Let’s Organize the Working Class, Not Alienate Them

Gregory Lebens-Higgins

September 15 marked the start of the United Auto Workers’ historic “Stand Up Strike.” Across the nation, rallies and practice pickets were quickly assembled in support of the union. A rally at UAW Local 1097, in Rochester, drew together communications workers, social workers, postal workers, teachers, and Teamsters alongside organizations including Rochester DSA, Metro Justice, and the Party for Socialism and Liberation (with obligatory appearances by Democratic politicians). Speakers called out the bosses’ accumulation of the exorbitant profits produced by the workers and pledged solidarity. Such a demonstration is primed to raise the class consciousness of those present.

However, at the rally I was handed a publication of the Sparticist League, Workers Vanguard. These Trotskyists are not beating the allegation that they exist to do little more than distribute newspapers. The content of the publication—aimed at criticizing alleged shortcomings of the UAW—does not build class consciousness but alienates workers with utopian dreams of the coming insurrection. It lacks praxis and is absent of useful analysis.

Image of September 15, 2023 Supplement to "Workers Vanguard" published by the Sparticist League. "No Tiers, Reindustrialization, Black Liberation!"
Sparticist League/U.S. “One Out, All Out!” Workers Vanguard. Sept. 15, 2023 (Supplement).

Many words are spilled here to criticize Shawn Fain, President of the UAW. He is mocked for using the word “audacious” to describe the UAW’s demands—but how else should one frame demands that include a four-day workweek and wage increases of 40%.

Fain is also accused of “backtracking” by limiting the strike to “only a few plants.” But in spite of the authors’ misplaced apprehensions, this tactic has proven effective. Employers have been forced to guess where strikes will occur, causing partial closures and chaos.

This method presents a strategic and innovative way to stretch the strike fund, focus on locations with stronger support, and strengthen the resolve of workers at other plants as they ready for action. The tactic also acts like a lit fuse, intensifying pressure on the bosses. After General Motors and Stellantis continued to stonewall the union, strikes were expanded to a further thirty-eight parts-distribution centers (and have continued to expand).

The Sparticist League questions Fain’s radicalism. Yet his comments have consistently kept class politics at the center of the struggle. After declaring the strike’s expansion, Shawn Fain appeared on the picket line and declared:

“This is about working-class people all over this country, all over this world. This is all of our fight! The days of the billionaire class and the corporate class running away with all the profits, while we’re all left behind scraping to get by paycheck by paycheck, those days have to end.”

Fain’s attire exhibited his militancy—a black and white camo shirt embroidered with the UAW logo. And he has been known to quote Malcolm X: “We have to be willing to stand up and get our demands by any means necessary!”

This is why the Sparticist League’s speculation that “a leadership like Fain’s will fold in the face of . . . pressure” from President Biden to protect his electoral bid is so misplaced. While we must remain cautiously vigilant in holding leaders accountable, the fact is that the UAW has yet to endorse Biden and his decision to visit the picket line demonstrates the growing power of labor over the political class.

The Sparticist League’s criticism ignores recent major overhauls within the UAW. Says the Sparticist League, “The UAW bureaucracy’s record of dismal failures in organizing the unorganized is a direct reflection of its losing class-collaborationist program, which has led to endless givebacks in recent years.” Yet the Stand Up Strike is in part about clawing back these givebacks, including ending the unequal tiers established by previous contracts.

The elevation of Fain to UAW’s presidency followed the union’s first-ever direct membership vote. Fain had been a member of the reform caucus Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), which sought to hold union leaders accountable to membership following a series of scandals including numerous leaders being criminally sanctioned for corruption.

The Sparticist League advises that “to win, the UAW must organize the strike to provide a beacon for the whole working class.”

But undoubtedly it already is. By standing up to the bosses, centering the class struggle, and loudly and clearly articulating their demands, the UAW is demonstrating to workers what is possible through solidarity, thereby helping them to realize their historical role.

The same is happening in the South—an alleged blind spot according to the Sparticist League. The Stand Up Strike sets an example for all workers and will lift working conditions even for southern workers, as employers there seek to remain competitive. Notably, the second wave of strikes includes plants in both Texas and Mississippi.

Bernie Sanders, who addressed the auto workers in Detroit on the opening day of the strike, does not escape the criticism of the Sparticist League. “This ‘progressive,’” they allege, “has done nothing for workers all the years he’s been in office—except rope them back into the Democratic Party.” Yet Sanders has repeatedly introduced labor legislation including the PRO Act, agitated to raise the minimum wage, and investigated corporate malpractice.

