Thrown off balance: workers struggles against equilibrium

A response to a debate on unions in the United States today started between a number of groups and individuals including Unity & Struggle and Advance the Struggle. This piece attempts to argue against militant reformism growing in the union movements towards a politic of ruptures and revolutionary workplace organizing drawing from the concept of equilibrium.

Submitted by s.nappalos on May 3, 2013

Recently a debate has arisen around the nature of workers, workers’ struggles, and unions amongst the broad libertarian or autonomist left[1]. The aftermath of Occupy in the United States has corresponded to a number of happenings that have pushed unions to the center of debate. Unions, particularly SEIU, used a series of community front organizations in Occupy to attempt to mobilize sections of the radical left, and ultimately to build up a network behind their electoral agenda. Armed with those relationships, campaigns like Our Walmart, the Fight for 15, and other low wage service organizing attempts utilized the connections and energy from occupy towards experimentations with organizing.

Labor is less in a free-fall than a steady decline which has been aggravated recently by the austerity cuts to government (disproportionately union). Faced with an ever weakening position, the unions have turned to more militant methods to gaining footholds which are derived from a militant past or only recently utilized by the radical left of labor like the IWW. Traditional unions are under renewed attacks to reduce labor costs in a coordinated move against the standard of living in the US. There’s an apparent attack to meet the crisis by increasing profit, jobs, etc., through raw reductions in people’s overall access to social goods and the work environment that reigned for many (but not all) over the past decades. In this environment unions and/or their members have been turning to radicals to help settle their scores, save their contracts, and often do the leg work. The struggles in the NW ILWU is the most obvious example, but countless others are unfolding.

There’s a couple features worth noting here. First there’s the defensive and sometimes offensive struggles of workers organized in unions happening in response to the changes in the economy. Second there’s the growth of militant experiments within the institutionalized unions. Last there’s the shift in work itself as the economy attempts to gain new footholds and foundations. All these features motivate and form the poles around which new debates are getting worked out.

Traditionally the libertarian left has carved out positions based on arguments around union forms. The range of opinion goes from support for unions as popular sites of struggle where capitalism is challenged, to proposals for constructing or reforming union forms in line with class struggle and/or libertarian principles, to rejections of unions because of their form within capitalism as mediating sites of bargaining. Without going into this in any depth, it’s worth noting that all such positions abstract away historical context, and attempt to create political positions for action based on the structure and form of unions more or less alone.[2]

This contrasts with the present debate taking place that puts the concrete situation in the United States at the forefront of the controversy. At its clearest, the pieces by Advance the Struggle[3] and the response by Unity & Struggle[4] show how the terrain has moved in constructing a position on labor and the workers movement. In their initial piece, Advance the Struggle makes the point that recent attacks against union workers such as healthcare workers, ILWU, etc., provide the basis for furthering the changing conditions in austerity. On the other hand militant responses provide the opportunity, they argue for broader offensives against capital.

“When unionized American workers defend their union rights against attacks by capitalist employers, like in Longview Washington or Wisconsin, it inspired significant sections of the working class to support such a defense, ultimately leading to the formation of an offensive movement. The class-wide offense begins with increasing the defense, inside the union ranks to outside the union, mobilizing as much of the working class as it can. If unions define the defense, it will be channeled into the state: lawsuits, letters to politicians, press conferences, resulting in defeat. Union workers who defend their unions do so for two reasons: to defend their narrow individual interest, but also to defend organizations of the working class. In order to cultivate the latter, we should be clear to defend unions against capitalist attacks, coupled with advocating the formation of a working class organization that can actually fight for the class as a whole as a simultaneous movement”.[5]

Unity and Struggle however present a different analysis of our place in history. The article emphasizes the shifts in the role of unions and the economy itself which problematize the idea of a defense of unions. They specifically raise the way in which unions have reinforced divisions within production itself (as well as the class), and how the class has been recomposed in ways which those divisions have been undermined not merely in power but all together.

“…It is no mystery that we are facing the demise of unions all over the world. As they consistently move within capital, they disappear as they become unnecessary. Since they explicitly limit the activity of the workers who may be capable of defending the benefits provided by them, they also work towards their own destruction. Institutions outside the class but supposedly for it will always fail in this way to do anything other than push the march of capital forward.

