Interview with Union Organizer on the Labor Aristocracy
The Maoist Internationalist Movement has always dismissed the strategy of embedding itself in the Amerikan so-called working class and labor unions. The experience of the Revolutionary Union in that kind of work during the 1970s and 1980s was some of the most relevant and interesting to MIM founders, influencing their decision to reject it. Yet, since then, many other self-described “communists” have still advocated and attempted the labor union strategy among Amerikans.
A wave of popular support for labor struggles within the United $tates has been rekindled over the past year. This is primarily due to the successful unionizing efforts of the Starbucks workers in Buffalo, NY on 9 December 2021 and the Amazon workers in Staten Island, NY on 1 April 2022 – both of which set off more union efforts within their companies and have inspired many similar efforts throughout many different industries.
To many so-called “communists”, this recent phenomena serves as a testament to the growing proletarian class consciousness among the U.$. working-class and their increasing revolutionary potential. To these revisionists and white nationalists, the proletarian uprising in the United $tates is just one economic crisis away. Yet most who are swept up in this union organizing populism lack the historical and theoretical background to the Amerikan labor aristocracy. Most are in it for their own self-interest and will be easily pulled towards fascism in a crisis scenario, but others do have real budding proletarian consciousness that can be won over with struggle and study.
In our efforts to investigate labor organizing in our contemporary situation, we found a comrade with a friendly political line who has been involved in actual underground union organizing. What follows is an interview with this comrade, relating eir experience to the history of the labor aristocracy and labor organizing in the United $tates in general.
What things got you interested in doing union organizing?
A few years ago, I began working in an industry whose workforce is primarily made up of the more vulnerable population within U.$. society. For example: ex-cons, immigrants, recovering addicts, etc. This vulnerability was often exploited by management and while it was never explicitly stated, there was an understanding by those in the vulnerable position that the employer had an upper-hand on them and that they had to abide by their requests to avoid any potential complications. This was particularly reflected in a request a coworker of mine (some kid from Central America) made in which ey asked if I would be willing to run if our manager ever called ICE on em in order to focus the agents’ attention on me while ey slipped out and escaped. These coworkers often worked harder than those fortunate enough to have papers and/or a clear record, yet were treated like they were less than humyn. I couldn’t stand that. I couldn’t stand how disposable they were treated because they crossed a border, had a criminal history, or just have a messy past that they are trying to overcome.
During the pandemic, two people I knew from the vulnerable population (deemed “essential workers”), ended up dying from COVID-19 and for what? To maintain a fucking business. To bourgeois society, they were nothing more than cannon fodder. I was angry and I was depressed, and part of me wanted to succumb to my own vices even further, but another part of me felt a deep obligation to all of those I had worked with. To do something about it. I wasn’t an organizer or anything. I had never really done anything like that. But I wanted to do something. So around this time I began taking my political studies more seriously and began to see the bigger picture (i.e. the need for socialist revolution). I wanted to immerse myself deep within the working-class and help build the labor movement as a means to play my role in the struggle for socialism. Eventually, an opportunity to work on an underground union campaign targeting a major corporation presented itself and I dropped everything to be part of that campaign.
And how quickly the front-line workers who died from COVID-19 have been forgotten in order to move the capitalist economy forward. The United $tates, despite its wealth and resources, has had the most people die from COVID-19. It’s at least good to hear that it inspired people like yourself to seek real change. Did you work with one union or many? Were they big/significant unions? Did you get a glimpse of how other union organizing operated, or can you only speak to one organization?
My situation was sort of unique as I worked in a sort of underground cell within the union, but ultimately I worked under two unions. These two are some of the biggest/most significant unions in the United $tates. They operated similarly – very bureaucratically. We did a lot of work with other big and medium-sized unions and they also seemed to reflect that structure. I can’t speak on the more grassroots type unions.
An underground cell? That sounds interesting, how did that work?
I was a union salt, or rather, I was sent into a specific workplace by the union as an undercover organizer to help them organize it. In my case, I was entering one of the most infamous workplaces in the U.$. My goal was to immerse myself with the working-class/the masses and commit myself to the struggle for socialism.
Why do you feel this type of organizing didn’t ultimately match your goals?
I believed that building up worker-power would lead to building up a pillar of support for socialism in the United $tates. My goals were political whereas the union’s were not – this is the fundamental conflict between my interests and theirs.
What kind of things did you end up doing that you felt were not aligned with your goals and politics? Were these tasks/projects unexpected when you first got into union organizing?
