Union Debate: Mara Responds to Jocelyn and James

Below is a piece by Mara, a member of Advance the Struggle, in response to Jocelyn Cohn, of Unity and Struggle, and James Frey’s piece, Our Friends with Benefits: On the Union Question.”  This is another very serious contribution to the ongoing debate that has unfolded on this blog.  Considering the critical struggles currently occurring, we’d like to further encourage other groupings and individuals to put forward clear positions on how revolutionaries should relate to the unions in this historical moment.  Let’s continue this principled and thought provoking debate!


What I appreciate about this piece is it’s aim of historicizing the situation of unions today as being incarcerated within the logic of capital accumulation (keeping a set of workers working for capitalists; keeping workers divided against one another in competition over wages and benefits to the benefit of the capitalists) and state hegemony (restricting worker agency through bourgeois law, keeping workers organized in a legalistic and hierarchical manner that negates changes possible local by local).

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

However, I’ve read analysis like this before. There’s a whole reading list on Libcom that also features excellent analysis of such historical incorporations of unions under the wings of the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois state. You can find that reader here.

What’s lacking in this piece is a serious engagement with the following question: Do we think that healthcare, education and transportation are important industries for revolutionaries to engage in? If so (and by no means do I think that there is agreement by the authors on this point), then how do we propose to organize alongside these workers (or as these workers for those of us who work in these industries) without interventions in the union? Our debate is back to square one, and revolutionaries from Latin America who we’ve talked to about these debates will continue to have puzzled faces and ask, “is this really what you all are debating? it seems very low-level”

The original positing of the question: how should revolutionaries relate to unions? was not stating, “Unionized workers are the most revolutionary.” Rather, as I understand it, it was saying – once you’re in a union, or once you have contact with unionized workers, what is to be done? This is the question that still needs to be answered, in my opinion, both by looking at the history of revolutionaries attempting to do so and by investigating current efforts to intervene within unionized workplaces.

The authors of the document make some statements about what revolutionaries should do in unionized workplaces. They write, “the role of revolutionaries is to develop themselves in the class to seize on contradictions and expand them to a level where control of political power can be grasped by the working class . . . Our role is not to celebrate every move that allows for the harmonious march of capitalism for one more day . . . ”

This is confusing to me. For instance, if I were a teacher in Chicago a year ago – should I have not built for and participated in the teacher strike that happened? While the strike itself did indeed negotiate a shitty contract that capitulated to the bosses definition of teacher evaluation, the strike also started to break through the decades long hangover from Ocean Hill/Brownsville by demonstrating an example of teacher-parent solidarity. Was this the end all be all of such solidarity? Of course not. Was it important in ways that go beyond the “harmonious march of capitalism”? I think so, and I think to disagree means to not be honest since it would mean ignoring years of parent/teacher struggle against school closures and other forms of neoliberal capitalist attack that happened before the CTU strike and helped generate the politicized social relations between sectors in the education community.

With that said, of course there are severe limitations to such a strike. Most specifically, the limitation of the trade union form which was not surpassed through the course of the strike. The authors of this document would likely state that the limitations of the trade-union form were not surpassed because it was a trade union struggle, so the nature of the strike was determined by the form of organization that birthed it. This seems overly deterministic and fatalistic, and if I’m wrong in speculating about their position I hope to be corrected.

The question still remains: if we don’t think that strikes organized by unionized workers are doomed (aka, automatically determined) to “carry on the harmonious march of capitalism” then that means that there must be something that we can do to intervene and take them off the path of recuperation. In my opinion, one key thing that Chicago teachers could have done (and perhaps some tried to do) was to incorporate the anti-school closure movement and perspective into their struggle in such a way that it would be an equal if not more important component of their strike. This would begin a process of expanding the struggle beyond one particular set of workers to incorporate others in ways that are not simply building solidarity for one set of workers, but rather forging a broader and more “classwide” struggle out of the contradictions of the formerly teacher-centered struggle. (You can simply google “chicago school closings” to see articles on current school shutdowns in CPS). The organizational implications of this broadening of the struggle include the emergence of “classwide” organizations that are independent of the union though composed of members from it. Wouldn’t this be an example of seizing on the contradictions and expanding them? Wouldn’t participation in the strike put us in a position to do so just as much as it puts us in a position to potentially do the wrong thing and continue the “harmonious march of capitalism.”? Aren’t, at least, both possibilities inherent in any given moment?

