Class Struggle Outside the Workplace

(This was mainly inspired as a response to the Solidarity labor committee’s recent document.)

A Strategy for a Time of Union Weakness, Class Anger, and Rising Radicalization

This essay will argue that the socialist movement’s typical approach to labor organizing is mistaken.  Instead of focusing on public-sector unions, or established unions at all, we need to step back and realize that labor is currently so weak that we must view union activity as a future goal, not a task for the present (except in obvious cases when existing unions can be given community support).  In its place, this essay will advocate the intermediate step of building a class struggle movement outside of the workplace, using solidarity networks, minimum wages struggles, and open socialist organizing itself, including socialist electoral campaigns.  Whereas typically the labor movement is seen as a broader recruiting grounds for the narrower party-building, this essay will reverse the logic and contend that we can use socialist organizing, safe from the termination threats of the workplace, as an intermediary means for preparing a labor movement.  While public sector unionism may be a good perspective for Chicago, I am writing a perspective for the rest of the country, and the rest of the workforce, which lives and organizes in vastly different conditions.  I believe this strategy could also be pursued in tandem with a public-sector union focus, but only in the places where necessary union strength exists.

Ultimately, if the Solidarity document advocated a mixture of public sector focus with class struggle outside the workplace, this essay would advocate a stronger lean toward the latter.  This is not meant as some kind of sectarian attack or attempt to embarrass Solidarity, though it could certainly be called a dissenting opinion.  It’s not like I think the people who wrote the document are a bunch of traitors or incompetents;  there is plenty of common ground, and I still found this nonetheless worth writing.

“Attacking education doesn’t just attack teachers”?

When people are unemployed, they don’t care about education so much.   It’s just not what strikes the truly resonating chord with people.  Yes, having a good education system is part of having a higher standard of living.  But when people are struggling with survival itself, the maintenance of culture is not their top priority.  I constantly hear people responding to issues like poverty in the ghetto by saying “Education!”  They’re really missing the point; yes inner-city schools should be funded, but Black kids drop out of school because they’re not going to be hired anyway, or not for anything good.

Again, we can walk and chew gum, focusing on both survival needs and education.  But how much activist organizational resources do you really have, to split your attention that way?  Most people have very little.  It requires us to exercise ruthless prioritization and exert our focus toward what works best.  This isn’t the situation we want to be in, or ought to be in; it’s just the situation that we are in.

The defense of the public sector is a rearguard, defensive fight which we will continue losing unless it is part of a generalized offensive aimed at raising the standard of living.  Things like $15Now are more effective in contributing to such a reversal.

A brief dissection of today’s unions

Any concept that a union is simply an association of workers organizing itself in order to take action is now almost completely eradicated from the consciousness of workers.  Unions are not based on workers’ action; union members see the union as a corporate/legal entity which acts on their behalf, as their representative.  It is more comparable to purchasing insurance than participating in a movement.  Most importantly, if we mapped the relationships in a modern union, it would be a “star” network not a “mesh” network.  Rather than the union being based on the connections workers have with each other, each member’s relationship is with the bureaucracy, and the bureaucracy alone.  Workers do of course have relationships with each other, but these are conceived as apolitical friendships unrelated to organizing, not the building blocks that the union is made of.

Today, workers who have no union aren’t necessarily eager to get one.  First, dues cost money.  Second, there is a wide perception that union officials are dues-collecting do-nothings, which there can be a lot of truth behind.  Furthermore, especially in the UAW context where the union officials literally advised their workers to accept cutbacks, people don’t perceive unions as capable of doing much, or willing to do much.  Finally, non-union workers have zero job security, meaning that proposing a union can often be perceived as taking extraordinary risks for literally zero reward.

