What support for striking workers?

STS and the Bath Iron Works’ strike

At this site, I have commented on several initiatives at Facebook that call themselves council communist. 1 Looking back at the experiences of these efforts to publish, to discuss, or to be active in the working class, we can see that differences in view came to a certain clarification, leading to splits and regroupment. From the start, part of the individuals that started The Internationalist and those that more or less followed Michael Shraibman’s “Call from Russia” went different ways. They clashed in the most unclear way in the Facebook group Council Communism on the question of Black Lives Matter and identity politics. This led to the ban of Shraibman from the group, followed by a sort of Exodus to Council Communism 101 and the later formation of Council Communism and Class Autonomy on some basic positions offering a common ground for discussion. It seems that one of the editors of The Internationalist, Jim Davis (who in his function as a moderator of Council Communism banned Shraibman) left The Internationalist for unclear reasons.

On the question of Black Lives Matter (the organization, not the movement that raised it as a slogan), the ‘Statutes’ of Council Communism and Class Autonomy formulate the following, enabling to demarcate itself from identity politics:

Both nationalism, and any other ideology that divides and confronts the proletariat on the basis of identity traits (such as ethnic, racial, sexual, etc.), are a poison for the working class. We reject the practice and theory of any struggle for the interests of Nations or interclass aggregates, which are a form of expression of the interests of bourgeois factions. Only the self-organized struggle of the working class, united throughout the world, can carry on the struggle for communism.

This article is on another subject that led to disagreements and finally a split: that of the ‘support’ to a unionized strike and what it means for council communists.

Bath Iron Works

Let me be clear, I do not pretend to draw lessons for the strikers or workers in general. That would require a deeper investigation in this labor conflict in the USA than is possible from behind my desk in the Netherlands. I limit myself mostly to information from the public Facebook page Support the Strike (STS), assuming that those involved in ‘supporting’, or following these efforts, disposed over the same information.

Bath Iron Works (BIM) is a navy shipyard in Main (USA), part of General Dynamics, one of the largest United States corporations, the fifth-largest defense contractor in the world. 2 Despite Covid, the shipbuilding workers were forced to continue work in unsafe circumstances, even though a few were infected. Since June 22 the workers are on a strike called by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), an AFL-CIO/CLC trade union. 3 The union declares itself against efforts of company management to push a series of concessions to outsource jobs to out-of-state subcontractors, attack employee seniority provisions, and dramatically increase employee healthcare costs. I note that outsourcing would weaken the position of the union as an organization apparatus and that in this respect it is fighting for its interests.

Some council communists at Facebook objected to supporting a unionized strike, preferring wildcat strikes. However, contrary to the position of the KAPD, the AAUD, and the AAU-E in the past not to engage with any unionized strikes, I agree with the following thesis:

Because millions of workers in different countries are organized in unions, and many strikes are still based directly or indirectly on unions, we do not refuse to engage with workers who are members of trade unions. (Theses 11, Program STS).

In one of its first statements, Support the Strike (STS) declared:

The best are strikes that have moved from being economic to political. If you look at the news, the clash of Brazilian oil workers a few months ago, the strike at the Nissan plant in Barcelona, or the Bath Iron Works, are interesting. We cannot approach a particular strike and hope to have any success if we are more than one step ahead of the workers. (In reality the workers are often five steps ahead of “revolutionaries,” but that is a different matter.) (STS, 1-7-2020)

The search for ‘success’ by STS (success for whom?) is in stark contrast with the position of the council communist Group of International Communists (GIC) of the 1930-ties, that underlined that most strikes, be they wildcat or union strikes, don’t lead to success. Only strikes that are not limited to a certain branch of business, that are directed to the bourgeoisie as a whole – that in general are called political strikes – may be successful. But the leadership of the trade union movement is aware of the dangers this would bring to their apparatus, and doesn’t even begin with it. 4 For this reason, the tasks of communists according to the GIC is to “transform the ‘professional front’ into a ‘class front’; it must make an effort to ensure that every strike is immediately transferred to other branches of industry. This strike tactic is only possible if the unions are excluded from the strike direction because the union is unwilling and powerless to do so. It is reluctant because its apparatus is entirely geared towards ‘consultations’ between labor and capital. It is powerless because it is bound by the collective agreements and, as the movement expands, it immediately enters illegal ground, so that its possessions are in danger.”5

