Unionism IS a Lost Cause

Steve-o’s post from yesterday raised some important questions regarding the approach Marxist militants take towards understanding and orienting towards the unionized sectors of the American working class.  A reader recommended that we post Loren Goldner’s essay on the questions of unions in capitalism, so we’re reposting it here to continue the discussion in the fullest terms possible.

Goldner’s essay, originally from the Insurgent Notes journal, makes the point that “in this epoch there is nothing positive for the class as a whole to be achieved through the unions,” while briefly touching on examples in which militants have participated in unions and fought with “a perspective beyond unions and of their supersession into class-wide organizations.”

Add your thoughts in the comments.

The Demise of Andy Stern and the Question of Unions in Contemporary Capitalism

by:  Loren Goldner


(This article originally appeared in Insurgent Notes No. 2 (October 2010 http://insurgentnotes.com)

For decades, since the beginning of the world crisis in the early 1970’s, militants around the world have groped for a way to turn the relentless attack on the global working class from defensive, usually isolated (however valiant) struggles into an offensive one. The rise and recent fall of Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) for fifteen years, illustrate some of the issues at hand. They illustrate, as if through a glass darkly, that in this epoch there is nothing positive for the class as a whole to be achieved through the unions. Let’s first look at the specifics in order to arrive at a general perspective.

Andy Stern resigned as president of the SEIU in April of this year in the midst of acrimony and scandal that has hardly abated. As many commentators said at the time, the once “fastest-growing union in the U.S.”, having at its peak added 900,000 new members during Stern’s tenure, had become perhaps the fastest-shrinking union, as the result of massive defections, raids on other unions and untrammeled high-handed bureaucratic politics within the SEIU itself.

Stern left the SEIU to assume a position on the board of SIGA Technologies, Inc[1].  His departure marked the ignominious end of a period of “renewal” in U.S. unionism that began with the accession of  John Sweeney to president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, amid hoopla and enthusiasm by much of the left. While the technocratic Stern was never quite the object of similar enthusiasms,  the SEIU itself ranked high among “progressive” unions, and Stern’s breakaway (along with six other unions) to form the rival Change to Win (CTW) coalition in 2005, in the wake of Sweeney’s abject failure to reverse union decline, further revealed terminal symptoms of the situation of unions in contemporary capitalism.

While we were neither among the cheerleaders for Sweeney nor Stern, and while we do not see (to put it mildly) trade unions as vehicles for the next emergence of the “class for itself”—the wage-labor proletarian class unified consciously and practically to take over the world in the dissolution of all classes, including (and first of all) of itself—the end of the Stern era presents an opportunity to draw up a “balance sheet” of several decades, going back to the late 1960’s,  of left-wing agitation in the U.S. trade unions and more broadly in the working class, and thus to see more clearly the strategic questions of the present and the future. Few will disagree that the forty-plus years of “boring from within” existing unions by currents radicalized in the late 60’s and early 70’s, riding on the wildcat strike wave of that period (even more in Europe than in the U.S.) have overwhelmingly proved to be a dead end. But we also reject the sterile posture of currents in our own broader “libertarian” or “left communist” milieu according to which “rank-and-file” developments in and around the unions in advanced capitalism are nothing but rumblings within the “left wing of capital”.

Before dealing with the developments following the 1995 takeover of the AFL-CIO by  Sweeney and his team, some background is necessary to see how the current dismal situation of the working class in the U.S. came to pass. We look for continuities and discontinuities in each phase of struggle.

In all of the class struggles in the West in the 60s and 70s, from the wildcat movement in the US, Britain and France, via the French May 68 and the Italian hot autumn, to the role of the Portuguese and Spanish workers in ending the dictatorships in Iberia in the mid-1970s–in none of these cases was the expansion of unions central to what the workers were doing or demanding.

The formation of the CIO in the US in the 1930’s and 1940’s (with formal legal collective bargaining sanctioned by the state) had already represented a step backward from the openly anti-capitalist “one big union” strategy and tactics of the IWW from 1905 to 1920. But it is undeniable that millions of workers during the Depression and up to the end of World War II were demanding and forming unions, not accidentally in a complex dialectic with the politics of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal[2].  By contrast, during the wildcat strikes of the 1960’s and 70’s, the 1968 general strike in France, the so-called ‘creeping May’ in Italy and thereafter, in none of these strikes were workers saying “We want more unions”. The existing unions were mainly fighting against the radical workers’ movement. In Italy in the early 1970s, union bureaucrats could not even go into many factories because they would be run off by the workers. All this was in the context of the post -World War II boom, when it was easy for workers to change jobs and when very few imagined the drastically worsened situation of today.  And since the end of that period  and the beginning of a decades-long world economic crisis and restructuring of capitalism, no major union in the US has ever gone beyond a narrow corporatist viewpoint in dealing with the crisis.[3]

The United Auto Workers (UAW), for example, had 750,000 members in 1973 and today they probably have no more than 100,000 auto workers. During that whole period of decline, when rank-and-file left opposition groups criticized the union’s relentless accommodation to the management of the “Big Three” auto companies (GM, Ford, Chrysler), the union bureaucrats and their shills would say in a chorus ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it”. Now, it’s broken beyond repair. As in many other unions in decline, the bureaucrats’ main concern seemed be preserving the flow of union dues long enough to secure their own retirement. In the early 1970’s, similarly, 300,000 truck drivers in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) were covered by the nationwide Master Freight Agreement, whereas today that number has fallen to 80,000. The almost mythical United Farm Workers (UFW) had more than 100,000 people under contract in the early 1970’s, and by the death of its founder Cesar Chavez , in 1993, merely a few thousands.

At the bottom of the world recession of 1973-1975, when official unemployment in the U.S. neared 10% (and real unemployment undoubtedly higher), various left groups in the U.S. founded their short-lived unemployed leagues (most of them barely-disguised front groups for recruitment), remembering the role of similar organizations in episodes such as the Toledo Auto- Lite strike of 1934, but nothing came of this and other “class-wide” approaches in the new period of rollback.

In Insurgent Notes No. l we alluded to the almost endless series of defeats that marked the long decline in the new period, not merely of “union membership” but of broader class struggle in the U.S. The bankrolling of the 1975 New York City “bankers’ coup”[4] by New York’s municipal unions began the trend of “sharing the pain’ with management, followed by the  UAW in the bailout of Chrysler in 1979, but the crushing of the air traffic controllers (PATCO) in 1981, followed by the Greyhound bus drivers in 1983, the Phelps Dodge copper strikers in 1984, the P-9 meatpackers in 1986, and the Jay, Maine paper workers in 1987-1988 were cases where workers fought back and lost in the cascade of concessions, plant closings, outsourcings and relocations that ushered in a new era. This bloodletting continued in the 1990’s with the “Three Strikes” (Caterpillar, Staley, Bridgestone- Firestone) in Decatur, Illinois in 1993-96,  the Detroit newspaper strike of 1996, or again in the Safeway strike in southern California in 2003-2004[5]. It was driven home again and again that merely “being more militant”—the main perspective of various left rank-and-file groups in the unions–was, in contrast to the earlier period of wildcats, not enough[6]. World capital accumulation had hit a wall, and that wall was falling on the working class.

