John Reimann responds to Advance the Struggle on the union debate
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 on February 21, 2013
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.
Then there is another factor: Historically, the most militant and class conscious sector of the working class is the industrial sector. That was certainly true in the US in the ’30s. This is the sector that most strongly tends to carry the traditions of the class struggle. However, that sector was decimated, not only in the US but in the West in general.
It was exactly here that many of the attacks against union workers was felt the most, for example in steel and auto. In auto in particular, there was a pretty widespread struggle against concessions, but in almost every single case they were unable to convince the majority of workers to vote against concessionary contracts. I think the reason was two fold:
First, they had no strategy for countering the job losses. They never put forward a strategy for organizing the unorganized plants nor for how to link up with the auto workers in other countries. Thus, the majority of auto workers felt that their only options were to accept cuts or lose their job entirely.
But this reflected a decline in the consciousness in general. Almost all the old traditions have been lost. The near total collapse of any socialist current within the working class has meant that, among other things, there is a general mood that it’s not up to us as individual workers to figure out what has to be done and to take an initiative and organize it. And after all, why should we? There is no percentage in organizing to buck the entire union leadership, with all the repercussions that follow, if all you are fighting for is a few more dollars on the pay check. Better to spend your time and energy studying and playing the stock market. Of course, I’m being ironic here, but the point is that in general the main driving force behind being a union oppositionist is seeing that this activity is involved in a wider struggle to transform society. And that vision has been decimated, until recently.
I think there are a few conclusions that can be drawn from this view:
First is that the collapse of the revolutionary left, and its extreme weakness inside the unions is first and foremost a result of objective developments. The problem is that that many in the revolutionary left became disoriented by those developments. Some adapted by making their peace in one way or another with the union bureaucracy. They disguised their links with the union bureaucracy by being the most active members, but it is activity without organizing around opposing the perspectives, program and strategy of the bureaucracy/hierarchy. Then there are others who conclude that the dangers of getting caught in that web are so overwhelming that the best thing is to simply stay out of it altogether. I’ve met several people of this view who then turned right around and became part and parcel of the official leadership.
The third way is to be active in the union but with a perspective and program. Whenever a small step forward is taken, support that step and clearly point out what this step implies — what is the next logical step that has to be taken. Support strengthening the union, but explain that the role of the official leadership in general leads in the opposite direction. Oppose concessions, but explain what such opposition means.
We cannot escape the role of the union officialdom. We saw that in Occupy Oakland, for instance. There, when it became clear that it wasn’t going away anytime soon, a layer of that officialdom got involved in order to ensure that the radicalism of Occupy didn’t infect their members. (It was really a shame how quickly even a layer of the anarchists jumped on the officials’ bandwagon.)
But there is another conclusion: While the mainstream unions still remain by far and away the largest and most powerful organizations in the US working class, and while they have the strongest traditions within the working class, we have to accept that they are extremely weakened not only in numbers but also in terms of how present they are in the consciousness of millions of workers. Many, maybe even most, union members, for instance, couldn’t even tell you the name of the union to which they belong. (I once worked with a young carpenter who thought that the AFL-CIO was a new football league!) Whenever a big mass of workers determines that they simply cannot take it any longer, that they absolutely have to overcome all obstacles and rise up, given how the official channels of the unions are so blocked off, in many cases it may be that these struggles are carried out outside these official channels. Isn’t that exactly what happened with the South African miners? Once started, whether it be inside the mainstream unions or outside or some of both, such a struggle will have an impact within the mainstream unions and will draw all sorts of workers into activity. But we have to prepare for all of this.
I don’t think there is any one rule for whether revolutionaries who are union members should be active in their union. So much depends on their particular situation and the particular situation within their union and their work place. And what may be valid for one time can change overnight as the situation changes. But I do think that the above understanding and perspectives should be borne in mind, whether a revolutionary is active in her or his union or not. And definitely in this period they shouldn’t take an appointed, paid staff position with the bureaucracy/hierarchy.
Originally posted: February 21, 2013 at Advance the Struggle
Although we come at this from
Although we come at this from different perspectives (me, anarcho-syndicalism, John, from orthodox Trotskyism), I would agree with this:
Not trying to be too snarky,
Not trying to be too snarky, but JR has been kicked out of virtually every group he's ever been a member of. Seems like the Wobs are the only ones left who still tolerate his presence.
Black Badger wrote: Not
Do they? He's no longer a member of the One Big Union either.
Don't know if he jumped or was pushed. Doesn't really matter.
