Friday, February 10, 2012

The Importance of Movement Democracy

I think it's good that there is so much debate ensuing around tactics and strategy within Occupy right now. Movements only move forward if they are able to vigorously deliberate about their own strategy and goals. Avoiding debate and discussion means leaving our views unexamined and uncriticized. It means allowing the inertia of the status quo to set in and dampen progress. When this happens, movements wither on the vine. To the extent that the arguments about Black Bloc tactics have ignited discussions of this sort, they are productive for the movement as a whole.

Still, there are several unfortunate consequences of the framing of many of the debates raised by Chris Hedge's polemic against Black Bloc tactics. Some of the debates appear to have devolved into a shrill, abstract and moralistic back and forth about non-violence/violence. Others ignore matters that deserve a lot more attention than they're getting from the media. As a result of the framing of the "Black Bloc debates", a number of crucial questions have been lost in the fray.

What do I have in mind? The question of movement democracy, on the one hand, and the related question of how consciousness changes, on the other, are two deeply important questions that are not well-served by the debate instigated by Hedges's polemic.

As many have pointed out, the "Black Bloc" is a tactic, not an organization. Many who employ the tactic seem to have a roughly similar set of politics, but there is nothing like political homogeneity among the Bloc's participants. Different people employ the tactic in different contexts for different reasons. I'm inclined to say that any sweeping, abstract assessment of the Black Bloc as a tactic is bound to get things wrong. Only by conducting, as Lenin puts it, a "concrete analysis of a concrete situation" can we hope to get things right here. But what would a more concrete assessment of the tactic look like?

In order to answer this question, we have to back up for a moment. Who is it that's supposed to be doing the assessing here? And what method or practices for assessment should be used? There has been a lot of general debate over whether Black Bloc tactics are effective or justifiable. But the question of who should make this decision (and how they should make it) has been largely ignored. Before we can know which tactics are the right ones, we have to be clear about who should make that call.

One perspective here would be the following: the question of Black Bloc tactics is a matter best handled behind closed doors by activists already committed to using such tactics. According to this perspective, Black Bloc tactics should be employed whether or not the rest of the movement is won through dialogue and debate. Perhaps an attempt to win the rest of the movement should be tried, but if, in the end, that argument isn't won at a G.A., those who prefer Black Bloc tactics should simply go ahead with their plans anyway. Thus, activists of this persuasion see movement democracy as a mere means to achieving their pre-deterimined goals, rather than a genuine deliberative process where their own minds might change in the course of collective discussion with their comrades. Ultimately, this perspective assumes that decision-making power about movement tactics should rest with a relatively narrow group of people who decide internally what to do. I use the example of Black Bloc tactics, but this perspective could just as well be employed in support of any tactic whatsoever.

I'd like to suggest that this is a deeply problematic position.

A far better perspective would be one in which movement democracy is central. It is deeply undemocratic to use democratic bodies (like a G.A.) as mere means to achieve pre-determined goals (which can be discarded if it proves to be an unreliable means). The person who approaches movement democracy in this way says, in effect, "I'm for democracy only if it means I get my way, otherwise I'm against it." In the end, this person will say "I don't care if most people disagree with me about what this movement should do, at the end of the day I don't have any obligation to justify myself to fellow activists." This is not a democratic approach in the least. This individualistic/strategic perspective brushes against the grain of the cooperative and deliberative attitudes necessary to the flourishing of movement democracy.

But why is movement democracy important? It's worth going through the most significant reasons why effective mass movements have to be internally democratic.

First of all, an internally democratic movement draws everyone involved into active participation in the determination of the goals and tactics of the movement. Rather than allowing a self-appointed clique of "experts" to issue orders from on high, vigorous movement democracy mobilizes and activates all participants and enables them to be the co-authors of the movement (rather than mere followers or sympathizers). People have a much stronger stake in a movement when they are actively involved in running it. Mass participation goes hand in hand with genuine movement democracy.

