On the Union Debate: The Internationalist Group’s Response to “The Problematic of the Union in the U.S” (1 & 2)

The Internationalist Group, a revolutionary Trotskyist organization, has written a serious response to Advance the Struggle’s two documents on the unions. Many readers will probably be a little put off by the hyper Trotskyist language of the piece, nevertheless the content of the argument is one of importance. It offers sympathy with the first union piece Unions – How do We Intervene?” And believes the other document, Revolutionaries, Unions and the emerging Class Struggle, has some serious problems, and anarchist tendencies. We appreciate the Internationalist’s serious response to both documents, and agree that all revolutionary formations must start to put out a public positions on how to relate to the unions. As the public can see, Advance the Struggle is still figuring out this question. That is why we published two pieces.

If all American left groups can clearly explain what role revolutionaries should play regarding unions, we can heighten the political discussion of what revolutionary work means in this historical moment. The Kasama blog wrote a critique of Fire Next Time’s flyer regarding the bus strike in New York as it was not clearly explaining what communist work means in the present. What we found missing from the Kasama critique is a proposal for how to relate to the unions in a way that is communist. The ultra-left critique of Trotskyism is this issue on unions is ignoring value, the essence of capitalist social relations. Ultra-lefts charge trotskyist of reproducing and managing value, as appossed to moving towards its negation. This movement, that some call communization, is stuck in a similar position as Kasama, as it can’t translate macro concepts such as value, communism, and communization, within real day-to-day class struggle situations. They are stuck in the abstract and cannot, as of yet, concretely explain what communist work (Kasama), or what communization means in day to day practice regarding the immediate tasks of political work that relates the class struggle and unions.

Luxemburg and Lenin were the first to seriously do this after Marx, this being an untapped theoretical/practical potential point of convergence. Luxemburg and Lenin were the first to develop a revolutionary Marxist practice, concretizing Marxist theoretical categories. Yet historically, they have been violently separated by the crystallized ideologies of the Marxist left; uncritically committed to limited traditions that have now faded into retirement. Just as labor and production were separated forming alienation in Marx’s 1844 Philosophical manuscripts, and labor and land were separated in Marx’s concept of the so-called primitive accumulation, Lenin and Luxemburg have also been separated creating an anti-organizational ultra-left that fetishizes wildcat strikes, or linear party builders in the name of Leninism. Both Luxemburg’s “The Mass Strike“, challenging the bureaucratic method of union political work in Germany, and Lenin’s “What is to be Done?” of building professional revolutionaries that insert revolutionary politics beyond unionism and economic struggles, are the two foundational works that can shed light on the union question.

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Advance the Struggle will continue to write on the relationship revolutionaries should have with unions in this unfolding public discussion. We encourage all revolutionary groups to also write out documents, or pinpoint existing documents that clearly lay out how revolutionaries should relate to unions. All serious comments from your part are studied and recognized with such seriousness on our part.

Trade Unions and Revolutionary Struggle in the United States

The two pieces posted on the web site of Advance the Struggle under the heading “The Problematic of the Union in the U.S. – What Is To Be Done?” are a definite improvement on other recent statements and articles from activists in and around the (greatly reduced) Occupy movement. Both AtS texts start with the affirmation of the need to defend the unions against attacks by capital and the state, in contrast to the arguments of supporters of the Black Orchid Collective in the Pacific Northwest who have vociferously opposed calls for defense of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Those arguments were raised in a dispute that broke out in a “port working group” in Portland last November when comrades of the Internationalist Group put out a leaflet calling for defense of the ILWU and raised this as one of the basic points for solidarity action. This was in the face of the employers’ offensive aimed at gutting basic union gains, such as the hiring hall, and preparing to bring in scabs to bust the ILWU, the bastion of West Coast labor. Our stance was ABC for any Marxist, but those who objected were anarchists and liberals. Basically the arguments against us cited betrayals by the ILWU bureaucrats as a reason not to defend, and possibly to oppose, the union, for example in the article by Pete Little, “One Year After the West Coast Port Shutdown,” in CounterPunch (21-23 December). We responded in an article titled, “Why We Defend the ILWU and All Workers … Including Against the Sellout Labor Bureaucracy”.

The AtS pieces are grappling with one of the key issues facing communist revolutionaries in the U.S., which has been fought over for decades. While making a number of valid points, both pieces are basically empirical where what’s key is the overall theoretical understanding and programmatic conclusions. Both locate the problems with unions in their structure, and in the elaborate web of legal restrictions woven by the bourgeoisie to contain workers’ struggles. Therefore, they focus on alternative organizational vehicles as the solution, whether “class-wide organizations” or “revolutionary cells” in the unions. This misses the key point, that the failures and betrayals of key labor struggles are due at bottom not to union structures or capitalist laws, but to the lack of revolutionary leadership capable of overcoming those obstacles.

As Leon Trotsky wrote in the 1938 Transitional Program, “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.” That is as true today as it was three-quarters of a century ago.

The authors of the two pieces point to the “co-optation of unions by the state, a step followed by ever-more restrictive laws that limit tactics of labor struggle,” and to the unions “being political integrated into the laws and institutions of the state.” This is a crucial factor, and one which is ignored or downplayed by the various reformists who go along with and sometimes foster state control of labor. But the observation is not new. In his unfinished 1940 essay “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay,” Trotsky noted:

“There is one common feature in the development, or more correctly the degeneration, of modern trade union organizations in the entire world: it is their drawing closely to and growing together with the state power. This process is equally characteristic of the neutral, the Social-Democratic, the Communist and ‘anarchist’ trade unions.”

Trotsky explains the origins of this tendency in monopoly capitalism and the cohesion of a parasitic labor bureaucracy which sits atop the unions and fights for crumbs from the imperialists’ superprofits. He also draws important programmatic conclusions:

1) “The primary slogan for this struggle is: complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state. … The second slogan is: trade union democracy. This second slogan flows directly from the first and presupposes for its realization the complete freedom of the trade unions from the imperialist or colonial state”; and

2) “In other words, the trade unions in the present epoch cannot simply be the organs of democracy as they were in the epoch of free capitalism and they cannot any longer remain politically neutral, that is, limit themselves to serving the daily needs of the working class. They cannot any longer be anarchistic, i.e. ignore the decisive influence of the state on the life of peoples and classes. They can no longer be reformist, because the objective conditions leave no room for any serious and lasting reforms. The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.”

These propositions have been confirmed by history and are fundamental to carrying out revolutionary work in the trade unions, with very concrete consequences. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here – there is plenty of experience to draw on in fighting for class-struggle politics in the unions. Take the need for complete independence from the state as a precondition for achieving union democracy: this means, for example, that class-conscious militants do not go to the courts or the capitalist government against the unions, on principle, no matter how corrupt. Why not? Because the unions, despite the sellout misleaders, remain working-class institutions and the state represents the bosses. Put another way, the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy is an obstacle to class struggle, the state is the class enemy: between the two runs a class line which must not be crossed, just as a labor militant would never cross a picket line.

