Nontraditional Unionism (part 1)

by Kurt Marlin

The communist movement in the United States faces no shortage of problems, but in recent years the most glaring is a lack of vision. Many left tendencies have big dreams and no qualms articulating them, but then engage in practices wildly insufficient to the world-historic tasks they claim to work toward. The theoretical connection between houseless mutual aid or tenant organizing and the mythical “revolution” or “general strike” is often no more substantive than the link between dream and waking. We cough up short term plans when we need to, for a particular campaign or movement, but long or even medium term plans resemble the get rich quick schemes we shun more than a coherent, practicable strategy that can be carried out to advance the struggle for liberation.

Many communists see this deficiency but, in a classic error of sectarianism, they too often respond with broad criticisms of the tactics or practices being employed rather than concrete criticisms of ways to do it better. Some of these so-called communists stand aloof and criticize mutual aid as “red charity” that will never lead to working class power, which fortunately shields them from ever organizing an event that puts them at risk of speaking to a worker. Others offer up the same criticisms while dutifully doing the work they criticize as not “revolutionary” enough or saying it can only be done by joining their “vanguard” with its very real authentic mass base. This leaves the masses unlucky enough to be in contact with them with the impression that communists are nothing but scolds and haters. At least the anarchists have a utopian dream; all the communists do is whine about how it’ll never work.

If any of these vanguards do truly have a road map for their political practice, they don’t do much to share it beyond the confines of their own group. Some of these are small and local enough that the apparent lack of strategy can almost be excused, but others are big enough that they must either be hiding their strategy’s deficiencies from criticism or, worse, have none, moving forward with whatever they have been doing without attempting to educate their members on the importance of understanding the struggle in its totality and working consciously toward a real goal along a solid path. This latter issue is certainly the problem for smaller formations. The general rule for this kind of organizing has been:

To work half-heartedly without a definite plan or direction; to work perfunctorily and muddle along–“So long as one remains a monk, one goes on tolling the bell.” This is a ninth type.

Mao Tse-Tung, Combat Liberalism

We speak here from a position of guilt: much of our own practical work has involved this vague sort of popular but uncritical mutual aid, or aimlessly pushing forward community organizing projects similar to what we see in other places but largely disconnected from them. We have struggled to “do the work” and we have struggled to promote an anti-revisionist communist theoretical line, but rarely do we manage to combine the two. Far easier, more comfortable, to muddle along, than to truly stare the behemoth of capital in the face and dare to struggle and defeat it, to formulate a clear, concrete, present day plan for victory and subject it to the ordeal of scientific testing in the laboratory of social practice.

Enough! We have seen a million calls for unity with no substance, for action with no thought, and a million more criticisms of the same. Developing a long term strategy for the final victory over global capitalism-imperialism requires a revolutionary vanguard party, a real one and not a cliquish pretender to the name, but we will not develop this vanguard via short term activist campaigns and endless coalitions. Only by concretely organizing among the masses with a clear, successful and articulated strategy for the medium term will we achieve this goal.

We say this is a medium term strategy, because it does not end with “and then the revolution happens” nor does it end in six months with a city council vote. We say that this strategy needs many prongs, from the specific liberation struggles of the oppressed nations and genders to the struggles of organized labor to other mass struggles in our communities. We cannot here develop every part of this strategy, but in our practical work we believe we have synthesized a specific component, a revolutionary and actionable plan for the organization of what we call “nontraditional unions” that contains both immediate steps that many on the left are already engaged in and clear stages and concrete goals that will allow us to reflect on our work and constructively criticize ourselves and each other, and to join together not on paper but in practice as we take seriously the task of developing an authentic communist vanguard that engages with the masses.

