Union Debate: Jocelyn and James Respond

Jocelyn and James submitted a piece that challenges the notion that an orientation towards the unions is productive for contemporary revolutionaries based off a serious analysis of the shifting nature of modern capitalism.  Advance the Struggle apologies for the title, “a lost cause” as an introductory title. We would like for the audience to read this response to get more clarity on Jocelyn and James’ position on the unions. More submissions to come.  

We appreciate the engagement with our piece. There has been a breadth of engagement in the comments on Advance the Struggle’s blog that we are unable to address in the time and space provided, but are grateful for the height of the debate. We apologize for comments left unaddressed, but we plan to respond to much of what’s left unsaid (especially Nate’s challenging points) in subsequent writing. Also we tried to address multiple questions in our responses to particular questions. Other comments seem to reflect a lack of thorough reading or misreading of our piece, and we urge their authors to give our piece a charitable reading before attempting to engage.

We are responding in three parts: the first addresses misunderstandings or mischaracterizations, the second addresses a few of the questions raised in the comments sections, and the third is a series of general responses which help elucidate the purpose of the piece. All of this points to a need to critically interrogate the present moment in its generalities and particularities, toward concrete activity. We staked out a clear theoretical domain, as a position piece requires, but it was our intention to raise questions rather than make pronouncements. The discussion so far has borne this out very well.

Part 1: Clarification

1) We did not call unions “a lost cause”. A/S added that title to our piece. We deliberately did not use this language to discuss unions, and we offer a far more nuanced perspective. We do not seek to undermine or destroy unions but to recognize their status as a tool of class struggle which must be assessed according to its efficacy. There is a major difference here that a serious treatment of our text quickly reveals..

2) It is not a surprise that this document has been read as an “undermining” of unions, because this is the false dichotomy presented by those who wish us to simply “defend” unions. We discuss the relationship of our theory to concrete organizing strategies (though not necessarily tied to specific form). We deliberately took a more nuanced stance than “rejection” or “defense” of unions, as we believe this dichotomy fetishizes the form and disempowers those attempting to build revolutionary associations in unionized shops. We understand that we do not disagree that unions are not organs of revolutionary class struggle but rather see the question as, in the course of their transcendence CAN and SHOULD trade unions be strengthened, based on their form and content and also based on the current and future composition of capital. This is where our differences lie, and that is what this piece was meant to elucidate.

JD asserts: “Thus they are still swimming in the same stream as their alleged Trotskyist or workerist opponents when they posit that the class struggle is about which form to reject or include.”

This is a misreading of the text. We do not discuss “which forms to reject or include”; instead, we reveal the history through which the trade unions developed, and the present under which they struggle have solidified a form that cannot be changed from within and is not consistent with revolutionary class struggle–a perspective which has been uncontroversial among left communists for over a century. (And not just left communism. “[T]rade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers to the bourgeoisie” observed VI Lenin, with whom we have a few theoretical divergences.) We write that the conception of a “correct form” does not allow us to understand the movement of the class, and that instead we must watch closely in order to be flexible.

Regarding the comparison to TC (who we leave aside, and ask folks to engage our actual text instead of making scholastic comparisons), we have no interest in “waiting and seeing”. We are not academics. None of this is abstract to us. The history we write is our history. We are actively engaged in experimenting with forms outside of the dead-end that is making the trade unions revolutionary. We need all the help we can get, and more specifically, we need to discredit the harmful binary of “for”/”against” unions in order to do so. Beyond this, if we are proven wrong on particular matters of praxis we welcome the strengthening of our position an improve our work.

Part 2: Engagement

Mara wrote:
“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?”

We understand that an analysis held by many revolutionaries is that certain industries hold a place in capitalism that if well organized, are more effective for creating disruptions in the flow of capital than others. We do not entirely share this analysis. Insofar as the industries above require the exploitation of the working class to continue existing, and furthermore that these industries themselves serve the reproduction of the working class, we feel that it is necessary for workers employed by those industries to organize politically. We may choose to organize in certain industries because of who is employed in those industries: so for example healthcare largely employs people of color and women in the lowest paid positions. Therefore organizing in healthcare is crucial. But we would not use this as an argument for not organizing in transportation, which is a largely male-dominated industry. To put it bluntly, the organization of the working class as a whole is necessary; there are important qualitative differences in conditions of different industries, and these differences should be considered if revolutionaries decide to implant in industries, or focus their attention on one industry over another. This also runs the risk of valorizing certain aspects of the working class to the dismissal of others, including unwaged workers, and low wage white collar workers for example.

