Reciprocal Solidarity

Reciprocal Solidarity

Mhou

An audio version of this article is available on Soundcloud

“In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole?

. . .

They have no interest separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole” (Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848)

In August 2016, 200 workers at Lipton Tea’s only North American factory, located in Suffolk, Virginia, formally voted for representation through United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 and in September 2016, approximately 400 workers went on strike against the candy maker Just Born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Both of these episodes in the contemporary class struggle demonstrated the painful absence of a socialist movement that is to be and must become the only fraction which speaks and acts in the interest of the whole class.

The Exploited

Globally, a majority of the working-class confronts a duality of identity that combines being proletarian with belonging to a category designated as an ‘other’. These ‘others’, based on race, nationality, citizenship status, etc., exponentially compound to greater degrees the exploitation and degradations imposed by capitalism and capitalist society. This compounded exploitation grips workers in the interior of the capitalist metropoles while it reaches around the world through the tentacles of imperialism.

Following the definitive articulation of the unique class programme of the proletariat published in 1848 as the Communist Manifesto, the socialist movement began to look upon sections of the working-class as bribed by the capitalists, as agents of the capitalists within the working-class. Still later a category was created: the aristocracy of labor. From Engels to Lenin and permeating the tangled mess of tendencies, sects, groups and publications, a myriad of theories blossomed how to best divide and categorize the working-class, as if Marxism was entomology and Marxists were all lepidopterists sticking pins through different butterflies as they organized the specimens by family.

Despite the political differences separating them, a common thread links the constituent parts of a highly fractured socialist movement. That common thread is the rejection of the more skilled, better-paid, organized workers of the advanced-capitalist nations, seeing them as a fifth column operating at the behest of the capitalists. This rejection is a part of a platform identifying degree of exploitation and social degradation with revolutionary agency. The interests of the whole working-class were then, in practice, discarded by theoretically placing segments of the class into the camp of the capitalists.

Reciprocal Solidarity

In a piece titled, “An Argument with A Dead Marxist-Humanist,” I attacked these conceptions. Using an example of real world formulation of a political position based on this ‘labor aristocracy’ framework from a letter written by Raya Dunayevskaya to the editor of her group’s newspaper on the issue of seniority rights and affirmative action, I elaborated upon the practical consequences of such methods, theories and positions. For example, Dunayevskaya wrote:

Presently, both Blacks and women find they have very little chance of getting in [the AFL-CIO trade unions—Mhou], not only because of labor bureaucracy, but, most tragically, the rank and file likewise do not recognize any value in “affirmative action.” Believe me, no one in the movement is unaware of how long it took to get seniority, nor its absolute indispensability as against the boss who can otherwise fight at will. At the same time we cannot use just the past and old arguments since the opponents this time are not bosses but “lower and deeper layers” [of the working-class; the most oppressed and degraded segments—Mhou]. We also know the bosses would nevertheless use that against workers. . . With seniority, instead of at once running to a “conclusion” and line, let’s keep all avenues open, maintain dialogue with those excluded, or more precisely [last] hired, first fired.” (Dunayevskaya, Practicing Proletarian Reason: On Seniority and Labor’s Emancipation, 1975)

The conclusion of my opposition to this framework reads:

“In the case of seniority, what could have been a call to unify unconditional defense of seniority rights with zero tolerance for discriminatory practices as an act of Reciprocal Solidarity – speaking to the experiences, needs and interests of all workers and the practical, tangible necessity of defending both seniority rights and vulnerable workers targeted for discriminatory treatment by employers–was instead a political hesitation. Dunayevskaya’s method is thus not useful in crafting a legitimate socialist practice, and unfortunately, hers is a method that is shared by many tendencies within and on the fringes of the socialist movement beyond the small orbit of Marxist-Humanism.” 

The class struggle is the only crucible to validate socialist methods, theories and political positions, and in that spirit the recent episodes from the end of 2016 in Virginia and Pennsylvania will be used to test this perspective of reciprocal solidarity.

Lipton Tea: Virginia (August 2016)

In August 2016, a substantial majority of the approximately 200 factory workers at the Lipton Tea facility in Suffolk, Virginia turned out to vote on union representation. The tally showed that 108 voted ‘Yes’ and 79 voted ‘No’ to joining Local 400 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW).

Lean production was grinding the tea workers with mandatory overtime ‘drafts’ which often forced 13 straight work days between rest days for months at at time. When workers quit or took leave, they weren’t replaced. Wages were high for the region, on average in the $26/hour range for full-time employees. Manpower, “the world leader in contingent staffing,” supplied Lipton with the equivalent of one-quarter of the work force, earning $8/hr. However, after the regular full-time workers began to organize and were clearly going to win the struggle for unionization, Lipton discharged all of the casual workers supplied by Manpower and began filling full-time vacancies.

