Preface

Sojourner Truth Organization came into existence in the winter of 1969-70. For its first five years, it existed only in the Chicago area. During a good portion of that time, it was thought of in movement circles as "the people who organize in factories." (Almost no one else on the left in Chicago was then following a policy of industrial concentration.) Our "corner" on this sort of work had its advantages and disadvantages: it meant that we were able to recruit a number of people from the movement who were moving toward working class politics and impressed by the seriousness of our commitment; it also meant that many of these people came to us with little understanding of the differences between our approach to the workplace and the various alternatives which existed in theory, if not, at that actual moment in Chicago, in practice.

Over the next five years we were able to establish a political presence in a number of work centers, including the following: International Harvester Tractor Works, IH Melrose Park, IH Broadview, Grant Hospital, Montgomery Ward, Intercraft, Motorola, Stanadyne, Western Electric, Appleton Electric, American Can, U. S. Steel Gary Works, U. S. Steel South Works, Inland Steel, Methodist Hospital (Gary), South Chicago Hospital, Bell & Howell and Stewart Warner.

Our experience included work in heavy industry and light industry, in plants with a "good" union, a "bad" union and no union, in predominantly male, predominantly female and mixed environments, in plants with a tie to the surrounding community and in plants with no such tie; we participated in union organizing campaigns and union ousting campaigns, in wildcat strikes, slowdowns and sitdowns; we used sabotage; we published newsletters, held social affairs, showed films and conducted study groups — in short we had a breadth of experience which I believe to be unequaled by any group of comparable size and few of any size.

From the beginning we counted among our possessions more than a traditional commitment to the working class as the principal agent of social revolution; we also had a political line, which we had come to through individual and collective study of the writings of Antonio Gramsci, W. E. B. DuBois and C. L. R. James, as well as through an examination of the recent experience of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Italian "Hot Autumn" of 1969 and the 1968 French General Strike, and the earlier experience of the Industrial Workers of the World. Briefly stated, this perspective was as follows: in modern industrial societies, bourgeois rule depends on the development of a variety of "systems" that channel the outbreaks of the exploited class and allow their absorption by capital; that the specifically American framework for this process is the white-skin privilege system — the conferring of a favored status on the white sector of the proletariat; and that the trade unions cannot be understood apart from this framework. It was this political perspective — to which we remain committed to this day — and specifically the critique of trade unions, that led other sectors of the left to criticize us as "dual unionist" or "anti-union" and to instruct us with the proper quotations from Lenin's Left-Wing Communism.

On the Lenin business, there are two opinions in STO: one holds simply that Lenin was wrong (gasp!) and the proof is that he changed his mind and helped organize the Red International of Labor Unions only a year after he wrote that unfortunate pamphlet. The other (I may be alone in believing this) holds that Lenin is universally misinterpreted, and that while he certainly argued (correctly) the need to work within the right-wing unions, he never put that forward as the only, or even the main, work of communists. Whatever the result of the debate (and I'm sure Lenin's reputation will survive it), one thing we are all agreed upon (and I have instructed the typesetter to put it in boldface in order to reduce the possibility of misinterpretation), is that STO is not dual unionist in principle and it is not anti-union.

Now, I am not so naive as to think that a simple declarative statement, even one set in bold type, can lay to rest all doubts on this score. Just as sure as God made little green apples, some reader of this preface and of the articles to follow will deliver yet another attack on STO as "dual unionist." Nevertheless, owing to a defect in my character, I persist: STO cannot be dual unionist in principle, because the question is not one of principle but of tactics. There are times when it makes sense to break with an existing union and organize another; one example of this is the Fraternal Association of Steel Haulers, which is made up of people who seceded from the Teamsters Union. (The Teamsters Union will probably offer up additional examples in the next few years.) The Committee for Industrial Organization (later Congress of Industrial Organizations) was originally a dual union in relation to the American Federation of Labor, as was the AFL in relation to the Knights of Labor. Other times it makes sense to work to bring about a change in leadership and policy in an existing union; the recent experience of the United Mine Workers gives a picture of the possibilities and limitations of such a course. There can be no dogma on this matter, and those who oppose dual unionism "in principle" should be aware that in so doing they are opposing the trade union movements of virtually every country in Europe, where the rule is that competing unions and union federations exist within the same enterprise.

Unions are instruments workers use to improve their living conditions under capitalism. By representing the interests of groups of workers within the wage system, they provide a means of mediating conflicts that threaten to disrupt the system, in addition to being an arena in which conflicts develop.

