In my post on the IWW’s General Convention I mentioned the events around the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.
“It seems clear that the anger over continual police murder of black and brown men has been simmering at a new level since the murder of Oscar Grant, that is, since the start of the economic crisis in 2008. I doubt very much that our Convention, starting this weekend, will have much to say about this – perhaps a resolution of solidarity, but no discussion of what this means for radical industrial organizing. Personally I don’t know what we ought to say or do, which is OK, since we are a democratic organization – but I do think we need to have the internal cohesion that we could say or do something. Otherwise when the American working class moves, we will be left standing in the dust.”
Since then I’ve been trying to think about what it is that we, as an organization, can contribute towards this kind of protest, both now and in the future, as the police are clearly going to keep murdering brown and black men. While I certainly don’t think we should condemn any rioting, looting, or defense against the police and the national guard, I don’t think a lot would come of us simply cheerleading it either – it can end up too easily as outside consumption of riot porn, or focusing exclusively on fighting the police without challenging the economic basis of this racist, murderous system. At the moment it seems that the unrest in Ferguson is not spreading the way that the LA Rebellion did after the Rodney King beating.
So I started thinking back to the murder of Oscar Grant, and what an organization like ours could have done. (By the way, both King and Grant were union members when attacked, but I can’t find any mention of even mild protest from their business unions.) Let’s assume that we’d had an organized core of transport workers in the Bay Area, both in BART and other agencies, and that this group had a larger organization behind them. They could have either initiated workplace activities in protest, or organized for a transport workers assembly to decide how to react. It is wishful thinking now, but if there had been any kind of workplace action by BART workers, whether a slow-down, work to rule, or strike, with a demand of disarming or even disbanding BART police, this would have been a major step forward. It would have been a great example for the protests around Oscar Grant, as well as the anti-austerity protests which would later erupt in the UC system and the Midwest, especially in Wisconsin in 2011.
However for this to be as effective as we need it to be, and not just get some people fired, we’d need an organization that fulfilled a few requirements. First, and most basically, it would have to have established and respected cores in the relevant workplaces/industries. This can’t be done by just salting, especially not in more stable industries such as transport or state employees, if the salts only plan to hold the job for only a year or two. Although there might be some amount of people who are already members getting jobs where they think it’s strategic, we will only get anywhere if we prove our relevance to the workers we encounter there – that is, that we are willing and able to organize fights around things that matter to them, and win, whether that is about pensions, fighting austerity, or more “political” issues like taking a stand against police brutality or the Israeli massacre on Gaza. This means forming a stable workers organization with a revolutionary perspective, one which will be completely independent of (and generally opposed to) the union bureaucracy, where it even still exists.
This organization would also have to be organized outside of the specific industry in order to spread information to the working class more broadly, with the goal of spreading the struggle wherever possible, and attracting militant workers from other industries. In the hypothetical example of a BART strike, the reaction would have been swift and fierce, from BART management and the relevant business unions, but also because such a strike would have been an attack on the state and on capitalism’s normal functioning the Bay Area, it would have drawn the wrath of the entire assortment of the AFL-CIO/Democratic Party machine, the Civil Rights leadership, the State of California, and the Federal government. We saw a preview of this in Wisconsin three years later, which is the closest we’ve come in recent years to having a critical influence during a moment of widespread class conflict. It was clear then that we were far short of the level of organization and coherence that we needed to influence the events even more decisively.
It is one thing to imagine roads we might take, based on theoretically possible struggles. It is another to see those struggles actually take place – this allows us to talk about something concrete, how we can support it now, how we can spread the word about it to other workers, and how we can promote similar actions in the future.
This is why I was so excited to see a report of a workplace action at a UPS distribution facility, #HandsUpDontShip, which drew links between the profits that UPS makes from distributing racist, murderous police equipment and the exploitation in the distribution facility. UPS workers are represented by the Teamsters, but there is no mention of the Teamsters in the release, so it’s likely that they were absent/irrelevant to the action, although I wouldn’t be surprised if an angry call from management has sent them hunting for radicals. This is an especially interesting context as there was a massive, seemingly spontaneous #VoteNo movement last year against the latest UPS contract, the largest private sector union contract. The contract was only applied through the Teamster bureaucracy overruling the membership. We can hope that the #HandsUpDontShip action will find an echo in other UPS facilities. Better yet, we can discuss what we can do to help spread word of this to other distribution workers, and how we can organize to do that better next time.
A final note that might be interesting: there’s been a lot of comparisons between Ferguson and Kent State. I recently found out that the National Guard unit which murdered the Kent State students had just prior to that been in a confrontation with wildcatting Ohio Teamsters. I hadn’t heard about the Teamsters wildcat before, though I had heard about the national wildcat in USPS that same year which was also confronted by the National Guard, which led to the phrase “You can’t deliver mail with bayonets”. Despite all the 1960’s nonsense from every corner, including salaried “marxists” like Marcuse, that workers power was irrelevant & passe, those two strikes were at least as dangerous to the war machine as the national student strike which followed. The propaganda against us is the same today but a police cargo ban by UPS workers, or a wildcat strike by Missouri state employees, would be a major milestone for rebuilding a fighting, revolutionary working class movement. Let’s get organized towards making that a possibility.