Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

San Diego Organizing Committee

Summing Up Calif. Proposition 14

Defend the Right to Unionize

First Published: The Communist, Vol. III, No. 3, February 15, 1977.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Workers Congress (M-L) Introduction: The following contribution by the San Diego Organizing Committee (M-L) analyzes the connection between revolutionary work and the fight for reforms.

We want to emphasize the quote from Lenin which begins the article. Reformists work to improve the conditions of working and oppressed people without calling into question state power. Marxist-Leninists are guided at every step by the struggle for state power–as Stalin writes: “All work must be directed toward the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” The question of state power is the whole difference.

But as the comrades correctly show, it is revolutionary shallowness removed from the actual struggle of class forces to suppose that work for the dictatorship of the proletariat can take place without waging a battle to embody reforms in law. Law is an apparatus of coercion controlled by the ruling class which guarantees its conditions of existence by force. The grip of the bourgeoisie on that apparatus can be weak or strong. Coercion can serve effectively or poorly. We take up legal struggle in order to weaken the ability of the bourgeoisie to use the legal apparatus of coercion to attack working and oppressed masses and to strengthen the position of the proletariat.

Mao Tse Tung writes: “it is the task of the proletariat in capitalist countries to educate the workers and build up strength through a long period of legal struggle and prepare for the final overthrow of capitalism. In those countries, the question is one of a long legal struggle, of utilising parliament as a platform, of economic and political strikes, of organizing trade unions and educating workers.” In the course of this struggle the conditions are prepared for armed insurrection.

How are we to prepare the final overthrow if we disdain legal struggle?

What betrays the interests of the proletariat is not the fight for legal reforms but the failure to fight reformism. Workers, who put their trust in reformists, says Lenin, are always fooled, but workers who have seen through the falsity of reformism utilise reforms to develop and broaden the class struggle. The trade union struggle of the US working class has not been sold out through reforms enacted into law, but by the trade union bureaucrats who have worked to nullify those reforms and by the failure of communists to carry through a thoroughgoing campaign against reformism.

In this connection we look forward to the contribution promised by SDOC on right opportunist errors in the Proposition 14 campaign.

We agree with the comrades on the importance of support for Proposition 14 and the ALRA in spite of significant weaknesses in these measures, particularly their limitations on the right to strike.

* * *

The 1976 November elections brought before the public in California a number of issues including Proposition 14, the United Farmworkers Union (UFW) initiative on the state ballot. The outcome was a defeat for the farmworkers and a victory for monopoly capitalism. The UFW campaign behind Proposition 14 was aimed at protecting and strengthening the 1975 California Agricultural Relations Act (ALRA). If Proposition 14 had won there would have been a strengthening of reform measures to give farmworkers the democratic right of unionization. This brings before us the question of how we, as Marxist-Leninists approach reforms. Our purpose in this article is to deal with that question. We take up the issue of Proposition 14 in an attempt to show how to apply this line to a current issue.


First, what are reforms? Lenin explained them as: “measures that improve the conditions of the working people without destroying the power of the ruling class.” (“Marxism and Reformism,”, LCW, vol. 19) Reforms basically come about in response to the demands of a growing movement of the proletariat and oppressed masses.


In response to rising demands of the masses, reformists within the working class (such as Cesar Chavez) and the bourgeoisie itself will support certain reforms. The bourgeoisie does so in an attempt to weaken the working class movement, to divert it, to pacify it, and to split its forces. The reformists try to lull the proletariat into thinking that full democratic rights and an end to oppression for all working people can be achieved within the present legal structure–that revolution is not necessary. They promise harmony between capital and labor. In the campaign for Proposition 14, the line of both the reformists and the bourgeoisie was that the law would bring ’peace to the fields’.

However, Marxism-Leninism teaches us that all this is impossible. The bourgeois state is a giant bureaucracy and armed force designed to suppress the working class. It is the capitalist class’ weapon for maintaining its property and power. The bourgeoisie will never institute reforms within that state without trying to use those reforms to control the working class.


