by HiFi & Mazin
The current discussion on unions is welcomed, but has so far mostly focused on strategy and tactics around existing unions. Of course, these immediate issues are critical and necessary, including in our own work. However, we want to focus here on mapping out the shape of the terrain.
There are a few broader considerations we need to keep in mind:
1) Clarify in a categorical sense what we mean by a union 2) Consider the past conditions from which the existing unions arose 3) Move toward an understanding of the current period in which the old unions have been transformed and have created a new strategic and tactical necessity 4) Finally, we have to get a sense of a way forward regarding the union question
What follows is a series of notes on these issues.
What are Unions?
We have to start by thinking categorically about the union form. Only with this in mind is it possible to establish a foundation by which to examine the historical and contemporary developments of unions. Further, only with a categorical foundation can we begin to assess the current strategic terrain without falling into empirical and subjective responses around the union question.
Labor and Labor Power
It is critical to think about unions in terms of the relationship between labor and labor power.
In capitalist society the existence and category of labor are completely split between labor and labor power. In a dialectical sense, the workers are both labor and labor power. This division arises because labor is completely separated from the means of labor, or means of production.
Labor power is the ability to labor that must be exchanged with the capitalist in order to get access to the uses needed to survive and satisfy needs. The worker gets money in the form of a wage to get those uses. In return the capitalist gets labor, which comes alive when fused with the means of production. Because the capitalist controls the means of production, he appropriates or keeps the product of the worker, or object produced, for himself.
The split between labor and labor power expresses the relation between necessary and surplus labor. The worker gets back only the necessary subsistence to reproduce herself for that day. But the worker creates much more than the necessary subsistence in a day. The worker creates not only what is necessary to survive that day, but a surplus.
The relationship between necessary and surplus labor has governed all of human history. In capitalist society this relationship takes the form of value. The worker produces surplus value, but only gets back the value of necessary labor. This amount is the value of the worker’s labor power and not labor. Therefore, once again, the worker does not get back the surplus value she has created, but only what was necessary to reproduce her labor power for another day.
The value of labor power is its price, and this is the wage received at the end of the week. The so-called price of labor, the wage of the worker, is actually the value of labor power, which is only necessary labor. Meanwhile, the surplus labor as value goes to the capitalist. The worker receives the value of labor power, which is its price, but not the surplus value the worker created through her labor. The split between labor and labor power, therefore, takes on an additional form in the separation of value and price.
The wage extinguishes the division between necessary and surplus labor. It seems as if the worker exchanges with the capitalist a day’s work for a day’s pay. However, this is not the case. Given the social relations of production, the worker can never get back the total of what she created. The terms of exchange will always be “unequal” because the capitalist is able to appropriate the surplus.
A Contradiction Internal to the Class
By definition the split between labor and labor power is internal to the class or else there would be no class at all. There is a working class because there are a group of people who have nothing but their labor power to exchange with the capitalist to get access to the uses they need. The worker gets subsistence through the wage and capital accumulates the surplus to expand itself. The class relation between the worker and the capitalist is an external expression of an internal split between labor and labor power.
Unions arise from the objective condition of the class and are integral to the relations of labor in capitalist society. They arise as a result of an internal contradiction in the class between labor and labor power. Unions are not external to the class, but an objective expression of its existence. Unions are an organizational expression of the class that come about from the collective struggle over common conditions. However, the union form is the result of the internal contradiction of the class between labor and labor power.
First, unions emerge as the workers combine in an attempt to increase the price of their labor power. In doing so the workers collectively struggle to increase their subsistence. However, considered from this standpoint alone they do not challenge the form of production, but simply the distribution of the surplus.
Second, capitalism brings into being the collective worker, a new form of cooperative labor. Since production is a social process involving many different kinds of workers due to the division of labor, the union is a form of association that represents both potential mastery over the entire production process, as well as their potential ability to collectively shut down production. However, as the union potentially combines the many different types of workers involved in the production process, it becomes the form of organization of the collective worker whose increasing cooperation develops in the production process. The union is therefore also the organization of the collective worker at the point of production.
The relationship between the struggle to increase the price of labor power and the latent cooperation of labor involves a profound contradiction. Do the workers combine to bargain for the terms of sale of their labor power or do they combine as collective producers who can seize the means of production? Do they merely reproduce their labor power and therefore the capital and labor relation? Or do they combine in an organization that represents their latent cooperative labor, which can serve as the foundation for a rupture with the value relation?
Both sides of this contradiction are at play in the union form. As unions developed the workers increased the price of their labor power. However, this did not break with the capital and labor relation. It instead reproduced the split between labor and labor power. On one side of the contradiction of the union form there is a tendency to reproduce labor power and therefore class. On the other there is the tendency of the union to give organizational expression to the latent unity of cooperative labor. This inherent unity is the basis for restructuring production during the rupture with capital. Although this unity is mediated by the capitalist it must be positively realized in new relations of production during the destruction of the value form in the transition to communism.
Unions in the ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’
Unions were transformed in the 20th century from organizations to increase the price of labor power and unify the collective worker into organs of labor discipline within the production process. This change marked the transition from absolute to relative surplus value.
Unions and the Working Day
In the 19th century workers’ struggles, with the important exception of the Paris Commune, were centered around the shortening of the working day. Workers attempted to overcome the contradiction between labor and labor-power by challenging the hold of the capitalist on the surplus.
During much of the 19th century the accumulation of capital was characterized by the production of absolute surplus value. Absolute surplus value is production of surplus that is tied to the length of the work day: the longer the working day, the greater the amount of surplus value. The struggle of the workers arose because the capitalists were lengthening the working day in order to increase the production of surplus value. The struggle over the working day called into question the part of the workday in which the worker produced surplus for the capitalist, which was the very means by which capital sought to reproduce itself and expand.
Even at that time, however, the production of absolute surplus-value was becoming less and less a means by which capital accumulated. As the workers began to achieve a shortening of the working day through unionization and legislation, capital had to find new ways to create surplus value. Capital increased the constant capital in the form of machines in the production process. With the generalization of the use of machinery, the expansion of capital was accomplished through the production of relative surplus value. Relative surplus value is characterized by the dramatic increase in productivity and exploitation of labor. More use values are created in less time.
With this shift in the production of surplus value, the struggle for the shortening of the working day no longer corresponded to the era of relative surplus value. As the productivity of labor increased with the application of machines, a potentially minimum working day was already being established and the struggle for an eight hour day lost meaning. It was no longer a struggle that corresponded to the objective development of capital and labor. The task of the workers shifted to seizing the means of production to socially realize a society of minimum labor time whose potential now already existed.
This background is necessary to understand how unions changed in the first half of the 20th century.
Unions and Relative Surplus Value
Many of the existing unions formed in the early part of the 20th century when relative surplus value matured as the general mode by which capital produced surplus value. As a result, this period, known as the ‘golden age of capitalism, was one in which labor power received a marginally greater share, and also, given the immense growing productivity of labor, a relatively diminishing share of the surplus. This was accomplished through increasing the intensity of the work – for example speed up, etc. in addition to the development of the productive forces through the application of science and technology to the production process resulting in the development of machinery, and a profound increase in constant capital.
These developments of the productive forces corresponded to the labor revolts that birthed the CIO, the origins of today’s unions. The workers of the CIO were what have been labeled “mass,” or semi-skilled, workers. These workers worked in the newly mechanized factories being built that largely relied on the employment of machines in the production process. The development of machinery, as a further extension of the division of labor, gave rise to this new class composition that became the objective basis of this labor upsurge. At that time the AFL, home to skilled workers and craftsmen, withheld their support from this revolt by the semi-skilled worker because the expansion of machinery took away work from these skilled craftsmen, and made many of their trades obsolete. It was the revolt of the soon-to-be CIO, however, that called into question the conditions of work that accompanied these developments of the productive forces.