One can search diligently through the left press, encountering page after page of denunciation of this or that union official, without ever coming across a statement such as the above, which seems to us undeniable. Fortunately for its continued rule, the bourgeoisie has been able to bring forth class conscious ideologists who are not bound by inherited dogmas as are most of our leftists. Two of these ideologists, Richard B. Freeman and James L. Medoff, both on the faculty at Harvard University and Research Associates at the National Bureau of Economic Research, have published a study entitled, "The Two Faces of Unionism."1

They begin with the observation, "Trade unions are the principal institution of workers in modern capitalist societies, as endemic as large firms, oligopolistic organization of industries, and government regulation of free enterprise."

"In modern industrial economies," the writers observe, "and particularly in large enterprises, a trade union is the vehicle for collective voice — that is, for providing workers as a group with a means of communicating with management." Writing in the purest sociologese, they say: "By providing workers with a voice both at the workplace and in the political arena, unions can and do affect positively the functioning of the economic and social systems."

The writers take up the arguments against unions that have been traditionally put forth by management interests — that they raise wages, introduce new work rules, lower output through strikes, etc. — and show that these objections to unions, while not entirely without foundation, are outweighed by the beneficial effects of unions in actually increasing productivity by reducing quit rates, regulating the time workers spend on breaks, and in general providing a more stable work force. They conclude that, "the positive effects of unions are in many settings more important than their negative effects," and that "the on-going decline of private-sector unionism — a development unique to the U.S. among western developed countries — deserves serious public attention."

Three cheers for Harvard. Now we in STO, similarly unbound by traditional dogmas and in addition motivated by something other than the search for industrial peace, have gone even further than the two professors. We have noted that although labor unions at times have grown out of mass struggles which had a revolutionary component, unions, as such, do not play a revolutionary role. This consistency (it cannot be called a failure) is the logical consequence of their character as institutions structured to bring about an improvement in the terms of the sale of labor power, while the aim of the proletarian revolution is to abolish the sale of labor power. In fact, unions which develop as working class institutions, even if not as revolutionary institutions, increasingly become separated from working class interests and become the structures within the working class that support the hegemony of capital over it.

We have come to the conclusion (I do not wish to anticipate the articles that follow) that work within the unions cannot be the center of a communist labor policy, that something else, which embodies the revolutionary aspirations of the proletariat, as distinct from the reform interests of groups of workers, is needed. To discover the character of that "something else" and to help bring it into existence is the central feature of STO's labor policy. But it by no means follows that we wish to destroy or weaken the present unions in general (we do wish to weaken or destroy some of them, in certain aspects) or that we are indifferent to the quality of a particular union in a particular place, or any of the other things that could conceivably be implied in the charge of being "anti-union." Indeed, a necessary consequence of the development of a mass revolutionary working class current will be the revitalization of the trade unions. This will be impelled both as a direct response to the radicalization of their constituency, and because of the heightened interests of capital in maintaining their legitimacy as a structure able to confine the working class within the capital relation.

We observe that unions are not revolutionary institutions. Immediately our opponents attack us as "anti-union." We say that something is needed to represent the mass revolutionary aspirations of the proletariat, and they accuse us of "dual unionism" since the only form of organization of a mass character which could possibly exist in the workplace is a union.

Trade unions our leftists can understand. Speak to them of revolutionary organization and they respond on cue with a lecture on the "Marxist-Leninist Party." But the notion of developing an organizational form which encompasses and focuses the mass subversive destabilizing motion of the working class — an organizational form which is mass, but is not a union, which is revolutionary, but is not a party — is beyond the scope of their categories of thought. In their view, the masses of the working class will only be revolutionary at the moment of the seizure of power, and, even then, this content will be expressed for the most part in an identification with a vanguard party.

In our view, it is not only possible, but absolutely essential, that the class that must "emancipate itself" be organized in forms which permit it to play an active creative role in the revolutionary process.

What did our experience show?

We began in 1970 with the estimate that the working class was getting ready for a big upsurge comparable to the May '68 or the "Hot Autumn." We had the evidence of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and some indication that the ferment was reaching out to white workers as well. It seemed to us a relatively simple matter to bring into existence out of the spontaneous movement some form of mass revolutionary workers' organization. (I remember writing out a model constitution for such an organization, based on the expectation that it would shortly have chapters in all the major plants in Chicago and be widely recognized as a force in industry. Fortunately, that document has been lost.)

