On the union debate

A collection of articles, responses and replies to a debate on unions in 2013.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on April 5, 2015

The Problematic of the Union in the U.S. – What is to Be Done? (Part 1)

The first article, by Advance the Struggle, submitted with the intention of sparking a debate on intervention and relation by left and anti-state revolutionaries to the unions.

Submitted by klas batalo on April 10, 2013

The Advance the Struggle Collective is currently engaged in high level discussion around the central political question of the unions and how revolutionaries interpret its history, its present, and how communist intervention can help develop a much-needed revitalized labor movement. The experience of the Chicago teacher’s strike, the battle in the Northwest over the fate of the ILWU, and the mass uprising of public sector workers in Wisconsin stresses both the need to defend unions from bourgeois offensives and the limitations of rank-and-file activity within actually-existing unions; on the other hand, the struggles of Wal-mart, Mi Pueblo, Hot & Crusty, and fast food workers reveals a strong rank-and-file desire for the unionization that might provide some dignity, security, and a greater platform from which to organize and increase rank-and-file confidence against the bosses. What’s the analysis and what’s the program?

In light of this, we are providing two separate pieces on unions written by AS comrades. We don’t pretend to have a uniform line on this important question yet, but we believe that by public, transparent debates we can create a healthy culture of revolutionary debate and dialogue, embracing differences while striving for higher levels of principled unity through our practice in the school of class struggle.


Unions – How do We Intervene?

NOTE: This section of the program focuses on what we do when we do orient to unions. There are entire areas of the class struggle that are just as important as the labor movement. Other areas of class struggle are dealt with in other sections of the program. They are separated from each other for analytical purposes, and NOT because they are built in isolation from each other.


Existing unions are not sufficient for general working class uplift much less proletarian revolution. However, those forms of working class organization which lay beyond these can only come about through the work of strengthening existing unions in addition to building intermediate organizations not identified with specific workplaces (these could be called “class-wide committees”). At this time, AS avoids simplistic prescriptions that champion one form over another, as the class struggle is not at all developed enough to prove where the locus of our interventions ought to be.

Our program regarding the labor movement is this:

1. Defend unions from capitalist and state attack.

This is in the interest of the particular workers under attack, but is also in the interest of all workers. As the bar is lowered for one group, it is lowered for others.

2. Transform the character of unions.

Beyond democratic rank and file control of unions, we seek to transform unions, so as to make them more porous, more linked with other workers, and active on a political plane beyond the employer and job category to which they pertain.

3. Bring unions into an overall proletarian offensive against capital, for socialism.

In connection with transforming unions through the power struggle for control within them, unions must be brought into broader class organizations, or “class-wide committees” that coordinate strikes, blockades, occupations, and other forms of take-overs of space and time.

What are Unions?

1. The most basic relationship all workers have with their employers is one of economic exploitation, meaning that they are paid below the full value of work they perform. Unions are an economic united front of workers to defend against this exploitation. The most basic function of a union is to bring the workers’ pay as close as possible to the full value of their work.

2. We do not see the union movement as the vehicle for socialist revolution, but as the most consistent arena of organized worker resistance to capital. The unionized sector of the working class is disproportionately important to class formation and class consciousness. It is, therefore, crucial to have a clear-headed approach to working within unions. Orienting toward unionized sector of the working class must never blind us to the vast majority of the proletariat that is not unionized (addressed elsewhere in this program).

3. The main property of a union is the “collective bargaining” process. This consists of the members of a union agreeing to a pay scale, articulated in a contract that is available for all to read. The collective aspect of labor unions is what employers generally dislike about them; bosses prefer to deal with each worker individually, so that they can intimidate and lie to each worker, as well as pit them against each other as a means by which to strike the lowest “bargain” for wages.

State Hegemony over Unions

4. The CIO was a split in the conservative AFL that organizationally united the proletariat as never before in the US. The CIO represented a mass split from the AFL, growing out of militant rank and file unionism of the General strikes and factory occupations of the early 30s. The CIO had a heavy marxist influence amongst the rank and file leaders, who for a period succeeded at pushing the CIO to act as a vehicle for militant struggles, but the Communist Party militants in particular, supported the CIO’s connection to the Democratic Party and the “no-strike pledge” of WWII.

5. The National Labor Relations Board was established by the New Deal regime of FDR during the Great Depression to mediate this sharp class conflict. It established a legally protected mechanism for collective bargaining and workplace grievance procedures to work out and keep production going steadily. The NLRB registers unions and arbitrates contracts.

6. Although workers were able to use the new corporatist structure of the New Deal Era to get unprecedented wages and benefits, the NLRB turned out to be one step toward the co-optation of unions by the state, a step followed by ever-more restrictive laws that limit tactics of labor struggle. In a sense, workers, under the leadership of pro-capitalist union officials and misguided Stalinist CP militants, consented to their political defeat (despite impressive economic gains) during this period. The most blatant aspect of this political defeatism was loyalty to the Democratic Party. Despite this, workers launched wildcat strikes in defiance of the capitalists and bureaucrats. 1946 was the USA’s last general strike, taking place in Oakland, CA.

7. Objective shifts in the capitalist accumulation processes (eg, automation and outsourcing in the post-war period) were implemented smoothly by the destruction of militant organizational intervention at the base of unions (the red scare, McCarthyism, etc) and other coercive measures such as the Taft-Hartley Act which among other things, outlawed the sympathy strike tactic which lay at the heart of the wave of general strikes that swept the US in the early 30s and then in the mid 40s.

The Bureaucracy is Anti-Union

8. The combination of reconfigured production, state co-optation and legal repression paved the way for the always latent bureaucratic layer to consolidate their control at the top of union structures. A revival of rank and file agency is the key to breaking free of the bureaucratic and legal choke-hold that has prevailed over the six decades of defeat experienced by the US working class.

9. The union bureaucracies only fight capitalist attacks to protect their self-interest as a parasitic layer that sucks the blood (in the form of dues wasted on CEO-level salaries for officials and political donations, as well as restrictions on rebellious activity) from the membership. If the union is smashed, bureaucratic CEOs loose their cash-cow. Sometimes this interest corresponds with rank and file interests in winning improved work conditions, wages and benefits. Most often, however, union bureaucracies sell out workers’ demands in back room deals, that might preserve the union formally, but gut its content as a workers’ economic united front to the extent that many union members themselves either have no idea they are even in a union or have anti-union sentiments.

10. The bureaucratic parasites that stifle militancy and keep unions isolated from one another as separate fiefdoms cannot spoil our class loyalty to defend unions against capitalist interests which almost always reside in anti-unionism.

Defend Unions by Transforming Them

11. Most of the left, AS included, lacks significant membership or influence amongst unionized sectors. At our current stage, we are limited in our outside interventions due to our small size and the low level of class struggle coming organically from the proletariat generally. Main dimensions of outside support include joining unions on the picket lines, supporting union organizing campaigns, and organizing other parts of the proletariat to combine in struggle against a common enemy.

12. When we find ourselves within unions, as one worker wrote recently in a workplace newsletter of the Oakland public schools: “We must demand that our union leadership negotiate in open meetings where teachers, parents and students can all observe and have input. On top of this, we must, as the rank and file, develop the framework to be ready at a moment’s notice to withdraw support from the union bureaucracy if we feel there is even a hint of capitulation or self-interest from leaders. Whether this comes in the form of a union caucus or education committee, or something more inclusive of other sectors of workers — like a workers council, it must have complete autonomy from any of the hierarchical structures designed to limit the militancy and success of strike actions.” (Issue #4 of Classroom Struggle, p 16)

13. By building cells of militant workers within unions, which push struggle for uncompromising demands and challenge the bureaucracies to match their resolve, unions can be transformed out of their frozen impotent state. This transformative process includes opening union struggles to participation of non-union members and injecting the union into struggles outside of its the parameters of its own membership. Crucially, transformation involves breaking from the legality and proceduralism that bars unions from using winning tactics.

14. As we stated in our article, Occupy, ILWU, EGT and the Coming Class Battles (9/3/13) “The right for rank-file to negotiate during contract fights is something forgotten by a new generation of radicals that over emphasize the agency of surplus populations and street protests as the new form of class struggle or understand the labor movement as getting a job as a union organizer, or doing volunteer work for a union campaign. The new generation of radicals, avoiding these twin pitfalls, should share a political principal of fighting for rank-file participation, with a rank-file analysis, in contract fights and negotiations. Giving this political terrain to the bureaucratic leadership will only lead to the string of defeats unions have been subjected to in the last 30 years of capitalism offensive.”

Rank and File Transformation, Linking with the Class

15. Any effort that succeeds at organizing rank-file hegemony in the negotiating process, let alone initiating and leading strikes and workplace take-overs, will put the union on the path toward serious confrontation with the legalistic modus operandi of modern the labor movement. It would predictably cause a mass split in a union between those that support the officialdom’s class collaborationism and those who seek working class autonomy. These new “mass split” unions would already have structure, history of struggle, and a recently radicalizing experience of being forced by circumstance to break with legalistic bureaucratism.

16. Most likely, the conditions which pushed rank and file towards intransigence in the face of their employers, bureaucratic officialdom, and the state, would be spurring similar processes amongst other sectors of the class. This would open up the possibility for militants from all sectors to link up into “class-wide committees” that coordinate common assault on capital in a framework beyond and even independent of unionism.

17. We must have no such syndicalist illusions to believe that unions transformed by rank and file intransigence, would themselves be the organizational vehicles for the socialist revolution that is necessary for abolishing the wages system (capitalism). Unions never have – and never will – play the role of revolutionary organization. Neither is it probable that the effort to split existing unions away from bureaucratism would fully triumph; it is likely that in a revolutionary situation, the revolutionary process will unfold so rapidly as to render this work redundant by the supersession of the union by higher organizational forms, or capitalist dynamism will smash transformed unions back into bureaucratic behemoths.

18. However, in non- or pre-revolutionary situations (as our own), any success in the effort to defend unions from capitalist attack by transforming their character toward rank and file control and more inclusiveness would forge new advanced cadres within the working class itself, steeled in political and economic aspects of class struggle. These most advanced members of the proletariat could, with their skills, experience, and the trust of thousands of other workers, build the broader proletarian structures (workers councils, “class-wide committees”, soviets, proletarian parties, etc) that would be the seeds of mass proletarian revolutionary organization.

19. Defense of the unions through their transformation is one important pathway through which masses of proletarian warriors will be trained. It need not precede efforts in building broader proletarian organizations. In fact the processes will have to run parallel to one another, and feed each other symbiotically. It is clear to us that this is the general outline of what work within unions has to look like.

Originally appeared: February 11, 2013 at Advance the Struggle


The Problematic of the Union in the U.S. – What is to be Done? (Part 2)

Second part of the debate on revolutionaries intervention and relation to unions from members of Advance the Struggle.

Submitted by klas batalo on April 10, 2013

Revolutionaries, Unions and emerging Class Struggle.

“Trade Unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachment of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system.” -Marx


So few revolutionaries are implanted in the landscape of over 14 million US union members, making a key task the formation of revolutionary cells amongst the rank and file of unions, which would engage in three types of political work; 1) day to day organizing and base building amongst the rank and file of that union, 2) form new working class organizations outside of the unions (like solidarity unionism or independent committees) and, 3) in rupturing moments of capitalist attack, like the “Wisconsin moment,” to lead classwide offensives against capital.


American revolutionaries currently lack an adequate perspective detailing precisely what sort of political interventions are necessary to make a revolution. Unions are locations of struggle between workers and capital, central to any potentially successful revolutionary strategy. The revolutionary left has two general strategies in dealing with the unions. One is to orient towards them as if they are another part of capital; the other is they are a viable organization of the working class that should be transformed into instruments of working class struggle. Such disagreements lead to differences in how the character and structure of the unions is outlined, the first view of them as fully co-opted and transformed by capital, the other that unions are flawed but still changeable organizations of the working class. To begin a characterization of unions, we can begin with when Marx, in 1864, when he was preparing the formation of the First international. In The Process of Production of Capital, the “missing” 6th chapter, written a few months before the foundation of the First International, Marx stated, “The trade unions aim at nothing less than to prevent the reduction of wages below the level that is traditionally maintained in the various branches of industry…The workers combine in order to achieve equality of a sort with the capitalist in their contract concerning the sale of their labor. This is the rationale (and logical basis) of the trade unions…They are insurance societies formed by the workers themselves.” Such insurance societies formed a rigid caste of functionaries that made decisions, and shaped the process of how those decisions were made, due claiming to have a technical, and organizational superiority in the management of the trade-union organization. As a result, the functionaries that operated the union developed political and class interests that diverged from the interests of the worker members of the union, and became the bureaucracy. Robert Brenner states in Rebel Rank and File, “Since the officials‘ well-being depends instead on whatever it takes to secure the trade union’s health and prosperity, their overriding tendency is to confuse the defense of the organization with the defense of the membership, with the former taking precedence over the latter and tending to become an end in itself, rather than simply a means to further the goals of the rank and file.” This bureaucracy, shaping the structure of the union as a whole, became vertically integrated into the state, beginning with the formation of the National Labor Relation Board formed after, and a response to, the 1934 general strikes. After World War II, such integration only intensified. The process of the union’s vertical integration into the state, parallels the movement of the growth of intensity regarding the constantly increasing quantitative output of commodity production. The political machinery of unions merged directly with the Democratic Party, and the logic of capitalist law, severely narrowing what unions were allowed to do after 1947. Taft-Hartley was passed that year, making sympathy strikes illegal, a central act of transforming workers struggle into a class offensive. In 1950, the “Treaty of Detroit” took place, where the United Auto Workers became responsible for rationalizing the labor process to raise productivity and maximize profits, shifting the whole character of unions. Fast forwarding to 2009, the United Auto Workers bought and now owns about 65 percent of Chrysler stock and 17.5 percent of General Motors. The financialization of union pensions lead to further integration of unions into capital. The restructuring of the union system and the legal guarantee of steady flow of dues to maintain the union, eliminated the political culture of shop stewards being workplace militants who solve issues through worker action in the workplace. As a result, the class struggle content of unions before the 1950s are gone. Unions shifted by being political integrated into the laws and institutions of the state, as well as an economic integration by having to maintain a steady flow of profits. This is the opposite of what unions did during their era of formation. In 1905 with the IWW, and in 1935 with the CIO, these unions had an offensive character by organizing non organized workplaces, fighting against brutal exploitation, establishing new and emerging working class rights. Nevertheless, given the shifts within the structure of unions, their reason for existence is to maintain the collective bargaining agreement, the insurance workers have established in selling their labor-power at a rate that reduces the level of exploitation. Since, World War II, unions have become defensive organizations, and in practice the first line of defense against the boss. The contemporary elimination of unions allows capital to atomize workers into defenseless wage-slaves. As a result, capital has, and is still, on the march of busting unions, due to how the content of collective bargaining agreements is a barrier to maximizing profits. The class struggle response to this dynamic has been to still to radically transform unions into vehicles of class struggle by overthrowing the bureaucracy or develop class struggle outside of the unions. Both have equally failed.

The United States has been a political desert, with class struggle at an all time low. In the 1970s, 20% of workers were involved in strikes or lockouts, while in 2009, it was only 0.05%. The US competes with South Korea for having the most dangerous workplaces in the “advanced” capitalist world, with 14 workers killed a day. 2% of the population, seven million people, Largely Black and Latino, are awaiting trail, in prison or on parole, almost exactly numbering the loss of industrial jobs. On January 23, 2013, the New York Times, published an article titled “Share of the Work Force in a Union Falls to a 97-Year Low, 11.3%.” At the same time, as of recently, we have seen some incredible working class mobilizations; Chicago Teachers, Longview, Washington Longshore workers, and public sector workers in Wisconsin. To a lesser extent we have seen walkouts of Walmart workers, strikes of truckers in Southern California, and strikes of fast-food workers in New York. Chicago, Longview, and Wisconsin are massive reactions to union busting, while Wal-Mart workers, truckers, and fast-food workers are new workers movements against brutal unchecked exploitation. Regarding Wisconsin, Longview and Chicago, class-conscious union workers defended their unions against capitalist attack, inspiring massive working class mobilizations as a response. Yet when there was massive mobilization to go on the offensive against capital it lacked a clear strategy and deeply rooted organization of public sector workers to do so. Wisconsin led to a defeat, Longview received one of the worst contracts in ILWU history, and the Chicago teachers strike was an exceptional draw. ILWU local 21 in Longview accepted a horrific contract due to ILWU president McCallrath threatening to not pay state sponsored fees of a million dollars if the contract was not signed. Chicago was semi-successful due to mobilizing the Chicago working class as a whole, raising demands in the interest of working class youth, and elevating the politics of standardized testing, while the leadership caved into what was acceptable by capitalist law. Capital will continue to co-opt and attack unions, pushing as far as it can go in maximizing profits, while producing millions of powerless wage-slaves who live in ever more increasing precarious conditions.

South Africa and China

To compare our situation with other countries, it is worth examining recent strike waves in China and South Africa. The wildcat strike wave that swept the platinum belt in South Africa in 2012 was ignited by the South African police sponsored murder of mine strikers. The leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the union of the strikers, sided with the police. This caused the rank and file to split from the NUM and form worker committees. Striking workers won a 22% raise, the largest in South African history, unleashing a strike wave that was unified on that demand. These strikes, not sanctioned by the union, were wildcat strikes, forming new working class organizations. Such worker committees coordinated the strike movement throughout the country. China has also caught the world by storm, as it is reported that it has 1,500 strikes a day. Unions in China are almost without exception either controlled by the state or by the boss. Workers go on strike, engage in informal collective bargaining, and choose their own representatives and the official union acts as an intermediary with the boss. These wildcat strikes have actually been very effective at getting big wage increases. But it has not been able to transform existing unions or form its own organizations of class combat and political struggle, something equivalent to the South African worker committees. One striking Chinese worker who participated in the Honda strikes of 2010 stated in a interview by Rena Lau in Restructuring of the Honda Auto Parts Union in Guongdong, China: that, “we should put our union executives to a fresh vote…the others were also in favour of the idea.” These movements demonstrate the centrality of forming serious class combat based working class organization that will first struggle within their own unions, and only when all possibilities are exhausted will rank and file militancy lead to rupturing with the unions to form new working class organizations of class struggle. If South Africa is an ending point, China represents the beginning.

