Interview with the International Communist Party on the SICobas movement

Below is an interview done in collaboration with Croation Communist Iskra with members of the International Communist Party who are based in Italy and involved in the SICobas, a militant union that fights for class struggle principles rather than the corporatist arrangements that dominate unions in Italy. We publish this not only to spread awareness of this militant class movement, but to potentially provide insight into the task of building a classist labor movement in the USA and beyond. 

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QUESTIONS REGARDING THE SI COBAS

Introduction
The party did not form the SICobas: the SICobas arose entirely independently of the party and there are no ties binding the two organizations. The party is not now, nor has it been in the past, in the SICobas executive.

How did the SI Cobas come to be formed?

The formation of the SICobas is described in the article “A Report on Rank and File Movements in Italy” published in The Communist Party No.1

What are some of the more recent struggles they have been involved in?

A survey of the SI Cobas’s recent struggles  is included in the article ‘No “Christmas truce” for the struggles of the SI Cobas.: Against police and Confederates’, which is in The Communist Party, No.3 

You are a territorial union instead of a “company” one. What does it mean inpractice? How are the SI Cobas different from the mainstream Italian unions, which are integrated into the State? What differentiates them from the other rank and file “base” unions?

The reasons why trade union organization on a territorial basis is to be preferred is explained in a leaflet, ‘For territorial reorganization of the working class’, which also appears in the first issue of The Communist Party.

What methods do you use in your struggles? Are you using “direct action” or are you also using lawyers and other legal means?

This and other fundamental questions are covered in the speech made by one of our comrades at the First SI Cobas conference, which can  be found in The Communist Party, No.2.  

Do you cooperate with other organizations in your struggles? I saw you had joint general strike with USI-AIT.

The SI Cobas doesn’t offer preferential status or collaborate on a permanent basis with any particular trade union. Indeed, during a strike, it has show that it is prepared to unite the forces at its disposal with those mobilized  by other trade unions, supporting the principal of unity of action. This has happened in conjunction with other rank and file trade unions, as was the case during the last general strike on March 18 last year, when it organized alongside the CUB and the USI-AIT. But also with regards to mobilizations organized by the CGIL, the biggest of the Italian regime unions: on 14 November 2014 a thousand SI COBAS logistics workers joined the  march organized by the FIOM, the CGIL metal-workers’ federation and the main trade union in the category. A month later, on 12 December, it saw to it that the general strike in the category within which the majority of its members are concentrated – logistics – coincided with the general strike of all categories proclaimed by the CGIL.

In our view the latter policy is the right practical policy, and it is classist, because by uniting the workers it means strikes acquire greater force and that is the initial condition needed for them to break free from the control of the regime unions. Thus uniting with the mobilizations of these unions doesn’t in fact strengthen them.

This policy has been rejected by the other rank and file unions, which have always boycotted strikes when called by the regime unions, and organized their own ones in competition with them, on different dates, thus weakening the workers’ mobilization.

In our eyes this practical policy adopted by the SI Cobas is one of the positive elements which distinguishes it form other rank and file trade unions, as we have explained on various occasions, for example during our speech at the first congress of the SI Cobas.

A big debate amongst proponents of class struggle unionism here in the USA is on the use of paid staff. Do the SI Cobas use paid staff and if so for what functions?

It is not a matter of principle at stake here: large trade unions will always need a certain number of full-time organizers. The prevalence of a conservative, self-serving trade-union bureaucracy  isn’t therefore the cause of the conciliatory policies pursued by the union and of its betrayal, but the effect: the bulk of its members and organizers have not proved strong enough either to prevent the leaders from betraying or to get rid of them and replace them with leaders they can have faith in.

What does the organizational structure of the SI Cobas look like? How are decisions made?

The SI Cobas is a young trade union which wants to equip itself wit a more robust organizational structure. It is composed of committees [cordinamenti] and provincial and national executives. In the case of enterprises which are spread out over several sites across the country there are also Company National Committees. These organs are not always that effective

The Provincial Comittees are made up of delegates from the various forms in the province. The Committee elects a smaller group as its Executive. The provincial Committee is supposed to meet at least once a month and the Executive once a week.

