Why the Working Class and the Rank & File Strategy

Donna Cartwright

December 5, 2019

Labor Notes: Workers’ Struggles 2017 (photos: James Leder; Susan Ruggles (CC BY 2.0) bit.ly/DiaSinInmigrantes; SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana; Dan DiMaggio)

At the Boston DSA/Solidarity Socialist Day School in September, the centrality of the working class to the fight for socialism was the topic of the second panel of the day. [Listen to it HERE]

Bhaskar Sunkara of Jacobin magazine was first up; he stressed that only the working class has the social power to seriously challenge capitalism both inside and outside the workplace. Next, Solidarity member John Fitzgerald, a public school teacher and activist in the Massachusetts Teachers Association and Educators for a Democratic Union, discussed the rank and file strategy as a way to end the isolation of socialists and socialist organizations from the day to day struggles of the organized sectors of the working class. This approach is key to reviving socialist consciousness in the working class and building a revolutionary socialist workers’ movement in the U.S.

Karin Baker, also a Massachusetts teacher and member of Solidarity and DSA, talked about “what the rank and file strategy is like when you’re doing it,” including a successful statewide campaign to replace a top-down, service oriented bureaucratic union leadership with reformers who were willing to fight back and who went on to organize against and defeat an anti-union ballot initiative. Laura Gabby, a member of the Carpenters Union in NYC, joined the DSA, along with other progressive members of her local, and campaigned to defend the union hiring hall and challenge unsafe working conditions.

Listening to them brought me to reflect on my own experience as a longtime activist in the NewsGuild; I shared some of that in the Q&A section of the workshop.

I spent 30 years of my life implementing the rank & file strategy even before it had that name, starting when the International Socialists (I.S.) was founded in 1969. I believed in it then and I believe in it now.

I believe that for socialists who want to influence the working class, the best way to do that is to work with and to work in the working class. I felt and still feel that belief is borne out in my own experience.

But there’s a pitfall for socialists in the workplace, when we get immersed in union activity and union agitation, and tend to get tunnel vision about unions, that everything is about unions. We have to remember that unions are an adaptive response of the working class to capitalism. We wind up with a kind of equilibrium with capitalism, in which we build worker power and make gains, and yet in the larger sense we are always losing ground.

Very often the conversations we have in the workplace don’t go any farther than — we need better, stronger, more militant, more democratic unions. That’s all true, but not sufficient. The operative part of the rank and file strategy is to rebuild the socialist and communist layer in the working class, the militant minority, that had been crushed and driven out of the workplace in the 1940’s and 1950’s. That goal requires that we go beyond militant unionism, and have those “last-mile” conversations — how we’re about something more than unionism; we’re about a new world, a different world.

And very often in my experience that was the conversation we never got to. It seemed that people were not receptive, and this was just a little bit too much for the present moment. At least in large part, our failure to have those conversations had to do with the lingering conservatism of post-World War II America, where socialism was a word that was rarely uttered outside of college campuses and small leftist groups.

Nevertheless, I am now much more optimistic about the possibility of bringing those ideas into the workplace and into unions. In the last few years, a critical attitude toward capitalism is much more widespread than it was during my working life, and socialism is not such a strange, alien idea. Now may be the time that so many of us waited for, for so long.

Donna Cartwright is a member of Solidarity and of DSA in Baltimore.

Disablement, Oppression, and Political Economy

Marta Russell

It is often claimed that disabled persons are invisible, disregarded by mainstream society, and irrelevant to the workings of society. This analysis has attempted to explain that the “unemployables” have been deliberately shut out of the labor force due to a capitalist economy that so far has dictated their exclusion by measure of economic calculations that favor the business class. It further posits that disabled persons are further oppressed in capitalist societies by having been purposely shifted onto social welfare or segregated into institutions for similar reasons – to keep workers who could not be profitably employed out of the mainstream workforce but also to exert social control over the entire labor supply.

Karl Marx explains that capitalism is a system of “forced labor – no matter how much it may seem to result from free contractual agreement.”1 It is coercion because capitalists own the means of production and laborers do not. Without ownership of factories and other means of production, workers lack their own access to the means of making a livelihood. By this very fact, workers are compelled to sell their labor to capitalists for a wage because the alternative is homelessness or starvation or both. Deborah Stone in The Disabled State convincingly argues that in order to restructure the workforce for the demands of early capitalist production, it was first necessary to eradicate all viable alternatives to wage labor for the mass population.

Labor is a resource to be manipulated like capital and land. Stone writes, “The disability concept was essential to the development of an exploitable workforce in early capitalism and remains indispensable as an instrument of the state in controlling labor supply.”2

Class Interests Regulating the Labor Supply in Disability Policy

Regulating the composition of the labor force through social policy became key to ensuring an ongoing exploitable labor supply. Disability became an important boundary category through which persons were allocated to either the work-based or needs-based system of distribution. In the United States, disability came to be defined explicitly in relation to the labor market. For instance, in some workers’ compensation statutes, a laborer’s body is rated by impairment according to its functioning parts.3 In Social Security law, disabled means medically unable to engage in work activity.4
Our institutions (particularly medical and social welfare institutions) have historically held disablement to be an individual problem, not the result of economic or social forces.5 They have equated disability with physiological, anatomical, or mental “defects” and hegemonically held these conditions responsible for the disabled person’s lack of full participation in the economic life of our society. This approach presumed a biological inferiority of disabled persons.6 Pathologizing characteristics such as blindness, deafness, and physical and mental impairments that have naturally appeared in the human race throughout history became a means of social control that has relegated disabled persons to isolation and exclusion from society.7 By placing the focus on curing the so-called abnormality and segregating the incurables into the administrative category of disabled, medicine bolstered the capitalist business interest to shove less exploitable workers with impairments out of the workforce.

This exclusion was rationalized by Social Darwinists, who used biology to argue that heredity (race and disability status) prevailed over the class and economic issues raised by Marx and others. Just as the inferior weren’t meant to survive in nature, they weren’t meant to survive in a competitive society. For 19th century tycoons, Social Darwinism proved a marvelous rationale for leaving the surplus population to die in poverty. Capitalism set up production dynamics that devalued less exploitable or nonexploitable bodies, and Social Darwinism theorized their disposability. If it was natural that disabled persons were not to survive, then the capitalist class was off the hook to design a more equitable economic system – one that would accommodate the body that did not conform to the standard worker body driven to labor for owning-class profit.

Social analysts describe the disability needs-based system as a privilege because “as an administrative category, it carries with it permission to be exempt from the work-based system.”8 In conservative terms, disability can be described “an essential part of the moral economy.”9 In the public debate over redistribution of societal resources, public assistance is viewed as legitimate for those deemed unable to work, but the disabled individuals on public benefits under U.S. capitalism do not have any objective right to a decent standard of living, even with privileged status, nor is the definition of disability etched in stone. As Stone pointed out, the definition of disability is flexible; the state (which evaluates disability status) controls the labor supply by expanding or contracting the numbers of persons who qualify as disabled, often for political and economic reasons.10

Neither privilege nor morality theories adequately describe the function of the needs-based system. A political economy analyst would ask what role do public disability benefits play to further the machinations of production and wealth accumulation?

The vast majority of those on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), the deserving workers involuntarily severed from their wages, are not privileged. They are financially oppressed by less than adequate aid. Public disability benefits hover at what is determined an official poverty level. In 2000, the Department of Health and Human Services set the poverty threshold for one at $8,350. Because $759 was the average per month benefit that a disabled worker received from SSDI and $373 was the average federal income for the needs-based Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the annual income of more than 10 million disabled persons on these programs was between $4,000 and $10,000 that year. The extremely low SSI benefit was set up for those with no work history or not enough quarters of work to qualify for SSDI: the least valued disabled members of society.

It would not accurately describe the depth of poverty faced by those on disability benefits, however, without explaining that the current system of measuring poverty dates back to the 1960s. Government has never adjusted the equation to take into account the sharp rise in housing, medical care, and child-care costs of the following decades that have altered the average household’s economic picture. The Urban Institute concluded that in order to be comparable to the original threshold, the poverty level would have to be at least 50% higher than the current official standard. If basic needs were refigured to the modern market, almost a quarter of the American people would be deemed to be living in poverty.11

Most important, public policy that equates disablement with poverty means that becoming disabled (a nonworker) translates into a life of financial hardship, whether one has public insurance or not, and generates a very realistic fear in workers of becoming disabled. At base, the inadequate safety net is a product of the owning class’s fear of losing control of the means of production. The all-encompassing value placed on work is necessary to produce wealth. The American work ethic is a mechanism of social control that ensures capitalists of a reliable work force for making profits. If workers were provided with a federal social safety net that adequately protected them through unemployment, sickness, disability, and old age, then business would have less control over the workforce because labor would gain a stronger position from which to negotiate their conditions of employment, such as fair wages and safe working conditions. American business retains its power over the working class through a fear of destitution that would be weakened if the safety net were to actually become safe. This, in turn, causes oppression for the less valued nonworking disabled members of our society; those who do not provide a body to support profit making (for whatever reason) are relegated to economic hardship or institutionalized to shore up the capitalist system.12 Nursing homes, for instance, have commodified disabled bodies so that the least productive can be made of use to the economic order.

A materialist analysis suggests that capitalism has created a powerful class of persons dependent upon the productive labor of some and the exclusion of others. Business owners and Wall Street investors rely on the preservation of the status quo labor system (not having to absorb the nonstandard costs disabled workers represent in the current mode of production or the reserve army of unemployed).[…] The US work-based/needs-based system is a socially legitimized means by which business and investors can economically discriminate and “morally” shift the cost of disabled workers onto poverty-based government benefit programs rather than be required to hire or retain the unemployables as members of the mainstream workforce.

Consequently, disabled individuals currently not in the workforce collecting SSDI or SSI who could work with an accommodation are not tallied into employers’ cost of doing business. Employers do not pay direct premiums for Social Security disability programs. (The cost of direct government and private payments to support disabled persons of employable age who do not have a job is estimated to be $232-billion annually). Instead, disabled persons have no right to a job. Civil rights laws do not intervene in the labor market to mandate employment of disabled persons (not even to adhere to affirmative action, much less to a quota system like Germany’s); rather, these costs are shifted onto the shoulders of the working class and the low middle class who pay the majority of Social Security taxes while business and our economic system is absolved of responsibility. This analysis is not suggesting that benefits be dissolved; employment discrimination is related to reliance on public aid because those who experience labor market discrimination are also more likely to need public assistance.13 It does suggest that capitalism is a system that forces nondisabled persons into the labor market but also just as forcefully coerces many disabled persons out. Oppression occurs in either case.