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 classwide 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. American unions have a broad range of differences, with the ILWU shutting down the ports against imperialist war and controlling their own hiring process to the UAW who own the majority of Chrysler and enforce speed ups. Each union, demands a particular strategy to deal with their own unique complexity. Socialist who have been trying to transform their unions have lived in a bureaucratic proceduralist swamp for decades. Leftist who sought a new labor movement outside of unions have also been met with only defeat. As of now, we cannot measure with precision the union’s capacity for transformation, and when a rupture will need to take place, until moments of open class conflict. But with that said, we must challenge the transformation of the unions perspective, and a rupture from the unions perspective, as two bankrupt programs for developing class struggle.

Towards the formation of Revolutionary Cells

As the union debate has been focused on singular possibilities, transformation or rupture, the left has no proposal of how to actually do either successfully. As a result, we must pull the lens back and realize there are over 14 million workers in the US that are members of unions, with very few revolutionaries implanted in such a landscape. Informal groups of workers that are unified and engage in common acts of resistance can somewhat alter the power relations at work. Working class organization coupled with working class acts of resistance, forms working class power, the antithesis of capital. The powerless landscape of wage-slaves within almost dead unions will begin to unravel with the formation of class struggle organization. The power of such an organization will have to be able to challenge the leadership of unions who closely collaborate with capitalist employers. It must also prepare for rupturing moments, like with the situation of Wisconsin, where capitalist employer attack leads to an unleashing of a classwide movement with a potential for an offensive. Such an organization could do work as a union caucus, but is not shaped and limited by that model. Such an organization would engage in political work both within and without the workplace, engaging workplace battles and social movements, becoming a bridge between these two worlds. The striking truckers in Southern California, the Walmart workers who engaged in walkouts, and the NYC fast food workers who engaged in a one-day strike, need an organization that corresponds to their emergent struggle. Such an organization would concretely support the formation of new class struggle organizations according to these emergent struggles. Such a political rank and file organization within the unions would be a revolutionary cell. Its content is the concentration of working class power, its form is the campaigns it unleashes as an outcome of the strategy developed. As the revolutionary left in the US is tiny, we also have to plan for fostering the development of individual class consciousness workers into such militants to build and lead such political cells. In addition, they will make apparent the degree to which the structure of the union, organized as it is in accordance with, and modeled after, capitalist legal frameworks that inherently suffocates working class militancy. This is a political intervention union caucus cannot do, or have not done, and those that advocate union transformation usually ignore. The focus on union transformation from its record of cooptation has not seriously challenged the union’s vertical integration into the state, nor the economic integration into capital. But those that have called for a rupture within the unions have also proven flat, and divorced from the energy and dynamics of working class struggle. The task at hand is to prepare for these coming capitalist attacks on unions, highly located in the public sector, with the formation of revolutionary cells within the unions that can combine the network building of day to day agitation, with rupturing moments of upsurge. This is where the community organizer meets the insurrectionist at the base of the union. The quality and quantity of such militants, unified with a strategy, form the degree of working class power that such a revolutionary cell embodies.

The majority of workplaces are non-union and can fire workers at will. The day-to-day agitation within the workplace, should be followed by a public political fight that demands the right to organize in all workplaces, coupled with democratic rights at work that support organizing of workers against the boss. The unions claim to lead this fight through their friends in the Democratic party, or their lawyers in the courts. We must begin, and develop, this fight in the streets and in the workplaces, squarely against electoralism, the state and the Democratic Party. That is how the working class will feel its strength against the capitalist state. It is central that the working class must fight for the right to strike as a class to begin to grow as a real force against capital. The experience and training of class conscious workers actively fighting for their working class rights in general, through real organizing campaigns, will expose how the capitalist class has the power, and begin to answer what it will take to overthrow such power. It will also expose how union bureaucracies will always try to hijack such movements, take the organizing out of the hands of the workers, and place it into the domain of the state. Strikes also expose one, the “neutral” institutions in how they serve the capitalist boss’ interest, and two, how workers who don’t work, force society to grind to a halt. Behind every defensive strike that transforms into an offensive one, the hydra of revolution also lurks, sending chills down the spine of the capitalist. The great 1877 general strike was the first strike of that character within this country. Once workers have the confidence, organization, and political strategy to defeat their boss, this movement can then challenge the capitalist system on a much larger level. Since we must begin from where we actually are, the movement of forming rank and file revolutionary cells within the unions is a prerequisite to get to this larger historic battle. Advance the Struggle aspires to accomplish such a historic task, being central groundwork in making a revolution in this country.

10 Point Program for Revolutionary Cells in the Unions:

1. For a defense of unions against capitalist attack. .

2. For a political struggle against the bureaucracy and capitalist law that force unions to be enslaved by the will of capital.

3. To expose the structure of unions that has been transformed by capital and the state to not be able to serve the interest of the working class.

4. For the day-to-day work of developing networks, organization and confidence amongst the scattered demoralized union rank and file into a class struggle formation.

5. For the preparation of crisis moments of capitalist attack, like the “Wisconsin moment,” unleashing a class-wide offensive against capital.

6. For the struggle against capitalist law that makes organizing and class struggle militancy illegal, unleashing a movement of worker rights built by the working class, for the working class.

7. For the rank and file to push for union transformation to its limits and linking it with a union rupture to build worker committees.

8. For the cultivation and development of individual militants to engage and do this political work to create such revolutionary cells.

9. For a working class control of automation in the workplace, where workers can benefit from the fruits of technological development.

10. For a political perspective of against the state, the agent of the capitalist class as a whole, to lay the groundwork for its overthrow to place the working class as the class in power.

Originally appeared: February 11, 2013 at Advance the Struggle


Abstract political differences, concrete questions of what rupture looks like

A response and reply around the Advance the Struggle debate on the unions.

Submitted by klas batalo on April 10, 2013

In this series of posts we are attempting to make public some debate that we are having inside of AS around workplace organizing, the union structure and how to approach them. In the comment thread John Desalin posted some questions that led to a longer response from another voice within AS that we are posting here for discussion, and transparency about any differences in AS around this question. Looking forward to more engagment from the comrades!

John Desalin said:


I’m glad an actual discussion is going on, and not a dogmatic rehashing of the theses of some obscure communist organization from the 1970s. We are in a new era of recomposition of the militant labor movement, and I for one welcome fresh thinking. That said, the first piece I think fell short of my expectations.

A key contradiction in the first text was a conception of a union that seemed to be more ideal than one rooted in late or decadent capitalism. Here, it is almost as if the author is saying “On one hand, they hold no hope for socialist revolution” while on the other they are elevated to becoming a possible offensive weapon against capital. I don’t see how this contradiction is resolved in the text at all. I was left wondering what exactly is the limit of the union in terms of whether or not we can see any transformation of its very structure as having a correlative impact on its functioning; apparently not.



The Fish replied:

I did not read the first piece in the same way, as containing an unexamined/unresolved contradiction….I more saw it as describing an objectively-existing contradiction, built into the union-form within capitalism. Perhaps this relates both to a certain vagueness (or more charitably purposeful simplicity) in the article and different assumptions on both of our parts.

As a somewhat tangential aside, I see no clear political differences between these two pieces, and it seems kind of funny to characterize these different methods of presentation as a “debate”, but hey let’s engage what comes up.

I thought it’s a basic aspect of Marxism, from Marx to Lenin to Luxemburg to Gramsci etc. etc., that unions CAN be an offensive weapon against capital (please see all union struggles for wage increases, union-based general strikes in Egypt, union-based struggle for the 8-hour work day). But that they also are NOT the organs through which the working class will make a revolution (see any critiques of the limitations of syndicalism, anarcho-syndicalism in the Spanish Revolution, the IWW as a viable society-wide revolutionary organization.) I assume we agree that a revolution is not the only kind of offensive against capital.

This contradiction is rooted theoretically in the tendency for the proletariat to struggle both inside of capitalism against the constant threat of a social wage insufficient to reproduce us, while also coming to greater understanding of the inherent limitations of this constant struggle and the need to destroy the current social order and build a different one. In political economy, as far as I understand this contradiction is seen in the fact that workers are both the gravediggers of capital, and as labor-power are capital themselves.

I see any union-form (even ones that are not bound by laws such as Taft-Hartley) as always containing these contradictory impulses, and generally having both represented by political currents. The right-wing of the union bureaucracy normally directly represents capital, while the left-wing usually represents the interests of workers in getting paid the value of their labor. Our role is to bring out the class war, anticapitalist, systemic critique that is ALSO immanent in any kind of union form under modern capitalism…..we do this by engaging deeply in the struggles within capitalism, and then pushing hard and effectively on their ideological and practical weak points where they can explode into class consciousness and class war.

Lately I have been trying to think through what the resurgence of struggle at the point of production would look like, and I think a key element will be “mass splits” from existing NLRB-managed unions. (I see this as the probably concrete form of the “transform the unions” mentioned in both pieces above.) Here’s what I have brainstormed on the subject:

I submit this:

No union will be both registered with the NLRB, and regularly breaking Taft-Hartley (or other labor laws) at the same time.

This would not be possible because they would be bankrupted by fines until their organization didn’t exist, and whatever else the NLRB can do to them. The key recent example is when Longview ILWU Local 21 broke labor law (having illegal pickets and blocking trains). Many members (including the local president Dan Coffman) were put in jail, and the local was fined millions of dollars that they were not able to pay. The ILWU International told Coffman that if his local kept supporting the Occupy movement and breaking the law, they would not help with the legal costs and lawyer fees. This would have bankrupted, and legally destroyed, local 21. Instead Dan Coffman bent the knee, they got the money, and they came back under the discipline of the international.

If he had refused, ILWU Local 21 would have ceased to exist…..but a new organization would have immediately emerged, probably calling itself something else (for legal reasons) based on both the fight and the betrayal by the International. This is what I would call a “mass split” in a union, as opposed to dual unionism which seeks to build a small, militant or communist alternative union starting with militants and slowly recruiting…..also opposed to either boycotting organizing in workplaces with unions or accepting them as permanent structures as they are. These mass splits will be necessary for all unions before serious gains can be made in the class struggle……but they will only happen as a result of struggle as in the above case, never as the result of leftist arguments are attempts to initiate them from scratch.

The CIO is also a historic case of “mass splits” as opposed to dual unionism, although the situation was very different and it should not be used as an example of the process I’m talking about here.

These new “mass split” unions would already have structure, history of struggle, and a recently radicalizing experience of being forced by circumstance to break with legalism. They would also be uniquely open to new allies, having just broken with the state/union establishment that had been supporting and limiting them…..a prime time to reach out to other sectors of workers, and non-work-based struggles such as housing, gender, police brutality etc.

@JD and others reading this: what do you think the processes of new workplace organizing forms coming about will look like? How will these forms come out of / split from existing unions? Can we give examples of times when this could have happened but didn’t, as I attempted to do above? This detailed thinking-through would IMO greatly advance this conversation past the level of abstract posturing on which it often remains.

Originally posted: February 12, 2013 at Advance the Struggle


The Internationalist Group’s response to “The problematic of the union in the U.S” (1 & 2)

A reply to Advance the Struggle from the Internationalist Group, a Trotskyist organization in the US.

Submitted by klas batalo on April 10, 2013

The Internationalist Group, a revolutionary Trotskyist organization, has written a serious response to Advance the Struggle’s two documents on the unions. Many readers will probably be a little put off by the hyper Trotskyist language of the piece, nevertheless the content of the argument is one of importance. It offers sympathy with the first union piece Unions – “How do We Intervene?” And believes the other document, “Revolutionaries, Unions and the emerging Class Struggle“, has some serious problems, and anarchist tendencies. We appreciate the Internationalist’s serious response to both documents, and agree that all revolutionary formations must start to put out a public positions on how to relate to the unions. As the public can see, Advance the Struggle is still figuring out this question. That is why we published two pieces.

If all American left groups can clearly explain what role revolutionaries should play regarding unions, we can heighten the political discussion of what revolutionary work means in this historical moment. The Kasama blog wrote a critique of Fire Next Time’s flyer regarding the bus strike in New York as it was not clearly explaining what communist work means in the present. What we found missing from the Kasama critique is a proposal for how to relate to the unions in a way that is communist. The ultra-left critique of Trotskyism is this issue on unions is ignoring value, the essence of capitalist social relations. Ultra-lefts charge trotskyist of reproducing and managing value, as appossed to moving towards its negation. This movement, that some call communization, is stuck in a similar position as Kasama, as it can’t translate macro concepts such as value, communism, and communization, within real day-to-day class struggle situations. They are stuck in the abstract and cannot, as of yet, concretely explain what communist work (Kasama), or what communization means in day to day practice regarding the immediate tasks of political work that relates the class struggle and unions.

Luxemburg and Lenin were the first to seriously do this after Marx, this being an untapped theoretical/practical potential point of convergence. Luxemburg and Lenin were the first to develop a revolutionary Marxist practice, concretizing Marxist theoretical categories. Yet historically, they have been violently separated by the crystallized ideologies of the Marxist left; uncritically committed to limited traditions that have now faded into retirement. Just as labor and production were separated forming alienation in Marx’s 1844 Philosophical manuscripts, and labor and land were separated in Marx’s concept of the so-called primitive accumulation, Lenin and Luxemburg have also been separated creating an anti-organizational ultra-left that fetishizes wildcat strikes, or linear party builders in the name of Leninism. Both Luxemburg’s “The Mass Strike“, challenging the bureaucratic method of union political work in Germany, and Lenin’s “What is to be Done?” of building professional revolutionaries that insert revolutionary politics beyond unionism and economic struggles, are the two foundational works that can shed light on the union question.

Advance the Struggle will continue to write on the relationship revolutionaries should have with unions in this unfolding public discussion. We encourage all revolutionary groups to also write out documents, or pinpoint existing documents that clearly lay out how revolutionaries should relate to unions. All serious comments from your part are studied and recognized with such seriousness on our part.

Trade Unions and Revolutionary Struggle in the United States

The two pieces posted on the web site of Advance the Struggle under the heading “The Problematic of the Union in the U.S. – What Is To Be Done?” are a definite improvement on other recent statements and articles from activists in and around the (greatly reduced) Occupy movement. Both AtS texts start with the affirmation of the need to defend the unions against attacks by capital and the state, in contrast to the arguments of supporters of the Black Orchid Collective in the Pacific Northwest who have vociferously opposed calls for defense of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Those arguments were raised in a dispute that broke out in a “port working group” in Portland last November when comrades of the Internationalist Group put out a leaflet calling for defense of the ILWU and raised this as one of the basic points for solidarity action. This was in the face of the employers’ offensive aimed at gutting basic union gains, such as the hiring hall, and preparing to bring in scabs to bust the ILWU, the bastion of West Coast labor. Our stance was ABC for any Marxist, but those who objected were anarchists and liberals. Basically the arguments against us cited betrayals by the ILWU bureaucrats as a reason not to defend, and possibly to oppose, the union, for example in the article by Pete Little, “One Year After the West Coast Port Shutdown,” in CounterPunch (21-23 December). We responded in an article titled, “Why We Defend the ILWU and All Workers … Including Against the Sellout Labor Bureaucracy”.

The AtS pieces are grappling with one of the key issues facing communist revolutionaries in the U.S., which has been fought over for decades. While making a number of valid points, both pieces are basically empirical where what’s key is the overall theoretical understanding and programmatic conclusions. Both locate the problems with unions in their structure, and in the elaborate web of legal restrictions woven by the bourgeoisie to contain workers’ struggles. Therefore, they focus on alternative organizational vehicles as the solution, whether “class-wide organizations” or “revolutionary cells” in the unions. This misses the key point, that the failures and betrayals of key labor struggles are due at bottom not to union structures or capitalist laws, but to the lack of revolutionary leadership capable of overcoming those obstacles.

As Leon Trotsky wrote in the 1938 Transitional Program, “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.” That is as true today as it was three-quarters of a century ago.

The authors of the two pieces point to the “co-optation of unions by the state, a step followed by ever-more restrictive laws that limit tactics of labor struggle,” and to the unions “being political integrated into the laws and institutions of the state.” This is a crucial factor, and one which is ignored or downplayed by the various reformists who go along with and sometimes foster state control of labor. But the observation is not new. In his unfinished 1940 essay “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay,” Trotsky noted:

There is one common feature in the development, or more correctly the degeneration, of modern trade union organizations in the entire world: it is their drawing closely to and growing together with the state power. This process is equally characteristic of the neutral, the Social-Democratic, the Communist and ‘anarchist’ trade unions.

Trotsky explains the origins of this tendency in monopoly capitalism and the cohesion of a parasitic labor bureaucracy which sits atop the unions and fights for crumbs from the imperialists’ superprofits. He also draws important programmatic conclusions:

1) “The primary slogan for this struggle is: complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state. … The second slogan is: trade union democracy. This second slogan flows directly from the first and presupposes for its realization the complete freedom of the trade unions from the imperialist or colonial state”; and

2) “In other words, the trade unions in the present epoch cannot simply be the organs of democracy as they were in the epoch of free capitalism and they cannot any longer remain politically neutral, that is, limit themselves to serving the daily needs of the working class. They cannot any longer be anarchistic, i.e. ignore the decisive influence of the state on the life of peoples and classes. They can no longer be reformist, because the objective conditions leave no room for any serious and lasting reforms. The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.”

These propositions have been confirmed by history and are fundamental to carrying out revolutionary work in the trade unions, with very concrete consequences. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here – there is plenty of experience to draw on in fighting for class-struggle politics in the unions. Take the need for complete independence from the state as a precondition for achieving union democracy: this means, for example, that class-conscious militants do not go to the courts or the capitalist government against the unions, on principle, no matter how corrupt. Why not? Because the unions, despite the sellout misleaders, remain working-class institutions and the state represents the bosses. Put another way, the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy is an obstacle to class struggle, the state is the class enemy: between the two runs a class line which must not be crossed, just as a labor militant would never cross a picket line.

The entire experience of union reform groups in the U.S. in recent decades confirms this: Miners for Democracy, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, Steelworkers Fightback, New Directions in Transport Workers Union Local 100 (New York) – all these reform groups were backed by just about every variety of reformist “socialists,” all sued the unions in the capitalist courts or appealed to the Labor Department against the union bureaucracy, all except Ed Sadlowski in the Steelworkers won office, and all of them, without exception betrayed the working-class ranks. They had to. Once they appealed to the state, the government owned them. That is why union militants who oppose class collaboration do not participate in such lash-ups, which will inevitably betray. Whatever leftists in them think, they’re just vehicles for out-bureaucats to get in.

