Building an in-plant distribution network

Speech at the Third National Conference of the Marxist-Leninist Party, USA
Fall 1986

Reprinted from the Workers' Advocate Supplement, vol. 3, #1, January 20, 1987


What the distribution network looks like
Built in the ferment against concessions
The anger over unsafe conditions
Against job combinations and job elimination
The difficulty facing organizational consolidation
At the union meetings
The rigged vote
The fruit of persistent work and opposition to liquidationism
Better organized than the opportunists
Narrow trade unionist pressures on the militants
The necessity to build up the pro-party trend

. I'm going to make some points about building up a network to distribute Party literature at my plant [Great Lakes Steel near Detroit, Michigan].

. At the 2nd National Conference of our Party it was emphasized that

"In the present situation we cannot expect rapid advances. Every step we take will be difficult, slow, and will come only from the most painstaking and creative work. . . . Nevertheless, we can use the small, sporadic, and scattered skirmishes that break out . . . to build up the Party's prestige, its ties and organization among the masses."

. That is very much our unit's experience at my plant. In the last two years there has been no strike nor even job actions inside the plant. But a certain amount of ferment did develop against job combinations and against concessions in the contract which was negotiated this year. We were able to use that ferment to reactivate the pro-party workers in the plant and, around that core, to draw the bulk of the most active workers into a network to distribute Party leaflets on the industrial struggle.

What the distribution network looks like

. First, let me describe what this distribution network looks like.

. There are several thousand workers at my plant. We have only limited access to the workers at the plant gates. What is more, this plant is but a secondary place of concentration for our unit and so we have been able to put only limited forces into the work there. Only one of the comrades who works at the plant does almost all of the contacting work. And we have another comrade from the unit do almost all of the gate distribution. Our recently established system of gate distribution allows us to pass out, each month, around 100 leaflets at the main plant and 100 more at another facility of the company. We also distribute the Workers' Advocate once a month at both places. Because of these limitations for distribution at the gates we have emphasized building up the distribution from inside.

. Inside the plant there are a couple of dozen workers who distribute Party leaflets on the industrial struggle. Some of the leaflets are passed hand to hand and others are left in small stacks at various locations around the plant, such as in the locker rooms. When all the distributors are mobilized they get out, on the average, a total of about 250 leaflets. However, because of our unit's limited forces, we are not always able to mobilize all of them on every leaflet.

. At the core of this network are the comrades who work in the plant, the pro-party workers (who started working with us in the late 1970s), and several other workers who will distribute almost all Party literature including, at times, the Workers' Advocate. It is this core which we are trying to consolidate into a stable trend which consistently carries out Party work and which can assist in mobilizing the rest of the network.

. The other workers in the network distribute mainly only the literature on the plant or industrial struggle. They all do read the Workers' Advocate. And most say they agree with much of our agitation. But it cannot be said that they are convinced supporters of the Party. In fact, this network is composed of almost all of the most active workers in the plant; and a number of them have been influenced by different revisionist political trends.

. Some used to be in a rank-and-file caucus of the Communist League (CL) at my plant. But that caucus collapsed with the big layoffs that took place a number of years back. One of the two CL leaders in the plant went fully into union bureaucracy while the other went into the company's labor relations section. And the best workers from the caucus were drawn into our network. Two other distributors have been influenced by the Bulletin trotskyites. And even a close friend of the supporter of the CPUSA (the official pro-Soviet revisionist "Communist" Party) in the plant distributes our literature from time to time, although we do not consider her to be part of our network.

. I give these examples to illustrate the fact that this is by no means a consolidated network of the Party. Rather, these are the workers who most wanted to be active in the fight against the capitalist's concessions offensive, who hate the national and local union officials, but who are only beginning to move to the left and still have many illusions in the reformists. Our unit, through its timely and painstaking work, was able to provide a low-level form of organization that drew these workers into activity independent of the union bureaucracy and towards the Party.

Built in the ferment against concessions

. Let me describe some of the history of building this network.

. As early as 1977 we had established an initial distribution network of a few workers. A few more workers joined the network in the next years. By 1979 some of the distributors were consolidated as pro-party workers.

. But from 1980 to about 1983 half the plant's workers were laid off. This included our comrades and most of the militants at the plant. Through much of this period we were still able to carry out some periodic distribution inside the plant through two or three militants who had not been laid off. But the workers' movement at the plant collapsed. The work became increasingly difficult.

. At the end of 1983, the company began to call back some workers (although today there are still only about half as many workers as there were in 1979). Our comrades and the pro-party workers were eventually recalled. And gradually sentiment to fight the capitalists began to develop.

