History of Workers Action: Why We Left the WIL

Workers Action

Why We Left the Workers International League

Introduction

The entire Portland branch and the majority of the San Francisco branch recently submitted our resignations to the Workers International League (WIL). Many of us joined the WIL over two years ago because of our fundamental agreement with the International Marxist Tendency’s (IMT) analysis of the Venezuelan revolution. The WIL is a member of the IMT. We were enthusiastic and optimistic when we joined because we had been working with the WIL in the united front, Hands Off Venezuela, in which numerous political groups were involved and where we had all been instrumental in organizing very successful events. However, in the recent past, two major differences erupted within the WIL which opened an unbridgeable chasm. The first revolved around a Cindy Sheehan flier produced by the San Francisco branch. The second concerned the trade union work of a Portland comrade who works at a hospital. We left as a last resort only because we felt the WIL leadership was making it impossible for us to stay. Immediately below is a summary of our differences with the WIL that led to our departure. But we are also including the transcripts of both discussions so that the reader can judge for him or herself. Finally, an IMT comrade from London contributed to the trade union debate. We have composed a separate response to his contribution, which can be accessed by clicking here.

The Cindy Sheehan Flier

The first difference concerned the Cindy Sheehan campaign for Congress. Sheehan is running against Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, in San Francisco. The WIL had endorsed the campaign and had urged WIL members to become active in it. After joining the campaign, the San Francisco branch of the WIL produced a flier in support of Cindy Sheehan which was unilaterally rejected by the WIL leadership. There were many issues in dispute concerning our flier, but one in particular provides an especially helpful key to understanding the fundamental differences between those of us who left the WIL on the one hand and the leadership of the WIL, which is constituted by the Executive Committee (EC), on the other hand.

According to the WIL EC: “Most importantly, the draft leaflet [i.e., our Sheehan flier] does not mention the need for a mass party of labor as the only way forward for working people.”

Instead of mentioning the need for a “mass party of labor,” the flier described the Cindy Sheehan campaign as one seeking “to champion the rights and needs of the vast majority of us working people who are disenfranchised by a political system based on corporate money,” and urged the campaign to “use a Cindy Sheehan victory to turn the entire political system upside-down, given the corruptness of the system.” And it added: “But such a goal can only be achieved by launching a movement and bringing together the millions of ordinary people who have no voice in the current political system.”

In other words, our flier was designed with the hope of having a positive influence on the direction of the Cindy Sheehan campaign. We did not want the campaign to view itself merely as aimed exclusively at electing Cindy Sheehan to office, for such an orientation might risk the dissolution of the campaign after November. Rather, we wanted the campaign to see itself as starting a movement that would be sustained beyond November in order to build a political organization dedicated to defending and promoting the interests of working people. This would amount to taking the first step in the direction of creating a labor party. (We hope we have had some success in our attempts at influencing the campaign’s direction since the flier was posted prominently on the home page of the campaign’s web site for a short period so that it was the first thing viewers saw; it is now accessible on the labor section of the web site.)

For the WIL EC, on the other hand, these attempts to influence the Cindy Sheehan campaign were simply a matter of adapting to reformism since Cindy Sheehan is not a self-proclaimed revolutionary socialist but a candidate who is reaching out to defend the interests of working people. According to them, our flier should have established our own revolutionary credentials by boldly announcing the need for a labor party. In this way we could have recruited the most progressive elements of the campaign, according to them.

But there are two ways the demand for a labor party could have been raised:

(1) We could have raised it in the form of propaganda where we would have merely explained in a flier what a good idea a labor party is, and we all agree it is a good idea. But if this was the intent of the EC, then it would have been essentially telling us to refrain from trying to influence the direction of the Sheehan campaign, but rather offer helpful analyses from the sidelines and “markers,” as they like to put it, for future consideration.

(2) Or the EC could have wanted us to raise the idea of a labor party as agitation, in other words, as something that should be done immediately. In this case our flier would have been urging the campaign to create a labor party now.