On the other hand, Marxist-Leninists support reforms, but not because they alone are the solution to the exploitation and oppression of imperialism. Rather we support those reforms which can give the proletariat and its allies the opportunity to wage a stronger battle against the bourgeoisie. The experience of the struggle for democratic rights, and the concessions won from the bourgeoisie, raise the class consciousness and strengthen the organization of the proletariat.

Reformists seek to use reforms to lead the proletariat away from revolution. But this cannot lead communists to oppose reforms. Instead, we must expose the class collaborationist line of reformists and win the leadership of the mass movements. Through our work we should show, as Lenin has taught us, that the struggle against imperialism is inseparably linked to the struggle of the proletariat, both urban and rural, and its allies against opportunism and in preparation for revolutionary struggle.

We must base our support of reforms on a careful analysis of the historical conditions. As Lenin put it, we need to make a “strictly objective appraisal of the class forces and their alignment.” (Left Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder).


It is within this framework that Marxist-Leninists should have supported Proposition 14 and should support the ALRA. We cannot oppose these laws simply because they received some bourgeois support. Support for the ALRA and Proposition 14 given by a number of bourgeois political figures was a concession to the long struggle waged by the farmworkers for the right to collective bargaining.

Besides giving UFW union organizers and farmworkers some stronger unionizing tactics, Proposition 14 had mass support within the working class and oppressed nationalities which provided a tremendous opportunity for communist agitation and propaganda among the masses. We could have not only helped organize support for the bill, but also spoken to its limits, exposing the nature of the state, the illusion of reformism, and the need for revolution. Especially we should have exposed the class collaboration of the UFW leadership under Chavez and the general reformist nature of the struggle for “peace in the fields”. To the bourgeoisie and its reformist allies, “peace in the fields” means that the farmworkers should confine their struggle against the exploitative conditions of farm labor and all oppressive conditions which face the farmworkers to a nonviolent bargaining for wages and benefits.

We supported Proposition 14 because, despite its shortcomings, it would have objectively strengthened the organization of farmworkers and their ability to struggle against monopoly capitalism. Farmworkers, as members of the rural proletariat, require unions–the basic mass organization of the working class, a historical necessity in the working class’ fight against the capitalists. In addition, 14 and the ALRA provide communists with an opportunity to link the struggles of the rural and industrial proletariat. They put farmworkers on a more equal legal position with the industrial workers who already have the right to unionization and make it easier to show that it is the same struggle. The effect of this is a strengthening of the fighting position of the class. At a time when the right to collective bargaining by industrial workers is being attacked by imperialism, this is particularly important.

The right to collective bargaining will not end the misery of the rural (or industrial) proletariat under imperialism. But the winning of this struggle will move farmworkers closer to seeing that only the destruction of the capitalist system will eliminate their exploitation. The struggle for democratic rights, like collective bargaining, is a necessary training ground for the working class. The working class only can be educated for the struggle to overthrow imperialism by engaging in the struggle for democracy. This is a training ground for the leaders of the class as well as the masses. In this struggle, it is the duty of the communists to link the struggle for democratic rights with the struggle for socialism.

The development of capitalism awakens the democratic aspirations of the people. Thus arises national consciousness, demands for education, and the trade union movement. Under imperialism, which must take away democracy to further exploit the working masses, these aspirations are likewise intensified. Thus the struggle must show that under imperialism democratic rights can be only partially achieved at best. That all reforms are temporary. That only the struggle against imperialism and for the dictatorship of the proletariat can lead to full achievement of democratic rights.


As communists, we must learn to give correct leadership to all forms of struggle. In this case, how do we deal with elections in a bourgeois democracy which involve a reform issue – Proposition 14?

Lenin has clearly put forth the Marxist-Leninist position on this question. Whether or not to boycott participation in bourgeois legal institutions (elections included) is a historical, tactical question. If gains can be made from participation in that form of struggle at that point of time, then it is used.(see “The Boycott”, LCW, vol. 11) On the other hand, that participation is never seen as a primary form of struggle. Participation in legal work will always be of “modest importance” and to exaggerate its importance (as did the Menshevik faction of the party during those years)is definitely a form of opportunism.

