First Published: Forward to the Party! Struggle for the Party!, No. 1, [n.d.].
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Workers at Plant X wildcatted in November 1974, a week before our contract expired. The plant was shut down for a day and half the 750 workers stayed out. Communists were in leadership of the strike, but an incorrect line led to confusion among the workers. The company took advantage of this, crushed the strike quickly and moved to smash the workers’ struggle there altogether. More than 100 were fired and the company came down hard on the rest of the workers with a campaign of harassment and intimidation.
What were the conditions at Plant X and why was it ripe for struggle?
1. Wages tremendously depressed in relation to the rest of the industry ($1 to $1.50 per hour less).
2. Intense speedup in the plant (coinciding with the development of monopolies in the industry over the last 15 years. In cut-throat competition for their survival, they’re forced to increase the exploitation of the workers.)
3. Super-exploitation of Puerto Rican and other Latin workers (who in response to their oppression were active in fighting company attacks).
These conditions, accompanied by effects of the general crisis of imperialism, such as skyrocketing prices, increased police repression in the city where Plant X is located, government attempts to limit wages through the Pay Board, and the active betrayal of the workers’ interests by local union officials–all this led to increasing anger and willingness among the workers to fight.
As Mao said, “At certain times in the revolutionary struggle, the difficulties outweigh the favorable conditions and so constitute the principal aspect of the contradiction and the favorable conditions constitute the secondary aspect.” The conditions at Plant X were favorable. However, “favorable conditions can be transformed into difficulty if the revolutionaries make mistakes.”
Workers understand clearly that in any battle we’re faced with a two-headed monster–“the capitalists and their henchmen in the trade unions.” Just how to fight it is not always clear. There is a spontaneous tendency among workers to confuse the fight against the main enemy, the company, with the fight against union hacks because of the workers’ experiences with sellout after sellout.
At the contract ratification meeting the majority of workers voted NO. All hell broke loose when the union president switched the vote and announced that the contract was accepted. The workers wanted to fight, so we organized a wildcat for the next day. This anger was turned on the union hacks because the workers saw the need to fight and the labor traitors stood as an obstacle.
At the heart of this struggle was the fact that the contract wasn’t enough to live on for the next three years. The correct strategy at this time would have been to remove this obstacle by relying on our own strength, mobilizing the workers and fighting the company. Our line should have been, “We rejected the contract, so we’re walking.” The immediate thing put forward by some of the workers was to demand a re-vote. The communists tailed after this and didn’t struggle for a clear line of fighting the company, so the wildcat took on the character of a protest against the union.
This demand for “No honest vote–No work” turned the workers’ struggle into a struggle for union democracy. It forced many workers to abandon the strike when union officials failed to show up to negotiate with the wildcatters. If you shoot the beast in the heart, you kill both heads. We struck our blows at the union hacks and let the company off free.
This obscured the face of the enemy and made it impossible to organize and win the strike. We confined the struggle within the trade union bounds and made the struggle for reforms the principal thing. As the draft programme states: “The policy of the proletariat and its party is to build its strength in the unions as part of building its revolutionary movement and not to reduce the class struggle to the struggle for control of the unions.” In this case, for union democracy.
The correct strategy would have been to “mobilize the rank and file around a program representing its interests and in doing so (our emphasis) ’jam’ the union officials–expose the traitors at the top and roll over them, break the union bureaucracies’ stranglehold on the workers...” “The method of the proletariat and its party is to mobilize the masses of workers to take matters into their own hands and wage a blow for blow struggle against the enemy inside and outside the unions.”
During the three months before the wildcat we organized workers into a large committee and started putting out a shop paper. In the committee, workers formulated contract demands and discussed strategy for our fight.
In these discussions and in the paper we dealt with many important questions: the role of trade union officials, the ways the bosses try to pit different nationalities against each other, men against women, and that the workers’ labor is the source of the bosses’ wealth.
The correct handling of these contradictions was essential to moving the struggle forward. But we saw all of these as more or less equal, rather than seeing that the key contradiction, the one around which all the others unfold, is the exploitation of the working class. As the draft programme says, “This exploitation of the workers to create private profit for the capitalists is the basis of the whole capitalist system and all its evils.”
The bosses and the workers are locked in constant battle for their survival. Failing to bring out clearly that the capitalists are driven by the laws that govern their system, we contributed to the illusion that capitalists can reorder their priorities to meet the needs of the people.
But, “Capital chases after the highest rate of profit, as surely as iron is drawn to a magnet-this is a law beyond anyone’s will, even the capitalists’, and it will continue in force so long as society is ruled by capital.” At times we portrayed the company as rich, a monopoly unshaken by the crisis (somehow not bound by the laws of capitalism) and eager to avoid a strike at all costs. But the capitalists are driven towards the highest rate of profit, and the workers’ needs be damned.