At the same time, the unions mediated an increase in the total social wage in exchange for increasing labor productivity. This included, in addition to higher wages, the expansion of “democratic” rights and increased social investment on the part of the capitalist through the state. While the price of labor power increased, the exploitation of labor deepened as the quantity of goods increased and their prices fell.
In concrete terms, the dynamic of labor productivity and labor power meant things like the growth of the one paycheck household, company pensions, rapidly expanding cheap and high quality higher education, and the post-war housing boom. Of course, we need to be very clear that this was not the case for all labor power. For example, many, many millions were racially left outside looking in – something that conditioned the powerful and vanguard black struggle from the 1940s into the 1970s. It was a similar case with the women’s movement.
All this also meant that the unions changed along with the overall political conditions of the workers’ struggle. The workers as labor power could be absorbed ‘politically’ and ‘economically’ because labor productivity grew dramatically. The exponential growth in the productive forces expressed in growing surpluses meant a growth in the marginal share the workers received. But while the price of labor power increased, its overall value decreased as the increased productivity of labor meant that the portion of the workday needed to reproduce the wages of the worker decreased in relation to the portion of the workday in which surplus was produced for the capitalist.
Incidentally, as higher productivity and higher wages could only be guaranteed with the introduction of new science, technology, and production methods, capital required a higher level of rationalization and control over the production process. The increased “democratic” rights guaranteed by the state that included the legalization of unions, at the same time subjected them to new modes of rationalization within the production process. With the massive investments into constant capital, capital required the guarantee of a return on these investments through uninterrupted production. Through their legalization the union officialdom reciprocated by forfeiting basic strategies such as the right to strike and the tactic of the sympathy strike.
Furthermore, unions gave up struggles over the conditions of work, such as pace, intensity, health and safety conditions, and a say over the introduction of further extensions of the division of labor. This meant that, while unions continued to struggle over labor power in the form of wages, the abandonment over the conditions of labor meant that the official unions no longer expressed the resistance of living labor in the process of production itself.
All of these new conditions were guaranteed through union contracts by the state, and, further, this intervention by the state into the production process, an evolution of the class relationship between capital and labor, became the objective basis for the existence of the union bureaucracy. Thereafter every revolt against these new conditions in the production process was also a political challenge to the state, and thus posed the question of workers power against capital.
Finally, against the guarantee of uninterrupted production embedded in the union contract, every revolt by the working class put them at odds with the new terms of the union form itself. In this period unions no longer embodied the contradiction between labor and labor power, and instead relegated struggle to the price of labor power. This shift corresponded to a new relationship between the worker and the union whereby the union became a social service agency and a higher level of atomization of the working class was achieved within the union form. Unions, then, no longer expressed the potential of the collective worker at the point of production.
Unions in the Age of ‘Neo-Liberal’ Crisis
We encounter today a deepening crisis in the social reproduction of labor as the capitalists seek to lower the subsistence levels of labor power. What is reproduction and why is it important? Labor power must be daily reproduced in order for the worker to recreate, expand and circulate capital. Without this, there could be no capital. The capitalists must regulate the consumption of the workers to what is necessary to get them to work, but nothing more. Anything beyond that is considered unproductive for the capitalist. Capital is therefore not only carrying out a massive austerity in the formerly advanced economies, but lengthening the working day by lowering wages, transferring the social costs of reproduction to the individual worker and increasing precarious work.
Capitalist Attack on the Total Social Wage
Today the terms of sale of labor power are fundamentally changed as the capitalists have been confronting a long, unfolding crisis over the last 40 years. Unlike the previous period, capital aims at driving down the costs of the total social wage. Once again, the total social wage goes well beyond the paycheck the worker gets every week, and includes social investment by the capitalists through the state or other entities like foundations, non-profits and companies, in education, healthcare, and public infrastructure.
The struggle against the reduction of subsistence levels of labor power, or living standards, profoundly conditions the resistance to capital in the crisis. Whereas this resistance has characterized decades of fight back in the crisis-ridden Western countries, opposition was more often than not confined to particular companies and industries. However, in recent years, as we have seen, a critical dynamic has developed in which alongside ongoing specific sector action, often involving unions, there has emerged a more generalized form of resistance speaking to the crisis of reproduction. This has been most dramatic in the rebellions in Egypt and Europe. The United States has obviously also experienced this dynamic, although to a lesser extent.
Despite the loss of density in the U.S., the existing unions are deeply involved in the struggle over the total social wage. Although they are decaying remnants of the previous period, the existing unions have been transformed into something new.
In the ‘golden age of capitalism’ the existing unions were predicated on “full” employment and increases in the social wage exchanged for labor discipline and productivity. Today capital achieves labor discipline and productivity in new ways, developing a regime of precarious, casualized and “flexible” work, as well as permanent and structured unemployment. Further, it is the police and prisons that have equally become the institutions and sadist faces of labor discipline.
Today the old unions mediate the capitalist attack on the total wage. These unions adopt the employment conditions, wage scales, and work rules of the precarious, casualized and flexible workplace. Further, the old unions are transformed into the means by which the social costs of pensions and healthcare are shifted to the individual worker.
In the current period, the majority of the existing unions have moved towards a service model. These unions seek individual “partnerships” with companies and consumer relationships with their members. They function as labor contractors for employers and customer unions for employees. They increase the atomization on the job and turn their members into mere numbers at empty union rallies. These unions have become company shareholders, either directly, as in the UAW, or indirectly in the number of union pensions invested in the stockmarket.
Further, and importantly, because the existing unions are a consequence of labor relations law, they cannot organize cross sector strikes, nevermind class-wide action. The unions have backed federal law that limits employer action during card check union elections. Besides the fact that it has no possibility of passing the Congress given the current balance of class forces, the law would have no effect on the attack on labor power given that it is not union density that is the key to the struggle, but the ability to organize strikes. Effective class action builds “density”, not the other way around.
Since these unions have so far largely failed to develop a presence in the South, the employment conditions of the South have migrated to the North. The most recent concessionary contract of the UAW around the auto bankruptcies makes that all too clear. The ongoing organizing drives and political offensives the unions and the Democratic Party are carrying out in the South is a failing attempt to reverse this trend.
New Ruling Class Policy on the Unions
The old unions have been weakened to such a degree that the capitalists have seized the political terrain in a “counter-revolutionary” wave that has swept through Republican controlled state legislatures since 2008. The Republican Party has passed so-called “right to work” laws in many states, bypassing at times parliamentary procedures to do so, as was the case in Michigan. This “southern solution” to the union question has two aims. The first is to remove the old unions as a “grassroots” force for the Democratic Party. The second is to remove union pay scales and job protections, which continue to set the standard for unskilled and semi-skilled work as a whole in particular regions of the country.
It is not only the Republican offensive that is forcing the working class to confront its political conditions. For the first time the Democratic Party has had to contemplate confronting the union question as an executive power at the federal level in the era of ‘neo-liberal’ crisis. For example, the Obama administration and the Democrats used the bankruptcy of the auto companies to work with the UAW to force through a massive concessionary contract that reduced wages and compensation to new minimum levels.
The Wisconsin protests confronted the national Democratic Party with a different problem. As the leading edge of capitalist austerity, the Republicans seek to break altogether with the promises of the social contract established under the “golden age”. The Right has made a final break with the legal existence of unions. On the other hand, the centrists, now gathered in the Democratic Party, by and large tolerate unions as labor contractors, “get out the vote” machines, and propagandists against Republicans.
While there is unity among the ruling class and the two parties around the attack on the total social wage, political polarization in the United States has so far obscured the class content of austerity. Unlike the some parts of the Middle East or Europe, polarization in the United States has been largely deflected through the two political parties.
The Union Today: Which Way Forward?
The preceding theoretical and historical background now raises the question of what orientation revolutionaries should take towards the union form. We make the following points: 1) Revolutionaries must work with the rank and file of existing unions 2) Support the formation of new unions when objectively possible 3) Help build minority or vanguard workers organizations
A New Communist Analysis of Unions?