Public Sector Sectionalism

This is a case where perception is just as important as reality.  It may be true that public sector workers have a legitimate gripe.  However, when compared to the brutality faced by the overwhelming majority of workers, who work in the non-union private sector (let alone the service sector), focusing on public sector battles rings hollow.  It is all too easy for the ruling class to depict public sector workers as drawing their salaries from the taxes of the rest of the working class, even while enjoying union protections which those other private-sector workers do not have.

If we are thinking strategically, we may be tempted to focus on where unions are strongest, even if we face the ironic fact that unions are strongest at the precise location where union power is least necessary.  (Let’s face it, public sector unions have been attacked less because the public sector is naturally more politicized; when private sector unions are smashed, it is seen as private business and receives less media attention.)

However, this temptation would have us overlook three important facts.  Firstly, it’s actually questionable if the public sector unions are strong.  Given the above dissection, public sector unions are strong as bureaucracies, not strong as workers’ organizations.  Second, focusing on the “strong” public sector would force us to de-emphasize organizing in the location where workers’ motivations to organize are strongest – the private sector and especially the service sector – where workers are most exploited and most abused.  Let’s face it, workers who already have more material protection from having a union established have less motivation to care about the rank-and-file caucus flyers you’re handing out than the unorganized workers have.  Thirdly, our efforts will continue to be perceived as sectional, and rightly so, if we focus our efforts on a sector of the workforce that is completely unrepresentative of the workforce majority.

Therefore, we should be focusing on the private sector.  But organizing unions in the private sector is hard, or even impossible.  Some unions resort to underground salting techniques – the threat of being fired for organizing is so strong that they must literally resort to covert operations, like under an authoritarian state.  Such underground organizing is something socialists used to be good at under the Tsar, but is not one of our core competencies in 2014 USA.

Fortunately, there are many fruitful ways to build class struggle outside the workplace, including solidarity networks, minimum wage fights and 15Now, service sector “strikes” (protests), and socialist party-building itself.

Don’t Recruit Socialists from Labor – Build Labor with Socialists

Traditionally we view socialist party-building as something very hard to do, a sort of artificial uphill process which the average person is not interested in.  We view movements as a more organic intermediary between ourselves and the general public, and we hope to recruit from the movements, which we imagine as broader, to the party which we view as narrower.  I think this whole schema needs to be reworked.

Historically, it was anti-capitalist radicals who initiated each major wave of labor organizing.  It was not business unions rising first, then being transformed by an anti-capitalist intervention.  It was radical workers starting class-struggle unions, which eventually devolved into business unions (Knights of Labor, IWW, CPUSA/CIO).  We cannot wait for unions to arise, and then hope to recruit out of them.  We must first build a radical left out of radical politics alone, and then use it to build a labor movement.  Of course, there are alternate methods, outlined above – solidarity networks, minimum wage fights.  We can engage in those.

But I believe we can also build socialist organization in a much more ambitious way than anyone on the Left is currently doing – and not even for its own sake, but as an intermediary step to building the labor movement (completely backwards from the usual logic, I know).  However most of us who have been banging our heads on the wall trying to build socialist organization for years might say, flabbergasted, “I know we should be growing faster, but I can’t explain why we aren’t!”  I have some thoughts on that.

The glass ceiling to socialist growth

Briefly, the massive fragmentation of the socialist movement into an embarrassing amount of competing organizations causes people to take it less seriously.  Furthermore, the politics are often ridiculously specific and narrow, meaning that people who are sort of new to the whole thing feel horribly intimidated by all the positions they have to agree to.  Newbies also chafe at the lack of mental freedom such a straitjacket imposes, often incensed when older members respond to their every statement by lecturing about why they’re wrong and how that’s not the group’s position.  Furthermore, these groups are inhumanly based on ideology alone, failing to recognize that what attracts and keeps people in a group is often not the finer points of their political theory, but the circle of friendship and webwork of relationships.  (This is usually dismissed by socialist groups as “apolitical,” as if the process of human socializing is not a deeply political phenomenon, with deep ongoing relationships causing shifts in a person’s opinions and behavior.)  Finally, our electoral efforts have been weak because for ages the Left has been pursuing the electoral approach of “ballot propaganda” – just getting your name on the ballot, not going doorknocking, and having no way to communicate with, connect to, organize or integrate the many people who might actually see your name on that ballot and have interest.

