Should the ISO expel Jesse Sharkey?

UPDATE: 4/10/2015

A Black woman said “Fuck the Police” at a CTU rally for which she came under widespread attacks and even death threats. Rather than stand up for her, Jesse distanced himself and the union from her comments. This is a disgrace and a slap in the face to everybody who has fought against police terror.

UPDATE: 12/17/15

Jesse Sharkey agrees to a United Front with the boss:

Q: “Would you be willing to join forces with CPS officials and go down to Springfield as a unified force to try to get results from Springfield?”

A: “Absolutely.”

Chicago Magazine asks Jesse Sharkey point blank “Do you agree with protestors who are calling on Rahm to resign?” and he cannot even say “yes” and declines to disown his support for Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.

He also gives a very poor political lead when talking about the cops to the press and directly to CTU members.


The issue is not simply whether it is appropriate for the ISO to have a member, in a high profile position, who is supporting Democrats that promise to cut workers’ wages. It obviously is not. The real issue is whether anything can be done to stop him from continuing on this track, whether any pressure can be applied to shift the direction of the union, and if so, why would we not advocate for this to happen?

In fact, there are several possible options that could be taken to deal with the situation. Expulsion, suspension, censure, or even a public statement that the ISO disagrees with his actions and plans to oppose them. Any of these would be better than the current, utterly unacceptable situation of Jesse doing whatever he wants and the ISO standing by quietly and pretending like it is not happening.

The issue is not whether he is a nice guy, or whether he still believes in his heart that he is a socialist, or about whether the ISO can remain “pure” with him as a member. These issues are irrelevant and not worth discussing any further. The issue is whether the ISO can have a positive impact on the labor movement, or reel in a negative impact, by taking action. This, after all, is supposed to be the purpose of the ISO.

The root of the problem is not that he has not been expelled. The root of the problem is that this has not even been seriously considered, nor has it been considered that threatening to do so might actually have a positive effect on his actions. Considering that the effects of endorsing Jesus “Chuy” Garcia continue to haunt the Chicago Teachers’ Union in its defensive contract position, wouldn’t putting some pressure on Jesse to redirect his efforts be an urgent priority? Or is fighting for independent politics in the labor movement somebody else’s responsibility?

An internal ISO bulletin from July 2015 responds to some criticism about the handling of the situation, noting that there have been numerous meetings, formal and informal, involving various levels of national and local ISO leadership as well as the CTU fraction. From reading this document, one might think that Jesse was merely in an awkward position of leading a union that endorsed a Democrat and did his best to navigate these “uncharted waters.” One would not realize from reading this document that Jesse has been an enthusiastic advocate for the Garcia campaign. The document insists that there has been a wide open debate among people who need to be involved, and yet she completely avoids the character of his involvement. Fortunately, we have the Chicago press to report on his actual role, even if the July bulletin and SW refuse to acknowledge it.

Her evidence that there has been a wide open debate around this issue includes several internal documents and a debate in SW–a bizarre discussion, it should be added, where Jesse is hardly mentioned and people to tip-toe around the issue lest they break party discipline. Which resulted in a Steering Committee member responding with incredulity that somebody might think something was wrong, insisting that the critics had “missed the point” of a previous, vague article:

“It’s hard to square their alarm,” he and his co-authors write “about what we wrote with SW‘s long and established record on the question of the Democrats and labor in general, and the CTU in particular.”

Yes, one cannot imagine why somebody would be alarmed that an influential ISO comrade is pushing his union to campaign for somebody like Garcia and there is nowhere to discuss it. If there was ever a sign that this issue was not going to be dealt with honestly, or seriously, or in a principled manner, this was it. It is reprehensible that anybody would suggest there is nothing to be “alarmed” about. This obtuse response to such obvious concerns–cryptic as they necessarily were–is part of the ongoing attempt to avoid dealing with the problem and deflect blame by the people most responsible for it. Viewing some of these discussions, where one ISO comrade raises vague concerns about the issue, and the other pretends like they have no idea what they are talking about, is liking stepping into an alternate reality where facts just do not exist.

The problem was not resolved, because it has not even been seriously addressed, and it has gotten worse. The CTU strategy has been dictated for a year–in fact much longer–by the elected leadership’s ongoing efforts to find an ally among Chicago Democrats, and Jesse Sharkey is playing a significant role in this. Is the ISO going to do anything about it? Is Jesse’s position going to strengthen the ISO’s ability to respond to the labor movement’s rightward, pro-austerity tendencies, or is it going to weaken it?

The point of discussing expulsion and other forms of discipline is that this is a lever the ISO can pull to actually have an impact on the situation. Has anybody considered that threatening Jesse with expulsion just might reel him in from his disastrous efforts in support of the Democrats? If this is so–and we do not know if this is so but it might be–wouldn’t we want to consider pulling this lever to see if it might have an effect? Or at least threaten to do so? People who are unwilling to even broach this issue should really consider how committed they are to independent radical politics.


Before proceeding, it needs to be pointed out that Jesse’s relationship to the ISO is not a secret to anybody. Not by a longshot. If it were, this very article would not be written. But there are already numerous outlets for anybody to discover this truth without having to come to this poorly read and rarely updated blog. Everybody who wants to know has already figured it out long ago, and this article will add nothing to the widely known evidence across the Internet.

As of this writing, there are 96 posts on the World Socialist Web Site about “Jesse Sharkey” and “International Socialist Organization” in the same article. A cursory look and a moment’s thought should be enough to conclude that every single one of them mentions his membership status. Some of these articles have been reposted elsewhere, including at Substance News (widely read among, and written by, Chicago teachers) and even a news aggregator which posts on the CTU website. Lo and behold, even Socialist Worker hosts 25 articles “by Jesse Sharkey.”

jsBut it is much simpler than that. If you do a Google search on “Jesse Sharkey” the third Google autocomplete suggestion basically gives the story away. If any amatuer slueth could not even bother to click this option, then simply searching on his name would pull a link on the first page of search results from attacking him for attending the Midwest Marxism conference. These are the kinds of people who go “undercover” and interview ACORN and Planned Parenthood and post videos online attacking them. This right-wing hit piece has been reposted throughout the Internet. A CTU caucus that ran against CORE has also posted this information on their web site. They know all about Jesse, and if you think that there are not several Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times reporters who know all about this as well, you are living on another planet. This is widely known information for anybody who cares to find it. Anybody with any curiosity about Jesse could figure this out in a few minutes of Google searches. Everybody who could or would use this information against him has already done so.

The truth is, the secrecy around this issue has nothing at all to do with any security issue and everything to do with the ISO’s reputation, and even more the desire of the ISO leadership to avoid an embarrassing discussion about how, yet again, they have completely failed to deal with a very serious problem. The result is, anybody who wants to play by the ISO’s “rules” has to have this discussion in secret, completely out of site of the vast majority of Chicago teachers, if they can have it at all. That, apparently, is how principled discussion works.

The case against Jesse Sharkey

I suspect many people in the ISO are somewhat aware of this issue, and have seen some of the details, but may have been convinced that Jesse has reluctantly done what his union has expected of him. This is how the July bulletin describes it. These comrades ought to read the Chicago press, mainstream and alternative, which has shown Jesse enthusiastically–well above the call of duty–throwing his support and the CTU’s support behind Garcia.

First and foremost is the October 2014 LEAD dinner hosted by the CTU, where it was announced that since Karen Lewis had fallen to a very unfortunate and serious illness, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia would be their candidate. In fact, Jesse introduced Garcia as “the next mayor of Chicago” and was seen getting chummy with Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. This announcement was made without any input of the rank-and-file, many of whom had other plans. The CTU House of Delegates met a few days later to rubber stamp this endorsement in a rushed vote that stymied the rank-and-file’s ability to counter with alternate proposals. (See comments on the previous link) Jesse did not simply accept the will of the majority of his union, rather he helped the leadership of his union force Garcia onto their members against rank-and-file democracy.

Did the ISO have a response to Jesse’s role in this? It was not a mystery that something like this was in the works. Socialist Worker even predicted that teachers would “gag on their corned beef” when Governor Pat Quinn attended the dinner. Of course, it all goes down easier when it is delivered by somebody from the Left. Afterward, a story went around the ISO that Jesse was tricked–bamboozled!–by other people in the CTU leadership who wanted to support Garcia. If you believe that, you will believe anything, except of course the facts that are presented right in front of your face.

After the House of Delegates reluctantly accepted the endorsement, the CTU put out a press release quoting Jesse as saying that “Garcia has strongly endorsed an elected school board.” Yet just the week previously Garcia said that he “toiled with this issue” and “I’m more for an elected school board than against.” In these statements, Jesse lied to his union members about what a great candidate Garcia was, and it was entirely unnecessary. You do not have to be familiar with these “uncharted waters” to appreciate how wrong this is.

Later, Chicago magazine reported that Jesse spent “11 hours” on the day of the primary election leafletting for Garcia, and after hearing the news that there would be a run-off with Rahm Emanuel, Jesse went over to Garcia’s campaign headquarters and “I hugged him.” This is not somebody who was doing the very least he could do to uphold a democratic decision he disagreed with. This is an enthusiastic ally.

fifteenJesse would later hold a press conference with Garcia announcing that the CTU would call for a minimum wage of $15 for all Chicago schools employees and contract workers. The real star of the press conference was Garcia, who announced his support for the measure. The event was a farce, setup to make Garcia look good, even though he would announce the next day that as mayor he would have “bad news” for public sector workers. The farcical press conference was mentioned in Socialist Worker, though there was no mention of Jesse’s helping Garcia promote his backstabbing agenda, or that this demand would likely evaporate with Garcia’s electoral campaign–which it has. No, mentioning these details would have been embarrassing.

No matter how explicit Garcia was about his willingness to attack public sectors workers, Jesse stood right by him. All he had to say was, brothers and sisters, I think we made a mistake in supporting this candidate. But even this is beyond the imagination of his defenders who were utterly lost in these uncharted waters.

Since the election, Jesse and Karen Lewis worked to accept a zero percent pay raise and told the media that it is too soon to start talking about a strike. Lewis apparently told the CTU House of Delegates that avoiding a strike would be preferable.This is what campaigning for Democrats does to you–the strategy becomes finding a loyal bargaining ally at the top and not building resistance from below. The zero percent pay raise proposal was a hint to the media and the schools that, no, they were not planning to strike, because they could only legally strike over economic issues. Socialist Worker inexplicably announced that CTU “will be mobilizing its members for what already seems to be an inevitable second strike against Emanuel.” At that very moment, Jesse and Lewis were working to avoid a strike and were fairly open about doing so. It is too bad that the comrade who wrote the article failed to just ask Jesse what the plan was, or even bothered to read the local news. Three weeks before this SW article was written Jesse told the media that “We’ve not going to accept the district poor-mouthing (the union) without putting up a fight. But there’s going to war and there’s (really) going to war.” In other words, they were not planning on “really going to war.” He mentioned in the same interview that they were avoiding salary issues–economic issues that could legally allow a strike. He told the media several times since then that it was too soon to even talk about striking.

CTU and CPS were very close to agreeing on a zero percent pay increase contract but that fell apart at the last minute. Only since then has there been serious talk and planning in the CTU to prepare for a strike, especially with the threats of thousands of job losses if Springfield does not fill the budget gap, but it is hard to believe after all this that it will be a repeat of the 2012 strike, much less the more expansive strike it could have been had Jesse helped lead the CTU in this direction for the last three years, instead of into the graveyard of social movements.

There is also another issue entirely, which is the teachers’ pension, which faces crisis after crisis without any resolution. Will Jesse go along with a deal to cut teacher and retiree wages and benefits in order to reform the pension? The pension crisis may continue indefinitely, but it also might come to a head very quickly as part of a grand bargain to avoid layoffs and to avoid a strike. This is an enormous challenge that the CTU leadership cannot negotiate their way out of, and may require them (from their point of view) to push a very bad deal on their members.

It is also entirely possible that the new and belated talk of a strike is merely another bargaining chip for the CTU leadership to look militant while continuing to plan on accepting a bad deal. People who do not think this is a possibility or something to be concerned about simply do not believe in Socialism From Below. They believe in the Great Man Theory of history, putting their trust in important people, men and women, even when those people have betrayed that trust many times in the past.

None of the above actions taken by Jesse in supporting the campaign were necessary or excusable. Not a single one. Had he wanted to, he could have easily maintained his elected position and allowed others to carry the weight of the Garcia campaign. He could have merely told the media that the CTU membership endorsed Garcia and those who agree with the endorsement will be campaigning with him, but as the acting president of this union I think organizing the rank-and-file teachers is a better use of my time because like Howard Zinn said, it’s not about who is sitting in the White House, or City Hall, but about who is sitting in. End of discussion. A beautiful moment, though sharper options were available as well, had he wanted to take them. He did not.

There is no alternative?

In response to all this, the July 2015 bulletin paints a stark set of options available to the ISO and to Jesse:

Our comrade was put into position, as acting president of a union of more than 25,000 members, of campaigning for the candidate that the rest of the union leadership and eventually the delegates endorsed, despite his own political convictions. Were there other options open to this individual? Yes. He could have quit his position in the union, thus abandoning ship at the exact moment when members were reeling from CTU president Karen Lewis’ illness and we were facing a new round of contract negotiations with Mayor 1%. He could have forced a split in the leadership and in the union at the exact moment when our bosses would have been able to use their advantage. He could have quit the ISO, saving us the hassle of having to deal with the contradiction we faced.

Were there other options for the ISO? I will leave it to comrades who have disagreements with what we did or said to raise their specific counterproposals.

Reading this, one wonders if she even disagrees with his actions at all. Furthermore, as far as splitting the leadership goes, Jesse would not be forcing a split in the leadership, the supposed bamboozlers who forced this position on him and the union were forcing the split. Moreover, it is precisely by getting the CTU to support the Democratic Party that the bosses “use their advantage” against the union! It is astonishing that a comrade of this caliber cannot see through the neoliberal conclusions of her own arguments. She is saying, essentially, there is no alternative. What did you want him to do, resign his position or split the leadership?

Yes, these are the alternatives to working within the confines presented by the neoliberal capitalism–reject the phony limitations and fight for a clearly independent strategy. It will never be easier for anybody than Jesse had it–it will usually be far harder. Ultimately, though, this polemical smokescreen is just cover for the fact that there were numerous options available. It is a wonder that she could not even bother to consider them.