To some extent we have inherited a communist critique of unions that arose in the previous period. That analysis developed from the new forms of workers activity in the 1930s to the 1970s. These forms included everything from absenteeism and sabotage, wildcat strikes, to workplace committees and councils. Such forms emerged as a negation of the unions, superseding them as labor sought to confront capital as “workers power”.
The ultra-left view of the unions as reformist institutions, absorbed into the production process and functioning as organizations of labor discipline, expressed the reality and needs of the previous period in capitalism. There is a tendency today, in the use of this framework, to view unions as external to the class. This analysis of the unions was understandable in the past given that worker struggles sprang up against the form of production itself and less so the terms of sale of labor power. The wave of wildcat struggles and shop floor militancy in the late 1960s and 1970s were as much about the alienation and speed up of the machines – and the unions that regulated discipline to them – as they were about pay raises to keep up with inflation.
Faced with the limits of its own reproduction in the 1970s, capital destroyed the old role of the union in the production process. As a result, the existing unions have lost their objective existence as a mediation of capital and labor, except in particular industries. However, even there the tendency is that competitive pressures between capitals are eroding the power of those unions. Any rising demands of labor power can no longer be met by capital and the tendency has been towards the liquidation of the unions as institutions of worker discipline.
What disciplines workers today is precarious, casualized work, structural unemployment, labor law and the prisons. And the tendency toward precarious work is by no means limited to the working poor and “proletarianized” white collar workers. Precarious work – the lengthening of the work day, the attack on the social wage, and speed up – are increasingly a feature of all job classifications: transportation, heavy and light industry, education, healthcare, and services, etc. The “democratic rights” once extended to the workplace have been, and continue to be systematically eroded and destroyed. There is a widespread and successful dismantling of the existing legal structure of labor relations that was established in the 1930s and 1940s.
A new situation has arisen, qualitatively different from the previous period. As the capitalists attack the total social wage, struggles over labor power face the question of political power much more directly than before. Struggles over labor power can no longer be incorporated into the development of capital as they were in the 19th century, or superseded as they were for many branches of industry in much of the 20th century by the development of machines and dramatic reduction of necessary labor time that resulted. During the “golden age” the demands of labor power and the struggle of labor against capital tended to be antagonistic to each other. Today this is not the case. The attack on the total social wage increasingly raises the impossibility of the social reproduction of labor power and labor.
What are the implications? The form of production, or the “political” question is more directly confronting the working class and the oppressed on the terrain of labor power. Crucially, this dynamic means that defensive, or so called “economic” battles can leap into confrontations on the “political” terrain. More precisely, the separation of labor and labor power tends to close as capital reduces the subsistence levels of labor power. Increasingly, humanity as labor and labor power cannot reproduce itself relative to the massive productive forces and social wealth it has created in the form of capital.
Such a reality means three things. First, struggles around the wage – including health, pension and job rights, if any – can be the basis for real breaks with the existing unions and political forces arrayed in the state. Second, the objective conditions can arise for new unions to sprout up in industries with or without existing unions. The conditions exist now for a greater number of new worker militants to appear on the scene and the appropriate organizational forms must be found to cohere them.
Lessons from Wisconsin
A clear example of the first point, and the kind of leap we have in mind, is what happened in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin showed how a union struggle over an attack on the social wage goes over to a class wide movement, discovering tactics, in this case a kind of occupation, which began to embrace the whole class. The struggle in Wisconsin quickly established the limits of the existing unions and came up against the objective reality that the capitalists and the ruling class have no choice but to attack the total social wage. The generalization of these struggles opens up the possibility for a broader agitation in which the workers confront more directly the political situation of the working class and carry out class wide action. Wisconsin showed how the gap between labor power and labor is closing in the era of austerity
Again, to use an older set of terms, these workers were in the process of moving from the “economic” to the “political” level. With the continued unfolding of the crisis such mobilizations have ruptured at various moments onto the national stage. Just as the capitalists carried out a naked class offensive in Wisconsin, so unionized workers had to move from a company or industry specific fight, to class-wide struggle. Just like Occupy or the Trayvon Martin protests became a touchstone for discontent around the country, touching places with undeveloped traditions of protest, these union fights clearly raised more directly the political situation facing the working class for all to see.
These struggles are not simply “defensive” or “economic” struggles. They are also not simply struggles of a “privileged” sector of the working class. They are the conditions of struggle for unionized workers in particular industries for their own radicalization. It is the condition for the deepening of their own understanding of the “political” level. This is the case because the capitalists can no longer provide the “American Dream” to the working class. The attack on labor power arises objectively from the crisis of the capital-labor relation today. Defensive struggles can function as “schools of communism” today.
There have been no clear, semi-permanent political alternatives that have emerged during the current crisis in the U.S. Since no alternative has arisen, the working class, in particular semi-skilled and skilled, tend to think within the framework of the “golden age”. This has given a merely defensive character to many of the struggles and individual strikes that have appeared during the crisis. Despite the capitalist offensive, the working class has yet to fully grasp the class nature of the state and the bankruptcy of bourgeois democracy. They have so far resisted the new regime within the framework of the old. An appeal to the promise of the “American Dream” – the ideological bedrock of trade unionism – has no power in the face of a unified enemy that has no intention of raising standards of living.
We need new forms of worker organization that can establish that alternative new union. Broadly speaking, the ultra-left tends to consider the question of labor power from only one side. If the demands of labor power can longer be met by capital, so the argument goes, then necessity dictates seizing the means of production, abolishing value, and reconquering uses for human needs and not capital. Of course, this is true, but it doesn’t explain the overall character of worker protest. Regarded from the other side of the contradiction, then, the demands of labor power cannot be ignored. In response to the crisis of the reproduction of labor and capital, workers will just as likely struggle around the demands of labor power. Again, the contradiction here arises from the objective existence of the class
In fact, the struggle against austerity, which deeply conditions the fight back today, is equally tied to the demands of labor power. Yet these demands continue to be monopolized by the existing and decaying unions. If the domain of labor power is subsistence, then this struggle is mediated by the division of labor, which in turn is mediated by competition. And this takes concrete form in mutual competition between the workers. Competition is across industries and their individual branches and departments. The existing unions reproduce the division of labor and are not the basis for class-wide organizations – organizations of the collective worker.
It would be formalistic and external to the class to fail to engage with the union form. Since precarity is the general condition of the working class today, struggles around labor power are part of the objective movement of the class. The struggles against austerity have not negated the union form, but demand new kinds of unions as worker activity ruptures with the existing unions. The existing unions need to be superseded by the formation of new unions.
Since the tendency is toward the destruction of the legal framework for labor relations, new unions will likely emerge in a semi-illegal existence. This means that there would be a less direct tension between permanent and semi-permanent forms of class organization. Without the institutionalization of labor law and the acceptance of employers, new unions will exist as more porous and flexible, morphing into industry-wide offensive that have the possibility of equally negating the division of labor and becoming the organization of the collective worker.
New unions will resemble less the bureaucratic, professionally staffed institutions we are familiar with today, and more semi-permanent unions of the past whose “contracts” were merely temporary truces in an ongoing struggle. Once again, even as the union form reproduces the commodified form of labor, while being the organization of the collective worker, the gap between the two lessens.
However, since unions are mass organizations, the objective conditions do not exist at this time for them to emerge.
Minority Class Organizations
If new unions are not yet possible, other forms of organization are absolutely necessary. Revolutionaries should assist in building minority worker organizations. New unions will not emerge in a linear way, nor are they enough to constitute the political independence of the class. Instead, we need to build minority organizations to both assist in laying the foundation for new unionism, as well as cohere and intervene to help develop worker militants who will play a leading role in new struggles and organizational forms that go beyond unions – class-wide organizations – that can begin to pose alternatives to the current order. These new militants are critical to establishing the scaffolding for both the “economic” and “political” organization and action of the class.
