Nontraditional Unionism (part 2)

Though we outlined the local stage in great detail in Part 1, let us start with a quick review. First, you have identified, joined, created or coalesced a group of progressives and socialists organized around a particular population (we have assumed these are tenants, the houseless, or incarcerated people). Second, this group has been guided towards “solidarity” organizing, doing mutual aid, advocacy and protests as necessary but has focused on not just incorporating the affected population into your work but in organizing this population for themselves, so they are elevated from tokens and representatives that may be co-opted into leaders of their own communal struggle, with their own “union” organizations. Finally, the solidarity group and the union(s) it has organized have a strong, cooperative relationship based on mutual respect, where the union can begin to lead itself but the more seasoned organizers of the solidarity group still provide guidance and push back against reactionary tendencies that may flare up.

The next stages of the struggle must necessarily be spoken of more broadly. These stages will be shaped by the successes and setbacks of previous stages, the specific organizational decisions made and forms chosen, and on the subjective class and political consciousness of the masses, the unions, the solidarity organizations, and the elements of leadership of each of these.

This is not to say that we can make no plans; indeed, we must make thorough plans if we are to succeed. We merely point out that plans for these stages must be flexible and dynamic, responsive to specific developing conditions and not static or dogmatic, and must be constantly reanalyzed as we approach them to bring them in line with the conditions as they change – and as we change them.

We must also avoid the trap of assuming that these stages are discrete, that each group will pass cleanly from one stage to the next. At all times, local stage activity will be relevant as tenant solidarity groups organize more and more buildings into unions, prison solidarity groups expand their contacts inside or make contacts in other nearby prisons and jails, and houseless solidarity groups continue working to meet the needs of their union and non-union houseless populations and bring the latter into the former.

It may be that some groups see an opportunity to begin connecting stage organizing relatively quickly, perhaps even prematurely by our prescription, while others take longer to enter into the connecting stage. Adapt the plan to your organizational needs and conditions while maintaining the core focus on unionization and solidarity over advocacy.

Transition from the Local to the Connecting Stage

Though it is important in every struggle to constantly reevaluate your tactics and your approach, there will come moments when it is clearly necessary to step back and engage in a thorough review, evaluation, critique and readjustment. The transition from the local to the connecting stage is the most critical of these moments.

To abstract this transition to a single, clear pivotal moment in time, we would say that by the end of the local stage you should have a strong solidarity group with close relations with a sizable local population. Perhaps this is several tenant unions in various apartment buildings or complexes or perhaps this is a single tenant union of many tenants under the same landlord spread out across the city. Perhaps it is a prison union representing many people incarcerated in the same jail, perhaps it is several groups of people in several facilities.

The crucial feature for starting this transition is that you have not just been lucky once: not just one small, quick, or lucky success at unionization, but replicable results. We cannot build off of a single lightning strike, we must capture the lightning in a bottle and be able to use it again.

As mentioned, these unions should all function in close relation to the solidarity group which helps them stay organized. Disagreements cannot become rifts; existing rifts must be repaired, if possible. Organizational or ideological rifts within the solidarity group will also be difficult; substantial disagreement over the next steps will need to be struggled over and resolved, as future stages involve building these organizations from many local formations into larger national groups while still maintaining their authentic mass bases. All too often, attempts to build national groups become heavily biased towards an activist base, towards advocacy, and away from true mass organization. If solidarity groups try to band together with significant internal dissent in each, there is a risk of hyperlocalist tendencies rapidly overturning the attempt at unification, or at least rendering it powerless and toothless as has so often been the case with left groups formed since the 2008 financial crisis.

Lastly, these organizations must have built and maintain a strong mass base. As you seek to join with similar organizations, you must evaluate them – as they in turn evaluate you – based on whether they have truly built a mass organization, whether they reach the masses and whether their organizations represent a true, radical and democratic will of the masses. It will not do to build common political structures with groups that have only organized other activists.

