A comment on the Staley lockout, and the
struggle for proletarian reorganization:

On Jack Hill's empty optimism regarding
the accomplishments of the
Staley struggle

by Joseph Green
(from Communist Voice #9, August 1, 1996)


. Jack Hill (whose former pen name was Oleg) has written two articles summing up the Staley workers' strike/lockout in the Chicago Workers' Voice Theoretical Journal #10 of May 31 and has circulated them on e-mail. (1) They give some interesting information about the Staley struggle. But notable in these articles is the empty optimism about the supposed accomplishments of the Staley workers' struggle. He has to admit of course that this strike was lost. (When Staley locked out its workers, the struggle basically turned into a strike.) But was this loss a setback to the development of the strike movement? If we believe Jack, not at all. According to Jack:

* The struggle "definitely shook up the labor movement" (although it never even reached the point where its organizers would proudly proclaim it as a strike, and it was instead a show case for "corporate campaign" tactics).
* The struggle helped push "Kirkland out and led to the election of Sweeney as head of the AFL-CIO" (although Jack admits that this was of no use to the workers).
* The struggle "to some extent" exposed "the mainstream AFL-CIO hacks" as obstacles to the struggle (although Jack admits that one of the "serious flaws" in the strike was that it avoided "directly exposing and confronting the AFL-CIO leadership and the international union leadership").
* The struggle was particularly important in "convert(ing) a number of the rank and file workers into experienced and dedicated worker activists" (but Jack can't point to any new rank-and-file organization independent of the reformists, and he won't even discuss the views of these new worker activists).
* The struggle popularized mass tactics and "accomplished a lot in terms of building consciousness across the country of the possibility and necessity of workers resisting" (although Jack admits that one of the "serious flaws" in the struggle was that it "avoid(ed) confronting continued production in the plant").
* Jack presents the struggle as something essentially different from and superior to the other strikes that have occurred--for example, Jack is excited that the local union leadership welcomed the "communists and socialists" of the Chicago Staley Workers Solidarity Committee.

The workers need the truth

. Jack thinks that all this praise of the struggle must be said, or else one is spitting at the heroism and sacrifices of the Staley workers. He thinks that, to honor their struggle, one must sugarcoat its outcome. I think the opposite--to honor the Staley workers and show true solidarity with them, one must look the truth in the face:

* The struggle, despite enthusiastic support from other workers, failed: the Staley workers voted out a reformist union local leader and voted in a capitulationist one, and then voted to return to work with a miserable contract, not much better than what they were offered at the start.
* The struggle did not shake up the labor movement, but followed the same pattern as other recent major strikes of staying within the narrow limits placed on them by the reformist trade union leaders and, for instance, not seeking to close down the struck plants.
* The local left in Chicago--in particular the Chicago Staley Workers Solidarity Committee--in the main followed a reformist policy and went along with the "serious flaws" in the struggle.
* The sabotage of the Staley struggle by the top AFL-CIO leaders was not exposed, as the local union leaders--while angry at the foot-dragging and pressure from the AFL-CIO--kept silent until after the struggle was lost.

. The only way to respect the workers is to tell them the truth. This takes steadfastness and courage, and if the left is going to ask the workers to show staunch courage against the capitalists, it had better set an example by displaying some courage itself.

. In the long run, it is invigorating--not demoralizing--to look the truth in the face. After all, if the Staley struggle had accomplished all the things that Jack thought it did, it's hard to understand why it failed. The hard facts must be brought out--only this will really help strike activists become "experienced and dedicated worker activists".

. Jack however has a different view. He believes it demoralizes the workers to tell them the truth. If only Jack presents the present movement as going upward, ever upward (in the Chicago area, at least), then the workers presumably won't notice the steady decline of the movement, a decline which has not yet been stemmed.

. Of course in some situations revolutionaries do have a more positive assessment of events than reformists. The revolutionary communists see the long-range pattern of development, and they judge the movement by different standards than the reformists. The reformists tend to be horrified whenever a struggle becomes sharp, whereas the revolutionaries laud the development of a sharp class struggle. However, it is not a stereotyped pattern good for all times and places that revolutionaries say that the struggle has really accomplished a lot, while the reformists are full of gloom. In fact, in many situations the reformists and capitulationists gloss over the difficulties and present the situation as just fine, while it is the revolutionaries who warn of the depth of the crisis and of the need for new and decisive measures. The reformists for example are adjusting to the present neo-conservative atmosphere and presenting the present-day disorganization, meekness, and the lack of struggle as an advance over the past. This is a method they use to smother the struggle. Thus, in one strike after another, the pro-capitalist labor bureaucrats try to smother militancy by assuring the workers that "corporate campaigns", legal maneuvers, and begging hat in hand are all that is necessary. The reformist labor officials keep insisting that the strike is going ever so well, that the capitalists are losing so much money, or that the politicians are just about to interfere if only the workers vote for the right candidates, right up to the moment that the strike is lost. Jack goes these reformist union officials one better, and insists--even after it has been lost--that the Staley struggle went ever so well.

