You cannot organize the class without shop floor power

Nick Driedger responds to Marvin Harvey’s “A Union at Amazon?” while also drawing from an article on the United Farm Workers.

In a 2018 article in Notes from Below that has recently been making the rounds, Marvin Harvey calls Amazon a “strategic fulcrum” within “the circuits of contemporary capital,” affecting everything from the rate of worker exploitation to gentrification. He argues Amazon needs to be organized, but that “the methods used by our unions and current left movements … are not capable of” the task. Specifically, he says “organizing a representative organizing committee” is impossible, and instead we need to “organize the class.”

Let’s dig into these ideas because while I think Harvey correctly identifies some problems, I want to push back a little on where his analysis takes him.

Harvey points out that at Amazon, solidarity is not deep enough on the job to bring about the kind of tactics needed to get the boss to concede to demands. Because of things like high turnover, it is hard to build a committee with enough power to win concessions. Therefore, you need to “cultivate solidarity outside of immediate campaigns.” Harvey says that unions are too narrowly-focused, and that you won’t organize Amazon by organizing the shop alone. You want to extend the struggle beyond the workplace, to neighborhoods and tenant groupings, to make real demands of Amazon. Harvey calls this “organizing the whole worker.”

These are the real challenges to organizing at Amazon. But I think Harvey’s two broad goals — extending the struggle to make major demands, and building a constituency with power at work – cut against each other.

Lessons from the United Farm Workers

There is a tension in organizing: you need to build a constituency that has the ability to exert power, but you don’t want that group to become narrow and self-interested.

A good illustration of this tension can be seen in an interview with a former member of the United Farm Workers, Frank Bardacke. Bardacke wrote a book where he takes a critical eye to leftist icon Caesar Chavez and how the UFW organized under his leadership.

Bardacke explains how the United Farm Workers failed to address this tension: 

[Q:] One of the ironies of the UFW is that while it attracted people who were skeptical of traditional unions, with their conservative politics and top-heavy bureaucracies, the UFW had some serious structural problems.

[Bardacke:] There were no locals in the UFW. If you were a rank-and-file farmworker, there was no way you could become a local official or elected onto staff. People on staff owed their jobs to people above them, not below them. So people in the fields had no structural power within the union.

In all unions there are some contradictions between the rank and file and union staff. That’s just the nature of the beast, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But in the UFW the contradictions were more intense, because there were no locals and because the staff had sources of income independent of union dues. Most of the time, the union made more money from outside sources—individual donations, foundation grants, contributions from other unions and government programs—than from dues. So ultimately the survival of the staff was not tied directly to membership. That’s a big problem.

The United Farm Workers under Chavez also “organized the class” or didn’t “just organize the job” — they built a powerful advocacy group and fought over issues like police brutality and civil rights, and they educated and enfranchised their workers. But by removing that basic component of working class control — membership dues and local union bodies — they also undermined the deeper and more thorough solidarity Harvey correctly says you need to defeat a strong employer.

Those local bodies need to be based in a real constituency — something tangible and with a real opponent: the employer. Let’s go back to the interview:

if you believe in the image of the poor, powerless, hat-in-hand farmworker, you can’t understand what happened in the UFW. Because many farmworkers were not like that—they were very powerful people, and their power was built into the nature of agricultural production. The grower has to invest a whole bunch of money—plant, cultivate, thin—before he has a product to sell, and then he only has that product for a very short period of time. So farmworkers have periodic power during harvests, and within farmworker culture there is a tradition of harvest-time action—sabotage, slowdowns, strikes—all of which existed before the UFW came around…

In the late 1970s, lechugeros [lettuce workers] made $12 an hour, or almost $50 an hour in today’s wages, making them among the highest-paid members of the US working class.

These crews were the core strength of the UFW. They were the reason the union won various strikes and elections. Many of these workers came to the US with radical politics. In some ways the story of the UFW is not that different from the rest of US labor history, in which left Italian, Jewish, Irish and Spanish immigrants helped build the US labor movement. Unless you appreciate these folks—for example, if you take the history of the union as just an aspect as Cesar’s biography—you don’t get it.

Remember the tension is between too-narrow constituencies, and broad bases of support that lack power.

An example of too narrow of a constituency would be if those lettuce cutters had simply formed a union for themselves, in the same way other unions have, like the pipefitters or electricians or university professors. This narrow solidarity has a clear boundary and is also very deliberately inward-looking. It is not that extending solidarity is impossible, but it is made more difficult by the existence of the union and union contracts. So then maybe the lettuce cutters would find common cause on certain issues with the workers picking grapes, but the organizational identity would be fractured and scattered, with different groups coming together occasionally. Extending solidarity is often hamstrung by intense solidarity inside one group. 

