EDITORS NOTE: Just before this posting of Marxism-Leninism Today, it was reported on July 16th that Teamster President Sean O’Brien had requested that President Joe Biden not involve himself in a possible strike at UPS.
Final union contract negotiations are proceeding between the Teamsters Union and the gigantic and super-profitable UPS (United Parcel Service) Corporation. Will the 330,000 union members be forced to strike on August 1? Will UPS agree to the reasonable demands of its workforce, preventing any work stoppage? Or, will UPS successfully use President Joe Biden to stall or even break the strike and save the company? Will Biden jump in even if the company doesn’t ask him to? With the recent spectacle of Biden’s contemptible wrecking of the rail union strike just 9 months ago fresh in mind, it’s a real possibility that the self-proclaimed “most pro-union President” may yet again prove that he’s not.
WHAT ARE THE ISSUES?
The more than 330,000 Teamster members who work for UPS generate enormous profits for the company. This landmark battle has been shaping up for almost 30 years, and has been intensifying to an unprecedented degree this year. UPS personifies the super-profitable U.S. corporation, having generated more than $22 billion dollars in profits in just the past two years alone. UPS controls more than 43% of the U.S. package delivery market and during the pandemic the company saw a huge jump in package volumes as millions of people shopped on-line and required home delivery. UPS has systematically and scientifically designed the delivery process from beginning to end to squeeze maximum efficiency from its workforce, making UPS a very difficult place to work on account of the punishing production requirements and omnipresent management surveillance of everyone at work. Every job is continuously studied, timed, and monitored; whether it be loading the package vans or the time spent delivering them out on a route. Employees who fail to meet the onerous requirements are disciplined and fired. For more information see this detailed explanation of the UPS issues by Teamsters Local 90 President and Business Agent Tanner Fischer https://youtu.be/BL95hDDoc2U from FightBack! Radio.
Almost half of the workforce are also hired as part-timers, at far lower starting wages. Combined with the backbreaking production requirements and wages as low as $16 hour, turnover is astronomical. Many of these lower-tier, lower-paid jobs were created during the Hoffa years with his full consent, and the creeping cancer of contracting-out of UPS jobs to unorganized low-wage companies likewise took root on the Hoffa watch. Today’s battle features a major union priority of eliminating the lower-tier wage schemes and limiting and rolling back the contracting-out and loss of union positions.
THE COMPANY FEARS ANGRY UNION MEMBERS
Initial company bending on the issues of two-tier elimination, air conditioning for vehicles, and granting of the ML King Jr. federal holiday were clearly offered in the hope of pacifying the increasingly agitated workforce. In the end there are many other key issues including the all-important wage package. A substantial wage package that is overdue for many reasons, not the least of which is the galloping rate of inflation and the fact that UPS workers went all-out during the pandemic – with tens of thousands sickened and countless killed by the virus. Teamster members slaved non-stop during the pandemic but have received no bonus, no “thank you” compensation from the company for Covid-19 duty, no wage increases other than those negotiated 5 years ago when the rate of inflation was low.
The expectations of the union membership are high, and they should be. The Teamster membership – now free of the corrupt misleadership of Jimmy Hoffa – appear to be ready to fight. New Teamster president Sean O’Brien led his campaign for President on the program of mounting a serious and sustained campaign to win not just a better contract at UPS, but a contract that would correct egregious past concessions from the Hoffa era – and take members forward in significant ways over the coming 5 years. All indications are – so far – that the O’Brien campaign to win a better contract at UPS is unfolding from coast-to-coast and is being greeted by members with great support and enthusiasm.
BIDEN: STRIKEBREAKER IN CHIEF
The UPS negotiations take place in their own category, much like the giant railroad labor battle of last year. Both struggles were exceptionally large in size and national in scale, especially in a U.S. labor scene that has seen the destruction of most large pattern-type union agreements. Rail and UPS both present the possibility of some national economic impact, and both have offered simple contrasts between greedy and profitable employers on the one hand, and angry union members on the others. While the UPS battle with the Teamsters may at first glance look like just a large scale but simple union-management fracas, in reality the entire corporate establishment will be in the UPS corner. Big business and its political hirelings are well aware of the danger – to them – of a Teamster win at UPS. And where will the Biden regime come down? Since Biden actively and publicly leaped into the railroad fray, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect him to do likewise with UPS?
In the case of the railroad labor negotiations, Biden cynically inserted himself personally, and by dispatching then-Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh to insinuate his way into the multi-union rail negotiations. From the start Walsh’s only role was to avoid a strike with the giant and profitable rail carriers. The outrageous situation of the rail workforce – gross overwork, virtually serfdom conditions owing to a lack of time off, safety issues, badly lagging wages – had to be subordinated so that Biden could avoid the alleged economic damage that would result should the workers be allowed to strike. (For background on the rail fight see my previous articles: “Lions Led by Asses” | MLToday and Learning from the Biden Strikebreaking | MLToday )
Biden and Walsh both systematically played politics with the rail fray. For several months both spoke out against strike as an option, never once supporting the struggle of the rail workers openly. Never once did the Biden regime denounce the greed and perfidy of the rail barons, never once sounded the need for active federal intervention on behalf of the workers’ struggle against this corporate outrage. With the active collusion of several of the 13 rail union Presidents, as well as the rail corporations themselves, in the end the strike momentum was derailed and deflated, and the unions were defeated. The rail strike had been several decades in the making, and an uncontested case exists that a national railroad strike was not only justified, but it was also overdue. With the anti-worker “bag job” completed, the Biden White House declared victory – for itself – and promptly abandoned the whole affair. The rail corporations gleefully celebrated while the exhausted and demoralized rail workforce was left to listen to Biden’s continuous claim that he is “the most pro-union President in U.S. history.”
Throughout the entire rail labor drama, Biden emphasized over and over the “economic damage” that a strike by the 110,000 rail workers would do somehow to the national economy, even if the strike was short-lived. Of course, “the most pro-union President in U.S. history” apparently does not grasp the fact that strikes by their very nature are acts of last resort, and yes, are intended to damage the employer’s economic fortunes. Lost in the media reports of the rail debacle was the fact that the UPS showdown – then still at least 10 months off – involved a workforce 3 times as large as the combined rail union membership – and in many ways promised to be far more disruptive to the national economy. But the precedent was set and the question was posed; if Biden would crush the rail strike momentum of 110,00 union workers so brazenly, wasn’t it almost a sure thing that he would do likewise in the UPS fight?
TEAMSTER MEMBERS ALSO BIGGEST BIDEN TARGET IN RAIL STRIKEBREAKING
In a twist that is apparently unknown, it was the Teamsters Union that also bore the brunt of Biden’s strikebreaking in the railroad fight. Two unions: the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way (BMWE), combined, represented a majority of the rail union membership. Both unions have been affiliates of the Teamsters Union for several decades. These rail “operating” members also faced the direst situations with the rail carriers draconian attendance regimes as these workers travel extensively and frequently away from home in their work assignments and essentially were on-call practically every day of the year. Likewise forgotten is the fact that the Teamsters Union has been an independent union for nearly 20 years, having quit the AFL-CIO as part of the Change to Win movement in 2005. With the AFL-CIO already unconditionally in Biden’s grip ( See; Top AFL-CIO Leaders Cast Their Lot with Biden | MLToday ) it will be of paramount interest to see how the Federation and its unions react as the increasingly frantic White House scrambles to recruit labor allies in advance of the UPS showdown.
Teamsters President Sean O’Brien is well-aware that many of the AFL affiliate leaders will try to “have it both ways”, by telling the Teamsters they have their support and likewise telling Biden that they are in his corner. Many unions realize the key role of the Teamsters Union in their own employer fights, so outright abandonment of the Teamsters is unlikely. But the Teamsters will need to continue to be forceful with the slippery and weakling union leaderships all-too prevalent in the labor movement to prevent any significant public breach from developing. The role of the UPS company can be easily predicted, as it will do just about anything, and say just about anything, only needing to escape a strike. But it is almost a certainty that the Biden forces will continue to try to avoid or even sabotage a UPS strike – perhaps maneuvering that has already been underway for months.
Despite the ravings of some Democrats, folks in the political industry enriched by this regime, and Biden labor bootlickers, the Teamsters dare not trust this President in the UPS battle as these facts attest. The months-long Hollywood Writers strike has elicited little apparent White House support – even rhetorical statements. As that strike began more than 3 months ago Biden said he hoped that the striking writers are given a “fair deal as soon as possible”. Lifted from the standard say-something-but-don’t-do-anything political playbook, Biden has not even dispatched his hapless-and-in-need-of-an-assignment Vice President Kamala Harris to Writers Union picket duty. Has the First Lady or Cabinet members been asked to show overt support for the striking writers? Of course not.
The start of the far larger Screen Actors Guild strike now adds new pressure on Biden. Additional tens of thousands of union members are joining the picket line, also confronting the egregious corporate greed in their case by the entertainment overlords. Can Biden bring himself to carry a picket sign, even long enough for a cheap photo op? Can he bring himself to speak out clearly and forcefully against the corporations forcing these disruptions? Might the self-proclaimed “most pro-union President” find the time to stop by the Writers picket line, or the Screen Actor’s picket line, or any of the Teamster “practice pickets” now spreading across the country in front of countless UPS depots and garages? Will he?
THE TALE OF THE TAPE
A glance at the following video tape from just several years ago tells the tale. In an election eve scramble for Teamster votes and manpower in his 2020 election, Biden issued a message heaping praise on the Teamsters Union, and its soon-to-be exiled president Jimmy Hoffa. (A message from Joe Biden to the Teamsters https://youtu.be/SbECBQUd7Qw ) Praising the same Hoffa who systematically conceded all manner of work rules and two-tier schemes to UPS in previous negotiations. The same Hoffa who stood down at the last Teamster election certain in the full knowledge that his members would never re-elect him, led in large part by the giant UPS block of Teamster voters. The entire Biden message is for the members to support him in his election fight. Biden makes no mention of the rail strike then already taking shape, and certainly no mention of the inevitable UPS fight building even then. Almost 400,000 Teamster members work in UPS and the rail industry alone, but why bother to offer specifics about support that he would tender once the union was in need?
THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE LEFT
As the UPS contract deadline approaches on August 1st, pay close attention. A strike is not a certainty, and there may be a settlement, or an extension of time. But should the strike materialize, this will be the largest and most important labor battle for the past – or the next – 10 years. Now joined by more than 100,000 additional entertainment workers, by August 1 we may see nearly 500,000 union members on the picket line together. The Teamsters Union web site will include factual updates Front Page – International Brotherhood of Teamsters as will the web site of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, (TDU), the leading member-driven militant caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union (tdu.org) Labor Notes is also a reliable source. Labor Notes | The rail strike situation proved that the bulk of the news media are either incapable of telling the factual real story of a labor fight, or are systematically interested in twisting it for right-wing purposes. Many left outlets will do their best to follow the developments, but again, be careful and skeptical of the reports manufactured by the corporate media who have unhidden loyalty to UPS.
Picket duty to support the Teamsters and the Hollywood workers, and other demonstrations of support will likely appear all-round. Anyplace where there is a UPS depot, garage, or UPS-run facility there will likely be a picket line on day one, August 1. That date may shift forward should there be an extension. It is critical that the company – and the Teamster members – see public support. The 1997 UPS strike 1997 United Parcel Service strike – Wikipedia lasted 15 days and was viewed as a major success. It also set a bar and goals that eventually led to the exit of Hoffa set the stage for today’s fight.
The U.S. left, especially the labor left, has so far played a positive role in the UPS battle, and that must continue and expand. The outcome at UPS may influence more broad labor developments, particularly at Amazon. Young workers need also take particular interest as the shape of the future U.S. workplace will be influenced by the Teamster fight.
Left for last – where it belongs – is a postscript regarding the sorry and former Biden Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh. A smalltime union leader-turned-politician, Walsh rose from position to position always trading on his trade union credentials. Arriving eventually as the hand-picked Secretary of Labor in the new Biden regime, Walsh was endlessly ballyhooed as a remarkable figure, a “first”, an extraordinary union and political leader, on and on. Most major unions and the AFL-CIO praised Walsh at every turn, touting his union credentials, excited just at the thought that Biden would actually pick a union member for one – but only one – of his top spots. Where is Walsh today? The rail strikebreaking job was barely buried when Walsh abruptly resigned his position and took a multimillion-dollar job as the head of the Hockey Players Union. His supporters and worshippers were stunned and dumbfounded. As for real union members and working people, having seen his disgusting strike-breaking role during the rail negotiations, his role as special emissary from Biden to wreck the strike at all costs, Walsh now joins the ranks of exiled and discredited misleaders of labor, hopefully to be forever forgotten.
Chris Townsend is a 44 year trade union staff and organizer. He was the Political Action Director for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) and was the International Union organizing and field director for the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was produced by Marxism-Leninism Today.
I will never forget the thick summer heat that filled the sanctuary of my rural Southern Baptist church when revival week came around. Once a year, we would host a traveling firebrand of a preacher to come and reignite the spark of our faith. The press of the bodies together in long wooden pews was in stark contrast to the normally cool, even austere atmosphere that usually occupied the space between the four walls we all held as holy. The world, even then, could often feel hopeless and cruel, but within that heat we felt transformed, energized, empowered by a truth we held together, by a faith in something greater than each of us that bound us together in a common cause.
These revivals spanned several days and by the last few days, the size of the crowds held within that small space swelled to the point of spilling out of the several doors that offered entry not only to a place, but also to a process of rebirth. New faces popped up in the crowd. When our passions reached a fever pitch, many were brought to their knees, weeping and reaching out to grab hold of others; for support, for comfort, for connection.
I couldn’t help but contrast these memories against my first union meeting with my UFCW local. It was held in a big hotel conference room in Irving, TX, difficult to reach with a car and impossible without one. I didn’t expect the same passion as those evening revivals; more like a healthy Sunday congregation. To my shock, I realized I was only one of three workers at our union meeting, as opposed to five times that number of staffers sitting in the back! The meeting was never formally called to order and the President spoke informally, attempting to answer the acute frustrations workers had trying to navigate the crushing bureaucracy of our health insurance program. I was told our local had no buttons, shirts, hats, masks, or anything else to provide us that we could wear at work to show our union pride.
But if a union meeting is closer to a routine Sunday at church, could that mean the upcoming national convention will be our revival? Delegates from across the country will converge in late April as the highest constitutional authority of UFCW. Will those delegates feel the same living heat that I felt so many years ago, each knowing deep in their hearts that the sum of each person bound together in a righteous cause is far greater than each individual part? It will be impossible for me to know; the leadership of my Local 1000 chose to reject the opportunity to send 14 delegates to the convention. Instead, they chose only to send two delegates, the President and the Secretary-Treasurer. Not one single rank and file worker will be in attendance in April. No one will return to the shop floor to testify to their convention experience. If there is any heat, apparently it is only for the officers to know. We must defer to our High Priest of Labor.
Perhaps I am simply naive. It is easy (and not without reason) to look back on these raucous summer revivals through those cynical eyes, to reduce them to nothing more than the orchestrations of self-serving demagogues preying on the emotions and insecurities of faithful country folks. Or to see ourselves in the crowd, tears streaming down our faces and our hands held towards heaven, as knowing but unadmitted participants in our own manipulation. Across all sectors of society - church, school, unions, government - the refrain has become: “Only suckers have hope. Only fools have faith. It is not God that is dead, but ourselves. Only those who believe in nothing know the truth. Embrace the liberation of low expectations and you will never know the crushing disappointment that has defined our last half century.”
I have long since left behind the revival days of my childhood church. I understand the cynicism; I even share it for the most part. We have all seen the stream of news reporting the corruption of many of our pastors and our union leaders. Are we to simply bury our heads in the sand, a nation of pollyannas who know better than to rock the boat? And even though such disappointments hold true, can we say they are the whole truth? It is just as true that in the holy place of my childhood sanctuary, we felt alive together, bound together, energized to fight together. The truth is that we shared a truth together and it gave us life, hot as fire and electric arcing across the hands stretching towards the ceiling.
I refuse to lose faith that such an ember exists within our labor movement; a burning truth that binds us together. I have a defiant faith that the world we deserve can only be built with working hands. Against the sea of despair we have been blessed with the duty to protect this ember and with our labor, we must wage a struggle to turn back that rising tide so the fire of revival can catch and spread across our nation.
The barn-burning sermons came to an end and the tear-streaked faces always left that sanctuary. We were convinced we were prepared to fight for our families, for our values, for our communities. Yet despite our deepest convictions, we watched our families broken and buried under financial stress and instability. Our values were warped in service to a real and dangerous demagoguery lurking behind the scenes, one that whipped our passions to set us against people we saw as different from us. Our schools were looted of resources and left to rot, transformed into sites of culture wars and shooting wars.
Those hot nights were not enough to save us and it broke my heart. I have only felt it a few times since then: pressed into a crowd of hundreds screaming through chain link fencing at the Klansmen arrayed across the lawn of our county courthouse or circling a picket line as summer heat beat down on smiling, chanting faces. Similar experiences have been few and far between.
For decades now, working people have been hammered by big money. It has destroyed many things, our wages and living standards, our lifespans, the safety of our communities, our hope for the future. But most devastatingly, it has destroyed our faith in ourselves and each other. It has destroyed any respect working people have for ourselves, pressing our heads beneath the biting waters of despair and self-loathing. Big money and its payroll of political goons have killed the spirits of working-class people all across this country, regardless of color, or faith, or sex, or sexuality, or anything else. It has been both indiscriminate and comprehensive in the spiritual violence it has inflicted upon every single person who works for a living.
It is against this backdrop of spiritual death that those summer nights have been calling to me. What can be the only response to such a comprehensive death but rebirth? How else can we answer death but with new life; with a revival?
This revival is not a dream; it is already unfolding all around us. It has caught the spirit of baristas, teachers, autoworkers, and those risking injuries across the countless warehouses that dot the country. It is the engine that drives reform within the UAW and the Teamsters today, and my union, UFCW, tomorrow.
Only a labor revival, across all faiths, all races, all working people, can we regain the fighting spirit that has been crushed out of us. Revival alone, bound together in the heat of a common purpose and guided by a common truth, can give force to the fight to save our families and our communities. Only a revival of the fighting working-class spirit can save our nation from the forces of financial greed.
This article was republished from Kroger-Workers' Voice.
Workers at Blue Bird Corporation in Fort Valley, Georgia, launched a union drive to secure better wages, work-life balance, and a voice on the job.
The company resisted them. History defied them. Geography worked against them.
But they stood together, believed in themselves, and achieved a historic victory that’s reverberating throughout the South.
About 1,400 workers at the electric bus manufacturer voted overwhelmingly in May 2023 to join the United Steelworkers (USW), reflecting the rise of collective power in a part of the country where bosses and right-wing politicians long contrived to foil it.
“It’s just time for a change,” explained Rinardo Cooper, a member of USW Local 572 and a paper machine operator at Graphic Packaging in Macon, Georgia.
Cooper, who assisted the workers at Blue Bird with their union drive, expects more Southerners to follow suit even if they face their own uphill battles.
Given the South’s pro-corporate environment, it’s no surprise that Georgia has one of the nation’s lowest union membership rates, 4.4 percent. North Carolina’s rate is even lower, at 2.8 percent. And South Carolina’s is 1.7 percent.
Many corporations actually choose to locate in the South because the low union density enables them to pay poor wages, skimp on safety, and perpetuate the system of oppression.
In a 2019 study, “The Double Standard at Work,” the AFL-CIO found that even European-based companies with good records in their home countries take advantage of workers they employ in America’s South.
They’ve “interfered with freedom of association, launched aggressive campaigns against employees’ organizing attempts, and failed to bargain in good faith when workers choose union representation,” noted the report, citing, among other abuses, Volkswagen’s union-busting efforts at a Tennessee plant.
“They keep stuffing their pockets and paying pennies on the dollar,” Cooper said of companies cashing in at workers’ expense.
The consequences are dire.
States with low union membership have significantly higher poverty, according to a 2021 study by researchers at the University of Minnesota and the University of California, Riverside. Georgia’s 14 percent poverty rate, for example, is among the worst in the country.
However, the tide is turning as workers increasingly see union membership as a clear path forward, observed Cooper, who left his own job at Blue Bird several months before the union win because the grueling schedule left him little time to spend with family.
Now, as a union paper worker, he not only makes higher wages than he did at Blue Bird but also benefits from safer working conditions and a voice on the job. And with the USW holding the company accountable, he’s free to take the vacation and other time off he earns.
Cooper’s story helped to inspire the bus company workers’ quest for better lives. But they also resolved to fight for their fair share as Blue Bird increasingly leans on their knowledge, skills, and dedication in the coming years.
The company stands to land tens of millions in subsidies from President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and other federal programs aimed at putting more electric vehicles on the roads, supercharging the manufacturing economy, and supporting good jobs.
These goals are inextricably linked, as Biden made clear in a statement congratulating the bus company workers on their USW vote. “The fact is: The middle class built America,” he said. “And unions built the middle class.”
Worker power is spreading not only in manufacturing but across numerous industries in the South.
About 500 ramp agents, truck drivers, and other workers at Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina also voted in May to form a union. Workers in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2022 unionized the first Starbucks in the South.
And first responders in Virginia and utility workers in Georgia and Kentucky also formed unions in early 2023, while workers at Lowe’s in Louisiana launched groundbreaking efforts to unionize the home-improvement giant.
“I wouldn’t hesitate to tell any worker at any manufacturing place here that the route you need to take is the union. That’s the only fairness you’re going to get,” declared Anthony Ploof, who helped to lead dozens of co-workers at Carfair Composites USA into the USW in 2023.
Workers at the Anniston, Alabama, branch of the company make fiberglass-reinforced polymer components for vehicles, including hybrid and electric buses. Like all workers, they decided to unionize to gain a seat at the table and a means of holding their employer accountable.
Instead of fighting the union effort, as many companies do, Carfair remained neutral so the workers could exercise their will. In the end, 98 percent voted to join the USW, showing that workers overwhelmingly want unions when they’re free to choose without bullying, threats, or retaliation.
“It didn’t take much here,” said Ploof, noting workers had little experience with unions but educated themselves about the benefits and quickly came to a consensus on joining the USW.
“It’s reaching out from Carfair,” he added, noting workers at other companies in the area have approached him to ask, “How is that working out? How do we organize?”
As his new union brothers and sisters at Blue Bird prepare to negotiate their first contract, Cooper hopes to get involved in other organizing drives, lift up more workers, and continue changing the trajectory of the South.
“We just really need to keep putting the message out there, letting people know that there is a better way than what the employers are wanting you to believe,” he said.
Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).
A massive three-day strike by school support staff and teachers recently shut down Los Angeles schools. They stand together to demand better wages and benefits for the school district’s most vulnerable workers.