Instead, we fight to build a class-struggle opposition in the unions, and outside of them. That is the import of Trotsky’s second thesis. He argues that in this imperialist epoch of decaying capitalism “objective conditions leave no room for any serious and lasting reforms,” which were the bread and butter of simple trade unionism in the past. All you have to do is look around you to see all the pensions being ripped up, seniority eliminated, health care gutted to confirm his observation. The reformists of today think it’s just a matter of policy, that they can somehow resuscitate the post-World War II “welfare state.” But they are wrong. If they get into office they will be no more successful in winning reforms, or even staving off anti-union attacks than the present sellout bureaucracies – unless, that is, they are prepared to wage revolutionary class struggle against capitalism. If you want to fight against the unions being “secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the workers,” which is clearly the role the large majority of unions play today, then one must fight to turn them into “instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.”

So in our trade-union work, in the U.S., Mexico and Brazil, we Trotskyists build tendencies based on a transitional program, which oppose capitalism and imperialism and call for a class-struggle workers party and for a workers government. This revolutionary perspective is sharply counterposed to the various union reform caucuses which do not challenge the capitalist framework. For an example, see the program of Class Struggle Education Workers (CSEW) in New York which is politically supported by the Internationalist Group. To see the kind of work it does, go to its web site: http://edworkersunite.blogspot.com/. So that is our framework.

Now, on these two texts we have some areas of agreement. Thus the first, “Unions – How Do We Intervene?” calls to “bring unions into an overall proletarian offensive against capital, for socialism” – which is fundamental, since that is exactly what reformist social democrats and Stalinists don’t do. At the same time it states that “we do not see the union movement as the vehicle for socialist revolution.” Certainly class-struggle unions will not lead the revolution – that is the task of a revolutionary party, usually by playing a leading role in mass organizations such as soviets and workers councils that arise in a revolutionary period and can be the framework for socialist revolution. But revolutionary-led unions can play an important role.

So what are the disagreements? I want to focus on six areas. First is what we might call “rank-and-fileism.” Just about every reformist social-democratic group under the sun calls for “rank-and-file” unions, caucuses, whatever, lambasting the fat-assed bureaucrats, calling for union democracy, and so on. The Internationalist Socialist Organization, Socialist Action, Socialist Alternative, Solidarity, you name it, they all do it. They want to get together with union militants by which they mean just about anyone that is for higher pay and doesn’t like the leadership. The Stalinist reformists like Progressive Labor Party do the same. Some union reform caucuses include supporters of all of these left groups, which is logical since they all have very similar reformist programs. Similarly, the first text calls for “democratic rank and file control,” “militant rank and file unionism,” “a rank-file analysis” (?) and concludes: “A revival of rank and file agency is the key to breaking free of the bureaucratic and legal choke-hold that has prevailed over the six decades of defeat experienced by the US working class.”

Okay, we seek to defeat and drive out the parasitic bureaucracy in order to take on the capitalist bosses. But to do that, you need more than appeals for rank-and-file democracy, you need a program that prepares the ranks for the kind of class struggle they will have to wage. Take the question of the capitalist parties, the Democrats in particular. This is a big deal in education unions, for example: both the union bureaucrats and would-be reformers overwhelmingly backed Democrat Obama, and Obama is leading the union-busting attack on teachers unions. The CSEW opposes any political support to any capitalist party – Democrats, Republicans, Greens, “Working Families Party,” whatever. But when our supporter in the United Federation of Teachers rose at a delegate assembly to oppose endorsing any capitalist politician, the reformist opposition group (Movement of Rank and File Educators, or M.O.R.E.) sat on their hands, with their lips zipped. Why? Because they don’t want to alienate any pro-Democratic “militant” teachers. But if they’re not prepared to do that, they can’t prepare the union membership to resist when attacked by the Democrats. What’s needed is a progamatically based class-struggle opposition rather than an amorphous “rank-and-file” caucus or other grouping.

Second, there is the question of what’s responsible for the subjugation of the unions to state control. At one point, the first document blames the workers themselves, saying:

“Although workers were able to use the new corporatist structure of the New Deal Era to get unprecedented wages and benefits, the NLRB turned out to be one step toward the co-optation of unions by the state, a step followed by ever-more restrictive laws that limit tactics of labor struggle. In a sense, workers, under the leadership of pro-capitalist union officials and misguided Stalinist CP militants, consented to their political defeat (despite impressive economic gains) during this period.”

So workers joined the unions because of the NLRB and got bought off with higher wages? Nonsense. The organization of mass, nationwide industrial unions was achieved by sharp class struggle, in particular the three mass strikes of 1934 (San Francisco longshore, Minneapolis Teamsters, Toledo auto parts), all of them led by reds. In each case, the strikers refused to bow down to federal “mediation” and arbitration and court injunctions, or to armies of police and National Guard troops, and that was why they won. The idea that the CIO unions were built due to FDR’s New Deal is an invention of liberal sociology and history professors. The subjugation of the unions to the state was the handiwork of the pro-capitalist union misleaders, not of bought-off workers.

Third, this brings us to the key question of the origins of the labor bureaucracy, which acts as a transmission belt for the bosses and their government: the labor lieutenants of the capitalist class, as Daniel De Leon called them. To get rid of it, we have to know where it comes from. The second document, “Revolutionaries, Unions and Emerging Class Struggle,” blames the existence of the bureaucracy on the structure of unions themselves. Arguing from a phrase in the “missing sixth chapter” of Capital, where Marx refers to unions as “insurance societies formed by the workers themselves,” the document argues: “Such insurance societies formed a rigid caste of functionaries that made decisions, and shaped the process of how those decisions were made….” This is followed by a quote from Robert Brenner, a leader of the social-democratic Solidarity tendency, saying that union officials “confuse the defense of the organization with the defense of the membership.” So according to this, unions inevitably throw up a bureaucracy – it’s the hoary argument against working-class parties and unions that is a staple of bourgeois sociology going back to Robert Michels and his “iron law of oligarchy.”

Again, this is bourgeois academic subterfuge. The petty-bourgeois labor-aristocratic layer that has bound the unions to the state and to the Democratic Party, didn’t get to power by the inherent structure of the unions. The present labor bureaucracy was a result of a brutal “red purge” of mass expulsions of militant labor leaders in the late 1940s at the dawn of the anti-Soviet Cold War. The liberals worked hand in glove with McCarthyite reactionaries to drive out anyone they saw as “commies.” To fight that labor officialdom, it is necessary to fight their anti-communism head on. But the social democrats don’t because, first, they are anti-communists themselves and second, they above all want to ally with left liberals. So they twist themselves into knots trying to deal with the issue when faced with the inevitable red-baiting.

Fourth, there is the question of anti-labor laws. Yes, unions today are hog-tied by the Taft-Hartley Act, Landrum-Griffin Act, etc. But the capitalist ruling class has always sought to outlaw workers’ struggle. Let’s not forget that prior to the 1930s, unions often had to face far harsher state “criminal syndicalism” laws, but that didn’t force the revolutionary syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World to be integrated into the state. The key here, as always, is revolutionary leadership. Class-struggle unionists oppose any and all capitalist government control of, registration of or interference in unions or other workers organizations. We don’t rely on rigged NLRB-supervised elections or even card checks, but on militant workers action to organize unions. We don’t call for dues checkoffs, which potentially lets employers or the government cut off union funds. Moreover, to win any serious labor battle today, union leaders and members are going to have to defy draconian fines and be prepared to go to jail.

So will “workers committees,” “class-wide committees” or “revolutionary cells in the unions” be able to avoid such laws where unions can’t? Not a chance. If they invent a new tactic, it will be outlawed tomorrow. When sit-down strikes took place in 1937, by 1938 the NLRB had outlawed them and by 1939 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them illegal. What was key was the workers’ willingness and ability to fight off the forces of capitalist repression, which the union workers at Flint GM, Akron rubber, Woolworth’s and many other companies did.

Why is Wal-Mart not unionized? Because the UFCW exists? No, it’s because the UFCW tops are beholden to capitalism. If the NLRB or a court tells them to call off their pickets, they do. Would an IWW or local collective do any better? Try it and count the seconds before security guards hustle you out the door and hand you over to the cops. There is no organizational form or gimmicky tactic, no flash mob that can get around the need for preparing the union ranks to take on the capitalist state. The one recent successful sit-down strike, at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago in late 2008, was not a wildcat action or led by some ad-hoc network but was due to months of preparation by the United Electrical Workers, including taking workers to occupied plants in other countries. They knew the risks and they were ready and willing when the time came.

Fifth, there is the evaluation of recent struggles. On EGT in Longview, Washington we are in agreement that this was no victory for the ILWU, despite all the hoopla from the union tops, the reformist left and Occupy who initially proclaimed victory. At the time, the Internationalist Group got hold of a copy of the port agreement and warned about all the dangerous givebacks there, and then when ILWU members finally obtained the agreement with EGT, we denounced the concessionary contract. We also went after the ILWU misleaders who negotiated it behind the backs of the membership (who never voted on it) and the pseudo-socialists who covered for the bureaucracy, and who excused or even endorsed the bureaucratic disruption targeting ILWU members at an Occupy-sponsored solidarity with Longview rally in Seattle on 6 January 2012.

The huge, militant and unprecedented workers mobilization in Wisconsin ended in defeat, but it was not due to the fact that it was union-led. Without the unions, there would never have been a weeks-long occupation of the state capitol. To win would have required a general strike, which everyone was talking about and was possible, but did not happen because the “progressive” union leadership sold out the struggle to the Democratic Party … and the reformist socialists on the scene didn’t challenge them. Occupy and anarchist and anarchoid tendencies make a fetish out of the general strike and “wildcat” strikes. But here was a case where a real general strike actually could have taken place, which even if it were messy would have electrified workers nationwide (and thrown Wisconsin into turmoil). What was lacking was a revolutionary leadership with roots in the unions to make it happen.

On the Chicago teachers strike, we have a difference. The second document calls it “an exceptional draw.” We underscored the importance and militancy of the strike, and a comrade flew to Chicago to show solidarity. But the settlement was a sellout, and we said so plainly while the rest of the left was talking with marbles in their mouth, or outright hailing this defeat as a “victory.” The “reform” union leadership accepted teacher evaluations based on student test scores, agreed to ripping up seniority protection on layoffs and did nothing about closing schools, mushrooming class size or any of the other community issues they raised but never seriously intended to fight for. The CORE caucus leading the union (including supporters of the ISO, SAlt, PLP and other left groups) agreed to this contract because they weren’t prepared to go against Illinois law and the Democratic Party. Frankly, the only reason to call this a “draw” is to alibi CORE. In the aftermath, the CTU leadership endorsed the reelection of Democrat Obama. (See our article, “Chicago Teachers: Strike Was Huge, Settlement Sucks” [September 2012]).

Finally, there is the vital question, posed in the title: “What Is To Be Done?” The reference to Lenin’s seminal work on the need for a party of professional revolutionaries is obvious. But in the two pieces, there is no mention of a party. There is talk of “revolutionary cells” and of a “revolutionary organization,” but nothing about a party. This can only be understood as a capitulation to the anti-party prejudices of the anarchist and semi-anarchist currents in the Occupy movement. Instead what is proposed is some sort of “class-struggle organization” engaging “workplace battles and social movements.” This sounds like the “social movement unionism” that reformists such as the ISO promote. Certainly, class-struggle unionists must take up the fight against all forms of capitalist oppression. But in order to link up struggles of class-conscious workers with those of oppressed African Americans, Latinos and immigrants, to defend the rights of women, homosexuals and indigenous peoples, the vital element is a Leninist-Trotskyist party that acts as a tribune of the people, a champion of all the oppressed.

The main difference between the two texts on the AtS web site seems to be over the question if it is possible to transform the unions into instruments of struggle against capitalism, the first saying yes, the second saying no, and therefore one must build revolutionary cells to prepare for a “union rupture to build worker committees.” The “rupture” terminology is borrowed from the anarchists and anarchoids, who think that “independence” from and breaking with the unions is the ultimate in revolutionary chic. Workers committees and councils and similar forms of mass organizations encompassing even the most backward sections of the working people will only appear in a revolutionary or near-revolutionary situation, at which point the possibility of surpassing the limits of trade-unionism will be posed in reality. To pose building soviet-like councils under current, decidedly non-revolutionary conditions is a fantasy that will only aid the bourgeoisie. To refuse to defend the ILWU today can only aid the maritime bosses and grain-handling conglomerates.

Can we transform the unions into instruments of revolutionary struggle, as Trotsky called for? In some cases yes, in others no, but we should certainly seek to. The railway workers and teachers unions in Russia, representing labor aristocratic and petty-bourgeois layers, fought against the revolution even after the Bolsheviks had triumphed. But even in unions with a substantial presence of a labor aristocracy, like the ILWU, it is possible to achieve important gains (such as the union hiring hall) and to wage class struggle against the imperialist rulers in open defiance of their laws. Examples are the May Day 2008 ILWU West Coast strike against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the 1999 coastwide ILWU port shutdown in conjunction with a work stoppage by teachers in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil demanding freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal. Such struggles are not fortuitous, they are the result of determined efforts by a resolute minority fighting on a Marxist program, and in these cases the Internationalist Group played a role working together with union militants.

The IG has a good deal of experience of fighting for class struggle politics in the unions as well as among non-unionized workers. While we have had some successes, we have also experienced setbacks and have had to fight defensive struggles, confronting the sellout policies of the bureaucracy. Even having a correct program is no guarantee that a small revolutionary vanguard organization can change the course of the class struggle. But victories can be won. Recently, we have been actively involved in the successful struggle of immigrant workers at the Hot and Crusty bakery restaurant in New York who against all odds defeated a lockout and won a union contract with a union hiring hall. Currently we are actively participating in the strike by New York City school bus drivers, the most militant union struggle in New York since the 2005 NYC transit strike. This is what fighting for class-struggle unionism today means in the concrete.

Will there be a “rupture” or “mass split” in the unions? Perhaps, but this is a tactical and conjunctural question: it depends on the circumstances. The goal is not to have minority unions of the most combative sectors, which can weaken the workers movement as a whole, as has occurred in Brazil with the split of the left-led Conlutas tendency from the majority CUT union federation. So now the reformist leftists can be bureaucrats in their own unions – hardly a victory. (Our Brazilian comrades opposed the split, but are now an opposition in the Conlutas-affiliated Rio teachers union.) In other cases, such as the emergence of the CIO in the U.S. in the 1930s or the appearance of strike committees of mine workers independent of COSATU after the massacre at Marikana last August, a split is a necessary step to escape from the dead hand of a moribund union bureaucracy. In Mexico, where most labor organizations are in fact agencies of police control, it is vital to break the corporatist stranglehold and build unions independent of the capitalist state. But everywhere we fight on a class-struggle program against all forms of class collaboration, for independence from the capitalist state and for a revolutionary workers party, without which all historical experience teaches that there will be no revolution.

As a fighting Trotskyist prograganda group, the Internationalist Group seeks to build the nucleus of that party, and as such we are engaged in the struggles of the working class. We defend the unions against the capitalists and their state, while fighting within the existing mass organizations of the working class on a class-struggle program to oust the bureaucrats, break with the Democrats and build a workers party and open the road to a workers government. Out of this fight will come the worker cadres who will be key to actually carrying out a socialist revolution.

for the Internationalist Group

13 February 2013

Originally posted: February 18, 2013 at Advance the Struggle


A reply to John Garvey

A response by John Garvey and reply from Advance the Struggle on the union debate.

Submitted by klas batalo on April 10, 2013

John Garvey has made several important and critical comments on the unions. He was the first to point out that only 14 million workers are in unions, highly located in the public sector, and including police and jails. Under the surface it appears we have differences dealing with the existing unions, and apsire to continue to have a public dialogue and public debate on the matter. In order to come to a better understanding of this particular juncture and the work that should be done, we must dig deep into the politics of the matter, and see who proposes what, in the concrete, concerning unions, and the class conflict unions members have with capital. We present John Garvey’s comments first and a response by a member of AS who works in both unionized workplaces and non-unionized workplaces. We encourage John Garvey to put forth any central documents that further outline his position on the unions to gain clarity on the matter.

John Garvey:

Sorry for the interruption! Grandchildren interfered. Let me turn now to the unionized protective service workers. Their unionization rates all but completely are a reflection of their status as public employees and, in that regard, they are no different from other public sector employees–dependent, for the most part, for the quality of their contracts on negotiated deals with city or state elected officials dependent on union support. But, other than firefiighters because of their role as protectors of the existing state of affairs. unlike other public sector officials, they should be deducted from the numbers of unionized workers–making the overall rates of unionization even lower–for our purposes.

So, what does all this mean? I think it means that we should stop obsessing about unions–a reality that means almost nothing in the life or potential of the American working class that’s available for revolutionary politics. Why? First, only a tiny number of workers are in unions. Second, many of the members are older and not easily able to break with the circumstances that make their lives tolerable. Third, more than half of union members are in the public sector where, in spite of the battles of Wisconsin and Michigan, the members’ well-being is more dependent on support of politicians than anything else. And, furthermore, a whole lot of those public sector workers are cops and prison guards.What to do instead? Mostly, let’s learn a lot about what workers are faced with and what they’re doing. And let’s keep in mind that the end is the abolition of wage labor and the self-emancipation of the working class–a very distant dream in these dark times.

Response by Farabundo:

Response: John Garvey begins and end his proposal with “let’s learn a lot about what workers are faced with and what they’re doing.” We are workers. No one in Advance the Struggle can live without working. By definition, we all have to sell our labor-time for wages to make a living. This implication that we are divorced from the working class is a faulty beginning. Considering only a small section of people we interact with, mainly retired people, don’t have to work, every person we engage with are workers. Everytime we talk with someone we know, we usually ask, “What have you been up to?” So we can get idea of they are doing. Our workplaces, which includes schools, hospitals, transportation, restaurants are both unionized and non-unionized. Some of us work as substitute teachers, both at non-union charters and unionized schools, making the issue of unions are real one. The biggest issue we face, is our comrades who agitate in non union workplaces who can be fired at will. We know this first hand because they have been fired for organizing. There was nothing we could do besides call a labor lawyer. Our organization is too small to be able to organize a wildcat when our comrades get fired. So the real world experience is our comrades do get fired at non union workplaces. Our comrades that do have union jobs, have much more real room for agitation and organizing. We can bring up concepts of class struggle in a much more real way. This also doesn’t mean we don’t talk about other non-union political issues with our co-workers. Every chance I get, I talk to my co-workers, who are school workers, and Oakland teachers, about social movements, class struggle in other countries, the role of violent and racist state, the real gendered violence that penetrates the streets, and how the class as a whole needs to move against capital. I also have similar conversation in non-union workplaces I work at. But when I do, I have to think, will this person tell the manager what I am talking about? If they do, I could get fired simply for that reason. As a result, I am more reserved, because I would like to pay rent, and eat food.

