The War for Quadrant Two

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Archive for April, 2014

► Report on April 26 Conference of “15 Now” – [WQ2.14.04.28]

Posted by Ben Seattle on April 28, 2014

Report on the April 26 Conference of 15 Now:

A Promising Beginning

A section of activists show signs of awakening
as 72 delegates at the national conference of
the 15 Now organization made use of a democratic
opening to oppose the proposal of the leadership
to give less than $15/hour to unionized workers
in the hotel industry

My comrade Art and I attended on Saturday the April 26 national conference of the 15 Now organization. We attended in order to encourage the healthy motion we expected to find there, and also to better understand and report on this significant movement.

The movement for $15 represents, in my opinion, the logical result of a decision by a section of our ruling class, the bourgeoisie–after being alarmed by the rapid growth and out-of-control nature of the Occupy movement–to begin, even as it deepens austerity, to experiment with the policy of encouraging the open and seemingly independent development of a political trend known as “social democracy” [footnote 1] and (along with and as part of this) making a few concessions to the working class and oppressed.

The 15 Now conference was advertized as being “democratic” in its nature. This was quite significant. Any organization which aspires to attract the attention of activists must demonstrate that it can operate in a relatively open and democratic way. This was one of the key reasons that the Occupy movement, with its general assemblies, excited so many activists and people new to activism: many or most of the conflicts were fought out in the open where activists could see what was going on and intervene with their voice and with the authority of their experience.

I was skeptical that the conference would live up to its advance advertising as “democratic”. I have been around the left a long time. Many groups describe their events as “democratic”. But usually, in practice, the “democratic” aspect tends to be something of a formality, to conceal or disguise the usual manipulation.  I knew I would have to see for myself.

To my surprise–the conference was far more democratic than I expected.  And, more to the point, the “Socialist Alternative” organization, which is the nucleus of the “15 Now” movement, demonstrated that, at least so far, they are not afraid of democracy.

Not yet.

People who attended had opportunities to speak. Even better, a number of those who attended used this democratic opening to organize opposition to a last minute addition to the ballot initiative that created what was called a “collective bargaining opt-out” (CBO). Amazingly, the CBO will allow workers in the hotel industry to make *less than $15* if their union leadership can find inventive ways to push through a bad contract (something that they are quite skilled at doing). This means that workers covered by the CBO will end up making *less* than the minimum wage–because they are represented by a union!

Traditionally, workers would join a union in order to make wages that were *higher* than non-union workers. Today, however, union leaders are more open in making clear that workers are a commodity to be bought and sold, and they are more open about wanting to be “competitive” and “increase their market share”. This is more important than $15 an hour.

The 15 Now leadership (ie: mainly the Socialist Alternative organization) supported the opt-out (it appears to me) because they feel they are dependent on support from their “allies” in the trade union bureaucracy–who insisted on the opt-out. But that is not how the 15 Now leadership sold this idea to conference attendees. Instead they presented a small parade of supposedly “representative” hotel workers (who appeared to have been coached in talking points) who explained that making less than $15/hour would allow them to have better health insurance (an explanation that, without going into all the details, did not really make a lot of sense–because with more money they would be able to *buy* their own health insurance–and because the opt out will serve to intensify the pressure for further “carve outs” from $15/hour).

The opposition to the opt out clause was quite spirited and was, for me, the highlight of the conference. The most effective speaker against the opt out was a well known and respected trade unionist from Oakland, who had been active in the Oakland Occupy movement, and who had led a wildcat strike of five thousand workers in 1999.

The opposition was defeated, 186 to 72, for several reasons: the leadership of the conference was solidly in favor of the opt out and was far better prepared–having known in advance that they would probably have to defend this bit of chicanery. Both Phil Locker and Kshama Sawant herself, with her personal prestige as flagship personality for this movement, spoke confidently and well–as long as listeners did not think deeply about the bankrupt arguments that were actually being presented.