The anger over unsafe conditions

. The first sign of renewed ferment among the workers showed up at the end of 1984 when a wide debate broke out over the unsafe conditions that caused a worker to be seriously injured in a fall from a roof. Our unit -- which not only had a long tradition of agitating against the unsafe conditions in the plant, but also had long-time connections in the department of the injured worker -- saw the excitement among the workers and quickly put out a leaflet. We were able to reactivate the pro-party workers and a few other long-time distributors to help spread the leaflet through the plant.

. At that time no motion developed to actually fight the unsafe conditions. But we were able to use the agitation to make contact with a whole slew of workers. And we decided to go back to those circles (who were most outraged on this issue) to develop discussion on fighting the concessions drive and on a series of other political questions. For the next number of months systematic contacting work was done with these workers.

Against job combinations and job elimination

. During the first-half of 1985 sentiment began to rise against the job combinations and job elimination in the plant. As well, a general discussion developed on the capitalists' drive for more concessions in our industry. This discussion became more intense in the summer when a strike broke out at a major company in our industry.

. We decided to seize on this ferment to try to draw into action the militants who we were talking with. We got them to give us reports on the job combinations taking place in their own departments. A leaflet was drafted based on these reports and we took the draft back to the militants for further consultation. Eventually the Party published the leaflet, which contained a statement of support for the strike at another company, an exposure of the capitalists' plans for more concessions at my plant, and reports on job combinations from most departments in the plant.

. This whole process took three weeks, but it had dramatic results. The leaflet acted as a report from the militant workers. Over a dozen militants saw it as their own leaflet. Despite hesitations about the hammer and sickle on the masthead, they took up distributing it widely through the plant. It was very popular among the masses of workers and caused such a stir that it had the reactionaries whining "they have people everywhere . . . !" This gave the distributors a sense of the power of this form of work. They became excited to do more. Thus the broad distribution network was launched.

. Over the next year we systematically built up the network by issuing a number of leaflets encouraging the fight against concessions and exposing the treachery of the national and local union officials. In each case we discussed our plans and showed preliminary drafts of the leaflets to as many of the workers as possible. This was often cumbersome and delayed the publishing of the leaflets. But it meant that we corrected any errors that the militants caught in the drafts, and it ensured that they knew they were a real part of the work the Party was organizing.

. In the midst of this activity we suggested a sticker campaign to workers in the network. The idea was to have two stickers. One was to be a larger sticker with a number of anti-concessions slogans and the Party's name on it. A second smaller sticker was designed so that the workers could wear it and had only one slogan against concessions. The idea was to make it clear that this was a Party campaign but, at the same time, to have a non-Party sticker so that the widest possible number of workers would wear them and we would not expose to the company and union hacks those workers who were closest to the Party.

. The militants loved the idea. They contributed money to produce the stickers; they wore them and put them up on the plant walls; and they distributed them widely to other workers. The stickers went like wildfire -- in all, 1700 were passed out -- and they helped create a militant mood among the broad masses of workers. This further encouraged the militants and brought new recruits into the distribution network.

The difficulty facing organizational consolidation

. In addition to these forms, we also tried to organize a meeting of the militants to discuss plans to fight the concessions contract that was then being negotiated. However, most of the militants did not come to the meeting. This showed us that, even when the excitement to fight was at its highest, the workers were not yet ready to go a step further in building up organization.

. When the concessions contract was negotiated we quickly put out a leaflet denouncing it. The network spread it quickly through the plant. This was crucial in helping to prepare the masses of workers to oppose the labor hacks at the union meetings they held to try to sell the concessions to the workers.

At the union meetings

. I have to tell you that these union meetings were one of those rare opportunities, in this difficult period, where our comrades got to see how widely and how warmly the Party is respected and looked to by the masses. We mobilized a force of Party supporters from other work places to distribute leaflets outside the meeting hall. They had heard about the work at my plant, and many had contributed to it for years, but without ever seeing the workers massed together. But now nearly half of the workers from my plant showed up for these meetings, and they literally lined up to get the leaflets. Many told us they had already gotten the leaflet inside the plant and that we were right. Others started up discussions on fighting the hacks. A pro-party worker stopped to proudly point out his contribution to the leaflet. Meanwhile, other members of the in-plant network beamed at the strong support the Party's leaflet was getting.

. Inside the meeting hall it seemed that everyone was reading our leaflet. When our comrades from my plant spoke, denouncing the contract and the union bureaucrats who signed it, the in-plant distributors led cheers. And the masses of workers joined the jeering of the hacks. If a vote had been taken at this meeting, the contract would have been overwhelmingly turned down.

