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.

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18 Responses to The ISO, SEIU and the billion dollar pay cut

  1. Carole Seligman says:

    This is a fascinating important article. Who are you? Carole

  2. Red_dude says:

    The International Socialist Organization (ISO) is the largest revolutionary socialist group in the US

    • FoolishOwl says:

      An anarchist criticism of Leninists I once read was, “Leninists always justify everything they do by pointing to the success of the Russian Revolution, which forgets that the Russian Revolution failed.” Much the same can be said of the ISO. I often heard the ISO district organizer justify the ISO’s strategy and tactics on the grounds that the ISO was the largest revolutionary socialist organization in the US. But that’s not a justification of anything. The ISO is pathetically small, and, to best of my knowledge, so is every other self-described revolutionary socialist organization in the US; the situation is little better in other wealthy countries. And this is in the absence of direct persecution, and with abundant and cheap means to publish information and to communicate.

      Boasting of the ISO’s success, even relative success, is an exercise in self-delusion.

      • Red_dude says:

        No, no, I was not boasting. See my comment below. I accidentally put that up without finishing it. I was trying to quote the article and challenge that assertion.

        I do not think that they are at this point. We cannot get an exact #, but they are most likely 350.

  3. Red_dude says:

    “The International Socialist Organization (ISO) is the largest revolutionary socialist group in the US”

    I don’t think that is still true. Socialist Alternative is close to taking this mantle, and probably has already done so.

    • throwaway says:

      The ISO is undoubtedly still larger than SAlt for all practical purposes (no idea re paper memberships). No insult intended, but a socialist cadre is not built in a day, or a month, out of scattered enthusiasts recruited after a municipal election victory.

      In a couple years, of course, who knows?

      • Red_dude says:

        None at all taken.

        But, no insult to you, if membership is measured by “cadre”, then we, the rev left, will always be forever small and irrelevant. I’ll take the enthusiasts over “cadre”, it will be the enthusiasts who will build the mass movements.

        I was hoping that SalT would grow out of the self-promo Trot sect model, but we’ll see.

  4. Eric Josephson says:

    Very informative article. I have to say, though, that the ISO *does* have illusions in liberalism, or at least thinks that such illusions can be a good thing. When Obama won his first presidential election, the ISO had parties to celebrate, at least in New York, where I live. They did not vote for him, but they did not relentlessly expose him during the 2008 campaign, either. Their method must be some version of “stage-ism:” the masses first move to liberalism, which opens their minds to the possibility of socialism, which in turn opens their minds to the need for revolution… This method has nothing to do with the united front, where revolutionaries engage in joint action with non-revolutionary workers and their leaders. As a supporter of the League for Revolutionary Party, my understanding is that in united front work, revolutionaries openly make demands on the workers pro-capitalist leaders to expose them, as the article says. Revolutionaries in united fronts in course of the struggle openly show how only socialist revolution can win *and keep* gains for the workers. In New York now, as in California in the recent past, open ISO supporters are running for office on the Green Party ticket. Many Greens are honest, self-sacrificing fighters. But the Green Party is not a working-class party: it’s a middle class party, which stands for social improvement through voting, an illusion. For the Green Party, the working class and People of Color are only a few “sectors” among many, which, added together and voting will somehow achieve social weight enough to bring justice. ISO-supporter Green candidates — Tod Chretien for Senate in California some years back, and Brian Jones for NY Lieutenant Governor now — did not and do not use their campaign as a platform to expose electoralism as an illusion or to explain that workers need socialism, a word they almost never use when campaigning. I don’t think it’s an accident that the ISO ignores the class line in this work: they are also a middle-class organization, more concentrated on avoiding programs which will alienate supposedly numerous liberal middle-class elements, than on putting forward putting forward socialist politics which can start winning over the currently small number of revolutionary-minded workers and other oppressed.

    • ralfforchewn says:

      A powerful expose!! this is a great example of the need for revolutionaries to practice criticism/self-criticism. Lenin’s quote on admitting mistakes is very appropriate. I’ll follow that up with a supportive quote from Serve The People, by Mao, “If we have shortcomings, we are not afraid to have them pointed out and criticized, because we serve the people. Anyone, no matter who, may point out our shortcomings. If he is right, we will correct them. If what he proposes will benefit the people, we will act upon it.”

      It may or may not be too late for the ISO to rectify its shortcomings. The Iso, leadership, but more importantly, membership, has big decisions to make. Good luck.

