In Search of Workers’ Power

Since the 1980s, various economists, academics, and other mainstream commentators have posited that the United States is undergoing a process of “deindustrialization” stemming from the offshoring and downsizing of domestic manufacturing employment.[1] While many Marxists and other radicals have long subscribed to versions of this theory, the “deindustrialization” thesis appears to have become increasingly widespread among Leftists in the years since the outbreak of the Great Recession in 2008.

This said, in most cases over the past several years, radicals have shied away from providing detailed expositions of this theory or its implications. The reason for this is obvious: If it’s true that the United States is becoming “deindustrialized,” then this does not bode well for the prospect of building workers’ power during the current period.[2] After all, throughout the history of the twentieth century, workers employed in manufacturing and related industries played a vanguard role within the broader labor movement – a function that stemmed (and stems) from their strategic position at the heart of the capitalist production process. Indeed, to this day, no other segment of the working class produces as much surplus labor value or possesses as much power at the point of production as manufacturing workers.

Tobacco workers celebrate en masse outside a R.J. Reynolds factory in Winston-Salem, North Carolina at the culmination of a successful 1947 strike. As recounted in Robert Korstad's excellent 2003 book, Civil Rights Unionism, the triumphant 1947 Reynolds strike was waged with the backing of the workers militant, CIO-affiliated union -- Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers union. (Photograph from the Digital Forsyth archives)

Tobacco workers celebrate en masse outside a R.J. Reynolds factory in Winston-Salem, North Carolina at the culmination of a successful 1947 strike. (Photograph from the Digital Forsyth archives)

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Assessment of the August 29, 2013 fast food strike in Atlanta — letter from last year

The following article comes from a lengthy letter that I wrote last fall to members of the socialist group that I belonged to at the time. The letter — which is dated September 11, 2013 — summarizes the fast food strike protest that took place in Atlanta on August 29 of that year as part of the SEIU-backed fast food workers’ organizing campaign. 

For a number of reasons — first and foremost being problems of internal democracy — I never actually got around to emailing this message out to Atlanta branch members. Recently, however, I discovered a copy of the letter saved on my hard drive. Since the document contains some worthwhile insights about the fast food workers’ organizing campaign — both in regard to Atlanta specifically and on a nationwide level, as well — I thought it might be useful to finally publish it here. Notably, in preparation for doing this, I have removed several sections of the letter for reasons of relevance. In addition, I’ve also edited the piece for readability and style.

In terms of broader context, it’s worth adding that the August 29 strike protest described below was the first action that the fast food workers’ organizing campaign sponsored in the Atlanta area. Since then, the SEIU and forces within the local labor movement have backed the formation of an established fast food workers group — ATL Raise Up. Over the past year, this group — which now has the support of a number of militant local fast food workers — has coordinated the Atlanta strike protests staged in conjunction with the national campaign. Most recently, this included the civil disobedience strike protest held on September 4, 2014.[1]

 –Ben S, Atlanta Continue reading

The fast food workers’ movement and the Ferguson rebellion

During the mass uprising that engulfed Ferguson, Missouri in the weeks following the police murder of unarmed Black teenager Mike Brown, members of the St. Louis-area fast food workers’ organizing campaign – Show Me $15 – were deeply involved in the night-and-day demonstrations that rocked the city and the community organizing meetings that helped to cohere and sustain the movement. Without a doubt, the Ferguson uprising also drew the participation of many other fast food workers that had, up to that point, shied away from Show Me $15 and opted out of joining any of the one-day strike protests sponsored by the campaign.

The extensive involvement of fast food workers in the Ferguson rebellion is documented in detail by a number of articles published in the Left-wing and labor press. An August 20 story in Labor Notes, for example, explains that, “In the wake of widespread anger about Brown’s shooting, and police repression of protesters, members of the Show Me $15 fast food workers group have been at the demonstrations daily. They said the organizing they’d learned in the last 22 months, as they struck and demanded $15 an hour and a union, helped them know how to organize for justice.”[1] Continue reading

The great Lenin debate of 2012

(Or, the bankruptcy of “Leninism” Rediscovered)

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Over the past several decades, much of the international Left has come to question the “Leninist” party-building model that was hegemonic among Western socialists for the majority of the twentieth century. In the United States, it appears that the crisis of “Leninism” has sharpened in the years since 2008. While “Leninist” groups are notoriously prone to factional strife in general, this period seems to have witnessed an intensified tendency toward splinters and splits within these groups. Inevitably, this trend has generated new scatterings of disaffected ex-members, at least a portion of whom remain active in politics and activism. This process has been aided by the writings and (in some cases) the ongoing interventions of previous generations of ex-”Leninists,” who have, no doubt, helped many newly purged and “bureaucratically excluded” comrades to make sense of their experience within the sect-based Left. To this end, influential roles have been played by the likes of Louis Proyect and other former members of the 1970s-era U.S. Socialist Workers Party. Many former “Leninists” have also been influenced by such historical critics of sect-based socialist organizing as Hal Draper and Bert Cochran.[1] Continue reading

Response to “Critique of the Renewal Faction Documents”

A note of preface

Like my document “An assessment of the Atlanta branch in light of the Renewal Faction documents,” the following is a reprint of a piece first published in one of the ISO’s 2014 Pre-convention Bulletins — in this case, PCB #11, released on January 11.[1] As I explain below, this particular piece is structured as a reply to a critique of the ISO Renewal Faction written by one of my then fellow Atlanta branch members. For reasons of courtesy, I have chosen to adjust the text here in order to avoid referencing this comrade by name. Where necessary, I simply refer to this individual as “the author.”