John Garvey wrote, “And let’s keep in mind that the end is the abolition of wage labor and the self-emancipation of the working class–a very distant dream in these dark times.”

For us, this is not a distant dream but a reality to work towards everyday. These days are not dark for me but very promising. Also, apposed the term “dark” to characterize something negative. Compared to the last 40 years, today is more favorable for class struggle and for the building of revolutionary organization than what we have ever experienced. The contemporary conditions of the working class are not good, composed of cynicism, poverty, anger, violence, rape, and despair. Our political work within such conditions gives us a revolutionary optimism, based off of the reality of capitalism’s brake-down and the possibilities of class struggle. Any militant who is concretely building revolutionary organization is experiencing a positive life-activity rather than a cynical despair. The problem with John Garvey’s politics on unions, is it eliminates the importance of working class organization. Every revolutionary should be building working class organization in some form, then we can debate its political content. But if we cannot agree that working class organization is important, then we surely will disagree on what type of political work to do.

There should also be total agreement that police unions and prison guard unions are organizations of the racist violent capitalist state. But the prisons contain almost the same amount prisoners, as industrial jobs lost in the last 30 years. Do you agree that prisoners should form unions independent of the guards and the prison structure to coordinate struggle? If you disagree with this, then we can clearly see we have serious political differences on the role of organization. This is similar to Theorie Communiste that argues any and all organization is part of capital. The first example against perspective is Marx’s first international formed in 1864. Marx was quiet aggressive in attempting to recruit whole unions to the first international. If you agree that some type of organization of the working class is needed in prison, among the prisoners, than we can begin to discuss what working class organization needs to be formed outside of prison. The two documents on unions we put forth proposes trying to transform existing unions into vehicles of class struggle, forming working class organization outside of unions, and transcending and or rupturing with unions during a working class uprising. Do you agree with the ladder two and not the first proposition?

Forming revolutionaries amongst the rank and file of unions, who, even though are only 14% of the workforce, include port workers, factory workers, truckers, airport workers, bus drivers, hospital workers and many more facilities. They are placed in strategic positions within capitalism. Unfortunately if 100 New York Taxi drivers go on strike, it doesn’t disrupt much of capitalism. Can you say the same for rank and file members of the International Longshore Association, who, recently were very close to going on strike? Taxi drivers on strike make a few people late to work, while New York, New Jersey Lognshore ILA members striking stops hundreds of millions of dollars of cargo a day. As a marxist, is there a material difference in the position these two groups of workers have with capital. Recently, Latino immigrant workers recently unionized in a small union in New York called the Hot and Crusty Association. This had ripple effects within the Latino immigrant community across the country, where in Oakland, we distributed articles and flyers about this union struggle. We thought it could help spark class struggle in the Latino working class community nationally. I was excited to read that they even won a hiring hall, meaning the workers within the union get to hire workers, not the boss. Now, John Garvey, would you support this effort of unionization? As some famous labor song asks, “What side are you on?” If I was in New York during this struggle, I would, without flynching, and in bold and proud language, be with these workers struggle for unionization. That does not mean I am a unionist. I am a revolutionary with practical politics in struggle, and studying the richness of marxist theory as a combined activity.

Originally posted: February 18, 2013 at Advance the Struggle


Will critically responds to the union debates

A response by Will of the Fire Next Time Network to Advance the Struggle on the union debate.

Submitted by klas batalo on April 10, 2013

Will offers a serious response challenging the political framework of the debate regarding unions. Will’s piece argues that earlier discussions ignore how we are still trapped by the legacy of 1968 and do not explain the relationship that unions have with the state, coupled with ignoring larger philosophical issues concerning communism. These points have validity. Earlier arguments do not deal with such issues. That has to be done. What we have argued is that unions should be defended against capitalist attacks, and a classwide offensive should be pushed for.

Will argues that, ”[the] lesson learned from Marx was that not only was he not transfixed on one moment or time but was able to see the developments of capitalism into the future. Lenin was able to do this as well and was able to strategically act on those developments in a way Marx could not.” Yes, this is true. It represents the revolutionary historical agency of marxism. To develop revolutionary marxism today includes theoretical engagement that challenges the limits of marxist theory, as well as taking political positions in the public sphere as an essential practical principle in order to give working class organizing a political direction against the state and capital.

The union question challenges the merits of both the “on the ground practice,” as well as the theoretical and philosophical system grounding for the marxism that created such a position. Or in the other words the question of unions is controversial as it begins to challenge the larger system of politics used to employ its analysis.

Communist philosophy matures when it engages political events; where class and political conflicts take place. These events make public positions necessary by self-identified revolutionaries. To be a revolutionary, one needs to be able to put forward clear public political positions in order to form revolutionary poles of attraction. Once a set of positions and principles have been established, then an organizational form, shaped around the agreement of its political content can attract and form militants that continue to organize deeper into the working class. Many of the philosophers mentioned, have only engaged in interpretation without defining a mode of struggle against the historically specific mode of control, and or character of its structure.

Our revolutionary marxism will be able to change the world by being clear of what political principles are unconditional to generate real political agreement amongst a broad body of left-wing militants, which will form the material force behind a serious mode of struggle. The process of advancing this project develops marxist theory, through the application of an analysis that can help guide a path of struggle. This hopefully partially answers Will’s final question, “What is the communist basis for these discussions?”

We’d like to hear other’s positions on Will’s serious questions, so please feel free to join in the discussion.


We need a moving theory that projects into the future.

By Will

As I have been reflecting on the debates over the trade union question, broader questions/ problems also seem to be connected. Below are some brief notes on what those other questions are.

1. The class faces a profound crisis and so does marxism. That warrants deeper investigations. The mainstream currents of 20th century communism have been a bloodbath (against peasants and workers), filled with playing not the vanguard role in fighting for communism, but actually developing capitalism. We are not immune to either of these problems. These stand as shocking counterpoints to probably all the expectations communists had in the beginning of the 20th century.

2. The Hegelian rupture: Hegel and Marxism were tied together for much of the 19th and 20th century. But 1968 stands as a potentially game changing event where Hegel is challenged on multiple fronts: Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, Le Febevre, and potentially many others created a new paradigm which has to be taken into account. I used to take fairly uncritically works by David Harvey, Perry Anderson, Aijaz Ahmed, and Alex Callinicos which attacked the development of post-modernism and post-structuralism. I believe I could have been widely off the mark. Very unclear, but I believe to be crucial.

More importantly a return to philosophy is paramount. No discussion of that sort has occurred on AS. Philosophy is intricately tied to methodology. No discussion of method can occur without philosophy.

3. A new generation of militants ranging from the Johnson-Forest Tendency, to Walter Rodney-Frantz Fanon, to the Situationists tried to tackle the problems of 1968. That was the last highpoint achieved. Their strengths and weakness have to be rooted back into the cycles of struggle and the development of capital.

Forging a synthetic analysis of the 20th century cannot be trapped in Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg or any single moment or thinker. That will be the death of communism. We need a moving theory that projects into the future.

What are the antagonistic and complementary threads which connects Marx to Negri today and everyone in between.

4. The Archimedean Point: every cycle of revolution has created a version of communism. Paradoxically they have contributed and limited the development of communism. The major currents of course are Trotskyism, Maoism, Stalinism, council communism. Many smaller players also exist like Che, Fidel, or Nyerere.

Each current out of the revolutionary movement became transfixed in time and place on that event. It gives them a certain permanence to see the world, but also no longer allows them to see the changes as sharply as they should. For example the world forever is a measurement of the Russian Revolution for Trotskyism. China 1949 and 1968 for Maoism.

The lesson learned from Marx was that not only was he not transfixed on one moment or time but was able to see the developments of capitalism into the future. Lenin was able to do this as well and was able to strategically act on those developments in a way Marx could not.

We do not need a communism for 2013, but for 2020. There is no current which has transcended the limits of 1968 theoretically, let alone organizationally. That is the state of communism today. Capital is planning for 2050 and we are planning for 1917 or 1968. At this moment capital is more revolutionary then any communist current I know of.

For Trotskyism or Maoism history is only cyclical. The task is to repeat their Archimedean moments and have a few policy corrections. For our current of communism, history is still a work in progress. The displacements cannot be fixed through policy, but on fundamentally new terms.

5. The discussions so far have not taken as their beginning the three volumes of Capital. What unions mean for workers today in light of those works.

Nor has the discussions taken much account of the state’s relationship to unions and capital today.

A moving theory of these questions are needed and no such account has taken place. There is no movement of the problem. Instead fixed moments are presented as eternal solutions.

Random quotes in “biblical fashion” are replacing serious investigation. Marx said a,b, or c does not necessarily explain the world today.

6. There have been no theories of the state or unions offered. On what basis is this discussion happening? The danger of these discussions are that descriptions can end up replacing theoretical and historical rigor. Ultimately that will lead to empiricism and at that point revolutionary theory/ movement will cease to exist if it does not already.

7. Lastly individual experiences of workers while crucial, cannot stand alone as the complete verdict of a problem. What is the difference between radical sociology and revolutionary methodology. Our generation cannot tell the difference.

8. Marx emerged out of critiquing the dominant strains of socialism, political economy, philosophy, and struggle of his time. One of our tasks is no different then his on all counts.

9. What are the key struggles of our time? Have sent revolutionaries to such struggles to learn from? Have they written analysis of such events from our organizations/ milieus? Have we developed critiques/ synthesis of the leading thinkers of our time from Paul Krugman to Alain Badiou. Have we critiqued the major strategies of liberation since the Soviet Union fell: Zapatismo, Chavismo, autonomism, Black Blockism etc? These are just some concrete examples, but there are plenty more.

10. What is the communist basis for these discussions?

Originally posted: February 20, 2013 at Advance the Struggle


John Reimann responds with words of wisdom

John Reimann responds to Advance the Struggle on the union debate

Submitted by klas batalo on April 10, 2013

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



9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by syndicalist on April 7, 2015

Although we come at this from different perspectives (me, anarcho-syndicalism, John, from orthodox Trotskyism), I would agree with 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.

Black Badger

9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Black Badger on April 8, 2015

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.


9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Hieronymous on April 8, 2015

Black Badger

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.

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.


9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by syndicalist on April 8, 2015

It doesn't mean his point is off base. Do you think what's said is incorrect? T


9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Hieronymous on April 8, 2015


It doesn't mean his point is off base. Do you think what's said is incorrect?

Yes, it is incorrect and disingenuous.

Reimann wrote:

klas batalo

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.)Originally posted: February 21, 2013 at Advance the Struggle

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.


9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Hieronymous on April 8, 2015


I meant the portion which I quoted

Sure it's right, like the broken clock twice a day . . .


9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by syndicalist on April 8, 2015

Well, tick, tock then


9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Hieronymous on April 8, 2015

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.

Black Badger

9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Black Badger on April 8, 2015

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...


9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by syndicalist on April 8, 2015


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.

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

Juan Conatz

9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Juan Conatz on April 8, 2015

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.


9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by OliverTwister on April 8, 2015

Black Badger

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.

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.

Black Badger

9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Black Badger on April 8, 2015

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...


9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by syndicalist on April 8, 2015

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]


9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Hieronymous on April 8, 2015


Black Badger

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.

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.

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).


9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Hieronymous on April 8, 2015

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.


9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by OliverTwister on April 8, 2015

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.

Black Badger

9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Black Badger on April 8, 2015

"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.


9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by syndicalist on April 8, 2015

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


9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Hieronymous on April 8, 2015


I've been hearing people bad-jacket John for being a Trotskyist since 2006.

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?

Black Badger

9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Black Badger on April 8, 2015

So, if I didn't comment, would this just have been a drab nothing piece buried somewhere?

No, because at least two people here have had especially negative interactions with this guy.


9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by syndicalist on April 8, 2015

Black Badger

So, if I didn't comment, would this just have been a drab nothing piece buried somewhere?

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.

Our friends with benefits: on the union question - Unity and Struggle

A response by Jocelyn Cohn, of Unity and Struggle, and James Frey to Advance the Struggle on the Union question.

Submitted by klas batalo on April 10, 2013

This piece represents one perspective in Unity and Struggle, and is intended to be part of the ongoing discussion on unions, particularly in response to Advance the Struggle. The authors are concerned with the role of revolutionaries in unions. A second piece will be released by two other Unity and Struggle members in the next week that may represent divergent views from this piece. By posting both pieces, we are hoping to clarify our own positions as well as contribute to the ongoing discussion outside of our organization.


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

I. The Historical Context

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

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

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

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

These provisions were possible, as all welfare state policies, due to a high rate of exploitation and the enjoyment of massive profits by the bourgeoisie which contributed to a steady tax flow and mass of surplus value for the state to work with.

While this arrangement doubtless improved the material situation for many workers and surely angered many bosses, these effects were only incidental to the primary necessities of capital: a stable market for the purchase of the commodities produced by capitalists engaged in production of means of consumption, and the guarantee of a stable supply of labor-powers at relatively low costs to individual capitals. The state was to carry the cost of this investment in the means of consumption, but as is typical of the the social democratic dream, not only was the well being of the working class secondary to the interest of optimizing its role in capital, but this relative prosperity was only a temporary lacunae from the raging storm of the anarchic cycle of crisis which perennially looms on the horizon.

Additionally, these benefits served primarily a rising class of white working class men and a much smaller number of the black working class; this provided enough symbolic shifts in the racial division of labor for the ruling class to claim victory in civil rights, further dividing and exploiting the majority of the people of color working class. Women were mostly employed in non-union workplaces or working unwaged at home; and in fact their transition into trade unions by the 1980s and ‘90s represented a huge step backwards for the revolutionary feminist tendency of the 1960s and 70s, especially since this transition had little to no effect on patriarchy as a whole. The division of labor in workplaces was mimicked and enforced by division of rights in unions, which allowed new workers into the same shops at varying rates and benefits, or kept some workers out of unions while still working in the same workplaces. Splits along race and gender that still exist in the working class today were entrenched in these moments.

The social welfare programs that emerged in this period were deliberately formulated against the menace of US communist labor organizing that had its heyday in the 1930s. We can understand the struggle of certain communists, black militants, and feminists against the trade unions in the 1960s as a response to this attempt to alleviate the inherent contradictions between labor and capital, and combat the patriarchal and white supremacist aspects of capitalism that remained strong throughout the “Golden Age” of capital. From the perspective of the capitalist state, it was clear that the mediating role of these institutions so instrumental to rescuing American capitalism in the preceding decades was not assured when workers began to strike back against the welfare state and unions.

To this period we can trace the faint murmurings of the present moment, when capital began to transform itself to new forms of exploitation and new forms of production in response to these uprisings, as well as in the general pursuit of its necessity to expand in more creative and brutal ways.

More broadly, over the last fifty years heavy industry and production of means of consumption have increasingly left the US to be produced more cheaply by highly exploited labor overseas, the conditions of which are maintained by large international finance apparatuses and ongoing wars (allowing for a decrease in the value of labor-power here as well). Likewise commodity production in the US occurs more and more in the category of luxury goods and services for the capitalist class, within which the process of production looks very different from the large scale industry that dominated the mid-20th Century. Additionally, capital increasingly finds new forms of accumulation in those industries previously monopolized by the state, perhaps typified in the massive non-profit complex, in which private capitalists compete to provide services previously incumbent on the welfare state, and capture many well-meaning crusaders for “social justice” in the mechanisms of capitalist social reproduction.

This change in the composition and mode of domination of capital has lead to the subsumption of prior forms of maintenance of the working class, including trade unions and the welfare state, to new forms such as increased policing and imprisonment.

Despite the role of trade unions in managing the sale and purchase of labor power, the role of the welfare state in driving down wages, and the role they share in neutralizing collective struggles, the loss of these institutions certainly concerns the US working class.

Because of the near monopoly by unions on halfway decent working conditions and healthcare (largely unavailable to non-unionized workers then and now), non-unionized workplaces face harsher conditions and are ground zero for new strategies to devalue labor-power. Because unions were are not class struggle organizations, but organizations for the protection of some workers over others, the loss of those unionized positions and of the unions themselves means the loss of the promise of job protections and healthcare for many in the working class, who relate to unions merely as the possible agents of improving their individual material situation.

This is especially the case since through their divisive nature, these same trade unions helped prevent the kinds of broad-based struggle throughout the working class which is now being called upon to save them. It is the very limits of the trade unions to begin with, their structural incapacity to perform any function other than capitalist protectionism of certain workers, which has led to their destruction in the face of a rapidly changing social relations of production.

The loss of unionized workplaces and the general weakening of legal protections for workers, as well as the strengthening of the disciplinary aspects of welfare provisions for the class, have undoubtedly caused a general decrease in the living conditions for the class, and a corresponding decrease in the value of labor power for the capitalists. The working class as a whole, and revolutionaries in particular certainly are left asking: “What is to be done?”

II. What Is Meant By “Exploitation”? What Is The Contradiction Inherent In Capitalist Society?

In order to understand the historic and contemporary role of unions, as well as the current composition of capital today, we must begin by laying out a clear understanding of the relationship between labor and capital.

The relationship between labor and capital is a contradictory one. Naturally the capitalist class seeks to minimize pay and maximize the use of labor power, and the working class seeks the opposite. However, the capitalist class also needs the working class to constantly reproduce itself, in order to repeat its role in the process of production. And what’s more, the consumption of the working class is required to circulate capital, outside the narrow realm of luxury commodities. Although the health, welfare, and wages of workers may be opposed to the interests of individual capitalists, it is necessary for the movement of capitalism itself. Contradictions between the ruling class and the reproduction of capitalism itself are a historical mainstay of the capitalist mode of production.

This contradiction plays itself out every day in capitalism: The capitalist needs to produce a use-value that is also an exchange value; therefore he needs labor-power which has a use-value, but one that has as low an exchange value as is possible. It is not in the capitalist’s best interest to reduce to nothing the capacity of the use-value of labor power in the interest of increasing its exchange value, although they attempt to do so, through mechanization and so forth. Nor is it in the capitalist’s interest to spurn forth disruptive strike actions unnecessarily. The union form was seen as a resolution to this. Just like the struggle for the working day was a struggle between the classes that allowed for capitalism to continue at the same time that it materially improved the lives of workers, the struggle to keep workers organized in unions with collective bargaining agreements allowed for a period of relatively peaceful harmonization between workers and bosses in some sectors. But this is not necessarily the same as creating harmony between labor and capital.