The entire experience of union reform groups in the U.S. in recent decades confirms this: Miners for Democracy, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, Steelworkers Fightback, New Directions in Transport Workers Union Local 100 (New York) – all these reform groups were backed by just about every variety of reformist “socialists,” all sued the unions in the capitalist courts or appealed to the Labor Department against the union bureaucracy, all except Ed Sadlowski in the Steelworkers won office, and all of them, without exception betrayed the working-class ranks. They had to. Once they appealed to the state, the government owned them. That is why union militants who oppose class collaboration do not participate in such lash-ups, which will inevitably betray. Whatever leftists in them think, they’re just vehicles for out-bureaucats to get in.

Instead, we fight to build a class-struggle opposition in the unions, and outside of them. That is the import of Trotsky’s second thesis. He argues that in this imperialist epoch of decaying capitalism “objective conditions leave no room for any serious and lasting reforms,” which were the bread and butter of simple trade unionism in the past. All you have to do is look around you to see all the pensions being ripped up, seniority eliminated, health care gutted to confirm his observation. The reformists of today think it’s just a matter of policy, that they can somehow resuscitate the post-World War II “welfare state.” But they are wrong. If they get into office they will be no more successful in winning reforms, or even staving off anti-union attacks than the present sellout bureaucracies – unless, that is, they are prepared to wage revolutionary class struggle against capitalism. If you want to fight against the unions being “secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the workers,” which is clearly the role the large majority of unions play today, then one must fight to turn them into “instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.”

So in our trade-union work, in the U.S., Mexico and Brazil, we Trotskyists build tendencies based on a transitional program, which oppose capitalism and imperialism and call for a class-struggle workers party and for a workers government. This revolutionary perspective is sharply counterposed to the various union reform caucuses which do not challenge the capitalist framework. For an example, see the program of Class Struggle Education Workers (CSEW) in New York which is politically supported by the Internationalist Group. To see the kind of work it does, go to its web site: http://edworkersunite.blogspot.com/. So that is our framework.

Now, on these two texts we have some areas of agreement. Thus the first, “Unions – How Do We Intervene?” calls to “bring unions into an overall proletarian offensive against capital, for socialism” – which is fundamental, since that is exactly what reformist social democrats and Stalinists don’t do. At the same time it states that “we do not see the union movement as the vehicle for socialist revolution.” Certainly class-struggle unions will not lead the revolution – that is the task of a revolutionary party, usually by playing a leading role in mass organizations such as soviets and workers councils that arise in a revolutionary period and can be the framework for socialist revolution. But revolutionary-led unions can play an important role.

So what are the disagreements? I want to focus on six areas. First is what we might call “rank-and-fileism.” Just about every reformist social-democratic group under the sun calls for “rank-and-file” unions, caucuses, whatever, lambasting the fat-assed bureaucrats, calling for union democracy, and so on. The Internationalist Socialist Organization, Socialist Action, Socialist Alternative, Solidarity, you name it, they all do it. They want to get together with union militants by which they mean just about anyone that is for higher pay and doesn’t like the leadership. The Stalinist reformists like Progressive Labor Party do the same. Some union reform caucuses include supporters of all of these left groups, which is logical since they all have very similar reformist programs. Similarly, the first text calls for “democratic rank and file control,” “militant rank and file unionism,” “a rank-file analysis” (?) and concludes: “A revival of rank and file agency is the key to breaking free of the bureaucratic and legal choke-hold that has prevailed over the six decades of defeat experienced by the US working class.”

Okay, we seek to defeat and drive out the parasitic bureaucracy in order to take on the capitalist bosses. But to do that, you need more than appeals for rank-and-file democracy, you need a program that prepares the ranks for the kind of class struggle they will have to wage. Take the question of the capitalist parties, the Democrats in particular. This is a big deal in education unions, for example: both the union bureaucrats and would-be reformers overwhelmingly backed Democrat Obama, and Obama is leading the union-busting attack on teachers unions. The CSEW opposes any political support to any capitalist party – Democrats, Republicans, Greens, “Working Families Party,” whatever. But when our supporter in the United Federation of Teachers rose at a delegate assembly to oppose endorsing any capitalist politician, the reformist opposition group (Movement of Rank and File Educators, or M.O.R.E.) sat on their hands, with their lips zipped. Why? Because they don’t want to alienate any pro-Democratic “militant” teachers. But if they’re not prepared to do that, they can’t prepare the union membership to resist when attacked by the Democrats. What’s needed is a progamatically based class-struggle opposition rather than an amorphous “rank-and-file” caucus or other grouping.

Second, there is the question of what’s responsible for the subjugation of the unions to state control. At one point, the first document blames the workers themselves, saying:

“Although workers were able to use the new corporatist structure of the New Deal Era to get unprecedented wages and benefits, the NLRB turned out to be one step toward the co-optation of unions by the state, a step followed by ever-more restrictive laws that limit tactics of labor struggle. In a sense, workers, under the leadership of pro-capitalist union officials and misguided Stalinist CP militants, consented to their political defeat (despite impressive economic gains) during this period.”

So workers joined the unions because of the NLRB and got bought off with higher wages? Nonsense. The organization of mass, nationwide industrial unions was achieved by sharp class struggle, in particular the three mass strikes of 1934 (San Francisco longshore, Minneapolis Teamsters, Toledo auto parts), all of them led by reds. In each case, the strikers refused to bow down to federal “mediation” and arbitration and court injunctions, or to armies of police and National Guard troops, and that was why they won. The idea that the CIO unions were built due to FDR’s New Deal is an invention of liberal sociology and history professors. The subjugation of the unions to the state was the handiwork of the pro-capitalist union misleaders, not of bought-off workers.

Third, this brings us to the key question of the origins of the labor bureaucracy, which acts as a transmission belt for the bosses and their government: the labor lieutenants of the capitalist class, as Daniel De Leon called them. To get rid of it, we have to know where it comes from. The second document, “Revolutionaries, Unions and Emerging Class Struggle,” blames the existence of the bureaucracy on the structure of unions themselves. Arguing from a phrase in the “missing sixth chapter” of Capital, where Marx refers to unions as “insurance societies formed by the workers themselves,” the document argues: “Such insurance societies formed a rigid caste of functionaries that made decisions, and shaped the process of how those decisions were made….” This is followed by a quote from Robert Brenner, a leader of the social-democratic Solidarity tendency, saying that union officials “confuse the defense of the organization with the defense of the membership.” So according to this, unions inevitably throw up a bureaucracy – it’s the hoary argument against working-class parties and unions that is a staple of bourgeois sociology going back to Robert Michels and his “iron law of oligarchy.”