It will also be necessary at this stage to adopt a more detailed analysis of the advocacy groups that exist in the same proximity as your solidarity group. Prior to this point, you undoubtedly will have identified some of these advocacy groups – such as legal aid societies, bail funds, prison newsletters, etc. – that are willing to work with you, whose work can be mutually beneficial with your own, and perhaps whose individual members express political sympathy for your more radical views. From here on, we will call these “helper groups”, for lack of a better term.

You will also have identified others who express willingness to work with you, but who merely want to use your developing mass base to bolster their own causes and prestige. Often their hearts are in the right places, but their thinking will be hyperlocalist or issue-oriented. They may sincerely admire the work put into building a mass base, but will not grasp the need to build it further, to sustain it for its own sake. We will label these activist groups.

Finally, you will have identified others – perhaps shelters and nonprofits – who look down their noses at your organization and consider the self-advocacy of the people they claim to serve as an obstacle to “getting things done”. They resent the new “uppity” attitudes of the people they were perfectly friendly with when they were grateful beggars, and they often urge retreat and surrender in the guise of caution and restraint. We will call these obstacle groups.

As the names might suggest, it is vitally important to correctly identify these. Misidentification of a helper group as an activist group may “merely” limit your solidarity group’s effectiveness, but misidentification of an obstacle group as an activist group will make it difficult to continue forward in the struggle, and misidentification of an activist group as either a helper or obstacle group will lead your mass base in exhausting diversions.

Most importantly, as we transition from the local to the connecting stage, we must continue to organize and fight at the local level. As stated above, the transition will not happen at some clear point when the local stage is “completed.” We do not expect to reach the point of having fully formed a houseless union that represents our city’s entire houseless population to begin the connecting stage, let alone to have overcome every struggle against the conditions of houselessness.

As we build the regional connections of this stage and begin to take up and consider larger scale struggles that we can engage in, we must continue to fight against individual local landlords, against jail conditions, etc. and continue to grow solidarity groups and unions at the local level. In this section we will outline only those features of the connecting stage which are new to that stage, assuming the work at the local stage continues ever forward.

Organizational Struggle in the Connecting Stage

Our goal in this stage is to build out from our isolated local struggles into strongly connected regional networks. From these networks will emerge a core cadre of politically reliable and organizationally experienced communists that may even begin to look like the vanguard we’ve all heard so much about, as well as a sea of dedicated activists and organizers aimed toward goals not determined by the fickle news cycle or the Democratic party NGOs but by themselves, their experiences in the struggle and the experiences of past struggles. These networks will be informal at first, but increasingly must be built up and formalized in order to demonstrate the success of regional (and eventually national and international) organizing, as well as to allow organizers to bootstrap smaller local struggles with resources from more organizationally and politically advanced areas.

The first step is to take the local union formations that are in close connection with our solidarity groups and begin connecting them together. Our ultimate goal obviously will be a union with many “locals,” but we need not immediately adopt a centrally federated model. More important at this stage is to ensure that, if we have multiple tenants unions, that they reach out to and support each other; if we have multiple houseless unions centered on various neighborhoods, they be brought into contact. A coalition model, where each group maintains its distinctiveness and leadership structures but agrees to work together in a limited capacity, could be a good intermediate point, and would help to formalize the relations between the unions and the solidarity group as well as to foster relations between different unions.

Whatever model seems most appropriate, it is vital that the organizations begin to view their work as part of a common cause. This will likely be easy in principle, but in practice it may take effort to ensure that members in one union or section turn out for actions and events of another. This again is the role of the solidarity group.

Another important aspect of this interconnection will be funds. While these connections were more informal during the local stage it is hoped that use and distribution of funds should be able to be done equitably on the good faith of the organizers involved, but as the unions (and the solidarity groups) grow it will be necessary to formalize this quickly. It is vital here that the role of the solidarity group be clear to new recruits: funds (which will almost certainly be predominantly raised by and from the solidarity group) should not be doled out as mere charity, though that may be necessary from time to time; nor should they be spent on showy activism or political vanity projects. It is necessary at this stage that cooperative, democratic collection and distribution of organizational funds be developed between the solidarity group and the unions, and never able to be monopolized by the solidarity group.

