Open Threads

Open Threads is an open blogging platform, for debate and exploration of ideas among communists and radicals. Content presented here is contributed by Kasama site users.

  • Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Categories
    Categories Displays a list of categories from this blog.
  • Tags
    Tags Displays a list of tags that have been used in the blog.
  • Bloggers
    Bloggers Search for your favorite blogger from this site.
  • Login
    Login Login form

Whose Strike?

Posted by on in News & Analysis
  • Font size: Larger Smaller
  • 8 Comments
  • Subscribe to this entry
  • Print

 

The Strikes Themselves

November of this year will mark the one-year anniversary of the New York fast food worker walkout that initiated the cycle of one-day strikes and public demonstrations that have been kicking off across the country ever since.  The first New York action was followed by a second in the spring of 2013, as similar strikes rolled through Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Washington DC, Detroit and Seattle.  In early August, workers in New York staged a third walkout, matched by escalations in other cities. 

Each major action has thus far been initiated and facilitated by paid organizers employed by groups like “Fast Food Forward” and “Good Jobs Seattle,” all funded by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).   These paid organizers make an initial foothold in each shop by seeking out the active, interested minority of workers, who then attend larger meetings and themselves take on the responsibility of pulling other workers from their shop.  A similar approach was evident in the UFCW-backed  Black Friday walkouts at Walmart in 2012.  Despite being instigated by these paid organizers, however, the strikes themselves have involved an unusual degree of worker input and participation when compared to normal union drives.

In the bigger picture, they mark a shift away from the usual sign-holding and sterile contract negotiation that are the time-tested hallmarks of the nearly extinct species of union that originated in the post-WWII anti-communist detente.  In their stead, several (mostly service) unions are now moving (back) towards strike-first strategies, solidarity picketing and general “social movement unionism,” often catapulting themselves into a legal grey zone where their strategy becomes unclear at the same time that opportunities proliferate.

Despite the conservative nature of the forces behind it, this recent spate of foodworker walkouts has helped to unveil and give preliminary focus to an immense, grassroots anger among the low-paid, precariously-employed service workers who make up such a large segment of the working class in the US.  But, precisely because of this overt union involvement, many radicals have shied away from the recent strikes.  Aside from the usual opportunist forces, neither communists nor anarchists have intervened in these actions to the same degree as Occupy, or even recent struggles on the waterfront.

In other words, several large unions in the US are now, for their own survival, being forced to abandon tactics of general demobilization in favor of instigating some degree of direct action by workers.  This is a major push for a new, “militant reformism,” hoping to piggy-back off the experience of Occupy.  It’s matched, outside the workplace, with the revival of non-confrontational civil disobedience being used by the Democratic Party and NAACP in the South. 

Despite all this, radicals are often not engaging with the effort, speaking of it as if these conservative forces doom it by simple association.  In so doing, we may very well be missing an opportunity for intervention just as significant as the rising struggles on the waterfront—and one that more directly involves those in the bottommost tiers of race and class in the US.

 

Venture Syndicalism

These union-backed campaigns are easy to dismiss offhandedly, since they exhibit many of the same failings common to any single-issue campaign.  More damning is the fact that these demands have been targeted as much at the state as at the companies themselves, the strikes explicitly paired with political lobbying and reformist civil disobedience—requesting, for instance, that cities with laws against wage theft have their police enforce those laws.

Nate Hawthorne, writing for the Industrial Worker, has characterized these actions as “venture syndicalism.”  As Hawthorne explains, venture syndicalism is

named after venture capitalism. Venture capital firms are companies that advance money to businesses that are in their very early stages, when they have little money, lots of risk of failure yet a high potential for success. The funds spent are a great deal of money for the startup company but only a small amount of money for a large financial company. Venture syndicalism is the union version of this, where the mainstream and wealthier unions fund more confrontational efforts than they can afford to carry out on their own.

Hawthorne notes, however, that strikes and solidarity pickets for their own sake aren’t enough.  The strategy itself is drawn from Joe Burns’ arguments in Reviving the Strike, where the end result of this strategy is simply greater unionization.

In a follow-up article, Hawthorne clarifies the predicament:

We should welcome rising militancy but we should be prepared for the people calling the shots in venture syndicalist projects to act as a force for the old society against the creation of a new world out of its ashes. We must remember that not all struggles help to end capitalism, and that militancy and radicalism are two different things. 