The other side of the question is why and when do we boycott legal processes of the bourgeois state. Lenin dealt with this aspect when he analyzed the difference in the historical conditions of 1905 and 1907. (“Against Boycott”, LCW, vol. 13) “During the year 1905, the people were in a period of revolutionary upswing and on the offensive. There was no revolutionary call which they would not have taken up. The boycott itself is a revolutionary act – an act of defiance of the existing system used to overthrow the old or weaken it to the extent that it cannot function. Unless there is a broad revolutionary upswing, unless there is mass unrest which overflows, as it were, the bounds of the old legality, there can be no question of the boycotting succeeding.”

This is not to say that the boycott itself cannot affect that upswing. If that upswing is just around the corner, a call to boycott can possibly help develop it. Under these conditions, in 1905 the Bolsheviks supported boycott of the Duma (parliament) and elections.

But by 1907 the conditions had changed; a temporary lull had occurred in the revolutionary mass movement. Moreover, the masses already did not believe in the 3rd Duma and a boycott of it would not agitate the people to a revolutionary upswing. In this situation, Lenin held that a boycott of the Duma was not a wise tactic.

Here the lesson becomes clear – we have to look at what the proletariat can gain from either participation in legal institutions or boycott of them. We have to weigh the facts of each situation – we have to look at the history around the issue before we decide to participate or boycott.


The essence of the struggle behind Proposition 14 was the democratic right of collective bargaining for farmworkers! Historically, this right has been denied them and their struggle for unionization has been a long and hard one. There has been labor organizations in California fields since the early 1900’s. The power of agribusiness has succeeded time after time in crushing the farmworkers’ movement. But every time the movement has re-emerged stronger than ever to continue the struggle. The United Farmworkers Union has led that struggle for unionization for the last decade.

The UFW campaign for Proposition 14 was aimed at protecting and strengthening the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of August 1975. (see THE COMMUNIST vol.1, no. 11 and vol. II, no. 4) The ALRA is a reform measure which came about in response to the growing struggle of the farmworkers in the fields and the growing support for this struggle among other sectors of the population. The ALRA basically gave the farmworkers the legal right for the first time to vote for union representation and to engage in collective bargaining. The ALRA established the Agricultural Relations Board (ALRB). This is a five member board, appointed by the governor, which implements the act by holding supposedly fair elections for union representation, settling disputes over these elections, and dealing with other labor disputes. This board resembles the NLRB, the National Labor Relations Board, which covers non-agricultural workers under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (Wagner Act). With the passage of the ALRA, the UFW was better able to carry out union organizing drives. By the beginning of 1976, over 350 elections had been held, with over 40,000 workers voting, and the UFW had won a majority of them.

Although agribusiness had earlier agreed to the ALRA, it responded to these successes by mobilizing to kill the power of the law and thus to attack the right to collective bargaining for farmworker When the ALRB ran out of funds in February 1976, only 5 months after it had begun operation, the agribusiness supporters in the state legislature blocked a special appropriations bill. They wouldn’t agree to the funding unless amendments were passed which would have killed the effectiveness of the ALRA for farmworkers. Therefore, the ALRB was left with no funds to operate until the following July 1, 1976 when the new state budget went into effect. Agribusiness also went to the courts in an unsuccessful attempt to get the access rule declared unconstitutional.

In response to the attacks on the ALRA by agribusiness, the UFW decided to work for an initiative. (Under California law, voters can place an initiative on the ballot with a petition drive, and once it is passed it can only be amended or repealed by a vote of the electorate.) Proposition 14 was basically the same law as the ALRA. The most important changes were: 1) It directed the legislature to fund the ALRA. (We should note that it did not insure the funding but would have strengthened the chances.) 2) It provided union organizers access to the growers property (fields and housing) and to lists of employees (Access to property to talk to otherwise unacessible workers had been only a policy of the ALRB and not part of the law.) and 3) The process of decertification was made more difficult.

Proposition 14 did continue to include several negative aspects of the ALRA._ One was the limitation on use of the secondary boycott. A second was a limitation on the right to strike. Under the ALRA, when either the union or the employers want to terminate or change the contract before the expiration date, they must give 60 day notice and offer to meet to negotiate. During the 60 day cooling off period there can be no strikes or lock-outs. Thirdly, workers who have been on strike since before August 28, 1972 will not be able to vote in union elections.

