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Revolutionary Union

Red Papers 6: Build the Leadership of the Proletariat and its Party


Revolutionary Union

Outlaw Develops Workers’ Unity, Consciousness Through Struggle

From its beginning the RU has been guided by the principle formulated by the Chinese Communist Party in its polemic on the general line of the international communist movement: “Even in ordinary times, when it is leading the masses in the day-to-day struggle, the proletarian party should ideologically, politically, and organizationally prepare its own ranks and the masses for revolution and promote revolutionary struggles.”

In the concrete conditions of our country, including the actual state of the communist movement, over the past several years, the RU has made the above principle the basis of its work, even before a single vanguard Party has been formed. In fact, this principle has provided the basis for the genuine communist forces to link up with the mass movement in a revolutionary way, and to unite and struggle with each other in working toward the creation of the Party.

The following report summarizes the work of RU comrades in applying this line to work in one industry. We hope it will encourage and assist others in summing up their work, especially in the working class, drawing the major political and ideological lessons from it and, in this way, help to develop the programme for the new Party.

RU cadre working in the New York metropolitan area postal system have tried to carry out this task by applying the method of taking up the spontaneous struggles that arise among different sections of postal workers, spreading them to all postal workers, raising and linking them with other struggles against the imperialist system and unfolding political lessons around these struggles. This is our understanding of how the single spark method applies in our work.

To unite with advanced workers in carrying out this work, the RU initiated, and struggles to lead, Outlaw, an anti-imperialist organization of postal workers. Outlaw is anti-imperialist because it presents the fight against the government-appointed post office management as part of the overall fight of the working class and oppressed people against the imperialists who rule over everyone in the U.S. Its contribution to building the class struggle is made through the struggles of postal workers, both for themselves and against all exploitation and oppression.

The union, like almost every union in this country, is dominated by self-seeking bureaucrats who represent not the interests of the workers, but, ultimately, those of the bourgeoisie.

We have struggled to make Outlaw fight for the interests of the postal workers, a center of leadership to mobilize the rank and file in struggles, in opposition to the management and the union bureaucracy.

This is the opposite of the Trotskyite method, of telling the workers what they already know–that the union hacks are hacks–without giving any real leadership that relies on and mobilizes the workers and concretely points the way forward in the struggle. The Trotskyites just scream about “sell out leadership” and then tell the workers to solve their problems by substituting one set of bad leaders–the present union hacks–for another–the Trotskyites themselves. This only demoralizes the workers and promotes the idea that all we need is “good” trade unionists.

Outlaw’s method has been to sum up the demands of postal workers, concretize them into a particular program, and rally postal workers around it, and then, relying on the masses, to force the union leadership to take a position for or against our proposals. Working this way, and drawing political lessons in the course of these struggles, Outlaw has won far more support than any mere “opposition caucus” simply seeking office could. Outlaw forces the bureaucrats to either agree with us or fight our proposals–and either way we show who really represents the workers’ interests. By “jamming up” the union and applying the single spark method, we try to win postal workers from fighters in spontaneous struggles into fighters against all oppression and its source–imperialism.

Within Outlaw, RU comrades fight for it to unite all who can be united around the program which can make the most political gains through struggle. At the same time, we try to win Outlaw’s members to Marxism-Leninism, both by generally propagating it and applying it concretely to leading struggle, and summing up the lessons of mass struggle. We don’t see Outlaw as having an ideology of its own because there is no intermediate ideology between proletarian ideology and bourgeois ideology. But we try to make Outlaw’s mass work and its internal life serve as conveyor belts to bring workers to proletarian ideology, when combined with our independent role as communists.

There are over 60,000 postal workers in the New York City-northern New Jersey metropolitan area, many of them concentrated in large terminals, where a thousand or more workers work side by side in extremely socialized labor. About 45% are Black, 45% white and 10% Latin, pretty much evenly distributed in terms of age. About 10% are women. Quite a few are Vietnam-era vets. Despite the Post Office’s reorganization as a “semi-public” corporation in 1971, it’s still jointly owned by the monopoly capitalists as a whole for their joint interests. But the reorganization added to this function, the job of serving as a model for all U.S. industries–a model of “productivity.”