Why are minority forms of organization necessary? Once again, Wisconsin illustrates the point. While tens of thousands of workers moved, challenging in their activity the existing array of political forces in the state, this movement was enclosed and appropriated by the organizational power of the union bureaucracy and Democratic Party. Despite the important work of individual militants in Wisconsin – in particular the agitation for a general strike – revolutionaries have yet to organize themselves to fully intervene in such ruptures. This involves organizational ability and capacity – neither of which we have yet to fully achieve, in particular the latter.
More radical mass organizations – like unions – are not sustainable today given the overall development of political conditions. However, what is possible today is the creation of networks composed of a layer or nucleus of more radical workers. The growth of our organizational ability and capacity depends on the emergence of a layer or advanced sector of the class that can act as a pole within ruptures like Wisconsin as well as smaller localized struggles. These poles must serve as a counterweight and an alternative to bureaucratic and statist forces. The focus for revolutionaries should be to not only actively build and support the appearance of these layers or nodes of radical workers, but also aim towards their unification in specific networks – including industry specific – and linked around a common internet presence sharing information and perspectives. Our comrades at Recomposition have already gone a long way in thinking about this and we all should listen.
At this historical moment we have to distinguish between the revolutionary propaganda groups that populate the revolutionary Left today and potential networks of worker militants. However, these forces will obviously overlap. The relationship between the two can act as a conjuncture, which will establish a new foundation for revolutionary organization that goes beyond propaganda groups. This is particularly the case as such networks bring together knowledge about the specific workings and contours of particular industries. Revolutionary programs become more concrete based on this knowledge.
Besides radical worker networks, what forms of organization should be advocated? Minority or vanguard forms of organization emerge differently, depending on the specific situation.
In some of the existing unions there has been significant rank-and-file unrest. The SEIU and UAW come immediately to mind. This discontent has typically taken the form of union reform caucuses. Reform caucuses will not be able to escape the confines and logic of labor law, which structure these unions. However, to the extent that reform caucuses have rank-and-file support among a dissident membership, revolutionaries should try to win these workers over to alternative political perspectives, strategies, and tactics.
In existing unions the focus should be on the formation of workplace groups. These groups can be the basis for the agitation for rank and file committees that run parallel to the official union structure. These groups, and later committees, should advocate direct action, flying pickets, workers control and the formation of mixed locals. Revolutionaries must advocate class-wide unity and organizational forms that lay the foundation for the breakdown of the division of labor. Committees should be the basis to advocate tactics that break with legality and unite the class by incorporating demands and needs of all sectors. Ultimately, committees should agitate for the strike, in particular against the limited and broken up show strikes of the existing unions. Finally, as our comrades in Advance the Struggle have already pointed the way forward, we need to agitate for classwide committees clustered around specific industries. These tactics and organizational forms are the expression of the collective worker.
Here is where we need to distinguish what it means to “defend the unions”. We cannot defend the structure of the existing unions and their legal straight-jacket. However, in attacking the existing unions, the capitalists are creating the political conditions for the non-reproduction of the working class and the oppressed. In the fight back the existing unions are not an adequate terrain for a counter-offensive against capital. It is not possible to alter the form of the existing unions by changing their leadership.
Like all organizational forms under capitalism, unions express objective contradictions that cannot be willed away. As Marx argued about capitalism in general, the problem of form is key. We cannot simply substitute one organizational form for another and be guaranteed the results we want. We must always be alive to the dialectic of form and content. However, at this time we can be certain about the types of organizations we need and must advocate.
28 thoughts on “Finding Our Footing on the Union Question”
Yeah, the union piece is outstanding. I basically agree with the
framework layed out in it. The last section in particular provides a
much needed re-conceptualization of the significance of wage struggles
today that can help us deepen our participation in anti-austerity
struggles at our workplaces. This is really fresh – methodologically it
reminds me of the best of opiearismo, looking at the new class
composition and the new forms of struggle that could emerge out of it.
But instead of replicating opeiarismo conclusions in dogmatic ways, it
creates new ones based on the existing struggles and the contradictions
within them that could be overcome by a militant minority of workers.
This is an interesting report and analysis on recent logistics worker strikes and blockades in Italy, among precarious migrant workers : http://www.uninomade.org/circuits-of-recomposition-22m/
The translation is a bit confusing to read but it seems they are highlighting the obsolescence of the old union forms and the creation of new ones, and the directly political character of wage demands among precarious workers.
This seems to confirm some of your anlayses (though I wonder how the class composition of the US compares and differs from Italy):
Thanks for the comments, Mamos. And thanks for forwarding the piece on the recent strikes in Italy. I’ve followed the situation a bit, but look forward to checking out this essay for deepening my current understanding.
I think you are dead on about the need to understand the “new class composition and the new forms of struggle that could emerge out of it”. Unfortunately, we know so little in a systematic sense. We tend to know quite a bit about our cities in an observational and experiential sense. That is a start. It is gonna take an effort well beyond our individual groupings to start to map that composition out more systematically.
Finally, I suspect that the current regional differences in composition across the U.S. is going to lead to a lot of unevenness in struggle that will present obstacles to building nation-wide movements. Not sure what this means going forward, but something I’m sure a lot of us have thought about.
I agree with both points – about the need for multi-group collaboration on a class composition analysis, and on how regional differences are leading to unevenness of struggle. I wonder how much of a role regional differences are playing in terms of the different interventions that AS, U/S, BOC, MAS, Recomposition folks, etc. are making and the different trajectories these formations have taken the past 2 years. For example, it seems that Occupy was much more militant up here in the NW than it was in the South and this has shaped the decisions our groups have made and what we’ve prioritized in terms of our respective development. And the ILWU in the Bay is majority Black but up here it is majority white, so this has influenced AS and BOC’s different orientations to the port struggles.
doesnt that difference in approach reproduce the differences shaped by racism and labor market segmentation?Are you saying that both groups have a “correct” orientation for thier local scene?
thanks for this piece. I appreciate the contribution, particularly the attempt to understand the question of “what is a union” historically and in terms of class struggle. the questions you pose were the ones i strongly felt were posed by JF and JC piece. I think that the piece attempts a first step toward thinking about organizing unorganized workers who make up most of the class. One question about the work suggested IN existing unions–what you propose strikes me as similar to the old “dual unionism.” How could such “parallel” committees avoid “legalism” (bureaucracy? I personally think the “trap” is much deeper than legal contracts or restrictive labor laws–in fact that “breaking out” of legally sanctioned tactics is in and of itself neither rare among existing unions nor necessarily indicative of “class wide” social union orientation) that ensnare long standing unions? How could they avoid the pressures to run for office etc? Its also worth thinking about from the other direction–what might existing “caucuses” do that would go beyond running for office/contract fights that could help build class-based (and potentially) class-wide politics? Finally whether caucus or “parallel” union–what happens when a majority of workers in a local or sector or international are “won” to membership?
In any case–thanks for raising these questions and your contribution to the debate!
That’s a tough question because it’s pretty difficult to develop a comprehensive survey of the legal barriers facing workplace organizers, both generally and on an industry by industry basis, in the comments on a blog. It’s important, though, if we want to develop organizers by sharing the challenges and lessons we encounter in our organizing. Those types of pamphlets need to be written, but a good starting place is Staughton Lynd’s “Labor Law for the Rank and Filer.”
From what little I know, the folks over at recomposition.info and in and around the IWW have had a lot of discussions about these very practical and important tactical challenges. If you’re able to, I suggest attending an IWW training session. Generally, I think we’re at a place where we need to be gaining experience and cataloguing what we learn because our generation of communist militants are pretty inexperienced and still figuring things out (which is reflected in our miniscule numbers).