But this doesn’t mean that radicals should disengage from these struggles.  The venture syndicalist project is inherently risky.  The only reason major unions are encouraging it is because dwindling unionization rates threaten them with extinction.  From above, the strikes risk major crackdowns by the state, since they may technically breach the stipulations of Taft-Hartley and other anti-labor legislation.  From below, they risk igniting an actual workers’ rebellion—one that might not be so easily contained within the confines of NGOs, formal unions or pacified “social movements.” 

This is why the strategies utilized have thus far sought desperately to prevent confrontational contact with the police—even though such confrontations became common in other recent labor actions, such as the Occupy port shutdowns and the ILWU resistance in Longview.

Hawthorne argues that radicals can at least have a limited role in these strikes.  Since they require people willing to take initial risks well beyond short-term gains, radicals can volunteer to staff those positions.  This is only in cases when “we have nothing better to do,” and with an aim “to gain skills, experience, confidence, and relationships so that we will eventually have something better to do.”  

 

Unionization or Public Relations?

Another article, by Jarrod Shanahan, paints a far less optimistic picture. 

“The problem is,  a successful union drive comes from the workers themselves,” argues Shanahan, implying that this movement does not come from the workers and will not amount to “a successful union drive.”  Instead, Fast Food Forward and similar groups in other cities are portrayed as “corralling” workers into “a public relations campaign.”

Shanahan, in observing the recent NYC strike, systematically identifies the many problems with the campaign, and focuses in on the most important:

The entire Union Square demonstration was carefully planned by FFF [Fast Food Forward], stage-crafted by [SEIU Local] 32BJ marshals in orange vests who lead [sic] the chants, directed the marches (following traffic laws and staying on the sidewalks), and worked with the police to keep everyone calm

[…]

When the march reached a McDonalds and the police attempted to push the crowd away, some in the crowd pushed back, chanting “Shame on you!”  The crowd came alive. Franklin was right up front pointing his finger and yelling at the cops, and others pushed the metal barricade back at the officers. Suddenly a 32BJ marshal, a burly, bearded-white man in near constant contact with the police, gets between the crowd and the cops, physically pushing the crowd back, and announcing “We know the real reason we’re here... you can’t survive on $7.25!” Another burly man with an orange vest guarded the McDonalds door, fists clenched, to make sure nobody went in.

Though the problems here are obvious, the picture itself is not at all indicative of the movement in every city.  In Seattle, for example, the first foodworker walkout, though organized with a general program and loose guidelines, allowed for plenty of spontaneous action.  During the initial portion of the day, a team of workers broke off from the main crowd on Capitol Hill, headed downtown (without permission or suggestion from the leading organizers), and shut down three additional Subway stores, the workers on opening shift all walking out to join the strike.  None of the organizers even knew where the workers had gone until they showed up hours later, their numbers almost doubled.

Similarly, rather than keeping people outside the stores, in Seattle the day ended with more than a hundred people charging into a McDonalds—so many that the police had to use the drive-thru to talk to the managers, who forced all the workers in the store to hide in a back closet.  It was clearly not the same kind of restrained attitude Shanahan reads in the most recent New York action.  Instead, the restraint came in the form of eventually ceding the territory to the managers and police.  Even if a sustained occupation may not have been possible at that time and place, it would have been completely feasible to hold a flash assembly in the middle of the store to see if anyone was down.  Yet the idea was never posed and the union was never forced to choose between its own legalistic nitpicking and the more militant demands of the workers themselves.

But, in the end, it doesn’t matter how much militancy these actions exhibit.  Militant reformism is still reformism, and the most important conflicts—direct confrontation with the state and sustained occupation of the space in which labor occurs—are still being actively avoided. 

Shanahan is correct in pointing out that these movements risk amounting to little more than public relations campaigns, but his proposed alternative is no better.  Instead of public relations, he offers unionization, and faults the movement for not going shop-by-shop, getting majorities in each and then calling for a strike.  In short, he claims that the main problem with the movement is that it’s not following the “traditional” model of unionization—even though such “venture syndicalism” is a response to the abject failure of that very model.

The 66%

In order to understand the insufficiency of Shanahan’s “alternative,” we have to look at the actual composition of the workforce and its material context. 

It’s a common refrain in the conservative press that fast food work is dominated by teenagers just entering the labor market—who are presumably in the process of scaling up to “creative class” work in science, engineering, design, management, etc.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, this simply is not true.  Three quarters of low wage workers are adults aged 20 or over.  The average age for a minimum wage worker is 32, they have been in the labor force for an average of 14 years, and, all in all, only 9.3% of minimum wage workers are teenagers. 