Mass participation is key because it fosters that crucial element of all successful social struggles and revolutions: self-activity. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once put it, a "vibrant and active democracy" is needed within movements so that all members can "participate actively and consciously in working out its views and in determining its course of action." The point isn't that democracy is the most fair procedure in some abstract sense; rather, the idea that democracy is an essential political element of active social movements from below. Mass participation generates political energy and an anti-conservative spark that cannot be achieved in any other way. All of the most successful and inspiring social movements in history have created radical new forms of democracy from below that draw everyone into active participation (the revolutionary workers council is a key example). The success or failure of Occupy depends on its ability to draw the masses of people into active participation in determining its course of action.

Furthermore, a movement that eschews vigorous internal democracy risks running aground on the shoals of substitutionism. Substitutionism is the political mistake of substituting oneself (or one's small group) for a mass movement. Without vigorous movement democracy, where everyone debates publicly and openly what their common course of action should be, the door is left open for a group (or competing groups) to substitute their own perspective and goals for the perspective/goals of the movement writ large. Substitutionism is problematic for at least two reasons. First of all, it it elitist. Rather thank seeing liberation as a process in which the masses collectively emancipate themselves through their own self-activity, substitutionists assume that a minority must step in to grant the benighted masses liberation from on high. Second, substitutionism has the effect of de-mobilizing people. By drawing a sharp line of demaraction between themselves and the rest of the movement, substitutionists give others the impression that their active participation lacks value and importance. Substitutionist posturing does not win new people to the struggle. It doesn't radicalize the masses and encourage revolt from below. It tends to be perceived as top-down, insulting and de-mobilizing by those outside of the substitutionist clique.

Substitutionists aren't always self-professed radicals, although many are. Gradualist, conservative groups who have a stake in the status quo (esp. groups close to the Democratic Party) can step in and substitute themselves for the movement just as easily as ultra-left radicals. The key to preventing substitutionism is unfettered, vigorous movement democracy. That way, the direction of the movement is, ideally, determined by nothing except the unforced force of the better argument in mass deliberative bodies like G.A.'s. Of course, organized radicals can and must participate in those debates and deliberations. The experience and depth of politics they bring has a lot to offer the movement. But they must do so as participants in the collective-self governance of the movement, not as "experts" standing above and outside of the movement purporting to show the "ignorant masses" the unvarnished truth.

Finally, direct participation of the masses in intra-movement democracy is essential because of the collective learning process that it makes possible. This brings us to the question of how consciousness changes and how people are radicalized.

According to some, the best way to radicalize people is through provocative, small-scale actions that suddenly shake ordinary people from their "dogmatic slumbers". By witnessing daring examples of the "propaganda of the deed", people are radicalized and drawn into participation in struggle.

Now, I think it would be abstract and unhelpful to say that small-scale, bold actions have no progressive effect on consciousness. Everything depends on the form and content of the action and the context in which it occurs. But if there are examples of successful political interventions of this kind, there is also a long list of examples in which this approach resulted in spectacular failure. And even the most successful examples of the "propaganda of the deed" pale in comparison with the radicalizing effect of direct participation in collective struggles against the 1%. People are radicalized in the course of actively fighting back in concert with others. In a society in which people are bombarded everywhere they turn by advertisements and injunctions to buy this or that, it is unreasonable to expect that a mere slogan or image will be enough to win people to joining the fight for their own liberation. Drawing people into participating in struggle is the key to changing consciousness.

But how are people drawn into mass action and participation in struggle? Worsening material conditions and discussion/direct-engagement are essential here. Peoples daily lives are being shaken by brutal austerity from above, worsening living standards for the 99%, mass layoffs and unemployment, foreclosures and school closings, etc. They don't need a small clique to tell them that something is wrong with society. What they need is someone to engage them critically, to talk to them, to challenge them in discussion to link arms with others in struggle. Radicals need to talk to people in their own communities, to meet them half-way and engage them directly. This is all the more important if the Occupy movement is going to successfully collaborate and integrate itself with communities that face racial oppression, residential segregation and police intimidation. It's not enough to pull off creative political stunts that, in effect, fly the flag and demand that people rally to it. Direct political discussion with the 99% is essential to building mass movements.