Despite these aspects, the overall effect of Proposition 14 would have been to strengthen the campaign for unionization of the farmworkers as well as to protect to some extent this right from attacks of monopoly capital.

Opposition to Proposition 14 was monumental. It has been estimated that the “No on 14” forces spent at least 2 to 3 million dollars on an advertising campaign. Agribusiness ran a slick campaign using small farmers to raise the false issue of protection of private property. The proposition was feared enough that the legislature refunded the ALRB as a defensive measure against 14.

Proposition 14 was defeated in the election. A communist analysis of the reasons still needs to be done. We cannot attribute this defeat primarily to the amount of money spent by the growers, as does the reformist leadership of the UFW.

With the defeat of 14, agribusiness is again attacking the ALRA in the California legislature. Already they’ve gotten several amendments passed to limit its effectiveness. In doing so, they are attacking the democratic rights of farmworkers to unionize.


An important aspect of communist leadership of the struggle for democratic rights and the linking of these struggles with socialist revolution is the exposure of opportunism. We must expose reformists with-in the working class movement such as the CPUSA and the trade union bureaucrats. We must also expose the right and left errors on the questions of reforms made within the Marxist-Leninist movement. These errors are not only a reflection of revisionism, they are also a reflection of the amateurishness, fragmentation, and economism within the M-L movement. Although we must guard against both left and right errors, the right ones are the main danger in the communist and workers’ movements today.

Here in San Diego, with the issue of Proposition 14, we have seen examples of both right and left errors. In this article we will analyze the left error – in essence refusal to support democratic reform struggles before the proletarian revolution – which was expressed in a leaflet put out by the Changing Times Bookstore collective several weeks before the election. In a future article we intend to analyze the right errors we saw during the Proposition 14 campaign. The essence of the right error was uncritical support of reforms and glorification and tailing of the spontaneous movement. A weakness of the Marxist-Leninist movement as a whole, which we shared, was the general inability to organize its political work around this struggle – to support and to give communist leadership to the struggle for Proposition 14.


Although the Changing Times Collective (CT) uses high sounding phrases like “genuine” reforms, the essence of their line is opposition to reforms. This line shows that they don’t understand how communists view and support the fight for reforms. CT’s line on reforms has similarities to the left line of the “Revolutionary Wing” and the right line of RCP, both of which liquidate the responsibility of communists to give conscious leadership to mass struggles.

The “Revolutionary Wing” opposes democratic rights, such as the ERA, calling them false reforms. The Wing basically argues that because women cannot achieve full economic and social equality under capitalism, it is reformism and thus incorrect for communists to fight for any reforms – in the case of ERA for formal legal equality for men and women, (see PALANTE, vol. 6, no. 4 and “Defend the Democratic Rights of Women” in the COMMUNIST, vol.11, no. 9) They also oppose the ERA because the bourgeoisie could use it against women, because they don’t think a mass movement of working women originated the ERA, and because they think the ERA divides the class, and pits women against men. The Wing took a similar position on this position in opposing busing for not being “revolutionary” – “instead of making reforms everything, they make them nothing.”(See “Segregation and Busing”, THE COMMUNIST, vol. 1, no.9)

The line of the CT on Proposition 14 also has similarities to the right opportunist line of the RCP which liquidates the struggle for busing and for the ERA and sees these struggles as dividing the working class. Such a line doesn’t recognize the existing divisions between nationalities, sexes, and the town and country. Moreover, it doesn’t recognize that these divisions, nurtured by the capitalist system for its own benefit, will only be overcome by taking up the struggle against the various forms of oppression, including the struggle against the chauvinist, bourgeois ideology that justifies those divisions.

The Changing Times Collective shows a narrow understanding of the role of the state and laws. They argue against Proposition 14, stating that it would bring the state into the struggle, with the farmworkers relying on the state to enforce their right to unionization. CT recognizes that the state is an instrument of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. But they then distort Marxism-Leninism by concluding that under bourgeois democracy legal reforms can never work to the benefit of the working class.