This means that, though the teenage-worker myth is clearly not true, there is still a clear generational aspect to low-wage work.  Much of it is performed by millenials (and the tail end of Generation X)—the poorest generation since the great depression, facing the highest levels of debt, the most expensive markets in housing, healthcare and education, global environmental collapse, the massive increase in state surveillance and police violence in everyday life, all accompanied by the near-complete plundering of any remnants of the old welfare state that might help to cushion the fall.

Altogether, these workers are near the bottom of the US labor pyramid.  While the ranks of the traditional working class, employed in manufacturing or resource extraction,  dropped after increases in production and the outsourcing of factories overseas, the majority of workers in the country not thrown into prisons, homelessness or chronic unemployment were dumped into lower-paying service work instead.  This class-fraction of service workers, numbering above 60 million, is about a third of the total labor population.  When you add to it all those imprisoned, unemployed and displaced, the number rises to nearly two-thirds of the population, or about 66%.

Though fast food jobs are at the bottom of the service sector (which includes some high-paying positions as well), they are also the fastest-growing segment of the job market, expanding 11% since 2010, which totals out to 5% of all new jobs in the country for the same period.  This job growth is happening concurrent with the relocation of “traditional” working class jobs in construction, maintenance, transport and manufacturing to cheap labor pools in the South and Southwest.

All of this signals that organizing in service work, and the food industry specifically, is not a matter of single-issue campaigns, even if the union portrays it as such.  Instead, it is organizing done along a major structural faultline in US capitalism—with food service a particularly visible fissure rooted in major tectonic crisis brewing underneath. 

Maybe more importantly, food service intersects with several other massive faultlines—particularly the economy’s reliance on cheap immigrant labor performed by refugees from capital’s overseas zones of imperialism and primitive accumulation, the amplification of anti-black racism through police, prisons, austerity and the accommodation of vigilantes like George Zimmerman, the downward mobility of younger, whiter, college-educated workers (the “dumpies”) who can no longer be bought into the “middle class” in sufficient numbers, and, finally, the massive disruptions to food systems that accompany environmental collapse.

Despite all this, the ideology of “the middle class,” still persists.  Occupy was often dominated by such just logic, opposing “bad” finance to the wholesome, Golden Era economy built on a unionized post-war manufacturing base.  City by city, the Occupations gradually split into opposed camps of radicals seeking systemic change, and populist “99ers,” who seized on the symbol of the 99% as representative of a politics seeking the excision of the morally corrupt “bad apples” poisoning an otherwise-good system. 

Neither were able to effectively cohere or defend the movement, which was first crushed by the police and then dissolved by its own tensions.  Having observed that failure, organizations like the SEIU are attempting to co-opt remnant energies through emulation, ensuring throughout that liberal, “middle class” ideology remains the dominant narrative.  In many cities, the SEIU campaigns are led or at least heavily aided by the same liberals from Occupy, and they bring the same bad practices with them—negotiating with the police, religious non-violence, focus on appealing to the “middle” rather than lower class, electoral lobbying, and public condemnation of anyone (including workers) who oppose these practices.

Even though the recent fast food strikes are more materially a movement of the bottom 66%, rather than the mythical “99,” this populist perspective is still common inside as well as outside the SEIU—many hoping that these strikes might initiate an overturning of the cycle set in motion (in their minds) by “bad leaders” like Reagan and Bush.  These hopes are normally articulated as half-hallucinatory fever dreams of a neo-Keynesian stimulus project set in motion by the messianic triumvirate of Krugman, Baker and Stiglitz (simply the tripartite image underlain by the singular spirit of FDR), who once and for all set capitalism on its parabolic journey toward an economy composed of painless, frictionless, entirely virtuous circles.

But outside of liberal pipe-dreams, even Shanahan’s much more focused criticism seems stuck in the same 99er rut, explicitly applying models of worker organization that were effective in mid-century, Fordist mass-production lines to an exploded, service-heavy economy in which most of the bottom 66%, if not imprisoned or unemployed, are forced to work precarious, temporary jobs in small shops broken up and dispersed over large metropolitan centers.  Union models that are based in shop-by-shop majority elections were most effective in the era of concentrated industrial centers (such as those that birthed the UAW) with a relatively stable workforce.  They are simply not relevant to most workers in the US today, and certainly not in the service sector.

