Mexican Labor Year in Review (2015)

by Dan La Botz

January 25, 2016

2015 was another in a series of very bad years for Mexico. Mexican working people continued to experience the difficulties of a stagnant economy, the violence of the drug war, repression of labor and social movements, and the rule of corrupt political parties. Few workers had legitimate labor unions with which to resist employer and government policies, and fewer had the desire to engage in strikes. Yet some workers–teachers in southern Mexico, farm workers in Baja California, and maquiladora workers in Juarez–did courageously attempt to fight for their rights and for greater power. We begin this report with the drug wars that have so dominated Mexican life for the last decade.

The Drug War and Criminal Justice

Mexico remains a killing field. The Mexican New Year, January 1, 2016, opened with the assassination of Gisela Raquel Mota Ocampo, the 33-year old woman who had just taken office as mayor of Temixco, Morelos. She was killed by four armed men who arrived in a black van and shot her gangland style. Senators and congressional representatives of her party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), asserted that she had been murdered by organized crime. Her assassination was one of the 100 city council members and 1,000 municipal officials who have been killed in the last decade, principally by organized crime. In addition to government officials murdered, three reporters were killed in Mexico in 2015 and 35 have been killed since 1992, mostly by drug dealers.

Thousands march in Mexico City in September 2015 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of 43 students in Iguala. (Photo: Miguel Tovar/Latincontent/Getty Images)

The killings and mass kidnapping of the students of the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College that took place in Iguala, Guerrero in September 2014 continues to haunt Mexico. With the Mexican government unable to provide a credible explanation for the events that had taken place in Iguala, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights created the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts to investigate the situation. The group produced a series of reports that impugned the government’s accounts, but failed to provide any complete explanation that could satisfy the parents of the disappeared students or the Mexican public. Much of the public has concluded that Mexican government officials at various levels, and possibly the Mexican Army as well, were involved with organized crime in either carrying out or covering up the kidnappings and murders.

The New York Times, in an editorial on January 4, 2016, excoriated Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government for its handling of the case: “On Mr. Peña Nieto’s watch, the Mexican government has swiftly and systematically whitewashed ugly truths and played down scandals…” The Times mentioned the “white house” provided by government contractors to the president and the escape of drug kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera from prison. “More troubling is the government’s botched effort at investigating the September 2014 disappearance of 43 students, who appear to have been massacred in the state of Guerrero.” The report referred to the case as “one of Mexico’s worst human rights atrocities in recent history.”

Meanwhile Mexico continued to suffer the effects of the war between the government and the drug traffickers in 2015. Mexicans continued to be killed in extraordinary numbers in many states in the country. Between 2007 and 2014 some 164,000 people have been the victims of homicide, the great majority of those killed in the drug wars. Once source reported over 8,000 homicides between January and June 2015.

The violence is so great that life expectancy has actually declined even as health services were extended. Health Affairs magazine reported in January 2015, “the increase in homicides is at the heart of life expectancy stagnation for males in Mexico between 2000 and 2010. Homicide rates increased from 9.5 homicides per 100,000 in 2005 to more than 22.0 per 100,000 people in 2010. As a result there was a reduction of about .6 years in male life expectancy in the period 2000 to 2010.” This was despite the 2004 health program, Seguro Popular de Salud, for the uninsured population, which appeared to have improved the distribution of health resources.

A Stagnant Economy That Produces Enormous Wealth and Great Poverty

Mexico’s economy remains stagnant, growing last year at a rate of 2.4 percent, according to the World Bank, below the government 3.5 percent goal. Some economists attribute the sluggishness in large part to the weakness of the U.S. economy. Oil production, a mainstay of the Mexican economy, fell by 6.7 percent this year, the eleventh straight year of decline. PEMEX posted a U.S. $10.2 billion loss in the third quarter of 2015, and is in debt for US $100 billion. The government is privatizing much of the industry and many of these companies are from the United States. Tens of thousands of workers are expected to lose jobs. Falling oil prices led to a weakening of the Mexican peso, hitting a record low of 17.96 pesos per dollar.

The Mexican economy, like all capitalist economies, manufactures inequality, producing a small group of very rich men and women and tens of millions of poor people. The richest men and women in Mexico and the corporations dominate the entire economy. Much like in the United States, Mexico’s 1% exerts a tremendous influence over government policy through business organizations such as the Confederation of Mexican Employers (COPARMEX).

Mexico’s Richest Men and Women

Mexico’s richest men and women own many of the major industries of the country where the country’s working people work for wages lower than those paid in China.

  1. Carlos Slim Helú is the owner of Grupo Carso a conglomerate with stakes in many major Mexican companies. He was the richest person in the world from 2010 to 2013. His wealth is $75.9 billion dollars.
  2. Germán Larrea Motta Velasco has a major stake in Gruppo Mexico, the largest mining and infrastructure company in Mexico. His wealth is $14.2 billion.
  3. Alberto Bailleres owns bottling, mining, and retail operations. His wealth is $10.2 billion.
  4. Ricardo Salinas Pilego heads Grupo Salinas, made up of companies that have interests in telecommunications, media, financial services, and retail. He owns the large Television Network called Azteca TV. His wealth is $9.8 billion.
  5. Eva Gonda Rivera owns a major stake in the beverage company FEMSA that operates both in Mexico and in South America. Her wealth is $6.7 billion.
  6. Maria Asunción Aramburzabala holds a stake in Grupo Modelo, the company that produces the beers Corona and Negra Modelo. Her wealth is $5.6 billion.
  7. Jerónimo Arango and his brothers sold their stake in retail company Cifra to Wall Mart’s Mexican subsidiary in 1997. This brought them substantial wealth, and Jerónimo Arango’s net worth is $ 4.4 billion dollars.
  8. Emilio Azcarraga Jean is the director of the Mexican Televisa, a broadcasting company that makes soaps called Telenovelas. His wealth is $3 billion.
  9. Rufino Vigil González is CEO of Industries CH, a steel and processing company with the annual capacity of more than 5 million tons. Mr. Gonzales owns 64% stake in the company that has numerous subsidiaries and produces commercial steel and wielded steel tubes. His wealth is $2.4 billion.
  10. José and Francisco Rojas are the Mexican beverage and snacks magnates. They own more than half of shares in Coca-Cola Philippines. Their wealth is $2.2 billion dollars.

Poverty in Mexico

The top 10 percent of the Mexican population receives 35 percent of the nation’s income, the bottom 10 percent receive only 1.9 percent. The Mexican economy makes some very rich. It also makes millions poor, who grow poorer even when the economy grows. Coneval, a Mexican government agency, found that the overall poverty rate rose in 2014 to 46.2 percent of the population (or 55.3 million people) from 45.5 percent (or 53.3 million) in 2012. The growth in poverty took place despite the fact that the gross domestic product rose 3.9 percent in 2013 and 2.1 percent in 2014. Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, reports that more than 40 million Mexican children live in poverty and 4.7 million in extreme poverty.

The State of the Working Class and the Labor Unions

What is the size of the Mexican working class? Mexico’s total population in November 2014, according to the Mexican Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), consisted of 121,168,094 persons; of those 88,694,199 were 16 years of age or older; but the economically active population numbered just 53,179,919. As of November 2015, the Mexican Institute of Social Security, which covers private sector workers, had 17,239,587 affiliates.

Mexico’s official unemployment rate is only 3.9 percent, but that is largely because the unemployed so often become street vendors or engage in other petit business. Informal employment in Mexico, that is workers who work for private businesses not covered by IMSS or who are self-employed, represents about 60 percent of all Mexican workers. An International Labor Organization study found that 59.1 percent of workers labored in the informal market. Workers in this sector not only do not have membership in IMSS, the national workers’ health service, but they do not have labor unions, contracts, or standard wages, benefits, or conditions.

Mexican labor unions continue to decline in size, strength, and political power, while remaining largely controlled by the government and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). One study suggests that unions declined from representing just over 30% to just below 20% of workers between 1984 and 2000, while today unionization is about 10%. One expert finds that only 8.6% of the economically active population is unionized.

Even that figure might be high. A recent article suggested that there are less than three million union members, and perhaps less than one million. Exactly how many union members there are is difficult to ascertain because no one has confidence in the unions’ reported membership figures. While the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) claims to have four million members, an anonymous source told the author of the article mentioned above that it actually has only about 700,000. Figures regarding labor union contracts are equally difficult to access. The Federal Labor Board (JFCA) claims that there are almost 30,000 labor contracts, though the Secretary of Labor (STPS) has registered only 5,846 contracts and 3,716 other labor agreements.

Those unions that do exist are often creations of the government and the labor bureaucracy operating in collusion with lawyers and sometimes gangsters to create “ghost unions,” often unknown to the workers they represent, that negotiate collective bargaining agreements with minimal wages, benefits, and conditions called “protection contracts.” Independent unions say that there are 12,000 such “protection contracts.”

In 2014 there were only 68 strikes called, of which 41 were resolved. While this is not a measure of all strikes and work stoppages that might have taken place–many of which take place outside of the cumbersome official process–it does indicate that the level of class struggle in Mexico is low. (We look below at some of the larger and more important workers’ movements.)

Repatriated Mexicans

Migration to the United States has long been a safety valve for Mexico, permitting Mexicans unable to find good jobs or fearing violence to find employment and relative security across the northern border. Obama’s administration has deported more immigrants than any of his predecessors, expelling 438,421 in the peak year of 2013. The administration carried out a policy shift in 2015, reportedly intended to integrate immigrants rather than deport them, though by December of 2015 Latino immigrant groups around the country were protesting a new wave of holiday season deportations aimed principally at Central Americans.

Mexicans make up the greatest number of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, and are those most likely to be deported. According to the PEW Research Center, 33.7 million people of Mexican descent or origin live in the United States, 11.5 million of them immigrants and another 22.3 million who identify themselves as of Mexican descent. Of the estimated 11.1 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, 55 percent are believed to be Mexican–though, as the PEW Research Center recently reported, more Mexicans are now voluntarily leaving than coming to the United States, returning to their homeland to unify their families.

The Obama administration acted aggressively in 2015 to deport undocumented immigrants to the United States, expelling some 235,413. While those deported came from 181 countries, the largest numbers came from Latin American countries and principally from Mexico which had 146,132 of its citizens removed from the United States. Many of those returned to Mexico find it difficult to reestablish themselves, and some children and adolescents may not know the country or speak the language. A study by the Mexican Secretary of the Interior (Gobernación) describes the returnees as stigmatized as “failures and delinquents” and often face problems of health, employment, and education, reports La Jornada, the Mexico City daily.

Leaders of the striking farm workers in San Quintin Valley march to the US-Mexico border. (Photo: David Bacon)

Labor Protests, Strikes, and Issues

Workers have faced enormous difficulties in Mexico in the last decade. While most of the unions, controlled by the government or sometimes by gangsters, have proven to be obstacles to workers, a few independent unions or other workers’ organizations have led important struggles to improve workers’ lives and increase their power.

Teachers Continue Protests

The National Coordinating Committee (la CNTE) of the Mexican Teachers Union (el SNTE) remained, as they have been for the last three decades, the most militant sector of the Mexican working class, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of teachers in militant demonstrations. La CNTE and allied dissident teacher organizations in other states have mobilized to oppose the Education Reform Law pushed by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and passed by the Mexican Congress. The Education Reform Law strengthens government control over education by requiring testing of teachers, among other measures. Teachers have also been supporting the movement demanding justice in the case of the Iguala disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa Teachers College students.

In the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Michoacán, where the movement is strongest, teachers engaged in enormous marches, occupied public buildings, and struck the schools. They closed testing centers and burned tests. Teacher activists have attempted to keep teachers who took the tests from entering the schools. At the time of national elections in June, teachers attempted to force voters to honor the call by the Ayotzinapa movement and the teachers union dissidents for a boycott, closing polling places and destroying ballot boxes and ballots.

The Mexican and state governments mobilized troops and police to suppress the teachers’ demonstrations, arresting a number of teacher activists in different cities and states. The dissident teachers accuse the government of criminalizing their protests. Undeterred, la CNTE and its allies entered the new year with calls for more protest marches over education reform.

Farm Worker Uprising in Baja California

In early 2015 farm workers in Baja California Norte surprised their employers and the nation. Thousands of farmworkers in the San Quintín Valley of Baja California, just 185 miles south of the U.S. border, struck some 230 farms, including the twelve largest that dominate production in the region, on March 17, interrupting the picking, packing, and shipping of zucchini, tomatoes, berries, and other products to stores and restaurants in the United States.

The strike was organized by the Alliance of National, State, and Municipal Organizations for Social Justice (AONEMJS or Alliance) made up of indigenous groups from Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero, and other areas whose members work in the San Quintín Valley. The Alliance combined a call for a general strike in the valley’s fields with the blocking of the Trans-Peninsular Highway that leads north to San Diego, California. Creating roadblocks and burning tires along a stretch of some 120 kilometers of the highway, they succeeded for 26 hours in stopping the delivery of the ripe produce to markets in the United States, with immediate repercussions for grocery stores and restaurants. Costco, for example, reported that its shipments were down. Strikers also seized government buildings and a police station.

Some employers made promises of improvements in wages, but few workers’ saw significant improvements. While both state and federal authorities called for investigations and various agencies sent officials to look into conditions in the fields, in the end the federal and state government took no action that would have improved the workers’ situation significantly. The Alliance and a number of workers continued to engage in protests and to seek support from the public, but the movement gradually dwindled. Some Alliance activists continue to organize clandestinely in the fields.

Juarez Maquiladora Workers Strike

In November 2015, in Ciudad Juárez across the border from El Paso, Texas, maquiladora workers in several factories began a series of protests that continued into the new year. Juárez has 330 maquiladoras employing some 225,000 workers, about 13 percent of the national maquiladora industry workforce. Just 17 of the largest factories owned by U.S., Japanese, and European capital employ 69,000 workers.

Workers at Foxconn, Lexmark, ADC/Commscope, and Eaton demanded better pay, improved working conditions, and union representation. The workers handed out leaflets, marched in the streets, picketed in front of industrial parks, participated in hunger strikes. Workers’ base pay was typically about $50 per week plus another $40 in bonuses in a high cost of living border city.

The protests in December focused on Lexmark, a multinational company that produces printer cartridges, paying workers 70.10 pesos or US $4.03 per day. Workers are demanding an increase to 120 pesos or US $7.00 per day. On December 8, some 700 employees stopped work to raise that demand, as well as insisting on the annual holiday bonus, required under Mexican law, which the company had withheld.

The AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor federation, issued a statement in solidarity:

The AFL-CIO stands in solidarity with the workers at Commscope, Eaton, Foxconn, Lexmark and all of the maquiladoras in Ciudad Juárez. To improve conditions, the labor movement calls for:

  • Companies to end their repressive practices, reinstate the workers who have been fired and negotiate contracts that establish living wages and decent working conditions.
  • The Labor Board to order the reinstatement of workers who have been fired and grant legal registration to the unions that have requested it.
  • Mexico’s federal government to intervene to ensure that events in Ciudad Juárez do not make a mockery of its proposed labor reforms before they are even enacted.
  • The U.S. government, as well as state and local ones, to any review any government purchases from these suppliers that may be using U.S. taxpayer dollars to subsidize violations of labor rights.

More holistically, when Pope Francis visits Ciudad Juárez next month to conduct a cross-border mass, we hope his call for the faithful “to fight for social benefits, a dignified retirement, holidays, rest and freedom for trade unions” will be heard loud and clear.

On December 28, the Local Labor Board (JLCA) denied the Lexmark workers’ petition to create and register a labor union (registro). As the new year began, workers at Lexmark and some other workplaces continued their plantónes (sit-ins) while working to organize and win recognition for independent labor unions.

Cross-Border Solidarity in Fight Against Chedraui

Local 770 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) in Los Angeles and the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT), an independent labor federation in Mexico, as well as other labor union and community organizations, have been fighting the multinational Chedraui corporation both in Mexico and in Los Angeles. Chedraui is the third largest retailer in Mexico after Walmart and Soriana and operates super markets and big box stores in Mexico and in 50 stores in Southern California and Arizona. In Los Angeles, a dozen workers and their allies were arrested in mid-December 2015 when they blocked the Five-Points intersection.

The UFCW has succeeded in persuading U.S. law makers, led by Representative Alan Lowenthal, Democrat of California, to write a letter to U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Pérez calling for an investigation of the company practices. The two unions, UFCW and FAT, have also pursued a unique legal strategy, filing charges simultaneously against the company’s policies under both the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Lance Compa, an international labor law expert at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations said that, “The simultaneous NAFTA and OECD complaints reflect an innovative union strategy for putting local and national labor disputes under an international spotlight. No one has ever tried this before. Unions have filed complaints under the NAFTA labor agreement, and under the OECD guidelines, but in unrelated cases.”

In the NAFTA portion of the case, the FAT accuses Chedraui of maintaining phony unions with protection contracts to keep out legitimate labor organizations. At the same time, when Chedraui took over the Mexican Gigante chain in 2008, it refused to bargain in good faith with the UFCW.

Electrical Workers Win Some Jobs for Members

The Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME), after six years of struggle in the streets, won a victory in November 2015 when, as a result of negotiations with the Mexican government, a new private Portuguese company called Fenix, a subsidiary of Mota Engil, agreed to hire some of the union’s 16,000 active, jobless members.