“Capital” is not simply the actions of its individual personification in the form of a capitalist. Instead, capital dominates the capitalist. This is a point Marx makes consistently throughout the volumes Capital and is a methodological point without which the texts are misunderstood. Capital describes the alienated form of labor in all its stages of production and exchange. Capital encompasses labor power itself and all institutions which aim at the regulation or negotiation of its sale, if they are not oriented toward eradicating its alienated form and ending the extraction of surplus value. Adjusting the terms of the sale of labor power is perfectly consistent with capital. And negotiating with the capitalist over the terms of this sale is not inherently anti-capitalist, although it has its place in the class struggle.

Capital is powerful because it is reproduced daily through workers’ activity. The more we work, the more we are enslaved. This is the basis of the capitalist mode of production. At times control over capital in the form of means of production and the ability to purchase labor power has been spread out more or less among the classes over time, but the fundamental fact that capital in the form of dead labor dominates living labor has not changed. Selling labor for a higher wage or lower wage does not impact this fact.

Like any commodity, the value of labor power is determined by the amount of labor time it takes to produce—this includes the labor-power embodied in all the commodities that workers consume to go back to work, which also include services like care, cleaning, sex, and childbirth (the cost of which is constantly driven down by the assumption that this work should be done for free and is “natural”).

Like any other commodity, capitalists are forced to pay more or less the value for the commodity labor-power; but this always evens out, as with any other commodity, either through social measures, steps taken by employers’ organizations or the state, or steps taken by employees’ organizations. The source of exploitation is not that labor-power is paid for at less than it is worth, but that the competitive nature of capitalism and the necessity for capital to expand constantly drives down the value of labor power. This is accomplished in two ways: 1) by driving down the actual value of means of subsistence by forcing workers to produce more value in less time by changing the process of production and 2) by driving down the quality of life for workers and increasing divisions within the class.

The former is accomplished through a variety of changes in the production process itself, and ranges from Taylorization, to mechanization, to isolation, and while the latter is similarly done in a variety of ways, it is particularly maintained through white supremacy, patriarchy, policing, imprisonment, and the general degradation of the working class on a social level.

Therefore, we see the site of struggle in the process of production and reproduction of labor power itself. Capitalism itself is comprised of the struggle between the classes. Attempts to continue to force capitalists to pay workers the ever-diminishing value of their labor-power are not fighting exploitation, whether they come from the union, the state, or from the forces of crisis of falling rates of profit. They are another day in the life of capitalism. We must not confuse the contradiction between different poles of the ruling class, or the contradiction between bosses and workers with the contradiction between labor and capital.

It is for these reasons that we reject the notion supported by free-trade economists, presidents, and at times our own comrades that “Rising tides lift all ships”. It is not those at the top of the working class (for example, the somewhat mythologized “unionized public sector worker”) who determine the value of labor-power for the rest of us, but rather the other way around. The standard for the lives of the working class will consistently be driven down to meet those at the lowest level of subsistence, and the level of subsistence will continually be driven down. Today, as in previous generations those at the lowest level of subsistence remain women, black and brown people, and undocumented immigrants. They include women of all races performing unwaged reproductive labor at home and then doing it for a low wage for someone else in the same day; undocumented immigrants working construction, textiles, agriculture or in restaurants at rates half the legal wage; low-waged disposal workers on “unionized” job sites doing the jobs that nobody else will touch; college students working for free in “internships”, and even paying for the pleasure.

The role of revolutionaries, then, is to develop themselves in the class to seize on contradictions and expand them to a level where control of political power can be grasped by the working class, especially the parts of the class that face the most serious depression of conditions. Our role is not to celebrate every move that allows for the harmonious march of capitalism for one more day; there are entire paid institutions, non-profits, think tanks, and union staffs to do this!

III. The Structure And Role Of Unions

It is declared to be the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce and to mitigate and eliminate these obstructions when they have occurred by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self- organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.

National Labor Relations Act Section 1.[§151.]

Over the more than 100 years of debates over the role of unions in revolutionary struggles, or the role of revolutionaries in union struggles, there has been much focus on the role of the union bureaucracy in stifling worker struggles, and the possibility of dismantling this bureaucracy. Attempts to “democratize” trade unions have been at the center of left organizing, especially by certain Trotskyist groups, as well as by independent workers. While these are good-hearted attempts which accurately acknowledge the repressive nature of the structure of unions toward effective class struggle, efforts to change these structures from within represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between the form of unions and the political content through which they developed and are maintained.

We must understand that contemporary trade unions, defined as those that are recognized by the NLRB, have the explicit purpose of restricting worker organizing that if left unchecked, can lead to obstructions in commerce. Legally speaking, these unions are steam valves for class struggle, and they allow the contradictions between labor and capital space in which they can move without rupturing violently. Collective activity is limited in favor of individualized, legalistic, and representative mitigation of any interruption to the process of creation of surplus value through the exploitation of waged and non-waged workers. The goal of every union struggle, whether “won” or “lost”, is for the workers to go back to work.

The NLRA recognizes this as such:

The denial by some employers of the right of employees to organize and the refusal by some employers to accept the procedure of collective bargaining lead to strikes and other forms of industrial strife or unrest, which have the intent or the necessary effect of burdening or obstructing commerce by (a) impairing the efficiency, safety, or operation of the instrumentalities of commerce; (b) occurring in the current of commerce; (c) materially affecting, restraining, or controlling the flow of raw materials or manufactured or processed goods from or into the channels of commerce, or the prices of such materials or goods in commerce; or (d) causing diminution of employment and wages in such volume as substantially to impair or disrupt the market for goods flowing from or into the channels of commerce.

The role of unions is therefore to ensure the circulation of commodities, especially the commodity of labor power and the social reproduction it requires: health care, wages enough to purchase means of subsistence, and time.

In fact, unions are not collective organs of struggle at all, but instead are the institutions that maintain legal agreements between workers and bosses. Unions do not exist on a social basis, nor do they form “fighting organization” against bosses. They are instead the representative force that maintains equilibrium between workers and bosses, necessary for the continuation of capital. They exist to maintain the conditions defined in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), most often through closed door negotiations, and sometimes through strikes, the goal of which is always make sure the CBA remains intact and workers go back to work.

Throughout their history, unions have existed as companies in and of themselves, with investment interests, employees, and a necessity to produce value through the exploitation of their own workers and the workers they “represent”, who pay a significant amount of their wages in union dues. These interests far out way concerns over actual workers who make up the shop, and this is proven by any close investigation into the changes in union structure organized workshops over time (a great example being the expansion of the UAW to organize academic and legal labor following the shuttering of much of the auto industry).

The development of unions as companies in and for themselves that are run through bureaucratic mechanisms is not due to subjective failures on the parts of those individuals building unions, but rather due the structural development inherent in the union form itself. Well-meaning organizers who attempt to change these mechanisms through the sheer force of their personal commitment to revolutionary struggle will discover, like countless others before them, the more they work to change the union, the more the union will work to change them.

As stated in the first section of this piece, unions are institutions that emerged historically to protect certain workers in either individual workplaces or specific trades. In the US, three different basic kinds of unions emerged in the early 20th century: craft unions, the role of which was to protect skilled work from being de-skilled and therefore comprised a smaller number of iron workers, textile workers, masons, and others; industrial unions which organized workers in the growing factory and large industrial workplaces of the early 20th century into the same union, regardless of skill level but based on industry; and class-wide unions of the IWW for example, which attempted to organize the entire class into one organization, but which after internal debates eventually abandoned openly pushing communist politics.

The CIO was the largest workers’ organization in the US that attempted to struggle on the basis of production, rather than consumption. Early actions fought againstlegal formalization and long labor contracts, working instead for control of production by workers themselves, the logical conclusion of which would be a subversion of the capitalist system of domination as living labor took control over dead labor. However, capital outpaced the struggles of the CIO, and by the 1950’s, the AFL-CIO had merged, communists were purged from the institution, and the focus of the institution became purely the consumption of the working class: wages, benefits, pensions, education. With the triumph of the new phase of capitalist production, Fordism, over its corollary of struggle in the working class, the trade unions developed with the grain of capitalist accumulation instead of against it, and became thoroughly enmeshed in capital.

The meaning of all this for revolutionaries seeking organize in unionized shops is twofold: First, because unions themselves are institutions that work under a certain set of agreements with the state, and have a structure that reflects this (shops or “chapters” are part of locals, locals function as parts of large international unions, internationals are parts of federations…and so on), attempting to change the form of individual shops, locals, or even unions to something more “democratic” is impossible and those activities will be subsumed either through direct discipline of the union bosses, or through the capitalist structure of unions themselves which would not allow anything diverging from the above structure to exist as a union.

Second, because unions act as the representative agents for provisions of certain means of subsistence for some workers in some workplaces, they are not organs of struggle themselves, and in fact serve to divide the working class, especially in this period of their demise. By maintaining a competition with the rest of the working class, unions are able to ensure some basic means of subsistence for some of the workers they represent; but this is only at the expense of others. The call to expand unions is similarly a faulty argument. Revolutionaries struggling for the benefits of unionized workers, and to preserve industries and workplaces that are unionized, will find themselves necessarily in competition with the rest of the class.

To reiterate, the divisions which unions instill within the class emanate from within their very structures. According to a 2008 report, twenty-five percent of unions in the United States operate on a two-tiered pay structure, which fosters an underclass within a workplace. The bottom tier languishes in a sort of purgatory, receiving lower wages and awaiting benefits while after watching contract after contract (if they work at the company long enough) they only see their ranks increasing, their dues piling up, and their wages and benefits diminishing.

While this is quite common in the private sector, and perhaps most reported in the auto industry (see Insurgent Notes: “The Sky is Always Darkest Just Before Dawn” for the 2011 agreement between UAW and Chrystler-GM), it also occurs in the much lauded “public sector”, which faces the same if not even more intense repression of value. A widespread example of this is adjunct professors in public colleges, who make up well over 60% of teaching faculty, and are either outside of faculty unions or are the lower tier in these unions.

The same is true for many workers in the American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees (AFSCME), where, for example, mostly immigrant custodians are in the same local as mostly white skilled trades but have drastically lowered rates. It is also the case for health care workers organized by shop but divided by gender, education, race, and job. And as the “bottom rung” of two-tiered labor is pressed down further and further, new standards for treatment of workers emerge, and the total value of labor power decreases—usually on the shoulders of people of color, immigrants, and women.

IV. How Do We Organize In Unionized Shops

There are many who argue that the best way to organize in a unionized shop is to defend the union, and work to change its structure, or that working independently of the union and within the union are not contradictory. But given our above findings, it is clear that any threat to the hierarchical, alienating, and bureaucratic structure of unions is a threat to unions as a whole, whether it is from the “right” or the “left”. Their political content—as counter-revolutionary, representative, and liberal—is indistinct from their form, and no amount of goodwill, ink spilled, or cries for democracy will change this.

Workers attempting to take over power with caucuses will find themselves defeated, or if they win, repeating more or less the activities of the old union bureaucracy, or at least caught in the same exact contract negotiations, in a matter of months. For those trying to both reform the union from within, and change their conditions from without, they will find their activity inside co-opted, and their activity outside squashed; they will either be alienated by the union officials they thought were their friends, or see their own literature and slogans being used to make concessions with management while appeasing the agitated shop members. We cannot emphasize enough that this is in no way a subjective failure of union officials, or of the militants attempting change. This is inherent in the union structure, and their political content can only be adjusted by small degrees and never broken in the union form.

The contradiction faced by the union form is that the very benefits they seek to defend have in fact primarily been won by fights that often occur outside their jurisdiction: wildcat strikes, illegal slowdowns, direct action against bosses that bypasses the union. In these situations, unions have to make the choice to co-opt and calm down the independent worker activity, full-out put an end to it, or most often some combination of the two. As they continue to restrain working class activity, the basis for their existence disappears.

Those of us who have attempted to organize in our unionized workplaces, whether through the mechanism of the union or without it, have had these points driven home to us again and again. Any attempt to fight collectively against management with other workers, without going through a lengthy and alienating grievance process or seeking out mediation, is met with at best indifference and at worst admonishment. Meanwhile union officials, paid and “voluntary”, negotiate “for” us without us ever knowing, putting our jobs in danger without our knowledge or consent.

We have found that to organize in unionized shops we must build workplace groups that focus on the most highly exploited members of our shop, and if we are in a multi-shop workplace (or one with both unionized and non-unionized workers), we must build organizations that include as equal and full members of our organizations others not in our shop. We must create demands that go beyond our contract (which is not difficult to do, since the demands we need most are most often not included in our contracts) both in terms of scope, and job description. We must be able to act autonomously against management, even if management is in the same union as us.

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.

The primary goal of unions and CBAs is to maintain peaceable relationships between bosses and workers through legal means, and since the law is developed as a mechanism to exploit and coerce people into alienating their labor power, any negotiations made through a union will only be within these parameters. As the dynamic between labor and capital continually forces changes in the relationship between workers and bosses, the processes of production, and especially reproduction, the form and content of unions is no longer acceptable. Their failure is not that they are not strong enough or lack the right members in rank in file or leadership, but is encompassed within their very form.

Capitalism will expand, dissolving institutions which are no longer useful to it, and thus setting the grounds for the new terrain of class struggle. We must recognize this new terrain and struggle accordingly.

V. Labor In The Present

Once industrial development has attained its highest possible point and capitalism has entered its descending phase on the world market, the trade-union struggle will become doubly difficult… Trade union action is reduced of necessity to the simple defense of already realized gains, and even that is becoming more and more difficult.

Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution

The antagonism between labor and capital is nonetheless the relationship between a total social process, capital, and one of its components, the labor-power of the proletariat. To understand labor as standing against capital with no remainder is to imagine the revolution accomplished. In the present, however, the two are necessarily intertwined, and the possibilities for revolutionary activity on the part of labor are found precisely within process of capital—in which the contradictions between labor and capital, the motor for capitalist development, are given relative space to move. This is the terrain on which we fight.

We find statistical data to be a problematic form of representation of knowledge due to its inability to understand the nuances of social relations contained in its own figures, and often force us to rely on the bourgeois state or private companies for our information. However, we found the following recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics striking:

While 14 million people in the United States are members of unions, 20 million are reported unemployed (unreported unemployment estimates are around twice that).

While 13.5 percent of black people are unionized, as opposed to 11.3 percent of white people, only 2 million black people are unionized as opposed to 11 million whites. Furthermore the unemployment rate for black people is 14.4 percent, and the number of black people not in the labor force is over 11 million, not including incarcerated people.

In 2012 there were 102 million full time workers and 24 million (documented) part time employed people. Of these, 12 million full time workers were union members while only 1.4 million part time workers were union members. Both of these numbers have decreased since 2011. This means while approximately 1/5 of all workers are part time, only 1/12 of these workers are union members.

In the preceding decades, with the transition from welfare state policies to what is called “neoliberalism”, and vast deskilling of many trades in the United States, capital has won many victories in the battle to remake the labor force in its own image. Driven by the abstraction from all particularities in the name of general exchangeability, capital bristles impatiently when confronted with skilled labor-power, even more so the laborer in a position to bargain, and not just because of the strategic power this affords to workers who can not be immediately and seamlessly replaced should they begin to agitate. To ensure the optimum circulation of capital, labor should be as abstract and exchangeable as exchange value itself, and though this has yet to be accomplished in practice, it is a principle of operation that bears on labor like a patient daily tide, slowly but incessantly smoothing its particularities.

This is by no means a new process. It echoes the destruction of the guilds and the transition to large-scale industry and agriculture. Just as then, the political task facing the working class is not to cling to old forms, demanding the protection of forms of production fast becoming archaic, and waging defensive battles vainly against the tide of history. We find that the disappearing trade union form does not correspond to the nature of labor in the present, and still less does it correspond to the direction in which labor is heading. Against this claim will be sounded the rally cries of defensive struggles, but in these we hear only denials of the reality in which we must struggle.

Capitalism has reached a stage where it no longer needs to regulate the activity of workers through unions. The coercive nature of capital is strong enough that worker organizing is at an extreme low, and capital can maintain order in other ways: prison, immigration laws, the limiting of health care, and repression of access reproductive options for women to name a few. The discipline that made welfare necessary is similarly carried out in other forms and institutions that can more deftly accumulate capital than the state: non profits, churches, and charities specifically.

Understood in this way, 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 un/deremployed 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.

The workshop or the office as the site of the singular career, in which one is invested sufficient to wage long-term struggles for better conditions, benefits, gradual wage increases, and so forth, is disappearing in nearly every sector, from production, to education, to reproductive work. And beyond the diminished desire to wage struggle in these particular job sites, these jobs are so exchangeable that workers can be terminated at the slightest hint of agitation, or in the increasingly pervasive paradigm of precarious work, not terminated, but simply not called back to work again. No legislation or union protection can even comprehend this phenomenon, which runs common throughout many “freelance” trades.

Circulating constantly between multiple sources of income, some short-term, some even one-time, some retained only for benefits, others cherished for paying “off the books” so as to simultaneously draw state benefits, the modern precariat bares little resemblance to the centralized industrial proletariat or the “skilled professionals” on which the trade union system was built.

Regardless of trade or wage the work site is increasingly fragmented and isolated, with the virtual realm of the Internet being perhaps the apotheosis of this stage of alienation and literal radical separation. Thanks to networks for precarious employment like Craig’s List, the workforce of the 21st Century increasingly resembles a digital shape-up more than a shop floor of career manufacturers. It is not uncommon for a worker to know few if any of their co-workers, or to have never met their boss in person. Even in giant sites of cooperative work like Wal Mart, increasingly the model for the sphere of working class consumption, workers are deliberately kept on a part-time basis and their schedules are rotated endlessly.

This terrain taken in total poses an unpleasant reality for those of us who believe the site of value production to therefore be the primary site for the struggle of the proletariat against capital. The disintegration of the centralized workplace, the disappearance of the single paycheck, and the death of the career for a growing number of the working class creates a situation of aporia for those of us seeking to assist in the formation of revolutionary organizations of the working class rooted in its relations of production. The question is certainly legitimate: What is to be done?

But for the reasons outlined above, we cannot agree with the sentiment of many of our comrades, that the fate of the revolutionary in the present is bound up with that of the trade union. To the contrary, our work is to be done outside the restrictions of this moribund form, irrelevant to a vast and growing majority of the working class, and inimical to the aims of class-wide struggle.