Just Born: Pennsylvania (September 2016)

On September 7, 2016, approximately 400 members of Local 6 of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) went on strike at the Just Born candy factory in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The factory produced the Peeps, Mike and Ike and Hot Tamales brand candies.

The strike was initially categorized as an economic strike which allowed the company to recruit permanent replacements in its efforts to break the strike and continue running the plant. For 3 weeks workers remained on strike. However, the company’s aggressive strikebreaking tactics weakened some of the workers’ resolve. Seventy workers crossed the picket line and returned to work as scabs. Forty four of the strikers were permanently replaced.

They remain out of work until a position opens up in the plant or the union’s unfair labor practice (ULP) charges are validated. Then the categorization of the strike will change from “economic” to that of an unfair labor practice strike. This would require the company to discharge the ‘permanent replacements’ and recall the remaining strikers. However, the combination of strikebreakers and scabs broke the strike. The members of Local 6 returned to work without a contract.

The primary issue involved in the dispute was the company’s attempt to shed their financial obligation to the union’s defined-benefit pension. The BCTGM multi-employer pension is the second-largest such plan in the United States to be in ‘critical and declining’ status; a status determined by the Department of Labor based on a pension plan’s ability to meet its obligations with its available funding and assets. Pension plans in ‘critical’, ‘critical and declining’ or ‘endangered’ status require participating employers to pay a surcharge on top of their pension payment obligations to improve the health and viability of the fund, requires plan trustees to implement cuts to the benefits offered by the pension plan (such as eliminating early retirement options and death benefits for surviving spouses), and, with the passage of the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014, allows plan trustees to implement cuts to the monthly pension payments made to workers who had already retired. The BCTGM pension plan was only 65% funded as of 2012; and as of 2016, the plan’s trustees estimated that the pension fund will become insolvent in 14 years.

Just Born wanted to increase the factory workers’  contributions to their health care plan to offset the cost of this surcharge to the company and shift new hires into a 401k plan. Under the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act of 1990, it is illegal for an employer to pay different retirement plan rates based on age. On this basis, Local 6 filed a suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEO) to prevent Just Born from seeking such a change in the days before the strike, as 85% of its members in the plant are over the age of forty and are protected as a ‘class’ by law.

Like the ULP charges, the EEO suit is still pending. The majority of workers who crossed the picket line and became scabs were in the 15% of the union’s membership in the factory who were under 40 years old.

The Whole Class

Workers in each factory were implicitly categorized and set against each other: regular vs casual status, old vs young. In Virginia, discharging the casual workers employed by the temp agency Manpower was the prelude to the company acquiescing to the workers’ demands for full staffing through hiring more regular full-time workers. In Pennsylvania, the company and the handful of older scabs were able to win over the young workers in the plant, convincing them to cross the picket line.

Our obligation  is to be an advocate for and unify the interests of the different fractions and segments of the working-class in the interest of the whole class. 

For the Lipton Tea strike, this would mean supporting the regular full-time workers in their resistance to speed up, to mandatory overtime ‘drafts’, and support for their demands for full staffing, improved working conditions and shorter hours. At the same time, the interest of the whole class means that the interest of the casual workers must be represented within the demand for full staffing and hiring regular full-time workers by demanding that the workers supplied by Manpower are guaranteed jobs as regular full-time Lipton Tea employees.

The distinction between direct and contract employees working in the plant is dictated by the business owners. Both groups of workers are performing the same function on the shop floor. For the Just Born workers, that the overwhelming majority of workers in the factory were older in age and seniority did not mean that the interests of younger workers could be ignored. The strike was broken almost solely on the basis of this younger portion of the workforce crossing the picket line and assisting the owners with restarting production, working alongside the new ‘permanent replacement’ strikebreakers.

The existing benefit formula for retirement in the union’s pension plan is called the ‘Golden 80’: when a worker’s age plus their credited years of service equals 80, they are eligible for retirement. For workers who have many years (if not decades) to go before retirement eligibility under this formula, the urgency to defend a ‘critical and declining’ pension plan is far less than for those with only a few years left to retire, particularly when the cost is sacrificing weeks (or longer) of pay and benefits while it appears that the strike is in the interest of those who will likely be retired by the next time the company starts chiseling wages, hours and working conditions. The attack on the pension was a shared attack on the entire workforce, but one dramatically lopsided in emphasis toward older workers. Not just a survey of younger workers in the factory, but the inclusion of issues which strongly resonate with them in any manifestations of concerted action, would have been necessary to maintain the integrity of the strike.