As far as  know there are a lot of immigrant workers in your union. What is the union’s  position on the”European refugee crisis” and do you act somehow to help people arriving in Italy?

It is necessary to come up with a class, rather than a vaguely humanitarian, solution to the problem: the immigrants are workers and are doubly oppressed, as proletarians and as foreigners.

On 16 September the SI Cobas organization a national demonstration in solidarity with the the immigrants and refugees. We distributed this leaflet.

QUESTIONS REGARDING  PARTY AND TRADE UNION IN THE USA

While in the USA the situation of the unions is radically different, are there any lessons to be learned from the experiences of the SI Cobas for militants in the United States who want to build class struggle unions and connect this with the struggle for a Communist programme? Are there any developments in the class struggle here that have caught your attention?

Communists do not pretend that the various forms within which the class struggle finds expression should conform to a fixed pattern.  The history of class trade unionism has shown that the types of organization that most lend themselves to leading the working class against the bosses’ State are the ones to be preferred, thus those open to all workers, independently of their ideas, political beliefs, party membership and religious faith. For the same reason are to be prefigured industrial trade unions as compared to those of a particular trade; those of a category as compared to those a particular firm; and national as opposed to local ones. The vast majority of the base unions in Italy apply, or attempt to apply, these organizational models.

On the history of the American workers’ movement we are publishing a long study in our English review Communist Left. the 5th installment of which will appear in the forthcoming issue. The general conclusion of this study confirms what the American working class has often lacked in its history is not trade unions, and examples of great mobilizations and bravery, but a communist party which is, 1) firmly founded on the uncorrupted doctrine of revolutionary Marxism, 2) which is committed to tactics which are intransigently anti-opportunist, and which, 3) lives according to a corresponding type of internal organization which is centralised, fraternal and anti-personalistic.

QUESTIONS REGARDING  PARTY AND TRADE UNION

In the USA many who identify with the Communist Left take a hard-line anti-union stance and argue that all unions inevitably become integrated into the state. The ICP, regarding the SI COBAs, takes a different stance. How did you did come to this political conclusion?

It is true that we have witnessed, since the end of the nineteenth century, the progressive submission of the trade unions to bourgeois ideology, to the nation and to the capitalist states, to the point that they participated in disciplining proletarians in two world wars and the defense of national capital in both peacetime and war. But this process, even if it has now become irreversible for many of the large existing trade unions, which have become virtually institutionalized as organs of the bourgeoisie, does not detract from the imperative necessity of workers’ defense against the growing pressure from the ruling class; this will lead to the rebirth of new trade unions freed from bourgeois conditioning. And in fact, we are seeing this rebirth. Whether they succeed in maintaining their independence will depend on the relative forces between the classes and the ability of capitalism to continue to hand out a few corrupting crumbs – something which today seems ever more unlikely.

What kind of political work does the ICP do within the SI COBAs? How does the organization work to politicize workers within the union?

This is the authentic Marxist position on the trade unions, summarized to the extreme:

The economic struggle is a necessary defensive and spontaneous response of those who sell their labor power: given the balance of forces between capitalists, who monopolize the means of production, and the destitute proletarians, if the latter stopped defending the level of wages and of working hours they would soon be reduced to conditions lower than those necessary for their own physical subsistence.

Because it soon became evident that this was not a matter of an individual dispute between single capitalist and working class citizens, but a clash between the opposing interests of two classes within society, from the very beginning trade union type organizations arose with the aim of defending more or less vast groups of workers.

These working class associations arose spontaneously, not through the will and intervention of a political party. The process by which the Marxist communist party, possessor of the doctrine and program of the working class, and the trade unions were born and developed was of no short duration, and though it happened side by side, it was not simultaneous as regards time and place. Over the course of the years there have often been situations in which the trade union movement and working class combativeness extended itself greatly on the level of economic demands, but there was minimal response to the communist party’s directives within the class.

To anticipate revolutionary or communist trade unions, as trade unions composed only of revolutionaries or communists, is to ignore the real historical revolutionary process. In the course of the transition from capitalist society to communism, that’s to say in the period when the dictatorship is exercised by the party, the wage-earning class abolishes itself. Where there are trade unions there is no communism, and vice-versa. The trade union emerges as and remains a product of bourgeois commercial society and remains subsumed within it, with many of its defects.

