This piece is a reflection addressed to coworkers by a rank and file militant in the public sector after going through a negotiating process with the employer, East Bay Municipal Utilities District. This is a good example of how one should conduct themselves politically when engaging in struggle within the union form. Good demands, defiant approach, trying to link with other unions, extending interests beyond sector to be class-wide..
The negotiating team recognized that gains are not really won at the table–it is the conscious and organized intervention of the membership that gets results. Historically, working people have made the most gains when we have relied on our own strength which means mobilizing our members and linking up with other unions and the communities in which we live and work and a solidarity committee was set for this purpose.
To the extent that this type of intervention is part of a bigger project of building rank and rile organization, the union is being transformed from a bureaucratic mechanism that stifles struggle, to a proletarian vehicle connecting struggles. If there were 1000 militants like this one in strategic workplaces (factories, schools, hospitals, mass transit, etc) in any given metropolitan area, we would see that the whole field of struggle would be more favorable for the working class. We need workplace militants intervening within unions as well as building independent organizations, centralized democratically in a proletarian party with a clear program for uniting diverse struggles toward socialist revolution. Far too many radicals have lost interest in implanting themselves in workplaces as extensions of a radical party with a plan for unleashing and coordinating proletarian revolt, engaging within the worker organizations there, and advancing them in a militant direction. Militants like the author of the blog we link to only assist any effort to transcend the sectoral, rigid, conservative obstacle to class struggle that existing union leadership structures pose.
It goes without saying that the workplace is not the only valid site of struggle. We need to advance struggles and we need those struggles united. We need a new International to coordinate this across borders. Coming from a starting point of the unionized workplace, the perspective offered here sets the trajectory correctly to merge with proletarian movements originating elsewhere.
It should be obvious to anyone that the contractual bargaining aspect is just one part of the class struggle. Other posts will deal with worker agency beyond the bargaining table, and offer examples of militant leadership in the field of strikes. However it should be equally obvious that in normal conditions, workers sell ourselves for wages and that we must haggle with bosses to get the best deal we can out of capital. Some day after the revolution we will not have to do this. Until then, negotiating with the bosses and having those negotiations codified in a contract is going to be a part of the struggles we participate in. When in that position, this is one small example of how it should be done.
The author grasps the key issue facing those of us trying to rebuild the power of workers at the workplace in the US: “If there were 1000 militants like this one in strategic workplaces (factories, schools, hospitals, mass transit, etc) in any given metropolitan area, we would see that the whole field of struggle would be more favorable for the working class.”
The reality is that this layer– what the Marxist tradition referred to as the “militant minority” or REAL “workers’ vanguard” (not small, socially isolated sects distinguished by an abstractly ‘correct’ programs)– is very small, scattered and disorganized in the US today. This is the result of several factors: the (ultimately unsuccessful attempt) of the Communist Party to integrate its workplace militants into the labor officialdom as part of the Popular Front strategy and nearly 40 years of continuous defeats and the resulting demoralization of broad layers of workers and those elements who could have become a renewed militant minority. The real challenge for the revolutionary left today is how to integrate itself into the existing, albeit extremely weak, militant minority and build this layer into a force that can challenge– in PRACTICE– the labor bureaucracy. More detail on how that was done at East Bay Municipal Utility would be useful to the rest of us.
I think there is a simple answer to Charlie Post’s question about linking with the most militant workers; we must be the most vocal opponents to concessions and we put forward an alternative to concessions. But fighting the boss is relatively easy compared to the struggle within our own organizations, the trade unions, though we make sure that we take on the bosses and their policies first. But the struggle with the bureaucracy is complex. After all, these are “our guys”. But if we are serious about fighting for workers, this will bring us in to conflict with the trade union leadership, there is no way of avoiding this; it is a disaster to ignore them, act as if they don’t exist. Look what happened in the Longview struggle. The problem is that so many on the left do. They use all these radical sounding phrases in their ingrown and insular meetings yet through their role in the movement act as a left cover for the bureaucracy, refusing to openly challenge their policies. Groups like the ISO and Solidarity for example have positions in some Unions but a rank and file worker would be hard pressed to distinguish them from the right wing bureaucracy on most issues that matter.
How can we not come in to conflict with the leadership if we seriously fight for workers? The entire Labor leadership supports the Team Concept in all its manifestations, “workplace committees” “quality of life circles” etc. In the squabble between Sal Rosselli and SEIU for example what were the differences? Did Rosselli come out and slam the Team Concept which is at the root of the concessionary bargaining and support for the Democrats. It was about how to increase members/revenue and how to pressure the Democrats at the voting booth. Roselli should have been supported in that struggle by socialists but not uncritically, he was totally on board with the Team Concept at Kaiser urging his members to support it. . Because so many socialists don’t really orient to the rank and file although they use the terms a lot, they uncritically grasp any slightly different elements that arise in these spats within the bureaucracy.