Lingering Questions

A Marxian analysis demonstrates that the employment predicament of disabled persons is produced by the economic and social forces of capitalism. The mode of production is key to explaining the organization of society, to preserving existing class relations of production. It is neither arbitrary nor irrational that disabled persons have been excluded from education, transportation, and other social spheres. Rather, it is logical that such a state of affairs would exist as long as disabled persons have little value as workers to the capitalist class.

The civil rights model holds that disabled persons need the protections afforded by the ADA to help shrink the pervasive gaps that still exist between them and nondisabled Americans. This equal opportunity approach, however, assumes that the employment needs of disabled people can be solved under our present economic system.[…] The economy dictates that large numbers of the disabled population will be left jobless or working at subminimum wages regardless of disability civil rights laws. Is this acceptable? Is the disability rights movement’s goal only to see that some, not even all, disabled persons are “free” to be boldly exploited like everyone else?

Liberalism presumes a free, rational, autonomous human can exist under capitalism, but oppression is a permanent factor of any class-based economic system. Marx saw capitalism as a block to workers’ autonomy. Economic change, he deemed, was necessary for the full realization of each person’s human potential. Marx’s final goal, however, was not economic revolution, but human change.

Erich Fromm points out that “the goal of [Marx’s] atheistic radical humanism was the salvation of man, his self-actualization, the overcoming of the craving for having and consumption, his freedom and independence, and his love for others.”14 Marx believed that individual autonomy is interwoven with and dependent upon social relations. Labor power is something that must be created and controlled in a manner appropriate to the maintenance of the capitalist social relation. Exploitation is a common feature of all modes of production that are split into classes. Alienation is a consequence of the mercantilization of human life as a whole by the capitalist relations of production. Wage labor is the transformation of human energy into a commodity like any other piece of matter. So, if the masses were to have freedom and autonomy, Marx believed there must be a transformation of alienated, meaningless labor into productive, free labor, not simply employment or employment at higher wages by a private or state capitalism.

In our society, humane concerns are subsumed by the market’s tyranny, the inversion or camera obscura of what is needed to foster an inclusive, cooperative, and healthy society. Questions that need to be brought to the forefront might include the following: What is the purpose of an economy – to support market-driven profits or to sustain social bonds and encourage human participation? Is it acceptable to reduce the productive activities of persons to commodity wage labor? Is the capacity to produce for profit an acceptable measure of human worth? Is it defensible to hold in contempt bodies that do not produce the way the capitalist class demands, leaving disabled persons to struggle on low wages or meager benefit checks or to be institutionalized? How can the realm of work be reorganized to provide accommodations for all, and how can all members of society be embraced and rewarded whether they work or not?

The disability rights/independent living liberation struggle provides a strong motive for historical change. There is an opportunity to reconceptualize disability and to eliminate disabled peoples’ oppression. We must contest the biological rationale for the exclusion of disabled persons from the realm of work and replace it with a materialistic rationale calling for drastically and justly altering the political economy.

The fundamental questions of class power raised by Marx must be addressed politically if the long-term goal of a society of equals, where “from each according to their [dis]ability, to each according to their need”15 is to materialize.

Notes
1. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, 3 vols. (1867; reprint, New York: International Publishers, 1967), 819.1.
2. Deborah Stone, The Disabled State (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984).2.
3. E.D. Berkowitz, Disabled Policy: America’s Programs for the Handicapped (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987).3.
4. Ibid. 4.
5. C. Barnes, G. Mercer and T. Shakespeare, Exploring Disability: A Sociological Introduction (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1999); Michael Oliver, The Politics of Disablement (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990).5
6. H. Hahn, “Public Support for Rehabilitation Programs,” Disability, Handicap and Society 2, no. 1 (1986): 121-38.6
7.Oliver, Politics of Disablement.7
8. Stone, Disabled State, 28.8
9. Stone, Disabled State, 143.9
10. Ibid.10
11. P. Ruggles, Drawing the Line: Alternative Poverty Measures and Their Implications for Public Policy (Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press, 1990).11
12. Marta Russell, Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1998), 81-3.12
13. H. Boushey, “The Political Economy of Employment Inequality: Job Access and Pay Differentials,” in Political Economy and Contemporary Capitalism, R. Baiman, H. Boushey and D. Saunders, eds. (New York: M. E. Sharp, 2000).13
14. Erich Fromm, On Being Human (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1994), 139.14
15. Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme (1895; reprint, New York: International Publishers, 1938), 10. [dis], author’s addition.15

This article is excerpted from Capitalism and Disability: Selected Writings by Marta Russell, edited by Keith Rosenthal (Haymarket Books, 2019).  It was first published in The Bullet.

Marta Russell (1951 – 2013) was an American writer and disability rights activist. Her archive is at martarussell.org.

DSA Convention 2019—Overcoming Divisions—Votes to Maintain Strong National Organization, Takes up Ambitious Organizing Agenda

Dan La Botz

August 8, 2019

Some 1,056 delegates to the Democratic Socialist of America convention, representing around 55,000 DSA members, met in Atlanta over the weekend and voted to adopt a series of resolutions that will continue to build a strong national organization capable of carrying out ambitious campaigns in labor and community organizing as well as electoral politics. The central division in the convention, largely driven by rival caucuses and fought out over a number of resolutions, was between those who wanted a stronger central organization capable of organizing strategic national campaigns and those who wanted a more decentralized organization that would encourage local organizing initiatives.

Beyond those debates, the delegates adopted significant political positions, such as a motion stating that in the event that Bernie Sanders loses the Democratic Party nomination, DSA will not support any other Democrat in the 2020 national election. And they passed a measure requiring nationally endorsed candidates to run as open socialists. The assembly also adopted a radical position in support of open borders, came out in support of an eco-socialist priority and the Green New Deal, and carried a resolution opposing U.S. imperialism. And by a very narrow majority the convention voted to support anti-fascist work. The convention reasserted the centrality of union work, adopting several resolutions on labor organizing. On-going efforts, such as work on the Bernie Sanders primary campaign and the fight for Medicare for All, were implicitly endorsed by the convention.

The convention elected DSA’s new leadership, a 16-member National Political Committee (NPC) made up of individuals from various caucuses or independents who more or less proportionally reflected the convention divide, with about ten members committed to the more centralized organization and half a dozen leaning toward the decentralization position. The previous NPC, riven by factionalism, failed to work together harmoniously or very efficiently, and the challenge for this leadership will be to find a way to implement the convention decisions and to face new challenges collectively and effectively. Overall, despite debate that was sometimes heated, all of the delegates left the convention committed to building a larger, stronger, and more active DSA.

The Nature of the Convention

The previous convention held in 2017 had only 700 delegates expressing the will of 25,000 members. This 2019 convention was made up of 1,056 delegates from every state, many cities, and suburban and rural areas throughout the country. Unfortunately, in numerous DSA chapters, many members did not vote in the delegate elections, reflecting a larger problem that, as members stated in convention remarks, in many locales only perhaps ten or twenty percent of the members are active.

The convention delegates were mostly young (a great many between 25 and 35), much more white than people of color, but with an important role played by women and LGBTQ comrades throughout. For many delegates, some of whom had only been members for a year or two, this was their first national convention. A visiting Latin American comrade observed, “In truth, this seems more like a youth congress than a national political organization.” Yet it is also true that this was a more mature convention than the last, reflecting that in the last two years DSA has done an enormous amount of work in political campaigns, labor union strikes, the fight for immigrant justice, housing issues, and other areas.

Delegates vote

The general organization of the convention unfortunately made it difficult to hold extended political discussion and to debate such important issues as the American political scene, DSA’s relationship to the Democratic Party, U.S. foreign policy, or the question of oppressed groups in the United States. The convention was not organized around major political issues but rather around a series of short summary reports, resolutions, and constitutional amendments. At the same time, certainly scores and perhaps hundreds of members rose to speak on these items in what was a highly participatory convention.

Originally more than 125 such items were presented which were reduced through a series of pre-convention delegate votes (with a low level of participation) to a short consent agenda and about 30 remaining items to be taken up over the convention’s more or less 16 hours in working sessions. The political convention novices spent a great deal of time in procedural motions and “questions of personal privilege” that frequently frustrated the body. And on a few occasions resolutions on complex questions were bundled together and dealt with in haste. Nevertheless, by and large the convention rules worked, the delegates behaved respectfully toward each other, and the convention accomplished its business. Several international observers commented on being impressed with the democratic character of the convention and by the attention given to making all members feel comfortable and able to participate.

Several caucuses organized around political platforms—Build, Bread and Roses, Socialist Majority, Collective Power Network, the Libertarian Socialist Caucus, Reform and Revolution and others—drove much of the debate and whipped votes on crucial issues. Build and the Libertarian Socialist Caucus tended to lead the decentralizers, while Socialist Majority and Bread Roses led the centralizing forces. The Collective Power Network, which appeared shortly before the convention, tended to muddy the waters with some centralizing and some decentralizing proposals. Many members not in caucuses, however, wavered in their views, voting one way on one motion and another on the next. No caucus or alliance of caucuses dominated the convention.

The Great Divide and the Political Significance of the Convention

The great divide in the convention between the centralizing and the decentralizing forces could be characterized as a difference between those who want a democratic socialist party-type organization based on indirect representation by conventions and national committees and those who want something more like a network of regional and local activist groups based on participatory democracy. In a series of votes on questions of political education, organizer training, dues and the national budget, as well as other organizational issues the centralizers tended to win about 55 percent of the vote, while the decentralizers got about 45 percent. Yet it would be a mistake to draw the lines too deeply to suggest that it was socialists versus anarchists, because that would certainly be wrong. People on both sides of the divide appreciate having a national group and those on both sides want a vigorous democratic organization and would lay claim to participatory democracy as part of that agenda.

The convention was devoid of any references to Marxist theory and there were few references to socialist history, and as already mentioned, the organizing structure of the convention made deep political discussion and debate on the convention floor virtually impossible. While the International Committee of DSA arranged for international guests from left parties and social movements in a variety of countries—among them Brazil, Japan, and Venezuela—who spoke in a few special sessions, foreign policy remains one of DSA’s weakest areas. A hasty bundling of several motions on international questions including Palestine, Cuba, and anti-colonialism—while motivated by the delegates strong desire to express their anti-imperialism—led to a short and inadequate discussion and the adoption of a problematic document. All of this reflects the insufficiency and unevenness of political education over the last few years, which a resolution on political education passed by the convention, should help to remedy.

What the Convention Says about DSA’s Politics

While the convention issued no general analytical document or manifesto, our organization’s politics can be inferred from the convention’s resolutions and the discussion around them.

