Workplace struggles are political

Those who consider themselves radicals in the labor movement usually have a surprisingly apolitical view of what goes on in the workplace. They measure workers’ militancy more in terms of their commitment to a socialist party or their belief in socialist ideals than in their capacity to take action on the job. This is pretty weird if you consider, as James P Cannon, leader of the Socialist Workers Party, did, that a fundamental plank of Marxism is that “workers must accomplish their own emancipation through their own organized power.” Somehow, for Cannon — as for many others — this cashes out into two completely separate spheres: organizing workers into unions, which is technically necessary but not political; and the properly political work of marshaling them behind a party. 

Why this divide? Consider this quote from Sam Gindin, a retired college professor who spent many years as union and political party staff and is now a member of Socialist Project: “Capitalism has, through the logic of its structures, created a working class whose daily experiences … drive it – out of necessity – to short-termism and pragmatism … and often leave it too exhausted to be actively engaged.” It used to be an edict of Marxism that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” Now the truism is that workers have been rendered incapable of self-activity by capitalism.

The solution, for Gindin as for many others, is outside leadership. Gindin’s article is a defense of Jane McAlevey against the idea that her style of organizing is “controlled not by the workers themselves but by outsiders” (last week we ran a perspective that her approach is staff-heavy, written by a grocery worker who attended her most recent training). Gindin’s response is to dismiss “This notion that workers are spontaneously radical” as “blindingly naive.” 

Why on earth would “spontaneity” be the criterion, unless we were looking for failure? If workers were spontaneously radical there would be no need for organizer training or for this website to exist. However, they are in a position to learn, through experience, how to develop and deploy power. Specifically, they are in relationships of domination and exploitation by employers, as well as relationships of solidarity with each other. These are relationships of existing or latent power; of course they are political. Organizing is a process of simultaneously opposing the first kind of relationships and building more of the second, each happening through the other: solidarity builds opposition to the boss, and opposition builds solidarity. In doing this, workers can develop the capacity to run more and more of our lives. That’s an eminently political process and a transformative one, and one that doesn’t need functionaries from parties, no matter what their stripe.

Gindin further argues that staff control isn’t a problem because this doesn’t mean workers aren’t engaged: socially influential coworkers are recruited to “broaden[] and deepen[] the participation of the workers involved.” “Organic leaders” in the workplace are the “catalysts to the broadest membership participation” in the plans set by staff. So, workers have a functional role to play in a workplace organizing campaign, of wrangling their coworkers. Cannon dismissively refers to this as “handling men” and it’s what he specifically locates outside of political work proper. Likewise, Gindin speaks of advancing “workers’ strategic skills and confidence” through organizing but for him, this has little to do with advancing socialism: “Organizing at the union level cannot be directly translated into organizing politically for a more egalitarian, democratic, environmentally sustainable society; political organizing is a distinct sphere of activity.”

This is a wild position to take considering that the workplace is where the power struggle between the working class and employing class plays out — not just in terms of wages (the share of the value the worker creates that she actually gets to keep), but in terms of the pace of work, the scope of work, the authority of management versus worker control, respect on the job, etc. Somehow learning to wrest back more control of that has little to do with the political development, in brain and muscle, of the working class.

In fact, there’s an offensive dismissal here of the courage and intellect involved in actually organizing. Winning a raise at work is not a revolution, fine. But the kinds of activity workers undertake in organizing to fight for that raise are the core of revolutionary politics, and the process of abolishing capitalism will involve a great deal of that kind of activity undertaken by workers themselves — rather than being the work of self-appointed specialists gathered in organizational in-groups. The ground is thick with radical opinion-havers. I won’t rehash how very few among them actually put their own skin in the game, especially as that involves acting in coordination with their coworkers. But let’s just remember that radicalism is what you do.

