How not to learn from the Staley struggle

by Mark, Detroit
(from Communist Voice #9, August 1, 1996)

. The struggle of the Staley workers has been given a good deal of attention by left-wing activists. The struggle was marked by heroic sacrifices made by the Staley workers and was supported by other sections of workers and political activists. But the struggle was defeated and the workers forced to accept bitter concessions demanded by the greedy corporation. Jack Hill, of the Chicago Workers' Voice (CWV) group, was one of the solidarity activists who has written on what he considers to be the lessons of the strike. In the publication Chicago Workers' Voice Theoretical Journal #10 of May 31, 1996, Hill (who previously wrote under the name Oleg) provides a summation which is a great disservice to activists who really want to learn something from this bitter defeat. (1)

Hiding the lessons of a setback

. Hill doesn't want the workers to feel that their struggle was futile. That is understandable. Workers learn the lessons of the class struggle not only in victory but also through setbacks. But Hill treats the workers like children who cannot face the truth about their struggle. He thinks the only way to prevent the workers and activists from being demoralized over the defeat is to pretend that the struggle represented a major advance over the bankrupt policies of the AFL-CIO bureaucrats. Hill is wrong about this. Indeed, Hill himself frankly admits that policies of the union officials of the Staley local of the UPIU (Paperworkers) dominated the struggle. Does Hill contend that the local bureaucrats broke free from the bonds of the national bureaucrats? Even though he implies this, he himself admits "the leadership of the local and particularly local president, Dave Watts, insisted on and fought for limiting tactics to what would not irrevocably alienate the bigshots of the 'labor movement'." (2) But if the workers were kept under the thumb of the local union leaders and these local officials confined the struggle to tactics that would not antagonize the top AFL-CIO officials very much, then there was nothing that different about the Staley struggle from numerous other battles workers have waged against their employers in recent years. For Hill to dress this up as "independence and militancy" which "frightened" the AFL-CIO heads, as going "farther than most of the trade union struggles that are under the thumb of the mainstream union bureaucrats", is to hide these facts behind glorious, but empty, phrases.(3)

. Rather, the failure of the Staley struggle to break free of the restrictive AFL-CIO framework was what undermined the struggle. But Hill obscures this. Having admitted the local union leaders were reluctant to defy the national sellouts, he does not see this as discrediting the policy of the Staley local officials very much. Instead, Hill goes into raptures about one after another of the activities of the Staley local bureaucrats that were within the limits tolerable to the top labor sellouts. Thus, he writes approvingly of how well the UPIU local bureaucrats mobilized the workers, introduced democratic practices, educated the workers, favored "ingenious" methods of struggle and angered the top bureaucrats. And though the struggle was unable to break free of the basic AFL-CIO policy Hill proclaims the Staley conflict a model of class struggle that other workers should emulate. For Hill, since there was bickering between the local and national bureaucrats, that is cause enough to celebrate.

. Hill holds that it was a mere "mistake" that the local UPIU leaders opposed the militant sentiments of the workers and pushed pacifist tactics. And such "mistakes" (which "only" killed the struggle!) don't prevent him from presenting the local misleaders in a good light. In fact, it is the very tactics of the UPIU local officials that Hill touts as the big triumphs of the Staley struggle. Hill is opposed to getting demoralized all right. He opposes getting demoralized about the stifling framework imposed on the workers by the AFL-CIO hierarchy!

. Hill loves to talk about how he will stand for the class struggle until his dying day. But hiding the truth about the Staley struggle is betrayal of the workers. Instead of encouraging the workers to break free from the restraints of the union bureaucracy, he finds excuses and invents apologies for the local bureaucrats. Instead of emphasizing how a failure to go beyond the reformist local officials led to the strangling of the struggle, Hill feeds the workers fairy tales about how exceptionally militant their struggle was compared to other strike struggles.

. Hill similarly avoids a serious analysis of the Staley solidarity group he belonged to, the Chicago Staley Workers' Solidarity Committee. When he refers to his solidarity group it is merely to show what good deeds they did. He crows about how the CSWSC allegedly was so defiant of the top national union misleaders while falling silent on the fact that the CSWSC was dominated by groups that placed their faith in the local union bureaucrats. Hill goes so far as to imply that all the groups in CSWSC are socialists and communists. Mr. Hill evidently thinks the various trotskyite, semi-trotskyite and revisionist views that dominated the CSWSC and led it to become cheerleaders for the Staley local bureaucrats, are compatible with a genuine communist stand!

