A reply to John Garvey

A response by John Garvey and reply from Advance the Struggle on the union debate.

John Garvey has made several important and critical comments on the unions. He was the first to point out that only 14 million workers are in unions, highly located in the public sector, and including police and jails. Under the surface it appears we have differences dealing with the existing unions, and apsire to continue to have a public dialogue and public debate on the matter. In order to come to a better understanding of this particular juncture and the work that should be done, we must dig deep into the politics of the matter, and see who proposes what, in the concrete, concerning unions, and the class conflict unions members have with capital. We present John Garvey’s comments first and a response by a member of AS who works in both unionized workplaces and non-unionized workplaces. We encourage John Garvey to put forth any central documents that further outline his position on the unions to gain clarity on the matter.

John Garvey:

Sorry for the interruption! Grandchildren interfered. Let me turn now to the unionized protective service workers. Their unionization rates all but completely are a reflection of their status as public employees and, in that regard, they are no different from other public sector employees–dependent, for the most part, for the quality of their contracts on negotiated deals with city or state elected officials dependent on union support. But, other than firefiighters because of their role as protectors of the existing state of affairs. unlike other public sector officials, they should be deducted from the numbers of unionized workers–making the overall rates of unionization even lower–for our purposes.

So, what does all this mean? I think it means that we should stop obsessing about unions–a reality that means almost nothing in the life or potential of the American working class that’s available for revolutionary politics. Why? First, only a tiny number of workers are in unions. Second, many of the members are older and not easily able to break with the circumstances that make their lives tolerable. Third, more than half of union members are in the public sector where, in spite of the battles of Wisconsin and Michigan, the members’ well-being is more dependent on support of politicians than anything else. And, furthermore, a whole lot of those public sector workers are cops and prison guards.What to do instead? Mostly, let’s learn a lot about what workers are faced with and what they’re doing. And let’s keep in mind that the end is the abolition of wage labor and the self-emancipation of the working class–a very distant dream in these dark times.

Response by Farabundo:

Response: John Garvey begins and end his proposal with “let’s learn a lot about what workers are faced with and what they’re doing.” We are workers. No one in Advance the Struggle can live without working. By definition, we all have to sell our labor-time for wages to make a living. This implication that we are divorced from the working class is a faulty beginning. Considering only a small section of people we interact with, mainly retired people, don’t have to work, every person we engage with are workers. Everytime we talk with someone we know, we usually ask, “What have you been up to?” So we can get idea of they are doing. Our workplaces, which includes schools, hospitals, transportation, restaurants are both unionized and non-unionized. Some of us work as substitute teachers, both at non-union charters and unionized schools, making the issue of unions are real one. The biggest issue we face, is our comrades who agitate in non union workplaces who can be fired at will. We know this first hand because they have been fired for organizing. There was nothing we could do besides call a labor lawyer. Our organization is too small to be able to organize a wildcat when our comrades get fired. So the real world experience is our comrades do get fired at non union workplaces. Our comrades that do have union jobs, have much more real room for agitation and organizing. We can bring up concepts of class struggle in a much more real way. This also doesn’t mean we don’t talk about other non-union political issues with our co-workers. Every chance I get, I talk to my co-workers, who are school workers, and Oakland teachers, about social movements, class struggle in other countries, the role of violent and racist state, the real gendered violence that penetrates the streets, and how the class as a whole needs to move against capital. I also have similar conversation in non-union workplaces I work at. But when I do, I have to think, will this person tell the manager what I am talking about? If they do, I could get fired simply for that reason. As a result, I am more reserved, because I would like to pay rent, and eat food.

John Garvey wrote, “And let’s keep in mind that the end is the abolition of wage labor and the self-emancipation of the working class–a very distant dream in these dark times.”

For us, this is not a distant dream but a reality to work towards everyday. These days are not dark for me but very promising. Also, apposed the term “dark” to characterize something negative. Compared to the last 40 years, today is more favorable for class struggle and for the building of revolutionary organization than what we have ever experienced. The contemporary conditions of the working class are not good, composed of cynicism, poverty, anger, violence, rape, and despair. Our political work within such conditions gives us a revolutionary optimism, based off of the reality of capitalism’s brake-down and the possibilities of class struggle. Any militant who is concretely building revolutionary organization is experiencing a positive life-activity rather than a cynical despair. The problem with John Garvey’s politics on unions, is it eliminates the importance of working class organization. Every revolutionary should be building working class organization in some form, then we can debate its political content. But if we cannot agree that working class organization is important, then we surely will disagree on what type of political work to do.

There should also be total agreement that police unions and prison guard unions are organizations of the racist violent capitalist state. But the prisons contain almost the same amount prisoners, as industrial jobs lost in the last 30 years. Do you agree that prisoners should form unions independent of the guards and the prison structure to coordinate struggle? If you disagree with this, then we can clearly see we have serious political differences on the role of organization. This is similar to Theorie Communiste that argues any and all organization is part of capital. The first example against perspective is Marx’s first international formed in 1864. Marx was quiet aggressive in attempting to recruit whole unions to the first international. If you agree that some type of organization of the working class is needed in prison, among the prisoners, than we can begin to discuss what working class organization needs to be formed outside of prison. The two documents on unions we put forth proposes trying to transform existing unions into vehicles of class struggle, forming working class organization outside of unions, and transcending and or rupturing with unions during a working class uprising. Do you agree with the ladder two and not the first proposition?

Forming revolutionaries amongst the rank and file of unions, who, even though are only 14% of the workforce, include port workers, factory workers, truckers, airport workers, bus drivers, hospital workers and many more facilities. They are placed in strategic positions within capitalism. Unfortunately if 100 New York Taxi drivers go on strike, it doesn’t disrupt much of capitalism. Can you say the same for rank and file members of the International Longshore Association, who, recently were very close to going on strike? Taxi drivers on strike make a few people late to work, while New York, New Jersey Lognshore ILA members striking stops hundreds of millions of dollars of cargo a day. As a marxist, is there a material difference in the position these two groups of workers have with capital. Recently, Latino immigrant workers recently unionized in a small union in New York called the Hot and Crusty Association. This had ripple effects within the Latino immigrant community across the country, where in Oakland, we distributed articles and flyers about this union struggle. We thought it could help spark class struggle in the Latino working class community nationally. I was excited to read that they even won a hiring hall, meaning the workers within the union get to hire workers, not the boss. Now, John Garvey, would you support this effort of unionization? As some famous labor song asks, “What side are you on?” If I was in New York during this struggle, I would, without flynching, and in bold and proud language, be with these workers struggle for unionization. That does not mean I am a unionist. I am a revolutionary with practical politics in struggle, and studying the richness of marxist theory as a combined activity.

Originally posted: February 18, 2013 at Advance the Struggle