In terms of engagement with unions, first, not all workers in these industries are unionized. For example, the transportation industry includes unionized workers (in the Teamsters and ATU for example), non unionized workers, and undocumented workers. The gaps between workers in this industry, as well as in healthcare (think doctors vs. CNAs), education public school teachers vs. charter school teachers, substitutes, adjuncts, and teachers’ aides, are extreme. At times, the official union line, as well as sentiments expressed by unionized workers, is to marginalize non-unionized workers, or to not engage with non-unionized workers in an effort to stop union busting. This make sense from the perspective of protecting particular shops but has no place in class-wide unity. Charter school teachers are proletarians.

In these circumstances we see the necessity for unionized workers to reject strategies that marginalize non-union workers, and instead struggle to raise the level of conditions at least to, and beyond those enjoyed by some unionized workers. If transport workers are fighting against the diminishing of their wages and end of their job security, they will find that their non-union co-workers are already facing conditions much worse than the cuts aimed at them. Their position should not simply be to defend their positions, but to unite with their co-workers in exploitation to develop strategies and demands that encompass the industry and/or workplace as a whole and go beyond the demands of their contract. This strategy will be rejected by union bureaucrats, and union and non-union workers will have to form independent organizations; these organizations may engage in union activity such as open meetings and union protests, but will inevitably need to organize independently, and their activity will only grow insofar as they refuse to join all their activity to the union. Furthermore, non-unionized workers may find if they reach out to their exploited unionized friends and co-workers, their efforts are rejected in the interest of individual protectionism. This is a real condition created by capitalism, in which antagonisms between labor and capital take the form of antagonisms within the class.

Instead of trying to ask the unions or unionized rank and file for help, the non-unionized workers must create their own fighting organizations which welcome their unionized fellows, but on the terms of fighting for all, not only for some. And for unionized workers to be able to struggle effectively against capital, they will have to join up with these outside of the union form.

Also, we’d like to add that several objections have been made against our position by pointing to what unions could have done but didn’t do, e.g. teachers building meaningful unity beyond their union. We don’t find this to be a matter of coincidence, bad leadership, or lack of foresight by organizers. This is a main point of our piece and we hope it will be revisited in this context.

You present an immense and challenging set of questions. Responding entirely would require another work of perhaps equal length. We’ve answered some and tabled others with the intention of returning to them in a more formal setting soon. Thank you for your invaluable engagement!

“The piece says that the state became engaged with the regulation of the value of labor power via welfare and unemployment programs in the 1950s and 60s. I was under the impression that these programs dated largely from the 30s and 40s. I could be totally wrong though and I don’t know that anything hangs on the difference, I just wonder. Could you say what you’re thinking of here? And what shifts in labor law do you have in mind?”

In our admittedly schematic history (in no way meant to supplant reading of the scrupulous work that’s been done on the history of unions) we saw the anti-communist social policies of the New Deal and so forth come to fruition following World War II toward the apex of the welfare state apparatus in the 1950′s and 60′s. This is because the programs largely developed to combat the Great Depression sunk to a low during World War II, when the war became the primary fix for the crisis of capitalism. Following the end of WWII, the state re-vamped a variety of social programs, and introduced new ones (perhaps most notably the GI Bill (established in 1944 and its effects felt through the 1950′s), and introduced new ways of dealing with women pushed back out of the workforce as men returned home. In this period (post WWII, the percentage of the national budget spent on welfare programs rose. This is admittedly schematic, deserves much further investigation, and could perhaps be more accurately dated to the mid-1940′s. As for labor law, we were thinking of the Wagner Act (‘35), Taft Hartley Act (’47), up through the Taylor Law (’67).

“I think this is quite important: ‘unions are not class struggle organizations, but organizations for the protection of some workers over others.’ I think it’s worth pointing out that these organizations of sectoral interests (organizations of some workers) can still be quite combative, and speak a vocabulary of solidarity and universality (along the lines of ‘this struggle is one for the whole class, stand with us!’)”

