Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Tsipras plays Odysseus: The view from Tasso’s cafe

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Keep Ithaca always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.

C.P.Cavafy, ‘Ithaca’

On August 21 Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras went to Ithaca to announce the end of the Memorandum Agreement with the Troika. True to form, he was creating a photo-op pregnant with symbolic significance while at the same time hiding the actual substance of the occasion.  If one recalls Tsipras did something very similar the day he first came into office in 2015.  He then made a point of paying his respects to the Resistance fighters of the Nazi occupation.  He also refused to be sworn in by the Orthodox archbishop of Greece as had been customary for all previous heads of state. This display of sympathy with the strong tradition of anti-fascist struggles and secularism in Greece burnished his credentials with his left wing supporters at the same time as he announced he was joining forces with ANEL, an extreme right wing nationalist party.

No one in Greece failed to notice that Tsipras’ August 21 visit to Ithaca was meant to serve as a bookend to former Prime Minister George Papandreou’s visit to the island of Kastellorizo in 2010, where he announced the first bailout of 110 billion euros ($126.7 billion) at the dawn of the austerity regime. Ithaca is in the Ionian Sea west of the mainland while Kastellorizo is on the other end of the country, in the Aegean Sea east of the mainland and close to Turkey.

While Tsipras is adept in the use of symbolism and mythology to deliver his message, few people in Greece were fooled. This was in contrast to the foreign press, which mostly reported Tsipras’ Pollyanish comments with a straight face without a hint of irony. [1] Everyone knows that while the memorandum agreement is officially over, Greece’s finances will continue to be closely monitored by the European Institutions. The National Herald, a Greek-American publication not noted for its left wing views  reported that despite Tsipras’ claims that the end of the memorandum agreement represents some kind of milestone,

   “ …the economy will be monitored for years by the country’s creditors, the Troika of the European Union-European Central Bank-European Stability Mechanism (EU-ECB-ESM) and Washington, D.C.-based International Monetary Fund, to make sure fiscal targets are hit and that the Premier doesn’t renege on reforms to them the way he did on anti-austerity promises to voters.”  [2]

Some form of these controls, which essentially make of Greece a vassal of European imperialism, will be in place until 2060!

On the same day that Tsipras made his announcement in Ithaca, I was discussing these and other issues with our friend Tasso in the tiny village of Komitata on the island of Kefallonia. The Northern end of Kefallonia, where we are located, is hardly a stone’s throw across the water from Ithaca.  

Tsipras in Ithaca
We last saw Tasso in the summer of 2017. Outwardly not much has changed in Komitata. Tasso’s café remains the only social center in town except for the church at the foot of the road.  But the church is only open occasionally while Tasso is always there in the summer. Tasso is a retired telecommunications worker who was active in his union.  He is very politically literate and has a good understanding of the different political groups in Greece. 

Tasso
During our conversation Tasso explained the power dynamics that used to govern Greece in the years prior to the economic crisis.  In those days the government would change hands between the Center Left PASOK and the Center Right New Democracy Party.  Mirroring the fortunes of PASOK and ND were the political affiliations of the public sector union confederation, ADEDY.  When PASOK was in the ascendancy unions that supported PASOK were in favor and similarly when New Democracy was in the ascendancy unions that supported ND were in favor.  What this came down to was that unions officials that were aligned with the ruling party could expect to receive plum positions in various government ministries and these officials in turn were able to maintain their positions by handing out jobs to subordinates.  This kind of corruption was endemic in the years prior to the economic crisis.  The relations between the unions in Greece and the Greek state were closely intertwined as a large part of the revenues that fund the operations of these unions came from direct government contributions.

After the economic crisis hit Greece in 2010 those sources of funding dried up considerably. This made it far more difficult for the unions to mobilize their members in support of this or that political formation.  Lacking incentives, and seeing their economic situation rapidly deteriorate despite the feeble protests of the unions, membership in these unions shrunk dramatically.

The economic crisis has completely upended those old class relations.  Not only did it see the virtual disintegration of Pasok and the rise of Syriza, but the role of the unions, once so essential in underpinning social relations in Greece, has been greatly diminished.  The official unions today are mostly irrelevant when it comes to setting the political and economic agenda of the country.

Tassos’s village of Komitata was initially very enthusiastic about Tsipras when Syriza first took over the reigns of government in 2015.  They took for good coin Tsipras’s promises to end the regime of austerity imposed by the European institutions.  I cannot think of any other country where a tiny rural village would be overwhelmingly supportive of a political party describing itself as “The Coalition of the Radical Left”.  The reason probably lies in the close connection most Greeks maintain between the urban centers to which they migrated, perhaps more than a generation ago, and the rural villages of their ancestry.  It doesn’t matter how long you have lived in the urban centers of Athens or Thessalonika, when August comes around, everyone returns to their village.