In all fairness, some union struggles after the 1970’s did succeed in fighting management  to a stalemate, or occasionally even winning. The Pittston (Virginia) miners’ strike of 1989 did prevent the gutting of the United Mine Workers’ (UMW) contract there, and the New York Daily News strike of 1991 prevented a management bloodletting in the print trades.  Both the Harvard and much more militant HERE (Hotel and Restaurant Employees) chapter of the Yale campus workers (the latter striking four times) won gains, as did casino and hotel employees in Las Vegas and elsewhere. But it was not insignificant that these more successful struggles, in contrast to most of the defeats, took place at locales where management could not threaten to “move the factory”, or actually do so. Similarly, workers in transport sectors could, on occasion, take advantage of their location at choke points in the new “just in time” reorganization of world production flows, most notably in the 1997 United Parcel (UPS) strike, which more than any specific gains in the contract, briefly illuminated the horizon nationwide by highlighting the proliferation of precarious part-time work and by eliciting broad popular support for a worker struggle rarely seen before or since in the new (post-1970’s) era.  (The chief of police in Houston, Texas even arrested scab drivers during the strike.). Two years later, the participation of 50,000 workers in the “battle in Seattle” against the  World Trade Organization (WTO), despite some of the dubious ideologies on display (including nationalism and protectionism) further contributed to ripping away the media- imposed blackout on the dark underside of much-trumpeted globalization and the (now defunct) “New Economy”.

Seattle was just one (albeit dramatic) example of  an attempt by some unions to project power beyond the workplace, and even there they lost control of their own rank-and-file, which joined in fighting the police. More traditional was organized labor’s unrequited love affair with the Democratic Party (a love affair to which, thankfully, millions of workers are indifferent). In exchange for hundreds of millions in campaign contributions and campaign mobilizations for Democrats[7], American unions got NAFTA and further free trade agreements (e.g. CAFTA)[8] with laughable “labor-environment set-asides”, one failed and one aborted attempt at national health care[9], and no progress whatever in rolling back “replacement worker” (i.e. scab) legal protection. Far more serious than these fruitless electoral antics by the union bureaucrats has been the ever-deepening involvement of unions in pension-fund investments, leading to situations such as the above-mentioned southern California grocery strike in which the striking UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers)  was sinking the stock market value of its own rank-and-file’s retirement fund.

We have developed elsewhere the concept of the “left wing of devalorization”[10]. “Devalorization” is a term borrowed from Marx meaning the cheapening of costs, including the cheapening of labor costs, often in a crisis situation such as the current one. The “left wing of devalorization” refers to ostensibly “progressive” phenomena where workers and other oppressed groups are offered “organization” and  “participation” as the consolation prize for the diminished total social wage of the working class as a whole. A paradigm would be the corporatist self-management and worker participation schemes devised by Social Democrats and sociologists in response to the worker rebellion throughout the West in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, or the work teams first developed by Toyota and then spread around the world. One might summarize their content as mobilization and pseudo-inclusiveness with intensified exploitation and without real power.

In his fifteen years at the head of SEIU, Andy Stern brought the left wing of devalorization to new lows.

When the John Sweeney team (which included many ex-SEIU staffers) took over the AFL-CIO in 1995, American union membership had declined from its peak of 35% of the work force in 1955 to 18%. Fifteen years later, it has further declined to 12%, of which only 8% are in the private sector.  It was in this situation of accelerating decline that Andy Stern, claiming to have synthesized the radical tactics of Saul Alinsky with the centralizing business ruthlessness of former General Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan[11], emerged into national prominence, taking over the presidency of the SEIU when his predecessor, Sweeney,  moved up.

Stern had begun as a social worker[12]. Born in 1950, he had caught the tail end of the New Left, before initially studying business at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, after which he widened his horizons. His experience as a social worker did give him insight into the welfare system that he later used in organizing home care attendants in…novel…ways.  His business school background exposed him to management theories such as Sloan’s (the benefits of centralizing dispersed and conflicting local power bases, as Sloan had done at GM) which were in fact a departure from typical union local fiefdoms, mob-controlled or not. Stern took over the SEIU when it was riding on the prestige of the Janitors for Justice campaign in Los Angeles in 1990, when the LAPD had clubbed Latino janitors in front of the TV cameras, after which the ensuing uproar forced management to cave. The janitors’ strike was led by militants with experience in Central American civil wars in e.g. Nicaragua and El Salvador, and hence cut from a rather different cloth than many American workers. (The janitors did get a pay raise from $4 to $4.25 per hour, but the black janitors they had previously replaced had earned $12 an hour.) A paradigm for the Stern era  was established early on, in 1995, when one of Sweeney’s last acts as the head of SEIU was to put the LA janitors’ local into trusteeship after it elected officers too militant for his tastes (some of the very same Central American janitors), then replace them with an appointee,  from the Washington office of the union, and reorganize the janitors into a huge SEIU local covering most of California in which “rank-and-file rebellion” would be suffocated. The janitor militants staged a hunger strike at their own union headquarters, to no avail. From 1996 onward, Andy Stern took over this method,  placing 14% of all SEIU locals under trusteeship over the next decade and a half, , usually sending in an SEIU staffer, fresh off some college campus,  to replace the local leadership. In 2002, for example,  San Francisco janitors in SEIU local 87 balked at a Stern-engineered merger and were put in trusteeship. The new regional local made significant health care concessions. Pittsburgh local 29, called an “anachronism” by Stern, was merged into a huge tri-state entity. Another SEIU “local” stretched from Trenton, New Jersey to Hartford, Connecticut.  And so it went.

This was not exactly the kind of renewal of organized labor that the Sweeney team had promised, but such was in fact exactly the kind of renewal that Andy Stern delivered, adding 900,000 new members (at least on paper) to SEIU over fifteen years.

