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


Anonymous said...

As usual, the other guy is betraying the working class but not a word on what you've been up to for the last decade and how well or poorly you've fared. The tradition of literary criticism is safe in your hands.
I didn't read the part where you claimed the WSWS/SEP prevented you from intervening under your own banner, instead you wait for them to dazzle you with the success of their program. That's the only reason I can come up with for the following statement: "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."

This criticism could have been made of the WL when you were a leader of it, since the call for a Labor party went nowhere. You like to point out that WSWS/SEP is alarmist when it points out that diplomatic tensions can lead to another world war. The same could have been said of Marx when he expected revolutions in the 1850s, since he turned out to be wrong.

You think that rank and file committees are figments of D. North's imagination, what are you proposing, a return to the old "build the Labor party, based on the unions", call or something entirely new? Quit wasting time on what others are doing and get to work on your own project.

Alex Steiner said...

Are you saying that we are not allowed to write anything critical of the WSWS/SEP unless we represent a political party that has developed a following in factories? If you really believe that then why do you think you have the right to criticize us? What after all you have you built, Mr.Anonymous?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Anonymous here. I've built nothing and I don't pretend to know how to do it the right way, as you do. I'm not criticizing you, only pointing out that you failed to clearly state what you stand for, other than criticizing D. North and his crew. As my comment indicated, being wrong isn't new to Marxism, so spending over a decade pointing out that the other guy is wrong
isn't terribly serious unless you've given proof that you've built something better. Trotsky wanted to militarize the unions under "War Communism" and was severely criticized by Lenin, who advocated abandoning that policy for the New Economic Policy(NEP). What you call my criticism is a simple question. What's your NEP, or is this just an exercise in literary criticism?

Alex Steiner said...

Mr. Anonymous,

To Marxists, ideas matter. Where you stand on a fundamental question facing the working class matters, regardless of how many followers you have or don't have. If you are incapable of discussing those ideas but instead want to change the topic into a discussion of our organizational abilities, then you are not a serious person. If you wish to dismiss our rasing of certain questions about the SEP/WSWS betrayal of a fudamental principle of working class solidarity as just so much "literary critcism" then you probaby belong in another forum more suited to the unfocused and intellectually vapid talking points of a Twitter feed.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Anonymous, again. Brenner's post claimed that being anti-union was a deviation from Marxism, as Lenin and Trotsky's debate on the nature of trade unions showed, they found nothing sacrosanct about such organizations, their views depended on what role trade unions were called upon to play in the general scheme. If War Communism was the party's policy, then the unions were to be militarized as Trotsky proposed. Lenin opposed such scheme because that policy led to disaster not out of an abstract adherence to trade unions as such.

"To Marxists, ideas matter. Where you stand on a fundamental question facing the working class matters, regardless of how many followers you have or don't have." Thank you. You do have a knack for stating the obvious! It was in anticipation of such grandstanding on your part that I wrote the following: "This criticism could have been made of the WL when you were a leader of it, since the call for a Labor party went nowhere. You like to point out that WSWS/SEP is alarmist when it points out that diplomatic tensions can lead to another world war. The same could have been said of Marx when he expected revolutions in the 1850s, since he turned out to be wrong." Yes, ideas matter. Again, what's your "NEP" idea in contrast to D. North and company's "War Communism"? I hope you don't find my question too intellectually vapid.

muskrat said...

I'm glad you mentioned Joe Hill the Wobblie because the IWW style of union differs in very significant ways from the labor fakirs of the AFL/CIO. The IWW preamble calls for the abolition of the wages system. Considering that almost 90% of the US workforce is unorganized and the AFL/CIO has not demonstrated any interest at all in organizing the great masses of these unorganized workers, which form of workers organization has the greatest chances of building strong resilient fighting workers groups? An organization like the IWW has a noble tradition and in many ways still has some potential to build a revolutionary rank and file mass union movement. Unfortunately the IWW of the present era is inhabited with reformists,liberals and others that joined for mostly nostalgic reasons. These folks seem to have forgotten that the IWW was and at least on paper still is opposed to reformism,and electoralism. Much of the IWW leadership calls themselves anarcho-syndicalists. I was a member for a while but the local group was pretty disorganized and lacked tangible goals and purpose. It wouldn't be very difficult for a focused group of revolutionaries to join the Wobblies and have a major impact.
Whether the Wobblies can be transformed or not isn't the main point though. In my opinion, as the class struggle more and more takes on characteristics of the early 20th century with the capitalist class getting nastier and rougher in their dealings with their workers, the working class will of necessity have to go back to organizational forms and strategies that best suit these changes in labor conditions, perhaps adding some new wrinkles to the older tried and true methods of the conducting the class struggle.
Don't expect the AFL/CIO to be supporting the working class as things heat up. The best that can be hoped for is that a few renegade union locals fight on their own with no support from the national and state organizations. In fact the labor bureaucracies will do everything within their power to sabotage local battles.
I will say it once again, boring from within does not work, and never has. Some of my labor organizing friends have spent many years of their lives futilely trying to change their unions. Sad really, all of that time and effort that could have been applied towards something more meaningful for the working class, but instead it was wasted.