When I interviewed Tasso in 2017, two years after Tsipras’s betrayal of the referendum, his comment was that they had all voted “NO” [οχι] at the time but were shocked when the “NO” became a “YES”. [3] On this occasion, three years after the betrayal of the referendum, I asked Tasso how he would account for the relative quiescence of the class struggle since July 2015.
Tasso replied,

“People are still in shock. You have to understand how the economic crisis has affected people. They are too busy in their day to day struggle just trying to survive to become involved in political protests.”

I understood what he meant.  Greek society has undergone a profound transformation in the last decade.  That change cannot be grasped by citing raw statistics. For instance, the bare fact that in the last decade Greece’s GDP fell by more than 25%.  The only parallel to such a drop in economic activity was during the Great Depression.  A look at the statistics on unemployment paint a grim picture. According to a recent article in Jacobin,

“Unemployment peaked at 27.9 percent in July 2013. Since then this figure has slowly declined, and in May 2018 it fell below 20 percent for the first time. However, it will take another five years to reach pre-crisis level. Moreover, the rise in employment mainly owed to increased numbers in part-time and low-paid jobs. 54.7 percent of new jobs in 2017 were part-time.
The formal unemployment figures are also reduced by the simple fact that many working-age residents have moved abroad. These include both migrants working in Greece who left the country during the crisis, and Greek citizens forced to seek employment abroad.”[4]
Tasso explained what this means locally in the tourist industry of Kefallonia.  Many of the workers employed in the tourism business are largely, but by no means exclusively, immigrants from countries like Albania.  During the tourist season they work 7 days a week for about 600 a month. This is actually below the minimum wage but the employers get around that by calling this “part-time” work.  But “part-time” in this case means they work – officially – 7 hours a day instead of the normal 8 hour work day. In practice the distinction is meaningless as these workers are often forced to work extra hours without compensation.  The owners of the hotels and tourist businesses on the islands have managed to maintain their profit margins by drastically slashing wages and benefits. And work in the tourist industry on islands like Santorini are considered good compared to the situation in Athens where the average salary, providing you can even find a job, is even worse.  The overall average salary for full-time workers stands at €929 a month, down from €1285 in 2012.  For part-time workers it is now a miserable €378, down from  €587 in 2012. [5]

Tourists who visit Santorini or the Acropolis do not see this misery as a rule.  The Greek tourist industry makes it a priority to present everything as if nothing terrible is happening. But if you look just a bit beneath the surface or visit and talk to any Greek family trying to survive on a pension that has been reduced several times in the past few years, the evidence of social disintegration is hard to avoid. Strong family ties do provide a bit of a shelter from the economic devastation.  Grown children who are unemployed and can longer afford their own apartment move back in with their parents. Such options are not open to immigrants who generally do not have any family members that can assist them. In any case the ability to cushion the blows of austerity has its limits even with such strong family ties.  One figure, measuring the flight out of the country is telling,

“…427,000 permanent residents of Greece left the country between 2008 and 2013, including 187,000 non-citizens between 2010 and 2013. This flight continued in subsequent years and also took the form of brain-drain, as many young graduates sought work abroad.” [6]

This is close to 5% of the population of Greece. Such an exodus is unprecedented in recent history except during periods of war. 

Any attempt to understand the Greek situation today must take into account the effect of this unrelenting social misery on mass psychology.  Added to the equation is also the incredible disappointment many felt when their hopes were betrayed by Syriza in 2015.

Graffiti in Athens
Such a situation could cause despondency and despair and for the moment that seems to be the dominant mood.  But there is no necessary causal relationship between the social and economic devastation inflicted on Greece and the current mood. It could just as easily give rise to righteous anger and a mass movement that breaks with the status quo once the current interregnum period has passed.

Before leaving I asked Tasso how he saw the future.  If there was an election who would he vote for?

Tasso replied that he would of course vote for the Far Left.  To him that meant a vote for the ANTARSYA coalition.  But he is also well aware that ANTARYSA and other far left groups have little chance of winning an election or of being a significant influence on the course of events.  He cannot really see the future beyond that.

But Tasso also insists that the Greek working class is not finished. 