The rigged vote

. But the hacks, over the protest of the workers, forced the vote to be taken later, and then rigged it. The outcome led to a certain demoralization among the masses of workers, and some distributors in the network became less active. But recently the activity of the distributors has stepped up and we are beginning to see signs that the temporary ebb is ending.

. Now comrades, what were the factors that allowed us to build up this broad network.

The fruit of persistent work and opposition to liquidationism

. First, of course, is the fact that our longtime work at the plant meant that the Party already had definite respect among the masses. As well, our small pro-party trend and earlier distribution group were fairly easily reactivated and provided the base to expand the network. Also essential was the fact that the anti-concessions ferment among the masses of workers provided us a situation we could capitalize on. And there are other factors too.

. But the one that I'd like to go into more here is the fact that we were better organized and better able to respond to the renewed ferment than the flabby opportunists in the plant. This had a lot to do with the persistent fight our Party has waged against liquidationism. That fight not only armed our unit against illusions in the union bureaucrats, but also allowed us to maintain a sober assessment of the situation -- to neither romanticize the flurries of excitement nor become demoralized at temporary ebbs. That fight, taken up by the unit, kept us oriented to steadfast revolutionary work, work in which comrades were trained in painstaking contacting, work that allowed us to seize on the motion that came up to draw the workers into action.

Better organized than the opportunists

. The opportunists in the plant, on the other hand, were quite flabby. Beside the CL men I already mentioned, there is also an ex-member of the OL (the neo-revisionist October League which became the CPML and degenerated into flag-waving social-chauvinism) who is a grievanceman. And there is also a CPUSA supporter who has a circle of a handful of other workers around him. Because the opportunists are all oriented to tailing after the union bureaucracy they have not been very active; and their activity has tended to be confined to putting up resolutions at union meetings.

. During the big layoffs these reformists did virtually nothing among the masses. When the mass ferment started the CP man did get out a leaflet in support of the strike at another company in our industry. But he limited it to a call for the workers to give financial help and to travel to support rallies. We too supported the strike and had a comrade travel to the one support rally that a few workers from my plant could get to. But we also connected that strike to the fight at our own plant; with this agitation we were able to bring the militants into action.

. It was only after our sticker campaign had electrified the plant that the opportunists really got going. They tried to put together a coalition of all of them -- CL, CP, and the ex-member of the OL -- to form a kind of union hack opposition in the plant. Their most successful campaign was a petition drive to pass a resolution at a union meeting against the joint company-union committee that was working out the plans for job combination and job elimination at the plant. This campaign captured the anger of many workers and about 100 signed the petition.

. But, after the union meeting, the opportunists didn't know what to do. We, on the other hand, continued broad agitation against the company-union committee, including publishing a secret report (which a militant supplied us) that revealed the committee's job elimination plans. In the end, even the motion around the opportunists' most successful campaign tended to gravitate towards us.

. In summary, we got organized more quickly, have remained more active, and -- by building up motion independent of the union hacks -- have been able, at least for the time being, to out organize the opportunists. This is one of the reasons the network includes almost all of the most active workers in the plant, even those somewhat influenced by revisionists and trotskyites.

Narrow trade unionist pressures on the militants

. This is not to say, however, that we have already been victorious in the battle to win the militants to Marxism-Leninism. The union bureaucracy -- with its reformism, anti-import chauvinism, and anti-communism -- exerts heavy pressure on the militants. In one way or another the opportunists in the plant give in to and foster this pressure, and they search for a niche with the bureaucracy. As well, this pressure is reinforced by the ideology of narrow trade unionism, which the opportunists as well as the bureaucrats foster. All this makes the consolidation of class-consciousness and the pro-party trend a protracted and difficult process.

. Narrow trade unionism detaches the economic struggle from the overall class struggle. It converts the economic struggle into an attempt to gain some economic relief for some workers at the price of accepting the overall framework of the present-day capitalist system. The trade union bureaucrats themselves foster it as a cover for their pro-capitalist stand. But narrow trade unionism is also promoted among those becoming disgusted with the sellout of the trade union bureaucrats. It is behind the idea that the difficulties of the struggle could be overcome if one gave up worrying about (or doing anything about) revolutionary or oppositional ideas.

. It should be pointed out that there is a relatively large backward section of workers at the plant. This is the social base manipulated by the reactionary union bureaucrats who have controlled the local for decades. And the union hacks attempt to mobilize these workers against any progressive motion in the plant. One of their principle weapons to beat down the workers is anti-communism.