Don Hammerquist writes about the overlapping possibilities in one of the workplace papers. He writes,

Developments within the unions that make them into organizations more capable and willing to fight for the reform interests of the workers, including fighting for these demands which have been initially raised by independent organizations, are in the interests of the class and all of its organizations, even if we are deprived of an opportunity to teach cheap “revolutionary” lessons.” He continues, “Under such conditions — where the unions are being revitalized and the work of the communists to develop the council character of the independent or- ganizations is only one tendency at work within these organizations — it is not likely that independent or- ganizations and trade unions will exist as clear dual structures. Specifically, there will be a tendency for independent organizations to become unions in situa- tions where the existing unions are not responsive, and for an overlap in constituency, program, and perhaps even in membership, between independent organizations and inner-union caucuses in situations where the unions are more viable.

I won’t argue that unions are becoming more militant at this particular moment. Rather, they are generally continuing with the dominant trend of class collaboration – working as a “team” with management. However, what I appreciate about Don’s writings from way back when is that it is looking at all side of the contradiction between what we as revolutionaries want – classwide councils that take the class as a collective subject rather than a fractured and self-interested set of individual sections – and what unions are – by definition sectoral organizations that seek to maintain the working conditions of a section of workers, as opposed to workers as a whole. Examining the Chicago example, among others, in this light helps us to imagine what our interventions within unionized workplaces and struggles might look like as we seek to expand them beyond their limitations.


However, the authors of this article are unclear about strategy for intervening in such strikes, struggles, and unionized workplaces in general. While they end their article stating that they may at times have pro-union pickets, while at other times picketing against unions, what I see as the essence of their argument for intervention is that of direct action at the workplace and an emphasis on more oppressed and exploited workers must take precedence over all else when organizing in unionized shops. I don’t disagree that these should be our focus, but I do disagree with the seeming ambivalence about how to do this in relation to the existing union struggle. Neglecting to flesh this out, either by examining current organizing we’re doing or by thinking through potentialities of past/recent struggles keeps us at a level of abstraction and determinism that doesn’t seem entirely useful.

To keep it brief and abstract (but building off the Chicago teacher strike discussion above): I disagree with the author to the extent to which they divorce independent workplace organizing [that is, the building of committees with workers from various sectors of levels of the workplace and industry] from interventions within trade unions. This false dichotomy means that we give up the terrain of the union as a contested site of struggle, and this giving up is justified by an analysis of history and theory which situates unions neatly within the reproduction of capital and the state, rather than acknowledging trade union incorporation while also seeing that there is room for agency within some unions. This agency could be expressed through organizing the members of the union to take on classwide struggles (against school closures and austerity in the case of teachers), but in order to do so we must see this as potentially possible.

I want to appreciate the writers for their contribution to the debate. While I disagree with its overly-deterministic and reductionist political conclusions, I do agree with important aspects of its structural analysis. We need to use such an analysis to build classwide struggle among both unionized and un-unionized workers. Both are central to our struggle, and I’m hesitant to label one or the other as “more important.” The tendency to favor intervention among the “more oppressed” seems correct to me, but we must do so with an orientation toward breaking down class-divisions between the more oppressed and the more privileged (aka the more organized by unions, often). The thought-experiment around Chicago is one example of this, and the current work being done among teachers, parents and un-unionized teachers in Oakland which I’ve posted about before is another. The challenges are hella real, but how are we going to seize upon them and Judo them toward our advantage if we don’t get our hands messy and intervene?

19 responses to “Union Debate: Mara Responds to Jocelyn and James

  1. “What’s lacking in this piece is a serious engagement with the following question: Do we think that healthcare, education and transportation are important industries for revolutionaries to engage in? If so (and by no means do I think that there is agreement by the authors on this point), then how do we propose to organize alongside these workers (or as these workers for those of us who work in these industries) without interventions in the union? Our debate is back to square one,”

    This is a good intervention, and I have similar questions for Jocelyn and James, such as, while their piece has a lot of interesting things to say about precarious workers, what about industrial workers? I will say, however, that, like Jocelyn and James, we can only defend intervention with those types of workers if we are able to provide an analysis of their conditions and potentials on par with what Jocelyn and James have provided. So far, no one has done that.

