Category Archives: US Labor

Testing, Schools and Class(room) Struggle

The American Government puts legal requirements on educational “standards,” that focused on developing high test scores through the k-12 systems. The standards and testing is to train students to become disciplined obedient workers, loaded with racist, sexist and xenophobic content. A movement has started in Seattle, Washington challenging such tests. We welcome Mamos206 new piece, In the wake of the testing boycott: a 10-point proposal for teacher self-organization that seeks to offer a programmatic perspective of struggle for teachers across the country. This movement, and proposal, links the content of the classroom with class struggle outside of the classroom. Mamos206 argues, “without  a sense of collective labor struggle, multi-cultural educators will only be able to go so far in implementing an anti-racist curriculum; we will start to compromise with the white supremacist system in order to keep our jobs unless we know that our coworkers are prepared to strike over it.”  This central point is laying the groundwork for a political strike, differing from most economic trade-union strikes.

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This proposal offers key positions that are key in developing class struggle in education. One is a clear position against union busting. Two is recognizing that the Seattle Educator’s Association voted to support the boycott in a resolution but not much real practical support.  What stands in the way in broadening this struggle is a set of reactionary laws that hold unions back. As a proposal Mamos206 is proposing to form committees that are independent of the union and anti-union groups. Such committees “can choose to defend the union when it’s under attack from the right wing; for example” but also “we should not wait for the union to defend us, our students, or their families.” Continuing this piece argues that the “committees should work in coalition with union reform caucuses like Social Equality Educators to accomplish specific tasks together.  However, they should maintain their autonomy and should not get sucked into efforts to run for union office.” Mamos206 brings us back to what such class struggle politics means in the classroom, “Instead of simply fighting for our own narrow interests, teachers should realize that our own freedom, creativity, and well-being is linked with everyone else’s, and our best option is to join these movements, making our classrooms and schools hot beds of creative struggle.” As thousands and thousands of social justice minded young college educated people become teachers, the reality of the schools set in real quick. public school teaching, especially in working class violent environment isn’t a walk in the park. Many teachers become burnout after a few years and either become cog in the educational wheel, or leave the industry.

We welcome Mamos206 proposal as an important step forward for the organization and politicization of teachers across the US. This is a solid first step of combining a social justice perspective in the classroom with a class struggle perspective outside of the classroom.

In the wake of the testing boycott: a 10-point proposal for teacher self-organization

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The teacher, student, and family boycott of the MAP test  in Seattle is an inspiring event that has the potential to generate a new wave of organizing in and around public schools.  The boycott signals the possibility of a movement for creativity, not control and learning for life, not labor.

However, for these possibilities to come to fruition, teachers need to organize ourselves so that we can continue to take bold direct action.  We need to unite with students, their families, and the rest of the working class to create more actions like this one.  If we simply return to the same old activist patterns of proposing resolutions at union meetings or lobbying politicians then we will miss the historic possibilities this moment opens.  In that spirit, here are a few proposals for how we can move forward.

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Unions, Ecology and the Contradictions of Our Time

There is a contradiction between workers’ immediate self interest and the broader and more long term interests of other parts of humanity and nature. Forced to sell our labor power to survive, we are deprived of any real ability to control the economy. We love under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Given nothing but lemons, the proletariat – even relatively well-paid parts of it – can only hope to make lemonade. This unfortunate fact leads to many complications in what, to the average radical, seems should be a simple formula of class struggle: class against class.

In fact, both major classes in the USA host struggles within themselves that sometimes make it seem like sections of the enemy class are more friendly to the interests of the proletariat than other proletarians are! For example, Ford hired black workers at a time when black migrants from the South sought economic opportunity and social freedom in the North, only to find that white workers did not welcome them in their jobs. To the black worker, Ford may have appeared more friendly than the white worker. WWII led to a great expansion of industry and unprecedented demand for labor, thus convincing millions of US workers of all colors that the war was a good cause. Meanwhile, US workers in uniform were conquering the globe for imperialism, just as their prior generation had in WWI. In the aftermath of one particularly militant strike, one famous robber baron once boasted that he could hire one half of the working the class to kill the other half (referring to professional strikebreakers). And of course let us not forget that, as Maria della Costa oted, there has never really been a truly “general” strike because even if all the men stopped working, the women still had to cook and clean the home.

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It is a normal function of the capitalist division of labor to combine the proletariat as a class facing the same condition of propertylessness in an uneven manner, causing a tendency for workers to fight one section at a time. The uneven character of the class struggle, allows for victories to be gained in isolation from other sectors, and this way perpetuating the selfish interests at the cost of those sections of the class who stand idle.