Especially at the LEAD dinner, where Jesse could have drawn an historic line in the sand for the US labor movement in announcing that he was not going to go along with the Democratic Party status quo. It would have made national news and stirred the emotions and the organizing energy of labor activists around the country who have been waiting for an opportunity to build an independent labor movement. It may not have shifted the tide in labor’s long decline, but it would have provided a fantastic starting point for rebuilding a left-wing of the labor movement. If you are into that sort of thing. People would write history books about it. But no, history will be made by other people, not by the ISO in this case.

Even short of such a bold statement at the LEAD dinner, Jesse could have simply presented Garcia on behalf of Karen Lewis, no puffing and flattery. He also could have simply called in sick. Has nobody even thought of this? How many ISO comrades have called in sick to work in order to attend a May Day protest during the day, or to avoid crossing a picket line called by other workers at their workplace? This is not rocket science. For the July bulletin to pretend that There is No Alternative is to display either an enormous level of incompetence, or to present options so stark so that people will stop raising criticisms for fear of being branded unserious ultra-left anti-leadership sectarians.

The July bulletin also suggests that other comrades may raise their own counterproposals, almost as a dare for anybody to raise the suggestions of discipline, which would be branded a traitorous attack. Put all the exasperated hand-waving and “how dare yous” aside. What she is really saying is, she and others are unwilling to take every measure they can take to deal with this situation–it is not even clear that she disagree with a single thing he did!–and she doubts that other comrades are committed to these things any more than she is.

Short of expulsion, there are many options. Here is one. Suspend Jesse for 6 months. His actions absolutely have earned him this. His return from suspension could be contingent on his behavior during that time. If he continues endorsing Democrats, if he helps to push a concessionary contract on the teachers, if he continues talking against striking or if he works against rank-and-file democracy or endorses a concessionary contract or pension reform, then his suspension could be made permanent into an expulsion. If he is interested enough to in being in a socialist organization, he could start acting like it. Maybe this would pressure him to resist the rightward pull of the CTU leadership. THIS IS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE. There are so many options like this, softer and more flexible if that is what you prefer, it is incredible that they have not been considered.

The ISO is in a position to–possibly–have some real influence in the direction of the union, but is terrified of taking action. The leadership, to use the words that it has thrown at comrades for many years, is standing on the sidelines with its arms folded as though looking through a glass wall at the labor movement, acting as though there is nothing that they can do to influence it. On the contrary, they are in an exceptionally strong position to apply pressure, but refuse to.

How has it come to this? In 2004, ISO members campaigned for Ralph Nader in just about the worst possible circumstances, during the “Anybody But Bush” election. In California, we worked to get Nader on the ballot by petitioning on street corners, where we were yelled at, mocked, ridiculed and harassed. The value of this experience has nothing to do with Nader–an exceptionally flawed vessel for a political campaign–and everything to do with building up a layer of people who would simply not accept the status quo of the two party system. We rejected the two alternatives presented to us and chose another. Has that cadre of anti-lesser-evilists been eradicated entirely? That there are so few taking up this issue more seriously suggests that perhaps it has, but of course it is not yet too late to do something about it. In the meantime, Jesse’s actions are a slap in the face to every ISO member who has gone out and braved these hostile waters, and it is a disgrace that these actions are so coddled by the leadership.

What is to be done?

The defensiveness coming from the ISO leadership should make something very clear–its internal regime (not to mention United Front approach to politics, where alliances are made left and right but nobody’s feet are ever held to the fire)–is completely inadequate to building radical and independent politics. The leadership ought to be taking every measure to find a way to deal with this situation, where one of the most left-wing unions in the country, with one of the most organized activist bases of any local, is having all its energy directed toward supporting politicians who will stab them in the back. This is an urgent issue, and yet the leadership cannot stand any criticism that it has failed to deal with it, when its failure has been so spectacularly written in the mainstream press for all to see. Actual leadership in this situation would not require waving a magic wand and suddenly fixing it. If Jesse wants to be a Democrat, nobody can force him to do anything, even though some pressure might be effective. Rather, leadership would involve putting a call out to the ISO membership, to CTU teachers, to the Left in Chicago that this is an urgent situation and we all need to figure out how to salvage it. But that is impossible for the current leadership.

Contrast this to the ISO leadership during the faction fight of 2013/2014. One particularly blustery Steering Committee member was going around Facebook accusing critics of the ISO of being “haters” who had given up on the struggle, and how glad he was that certain “idiots” stopped getting so many likes on their posts. He even referred not-so-slyly to an article by Lenin titled “How the Bourgeoisie Utilises Renegades,” implying that the ISO’s critics were the modern-day renegades being used by the bourgeoisie.

Of course, in Jesse, we now have an actual renegade working in support of a bourgeois party, helping to elect a man who promised to deliver austerity. Nothing even remotely like these attacks have been directed toward Jesse, who has been handled with kid gloves during all of these events. A year ago, another Steering Committee member even appealed to comrades a take into account his many years of experience before everything is blamed on him. This moralism is the result of a year of inaction.

To put it simply, when the ISO Steering Committee see their own jobs under attack, they pull out the stops to slander and denigrate their opponents, doing whatever they can destroy the critics. But when it is merely public sector workers whose jobs are being threatened by their own comrade’s action then it is a different story entirely. This, in a nutshell, is the Marxist criticism of the “Leninist” model of organization. It is completely inadequate in dealing with actual problems that are not directly related to their own job security.

Is there a way to raise these issues without raising the ire of unprincipled people who will respond to any criticism as an attack, even criticism so obvious as in this case? Of course not. It will happen regardless of how carefully and thoughtfully crafted your arguments are. Let them make fools of themselves with their ranting tirades against anti-Leninists and anti-leadership sectarians. It is important that people see who is serious about dealing with these issues and who is just a blowhard who enjoys giving talks and writing books. It is better that people actually see how nasty and unprincipled they are, because that is the only way people can prepare themselves to deal with it.

It may not be easy, but something has to be done, and it is about God damn time that somebody actually stood up and dealt with this problem.

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November 2014: From election to rebellion

by Scott Jay


Left to right: Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey and an unknown participant in the Ferguson uprising

Every two to four years, we are told by the Democratic Party hangers-on that we are in the midst of the most important election of our life times. In cities like San Francisco and Chicago, which hold local elections on odd-numbered years, we are graced with the honor of hearing these arguments non-stop. The promise of many 2014 electoral campaigns, from minimum wage initiatives to left-leaning candidates, was that their work toward November could lay the basis for ongoing organizing. By the end of November, the invisibility of many of these forces was already plain to see.

For some of us, watching our fellow Leftists succumb to the pull of the graveyard of social movements after proudly resisting for so long meant that November 2014 really was the most important election of our lifetimes, and not in a good way. The saving grace for social movements in the US, though, is that while November 2014 began with some of the most disastrous and conniving lesser evilism by the most respected labor activists in the country, it ends with a nationwide mini-rebellion against the ongoing murder of young Black men by completely unaccountable police officers. This seemingly spontaneous eruption on the one hand and the ongoing collapse of labor Left into the Democratic Party on the other hand are not contradictory but rather two sides of the same coin.

The worst election of our lifetime

November 2014 opened with one of the most shocking political setbacks that the labor Left has seen in some time. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), for several years one of the leading lights of a labor movement stuck in concessionary bargaining and political back-room dealing, has for several years battled the Democratic Party machine in Chicago led by Rahm Emanuel. The CTU not only took up classroom issues outside the narrow bounds of wages and benefits but also social issues affecting ordinary Chicagoans. The widely popular 2012 teachers’ strike was only the highlight of these efforts.

That strike made CTU President Karen Lewis one of the most popular figures in Chicago, not to mention the national labor movement. Polls showing that she could beat Emanuel in a mayoral election moved her and her supporters to rapidly consider this option, which was halted due to a serious illness.

Within days, a contingency plan was in place that was shoved down the throats of the CTU membership. At a Halloween night dinner to honor supporters of teachers, Lewis appeared in a video to provide her endorsement of Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Cook County Commissioner who had announced his candidacy only four days earlier. Lewis’s statement, her first public appearance after brain surgery, was quite moving. But it also reeked of back-room deals and political patronage at the expense of rank-and-file democracy–which presumably was the purpose behind the election of her and her leadership team in the first place.

The entire event positioned the CTU as would-be kingmakers with Vice President Jesse Sharkey introducing Garcia as the “Next Mayor of Chicago”–before any CTU members had a chance to argue otherwise. It also produced a last ditch effort to re-elect Pat Quinn, another invited guest, as Governor of Illinois. This, in spite of Quinn and running mate Paul Vallas’s attacks on teachers and other public sector workers, was a sorry display of political wheeling and dealing.

The CTU endorsement of Quinn had little impact on the election as he lost to the “worser evil” Bruce Rauner. The Democrats across the board faced significant losses, in spite of labors efforts to get out the vote with minimum wage and other pro-worker initiatives. Yet, the CTU leadership continued their path undeterred.

The day after Quinn’s electoral defeat, the CTU House of Delegates agreed with Lewis and endorsed Garcia, but the lack of any time to seriously consider the alternatives in a process forced by the leadership, left many openly angered. Most notable has been George Schmidt, a former Chicago teacher and the publisher of Substance News, who has published several articles on the CTU endorsement debacle in comparison to the lengthy debate in 2010. Lewis’s star power sealed the deal, proving her stardom to be a double-edged sword that can both challenge Rahm Emanuel but also curtail rank-and-file democracy.

A CTU press release assured us that the endorsement was made through “an internal, democratic vetting process [by a ] committee comprised of rank-and-file teachers, paraprofessionals and school clinicians.” Many teachers would disagree. It also assured us that “Garcia has strongly endorsed an elected school board” whereas the current school board is appointed by the Mayor. In fact, the previous week Garcia gave lukewarm support to an elected school board, noting that “I’m more for an elected school board than against.”

The issue of an elected school board is now being taken up as a non-binding advisory referendum, so even if 100 percent of voters approve it there is no guarantee whatsoever that it will be implemented. These non-binding ballot initiatives are a blatant maneuver to bring people to the polls to elect politicians who will do nothing with their promises. This is made even more obvious by the fact that the effort is led by some of the same people who redirected the 2011 Wisconsin capitol occupation out of the streets and into a (failed) campaign to recall Governor Scott Walker, “raising $50 million along the way,” the Chicago Sun-Times noted..

This disastrous move by the CTU leadership to embrace the Democrats was not as sudden as it seemed, as Schmidt’s archives reveal. Yet it was a huge blow to the project of building a political alternative to the Democrats within the labor movement and exposes once again the folly of expecting Left union bureaucrats to lead the way. How this played out and how teachers continue to resist it has been well documented in a Labor Beat video worth watching for those interested in the whole story.

Nobody should take glee in this turn in events in CTU, as flawed as the effort may have been from the very beginning. Labor is in a desperate situation when its brightest hope shows such backtracking. There is, however, hope for working people who want to fight for their lives.

A rejection of the status quo

This came toward the end of the month with the announcement that Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for killing an unarmed young Black man, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. The rebellion that has erupted around the country was nearly as predictable as the announcement that a racist murderer would go scot free. We may not be at the heights of the massive urban rebellions of the 1960s, in particular after the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, but the widespread revolt is a rejection of a racist status quo. It is also a rejection of the politics of negotiating the terms of ones own surrender, as the US labor movement is so fond of doing. The contemporary political and labor organizations simply have failed to connect with the bitterness among broad layers of young people and who are rebelling as they see fit, regardless of what people tell them they should do.

It is also a rebellion that is showing itself as having grown stronger and more powerful over the years. Not only are the numbers larger since the response to George Zimmerman being found not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin just over a year ago, but the tactics have grown more bold and militant. This is seen not only in the number of fires set to buildings and cars in Ferguson–and these have been quite substantial–but in the tactic of shutting down bridges and freeways.

During the Zimmerman revolt, there was a loud and immediate outpouring, but the freeway shut downs were fewer and grew slowly. After a Los Angeles action took over Highway 10 the morning after the verdict, some were inspired to reproduce this same tactic, which briefly succeeded in Oakland and Houston, for example. Yet, this time around, this tactic was immediate and widespread. In Oakland, for example, there were at least two successful freeway shut downs within hours of the non-indictment announcement and at least two more the following night, not to mention at least a dozen other attempts as thousands of marcher played cat-and-mouse with vigilant police. In New York City, three bridges were shut down the second night but there were also freeway actions even in places like San Diego, Durham, North Carolina and Providence, Rhode Island.

For a march of a couple thousand people, shutting down a freeway or some other disruptive action is now simply the order of the day. This is not happening because there is some organization that has laid out a strategy of upping the ante, but rather the participants have simply chosen to up the ante themselves. Unfortunately, the organized Left is often more interested in getting in front of the stage with a bullhorn than in figuring out how to push the envelope on what is possible. These militant tactics are then left to relatively unorganized young people, many of whom really do have nothing to lose but their chains.

Which is not to say any of this is unorganized, or would not benefit from greater coordination and organizing structures. Those are being built as we speak, but largely from the ground up and not as part of some other ideological project.

The disparity between the bottom up rebellion of the oppressed and the top down deal making by professional activists was laid out quite well by one of the participants of last year’s Oakland protests. Describing the freeway action and other attempts at disruptive direct action, he noted how many want to keep their hands clean of messy urban rebellions:

None of these important moments would have been possible without the “chaos” that some commenters even on the traditional left have been quick to denigrate. One can only imagine the meek demonstrations that would have ensued if such voices had their way: one-day marches, rather than week long contestations of public space; chanting and speechifying instead of hours-long halts to business as usual; marches approved by liberal politicians and thus useless for pointing out their own complicity in the economic and police violence assaulting communities of color. In short, everything we’ve come to accept as the usual profile of powerless political activism.

A CNN poll released just before the verdict noted that 22% of non-whites and 10% of whites believed that “violent protests are justified” if Wilson was not indicted. This may not be the basis for electing the next union president but it is certainly the basis for widespread traffic blockades. This is one reason why the sudden revolt has been far more explosive, disruptive and destabilizing to the capitalist system than years of official labor organizing, even if it is unlikely to continue indefinitely.

Two strategies

There is really no reason why there cannot be a merger between the struggles of those fighting in their workplace and those rebelling against police repression. No reason, except for the ongoing efforts of those paid full-time to assure that this sort of thing does not disrupt their media-savvy strategy of winning favor with those in power.

For example,there was some very positive moves by the St. Louis Fight for 15 group, Show Me 15, to actively support the rebellion once it broke out in Ferguson, where they had been organizing. This included mobilizing their supporters to protest the police the day after the shooting as well as protesting the presence of the National Guard nine days later. This meant taking on a real, “non-labor” issue that deeply affected the workers involved in the campaign. Unfortunately, Show me 15 would later go out of their way to demobilize their members’ involvement in the campaign.