We will briefly define “nontraditional unions” as those organizations that are modeled after labor unions but either do not consist of workers in a workplace, or consist of workers in a workplace not typically thought of as such. For our purposes we will discuss the application of this theory to three groups: the houseless, incarcerated, and tenant populations. These focal points are chosen due to the author’s immediate proximity to various types of organizing on those fronts, and the experiences from that proximity having led to the development of this theory. We suspect it could be applied to other populations such as unemployed, student, or immigrant communities, as well as workers in fields traditionally hostile to organized labor such as gig or fast food workers, but we leave this open to future investigation.

Our strategy for building nontraditional unions has three stages. This article will cover only the local stage; explanations of the connecting stage and national stage will be published as soon as possible. The specific details of the application of the plan will undoubtedly vary according to your local material conditions, your organizational capacity, the capacity and consciousness of the masses, and other factors that are beyond our ability to analyze for you.

Analysis of the Present Conditions

We must begin, as always, with an assessment of the present conditions. In specific locales and for specific groups this will naturally start with an assessment of their material conditions: tenant organizers assess the housing conditions and tenant interest in organizing, prison solidarity groups assess the conditions inside, barriers to communication, etc. But we cannot here evaluate those conditions in general, for all incarcerated, houseless or tenant populations. We begin here with an assessment of the state of those formations which presently organize and agitate within those populations.

Let us say that broadly there exist three types of organizations among activists working with these populations. We will call them advocacy groups, solidarity groups and unions. The easiest to identify is a union: it consists directly and primarily (if not exclusively) of the population it exists to serve, both in its membership base and, importantly, its leadership. A tenants union is not a banner under which one or a handful of dedicated tenants rights activists agitate, any more than a lone McDonald’s worker picketing would get recognized by the NLRB.

Solidarity groups and advocacy groups consist primarily or even exclusively of people outside the affected population, that is to say people who are not incarcerated or homeless, but who are nevertheless organizing among those populations. We would differentiate between the two based on their organizing goals and their outlook towards the population they serve: a solidarity group agitates among the population, encourages them to get involved in activism or organizing, and connects their struggles to the injustices of the system as a whole; an advocacy group seeks to either provide aid to the population or advocate for the population in court or in government, but does not actively seek to politicize these struggles, organize the population, or give them a platform for self-advocacy.

Further, a solidarity group will be fueled and directed by the will (and donations) of a large base of members or activists, whereas advocacy groups will usually be directed by a few activists who are seen as the leaders, will be financed by large donors or grants and, if not a fully incorporated nonprofit, will over time start to function like one. The terminology chosen to distinguish between these two “outside” forms of of organization aims to succinctly express the difference between them: the solidarity group stands in solidarity with and promotes solidarity among a given population; an advocacy group simply advocates on their behalf.

It is worth going into some greater detail about the distinctions between a solidarity group and an advocacy group: those of us who are not incarcerated will certainly not be a member of a prison union, but ought to be involved with organizations on the outside that support incarcerated people. Thus it is crucial that we choose our involvement purposefully and productively.

Let us take tenant organizing as a more widely known example. What a tenant union looks like is clear: the tenants of a building meet together, make decisions democratically among themselves, and challenge the practices of their shared landlord or governmental housing authority. On the other hand, a tenant advocacy group can take different forms, ranging from a group of concerned citizens who go to city council meetings to talk about gentrification, to legal aid groups that represent tenants in court, arguably up to media personalities such as Jimmy McMillan and his “Rent Is Too Damn High Party.”

A tenant solidarity group would engage with tenants, perhaps flyering apartment complexes or knocking doors to gauge interest in a tenants meeting; would encourage them to organize and discuss their issues among themselves and make connections to each other; and would organize protests, events, showing up to city council meetings, etc. that give the tenants themselves the opportunity to speak on their own issues.

The sharp reader may see where this is going, and may already be assigning value judgments to these labels, but here we must interject:

Many advocacy groups are full of good people, some with progressive or radical views; many can concretely do good things to help people; maintaining good working relationships with these groups can be organizationally useful.