The other side of this tension is that you need to have enough of a base to exert power, but when you have too broad of a focus without a deeper sort of solidarity you are often left with pretty weak tactics that don’t mobilize your own members. Maybe you phone zap a business, or write angry letters to politicians, or wind up doing something like the famous United Farm Workers grape boycott. Pretty soon the desire to not get bogged down in the little fights over smaller parts of the workforce means you abandon the stuff that gave you real power to begin with.

Again, I think Harvey correctly wants to bridge this gap. He identifies the problem of:

the ongoing dependence on staff to organize workers through staff drive [sic] mobilizing campaigns rather than workers organizing each other. While there are exceptions to this rule, staff-led organizing is increasingly common. It is the union that organizes workers rather than workers that organize a union.

However, Harvey falls away from what can actually build power when he concludes: 

When it comes to organizing a campaign around Amazon, these methods are … doomed to fail. Given the high levels of turnover, organizing a representative organizing committee is long work, and requires sustained direct action and solidarity. However, with such high turnover, any attempt to organize workers on the shop basis alone would prove fatal.

Ultimately Harvey comes to the same conclusion as Caesar Chavez when he says:

A strategy that leverages workers’ stories to bash the company’s image, in conjunction with minimally-backed campaign strategies to lift conditions for Amazon workers through policy or extract concessions from the company, is the best this style of campaign could hope for.

This is the problem of the United Farm Workers fifty years later, and on a larger scale.

From one daunting task to three

Harvey doubles down on casting a wide net and goes from from organizing a multi-billion-dollar high tech corporation to putting two more tasks on the table: organizing tenants’ associations and organizing neighborhoods too. He says we need groups that

range from philosophy reading groups, outdoors clubs, poetry groups, choruses, sporting teams, botanical societies and the like. We can imagine plays put on by workers that reflect their everyday lives, botanical gardens that reclaim suburban space for beauty, yoga and meditation groups the help bring mindfulness and calm, and hiking clubs that bring the outdoors to those who rarely experience it.

Remember though the insight from Bardacke: the real power of the union was in the members’ relationship to production and the tactics that came from their relationship to that work. What undercut that power was the union staff trying to find a way to cast a wider net than just building workers power — to find other ways. As he says, “the grape boycott reinforced the idea that farmworkers themselves weren’t going to be able to win: power comes from the supporters.” 

Now at this point I should be clear, working people do not just exist on the job and there are fantastic examples of neighborhood organizations and tenants’ organizations that are inspiring and interesting. But if you are going to argue that workplace organizing requires neighborhood and tenant organizing, you need to say where to start, because otherwise you just went from one really daunting task to three.

Furthermore, this kind of organizing is going to have challenges too. Maybe the neighborhood is gentrifying too fast and people are leaving in the same way many leave jobs? Maybe the tenants’ group just can’t seem to win a fight to establish that it is useful? Organizing has material problems that need to be addressed.

Also, saying you are organizing a tenants’ association because you want to take on Amazon just doesn’t compute and it won’t compute when you try and explain it to your neighbors. Saying you want to organize a tenants’ union because you all have leaky plumbing and your rent is too high will appeal to them, and not paying your rent is leverage. Or better yet: asking your neighbors what the problem is and then saying a tenants’ union could fix that opens up more issues which draw out more connections between issues and then opens doors for you to build a broader constituency and new avenues for struggle. But you need to start from the power your base has inherent to their position inside capitalism. From that you can build a constituency and alliances and working class politics will follow. But imposing Amazon as a target on that tenant organizing will reintroduce the exact same problem Harvey has with staff organizing: a shallow kind of solidarity and weak tactics. You need your constituency to drive your politics and not the other way around. 

There is no central choke point

All of this is to build to the final point I want to make: capitalism isn’t a factory. There is no central choke point. It isn’t the Death Star where you can send one torpedo down a vent and destroy the entire structure. Taking on Amazon is not in itself more revolutionary than taking on any other company.

That tension between building a deep enough solidarity to extract concessions on one hand, and on the other to wage a broad enough struggle to have a far-reaching vision beyond the world we have, is not going to come about by abandoning a representative committee that can mobilize workers on the job. There is a lot wrong in the union playbook these days, but building those committees is not the actual problem. The fact that it is difficult is an indication of how much of society sees a grouping like that as deeply subversive to its own logic. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. If we are failing to accomplish that one task, our energy needs to go into figuring out that one problem not doing everything we can to avoid doing it. Turnover is a problem you need to solve, not an excuse for not building a committee.

Without that committee you have no local body, and without a local body you have no member control, and without member control, staff – charismatic, self-starting, radical volunteers and political messiahs — will be more than happy to fill the vacuum.