. The truth is that the Staley struggle did not break out of the pattern of other recent strikes. There may be good reasons why the Staley workers were not in a position to do so. And the Staley workers are not to blame for the harsh situation confronting the workers' movement today, but rather are victims of a situation which they fought to a certain extent and which is oppressing them and destroying their working and living conditions. It is not the mass of workers who are responsible for the capitulationist policy of the trade union bureaucrats. But the workers must be told the truth: the Staley struggle was waged on the old lines. As a result, despite the sound and fury, it precisely did not shake up the labor movement; it did not expose the policy of the AFL-CIO; and it did not encourage other workers to blockade struck factories. The biggest mass actions at Staley, including the demonstration of June 25, 1994 on the first anniversary of the lockout, did not blockade the struck factory, and the widely-circulated video of that demonstration promoted anything but blocking the factory. The problem was not, as Oleg has it, that there were some flaws in the struggle, but that the struggle was run from beginning to end along reformist lines, and the workers and the CSWSC [Chicago Staley Workers' Solidarity Committee] never broke out of this pattern.

Jack Hill's critique

. Mind you, Jack has some differences from the local union leaders and even some of his friends in the CSWSC:

* He recognizes that one of the key issues in the defeat of the strike was the failure to attempt to close down the plant (although he also thinks that the struggle might have been just on the verge of winning anyway).
* He thinks the workers should try to devise better "corporate campaign" strategy than the union leaders and reformist activists--and he seems to believe all the union gossip about the great success of these tactics with "Pepsi". Supposedly, if only the workers hadn't settled, Pepsi was on the point of forcing Staley to agree to better terms.
* He thinks that one can replace the "labor movement" by a "workers' movement" if only one breaks with "the AFL-CIO leadership and the international union leadership who are hamstringing the struggle". Thus he looks towards various reformist union locals (which he refrains from characterizing as "reformist") and other reformists as the base of a supposedly "independent" workers' movement. He is excited by the action of certain union locals in providing material and moral aid for the Staley struggle and regards this as a sign of the development of an independent workers' movement.

. Jack's critique is partly correct and partly reformist. It is correct that a key issue was to seek to close down the plant, and it is correct that the top union leaders played a disgusting role. But Jack also has trouble departing from the reformist AFL-CIO strategy for strikes. Thus Jack--having noted that "corporate campaigns" can be "supplementary tactics"--is far too enthusiastic about these campaigns and ends up promoting illusions about them. He is susceptible to the reformist rumors about how wonderful they are. Indeed, while he says that they cannot be an "effective" substitute for "struggle at the plant gates", he also says that the "corporate campaign" would probably have brought Staley to its knees if only the "AFL-CIO had really applied serious resources" to it. He doesn't notice that, if the "corporate campaign" itself would have sufficed, then this goes against his critique that such a campaign was no substitute for shutting down Staley.

. Moreover, Jack's idea of uniting everyone simply against the top union leaders is a reformist illusion. It ignores that the capitulationist trend doesn't just consist of the top leaders in the AFL-CIO, but is a political and ideological trend comprising local leaders as well, even those who do wage some type of strike struggle, as the Staley local leaders did.

. Indeed, Jack's critique of the AFL-CIO top leaders hardly extends beyond the fact that they didn't apply "serious resources" to the struggle and they sought to squash the struggle. He has a hard time dealing with the actual type of struggle that the AFL-CIO leadership wants to organize, and often pretends that differences among reformist union leaders on the details of their common strategy, and on their assessment of a particular struggle, are differences between the trend of capitulation and the independent trend of struggle. Thus Jack criticizes targeting the "corporate campaign" against State Farm Insurance and Domino sugar as bad tactics, and he attributes this to Ray Rogers and the "corporate campaign" strategy. But when he likes the "corporate campaign" he paints it as almost opposed to the AFL-CIO, for example, writing that it was "the Staley workers [who] did hit on a pretty good strategy of targeting beverage companies which purchased Staley's product."

