteeism, etc. Submerged collective struggle, or struggle against illegitimate organization still needs to be taken seriously as “revolutionary,” whatever that means exactly.

    So the more interesting and I think relevant question isn’t “What sort of political tactics can relatively small numbers of well-positioned dockworkers engage in that advance the struggle?” but “Rather than calling for a general strike all the time, how can we organize the millions of precarious, underemployed and unwaged people in their particularities around us to act collectively (together with organized dockworkers) to refuse work and effectively attack and reconstruct capitalist social relations? What does that kind of a strike look like? What needs to happen to make ‘unions’ matter all of us, or do we need to reinvent what we mean when we say ‘union’?”

    What bothers me are things like the aside that you make in a comment above:

    [real unions (as opposed to those which are striving to be real, such as the vernerable IWW)]

    because the IWW at its best consciously embraces collective direct action in its various fluid forms while attempting to build a solid, useful organization out of informal shopfloor solidarity. And this is happening within and against corporations that employ millions of young workers in part-time, temporary, futureless low-wage retail/service jobs – a space that opened up when “real unions” gave up trying to organize there years ago.

    But it’s nice to read an argument for a more complicated historical understanding of how different types of formal organization function in periods of offensive class conflict. Thanks!

    • “The Disposable Worker” was an article in the January 7, 2010 edition of “BusinessWeek” that said:

      “… 26% of the U.S. workforce had jobs in 2005 that were in one way or another ‘nonstandard.’ That includes independent contractors, temps, part-timers, and freelancers. Of those, 73% had no access to a retirement plan from their employer and 61% had no health insurance from their employer.”

      The rate of precarity was 26% before the housing bubble burst, so with the crisis deepening I’m sure the number of precarious workers has risen to well over 30% — along with rising rates of unemployment and homelessness.

      As Freddy points out, AFL-CIO unions have completely turned their backs on the precarious, underemployed and unorganized — just watch the spectacle of any media-fueled union demonstration on TV; ALL you hear is bureaucrats railing on and on about saving “middle-class jobs.” In Italy in the 1970s, during a massive wave of class struggle that spread past the factory gates and involved whole communities challenging the social relations of capital, theorists like Sergio Bologna looked to the best of the American revolutionary tradition. Here’s what he discovered in this text “Class Composition and the Theory of the Party at the Origins of the Workers Council Movement” (“Telos” #13, Fall 1972, pp. 8-9):

      What was there in the IWW that is so extraordinarily modern? Although it was based on an old class nucleus, the Western Federation of Miners, the merit of the IWW was that it attempted to organize the American proletariat in terms of its intrinsic characteristics. It was primarily an immigrant proletariat, and therefore a mixture of ethnic groups which could only be organized in a certain way. Secondly, it was a mobile proletariat, a fact which very much militated against identification with any particular job or skill, and which also militated against workers developing ties to individual factories (even if only to take them over). The IWW made the notion of the social factory a concrete reality, and it built on the extraordinary level of communication and coordination possible within the struggles of a mobile workforce. The IWW succeeded in creating an absolutely original type of agitator: not the mole digging for decades within the single factory or proletarian neighborhood, but the type of agitator who swims within the stream of proletarian struggles, who moves from one end to the other of the enormous American continent and who rides the seismic wave of the struggle, overcoming national boundaries and sailing the oceans before organizing conventions to found sister organizations. The Wobblies’ concern with transportation workers and longshoremen, their constant determination to strike at capital as an international market, their intuitive understanding of the mobile proletariat – employed today, unemployed tomorrow – as a virus of social insubordination, as the agent of the ‘social wildcat’: all these things make the IWW a class organization which anticipated present-day forms of struggle, and was completely independent of the tradition of the Second and the Third Internationals. The IWW is the direct link from Marx’s First International to the post-communist era.”
      We also need a theoretically grounded definition of class. EP Thompson wrote that the working class is:

      “… present at its own making… [and]… the notion of class entails the
      notion of historical relationship. Like any other relationship, it is a fluency which evades analysis if we attempt to stop it dead at any given moment and anatomize its structure… The relationship must always be embodied in real people and in a real context… Class is defined by men [and women] as they live their own history, and, in the end, this is its only definition” (Thompson, E. P., “Preface” to The Making of the English Working Class, Vintage Books, 1966, p. 9, 11).

