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

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

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

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

An anti-working class organization

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By Frank Brenner

Just a brief comment to mark an appalling but completely predictable event: the World Socialist Web Site, run by the dubiously named ‘Socialist’ Equality Party, has come out in support of the Supreme Court’s Janus decision last week stripping unions of the agency shop. [1] The SEP has now lined up not only with the Court’s black-robed reactionaries but also with the sinister cabal of right-wing think tanks and billionaires including the Koch brothers who provided the funding to push this legal case. In so doing the SEP has crossed a class line and come out openly in support of a dangerous assault on the rights of workers.

The logic of the SEP’s argument is spurious. To believe them, the Supreme Court decision was “a defeat for the union bureaucracy, not the workers.” Who knew that the Court was so solicitous of the rights of workers and so careful to distinguish them from union bureaucrats? What rubbish! This decision was deliberately designed to undermine and ultimately break up the last remaining bastion of union strength in the public sector. And there is SEP cheering it on!

It’s a waste of time to pick apart this political bilge. For anyone interested, Alex and I discussed at length the anti-union positions of SEP leader-for-life David North in our 2007 polemic, Marxism Without its Head or its Heart. (See in particular Chapter 5: Abandoning the Struggle for Socialist Consciousness in the Working Class). [2]  

Here a few basic points are in order. Socialist workers oppose the labor bureaucracy but that does not mean that we abandon the unions. To the extent that there remain significant numbers of workers in the unions and to the extent that those workers retain important rights and benefits from union membership - to that extent socialists fight to defend those rights by offering an alternative leadership committed to socialist policies. If socialists abandon the unions, they also abandon any fight to defend rights like decent health coverage, a living wage, pensions, paid vacations, pregnancy and sick leave. Why should workers have anything but contempt for such ‘socialists’?

All unions are NOT company unions, SEP propaganda notwithstanding. It is true that in the private sector, many unions have disintegrated while others have degenerated, sometimes beyond the point of no return. But in the public sector the picture is quite different, especially in blue states, where there are millions of unionized public sector workers. The rights and gains these workers have made are not fictions - and the best proof of that is the relentless anti-union hostility of the billionaires and right-wing ideologues behind the Janus decision. Why would they care a damn if those gains were non-existent?

As for the recent upsurge of teachers’ strikes in red states, it is true that the impetus for those strikes often came from teachers outside the unions. But these teachers weren’t abandoning unions; on the contrary, they wanted more unionization and above all MORE MILITANT unions. The standpoint of socialists should be to show them how this can be possible only through new leadership.

Finally, a word about the agency shop, the subject of the Janus ruling. This is a descendant of the closed shop, one of the crucial demands of the mass struggles for CIO industrial unions in the 1930s. Without the closed shop, the union couldn’t survive, as workers came to understand. Only bosses and scabs were against the closed shop. The agency shop was already a watered-down version of this, a sliver of legality the Supreme Court was still willing to grant in a very different political climate four decades ago. Workers didn’t have to join a union, but if that union negotiated for them, they had to contribute dues to help pay for that.

Now that sliver of legality is gone, and the Koch brothers machine is already mass texting union members to encourage them to withdraw their dues, with the aim of starving the unions to the point of financial collapse. By the logic of its politics, the SEP should be entirely in support of this campaign. Maybe they can offer the Koch brothers a helping hand.

Enough said! In times when political tensions are acute, one’s true political colors come into the open. The sectarian turns out to be a reactionary. The key to understanding this is the sectarian’s relationship - or non-relationship - to the working class. A socialist party that abandons any ties to the working class has lost its moorings politically. It doesn’t matter how ‘revolutionary’ its rhetoric is, because rhetoric is no substitute for a political engagement on a daily basis with the working class.

The SEP abandoned any such engagement decades ago. North’s pronouncements about unions were a (not very convincing) theoretical cover for that abandonment. Instead the party withdrew into an internet existence and appealed mostly to college students (particularly, it would seem, to up-and-coming lawyers). The working class was constantly invoked in its propaganda, but this had nothing to do with the actual working class, it was purely an exercise in wishful thinking - a sectarian’s imaginary projection of what the working class should be.

Also, the party had no need to raise funds in the working class, as had long been the tradition in the socialist movement, because North was able to finance his operations by running a lucrative printing business. This had the added benefit for North of reinforcing his political control, since he not only got to set the political agenda but also controlled the purse strings. The upshot of all this is a cult-like outfit where all resolutions are passed ‘unanimously’.

A party this politically unmoored from the working class has little resistance to being pushed in reactionary directions. Nothing good can come from such a party. If there is anyone left in that party who still holds any allegiance to the working class, the best thing to do is: Get out!