A New Workers Movement in the US: A proposal for a refoundation through the intermediate level
By Scott Nappalos
It’s a tired truism that the workers movement in the US is floundering without a real base or path forward. A new generation of experimentation, struggle, and militants emerged from the ashes of the union’s most recent collaborationist strategy of labor-management partnership, contractualism, and labor’s historical parochialism of our-jobs-for-us. Workers centers, alternative unions, covert independent organizing, networks within corporations, and rank-and-file direct action tendencies within unions have arisen to try and build a new workers movement from the ground up. There have been attempts to unite independent unions, build new ones, link up with existing militant unions overseas and collaborate, and to drive a militant direct action class struggle line within the organizing unions. Many, if not most, of these tactics have been pursued in the past, and have met some gains with some broader limitations. At this time, the promised new workers movement has failed to arise.
There are objective reasons for these hurdles. The economy itself, and the uncertainty a seemingly endless period of austerity brings, has sewn the seeds of trying to keep one’s job come-what-may rather than open defiance and resistance (with some notable counterexamples). This is in keeping with previous trends, such as in the Great Depression when the real renaissance of workers’ struggle arose only as the economy began to improve in the mid 30s, rather than in the throws of the worst. Likewise, there is little recent experience in building, maintaining, recruiting, and spreading leadership within a militant workers movement. For years a staff-driven service model has been the dominant model of unionism, where the union is closer to a gym membership than an organizational unity for struggle on working class interests. Fewer and fewer workers have any experience with unions, and large geographical sections of the country are dead-zones to unions, with only the public sector representing any serious union presence.
At the same time, the transformation and recomposition of the US working class has created new sites of struggle and new protagonists. Labor struggles, sabotage, absenteeism, and a broad resistance to work by the working class in the industrialized economies of the 1960s and 1970s ruptured the social welfare and labor system that guaranteed profits and reigned in worker resistance for decades. In the 3rd world anti-colonial struggles further threatened capitalist industry, and it’s reliance on the 3rd world for labor, markets, and extraction of resources. These struggles forced a reorganization of industry, the work process, and the working class itself. The fordist assembly line was disassembled. Using container shipping technology, global shipping, and further mechanization, the work process was decentralized. The mass work places were often broken up into smaller units or displaced over seas. There was a huge shift to vertically integrate, merge, and bring forward a service industry as the store-front of a global production regime. All this was fueled by increased credit, financial engineering, and austerity dismantling the unions and social welfare state wherever possible, both through outright assaults, plant closures, and also through economic and policy planning by the various state and inter-state agencies.
The game hasn’t changed, but these economic shifts have the climate for organizing, and placed barriers to traditional union organizing established in the 1950s onward. We are not dealing with fundamentally new dynamics, despite what is fashionable to argue today. Workplace organizing has certain fundamentals that do not vary merely with smaller workplaces, laws regulating recognition, etc. At the same time, we have lost much of that history and collective experience, and indeed the working class organizing and to be organized in many cases is different communities. Significant sections of the US working class once organized have been thrown into permanent unemployment and despair, virtually removed from the work process through the closing of logging, production, and the shutting out of black and white labor who demonstrated militancy and power over capital. Immigration, the proletarianization of increasingly large sections of the former middle class, the rise of the prison industry recuperating the lost labor of the permanently unemployed, and an economy based on a crumbling financial base is changing the face of the American worker.
The AFL-CIO/CtW unions have generally not been able to rise to the occasion, except with sweetheart deals for employers, weak paper organizations, or using the union as a vehicle for lobbying and rallying members behind the Democratic Party. Increased precarity, immigrant labor, independent contracting, and austerity has undermined the labor-peace period that built the present unions. It is primarily independent militants who have attempted to organize to meet these challenges, with the largest unions going after the lowest hanging fruit in the public sector, health care, education, and in already highly unionized regions of the country.