Today, many parts of the industrial proletariat have been convinced that growing the economy is in their self interest, and therefore support harmful development projects. This makes it hard for radicals, with our all-around consciousness gained primarily through university education in the social sciences and liberal arts, to identify with workers as workers. After all, worker consciousness tends to focus on wages which are one part of capital. We hate this part of ourselves, of our class, that is dependent upon and under the dictate of the bosses.

There are two clear contemporary examples of blue collar workers supporting the bosses’ vision of the world, plan for development and growing the economy. In these we see the union leadership endorse capitalist projects, presumably with the overriding support from the rank and file.

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ILWU Local 4, How Do We Defend?

Written by an Oakland teacher and member of Oakland Educators Association. This an introduction to a flyer calling for a rally of ILWU local 4 workers in Vancouver, Washington taking place March 8th. 
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In this flyer, the “defense of the union” really means “help the union reach a collective bargaining agreement with the bosses.”  I think that a collective bargaining agreement is better than none.  I’m not convinced that not having a legal recognition of a union and a legal agreement helps workers break from legalism in some type of automatic way.

Certainly in my union, the OEA, being under state-imposition has not lead to any type of worker agency being expressed in radical ways.  Quite to the contrary, it’s lead to further demobilization and increased incorporation of the union structure into a company union institution that simply rubber stamps the dictats of the administration of the OUSD.  Again, in my situation a legally binding agreement between the union (leadership + workers) and the state that actually contained demands around working conditions, class size, etc would create (and be created by) conditions where teacher workers are taking direct action, pushing the boundaries of the union structure by directly working with parents, students, and non-unionized workers to discuss working conditions of all school workers and school community.  This is what should be built.

I have a feeling that to really reach a collective bargaining agreement, the ILWU would need to be organizing all sectors of the waterfront to be in collective discussion and strategizing about conditions at the ports and about how their interests intersect against those of the bosses.  Key in this is discussing how their interests have not intersected.

In keeping with this thought experiment, if the ILWU reached an agreement, what would be next?   Chest beating about how “American” workers kept their jobs, and reproduction of divisions among all port workers?  Simply defending the union (aka, reaching collective bargaining agreement with the bosses) does not answer these questions.  Any type of “defense” that we consider and potentially engage in must begin by addressing BOTH the capitalist attacks and the internal contradictions of the waterfront proletariat.

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!

Mara

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.

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Union Debate: Unions a Lost Cause for Revolutionaries

Our Friends with Benefits: On the Union Question” — is a position paper on unions written by Jocelyn Cohn and James Frey of Unity and Struggle. Advance the Struggle is pleased to repost this document. It argues the state has subsumed the role of unions, making revolutionary interventions  for their transformation a dead-end. This position calls into question the revolutionary potential of the existing structure of unions; not the question of union leadership as what the Internationalist Group argued. Consider the following quotes from their piece, “It is the very limits of the trade unions to begin with, their structural incapacity to perform any function other than capitalist protectionism of certain workers, which has led to their destruction in the face of a rapidly changing social relations of production.” This means that revolutionaries have a different set of work ahead, one of  “seizing on contradictions and expanding them to a level where control of political power can be grasped by the working class.” Continuing with the role of revolutionaries, “The call to expand unions is similarly a faulty argument. Revolutionaries struggling for the benefits of unionized workers, and to preserve industries and workplaces that are unionized, will find themselves necessarily in competition with the rest of the class.”

Many argue this is the new reality of our situation after the 70s and 80s capitalist restructuring. This document goes a bit further stating that, “Throughout their history, unions have existed as companies in and of themselves, with investment interests, employees, and a necessity to produce value through the exploitation of their own workers.” They conclude the need for political work to be completely outside the union form, including not engaging in the defense of unions against capitalist attacks, “There are many who argue that the best way to organize in a unionized shop is to defend the union, and work to change its structure, or that working independently of the union and within the union are not contradictory. But given our above findings, it is clear that any threat to the hierarchical, alienating, and bureaucratic structure of unions is a threat to unions as a whole, whether it is from the ‘right’ or the ‘left’.”