Importantly, political discussion has to begin from where people's heads are at; if it abstractly sweeps in from elsewhere it is unlikely to get any traction. What's more, this dialogue has to draw on people's concrete experiences. Take the question of the role of the police. It would have been abstract to aggressively scold and berate new activists who were sanguine about the police in the early days of the movement. To be sure, raising objections to their attitudes toward the police was necessary, even at the beginning, because the cops never have been, and never will be, on our side. But things have changed drastically since then. After all of the repression from the police that the movement has faced, radicals are now very well-positioned to draw on those people's experience in arguing that the cops aren't on our side. Without a democratic forum for debate and dialogue that can draw on the collective experience of the movement, we can't expect to win fellow occupiers to the perspective that the police aren't a force for social justice. People's views are not set it stone; they are liable to change rather quickly on the basis of political debate and concrete experience through struggle. There's no substitute for engaging people in critical political dialogue in a way that draws on their own experience and concerns.

Now, critical dialogue doesn't mean that activists should leave people's existing views intact or simply pander to what they already think. This would be conservative and ultimately antithetical to the entire spirit of activism itself. Activists try to change the world, not merely interpret it as it is. Critical discussion and dialogue should be a combination of listening to people's concerns and questions, on the one hand, and challenging them to be more militant and active on the other. In the context of escalating attacks on the 99% from above, people's consciousness can develop extremely quickly. Seeing others engaged in mass struggles is a radicalizing force as well, which is all the more reason to build a mass, vigorously democratic movement from below.

This kind of critical discussion and debate can only flourish in the context of a democratic mass movement. If everyone simply does their own thing, without discussing among one another which way forward is best for all, these discussions may never transpire. If some groups, under the guise of a "diversity of tactics", simply opt out of democratic deliberation when they feel they won't get their way, this thwarts the capacity of the movement debate out and discuss tactics effectively. As a result, we can't generalize from each other's experience or learn from each other's mistakes.

The collective learning process that mass movement democracy makes possible is impossible to experience any other way. As socialist Norman Geras describes it, with mass movements:

"...the end must already be operative in the means employed, the liberation of the masses can only be their own work, and it it is in this very process of achieving it that they must develop those qualities which will sustain a socialist society. Thus, for Trotsky, mass participation in the political forms thrown up by a revolution is not only a manifestation of the widespread desire to assume more active control over political and economic life, it also promotes and consolidates that desire. Revolution is consistently seen as an educative process, in which the same mass actions which are necessary to destroy the existing economic and political structures, also have the effect of delivering the working class from bourgeois ideology, of making it conscious of its interest as a class, of raising its confidence in its own ability to organize and decide, and of providing it with the experience of these activities."

This educative process, where we learn from each other and radicalize through the course of struggle and collective self-determination, is impossible if some groups regularly opt out and decide that tactics are best determined by small groups who separate themselves from the movement.

So, the question of "Black Bloc: Pro or Con?" is not one that can be answered abstractly. It should only be answered by direct participants in a mass movement who collectively debate and deliberate together in an open, democratic spirit. To think that a few self-apointed "experts" could answer this question for everyone in a couple of widely-publicized internet debates misses this crucial point.


Richard said...

Another excellent post that avoids churning up the same ground over and over again as others have done in relation to the Hedges' article about the Black Bloc.

Curiously, both Hedges and those who practice violent Bloc tactics want to impose their approach on everyone else. In this, they are reverse sides of the same coin.

In each instance, the people are absent. Both approaches will shrink the movement instead of expanding it, because, even though Hedges has the right result for current conditions, non-violence, it is being dictated from above with no opportunity for discussion.

As I posted yesterday, there are many people living in distressed conditions that should be gravitating to Occupy. One reason is that they are not doing so is because they are legitimately frightened of the terrible things that can happen if they are subjected to police violence. But there is a bigger problem, they are also hesitant because the movement is not sufficiently open enough to them, not yet able to devise ways of incorporating their experience into it.

Neither Hedges nor the defenders of Bloc tactics have anything to say about this, about the need to focus our attention on the people who are not already part of Occupy.

Your post is the first rigorous examination of the problem and how to deal with it that I have seen.

martin244 said...

I think this largely misses the real issue here. The focus of the debate now (as several months ago) should be on the -political- issues and lessons to be drawn, with tactics coming in a distant second. With a few exceptions (like a socialist-sponsored resolution adopted by Occupy UC Davis), the former was painfully absent from OWS; most of the attempts to bring up political questions came from the Democrats and unions that were consciously out to co-opt the protests.