Tens of thousands of Los Angeles teachers went on strike March 21-23, 2023, for the first time in four years, shutting down the nation’s second-largest school district for three rain-soaked days. But this time the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) did not walk out in order to demand better working conditions for educators. Rather, they were engaging in a remarkable act of solidarity with their lesser-paid colleagues—the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)’s support staff of about 30,000 people who are in their own union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 99. It was the first time that the two unions—the largest two in Los Angeles—went on strike together.
SEIU Local 99’s demands for the district to offer a 30 percent pay raise and health benefits may sound ambitious. But that’s only because the district’s campus aides, teaching assistants, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, gardeners, and other support staff make an average of only $25,000 a year with no benefits. In Southern California, where everything from housing costs, to health care, to groceries are far higher than the national average, this is an untenable wage. Although LAUSD is offering the workers a 23 percent salary raise along with a 3 percent bonus, the double-digit bump is not nearly enough to make ends meet relative to the appallingly low wages they currently earn.
On March 23, 2023, the third and final day of the three-day action, thousands of workers gathered in Los Angeles State Historic Park for a final joint rally. Among them was Maria, a campus aide at Eagle Rock High School, who spoke with me and preferred not to use her last name. She tells me, “we live paycheck to paycheck, and we have to work some days unpaid on top of it all.”
Suraya Duran, a community parent representative at Eagle Rock High School and member of SEIU Local 99, was also at the rally. She says, “These essential employees worked through the pandemic with no raise, no benefits, and the uncertainty of stable hours.” In contrast, Duran points out, “it’s egregious to hear that the [school] superintendent makes more than the president of the United States.” She’s referring to LAUSD’s latest head, Alberto Carvalho, who makes $440,000 annually, the most that’s ever been paid to a district superintendent in LA.
It’s not as if the district can’t afford to pay its lowest-paid workers a living wage. It currently has at its disposal a $4.9 billion reserve fund, of which about $2.3 billion has not been spoken for. The unions argue that this money can and should be used to meet worker demands for higher wages. “There is money. It’s whether they choose to invest in these workers. That’s the bottom line,” says Duran.
Superintendent Carvalho spun the strike to suggest the workers were letting down low-income students of color by walking out for three days. He released a statement on Twitter the day before the strike began, saying that the COVID-19 pandemic was particularly difficult for “kids who are English language learners, students in poverty and students with disabilities,” who “cannot afford to be out of school.”
But Duran, whose job involves liaising between a school and parents, points out that many of the support staff’s own children attend schools in LAUSD. She says that it is common for workers to juggle multiple jobs in order to make ends meet. “They come to the school during the day, and then they’re going to a graveyard shift.” She adds, “They deserve to have a wage that is comparable to today’s standards.”
Maria says, “I feel that we are underpaid, and we feel unappreciated by the district. We are the ones that get paid less, but we are the ones that make sure the campus is safe, and, most important, that the kids are safe.” The public generally considers educators as the only school workers worthy of compensation. The strike served to uplift the voices of support workers like Maria who often remain invisible, but whose jobs are essential to the functioning of schools.
UTLA secretary Arlene Inouye pointed out in an op-ed that “24 percent of SEIU 99 members report that they don’t have enough to eat. One in three report that they have been homeless or at high risk of becoming homeless while working for LAUSD.” This underscores the injustice of a district sitting on more than $2 billion while relying on severely underpaid workers to continue operations. If Carvalho is so concerned about children living in poverty, he could directly address some of that by meeting the wage demands of their parents who work in the district.
Instead, he ridiculed the unions in a now-deleted Tweet that SEIU Local 99 captured in a screen grab. “1,2,3…Circus = a predictable performance with a known outcome, desiring of nothing more than an applause, a coin, and a promise of a next show,” wrote Carvalho in February 2023 after the strike was announced. He added, “Let’s do right, for once, without circus, for kids, for community, for decency.”
But strikes serve the explicit purpose of moving the ramifications of closed-door negotiations out into the open for all to see. Perhaps it is the visibility of LAUSD’s refusal to meet the wage demands of its lowest-paid workers that Carvalho most objected to when he referred to the strike as a “circus.” The UTLA-SEIU joint strike served a powerful narrative purpose: to highlight the appalling working conditions of tens of thousands of workers in LA public schools and to warn the district that workers have each other’s backs.
Although SEIU workers and their UTLA colleagues returned to school campuses after their three-day walkout, the district has, as of this writing, remained firm on its lowball offer. However, the strike did prompt LA’s newly elected mayor Karen Bass, who initially remained on the sidelines, to get involved. Bass is now actively mediating between the district and unions.
Alejandra Sanchez, a special education assistant at Eagle Rock High School, has a message for the superintendent: “Mr. Carvahlo, we are not ‘clowning around’ as you implied [in your tweet]; we are here today as one, UTLA and SEIU, fighting together for a better future, for respect, better wages, and stable hours. Our work is not a joke.”
Highlighting the solidarity between teachers and support staff and their refusal to stay silent, one teacher at Sanchez’s school wore a rain poncho while picketing that sported the words, “Hey Carvalho, in our ‘circus,’ you’re the saddest clown.”
Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Starbucks workers take nationwide coffee break and walk off the job. By: Mark Gruenberg, John Bachtell, Roberta Wood & Scott MarshallRead Now
Striking Starbucks workers took the lovable skeleton mascot out of the closet where their bosses had confined it, saying the skeleton was treated as badly as the workers. | Roberta Wood/PW
CHICAGO — How did Marvin, a lovable skeleton, become the mascot of striking Starbucks workers in this city’s historic Greektown neighborhood? This location is blocks north of the giant University of Illinois campus. It is one of more than a hundred stores in the country where the workers filed for union representation and voted to join today’s strike, even before the NLRB had a chance to schedule their union recognition vote.
According to the baristas here, management’s treatment of Marvin corresponds to their treatment of the workers and their community. Marvin “came to life” one year during the Halloween season when workers hung Marvin in the window, and he became a neighborhood fixture, decked out to celebrate whatever holiday was going on, bringing smiles to the faces of both staff and community.
“But then Starbucks District Manager Lesley Davis said we couldn’t have him,” explained Chris Allen, 22, a shift supervisor. Davis banished the beloved Marvin to the back of the house, out of sight.
“It sucks having someone else make all the decisions when you’re doing all the work daily,” Lily Haneghan, 23, told People’s World. Haneghan admitted when co-workers first discussed forming a union, she was scared. “I had no idea what a union was, and then my boss said, ‘If you unionize, you will get fired.’” That was a big threat to someone who had invested the last five years of her young life working for the company. But then she reflected, “They think of us as coffee robots. There’s no concern for our physical and emotional well-being.” Haneghan and Allen were co-strike captains.
The national Starbucks strike on March 22, at more than 115 stores from Anchorage and Arkansas to Seattle and Phoenix, preceded the showdown at the firm’s annual meeting over whether its union-busting is hurting the so-called progressive coffee chain’s brand.
The baristas and their allies walked out to protest the firm’s rampant labor law-breaking, orchestrated and directed by longtime CEO Howard Schultz.
The labor law-breaking prompted union pension funds and pro-stockholder investors to demand an independent audit of the impact of the law-breaking, which also defies the firm’s proclaimed standards. The proposal came up at its Zoomed annual meeting on March 23.
“The faux progressivism of Starbucks is being exposed for what it is: A marketing ploy,” said Starbucks Workers United (SWU), the union-sponsored group aiding the grass-roots organizing drive nationally.
The National Labor Relations Board filed federal charges against Schultz personally and over 500 charges it levied against the company. The number of complaints from exploited Starbucks workers to the NLRB is 1,200 and counting.
“The One Day Longer national unfair labor practices (ULP) strike demanded Starbucks fully staff all stores, give partners a real seat at the table, not an empty chair, and negotiate a contract in good faith,” SWU said.
That’s exactly what Schultz, his union-buster lawyers, and his managers haven’t done. The only two bargaining sessions the two sides ever had—after pressure on Schultz—lasted five minutes each, with the bosses, led by the union buster, walking out.
More than six years with Starbucks
Sean Plotts has worked six and a half years for Starbucks, including two and a half years as a shift manager at the Lincoln Village location in Chicago. A recent graduate, he holds an associate in arts degree from McHenry County College.
“They were once cutting edge in the fast food industry, but other companies have caught up. They are brutally cracking down on stores going union,” said Plotts.
Less than 300 stores are unionized out of 28,000, and 900 unfair labor practices are already filed with NLRB. “All we’re asking,” Plotts said, “is to be treated fairly, paid well for our services, and given the resources to serve the public. We love this job, but it’s stressful when they’re cutting hours and cutting floor coverage to save a couple of extra bucks at the end of the day.”
Plotts described this as a “union-busting” tactic, adding, “They want to flush out many tired employees. We’re all tired. People shouldn’t have to work as long as they do for little pay just so the stores can get a couple hundred more dollars at the end of the day.”
So far, Starbucks refuses to recognize the union at the Lincoln Village location. “We’ve had one bargaining session which lasted eight minutes, including introductions,” said Plotts, who expressed gratitude for public support for the strikers.
Shot the hours back
Another Lincoln Village worker, Autumn Graham, who sports shoulder-length hair, has been with Starbucks for five years. He started in St. Louis and moved to Chicago because of a toxic work environment at the store there.
“I worked at a store on Bryn Mawr Avenue (in Chicago),” he said. “We unionized in May, and they shut us down in October. We and the Clark and Ridge store were the first to organize in Chicago. They just stonewalled us. Cutting our work without telling us anything and then shutting it down and assigning us to other stores.
Graham depends on Starbucks’ health benefits, as meager as they are, and needs to work full-time to pay his bills. The company has slashed his hours, making life difficult.
“If you work 20 hours, you get benefits. Many workers struggle to get to 20, only get 17, and are denied benefits. When we unionized, they cut our hours from 20-25 to 15 hours and denied us benefits,” he said.
“Recently, they shot the hours back up because we’ve lost a lot of staff. They say business is slow, but I know from the receipts that we’re as busy as before. They ask us to do more with fewer people,” said Graham.
“If you’re a Starbucks customer, just fill out the review on your receipt and write ‘support the union, come to the negotiating table,'” he said. “They need to quit making excuses.”
Across the country, workers in 24 stores in California—including two in Sacramento and one each in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—joined them. Back East, so did workers in Boston, six stores in metro D.C., three in the Baltimore area, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Flint, Mich., Buffalo, St. Louis, and St. Paul, Minn., among others.
“As Starbucks celebrates their provenance and record profits this week, my partners have to deal with the reality that we are being nickeled and dimed to extract as much labor as cheaply as possible,” said Maria Flores of Queens, N.Y. “Our shift supervisors, who make maybe $4 more an hour than baristas, are being met with resistance when picking up barista shifts or working with other shift supervisors, and they’re struggling. Where is the disconnect?
“I’m striking because the power of workers can save the world. Our union is small but now unstoppable, and we’re ready to start making moves. The walls are closing in on Starbucks and when we negotiate I think the flood gates might open!”
“Workers unite!” her Queens colleague James Carr predicted. “I’m excited to get out onto the streets with the people, enjoy the weather, and withhold my labor from Starbucks.”
“I’m excited to join the national effort in striking! It’s so reassuring and reaffirming to be a part of something that’s bigger than just Long Island. I hope Starbucks corporate starts accepting and joining us in solidarity,” said Lynbrook, L.I., worker Liv Ryan.
The workers and SWU have won union recognition elections at 294 Starbucks stores and file daily for votes at more stores. The latest unionized stores are in Oak Park, Ill., at Lake St. and Euclid, plus Pleasanton and Sunnyvale, Calif., Ashland and Portland, Ore.—at Portland State University, and Cameron, N.C. Its latest wins were in Portland, at the Pioneer Courthouse, at 10th and Market Streets in downtown Philadelphia, at Litchfield Park, Ariz., and in Hillsboro, Ore.
“Starting in May, Starbucks forced baristas and supervisors at those three Seattle stores to reapply for their existing positions under the premise of organizing the three stores into their own mini-district, where partners would be expected to work shifts at all three locations.
“Workers had no chance to say goodbye to coworkers and lost the sense of stability they had been counting on. They were also subjected to multiple meetings where managers illegally solicited grievances and promised improvements to prevent unionizing.
“The NLRB has filed a consolidated complaint for these three stores, and included in the remedy is the requirement that the company stop holding these meetings to solicit grievances and to ‘make whole’ the employees who were not rehired, and were functionally pushed out of their own stores.”
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Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).
This article was republished from Peoples World.
Workers walked out of the Flint Assembly Plant in the 2019 General Motors strike. In a runoff election, UAW members have elected a full slate of reformers to lead the union into this year's Big 3 auto bargaining and beyond. Photo: Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP.
The machine will churn no more. Nearly 80 years of top-down one-party rule in the United Auto Workers are coming to an end. Reformer Shawn Fain is set to be the winner in the runoff for the UAW presidency.
As of Thursday night, Fain had a 505-vote edge, 69,386 to 68,881, over incumbent Ray Curry of the Administration Caucus. Curry was appointed by the union’s executive board in 2021. There are around 600 unresolved challenged ballots. (This story will be updated with the final vote tally when we have it.)
“By now, the writing is on the wall: change is coming to the UAW,” said Fain. “You, the members, have already made history in this election, and we’re just getting started. It’s a new day in the UAW.”
It’s a stunning upset in one of the nation’s most storied unions. Once Fain’s victory is conclusive—after remaining challenged ballots are counted—he will join Secretary-Treasurer Margaret Mock, who ran on the Members United slate and won outright in the first round, and a majority of the International Executive Board, giving reformers control of the direction of the union. The UAW Members United slate won every race it challenged—a clear rebuke to the old guard.
“Thousands of UAW members put countless hours into this historic campaign to take back our union,” said Fain. “I thank those members—no matter who they voted for—for taking an active role in our union.
“But thousands of members have lost faith, after years of corruption at the top and concessions at the bottom,” he continued. “Our job now is to put the members back in the driver’s seat, regain the trust of the rank and file, and put the companies on notice. We are ending give-back unionism and company control in the UAW.”
Fain is an electrician from Kokomo, Indiana, and on the staff of the international union.
“Shawn Fain ran a campaign on the promise of true reform in the UAW,” said Justin Mayhugh, a General Motors worker at the Fairfax Assembly plant in Kansas City and a member of Unite All Workers for Democracy, the caucus formed in 2019 to fight for members’ right to vote on top officers. UAWD backed Fain’s UAW Members United slate.
“That message has resonated with the members of our union who are ready for change,” Mayhugh said. “He ran a campaign based on the needs of the rank and file, and because of that, he was able to overcome the many entrenched advantages Curry enjoyed during this election process. It’s a truly historic moment for our union.”
And not a moment too soon. The Big 3 auto contracts with Ford, GM, and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler) expire in six months, and the industry is undergoing major changes with the rise of electric vehicles. The Big 3 now have less than half of the domestic auto market and more than half of all U.S. auto workers are non-union.
Agreements with the Canadian union Unifor covering some 20,000 auto workers at the Big 3 also expire in September.
“We are putting the Big 3 on notice: they should get ready to negotiate with a UAW where the membership is back in charge of this union,” Fain told Labor Notes in December after the first round of the election, where reformers won five seats outright.
LONG TIME COMING
The last time a reformer had won a seat on the UAW board was in 1986, when Jerry Tucker of the New Directions Movement became a regional director. New Directions coalesced a group of reformers into a rank-and-file resistance movement in the 1980s and early 1990s.
And going back even further, the last contested election for the presidency, except for Tucker’s run for president in 1991 and other symbolic runs, was in 1946 between RJ Thomas and Walter Reuther, heading opposing caucuses.
Reuther won and purged the Communists from the UAW staff and defeated or co-opted other opponents. He consolidated his power in a 1947 sweep that accomplished what historian Nelson Lichtenstein describes as “nothing less than the elimination of his rivals from all posts in the UAW hierarchy.”
“The UAW in the ’40s was known for this intense internal democracy,” said Lichtenstein, author of Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit. “And hopefully, with the victory of Shawn Fain, he’s not going to create a new machine. There are going to be contested elections from now on, and that’s a good, healthy thing. It brings in the rank and file and energizes people.”
The UAW has 400,000 members and a strike fund of a billion dollars. The new leaders campaigned on a militant approach to organizing, internal democracy, and solidarity against tiers, similar to the leadership shakeup in the Teamsters in 2021. The Members United slogan was “No Corruption, No Concessions, No Tiers.”
They face steep challenges. The union has seen a membership decline in its core manufacturing sector. The GM division, for example, is today about 11 percent of its 450,000-member heyday in the 1970s. Attempts to organize auto factories in the South have failed, including at a Nissan plant in Mississippi in 2017 and a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee in 2019. Other organizing opportunities are on the horizon. Ford will build four new factories to produce electric vehicle batteries and electric F-Series pickup trucks in Kentucky and Tennessee by 2025, employing 11,000 workers.
To shore up numbers, the union has brought in university workers in recent years, now accounting for 20 percent of members. University of California graduate employees, coming off a recent strike, went overwhelmingly for Fain, defying local leaders who supported Curry. Graduate worker turnout was very low, however, and they were a modest part of Fain’s vote total, 2.5 percent.
GOOD CONTRACTS ORGANIZE
The new leaders will need to fight for stronger contracts at existing shops while launching new organizing campaigns. Scott Houldieson, an electrician at Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant and a founding member of UAWD, says these goals are mutually dependent.
“When you’re negotiating concessionary contracts, it doesn’t help your organizing strategy at all,” said Houldieson. “In fact, it gives talking points to the anti-union forces.
“And while we have to do both at the same time—bargain strong contracts and do new organizing—we will do better at organizing the unorganized if we can first organize to fight back,” he continued. “The rank and file is fed up with our union officers taking the company line, each and every time we have an issue, whether it be contract negotiations or grievance settlements.”
The Big 3 are hauling in record profits, but they continue to lose market share to non-union automakers. Electric vehicle battery plants and federal investments that are part of a green industrial policy provide an opportunity to organize workers in new manufacturing jobs.
CONCESSIONS KEY BEEF
UAWD’s campaign for one-member-one-vote was seen as a long shot when it began in 2019. Even the union’s Internal Review Board once described the union as functioning like a “one-party state.” But then an investigation by the Justice Department laid bare longstanding corruption in the union, including embezzlement, kickbacks, and collusion with employers. Thirteen union officials went to jail, including two former presidents.
The consent decree that resulted from the corruption scandals made it possible for members to decide whether they wanted to directly elect their officers, as opposed to a convention delegate system. In December 2021, UAW members voted 63.6 percent in support of electing top officers through one-member-one-vote.
But the financial chicanery at the top was not enough to galvanize the rank and file, says retired Local 1700 President Bill Parker.
“Corruption was a minor issue,” said Parker. “The real problem was that the union no longer fought the company, going back to the early ’80s when it began granting concessions, and then it all went downhill from there.” The union began giving away concessions at Chrysler beginning in 1979. Ford and GM followed suit with demands for ever-deeper givebacks.
“People want the union to challenge management,” said Parker, “not lay down in front of them. So they want the collective power of the union, not just to reform the union, but to aggressively change the union into a fighting institution."
RETIREES VOTE FOR CHANGE
But the discontent has had a slow build-up. Take retirees from locals whose factories closed. Parker says they felt abandoned by the union and were favorable to reformers in both rounds of the election. (We can’t tell how most retirees voted because their votes are mixed with those of active members. But we can see how retirees from closed locals voted.)
“Forty or 50 years ago, when I started out, retirees were solidly in the camp of the Administration Caucus,” he said, “because at the time, the Administration was doing things like negotiating improvements in the pension and bonuses.
“Then in 2007, during contract negotiations, the union agreed to two tiers.” Now “the majority of Chrysler workers are second-tier employees with no pension, no retiree health care, and they’re treated poorly in the plant.”
At Chrysler Local 1268, where the company has indefinitely “idled” the Belvidere Assembly Plant where 1,350 UAW members work, workers voted over 70 percent for Fain.
“The sad reality of this is, over the last year and a half, since President Curry’s been in power… the company has awarded more than three different products, and Belvidere could have had every one of those,” Fain said on a Facebook livestream last December. “They’ve had ample opportunity to take on the company and to get product there, and prevent thousands of layoffs.”
Anger has propelled rank and filers into leadership. But the flip side of anger is lack of hope.
“The new administration is going to have to start giving the members some confidence,” said Houldieson. “Right now, they lack confidence, and for good reason—they’ve been beaten down by corporate unionism for decades now. So we’re going to have to work on building a contract campaign that gives the membership more confidence than they’ve had in a long time.”
This attitude of resignation partly explains the low turnout in the election (14 percent of the 400,000 active members and 600,000 retirees) and the slim margin of victory. In addition, reformers said that members struggled to get information about the candidates in order to make an informed decision.
At first, the AC had relied on the sleepy internal life of the union to protect it from the insurgents and tried to pretend the election wasn’t happening, giving it little publicity. “The Administration Caucus didn’t campaign much in the first round because they thought they had it in the bag,” said Houldieson. “They are used to just having their way.” But they hadn’t faced a one-member-one-vote election before.
After the reformers’ victories in December, the AC roused from its lethargy and Curry pulled out all the stops.
His strategy was to get Administration Caucus loyalists—appointed and elected officials—to campaign in Ford locals, the home base of his running mate Chuck Browning, who has been the UAW vice president in charge of Ford. Their message was that Fain, from Stellantis, would somehow discriminate against Ford workers.
Curry, who was an assembler at Freightliner Trucks in North Carolina before he became a union official, won in Region 1A to the west of Detroit and also won in large Ford plants in Region 8 in the South, where turnout increased by 41 percent in the runoff. Fain took a majority in the union’s other seven regions.
REBELLION FROM BELOW
Plucked from the shop floor, UAW Members United challenger Daniel Vicente won the runoff vote for director of Region 9, which covers western and central New York, New Jersey, and most of Pennsylvania.
What motivated him to seek union office? Vicente, a machine operator and a convention delegate representing Local 644 in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, credited a hazardous incident at his current job at Dometic, which makes steering control cables for boats, and the short shrift a local union official paid him once he brought the incident to his attention.
His nerve was steeled at the July UAW convention in Detroit when he saw delegates, in the convention’s closing hours, reverse their previous vote to boost strike pay—at the AC’s request.
In a heartfelt Facebook post on March 3, Vicente wrote about growing up in a blue-collar family and the bonds of solidarity he has forged with fellow workers on the shop floor, writing about a co-worker, Mohamed Aitqol: “You and I have pulled 12 hours shifts together, we sweated it out in the summers and froze half to death in the winters on these machines.”
He promised to carry with him that spirit of solidarity as he travels Region 9 to meet with local members and leaders to together transform the union.
“The race is done, so now the hard part begins,” he said.
Read an interview with Daniel Vicente here.
This article was republished from Labor Notes.
The Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding in 2019 and signs would appear to augur well for the organization in the coming years. Recently, the party discussed running candidates for office.1 Membership numbers are rising,2 and the party credits itself and its allies for the “broad front” that defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.3 Having abandoned the Democratic Socialists of America, an organization in a crisis of political direction, and gazed upon the desolate expanse that is revolutionary socialism in the United States, some comrades have turned away from the red rose toward the tried and true hammer, sickle, and gear. Unfortunately, these comrades will not have escaped the politics of class collaborationism by fleeing DSA and may find themselves in even hotter water.
The CPUSA marked its centenary with an updated version of the party platform: “The Road to Socialism USA.”5 Reading through the document is daunting. An astounding 61-pages long, it meanders across ten disorganized primary sections and dozens of subsections. Boundaries are porous: the introduction contains a conclusion, ideas repeat, and lists of occasionally intriguing demands are relegated to sidebars. Friedrich Engels’ critique of the German Social Democratic Party’s Erfurt Programme - “The fear that a short, pointed exposition would not be intelligible enough, has caused explanations to be added, which make it verbose and drawn out”6 - applies just as accurately to the CPUSA. These comrades, hoping to attract as large an audience as possible, have thrown everything but the kitchen sink toward the proverbial wall in a desperate attempt to make something stick. Asked to accept the program, one struggles for solid footing. How can one determine agreement with such an incomprehensible document?
But determination brings rewards. Cutting through girth and clearing away the tired abstractions (“injustice,”7 “a better world,”8 “the 1%,”9 “epic struggles,”10 “the greed of the few,”11 “fascism”12) reveals two fundamental flaws: a commitment to the decades-old People’s Front policy of alliances with anything left of the “extreme right”13 and dedication to the Constitution and the parameters of the capitalist state. In other words, socialism with American characteristics. What follows is an elaboration on these two flaws. While the comrades in the CPUSA may be motivated by a genuine desire to fight for the interests of the working class, their program provides no path forward and opens the door to opportunistic zigzags and the internal rule of bureaucrats.
Continuing the People’s Front
This is far from an exhaustive chronicle of the ups and downs of the Communist Party (a job that E. J. Hobsbawm described as presenting unique difficulties).14 Rather, reading the CPUSA program allows one to reflect on the rise and fall of American Communism and the world socialist movement more generally. At its height, the Party contributed several victories to the class struggle in the United States. It carried out exceptional work in organizing the unemployed during the Great Depression15 and defended the Scottsboro Boys when the NAACP refused.16 The Party’s victories in states such as Alabama17 and New York18 are well-documented.
The United Front strategy - how the party relates to the political institutions of the capitalist state to win members and strengthen the fighting power of the working class - began during a period of global defeat for communism.19 Having emerged victorious from the Russian Civil War, the newly formed Third International expected a quick succession of civil wars and Communist victories across Europe. But defeats in Germany, Poland, and Hungary augured ill. The working masses had not rallied behind the banner of the Communist Parties, and the Bolsheviks were left isolated in Russia. After fending off his ultra-left detractors, Lenin oversaw the entry of the Communist Parties into alliances with non-Communist working class political forces (including Social Democratic parties) under the explicit condition of retaining organizational independence and freedom to criticize the reformist leadership. In theory, the United Front was sound.
Principled alliances with reformist parties were scrapped when Stalin came to power. The Communists had zigged right, only to zag left during the Third Period of 1928 to 1933. The Peoples’ Front (America’s version of the Popular Front) began a final lurch back to the right in 1935 in the context of impending war and the rise of German Nazism. Ben Rose described the People’s Front as a “gradual shift towards a search for alliances and influence with the leadership of organizations believed to be instrumental in fighting domestic and international fascism, as well as those capable of pressuring the Roosevelt administration.”20 Tactical alliances with a section of the capitalist class subordinated working class independence to the goals of capitalists. The goal of socialism in America was abandoned, and in 1937 the Party dropped its slogan, “Toward a Soviet America.” The day-to-day practice of fighting for reforms submerged the goal of a classless society, and socialism with American characteristics - socialism, after all, being just as American as baseball and apple pie - became the norm. As Mike Macnair explains: “‘Official communist’ and Maoist parties committed themselves to rejection of the most elementary Marxist principle - the independent political organization and representation of the working class - in favor of ‘democratic’ coalitions which repeat the projects Marx and Engels fought against - or, worse, in favor of coalitions for ‘national independence’, which subordinate the working class to the party of order.”21
The call for a People’s Front continues today. In the name of fighting the extreme right - a nefarious entity that is “inadequate and incompetent”22 and “backward”23 one moment, and “fascist”24 the next - the program urges unity with all progressive forces in “defeating the extreme right’s implicit and explicit drive toward fascism.”25 Divisions within the capitalist class “contain opportunities for working-class and progressive forces. On some issues, the more moderate, more realistic sections of the capitalist class and their political operatives move parallel to the people’s movements, as important though partial and temporary allies. They can be pressured to adopt a more progressive stance by the strength of the people’s movements and mass sentiment.”26
The program encourages alliances with the Democratic Party because it is “not identical”27 with the Republican Party. The Democratic Party’s history - the “main vehicle used by African American and Latino communities to gain representation, as well as the main mechanism used to elect labor, progressive, and even Left activists to public office…”28 - supposedly demonstrates differences with its elephant brother. Furthermore, alleged rifts within the Party can be used to workers’ advantage. One reads: “[T]here exists an internal struggle within the Democratic Party among centrist forces who collaborate with the right wing, centrist forces opposed to the right wing, and more progressive, even socialist, trends.”29 Any desire to build a mass party must bow to the existing facts of the power of the capitalist class and the Constitutional regime.
With Friends Like These…
Calls for an alliance with the Democratic Party and the NGO complex against the far right are equivalent to asking the fox to guard the hen house: the fox eats its plump ward every time. Such proposals are the equivalent of trusting the bourgeoisie of the French Third Republic to eradicate the threat of a clerical-monarchical Thermidorian reaction. During the Third Republic, the proletariat was lured away from independent politics by liberals who incessantly hollered about a grave threat to the Republic as justification for uniting under one banner. With danger knocking at the door, this was no time to wage the class struggle. Karl Kautsky explained the reality behind the facade: “...the bourgeois liberal politicians have every interest in the struggle against the Church, but by no means in triumphing over it. They can only count on an alliance of the proletariat as long as this struggle continues.”30 Ultimately, a definitive victory is illusory. The imperative to unite against a bigger-bad never ends. How ironic that the Communist Party now advocates politics far to the right of those espoused by Second International Marxism’s famous pope-turned-renegade during his period as a revolutionary thinker.
The Democratic Party is more concerned with maintaining the rule of law than prosecuting an effective campaign against an increasingly right-wing and authoritarian Republican Party and its hangers-on. See, for example, their impotent attempt to understand and resolve the events of January 6th, 2022, compared to their focus on the chauvinistic conspiracy theory of Russiagate. The state’s repressive apparatus is far more concerned with countering perceived threats from the left than from the right. The bourgeois state fundamentally cannot grapple with the real social issues (poverty and economic precarity, first and foremost) upon which the seeds of far-right extremism germinate. Without class independence, the proletariat stays moored to the dock of bourgeois politics. Worse, if the working class does not create independent organizations of political power, it will be unable to stop a real fascist threat. One finds a terrifying historical specter in Chile during the Allende period when the Popular Unity government disarmed its supporters in the face of an impending coup. When the time came, the working class could not defend itself or the Allende government from Pinochet’s forces.
The CPUSA program describes the all-people's-front as an “essential strategy for this historical period, not just a temporary tactic.”31 Socialism is thus always something for the distant future, a goal to pursue once the present task is complete. Yet, like Sisyphus and his boulder, the task is never concluded. An all-people’s-front will not permanently defeat the far right. Only a socialist republic can eliminate the excrement produced by capitalism in decline, and only a socialist political party can make a new republic a reality.
Bill of Rights Socialism and Constitutional Cultism
The Constitution is an eminently undemocratic document that stands in the way of working-class political rule. It creates an entire “political playing field”32 that sucks in well-intentioned reformers and keeps them busy fiddling over minutia. The Constitution cannot be ignored or corralled through tricks or slights of hand. Yet, the CPUSA program ducks the issue by proposing a “Peoples’ Bill of Rights” and explaining that “Once the power of the corporations is broken, the vast majority of the country can use the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, a Socialist Bill of Rights, and local governments to build real democracy and equality.”33 The Party’s belief that a “fundamentally new economic system” can be built on the existing Constitution is explicit; it is a hallowed document equivalent to the sacred tablets of the Ten Commandments. This devotion is apparent when they describe a speculative people’s Bill of Rights as “guaranteed” upon being “enshrined” in the Constitution.34
The insistence on maintaining the existing state apparatus is an abdication of the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Once in power, the party must implement the minimum demands to upend and transform the existing state apparatus into a democratic republic - the state form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. From this position, the working class can begin the transition to communism. The CPUSA comrades are correct that the fullest expression of democracy is in the interests of the working class. Democracy is the light and air needed by the proletariat to wage an effective struggle.
However, the extension of democracy does not cease at the doors of the White House, the shrine of the Constitution, the halls of the Supreme Court, or the pentagonal grounds of the Department of Defense. The indirectly elected president holds an ever-increasing amount of power and directs the military of the world’s foremost imperial power. The Constitution (designed to guard against change) enshrines the separation of powers to hedge against the boogeyman of popular will in the House of Representatives (the only body with a nominal claim to popular representation) and slows down the process of legislation by directly elected representatives. The Supreme Court is not elected by universal and direct suffrage and works primarily to defend the Constitution. The recent overturning of Roe v. Wade also led many people to question the Court’s ability to take up lower court rulings. Finally, the Department of Defense provides the physical force necessary to safeguard the sanctity of private property and bourgeois law and order.
The CPUSA’s loyalty to the Constitution leads them to abandon a revolutionary position. The demand for a Socialist Bill of Rights leaves the bourgeois state unscathed; in fact, it strengthens the state. So long as the existing constitutional order remains intact, demands for “liberty, and equality; free quality health care and education; living-wage jobs and decent housing; and a healthy environment”35 are just reforms. While the revolutionary party does include reforms as part of its demands, they exist as a means to create a democratic republic. A set of demands that leave the existing state intact serves only as a screen to hide bourgeois rule. The party plucks the fig leaf from absolutism only to become “oneself a screen for its nakedness.”36
In trying to adapt Marxist-Leninism to the United States, the comrades absorbed all the elements of the constitutional regime and dropped most of the Marxism they carried. What little remains lies mutilated beyond recognition. The program’s assurance that “socialism in the United States will have distinctive characteristics because it will emerge from our unique political culture”37 is just another superficial justification for reformism. Minimum demands must strengthen the working class while weakening the state. Such demands include a single legislative assembly elected by proportional representation; the abolition of the independent presidency and the Supreme Court's right of judicial review; the election of judges and other state officials; the expansion of jury trials and state-funded legal services; the unrestricted right of free speech; the abolition of copyright laws and monopolies of knowledge; and the abolition of police and standing army in favor of a people's militia characterized by universal training and service, with democratic rights for its members. The process could begin with organizing a nationwide election via direct, universal, and equal suffrage for an assembly tasked with writing a new Constitution for popular consideration rather than the radically minoritarian process enshrined in Article 5 of the existing Constitution.38 Enacted in full, these demands smash the existing order and create a democratic republic.
Monopolies and Stages
Like a Matryoshka doll that has gone west, the CPUSA program contains multiple programs corresponding to different stages on an imagined path to socialism. The first stage is the formation of a People’s Front to defeat the extreme right. After eliminating the first threat, the People’s Front will grow in strength, evolve into an anti-monopoly coalition, and turn its attention toward “the multinationals” (the nationalist assumption being that ‘genuinely American’ capitalists would join the fight). The defeat of the multinationals will signal the beginning of a new stage in which the anti-monopoly coalition will build proletarian consciousness and progress toward socialism. Multiple coalitions will merge with the Communist Party to create a force capable of pushing through the Socialist Bill of Rights. At some point, communism will emerge.
To the untrained eye, the discussion of monopolies is a bizarre aspect of an already strange program. Yet, references to the despotic power of monopolies - along with constant references to “the people” - have roots in older forms of American populism that pitted “the people'' versus “the elites.” The affinity towards populist rhetoric is explained by the reformist character of the CPUSA and its desire to create cross-class alliances in which, ultimately, workers’ interests play second fiddle. In addition, the program’s conception of revolution beginning only after defeating a series of foes follows the stagist theory of history often, though incorrectly, attributed to orthodox Marxism.38 In decades past, the stagist model was used to justify the fundamental impossibility of communism in one country. Today, it appears in the CPUSA’s program as a justification for continued reformism.
Road to Nowhere
The Communist Party’s program contains noble sentiments. We do not doubt these comrades' desire to realize a “system in which working-class people control their own lives and destinies.”39 Socialism is the fullest extension of democracy. The social republic overcomes the division between social and political existence. The final goal remains a society in which everyone contributes what they can and receives what they need to actualize their unique potential.
The CPUSA comrades are correct in declaring the need for a revolutionary party. They correctly state that victory is not abstract: it “relies not on slogans, gimmicks, or conspiracies but rather on developing the understanding of millions cultivated in hard struggles, an understanding that grows into full class and socialist consciousness.”40 Yet, their program is brimming with slogans. Take the assertion that the revolutionary party must be “dedicated to the interests of the whole class, dedicated to the long-term vision necessary for winning fundamental change.”41 An intrepid reader finishes the program without understanding the meaning of fundamental change. After so many pages, the phrase remains a floating signifier capable of the most opportunistic interpretations. This reversion to obscurity is a long way away from the concluding paragraph of the Socialist Party of America’s 1912 program: “Such measures of relief as we may be able to force from capitalism are but a preparation of the workers to seize the whole powers of government, in order that they may thereby lay hold of the whole system of socialized industry and thus come to their rightful inheritance.”42 As a party founded by the principled Left-Wing of the SPA and once animated by the fire of the Bolshevik Revolution, the CPUSA has fallen quite a long way.
The program is the loadstone of a socialist political party. A good program presents the demands necessary for taking power and creating a democratic republic (the minimum program) to initiate a transition to the ultimate goal of communism (the maximum program). Means and ends are united and never lose sight of each other. Demands are expansive though concrete, and resonate with the condition of all oppressed minority groups. Furthermore, a good program is clear, concise, and memorable. It leaves elaboration to party propagandists and trusts in the ability of the masses to decode an unfamiliar term and infer what is left unsaid. The latest CPUSA program is a mess. Quantity does not transform into quality; in this case, the former works against the latter. The working class will not find a road to power within its numerous pages. Its confusing proposals will lead only to the underwhelming and all-too-familiar dead end of class collaboration within the existing constitutional order.
Today, the Communist Party USA rests upon a mixed historical legacy marked by moments in which it acted as a vanguard of the working class in the highest sense of the phrase, as well as a long period in which it continues to be plagued by the lowest possible opportunism. In criticizing its present class collaborationist program, we hope to provide a resource to those in the Communist Party chafing under this orientation. As in the Democratic Socialists of America, the time has come for genuine communists to rebel against the dominant opportunism of the largest organizations of the working class political movement in the United States. We encourage Marxists in the Communist Party USA to begin openly discussing the course and future of their party and the entire socialist movement. The pages of Cosmonaut are open to them, and replies from defenders of the Communist Party’s current orientation are welcome as well - if only to train the arguments of their critics.
May the rebels prevail!
4. See Lenin’s comments on the relationship between anarchism and opportunism in chapter four of “Left Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder.” https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/ch04.htm
6. Friedrich Engels. A Critique of the Draft Social Democratic Program of 1891. https://marxists.architexturez.net/archive/marx/works/1891/06/29.htm
7. https://cpusa.org/party_info/party-program/ p.11
8. Ibid. p.2
9. Ibid. p.2
10. Ibid. p.60
11. Ibid. p.1
12. Ibid. p.33
13. Ibid. p.3
14. E. J. Hobsbawm, Revolutionaries, p.6: “The problem of those who write the history of communist parties is therefore unusually difficult. They must recapture the unique and, among secular movements, unprecedented temper of bolshevism, equally remote from the liberalism of most historians and the permissive and self-indulgent activism of most contemporary ultras. There is no understanding it without a grasp of that sense of total devotion which made the party in Auschwitz make its members pay their dues in cigarettes (inconceivably precious and almost impossible to obtain in an extermination camp), which made the cadres accept the order not merely to kill Germans in occupied Paris, but first to acquire, individually, the arms to do so, and which made it virtually unthinkable for them to refuse to return to Moscow even to certain imprisonment or death. There is no understanding either the achievements or the perversions of bolshevism without this, and both have been monumental; and certainly no understanding of the extraordinary success of communism as a system of education for political work.”
17. Kelley, Robin G.D. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015.
18. Naison, Mark D. Communists in Harlem During the Depression. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
19. For a more in-depth discussion on the united front, see chapter six of Mike Macnairs’ “Revolutionary Strategy.” http://ouleft.org/wp-content/uploads/Macnair-Revolutionary-Strategy.pdf
22. https://cpusa.org/party_info/party-program/ p.21
23. Ibid. p.3
24. Ibid. p.4
25. Ibid. p.41
26. Ibid. p.41
27. Ibid. p.41
28. Ibid. p.41
29. Ibid. p.41
30. For Karl Kautsky’s description of the various tricks used against the working class in the French Third Republic, see his “The Republican and Social Democracy in France.”
31. https://cpusa.org/party_info/party-program/ p.35
33. https://cpusa.org/party_info/party-program/ p.54
35. https://cpusa.org/party_info/party-program/ p.52
36. Friedrich Engels. A Critique of the Draft Social Democratic Program of 1891. https://marxists.architexturez.net/archive/marx/works/1891/06/29.htm
37. https://cpusa.org/party_info/party-program/ p.53
38. For a detailed explanation of the logistics behind organizing a democratic vote for a new U.S. Constitution, see Johan Martell’s ‘Fight the Constitution! Demand a New Republic!’ https://cosmonautmag.com/2021/03/fight-the-constitution-demand-a-new-republic/
39. For Jack Conrad’s discussion of the sordid historiography of stagism, see https://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1417/memory-wars/#fnref5
40. https://cpusa.org/party_info/party-program/ p.2
41. Ibid. p.56
42. Ibid. p.56
43. Socialist Platform 1912. http://sageamericanhistory.net/progressive/docs/SocialistPlat1912.htm
*The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Midwestern Marx Institute or its editors. Our Institute values having an open space for dialogue between Marxist forces seeking to advance the struggle of the working class.
Luke Pickrell and Myra Janis are members of the Marxist Unity Group (MUG), a faction within the Democratic Socialists of America dedicated to building class independence and programmatic unity. The authors hope to engage CPUSA comrades and wider sections of the left in a discussion about building party programs capable of charting a strategic path forward for socialists.
Mark Glyptis and dozens of other union leaders went into contract negotiations with Cleveland-Cliffs in 2022 determined not only to win wage and benefit enhancements for their coworkers but also to protect thousands of family-sustaining steel mill jobs for years to come.
The United Steelworkers (USW) negotiating team ultimately delivered a historic contract requiring the company to invest $4 billion in 13 union-represented facilities, including about $100 million at the Weirton, West Virginia, mill where Glyptis and his colleagues rely on ever more sophisticated equipment to make precision tin plate.
Unions fight for financial commitments like these to safeguard workers’ sweat equity—the time and labor they invest in their workplaces for decades at a stretch. Capital upgrades keep employers accountable and plants viable, preserving family-sustaining jobs while also laying the groundwork for future growth.
“Steel mills are being built across the world, and we’re definitely competing on a worldwide basis,” observed Glyptis, president of USW Local 2911, noting the overseas facilities feature the “most modern technology.”
“We’re the best steelworkers in the world. We can compete. But we have to keep up with capital investments,” continued Glyptis, who helped to represent about 12,000 USW members from six states in the talks with Cleveland-Cliffs in 2022.
Glyptis and other Local 2911 members fought for new equipment that they need to produce “perfectly flat and flawless” tin plate for food containers.
Based on members’ input, other local unions--supplying the military, highway contractors, aerospace, and numerous other industries—went into negotiations with their own requirements for upgrades.
Members overwhelmingly ratified a new, four-year contract last fall. The vote reflected their satisfaction with the $4 billion in investments—to be allocated among the 13 worksites—as much as it did the 20 percent raises and benefit enhancements the agreement provides.
“You can have the best health care in the country or in the world, but if you can’t compete because of technological deficiencies, you’re going to be an also-ran,” Glyptis pointed out. “Maintaining a competitive facility is just as important.”
“It all goes into a decision about whether this is a fair contract. It would be difficult to have a contract passed if it didn’t have a commitment to capital investments attached,” he said, adding that the company continues hiring many younger workers who see the upgrades as crucial to raising families and putting down roots.
Unions also negotiate capital investments to protect workers from companies that might otherwise abandon plants on a whim or run them to failure while wringing out every last penny in profit.
“They don’t have to live with the long-term impact of what they do. We do. Union workers do,” declared Andrew Worby, president of USW Local 2-209, referring to “profit-taker” CEOs who line their pockets on workers’ backs before moving on to their next jobs.
Once a company commits resources to a location, it’s more likely to stick around, said Worby, recalling that he and his coworkers at the Harley-Davidson plant in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, upped their demands for capital investments after a cavalier executive threatened to move the facility during a contract dispute.
The local’s most recent contract requires Harley-Davidson to invest $65 million in the Menomonee Falls powertrain manufacturing site over five years. The company also has to invest another $10 million at a Tomahawk, Wisconsin, plant where workers are represented by USW Local 460.
The impact is already evident. The company recently announced that workers in Wisconsin are “tooling up and readying to produce” the powertrains for a new line of electric motorcycles.
“There’s a much bigger and broader picture to the impact of a union contract,” said Worby. “It doesn’t just affect the union members. It affects the families. It affects the community. It affects the state we’re in.”
The security provided by union-won investments means that “a new worker, instead of renting, is willing to buy a house,” he explained. “Now he’s paying property taxes. He’s going to send his kids to the school district. He’s going to buy a refrigerator from the local appliance guy. It’s huge.”
When companies do threaten to close worksites, unions step up to preserve jobs and protect communities.
The USW, for example, intervened when Domtar announced plans to close a Kingsport, Tennessee, paper mill where union members made uncoated free sheet. Some workers, including USW Local 12943 President Keith Kiker, worked there for decades.
Union leaders knew Domtar wanted to enter the recycled containerboard market, so they successfully pushed the company to overhaul and reopen the Kingsport facility for that new product line.
The union’s advocacy resulted in a $350 million investment, saving about 150 jobs and ensuring a competitive facility for decades to come. Workers produced their first roll of recycled containerboard in January 2023.
“Everybody who wanted to come back got to come back,” said Kiker, noting company officials “knew what they had” in a skilled and dedicated workforce committed to ensuring a successful mill conversion.
“This has been a good place to work. It’s still the best insurance in the region,” he added, noting other companies in the Kingsport area must match USW-negotiated health benefits to retain their own workers.
