A think piece I wrote, wrestling with some questions. While I was writing up my notes on that SolFed piece I remembered I’d wanted to post this thing; I should come back to this to flesh it out further, when I do so I should read the end of that SolFed post, the bit at the bottom after the “Edit:” bit, w/r/t pressures and tendencies and so on.

I think I first heard Staughton Lynd make this point but I’m not totally sure. Whoever it was, the argument goes like this. The legal system of collective bargaining exists to maintain labor peace. That is, it exists to reduce conflicts between workers and bosses, specifically conflicts that interrupt production in an unpredictable way. There are conflicts under the mainstream system of industrial relations, conflicts that lead to work stoppages, but they tend to be made more predictable – strikes happen around contract negotiations. This makes workers’ organizations less powerful in relation to employers.

There’s a second type of cost to labor peace. In my view – and this isn’t original on my part, I just can’t remember where I got it from – it’s good for workers to experience conflict with the boss. The collective organization involved, the relationship we build, the act of standing up for ourselves, all of this has the potential to help people start to understand the world differently. It can help make less politicized people start to understand that we have to abolish the wage system. This means that when labor peace makes for less conflict, it makes for less of those moments that have the possibility to radicalize people.

I think the above two paragraphs are basically right. In my experience, many of us have used arguments like this to argue for noncontractual organizing. I know I have. In a way, each of the last two paragraphs includes a different kind of argument for noncontractual organizing, solidarity unionism we usually call it.

The first paragraph offers a sort of short-term pragmatic argument for solidarity unionism, or if you like, a bread-and-butter argument. Here’s a version of that argument: “contracts are only as strong as the organization behind them, otherwise they’re just piece of paper. If you have the strong organization built that you would need in order to get a good contract, then you don’t need the contract at all! You can get as much or more of the stuff you want through a noncontractual approach!” I’ve made this argument before.

The second paragraph offers a radical argument for noncontractual organizing. I’ve made this one too, I think it goes something like this: “in noncontractual organizing people run their own affairs more, and have more experiences of conflict and collective power, so they’re more likely to be radicalized.” Basically, the argument is that a higher percentage of workers will be radicalized by a campaign that use these methods than by a contractual campaign.

I think the first argument is true in some cases in the short term. People can win short term gains pretty quickly with a small group taking action together, if the demand is low-cost enough for the employer, and/or the employer is weak enough. Above a certain scope/stakes to the boss/intensity, though, I think this reverses majorly. The first argument is also true as a long term tendency: good contracts are the result of strong organization, they don’t create organization. What’s more, there are dynamics in the industrial relations regime that aren’t good for organization over the long term. Without a lot of conscious effort and hard work, over time contracts in my opinion tend to lead to problems which erode organizations, to push things in a direction away from work stoppages and direct action, to encourage control by experts, and so on. In the long term, I think contracts don’t help working class power, and they probably harm it.

All of that said, there’s a major problem with the first type of argument. Namely, labor peace has a price, so to speak. That is, bosses push for having a no strike clause and other contract language that limits and manages workplace conflict. This is worth money to bosses. It’s worth paying for labor peace. So it’s not *really* true when we say “if you can get it with a contract, you can get it without a contract.” In some cases, workers really can get more from their bosses by signing a contract that signs away some of their rights.

About the second argument, the radical argument for noncontractual organizing… I still think this is basically right. At the same time, this argument involves a criticism of mainstream unionism. I think we should be honest and apply this criticism to other projects too. A friend told me a story recently about a group of workers who organized themselves independently against a bit public facility. This was a relatively small group of workers compared to the size of the facility. It was I think less than 300 people and a facility that has employees numbering in the thousands, serving members of the public numbering in the tens of thousands, and dealing with millions of dollars. The workers had the power to shut the place down, and they used that power to bring the facility to a stop temporarily. They put forward a list of demands they wanted met. The bosses gave in on every one of them. The bosses then said “hey next time you have any problems, let us know and we’ll fix things right away so we don’t need to have any of these headaches.”

In many ways, this arrangement is a victory. The workers got what they wanted and they had an experience of collective action. Most of us would love to be in the position of these workers. At the same time, what happens next time? If we think in pragmatic terms, again along the lines of the first paragraph above, and there often are some good reasons to think in these terms, then the workers might as well get whatever they can without action – after all, nothing is too good for the working class, as Bill Haywood once said – and when they need direct action to get the goods, then they should take action. On the other hand, let’s think about this in terms of radicalizing workers through conflict, like in the second paragraph above. If the workers go to management and say “We want the following demands met or else” and they get their demands met, then where is the experience of struggle that radicalizes workers? It seems to me that this a case of limited labor peace, on noncontractual organizing terms. It’s not the same as contractualism, but there’s a common element here.

As I’ve said, I think both these basic arguments are right in a lot of ways, but I think they’re a bit simplistic. Particularly on the second issue, radicalizing workers, I want to add that I think many people are too quick to write of mainstream unions and their struggles. Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood. I agree with pretty much all the criticisms that most people I know have of the mainstream labor movement. At the same time, I know people who have been radicalized by experiences in the mainstream labor movement – being a worker at a place that was organized by a union, being a worker at a place where people went on strike due to contract negotiations. One of the key people who started my local organization got radicalized by going out on strike as a member of a mainstream union during contract negotiations. This experience ended up helping cause my organization to be formed. It seems to me that if we care about that second point, radicalizing workers through conflict, then whatever else we say about mainstream unions and the system of industrial relations, we have to admit that some of the time workers get radicalized by conflicts in that arena too.

I want to change gears a minute. I want to think about this kind of organizing and revolution. I don’t know much about revolutionary transition. I can think of a few models. Here’s one. A group seizes the state and imposes a new society. Maybe the group has broad support among workers and other people, maybe it doesn’t. That matters a lot but not for my purposes here. Here’s another model. The workers have a general strike which ends capitalism. Vague, I know. Maybe the strike is led by a union or unions, maybe it happens spontaneously or maybe it’s called, maybe it involves non-union workers. I don’t know. In any case, there are a few places the that this kind of organizing could fit into these scenarios (I know we’re not down with seizing the state). One is for us to be THE organization that makes it happen. We literally grow to be unite all workers. Or, we grow to unite a whole lot of workers, enough to kick off some major social upheaval. Or, we’re one organization among many who makes a contribution. I don’t have a crystal ball, but that last one is my hunch about what will happen.

For whatever it’s worth, I’m not sure about the general strike as a model for revolution, even though I like it better than seizing state power. (I know there are other possibilities too, I’m just saying.) I’m also not convinced that our group as a formal organization will play a big role in the revolution. I’m not convinced any current organization will do so. I do think we will make a major contribution, along the lines of my second paragraph above. We will – we already have – make a contribution by radicalizing workers, and by giving those radicalized workers skills and confidence and relationships that they will use to contribute to the movement of our class as a whole. Maybe we’ll play a bigger role than that. That’d be cool. Even if we don’t, I think this role I mentioned is enough. We’re helping make more working class revolutionaries. When there are enough working class revolutionaries at some point, then a big group of them will work out the specifics of how to get down to the historic mission of the proletariat. I don’t think completing that mission is in the cards for the relatively near future, it seems to me that our tasks for now are preparing ways to get that mission onto the agenda in a real and winnable way – but getting the project onto the agenda as a real possibility is not the same thing as actually carrying out that project once and for all.

(Note to self: I think I’m partly talking about the relationship between “a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work” and “abolish the wage system,” which varies in actual practice, as easy as it can appear to set this out in theory.)