Neither can one deny the energy Sanders has injected into the socialist movement. His candidacy destigmatized the word and helped workers to realize the source of their exploitation and oppression.

Left voices and representation in politics should be celebrated. But socialist organizing is about more than electoralism. While we are often forced to work through the Democratic Party to get a chance at the ballot line, elections are an opportunity to organize for when we are strong enough to break away into a true workers’ party. Unfortunately, we have not yet reached the point in organizing or building worker consciousness that will enable us to stand outside the current structure.

We continue to remain critical of the Democratic Party’s inclination to sell out workers. Yet to say that “neither [party] advances the interests of workers or black people” is to ignore the openly fascist nature of the Republican Party, and the role of Biden’s National Labor Relation’s Board in the growing strength of labor.

Thankfully, the UAW has denounced Trump. Again centering class politics, Fain said:

“Every fiber of our union is being poured into fighting the billionaire class and an economy that enriches people like Donald Trump at the expense of workers. . . . We can’t keep electing billionaires and millionaires that don’t have any understanding what it is like to live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to get by and expecting them to solve the problems of the working class.”

The Sparticist League demands “(1) integrated housing and infrastructure [projects], (2) massive union hiring drives, (3) organizing the unorganized, (4) training and hiring programs that spread the available work among all, and (5) massive reindustrialization under workers’ control.” These economistic demands fall far short of the broader social democratic changes necessary, and do not provide a roadmap for transforming the workers movement into an open struggle for socialism.

Laudably, the Sparticist League centralizes racial struggle, declaring: “The only way to improve things for workers and black people is to fight on the basis that the struggle for black equality is inseparable from the struggle for workers emancipation.” (Emphasis in original.) Yet the author reveals their own bias in the next paragraph. White workers:

“must have the understanding that, in order to advance their own interests, they must destroy the bosses’ most prized ‘divide-and-rule’ scheme: keeping black people segregated at the bottom,”

while black workers:

“must be won to the understanding that in order to get social, economic and political equality they need to unite with white workers to carry out this struggle.” (Emphasis added.)

Here, white workers are assigned the role of actor—freeing black workers—while black workers are a subject to be “won,” to follow the white worker.

Let's Organize the Working Class, Not Alienate Them. A group of United Auto Workers protesting outside of a brick building. Many of them are holding blue and white signs.
A group of United Auto Workers protest in Rochester, New York.

Recognizing the parallel threat of policing to minorities and labor, the Sparticist League demands that “The racist crimes of the cops must be exposed to all.” But this tepid demand for police transparency does little to counter state terror.

Daily we are exposed to the crimes of the police and systemic abuse of authority, yet this alone will not bring change. We must articulate demands to defund the police and institute true social safety measures from material security to non-carceral responses to mental health crises.

Reindustrialization is perhaps the oddest demand of the Sparticist League. This arbitrary call displays a fetishization of industry that disregards climate change and the limits of growth. We must instead focus on turning our production capacity toward sustainability and reducing the ubiquity of low-quality consumer goods.

The remarks of the Sparticist League fail to provide an accurate assessment of worker strength in the United States. One can call vigorously for a general strike, but it will not materialize unless the work of position has been thoroughly accomplished when the time for movement arises. While the Sparticist League’s suggestion that workers “seize the vast amounts of empty luxury real estate and office space for housing” is intriguing, we do not currently have the capability to carry out such a task.

The Sparticist League recognizes that “for the bosses, oppressing black people isn’t just about profits—it’s also about power.” Yet a strike is also about power. It is about taking power back from the bosses. With this power, the workers can begin to implement the further changes sought by the socialist movement.

To act in coordination with this power we must engage in political education, organize ourselves as socialists, and support the workers. The Sparticist League hints that it will provide the leadership for the struggle:

“If it is to find a way forward, labor must put the fight for black freedom at the center of its struggles, which requires a leap in consciousness. That means there must be a leadership to bring this about—a revolutionary leadership.”

If a vanguard party is indeed needed to guide workers into a revolutionary mindset that will lead to true liberation, the Sparticist League’s fringe ideas negate the possibility of their playing this role.

We must organize with and beyond trade unionism. But by attacking democratically elected union leadership, belittling the Stand Up Strike strategy, and handing out articles like this at rallies, we alienate workers from their path to class consciousness.

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