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The Left and Labor Strategy

The Left needs a more coherent vision for its work inside the labor movement.

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The era of neoliberal globalization has unsettled the labor-capital relationship in the capitalist world, particularly in the advanced capitalist world. It has brought to an end the period of a strong welfare state and has replaced it with an all-out war of capital against labor — introducing into the global North much of what has been transpiring in the global South since the days of colonialism.

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The dominant forces within global capitalism are represented by what Egyptian theorist Samir Amin has entitled the “triad”: the US, European Union and Japan. The principal enforcement arm of the triad is that of the US, sometimes acting in concert with other imperial powers. The triad finds itself sometimes at odds with and other times in sync with the countries associated with the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). Yet even where there is contention, it does not match that which was a major feature of the international picture in the first half of the twentieth century when the world was divided into distinct empires based in Europe, Japan, and the US.

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There are indications of the development of a transnational capitalist class, but such a class, though at this point largely limited regionally, has no state apparatus through which it is operating. There is, however, an immense level of cooperation between and among the global capitalist classes, particularly regarding their relationship to global labor and efforts at limiting national sovereignty.

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There have been major shifts in the nature of work and the working class over the last four decades. This has been the result of several factors, including new technologies, global migration patterns, and the ideology and practices that accompany neoliberalism. With the breakdown of the welfare state, there has also been the slow but steady demise of “eternal employment” within the global North, whereby a worker could assume that a job existed for all or most of their life. Companies have cut workforces to a core segment, and the process of “contingent labor” has been introduced. This has meant that the periphery of most workforces are part-time, temporary, and contract labor, which largely corresponds to “just-in-time” production. It has also meant the growth of the structurally unemployed and a proletarianization of many professions.

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An additional feature of work and the working class has been the forcing upon the worker the various tasks and responsibilities that had previously been handled by the state or by full-time labor in the private sector. These tasks are usually done at the worker’s own expense or with the possibility of minor contributions from the state (or minor reductions in certain costs when it comes to the private sector).

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The reorganization of work has been accompanied by and frequently carried out through an attack on organized labor. In the US, organized labor was completely unprepared for this assault, largely because it believed that through purging the Left in the 1940s, they had secured a permanent place at the table of mainstream society. That turned out to be a fallacy.

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As the living standard has declined and organized labor has been attacked, the Right has worked to enhance right-wing populism as an expression of popular discontent aimed at segments of the working class and/or specific ethnic groups and women. Right-wing populism has come to be associated with acceptance of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor and working class, which acts as a racial code in order to neutralize white opposition to the assault on the welfare state.

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In the absence of a coherent, visionary twenty-first century approach to strategy, tactics, and organization on the part of organized labor, different forms of organization have emerged in various segments of the working class. This has especially included the advent of worker centers and what is sometimes referenced as “alt-labor” among immigrants and other excluded or marginalized sectors of the working class.

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The pauperization of much of the working class has resulted in fights around survival which include housing, jobs, healthcare, and education. This means that the targets of such struggles, when led by progressives, are frequently the state. Yet as the state cries that it is out of money, much of the population has found itself believing that their demands cannot be met by the state. Some responses to this claim have been reactionary, like an increase in crime; some have been individual-focused, in the informal economy; and some have been collective, like recent instances of mass struggle or the spread of cooperatives.

It has also presented a major strategic and organizational challenge to organized labor which, while having historically placed various demands on the state, has rarely found itself at odds with the state on fundamental questions.

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The net result of this situation is that progressive and leftist organizing within the working class finds itself operating on two separate, though related, battlefields. There are community-based struggles that range from efforts against the state to various self-help (cooperative) efforts. In those struggles there is a survival or social service side that must be considered, reminiscent of the “survival programs” that the Black Panther Party promoted in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

There are dangers and opportunities associated with this work. Survival programs can become an end in themselves, rather than a means to both service and reach a broad, popular base. On the other hand, as seen in the work of groups such as Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, such programs can be a component of the actual base-building that the Left needs to conduct, like the anti-heroin efforts led by Sinn Fein in Dublin in the late 1980s.

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The other battlefield is in the context of the world of work — not to be understood as only formal and full-time, but including all efforts to survive in which individuals sell their labor power. In some cases, individuals may be offering services for compensation through the informal sector in order to survive. As a result, such individuals may not see themselves as workers but may, instead, see themselves as the aspiring middle class. In other cases, they may see themselves as simply trying to survive.