First, DSA remains a democratic socialist organization committed to bringing to power a socialist government, socializing the means of production, creating an egalitarian and democratic society. To do so, DSA continues to see its role as building a socialist presence through campaigns in the Democratic Party combined with the construction of a stronger labor movement and more powerful social movements (as expressed in the class-struggle election resolution that passed). Different than the Socialist Party of America in its heyday at the turn of the last century or the Communist Party in the 1920s, or elements of the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s, DSA does not in general talk in terms of either a workers’ party, a workers’ government, or the need for socialist revolution, nor do any of its caucuses—though many individual members would describe themselves as revolutionary socialists. The adoption of the Bernie or bust resolution represents an important statement, as does the requirement (in Resolution 31) reinforcing previously adopted positions that all nationally endorsed candidates run as open socialists.

Second, DSA placed an enormous amount of emphasis at the convention on the discussion of labor. While far from it now, DSA clearly wants to be a working class organization. The invitation to Sara Nelson, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, to speak at the convention emphasized that commitment. The Bread and Roses caucus has been (under various names) the principal advocate of the rank-and-file strategy, largely influenced by the International Socialists (IS) and Solidarity from the 1970s to the 2010s. B&R caucus adopting that strategic outlook and looking to the examples of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) and the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) in Chicago, as well as Labor Notes, worked to get DSA members into union jobs, to work in rank-and-file movements, and to transform the labor movement. The newly created Collective Power Network, a rival caucus that also emphasizes labor, offered a broader, decentralizing proposal, putting less emphasis on the rank-and-file approach. Members of the San Francisco DSA put forward a resolution that passed the convention calling for DSA to work directly with labor unions to organize, as the SF DSA chapter did with the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers (ILWU) at Anchor beer. In the end, a series of labor proposals, somewhat contradictory in their emphases were adopted, but nevertheless continuing the emphasis on the need for militant grassroots unionism. What has often been missing in all versions of the union debate is a clear analysis of the labor bureaucracy as a social caste within the unions—balancing between the corporations and the workers—with its own ideology and the power and perquisites of office.

Image for the Open Borders Resolution

Third, DSA once again adopted resolutions expressing its desire and its plans to work with communities of color, such as the resolutions adopted in the omnibus consent agenda on immigrant and refugee rights, support for open borders, and orienting to Latinx communities, as well as other resolutions on community organizing and housing. Taken together with early decisions, such as the creation of the Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus, all of this is very good. Still, turning this corner will be very difficult, especially establishing relationships with Black working class people through their unions and communities and winning them to socialism. The long history of American racism, including in the Democratic Party, in the labor unions, and sometimes in the left, presents formidable obstacles, as does the fact DSA is made up largely of white, college-educated people trained for work in high skilled jobs and professions. What DSA must also do is find a way to work with leaders and members of organized, political Black and Latino organizations.  This is the historic path to an integrated left party, though at this time not part of DSA’s strategy.

Finally, foreign policy, that is, international questions and the issue of imperialism, remains one of DSA’s weakest areas. Once again, there are no doubt historic reasons for this. The old DSA of the 1980s worked closely with the Democratic Party and aligned itself internationally with the Socialist International, inevitably placing it on the Western side of the Cold War divide. The new DSA arose in the effervescence of the Bernie campaign of 2016 with its emphasis on domestic issues and Bernie’s own weaknesses on foreign policy questions. While the terms “internationalism “and “anti-imperialism” appear in DSA resolutions and discussions, the group and its members have not actually done much thinking about these issues. The DSA International Committee has begun to develop positions on these questions, and needs to continue to develop an internationalist and democratic foreign policy.

Overall, the 2019 Convention demonstrates that while DSA has firmly established itself as the most important organization of the American left in decades, it is also true that it has not yet consolidated itself, certainly not in the working class or in communities of color. Nor has DSA developed a full-fledged Marxist analysis and strategy to deal with American politics, much less international questions. And that is not surprising, given that it is such a new, youthful group and still a relatively small socialist organization (55,000 in a nation of 327 million). Still, for leftists in America, DSA remains the place to be and to fight for revolutionary socialist ideas.

Dan La Botz is a Brooklyn-based teacher, writer and activist, co-editor of New Politics, and a member of Solidarity and DSA. This report was first published on the New Politics website.

AT WAR: a Film about Class Struggle

Michael Hirsch

July 25, 2019

Few films portray working people realistically. One thinks of rare movies such as Hollywood’s Norma Rae, the independent Salt of the Earth, Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike or the Italian classic, The Organizer. These films portray struggle mixed with joy, no matter the success or failure of the plot line. So the appearance of At War, is a welcome event.

The French-language film is a raw-boned, deep dive into modern labor relations that has the feel of an on-the-spot documentary. The plot, foreshadowed by the classic injunction, “Whoever fights can lose; Whoever does not fight has already lost,” is alternately uplifting, sobering and depressing as hell. The aptly named At War is no day at the beach unless the beach is Dunkirk.

Vincent Lindon, the star of Measure Of A Man, for which he won the Best Actor award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, plays Laurent Amedeo, the strike leader of the 1,100 workers at the fictive Perrin Industries-Agen car parts plant in a remote corner of France. These workers are not radicals. What sparks their anger in undertaking a three-month job action is the company’s abrogating of an already burdensome agreement.

In exchange for worker concessions — raising the workweek from 35 to 40 hours with no increase in pay while saving the company tens of millions of Euros in wages — the company pledged to keep the plant operating for five years. Now tearing up the agreement, management charges that the workers are in denial over economic realities, read declining profits. The company wants to boost its bottom line, claiming its 3 percent profit margin is below the industry-wide 7 percent. A boost is needed to assuage investors who don’t think the company is sufficiently profitable. Savings coming from closing the plant in an area with already high unemployment would mean economic disaster for the largely middle-aged workforce. A token company offer of outplacement services and a small severance package is summarily rejected.

Efforts by workers to involve the French employment minister, get the French president to intervene, obtain a high court injunction to enforce the work agreement and keep the plant open, as well as persuade the German-based multinational Dimke Group’s president to intervene all fail, as does a months-long plant occupation.

There’s no lack of information in the workers’ arsenal. The facts are known. How the company pays huge salaries to top management. How the multinational plans to build a replacement parts plant in Romania where the workers make five times less. How even a buyout spearheaded by the unions from a rival firm that would keep the French plant open is rejected by management because, as they note, “we are not forced by French law to sell,” no matter how attractive the offer. Why indeed create competition for the company? The workers understand the cold-blooded motivation well enough.

What loses the strike is the collapse of worker solidarity. Splits among the workers over the three-months-long job-action outweigh the pressure on capital to settle. A section of the workforce — the workers are segregated into three separate unions and French law doesn’t mandate membership in any union — want to rethink the severance package offer, but an ill-advised physical assault on corporate managers makes even that deal moot. Add to that no left-wing parties intervening to offer even picket line support and no effort made to solicit aid from German unions in the fight against the multinational, so when the splits come among workers, it’s a wonder they didn’t happen sooner.

What the film does well is show the mendacity of management, the pusillanimity of the French government, the class bias of the courts and the inordinate skill of union activists, especially their ability to quantifiably nail the corporation on its rubbishy economic defense of its decision to close the plant. International capital takes a solid beating ideologically from the film at least. All worth establishing.

At its best, At War is like Salt of the Earth as a teaching moment, with its clear, grim view of industrial relations. You forget it’s a staged film and think you are watching actual, contentious negotiations with a recalcitrant management and real-life caucus meetings of unionists. It’s also a revealing dive into international economics and its religious-like faith in boosting stock dividends over the survival needs of employees. Why the company wants to close the productive plant is also eye-opening.

At War also does something Salt of the Earth never quite explains, which is why the latter film’s predatory mining company refused to negotiate with the miners, except for the cryptic remark that “you have to see the big picture.” In At War, we see the big picture; it’s the well-versed workers who live it, understand its parameters and suffer the consequences

The film’s director Stéphane Brizé said he aimed to present “a union representative who deploys no political rhetoric, just the necessity of giving voice to his pain and indignation as well as that of his coworkers.” He pulls it off, if perhaps too well because if the film has a fault, it lies in its dour mood. There are few joyous moments featured, which even for a grueling strike is unrealistic. No celebration occurs during the plant occupation, which is something that would have happened in real life, and did happen in the United States during the industrial sit-down strikes of the 1930s. The film need not be all joie de vivre, but its mordant quality seems paramount.

See the film. If its realism is oppressive, its message of how class struggle manifests in real life is true, which is rare enough for modern cinema.

Michael Hirsch is a New York City-based politics and labor writer, a sympathizing member of Solidarity, a member of DSA, and on the editorial board of New Politics magazine. 

This review was first published in The Indypendent.

Capitalism and Monopolies: Is Regulation the Answer?

Cyryl Ryzak

June 6, 2019

With The Myth of Capitalism: Monopolies and the Death of Competition, Jonathan Tepper and Denise Hearn have written a succinct, well organized, and very readable survey of concentration and monopolization in the contemporary US economy. It is to their credit that they by and large  steer clear of theory for most of the book and let the facts speak for themselves. However, when theory – and moreover politics – does rear its head, it is far less pleasant than the purely empirical part of their work.

In each chapter, Tepper and Hearn explore our highly concentrated monopoly capitalism from different angles. Some chapters such as “Dividing Up the Turf” and “Toll Roads and Robber Barons” lay out the structure of the monopolized economy. We learn just how concentrated American capital is, from railroads and airlines to beer producers and milk distributors. Other chapters deal with consequences– high prices, lack of choice for job searchers and consumers, inequalities and the like. There is also a very interesting historical account of anti-trust legislation, how it was enforced and ultimately swept aside.

For Tepper and Hearn, the figure representing contemporary monopolism is the icon of American investment advice, Warren Buffet of Berkshire Hathaway. The investment practice that bestowed tremendous wealth on Buffet was to avoid competition and embrace concentration. As quoted by Tepper and Hearn, Buffet’s self-declared preferred business investment is characterized by “High pricing power, a monopoly”. Very few illusions about the value of competitive capitalism exist at the top.

Competition Breeds Monopolization

Unfortunately, the book’s usefulness is somewhat ruined by the authors’ insistence that what they are describing is not actually “capitalism”. “Capitalism”, they write, “without competition is not actually capitalism. Capitalism is not merely a high return on capital.” It is true enough that capitalism is “not merely a high return” but nonetheless it is driven by the pursuit of the highest return possible in competition with others who also want the highest return possible. In so far as some seek an advantage in this contest or consolidate their position after decisively capturing a market and pushing their competitors out, it is completely in keeping with this basic economic drive.