Again, this is bourgeois academic subterfuge. The petty-bourgeois labor-aristocratic layer that has bound the unions to the state and to the Democratic Party, didn’t get to power by the inherent structure of the unions. The present labor bureaucracy was a result of a brutal “red purge” of mass expulsions of militant labor leaders in the late 1940s at the dawn of the anti-Soviet Cold War. The liberals worked hand in glove with McCarthyite reactionaries to drive out anyone they saw as “commies.” To fight that labor officialdom, it is necessary to fight their anti-communism head on. But the social democrats don’t because, first, they are anti-communists themselves and second, they above all want to ally with left liberals. So they twist themselves into knots trying to deal with the issue when faced with the inevitable red-baiting.

Fourth, there is the question of anti-labor laws. Yes, unions today are hog-tied by the Taft-Hartley Act, Landrum-Griffin Act, etc. But the capitalist ruling class has always sought to outlaw workers’ struggle. Let’s not forget that prior to the 1930s, unions often had to face far harsher state “criminal syndicalism” laws, but that didn’t force the revolutionary syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World to be integrated into the state. The key here, as always, is revolutionary leadership. Class-struggle unionists oppose any and all capitalist government control of, registration of or interference in unions or other workers organizations. We don’t rely on rigged NLRB-supervised elections or even card checks, but on militant workers action to organize unions. We don’t call for dues checkoffs, which potentially lets employers or the government cut off union funds. Moreover, to win any serious labor battle today, union leaders and members are going to have to defy draconian fines and be prepared to go to jail.

So will “workers committees,” “class-wide committees” or “revolutionary cells in the unions” be able to avoid such laws where unions can’t? Not a chance. If they invent a new tactic, it will be outlawed tomorrow. When sit-down strikes took place in 1937, by 1938 the NLRB had outlawed them and by 1939 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them illegal. What was key was the workers’ willingness and ability to fight off the forces of capitalist repression, which the union workers at Flint GM, Akron rubber, Woolworth’s and many other companies did.

Why is Wal-Mart not unionized? Because the UFCW exists? No, it’s because the UFCW tops are beholden to capitalism. If the NLRB or a court tells them to call off their pickets, they do. Would an IWW or local collective do any better? Try it and count the seconds before security guards hustle you out the door and hand you over to the cops. There is no organizational form or gimmicky tactic, no flash mob that can get around the need for preparing the union ranks to take on the capitalist state. The one recent successful sit-down strike, at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago in late 2008, was not a wildcat action or led by some ad-hoc network but was due to months of preparation by the United Electrical Workers, including taking workers to occupied plants in other countries. They knew the risks and they were ready and willing when the time came.

Fifth, there is the evaluation of recent struggles. On EGT in Longview, Washington we are in agreement that this was no victory for the ILWU, despite all the hoopla from the union tops, the reformist left and Occupy who initially proclaimed victory. At the time, the Internationalist Group got hold of a copy of the port agreement and warned about all the dangerous givebacks there, and then when ILWU members finally obtained the agreement with EGT, we denounced the concessionary contract. We also went after the ILWU misleaders who negotiated it behind the backs of the membership (who never voted on it) and the pseudo-socialists who covered for the bureaucracy, and who excused or even endorsed  the bureaucratic disruption targeting ILWU members at an Occupy-sponsored solidarity with Longview rally in Seattle on 6 January 2012.

The huge, militant and unprecedented workers mobilization in Wisconsin ended in defeat, but it was not due to the fact that it was union-led. Without the unions, there would never have been a weeks-long occupation of the state capitol. To win would have required a general strike, which everyone was talking about and was possible, but did not happen because the “progressive” union leadership sold out the struggle to the Democratic Party … and the reformist socialists on the scene didn’t challenge them. Occupy and anarchist and anarchoid tendencies make a fetish out of the general strike and “wildcat” strikes. But here was a case where a real general strike actually could have taken place, which even if it were messy would have electrified workers nationwide (and thrown Wisconsin into turmoil). What was lacking was a revolutionary leadership with roots in the unions to make it happen.

On the Chicago teachers strike, we have a difference. The second document calls it “an exceptional draw.” We underscored the importance and militancy of the strike, and a comrade flew to Chicago to show solidarity. But the settlement was a sellout, and we said so plainly while the rest of the left was talking with marbles in their mouth, or outright hailing this defeat as a “victory.” The “reform” union leadership accepted teacher evaluations based on student test scores, agreed to ripping up seniority protection on layoffs and did nothing about closing schools, mushrooming class size or any of the other community issues they raised but never seriously intended to fight for. The CORE caucus leading the union (including supporters of the ISO, SAlt, PLP and other left groups) agreed to this contract because they weren’t prepared to go against Illinois law and the Democratic Party. Frankly, the only reason to call this a “draw” is to alibi CORE. In the aftermath, the CTU leadership endorsed the reelection of Democrat Obama. (See our article, “Chicago Teachers: Strike Was Huge, Settlement Sucks” [September 2012]).

Finally, there is the vital question, posed in the title: “What Is To Be Done?” The reference to Lenin’s seminal work on the need for a party of professional revolutionaries is obvious. But in the two pieces, there is no mention of a party. There is talk of “revolutionary cells” and of a “revolutionary organization,” but nothing about a party. This can only be understood as a capitulation to the anti-party prejudices of the anarchist and semi-anarchist currents in the Occupy movement. Instead what is proposed is some sort of “class-struggle organization” engaging “workplace battles and social movements.” This sounds like the “social movement unionism” that reformists such as the ISO promote. Certainly, class-struggle unionists must take up the fight against all forms of capitalist oppression. But in order to link up struggles of class-conscious workers with those of oppressed African Americans, Latinos and immigrants, to defend the rights of women, homosexuals and indigenous peoples, the vital element is a Leninist-Trotskyist party that acts as a tribune of the people, a champion of all the oppressed.

The main difference between the two texts on the AtS web site seems to be over the question if it is possible to transform the unions into instruments of struggle against capitalism, the first saying yes, the second saying no, and therefore one must build revolutionary cells to prepare for a “union rupture to build worker committees.” The “rupture” terminology is borrowed from the anarchists and anarchoids, who think that “independence” from and breaking with the unions is the ultimate in revolutionary chic. Workers committees and councils and similar forms of mass organizations encompassing even the most backward sections of the working people will only appear in a revolutionary or near-revolutionary situation, at which point the possibility of surpassing the limits of trade-unionism will be posed in reality. To pose building soviet-like councils under current, decidedly non-revolutionary conditions is a fantasy that will only aid the bourgeoisie. To refuse to defend the ILWU today can only aid the maritime bosses and grain-handling conglomerates.