. Mr. Hill says the problem with strikes today is there is no big independent class movement to assist them. But where is this powerful class movement to arise from? No one can conjure up a general upsurge in the mass movement. But at whatever level the workers struggle exists, it is the task of revolutionary activists to provide a clear class outlook. Hill talks about the great class movement that will save the day, but shrinks from bringing the clarity to the workers necessary for such an independent movement. Nor does Hill ask what sort of trend must be established to provide a clear revolutionary outlook for the workers' movement. Hill does not want to face up to the task of building an anti-revisionist communist trend. Such a trend can only be built in the course of struggle against the phony "socialists" and "communists" that Hill has blended in with. But Hill recoils from this. The only trends he considers important to fight in the workers' movement is that of the worst sellout AFL-CIO bosses. The idea that the workers need a trend not only against the naked labor traitors but against the reformist opponents of the worst bureaucrats and the phony "socialist" and "communist" trends disappears from Hill's view.

Portraying the local bureaucrats as the alternative to the top sellouts

. According to Jack Hill, the fact that the local bureaucrats have "flaws" like clamping down on militancy is no big deal. Hill will talk about the need to break with the trade union bureaucracy, but it is clear he is talking only about the national officers of the AFL-CIO and the top leaders of particular unions. In his article's "conclusions", for instance, he divides the forces involved in the U.S. trade union movement into merely two parts. (4) On the one hand there is "the AFL-CIO leadership and the international union leadership who are hamstringing the struggle." And on the other hand "the tactics of the more activist, liberal, or left wing sections of the trade union movement." In the later category, Hill casually lumps together the local bureaucrats, workers who demanded more militant policies than the local bureaucrats, workers who were misled by the local bureaucrats, and all the left-wing forces in the trade union movement regardless of what policy they advocate, which includes the supposedly Marxist-Leninist Chicago Workers' Voice group represented by Hill. Hill promotes this whole trend as the force that "gave an education in class struggle to countless workers."

. But what did the supposed "class struggle" education consist of? Hill says that the dominant trend in the Staley struggle "avoids confronting continued production in the plant with scab labor and avoids directly exposing and confronting the AFL-CIO leadership . . ." Who considers the "class struggle" as avoiding militant battles and avoiding confronting the top AFL-CIO hacks? Why it is none other than the local bureaucrats.

. Hill wishes the local AFL-CIO leaders would not be so subservient to the authorities and the top union leaders and be more militant. But he rationalizes that this is the "best that the tactics" anyone in "the trade union movement can achieve at this time." Really? But if this is the best tactics that anyone can put forward at this time, then what grounds are there for criticizing the AFL-CIO policy at the national or local levels? If a more militant policy than the local bureaucrats advocate is really not something the trade union movement can achieve at this time, then Hill's own criticisms of the way the struggle was handled are just empty phrasemongering.

. But in point of fact, more militant tactics than advocated by the Staley local leadership are definitely "achievable" today. At a certain point in the ongoing Detroit newspaper strike, for instance, militant activists and workers shut down the plant and fought off the police sent to break the picket lines. This was done in defiance of the national and local union leaders who wanted the picket lines to adopt ineffectual civil disobedience tactics. In the Detroit newspaper strike, even some mild-mannered dissident union officials in the Unity-Victory Caucus have been campaigning for resuming mass picketing at the plant gates. (5) True, like Watts and co., these dissidents are afraid to antagonize the mainstream bureaucrats. But these bureaucrats have gone farther than Dave Watts who opposed plant-gate actions according to Hill. This only further shows the absurdity of Hill's definition of what the most radical possible position is today. By defining the Staley tactics as the height of what's "achievable" today, Hill does not even rise to the level of some dissident union officials.

. Of course Hill at times argues that the Staley workers were not willing to undertake such bold actions. But if that was the case, Hill should stop pretending that the Staley workers were pathbreakers. It is one thing to sympathize with the pressures the Staley workers were under. It is quite another to ignore that these pressures were not overcome. More importantly, even if the workers were hesitant to take up confrontational tactics, this in no way absolves the local bureaucrats. Really leading the workers would have at least involved trying to develop enthusiasm for militant tactics, a defiant attitude against anyone getting in the way of this, and a class outlook. But the so-called "class struggle" education of the Staley local officials opposed this.