But it is important for our purposes that we distinguish between advocacy and solidarity. We must further add that some, perhaps most of these groups that arise from the general activist or leftist community (that is, excluding unions) will have internal contradictions, and have tendencies towards both solidarity and advocacy at different times, or even at the same time.

This is to be expected, even welcomed: what kind of Marxism-Leninism doesn’t love a good contradiction? But we must recognize these contradictions as arising not from subjective thought but from objective social structures. Advocacy work may be a necessary byproduct of a solidarity group’s tactics or strategy, and likewise a shift to active solidarity building by primarily advocacy-oriented groups may be effected by said advocacy.

Thus, when we assess our local conditions, and we turn our analysis from the objective material conditions toward our own subjective organizations and formations, we must discuss whether a group is effective, whether it is worth cooperating with or inviting into coalitions, whether its members are comrades or fellow travelers; but we must most of all discuss whether to join them, to be involved in them. And the central question of this discussion must center around the central trend of the group: is it primarily for solidarity or advocacy?

Organizational Struggle in the Local Stage

If we want an organized, militant proletariat, then we will need mass organizations. From this we can conclude that the union type of organization is vital: it is never enough to advocate for tenants in court or city council, do mutual aid work to support houseless people, protest outside the jails and prisons, etc. What we want above all is for the tenants, the houseless, the incarcerated to have their own organizations and make their own demands on the system. The goal of subjective solidarity organizing is actually to build a trend of conscious political subjectivity out of the masses, such that the “vanguard” activity aims at the overcoming of the need for vanguardism.

None the less, under present conditions, this discourse of how to organize exists because we know very well that an active leading role, a vanguardism, is necessary. In the old days a union might send organizers to get hired at a factory or a mine in order to organize the union there, a practice called salting. It would be foolish to recommend people live on the streets or get themselves locked up to salt the prisons and the tent camps. We will need other tools to provide organizational assistance and support for building unions among these populations. This is why the distinction between an advocacy group and a solidarity group is so vital. If we want to organize tenants, we do not tell every good, disciplined comrade to join their local Legal Aid! They may do good and help people, but they will not organize the people.

It is solidarity as distinct from advocacy which bridges the gap between the organization forms which trend towards incorporation into the system, and the real mass movement which needs to be further politicized.

In this initial stage, our primary organizational struggle takes three forms: first, the building up of authentic solidarity groups; second, these solidarity groups organizing and agitating among their populations to help guide them to forming their own unions; and third, to build strong organizational connections between these unions and the solidarity group. Our primary ideological struggle in the solidarity groups will be to maintain our orientation towards the organizational goal of union building, neither veering into nonprofitism or advocacy, nor settling for red charity or “solidarity” that feels good but fails to organize the people. Let us elaborate on each point of this goal.

Since we cannot directly found unions – excepting those of us who are renters organizing in our own buildings, which presents many unique challenges – we must focus on solidarity groups. Identify solidarity groups, or solidarity trends within activist groups, and join with them, help them (for they will always need volunteer power), bolster them ideologically and organizationally (for the trend toward advocacy is strong and instinctual in the era of neoliberalism). If no such group exists in your locale or around the population in question, you might start one. This will take organizational skills, people skills, hard work, and some luck.

We do not recommend starting brand new groups unless it is necessary, especially since so much of the U.S. left tends toward starting new groups for reasons of ego and self-importance. Even in those cases where your intentions are “pure”, the founding of a new group will often be read as an attempt at self-promotion for its own sake, undermining important early building work. It is very easy, even tempting, to go to existing groups, hear one disagreeable utterance, declare them all liberals and “found” your own group of friends with a banner and some social media accounts. It is admittedly much harder to truly investigate the contradictions within existing organizations, identify positive and negative trends, and honestly evaluate whether there is productive work to be done even among liberals or whether it is best to take the long road and truly start from scratch. It is also often difficult for a small group of ideologically like-minded activists to grow into a truly mass organization that brings in people from many walks of life toward a common goal. More commonly these groups remain affinity groups, cliques, or social clubs that happen to do some kind of activism or organizing. These tendencies must all be avoided if you choose the path of starting from scratch.