To understand Stern’s methods, as they developed after the LA janitors’ episode, a bit of context is helpful. In the run-up to the triumph of the new Sweeney team at the AFL-CIO, a rather misplaced debate had taken place in and around the labor movement about prioritizing either the “high road” or the “low road” as the way forward. The “high road” offered a rosy perspective of labor participation in the burgeoning technology sectors of the (now happily forgotten) “New Economy”, with high-wage high-skilled jobs expanding in tandem with high tech and the technology-intensive innovations in core U.S. industries. The “low road” looked instead to organizing the tens of millions of working poor, casuals and temps who had emerged from the 1970’s crisis as the gritty reality of the “great American jobs machine” that won accolades from such various quarters as conservative think tanks and European ideologues looking to break the “stagnation” of high-wage, stodgy Europe with its tougher laws on layoffs, its early retirement and its universal health care[13]. Then-U.S. President Bill Clinton had already contributed a mass of potential new constituents for the “low road” option with the 1994 passage of NAFTA, the US-Canada-Mexico free trade agreement, which gutted Mexican agriculture by American imports and forced millions off the land and into the precarious migration to El Norte, where minimum-wage (or worse) jobs, fly-by-night employers and the INS (immigration police) awaited them[14]. He added millions more with his 1996 abolition of welfare, presented, along with the other remnants of New Deal big-government liberalism, as an anachronism in the illusory, debt-driven “Great Moderation” of those years.  While the majority of those affected by “welfare reform” were…children,  Clinton’s “welfare to work”  soon had millions of their mothers commuting hours a day to minimum-wage jobs in far suburbia for slightly more than their previous welfare checks. (Presumably anticipating further gate receipts, Sweeney’s “new” AFL-CIO said nothing about Clinton’s effective abolition of welfare.)

High-tech capitalists showed little interest in playing their part in any “high road” strategy for a will-o-the-wisp high-wage labor-management condominium, so the “low road” won hands down. Thus, to get a bit ahead of our story, in 2005, the split between the AFL-CIO and Stern’s Change to Win was precisely between the older CIO unions still standing (however much in retreat) such as the UAW, the USW, the UMW or the IAM, and unions that stood to gain members from the new millions of minimum wage workers: the SEIU, the IBT, the UFCW, UNITE, HERE, and the Laborers (LIUNA)[15].

A Marxist—this Marxist–might say with some accuracy that the split occurred between workers producing primarily relative surplus value and those producing absolute surplus value[16]. Not incidentally, they were also in sectors least affected by the off-shoring of factories in the previous period.

Stern quickly put the ideas of Sloan and the Harvard Business Review to work, on the model of the LA janitors’ campaign and its aftermath. He engineered the cleanout of some Mafia elements in New York, Boston, Detroit and Chicago or the notorious Gus Bevona of New York’s famous Local 32 BJ (from which Sweeney had emerged) with a combination of organizational hardball and some golden parachutes to get people to go quietly. Stern aimed at national unions in hospitals, long-term care, public service, and building services. Stern’s method of “organizing” was unique in that it was more aimed at organizing key politicians such as then-California governor Gray Davis or currently embroiled ex-Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich with large campaign contributions, after which these politicians would approve collective bargaining for categories of workers who had never been mobilized.

As Stern put it in reply to some critics of his top-down, high-handed approach:

“Workers want their lives to be changed. They want strength and a voice, not some purist, intellectual, historical, mythical democracy. Workers can win when they are united, and leaders who stand in the way of change screaming “democracy” fail to understand how workers exercise the limited power they have in a country where only 8.2% of the private sector are in unions. They just don’t get it!”[17]

In the California case, , in February 1999 SEIU won the right from Gov. Davis to represent 74,000 home care attendants, claiming it was “the biggest organizing victory in the U.S.”  since the 1937 Flint sit-downs of the UAW; quite  a comedown from the Battle of the Overpass. The attendants got a raise to $8.15 per hour. But as Robert Fitch pointed out, most of the people organized were not really workers, but welfare recipients caring for family and friends.  The SEIU made big contributions to the Los Angeles county board of supervisors and mayoral candidates to promote the creation of an entity with which union could “bargain”, which happened in due course.  Only one-fourth of the eligible workers voted in the election to establish the union.[18]

The same pattern was repeated in Illinois. Stern gave Rod Blagojevich $800,000 in campaign contributions to obtain his backing for SEIU, which he granted in 2004. SEIU had in fact been collecting dues from the Illinois home care attendants for 20 years, with no agency to bargain with.  As in California, the “rank-and-file” were primarily former welfare recipients caring for children, earning $50 a day, having had no raise since 1986, and with no health care benefits, sick days, or retirement[19].

But it got even better. In order to win collective bargaining representation at private nursing homes, the SEIU blocked with their managements in Florida, Texas and particularly California against indigent patients’ rights,  getting the California legislature to pass a bill which gave the nursing homes $3 billion over 5 years, guaranteed company profits, and gutted patients’ rights.  The SEIU then joined with the nursing homes to crush the Nursing Home Residents Bill of Rights, much to the consternation of activists attempting to curb elder abuse in such homes.  The SEIU claimed this was to help workers and improve patient care. In exchange for this help, the nursing homes agreed not to block SEIU organizing. Stern and SEIU also formed an alliance with California health care giant Kaiser Permanente, and in the state of New York,  lobbied with employers for legislative funding and a plan to close hospitals.

These tactics by Stern and the SEIU were not without their critics, including internal critics. One example was the widely-touted Boston janitors’ strike of October 2002. 11,000 janitors in the Boston region, including many Latinos, struck for three weeks, and ended  the strike with a contract granting 30% salary increases over five years and health insurance for some part-time janitors. But under the contract, only 1,000 part-time workers in the largest buildings won fully-paid health insurance, whereas three-fourths of the strikers were part-timers, and  the full-timers already had health insurance. The strike was widely supported by the local media and by the Massachusetts political and business establishment, as well as by clergy and U.S. Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry. Everyone except the striking workers fell all over themselves proclaiming it a victory. As one dissenting SEIU staffer of the striking local said afterward, “My first concern in calling the strike a ‘victory’ is that not a single worker I know believes it to be such.” According to this staffer, the janitors became “deeply angry” seeing the contract in print and called the union “vendidos” (sellouts) because of inadequate pay raises over five years: “…the International placed so much emphasis on winning something (on full-time jobs and health benefits for some part-timers) that they were willing to totally cave on wages”[20].

But these criticisms of Stern’s method at SEIU were nothing compared to the firestorm that developed after July 2005 when he led five million members out of Sweeney’s hapless AFL-CIO into the new federation, Change to Win (CTW), mentioned earlier.

The groundwork had been laid when Stern created the New Unity Partnership (NUP) with Bruce Raynor  of  UNITE and John Wilhelm of HERE in 2004.  In these two figures, the New Left turn to the working class in the late 1960’s again casts a long shadow.  Bruce Raynor came out of 1960’s SDS and civil rights activism to work, after 1973, for the then-Textile Workers Union of America, (TWUA) while first graduating from the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He came to prominence in the long struggle to organize the Southern textile company J.P. Stevens. Raynor, once apparently known as the “Lenin of the South”, spent 20 years in the TWUA organizing in southern states. John Wilhelm started work with HERE  in 1969 after graduating from Yale and led the successful 1984 strike there. He was also involved in some organizing victories among hotel and casino employees in Las Vegas in the late 1980’s.

