Thoughts on Organizing Today

Anton Johannsen weighs in on what working class organization will have to accomplish and what it may look like in 21st century capitalism. 

The geographical and compositional shifts in corporate governance and accumulation have shifted the terrain under workers’ feet. Capital is concentrated in “multinational” corporations, while sites of accumulation are spread across the globe. In the U.S., more workers are engaged in the provision of services than ever before. A rough look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics for Tampa-St.Pete-Clearwater indicates that in the top 10 specific types of employment by number of people employed, 262,264 out of 281,074 workers are employed in non-production “service” work. Now this is a very rough estimate, but gets at the fact that most of this work is not in the field of “production” which is characteristically regarded as manufacturing and shipping. Most of this work is in the field of services, production having been so thoroughly automated and made redundant of labor, or where it is unable to do so, been shipped off to places where wages are kept low. We could also ask, what percentage of these workers in fast food, retail, hospital work etc., are employed by national or multinational corporations?

Why is this important? What makes a worker a worker? What is class? Is it your distinct position in the reproduction of society? This has some attractiveness to it. It’s structural so it seems to explain how we all fit in together. But it is limited. Capitalism continually revolutionizes the means of production, which are not limited to the technical organization of energy and materials, but also the social organization of labor within the process of production. Technological change necessitates and is predisposed toward a change in the organization of the working process. The assembly line, the standardized shipping container, their implementation was a means to changing the organization of the production process, eliminating the amount of labor necessary to do certain tasks, inaugurating speed ups, lay-offs, and new positions at work. In other words, the changing of the production process, changes our positions in the reproduction of daily life. Well, what other quality can we find in class?

“Proletarian” classically refers to the “ones who produce offspring” in Roman society. The ones who hold no property, but their children. The ones who labor for a wage. It is this, in part, that is key. Fast food workers do a meaningless job. There will be no Starbucks after the revolution, HALLELUJAH! Does it produce value? Is it “productive” in that technical sense of producing surplus value? Or does it form part of the circulation-cost of the commodity coffee, the work of making it available to be realized? Does this matter? If what is important about workers is their condition as wage-workers, dependent on wages for survival, are they not as much a part of the commodity society, and a part of the process of accumulation, either in value-production, or value-realization? Perhaps this is a meaningless digression. But one point here is that, alongside the “surplus population” of much discussion nowadays, service workers as proletarian purely by being made available to work in exchange for necessities, is often up for grabs. They may not work in a “linchpin” industry like warehousing or shipping, manufacture of steel, or ball bearings, but they are proletarians, workers. They’re united in their lot as owners of labor-power with no recourse to living, short of sale of this labor-power.

It should be noted that both of these ways of looking at class are important. Obviously cops are paid a wage, and obviously it is a paltry one compared with capitalists. But their position is the general enforcement of property relations and the first line of response against workers in revolt, as well as mediating general social conflict. What is increasingly clear is that many a working position can be eliminated and shifted around, with the base condition of wage-earning remaining intact.

This points to a few other problems. Service jobs, with the exception maybe of offices and hospitals, are characterized by centralized capital and decentralized sites of work. This poses challenges for directly influencing a company’s income as a strategy for attack (striking). Alongside this, the company can marshal enormous resources in it’s defense politically, ideologically. It would be necessary to not only unite workers across an employer in a major city/region, but across both employers within an industry and within employers across industries. Now, the IWW has had considerable success in one-city organizing against large employers like Jimmy Johns and Starbucks; they’ve wrenched considerable concessions from them and gotten workers fired for organizing re-instated, but this has been through a combination of work stoppages and public pressure, the latter being key. Large centralized capital, especially that provides a service, generally has a big stake in the reliability, trustworthiness and honesty of those providing it. This is a leverage point communists ought to utilize, but it is simply one among many, that has to be oriented toward organizing the class our primary goal. I don’t mean to suggest that this has escaped the view of the Starbucks Union organizers, but more that the conditions which they’ve worked hard against, have been difficult to route: How do we get workers together and encourage them to fight back? How do we meaningfully secure workers against retaliation, not by over-reliance on the near-useless NLRB and lawyers, but by virtue, of our own action? This seems to point to the need to cast a wider organizational net.

An example; some production in grocery stores and fast food chains might be contracted out, but a lot of it might also be done internally. Warehousing and shipping might also be done internally. This would seem to point toward the necessity of supply-chain organizing. But even this is the same narrow view of worker organizing often historically pushed by union movements, even the I.W.W. They typically, for better or for worse, take as their jurisdictional or organizational unit, the dividing lines laid by capital. This can be a strength, where organizational unity around shared demands makes sense, and allows for the effective cultivation of identity and power. But it’s weakness is that it is not class unity. Centralized capital and decentralized workplaces seems like it points toward the need for One Big Union or, a political organization of struggle rooted firmly in the class as a class. On the one hand, workers in one grocery chain in a city might have differing demands about wages and hours than those of another chain, or even those of another department within their chain. But where they have unity is in their class position, and it is asserting unity around the needs of the class that communists must focus on. Surely, developing power in a particular chain or industry can be itself a tactic for developing communist militants and organization.

