VIII. Class struggle or substitutionism?

Submitted by Juan Conatz on January 2, 2012

The debate around December 12th was whether a third party was speaking for workers and their struggle, or whether Occupy Oakland was a body of workers that exerted their independence and engaged in a radical action that the unions could not lead. A current of Occupy Oakland was conscious of this problem and did its best to orient towards the union and non-union port workers. Five independent truckers wrote a public letter in support of December 12th, and explained how their independent contracting position makes them bear all the costs of transportation. Interestingly enough, they shared a slogan, “We may not have a union yet, but no one can stop us from acting like one.”

The period of time between October and December was densely packed with rapid progression, daily new developments, and a generally spontaneous organizing structure. Action was the priority, with mobilization being the primary activity. Mobilization for consecutive actions is a different, although obviously related, task from organizing working class power. Organizing for working class power includes mobilizations, but goes deeper in the sense that it is builds for a lasting and growing influence. This takes time, which is not always available. The fast-paced political tempo has created an environment where mobilizing is far more favorable than organizing. Acknowledging this point leads us to deal with the earlier contradiction of a social movement speaking class struggle language without building clear class struggle motion; it is easier to mobilize for a protest with posters and text messages than it is to build representative organizations of workers in the belly of the beast of bourgeois dictatorship, especially with the high degree of surveillance characteristic of many workplaces. In this early stage, it is to be expected that the working class mobilize in the relatively safe space outside the workplace before networks and organizations based inside the workplace manifest as vehicles for the daily reproduction of resistance to exploitation. There is reason to believe that workplace agency will assume a more prominent role in this movement as we move forward.

Hundreds of newly politicized organizers recognize the need to increase the proletariat’s organized resistance in the workplace and community. The IWW has been making important strides in organizing the non-union working class through workplace direct-action politics. Activists organizing against school closures are now digging their heels and trying to organize a wide body of Oakland school workers, teachers, and parents to fight these austerity measures that would devastate thousands of working families. After Spain’s General Strike, several informal circles began doing successful anti-eviction work. Paralleling Spain’s anti-eviction work, an autonomous anti-landlord group from Occupy Oakland and East Bay Solidarity Network has been developing its grass-roots fights against slum landlords. Occupy the Hood is now developing its public political existence with aims of building a deeper movement in Black and Brown communities and workplaces led by people from these communities. Longview, WA, inspired by the Occupy movement, has been discussing an attempt to organize a general strike when the EGT ship gets to the port. These beginnings will need time to develop into politically cohesive units, but when they do, they will be the most stable building blocks for coordinated mobilizations against capital, and beyond that, the re-organization of society on a socialist basis.

The Oakland Tribune reported on December 13th that, “Port officials said this morning that ‘due to the protests during the last 24 hours, there is a heavy backlog of work to get through.’ There are seven vessels at dock this morning.” Without the workers at the port directly being involved in the port shutdown, port officials can adapt to the (outside) movement and speed up the work after the economic blockade. The workers will remain at the workplace generating surplus value for bosses because, unfortunately, the proletariat still needs wages to subsist; their agency must be appreciated as the crucial constant in our revolutionary formula.

It is worth mentioning that Isaac Kos-Read, director of external affairs with the Port of Oakland, admitted their vulnerability in general terms, “A disruption at that time of year is really serious for us. This is a peak season for us for agricultural products.” Workers all along the chain of production, from the farms in the Central Valley and the Interstate transportation arteries to the port and warehouse distribution hubs, cannot and should not be overrun by a social movement that confuses itself for the labor movement. If the street protest is the sphere where the working class is finding its strength, it is precisely there that the decision must be made to recycle its political advances into heretofore underdeveloped or not yet mobilized spaces and sectors to maximize and diversify the community of revolutionaries. In the long run, this will make our revolution more complete, more representative of the working class as a whole, and strategically better prepared to outmaneuver the bourgeois which always attempts to split the proletariat. It is always proper for the working class, employed or not, to mobilize and disrupt valorization, but it is much harder to do so when there is an unorganized workplace devoid of vehicles for the reproduction of revolutionary praxis. Since workplaces and communities are apparently lagging behind the movement on the streets, our emphasis at this time should be on building power there, not dismissing it on the basis of a couple successful mobilizations on the streets.

When fuel prices skyrocketed in 2005, there was a wildcat strike of mainly immigrant truckers at the port of Oakland. But the lack of any real strike committee to coordinate the strike led to its defeat. Most who participated in December 12th were probably not aware of the port workers experience of past struggles. If the port workers in mass, from the super-exploited “independent contractor” truckers to the better paid ILWU local 10 rank-file (who themselves have their own antagonisms and tensions), struck, stopping port operations with the support of Occupy Oakland, then we would have seen an actual strike against capital threaten capitalism far more severely than what we saw on December 12th. Beyond the port, the remaining 11% of the working class who are in unions are placed in strategic sectors; ports, airports, transportation, hospitals, and schools. If thousands of union and non-union workers become involved in mass democratic General Assemblies, which are the political motor of Occupy Oakland, then we could develop the power to call for coordinated strikes, resolving Occupy Oakland’s immediate contradiction between the worker-organized strike and politico-organized protest.