Mr. Hill's idea of class education

. Hill seems to feel that the type of education offered by the reformist union officialdom is a boon to the workers, however. In his article "History of the Staley Struggle" he uncritically writes:"The union local leadership decided to carry out a big campaign of education of the rank and file.Labor studies professionals, for example were brought in to educate not just the local leaders but all of the rank and file. A lot of attention was paid to trying to get nearly all the members involved." (6)

. Educate them in what? Get them involved in what? Hill finds it convenient to not mention such little details. For Hill, it's better to keep things vague and just let the activists imagine this was some kind of wonderful effort. Perhaps it wouldn't look so glorious if the worker activists understood that the "labor studies professionals" are those who help train aspiring bureaucrats, advise them on legal matters, do research for them, etc. For instance, the UAW's national headquarters in Detroit, Solidarity House, is occupied by an small army of these types. They also inhabit the university labor relations departments. They may have some information that militant workers can make use of for their own ends. But their overall educational mission is to convince the workers to keep their struggle from becoming too confrontational, to promote faith in "the system" and to undercut the radicalization of the workers. In short, the education by the labor studies professional are the illnesses which afflicted the Staley struggle. And note Hill's emphasis on not only getting the bureaucrats involved, but also getting the rank-and-file enslaved to such a bankrupt education. If Hill is concerned about the state of the workers' movement, he should be encouraging contempt for the stand of the labor professionals, not applaud their spreading influence.

. Hill considers involving all the workers in such rot a sign of how democratic Dave Watts and co. are. Lovely, isn't it? The Staley local bureaucrats, by Hill's own account, stifled workers who wanted to be militant, imposed cooperation with the police against the will of the workers, and opposed any motion that would upset the top AFL-CIO brass. The local leaders were democratic -- so long as the workers did not seriously oppose them!

Excuses, excuses and more excuses

. Even when Hill is critical of some aspect of the local union bureaucrats, he finds ways to tone down the criticism with one apology after another. Should the Dave Watts leadership be criticized for opposing plant actions? Yes, says Hill -- but hastens to cite the opinion of Watts and some solidarity activists who agree with him that the workers were unwilling to fight. Was it harmful for the UPIU local officers to not expose the top union officials? Why yes, says Hill -- but don't forget that attacking the top leaders might make them pressure some union locals from giving financial aid and there's no independent movement to give aid. Incidentally, it's noticeable that while Hill rightly considers the failure of the top lords of the AFL-CIO to provide much funding to be a reason to condemn them and be independent of them, he passes no similar judgment on local leaders who would end their financial aid to the Staley local under the pressure of the top bureaucrats. The Staley local officials and the allied local leaders are portrayed only as victims of the big ogres, as if their own efforts to restrict the workers had little to do with their own role in the union apparatus and their overall support for the general AFL-CIO outlook. As well, Hill doesn't concern himself with what the relation between a truly independent class movement and the reformist local leaders would be. He mentions it should provide funds, but not that it should be hostile to the policy of the local reformist leaders and strive to break the workers from them.

. Or take the decision of the "corporate campaign" organizers to avoid going on strike when the contract expired in 1992. Hill justifies this decision by saying "the workers were well aware that the company was preparing to replace them with scabs." (7) But scabs, or the threat of scabs, are something workers face whenever they go on strike. If it suffices to refer to scabs to avoid strikes, then strikes should just be junked in general. But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that workers were not ready to go on strike. In that case, slow-downs might play some role in helping prepare the workers for a militant strike battle. But the "corporate campaign" was organized as a substitute for militant strike action. Hill himself complains that the biggest error of the "corporate campaign" was failure to stop scab production, but also finds apologies for it, and even calls these tactics "ingenious."

. I don't doubt that Staley workers found ingenious ways to slow down production although, contrary to the impression one would get from Hill's articles, this is hardly some special pathbreaking development at Staley but is a common form of worker resistance to speedup and overwork. But Hill is not merely complimenting workers for trying to fight back, nor is he merely promoting the idea that work slowdowns can play a useful role in some situations. He is hailing the fact that "the union organized what could be called a 'strike within the plant' (Tucker's tactics)." (8) In other words, Hill specifically hails the tactics of the reformist organizer, Jerry Tucker. But Tucker's tactics are not OK just because they call for some action by the workers.Tucker's tactics were based on calling some actions to avoid the type of struggle that Hill admits was needed. How "ingenious"!

