Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Marxist-Leninist Organizing Committee

Lessons from the Shop Floor


First Published: Unite!, Vol. 2, No. 1, February 15-April 15, 1976.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The formation of the Marxist-Leninist party is the key link in the fusion of the communist movement and the working class movement in the course of the struggle against opportunism. “The party must stand at the head of the working class; it must see farther than the working class; it must lead the proletariat and not drag at the tail of the spontaneous movement.”

In the U.S. we are still in the first part of the party building period, that of winning the vanguard to communism. This means uniting advanced workers with Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-tung Thought, which is accomplished primarily through propaganda.

To carry out systematic Marxist-Leninist propaganda requires (1) a correct political line on the major questions facing the working class and (2) a basic unit of the future Marxist-Leninist party at the place of production, a factory nucleus.

Advanced workers arise as a result of the objective conditions of monopoly capitalism. It is through concrete experience of the contradictions in these objective conditions that advanced workers come to realize the limits of trade union politics, and seek a scientific solution to their exploitation and oppression. For this reason, advanced elements emerge most clearly in response to correct Marxist-Leninist leadership of the class struggle, leadership which stems from a correct political line being put into practice by factory nuclei.

As part of the development of political line, Marxist-Leninists must seek to raise their particular experiences to the level of theory, to sum up efforts to win the advanced to communism, and to draw lessons from this communist practice. This article is a summation of a particular cadre of the MLOC, as an effort to review how certain incorrect and correct methods of work have held back or advanced the struggle for the party. This particular case serves to draw some important lessons regarding small industrial shops, the labor aristocracy, the Chicano national question, propaganda, and factory nuclei. Most importantly, the summation of this work experience points to the need for cadre and leadership to redouble their efforts to seize political line as key in this period.

I. Some Background

The Shop: This shop is a small precision sheetmetal fabrication shop, subcontracting for specialized hardware for the electronics industry. The work force was made up of 10-15? journeymen (including the shop manager), all highly skilled craft type workers, and anywhere from 85-90? helpers (Operatives).

Over half the workers were non-Anglos, with the largest body made up of Chicanos. The employees of the shop were affiliated with the Sheetmetal Workers International Association, one of the oldest AFL craft unions.

Political Background: The comrade working in this shop is a semi-peasant, semi-proletarian Chicano from the Southwest, with a broad work experience which goes from farm laborer, construction, electronics, to warehouse and stockwork. Working in this shop was not initially politically motivated. When the comrade went to work here he was studying Marxism-Leninism, but was not in a communist organization.

The comrade did not join the MLOC until after having worked here for some time. As such, the comrade’s work was not weII developed for two reasons:

1. the comrade’s struggle to break with past methods of work which was hampered by being the only Marxist-Leninist in this plant; and 2. the organization’s struggle to give clear political guidance in the process of development of political line.

II. Divisions in the Work Force

A. Labor Aristocracy

The labor aristocracy is characterized first and foremost by its political stand. (See “Imperialism and the Split In Socialism”, Lenin, CW, Vol. 23, pp. 105-120). This political stand arises out of

1. Their relation to production which combines characteristics of the petty-bourgeoisie with characteristics of the working class;
2. the disproportionately higher wages; and
3. the social prestige of the occupations which the labor aristocracy holds.

The craft unions have inherently this sort of character.

It is the function of the labor aristocracy to promote the “community of interests” of the capitalist and the worker among the masses.

This is possible because the interests of this bribed sector do lie in the preservation of capitalism, unlike the interests of the majority of workers which lie in the overthrow of capitalism and the abolition of classes.

The labor aristocracy then, is the main social base of bourgeois ideology in the working class.

The bulk of the labor aristocracy is concentrated among craft workers, whether in industry or the construction trades, due to their material position in the work force (the nature of the work they do).

Historically, the craft unions have represented the interests of this group of workers to the detriment of the less skilled work force.

1. Craft Unions

The craft unions arose out of the associations of craftsmen of the feudal era and were modelled on the guilds of that era. Their main organizational principle was craft exclusiveness by which they hoped to create a scarcity of skilled workers and thereby give them a bargaining lever with their employers. This of course meant that they excluded the vast majority of workers from their organizations in order to “keep the demand higher than the supply”.

In the U.S., the skilled craft unions have been concentrated predominantly among native born, white workers, which has been reflected in the great nation chauvinism of this stratum. Historically, these workers have not only tried to prevent immigrants from entering their unions, but in two parts of the U.S. where minority nationalities exist, they have fought to purge these nationalities from trades that they were in. As an example, let us look at the railway brotherhoods.

This national chauvinist line, which as Lenin said, is opportunism in its most crass form, arose out of the petty-bourgeois origins of craft unions and is perpetuated in the era of large scale imperialist industrialization by a whole system of privilege, bribery, and special position there comes a political stand which represents the interests of the bourgeoisie. Opportunism is simply the selling out of the long term interests of the majority of the workers for the short term interests of a few.

The craft unions have historically opposed the organization of the unskilled along Industrial lines. The whole principle of industrial unionism is to unite the many to defeat the few. The principle of craft unionism is, on the other hand, to unite the few to sell out the many. These two opposing principles coexist with in the U.S. labor movement within the A.F.L.-C.I.O. (The A.F.L. is composed of the old craft unions and the C.I.O. of the younger Industrial unions) by a process of unprincipled compromise and sell-out.

Today, when automation has eliminated a great deal of the need for skilled workers in heavy industry, the focus of craft union activity and strength has shifted more toward the construction unions. These unions which are more slowly automated, owing to the nature of the work, are today the main stronghold and social base of the labor bureaucracy and labor aristocracy in the class.