It didn't happen that way. We found that, while we were able, for pedagogical purposes, to clearly distinguish between the autonomous and subordinated aspects of workers' behavior, in practice the distinction wasn't so clear. We found direct action mixed up with inner-union maneuvering, sabotage along side of legalistic activities, etc. — and we found that the workers we encountered were unwilling to make a categorical separation between one course of action and the other.

Time and again we encountered workers, with whom we had cooperated in shop-floor battles and who understood that no fundamental change could come through union reform, being drawn into unproductive inner-union squabbling — usually starting with the notion that it was purely tactical but, after a time, being wholly absorbed by it.

Now, if this happened regularly over a period of years in a number of different industries, it could not be attributed to individual backwardness, or poor methods of work, or any such accidental consideration. The workers were saying to us by their actions that they doubted the workability of our perspective.

The groups we were able to develop assumed a mass character and were able to exert an important influence over the struggle for only short periods of time; when they were able to maintain an existence over a fairly long period of time, their mass impact, at best, was of a propagandistic nature. In no case were we able to develop groups that exerted an important influence over events over a long period of time.

I can hear our opponents now: Practice is the test of theory, they say, and here are these ultra-left dual unionists who admit that in five years of trying they were unable to build stable organization of the type they claim is necessary. Shouldn't that convince them of the error of their ways?

Not quite. Practice is the test of theory only over the course of history. Only at moments of historic shock, at moments of crisis and qualitative change, when social forces are polarized and masses of previously atomized individuals are acting together as classes, will valid theories be conclusively proven and mistaken ones decisively refuted. In the normal routine of political work, we will constantly be reminded that every theory, no matter how sublimely improbable, can find some justification in practice; just as every type of political practice will be articulated in some form of theory.

We are laboring away at the development of organization which embodies the revolutionary aspect of the proletariat. We are doing this at a time when the proletariat is under the intellectual domination of the bourgeois class, when the expressions of its revolutionary aspect are isolated, fragmentary and sporadic, when its organizations have turned into fetters. Is it surprising that revolutionary organization built under these conditions should be fragile? Tomorrow, when the workers smash all routine, when millions break with current patterns of behavior and hurl up forms beyond the imagination of the boldest thinker, we shall see who made the greatest contribution to the emergence of the new society — those who spent their time ferreting within the structures that maintained the subordination of the workers to capital, or those who strove, under difficult circumstances, to give a fleeting existence to those forms which foreshadowed the coming upheaval.

To return to my story, the result of our work was nothing to write home about, but it wasn't too bad, given the times and the fate of other left groups coming out of the sixties. But beyond the task of iii developing independent workers' groups, STO faced a problem to keep itself together. We had recruited a number of people out of the left who went to work in industry with the expectation that their labors would lead, in the short term, to the creation of a large, organized current. If such a thing didn't happen, why so far as they were concerned, the hunt was over and they were going home.

And that is what they did. In less than a year, from the fall of 1974 to the summer of 1975, STO went through two major splits, which cost it threefourths of its membership and most of its industrial concentration, and left those who remained with little but their bodies and shadows to comfort one another. These splits certainly involved political differences, but the severity of them can only be understood against a background where a majority of the membership of STO felt that the work was not going as it should and that it was not worth the effort to stick around and figure out why.

Those of us who were left decided that we had to re-evaluate our approach to work. As a part of the process of re-evaluation, we decided on a temporary withdrawal from the workplace as a major focus of activity, in order to give attention to other areas of work which we had been more or less ignoring. Specifically, we decided to put a much greater priority on internal education and the development of a theoretical conception of the period in which we were working; we decided to attempt to intervene in ongoing debates on the left towards the goal of developing an organized conscious anti-imperialist current among those sectors which were already radicalized; we decided to put major effort into developing working relations with leading forces from among the national liberation movements in this country — relations which had eroded to pretty much nothing during our period of overwhelming workplace concentration; finally, an important part of our new direction was to attempt to reach out to cothinkers in the revolutionary left in other countries, particularly in Europe.

It was during this period of tactical reorientation that STO was invited by a group of activists in New York City to speak publicly there, and to meet informally with small groupings of people who were interested in its general line and immediate estimate of the situation. We accepted the invitation, and in the fall of 1977 I addressed a meeting there on the general topic of strategy for revolution.

The meeting was "reported" by William Gurley in the November 23, 1977 Guardian. The published account carried not one word from the talk I gave, which lasted for three quarters of an hour and ranged over a number of strategic questions; most of the column space was devoted to quoting fragments from STO documents dealing with the "white-skin privilege." Gurley's sole reference to the talk I actually gave was the following:

"The problem is to get white workers to resign from the white race," says Noel Ignatin, a leading spokesman for STO.