The problems began several years ago. In October 2009, President Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party (PSN) sent the military and the police to seize the Light and Power Company of Mexico City plants, then liquidated the company, resulting in the termination of 40,000 unionized electrical workers. Calderón’s motivations were to break the power of the independent union, to destroy the anti-privatization coalition that it led, and simultaneously to destroy a bastion of more independent voters, many of whom cast their ballots for the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution.

Most of those who were terminated accepted their severance pay and went in search of other work, but 15,000 continued to fight for their jobs under the leadership of the SME, which organized every imaginable sort of protest while also pursuing both legislative and legal options. The Fenix/Mota-Engil company has so far agreed to hire 541 workers, or 4% of the workers fighting for their jobs. While the numbers so far are small, the union sees this as an important victory in beginning to win jobs for all of those still seeking employment.

Domestic Workers Organize Labor Union

Domestic workers–those who clean, cook, and watch children at the homes of wealthier people–formed the Domestic Workers Union (SINACTTRAHO) in August of 2015, the first in the country’s history. The union is affiliated with the independent National Union of Workers (UNT).

Mexico has more than two million domestic workers who, in addition to long hours (often on-call 24-hours a day), low pay, and few if any benefits, often suffer sexual harassment and sometimes physical and psychological abuse. They hope that their union will help them win both better wages and conditions and dignity on the job. Some 1.5 million of Mexico’s 26 million homes have domestic workers, according to the Mexican Institute of Statistics and Geography.

Cananea Miners Win Long Overdue Profit-Sharing Settlement

Miners at the Cananea mine, members of Local 65 of the Mexican Miners and Metal Workers Union (SNTMMRM), won a long overdue demand when the Mexican Labor Board (JFCA) ordered Grupo Mexico, one of the country’s largest mining companies, to pay workers 318 million pesos (or about US $18 million) owed in profit sharing. The union had sought the profit-sharing payments eight years ago. In the midst of a strike in 2010, the company, with assistance from state and federal authorities, succeeded in breaking and eliminating the union at Cananea, though the union and the workers have continued various protests and actions.

Petroleum Workers

As mentioned above, the Mexican Petroleum Company (PEMEX)–some would argue as a result of failed government policies–has both been losing money and falling into debt, as a result of which the company plans to layoff what are expected to be large numbers of its 153,000 employees.

Last summer the Mexican Petroleum Workers Union (STPRM), led by Carlos Romero Deschamps, a PRI loyalist who is not only secretary general of the union but also a Senator, began negotiations of a new contract with PEMEX. Dissident groups within the union claimed that Romero was giving away substantial elements of their contract. The company and the union refused to file copies of the draft contract with the authorities or to make it available to the public or to the workers. The Mexican National Institute of Transparency, Access to Information, and Protection of Personal Data (INAI) has demanded that PEMEX present a copy of the draft contract to that agency.

Independent of the contract negotiations, on January 13 it was announced that PEMEX will layoff 13,000 more workers, bringing the total for 2015 and 2016 to 26,000 workers who are now unemployed. The National Technical and Professional Petroleum Workers Union (UNTPP) is bringing suit against both Romero’s STPRM and against the Mexican Labor Board (JFCA), claiming that the negotiations carried on by the STPRM and PEMEX violated their rights by increasing the retirement age from 55 to 60 and the years of service from 25 to 30. Workers also argue that the union illegally used their pension fund to pay union debts.

CNTE members call for a boycott of elections during a march in Mexico City, May 15, 2015. The sign reads, “In a dictatorship, your vote is null, do not vote.” (Photo: Reuters)

The Political Situation

President Enrique Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) rode out a series of scandals in 2015 and remained the dominant political party in the country. Despite the criticism of the government’s handling of the Iguala killings and disappearances, despite the revelations that the president and his wife had use of the “white house” from a government contractor, and despite the escape from prison for the second time of the drug dealer Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán (later recaptured), the president and his party held a firm grip on power. The left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution has lost ground everywhere because of the apparent role of the PRD mayor of Iguala in the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students.

In the June 2015 national elections, the PRI and its subordinate ally the Green Ecological Party won 24 million or 67 percent of the 39.7 million votes cast. The PRI-Green coalition won exactly half the seats in congress, meaning they needed only one vote to secure a simple majority. With the New Alliance Party, the teachers union party allied with the PRI, they have a majority. The conservative National Action Party (PAN) won 8.3 million or 20.9 percent, while the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) won only 1.9 million or 10.8 percent of the vote. The new Movement of National Regeneration Party (MORENA)–which split from the PRD–ran in its first national election and received 3.3 million votes. The leftist Workers Party (PT) lost its registration because its percentage of the vote had fallen to 2.99 percent; it is no longer an electoral party.

The political situation is similar in state government. The PRD has three governors and the mayor of the Federal District, PAN has six governors, and the rest of the 32 federal entities, 22 states, are controlled by the PRI. In the Federal District, the PRD continues to control six districts, but there too it was punished, with the PAN winning two and the PRI and its allies three and MORENA five. The attempt of the National Coordinating Committee (la CNTE), the dissident group in the Mexican Teachers Union (el SNTE), together with some left organizations to organize a boycott had a negligible impact on the election.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, twice a PRD presidential candidate and the founder and leader of the left-of-center MORENA, declared in February 2015 that he will be MORENA’s presidential candidate in 2018. He has called upon his new party to build the organizational structure that will make it capable of winning the presidential election and the majority in Congress. While it is possible that he actually won the 2006 presidential election, it seems doubtful at present that he would be able to unite the three left parties–the PRD, MORENA, and the Citizens Movement Party (also known as Convergence)–to defeat the PRI.

So, as 2015 ended, a government serving business and la clase política remained in power, the left electoral parties remained divided, the unions remained on the defensive–but some courageous workers continued to fight for their rights, for a better life, and for a more democratic society.

Dan La Botz is a member of Solidarity in Brooklyn. This article was originally published by Mexican Labor News and Analysis, a monthly collaboration of the Mexico City-based Authentic Labor Front (FAT) and the Pittsburgh-based United Electrical Workers (UE).


David Fairris and Edward Levine, “Declining union density in Mexico, 1984–2000,” Monthly Labor Review

Roberto Zepeda, “Disminución de la tasa de trabajadores sindicalizados en México durante el periodo neoliberal,” Revista Mexicana de Ciencias Políticas y Sociales, Vol. LI, núm. 207, septiembre- diciembre, 2009, pp. 57-81.

Enrique Quintana, “Sindicatos, especie en extinción,” El Financiero, April 29, 2015

Chevron Goes Another Round With Richmond

by Steve Early

August 2, 2014

Chevron is a company used to getting its own way, particularly in communities around the world where it operates major refineries. For the last eight years, progressive elected officials in Richmond, CA., and their grassroots organizational allies, have made doing “business as usual” a lot harder for Chevron in the East Bay, a corner of Chevron’s worldwide empire located very near its corporate headquarters in upscale San Ramon.

Local critics of Big Oil have sued Chevron over its environmental impact, tried to increase its property taxes, pushed state and federal regulators to monitor the Richmond refinery more closely, marched to that facility’s front gates, with several thousand supporters, joined forces with California and Australian transport workers who are battling the company, and forged a solidarity relationship with Ecuadoran farmers harmed by Chevron’s past misbehavior in their country.

Richmond’s latest tussle with its largest employer has focused on a controversial $1 billion refinery modernization project, long sought by Chevron and its building trades allies in Contra Costa County. Litigation by environmentalists helped derail the project in its original form five years ago. This time around, the company spent millions mobilizing “community support” for a revised Environmental Impact Report (EIR), Chevron’s own blueprint for upgrading parts of the refinery, making it safer, and less polluting. Based on its own door-to-door paid canvassing, Chevron claimed that 10,000 local residents supported its version of “modernization.”

Nevertheless, changes and improvements were demanded by skeptics as diverse as State Attorney General Kamala Harris, the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), and the often conservative The Contra Costa Times, which urged Chevron to embrace EIR amendments it had insisted, before this week, were “unnecessary and burdensome.”

“When Chevron officials say, ‘trust us,’ they forget that we once did,” the newspaper editorialized, referring to the unsafe pipe maintenance practices found to be responsible for the huge Richmond refinery fire and explosion two years ago.

Chevron applied for a permit to rebuild part of its Richmond, CA refinery so it could process higher-sulfur crude oil. The Richmond Planning Commission unanimously adopted conditions that would require Chevron to make the project cleaner. Chevron then appealed those conditions to the Richmond City Council. Mayoral candidate Mike Parker, representing the Richmond Environmental Justice Coalition and Richmond Progressive Alliance, defends those conditions.

Last Minute Concessions

By Tuesday night, July 29, Chevron management was in negotiating mode. Among the “last minute concessions” reported by CCT correspondent Robert Rogers, were “$90 million in community investments and agreements to upgrade all carbon steel piping in the refinery’s crude unit…and install more sensors and air monitors.”

That was good enough for five council members. To register their continuing objections, the city’s mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, and its vice-mayor, Jovanka Beckles abstained. Both McLaughlin and Beckles are leaders of the RPA, a thorn in the side of Chevron for almost a decade now.

The council action—and the permit approval process which preceded it—highlights the importance of having municipal leaders willing to stand up to Chevron, as opposed to simply doing its bidding. Unfortunately, after eight years in office, McLaughlin will be termed out next January. A California Green, she is running for her old seat on the city council and favors fellow RPA member Mike Parker as her mayoral successor. A retired auto worker, longtime labor activist, and now community college teacher, Parker has been a key RPA organizer in recent years and editor of its widely-read newsletter.

During the protracted local debate about refinery modernization issues, Parker was a frequent speaker at public hearings in Richmond, attended by hundreds of Chevron employees, building trades workers mobilized by their unions, local environmental activists, and concerned citizens. Testifying on behalf of the Richmond Environmental Justice Coalition, at a packed council session on July 22, Parker pointed out that any shift for the better in Chevron’s stance was due to community pressure—and more was still needed.

“Every year now,” he reminded the audience, “Chevron pumps into the air thousands of tons – think of that, visualize that – thousands of tons of pollutants, 500 tons of particulates, and others. Unfortunately, the city has very little everyday legal leverage in getting Chevron to reduce these pollutants. Now, in setting conditions for this project, it is the one time that the City has the ability to require cooperation from Chevron on pollution control. Now we have the legal leverage, and if we don’t do it now, when will we ever do it?”

Extortionate Demands?

Chevron’s preferred candidate for mayor in this year’s elections is not Parker, of course—but an 82-year old African-American Democrat named Nat Bates, senior member of the city council. Bates believes that, under McLaughlin, “Richmond has earned a reputation of being anti-business with tons of regulations, insensitive elected officials, and staff.” Prior to the council vote, he accused Planning Commission members appointed by the mayor and McLaughlin herself of being “irresponsible” and making “ridiculous extortionate demands” during the permit approval process. “They treated Chevron like a sugar daddy ATM machine with unlimited withdrawals,” he grumbled.

In an email report to constituents this week, Bates was singing a different tune about Richmond’s newly enriched “community investment agreement” with Chevron, which he had previously referred to as an “extortion pot.” “When we initially started the negotiations, the amount was 30 million dollars,” he acknowledged, “and later it was increased to 60 million dollars and, after continued negotiations, the final amount came to 90 million dollars over a 10-year period.”

According to Richmond Councilor Tom Butt, a local architect who is not an RPA member, “we owe thanks to the RPA and the two council members who ultimately abstained from the final vote” for that result. Says Butt: “Their holding out for more stringent conditions and mitigations helped raised the ante for what we eventually achieved.” As a result, he contends, “millions of dollars will fund greenhouse gas reduction and sustainability projects in Richmond, creating a lot of jobs and attracting perhaps additional millions in matching grants. Job training will move hundreds of Richmond residents into employment.”

Noting that CBE and other groups wanted more out of the deal, Butt himself wondered whether the council “left anything on the table?” “We will never really know,” he argued on his blog. “There is a limit that you can push anyone, even an insanely rich multinational corporation. Chevron has threatened before to sue the City for overreaching, close or downsize the refinery or go to the legislature for a CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act) exemption. All are possible…”

The Richmond Progressive Alliance’s “Team Richmond” slate of candidates running for City Council and Mayor. From left: Eduardo Martinez, Mike Parker, Gayle McLaughlin, and Jovanka Beckles.

Nutty or Knowledgeable?

What’s not just possible but absolutely certain is Chevron’s costly retaliatory drive against RPA influence this Fall. The company–which generates $2 billion in profits a year, just from its Richmond refinery–will be breaking all local spending records to help Bates defeat Parker in the mayoral race and block Beckles and McLaughlin from regaining city council seats. A fourth member of the RPA-backed “Team Richmond” slate is retired public school teacher Eduardo Martinez. He was runner-up in the council race two years ago and one of the Planning Commission members who insisted earlier this month on additional conditions for modernization like local reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, wider pipe replacement inside the refinery, and creation of a Chevron-funded but community-controlled “clean energy and jobs program.”

When the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Martinez ran for office last time, the Chevron-backed “Moving Forward Coalition” spent heavily on mass mailers calling him “an East Bay anarchist,” a proponent of “chaos and disorder,” and “someone who wants to overthrow the government.” In a recent interview, Bates hinted that Richmond voters will soon be getting similar bulk mail warnings about Mike Parker. “You’ll be hearing a lot more about him, “ Bates vowed. “He’s a complete nut.”

To follow the upcoming campaign action in Richmond, where political “nuts” make more sense and get more done than most of the city’s “mainstream” politicians, readers should check out the Richmond Progressive Alliance website which has links to the campaign websites of “Team Richmond”—Parker, McLaughlin, Beckles, and Martinez. All donations are welcome (as long as you’re not a corporation). Contributions to Parker, who is currently trying to qualify for local public matching funds, can be made online here.

Steve Early lives in Richmond and belongs to its Progressive Alliance. He is writing a book about about progressive policy initiatives in the city and its changing politics. He can be reached at This article originally appeared on CounterPunch.

A Renewed Strategic Perspective on Socialist Work in the Labor Movement

from the Labor Commission of Solidarity

July 16, 2014


This February, the Solidarity Labor Commission held a two-day retreat at which we reflected on Solidarity’s labor work and the rank-and-file union perspective that has guided it for decades. This outline of a renewed strategic perspective is what emerged from our discussions. Although there is much here that is new, this perspective reflects our attempt to interpret the trajectory of union reform work since the 1980s and the political dynamics of the current period through the lens of Solidarity’s long-standing commitment to a politics of “socialism from below.”

The Rank and File Strategy (best described in Kim Moody’s paper of the same name) directs socialists to root our political work in the activist layer of the working class by prioritizing the development of militant, rank and file, “grassroots” organizations. The Rank and File Strategy points us to the need for for working class self-organization independent of the labor bureaucracy and the Democratic Party in order to build a fighting labor movement and recruit workers to socialist ideas. For socialists, these militant and democratic formations within the labor movement play several essential roles. They ensure that socialist politics develop from an understanding of the actual conditions of the working class. They work to enlarge the activist layer of the working class, bringing more rank and file workers into struggles and experiences that draw out militancy and class consciousness. They provide an active and conscious rank and file base to press against the conservatizing and bureaucratic tendencies of union officials. And these efforts help to connect union militants with socialist ideas and organization. As socialists who believe in revolutionary transformation, the broader aim of this work is always to develop the capacity of the working class for democratic self-organization–the only solid basis upon which to build a socialist society free of bureaucratic domination.

In practice, Solidarity members implemented the Rank and File Strategy primarily by building rank and file caucuses within major unions—most notably and successfully, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). We have also worked, with varying degrees of success, to build solidarity between militant insurgent movements in different local and international unions, and to foster the creation of a left milieu in the labor movement. We focused on work within unions for good reasons. Unions, with all their shortcomings, bring together millions of workers across the many lines of division and oppression that divide the working class. Unions bring workers together at the point of production—where some workers have the ability to interfere with profit-making or with the functioning of the social order more generally. Unions provide a relatively stable organizational setting in which sustained political work is possible. And unions are, by definition, organizations of workers and are therefore always potentially oppositional.

While the Rank and File Strategy provides socialists with an organizing method and an understanding of the relations between democracy, bureaucracy and radicalization, it does not automatically provide a clear political direction for our work. In its most narrow application, much socialist rank and file union organizing has focused on questions of internal union democracy and efforts to mount anti-concession struggles. While those fights remain critically important, the main argument of this paper is that a broader approach to the Rank and File Strategy is necessary and possible – especially under today’s conditions. This broader approach would emphasize work to build broad “class-wide” transitional organizations and movements that extend well beyond sectoral, formal union structures and the workplace setting, and which pose broad demands that speak to the needs of the working class as a whole.

Why do we need a broader, “class-wide,” approach to transitional organizations today?

Although the official labor movement, with 16 million members, remains an important potential source of social power for workers, the great majority of workers are not in unions and do not look to unions for solutions to their daily problems. Perhaps more importantly, though, our historic emphasis on the power that comes from workers’ position at the point of production lacks balance. In the first place, workers’ dependence on particular workplaces and companies can promote conservatism, competitiveness, and class collaboration as well as militancy. Indeed, we were not always able to combat the tendency of many dedicated, militant workers to focus exclusively on their particular union or industry. And, given the changes in the structure of the economy and the drastic decline in union density, most workers today are not in industries where their position in production provides significant, direct social power. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, our traditional emphasis on the point of production as the source of working class power neglects the social power that comes from the political practice of solidarity—and the political weakness that comes from failing to practice solidarity.