As it continues to decline and its very structure prevents it from becoming general to the class, the trade union form is increasingly inconceivable for a growing number of Americans forced to juggle multiple part time jobs which make each other difficult or impossible, work on a freelance basis with no job security, return to school or stay in school indefinitely due to a dismal job market, cobble together public assistance programs to make ends meet, depend on their parents as underemployed adult children, work unwaged as interns in the off chance of landing wage labor, or otherwise provide unwaged labor toward the reproduction of the working class. This final item, including housework, childcare, care for the elderly and the disabled, and so forth, is increasingly balanced with one or more waged occupations in fields which may be similar or completely different, quite arbitrarily”.[6]

It isn’t my intent to take up all the arguments in these debates, which have created a flurry of thoughtful and intriguing work being done. In a more limited capacity, I want to identify some threads within these debates and focus on them so that we can see potential new directions. The background to all this is the fact that over the past two decades there’s been a shift in the libertarian left. Today we can safely say that within the American working class there is a small but active minority of libertarians who have been active in workplace struggle, and have attempted to create new ideas, new strategies, and new theory to understand and transform their practice. The reason we are seeing these debates is because there are libertarians fighting at their union jobs, libertarians struggling in the most precarious sectors, and libertarians attempting to move beyond the limitations and errors of previous generations. The turn to historicize and place these struggles within a material context is a positive development, and all signs that should give us hope.

There are three latent features within these debates that should be pulled out and made manifest.[7] They are the role of cadre, methods, and the equilibrium of systemic power. Between these three concepts different positions are carved out. Radical unionists for example argue that the objective power of workers organized in large bodies provides the opportunity to push politics towards cadre, and step by step win objective gains that eventually make contesting capitalism possible. Some forms of syndicalism[8] argue that building syndicalist methods can build the capacity needed to cadre to form, build objective power, and step-by-step contest equilibrium. Advance the Struggle in some places appears to argue that fights around unions today provide opportunities to throw capital off-balance and build cadre in transitioning defensive fights to offensive fights. Unity & Struggle on the other hand emphasizes the role of unions in the equilibrium of capital, and emphasizes the use of autonomous and direct tactics towards ruptures. These are obvious rough and unsatisfying sketches, but provide illustration of the role of these concepts in practice.

Alongside these categories there are some problematics. First, unions are recognized to play a reinforcing role for capitalism often. As SEIU challenges sections of capital for example, it creates the attention and space for the reforms that may contribute to stabilizing capital. The role of unions in key moments to provide a vehicle for improving capitalism is well known and discussed. Concerns about this lead some to reject the mediating role of unions and emphasize workplace activity around the development of revolutionary cadre[9]. The problem is, outside of history, there is a strong force of inertia that makes sustaining cadre difficult outside of specific environments. In normal times the waves of family, work, and life beat against the sands and carry cadre out to sea. Sheer will and discipline are poor substitutes for a social environment for a libertarian alternative to grow. This is to say there’s a necessary context where a revolutionary minority can develop and sustain itself, and will alone can’t bring that into existence. It is in attempts to overcome both of these issues that we see back-and-forths in the various positions today. For example: by remaining in union struggles perhaps we can build lasting cadre around the fights of the union, or if we focus on the most precarious sectors of the class with no legal means to establish stable workplace relations we can expand struggles and cadre.

Unity & Struggle raises a key issue that is a tool to overcoming this tension. They argue that unions enforce divisions within the class that provide a framework that capital can work out. In their article they continue to say that today those divisions are becoming less necessary, and any expansion of them doesn’t stand to destabilize capital at all. Their answer is to act outside the legal structures and unions towards unmediated struggle.

“We must do this by taking direct action: slowing down work, work stoppages, occupations, and activities that build camaraderie, analysis, and capacity. We must always assert our autonomy, even if we demand legal protection from our union (which we are entitled to, even if organizing independently from them). We can, if its prudent, make demands on the union; to take control of the capital we invested in it, because it is our own. This may mean taking over the union hall, taking back our strike funds, and/or taking over closed door negotiations. But we must never be alluded by the power this might afford us. Our activity must lead to our continued independence, or we will just repeat the politics we are fighting against”.[10]

This is unsatisfactory for a few reasons. Given today’s context where we see unions acting outside the traditional union framework (Walmart, fast food, etc), there’s no reason to think that more collective and direct forms of workers struggle can’t be integrated into capitalism[11]. A successful workers movement could lead to income redistribution that allows for renewed cycles of consumption, and redefined circuits of capital. This is to say that there are many potential capitalisms within reach, and that struggle itself (and it’s form) hold no guarantee.