While Tsipras popularity is close to an all-time low, his main rival, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the leader of New Democracy, hardly commands any confidence either.  The Sriza-Anel coalition government took a big hit  when they were popularly perceived to have been negligent in their handling of the tragic fires that broke out this summer.  According to a recent poll,

“… when asked who is more suitable for prime minister, 43 percent answered “neither”. Kyriakos Mitsotakis is the preference of 25% compared to 13 percent of Alexis Tsipras.” [7]

What these numbers indicate more than anything else is a repudiation not only of Syriza but of the entire spectrum of bourgeois politics.  The situation is therefore ripe for a new force that can establish itself as a genuine alternative.  This is a situation pregnant with both dangers and opportunities for socialists. The opportunity to establish a new political force that will break with capitalist austerity is there. But if that force does not emerge then the pent-up anger that will certainly explode in the next period could be channeled in the direction of the extreme right and fascism.  

This was the view from Tasso’s café.

Alex Steiner

Graffiti art in Athens: Dedicated  to the poor and homeless here and around the globe.



[1] For instance, take this report from Reuters, Tsipras declares 'day of liberation' after Greece exits bailout,
[2] From Ithaca, Tsipras Hails Greek Bailouts End, Wants Austerity Undone,  https://www.thenationalherald.com/211055/pm-tsipras-to-visit-ithaca-on-tuesday/

[4] Disciplined and Punished by PANAGIOTIS SOTIRIS,  https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/08/greece-syriza-tsipras-memoranda-austerity-odyssey

[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The SEP’s contempt for workers

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Workers in Missouri petitioning to repeal the Right to Work Law. It was defeated by a huge majority in the referendum held on Aug 7, 2018.
The following is an exchange in the comments section of an article on the World Socialist Web Site on plans by ICE to escalate its raids on workplaces to deport immigrant workers. http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2018/07/26/pers-j26.html Specifically it’s an exchange between a union activist called S. Fulmer, who objected to anti-union assertions in the article, and the article’s writer Eric London. I think it’s worth reading because it vividly illustrates the point we’ve been making in our two previous posts on how the SEP has crossed a class line by its support of the Supreme Court’s unionbusting Janus decision.
Just consider the way this worker is treated. He argues that accusations against the unions in the article are assertions without evidence (which happens to be true) and then objects (entirely correctly) to how the WSWS “aligns itself with highly conservative, reactionary, organized, elitist and powerful forces in their efforts to dismantle unions”.
London’s first response is to accuse the worker of being a bureaucrat - a textbook example of an ad hominem attack. But it turns out that Fulmer isn’t a bureaucrat, he volunteers his time to the union and the only committee he serves on is for health and safety. Notice that London never apologizes for making this false accusation. The SEP has become so vested in its anti-union ideology that it sounds more and more like the proponents of Right to Work.
It’s also the case that Fulmer has illusions in the Democratic party - like a great many other workers, one might add. His approach to politics is (again typically) pragmatic: he may not entirely trust Ed Markey (Democratic senator from Massachusetts) but believes he has done some good, for instance about the issue of asbestos. And yet he’s also (far less typically) a worker interested enough to read and comment on articles on a website devoted (ostensibly) to world socialism. If Marxists cannot engage in a dialogue with workers like this, then one might as well pack in any efforts to ever win the working class to socialism.
The SEP approach is instead to shout down such a worker. London declares: “Once again, whenever a trade union activist opens their mouth to speak, they reveal their hostility to the interests of the working class.” Notice - not a union bureaucrat but a rather a union “activist”. London believes that he has ‘exposed’ this worker as a reactionary but actually he’s only exposed himself as a petty bourgeois with contempt for workers - a contempt, one might add, fostered and abetted by his mentors who run the SEP.
Frank Brenner
*************************************************************************************************
SFulmer:
The polemic against unions coming from wsws is unchecked and untrue:
"The trade unions will serve as a willing partner in helping to militarize American workplaces. In recent decades, the government has deported 5 million people, most of whom were workers and many of whom belonged to trade unions. The unions have refused to call a single significant strike, instead poisoning workers with American nationalism by blaming workers in China and Mexico for corporate outsourcing and declining wages"
This statement heavily relies on assumptions. It's certainly not supported by any evidence offered by the author. Obviously, when using a polemic argument, supportive evidence is not required, only aggression fitting an expected outcome. The argument here is that if you haven't called a "significant strike", then you're a wiling partner in militarization. This argument doesn't consider whether or not "significant strikes" would be effective in combatting militarization of American workplaces. In fact, in the current environment, they may serve to increase the militarization of the American workplace. It's an open question. The assumptions behind wsws' unrelenting polemics against unions are based on past political conditions.
In fact, if you set aside your willing participation in irresponsible polemics and read with an open mind, you would see that the author's own statements actually argue that striking would backfire: "The ICE announcement is an open threat to the entire working class. It is a response to the significant increase in strikes and protests..." The author and readers willing to participate in the poisoning of the American worker through strengthening right wing attacks against unions, would use this statement as a way to throw shade on unions, but, obviously, it's clear and direct evidence of self-contradiction and thoughtlessness.
In any case, such is the norm at wsws. It certainly doesn't speak to my experience with unions. This is why it appears irresponsible of wsws to align itself with highly conservative, reactionary, organized, elitist and powerful forces in their efforts to dismantle unions. If you were in the union, and were critical of the union, that's one thing. The union is what its members make it. But wsws' voice speaks as an outside threat, one that has no more to show for the healthy mobilization of the working class than those institutions that it cannot help itself from attacking. Was the workplace that was raided protected by a union? Was it protected by the wsws?
The ICE raids have been going on for more than a decade, as can be seen in wsws article from 2007:http://www.wsws.org/en/arti...
What good has wsws been from stopping these continued raids? Talk is cheap.