It is only when directed by the communist party that the trade union, functioning as a transmission belt between the party and the class in general, becomes a powerful and indispensable instrument for the revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois power; and, after the seizure of power by the party of the proletariat, for the reorganization of production and the distribution of goods.

How the communist party relates to the trade union movement has been definitively outlined by Marxism:
    Marx1871, London Conference of First International: “… Considering, that against this collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes; That this constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate end – the abolition of classes; That the combination of forces which the working class has already effected by its economic struggles ought at the same time to serve as a lever for its struggles against the political power of landlords and capitalists The Conference recalls to the members of the International: That in the militant state of the working class, its economic movement and its political action are indissolubly united”.
    In What is To Be Done (1901), Lenin wrote that Social-Democratic consciousness could only be brought to the workers from without. “The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation, etc.”.
    The Communist Left1957, The Fundamentals of Revolutionary Communism: Syndicalists “are actually far removed from Marxist determinism, and the interaction which occurs between the economic and political spheres is a dead letter to them. Since they are individualist and voluntarist, they see revolution as an act of force which can only take place after an impossible act of consciousness. As Lenin demonstrated in What is To Be Done? they turn Marxism on its head. They treat consciousness and will as though they came from the inner-self, from the ‘person’, and thus, in one deft movement, they sweep away bourgeois State, class divisions, and class psychology. Since they are unable to understand the inevitable alternative – capitalist dictatorship or communist dictatorship – they evade the dilemma in the only way that is historically possible: by re-establishing the former”.

Therefore the specific and principle task of the party within the union is not to politicize workers. The communist party does not work to make the trade union a watered-down version of itself, nor, in the revolutionary process, does the party dissolve itself and blend in with the trade union.

The communist party, from outside, with the support of the communist fraction within the trade unions, which is composed of the minority of communists among the militants and members of the union, comes to conquer its leadership. The working class, as an army, is already organized in the trade unions: the party sets out to lead this army; first in its defensive economic  struggle, and then, when the historical situation allows it, in its political and offensive struggle.

The guidelines for practical behavior that the party advocates inside the trade union, on how best to defend itself in a particular situation, entail no contradiction with the party’s task of reorganizing the forces of the proletarian class towards the general and vaster end of the struggle for communism.

Propagandizing the party’s general positions, the diffusion of its press, manifestos, invitations to public conferences, takes place, as in every other environment, but not at the same time s its trade union organizational work.

Only in this sense is “connecting class struggle unions with the struggle for a communist program” conceivable.

Some party comrades are militating within SICobas (as in other rank-and-file trade unions) and observing discipline to it: they bring their energy to bear as members and as communist sympathizers. Being known and respected, and  openly declaring their allegiance to the international communist party, they regularly make the party’s point of view known within the trade union with respect to the struggle under way, denouncing any possible strategic errors and indicating the best way to obtain the hoped-for results. They perform the organizational and propaganda work of the trade union: being present on picket lines, distributing the union’s flyers, building links, and editing and distributing press releases.

 

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Fight for 15 Reportback

Here’s a reportback from Shallah Baso on the recent Fight For 15 event in Tampa Florida that our group attended. 

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Recently, a group of us from the Communist League of Tampa gathered to participate in a march for the Tampa Fight For 15’s April 15th action (“Fight 4 15”). According to their count, 1,000 people took part in the march (this seems exaggerated by my own count). Given how big the events have gotten not just here but nationally, I want to give a little reportback and some of my thoughts to folks about the event.

The Event

I got to the park a little late, where a cookout was happening next to a speaker’s platform. People took turns (in between chatting with friends) to listen to workers talk about their experiences of living on low pay, or to religious leaders weighing in on low wages as a matter of injustice. Apparently politicians like Mayor Bob Buckhorn and a city councilor spoke as well, reminding people to vote. There were plenty of group tables, including a CLT table some comrades had set up. I didn’t recognize many of the people in attendance, which felt encouraging because of how daunting it can feel to only attend events where you see and recognize the same old folks. Many of them appeared to be workers, since they carried signs or wore shirts indicating their union or job affiliations (I can’t say how many were fast food workers, but there were a solid amount).

