Radicalising the rank and file

The following comments are extracted from a very lengthy and detailed discussion which rs21 members Anindya Bhattacharyya and Ray M recently conducted with the US Marxist labour historian Kim Moody

A former member of Students for a Democratic Society and the US International Socialists, Moody served on the editorial board of the journal he founded, Labor Notes, between 1979 and 2001. He is also the author of several books, including An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism (Verso, 1988), Workers in a Lean World (Verso, 1997), From Welfare to Real Estate: Regime Change in New York City, 1974 to the Present (New Press, 2007) and US Labor in Trouble and Transition (Verso, 2007). 

These extracts focus on issues which we think will be of the most immediate interest to rs21 readers – how a relatively small socialist group with a journal can exert influence in the labour movement and help rebuild workplace organisation. A transcript of the entire interview will be made available soon.

Chicago_Teachers_Union_on_strike_in_2012,_with_great_placards._Photo_by_Spencer_Tweedy_(CC_BY-NC-ND)

What was the background to the establishment of Labor Notes and how does it operate as a network?

Labor Notes came out of a couple of experiences in the late seventies. The first one was a coal miner’s strike in the United States [in 1978], a very long one that stirred up a lot of solidarity action among other kinds of workers with sort of caravans of goods and money and stuff going from north down to the south where the coal mines are and the coal miners sending up their caravans to the industrial cities like Detroit and the steel towns. The long upheaval from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies had involved rank and file organization, wild-cat strikes, leaders being overthrown, and rank and file committees forming at all kinds of levels in a lot of big unions; but all that appeared to be dying down, and then along came this strike that everybody paid attention to. It was fabulous because Jimmy Carter, the president at that time, applied an injunction on this strike and they just ignored it and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. It was great.

One of the problems with the rank and file upheaval of that period in the States was that, though you have these huge strikes, black caucuses and all these kind of things going on, they had almost no connection to each other, very little communication even. You might have a handful of leftists involved and some of them would communicate with each other, but basically there was nothing to give it a more class wide voice or coherence. This came in the wake of a split in the US International Socialists (IS). I don’t want to emphasise this too much, but nevertheless these things happened and we had to re-evaluate our approach. We changed from the party building idea that we got from here [i.e. from the UK IS] to a re-groupment idea. Part of that involved the need for a labour paper that could reach across the movement and give people news and analysis of each other’s struggles; but it also involved a transitional idea where you take what is happening, what people are actually doing and then tries to tie it together and give it a more class-wide view or analysis – not so much a bunch of demands, more a kind of direction.

Those were some of the things that lead to the formation in 1979 of Labor Notes. Three of us started it. We were all members of IS, but we realised from the beginning that if this thing was going to work it could not be seen as a front group or run in that way. This was a tightrope act. Although the IS obviously discussed the project we were very clear that it could not be a party publication with a “line” and we had to involve other people right from the beginning who were not in our group or in any group for that matter. We could do that because, from the work in IS, we already had a very broad network of trade union activists so that made Labor Notes possible and it really took off.

Now, unfortunately the upheaval of the sixties and seventies disappeared, we thought it might go on but it didn’t after the miner’s strike. Nevertheless, it became possible for us to have this role in creating a network. We never tried to set up an organisation, but rather a very loose network that went pretty much across the whole trade union movement in the beginning. Obviously it doesn’t mean that we had millions of subscribers. They were in the thousands but it meant that these were key activists in these various different unions, and, with a tiny handful of exceptions, none of them were highly placed officials. Some of them were local union branch union officials and a couple might have been a little higher than that, but no presidents or general secretaries or whatever. Partly that was because we didn’t want them, we wanted this to be a rank and file thing, and partly because they wouldn’t touch us anyway – in fact they pretty much hated Labor Notes from the beginning.

We started to do other things with it as it grew, not just the subscriptions although it was important in the way we did that too. Of course people bought individual subscriptions but we also encouraged people to take small bundles to use at work. People did that lots and still do, so in that way it got out to more people. By 1981 we had the idea of holding a conference. The first had about 500 people, which was more than we expected and from that time it has pretty much just grown. The people who subscribe, who come to the conferences obviously have changed over this long period of time. If you’d been at the first four or five Labor Notes conferences you would have seen mostly car workers, steel workers, factory workers, teamsters, truck drivers – mainly blue collar, very heavy blue collar. Even as those industries began to shrink or move to the south or disappear or move abroad the numbers  kept going up, but the constituencies changed significantly all the time. It also became more racially diverse.

What did you mean by describing Labor Notes as a ‘transitional’ project?

I guess one lesson we learned is to listen to what people are saying about new management initiatives and take up the issues that other people won’t take up. Don’t try to beat the union, but try to get a current of people in the unions that have this point of view which we would call a class point of view, a basic us versus them. So what made it transitional? Of course the idea comes originally from Trotsky, but what made it transitional in our minds was that we took something people were concerned about, but didn’t quite understand in the beginning, and were able to turn into a kind of education and dynamics. We tried to make clear that it was not just about labour management – this is after all about capital and labour ,  about this fundamental relationship – but also tried to avoid Marxist rhetoric as much as possible, by remembering who we are taking to. Increasingly, no matter what the subject was about, we would begin to introduce workshops and things on questions of race and gender, and I have to admit it was something we were most nervous about. It is not the left we are speaking to after all, but big-bellied truck drivers and southern workers and all kinds of people like that, as well as black workers and Latinos and so forth. The amazing thing is that it really worked if you did it in a certain way. It had an influence at least on this small layer of activists across the movement because it taught them how to make these arguments against racism, racial talk, or unions ignoring the issues of black people or immigrants.

