Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Trade unions and the American left

2011: Wisconsin trade unionists fight back
This blog post is prompted by reading 'Socialist Register 2013: A Question of Strategy', which I am in the course of reviewing for Counterfire.
In 'Rethinking Unions, Registering Socialism' - an interesting essay in Socialist Register 2013 - Sam Gindin's starting point is American trade unions' 'generally anaemic response to the Great Financial Crisis'. Gindin - a Canadian academic who has a long association with north America's union movements - observes that the US union movement failed to build in the activist and political space opened up by Occupy. The struggle in Wisconsin was exemplary, but its eventual defeat may be one reason why there hasn't been a general upswing in trade union action.

The key question Gindin addresses is this: 'does the rejuvenation of unions still really remain possible, or are unions now exhausted as an effective historical form through which working people organise themselves?'

The last comparable economic and social crisis - in the 1930s - prompted a response that, in the US, had industrial unionism at the fore. Is it bound to be different this time? In the 1930s the American left was very much shaped by participation in workers' struggles. Gindin considers the decline and weakened state of today's left, noting that there's a huge gap between the poor state of socialist organisation and the crying need for a socialist response to the crisis.

Gindin is conscious of the limits of trade union sectionalism, which pulls the unions away from co-ordination and from a generalised political response to the crisis. The unions are particularly weak after over three decades of neoliberal workforce restructuring, which has eroded workplace organisation. It is exceptionally difficult for union militants to build rank-and-file organisations when they are isolated in often small workplaces, operating in a context of low union density and low levels of strike action.

Gindin suggests a way forward suited to this context of low levels of confidence within the labour movement and a very small organised left co-existing with widespread working class anger and the radicalism signified by Occupy. His proposal is for workers' assemblies, which would have 'four elements - individual membership, community-based, class-focused and anti-capitalist in the ultimate goal'. These would be locally based and encompass a range of issues. They would be a way for left-wing activists to both group together and reach out to wider layers, with a radical dynamic (note the reference to being 'anti-capitalist').
This has attractive elements: it reflects a correct understanding that organisation is more likely to be area-based than workplace-based (in a period of low industrial struggle, and taking into account long-term workforce restructuring), it aims to make connections between different elements of the working class to overcome sectionalism, and has a general political perspective rather than being limited to single issues. 
However, it does seem a rather speculative model. It isn't, to the best of my knowledge, rooted in any existing processes. It isn't clear who would initiate such assemblies: is this a call to the unions to take such an initiative, or perhaps to small groupings of socialist activists, or a wider appeal to the broad progressive movement? Also, Gindin acknowledges the difficulties associated with such assemblies in the absence of real workers' struggles - they risk becoming talking shops, could turn inwards, etc - but doesn't really come up with a satisfactory solution.
Aside from a reference to Occupy in the opening paragraph, helping frame the issues, there isn't any consideration of the Occupy movement in the essay. This is rather surprising, and feels like a missed opportunity, as Occupy should surely be a crucial reference point for any meaningful discussion along these lines. It isn't clear if the omission is because the author is essentially dismissive of Occupy, or if it is a mere oversight,  or if it reflects a lack of concreteness to what is being discussed.
I also think there is a lack of clarity in Gindin's ideas about how such workers' assemblies actually relate to trade union renewal. The idea is that they could play a vital role in stimulating a renewal of workers' struggles, but how this might unfold is not explained.
What is missing here, it seems, is the concept of the united front, or a sense of how it might be applied in current circumstances. I am reluctant to offer prescriptions from my location in another continent - and of course there will already be at least localised or partial examples of this anyway - so I'll just indicate roughly what that might imply. It means that socialist activists initiate broader formations opposed to key aspects of the neo-liberal offensive. In Europe this overwhelmingly means austerity; in the US it isn't quite so straightforward, but there is (as Occupy testified) a sense that the vast majority are being made to pay for a crisis generated by a tiny, wealthy minority, with growth in inequality and a squeeze on working class living standards.
It is in the context of wider struggles, which can involve sometimes large numbers of people from non-activist or non-left backgrounds, that the American Left can find a way forward. These will often be broader-based and more ostensibly single-issue (though of course specific issues tend to be a lightning rod for wider grievances) than the workers' assemblies model implies. In this context it is possible for there to both a broad left renewal - a left equivalent of the Tea Party phenomenon, if you will - and also a strengthening of the radical left, with arguments about the need for fundamental system change that can resonate at least with a small minority of those involved in joint activity.


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