The War for Quadrant Two

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► 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.

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

  1. While the 15 Now conference had the trappings of a democratic debate, there is more to real democracy than simply allowing some opponents to speak. If you control the agenda, if you control who speaks when and for how long, if you monopolize the chairing of the event, then you are really in control. In this case, that’s what Socialist Alternative did. They made sure to have the last say on all controversial topics. They determined in advance what the agenda would be and who the speakers would be, etc.

    15 Now is supposed to be a “united front” or a coalition of various forces, rather than just a front for Socialist Alternative. As such, the different forces should have been allowed to participate in the planning of the conference, etc. The result of their controlling the conference is that now almost the only activists in the campaign are Socialist Alternative members. They have weakened the entire campaign, in other words.

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