To take an example from their book, the airlines were deregulated in 1978. The end result of this policy is the oligopolization and regional monopolization that plagues the industry today. As Tepper and Hearn admit, however, this process involved fierce competition that followed in the wake of deregulation. So for them, capitalism in the airline industry existed one day and then as a result of the competition they extol, it ceased to exist the next day. The Myth of Capitalism’s definition of capitalism as competition would have us think that capitalism abolishes itself by the element that makes it capitalist.

Regulatory Dreams

The Myth of Capitalism’s analytic weakness in understanding capitalism is compounded by its political weakness. Tepper and Hearn’s solution to capital concentration is state regulation to return competitiveness to the capitalist economy. Their heroes are the trust busters of the Progressive Era and policymakers who designed Germany’s post-war economy. Taking the US example first, as they themselves show, capitalists deftly outmaneuvered anti-trust legislation, even when it was seriously enforced, by buying disparate industries. And eventually, capital found political muscle in the form of the American Right which ultimately grew strong enough to destroy or severely weaken any impediments to concentration.

The German example is also more problematic than Tepper and Hearn’s account. They promote “Ordoliberalism,” a set of policies developed by post-WW II German economists who argued that the economic concentration that characterized the Nazi economy had to be dismantled through state regulation, providing the basis for political freedom against both Nazi and Soviet “totalitarianism.”  Opposition to economic concentration whether public or private was the answer.

In the context of post-war Germany, however, Ordoliberalism was introduced not as the alternative to the cartel-based capitalism of the Third Reich, but to the more radical push of the reborn German left for the socialization of Nazi-collaborating industries as the basis for a new democratic Germany. The “social market” economy of the Adenhauer years came hand and hand with the rearmament of West Germany, continued insistence on Germany’s 1937 borders, and a general conservatism.

Tepper and Hearn’s political aim is to unite the forces behind the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street into a kind of mega-‘anti-establishment’ movement. Their anti-monopoly program also targets excessive regulations. They provide much useful information in their book on how large companies benefit from regulations that hamper their competitors, but their political conclusions about a potential alliance with the Right because it hates regulation are wrong headed.

Even if the Right starts to adopt some sort of anti- capitalist rhetoric, it tends to be the case, as the example of the German National Socialists demonstrates, that this is forgotten exceptionally quickly after taking power. Tepper and Hearn lionize the late nineteenth century British conservative Prime Minister Disraeli. As if trying to whet the appetites of Republican strategists, they point out that thanks to reform Toryism “the Conservatives dominated British politics from 1886 to 1906.”

Expecting the contemporary American Right to act like a 19th century British Tories is a waste of time. The mentality of a Benjamin Disraeli is extremely removed from that of a Ted Cruz. If there is any space where Tepper and Hearn’s ideas will find approval it is in the world of liberal politicians, especially those who realize the Clinton option is no longer viable. The program of The Myth of Capitalism seems perfectly fitted for the Elizabeth Warren camp, reformist, even feistily so, but lacking in the more explicit leftism of Bernie Sanders.

A Flawed Strategy of Alliance with the Right

The eagerness of Tepper and Hearn for a reformist alliance with the Right in order to build a new “competitive capitalism” doesn’t consider that even if this were possible, it would give the Right a decisive role in shaping the new legislative regime. Tepper and Hearn offer general principles for anti-monopoly measures, regulations, and patent protections. Somebody will have to turn these into laws and administrative rules. Would they really be happy to leave it to the Tea Party, the instrument of the Koch brothers, to transform their pristine recommendations into grotesque caricatures?

This brings us to the final underlying problem of the Myth of Capitalism. Their obsession to prevent economic concentration, whether private or public, would not create a decentralized idyllic order of small producers but a muscular, interventionist, regulatory state that actively shapes the economic order. As businesses will always try to circumvent and outmaneuver any “competition policy,”  the regulators will have to be constantly vigilant. To create a “capitalism” according to Tepper and Hearn’s stringent criteria, an “on the books” legal passivity is too weak. State direction will always have to be taken.

If its ideals materialize, Myth of Capitalism’s utopia would be a never-ending war between the anti-monopolist state and the capitalist economy. This is the result of obsessing over every rule in the modern capitalist economy save the most important: that it is governed by the pursuit of profit.

The German Model

Peace in this scheme between the regulators and the capitalists is certainly possible but only at the cost of compromising its purpose. The trust-busting state can act as a tool for harmonizing the disparate interests of capitalists into a common national capitalist interest. The promotion of competition between capitalists transforms into the promotion of competitiveness in the global economic arena. Capitalists will no longer exert power through the sheer size of their holdings but through their assembly into corporatist bodies. Economic concentration of individual capitalists becomes the collective concentration of the capitalist class. In other words, for the competition-promotion state to find a stable role for itself, its capitalism would have to be German.

The historical evolution of German capitalism is instructive for the kind of state-promoted competition capitalists will actually accept. Germany with its vibrant export manufacturing may be envy-inducing for our depressed industrial areas. But one needs reminding that German capitalism holds the earnings of its workforce down as much as American capitalism. The adoption of a capitalism based on a German style Mittelstand, medium and small sized enterprises, is no assurance for the elimination of wage stagnation.

We cannot accept the panacea of “competition policy”.  However, The Myth of Capitalism should  be read for its description of monopoly capitalism’s lay of the land. The question of how to integrate an anti-monopoly movement into broader socialist strategy, and what sort of alliances and organizational forms that would entail, is very important. There is however a very big difference between a politics where anti-monopolism is the end in itself, and one where it is only a step along the road forward.

 

Yellow Vest Movement Still Going Strong

Richard Greeman

May 17, 2019

Dear Friends, Colleagues, Comrades,

I am writing you from France, where I am a participant-observer in the Yellow Vest movement, which is still going strong after six months, despite a dearth of information in the international media. My report follows.

This unique, original social movement has enormous international significance. It has already succeeded in shattering the capitalist myth of “representative democracy” by unmasking the lies and violence of government and media, as well as the duplicity of representative institutions like political parties, bureaucratic unions and the mainstream media.

Moreover, the Yellow Vests represent the first time in history that a spontaneous, self-organized social movement has ever held out for half a year in spite of repression while retaining its autonomy, resisting cooptation, bureaucratization and sectarian splits. All the while, standing up to full-scale government repression and targeted propaganda.

Six months ago, on Nov. 17, 2018, a social movement known as the Yellow Vests burst out of nowhere, with autonomous local units springing up all over France like mushrooms, demonstrating on traffic circles (roundabouts) and toll-gates, marching every Saturday in cities, including Paris. The humid November soil from which these mushrooms sprouted was the near-universal frustration in France at the abject failure of the CGT and other unions to effectively oppose Macron’s steam-roller imposition of his historic “reforms”: an inflexible neo-liberal program of cutting benefits, workplace rights, and privatizing or cutting public services, while eliminating the so-called Wealth Tax.

The immediate cause of this spontaneous mass rising was to protest an unfair tax on fuel  (fiscal justice) but the Yellow Vests’ demands quickly expanded to include restoration of public services (transport, hospitals, schools); higher wages, retirement benefits, healthcare for the poor, peasant agriculture, media free of billionaire and government control, and, most remarkably, participatory democracy. Despite their disruptive tactics, the Yellow Vests were from the beginning wildly popular with average French people (73% approval), and they are still more popular than the Macron government after six months of exhausting, dangerous occupations of public space, violent weekly protests and slanderous propaganda against them.

Tired of being lied to, cheated, manipulated and despised, the Yellow Vests instinctively from the beginning rejected being instrumentalized by the corrupt  “representative” institutions of capitalist democracy including political parties, union bureaucracies and the media (monopolized by billionaires and subsidized by the government). Jealous of their autonomy, a concept which radical intellectuals have been exploring for years, the Yellow Vest eschewed “leaders” and spokespeople even among their own ranks, and are even now very gradually learning to federate themselves and negotiate convergence with other social movements.

From the very beginning (Dec. 2018) the Yellow Vests’ basically non-violent gatherings were met by massive police repression – teargas, flashballs, beatings, 10, 000 arrests, immediate drum-head trials, stiff sentences for minor infractions. The Macron government just passed a new “anti-vandalism” law making it virtually impossible to demonstrate legally. Macron’s orthodox neo-liberal French Republic has arguably become as repressive of opposition as the right-wing “populist” regimes in Poland, Hungary, Turkey.

Macron’s violent repression of political opposition is responsible for at least two deaths, 23 demonstrators blinded in one eye, thousands seriously wounded. It has been condemned by the U.N. and European Union. But Macron has never acknowledged these injuries, which are rarely shown in the media. The TV news concentrates on sensational images of the violence (to property) of the Black Block vandals at the fringes of Yellow Vest demonstrations, never on the human victims of systematic government violence. A popular slogan proclaimed in Magic Marker on a demonstrator’s Yellow Vest reads: “Wake up! Turn off your TV! Join us!”

Since the Yellow Vests have no recognized spokespersons, government propaganda, abetted by the media, has had a free hand to dehumanize them to justify treating them inhumanly. Macron, from the height of his monarchical presidency, at first pretended to ignore their uprising, then attempted to buy them off with crumbs (a very few crumbs which were rejected) and then denounced them as “a hate-filled mob.” (N.B. In real life the Yellow Vests are largely middle-aged low-income folks with families from the provinces whose trade-mark is friendliness and improvised barbeques.) Yet for Macron and the media they constitute a hard-core conspiracy of “40,000 militants of the extreme right and the extreme left” often characterized as “anti-Semites,” who threaten the Republic.

Small wonder that, subjected to increasing violence and continuous slander, the numbers of Yellow Vests willing to go out into the streets to protest every week has diminished over 27 weeks.  But they are still out there and their favorite chant goes: “Here we are!  Here we are! What if Macron doesn’t like it? Here we are!” (On est là! Même si Macron ne veut pas, On est là!)

Fortunately, in the past few weeks the League for the Rights of Man and other such humanitarian groups have turned out to protest government repression, while committees of artists and academics have signed petitions in support of the Yellow Vests’ struggle for democratic rights while condemning the government and media. At the same time, Yellow Vests are more and more converging with Ecologists (“End of the Month/End of the World/Same Enemy/Same Struggle” )  Also with workers, many of them active as opponents of the bureaucracy in their unions. Red CGT stickers on Yellow Vests are now frequent sights at demos. Philippe Martinez, the General Secretary of the CGT, who has heretofore been sarcastic and negative about the Yellow Vests, has now been forced to admit that the cause of their rise was the failure of the unions, “a reflection of all the union deserts.” He was referring to “small and medium size businesses, retired people, poverty people, jobless people and lots of women” (the demographic of the Yellow Vests) that the unions have ignored.

The Yellow Vests are still here, in the fray, holding the breach open. The crisis in France is far from over. If and when the other oppressed and angry groups in France – the organized workers, ecologists, North African immigrants, students struggling against Macron’s educational “reforms”  – also turn off their TV’s and go down into the streets, things good change radically. The Yellow Vests’ avowed goal is to bring France to a grinding halt and impose change.

