Winning as communists - A letter on Workplace Organization

9 posts / 0 new
Last post
Chilli Sauce's picture
Chilli Sauce
Offline
Joined: 5-10-07
Sep 26 2010 20:11
Winning as communists - A letter on Workplace Organization

I'm posting this up because we've had a lot of discussion lately on what it means to win struggles /as communists/--so not just the material gains. This letter, while a bit more far-reaching, contains a paragraph or two on what it means to win, I'll bold that section. I also get the feeling the author is a regular libcom poster, but I'll leave that up to him if he wants to fess up wink

I'm curious to hear thoughts....

Dear New Socialist Group,

A friend recently sent me issue 60 of New Socialist. I enjoyed reading it, especially the discussions of unions and union organizers. I plan to read a lot more of your writings as soon as I'm able.

In this letter I'd like to pose some respectful questions and criticisms. I also want to think out some issues I am unclear about and have been having conversations about with some close friends and comrades. Just so we're clear, and since electronic communication makes it much easier to come off polemical when that's not my intention, I mean these as a sort of "can think about this together?" rather than an attempt at the sort of point scoring that sometimes stands in for political discussion. I've only read some of your publications - I plan to read more of them - so if you deal with my questions elsewhere I would love to know. I should also say, I'm a member of the small radical union the Industrial Workers of the World and the small political organization the Workers Solidarity Alliance. My experiences in those organization shape my views, but I write in a personal capacity.

I liked the piece on the comrade who worked for SEIU. It did well in getting at some of the limits of AFL-CIO and CtW unionism. I would like to know, however, if she learned anything positive from doing that work. Perhaps she didn't. My experience working as an organizer had a lot of the negative components that that comrade described and others too, which is why I no longer do that kind of work. I ran into iterations of the same problems when I worked as a community organizer too.)

That said, as much as working as an organizer was a lousy job, I learned a ton doing that job. As much as the bosses were jerks, I learned a lot from following their orders and from the training they provided. I learned stuff which set me up to go on to organize at my own workplaces in the jobs I worked afterward, and this has enriched my IWW activity too, in my opinion. I'd like to know if NSG has anything to say about working as organizers in order to learn things for a while - not as a career path but as an educational detour. Personally, I think more radicals should so then come back to the shop floor.

It seems clear to me that we agree that there are major structural problems in the labor movement, including problems with the role of staff. People taking staff positions for a while to learn the skills that come with those positions could play a useful preparatory role. I hope it's clear, I'm not advocating for staff positions as a political activity, but I do think stints in staff positions can be useful for later doing political activity after leaving the staff job.

Staff aside, there's a lot of great stuff in the issue critical of the mainstream labor movement that I agree with. And there's a lot of great commentary on how to fight within those unions. On the other hand, organizing the unorganized gets almost no treatment at all. Sebastian Lamb's piece is really excellent on everything it talks about but it basically spends only a short paragraph on organizing the unorganized. Given that only a minority of workers in Canada (and even fewer in the US) work in unionized workplaces - and this tends to be age stratified as well, so youth are even less unionized - the idea of leftists concentrating on the unions leaves out most of the working class. Furthermore, it leaves out those leftists who aren't able to get jobs in unionized shops.

I'm not criticizing the strategy that the articles advocate for socialists who are union members. I'm not really even criticizing the strategy of socialists trying to get union jobs. I would, however, like to see an additional strategy for the rest of us who aren't able to get union jobs, specifically a strategy for organizing in our own workplaces.

I think we in the IWW are one of the only voices, perhaps the only voice, that has some details worked out on doing this actively. I wish that weren't so, I wish there was a lot more emphasis on organizing.

Following on from this, I want to be a bit more critical or make this a more urgent point. The thrust of many of the articles are about the limits of the mainstream labor movement. And as I said there's almost no talk about organizing the unorganized. The implication or de facto position here seems to be that organizing the unorganized is to be left to the mainstream unions, whatever their other flaws. There's no real alternative to this presented.

Given how bad the mainstream unions come off in these articles, that seems like a big mistake to me. As I said, I think we in the IWW are some of the only people on the left with the goal of getting workers organizing on the job (rather than staff, as described in the piece on SEIU) and with a plan and some infrastructure to actually implement this. Like I said, I wish we weren't unique on this, I wish the left as a whole was fighting to build organization on the job across the class.