Nevertheless, the struggle in the world of work revolves largely around the struggle with the employer, whether that employer is the state or a private or semi-private entity. In this environment, different forms of organization have emerged and will continue to emerge over time. This includes traditional trade unions, but also workers associations. Where, as a result of neo-liberal policies, workers have been “transitioned” into the status of “contractors,” they may not legally have the right to unionize. But — as demonstrated by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance — they can form de facto unions that, in many respects, can operate like a union even if they are not permitted to engage in traditional collective bargaining.

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There is not one or other structure of worker organization that is “ideal.” Rather, the structure must be determined by a combination of an assessment of the actual situation as well as a clarification of the goals of the organization of that specific sector of workers. It is in this latter sense that ideology is very important.

The nature of the industry, it should be added, can have a profound impact on the consciousness of workers. If a set of workers have an identity as nurses, for instance, that may override the fact that they exist in a larger healthcare industry. This identity becomes a site for ideological struggle.

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Community-based workers struggles are as legitimate as any other form of worker struggles. They may be directly aimed at the State, but they can also be aimed at private capital (or both). In community struggles, however, class identity may be submerged by neighborhood, racial and ethnic, or gender identity. This means that a specific population engaged in struggles that are objectively worker struggles against capital (or against the capital-dominated state) may not see themselves as being involved in a “worker’s struggle” since the prevailing definition of worker struggles are those struggles that relate directly to employment. This is a challenge for the Left — one that is frequently ignored.

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The right to collective bargaining is under severe attack throughout the capitalist world, but particularly in the US. Any suggestion that workers should turn away from collective bargaining because it has been lost is misplaced. The challenge is how to change the forms of collective bargaining, recognizing that certain sectors of the workforce are not legally permitted to engage in such efforts. Thus, collective bargaining may have to take more informal channels.

The fast food strikes, for instance, regardless of certain conceptual weaknesses, are an intriguing way to engage in citywide “bargaining” that goes beyond any one particular employer. City-wide standards can be established outside of traditional forms of collective bargaining. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance have begun to build such a framework.

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In the South (and increasingly everything south of the Canadian border), workers have been falling victim to attacks on collective bargaining and the right to organization in the public sector. Responding to these attacks must be centered first and foremost on the essential need for a public sector in a civilized society, followed by the right of workers to have collective bargaining in the public sector. The message of organized workers in the public sector must focus on saving and changing the public sector in order to serve the public. When the unions are seen as champions of pro-people reforms in the public sector, they will tend to gain popular support (as the Chicago Teachers Union strike did).

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The entire process of organizing has encountered significant challenges over the last twenty years. The atomization of life along with the growth of electronic communications processes has led to more indirect interaction between human beings. This tendency is, in many ways, toxic and anti-social. It has proven difficult to have face-to-face meetings and encourage one-on-one organizing and activism. Ironically, the Right seems to be far better at responding to this challenge than progressives and the Left.

That said, the process of organizing must appeal to what Fernando Gapasin and others reference as “cultures of solidarity.” There must be efforts to build community, whether one is organizing workers in communities or workplaces. Labor organizations need to recreate cultural wings that include reading groups, sports clubs, food cooperatives, and other means for human beings to see one another and interact.

In this process, creative tactics for mobilization and pressure will likely arise from workers themselves. Labor organizations need to be learning centers — loci of education where workers share and gain knowledge. They need to also be centers for the learning of democracy. Democracy is not only the formality of elected leadership but the process of making decisions and building power.

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Outside of labor organizations themselves, building power involves creating strategic alliances that share a common goal. Organized labor in the US has largely accepted that it is not only on the defensive but must remain there. This is a surefire path to oblivion. Instead, a theory of the counter-offensive must be advanced. This requires the creation of a new identity for the oppressed and disenfranchised. Taking the lead in working towards such an identity is a critical task for the Left.

We must recognize that in building this new identity, not all segments of the oppressed will accept this direction. There will be tugs and pulls towards narrow self-interest and other reactionary approaches.

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A discussion of labor is not complete without examining the question of the unemployed and underemployed. Changes in the process of work, with technology and neoliberal reorganization, has meant that there has been an uneven but actual growth in the structural unemployed — the “redundant” sections of the workforce. Entire cities like East St. Louis fall into this category, and segments of other cities and counties.