Just a month after the killing of Michael Brown, a nationwide day of action for fast food workers was held but without any activity in Ferguson. “Organizers say workers have decided to skip St. Louis ‘with deference to the community of Ferguson and the desire for peace after recent events,’” reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The workers were sent to support actions in other cities instead, even though “[t]he Ferguson McDonald’s on West Florissant Avenue was among the frequent St. Louis area targets of earlier fast-food strikes. That restaurant is near the scene of last month’s protests of the police killing of Michael Brown.”

Quite a few Democratic Party aligned forces have been working to put Ferguson back to “normal”–the racial status quo that led to Michael Brown’s murder–since the rebellion broke out. It is a shame that Show Me 15 has helped in this effort. In fact, they could have played a role, as they briefly began to, that could link the battle of fast-food workers with the battle against police brutality, a battle that many of their members face every day. They could have prepared to walk off the job if Wilson was not indicted, as some of their members may have done spontaneously anyway. This would not have been unprecedented as many area schools canceled classes in advance of the announcement. Nurses earlier in November held a strike and national day of action, which they somewhat disingenuously claimed was related to the appearance of the ebola virus in the US. A walkout against the indictment would have held far more resonance to fast-food workers and the community at large.

Striking against police terror would have been well timed and well received, unlike the calls for a “general strike” that go out regularly and arbitrarily among some Leftists. However, it would not have fit the strategy of using worker mobilizations to get legislation passed through Congress and local state capitols.

A glimpse of the possibilities could be seen with the various Walmart actions on Black Friday in the St. Louis area, which saw tense confrontations between protesters and police with some stores temporarily shut down, including one closed with the protection of the National Guard. No doubt, the ongoing rebellion had an impact on these actions and the participants could not help but make the links between these issues in their politics and their tactics. This confluence of worker organizing and anti-police rebellion was more a happy accident than a planned response which will not likely be repeated in the near future, unfortunately.

Instead, the most militant actions carried out at fast food joints involved smashing up and looting the local Starbuck’s or Subway. This should not be lamented–these are legitimate expressions of political dissent by people who live in a society that will allow them to be shot down in the streets by racist cops with no accountability. The only lament is that there is not more ongoing solidarity to support their cause from official channels who could spread their rebellion rather than just issue press releases.

Nonetheless, their cause is spreading, not by waiting for the right people to support them but by insisting that they be heard. And if official channels do not listen and take action, the millions of Michael Browns and Trayvon Martins and Oscar Grants will take it themselves, as they have been doing spectacularly. If there is eventually a merger between workplace organizing and the struggle against state repression, it will not be coordinated from above but as a result of the fact the future grave diggers of the racist, neoliberal social order are no longer willing to quietly abide by it.

Posted in Labor, Oakland, Police | Leave a comment

Throwing the cog-wheel into reverse


Illinois Governor Pat Quinn (left) and Chicago Teachers Union Interim President Jesse Sharkey (right)

There is a metaphor described by Leon Trotsky of a socialist organization being one cog in a much larger machine and how it must fit into an appropriately larger (but not too much larger) cog in order to be affective. He described it this way in The History of the Russian Revolution:

The party set the soviets in motion, the soviets set in motion the workers, soldiers, and to some extent the peasantry. What was gained in mass was lost in speed. If you represent this conducting apparatus as a system of cog-wheels – a comparison to which Lenin had recourse at another period on another theme – you may say that the impatient attempt to connect the party wheel directly with the gigantic wheel of the masses – omitting the medium-sized wheel of the soviets – would have given rise to the danger of breaking the teeth of the party wheel, and nevertheless not setting sufficiently large masses in motion.

Like many of Trotsky’s insights, it is perfectly valid and useful as far as it goes but it has been an utter disaster when fetishized by his followers. For example, Trotsky follows this statement by saying: “The opposite danger was, however, no less real – the danger of letting slip a favourable situation as a result of inner frictions in the soviet system.”

The problem is that this is not the opposite danger, in non-revolutionary times anyway. Rather, the opposite danger is setting up the cog-wheels and levers and then having the machinery of the revolution thrown into reverse by the biggest cog-wheel on top.

Imagine, for just a moment, a hypothetical contemporary example. A small socialist group attempts to have an influential and positive role in developing class struggle. They build a base in a union and even have some influence over the decisions in that union, either through the leadership or directly with the rank-and-file. Let’s say they have organized a vibrant caucus in their union in which they play an important role, and that caucus can sway the rank-and-file, which can sway the leadership (or make decisions in spite of the leadership) which can have an impact on whether or not the workers take action or not. Sounds great.

But what happens when a Democratic Party politician inserts themselves as an intermediary in the class struggle? While the union, and the caucus, and the socialists, may play a role on pressuring this individual, this individual may play a role in pressuring them in reverse.

The Democrat tells the bosses they can cut them a deal–if you keep the jobs here, we will give you a tax break. The bosses tell this to the union leaders, who tell this to the caucus, who tell this to the socialist grouping within the caucus. Because the Democrat is relatively well liked and supported by the workers inside and outside the union, they are swayed by the messenger. But let’s say the bosses insert a poison pill–sure, we will keep jobs here, but only if we can get some concessions.

In this hypothetical scenario (actually, other than the involvement of the Left, this is precisely what happened at Boeing in Washington recently) the socialists then have to decide whether or not they are going to accept concessions or fight them. But what if the concessions are popular, considering the alternative (layoffs)? A principled socialist grouping will not accept the concessions. They may realize that this is a losing battle, it may alienate all of their allies, from elected leaders to their fellow co-workers, but they don’t want to be on the “winning” side of the issue. They want to be on the fighting side.

But imagine the socialists accepting the logic of the concession because, within the context of the economics of the factory, it is simply the best deal on order at the moment. Or, more likely, because there is nothing we can do to stop it short of destroying our credibility, so we might as well play along. Suddenly, the revolutionaries are going around and advocating concessions. How could this possibly happen?

The problem, in our hypothetical scenario, is that the socialists do not want to forsake their position as the little cog-wheel in a much larger machine. If everybody wants something, from the workers to the boss to the Democrats, then being a lone voice of opposition will possibly result in red-baiting, ostracism and an assumption that you simply do not care about people’s jobs. Even worse, removing your position as a cog in this machine means that you can no longer play a role in attempting to move the machine at all. In fact, if you want people to respect you, you have to advocate concessions. Or so it seems.

This is a problem that Trotsky and his followers never considered, or rarely considered, as the real danger to the cog-wheel metaphor. If the little cog-wheel of the socialist group attaches itself to the bigger cog-wheel of the union caucus, which attaches itself to the bigger cog-wheel of the union appartus, which attaches itself to the very large cog-wheel of the Democratic Party, which happens when the biggest cog-wheel throws itself into reverse?

What happens is left opportunism. If you are not willing to remove yourself from the machine–a once-valuable alliance now moving to the right–you will play a role in carrying out the agenda of the ruling class. It matters not that you may or may not have some precious opportunity to take advantage of down the road. The real opportunity is to break the hold of the Democratic Party over labor right now. Playing the game does not empower you to take advantage of the future opportunity, it merely helps to grease the wheels of the system that are stacked against working people in every single way.

This is the difference between a police state and a liberal democracy. In a police state, being a socialist or even a union member will get you thrown in jail. In a liberal democracy, this is all legal–so long as you play the game in a responsible manner. And so long as you are responsible–you do not rock the boat too much, advocate illegal strikes, etc.–you can continue doing this indefinitely. In fact, the cog-wheel system of liberal democracy is far more effective at weakening dissent than police state methods.

After all, every time a socialist is thrown in jail and exiled in a police state, a liberal is outraged by the attacks on free speech. But every time a revolutionary advocates illegal labor action, a liberal is outraged by the disruptive and irresponsible nature of the protest. Rather than imprisoning and exiling revolutionaries, the liberal democracy just needs to assure them a comfortable position in the cog-wheel system. It is far more effective to convince the revolutionaries to carry out the concessions for them. Of course, every liberal democracy reserves the right to unleash the police state if necessary, but they generally prefer the far more effective “non-violent” option.

This is not a call to never make an alliance with liberals, never get involved in a union caucus or never to “sully” oneself with the workings of the political machine, as will be assumed by unprincipled opportunists who refuse to learn anything from history, much less current events. This is merely a call to realize the genuine dangers that making these alliances can have. They are not merely opportunities to gain an audience–they are also opportunities for the actual enemies of the working-class to pose as allies of the working-class, and opportunities to drag the Left in to provide cover for austerity. That this needs to be said ought to show what a dismal situation we find ourselves in today, as the Left needs to be rebuilt virtually from the ground up.

Rather than assuming that the entire machine will simply bend to the desires of the little cog-wheel, and not vice-versa, we should keep in mind a completely different take on this problem. As Walter Benjamin wrote:

Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But the situation may be quite different. Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake.

Or Mario Savio for that matter:

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

Sometimes an alliance is a valuable tool of resistance, but sometimes it’s more effective to simply be a monkey wrench in the machinery of the political and economic system.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

An apology to SEIU Local 1021 members

heltonIn response to an article on this blog about his involvement in San Francisco pension reform, Larry Bradshaw makes a number of claims, some of which would have been nice for everybody to know three years ago, while others are verifiably false. They will not be dealt with here. If anybody wants to dredge through the many thousands of words that he and I wrote with a fine tooth comb, they are welcome to verify these discrepancies for themselves.

However, there is one quite unusual comment that he makes when he states that “I believe Scott owes the membership of 1021 an apology.”

You might think that I am responsible for helping Ed Lee cut a billion dollars in wages from his members. He is welcome to correct the record, but I do not think that is the case. This is a typical response to criticism on the Left–the problem is not carrying out disastrous strategies in the labor movement, rather the problem is suggesting that somebody screwed up as royally as I believe he did. I am obviously a scoundrel and a sectarian for even thinking such a thing.

For now I will leave it at that, on the topic of Prop C anyway. If anybody really wonders who owes whom an apology, I recommend, rather than read another lengthy blog post, that they listen to the members themselves, workers and retirees, who actively opposed Prop C. There are even, perhaps surprisingly, other elected union officials who, unlike Larry, found that it was possible to publicly oppose Prop C. As retirees were left out of the negotiations, their union (a section of 1021) opposed the resulting measure that Bradshaw agreed to and the retirees’ elected leadership campaigned against it.

These are among the very people the labor Left ought to be engaging and organizing rather than ignoring and dismissing. Their anger over Prop C, including their comments about Larry Bradshaw’s role in it, says far more about this issue than either of our overly long articles possibly could.

SF City workers and retirees rally against the pension reform negotiations at SF General Hospital after retirees were left out of the negotiations.

Kathy Helton, SF City worker and member of 1021. Skip to 12:18 to hear her comments on having her concerns ingnored by Larry Bradshaw. “That’s not democracy.”

Kay Walker, SEIU 1021 VP (retirees chapter), on the retirees being shut out of the negotiations. See 5:35 for her comments about Larry and how he “caved in,” as well as a back-and-forth between her and another speaker about whether he would ever have accepted retiree participation.

Former 1021 retirees President Bea Cardenas-Duncan on the disrespect shown to retirees during the entire process by members of the Board of Supervisors and others, also mentioning the role Kay Walker played in contradicting Larry’s statements to the members about Prop C (9:40).

More from Kathy Helton and fellow City/County worker Alyse Ceriante on Prop C.

SF Muni (bus and subway) operator Dorian Maxwell on Prop C and other issues.

Prop C campaign launch with the Mayor and Board of Supervisors, pitching the initiative as being “pro-union,” alongside SF Labor Council Executive Director Tim Paulson. Workers opposed to Prop C rally outside.

Posted in ISO, Labor | Leave a comment

The ISO and the Democrats: Hear no evil, see no evil

Left to right: Karen Lewis promoting Gov. Pat Quinn at a 2011 CTU dinner, and Mayor Jean Quan campaigning with Lift Up Oakland.

Left to right: Oakland Mayor candidate Dan Siegel fundraising with Dennis Kucinich, Karen Lewis promoting Gov. Pat Quinn at a 2011 CTU dinner, and Mayor Jean Quan campaigning with Lift Up Oakland.

If there is one issue on which the International Socialist Organization (ISO) has held steadfast over the years, it is opposition to the Democratic Party. The ISO has never once endorsed a Democrat for election and has always described the party as the graveyard of social movements. As flexible as the ISO can be about its political strategies, it is not flexible on endorsing Democrats.

However, the ISO’s primary strategy for intervening in social movements is the United Front, which entails building alliances with liberals and reformists around minimal demands which they can all agree on. This poses a problem. On the one hand, the ISO utterly refutes the legitimacy of the Democratic Party as a force for progressive or radical change, on the other hand, these other forces consistently invite Democrats into these struggles. These two contradictory pressures cannot hold, and yet the ISO maintains these alliances, especially with union locals, not just for weeks and months but for years at a time. How does the ISO deal with this problem? Largely by ignoring it.

The ISO has no illusions in the Democratic Party. However, they do have illusions that these alliances will somehow lead to a larger upsurge at some point even though the forces they are working with consistently limit their demands, cut deals with politicians rather than fight them, and invite in the gravediggers of social movements.

The problem is not that Democrats are around these campaigns. That is to be expected in any successful reform movement. The problem is that the campaigns are shaped to be acceptable to the Democrats. That is unacceptable.

The ISO ends up giving too rosy a picture of some of their allies in order to convince their members how great it all is and how many opportunities there are. This leaves these comrades disarmed to deal with the actual problems that present themselves, not to mention surprised when these problems rear their head.

Such a strategy presents consequences for the ISO. First, without recognizing the problem–not just in the abstract, but the problem right in front of your face–you cannot do anything to deal with it. Second, the ISO praises movements over and over again as heralding some new era or being a New Civil Rights Movement without an analysis for why they are unlikely to become such things. Many ISO members would never go along with these pronouncements if it were more clear how deeply involved the Democrats were in these campaigns, which is why the leadership can never talk about it. The analysis, then, does not pick apart the strengths and weaknesses in a campaign in order to better strengthen it, or to lay out a strategy for weakening and exposing the limitations of the Democrats and their allies. Rather the analysis aims to simply justify the perspectives put forward by the leadership of all the supposed opportunities. Thus, everything is just an opportunity to find an audience, but not really an opportunity to break the hold of liberalism and the Democrats.