A friend of mine in the IWW has recently begun to argue that we should study some of the experiences of the groups who engaged in workplace organizing (often calling it "industrial concentration") in order to have more sense of what's been tried in the past. That seems worthwhile to me, though I think the emphasis should be primarily on fighting employers and building organization regardless of whether there is a union present. The emphasis should not so much be on the labor movement and its membership as on workplaces and workers.

I'd now like to sketch some of the things that my closest comrades and I have been thinking about and discussing informally for a while when we talk. Our view is that while we are members of the IWW today, we know the IWW today is not the IWW of its heyday. As NSG members will know, the IWW was founded in 1905 when numerous groups came together to consolidate into one organization. In many respects we today are less like the people who came together at the 1905 founding convention than we are like the people who tried to build the groups which later knitted together in 1905. That is to say, we see our efforts as in many respects preparatory for a later, larger effort. In this light, we've tried to emphasize less numerical growth of membership than we've tried emphasize numerical growth of dedicated long term organizers and the qualitative improvement of organizers in terms of commitment, confidence, and capability. Of course we wish we were succeeding better, but we're proud of what we have managed to achieve.

I say all this not to brag about our activity but to raise two issues related to goals. This may be a bit jumbled as I am relating points that are not fully fleshed out or thought out. I relate these in part because writing them out helps me think, and even more so because I would love to hear what the NSG comrades think of this.

In the long term we are revolutionaries who want to end capitalism. In the more short term, our emphasis is on winning dedicated member-organizers. This means we do not prioritize right now either structural power relations/the balance of class forces nor do we prioritize material gains for workers. For us, we do not see ourselves right now as being able to truly shift the balance of class forces. We see ourselves as being able to prepare the ground work for shifting the balance of class forces in the future. In addition, we are not sure what the relationship is between winning gains and having successful revolution. We do not believe that we can simply win enough gains that capitalism goes away.

Of course we want people to have better lives, but our view is that people are not so much radicalized by what they or others win - we do not think that people are radicalized by pay raises that bosses are forced to give or seeing others get such pay raises. Instead we believe that people are radicalized by the experiences of conflict and collectivity that happen in struggles. These experiences are of course greatly shaped by outcomes - success and failure are experiential categories, so to speak - but the point is that our criteria of evaluation are not measured in the cost of concession made by employers so much as in relationships built and workers won to greater class consciousness and desire to fight.

To put it more simply, we place a pretty strongly emphasis on subjective factors over either changing the structural balance of power and over material gains. We do of course think that there is an important link between fights for material gains and class consciousness. We think that needs/desires for gains allows an opportunity to get people involved in struggles which are potentially transformative. For us, though, the true goal is not really the gain so much as the transformation of the people fighting for that gain. And of course we do recognize that eventually the working class will need to take up the issue of the balance of class forces, as I said we see our work as preparing the ground for that but don't see that as being in the cards in the short term.

I lay all this out for a few reasons. As I said, writing this to you helps me to flesh these ideas out. And as I said, I am keen to hear what NSG comrades made of this. In addition to those reasons, I think that these closing issues relate back to the matter of a needed conversation about how to organize the unorganized (rather than leaving that task to the AFL and CtW unions), as well as to the limits of the unions. In my view, concerns such as these and questions about what we are organizing for should inform conversation about how to organize. Furthermore, it seems to me that unions are incredibly important and yet they have a contradictory relationship to the transformative potentials of struggle that I mentioned and that my comrades and I have been talking about.

The way I see it, the unions are like a kerosene lamp. The lamp has components that create fire, that sustain fire, that contain fire to keep it from getting above a certain temperature and from spreading or joining up with other fires. Unions create class conflict, sustain class conflict, manage class conflict to keep it from getting too hot, and they prevent it from spreading around the class. The managerial roles are built in to the labor law, to encourage or force unions to contain workers (I don't know much about Canadian labour law but I do know something about US labor law, and the National Labor Relations Act when originally created had a preface that argued that collective bargaining was necessary for labor peace). In our efforts to organize, we should be clear about these different relationships to the fire of class struggle, and if possible seek to build organizations that have the first few functions - creating and sustaining struggle - while avoiding or minimizing the containment functions. Here too is another reason not to leave organizing to the unions.