The postal Board of Governors, appointed by Nixon, is made up of many of the same corporate heads who also sit on government productivity councils, pay boards and other instruments used to force “productivity” on the U.S. working class. The reorganization was a direct result of the general crisis of U.S. imperialism and the life-or-death need of U.S. business to make itself more competitive in the world market. The postal reorganization goes hand in hand with wage controls, the Experimental Negotiating Agreement in Steel, the imposition of sellout contracts by national unions, the use of police against strikers and all the tools the bourgeoisie uses to cut down their labor costs by any means necessary.

For postal workers this takes the form of bringing in new machinery to make production more efficient and trying to lay off a third of all postal workers, speeding up the rest. By building 23 new Bulk mail centers outside the major cities, management is trying to displace workers with seniority–especially Black workers–whose struggle stands in the way of “productivity.” In these new centers there were no coffee breaks, no washup time and plenty of mandatory overtime.

The Manhattan-Bronx Postal Union, representing clerks and mail-handlers, was a focal point in the national postal strike of 1970, the first postal strike in U.S. history, which broke out when the government declared that a pay raise had to wait until Congress approved the postal reorganization plan. Nixon sent the National Guard to New York, and the 10-day walkout ended with a 14% raise across the country.

That union is now called the Metro Area Postal Union (MAPU), a local of the national American Postal Workers Union. MAPU head Moe Biller, once fired from the P.O. because of his alleged association with the CP. in the 1950’s, talks like a super militant .Underneath this cover he runs the same kind of scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch yours machine as any other union hack, but the very fact he finds it necessary to talk so tough is an indication of the history of struggle and consciousness of many postal workers.

The name Outlaw came from the law making advocating a postal strike a crime, as signs all over postal stations point out. For a year after Outlaw was initiated in 1971, the cadre and others they worked with saw putting out the Outlaw newspaper as their main task. Long before Outlaw had many workers in it, before it was able to issue calls and lead struggles, it gained the respect of many of the 10,000 postal workers in the biggest stations who got it every month.

The paper did two things: it accurately described the conditions and struggles in the various postal stations, and it tried to deal with broader political issues, relating them to the situation of postal workers in particular. Most workers said about Outlaw, “Outlaw tells the truth.”

Because of how it dealt with these issues and with the Post Office itself, postal workers saw Outlaw as clearly different from the 1001 kinds of Trotskyite leaflets they were constantly barraged with. At many stations workers won’t accept leaflets unless they have the Outlaw symbol. From the start, workers saw Outlaw as a political organization of postal workers. Many of our early problems came from our individual shop work, where we made right errors, and tended to be too secretive about being in Outlaw. This also hindered our ability to take up the mass line. But as far as Outlaw the newspaper was concerned, postal workers knew where it was coming from.

Although Outlaw accurately exposed the conditions in the P.O., at first it didn’t issue general calls for action by postal workers on the job. This was partly because we didn’t have a good grasp of the mass line–of how to sum up the demands of the masses and concretize them, at least as far as struggles within the industry were concerned. But we did take up demonstrations against the war, supporting the Attica uprising, and so on, and it was on this basis that we attracted the first workers to Outlaw.

Contract Struggle

Throughout the winter and spring 1972-1973 we began to use the paper, leaflets and lots of rapping to agitate around the upcoming national contract. We focused on the cutting back of day tours, which forced some workers to work nights and others out of their jobs altogether.

Around this we unfolded Nixon and the whole ruling class’s need for a peaceful settlement in the P.O., since the postal contract was the second in a string of national contracts (after auto) and part of the general attempt to hold down wages. We connected the bourgeoisie’s need for a peaceful P.O. settlement with the international crisis of imperialism and their increasing political divisions, which were coming out around Watergate.

First we agitated around the need for a strike fund and other preparations, eight months before the old contract expired. When the union was forced to call a token demonstration by our demands in union meetings, we built it into a real mass action. Then we called on all postal workers to attend a union meeting to raise three demands: strike committees in each postal station, a strike fund, and constitutional changes for more union democracy. Our general slogan was “Bargaining Without Strike Preparations Is No Bargaining At All.” Instead of the usual 200 stewards and friends who usually come to union meetings, 400 angry workers showed up.