We are strongest and most successful when we are independent both in the economic and political sphere. It took me perhaps 5 years to get my local to take the official position of no support for Democrats and for a Labor Party and for years Democrats couldn’t get an endorsement or money from us. To get to that point I would simply vote no when they came to us for support and explain why we needed to run independent candidates based on the unions and workers organizations in general. At first I lost the vote, each time my views gained strength. I introduced resolutions on various issues especially political independence but I raised them first in my immediate workplace, then the local where we would debate them and vote on them and then the local would introduce it to higher bodies. The support for them didn’t occur overnight. There is a socialist in the San Francisco labor council, in fact he is in the executive board. He introduces lots of resolutions that leftists would support, but the bureaucracy pretty mush supports them also because they in no way point to their role or place any demands on them. And I have never seen them originate from his workplace meaning the local of which he’s a delegate. I’ll bet his members don’t even know he’s a delegate. Many socialists use the movement to give them credibility and a credential sadly. The rank and file are the folks in your workplace and your local, not at the higher bodies.
As I took this approach, co-workers would then ask questions and other issues come up. I look back at that period and my life day in day out was discussing different issues on the job. Resolutions and demands are important organizing tools because they force debate and ideas to come out in to the open; this is how we fight the leadership by openly putting forward what workers need and how we can win it. The leadership will be forced to attack those with this approach as it threatens the relationship they have built with the boss around Labor peace. The best workers will be drawn to it and this is the process through which we can build fighting caucuses within the Unions that have a program and strategy that challenges capital, confronts their offensive with an offensive of our own. This process clarifies issues for the ranks, pushed established leaders to the left, and is how a more militant leadership can take place of the old. Those lefts that refuse to fight the bureaucracy generally build caucuses around the issue of Union democracy. Who opposes that, the bureaucracy won’t. And it’s hard to draw workers in to struggle, away from the pressures and stresses of everyday life around democracy in the abstract. When a bureaucratic leadership produces the goods, the members will not likely revolt over the lack of democratic rights at the hall.
When I became a delegate to the Alameda Central Labor council I was for years the only delegate that voted against the Committee on Political Action (COPE) endorsements who were always Democrats. There were numerous socialist delegates from different groups who in their “revolutionary” meetings outside of the movement argued against supporting Democrats or wrote in their papers that “the unions should” break from them. But they always were silent when support came up at the CLC. “Unions” includes members and leaders and they are not the same. When we are not in a position to lead, when we are subjectively weak, we place demands on those who can lead, who have the power to lead if they choose to. This is a way of helping the ranks see where the obstacle lies and is part of the process of pushing the leadership to act while building an alternative leadership on a fighting program. By staying silent or making excuses for not openly confronting the leadership’s disastrous policies, we let them off the hook, they don’t have to defend their ideas.’
My famous example is this; before the UFCW international leadership abandoned Local P9’s heroic struggle against the Hormel corp. in the eighties. All the delegates to the Alameda CLC were the staunchest supporters (superficially anyway) of Local p9. When I say supporters I mean by adopting families, sending money etc. But once the UFCW international leadership abandoned them, the young workers who were coming around the country seeking help were treated like pariahs. In the CLC I tried to get a striker to speak and at first they wouldn’t even let him in. I fought to let him in but they wouldn’t let him speak. I made a motion to let him speak and they overruled it. They do this by “referring to the executive board” a motion that is not debated if my memory serves me right. When they did that there were numerous communists and socialists in the room. They sat there like bumps on a log, said nothing. David Bacon was one of them. He was a delegate through the generosity of the Molders Union BA, Ignacio De La Fuente. Bacon had never been a molder in his life; he never said one word to support US workers as he had a comfy position around an anti-apartheid group with Democratic politician John George. Calling for justice for workers all around the world is safe and doesn’t bring them in to conflict with the bureaucracy like fighting for workers at home would. (I want to stress that I believe in international solidarity, but we want US workers to have solidarity with workers oversees, not union officials. The Bay Area labor movement would have been very much different if all those that considered themselves lefts or anti-capitalist of sorts fought openly for a different program and strategy than the leadership’s but most of them were never elected anyway, they were appointed.
The argument against speaking out
A Trotskyist I was talking to during the student movement two years ago a Phd student and academic no less. (Was it Solzehynitsin or Debs who wrote “education doesn’t make you smarter?” I can’t remember)) argued that there was no point in arguing with the bureaucracy, of having a war with them over their policies when the members aren’t there. When the members turn up, this person maintained, then socialists/militants will be thrust to the shoulders of the ranks to lead the struggle. But this is a false strategy and if I were to be honest, a cowardly one. It’s like racism. It’s easier to be vocal in opposition to it when there’s a large number of its victims present and many opportunists will do that; it’s more important when they’re not there. The other aspect of standing your ground and arguing the alternative offensive strategy and demands is that it holds our feet to the fire. We are a minority in hostile territory and we have to keep ourselves grounded. And the relationship between the ranks and the leadership is a complex one, workers don’t just flock to an untested leadership or individual just because they read “What is to be Done”.