When Gindin talks about “The revival of the working class as a social force,” he means outside of work. He grants it will have “a lot to do with what happens in organizing at the workplace level” (emphasis added), but not in terms of wielding the greatest leverage working people have. No, radicals organize workplaces because that is, admittedly, where working people are to be found. They need to be gathered into organizational structures, and those organizational structures can indeed improve things like wages and working conditions, but as they relate to socialism, what they accomplish is developing workers as a “base.”

A base is something that supports something else, namely the leadership of a socialist political party. Cannon calls this “The unity of the vanguard and the class.” The vanguard are the leaders above the fray who understand capitalism and envision socialism, thanks to intellectual study; the class is the raw material that socialists have to lead. Or the vanguard are the head, and the workers are the body. The ongoing dilemma that confronts socialists is a problem of their own making: the non-working class nature of their political parties (comprised as they are of the intellectual “head”), on the one hand, and the “non-political” nature of the working class (who fail to spontaneously subscribe to socialist beliefs), on the other. 

The “rank-and-file” strategy

Kim Moody articulated this concern in his 2000 position paper, “The Rank and File Strategy.” Moody was a member of Solidarity and one of the founders of Labor Notes, in 1979, as part of Solidarity’s predecessor, Socialist International. He described the “gap between the socialist organizations” which “remain small and largely populated by people with an educated middle class background” and the working class itself, even whose “worker activists” have “an un-theorized pragmatic outlook.”

Interestingly, Moody spends much of the position paper defending why he would be interested in unions at all. He is quick to specify, as Gindin does, that he “does not assume that socialist consciousness flows automatically from ‘economic’ struggles” — note again the subtle strawman of “automatic.” The practical education workers receive in fighting capitalists, Moody assures the reader, cannot displace the party’s unique role in changing political beliefs.

Why the hesitation about unions? As Moody states in a more recent piece, the union as such “necessarily attempts to mediate the contradictions inherent in the capital-labor relationship.” Now, it is one thing to acknowledge that unions have become less militant in their engagement with employers and have at times even adopted a conciliatory position with respect to management. However, Moody is making a far greater concession than that — one that harkens to Lenin’s famous 1901 essay, What is to Be Done? There, Lenin argues that trade unions as such are compromised and limited — they can at best struggle for gains here and there, but unlike political parties, they will never actually challenge capitalism. The point is closely tied to the idea that workplace struggle in itself will never produce a proper class-struggle consciousness, and working people need leaders from the outside: 

The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals.

The idea that unions are forever parochially limited and inadequate to the task of overthrowing capitalism has been a shibboleth among radicals ever since. And not just socialists: the anarchist Errico Malatesta (1853-1932) likewise thought that unions were “by nature reformist.” Since the 1970s, when unions have been markedly declining in power and membership, the theory has been radicalized to claiming that unions “steer the masses away from real confrontation with the forces of capital.”

The rank-and-file strategy — the turn to unions despite their hopelessly flawed nature — basically amounts to putting the right people, with the right socialist ideas, in charge of them. But to what end?

Well, partly, this has to do with making them more effective organizations. Labor Notes is based on the idea of rooting out corruption and the union leaders who apparently couldn’t even be bothered to fight harder for their members. Realistically it may be the best resource out there for good union practice. It genuinely does elevate both steward and rank-and-file activity and the project has arguably survived for 30-plus years with the relevance that it has because “when choices had to be made between educating in practical strategies and actions, on the one hand, and advanced political education or mere propaganda, on the other, for better or worse we almost invariably chose the former.” In other words, in the supposed split between political activity and workplace activity, it chose the latter.