UNITE was the merger of three earlier textile worker unions, a merger itself reflecting the massive loss of jobs in that sector[21]. Following the merger of the Textile Workers, Amalgamated, and ILGWU (merged in UNITE) the combined membership (estimated at 450,000) was less than ACTWU alone in 1976[22]. Raynor’s UNITE and Wilhelm’s HERE in turn merged to form UNITE HERE.

After 2005, not much changed, but rather intensified, with Change To Win[23]. In April 2007, when the rival AFL-CIO endorsed single-payer (extending Medicare to all) in the brewing health care debate, Stern said that government should play only a secondary role in healthcare; a couple of months before, he had held a press conference with the CEO of  the notorious anti-labor Wal-Mart announcing their joint project for “Better Health Care Together Campaign”[24]. The officials of another CTW affiliate, the UFCW, checked in with the highest  salaries in organized labor, approximately ten times the average salary of a grocery employee.  But criticism without and within intensified as well. In February  2006, two thousand SEIU members at the University of Massachusetts bolted from the union to reject the imposition of another mass local[25]. Stern responded with a crackdown on rank-and-file militants. In typical fashion, in September 2007, the California SEIU merged twenty locals into three and laid off hundreds of union staff based on political criteria. In   February 2008, the SEIU sent Dennis Rivera, leader of New York’s health care union 1199 and another fallen angel of the left, to raid the Puerto Rican teachers’ union[26].

In August 2008, sleaze merged with the well-established high-handed organizational methods and warfare with other unions.  In Los Angeles, Stern appointee Tyrone Freeman resigned after it was revealed that he had directed $600,000 in contracts to his wife and paid his mother-in-law $8000 a month to take care of his daughter and other staffers’ kids.  Annelle Grajeda, the appointed president of Local 721 and Stern’s designated successor to his emerging breakaway rival Sal Rosselli (cf. below) after the latter’s pending ouster,  had put her boyfriend on multiple salaries while he was working as county employee.

Probably most serious was the crisis involving California nurses, a battle which still continues at this writing. Unhappy with Stern’s overtures to the management of health provider Kaiser Permanente (again pointing to a deal at the expense of patient rights) and the usual top-down treatment of members, thousands of SEIU nurses rallied in Oakland at a rally in March 2008 demanding their de-certification from the union so they could form another one. This occurred, however, under the leadership of Sal Rosselli, previously a strong Stern supporter who had earlier praised the SEIU contract with Kaiser, but who by  2008 was calling for direct election of union officers instead of by convention delegates. Shortly after the Oakland rally, SEIU thugs attacked a Labor Notes conference in Detroit where a nurse from Rosselli’s faction was scheduled to speak, with one SEIUer dying of a heart attack during the melee.   Through all this, Andy Stern was lobbying with employers to close hospitals in New York state, saying that responsible unions should embrace outsourcing, and attacking the California nurses for opposing “jointness” in health care. . In June 2009, anti-Stern reformers took over a Massachusetts SEIU local, and Stern laid off  75 organizers in a “reorganization”. In July 2009, as part of the California nursing battle, the SEIU colluded with Kaiser to remove shop stewards.

With fires burning on so many fronts,  open civil war had erupted in March 2009 in UNITE HERE. Bruce Raynor  of UNITE was effectively working to take a large part of the fused membership into the SEIU, having made a deal with Stern; he became an SEIU Executive Vice President while still drawing a salary from UNITE.  The financial stakes were considerable: UNITE owns the Amalgamated Bank, with $5bn assets, and valuable New York City property. True to form, Stern and Raynor had made secret deals with companies to allow union organizing while waiving workers’ right to strike. In April 2009, the SEIU moved to break up UNITE HERE, and UNITE- controlled regional councils, under Raynor, voted to leave the union.  Ultimately about one-fourth of the membership followed Raynor into the SEIU.

With this legacy, Andy Stern resigned as SEIU president in April 2010, and was succeeded by Mary Kay Henry, one of his own intimate circle, who promised a kinder, gentler SEIU and a healing process with rival unions.

At the end of such a dismal tale, it is necessary to step back from mere chronology and try to draw the political lessons. As indicated at the outset, at the tail end of the New Left experience in the U.S. ca. 1970 various vanguard groups made a “turn” to the working class. These groups were inspired in part by the militant wildcat strike wave that peaked in 1973 (the high points of which were the black-led strikes of DRUM and ELRUM in Detroit,  the nationwide Teamster wildcat of 1970, the Lordstown (Ohio) wildcat of 1972, and the shutdown of the Dodge Main plant in Detroit by black militants who cut the power in summer 1973) and that was still showing signs of life as late as the UMW rank-and-file’s rejection of Jimmy Carter’s imposition of the Taft-Hartley law during the coalfield strike of 1977-78. At its peak, thousands of Trotskyists, Maoists and assorted Marxist- Leninists, not to mention independents, took blue-collar jobs in this turn, constituting the first left-wing “intervention” in the American working-class since the expulsion of conscious leftists from all but a few small unions by McCarthyism, the Cold War and the general rollback of the 1950’s. One could say a great deal—and a great deal was said at the time—about the artificiality of such an attempt. While many of those participating in this turn did in fact come off of college campuses (such as Stern, Raynor and Wilhelm), many among them were  nonetheless of working-class background themselves. Few if any were aware at the time that decades of ebb and rollback were beginning, and given the labor market two decades later, the better-paying blue-collar jobs available in 1970 and still around in 1990 looked pretty good by comparison with many of the alternatives. All in all, in the former U.S. industrial heartland of the Midwest, little came of these efforts[27].  A fair number of these “industrializers” tired of blue-collar jobs and migrated into the middle levels of the trade union bureaucracies, where they became an important base of Sweeney’s attempted makeover of the AFL-CIO in 1995. (One Marxist- Leninist, Bill Fletcher of the Maoist Freedom Road group, was briefly a member of Sweeney’s inner circle.) Their opposition to traditional AFL-CIO involvement in Cold War foreign policy forced a major debate within some major unions over the U.S. intervention in Central America in the 1980’s.  Many of them were swept up in Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns. To the extent they maintained their earlier political commitments, they increasingly wore two hats, simon-pure trade union militant by day and radical sect member by night.

For it was precisely ca. 1970 that the postwar boom was ending, and what was beginning was the biggest economic restructuring since the final supersession of craft production by intensified industrial  production ca. 1900 and the mass production of consumer durables (1920’s, 1930’s).  The “wildcat” perspective was nowhere in the wave of plant closings, downsizings, outsourcings, quality control, technical intensification of the labor process, concession bargaining, the de-industrialization of whole regions, and the flood of German and Japanese goods produced with newer factories and methods abroad[28]. The recessions of 1969-1970 and much more so of 1973-1975 wrong-footed the rank-and-file rebellion,  and the management counter-offensive in the U.S. and Europe has generally held the upper hand ever since. In the older industrial countries such as the U.K. and the U.S. (not accidentally the dominant world financial centers), the much-touted shift to a “post-industrial” “service” economy seemingly covered over this rollback of the productive work force, so that today less than 10% of the U.K. work force remains engaged in industry and in the U.S. less than 20%. The U.K. had long ceded world financial pre-eminence to the U.S., but from the Thatcher era onward, it was the net capital flows into the City of London which kept Britain solvent; the U.S. shifted from being the world’s largest creditor to the world’s largest debtor ca. 1984. The U.S. balance-of-trade deficit has, since 1971,  ceased to be negative only at the bottom of the post-1970 recessions, until the next debt-driven “consumer-led” recovery begins.

