If you disdain debates on the left, if you abhor pointed polemics, please don’t read this article. If you think arguments between leftists are more crippling than clarifying, just stop right now.O.K. Now this article is for the rest of you. Still, I hasten to add this. We in Socialist Action devote only the tiniest portion of our energy to criticism of other leftist tendencies. We would rather organize mass political actions of working people against war, cutbacks, pollution, or for human rights. But once in a long while, chiefly in response to questions put to us by supporters and friends, we strive to clarify where we stand in relation to the practice of other small leftist organizations.This particular occasion arises from the publication of an unusually frank and revealing article in the newspaper of the International Socialists, “Socialist Worker” (March 2012 edition). The author of “What Would it Take to Stop Austerity”, Ritch Wyman, is a leading member of the I.S. There can be no doubt that he is presenting the official I.S. perspective and policy on the labour movement today.
The article cites the defeats suffered by the working class at London, Ontario over the closure of the CAW-organized Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD) plant, the defeat in Toronto where CUPE Local 416 accepted a concessionary deal with the Rob Ford municipal administration (and now we can add CUPE Local 79 to the sorry list), the setback at U.S. Steel in Hamilton, and likewise at the mining operation of Vale (formerly Inco) in Sudbury. To a greater or lesser extent, the unions involved gave way without a serious, generalized fight back against the bosses’ austerity agenda.
The article expresses dismay at the squandering of the potential of these labour disputes “to turn back the defeats”, and in the case of EDM, the failure to “take inspiration from the Occupy movement and take over their plant”, instead of reducing the fight to one of “gaining more favourable severance terms”.
Wyman correctly defends the importance and relevance of unions against various ultra-left critics. The latter often demand, from the outside, more militant action without challenging the union leadership from inside the labour movement.
Unfortunately, Wyman goes on to argue against ‘exposing’ and challenging the labour leadership inside the unions. Indeed, he presents a rationale, one that is not based on facts, to support the existing union tops. Those are the people who are, to a greater or lesser extent, responsible for curbing workers’ resistance to the current capitalist offensive.
Sure, it’s easy to fall into a kind of fatalism about the present situation in the labour movement – a situation marked by decades of concessions to the bosses. Likewise, one can cling to the view that today’s labour leaders simply reflect what is possible right now – that they are the best of what’s available. Opportunists on the left try to dress up this mistaken view with phrases like: the union leadership reflects the relationship of forces between rank and file workers and the bureaucracy inside the unions. But our question is this: Have the opportunists tested the relationship of forces?
While there is some truth to the observation that the union brass has the consent of the ranks, it is important to remember that the power of the bureaucrats derives also from the superior resources at their disposal, compared to what rank and file workers have. So it begs the question: Is the current relationship of forces immutable? The answer is clear: Things were not always as they are now, and certainly, they won’t always be as they are now. An ancient Greek philosopher wrote “Nothing is permanent, except change.” Heraclitus was right.
Can the bottom affect the top? It always has. Is organizing at the base just a matter of “shouting at union leaders”, just increasing the volume? Or is it about politically educating and organizing workers to take control of their own organizations, to steer the unions and other popular bodies away from integration into the capitalist state? We say it is the latter.
Demands cannot be imposed from the outside, it’s true. Demands should be put to the leadership, particularly by union members. They should challenge leaders to lead the members in standing up to the bosses and their wretched system. But how should demands be put, and to what end? Should demands be posed merely as a pressure tactic to get leaders to adapt, temporarily, to the wishes of the rank and file? Or should we go beyond mere pressure, and seek to actually change the direction and leadership of the unions?
We in Socialist Action argue for a bottom-up strategy, based on awakening and mobilizing the rank and file. Our strategy does not focus “solely on the leadership”. Wyman is right to decry a fixation on the leadership. But our strategy does include challenging reformist and reactionary labour leaders in union elections by fighting for key elements of a class struggle programme and by developing and presenting a team of workers willing to carry out a class struggle programme.
At this point Wyman tosses a smelly red herring onto the table. He writes to remind us that labour leaders cannot, and should not, play the role of a revolutionary organization. Unions are defensive organizations of the working class under capitalism. True, again. But what role should revolutionary workers, and their revolutionary organizations play when labour leaders and unions fail to do their duty to the working class as a whole?
What should workers do when their unions provide a very porous defense, or none at all?
Gratuitously, Wyman lectures us, “Trade unions exist to mitigate exploitation, not end it altogether”. So, what should workers do when their unions work hand in glove with the employers to mitigate, if not squelch, workers’ resistence?