Therefore, third, ISO members are left confused and demoralized as to why these campaigns do not go anywhere, have no political tools to genuinely push them in a more radical direction, and only the most politically green activists are likely to be attracted to the group as they have yet to be disillusioned by failed movements like more experienced activists have. This lies at the heart of the ISO’s inability to break its current ceiling of membership or to be more effective–on the other hand, if it were more effective it just might attract more serious radicals, and the green neophytes would probably follow them in.

The ISO cannot be expected to never have an alliance with anybody who has some relationship with the Democratic Party (or who has a relationship with somebody else with a relationship with the Democratic Party). But when they are involved in movements and campaigns which invite the Democrats into them then there must be some recognition that this is a problem and a strategy for dealing with it. To not do so is to see these campaigns as merely an opportunity for the ISO to recruit while in fact benefitting from the audience that the Democrats bring into them, rather than building a Left that can challenge these forces. It literally means building a Left that is completely comfortable and accustomed to the Democrats rather than one that is hostile to them. The “opportunity” in this case has nothing to do with building the revolutionary Left, it is just an opportunistic gambit for new recruits. The uncomfortable arguments about the role of the Democrats will never happen and the ISO will go along building whatever it thinks it is building merrily in ignorance of the problems that it is contributing to.

It is not that the ISO wants social movements to be made acceptable to the Democratic Party, they certainly do not. Rather, they want to build alliances with other people who do want this, and the ISO participates in these alliances uncritically. The result of carrying out the latter strategy is nearly indistinguishable from carrying out the former strategy. 

These issues affect the entire Left, not just because the ISO is the largest revolutionary organization in the US, but because most Leftists simply do not understand why organized radicals are so ineffectual–and therefore repeat these same patterns because they assume they are doing something different. In the past, the ISO would criticize members of Solidarity for refusing to challenge the capitulations of their own allies in the labor bureaucracy and yet the ISO is doing the same thing today because they assumed they never would. It is worth understanding these pressures, not just to pick on the ISO–certainly they are true of Socialist Alternative and even smaller groups–but because they highlight why these issues continually occur on the Left. We all have to understand these patterns so that we can stop them amongst ourselves and others.

CORE and the Chicago Teachers Union

The Chicago Teachers’ Union and the 2012 teachers strike have rightly been a point of pride for the ISO. Their involvement in the Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators (CORE) which helped bring Karen Lewis to the presidency was critical to this battle. However, there has not been a full accounting by the ISO of the limitations in CORE, nor the many compromises that ISO members have gone along with. The brief–and genuinely exciting–possibility that Lewis was going to enter the race for Mayor of Chicago raised a problem for the ISO. Namely, that she is a Democrat. She describes herself as a Democrat. She pushes CTU to endorse Democrats. She helps Democrats raise money for their campaigns. But you would hear almost none of this in Socialist Worker until very recently, and even then it is an incomplete picture.

A recent Socialist Worker article asked “Which way will Lewis run?” making it seem like it was an open question of whether she would run as a Democrat. It was not. The article pointed out that Lewis endorsed the re-election of Pat Quinn for Governor of Illinois, but it has never been mentioned in those pages as far as I can tell that CTU endorsed Quinn in 2010. Having said nearly nothing about the coziness of CORE and local Democrats, SW now has some catching up to do.

“If Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn makes his expected appearance at the Chicago Teachers Union’s (CTU) annual political dinner on October 31,” writes Lee Sustar in an article titled “From enemy to lesser evil” in Socialist Worker,  “more than a few union members will likely gag on their corned beef.”

In fact, if Quinn does show up, nobody will choke on anything, just as they didn’t when he showed up last year, or in 2011, or in 2010. It will be a shock to nobody. Rather, it will be business as usual, made usual by Lewis and others in CORE who have encouraged the union to support the Democrats. These dinners are typically Democratic Party love-fests and Socialist Worker’s sudden discovery of this is totally disingenuous. The article makes no mention of these things, or of CTU’s previous endorsement. None of this will be a surprise in CTU because Karen Lewis and CORE have laid the basis for this relationship for several years. Nothing is new here beyond Socialist Worker’s discovery of all this.

“Labor–and the votes of working people generally–was critical to Quinn’s election in 2010,” Sustar writes, with no mention of CTU’s endorsement at that time or the role specifically of Karen Lewis and CORE in assuring the endorsement. But as one Chicago teacher writes of the endorsement of Quinn this year, “It is president Lewis and her elected CORE team that pushed this endorsement and won overwhelmingly.”  ISO members and others who have obtained most of their news about the CTU from SW (and that includes me until recently) who did not know better will suddenly now discover that CORE, as effective as it was in building the 2012 teacher’s strike, is littered with Democrats. How could it not be? The problem is not that this is true–rather it should be expected. The problem is pretending otherwise. Moreover, by avoiding this problem for the last four years, the ISO has simply failed to provide a strategy to do anything about it, in spite of their prominent role in the leadership.

Sustar discussed this back in 2010 in an article titled “From labor’s hope to lesser evil.” He mentioned that CTU refused to endorse Quinn at that time, which was true until it wasn’t. A few weeks after that article was written, the CTU decision was overturned and they endorsed Quinn, but you would never know that from reading Socialist Worker because it has never been mentioned.

The same goes with the ISO’s analysis of CTU’s Independent Political Organization (IPO). “The goal of the initiative,” we read in Socialist Worker, “is to unite progressive groups, nonprofit organizations and unions around political campaigns that have the potential to sustain social movements and activism, rather than empowering Democratic Party candidates who have turned their back on teachers and public education.” Such an analysis could only be possible by denying that CTU and CORE have openly endorsed Democrats since they came to office in 2010. In fact, the IPO resolution that passed CTU says absolutely nothing about the Democratic Party. It was naivete bordering on dishonesty to suggest that this was a move toward independence when it clearly was not. What has resulted in the time since the IPO was not a sudden turn toward the Democrats by Lewis and CORE but a continuation of what they have been doing for years.

Another Socialist Worker article on this year’s left-wing electoral challenges discusses the IPO and mentions that, unfortunately, the CTU endorsed two Democrats this year: Jay Travis and Will Guzzardi. It almost sounds like this is some unfortunate recent turn in CTU. It isn’t. In 2012, CTU endorsed Guzzardi when he ran for (and lost) the exact same seat. That year,  CTU endorsed 52 candidates for Illinois Senate, House of Representatives and the judiciary, every single one of them a Democrat.  In 2010, CTU under the newly elected CORE leadership endorsed 25 candidates for Alderman plus Democrat and six term member of the Illinois House of Representatives Susan Mendoza for City Clerk. Among the 2010 Alderman endorsements were Democrat Bob Fioretti, a close Lewis ally and primary challenger in the 2014 mayor’s race. Another was Alderman Joe Moore, who would be described in a 2012 Socialist Worker article  as one of the “alder-sheep of the all-Democratic City Council [who were] herded behind their mayor and bleated approval for his anti-teacher attacks” during the teacher strike. There was no mention in that article that CTU had endorsed Moore and other “Alder-sheep.”

In fact, that last SW article is a great example of the ISO’s approach. It gives a thoroughgoing analysis of how the Democrats sellout labor time and again. The ISO is crystal clear on this and many labor activists can learn from them. What they are completely oblivious too–or totally dishonest about–is the role that their allies play in promoting these very Democrats. The ISO is not covering for the Democrats, but they are covering for their allies–who are indeed covering for the Democrats–in order to save face for their optimistic United Front.

Having pretended for so long that everything is fine in CTU, Socialist Worker has had to suddenly “discover” the union’s close relationship with the Democrats along with ISO members around the country who were suddenly going to see all this laid bare with Lewis’s mayoral campaign. Now that she has, sadly, been stricken ill the ISO is playing an even more prominent role in CTU leadership. The question now is whether SW is going to continue to provide a critique of the CTU’s relationship with the Democrats, or go back to pretending that everything is fine now that ISO members will be even more responsible for maintaining these relationships and carrying out the endorsement.

Of course, the many prominent ISO members in the CORE leadership and the rank-and-file could provide a sharply different political strategy from the current trend in the union, but that would entail alienating many allies and possibly losing the next election. It may seem odd to some teachers that ISO members who were so chummy with elected politicians in years past at LEAD dinners are suddenly taking a principled stand against this suicidal policy. Better late than never. This should be the real opportunity–not to find an audience or to look important, but to build an alternative to the Democratic Party within the labor movement. If that is what the ISO wants to do, they can certainly do it. “This is what the members voted for” is a great excuse for tying your own hands and doing nothing, especially when you are in the unfortunate position of having an enormous platform to do whatever you want.

Siegel for Oakland

The campaign for Dan Siegel for Oakland Mayor has many positives, one of which is Siegel himself and another is the many serious activists that he has brought around him. Siegel has been a strong advocate in the past against police brutality and we can all look forward to him continuing this work in the future. But for now he wants to put more cops on the street.

The ISO has been open about the problems with his pro-police rhetoric–though these are much more serious than they make out, in my opinion. Siegel has convinced a whole layer of people whom he previously convinced to be police abolitionists to support his campaign to put more police on the streets. If there was ever a case for how electoral politics forces activists to tame themselves rather than use elections to attack the system, this is it. The lessons are here for anybody who wants to learn them or teach them. That should be the role of Socialist Worker, but that no longer seems to be the case.

Siegel de-registered from the Democratic Party, but the only people he has told this are the far-leftists who have bothered to ask. The campaign itself has been shaped so as to be acceptable to various Democratic Party forces who can be brought in to help encourage the support of liberals in the Oakland Hills and possibly the donations of the same constituency in Berkeley.

In early October, the Siegel campaign distributed an email announcing a series of events with the “Honorable Dennis Kucinich” including a $100-$700 house party. At the top of the email were photos of six young people, all of whom happened to be members of the ISO, holding Siegel for Oakland signs. After being used to promote one of the key figures that has helped chain left-liberals to the Democratic Party and the Obama administration, nobody in the ISO seems to have any problem with either the email or the event. Alongside Kucinich at one of these events was former SDS member and former California State Senator Tom Hayden, who gave a lengthy explanation as to how he helped bring his fellow leftists into Democratic electoral politics as a uniting force. Many probably took it as a framework for the Left today, as clearly was his intention.

The Siegel campaign, as admirable as Siegel and many of his supporters are, has been shaped in order to be acceptable not just to Dennis Kucinich but to a whole host of low-level Democratic Party operatives inside the campaign. Some of these people are serious activists you might want on your side, but they are Democrats and their politics are a problem, especially in a campaign for Mayor. These people and the donations of people like them have been the dominant factor in the campaign, which has avoided too stern a commentary on the Democratic Party in order to win over liberal voters. In fact, it has avoided any commentary on the Democratic Party at all and the ISO has been accommodating to this strategy in its public pronouncements. The criticisms that the ISO has very rightfully raised around his pro-police platform are more a sop to the ISO membership that, yes, we do recognize this is a problem. But at some point, these criticisms are simply a necessary pre-condition for convincing ISO members to support the campaign and not a strategy for doing anything about these problems.

Just days after the Kucinich/Hayden event, Socialist Worker printed another article reiterating its support for Siegel. It made no mention of the Kucinich events, one of which the author of that article attended, simply reiterating that Siegel had de-registered from the Democratic Party. It also noted that “some veterans of Occupy Oakland have criticized Siegel’s campaign, as well as the ISO’s endorsement. The most common disagreement is the idea that engaging in the political system legitimizes the corrupt system of electoral politics . . . it wrongly rejects all electoral activity, including campaigns that are clearly and consciously left wing and independent of the Democrats.”

There is only one piece of writing I am aware of in which an Oakland-based activist criticized Siegel’s campaign and the ISO’s support of it. That article clearly supported left wing electoral activity, but there is no reason to let facts get in the way of creating an ultra-left straw-man.

Presumably, the justification for participating in the campaign was that it could help break the hold of the Democratic Party, but that has not been the case. There has been no explanation from the ISO for any of this. There is nothing the ISO can really do about it, one can image them saying. This is just an opportunity to find an audience. Well, hopefully someday some better Left will come along that is more effective at dealing with these problems. Then the ISO can declare to their audience, “Look, there is a break with the Democrats to the left. Join us to build an alternative!” In the meantime, we are stuck with the Left we have, not the Left we need.

The minimum wage battles

More than any other campaign in recent memory, the minimum wage campaigns over the last year provide a perfect example of the ISO’s self-limiting analysis and refusal to deal with the Democrats in their midst. Unlike the coverage of CTU, Socialist Worker has yet to “discover” the central role of the Democratic Party.

The starting point for understanding the minimum wage battles over the past year lies in an analysis laid out by the New York Times about the coordination between the Democrats and the AFL-CIO to use the minimum wage issue to gain a leg up in the coming election.

A representative from the A.F.L.-C.I.O. urged the White House officials to coordinate with Senate Democrats on when to bring the issue to the floor so that the unions could “have time to mount a grass-roots” campaign stirring up support for the measure, an attendee recalled.

This was written in December 2013 and this is precisely what has played out since then. We should therefore not be surprised that minimum wage campaigns shape themselves to be acceptable to the Democrats and then pack up and go home after the election. The primary role of the Left, then, to the extent that it is involved in these campaigns should be to deal with and fight against these pressures–strengthening the ability of workers to fight for wage increases independent of the Democrats who will attempt to limit the entire campaign.

Unfortunately, you will find none of this in the pages of Socialist Worker. It is a shame when we have to turn to the bourgeois press to understand what is really going on with various labor battles, but if you are not a member of the ISO’s self-identified radicalizing minority then you will not find an analysis of the problems in the movements that you are attempting to grapple with.

The Lift Up Oakland campaign seems to have been central to the ISO’s perspectives over the last year. This campaign seeks a minimum wage in Oakland to $12.25 per hour, a substantially lower amount than the “Fight for 15” campaign has insisted on. Some in the leadership of the ISO were fully prepared to jump on board when the demand was for only $11! If the largest revolutionary organization in the US sees such campaigns as merely an opportunity, it is no wonder why union leaders can expect to ask for only the most minimal crumbs. There is no large, organized Left that will insist on something more, because every crumb is just an opportunity to meet some new person and therefore the Left will uncritically jump on board as loyal foot soldiers.

There are four pieces of writing from the ISO that have dealt with this campaign so far–three in Socialist Worker and one in an internal bulletin. None of them laid out the role of the Democrats in this campaign and in fact the articles even had to resort to dishonesty in order to avoid dealing with the unfortunate presence of the Democrats. I am not calling anybody a liar–but I am saying is that untrue facts were stated. It may be that these people are malicious liars out to destroy social movements, but it is far more likely that they are working with a broken method that cannot stand up to the test of facts or to the needs of the class struggle. The need to convince ISO members that these campaigns are such a great “opportunity” rather than politically flawed and self-limiting alliances with the Democrats is what leads to this dishonesty. Nobody in the ISO thinks the Democrats are going to do great work or are trying to protect them in any way. On the contrary, the ISO has to provide a dishonest picture, not to protect the Democrats but to protect themselves from the better judgements of their own members. Unfortunately, these two approaches, while starting from very different political analyses, end up playing out the same way.