Can we transform the unions into instruments of revolutionary struggle, as Trotsky called for? In some cases yes, in others no, but we should certainly seek to. The railway workers and teachers unions in Russia, representing labor aristocratic and petty-bourgeois layers, fought against the revolution even after the Bolsheviks had triumphed. But even in unions with a substantial presence of a labor aristocracy, like the ILWU, it is possible to achieve important gains (such as the union hiring hall) and to wage class struggle against the imperialist rulers in open defiance of their laws. Examples are the May Day 2008 ILWU West Coast strike against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the 1999 coastwide ILWU port shutdown in conjunction with a work stoppage by teachers in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil demanding freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal. Such struggles are not fortuitous, they are the result of determined efforts by a resolute minority fighting on a Marxist program, and in these cases the Internationalist Group played a role working together with union militants.

The IG has a good deal of experience of fighting for class struggle politics in the unions as well as among non-unionized workers. While we have had some successes, we have also experienced setbacks and have had to fight defensive struggles, confronting the sellout policies of the bureaucracy. Even having a correct program is no guarantee that a small revolutionary vanguard organization can change the course of the class struggle. But victories can be won. Recently, we have been actively involved in the successful struggle of immigrant workers at the Hot and Crusty bakery restaurant in New York who against all odds defeated a lockout and won a union contract with a union hiring hall. Currently we are actively participating in the strike by New York City school bus drivers, the most militant union struggle in New York since the 2005 NYC transit strike. This is what fighting for class-struggle unionism today means in the concrete.

Will there be a “rupture” or “mass split” in the unions? Perhaps, but this is a tactical and conjunctural question: it depends on the circumstances. The goal is not to have minority unions of the most combative sectors, which can weaken the workers movement as a whole, as has occurred in Brazil with the split of the left-led Conlutas tendency from the majority CUT union federation. So now the reformist leftists can be bureaucrats in their own unions – hardly a victory. (Our Brazilian comrades opposed the split, but are now an opposition in the Conlutas-affiliated Rio teachers union.) In other cases, such as the emergence of the CIO in the U.S. in the 1930s or the appearance of strike committees of mine workers independent of COSATU after the massacre at Marikana last August, a split is a necessary step to escape from the dead hand of a moribund union bureaucracy. In Mexico, where most labor organizations are in fact agencies of police control, it is vital to break the corporatist stranglehold and build unions independent of the capitalist state. But everywhere we fight on a class-struggle program against all forms of class collaboration, for independence from the capitalist state and for a revolutionary workers party, without which all historical experience teaches that there will be no revolution.

As a fighting Trotskyist prograganda group, the Internationalist Group seeks to build the nucleus of that party, and as such we are engaged in the struggles of the working class. We defend the unions against the capitalists and their state, while fighting within the existing mass organizations of the working class on a class-struggle program to oust the bureaucrats, break with the Democrats and build a workers party and open the road to a workers government. Out of this fight will come the worker cadres who will be key to actually carrying out a socialist revolution.

J.N.
for the Internationalist Group

13 February 2013

 

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21 responses to “On the Union Debate: The Internationalist Group’s Response to “The Problematic of the Union in the U.S” (1 & 2)

  1. JN wrote: “Both AtS texts start with the affirmation of the need to defend the unions against attacks by capital and the state, in contrast to the arguments of supporters of the Black Orchid Collective in the Pacific Northwest who have vociferously opposed calls for defense of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.”

    I am a member of the Black Orchid Collective in Seattle. BOC has never “vociferously opposed calls for defense of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.” Where are you getting this from? Please quote whatever statement from us that you think you hear this in.

    BOC has not put out a comprehensive collective position on unions in general. In our words and actions, we have aimed to oppose capitalist attacks on any group of workers, including union workers, while organizing independently of legalistic, white supremacist, patriarchal, and bureaucratic union frameworks that hold back struggle.

    I think we should oppose capital and the state in any of their forms – whether they govern by crushing the unions or whether they govern through the unions. In January, I wrote an article about the ongoing waterfront struggles, (http://blackorchidcollective.wordpress.com/2012/12/31/struggles-on-the-waterfront/); it included the following statement, which is the most recent statement any of us have put out on this issue. It hardly reads as a call to support capitalist attacks on the ILWU:

    “Since Black Orchid Collective was involved in last year’s Dec. 12th Port Shutdown and the solidarity mobilizations preparing to caravan to Longview, some people have asked us whether we are currently involved in supporting these ILWU contract struggles.

    We could see two possible reasons why working class folks who don’t work at the port, including us, might take action at the ports: 1) in solidarity with rank and file workers who are struggling there and 2) because the ports are public property and what happens there affects the entire working class; the goods we produce and consume ship through there. We got involved in the Longview solidarity actions last year for the first reason and we got invovled in the Dec. 12th port shutdown for the second reason. At this point, people in Seattle who don’t work at the port are not invovled in struggles there because 1) rank and file port workers have not asked for solidarity from us and 2) the organizing work that other folks and us are doing against deportations and state repression is not currently focused on the ports the way that Decolonize/ Occupy was last year.

    However, we recognize that all of this could change if 1) port workers take action and ask the rest of the working class to join them or 2) a social movement emerges in the rest of the class which once again orients toward the ports. These possibilities are related to each other; as the articles at the end of this piece argue, actions by port workers can inspire broader struggles, and broader struggles can also inspire actions by port workers. [the articles mentioned are by Pete Little from Occupy Portland and by Advance the Struggle – please see the link above for details]

    It is worth noting that post-Occupy networks of activists still exist in Seattle, Portland, the Bay, and Bellingham, and folks in Portland and the Bay have already been building support for port labor struggles. Activists in all four places are collaborating together around various working class struggles. So in general, although Occupy may have largely died out, the West Coast networks that were built around the Port Shutdown have not disappeared. If longshore workers wanted to reach out to these networks with the aim of collaborating to build a working-class wide struggle, they might be able to galvanize a movement across the West Coast or beyond.”

    • Mamos206 writes, “I think we should oppose capital and the state in any of their forms – whether they govern by crushing the unions or whether they govern through the unions.”

      A union (meaning the leadership and its membership) carries out statist logic to the extent that it materially supports the Democratic Party and imposes legalistic restrictions on struggle which are to the detriment of building workers power and cross sector class unity. This should be opposed. This is not inherent within the union as a form of organization. It is a political contradiction not a structural one.

      The limits of the union form as structure are related to the emphasis on a sole sector of the working class. We should push up against these limits and seek forms of organization whose content is the unity of proletarian sections and the breakdown of class divisions. This is not antithetical to intervening in unions, and it seems to me necessary to intervene in unions in order to do so.