    As the preface to the repost of “Our Friends with Benefits” notes, what’s refreshing about their essay is that it really starts to answer the question of the “problematic” of unions through an objective assessment of the historical development and contemporary forms of capital, in addition to asking about divisions within the working class.

    The latter, however, is what has been sorely lacking from this discussion. From what I can tell only Jocelyn and James and the International Group have clearly explained what they believe to be the problematic of the unions, and then rooted their strategies in those problems. I haven’t really been opposed to too much of any of the strategies proposed, but I don’t think the conversation has developed sufficiently to really debate those yet because, again, the “problematic” has yet to be clearly defined (with the exceptions of J&J and IG). The first two pieces that kicked off this discussion sort of jumped from a broad historical overview of how unions have developed and then jumped to proposing strategies, without clearly and categorically explaining what they believe is the actual “problematic.”

    Mara, you and I began discussing this on another post. You described the problematic as a “political” problem. This needs to be elaborated in a major way, and I think what is necessary is for everyone else to also return to answering that question, and put their proposals for strategic intervention on hold, at least for now. Strategies can only develop from what we believe is an objective assessment of the problems and obstacles.

    • Mazin, I wrote this a few days ago in response to queries about the political and structural characterization of unions. Haven’t seen a response yet, so I’ll re-post it here.

      @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.

      • I agree with Mara’s definitions of “structural” and “political” limitations of unions, and using those definitions, I think the problematic of unions today is structural for the reasons Cohn and Fey lay out. How it is structural needs to be analyzed further. I agree with Icarus on the other thread: this is a weakness of AS’s pieces so far (with the possible exception of the longer piece analyzing automation on the waterfront and how the ILWU has changed over time). AS has not explained deeply enough how unions have shifted in the past 50 years and why. When they have, the explanations seem to be primarily political, not structural.

        I don’t know if this is a deeper methodological difference (focusing on politics, leadership, etc. in ways that remind me of Trostkyism) or if AS is simply arguing that there are deeper structural factors but that in the specific case of US unions the political factors predominate for various reasons. It would be great if AS folks could clarify this point, I think it would help move the discussion forward. In any case, I agree with commentators who have said that our strategic positions need to be grounded in an updated class composition analysis of the current proletariat in motion, or we risk getting stuck in defensive struggles, missing more vibrant potentials of class struggles that might erupt in unexpected, unrecognizable ways.

        Cohn and Fey contribute to this by offering a brilliant class composition analysis of the casualization of labor and how this affects broad sections of the class. Based on this evidence, they make a convincing case for why unions will not offer any meaningful future for various layers of the class that BOC identified as the “89%”. I am a bit wary that readers might interpret this in ways that glorify or romanticize the precariat, assuming they will automatically be more militant than union members – comrades critiqued our BOC piece for allegedly doing the same thing, even though I don’t think that was our intention (many of us live and work as the precariat and know it is not always sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns impaling police officers ;). However, the basic point that both BOC and Fey and Cohn make still bears repeating – however we choose to intervene in union struggles, our interventions absolutely should not compromise or limit the struggles of the nonunionzed proletariat. In other words, as a comrade put it the night we were physically assaulted by ILWU bureacrats at the union hall – “solidarity must be a two way street.” This is the basic point that was put into practice with the barricade at the Seattle port last year – whatever we may think of unions and the need for solidarity with union workers, their struggles are not the only important ones, and movements like Decolonize/ Occupy, when they start to take on a proletarian militant character, need to expand and grow based on their own trajectory, overcoming their own contradictions, and should not be channeled into militant trade union solidarity work alone.

        However, AS is right in pointing out that all of this still does not leave us with an adequate understanding of what to do when it comes to struggles in unionized industries. I agree with Mara on this point – those of us who are working in these industries can’t just keep doing solidarity work with nonunionized layers for the rest of our lives – if we do, we are forfeiting our responsibility to organize our coworkers to come out to these actions, and opening up the possibility that they will organize themselves, or the union leadership will organize them, to smash these actions – and us. If we want to organize in our own industries, we need to wrestle with the union question.