      And from another text:

      “I would like to say that class as a historical category is the proper or mainstream Marxist usage. I think that I could show that this is Marx’s own usage, in his more historical writings, but this is not the place to argue scriptural authority… However, it has become very clear in recent years that class as a static category has taken up occupation within very influential sector of Marxist thought as well. In vulgar economistic terms this is simply the twin to positivistic sociological theory. From a static model of capitalist productive relations there are derived the class that ought to correspond to this, and the consciousness that ought to correspond to the classes and their relative positions. In one common (usually Leninist) form this provides a ready justification for the politics of ‘substitution”: i.e. the ‘vanguard’ which knows better than the class itself what its true interests (and consciousness) ought to be. If ‘it’ does not happen to have that consciousness, then whatever it has is ‘false consciousness’. In an alternative (very much more sophisticated) form — for example, with Althusser — we still have a profoundly static category; a category which finds its definitions only within a highly theorized static structural totality, which disallows the experiential historical process of class formation. Despite this theory’s sophistication, the results are very similar to the vulgar economistic version. Both have a similar notion of ‘false consciousness’, or ‘ideology’ although Althusserian theory tend to have a larger theoretical arsenal to explain ideological domination and the mystification of consciousness” (EP Thompson’s “Eighteenth-century English society: class struggle without class?” in Social History, Vol. 3, No. 2 (May, 1978), pp. 147-148).

      I don’t think anyone can claim to be a communist without swimming “within the stream of proletarian struggles” as a full, active participant. This much is clear: without a fightback based on the self-activity and self-organization of our class, many of us whose lives are defined by the wage relation are only a pay check or two away from the conditions of the reserve army of labor, be it living in a car, in a tent city, at a homeless shelter, or in jail.

  8. This is an interesting experience for me. I tried to clearly state that within my own thinking, I am wracked by contradictions, particularly on the union question. In a previous comment I said, “I will preface the rest of my remarks by saying that I am very sympathetic to the viewpoint that unions are part of the problem and not part of the solution for the proletariat insofar as the proletariat’s historical mission is to have a communist revolution. BUT there are counterpoints to every generalization, and I think that the Bay Area’s ILWU locals highlight a couple of areas of utility to the strategy of intervening in unions.”

    It must be difficult for people reading my post to keep themselves from attacking my position as a blanket pro-union one, or one that is in the straight ahead vein of “boring from within” positions. Its equally challenging for me to not fall into a defensive mode of argumentation in which I allow myself to slip into a rigid defense of the more right-wing elements that might present themselves in my contradictory position. My original post should have been prefaced by saying that this is a sort of thought experiment, designed to draw out contradictions in my own position and sharpen the positions of those bold and articulate enough to step to the plate and smash.

    That said, I will continue in an attempt to complicate the question. When people think this topic has exhausted itself, please chime in and help keep this debate civil and no longer-lived than is helpful. With such an agreement, we can preempt the usual trajectory of Marxist blog debates of devolving into “pissing contests” or whatever masculine epithet people use. I mostly say this to check myself because I am prone to such blog behavior.

    Moving on…

    Freddy makes an excellent point. There have been several examples of real class struggle impulses by the working class in the 80s and 90s, with varying degrees of intervention by Marxists, ranging from heavily involved to complete spontaneity of raw worker consciousness.