What we did see quite frequently was the overwhelming emphasis on 'strategy and tactics debates,' which led to a cycle of endless circlejerk activism for activism's sake - and which petered out fairly quickly.

For the most part, the current Hedges v. Black Bloc narrative avoids these issues. No one seems to have pointed out that both sides in the debate agree, implicitly or explicitly, on the big political questions: they're both ultimately supporters of capitalism; they both accept the dominance of the Democratic Party/AFL-CIO; they both reject Marxism and organized socialist politics.

These issues should be at the center of discussion, not this liberal protest tactics vs. 'radical' protest tactics stuff - particularly now, when tactical issues are pretty much a moot point.

t said...


Your comment reads as if you didn't read the post. I argue that the Hedges vs. BB tactical debate is a red herring that completely elides the *political* question of movement democracy. As you'll see in the post, I don't think democracy in the movement is a mere means... it's a substantive political part of how we get from where we are to a mass movement capable of challenging capitalism.

I also agree that Occupy should be politicized as much as possible. But movement democracy is key here, because without it political questions can't get raised and debated out. Politicizing GA's as much as possible is a good thing, but there is a time and place to discuss tactics in conjunction with politics (and for this movement democracy is essential).

I think what you say about co-optation by the Democrats makes sense, but it is a mistake to include "the unions" in the same breath. To be sure, the higher-ups in the AFL/CIO are hardcore lesser-evilists who will try to mobilize their members to campaign for the Democrats in 2012. But the AFL/CIO leadership is also caught in the middle here, because the vast majority of their rank and file members are energized and excited about things like Occupy. Moreover, the Democrats treat the AFL/CIO like shit and don't even deliver on the low-ball things they ask for (e.g. EFCA). Even the self-preservation of existing unions--something the union higher ups are for--brushes against the grain of mainstream Democrat policy right now. The Democrats are strong defenders of austerity, so even the most tepid and ossified unions are being forced to fight for their lives. There are tons of cracks and fissures here in terms of the relation between organized labor and the democrats... and socialists and radicals should be in dialogue with labor about why independent, militant working-class action is what's needed.

So, I think it's wrong to simply say that "unions" (whatever that means... are we talking union bureaucracy + rank and file members... are we talking *all* unions, or some and not others) are a co-opting, conservative force. Unions, no matter how bad they are, are not the same as the Democrats. Their problems are different problems from structural difficulties with the Democrats. I can assure you that the AFL/CIO isn't receiving billions of dollars from Wall Street, the Chamber of Commerce, etc. etc. But Obama and the Democrats are. I am all for igniting rank and file energy to light a fire underneath the asses of tepid, lesser-evilist union bureaucrats (or, if need be, to kick the bums out of the union entirely). I am all for militant caucuses within unions that want to mobilize them to fight back in the way that organized labor fought in previous epochs (especially in the 30s-40s). I am all for organizing the unorganized.

But I strongly oppose any ham-fisted attempt to collapse organized labor into the democratic party. Even though the labor leadership is lesser-evilist and pro-democrat, the two are distinct entities with different interests and different problems. The Democrats, given their function in the system and their relationship to the ruling class, are hopeless. The DP *cannot* be reformed for progressive purposes--it is a party of, by and for the bosses. The organized labor movement, on the other hand, is HATED by the bosses. Even the tepid, conservative, AFL/CIO is HATED by the ruling class (See Indiana's push for a "right-to-work" state for a concrete example). There's a reason why the ruling class hates unions so much, even the conservative business-unionism entities. And that sets them apart from the Democrats and makes them potential vehicles for struggle.

t said...

The "Teamster Rebellion" in Minneapolis in 1934 is a great example of why this general "anti-union" perspective is flawed. There, a group of revolutionaries won the respect of the rank and file and were able to win leadership of the local. They then expanded the local's membership broadly and faced down the bosses attempts to bust the union with a massive strike, "flying pickets" and showdowns with the cops. I think this is a great example of how radicals can work within the labor movement to encourage workers to fight for their rights.