We agree that sectoral organizing is important. However, workplace organizing by sector or workplace that has potential implications for the rest of the working class is different than trade union organizing, that organizes sectors (or really, sections of sectors) to the EXCLUSION of others. We think here for example of the building trades, whose unions organize by restricting non-union contracts rather than by organizing workers industry-wide against the working conditions suffered by non-union workers. This question also requires more debate, but we hope this is a start to addressing the question of unions and solidarity. We discuss this further in our response to Mara.

“the IWW (…) attempted to organize the entire class into one organization, but (…) after internal debates eventually abandoned openly pushing communist politics.” This seems incorrect but I’m willing to have my mind changed. What is this referring to?”

This section requires a longer response and detailed research. But we are referring to early documents and histories of the IWW (largely available on their website and in the book “IWW: The First Thirty Years” by Thompson; additonally, we are referring to current trends in the IWW, that we recognize there are debates within, about discussing communist or even anti capitalist politics specifically, versus discussions of organizing “workers” against “bosses.” We appreciate that you pointed out the need for more detail in this section and believe more writing on the IWW and solidarity unionism in general is necessary. I know there are several pieces as well on Libcom.org that people can refer to. Again, we admit this section as underdeveloped and welcome more discussion and study.

“Early actions [of the CIO] fought against legal formalization and long labor contracts, working instead for control of production by workers themselves.” This too seems incorrect to me. What are you thinking of here? There’s a very good critical piece on the CIO on libcom that’s relevant here – HYPERLINK “http://libcom.org/library/cio-reform-.” libcom.org/library/cio-reform-
It’s my understanding that the CIO fought for contracts from day one. It’s true that communists were later purged from the CIO, but the presence of communists doing organizing in the CIO doesn’t mean the CIO was doing communist work. No more than the presence of communists doing organizing in the AFL-CIO today means the AFL-CIO is doing communist work.”

This is an important point. We should clarify we do not think the early CIO was communist, but are instead trying to understand the historical development of trade unions as highly legalized institutions whose role is to mediate through primarily legislative means, and recognize the differences in the early development of industrial unions. We were referring specifically to accounts by CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya in State Capitalism and World Revolution, reflections by Marty Glaberman in “Punching Out”, and accounts by members of STO. Again, this deserves more focus than we can provide here.

“This point seems poorly made to me: “the divisions which unions instill within the class emanate from within their very structures. According to a 2008 report, twenty-five percent of unions in the United States operate on a two-tiered pay structure.” That 25% of unions do something is a poor argument that this thing is structural.”

The point being made (however poorly) is that the division between non-union and union workers one finds on the job site is not simply between union and non-union, but is contained within the union structure itself. 25% is a large portion of the unionized workforce and weakens the already bleak union statistics. More important to us than statistics is the idea that this is something reinforced by the unions rather than something which unionizing can fix. Furthermore, it reinforces our position that trade unions as they exist are incapable of being flexible to the new forms of work being imposed by changes in the composition of capital and in the processes of production themselves. Rather than lifting all workers up when they join a union, the union becomes another mechanism for the division of these workers.

“I find the union and supreme court comparison rhetorically effective but it also raises as many questions as it answers. If there was a referendum tomorrow to ban the supreme court, I would vote no. Likewise if there was a referendum to ban unions. More to the point: the supreme court and union comparison can easily be read as implying that if possible people ought to oppose unionization, so that if a union election happens in our workplaces we should vote no. I’m sure you don’t think that, given that you say later that sometimes struggle “means holding a union sign”. I think it would be clarifying if you said why you don’t think that.”

We don’t aim to tell people whether to vote yes or no on unions as a platitude, but to recognize the strategic use of unions toward a broader class struggle. For example, a strong independent organized workplace could face a vote on a weak union. This is not desirable. It is our attempt in this text to transcend the “for/against?” nature of this discussion, though A/S didn’t do us any favors by adding the polemical title “A Lost Cause”.