However, there also isn’t a fundamentally different approach to building worker power on the job. Labor Notes still counts among its greatest victories the election or activity of reform caucuses within unions. As Nick Driedger has argued, the “rank-and-file strategy” aims to lay hold of the same legalistic grievance and collective bargaining procedure that has fundamentally hamstrung workers for almost a century. How is a radical meant to wield that more radically? Way back in 1938, Fred Thompson of the IWW made the incisive observation that anyone who uses the phrase “rank and file” isn’t actually advocating the direct control of unions by the rank and file itself, just appealing to workers that “they are now being ridden, but that with them [the would-be leaders] in the saddle, they will no longer be ridden.” In the IWW, on the other hand, where there is no union officialdom, no one on the permanent payroll, no one to call strikes other than the membership itself, the phrase simply isn’t used: “Just as the best evidence of a good liver is the lack of any occasion to take note of it, so is the best evidence of rank-and-file control the absence of any mention of it.” 

In his more recent article, Moody stakes a position against McAlevey (and by extension Gindin), saying her method is indeed too staff-driven, and too beholden to “the essentially restraining and routinized Wagner Act/Taft-Hartley framework.” This critique of the existing labor relations framework is a more radical position than Labor Notes’ primary strategy. But that makes it all the more remarkable that Moody isn’t interested in the differences that make a difference to people like Thompson, like how workers in unions can exercise direct rule. Instead, as with any crisis-of-conscience socialist, he simply makes more room for the “spontaneous” activity of the working class, of which he optimistically says we’ve seen a rising tide of late. The thing is, describing workers’ struggles as spontaneous tends to be part of framing them as apolitical. Taking a product and process of human activity and calling it “automatic” denies the deliberateness and skill involved, and mystifies how we can do it better.

The overall point here is that socialists don’t see developing the struggle on the job as political in and of itself. Their imagination of how unions can bring socialism to the masses is limited to (1) creating the base for socialist parties to lead, and (2) bringing an abstract socialist analysis to working people. Gindin says, summarizing (approvingly) a book he is reviewing:

unions are inadequate to this task… of overcoming the structured material and cultural gulf among workers and building a confident, coherent, solidaristic working class with the analytic and strategic capacity to lead the transformation of society… though at their best, they can take on a class perspective and educate their members on how capitalism works, perhaps opening the doors to some discussions on socialism. Going further requires a socialist party, an organization specifically focused on the task of making such a class.

Unions are necessary as they are indeed the technical means of organizing the working class, but politics is the realm of the political party. Fighting bosses over wages and control of work is not in itself class activity. There is little to analyze there at the level of power (only leadership). The political education of workers is something that takes place through “discussion” rather than the experience of struggle.

Separate spheres

Funnily enough, the socialist idea that the workplace is apolitical reflects the dominant view in capitalist society. The owners of capitalist society would like us to see politics as its own sphere of activity completely separate from the economy, which unfolds on its own logic. Certainly we don’t get to vote on things like our wages and working conditions — our democratic rights of citizenship don’t extend to that aspect of our lives. It would be unheard of for government to intervene to change the organization of a workplace. Politics is something meant to be exercised elsewhere, like at the ballot box or perhaps in the streets.

This is a separation Marx himself pointed out and critiqued. He noted how modern constitutions divide the political sphere from the economic sphere. Now, this is a bit of progress, because in feudal society, your economic position determined what political rights you had. If you were a serf, you had access to a commons, and the ability to work the land, but you had to pay rent to the lord and tithe to the Church, and you were not allowed to, say, hold public office. After the revolutions of the 18th century, everyone was made formally equal: now, whether you were a peasant, landowner, worker in a small shop, etc., you had the same rights, and the same political status (you know, setting aside the disenfranchisement of women and American natives and the enslavement of black people). 

Again, Marx pointed out that this was of course a kind of progress. But he also cleverly identified that these formal declarations of political equality left actual inequality untouched. Exploitation is no longer politically enforced, it just is. You could say that people are free to be exploited. The political system will not intervene. 

This “ideology” (as Marx put it) of equality and freedom persists today. The ruling, employing class wants us to see ourselves as free despite being subjugated to those who pay our wages, because they want us to see work as outside of the political realm. “Trapped in a dead-end job at the mercy of a mega-corporation that pays you poverty wages? That’s a you problem.”