        I agree that lot more of this type of class composition analysis needs to be done regarding the remaining workers who haven’t yet been automated out of unionized industrial and transportation industries such as longshore – and, mass social reproduction industries like education and health care which still have unions for large portions of their workers. Someone from AS wrote (I think in the longer ILWU piece), that automation doesn’t necessarily destroy the possibility of worker militancy, because the remaining workers have amplified power since a few of them can shut down a vast automated system. Look at the role that hackers have played, for example. Of course, they only have this power when they act together when they are willing to break the law, and when they are connected to some sort of larger proletarian struggle so that the rest of the class doesn’t call for their heads when daily life is disrupted as a result.

        Moreover, it would be powerful to link these analyses of precarious workers, industrial workers, and reproductive workers, which would allow us to envision something that goes beyond the “twin pitfalls” of a workerist fascination with industrial workers on the one hand and the Bay of Rage position of storming industrial facilitates entirely from the outside on the other. That would also allow us to avoid what Mara called a “rush to the center” where we oppose these twin pitfalls but fail to offer any real alternative in practice.

        This is the sort of point I hear Jomo making in recent pieces where she’s pointed out the port shutdown was not just a “surplus population” as both AS and Bay of Rage suggested at various points in the debates last year – it was actually an embryonic coming together of people from these different layers. It started to create new affinities of working class militancy that don’t look anything like older versions of working class identity, but are by no means separate from the class.

        What would it look like to have a class-wide struggle that replicates this at a larger scale, mobilizing the class as a whole, or significant cross- sections of it, around picketing, blockading, and eventually occupying the means of life -the means of social reproduction, transportation, and eventually production? For example, what would it look like to unite restaurant workers, grain elevator operators, farmers, warehouse workers, etc. in a common struggle around access to healthy food for everyone? A comrade and I have been slowly working on an analysis and strategic proposal along these lines. With ecological and economic crises on the horizon, these kinds of questions could become ones of urgent strategy and tactics. This comrade, who works in transportation said about the port shutdown: “any mass action which gives more workers in the city the chance to draw a map in their heads of where the means of production railroads, ports, etc. are at is a success They’ll have that map ready for the next round of struggle ” . There is some truth to this – class composition analysis and strategy, theory and practice can come together around these kinds of approaches. This also can challenge the capitalists and the union’s claims to be the only ones capable of taking action in these vast sprawling apparatuses of dead labor.

        This is where AS’s trajectory of theory and practice is promising – it is pushing us to think about strategies for classwide organizing and how to relate these to specific struggles in specific workplaces, e.g. in industries that are unionized. I agree with Mara and Icaraus, this strategic focus is missing from Cohn and Fey’s piece. I don’t think anyone is debating the U/S comrades when they point out that we do not yet have an adequate class composition analysis of the 2013 proletariat in motion. I agree, and this is absolutely crucial. But in the meantime, while we are working it out, for those of us who work in unionized industries, our perspective cannot simply be “let’s wait and see” and it also can’t simply be ad-hoc interventions on a case by case basis. This is not sustainable – it will be hard to build any type of independent workers’ committee oriented toward direct action without a clearer strategic perspective around how to relate to unions, something like a 2013 update of STO’s workplace papers. Without a clearer strategy, we’ll end up getting pulled into union caucusing, or isolated from struggles and burnt out, or repressed and pushed out of the industry. Or, what’s worse, we will talk about prioritizing struggles of the most oppressed layers of the class, but we won’t be able to do it in practice, leading to our organizations imploding over race, gender, nationality, and caste crises.

        To be clear, this is not a critique of U/S as an organization, just of Fey and Cohn’s piece I’m sure that Fey, Cohn, and other comrades in U/S probably have some sharp insights applying the kinds of analysis on the Fey and Cohn piece to struggles they are engaged in or various struggles emerging in the US an around the globe. I’m looking forward to hearing those, as well as AS’s takes on some of the class composition points that the U/S comrades are raising.

  2. * woops… meant to write, “The ***former*** however, is what has been sorely lacking…”

  3. Glad for this conversation…..although personally I find demands to pull back from concrete strategic questions to make a clear explication of “method” or “problematic” to be frustrating. Ironically, I guess it’s a methodological difference, specifically that differences in method are not unearthed and investigated through discussions of method, but rather through discussions of intervention and strategy. Only when the rubber (marxist method) meets the road (intervention in mass struggles) does method really become clear, and often the people posturing the most about their focus on method come out with basic methodological problems (tailing the workers, ultra-leftism, unprincipled maneuvering, class reductionism, demand-centrism, fetishization of formal structures). I have personally participated in this problem, so I ain’t above it. But anyway, what I’m really saying is that I wish people would say their disagreements with the concrete questions/lines (to work within unions or not? Why? how shall the management of the class struggle be broken?), show their different/superior method during that conversation, and maybe add a little direct methodological critique (something more than saying “there’s no method here!”) But wishing won’t make a revolution, so I’ll get over it and engage the politics.