It is certainly true that bureaucratic mis-leadership hobbled the industrial unions. But the bureaucracy’s failing was not only its reluctance to use militant tactics like strikes and work-to-rule—something that the Left rightly emphasizes. The labor bureaucracy also failed to position the unions as fighters for the whole working class. This allowed capital to portray unions and union members as a special interest, and to isolate the labor movement from its organic base of support in the broad working class. Imagine how history might have been different if the industrial unions had never given up the fight for universal health care or if the UAW had launched a real assault on racism and disinvestment in Detroit in the 1950s when the writing was already on the wall.

Today, in order to rebuild class power for workers we need to construct solidaristic, class-wide, transitional organizations and movements that unite the working class against austerity and pose more universal demands as solutions. We cannot hope to accomplish this from a relatively narrow perch within formal union structures. Instead, we need to awaken the social power that is inherent in the unions, in alliance with other workers and working-class communities. As the Wisconsin Uprising and the Chicago Teachers Union both demonstrate, reviving the social power of unions requires sustained rank and file rebellion. And the best way to provide an impetus to rank and file rebellion today may be to alter the broader social and political context in which union members assess the prospects of a fight against the bureaucracy, the bosses, and the state.

This paper represents an effort by the Labor Commission of Solidarity to grapple with these questions, draw lessons from recent struggles and contribute to discussion about socialist labor strategy in these times. This document is not intended as a comprehensive program or a detailed plan of work. We have intentionally kept its scope narrow, in order to focus on those points that we find most essential to rebuilding the Left and maximizing the potential of emerging anti-austerity struggles. This document is intended as a starting point not an end point. Coming to grips with the challenges we face will require much wider discussion and debate within and beyond the ranks of Solidarity. The Labor Commission is committed to using this document as a springboard for discussions and political projects—and to revising and refining our thinking, and our political practice, based on what we learn in the process.

Teamsters battle police during the 1934 strike in Minneapolis. Read several retrospectives on the strike and its impact on the US labor movement here.

Starting Points

It is obvious that there is much to lament in the current state of affairs. In the U.S. and around the world, the neoliberal ruling class offensive is devastating the working class. The trade unions, weakened by relentless attacks and by their own political and organizational shortcomings, have failed to mount effective resistance to the ruling class agenda. Union density in the U.S. has fallen to historic lows. While the labor bureaucracy experiments with new approaches to reversing the decline in membership, most union officials will not consider initiatives that would fundamentally transform the relationship of rank and file members to their unions. In the U.S., the small Labor Left and the even smaller revolutionary Left have thus far failed to coalesce around a meaningful strategy to break out of their isolation or to take full advantage of the organizing opportunities that have arisen.

But there are glimmers of hope. In the period since the financial crisis we have seen the sporadic emergence of more determined, bottom-up campaigns and struggles. We have seen that, even in a period of retreat, militant campaigns that pose broad class demands can resonate widely. And we have seen growing recognition in the still-too-small activist layer of the working class that the traditional bureaucratic approaches are a dead end. While we do not want to overstate the positives, we nonetheless believe that they point to the potential for the development of politically independent, class-wide formations capable of offering meaningful resistance to capitalist austerity—if the Left can intervene effectively and democratically to move things in that direction.

In the first section of this document, we briefly touch upon some of the new (and not so new) and emerging struggles that are shaping working class organization and consciousness. Second, we specify some of the causes of the Left’s political paralysis in this period. In the third section we begin to pose a clear, if not comprehensive, strategy rooted in the realities of this period. Fourth, we identify some practical areas of work that we see as starting points for implementing this strategy. And finally, we address some of the political questions and challenges we expect will be raised by this new direction.

I. What’s New?

Socialists must address the following realities in any attempt to develop a relevant strategic perspective today:

  • The impacts of the ruling class offensive on the structure of the working class and the daily life of workers. The U.S. working class has been restructured toward low wage, precarious, non-union work, whether in the service sector, manufacturing or logistics. Workplaces tend to be smaller and less socially cohesive, even when they are owned or effectively controlled by huge multinational corporations.
  • The decline of official union structures and the weakness of rank and file organization. Union density and strength in the private sector has sharply declined, partly as a result of capital’s aggressive re-organization of the geography of production, both domestically and internationally. The public sector unions, where density remains much higher, are under attack. Teachers and health care workers, who make up a larger share of unionized workers, are now at the center of key defensive struggles. With rare exceptions such as the Chicago teachers strike, we are not seeing militant worker uprisings tied to rank-and-file revolts within the unions.
  • The broad ruling class assault on the legacy of Twentieth Century working class struggle. We are witnessing a sustained and historic assault on collective bargaining, the social safety net, pensions, health care, public education, indeed all of the mechanisms that protect workers from the raw discipline of capitalist labor markets. Governments at every level have joined the employer assault by implementing austerity policies that affect the broad working-class.
  • The new youth-driven movements emerging outside of formal union structures and away from the socialist Left. As demonstrated most dramatically by Occupy, younger militants are alienated from politics and the “system,” but also from unions, the socialist left, and even the idea of making demands on the capitalist state.
  • The “new” forms of worker organizing with tenuous connections to official union structures. While sometimes compromised by their dependence on the labor bureaucracy, the rise of “alt-labor” groups such as non-majority unions and worker centers, and the emergence of militant movements of immigrant workers and youth, indicate the need and the potential for worker organizing that breaks with dependence on the state and traditional organizational forms. These efforts also speak to the potential to organize among groups of workers who have long been ignored by the official labor movement. In the right-to-work South, especially, necessity has given rise to valuable experiments which should be developed further, and which can provide lessons to workers in other regions.
  • The new and broader forms of struggle emerging tentatively around the country. The state of working class consciousness and organization is weak and workers remain in a broadly defensive posture. At the same time, we have seen that militant resistance to austerity, organized from below and framed around broad class-wide demands, can inspire renewed working class activity, raise consciousness, and even begin to win concrete victories. We are thinking here about the emergence of movements such as Occupy and Moral Mondays, the profound nationwide impact of the Chicago teachers strike and the rise of social justice teacher unionism, the growth of the Labor Notes current, the success of the movement for universal health care in Vermont, and the election victories of Kshama Sawant and Chokwe Lumumba. These developments have all revealed an opening for the kind of broad, class-wide forms of struggle and political perspectives that are necessary in order to organize effective resistance to capital’s austerity drive.

In our view, these developments signal the need—and the potential—to put class-wide movements and organizational forms at the center of a renewed perspective on revolutionary socialist labor work. We are fully aware that the development of class-wide movements linking political and workplace struggles is more characteristic of periods of rising struggle than periods of decline, such as the present. The challenge we face is that, given the depth of capitalist restructuring, the political successes of neoliberalism, and the present relationship of forces, the narrow sectoral approach to unionism that remains dominant today has left unionized workers increasingly isolated from the broad working class, and unable to defend past gains, let alone make advances. Under these conditions, the labor movement can only build power by championing the working class as a whole—by posing its demands within a larger sociopolitical context, fighting for more universal goals (e.g. single-payer health care, livable wages), developing member self-activity, and forging genuine alliances with workers and working class organizations outside of the unions. As the debate rages about how to revive Labor, we should be clear that the only viable path forward is through rank and file struggles that consciously link the workplace and sectoral demands of union members to the needs of the entire working class.

We are proposing a more balanced approach to applying the Rank and File Strategy—one that retains our fundamental commitment to working class self-activity, develops a more politicized approach to union reform struggles, and places greater emphasis on work in broad class formations and among the unorganized working class. In order to clarify the kind of shift we are proposing, we want to take stock of those dynamics that we believe led to a narrowing of Left work in labor over an extended period dominated largely by defensive struggles.

II. Causes of Left Political Paralysis

Within the unions, recent decades have been marked by the labor bureaucracy’s concessionary retreat, the periodic eruption of one-off defensive struggles, a general absence of sustained worker militancy, and a general decline of the socialist left. This set of circumstances created very difficult conditions for the generation of socialists who went into industry in the 60s and 70s, during a period of upsurge that seemed likely to intensify. Many of these individuals subsequently played a historic role in organizing significant rank and file movements within key industrial unions, including the UAW and the Teamsters. This work continues in places, most notably with the Teamsters for a Democratic Union. The work of the comrades who went into industry in this period, and the movements they helped build, deserves a much fuller discussion, debate, and assessment than we are capable of providing in the context of this document.

It is important, however, to recognize the impact that major working class defeats have had on those efforts since the seventies. In key, standard-setting industries such as auto, top union officials met the ruling class offensive with a policy of serial surrender. By openly embracing competitiveness and class collaboration—and actively working to discipline their members to accept the employers’ never-ending demands for concessions—union officials contributed significantly to the demoralization of the rank and file. In the absence of an organized and powerful Left, the state-backed employer offensive—and the massive reorganization of the economy that has been central to it—divided workers against each other and put them squarely on the defensive.

Facing their own officials’ staunch opposition to militant, class-wide resistance, and with no social force on the horizon capable of challenging capital’s freedom to restructure on its own terms, many workers understandably shied away from militant resistance. This lack of organized resistance had a profoundly conservatizing effect. Facing a concerted employer assault enabled by the bureaucracy’s suppression of internal democracy, Left union work became heavily focused on building reform coalitions to contest local union elections on a program of union democracy and opposition to concessions, based on top-down reform, not rank and file organizing. In making this pivot, many Left union activists shifted their focus away from attempts to build independent, militant rank and file movements that could overcome the limitations of the labor bureaucracy in order to fight capital. This narrowing of focus was generally accompanied by a retreat from taking up shop floor/workplace struggles, on the one hand, and from strategizing and organizing around broader political and social questions that might disrupt electoral coalitions, on the other.

In our view, the turn away from broader political and social questions left socialists unprepared to think about how to apply the Rank and File Strategy in settings external to union reform work—in relation to the problems of the broader unorganized working class, and particularly specially oppressed groups within the class; and in relation to contexts such as organizing drives and community organizing. Now that there are fewer workers in unions and fewer Leftists in those unions, these gaps in our thinking and acting become even more problematic.

The Rank and File Strategy, with its core principle of working-class self-organization, was expressly intended to counter the tendency of unions under capitalism to pursue narrow, sectoral aims under the domination of a self-reproducing labor bureaucracy. The objective has always been to develop the capacity of the militant minority within the working class to overcome the limitations of the labor bureaucracy—not only to fight specific employers, but also to develop the unions as fighters for the whole class. Today we need a renewed socialist labor strategy, rooted in a broader, more political iteration of the rank and file perspective; one that recognizes the impact of the defeats we have endured and responds to new and emerging realities on the ground. We need to join our commitment to working class self- organization at the point of production with a broad, class-struggle, social justice unionism perspective in order to build the power we need to win defensive struggles and to lay the basis for more transformational anti-capitalist political projects

Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012 (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee).

III. Outline of a Renewed Strategic Perspective on Left Labor Work

The ruling class took advantage of the financial crisis and its aftermath to intensify austerity in every arena of social life, from the statehouse to the schoolhouse to the shop floor. In response, workers and working class organizations, including some rank and file caucuses and local unions, have begun to experiment with “new” ways of organizing and fighting. Some of the campaigns and struggles which have emerged out of this conjuncture reflect a new openness to the posing of class-wide demands. Others reveal a significant, but primarily tactical, shift toward community mobilization and coalition-building by more traditional officials and reformers, including the AFL-CIO and Change to Win and some of their affiliate unions. Progressive elements of the labor bureaucracy have shown a willingness to engage the vast unorganized working class—but not to disturb the rank and file’s passivity with respect to official union structures.

At their best, these campaigns and struggles combine mass militancy with demands and forms of organization that link class struggle in the workplace with class struggle in the community and begin to bridge the divide between “economic” and “political” struggles. The most advanced efforts in this direction have been bolstered by a growing number of publications, and projects that are building direct links between activists in different industries and consolidating Left activism in various communities. The most promising formations include formal or ad hoc coalitions of rank and file activists, progressive union officials, worker centers, immigrant rights groups, community organizations rooted in communities of color, environmentalists, and socialists; they project a transformative vision, at least implicitly anti- capitalist; and they do effective organizing around meaningful and concrete demands ranging from universal health care, to contract fights, environmental justice, educational justice, and immigrant rights. We believe it is these broader movements and organizational forms that will provide the primary basis for struggles that can shift the relation of forces in the coming period and provide openings for the development of a socialist current within the activist layer of the working class. In assessing what is possible in this period, we have taken note of a range of campaigns and struggles that we think can help us find a path forward.

  • Occupy revealed mass opposition to the inequities of the economic and political system and rising political consciousness—though these developments remained relatively inchoate and insufficiently organized.
  • The Chicago Teachers Union contract campaign and strike was framed as a broad, anti-racist community struggle against the corporate agenda for public education and for the educational needs of students. And the CTU leadership, bolstered by a militant and politically conscious reform movement, took concrete steps to insure that the union’s membership took ownership of the struggle and remained mobilized, both in the workplace and in the streets.
  • Movements like the Moral Mondays campaign against austerity in North Carolina point to the potential power of coalitions united around a multi-issue, class-based, and anti- racist agenda.
  • The Fight for $15 and the effort to organize Walmart workers reveal opportunities for resistance within the broad, unorganized working class – despite the limitations of the SEIU’s corporate campaign strategy and the UFCW’s failure to mobilize its own members for the Walmart campaign or for broader resistance to the employer offensive in retail.
  • The emerging national student movement in higher education against skyrocketing student debt and for increased funding for public colleges and universities has received significant support from higher ed unions and formed the basis of multi-issue coalitions (e.g. ReFund California).
  • The electoral victories of socialist Kshama Sawant in Seattle, and of the late Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson, Mississippi, though rooted in particular, local conditions, reflect the potential for radical movements to make use of the electoral arena to build power bases across the country.

Our intent in identifying these efforts is not to hold up them up as conclusive models for what unions and community groups should be doing to build power for the working class, but rather to highlight the valuable opportunities for socialist organizing reflected in recent attempts to mobilize workers and communities.

While it is important to highlight what is new and positive, it is equally necessary to be realistic about the moment we are living through. Notwithstanding the positive developments discussed above, we have yet to see the emergence of transformative, bottom up, class-wide struggles that challenge austerity at its core and provide a clear working class political alternative. Developing the full potential of the various campaigns, struggles and organizational initiatives emerging out of this period will require effective and democratic interventions by the Left, which is still too small and disorganized. So our tasks are twofold: (1) determining what kind of Left interventions are possible and required to radicalize and politicize these movements into transformative class-wide struggles, and (2) building a Labor Left capable of making such interventions.

To summarize, a broader strategic perspective on socialist labor work is needed that clearly articulates the following points:

  1. There are opportunities to advance broad, political, class-wide, anti-racist demands
    attached to militant, bottom-up campaigns;
  2. These campaigns, begun at the local level, have the potential to radicalize workers, provide political education to those in the struggle, and impact the broader political environment, as varied as that environment may be in different regions of the country;
  3. In this period, building such campaigns should be integrated with ongoing work in
    union caucuses and other rank and file structures, allowing socialists and others to advance strategic and political perspectives that provide an alternative to top-down bureaucratic functioning by building working class power in workplaces/shop floor and communities; and
  4. In order to develop the full potential of emerging movements we must build a Labor
    Left that is rooted in the activist layer of the working class and capable of leading class-wide campaigns and movements.