. If Jack's main criticism of the AFL-CIO is that it didn't donate resources to the Staley struggle, he praises extravagantly locals that did. As soon as a local union donates some money and endorses a struggle, Jack has a hard time seeing it as being part of a reformist trend.

. Jack's articles present the pattern that the difference between the good and bad trade union leaders is whether they give a struggle some material and moral support, or whether they boycott it. He doesn't contrast reformism to the line of class struggle, but simply capitulation to struggle. The pattern is something like: the bad international leaders sellout the struggle, while many good local leaders, the leftists, and the workers fight, although sometimes there are flaws in the way they fight. This pattern seems at first sight to fit the Staley struggle, since the top AFL-CIO leaders stabbed it in the back. Nevertheless, a look at other struggles, and a closer look at the Staley struggle, show that this viewpoint is mistaken.

. For example, take the question of the "corporate campaign" that was used at Staley. It's not that the top AFL-CIO leaders always sabotage "corporate campaigns" while the locals and the left carry them out. On the contrary, the AFL-CIO promotes "corporate campaigns". It's not that the AFL-CIO opposes all "in-plant resistance" and the good local leaders carry them out. On the contrary, the AFL-CIO, in seeking alternatives to strikes, has looked at "in-plant" tactics as well as "corporate campaigns". It's not that the AFL-CIO opposes "civil disobedience" actions, while only the "communists and socialists" of the CSWSC carry them out, but various officials from international unions or the AFL-CIO promote "civil disobedience" as an alternative to workers' blockading plants. It's not that the AFL-CIO wants to avoid strikes, while the local Staley leaders looked towards a strike, but the local leaders were agreed with the AFL-CIO in seeking alternatives to a strike. No doubt, the AFL-CIO is stodgy, and it's not hard for activists to carry out "corporate campaigns" and "civil disobedience" with more flair and daring. But a strategy that doesn't go beyond simply outdoing the AFL-CIO leadership at its own game is doomed to failure.

What has to be built up among the rank and file?

. But let's return to the issue of the mass struggle, which Jack wants. Now it is true that one of the key issues in the Staley lockout--as in the Detroit newspaper strike, and other recent strikes--is whether the workers seek to close down the struck or locked-out plant. But Jack never asks what type of organization and what type of trend would have to be built up among the workers to help them break out of the capitulationist tactics forced on them. It's not enough to simply hope against hope that eventually someone will seek to shut down a struck plant. And it's positively harmful to promote hopes that various union locals will somehow spontaneously become militant. One has to work to organize an oppositional trend that will serve as a core to mobilize the mass of workers to carry out mass tactics. This is what Jack stays away from doing.

. Jack is a member of the Chicago Workers' Voice group, which regards itself as communist.Does this mean that Jack is working to develop communist organization in the workers' movement? Not at all. Jack doesn't see any such role for the CWV group. Jack seems to regard it--as other members of the CWV also do--simply as a cheering squad for the mass struggle and for the general left. He only promotes that he participated in the Staley struggle as a member of the Chicago Staley Workers Solidarity Committee (CSWSC). His articles on the Staley struggle were in the Chicago Workers' Voice Theoretical Journal, as I mentioned at the start of my comments. But even this journal itself only promotes Jack as a general activist of the struggle, and doesn't promote the activity of the Chicago Workers' Voice group. It seems that the CWVdoesn't seek to develop an anti-revisionist communist trend in the movement, but insofar as the CWV connects with various movements, its members simply merge with different left groups.

. And with respect to the CSWSC, Jack doesn't say who was in it. He doesn't say which left groups or trends were in it, and what they did. Were there reformist trends inside the CSWSC? Were there trends which basically supported the AFL-CIO strategy but simply wanted to carry it out in a militant way? Jack disagrees at one point with an assessment by some activists of the CSWSC, who, he seems to say, agreed with the views of the local union leadership against mass action at the plant gates, but Jack doesn't discuss whether the stand of these CSWSC activists gave rise to any dissatisfaction within the CSWSC or was in fact the general stand of the CSWSC. Nevertheless, the CSWSC was, for him, the organization of the "socialists and communists" in the struggle.

. Indeed, Jack doesn't even discuss the agitation that the CSWSC and the CWV carried out during the Staley struggle, what it aimed at, and whether anyone listened to it. He is enthusiastic about "civil disobedience" actions in "corporate campaigns", but he closes his eyes to an assessment of the agitation of the "communists and socialists".