I thought I was going into the workplace to build relationships and serve in raising class consciousness, but ended up doing a bunch of non-campaign related tasks/projects, such as phonebanking for random surveys and canvassing for politicians I had never even heard of in neighborhoods nicer than the one I lived in. This was unexpected because I was sold such a militant/radical message by the persyn that recruited me. I had been upfront about my reasons for wanting to work for the union and how it related to my politics and this persyn told me that our goals were similar and that I was in the right place. So it was a surprise to me when I found myself doing a bunch of work that seemed no more radical than working for the Democrats.
Did your political line develop/change during this time? because of the work you were doing? or from external study on your own?
Yes. My political line changed drastically over my time with the union. Partially because of the work, but mostly from deeper study. Like I mentioned earlier, I salted at one of the most infamous workplaces in the U.$. and while the work in itself was difficult, no one there really belonged to the vulnerable population. You needed papers and a clean record for at least five years in order to work there. So I was working with a very different group of people – a group of people I began to understand more and more through my persynal political study. They were not the proletariat and they did not share the same interests with the proletariat. They were labor aristocrats who, despite not being unionized, still benefit from the spoils of global imperialism. I became disillusioned with my work after understanding the reactionary role labor unions and the labor aristocracy have actively played throughout the history of the United $tates and among the global proletariat.
Of course we should not be quick to draw general conclusions from our own limited experiences as that would be an empiricist error. Were you able to connect your experiences to the historic experiences of others?
I definitely do not think my experience can be used to make broad generalizations on how a typical rank-and-file organizer’s experience looks like given its unique form, but I think it does reflect an all too common experience faced by those organizers motivated by a genuine desire to struggle for revolution, but who misdirect their energy into union work, non-profit work or any other form of controlled opposition work that ultimately serves to further legitimize the bourgeois state. There is a bit of naivety that stems from a lack of skepticism towards such organizations and overall lack of experience from such organizers. That is the importance of studying historical experience; to help guide us on what works and what doesn’t work. For example, the experience I often connect (or at least keep in mind the most) was that of the historic IWW because they were an open anti-capitalist union with the goal of organizing all workers. In retrospect, they closely matched my goals and the goals of the other self-proclaimed communists I have worked with. They were relatively successful as a union and were perhaps the best case scenario regarding unions, yet they failed to carry out anything revolutionary and fell short of pushing an anti-imperialist line in fear of the repercussions they would face from the U.$. government. Self-preservation marked higher on the priority list than class struggle to a union of “radicals”; this seems important to keep in mind whenever you find yourself working in an organization full of liberals.
So the people you had worked with previously were also not unionized? but they were lacking in full citizenship rights, whether by birth or as punishment by the injustice system? What are your thoughts on the organizing potential there based on your experience and studies?
No, the people I had previously worked with were not unionized and the industry as a whole is typically non-union (with an exception of the more skilled within said industry that make up a very small portion of the workforce). There seems to be too many complications in trying to organize this workforce into a union, primarily because of how willing another persyn who is lacking full citizenship would be to replace them. Also, as I mentioned earlier, the consequences for this vulnerable population are much more detrimental, which lessens the likelihood of participating in a campaign that can risk their employment. Some people need a job to satisfy the terms of their parole and losing their job puts them at risk of going back to prison. When you’re in a more desperate situation, you’re more willing to put up with shit. With that being said though, I do think there is organizing potential among them – it just so happens not to be in labor. Most of them come from oppressed nationalities and their lack of full citizenship rights demarcates them further from being accepted by oppressor society, demarcating them from an amerikan identity. I believe there is potential to organize this particular population of the U.$. workforce around the national question, but only through practice will we see if this proves to be correct.
What do you see as possible solutions/roads forward for you or anyone who shares your goals? How do they contrast with the practices within the labor organizing movement in this country as you experienced it?
The struggle for better wages, universal healthcare, remote work opportunities , or whatever “communists” and liberals are fighting for (i.e. union work) will not lead to revolution – but rather further pacification – which will ultimately serve imperialism. Communists should aim to wage class struggle, not facilitate social work. If diversifying the beneficiaries of global imperialism sounds productive, then support a union. If not, then recognize the importance of keeping your politics in command. As a communist – the goal is revolution and the role we play is in advancing that goal. But we can’t advance our goal if we cannot admit that we need to re-assess the situation we are working in. This requires deep study. So take a step back and study seriously. We are working in very unique conditions and it is important that we understand these conditions if we are remotely serious in our politics. Fortunately for us, Chairman Mao formulated the fundamental question when it comes to making revolution: Who are our friends? And who are our enemies?