The deeper problem, of course, as argued in IN No. l,[29] was that capitalism on a world scale as of 1970 had reached the limits of its recomposition and recovery from the long crisis of 1914-1945 and had again run up against the barrier whereby capitalist accumulation of “value” grew in opposition to the expanded material reproduction of society. Capital was again manifesting its tendency to simultaneously expel living labor from the production process through higher productivity and on the other hand its absolute need of living labor to maintain itself as capital[30]. This expansion of absolute surplus-value production is the true basis, beneath appearances, of the proliferation since 1970 of the low-wage “low road” jobs of the type that Andy Stern’s SEIU set out to organize. This is the true basis of the proliferation of fast-food outlets, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, home care attendants, in short of the “great American jobs machine” that added 30 million jobs after the 1970’s, the majority of which no longer paid enough to support one worker, let alone reproduce a family. The single most important material “fact” of the past fifty years of capitalist accumulation in the U.S. is the disappearance of the single-paycheck working-class family.

Capital’s search for a new foundation for accumulation has hardly run its course. The shakeout that erupted to the surface in the fall of 2008 is only an acceleration of a forty-year process. World accumulation, in order to find a new expansive footing,  must be restructured in a way similar to the restructuring whereby the U.S. replaced Britain as the hegemon, with the necessary “reshuffling of the deck” to reflect the new world distribution of cutting-edge production that can no longer accomodate New York as the unquestioned world financial center, the special status of the U.S. dollar, and the other institutions (IMF, World Bank, WTO) through which U.S. exercised supremacy after 1945. Such a reorganization necessarily passes through geopolitics, starting with NATO and the U.S. military presence in 110 countries. And these institutional considerations in turn come down to the dynamic between classes, just as they did in 1914-1945.  Seen in this perspective, capital can carry out this restructuring only through the same violence and destruction through which it survived the previous “Thirty Years’ War” epoch of crisis. War and increasingly authoritarian regimes, ramped up by the “war on terror” and the ever-accelerating e-totalitarianism already in place, are the likely way stations to any new phase of capital accumulation.

We must now locate the class struggle, as sketched out above,  in this larger process. Capital, as indicated, finally resolved its previous global impasse in 1945 by the founding of U.S. hegemony and that hegemony’s institutions on the ruins of World War II and by the defeat and containment of the working class everywhere, made possible by the channeling of class struggle by Socialist, Communist and Labour parties, not to mention the trade unions the latter controlled. The world capitalist class “thinks globally and acts globally”, whatever localist outlook mystified left opinion wishes to counterpose to it. The world working class must therefore do the same; if it is defeated, as it was defeated between 1914 and the end of World War II, world history will mark another “1945”, whatever the specific outcome, at the beginning of any new capitalist cycle[31]. Capitalists conducted World War II in full awareness of what had happened in 1917-1918, and are fully intent on preventing, with all the murderous means at their disposal[32], a repetition of that brief moment in which they seemed to lose control.

Seen in this perspective, as stated at the outset,  there is nothing positive, for the class as a whole, to be achieved through the unions. We remember the murderous, lynch-mob repression that rained down on the IWW from 1917 to 1920 as an anticipation of what the American capitalists will attempt to do to any serious opposition when the chips are down, and today’s unions are, to put it mildly, nothing like the IWW and obviously not a serious opposition. Mainstream American unions dutifully lined up to serve on government-enforced labor-management boards in both imperialist world wars[33]. Closer to the present,  one need only recall the meek, red-white-and-blue, we’re-all-in-this-together reaction of American unions in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the day when ordinary Americans first experienced what peoples around the world have experienced at the hands of U.S. imperialism a thousand times in the era of its hegemony. With such precedents, and with the U.S. increasingly bogged down in its rapidly-failing Middle East and South Asian policy from Turkey to Pakistan, by way of Palestine, Iran and Afghanistan, and provoking China over Korea and in the South China Sea, one can only imagine what American unions will do in the next serious (and/or fabricated) war scare.

But here we are a bit ahead of ourselves. Such an apocalyptic perspective (and in our view the historical juncture, particular when seen in tandem with the environmental crisis,  is indeed apocalyptic) in 2010, somewhat resembles Schelling’s “night in which all cows are black”[34], a dumb totality in which all the specific realities (e.g. the rise and fall of Andy Stern and the fallout from it) of the present disappear. The process we point to, which we previously characterized as a “slow crash landing”[35], might drag on for years, perhaps decades, particularly given the absence, for the near to medium future, of any power or power bloc capable of challenging the U.S. for hegemony. The patient is terminally ill, but it would be foolish to pinpoint the date of demise, particularly because the process is fluid and will be determined by what the global working class does or does not do.

IN No. 1 outlined a possible program for an exit from “value production” by a successful world revolution[36]. Such a program, eminently debatable in its specifics, has concrete meaning only insofar as it emerges from the necessities of global reproduction and from the huge gap between such necessities and the worldwide retrogressionist assault on workers now underway.  The issue is obviously to connect it meaningfully to the struggles, or their absence, of today.

The recent world panorama is mixed, at best. In the current issue of IN, we run articles on the recent strikes in China, ongoing strikes in Bangladesh, and the impressive TEKEL strike in Turkey of last spring. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks went into the streets in May to oppose the European Union’s super-austerity, and gave Yiannis Panagopoulos,

head of the General Confederation of Workers in Greece,  the pelting of eggs and beating he so richly deserved[37]. However relatively quiet the U.S. may be for the moment, this is not the case on a world scale.

The struggles in the U.S. and Europe in the 1960’s and 1970’s combined many elements that obviously went beyond the workplace and the shop floor[38], and in fact often eclipsed what was happening on the shop floor. For the U.S. alone, in addition to the mounting wildcat strikes, we recall the different phases of the black movement, the antiwar and GI movements, the (mainly middle-class) youth and student movements, the Latino (Chicano and Puerto Rican) movements, the prison movement, the women’s movement and the gay movement. A situation had been created in which militancy in one sphere encouraged militancy in others, and ultimately broke down the boundaries between spheres altogether in an increasingly visible totality.  The bare outlines of a similar totality, since the mid-1990’s,  have been taking shape in the contemporary period.

