After posting last week Boots Outside the Box, which argued that the poor MUST be organized, I got a few comments to the affect that the poor COULDN’T be organized. Too demoralized. Too vulnerable. No leverage. It’s a worthy question, and one that has a long history.
Another commenter posed the question in terms of middle-class organizing VERSUS organizing the poor. My response: there is no versus. The question is, what is the relationship between them?
Since the poor are largely unorganized, I think it appropriate to respond in terms of organizing the unorganized. Which also has a long history.
Back when dinosaurs stalked the earth …
Karl Marx introduced two terms — the Reserve Army of Labour (or Industrial Reserve Army) and the Lumpenproletariat. The reserve army was considered part of the working class, either suffering temporarily from unemployment, or part of the never-as-yet employed, which capital could employ as needed. The lumpenproletariat was considered a criminal class of petty hustlers, smugglers and prostitutes, recruitable by the bourgeoisie to be used against the working class.
Looking at actual society, one can see that the line between reserve army and lumpen is — and never was — so clear. Treatments, definitions and attitudes have varied and been quarreled about over the years (wretched of the earth, multitude), along with their revolutionary or counterrevolutionary character, but these concepts persist to this day in one form or another.
That’s for background.
Craft unionism vs. industrial unionism
This was the big contention in American Trade Unionism circa 1900. The foundation of craft unionism, the base of the AFL, was access to a narrow skill-set, and the leverage therefrom. Take a modern factory. If ALL the electricians went on strike, they could shut it down. They were the elite of labor. At their most charitable, the mass of industrial workers were unorganizable. Having no special skills, they could be replaced en masse by the next batch of immigrants off the boat. Less charitably, they were despised. Barely speaking English, unschooled, living in wretched conditions, divided by nationalities, infected with foreign ideologies (like socialism, anarchism and syndicalism), they were in fact perceived as and treated as a threat.
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), founded in 1905, represented a massive upsurge of industrial unionism, winning battles in textiles, mining and lumber, organizing women, Black and agricultural workers, workers the lily-white (and proud of it) craft workers wouldn’t touch. They saw themselves as both revolutionaries and unionists, negotiating their wins, but eschewing contracts, which they saw as legitimizing wage slavery. It worked well enough as the movement was on the march, but on the wane, it left them unable to consolidate their gains.
When the U.S. entered WWI in 1917, the industrial unions were largely crushed, finished off by the post-war Palmer raids which deported their foreign-born leadership.
What was consolidated out of all this were various organizing committees and outfits like the Trade Union Educational League (working within existing unions), led by the Communist Party USA, which had emerged from the fires of WWI with a total (arguably excessive) commitment to industrial unionism. It all came together in the mass organizing drives of the 1930’s under what became the CIO, which were bitterly opposed by the leadership of the AFL.
New forms of organization
The CP method was to constantly broaden the base of the movement in support of industrial unions. To this effect, they promoted both the unemployed councils and the Sharecroppers Union, a militant organization of 8,000 poor Black sharecroppers and tenant farmers in the South. The unemployed councils were urban. They fought against evictions and for the day-to-day needs of the poor, demonstrating at relief agency offices, etc. They walked picket lines in strike support. Both groups were on the radical side. Both were shut down by the CP when it made its peace with Roosevelt as part of Stalin’s Popular Front period.
The CP rode out the McCarthy era and the consolidation of the trade union movement with the merger of the AFL and the CIO. The unions then drove CP leaders out of top positions. But the CP remained embedded in the industrial unions at every level, continuing to function as the gatekeepers of progressivism, conferring legitimacy to some, such as the peace movement and the civil rights movement, and leaving to hang out to dry the Black power movement and the radical anti-Vietnam war movement.
But the relevant point here is that the unemployed councils and the Sharecroppers Union were viable organizations provided they had outside support. But they were only treated as subordinate, support organizations, not entities unto themselves.