We see that 6-7-2020 the STS calls for:

support from other sections of workers who are gearing up for strikes, including health care workers, public sector workers, autoworkers, teachers and logistics workers at UPS and Amazon.

but at the same time gives workers the advice to rely on the union leadership:

The individual strike experiences of our members (most of whom are workers) in the US, Britain, France, Spain, Greece and other countries, tells us that the best defense is for the workers to pressure their union leaderships into refusing to bend. When the union leadership gives in to the demands of management / ownership, and water-down their demands, the only way for the workers to win is by forming their own rank-and-file strike committees. If the union leadership fails the workers, these committees can continue the struggle until final victory! (STS, 6-7-2020)

The STS doesn’t want to be “more than one step ahead of the workers. (In reality the workers are often five steps ahead of ‘revolutionaries,’)” (STS, 1-7-2020) but in search of ‘success’, the STS is just ‘at the tail’ of the union (leadership), accepting workers committees only as a secondary option. As I have shown June 23rd (see note 1) this ‘support’ tactic resembles that of the Trotskyist ‘transitional demands’. One might even observe that there is hardly any pressure from STS on the union bureaucracy, as a real ‘Trade Union Opposition’ (Comintern) would have done. Of course, as a council communist, I’m opposed to all these ‘Leninist’ tactics mentioned, and I share the general disapproval of ‘Leninism.’ But when I see the workerist attitude of STS, I remember Marx’ words in the Communist Manifesto:

The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.
The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement. (Ch. 2. Proletarians and Communists)

As communists we can and should propose ‘the next’ step in workers’ struggle because ‘scientific socialism’ has learned us more than ‘five steps ahead’. Be it often in abstraction, we are aware of ‘the goal and the road leading to it’.

Missed chances to extend an isolated strike

What the STS does, can be seen where it speaks a concrete language. It permanently continues to focus strikers to mass picketing ‘their’ company, paying only lip services to an extension to other branches, not explaining how this could be achieved, except other workers reading STS’ Facebook page, or expecting a miracle from the union:

The heroic workers at BIW will not win this important fight by playing by the bosses’ rules. Why was the union’s original directive to the picketers not to engage with scabs nor block entrances to the BIW plant?
Shut down Bath Iron Works! Only this way will you really send the ball to their court!
Build mass picket lines no one crosses! Link up with workers in other branches of industry! United we stand, divided we fall! (STS, 7-7-2020)

Two days later, the STS discovers that the ‘scabs’ are workers too. But instead of to “transform the ‘professional front’ into a ‘class front'” (GIC), the STS at a more concrete level brings forward a proposal to integrate them into … union negotiations:

subcontractors must be included as equals in any negotiations with BIW
(STS, 9-7-2020)

Four days later the STS even proposes to integrate sub-contracted workers into the trade-union, now declaring the workers with a fixed contract ‘labor aristocracy’, in other words ‘traitors’, thus helping to divide them from the former ‘scabs’:

Scabs must not be tolerated, but the BIW strike would be far more powerful if the striking workers made it clear they want to co-opt ALL subcontractors into their union. Not all will accept, but the striking workers will be much stronger this way! For one, they will unite all workers, not just the unionized “labor aristocracy.” (STS, 13-7-2020)

I lack concrete information about workers engaged by subcontractors. However, from an interesting report of Henri Simon on the USA,6 I understand that many precarious workers come from poor neighborhoods. Simon suggests they may play a vital role in the unification of the proletariat, because of their connection to workers with fixed (for what it’s worth) contracts and to the masses of mostly or permanent unemployed proletarians. This is a historic occasion to unify the present demonstrations and revolts against police violence and racist segregation policy with strikes in production and services. An important means to accomplish this unification is to be ‘five steps ahead’ and bring forwards slogans and demands defending the common class interests for both strikers and ‘scabs’.