VI. Conclusion

The union is nothing more than the legislative body which upholds the concessions made by capitalists in order to keep the status quo, and maintain capitalist order. We see debates in the ruling class play out that effect our material lives, but our strategy is not to convince one side or the other that they are correct. We do not wish to destroy “the union” more or less than we wish to destroy the supreme court, which currently maintains our legal rights to abortions, freedom of speech and assembly, and ensures due process. But just as we see our constitutional rights being eroded away and our solution is not to defend the supreme court, but rather to build a fighting working class; as we see our benefits being diminished, our primary response is to build analysis and organization of the working class that can fight directly against capital itself.

To this end, we do not believe the “correct form” for contemporary working class struggle has yet been discovered. But we know that whatever forms emerge must be the dialectical response to the current mode of capitalism, not a flat opposition that attempts to bring back the old days, impossible to resurrect anyway, instead of confronting the new. The current working class faces a new kind of “double freedom”: we work many jobs at once, we stay at jobs for short periods of time, we work under the table to get health benefits and food stamps from the state, we seek diminishing housing subsidies. We are so “free” that each day of work could be our last through no fault of our own. This is not a condition which the trade union form can comprehend.

The lives of the working class are thus simultaneously more isolated and more connected than ever before. No longer organized by the massive cooperation of the industrial factory, whether the factory of GM or the factory of the steno pool, we work for ourselves, by ourselves, on our bosses’ schedules. We work from our own cars or our tiny apartments, we purchase our own cleaning supplies to clean someone else’s office or apartment, we rent our own trucks to move someone’s furniture. We discover that the comfortable-sounding notion of “working at home” is instead the reality of a world in which we are always at work in some form or another.

We feel so isolated, so particular, so endlessly individualized. But when we meet one another in the welfare office, on the bus, or passing in the hallway of the company building we work, we find our experiences are almost identical. We work on a rotating basis for the same bosses or the same kinds of bosses, and when we confront the similarities of our situations, the particularities fade into the background. This is the basis for collective struggle.

There are more of us, the lowest rung of the working class, than perhaps any other time in the last fifty years, and we are directly involved with the production and reproduction of capitalism. It is this that we must seize on; not the protection of an institution that is itself dying. We will fight tooth and nail to hold on to health insurance, for those few who have it, and wage and security benefits, for those few who have it, but we will not do this from the isolation of our jobs. We will do this as a class, and for the class, not to demand simply a better price for the sale of our labor power, but to force a change in the entire mode of production itself.

At times, we may decide this means holding a union sign, and other times, it may mean holding our own picket signs in protest to the union. Most of the time, and for 86% of us who are not in unions, the over 10% of us who are unemployed, and the several million of us who are living on disability, or barely living at all, we will fight directly against capital, recognizing our own conditions and pushing the struggle forward, on the terrain of class struggle furnished by the present and the future.



11 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Steven. on April 10, 2013

Hey, if this article is part of a series then we can group it inside one parent article so people can read the debate sequentially, like this one: http://libcom.org/library/participatory-society-or-libertarian-communism

when it is grouped then it can have the "debates" tag added to it, as we don't want the debates tag on individual articles

klas batalo

11 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by klas batalo on April 10, 2013

could admins help? maybe Juan could?

i was trying to figure out how to do that cause it was annoying. i instead made a forum post with a table of contents cause i couldn't figure it out.

if it is easy as pie and i was just dumb, i am down to read instructions.


11 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Steven. on April 11, 2013

Hey, sure instructions are here:

but with this one if you say here what the debates are I or another admin could help put them in order when we get a chance

Juan Conatz

9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Juan Conatz on August 17, 2014

I know its been over a year, but klas, can you redo these and group them together like how they should be? You should make a 'parent article' that states what the content of the pieces you posted are. Then you need to edit what you've already posted to be 'child pages' of the 'parent'. You can do that in the 'Book outline' tab when you edit an article. You can weigh them to stay in the order they were originally posted.

I would just do it, but I'd rather frequent contributers to the library learn how to do things on their own, so it leaves admin with less to do.

klas batalo

9 years 8 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by klas batalo on August 19, 2014

yeah i learned how to do this since then, etc. i'll get to it when/if i get time...i had made a forum post about it instead originally.


Mara Responds to Jocelyn and James

A response by Mara of Advance the Struggle to Jocelyn Cohn of Unity and Struggle and James Frey

Submitted by klas batalo on April 10, 2013

Below is a piece by Mara, a member of Advance the Struggle, in response to Jocelyn Cohn, of Unity and Struggle, and James Frey’s piece, “Our Friends with Benefits: On the Union Question.” This is another very serious contribution to the ongoing debate that has unfolded on this blog. Considering the critical struggles currently occurring, we’d like to further encourage other groupings and individuals to put forward clear positions on how revolutionaries should relate to the unions in this historical moment. Let’s continue this principled and thought provoking debate!


What I appreciate about this piece is it’s aim of historicizing the situation of unions today as being incarcerated within the logic of capital accumulation (keeping a set of workers working for capitalists; keeping workers divided against one another in competition over wages and benefits to the benefit of the capitalists) and state hegemony (restricting worker agency through bourgeois law, keeping workers organized in a legalistic and hierarchical manner that negates changes possible local by local).

However, I’ve read analysis like this before. There’s a whole reading list on Libcom that also features excellent analysis of such historical incorporations of unions under the wings of the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois state. You can find that reader here.

What’s lacking in this piece is a serious engagement with the following question: Do we think that healthcare, education and transportation are important industries for revolutionaries to engage in? If so (and by no means do I think that there is agreement by the authors on this point), then how do we propose to organize alongside these workers (or as these workers for those of us who work in these industries) without interventions in the union? Our debate is back to square one, and revolutionaries from Latin America who we’ve talked to about these debates will continue to have puzzled faces and ask, “is this really what you all are debating? it seems very low-level”

The original positing of the question: how should revolutionaries relate to unions? was not stating, “Unionized workers are the most revolutionary.” Rather, as I understand it, it was saying – once you’re in a union, or once you have contact with unionized workers, what is to be done? This is the question that still needs to be answered, in my opinion, both by looking at the history of revolutionaries attempting to do so and by investigating current efforts to intervene within unionized workplaces.

The authors of the document make some statements about what revolutionaries should do in unionized workplaces. They write, “the role of revolutionaries is to develop themselves in the class to seize on contradictions and expand them to a level where control of political power can be grasped by the working class . . . Our role is not to celebrate every move that allows for the harmonious march of capitalism for one more day . . . “

This is confusing to me. For instance, if I were a teacher in Chicago a year ago – should I have not built for and participated in the teacher strike that happened? While the strike itself did indeed negotiate a shitty contract that capitulated to the bosses definition of teacher evaluation, the strike also started to break through the decades long hangover from Ocean Hill/Brownsville by demonstrating an example of teacher-parent solidarity. Was this the end all be all of such solidarity? Of course not. Was it important in ways that go beyond the “harmonious march of capitalism”? I think so, and I think to disagree means to not be honest since it would mean ignoring years of parent/teacher struggle against school closures and other forms of neoliberal capitalist attack that happened before the CTU strike and helped generate the politicized social relations between sectors in the education community.

With that said, of course there are severe limitations to such a strike. Most specifically, the limitation of the trade union form which was not surpassed through the course of the strike. The authors of this document would likely state that the limitations of the trade-union form were not surpassed because it was a trade union struggle, so the nature of the strike was determined by the form of organization that birthed it. This seems overly deterministic and fatalistic, and if I’m wrong in speculating about their position I hope to be corrected.

The question still remains: if we don’t think that strikes organized by unionized workers are doomed (aka, automatically determined) to “carry on the harmonious march of capitalism” then that means that there must be something that we can do to intervene and take them off the path of recuperation. In my opinion, one key thing that Chicago teachers could have done (and perhaps some tried to do) was to incorporate the anti-school closure movement and perspective into their struggle in such a way that it would be an equal if not more important component of their strike. This would begin a process of expanding the struggle beyond one particular set of workers to incorporate others in ways that are not simply building solidarity for one set of workers, but rather forging a broader and more “classwide” struggle out of the contradictions of the formerly teacher-centered struggle. (You can simply google “chicago school closings” to see articles on current school shutdowns in CPS). The organizational implications of this broadening of the struggle include the emergence of “classwide” organizations that are independent of the union though composed of members from it. Wouldn’t this be an example of seizing on the contradictions and expanding them? Wouldn’t participation in the strike put us in a position to do so just as much as it puts us in a position to potentially do the wrong thing and continue the “harmonious march of capitalism.”? Aren’t, at least, both possibilities inherent in any given moment?

Don Hammerquist writes about the overlapping possibilities in one of the workplace papers. He writes,

Developments within the unions that make them into organizations more capable and willing to fight for the reform interests of the workers, including fighting for these demands which have been initially raised by independent organizations, are in the interests of the class and all of its organizations, even if we are deprived of an opportunity to teach cheap “revolutionary” lessons.” He continues, “Under such conditions — where the unions are being revitalized and the work of the communists to develop the council character of the independent or- ganizations is only one tendency at work within these organizations — it is not likely that independent or- ganizations and trade unions will exist as clear dual structures. Specifically, there will be a tendency for independent organizations to become unions in situa- tions where the existing unions are not responsive, and for an overlap in constituency, program, and perhaps even in membership, between independent organizations and inner-union caucuses in situations where the unions are more viable.

I won’t argue that unions are becoming more militant at this particular moment. Rather, they are generally continuing with the dominant trend of class collaboration – working as a “team” with management. However, what I appreciate about Don’s writings from way back when is that it is looking at all side of the contradiction between what we as revolutionaries want – classwide councils that take the class as a collective subject rather than a fractured and self-interested set of individual sections – and what unions are – by definition sectoral organizations that seek to maintain the working conditions of a section of workers, as opposed to workers as a whole. Examining the Chicago example, among others, in this light helps us to imagine what our interventions within unionized workplaces and struggles might look like as we seek to expand them beyond their limitations.

However, the authors of this article are unclear about strategy for intervening in such strikes, struggles, and unionized workplaces in general. While they end their article stating that they may at times have pro-union pickets, while at other times picketing against unions, what I see as the essence of their argument for intervention is that of direct action at the workplace and an emphasis on more oppressed and exploited workers must take precedence over all else when organizing in unionized shops. I don’t disagree that these should be our focus, but I do disagree with the seeming ambivalence about how to do this in relation to the existing union struggle. Neglecting to flesh this out, either by examining current organizing we’re doing or by thinking through potentialities of past/recent struggles keeps us at a level of abstraction and determinism that doesn’t seem entirely useful.

To keep it brief and abstract (but building off the Chicago teacher strike discussion above): I disagree with the author to the extent to which they divorce independent workplace organizing [that is, the building of committees with workers from various sectors of levels of the workplace and industry] from interventions within trade unions. This false dichotomy means that we give up the terrain of the union as a contested site of struggle, and this giving up is justified by an analysis of history and theory which situates unions neatly within the reproduction of capital and the state, rather than acknowledging trade union incorporation while also seeing that there is room for agency within some unions. This agency could be expressed through organizing the members of the union to take on classwide struggles (against school closures and austerity in the case of teachers), but in order to do so we must see this as potentially possible.

I want to appreciate the writers for their contribution to the debate. While I disagree with its overly-deterministic and reductionist political conclusions, I do agree with important aspects of its structural analysis. We need to use such an analysis to build classwide struggle among both unionized and un-unionized workers. Both are central to our struggle, and I’m hesitant to label one or the other as “more important.” The tendency to favor intervention among the “more oppressed” seems correct to me, but we must do so with an orientation toward breaking down class-divisions between the more oppressed and the more privileged (aka the more organized by unions, often). The thought-experiment around Chicago is one example of this, and the current work being done among teachers, parents and un-unionized teachers in Oakland which I’ve posted about before is another. The challenges are hella real, but how are we going to seize upon them and Judo them toward our advantage if we don’t get our hands messy and intervene?


Jocelyn and James Respond

Jocelyn and James respond to Nate Hawthorne and others in response to their piece, 'Our friends with benefits'.

Submitted by klas batalo on April 10, 2013

Jocelyn and James submitted a piece that challenges the notion that an orientation towards the unions is productive for contemporary revolutionaries based off a serious analysis of the shifting nature of modern capitalism. Advance the Struggle apologies for the title, “a lost cause” as an introductory title. We would like for the audience to read this response to get more clarity on Jocelyn and James’ position on the unions. - A/S

We appreciate the engagement with our piece. There has been a breadth of engagement in the comments on Advance the Struggle’s blog that we are unable to address in the time and space provided, but are grateful for the height of the debate. We apologize for comments left unaddressed, but we plan to respond to much of what’s left unsaid (especially Nate’s challenging points) in subsequent writing. Also we tried to address multiple questions in our responses to particular questions. Other comments seem to reflect a lack of thorough reading or misreading of our piece, and we urge their authors to give our piece a charitable reading before attempting to engage.

We are responding in three parts: the first addresses misunderstandings or mischaracterizations, the second addresses a few of the questions raised in the comments sections, and the third is a series of general responses which help elucidate the purpose of the piece. All of this points to a need to critically interrogate the present moment in its generalities and particularities, toward concrete activity. We staked out a clear theoretical domain, as a position piece requires, but it was our intention to raise questions rather than make pronouncements. The discussion so far has borne this out very well.

Part 1: Clarification

1) We did not call unions “a lost cause”. A/S added that title to our piece. We deliberately did not use this language to discuss unions, and we offer a far more nuanced perspective. We do not seek to undermine or destroy unions but to recognize their status as a tool of class struggle which must be assessed according to its efficacy. There is a major difference here that a serious treatment of our text quickly reveals..

2) It is not a surprise that this document has been read as an “undermining” of unions, because this is the false dichotomy presented by those who wish us to simply “defend” unions. We discuss the relationship of our theory to concrete organizing strategies (though not necessarily tied to specific form). We deliberately took a more nuanced stance than “rejection” or “defense” of unions, as we believe this dichotomy fetishizes the form and disempowers those attempting to build revolutionary associations in unionized shops. We understand that we do not disagree that unions are not organs of revolutionary class struggle but rather see the question as, in the course of their transcendence CAN and SHOULD trade unions be strengthened, based on their form and content and also based on the current and future composition of capital. This is where our differences lie, and that is what this piece was meant to elucidate.

JD asserts: “Thus they are still swimming in the same stream as their alleged Trotskyist or workerist opponents when they posit that the class struggle is about which form to reject or include.”

This is a misreading of the text. We do not discuss “which forms to reject or include”; instead, we reveal the history through which the trade unions developed, and the present under which they struggle have solidified a form that cannot be changed from within and is not consistent with revolutionary class struggle–a perspective which has been uncontroversial among left communists for over a century. (And not just left communism. “[T]rade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers to the bourgeoisie” observed VI Lenin, with whom we have a few theoretical divergences.) We write that the conception of a “correct form” does not allow us to understand the movement of the class, and that instead we must watch closely in order to be flexible.

Regarding the comparison to TC (who we leave aside, and ask folks to engage our actual text instead of making scholastic comparisons), we have no interest in “waiting and seeing”. We are not academics. None of this is abstract to us. The history we write is our history. We are actively engaged in experimenting with forms outside of the dead-end that is making the trade unions revolutionary. We need all the help we can get, and more specifically, we need to discredit the harmful binary of “for”/”against” unions in order to do so. Beyond this, if we are proven wrong on particular matters of praxis we welcome the strengthening of our position an improve our work.

Part 2: Engagement

Mara wrote:

“Do we think that healthcare, education and transportation are important industries for revolutionaries to engage in? If so (and by no means do I think that there is agreement by the authors on this point), then how do we propose to organize alongside these workers (or as these workers for those of us who work in these industries) without interventions in the union?”

We understand that an analysis held by many revolutionaries is that certain industries hold a place in capitalism that if well organized, are more effective for creating disruptions in the flow of capital than others. We do not entirely share this analysis. Insofar as the industries above require the exploitation of the working class to continue existing, and furthermore that these industries themselves serve the reproduction of the working class, we feel that it is necessary for workers employed by those industries to organize politically. We may choose to organize in certain industries because of who is employed in those industries: so for example healthcare largely employs people of color and women in the lowest paid positions. Therefore organizing in healthcare is crucial. But we would not use this as an argument for not organizing in transportation, which is a largely male-dominated industry. To put it bluntly, the organization of the working class as a whole is necessary; there are important qualitative differences in conditions of different industries, and these differences should be considered if revolutionaries decide to implant in industries, or focus their attention on one industry over another. This also runs the risk of valorizing certain aspects of the working class to the dismissal of others, including unwaged workers, and low wage white collar workers for example.

In terms of engagement with unions, first, not all workers in these industries are unionized. For example, the transportation industry includes unionized workers (in the Teamsters and ATU for example), non unionized workers, and undocumented workers. The gaps between workers in this industry, as well as in healthcare (think doctors vs. CNAs), education public school teachers vs. charter school teachers, substitutes, adjuncts, and teachers’ aides, are extreme. At times, the official union line, as well as sentiments expressed by unionized workers, is to marginalize non-unionized workers, or to not engage with non-unionized workers in an effort to stop union busting. This make sense from the perspective of protecting particular shops but has no place in class-wide unity. Charter school teachers are proletarians.

In these circumstances we see the necessity for unionized workers to reject strategies that marginalize non-union workers, and instead struggle to raise the level of conditions at least to, and beyond those enjoyed by some unionized workers. If transport workers are fighting against the diminishing of their wages and end of their job security, they will find that their non-union co-workers are already facing conditions much worse than the cuts aimed at them. Their position should not simply be to defend their positions, but to unite with their co-workers in exploitation to develop strategies and demands that encompass the industry and/or workplace as a whole and go beyond the demands of their contract. This strategy will be rejected by union bureaucrats, and union and non-union workers will have to form independent organizations; these organizations may engage in union activity such as open meetings and union protests, but will inevitably need to organize independently, and their activity will only grow insofar as they refuse to join all their activity to the union. Furthermore, non-unionized workers may find if they reach out to their exploited unionized friends and co-workers, their efforts are rejected in the interest of individual protectionism. This is a real condition created by capitalism, in which antagonisms between labor and capital take the form of antagonisms within the class.

Instead of trying to ask the unions or unionized rank and file for help, the non-unionized workers must create their own fighting organizations which welcome their unionized fellows, but on the terms of fighting for all, not only for some. And for unionized workers to be able to struggle effectively against capital, they will have to join up with these outside of the union form.