    One area, perhaps the only area, in which I think the ILWU surpasses these admirable and inspirational cases, is in the area of internationalism and workers becoming “proletarian actors” on behalf of something quite disconnected from their own immediate economic self interest. This shows a level of consciousness that cannot be scoffed at or minimized in its importance to the establishment of global communist social order. As we have seen countless times throughout the last century, nationalism has been the foremost achilles’ heel of the world proletariat. I would venture to say that most of the workers involved in the spontaneous workers struggles Freddy highlights of the 80’s and 90’s were patriotic nationalists deep down inside. This doesn’t keep me from giving them the biggest of props, but lets tease out the highlights from the lowlights and move optimistically ahead in our work to bring the proletariat up higher in the areas where that is necessary, even while we learn from and praise their advanced praxis in other areas. This is part of seeing the working class in its totality, teaching the working class that it is a total entity, and that in its millions, workers have to become centralized around a method of thought to generate a coherent set of ideas that are their compass toward communist revolution. They need Marxist methodology to generate and regenerate communist program. Those who already consider themselves communists, need to watch and learn from the proletariat, renew their awe at and respect for the beauty that lies within, and with that love, nurture a pedagogical process that erodes the shortcomings of the workers’ thinking which limits their action potential.

    Freddy questions the relevance of the ILWU on the basis of its gender composition. For a bunch of blue collar men, the dockworkers, at least those of the bay area, Liverpool, Charleston and other locales featured in the video which is the subject of the original post, they have overcome one of the pillars of bourgeois masculinity: patriotism. Of course, we can assume that any group of men will fall short of communist consciousness regarding the man question and its parallel woman question, but we can also credit men where they surpass their limtations. Overcoming patriotism with internationalist sympathies deserves a mountain of credit. As it grows, internationalist worker solidarity will necessarily extend to women (where it doesn’t start with them in the first place), who are in fact the majority of the world proletariat today, and is based psychologically on sympathy and an extended sense of family that can be flipped by a more feminist marxist intervention to deepen these workers’ sympathy with women. I do not know the ILWU’s record on pro-women interventions, but that is a conversation somewhat distinct from that at hand, namely, the question of whether or not Marxists can intervene in unions on ANY FRONT at all, to have some positive impact on class consciousness as a whole. It would be an interesting post for someone to do what I have done, looking at the ILWU or some other union, to explore how Marxists have successfully injected feminist consciousness into the working class effectively. It is easy to find examples where unions and even the marxists trying to intervene in them, have done the opposite, but the exercise I am engaging in here is to find COUNTEREXAMPLES to what we all agree is the norm. It is an optimistic experiment, finding hope where there some basis for it. The work of Jack Heyman and Clarence Thomas (the good one!) along with their longshore worker rank and file and a part of the black proletariat connected to them through family and community ties (such as a black woman motorcycle club who are members/support the union) have organized a multi-racial workforce to take internationalist action (symbolic though it may be in many instances) give me HELLA HOPE! Not to go too crazy, but its border-line racist to reject this work, since it is the vanguard of the proletarian anti-racist struggle for decades. (I will retract this if it is addressed and proven that it was out of line for me to make this remark.)

    On the IWW. Im sorry, it is a real union. That was a stupid phrase, and I apologize. I was slipping into the right wing voice in my contradicted head. However, it is far less significant in the period 1984-2010 than even the SEIU, which is also a real union. Sadly, the SEIU has done more to bring workers into a consciousness of their power through unity and action on a massive scale, one of the basic ingredients of communist consciousness. Perhaps there are big things stirring for the IWW and it will reveal itself to be significant to “the class as a whole”, but for the time being, as far as unions go, it falls firmly in the camp of irrelevance.

    As a political party, it is much more significant than it is as a union, because its idea and its praxical conception of itself holds tremendous potential. I give the IWW credit more as a party than as a union, even if I find its program to be incomplete.

    Hieronymous’s lengthy retort pretty much seals the argument on the bottom-up process of the political action taken by the ILWU, for me. I don’t know the internal process of the ILWU, but I will bow to Hieronymous’ claims that its top-down, in cahoots with stalinist ANSWER, and hostile to anarchist and real communist intervention from the outside. True though that may be, bottom-up process is not the only thing that matters in this world. Even with all these demerits, the ILWU and its leadership, at least in the Bay Area, play a positive educational role to this section of the working class. Their pedagogical system, to use Freirean vocabulary, appears to be one of “banking education”, and not “dialogical” which is by no means ideal. The difference between the two is between seeing the student (r-f worker) as an empty vessel that needs to filled with knowledge from a teacher (leader) that has all the answers prefabricated, and seeing the student as a teacher with a well of untapped knowledge that the teacher needs to a) listen to and learn from and b) draw out of the student so that they can know what they know, since its so buried and repressed that the oppressed student often is unconscious of their own consciousness.