Eric London:
SFulmer: I believe from your other posts that you belong to the apparatus of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which takes about $42 million in dues money from teachers. You describe yourself as a “union activist.” Elsewhere online you are listed as the Chair of an MTA board.
The paragraph you quote is not based on assumption but on fact. The unions have given millions of dollars to the Democratic Party, which passed the laws laying the basis for mass deportations and workplace raids. You note that Obama conducted workplace raids—Well, the AFL-CIO and all the major unions endorsed Obama. Did the MTA endorse him? What do you have to say about this? Obama deported 3 million people. The unions cannot claim to have been “surprised” by his anti-immigrant program, since they endorsed him in 2012 after he had already deported hundreds of thousands.
The unions poison the atmosphere with toxic American nationalism. They recently published a series of press releases denouncing “temporary workers” and calling for Trump to eliminate visas for such low-wage workers.
You imply that strikes would not “be effective in combatting militarization of American workplaces” and that strikes “may serve to increase the militarization of the American workplace.”
Spoken like a true union bureaucrat! You say: Don’t bother fighting the corporations and the government—it will only make matters worse. Don’t bother defending the rights of immigrant workers—let the government come and drag them away because there is nothing you can do. Your bankrupt argument proves the point made in the paragraph you challenge.
What does the WSWS do? We fight to break workers from organizations led by people like you who explicitly tell them not to fight or strike to defend their rights and those of their immigrant coworkers.


SFulmer:
Make it about me? I can defend myself. I introduced a business item before the annual delegation at the MTA to require that all money donated to political candidates who voted in favor or privatizing education be required to return our campaign contribution. The motion was passed by the body of 1,500 delegates. All of the money had gone to Democrats. There is a movement within the union to change its direction, but to wsws, it's not a movement of thinking people, it's a poisonous union.
I've never told anyone not to strike in my life. You have no idea what you're talking about, which is, again, consistent with the polemic attacks coming from wsws. At least you searched on the internet and found information you could smear me with. I'm not a bureaucrat in the least. All my time is volunteered and the committee I serve on is health and safety. The number one agenda is to help locals mobilize their forces to protect themselves from health and safety threats. If you can help with that, we can work together.
"Spoken like a true union bureaucrat." Spoken like a true wsws polemic attack against anything union.
"What does the WSWS do? We fight to break workers from organizations led by people like you who explicitly tell them not to fight or strike to defend their rights and those of their immigrant coworkers." I would say this is exactly why I fight you, and will continue to fight wsws' anti-union polemics, but, as is typical with wsws polemic attacks against unions, in actually, it is a meaningless statement without the perspective of the expectations of your polemics. What organization do I actually lead? You don't know, nor do you care to engage in open discussion, but need to smear at every opportunity. The only organization I lead is the only organization available to me. If it didn't exist, I might - and certainly have done so in the past - initiate an organization.
There's nothing a priori that says a union can't be effective and mobilized. But the wsws anti-unionism is a perfect tool of the right wing, whose number one priority in their long crusade against unions is to break down their political strength and support of the Democratic party. Sure, wsws doesn't have the same end in mind, but you are the perfect tool for them. It needs to be pointed out. People need to think for themselves.
The question remains, given that ICE has been militarized and attacking working people for over a decade, what have you achieved? Notice I didn't ask, above, what you do. I know what you do. I asked what good have you been.


Rosa Roja:

I disagree with you on many points (especially the Democratic party), but I totally sympathize with your reaction to wsws polemics. They write as if workers are incapable of organizing unions in their own defense. They call for "rank and file committees" but what does that mean? Either the committees would be small and isolated or they would end up as locals in a new and better union. So is the wsws calling for alternative unions? Why not say so?
Or perhaps they imagine the committees forming the nuclei of revolutionary workers' councils ("soviets"). But they don't say that either. Instead they function as union-bashers pure and simple.


Eric London:

Why did your organization give $230,000 in teachers dues money to elect Ed Markey to the Senate? He just voted to provide $25 billion to build Trump's US-Mexico.