What if they succeed? We know what the “success” of structured parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain led to. Maybe a horizontal federation of autonomous base-groups attempting to re-invent democracy could do better.

Four Years of Forgotten War on Yemen

Majed Alwishaliy

May 1, 2019

In four years of aggression against Yemen, what has been produced? An humanitarian crisis for the Yemeni people:

The United Nations says nearly 100 civilians are killed or injured every week. Air strikes have killed or wounded 37 children a month in the past 12 months. According to Save the Children, air strikes were the leading cause of war-related deaths and injuries.

About 10 million people, representing more than a third of Yemenis, do not have enough to eat.

Some 85,000 children under the age of five may have died of severe hunger since 2015, and about 2 million Yemenis are malnourished, of whom 360,000 are severely malnourished

About 24 million people, representing about 80% of the population, need some form of humanitarian assistance

Nearly 18 million Yemenis lack access to clean water. The war and difficult humanitarian conditions have left more than 190,000 people fleeing to neighboring countries

There are also about 2 million children in Yemen out of school, and about 1.2 million people have been reported to have been diagnosed with cholera since 2017, more than 2,500 have died.

These are the disastrous consequences suffered by the people of Yemen. This is what the regimes of the Saudi and American aggression wanted:  to break all the components of life and livelihood of the Yemeni people; to remain poor and humiliated in front of the machine of daily killing, bombing, destruction and starvation and forced dependency on the forces of arrogance and colonialism.

Women walk past U.S. drone graffiti in Sanaa, Yemen. Photo: Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

 This state of affairs legitimizes our persistent call, for years, against the Saudis and their unjust rule over the people of the Arabian Peninsula. They no longer deserve the patronage of Islamic holy sites in Mecca and Medina, shaking hands with killers in Tel Aviv and Washington, and killing Muslims in Yemen and before that in Syria and Iraq.

Those in power in the Saudi Arabia Kingdom have been shown, by the murders of Sheikh Nimr and Jamal Khashoggi and hundreds of others, as unworthy of ruling the Islamic holy sites in any way.

Human Rights Watch has reported that the charges against Saudi detainees are linked to their human rights activities, and Saudi prosecutors’ accusations against female activists are the consequences of peaceful protests in Saudi Arabia.

Even their own controversies have become bothersome to them and expose a dark side to public opinion against them.

Despite the clarity of the political and legal vision of international and regional organizations, especially regarding the illegitimacy of the Saudi alliance and its actions contrary to international laws, the American, British, and Israeli international regime constantly turns a blind eye to all these inhumane crimes. Alas, public opinion is thus only concerned with superficial matters and partial details relating to humanity.

An official statement to the British newspaper Daily Mail, said: “What we have revealed of child recruitment and the possible involvement of British troops in the war in Yemen has provoked great reactions.”

According to the Guardian, “The British Secretary of State for Asia is investigating the British forces training children to fight in Yemen and pointing out that children represent 40% of the soldiers of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.”

And as a result of the continuing international reactions, the German government has extended the ban on arms exports to Saudi Arabia for six months.

As for the desire of the Saudi regime to process nuclear fuel as a first step toward possession of nuclear weapons,  Democrat Senator Robert Menendez and Republican Senator Marco Rubio, in a letter to the Department of Energy, protested support for Saudi Arabia to develop their capacity for producing nuclear fuel.

“Washington should not provide technology and nuclear information to Saudi Arabia; they are well aware of the seriousness of the development of these matters on the regional scene and that their results will be negative and influential in the region.”

The equation today is clear in the Yemeni political situation because all the figures point us to a humanitarian disaster fabricated by imperialist and colonial regimes, who have made the Saudi and the Emirate regimes tools of chaos, wars and side conflicts that ultimately serve the existence of the Israeli entity.

Nevertheless, the Yemeni resistance is still present in its steadfastness in and building of a new equation for deterrence to confront the criminal killing machine against the people of Yemen.

We call upon our comrades in the West to oppose their governments’ support of the neo-colonial Saudi coalition through weapons sales, military exchanges, and economic and logistical support.  We also urge you to oppose the Saudi coalition’s narrative of the situation. We encourage you read more on the aggression and delve into the history of the crisis not through a sectarian lens, but as a struggle of popular resistance against imperialist-allied aggressors.

Editor’s note:

For more information and to join actions aimed at ending US involvement, we suggest the Code Pink website where there is a petition directed at Congress to override Trump’s veto and to support the next, even stronger, legislation–H.R.643 in the House and S.3652 in the Senate–to end the war in Yemen.

To donate for aid to the Yemeni people, go to Yemen Aid

Majed Alwishaliy is a Yemeni journalist studying in Beirut.  This article was first published in Al-Mayadeen and translated into English by Julia Kassem.

May Day: Workers’ Struggles, International Solidarity, Political Aspirations

Socialist Project

May 1, 2019

A pamphlet for May Day, published by Socialist Project. Below an excerpt from the pamphlet that includes a speech by Eleanor Marx on the first May Day at a rally held in Hyde Park (London), 1890.

Eleanor Marx

We have not come to do the work of political parties, but we have come here in the cause of labor, in its own defense, to demand its own rights….

I am speaking this afternoon not only as a Trade Unionist, but as a Socialist. Socialists believe that the eight hours’ day is the first and most immediate step to be taken, and we aim at a time when there will no longer be one class supporting two others, but the unemployed both at the top and at the bottom of society will be got rid of. This is not the end but only the beginning of the struggle; it is not enough to come here to demonstrate in favor of an eight hours’ day. We must not be like some Christians who sin for six days and go to church on the seventh, but we must speak for the cause daily, and make the men, and especially the women that we meet, come into the ranks to help us.

“Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you–

Ye are many–they are few.”





Review: The ABCs of Capitalism

Hannah Archambault

Vivek Chibber’s “The ABCs of Capitalism”, released through Jacobin, offers an analysis from a “class first”, or, less generously, “class only” perspective. The reality is that the working class is composed primarily of people who experience material oppression related to their identities and Chibber falls short even of his own class-first dictum because he neglects this fact. This, in addition to his decision to not fully critique power structures as a whole, leads to an incomplete vision of a socialist future. He makes the case for strong social democracy rather than a case for revolutionary change in which the working-class democratically controls all social, political and economic aspects of life.

Pamphlet A, Understanding Capitalism, lays out why we should care to critique capitalism. He begins, as most contemporary critiques of capitalism do, by laying out inequalities in both income and wealth. This is, of course, a good place to start. The statistics, though oft repeated, are shocking and stark in comparison with the rhetoric of equality of opportunity that saturates the  political mythos of the United States. Chibber lays out quite powerfully the absurdity of this mythos and the doctrine of individual responsibility and failure that it relies on.

Capitalism

The analysis of capitalism itself in the first pamphlet is quite clear. He accurately points out that “it is the pursuit of profit that shapes the entire organization of production capitalism”. The driver of capitalism is the pursuit of profit, but capitalism as a system is comprised of an array of institutions. Markets, wage labor, and private property, among other institutions, have existed outside of capitalism, and are still all integral parts of the capitalist system as well.  He is able to make some Marxist concepts relatively accessible. For example, the tendency of the rate of profit to equalize due to the “war zone” of market competition, and “that sooner or later, most every capitalist finds that if she wants to make her profits, it will have to come through winning the competitive battle” (17).

One of the first noticeable problems with the pamphlets, however, is that the expectations of the reader are not clear. At some points it’s obvious that they are for those readers who are completely unfamiliar with Marxist and socialist analyses of capitalism, but he sometimes seems to skip to terms and concepts that may require more of a background in critiques of capitalism or anti-capitalist thought. For instance, he refers to the relationship between capitalists and workers as “extortion”, rather than the Marxist term exploitation, but uses the phrase “means of production” without offering an explanation of the term, which is key to Marxist analysis.

Greed

Chibber often paints capitalists as toothless victims of a system—“pleading with capitalists to behave overlooks the structural pressures on them to abuse their power” (C, 3); “She doesn’t drive her workers because she is greedy, but because someone else might beat her to it and end up having an advantage on the market” (A, 22).  In doing so he neglects the fact that it is not just structural pressures that cause capitalists to “abuse” their power, but that capitalists have a vested interest in increasing exploitation of workers not just because they MUST grow, but because they WANT to accumulate. Chibber’s analysis often contradicts itself—mere sentences later he says that “capitalists modify their morality to justify their actions” (C, 3), which suggests an awareness and agency of the capitalist that Chibber, inexplicably undermines over and over.

At another point, the pamphlets state that “it’s the employer’s interests that typically win out” (A,23, emphasis in original) in relation to conflicting prerogatives between workers and capitalists. It’s important to know why the employer has said interests—they aren’t capitalists because they want to treat workers well, or produce things that the market wants, or because these means of production were forced on them, but because they have made active choices to maximize their profits to benefit themselves. While the interests of the individual capitalist generally aligns with objectives of the capitalist class, and they are participants in class struggle, it is not as neutral or passive class actors compelled by forces out of their control that they engage in the process of exploiting workers and producing surplus value. Individual capitalists are not acting for the benefit of the capitalist class, nor are they working for the benefit of their industry or the consumer, they are working explicitly for their own personal benefit.

Clearly, the capitalist exists because of the conditions of capitalism, and as such their position as capitalists requires them to exploit workers and obtain surplus value to maintain their class status. The capitalist, however, can’t be exculpated entirely from their own agency. Agency, within the bounds of material conditions, is explicit in historical materialism—indeed, Chibber repeatedly refers back to the agency of the working class to mobilize and change the conditions it works under. Why, then, deny capitalists their measure of agency? At this point it’s worth noting that Marx uses the phrases “capitalist” or “capitalists” and “capital” interchangeably when describing actions of the capitalist class. This happens throughout his work, and in Chapter 10 of Capital he powerfully states that:

“As a capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus value, to make its constant factor, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-labour. Capital is dead labour, that, vampire like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks”.

Chapter 10 of Capital Volume 1 provides many examples of Marx directing ire at the capitalist directly, and has some of his most powerful language, using the term “greed” to describe capitalists (or “capital”)  repeatedly, and comparing them, in the first place, with political and economic systems in which the ruling class had more direct “ownership” rights over workers in general.