    We would have to hear from real rank and file longshore workers, we would have to study them, interview them, record their perspective, and recognize it to really know what they think and how it changes over the course of time in the union. My guess, from the limited contact I have had with ILWU workers/militants, is that over time, they become MORE class-conscious, MORE internationalist, and MORE powerful as proletarian political actors than they were when they entered. So banking style though it may be, its better than nothing, which is essentially the impact upon the working class that all the ultra-leftists, council communists, anarchists, and IWW members have on the proletariat. I won’t disregard their impact on workers consciousness altogther. Heironymous educated us about his intervention in one struggle, which shows that there are ultra-lefts commited to do doing work, but without an organization dedicated to doing it consistently and on a large scale, whatever flickers of light they shed here and there on the working class, dissipate quickly. Its like a hamster spinning its wheels. Thats why a party is necessary, and why unions under the leadership of internationalist marxists of even a trotksyist or stalinist stripe, are more important in the last 2 or 3 decades of US history than ultra-left sects and infant unions like the IWW, or embryonic communist groups like AS. The latter being the only one of those mentioned humble enough to admit its relative irrelevance at this stage of its work and admit that the ILWU under Heyman and Thomas is doing more for the working class praxis than we are. Others should follow suit, even as they build to supersede the bar set by that union and those leaders.

    At the very least – and this is my main point in this whole discussion – the ILWU’s Bay Area locals operate on some level as “schools of the working class” where proletarians learn to see themselves as a CLASS, as one particular point within a global TOTALITY, and that they also learn that acting as workers FOR THE CLASS (not just of themselves), they can impact history. Not all unions do this, and those that somehow do, certainly don’t do it so that the education is one pointing toward global consciousness and action. When apartheid ended, the ILWU Bay Area and in Liverpool and elsewhere could pat themselves on the back with pride, knowing that they played a role no less significant than the students and activists – and probably much more significant than ultra-left intellectuals – and that they acted upon history to advance the proletariat one step closer to proletarian internationalist unity.

    Why the grudge against this process consciousization? Can’t we be at least critically supportive of the vanguard of the working class political consciousness in the Bay and probably the country? Why not give a little credit to the workers and the respect their leaders have earned through principled political positions, even though the model is less than democratic, less than friendly to the Bay Area’s left-wing activist scene?

    If it is true that “there is nothing positive for the class as a whole to be achieved through the unions,” as Loren Goldner asserts, then why don’t we advocate the defection of the working class from the unions, along with the Republican Party? My hunch is that despite our skepticism based on historical record of degeneracy, there is something in unions, something in the existence of a public sector, something in these institutions that trotskyists consider “gains of the working class” that IS positive for the class as a whole, but that we are too little committed to doing the WORK ourselves to crack that field open with far left Marxist intervention and seek excuses for our own inactivity.

    I think its better to admit our own laziness, fear of repression, and egotistical refusal to be part of a movement bigger than ourselves or our clique, and maintain a nuanced analysis of reality wherein we admit that the working class gained some vicotries through struggle, that these have been crystalized in the form of a reformed state apparatus and union contracts, and that this is a good wedge, but (contrary to the standard Trotskyist position) that the contradiction within them has to be cracked open, reactionary trade union apparatuses like the SEIU have to be smashed from the inside by the r-f and not replaced with a new leadership over the same structure, but restructured, along with every other union to form “one big union” that accomodates every nich in the division of labor, and that this union form become fused with the content of the political party whose program proves to be the most advanced (aka vanguard party) for the communist revolution to flourish to its total potential.