This view led to a line that if we were well organized and really threatened the company with our unity, that would be enough to scare them into meeting our demands. This clouds the true nature of the enemy and portrays the class struggle as nothing more than reasonable workers pressuring reasonable capitalists to look after our interests. It ultimately denies the need for proletarian revolution.
We had an incorrect understanding of the fundamental contradiction in society, which leads to an incorrect strategy on any front. In this case it came out most sharply in the relation of the class struggle to the trade unions. It led to battling the union hacks as a stepping stone to then engaging in the class struggle. In practice, relying on the union to take up the class struggle.
Because we left the struggle within the bounds of the trade union, we made negotiations primary and vacillated on the question of the strike. We started out with a position to make strike preparations–that it was necessary to strike in order to win a decent contract. But through the course of the struggle we tailed after the view that you use the strike as a last resort–workers use the strike as a defensive rather than an offensive weapon.
In the history of the company, there has never been a strike. An example from our shop newspaper: “Does the [paper] think there will be a strike at [Plant X]? We can’t say for sure. If we can’t win what we need... then we will strike.” And from a leaflet put out by the committee: “If the company refuses to give us what we need we can say no again and go on strike...We think [Plant X] workers have a good chance to win a decent contract because we’re better organized and because [the big monopoly of which Plant X is a part] wants to avoid a strike.”
How this vacillation came down in practice is demonstrated dramatically by events at the union contract meeting. Several hundred workers stood up to applaud when a shop steward, a communist, spoke out against the contract. He asked the workers to turn it down, but called for more negotiations, not a strike.
And later, when the majority of workers realized they had won the vote (by body count) and began to chant “strike, strike, strike,” the communists should have led the workers to take over the meeting, since at that point the union officials had no control and the workers were ready to move into battle against the company.
Our mistaken view of the class struggle was also reflected in our neglect of the role of communists. There was an open communist in the committee. But in this mass organization we limited the role of communists to being the most militant fighters rather than also “educating workers to the revolutionary interests of their class.”
The shop paper, initiated by communists and meant to play a leading role, had no spokesman on the committee. We were successful in fanning the flames, actively involving hundreds of workers in struggle, summing up their needs, and developing programatic unity. But at many crucial points we did not provide them with leadership, did not fight for the correct line to lead the struggle forward.
For example, at the meeting where we planned the wildcat we did put forth the necessity of striking. But a number of workers were afraid that we didn’t have enough support to pull it off and argued for a job action leading up to a strike a week later (at the end of the contract). Others were for a protest against the switching of the vote. We did not deal with the legitimate fears of the workers about battling the company without enough preparation, and we didn’t struggle enough with those who saw union treachery as the main problem.
We failed to see how crucial it was to consolidate workers around the correct line of “strike the company, no contract–no work.” As a result, we led hundreds of workers in a “wildcat against the union,” with communists and some of the advanced workers calling it a strike against the company, and with many others seeing it as a protest of union policy.
Although the wildcat was defeated, the Plant X workers did not give up the fight when they were fired. “Where there is a temporary setback, it spurs discussion among the workers as to the cause of the defeat.” Advanced workers, along with the communists, summed up that it was an incorrect line that set us up for defeat and not that the bosses are all-powerful.
Our answer to the firings was mass struggle. A [Plant X] Workers Support Committee was formed which united Plant X workers and workers from many different industries. The committee developed a program to continue the struggle and win back all the jobs. We built support for it widely in the working class, mainly through taking up collections at plant gates for an emergency fund to help the fired workers to feed their families.
The committee also started a campaign at the plant to refuse overtime in support of those still out on the street, and the Unemployed Workers Organizing Committee passed out leaflets urging workers not to scab on the Plant X workers. We made it plain to the company that we would continue the fight. Over 60 workers have been reinstated. The remaining 47 workers’ cases are in arbitration, and it’s being exposed by continued struggle as a government tool in the hands of the bosses.
In the course of the fight for a good contract, the wildcat, and the struggle to get the jobs back, many Plant X workers have seen the need to fight back as a class. They’ve joined in many demonstrations against unemployment and police repression. A few are now in Marxist-Leninist study groups and actively involved in building for May Day.
In the struggle at Plant X, the workers began “to throw off the foot of the employer from their necks, to raise their heads. And in raising their heads they are able to see farther and more clearly. The face of the enemy and the forces fighting him begin to come into sharper focus. This gives rise to vigorous discussion among the workers not only about every question of the immediate struggle but also about events throughout society and the world. Through all this the workers begin to see themselves as more than mere individuals, but as members of a class, locked in warfare with the opposing class of employers.”