But Biller was able to defeat most of our proposals by a skillful combination of talking militant, deliberately creating confusion, relying on parliamentary maneuvering and his strong-arm hacks. Biller tried to co-opt our main demand by announcing he would set up “Support Your Negotiator” Committees, pretending to accept our demands without any intention of carrying through. From this we learned that just bringing people out for a meeting wasn’t enough to really confront the union bureaucracy. To thoroughly expose Biller and show our leadership, we had to rely on the masses, and to rely on them, we had to organize them and try to actively lead them. When Biller’s committees didn’t meet, we called an open mass meeting to form “Postal Workers for a Good Contract” (PWGC) to formulate demands and push them through.

Outlaw helped mobilize 800 workers for another union meeting, and built and led a mass demonstration which we forced the union to call. But we hadn’t learned the need for rank and file organization thoroughly enough. Instead of going all out to build PWGC at the stations around our contract demands, we tried to coast along on the workers’ overwhelming sentiment against the proposed national sell-out contract. Half the local’s membership never received their mail ballots. They never had a chance to vote. To add insult to injury, the national union signed the contract three days early.

This created a two-line struggle within Outlaw as to whether we should still emphasize the fight for a good contract, or whether we should emphasize the collaboration between the management, the government and the union against postal workers. When the second line won, we launched a campaign to “Stop the P.O. Watergate,” explaining that the contract sell-out and Watergate are not exceptions, but typical of how the ruling class rules. Outlaw exposed the class nature of this collusion, pointing out that if this wasn’t enough to stop the workers’ struggles, the bourgeoisie would call out their army as they did in the 1970 strike.

With this line, Outlaw’s leaflets were very well received by postal workers. But we had waited too long and the moment was lost. Demoralization was setting in. We couldn’t take this struggle any further.

Subs, Vets Issue

But through this, many postal workers understood things much better, and both the Outlaw and the RU comrades within it had come to a much better understanding of how to work. Within a couple of months another issue had begun to sharpen the P.O.’s attempt to get rid of 500 sub (substitute) mailhandlers and give them all short hours. Tied up with this was the worsening situation of the 300 Vets hired under the Veterans Rehabilitation Administration, whose “special preference” as vets turned out to be no grievance rights and no Sunday overtime pay.

Outlaw forced the union to form a citywide committee to deal with these attacks and to call a demo around three demands: no more short hours; make all subs regular after six months on the job; and equal rights for VRA vets. A special issue of Outlaw built for the demo by pointing out how the government uses phony job programs to cool off workers’ militancy, then uses all these job classifications to divide postal workers. All the major stations were leafleted. Outlaw members went to each station to give a rap in the swing room.

The demo drew 300 workers, despite snow, Christmas overtime and the union’s discouraging. Most were subs, but others were regulars from stations where Outlaw was strong. Instead of the union’s demands dividing the postal ’workers into interest groups, Outlaw fought to unite them. Outlaw summed up the militance of the demo and decided on the spot to lead the workers in a march right through the main post office itself. Biller, who had planned no more than a few official speeches, gathered his loyalists into the union truck and took off. Now Outlaw was able to really draw the line on Biller and his class interests.

Outlaw took up the subs’ demand that the demo be the start of an organized, protracted campaign. It issued propaganda connecting short hours for subs, layoffs in general, and the crunch of the declining imperialist system. It talked about how vets had been forced to fight an imperialist war, only to be screwed again when they got home by the same ruling class whose interests they’d fought to protect. This campaign is still going on. Outlaw is also building links between the veterans’ movement and postal workers by organizing postal workers to take part in Vietnam Veterans Against The War/Winter Soldier Organization actions and showing the unity between the two aspects of the people’s struggle against imperialist oppression.

Through these campaigns and by referring back to the lessons of the contract struggle, Outlaw built the understanding that what it’s about is a full-time fight for the interests of working people, not just a struggle around this or that issue. Many postal workers could see that there were two lines about what postal workers should be doing-the union’s leadership’s and Outlaw’s. The “Battle of the Bulk” a month later took this to a higher level.

“Battle of the Bulk”

The New Jersey Bulk center had been open for almost six months, starting with only a few workers and building up to 3400, the biggest in the area. Under the union contract, workers at a new facility can’t be covered by the union for the first 180 days. These had been field days for management. Workers were sped up and harassed in every possible way. Then management announced that on the 181st day, tour (shift) times would be changed in a way that would arbitrarily and completely disrupt postal workers’ lives, especially those with families.