This perspective suggests certain strategic priorities for socialist organizing within the working class:

  • Strengthen rank and file reform movements seeking to revive unions as centers of struggle. While the union movement is at its weakest point in decades, unions are still the working class institutions with the most potential social power. At the same time, the bureaucratic nature of most unions, including many with progressive officials, has made it impossible to make this social power felt. In the few unions where leftists are in leadership, socialists should take the lead, as they are doing in Chicago, to initiate broader, struggle-oriented, political formations that link workplace/shop floor issues to a broader, anti-corporate/capitalist perspective. Whether in leadership or not, radical union caucuses should be looking to initiate such community campaigns, as Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC) is doing in Los Angeles through the Campaign for the Schools L.A. Students Deserve. The lessons of the CTU struggle can be extended to private sector union reform movements, where it is necessary to advance broad demands and forms of struggle that link the assault on unionized workers to the broader conditions of the working class. Reform caucuses that take power in unions should also be constantly mindful of the need to maintain rank-and-file mobilization and involvement in the workplace. Contract campaigns and grievance fights can be opportunities to encourage and support self-activity at the base and to raise class consciousness. Historically, the labor bureaucracy has usually encouraged passivity in the ranks in order to exalt its own importance; socialists must do the opposite, encouraging members to act in the workplace, thereby helping to develop new layers of leadership. In building these campaigns we need to look for the opportunities struggles present for relevant political debate. We need to prioritize the development of the rank and file’s skills and politics rather than merely ‘mobilizing’ to efficiently implement campaign strategies that the membership has not played a central role in developing or demanding.
  • Elevate the demands of the specially oppressed within broader working class struggles. In the context of building broader class-based forms of struggle, anti-racist and anti-sexist demands and organizing must be brought to the fore, whether directed at racial profiling and incarceration, voting rights, immigrant rights, LGBTQ rights, reproductive rights, affordable child care, etc. A class-based movement in the U.S.— with its distinctive history of racism and xenophobia—can only succeed if workers recognize that they need to be advocates for all of the oppressed, dispossessed, and disenfranchised – taking up the demands of the most oppressed sections of the working class. In fact, movements of the oppressed have historically been engines of radical political development. A clear, anti-racist agenda aligned with the struggles of communities of color will raise controversies with segments of the white working class. A feminist agenda will do the same with many men. Left labor organizers have to also see the doors these efforts open to working class women and people of color often left out of labor (and left labor) leadership and the opportunities for politicizing debate they can open for all workers. Class-wide demands, such as health care for all, high quality public education, affordable housing, full employment, and a living wage are particularly relevant to the specially oppressed.
  • Develop emerging localized struggles into a politically independent and militant national movement against austerity. In attempting to build locally based, multi- issue political campaigns based on bottom-up organizing, we must frankly recognize that local government has a limited capacity to fulfill our most pressing demands. We are not looking to compete with or evolve into service organizations, as have many past organizing efforts that sought to bridge the community and the workplace divide. This means that local campaigns should always be framed as part of a larger state and/or national struggle in formation. State and national efforts to build networks that link local campaigns and movements would therefore be essential.
  • Advance working class organization in the South. The Left has long understood that building working class power in the South is essential to our capacity to challenge racism and shift the relation of forces nationally. Understanding the need to “organize the South” does not give us the knowledge, relationships, or forces to accomplish the task. Socialists need to further explore the potential for Left projects in the South, beginning with improving our concrete understanding of the situation. We know that, across the region, union membership is a small fraction of the workforce and unions are rarely meaningful social actors. That is a problem for the working class. But it can also open up possibilities for bottom-up organizing. And, despite the weakness of formal union structures, unions in health care, state government, and education are by far the largest working class organizations across the South. Although they are open shop, the unions with significant capacity in these states have majority memberships, and are clearly relevant to anti-austerity fights. While run bureaucratically, these unions present considerable opportunities for rank and file organizing; and there is the potential to link workplace struggles with broad class demands around public education, healthcare, and the criminal justice system.
  • Serve as a bridge between movements and socialism. Building multi-issue, class- wide coalitions and movements can serve as a necessary bridge between movement- building and socialism. Building class-wide movements offers opportunities for struggle and for education about the nature of capitalism. It also offers opportunities for building militant, participatory, “pre-figurative” forms of organization—based in workplaces and communities—that can begin to address the challenge of TINA (There Is No Alternative) to capitalism by anticipating non-statist models of socialism.
  • Build socialist organization. As socialists we look to the working-class, above all other social forces, not only because of its potential ability to stop production and bring capitalist society to its knees, but principally because experiences in struggling collectively for better conditions of life can generate solidarity, and develop the skills and propensities which make possible the work of building a new and higher form of society. Working-class self-emancipation requires workers to develop a conscious conception of what sort of society they are building; to be more than the “muscle” to the “brain” of a socialist organization. To make this a reality, we need more than trade unions. We need socialist organization in the labor movement, with a program around which workers can organize.

If the organized Left is to make a meaningful contribution to the fulfillment of these strategic priorities it must develop its own organizational and political capacities. Guided by a more politicized and strategic labor perspective, Left activists would have an arena for collectivizing its work, evaluating its strategic perspective, working with other socialists, and taking the necessary steps to bring a more coherent socialist perspective to its work. Crucially, broadening our understanding of the Rank and File Strategy and of what constitutes “labor work” should make it easier for the Left to adopt collective projects and sustain commitment to those projects.

Occupy protesters block an entrance to the Port of Longview in 2011 (Photo: AP/Don Ryan)

IV. Implementation

How can Solidarity and the broader revolutionary Left begin to implement such a strategy?
We have identified four broad areas of work that we see as starting points.

First, Left organizations and activists should work together to begin mapping out the local social movement possibilities. Who are the main local players? What are their politics? Would they be interested in discussing this perspective? Is it relevant to their concerns and challenges? Would any union caucuses be interested in discussing a broader perspective for their project? What kinds of political education would serve as tools for framing the struggle, bridging workplace and social demands, and support the nuts and bolts work of organizing?

Second, Left organizations and activists need to begin building a network of Left labor and social movement activists committed to elaborating and implementing a common strategy. The work involved will exceed the capacity of any particular existing organization or political tendency. For such a network to come together there would need to be an intense national discussion of strategy, and the development of a framework/ toolkit for regional discussions. Articles should be written for Left and progressive publications that reach a broader audience, including Labor Notes. Left activists should convene workshops, conferences, etc., to develop these and other ideas ideas more fully and explore practical applications where possible.

Third, to further Left collaboration, Left activists should work together to find private and public sector jobs with the greatest potential for organizing around class-wide demands. In the private sector, such jobs, including food services, hotels, and logistics, are prime locations for organizing political fights for the right to work with dignity: livable wages, paid sick leave, the health care that we need, and other benefits for low-wage workers. In the public sector, public education and health care are highly unionized and offer opportunities to advocate for class-wide demands such as quality public education and health care for all as an integral part of a rank-and-file union strategy. Further, concentrated, focused Left work in all these sectors would provide an avenue for socialists to advance the leadership role of women and people of color within the working class.

V. Questions and Challenges

We will no doubt face a number of practical and political questions as we attempt to bring this strategic perspective to life. To conclude, we attempt to address, briefly, just three of those questions that we believe will be important going forward.

What kind of programmatic demands make sense in this period? The Left needs to guard against “programitis”—the tendency to promote unrealistic, often class-wide demands within the movement as opposed to immediate demands of struggle. At the same time, the Left must also resist the tendency to “tail” movements with weak strategies or demands so as not to appear sectarian. While there is no formula for what program or demands may be appropriate at any given time, we should always be looking for opportunities to frame all immediate reform struggles in a broader anti-capitalist context. Figuring out how to think about program and demands requires that socialists be both deeply embedded in the movements and in political dialogue with the most advanced leaders in those movements.

How can we advance a consistent “from below”/self-activity approach to movement building? In this period, with the exception of Occupy, we are not seeing working class movements and struggles develop “spontaneously,” (without being initiated by an organization, union, etc.). In many cases, the initiating organizations are bureaucratic unions with a tactical and often temporary need to both initiate and control a broader struggle. Too often, then, such struggles are led by top-down, staff-led coalitions that offer little space for mass participation and discussion. As such, we generally advocate for democratic coalitions and organizations that provide for individual membership and participation, and, to the extent possible, for mass organizations with a democratic and accountable leadership. In the current period, multi-issue coalitions and campaigns will be joined, if not led, by various kinds of organizations, some with paid staff. How to fully involve such organizations and at the same time advance the development of working class self-activity will be another challenge that can only be resolved on the ground.

How can we use this strategy to drive a renewal of revolutionary socialist organization through recruitment and regroupment? In recent decades, the revolutionary Left in the U.S. has failed to attract many of the best militants and organic working class leaders. This has to change. The most powerful way to convince activists that “another world is possible”—and necessary, given the socially and environmentally destructive trajectory of capitalism—is to raise the prospect of organized working-class power, beginning at the local level, and ultimately linked together by a state and national program. This strategic perspective looks toward the day when activists begin to confront—in practice—key questions about capitalism, the state, revolution and socialism. To get to that point, and prepare ourselves for it, we need to develop a broad program of socialist education as well as new mechanisms and organizational forms for collectively and democratically thinking through the challenges faced by our movements. Solidarity and other Left forces can take modest steps in this direction now with strategy discussions and educational programs that seek to involve the most committed activists and organizers in our milieu. Where possible, we should seek to bring the broader revolutionary Left together in these efforts.

Descent Into Butchery: Israel’s Latest Assault on Gaza

by David Finkel

July 10, 2014

There should never have been any doubt that another Israeli assault on Gaza would occur, with the inevitable accompanying mass atrocities. That’s not necessarily because it serves anyone’s strategic interests–but simply because Israel’s brutalities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the strangulation of Gaza by Israel, the new military-dominated regime in Egypt, and the latest collapse of the absurd “peace process” exercise would inevitably produce a triggering event one way or another.

See more photographs from the bombing on the Guardian website. (Photo: Bernat Armangue/AP)

As it happened, the kidnap-murder of three Israeli settler teenagers was the trigger. But even for those of us who find almost nothing too shocking anymore, the Israeli government’s behavior touched new depths of cynicism. The entire three-week “search” for the missing kids was fraudulent: the government knew right away that they’d been killed. It pretended to be searching for them as a pretext to smash up Hamas in the West Bank, re-arrest former prisoners released in the exchange for Gilad Shalit, and cripple the new Palestinian unity government.

The story is reported by J.J. Goldberg in the US Jewish newspaper Forward–a significant event in itself, since this paper was once essentially a neoconservative house organ, where now increasingly open criticism of Israel appears. The piece is important reading both in its own right and for the vitriolic racism of many reader comments that follow it.

The political advantage that the Netanyahu regime gained from the murders of the Israeli teenagers–as horrible as it is to put it in such terms–was negated by the torture-murder of the young Palestinian Mohammed Abu Kheidr in Jerusalem by a gang of six Israelis, and the video of the savage police beating of his American cousin Tareq who was visiting at the time.

The former Israeli intelligence chief Yuval Diskin described the context of the unfolding disaster in a lengthy Facebook post, quoted by J.J. Goldberg:

“The deterioration is first and foremost a result of the illusion that the government’s inaction on every front can actually freeze the situation in place, the illusion that ‘price tag’ [a reference to marauding Israeli settler gangs –DF] is simply a few slogans on the wall and not pure racism, the illusion that everything can be solved with a little more force, the illusion that the Palestinians will accept everything that’s done in the West Bank and won’t respond despite the rage and frustration and the worsening economic situation, the illusion that the international community won’t impose sanctions on us, that the Arab citizens of Israel won’t take to the streets at the end of the day because of the lack of care for their problems, and that the Israeli public will continue submissively to accept the government’s helplessness in dealing with the social gaps that its policies have created and are worsening, while corruption continues to poison everything good, and so on and so on.” (Source.)

In the guise of suppressing rocket fire from Hamas, which so far has not killed a single Israeli citizen and is not likely to do so –and perhaps responding to a growing sector of the Israeli public which is showing openly genocidal attitudes–Netanyahu has ordered an air offensive that’s claiming civilian lives, entirely predictably, on a daily basis. (For a typical example, read about this incident.) Should that prove insufficiently bloody, a ground offensive is pending.

Pro-Israel propaganda, taken up by virtually every mainstream media personality and politician in the US, on left, and a Palestinian response on right. (Click to enlarge.)

The Obama administration, which understands perfectly well that the last pathetic negotiations collapsed over Israel’s settlement expansion and Netanyahu’s demand that Israel be “recognized as the state of the Jewish people,” now blathers about Israel’s right to defend itself. About Palestine’s right of self-defense, silence.

Given that the current descent into butchery is neither the first time nor the last, what’s essential now is to tell the truth about the Israeli assault and to raise its political costs, especially through the powerful grassroots global BDS (Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions) movement.

David Finkel is an editor of Against the Current and member of Solidarity.

The People’s History: The Birth of the New Feminist Army in Texas

from Rise Up/Levanta Texas

June 30, 2014

An entire year has passed since the shouts heard around the world reverberated throughout the Texas Capitol and forced the state legislature to come to a screeching halt. Rise Up/Levanta Texas formed in late June 2013 as a grassroots response to a growing awareness that our bodies, stories, and voices were being made invisible within the larger narrative surrounding reproductive rights and HB 2. The same pattern is playing out today as people continue to center straight, cisgender, white women in the retelling of the events that unfolded last summer and single out abortion as the only issue at hand. Several individuals and groups have published retrospectives that focus on Wendy Davis, women, and abortion, but their story of the struggle for reproductive justice in Texas is incomplete, and the reality of what happened is so much broader than what the public is being told.

The legislation has undoubtedly placed restrictions on people’s ability to access abortions. The provisions of HB 2 included the following: abortions were prohibited after 20 weeks of pregnancy; doctors performing abortions must have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic where abortions are performed; doctors must adhere to Food and Drug Administration-approved protocol when giving people medication abortion pills; and, by September 2014, all abortion clinics must meet ambulatory surgical center standards. However, many of the clinics that were targeted by HB 2 did more than just provide abortions. In huge spans of the Rio Grande Valley and West Texas, thousands of poor and working-class people also lost access to routine services such as mammograms, cervical cancer screenings, sexually transmitted infection testing, and contraception. At the end of the day, a pregnant person with access to financial resources will find a way to get an abortion, and it is unlikely that they would have utilized abortion clinics as their primary source of medical care. Rise Up/Levanta Texas thus interprets HB 2 as a manifestation of the apartheid that exists within the medical industrial complex in the state and in the country.

Whole Women’s Health, located in McAllen, was one of two clinics offering abortion services in the Rio Grande Valley until the new state law forced both to close in 2014. McAllen is the largest city in Hidalgo County, one of the fastest-growing and poorest counties in the US. (Photo: Rick Jervis)

The “war on women” is being waged on a massive scale, however, in a way that too few people were talking about before Rise Up/Levanta Texas started to contribute to the shift in the narrative. We strove to center the war on the poor, the Black and the brown, the undocumented and queer people, and ways in which this bill serves as a weapon of the state in those prolonged wars against these particular communities. Yes, HB 2 actively sought to limit women’s ability to access abortions, but the struggle goes beyond this narrow focus on the “war on women.” Before and during the night of Wendy Davis’ filibuster, many people, including folks working with and for the Democratic Party, and other nonprofits, were aware of the desire and the need for civil disobedience as a means of resistance. There was a general level of preparedness and understanding around the subject when it came up in discussion.

After the initial filibuster, however, as bodies began to regularly fill the capitol, groups associated with the Democratic Party and the other large coalitions, were quick to shift gears from amplifying voices of people suffering at the hands of the State, to analyzing how the energy that was being generated could be captured for votes and donors. In doing this, their perspective was no longer focused on the situation at hand. The Democratic Party and its allied organizations took self-assuming positions of power and were quick to criticize and police the actions of Rise Up/Levanta Texas instead of continuing a dialogue about how to use our collective strength to fight oppressive policies being enacted by the state. Discussions were shifted towards elections–people were told to “wait until November” (the 2014 midterm elections) to “fight back,” while far-right zealots spent each day at the capitol using all means possible to oppress and push people out of a public process.

Consider this document the collective testimony of Rise Up/Levanta Texas–our bearing witness to the events that transpired, the repression that supporters of reproductive justice experienced, and the violence that was unleashed on our bodies and spirit in an effort to kill the rebirth of the feminist movement in Texas. We do not claim to represent all of the voices of those who have been written out of this particular moment in history, nor do we claim to represent the voices of those who were tangentially involved in the events and actions that Rise Up/Levanta Texas coordinated last summer. However, we do intend for this to serve as a people’s history of sorts, one that centers those who are often relegated to the margins or made invisible due to the state’s fondness for revisionist history. The stories recounted below are a testament to our commitment to make the discussion of reproductive justice one that is intersectional and uncompromising in our belief that everyone has the right to bodily autonomy, self-determination, and dignity.

Texans Rise and Organize

While the new special session rectified the bill and sought to quell the massive uprising of dissent surrounding the capitol, those of us who were present at the capitol for the filibuster never could have imagined the outpouring of resistance to HB 2 that people in Texas demonstrated. Inspired by the sea of orange that flooded the capitol and came to represent the pro-choice movement, a group of long-time organizers and activists met a couple of days after the filibuster to discuss what a grassroots response to this right-wing attack on reproductive rights in Texas might look like. From the beginning we articulated the importance of non-hierarchical organizing, nonviolent direct action, and prioritizing the voices of those most impacted by the legislation.

Using an intersectional lens to analyze and discuss HB 2 was also at the core of our work. The group that would become Rise Up/Levanta Texas was comprised of people from different backgrounds with respect to race, gender, age, ability, class, and sexuality, among other factors. Our different lived experiences as people and organizers allowed us to connect what was being played out at the capitol to larger systems of oppression that affect us differently based on our identities. Our process manifested a very different story about power than the narrative espoused by “Stand With Texas Women” and allowed us to articulate the impact of HB 2 in a way that centered the experiences of those who were being left out of the conversation. We told the story that was being ignored: the story of those who would be most impacted. It was not just about cisgender women needing abortions, but about queer and trans people, people of color, people with disabilities, rural Texans, undocumented migrants who might be risking detention and deportation by being forced to drive hundreds of miles and through Border Patrol checkpoints, sex workers, and IV drug users needing access to basic health care. We are the people who were willing to put our bodies on the line to prevent an even greater injustice. We worked with intention to be collective, cooperative, creative, and collaborative with other groups working to defeat HB 2.

From the beginning, we strategically focused on where we might be able to make a difference. Each day we produced a list of legislative targets and key messages so we could creatively interrupt the process, generate media, and build momentum not just in Austin or Texas, but around the country as thousands of people watched on. We functioned horizontally, organizing in working and affinity groups, and in clusters to accommodate those who had come together to organize and carry out creative direct actions. We held regular spokes council meetings where our action plans emerged into an overall action framework that enabled many levels of participation. In an effort to model direct democracy, our decisions were made using a consensus based decision-making process. We trained hundreds of people in nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience building pressure along the way. We did this openly, publicly with no fear, despite the increasing police presence and its focus on us.

Reproductive rights supporters rally on the floor of the State Capitol rotunda in Austin on July 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Tamir Kalifa)

During our regular meetings we developed a roll-out plan with trainings, meetings, and actions. Each day we grew stronger with more and more people joining us on the ground. Rise Up/Levanta Texas became a force within the capitol that kept the momentum and media attention building. From creative testimony, from marches to sing-ins, from the parachute banner to gallery actions, from legislator office actions to eventually civil disobedience, we showed up, spoke out, and refused to back down.