What is the role of rank and file organization in rebuilding the labour movement?

How do you change the labour movement? Jane McAlevey says that you need a big left but you can’t get a big left without a big labour movement. I think that’s because Jane approaches this in a bureaucratic manner as a professional organiser, staff organiser and so forth. I was on a panel with her at Historical Materialism conference and she has a lot of interesting good things to say, but I don’t think it’s a chicken and egg problem at all. I think that the way you build the left is by building a large current within the labour movement or the working class more generally.

Partly this is just the obvious stuff about building strong workplace or on the job organisation. I say on the job because this also goes for people who don’t have or don’t spend all their time in the workplace – like say delivery drivers or couriers. All kinds of jobs now are not workplace based but can be still be organised in this fashion into unions. And if they are in the union then they are going to run into the problems that all workers have with union bureaucracy. Overcoming that involves the building of rank and file organisation based on workplace power as much as possible – but not just in order to run for office. One of my criticisms of what goes on here [i.e. in the UK] among the left is the idea that the united left [i.e. broad left] runs people for these high offices and they become electoral machines. Back in the day of course the IS criticised the Communist Party’s operation for being exactly that and now the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) has increasingly adopted the same approach over the years. But it isn’t just the SWP; it’s all of the left groups, or at least all the ones I am aware of. I think that’s a mistaken approach, because if you run people for office before you have an organised base they’re going to be in trouble: they’re not going to have authority, they’re speaking largely for themselves and they will get into trouble not only with the bureaucracy but with their base such as it is, and their comrades because the dynamics involved.

How should different socialist groups work together in the unions?

From our perspective, we understand that we’re not “the only ones” and that we should work with other socialist groups who take the same approach. It’s not possible everywhere but wherever it is set up actual rank and file organization – movements, but with a structure, something people can join, which puts out newsletters in the workplace and things of that sort. I would say the most important thing is for those who are able to do it to become stewards or reps. That can be difficult in a lot of places, but it would be more important than running for top office.

Similarly, more important than having some long list of demands is again the transitional idea about picking on what people are actually worried about, and would like somebody to do something about, and getting them to do something about it with their mates. In the US, this actually happens perhaps more than it does here and there is currently a kind of wave of them. Most involved taking over local union branches, which are different in the States in that they’re more workplace based than here. When I say local unions or branches I’m talking about organisations most of which have several thousand members or some of them even bigger than that, so we’re talking about a lot of people.

I suppose the best known one here at the moment is the Chicago teachers union. The left played a huge role in that. At least three groups that I know of, Solidarity, the International Socialist Organization and the Freedom Road Socialists Organization have worked together for quite a long time in spite of differences. So it is possible to go beyond the borders of your own group when there is something important to do. I’m obviously not saying differences will never come out, but they learned to handle them in a constructive way. The Chicago teacher’s strike is obviously such a prime example because it was conducted as if somebody had written a handbook on how you do this beforehand: they did everything, including consulting all of the members about the strike — it was absolutely fantastic.

Now you can’t do that in every situation, since you don’t always have the kind of conscious leaders that they had. And it took them a while to get there. They organised this core quite a while ago, and were doing lots of things, but they understood that you don’t begin with the election or the strike for that matter. You begin with the little things and the not so little things. Chicago is the best known example but there are actually scores and scores of these mobilisations. One estimate is that the successful ones now control local or in a couple of cases national unions covering about a half a million workers. Whether it will continue to spread I don’t know. It isn’t just something that Labor Notes, much less the left groups did; but when it starts happening, because Labor Notes has established itself as this kind of centre where you can come for help, they do. So this last conference in April had two thousand people and that just blew my mind, as it represented all these rank and file movements as well as immigrant community groups.

I can’t say that this dynamic will keep going, a lot of these groups will fail – that’s almost inevitable, unfortunately. But what you see taking place in the unions where it’s happening is that something like a new generation of leaders are taking shape and their views are radically different from the older generation of leaders. Most of them wouldn’t call themselves socialists, but they’re definitely class conscious, they are against partnership and for all of the things we could say they should be for, except for revolution. Some of them are even in favour of that, although they have some vague ideas about what that might be, but it’s clearly a different current from the previous leaderships. Now I don’t know if that would have happened without Labor Notes or not. Labor Notes didn’t create the activists, but it does help educate them.

So I think that’s how the labour movement changes and how you build the left. I mean, I’m sitting on a panel in New York shortly after the conference in Chicago, one of the guys on the panel is one of the rebels in a huge Teamster local, called Tim Sylvester, a working class guy from Queens [in New York] and he says, “my members think I’m nuts to come and sit on this panel with communists and socialists, but hey, you know”. You get more and more of this, they know who we are. It’s not like there’s any secret about our politics so they’re willing to work with us even if they’re not willing to adopt all of our politics.

Now obviously there’s more to building the left than trade union work. Any organisation in the UK is going to have to intervene in more movements and over the issues of race and the NHS. For example, take these little strikes they had in the NHS. Four hours isn’t much, but if you’ve never done it before it’s a little step and if we were there in significant numbers and we had something to give health workers like Labor Notes or something or a rank and file group among the nurses there would be a lot to be said. They’re striking for money because that seems to be the acceptable, legal thing to do — but what about demanding more staff and shorter hours, and better nurse-patient ratios? Maybe they can’t go for those things right now, but if we had a publication or a centre or something like that, that’s the kind of thing it would be saying and we would have nurses saying it, we don’t need to say it, they need to say it.

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