Are "corporate campaigns" tolerable to the national AFL-CIO leadership?

. One of the main ways that Hill dresses up the "corporate campaign" strategy is to portray it as something that goes beyond the stifling framework imposed on the workers by the AFL-CIO hierarchy. For Hill, the fact that "corporate campaigns" keep workers involved in various actions distinguishes them from mainstream AFL-CIO policy. This is not an accurate picture, however. Perhaps the "corporate campaign" organizers are more prone to call actions than the mainstream bureaucrats. But the methods employed by "corporate campaigns" are also employed in the struggles organized by the mainstream bureaucrats. Hill never talks about this. Indeed, if that were not the case, it's hard to understand how Hill can, in places, acknowledge that the Staley struggle was both a "corporate campaign" and was kept within bounds acceptable to the top labor traitors. Hill argues that the militancy of the workers scared the AFL-CIO top traitors away from supporting the Staley workers. But the local leaders and their "corporate campaign" organizers were also scared of the militant workers. Hill even admits this, but confines his hostility to the big traitors while finding this only an inexplicable "mistake" of the local AFL-CIO officials.

. But let's proceed to direct evidence. In the current Detroit newspaper strike, it was not Watts, Rogers or Tucker that organized "corporate campaign" tactics, but the mainstream local and national bureaucrats. This began even under the leadership of Tom Donahue, long-time henchman of notorious sellout AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland, and continued under the present "reform" national leadership of the treacherous John Sweeney. These tactics included numerous civil disobedience actions. Moreover, as Mr. Hill would put it, the more prominent union officials not only "educated" their fellow bureaucrats, but invited the rank-and-file workers and activists to training sessions to get similarly educated. Of course this education was in how to be passive on the picket line, how to prevent angry workers from "provoking" the police, etc.

. Now if, as Hill contends, it is only a "mistake" when the "corporate campaign" organized by the Staley local officials discouraged workers from the plant gates altogether, consistency would demand that he consider the similar policy of the "corporate campaign" organized by the mainstream officials in Detroit to also be an mere oversight. After all, these mainstream officials have also kept the workers active, they've organized civil disobedience. They have merely overlooked the need to carry out militant mass picketing at the point of production, just like Dave Watts. Shouldn't we write then about how far beyond the mainstream policy the mainstream bureaucrats have gone?! Shouldn't we characterize their overall record as one of many accomplishments despite some "serious flaws."? Mr. Hill would perhaps recoil from such statements about the top union officials. But this is where the logic of his analysis leads.

. Hill makes mention of one action where the Staley solidarity activists' civil disobedience at Chicago's Navy Pier upset some big-wheels of the UPIU. This shows how pathetic the AFL-CIO bureaucrats can be in their fretting over being charged with illegal secondary boycotts. But in other circumstances, the mainstream bureaucrats may organize something quite similar. For instance, in late June, the heads of the unions in Atlanta, Georgia organized a demonstration of 150 that marched through the Knight-Ridder newspaper in Macon, Georgia.(9) (Knight-Ridder owns the struck Detroit Free Press.) Some bureaucrats even got arrested. This doesn't make the union bureaucrats great heroes. In fact, the union leaders in the Detroit strike usually use the excuse of avoiding legal charges for organizing secondary boycotts to avoid actions at other papers owned by the owners of the Detroit newspapers. But it shows that even with the somewhat more daring type of corporate boycott that Mr. Hill wants, the basic orientation of the mainstream bureaucrats can continue. And indeed in Detroit, like Decatur, the importance of mass plant picketing is still shunted aside by the dominant section of union officials.

. While the civil disobedience action at Navy Pier demonstrates that those activists had more gumption than the union boss deadbeats, there are severe limits to the effectiveness of pacifist boycott actions and to boycotts in general. Nor do they indicate the Chicago solidarity committee was changing its overall support for "corporate campaign" tactics and the Staley local leadership. Mr. Hill, while elsewhere making a general statement on the limited effectiveness of boycotts, holds up the CSWSC civil disobedience boycott action as the way to have a really effective "corporate campaign" and just heaps unqualified praise on most everything his solidarity organization did.