 “Capital cares nothing for the length of life of labour-power. All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum of labour-power, that can be rendered fluent in a working-day. It attains this end by shortening the extent of the labourer’s life, as a greedy farmer snatches increased produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility.” (Marx)

Despite describing greedy behavior on the part of capitalists repeatedly, Chibber continues to emphasize that “capitalists don’t undermine their employees’ well-being because they are mean, greedy, or callous…[but] owners and managers will be punished if they don’t squeeze the most out of their labor force” (A, 35, emphasis in original). He describes workers’ agency to organize against capitalists, to “fight back”, without making capitalists responsible in any way for the role they play in the ongoing project of exploiting workers within a capitalist system.  Chibber, like Marx, was correct that we cannot appeal to the goodness of the capitalist to behave–however, we cannot absolve the capitalist of culpability either.

The most significant problem is that describing capitalists in this way could easily prevent a kind of movement where capitalists are, in fact, held accountable for not just perpetuating but actually embodying and enacting a system that necessarily exploits, harms, and kills working people. Changing the dynamics of the system means wresting control from capital, and the way that must necessarily happen is by facing capitalists directly. To fail to acknowledge this is to fail to acknowledge who, exactly the working class must work against, and to “humanize” the capitalist class beyond any extent necessary to prevent heinous crimes against them, is a project that can only discourage radical change.

Exploitation and oppression

In his description of exploitation (“extortion” in his terms) Chibber neglects to mention how some manifestations of exploitation, in particular the issue that he refers to as “underwork” in which workers are forced to have several part time jobs, disproportionately impacts women and Black Americans. Women who hold multiple jobs suffer not only from the problem of not “allowing them  to plan for activities outside their employment that are essential to their physical well-being” (A, 33), but also from having to perform reproductive and caring labor inside the home, and the resulting increased levels of stress, exhaustion, and alienation that results. This is a well-researched phenomenon and it is disconcerting that Chibber does not mention it at all. He mentions that the incursion of work-time outside of ostensible contemporary norms prevents worker vacations, going to movies, etc., but fails to acknowledge that it is worse than this for women—it prevents sleep, eating, medical care, and other such absolute necessities as women continue to make sure that other members of the family DO have access to such necessities. Towards the end of the final pamphlet he does mention that time is important since it “allows workers to care for all the other needs they have, apart from the need for physical survival”, and includes the issue of “taking care of family and loved ones” (C, 21), but seems to fail to recognize that this is, in fact a part of addressing the physical survival of the working class and disregards the specific oppression of women.

Chibber goes to great lengths to avoid mentioning any of the groups of people who make up the working class. In his explanation of why the working class should be the focus of political strategy he says that the political movement must be “fighting for things most people want and need, not just some chosen few, no matter how badly off that particular small groups is” (C, 4). The problem with rejecting the special needs of “particular small groups” is that he is certainly referring to groupings by identity and the individuals within those groups compose the working class  and they also experience oppression based on their identity.  By failing to acknowledge that “the working class” in the United States has often been interpreted as “the white, male working class”, Chibber risks excluding large swaths of the existing working class who upon reading his text may feel as though they have no place in  this analysis of the problems of capitalism and strategies to dismantle it.

In fact, he explicitly rejects the political project of addressing axes of oppression outside of “pure class” analysis. The most egregious specific example is perhaps:

“First, where [a policy proposal] doesn’t clash with what capitalists want, politicians are happy to take it seriously, even pander to it. The best example here is non-economic issues, like religious conflicts, or social issues like sexual identity. These are often allowed to move to center stage because however they are resolved, they won’t really touch the donors’ economic interests. In fact, they are very useful as political lightning rods because letting them rise to the top of the agenda allows the policies closer to class interests be decided backstage, in negotiations between capital and state managers.” (B, 17)

This plays into the most pernicious, politically alienating, and actively harmful stereotypes of liberation movements—that they are led by people who are either themselves tools of the elite, or that people who seek liberation outside of class are ignorant of what their real needs are. It’s worth noting that he mentions Lenin and Gramsci (C, 10)—rather than any contemporary activists, let alone contemporary women, people of color, or otherwise oppressed people—to cursorily address other axes of oppression. He neglects, again, to realize that the working class in general is made up of people who experience specific oppression along the lines of their identities.  In reality, as Marxist feminists have noted for decades, issues of race/gender/sexuality/disability etc., are not aside from class, as it were, but simultaneous and irremovable from class. This does not mean that addressing one addresses the other, but that addressing any one without explicitly recognizing the material impacts of the other in fact fractures leftist movements and not vice versa.

Socialism from above

Chibber seems to suggest a strategic outlook best characterized as socialism “from above,” where the existing capitalist state apparatus and political system are used to incrementally transition from capitalism to socialism, the imposition of socialism by politicians and bureaucrats. This is in sharp contrast to socialism “from below” where there is a revolutionary break from capitalist relations of production via a mass movement of the working class lead by members of the working class and independent working class organizations.

He uncritically states that historically “the Left physically located itself in the everyday lives and the employment venues of working people” (C, 3) which suggests a  “left” that is organized separately from the working class and enters into or embeds itself within the working class. This is in contrast to an autonomous, self activating and organizing working class–workers who organize as class for themselves. Effective class struggle has been waged by self organized workers, especially in terms of the most militant wings where workers have rejected the moderate calls of union bureaucrats for their own more radical ends. This is not to deny that organized revolutionaries historically (from the IWW, socialists and communists in the early 20th century, to communists/Trotskyists in the great organizing struggles of the CIO in the 30’s, to the revolutionary cadre of the 60’s) in the US were organic leaders in working-class struggles.  But members of vanguard parties can never substitute for the self-organization of workers more broadly nor is their role to lead but to help create new leaders from the workers themselves.

Chibber’s analysis suggests, while simultaneously superficially criticizing, that extreme power differentials can be acceptable or even beneficial and this legitimizes the reformist rather than revolutionary political project, in which the power of the state still lies with a bureaucratic or political class. In the first pamphlet he states that “the simple fact of being under someone else’s authority isn’t itself objectionable. Think of a family. Parents have near total authority over their children. encompassing every aspect of their lives. But we don’t typically object to this because we assume that parents will use that power to the benefit of their kids.” (A, 36). He is suggesting this as a site of acceptable unequal power relations, in contrast to the unacceptable power relationships of workers and capitalists. He characterizes this particularly extreme version of power relationship as “justified”, and the use of an explicitly paternal and patriarchal metaphor is a strange choice.

In pamphlet C he states that “A condition of dependence on someone else isn’t harmful if the dominant party has the same interests as the weaker one and assumes responsibility for the weaker one’s welfare” (C, 5), further legitimizing unequal power dynamics.  In his description of “member control” he explicitly states that “an organization of any size has to put some bureaucratic structures in place—it needs to have officials and staff who work full-time, whose job it is to manage its affairs, and who therefore are to some extent separated from members on an every day basis” (C, 27, emphasis added). Chibber pays lip service to accountability,  but does not critically investigate the possibility of structuring organizations in a significantly more democratic way. He could have easily drawn on a vibrant literature from the left that has indeed explored alternatives to capitalism’s traditional management structures.

Chibber’s perspective on the state is overly simplistic. He emphasizes that the state depends on the capitalist class for its maintenance via tax income, which requires ongoing investment by the capitalist class. This is certainly true, but he fails entirely to acknowledge that the bourgeois state was, in fact, built by the capitalist class and exists in dialectical simultaneity with it, and thus dependence is only one part of the ongoing power of the state to maintain class power. Chibber’s analysis of the state ends with the idea that the “challenge for the left to today is to engineer a shift toward” a political system in which there is a strong labor movement and a strong labor party (B, 35), and stops just short of anything more radical. He recognizes that the state under capitalism cannot be neutral and describes the variety of ways in which the state, as it were, is entangled and reliant upon capital. He comments on the limitations of electoral mobilizations, but declines to suggest a more radical shift in the structure and behavior of the state, which is necessary to build socialism.

Socialism from below

Chibber’s analysis is not so much incorrect as it is incomplete, and often inconsistent. He is correct that capitalism is irredeemable and liberation of working people can come only with its wholesale replacement; that the state, as it exists, is not separable from capital; that the exploitation of workers is the driver of the capitalist engine, and it must be workers who bring about change. He largely neglects, however, to acknowledge who the working class is, and that some workers—women, people of color, disabled people, queer people, and trans people, to name a few—experience specific oppressions that cannot be ignored if our goal is to achieve true human liberation. He devotes three paragraphs to the issue of “social hierarchies” on page 25 of 30 of the final pamphlet in the series, and another to address race specifically (and poorly) in the third to last paragraph of the series, after undermining and ignoring the material issues of axes of oppression throughout the 90+ previous pages.

This failure both undermines the political project of building socialism by creating an alienating narrative as to who socialists are and who they want to organize, and creates a dangerous situation in which oppression that exists within capitalism can be carried forward into a socialist future. His suggestion that solidarity requires “the creation of a common identity” (C, 23), in so far as it is part of building class consciousness, is not incorrect, but the suggestion that other identities are not important to organizing this solidarity is a dangerous one.

He also sets up a dynamic in which power is acknowledged as a problem only within the capitalist incarnation of the state, and fails to analyze the way that an ostensibly socialist state could reproduce power imbalances via the creation of a bureaucratic or managing class, which is destabilizing in itself. He legitimizes power imbalances that would make this likely.

Of course, these are just three short pamphlets and he could not address every problem. But specific issues stand out as things that must be explored immediately and cannot be left for later, even in our analysis of capitalism and before we get to building a future outside of capitalism, which is ostensibly his goal.

A liberatory socialism must be built by workers, and the workers are not homogenous. A liberatory socialism must reject power dynamics along all lines and must be radically democratic. A liberatory socialism requires the most radical goals now, to achieve the most radical ends later.

Hannah Archambault is a PhD student in Economics at UMass Amherst.

California Teachers on the March: An Interview with Joel Jordan

Johanna Brenner

April 4, 2019

Oakland teachers picket. Photo: Randy Vazquez/Bay Area News Group

Johanna Brenner: On February 21, Oakland’s 3,000 teachers went out on strike after two years of failed negotiations with the Oakland Unified School District.  Clearly, the strike got the District’s attention and a deal was won after teachers held strong for seven days.  What did the teachers fight for and what did they win?

Joel Jordan: Oakland teachers struck for three main demands.  The first was salaries: Oakland teachers are the lowest paid teachers in the county; they demanded 12% over 3 years and they won 11% over 4 years. The second demand not in order of importance was class size. The OEA, unlike other locals in California– or elsewhere– has a history of fighting for lower class size, although without any success since 1982. This time around, the union was able to win a reduction of 1 student per class/period next year in 45 schools with high needs students and a reduction of 1 student per class/period for all schools in 2021-22. Certainly a step in the right direction, though not very close to the union’s demand to reduce class size by 2 students for all schools and 4 students for high needs schools.