Ignatin defended STO's position at a recent talk on "Strategy for Revolution" in New York City, at which he formally announced the organization's switch from factory organizing to liberation support work.

He stated that STO's concentration on factory organizing was a "major mistake." STO "had lost contact with the Black and Puerto Rican movement," Ignatin said. He announced that STO's main work would now be to provide material support for national liberation movements in the U.S.

Gurley concluded his "report" with the summary, "Whereas before STO had abandoned the working class in theory, it has now abandoned it in practice."

That was all. (We note, however, that even that little bit was enough to stimulate several letters to us from persons we had not previously known, explicitly supporting our positions as against the Guardian's.)

Was the decision we made in 1975, to make a temporary, tactical shift in our work, the right one? We do not know and do not expect a conclusive answer from events, but we do note that in the ensuing years we have regained the numerical strength we had prior to our splits and defections, we have changed from a local Chicago organization to one with a national presence, we have reached out to a number of new friends and allies on the left — and all this at a time when most of the smaller left groups have undergone a shrinking and fragmenting process.

The last general membership meeting of STO resolved that it was time to reactivate an organizational concentration in production work. The publication of this pamphlet is part of the process of achieving that end.

This pamphlet brings together documents published during the first five years of STO's existence. All are out of print and have been unavailable for some time. Together, they represent the theoretical and analytical foundation for STO's intervention in workplace situations.

The Theses on Workplace Organizing, which open this collection, were adopted at a general membership meeting in 1973, when STO was still only a Chicago organization. It is placed first in the collection, out of normal chronological order, because of its character as Theses, an attempt to state, in barest possible form, the elements of a position.

The second piece in the collection, A Call to Organize, was the first document STO published. It was written in 1970 and was published over the next few years in several different versions, including one with the title Mass Organization At the Workplace. The present version is a composite of several of the earlier ones, assembled with the aim of leaving intact both the most forceful arguments and most obvious mistakes, while avoiding duplication.

Reflections on Organizing, which appears next in order, was written later in the same year for a discussion within STO of methods of work; it is a challenge to another approach which then enjoyed a certain vogue within the movement in general and within STO as well. Reflections on Organizing was published in Radical America in March-April 1972; an important "not" omitted from that version has been restored to its proper place.

Review of "Reflections on Organizing" was a response to the Radical America piece, written by a member of the English organization Big Flame. STO learned of the existence of this review only in 1978.

Black Worker/White Worker was previously published in the STO collection Understanding and Fighting White Supremacy, as well as in Radical America, July-August 1974, and as a separate pamphlet by both STO and the New England Free Press. As the title indicates, it deals with a subject that plays a crucial part in determining STO's labor policy, with implications that go beyond the workplace.

The Steward's Position was written by someone who was at the time of writing a member of a group with which STO was associated. The writer is today a member of another left organization whose line is totally contrary to the line of this article, and would in all likelihood be embarrassed were his/her authorship of this piece to become known. Although it is somewhat rigid and one-sided in its conclusions, we are including it here because it poses sharply certain considerations which are routinely ignored.

Trade Unions/Independent Organizations was written as a contribution to an internal debate in STO. It was an attempt to examine the organization's experience in implementing its line, and to correct some unrealistic expectations which had arisen from an over-simplified critique of trade unionism. It was previously published in an earlier, poorly typed and poorly printed collection of workplace papers.

A Golden Bridge was first published in the collection referred to above, and reprinted in Political Discussion number 2, April 1976.

The American Labor Movement in 1974 is the final piece in this collection. It was originally prepared for the National Lawyers Guild's labor conference in Atlanta on March 22, 1974. After its initial distribution there, it was reprinted in the April 1974 issue of the Guild's Labor Newsletter. Some minor errors were corrected when it was reprinted in Political Discussion number 1, December 1974, from which it was taken for this collection.

As an appendix to this collection, we are including a selection of leaflets and shop papers. These are not STO leaflets or "line" papers. In every case they are the product of collaboration between STO members and workers who have no affiliation to any Marxist organization. They are included here to give the reader some of the "flavor" of STO's notion of independent organization at the workplace.

Noel Ignatin
March 1980

  • 1. The Public Interest, Number 57 (Fall 1979), pages 69-93. The issues raised in this article will be analyzed at greater length in a forthcoming book, What Do Unions Do? to be published by Basic Books.