      I bring all this up in response to your point that we should oppose the way that capital and state may “govern through unions.” The rest of your post (which is a quote from another post) does not clarify precisely how to do this. It needs to be done from within the unions, whenever and wherever possible, and from the outside of unions with independent organizations that have more fluidity in structure and content, mostly meaning that they are composed of various proletarian sections.

      If we see the ports as being public property, why not the organizations of various working class sections – aka, unions? Why aren’t these necessarily terrains of political contestation where unionized militants can fight for the interests of “the class as a whole” (concretely usually this means more than one section of the class) as well as spaces where non-unionized workers can intervene and demand solidarity? I think that they are, and I’m interested in what you think, Mamos.

      It seems to me that this perspective goes beyond the assertion that capital and the state govern through the unions, and materially situates this governance in the relation of the union bureaucracy and ideology of the members to the Democratic Party and to preserving itself as a section of the class rather than fighting for its sectoral interests as part of a broader class struggle. Teachers fighting for better working conditions as part of a struggle to transform schools into institutions that better serve student and community interests.

      Currently, I am involved in a defensive effort to fight austerity cuts to adult education and GED programs in the school district I teach in. These cuts indirectly impact teachers by decreasing the amount of english literacy that parents develop through free, public, programs in elementary schools. Parents have said they will struggle more with helping their children learn and do homework if these english and computer programs are cut. A group of us who are unionized classroom teachers are drafting a statement of support for these adult ed and GED teachers and calling on our fellow teachers to become part of an anti-austerity united front as part of challenging the state’s (aka, the school board’s) austerity program. We are using the union structure to build solidarity for this effort not out of some sense of “charity” or out of a desire to “scratch their backs so they scratch ours” but rather out of a desire for forging a broader class interest within the education sector. To the extent that the bureaucracy will attempt to limit our efforts at breaking teacher sectoralism and legalistic struggle, we will fight them. This to me seems different than saying that the union exists as a monolith that carries out the governance of capital and the state. Rather, the way we’re attempting to pose the problematic is as one of the union as contested terrain of class struggle.

      Not sure if you disagree, but wanted to clarify because I think that simply framing unions as potential mediators of class/state relations gives fuel to your critics.

      • Mara, these are good questions. I haven’t been able to respond sooner since I’ve been focused on organizing to expand the testing boycott up here in Seattle. I just wrote this 10 point proposal for teacher self-organization, which aims to build off some of the strengths of the boycott. It deals with how to relate to the teachers’ union and addresses many of the questions you’ve posed here. AS is welcome to republish it as a guest post if you’d like – my thoughts in it were definitely shaped in conversation with the debates on unions that you’ve been hosting here.

        Thanks for conducting such an open and public debate around proposals for strategy and action- this is exactly what our political tendency needs right now.

        http://creativitynotcontrol.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/in-the-wake-of-the-testing-boycott-a-10-point-proposal-for-teacher-self-organization/

      • Good luck with the struggle against the cuts. That sounds promising!

      • Mara said something that I think was very interesting and gets at many of the misunderstandings in the conversation (and at this point I would argue that there is more misunderstanding than disagreement in this conversation, since disagreement hinges on at least some shared objective understanding).

        She said, “A union (meaning the leadership and its membership) carries out statist logic to the extent that it materially supports the Democratic Party and imposes legalistic restrictions on struggle which are to the detriment of building workers power and cross sector class unity. This should be opposed. This is not inherent within the union as a form of organization. It is a political contradiction not a structural one.”

        I don’t think I agree with this, but before we get to that, can you explain what you mean by the structural and the political as a set of categories? I’ve heard of the ‘base/structural’ and ‘superstructure’ as a set, and the ‘economic’ and ‘political’ as a set. You seen to be collapsing these two sets into each other. Is that your intent, or are they at all distinct for you? Also, do you think the relationships within these sets and between them have changed at all with the different eras of capitalism, the changes in the mode of accumulation and division of labor?

        I ask this because I believe your comment is getting at the fundamental theoretical underpinnings of this discussion, which has been largely missing from this conversation. I’m writing an essay with another member of U&S that gets at this question, which will hopefully be available in a week’s time, but in the mean time, could you lay out your own thoughts?

        Thanks, and, again, I think you’ve hit on something very important here.

      • I agree with Mazin, I think this is the core of the debate. It would be helpful to define “structural” and “political”.

        In any case, any answer to the question of whether the problems with US unions today are “structural” or “political” should not be assumed, and needs to be proven – in a way, this is foundational to what we are debating. I think there is a lot of evidence that that the problems with US unions today have causes that run deeper than simply bad leadership tied to the Democratic Party, who naturalize anti-labor laws like Taft Hartley. Certainly this is part of it, but it leaves many questions unanswered: how and why did this leadership emerge? Why do rank and file workers not revolt against this leadership? Why are we not seeing the same kind of wildcat strike waves we saw in the mid-20th century?

        At a deeper level, it seems like we are not simply debating the union question here. We are talking about methodology: how do revolutionaries relate to workers struggles?

        I think we need to look at the various dialectical contradictions within workers’ struggles in general and in specific cases, not simply the rank and file vs. leadership contradiction. For example, in many struggles there is a contradiction between our attempt to sell our labor power at a higher rate (which a more militant fighting union might help us achieve) and our attempt to assert more collective creative power on the job (which even a more militant union might hold back to the extent that it continues to exist within a framework of bargaining over the price of labor power).

        Similarly, there are contradictions among various workers – between white workers and non-white workers, or documented vs. undocumented workers, or male and non-male workers, for example. In specific cases, unions may reinforce these hierarchies of race, gender, and nationality and hold back struggles against them. This is certainly the case with ILWU Local 19 here in Seattle. These are questions that will not easily be resolved with more militant leadership. I would argue that the leadership of ILUW Local 19 is actually probably to the Left of the Democratic Party and may be open to more progressive perspectives. But they are still sitting atop a structure that functions in many ways as a patronage network. If they tried to push for militant Leftist political perspectives and actions (e.g. militant anti-racist solidarity with immigrant port truckers), there is a real chance that they could be thrown out of office.

        What I’m trying to get at, is the rank and file vs. bureaucratic leadership contradiction IS important, but it is not the only one. In the mid-20th century, that contradiction often seemed to overlap with deeper contradictions, such as Black workers revolting against the white officialdom of the United Auto Workers (what they nicknamed “U Ain’t White”), or the assertion of collective creativity on the job, vs. the machine which was going on across the high tech production plants in the US and Europe. But just because those contradictions overlapped back then does not mean we should assume they are going to overlap now.

