Tag Archives: Unions

Our Friends With Benefits: On The Union Question

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.
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Thinking About Organization: Between Mass and Revolutionary Activity

Continuing from two recent essays we have reposted in the last month or so, we are reproducing here an essay from the Bedtime Theory blog. The author is a member of Miami Autonomy and Solidarity.


Defining Practice: the intermediate level of organization and struggle

by S. Nappalos

There is a left tradition of thinking about and taking action within two realms of activity: the mass level and the revolutionary political level. There are different ways to cash out these concepts, but they are distinguished basically by levels of unity and content. The mass level is where people come together based on common interests to take action in some form, with unions being the most obvious and traditional example. A higher level of unity is the revolutionary political level where people take action based on common ideas and practices. These concepts are tools or instruments that can help us make sense of the world, and better act to change it. In so far as they do that, they work. If they don’t, we get new ones. At the level of reality, this division is not so clear and in fact we see mixtures of unity and action everywhere. That being said, these concepts help us parse out how as revolutionaries we can relate to social groupings, and how we can intervene.

There is an additional level though that can help us in this manner, the intermediate level. As opposed to the political level, which is defined by attempted unity of ideas, and the mass level, which is defined by common practices with diversity of ideas, the intermediate level shares some features of both. The intermediate level is where people organize based on some basic level of unity of ideas to develop and coordinate their activity at the mass level.

Taking the example of the workers movement, we see unions at the mass level grouped together by common workplace issues, and a political level of revolutionary militants with unified ideology acting within the unions in some way or another. Within the unions there can be a plurality of political organizations, and even of individual militants who lack organizations. An intermediate level organization could come to unite class conscious workers around a strategy within their industry, workplace, etc. The intermediate level organization would not have the unity of a political organization, since its basis is bringing together militants for a common practice that doesn’t require everyone having the same ideology and political program. Likewise, if we required every member in a mass organization to share a high level of class consciousness and militancy (independently of the ebb and flow of struggles), we would be doomed either to fractions or paper tigers.

There is also a distinction between levels and organizations. That is there’s a mass level before the mass organization. The mass organization is made up of people who come together around common interests. That means there are people with common interests who exist before they come together in the mass organization. Often there is mass level activity and organizing (like spontaneous struggles, informal work groups, etc), before there is mass organization. There’s also a revolutionary (or at least leftist) level before the revolutionary organization – there are people with ideas and actions who exist before they come together into a conscious revolutionary body.

Likewise with the intermediate level, there are individuals and activities that precede organization. Presently there are organizations that sometimes play the role of intermediate organization (unconsciously), and there is prefigurative organizing and tendencies of potential future intermediate organizations. I want to hazard a thesis; in the United States today the intermediate level is the most important site for revolutionaries. In fact, I think this is true beyond the United States, but I lack the space here to prove it, and will leave it up to others in other places.

The intermediate level is strategic at this time is due to the state of political and mass organizations. The revolutionary left has been isolated from the working class (as well as other oppressed classes) for at least decades. The left is largely derived from the student and sub-cultural movements which serve as a training ground for the various institutional left bureaucracies (NGOs, unions, lobbying groups, political parties, sections of academia, etc), or at the least these institutions remain dominant within the left. The left reflects a particular section of society, one that sets it apart from the working class in its activity, vision, and makeup. There’s an inertia of dyspraxia; the ideas the left espouses do not reflect the activity of the left. Whether this is from the black block to the so-revolutionaries working to elect the left wing of capital, the left is characterized at this time by an alienation from the working class rather than an ability to “act in its interest”.
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Two Views of the United Auto Workers

In early November, Ford workers voted down by a large margin a concessions package that would have accelerated two tier hiring and given away the right to strike for 6 years.

Here are two views on the meaning of the Ford workers vote and on the role of the UAW in the offensive against autoworkers and whether it should be by-passed altogether or it can be reformed.

Auto Workers Untamed: A “No” Heard ‘Round the World
By Ron Lare

By November 1, United Auto Workers (UAW) members at Ford had overwhelmingly rejected contract modifications, in voting that concluded—not coincidentally—the day before Ford announced new profits. This was the second set of modifications to the UAW-Ford contract proposed this year. The first were voted up in March, but the members saw these as a “giveback too far.”

The concessions just voted down were to last until 2015, i.e. through the new contract still to be negotiated for 2011. They included severe limitations on the right to strike, a six-year freeze on new-hire pay that had already been cut in half, and the reduction of skilled trades classifications. The argument of the company and the union leadership was that these measures were needed to “match” the labor cost savings at the bankrupt Chrysler and General Motors corporations.

At half pay, young auto workers will not be able to buy the cars they build. With the average nonunion industrial pay in the United States substantially higher than the $14.50 that Ford new-hires currently get, what does Ford—let alone the UAW—think it’s doing? Anyone who has been subject to the discipline needed in a modern auto assembly plant knows that—short of fascism—you can’t effectively run one here for this kind of pay. The top goal of this savage pay cut is not so much immediate savings as the extermination of the UAW as a respected force on the shop floor as well as politically. Ford will raise pay later, but hopes to dictate its own terms.

Solidarity House argued for the attempt to put Ford workers in line with those at bankrupt GM and Chrysler by appealing to the downward “pattern” that now includes non-union transplant companies. As many workers said during the campaign, “Bring them up to us, not us down to them.”
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