Notably, I had initially planned to publish this piece on Red Atlanta more than a month ago. At that time, however, I decided to hold out in order to let some of the tension set in motion by the bitter factional struggle subside. Now that some time has passed, I wanted to go ahead and publicly release this document, as I think it provides some worthwhile insights about the crisis within the ISO and — in addition — the nature of the current capitalist conjuncture. Continue reading

A friendly reply to Saturn’s “Friendly rebuttal”

First of all, let me say that I enjoyed reading Saturn’s “Friendly rebuttal to ‘Idealism in Trotskyism and the ISO’” for the simple fact that, after having been subjected to untold numbers of unfriendly critiques directed at the ISO opposition during the recent factional struggle, I found the article’s “spirit of comradeship” to be a refreshing change of pace. [1] Truly, this is the type of document that begs for someone to reply in kind.

For this reason, I wanted to take the time to respond to Saturn’s article. I’ll begin my reply by first outlining the content of the argument that Saturn’s piece seeks to critique. Following this, I’ll then detail Saturn’s own argument. Finally, I’ll conclude by expounding upon my own opinions on the matter. Continue reading

On personalism, politics, and the ISO leadership’s self-fulfilling prophecies

Throughout the course of the recent factional struggle within the International Socialist Organization, one of the main arguments put forward by the ISO leadership in their effort to discredit the Renewal Faction was the claim that the faction’s documents are apolitical and personalistic. This particular assertion was repeated in, among innumerable other sources, the ISO Steering Committee’s document, “Holding the Renewal Faction accountable,” contained within Pre-convention Bulletin #27. The document proclaims that “the output of faction members – as well as the faction itself – has tended toward… personalistic, destructive material.”[1]

This accusation is ridiculous. Throughout the entire pre-convention period, the Renewal Faction’s documents have, without exception, sought to address vital political and organizational questions facing the ISO. (I encourage anyone that believes otherwise to revisit — among other pieces — the Renewal Faction’s platform documents). Furthermore, to the extent that it can be said that the debate around the Renewal Faction came to take on a personalistic tone, this development was almost exclusively the result of the hostile stance adopted by the ISO leadership and its loyalist defenders. From the outset, the leadership consistently refused to engage the Renewal Faction on a political level. Instead, their approach hinged – above all else – on an effort to discredit the Renewal Faction by accusing us of committing a series of procedural heresies. By adopting this approach, the ISO leadership avoided addressing the innumerable political questions raised by the faction. Continue reading

An assessment of the Atlanta branch in light of the Renewal Faction documents

The following document was written in preparation for a perspectives discussion meeting held by the Atlanta branch of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) on 10 December 2013. The document was then published in the ISO’s Pre-Convention Bulletin (PCB) #9 in January 2014. In the latter version, the ISO leadership apparently made the decision to remove the document’s opening paragraph, which calls for “replacing some or all of the organization’s current leaders.”

The version of the document published below restores this passage in full. Additionally, this version includes a few corrections and updates. Most notably, I have added links to several relevant documents published in the period since this piece was originally written. A passage that rehashes the Renewal Faction’s core arguments from “The organizational crisis and its political roots” has been omitted. I have also made a few minor adjustments to the document in order to avoid providing information that recognizably identifies former members and contacts of the ISO Atlanta branch. 

As a final note, let me conclude by stating that, over the course of the past few months, my views on the crisis within the ISO and the state of the group in general have evolved considerably from the one presented in the document below. As I summarized in my “Letter of Resignation from the ISO,” I have come to “question the viability of the ISO as a vehicle for revolutionary Marxist politics.”

–Ben S Continue reading

Atlanta’s Untold Fast Food Strike History, Part 2 of 2

The demise of the 1979 strike/boycott at Church’s Chicken

 
The following historical article is the second in a two-part series focusing on labor unrest at Church’s Fried Chicken stores in Atlanta during the 1970s. The first installment told the story of a 24-day strike and boycott that shut down the majority of Atlanta-area Church’s locations in 1972. This latter installment recounts two additional bouts of labor unrest at Atlanta Church’s stores that took place in 1977 and 1979. In addition, this piece also details a subsequent campaign launched by Church’s in the mid-1980s in an effort to rid itself of the then widespread reputation for racism and racial insensitivity that the company had acquired within the Black community.
–Ben S, Atlanta

Changes at Church’s

One of the most significant effects of the 1972 strike/boycott at Church’s Fried Chicken was the movement’s impact on racial dynamics within the company. Most notably, the strike compelled Church’s to accelerate its integration of management. In the years following 1972, the company began promoting increased numbers of Blacks to store manager positions. What’s more, in 1973, the company elected the first Black member to its board of directors. Alongside these developments, the company launched a minor public relations campaign aimed at rehabilitating its image in the Black community. In a 1973 advertisement published in the Atlanta Daily World, Church’s touted itself as a paragon of opportunity for aspiring, hard-working Blacks. As the ad put it, “Church’s Fried Chicken offers the little man the opportunity to learn the necessary skills in operating a fast food outlet.” In order to further bolster its image and cultivate Black support, the company began making minor donations to local Civil Rights groups, including the Martin Luther King, Jr. Foundation. It also moved to sponsor several little league teams in Black neighborhoods. [1] Continue reading

Letter of resignation from the ISO: Ben S (Atlanta)

This letter was first published on External Bulletin, the website of the ISO Renewal Faction.

To all my comrades both inside and outside the ISO:

This letter is intended to announce my resignation from the International Socialist Organization. This decision has been prompted by my experience in the months since I first publicly expressed my support for the ISO Renewal Faction late last year. To summarize in brief, as a result of my endorsement of the Faction, I’ve been effectively isolated and iced out of both the Atlanta branch and the national organization as a whole. This has made it all but impossible to continue my involvement within the group. Continue reading