      • @Mamos & @Mazin:

        I will be responding to you both soon. Am very busy right now with my student’s half hour long exhibitions, interventions in the union, and building with students & non-unionized educators. But these debates are key ways of reflecting on our practice, and are important in terms of differentiating our politics from established trends (ultra-left, communization, trotskyism, etc).

        Quickly, though, on the “structural” and “political” categories: I think it’s actually pretty simple.

        By structural I was referring to something along the lines of what Martin Glaberman referred to as the social compact of the union. He writes, “Essentially it is an arrangement, some times formal, sometimes informal, by which the unions receive for their members wages, fringe benefits and so on, and in return give to the employer workers who work.”

        By political I was referring to the politics of the union’s leadership (bureaucracy) and of the rank and file. We might here think of “political” as referring to the agency of the individual involved in the union (both leadership and ranks) to make choices based on their theoretical/ideological frameworks. Though obviously there is a relationship (sometimes causal) between the structure of the union and the politics of the leadership/rank and file, these things are also relatively distinct and can have fluidity depending on politics of those who intervene in these formations.

        Do you all have different interpretations of this? Do you disagree with my use of these categories? Since Mazin emphasizes the need to understand categories, I’ll wait until I get a response on this post before I write substantively back.

        Looking forward to it.
        Mara

      • “In any case, any answer to the question of whether the problems with US unions today are “structural” or “political” should not be assumed, and needs to be proven – in a way, this is foundational to what we are debating. I think there is a lot of evidence that that the problems with US unions today have causes that run deeper than simply bad leadership tied to the Democratic Party, who naturalize anti-labor laws like Taft Hartley. Certainly this is part of it, but it leaves many questions unanswered: how and why did this leadership emerge? Why do rank and file workers not revolt against this leadership? Why are we not seeing the same kind of wildcat strike waves we saw in the mid-20th century?”

        I think mamos206 is heading in the right direction with these questions. If by structural we mean the objective purpose of the unions — which is to negotiate a higher price for the labor power of workers — we need to look at this in because the fact is that the objective terms for how and why unions do this has changed with the different eras of capitalism.

        I think this “bad” leadeship is an expression of these developing objective terms of the unions. Historical investigation into the hows and whys of the different forms of capital and class struggle are central to the Marxist method, and for the most part has been sorely lacking from this broader conversation. There has not been a distinction between the union form in general, in addition to the different historical expressions of the union form. Regardless, whether these new terms for the union form are explained through the concept of the “real subsumption” of working class forms of organization, or through the thesis of state-capitalism, the basic idea put forward is that the contemporary historical form of the union is a means to discipline labor and no longer expresses even any latent form the communist movement of the class, otherwise there would be no “problematic” of the union and we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

        In this way slogans such as “defend the union” and “the union bureaucracy is anti-union”, while maybe helpful in terms of popular agitation, are completely inadequate in defining the problem, and refining our methods and strategies. The slogan “defend the unions” for instance almost sounds as though we should defend the unions as they are, but I’m 90% sure that no one is arguing that. Similarly, “the union bureaucracy is anti-union” is also wrong because they are in fact structurally a part of the union and are even perceived to be so in the eyes of many workers. It does not get at the actual problem we’re trying to address.

        Further, the Trotskyist thesis of the “crisis of leadership” is, at the end of the day, a utopian and moral critique that does not cite the emergence of these “politics” or “leaders” in the objective developments of capital and the class composition. That has been the profound contribution the ultra-left has made with the theses of real subsumption and state-capitalism. So to say that this is only a political or subjective problem fails to present a Marxist problematic of the unions, which should be based on the objective developments of capital and class composition.

        What are these objective developments? I’m not aware of anyone in the U.S. being able to answer that in sufficient detail, but figuring that out is one task for our generation.

  2. I agree with the Internationalist Group that the key is class consciousness, not organization form, as I also said in my comment on the original piece (https://advancethestruggle.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/the-problematic-of-the-union-in-the-u-s-what-is-to-be-done/#comment-3026).

    While I’m coming from the perspective of a group (The League for the Revolutionary Party, lrp-cofi.org) that has many differences with the IG, much of the IG document I agree with. Some is not clear to me. For instance, they critique the second Advance the Struggle document for suggesting that “unions inevitably throw up a bureaucracy”, but the document from Trotsky they quote earlier notes that the unions grow together with state power and this is “intrinsic [and] derives from social conditions common for all unions”. Yes, there can also be a class conscious fight against the bureaucracy but if capitalism is not overthrown, the tendency toward an anti-worker bureaucracy is still there.

    However, I think the most immediate and clear disagreement I have is their approach to union reform groups. They give examples of some specific union reform groups and how they have failed. I think it’s clear I agree that unions cannot be reformed into providing an overall answer–socialist revolution is a practical necessity. But when they say that “they’re just vehicles for out-bureaucats to get in” that implies one could not ever support putting them to the test of office so that workers could learn through their own experience that a revolutionary perspective is necessary. This kind of strategy of giving ultimatums to those in struggle aligns with the IG’s refusal to fight for amnesty for undocumented workers or jailing killer cops as a limited and partial victory. Yes, neither is an “answer”–but those reforms could be steps toward improving the situation of various people and toward workers learning their own power and interests through struggle.

    This is not a position of supporting any and all union reform groups and requires analyzing a specific situation and whether electing such a group could provide a real means of learning through experience. Electing a mealy mouthed reform group with no real following or no record of militant action, for instance, has no real likelihood of learning from experience that more is needed. Whereas one of the specific groups they mention–TWU Local 100’s New Directions–did very clearly I think. This group did sue the unions–and the LRP always opposed it and openly criticized it for that (even in its election flyer for them)–but if such an act alone condemns a group forever to no support of any kind, I think that means placing our own understanding of society as an obstacle to other workers learning from their own experience of struggle. I certainly don’t think I’ve shown a case here why voting for New Directions was necessary–some of the links below address that but while I think it was shameful for so many self-professed socialist to uncritically support New Directions and help build it as the terrible leadership it proved to be, I also think revolutionaries cannot refuse to go through class based experiences with their fellow workers who are not yet convinced of the need for revolution (what I mean by “class based” is best exemplified by pointing to the negative: voting for the bosses’ party the Democrats is not a class based experience and as James Cannon said, I would stand on the “sidelines” and warn them that its poison but if workers in motion see some reformist grouping as a step forward, I think we want to help them learn from their own experience the limitations of that, not just lecture them, though the possiblities of that and how to do it are very context-dependent).