Yet it is precisely this traditional, UAW-style model that acts as the fetish of the 99er—a history-specific symbol of worker organization torn from its context and held up to obscure the often blinding light cast by the living present, replacing reality with the silhouette of the fetish itself.  Shanahan follows the 99er perfectly (even minus the Keynesian illusions), tracing the shadow of that fetish in a strained attempt to ignore what is happening right in front of his eyes.   It is, as the saying goes, pure ideology.

Far more relevant organizational structures can be found in earlier models of “card-carrying” membership unionism, which sought both majorities and minorities in shops and maintained union membership workplace to workplace.  The old IWW is the traditional example of such unionism—a model designed for a migratory, temporarily-employed, largely undocumented and highly precarious workforce often sprinkled across many small-to-medium-sized operations in cities, fields and forests.  Elements of this model make more sense today not because it is universally “correct,” but simply because today’s service-oriented labor structure shares more of these key features with the agricultural/resource-extraction economy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries than it does with the full employment, manufacturing-centered economy of the post-war boom.

 

The Conquest of Bread

But simply proposing a “better” form of unionization is insufficient, because the territory here is by no means neutral.  Any attempt to publicly propose such an organization would immediately be co-opted by the SEIU, which certainly has the time and resources to outmaneuver a small minority of radical workers.   At worst, making such a proposal could result in a fully reform-oriented, SEIU-controlled syndicalist union, with enough staying power to actually deter workers from forming their own institutions.

All of this exists within a larger framework of race, gender, reproductive labor and surplus population that is impossible to lay out here in such short space.  A follow-up article focusing on these larger dynamics will give a more concentrated analysis.  For now, it will be more useful to suggest practical methods and goals of engagement with the existing food strikes.

Hawthorne suggests that radicals have an absolutely minimal engagement aimed at gaining skills, contacts and experience in order to later initiate our own campaigns on a radical basis.  This would mean volunteering to staff certain riskier positions, putting ourselves at the forefront of the more militant aspects of the actions and, hopefully, building independent networks among the workers themselves.

This is a pessimistic approach, which presumes that there is little to no potential for anything to actually pop off under the oversight of the SEIU—even though similarly uncontrollable worker resistance has been ignited under the oversight of similar unions (such as the struggles on the waterfront).  With this presumption, radicals are advised to direct their energies away from the immediate potential of the strikes and street actions in order to focus on future campaigns that we could potentially initiate.

In one sense, everything Hawthorne says is correct, and his suggestions ought to be component parts in a radical approach to the food strikes.  But they are ultimately insufficient, abandoning the potential of igniting anything more out of the immediate presence of hundreds of workers in the streets—often facing off against police (and union cops) protecting the storefronts of the companies they work for.

So what are some practical things that we can do immediately and push for in the future?  Here is an incomplete list, based on experience within the food strikes thus far:

1 — Agitate, Inquire and Network among workers directly

This first point is pretty self-evident, but the practice is surprisingly absent from many radicals’ engagement with the movement (if any).  More often, there is simply a practice of going to observe the actions, offering basic solidarity, but engaging in little discussion, inquiry or agitation among the workers themselves.  But agitation also has to be much more than “consciousness raising,” and shouldn’t be treated as a form of radical-to-prole pedagogy so much as a mutual exchange in which radicals inquire among food workers as well as offering their own take on what’s happening.  This can teach us lessons about where people are actually at while also giving them an opportunity to engage with more radical questions and analyses than those posed by the SEIU.

This also may involve facilitating the creation of worker-to-worker meetings and other infrastructure (like e-mail listserves, call lists) outside the space dominated by the SEIU.  Hopefully, these can be projects in which more radicals can come into direct contact with workers themselves, without the policing effect of union oversight.

2 — Agitate among the organizers

This is a dimension that Hawthorne does not discuss, but which seems to be a natural extension of his reasoning.  If we are to incorporate ourselves into the movement as is suggested (whether as workers, volunteers or organizers), it ought to also be a goal to agitate among the paid SEIU organizers themselves.  Not only are they often screwed over by the union (working lengthy hours, unpaid overtime, held to strict numbers requirements, etc.), but many may have been attracted to the position precisely because they were already on board with the idea of more radical change—and can be highly critical of the union’s conservative approach to it.  Often recruited out of universities and community groups, these organizers have frequently already come to at least latent radical conclusions, and many are overtly interested in helping to organize more revolutionary-minded projects.  They are also likely going to be fired en masse if the campaign exhausts its funding.