Oddly, that’s also how many radicals want us to see the workplace. Sure, they recognize that it’s a place of fragmentation and exploitation. They seek the overthrow of capitalism precisely because it generates human unfreedom and inequality. But the push and pull of the power struggle between workers and employers isn’t politically interesting. Neither is there a meaningful, transformative education to be had in the organization of resistance. Instead, workers need to be intellectually turned on to socialism, or perhaps simply follow its leadership. Incredibly, Moody’s more recent piece ends with musings about how socialism now polls better among the American population, thanks in part to the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders. This is as abstract and “ideological” as the bourgeois notion of freedom and equality Marx is criticizing. Many radicals seem to care more about hearts and minds than what workers can actually do in precisely the spot where they have the most leverage.

What we consider political

To summarize, for many radicals involved in the labor movement, politics has to do with one’s general outlook on society, and with political parties articulating that grand vision. Workers as such are at best a mass to be led and at worst a problem to be solved. That goes hand-in-hand with thinking there is not that much political significance to what they do on the job. A closely related thought is that unions are nothing more than bureaucracies that secure minor concessions or perhaps reforms to palliate capitalism’s effects on workers. Some do this better than others, and allegedly that’s a reflection of their leaders’ abstract, ideological commitment to socialism, but the best of them lead workers beyond the union to a party or movement that is not so shackled and bound to the confines of capitalism, because apparently parties aren’t.

What do we mean when we say that, on the contrary, there is political content to the struggle at work? First and foremost we mean that this is the site of a zero-sum contest for power between employers and workers. The more power the boss has at work, the less power we have, and vice versa. The more power workers have, the better they are able to negotiate good wages or working conditions. Second, we mean that the extent to which workers can develop their ability to shift power away from the boss and towards themselves matters, and that this is what it means to develop a working class “for itself” — meaning not just defined by their “structural position,” i.e. their need to work for others, but capable of flexing the leverage they have in order to help transform society towards their own interests. How much power the working class has matters, and it’s measured most concretely by what they are able to wrest from the capitalist class on both a small and large scale. Work is not the only site of a power struggle in society, but it is one of the few sites where we have concrete leverage, and where the concessions we can achieve come directly at the expense of our subjugators.

Moreover, building up the muscle of the working class and shifting the balance of power at work is not adventitious. It also does not happen spontaneously. It is something to be studiously analyzed and improved, as with any war strategy.

With that in mind, here are some of the things that we consider politically important that other radicals in the labor movement seem to have dismissed:

  • The difference between recognition as a formality thanks to legal mechanisms versus the de facto recognition of workers being able to wrest concessions
  • Constraints on workers’ ability to engage in economically disruptive action in the form of e.g. no-strike clauses
  • The tradeoff between the right to strike and a formal grievance process that ends in arbitration
  • The capacity to settle grievances “on the floor,” using disruptive action
  • Constraints on worker control over work in the form of management rights clauses
  • Whether the written contract frames what workers are entitled to, or whether they take on issues beyond those four corners, during the life of the contract
  • Where and by whom decision-making about engaging the employer takes place, and how broadly inclusive those decision-making bodies are
  • What union member engagement looks like day-to-day

Lenin’s dismissal of unions over a hundred years ago as “limited” has morphed, since the decline of unions in the US beginning in the 1970s, into an even more biting cynicism that unions are “inherently conservative,” “by definition reformist institutions, designed to mitigate and manage the employment relationship, not transform it.” That is why those who still take an interest and active engagement with unions feel on the defensive to explain why they even bother. But it makes little sense to engage with the labor movement without an interest in the reasons why unions have declined, and the different forms worker organization can take.

The predominant “labor radical” analysis of how union militancy can be revived stops short of tangible questions about how workers can take back control of the work that they do, and from that develop class power and consciousness. Until those questions are once again taken to have political significance, radicals’ cynicism about the limitations of unions will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Marianne Garneau is an organizer with the IWW, a labor educator, and the publisher of Organizing Work.