The third demand was for increased students supports – counselors, nurses, resource specialists, psychologists, and speech therapists.  The union won reduction in caseloads for all these categories, the only exception being for nurses where the union negotiated a sizeable increase in nurses’ salaries to attract more nurses to the district without specifically addressing nurses’ caseloads. The union reasoned that since nurses are required to serve all students in need within the district, their caseloads could not be reduced without addressing the causes for the shortage of nurses in the district. The nurses themselves did not agree and were among the most vociferous opponents of the negotiated contract.

Those three demands had been the union’s established negotiating position.  But a fourth demand emerged just as the union was about to go out on strike: a moratorium on the district’s plans to close 24 schools, mostly in low-income communities of color.  This plan was part of a long-term strategy on the part of the school board to expand charter schools in Oakland.  While Los Angeles has by far more charter schools than any other district in the country, Oakland has the highest percentage of charter schools in the state.  With almost 30% of the students in charter schools, Oakland is the poster child for charter school expansion.  A pro-charter school board runs the Oakland school district.  The Board would like to see Oakland become what has been called a portfolio district where students can choose between charter schools and public schools, which will in fact lead to an increase in the percentage of students going to charter schools in Oakland.

If the district goes through with its plan to close 24 schools over the next few years, many of the students now in those schools will have no public school to go to that is close by them—they might have to go thirty, forty blocks to the public school so instead they will attend charter schools in their area.  As a result, the 30% charter school figure will rise to 40-50% as this process develops. And I understand from sources in administration that the announced closing of 24 schools is just the beginning and that they intend to close as many as forty schools out of the eighty-eight schools in the entire district.

Supporters protest the closure of the Roots Elementary.  Photo: Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group

The first school to be shut down was the Roots International Academy.  It’s in a low income, mostly African American community.  And the community rose up to protest the way that this was done and there was a lot of sympathy toward the school and other schools that were going to be closed, most if not all of which were in low-income communities of color.  So there was an anti-racist component in the union’s demand to call a moratorium on school closing until a more rational process could be put in place for how to deal with schools that are under-populated or performing poorly.

I considered the demand for a moratorium to have been the key demand because it was directed at saving the district from piece-meal destruction. Not only would it hurt the workers, students and families from the schools being closed, but also the entire district, because the money that follows students into charter schools would be lost to the district and there would be a dwindling pie from which teachers would have to bargain salaries, benefits, working conditions, and learning conditions.

The union, to its credit, took this on as a major issue in the strike, even though it came up at the last minute and even though many members protested about raising this demand saying that “we didn’t vote to strike over this.”  On the other hand, there were many members who wanted the union to make this a demand.

Johanna: So are you saying that when the strike vote was taken, school closings were not part of the proposed negotiating demands, but the leadership added this demand later on during the strike?

Joel: Yes, the strike authorization vote was taken in late January and the school closing demand was put to a vote, and passed unanimously, at the last Rep Council – the highest decision-making body of the OEA composed of site representatives, or shop stewards – that was held a few days before the strike began. So, although the Rep Council is a democratically elected representative body, the rank and file never had the opportunity to vote to agree with raising this as a strike demand.

During the strike, the union almost got the district to agree to a one-year moratorium on school closings, but the Superintendent of Schools fiercely resisted this and in the end the union agreed to a five-month moratorium, which is essentially no moratorium at all.  Come August, 1919, the district can go ahead and close schools before the start of the next school year.  So, the union lost on this demand though it was always a long shot to oppose the district’s key strategic initiative.

Still, over all, the strike made important gains, including additional support for schools with newcomers from other countries, substantially increased pay for substitutes, improved paid parental leave, and teacher training on restorative justice programs, and more. The strike also forced the Oakland school board to pass a resolution, similar to what was passed by the Los Angeles school board, calling on the state legislature to institute a moratorium on new charter schools. All this was especially impressive given the short time the union had to prepare the rank and file for the strike.

Johanna: In the past, the Oakland Education Association has not been a fighting union.  What changed over the last few years that led the OEA to strike?  How was the strike organized internally among teachers?  How was community support mobilized?  What difference did that make in terms of the pressure the strike brought to bear on the school district leadership?

Joel: The leadership of the OEA in the past has been militant in rhetoric but not in deed. For the past six years—before a new leadership came into office in July of 2018 – the OEA leadership simply negotiated for whatever contract they thought it could get without organizing the membership.  This time was no different.  They appointed a bargaining team that was set on making concessions so they could reach an agreement without a strike. This changed when the new leadership came to power.

The new leadership was the product of an electoral alliance between Classroom Struggle – a progressive rank and file caucus coming out of the Occupy movement in 2012 – and a number of key black activists and officers in the local, including Keith Brown. The resulting Building Our Power slate, headed by Keith running for President and Ismael Armendariz (from Classroom Struggle) for Vice President, put forward a comprehensive social justice platform stressing the need for school site organization, deep relations with parents and community, and fighting for the schools Oakland students deserve. Building Our Power won the election overwhelmingly and immediately got to work, focusing first on school-site based organizing.  Two full time officers systematically went to schools that were not well organized.  They identified what they called organic leaders in each school who would be able to organize the rest of the faculty.  They did this very successfully, to the point where in January they were able to get a 95% yes vote for strike authorization with 84% of the membership voting.

Pastor Anthony Jenkins, Sr. at Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church, serving as a “solidarity school” during the Oakland teacher strike. Photo: Cirrus Wood

The new leadership also set up a committee for organizing in the community led by two co-chairs from Classroom Struggle. The committee contacted community organizations throughout Oakland who were very supportive and organized solidarity strike schools that parents volunteered to lead. Strike schools or solidarity schools have a history in Oakland.  In all previous strikes since the 80’s strike schools have always been set up; it’s a tradition.

The most dramatic fact that emerged from this wide-spread parent support was that less than 5% of students actually attended school. Parents chose to keep their kids with them at home, in the solidarity schools or with them on the picket line rather than sending them to school.  This put the most pressure on school district because they were losing hundreds of thousands of dollars of state funding a day, because this funding is based on daily attendance.

So how much did this teacher power and community support influence the results of the strike?  I would say it influenced it greatly.  The district had offered nothing to the OEA before the strike began so the power that was generated can only be attributed to the strike.

Johanna: How does the OEA contract compare to what UTLA was able to win with their strike?

Joel: UTLA overall made many more contract gains than did OEA.  One important difference between UTLA and OEA is that UTLA very judiciously brought in the Mayor of Los Angeles at a critical point when the strike had the most power. The Mayor appointed two of his staff members who were pro-labor to engage in the negotiations with the Los Angeles school district.  OEA also reached out for help to the newly elected (and supposedly pro-teacher) State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond who could have brought some pressure to bear on the district, but either did not have the necessary experience or the motivation to push the district toward meeting the union’s demands.

Another difference is the matter of size. The UTLA strike shut down over 900 schools in the second largest city in the U.S. Oakland, while not a small town, is only one tenth the size of L.A. So, the very magnitude of the LA strike gave it more leverage than the Oakland strike was able to generate.

Finally, UTLA’s leadership had over four years to meticulously prepare for their strike. The fact that the OEA leadership, after only being in office for a matter of months, was able to lead such a unified and militant strike was an amazing accomplishment. At the same time, the leadership’s inexperience showed up in some important ways we’ll discuss later.

Johanna: Clearly, the OEA rank and file were fired up during the strike, but not everyone was happy with the contract that was negotiated –42% voted no.  Why were they disappointed in the contract?  Did the large no vote have a demoralizing effect on the members?

Joel: There were several reasons for the “no” vote.    First the strike was so powerful and so solid that any agreement would be in some ways anti-climactic for many of the teachers who experienced the strike.  The strike raised expectations enormously; and most rank and file teachers did not have a clear idea of what could/could not be won by the strike.  The union had not produced an analysis of the District budget to show how realistic the teachers’ demands were and then to measure how much they had accomplished in light of budget realities.  Getting an accurate read on the budget is not easy because the District’s finances are so opaque.  So no one knew for sure how much money the district actually had in order to meet the union’s demands.  That lack of information led to widespread speculation all the way from “the district has no money and we have to go to the state,” to “the district has all kinds of money and we should have been able to win a lot more” and everywhere in between.  This lack of clarity contributed to the no vote.

Second, the lack of progress on school closures especially was obvious to all and for many this was the key demand.

Third, many were sympathetic to the nurses, who organized against the contract very publicly.

A fourth reason for the no vote was that the leadership ended the strike in a very peculiar way.  When the tentative agreement was announced, the union was picketing a school board meeting in an attempt to shut it down, because the Board was meeting to consider cuts in student programs and classified staff in order to qualify for a 22 million dollar boost from the state.  So when the leadership asked members to withdraw the pickets from the school board meeting once the tentative agreement was signed, many rank and file members thought that the union was throwing the students and classified workers under the bus.  Even though the cuts that were being made had nothing to do with the union contract, the confusion surrounding pulling the pickets angered many of those who were picketing.

Students rally with teachers during strike. Photo: Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group

One other thing: many high school students were involved in supporting the strike and very much against the agreement though it is not clear why, since the union was not bargaining about student demands that had emerged from the students themselves.  In Los Angeles, students had demanded that the District end random searches for weapons in many district high schools and UTLA had included this in their contract bargaining.  There was nothing like this in the Oakland strike.  Of course, OEA’s demands around class size and student supports were directed at improving students’ learning conditions and the union had also put forward a demand, which it won, that the district support training teachers to implement restorative justice practices, something that high school students are very supportive of.

Johanna: Was the controversy around the ratification of the contract demoralizing for the most activist teachers?

Joel: It’s too soon to say for sure, but there are many indications that the dissatisfaction with the contract is not carrying over into dissatisfaction with the leadership or the union.  For example, during the contract ratification process, the Rep Council had split almost 50/50.  But the Council meeting immediately following the strike was very positive, with no recriminations and no hostility toward the leadership.  Another indication that people were not demoralized is that the organizing committee which had met during the strike held a post-strike meeting with more people attending than had attended during the strike.  Many teachers who had not been involved in the union now want to be involved.

The union is also moving to repair relations with those who voted no.  The no vote was centered in the high schools, where the wildcat movement was strong before the strike began.  The leadership is organizing meetings at those schools, to debrief and discuss lessons learned– positive and negative– and how to take the next steps forward.  How that turns out, in my opinion, will be key to evaluating the long-term success of this strike.

Johanna: Could you say more about these wildcats?

Joel:  A few weeks before the strike began, as many as 12 schools, mostly high schools, wildcatted by holding two one-day sickouts, calling for better pay and conditions.  These actions were led mostly by younger teachers.  To some extent, at least at the beginning, the strikes occurred out of frustration with the slow pace of bargaining.  The union had been in bargaining with the district for almost two years with nothing to show for it.  The wildcatters were mostly unaware of the new leadership and its attempts to organize the rank and file since the summer of 2018.  Many of the wildcat leaders were dismissive of the union, believing that their own self-organization was sufficient.  But as the strike grew closer, many of these same leaders became active in the union, leading demonstrations and so forth.  Hopefully, even though many of these leaders voted against the contract, they will continue to be active in the union.