Even when creating your own brand new group, as you grow it will often be a struggle to maintain a clear orientation toward solidarity over advocacy: after all, so many NGOs and advocacy careerists started out with the best intentions. These problems are systemic, and it should be obvious that there is no shortcut, no easy route to an organization that is “correct” by any individual’s standards. It should also be obvious that the organizational struggle and the ideological struggle are interconnected. We must both build the solidarity groups, bringing in more people to the struggle, and impress upon those already engaged with us in struggle the vital need for the formation of unions for self-advocacy among the people we organize.

Due to the unique conditions facing incarcerated people, houseless people, and most poorer tenants, etc. it is a struggle for them to form unions of their own without dedicated organizers, especially politically educated organizers, among them. This is the role the solidarity group must play.

The first challenge will be finding and identifying a group of people ripe for unionization. This could be several articles entirely on its own, but suffice it to say that if you are involved with a mutual aid group that provides food, snacks, COVID supplies, backpacks, etc. to houseless people, you already should have a direct relationship with those people. Likewise, a prison letter writing group or a tenants rights activist group will be good jumping off points for organizing tenant and prison unions.

The second challenge will be the education and agitation necessary to turn interested individuals into a self-organizing union. This will inevitably be an impressive act of walking multiple tightropes.

The first balancing act is in the optimal degree of outside intervention from solidarity group organizers. Too much intervention and the union is not a union, there is little or no self-determination and self-leadership among the people being organized and instead everything is directed and decided and led by the activists of the “solidarity” group. Too little intervention and the union will not form, except through spontaneity. Perhaps a few such spontaneous unions will form, but the general rule will be that people will need help and training to learn how to organize, from the basic level of how to conduct meetings and how to bring new people in to the political struggles over what demands to put forward and what actions to take to escalate and win specific demands.

The second balancing act is to maintain a focus on the formation of the unions while recognizing the need to engage in various forms of mutual aid, protest actions, and other types of activism. If a group veers too far from the goal of fostering a union it will drift away from solidarity and into advocacy. On the other hand, if a group holds an interest meeting with tenants and the tenants ask about eviction support, the group will need to be able to answer them about how to get in contact with Legal Aid, how the court process of fighting an eviction might work, and might need to volunteer to help them through this process by driving them to court or helping rent a box truck if they lose their eviction appeals. If the only answer you have for people is “form a union,” this will not encourage them to form a union, but rather to seek answers from someone else. These components of organizing, while not directly necessary to unionization, are vital to building trust necessary for people to hear the message of unionization. Here again, we see how the organizational struggle in forming a union is connected to the ideological struggle for the correct line, the correct practice.

The last of our three organizational goals may be the vaguest, but ideally it should be achieved through the first two goals: strong connections between the solidarity group and the unions they form. It is important that these two groups maintain independence, that the union be representative of and, most vitally, led by the population in question, and that activists and community members interested in supporting these populations be funneled into the solidarity group in order to play a guiding but supporting role, rather than a domineering or merely charitable one.

Independent, however, does not mean separate; the two groups need a mutually beneficial relationship. A houseless union should benefit from a corresponding solidarity organization in many ways. Seasoned activists can provide organizational guidance by helping facilitate meetings, taking notes, keeping agendas, etc. for people unaccustomed to such activity. Financial or institutional assistance for specific members, or for the union in general, is another benefit that solidarity groups can provide, whether passing the hat amongst themselves or setting up GoFundMe pages, or just helping someone get to their court date or case worker appointment. Simply having allies who are perceived by politicians of the bourgeois state as more respectable will make protest actions or political demands more effective, and provide some measure of personal security and safety to people who normally have little.