While it is a mistake to rely on the tactic of seeking to elect more left wing leaders, does that imply the opposite policy? Does that justify abstention from union elections, or worse, providing cover for feckless, former-left bureaucrats?
The Unity slate led by Sid Ryan at the 2011 Ontario Federation of Labour convention is cited by Wyman as an example. But Ryan’s slate did not face an organized electoral challenge from the right wing. Ryan and most of his slate were acclaimed. The misguided boycott by Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union (OPSEU) of the OFL convention, wrong as it was, does not represent a right wing move by a right wing-dominated union. Rather, it was a case of personality politics gone mad, at the top of the OFL. But guess what? There is an equal number of class collaborationists on both sides of this dispute. At the same time, OPSEU is fighting the Ontario Liberal government, the Drummond Commission report, and the latest Premier Dalton McGuinty budget. Of course, OPSEU should fight in concert with the OFL while pushing for more democracy and fair representation in the Federation. SA members, together with other leftist and progressive forces in OPSEU, are now working to keep OPSEU in the OFL, and to step up the fight against the ‘austerity’ agenda.
It seems that the I.S.-promoted myth of a right wing challenge inside the OFL, and beyond, serves a purpose. It serves as an excuse to maintain its longstanding policy of cheerleading for ‘left’, or ex-left bureaucrats. It goes along with I.S. opposition to most examples of an articulated fight from below, from the left, against the existing union leadership and against its demonstrably class collaborationist course.
The I.S. tries to mask its craven policy with the rhetoric of ‘mobilization’ of the rank and file, of “building the confidence of ordinary workers”. It offers such boiler plate phrases aplenty. But when rank and file opposition actually occurs, the I.S. is nowhere in sight, or it has often been on the wrong side.
Here are a few examples: When SA members who were delegates to an OFL Convention in the 1980s won a huge vote for a general strike to defeat Brian Mulroney’s GST, I.S.ers were, along with the Communist Party of Canada and its so-called OFL Action Caucus, on the other side. They were on the right wing minority side, the defeated side of the vote.
When SA members who were delegates to Toronto Labour Council in 1990, 1991, and 1992 fought for a campaign to oppose Bob Rae’s retreat on public auto insurance, to oppose Sunday shopping, more gambling casinos, privatized highways, and eventually the infamous Social Contract, I.S.ers hid behind, at least initially, labour bureaucrats who said ‘let’s give Bob Rae more time and let’s go easy on the Ontario NDP government’. The demoralization that resulted from the lack of a real fight against Rae and his NDP government’s rotten policies cost the working class valuable time. It helped to pave the way for the Mike Harris Common Sense Revolution.
The I.S. dominates the Toronto Coalition to Stop the War. Much of the work the TCSW does is good. But the I.S.ers who lead it can be very manipulative. They control the timing and the agenda of its meetings so as to forestall, or block, unity in action with other anti-war forces that they do not control. The latest case in point arose in the summer of 2011. Not only did the I.S. prevent the TCSW from discussing and endorsing a U.S. anti-war movement appeal for an international October 15 day of action against the war in Afghanistan, which led to protests in several cities across the USA on that date. In addition, the I.S. made sure that forty Canadian Peace Alliance convention-goers took a circuitous street route, from Ryerson University, just to avoid a convergence with over a hundred anti-war folks, summoned by 11 organizations. The latter rallied at Dundas and Yonge and then walked to the Occupy Toronto site at St. James Park that afternoon. Earlier that day, I.S. members, acting as security staff for the CPA convention, tried to stop SA comrades from displaying anti-war and socialist literature on site; they even called the campus police to have our table removed, while just down the hall there was an I.S. display table!
Typically, at election time, the I.S. urges a vote for the NDP. You may even find I.S. members working for local NDP provincial and federal election candidates. But you will never find the I.S. joining the fight for socialist policies inside the NDP. Neither will you find them trying to hold NDP officials accountable for their actions inside the party or the labour movement. What’s wrong with that? Well, that policy is the equivalent of giving the NDP and labour bureaucrats a blank cheque. It’s the worst kind of electoralism in which a leftist can engage – giving support without utilizing any resulting credibility to make one’s criticisms known, and to organize for change. What’s the point of helping to elect the NDP if you don’t advance socialist policies and the vital principle of democratic accountability inside the only mass, labour-based political party in North America?
