The Role of the Unions Part 14: Gifford Hartman to IDN

NB: This posting appeared before the Mac Intosh's reply to Loren Goldner, but it is placed here to allow greater readability. The original title of Gifford's post was the Class line.


Here are my thoughts:

Except for Will's more detailed writings, I've yet to read any accounts on this listserve of class relations in the U.S. -- or anywhere else for that matter -- that are based on the actual level of activity (or lack thereof) and consciousness of working class people. There's also been nothing about living and working conditions anywhere.

Mac Intosh wrote:

"...the lived experience of the working class in the present epoch"

Well, we are living it, so let's have a discussion about how this lived experience affects our lives. Because I don't think it's possible to come from outside of the class to proselytize our fellow workers into actions that make them communists. That was the mistake of Lenin in What is to be done? in 1902 and his leftist followers have repeated his flawed formula for the ensuing 110 years. It's also the approach of religion -- the saints recruiting the sinners to the promise of everlasting life.

We need to be doing constant formal and informal surveys of fellow workers, whether they're our co-workers, our neighbors, or other working class people we encounter in our everyday lives -- be it on the bus, at the market, or in line at the unemployment or welfare office. An excellent model would be "A Worker's Inquiry" that Marx suggested in 1880. Another similar approach would be in the spirit of the IWW's basic program of AGITATE, EDUCATE, ORGANIZE, which was effective on the fly since so many Wobblies lived nomadic lives on board ships, as “timberbeasts” in the woods, or seasonal and migratory agricultural workers chasing jobs with the harvest [some releveant facts: A 1913 survey of workers in California showed the casualized nature of labor as the average employment in lumber camps was 15-30 days, 30 days for the seasonal canning industry and 60 days for mining] and were not only able to circulate IWW literature, but in the communal living quarters were able to discuss on a variety of topics, as well as serve as “walking encyclopedias” of comparative knowledge on prevailing wage rates, working conditions and organizing strategies. We've come full circle and many of us have precarious, unstable jobs without any benefits. "The Disposable Worker" was an article in the January 7, 2010 edition of Businessweek that said:

That was 6 years ago, so I'm sure that it's well over 30% and rising. As Loren Goldner pointed out, right now in South Korea at least 60% of the working class are "casualized." With the attacks on public sector workers in Wisconsin, the U.S. is moving in the same direction as Korea. And this casualization defines my life: I work 2 to 4 insecure jobs with irregular hours. Some days I work 10 hours, at other times I go half a week without getting any calls for work. My once-stable part-time decently-paid public sector job went from 15 hours a week 5 years ago, shaving off an hour or two every year, to the point that I'm down to 8 hours a week, but with 30% of those hours furloughed for the year. Even though I was hired into a second tier, my position is non-union but the city's work rules are pretty parallel to those of the mostly union workforce. So despite being an "at-will" employee who can be fired at any time for any reason, my boss is hesitant to do so because the tradition of following those union work rules. Yet my job will end soon, when my hours get cut down to next to nothing.

The last time I had a full-time union job was at a call center (before that term was used) in the early 1990s organized with ILWU. It was also the last time I had fully paid healthcare (medical, dental and vision) and we, as the rank-and-file, controlled the work process on the shop floor. The company had just purchased a state-of-the-art robo-dialer computer phone system that was intended to set the pace of work. Using our unionization for cover, we covertly sabotaged the computer system a couple times a week. We were insubordinate, we never allowed the boss (as per company policy) to dock our pay during computer down times, and I remember countless times telling the boss to "fuck off" to his or her face -- nearly everyone did! The union hated us because they were always being called by management to attempt to reign us in. But they were piecards who had to drive from the union offices to our workplace and usually merely slapped our wrists and never did anything except occasionally telling us to "cool it." The mediation of the union gave us breathing space to harass management. As much as I hate work, I left that job begrudgingly. And yes, most unions are cops for the boss, but ours was absentee and didn't serve that role. Here, I think what Staughton Lynd says about labor law is instructive and could also be applied to unions in such situations (simply replace "law" with "union"):

Mac Intosh, you're being hyperbolic when you paint unions as "counter-revolutionary" with an unsubstantiated broad brush. And being ahistorical too, I might add. It would be like saying the PTA, the Audubon Society and the NFL are counter-revolutionary. Except for some Trotskyites, who alleges that unions are revolutionary anyway? Couldn't the cross-class alliances in your neighborhood school's PTA be said to be counter-revolutionary by the same logic? If I was presently in a union, the boss at the aforementioned public sector job couldn't cut my hours. Anyway, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics study, private sector unionization in the U.S. went down to 6.9%; overall unionization went down to 11.9% That means nearly 9 out of 10 workers aren't even in unions. In the public sector, it's 36.2%, but there are 5 times as many in the private sector as in the public. But race plays an important role in all this, as "black workers were more likely to be union members" than whites, Asians or Hispanics (United States Department of Labor). In places like New York and California blacks are most likely to be public sector workers in numbers disproportionately to their presence in the general population, so the 1970s attacks on the mythical black welfare mom driving a Cadillac has transformed with the times into attacks on black civil servants with "Cadillac" health benefits -- and hence the vengeance with which the Tea Party types openly attack the lucrative benefits of the "greedy" workers in the public sector. Despite the denials of these reactionaries, it's only slightly-veiled anti-working class racism. It does attract the negative solidarity of working class whites, who sans benefits and job security themselves, demand that no one else have them either. This must be openly confronted.

And despite being agreement with most of the left communists theorizing of many of you, I am disturbed by the complete lack of any evidence of any kind of practice. I mean, what do you do when you're not fine tuning your texts on the collective worker, value theory and decadence? Please don't let me misrepresent you -- by posting at least a brief account of some kind of activity based on interaction with other working class people.

But lacking that I'll come once again to the defense of the tradition of the I.W.W., with their adherence to class war direct action toward the purpose of class consciousness. They never had any problem drawing the class line, simply because they didn't "draw" it as some abstract academic exercise, but instead cleaved the class line decisively in concrete and unmistakable actions.

Here's how Sergio Bologna defined their practice:

Simply imploring "the" workers to draw the class line without historical context is accepting a static definition of class. Here E. P. Thompson is helpful, because he wrote that the working class was:

I don't think anyone can claim to be a communist without swimming "within the stream of proletarian struggles" as a full, active participant. This much is clear: without a fightback based on the self-activity and self-organization of our class, many of us whose lives are defined by the wage relation are only a pay check or two away from the conditions of the reserve army of labor, be it living in a car, in a tent city, at a homeless shelter, or in jail.

For a Classless Society,


April 5, 2011

Back to Part 13

Forward to Part 15

Home IP Archive Texts Discussion IP's French site Links