Anonymous said...

Neither Alex or I are fetishizing unions. Our point was precisely the opposite: that North made a fetish out of renouncing unions as being reactionary by their very form. I think Marxists should be open to all kinds of organizational forms that may arise spontaneously in the class struggle. But that also should include the possibility of revolts within established unions against the bureaucracy. No doubt there have been a lot of failed efforts like that in the past, but we are living in a different era, where fissures are emerging even within a ruling class institution like the Democratic Party. The growth of support for socialism among millennials opens up new possibilities, including within unions.

All that being said, when an organization like the SEP comes out in support of union-busting by the Supreme Court, that does represent a stark betrayal of the Trotskyist legacy they claim to represent. This isn't a matter of a difference over tactics but a betrayal of class solidarity. If that doesn't concern you - and there's no indication it does from the comments posted here - then you have lost all sense of what it means to be a revolutionary Marxist.

As for the union debates in the early Soviet Union, this is totally off base. The Russian working class was politically in power in those years, which raised fundamental issues about the ongoing role of unions in such a society. This is a world apart from the situation we live under now.

As for the 'advice' about getting on with our own project, we are not a party and never claimed to be. But we have written a great deal on Marxist theory and history over the years, including several books. Maybe I am wrong but I suspect that, along with never building anything, you haven't written much either - except for the invaluable comments you occasionally choose to share. Since you just want us to shut up about North, might I suggest that you do the same about us.

Frank Brenner

Anonymous said...

"Since you just want us to shut up about North, might I suggest that you do the same about us."
Please indicate where I've asked you to shut up about North? I've asked you what your alternative to North is, since Marxists are in the habit of opposing one program to another. Social Patriotism vs International Class Solidarity during WWI and Socialism in one Country vs Permanent Revolution after the October Revolution. I only pointed out that your criticism of
WSWS/SEP lacks such clear demarcation. You guys sound like a bunch of grumpy customers who insist on frequenting the same diner for the pleasure of making the same complaints. I'm not even sure if you guys oppose “rank and file committees”.

"As for the 'advice' about getting on with our own project, we are not a party and never claimed to be. But we have written a great deal on Marxist theory and history over the years, including several books. Maybe I am wrong but I suspect that, along with never building anything, you haven't written much either - except for the invaluable comments you occasionally choose to share."

You are not wrong. I'm not vain enough to spill a great deal of ink when I've nothing to say since I don't know how to build anything. I'm glad to see that being in the same predicament hasn't stopped you. North and his crew have written a great deal of nonsense about "identity politics". It's not the first time they've made common cause with unsavory types around opposition to Affirmative Action. Their worship of 'saint' Thomas Jefferson doesn't sit right with me either, nor does their habit of censoring their comments section, all the while, loudly proclaiming their opposition to censorship by the likes of Google and Facebook. Your 'request' that I shut up about you, tells me you aren't different.
Mr. Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Frankly speaking, as one of growing numbers of part-time wage-earners who have jobs neither on stable working condtions nor protected by worker organizations, I seem to have two minds about unions in general. One is something like envy -- I wish I belonged to one, so I could lead a more decent life. The other is resentment -- the unionized workers know little satisfaction such that they demand more than their current privileges without taking into account the poor circumstances of other workers.
However, I know that I wouldn't be a bit happier if unions were to disappear or be destroyed. I would be more helpless under the grips of management.
In my humble opinion, the blog's position is more reasonable and balanced in that it can see both dark sides of unions in the past or present and bright possibilities diffrently than SEP/WSWS.