For more on Minneapolis 1934 see:

For more on socialists and unions, see:

The AFL/CIO leadership is not to be trusted as an unqualified ally. But, in the context of escalating struggle, we can expect that the leaders will be forced into doing things they wouldn't otherwise have done. An excellent example was the mass call put out by AFL/CIO to save Zuccotti Park from the first attempt at eviction by Bloomberg. Tens of thousands of workers showed up an stopped the encampment from being destroyed. That did not happen by the good graces of the higher-ups... it happened because of the subterranean fire underneath them.

t said...

One more thought about unions/occupy:

In Occupy Chicago, the Occupy-Labor Working Group has done great things, none of which have anything to do with co-optation.


By patiently engaging the unions in the city and getting them to talk to Occupy (and one another), the working group has been able to instigate interesting discussions about challenging Rahm and the Democrat Machine in the city, about the need for independence from the Democratic Party, about the need for strike action, about organizing the unorganized and allying with anti-racist and immigrants rights struggles. There was recently an Occupy convened city-wide labor conference that drew Postal workers, bus drivers, subway conductors, nurses, teachers, teamsters from UPS and elsewhere, and many others. The discussions that happened at the conference were politically sharp and very interesting. They would not have been possible if Occupy Chicago had taken an undifferentiated "anti-union" perspective and derided all of these groups as nothing but "tools of the system." The fact is that workers are interested in Occupy and what's needed is patient organizing work and political conversation between radicals, Occupiers, and labor.

martin244 said...

I was aiming at political questions a bit more substantive than an emphasis on movement democracy, which fits in more with the tactics and strategy debates that were repeated ad naseum at Occupy events. We saw an overwhelming emphasis on this side of things, but very little on the real obvious and fundamental political questions that (non-activist) people showing up should have been exposed to. Had stuff like that UC Davis resolution been stressed more heavily than were the debates on democracy v consensus, how to vote, how to pick leaders, whether those leaders were "representative" enough, etc., Occupy could have had a far more significant impact on popular consciousness than it did.

As far as the unions go, I wish I could find a single statement here to agree with. First: I don't think it should be controversial to say the AFL-CIO/CTW are company unions. These are corporatist institutions, officially committed to 'partnerships' with management and hostile to the interests of their own members. We now have a 30+ year record of betrayals, sellouts and defeats consciously inflicted on the working class by the unions, continuing right on up to the present with Verizon and Cooper. All of this goes beyond any 'few bad apples' argument; these are reflections of a long-term change in the role of these institutions themselves, not just a few poor policy decisions from misguided leaders.

Second: it's not at all true that there's a significant gulf between the unions and the Democrats. The AFL-CIO/CTW, down to the lowest labor council, are tied to the Democrats by a million different threads - not only politically but organizationally, through dozens of PACs, NGOs, think tanks, left periodicals, activist groups and the union apparatus itself. Their role in the 2012 elections is a foregone conclusion.

If there's any doubt about the unions' allegiance to the Democrats, this unrelenting support for Obama (even, as you say, as the Democrats ignore union demands) should put an end to it. There's no ambiguity here: the unions will spend untold amounts to elect a right-wing, anti-worker mouthpiece for Wall Street, a man who has done more for the super-rich at the expense of the working class than any president since Reagan. To cast this as some good faith decision to opt for the lesser evil from honest 'labor leaders' is absurd - the unions brazenly lie about Obama on a regular basis, casting him not as a lesser evil but the amazing savior of the "middle class." They know exactly who Obama represents and the class war agenda he's committed to.

And these are the people, almost all of whom are wannabe CEOs paid salaries in excess of $200k/year, you want to have a dialogue with about 'independent, militant working-class action'?

martin244 said...

There are other problems here. You say the unions are "caught in the middle" with OWS - a really questionably presentation of the unions as democratic/influenced by membership opinion. We rarely see this anywhere else. When it comes time to ratify a union-sponsored sellout contract, for example, the unions have no problem with ignoring the membership's views and using threats, intimidation and dirty tricks to shut up dissidents. Far more likely is that the unions turned up at OWS (as they themselves said in mainstream media coverage) to try and push the protests back behind the Democrats.

This is not a new phenomenon. If there's a good sized demonstration happening in the US, you can count on the unions (or a union front group they hide behind) to show up and push the Democratic Party line. These people aren't idiots; the two party system has only managed to survive the 20th century because it has at its disposal all these mechanisms of control, designed to keep the working class from realizing and acting upon its own interests. If you honestly believe the AFL-CIO hopping on board the OWS bandwagon and saying this or that was the result of a 'subterranean fire,' you're being played, hard.