    See:
    http://www.lrp-cofi.org/PR/methodsPR63.html (article taking up why putting to the test of office certain reform groups in specific conditions while putting forward a revolutionary perspective)
    http://www.lrp-cofi.org/PR/leftTWUPR66.html (Takes up some IG criticisms of LRP work in transit)
    http://www.lrp-cofi.org/TWU100/TWUcampaign.html (leaflet calling for votes for a reform group and for our own independent candidate)
    http://www.lrp-cofi.org/PR/NYCTransitPR60.html (article with some background on our transit work)
    http://www.lrp-cofi.org/TWU100/RTW/ issues of our bulletin for transit

    • Thank you jason from the lrp. What political differences do you have with AtS document 1, and 2?

      If you can boil down your political difference with IG in a singular thesis, what position do you put forth in one sentence? (No insults)

      Javier

      • Hey Javier,
        To attempt to give one (but overly long) sentence in reply to the IG’s position on the unions as put forward here:
        To reject putting any and all union reform groups to the test of office so that workers can learn through their own experience the need for a revolutionary perspective makes revolutionary consciousness an obstacle to struggle rather than a guide to it and lines up with the IG’s opposition to fighting for other reforms that would be in the interests of the workers, such as card check election, jailing killer cops, and amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

        On the political differences with the AtS documents, it’s more a case of not being clear on some things. I agree with the IG’s questioning of “revolutionary cells” and what the content to that is, whereas an earlier post on AtS by El Chaco clearly put forward the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and the need for a “party.” It’s not a question of labels for me but what’s behind them–and I just wasn’t clear what the document meant for “revolutionary cells” to be or if how they would be linked up outside unions, etc..

        A kinda secondary issue is that I also think the IG is on to a weakness in terms of how AtS talks about the legal situation of unions in that it could be taken to imply that once the anti-labor laws were passed, that was it. I brought this up in a longer form on the post on Longview (https://advancethestruggle.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/longview-occupy-and-beyond-rank-and-file-and-the-89-unite/#comment-1555).

        Best,
        Jason

  3. I don’t want to diverge from the meat of this topic too much, because I think it’s important — but you mention the debate over the FNT materials on Kasama above. I think it’s a slight misportrayal, as there was hardly a unified Kasama critique about that and, in fact, far more Kasama members seemed to be disagreeing with Mike Ely than agreeing with him.

    I’ve also written a recent addendum to that debate that addresses some of the concerns you point out, as one of the Kasama members who IS trying to apply that abstraction to an on-the-ground practice:

    http://kasamaproject.org/threads/entry/abolishing-restauarants-more-on-the-agitation-debate

  4. I found much more to agree with in the IG response than I expected. I appreciate them replying, and AtS kicking off and hosting these discussions. My reply to IG is below.
    take care,
    Nate

    *

    I largely agree with IG’s assessment of recent struggles. I think when IG talk about the importance of violating the law, I agree but I want more and think that this is an importance place for further discussion and analysis: violate the law in this or that struggle. And then…?
    I agree with IG about reform caucuses as “just vehicles for out-bureaucats to get in.” To my mind then this poses the question of where and how to act within unions. IG are good on the issue of line, pushing solidarity and anticapitalism and so forth, but where to push these, via what channels within the unions? In my view, changing over unions officials is often quite a bit like voting in state elections – who wins elections matters, sort of, but the main changes we want won’t come from electing people in those elections. I’ve personally been quite impressed with the activities of radicals in the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, and their role in the recent Canada-wide strike and lock out. (There are quite a few articles related to all of this, here – http://recomposition.info/tag/cupw)

    When IG refer to “the elaborate web of legal restrictions woven by the bourgeoisie to contain workers’ struggles.”
    I think law is more than that, at least some of the time. Law is in part a set of ideas through which people express their grievances and aspirations. That is, law is partly ideological and part of its power in supporting capitalism and channeling workers’ struggles is more than the fact that it places limits on struggles.

    “focus on alternative organizational vehicles (…) misses the key point, that the failures and betrayals of key labor struggles are due at bottom not to union structures or capitalist laws, but to the lack of revolutionary leadership capable of overcoming those obstacles.”
    That strikes me as a false dichotomy. Structures and laws are part of *why* revolutionary leadership hasn’t developed as much and hasn’t been capable of overcoming those obstacles. Furthermore, what should revolutionary leadership seeking to overcome these obstacles actually do? I agree that “If they invent a new tactic, it will be outlawed tomorrow.” IG implicitly suggest that the role here for radicals is to prepare fellow workers for militant struggle, and they’re clear that the role is also to push forward big picture/fundamental political ideas and values among our class. That seems right to me.

    “complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state” is in part a matter of organizational vehicle. Also: how is use of the National Labor Relations Board for elections and unfair labor practices and use of arbitrators independence from the state? I don’t think it is. Laws penalize this independence, at least some of the time. (This is part of why a radical perspective within the labor movement matters, because at least some of the time there are rewards for not being independent of the state.)

    I agree that “If [new reformists] get into office they will be no more successful in winning” than old ones and that radical politics are not “just a matter of policy.” (I assume here that this is about state/government office. I think in many cases the same is true with offices in unions.) I also think the IG are right when they say or imply that radicals should not only advocate for militancy but also for a “revolutionary perspective [which] is sharply counterposed to the various union reform caucuses which do not challenge the capitalist framework.” Radicals need to help foster the spread of radical ideas and not just get together with “just about anyone that is for higher pay and doesn’t like the leadership” as IG put it. This is important in part because the time when policy *could* win gains for some working people (in the short term) under capitalism was in part a response by the capitalists and the state to workers’ militancy. The NLRA was explicitly written in order to avoid upsurges like those that happened in 1934. (And this happened earlier at the state level in response to strikes in the garment trades. I get into this history in this article – http://libcom.org/blog/“just-peaceful-labor-relations”-why-us-government-supported-collective-bargaining-11082012 ) As new upsurges of workers appear, we will see repressive responses but also responses that seek to co-opt workers’ struggles and direct them toward channels that don’t do as much to advance revolution.

    Radicals who mostly focus on short term victories under capitalism, as part of groups of “just about anyone that is for higher pay and doesn’t like the leadership” then we will be less prepared in those moments when the capitalists and the state offer higher pay and a different set of people to play the same old leadership role. (On this, the recent short book Fighting For Ourselves published by the Solidarity Federation has much to say, in its discussion of what it calls “the associational function” and “the representative function” of unions. I try to summarize those two ideas and discuss their importance in the second half of this book review – http://libcom.org/blog/another-review-fighting-ourselves-22102012 ) So, I agree completely that “to win any serious labor battle today, union leaders and members are going to have to defy draconian fines and be prepared to go to jail.” But, often in history when this has happened, there are both repressive and non-repressive responses and we need to be able to respond to both components. I expect that IG and I largely agree on this point but I think it’s not discussed particularly clearly in their reply, or in the original pieces by AtS. I also think that Jason Rising has an excellent point when he says “revolutionaries cannot refuse to go through class based experiences with their fellow workers who are not yet convinced of the need for revolution.” This is true, important, and well said. I would also add that workers violating the law in the ways in which IG talk about, such as the upsurges in the 1930s and the actions of members of the UE at Republic Windows and Doors, are often exactly these kinds of experiences. They are often “class based experiences” by “workers who are not yet convinced of the need for revolution.”