The other major factor in the defeat of the opposition was simply the inexperience and naivity of many of the activists attending. Most activists with little experience assume and believe that the trade union bureaucrats represent the interests of the workers–rather than being a corrupt layer of parasites who owe their jobs to their willingness to sell workers like cattle. We live in a world in which an entire layer of “professionals” (not just trade union bureaucrats–but many also other kinds of “opinion leaders”, such as news editors at the “Stranger”) have a career based on their ability to help maintain illusions and impose the will of the ruling bourgeoisie on the working class and oppressed. It is these professionals who represent the real political base of social democracy.

And this helps us understand one of the good things about the campaign for $15 an hour. Every real struggle of the working class and oppressed experiences all kinds of betrayals, large and small. And each betrayal makes us smarter, reduces the stock of illusions in which capitalist society is based, and helps us understand what we need to do if we want to win victory, not only in struggles for partial demands, such as for $15 an hour–but also in the struggle for our full demand: the rule of society by the working class.

I may write more, if time permits, about the April 26 conference. But for now I can say that, in the conditions of our present time, 72 votes against the disgraceful opt out represents a promising beginning. A section of activists is beginning to awaken.

Ben Seattle

—-[Footnote 1]—-

What Is Social Democracy?

The term “social democracy” has been around for a long time and originated, back when Marx and Engels were alive, as a term that was used to describe the revolutionary working class parties they helped to create and which were dedicated to the overthrow of the class rule of the bourgeoisie.

The term “social democracy” underwent a big change in meaning because of what happened almost exactly 100 years ago, in August 1914. As the first world war broke out in Europe, and as British, French and German troops began to use, for the first time, the most modern weapons of war against one another, nearly all the social democratic parties of Europe urged the members of the working class to slaughter one another to “defend the fatherland”. This was considered by revolutionary working class activists at the time to be one of the greatest betrayals in history.

Since that time, the term “social democracy” has been used to describe political trends that combine radical words and phrases with a political perspective that is restricted to those reforms that are *acceptable* to the ruling bourgeoisie. These social democratic trends are generally supported, in various ways, by institutions and people who are woven into the fabric of bourgeois class rule (such as a section of liberal-labor politicians, trade union bureaucrats, newspapers, non-profit heads, religious misleaders and “progressive opinion leaders”) as a way of giving the working class and oppressed hope that fundamental change will be possible without all the scary and dangerous forces that will emerge when the working class organizes itself for the overthrow of the class rule of the bourgeoisie.

Related Reading

 

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► Hard choices for “15 Now” Campaign – [WQ2.14.04.20]

Posted by Ben Seattle on April 20, 2014

The 15 Now Campaign May Soon Be Facing Some Hard Choices

Hi Art,

This letter is intended to be a summary of what we learned at the “15 Now” organizing group meeting yesterday, as well as related observations we have made.

The key question that comes up concerns compromises.

The 15 Now campaign is strong only because it is propped up by their “allies” — a section of trade union bureaucrats, news institutions like the Stranger, and a section of the local Democratic Party machine. (Below, for example, is a photo showing the infamous Democratic Party hack Larry Gossett, one of their sponsors, representing them at the press conference where they announced that they were filing for a ballot initiative.)

Larry_Gossett_15_now

The problem the 15 Now campaign faces is that their allies are dead-set opposed to the kind of clear-cut victory for the campaign that would inspire the working class locally, and in the rest of the country. Their allies, it appears, will only support a token, minimalist victory for the campaign–where the $15 minimum wage is phased in over years and subject to “carve-outs” (ie: where tips, health insurance, employee parking spots, and a pat on the head from the boss are all counted as part of their “wage”).

The three year phase-in: probably not that big a deal

So far the campaign has made concessions that are not too drastic (although some on the left, who tended to view this campaign with stars in their eyes, are objecting). The most significant concession, so far, is phasing in the wage increase over three years for “small businesses” with less than 250 workers. Most people probably tend to think of a small business as a Mom and Pop operation with 5 or 6 full or part-time employees. So defining a “small business” as being one with less than 250 workers is a stretch–and the first of what is likely to be a series of insults by the leadership to supporters of the campaign.