What distinguishes our present from the 1960’s is that the revolts in that earlier period,  in the U.S. and Europe[39],  were in large part directed against institutions created by the moderate left as they emerged from World War II, whether the Keynesian/Social Democratic welfare state or the trade unions. What characterized the revolts of that period was an ever-greater “outflanking” of  bureaucratic “reformist” institutions (political parties, unions) created by the postwar Keynesian settlement in the West. A paradigm might be the uproar in the UAW in 1973 when the union bureaucrats announced with great pomp a new contract inscribing a “four-day week”. Factory militants, already involved in large-scale absenteeism, responded: “The four-day week? We already have the four-day week!”

Today, when “reform” has become the war cry of the capitalists themselves, by which is meant “taking back” the  “bloated” “entitlements” of “rent-seekers” (the Wall Street bankers and their bonuses, of course, never figure among the “rent-seekers”) in “painful adjustments” supposedly to make way for a recovery that never comes[40], struggles worldwide have necessarily taken on a new and mainly defensive character.[41] The ruling classes of Europe pursue salami tactics to pare down its welfare state, finding (like their American counterparts) the post-2008 meltdown a most useful wedge for doing so, even as they spent hundreds of billions to rescue their banks.

We cannot will into existence the next conjuncture in which a “contagion of struggle” reappears. A look at the years between the crash of 1929 and the first major U.S. strikes in 1934 shows great quiescence but also battles against foreclosures, rent parties, or the Bonus March on Washington in 1931[42]; in the general desolation, they were perhaps straws in the wind. And the great strikes of 1934 in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Toledo and throughout the Southern textile industry, right up to the steel strike and Flint auto sit-downs of 1936-37 did occur on the upswing from the depths of the Depression. (One further cannot discount the political dimension of hopes, misplaced as they may have been, generated by the launching of Roosevelt’s New Deal.)[43] The problem in the U.S. and Europe for nearly forty years is that there has been no upswing in which workers could recapture the high ground they occupied at the peak of the postwar boom.

Capitalism in 1934, not to mention in 2010, had already entered the epoch (ca. 1914) in which its true goal of expanding value runs counter, on a world scale, to the expanded material reproduction of society[44].  Seen on a world scale, the global economic crisis of today will be worse than that of the 1930’s, not to mention the accelerating environmental catastrophe[45] now underway, beyond comparison to anything in the 1930’s.

Let’s put it bluntly: for the class as a whole to advance, to even win back the ground lost over forty years, the apparatus of production must be taken away from the capitalists. “Reform” has been the war cry of the neo-liberal pro-market right for decades, echoing the fact that there is no possible reformism on the left. Much of the left-wing opposition in the U.S. labor movement[46], as it culminated in the Sweeney fiasco, has been involved in trying to interest the capitalists in a game from which they have walked away.  Much of this left could think of nothing better to do, in fall 2008, than cheer the election of Barack Obama, who had been backed by more Wall Street money than his “conservative” opponent McCain, and who brought in, to administer the crisis, the likes of Tim Geithner, Larry Summers and Hilary Clinton, all veterans of multiple crimes against the working class[47].

Taking the apparatus of production away from the capitalists means social revolution, and a revolution moreover international from the beginning. It was argued[48]previously that the “real economy” on a world scale, and nowhere more than in the U.S., has been so distorted by capitalist accumulation over decades that only a program for social reconstruction can make clear how much of  contemporary “reality” will have to be swept away to rebuild the world on the basis of “use-values”.

We hardly say this from some absolutist posture dismissive of contemporary struggles, small and large, that do not directly pose the question of “expropriating the expropriators”. As Marx put it in his letter to Ruge in 1843, “we merely tell the world why it struggles, and consciousness is something the world must acquire, even if it does not want to”[49]. We point to examples such as the Buenos Aires subway workers in 2003 who, confronted with a plan from management for 2000 layoffs, struck to demand a 6-hour day for all, and 2000 new hires to make the system work with the shorter shifts. They won.

Not all defensive struggles, probably not even most, can be turned around in this fashion. Most will lose, as most have lost (at least in the U.S.) over the past 35 or 40 years. Centered as we are in the U.S., at least for now, the task is to bring home to workers the kinds of struggles underway everywhere in the world, to internationalize the awareness of the class.  But beyond the specifics of those struggles that erupt, win or lose, the main perspective must be to point to the world dynamic of capital and the need for workers on a world scale to either put an end to capital or suffer the (already quite visible) consequences. Capital is a meat grinder we are inside of. The tipping point in this process is as impossible to predict in advance as  the bread riot that led to the French Revolution or the women’s day demonstration that led to the overthrow of the Russian tsar or, closer to us, the gesture of Rosa Parks that led to the Montgomery bus boycott.

A meaningful advance of workers’ struggles means bringing into existence class-wide organizations. Where those with such a perspective find themselves, by hook or by crook,  in trade unions, the issue is to broaden struggles to include the unemployed wherever possible, on the model of (e.g.) the Buenos Aires subway workers. Such militants participate in unions, where circumstances require it, always with a perspective beyond unions and of their supersession into class-wide organizations[50]. The miserable ghettoization of different parts of the class in  (declining) corporatist formations, bound hand and foot by labor law and decades of anti-worker legislation, that cannot even come to each others’ aid in meaningful solidarity, not to mention the abject refusal (with few notable exceptions)[51] to breach legality,  has to end. This serene indifference to non-members, including unemployed workers who the day before yesterday were members, has to end.  Many of these corporatist formations themselves, it seems all but forgotten, were built decades ago by workers willing to break the law.

In the U.S. in particular, where 88% of the work force is not in unions, where 20% of the work force is unemployed or underemployed and more become homeless every day,  where there are almost as many proletarians or sub-proletarians in the prison system as in unions (and where, finally, a not insignificant number of union members are police and prison personnel[52]) the idea of “basing a revolutionary strategy on the unions”, of “capturing the unions” for revolution, ideas still propagated today by various and sundry Trotskyists, is a joke.

IN’s role is to bring into existence, in collaboration with like-minded others, the worldwide programmatically-armed current that can help turn the current defensive rollback into an offensive one, and help push that offensive past the point of no return.

Loren Goldner is an editor of Insurgent Notes, as well as a writer and activist based in New York City.

This document is from the Break Their Haughty Power web site


[1] SIGA is a company specializing in the development of pharmaceutical agents to combat bio-warfare pathogens.

[2] On important holdovers from the IWW, battling top-down CIO methods from the start, see the essays in Staughton Lynd, ed. “We Are All Leaders”: The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930’s. (1996).

[3] Following 3000 strikes in the year 1987 alone, with a further strike wave continuing until 1990 in many cases in fact demanding and forming unions, South Korea is something of an exception to this trend. By the early 1990’s, however, under the cover of still-fiery rhetoric, South Korea’s unions as well had settled (and had been beaten) into the more familiar acceptance of a capitalist framework. See  home.earthlink.net/~lrgoldner/korea.htmlfor a brief account of this containment.