On this point, we obviously see the ideological struggle to maintain an orientation toward solidarity and away from advocacy or charity. We will also see (moreso on the next point) the struggle against autonomist and hyperlocalist tendencies, who may resent having to cooperate with other groups. This may be explicitly political opposition, but more likely based on recent experience it will be the opposition of ego struggles and petty resentments. These must not be treated lightly, and personality clashes must be diligently worked through in order to maintain unity.

The second step is to build regional connections between solidarity groups engaged in similar kinds of work. “Regional” here should probably be limited to the size of a single state at most, because a multi-state network at this stage will likely struggle to organize significant regional campaigns in a way that a single-state network would not. It is certainly possible that in some circumstances a multi-state network would be the more natural answer – Rhode Island has exactly one state prison and no federal prisons, for example – and certainly some larger cities sprawl across state lines and need to be organized likewise, but in general regional campaigns will likely focus on pushing for reforms at the state level (rent control, state prison policies, etc.) that local governments cannot be pressured into adopting individually, and engaging a multi-state network into a single state’s political struggle will be difficult in most cases. Even a fully statewide organization may be difficult in cases like California or Texas, where colossal effort will be necessary to push out of the big cities and into the countryside (where most of the actual prisons are located).

Ideally this would mean finding groups that are currently following this plan and opening talks toward unification or federation, but we cannot presume that dozens of people in every minor city in the United States will take up this plan. More likely it will entail finding groups that could be doing similar kinds of work and offering advice and suggestions on how to reorient themselves toward organizing unions.

Here there may be a need for ideological struggle with these potential solidarity groups, but do not jump hastily into criticism when it may be simple inexperience, disorganization and unexamined practice that cause problems. Additionally, your own solidarity group may suffer from its own problems and may have things to learn from others during this stage, even if those groups have not yet fully developed into the solidarity groups they could (and should) be. The goal of these criticisms is not social media dunking or winning an argument, and these criticisms must be kept internal and comradely as part of the struggle for unity.

These regional connections between solidarity groups should be more structured and formal than the local formations, first because the solidarity groups have higher expectation of organizational skill and experience, second because the solidarity groups will initially have to represent the collective will of their respective local unions in the regional decision-making process, and third because it will be necessary to have proper bookkeeping and mutual consensus on internal democracy if you are beginning to pool resources and funds at regional levels.

As said above, there is a risk of ideological opposition from within the ranks of your own solidarity group. Autonomist-minded members may resent the idea of sharing decision-making power with other groups in the region, and possibly even the unions your solidarity group represents. In this ideological struggle, deeds count for far more than words. A compelling political goal – statewide rent control, for example – will convince more organizers of the need to build regional networks than the hypothetical “we need to be organized!” mantra. Victories, or even “successful” defeats, in a political struggle will take the wind out of the sails of those who are uninterested in any larger-scale coordination than their city block. As long as your solidarity group remains small, on the local scale of any other “activist” group, these people will be able to argue their case effectively; as the masses band together and learn to use their collective power, the arguments for autonomism will melt away.

The last step of this stage is one of simple consolidation: we have built local connections between unions with the solidarity groups acting as the glue that binds them, we have built regional connections between solidarity groups that can network these unions and activist bases into political action on a scale larger than previously imaginable. Once the first glue-up has set, it is time to glue those local union amalgamations into a true, multi-branch union.

It was necessary to lay the initial groundwork for cooperation primarily between the local solidarity groups, but once that has been achieved and the local unions have seen the potential for struggle on a larger scale than just their singular landlord it will be equally necessary for the (now regional) solidarity group to assume a subordinate role, to encourage their local union groups to become mere locals of a bigger, federated regional union and to encourage politically advanced members of their locals to run for positions within this larger union structure. Owing to the precarious nature of the unionized populations it will still be necessary for the solidarity group to provide financial, organizational, and experiential support and to maintain their close relationship to the union, but this process must be a real transfer of leadership from the solidarity group to the union itself.