Early on we decided that a cleverly coordinated media campaign would be a central part of Rise Up/Levanta Texas’ efforts to change the narrative surrounding reproductive rights. Rather than wait for the mainstream news outlets to come to us, we sought out a combination of mainstream and alternative news outlets in order to proactively engage the media. We had late-night meetings to craft press releases, generate talking points, and designate media spokespersons. We tried to be mindful of who was doing the talking and prioritized having queer folks and people of color as points of contact to intentionally disrupt mainstream media’s messaging and images of who would be directly impacted by HB 2.

The Rise Up/Levanta Texas media team also posted updates, articles, photos, and videos through various social media platforms in both English and Spanish. We utilized a mass texting app to communicate with our supporters regarding when and where we were coordinating direct actions, trainings, and general assemblies. Our sense of humor and passion for what we were doing kept us going through the late nights and countless hours spent working. In the end we were successful in getting some of our perspectives and organizing efforts published through the New York Times, Real News Network, Truthout, and Common Dreams, to name a few. We were also able to gain the attention of local Spanish language media, which we considered a huge victory. Having outlets through which to tell this story proved to be more important than ever during the final days of the fight at the capitol as people were arrested during acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. Lies and accusations were spread by legislators and by the state police in an attempt to have the public believe we were radical extremists acting from a place of hate rather than a place of concern for basic human rights and dignity.

Solidarity Is a Beautiful Verb

During that time, the entire world was exploding with people out in the streets who were speaking out and fighting back against oppressive regimes of power. This reminded us that our organizing must take into account the places in this country and around the world that live with the implications our government’s aggressive policies have upon their/our daily lives. One of the more beautiful and inspiring elements of our organizing at the capitol appeared in the form of acts of solidarity from people all over the United States as well as some from people abroad. During the height of our organizing, we spent days and nights at the capitol without ready access to food and drinks. We were inspired, but we were also exhausted, hungry, and often dehydrated thanks to the overwhelming Texas heat and humidity. People quickly answered our calls for support by sending us pizza, snacks, water, and what soon become everyone’s favorite, pro-choice vegan donuts from Austin’s Red Rabbit Cooperative Bakery.

While these actions may seem simple, they met one of our most basic needs and reminded us that we are connected to a much broader community that exists outside of Austin, Texas, and the State Capitol. We belong to a community of reproductive justice advocates and freedom fighters who believe that everyone should have the right to decide what happens to their bodies. We were and are outraged by the Texas legislature’s attacks on care and on people’s right to decide what is in their own best interest. Knowing that we had statewide, national, and international support; that thousands of eyes were watching us and cheering us on from all over the world boosted our morale and reminded us of what was at stake: our collective sense of self-determination.

Protesters briefly occupy the area outside the State Capitol gallery doors as the legislature passed the anti-abortion bill inside on June 12. Many Texas State Troopers were brought in to clear the capitol, and several protesters were physically assaulted and arrested. (AP Photo/Tamir Kalifa)

Also missing from these re-tellings are mention of the 16 people who were arrested that summer–those who were arrested for explicitly protesting HB 2 and those who were arrested merely for associating too closely with “radical” protesters. Several others were ushered and at times carried out of the house and senate galleries as the bill approached a final vote. As the police forcibly arrested those whose voices expressed discontent with the process inside the legislature, several liberal women of color legislators on the floor clapped for those being carried away and for those who also stood up in protest that day. We realized in that moment that as limited as the party politicians were in what they could do and in what they could advocate, they still subscribe to a process that many of us have long since lost faith in. Maybe by clapping for us they were starting to recognize that they needed our help in the fight. Not the petition signing, voter registering, orange T-shirt wearing, Wendy Davis fan club-type help, but rather help from the radicals–from the limitless and unafraid. The politicians who were on the front lines and getting their asses handed to them were starting to get it anyway. The Democrats out on in the halls with us were still mostly being supportive, but progress is progress, and we appreciated it.

When the final vote was taken and the bill passed, a sit-in of over 50 people took place outside of the gallery doors, where protesters were brutalized during Texas State Troopers’ attempts to disperse them. We were outraged by the use of unnecessary violence and force by the police, but proud of our friends and comrades for holding the space and power despite the brutality of the state.

You Can’t Legislate This: Growing the Resistance

The day the bill was signed into law, we knew the fight had only just begun and that we had our work cut out for us. We could no longer watch in silence as misogynistic, patriarchal, and conservative governmental forces continued to try and dominate our lives. As a result of HB 2, fewer than two dozen abortion clinics are currently operating in Texas. The southernmost clinic in operation is in San Antonio, meaning that people living in border areas have to drive hours in order to receive care. In West Texas, people can only obtain an abortion in their first trimester. Many clinics have attempted to challenge the provision in HB 2 regarding hospital admitting privileges, but only one clinic has been successful in its attempts. By the time HB 2 goes into full effect, only five abortion clinics that are also ambulatory surgical centers will remain in the cities of Austin, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio.

Since last summer, Rise Up/Levanta Texas has been working on becoming a sustainable and fixed presence in Central Texas that consistently advocates and works towards reproductive justice. Our members have taken part in statewide and national convenings, conferences, and meetings aimed at addressing and challenging the terrifying reality that Texans will face when HB 2 goes into full effect in September of this year. We have spoken on panels and given presentations about our work, the obstacles we faced and continue to face, and what differed in our perspective and approach that made people pay attention to what we were doing. Just as important has been our ability to connect with other activist groups and individual organizers working around these issues in other red states that face similar, if not copycat, legislation to what we now have to contend with.

Photo: The Real News Network.

Before the filibuster, every day since, and after this election in November, no matter its result, marginalized communities will continue to be at the receiving ends of the adverse effects of an oppressive state. Rise Up/Levanta Texas does not see turning the state “blue” as part of our mission for the future; our collective efforts were not limited by these markers of time because achieving social justice compels constant pressure at the root of the problem. We will not be silent about what is happening in our state. We have not stopped the pressure. The struggle is not just about abortion or women’s rights or getting out the vote—this is about uncovering the truth with respect to ongoing attacks that are historically rooted in greed, racism, and hate. Enough is enough.

Ultimately, we do not see the passage of HB 2 as a total loss. On the contrary, we recognize that that moment was an opportunity and an opening. Since the summer of 2013, we’ve seen record participation and widespread support from people all across Texas whose vision differs from the draconian, anti-democratic, misogynistic political tricks we saw come out of the capitol. It became clear that last summer was only the beginning. In order to continue building the feminist army, we must support each other and keep the pressure on for access to comprehensive reproductive health care in our communities. We will continue to fight for access to reproductive health care and for reproductive autonomy that all Texans deserve. Will you join us?

This piece was collectively authored by Rocío Villalobos, Yatzel Sabat, Rockie Gonzalez, Lisa Fithian, and Hallie Boas. You can get in touch with Rise Up/Levanta Texas on Facebook here and here.

A Revolutionary in the Auto Plant: In Remembrance of General Baker (1941-2014)

by Dianne Feeley

June 3, 2014

After a long and debilitating illness, General Baker died of congestive heart failure on May 18, 2014. Six hundred people attended his memorial service–held at United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 600, his local–six days later. Among the speakers were half a dozen UAW officers, including International President Bob King and UAW Vice President Jimmy Settles.

Photo: Charles Ezra Ferrell

General Baker’s family was part of the Great Migration. Over 4 million African Americans left the South between the First World War and the mid-1960s. His family came from Georgia in 1941, and he was born in Detroit just a few months later. The grandson of sharecroppers, he was delivered by Dr. Ossian Sweet, himself an earlier migrant north, who defended his home from racist attacks in 1925.

Although twice fired by Chrysler for leading wildcats at Dodge Main in May 1968 and blacklisted, General Baker later found work at Ford’s Rouge plant under a phony name. When Ford discovered who Alexander Ware really was several years later, they fired him. He was fired three times by Ford.

Despite the fact that the UAW officials regarded him and the movement he helped found, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), as seeking to divide the working class along racial lines, they were forced to defend him. Part of the agreement that the UAW had with the auto industry was that anyone who gave false information on their application, but survived 18 months on the job without any problem, could not be fired.

Ford was forced to take him back, under his real name, but it took him 16 months as his grievance made it through the system. He worked in the blast furnace at Ford Rouge Steel (now owned by Severstal). He served as chair of that unit from the 1980s; he retired in 2003.

A genuinely kind and thoughtful person, “Gen” was a political troublemaker from his days as a student at Highland Park Junior College and Wayne State University. As a member of the student group, UHURU (a Swahili word for “Freedom”), he protested a range of issues, including police brutality and substandard housing.

He became involved in the Black liberation struggle, studied Marx’s Capital in an all-Black study group with Marty Glaberman and defied the State Department to travel to Cuba in 1964. There he met Robert F. Williams and his wife Mabel, who had been forced into exile for defending their Monroe, N.C., community against racist attacks. (See Williams’ “Negroes with Guns,” 1962) His earliest interests encompassed both the colonial revolutions and the struggles within Detroit’s Black community.

His first job was at Woolworth’s Drug Store in downtown Detroit. Because he was Black, he was confined to only certain jobs on the night shift. Active in a number of community organizations over the years, he was first arrested when, after the Detroit City Council refused to pass an open housing ordinance, he booed the singing of the national anthem at a celebration of the city’s bid for the Olympic Games.

When he was drafted into the US Army in 1965, General Baker composed a letter to the draft board indicting the US Army and the government it served for crimes committed against people of color, ranging from Birmingham, Alabama to the Congo and South Africa, Panama and Vietnam. His refusal ended with his commitment to fight for freedom:

Therefore, when the call is made to free South Africa; when the call is made to liberate Latin American from the United Fruit Co., Kaiser and Alcoa Aluminum Col, and from Standard Oil; when the call is made to jail the exploiting Brahmins in India in order to destroy the caste system; when the call is made to free the Black Delta areas of Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina; when the call is made to FREE 12TH STREET HERE IN DETROIT!: when these calls are made, send for me, for these shall be Historical Struggles in which it shall be an honor to serve!

Instead of being arrested and imprisoned as a draft resister, General Baker was declared a security risk and ignored. His longtime friend and comrade, attorney Buck Davis, presumed the Army had no interest in drafting someone who might organize Black soldiers against the Vietnam War.

Unable to find steady employment when he graduated from high school in 1958, Gen was one of the thousands of Black workers finally able to get auto jobs in the hiring wave of the early 1960s.

By that time, the Big Three had built sprawling one-story plants in the suburbs, leaving only a few multistoried and antiquated plants in the city. Instead of retooling these, management kept the outmoded plants producing through compulsory overtime and speed-up. In the summer, shop temperatures ranged from 110-120 degrees, while in the winter, the shops were freezing cold.

In 1963, General Baker was hired into Dodge Main, where Black workers were assigned the most dangerous and physically difficult jobs in the foundry, body shop, and engine assembly areas. While Black workers were the majority in the 10,000-strong workforce, the better jobs and skilled trade workforce were lily white–either Poles or Appalachian whites. Management’s institutionalized racist practices, implemented by abusive white foremen and superintendents, went unchallenged as the local’s safety and speed-up grievances piled up. Just as today, union officials cautioned patience and thought that workers–and especially Black workers–should just be grateful to be employed.

But when General Baker hired in, he already had under his belt a history of study and activism and a network of savvy political activists he could turn to. He worked to build a core of Black workers who could analyze the conditions they faced at Dodge Main and develop a larger perspective.

Central to his work were two figures: John Watson and Mike Hamlin. Watson, a longtime activist, began publishing the Inner-City Voice (ICV) in October 1967, just a few months after Detroit’s Great Rebellion. As editor, Watson analyzed the explosive social conditions facing the Black community from an anti-capitalist, working-class perspective. Mike Hamlin was a Korean War veteran who worked as a truck driver, and was a skillful mediator. Because of the discrimination African Americans faced and the inability of the UAW officialdom to represent their needs, they concluded that Black workers would be compelled to take direct action on the shop floor.

The Inner-City Voice didn’t pull any punches when it came to the unwillingness of the UAW officialdom to tackle racism within the union. Read this full issue here.

The group Gen cultivated met at the ICV offices, and by Spring 1968, they began distributing leaflets at the plant, condemning both Chrysler management and UAW officials for “demoralizing the integrity of the Black individual.” On May 2, more than 4,000 workers wildcatted Dodge Main over speed-up. Both Black and white workers didn’t return to work after lunch.

Seven workers, identified as “leaders” were fired. This included General Baker and Bernie Tate along with five white workers. The white workers got their jobs back, while the Blacks were left out in the cold. Gen responded with an open letter to Chrysler in the June issue of ICV, indicting the company for its injustice and racism.

The Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement was born out of this wildcat. DRUM continued to organize at Dodge Main and the surrounding community. It called for a boycott of two nearby bars that were patronized by Black workers, yet did not hire Black employees. The owners quickly settled.

That July, DRUM held a rally in the parking lot across from the plant, attracting more than 300 workers. They marched to the local union hall two blocks away and forced the executive board to listen to their demand for an end to all forms of discrimination. Unsatisfied with the lackluster response, DRUM announced they would close the plant the following day.

DRUM asked Black workers to honor the picket line that Friday morning and approximately 3,000 stood outside, effectively halting production. At noon, DRUM read their demands and, seeing the police mass, sent all but 250 home. These were then organized into car pools and dispatched to Chrysler headquarters in Highland Park, where they read their demands once more.

On Monday morning, picketing resumed until the police served injunctions. At that point, DRUM tore up their injunctions and ended their action. They threw up a picket line at Solidarity House, the UAW headquarters. They organized demonstrations and rallies, and passed out weekly leaflets where they commented on conditions in the plant and the do-nothing attitudes of UAW officials.

By September, DRUM ran Ron March, a member of DRUM’s core organizers and a Vietnam vet, for the local’s trustee position. Finishing first out of 27 candidates, March ran on a platform that called on Black workers to stop paying union dues. But in the run-off election the following month, Regional Director George Merelli arranged for a large bloc of retirees to get to the polls. Defeated, March nonetheless won 40% of the total vote.

At a number of plants across the country, Black autoworkers organized themselves into similar formations. Within a year, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was formed to unite the movement and its supporters, including high school students. For their part, UAW officials worked to undercut DRUM by appointing Black workers–from their business-friendly “administration caucus”–to leadership positions in the union.

A classic scene from the Newsreel-produced documentary on DRUM and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, “Finally Got The News” (full video available here).

Through a combination developed to defeat radicals and communists in the post-World War II period, these officials launched a two-fisted campaign of co-optation and repression. By 1970, many League members had been disciplined by management with the cooperation of the union. Its base withered and the League splintered from political differences and personal antagonisms.

But some of their demands were met–the UAW officials saw the need for more Black elected and appointed officials, some Black workers were able to move into the apprenticeship program, and management began to hire Black workers as foremen and superintendents. Of course, the demand for worker control over production went unanswered.

Gen remained an organized socialist. He was a founder of the Communist Labor Party and later the League of Revolutionaries for a New America. He ran for public office, once as a third-party candidate and once as a Democrat, nearly winning each time.

As a featured speaker at a number of national and international gatherings, Gen was willing to admit shortcomings in movements in which he was a participant. For example, he’d point out how the League had drawn in capable women, but then failed to support their development. He also admitted to calling for 50,000 people to show up at his induction–but when only a handful came, he’d covered up his bravado by informing the commander that he’d decided to bring just a delegation. A giant of a man, he had a delicious sense of humor.

For General Baker and the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, automation profoundly altered the site of struggle. Instead of Black workers being the source of the cheapest and most productive labor, and therefore capable of making change at the heart of the productive process, Black people–under automation–were no longer needed by capitalists as workers. The question then became: how is it possible to survive without jobs? While still supporting working class struggles, the League turned its focus to mobilizing working class communities to demand a decent life, even if there are no jobs.

Always involved at his worksite and interested in political issues, Gen helped to organize a 200-car caravan to the coal fields during the 1989 miners’ strike and was one of a few hundred arrested during the Detroit newspaper lockout in the mid-1990s. While sympathetic to UAW dissidents who opposed concessions and called for union democracy, he did not endorse their work. After he retired, and when his health permitted, he attended Autoworker Caravan pickets at the International Auto Show.

He and his first wife, Mary Ilene Neal, had three daughters. They divorced, and in 1979, he married Marian Kramer, an activist with Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. The two were active around a broad range of welfare rights issues. They raised five daughters and, several years ago, after their children were grown, assumed responsibility of caring for a niece and nephew. They remained active in the Highland Park community where they lived, a town Chrysler deserted years ago.

Dianne Feeley is a retired autoworker in Detroit, an editor of Against the Current, and a member of Solidarity’s National Committee.

Justice for Galeano! Stop the War Against Zapatista Communities!

from "An Attack On Us All"

May 20, 2014

The National Committee of Solidarity has endorsed the statement below from An Attack On Us All:

On May 2, 2014, in the Zapatista territory of La Realidad, Chiapas, Mexico, the group CIOAC-Histórica [with the participation of the Green Ecological Party and the National Action Party (PAN)], planned and executed a paramilitary attack on unarmed Zapatista civilians. An autonomous Zapatista school and clinic was destroyed, 15 people were ambushed and injured and Jose Luis Solis Lopez (Galeano), teacher at the Zapatista Little School, was murdered. The mainstream media is falsely reporting this attack on the Zapatistas as an intra-community confrontation, but in fact this attack is the result of a long-term counterinsurgency strategy promoted by the Mexican government.

Photo: Moysés Zúñiga Santiago

Given the experience of the 1997 massacre at Acteal, we are concerned about the mounting paramilitary activity against Zapatista bases of support. It is clear that if we do not take action now, the current situation in Chiapas may also lead to an even more tragic end.


