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