Throughout these three steps, there will be two concurrent processes that we must highlight. The first is the accumulation of various types of helper and activist groups around your work. Our redefinition above of the broad umbrella category of the advocacy group from the first part of this article into several sub-groupings is necessitated by the fact that, as your efforts advance, you will have inevitably had to deal with and respond to these various types of organizations. The helper, advocacy or obstacle groups you will be dealing with may be local branches of large nonprofits or entirely localized formations. This will affect how you formally relate to them, but will not practically change much in terms of how you will want to approach them.

It is likely that prior to the connecting stage you have already found mutually beneficial relationships with helper groups. You will want, during this stage, to begin to formalize these relationships. This could entail bringing them into coalitions for political campaigns as partners, doing joint fundraiser events, and perhaps a degree of cross-recruitment of their members into solidarity groups to the extent that this does not create conflicts of interest. It definitely must entail a clear-cut formal working relationship between the helper group and the solidarity group. For local groups this could be official partnerships, though for larger nonprofits it is likely to be limited to social media shoutouts. We do not need exclusivity, but we do want them to increasingly acknowledge a special relationship between their work and ours.

In the event that these formations are exclusively local, it may be worth encouraging them to form regional connections similar to the ones you are forming (for example, many local bail funds could perhaps be more effective by consolidating and pooling funds), though such efforts should not be your focus and you should act as a check in those efforts against the tendency of nonprofits and NGOs to bureaucratize and bloat and lose sight of their concrete missions. The best form this consolidation could take would be to reduce the number of people whose organizing potential is caught up in these helper groups, and recruit those who show a hunger for more radical organizing into the solidarity groups. The worst form would be to give more people jobs “doing good work” as members of the board or directors of nonprofits.

Activist groups will have also likely been in contact with you, and have likely invited you to protests or events. Whether or not your group decides to engage with these at all is up to you; it is likely to be harmless, but in the worst cases it can drain a lot of organizer capacity and lead to burnout. It will be necessary to engage with these groups in a way that is tactically limited, not antagonistically but with enough distance to avoid being swept up in the protest chasing, news cycle-driven activism so prevalent on the left.

It may be worth some cross-recruitment efforts, but care should be taken to keep this covert. Many of their organizers may share your political views and ideals, and can be convinced that their methods are ineffective at achieving this, especially as the incessant focus on activism begins to burn them out; however, these groups will typically be oriented toward mobilization rather than organization and will want to use the unions and solidarity groups for those ends. If the dedicated core of ideologically-committed activists holding these activist groups together feel their turf is threatened by your cross-recruitment, it could cut you off to a pool of potential organizers.

As your groups grow, you will have more time and capacity for potentially productive engagement with activist groups; ensure that capacity is utilized consciously and not casually, as a finite resource that can be spread further only when there is more of it. You must also ensure that media engagement or activist mobilization does not come at the expense of the democratic mass organizations, and that the leadership of your solidarity groups or unions not seek to turn the struggle into their personal brand or platform, their own mere activist or advocacy group.

Obstacle groups are unlikely to have reached out to you, and as the name suggests it is unlikely that there is any productive engagement to be had with them if they do. They are likely best dealt with via political struggle, though care and planning must be exercised in order to not simply make enemies of everyone all at once and appear needlessly antagonistic.

There is one last group that absolutely must be mentioned when we discuss inter-organizational relationships: traditional labor unions. It is vitally important to build interconnections between your nontraditional unions and existing traditional ones. These will have stability and funds that will bolster your efforts, and will have beleaguered radicals in their ranks who are long overdue for reinforcements in their labor organizing work. At this stage it will be difficult for your groups to provide much more than occasional volunteer power to a union drive, but the connections absolutely must be built for the future.

The second process is the accumulation of a dedicated core of politically and organizationally reliable cadre. During the local stage we expect the majority of these people coming from the solidarity group – these are the people for whom we have written this article, after all – with the solidarity group playing a significant role in the organizational training of potential cadre in the unions.