Also, we’d like to add that several objections have been made against our position by pointing to what unions could have done but didn’t do, e.g. teachers building meaningful unity beyond their union. We don’t find this to be a matter of coincidence, bad leadership, or lack of foresight by organizers. This is a main point of our piece and we hope it will be revisited in this context.

You present an immense and challenging set of questions. Responding entirely would require another work of perhaps equal length. We’ve answered some and tabled others with the intention of returning to them in a more formal setting soon. Thank you for your invaluable engagement!

“The piece says that the state became engaged with the regulation of the value of labor power via welfare and unemployment programs in the 1950s and 60s. I was under the impression that these programs dated largely from the 30s and 40s. I could be totally wrong though and I don’t know that anything hangs on the difference, I just wonder. Could you say what you’re thinking of here? And what shifts in labor law do you have in mind?”

In our admittedly schematic history (in no way meant to supplant reading of the scrupulous work that’s been done on the history of unions) we saw the anti-communist social policies of the New Deal and so forth come to fruition following World War II toward the apex of the welfare state apparatus in the 1950′s and 60′s. This is because the programs largely developed to combat the Great Depression sunk to a low during World War II, when the war became the primary fix for the crisis of capitalism. Following the end of WWII, the state re-vamped a variety of social programs, and introduced new ones (perhaps most notably the GI Bill (established in 1944 and its effects felt through the 1950′s), and introduced new ways of dealing with women pushed back out of the workforce as men returned home. In this period (post WWII, the percentage of the national budget spent on welfare programs rose. This is admittedly schematic, deserves much further investigation, and could perhaps be more accurately dated to the mid-1940′s. As for labor law, we were thinking of the Wagner Act (‘35), Taft Hartley Act (’47), up through the Taylor Law (’67).

“I think this is quite important: ‘unions are not class struggle organizations, but organizations for the protection of some workers over others.’ I think it’s worth pointing out that these organizations of sectoral interests (organizations of some workers) can still be quite combative, and speak a vocabulary of solidarity and universality (along the lines of ‘this struggle is one for the whole class, stand with us!’)”

We agree that sectoral organizing is important. However, workplace organizing by sector or workplace that has potential implications for the rest of the working class is different than trade union organizing, that organizes sectors (or really, sections of sectors) to the EXCLUSION of others. We think here for example of the building trades, whose unions organize by restricting non-union contracts rather than by organizing workers industry-wide against the working conditions suffered by non-union workers. This question also requires more debate, but we hope this is a start to addressing the question of unions and solidarity. We discuss this further in our response to Mara.

“the IWW (…) attempted to organize the entire class into one organization, but (…) after internal debates eventually abandoned openly pushing communist politics.” This seems incorrect but I’m willing to have my mind changed. What is this referring to?”

This section requires a longer response and detailed research. But we are referring to early documents and histories of the IWW (largely available on their website and in the book “IWW: The First Thirty Years” by Thompson; additonally, we are referring to current trends in the IWW, that we recognize there are debates within, about discussing communist or even anti capitalist politics specifically, versus discussions of organizing “workers” against “bosses.” We appreciate that you pointed out the need for more detail in this section and believe more writing on the IWW and solidarity unionism in general is necessary. I know there are several pieces as well on Libcom.org that people can refer to. Again, we admit this section as underdeveloped and welcome more discussion and study.

“Early actions [of the CIO] fought against legal formalization and long labor contracts, working instead for control of production by workers themselves.” This too seems incorrect to me. What are you thinking of here? There’s a very good critical piece on the CIO on libcom that’s relevant here.

It’s my understanding that the CIO fought for contracts from day one. It’s true that communists were later purged from the CIO, but the presence of communists doing organizing in the CIO doesn’t mean the CIO was doing communist work. No more than the presence of communists doing organizing in the AFL-CIO today means the AFL-CIO is doing communist work.”

This is an important point. We should clarify we do not think the early CIO was communist, but are instead trying to understand the historical development of trade unions as highly legalized institutions whose role is to mediate through primarily legislative means, and recognize the differences in the early development of industrial unions. We were referring specifically to accounts by CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya in State Capitalism and World Revolution, reflections by Marty Glaberman in “Punching Out”, and accounts by members of STO. Again, this deserves more focus than we can provide here.

“This point seems poorly made to me: “the divisions which unions instill within the class emanate from within their very structures. According to a 2008 report, twenty-five percent of unions in the United States operate on a two-tiered pay structure.” That 25% of unions do something is a poor argument that this thing is structural.”

The point being made (however poorly) is that the division between non-union and union workers one finds on the job site is not simply between union and non-union, but is contained within the union structure itself. 25% is a large portion of the unionized workforce and weakens the already bleak union statistics. More important to us than statistics is the idea that this is something reinforced by the unions rather than something which unionizing can fix. Furthermore, it reinforces our position that trade unions as they exist are incapable of being flexible to the new forms of work being imposed by changes in the composition of capital and in the processes of production themselves. Rather than lifting all workers up when they join a union, the union becomes another mechanism for the division of these workers.

“I find the union and supreme court comparison rhetorically effective but it also raises as many questions as it answers. If there was a referendum tomorrow to ban the supreme court, I would vote no. Likewise if there was a referendum to ban unions. More to the point: the supreme court and union comparison can easily be read as implying that if possible people ought to oppose unionization, so that if a union election happens in our workplaces we should vote no. I’m sure you don’t think that, given that you say later that sometimes struggle “means holding a union sign”. I think it would be clarifying if you said why you don’t think that.”

We don’t aim to tell people whether to vote yes or no on unions as a platitude, but to recognize the strategic use of unions toward a broader class struggle. For example, a strong independent organized workplace could face a vote on a weak union. This is not desirable. It is our attempt in this text to transcend the “for/against?” nature of this discussion, though A/S didn’t do us any favors by adding the polemical title “A Lost Cause”.

“Finally, I think the piece uses the term ‘union’ to mean basically ‘union as defined by the NLRA’ or something like that. I don’t see why the term ‘union’ should mean only that. I agree with you when you say that “negotiating with the capitalist over the terms of this sale is not inherently anti-capitalist, although it has its place in the class struggle.” I use the term ‘union’ to mean something like “organization of workers for the purposes of negotiating with capitalists,” which means the term includes a wider range of politics and activities for me. It seems to me that the article on here called “A Moving Story” is a story about an effort of workers to unionize. (It’s certainly, and in the documents included at the end, explicitly, a story about workers seeking to bargain collectively.) I’m less invested in defining terms – I’m fine to agree to disagree here, you can say union your way and I can say it my way – than in getting at the core of the political issue, which I think is about the relationship between anticapitalist politics and grouping of workers that seek to negotiate over the terms of life under capitalism. The piece suggests, with that quote about how negotiating has a place in class struggle, that there’s a relationship between these two. I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on what what relationship is.”

Again, this is a crucial distinction. We defined union based on NLRA because we were trying to remain consistent with AS’s call to defend these trade unions, and saw this as their definition. We are interested in and involved in developing workplace organizations that are organized by industry as well as connecting these class wide (including to the “lumpen” and unemployed). If in a struggle we use the word “union” to define a well organized group of people (working or not) with a formal structure, we will differentiate ourselves from Trade Unions with formal ties to nationals and internationals, AND NGOs/non-profits in our content, activity, and affiliation. It’s also important to add that when organizing outside of the official trade unions is considered anti-union, this kind of work is very difficult, and we can be slandered by supposed comrades.


“I’m wondering if you can explain a bit more on your argument that the union reinforces a hierarchy within the class that actually worsens working conditions of non-unionized workers.”

Great question. This is a place that needs a lot of development and we are really glad you brought it up. While we do not have extensive historical evidence, we can look back at the historical documents that discuss the labor movement of the 1960′s as a primarily white, male movement. We are thinking specifically about Sex, Race, and Class, where Selma James goes into discussion of the need to break through this notion reinforced by trade unions and organize independently. It can also be found in “Organizing Working Class Women” by Sojourner Truth Organization, and in accounts of DRUM’s organizing, specifically discussions of the prevention of employees of the UAW itself, who were mostly immigrants and people of color, being prevented from organizing and/or fired for striking. Again, this requires serious study, but our evidence is documented mostly by these organizations, particularly the STO and writing from the Marxist women’s movement.

Part 3: General Responses

Several respondents have noted that our piece offers little in the way of a positive conception of moving forward. We reply that our piece itself is an integral first step in moving forward, for our practical work, and hopefully yours. We wrote this piece for concrete practical reasons.

We are both organizing in New York City and are trying to lay the basis for the kind of class-wide organizations that can transcend the trade union form. This is of course a long-term project. In addition to contributing to the general development of the revolutionary left, we were interested in several directives bearing on our immediate work:

First, it offered us a chance for self-clarification, which we must thank A/S for providing everyone in this discussion. We are laying the theoretical basis for our activity and it is strengthened by elucidation and critique.

Second, it allowed us to address in a sustained way a question that bears directly on our own organizing efforts, and to critique a false binary of “for/against” trade unions which has hampered our efforts and will only continue to do so as long as it is taken seriously. We find that when one starts critiquing the unions, even from an advanced theoretical standpoint, the discussion can get ugly and personal very quickly. This is rooted in the mistaken idea that a critique of unions must be an attack on unions by a class enemy. We agree that enemies of unions from the right deserve no such civility, but this confusion can not be allowed to stand. It is necessary to discredit this equation before serious work can be done, or else the discussion itself will be uncivil, unproductive, and unbecoming of serious revolutionaries.

Third, it allows us a vehicle to advance our position with the hopes of winning more dedicated militants over to the pressing need we find for broad organizations of the class outside the trade union form. It is not our intention to transplant our inchoate form to the West Coast but we feel the critique we offered was missing in the discussion on A/S.

We do not expect or desire pure political cohesion, but we hope to elevate the discussion beyond who is right or wrong, and through engagements like this, generate a more advanced theory which is not reducible to any singular position which has been offered. We see this already happening and its very exciting.

In Solidarity,

Jocelyn and James


Finding Our footing on the union question

A piece by HiFi and Mazen of Unity and Struggle on the union debate.

Submitted by klas batalo on April 10, 2013

The current discussion on unions is welcomed, but has so far mostly focused on strategy and tactics around existing unions. Of course, these immediate issues are critical and necessary, including in our own work. However, we want to focus here on mapping out the shape of the terrain.

There are a few broader considerations we need to keep in mind:

1) Clarify in a categorical sense what we mean by a union 2) Consider the past conditions from which the existing unions arose 3) Move toward an understanding of the current period in which the old unions have been transformed and have created a new strategic and tactical necessity 4) Finally, we have to get a sense of a way forward regarding the union question

What follows is a series of notes on these issues.

What are Unions?

We have to start by thinking categorically about the union form. Only with this in mind is it possible to establish a foundation by which to examine the historical and contemporary developments of unions. Further, only with a categorical foundation can we begin to assess the current strategic terrain without falling into empirical and subjective responses around the union question.

Labor and Labor Power

It is critical to think about unions in terms of the relationship between labor and labor power.

In capitalist society the existence and category of labor are completely split between labor and labor power. In a dialectical sense, the workers are both labor and labor power. This division arises because labor is completely separated from the means of labor, or means of production.

Labor power is the ability to labor that must be exchanged with the capitalist in order to get access to the uses needed to survive and satisfy needs. The worker gets money in the form of a wage to get those uses. In return the capitalist gets labor, which comes alive when fused with the means of production. Because the capitalist controls the means of production, he appropriates or keeps the product of the worker, or object produced, for himself.

The split between labor and labor power expresses the relation between necessary and surplus labor. The worker gets back only the necessary subsistence to reproduce herself for that day. But the worker creates much more than the necessary subsistence in a day. The worker creates not only what is necessary to survive that day, but a surplus.

The relationship between necessary and surplus labor has governed all of human history. In capitalist society this relationship takes the form of value. The worker produces surplus value, but only gets back the value of necessary labor. This amount is the value of the worker’s labor power and not labor. Therefore, once again, the worker does not get back the surplus value she has created, but only what was necessary to reproduce her labor power for another day.

The value of labor power is its price, and this is the wage received at the end of the week. The so-called price of labor, the wage of the worker, is actually the value of labor power, which is only necessary labor. Meanwhile, the surplus labor as value goes to the capitalist. The worker receives the value of labor power, which is its price, but not the surplus value the worker created through her labor. The split between labor and labor power, therefore, takes on an additional form in the separation of value and price.

The wage extinguishes the division between necessary and surplus labor. It seems as if the worker exchanges with the capitalist a day’s work for a day’s pay. However, this is not the case. Given the social relations of production, the worker can never get back the total of what she created. The terms of exchange will always be “unequal” because the capitalist is able to appropriate the surplus.

A Contradiction Internal to the Class

By definition the split between labor and labor power is internal to the class or else there would be no class at all. There is a working class because there are a group of people who have nothing but their labor power to exchange with the capitalist to get access to the uses they need. The worker gets subsistence through the wage and capital accumulates the surplus to expand itself. The class relation between the worker and the capitalist is an external expression of an internal split between labor and labor power.

Unions arise from the objective condition of the class and are integral to the relations of labor in capitalist society. They arise as a result of an internal contradiction in the class between labor and labor power. Unions are not external to the class, but an objective expression of its existence. Unions are an organizational expression of the class that come about from the collective struggle over common conditions. However, the union form is the result of the internal contradiction of the class between labor and labor power.

First, unions emerge as the workers combine in an attempt to increase the price of their labor power. In doing so the workers collectively struggle to increase their subsistence. However, considered from this standpoint alone they do not challenge the form of production, but simply the distribution of the surplus.

Second, capitalism brings into being the collective worker, a new form of cooperative labor. Since production is a social process involving many different kinds of workers due to the division of labor, the union is a form of association that represents both potential mastery over the entire production process, as well as their potential ability to collectively shut down production. However, as the union potentially combines the many different types of workers involved in the production process, it becomes the form of organization of the collective worker whose increasing cooperation develops in the production process. The union is therefore also the organization of the collective worker at the point of production.

The relationship between the struggle to increase the price of labor power and the latent cooperation of labor involves a profound contradiction. Do the workers combine to bargain for the terms of sale of their labor power or do they combine as collective producers who can seize the means of production? Do they merely reproduce their labor power and therefore the capital and labor relation? Or do they combine in an organization that represents their latent cooperative labor, which can serve as the foundation for a rupture with the value relation?

Both sides of this contradiction are at play in the union form. As unions developed the workers increased the price of their labor power. However, this did not break with the capital and labor relation. It instead reproduced the split between labor and labor power. On one side of the contradiction of the union form there is a tendency to reproduce labor power and therefore class. On the other there is the tendency of the union to give organizational expression to the latent unity of cooperative labor. This inherent unity is the basis for restructuring production during the rupture with capital. Although this unity is mediated by the capitalist it must be positively realized in new relations of production during the destruction of the value form in the transition to communism.

Unions in the ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’

Unions were transformed in the 20th century from organizations to increase the price of labor power and unify the collective worker into organs of labor discipline within the production process. This change marked the transition from absolute to relative surplus value.

Unions and the Working Day

In the 19th century workers’ struggles, with the important exception of the Paris Commune, were centered around the shortening of the working day. Workers attempted to overcome the contradiction between labor and labor-power by challenging the hold of the capitalist on the surplus.

During much of the 19th century the accumulation of capital was characterized by the production of absolute surplus value. Absolute surplus value is production of surplus that is tied to the length of the work day: the longer the working day, the greater the amount of surplus value. The struggle of the workers arose because the capitalists were lengthening the working day in order to increase the production of surplus value. The struggle over the working day called into question the part of the workday in which the worker produced surplus for the capitalist, which was the very means by which capital sought to reproduce itself and expand.

Even at that time, however, the production of absolute surplus-value was becoming less and less a means by which capital accumulated. As the workers began to achieve a shortening of the working day through unionization and legislation, capital had to find new ways to create surplus value. Capital increased the constant capital in the form of machines in the production process. With the generalization of the use of machinery, the expansion of capital was accomplished through the production of relative surplus value. Relative surplus value is characterized by the dramatic increase in productivity and exploitation of labor. More use values are created in less time.

With this shift in the production of surplus value, the struggle for the shortening of the working day no longer corresponded to the era of relative surplus value. As the productivity of labor increased with the application of machines, a potentially minimum working day was already being established and the struggle for an eight hour day lost meaning. It was no longer a struggle that corresponded to the objective development of capital and labor. The task of the workers shifted to seizing the means of production to socially realize a society of minimum labor time whose potential now already existed.

This background is necessary to understand how unions changed in the first half of the 20th century.

Unions and Relative Surplus Value

Many of the existing unions formed in the early part of the 20th century when relative surplus value matured as the general mode by which capital produced surplus value. As a result, this period, known as the ‘golden age of capitalism, was one in which labor power received a marginally greater share, and also, given the immense growing productivity of labor, a relatively diminishing share of the surplus. This was accomplished through increasing the intensity of the work – for example speed up, etc. in addition to the development of the productive forces through the application of science and technology to the production process resulting in the development of machinery, and a profound increase in constant capital.

These developments of the productive forces corresponded to the labor revolts that birthed the CIO, the origins of today’s unions. The workers of the CIO were what have been labeled “mass,” or semi-skilled, workers. These workers worked in the newly mechanized factories being built that largely relied on the employment of machines in the production process. The development of machinery, as a further extension of the division of labor, gave rise to this new class composition that became the objective basis of this labor upsurge. At that time the AFL, home to skilled workers and craftsmen, withheld their support from this revolt by the semi-skilled worker because the expansion of machinery took away work from these skilled craftsmen, and made many of their trades obsolete. It was the revolt of the soon-to-be CIO, however, that called into question the conditions of work that accompanied these developments of the productive forces.

At the same time, the unions mediated an increase in the total social wage in exchange for increasing labor productivity. This included, in addition to higher wages, the expansion of “democratic” rights and increased social investment on the part of the capitalist through the state. While the price of labor power increased, the exploitation of labor deepened as the quantity of goods increased and their prices fell.

In concrete terms, the dynamic of labor productivity and labor power meant things like the growth of the one paycheck household, company pensions, rapidly expanding cheap and high quality higher education, and the post-war housing boom. Of course, we need to be very clear that this was not the case for all labor power. For example, many, many millions were racially left outside looking in – something that conditioned the powerful and vanguard black struggle from the 1940s into the 1970s. It was a similar case with the women’s movement.