    On the political vs. structural problems, IMO there are both kinds, in specifically this historical moment (as opposed to the basic contradictions inherent to the union-form under capitalism, which form the basis of “Our Friends with Benefits”):

    political problem: union members view union as service institution, leadership collaborating with management and Democrats

    structural problem: US labor law illegalizes basically all effective labor tactics, completed by the general no-strike clauses signed by collaborationist union leaderships (and often with no opposition from rank-and-file)

    The main questions are: how do we see these things resolving? What objective processes will lead to pressure on them, and what openings (if any) will revolutionaries have for influencing mass action? And which way should we go in these moments of ruptural opening? The Longview struggle was one such rupture, for Local 21 specifically.

    I wrote some basic thoughts on this subject, attempting to represent a more specific set of questions than the ones being broadly debated throughout the last few weeks (IMO often becoming so broad/methodological as to be hopelessly vague). Here’s the link:


    To Mamos’s question of whether AS thinks the problem with unions is primarily political or structural, I think that’s a good question, and I agree that one of the main things that makes us/me not Trotskyists is disagreement with the simple line that “the union has bad leadership” to encapsulate the explanation for the comatose state of the labor movement in the US. As I say in my article/notes linked above, this question centers on the specific methods, generally legal, that the US state has used to integrate and defang unions EVEN BEYOND their inherent sectoral character or reformist leadership. These methods are primarily legal, and so all-encompassing that unions are in a Catch 22 now: they will be destroyed by capital if they don’t fight and win, but their legal structure will be destroyed by the state if they DO fight to win. This fundamental (but historical) strategic contradiction should be the centerpiece of our approach towards unions, understanding the need to push the unions structure towards this apocalyptic conflict with capital and the state, out of which new extralegal mass unions can be born. Nate makes some good points in a comment on that post, both about my superficial understanding of the CIO, and about the support for this thesis on the part of social democrats (not something that I think discredits it, simply points to the fact that it’s not an all-encompassing revolutionary strategy.)

    For the record, I think there are unions so integrated into the capital management structure that it is literally impossible to gain purchase within the structure, and almost all workers relate to the union as management anyway. In these situations, dual unionism is the only way to go, and anything else is reformism. The UAW may be an example of this (I don’t really know, just hear a lot about it.) The ILWU is IMO clearly NOT an example of this, and I would say neither are the CNA or even SEIU. Ultimately though these are concrete questions of detailed structure and balance of forces, not fundamental political principles…….of course we should have fundamental political principles, but they are not sufficient to constitute an effective strategy for mass communist resurgence.

  4. @The Fish: You’re first paragraph seemed to turn my original comment on this thread into a straw man zealot that rants and raves about methodological purity without any regard for concrete organizing. That’s unfortunate.

    I agree that we need actualize method in concrete tactics. My comment doesn’t oppose that. I’m just trying to say two things. First, if we don’t know what the problem is, then how can we presume to fix it. So I want a clearer statement of the problem. There hasn’t been too much of that. Second, it’s unclear what concrete tactics mean in the blogosphere when the principles are not elaborated. Without this, concrete tactics can become completely empirical. I’m not saying that methods are sufficient while strategy and tactics are not, or vice versa. We have to develop both and presumably that is what we are trying to do on the blogs and in our concrete work in our respective cities.