In the major cities, however, we are witnessing a racial and class cleansing. Sections of cities that were previously reserved for the poor are now being cleansed, and the poor are being driven to outer regions. While there has been some work among the unemployed and underemployed over the years, (the Philadelphia Unemployed Project, for example, and more recently some organizations associated with the Right to the City Alliance), organized labor has all but abandoned the unemployed and underemployed, except most recently with some retail organizing (such as UFCW’s work around Walmart and SEIU’s work around fast food).

There are some creative efforts among the unemployed in Northeast Indiana, but this is the exception that proves the rule. It has been very difficult to gain foundation support for organizing the unemployed and underemployed — these sectors have largely been written off as impossible to organize. Yet the key to organizing the unemployed is a combination of social service delivery, mass action, a vision of where and how jobs can be found (or created), and a cadre of dedicated activists who will anchor this work.

The unemployed organizing of the 1930s, for instance, was not the result of spontaneous efforts, but was rooted in the work of the CPUSA, socialists, Musteites and Trotskyists. In each case, cadre from leftist organizations were dedicated to this work. This is an essential lesson. Given the nature of the sector, there will be tremendous turnover within the mass base.

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There is a special and essential role for the Left in this work. While there remain significant unanswered questions, such as the form and nature of national Left organizations in the US, the niche that the Left must fill is at least partially clear. This includes:

Worldview

More than simply a vision of the future, the Left must offer and teach a worldview through which workers can understand and change reality. Too many efforts rely on mobilization and inspiration as a means of sustaining our efforts. Worldview and framework are really at the core of sustaining and building our work. This means helping people to understand the nature of the system, the nature of the enemy, the nature and scope of our allies and potential allies, and the possible directions we can pursue towards or victories.

Social justice objectives

Labor organization, whether community- or workplace-based, must seek to establish objectives that are rooted in a conception of social and economic justice. Alinskyism in both community-based and workplace-based organizing, along with Gompersism in organized labor, has downplayed the broader notion of social justice, except in an abstract rhetorical sense.

The objectives of our work must be transformational in two senses. The aim must be the transformation of society. That means ultimately confronting capitalism. Also, the masses who are involved in the larger struggle must be transformed. In both cases, this means establishing genuine class consciousness that is beyond a consciousness of trade unionism or even economic justice alone. It is, to borrow from the old man, the notion of the workers recognizing that they need to be the advocates for all of the oppressed, dispossessed, and disenfranchised.

In the current era, the matter of social justice must include the challenge of the environment and the survival of life on this planet. This challenge, we should note, will frequently pit the matter of jobs against the environment. The Left cannot fear this challenge and must recognize that this contradiction must be addressed directly. Addressing it is integrally linked to articulating the need for a different economy and that, in the last instance, capitalism is antithetical to the future of humanity.

The Left must lead in struggling against sectoral exclusivity. In organized labor, this can include the struggle against narrow trade or craft mentality. But this can also be a geographic matter where we are confronted with regional tensions frequently played upon by right-wing populists.

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The evolution of the US working class has also involved a significant shift racially, ethnically, and gender-wise over the last fifty years. The response within organized labor, community-based organizations, and the Left has been uneven. Organized labor has increasingly recognized the strategic significance of Latino and Asian immigrants and, in some cases, has entered into special efforts to organize and support such populations.

At the same time, organized labor refuses to recognize the continued significance of the black working class and African Americans generally. Organized labor has no strategy that is particularly focused on the black working class. To some extent, this has also been the case in community organizing efforts. Many of the efforts to organize immigrants, for instance, have paid little to no attention to the construction of alliances with African Americans. The result has been an increase in tension as the black working class has been economically marginalized and opportunities for economic growth denied.

The workforce has additionally shifted dramatically at the level of gender. This has largely not translated into labor organizations — whether workplace-based or community-based — that are either majority female or have a significant female constituency, becoming “women’s organizations.” The voice of women continues to be largely organizations and individuals rooted in groups of wealthier women.

In the cases of race, ethnicity, and gender, it is the Left and only the Left that has the historic responsibility to engage in efforts that can be understood as rooted in transformation and the battle for consistent democracy. This is not a struggle by a sector or for an interest group. It is a battle that is linked to the creation of a new identity among and within the oppressed.

Alinskyists and Gompersists attempt to create such an identity by denying the significance of racist oppression, national oppression, gender oppression or homophobia, instead seeking some sort of idealistic unity at the level of economics or common demands.

The Left must shatter such a framework and insist on a transformational approach aimed not only at the destruction of these various forms of oppression, but the construction of a popular, democratic bloc that can win and hold power.