Worby and his coworkers at Harley-Davidson see “a lot of new equipment coming in” right now, giving them the sense of security that they sought in the last round of contract talks. But they realize that the fight for facility investments, like the battle for fair wages and benefits, never ends.
“You want to keep the positive energy flowing,” Worby said. “Longevity is very important to us.”
Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).
What we are about is a new set of values, the practice of solidarity. Capitalism developed within feudalism as the practice of the idea of contract. What was imagined was a society in which free and equal members of civil society would enter into mutually binding agreements. Thus, the free city. Thus, the guild of artisans. Thus, the congregation of Protestant believers bound together by a “covenant” (a different kind of contract). And thus, the capitalist corporation, its investors, its shareholders. Of course, the reality was and is that the parties to capitalist labor contracts were and are not equal, and therefore the ideological hegemony of the bourgeois idea of contract has always been and still is based on a sham.
Counter-hegemonically, we practice solidarity. Solidarity might be defined as drawing the boundary of our community of struggle as widely as possible. When LTV Steel first filed for bankruptcy in 1986, Youngstown retirees debated whether they should seek health insurance only for steel industry retirees or for everyone. They decided, for everyone. When LTV Steel recently filed for bankruptcy a second time, the United Steelworkers of America made the opposite choice: they asked Congress to subsidize the so-called “legacy costs” of the steel industry, not for universal health care.
Staughton Lynd, ¡Presente!
People’s historian Staughton Lynd died on Nov. 17 after an extraordinary life as a conscientious objector, peace and civil rights activist, tax resister, professor, author, and lawyer.
Lynd inspired us with his role as a people’s historian, always working in solidarity with struggles for justice today.
Lynd served as director of the Freedom Schools in the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. He worked with prisoners and challenged the prison-industrial complex.
While teaching at Spelman College, his family and Howard Zinn’s developed a lifelong friendship. Zinn said of Lynd, “He is an exemplar of strength and gentleness in the quest for a better world.”
Among Lynd’s many books is Doing History from the Bottom Up, in which he described three key perspectives that are guides for any teacher or student of history.
1. History from below is not, or should not be, mere description of hitherto invisible poor and oppressed people: it should challenge mainstream versions of the past.
2. The United States was founded on crimes against humanity directed at Native Americans and enslaved African Americans.
3. Participants in making history should be regarded not only as sources of facts but as colleagues in interpreting what happened.
After Freedom Summer, Lynd got involved in anti-Vietnam War organizing.
Despite his talents as a scholar, academia closed their doors to him after he traveled on a fact-finding mission to Hanoi. In a 2013 essay about Lynd, Andy Piascik explains what happened next:
Lynd never looked back. He became an accomplished scholar outside the academy and one of the most perceptive and prolific chroniclers of “history from below,” with a special interest in working class organizing. From a series of interviews, he and [his wife] Alice produced the award-winning book Rank and File, which begat the Academy Award-nominated documentary film Union Maids.
In a memorial tribute to Howard Zinn at the Organization of American Historians, Lynd said, “When a comrade dies in the struggle for nonviolent revolution, we try to pick up his dreams.” May we all do that now: pick up Lynd’s dreams and his principled, grassroots approach to making those dreams a reality.
Remarks on Solidarity Unionism
Speech at the 2005 IWW Centenary in Chicago, Illinois
To Begin With
The greatest honor I have ever received is to be asked to speak to you on the occasion of the IWW’s 100th birthday.
But I am not standing here alone. Beside me are departed friends. John Sargent was the first president of Local 1010, United Steelworkers of America, the 18,000-member local union at Inland Steel just east of Chicago. John said that he and his fellow workers achieved far more through direct action before they had a collective bargaining agreement than they did after they had a contract. You can read his words in the book Rank and File. Ed Mann and John Barbero, after years as rank and filers, became president and vice president of Local 1462, United Steelworkers of America, at Youngstown Sheet & Tube in Youngstown, and toward the end of his life Ed joined the IWW. Ed and John were ex-Marines who opposed both the Korean and Vietnam wars; they fought racism both in the mill and in the city of Youngstown, where in the 1950s swimming pools were still segregated; they believed, as do I, that there will be no answer to the problem of plant shutdowns until working people take the means of production into their own hands; and in January 1980, in response to U.S. Steel’s decision to close all its Youngstown facilities, Ed led us down the hill from the local union hall to the U.S. Steel administration building, where the forces of good broke down the door and for one glorious afternoon occupied the company headquarters. Ed’s daughter changed her baby’s diapers on the pool table in the executive game room. Stan Weir and Marty Glaberman, very much alone, moved our thinking forward about informal work groups as the heart of working-class self-organization, about unions with leaders who stay on the shop floor, about alternatives to the hierarchical vanguard party, about overcoming racism and about international solidarity.
These men were in their own generation successors to the Haymarket martyrs and Joe Hill. They represented the inheritance that you and I seek to carry on.
How I First Learned About the IWW
It all began for me when I was about fourteen years old.
Some of you may know the name of Seymour Martin Lipset. He became a rather conservative political sociologist. In the early 1940s, however, he was a graduate student of my father’s and a socialist, who wrote his dissertation on the Canadian Commonwealth Federation.
Marty Lipset decided that my political education would not be complete until I had visited the New York City headquarters of the Socialist Party. The office was on the East Side and so we caught the shuttle at Times Square. I have no memory of the Socialist Party headquarters but a story Marty told me on the shuttle changed my life.
It seems that one day during the Spanish Civil War there was a long line of persons waiting for lunch. Far back in the line was a well known anarchist. A colleague importuned him: “Comrade, come to the front of the line and get your lunch. Your time is too valuable to be wasted this way. Your work is too important for you to stand at the back of the line. Think of the Revolution!” Moving not one inch, the anarchist leader replied: “This is the Revolution.”
I think I asked myself, Is there any one in the United States who thinks that way? A few years later, in my parents’ living room, I picked up C. Wright Mills’ book about the leaders of the new Congress of Industrial Organizations, The New Men of Power. Mills argued that these men were bureaucrats at the head of hierarchical organizations. And at the very beginning of the book, in contrast to all that was to follow, Mills quoted a description of the Wobblies who went to Everett, Washington on a vessel named the Verona in November 1916 to take part in a free speech fight. As the boat approached the dock in Everett, “Sheriff McRae called out to them: Who is your leader? Immediate and unmistakable was the answer from every I.W.W.: ‘We are all leaders’.”
So, I thought to myself, perhaps the Wobblies were the equivalent in the United States of the Spanish anarchists. But here a difficulty held me up for twenty years. If, as the Wobblies seemed to say, the answer to the problems of the old AF of L was industrial unionism, why was it that the new industrial unions of the CIO acted so much like the craft unions of the old AF of L?
Industrial Unionism and the Right to Strike
The Preamble to the IWW Constitution, as of course you know, stated and still states:
The trade unions foster a state of affairs which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry ….
Clearly these words, when they were written, referred to a workplace at the turn of the last century where each group of craftspersons belonged to a different union. Each such union had its own collective bargaining agreement, complete with a termination date different from that of every other union at the work site. The Wobblies called this typical arrangement “the American Separation of Labor.”
The Preamble suggested a solution:
These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its workers in any one industry, or all industries if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one the injury of all.
The answer, in short, appeared to be the reorganization of labor in industrial rather than craft unions.
It seemed to Wobblies and like-minded rank-and-file workers that if only labor were to organize industrially, the “separation of labor” — as the IWW characterized the old AF of L — could be overcome. All kinds of workers in a given workplace would belong to the same union and could take direct action together, as they chose. Hence in the early 1930s Wobblies and former Wobblies threw themselves into the organization of local industrial unions.
A cruel disappointment awaited them. When John L. Lewis, Philip Murray, and other men of power in the new CIO negotiated the first contracts for auto workers and steelworkers, these contracts, even if only a few pages long, typically contained a no-strike clause. All workers in a given workplace were now prohibited from striking as particular crafts had been before. This remains the situation today.
Nothing in labor law required a no-strike clause. Indeed, the drafters of the original National Labor Relations Act (or Wagner Act) went out of their way to ensure that the law would not be used to curtail the right to strike. Not only does federal labor law affirm the right “to engage in … concerted activities for the purpose of … mutual aid or protection”; even as amended by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, Section 502 of what is now called the Labor Management Relations Act declares:
Nothing in this Act shall be construed to require an individual employee to render labor or service without his consent, nor shall anything in this Act be construed to make the quitting of his labor by an individual employee an illegal act; nor shall any court issue any process to compel the performance by an individual employee of such labor or service, without his consent; nor shall the quitting of work by an employee or employees in good faith because of abnormally dangerous conditions for work at the place of employment of such employee or employees be deemed a strike under this chapter[;] and for good measure, the drafters added in Section 13 of the NLRA, now section 163 of the LMRA: “Nothing in this Act, except as specifically provided for herein, shall be construed so as either to interfere with or impede or diminish in any way the right to strike ….”
In the face of this obvious concern on the part of the legislative drafters to protect the right to strike, the leaders of the emergent CIO gave that right away. To be sure, the courts helped, holding before World War II that workers who strike over economic issues can be replaced, and holding after World War II that a contract which provides for arbitration of grievances implicitly forbids strikes. But the courts are not responsible for the no-strike clause in the typical CIO contract. Trade union leaders are responsible.
Charles Morris’ new book, The Blue Eagle at Work, argues that the original intent of federal labor law was that employers should be legally required to bargain, not only with unions that win NLRB elections, but also with so-called “minority” or “members-only” unions: unions that do not yet have majority support in a particular bargaining unit. We can all agree with Professor Morris that the best way to build a union is not by circulating authorization cards, but by winning small victories on the shop floor and engaging the company “in interim negotiations regarding workplace problems as they arise.” But Morris’ ultimate objective, like that of most labor historians and almost all union organizers, is still a union that negotiates a legally-enforcible collective bargaining agreement, including a management prerogatives clause that lets the boss close the plant and a no-strike clause that prevents the workers from doing anything about it In my view, and I believe in yours, nothing essential will change — not if Sweeney is replaced by Stern or Wilhelm, not if the SEIU breaks away from the AFL-CIO, not if the percentage of dues money devoted to organizing is multiplied many times — so long as working people are contractually prohibited from taking direct action whenever and however they may choose.
Glaberman, Sargent, Mann, Barbero and Weir
All this began to become clear to me only in the late 1960s, when a friend put in my hands a little booklet by Marty Glaberman entitled “Punching Out.” Therein Marty argues that in a workplace where there is a union and a collective bargaining contract, and the contract (as it almost always does) contains a no-strike clause, the shop steward becomes a cop for the boss. The worker is forbidden to help his buddy in time of need. An injury to one is no longer an injury to all.
As I say these words of Marty Glaberman’s, almost forty years later, in my imagination he and the other departed comrades form up around me. We cannot see them but we can hear their words. John Sargent: “Without a contract we secured for ourselves agreement on working conditions and wages that we do not have today…. [A]s a result of the enthusiasm of the people in the mill you had a series of strikes, wildcats, shut-downs, slow-downs, anything working people could think of to secure for themselves what they decided they had to have.” Ed Mann: “I think we’ve got too much contract. You hate to be the guy who talks about the good old days, but I think the IWW had a darn good idea when they said: ‘Well, we’ll settle these things as they arise’.” Stan Weir: “[T]he new CIO leaders fought all attempts to build new industrial unions on a horizontal rather than the old vertical model…. There can be unions run by regular working people on the job. There have to be.”
Rumbles In Olympus
Here we should pause to take note of recent rumbles — in both senses of the word — on Mount Olympus. What is about to happen in the mainstream organized labor movement, and what do we think about it?
This is a challenging question. Our energies are consumed by very small, very local organizing projects. It is natural to look sidewise at the organized labor movement, with its membership in the hundreds of thousands, its impressive national headquarters buildings, its apparently endless income from the dues check-off, its perpetual projects for turning the corner in organizing this year or next year, and to wonder, Are we wasting our time?
Moreover, there is not and should not be an impenetrable wall between what we try to do and traditional trade unionism at the local level. My rule of thumb is that national unions and national union reform movements almost always do more harm than good, but that local unions are a different story. Workers need local unions. They will go on creating them whatever you and I may think, and for good reason. The critical decision for workers elected to local union office is whether they will use that position merely as a stepping stone to regional and national election campaigns, striving to rise vertically within the hierarchy of a particular union, or whether they will reach out horizontally to other workers and local union officers in other workplaces and other unions, so as to form class wide entities — parallel central labor bodies, or sometimes, even official central labor bodies — within particular localities.
Such bodies have special historical importance. The “soviets” in the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 were improvised central labor bodies. Both the Knights of Labor and the IWW created such entities, especially during the first period of organizing in a given community when no single union was yet self-sufficient. My wife and I encountered a body of exactly this kind in Hebron in the occupied West Bank, and the Workers’ Solidarity Club of Youngstown was an effort in the same direction. The “workers’ centers” that seem to spring up naturally in communities of immigrant workers are another variant. What all these efforts have in common is that workers from different places of work sit in the same circle, and in the most natural way imaginable tend to transcend the parochialism of any particular union and to form a class point of view.
Because many Wobblies will in this way become “dual carders,” and often vigorously take part in the affairs of local unions, the line between our work and the activity of traditional, centralized, national trade unions needs to be drawn all the more clearly. From my point of view, it is a case of Robert Frost’s two roads diverging within a wood: on the one hand, to mix metaphors, toward endless rearranging of the deck chairs on a sinking Titanic; on the other hand, toward the beginnings of another world.
As you know I am an historian. And what drives me almost to tears is the spectacle of generation after generation of radicals seeking to change the world by cozying up to popular union leaders. Communists did it in the 1930s, as Len DeCaux became the CIO’s public relations man and Lee Pressman its general counsel; and Earl Browder, in an incident related by historian Nelson Lichtenstein, ordered Party members helping to lead the occupation of a General Motors plant near Detroit to give up their agitation lest they offend the CIO leadership. Trotskyists and ex-Trotskyists in the second half of the last century repeated this mistaken strategy of the Communist Party in the 1930s with less excuse, providing intellectual services for the campaigns of Walter Reuther, Arnold Miller, Ed Sadlowski, and Ron Carey. And Left intellectuals almost without exception hailed the elevation of John Sweeney to the presidency of the AFL-CIO in 1995. Professors formed an organization of sycophantic academics, and encouraged their students to become organizers under the direction of national union staffers. In a parody of Mississippi “freedom summer,” “union summers” used the energy of young people but denied them any voice in decisions.
In all these variations on a theme, students and intellectuals sought to make themselves useful to the labor movement by way of a relationship to national unions, rather than by seeking a helpful relationship with rank-and-file workers and members of local unions. In contrast, students at Harvard and elsewhere organized their own sit-ins to assist low-wage workers at the schools where they studied, and then it was John Sweeney who showed up to offer support to efforts that, to the best of my knowledge, young people themselves controlled. I want to say a few more words about two exemplars of the paradigm I criticize: almost a century ago, John L. Lewis; and today, the not so dynamic duo, John Sweeney and Andrew Stern. Lewis is an historical conundrum. In the 1920s and early 1930s, he established dictatorial control over the United Mine Workers union and smashed individuals who sought to challenge him from below, like John Brophy and Powers Hapgood, and dissenting organizations like the Progressive Miners here in Illinois.
However, to read his biographers from Saul Alinsky to Melvyn Dubofsky, like Paul on the road to Damascus the miners’ leader experienced conversion in 1932–1933. He seized on section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act and sent his organizers throughout the coal fields with the message, “The President wants you to join the union.” Then, confronting the standpat leadership of the AF of L, Lewis and other visionary leaders like Sidney Hillman led their members out of the AF of L to form, first the Committee for Industrial Organization, and then, after definitively seceding, the Congress of Industrial Organizations. James Pope of Rutgers University Law School has been into the sources and tells a different story. It was not Lewis, but rank-and-file miners in western Pennsylvania, who before the passage of the NIRA in spring 1933 began to form new local unions of the UMW. Lewis and his staff opposed them. Moreover, when in the summer and fall of 1933 the miners went on strike for union recognition, Lewis and his colleague Philip Murray repeatedly sought to settle strikes over the head of the workers on the picket lines although the goal of these massive direct actions had not been achieved.
Yes, Lewis wanted more members, just as the leaders of the five rebelling unions today wish to increase union “density.” But what characterizes the national union leaders of the past and of the present is an absolute unwillingness to let rank-and-file workers decide for themselves when to undertake the sacrifice that direct action requires.
Consider John Sweeney. Close observers should have known in the fall of 1995 that Sweeney was hardly the democrat some supposed him to be. Andrea Carney, who is with us today, was at the time a hospital worker and member of Local 399, SEIU in Los Angeles. She tells in The New Rank and File how the Central American custodians whom the SEIU celebrated in its “Justice for Janitors” campaign, joined Local 399 and then decided that they would like to have a voice in running it. They connected with Anglo workers like Ms. Carney to form a Multiracial Alliance that contested all offices on the local union executive board. In June 1995 they voted the entire board out of office. In September 1995, as one of his last acts before moving on to the AFL-CIO, Brother Sweeney removed all the newly-elected officers and put the local in trusteeship.
This action did not deter the draftsmen of the open letter to Sweeney I mentioned earlier. Appearing at the end of 1995 in publications like In These Times and the New York Review of Books, the letter stated that Sweeney’s elevation was “the most heartening development in our nation’s political life since the heyday of the civil rights movement.” The letter continued:
[T]e wave of hope that and energy that has begun to surge through the AFL-CIO offers a way out of our stalemate and defeatism. The commitment demonstrated by newly elected president John J. Sweeney and his energetic associates promises to once again make the house of labor a social movement around which we can rally.
The letter concluded: “We extend our support and cooperation to this new leadership and pledge our solidarity with those in the AFL-CIO dedicated to the cause of union democracy and the remobilization of a dynamic new labor movement.” Signers included Stanley Aronowitz, Derrick Bell, Barbara Ehrenreich, Eric Foner, Todd Gitlin, David Montgomery, and Cornel West.
Closely following Sweeney’s accession to the AFL-CIO presidency were his betrayals of strikes by Staley workers in Decatur, Illinois, and newspaper workers in Detroit. In Decatur, workers organized a spectacular “in plant” campaign of working to rule, and after Staley locked them out, there were the makings of a parallel central labor body and a local general strike including automobile and rubber workers. Striker and hunger striker Dan Lane spoke to the convention that elected Sweeney, and Sweeney personally promised Lane support if he would give up his hunger strike. But Sweeney did nothing to further the campaign to cause major consumers of Staley product to boycott the company. Meantime the Staley local had been persuaded to affiliate with the national Paperworkers’ union, which proceeded to organize acceptance of a concessionary contract.
In Detroit – as Larry who is here could describe in more detail — strikers begged the new AFL-CIO leadership to convene a national solidarity rally in their support. Sweeney said No. On the occasion of Clinton’s second inauguration in January 1997, leaders of the striking unions — including Ron Carey — decided to call off the strike without consulting the men and women who had been walking the picket lines for a year and a half. Only then did the Sweeney leadership call on workers from all over the country to join in a, now meaningless, gathering in Detroit.
What should the several dozen signers of the open letter to Sweeney have learned from these events? SEIU president Andrew Stern apparently believes that the lesson is that the union movement should be more centralized. What kind of labor movement would there be if he had his way? Local 399 had a membership of 25,000 spread all over metropolitan Los Angeles. The SEIU local where I live includes the states of Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia. This is topdown unionism run amok. The lesson for us is that, however humbly, in first steps however small, we need to be building a movement that is qualitatively different.
The Zapatistas and the Bolivians: To Lead by Obeying
And so of course we come in the end to the question, Yes, but how do we do that? Another world may be possible, but how do we get there? The Preamble says: “By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.” But if capitalist factories and mainstream trade unions are not prototypes of the new society, where is it being built? What can we do so that others and we ourselves do not just think and say that “another world is possible,” but actually begin to experience it, to live it, to taste it, here and now, within the shell of the old?
In recent years I have glimpsed for the first time a possible answer: what Quakers call “way opening.” It begins with the Zapatistas, and has been further developed by the folks in the streets of Bolivia. Suppose the creation of a new society by the bourgeoisie is expressed in the equation, Rising Class plus New Institutions Within The Shell Of The Old = State Power. All these years I have been struggling with how workers could create new institutions within the shell of capitalism. What the Zapatistas have suggested, echoing an old Wobbly theme, is that the equation does not need to include the term “State Power.” Perhaps we can change capitalism fundamentally without taking state power. Perhaps we can change capitalism from below.
All of us sense that something qualitatively different happened in Chiapas on January 1, 1994, something organically connected to the anti-globalization protests that began five years later. What exactly was that something? My wife Alice and I were in San Cristóbal a few years ago and had the opportunity to talk to a woman named Teresa Ortiz. She had lived in the area a long time and since then has published a book of oral histories of Chiapan women.
Ms. Ortiz told us that there were three sources of Zapatismo. The first was the craving for land, the heritage of Emiliano Zapata and the revolution that he led at the time of World War I. This longing for economic independence expressed itself in the formation of communal landholdings, or ejidos, and the massive migration of impoverished campesinos into the Lacandón jungle.
A second source of Zapatismo, we were told, was liberation theology. Bishop Samuel Ruiz was the key figure. He sponsored what came to be called tomar conciencia. It means “taking conscience,” just as we speak of “taking thought.” The process of taking conscience involved the creation of complex combinations of Mayan and Christian religiosity, as in the church Alice and I visited where there was no altar, where a thick bed of pine needles was strewn on the floor and little family groups sat in little circles with lighted candles, and where there was a saint to whom one could turn if the other saints did not do what they were asked. Taking conscience also resulted in countless grassroots functionaries with titles like “predeacon,” “deacon,” “catechist,” or “delegate of the Word”: the shop stewards of the people’s Church who have been indispensable everywhere in Latin America.
The final and most intriguing component of Zapatismo, according to Teresa Ortiz, was the Mayan tradition of mandar obediciendo: “to lead by obeying.” She explained what it meant at the village level. Imagine all of us here as a village. We feel the need for, to use her examples, a teacher and a storekeeper. But these two persons can be freed for those communal tasks only if we, as a community, undertake to cultivate their milpas, their corn fields. In the most literal sense their ability to take leadership roles depends on our willingness to provide their livelihoods.
When representatives thus chosen are asked to take part in regional gatherings, they are likely to be instructed delegates. Thus, during the initial negotiations in 1994, the Zapatista delegates insisted that the process be suspended for several weeks while they took what had been tentatively agreed to back to the villages, who rejected it. The heart of the process remains the gathered villagers, the local asemblea.
Only upon reading a good deal of the Zapatista literature did an additional level of meaning become clear to me.
At the time of the initial uprising, the Zapatistas seem to have entertained a traditional Marxist strategy of seizing national power by military means. The “First Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle,” issued on January 2, 1994, gave the Zapatista military forces the order: “Advance to the capital of the country, overcoming the federal army ….”
