Well, somebody has to ask the question. To put it another way, is the ISO committed to opposing the Democratic Party and fighting for independent politics, or is this all just a facade to maintain the organization?
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.”
But 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 Breitbart.com 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.
Jesse 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.