This is not a matter of a “new epoch” so much as it is capital’s strategy outpacing the institutionalized form of the workers movement. Some fetishize the idea of newness, but ultimately it is less a matter of fundamental changes to the ABCs of organizing as it is a matter of the orientation, direction, and composition of the movement. This makes the emergence of a new strategy and new movement imperative. This situation has privileged experimentation. What we see is less a movement, and more dispersed attempts at reinventing organizations which are proclaimed to be the movement. A movement however is a historical moment and process, and organizations can come to represent that history, but are never identical.
The workers movement presently should be judged based on the quality of its worker-militants who are building it on the shop floor. The NGOs and unions have institutionalized the left, and have siphoned off significant sections of the left as opposed even to recent history where militants stayed workers on the shop floor building a movement and developing leaders out of the working class. Numerically staff may not represent a majority of the movement, but the ideological leadership, energy, and direction of the movement has been institutionalized. The bureaucratization of the left, through the unions and grant funding, has drained much of the pool of energetic and inspired leadership that may have built movements. Generally speaking the pool of shop-floor militants committed to fighting exploitation as such and building a movement in workers’ interests, rather than merely changing the conditions and following the unions line on electing more liberals (or conservatives), is relatively small, sparse, and scattered. Moreover, there is not much crossover or interaction between militants spread out in the different organizing projects whether inside existing unions, in alternative unions, workers centers, or independent organizing. While many are active in trying to build the new organization, the base for such a movement is presently lacking.
There is another possibility though to build a new workers movement beyond merely trying to build a particular organization, none of which presently have the strength, clarity, or breadth to initiate such a movement at this time. Militants linked in an organization dedicated to building a cross-organizational workers movement itself opens up a possibility for coordinated activity and organizational unity against the capitalist offensive in this crisis and future ones. Such an organization is an intermediate organization, an organization with a clear strategy and agenda for a workers movement that is more united than a union say, where everyone may join just to better their work. Such an intermediate organization could bring together the best organizers to preserve the lessons of struggles, test and develop strategies, and develop leadership that might otherwise be isolated. By uniting under a program of building a direct-action class-struggle worker-run movement, militants from organizations that otherwise would not interact could come to struggle together. Ultimately we want a unification of this movement, but at the present we can only recognize experimentation and a plurality of organizational attempts will be necessary.
At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, various workers organizations began to push for a new workers movement based on class unity, direct action, revolutionary class struggle, and an end to sectarian electioneering by the socialist parties. Militant unions, revolutionary groupings, and tendencies within existing craft unions began to build a network for such a movement. Meetings, congresses, and publications were developed, and in 1905 this work culminated in the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World out of this network.
We have it backwards. People are trying to be the IWW today. Whether wobblies, lefty staffers in the UE, worker centers, etc.; the strategy is a field of dreams. If we build the organization, the workers will come. Without building unity first, developing strategy, building bases, and actively constructing a basis for a movement, we will find it difficult to build a lasting base. Movements are not outside history, but find their strategy and ideology in the lessons of struggle and history they carry. The IWW did not emerge spontaneously, or out of a series of articles and arguments, but as a concrete solution to existing problems and lessons in the experiences of a tendency in the working class. This is in opposition to rather merely inventing a basis intellectually as many do, or rather than trying to just impose one from a particular moment in history outside of the recent experience of the working class as the some in the present IWW and labor movement attempt to do. Presently, these experiences do not exist in the recent memory of the North American working class. We have a different challenge from the militants who were in the IWW, CIO, TUEL, or whatever, and likewise need a different strategy and orientation to movement building; an orientation based not on a union, but on intermediate organization.
Our path to build a new workers movement is through unifying militants under this aim in an intermediate organization, base building through class struggle and liberatory education, and a unification of autonomous organizing through collective experimentation. We should be the movement to reinvent the workers movement, rather than assuming we already are and trying to sign people up on a dream.
At present, any unification of militants though is premature if it is not preceded by a stable base building of militants in intermediate organizations in various locales. This strategy must be a goal, and not a first step, as without roots in collective experience in struggle, testing and re-testing these ideas, it is likely to deviate into an intellectual exercise or a paper organization. The experimentation in the workers movement that brought these concepts to light have not yield their foundation, organizations of militants. Our task then is to consolidate these gains and lessons, and build the blocks of the future intermediate organization.