The following is an interview with New River Workers Power based in Christiansburg, VA. NRWP has helped to organize a strike of Target workers in the New River Valley area with the demand to terminate an abusive supervisor and for recognition from the company. They have already won their first demand. Continue reading interview with New River Workers Power on VA Target strike
Details are still emerging from the apparently SEIU-assisted arrests on May Day in Chicago. According to IWW Chicago, marshals from Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and staffers of Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) “singled out and physically restrained two activists, leading to their arrests. While the arrests occurred, the marshals attempted to surround and enclose members of the IWW’s Red and Black Brigade contingent of the march, blocking their freedom of movement. The marshals also directed other participants to move past the enclosed contingent, preventing the other marchers from showing solidarity with the arrestees.”
In tandem with this minor scandal, the US labor world is anticipating a series of demonstrations to be held on May 15th, the largest to date for the $15/hr minimum wage movement in the fast food industry, variously titled Fast Food Forward (FFF), and Fight For $15. Accompanying this story on high profile reformist outlets such as Salon is the following dramatic stock photo, credited to the AP, which has appeared more than a few times attached in FFF stories, with little context.
In the introduction to Lines of Work (Black Cat Press 2014), Scott Nappalos places the volume of first-person workplace testimonials, many familiar to readers of Recomposition blog and some previously unpublished, in the tradition of the Johnson Forest Tendency and Stan Weir, whose mid-century accounts of American work located, rather triumphantly, the seeds of a future society in the cooperative productive relations of the present. “Working class experiences of story telling” Nappalos writes “have not been taken seriously enough among those of us who try to organize and build a better society.” And it is not simply the circumstances depicted in Lines of Work which nurture and develop class consciousness, Nappalos maintains, but the experience of story telling itself, and I would add, the experience of reading such captivating stories of everyday hardship, struggle, and above all, faith in the liberatory potential of the working class, no matter how concealed beneath its daily debasement.
From the reader’s standpoint, it is an emotional experience to read these earnest and often unpolished accounts, from such disparate fields as nursing, finance, education, the supposedly extinct North American factory, day labor, and predictably enough, a healthy dose of service work. The pervasive pathos is one of fatigue, bitterness, anger, and oftentimes desperation. Though the authors are primarily politicos ideologically dedicated to workplace organizing, most of the low end jobs, including the worst paying and least rewarding, and almost always in small shops, seem taken out of economic necessity instead of any overarching organizational strategy. The predictable grumbling of Paul Mason’s “graduate with no future” is matched in intensity by the grumbling of stomaches underfed and over-caffeinated. Most notably, a contributor named The Invisible Man, a déclassé college graduate driven to low wage factory work and day labor, plumbs this abject position in a nuanced handling of class, race, and nationality in Canadian society, demonstrating simultaneously the importance of a racial analysis to workplace struggles, and the limits of solidarity based on race and nationality.
On the higher end of the job spectrum, in traditional middle-class bulwarks such a nursing, teaching, and “white collar” office work, the comparatively higher wages bring along endless days of overwork, debilitating stress, and sleep deprivation sufficient to find one dozing off behind the wheel, like P. Barbanegra, whose “Who Dismisses the Teacher?” is a must read for radicals seeking meaningful work in education. And throughout all jobs, the daily perils of sexual harassment, bullying, precarity, time theft, the forfeiture of youth to wage labor, all of which are, on top of it all, met with no little or no mass resistance, are voiced with a sense of despair difficult to exaggerate. When mounted, struggles are isolated, piecemeal, and not the stuff of the labor history their initiators no doubt came up on. Minor victories are briefly savored, as they must be, before the sobering reality of the struggles to be waged kicks in, and often the pink slip is not far behind.
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.
By Jocelyn Cohn of Unity and Struggle and James Frey
Authors’ Note: This piece represents one perspective in Unity and Struggle, and is intended to be part of the ongoing discussion on unions, particularly in response to Advance the Struggle. The authors are concerned with the role of revolutionaries in unions. A second piece will be released by two other Unity and Struggle members in the next week that may represent divergent views from this piece. By posting both pieces, we are hoping to clarify our own positions as well as contribute to the ongoing discussion outside of our organization.