In closing, thanks again for New Socialist. I plan to read much more of your writings. Thanks as well for taking the time to read my letter. I hope it's clear that I send this in a comradely spirit, interested in a mutually beneficial conversation and interested in hearing your thoughts, and not to engage in one-upsmanship or self-aggrandizement.

John E Jacobsen's picture
John E Jacobsen
Offline
Joined: 13-03-10
Oct 5 2010 10:10


Quote:
our emphasis is on winning dedicated member-organizers. This means we do not prioritize right now either structural power relations/the balance of class forces nor do we prioritize material gains for workers. For us, we do not see ourselves right now as being able to truly shift the balance of class forces. We see ourselves as being able to prepare the ground work for shifting the balance of class forces in the future. In addition, we are not sure what the relationship is between winning gains and having successful revolution. We do not believe that we can simply win enough gains that capitalism goes away.

In my experience in the Seattle Solidarity Network, when we make demands in a campaign (return deposit, pay stolen wages, fix mold in house etc.), and if we loose the fight, we are far less likely to retain potential new organizers.

I think if we're really interested in winning new organizers, we need to emphasize winning fights just as much as we emphasize the "subjective factors" in campaigns. It makes sense, of course - why would anyone want to join an organization which did not prioritize, let alone deliver on, gains for workers? I think that is bad policy.

Chilli Sauce's picture
Chilli Sauce
Offline
Joined: 5-10-07
Oct 5 2010 18:21

Hi John,

For what it's worth, it's not that I think (or the author, as far as I can tell) we shouldn't prioritize winning concessions/victories but it's a questioning of the relationship between "winning gains and having successful revolution". I mean the early CIO unions won all sorts of gains, but they were not revolutionary organizations and were supported by large sections of the bourgeoisie precisely because the CIO was a means to channel the potentially revolutionary sentiments of the depression-era working class.

I'd expand further that, for me, winning must include struggle. It's the struggle--even more than the concession, I'd argue--that radicalizes workers.

A prominent member of the IWW, one who's been involved in numerous campaigns, has spoken to me numerous times about how our best organizers are those who came from campaigns that didn't necessarily "win", i.e. establish a long-term IWW presence. I mean, we get lots of hot shops, sometimes we rectify grievances, sometimes we don't, but generally we don't retain long-term members and organizers from those shops. We tend to pick up members from shops where IWW put in the long, hard, slow work of organizing and have numerous, escalating confrontations with the boss. It's that struggle that makes clear "the working class and the employing class have nothing in common" and turns previously apolitical workers into Wobblies.

P.S. Keep up all the good work in SeaSol, y'all are an inspiration.

John E Jacobsen's picture
John E Jacobsen
Offline
Joined: 13-03-10
Oct 5 2010 18:43

Alright, I see what you're saying. I think there is a lot of truth to saying that the experience of struggle can be radicalising, but I think we might just have to agree to disagree on how important winning the actual campaigns is. Revolutionary organizations, to my estimation, should be able to compete for and surpass the expectations people have for business unions and reformist organizations of a similar size. If we're talking about retaining new organizers or attracting new ones, it just hasn't been my experience that people stick around once they've lost something they cared about.

-john

Nate's picture
Nate
Offline
Joined: 16-12-05
Oct 5 2010 19:53

NC, thanks for posting that, you're kind.