The Socialist Worker article “Will we ‘Lift Up Oakland?’” discusses the campaign, but largely uncritically. There is some commentary about how much a raise in the minimum wage is needed and about the efforts of the campaign. There is also a bit about how one member of the Oakland City Council was planning a weaker raise in order to stop Lift Up Oakland’s efforts. There are really only two criticisms of Lift Up Oakland. First, around the minimal size of the increase: “Even this raised minimum may well undersell working-class support for an even higher figure, closer to $15 an hour that low-wage workers are striking for.” Second, that there should be more public outreach: “…it also appears that there will not be a major public push until the measure qualifies for the ballot.”

That’s it.

In fact, there is far more to criticize (more on that below) but the most problematic part of the article comes in a brief assessment of the strategy: “From the beginning, [Lift Up Oakland] went around the City Council, focusing on a long-term strategy of public support to raise the minimum wage.” In fact, even at the time the article was written, this was verifiably untrue. Dan Kalb, a member of the Oakland City Council, spoke at a Lift Up Oakland rally before the article was published. I saw it, as did several other members of the ISO including the author of the SW article. Furthermore, EBASE, one of the primary backers of Lift Up Oakland, invited Mayor Jean Quan and Councilmember Pat Kernighan to speak at a fast food workers strike and rally at a KFC in Oakland in August, 2013. It is inconceivable that this would not continue in a year when the Mayor and other Councilmembers are up for election. Yet, SW gives an inaccurate picture of the campaign and its strategy in order to get ISO comrades and their contacts excited about it–claiming that the campaign “went around the City Council” in spite of knowing that this was untrue.

Finally, the article notes: “It deserves the support of all left-wing and radical forces and ought to serve as a unifying focus for the thousands of Oaklanders who took to the streets during the Occupy protests.” But the article does nothing to explain exactly why this scenario was extremely unlikely–because of the timidity of the demands, because the unions could put it on the ballot without anybody’s help and because it has not been much of a fight at all. Many radicals are leery about working with SEIU 1021 and EBASE because of their history of collaborating with city government rather than fighting them and–surprise!–this is exactly what has happened in this campaign.

In fact, as I described in an article, Lift Up Oakland has been negotiating with the Mayor and the City Council to have the Council pass a minimum wage in place of the ballot initiative. The Executive Director of 1021 even told Mayor Quan that they would be willing to discuss employer exemptions later in the process. But there has not been a word about any of this from the ISO. In the meantime, Lift Up Oakland has promoted the support of several City Council members. Gaining their support was clearly part of their strategy and the reason behind why they did not demand a higher increase.

If you want, you could blame the ISO for covering for the union leaders’ treacherous alliance with the politicians and willingness to sell-out the campaign even further than they already have, you can blame the ISO for being too quiet about their politics out of fear of their own allies, or you can blame them for giving a dishonest appraisal of the campaign in order to convince their members that something exciting is going to happen instead of explaining why it probably won’t. My opinion is that it is the last of these pressures that the ISO is succumbing to, but the point is that it does not matter. When your method leads you down this road, there is something deeply wrong with the method and it is time to seriously re-evaluate it.

Sectarianism and triumphalism

Rather than evaluate problems with the analysis, the method continued and the inaccuracies mounted in an ISO document titled “Perspectives Around Elections.” This document claimed to show the ISO’s “clear-eyed analysis” over “triumphalism” and “sectarianism” from Socialist Alternative in Seattle. It also compared the Oakland and Seattle minimum wage measures stating that:

…with a guaranteed yearly COLA and paid sick days–which means that by 2025, Oakland workers will essentially get the Seattle deal–Seattle will be at $18/hr then and Oakland at $16, but Oakland will have not count health care and tips as part of the wage as is the case in Seattle, so it might even be better.

This is completely untrue, as a basic look at the facts will show. With all of its loopholes, the Seattle measure will actually be at it best in 2025. At that point, the minimum wage in Seattle will be $18.13 across the board and tips and healthcare can no longer be excluded as the temporary exemption period will expire for workers under “Schedule C”. Additionally, Oakland’s minimum wage will probably be $15.37 in 2025, assuming a 2.3% annual increase as projected by Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, which might be low but it is the only concrete estimate I am aware of. This is a difference of $2.76 per hour between Oakland and Seattle, over $5,000 per year for a full-time employee. The suggestion that the Oakland initiative “might even be better” than Seattle’s is the opposite of a clear-eyed analysis. It is literally, mathematically false, as anybody who bothers to take a few minutes to look into the two laws can verify. With the Bates projection, Lift Up Oakland would only break $15 in 2024–that is, it is for $15 in 10 years minus inflation.

It is merely triumphalism meant to encourage ISO comrades to believe that they have a better strategy than Socialist Alternative. If only the ISO could provide an analysis as critical of the role of the Democrats in Lift Up Oakland as it is of Socialist Alternative in 15 Now, then maybe they could get somewhere. This is precisely why sectarianism is so damaging to the Left.

This document did mention that “the leading liberal Democrat” in the Mayor’s race–presumably Libby Schaaf–had endorsed the measure. This is as honest an appraisal as we will get, as the document does not mention that multiple elected Democrats had already endorsed the measure, some of them not especially liberal, and that Lift Up Oakland had been chasing after their support and promoting them as a part of their strategy.

The document also contains this bizarre statement, in response to Socialist Alternative claiming victory for the passage of the Seattle minimum wage measure:

While we [in the ISO] should certainly recognize the plan as a step forward, describing it as an “historic” victory, made possible by SAlt’s election campaign, both overstates the nature of the victory and wrongly describes SAlt’s actions as the “decisive” link in the chain that led to the compromise. This is not to say that their actions were inconsequential, far from it. But, the thousands of fast food workers who have risked their jobs by taking action, the SeaTac referendum, and Bay Area ballot initiatives sponsored by SEIU 1021 and others should not be understood as secondary [emphasis added], as SAlt’s analysis implies.

First off, let’s get this sectarian nonsense out of the way. Socialist Alternative and Kshama Sawant are in fact the decisive factor in passing this law, as weak and watered down as it was. Because Sawant refused to go along with less than $15, or at least kept her compromises minimal, the Mayor was forced to continually push his proposal upward in spite of the utter rejection of the business community. It was not a “15 Now” (or 15 in two years) proposal as she demanded, but had she not continually voiced this popular demand, the other politicians would have quickly dropped it and there may not have even been a minimum wage increase at all.

Second, what in the world is this business about SEIU Local 1021? Does a California union local have anything to do with Seattle politics? No, not really. But it is mentioned because the ISO has decided to throw in its lot with Local 1021, primarily because of the election of one important ally, and so it has to show that the ISO strategy–uncritical support for 1021–is better than the Socialist Alternative strategy.

This is one of the secrets of the internal bulletin–the leadership can get away with saying all sorts of things that nobody else would take seriously, but nobody wants to criticize the leadership who carry a disproportionate social weight internally. They can only get away with this stuff because nobody is willing to point out how absurd it is, although the recent SW articles have done little better.

Socialist Worker has left the Democrats off the hook so many times, not in general but when it actually mattered, when they could actually do something about it. However, when their fellow Left competition plays a prominent role in winning wage increases for workers, they get a thorough analysis of their weaknesses. The disparate treatment the ISO shows toward Socialist Alternative compared to SEIU 1021 and their invisible Democratic Party supporters is stark. One wonders who the real obstacle in the labor movement is: the Democrats, the union bureaucracy, or Socialist Alternative. It is worth pointing out that nobody planned it this way. The disparate treatment is just the result of an approach that is rife with both sectarianism and opportunism.

There have been several other articles about the minimum wage but they have fared little better. One mentioned the support of Democrats for low-wage workers strike, without mentioning that the campaign has been tailored to earn their support. Nobody can stop Democrats from supporting a popular cause. The problem is shaping these campaigns in order to garner their support, which cannot occur except to the detriment of worker organizing. This is basic Left politics, but it cannot be mentioned by the ISO because then their members would realize that these campaigns are not nearly as militant as they are made out to be and are unlikely to develop into a bigger political fight back. The cynics would be proven right, and that is simply impermissible. No matter how many times they are right, they are always wrong in the ISO narrative.

A more thorough and serious analysis of these campaigns isn’t impossible on the part of the ISO. The ISO’s criticism of Sawant’s unilateral decision making in 15 Now and her unexplained about-face in voting for the final measure are correct. There was also a very good critique of the Seattle minimum wage initiative carried in Socialist Worker. Imagine this depth of analysis applied to Lift Up Oakland. It is worth asking why it has not been provided.

Another article about Lift Up Oakland was published just before the City Council considered an even more watered-down minimum wage bill in order to forestall Lift Up Oakland’s ballot measure. The SW article described the situation this way:

But the Democrats are counter-attacking. After complaining about being left out of the process, Mayor Jean Quan and four Council members are scheming with the Oakland Chamber of Commerce to get a counter-measure on the ballot through City Council vote. That vote is expected to take place on July 29.

That sounds great except yet again it is not true. There was a Chamber of Commerce alternative to Lift Up Oakland that had tiers and a phase in–but it was never supported by Quan or any four Council Members. Quan did not complain about being left out of the process–rather Lift Up Oakland was communicating with her and offering to modify their proposal in order to win her support from nearly the beginning! There are eight members of the City Council (not including the Mayor) and at the time the SW article was written, it was known that Jean Quan and four members of the City Council were in favor of Lift Up Oakland and had endorsed it. This had already been mentioned on Lift Up Oakland’s web site as well as in an article in the East Bay Express, Oakland’s primary alt-weekly.

It was also known that only three Council Members supported the Chamber of Commerce alternative. The only unknown at this point was Council Member Rebecca Kaplan, a progressive former Green Party member currently running for Mayor (she is the front-runner) who was among the least likely to stab Lift Up Oakland and low wage workers in the back. But it didn’t matter–with the four supporters, Quan could break a tie vote and it was clear the alternative would not pass, although ultimately Kaplan voted against it anyway.

The watered-down Chamber of Commerce alternative never passed–but according to the President of the City Council, Lift Up Oakland was negotiating a possible compromise throughout this period. But you would never hear a peep from the ISO that the Democrat-allied union leaders and non-profits were prepared to sellout the entire effort.

Nonetheless, months later, Socialist Worker put out yet another article repeating the claim that “Quan and other members of the city council tried to undermine [Lift Up Oakland]. She and others proposed an ordinance . . . with a phase-in of more than four years, and with so many loopholes that a lot of the city’s low-wage service workers would have been left behind.” It may seem bizarre how these verifiably false statements creep back in to the ISO’s public statements, when Quan has been visibly and vocally a supporter of Lift Up Oakland and never even hinted that she would support the alternative. But when you see the benefit to the ISO of claiming that Quan is an enemy instead of an ally in such an important campaign, it suddenly makes sense. It would be so awkward to have to tell the membership the truth and so much easier to pretend like everything is going just fine.

Bringing Quan back from the dead

Jean Quan was one of the most discredited politicians in the country after her series of debacles around Occupy Oakland, and yet she is running a successful race for re-election. Until Kaplan entered recently, Quan was running in first place. How is this possible? Time and lack of a serious opposition are probably the main reason. But the efforts of reformers to attach themselves to one of the most discredited politicians in the country has something to do with it as well. This is Lift Up Oakland’s strategy. They are not fighting City Hall, rather they have shaped their efforts to be acceptable to City Hall and even to Quan, who gets to stand next to low wage workers and get credit for supporting their struggle, even though she will do nothing for them. Quan is able to rehabilitate her image and possibly even win a second term with the help of Lift Up Oakland and the ISO has absolutely nothing to say about it.

It does not have to be this way. The Occupy Oakland movement was clear that politicians were not going to be able to take credit for the movement, rather they were going to be the target. City Hall suffered substantially for their role in crushing the movement. Later, the Justice for Alan Blueford campaign took its battle directly to City Hall and exposed the unwillingness of anybody in City Hall, including Quan and Kaplan and Schaaf, to challenge the police. These battles have discredited the politicians in the eyes of many people.

Then Lift Up Oakland comes along to undo all the damage done to the status quo in order to pass their legislation. There were people who approached the campaign that wanted to focus the fight on not just businesses but on the City Council as well. There are hundreds of City of Oakland employees making less than $12.25, all of which could be settled with the stroke of a pen by the several City Council members who used the Lift Up Oakland campaign to help them get re-elected. Lift Up Oakland would have none of it–there fight was not going to be waged against these important allies. Quan and Schaaf were going to be allowed to support the campaign while giving nothing in return. The ISO has shown absolutely no concern about this problem, because this is not why they got involved in Lift Up Oakland in the first place. They are first and foremost interested in finding and relating to an audience and are uninterested in challenging the backwards strategies carried out by liberal forces who want to win a few reforms by allying with the politicians, not by fighting them.

The backward role that this plays in social movements–and is likely to get worse in the future–should be clear. Rather than being the fiercest opponents of the role of the Democrats in the fight for reforms, the ISO seemed to be utterly incapable of giving an honest accounting of what the Democrats were doing, and how their involvement weakened Lift Up Oakland’s campaign. It is not as though the ISO was ignorant to the problem in the abstract, though.

For example, in a general article about Fight for 15, we get this commentary from the editorial board of Socialist Worker:

In San Francisco and Oakland, there will be more attempts to water down the ballot measures, and the vote still has to be won, against an undoubtedly well-funded propaganda campaign backed by business interests. And supporters of a living wage in other cities will have to be on the lookout for attempts by Democratic Party leaders to push inadequate and toothless bills or referendums in the guise of a real Fight for 15.

Not a word is mentioned about how Lift Up Oakland had already watered down their measure to $12.25 in order to help get Democrats onto the front of the stage. If Lift Up Oakland’s $12.25 alliance with City Hall is “a real Fight for $15” then we are all lost in a sea of post-modern confusion where facts mean nothing.

Furthermore, anybody who has gone to meetings around the minimum wage in Oakland over the last few months will have noticed a curious phenomenon, which is that people proclaim loudly and proudly that they are going to “Fight for Fif… I mean $12.25.” This slip of the tongue is an awkward reminder to everybody that this is not really the campaign they expected or wanted but they are quietly settling for it because they see no other way.