    I think IG are only partly right when they say that in 1934 “strikers refused to bow down (…) and that was why they won” and in rejecting “the idea that the CIO unions were built due to FDR’s New Deal.” What did the those workers win? That is not to discount the importance of those struggles, but rather to say that it’s important to discuss and analyze how workers in struggle define victory, and how that relates to how radicals define or should define victory. Part of the function of law in its less repressive forms, like the NLRA, is to influence *how* workers struggle. Repressive responses aim to *end* workers struggles. Both matter a great deal, but they’re different. It seems to me that part of the conditions for the CIO’s success, as well as its limits, was in the ways in which the laws had changed to permit some kinds of actions by workers and to limit some kinds of actions by capitalists. (The law governs not only workers but capitalists, in the interests of the capitalist class as whole – individual capitalists often fight like hell against this state imposition of capitalist class discipline, which can give the impression that laws are more radical than they real are. I get into some of the history and some theoretical points in a short article on this here – http://libcom.org/blog/workers-state-struggle-13122011) Furthermore, it’s not entirely accurate to say that “the capitalist ruling class has always sought to outlaw workers’ struggle.” The capitalist class and the state has always sought to *eliminate* workers’ struggles and barring that to make them as minimally disruptive as possible. There has not always been agreement among the capitalists and state personnel about how to best pursue this elimination or management of class struggle. Unsurprisingly, different personnel often tend to emphasize their specialties: police tend to think that clubs work best, liberal lawyers tend to think that sitting down at a table together works best, etc. (The articles of mine I linked to get into these points in more historical and theoretical detail.)

    I think the question of the origin of the labor bureaucracy, as well as the role of the bureaucracy in the unions, and issues of how to relate to the union bureaucracy now in practical ways, is very important stuff. IG are right to reject the view that unions must bureaucratize. (Here too the Solidarity Federation’s short book is very relevant.) But I think IG are wrong in their explanation here because it’s too partial. They say that “[t]he present labor bureaucracy was a result of a brutal “red purge” of mass expulsions of militant labor leaders in the late 1940s at the dawn of the anti-Soviet Cold War.” That was an important moment in the history of labor bureaucracy and the labor movement in the U.S. and I would like to read a longer account by IG of this moment and its historical significance as I think it would be very clarifying. Still, that moment may well be the origin of the *present* labor bureaucracy (though the point would need to be expanded on, given that this was a moment almost 70 years ago) but that’s not an explanation of why there are labor bureaucracies as such. That sort of explanation will require both theoretical and historical inquiry. I don’t have answer to “why did labor bureaucracies arise?” but I think that Solidarity Federation book and Gramsci’s discussion of unions are both important contributions. I also know that the CIO’s labor bureaucracy passed through the experiences of the 1910s and 1920s, including but not limited to Lewis’s role in the UMW prior to the CIO. It seems to me that understanding what happened in the 30s and 40s requires looking further back. (I think the article of mine I linked to that references struggles in the garment trades makes a small contribution to this issue but there is much more to be said.)

  5. Pingback: Weekend Roundup 02/23/13

  6. “What we found missing from the Kasama critique is a proposal for how to relate to the unions in a way that is communist.”

    Indeed, but, what you read was a comment on a flier. It was that comrade’s personal critique. I hope we can dig deeper into the real questions that AS comrades have raised in the future.

    • “Indeed, but, what you read was a comment on a flier. It was that comrade’s personal critique. I hope we can dig deeper into the real questions that AS comrades have raised in the future.”

      Could you outline Kasama’s approach to this question of unions?

      • Dear KASAMA:

        could you please define how you understand revolutionaries relationship with unions and Capital?

        You have only critiqued FNT and have proposed no solutions. Please offer a proposal. BOC and US are also working on proposals.

        Comradely,

        Javier

  7. I think it’s helpful to start with an acceptance of the fact that unions are not and can never be revolutionary organizations. That’s because they must be composed of the all the workers in a work place. In a sense, they are a united front around some very basic and limited ideas and goals — that all workers have to join together against the boss in order to improve wages and working conditions. This is not revolution. But does any serious socialist propose that we should oppose unions, or not be active in them?

    How is it any different in principle from, for instance, the old Civil Rights movement? There, black people were fighting for a right to eat at a lunch counter, ride on a bus, and vote in (bourgeois) elections. Would anybody say that since that is not revolutionary, therefore revolutionaries shouldn’t support and be involved in it?

    The main point is that, as Lenin put it, “life itself teaches” and the class struggle is the most important part of life. Anything that we can do to help and encourage workers to get more involved in the class struggle is a step forward.

    As far as participating in opposition caucuses – I think it strictly depends on the situation, including the time and energy it involves as well as other possible priorities. But if a union isn’t revolutionary, if other movements like the old civil rights movement aren’t revolutionary, then why does an opposition caucus have to be? The most important point of revolutionary politics, in my opinion, is to have a general sense of the direction the movement is headed – what path it will be forced down – and what are the next necessary steps. And then to be able to articulate that, not as simply rhetoric, but in a very concrete way.

  8. I would like to make one other comment. The Internationalist Group writes: ‘As Leon Trotsky wrote in the 1938 Transitional Program, “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.” That is as true today as it was three-quarters of a century ago.’

    I disagree. In the decades during which Trotsky was writing, in most of the industrialized world the working class had one or two or even more mass working class parties. Those parties had it within their capacity to seize power at the head of the working class. They failed to do so entirely due to the role of the leaderships of those parties.

    Today, things are very different. These mass parties have been decimated and in many cases have become or are on the way towards becoming capitalist parties, in my opinion. While illusions in capitalism are lower than ever in recent decades, yet the working class lacks a party that it can really call its own. I am not here referring to a revolutionary party, but just a mass party. The workers’ movement remains largely fragmented.

    I think this is one major mistake that we Marxists — revolutionary socialists – often make: To fail to recognize the qualitative difference between this epoch and the epoch to which we often turn to learn the lessons of history. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from those periods, but we have to understand the differences. The present period is a lot more similar to that in which Marx and Engels lived, in which the main task was to start to gather together the forces for socialism, rather than to simply combat the influence of the (false) leaders of the mass workers’ parties.

  9. Pingback: Union Debate: Unions a Lost Cause for Revolutionaries | Advance the Struggle

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