Since 1994, the Zapatistas have shown us the bankruptcy of the world that dominates us and, most importantly, the ability to organize ourselves into self-determining communities autonomous from the political class and capitalism. It is this capacity to show that another world is possible in the here and now, one not rooted in exploitation, dispossession, repression and de-valorization, but rather in liberty, democracy and justice, that has inspired us all. An attack on the Zapatistas is an attack on the other world that we have all tried to build along with them for the past 20 years.


We strongly denounce the murder of Compañero Galeano and the attacks against our Zapatista brothers and sisters. We denounce the deliberate destruction of the Zapatista clinic and school. We denounce the disinformation from the press regarding these attacks.

To denounce these aggressions and in support of our Zapatista brothers and sisters, the signatories below call on all Zapatista supporters, students, anti-prison activists, artists, workers, intellectuals, teachers, academics, LGBTQ groups, anarchists, communities of faith, prisoners, communities and organizations of color, indigenous peoples, Chicanos, migrants and all those seeking a more just, non-capitalist world, to pronounce themselves against these attacks by the Mexican government on the Zapatistas and to hold events starting Sunday May 18th (e.g. demonstrations at Mexican consulates and Embassies, corporate subsidiaries, and banks supporting the Mexican government, teach-ins, discussion groups, concerts, informational sessions, or other civil actions that people deem appropriate for their city) and culminating with a day of remembrance on May 24th called by the Zapatistas in honor of the late Compañero Galeano.

Let’s make our dignified pain and rage another building block towards a movement that will directly participate, along with the Zapatistas, in creating this new world.

On Twitter, use #ZapatistasNoEstanSolxs
For a full list of signatories click here.

Find an event in your area (or organize one!).

For recent coverage of the Zapatistas on the Solidarity Webzine, see “Zapatistas at 20: Building Autonomous Community” and “Twenty Years Since the Chiapas Rebellion: The Zapatistas, Their Politics, Their Impact.”

Working Class Organization and Strategy

Equal Time Radio interviews Kim Moody and Sheila Cohen

May 5, 2014

Labor activist/intellectual Kim Moody, author of In Solidarity: Essays on Working-Class Organization and Strategy in the United States and a founder of Labor Notes, and Sheila Cohen, author of Ramparts of Resistance: Why Workers Lost Their Power, and How to Get It Back and Notoriously Militant: The Story of a Union Branch, discuss the present state and the future possibilities of the US labor movement and the forces working against it with Nancy Welch of the University of Vermont’s United Academics and Traven Leyshon of Equal Time Radio.

They argue for the enduring importance of building workplace power, and explore links between everyday workplace struggles and movements for broader change. They contrast the growing movements for democratic, social movement unionism with bureaucratic business unionism’s failure to meet the challenges working people face. This interview first aired on Equal Time Radio in Vermont on WDEV and can be heard here. The transcription below includes some edits for readability. Sheila Cohen’s participation was limited due to phone issues encountered during the interview.

Traven Leyshon: Why don’t I just start out with a question, which some listeners may be wondering, why are we even talking about unions? Aren’t they an anachronism? Your book covers something like 48 years of writing about the labor movement. Why have you maintained that focus when so many others, including radicals, are looking elsewhere as a way to cope with the profound challenges we face?

Kim Moody: Two things. One, it’s a question of power. There are a lot of ways to protest and fight, but the question is “what has the most potential power in this type of capitalist society?” I continue to think and argue that this lies primarily in the workplace, with the working class. Yes, there are many fewer union members than there were 30 or 40 years ago, but there are still about 15 million people located in important parts of the economy. The second thing I’d say is, if unions didn’t matter, somebody explain to me why it is that the Republican Party and even the Democrats, backed by big business, are spending such an enormous amount of effort to destroy these organizations. They obviously feel that these organizations are a barrier to their neoliberal goals, to their profit maximization, and all the rest of it. So, somebody in the United States here thinks that unions are important, even if they wouldn’t want to put it that way themselves.

Nancy Welch: I’d like to come in here to say that we have just seen locally a real testament to the power and continuing significance of unions. We just saw an amazing victory with 70 bus drivers waging a three week strike with admirable unity within their ranks, but also tremendous public support, because people really saw the drivers’ issues as their issues, both in terms of dignity at work, and also in defense of public resources, also a strike against racism, and so forth. It’s an incredible example of a broader public realizing how much power even 70 bus drivers have to amplify these issues.

One of the things that I have been thinking about since that strike, because there’s such an uptick in confidence across the region among union locals and even non-unionized workers about what we can win–there’s a section in In Solidarity about the dialectic of constant struggle and it makes me wonder how do we both carry forward a victory like this, carry on this kind of class struggle unionism and struggle for union democracy, but avoid succumbing to exhaustion, which both of you have written about with the 1970s rank and file rebellion.

Vermont bus drivers struck for 18 days, declaring victory with an improved contract on April 3, 2014. (Photo: Vermont Workers Center)

KM: That’s a good question, “how do you avoid exhaustion?” Well, I can only answer that in a sort of an indirect way.

Both Shelia and I just came from a conference in Chicago, the Labor Notes conference. There were over 2,000 trade unionist activists there. These people were not exhausted. I haven’t seen that kind of energy for quite some time. Even the previous conference, which I thought was full of energy, couldn’t compare to this one in numbers and energy.

In the number of people who were rank and file workers, they were working on kicking out the old guard, taking over their locals, and remaking them to be more democratic and place more emphasis on workplace organization–where power begins–and to place more emphasis on broader issues as well. These were very inspiring people. They’re organizing not only to change their own unions, but there were these people there who are organizing to unionize, or to build some sort of workers organization, in this whole logistics complex that’s related to Walmart and warehousing and all types of intermodal transportation. There were railroad people, truck drivers, and people working in these warehouses, all of these people are organizing and they certainly haven’t reached the point of exhaustion yet and I don’t see that happening anytime soon. What I see now is more energy.

TL: There were actually some thirty Vermonters who made the trek out to Chicago to go to that conference and were pretty inspired by it. You make the case, let me put this to Sheila, that the crisis within the labor movement is not solely the result of external forces like what’s going on with the economic system, that many of labor’s wounds that are self-inflicted by the unique character of most US unions. Can you talk about this?

One of many packed workshops at the 2014 Labor Notes conference in Chicago. (Photo: Jim West)

Sheila Cohen: Yes, I think what’s interesting is that back in the mid-90s, it was actually the American trade union movement which came up with a more energetic rank and file-based organizing model. I think the results of that have not been what they could have been. I remember reading these things about it early on, which were all about worker-to-worker organizing, unionized workers going out and organizing those in the same industries, certain areas who weren’t in unions. Yet, it seems to have become very much bureaucratized, very much top-down.

TL: Let’s also ask Kim, who’s written a few books about that, this crisis in the labor movement. It’s obviously a pretty hostile political environment and has been for at least since the late 1970s, but you also make the argument that some of the weaknesses, labor’s problems, are self-inflicted.

KM: Well, yeah, I think that the problem has been what Sheila was just saying. We had this whole, for years and years it was a very conventional way of organizing new workers and that just ceased to work by the 1980s, at least, and possibly before that. The NLRB, the National Labor Relations Board, and the National Labor Relations Act no longer worked in most cases, so unions started looking for new things, and there were a lot of good ideas, a lot of good experiments. People might remember in the 1990s, the Justice for Janitors thing was very inspiring. But one of the problems is that, because American unions are so inherently top-heavy, bureaucratized, even these experiments become routinized things you do over and over again. Community support becomes rounding up the clergy to look like you have support, and so on. I’m not saying people aren’t doing better things than that, but what I’m talking about is the, particularly the SEIU model, which doesn’t seem to be really working anymore. If you look at the figures, their own growth has pretty much stopped.

So, the problem is, how do we get beyond the formalistic and bureaucratic approaches to these things and start to use, many people have proposed this such as Kate Bronfenbrenner, use the actual members themselves to do some of this organizing. As she put it, the first thing you do is not to sign an authorization card or the usual thing, but you start acting like a union even before recognition, and that you stop the separation of the fight for recognition from the fight for bargaining, which is an old, sort of traditional way that unions still do things. All of this should be one process and it needs to involve the workers themselves and others who can support them, whether that comes from other unions or the same union, and mobilization is needed, but not just, you know, on and off mobilization, but a kind of more permanent mobilization. Of course, that’s not completely possible, but involving the grassroots in these things much more than the case is now. Some unions do more of that now than they used to, and that’s all to the good. I think the UNITE HERE Hotel Workers Rising campaign sort of has that side to it, but it needs to become universal.

The other thing I think was, the big strategy for a while in the 90s and into this century was this neutrality clause tactic. Now, some of the time, that works, but some of the time it doesn’t work for the simple reason that American employers are not interested in being neutral, they’re not interested in recognizing unions. We can see over and over that they’re trying to push them out. So, it sounds like a good idea, but as we saw in the case of the UAW and Volkswagon in Tennessee, their neutrality agreement was completely violated and, in the end, the NLRB has not been able to do anything about it at all, and now apparently the UAW has even withdrawn their case on this. Let’s try the one thing that has historically worked, whether you look back to the 30s or whenever, which is mass mobilization of workers.

TL: I wonder if you see the Chicago Teachers Union strike and their ongoing work and campaigns like Fight For 15 as being a way forward out of this routinization and top-down approach.

KM: Yes, I definitely do. I think particularly the Chicago Teachers Union, the thing that’s important there is that this is something they’ve prepared for for a number of years. They didn’t just start out by running people for union office, they started out by organizing in the schools, in the workplace, building a kind of organization—a caucus, but not just a caucus—building support for their ideas over a period of time that allowed them to take over this huge local teachers’ union, one of the biggest in the country, and not just take it over, but to keep the members mobilized so that the strike was a phenomenal success, given the reality of things these days, and even with the powerful opposition to that kind of activity on the part of the City of Chicago. So, yes, I think there is a mobilization model that shows a lot of very careful organizing and educating people around the issues, drawing in the parents and the students. This was important as well.

The other thing you mentioned was the fast food workers effort for $15 an hour. Yes, there again is something that’s kind of phenomenal. I know it has backing from unions and everything, but the fact that they could pull this off in something like 100 cities at the same time, pretty much, this is phenomenal. And it had an impact. I don’t know how much in terms of winning, that may not have happened everywhere yet, but it’s definitely had an impact on the way people look at these things. Who would have ever thought you could organize these fast food workers? Well, they seem to be organizing themselves in large part, and that’s very important here.

These are two very important developments and I think, again, referring to the Labor Notes conference is helpful, because it’s such a great setting for seeing all these different things at once and the fact that they relate to each other…that we’re not just talking about this separate thing and that separate thing, people from different efforts are now looking at each other and we’re looking at something more like what you dare to call “a class mobilization” here, at least the beginnings of it, hopefully.

Workers and supporters at a “Fight For $15” action in Chicago last year. (Photo: John J. Kim, Chicago Tribune)

TL: We’ve got a caller from Barre, your thoughts?

Caller: There is one area where labor has made a mistake and I would like to see it not continue to make that mistake in the future, as we get into more and more personal service type of arrangements and as the Baby Boom generation gets into old age. I’m talking about organized labor in places where workers take care of people with disabilities. The old Vermont state hospital was a horror pit and the staff culture was such that the patients were treated as the enemy to be controlled, coerced, and there were some real awful things that went on there.

I’m hoping that the new state hospital will not be like that. The union representatives, sadly, often interfaced with the public by denouncing the patients as horrible, violent subhumans. And when the Brandon Training School, which had its history of brutality and rapes by staff on patients, was shut down, they fought that. If you have people working in facilities for “devalued” people with disabilities, to use the union to make war on the people with disabilities, as has been done, is a huge mistake. I’m really hoping that unions can get away from that and make common cause with the people that they’re caring for, to give labor a better name–and also, if you work with people, they behave better than if you treat them badly.

TL: I think this relates to the whole question of “social movement unionism” that you talk a lot about Kim, about the purpose of unions.

KM: Yes, first of all, I don’t disagree with what the questioner just asked. Obviously, you have to look first, I think though, there’s a fundamental problem we have in this country and that’s that the whole medical system, our whole healthcare system, even with Obamacare–there’s some improvements and everything–but it’s still a situation where there are essentially (even though they call themselves non-profit) profit-making institutions charged with delivering healthcare. They are short-handed, which is one of the reasons employees don’t act right. I’m not excusing the things that were just mentioned in the least, but that is a factor here.

What I would point to, agreeing with what she has just said, I point to some of the instances, particularly among nurses in the new nursing unions where their demands are precisely demands about patient care. They’re talking about nurse-to-patient ratios, because if you want better care, you’ve got to have more nurses. The hospitals, on the other hand, want fewer nurses. They want them to work harder. They’re using lean production techniques in healthcare, which should never have been the case. They’re standardizing healthcare when we know that every patient, especially when we’re talking about disabilities, that every patient is different, requires individualized care, and so forth. These unions are actually fighting on the patient’s side, so I think that’s, in terms of unionization in the growing healthcare industry, that’s definitely the way to go. I agree with that.

NW: In In Solidarity you touch on the importances of alliances with community-based organizations representing the concerns and struggles of working class people who may not be in labor unions at all. And you also mention that political and social street mobilization don’t necessarily begin as a work place mobilization but can involve and invoke the power of work stoppages. I think for me, reading In Solidarity, what becomes clear over and over again is the importance of not just unions, but a labor movement writ large, making common cause, seeing ourselves as being involved in social movement unionism, not just because then we get the support we need to win our particular strike, but because it is about reaching and organizing and uniting a working class—so that means teachers uniting with parents and students and communities of color, that means nurses uniting with patients and so forth.

But I wanted to talk a little bit more about your take on the importance of such alliances, the integration of struggles against exploitation and oppression together, and also what some of the challenges are. Not just the kind of bigger union bureaucracies, but even at the local level trying to really enact solidarity in that broad way.

KM: Yes, there is a growing periphery of types of worker organizations that are not traditional union organizations and these are important because they reach whole groups of workers, particularly immigrant workers, that the unions traditionally didn’t want to organize. Now they’ve changed their attitude and are trying to do that, but these types of organizations become important. Street mobilization, the Occupy movement, things like this are important because, to put it bluntly, if we don’t disrupt this society in our way, just as the Tea Party people disrupted it in their way, we’re not going to make progress. And that requires these broad mobilizations that you’re talking about.

I would say, and I think I say this in the essays, that when it comes down to, ultimately, the question of social power, it really falls back on the unions and that’s why more workers centers work more closely with the unions and unions in turn with them–because mobilization in the community can be crucial and important, but there isn’t the same, in most circumstances, the same level of social power there. If we’re not building a broad labor movement, it’s a mistake, but if we’re not building a labor movement that has a growing core of permanent organization in America’s workplaces, or in the workplaces of any country, we’re going to have good flashes in the pan like the Occupy movement, but a movement like that can’t be permanent. It has to fall back on some central core of power and in our society, at least now, that power generally means unions.

Hopefully, it can mean broader political things, but that’s very difficult in this country. I think, in understanding the whole idea of working class organization as coalitions, there just has to be this power in the workplace. That’s clearly what frightens the powers that be. You see this in the public sector with this absolutely fanatical attempt to break public sector unions. Because they understand, these people who want to avoid taxes and don’t like government, they understand that public sector unions are the power in the state that goes against what they want and prove to be a barrier to their neoliberal agenda. And that’s why they’re going after them, because they understand their social power. Look at the teachers union in Chicago, and something similar is bubbling up in Los Angeles as well. I think these kind of things are going to catch on. So, my take on what’s being called “social movement unionism,” is that it has to rest on the core of unions.

NW: I can definitely see that the continued power of the movement like Idle No More, to the north of us, and, in this state, the long struggle to shut down Vermont Yankee (the nuclear power plant), that these kinds of movements are greatly aided or they can be held back or hampered depending on whatever labor decides about these issues. I’m wondering, for activists working within unions and trying to organize and convince their locals or leadership beyond that we need to take up issues of the environment, LGBT rights, anti-racist work and so forth, what do we do in the face of an often recalcitrant leadership to make these alliances?

National Nurses United and environmentalists march on the Golden Gate Bridge on June 20, 2013 to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. (Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle)

KM: I think you actually answered your own question! The unions have to make these issues into bargaining issues and not just issues they make statements on or do lobbying on. A lot of these issues of racism, sexism, issues of sexual preference, etc., these are things that unions can do something about (and some do).

One of the things that we used to say a lot at Labor Notes is that, “in broadening the labor movement, we also want to broaden the bargaining agenda.” I found it really interesting what the Chicago Teachers Union were talking about. They said “we’re not allowed to bargain around not closing the fifty schools that the city wants to close, but we will bring it up during the bargaining session, and maybe we won’t win it right now, but it’s not just something we put out there in the streets in hopes that somebody will respond, it’s something that we’ll put on the table.” So I think that’s part of the answer.

Unions finally, after decades of not dealing with things like race, began to deal with that. They have a long way to go, of course, and sometimes you do have a contradiction. This is fairly clear in environmental issues like the whole thing with the pipeline and the unions that are backing that because “it will bring jobs” and all that. If we don’t have a labor movement that can find ways and force governments to provide alternative types of jobs and so forth, it’s going to be hard to do that, but that’s what we have to try to do, it seems to me, as well as making unions part of coalitions that are fighting on environmental or issues of race, gender, and so on.

After UAW Defeat at VW, Finding a Way Forward

by Ronald Lare

March 14, 2014

Last month, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election was held in Chattanooga, Tennessee to determine whether the United Auto Workers (UAW) would represent over 1,500 Volkswagen workers in the three year old Volkswagen Chattanooga Assembly Plant.