3 — Be Prepared for union abandonment

The SEIU will inevitably abandon the workers.  This abandonment will happen on many levels and in different stages, not necessarily all at once in a single, large “betrayal.”  Instead, the union will first exhibit an incapacity to deal with small problems brought up by the workers over the course of time—rather than organizing direct and regular pickets to get back unpaid overtime, stolen wages, etc., the union will try to build PR campaigns around these things in an attempt to get the government to crack down on particular franchise-owners.  In most places, this attempt will have little or no effect, and the workers will be left hanging. 

It is at this point that radicals can step in, offering to help through local Solidarity Networks, or building new ones where none exist.  This can win small gains for the workers without abandoning the trajectory of the larger demands while also attracting workers to these more radical institutions of direct action and mutual aid.

Union abandonment also often opens new opportunities for militant tactics with less of a chance of the union sending its own cops out to softly suppress them (with the police waiting in the wings to forcibly suppress them, if this fails).  For example:  In Seattle, one of the restaurants involved in the original strike was closed a month or two after the first walkout.  The closing was only marginally related to the strike itself (part of a region-wide string of closures in the works before the walkout), but was nonetheless an attack on the workers at that store—all of whom were laid off with only 48 to 24 hours’ notice, given cobbled-together severance pay based on their last paycheck (even if it was not their regular hours).  Given this opening, a brief attempt was made (by radical forces, without the foreknowledge or permission of SEIU) to organize a workplace occupation the day the store was set to close, either demanding higher severance pay or making no demands at all.  Unfortunately, given the short notice (one night) and lack of participation by other radicals, there were not enough workers who felt they would have adequate support through the process, and the occupation was called off.

4 — Solidarity for the undocumented

Similarly, the union will likely not have incentive or ability to protect undocumented workers if they’re faced with ICE raids and deportation for organizing (as was the case after the 2006 May Day informal general strike).  Calls to enforce laws against wage theft have often run ashore on the fact that the most egregious wage theft is committed against the undocumented, who cannot file formal complaints with city labor bureaus.  In the union’s petitioning of city governments, this is the main fact that goes unmentioned.  At best, they may begin to couple it with language in support of the abysmal “immigration reform” being pushed for by Obama—a “reform” that ultimately helps to discourage immigrant workers from taking action for fear that they will be labeled “criminal” and forfeit any hope at citizenship.

Radical solidarity for the undocumented can take many forms.  First and foremost, there is simply the fact that undocumented people face greater risks in street actions than others do—here the dearresting tactic can be key, as well as the defensive black bloc, etc.  The union provides no real protection from the police,  if the police decide to attack—and they frequently do attack even non-violent, semi-negotiated marches.  Similarly, for the legal side, solidarity-network structures can be applied to deportation as well, as was seen in Seattle’s Who You Callin’ Illegal? deportation-defense network, and sometimes more moderate NGOs such as Casa Latina and the Workers Defense Project have grown to fill this same gap.

This is especially important to develop, given the next suggestion.

5 — Push for more militant tactics

At its most basic level, this means simply unveiling the conflict with the police—pointing out that the police are not “workers too” and that they are not our friends, they are here on behalf of the wealthy in order to protect the property of those same companies that steal our calories every damn day.  Unveiling this fact includes disrupting the ability of the union cops to stand between the people and the police—forcibly if necessary, and ideally with worker support. 

Remember that most of these workers come from racial and class backgrounds that ensure they know full well the real role of the police, having seen that sheer coercive force applied to their families, homes and neighborhoods on a day to day basis.  Here, it is simply a matter of getting that soft union buffer out from between the workers and the cops.

Similarly, radicals can help (alongside workers) to push for more militant tactics of blockade and occupation.  Where the union advocates not picketing in front of stores (not even walking in a picket-formation), we ought to push for a picket, and a hard one at that.  Where the union calls for people to occupy the intersection in front of the McDonalds, we ought to push for occupations inside the store.  When the union tries to organize forums with mayors and city council people, we ought to use our connections to try to put together a worker boycott from these forums—or an angry worker intervention.

This also means radicalizing (through our very intervention) the nature and basis of the demands being made—pushing the campaign beyond $15 to a more systematic critique of what our stolen time means and how we can steal it back.  This doesn’t necessarily mean entirely decoupling the movement from the concrete demand of $15 an hour and the right to organize, but simply ensuring that it never gets reduced to these things.