Another socialist mentioned to me the other day that he didn’t go to his Union meetings because the workers that attend are all looking for jobs in the bureaucracy or management. I don’t accept this. Not only that, life is fluid. By standing out as a genuine fighter with a real alternative it changes the dynamic. There will be those workers there who move to the left seeing an alternative and don’t fool yourself in to thinking the troops don’t hear about you. The bureaucracy will slander you for one and the best workers will want to know who you are. It’s somewhat different in a small local where many of the leadership might be decent folks but completely lost which is why we do not wage a personal war against the leadership. We argue for the alternative and force them out in to the open, their ideas that is. No leader says concessions are a good thing and they’re proud to be a champion of them; it is their support of capitalism and the market that forces them to keep the members at bay who naturally resist attacks on their material well being. Even today, with all the defeats over the years, there is no organization with more potential power than organized Labor outside of the state and its appendages. And while my views have changed somewhat as to where the movement will arise from first, organized labor will be convulsed by it. The bureaucracy is not stupid; it has power. Look what happened in the Longview struggle, they put a stop to that and many a so-called militant got their fingers burned.
So for me, we have to build a base in our workplace and local union first fighting for the basic needs and introducing other issues; we have to build caucuses that actually fight for real things not simply “union democracy”. At EBMUD, we worked in very depressed areas. So we always in negotiations had demands for our communities. I always made the point that if we don’t show at the very least when we negotiate with our boss, we want more jobs for people in the community the bosses will use the community against us. So many “revolutionaries” orient to the left bureaucracy and have no base among the ranks which will enable them to fight the right wing bureaucracy that controls the trade union apparatus. If you have a base they have to deal with you and it’s harder for them to be rid of you. In my yard we had a committee at one time, the Central Area Committee that dealt with issues independently of the boss. We’d have meetings at Raymondi park up the road and make decisions about what to do. (Central yard ended up being called the “soviet” an advance from the “pharmacy” that we were sometimes called in the past.)
I am sorry to go on for so long but I would like to say this. After a while there were four of us. Me, a black guy from East Oakland whose dad had a church and he performed music there for services, another guy, a Puerto Rican/irish American who was also from a Christian background, and a women who was from a left background having, as so many of us do, terrible experiences with them. I point this out because the two brothers never considered themselves socialists or revolutionaries like me and the female comrade did, and perhaps they weren’t. But they were great fighters for workers’ rights, hard men, and would have been at the barricades when many so-called revolutionaries would have abandoned them in my opinion. We were very successful for some time. I should add also that myself and the sister were members of a socialist group which in my opinion was the only organization that I met that taught me how to argue for socialism in the workplace while we fight for reforms at the same time. It is through the struggle for reforms that we learn and draw conclusions about the world, more rapidly with the help of genuine revolutionary socialists. The main thing is though, that our strength at work lies with our co-workers, so does our influence in the Union. We cannot substitute outsiders for this power although we want to unite with them, we have to organize it, develop it and use it when the time comes.
I would like to comment on a discussion/debate that I understand is happening amongst some comrades on the revolutionary left: That is the debate on whether or not to participate in and struggle within the existing mainstream unions. Opponents of this point out that these unions exist mainly to reform capitalism, and our goal is to overthrow it. They also point to the general failure of rank and file leftists to really change their unions in recent decades.
However, what I think they don’t consider is that in general the left has not exactly had massive success in affecting any aspect of political life in the US. This is partly due to mistakes made by the left (in my opinion), but more so due to the objective situation. First and foremost has been the mood and consciousness of the great majority within the working class. This mood and consciousness has been shaped by the major developments of the last 70 years in the main. It will take major shocks to fully transform that mood and consciousness.
As for the unions and what they represent: The main point is not how we revolutionaries — who are a tiny minority — view the unions; the main point is how the mass of workers view them. It’s true that the great majority of workers, even union members, don’t think about the unions very much nowadays. But they think about the left groups far, far less. And whenever a group of union workers wants to struggle, they tend to turn to their union. In fact, when a group of non-union workers moves to struggle, the leadership of one or another of the mainstream unions tends to intervene and play a major role (for better or for worse).
At the very least, I don’t see at times of an upturn – say when a new contract is due – I find it hard to see how serious revolutionaries can ignore what is happening inside their union. After all, we all should intervene where we are, first and foremost.
As far as our daily political work, I think that’s mainly a tactical/strategic decision. In some situations, there can be absolutely nothing going on inside the union, but a lot happening outside it – in some environmental or community struggle for instance. It might make sense then to place more of a priority on that work in that situation. However, I think overall that revolutionaries who are union members in general should at least have some sort of level of involvement in their unions. After all, that is a key place where all the struggles against reformism and opportunism come to the fore. If for no other reason than for our own training and experience in dealing with those forces and the consciousness that it rests on, that makes it important.