3rd wave unionism
The 60’s saw the fitful development of what was known as 3rd wave unionism. Craft unionism was the first wave, industrial unionism was the 2nd, and the 3rd wave included everyone else from government workers to field migrants to welfare recipients to home care workers to the unemployed.
As the CP held to the “classical” view, leaders such as Malcolm X saw the poor as a power base, and organizations such as the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords openly embraced the lumpen as a revolutionary force.
Frantz Fanon on the lumpen:
“one of the most spontaneous and the most radically revolutionary forces of a colonized people.”
While their revolutionary potential was never demonstrated in the U.S., as the whole revolution failed, the poor were organized into a great variety of vehicles. The ghetto rebellions of the 60’s shook the system, and Lyndon Johnson’s poverty programs moved in, bought off the militant that could be bought (who ended up as the Black urban base of the Democratic Party), jailed the ones who couldn’t, and chilled things out.
One of the most successful organizations was the National Welfare Rights Organization (which was sanctioned by the CP), which organized the poor, including poor women, to get the most from the poverty agencies through militant direct action. As the “good times” ended in the mid-70’s. though, the NWRO went under at the national level in 1975, but remained a force at the local level.
The CP and the NWRO were challenged by the development of the New York City Unemployed and Welfare Council in the late 70’s. The NYCUWC explicitly considered itself a union, and asked to be treated as such by organized labor. Organized labor, and particularly the CP elements, treated this with scorn. The left, threatened by something outside itself, alternated between declaring the poor unorganizable, or in some cases, better left unorganized:
The revolutionary proletariat must exercise great caution toward those members of the lumpenproletariat who are able to join the revolutionary movement because they often tend to be unstable and advocate adventurism and anarchism, harming the disciplined character of the movement.
But they were organized, the effort fueled by dozens of high-committed activists, winning some benefits and building a base of support in Harlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn. But the leadership saw themselves in a trap. They could keep providing services, but at best this would have been tantamount to doing the work the government should be doing without getting paid for it.
Convert to electoral
Their move was to form the New Alliance Party, converting their base into an electoral force. Their tactic was inside/outside. Run mainstream candidates in the Democratic primaries, provided that candidate pledged to run in the general election as an independent. An early success was Frank Barbaro’s 18% under the Unity Party line against Ed Koch in 1981. NAP peaked in 1988, when they got chair Lenora Fulani on the presidential ballot in all 50 states. And the District of Columbia. She got almost a quarter million votes that year.
But seeking a larger venue, NAP went into Ross Perot’s Reform Party and, in New York, the Independence Party. The Reform Party tore itself apart in an orgy of sectarian bloodletting. The NAP forces played a major role in the Independence Party gaining ballot status. But part of the deal was that the NAP/Fulani forces abandoned their left politics. Then the upstate party tried to drive them out. They hung on, but at the expense of any connection to progressive issues other than electoral reform. Their fate was sealed as they became Republican mayor Mike Bloomberg’s get-out-the-vote operation in Harlem in exchange for some funding.
Again, even this sordid tale shows that the poor CAN be organized — a 10-year run of good years is impressive by contemporary standards. No, the poor haven’t made the revolution. But then, neither did anyone else, and the unions have gone from 36% of the workforce in 1945 to 12.5% now. Yeah, they’re doing great.
The question is HOW. Recall the case of the IWW. They won gains when the movement was on the upswing, and couldn’t consolidate them. Likewise, much was won in the 60’s. To the extent it was consolidated, it was through absorption into the Democratic Party. But the greatest achievement these days is to elect a Democratic president who is finding new ways every day to cut our throats.
So I conclude with a few points.
(1) The unemployed and poor CAN be organized if they have support from outside the ranks of the unemployed and poor.
(2) One way their organization can be consolidated is electorally.
And here I make a jump.
(3) Their electoral organization must be independent. The Democratic Party does not want them, treats them as the craft workers of 1900 treated the immigrant factory workers off the boats.
We can do better. To play off an old saw, first they came for the homeless, but I was not homeless so I said nothing …