6 — Start our own campaigns

Now that the campaign has gained a certain national resonance, it should be entirely possible for radicals to organize workers independently of the union’s initiative.  This is especially possible in cities that do not yet have strong SEIU-backed organizing committees—though the number of participating cities is set to increase within the next month.

All in all, the resource commitment can be heavy and the process can be slow, but it’s perfectly possible for smaller crews to pull off smaller strikes of similar style, possibly limited to just a neighborhood or two.  For the entire city of Seattle, SEIU has fluctuated between eight and ten on-the-ground organizers working in excess of forty hours a week, with lots of coordinating, legal and research staff backing them up.  Even minus the back-up staff, radicals are looking at an intensive commitment.  Hopefully workers begin to take more of the organizing upon themselves, but even this is a slow process, and the ultimate time and life constraints on the poorest workers give absolute limits to how much they are able to engage, no matter how interested they may be.

 

In simple and immediate terms:  what we ought to seek in this campaign is a double separation, in which the interests of the SEIU begin to more visibly conflict with the interests of its own overtaxed organizers in the middle and with the uncontrollable energy of the workers at the bottom.  Such a dual decoupling would force the union’s own formal narrative of itself to break down—when faced with choosing between itself and the workers, it will ultimately choose itself.  The organizers will be forced into a similar choice, though they are in a less impossible position and can certainly choose to side with the workers (especially if they fear being fired anyways).

At every point, then, we should be weighing the opportunities for forcing this moment of decision on the union.  This means pushing things “too far” whenever possible, always inciting the union to go outside of its comfort zone, disrupting its attempts to reroute worker rage into electoral lobbying—and at the same time building an independent worker-to-worker network beneath it, so that we have some basis for future action once the real power relations are laid bare.

A sober analysis of the prospects here acknowledges the deep disproportions in power and the massive limits we face in attempting to building a coherent force able of opposing the companies, the police, politicians and unions all at once.  At best, we can likely hope to emerge from this series of one-day strikes with new contacts, a decent worker-to-worker network in place and with several new, skilled radical organizers poached from the SEIU’s overtaxed employees. 

At the same time, there is always the chance that something bigger can be ignited out of these currently limited struggles.  The worst mistake would be to let base pragmatism blind us to grace.

 

  • The only reason major unions are encouraging it is because dwindling unionization rates threaten them with extinction. From above, the strikes risk major crackdowns by the state, since they may technically breach the stipulations of Taft-Hartley and other anti-labor legislation. From below, they risk igniting an actual workers’ rebellion—one that might not be so easily contained within the confines of NGOs, formal unions or pacified “social movements.”


    The only reason? Are we sure about this? I agree that the union bureaucracy is concerned about its dwindling dues revenue. But so is the Democrat Party ("Democrat Party" because they may be Democrats but they sure as shit ain't democratic) and its patronage network of fake liberal and pseudo-left outfits in the media (BSNBC being a primary example with its all-star lineup of professional state ideologists) and the NGOs. Given the overall timidity of the approach I think it's more the case that the burgeoning existential concerns of the union bureaucrats are trumped by the concerns of the left wing of the bourgeois state, the Democrat Party, though given the incestuous nature of the relation between the union bureaucrats and the Democrats/left-wing-of-the-bourgeois-state it's arguable whether or not it's correct to even make a material rather than merely conceptual distinction between the two at this point. The class enemy has made a pretty clean sweep of the institutional labor battlefield. There are exceptions you can point to that only prove the rule of course.

    NPC, your reading of the primary motivation for the unions' participation here is optimistic. And it may be correct. But we should be cautious because I think it could potentially make one hell of a difference in revolutionary practice whether it's the case that the unions are genuinely facing up to the existential threat they face or if this is just another instance of them feeling pressure to better perform their auxiliary role as discipline-minded state apparatchiks working in the service of the left wing of capital's political apparatus to allow some of the lowest and deepest sections of the working class to blow off steam and give a good show for their "left" elements.

    Very interesting read though. The concrete proposals are nice. And the style is sufficiently lucid and unburdened by needless academicist verbiage. Good job.