This is my take on the practical side of it. Although, I wouldn’t necessarily call it “dual unionism.” What we’re proposing right now is the building of committees, or “minority organizations,” because it seems that right now we will only act as a small fraction of workers at any given workplace compared to all of the workers as a whole. Working from the premise that unions are mass and workplace wide organizations, the ability to build unions will require more sustained, wide-scale mass activity. Whereas most of the sustained organizing today is limited to these small clusters of militants within a particular workplace.
I also think that the decision to run for office is more of a tactical decision rather than principled. If it will facilitate rank and file participation in the on the ground organizing then it should be considered as a supplement to that organizing, but this assumes rank and file activity that is not always present or organized to realize its full potential.
Along these lines, your note on bureaucracy is very important because worker committees will face the limits of their sizes and capabilities, and may fall into substituting their own activity for all of the workers at the workplace as a whole regardless of their intentions when faced with uneven participation in a struggle. Plus, other workers who choose not to get involved will still feel sympathetic to our organizing and encourage our committee members to run for office. That, I think, is the “pressure” that you’re refering to.
One of the tasks of the committees we build shoud be to propose strategies and tactics that encourage wider participation by all of the workers at a workplace even though that might not happen. There’s a lot of behind the scenes work that goes into pulling off these forms of “class” activity, but social, direct action should be what we aim for.
All this is very abstract, and so how all this looks in real life will depend on the situation, but I think our first task is organizing amongst the rank and file and developing other organizers as we go.
What’s been your experience in facing these challenges?
Thanks for this detailed response. my experience has been in unions that have no caucus or reform or even rank and file activity, as well as in caucuses and i’m currently a member of a union with a “reform” leadership. I think the question of how to develop the kinds of committees you describe is a key one, and one we will have a limited sense of the possibilities and problems of without more practical experience of developing such work. I generally agree with you that questions of running for office is tactical not principled, but want to emphasize that the tactical must be evaluated in terms of political principle not merely prospects for building the network or committee; it would be easy to overlook the pressure from below that such formations will surely experience to move up the ranks even in situations where doing so stalls or limits the prospects of building power on the shop floor or meaningful connections between industries and workplaces.
Lucy, nothing to really add to what Mazin already stated.
I did want strongly agree with Mazin that revolutionaries may carry out the “perfect” agitation around perspectives, strategy and tactics with their fellow workers and still not carry the day. We definitely didn’t want to imply otherwise. I think you are absolutely right that the problem with legalism and caucusing goes much deeper than simply labor law. The law is to some extent an expression of the objective development of the political consciousness of the class. It seems to me that today that we mostly encounter in the class apathy, affirmative resignation (“yeah, true, but I can’t do anything), or trade union ideology (a small number for sure). While what people think we should do will change over time – sometimes not in the direction we want – we can be helping to build a minority of radicalized workers that will help lead in future struggles when new possibilities open up and folks begin to carry out new directions in struggle.
hey comrades, on the issue of workplace committees and such, I strongly recommend that folk read about the strike and lockout recently(ish) at Canada Post. The radicals active in the Canadian Union of Postal Workers have pulled off some really impressive stuff. I know we can’t mechanically recreate that elsewhere (it’s a bigger labor struggle than most people have ever been part of, an official strike of about fifty thousand people, wildcat strikes and walkouts at multiple facilities etc), but it still offers lessons. I think Phinneas Gage in particular has worked hard to draw out lessons that are relevant to the rest of us in different locations. I’d recommend looking at the stuff on this starting at the bottom of this page – http://recomposition.info/tag/cupw/ – then reading upward into the newer stuff. (Full disclosure, Phin’s a very close friend and comrade so I’m quite biased.)
Thank you for this! I think this may be the best piece to come out of the union discussion so far, along with JF and JC’s. I have two questions / critiques that I hope y’all could clarify:
First, if I’m reading the piece right, y’all imply that unions in the current period have lost their role as a mediation between capital and labor, and so the ultra-left take on unions from the 1970s is outdated: as a whole, unions don’t serve to discipline workers in the same way they did forty years ago, because other factors discipline workers more effectively; while unions may, in particular moments or contexts, serve the functions they did in different previous eras, overall they are a kind of holdover. If I’m reading that more or less correctly, then I wonder what this implies about how revolutionaries should orient toward the unions themselves as organizational structures, in concrete practice?
Much of the debate initiated by AS has been framed around whether revolutionaries should “defend” unions or “destroy” them from below. To me, y’all’s piece seems to say this way of approaching the question is wrong, that both sides are one-sided. We should neither defend unions and perpetuate their current form, nor simply destroy them through their own rank-and-file, but should try to transcend them, turning defensive union struggles into new organizational forms which extend beyond a particular workplace or industry, and thus beyond unions themselves. I’m in total agreement with this on an abstract level. But to concretize it a little bit, how do y’all anticipate this will play out in practice? Can we expect unions will attempt to quash these developments, due not to their role as mediators between capital and labor, but to their own organizational interests and inertia? And, how does y’all’s formulation square with the strategy proposed by AS in one of their two pieces, of forming committees within unions that “defend” unions, while preparing for a breaking point with the union bureaucracy? Are y’all advocating the same strategy in this regard, or would your analysis lead you in different strategic directions?
Second, it seems that y’all imply that where no unions exist, new unions should be formed, but that we should expect them to retain a semi-permanent or semi-illegal existence. I hope I’m not playing semantics, but it seems like to use the word “union” for what you’re advocating is a slippage in meaning. It seems like you’re basically arguing for “workers associations” in a general sense, but not for the formation of unions specifically, like through a vote recognized by the NLRB or whatever. For example, the Hot & Crusty workers in NYC formed a union in the course of their struggle, meaning a legally recognized entity bound by labor law. So they formed a union, but in doing so their organization certainly stopped being semi-permanent or semi-legal. Am I right that this is NOT what you’re advocating for?
Thanks again for this excellent piece.
Thanks for the thoughts, Ba Jin. As one of the authors of this post, I’ve been needing to get back to folks who made comments, but been a bit busy until now.
As to the first point you make, we are saying that in some situations this is exactly what we need to do. This is what Wisconsin showed. If revolutionaries don’t take part in union struggles that are fighting against wage cuts or job conditions because they think that these fights are simply defensive at best or privileged at worst, then they are misunderstanding the substance of these struggles in this period of capitalism. I think that the agitation for the general strike in Wisconsin and the proposal for class wide committees that AS made in the piece last Fall is the right approach in this case.
Further, I think AS is exactly right that in the existing unions the formation of rank-and-file committees is necessary. Revolutionaries should argue for an orientation away from forming caucuses that fight for leadership in the bureaucracy, but instead engage in tactics that increase the autonomy of the rank-and-file, and build solidarity between workers across and between industries. We try to lay some of this out in the last section of this post.
The union bureaucracy will try to shut down any attempt to carry out any of these tactics. In Wisconsin it seems they were successful in diverting activity into the recall attempt. In other cases they will use more directly coercive means. As you know, it is in their interests to due so because they have their jobs at stake.
As to the second point you make, we are saying that the tendency in this country is towards the effective outlawing of unions. For us a union is nothing more than an “association of workers” around the production process. How this association functions depends on the needs of capital.
Our argument – and it is obviously not original – is that capital no longer needs legally recognized unions to pump out their profit.
Since the capitalists have largely destroyed the unionized workforce in this country it has allowed them to alter the political and legal conditions for these “associations of workers” to exist. This is why we talked about the significance of the “right to work” laws. It is taking the conditions of South and moving them to the North after a generation of moving production to other countries and to the U.S. South.
Under these conditions we are saying that we agree with our comrades at Recomposition blog that the formation of new unions will not come about by trying to win NLRB elections, which is damn near impossible under those conditions, but instead focusing on organizing with a militant minority that focuses on what would be considered “illegal” tactics. This militant minority can form the scaffolding for the new unions when the objective conditions make this a reality. For example of the role and subsequent growth in new unions and the role of a militant minority just think about what has been happening in Egypt the last ten years. Now hundreds of new unions have exploded onto the scene in the revolutionary process there.