During the connecting stage two things must happen: we must flip the ratio of cadre from being dominated by solidarity group members to at least parity between solidarity group and union members, preferably majority union-based; and we must connect these cadre together, locally and regionally, and organize them as cadre, which is to say, as a vanguard.

A vital part of the process of vanguard formation, and a part that we have largely ignored up to now, is political education. It is not enough to get good organizers together, we must develop our theoretical understanding of scientific socialism, our practical analysis of the conditions we face in both our specific union struggles and the broader struggle against capitalism-imperialism (and fascism), and the dialectical methods of combining the two, turning theory into practice into theory into practice. While all previous parts of this theory are important in our opinion, it is this, and only this, which can lead to the final victory over class society.

This emphasis on (predominantly communist) theory obviously has the potential to upset anti-communist members of these groups. This is objectively not the moment to force a split; in fact a split here would be harmful to both the forming vanguard as well as the unions and solidarity groups. As Lenin wrote in “Left-Wing” Communism:

The trade unions were a tremendous step forward for the working class in the early days of capitalist development, inasmuch as they marked a transition from the workers’ disunity and helplessness to the rudiments of class organization. When the revolutionary party of the proletariat, the highest form of proletarian class organization, began to take shape (and the Party will not merit the name until it learns to weld the leaders into one indivisible whole with the class and the masses) the trade unions inevitably began to reveal certain reactionary features, a certain craft narrow-mindedness, a certain tendency to be non-political, a certain inertness, etc. However, the development of the proletariat did not, and could not, proceed anywhere in the world otherwise than through the trade unions, through reciprocal action between them and the party of the working class.

V. I. Lenin

To allow a split in the mass organizations, either union or solidarity group, jeopardizes the crucial stage in the development of the class struggle. Most people in the U.S. have no labor union experience, or organizing experience of any kind. Reactionary trends will occur, they will threaten to send the union or solidarity group in wrong directions, they may even succeed in diverting resources and energies into avenues of struggle that will not yield results; but we communists cannot abandon the struggle to keep the mass organizations on a revolutionary path.

We also cannot allow the formation of a vanguard to be an entrenchment of a leadership clique, instead it must develop mass leadership from the unions. This vanguard cannot simply be recruited from the elected leadership of the unions, but should be cultivated from any politically advanced leaders and active rank and file members of these unions.

Ideological Struggle in the Connecting Stage

The ideological struggle at this stage will have similarities with the local stage, where the debates were primarily about strategy, tactics, and methodology, but it will also be necessary to begin a more overt political education process, if one has not begun already.(1)

(1. For our purposes “ideological struggle” refers to movement-internal struggles, while in the next section “political struggle” refers to the movement’s external struggle with institutions of power. Obviously this separation is not a clean matter of members of our organizations vs. nonmembers, or everyday people vs. elected officials, but is a distinction that must be made case-by-case based on the presence or absence of shared class position, political goals, etc. We are forced to speak of it as if it were a “clean” distinction for the sake of convenience. “Political education” is thus part of the ideological struggle, not the political struggle, because it refers to a process internal to solidarity groups, unions, and the masses that show up to support these, not to any attempt to educate politicians, landlords, prison guards, etc.)

While it is always worthwhile to conduct organized studies of communist political theory, this is too often the limits of communists’ views of political education. A tenants union and solidarity group, for example, could be organizing history lessons on local housing struggles, presentations on the extent of, and disparities in, foreclosures and evictions in their area, and exposes of the living conditions of slumlords’ properties and their profit margins. Likewise prison or houseless groups should be educating themselves and their communities about their histories of exploitation, both on the national scale and locally.