  5. Carole Seligman says:

    In my experience, the ISO does not support the idea of a united front in action. This has come up in the anti-war movement a number of times, where disparate groups who share in opposition to imperialist wars of the U.S. government, will come together to organize mass demonstrations and other antiwar activities (College Not Combat ballot initiative, for example). Such a united action front relies on groups and individuals uniting for specific limited goals in order to carry out mass working class actions, since no one group on the Left is strong enough to bring out masses of workers on their own. I participated in a few coalitions led by the ISO which were summarily dissolved without the consent of the other people participating in the coalition.
    The kind of united front Trotsky was advocating in the 1930s was a united front of the mass Social Democratic and Communist Parties to come together and stop the Nazis and Hitler from coming to power in Germany. Those two mass workers parties had the allegiance of the majority of the German working class. They could have stopped Hitler if they had formed a real united front instead of attacking each other. The common thread in Trotsky’s united front proposal and today’s united front-type actions is the class line. The leftists who support the Democrats, who supported the election of Barack Obama, for example, who join with capitalist politicians, like Mayor Lee, to support takeaways from workers’ pensions, are not following a “united front” strategy. Class collaboration is the name for what they are doing. The labor bureaucrats are well-practiced in class collaboration and those leftists who take on positions in the unions are up against this at every juncture. It’s hard to fight for working class independence from the capitalists and their government in the framework of the current labor movement, but that is the task of anyone who takes on leadership positions in unions.

    (Let’s leave Mao out of it. He might have said good things about criticism; but stood for none.)

    • ralfforchewn says:

      Before I quoted Mao, I considered saying that I know Iso and other trotskyists, et al, are anti Mao. But in the spirit of comradery, I chose to just make my statement. By saying ‘leave Mao out of it’, I think you are being sectarian in a time when we should be open minded.

  6. “Though our hearts are heavy, are minds are light.” – Mao

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  9. socialistworld says:

    Hey, your statement “The ISO’s criticism of [Socialist Alternative fighter and Seattle city council member Kshama] Sawant’s unilateral decision making in 15 Now and her unexplained about-face in voting for the final measure are correct” is slanderous nonsense.

    ISO’s silly charge leveled against Kshama Sawant / Socialist Alternative, of “unilateral decision-making within 15 Now”, is especially hypocritical, given their outrageous February 2014 “unilateral decision” to expel you!

    15 Now is a United Front organization of the working-class, the 99%, which we strive to develop into a mass party for socialist struggle throughout the US, as the natural political home of all workers — women and men, black and white, gay and straight, old and young.

    Just like the Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN):
    And the Workers’ And Socialist Party (WASP) in South Africa:
    And the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) in Ireland:
    And so on.

    The co-thinker parties of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI): in the above countries are:

    Socialist Alternative in the US:
    Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) in Nigeria:
    Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) in South Africa:
    Socialist Party in Ireland:

    A CWI party never attempts to “make unilateral decisions” on behalf of a United Front organization — that would be a mad betrayal of the United Front tactic itself!
    Instead, every decision is arrived at by consensus and ratified by majority vote.

    No, Kshama Sawant did not make any “unexplained about-face” in voting for the final measure for a $15 minimum wage despite the capitalist enemy’s clawbacks.
    Such antics seem to be the province of the ISO, the “Incredible Somersaults Organization”.
    For example, the ISO make the correct demand for a $15 minimum wage, yet they water it down to $12.25 at the first sign of opposition from their fair-weather friends — instead of plunging wholeheartedly into the task of building a mass movement for $15.

    In Kshama Sawant’s case, both the previous “no” and the subsequent “yes” were pre-approved by vote by 15 Now.
    Completely correct tactics: first vote “no” in order to maximize opposition against the bosses’ clawbacks; but, given the major trade-union leader-barons’ abject failure to mobilize masses of workers against those clawbacks, vote “yes” for the final measure — because despite those capitalist clawbacks it is nevertheless a historic offensive victory for the working class, the first in decades, lifting 100,000 workers in Seattle out of poverty and lighting a beacon of hope for all workers everywhere, proving that “When we fight we can win”!

    Apart from the above two errors, your article is a real eye-opener!

    It would be great if you and your comrades hold discussions with the Socialist Alternative comrades.
    In any case there surely is enough agreement for you and your comrades to — organizationally, while fully preserving your organizational identity — join 15 Now.
    Together let’s take on the capitalists’ snake-oil salesmen and their Republican-Democrat two-headed snake!

    Dump the Elephant, Dump the Ass! Build a Party of the Working Class!

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