    Comment last edited on about 8 months ago by R. Fly
  • In reply to: R. Fly

    R. Fly,

    I think the two are basically the same -- fanning and then suffocating the flames of discontent (letting people "blow off steam") was one of the central functions of the union's mediation role that has gradually been sacrificed to its administrative functions of mediation (contract negotiation, etc.) precisely because the initial fanning was a little too dangerous. Now, faced with several crises (growing political illegitimacy of the Democrats, dwindling unionization, and rising movements like Occupy counterposed to the Dem/Union/NGO structure), the union is choosing to return to some of these things.

    Also, it's important to remember that, within the union's own left-wing, there are many of the activisty, social-movement types (basically social democrats) who have been pushing for this sort of movement for a while, and their ideological narrative of it is very different, their commitment to it is earnest, even if the arc of its objective motion is very different than what they believe it to be. Sometimes this gets conflated and the union appears to be this monolithic entity composed of plotting bureaucrats.

  • Guest (Nate Hawthorne)

    I like this article, thanks for writing it NPC. I'm working on a reply. For now I just wanted to add that I agree with your response to R. Fly. I also think part of what's going on is that there's a conflict between various groups of people with different visions of capitalism. There's the currently predominant version of capitalism in the U.S., which is particularly vicious, and there's a somewhat less vicious version which preserves a role for unions and the welfare state. That's a real conflict with real winners and losers, it's not a cynical one, as in, no one is conspiratorially scheming on how to set up this dynamic - it's not that the unions are monolithic things composed entirely of plotting bureaucrats, as you said. Personally I think sections 5-7 of the chapter on the working day in Capital are relevant to this moment. As I read those sections, Marx describes conflicts between different social forces which ultimately win out, via the state, against capitalists. The result is good for many workers (at least in a limited sense) and the result is also good for capitalism.

  • I don't think there's nearly as much conflict within ruling circles as to the basic policies and framework for the system at this time as you do, Nate. Yes, there is still a soft social democratic wing in the Democrat Party. It's called the Congressional Progressive Caucus. And it's utterly ineffectual. It has virtually no influence on the major policy issues, though occasionally it will get thrown a small bone.

    The center of the Democrat Party is absolutely positively committed full boar to the neoliberal version of capitalism. They're fully committed to privatizing education, they're fully committed to austerity, they're fully committed to the surveillance/pig state, they're fully committed to the dominance of finance, they're fully committed to mass incarceration, they're fully committed to imperialist war, etc. If you ask them directly though, they will deny this commitment. They will engage in all manner of obfuscation and dissembling. They will claim that it's the Teh Evil Repugs who are for these things and that they're fighting as hard as possible to prevent them. They're fucking lying weasels.

    Call it whatever you want. The fact of the matter is that the ruling class engages in conspiracies all the fucking time. They live and breath conspiracy. To think otherwise is self-deception. Didn't we just learn that the U.S. Pig State has been engaged for years in a massive conspiracy to spy on the communications of the entire world?! I mean to sit there, after all that we've seen, after all the hundreds of conspiracies of the ruling class both big and small that have been proven, and say, well, there's no complicity, there's no conspiracy, they don't coordinate as a class against our class, is just naive beyond belief. No, not everything is a conspiracy. There are differences in tactics and strategy and even policy within the ruling class, but on the basic framework of the system, the left and right wings of the bourgeoisie march in lockstep.

    In my opinion the Democrat Party politicians are the smarter social criminals. Over the years they've perfected the art of deceiving the working class. They understand, much better than the Republicans, that in order to implement unpopular, reactionary policies, you have to move more gradually or else you risk serious backlash.

  • Guest (Nate)

    hey R. Fly, I think we're talking about two different things. I basically agree with what you said here, but that's entirely about the government. I was talking about the unions and to a lesser extent leftish/liberal foundations and NGOs and the parts of the state that will largely go away if the unions go away and which will be strengthened if the unions succeed (the NLRB, maybe the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division). Those forces advocate versions of capitalism different from the versions of capitalism than the currently dominant capitalists and government personnel.

    In my view that conflict forms part of the dynamics which preserve capitalism and which produce innovations within capitalism. I think Marx shows an example of this in those parts of the chapter on the working day that I mentioned and I think the history of the creation of the National Labor Relations Act in the U.S. is another example of this.

  • What a good article, and this article about many members of the Occupy Protest having a bourgeoise ideology. I have been banned and kicked from many Occupy Protest facebook websites for writting socialist articles on their Facebook group and pages. It seems to me that many people in the USA hate corporate capitalism and they think that corporate capitalism can be replaced with a small business puritain capitalism with a human face. Its like if many people in USA hate capitalism but at the same time they still love capitalism

  • As others have said, great article. A very astute analysis.