This thought provoking argument is not entirely new and we can link such a framework with the KAPD of Germany in the 1920s, who split from the Comintern over several questions including the union one. What is fresh about such an argument is the focus on class composition, and the development of the state structuring of unions. On the one hand, we cannot dismiss this argument and must engage its central points. On the other, we must test such a framework in real world politics. Taking this framework to the Longshore, Washington ILWU struggle, the Wisconsin upheaval, or the Chicago teachers’ strike, how do revolutionaries in such situations seize — “on contradictions and expand them to a level where control of political power can be grasped by the working class”? Answering this question contributes to resolving this debate. With that said, we would like to introduce this essay as one of the great contributions to the union discussion.

Our Friends With Benefits: On The Union Question

Introduction

As communist workplace organizers serious about praxis, the authors find ourselves debating the strategic importance and political composition of trade unions in the United States. We find what could be called “the union question” to be in fact a number of questions surrounding the composition of capital in general, capital in its in its present incarnation, as well as the composition of trade unions and their relationship to capital and the state. Most immediate to our investigation is the question of how this arrangement can be interpreted by revolutionaries, in the workplace and outside of it. After engaging these questions it is our finding that working explicitly within the existing trade union structure to defend, change, or strengthen them is not a compliment to working toward consolidating class-wide organizations capable of effective revolutionary struggle, but rather that these two objectives stand in irreducible antagonism.

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I. The Historical Context

The use of rebellion, for the purpose of developing capital with ‘renewed energy and vitality’ is not new and not confined to women.  For capitalism to co-opt every aspect of struggle, to renew itself with our energy and our vitality, and with the active help of a minority of the exploited, is central to its nature.

Selma James, “Women, the Unions, and Work” 1972

We understand that this debate is re-emerging from the relative torpor it has enjoyed since the 1970s due to the ongoing transformation of the processes of production and reproduction in the United States. This shift is alternatively referred to as “neoliberalism” and “austerity”, but these terms are emblematic of a deep-seated shift in the relations of production, the novelty of which is done no justice by comfortable buzzwords which claim its content as already definable.

Historically speaking, we find the roots of the transformation which comprises our present epoch in the 1950s and 1960s. In this period the state took on the role of regulating the value of labor power through public welfare and unemployment programs which kept unemployed people from uniting with the rest of the working class and allowed for a flexible workforce that could work seasonally and in many jobs, as well as through certain wage and benefit protections provided through Collective Bargaining Agreements and shifts in labor law, which simultaneously coerced workers into de-skilled, repetitive, and unrewarding factory jobs,  and kept a caste of workers slightly above another while styming at least some labor unrest. Most importantly, it kept worker activity contained by union bosses at least as much as by company bosses.

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Example of Good Union Negotiating

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..

http://www.weknowwhatsup.blogspot.com/p/afscme-local-444-negotiations-assesment.html?m=1
Key quote:

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. Continue reading

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Union Debates: John Reimann Responds With Words of Wisdom


John Reimann, a veteran Trotskyist, wrote a solid response to the union question. This being posted in the spirit of trying to get every left group, in the US, Trotskyist, Left-Communist, Ultra-lefts, Anarchists, to write out, and define how they see revolutionaries relationship with unions. John Reimann, a leader of a 1999 wildcat strike of East Bay carpenters, is also very active in the Bay Area regarding social movements, and union struggles.

John Reimann

February 21, 2013 at 11:17 am

I think this sort of discussion/debate is a huge part of what has been lacking on the left, especially holding this out in the open.

As far as the unions: I think we have to start by looking at the objective developments and what mood and consciousness that created.

The 1930s and then again the strike wave of 1946 taught the US capitalist class a lesson: They could not simply steamroll over the working class as they had been accustomed to doing. So they retreated to trying to stabilize class relations. This was made possible by the post war economic boom and the dominant position of the US capitalist class globally. They were easily able to afford concessions.portpicket

There was also the role of Stalinism, which gave “socialism” a foul odor in the nostrils of the great majority of workers.This enabled a sector of the union bureaucracy that was most closely linked with the employers to strengthen their base in the unions and strengthen their grip on the union structures. Any worker who seriously wanted a more militant union was suspected (at the very least) of being a “Commie”, and there were consequences, the least of which was being shunned by one’s fellow workers.

Ironically, the end of the boom and the collapse of Stalinism actually strengthened this state of affairs. The collapse of Stalinism strengthened a huge propaganda wave in favor of the “free” market. We had reached the end of history, you see. Any thought otherwise was simply living in a dream world at best. And the end of the boom accelerated the attacks on the working class, including accelerating the wave of plant closures and runaway plants (to Mexico and then to China and elsewhere). Workers in general, and the union workers in particular, were told that if you fight for higher pay, or even if you fight against cuts in pay, you will end up losing your job altogether. Continue reading