The issue here is not whether you should be involved or not–this is a superficial discussion of the campaign. I was not involved in the campaign because I did not see real opportunities to challenge the status quo. But I do not begrudge anybody who was–raising the minimum wage is a worthwhile goal. But if the Left is not going to give an honest criticism of these campaigns, we will never get anything better than what non-profits and union leaders–and the Democrats they are allied with–are willing to give us.

The problem is being involved solely to take credit for doing something with no awareness or discussion of the limitations of the campaign–and therefore no efforts to battle these limitations, or even worse providing cover for them. This potentially leads to opportunistic cheerleading, which easily falls into covering for the movement leaders who want to cut a deal with the Democrats. Not only are you “hiding your politics,” but you are hiding the politics of other forces as well, which is far more damaging.

The failure here is in seeing this campaign as some sort of critical turning point or harbinger of something new, when it is merely the same old strategy destined to go nowhere. Yes, it will succeed in delivering a raise for low wage workers, but there is almost no chance that it will develop into a larger, more generalized battle unless there is a rejection of the strategy they are currently carrying out. So far, the ISO has refused to reject or even acknowledge this bankrupt strategy. It is too busy chasing after all these precious opportunities, none of which apparently have anything to do with building a Left that can take on the role of the Democrats in distorting social movements. That will be a task for another Left.

People’s Climate March

While not related to the Democrats, the ISO’s analysis of the People’s Climate March followed largely the same script. Although Social Worker gave completely uncritical coverage for weeks, Arun Gupta’s article in CounterPunch laid out the march’s many limitations, from corporate sponsorship to NGO self-aggrandizement to a complete lack of strategy, demands or even targets. Suddenly, days after the march, SW discovered these problems in their assessment of the weekend.

But the political tone set by the leading organizers of the demonstration was flawed in important ways. For one, organizers refused to have the march stand for specific demands–apparently out of fear of alienating more moderate and conservative participants. That left an opening for Democrats to continue to pose as a party concerned about protecting the environment, despite the fact that their pro-corporate agenda has been a main driver of climate change, both in the U.S. and at an international level.

At the same time, leading ISO members were simultaneously saying things like “I agree with all the criticisms” while others were calling the critics “cynics” and “sectarians.” SW published an article a few days later titled “Against the climate march cynics.” It was full of typical straw-manning that made Gupta seem like the most ridiculous critic of the march, noting that “the depiction of marchers as dupes of a sinister corporate campaign betrays an elitist view about ordinary people and their supposed gullibility.” Of course nobody made that claim, but that is irrelevant–Socialist Worker had to tear down the “cynics” by any means necessary. No mention was made, though, as to whether the people who “agree with all the criticisms” or even the authors of the previous SW article were also “cynics.”

This mini-affair ought to show the dead end of such an approach. The ISO goes looking for opportunities while those on the Left who have seen these struggles fail time and again are derided as “cynics.” The fact that the cynics are right time and again is simply dismissed. They cannot be allowed to be right. This approach is an obstacle toward building a serious Left that can actually play a role in dealing with the rut we find ourselves in, as opposed to waiting for somebody else to do it and then jumping on board the new “opportunity.”

As if to prove this point themselves, the following was sent to ISO members around the country by the Steering Committee, urging attendance to the march:

ANNOUNCEMENT: People’s Climate March: taking place in less than two weeks in NYC. Expect 300,000—it will be huge. Climate convergence on Saturday: we expect 500-1000 (including Naomi Klein as a speaker). The more comrades who come to NYC, the greater will be our impact. We need at least 50-100 ISO members for the ISO contingent on the march. If you are east of the Mississippi—please try to send members and contacts. We will be holding a conference call on Sunday night to prepare for those attending. This is the first national mobilization since last summer’s March on Washington—this is a massive opportunity. We want to make sure that comrades don’t miss this huge opportunity. [emphasis added]

It is incredible enough that they uncritically compare the People Climate March to the Sharpton organized pro-Obama fiasco that was the March on Washington last year. That they apolitically exert what an “opportunity” this is should be another warning sign. Moreover, the statement that “We need at least 50-100 ISO members for the ISO contingent” is itself incredible. Ten years ago the ISO could get 300-500 members to a major East Coast mobilization such as this. New York City supposedly has something like 100 members alone–even if half marched with their unions and their schools, that still leaves 50 members for the contingent.

The ISO is lurching more and more toward the utterly apolitical movement hopping and opportunity chasing characterized by the British SWP as they declined toward rigid sectarianism over the last decade. Former SWP comrades and allies regularly deride their full-time organizers and new twenty-something recruits who endlessly and breathlessly go on and on about all the “opportunities” of the next big thing. Such is the future of the ISO if they do not find a way out of this rut, with this line coming not from a naive youngster but from the Steering Committee itself. As long as nobody objects to it, this can all go on endlessly and in fact there is an endless supply of fresh new recruits to replace the cynics who live every year, if that is all you want to do.

Diagnosing these problem just might make one a “cynic.” On the other hand, nothing breeds cynicism like dishonesty and a disconnect from reality. Those who rail against the “cynics” while providing an utterly dishonest account of these campaigns just might want to take a look at who is to blame for all the “cynicism” they see around them.

Posted in Democrats, ISO, Oakland | 4 Comments

The ISO, SEIU and the billion dollar pay cut


SF Mayor Ed Lee pushing pension reform. Source: Steve Rhodes.

The International Socialist Organization (ISO) is the largest revolutionary socialist group in the US. With a history of organizing on campuses, the last decade has seen the ISO play an ever more prominent role in the labor movement, especially in teachers’ unions. The ISO seeks to rebuild the radical, left-wing of the labor movement that was destroyed by McCarthyism, which is an important but also challenging task. Many Left groups have taken on this same task, often finding themselves absorbed into and defending the conservative union bureaucracy rather than challenging it.

There is at least one case in the ISO where this has happened. A few years ago, an ISO comrade in a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local won elected office on a reform slate. Within a year, he was publicly promoting  a $1 billion pension reform concession on behalf of his own members alongside a Democratic Party mayor. The ISO, rather than reel in their comrade or lead a battle against him or even criticize his efforts turned a blind eye to the whole affair. He continues to be promoted as an important leader in the labor movement and even as an opponent of pension reform and a proponent of class struggle unionism.

From SEIU reform to pension reform

[T]he Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears . . . In order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat. — Lenin

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, SEIU was among the few unions not deep in a crisis of membership decline. This was less due to their willingness to lead struggles and more to their success in organizing new forces such as home health care workers who could put dues into their treasury, only to be forgotten once they were on automatic dues check off. This led to a crisis at the top of the labor movement with the SEIU, led by Andy Stern, leaving the AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win coalition.

SEIU began consolidating small locals into mega-locals, not to empower the workers but rather to disempower them, along with a strategy of labor-management cooperation–cutting deals with the employers to help them recruit new members. The SEIU’s successful growth strategy was at the expense of worker democracy and militancy, not in favor of it. This strategy was opposed by teachers in Puerto Rico and led to battles around organizing health care workers in California and Ohio.

In the Bay Area, a battle took place internally in SEIU Local 1021, a new mega-local that covers city and county workers throughout Northern California. A reform slate called Change 1021 won election against the Stern-backed old guard in February 2010, announcing that “Working together we can fight layoffs, resist concessions and preserve important public and non-profit services for our communities.” As a part of this slate, elected into the position of Third Vice President of the Local, was Larry Bradshaw.

Bradshaw has been publicly aligned with the ISO for many years. This is no secret, as the links above show. His name is all over articles in Socialist Worker, including at least one listing his SEIU affiliation, as well as presentations at the ISO’s annual Socialism conference. A recent letter to Socialist Worker referred to Bradshaw as “a comrade,” and that is how he will be referred to here. This should make the significance of the relationship sufficiently clear, but beyond this there will be no “secrets” revealed here about Bradshaw’s work with socialists, as there are no secrets to reveal. Right-wing bloggers looking for dirt on Bradshaw will not find anything here they could not easily have found all over the ISO’s web sites. The problem is not Bradshaw’s friendly relationship with the ISO, which is well known and nothing to be ashamed of. The problem is his actions along with SEIU Local 1021 which were widely covered by the corporate press but ignored entirely by Socialist Worker.

Within months of the reform slate’s successful election, the issue of San Francisco city worker pensions was placed on the political agenda by Public Defender Jeff Adachi. This pension reform proposal was supported by Matt Gonzalez, the former Green Party candidate for Vice President, former candidate for San Francisco Mayor and former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Organized labor was outraged–as was the ISO, who had supported and worked with Gonzalez on his many electoral campaigns. The ISO disinvited Gonzalez as a speaker to West Coast Socialism 2010 creating a minor stir in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Bay Area equivalent of the Village Voice. Criticizing famous allies because of their support of anti-labor policies takes some principles. Yet, here is where the slide toward opportunism and begins.

The announcement of Gonzalez’s disinvitation also noted that, “The ISO strongly opposes Adachi’s measure and supports the position laid out in the SF Bay Guardian by Larry Bradshaw and Roxanne Sanchez,” referring to the newly elected Third VP and President, respectively, of SEIU Local 1021. But the 1021 position was a curious one to support.

Bradshaw and Sanchez begin their position-piece in the Guardian by stating: “Members of Service Employees International Union Local 1021, who make up about half of all San Francisco city employees — the lowest-paid half — are currently at the negotiating table with the Mayor’s Office working out a deal to give back $100 million toward the city’s deficit over the next two years.”  No clarification was ever given that the ISO does not, in fact, support negotiating a $100 million concession, nor was any criticism ever made of the new reform leadership’s failure to “resist concessions” as promised previously.

The statement ends with the following challenge: “Certainly San Francisco is facing financial problems. But instead of attacking workers, perhaps Adachi and his friends should join us in attacking the real problem. We are working on ideas for ballot measures that can raise new revenue for the city.“

From Wisconsin to San Francisco

Adachi’s plan eventually developed into what became Proposition D in the 2011 election. In April 2011, Bradshaw and Sanchez responded to Adachi again and clarified their “ideas for ballot measures.” In an article deceptively titled From Wisconsin to San Francisco, they attack Adachi’s plan again, comparing 1021’s resistance to it to the battle in Wisconsin–in which workers occupied the state capitol and struck throughout the state to resist an attack on public sector unions. Bradshaw and Sanchez conclude:

No one is more concerned with the viability of the pension fund than those who plan to retire on it. That’s why the city’s unions are engaged in discussions with the city to develop real pension reform that is fact-based, principled, and compassionate to those trying to raise families in this economic climate. . . No, this is not what we call progressive policy. Not in Wisconsin, and not in San Francisco.

Thus, the battle of Wisconsin is used to justify “real pension reform” in negotiations with the Democratic Mayor of San Francisco. And this is precisely what 1021 proceeded to do.

The path to “real pension reform” was not easy as there were multiple players. Local 1021 leaders attempted to limit how much of their members’ salaries they were willing to sacrifice–but sacrifice their salaries they did. “We’re stuck on one issue,” Bradshaw told the SF Bay Guardian in May. One issue was all that was keeping the socialist-backed reform leadership in 1021 from giving back a billion dollars of workers’ salaries to the City and County of San Francisco and handing Mayor Ed Lee a huge political victory. In fact, Local 1021’s support was a significant factor in the passage of what became Proposition C.

“The united front that the [SF Mayor Ed] Lee administration appeared to have assembled for the Tuesday news event was impressive,” boasted an article appearing in the New York Times when the deal was announced. The press conference included Lee, the Chamber of Commerce, billionaire philanthropist Warren Hellman and SEIU Local 1021 who eventually supported the measure. “As you can imagine,” 1021’s political director would tell the San Francisco Chronicle, “it’s not exciting to vote to take away from yourself, but for obvious reasons our members understand we’re in a challenging economy and some things needed to be fixed.”

In the end, Prop C passed and Adachi’s Prop D failed miserably. The difference was that Adachi’s plan would have given back $1.7 billion while Prop C gave back only $1.3 billion. Ed Lee also won his election back into the Mayor’s office against the progressive favorite, John Avalos, who initially withheld his support for Prop C until 1021’s concerns were resolved. Local 1021 did not endorse Ed Lee’s candidacy, they just gave him political cover when they should have been fighting him. Adachi came in sixth place in the race for Mayor and his Prop D lost with 66% voting no, while Prop C won with 68% voting yes.

According to the City Controller, Prop C would cut over a billion dollars in wages and pension benefits from city workers and retirees:

Approximately $575 to $860 million of the ten-year savings would result from increased contributions by City employees earning over $24 per hour that would be required on a sliding scale when the pension system is underfunded. . . Approximately $355 million of savings would result from a revision to the cost-of-living increase formula for current and future pension recipients and pension plan changes for new employees hired after January 7, 2012.

Twenty-four dollars an hour is well above the poverty level, but in a city where average rents are $2895, a worker making $24 per hour would see two-thirds of their pre-tax wages going to housing.

In the end, Adachi’s plan was never much of a threat to city workers but rather it was the lesser-evil Prop C that delivered the “real pension reform” that Bradshaw and Sanchez promised and the establishment so desired. Prop C had the backing of the entire Democratic Party machine, including Senator Feinstein, Congresswoman Pelosi and the Chamber of Commerce, as well as the bulk of the official labor movement. In spite of many powerful and wealthy backers, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that, “The unions have put up most of the more than $1.5 million raised in support of Prop. C.”

The fight against Prop C, deflected

 Such revolutionists bear a close resemblance to raincoats which “leak” only when it rains, i. e., in “exceptional” circumstances, but during dry weather they remain “leak-proof” with complete success. — Trotsky


Protest against Prop C and Prop D. Source: Indybay.

The opposition to Prop C was relatively small, largely due to the fact that organized labor supported it. As one political commentator noted, “We anticipated that pension reform was going to be a very contentious issue, but it turns out there hasn’t been very strong opposition to it. You don’t have the largest and strongest opposition, which would normally come from the unions.” But opposition did exist.

Most significantly, the Guardian published a statement by a group of labor activists, mostly members of 1021, who opposed both Prop C and Prop D. The signatories included well known figures in the Bay Area labor Left such as Renee Saucedo and Dave Welsh. Additionally, there was a protest outside of the Prop C launch event, opposing both Prop C and Prop D. There were also statements of opposition from the San Francisco Green Party, Peace and Freedom Party, the San Francisco Bay View newspaper, the Gray Panthers, Freedom Socialist Party, Socialist Organizer and Workers Compass. But at least one widely read socialist newspaper had nothing to say about the initiative.