CT fails to understand that it is not the ALRA nor Proposition 14 that involves the state in the farmworkers’ struggle. The courts, police, and other governmental agencies have always supported agribusiness against the farmworkers. Proposition 14 does not significantly change this relationship. Its importance is that it legally guarantees the right to collective bargaining, a right which has been the focus of farmworkers’ struggles for many years. While we don’t expect the bourgeoisie to voluntarily, fully, or permanently to honor this legal right we see the importance of communists exposing the bourgeoisie and their reformists supporters within the workers’ movement in the course of the fight to win and extend this right. We also recognize the fact (which the CT seems to have forgotten) that historically the working class has, at least temporarily, won democratic rights in the form of laws – for instance, the eight hour day and the right to vote for women.

The CT collective says that they do not oppose all reforms only those that are not “genuine reforms”. In this way they muddle their position, and they obscure that their line opposes all reforms before the proletarian revolution. They begin with a statement of why we should not fight for reforms. “If we spend all our time fighting for (and maybe even winning) reforms for this or that particular injustice, we will have gained nothing. Capitalist society can always create new injustices faster than the most determined reformist can correct them.” They then apparently contradict themselves by stating-that we can fight for “genuine reforms” but that these cannot be “Utopian schemes” or “counterfeit reforms put forward by the captalists themselves.” With this statement it is clear that the CT doesn’t understand what reforms are. They say that “genuine reforms are won as a product of the overall struggle for the revolution.” and that “if the farmworkers are to win their just demand for the right to access, they can do it only through their own efforts, through the militancy and the correct direction of their struggle” not through involving the state with a law. But reforms always take the form of law (or else contracts which are upheld by law). Reforms are efforts to change, to “re-form”, the law, which the bourgeoisie uses to regulate our lives according to their interests. The CT is apparently establishing new criteria for communist support of a reform–whether it is put out by a militant movement and is not in the form of a law. Communists should instead base their position on the over-all effects of a reform (understanding that reforms originate in response to the demands of the masses.) Basically, the CT is concentrating on the subjective will, not understanding how changes are made.

The CT’s purism and idealism, another indication of their left error on this issue is shown by their pointing to negative aspects of Proposition 14 as a reason for opposing the entire law. They point to the provisions in 14 (also in the ALRA) which limit the secondary boycott and place limitations on strikes before the expiration of a contract. They also criticize the board being appointed by the Governor instead of being elected and their receiving of high salaries. However, they don’t analyze the over-all effect of the total law – legalization of collective bargaining. Nor do they appear to understand that while Marxist-Leninists recognize that full democratic rights cannot be won under imperialism, we still support the fight for some reforms. Remaining pure might make some people feel good, but it does not forward the class struggle.

In the same leaflet the CT calls for a boycott of the November elections and of Proposition 14. Although they say that the reason to boycott 14 is that it is not a “genuine reform”, the rest of the leaflet implies that there is never a time when the working class should participate in elections. The leaflet makes clear that the CT opposes working for laws. This is a dogmatic left error we have shown in our discussion on a Marxist-Leninist position on participation in elections.

Finally, the CT never takes up the task of communists in relation to the spontaneous farmworkers movement. Opposition to the current goals of that movement and vague calls for militancy are not sufficient to pass for a communist line on the farmworkers’ struggle.


We support Proposition 14 and the ALRA as reforms which further the farmworkers’ struggle for the democratic rights of collective bargaining. As communists we need to not only have a political line, we also have to organize a way to put out our line and otherwise support the struggles for reforms. We should always maintain an independent communist position, criticizing and opposing negative aspects of reforms. Without involvement of communists in the struggles of farmworkers the leadership of that struggle will remain in the hands of reformists. As part of winning the leadership of the spontaneous movement, we must expose right and left opportunism. In addition, we must work to link the struggles for democratic rights with the socialist revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat, where such rights will be fully realized. We should extend our workplace and trade union methods of work with the urban proletariat to work with the rural proletariat and include the rural proletariat in our efforts to win the vanguard to communism and build a new communist party.