Johanna:  What are the challenges facing the OEA in terms of expanding the depth and reach of teacher self-organization and developing rank and file leadership?

Joel:  The leadership of this strike did an amazing job activating previously uninvolved members of OEA. They built structures, such as a sizable organizing team before the strike began, and held meetings of around 100-120 strike captains during the course of the strike. They also created a strategy team of around eight people who made the decisions on actions during the strike. This produced a problem as many of the strike captains disagreed with some of the strategy decisions and pushed back against them. But there was no institutional means by which the opinions of the strike captains had to be taken into consideration.  The opportunity to build a larger strike committee with better connections to the rank and file was therefore lost.

Also, even though the rep council of OEA had directed the bargaining team to provide daily summaries of negotiations with the district during the strike, this didn’t happen.  In fact, the bargaining team, which was inherited from the old leadership of OEA and continued under the new leadership, invoked confidentiality in the contract negotiations—this even though the Rep Council had made clear its opposition to confidentiality which it considered a tactic for keeping the rank and file in the dark and disempowered.

So what we had was a leadership that courageously fought and organized a social justice battle against the district, but did so too much from the top down.  Some of the reasons for this have to do with inexperience: the elected leaders had never negotiated a contract before, much less led a strike.  OEA had a tradition of compartmentalizing the work, so the right hand did not know what the left hand was doing.  Establishing a strategy team to centralize strike activities was a step in the right direction, but it was done at the cost of two-way communication with the rank and file and its most active leaders.

Another factor in this top down process has to do with what I think is an inevitable tendency of leadership, even the most militant, to trust its own knowledge rather than risking opening up decision-making to members who may or may not agree with the leadership’s point of view.  This is why having a check on the leadership from a well-organized rank and file is so important.

For the OEA leadership to build confidence in the entire membership after this strike, it will need to reevaluate the manner in which it conducted the strike. It will need to open up not just avenues for activity but for real leadership. It will need to develop committees, led by rank-and-file members, that take up the important projects coming out of this strike– projects like fighting the upcoming school closures, fighting against cuts in restorative justice programs with students, and organizing statewide actions with other locals for increased funding and against charter school expansion. All committees would involve work with students and parents as well. The union should be encouraging school site organizing and making space for school sites to share organizing ideas across the district based on the sense of empowerment that students, teachers, and parents feel as a result of the strike.

Johanna:  United Teachers of Los Angeles has followed a similar trajectory to OEA—a rank and file caucus comes into power, transforming the union and broadening its mission to striking for the schools our students deserve.  What challenges do these two unions share?

One of the challenges facing the leadership of both unions is the challenge of capacity.  In both cities, a rank and file reform caucus successfully won either all or a part of the elected leadership. This inevitably means that those who were caucus leaders now have key roles to play in the union – as officers, Exec Board members, organizers, and so forth – leaving them less time to build the caucus. Unless the caucus has a secondary leadership that can pick up the ball and keep the caucus growing, it tends to stagnate. This is especially true as many members tend to question the need for the caucus once a progressive leadership is elected. This is what has happened in UTLA, though the Union Power caucus is making efforts to turn that around.

Joel: The situation is a bit different in Oakland. While Classroom Struggle is allied with OEA President Keith Brown, the Building Our Power slate unfortunately never did evolve into a broader progressive caucus. At the same time, several of the Classroom Struggle activists played key roles in the union before and during the strike, and will continue to do so. How this will play out for Classroom Struggle following the strike is not clear. Given the unprecedented member activism and politicization that the strike unleashed, the caucus has many opportunities to grow. But the lack of a deep bench of activists within Classroom Struggle makes that a challenge.

Another challenge facing the OEA leadership is how to repair historic racial divisions within the union.  One of the great achievements of the new leadership is that now a number of teachers of color, especially African American teachers, are playing primary leadership roles. The new President of OEA, Keith Brown, belongs to many African American organizations and has deep roots in Oakland’s black community.  Ismael Armendariz is the new First Vice President.

It could not have happened at a better time in a city that is primarily Black and Latino to have the two top officers of the OEA be Black and Latinx. At the same time, there has been a history in OEA of racial antagonism between black and white teachers and this has led the current leadership to mistrust sharing power. This was one reason that the new leadership kept the strike strategy committee to a small and trusted group.  Building a multi-racial leadership with teachers of color in the lead is essential; overcoming the historic racial divides that inevitably arise in urban districts will be another important challenge for the OEA.

OEA and UTLA face similar issues arising from their urban locations experiencing skyrocketing rents, displacement, homelessness, growing inequality, and so forth.  Both LA and Oakland school districts are targets for privatization. Both districts are already underfunded and becoming further underfunded by charter expansion.

Teachers and community supporters protest charterization on day 2 of Oakland strike. Photo: Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group

Another commonality is that as urban school districts, they are disproportionately impacted by the need for special education funding.  Poorer communities, low-income communities of color, have a higher percentage of special ed students and among those a higher percent of the most severely disabled and therefore more costly students.   The federal government mandates that schools serve these students, but refuses to pay for these mandates.

What all this means is that no matter how powerful a strike that either local can muster, by themselves they are even less able to win substantial improvements in school conditions than other districts with relatively more resources.

Johanna:  In many states teachers have engaged in political strikes aimed at state legislatures who control school funding.  Is this something that OEA is working on?  With UTLA? With other teacher locals?

Joel: Actually, conventional wisdom would tell you that California should definitely be a prime candidate for militant statewide action. California is ranked 43rd in per pupil funding and has among highest class sizes of any state. Teacher salaries in absolute terms are higher than the national average but not when you factor in cost of living, especially housing costs. The state provides 90% of education funding. Yet, the RedForEd movement has yet to reach California except in support of the recent local strikes in L.A. and Oakland.

Ironically, one reason that teachers have not organized statewide around funding and privatization issues is that California has local wall-to-wall collective bargaining.  That means that by law if teachers unionize, districts have to recognize the union and engage in collective bargaining. On the other hand, in the states where we’ve seen statewide teacher strikes, collective bargaining is either “permissive” (Oklahoma), meaning that districts can legally refuse to bargain with the union, or is outlawed altogether (West Virginia and Arizona). Just as important, the legislatures in these states play a much more direct role in determining teacher salaries and working conditions, unlike California, where salaries, etc., are set through local district/union negotiations. So, with weak unions and state determined salaries, the rank and file in the Red States were able to organize themselves, primarily through social media, and strike statewide. In California, however, because of the pervasive practice and culture of local collective bargaining, teachers have tended to see the districts as their primary target even though the state controls the purse strings that each district depends on.

This local parochialism is encouraged by the California Teachers Association (CTA), which, with 320,000 members, is arguably the most potentially powerful public sector state affiliate in the National Education Association.  However, the CTA has failed to organize a fight back around funding, starting way back in 1978 with the passage of Proposition 13—the law which limited property tax increases on all property, both commercial buildings and private homes and has been a disaster in terms of the state budget—for all state services, not only public education. Nor has the CTA organized a fightback against the growing privatization of education in California whereby privately run charter schools now enroll over 10% of California students, mainly in low income urban areas. This is because CTA is a staff-dominated organization with a service union orientation that prioritizes cultivating cordial relationships with Democratic Party politicians and school board members rather than organizing its own members to take action—whether at their school sites, in their community, or at the state level.

To overcome local parochialism and the CTA’s conservatism, about two years ago, UTLA, OEA, and the San Diego Education Association (SDEA) formed what later came to be called the California Alliance for Community Schools (CACS).

Now a consortium of ten of the largest locals in California, CACS is committed to building toward coordinated statewide mass actions and working with community organizations to fight for increased school funding and against further charter school encroachment on the public school system. It has also played a key role in moving CTA to take action on a number of fronts.

On the issue of funding, CACS has been working with community organizations to place an initiative on the 2020 California ballot that would reform Proposition 13 with a “split-roll” property tax whereby commercial property and homes would be taxed differently.  Prop 13 limits would stay in place for homeowners but lifted for commercial property, potentially raising over $11 billion a year for schools and other needed services. The top leadership of CTA resisted joining this effort. They wanted to protect their treasury rather than spend the millions it would take to counter the big money the real estate industry will pour into the No campaign.  The Democrats don’t want to take on the real estate industry either.  But recently, through the organizing within CTA by CACS locals, the CTA State Council voted overwhelmingly to support this effort. Also, as a result of the powerful UTLA strike, L.A. Mayor Garcetti publicly endorsed the initiative.

While the Red State teacher strikes have been a source of inspiration throughout the country, CACS understands that it will take a combination of political education and action to overcome local union parochialism and CTA conservatism. One way CACS has promoted this is through linking local contract struggles with the need for state intervention. In both the Los Angeles and Oakland strikes, the union leaderships raised the need for expanded state funding and deepened the anti-charter narrative.  The strikes helped to turn around public attitudes about charter schools and about school funding. At the same time, in order to foster cross-local solidarity and coordinated action, CACS locals successfully urged CTA to call for simultaneous “walk-ins” and “RedForEd days” in support of those strikes throughout the state.

Following the UTLA and OEA strikes, CACS is currently attempting to build momentum for a mass lobby and rally day in Sacramento on May 22 to support legislation for a moratorium on charter school expansion as well as for increased public education funding. Some CACS locals, especially in the Bay Area, may very well encourage member sickouts to ensure mass participation. Not surprisingly, CTA leadership is resisting building such an action, consistent with its “inside the beltway” strategy of not embarrassing Democrats. As of this writing, CACS is bringing a motion to the CTA State Council to get full CTA support.

One encouraging development has been the recent emergence of California Educators Rising (CER), a statewide rank-and-file grouping centered on its facebook page with many of the same goals as CACS. During the UTLA and OEA strikes, California Educator Rising successfully developed an adopt a striking school program whereby schools throughout the state paired up with a striking school to offer whatever support was needed – financial assistance, moral support, etc. While CER has not come close to matching the size of the red state facebook audiences – not surprisingly given some of the challenges mentioned previously — it has definitely helped to spread the word and involve more people. CER is also pushing for a big turnout on May 22 in Sacramento.

There is plenty of work to do, obviously, but grass-roots momentum is building among California teachers.

Joel Jordan is a retired teacher activist who spent many years organizing with the Los Angeles teachers’ union (UTLA) before relocating to Oakland where he helps coordinate the California Alliance for Community Schools.

Johanna Brenner is a member of Solidarity living in Portland, OR.