As communist workplace organizers serious about praxis, the authors find ourselves debating the strategic importance and political composition of trade unions in the United States. We find what could be called “the union question” to be in fact a number of questions surrounding the composition of capital in general, capital in its in its present incarnation, as well as the composition of trade unions and their relationship to capital and the state. Most immediate to our investigation is the question of how this arrangement can be interpreted by revolutionaries, in the workplace and outside of it. After engaging these questions it is our finding that working explicitly within the existing trade union structure to defend, change, or strengthen them is not a compliment to working toward consolidating class-wide organizations capable of effective revolutionary struggle, but rather that these two objectives stand in irreducible antagonism.
I. The Historical Context
The use of rebellion, for the purpose of developing capital with ‘renewed energy and vitality’ is not new and not confined to women. For capitalism to co-opt every aspect of struggle, to renew itself with our energy and our vitality, and with the active help of a minority of the exploited, is central to its nature.
Selma James, “Women, the Unions, and Work” 1972
We understand that this debate is re-emerging from the relative torpor it has enjoyed since the 1970s due to the ongoing transformation of the processes of production and reproduction in the United States. This shift is alternatively referred to as “neoliberalism” and “austerity”, but these terms are emblematic of a deep-seated shift in the relations of production, the novelty of which is done no justice by comfortable buzzwords which claim its content as already definable.
Historically speaking, we find the roots of the transformation which comprises our present epoch in the 1950s and 1960s. In this period the state took on the role of regulating the value of labor power through public welfare and unemployment programs which kept unemployed people from uniting with the rest of the working class and allowed for a flexible workforce that could work seasonally and in many jobs, as well as through certain wage and benefit protections provided through Collective Bargaining Agreements and shifts in labor law, which simultaneously coerced workers into de-skilled, repetitive, and unrewarding factory jobs, and kept a caste of workers slightly above another while styming at least some labor unrest. Most importantly, it kept worker activity contained by union bosses at least as much as by company bosses.
Continue reading Our Friends With Benefits: On The Union Question
By James Frey
The following piece, by James Frey, was originally posted at Libcom, and is the story and analysis of organizing in a precarious workplace in New York, where a significant part of the working class works at-will, without health insurance, and several jobs at a time. The piece includes important lessons for organizing precarious work places, as well as a range of important political critiques, made concrete through the questions raised by this struggle. Frey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
In the Summer of 2012 the exploited workers of a New York City moving company autonomously organized our shop and began the fight for control over the conditions of our lives. This is one worker’s account of how it all went down.
“They Just Run Us Into The Ground…”
Our struggle was born in the cabs of box trucks all over the city. Stopped in traffic, cramped and stewing in diesel fumes, and working off the clock due to flat-rate travel pay based on mythic road conditions, we have spent countless hours in the privacy of our little boxes enumerating our grievances endlessly. In these scenes, the individual gripe is always the germ of systematic critique. And such grievances are in no short supply when the starting rate for workers at our dangerous job has progressively fallen over the past four years, rolling back a full five dollars and coming to rest on the precipice of minimum wage, as has the pay cap for our nearly nonexistent pay raises, which can only be negotiated individually and secretly with management, in competition with our co-workers, and are rarely granted. Medical benefits are non-existent, though the threat of severe bodily harm comes with every day’s work, more reliably so than the gratuity with which each of our customers, in morally satisfied ignorance of our pay rate, are expected to subsidize our basic social needs out of sheer generosity. “Have a few drinks tonight!” they’ll chortle along with a meager tip, as we wonder if this keeps us on track to make rent. The undesirable conditions at our shop have created a high turnover which makes for unsafe working conditions, only exacerbating the daily struggle to make ends meet and make it home one piece.
Work in our shop comes in a pattern of feast or famine. We list which days we are available, and work is assigned to us based on necessity. This “flexibility” (as it is presented in the job interview) is misleading, as it is necessary to make oneself available almost every single day in order to make enough hours for the week, and work is announced with less than 24 hours notice. Many days we are available there is no work at all, especially for the newer workers, who can go two weeks at a time without hearing from the company. Often the most competent, experienced, and professional of our ranks view the job as an unfortunate short-term situation, explicitly citing lack of pay, reliable scheduling, and above all, dignity, and these workers have one eye on the door from the start.