SFulmer:
He's got great hair? It's a good question that I don't have an answer for. It was before my time participating in the union activities, which were spurred on in part by a lack of responsiveness from them regarding political candidate support. I didn't vote for him, nor did I vote for anyone beyond my local, because participating in these fake elections presupposes you're voting against your interests. Nevertheless, Markey is the only Sen who has had anything to say about asbestos, meanwhile, Trump has opened the floodgates to asbestos production, benefitting Russians as much as anybody. Granted, Markey saying something isn't heard by anyone above the crazed noise about Russia. I guess politics is not monolithic. I have to start thinking less and less in terms of polemics. That's the media's advantage.
Why hasn't wsws done a story about Massachusetts going to the poll to defeat the expansion of charter schools? It's a perfect example of the people standing up to private interests, and it shows how effective unions can be when they mobilize at the grassroots level. Is there a reason why you wouldn't want to show a clear and important story about a union successfully standing up to powerful, private interests and galvanizing the public to walk to the polls and defeat them, directly?

Eric London:
The unions "standing up to powerful, private interests"!? This year's teachers strikes shows the union serves the powerful interests in stopping strikes and protestors by teachers demanding a defense of public education.
Here are two fantastic articles on the role of the Democrats in attacking public education, including through charterization, written by Nancy Hanover and Jerry White this year.
Here is a quote from the first part:
The period from 2007 to 2016 saw the fewest major work stoppages in the US of any decade since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began recording them in 1947. This was not the result of any complacency among workers, let alone satisfaction with the historic transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top that occurred during the Obama years.
On the contrary, it was the outcome of the deliberate policy of the AFL-CIO and other unions, which guaranteed the Obama administration “labor peace” in the aftermath of 2008 financial crash, giving the Democratic president a free hand to bail out the Wall Street banks, starve the states and school districts of funding, and restructure economic and social relations at the expense of the working class.
In order to maintain the political straitjacket of the Democratic Party over the working class and prevent any challenge from below to the financial oligarchy, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) worked overtime to smother the opposition of teachers—above all in the suppression of the powerful strikes and mass protests that exploded in Wisconsin in 2011, Chicago in 2012 and Detroit in 2015-16.


SFulmer:
Yes, we stood up to powerful, private interests, which your readers would know if there was any honest information coming through your site about the Massachusetts ballot question. I see you didn't answer the question, but, in form with a polemist, returned with another question.
Be that as it may, the ammunition wsws uses to smear unions for offering labor peace was the legacy of pubic union organizing in the 60s. Lefter-than-thous have a terrible time acknowledging the advance of working people under Kennedy, who signed the order allowing public unions to have legal standing, among other things, such as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was tested in court and labor peace was the justification upholding it. I hope it isn't hard to understand why a state might want labor peace. This policy is not the same thing as Harvard students murdering strikers in the name of the National Guard at the BRead and Roses strike, nor does post-assassination state policy mean the same thing it had meant when the inchoate coalition of working people, minorities, and even academics was gaining a foothold in the Democratic party.
The fact that labor contracts have no-strike policies is unfortunate, yes, Taft-Hartley and all that. However, wsws looks silly fronting that unions are against the strikers, when the timing of these strikes appears to anyone paying the slightest attention to appear coordinated and perfectly aligned with the existential threat posed by the stacked supreme court and their decision on Hugh Janus. Duh, their not outwardly calling for strikes. More fodder for polemicists. It doesn't mean they, we, don't support them. Yes, you have counterarguments. But that's all you have. You have nothing to call an achievement, no standing, and you're aligned with these powerful, private interests in seeking the destruction of unions. What a great way to grow a coalition!


Eric London:

Once again, whenever a trade union activist opens their mouth to speak, they reveal their hostility to the interests of the working class. Your praise for "labor peace" and your appeal that workers understand why labor peace is important to the government makes your class position crystal clear.


Rosa Roja:
"Once again, whenever a trade union activist opens their mouth to speak,
they reveal their hostility to the interests of the working class."
Therefore all trade union activists are hostile to the working class. What kind of nonsense is this?


Thursday, July 12, 2018

An anti-working class organization: reply to comments

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Associated Industries wanted to portray organized labor as hostile to American values.  This advertisement appeared on November 1, 1919 in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and was intended to take advantage of heightened patriotic feeling in advance of Armistice Day. It's a fascinating document that shows that the right wing attack on the agency shop has a lineage going back a century to the ultimately successful attempt to destroy the closed shop.