. For example, following the big contract meetings where the hacks got such a drubbing from the militants, the hacks put out an unsigned leaflet and spread thousands of copies through the plant. It defended the local officials and their collaboration with the company's concession demands and branded the entire opposition in the plant as being communist. Now this rather clumsy propaganda assisted to push those who opposed the contract in the direction of communism, in our direction. But, at the same time, it brought pressure on the militants, so that even a pro-party worker became a bit nervous about distributing our next leaflet.

. This kind of pressure has meant that a few of the distributors have repeatedly come up with the idea that if we'd just take the hammer and sickle off our leaflets they would be more popular, would gain more support, and would get less heat from the hacks. We have had to carry out painstaking work to combat such pressures.

. In this work we have counted on the fact that the militants' desire to fight on the hot issues in the plant helps them overcome their hesitancy to distribute communist leaflets. Once they've distributed literature, we discuss their own experience with them to help them overcome their hesitations. As well, the constant attention to consulting the distributors about the leaflets -- what we should put out and on its content -- helps strengthen their sense of being part of the Party work and their confidence that the leaflets they are distributing are their own.

. Along with this work, we carry out careful, simple ideological work to combat the union bureaucracy and the ideology of narrow trade unionism and to strengthen the Party consciousness of the distributors.

. For one thing we have used every opportunity to expose the disgusting treachery of the union bureaucrats themselves, to build up the hatred for them, and to educate the workers in opposition to the politics the union hacks represent. This exposure is not restricted to a handful of workers, but is done among the masses. The more the masses of workers are mobilized against the union hacks, the more the distributors and the other militants are able to stand up to the pressures against them from the union bureaucracy.

. We also do a lot of work to explain to the distributors such things as the importance of being honest with the masses of workers as to who is actually conducting the struggle, of the role of the Party, and the importance of winning the masses to communism. As well, we show the militants various other methods of breaking down anti-communism when it does come up among other workers, such as arguing over whether the content of the leaflet is right and undermining the anti-communist views that way.

. So far, because of militants desire to fight and because of our careful work, we have been able to combat the pressure from narrow trade unionism and from the bureaucrats. But it has to be said that the network is still quite fragile.

The necessity to build up the pro-party trend

. So this is the situation. We have built a broad network to distribute party literature on the industrial struggle. But the workers are not yet ready to go farther to build up more stable organization. And even the network itself is quite fragile and requires constant work to organize it and keep it active.

. This situation brings home why it's so important to build up the pro-party trend which is at the core of the broader distribution network. The pro-party workers are the clearest and most stable in their support for the Party. And the somewhat wider group that reads and distributes almost all of the Party literature also tends to see more clearly the importance of the Party in the plant. We are very concerned to consolidate this trend and organize it better for the work. To do this, we are carrying out various measures which include the following:

. First, we are trying to draw them into more of the political agitation and to develop their political education. We use the time of ebb in the economic movement to do a lot of political work at the plant, including sticker campaigns, to draw them into the agitation in support of revolution in South Africa and Nicaragua. This has included encouraging them to go to anti-apartheid demonstrations and also things like having more-or-less social gatherings in workers' homes to show slides of the Party's solidarity tour to meet workers and peasants in Nicaragua. So we are using various means to draw the militants into the political movement, and whenever possible, into the movement that goes on outside of the plant.

. We are also working to develop closer consultation with the pro-party workers on planning and writing leaflets.

. As well, we are trying to do closer work with them on building the distribution network itself. This includes trying to mobilize the pro-party workers into the work of taking leaflets to other distributors. This, we hope, will not only strengthen them but it will also help to overcome the problem where it is mainly one comrade who has to try to see all the distributors on every leaflet.

. So, comrades, this is our unit's experience in building up the broad distribution network and in work to consolidate the pro-party core of the network. Although the network is still fragile, it has shown us that even when the mass movements are still weak, we can seize on opportunities to organize the workers and draw them closer to the Party. <>

Notes -- August 2008

(WAS) The Workers' Advocate, and Workers' Advocate Supplement, which carried additional materials including many of the longer theoretical articles, were publications of the Marxist-Leninist Party of the US. The MLP, which was founded on Jan. 1, 1980 and dissolved in November 1993, stemmed from the anti-revisionist movement of activists who wanted to push forward the mass struggles and root them in the working class, saw Marxism as an essential guide for the revolutionary struggle, and rejected the sell-out reformism of the official pro-Soviet communist parties. It was opposed to both Soviet revisionism and Trotskyism. Its roots went back in the mass movements of the 1960s, such as the anti-racist, anti-war, student, women's, and workers' movements, and the WA itself was published from 1969 to 1993. The cause of anti-revisionist communism is upheld today by the Communist Voice Organization, and the Communist Voice is a theoretical journal which is a successor to the Workers' Advocate. (Return to text)

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