This situation has engendered an entire class of disposable workers hired for the extreme short term and not expected to stay beyond a month, at which time they can be replaced by another crop from the inexhaustible Craig’s List precariat. They are hired at a pay rate which most often precludes any experience, and in many cases precludes maturity and responsibility. It is not uncommon to find among new hires an apathetical approach to this labor intensive and dangerous job. Surely, nobody among us can really blame workers making close to minimum wage for behaving accordingly. A while back a worker in this pay rate was an hour late on a Saturday morning, and one of the veterans joked “He just paid $8 to sleep in for an hour.” However, the most experienced and responsible crew members on each job must train each new worker behind the customer’s back while doing the work of two, and to turn their attention away from the new hire to perform a technical task or to even use the bathroom is to risk catastrophe.
And catastrophe strikes often, in the form of avoidable damages resulting from basic errors or carelessness, for which the company regularly doles out thousands of dollars, overcompensating the customer in the name of preserving its good standing in the public eye. The same is true for drivers, who the company is unwilling to hire at a competitive rate for commercial trucking. Instead it opts to underpay inexperienced drivers who routinely cause expensive wrecks and drive up the company’s insurance costs, while posing an obvious threat to the safety of all. In a bitter irony, the myriad expenditures stemming from constant turnover in an underpaid, often inexperienced, and increasingly apathetic workforce are cited as the reason we cannot receive raises, which of course would help obviate accidents and damages, and the cycle continues as wages are driven ever downward by the imperative to minimize costs in the short-term. This lends some weight to the view that in the wage relation, domination of the labor force is the primary concern for the accumulation of capital, and the importance of low wages to immediate concerns of profit is secondary.
Those of us who work our hardest do so not because it reflects our pitiful remuneration, but out of a basic human desire to take pride in the application of one’s faculties to a day’s work, and to recognize one’s efforts in the quality of the product. This is of course a complicated relationship within the paradigm of exploitation, and it leaves especially the most adept and responsible workers feeling like suckers. “The company uses us the same way they use the [notoriously unmaintained] trucks”, one seasoned worker commented morosely. “They just run us into the ground.”
“My Mover Has Read Goethe!”
We have all worked plenty of “shit jobs” before and came to this company with no illusions about the nature of precarious work in the present day. But the real insult to injury for most of us lies in the company’s hipster “niche market” status. According to its literature, our company only hires artists and other creative people, whose creative endeavors the customer can “support” simply by hiring us. This is a major selling point with the customers of course, but also with new hires, with whom it is used to justify low wages. The company dons the “starving artist” trope for itself in dealings with the staff, to whom the trope actually applies. And the idea that “we” are a “collective” of “artists” suggests to the average customer that there is some kind of common ownership or stake in the company, or at the very least, that the workers are compensated anywhere near the mean industry rate. After all, how could a company so hip and cool and with it pay its workers minimum wage? Instead, tips are a major source of our income, though we are prohibited from discussing it with the customers, and many customers seem legitimately unaware of how much we need gratuity to survive. Worst of all, this sort of company manages to drape a layer of DIY hipster obfuscation over the basic relationship of exploitation. This fools the willfully ignorant customers, who don’t want to think ill of their precious luxury item, but can also make things difficult for organizing those among the staff with somebody else supporting them, a type often drawn to this kind of hip company, whose class privilege allows for some distance between the exploitative wage and the material necessities of their lives.
I am a member of Unity & Struggle in Texas and I want to share an early pamphlet of the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO) that I re-read recently that has been a critical supplement for me of our group’s organizational studies. It is called “Towards a Revolutionary Party” (TARP) and was written in 1971, just two years after STO was founded and after the collapse of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the national student civil rights and anti-war network from which it emerged.
STO, like many New Communist organizations, grew out of the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) opposition to the Progressive Labor Party’s (PLP) dominate tendency in SDS called Worker Student Alliance (WSA). When PLP took the position that all nationalism is reactionary it overnight put them in opposition to every national liberation struggle and hence every revolutionary Left tendency including the American Black movement which was then seen by many as a national liberation fight. RYM formed as a broad opposition to the WSA which inevitably led to another broad opposition to the Weathermen faction (which became RYM I), a group that emphasized and undertook armed struggle then and who felt that the American working class was inherently backward, and RYM II. It was out of RYM II that many Marxist Leninist pre-parties and grouplets would take shape and this included what would become the STO.