Now, here’s a related scenario. What should socialists do when the NDP does not run candidates as a party, such as at the municipal level, where independent labour political action is the weakest? The record of the I.S. here is pretty shameful. It failed to fight for a labour City Hall in Toronto in 2011. Instead, it backed the candidacy of Joe Pantalone, who was part of the David Miller Liberal-NDP administration, heavily identified with user fee hikes, service cuts and the first wave of attacks on 30,000 city workers, which precipitated the infamous ‘garbage strike’ in the summer of 2010. So, why did the I.S. back the hapless, cutbacks-tainted Pantalone? Because that was the line of the labour bureaucracy, including the reformist cabal that runs the Toronto Labour Council, in which a leading member of the I.S. has participated uncritically for decades.
Socialist Action argues for, and works to build a programmatically-based class struggle cross-union movement that fights in union elections and challenges labour sell-outs every step of the way. The I.S. opposes such efforts.
I.S. members participate in the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly (a clutch of leftists, with very few rank and file workers involved). The GTWA has done some good work, promoting union solidarity and propagandizing for ‘free public transit’. But the reformist GTWA (whose leaders believe it is possible to ‘reform’ the capitalist state from within, and whose policies include favouring more regressive taxes and user fees, for example, to discourage the use of cars) is no substitute for a body committed to promoting class struggle unionism. It is dominated by ex-labour bureaucrats and academics who have yet to challenge the bureaucracy, concretely, in any union in Canada.
As Wyman wrote, “Only the mass activity of the working class itself can make radical, sweeping change.” We think, however, that mass activity must be linked to a transitional programme for workers’ liberation. Mass sentiment for change can be harnessed by a class struggle leadership, from below, to resist reformist and bureaucratic diversions, and to strike the blows that can win concrete gains and ultimately smash the system of capitalist rule.
The I.S. asserts the need for a revolutionary workers’ organization in society. Good. But why not help to constitute an organized class struggle left wing in the unions? That’s exactly what the early Communists in Canada did when they launched the Trade Union Education League (TUEL) in the 1920s. And why not, as we insist, foster a class struggle left wing in the labour-based NDP as well?
Why not, indeed! Could it be because having a revolutionary organization active in the field of political practice would be a block to career advancement up the bureaucratic ladder? Yes, class struggle politics should be an impediment to opportunism in practice. As the I.S. demonstrates, in a negative way, the formation of a class struggle left wing is exactly what is needed, not only to engage the independent and ‘sideline’ abstaining left to work together to transform our unions, but also to keep everyone so engaged loyal to socialist principles. Now that would be a worthwhile contribution to “what it will take to stop austerity”.
If you are interested in making such a contribution, in the best possible way, we invite you to join Socialist Action. If you are not presently prepared to join a revolutionary organization, then make common cause with those who are working to build a principled, united left in the unions and in the labour-based NDP.
The point is not to depend on winning the NDP or the unions to socialism. It is very unlikely, if not impossible, for those bodies to be radically transformed. The point is to win their ranks, to win their voters, to win their supporters, their co-workers and family members to the class struggle, to socialism. Why? Because unless we do so, there will be no socialism. And to give up on the socialist goal is to condemn civilization and nature to destruction.
The class struggle left wing in the unions is still at an embryonic stage. Socialist Action, along with our friends in OCAP, in anarcho-syndicalist circles, and some independent radical unionists made a start on this road by launching the Workers’ Solidarity and Union Democracy Coalition about seven years ago. It has held forums regularly at OFL and CLC convention sites, sponsored militant resolutions, and appeared at important labour struggles.
Capitalists complain about low productivity. It’s a lie, and a diversion. It is also a delusion to think that economic expansion will fix everything, that there is a market solution to the recurring crises of capitalism. There is no market solution. The capitalist market created the problem. Only by taking control of the major means of production, only by instituting broadly participatory, democratic planning, only by effecting a rapid green conversion to meet human needs, fully in tune with nature, does humanity have a hope of survival.
That means challenging the pro-capitalist direction of the labour and NDP leadership. It means fighting for an NDP government committed to socialist policies. It means opposing an NDP coalition with the Liberal Party or with any capitalist party. It means fighting for a Workers’ Agenda and a Workers’ Government, and organizing to win that programme inside the unions and the NDP. It means fighting for freedom for oppressed nations, for eco-socialism, feminism and LGBT liberation.
None of that is possible without a leadership committed to doing it. Central to that is the forging of a new leadership of the working class and oppressed nations that can win.