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.

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4 Responses to The ISO and the Democrats: Hear no evil, see no evil

  1. Lots of this has been taken up in other places, so I will just address Lift Up Oakland. Scott wants to take Socialist Worker and the ISO to task for not trusting Mayor Jean Quan’s public utterances and wants to concoct a story about how the fight to raise the minimum wage in Oakland from $8.25 to $12.25 (plus a yearly, automatic raise based on the rate of inflation and paid sick days) was all a grand conspiracy make the mayor look good.

    The reality is that the unions and community groups who initiated the ballot to raise the minimum wage and then collected more than 30,000 signatures to get it on the ballot were responding to the needs of Oakland’s lowest paid workers, not Mayor Quan.

    Back in the fall of 2013, the discussion was raising the wage to $11 per hour with the associated benefits.

    Then, after the Seatac, WA $15 referendum and the beginning of the Fight for $15 in earnest in Seattle, SEIU 1021 and others pushed to raise that amount to $12.25. That’s when the ISO endorsed it. It would have been better to go even higher, but a 50% raise in the minimum wage is nothing to sneeze at.

    Mayor Quan never said a word about supporting the campaign in these early days, no doubt hoping it would go away.

    When it became clear that we were going to get the required signatures, that we had and excellent chance of winning on the November ballot, and that she was being out-flanked to her left by independent mayoral candidate Dan Siegel — who not only vociferously supported $12.25, but also promised to raise the wage to $15 if elected — then Quan started making friendly noises.

    Tellingly, she didn’t endorse the measure until after we’d gathered all the signatures – we started in February, she endorsed in June.

    And just as soon as the signatures were verified, the Chamber of Commerce prompted the most conservative faction of the (all Democratic) City Council to propose a watered-down version of the bill that it hoped to get through the City Council in order to preempt the November ballot measure.

    Faced with this maneuver, Quan waffled.

    The Contra Costa Times reported that “Mayor Jean Quan says she supports increasing Oakland’s minimum wage but wished that backers of the initiative had worked with city leaders. Quan said the proposal as currently written would require her to raise a lot more money to fully fund her summer jobs program, which employs about 1,600 teens.”

    Here’s how Socialist Worker reported it at the time.

    “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.”

    In a stunning coincidence, it just so happened that the Chamber of Commerce explicitly echoed Quan’s concerns about giving those 1,600 teens an immediate $4/hr raise, putting them in a “second tier phase-in,” which would also apply to social services, non-profits, restaurants and small businesses, thus exempting most minimum wage workers.

    It sounded a lot to us like Quan and the Chamber of Commerce were reading form the same play book.

    In the end, union and community pressure was too great and the Chamber of Commerce and their avatars in City Council were defeated on a 5-3 vote. Quan, being a nimble politician, was able to hint at her willingness to torpedo the $12.25 measure, but then pulled back when she saw which way the wind was blowing.

    Scott constructs an alternative narrative, one based on his own idiosyncratic view of reality, which only works if one places a touching faith in Jean Quan’s public pronouncements. He writes in his latest blog post above that,

    “it was known that Jean Quan and four members of the City Council were in favor of Lift Up Oakland and had endorsed it.”
    Scott may believe that Rebecca Kaplan “was among the least likely to stab Lift Up Oakland and low wage workers in the back” and take Quan’s pronouncements at face value. We don’t. What exactly in their records would lead anyone to trust them?

    That’s why we’re campaigning for Dan Siegel for Oakland and why we’re proudly working on the Lift Up Oakland proposition to raise the minimum wage to $12.25 this year, while looking to push it to $15 in the next round.


    Todd Chretien, Oakland ISO

  2. Scott says:

    The above response is a good example of something described in the post. Fellow left-wing radicals who are deemed “competition” or a “threat” are given hyper-critical treatment. In this case, this blog post supposedly displays some illusions in the Democrats. Or something. How an umpteen thousand word blog post about the dangerous role of the Democrats is re-interpreted as a naive belief in their public statements is amazing. But facts are ultimately irrelevant when you are trying to win an argument. On the other hand, union and non-profit leaders with a large platform and who actually do have illusions in the Democrats, and are actually giving them a platform and making it seem as though these Democrats are friends of low-wage workers, are let entirely off the hook. They do not even get a mention. Hear no evil, see no evil.

    Sectarianism and opportunism are not just “two sides of the same coin,” rather they can coexist peacefully in the very same set of strategies and tactics, which generally benefits liberal movement leaders more than anybody else.

  3. Carole Seligman says:

    Even though Dan Siegel dropped his registration in the Democratic Party, isn’t his public record as a Democrat? And his position on the cops is certainly a ruling class position. I don’t think it’s principled for socialists to support recently-ex Democrats as examples of truly independent working class political action. Not unless they denounce the Democratic Party for what it is–a pillar of the rulng class in the U.S.

  4. 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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