After the speeches finished, we began to march down the sidewalk to the main road (CLT marched as a bloc, though I stuck with some other workers I knew at first). We had a somewhat inanimate protest, unlike others I had been to with more organized chant leaders and enthusiasm, but people chanted things like “What do we want? 15! When do we want it? Now!”. As we crossed the road, I saw a group of people, I believe from the Bay Area Activist Coalition, block off the highway by locking arms in a long line and preventing all traffic from moving westward. I had heard some talk of taking the street, so I didn’t think too much of this, though it put me on guard about how the police would react. As we turned onto the street, I began to feel very uncertain about what the march organizers’ intentions were. I began to walk in the street, following others several dozen feet ahead of me, but other people (I couldn’t tell if they were event organizers or not) started waving me and others back onto the sidewalk. Many of the marchers did move onto the sidewalk, but some stayed in the street, making what we were doing further muddled. The traffic-blockers had also not prevented the eastward traffic from moving, and so a bit less than half of the march was cut off from the front section.

At some point, whether because the organizers finally made up their mind or they realized people’s uncertainty and assured them of where they should be, almost all of the front section poured into the street. We continued to march with a McDonald’s in sight as our final destination. People started chanting, in addition to “$15 and a union”, “If we don’t get it, shut it down!” This gave some of us the impression that we were going to do something along the lines of “shutting down” the McDonald’s, like blocking the driveway in from the street or the drive through or even occupying the store. Instead, we got off of the street and chanted slogans at what looked like six or so executive types (they weren’t in McDonald’s uniforms like how I would expect managers to be, they wore white shirts and black suit pants) inside the store.

We did this for a while, and then some of the staff organizers from FF15 called us over to a side street adjacent to the McDonald’s. A ‘die-in’ was held, and people laid down for 4 and a half minutes (a reference to the 4.5 hours Michael Brown’s body lay in the streets of Ferguson before coroners picked up his body). Some people from the FF15 staff and union members gave speeches, and finally we wrapped the whole event up and headed back to our respective cars and buses.

Reflections

Several things stuck out to me while the event unfolded, and later when I thought them over more deeply. I want to make it clear from the start that any criticisms I make are not meant to be personal attacks against any participants as much as heartfelt issues I had with the march.

First, the police acted in an incredibly non-antagonistic way the entire time. The street-taking had been planned beforehand (at a talk I had attended, some FF15 staffers had mentioned this to those in attendance), but during our excursion into the street, the police followed behind us and held up traffic. It’s still unclear to me why this was the case. I don’t believe our permit allowed for it, and it would have been odd for some of the protestors to form a human chain to block traffic if the police were going to handle it for us the whole time. If it wasn’t permitted, it was odd for the police to be so non-antagonistic and even “helpful” in blocking traffic for us.

The theory I have been working with is that the McDonald’s management had spoken with the police earlier, telling them to allow the road blocking if it could avoid the arrests that made media waves at previous days of action. Another possibility is that the Tampa Police Department simply underestimated the march, and didn’t have enough people on. In either case I think the police and McDonald’s management had a sense of how the march would go given previous incarnations of it both in Tampa and around the country.

Second, I couldn’t escape the feeling that the march was logistically unsound and confused. The confused aspect, I would argue, comes from something that I will call a lack of “street level analysis clarity”. By ‘analysis clarity’ I mean that in a campaign we know who we are, who we’re fighting, and how we’re going to win. The last part can remain uncertain about whether it will work, but it should still be concrete and focused. By ‘street level’ analysis clarity I mean that we know these things so well that in the moment we’re ready to respond quickly to a changing situation.

For comparison, marches I’ve done with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers make it clear that we are allies following the leadership of the CIW, fighting companies like Wendy’s and Publix in order to get a direct agreement between them and the CIW, and we’re going to march and use picket lines to win. We know it won’t escalate to civil disobedience, occupation, etc., and to me this is not a problem because the purpose of that march is to win certain demands according to a certain set of tactics that work. It is also clear where we are marching to, and basic things like side personnel having marchers go two by two or three by three to avoid clustering or spilling off into lanes of traffic are always present.