[4] With New York City on the verge of bankruptcy, its banker creditors seized control and total oversight of the city budget  through an entity called “Big MAC” (Municipal Assistance Corporation). The city’s municipal unions sank tens of millions of their pension funds into Big MAC bonds while the bankers pushed through civil service 40,000 layoffs and slashed city services.

[5] See my article on this defeat at http://home.earth link.net/~lrgoldner/supermarket.htm

[6] It should be pointed out that in addition to these better-known episodes of defeat was the year-in, year-out grinding down of working people, without a battle, without even an awareness that a war was in progress (Cf. Wallace Peterson The Silent Depression, 1994, for the basic statistics, albeit within a Keynesian framework.) Some of this has been compensated, until recently, by low-level state and local programs, now on the chopping block in the general crisis of state and urban finane.

[7] Stern’s SEIU, for example, contributed $85 million to the electoral campaign of Barack Obama.

[8] NAFTA was the North American Free Trade Agreement; CAFTA was the Central American Free Trade Agreement. On NAFTA, cf. below.

[9] According to some estimates, 80% of strikes in the past two decades have had health care as a main, if not the main issue.

[10] See L. Goldner, The Remaking of the American Working Class, http://home.earthlink.net/~lrgoldner/remaking

[11] Stern also cited as influences the futurologists Alvin and Heidi Toffler as well as the Republican Congressman and right-wing ideologue Newt Gingrich. In his book, A Country That Works, Stern even criticized the “class-struggle mentality” of the U.S. labor movement.

[12] The material in the following section draws on the informative chapter on Stern in Robert Fitch’s otherwise deeply flawed Solidarity for Sale (2006), Steve Early’s Embedded in the Labor Movement (2009) and articles in the Detroit-based Labor Notes.

Fitch points out that Stern’s most important ideas on organization came from the Harvard Business Review.

[13] This of course was prior to the 2010 crisis of the very foundations of the European Union, which offered many new openings to introduce the “Anglo-American” model, or worse.

[14] Cf. the journalistic but fact-packed account of the sleaze surrounding the passage of NAFTA in John R. MacArthur, The Selling of “Free Trade”: NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy (1995). Contemporary, historically-blind media hand-wringing about the murderous drug wars in Mexico (28,000 dead in the past three years) never mention NAFTA’s decimation of Mexican agriculture as “background.

[15] Change to Win (CTW) unions were, as indicated, the SEIU, the IBT (Teamsters) the UFCW (organizing grocery employees), UNITE (the result of the fusion of several textile worker unions), HERE (hotel and restaurant workers) and LIUNA, organizing laborers. Robert Fitch points out (op. cit.) that of the main CTW unions, three (SEIU, the IBT and LIUNA) had recent or ongoing histories of  Mafia influence.

[16] Relative surplus value is Marx’s term for that extracted by intensification of the labor process through new technology; absolute surplus value comes from the lengthening of the working day. Relative surplus value had been preponderant in the post-World War II boom in the West; as that accumulation reached its limits, more and more absolute surplus value compensated for stagnating profits in the technology-intensive industries.

[17] Quoted in Steve Early, Embedded with Organized Labor (2009), p. 221.

[18] Fitch op. cit

[19] Ibid

[20] Early, op. cit. pp. 226-227.

[21] This merger was a swan song of an earlier period of American unions. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America was led by “labor statesman” Sidney Hillman for its first thirty years,  and helped found the CIO. Amalgamated merged with the Textile Workers Union of America in 1976 to form the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union This merger then merged with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (of David Dubinsky fame) in 1995 to create the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE).

[22] Cf. Robert Fitch, op. cit. Ch. 9 “UNITE’s Garment Gulag”. UNITE was involved in a number of scandals involved in non-enforcement of New York sweatshop contracts that on paper provided for decent wages and benefits, but actually often had worse conditions than many “unorganized” sweatshops. According to Fitch, a sweatshop thus became (for example, for the campus-based anti-sweatshop movement) a sweatshop not organized by UNITE.

[23] The material in the following paragraphs draws heavily on Steve Early, op. cit.

[24] Actually in some ways this was a departure, as the typical SEIU overture was for union recognition in exchange for no health plan.

[25] The material in the following section is from Labor Notes, different issues from 2005 to 2010.

[26] This union had been stripped of its bargaining rights for striking against the government over privatization and other issues.

[27] The great exception was the short-lived success of the International Socialists (IS) in helping to elect Ron Carey president of the Teamsters in 1991, helped in turn by the U.S. Department of Justice’s takeover of the union with the stated aim of eliminating Mafia influence. This complex tale should be told in another article, but a good start is Fitch’s material on Carey in Solidarity for Sale.

[28] For a portrait of this wrenching period for millions of American workers, using the example of Chicago, cf. David Ranney, Global Decisions, Local Collisions. Urban Life in the New World Order (2003), describing job loss, divorce, wife-beating, mortgage forclosures,  homelessness, suicide and anomie in the wake of factory closings there.

[29] Cf. IN No. 1, “The Historical Moment Which Produced US”.

[30] K. Marx, Grundrisse, (English translation, 1973), p. 706. “Capital itself is the moving contradiction, (in) that it presses to reduce labor time to a minimum, while it posits labor time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.”

[31] The only sure prediction is a formalization of the recognition of relative U.S. decline.

[32] The Allies bombed German and Italian working-class neighborhoods instead of factories in order to paralyze Axis war production. Cf. the writings of the historian Tim Mason, especially Nazism, fascism and the working class (1995) on the fear of working-class revolt in the Nazi regime.

[33] It should be pointed out that, during World War II, this class collaboration did not go unopposed, particularly after the AFL, the CIO and the CPUSA signed on to the wartime “no strike” pledge. Cf. Marty Glaberman, Wartime Strikes, Detroit, 1980.

[34] GFW Hegel criticized his contemporary Schelling for conceiving of reality as a totality—all to the good—but as a totality in which the developmental specificity of it different “moments” disappeared into an indeterminate (one might say, today, New Age) whole.

[35] IN No. 1 ….

[36] IN No. 1, “Historical Moment”.

[37] Panagopoulos had attempted to calm an angry crowd in front the the Greek Parliament, the latter surrounded by riot police. The shower of eggs began immediately, after which Panagopoulos was roughed up by the crowd and had to flee for protection behind police lines.

[38] The focus of vol. I of Marx’s Capital, “the immediate process of production”.

[39] We are not forgetting the struggles and revolts of that period in the Third World, but they in their great majority lacked a clear-cut proletarian character. That is, in many countries, no longer the case, as our coverage of some of those strikes shows.