    Fredrick Douglas said “agitate, agitate, agitate!” Should our motto be “intervene, intervene, intervene!”? I say yes! But we need a program and a structure with which to intervene (aka a party), and until then, our talk largely amounts to whining. Like babies, it is true, we must learn to whine before we talk, but let us advance to the level of true speech, the speech that is infused with action – really relevant action that gathers the forces of the working class by the thousands into the communist ranks through a program tested in action, making successful gains, accumulating power, and drawing a line that smashes through the bourgeois state apparatus, erecting a new structure of governance through councils and ascending assemblies of representives from them, which dictate the fate of humanity thenceforth!!!!

    Such a process can’t begin and end with intervention in the organized parts of the working class. It can’t begin and end with praising the spontaneous bursts of anger that come from immediate self interest. We have to tease out the proletarian value generated from the work the workers do for their class in all areas of working class life. These include wildcat strikes, daily reproductive work of mostly women workers who support the very life of the class, and internationalist political activity as well. We can’t turn our gaze from the one to ignore, or worse, denigrate, the other. We have to walk and chew gum at the same time, learn to see the unseen and unpaid working class AND maintain our respect for the traditionally recognized sections. Workers are workers, they have agency and act, and its ALWAYS limited, flawed, and incomplete, but there is ALWAYS something good going on, and we cant add to the chorus of abuse that blames victims for their shortcomings. Lets give props and respect where its due, critically support all the proletarian actors, and build a culture of working class unity, happy at its limited success, pushing forward optimistically toward greater unity, inspired by a potential that is ONLY realizable when we love and support each part cementing our unity in the revolutionary communist project.

    In other words, let’s begin to truly speak words of action, with nuanced analysis that seeks to build off the gains in consciousness of the workers’s courageous activity, and not be one-dimensional naysayers.

    Let the Proletariat Speak!

  9. PS- it is not fair to align Jack Heyman and Clarence Thomas with the biggest gangster of contemporary unionism, Andy Stern. If either of these men retire to become executives on corporate boards, I will retract my entire position and become an anarchist – THATS how confident I am that they are in a different club than the Sterns and Hoffas of this world, and that the union they have presided over is more politically advanced than the SEIU or Teamsters, and on that level, are in antagonistic contradiction with the state. Again, this is not to say that the ILWU in the Bay Area is revolutionary, communist, bottom-up, led by a worker’s council, or leading a soviet. Structurally, they are tied into the state apparatus as much as any other, and their own workplace struggles assume a process similar to any other, but they are in a league of their own on the tip of internationalism and anti-racism, which fuckin matters and deserves big ups. It shows what a legacy of Marxist intervention in unions, their rank and file and leadership strata as well, can achieve with patience and favorable circumstances.

    Those who can’t give them credit for this have a program with a few Marxist screws loose. My only point.

  10. Steve… oh!,

    Your accusation of racism is so absurd and groundless that I’ll leave it to you to apologize.

    Since you substantiate so little of what you write, it’s necessary to set some facts straight. From what I know, both Jack Heyman and Clarence Thomas are on the executive board of Local 10 (or were until recently). I stand to be corrected on that. But neither serves as an official in the union’s bureaucracy.

    Here’s the leadership:

    Local 10 Officers

    President – Richard Mead
    Vice President – Mike Villeggiante
    Secretary Treasurer – Pete Dailey
    Business Agent – Frank Gaskin
    Business Agent – Lamont Kelly
    Business Agent – Melvan Mackay

    Now if you’re talking about the ILWU International, here’s the leadership:

    International Officers

    Titled Officers

    Robert McEllrath, President
    Ray Familathe, Vice President (Mainland)
    Wesley Furtado, Vice President (Hawaii)
    William E. Adams, Secretary-Treasurer

    Steve… oh!, you make so many unsubstantiated claims about the “internationalism” and “anti-imperialism” of the ILWU that are inconsistent with reality (and if you mean actions of the “rank-and-file,” simply say that). Case in point: the Longshore Division newspaper is the “Dispatcher” and in 2007 the editor, the assistant editor and the layout person were all fired. The reason they were fired was because ILWU International Secretary Treasurer, Willie Adams, was hosted on a trip to Israel by the General Federation of Laborers in Israel (Histadrut) and the Israeli government; he wrote an article for the “Dispatcher” that took a pro-Zionist position. The editorial staff on the “Dispatcher,” all 3 of whom were openly pro-Palestinian, were fired when they protested against an openly pro-Isreal article in the “Dispatcher.”