John, I wasn't clear in the letter. What I was trying to get at, what I'm still thinking through, is that "success" is a matter of interpretation. I was trying to raise questions (ones that are very much on my mind and that I very much am unsure of) about how we should define success, and why. Maybe we need multiple definitions and maybe they relate to each other -- you seem to be saying, if I understand correctly, "I agree with the big picture vision of success, we want more radicals, but to get there we also need small-scale success." Is that right? If so, I agree. But "small-scale success" is a matter of interpretation, and "we want it because of our vision of big picture success" is different from "we want it because it's good." This may sound harsh, but from one point of view SeaSol doesn't have meaningful victories - y'all basically get restitution for often illegal acts by landlords and bosses, grievances that shouldn't have happened in the first place. This isn't my opinion (I've been talking a bit with 888 about how to spread the SeaSol model) but I could imagine an argument like that from someone who was like "y'all should work where the real change is at, in the AFL and CtW unions!" From another point of view, these are important changes in individuals lives (I got 3 grand in back wages once via the NLRB when in the middle of a major financial and personal crisis, that made a huge difference for me). From that perspective, though, if the emphasis is only about getting the goods, the only reason to use direct action is if it will actually help people get more, and it's not always true that direct action is the best way to get the goods. I feel funny doing this but I have an essay I'm working on about this, if you have feedback I'd love to hear it, it's here - http://libcom.org/forums/theory/what-do-we-want-goods-03092010

I'm rambling now but I guess what I'm trying to say is that I agree with you that we need to have successes to keep people in the game but successes are not primarily given by outcomes, they're judgments/interpretations we make of interpretations. That 3 grand I got was important to me, it wasn't a win, though. I don't know a whole lot about SeaSol but I've been part of similar activities to a lesser extent and know about similar efforts by various IWW branches it he past, in my experience it's often not so much "we got X dollar amount in gains" but rather "we forced the boss to respect us" and "we showed that landlord a thing or two!" kinds of interpretations that keep people in the game. This is true for unions too - fighting like hell for fifty cents an hour is kind of ridiculous, with the time it takes to organize people could make more money by putting in the same time in a second part time job, but if that concession is a matter of fairness/respect/dignity/justice etc then it's a different story. Know what I mean?

Edit:
John, trying to be more succinct: "winning" *is* a subjective factor, and for us as radicals that's why it matters, for the short term foreseeable future when revolutionary change is not in the cards. Right now, in my opinion, our emphasis should not mainly be "will this make a large scale descisive intervention in the class struggle?" (if that was our outlook then we probably all should get jobs in longshore work). In case your interested, I got into a bit of a debate about this in the Industrial Worker a while back, it's here -
http://whatinthehell.blogsome.com/2009/04/10/have-i-been-saying/

There's a piece there, "forget about industrial power" that appeared int he Workers Power column in the Industrial Worker and there's a reply from another comrade and a response from me. That link also includes two related columns "pinchpoint target" and "emotional pressure" also get at this somewhat. Over all what I was trying to argue for (though I wasn't as claer on this at the time as I wish I had been) is that we should go for more small scale winnable gains in order to build organization, with the orientation being winning organizers. Along similar lines, I think the IWW should organize more fast food franchises, because fast food franchises have media name recognition so we'll attract some people but the franchisees are relatively small capitalists who we can make more of a dent on, than bigger more centralized companies. The reason I'm for that is that I think it will help us build our pool of organizers, numerically and qualitatively.

Chilli Sauce's picture
Chilli Sauce
Offline
Joined: 5-10-07
Oct 5 2010 20:40
Quote:
if the emphasis is only about getting the goods, the only reason to use direct action is if it will actually help people get more, and it's not always true that direct action is the best way to get the goods.

Just something to add here (and something I also hope to write about in the future). I work in a job where a very basic legal right is being ignored and violated on a regular basis. Now, I've been a shop steward before and, if I wanted to, could become the shop steward at this job. Ss a shop steward could then get this rectified through the union. However, instead I'm going to build a committee of my workmates to meet outside of this, craft a demand letter, and give it to our boss. If he refuses, I hope to escalate--and I've already got few exciting ideas.

The point is exactly like the one Nate is making above: I want my co-workers to experience that sense of collective power, not the "just report to the rep" that you get with a trade union. In this case, I think we'll get the same results legally/representationally or collectively, but, just like SeaSol (I imagine), the collective aspect is just as important as the concession.

John E Jacobsen's picture
John E Jacobsen
Offline
Joined: 13-03-10
Oct 5 2010 23:27


Quote:
"success" is a matter of interpretation. I was trying to raise questions (ones that are very much on my mind and that I very much am unsure of) about how we should define success, and why. Maybe we need multiple definitions and maybe they relate to each other -- you seem to be saying, if I understand correctly, "I agree with the big picture vision of success, we want more radicals, but to get there we also need small-scale success." Is that right? If so, I agree. But "small-scale success" is a matter of interpretation, and "we want it because of our vision of big picture success" is different from "we want it because it's good."