We were unsure which alternative the EC had in mind (although the former is far more likely) because throughout much of the discussion it refused to distinguish between propaganda and agitation. However, we were convinced that both alternatives were equally flawed:

(1) If we had raised the idea of a labor party purely as propaganda, then we would have been relegated exclusively to the sidelines since we would not have attempted to influence the direction of the campaign. Rather we would have simply used the campaign to introduce progressive or revolutionary ideas and hoped a few of the campaign members might be attracted to us. Here we would be using the campaign primarily to build our own organization. The WIL EC has continually admonished us during the past several years that our first concern is to recruit the ones and twos, not to lead working class movements. We, on the other hand, saw ourselves as recruiting the ones and twos, and perhaps many more, precisely by leading workers in motion by introducing a class struggle perspective, which is the only way to make such struggles successful.

(2) If we had raised the labor party idea as agitation, meaning that we were urging the Sheehan campaign to organize a labor party at that time, then we would have appeared out of step with reality. The Sheehan campaign is not in a position to launch a labor party, given its meager resources. At the very least the trade unions would be required to take the lead in establishing a labor party because the trade unions have an organizational apparatus as well as money, both of which would be required to bring something as ambitious as a labor party into existence. But there is almost no movement within organized labor in favor of establishing a labor party at this time.

In our opinion, the best way to proceed in relation to the Sheehan campaign is to influence it as much as possible in a positive direction, that is, in the direction of creating an independent working class party with a revolutionary program. If the Sheehan campaign decides to maintain its existence after the November elections, then we believe that this would constitute a step forward for working people, provided that the campaign is specifically defined in terms of defending the interests of workers, not capitalists. We are not interested in promoting Ralph Nader’s campaign, for example, because he rejects a working class perspective. Under this condition, the Sheehan campaign could serve as a center of gravitation to attract the growing number of working people who are becoming increasingly disgusted with the Democrats, not to mention the Republicans. And this movement could then serve as the first step in the direction of a labor party.

Such a movement would greatly enhance the prospects of our revolutionary organization. It would have the potential to change the political climate in this country by offering workers the first real political alternative on the horizon. We could easily reach out to the people in such a movement with our revolutionary literature, raise their consciousness, and hopefully win them to socialism. For this reason, we view the WIL EC’s choice to abstain from any attempt to influence the evolution of the Sheehan campaign as profoundly misguided. Although at times the WIL EC offers lip service to the idea of influencing the Sheehan campaign, it has never specified exactly how this should be accomplished other than by raising the demand for a labor party, which will not exert an impact on the direction of the campaign now.

Trade Union Differences

The second difference erupted over the proper way to conduct trade union work. Here the differences between us and the WIL EC basically replayed the differences over our Sheehan flier.

The discussion began with a comrade from Portland reporting that his union, an SEIU local, was engaged in negotiations for a new contract. The employer, a company running a hospital, was playing hardball and rejected the union’s entirely modest demands for a wage raise, etc. In return, the union officials scaled back their demands, lowering what they described as a cost of living increase (which was one of several wage increases), for example, from 6 percent to 3 percent for the first year. The workers, however, overwhelmingly rejected management’s new offer of a 2 percent cost of living increase, so there was a remote possibility they might strike.

A leading member of the WIL, who has been working closely with the WIL EC, proposed that the Portland comrade put out a flier either by himself in the name of the WIL or, if possible, through a union caucus: “The flyer should put forward our perspective on what the demands SHOULD be in the negotiations…”[emphasis added]. He explained that we must oppose the union officials’ backpedaling and continued: “It is okay if only a few people, right now, would take our flier and be open to discuss it with us.”

In a second contribution to the discussion, the same comrade continued arguing in favor of the flier, adding that such demands as 30 hours of work for 40 hours of pay (30 for 40) or a full COLA (cost of living adjustment) are examples of demands that should have been raised to the workers at the hospital.” And he continued: “We must not tailor our demands to what is acceptable to the union leadership or what they make the mass of the workers think is attainable.” And then added that if our Portland comrade did not do this, then the WIL would not “be distinguishing ourselves in a political way from the union leadership.” He acknowledged that workers “who identify with the union leadership will see this [demands such as 30 for 40] as ‘pie in the sky’ and many workers may think ‘it is good, but it will never happen.’ That is OK. We need to put down a political marker, so that as our political analysis of this situation is shown to be correct, we can then make gains.”

Those of us in Portland and San Francisco found this approach misdirected, to say the least.