By Will and Jubayr
What up everyone? Hope readers are having fun with State Capitalism and World Revolution ☺ I don’t think I got much to say as the questions kinda get at what SCWR is constantly trying to hammer from different angles. Here are some more questions which can guide us as we read SCWR.
1-What is SCWR saying about the plan, the state, and the party? Why is it antithetical to the self-government of the working class?
2- What is the implications between the following two formulations: crisis of revolution is in the crisis of leadership versus the crisis of revolution is the crisis of the self-mobilization of the working class? Where does Trotskyism fall on this question and what does it say about Trotskyism according to SCWR?
3- What is the political economy of the post WWII era as JFT sees it? Has it changed in the neo-liberal era? If so, how?
4- How does SCWR describe the role of unions in the state-capitalist era?
5- What is the theory of permanent revolution? How does SCWR orient towards it in the post WWII era?
6- In “Leninism and the Transitional Regime” SCWR poses quiet an interesting history of Lenin’s relationship to the Russian working class after the October Revolution. Is SCWR being completely accurate in its historiography of Lenin?
As an anti-budget cuts organizer in Seattle, I am excited by the important debates Advance the Struggle (AS) has raised with their piece Crisis and Contradictions: Reflections and Lessons from March 4th. I basically agree with the perspective that AS is putting forward; it confirms and advances a lot of the perspectives that my comrades in Unity and Struggle have been developing, especially with our anti-budget cuts work with Democracy Insurgent in Seattle, with ella pelea! in Austin, and our comrade’s work at Berkley. For those who don’t know, Unity and Struggle is a revolutionary organization animated by a belief in the self-emancipation of oppressed people; for more info, check out the “About US” section of the Gathering Forces blog. I would consider Unity and Struggle and a lot of the milleiu around Gathering Forces to be part of the “class struggle Left” tendency that AS outlines and calls for; like AS we are attempting to chart a third path that is independent from both the centrists (the “we need to meet people where they are at” folks) and the adventurists (the “Occupy Everything Demand Nothing” folks). We appreciate the chance to dialogue with AS and other like-minded activists around the country and we also appreciate the chance to have principled debate with comrades from the other two tendencies.
The response pieces written by Socialist Organizer (SO) and Labors Militant Voice (LMV), raise some important challenges to this third tendency and highlight some key differences between us and the centrist tendency. It is important to note that LMV’s piece raises important critiques of SO’s piece and I engage with those here – I have no intention of lumping them together. I offer my notes on these responses in the hope of furthering the debate.
What I write here is relatively unsystematic because my comrades and I are in the middle of organizing for a strike at the University of Washington on May 3rd so I don’t have a lot of time to flesh this out. I hope comrades will forgive and correct any points here that are underdeveloped , inaccurate, or unclear. I am writing this from a first person perspective rather than formally representing Democracy Insurgent or Unity and Struggle, the groups I am a part of. I imagine that most people in both groups would agree with the spirit of what I put forward here but we simply don’t have the time to collectively write and edit a formal response right now because of all of our organizing and study groups.
Reflections on the Shifting Terrain of Struggle
It is has been ten years since thousands of workers and youth shut down the WTO here in Seattle. Now the fight against budget cuts is once again laying the groundwork for a mass movement. One again young people and workers are in the streets asserting that another world is possible. In this piece I will analyze this dynamic, shifting terrain of political struggle.
This reflection comes in the wake of the March 4th National Day of Action to defend public education, which was a major leap forward here. A student strike at the University of Washington (UW) brought out around 700 students, workers, teachers, and high school students with an unexpectedly high level of militant energy, shutting down streets and almost blocking the freeway ( as you can see in this video).
As an organizer with the student-worker group Democracy Insurgent (D.I.) at the University of Washington, I wish to draw out some reflections and conclusions from our involvement in the struggle. I’ll start by tracing the struggles that lead up to the March 4th strike and made it possible. Then I will outline what March 4th shows us about the prospects and challenges for building a mass movement here in WA state and beyond.