And in what universe are the unions in this life and death struggle against austerity? In this one, the response of the unions to austerity (whether from Democrats or Republicans) has either been to accept it pretty much without challenge or to actively campaign for it. There are any number of examples, but take California: here the unions spent millions to *elect* a right-wing Democrat running on an austerity platform. After he announced the first few billion in cuts to education and state services, by far the harshest budget of any US state, the unions endorsed it unequivocally. They then helped wage an electoral campaign to raise taxes on the poor and working class, repeating the Democratic lie that this was the only alternative to future cuts (which have since happened). The unions to this day still openly back Brown, whose latest budget includes at least $4 billion in cuts, and are now preparing to mobilize for another Democratic campaign to raise regressive taxes in November. The unions are not opposed to austerity - they're resonsible for it, spending millions in workers' dues to help push through (in line with Democratic Party policy) huge budget cuts and tax hikes.

The only time the unions have taken real issue with policy is when it might hurt (as in Ohio and Indiana) the unions themselves. Wisconsin last year was perfect illustration of their position: the unions agreed right off the bat to Walker's demands for austerity, rejecting only the collective bargaining provision in his bill that would've stripped the unions of their dues check-off income. When masses of protestors started to show up in Madison, the unions reacted by 1) pushing back against increasingly popular slogans calling for strike action (i.e., consciously sabotaging the anti-Walker effort) and 2) encouraging everyone to sign up to phone bank for Wisconsin Democrats.

martin244 said...

Finally: the unions are *not* hated by the ruling class. They're hated by one section of the ruling class called the Republican Party. The Democratic wing of the ruling class that's dominant today sees the unions as allies, as partners in their class war agenda. Look at the auto industry: though it wasn't mentioned in SW's piece on the State of the Union, the UAW was in fact a crucial co-conspirator in the historic 'restructuring' of the auto industry (cutting wages in half, shuttering plants, signing a no-strike pledge, etc.) featured so prominently in Obama's recent speech. In California, again, Brown relies on his allies in the CTA/CFA to not lift a finger over his unprecedented cuts to public education. And so on.

On the 1934 strike:

I've read about this before (a more detailed piece can be found here), and there are clear parallels to today. The big one is the CLA's starting point in 1934: they didn't intervene to argue that the workers should subordinate themselves to the existing unions, that they should engage in friendly dialogue or negotiations with, or 'pressure' the existing officialdom to move left and act in the workers' interests. They took leadership for themselves, essentially breaking with the union bureaucracy (none of the CLA leadership held official positions in the Teamsters) to take independent action.

This is in contrast with the perspective you seem to be arguing for here, where the job of 'radicals' is to pressure or convince the existing bureaucracies and institutions to 'move left' and somehow transform themselves into a genuine working class leadership. Frankly I think if we do see the working class move independently of/against the unions, the ISO will either ignore it (as they did with the Indianapolis rank and file committee, which saw barely any coverage in SW) or denounce it as ultra-leftist, sectarian, whatever.

JM said...

It's not just Hedges and Black Bloc either
. I've been debating this guy for a week or so now. His stubborness is giving me a headache.
Anyway, nice post.

t said...

@Martin244: This is not a matter that's likely to be settled in the comments thread, but I'll say a couple of quick things.

First, I can't understand why, given what you say, you aren't cheering on the ruling class initiative to transform the whole country into a "right to work" state. Why not cheer as the public sector unions in Wisconsin are gutted? If the existing unions are so thoroughly awful, why not cheer on their destruction alongside the Right?

Unions play a contradictory role within capitalism. According to you, however, there's no contradiction: they are smoothly-functioning ruling class institutions that expedite the oppression and exploitation of the working class. I think that's false. I agree, of course, that the current leadership of the AFL-CIO is class-collaborationist, that "business unionism" dominates among them, that they are out of touch and earn far more than most workers, that they are treacherous and betray workers on a regular basis, that they are attached to the Democrats no matter what, etc. But that's one side of the contradiction. We begin to see the other side when we observe that existing unions are in a fight for their lives right now because the entire ruling class (I don't agree with you that they simply pick either D's or R's... they almost always hedge their bets and play both sides of the aisle at the same time) is trying to squash collective bargaining and ram austerity down workers throats. What about the struggles of teachers unions all across the country against union-busting, privatization and layoffs? What about the ILWU's struggles in Longview? Or the port-drivers in Seattle? Or nurses in New York? Are we to refuse to struggle alongside rank and file union workers because the leadership of national union federations sucks? These union workers are using their organizations to resist attacks from the bosses and that is something socialists have to be involved in supporting and building. Abstaining and painting their defensive struggles with the same brush as Richard Trumka is an insult to the workers.

To be continued...

t said...

Look, what you're saying about the AFL-CIO (or CTW) is true, but it could have been said about the AFL in the 1920s as well. Yet, as you know, the 1930s happened. If radicals had followed your advice, the high-water mark of working class radicalism in the US would have never occurred.

The 1920s labor movement was everything you say is wrong with the existing labor movement: class collaborationist, etc. etc. But the 1930s happened. Why? Because socialists and radicals spent countless hours patiently organizing and building in workplaces--even in workplaces (gasp!) that were organized under AFL unions.

The militant struggles of the 30s only happened because socialists and radicals disobeyed your inflexible anti-union line and engaged in struggle within existing organizations of labor. To give up on the existing union movement as a possible site of struggle is absurd.

Organizing rank and file workers within existing unions (on the model of MN 1934) does not preclude working to build other independent struggles--particularly among the undocumented and unorganized. It's nothing but ruling class ideology to say that we must choose between fighting with either organized or unorganized workers.

What is the alternative for socialists if we are to 100% abstain from fighting in unionized workplaces? Are supposed to do what the CP did during the "Third Period" and try to build separate "Red unions". Lot of good that did.

Again, the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike is a key example of why your approach is flawed. Nobody ever said that radicals should simply leave the existing leadership intact and try to win them through moral suasion. In 1934 the Teamsters international leadership fought tooth and nail to undermine the strikers (and eventually, using the Smith Act, the higher-ups purged the union of radicals). But the 1934 strike was a massive outpouring of militancy that radicalized thousands of workers and transformed Minneapolis into a union town. On your view, however, it sounds like MN 1934 was worthless as far as the working class movement in the US is concerned.

Union workers are fighting back all over the country right now--many of them bucking the will of the higher-ups. Which side are you on? I stand with the workers involved in those defensive struggles.

t said...

You write: "When masses of protestors started to show up in Madison, the unions reacted by 1) pushing back against increasingly popular slogans calling for strike action (i.e., consciously sabotaging the anti-Walker effort) and 2) encouraging everyone to sign up to phone bank for Wisconsin Democrats."

That's false. I don't know what this abstract entity you call "the unions" is. Of course, the union higher-ups speaking from the podium did everything say that they did. They, predictably, pushed for a de-escalation of struggle and a forced marriage with the Democrat recall campaign. But the rank and file union members who participated in the mass demonstrations had different experiences and different goals. I'm not saying we should excuse the treachery of the leadership. I'm saying it is possible to mobilize rank and file union workers to use their existing workplace organization to struggle--even if that puts them on a collision course with the higher-ups. Unions open up the avenues of struggle considerably by protecting workers from some of the intimidation and firings that would be used to get rid of trouble-makers in a non-union workplace. I think it's absurd to say socialists shouldn't take advantage of this infrastructure and organize within workplaces, alongside rank and file union workers fighting to protect themselves from onslaughts from the bosses.

I'll say it again: if all existing unions are so thoroughly bad and nothing but "company unions", then why even be upset about the Walker push to eliminate collective bargaining? Why not cheer it on? Why wasn't the ruling class spending money trying to protect the public sector unions since, in your estimation, there's a substantial part of the ruling class that loves unions?

Richard said...

If you attack the union wholesale, the members will shy away from you, even if they agree with much of what you say about it

But, if you try to work with the members to either transform the union, or work on important issues outside the union, with an acknowledgement of their struggle, some will join the effort

t said...

I completely agree. That's the basic attitude radicals need to have in order to engage in political conversations with workers who are learning a lot about the system through engaging in defensive struggles against austerity.