Note: We are responding here to a series of comments to Frank Brenner’s article,

Reply to Commenters

A few points in response to the comments;

A couple of the commenters (Anonymous and Christie) have made the essential point about this contemptible position of the SEP. The Janus decision is above all else an attack on the collective bargaining rights of ALL workers, not just a crimp in the finances of the union bureaucracy. By endorsing this decision the SEP has gone over to the side of Right to Work and of the cabal of reactionary ideologues and billionaires like the Koch brothers who organized the campaign to push the Janus case to the Supreme Court. Eric London ignores these issues and the political context of the Janus case; the Koch brothers don’t even rate a mention in his several lengthy comments. As has been pointed out, the SEP position amounts to a classic case of throwing out the baby (the democratic rights of workers to organize collectively) with the bathwater (the union bureaucracy). It also amounts to crossing a class line by supporting a major legal attack on working class rights. As I argued in my post, on the basis of this position the SEP is now an openly anti-working class organization.

I think it's important, however, to underscore that the SEP did not arrive at this position by accident or that it represents a sudden departure. Go back to what Alex and I wrote in 2007, in particular to our analysis of North's lecture, Marxism and the Trade Unions, and you’ll see that the groundwork for this betrayal was already there. North starts out with a correct assessment that globalization has brought about a severe degeneration of the labor movement but he then takes what is essentially a conjunctural crisis and inflates it into a supposedly universal truth. The problem isn’t just unions in the era of globalization; the problem is the VERY FORM of unions themselves. “The organic development of trade unionism,” he declares, “proceeds, not in the direction of socialism, but in opposition to it.” This thesis is concocted out of a travesty of dialectics, and to say the least, it is sharply at odds with the attitude Marxists have traditionally taken towards unions.

A further point worth noting: the reactionary implications of this thesis apply not just to unions. As we pointed out, it can be wielded to renounce “any formation of the working class that arises SPONTANEOUSLY WITHIN CAPITALISM”. Precisely because of their spontaneous character, such formations will start out by accepting the limits of capitalism and seek to bargain for better conditions within the system: for example, a factory committee will seek to be a militant and honest alternative to the official union or else (in a non-union plant) try to establish itself as a union. And to the extent that these committees remain bound by spontaneity – i.e. to the extent that they remain cut off from a revolutionary socialist perspective – then it is certainly true that their ‘organic’ development will ultimately be in a reactionary direction [as North claims]. But one might as well say the same thing about spontaneous consciousness as such: it is bourgeois consciousness, as Lenin informed us long ago. But this is hardly the end of the matter as far as Marxists are concerned: formations like factory committees are also BATTLEGROUNDS IN THE STRUGGLE FOR SOCIALIST CONSCIOUSNESS. But this is what North’s ‘formalism’ deliberately obscures.”

This explains a glaring incongruity in SEP propaganda. Every article on labor issues ends with a call for the formation of “rank and file committees” as an alternative to the unions - and yet despite issuing these calls now for upwards of 13 years, there isn’t a single example they can point to of the formation of such a committee. So this is nothing more than empty rhetoric, a fig leaf to cover up the SEP’s long record of abstentionism with regard to the struggles of the working class.

But the truth is that even if such committees emerged - as they well might in this period - the SEP’s sectarian politics will be instinctively hostile to them. And North’s thesis will serve to rationalize that hostility, since after all; the “organic development” of any spontaneous movement of the working class within capitalism will be “not in the direction of socialism, but in opposition to it.” You get a foretaste of this hostility in the disgusting way the SEP has reacted to #MeToo, with North and company’s willful blindness to the social scourge of sexual abuse, including as it affects working class women.

A last point: I said in my post that socialists intervene in unions to the extent that members of those unions retain important gains that still need to be defended. The Janus decision is a dangerous attack on those gains, but SEP supporters like London deny such gains even exist, which is a big part of how they justify endorsing the Supreme Court’s union-busting. In one of the points in his legal brief-type indictment of my post, London asks rhetorically: “What are the rights and gains workers have won in the last 40 years due to the struggles led by unions?” He obviously feels that the answer is self-evident, but what the question actually demonstrates is how out of touch he and his party are with the working class.

One of the comments mentioned Bureau of Labor Statistics about the advantages of having a union compared to not having one. Here are some specific figures from those stats:

The wage premium for union work was 26 percent as of 2015, which means that unionized workers made on average 26 percent more than non-unionized workers for the same type of work. This wage premium was more pronounced for women and minorities. Female union members earned 33 percent more than their non-union counterparts. Hispanics doing full-time work earned on average 47 more in a union than out of it, and African-Americans earned 30 percent more.

The gap between union and non-union work is also evident in access to benefits. 94 percent of unionized workers have a pension, compared to 64 percent of non-union workers. For medical plans, the numbers are 95 percent compared to 68 percent. For paid sick leave, it’s 85 percent compared to 62 percent. For life insurance, it’s 86 percent compared to 56 percent.