But, in the words of Harvard historian John Womack: “In military terms the EZLN offensive was a wonderful success on the first day, a pitiful calamity on the second.” Within a very short time, three things apparently happened: 1) the public opinion of Mexican civil society came down on the side of the Indians of Chiapas and demanded negotiation; 2) President Salinas declared a ceasefire, and sent an emissary to negotiate in the cathedral of San Cristóbal; 3) Subcomandante Marcos carried out a clandestine coup within the failed revolution, agreed to negotiations, and began to promulgate a dramatically new strategy.
Beginning early in 1994, Marcos says explicitly, over and over and over again: We don’t see ourselves as a vanguard and we don’t want to take state power. Thus, at the first massive encuentro, the National Democratic Convention in the Lacandón jungle in August 1994, Marcos said that the Zapatistas had made “a decision not to impose our point of view”; that they rejected “the doubtful honor of being the historical vanguard of the multiple vanguards that plague us”; and finally:
Yes, the moment has come to say to everyone that we neither want, nor are we able, to occupy the place that some hope we will occupy, the place from which all opinions will come, all the answers, all the routes, all the truth. We are not going to do that.
Marcos then took the Mexican flag and gave it to the delegates, in effect telling them: “It’s your flag. Use it to make a democratic Mexico. We Zapatistas hope we have created some space within which you can act.” 
What? A Left group that doesn’t want state power? There must be some mistake. But no, he means it. And because it is a perspective so different from that traditional in Marxism, because it represents a fresh synthesis of what is best in the Marxist and anarchist traditions, I want to quote several more examples.
In the “Fourth Declaration from the Lacandón Jungle,” on January 1, 1996, it is stated that the Zapatista Front of National Liberation will be a “political force that does not aspire to take power[,] … that can organize citizens’ demands and proposals so that he who commands, commands in obedience to the popular will[,] … that does not struggle to take political power but for the democracy where those who command, command by obeying.”
In September 1996, in an address to Mexican civil society, Marcos says that in responding to the earthquake of 1985 Mexican civil society proved to itself that you can participate without aspiring to public office, that you can organize politically without being in a political party, that you can keep an eye on the government and pressure it to “lead by obeying,” that you can have an effect and remain yourself ….
Likewise in August 1997, in “Discussion Documents for the Founding Congress of the Zapatista Front of National Liberation,” the Zapatistas declare that they represent “a new form of doing politics, without aspiring to take power and without vanguardist positions.” We “will not struggle to take power,” they continue. The Zapatista Front of National Liberation “does not aspire to take power.” Rather, “we are a political force that does not seek to take power, that does not pretend to be the vanguard of a specific class, or of society as a whole.”
Especially memorable is a communication from the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) dated October 2, 1998 and addressed to “the Generation of Dignity of 1968,” that is, to former students who had survived the massacre in Mexico City prior to the 1968 Olympics. Here Marcos speaks of “the politics of below,” of the “Mexico of those who weren’t then, are not now, and will never be leaders.” This, he says, is the
Mexico of those who don’t build ladders to climb above others, but who look beside them to find another and make him or her their compañero or compañera, brother, sister, mate, buddy, friend, colleague, or whatever word is used to describe that long, treacherous, collective path that is the struggle of: everything for everyone.
Finally, at the zocalo in March 2001, after this Coxey’s Army of the poor had marched from Chiapas to Mexico City, Marcos once more declared: “We are not those who aspire to take power and then impose the way and the word. We will not be.”
For the last four years the Zapatistas and Marcos have been quiet, presumably building the new society day by day in those villages of Chiapas where they have majority support. If one wishes further insight as to how the politics of below might unfold, the place to look may be Bolivia. It’s too soon to say a great deal. The most substantial analysis I have encountered describes the movement in the language of “leading by obeying”:
without seizing power directly, popular movements … suddenly exercised substantial, ongoing control from below of state authorities ….
the … insurrectionists did not attempt to seize the state administration, and instead set up alternative institutions of self-government in city streets and neighborhoods … and in the insurgent highlands …. Protesters, who took over the downtown center, intentionally refrained from marching on the national palace. This was to avoid bloodshed, but also a recognition that substantial power was already in their hands. International Solidarity.
There remains, finally, the most difficult problem of all. “An injury to one is an injury to all” means that we must act in solidarity with working people everywhere, so that, in the words of the Preamble, “the workers of the world organize as a class.”
This means that we cannot join with steel industry executives in seeking to keep foreign steel out of the country: we need a solution to worldwide over-capacity that protects steelworkers everywhere. We cannot, like the so-called reform candidate for president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters a few years ago, advocate even more effort to keep Mexican truck drivers from crossing the Rio Grande. We should emulate the Teamsters local in Chicago where a resolution against the Iraq war passed overwhelmingly after Vietnam vets took the mike to share their experience, and the local went on to host the founding national meeting of Labor Against The War.
I believe the IWW has a special contribution to make. Wobblies were alone or almost alone among labor organizations a hundred years ago to welcome as members African Americans, unskilled foreign-born workers, and women. Joe Hill not only was born in Sweden and apparently took part in the Mexican Revolution, but, according to Franklin Rosemont, may have had a special fondness for Chinese cooking. This culture of internationalism can sustain and inspire us as we seek concrete ways to express it in the 21st century. I have concluded that no imaginable labor movement or people’s movement in this country will ever be sufficiently strong that it, alone, can confront and transform United States capitalism and imperialism.
I am not the only person who has reached this conclusion, but most who do so then say to themselves, I believe, “OK, then I need to cease pretending to be a revolutionary and support reform instead.”
I suggest that what we need is an alternative revolutionary strategy. That strategy, it seems to me, can only be an alliance between whatever movement can be brought into being in the United States and the vast, tumultuous resistance of the developing world.
Note that I say “alliance,” as between students and workers, or any other equal partners. I am not talking about kneejerk, uncritical support for the most recent Third World autocrat to capture our imaginations.
We in Youngstown have taken some very small first steps in this direction that I would like to share. In the late 1980s skilled workers from Youngstown, Aliquippa, and Pittsburgh made a trip to Nicaragua. Ned Mann, Ed Mann’s son, is a sheet metal worker. He helped steelworkers at Nicaragua’s only steel mill, at Tipitapa north of Managua, to build a vent in the roof over a particularly smoky furnace. Meantime the late Bob Schindler, a lineman for Ohio Edison, worked with a crew of Nicaraguans doing similar work. He spoke no Spanish, they spoke no English. They got on fine. Bob was horrified at the tools available to his colleagues and, when he got back to the States, collected a good deal of Ohio Edison’s inventory and sent it South. The next year, he went back to Nicaragua, and travelled to the northern village where Benjamin Linder was killed while trying to develop a small hydro-electric project. Bob did what he could to complete Linder’s dream.
About a dozen of us from Youngstown have also gone to a labor school south of Mexico City related to the Frente Autentico del Trabajo, the network of unions independent of the Mexican government.
These are tiny first steps, I know. But they are in the right direction. Why not take learning Spanish more seriously and, whenever we can, encourage fellow workers to join us in spending time with our Latin American counterparts?
And on down that same road, why not, some day, joint strike demands from workers for General Motors in Puebla, Mexico; in Detroit; and in St. Catherine’s, Ontario?
Instead of the TDU candidate for president of the Teamsters criticizing Jimmy Hoffa for doing too little to keep Mexican truck drivers out of the United States, why not a conference of truck drivers north and south of the Rio Grande to draw up a single set of demands?
Why not, instead of the United Steelworkers joining with US steel companies to lobby for increased quotas on steel imports, a task force of steelworkers from all countries to draw up a common program about how to deal with capitalist over-production, how to make sure that each major developing country controls its own steelmaking capacity, and how to protect the livelihoods of all steelworkers, wherever they may live?
Perhaps I can end, as I began, with a story. About a dozen years ago my wife and I were in the Golan Heights, a part of Syria occupied by Israel in 1967. There are a few Arab villages left in the Golan Heights, and at one of them our group was invited to a barbecue in an apple orchard. There was a very formidable white lightning, called arak. It developed that each group was called on to sing for the other. I was nominated for our group. I decided to sing “Joe Hill” but I felt that, before doing so, I needed to make it clear that Joe Hill was not a typical parochial American. As I laboriously began to do so, our host, who had had more to drink than I, held up his hand. “You don’t have to explain. We understand. Joe Hill was a Spartacist. Joe Hill was in Chile and in Mexico. But today,” he finished, “Joe Hill is a Palestinian.”
Joe Hill is a Palestinian. He is also an Israeli refusenik. He is imprisoned in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, where his Koran along with the rest of his belongings is subject to constant shakedowns and disrespect. He works for Walmart and also in South African diamond mines. He took part in the worldwide dock strike a few years ago and sees in that kind of international solidarity the hope of the future. Recently he has spent a lot of time in occupied factories in Argentina, where he shuttles back and forth between the workers in the plants and the neighborhoods that support them. In New York City, Joe Hill has taken note of the fact that a business like a grocery store (in working-class neighborhoods) or restaurants (in midtown Manhattan) are vulnerable to consumer boycotts, and if the pickets present themselves as a community group there is no violation of labor law. In Pennsylvania, he has the cell next to Mumia Abu Jamal at S.C.I. Greene in Waynesburg. In Ohio, he hangs out with the “Lucasville Five”: the five men framed and condemned to death because they were leaders in a 1993 prison uprising. He was in Seattle, Quebec City, Genoa, and Cancun, and will be at the next demonstration against globalization wherever it takes place. In Bolivia he wears a black hat and is in the streets, protesting the privatization of water and natural gas, calling for the nationalization of these resources, and for government from below by a people’s assembly. As the song says, “Where workingmen are out on strike, it’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.”
Let’s do our best to be there beside him.
 Our word is our weapon: selected writings [of] subcomandante Marcos , ed. Juane Ponce de León (Seven Stories Press: New York, 2001), p. 14.
 John Womack, Jr., Rebellion in Chiapas: An Historical Reader (New York: The New Press, 1999), p. 43.
 Id. , p. 44.
 Shadows of Tender Fury: The Letters and Communiques of Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation , trans. by Frank Bardacke and others (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1995), p. 248.
 Id. , pp. 249–51.
 Rebellion in Chiapas , pp. 302–02.
 “Civil Society That So Perturbs,” Sept. 19, 1996, Our word is our weapon, p. 121 (emphasis added).
 Rebellion in Chiapas , pp. 333, 335–36.
 Our word is our weapon , pp. 144–45.
 Id. , p. 159.
 Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson, “Revolutionary Horizons: Indigenous and National-Popular Struggles in Bolivia,” New Left Review (forthcoming), pp. 7, 35.
Conventional definitions of union democracy are too limited to encompass the broad majority of people in and outside unions who are struggling for control over their workplaces. In particular, denotation of U.S. labor law and trade union perspectives of union democracy are far too narrow to give workers participatory power. Thus the concept of union democracy must be reinterpreted to include workers of all kinds (unionized workers, nonunion workers, and farmers); protection of the rights to strike, picket, and slow down; and the demand for worker-community ownership. This article examines two recent examples of workers’ democracy: the Serbian revolution of 2000 and the Zapatistas’ ongoing struggle in Chiapas, Mexico.
What kind of democracy do workers need? Those who answer, “Union democracy,” generally mean by that term the free exercise of rights protected by Title I of the Landrum-Griffin Act, together with the right to elect union officers and ratify contracts by referendum vote of the rank and file. (A referendum vote is protected by Title I only if provided in the constitution and bylaws of the union to which the complaining worker belongs.)
“Union democracy,” thus defined, is critically important for the one worker in eight who belongs to a union. The right to speak your piece at a meeting, to belong to a caucus without retaliation, to circulate leaflets and petitions, and to run for office represent labor law equivalents to many of the rights protected by the First Amendment.
Even for the worker who belongs to a union, however, union democracy understood in First Amendment terms does not encompass all the democracy that a worker needs. Labor law in the United States as expressed in the National Labor Relations Act as amended (otherwise known as the Labor Management Relations Act) has a number of features that are found in few other countries and that are a threat to democratic values.
In the United States, federal labor law as interpreted by the National Labor Relations Board and the courts provides that:
To my mind, the four constraints just enumerated take away much more democracy than any federal law such as Landrum-Griffin can give back. It is a sad fact that in our country the worker who does not belong to a union or whose union has not yet achieved recognition may have more legal protection to engage in the classic forms of working-class self-activity—strikes, slow-downs, and picketing—than has the union member.
Thus, “union democracy” should be understood in a much broader manner than has been the practice of those mainly concerned with union elections. Union democracy requires protection of the worker ’s right to engage in self-activity and self-organization from below, even when these activities are not approved or are even bitterly opposed by union officials.
Participatory Democracy for Workers, Too
But we have thus far only scratched the surface of the worker’s need for democracy. What does democracy mean when a company unilaterally decides to close a plant? Labor law protects the company’s action by excluding investment decisions from the so-called “mandatory subjects of bargaining.” This means that a union that seeks to ensure in its bargaining that a given workplace—or all workplaces represented by the union—will not be closed during the duration of the contract cannot legally insist on such language.
Moreover, like the no-strike clause present in most contracts, in almost all contracts the union agrees to a “management prerogatives clause” that expressly gives management the right to close plants, transfer work, get out of any particular line of business, go to Mexico, or whatever the company may in its infinite wisdom decide to do with the surplus value that workers produce. (Example: The largest employer in the Youngstown area is Delphi Packard, which makes electric assemblies for vehicles. In 1980, the company had 15,000 workers in the Youngstown area and no workers in Mexico. Now it has 4,800 workers in Youngstown and 80,000 in Mexico.)
Is this democracy? What do we mean by democracy anyhow? The Port Huron Statement adopted by the Students for a Democratic Society in 1962 advocated a “participatory democracy,” whereby the “individual [would] share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life.” Is closing a plant such a decision? Of course it is: Ask the young worker forced to leave his or her community of origin in order to find work; the middle-aged worker with a mortgage, children approaching college age, and no transferable skills; or the older worker, as at Enron, worried about whether his or her pension and (especially) health care benefits are still there. No kind of decision in our society has a greater impact on the lives of individuals than corporate decisions to shut down facilities, to relocate production, to merge, to declare bankruptcy, and the like. If the democracy we say we believe in is participatory democracy, workers must have a voice in such decisions.
I am not talking about adding an international union officer to a corporate board of directors, nor do I have in mind requiring the company to give a sixty-day notice of what it has unilaterally decided to do. Workers (and their communities) must have an effective veto. When a company decides that it no longer wishes to make steel in, say, Youngstown or Cleveland, the workers of that community must be given an opportunity to do the job themselves. For such an imagined right to be made real, there must be a public source of funds permitting public entities to exercise the same right of “eminent domain” with respect to an abandoned industrial facility as they routinely exercise with respect to abandoned residential structures. In Anglo-American law, exercise of the right to eminent domain requires payment of fair market value. Absent the financial assistance to make such a “taking” possible, the right itself is only a cruel hoax.
Still, we have not gone far enough. A society in which workers can acquire the plants that their employers abandon, and run the plants themselves, is not the society in which we presently live. Socialism in one steel mill is not going to happen. What can happen in one steel mill—as at Weirton Steel in West Virginia, where workers engaged in an employee stock ownership plan—will not be socialism or workers’ democracy either. To have a society in which workers can realistically come to view a facility as “theirs” because they mix their labor with it over a long period of time and securely look forward to working there until retirement, there must be deep structural changes. Democracy, it would appear, is going to require revolution.
But what kind of revolution? And how can it happen in a way that will not destroy democracy in the process? The twentieth century offers many cautionary examples as well as many hopeful ones.
Democracy and Revolution, Marxism and Anarchism
The new movement for change emerging in the Lacondón jungle of southern Mexico, and in the streets of Paris (in 1995), Seattle, and Quebec City, is a movement that draws on both Marxism and anarchism. The Marx it looks back to is the author of The Civil War in France (1990) about the Paris Commune of 1871. The Lenin to which it relates is the author who, in State and Revolution (1993), demanded that all power pass to improvised central labor bodies known as soviets.
Where can we find examples of this libertarian socialism in practice? And what is the role within it of workers’ democracy?
In fall 2000, Serbia had what can fairly be called a nonviolent revolution. A political movement won an election. When the incumbent regime initially refused to recognize the election results, an outraged populace poured into the streets. On the evening of Friday, September 29, the coal miners of the Kolubara region, who produce the coal required for half of Serbia’s out-put of electricity, declared an indefinite general strike. The general in charge of the armed forces, and police from the Interior Ministry, showed up at the mines on Tuesday, October 3, and Wednesday, October 4. The miners adopted a dual strategy. On the one hand, they removed vital parts from the mine machinery and challenged the soldiers to mine coal with bayonets. On the other hand, they summoned 20,000 supporters from nearby communities. The police held their ground but made no arrests. The next day, Thursday, October 5, hundreds of thousands of people in Belgrade—forty miles away—seized the parliament and the state TV station, and the police in Kolubara melted away.
The Kolubara strike was coordinated not by a “trade union” but by a “workers’ committee.” All over Serbia, following Vojislav Kostunica’s accession to power, local committees of workers displaced hated factory managers. I realize that a cynic might say that this was a transition from socialism to capitalism, not the other way around. But surely Serbia also shows us that fundamental social transition, revolution, remains possible in the twenty-first century, and that neutralizing the armed forces by mass nonviolent direct action on the part of workers and their supporters can be a critical component of the process.
Mexico 1994 to Now
The Zapatista movement in Mexico for indigenous self-determination seems extraordinary in at least the following ways.
1. Without participating in electoral politics, the Zapatistas have ended seventy-one years of uninterrupted government by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. How have they done this? One critical component is a vast effort at popular education. Mayan peasants, who had never before left their native villages, traveled all over Mexico meeting with popular organizations such as the network of independent trade unions, the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT).
2. The Zapatistas are not nonviolent in any traditional sense. But neither are they a traditional Latin American guerrilla movement. Without giving up either their arms or the principle of armed struggle, they have carried on for the last five years an essentially nonviolent resistance.
For example, the Mexican government has sought to build roads into the Lacandón jungle, which is the Zapatista stronghold. The government claimed that this plan was to help farmers get their produce to market. The real reason, obviously, was to be able to move soldiers and military gear into the area.
At the western edge of the jungle is a village named Amadór. During the summer and fall of 1999, the soldiers seeking to build the road were met each day by a cordón (a picket line) of women from Amadór. Since many of the soldiers were indigenous, the women appealed to them to recognize their true interests and to put down their weapons. To prevent this dialogue, the government played music through loudspeakers.
After Vicente Fox became president, he announced the abandonment of a number of military bases in Chiapas. The first base to be abandoned was at Amadór.
3. When my wife and I briefly visited San Cristobal, Chiapas, in 1999, we talked with Teresa Ortiz, who for years has worked with indigenous communities in the area. She was completing a book of interviews titled Never Again a World Without Us: Voices of Mayan Women in Chiapas, Mexico (2001). She told us that in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, three historical forces prepared the way for Zapatismo. The first was Mayan tradition, according to which, she said, “Everything is done through assemblies.” The second was the Mexican Revolution of 1917, which declared a right to land. No one was supposed to own more than a certain amount. Poor people were authorized to form associations called “ejidos” and to acquire land as a community that no individual could sell.
The third historical force was the Second Vatican Council and Catholic Liberation Theology. Base communities were formed--Mayan base communities, in which there was a “marriage of traditions.” The key demand that emerged from this confluence of traditions (we were told) was for autonomy, that is, self-administration by the indigenous according to traditional law, “uso de costumbre.” When Marxists showed up in Chiapas in the mid-1980s, a movement formed by these forces was already in existence. The movement influenced the Marxists, we were told, more than the Marxists influenced the movement.
The way it works in an individual village is as follows. The village may be wholly “autonomous” (the word the Zapatistas use to describe themselves), or it may have some autonomous families and some families loyal to the PRI.
In the assembly of the autonomous, trusted individuals are asked to perform certain full-time functions; for example, as storekeeper or as a worker in a health clinic or a school. These persons “lead by obeying.” Someone else cultivates their cornfields so they can perform their new tasks. The store, the clinic, and the school serve all the families in the village, even those that are pro-PRI.
The Zapatista communities make joint decisions by a representative process. Each local assembly of the “autonomous”—whether it is composed of all or some of the families in a particular village—is open to persons above a certain age. Each assembly comes to a consensus and sends delegates to the next level. The delegates are bound to be spokespersons for the decisions of the local assemblies they represent.
It is an honor to be chosen as a representative, just as it is an honor to be chosen as a storekeeper or teacher. Consensus is sought at every level. A “straw vote” may be taken to give participants a sense of how widely particular outcomes are desired.
In Ortiz’s opinion, the Zapatista movement does not resemble other guerrilla movements. The movement it most resembles is the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s.
To respond to this new movement, to take part in it helpfully, to give it leadership in a direction promising results, requires those interested in workers’ democracy to start thinking outside traditional boxes. If we pursue only traditional models—for example, waiting for trade unions (however democratic they may become) or Marxist vanguard parties to make the revolution—we may be waiting a long time. By contrast, workers who act on their own initiative to refuse overtime or to take part in a wild-cat strike speak of their sense of liberation, their experience of literally getting “outside the box” represented by the plant and the daily routine.
I advocate an alternative perspective that I call “solidarity unionism.” It asks workers to reach out to other workers horizontally, rather than relying on higher bureaucratic levels of the unions to which they may belong. It proposes that workers seek ways in which they can begin to act together without waiting for approval from their international union or even their local union. It suggests that, as needed, they form their own organizational structures outside of (or, as in the case of a stewards’ council, overlapping with) traditional unions.
For example, suppose I work in a plant owned by a company that operates another plant in which you work. The company discontinues a shift in your plant, and you and your colleagues begin to experience layoffs. The workers at my plant, me included, find ourselves working overtime to compensate for the loss of production at your place.
Historically, workers confronted with such cutbacks in production—whether or not they belonged to a union—have often resolved to share whatever work was available, regardless of seniority. The legal services office where I worked in the 1980s did this when President Reagan cut our budget by 20 percent. Without touching the compensation of secretaries, who were underpaid to begin with, all the lawyers reduced their work-week to four days. A group of visiting nurses, whom my wife and I helped to organize an independent union, did likewise. And in a book Alice and I edited, The New Rank and File (2000), Mia Giunta tells how women workers of many nationalities in a Connecticut electronics plant that Mia helped to organize adopted the same practice.
In a shutdown or cutback situation for a fellow worker in another workplace owned by the same employer, I can express solidarity unionism by refusing overtime. (The collective bargaining agreement may mandate overtime, or be silent. Each situation will present a somewhat different tactical challenge.) Hopefully I won’t act all by myself. When our group becomes stronger, we may be able to strike in your behalf should you decide to hit the bricks. Our slogan then would be “If you go, we go.”
I think workers’ democracy means improvising such small steps of resistance as workers can take without excessive danger of being fired. I think it means trying to learn from what is going on around us. It means, I believe, affirming with students and workers in the streets that another world—a qualitatively different world—is possible.
Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. 1993. State and Revolution, trans. Robert W. Service. New York: Viking Penguin.
Lynd, Staughton. 1997. Living Inside Our Hope: A Steadfast Radical’s Thoughts on Rebuilding the Movement. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Lynd, Staughton, and Alice Lynd. 2000. The New Rank and File. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Marx, Karl. 1990. The Civil War in France. New York: International Publishers.
Ortiz, Teresa. 2001. Never Again a World Without Us: Voices of Mayan Women in Chiapas, Mexico. Washington, DC: Epica.
Remembering Staughton Lynd
Throughout his life, Staughton Lynd affirmed that another world is possible and sought means to get from here to there. He was one of the greatest historians and libertarian socialists of our time. The Admirable Radical. Our friend. Rest in power, dear Scrapper.
Below is the excerpt of the Introduction by Andrej Grubacic from From Here to There: The Staughton Lynd Reader.
In November 2008, French academic Max Gallo argued that the great revolutionary parenthesis is closed for good. No more “magnificent barefoot men marching on a dazzled world” whom Victor Hugo had once admired. Any revolutionary transformation, Gallo said, inevitably means an eruption of violence. Because our societies are extremely fragile, the major responsibility of intellectuals and other public figures is to protect those fragile societies from such an eruption.
Gallo is hardly alone in putting forth this view, either historically or within the current moment of discussion and debate. Indeed, his cautionary plea was quickly echoed by another man of letters, and another notable French leftist, historian François Furet. Furet warned that any attempt at radical transformation was either totalitarian or terrorist, or both, and that the very idea of another society has become almost completely inconceivable. His conclusion was that we are, in a certain sense, condemned to live in the world in which we live.
And then, only one month later, in December, there was the Greek rebellion. The Greek miracle. Not a simple riot, most certainly not a “credit crunch rebellion,” but a rebellion of dignity and a radical statement of presence: of real, prefigurative, transformative and resisting alternatives. Rebellion that was about affirming the preciousness of life.
I am writing this Introduction on the anniversary of the murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos, the act that put the fire to the powder keg of the Greek December. While writing, I am reminded of words from Staughton Lynd in a personal communication written to me during those days:
At the same time, just as we honor the gifts of the Zapatistas, we should ceaselessly and forever honor the unnamed, unknown men, women and children who lay down their lives for their comrades and for a better world. There sticks in my mind the story of a Salvadoran campesino. When the death squad arrived at his home, he asked if he might put on his favorite soccer (“football”) shoes before he was shot. The path to a new world cannot be and will not be short. Any one of us can walk it only part of the way. As we do so we should hold hands, and keep facing forward.
But how do we walk? How do we begin walking?
The aim of this Introduction is to suggest the relevance of Staughton Lynd’s life and ideas for a new generation of radicals. The reader will undoubtedly notice that it has been written in a somewhat unconventional tone. My intention is to describe the process that led me, an anarchist revolutionary from the Balkans, to discover, and eventually embrace, many of the ideas espoused by an American historian, Quaker, lawyer and pacifist, influenced by Marxism. This task is not made any easier by the fact that Staughton, through the years of our friendship, has become a beloved mentor and co-conspirator. Staughton Lynd, for many good reasons that you are about to discover in reading this collection, has earned a legendary status among people familiar with his work and struggles.
It is impossible even to begin to conceive of writing a history of modern day American radicalism without mentioning the name of Staughton Lynd. He lived and taught in intentional communities, the Macedonia Cooperative Community and the Society of Brothers, or Bruderhof. He helped to edit the journal Liberation with Paul Goodman and David Dellinger. Together with Howard Zinn he taught American history at Spelman College in Atlanta. He served as director of SNCC organized Freedom Schools of Mississippi in 1964. In April 1965, he chaired the first march against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C. In August 1965, he was arrested together with Bob Moses and David Dellinger at the Assembly of Unrepresented People in Washington, D.C., where demonstrators sought to declare peace with the people of Vietnam on the steps of the Capitol. In December 1965, Staughton—along with Tom Hayden and Herbert Aptheker—made a trip to Hanoi, in hope of clarifying the peace terms of the North Vietnamese government and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. He was one of the four original teachers at Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation Training Institute founded in 1968-1969. He stands as one of the original protagonists of the New Left assertion of “history from the bottom up,” which is today so celebrated and widely appreciated. He fought as a lawyer for the rank-and-file workers of Youngstown, and for prisoners at the supermaximum security prison in Youngstown who know him as “Scrapper.” Staughton has been and remains a guru of solidarity unionism as practiced by the Industrial Workers of the World.1
This list could very easily go on. But I do not set out here to write a history of Staughton’s life. There are other books and articles that have done that.2 Rather, I would like to describe how my own politics have changed in the course of my intellectual engagement and friendship with Staughton Lynd, and why I today believe in, and continually profess the need for, a specific fusion of anarchism and Marxism, a political statement that I refused for much of my life as a militant, self-described, and unrepentant anarchist. The aim of this short Introduction is to explain why I believe that the ideas of Staughton Lynd are crucially important for the revolutionaries of my generation, and to offer some suggestions for a possible new revolutionary orientation, inspired by his ideas.
I was born to a family of revolutionaries. I come from Yugoslavia, or what is left of Yugoslavia. It is called something else now. Although I moved to the United States in 2005, I was already a foreigner well before that moment. My grandparents were socialists and Titoists, partisans and anti-fascists, dreamers who believed in self-management and the Yugoslav “path to socialism.”3 This idea—and especially the Yugoslav and Balkan dream of an inter-ethnic, pluricultural space—was dramatically dismantled in the 1990s, when I found myself living in a country that was no longer my own. It was ruled by people I could not relate to, local tyrants that we used to call “aparatciki,” bureaucrats of ideas and spirit. That was the beginning of my struggle to understand my own identity and the problem of Yugoslav socialism. I went on to look for another path to what my grandparents understood as communism. It seemed to me that the Marxist-Leninist way of getting “from here to there,” the project of seizing the power of the state, and functioning through a “democratically” centralized party organization, had produced not a free association of free human beings but a bureaucratized expression of what was still called by the official ideology of a socialist state, “Marxism.” Yugoslav self-management was, like so many other failures in our revolutionary history, a magnificent failure, a glimmer, not unlike those other ones that Staughton Lynd and I discuss in our book, Wobblies and Zapatistas.
Being thus so understandably distrustful of Marxism, I became, very early on, an anarchist. Anarchism, to my mind, means taking democracy seriously and organizing prefiguratively, that is, in a way that anticipates the society we are about to create. Instead of taking the power of the state, anarchism is concerned with “socializing”power—with creating new political and social structures not after the revolution, but in the immediate present, in the shell of the existing order. With the arrival of the Zapatistas in 1994, I dedicated all of my political energy to the emerging movement that many of us experienced as a shock of hope, and what journalists would later come to describe as a potent symbol of a new “anti-globalization movement.” With the kind help of many generous friends, I found a refuge in the United States, at the SUNY Binghamton and its Fernand Braudel Center. It is here in the libraries of New York State University, in fact, where the story of my friendship with Staughton Lynd should properly begin.
One day, as I was working in the university library—and quite by accident, or with the help of what Arthur Koestler calls library angels— my eyes were drawn to a shelf in front of me and a book with a somewhat tacky cover.5 There was an American eagle, an image I did not particularly like, and a title that I was similarly not immediately fond of: Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism. This was not my cup of tea. I wanted to write about “coloniality,” post-structuralism, and other exotic things that academics seem to find interesting. As I started reading it, however, I simply could not make myself put it down. What I had in my hands was the best kind of a history-from-below: a breathtaking reconstruction of American radicalism, a moving story of anabaptists and abolitionists, of communal experiments and direct democracy, of the “ordinarily inarticulate,” a tradition of “my country is the world.” It spoke of “bicameralism from below,” a vision that is “not simply a utopian vision but a means of struggle toward that vision.” At the heart of this vision is revolution understood as a process that begins when, by demonstrations or strikes or electoral victories in the context of supplementary direct action, the way a society makes its decisions is forced to change: “That is something very real even when the beginnings are small. It means, not just that a given decision is different in substance, but that the process of decision-making becomes more responsive to the ordinarily inarticulate. New faces appear in the group that makes the decision, alternatives are publicly discussed in advance, more bodies have to be consulted. As the revolutionary situation deepens, the broadening of the decision-making process becomes institutionalized. Alongside the customary structure of authority, parallel bodies—organs of “dual power,” as Trotsky called them—arise. . . . [A] new structure of representation develops out of direct democracy and controlled by it. Suddenly, in whole parts of the country and in entire areas of daily life, it becomes apparent that people are obeying the new organs of authority rather than the old ones. . . . The task becomes building into the new society something of that sense of shared purpose and tangibly shaping a common destiny which characterized the revolution at its most
These institutional improvisations are made easier if there are pre-existing organizations of the poor, institutions of their own making, such as the “clubs, the unorthodox congregations, the fledgling trade unions” that are “the tangible means, in theological language the ‘works,’ by which revolutionaries kept alive their faith that men could live together in a radically different way. In times of crisis resistance turned into revolution, the underground congregation burst forth as a model for the Kingdom of God on earth, and an organ of secular ‘dual power.’”7
I remember reading, again and again, the last passage of the book. “The revolutionary tradition is more than words and more than isolated acts. Men create, maintain, and rediscover a tradition of struggle by the crystallization of ideas and actions into organizations which they make for themselves. Parallel to Leviathan, the Kingdom is dreamed, discussed, in minuscule form established. Within the womb of the old society—it is Marx’s metaphor—the new society is born.”8
I don’t think I had ever before encountered a more lucid and beautiful description of a revolutionary process. Years later, I find myself going back to these words often. And it was this magnificent little book that ultimately made me decide to change the subject of my thesis and to write about experiences of inter-racial and inter-ethnic mutual aid in American history instead. Quite an ambitious project for a young historian from Yugoslavia to take up, and thus a further testament to the level of inspiration I drew from this book.
At its very roots, Staughton’s approach resonated with my perspective as an anarchist and how I understood anarchism. And very interestingly enough for me, this was what was drawn from the work of an explicitly self-identifying Marxist historian! But could there be a better way of writing history from the perspective of an anarchist? Is there a more apt way of being an anarchist than practicing what Staughton Lynd calls “guerrilla history” as it is described in “Guerrilla History in Gary” and “A Vision of History” (Essays 14 and 15)? And could there be a more urgent topic for someone from Yugoslavia, someone struggling to understand the intertwined legacy of inter-ethnic conflict and inter-ethnic solidarity? Soon after I put Intellectual Origins back on the shelf, I went to look for Staughton Lynd. I found him in Youngstown, Ohio.
I remember vividly our first meeting. We met in New York, a few hours before he gave the talk at the War Resisters League included in this Reader under the title, “Someday They’ll Have a War and Nobody Will Come” (Essay 24). I will never forget Staughton’s question to me: “How can I join your movement?” After a long conversation I made him the promise that I would help him to do that, but also that I would join his. Two years later, after meeting a group of young activists in Portland who were reading with excitement our Wobblies and Zapatistas, I felt I had made good on my promise.
Staughton still likes to ask me why it is that I went to see him. Why didn’t I look for some famous Italian or French radical theorist? I suspect that he knows the reason well, but I indulge him nonetheless, by answering that we all make mistakes. Still, the question deserves a longer response. After all, I was one of the activists and writers who advocated a “new anarchism”: a movement free of the burden of the traditional political practice, but rather emerging out of the organic practice of contemporary, global and networked struggles. I penned article after article criticizing the “weight of the old.”
However, the truth is that I moved to the United States, to use an expression that Staughton likes, as a broken-hearted lover. Networks and connections that were built during the cycle of the 1990s were still in place, but 9/11 in the United States, and Genoa in Europe, as well as some profound mistakes made by the movement, brought us to a situation where there was not a coherent response to imperial globality and neo-liberal violence. The World Social Forum was in a serious crisis, and Peoples Global Action had more or less disappeared from the revolutionary horizon. Groups with which I used to work were nowhere to be found, and the global movement was in a process of a search for a new orientation. Networks were becoming not-works. It became clear to me that, at least in the long term, we should not anchor our efforts in the hope for encounters and summits. The lifestyle of activists who “summit hop” from one brief-lived action to the next is, in the long run, unsustainable. There was a need for a new emancipatory program. It was my feeling that in running away from traditional models of organizing we ended up running too far, and far too quickly.
The whole context that David Graeber and I optimistically described as a coalescing “new anarchism” was in a state of evident confusion.9 Even today, in times that are perceived by most as a serious crisis of the capitalist system, the movement in the United States is still far from having achieved any strategic clarity. The Left is without the movement. Or the movement is without the Left. Wobblies and Socialists are not organizing “encampments” in rural Oklahoma, as they used to do before the inter-racial Green Corn Rebellion of 1917. Times are as serious as they were then, if not more so, but somehow there are no “penny auctions” this time around. Meanwhile, intellectuals are writing serious political essays that no one who hasn’t spent years in graduate school can hope to understand. Ivy league professors are telling us that to hope and work for an inter-racial movement is a waste of time. White workers are irrevocably generalized as racists, class is “multitude,” and we are all part of the post-alpha generation suffering from the pathologies of “semiocapitalism.”
On the other side of the world, news from Yugoslavia, or whatever other name local elites and foreign embassies now use to describe it, was and remains equally disconcerting. I was an outsider trying to make sense, from the outside, of what has happened to my movement and to the country from which I came. I felt we needed a revolutionary synthesis of a new kind. That is why I went to find Staughton Lynd. I went to Youngstown to listen, to try to understand what went wrong, and I found myself in a conversation.
In the forthcoming years of our friendship and intellectual partnership, we came up with a suggestion for a new revolutionary orientation that would be premised on a fusion, or synthesis, of what we recognized as indispensable qualities of both anarchism and Marxism. It would perhaps be accurate to say that, in the process, I became a bit of a Marxist and Staughton a bit of an anarchist. In Wobblies and Zapatistas, we offered the following approach:
What is Marxism? It is an effort to understand the structure of the society in which we live so as to make informed predictions and to act with greater effect. What is anarchism? It is the attempt to imagine a better society and insofar as possible to “prefigure,” to anticipate that society by beginning to live it out, on the ground, here and now. Isn’t it perfectly obvious that these two orientations are both needed, that they are like having two hands to accomplish the needed task of transformation? These two viewpoints had been made to seem to be mutually exclusive alternatives. They are not. They are Hegelian moments that need to be synthesized. 10
These two viewpoints had been made to seem to be mutually exclusive alternatives. They are not. They are Hegelian moments that need to be synthesized.
We argued that in North America there is a tradition we termed the Haymarket synthesis, a tradition of the so-called “Chicago school” of anarchism, represented by Albert Parsons, August Spies, and the other Haymarket martyrs, all of whom described themselves as anarchists, socialists, and Marxists. This tradition was kept alive by the magnificent band of rebels known as the Wobblies, and today by rebels in Chiapas, the Zapatistas. Our responsibility today, in the United States, is to revive the Haymarket synthesis, to infuse it with new energy, new passion and new insights. To discover libertarian socialism for the twenty-first century. To rekindle dreams of a “socialist commonwealth,” and to bring socialism, that “forbidden word,” into a new and contemporary meaning. It is my belief that the ideas collected in the Reader before you present an important step in this direction. They suggest a vision of a libertarian socialism for the twenty-first century organized around the idea and practice of solidarity.
The essays in this collection do not tell us about one and only one way of getting “from here to there.” As Staughton writes in “Toward Another World” (Essay 25), “I am glad that there does not exist a map, a formula or equation within which we must act to get from Here to There. It’s more fun this way, to move forward experimentally, sometimes to stumble but at other times to glimpse things genuinely new, always to be open to the unexpected and the unimagined and the not-yet-fully-in-being.”
In this spirit, without offering or imposing blueprints, I would like to suggest that libertarian socialism for the twenty-first century, a contemporary reworking of the Haymarket synthesis, could be organized around three important themes:
1. Self-activity. In creating a libertarian socialism for the twenty- first century we should rely not on a fantasy that salvation will come from above, but on our own self-activity expressed through organizations at the base that we ourselves create and control.
2. Local institutions or “warrens.” Crucially important for a new revolutionary orientation is what Edward Thompson called a warren, that is, a local institution in which people conduct their own affairs.
3. Solidarity. We need to build more than a movement, we need to build a community of struggle.
We can understand self-activity in two ways. One is through what the Industrial Workers of the World call “solidarity unionism.” In different parts of this Reader, Staughton describes solidarity unionism as a horizontal expression of workers’ self-activity. In “Toward Another World” (Essay 25), he explains:
An easy way to remember the basic idea of solidarity unionism is to think: Horizontal not vertical. Mainstream trade unionism beyond the arena of the local union is relentlessly vertical. Too often, rank-and-file candidates for local union office imagine that the obvious next step for them is to seek higher office, as international union staff man, regional director, even international union president. The Left, for the past seventy-five years, has lent itself to the fantasy that salvation will come from above by the election of a John L. Lewis, Philip Murray, Walter Reuther, Arnold Miller, Ed Sadlowski, Ron Carey, John Sweeney, Andrew Stern, or Richard Trumka.
Instead we should encourage successful rank-and-file candidates for local union office to look horizontally to their counterparts in other local unions in the same industry or community. This was labor’s formula for success during its most creative and successful years in memory, the early 1930s. During those years there were successful local general strikes in Minneapolis, Toledo, San Francisco, and other, smaller industrial towns. During those years local labor parties sprang up like mushrooms across the United States. Today some organizers in the IWW, for example in Starbucks stores in New York City, once again espouse solidarity unionism.
Instead of following the top-down, bureaucratic traditions of the founding fathers of the labor movement, and their fascination with national unionism, we should follow another path, the one that, as Staughton points out in “From Globalization to Resistance” (Essay 19), “takes its inspiration from the astonishing recreation from below throughout the past century of ad hoc central labor bodies: the local workers’ councils known as ‘soviets’ in Russia in 1905 and 1917; the Italian factory committees of the early 1920s; solidarity unions in Toledo, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and elsewhere in the United States in the early 1930s; and similar formations in Hungary in 1956, Poland in 1980-1981, and France in 1968 and 1995.” What is important, he explains, is that these “were all horizontal gatherings of all kinds of workers in a given locality, who then form regional and national networks with counterpart bodies elsewhere.”
A second form of self-activity, closely related to the practice of solidarity unionism, is the Mayan idea of “mandar obediciendo” that informs the contemporary practice of the Zapatistas. This vision of a government “from below” that “leads by obeying” calls for separate emphasis, as Lynd says in his concluding essay, “because of the preoccupation of socialists for the past century and a half with ‘taking state power.’” As I read the communiques from the Lacondón jungle, he writes, “I realized that at least from a time shortly after their initial public appearance, the Zapatistas were saying: We don’t want to take state power. If we can create a space that will help others to make the national government more democratic, well and good. But our task, as we see it, is to bring into being self-governing local entities linked together horizontally so as to present whoever occupies the seats of government in Mexico City with a force so powerful that it becomes necessary to govern in obedience to what Subcomandante Marcos calls ‘the below.’”
What the Zapatistas mean by this is an intention, an active effort to create and maintain a horizontal network of self-governing communities. This is what a new kind of libertarian socialism would look like. As Staughton writes on the last page of Wobblies and Zapatistas: “imagining a transition that will not culminate in a single apocalyptic moment but rather express itself in unending creation of self-acting entities that are horizontally linked is a source of quiet joy.”11
2. Local Institutions or “warrens”
As for warrens, in “Edward Thompson’s Warrens” (Essay 21)—one of the most important pieces in this collection—we learn about a metaphor that is central to Thompson’s understanding of a revolutionary process: a rabbit warren, that is, a long-lasting local institution. I remember once reading somewhere about a Spanish revolutionary and singer who said that we lost all the battles, but we had the best songs. I never liked this attitude, as noble and poetic as it might be. Any new revolutionary perspective ought to go beyond this. For much of my life as a revolutionary I have been haunted by what I call “Michelet’s problem.” Michelet was a famous French historian, who wrote the following words about the French revolution: “that day everything was possible, the future was the present and time but a glimmer of eternity.” But, as Cornelius Castoriades used to say, if all that we create is just a glimmer of hope, the bureaucrats will inevitably show up and turn off the light.12 The history of revolutions is, on the one hand, a history of tension between brief moments of revolutionary creativity and the making of long-lasting institutions. On the other hand, the history of revolutions often reads like a history of revolutionary alienation, when the revolutionary was, more than anything else, ultimately and almost inevitably alienated from his or her own creations. Michelet’s problem is about resolving this tension between brief epiphanies of revolutionary hope and the hope for long-term institutionalization of revolutionary change.
The crucial question then is how to create such lasting institutions, or better yet, an ongoing culture of constructive struggle. In Wobblies and Zapatistas, Staughton asserts that “every single one of the ventures or experiments in government from below that we have been discussing existed for only a few months or years. In many societies they were drowned in blood. In most cases underlying economic institutions, that provided the matrix within which all political arrangements functioned, did not change. The leases on Hudson Valley manors after the Revolution did not differ dramatically from such leases before the Revolution.”13 So what is missing? How can we try to approach the answer to what I have called Michelet’s problem?
In the contemporary anarchist movement, if we can speak of one, there is a lot of talk about “the insurrection” and considerable fascination with “the event.”14 The French accent and sophisticated jargon are perhaps new and in fashion, but these are not new topics. They appear to crop up, with disturbing regularity, with every new generation of revolutionaries. The old refrain that organizing is another word for going slow is being rediscovered by some of the new radicals. This is the topic of “The New Radicals and Participatory Democracy” and, especially, “Weatherman” (Essays 6 and 8).
I think we can say that there are, risking some oversimplification, two ways of thinking about revolution. In his essay on Thompson’s warrens, Staughton says that “Thompson implicitly asks us to choose between two views of the transition from capitalism to socialism.” One is expressed in the song “Solidarity Forever” when the song affirms, “We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.” In this perspective, “the new world will arise, phoenix-like, after a great catastrophe or conflagration. The emergence of feudalism from pockets of local self-help after the collapse of the Roman Empire is presumably the exemplar of that kind of transition.” This is the negative idea of revolution, very much present in contemporary movement literature.15
A second view of the revolution is positive, comparing it to the transition from feudalism to capitalism.
The preamble to the IWW Constitution gives us a mantra for this perspective, declaring that “we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”
Thompson opted for the second paradigm. . . . For a society to be criss-crossed by underground dens and passageways created by an oppositional class is, in Thompson’s 1960s vocabulary, to be “warrened.” British society, he wrote, is “warrened with democratic processes—committees, voluntary organizations, councils, electoral procedures.” Because of the existence of such counter-institutions, in Thompson’s view a transition to socialism could develop from what was already in being, and from below. “Socialism, even at the point of revolutionary transition—perhaps at this point most of all—must grow from existing strengths. No one . . . can impose a socialist humanity from above.”