[40] The paradigm for such vile propaganda, diverting attention from the huge U.S. disparities in wealth, beyond anything achieved in the 1920’s, is the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington DC, which for decades has banged away about the need to reduce Social Security and Medicare to solve the U.S. crisis. The Petersen Institute is a good example of the update of the “Goebbels principle” according to which if an outrageous lie is repeated often enough, it sinks into general consciousness.

[41] Cf. Lance Carter’s short article in IN No. 1 and the longer article in the current issue on the recent strikes in China. It is true that these strikes in China were offensive, but they must be seen in tandem with the many struggles, going back years,  in the northeastern “rust bowl” against factory closings, managerial asset stripping and looting of pension funds in the older “state-owned enterprises” (SOEs). In China as well, after three decades of 10+% growth, wages have declined as a portion of GDP.

[42] Tens of thousands of World War I vets converged on Washington DC demanding Federal money owed them, and encamped for months; they were finally dispersed by army units under the command of Gens. Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

[43] One can take the measure of the difference between even the 1930’ s and today by comparing the mass struggles of FDR’s first years in power with the relative silence of most left opposition during Obama’s first two years. Similarly, the electoral triumphs of the Popular Front in Spain and in France in 1936 set off, in the Spanish case, a revolutionary crisis and ,in the French, mass factory occupations. Forty-five years later, the respective elections of Felipe Gonzalez (Spanish Prime Minister 1982-1996) and Francois Mitterand (French President, 1981-1995) were followed in both countries by fifteen years of quiescence, punctuated by a few defensive, stopgap struggles. Between the two periods is a vast deflation, from hard experience, of the illusions of “the left in power”.

[44] Cf. “The Historical Moment Which Produced Us” in IN No l for an unpacking of this theoretical framework.

[45] Cf. John Garvey’s article on the BP oil spill in this issue. In addition to the incalculable damage to the Gulf of Mexico, 2010 has so far witnessed the hottest summer on record in many parts of the world, a huge ice island breaking off of Greenland’s glaciers, the Russian wheat crop seriously reduced by drought, and large-scale flooding in Pakistan and China.

[46] An opposition perhaps best articulated by the Detroit-based monthly Labor Notes.

[47] Geithner came straight from experience at the New York Fed and the IMF; Summers, as Bill Clinton’s Undersecretary of the Treasury, had read the riot act to the Asian powers during the 1997-98 Asian meltdown to force them to accept the IMF’s draconian bailout (in fact, a leveraged buyout by U.S. capital of Asian assets) and Hilary Clinton had been involved in such notable achievements of the 1990’s as the 1993 health care fiasco (keeping single payer off the radar), NAFTA and the abolition of welfare.

[48] See Insurgent Notes No. 1, “Historical Moment”.

[49] The full context of Marx’s remark is: “Hence, nothing prevents us from making criticism of politics, participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism, and from identifying our criticism with them. In that case we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.”

[50] For an excellent example of how this has been done in the post-1970’s crisis period, cf. the interview with Scott McGuire “Class Struggle Beyond Unions” http://home.earthlink.net/~lrgoldner/scott.html

[51] We note here the three-day strike of the New York City transit workers (TWU) in December 2005 in defiance of New York State’s infamous Taylor Law forbidding strikes by public employees.

[52] Cf. John Garvey, “Workers’ Progress? From Iron Mines to Iron Bars” in Insurgent Notes No. l. In Pennsylvania, the state AFL-CIO was prevented from issuing a statement of support for death row prisoner Mumia abu-Jamal by police and prison personnel organized in AFSCME; in California, AFSCME similarly opposed any punishment of its prison guard members who had forced prisoners into gladiator battles in the super-max for their own amusement. Most recently, California unions did not lift a finger when the subway cop who killed Oscar Grant in cold blood was convicted of “involuntary manslaughter”.
This article is from the Break Their Haughty Power web site
It previously appeared in issue No. 2 of Insurgent Notes (October 2010)


2 responses to “Unionism IS a Lost Cause

  1. once more on trades unionism…continued:the next general strike was started by miners in 1926 in defence of their and other workers conditions.however,the iniative quickly passed to the reformist leadership of the tuc/trades union congress and the labour party.despite the protests and miltancy of some sections of the workers they were unable to effectively even challenge that loss of initiative.against a governement willing to fight and rabid class warrior winston churchill who knew some of the skills of organising like establishing an anti union daily paper and excercising tight control over much of the press,the general strike was brought to ignominious defeat.

    during my political lifetime,the 1960s to now and hopefully beyond,sections of the left to the left of the communist parties have at various times called for general strike,although it always struck me that it always had limited traction so that it sometimes it appeared,even to me as a militant inside the left as one section,any section of the left trying to out position,out left the left in a “who is the most left”competition.

    that said it seems to me that the political climate has changed somewhat radically in the last 10,even the last 3 years.it may be that the british swp/socialist workers party(part of the ist/international socialist tendenecy and led by the swp.also not to be confused with the swp usa)call for a general strike on 30/06/2011 might be qualitatively different.i believe that call is also made by the sp/socialist party.

    i do not want to be negative but i think this call is problematic:-
    1.i have indicated that in britain this call comes out of a history of defeat.i do not mean that it is doomed but anyone with any sense of history will be aware of that defeat.it is one thing to note the importance of events like the genearl strike,and the jarrow march but that is different to believing or presenting such events as victries,like in a different context dunkirk 1940 can wrongly be percieved as a victory.i think there are dangers building such strategies based on defeat.whole nations have presented as built on defeat and go on to present numerous other problems.

    2.i see no indication that the swp and sp are in any way working together,nor can i find a clear differentiation of position.if not sectarian,this is simply irresponsible.

    3.from my reading of the swp/socialist worker online,im confused and perhaps they are.what is the foundation of the call for a general strike?ive recently read that the call is now for spreading the strike beyond a further,independent call for actions on pensions.although britain is a small country,the call lacks a momentum that should be visible to those beyond those already engaged.

    4.i understand the general strike is a tactic for a particular stage in the class struggle.it has to be meaningful not mechanical,and gather a momentum based on the energy and ideas of workers,not just the technicians of revolutionary thinking.

    that said i want to repeat i am not opposing,i am looking for articulation of theory and prospects in the context of what we are living with.

    i have no idea what this would look like in the united states,although i am aware of the in some senses stronger tradition of syndicalism around the building in the past of mass,generalised unions which also includes tactics of mass,generalised strike actions.

    this all poses problems for a truly internationalist and international movement calling for generalised,co-ordinated revolution.

    in this context it is important to consider the different trade union traditions in various places which both reflect the particualr histries of the contending classes and the struggle between them.i will go on to explore this a little in a further post

  2. I don’t think any discussion of unions within a marxist paradigm can be considered without looking at the history of the Industrial Workers of the World. Yes, it still exists and has been growing over the past 10 years. If there ever was a truly ‘marxist’ union, it would have to be the IWW.

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