    • @The Fish: I agree with Mazin, I think you are straw manning our arguments here. My post was an argument for figuring out method and strategy at the same time. I proposed a specific approach for how to do that – class-wide direct action struggle around industrial infrastructural that includes and relates to workers in these industrial jobs but does not subordinate the overall struggle to their immediate union struggles. A concrete example of this would be the D12 port shutdown. I understand this is vague – it is not intentionally vague, I just have not had a chance yet to flesh it out, but I will. Also, I think that a lot of these methodological debates happen because what many of us are thinking is ‘we have very limited forces, and given those limited forces, which sectors of the class does it make sense to prioritize struggling within/alongside’? So when folks talk about method, part of that means debating the importance of various sectors, and how this importance is shifting as capital shifts. It’s not an abstract question.
      Thanks for the clarification re: political and structural problems. This is helpful.
      You write: “unions are in a Catch 22 now: they will be destroyed by capital if they don’t fight and win, but their legal structure will be destroyed by the state if they DO fight to win.” You link this to your argument of the possibility of union struggles going through and “apocalyptic break” that ruptures out from trade unionism into classwide organizing.
      I argued something very similar during the anti-austerity struggles in 2010. I claimed the social democrats fighting for union rights and against budget cuts had noowhere to go but illegal direct action (wildcats, etc.) because the system was pushing them in this direction: http://gatheringforces.org/2010/04/26/the-debate-on-strategy-in-the-anti-budget-cuts-movement/
      In the build up to the attempted May 3rd student-worker strike at UW , I advocated this analysis and this strategy. The UAW academic workers (TA and RA) union was in contract negotiations. I expected the union to get backed into such a corner during negotiations that the rank and file would side with FADU, an independent workplace group that functioned like what AS is proposing as a “classwide comittee”. FADU was build explicitly based on STO’s strategy in Workplace Papers. It was aligned with militant custodians who also had built a classwide committee called International Workers and Students for Justice, with us and allies. Jocelyn Cohn was one of the founders of FADU. We knew custodians were ready to refuse to cross picket lines, triggering a possible campus-wide wildcat.
      However, what happened was the management saw what was coming and cut a slightly better contract deal with UAW, taking the wind out of the sails of the struggle, and isolating the rank and file from the custodians and undergraduates. The picket lines were not strong enough for the custodians to honor them. The undergrads didn’t understand all the complexities of the union drama, all they saw was the papers saying “strike averted” so then they didn’t join the student walkout, and again there weren’t picket lines strong enough for custodians to honor, so the Santa-Cruz style strategy collapsed. Custodians came out on their breaks and we had a nice rally, but that was it.

      The conclusion I drew from this is that the system still has the capacity to cut special deals with some unions at the expense of other workers. I wasn’t the only one who drew that conclusion, and frankly it may be one of the reasons why we didn’t put all of our faith in the ILWU during Occupy and advocated strategies that focused on the independent trajectory and strength of the movement, supporting the Longview struggle but not making it the lynchpin of our entire strategy.
      In other words, I’m not sure that the objective picture you are painting of unions today is entirely accurate. If it were accurate, what you propose would be a good strategy – it would be similar to how the ILWU formed out of a rupture from the ILA, as the longer AS piece on the waterfront pointed out. However, if it is not accurate, then small independent workplace groups or embryonic class wide committees pushing for this “apocalyptic moment” could end up getting co-opted, isolated, crushed, etc. Basically, it could amount to a kind of voluntarism, pushing for the breaking point that never comes. This is something I have definitely fallen into myself multiple times in the past, so I’m speaking from experience here. I’d be interested to hear what Jocelyn has to say, as well as other comrades from U/S and BOC who were active in that struggle.
      There are many unanswered questions here: Was ILWU Local 21 Longview going through the transformation that Fish describes during last year’s struggle? The struggle started as one of trade union jurisdiction – did it start to break from the logic of trade unionism through the illegal direct action struggle the local was waging? If so, why was this rupture closed? Why was the local brought back under the control of the international?

  5. Nate Hawthorne

    I hope I’ve said this already. Either way – I’m enjoying the discussions on these issues on this site. Even on points where I haven’t agreed with ATS (actually, no, ESPECIALLY on those points) I have really appreciated ATS hosting this conversation and trying to spread it. I think doing this despite the fact that some ATS members disagree on some of these issues is a brave thing. I think more groups should disagree in public like this.

    The Fish: “of course we should have fundamental political principles, but they are not sufficient to constitute an effective strategy for mass communist resurgence.”

    I agree with this a great deal.

    Mara: “Both are central to our struggle, and I’m hesitant to label one or the other as “more important.”

    This too. I think this conversation goes better then it’s laying out multiple routes to take rather than pushing toward a single route.

    Mamos: “our strategic positions need to be grounded in an updated class composition analysis of the current proletariat in motion.” In order to have that, we need “an adequate class composition analysis of the 2013 proletariat in motion” and “an adequate understanding of what to do when it comes to struggles in unionized industries.”