All this also meant that the unions changed along with the overall political conditions of the workers’ struggle. The workers as labor power could be absorbed ‘politically’ and ‘economically’ because labor productivity grew dramatically. The exponential growth in the productive forces expressed in growing surpluses meant a growth in the marginal share the workers received. But while the price of labor power increased, its overall value decreased as the increased productivity of labor meant that the portion of the workday needed to reproduce the wages of the worker decreased in relation to the portion of the workday in which surplus was produced for the capitalist.

Incidentally, as higher productivity and higher wages could only be guaranteed with the introduction of new science, technology, and production methods, capital required a higher level of rationalization and control over the production process. The increased “democratic” rights guaranteed by the state that included the legalization of unions, at the same time subjected them to new modes of rationalization within the production process. With the massive investments into constant capital, capital required the guarantee of a return on these investments through uninterrupted production. Through their legalization the union officialdom reciprocated by forfeiting basic strategies such as the right to strike and the tactic of the sympathy strike.

Furthermore, unions gave up struggles over the conditions of work, such as pace, intensity, health and safety conditions, and a say over the introduction of further extensions of the division of labor. This meant that, while unions continued to struggle over labor power in the form of wages, the abandonment over the conditions of labor meant that the official unions no longer expressed the resistance of living labor in the process of production itself.

All of these new conditions were guaranteed through union contracts by the state, and, further, this intervention by the state into the production process, an evolution of the class relationship between capital and labor, became the objective basis for the existence of the union bureaucracy. Thereafter every revolt against these new conditions in the production process was also a political challenge to the state, and thus posed the question of workers power against capital.

Finally, against the guarantee of uninterrupted production embedded in the union contract, every revolt by the working class put them at odds with the new terms of the union form itself. In this period unions no longer embodied the contradiction between labor and labor power, and instead relegated struggle to the price of labor power. This shift corresponded to a new relationship between the worker and the union whereby the union became a social service agency and a higher level of atomization of the working class was achieved within the union form. Unions, then, no longer expressed the potential of the collective worker at the point of production.

Unions in the Age of ‘Neo-Liberal’ Crisis

We encounter today a deepening crisis in the social reproduction of labor as the capitalists seek to lower the subsistence levels of labor power. What is reproduction and why is it important? Labor power must be daily reproduced in order for the worker to recreate, expand and circulate capital. Without this, there could be no capital. The capitalists must regulate the consumption of the workers to what is necessary to get them to work, but nothing more. Anything beyond that is considered unproductive for the capitalist. Capital is therefore not only carrying out a massive austerity in the formerly advanced economies, but lengthening the working day by lowering wages, transferring the social costs of reproduction to the individual worker and increasing precarious work.

Capitalist Attack on the Total Social Wage

Today the terms of sale of labor power are fundamentally changed as the capitalists have been confronting a long, unfolding crisis over the last 40 years. Unlike the previous period, capital aims at driving down the costs of the total social wage. Once again, the total social wage goes well beyond the paycheck the worker gets every week, and includes social investment by the capitalists through the state or other entities like foundations, non-profits and companies, in education, healthcare, and public infrastructure.

The struggle against the reduction of subsistence levels of labor power, or living standards, profoundly conditions the resistance to capital in the crisis. Whereas this resistance has characterized decades of fight back in the crisis-ridden Western countries, opposition was more often than not confined to particular companies and industries. However, in recent years, as we have seen, a critical dynamic has developed in which alongside ongoing specific sector action, often involving unions, there has emerged a more generalized form of resistance speaking to the crisis of reproduction. This has been most dramatic in the rebellions in Egypt and Europe. The United States has obviously also experienced this dynamic, although to a lesser extent.

Despite the loss of density in the U.S., the existing unions are deeply involved in the struggle over the total social wage. Although they are decaying remnants of the previous period, the existing unions have been transformed into something new.

In the ‘golden age of capitalism’ the existing unions were predicated on “full” employment and increases in the social wage exchanged for labor discipline and productivity. Today capital achieves labor discipline and productivity in new ways, developing a regime of precarious, casualized and “flexible” work, as well as permanent and structured unemployment. Further, it is the police and prisons that have equally become the institutions and sadist faces of labor discipline.

Today the old unions mediate the capitalist attack on the total wage. These unions adopt the employment conditions, wage scales, and work rules of the precarious, casualized and flexible workplace. Further, the old unions are transformed into the means by which the social costs of pensions and healthcare are shifted to the individual worker.

In the current period, the majority of the existing unions have moved towards a service model. These unions seek individual “partnerships” with companies and consumer relationships with their members. They function as labor contractors for employers and customer unions for employees. They increase the atomization on the job and turn their members into mere numbers at empty union rallies. These unions have become company shareholders, either directly, as in the UAW, or indirectly in the number of union pensions invested in the stockmarket.

Further, and importantly, because the existing unions are a consequence of labor relations law, they cannot organize cross sector strikes, nevermind class-wide action. The unions have backed federal law that limits employer action during card check union elections. Besides the fact that it has no possibility of passing the Congress given the current balance of class forces, the law would have no effect on the attack on labor power given that it is not union density that is the key to the struggle, but the ability to organize strikes. Effective class action builds “density”, not the other way around.

Since these unions have so far largely failed to develop a presence in the South, the employment conditions of the South have migrated to the North. The most recent concessionary contract of the UAW around the auto bankruptcies makes that all too clear. The ongoing organizing drives and political offensives the unions and the Democratic Party are carrying out in the South is a failing attempt to reverse this trend.

New Ruling Class Policy on the Unions

The old unions have been weakened to such a degree that the capitalists have seized the political terrain in a “counter-revolutionary” wave that has swept through Republican controlled state legislatures since 2008. The Republican Party has passed so-called “right to work” laws in many states, bypassing at times parliamentary procedures to do so, as was the case in Michigan. This “southern solution” to the union question has two aims. The first is to remove the old unions as a “grassroots” force for the Democratic Party. The second is to remove union pay scales and job protections, which continue to set the standard for unskilled and semi-skilled work as a whole in particular regions of the country.

It is not only the Republican offensive that is forcing the working class to confront its political conditions. For the first time the Democratic Party has had to contemplate confronting the union question as an executive power at the federal level in the era of ‘neo-liberal’ crisis. For example, the Obama administration and the Democrats used the bankruptcy of the auto companies to work with the UAW to force through a massive concessionary contract that reduced wages and compensation to new minimum levels.

The Wisconsin protests confronted the national Democratic Party with a different problem. As the leading edge of capitalist austerity, the Republicans seek to break altogether with the promises of the social contract established under the “golden age”. The Right has made a final break with the legal existence of unions. On the other hand, the centrists, now gathered in the Democratic Party, by and large tolerate unions as labor contractors, “get out the vote” machines, and propagandists against Republicans.

While there is unity among the ruling class and the two parties around the attack on the total social wage, political polarization in the United States has so far obscured the class content of austerity. Unlike the some parts of the Middle East or Europe, polarization in the United States has been largely deflected through the two political parties.

The Union Today: Which Way Forward?

The preceding theoretical and historical background now raises the question of what orientation revolutionaries should take towards the union form. We make the following points: 1) Revolutionaries must work with the rank and file of existing unions 2) Support the formation of new unions when objectively possible 3) Help build minority or vanguard workers organizations

A New Communist Analysis of Unions?

To some extent we have inherited a communist critique of unions that arose in the previous period. That analysis developed from the new forms of workers activity in the 1930s to the 1970s. These forms included everything from absenteeism and sabotage, wildcat strikes, to workplace committees and councils. Such forms emerged as a negation of the unions, superseding them as labor sought to confront capital as “workers power”.

The ultra-left view of the unions as reformist institutions, absorbed into the production process and functioning as organizations of labor discipline, expressed the reality and needs of the previous period in capitalism. There is a tendency today, in the use of this framework, to view unions as external to the class. This analysis of the unions was understandable in the past given that worker struggles sprang up against the form of production itself and less so the terms of sale of labor power. The wave of wildcat struggles and shop floor militancy in the late 1960s and 1970s were as much about the alienation and speed up of the machines – and the unions that regulated discipline to them – as they were about pay raises to keep up with inflation.

Faced with the limits of its own reproduction in the 1970s, capital destroyed the old role of the union in the production process. As a result, the existing unions have lost their objective existence as a mediation of capital and labor, except in particular industries. However, even there the tendency is that competitive pressures between capitals are eroding the power of those unions. Any rising demands of labor power can no longer be met by capital and the tendency has been towards the liquidation of the unions as institutions of worker discipline.

What disciplines workers today is precarious, casualized work, structural unemployment, labor law and the prisons. And the tendency toward precarious work is by no means limited to the working poor and “proletarianized” white collar workers. Precarious work – the lengthening of the work day, the attack on the social wage, and speed up – are increasingly a feature of all job classifications: transportation, heavy and light industry, education, healthcare, and services, etc. The “democratic rights” once extended to the workplace have been, and continue to be systematically eroded and destroyed. There is a widespread and successful dismantling of the existing legal structure of labor relations that was established in the 1930s and 1940s.

A new situation has arisen, qualitatively different from the previous period. As the capitalists attack the total social wage, struggles over labor power face the question of political power much more directly than before. Struggles over labor power can no longer be incorporated into the development of capital as they were in the 19th century, or superseded as they were for many branches of industry in much of the 20th century by the development of machines and dramatic reduction of necessary labor time that resulted. During the “golden age” the demands of labor power and the struggle of labor against capital tended to be antagonistic to each other. Today this is not the case. The attack on the total social wage increasingly raises the impossibility of the social reproduction of labor power and labor.

What are the implications? The form of production, or the “political” question is more directly confronting the working class and the oppressed on the terrain of labor power. Crucially, this dynamic means that defensive, or so called “economic” battles can leap into confrontations on the “political” terrain. More precisely, the separation of labor and labor power tends to close as capital reduces the subsistence levels of labor power. Increasingly, humanity as labor and labor power cannot reproduce itself relative to the massive productive forces and social wealth it has created in the form of capital.

Such a reality means three things. First, struggles around the wage – including health, pension and job rights, if any – can be the basis for real breaks with the existing unions and political forces arrayed in the state. Second, the objective conditions can arise for new unions to sprout up in industries with or without existing unions. The conditions exist now for a greater number of new worker militants to appear on the scene and the appropriate organizational forms must be found to cohere them.

Lessons from Wisconsin

A clear example of the first point, and the kind of leap we have in mind, is what happened in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin showed how a union struggle over an attack on the social wage goes over to a class wide movement, discovering tactics, in this case a kind of occupation, which began to embrace the whole class. The struggle in Wisconsin quickly established the limits of the existing unions and came up against the objective reality that the capitalists and the ruling class have no choice but to attack the total social wage. The generalization of these struggles opens up the possibility for a broader agitation in which the workers confront more directly the political situation of the working class and carry out class wide action. Wisconsin showed how the gap between labor power and labor is closing in the era of austerity

Again, to use an older set of terms, these workers were in the process of moving from the “economic” to the “political” level. With the continued unfolding of the crisis such mobilizations have ruptured at various moments onto the national stage. Just as the capitalists carried out a naked class offensive in Wisconsin, so unionized workers had to move from a company or industry specific fight, to class-wide struggle. Just like Occupy or the Trayvon Martin protests became a touchstone for discontent around the country, touching places with undeveloped traditions of protest, these union fights clearly raised more directly the political situation facing the working class for all to see.

These struggles are not simply “defensive” or “economic” struggles. They are also not simply struggles of a “privileged” sector of the working class. They are the conditions of struggle for unionized workers in particular industries for their own radicalization. It is the condition for the deepening of their own understanding of the “political” level. This is the case because the capitalists can no longer provide the “American Dream” to the working class. The attack on labor power arises objectively from the crisis of the capital-labor relation today. Defensive struggles can function as “schools of communism” today.

There have been no clear, semi-permanent political alternatives that have emerged during the current crisis in the U.S. Since no alternative has arisen, the working class, in particular semi-skilled and skilled, tend to think within the framework of the “golden age”. This has given a merely defensive character to many of the struggles and individual strikes that have appeared during the crisis. Despite the capitalist offensive, the working class has yet to fully grasp the class nature of the state and the bankruptcy of bourgeois democracy. They have so far resisted the new regime within the framework of the old. An appeal to the promise of the “American Dream” – the ideological bedrock of trade unionism – has no power in the face of a unified enemy that has no intention of raising standards of living.

We need new forms of worker organization that can establish that alternative new union. Broadly speaking, the ultra-left tends to consider the question of labor power from only one side. If the demands of labor power can longer be met by capital, so the argument goes, then necessity dictates seizing the means of production, abolishing value, and reconquering uses for human needs and not capital. Of course, this is true, but it doesn’t explain the overall character of worker protest. Regarded from the other side of the contradiction, then, the demands of labor power cannot be ignored. In response to the crisis of the reproduction of labor and capital, workers will just as likely struggle around the demands of labor power. Again, the contradiction here arises from the objective existence of the class

In fact, the struggle against austerity, which deeply conditions the fight back today, is equally tied to the demands of labor power. Yet these demands continue to be monopolized by the existing and decaying unions. If the domain of labor power is subsistence, then this struggle is mediated by the division of labor, which in turn is mediated by competition. And this takes concrete form in mutual competition between the workers. Competition is across industries and their individual branches and departments. The existing unions reproduce the division of labor and are not the basis for class-wide organizations – organizations of the collective worker.

It would be formalistic and external to the class to fail to engage with the union form. Since precarity is the general condition of the working class today, struggles around labor power are part of the objective movement of the class. The struggles against austerity have not negated the union form, but demand new kinds of unions as worker activity ruptures with the existing unions. The existing unions need to be superseded by the formation of new unions.

Since the tendency is toward the destruction of the legal framework for labor relations, new unions will likely emerge in a semi-illegal existence. This means that there would be a less direct tension between permanent and semi-permanent forms of class organization. Without the institutionalization of labor law and the acceptance of employers, new unions will exist as more porous and flexible, morphing into industry-wide offensive that have the possibility of equally negating the division of labor and becoming the organization of the collective worker.

New unions will resemble less the bureaucratic, professionally staffed institutions we are familiar with today, and more semi-permanent unions of the past whose “contracts” were merely temporary truces in an ongoing struggle. Once again, even as the union form reproduces the commodified form of labor, while being the organization of the collective worker, the gap between the two lessens.

However, since unions are mass organizations, the objective conditions do not exist at this time for them to emerge.

Minority Class Organizations

If new unions are not yet possible, other forms of organization are absolutely necessary. Revolutionaries should assist in building minority worker organizations. New unions will not emerge in a linear way, nor are they enough to constitute the political independence of the class. Instead, we need to build minority organizations to both assist in laying the foundation for new unionism, as well as cohere and intervene to help develop worker militants who will play a leading role in new struggles and organizational forms that go beyond unions – class-wide organizations – that can begin to pose alternatives to the current order. These new militants are critical to establishing the scaffolding for both the “economic” and “political” organization and action of the class.

Why are minority forms of organization necessary? Once again, Wisconsin illustrates the point. While tens of thousands of workers moved, challenging in their activity the existing array of political forces in the state, this movement was enclosed and appropriated by the organizational power of the union bureaucracy and Democratic Party. Despite the important work of individual militants in Wisconsin – in particular the agitation for a general strike – revolutionaries have yet to organize themselves to fully intervene in such ruptures. This involves organizational ability and capacity – neither of which we have yet to fully achieve, in particular the latter.

More radical mass organizations – like unions – are not sustainable today given the overall development of political conditions. However, what is possible today is the creation of networks composed of a layer or nucleus of more radical workers. The growth of our organizational ability and capacity depends on the emergence of a layer or advanced sector of the class that can act as a pole within ruptures like Wisconsin as well as smaller localized struggles. These poles must serve as a counterweight and an alternative to bureaucratic and statist forces. The focus for revolutionaries should be to not only actively build and support the appearance of these layers or nodes of radical workers, but also aim towards their unification in specific networks – including industry specific – and linked around a common internet presence sharing information and perspectives. Our comrades at Recomposition have already gone a long way in thinking about this and we all should listen.

At this historical moment we have to distinguish between the revolutionary propaganda groups that populate the revolutionary Left today and potential networks of worker militants. However, these forces will obviously overlap. The relationship between the two can act as a conjuncture, which will establish a new foundation for revolutionary organization that goes beyond propaganda groups. This is particularly the case as such networks bring together knowledge about the specific workings and contours of particular industries. Revolutionary programs become more concrete based on this knowledge.

Besides radical worker networks, what forms of organization should be advocated? Minority or vanguard forms of organization emerge differently, depending on the specific situation.

In some of the existing unions there has been significant rank-and-file unrest. The SEIU and UAW come immediately to mind. This discontent has typically taken the form of union reform caucuses. Reform caucuses will not be able to escape the confines and logic of labor law, which structure these unions. However, to the extent that reform caucuses have rank-and-file support among a dissident membership, revolutionaries should try to win these workers over to alternative political perspectives, strategies, and tactics.

In existing unions the focus should be on the formation of workplace groups. These groups can be the basis for the agitation for rank and file committees that run parallel to the official union structure. These groups, and later committees, should advocate direct action, flying pickets, workers control and the formation of mixed locals. Revolutionaries must advocate class-wide unity and organizational forms that lay the foundation for the breakdown of the division of labor. Committees should be the basis to advocate tactics that break with legality and unite the class by incorporating demands and needs of all sectors. Ultimately, committees should agitate for the strike, in particular against the limited and broken up show strikes of the existing unions. Finally, as our comrades in Advance the Struggle have already pointed the way forward, we need to agitate for classwide committees clustered around specific industries. These tactics and organizational forms are the expression of the collective worker.

Here is where we need to distinguish what it means to “defend the unions”. We cannot defend the structure of the existing unions and their legal straight-jacket. However, in attacking the existing unions, the capitalists are creating the political conditions for the non-reproduction of the working class and the oppressed. In the fight back the existing unions are not an adequate terrain for a counter-offensive against capital. It is not possible to alter the form of the existing unions by changing their leadership.

Like all organizational forms under capitalism, unions express objective contradictions that cannot be willed away. As Marx argued about capitalism in general, the problem of form is key. We cannot simply substitute one organizational form for another and be guaranteed the results we want. We must always be alive to the dialectic of form and content. However, at this time we can be certain about the types of organizations we need and must advocate.



9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by akai on April 6, 2015

Aaarrrghh. This really stinks of intellectual, top-down vanguardism, While there are a few points here that are certainly correct, the leftist/vanguardist straightjacket offers nothing for anybody who wants to start any union initiatives because it concentrates on power and shifting power, not on building modest but realistic alternatives that challange not only the unions, but the position of the vanguard.