No mention was ever made of any of this to the members of the ISO nationally. Nothing was ever printed in Socialist Worker, or the International Socialist Review, nor the internal bulletins preceding the annual convention or the ISO Notes regularly sent out to members. Everybody in the ISO who knew about Prop C just turned a blind eye as though it was not happening. Yet, anybody who read the San Francisco Chronicle or the San Francisco Bay Guardian or the New York Times must have known exactly what was going on.

Precisely at the time that the ISO was boasting of “The End of the One-Sided Class War,” one of their very own comrades was helping a Democratic Party Mayor carry out an attack on unionized workers. This was the problem with the ISO making such a triumphant declaration–at best it would downplay the real challenges of the labor movement, at worst cover for outright betrayal. After all, another Wisconsin was imminent, so why nit-pick about any short-term obstacles or setbacks?

The ISO’s alliance with 1021 and the promotion of Bradshaw as a labor leader continued throughout this period, as it does to this day. In the middle of these negotiations, just a month after he told the SF Bay Guardian that only one issue was holding back a deal, he spoke at Socialism 2011 on the topic of “Marxism and the Trade Unions.” This talk is an amazing act of cognitive dissonance. He discusses at length the problem of union leaders who do not want to take the battle against capitalism to the end but merely want to cut a deal. It is quite a valuable perspective on how to organize a radical wing of the labor movement, and it is a shame that neither he nor anybody else in the ISO put this perspective into practice in the case of Prop C.

On November 30, 2011, just weeks after Prop C passed, a document was sent to all ISO members as part of the preparations for the group’s national convention–Pre-Convention Bulletin #2 for the 2012 convention. Lee Sustar, the ISO’s national labor organizer and a long-time member of the Steering Committee, wrote a document titled “ISO and the unions today.” The author’s renowned encyclopedic knowledge of the labor movement is on full display. He discusses the attacks on public sector workers in Chicago, Massachusetts and even Connecticut–rarely a place of high profile labor activism. In that state, union leaders recommended a concessionary contract. “But because the agreement cuts pension benefits,” Sustar writes, “the state would save $21.5 billion over the next 20 years. That was too much for Connecticut public sector workers, who voted to reject the deal.”

Paralysis and capitulation

There is another section in this document titled “The labor bureaucracy: paralysis and capitulation.”  It mentions SEIU in California–but only the ongoing inter-union health care strife with no mention of 1021. Finally, in a section on union reform efforts (most of which had ISO participation) we get this paragraph:

A reform leadership is also being put to the test in SEIU Local 1021 in the Bay Area. Reformers won office in 2010, but on a very low voter turnout. Next, the union’s CEO–holding an office that the reformers had pledged to abolish–rapidly became a power-grabbing bureaucrat, riding roughshod over union democracy as the public sector employers squeeze concessions out of the workers. To try and curb her power, the reformers have had to undertake an effort to change the union’s bylaws.

That’s it. The ISO’s expert on the labor movement could not find anything to say about 1021’s pension reform efforts. Instead, he mentions the primary challenge as being the fight with the CEO, a relatively obscure topic not mentioned in the San Francisco Chronicle or the New York Times. It is still difficult to find information about this topic on the Internet.

Seven months after the passage of Prop C, Bradshaw wrote another article for Socialist Worker titled “SF workers stop concessions.” Commenting on the successful contract campaign that year for San Francisco city workers, he also notes, “Like public-sector workers across the country, San Francisco workers have been hard hit over the past four years, suffering layoffs and economic concessions in 2009, furlough days in 2010 and pension concessions in 2011.” There is no mention of his public advocacy for this pension concession in 2011, however. He simply gets to pat himself on the back for a “No concessions” campaign after proposing the opposite months earlier.

At the same time, another round of pension reform plans passed in California in 2012, this time in San Jose and San Diego. Socialist Worker was outraged, calling it “a drastic escalation of the offensive against the rights of public employees.” Blame for this escalation was laid at the feet of the entire political establishment–Republican Governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker, the Republican Mayor of San Diego, the Democratic Mayor of San Jose and the Democratic Governor of California. But that’s not all:

Not even workers in liberal bastions like San Francisco are safe from this assault, as liberal Democrats like Jeff Adachi and even progressives like former Green Party mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez have supported proposals shifting the burden of pension costs to public employees.

Yes, the terrifying specter of Adachi and Gonzalez and their failed attempt to reform the pensions of San Francisco city workers is resurrected, meanwhile the actual San Francisco pension reform plan supported by the Democratic Mayor of San Francisco–the one that actually passed–gets no mention whatsoever. The champions of the fight to defend pensions, according to this Socialist Worker article, will be none other than . . . Larry Bradshaw and Roxanne Sanchez from SEIU Local 1021, the very people who proposed “real pension reform” in San Francisco. Bradshaw is even quoted criticizing the labor movement’s timid efforts to resist these attacks:

Unfortunately, unions–and in particular, public-sector unions–did not respond vigorously when private-sector employers began gutting and shedding their pension plans. . . The unions for public workers have been far too timid and defensive in both Wisconsin and in California in safeguarding collective bargaining, wages and pensions. Labor needs to say, “Yes we have a good pension plan, and you deserve one, too–let’s fight together to win a decent pension for all working people.” That’s the position SEIU Local 1021 has adopted: secure retirement for all.

Thus is the entire, unfortunate Prop C episode written out of history, made easier by Socialist Worker never having discussed it in the first place.

Finally, to bring this back to the present, in June 2014 Larry Bradshaw was the sole speaker at the Socialism 2014 conference on the topic of “The Rank-and-file strategy: Class struggle unionism.” A less appropriate speaker could hardly have been chosen from the ranks of the ISO’s allies. It is a sign of the timidity of many ISO members that this was not even seen as a problem that anybody would object to. At a time when the organization is debating whether a rank-and-file orientation still makes sense, this does not bode well.

The theory behind the practice

The ISO’s failure to challenge Prop C is a result of a failed theory and a failed perspective. First, the ISO accepts Trotsky’s theory of the United Front not just as a tactic but as a long-term strategy. This tactic was posed by Trotsky as a temporary alliance with union leaders and reformists to fend off counter-revolution and reaction. In theory, going into battle alongside forces that will ultimately capitulate both allows the battle to happen in the first place and allows for the capitulators to expose their unwillingness to fight. But when the United Front becomes a long-term strategy, the pressure is to ignore and provide cover for the betrayals of these leaders, because once they are criticized the United Front will come to an end, maybe forever. Rather than dragging liberals to the left, or exposing them for their willingness to compromise, revolutionaries are simply dragged further and further to the right to maintain the alliance.

The other problem is the ISO’s declaration of “The End of the One-Sided Class War” as described in Socialist Worker and internal ISO documents. Declared during the Wisconsin uprising–but before that struggle’s defeat and diversion by union leaders and Democrats–this perspective fails to see liberalism as a continued obstacle to struggle. On the contrary, liberal leaders can even be seen as a solution, not as the problem itself, because once workers are drawn into the struggle through a United Front with these leaders, workers’ ideas will change and they will be open to socialist ideas and strategies. The mass struggle that will presumably be brought about by this method will embolden the workers, who will then see through the lies of the misleaders of the movement–who were placed there in part by the ISO–resulting in further radicalization. The fact that this never seems to work is never disregarded.

The entire Prop C episode represents a significant failure on the part of the ISO at many levels. It is a failure of the United Front method. It is a failure of the “End of the One-Sided Class War” perspective. It is a failure of the ISO’s goal of “swimming with the stream of mass consciousness”–when voters approve a billion dollar pay cut, it is time to swim against the stream. It is a failure of their strategy of promoting left-wing candidates for union office. The ISO needs a strategy for dealing with situations when their members and allies in union leadership positions accept austerity measures and concessions. If these allies will not be opposed, then their positions do not make the Left stronger–rather it makes the Left weaker. Assuming that betrayal in office will not happen is simply a formula for allowing it to happen, resulting in paralysis and capitulation. And yet, the ISO has never–ever–had an organization-wide discussion about how to deal with this very real problem. For all the ISO’s talk about the need for internal democracy, this is one debate that the leadership has never even bothered to have.

It took an extraordinary lack of imagination for the ISO not to see the opportunity to develop the left-wing of the labor movement around this issue. In fact, Bradshaw and the ISO were uniquely situated to throw a monkey-wrench into this entire operation. First and foremost, Bradshaw could have used his position to throw these negotiations into crisis instead of calling for them to happen in the first place. He may have lost his position, though that is not a foregone conclusion. Perhaps the 1021 leadership would have gone so far as to find a way to throw him out. If they are willing to stoop to such tactics, then let them expose themselves and let the 1021 members see this maneuver. Is that not the entire point of the United Front?

No left-wing union member is required to run for office. If they choose to do so, they need a criteria under which they will not participate in the work of the union leadership, otherwise their campaign is merely a strategy for getting activists to accept concessions instead of oppose them. Had Bradshaw refused to oppose these negotiations, the ISO could have opposed him and 1021, causing a minor scandal in the local press and potentially helping galvanize a battle against neoliberalism carried out by the Democratic Party machine. If nothing else, editor Tim Redmond would have loved reporting on this in the pages of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, just as he did with the Gonzalez incident. But nobody in the ISO wanted to discuss this development, so everybody who knew about it just kept their head down and pretended it was not happening.

Many members of the ISO in the Bay Area during this period bear some responsibility for this situation, as do many in the leadership, the national labor organize not least among them. Instead of a battle with the ISO at the center of it, we have a case of mass paralysis where nobody wanted to do anything to upset the delicate balance of the status quo because of Bradshaw’s position in it.  Of course, were Kshama Sawant to advocate a pension reform at this scale, there would be a flurry of denunciations from Socialist Worker, but since it came from “their guy,” all we get is an awkward silence.

Instead of the ISO’s monkey-wrench, Ed Lee had the cover of SEIU in helping him cut a significant deal showing that he had the “courage” and the political prowess to confront “special interests” in City Hall. This was a deal Lee needed. This was, after all, Ed Lee’s very first election of his political career. A lifelong bureaucrat, he was appointed Mayor by the Board of Supervisors after Gavin Newsom was elected Lieutenant Governor of California. Lee had something to prove in 2011–that he could pass major, budget-balancing legislation and carry significant political forces along with him. It is not clear that Bradshaw and 1021 were critical to either Lee’s election or to the passage of Prop C, but they certainly helped assure both outcomes. That should not be the role of the labor Left–rather it should seek to accomplish exactly the opposite, balanced budgets and political careers be damned.

Nobody’s hands were tied here–on the contrary, they were quite well positioned to build the left-wing of the labor movement with a real challenge to the liberal establishment. Both Bradshaw and the members of the Bay Area ISO were in a better position than any of them have probably been in their lifetimes to challenge the rule of a Democratic Party politician and resist a major austerity measure. Had they done so, however, they would have quite possibly forfeited the opportunity to build future alliances with those in 1021 who were willing to give up a billion dollar concession. The ISO and Bradshaw both chose to fight another day rather than take on the battle that was placed directly in front of them and threaten this precious alliance.

The unwillingness of union reformers to ever challenge their allies in elected positions lies at the heart of why no left-wing alternative has been built inside the unions. Every time a reformer or leftist is elected to office, they defang themselves in order to maintain their seat at the bargaining table, or at least their important position alongside less militant officials. This is the story of the failure of the labor Left, told over and over again, repeated endlessly by those who assume that their compromises are worthwhile unlike all those that preceded them.

Sometimes the labor Left will justify their participation in concessions because budgets are slim and there is nothing more that can be done. This is not the sign of a radical Left in the labor movement but of organized liberalism. Revolutionary socialists generally reject this attitude as it is precisely the strategy that needs to be overcome. There is plenty of wealth in society regardless of whether those ended up in the city budget.

The other justification, though, is far more appealing–that there may be “future opportunities” that should not be sacrificed by carrying out an unpopular fight now. The dried up carcass of many a labor Left experiment lie on the beach of “future opportunities.” These shores may be appealing from a distance but once beached on this terrain, the labor Left rarely finds its way off. The problem is, there is always some other, better “future opportunity” that can be seen in the distance regardless of the situation we find ourselves in. There is no reason why the labor Left is preordained to go down this dead end, though. At any point, anybody involved can stand up and yell from the roof tops that there is something deeply wrong with this situation and they simply will not abide by it. This is always a possibility. There is nothing inevitable about any of this. It just keeps happening over and over and over and over and over again.

The nature of opportunism

A political party’s attitude towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how it fulfils in practice its obligations towards its class and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, analysing the conditions that have led up to it, and thrashing out the means of its rectification — that is the hallmark of a serious party; that is how it should perform its duties, and how it should educate and train its class, and then the masses. — Lenin

There are plenty of accusations between irrelevant Trotskyist sects that their competitors are sellouts. The World Socialist Web Site excels at this, accusing the ISO of being silent on Obama’s drone kill list due to their supposed relationship with the Democratic Party. Whoever could make such an accusation is an imbecile. The ISO does not support the Democratic Party and they are opposed to Obama killing people with drones. Nobody who has spent any time in or around the ISO will see any sign of the group in these proclamations. Opportunism does not work this way–like a switch turned from opposition to support for the Democrats, followed by a sellout. That they say they oppose the Democrats but they secretly support them. Whoever thinks this way is utterly unprepared for the real challenges of opportunism.

The problem in the ISO is not that that they have any illusions in liberal democracy. Neither does Larry Bradshaw. The problem is that ISO members believe so thoroughly in the need to rebuild class struggle and they are so desperate for any sign of struggle to break out–why shouldn’t the be?–that they will turn a blind eye to the problems that inevitably arise. Worse, when members attempt to lay out the real challenges and obstacles toward rebuilding the labor movement, they are branded as pessimists who, presumably, do not believe that the working class will soon revolt.

The leadership–and those who agree with them–will turn a blind eye to these problems not because they have faith in the Democrats but because they want to see mass struggle and they need their members to believe it is imminent. The leadership have made so many false claims of impending working-class revolt that they cannot abide by arguments about why it may not soon happen, or may not last indefinitely when it does. The leadership needs positive results and victory for their allies in labor will provide these results, regardless of the actual circumstances. The pressure to prove a perspective accurate is a real pressure, and a real obstacle toward developing honest perspectives, effective strategies and accountable leaders.

Some in the ISO will see a public criticism such as this as some sort of attack on the organization–whatever that means–and insist that there is some more appropriate way to deal with this issue, most likely in private. In reality, it is the effort to deal with this issue privately and quietly which led to the current situation. Moreover, the ISO cannot have it both ways. They can either be an irrelevant sect that nobody cares about, or they can work toward playing a visible role in the labor movement. If they choose the latter, they must be accountable to the labor movement and the Left.