It doesn't mean his point is
It doesn't mean his point is off base. Do you think what's said is incorrect? T
syndicalist wrote: It doesn't
Yes, it is incorrect and disingenuous.
During Occupy Oakland, it was the other way around. A piecard at the UNITE-HERE local in Oakland reached out to the officialdom of the county labor bureaucracy, along with an anarchist and Advance the Struggle cadre. Behind the backs of everyone, they forged a link with the Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Alameda Labor Council, Josie Camacho. Being of Asian descent, she was not only a close personal friend and confidant of Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, but as founder of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance was the pivot that fed labor dollars and resources in Alameda County to the Democratic Party. Camacho had also been a staffer for previous Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums.
Reimann was close to the Facilitation Committee, in effect the de facto -- and vanguardist -- leadership of Occupy Oakland (members of which who were anarchists in name only). Not wanting to be left out of the deal where Occupy's alliance with the Labor Council would swell ranks when union bureaucrats "called out" their membership for the joint march, Reimann went along with this whole charade -- going so far as defending the proposal for this Occupy-Labor Council alliance while it was debated at a General Assembly.
The march turned out to be a predictably unimaginative pageant (although a fence did get removed at an empty lot near Oscar Grant Plaza afterwards) and the only unionists who honored the "call out" were piecards, but they were only doing their jobs.
To his credit Reimann apologized for doing this later, speaking out of order at another General Assembly, but it was too late. He threw his lot with the labor bureaucracy and what he writes is disingenuous and meaningless.
And frankly, this stale Trotskyite boilerplate ideology doesn't belong on libcom.
I meant the portion which I
I meant the portion which I quoted
syndicalist wrote: I meant
Sure it's right, like the broken clock twice a day . . .
Well, tick, tock then
Well, tick, tock then
Fair enough. Time to agree to
Fair enough. Time to agree to disagree, fellow worker.
My critique comes from having heard this whole "Militant tendency" legacy bullshit, you know the revolutionary entryism into the Labour Party and the "revolutionary" councillors in Liverpool, ad nauseam.
Wow, not even the local
Wow, not even the local Wobblies tolerate his shenanigans any more. Maybe there's some hope left for them after all. Or it could just be another case of the broken clock...
Hieronymous wrote: Fair
Yeah, I'm both factually and historically familiar with both the MT and John
I just agreed with the specific quote
I also get the "Oakland Socialist" which he's involved with
Maybe it's just him I dunno. Not that I agree with everything,but wil read most
stuff out if interest And things specific to practice and tactics I will usually read or skim
I might barf afterwards, but this is where my personal interest lies
BB, I didn't know he's no longer in the IWW. I suspected he wasn't cause he doesn't mention it in his writings no more. Maybe he has one of those obnoxious, sectarian and prickly personalities
I'm not going to comment in
I'm not going to comment in someone's membership but as John is one of the few people on the existing radical left that has been involved in not only a big strike, not only a wildcat strike, but was a key figure in one, and subsequently was purged out of the Carpenters union, I don't think his opinion can just be written off based on political self-identification.
That doesn't mean I haven't disagreed with him, in fact we've argued about everything from what we should do in Wisconsin to the Organizer Trainings.
Black Badger wrote: Not
Yeah like when the Carpenter's union charged him with "insubordination" for his role in the 1999 wildcat, and stripped him of all membership rights.
Like Juan I've disagreed with him on many political points, and there've been other times where I disagree with his style or emphasis. But that goes for Hieronymous, syndicalist, or Juan as well.
There's some people who seem to have an unhealthy addiction to just talking shit on other leftists. Grow the fuck up.
Trots will always have
Trots will always have analyses and strategies that overlap to differing degrees with more libertarian leftists and certain types of anarchism. This is not the surprise. The surprise is that Reimann, who does indeed have an obnoxious, sectarian, and prickly personality, is still able to rest (unchallenged by some) on the laurels he allegedly earned decades ago -- despite what Hieronymous correctly brought up about his behind the scenes bullshit with the Alameda County labor council bureaucrats during Occupy Oakland.
His role at Occupy was especially reprehensible during a side meeting to determine whether some other piecard hack should be expelled from Occupy due to his clear contacts with Quan's husband (ie, he was a spy for the City of Oakland). All the pro-unionists decided according to union loyalty rather than the explicitly mandated resolution of the GA to reject the presence of any politician or person connected to a politician. The spy was allowed to stay.
Incidentally, this was just one example (among several) of an actually meaningful decision that was deliberately removed from the GA in order to avoid "political differences" coming up at the GA. In its typical bureaucratic, substitutionist manner, the Facilitation Committee decided for the rest of the GA that this issue was not important enough to explain and determine at a GA. So the GA could comfortably continue passing resolutions of no risk and no consequence...