    I agree here as well. But it seems to me that one important quality of the working class today is fragmentation politically and tremendous differences in people’s lived circumstances. As such, there’s likely no single best course of action in relation to unions in all places, let alone a best course of action for all communists or all workers in all circumstances. I don’t think this means all we can have a principles and analyses of structural forces, though. I think this means we can and should also aim for a kind of list of starting places and possible destinations. That will mean more fine-grained analyses and more limited conclusions drawn from them – what is possible in relation to the ILWU may not be possible in relation to the AFT or AFSCME etc.

    As such I don’t think there are clear answers to the questions The Fish posed – “to work within unions or not? Why? how shall the management of the class struggle be broken?” “how do we see these things resolving? What objective processes will lead to pressure on them, and what openings (if any) will revolutionaries have for influencing mass action? And which way should we go in these moments of ruptural opening?”

    I think there will be answers that are specific to locations, disputes, organizations, etc. Those local answers can and should speak to each other and we should try to draw as broad of conclusions as possible, but finding the line between broad and overly broad will be difficult and involve conflict and disagreement. (I don’t think there’s any other way to go though, as The Fish said, “differences in method are not unearthed and investigated through discussions of method, but rather through discussions of intervention and strategy.” And those interventions will happen in contexts that differ in important ways, and figuring out what is different and what is the same across different contexts will require some arguing.)

    The Fish: “On the political vs. structural problems, IMO there are both kinds, in specifically this historical moment”

    Yes, well said. I take ‘political’ here to mean something like ‘stuff we could fix or improve through our actions’ and ‘structural’ here to mean ‘stuff we can not fix because it is built in to these organizations and institutions.’ If I get this right, then seems to me that combining these two levels of analysis, political and structural, could mean in part asking “if we intervene around and get traction on this particular set of political issues, what do we think we will likely face in round two, as a result of the combination of structural factors and political factors we haven’t been able to sufficiently address.” (Sorry if that’s either obvious or opaque.)

    “unions are in a Catch 22 now: they will be destroyed by capital if they don’t fight and win, but their legal structure will be destroyed by the state if they DO fight to win.”

    I think this is generally true across the board. Joe Burns’s book Reviving The Strike is very good on this. And that book I think demonstrates ways in which radicals pursuing this strategy may find ourselves getting played by forces we don’t agree with and who later become our opponents. That’s what I think happened with regard to the CIO and radicals’ involvement in it. That was certainly John L. Lewis’s understanding of things when he recruited radicals to participate in building the CIO. As he put it, “Who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?” That doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t pursue those strategies. (I think that in some particular contexts being ‘the dog’ in relation to ‘the hunter’ that is the some reformist fraction may well be the best that some people can do.) But it does mean we should be aware of these limitations, try to be very clear about what role we may be playing (personally I think it’s best to err on the side of pessimism and humility about our role), and perhaps to play these roles with an eye to what the next round of struggle will look like, how it might arise out of this round, and how we can try to conduct ourselves in this round that set us up as best as possible for the next round.

    • So the real question is what does it mean to do revolutionary organizing in a period which is not revolutionary?

      The real limitation to the workerist and post-workerist conceptualization of organizing lies precisely in their definition of the political. Martin Glaberman’s conflation between–and this is something Nate has addressed–militant action and revolutionary action necessarily obscures and grossly exaggerates the immediate, and day-to-day confrontation with union bureaucrats/”the form itself” with that of the revolution. There can be no revolutionary organizing until significant sections of the class are faced concretely with the question of seizing state power, as the young Bolshevik factory workers were in 1917.

      I therefore agree when Nate writes:

      “But it does mean we should be aware of these limitations, try to be very clear about what role we may be playing (personally I think it’s best to err on the side of pessimism and humility about our role), and perhaps to play these roles with an eye to what the next round of struggle will look like, how it might arise out of this round, and how we can try to conduct ourselves in this round that set us up as best as possible for the next round.”

      What goes along with this then is attempting to provide an extra-union perspective in concrete terms which would be necessarily internationalist or at least divorced from the immediate geographic arena from how these struggles play themselves out.

  6. Too bad this interface doesn’t have a “like” function like FB does. How else can I express my appreciation for this engagement, as well as my inability to substantially reply right now? Oh right, I just did.