In cases like Hot and Crusty, I don’t think the emphasis should be placed on winning NLRB recognition. However, concretely revolutionaries may not carry the day with that one. Workers may choose to increase the price of their labor power by going that route. Similarly, rank-and-file committees may choose to build a union reform caucus. As we all know, if this is where folks are at, there it is. Revolutionaries need to make the best case and advocate the best tactics, but in the end we have to stay focused on building minority organizations at this time. The best thinking I’ve seen about this strategy for this period is Recomposition’s “Direct Unionism” piece, and the pamphlet by Solidarity Federation, Fighting for Ourselves. Both pieces have certainly been very influential on the thinking in our post.
is a neat piece. I agree with some of it, in particular I think most
of the analysis about Wisconsin is spot-on. Also the nature of the
relationship of the Republican and Democratic parties to unions, as well
as Union Bureaucracy. But there are some pretty significant errors in
still falls into the “new” and “old” problem that so many of us on the
left tend to do. “Old” meaning like, at most, 80 years (which is
nothing) vs. “New” – which is not really defined in any specific way
other than it will address the problems using “revolutionary
organization” of some kind. I’ve already said it before in more detail,
so I’ll say it shorter: the capitalist economy hasn’t fundamentally
changed since the early 1900s, so quit calling effective ways to
struggle against it, even if they have been co-opted at some point, old.
biggest thing I noticed is that there are a few big statements that
lack qualification in the paper. I’m paraphrasing: 1. unions aren’t
sustainable in their current form. 2. we can’t change their structure
by changing the leadership.
first point is probably mostly correct, and the paper does a good job
explaining the legal restrictions placed on them to prevent them from
being effective. But what it doesn’t explain is how traditional labor
unions have won some pretty big victories using this same structure.
Republic Windows and Doors, Chicago Teachers Union, the 1997 UPS
Teamster Strike are all contemporary examples of fights that created
real gains. The result is you need some big caveats to that statement:
those unions that choose class struggle unionism are successful and
sustainable. Those that don’t, continue to wither.
second point is probably more glaring. I don’t really see anything in
this paper that backs it up, and its a pretty enormous assertion. I
think changing the leadership of unions can be done and must be done. I
think that any serious dedicated organizer can get into a union job
with a group and within a few years build power and win gains, building
revolutionary organization along the way. Finally, I think that these
unions, which have millions of dollars at their disposal and already a
semi-organized grouping of the working class in it, are what we need to
win over (by building rank and file leadership internally), rather than
abandon in favor of a “nucleus of radicalized workers.”
point the author(s) make that is closest to this is on “Minority Class
Organizations.” This seems to me to just be a strange form of
essentially calling for a Communist Party. To that extent, I agree with
the conclusions on what it means to ‘defend the unions’ I think are
very wrong. There are three examples in very recent years I just
provided of how unions are “adequate terrain” to fight back against
Capital, provided they adopt a class struggle approach and embrace the
rank and file. Imagine what they would be capable of with class
conscious rank and file fighters as leaders in locals everywhere,
instead of just in those isolated places.
Thank you for writing this. I need to ponder this more thoroughly and get back to you in more detail. For now, one quick points –
“organizations to increase the price of labor power and unify the collective worker” vs “organs of labor discipline within the production process” is a false dichotomy. I think often unions were simultaneously raising the living standards of the workers involved and building a political subject while also disciplining workers to perform as variable capital. That was a conflictual process in two directions (conflict among workers/between the union and workers, and conflict between the union and capitalists) but it was often a conflict among different visions of capitalism.
You’re right, Nate, but we’re trying to get at the how these tensions have differed depending on the different eras of capitalism and the different modes of accumulation. If things are different now, then how should our strategies be different, and what is the specific communist potential in these struggles according to the new/differing conditions?
HiFi and Mazin,
I have been spending quite a lot of time reading your post on Finding Our Footing. In part, I’ve been doing so because I recognize that it’s a very ambitious analysis and that it must have been grounded in a fairly extensive period of study and
discussion. I confess that I am still not sure that I understand it as well as
In that context, then, I have some questions that I hope you can answer. Most of them have to do with the exact way in which you are using some of the categories you highlight in the first part of the essay.
First, when you make the distinction between labor and labor power, the definition of “labor power” is fairly straightforward but you don’t provide an equally clear definition for “labor.” Initially, I was thinking that you meant “living labor” but you specify that the “labor” you are referring to “comes alive when fused with the means of production.” This may be a case where we have a different understanding/interpretation of Marx. I probably would have said that “living labor” is sucked out of the workers and transformed into surplus value, thereby creating the possibility for the accumulation of dead labor as capital. So, am I getting you
wrong or do you think I’m wrong?
Second, I don’t believe that I have ever come across the claim that “The split between labor and labor power, therefore, takes an additional form in the separation of value and price.” Could you explain a bit how you are using
“value” and “price” in this instance?
Third, you write that “the union form is the result of the internal contradiction of the
class between labor and labor power.” I think that I might have said that the union form (concerned, for the most part, only with improving the terms of the sale of labor power) results from the mystification surrounding the wage–in the minds of most workers, the wage is the wage for the labor performed. Even after these many years, I think that few enough workers grasp the centrality of the sale of labor power, the existence of labor as variable capital and the source of profit.
Fourth, you acknowledge the importance of cooperation and suggest that the “union is a form of association that represents both potential mastery over the entire production process, as well as their potential ability to collectively shut
down production.” I think I would have said that cooperation (and its development/transformation into machinery) represents the “potential mastery” while the union form seldom does–but that the union does represent the potential ability to shut down production. I hope that I am not quibbling about words. I think what I am trying to get at is that I think you might be according too much potential to the union form.
Fifth, and perhaps somewhat redundantly, I don’t think that the “union is the organization of the collective worker at the point of production.” Instead, I’d suggest
that the collective worker might better be understood as the universal worker,
undivided by industry, workplace, etc. By definition, with the exception of the IWW (and perhaps other examples that I am not familiar with), unions are built on the basis of divisions.
I’ll stop with that stuff now but I want to add one other different type of comment. I am sure that you have spent many hours examining the development of unions in this country and elsewhere and that the examination informs many of your conclusions. I think it would be very helpful if you could share the specifics of the history of unions across the decades and across national boundaries that you are working from. It’s likely that there are enough commonalities that we can productively speak of the “union” but I believe that the variations are perhaps just as important.
In the hope that you might find it helpful, I’m linking to a 1936 essay on trade unionism by Anton Pannekoek. He has some very interesting things to say about the IWW.
I look forward to hearing your further thoughts. Thank you.
John, thanks for the questions.
I think we have no difference on the meaning of “labor”. It is just awkward wording. We mean “living labor” in the post. And you are right: it is more clear to say that living labor is transformed into capital because the capitalist controls the means of production and can accumulate the surplus.
Second, onto the idea about value and price arising from the split between labor and labor power: looking back over that section of the post this is a throw away line. It doesn’t add anything to the post and shouldn’t have been left in there when we were editing.
What is trying to be said here is that contradictions like labor and labor power, value and price, use and exchange, commodity and money, etc., come about because of the separation of labor from the means of labor. This is the first contradiction, so to speak. Overall, this line is inconsequential for the argument and we were making too much of and unnecessary conceptual leap here and if we ever use this anywhere else it should be eliminated.
Third, we say that the union form arises from the internal contradiction of the class because the worker exists as labor power and living labor. The worker will negotiate the price of labor power because it is part of his objective existence. As we understand it, the fetish arises because of the material relations of labor and capital. In other words, the mystification is rooted in the form of production. To alter the mystification the form of production – labor separated from the means of labor – must be changed. As labor struggle to reunite with the means of production the fetish falls away.
Fourth, we argue that the union form is the organizational form of cooperative labor in the production process. This relates directly to the fifth point.
