Some faults of the Fight for 15

September 5, 2013

WITH THE emergence of the Fight for 15 (FF15) campaign, in which fast food and retail workers across the country have taken strike action to demand $15 an hour in pay and the right to form a union, radicals have begun discussing and debating the meaning and potential of this new struggle.

Charles Peterson's critique of Adam Weaver's blog post makes a couple of worthwhile correctives to a piece that is too dismissive of the efforts of ordinary workers involved in the FF15 campaign ("An empty critique of the Fight for 15"). Charles' good points, however, are buried amid so much hyperbole and sectarian point-scoring that his letter is more off-putting than it is useful. Furthermore, in his concern to smash an argument (or perceived argument) that he disagrees with, Charles fails to recognize the fairly obvious merits of Weaver's piece.

Rather than adding to a discussion about the FF15 campaign, Charles seems mostly concerned with attacking the present-day iteration of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The first half of his letter relies on presumptions of Weaver's intent and is littered with jargon-filled historical references that he fails to explain to anyone not already familiar with the history of American syndicalism.

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Frankly, this is not a worthwhile method of argumentation at a time when the U.S. left is tiny, fragmented, and so riven by bad blood that many newly radicalizing individuals are understandably confused or repelled. It is also a diversion from the discussion at hand: what are the strengths and weaknesses of FF15, and what should a socialist strategy be in relation to the campaign?

We suspect that Charles would largely agree with us on a basic assessment of the campaign: Fight for 15 represents an inspiring and potentially game-changing new struggle in the U.S. working-class movement. Thousands of workers around the country are being mobilized by this campaign and transformed in ways that probably cannot be fully recognized at this point in time. And this is occurring in one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy, in which workers are disproportionately Black, Latino and female.

Many hundreds of thousands beyond them are inspired by the campaign and have supported it in one capacity or another. There is a real potential for this to take on a life of its own and grow well beyond the intentions of the campaign's main sponsor, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

GIVEN THIS, we wonder if it's really that difficult to understand why some comrades (including ourselves) found Weaver's piece useful? There is a real dynamic at play in FF15 that Weaver pinpoints: namely, that the SEIU runs disingenuous, top-down organizing campaigns whose recent record is mixed, at best, when judged by the measuring stick of whether the workers involved actually benefitted from the campaign.

In his post, Weaver begins to address the obvious fact flowing from this: that there is a risk of the inspiring struggles around FF15 going to waste if these shortcomings don't factor into radical and socialist strategizing in relation to the campaign. You don't have to agree with a dual unionist perspective to see that these are both valid points.

Our (admittedly limited) experience supporting the New York iteration of FF15, which goes by the name Fast Food Forward, organized by a group called New York Communities for Change (NYCC), unfortunately validates a number of Weaver's criticisms. At the pickets some comrades attended on the April 4 day of action in New York, there were more campaign organizers and Democratic mayoral candidates (ready to pose for pre-arranged photo ops) involved than actual workers.

Given that, is it too much to at least partially agree with Weaver's characterization of FF15 as "a 'march on the media' where the strikes serve as the visuals in a narrative of worker protest crafted by professional media consultants"?

After re-reading Weaver's piece, we agree that he paints a picture that is too dismissive of the efforts and abilities of ordinary workers involved in the campaign and focuses too much on SEIU's bureaucratic maneuverings. Weaver is correct in characterizing the strategy of groups such as NYCC as "'militant lobbying,' where seemingly militant tactics are used not with the goals of empowerment and building a militant movement but creating a new base, guided from above, to push for legislation."

Yet even the presence of those very Democratic politicians that makes us so wary, might have a different impact on a worker inside the McDonald's who didn't take action that day, but whose confidence to do so in the future was bolstered by seeing the support of those politicians. This is also a dynamic at play and Charles is right to critique Weaver's failure to address it.

Yet, why shouldn't we ask the question that Weaver raises: Is SEIU "committed to building anything beyond a campaign for legislation or national level agreements that are made over the heads of workers"? Isn't this a component of the strategic questions we ought to discuss and debate?

By dismissing real concerns about the campaign as "typical IWW pessimism and defeatism," Charles' letter unfortunately comes off as arguing that we simply shouldn't be that concerned about a bureaucratic sell-out of one of the most exciting things happening in the U.S. labor movement today.

Weaver writes that we should "support the strike action, go on strike and organize your co-workers if you work in fast food and most importantly make contact with striking workers. We should not do this though without any illusions of where this is headed and our focus should be the need to build an inside/outside yet independent effort of fast food workers."

While we agree that's overly pessimistic in that it assumes the worst about where FF15 is headed, we also think that he is right that fast food workers need to build an "inside/outside yet independent effort," and didn't read that as a call for a "red union."

Whatever the author's intentions, it could certainly be read as a call for independent rank-and-file organization that participates in the campaign itself. We would agree with that, and find it hard to imagine a socialist arguing otherwise. Workers' self-organization could serve to strengthen the movement by enabling them to shape it more collectively, building on scattered wildcat strikes and other actions that have taken place, and enabling them to hold SEIU accountable.

Our sense is that the campaign looks very different in different cities. Given the scope and geographic spread of the strikes, rallies and organizing that have comprised the FF15 campaign, and the fact that the campaign is still extremely new, there are still many open questions.

We need more reports from comrades who are familiar not just with the rallies and picket lines, but also some of the behind-the-scenes organizing occurring in their cities. We need a more comprehensive sense of the number of workers involved, how concentrated the organized workers are in particular stores or restaurants, how much rank-and-file organizing initiative exists, how open the organizers are to the far left's involvement, etc.

In order to craft a strategy for radicals that anticipates the fault lines of the campaign and focuses on building up strength in those places where there might be crucial weaknesses, we need to critically assess the situation. If an author from another organization or political tradition pens a useful critique, even if it has flaws, we see no reason not to share and discuss.

We would all be better served if those who disagree actually take the time to explain their objections rather than tossing around historical pejoratives that mean nothing to most people today.
Zach Zill and Gary Lapon, New York City

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