    But the rank-and-file also protested and made clear that the official union position is in solidarity with the Palestinians, but were unable to get the 3 workers on the paper their jobs back. The ILWU is house divided; many bureaucrats in the highest leadership positions have reactionary politics.

    As for the SEIU, again you’re misrepresenting what we said. Andy Stern retired over a year ago. And since Jack Heyman and Clarence Thomas are (were?) rank-and-file workers, it’s disingenuous for you to say we’re conflating them with bureaucrats in the SEIU — because no one made that comparison. But to set the facts straight, here’s the leadership of SEIU:

    President – Mary Kay Henry

    Secretary-Treasurer – Eliseo Medina

    Executive Vice President – Tom Woodruff

    Executive Vice President – Gerry Hudson

    Executive Vice President – Dave Regan

    Executive Vice President – Mitch Ackerman

    And Bruce Raynor (who had raided UNITE and brought many members over to SEIU) just got fired for corruption, having been an Executive Vice President.

    Steve… oh!, I get the sense that you’re well-intended, but your argument doesn’t really seem to have a factual basis around organized labor — or around sectors like transit, longshoring, or logistics.

    So here’s a study guide called “Classwar on the Waterfront: A History of Transport as a Chokepoint of Capital”:


    Stan Weir’s “Effects of Automation in the Lives of Longshoremen” (1983, from “Singlejack Solidarity”)

    “The Cargo Chain: Workers Who Make Our Economy” (2008, produced by a collaboration of The Center for Urban Pedagogy, Labor Notes, and The Longshore Workers’ Coalition)

    “Logistics – The Factory Without Walls” (2006, from “Mute Magazine”)


    “Race to the Bottom” (2008, 20-minutes; documentary about troqueros working the Port of Oakland)

    “The Box that Changed Britain” (2010, 58-minutes; documentary history of intermodal cargo containers and changes in transport industry)

  11. ILWU’s PATCO*

    Rio Tinto, a British-owned borax mine, locked out 570 workers in Boron, California. The workers were represented by Local 30 of ILWU, who had rejected a contract proposal. The lockout began on January 31, 2010 when management brought in nonunion workers and managers from other Rio Tinto operations. The lockout ended with a negotiated settlement on May 15, 2010.

    * Jack Heyman quoted a longshore veteran making this reference to the 11,000 unionized air traffic controllers fired for striking by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

    Here’s an excerpt of what Jack wrote:

    “…ILWU Local 30 members never were able to organize picketing before the tentative agreement was voted on. They were stopped by the ILWU International Officers who are calling the 6-year pact a “victory.” Seeing no serious way to fight Rio Tinto’s lockout after 100 days, the membership voted to accept the concessionary deal at the urging of the ILWU International Officers and the Local 30 president by a margin of 75% to 25%… Rio Tinto got what they wanted: gutting union seniority in promotions, hiring and training; the company can now contract out during busy periods and members can’t sue the company over work related issues. The NLRB ruled that Rio Tinto had illegally locked out the miners. The company was liable for miners’ back pay during the 3 1/2 month lockout but it was given away to achieve a pact.

    In a change from the ILWU’s militant history of organizing mass pickets on the docks against employer attacks, the present International leadership had opposed picketing by the miners and instead called for carrying American flags, demonstrating at the British consulate (Rio Tinto is British-owned) and lobbying Rio Tinto shareholders. This “public relations” strategy didn’t use the longshore union’s power on the docks and made it difficult to organize support actions there when the miners themselves weren’t taking such basic protest actions. In any case the longshoremen should never have handled the thousands (according to locked out Borax miners) of scab containers in the port of Los Angeles…”

    Jack Heyman (“Letter to Boron Miners Solidarity Committee,” May 28, 2010)

    Thankfully Jack Heyman was honest enough to expose this sellout, reminding people that the 1984 boycott of ships from apartheid South Africa involved rank-and-file longshore workers taking direct action that was openly illegal – and resulted in court-ordered injunctions, which were defied. For similar acts of solidarity to take place with the Boron miners, longshore workers at the ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach would have to have defied possible injunctions and refused to load borax containers onto ships. As Jack pointed out, the union International prohibited this.