. Also, it should be noted that the mainstream bureaucrats have devoted significant union resources to boycotts against the Detroit newspapers, businesses which advertise in them and businesses which sell the paper. They have attracted "wider public attention" for the struggle, which is the major criterion put forward by Mr. Hill to distinguish between good and bad boycott campaigns. Yet, this hardly violates their overall class collaborationist perspective. The overall plan remains to keep away from the plants and entice the newspaper capitalists to resume bargaining by offering a bunch of concessions. So the main elements of the "corporate campaign" are quite useful for the mainstream bureaucrats, too.

. Nor are such tactics by the top bureaucrats a rare exception. The AFL-CIO early this year sent in one Eddie Burke to revive the "corporate campaign"-type tactics in the Detroit newspaper strike. Burke was a big organizer in the Pittstown miners strike of 1989, pushing passive civil disobedience as a substitute for the inspiring struggles the miners had historically waged such as the 1978 strike which involved such militant tactics as roving pickets shutting down one mine after another and armed confrontations with the company goons and police. Burke even tells workers to be prepared to "break any laws that are on the books" or don't bother going on strike.(10) Present national AFL-CIO officer Rich Trumka was head of the United Mine Workers then and collaborated with Burke's tactics. In fact the new mainstream president of the AFL-CIO utilized civil disobedience tactics when the Service Employees International Union which he headed conducted their well-known Justice for Janitors campaign. So it's just not true that, in general, "corporate campaign" tactics represent a split from the policies of the top AFL-CIO leaders. Thus, to make a big deal out of comparatively minor squabbles between various reformist union leaders over how to carry out "corporate campaigns" while ignoring the general agreement on them that exists in the AFL-CIO bureaucracy, means gutting the content from a serious fight against even the likes of the Sweeney regime.

Frowning on exposing opportunism

. Jack Hill's problem is that he no longer takes seriously that for the worker' movement to advance there are political trends besides those of the worst bureaucrats that must be consistently fought. At most, Hill now confines himself to talking about a few "mistakes" or "flaws" that might appear in the views of the more radical-looking bureaucrats or other left-wing groups. In so doing, he ignores the connection between these errors and the overall ideological and political stand of the trends in question. (11) This has the effect of undercutting the very notion of a political or ideological trend, creates the illusion that the overall outlook of these groups is pretty good, and downplays the need for building a truly revolutionary trend independent of the various opportunist trends in the left. Indeed, even if one is dealing with some revolutionary activists who are beginning to break from this or that opportunist trend, pretending that the problem with the old trend was just isolated errors retards their ability to split with the old framework.

. Hill's approach is strikingly illustrated by his treatment of the forces that comprise the Chicago Staley Workers' Solidarity Committee. His idea of how to build a revolutionary trend is to avoid any sharp fights within those forces to the left of the top AFL-CIO leaders. Hill has been carrying on in this way for a few years now. But in the past he would at least occasionally refer to other groups as if they were a distinct trend, not the anti-revisionist communist trend that Hill claimed to uphold. Now this pretense has been dropped. Now Hill claims that everyone in the Staley solidarity movement who claims to be socialist or communist actually deserves to be so labeled. Thus, Hill has now openly renounced the fight against opportunism.

. The Chicago Workers' Voice group, to which Hill belongs, has been telling anyone interested in the Staley struggle to get in touch with the CSWSC since at least 1993. But in nearly three years neither Hill nor the CWV group has provided any serious public analysis of this solidarity group or the trends that are in it. Six months after the whole struggle is over, Hill still has nothing serious to say about this group or Hill's work in it. This total lack of concern to publicly analyze what's going on within the solidarity movement is shameful for someone who purports to be a communist. It panders to the popular prejudice that the fight against opportunism is sectarianism.