  7. Pingback: Union Debate: Jocelyn and James Respond | Advance the Struggle

  8. History has shown that Unions are not effective tools of revolutionary activism. The reason is simple: Unions do not even attempt to address the fundamental conditions of class struggle, i.e. ownership of the means of production. They fight endlessly over wages and benefits and working conditions, without moving the class even one millimeter closer to ownership. When unions were strong numerically and politically, there was no incentive to move towards revolution, because everyone was satisfied with their material conditions. Now that unions are weak, they have no means to accomplish any kind of revolutionary objectives, regardless of how dissatisfied the workers are with their material conditions.

    Unionism is a dead end; it is a perfect example of a self-defeating modality which exists now only with the objective of surviving as socio-political-economic entity. The only way I can see to change this would be to refocus their objectives on acquiring ownership of the means of production.

  9. That’s just false that unions never address the ownership of the means of production. Here’s a contemporary example. The RMT, a transit workers union in the UK, says in its constitution that one of the union’s goals is “to work for the supersession of the capitalist system by a socialistic order of society.”

    • It’s one thing to say “we will work towards a goal…”; it’s quite another to state how it will be done.

      Ownership of the means of production means ownership; most revolutionaries let ownership hang off somewhere on the horizon. They say to themselves “someday, we’ll take everything back in our glorious revolution”. Except that day never comes. Like a donkey following a carrot on a stick, the carrot never gets any closer because he doesn’t realize that he is carrying the stick.

      Instead of demanding pensions and health care, unions should be demanding stock in the company. CEO’s and upper management demand ownership as part of their compensation packages; why should we settle for less?

  10. Philip said, “Instead of demanding pensions and health care, unions should be demanding stock in the company. CEO’s and upper management demand ownership as part of their compensation packages; why should we settle for less?” This is a reactionary position to the core. Thats what the UAW did with Chrysler and to a lesser extent GM. It has led to UAW being the first capitalist boss over the workers. The tasks before is to develop revolutionaries amongst the rank and file in the unions. This demands slow and steady work, that most Bay Area anarchist are against in theory and in practice (accept for maybe 2 -3 of them). The anarchist skip this task by fetishizing action, action and more action. As they champion action, the working class is still getting attacked uninteruptidly by the capitalist. The anarchist have not raised any proposal in how to deal with this problem, and resort to ignoring it. The “marxist” who liquedate their politics into the anarchist movements are inverse opportunist of a far left nature, unable to develop the content of a revolutionary movement.

  11. You’re moving the goal posts. You said unions as unions don’t address ownership of production. That’s simply false. Some do, some don’t. Less do nowadays than have before but that’s because of historical changes in politics and culture, not due to the structure of unions (ie, not due to anything that makes unions what they are). Now you’re making a broader criticism of revolutionaries, which I agree with for the most part, but that’s not really the same thing.

    As for stock in companies as a demand for unions, I don’t have strong feelings but disagree. I believe that was actually rolled out at some large manufacturers in the 1920s as a way to control workers, because stock in a company gives the stock holders a financial interest in the success of that company. That would make unions and employees less independent of companies, not more so, and it moves away from real ownership of production, not toward it. Because stock ownership doesn’t necessarily translate into actual control and governance of a company. Stockholders can perhaps exert financial pressure on a company (though they likely do so against their own financial interests if the company’s course of action is profitable) but they don’t tend to have real decision-making power over how companies operate.

    • Stockholders ultimately control every aspect of a corporation. You somehow have the misguided notion that stock ownership would make workers less independent. What, like worker are so independent now? Every pensioner is gambling that the corporation which funds their pension and health plan does not raid the funds or collapse into bankruptcy; they are completely dependent on the corporation, yet they have no say at all in how the business is operated.

  12. Nate Hawthorne

    I don’t think stock ownership automatically confers governing rights but I could be wrong. I do know for sure that companies in the 1910s and 1920s gave stocks to workers as part of a range of anti-union measures. The idea was that if workers owned stock they would want that stock to be worth more money and so would not attack the company (because attacking the company would devalue the stock). That makes me suspicious of how much mileage workers would get out of demanding stock ownership. But if you know of examples where workers have used ownership of stocks to advance their struggles I’m open to having my mind changed.

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