Some young workers didn’t mind the tour changes. But for everyone at the Bulk and the nearby Meadows station where workers were to be transferred to the Bulk, the tour changes were a symbol of all the harassment and hell that all postal workers were catching. The general feeling was, “They’re screwing us all over the place. We’ve got to make a stand.”

Outlaw organized people to go to a union meeting to demand action. The union called for a “shop gate meeting ” (meeting outside the plant gates), a futile gesture usually meant to warn management that the union is in trouble and shouldn’t be pushed too far. But Outlaw brought people from other stations and set up picket lines. By the time the new shift was to start the plant was closed down. At noon, when the P.O. got a temporary restraining order against the strike, the union leadership took off, never to return to the picket lines.

Outlaw was left to organize everything, from picket signs to the daily broadsheet “Picket Line News.” Two days later, when it was clear that the strike had to expand or die, Outlaw led strikers in closing down the Meadows plant. There the workers fought a pitched battle with police who charged the picket lines. But the plant stayed closed, and the strike spread, gathering support from subs and other postal workers all over the city. The mail began to really pile up.

Then the union was hauled into court. The judge ordered that instead of being passive, the union actively stop the strike. As a “compromise” he ordered that for one week, while the issue was in binding arbitration, two of the tours were to report on the old schedule and the third an hour late.

Because the strike was weakening and because Outlaw was unable to spread the strike itself to N.Y.C., Outlaw went along with the union’s back to work order. But at a union meeting of over 600 workers, Outlaw declared that people should go back to organize, and if they didn’t get what they wanted after the arbitration, they should walk right back out. Everyone took up the chant, “One week, one week,” giving the bosses a deadline to meet our demands. In order to create a mass democratic form to organize for the walkout, Outlaw called for the formation of a “Postal Workers Action Committee.”

But this development was held back by a two line struggle between RU comrades and other Outlaw members. One line said, “When the decision comes (the arbitration), the people will know what to do.” The RU took the line that if we didn’t get what we wanted we should walk out, and to do that we had to organize now. No organization, we said, meant no walkout.

The decision didn’t come in a week. In fact, it didn’t come for three months, when we suddenly found out that the arbitration had been a sham-all along the union and management had been in secret negotiations, and the union had accepted a sellout behind the workers’ backs, forcing many to work the hated new shifts according to seniority.

The union and some Outlaw members took the position that the outcome was a “partial victory,” since it helped some workers, and that anything was preferable to arbitration. RU cadre argued that the Battle of the Bulk was not about getting better shift times for a few workers, but a struggle for all postal workers to unite and fight back. We said it was a warning to management that its Bulk-screw-the workers tactics wouldn’t get over anywhere in the country, and that, arbitration or not, nothing can stop the workers’ united power. Finally, the RU line won over all of Outlaw. But because this had taken so long and Outlaw hadn’t maintained a rank and file organization and popularized a program for action, there was no new walkout at the Bulk.

Biller the “super-militant” met his final exposure at a union meeting called to present the “victory” and introduce APWU head Francis Filbey, who Biller had always blamed for his own do-nothing leadership. This time angry workers mobilized by Outlaw tarred Biller with the same brush as Filbey, denouncing them both as sell-out traitors to the working class. By unfolding the lessons, Outlaw made very important gains, and the RU brought many workers closer to an understanding of its line.

We missed the chance to spread these sparks further through the N.Y.-N.J. Worker, an anti-imperialist workers’ paper just started under RU leadership, because initially some comrades saw the paper as more of an observer than as an active fighter. But since then the Worker has taken every opportunity to use Outlaw as an example of what it means to build a political workers movement, and in several other industries RU cadre are getting workers to learn from the experience of Outlaw.

From the Masses, to the Masses

In each of these struggles RU comrades applied a common method. We struggled within Outlaw to sum up the demands of the masses, issue a call laying out the next step in that struggle, and involved as many workers as possible, whether the particular struggle is in their own immediate interest or not. This method of taking up and spreading struggles also worked the other way–from other struggles of the people to postal workers. We found early on that postal workers wanted to struggle against the Vietnam war. Our work in building for the citywide anti-imperialist Nov. 4 coalition, for May Day, for the campaigns around the Farah strike and Throw the Bum Out-all strengthened our base as well as helping spread political lessons.