The UAW lost the election, 712-626, after campaigning for a “works council” labor-management partnership model, which would legally require union representation. The union that represents Volkswagen workers in Germany, IG Metall, was very supportive of the “works council” concept and pressured the company to express their own support for the partnership and union vote. So, what went wrong?

Most of the analysis that’s been produced regarding the UAW organizing defeat at Volkswagen has focused on two factors:

  1. Republican politicians and PACs (money from “Political Action Committees”) defeated the UAW. The official union account emphasizes their impact on the election.
  2. The UAW’s own record of concessions to the “Big 3” (Ford, GM, and Chrysler) led to the defeat. Many on the left emphasize this record, arguing that it revealed a union that could no longer effectively fight for its own members.

Thus, there is much focus on the battle as “the UAW vs. Republicans” and “the UAW vs. the UAW’s own record.” Republicans did fight against the UAW with weapons including the racism that Martha Grevatt cites. And the UAW is at its weakest point in history–I agree with writers such as Gregg Shotwell, UAW-GM retired (author of “Autoworkers under the Gun”), and Katy Fox-Hodess, member of UAW Local 2865, on the role of the UAW’s weaknesses in this loss and I’ve seen those weaknesses up close in my 35 years as a UAW member at the Ford Rouge plant. I’m retired now, but still get phone calls, text messages, and e-mails from angry fellow local union members almost daily.

Unless we end two-tier wages and benefits, to name the most impactful concessions the UAW has made, the UAW is not going to organize much. As Fox-Hodess writes, “Now is the time to send a strong signal that the union is ready to strike next year to reverse concessions if necessary.”

However, I want to focus on going beyond both the “UAW vs. GOP” and “UAW vs. UAW” analyses. They can both lead to defeatist conclusions.

If Republican politicians alone can beat both a supposedly “pro-union” company–Volkswagen–that is “united” with a union–the UAW–then workers will think there’s no way to win. On the other hand, if the UAW’s record has zero attraction for workers, it’s finished. And neither theory squares well with the 47% “yes” vote.

I’d like to explore an additional possibility: it’s not so much that Republicans or the UAW’s own record defeated the UAW, as it is that Volkswagen beat the UAW. That’s the way socialists traditionally approach things: bosses vs. workers, capital vs. labor.

The neutrality agreement between Volkswagen and the UAW strikes me as the “neutrality” of the motionless person on the floor with an opponent’s foot on her or his neck: “Look, these two aren’t fighting any more, both must be neutral.” However, that the UAW agreed to a phony “neutrality” on Volkswagen’s part does not mean that the UAW didn’t lose to Volkswagen. Just because you didn’t fight your opponents doesn’t mean you didn’t lose to them.

When I was organizing as part of a UE (United Electrical Workers) drive in the 1970s, we took the position of the company to be exactly what we saw with our own eyes every day on the shop floor.
What did the Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga see every day on the shop floor?

Mike Elk’s investigation of the defeat in Labor Notes carries reports from union activists inside the Volkswagen plant. (Elk’s mother worked in the Pennsylvania Volkswagen plant that closed in 1988 when the company expanded operations in Puebla, Mexico.) In the print edition of Elk’s Labor Notes article (based on one that appeared online in In These Times), one Volkswagen worker told Elk how “low-level supervisors and salaried employees–who were not eligible for the union–ignored the directive and actively opposed the drive.”

Another Volkswagen worker explains, “The salaried people from [Volkswagen’s research and development center] stood out front every day this past week with [anti-UAW] shirts on, and I truly believe they swayed the votes their way.” That means there was no neutrality agreement on Volkswagen’s shop floor, no matter how much UAW Solidarity House fell for the bait-and-switch, and despite the NY Times’ acceptance of what the Big Names at Volkswagen and the UAW said, that “Volkswagen did not even oppose the unionization drive.” But the shop floor was more important to the outcome than the top floor.

The UAW agreed not to make home visits to workers in the Volkswagen drive. In the UE organizing drive that I mentioned above, our home visits to fellow workers were much of what we did. We made home visits in three languages with workers from several countries. If you cede both the shop floor and the living room floor, your quest to sit on the top floor in a works council is likely to fail.

In the UE drive, when our electronic components factory management broke the law, we called them out. We organized whatever shop floor resistance we could get away with prior to the vote. As far as we were concerned, we were a union fighting the boss even before the vote. We could slow down and “work to rule.” We could file NLRB charges. We could do these things because the UE didn’t pretend that the boss was “neutral.”

What would have happened if the UAW at Volkswagen had been what most workers look for in a union: a fight against the bosses wearing the “Vote No” t-shirts? Instead, the union gave that up on the basis of the assurances of “neutrality” that Bob King gets in phone calls to Germany.

I was asked recently at a meeting discussing the election result what the UAW could have done differently. I argued that the UAW should have turned all decisions over to the shop floor organizers and gotten out of the way. Workers can take over their own organizing drives. What’s left of the left should support them in that. In 2004, Georgetown, Kentucky Toyota workers who supported an independent weekly organizing flyer, “Outside Track,” contacted UAW-GM dissident Gregg Shotwell for support in their efforts to organize. In various places in the US, Latino and immigrant workers have gone on strike at non-unionized workplaces and only then called on a union to represent them–forcing unions to decide whether to support the organizing strike or be irrelevant.

I agree with writers including Sam Gindin (a former UAW and then Canadian Auto Workers official) who have called for left support for “minority unions” that declare their existence and represent workers as best they can and for as long as necessary before official elections for union representation.

UAW President Bob King (Christopher Aluka Berry, Reuters).

The UAW leadership lost sight of “them against us” not only on the shop floor, but in general ideological terms. At the same meeting discussing the UAW-Volkswagen result, a veteran UAW local office holder spoke. He said that another missing factor at Volkswagen and generally today is socialists and other radicals like those who were on shop floors in the 1930’s when the UAW was born. They are needed to spur and, in part, lead organizing drives by giving workers the big picture of labor versus capital and what lies down the road. Workers need to see the big picture regardless of the economy and culture of the moment. The UAW leadership is not going to preach socialism, but even a social democrat can tell workers that capitalism is in trouble. The Republicans as such didn’t take over the union movement–the neoliberals did.

To put this in more pragmatic language, socialists can smell a “good cop/bad cop” come-on like Volkswagen’s when a bureaucracy like the UAW can’t. This makes socialists the sharpest allies of street-wise shop-floor militants, whom the UAW leaders frown on in organized plants, and are thus unlikely to favor as leaders in unorganized ones.

This raises the question of whether the presence of socialists in the union movement is only tangentially, quite closely, or absolutely indispensably related to the success of the union movement. I believe it’s the latter of the three. I’d correlate the current situation of the UAW with the following observation.

When I hired in at Ford, I believe almost every co-worker in our local of tens of thousands was aware that they had known a socialist or communist in the local, regardless of their attitude toward such radicals. When I left 30 years later, there were extremely few workers who would make that statement.

Who were the cutting edges of the industrial union movement in the US in its heyday? Immigrants and socialists. Unions will be stronger when these diverse fighters are again a mass component of the shop floor leaderships in the US, as they still are in some other countries.

Ronald Lare is a former Executive Board member of UAW Local 600 (retired) and a member of Solidarity.

The New "TINA"?: NUMSA and its United Front

by Kate Doyle Griffiths-Dingani

March 13, 2014

“There is no alternative to discarding the theories and practices of capitalism, if we must save the Earth and its living systems. No amount of cosmetic reforms either in the centre of the global
capitalist system nor anywhere in its periphery can hide the most obvious fact today: at a time when humanity has the most profound knowledge and technology, the world capitalist system of private greed risks all our lives and the very Earth we live on.”

“The State of the Class Struggle in South Africa,” Statement from the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), March 2, 2014 (reproduced in full below)

Following the massacre of 34 striking miners at Marikana in August 2012, a political and organizational crisis erupted in COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) and the ANC-led Tripartite Alliance. The recent statement by NUMSA in response to Jacob Zuma’s widely criticized State of the Nation Address both reflects and deepens this dual crisis. NUMSA’s call for political independence from the ANC and a “United Front” toward a “Movement for Socialism” is a stinging indictment of the “leadership of the national liberation movement,” the South African capitalist class (black and white), and the “stalled” transition to democracy that has left the black working class of the country mired in unemployment, malnutrition, illness, discrimination and, often, hopelessness.

Members of NUMSA march in Durban, September 12, 2013 (Rogan Ward, Reuters).

The announcement is not merely “resolutionary socialism” or paper politics. If NUMSA can build connections among inchoate protesters, with new social movements, with restless and strike-ready workers across industries, and among existing trade unions, it has the opportunity to create the first nationally viable political opposition to the ANC. That it might do so on the basis of working-class and socialist politics represents a rumor and a hope that seemed incredible–in the sense of being beyond belief–to even the most optimistic forces on the South African left just two years ago.

Socialists have good reason to look on this development with interest and excitement. However, a close reading of NUMSA’s document elicits a note of caution. The authors place NUMSA as the standard-bearers of COSATU’s left wing–of lost revolutionary ideals sapped from the liberation struggle at the critical moment. Though it condemns the betrayal of the “property clauses” of the Freedom Charter by “ANC and SACP” leaders during the negotiated transition, the NUMSA statement doesn’t offer an explicit analysis of the causes of that betrayal. Nor does it consider the many subsequent moments in which various redistributive policies were abandoned and blocked in favor of policies that were more in line with Margaret Thatcher’s famous prophecy of a new neoliberal order, in which “there is no alternative” to privatization and free markets (an assertion later abbreviated as “TINA”).

General Secretary of NUMSA Irvin Jim explains why the union has decided to not campaign for the ANC in future elections.

But without a clear analysis of what factors lead to the betrayal and defeat of the South African working class of the early 1990’s, and the organizational, structural, and historical forces in play, NUMSA runs the risk of repeating that history. The focus on the redemption and resurrection of the ruined reputation of suspended COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi is merely one example of a top-down and personality-driven style of politics that mirrors the approach of the “old” (and the “new”) SACP.

The similarities and differences between Vavi’s recent scandal and President Jacob Zuma’s 2005 rape trial are instructive. In both cases, mainstream media and spokesmen for both “sides” have framed the issue as “he-said-she-said” and in terms of political opportunism. Zuma, of course, was ultimately acquitted of raping the HIV-positive daughter of a deceased friend, on the basis of “consent” (as determined by the court). Unlike Zuma’s accuser, the woman who initially raised rape charges against Vavi later recanted, while Vavi admitted to an extramarital affair with a subordinate whom he seems to have hired for the purpose of proximity.

In both cases, the charges prompted a vigorous defense of the accused, complete with the usual sexist tropes about gold-digging, lying, female honeypots, which have received few criticisms outside of the world of South Africa’s gender justice NGOs. It’s easy to see how Vavi’s supporters–and indeed Zuma’s–viewed the accusations as politically motivated. What is less often considered by either “side” are the implications of so many powerful South African men having sexual relationships that at the very least reek of quid pro quo and sexualized abuse of power, in a nation with with some of the world’s strongest legal protections for women and for workers.

If the new South African left is to differentiate itself from the old South African left, a deeper reconsideration of movement, organizational, and institutional democracy is needed. It must avoid the pitfall of stopping at a reactive defense against selective enforcement, which reinforces misogynist stereotypes about the female half of of South Africa’s working class. Musing over the causes of Marikana, Vavi himself condemned the inevitable results of a top-down model of union leadership that elevates officials above the rank and file, finding a “social gap” between union leaders and members central to the discontent that erupted in the platinum mines in 2012. “Every leader stays in the white suburbs,” he commented. “Their kids go to former model-C schools. When they are sick, they go to private hospitals.”

Wives and mothers of Marikana miners protest the presence of police (Agence France-Presse).

Will the context of a “united front” provide the space and opportunity for democratic practices workshopped in South Africa’s new social movements over the last several decades to influence NUMSA and the trade union movement? Partisans of working-class democracy in South Africa will pay close attention to this political challenge, particularly around the definition and deployment of “leadership.”

Vavi claimed that workers want “new heroes.” That much seems obvious. But what seemed less obvious two years ago was that South African workers already had them, in the form of 34 striking platinum miners who gave their lives fighting for dignified work and better pay, their families, and the thousands of activists who have taken up and extended their fight. They couldn’t have known that they would spark a fresh hope for South African democracy.

Kate Doyle Griffiths-Dingani is a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center and a member of Solidarity.

NUMSA members during a strike in Cape Town (Gallo Images).

The State of the Class Struggle in South Africa

Statement from the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), March 2, 2014

“People always have been the foolish victims of deception and self-deception in politics, and they always will be until they have learnt to seek out the interests of some class or other behind all moral, religious, political and social phrases, declarations and promises.”

— V.I. Lenin in “Three Sources and Three Component parts of Marxism,” March 1913.

“Nothing demonstrates better the increasing rigor of the colonial system: you begin by occupying the country, and then you take the land and exploit the former owners at starvation rates. Then with mechanization, this cheap labour is still too expensive. You finish up taking from the native their very right to work. All that is left for the Natives to do in their own land, at a time of great prosperity, is to die of starvation.”

— Jean Paul Sartre, 1964.

A. The world we live in today and our 20 years of “Democracy”

It is impossible to deny that the world has seen the most severe crisis of the global capitalist system. And, there is no end in sight, to this crisis.

More than anything else, what makes the current systemic and structural global crisis of capitalism more dangerous and frightening than in the past is the total intellectual, ideological, political and moral bankruptcy of the world capitalist leaders and their capitalist theorists: they have no answer to what increasingly appears to be the world’s relentless progression toward mass poverty, worldwide unemployment, growing extreme global inequalities within and between nations of the world, vicious and extremely violent civil and international wars, global warming, environmental destruction – all pointing to the eventual destruction of our Earth and all life on it.

The neoliberal “Washington Consensus” has been completely discredited and confirmed dead especially by the 2007/08 global financial capitalist crises.

There is no alternative to discarding the theories and practices of capitalism, if we must save the Earth and its living systems. No amount of cosmetic reforms either in the centre of the global capitalist system nor anywhere in its periphery can hide the most obvious fact today: at a time when humanity has the most profound knowledge and technology, the world capitalist system of private greed risks all our lives and the very Earth we live on.

Mankind today is faced with one choice: abandon the capitalist system or perish by it.

We at NUMSA have no illusion that only a total destruction of capitalism and all it represents can save the Earth and give birth to a new civilization, a new reordering of common and democratic ownership, production and consumption patterns along a higher human life and Earth respecting human civilization. Such a civilization is Socialism.

A.1. The South African “Democratic Transition” and squandered opportunity

We at NUMSA have taken the trouble of reading the South African economic and political history, ultimately focusing on the imported capitalist revolution in the 20th century and our “negotiated settlement,” and their impact on the South Africa we live in today.

We have come to the following conclusions, very well captured in our policy papers and resolutions of our December 2013 National Special Congress, also found in the SACP “Path to Power” document of 1989:

  • The South African capitalist state did not emerge as a result of an internal popular anti-feudal revolution. It was imposed from above and from without.
  • From its birth through to the present, South African capitalism has depended heavily on the imperialist centers.
  • Capital from Europe financed the opening of the mines. It was the colonial state that provided the resources to build the basic infrastructure – railways, roads, harbours, posts and telegraphs.
  • It was an imperial army of occupation that created the conditions for political unification. And it was within a colonial setting that the emerging South African capitalist class entrenched and extended the racially exclusive system to increase its opportunities for profit.
  • The racial division of labour, the battery of racist laws and political exclusiveness guaranteed this. From these origins a pattern of domination, which arose in the period of external colonialism, was carried over into the newly formed Union of South Africa. From its origins to the present, this form of domination has been maintained under changing conditions and by varying mechanisms.
  • In all essential respects, however, the colonial status of the black majority has remained in place. Therefore we characterize our society as “colonialism of a special type.”

The 1994 “democratic transition” was supposed to lay a foundation for destroying “colonialism of a special type” in South Africa, a form of colonialism characterized by the existence side by side, of the colonial subjects and the local agents of colonialism and imperialism in the same geo-economic and political space.

Today, 20 years after the “democratic transition” nothing best confirms the fact that in all essential respects, however, the colonial status of the black majority has remained in place than of the 26 million South Africans who live in abject poverty, 25 million are Africans.

Further, all economic policies since 1994 have been incapable of defeating “colonialism of a special type” and the effects of Apartheid capitalism, which condemned the South African black working-class to a life of misery and hardship.

The South African government’s own 2011 census so well captures this ugly fact, the fact of the continuing colonial lives of millions of Black and African South Africans, post 1994.

Any shallow class analysis of the “negotiated settlement” in South Africa easily reveals the most obvious fact: the “negotiated settlement” was secured on the basis of abandoning the Freedom Charter and the land and property claims of the “natives.”

These devices of protecting white property rights in the “1996 negotiated constitution” effectively guaranteed white property rights and therefore, white economic dominance, and the logical and inevitable continuation of imperialist economic and political domination of South Africa.

A.2. The Freedom Charter and the Negotiated Settlement

At NUMSA we are convinced that the abandonment of the property clauses of the Freedom Charter by the ANC and the SACP formed the basis for the “democratic transition.”

We now know that while COSATU was busy putting together the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), ANC and SACP negotiators, together with representatives of South African white monopoly capitalism and their imperialist counterparts were busy stitching together a neoliberal post-Apartheid South Africa.