First, we found it stunning that the above comrade thought it was appropriate to tell the workers what their demands SHOULD be without any inquiry into the specific conditions of these workers, their level of consciousness, their economic position and their ability to carry on a protracted strike, their activity level in the union, the leadership qualities of the union officials in charge, or their lack of leadership qualities, how easy it would be to replace workers if they chose to strike, etc.

Second, the WIL comrade never bothered to inquire whether, if the Portland comrade had distributed a flier by himself in the name of the WIL, he would have completely discredited and isolated himself in relation to ALL his coworkers because of their misconceptions concerning socialist organizations. We are trying to break out of our isolation, not increase it. Many people in the U.S. identify socialism with totalitarianism and with paying people who are lazy and avoid work just as much as people who work hard. Nor did the WIL comrade inquire whether distributing such a flier might result in our comrade losing his job because of the anti-communism of the employer and union officials. These seemed to be inconsequential considerations for the WIL comrade.

Third, we thought it was striking that the WIL comrade argued that the only way to distinguish ourselves from the “union leadership” was by raising demands such as 30 for 40, etc. In other words, he did not entertain the possibility of our comrade at the hospital leading a militant strike where the labor bureaucracy’s partnership with the bosses would be severed, where real picket lines would be organized as opposed to the porous picket lines of the labor bureaucracy, and where the workers would be prepared to defy both court injunctions and cops and take on the capitalist state. The ONLY way in which the WIL leadership conceived of breaking with the union bureaucrats was by raising radical demands, which means they were not prepared to have our comrade lead a struggle or a strike but wanted him to sit on the sidelines.

Fourth, the WIL comrade thought it was entirely appropriate to aim our ideas about demands at only a few workers (at best) rather than try to unite all the workers and organize an effective strike. He said he did not think the demands should be tailored to what “the mass of the workers think is attainable” and acknowledged that the slogans he was proposing would only appeal to a few, but, as he said: “That is OK.” This is another indication that the WIL leadership was only interested in sitting on the sidelines, not in organizing a fight.

In contrast, we believe the correct approach to the question of demands is more complicated. Of course, when the demands are being formulated and discussed among the union membership, we would urge workers to include the appropriate demands, given their situation. But these demands are selected by the workers on the basis of how strong they think the union is, how strong they think the company is, and how much confidence they have in themselves to win what they want. The same demands are therefore not going to be appropriate for every work place. During this process, our role would amount not only to raising appropriate demands, but more importantly, to explaining to our coworkers how to organize an effective strike to win the demands, thereby raising their level of confidence. The creation of the list of demands consequently results from a dialectical process where all of the above considerations come into play. Adding demands to the list that workers believe are unattainable does not raise the workers’ level of confidence but will probably have the effect of reducing it.

The situation at the hospital, however, was not propitious in relation to a militant struggle. The union was very weak in large part because of the orientation of the labor bureaucrats who assume workers share common interests with the employers. The Local had an inadequate strike fund, especially for workers living paycheck-to-paycheck. While public outreach was strong, there had been no preparation for building mass picket lines capable of keeping scabs out and defying court injunctions. Striking workers could have been easily replaced because the work was to a large degree unskilled. And the struggle would have been waged in a general climate of demoralization in the U.S. labor movement as a whole. Nevertheless, with the right leadership and a membership mobilized to put up a fight, the strike could have been won by attracting tremendous community support, etc. In such a context, including the demand of 30 for 40 would have undermined the struggle. The community might well have looked on the demand as excessive and unrealistic and tempered its support for the workers accordingly. However, the union did in fact win community support for its original demand for a 6 percent wage increase.

In any case, when our discussion with the WIL leadership was underway, the workers were not opposing the union officials’ scaling down the 6 percent raise to a 3 percent raise. They were angry with the company for only offering 2 percent. Given that reality, we proposed that our comrade at the hospital consider leading his coworkers into a battle for their demands, even though they were extraordinarily modest. Had the union won a militant strike, their success could possibly have changed the consciousness of workers across the country. A weak union would have scored an earthshaking victory!