Of course these numbers only paint a very general picture and they don’t disclose the deprivations that four decades of corporatist ‘business unionism’ have inflicted on union members. In particular statistical averages gloss over bureaucratic crimes like two-tier wage systems. Nonetheless, these numbers are not nothing. Especially in public sector unions, and especially in blue states like New York and California, these numbers reflect important gains that millions of workers have managed to preserve. They represent the difference between a minimally decent standard of living and perpetual drudgery. Which is why the Right to Work forces have been so persistent in their efforts to outlaw the agency shop and break up this last remaining stronghold of unionization. The SEP may not recognize the existence of these gains, but the Koch brothers certainly do.

A party so blithely indifferent to what matters to workers is one whose politics have gone off the deep end. The scratch of sectarianism has become gangrenous. The SEP is an organization that has gone over to the side of the enemies of the working class.

Frank Brenner

Reply to Eric London

Mr. London asks 10 questions that are either beside the point or are variations of a “When did you stop beating your wife?” type question. For instance, take this one,

The SEP calls for the formation of rank and file committees in the
work place, totally independent of the union. Why do you oppose this
policy?

We never said we opposed the slogan for rank and file committees. In fact we raised it even before the SEP did in the course of our critique of their conduct during the New York Transit Workers strike of 2005. What we opposed is the SEP’s use of this slogan as a subterfuge for their real position, which is indifference and hostility to the existing struggles of the working class, struggles which they contrast unfavorably to an idealized working class that exists only in their imagination.

I would like to ask Mr. London a couple of questions:

Do you maintain that workers are better off without being represented by a union than when they are unionized?

If so how do you account for the big difference in wages and benefits of workers in Right To Work states to workers who at least have the protection of a union contract?

The position of the SEP/WSWS defended by Mr. London has been a long time coming, evolving over the past 25 years as Frank has mentioned.  The WSWS unqualified labelling of all unions as “reactionary” in 1993 opened the door to what was later enshrined as a policy of abstentionism when it came to struggles of the working class.  This was further solidified by a talk given by David North in 1998 where he made the claim that the very form of a union guarantees that it will have a reactionary content.[1] We analyzed the philosophical muddle North created to justify this position in our document ‘Marxism Without its Head or its Heart’ back in 2007. [2]

The logical conclusion of this drift over the past years is now evident in the celebration of the WSWS over the Janus decision.  The Janus decision must be understood in its historical context.  It is a landmark legal decision that puts shackles on the efforts of public employee unions to survive.  It is a direct descendant of the infamous Taft Hartley Act of 1947 which made the closed shop illegal in the United States and placed massive restrictions on the ability of unions to take actions in defense of its members, including severely limiting the right to strike.  The agency shop was a compromise that survived after the closed shop was declared illegal.  With the agency shop state and local government employees were charged a fee whether they were members of the union or not in return for the union representing them in collective bargaining agreements.  Now that last vestige of legal protection for unions is gone.

Mr. London’s argument focuses on the automatic dues checkoff as providing a mechanism that lets the union bureaucracy escape accountability to its members. But Mr. London misses the bigger issue here which is that it is inconceivable that any membership organization can survive in this day and age without some kind of automatic dues paying system.  This is the 21st century and the time is long past when it was possible for shop stewards to collect dues from their members by walking around the shop floor and listening to every individual grievance.  You cannot force unions to be accountable to their members by restricting them to the methods and technology of the early 20th century, long before online banking and Internet transactions were possible.  Not to mention that today’s “shop floor” is likely to be a virtual “shop floor” in a rented office space many miles away from the headquarters of the agency the worker is logging into. It’s an absurdity.  To force unions to be accountable to its members is a political question, not a technical one.

Furthermore, as much as we may oppose the actions of the labor bureaucracy you cannot fight their influence by starving the unions.  And to cheer on a legal action imposed on the unions by the bourgeois state that cripples the unions is a betrayal of class solidarity.  

Mr. London raises the SEP’s slogan of “rank and file committees” as evidence that the SEP is not anti-working class, just anti-union. Again, this specious argument is a reflection of the sectarian mindset that dreams of an idealized working class which it then contrasts to the actual working class who come with all the baggage of a class divorced from socialist politics for three generations, including those messy unions.

The SEP’s supposed campaign for rank and file committees is a complete fraud meant to deflect criticism for their abandonment of the working class.  In the 13 years during which they have raised this slogan, we have yet to see evidence of a single rank and file committee emerging anywhere.
 