The importance of the method of seizing and spreading struggle has become clearer to us from some negative experience on the national question. Outlaw has always fought against particular examples of chauvinism and national discrimination in the P.O. This has been a very good thing. For instance, in the Battle of the Bulk, white workers in Outlaw took a hard line and a few punches against a couple of backward white workers who called Blacks crossing the picket line “niggers.” But Outlaw wasn’t able to unite Black and white workers as well as it should have to win the strike. We had struggled within Outlaw for an understanding of the national question, but we hadn’t been able to get it to deal with national oppression in a broad enough way, and haven’t been able to involve many Black workers in it, although they were active in the strike.

In summing this up, and in particular applying the principle of fighting national oppression “from two sides” and winning the whole class to this whole fight, we have started to get to the basis of this shortcoming. The main way Black workers in this particular plant experience national oppression is not on the job, but in the strict segregation, police repression and general discrimination of the Black communities in northern New Jersey. Understanding this, we are struggling in Outlaw for it to link up with several specific fights against national oppression in the area. Our success in developing this will be crucial in strengthening our work of turning postal workers from fighters for one struggle into fighters for all, in linking the national and class struggles and in this way uniting Black and white workers, winning them to groups like Outlaw and developing the advanced as communists.

The work of communists in the post office has many aspects – from the sharp and high level of ideological struggle within Outlaw, to the struggle to get across our program around a particular issue, to organizing around specific contract demands or running a shop steward. But at every level we try to apply the proletarian line of relying on the workers, developing their initiative and understanding, and upholding the interests of the working class as a whole, and not the interests of the few. For example, even when we’re signing up workers into the union, we do it on the basis that thatís the best way to build the class struggle in the industry and overall, not on the basis of just building the union.

We’ve tried to make the union and trade union work build the class struggle and not the other way around. We go into the union to break the workers out of the grip of the labor lieutenants of the bourgeoisie not just practically, but politically and ideologically. Workers’ cynicism about unions has two aspects. On one hand, it’s a correct sum up of their experience that Biller and all the others like him donít uphold the interests of the workers, but of the ruling class. But on the other hand, even workers who are cynical about this particular union are usually under the influence of bourgeois ideology–look out for yourself. This bourgeois ideology can’t be fought with another form of ideology–trade unionism. It can only be fought with proletarian ideology, relying on the masses, mobilizing them to fight in their own interests, to take on the union leadership, exposing whose interests these hacks serve, and showing how they, in fact, hold back our struggle not only in winning simple economic demands but even more importantly in developing a revolutionary workers’ movement.

Outside of Outlaw, where we struggle for a proletarian line, RU comrades sell our national newspaper, Revolution to advanced workers, and have involved some in RU study groups. We also do a lot of rapping on the shop floor to workers about communism, even among those who are far from uniting with us around it. But we have still not found the ways to consistently conduct communist propaganda in a living way among the broad numbers of postal workers.

On the other hand, by upholding the interests of the class as a whole, and uniting all who can be united on every level to. advance those interests, we’ve tried to make each level of our work serve as a conveyor belt to lead workers in the direction of communist understanding. And, by serving as a political workers’ organization which can unite in practice struggles inside the post office with other struggles against imperialism, Outlaw has helped build the proletarian line in the working class, even though it itself is not a communist organization.

But, at this point, the overall primitiveness of the revolutionary movement and the lack of a unifying, leading center–a Party–is holding back the work of developing a revolutionary workers’ movement. While communists in any one industry can unfold a lot around the struggles waged in that industry, a revolutionary workers’ movement can’t be built in one industry. Only by joining with workers from other industries and uniting workers in all industries in more actively linking up with all the people’s struggles can we overcome the tendency to limit the workers’ movement to trade unionism and to simply try to “lend the economic struggle itself a (reformist) political character.”

The next crucial step in doing that is to develop the concrete political programme that can serve as the basis of unity and basis of work of the new Party, that can lay out more clearly the road ahead, and not just talk vaguely about it. This will enable all the genuine communists who form this Party to unite in a more systematic way with advanced workers, both in building and leading the mass revolutionary movement of the class, and in training the advanced as class conscious proletarian leaders–as communists.