Yet because those of us in Portland and San Francisco were not prepared to raise 30 for 40, our approach was condemned once again by the WIL leadership as basically adapting to reformism. We believe that they were not prepared to have our comrade lead a strike because they would have viewed such a struggle as reformist in essence since it would only have been aimed at winning higher wages, etc. We regard the WIL leadership as advocating that we abstain and pass up opportunities to change the political landscape in this country. In fact, the National Secretary of the WIL asserted this unambiguously when he wrote to a Portland comrade: “Our goal in these struggles at this stage is not to lead them or to have a decisive influence over the ‘masses’ of the union, but to find the ones and twos for our own organization.” The only way in which the WIL leadership conceives of raising consciousness is by throwing out transitional demands at workers in movement, not by leading struggles. The same transitional demands are always raised in a purely mechanical way, regardless of the situation and regardless of the level of consciousness of the workers. And since these demands only resonate with one or two workers, if any at all, the WIL leadership believes it has succeeded in planting seeds for the future, or putting down markers, as they say. So if workers adopt these transitional demands in 30 years from now, the WIL will take credit.

An Additional Problem

Throughout both the Cindy Sheehan flier discussion and the trade union discussion we believe that the WIL leadership was fundamentally unwilling to conduct comradely discussions. They would begin each dispute with a statement to the effect that the WIL’s position was clear on the issue in question. And when everything is clear, of course, there is nothing to discuss. Moreover, by saying everything was clear, those of us who were in disagreement with the leadership were essentially ruled out of order at the outset and made to look as if we stood outside the organization.

The leadership then proceeded repeatedly to distort the positions and arguments that were submitted by members of the Portland and San Francisco branches — another sign that they were not interested in a comradely discussion because they were not prepared to listen to us carefully. And it should be noted that whenever there were substantive differences between either the Portland or San Francisco branches and the WIL leadership during the entire period of our membership, the WIL leadership would repeatedly distort what people said.

Then, when the National Secretary of the WIL, in relation to his earlier statement that our differences amounted to different interpretations of the trade union document we all voted for, asserted: “I therefore retract my implication that our differences are simply a matter of ‘interpretation’ or of how best to implement the decisions of the Congress,” we could only conclude that he was saying the discussion was over because there was no room for competing interpretations of our trade union document within the WIL.

Moreover, in relation to the trade union differences, the discussion commenced on an impossible presumption. Our Portland comrade had to confess to errors before the discussion could even begin. The leading WIL member who was urging him to produce a flier, said to him: “Everyone who gets in politics makes mistakes from time to time. This is normal. The issue is not making mistakes but recognizing them and correcting them for the future. However, we must admit the mistakes first; otherwise we cannot correct them.” In other words, the issue was not IF the Portland comrade made a mistake, but of RECOGNIZING the mistake he presumably committed. This is the kind of comment that is appropriate at the end of a discussion, not at the beginning.

This patronizing tone was repeated throughout the discussion, which degenerated even further when ad hominem arguments were introduced. In other words, people’s character, motive, position in society, or background became the focus rather than their arguments. For example, in relation to two San Francisco comrades, the same leading WIL comrade, after noting the San Francisco comrades could play a “tremendous role” in the organization, added: “However, in order to play this positive role, they must un-learn the sectarian methods they were trained in and learn the method of the WIL/IMT.” In other words, the “tremendous role” had nothing to do with political clarity, and anything the two San Francisco comrades had to contribute to the discussion could be dismissed in advance as invalid because of their background.

Another example of an ad hominem was introduced by the WIL National Secretary: “It seems evident to me that the approach advocated by these comrades is an approach they bring with them from their past experience in various Trotskyist groups.” Comments such as this are intended to end the discussion, not try to resolve the differences.

Throughout all our differences with the WIL leadership, we considered ourselves in fundamental agreement with the IMT. However, towards the end of the trade union discussion, a leading member of the IMT, after consulting with Alan Woods, etc. contributed his own reflections, making it crystal clear that the IMT entirely sided with the WIL leadership and saw nothing positive in the arguments of the Portland or San Francisco branch comrades. By implication he accused us of “opportunist adaptation” and also made a point of adding that in his opinion the discussion had “been conducted in a democratic and comradely manner.”

Conclusion

Trotsky once said: “To have an ear for the average worker in the factory, on the street, in the streetcar, in the cafe, in the family in order to know how he sees the situation, what hopes he cherishes, what he believes in — to listen attentively to such a worker — that is the first duty of a revolutionary organization…” (The Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1934-35). In our opinion, the WIL leadership was not interested in listening to the average worker or to us.

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