Unfortunately, the march/the organizers failed to establish a clear sense of who was leading, where we were going, what kind of tactics were acceptable to use, and even who we were really marching against. The chant-leaders seemed too inexperienced to really keep the beat and rhythm going, and the side personnel weren’t sure what we were doing and what was an arrest risk. Even if we marched to the McDonald’s, the campaign’s demands have shifted so greatly from “we want McDonald’s and other fast food companies to agree to $15/hr wages and a union” to a more vague demand that seems to be directed against congress or the local state legislature or the Tampa city council. It seems more like “telling the world” this is what we want, than a concrete demand which will get measurable results over time.

Third, and somewhat paradoxically given the above point, the march felt like a carefully crafted media spectacle. I am borrowing from Adam Weaver’s analysis here, where he calls the FF15 a ‘March on the Media’ in contrast to a ‘March on the Boss’, and a form of ‘militant lobbying’. There was a real energy happening with many of the workers and supporters there, and it seemed like people were ready for some more intense tactics, but instead we kept things at a mostly symbolic level. I think this is because of the organizers, who used that militancy and energy to make an appearance to the media of real power.

In anarcho-syndicalist circles (such as conversations in the IWW), folks often discuss the differences between ‘business unionism’ (a top-down, ‘service-provider’ approach to worker organizing where union bureaucrats control contract negotiations with bosses and curtail militancy and worker upsurges during the length of the contract) and ‘solidarity unionism’ (a bottom-up, ‘you are the union’ approach to unionism that relies on direct action and workers’ direct control of struggle). Fight For 15, a project of the Service Employees International Union, seems squarely in line with the former tendency. After the day’s events I had no sense that the workers themselves were leading what was happening, at best given roles that they could not deviate from the union’s line on. The FF15 staff were playing cop for the union bosses and making sure we didn’t deviate from the media image SEIU wanted.

Fourth, I saw a lot of what I’ll call “symbolic appropriation of militant movement tactics and rhetoric”. For example, the phrase “shut it down” came up a lot, even though the most we did was hold up traffic for a few minutes before the police helped us do it anyway. We also held a ‘die in’ on a side street and not a busy intersection, where the police were unlikely to arrest us. The die in also felt confused, because it is a tactic clearly coming from the Black Lives Matter movement, so I assumed it would be us giving a statement of solidarity and converging struggles. Instead, organizers asked us to use the 4.5 minutes to reflect on all the struggles that workers go through. It made some sense, but it felt somehow disingenuous to what the symbolism was meant to get across.

Earlier in the campaign, FF15 (and sister campaign OUR Walmart, backed by the UFCW) had used the language of ‘strike’ a lot to describe one day work stoppages by workers. This would be jarring because you might have only several workers out with dozens of community members in support. In one OUR Walmart action I went to, no workers from that store had joined the picket, and the workers present were all fired Walmart workers on tour with the staff/intern organizers. This kind of labor organizing always felt cynical and unsustainable to me, using workers to get a message across and describing something that was hardly a ‘strike’ in the sense that workers from that shop were putting real pressure on the boss in that shop. Instead, as Weaver writes, it’s “lobbying the same entrenched political system, appealing to change from above”, while using the language of radical workers movements which have ‘shut it down’ by the refusal of work, sabotage of production machinery, etc. More than anything, it seems a hindrance to use these phrases away from actually using the tactics the phrases represent, because it clouds our thinking about what will actually challenge the conditions that destroy people’s lives.

Conclusions

I am glad that the CLT participated in this event, but it affirmed suspicions I have had about the organizing going on in FF15. I believe that we need a workers movement where workers themselves lead, and I don’t think the SEIU can or will provide that. As a fast food worker of sorts myself, perhaps we need an organization of our own in Tampa Bay, one that will represent our interests because it will be led by us as workers in Tampa. We can only get there through careful planning, organization, and follow through. For now, we of the CLT will keep watching what’s happening and reflecting on our own experiences as workers and as communists dedicated to the overthrow of the existing order.

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.