No Do-Overs

There is never an opportunity to reset a particular episode. Any critique of the actual course taken during the events which punctuate and constitute the class struggle is oriented toward learning from these concrete manifestations of labor’s class struggles for the future. To be a developmental factor in the working-class and its class struggles, the socialist movement must always be the voice of the whole class and not just the most apparently combative, or the most exploited and degraded to the exclusion of the rest.

Is it fair or accurate to portray the regular full-time Lipton Tea workers as new members of a ‘labor aristocracy’ because they neglected to include their casual co-workers in their organizing campaign?

Is it fair or accurate to portray the older workers at Just Born as consistent members of a ‘labor aristocracy’—bought and paid for by the capitalists—and only interested in themselves for bringing their younger co-workers out on strike over an issue that was largely theirs alone?

If the socialist movement is the only fraction of the working-class that is intransigently and consistently speaking and acting in the interest of the whole class, could the divisions which manifested within the class in these episodes of the class struggle in 2016 have been overcome without the participation of revolutionaries?

‘Aristocracy of Labor’

At the time when Engels was first categorizing the skilled trades workers who created and populated the British trade unions as a ‘bourgeoisified proletariat’; at the time Lenin sought to define an economic basis for an ‘aristocracy of labor’ in the superprofits drawn by monopoly capital in the capitalist metropoles from their subjugated colonies and supposedly paid as bribes to this upper stratum of the working-class; and right up to the time in 1975 when Dunayevskaya refused to unconditionally defend seniority rights as a material gain because it primarily benefited this ‘labor aristocracy,’ this segment of the working-class could be conveniently characterized by white skin, a skilled job and a union card.

The last 40 years have visibly challenged these theories, observations and assumptions of the so-called labor-aristocracy. In the United States, union membership is nearly even in terms of gender, and workers from oppressed minorities are just as (and in some cases more) likely to carry a union card than white workers. Jobs in industries that were once definitively and intimately linked to unskilled proletarians, such as coal mining and the loading/unloading of ships, have, through ever-increasing automation and the application of new techniques of production, become examples of the most highly skilled occupations undertaken by the contemporary working-class. At the same time jobs which were once associated with high levels of craft skill—like meat cutters and bricklayers—continue to be de-skilled through an ever-increasing social division of labor.

If the theories, observations and assumptions which led to 150 years of turning the organized, higher skilled, better paid workers into pariahs by the socialist movement are not only wrong today, but always were wrong, it’s necessary to return to a socialist perspective which is concerned with the interest of the whole class.

Combined Self-Interest

The perspective of reciprocal solidarity is the recognition of the particular interests of segments of the class and the process of locating potential links within the class struggle. The synthesis of these particular interests into actions which reflect the interest of the whole class is fundamental to success in both local struggles and on the international terrain.

Regular full-time workers at Lipton Tea resisted speed-up and lengthening of the working day with their demand for full staffing. The material interest of the casual workers in the plant was obviously in gaining the stability and security of regular full-time employment status with the increase of their wage from 1/3 that of regular full-time workers in the plant to wage parity and obtaining access to the available health, retirement and fringe benefits available to the regular full-time work force. Such an outcome was possible given that Lipton Tea granted their regular full-time workers’ staffing demands.

Every worker at the Just Born factory was going to be hurt by the company’s chiseling attacks on the defined-benefit pension plan. But these attacks were going to hurt workers over 40 years old the most (85% of the workers). The strike by members of the bakers’ union, launched to defend the integrity of the workers’ pensions, took place in the context of contract negotiations. Despite strong majorities of the workforce united around common issues, approximately 17% of the membership crossed the picket line in the course of the strike. This closely corresponds to the size of the bloc of workers under 40 years old in the plant. Engaging with smaller segments of the workforce to insure that their specific interests are included in concerted actions (and thus insure their participation and solidarity) is considered standard procedure. However, in practice, efforts in this regard often fall short. It’s possible that sustained communication and engagement on the specific issues and interests of younger workers in the factory could have kept them on the right side of the picket line.

In both episodes, the specific interests of the particular segments of the class took priority over those of others, and fell far short of expressing the interest of the whole class. The role of the socialist movement, as an active force in the class struggle and as the only fraction of the working-class which is consistently and solely concerned with the interest of the whole class, is in bridging these gaps as they present themselves. Assertion of particular interests is a constant of labor’s class struggles, and recognizing the importance of these particular interests, on their own merits and as opportunities to create functional class unity, is both the responsibility and obligation of the socialist movement.

Please direct all comments to this Red Marx thread

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