An article from the ICC/Internationalism USA about their participation in the 2011 Verizon strike. It investigates how to present a message critical of the unions role within capitalism, while not coming off as the right wing bourgeoisie.
Here we are publishing an exchange that occurred between the comrades who were engaged in the intervention toward the striking Verizon workers, some of them ICC militants, some of them sympathizers. They worked in close collaboration from the early tossing around of ideas about what to write in the leaflet that was to be distributed, to the actual distribution of the leaflet and several discussions held with the striking workers, and to the post-intervention reflection, which is what is published here. We cannot stress enough the importance of the collective nature of this work. It is important for the sympathizers as they get a ‘hands-on’ experience of actually intervening in the class struggle with a collective framework that is the product of open discussions. It is important for the ICC as it continues to listen to and learn from the insights of the young –and not so young—generation of elements and groups in search of a political direction new and creative ways of approaching different issues. (ICC)
Cde H: When we denounce the unions, we can sound very much like the bourgeois right-wing attacks against them. It can be difficult for people who have not heard the unions attacked from the left before to make the distinction. In fact, we often do end up saying the same things as the right-wing (unions just take your dues money; but do nothing for you; they only advance their own interests, etc.) Perhaps then, given the balance of class forces in the U.S., we could not feature our attacks on the union as much—or at the least not make them centerpiece of intervention - and instead focus on developing class demands. Yes, the unions will sabotage them, but perhaps the workers have to learn this in the course of the struggle. Perhaps, too heavy a denunciation of the unions only strengthens the tendency to identify with them. Workers still fail to see the difference between the unions and themselves. When they hear the unions attacked, they think they are being attacked. Maybe there isn’t an immediate perspective in the U.S. for workers to take control of their own struggles? In this sense, maybe Wisconsin was a true exception and we saw how quickly the unions got control of the situation there. Maybe the more important thing is that workers are actually trying to struggle; maybe we should focus on building the will to struggle, rather than denouncing the unions? This doesn’t mean giving the unions a pass; but we shouldn’t sound like our chief goal is to destroy the unions.
Cde A: I personally have a really hard time understanding how to exactly intervene in a way that, on the one hand, helps/promotes/fosters class consciousness and also steers away from what is indeed a denunciation of the unions that overwhelmingly the workers don’t understand yet. I also do not know how workers can agree to doing the above without questioning why all of this has to be done outside of the union framework. This is the conundrum I always find myself in at my workplace, where many colleagues agree with the ideas and proposals, but then always end up saying something like: well, let’s go and propose this to the union... ultimately, workers need to feel that they can do any of the above without the union. It’s this sense of powerlessness and also a still undeveloped sense of class identity that, I think, the working class has not overcome/ developed yet. And this, as we know, happens through the struggles themselves. I wonder whether the leaflet would not have had an altogether different impact if the first three paragraphs had not been there at all, or if they had been written at the end, after the presentation on what workers could actually do under the circumstances...
Cde H: These are all valid concerns and feelings. Often I think, our intervention boils down to the following: workers need to come together to decide for themselves what to do. Other than some very general things and a lot of what not to do, we can’t really on principle tell the workers what to do or really how to struggle outside of a few basic lessons from history. This is really the entire left communist predicament. Workers have to figure it out for themselves. As such, our intervention can often appear quite negative, i.e.: “We don’t know exactly what the answer is, but the unions sure don’t have it, why don’t you guys go and discuss what to do while the union isn’t looking.” Meanwhile, the unions appear to have concrete answers, which are only shown to be illusions very slowly. It will take time and experience for the workers to break the union stranglehold. Right now, the absurd attempts by elements of the bourgeoisie to destroy the unions seems only to be reinforcing this myth of the unions. The unions are able to play the victim card; it’s not an optimal time to make an intervention condemning the unions in such stark terms. In Europe and elsewhere the story may be different. I hear A’s frustration over the agreement workers seem to have with some basic concepts of ours, yet they think they can achieve them through the union. It’s like when you have a list of grievances against society and some smarty pants tells you to write your Congressman. It’s as if they don’t get the fundamentally different framework you are posing. In fact, they don’t. It’s only experience that will teach. We can really only hope to plant a seed of doubt, the kernel of a different paradigm among the more farsighted and open elements so as to prepare the ground for the next struggle. We are still at a very early stage in the return to struggle, a return that is only very slowly locating the class terrain.
Cde J: I very much appreciate your help with the intervention. I think I learned a lot and I was also surprised by the openness to discuss and encouraged by the solidarity other workers showed. At the same time, I very much agree with what H. is saying. At the moment, the workers are still thinking in terms of the union fighting “for” them. I think that 10 years of indoctrination can erode what most workers learned from the last strike especially when the bulk of the class is not struggling and that despite the appreciation of solidarity we saw-- the working class is still very fearful and conservative about all of its attempts to defend itself, and until struggles are happening more frequently it’s probably unlikely that we will convince many of our position on the unions, but we can probably convince workers that a) the crisis isn’t going anywhere and there will be more fights in the near future, b) every worker deserves to and should take an active role in these struggles and discuss exactly what the demands are and how to fight them, c) other workers are interested in your struggle and want to help you so you should discuss with them as well, d) what the union is doing will not work in the long term and what we need to do with this struggle is discuss it, think outside the box, discuss it with other workers, and discuss other workers’ struggles--to build some kind of class identity and e) it is not this or that boss but the whole system of capitalism which attacks not just Verizon workers (or whomever) but the whole working class and we have to fight back as a class.
Cde A: There are a lot of things we can say to workers and J points some of them out here, but I agree that we should not feature the denunciation of the unions when approaching workers on the picket line, or at a rally or whatever. I don’t think we should hide or lie about our positions, but this shouldn’t be the first thing out of our mouth. It shouldn’t be the first line of a leaflet. I think in our press it is a different story. The audience is different. When we intervene at a picket, we are going to the workers. However, when someone buys a newspaper or takes the time to go to the webpage, they are taking the initiative to find out more about our positions. In theory, our press is only ever going to be read by the more advanced elements of the class, whereas a leaflet has a much broader distribution. I agree with J that at this stage it is probably more important to intervene on the question of the crisis, putting forward the perspective of Marxism that says there is no solution to this mess within capitalism; whatever workers are doing in the unions, they do not go beyond the horizon of bourgeois alternatives, which are really no alternative at all. Workers need to see that reform is not possible, no faction of the bourgeoisie has an answer: the future is bleak without their own independent action. In theory, the questioning of union hegemony over the struggle should follow.