. In fact, Hill has time and again shown he is infected with this prejudice. For instance, Hill recently criticized the editor of the revolutionary literary journal Struggle because the editor uttered a few words of criticism of the petty-bourgeois nationalist politics of the Zapatista leadership in response to a contributor to that journal who had touched on the question of the Zapatistas in her writing. (The contributor, unlike Hill, was quite appreciative of the comments offered by the editor.) A journal encouraging the development of revolutionary literature was no place for giving an opinion about the Zapatistas, Hill wrongly argued. But of course Hill also expresses irritation at articles that I or other writers in the theoretical journal Communist Voice because they spend a lot of time analyzing the positions of various trends/groups. Evidently a theoretical journal is no place for theoretical analysis, either. You won't catch Jack Hill explaining what trends exist and what role they played in the Staley solidarity movement in the Chicago Workers' Voice Theoretical Journal!

. Hill essentially tells us that the Chicago solidarity group was good and leaves it at that. We learn they participated in actions, raised funds, brought Christmas gifts and did other nice things. Summing up their work, Hill speaks of how this group "played an important role in encouraging the Staley workers to hold on." But scattered information in Hill's report confirms that the Chicago solidarity group was mainly holding on to the coattails of the "corporate campaign" strategy of the local Staley bureaucrats, not helping the workers break free of their influence. Take for instance the video that Hill says was used by the Chicago and other solidarity activists "to mobilize support for the Staley workers throughout the rest of this struggle." This video shows the vicious police attack on the workers at the June 25, 1994 demonstration in Decatur. But instead of criticizing the shameful pacifist tactics foisted on the workers by the trade union bureaucrats and their friendly attitude toward the police, it promotes the bureaucrats who give their slant on the whole affair without being challenged by the video interviewers or by anyone else on the video.

. I don't doubt that the Staley workers appreciated all acts of kindness and all expressions of solidarity. But as useful as such aid can be, there is also another act of solidarity that the workers needed. And this type of solidarity was far more important. That act of support was to be told the truth not only about the AFL-CIO top dregs, but about how the Staley local leaders were not leading the workers away from these dregs but herding them back into their clutches. The solidarity activists of most use to the workers are those with the consciousness and courage to fight the national AND local bureaucrats tooth and nail on the question of mass picketing and encourage the workers to form their own independent organizational forms to carry out militant actions in defiance of Sweeney and Dave Watts. This sort of aid is what is decisive if the workers are to make a real advance in their fight against the capitalist offensive. Without this, all the funds and gifts can only put off for a bit the terrible results of the bankrupt reformist strategy.

. If the militant workers and activists want to have a force that can provide revolutionary guidance and organization for the workers struggle, they must not shrink from the struggle against opportunist ideas and trends but be enthusiastic partisans of the ideological struggle. This is how a real communist trend will be rebuilt, not by hugs and kisses to one and all no matter what their theory and practice. Jack Hill is no longer up to this most important type of solidarity.


1. See Jack Hill's "Lessons of the Staley struggle" reprinted elsewhere in this issue of the Communist Voice. (Return to text.)

2. Chicago Workers' Voice Theoretical Journal #10,, May 31, 1996, p.8. (Text)

3. Ibid., p.7. (Text)

4. Ibid., p.10. (Text)

5. For more on the stand of the Unity-Victory Caucus, see the article "Tough road ahead for striking Detroit newspaper workers" in Communist Voice, vol.2, #1, pp.17-18. (Text)

6. CWVTJ #10, p.11. (Text)

7. Ibid., p.11. (Text)

8. Ibid. (Text)

9. Detroit Sunday Journal, June 30, 1996, p.8.

10. Metro Times (Detroit), July 3-9, 1996, p.16. Burke's comments should not be interpreted as a call for militant action. Pacifist civil disobedience tactics may also involve breaking the law.(Text)

11. The CWV group as a whole downplays the fight against opportunism. An amazing example of this comes from the Anita's page three article "News from Mexico" in CWVTJ #10. In a brief report on some activities of the Zapatistas, she casually mentions that the recently formed Zapatista Front for National Liberation, which is defined by the Zapatista leaders as their main work in this period, has been turned over to the bourgeois reformist forces like the PRD. Anita's comment on this central undertaking of the Zapatistas is that "it is not clear at this time how successful this organizing is" because of this "one problem." If Anita "is not clear" how successful the Zapatista's new front is when it has been turned over to the likes of the PRD (the Mexican rough equivalent of the Democrats here), this is because nothing can make her criticize the Zapatista policy. To say there is only "one problem" with a front under the PRD's thumb is like a doctor saying there was only one problem with the last operation -- the patient died! (Text)

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