Fifth, I think the influence of the syndicalist vision is where we may differ here. Historically you are correct that the unions tends to reproduce the division of labor. However, there are countervailing tendencies. At very few points in history has the “collective worker” come concretely into view. It stands to reason, then, that the union form would rarely concretely realize the collective worker. As you said the IWW in this country is an example, but even then it negotiated the terms of sale of labor power.
In the past, dissident communists have pointed to alternative forms of organization that gave concrete expression to the collective worker. However, I think that the relationship between unions and those forms were more complex than is often show. Further, all forms can be reappropriated so long as the capital – labor relation holds sway.
We both agree that the collective worker is the “universal worker” – a difficult concept that can’t be elaborated on here. But since the universal worker is an abstract potential, what concrete form does it take? The answer is partially in unions. This is one the questions we are wrestling with in this post. We imply that unions, in some forms, play a concrete programmatic role in the transition to communism. That claim will have to be elaborated on elsewhere. In short, we are implying that the union form will and must contribute to the organization of production in a revolutionary situation.
Finally, Pannekoek praises the IWW, but says that the union form is not enough to overthrow capitalism. On that we couldn’t agree more. This is the reason I would not consider myself a syndicalist. The working class needs to create political organization that “embraces the whole of society” and confronts the question of political power. The union form on its own is not capable of doing this. In Egypt, for example, where resistance has been some of the most advanced in the world at this time, taking to the streets and creating independent unions is not enough. Until the problem of the army is solved, the revolution cannot pass through its current limits.
Unfortunately, conclusions about the history of the labor movement in this country and elsewhere will have to wait for another day. However, it is something that we have to continue to work on.
Really good to hear from you, John, and hopefully see you soon.
The following comment was left by Nate, but for some reason wouldn’t go through. I’m posting it below.
I’ve greatly enjoyed the pieces on Gathering Forces about union
questions lately. I’m also honored and flattered by the hat tip to
Recomposition, thank you for that.
I tried to post this on the blog but got an error – I want to follow
up very briefly in reply to Mazin’s reply to my comment. I just wanted
to clarify: I didn’t mean my comment there as an objection so much as
I was thinking out loud.
Thinking out loud further as I type this email, on ways in which
organizations like unions could be simultaneously “organizations to
increase the price of labor power and unify the collective worker” and
“organs of labor discipline within the production process”, I’ve
written a short blog post on this at libcom called “No More Double
Edged Swords” where I argue something like the following – when
struggles are on the rise they often gain ground in some way (either
literal taking of territory or metaphorically, like control over
hiring processes, or higher wages). As struggles decline they often
try to hold onto the ground gained in order to govern it. That
governing, because capitalism still exists, requires a negotiation of
sorts with the surrounding capitalist world. One part of that
negotiation involves governing the people who live within the terrain
taken. In a union context this means governing the workers who work
under the union contract, in order to keep them following the union
side of the agreement. In the blog post I argued for having
institutions that have only minimal power over their constituents and
so minimal power to govern in response to pressures from the rest of
capitalist society. To continue with the metaphor I used, I’d say we
want organizations with maximal power to take ground but that holding
ground is less important. I’m not entirely sure this makes sense (in
this email or the idea) but it’s something I’ve been thinking about.
If I wrote the piece today I would probably articulate this in terms
of the categories of ‘association’ and ‘representation’ in Solidarity
Federation’s new book Fighting For Ourselves.
That aside, I wondered if y’all had read the Direct Unionism
discussion paper and any of the ensuing debate or the pamphlet
‘Weakening The Dam’ (it mostly happened in the Industrial Worker and
is archived on libcom). I totally understand if not. I ask in large
part because I want to ask you about the fast food organizing in New
York. From a distance, it looks to me like the kind of organizing we
advocated in ‘Direct Unionism’ and ‘Weakening’ but is
apolitical/reformist. (I would now say that a major failing of that
discussion paper as well as the pamphlet is the almost total lack of
any articulated politics, which is a major, major failing.) At one
point I was trying to theorize this sort of development in some posts
at libcom, especially an overly long one about Occupy Homes. I was
speculating that there was a possibility for a new and very militant
but still reformist form of reformism to arise. My hunch is that this
has happened repeatedly in the past (I would say the CIO was this, as
well as the very militant strikes of the United Mine Workers from the
early 20th century onward). It now looks like this may well be
actually happening, and that the reformist direct unionism/temporary
flirtation with direct unionism in New York and elsewhere is a variant
I’m intensely curious if my guesstimation here fits with what you see out that way or not. If you’ve not read the ‘direct unionism’ stuff this may not be clear, I
apologize if not.
As I just mentioned in a reply to Ba Jin, the “Direct Unionism” essay has been influential on our thinking. Although some of us in Unity and Struggle had read it when it first dropped, we read it last year as part of a collective study group on organization. The original Solidarity Federation piece, now expanded on as “Fighting for Ourselves” was also part of that study among other writings.
I do agree with you that the limitation of “Direct Unionism” is the lack of a political perspective. If put into economistic hands, some of the strategy in the document can be put to reformist uses. This is why in our own piece here we have tried to start laying a political foundation for the kind of strategy “Direct Unionism”, as well as communist critiques of unions, advocates.
In my view, and this is expressed in our post, the general tendency is the inability of the capitalists to grant reforms or higher living standards for the vast majority of the working class. In China it seems that the capitalist are granting wage increases in some industries without political reforms. But many of those same industries are at the same time being relocated to sites of cheaper labor in Western China as well as throughout Southeast Asia.
The kind of “social compact” between (some) labor and capital that was seen in this country from the 1930s – 1970s is fundamentally broken because of the needs of capital. It isn’t coming back. Without this there can be no material basis for a “militant reformism”.
As to your earlier comment that Mazin responded to:
“‘organizations to increase the price of labor power and unify the
collective worker’ vs ‘organs of labor discipline within the production
process’ is a false dichotomy. I think often unions were simultaneously
raising the living standards of the workers involved and building a
political subject while also disciplining workers to perform as variable
capital. That was a conflictual process in two directions (conflict
among workers/between the union and workers, and conflict between the
union and capitalists) but it was often a conflict among different
visions of capitalism.”
Our post is trying to say exactly what you are laying out here. As Mazin pointed out, the post is attempting to outline the different historical conditions under which this dialectical relation between “price of labor power” and “organization of the collective worker” actually exists. It has changed during each phase: 19th century, 20th century and now this century. As we argue in the post, the increasing productivity of labor in the 20th century allowed for relative gains in the standard of living. In the present moment of the crisis, productivity gains are not being made in general by the application of new technology, but by the lengthening of the working day, speed up, etc.
Thanks comrades. Three quick points, typing in a hurry –
1) thanks for your thoughtful engagement with our stuff, it’s flattering
and helps me think on remaining questions
2) Minor thing – recomposition didn’t write ‘direct unionism’. A few of us who wrote that later started the recomposition blog, but it was two different groups of people. the main author of direct unionism is now a member of Solidarity Federation. Not a big deal, I just figure, credit where it’s due.
3) I respectfully disagree with you here – “The kind of “social compact” between (some) labor and capital that was seen in this country from the 1930s – 1970s is fundamentally broken because of the needs of capital. It isn’t coming back. Without this there can be no material basis for a “militant reformism”” but this is a clarifying disagreement. I’m going to percolate on that one and will get back to you when I’m able. For now, my hunch is that part of the disagreement turns on how we evaluate the current crisis – if it’s a fundamental crisis of the capital relation, a cyclical crisis, or a severe but reversible/reparable crisis of the current institutional arrangement of capitalism. If the first, then capitalists may not have the political-economic room to maneuver with which to introduce reforms/meet demands which demobilize and channel workers’ struggles. If the second or third, though, then they are more likely to do so. I tried to address some of this in this blog post – http://libcom.org/blog/reform-possible-reformism-guaranteed-22122011 – and this is all stuff I’m still trying to decide my thoughts on.