    #3 is an absolute certainty, and one which will make many of these workers distrustful of future organizing efforts. But as you suggest, it may be possible to take the lead on these struggles in some locations. And though solidarity networks, wobblies or other independent groups don't have the resources a big service union does, SEIU's methods are not rocket science -- some of their organizing tactics, methods of surveying the shops and levels of worker support can be easily adapted (and improved upon) in a more limited area, like a neighborhood or city, where more permanent committees or networks could be set up.

    I do, however, have serious doubts about the ability to impact these campaigns from the inside. Just a word of caution about taking one of these staffing positions, based on the testimonies of a number of friends -- these staffing positions can be brutal, thankless and in many ways hardly different from low-paying service work. Depending on the organizing lead (some are actually potential comrades with decent politics and a realistic understanding of the union's limitations--many aren't) you may have to work 12 hour days on no notice, work nights and weekends, show up to surprise meetings on your days off--all while making slightly more (and often less) per hour than the workers you are trying to organize. Not to mention you could be laid off at any time for arbitrary reasons. Depending on the campaign, you may have to forget about doing other political work; not to mention your quotas and assignments may be so specific that you'll have little time to manage any kind of radical work on the job. If you're going to take one of these positions for the purposes of organizing for militancy beyond the parameters the organization sets, don't do it alone--see if you can get a whole crew hired on at once. But ultimately, though I like the notion of "dual decoupling," I think it might be more successful if largely or wholly undertaken from the outside.

    I also have some questions about the larger picture -- I think you're absolutely right to say that many of these union staffers (and some of the leaders) are motivated by WPA-era nostalgia and neo-Keynesian fantasies and that it would be right to push beyond the 'fight for 15' toward other critiques. But what are those critiques? It's not just stolen time (though that's a part of it). It also includes the facts that these jobs, in their current form should not exist in a liberated society. In their current forms, these are not jobs fit for humans to do for years on end -- they consist of either incredibly repetitive micro-assembly line work or tedious and demeaning affective labor. Not to mention that most of what these places produce is poisonous -- and environmentally destructive at several points in the supply chain.
    At the same time, I don't think these are easy issues to bring up, and don't know how such a critique gets raised under the parameters of the 'fight for 15' campaign, but certainly radicals organizing in these contexts can't ignore them. Perhaps conversations about the possibility of self-management might include conversations about what these shops produce and how.

    Comment last edited on about 7 months ago by amorrojo
  • But I should say, despite my pessimistic assessment of the strikes as led by the big unions, I do think they have important implications:

    1. More militant tactics are increasingly necessary to effect *any* reforms involving redistribution of resources, expansion of rights or preservation of existing rights. The unions are actually far behind the curve on this --Dreamers, Occupy, even workers' centers have been more understanding of this than most mainstream unions (a few militant locals notwithstanding).

    2. One implication of this is the broader popularization of militant tactics. Finally, the models of "peaceful" protest that were hegemonic after 9/11/01 are again losing their legitimacy. If SEIU, UFCW, etc. actions involve minor confrontations with the police, this, as NPC implies, opens up space for radicals to raise the stakes, if necessary. And most importantly, not just during these strikes, but in general.

    3. This might just be communist crystal ball talk, but if this kind of militancy amongst the unions (and Dreamers and Black proletarians and Idle No More) continues, look for further rifts in the Democratic Party. Though the CPC is almost totally ineffective, the service unions and NPIC-led milieus and the doe-eyed 'progressives' they attract do have a strong relationship with the Dems, which is potentially at risk. The unions are not forever immune from repression. A point will come when the of militant action suggested by these strikes (and the variety of politics it accompanies) will no longer be acceptable to the Dems. There are plenty of places where the rifts between the pro-labor wing of the Dems and the fully neoliberal variant have become open conflicts. Chicago is the most obvious recent example, but it happens all the time.
    And I think these tensions are unsustainable. The integration of the global capitalist economy, the size and relative independence of major capitalist firms, the militarization of the police and the policing functions of the military -- all make a Roosevelt-style New Deal a less likely approach (if not an outright impossibility) for the US state to take. The Dems will turn their repressive apparatus on big labor before they'll adopt a new Keynesianism. Which isn't to say we should throw all of our efforts into preserving the NLRA. Far from it.

    Comment last edited on about 7 months ago by amorrojo

Dig in.

0