In reply to Anonymous, who pointed out quite correctly that in years past the WSWS claimed to oppose Right to Work laws, London finds a distinction between RTW laws and the dues checkoff system.  He quotes from an article from 2015,

“Republican-backed right-to-work laws are anti-worker and aimed at blocking any collective resistance to the corporations. That being said, workers have every reason to stop paying the UAW for the “privilege” of being sold out.” [3]

But what this statement elides is the difference between a rank and file revolt from below and a state-imposed mandate that encourages the more backward workers to leave the union.   Right to work laws have as their primary goal the elimination of the automatic dues checkoff and that in turn is a key part of a strategy to break the back of the last bastion of unionized workers in the U.S., the public employee unions.  Saying you oppose RTW but support its result makes no logical sense. The logical conclusion was indeed finally drawn by the SEP/WSWS with its June 28 article on the Janus decision. You will not find a single statement in that article opposing RTW.

An Anonymous commenter on our article hit the nail on the head when he or she wrote,

“In the Janus case in particular, the process and context matters. Even if we accept the very dubious argument that banning the agency shop is a good thing for the working class, it was achieved not by an initiative and activism by the workers from below but via a legal case brought by corporate-financed right-wing activists and endorsed by the most reactionary wing of the capitalist Supreme Court. You don't need to be an apologist for the union bureaucracy to oppose textbook union-busting from above, which Janus was a clear example of.”

Finally, I want to comment on Mr. London’s use of the “free speech” argument to defend the WSWS position in support of the Janus decision. London writes,

“Why should workers not have the right to withhold dues from the union
if they are dissatisfied with the policies and performance of the
organization?”

This argument is no different than the one voiced in the majority opinion of the Janus case written by Justice Alito. He wrote that the collection of agency fees,

“…violates the free speech rights of non-members by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.”

Justice Kagan, in her dissenting opinion, referred to the majority opinion as an example of “Weaponizing the First Amendment” and she was absolutely right to do so.  In recent years right wing forces have been using “free speech” arguments as a bludgeon against the working class, a phenomenon recently noted in an article in the New York Times. [4]

The right of free speech is a philosophical and legal maxim that has a long history. Its origins go back to the 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill, whose essay On Liberty has been cited by both liberals and reactionaries over the years.  The “free speech” argument has been used to justify the “right” of scabs to sabotage strikes.  It has also been used to justify the right of racists and fascists to spread their poison. It is thus not surprising that it played a prominent role in the arguments before the Supreme Court to justify the campaign of extreme right enemies of the working class to place legal shackles on their right to organize.

The principle of free speech, as developed by Mill, is based on the myth of the atomistic individual in bourgeois society.  And that society in which this individual is supposed to exist is a legal fiction - a society shorn of class divisions. While the right to voice opinions and express them publicly is an essential part of any form of democratic society, when that right is deemed to be absolute, as it is by right wing “free speech” advocates, then it comes into direct conflict with other rights.  The necessity to limit this “absolute right” is often recognized in law by citing the example of someone who yells “Fire” in a crowded theater.

But what about the scab? Does the principle of class solidarity not also have a claim on our conduct?  Although this principle has absolutely no recognition in bourgeois law, it is inconceivable that the working class can defend itself, let alone go on the offensive, without it. It is no problem for right wing advocates of “free speech” to defend scabs and fascists since they do not recognize the right of the working class to defend itself.  Any organization based on class solidarity understands this principle implicitly. It is incumbent on any such organization to impose some sort of discipline on its more backward members; otherwise you would have to argue that scabs have just as much right to break a strike as militants do to engage in them. And indeed this is exactly what right wing anti-union forces argue, while at the same time hypocritically engaging in actions that would prevent militants from exercising their right to strike.

The real political forces behind the arcane legal arguments in the Janus vs AFSCME case were recently exposed in an article in The Intercept, which cited an umbrella organization, the State Policy Network, as coordinating the actions of all the right wing anti-union groups in the country.

State Policy Network member think tanks generally do not disclose their donors. Several are generously funded by foundations controlled by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, the State Policy Network affiliate in Texas, inadvertently revealed its donor list several years ago. The donor list included foundation grants from the Koch Industries, AT&T, Verizon, Altia, Geo Group, Exxon Mobil, Coca-Cola, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas, and the Claude Lambe Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit controlled by the Kochs, among others. State Policy Network refers to its donors as “investors.”
The post-Janus effort to decimate unions features specially tailored opt-out campaigns taking aim at organized University of California employees; teachers unions in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and AFSCME Council 2, which includes sewer district, county, and librarian workers throughout the state of Washington; among other public sector unions. [5]

These are the forces the WSWS finds itself in agreement with.

For all their left bluster, the WSWS may as well be joining with the Koch brothers in dancing on Joe Hill’s grave. 

Alex Steiner