In the Great Depression, the GIC proposed: “A militant class rule can only arise when the strikers, in association with the unemployed, on their own initiative, include workers from other sectors in their movement by moving en masse to these other factories.” 7 This is an example of a concrete proposal not limiting to formulations that remain abstract. Finding concrete demands or slogans unifying hitherto isolated segments of the class would be another.

However, this would suppose the knowledge of local circumstances, that only can be given by workers or preferably by a local group with members from these communities and companies. The ‘support’ group with members in “the US, Britain, France, Spain, Greece and other countries” (STS, 6-7-2020), moreover with a workerist attitude forbidding it to show workers the road, finally arrives at … collecting money for the local trade union section (STS, 9-7-2020).

This is another way of focussing on ‘holding on’ to a long-isolated strike. And if we think about what it means, we see a re-invention of trade unionism. This happens in a situation where a union integrated into the state and capital is sabotaging the struggle, guarding the capital that it collected from workers as membership fees, and paying a minimum of strike subventions (see note 2). Again, STS simply follows trade unionism.

Not unusual, this union strategy is hidden behind a false radicalism:

Picket lines must be massive and militant! So far, the Local S6 leadership has done everything to keep the strike “non-violent.” (STS, 13-7-2020)

Even from Greece, one can foresee that in an isolated strike clashes between pickets and scabs will lead to intervention by the police, as a first step for the union to end the strike.

War industry and false perspectives

BIM isn’t just a shipyard, and the workers are not just shipbuilders, they are working for the navy in a vital war industry.

In the booming North-German shipbuilding industry preparing WW1, workers were the first to be subjected to the severe state-capitalist working conditions (Taylorism) of the opening age of inter-imperialist wars. Pannekoek moved from Berlin, that he had learned to hate as the ‘Olympic of social-democrat Gods’, to Bremen as a teacher of the regional party school. A position that was paid by the trade-unions that soon regretted to have hired this ‘radical’ propagating the mass strike as a new tactic. 8 The best internationalist opposing defense of the German fatherland, later communists, came from this region. The naval shipyards of Hamburg and the revolutionary Obleute (shop stewards) played a vital role in transforming the revolt at the German warships into a revolution of the workers of Hamburg, the start of the revolution in Germany. Prominent members of the later KAPD, workers at naval shipyards, like Jan Appel (shipbuilding worker) and A. Dethmann, alias Erwin Grünberg (engineer at a submarine shipyard).

In the present USA, we are in a rather different situation as in Germany before, during, and after WW1. From the little information I received, mostly of trade union sources, the image arises of wage workers trapped in an identity of workers heroism fascist-Stalinist- state-capitalist style and American patriotism. It is interesting to see what position STS takes in this respect.

Without any comment STS reproduces an “Awesome post from union brother Caleb Black!!!!!” in which we find the following fragment on the dreadful working conditions at BIM, framed into union patriotism:

… units in the summer, down in the tanks in the stagnant air, welding and cutting. Or go work in a condo lift in the middle of winter all day grinding. We give our bodies and health to this place. We bust ass and do a great job of building ships. Bath built is best built wasn’t something we came up with, the NAVY said that about the ships the UNION makes. (STS, 31-7-2020)

At the beginning of the strike, the union invited workers to sign a letter to BIW, with following fragments, again without comment from STS:

“Bath Built is Best Built” is how Navy officials and sailors in World War II described the battle ships that came out of Bath Iron Works due to their superiority over all other war ships. But if General Dynamics-Bath Iron Works management has its way, that slogan will be a fading memory.
(…) the Mainers who are proud to come to work every day to build the most advanced Navy vessels in the world. (…) This about supporting good quality jobs for the economy. Mr Lesko, it’s time for General Dynamics to listen to the men and women who actually build the ships.” (STS, 5-7-2020)

However, a month after the beginning of the strike, STS overtly takes position by applauding the union when it looks for support from … the Navy: (STS, 22-7-2020)

Just a few days ago, IAM leadership confronted the Navy (BIW’s main client), asking whether the Navy was insisting on the use of cheap subcontractors. This is a good step. The workers at BIW are employed in a strategically important branch of industry. Why not use this advantage?

The same day STS declares in total incoherence with the supposed ‘advantage’:

A whole month has passed since the beginning of the strike and there is no urgent military reason for naval ships to be produced. Especially in this post-pandemic era where governments ought to be turning to production of non-military ships.

Probably we witness an effort to bring forward transitory demand Trotskyist style. A week before STS already revealed this ‘perspective’ for naval shipbuilding:

f) it is a strike in one of America’s largest companies that produce warships for the US Navy;
g) it is a strike at a time that companies ought to be converting resources to developing wind, solar, tidal, light, rail, and other environmentally sustainable energy systems. (STS, 15-7-2020)

STS may believe these left-bourgeois turns to be intelligent tactics to convince workers that STS may lead their strike, they in no way stimulate proletarian self-confidence, class consciousness, and independent organization of the strikers and workers interested in this strike. In fact, STS propagates following contradictory ideas:

  • Workers in war production are ‘privileged’, having an ‘advantage’ that their demands will be handed in by the state. This is not only false because the state is their class enemy as it is for workers in other branches of industry. When the idea of a ‘labor aristocracy’ is applied this way, it divides the working class.
  • There is ‘no urgent military reason for naval ships to be produced’, denies the dangers of actual imperialist war preparations of the USA for a large scale confrontation with the Chinese-Russian imperialist bloc in formation. 9
  • The conversion of industry, especially war-industry, in producing ‘environmentally sustainable energy systems’ within capitalism is an illusion hiding the dangers that capitalism means for the existence of humanity.

Conclusions

The example of the strike ‘support’ by STS shows that by lack of understanding of the council communist lessons from the history of imperialism and workers’ struggles, it takes trade-unionist and left-bourgeois positions. Not understanding the function of communists in the class struggle, nor their way of organizing as a minority of the class, STS functioned as a hardly ‘critical’ supporter of the trade-union, as any left-bourgeois group would do.

Fredo Corvo, August 3rd 2020

Notes

1 Council communists of the world, organize (the workers, or yourselves?), 23-6-2020, Trotskyist “council communism”? A warning, 4-7-2020, A new council communist discussion group at Facebook, 2-7-2020.

2 Wikipedia: General Dynamics, Bath Iron Works

3 Wikipedia: International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers

4 GIC, Theses on revolutionary workplace nucleus, party and dictatorship, thesis III-2

5 Idem, thesis III-3

6 Henri Simon, Etats-Unis. L’affaiblissement relatif du «maître du monde», in Echanges No. 156 (summer 2016)

7 GIC, Theses about party and dictatorship

8 When Pannekoek heard about this, and the union bosses spreading rumors about his ‘luxury’ salary, Pannekoek took a day off every week to … speak to mass meetings of workers all over Germany.

9 See also Helmut Wagner in Theses on Bolshevism (1934): “… the ideological counterpropaganda of the Comintern under the slogans: ‘Menace of War against the U.S.S.R.,’ ‘Protect the Soviet Union.’ In that the workers were presented with these oppositions as the only and determining ones in world policy, they were prevented from gaining an insight into the actual realities of international politics. The adherents of the communist parties became, before everything else, blind and opportunistic defenders of the Soviet Union and were kept in ignorance of the fact that the Soviet Union had long ago become a full-fledged factor in imperialist world politics.” (Thesis 62)

For a comment from a prominent member of STS see ‘J’accuse

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