. But there's a lot to consider about the role of the CSWSC. If one puts together bits and pieces from Jack's own account, one finds out:

* The CSWSC members most connected to the Staley workers, the ones who Jack says "spent a lot of time in Decatur talking with Staley worker activists", seem to have agreed with the local union leaders in opposing mass action at the plant gates.
* The CSWSC mainly carried out support work for the local union.
* And the CSWSC was quite excited about the "corporate campaigns".

. Jack may be critical of the stand of some CSWSC members in opposing militancy, but he is generally enthusiastic about the work of the CSWSC and presents it in a wonderful light. He has no perspective of what activists should have done to change the CSWSC, or whether it is realistic to expect general coalitions of the left to revitalize the workers' movement, etc. He just goes with the flow.

. He is especially enthusiastic about the CSWSC's "civil disobedience" inside the corporate campaigns. They may perhaps have been praiseworthy, but CD's do not take the "corporate campaign" outside the reformist strategy. The CD's may show that the CSWSC was more active than the union leaders in this struggle, but it doesn't show that the CSWSC had a fundamentally different strategy than these leaders. Various reformist union leaders organize "civil disobedience" as their chosen form of mass action. In the Detroit newspaper strike, the union leaders have promoted CD's as an alternative to militant mass action. At the height of the struggle, the workers took the occasion of a mass action organized at the plant gate by the union leaders--indeed, mainly by the international union leaders--to go beyond what the union leaders wanted and to actually block the distribution of the Sunday issue of the paper and bottle it up inside the production plant. The plan of the international union at this action was to wage CD's. The union leaders have repeatedly put forward all sorts of civil disobedience actions and minor actions as the alternative to actually bottling up the newspapers at the production plant.

The reformist local leaders and the left

. Thus it has a strange ring when Jack boasts about the good relations between the local union leaders and the left. Why shouldn't there have been good relations if the CSWSC was mainly subservient to the reformist trade union leaders? Should the goal of "communists and socialists" be to cement good ties with the reformists or should they seek to build up an independent workers' movement although that will mean struggle against reformism?

. But Jack enthuses that "In contrast to some other struggles, such as some of the Cat locals, the Staley local never seemed to object to leftists distributing socialist or communist literature at their events or to socialists and communists participating in the support committees." But did these "socialists and communists" promote any work to develop an independent trend? Who were they (i.e., what trend were they, not what was everyone's name), and did they carry out consistent denunciation of the betrayal by the international leaders? Did they argue for a different policy than that of the local union leaders? Or did they mainly just back the reformist policy of the trade union leaders, and carry it out more actively and militantly?

. Jack apparently promotes the good relations with the left as proof of

* the supposedly special nature of the Staley local union leaders (despite their tactical errors); and
* a sign that the local unions--if emancipated from the internationals--can form the base of the "workers movement" with which he hopes to replace the "labor movement".

. In fact, the Staley union leaders don't appear that different from reformist activists elsewhere. In the Detroit newspaper strike too, the union leaders only denounced the "left" when it advocated a policy that the leaders weren't too fond of. If there was such excellent relations between the CSWSC and the union local in Staley, even though the union leaders harbored hopes in the AFL-CIO to the very end and insisted on a reformist strategy, it suggests that the CSWSC centered its attention on maintaining these relations to the exclusion of advocating an independent stand.

. And Jack's hopes about the union locals show the limit of his "socialist and communist" stand. It extends no further than the action of various union locals today. When the Marxist-Leninist Party was alive, Jack took part in its work to develop a communist trend among the workers. Having given up on this attempt to organize a truly independent trend, he now puts his hopes on union locals in general, and on a general mixture of all the left in broad coalitions that are unable to stand against the dominant reformist ideas of the time.

. Last year I pointed out that the CWV has replaced the idea of working to build up a revolutionary anti-revisionist trend with simply floating in the left. Jack Hill's articles on the Staley lockout show this in full detail. Jack--having become demoralized with the idea of independent communist activity in the economic struggle or in the left movement in general--now closes his eyes to the trends. If he doesn't notice the different trends in the CSWSC--Trotskyists, reformists, etc.--then presumably the CSWSC can simply be regarded as the "left" and as "communists and socialists". If he doesn't characterize the stands of the union officials and refrains from telling the reader what groupings and trends they belong to, then presumably we can ignore this and just put our hopes in "locals" breaking away from the "internationals".