“Finally, I think the piece uses the term ‘union’ to mean basically ‘union as defined by the NLRA’ or something like that. I don’t see why the term ‘union’ should mean only that. I agree with you when you say that “negotiating with the capitalist over the terms of this sale is not inherently anti-capitalist, although it has its place in the class struggle.” I use the term ‘union’ to mean something like “organization of workers for the purposes of negotiating with capitalists,” which means the term includes a wider range of politics and activities for me. It seems to me that the article on here called “A Moving Story” is a story about an effort of workers to unionize. (It’s certainly, and in the documents included at the end, explicitly, a story about workers seeking to bargain collectively.) I’m less invested in defining terms – I’m fine to agree to disagree here, you can say union your way and I can say it my way – than in getting at the core of the political issue, which I think is about the relationship between anticapitalist politics and grouping of workers that seek to negotiate over the terms of life under capitalism. The piece suggests, with that quote about how negotiating has a place in class struggle, that there’s a relationship between these two. I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on what what relationship is.”

Again, this is a crucial distinction. We defined union based on NLRA because we were trying to remain consistent with AS’s call to defend these trade unions, and saw this as their definition. We are interested in and involved in developing workplace organizations that are organized by industry as well as connecting these class wide (including to the “lumpen” and unemployed). If in a struggle we use the word “union” to define a well organized group of people (working or not) with a formal structure, we will differentiate ourselves from Trade Unions with formal ties to nationals and internationals, AND NGOs/non-profits in our content, activity, and affiliation. It’s also important to add that when organizing outside of the official trade unions is considered anti-union, this kind of work is very difficult, and we can be slandered by supposed comrades.

“I’m wondering if you can explain a bit more on your argument that the union reinforces a hierarchy within the class that actually worsens working conditions of non-unionized workers.”

Great question. This is a place that needs a lot of development and we are really glad you brought it up. While we do not have extensive historical evidence, we can look back at the historical documents that discuss the labor movement of the 1960′s as a primarily white, male movement. We are thinking specifically about Sex, Race, and Class, where Selma James goes into discussion of the need to break through this notion reinforced by trade unions and organize independently. It can also be found in “Organizing Working Class Women” by Sojourner Truth Organization, and in accounts of DRUM’s organizing, specifically discussions of the prevention of employees of the UAW itself, who were mostly immigrants and people of color, being prevented from organizing and/or fired for striking. Again, this requires serious study, but our evidence is documented mostly by these organizations, particularly the STO and writing from the Marxist women’s movement.

Part 3: General Responses

Several respondents have noted that our piece offers little in the way of a positive conception of moving forward. We reply that our piece itself is an integral first step in moving forward, for our practical work, and hopefully yours. We wrote this piece for concrete practical reasons.

We are both organizing in New York City and are trying to lay the basis for the kind of class-wide organizations that can transcend the trade union form. This is of course a long-term project. In addition to contributing to the general development of the revolutionary left, we were interested in several directives bearing on our immediate work:

First, it offered us a chance for self-clarification, which we must thank A/S for providing everyone in this discussion. We are laying the theoretical basis for our activity and it is strengthened by elucidation and critique.

Second, it allowed us to address in a sustained way a question that bears directly on our own organizing efforts, and to critique a false binary of “for/against” trade unions which has hampered our efforts and will only continue to do so as long as it is taken seriously. We find that when one starts critiquing the unions, even from an advanced theoretical standpoint, the discussion can get ugly and personal very quickly. This is rooted in the mistaken idea that a critique of unions must be an attack on unions by a class enemy. We agree that enemies of unions from the right deserve no such civility, but this confusion can not be allowed to stand. It is necessary to discredit this equation before serious work can be done, or else the discussion itself will be uncivil, unproductive, and unbecoming of serious revolutionaries.

Third, it allows us a vehicle to advance our position with the hopes of winning more dedicated militants over to the pressing need we find for broad organizations of the class outside the trade union form. It is not our intention to transplant our inchoate form to the West Coast but we feel the critique we offered was missing in the discussion on A/S.

We do not expect or desire pure political cohesion, but we hope to elevate the discussion beyond who is right or wrong, and through engagements like this, generate a more advanced theory which is not reducible to any singular position which has been offered. We see this already happening and its very exciting.

In Solidarity,

Jocelyn and James



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