Yes, thats what I'm saying. Small scale success, like the ones we win with SeaSol, are not ends in themselves - at least not in my opinion, which remnds me, just like to note that I'm not speaking for the organization here. These are all just my opinions.


Quote:
I'm rambling now but I guess what I'm trying to say is that I agree with you that we need to have successes to keep people in the game but successes are not primarily given by outcomes, they're judgments/interpretations we make of interpretations... "winning" *is* a subjective factor, and for us as radicals that's why it matters, for the short term foreseeable future when revolutionary change is not in the cards. Right now, in my opinion, our emphasis should not mainly be "will this make a large scale descisive intervention in the class struggle?"

Yes, its true that "success" is a subjective word, but I don't think in practice we should treat it that way. We aren't strong enough to make many ripples in the class struggle, but again, in order to attract new members and organizers, we should take our campaigns - and winning them - seriously. Its a great selling point to be ble to say "we have won x percent of the fights we've taken on." On top of that, although I agree it isn't revolutionary, it is uplifting to defend our fellow workers through our own collective action.

My only worry with emphasizing the subjectivity of "success" is that we make the mistake so many radicals do - taking on fights we have no hope of winning, or what is sometimes called "symbolic protest." I think the work SeaSol does is so important because we refuse to participate in that trap, which is aweful for morale, and is (not all the time, but most of the time) a waste of resources.

I'll take a look at those other posts.

Nate's picture
Nate
Offline
Joined: 16-12-05
Oct 6 2010 04:08

hi John,
Can you expand on "its true that "success" is a subjective word, but I don't think in practice we should treat it that way"? I think we may be talking past each other here somewhat, because I think we always treat success subjectively, because I think it's a subjectively defined term. Like you, I think we need to fight to win. But the difference between communists vs militant social democrats and social workers (because militancy and radicalism are different) is that for communists it's not primarily about the short term win. The short term win matters, in a political rather than humanitarian sense, to the degree that it sets us up for bigger things in the future (speculative, I know). What this means for me is that we fight every fight to win but we also recognize that a win in dollars and sense that doesn't build people up doesn't really matter all that much, and that a loss that still builds people up is not a total loss. That absolutely doesn't mean symbolic or hopeless fights, though, I agree with you in rejecting those. Another way to put this: where do we want to be in five years? What criteria do we want to use to measure betterness five years from now? To me the answer is not primarily in terms of dollars won and percentages of fights, but rather in higher numbers and abilities of serious, committed participants. I suspect we agree on all this but I'm not totally sure.

Edit:
In case anyone cares, the letter was here originally:
http://www.newsocialist.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=278:a-letter-about-workplace-organizing

There's a bit of discussion there as well.

John E Jacobsen's picture
John E Jacobsen
Offline
Joined: 13-03-10
Oct 6 2010 06:13


Quote:
hi John,
Can you expand on "its true that "success" is a subjective word, but I don't think in practice we should treat it that way"?

Yes, I was just trying to say that we should treat a fulfilled demand as a victory, and take advantage of it.

Ok, so we won a stolen deposit back, big whoop. Try as we did, we couldn't create a tenant's union either during or after the fight... so was returning the deposit really a victory? Well, you're right, depending on who we're talking to, the answer will be different.

But I believe it is better for us in the short term, for our members' and supporters' morale, to treat a fulfilled demand as a victory, even if our intention of building something else outside of the demands wasn't fullfilled. The fact of the matter is that it only strengthens our organization to toot our own horn, and in this way attract more people to us.


Quote:
What this means for me is that we fight every fight to win but we also recognize that a win in dollars and sense that doesn't build people up doesn't really matter all that much, and that a loss that still builds people up is not a total loss.

Also, I suppose I just have never been involved in a campaign that lost and built anyone up at the same time. I'm open to the idea that its possible, I just have never experienced it.

But we both agree on rejecting symbolic action and on prioritizing the recruitment and retention of radical militants.