We have here an image of a constructive, not apocalyptic, revolution: built on the positives of a socialist commonwealth emerging from existing creations improvised from below. In Thompson’s words:
[S]uch a revolution demands the maximum enlargement of positive demands, the deployment of constructive skills within a conscious revolutionary strategy—or, in William Morris’ words, the “making of Socialists.” . . . Alongside the industrial workers, we should see the teachers who want better schools, scientists who wish to advance research, welfare workers who want hospitals, actors who want a National Theatre, technicians impatient to improve industrial organization. Such people do not want these things only and always, any more than all industrial workers are always “class conscious” and loyal to their great community values. But these affirmatives exist, fitfully and incompletely, with the ethos of the Opportunity State. It is the business of socialists to draw the line, not between a staunch but diminishing minority and an unredeemable majority, but between the monopolists and the people—to foster the “societal instincts” and inhibit the acquisitive. Upon these positives, and not upon the debris of a smashed society, the socialist community must be built.
We should always cherish these beautiful words. But what is Thompson’s warren? And why do I insist that it represents a formula for success? It is, first and foremost, a local institution in which people conduct their own affairs—an immigrant center or local union, for example—that expands in time of crisis to take on new powers and responsibilities, and then, after the revolutionary tide ebbs, continues to represent, in institutionalized form, an expanded version of what existed to begin with.
It would be impossible to understand the Russian revolution—the long Russian revolution (from 1890 to 1920)—without looking at the middle-class convocations, the student demonstrations, the workers’ petitions: all forms of direct action, within the context of pre-existing and new “warrens,” such as local unions, universities, and soviets. After the failure of the December 1905 uprising in Moscow and Petrograd, soviets lived on in popular memory until they were re-created by workers in 1917. In American labor history the most important meetings and organizations, including the ones that led to formation of the CIO in the 1930s, took place in pre-existing local institutions, such as fraternal societies, credit unions, burial associations, singing clubs, churches and newspapers.
In “Remembering SNCC” (Essay 4), an essay that ought to become required reading for anyone interested in the movement of the Sixties, we discover that one cannot hope to understand what happened in the South and in the civil rights movement without understanding that student action emerged from pre-existing warrens such as African American churches and college campuses. In the last section of the Reader, we learn that the Zapatistas provide perhaps the clearest example of all: hundreds if not thousands of years of life in pre-existing asambleas, and a decade of as yet unchronicled “accompaniment” by a group of Marxists-Leninists from the universities of Mexico City.
A way of looking at what happened in all these cases is that revolutionaries can often light a spark—not a prairie fire!—but whether or not a fire will catch on depends on the response of people in their pre-existing local unions, factory committees, benefit associations, and other local institutions. Some of the self-governing institutions will be old entities (warrens) that have taken on new powers and objectives. In Chiapas, Mayan asambleas play this role. In Russia, soviets were the heart of the revolution. The nature of a revolutionary process is such that the distinction between old and new local institutions becomes blurred. The role of libertarian socialists is above all to nurture the creation, the spread, and the authority of local “warrens,” to defend the existence, the legitimacy, and the autonomy of such formations.
Finally, how do we do that? How do we build communities of struggle?
If capitalism developed as a practice of the idea of contract, libertarian socialism should be developed as a practice of solidarity. There are several kinds of solidarity. On the one hand, we might say, solidarity can be defined as drawing the boundary of our community of struggle as widely as possible. There are many examples of solidarity thus defined. In “Henry Thoreau: The Admirable Radical” (Essay 1) and especially in “The Tragedy of American Diplomacy” (Essay 23), Staughton speaks very fondly of Thoreau, who, in his essay on civil disobedience, famously observed that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race, should find good citizens in the only house in a slave state in which a free man can abide with honor, namely, in prison behind bars.
This is one way of understanding solidarity. Another way of understanding solidarity is by pointing out, as Staughton does in his essay “From Globalization to Resistance” (Essay 19), is that there is a problem with the concept of organizing. There are several ways to organize. One way is Leninist vanguardism: the idea that the working class, left to itself, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness. The proper revolutionary consciousness could only be brought to workers “from without.” In the United States, during the 1930s and 1970s, this process was known as “colonization.” Revolutionaries would go to a factory and “colonize” the workplace. It is not all that different with trade-union organizers, irrespective of how courageous or resourceful they might be: when they organize in a way that implicitly assumes an “outside,” it creates a certain inequality between organizer and organized.
The anarchist response to this, in the last couple of decades, was twofold. One way was to offer a perspective of “contaminationism.” As David Graeber explains, “On a more immediate level, the strategy depends on the dissemination of the model: most anarchists, for example, do not see themselves as a vanguard whose historical role is to ‘organize’ other communities, but rather as one community setting an example others can imitate. The approach—it’s often referred to as ‘contaminationism’—is premised on the assumption that the experience of freedom is infectious: that anyone who takes part in a direct action is likely to be permanently transformed by the experience, and want more.”16
The other, loosely-defined anarchist approach was to behave like a social worker, tending the communities from the outside, not as a fellow student or a fellow worker with a particular understanding of a situation shared with others, but as an “activist” or professional in social change—a force outside of society, organizing those “inside” on their own behalf. There are many successful and admirable examples of this kind of organizing. However, the same problem of implicit inequality still stands.
A far better alternative than these two responses, and one that I would like to advance here, is a process that Staughton calls “accompaniment.” Revolutionaries should accompany workers and others in the creation and maintenance of popular self-governing institutions. In this process, we should not pretend to be something we are not. Rather, we can walk beside poor people in struggle just as we are, hopefully providing support and certain useful skills.
I experienced this vision of accompaniment while I was still living in Yugoslavia. A few of us, students from Belgrade University, recognized that the only organized resistance to the encroaching tide of privatization and neo-liberalism was coming from a group of workers in the Serbian countryside. We decided to go to northern Serbia, to a city called Zrenjanin, and approach the workers. These workers were very different from ourselves. Some of them had fought in the recent Yugoslav wars. Most of them were very conservative, patriarchal, and traditional. We went there and offered our skills. We had a few. We spoke foreign languages. We had internet access and know-how in a country where only two percent of the people used this service. We had connections with workers and movements outside Serbia. Some were good writers. A few had legal expertise. These workers were grateful but understandably quite skeptical, as were we. Soon, however, something like a friendship emerged. We started working together and learning from each other. In the process of struggling against the boss, the private armies he sent to the factory, and the state authorities, we started to trust each other. We both changed—workers and students.
Staughton and his wife Alice encountered the notion of accompaniment in Latin America. In “From Globalization to Resistance” (Essay 19), we find these lines:
In Latin America—for example, once again, in the work of Archbishop Romero—there is the different concept of “accompaniment.” I do not organize you. I accompany you, or more precisely, we accompany each other. Implicit in this notion of “accompañando” is the assumption that neither of us has a complete map of where our path will lead. In the words of Antonio Machado: “Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar.” “Seeker, there is no road. We make the road by walking.
Accompaniment has been, in the experience of myself and my wife, a discovery and a guide to practice. Alice first formulated it as a draft counselor in the 1960s. When draft counselor meets counselee, she came to say, there are two experts in the room. One may be an expert on the law and administrative regulations. The other is an expert on what he wants to do with his life. Similarly as lawyers, in our activity with workers and prisoners, we have come to prize above all else the experience of jointly solving problems with our clients. They know the facts, the custom of the workplace or penal facility, the experience of past success and failure. We too bring something to the table. I do not wish to be indecently immodest, but I will share that I treasure beyond any honorary degree actual or imagined the nicknames that Ohio prisoners have given the two of us: “Mama Bear” and “Scrapper.”
In “Toward Another World” (Essay 25), Staughton writes:
In the annual pastoral letters that he wrote during the years before his assassination, Romero projected a course of action with two essential elements. First, be yourself. If you are a believing Christian, don’t be afraid of professing it. If you are an intellectual don’t pretend that you make your living by manual labor. Second, place yourself at the side of the poor and oppressed. Accompany them on their journey.. . . One last point about accompaniment is that it can only come about if you—that is, the lawyer, doctor, teacher, clergyman, or other professional person—stay in the community over a period of years. . . . I feel strongly that if more professionals on the Left would take up residence in communities other than Cambridge, New York City, and Berkeley, and stay there for a while, social change in this country might come a lot more quickly.
. . . One last point about accompaniment is that it can only come about if you—that is, the lawyer, doctor, teacher, clergyman, or other professional person—stay in the community over a period of years. . . . I feel strongly that if more professionals on the Left would take up residence in communities other than Cambridge, New York City, and Berkeley, and stay there for a while, social change in this country might come a lot more quickly.
“The Two Yales” (Essay 12) and “Intellectuals, the University and the Movement” (Essay 13) are perhaps the most radical critique of the arrogance of campus intellectuals I ever came across. In Wobblies and Zapatistas, Staughton added:
I have a hard time with theorizing that does not appear to arise from practical activity or lead to action, or indeed, that seems to discourage action and consider action useless.
I don’t think I am intellectually inept. Yet I confess that much of what is written about “post-Marxism,” or “Fordism,” or “deconstruction,” or “the multitude,” or “critical legal studies,” or “whiteness,” and that I have tried to read, seems to me, simply, both unintelligible and useless.
What is the explanation for this universe of extremely abstract discourse? I yearn to ask each such writer: What are you doing? With what ordinary people do you discuss your ideas before you publish them? What difference does it make, in the world outside your windows and away from your word processor, whether you say A or B? For whom do you consider yourself a model or exemplar? Exactly how, in light of what you have written, do you see your theoretical work leading to another world? Or would it be more accurate to suggest that the practical effect of what you write is to rationalize your comfortable position doing full-time theorizing in a college or university?17
In the pages of the same book Staughton offers a similarly trenchant critique of some anarchist practices:
As a lifelong rebel against heavy-handed Marxist dogmatism I find myself defending Marx, and objecting to the so-called radicalism of one-weekend-a-year radicals who show up at a global confrontation and then talk about it for the rest of the year.
These are harsh words. But I consider them deserved. Anarchists, above all others, should be faithful to the injunction that a genuine radical, a revolutionary, must indeed swim in the sea of the people, and if he or she does not do so, is properly viewed as what the Germans called a “socialist of the chair,” or in English, an “armchair intellectual.”
It is a conspiracy of persons who make their living at academic institutions to induce others who do the same to take them seriously. I challenge it and reject it. Let them follow Marcos to the jungles of Chiapas in their own countries, and learn something new.18
In this project of “accompaniment,” the model should be that of the Mexican intellectuals, students and professors, who went to live in the jungle, and after ten years came forth as protagonists of a revolution from below. The Zapatistas were not footloose: they went to a particular place and stayed there, in what must have been incredibly challenging and difficult circumstances, for a decade of accompaniment. The central component of accompaniment is that we should settle down in particular places so that when crises come we will already be trusted friends and members of the community.
When I argue for accompaniment in my university talks I am usually accused of proposing a practice that defers, without criticism, to whatever poor and oppressed people in struggle believe and are demanding at the moment. It is to these critiques that Staughton answers in Wobblies and Zapatistas:
In his fourth and last Pastoral Letter, written less than a year before his death, Romero says that the preferential option for the poor does not mean “blind partiality in favor of the masses.” Indeed:
In the name of the preferential option for the poor there can never be justified the machismo, the alcoholism, the failure in family responsibility, the exploitation of one poor person by another, the antagonism among neighbors, and the so many other sins that [are] concurrent roots of this country’s crisis and violence.
I submit that the foregoing is hardly a doctrine of unthinking subservience to the momentary beliefs or instructions of the poor.
I challenge those who offer this critique of “accompaniment” to explain, in detail, how they go about relating to the poor and oppressed. I suspect that they do not have such relationships at all. That makes it easy to be pure: without engagement with the world, one need only endlessly reiterate one’s own abstract identity.
“Accompaniment” is simply the idea of walking side by side with another on a common journey. The idea is that when a university-trained person undertakes to walk beside someone rich in experience but lacking formal skills, each contributes something vital to the process. “Accompaniment” thus understood presupposes, not uncritical deference, but equality.19
It is interesting to note the similarity between accompaniment and another form of praxis emerging from Latin America. In some parts of the continent anarchists have developed a praxis of involvement in social movements that they call “Especifismo.” The mainstay of Especifismo is the engagement called “social insertion.” This means activists being focused on activity within, and helping to build, mass organizations and mass struggles, in communities and neighborhoods, in various social spheres. This does not mean people from outside intervening in struggles of working people, but is about the focus of organizing radicals within the communities of struggle. Various struggles can include strikes, rent strikes, struggles for control of the land, struggles against the police and gentrification, struggles against sexism, for the right to abortion, against bus fare increases, or any other issue that angers working people and moves them to act.20
But accompaniment can be taken even further, to the very issue of revolutionary agency. In “From Globalization to Resistance” (Essay 19) we encounter a hypothesis, further developed in “Students and Workers in the Transition to Socialism” (Essay 20), that the concept of “accompaniment,” in addition to clarifying the desirable relationship of individuals in the movement for social change to one another, also has application to the desirable relationship of groups. A great deal of energy has gone into defining the proper relationship in the movement for social change of workers and students; blacks and whites; men and women; straights and gays; gringos, ladinos and indígenas; and no doubt, English-speakers and French-speakers. An older wave of radicalism struggled with the supposed leading role of the proletariat. More recently other kinds of division have preoccupied us. My question is, what would it do to this discussion were we to say that we are all accompanying one another on the road to a better society?
It appears that in Hungary, as well as later in France and the United States, and before that in revolutionary Russia, students came first, and workers subsequently joined in.
Why do students so often come first? One can speculate. To whatever extent Gramsci is right about the hegemony of bourgeois ideas, students and other intellectuals break through it: they give workers the space to think and experience for themselves. Similarly, the defiance of students may help workers to overcome whatever deference they may be feeling toward supposed social superiors.
It is of great importance to stress that solidarity must be built outside of the university library and on the basis of practice, not shared ideas. Solidarity only can be built on the basis of action that is in the common interest. In the pages of “Nonviolence and Solidarity” (Essay 17) we learn that in “the world of poor and working-class resistance . . . action often comes before talk, and may be in apparent contradiction to words that the actor has used, or even continues to use in the midst of action. The experience of struggle gives rise to new understandings that may be put into words much later or never put into words at all.” In these situations, “Experience ran ahead of ideology. Actions spoke louder than organizational labels.”
The most convincing example of this is the prison uprising at Lucasville, Ohio, a rebellion inside a maximum security prison which Staughton discusses in “Overcoming Racism” (Essay 18).21
The single most remarkable thing about the Lucasville rebellion is that white and black prisoners formed a common front against the authorities. When the State Highway Patrol came into the occupied cell block after the surrender they found slogans written on the walls of the corridor and in the gymnasium that read: “Convict unity,” “Convict race,” “Blacks and whites together,” “Blacks and whites, whites and blacks, unity,” “Whites and blacks together,” “Black and white unity.”
The five prisoners from the rebellion on death row—the Lucasville Five—are a microcosm of the rebellion’s united front. Three are black, two are white. Two of the blacks are Sunni Muslims. Both of the whites were, at the time of the rebellion, members of the Aryan Brotherhood.
Could Lucasville’s example provide us with glimpses of how to create an interracial movement?
In the 1960s and early 1970s, the self-organized protest movement of blacks created a model for students, women, workers, and eventually, soldiers. In the same way, the self-organized resistance of black and white prisoners can become a model for the rest of us in overcoming racism. Life will continue to ask of working people that they find their way to solidarity. Surely, there are sufficient instances of deep attitudinal change on the part of white workers to persuade us that a multi-ethnic class consciousness is not only necessary, but also possible.
This is one of the aspects of Staughton’s thought that influenced me the most. I started exploring American history and, while falling short of discovering many examples of a “usable past,” I was able to discern a current of inter-racial, inter-ethnic mutual aid that we could follow from the early days on the frontier to the interracial unionism of the Wobblies in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, SNCC, and Lucasville. The important thing is not to romanticize these experiences. A legacy of conquest and a legacy of mutual aid co-exist in American history and American politics, just as they do in the Balkans. A new anti-capitalist inter-racial movement is possible only in the context of practical, lived solidarity, that transcends and overcomes differences. Libertarian socialism for the twenty-first century needs to be built on the understanding that the only movement worthy of that name is an inter-racial movement built on the process of accompaniment.
What about solidarity in the context of internationalism? In Intellectual Origins Staughton explores the tradition articulated by a series of working-class intellectuals in the United States whose credo was, “My country is the world.” In one of the most beautiful passages of Wobblies and Zapatistas, Staughton says the following:
Surely this is the form of internationalism we should espouse. It makes it possible for us to say, “Yes, I love my country! I love the fields of New England and Ohio, and also the mistcovered mountains and ravines of Chiapas and Nicaragua. I love the clarity of Thoreau, the compassion of Eugene Debs and the heroism of Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the paintings of Rembrandt, the music of Bach. I admire the conductors of the Underground Railroad and the self-organizing peasants and artisans in revolutionary Spain. My country is the world.
Finally, there is another kind of solidarity, one that must be nurtured not only in struggle but in our communities of struggle. This is very hard but necessary. If we can’t build an organization in which human beings trust one another as brothers and sisters, why should anyone trust us to build a better society? Within the pages of Wobblies and Zapatistas, Staughton urges:
We need to proceed in a way that builds community. There must be certain ground rules. We should practice direct speaking: if something bothers you about another person, go speak to him or her and do not gossip to a third person. No one should be permitted to present themselves in caucuses that define a fixed position beforehand and are impervious to the exchange of experiences. We must allow spontaneity and experiment without fear of humiliation and disgrace. Not only our organizing but our conduct toward one another must be paradigmatic in engendering a sense of truly being brothers and sisters.
In my years as an anarchist organizer, one of the most disturbing patterns I noticed is exactly the problem Staughton describes here: the inability to practice comradeship to keep our networks, our social centers and affinity groups alive. I would see one group after another destroyed by corrosive suspicion and distrust. In order for us to be effective as revolutionaries, our communities of struggle must become affective communities—places where we practice direct dialogue and prefigurative relationships.
The new generation of revolutionaries has a huge responsibility today, most of all in the current crisis of capitalist civilization. We need to muster imagination and prefigurative energy to demonstrate that radical transformation of society is indeed possible, despite the words of those two distinguished professors mentioned at the beginning of this Introduction. Forr this we need a new kind of synthesis. Perhaps the one that I tried to propose: a reinvented and solidarity-centered libertarian socialist synthesis that combines direct democracy with solidarity unionism. Strategy with program, accompaniment with warrening, structural analysis with prefigurative theory arising from practice; stubborn belief in the possibility of overcoming racism with affective anti-sectarianism. This proposed synthesis is, perhaps, woefully inadequate, simplistic or naive. Even if this is so—even if this is not that map which will take us safely from here to there—I hope that it can at least provoke and inspire a conversation moving toward these ends and ideals.
George Lukács ends his book, Theory of the Novel, with the sentence, “the voyage is over, now the travel begins.” This is what happens at the moment when the revolutionary glimmer has been extinguished: the voyage of a particular revolutionary experience may be over, but the true journey is just starting. At this very moment, I hear that the Polytechnic school in Athens has been occupied once again. People are in the streets. The spirit of December, one year after the rebellion, is everywhere.
Marxist political economists say that capitalist civilization is crumbling. This might be so. If it is, good riddance. We should hear the voice of Buenaventura Durruti speaking to us, across decades, that we should not be in the least afraid of its ruins. But the path to a new world that we carry in our hearts, a path to a free socialist community, can be built only on existing strengths, on practices of everyday communism and mutual aid, and not “upon the debris of a smashed society.” Upon the positives, with our collective prefigurative creativity, we should venture to re-make another world. It is indeed a long journey. But as Staughton Lynd never ceases to remind us—as we walk we should hold hands, and keep facing forward.
1. Because of his advocacy and practice of civil disobedience, Staughton was unable to continue as a full-time history teacher. The history departments of five Chicago-area universities offered him positions, only to have the offers negated by the school administrations. In 1976, Staughton became a lawyer. He worked for Legal Services in Youngstown, Ohio from 1978 until his retirement at the end of 1996. He specialized in employment law, and when the steel mills in Youngstown were closed in 1977-1980 he served as lead counsel to the Ecumenical Coalition of the Mahoning Valley, which sought to reopen the mills under worker-community ownership and brought the action Local 1330 v. U.S. Steel. He has written, edited, or co-edited with his wife Alice Lynd more than a dozen books. The Lynds have jointly edited four books. They are Homeland: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians (New York: Olive Branch Press, 1994); Nonviolence in America: A Documentary History, revised edition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995, now in its sixth printing); Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers, third edition (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1988); and, most recently, The New Rank and File (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), which includes oral histories of labor activists in the past quarter century. Their memoir of life together is published under the title Stepping Stones (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009).
2. See especially Carl Mirra, The Admirable Radical: Staughton Lynd and Cold War Dissent, 1945-1970 (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2010).
3. See my book Don’t Mourn, Balkanize (Oakland: PM Press, 2010).
4. A very good introduction to the anti-globalization movement is News from Nowhere, We Are Everywhere (New York: Verso, 2004).
5. Staughton Lynd, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, new edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
6. Intellectual Origins, pp. 171-172.
7. Intellectual Origins, p. 173.
9. David Graeber and Andrej Grubacic, “Anarchism, or the Revolutionary Movement of the Twenty-first Century,” http://www.zmag.org/ znet/viewArticle/9258.
10. Staughton Lynd and Andrej Grubacic, Wobblies & Zapatistas:
26. From Here to There Conversations on Marxism, Anarchism and Radical History (Oakland: PM Press, 2008), p. 12.
11 Wobblies & Zapatistas, p. 241.
12 Cornelius Castoriadis, Political and Social Writings (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 131.
13 Wobblies & Zapatistas, p. 81.
14 See Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009).
15 See Derrick Jensen, A Language Older than Words (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2004).
16 David Graeber, Direct Action: An Ethnography (Oakland: AK Press, 2009).
17. Wobblies & Zapatistas, p. 215.
18. Wobblies & Zapatistas, p. 23.
19. Wobblies & Zapatistas, p. 176.
20. See Michael Schmidt and Lucien Van Der Walt, Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (Oakland: AK Press,2009).
21. Staughton Lynd has written about the Lucasville rebellion in “Black and White and Dead All Over,” Race Traitor, no. 8 (Winter 1998); “Lessons from Lucasville,” The Catholic Worker, v. LXV, no. 7 (Dec. 1998); and “The Lucasville Trials,” Prison Legal News, v. 10, no. 6 ( June 1999). This work is gathered together in Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004). Staughton has also contributed to a play by Gary Anderson about the Lucasville events.
This article was republished from Autonomies
Statement From The Virginia Worker Editorial Board on Railroad Strikebreaking By: The Virginia WorkerRead Now
The following statement is issued by the Virginia Worker Editorial Board on the recent congressional vote to force a contract on railroad workers, which broke their attempt to strike
Let us be absolutely clear what happened on December 1st.