But at least the requirement of 250 workers does not apply to franchises: so the local MacDonalds or Subway will not be considered a small business–because regardless of their formal legal status–they are in reality little more than point-of-sale locations for mega corporations.

More important, the three year phase-in is not likely to be demoralizing to the working class–because this would still be preceived (correctly) as a huge victory. Even if the 3 year phase-in applied to every employer, regardless of size–this would still represent a huge victory.

Unfortunately, it appears to me that the 15 Now campaign may soon be considering further concessions–of a kind that would represent caving in to the insistence of their “allies” that there be no clear-cut and unambiguous victory for the working class.

Carve-Outs: A much bigger problem

The big problem will be “carve outs”, the so-called “credit” for tips and health insurance. Another big (and outrageous) carve-out concerns union contracts–where a worker would end up making *less* than the minimum wage because his or her contract was negotiated by a union. Yes: the trade union bureaucrats (TUB’s) want this. Some are insisting on this. To the treacherous TUB’s, the workers are a commodity, like cattle, which they sell to the bosses. They want to be able to tell the bosses: “deal with us, and get your workers cheap!”.

Carve-outs would represent a far larger concession than the three year phase-in for the simple reason that these carve-outs would have a far larger long-term impact on the wages of tens of thousands of workers. Combining the $15 minimum wage with these carve-outs could leave a big section of workers with only a little more than what they have now. Theoretically, some could even be worse off. And this is what the “allies” of the 15 Now campaign want: a marginal, token victory that “officially” can be called a “success” but which also makes it clear to their bourgeois masters that they are reliable underlings–and that they can continue to be trusted–to keep things under control–and to keep the working class demoralized.

We are fighting a conscious class enemy

We need to consider this from the perspective of “our” ruling class (ie: the ruling bourgeoisie, the one percent). They are experimenting with open (and nominally independent of the Democratic Party) social democracy in the Unites States. They know that social democracy has been a tried and tested means of cooling off and safely dispersing the anger of the masses that erupts when austerity is implemented (in the last few years we have seen this most prominently in Europe and Brazil). Our ruling class knows, in short, that we may be entering a period where social democracy is necessary if they intend to maintain the illusion that fundamental change is possible without all the scary and dangerous forces that will be unleashed when the masses rise up to overthrow bourgeois class rule.

But if our ruling class needs social democracy–they also need a social democracy that is reliable, cheap–and (above all) well-trained (see graphic below).

training_your_dog

What we saw at the meeting Saturday

I do not believe it would be correct for me to directly quote anything anyone said at the meeting in this public blog post. The meeting itself had a public character, but I did not announce that I would be writing about it. More to the point, people who spoke did not view themselves as making public statements. However I believe it is correct (and necessary) to describe the subjective impressions we formed of the thinking of people around the campaign inasmuch as these things may shed light on events that may unfold in the near future. These events may become important to the movement and to the working class, and for this reason it is our responsibility to report on what we saw.

The most striking observation I made during the meeting was the extent to which a number of people around the campaign viewed the success of the campaign as being entirely dependent on support from the TUB’s. The basic view which dominated was that the campaign was weak on the steet–and could only reach large numbers of people if the TUB’s mobilized “their” rank and file union members. This is not reassuring inasmuch as this will probably not happen until hell freezes over.  The TUB’s have a well-known history, in thousands of struggles, of withdrawing their support at the most critical possible moment. That is what they do. That is their purpose on this earth, along with selling the workers like cattle to employers.

At this time the TUB’s have distanced themselves from the campaign on the grounds that the campaign is alienating potential supporters by filing for a ballot initiative and resisting carve-outs and so forth. The TUB’s are arguing that success requires a much greater margin of support–that can only be gained with further concessions. Where have we heard this argument before?

People around the 15 Now campaign were discussing various practical forms of independent work to mobilize the masses–which is good. But what is not so good is that supporters of the campaign (at least those we observed Saturday) argued that support from the TUB’s was decisive–rather than promoting a realistic attitude concerning what can be expected from the TUB’s–and were focused pretty much exclusively on winning back their support. The predominant view was that the withdrawal of support by the TUB’s was a temporary bargaining tactic by the TUB’s which is likely to last only a few weeks (and this is a possibility–see the graphic above). But no one thought it was important to discuss the possibility that the TUB’s may simply stand by their refusal to lift a finger to support the campaign if the campaign refuses to make deeper concessions.