A houseless solidarity organization, likewise, should benefit from a union. Obviously, having the houseless organized to articulate their own needs instead of having them assumed will be a great boon to their conditions. But having an equal voice in organizing decisions about their own struggle is arguably just as important, as it begins to transform the masses from an oppressed and exploited class into a political subject with its own agency. All of this keeps the activists from the solidarity group grounded in the mass struggle, ensuring that they neither run forward into adventurism and advocate ideas that can be easily dismissed as “unpopular” nor lag behind in tailism and settle for easy victories that they can put on their résumés.

This grounding of the solidarity group in the people’s struggle is also a benefit to the union, and the whole of the population. The solidarity group must be a constant ideological engine for the union, offering advice and guidance but also political education and long term strategy. A self-leading union cannot simply be directed or told what to do, but neither should it be abandoned to its own devices. A union of houseless or incarcerated people without outside support faces great, possibly insurmountable organizational challenges, and will likely fall apart quickly. It will also be difficult for any union to be able to expand and grow beyond the confines of its camp, prison or building without outside organizers able to offer plans and visions for these struggles. Yet again we see the necessary connection between the organizational struggle and the ideological struggle.

As a final note on the organizational struggle, the exact organizational forms and relationships here are left somewhat vague because they will depend on your local conditions. If you are a houseless solidarity group hoping to organize a houseless union, it may be that your city has a single fairly concentrated houseless population, or several centers of houseless concentration, or perhaps a broad and wide distribution with no real concentration center. If there are several centers of gravity, perhaps each of these would be best served with their own independent union, whereas if there is only one center of gravity it would make sense to organize them all together. If there is no center of gravity then a city-wide union might make sense, or several regional unions might be more manageable in terms of actual ability to meet and participate. Obviously a houseless solidarity group immediately stepping up to organize four different unions in four different places will inevitably stumble and fail; it will be necessary to approach strategically and see where you can most effectively engage first. Tenants and prisons may be more straightforward: a city-wide tenant union makes little sense when everyone has a different landlord, while multiple prison unions in the same jail (or multiple jails in the same union) would be confusing. The structures that will be organized will flow from the conditions.

Ideological Struggle in the Local Stage

In discussing the organizational struggle in this initial stage we have talked extensively about ideological struggle but we have said nothing about socialism, let alone Marx or Lenin. While the ideological struggle within the solidarity groups may be facilitated by the mantra of “reading theory” if the starting group is on a shared level of political and class consciousness, at this stage it need not, and should not, principally take this form. Instead, ideological struggle at this stage is primarily the struggle to build organizational forms that take root among the masses, rather than the forms that currently exist whose engagement with the masses is primarily in depicting them on banners and invoking them in slogans. In this goal anyone with progressive principles ought to agree, whether they are genuine Marxist-Leninists, well-intentioned revisionists, anarchists, “democratic socialists,” or even vague “activists” who are not explicitly anti-capitalist.

The retort by liberals and bourgeois politicians to the demands of progressive activists that these demands are unpopular, or that they do not come from “the people” or directly from the affected population, is given in bad faith but typically holds enough truth to be believed, both by potential allies and sympathizers in our communities and in the capitalist media (including social media). This stage, the initial building of local, interconnected unions and solidarity mass organizations, is about smashing that canard with a coherent and actionable plan, rather than talking circles around it and allowing ourselves to be perpetually limited by it. It is this, rather than our views of Venezuela or Bernie Sanders, which will be critical to the success of this stage.

It is our hope that the above is sufficient for experienced organizers to see how it can be applied in their current work, to begin to plan interventions in their mutual aid or community activist organizations in order to reorient them along the path of nontraditional unionism. We invite discussion, debate, criticism and inquiry in all forms; if something is not clear, we will endeavor to make it so. We hope to have part 2 on the connecting stage and part 3 on the national stage ready for publication soon.


Author: Kurt Marlin

Community organizer, communist, and angler in the Upper South

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