They cannot expect to be able to quietly abide by a $1.3 billion in wage cuts in order to maintain an alliance. They cannot expect to be able to uncritically promote union leaders engaged in concessions at this scale and not come under criticism for it. Such an expectation can only be fulfilled if there is a timid and toothless labor movement incapable of challenging neoliberalism. The goal should be to build precisely the opposite type of labor movement, also known as class struggle unionism. If the ISO is not going to engage in class struggle unionism when it embarrasses their allies, then somebody else will have to do it instead.

Furthermore, Bradshaw and Sanchez are public figures. They are often quoted in the mass media and the SF Bay Guardian, where they wrote their editorial advocating “real pension reform,” is widely read in the Bay Area. If we are ever going to rebuild a left-wing of the labor movement, these issues will need to be openly and honestly discussed and debated by the entire Bay Area labor movement, and not simply as the domain of one organization.

It is much easier to see no evil, hear no evil, than to admit a screw up at this level. Nobody in the ISO wants Bradshaw to fail–everybody in the ISO wants him to succeed at radicalizing the working-class. His failure is ignored as a minor embarrassment, but then he is promoted as a leader in the hopes that it will help his ability to successfully fight the Democratic Party machine in San Francisco. The desperate hope that all this will turn out positively is what leads to this opportunism–not some illusion in Ed Lee, as some idiots would believe. Nonetheless, the consequences of these two mistaken strategies–blind hope and liberal illusions–are indistinguishable, which is precisely the problem. A perspective that desperately seeks to lead the class struggle without a clear strategy to deal with these obstacles can lead to the same opportunism as one that sees the class struggle as secondary to alliances with the Democrats.

The ISO probably has a reasonable-sounding justification for all this–not that they have bothered to relay it to anybody–but that is precisely the problem. We do not need justifications for not fighting–of which there are many–but rather strategies for resisting austerity–of which there are all too few.

Liberal democracies are able to contain consent by the use of force, but are much more often successful at convincing dissidents to defang themselves voluntarily. The Republican Party leads the attacks on workers, the poor, people of color and women. The Democratic Party “opposes” these efforts–then incorporates them into their lesser evil program. Union bureaucrats and social movement leaders are unhappy with this state of affairs but promote and enable the Democrats in the hopes that this will hold reaction at bay, while enabling their lesser-evil proposals. The Left–even the far Left–promote and enable these leaders in spite of their role in promoting capitalist politicians and selling concessions to their members.

Who enables the enablers?

 At some point, somewhere, somebody needs to put a stop to this endless enabling. The enablers enable the enablers who enable the enablers. It’s opportunism all the way down. Ed Lee wants to balance the budget on the backs of the workers. The 1021 leadership accepts this as inevitable but seeks to minimize the attack–rather than resist it outright. Bradshaw accepts that he must go along with this as a 1021 leader. The ISO accepts that they must go along with Bradshaw’s compromise–rather than build a campaign against Ed Lee’s austerity measures, which Bradshaw and 1021 are advocating. It’s great to have allies in high places, but if there is no strategy for resisting their compromises and betrayals then promoting left-wing leaders will get us nowhere. Better that we have rotten leaders that we can fight than “our” people to whom we must acquiesce.

If we wonder why neoliberalism has gone unchecked, and why there is not a Left capable of challenging and resisting it, we need only look at the ISO’s role in the Prop C affair. We can talk all we want about the restructuring of the working class, but the reason why the Left has failed to resist neoliberalism is simply because it has too often chosen alliances ahead of resistance. The ISO’s method has failed in practice and needs to be discarded entirely. Blame should probably be shared across many levels of the organization, but admitting that something is deeply wrong with this picture is the starting point.

There are compromises and there are compromises, as Lenin said, but if the cost of holding a union position is a billion dollar concession, then maybe the price just isn’t worth it–a price paid largely by 1021 members not in the ISO, it’s worth pointing out.

This must be dealt with thoroughly and honestly. A series of non-denial denials will do no good. If this was such a great strategy, then the ISO should defend it and advocate for it as a lesson that can be learned and put into practice by the entire labor movement, not to mention explaining it to their own members. The fact that the ISO leadership has not done so suggests that they are no more convinced by the value of this strategy than anybody else would be. The question, then, is why they allowed any of this to happen. The other question is whether ISO membership requires being the fiercest fighter in the class struggle and the loudest critic of liberal compromises, or merely building the actions which promote the ISO and ignoring the compromises which are embarrassing to the leadership. This may sound like outrageous hyperbole, but the details described above suggest that it is a question that needs asking.

The ISO can deny all they want that they ever endorsed Prop C–that is not being alleged. What is being not so much alleged but simply stated are three simple facts: ISO ally Larry Bradshaw worked (publicly) in support of Prop C; the ISO never criticized or assessed this publicly or internally; and the ISO continues to uncritically promote him as a pension defender and class struggle unionist nonetheless. There is something wrong here. An honest–though admittedly quite difficult–assessment of this situation will provide an example of how the Left can not only correct its mistakes but learn to avoid them in the future.

On the other hand, if the ISO’s strategy for the labor Left involves quietly allowing their allies to negotiate concessions at this scale, then somebody else will have to find another, better strategy that can resist it.

Posted in ISO, Labor | 18 Comments

Lawrence & Wishart and “institutional suicide”

marx2by Scott Jay

In recent weeks, Lawrence & Wishart (L&W), a British publishing house long associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain, has asked the Marxist Internet Archive (MIA) to take down material from their version of the first ten volumes of the Collected Works of Marx and Engels. That Marxists would object to such a request should be unsurprising and really needs no further comment. What is interesting, though, is that L&W has defended themselves precisely the same way that self-proclaimed Leninists have defended themselves against criticism since time immemorial. Or, at least since 1924.

A few excerpts from their defense follow:

Over the last couple of days Lawrence & Wishart has been subject to campaign of online abuse because we have asked for our copyright on the scholarly edition of the Collected Works of Marx and Engels to be respected. The panic being spread to the effect that L&W is ‘claiming copyright’ for the entirety of Marx and Engels’ output is baseless, slanderous and largely motivated by political sectarianism from groups and individuals who have never been friendly to L&W. . .

Our critics’ rhetorically loaded descriptions of L&W as a ‘private publishing house’ and of our actions as ‘capitalistic’ betray a complete lack of understanding of L&W’s historic role in British radical publishing, of its organizational status, and, indeed, of Marx’s concept of the capitalist mode of production. . . Without L&W and the work which its employees have invested over many years, the full collected works of Marx and Engels in English would not exist. . .

Ultimately, in asking L&W to surrender copyrights in this particular edition of the works of Marx & Engels, MIA and their supporters are asking that L&W, one of the few remaining independent radical publishers in the UK, should commit institutional suicide. At the same time they are reproducing the norms and expectations not of the socialist and communist traditions, but of a consumer culture which expects cultural content to be delivered free to consumers . . .

Long time followers of sectariana may find this commentary familiar. In fact, it is almost as if there is a script that all Leninists fall into once they have come under criticism. The arguments usually contains something like the following defenses:

1. We are under attack from the outside by hostile forces. (“a campaign of online abuse”)

2. The fact that these forces are so hostile to us now is evidence that they have always been hostile to us. (“The panic being spread . . . is baseless, slanderous and largely motivated by political sectarianism from groups and individuals who have never been friendly to L&W. . .”)

3. We are the ones holding onto principle. Those who attack us are the ones without principle. (“Our critics’ rhetorically loaded descriptions of L&W . . . betray a complete lack of understanding. . . of its organizational status, and, indeed, of Marx’s concept of the capitalist mode of production.”)

4. If we allow our opponents to win, we are not the only ones who will lose out, but rather everybody who has benefited from our indispensable work will lose out as well. (“Without L&W . . . the full collected works of Marx and Engels in English would not exist.”)

5. Our critics are not only our enemies, but they are the enemies of everything that both we and they claims to stand for. (“[T]hey are reproducing the norms and expectations not of the socialist and communist traditions, but of a consumer culture which expects cultural content to be delivered free to consumers”)

There is also often a non-denial-denial expressing outrage at some especially harsh claim, when in fact something quote close (though not precisely the same) is precisely what the accused are guilty of.  (“The panic being spread to the effect that L&W is ‘claiming copyright’ for the entirety of Marx and Engels’ output…”) This is a great way to rhetorically and loudly defend yourself to the uninformed–but tells those who are actually informed that you are unwilling to defend yourself. Hopefully, they won’t get in the way.

One might think that this pattern of argument is so obviously misguided that nobody would ever carry it out again, and yet it appears over and over. Those who read the L&W statement with derision today will turn around and make exactly the same arguments tomorrow. After all, criticism looks much different when you are the recipient as opposed to a passive observer, not to mention being the critic oneself. When somebody criticizes your hard work, well, they must be an unprincipled sectarian shithead because otherwise you are a bad person. At least, that is how it feels.

The key phrase in the L&W statement is the comment that their critics are asking them to “commit institutional suicide.” What a stark suggestion! We were just having a friendly conversation about the content on a web site when suddenly L&W is talking about killing themselves. The suggestion of suicide conjures the deeply hurt feelings of those at L&W–and there is no reason to believe that their feelings were not hurt, as they most likely have worked for many years for little money out of a labor of love.

The specter of institutional suicide–or institutional murder by their critics–encapsulates the response of those who come under collective, institutional defense. It is not about principle or ethics but about the continued existence of an institution. An institution need not have a hundred year-old tradition, but can simply be a group of people working together with a common purpose and a collective–institutional–identity. They need not even like each other, but once they have accepted that their collective labor is important and worthwhile as a collective, at that point organizational and institutional behavior, with all the logic inherent to it, rules the minds of the individual when dealing with the institution. A bubble of groupthink surrounds even the cleverest of individuals. You can go home and have dinner with your spouse and spend time with your parents while thinking and doing whatever you want, but once the issue of the institution comes into play, institutional psychology takes over.

While completely unconvincing to the outsider, it is incredibly appealing–even comforting–for the insider. It can be amazing to watch otherwise thoughtful individuals go through these exact same intellectual contortions–amazing, because it is so predictable to anybody who has seen these things before unavoidable for those who find comfort in this script.

None of this would come as a surprise to sociologists or psychologists who have studied these things for decades. The entire field of social psychology has not only theorized these issues but carried out studies–again, for decades–which show that when people hold two (or more) views that are contradictory to each other, they will go to great, often illogical, lengths to avoid having to come to terms with it. The first response to having these views challenged by argument or fact is always to double-down on the illogic and insist on its correctness. Once you have come “under attack,” insisting that your critics are hostile, have always been hostile, are unprincipled and do not appreciate what is at stake is unconvincing to everybody but yourself. This is precisely why these arguments are employed–they are convincing to those making them and the organizations they stand with even if they are completely unconvincing to absolutely everybody else.

It does not take a genius to realize that there is a contradiction between calling yourself a Marxist–ie an advocate of the working-class replacing capitalism with their own self-rule–and advocating that Marxist ideas should be less available in order that you can make money off them. Which is not to say that the L&W staff has not worked tirelessly for years for the benefit of many, or that their continued ability to make money is not in fact the only way they can continue to tirelessly work for low wages to contribute this valuable work. But when institutional survival is at stake, it is more likely that survival will win out over principle. It is almost an axiom of organizational behavior.

It should be added that the L&W statement was not written for us–though they may have thought we all would find it convincing. No, it is a defense of the institution itself. It lives and breathes the institutional order and is a document of their psychology as they hold hands in the bunker of cognitive dissonance while the rest of us look on in bemusement.

Sociologists have also studied how organizations and institutions behave at length. The study goes back much further, but a modern classic that encapsulates many of these issues is Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality. The text is much less a post-modern defense of the absence of reality outside of individual perception–though it can be employed to those ends–than it is an analysis of how concepts are made to seem real by the actions of those who accept them. Once an organization is founded around a set of ideas, those ideas are then made to seem even more real and natural in spite of any evidence or alternative viewpoints because people act so firmly in the belief that they are true.

Groups of people form institutions and construct their own “subuniverse” or version of reality, which then needs to be protected and defended against alternative views. Arguments and institutional positions are created and maintained, only further hardening the sense of reality that has been constructed. Berger, it should be noted, was an expert on religion and sects, although the book also explicitly mentions revolutionary organizations several times as being among these types of institutions.

Berger, Luckmann and social psychology make sense of the arguments spouted by L&W and many others. It is not that political and religious sects are weird. Rather, their behavior is quite typical and even predictable. What is weird is looking at this behavior from the outside, precisely because their actions are taken in order to protect their institutional subuniverse from the outside world.

The late Socialist Workers Party (UK) is a goldmine of psychological and sociological study. Members of the party did not follow various twists and turns for years because they were zombies, but rather because they believed, deeply, that their organization was valuable and even necessary. In other words, they constructed an institutional subuniverse around the party and, in particular, their version of “Leninism.” Once this came under criticism, they fell into precisely the same patterns described above. When George Galloway criticized them in the RESPECT Party, they claimed “the Left”–read the SWP–was being witch-hunted. When a leader of the party was accused of raping a teenager, even he was accused of being witch-hunted–a grotesque commentary utterly at odds with any understanding of women’s liberation, but for some a worthy defense of their institutional subuniverse.

The entire “Comrade Delta” rape scandal in the SWP was a lengthy battle between a defense of the subuniverse and a defense of political principles. These are not the same thing, but it is a weakness of Leninism that these are often conflated with no sense among Leninists of why this might be a problem. It is assumed that “our” organization will not suffer from groupthink, will not be opportunist, will not be sectarian and will not become a bureaucracy because “we” are aware of these problems. “We” are fighting for something good, so something bad cannot happen.

The demise of the SWP is evidence that all of these assumptions of innocence are completely wrong. Their inexplicable defense of a rapist in their own leadership did not occur simply because of their model of Leninism or because they were led by Alex Callinicos–though these factors certainly deserve a share of the blame. Rather, these institutional defense can occur with any organization, be they socialist, anarchist, libertarian or vegetarian.

It is a shame that Leninists do not take the study of organizational behavior seriously. People who dedicate their political lives ought to see what others have to say about these things and there is a wealth of literature from academic fields which may only interpret the world, but can be used by those who want to change it.

Marxists need a Marxist analysis of their own organizational behavior–not just a Marxist explanation of why they need to have an organization in the first place–rooted in the insights already gained by sociology and social psychology, otherwise they will fall into these patterns every time they are criticized by supposedly hostile critics from the outside.


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