    The May 18, 2010 edition of “Labor Notes” bought into the ILWU International’s bold-faced lie in declaring the concessions forced on the workers by the settlement a “victory.” And internationalists don’t order comrades to carry the flag of imperialist massacre and plunder.

    There has been much change in global movements of capital since the advent of the current crisis. Attacks on the working class coincide with massive recomposition of the class; it was hard enough keeping up with the changes wrought by the dot.com and housing booms and busts, but the rate of change has been accelerating. Our critique of political economy must keep pace. One sector no one else has mentioned is the short-haul troqueros at the ports. As I wrote before, this was once a sector of fully-benefited unionized drivers. With deregulation it is now one of the most precarious. All the historical high-points of class struggle on the waterfront of San Francisco involved class unity that broke down sectoral barriers, but the opposite is true today. Here’s what Judith Lewis wrote in the article “A Heavy Load” in the “LA Weekly” on July 27, 2005:

    “‘… It was an expensive truck,’ Rivera says. ‘I have to take care of it. It cost me $69,000.’

    If port truckers like Chicho and Rivera are lucky, they can squeeze in two or three loads a day, at anywhere from $70 to $180 each, depending on the shipper and the route (trucking lines such as Calko pay drivers per load, a sum first determined by the shipper; 70 percent goes to the trucker). At most, a driver earns about $300 a day, including the fee for returning the empty container. Working 50 weeks a year, he can gross close to $80,000. But since drivers work as independent contractors – or ‘independent owner-operators’ according to industry euphemism – they pay their own fees, taxes, insurance and fuel. These expenses, combined with monthly payments on that $69,000 truck, easily whittle a trucker’s salary down to around $30,000.

    Which means that Chicho, after 25 years of hard work as an independent contractor without health care or retirement, has never been able to buy a house. He can’t even rent one in Los Angeles. Instead, he lives in a $700-a-month two-bedroom apartment 180 miles away in Morongo Valley with his wife and two children, 5 and 14. He has never taken a vacation, he has never seen a doctor.”

    During the 8-day wildcat strike at the APL gate of the Port of Oakland in 2004, I met troqueros who said that every spike upwards in the cost of fuel (a situation occurring right now) eats into their take-home pay. Some come to the end of the year and practically break-even and can only handle unexpected expenses and emergencies through burying themselves deeper into debt.

    Some of lowest paid workers in the U.S. work side-by-side with some of the highest. During the 2002 lockout, the “San Francisco Chronicle” reported that “the average annual full- time ILWU longshore worker’s wages [were] $106,883” and “ILWU members currently enjoy a fully employer-paid health package that is among the most generous in labor in the nation.” These conditions are the legacy of the victories of the 1930s and 1940s. Without a fight to defend them, they’ll be on the chopping block soon. And if comes down to a fight, it would be difficult to imagine the kind of cross-sectoral solidarity that made strikes in 1886, 1893, 1901 and 1916 near general strikes on the waterfront, and the 1934 strike a fully-realized one. There is simply too little interaction between unionized longshore/maritime workers and non-union troqueros.

    All of us agree that it’s great that the rank-and-file longshore militants have done solidarity actions with Salvadorians, South Africans, Liverpool longshore workers, Palestinians, and in the struggle around Oscar Grant. So is the lack of solidarity with troqueros, workers they interact with on a daily basis, based on a lack of class consciousness? If so, how can they be internationalists and anti-imperialists, but not be in class solidarity with a workforce comprised mostly of Spanish-speakers, but also with many Chinese, Filipinos and even a few Sikhs (with many Sikh troqueros at the deepwater inland ports of Lathrop and Stockton) ? Or am I wrong and is the ILWU a narrowly self-interested sectoral craft union that is truly a “labor aristocracy”?