This practical aspect of political education can be done separately from or mixed into the theoretical education in revolutionary and communist theory. It is important that the two are conducted together, because it is only through the clear understanding that the two are connected can theory inform practice and practice in turn inform theory, and the dialectical process exist in organizational truth rather than paper dogma. Past discussions of strategy will have likely revolved around preconceived ideas of what struggle looks like, truisms and common sense. Binarist (i.e. “we must choose between supporting our current tenants union and helping these new tenants flier their new complex”) or idealist (“we shouldn’t affiliate with other regional groups because we need our local autonomy”) thinking may have been necessary when capacity was limited, but this thinking frequently becomes a self-imposed limitation on militance (“we’re a houseless union, what business do we have at an anti-war march?”), and must be replaced with materialist and dialectical reasoning and decision-making. This is the purpose of political education, to interact with and reinforce the strategic thinking of the organizers in the movement, to raise up members into organizers, organizers into communists, and communists into an authentic vanguard rooted in the movements of the workers and the masses.

Hopefully, the successes of the political struggle and the heightened contradictions of organizational growth and increasing momentum will aid greatly in applying the lessons of political education to the strategic debates, and it seems unlikely that autonomist and hyperlocalist tendencies would continue to be significantly influential. New tendencies and deviations from the revolutionary path will undoubtedly arise. Some of these can be predicted, others cannot; most of these can nonetheless be accommodated within the ranks of the unions and the solidarity groups, but in some cases splits will happen anyway. While in the following section on political struggle we do advocate struggling for concrete reforms, we do not advocate reformism, the thinking that these reforms are the end rather than the means, that winning them is victory and losing them is defeat, and particularly that our goal is to assume political office in the bourgeois state in order that we may enact them. The first of these sections is the organizational struggle precisely because it is that, the growth and strength of organizations of the masses, which is the primary measure of the success of struggle.

Political Struggle in the Connecting Stage

We did not discuss political struggle in the previous section as the political issues immediately facing tenants, houseless and incarcerated people at the local level are usually clear. We must do so now, first to ensure that solidarity groups and unions in different locales can be united into federated wholes, and second to give those local formations a reason to so unite.

The struggle to ensure these groupings can unite is a primarily ideological struggle between different groups (and the different tendencies across each group) with differing views on strategy and tactics, however this will come with elements of political struggle such as research into laws and institutions at the state level that can be rallied against as well as thinking of tactics that can bring the organizing power of a state-level network (either in its early stages of formation or a fully federated grouping) to bear in having a larger impact on specific local struggles against larger slumlords, the more exploitative shelters, etc.

Once one or a few of these larger-scale campaigns can be developed, it is imperative to mobilize sufficient resources to make waging these struggles seem like an achievable goal. This is the reason for local solidarity groups to begin uniting into federations. It will not be immediately obvious to every organizer why the solidarity groups should unite around these issues, or why they should take up these larger scale issues instead of continuing to focus on local issues or diverging into electoral politics. This will also be a primarily ideological struggle, but as you begin to gain supporters ideologically for unification and federation you will need to begin the political struggle quickly to prove that your proposals for unification and federation are not just talk, not just organization for organization’s sake.

Prepare for defeat in the first attempts, inoculate eager new activists to the dangers of “advocacy” and the understanding that neither victory nor defeat in a campaign will be the end of the struggle, but do not be afraid to engage in some more concentrated “advocacy” work than in the local stage. When you finally achieve a concrete success at this stage it will have a galvanizing effect worth a hundred such local victories.

It is also at this stage that you want to identify overly hostile elements of the obstacle groups and, either locally or in your increasing regional interconnections, confront them more directly, make demands of them or openly make attempts to replace them, as the case may be. There will be disagreement on what approach to take; ensure that disagreement is discussed thoroughly and decided democratically along increasingly larger scales rather than merely being handed down from a steering committee or agreed to locally and “autonomously.” This is not a call to burn people out with endless debates, but when deciding to take on an “obstacle group,” a group the public will likely view as charitable or positive despite its reactionary nature, disagreements among the organizers of the solidarity groups and the unions must be resolved for the campaign to go forward.


Author: Kurt Marlin

Community organizer, communist, and angler in the Upper South

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: