Open Letter to Supporters of the ISO
“Socialist” Excuses for Disruption
of Labor Solidarity Forum
The January 6 furor in Seattle (see article) has brought to the fore the increasingly charged relationship between the Occupy Wall Street movement and the official leadership of trade unions. The panel discussion was held to build solidarity with the embattled Longview, Washington Local 21 against union-busting by the giant EGT grain shipping consortium. The violent disturbance by officials of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) was directed not only against Occupy Seattle, which called the event, but particularly targeted ILWU militants speaking at the forum.
Yet, outrageously, several self-described socialist groups took up cudgels for the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy. Perhaps the most categorical in its servile bowing before the labor tops is the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). An editorial in the SWP’s Militant (30 January) declared:
“Anarchists and ultraleft sectarian forces associated with some ‘occupy’ groups on the West Coast have been planning a provocative action when the scab ship arrives that, if carried out, would give the bosses’ government a handle to deepen its assault on the ILWU. Couched in solidarity with the union’s fight, these forces seek to further their own political agendas, without regard for the consequences for the longshore workers and the ILWU. If you support this labor struggle, then follow the lead of the workers’ union leadership and do no harm.”
What exactly was the supposedly
“provocative” action being called for by
“some ‘occupy’ groups on the West Coast”?
Was it the call from Occupy Longview, made
up of relatives and neighbors of Local 21
workers, for a caravan to block the grain
ship to the scab EGT terminal? Actually, the
call for a caravan to Longview came first
from ILWU Local 10 in San Francisco/Oakland
and was supported by the S.F. Labor Council.
This call was repeated in a January 4 joint
leaflet of Locals 10 and 21 calling on
workers to travel to Longview to “meet and
greet” the scab ship.
Perhaps the Internationalist Group is among those fearsome “ultra-left sectarians” with our call for “Longshore Workers, Truckers: Shut the Ports, Coast to Coast!” and for “a real occupation of the terminal by the workers to prevent the loading of the scab cargo.” Since the Militant editorial calls to unconditionally submit to “the lead of the workers’ union leadership,” we must assume that it agrees with McEllrath that anything that threatens to shut down the ports and might be deemed in violation of Taft-Hartley is “provocative.” Baiting efforts of militant solidarity as “provocation” in the service of an entrenched bureaucracy has a long and sordid history.
Other left groups active on the West Coast such as Socialist Action and the Freedom Socialist Party are more equivocal in their attitude toward the ILWU leadership’s attack on workers democracy. S.A., however, expressed its confidence in the bureaucracy by rushing to announce “Victory in Sight” in Longview before a contract was negotiated. A few days later it hailed “ILWU Local 21 Victory!” declaring even before any terms were announced that “it appears likely” that the ranks will approve “a basically sound contract even if it includes some important concessions.” Concessions, who cares? says Socialist Action in effect. Class-conscious workers and others active in this struggle care.
The Spartacist League, for its
part, despite its usual leftist posturing,
couldn’t bring itself to endorse a New York
City demonstration in solidarity with
Longview longshore, even though it described
the demands as “straightforward,” because it
didn’t know the attitude of the ILWU
leadership toward the demo (see “Exchange with
the Spartacist League on the January 23
Internationalist, 23 January).
But it is the egregious apology for the bureaucracy by the International Socialist Organization (ISO) that has caused the biggest uproar, including inside the ISO.
To begin with, the article, titled “The solidarity we need for Longview” (Socialist Worker web site, 19 January), by three ISOers in Seattle portrays the January 3 letter from ILWU International president McEllrath as “calling for action when the ship arrives,” when the purpose of the letter was precisely the opposite, to put a lid on protest. The article makes no mention of McEllrath’s emphatic prohibition of a West Coast port shutdown, and by adroitly placing an ellipsis in the middle of a quote it disappears his warning to “take extreme caution when dealing with supporters of non-ILWU sanctioned calls to action relative to EGT.”
In recounting the disruption of the January 6 Seattle forum, the SW piece says that the organizers (“a minority of Occupy activists”) are “putting this potential unity in jeopardy through attitudes and tactics that are hostile to the ILWU and organized labor.” It’s a strange way to show hostility to the union and organized labor by sponsoring a forum in the AFL-CIO hall with four ILWU speakers and an ILWU moderator on stage, wouldn’t you say?
The article then pretends that the clot of two dozen ILWU officials and hangers-on “grew impatient waiting for the question-and-answer section of the event and interrupted the meeting, demanding that McEllrath’s letter be read.” Impatient? Like hell. This was a planned provocation. They waited deliberately until Jack Heyman began his presentation and then pounced. They “interrupted” the meeting? How very polite that sounds. Yet anyone who has watched the Internationalist video (or others) can see that at this point the bureaucrats caused pandemonium, heckling and using physical force, preventing it from continuing.
“A shouting match ensued” with “some people from the Occupy movement” says SW, when in fact the entire audience (including ISOers) was on its feet protesting the disruption. There is no mention of the fact that a security line was formed to protect the stage. “Shoving broke out,” it says, when it was the disrupters who started shoving.
SW says that “accusations were made that ILWU members threw punches.” Just accusations? Everyone can see former ILWU International vice president Rich Austin Sr. wildly thrashing about. To be sure, the article avers that “Any use of sexist and derogatory language or of force to disrupt a meeting of rank-and-file union members and supporters is reprehensible,” and “the chaos that ensued did tarnish the image of the ILWU in the eyes of some activists in attendance.” What a genteel admonition!
The article sides with ILWU officialdom against “some Occupy activists” whose “anti-union politics” are “destructive” and have “undermined the real potential to build greater ties between the Occupy and labor movements.” That some Occupy activists are anti-union is not news, nor does it explain what happened on January 6. And this obscures the key fact that the bureaucrats’ ire was directed mainly at ILWU speakers on the stage.
Whether or not the organizers of the event should have invited Local 19 to speak (SW leaves out that the ILWU leaderships in Seattle, Tacoma and Portland, actively opposed the December 12 blockade, even though their members respected the Occupy lines), the disruption was not due to hurt feelings of the Seattle leadership. Dispatching the top leaders of the Seattle, Tacoma, Portland and Vancouver, Washington locals to disrupt the meeting was hardly a local initiative.
Moreover, after the event, the Seattle local passed a resolution ordering that “all ILWU local 19 members withhold all support for ‘Occupy’, formally or informally.” So now any Local 19 member cooperating with Occupy Seattle could be brought up on charges. All the ISO can say about this McCarthyite motion is that it is a “blow to the solidarity effort around Longview, and to relations between Occupy and the unions in general.”
Socialist Worker makes no mention of the ILWU officials’ disruption of the Portland meeting the night before, although ISOers were there. It makes no mention that the ILWU International pulled Portland and Vancouver pickets out of Longview that morning, and that Local 21 officials were told not to go to the Seattle meeting, or else. It ignores the fact that ILWUer Heyman was prevented from finishing his presentation by the “interruption.” It doesn’t mention that the disrupters drowned out a Latina woman, the last scheduled speaker, who tried to speak about connecting the struggle with that of farm workers and undocumented immigrants but couldn’t be heard over the din.
Certainly anyone who tried such antics at an ILWU meeting would be quickly removed by the sergeant-at-arms. But since it was a bunch of union bureaucrats trying to drown out militant opposition to their back-stabbing sabotage of labor solidarity, the ISO justifies the disruption while tsk-tsking that perhaps it wasn’t done in the proper form.
The Socialist Worker article has reportedly caused considerable dissension in the ISO ranks. One sign of this was the publication of a letter by an ISO supporter and labor activist in the Bay Area posted on the SW web site (23 January) under the headline, “ILWU officials shouldn’t get a pass.” The letter objects to the “tone” of the original article, saying it “is not critical enough of what the ILWU International is doing right now with regards to the struggle in Longview,” and that the behavior of the ILWU officials at the January 6 Seattle meeting “should be outright condemned.”
What’s objectionable isn’t just that the tone is off, or that it’s too soft on the ILWU tops, the SW article is a particularly gross expression of political opportunism: the pro-capitalist union bureaucracy launches a violent attack on a solidarity meeting in order to squelch militant labor action, and an outfit which calls itself socialist shamefully excuses it.
ISO: The Wages of Trade-Union Reformism
The ISO’s covering for the ILWU bureaucracy is not an isolated incident. Most recently you have the SEIU 32BJ contract covering building maintenance personnel in New York, which Socialist Worker (16 January) hailed as a “victory.” What victory? The wage increase (averaging 1.4% over four years, with no raise in the first year) is way less than the rate of inflation; the length of time that new hires receive lower wages was increased from 30 to 42 months, the starting wage was lowered from 80% of the full rate to 75%; and while health benefits were kept, the companies are no longer required to maintain benefits if the fund runs short.
The SW article claims that this was an advance “after 40 years of organized labor retreats,” yet the wage hike in the last (2007) 32BJ contract was three times the size of this paltry deal. The bosses had a very different take on the new contract. The Realty Advisory Board’s lawyers crowed that “the agreements represent the most favorable economic terms that the industry has negotiated in at least the past 40 years, as well as other structural changes that will result in savings for employers.”
What this shows is that the ISO basically shares the outlook of the labor bureaucracy, whose horizon is limited by what it thinks is possible within the confines of capitalism and the current bourgeois political climate. The typical m.o. (modus operandi) of these latter-day possibilists is to give the bosses part of the givebacks they demand, and then declare victory on the grounds that they staved off total disaster. Thus step by step their “victories” have succeeded in undoing decades of hard-won union gains.
Revolutionary Marxists in
in a situation of capitalist crisis such as
the current economic depression, now in its
fourth year, fight the bosses’ takeback
offensive tooth and nail with a program of
transitional demands going beyond the limits
of capitalism and pointing to the need for
socialist revolution. We do not reject
reform struggles, but as Lenin emphasized
any reforms achieved will be a by-product of
revolutionary class struggle.
Beyond mirroring the outlook of the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy, the ISO systematically tails after these “labor lieutenants of capital,” as American socialist Daniel De Leon trenchantly called them. This sometimes assumes dramatic proportions, as with the issue of a general strike in Wisconsin last February and March. As the battle heated up over the right-wing Republican governor Scott Walker’s bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public workers, local labor groups began seriously discussing the possibility of a general strike.
On 21 February 2011, the South Central Federation of Labor passed a motion “endors[ing] a general strike, possibly for the day Walker signs his budget repair bill.” The news that for the first time in the U.S. since 1946 a general strike might actually take place electrified labor and left militants. As the deadline for Walker’s bill approached, the ISO wrote “the question of a General Strike is real…. this is put up or shut up time for the labor movement” (Dave Zirin, “It’s all-out class war in Wisconsin,” 9 March 2011).
A day later we read, “Talk of a general strike isn’t the product of the anger of the moment, but a conclusion reached after decades of a one-sided class war – and a powerful three-week mobilization that shows the power of workers' collective action” (Lee Sustar, “Do or Die in Wisconsin,” 10 March). Then suddenly, literally overnight, everything changes. After conceding that the SCFL had endorsed a general strike, that thousands of workers chanted for one on the evening of March 9, the ISO does an abrupt about-turn and writes:
“But given the low level of strike activity in the last decade, and the overall decline of the labor movement over the past 30 years, there is a gap between the widely felt need for mass action and the organization needed to bring it about. Simply calling for a general strike – no matter how enthusiastically it is received – is unlikely to get very far.”
So at the crucial moment they come out against a general strike. In this editorial cynically titled “Now is the time to fight” (11 March), the ISO suggests “organizing pickets before work” or “noontime marches to other unionized workplaces” – anything to blow off steam, so long as it doesn’t stop work.
“Put up or shut up time,” “All-out class war,” “Do or die in Wisconsin” … and then they slam on the brakes. What changed? What changed is that D-day came, Walker rammed his bill through on March 9, workers swarmed into the capitol clamoring for a general strike … and local union leaders panicked at the thought that a general strike might actually occur.
Instead, the bureaucrats diverted the ranks’ anger into a drive to recall the governor and Republican legislators, i.e., to elect Democrats, who while upholding bargaining rights (so public workers could continue to collect dues) approved of every one of Walker’s draconian cuts. And since the left-talking union tops turned tail, so did the ISO.
At a Left Forum conference in New York on March 18, an ISO supporter and member of the Teaching Assistants Association from the University of Wisconsin in Madison blamed the failure to have a general strike on union leaders who capitulated to the Democrats’ recall ploy. Yet just a few days earlier the ISO wrote, “Hopefully, the recalls will succeed in kicking out the anti-union Republicans” (“The struggle will continue,” 14 March). And zero about the ISO’s change of line.
In contrast, the Internationalist Group called from the outset (in a February 18 leaflet distributed in Madison) for a “statewide public workers strike to sink the anti-labor bill,” adding: “It will take nothing less than a statewide general strike to defeat the labor hater Walker.” In the following days we stressed the need to “mobilize labor’s power, including through a statewide general strike” (February 19), “To Win, Prepare to Strike Wisconsin!” (February 20) and “Wisconsin Unions Vote to Prepare a General Strike – The Time to Act Is Now” (February 22). Finally, as the bill was passed, we called: “Wisconsin: For a General Strike, Now!” (March 13).
In other words, we did not “simply call” for a general strike as a ritual, one-size-fits-all demand, as some on the left do, but instead to prepare the way for one and then do it when the time to act arrived. If the union leaders who earlier “endorsed” a general strike had called for workers to go out at that crucial point, it might have been ragged, but it would have happened, at least in the Madison area – and it would have sent shock waves across the country. But the labor fakers took a dive, and the ISO tagged along.
In line with this policy of “tailism,” the International Socialist Organization’s own trade-union work mainly consists of hooking up with some “progressive” would-be bureaucrats on the basis of more or less militant unionism. As Lenin emphasized in What Is To Be Done? (1903) simple trade-unionism is a bourgeois program.
Lately the ISO has been touting “social justice unionism,” by which they mean simple trade-unionism combined with other social movements, such as those fighting against racism, for sexual equality, defense of immigrants, etc. Adding in two, three, many sectors doesn’t alter the basic reformist nature of this program.
Yet as Trotsky wrote in his 1940 essay, “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay,” no serious and lasting reforms are possible in this epoch as capitalism systematically destroys past gains, from public education to trade-union and civil rights. What this means is that, sooner or later, and usually as soon as such “center-left coalitions” take office, the “lefts” (in this case the ISO) find themselves confronted with the problem that the people they have put in office are selling the membership down the river. Then come the lame excuses.
Take the experience of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) which won the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) in June 2010. ISO supporters played an important role in building CORE, and one of them, Jesse Sharkey, was elected CTU vice president. The CORE program consisted of nostrums like “develop a political strategy,” campaigning basically for union democracy and against corruption. CORE ducked the issue of the Democratic Party and just about every other “divisive” question.
At the time, Class Struggle Education Workers (a trade-union tendency politically supported by the Internationalist Group) wrote:
“They’re going up against [U.S. education secretary] Arne Duncan’s hand-picked successor, in Barack Obama’s hometown. Is the CTU membership ready for the blast they are going to get accusing them of selfishly sacrificing kids’ education and other hogwash straight from the White House?”
–“Obama, Democrats Spearhead Teacher-Bashing, Union-Busting Corporate Education ‘Reform’,” reprinted in The Internationalist No. 31, Summer 2010
Sure enough, less than two weeks after the union election, the Chicago Public Schools bosses ordered the layoff of up to 2,000 teachers, disregarding seniority, and raised class sizes. What did CORE do? Did it walk out, or organize to strike at the beginning of school in September? No, it went to court, the bosses’ courts. When a judge ruled that if the CPS hired new teachers it would have to first take back the fired teachers, CORE and the ISO hailed this as a victory. Some “victory,” with hundreds of teachers still out of a job!
But that was only the opening salvo. Then came the fight over SB7 in the spring of 2011, Illinois’ equivalent of Wisconsin’s union-busting bill. The state teacher unions worked with the Democrats to craft a bill that would do everything but eliminate the right to collective bargaining, increasing class size, requiring more than two-thirds of a year’s notice to strike, etc. Yet CTU president Karen Lewis, elected on the CORE slate, endorsed the vicious anti-union legislation.
Socialist Worker labor writer Sustar posted an article declaring CORE members and ISOers “shocked” by Lewis’ betrayal. Yet he didn’t mention that the ISO’s CTU veep Sharkey knew about it almost immediately and kept the information from the membership (see “Lessons of Chicago CORE,” The Internationalist No. 31). For all the talk of “social justice unionism,” Lewis was only doing what comes naturally for labor bureaucrats of every stripe, just like AFT president Randi Weingarten and her handpicked successor at the helm of New York’s United Federation of Teachers, Michael Mulgrew.
For Class-Struggle Unionism
Many ISOers may be genuinely shocked at what they have gotten themselves in for, at least anyone who takes seriously the references to socialism. The ISO leaders, on the other hand, are cynical operators and know exactly what they are doing. Regarding the 2008 election of Barack Obama, the ISO did everything but endorse him outright, taking up the his slogans (“yes we can”), sharing in the Harlem celebration of the election of the black Democrat, and sneering at anyone, like the Internationalist Group, who told the truth: that Obama was just putting a new face on U.S. imperialism.
They have a method: take the position of the Democratic liberals or the “progressive” union bureaucrats, move one or two steps to the left, and bingo! you have the ISO position. And if the bourgeois and pro-capitalist forces they are tailing after crack the whip, the ISO falls into line. The ILWU tops (and their capitalist masters) just cracked the whip.
What the ISO just did over the ILWU and Occupy is a clinical example of what is known in the Marxist movement as opportunism. But how did they get into this pickle in the first place? As tried-and-true opportunists, when Occupy Wall Street first arose in late September, the ISO quickly climbed on the bandwagon. Some initial quibbles about the populist “99%” rhetoric were soon forgotten. Since in New York at least, liberal and anarchist “facilitators” of the “leaderless” OWS were hostile to “socialists” and “parties,” ISOers opted to be particularly “discreet,” shall we say, about their political affiliations.
At the same time, the ISO as usual was tailing after the “progressive” ILWU union leaders. But after a brief autumn romance, Occupy fell out of favor with labor officialdom, particularly when the protesters took their focus off the banks. ILWUers up against a giant multi-national consortium were grateful for the solidarity of thousands of Occupiers, but the Democrats and labor bureaucrats were ticked off when they headed to the ports.
What led to the January 19 Socialist Worker article, as well as opposition in the ISO, was a clash of opportunisms: two different “constituencies” the ISO was tailing after (Occupy and labor leaders) came into conflict. In such situations, fundamental loyalties prevail, and the ISO came down on the side of the labor bureaucracy.
Presumably as part of the internal discussion, an article by Paul D’Amato dating from 200 on “Socialists and trade unions” was posted on the SW site (3 February). The article talks of union democracy without a word about independence from the capitalist state (not surprising, since the ISO supports suing the unions). It calls to “build a layer of militants” who could ultimately “challenge the system” (nothing about socialist revolution); and mainly it argues that “socialists have to support union officials who seem more willing to fight, while understanding that the nature of unions puts limits on how far they will go.”
In short, the task of ISO supporters in the unions is to be a pressure group, pushing the leadership ever so slightly to the left. And if the tone is a little off here or there, no big deal. But those union officials ultimately support capitalism, and the political function of reformist social democrats like the International Socialist Organization is to assist in tying would-be leftists to this system.
Genuine Leninists and Trotskyists have a sharply counterposed program: our task is to lead revolutionary class struggle. We fight to oust the bureaucracy and to forge a leadership that seeks to build a workers party to fight for a workers government.
Any socialist-minded militants who are fed up with opportunism, who don’t want to be the tagtail of out-of-office bureaucrats that sell out once they are in office, and who don’t want to excuse reactionary attacks on workers democracy, should use this opportunity to go to the root of what led to the ISO’s apologies for the bureaucracy. The key is in Trotsky’s 1940 essay, “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay,” where the founder of the Fourth International writes:
“The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.” ■
 The SCFL leaders were closely aligned with Labor Notes, led by the reformist Solidarity group.
To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org