Still what is being raised is that today workplace struggles occur around divisions within the class rather than broader class or even social demands. They question the logic of the class-wide appeal of defensive fights, and are looking for an alternative that goes beyond reinforcing such divisions. The move towards a certain form or mode of struggle is unsatisfactory, but the questions they are posing are crucial show new directions for the workers movement.

Missing here is bringing equilibrium to the center of the debate. It is through the maintenance of equilibrium that capitalism and the state continue to thrive, reproduce, recompose forces, and adapt. The left has often seen this equilibrium as very fixed. Removing key components like control of the state have been seen as threatening the survival of the system as a whole. Yet history has shown us otherwise, and so with unions. It is not the site of struggle nor our methods (or demands) alone that will secure us the growth of revolutionary forces and the defeat of the system.

Looking specifically at equilibrium, libertarians should look to the workplace as one of the central axes within capitalism around which there will continue to be evolving struggles, structures, and formations. Our approach to the workplace needs to look beyond cadre development and building forces. Instead we need to analyze our work in terms of the equilibrium of the system itself. Cadre have a strong role to play, as does our method. Yet objective context defines the way all of these elements interact in workplace struggle. Destabilization of systemic power requires a certain environment for action. When the ruling class has unity and can rule effectively, the possibilities will be limited. In such times we can work towards undermining the stability of that rule, but the forces of inertia will have a deep impact on our actions. Likewise struggles around unions and workplaces will reflect the dynamics of the broader social equilibrium, and constitute the scope of what is possible. As actors within such a system however we will never know what these limits are. They must be tested, pressed against, and analyzed constantly attempting to take our struggles to the limit without endangering ourselves or the movement.

Armed with this analysis there are two potential avenues to take workplace work further today. At present we stand at cross roads. The ruling class for the time being has a stable rule. Fat can still be put on the table when the going gets tough. It may be however that any one of the many variables starts to unravel, and the base of agreement between rulers and the foundations for maintaining the support of the oppressed classes comes undone. It likely will not be our actions that makes or breaks it, still we may be able to push it over the edge in the right context. Moving away from an approach to workplace organizing that reinforces social divisions, could we implement a form a workplace struggle that addresses the class (or even society) as a whole? Second, could we expand the scope of what workplace struggles are about? This is to ask if we can flip the logic of workplace organizing by putting society in for the shops rather than the other way around.

These two questions pose a challenge that can redirect our thinking towards unifying thinking around cadre, equilibrium, and method. Libertarians need to be looking towards developing work that builds cadre, that tries to shatter the stability of existing channels of struggle, and utilizes a methodology that constantly pushes against capitalism and the state rather than attempting to integrate into it. There are no answers to be found here. This theory only puts forward directions and paths towards a new politic. The steps others have taken away from the structural debates of the past have tread the way for new thought and new work. It is up to those of use continuing that work in the workplace to find ways to deepen this.

[1] This piece focuses on a particular angle of the debate, but it’s worth saying that I similar discussions and controversies are unfolding amongst different players across the libertarian left. These discussions often happen in parallel. It’s my hope that some of those boundaries can be crossed and more dialogue can emerge.

[2] This isn’t to say there aren’t historically rooted versions of these arguments. For the most part however the traditional debate has occurred outside of context, and this provides a contrast for the following discussion.



[5] Ibid. ATS

[6] Ibid. U&S.

[7] These features in fact run throughout present politics, but this article will only look at workplace debates presently.

[8] These arguments are only illustrative because there are other syndicalists who believe in a more nuanced syndicalist that is not linear.

[9] Most fascinating to me is the case of the Federacion Obrero Regional de Argentina (FORA) actually the first syndicalist union. The FORA was distinguished by it’s overt commitment of all members to anarchist communism during certain periods as well as the development of an antagonism towards the union form, and the role of unions after revolution. The FORA rejected the role capitalist division of labor and consequently built a workers organization based on the power of workers and not the divisions of industry. Unfortunately there is little discussion or history available in English of the FORA, which provides an interesting case of a mass revolutionary movement.

[10] Ibid. U&S

[11] The history of the workers movement likewise is littered with radical union elements becoming integrated into state and capital renewing efforts.