My remarks focus on the second question which will spill a bit into the third.
Having observed some of the current interaction of today's activists with unions, I think that a lot of young activists are confused about the trade union question. Therefore the discussion of STO's independent mass organization concept in Mike's book is very important. But more about the context of that concept needs to be discussed. It is a mistake (which Mike touches on) to think that the reason for our stance was that unions are always corrupt or that they are limited because of some Leninist notion of the limits of “trade union consciousness.” Some of us had this limited view at the time. This made us, similarly to activists today, vulnerable to the wiles of “good unions” or ones that use radical rhetoric. Trade unions based on labor laws that are designed to maintain the capitalist system will always attempt to limit and contain labor activism that threatens the system. But there are some particularities in the United States that are also important. Today's US trade unions are all the product of an era when trade unions made a deal with capitalism in the period after World War II. A share of the considerable bounty from the post war boom was traded for assurances of continuity of production and support for US foreign policy, undermining radical labor activism at the time. Part of this deal involved a purge of radical forces within unions and in this weakened state the unions accepted labor legislation that institutionalized the arrangement. When we were active in the late sixties and throughout the seventies, the capitalist class was in the process of canceling their end of the bargain by moving jobs to lower wage regions of the world. We interpreted, incorrectly in my view, the ongoing process and the resulting worker discouragement as a “lull” rather than an attack on labor by the ruling class. It led to the shift in STO that Mike describes in the book. What was needed at the time was an all out attack on organized labor from the left and an effort to defy and render useless, labor law itself. I am of the opinion that now as then we are in a period of a massive shift in the way capitalism works globally. Unions are concerned about their future viability as institutions and will fight even harder against left forces that could threaten existing labor unions. The recent actions of unions to contain the insurgency in Wisconsin and that of the longshoremen on the West Coast are examples of this.
This leads me to a related point. Mike rightfully placed a great deal of emphasis on the shift in STO from an emphasis on point of production organizing to support for national liberation movements. I was at the meeting when this decision was made. The main justification for this was the slowing of militant workplace activism by workers resulting in the decline of mass organizations at the workplace generally including those we had been involved in organizing. STO interpreted this development as “a lull.” And as an organization we increasingly involved ourselves in the support of national liberation struggles—particularly Black and Puerto Rican nationalist organizations. In hindsight the notion of a lull did not begin to get at what was going on. Capitalism was in a state of classic crisis and the ruling class was preparing an all out assault on workers in the industrialized nations of the world. None of us saw this which would have had important implications for our practice. At the very time the industrial working class was under attack we abandoned the industrial project. All of the information needed to make this analysis was available at the time. Yet none of us (including me) had the inclination to make a detailed analysis of objective/subjective conditions. I raise this not as a point of self criticism but because I believe we are at a similar juncture today and would hope that young activists do not interpret the decline of fortunes of parts of the Occupy movement as something akin to a “lull.” There is much, much, more going on out there.
Finally, I want to say a few words about STO's white skin privilege analysis. I thought that the point made by Mike, that the white skin privilege line could easily be vulgarized was well taken. Despite efforts by Noel and others to combat this, a number of groups—some supportive and some hostile to the analysis and its practice—avoided the relationship of class and race when characterizing our ideas. We did leave ourselves open to this by not being sharper about both the racial dimension of class and the class dimension of race. This was weakness inside STO as well. This is because the form of presentation was often a critique of other groups' positions (like PL's “smash racism”) or other groups' priorities in specific activities. But also our lack of clarity inside STO led us to broad characterizations of Black and Latino groupings as “Third World” or “The Black Community,” etc. And this weakness became greater as we shifted priorities from the workplace where the class dimension was clear to the national liberation struggles where it was blurred. This is very important today. The white skin privilege analysis needs to be worked out anew in the context of ongoing struggles. Today's activists face a world in which black and Latino leaders from the President of the United States, to academicians, politicians, and clergy claim to speak for the “community” while representing the ruling class. And while the original conception of color as a political rather than a racial category is still critically important, many more people of color are being admitted to “the club.”