In order to avert what could have been the most impactful strike in decades, the vast majority of Democratic members of the House of Representatives– including three out of four Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members– voted to use state power to impose a rotten deal on rail workers that the workers themselves had already rejected.
To cover this cowardly betrayal of labor, these same Democrats voted on an amendment to the bill that would have added seven paid sick days into the rail worker’s contract– less than half of what the rail workers demand, and far less than what the rail workers deserve– knowing full well that the amendment had no serious chance of passing the sixty vote threshold in the even more conservative Senate.
Make no mistake: this is class war.
Moments like this are a reminder to us that both political parties are parties of the capitalist class. Both parties are structurally incapable of representing, defending, and advancing the interests of workers.
The Democratic Party is not just a ballot line. It is a massive organization consisting of thousands of activists backed by billions of dollars in political donations. Their party is committed to a vision of the future which is fundamentally capitalist. We cannot change this party, and we cannot let it lead us. The future of our movement lies outside the Democratic Party, or it lies in the flaming garbage heap of history.
Given these truths about the Democratic Party, it is extremely disturbing that many well-meaning socialists in DSA have strikebreakers like Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as their public faces. And such a situation was entirely avoidable! When Bowman proudly attended Israeli propaganda trips and voted to arm Israel’s apartheid regime, the left wing of DSA rightly excoriated Bowman. They drafted petitions and passed resolutions in their working groups and chapters.
However, this was not enough, because nothing fundamentally changed. The failure to reign in or expel Bowman for supporting Israel’s brutal warfare against Palestinians has now come home to roost as workers in the United States have their rights trampled on and their interests shot down by DSA’s loftiest representatives. As the left mobilized, the right trashed the cause of Palestine, mocked its defenders, and ultimately did a victory lap as members of DSA’s National Political Committee (NPC)– including those representing ‘radical’ caucuses– voted to shield Bowman from any meaningful consequences.
The Marxists in DSA cannot remain handcuffed to AOC, Bowman, and Bush if they wish to fight with their arms for socialism. We call on the left wing of DSA to expel from their local chapters NPC members who protected Bowman. We call on the left wing of DSA to expel these three Democrat politicians from their ranks, as Class Unity is attempting to do. We call on the left wing of DSA to expel the odious defenders of the Democrat strikebreakers and warhawks, like the North Star Caucus. Even if this expulsion movement is not successful, it will reveal even more clearly who put the cause of the Democratic Party above the cause of the working class.
Most importantly, we call on the real Marxists in DSA to begin to coordinate together to lay the foundation for a Marxist party. The left may expel the right, the right may expel the left, or the left may leave on its own accord– but DSA cannot serve two masters: the capitalist Democrats and the movement for socialism. This train needs to pick a track.
We, at the Virginia Worker, extend our solidarity to the rail workers whose right to strike and bargain for their own contract was unceremoniously rejected by Biden and the Democrats, and we pledge to support all rank-and-file efforts to take action against this sellout contract and against any misleaders in the union movement who conspired with Biden to make it happen.
All we want for this holiday season is a wildcat strike!
The Virginia Worker
This article was republished from The Virginia Worker.
Alyssa Stout and her 800 coworkers banded together to keep Oroville Hospital open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, working around the clock to save countless lives.
But these union members didn’t stop there. They brought that same unwavering solidarity to the bargaining table earlier in 2022 and won a new contract with safety enhancements and other provisions designed to leave the workforce, the hospital, and their Northern California community stronger than before.
Stout and her colleagues are among thousands of union health care workers nationwide who are harnessing the collective power they forged during the pandemic to dramatically improve America’s system of care.
“I feel we have more leverage now than we ever did before, just because people realize we’re needed,” said Stout, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9600 and an X-ray technologist at Oroville, recalling how union workers put their lives on the line and pulled their communities through the crisis.
“People realize, in general, now how important the health care community is,” she continued, noting local residents signed petitions, reposted the union’s social media messages, and took other actions to support the workers’ recent contract negotiations. “It all kind of trickles down. People want to see us being treated well so they’re treated well. We were fighting for everyone.”
Hospitals, clinics, and other health care facilities wrestled with turnover long before the pandemic, partly because they tried to save money on the backs of workers in crucial but long underappreciated departments such as environmental services and dietary. But nurses, certified nursing assistants, and other caregivers couldn’t have saved COVID-19 victims without the contributions of colleagues who sanitized rooms and prepared nutritious meals.
So workers at Oroville stood together for a contract providing significant raises to all union members, underscoring the collective effort essential to operating the hospital and ensuring patients continued access to an experienced, stable workforce committed to delivering ever better care across every department.
The contract also establishes a labor-management safety committee that gives a real voice to the front-line workers who best know how to address the hazards they and their patients face every day. Union members provided management with photos documenting cluttered hallways and blocked fire exits, driving home the need for collective vigilance and worker input in a part of the country where a wildfire destroyed another hospital just a few years ago.
“Our safety has to be a priority. Otherwise, we can’t be there for the patients we care about,” observed Stout, noting the challenges of the pandemic fostered greater cohesion and tenacity that union members brought to bear at the bargaining table.
Across the country, other union contracts are yielding similar improvements for workers, patients, and their communities.
More than 2,700 nurses and other workers at UMass Memorial Health Care in Massachusetts won significant raises and other enhancements that not only recognize the sacrifices they made throughout the pandemic but will also help the system’s hospitals recruit and retain the workforce patients need.
Nurses at three Steward Health Care hospitals in Florida achieved protections from unsafe scheduling and the creation of an infectious disease task force in their new agreements, while workers at Kaleida Health in New York successfully fought for wages increases, a health and safety committee and the health system’s commitment to create 500 new positions to address unsafe staffing issues.
And nearly 80 members of USW Local 7798-1 attained management’s commitment to address safe staffing concerns, among other gains, in a new agreement they ratified on November 14 with Copper Country Mental Health in Michigan.
“I do see a new trend,” said Local 7798-1 President Scott Skotarczyk, referring to the power that pandemic-tested health care workers are bringing to the bargaining table. “Look at what we did in this agreement. We got a pay increase. We got—for our more senior staff—an increase in vacation time. We didn’t give anything up.”
The contract also spells out a procedure for developing timely, effective responses when clients act out, creating safer environments for both workers and residents in the agency’s group homes.
“This is a stressful job,” Skotarczyk said, noting the contract improvements will help to facilitate the stable, experienced workforce needed to help clients build more independent lives.
“The more time you spend in this field, the more effective you are,” he said. “I’ve learned over the years what works best.”
Workers at union-represented hospitals have better patient outcomes, more inspections for workplace hazards, and better access to personal protective equipment (PPE), among many other advantages, than their counterparts at other facilities. Now, union members’ successful advocacy for themselves and their patients is fueling a wave of union drives across the health care industry.
More than 800 interns, residents, and other doctors at the University of Illinois Chicago formed a union in 2021, for example, citing the need to band together and fight for the long-overdue resources essential to patient care. Overall, according to new research from the AFL-CIO, 71 percent of health care workers would vote to unionize their workplaces.
“Don’t give up. Don’t back down,” Stout advises health care workers who want to leverage union power at their workplaces.
“We all made it, and we all helped each other,” she said of her coworkers at Oroville over the past few years. “We’re so much stronger together.”
Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).
A rank-and-file slate backed by Teamsters for a Democratic Union has won leadership of Local 135, one of the union's biggest locals with 14,000 members. Photo: TDU
Members overwhelmingly elected new leadership in the 14,000-member Teamsters Local 135, where Dustin Roach and the 135 Members First Slate won with 68 percent of the vote.
The election is a triumph for grassroots action and rank-and-file power, after an intense grassroots member-to-member campaign.
Local 135 is one of the biggest locals in the Teamsters, representing members across Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan as well as 2,000 flight attendants nationwide at Republic Airlines.
Until recently, no one could have seen this change coming to a local that was tightly controlled by officers and dominated from the top down.
But Local 135 members organized for change from the bottom up—and now they’re in the driver’s seat.
START SMALL, BUILD BIG
The Members First movement began with two Teamsters deeply frustrated with their union’s resistance to involving members and standing up to employers.
In January, a group of trusted friends met privately to discuss what it would take to bring change to the local.
“We knew that members were tired of being kept in the dark and not getting strong representation,” said Roach. “But honestly, we didn’t know if people would be ready to step up. Like any organizing drive, we had to map it out and make realistic assessments.”
For the next several months, a small committee of leaders and activists got to work talking to other Teamsters and building a network of members in beverage, warehousing, freight, construction, and UPS.
“It was all about agitation at the start,” said Bob Axum, a member at Transervice. “We asked a lot of questions and started to figure out that most members felt like we do—it’s time for change.”
Local 135 represents 1,200 members in a chain of related employers in the grocery industry. Members in the “Kroger Triangle” work under separate contracts but share common concerns, including disrespect on the job, weak representation, and a lack of transparency or coordination in contract negotiations.
The 4,500 UPS Teamsters in Local 135 voted to reject the 2018 contract and voted overwhelmingly for new leadership at the international union.
“Our message was that we could elect new leadership in our local too, leaders that would mobilize the members to win the contract we deserve,” said UPS driver Corey Warren.
Members First held a series of organizing meetings to recruit volunteers at worksites across the local. They set a goal of 100 endorsements by stewards and members from worksites across the local – and they exceeded it.
COORDINATED CAMPAIGN KICKOFF
After six months of small private organizing meetings, 135 Members First launched its campaign with a bang.
Slate members and volunteers fanned out across the local and campaigned at 20 worksites in a week. At every company, they passed out a flyer with their slate’s platform on one side and the photos of dozens of member endorsers on the other.
“It was a very public showing that Local 135 members were done being scared. We were uniting and using our strength in numbers to win change,” said Jesse Mikesell.
Their launch rocked the union hall, sending incumbents into panic mode. Within days, the top two officers, Danny Barton and Jeff Combs, announced they would retire.
Taking a page from the playbook of longtime Teamsters President James P. Hoffa, who endorsed Steve Vairma of Denver Local 455 to succeed him in the union’s 2021 presidential race, the local officers propped up a successor slate to run against the Members First insurgents.
It didn’t work.
Campaign activists stayed focused and continued to hit the streets. Their network grew as they identified workplace leaders and held campaign organizing and fundraising events.
In just four months, they collected 3,000 phone numbers from supporters and prepared to Get Out the Vote.
The ballot count lasted 18 hours. But when the dust settled, Members First had swept the election, 2,434 to 1,156.
Change couldn’t be coming at a better time, with contract negotiations coming up at Sysco, UPS, T-Force, ABF, YRC, Holland, and across the Kroger Triangle.
More than 20 Members First leaders are attending the TDU Convention this weekend.
“The election win was powered by Local 135 members. But it never would have happened without Teamsters for a Democratic Union,” said Sarah Revard, Secretary-Treasurer elect.
“This is about more than winning an election,” she said. “We can rebuild our union’s power by educating, informing, and mobilizing the members. That’s what Members First is about—and that’s what TDU is about, too.”
Beth Breslaw is an organizer with Teamsters for a Democratic Union, where a version of this article first appeared.
This article was republished from Labor Notes.
Navigating washed-out roads and piles of debris, Mayra Rivera quickly began checking on coworkers and neighbors after Hurricane Fiona battered Puerto Rico in September.
Rivera, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 8198, realized she’d spend months if not years helping the island navigate a daunting cleanup and recovery process. But her immediate goal was ensuring community members had the basics:
Safe food. Clean drinking water. And, just as important, a shoulder for survivors to lean on as they began picking up the pieces of their shattered lives.
While labor unions continue their traditional fights for decent wages, affordable health care, and safe working conditions, they’re also stepping up to help workers manage stress and the threats to mental health that they encounter on and off the job.
Rivera, whose local represents municipal workers in the southern coastal city of Ponce, collaborated with the USW’s Tony Mazzocchi Center for Health, Safety and Environmental Education in recent years to deliver disaster and mental resilience training to island communities pummeled by a string of hurricanes and earthquakes.
The training includes techniques for helping families prepare physically and psychologically for disasters, such as assembling “go bags” to sustain them in case of extended evacuations. The program, adapted from resources and materials developed by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Worker Training Program, also helps to boost residents’ safety and confidence by demonstrating how to guard against contaminants, downed power lines, and other hazards that hurricanes leave in their wake.
And the training showcases strategies—like providing social support, as Rivera offered in Fiona’s aftermath—to help survivors maintain the resilience essential to persevering after tragedy strikes. Rivera knows that the same solidarity that lifts up workers on the job also can help disaster survivors get through their darkest days.
“They start talking and talking and talking. They need to talk. People need to be heard,” said Rivera, recalling how eagerly residents related their experiences to her after Fiona knocked out power to the entire island, destroyed infrastructure, and flattened entire communities.
Providing this kind of outlet is especially critical, she noted, to maintain hope among people who were still trying to bounce back from five-year-old Hurricane Maria when Fiona walloped them again.
Tarps still covered thousands of homes that lost their roofs during Maria. Fiona destroyed some of the same infrastructure all over again. The wave of disasters created a looming mental health crisis that Rivera says her union is well suited to help address.
“We are a family,” said Rivera, who lost her own farm during Maria and can relate on a personal level with coworkers, neighbors, and others impacted by disaster. “It’s easier for them to open up to us.”
Studies document the therapeutic power of social connections.
Researchers from Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, tracked about 2,200 Hurricane Sandy survivors between the ages of 54 and 80 over a period of years. They found lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms among those who experienced higher levels of social cohesion after the storm, which struck Puerto Rico and parts of the United States, along with several other countries, in 2012.
Similarly, a Harvard study found that strong social connections mattered more than material resources, such as food and shelter, in helping elderly survivors cope with the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Social interaction even helped to stave off the cognitive decline many survivors experienced after the tragedy.
Disasters exacerbate threats to mental health and give unions special opportunities to help workers and communities endure. But unions also help members combat corrosive, everyday stressors that chip away at their families’ well-being.
Unions bargain strong contracts, for example, with paid sick days, bereavement leave, assistance programs, and other resources to help workers juggle job and family pressures—then zealously enforce those contracts to ensure members actually derive the intended benefits.
USW Local 8599’s contract with the Fontana (California) Unified School District provides leave that workers may use to spend time with dying relatives. When a supervisor tried to block one worker from using the leave, Local President Dawn Dooley immediately intervened with school officials, securing the union member both the time off and peace of mind.
Dooley continually reminds members that they’re never up against management alone. “You have the right to representation,” she says, “even if the conflict occurs at a potluck dinner.”
As more and more Americans report problems with stress, unions seek new ways to leverage the power of solidarity and equip workers in the fight for mental health.
When the communications company TELUS began harassing workers for taking restroom breaks, USW Local 1944 used the grievance process to safeguard members’ rights and safety. But the local, which represents thousands of workers at company call centers across Canada, also launched a broader campaign to protect members from the burnout they risked because of their stressful jobs.
Among other steps, the local’s Women of Steel committee published a series of user-friendly guides on how to address fatigue, anxiety, and depression. The guides explain that burnout is “the consequence of a high-performance culture,” not a personal failure, and emphasize the importance of sharing frustrations with coworkers and union leaders.
“We lift them up and give them a safe space so they can have a conversation,” Local President Donna Hokiro explained. “People feel empowered.”
“We fight for you,” she added of the union, “but we also teach you how to fight for yourself.”
FRONT ROYAL, Va.—By a 1,820-2,810 margin, members of yet another rail union, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, rejected a proposed contract which bargainers for 13 rail unions hammered out with the nation’s Class I freight railroads, and brokered by the Democratic Biden administration.
Lack of paid sick leave was the key issue for members, union President Michael Baldwin said. It also was a key issue for another union whose members voted the pact down, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees/Teamsters.
Talks between BMWE and the freight railroads have resumed, but with company bargainers refusing to even consider paid sick leave for the workers, news reports add.
“BRS members spoke loudly and clearly that their contributions are worth more, particularly when it comes to a basic right of being able to take time off for illness or to prevent illness,” he stated after the tally was announced October 26.
The Signalmen have just over 6,000 members while BMWE has 23,000.
The two rejections do not mean the nation’s 115,000 freight rail workers will bring the carriers to a halt. Both the unions and the carriers are in a legally mandated cooling-off period of 60 days after the tentative pact was reached on September 15, with Biden Labor Secretary Marty Walsh mediating.
After that, the freight railroads—including CSX, Norfolk Southern. Burlington Northern Santa Fe and the Union Pacific—can lock out the workers and the workers can walk. And if the proposed pact fails, Congress can step in and impose one of its own.
Would impact the supply chain
A lockout or a forced strike, just after the election, would further strain the nation’s already creaky supply chain, as the freight railroads move everything from grain to oil to coal to cars.
Like the BLE&T, members of the Signalmen bristled at carrier refusal to better work rules and working conditions—conditions, the unionists point out, that can keep them at work for weeks at a time without a break. And when they do get a day off, the bosses can call them back with little or no notice.
Both the freight railroads and a Biden-named mediation board “failed to recognize the safety-sensitive and highly stressful job BRS members perform each day to keep the railroad running and supply chain flowing,” Baldwin’s statement said.
“Without Signalmen, the roadways and railroad crossings would be unsafe for the traveling public, and they shoulder that heavy burden each day,” he added.
Railroad bosses and stockholders “seem to forget the rank-and-file of their employees continued to perform their job each day through an unprecedented pandemic, while the executives worked from home to keep their families safe.”
Railroads’ kowtowing to Wall Street demands for ever-higher profits has led to the bad working conditions and an acute shortage of rail workers ever since 2014, when cuts began, the rail union coalition notes.
Starting the next year, the big freight carriers have cut the workforce by 29% while racking up a combined $146 billion in profits.
The union’s decision sends BRS back to the bargaining table with the carriers. Under pressure from DOL, the carriers proposed larger raises, but still not enough to match inflation. But they didn’t change the work rules, and that’s angered railroaders.
“Three unions have now voted down the tentative agreement,” noted Railroad Workers United, a rank-and-file organization whose members hail from all the big freight railroads, and more, and all rail crafts.
RWU pointed out the three unions combined represent 30.4% of all rail workers. Six smaller unions, representing 19.4% of workers, have voted for the pact. The third union, Machinists District 19, negotiated its own new pact with the freight railroads, after the initial rejection. Its members are now voting on that.
Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.
This article was republished from People's world.
@PMA_Union via Twitter
“The art museum is Philadelphia,” curator Amanda Bock said. “There’s no art without art workers, so if you enjoy coming to the museum, seeing art, you need to support the people who make that possible.”
Bock and 180 Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) curators, educators, archivists, and other art workers aren’t feeling that support from one of the nation’s largest, oldest, and most venerable institutions. So, workers struck the PMA on Sept. 26, demanding a voice at work, livable wages, affordable healthcare, and job security.
“A lot of people say you can’t eat prestige,” said Adam Rizzo, president of AFSCME Local 397, representing PMA workers. “I think that’s true.” The PMA is known by its iconic front steps, made famous in the Rocky movie.
The workers struck after two years of stalled negotiations and union busting by museum management, who refused to meet the worker’s contract demands even halfway. Management offered an 11% salary increase through 2024, unacceptable to workers who have already labored without a raise for three years, including during the pandemic and the current inflation spiral.
PMA management has opted to keep the museum open and bring in scabs to install the upcoming exhibit featuring the works of French artist Henri Matisse. Striking art workers have appealed to art lovers not to cross the picket line to view the Matisse exhibit. “Scabby the rat” has a permanent presence in front of the museum.
“It is not hyperbolic to say our union’s fight for a fair contract…is a fight to save one of the world’s great art museums,” the union tweeted in early August. The workers want a livable wage commensurate with their education and training. They also want to make the institution more responsive to the needs of the diverse Philadelphia community.
The battle at PMA reflects a broader crisis of major cultural institutions nationwide and their prevailing model. Billionaires, corporate lawyers, and politically-connected individuals run the institutions. Their class and social bias prevent them from appreciating their employees’ struggles and the wider multi-racial working-class communities the institution serves.
Museum management is also out of touch with the swirling debates about how to make modern institutions more responsive to the emerging diverse and democratic multicultural world, including the repatriation of looted artifacts, something art workers have been grappling with for years. Museum management has proven ill-equipped to respond effectively to growing challenges to dominant white supremacist, patriarchal and elitist culture traditionally shaping their operations.
Under the direction of the corporate and wealthy patrons, museums are run like corporations, accumulating huge endowments, spending billions on massive expansions, and bloated administrative salaries while forcing the staff to work for poverty wages. The 2020 median annual wage for archivists, curators, and museum workers was $52,140, according to the Labor Statistics Bureau.
PMA is no different. The museum has a $500 million endowment and a $60 million annual budget. Executives make $500,000 or more per year, and the PMA chose to build a $233 million expansion rather than invest in those who make the museum operate. Management refuses to raise the minimum hourly pay from $15 to $16.75.
Management has resisted transparency in what it pays each employee. It took the Art and Museum Transparency spreadsheet that allowed workers in the industry to share their salaries discreetly. One PMA worker found out she makes less than the fellows and interns she supervises.
As a result, PMA and other museums are seeing a surge of unionization of their workers, mainly with AFSCME and UAW. In 2020, 89% of PMA workers voted to join the AFSCME. Security guards and maintenance workers were already unionized.
The workers say PMA management takes advantage of art workers’ commitment and passion for their jobs and cultural institutions. The low wages are forcing a high turnover, which doesn’t seem to concern management. Often management promotes a worker, and their former position goes unfilled. Previously permanent positions are now temporary or “term” positions. The result has been severe understaffing.
“We’re bleeding talented colleagues because of the museum’s low pay, poor benefits, and lack of professional development and advancement opportunities,” wrote PMA employee Emily Rice. “We no longer have enough staff to function properly. We have no archivist, no rights and duplication specialist, no database manager for collections; We only have one paper conservator, one taxidermist and one press officer. Each remaining employee covers the work of two or three people.”
Artists and cultural workers across the country, including museum workers in new unions at the Museum of Modern Art, Chicago Art Institute, and Brooklyn Art Museum, are sending solidarity and supporting the PMA strike fund. After expressions of solidarity inundated the PMA’s social media, the museum announced it was shutting down the comments section.
AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler joined the picket line on Oct. 8. Both AFSCME and the AFL-CIO held mass rallies with PMA workers during their conventions this past summer.
“Solidarity with @PMA_Union on strike. Every @philamuseum employee deserves respect, fair pay, and affordable health care. What goes great with some of the very best art in the world? A Union! 100%,” tweeted John Fetterman, Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate.
Correction: This article originally attributed an article written by PMA staff member Emily Rice to the wrong person and included an incorrect hyperlink. People’s World apologizes for the error.
John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He served as national chair of the Communist Party USA from 2014 to 2019. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, Pittsburgh, and Albuquerque and attended Antioch College. He currently lives in Chicago where he is an avid swimmer, cyclist, runner, and dabbler in guitar and occasional singer in a community chorus.
This article was republished from People's World.