. Indeed Jack's articles are notable for their lack of characterization of the political trends in the struggle. There are some good things and some bad things, some things he likes and some things he doesn't. But he doesn't present that political trends and political differences have much to do with it. He pictures the bad international leaders, the good workers, and the good left, and he describes the local union officials as sort of good but making some bad mistakes. His picture is basically: there are those for action and those against action. So, in essence, he calls for uniting everyone who is for action against the bad leaders of the international unions and the AFL-CIO. But this is an impotent call, which will never suffice to build an independent workers' movement, since the reformist leaders do, in general, carry out a certain sort of action.

. Jack's refusal to deal with the issue of trends means that he doesn't tell the working class what is really going on in the union movement, nor does he tell it what the real situation in the left is. He simply crosses his fingers and hopes that there will be more militancy in the future.

The "labor movement" vs. the "workers' movement"

. Jack of course regards himself as a real revolutionary. He would even do away with the "labor movement" of the present and replace it with the "working class movement". Is Jack really going to agitate among the workers "down with the labor movement"? Somehow, I doubt it. He has a bit too much good sense for this. But he makes much of the distinction between the "labor movement" and the "working class movement" is order to look real radical and so that the reader will overlook the fact that he doesn't put forward tasks needed to build up a revolutionary trend among the workers.

. And what is this "labor movement" that Jack opposes. He says that "the official so-called 'labor movement' led by the soldout bureaucrats of the AFL-CIO is a positive hindrance". But Jack clearly doesn't believe that the local unions that gave material and moral support to the Staley workers were a hindrance, and he praises the actions of the local Staley union leaders as a major factor in uniting the workers for the struggle ahead. So for all his shouting about the "labor movement", he doesn't include the local unions and the local bureaucrats in this "labor movement". For him, this so-called "labor movement" is just another name for the top leaders of the international unions and the officers of the national AFL-CIO. Jack doesn't seem to have grasped that the reformist stand of the AFL-CIO isn't just a matter of a few bad apples at the top, but is reflected at all levels throughout the pro-capitalist unions.

. So it turns out that Jack's articles not only describe some aspects of the Staley lockout, but they also reflect the reformist sickness afflicting most of the left today. They show his reluctance to look straight in the face of the present disorganization of the strike struggles and of the left activists. And it shows his replacement of the hard work of building a revolutionary communist trend with sighing after any bit of militancy that shows up here or there.

. Today the working class struggle faces disorganization. There is an organizational and ideological crisis facing all organizations claiming to speak in the name of the proletariat, from trade unions to political groups. This has left the working class in a weak position with respect to the economic offensive of the bourgeoisie. In the U.S., fewer and fewer workers are in unions, and the unions are dominated by a pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy that strives to keep any struggle within bounds. Although the trade union leadership has sought to avoid struggle, the harsh concessions and cutbacks being forced on the workers have resulted in a number of struggles: at Caterpillar, at Staley, at the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, at Boeing, etc. Many key strikes have been lost, and there are a certain common features that appear:

* A labor union leadership seeking alternatives to strikes, and--during strikes--seeking to keep mass actions within narrow limits.
* Some dissident lower-level labor union officials have opposed the most capitulationist policies of the higher officials, but have nevertheless refused to tell the workers the truth about the labor union bureaucracy and have themselves sought to keep the workers away from big mass confrontations.
* The left-wing organizations have in the main created illusions about what can be expected from the present labor unions and their officialdom.

. These features can be seen in the Staley lockout, in which the workers held out courageously but lost. The strategy of the union officials--whether international or local--was to find an alternative to going on strike. Jack himself seems to have had some expectations about this strategy. While he says that there should have been mass actions at the plant designed to stop production, he also praises excessively every alternative to a strike that the union leaders tried. And he never even raises the issue of trying to organize an independent trend among the workers.

. The only way forward is to strive to develop a new revolutionary trend among the working class. This requires a thorough and fearless critique of the dominant reformist ideas of the groups involved in struggle. But Jack would center such criticism simply on the idea that one should be involved in the struggle and be militant. Jack is so anxious to avoid criticism of any action that he ends up, half the time, apologizing for the reformists at the head of such actions. What is needed is to build up proletarian organization that has a truly independent stand, but Jack closes his eyes to this. He even ignores his own organization (the Chicago Workers' Voice) and instead hails as a new rebirth the solidarity actions of leaders of local unions and the most ordinary actions in the workers' movement (work-to-rules, "in-plant" actions, etc.). What is needed is telling the truth about the present stagnation in the movement, but Jack revels in the great accomplishments of the Staley lockout and the CSWSC. So Jack's articles on the Staley lockout amount to glorifying the present stagnation instead of rallying activists against it.


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

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