Class organizing can be seen in the AWO in the 1910’s I.W.W. and the KAPD-AAUD in Germany. Unfortunately, these organizations and a lot of their conditions are far from us, and what can be gleaned from their failures are perhaps only principles and maybe a few intriguing uses of “form.” How do conditions today, mirror conditions that those organizations attempted to deal with? It would seem that the AWO responded to conditions more similar to our own, what with a diverse array of direct employers, and a vast, turnover-heavy workforce of various types of skill and employment, and a geographical, class-oriented form of organizing, vs. “industrial organizing” favored by Haywood and the eventual CIO.

Organizing based on class and geography; neighborhood and city, region and state, nation, would help us to also be open about our politics. We aren’t just interested in a union of Starbucks workers, or fast food workers, but of workers. We limit ourselves geographically for applicability. But this too could run into similar jurisdictional problems to the lines laid by capital if we’re not vigilant in general toward the fact that the geography of work changes in response to class struggle.

But we find ourselves in a bind that doesn’t much make sense; how do we get workers, who are of a “practical” mind now (Yes I’d like higher wages, but I don’t want to lose my job!) interested in fighting for a moral vision that is exactly discounted by what they express now? Developing a response to this is difficult. In the general sense, organizing workers against employers is founded partly on direct gains, and partly on moralistic/ideological development. Workers don’t simply fight for better conditions, but to also for “what is right”. If “moral” makes you trigger happy, we could call this an “ideological” vision, or “level of political development.” (these are not all the same, but we’ll save the nuance for another time!). What we’re doing in our group is in some ways a response to this. We are centered around a reading group that discusses politics and history openly. There is a common saying from the Left-Trotskyist union tradition that goes along the lines of “Action precedes consciousness” which might more aptly be stated as “Action that I approve of, precedes consciousness that I approve of.” For many people, the focus is to get people on board with a particular demand, or action. It is suggested that through this activity workers will see the light and start thinking more clearly about relations of power at work. They will then be more open to radical politics. This thinking tends, in part, to reinforce ideas about “the permanent campaign” and activism. “Just get out their and organize! There will be opportunities to learn and educate in the process!” This is obviously somewhat of a caricature. Never the less, the idea lends itself to this style of thinking and can be seen played out in various Trotskyist, Anarcho-Syndicalist and other efforts at organizing. Instead, we ought to recognize that action takes place along a developing consciousness, and that while action and consciousness are often contradictory, the development of consciousness or political ideas, is itself a social undertaking. Again, this is why reading groups can be beneficial. They won’t be the draw for most workers interested in socialism generally, but they can help us develop a core group of people with varying interests and backgrounds toward organizing more sociable and educational events; classes, lectures, film screenings, workshops.

IWW campaigns in the past 20 or so years have varied in their application of communist/anarchist politics openly. This problem goes beyond this group, however, and some of the campaigns have had success at recruiting militants. Some, not so much, and in general the various campaigns have failed specifically in the field of sustaining a presence at any one workplace-geographical unit. Instead, there has been the proliferation of General Membership Branches, which are purely geographical units within the organization that act as hubs for workers in various industries, as well as hubs for the development of political expression and discourse. This is, in my view, a positive development. It indicates a response to the conditions faced workers that has some measure of sustainability and involves conscious and open efforts at political development. Through organizing of book tours, organizers/workers from other countries, summits, and Organizer Trainings, the IWW has committed itself to a lot of these tasks, generally based on the level of organization reached in particular GMBs. There is still a mix of activism, no-politics-in-the-union confusion, and general uneven development. But there are also writing projects, research projects, and inspiring attempts at experimental organizing, and uneven development is a general organizational problem, not very particular to the IWW.

As for the titular question – How Do We Organize Today? Well, in some ways we see it already happening; geographically, in groups loosely united over a general political “program” or set of guiding principles, toward better education and experiments at wrenching demands from capitalists and building power. Some things to look out for are the shifting geographical organization of work, and ways of getting workers together in a neighborhood or city, and fighting for wider demands. Do we make demands on municipalities, without engaging in electoralism? Finding that transition from workplace or landlord defensive struggle and wider struggle is key – maybe it doesn’t exist yet, but we’re living history, and it demands our thoughtful intervention.

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