What happens if the TUB’s refuse to blink?

What happens if the campaign loses the “support” of treacherous sponsors like Democratic Party hack Larry Gossett? What happens if the campaign loses support from the “Stranger”?

In that case–their ship could sink.

If the 15 Now campaign does not believe they can “go it alone” with the support of the working class but without the support of their treacherous and vacillating allies–then they may feel compelled to make bigger concessions.

This is the logic of their present situation.

But their problem is that if they make bigger concessions in order to secure support from their “allies”–they are likely to lose support from the working class–which may not be enthusiastic about a struggle which would, at best, produce a marginal result.

The campaign leadership has gone on record saying that they will not fall into this trap. But this may be what is called “conspicuous denial” (like when Richard Nixon said “I am not a crook”):

“Socialist Alternative completely rejects
the all-too-common mistake of endlessly
watering down our policies to pacify big
business and chasing after ‘swing voters,’
which only succeeds in demoralizing and
undermining our own base of support.”

Will SA and the 15 Now leadership stand firm or cave when the hacks stand like rock and refuse to budge? Again–for a clue to what is likely to happen–see the graphic above.

I hope I am wrong but my guess is that the 15 Now will cave. They don’t appear to be preparing their supporters to “go it alone” for a long fight–this is what we saw yesterday and is probably what we will see at their big conference on the 26th. They may see themselves as too weak (and be too weak) to stand alone without the hacks, without Larry Gossett and without the Stranger–which is what they are risking if they refuse to act like an obedient dog. This all flows from the simple fact that they may have little real ability to reach the masses and mobilize the masses without help from their treacherous allies. This is why they may be vulnerable (and have been vulnerable from day one) to this kind of blackmail.

What would happen, realistically, if they were to stand firm and refuse to give in to the blackmail of their allies? Would their campaign be crushed this fall when big business floods the airwaves with anti-15 propaganda?

Could be.

We recently saw how the big food chains swatted away the initiative to require labeling of GMO food. The rise of workers’ wage poses a far bigger threat to corporate profits than did a labeling requirement for breakfast cereal. And the corporate opposition will accordingly be far more vicious and powerful.

Get used to groveling and begging

On the other hand, if the ruling bourgeoisie is serious about giving their social democractic pets a leg up in this world–they have to give them *something*. But they don’t want to give them too much, too soon. They want them to grovel and beg. More than this–they want them to get used to groveling and begging.

We, of course, want the 15 Now campaign to be a success. It would be wonderful for the working class to have a clear and unmistakable victory–without a lot of carve-outs and other bullshit. But I suspect that is not going to happen because that is not the way the world works. The ruling class in the U.S. may be experimenting with social democracy, and they may recognize that, in the long-run, they may need social democracy. But they are also shrewd and experienced enough to understand that they do not need it instantly–and they do not need to overpay, today, for something that they can purchase at their leisure.

We need an independent movement of our class

We want the 15 Now campaign to be a success. But our ability to help make this happen is quite small. What we can do is work to understand what is going on: to give an analysis to other activists which helps them understand what social democracy is–and (most of all) the need to build a movement which is independent from social democracy–and which does have strength on the ground.

Building such a movement is within our power. But making this a reality requires sweeping away the dysfunctional thinking and practices that have paralyzed the left and reduced activists to having a choice between going passive and smashing their heads against a brick wall. Much of the thinking and practice that dominates our movement will need to be tossed in the trash as the need for politial transparency and theoretical clarity will increasingly make itself felt.

We can create a movement which can reach millions with (1) a clear analysis of the need to support every struggle, large or small, and (2) a clear and compelling explanation that no fundamental change can happen in this world until the working class overthrows the class rule of the bourgeoisie and runs the world itself. This will happen as a critical mass of activists with a critical level of consciousness comes together. Our job is to help to make this happen.

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