Socialists rooted in the struggle

October 16, 2014

James Daugherty reviews a collection of essays by labor historian Kim Moody.

SOCIALISTS AND left-wingers in the U.S. labor movement now have an invaluable resource to use in the new collection of essays by Kim Moody, In Solidarity: Essays on Working-Class Organization in the United States.

This rich volume is full of insights. It is refreshing in that it is explicitly written for socialists active in or around the labor movement, rather than the somewhat depoliticized handbooks and training manuals that are the usual fare for union activists. Everyone should go out and buy a copy of this book.

The first part of the collection encapsulates an analysis of the U.S. labor movement and a historical overview of left strategy dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. The second half of the book points the way forward: toward a revival of unions, use of the strike weapon and ultimately, the project of socialist organization.

Moody begins with a defense of the basic Marxist understanding of trade unions and the role they play in modern capitalism and in the self-emancipation of the working class.

"The Women of Steel" join tens of thousands of other workers on the march in Madison
The Women of Steel join tens of thousands of other workers on the march in Madison in 2011

Ultimately, it has to be conceded that there is much more to building a socialist movement than union work. Unions, after all, are not revolutionary organizations. As many have pointed out they arise in the context of capitalism and exist to adjust the conditions of workers within that system. Much more in the way of organization, education, and action is needed than even militant union activism can provide.

Yet unions, as movements, are also oppositional by nature...[T]hey are on the front lines of class conflict more consistently than any other mass organizations in the United States. So while there is more to socialist strategy than working in the unions, unions remain the obvious place in which to reconnect the theory and practice of socialist politics to the only forces that can fulfill the vision of those politics.

Moody goes on to point out that, regardless of the previous mistakes, blunders and outright betrayals by union leaders, the labor movement remains the most representative force of working-class people in the U.S.

Without empty phrase-mongering or triumphalism, we can celebrate certain changes in the labor movement as a whole that now make it the most racially and sexually integrated institution in the U.S., despite the criticisms from some quarters that union members are now a privileged elite within our society.

And organized labor remains the largest and most powerful force with the potential to give real shape and muscle to the opposition against the brutal assault of neoliberal capitalism on working-class communities around the country.

ONE OF the best essays in the book is the discussion of mass strikes, titled "Mass Strikes, General Strikes: Don't Call Us, We'll Call You," which contains a historical investigation into how mass strikes come about. This is of particular interest because of the treatment of the huge union protests in Madison, Wis., in 2011 against Gov. Scott Walker's union-busting Act 10.

After a general strike failed to materialize, questions arose among union activists as to why, despite the mass sympathy and widespread propaganda for such an undertaking, it didn't happen. Moody points out that general strikes in the U.S. have been led as acts of solidarity, not generally "called" from the top. He writes of the strikes of 1877, 1886, 1919 and 1946:

All began as an act of solidarity, not taken all at once or "called," but unfolding as more people became aware of the struggle. Sometimes it was simply a question of which group would act next, in turn, setting the precedent for the next group...

Ironically, it is not the first group to strike--the Petersburg Putilov workers, Moscow typesetters or Oakland store clerks, who most likely had no idea of leading a general strike--but those who take the next steps who are more likely to help the strike spread. The spreading of a strike, of course, also depended on pre-existing networks created through neighborhoods, unions, political organizations, central labor bodies, etc.

The book goes on to expound on the revolutionary socialist tradition of a rank-and-file strategy within trade unions, going back to the organizing efforts of the early Communist Party in the 1920s and before that, the battle over the heart and soul of the American labor movement between the business unionists and the radicals.

Of particular interest is the discussion of the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL), which became the young Communist Party's entrance into the U.S. labor movement:

The TUEL demonstrated the power of rank-and-file rebellion and the ability to organize beyond those already loyal to the left. Their day-to-day work focused on workplace issues and union democracy as well as industrial unionism, a labor party and, less consistently, racial equality.

The combination of this very basic program and the activities of the TUEL moved tens of thousands of workers to action and many more to vote for resolutions and candidates backed by TUEL activists. It also linked the various rank-and-file opposition movements into a broad progressive current across the labor movement, giving these efforts a class-wide framework, a shared vision of what unionism could be, and a common basic program.

There are too many other useful and illuminating essays in this volume to examine them all. Among others, there's an essay on the background of the rising unionization and militancy among health care workers, the role of immigrant workers in the U.S. economy and labor movement, reviving the use of the strike, and socialist strategies and tactics for organizing new unions. Again, everyone should go out and buy a copy, because Moody's words in the Epilogue ring very true:

The course of class struggle, in other words, cannot be predicted. It can, however, be prepared for. On the one hand, mobilized workers, with stronger workplace organization and accountable leaders, will be better placed to win in the context of an upsurge. On the other hand, socialists rooted in today's struggles will have a far better chance of influencing events and people than those who jump on board at the last minute or simply preach from the sidelines. That is the point of revolutionary socialist work and organization in the unions today.

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