So What About the Unions That Exist?

What unions have not yet been dismantled are the leftovers from past waves of organizing energy.  They could be compared to islands in a rising sea, being engulfed one by one.  However it’s better to stand on dry land, so naturally those who are on it try to erect dams to keep out the water.  (Sometimes – other times they just let the water keep rising, unconcerned or even unaware.)  But just erecting dams is an obviously futile approach.  We need to reverse the entire rising sea.

I don’t think the working class will be enthusiastic about defending the public sector, until it understands that the public sector is not just something to defend, but something to expand.  When we are on the defensive, debating how much to cut, everyone assumes that deep down the cuts really are necessary, since there’s only so much money to go around.  When we are instead debating that the public sector should be expanded, the implicit assumption is that there is enough to go around, and the momentum gets reversed.

Will this greater consciousness that the public sector can be expanded arise out of a union’s contract fight?  Not really.  Maybe amongst a few public sector workers themselves, but not among the wider popular base which would be required to actually turn the tides.  Instead that wider consciousness will probably arise from socialist education and party-building themselves – though arguably it is not so much a need to spread that consciousness and sentiment, as a need to crystallize and consolidate a sentiment that already exists widely, but which requires an organizational placeholder to help people realize just how widespread it really is.

Thus the fights of the public sector unions are a rearguard fight.  What would it take to save the public sector workers?  Simply a strike on their part?  No; a public-sector strike without community support is almost definitely doomed to failure.  Some of the rare, socialist-influenced examples like the CTU do a great job organizing that community support.  Most do not.  Most don’t even have the concept.

The only salvation of the public-sector unions lies in the emergence of a wider, private-sector labor movement.  The critical pivot is not the public-sector unions, but the private-sector proletariat.  Therefore all the public-sector unions can really do to save themselves is to commit to a strategy which is uncharacteristically farsighted for most unions – they have to commit their resources to assisting the rising movement of the private-sector masses.  They need to get behind the $15 demand (which is really moderate, since it should be $20 – none of this $8 crap).  They need to put union funds toward salting other workplaces.  They need to send their members into solidarity networks – imagine union members en masse coming out to protest a home foreclosure.  It’s a little too far-fetched to imagine unions committing to socialist party-building, of course, but it’s actually completely within the realm of possibility that they might endorse a socialist candidate, and get a conversation about class struggle going within their own ranks.  Short of that, other alternatives had been laid out – getting the membership to support the fast food protests, etc.


Public sector unions have thus far used their special status as besieged islands only to narrowly defend themselves, engaging in the futile practice of building a dam to keep out the rising tide.  It’s a hopeless endeavor, and as socialists we really have better ways to spend our time.  Instead the islands need to use their special status to reverse the whole tide.  But we who are already drowning in the non-union, private-sector ocean – we don’t have to wait for the islands to save us, and we aren’t waiting.  We have our own movement to save ourselves.

It is this movement of class struggle outside the workplace which is the critical step in reversing the tide at this, our lowest point.  So it is the movement of class struggle outside the workplace where socialists should be focusing their attention and concentrating their numbers.  But it shouldn’t require relocation on anyone’s part, because building class struggle outside the workplace is something so accessible that it can be done in any major city, and probably, literally anywhere – city or country, North or South.

Finally, I just want to note that anyone who tells someone to get a job in education, the most austerity-targeted sector, is doing young people a disservice.  No one should ever pin the fate of their personal livelihood on their activist hope that a movement will rise and save a specific sector, because our activist hopes are constantly dashed as we engage in this long-term war of position.  Please do not give young people advice which will end up badly hurting them.


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