Hey Nate, thanks for the clarifications about authorship of “Direct Unionism” and the Recomposition blog. Folks in Unity and Struggle know the difference, but others reading may not and my lazy attribution confused things.
As to the character of the crisis, well, if you “respectfully” disagree, then its okay. But in all seriousness, what our back and forth has already shown is that the discussion around unions, or any other strategic issue, will bring us back to the question of what is the character of the current period in capitalism. The radical left in the U.S. is not well-defined along particular lines around this political question, particularly the younger generation. We have a ways to go to achieve clarification on these issues.
Well put and I agree. On a related note, I just saw this article which says that a recent court decision has come close to making employer compliance with the National Labor Relations Act voluntary for the time being – http://inthesetimes.com/article/14785/labor_law_loses_its_watchdog I figured I’d post it here as it’s relevant to some of the themes of this discussion.
its my impression that the fast food stuff is a publicity stunt by SEIU aimed at a legislative strategy–its not really intended to build worker organization and power in the industry (of course the best laid plans often go wrong, and it would be great to be surprised!) Am I wrong on this one? what makes this seem like “direct unionism”?
Do the author’s think there has been the beginning of a revolution in production away from the co-operative worker represented by the trade union? If yes, what does this mean for revolutionary strategy besides building minority organizations in one workplace? If no, can you address the millions of workers who do not have co-workers who work the same time as they do, who they perform co-operation with (because all labor under capital is co-operative) in an obscured form (so we might be working cooperatively but never ever meet one another)? Are these exceptions? Is the number too small for revolutionaries to orient to? What about the argument that this is largely the form that feminized labor takes place in (childcare, teaching, home health care which is becoming more common with contracted social reproduction and changes in medicaid etc…). Thanks!
Obviously, Im not an author but this is an interesting question. Most child care workers and teachers work in schools and day cares with other workers. In NYC even individually employed child care workers are hardly isolated from other workers–nyc parks are dominated during the day by such workers meeting, chatting and talking, and whatever we might make politically of the DWU model (not much, myself), such workers are clearly “organizable.” The parks were a big part of their strategy.
Top industries for women: Education health care, office admin, hospitality, retail–most of these are not atomized/isolated-type jobs. However for workers that are in such positions, obviously organizing strategies will have to involve other ways of connecting outside of work–like parks above or weekend bbqs or some kind of internet-based scheme or worker-organizers making long drives to far flung workers.
All that said, no coherent revolutionary strategy can envision relying on building ONLY workplace organization, whether in unionized or non-unionized workplaces. That seems like its been fairly clear throughout the debate.
When you ask, however “is the number too small for revolutionaries to orient to?” I think you are now getting to the question of strategy. There is no group of workers who are too small for revolutionaries to orient to. It is we who are too small!
Given our diminutive size, we have to make strategic choices. Some of which will be a matter of serendipity or the limits of our own social position and geographic locations. But where we have a choice we have to set priorities based on strategic analysis. Here I would say we should not be guided purely by “where the workers are” in terms of raw numbers, but by the social weight of groups and categories of workers.
Data on women’s employment from BLS
“Do the author’s think there has been the beginning of a revolution in production away from the co-operative worker represented by the trade union? ”
I think there’s been an expansion of the types of atomized jobs you are referring to since the 1970s in addition to the casualization of the more cooperative forms of labor that present unique challenges to the union form. I still think, however, there are still many types of work that rely on relatively large numbers of worker cooperating at one time and place.
What HiFi and I wrote corresponds more to the cooperative forms of work, including those that have been casualized especially in light of the experience of the Wobblies and other groups, such as Kämpa Tilsammans, in the service industry. We need strategies for both forms: cooperative and atomized, as well as feminized and otherwise.
So what are the forms of organization that correspond to atomized and feminized forms of work? Brilliant question! I’d need to think about it more, but it does seem that this is THE question facing the feminist movement. Conditions have changed; both the forms of patriarchy and the conditions of waged labor. The forms of organization created by the last feminist movement and their programs such as Wages for Housework are now obsolete in light of these new conditions.
I Lucy makes some good points about needing to take into consideration the waged forms of feminized labor that is also at times cooperative, in addition to their social weight according to geographic location and industry.
I want to add to this conversation, though, that we are developing strategies for intervention that correspond to fractured, inconsistent, and low levels of activity. The forms of communist intervention in the struggle against patriarchy I believe should be two fold. First, it should be tailored to what we’ve seen to be the outbreaks of mass feminist revolt however limited they’ve been. These have been Slutwalk, and the round of protests and street fighting in India. These revolts have given us a small glimpse of what might be the new form of feminist revolt, and, further, provide us with information about the new fault lines of struggle and a modern analysis of patriarchy that transcends the simultaneously outdated and essential theories of the classical works of Marxist-feminism.
We should be participating in these struggles to win over the advanced layers of feminists in order to set the stage for further intervention if and when this new feminist movement becomes broader and more sustained. I concede, however, that the forms of revolt we’ve seen so far will not be the only forms of feminist activity.
In light of this concession, the second type of our work will be the slow building of networks of feminist militants across the different locations of the struggle against patriarchy, including feminized forms of labor, both atomized and cooperative. This is where JC’s question comes into play.
I understand I haven’t sufficiently answered JC’s initial question, but I wanted to set it within a broader framework to think more about our goals and strategies.
Hi ML thanks for this.
I think there are many kinds of labor that even do not encounter any kind of cooperation. I obviously understand ALL LABOR TO BE SOCIAL LABOR, but to me that is different from the cooperative worker, and represents a REAL subsumption of cooperation as opposed to a formal one (workers work cooperatively in a workplace or on a project but see each other as antagonistic–eg a CNA and a nurse at a hospital, vs. workers never even see each other although they of course rely on one another’s labor eg a home health aide and the low wage staff at the hiring company). Although of course we are trying to come up with forms devoid of a larger class struggle, I think the forms are important to begin developing, and I actually think we should invest in working on these forms and the political content of our feminist communist interventions. Alongside this, I actually disagree that we should orient towards slut walk, and see it as different from the uprisings in India. Although I think even if we did have a global presence our orientation towards mass outbursts (which is not like the slutwalk, which is a social democratic attempt to address merely and purely the form of appearance of patriarchy at its most base and non political level) would be yes, to meet people, but that is about it. We need to develop serious feminist political organizations that discover the points of “unproduction” for unproductive labor…or rather, the sites of reproductive work–work that does not produce new value but is essential for the reproduction not just of the individual worker as labor power but for the total social relations of capital. I think we need to make arguments against things like slutwalk, and arguments that outbursts of righteous fury about patriarchy take the form of communist and intermediate layer political organizations. This leads to the need for serious thought about how to organize in countries that have not subsumed the demands of women into capital yet…
What you’re saying about investigating the modern forms of the division of labor and the distinction between social and cooperative labor makes sense. Although I understood your original question to be whether individualized forms of labor had replaced and made irrelevant cooperative forms of labor, and my answer is still no. Sure, there’s been an expansion of the former at the expense of the latter but cooperative forms of labor are still an important and large part of the economy.
In regards to Slut Walk, I’m not sure what you mean by “orienting” towards it, but, regardless, that’s not the point I was making about it. However, it does seem that we disagree. The general character of Wisconsin, Occupy, and the anti-budget cuts movement have all been social democratic, with the exception of a minority communist voice inside all of them advocating certain strategies and tactics. Consciousness is material, and it manifests itself through the various forms of activity that then create the epistemological categories we use to understand these forms of activity, with their social democratic contradictions and all. Intervene but intervene critically. I’m not opposed to initiating struggles outside of the parameters of events like Slut Walk, but to only propagate critiques of events like these seems to be a de facto form of abstentionism or idealism. Theory and criticism, yes, but along with strategies and tactics – a practical intervention that is imminent to these forms of activity.
All this, however, hinges on a more elaborate analysis of Slut Walk that has yet to be made.