    This discussion has been extremely interesting, so I look forward to what others have to say.

    Lastly, I remember that during the 2002 lockout the PMA was using a container port near Ensenada, Mexico. But since 1994, the ruling class plan has been for “NAFTA Corridors,” like the Lazaro Cardenas–Kansas City Transportation Corridor and the proposed deepwater port at Punta Colonet, a $4,000,000,000 development on the Baja coast 120 miles south of the border. Commodity traffic going through Punta Colonet would travel by truck along I-8 and would connect with transcontinental I-10 in southern Arizona, taking advantage of this NAFTA-facilitated corridor and avoiding higher labor costs at the LA/Long Beach port complex. Without an internationalist industrial union approach, the ILWU’s control of the West Coast would be undermined; this could be overcome with cross-border organizing and solidarity. We can only hope.

    For detailed analysis of the new, low-wage transit routes into North America, see these pieces by Richard Vogel: “The NAFTA Corridors: Offshoring U.S. Transportation Jobs to Mexico” in “Monthly Review,” 2006, Volume 57, Issue 09 (February); “North American Free Trade Zones (FTZs): Undermining US and Canadian Transportation Workers,” from a LaborFest presentation on July 19, 2009 at ILWU Local 6 Hall in San Francisco (available on Richard’s website: combatingglobalization[dot]com)

  12. once more on unions-style of organising

    my understanding is that in the united states it is still the case that if workers want a union or a local/union wants to rganise in a workplace,some kind of ballot has to take place to all that union,in which”all”would take part.this seems to effectively mean that would be trades unonists require the permission of all or some proportion of employees to organise,although many voters might be hostile for whatever reason or simply not join.i do not know whether this process grants the union recognition as a body or into negotiations.

    in britain the style is significantly different.notionally anyone can join or set up a union,though of course there is no protection from being fired for organising at such a stage.most workers so organising would call on the help of an already established union who would seek to recruit and negotiate a recognition agreement with the employer.whilst lack of such agreements are somewhat disabling,this would not by itself stop the existence of a union.some unions,mostly in the past will have also negotiated closed shop agreements or variants which insists that all employees must be in either a single or the appropriate union.appropriateness is usually decided in the agreement and in one way or another will reflect class struggle,which need not be a matter of open class warfare but might be a matter of both armed truce between the capitalists and the unions and indeed between the unions themselves.

    such arrangements are no much outdated ands may have been dismantled in the class struggle.

    the principle,i believe at all times is that although unions may “go on the offensive”in a variety of circumstances,they are essentially defensive organisations of the working class.i believe this principle would apply across all boundaries and traditions.

    although britain is now politically part of europe,i travel in europe and have friends and comrades in europe,in practice i am least familiar with their mode of trades union organisation.what i do know applies mostly in western europe and will vary between nation states.

    whereas in britain,both unions,the labour party and indeed some other relevant organisatiosn are broad backed in that members will be from a variety of political backgrounds.in europe unions and confederations of unions mostly follow political lines.so that christian democratic parties,social democratic,communist parties and in some places others will have their own trade union organisations and federations.state legislation also includes unions in industrial organisations which might also include workers councils or similar bodies.these are not,categorically not comparable to the soviet,of bolshevik times,nor similar to council communist ideas.however,neither are they simply bosses organisations as a consultative body in some british inductries is concerned.in europe they are also more potent than consultative bodies are.it appears however,that whilst usa and british trades unionism is increasingly bureaucratised,the webs and threads of bureaucratic strangulation in europe is even greater.so that to be a representative or shop steward in europe ties in that person to a political machine much more than in britain.this meant that even in 1968 action by workers was often completely outwith any formal structure,and self organised.indeed at the start it may well have been spontaneous although no class struggle comes from nowhere.had i been a member of a union in europe at the start of my “career”i would have had to be aligned to the appropriate party to become a steward in any way and at any level.

    it is these differences and variant local traditions that make it difficult to generalise a particular position beyond the principal that trade unions are inevitably defensive very difficult….i will try to address that issue further in due course but in my next posts/comments will try to address other factors and features of trades union organisation.

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