Revised and edited
Revised and edited version:
The critique of his practice is not lost on me here, but not the focus of my interest in one point he made.
It's sorta funny in the grand scheme of this conversation, it would probably be more productive to spend time critiquing the "Advance the Struggle" and "Unity & Struggle" positions and the trend they represent then a crank who paid his dues some years ago.
[I have edited out the Cranky but Honest Syndicalist World Critique]
OliverTwister wrote: Black
Again, young Bolshevik cadre, you need a timeout. Let's not get into your addiction that attracts you to those on the wrong side of the class line.
What Reimann did during those strikes was admirable, if we are to take his word, but that was a decade and a half ago. And what do you know beyond what he personally told you? In the whole time I've lived in the area, I have never heard another human being give a substantial account of those events. Additionally, no one has ever spoken positively about his role in them (nor have they spoken negatively, to be fair). Mostly because Reimann's caustic personality has driven no one to defend him. That's pretty sad.
Case in point: a member of the Bay Area I.W.W. branch organized an event several years ago for Reimann to talk about his involvement in more than one wildcat strike. The Wob fliered for it and promoted the event far and wide. I went, hoping that other veterans of the wildcats would come and give a deeper analysis of these strikes, as well as from different political (as in non-Trot) perspectives. When I showed up, there were just two people in the room: Reimann and the Wobbly. The guy who had keys to the venue and had let them in eventually sat in too, but later told me he only did it out of pity.
It was totally bizarre and completely awkward. We'd heard the same story before many times, so the three of us sat there and heard it again, verbatim. I wanted to be enthused and fired up and come out of it full of energy and inspiration for the class war. But in the end, I left demoralized, with less hope that when I first got there. To me, that's his legacy.
He played the same role during Occupy, by being so opportunistic and unprincipled. Black Badger is correct about the union hacks, many of whom had hardly ever been to Oscar Grant Plaza before, circling the wagons and protecting their own -- in this case another union bureaucrat spying for the mayor's husband (who was on a PR campaign, trying to ingratiate her into Occupy).
One more for you, Oliver:
One more for you, Oliver:
You and I co-presented on General Strikes at a Labor Notes event in Oakland about 4 years ago. Reimann bashed both of us pretty harshly, calling our joint presentation "disgraceful" and "ignorant." Our crime? We wouldn't give him a platform to defend business unions by claiming they "still remain organizations of the working class, however much the conservative and cowardly bureaucracy may have them in a strangle hold."
WTF! It was our presentation, that happened to be very inclusive and participatory, with open comments by attendees throughout, and his attempted soliloquy was totally off-topic -- and alienating to others in the room who came to discuss general strikes. His ad hominem attack on us personally had nothing to do with the content of what we presented.
To me, that's emblematic of his contribution to class struggle.
I've been hearing people
I've been hearing people bad-jacket John for being a Trotskyist since 2006. Many of those people have since gotten staffer jobs with non-profits. John was a working carpenter until he retired, and was despised by the Carpenter bureaucracy for decades many of the right reasons.
Apparently while it used to be relationship to the means of production that determined which side of the class line someone is on, now it is just a matter of personality and whether someone's ideology is en vogue.
I have no idea why Hieronymous keeps telling me to take a "time out". Hasn't he already decided that the professorial elite are on the wrong side of the class line?
Really, it's embarassing to see how insistent people are about throwing vitriol.
"Bad-jacketing" is calling
"Bad-jacketing" is calling someone a cop or an agent provocateur when they are not one. As far as I know, Reimann was an actual bona fide Trotskyist for many years, being a part of (at least) the Internal/Bolshevik Tendency. His analyses fit with at least one of the thousand and one varieties of Trotskyism, as do his strategies. It's not "bad-jacketing" to refer to someone as what they are.
So, if I didn't comment,
So, if I didn't comment, would this just have been a drab nothing piece buried somewhere?
I mean, check out the other semi trot stuff also. Prolly make for a more interesting convo
OliverTwister wrote: I've
How is it "bad-jacketing" when he self-identifies as a Trot in the Militant tendency? His entryism into the I.W.W. was pretty transparent. He formed an internal caucus in the local branch and had impressionable kids reading Lenin and Trotsky under his tutelage.
How's saying that vitriolic?
Quote: So, if I didn't
No, because at least two people here have had especially negative interactions with this guy.
I hear ya. basically, cause no one said a thing before hand. And this was already on the 2nd page by the time I commented. Anyway, it's really not that important. I was just curious in a silly sorta way.