We are not surprised, therefore, that the RDP was quickly discarded in favour of GEAR, which has now formally become the National Development Plan (NDP).

It was inevitable that in 2012, in the ANC Mangaung Conference, GEAR mutated into the neoliberal National Development Plan, and, in the ANC, the matter of expropriating land and the commanding heights of the economy without compensation was formally buried. Effectively too, was buried any prospects of a worker friendly “National Democratic Revolution” and all hope of a seamless transition to a Socialist Republic of South Africa.

Today in South Africa, black and African poor people must wait for the profits to grow of white people and their sprinkling of a tiny filthy rich black and African middle class for any changes in their mass poverty and widespread unemployment.

It is this cruel reality, post 1994, and 20 years into our “democracy,” which caused NUMSA to hold its historic 2013 Special National Congress, and to take the resolutions it did, prominent among which is the recognition that the ANC led Alliance no longer serves any revolutionary purpose in South Africa today.

A.3. The State of the South African black and African working-class

At NUMSA we are, following the class analysis above, not surprised that in all black and African communities there is a state of restlessness, there are widespread protests now increasingly turning violent, against the bitter and cruel conditions of life in these communities.

We are not surprised that 20 years after the negotiated settlement, very little real wealth has been redistributed and as a result, education, housing, water services, sanitation, electricity, distance from quality social and economic productive activities and so on continue to be disastrous problems for black and African people of this country.

We are not surprised that South Africa, post 1994, has become the most unequal and socially violent place on Earth today.

We are not surprised that the white population continues to dominate in the economy, society and culture, today.

It is against this background that we examine the President of South Africa’s State of the Nation Address of 2014, and the ANC government 2014 Budget Speech. Further, we examine the election promises using this background.

We in NUMSA understand the crisis in COSATU as simply a reflection of the on-going class struggles in the wider South African society in general and inside the ANC led alliance in particular.

B. State of the Nation Address (SoNA)

There is nothing in the State of the Nation Address that even remotely indicates that the ANC and its government are embarked upon a “radical transition” for full social justice in South Africa.

Nor does anything in the SoNA remotely signal the fact that the ANC is worried that virtually ALL Black and African communities, 20 years into democracy, are at war inside themselves!

While the SoNA correctly recognizes the ongoing extreme burden of unemployment, mass poverty and extreme inequalities, the SoNA simply treats all these as products of the failure of the South African economy to grow fast enough post 1994, and on the global crisis of capitalism.

The SoNA lamentably fails to locate the real roots and causes of the South African crisis of unemployment, poverty and extreme inequalities – the ongoing economic and social domination of South Africa by white capital and its black and imperialist surrogates.

The SoNA celebrates liberal democracy in South Africa without any shame at the exclusion of more than 25 million South Africans from this system that is black and African.

We see that the 2014 Budget Speech takes its cue from the SoNA, and also wastes time singing praises of the neoliberalism of the past 20 years.

C. ANC’s Elections Manifestos: a look at the ANC’s 2014 Vision

In 2004, the ANC launched its “Vision 2014.” The 2004 Manifesto was framed within this vision. We have now reached 2014, and the ANC has produced another Manifesto and yet another vision, which is now called “Vision 2030.” It is therefore propitious that we evaluate the ANC’s performance in relation to its “Vision 2014” and in relation to its subsequent Manifestos.

In its 2004 Message from the President, the ANC called for “A People’s Contract to Create Work and Fight Poverty.”

The combination of some of the most important targets and objectives making up Vision 2014 [summarized in italics below], together with our findings [below sections in italics], are as follows:

Reduce unemployment by half through new jobs, skills development, assistance to small businesses, opportunities for self-employment and sustainable community livelihoods.

Today, unemployment has in fact increased beyond the 2004 levels, self-employment has dwindled, and, more dangerously, Black and African communities are reeling from violent crimes and daily violent protests!

Reduce poverty by half through economic development, comprehensive social security, land reform and improved household and community assets.

Precisely because unemployment has in fact increased beyond the 2004 levels, we see today that more than 26 million South Africans are classified as extremely poor!

Provide the skills required by the economy, build capacity and provide resources across society to encourage self-employment with an education system that is geared for productive work, good citizenship and a caring society.

Marikana sums it all: the bulk of the population remains poorly educated, unskilled, living in abject poverty and in a very uncaring society. Today we are being conditioned to accept that every community protest will lead to deaths of some protesters!

Ensure that all South Africans, including especially the poor and those at risk – children, youth, women, the aged, and people with disabilities – are fully able to exercise their constitutional rights and enjoy the full dignity of freedom.

Violent crime and crimes against women and children are still intolerably high. An African child in South Africa today is many times more likely to be born in a poor household than before 2004.

Compassionate government service to the people; national, provincial and local public representatives who are accessible; and citizens who know their rights and insist on fair treatment and efficient service.

Again, the Marikana massacre speaks volumes about where we are. It is an open secret that the system of local government has collapsed, with very few of them having clean audits. So-called service delivery protests are the order of the day everywhere in the country. South Africa in fact leads in the number of violent community protests in the world today.

Massively reduce cases of TB, diabetes, malnutrition and maternal deaths, and turn the tide against HIV and AIDS, and, working with the rest of Southern Africa, strive to eliminate malaria, and improve services to achieve a better national health profile and reduction of preventable causes of death, including violent crime and road accidents.

While there have been some improvements in these variables, the quality, levels and efficiencies in the health system, especially the public health system, are pathetic. TB cases have actually increased.

Significantly reduce the number of serious and priority crimes as well as cases awaiting trial, with a society that actively challenges crime and corruption, and with programmes that also address the social roots of criminality.

Unemployment is globally recognized as a “significant contributor” to all crimes, including violent ones.

The fact that unemployment has in fact increased since 2004 is experienced by black and African communities through the high incidence of violent crimes, today with an increasing incidence of extreme forms of violence even among teenagers.

The failure to implement the property clauses of the Freedom Charter is the most profound root cause of violent crime in South Africa, in our opinion.

Position South Africa strategically as an effective force in global relations, with vibrant and balanced trade and other relations with countries of the South and the North, and in an Africa that is growing, prospering and benefiting all Africans, especially the poor.

The xenophobia that has engulfed post 1994 South Africa is the best test of just how badly positioned South Africa is globally, especially in the South. None of the rhetoric on balanced trade and other relations have materialized precisely because the ANC government has no real economic levers, because it has not implemented the property clauses of the Freedom Charter.

D. The ANC 2014 Budget speech

NUMSA has carried out the only comprehensive and detailed class analysis of the National Development Plan (NDP). Our conclusions are that the NDP is simply GEAR dressed up as a populist document.

Not only does the NDP fail to tackle the economic and social structural and systemic foundations of South African colonial economy and society, it quite pathetically promises wholly unrealistic and totally unachievable goals, just like its father – GEAR.

NUMSA has consistently argued that South African National Treasury Department has been post 1994, the home and custodian of neoliberalism in the South African government.

Pravin Gordan’s 2014 Budget Speech announces that it locates the 2014 medium term budget in the NDP.

Like the SoNA, the 2014 Budget is littered with some self-praise, and the false promise of jobs, more housing, more water, more social security, better health and so on, all of them to be done within the NDP framework.

It is impossible to ignore Lenin’s words in 1913:

“People always have been the foolish victims of deception and self-deception in politics, and they always will be until they have learnt to seek out the interests of some class or other behind all moral, religious, political and social phrases, declarations and promises.”

The sweet coated promises contained in this Budget, including the pathetic increases on the social grants do not succeed to hide the fact that this is a budget designed to please South African white capital and its local agents and imperialism and their rating agents.

There is nothing in this budget which signals a “radical transition.” This is why the bosses and their political formations have received it very well.

A most blatant betrayal of the Black and African working-class is the bribery to white and black capital the budget gives in the form of the Youth Employment Incentive Tax. This has been done without exhausting the NEDLAC process and actually by contemptuously bypassing NEDLAC.

Rather than abolition the colonial and apartheid wage as demanded in the Freedom Charter, the budget instead bribes capital with free money, to divide the working-class!

This budget, more than anything else, confirms the rightwing shift in the ANC/SACP government.

E. The crisis in COSATU

We understand COSATU’s launching principles and values as being the following:

  • COSATU is a worker controlled and democratic trade union federation.
  • COSATU is a Revolutionary Socialist Federation.
  • COSATU is an anti-imperialist federation; it fights against foreign capitalist domination.
  • COSATU rejects all forms of cultural, male chauvinist and racist prejudices.
  • COSATU is a militant federation.
  • It is a transformative federation.
  • COSATU is a champion of working-class democracy.
  • COSATU believes in working-class power, and advocates worker control not only of the progressive trade union movement, but of society as well.
  • COSATU believes in the revolutionary power and unity of the working-class, which is why it champions the formation of one union in one industry and one federation in one country.

In our opinion, it is these values and their articulation, which is at issue in COSATU today.

On one hand, there are those among COSATU leaders who see a COSATU guided by the values above as a threat to their potential careers in the ANC or its government. These leaders have long abandoned Socialism and are only paying lip service to the struggle for Socialism.

On the other hand, there are those leaders such as in NUMSA and the affiliates NUMSA is working with, who are determined to defend and advance the ideals for which COSATU was founded, including defending a Socialist COSATU.

Given the abandonment of a radical NDR by the ANC and the cooptation of the SACP into the ANC and its government, it is inevitable that COSATU must be plunged into a crisis by the fight to the death between these two class positions in COSATU – one for a COSATU that simply transmits the wishes of the rightwing ANC nationalists among the working-class and the other which wants to fight for a COSATU with its original values.

NUMSA has thus become the “enemy within” among the COSATU leadership clique that is embedded in the ANC and SACP. It so happens that this clique is numerically strong in the CEC of COSATU.

This pro-rightwing ANC and SACP clique in COSATU wants to engineer the expulsion of NUMSA from COSATU. It has already engineered first the paralysis, and later the suspension of the General Secretary of COSATU, Zwelinzima Vavi.

This rightwing clique ignores the COSATU Constitution at will. It has refused to abide by the COSATU Constitution that demands that when a third of COSATU affiliates demand the convening of COSATU Special Congress, the President of COSATU must convene such a Congress or be replaced by a convener.

This rightwing clique, knowing very well that its positions have no mandates from its own members, is very scared of a Special National Congress because it knows the Special National Congress, besides exposing this rightwing, may also trigger leadership removals in their unions.

NUMSA’s positions are very clear and quite simple:

  • Zwelinzima Vavi’s unconstitutional public humiliation, harassment and suspension must be lifted immediately.
  • All mischievous and unconstitutional efforts to frustrate and expel NUMSA from COSATU must stop forthwith.
  • A COSATU Special Congress as requested by the appropriate number of unions must be convened immediately, to resolve all the causes of the crisis in COSATU.
  • NUMSA will do everything possible to achieve these objectives, including using the courts to stop the violations of the COSATU Constitution.
  • NUMSA is calling upon all members of COSATU affiliates to defend their federation from being swallowed into the ANC/SACP rightwing camp.

In the meantime, NUMSA continues to run with its section 77 campaigns.

F. Progress on the United Front and the Movement for Socialism

In order to understand NUMSA, especially in order to understand our resolutions on the United Front and Movement for Socialism, one has to understand what NUMSA is first.

NUMSA is a revolutionary formation, a red trade union, playing a leading role in the struggle to defeat capitalism and the exploitation that is associated with it. In that role we are unashamedly Marxist-Leninist, rooting ourselves in the traditions of Marx and Lenin. So we defy the boundaries between nations that are set up to divide workers as we proclaim ourselves as proletarian internationalists. That tradition also gives us democratic centralism, that combination of robust, vigorous and democratic debate with the discipline of marching together when we have made a decision. That combination makes us what we are proud to be – a red union.

The leadership of the national liberation movement as a whole has failed to lead a consistent radical democratic process to resolve the national, gender, and class questions post 1994. This leadership is predominantly drawn from the Black and African capitalist class; it kowtows to the dictates of white monopoly capitalist and imperialist interests. It is nothing more than parasitic and crony capitalists.

It is half-hearted and extremely inconsistent in the pursuit of a radical democratic programme and has completely abandoned the Freedom Charter.

It is these circumstances, combined with the worsening situation of the South African working-class as a whole post 1994, which has lead NUMSA to rethink and revisit its relationship with the ANC and its Alliance.

Work is well underway to mobilize the working-class in all their formations, into a United Front for the radical implementation of the Freedom Charter and against neoliberalism.

During our January NUMSA Marxist-Leninist Political School we met with the leaders of some of the social movements and community structures, to begin the process of mapping out how we will work together.

In order to reach out far and wide, NUMSA shall convene Provincial and National consultative meetings to share the content of our resolutions on the United Front and Movement for Socialism.

We are happy to note that many social movement organizations and community organizations are joining us in our Section 77 campaigns starting with a national strike on 19th March 2014.

During the course of this year, work will be done to assess the state of the world socialist movement and its formations, to inform our work toward the Movement for Socialism. The NUMSA Marxist-Leninist School in the first week of April 2014 shall receive representatives of Workers and Communist Parties from countries such as Brazil, Greece and Venezuela to share experiences and to lay the basis for our international research.

G. Engineering and Eskom negotiations in 2014 – The NUMSA
National Bargaining Conference (NBC)

As always, NUMSA has begun our Ear to the Ground Campaign in workplace general meetings to listen to the aspirations of NUMSA members with respect to collective bargaining demands in the Engineering industry and Eskom.

In collecting these demands our key and strategic objective is to improve the benefits and conditions of employment. The demands from the 9 NUMSA Regions shall be consolidated and tabled for discussion in our NUMSA National Bargaining Conference scheduled for 10-12 March 2014 in Saint Georges Hotel, Centurion.

Without pre-empting anything, we must be upfront that we are preparing for the mother of all battles as we shall champion the struggle for a living wage for workers in the Engineering Industry and Eskom in particular.

The union will use this round of negotiations not only for wages but also take up a very important campaign of defending existing jobs and to fight for more jobs. In extending our work beyond the factories, NUMSA shall on the 19th of March 2014 embark on a national strike to demand the scrapping of the employment tax incentive act or the so called youth wage subsidy. We shall do so in defense of existing jobs as we have reason to believe that the current spate of retrenchments notices across various sectors are directly linked to this stupid incentive scheme.

We refuse that the working-class of SA must be forced to pay for the global crisis of capitalism.

That is why we are calling on the mining bosses and government to quickly resolve the current strike in the platinum belt. It has become abundantly clear there is a joint pack between government and mining capital to destroy union activity outside of the NUM.

With respect to Eskom, NUMSA shall not rest until workers at Eskom receive a fair increase. We view the arbitration award that imposed 5.6 per cent as an insult that constitute a wage freeze.

We do need equity of pay. Currently white workers sit at the top of their pay grades while many black workers still languish at the bottom of their grades.

We can no longer tolerate Eskom and Government hiding behind the skirt of Nersa to justify paying lip service to a negotiation process where the power (the only power) of workers to withhold their labour is removed.

We are calling on all workers at Eskom to unite behind their legitimate right to demand a living wage if in these round of negotiations Eskom management doesn’t move swiftly to make a real offer that will settle workers’ demands and hide behind essential service but pay workers peanuts, they would have to take full responsibility for a load shedding that would come as a result of workers insisting that their demands must be met.

Eskom now has a shareholder compact with government, but it does not call for fair wages rather it focuses on profit targets. Profit targeting means Eskom is under pressure to moderate wages.

Our members are victims of high standards of living as a result of administered prices that continue to rise and affecting negatively their basket of food and all aspects of their lives.

They continue to receive low wages as there is no National Minimum Wage that can guarantee them a living wage.

Workers are taking loans from loan sharks in-order to make a living.

There is poverty with virtually no assistance from the employers.

Unemployment, which makes those who are working to support those not working, imposes a heavy burden on our members as a result of the triple crises: poverty, unemployment and inequalities.

It is our members who are the victims of privatization and commodification of basic needs/services.

H. What is to be done?

As Lenin so well said, in 1913:

“People always have been the foolish victims of deception and self-deception in politics, and they always will be until they have learnt to seek out the interests of some class or other behind all moral, religious, political and social phrases, declarations and promises.”

Twenty years into our “democracy,” we the Black and African South African working-class are sick and tired of listening to the same stories about us having to wait for the rich to grow their profits for us to see some minor improvements in our lives.

The working-class can only be defeated because it is not united. United, no force on Earth can defeat us.

As immediate tasks, we state the following:

  • NUMSA is calling all South African workers, Black and White and African, to join us in our United Front to demand the immediate and radical implementation of the Freedom Charter as the only basis for a truly democratic South Africa and in our fight against all neoliberal manifestations.
  • We are calling on all members of affiliates of COSATU to demand that their national leaders explain where they stand today, on the ongoing crisis in COSATU.
  • We call on all members of affiliates of COSATU to stand up and defend their federation from the vultures who want to turn it into a toy telephone of the ANC and the SACP.
  • We call on all mineworkers to stand together, united against the mine bosses and the government who are both fighting mining workers in their just struggle for a living wage.
  • As NUMSA, we fully support the just demands for a living wage for the mineworkers. We remain convinced, however, that with the increasing marriage between the ANC and its government and the mine bosses and shareholders, no just wage will be secured by mine workers.

We therefore call upon all workers to intensify the struggle to nationalize South African wealth, including the mines and land.

Our consistent Marxist-Leninist inspired class analysis of the world and South Africa today informs us that we have no option but to fight to the bitter end, for a Socialist world and Socialist South Africa.