The specific problem facing our local is that construction runs the show both in the union and in the shop (all of the journeymen being originally from construction. They constituted an extremely reactionary social base for the union bureaucracy. The union’s role in regard to management has been class collaborationist. We could not go to the union with a grievance without having them finger us to the management (usually the same day the grievance was lodged). The union’s attitude to the industrial section of our local is one of grudging toleration. This union negotiated a dual contract: One for journeymen, and another for helpers (operatives). This contract gave the journeymen a complete package of job protection and guarantees against job degradation (red-circling).

On the other hand, the contract under which the helpers worked was without a seniority clause and had no provision for a hiring hall. This objectively meant that the employer could lay any helper off without regard to how long he had worked there and that he could replace him with someone off the street. It also meant that a man who worked in one shop usually did not get hired on at another, since he possessed no skills that could not be quickly learned, by someone new.

2. Bribed sector

The material source of wealth to bribe the labor aristocracy is the superprofits imperialism derives from oppressed countries, nations, and national minorities here and abroad.

As the crisis of capitalism deepens these superprofits are extracted from ever broader sectors in order to maintain the privileged few within the working class and keep them working for the capitalists.

This shop provides several examples of intensified exploitation of the majority of workers and oppression of minority nationalities in order to cultivate a privileged sector of workers.

A. Journeymen: The journeymen had a great mobility in their work and were virtually autonomous in the jobs that they were in charge of. But, this was possible because all the slack in the pace and intensity of the work was taken up by the helpers. The ease of their work was built upon the intensity of our work. Also, their position as skilled craftsmen meant that they concentrated more on the layout and setup of the work, while we actually executed the jobs.

B. Red circling: The jobs of the journeymen were protected by contract from being degraded. As skilled craft workers, they were protected from having to do the muscle work and chump jobs in the shop. They were also protected in their employment by seniority clauses and a hiring hall. In the industrial section of our union, these protective devices called “red aircling” were agreed to by the management on the provision that the helpers would not be extended the same protection. The logic of the unions and management is that in such a business as industrial sheetmetal, the employer “needs a break” in hiring practice in order to maintain his profit margin. The effect of this practice of red circling is to put the Journeyman in the camp of the management.

C. Wage scales: The journeymen’s wage scale started at ($11.95 per hour) over double the pay of a helper. This, combined with the journeymen’s understanding that the stability and size of their wages was partially a result of the instability and uncertainty of our job situation, made them consider themselves as better than us.

D. Overtime: Overtime was used as a reward for loyalty to the company and a willingness to speed up the pace of the work. It was usually coupled with “promotion” to work on more sophisticated equipment which required less physical strain.

The National Question

Beside the role of the craft union and labor aristocracy, the management used national differences to create divisions among the workers. This was done by perpetuation of the actual social and economic distinctions among the workers. The main victims of national oppression were the Chicano workers, who constituted the largest single body of minority nationality workers in the shop. The Chicano workers, along with the Blacks, were also the most economically disadvantaged, with no other choice as to job or source of income. The national oppression of the Chicano workers took several concrete forms.

One was the management’s practice of laying off men according to nationality rather than according to time in the shop (seniority). This practice tends to give Anglo workers the illusion that their jobs are secure. Because layoffs focused on Chicano workers, the average wage for Chicano workers was lower than for Anglos.

Another tactic that the management used to divide the workers was overtime. Overtime was mainly extended to white workers, and to a few Chicanos. This also worked to divide the Chicanos as a few were given the illusion that they were “gettin’ over”.

There were also a few Chicanos who were not subjected to layoffs. This group of privileged minority workers were used to spawn illusions among the Chicano workers. Their line was that all the Chicano workers had to do was to work harder and they, too, would get a piece of the pie. Because they were Raza and were putting forward these views, some of the other Chicano workers went along with this line, and did not see the true character of these few and their function.

Chicano Question

As a Chicano working in a shop with a large percentage of Chicano workers, there was the need to understand the oppression of the Chicano people in a scientific and precise way. Is the oppression of the Chicano people caused by the fact that most of them are workers? This cannot be the cause of this special oppression because the vast majority of Anglos are also working class and do not suffer the special abuse that Chicanos do. Studying Chicano history and the writings of Stalin and Lenin on the national question, it became clear that the oppression of Chicanos is based on nationaIity. The communist movement must develop a correct line on the Chicano National Question, otherwise the division of the class fostered by national oppression will deepen into an even greater division within the multinational proletariat.

Through studying Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought the character of national sentiment and the distinction between revolutionary patriotism and reactionary nationalism became clear. Narrow nationalism can only be effectively combated in the oppressed nation if national chauvinism is effectively combated in the dominant nation’s working class. The oppressor nation proletariat must take up the legitimate demands of the national minorities and minority nationalities, while the socialists of the oppressed nation must defend and implement the full and unconditional unity, including organizational unity, of the workers of the oppressed nation and the oppressor nation. Otherwise multi-national unity of the U.S. proletariat is not possible.

One of the major weaknesses in this work was an incorrect (almost non-existent) appreciation of the national question as a question for proletarian revolution. This was reflected both in regards to the relation between national liberation movements and proletarian revolution, and more significantly, in this case, in the question of the internal unity of a multi-national proletariat. The “optimistic” error of confusing the material basis for unity of the proletariat with its actual unity clearly was made. Conscious unity, which is the only kind of useful unity, does not automatically exist; it must be forged.

Studying the national question systematically in the last several months that work was done here illustrated the need for a program on the national question. This program must deal with the actual conditions of oppressed nations in the U.S. and must give direction to communists in breaking down, not only the sentiments among workers which divide them, but actually attack the material institutions which are the basis of class divisions. More and more the question of how the slogan of self-determination for oppressed nations should be presented came up. How do we present the demand for self-determination in such a way that it neither gives the economist illusion of being the same as “civil rights” nor the impression of just being an “off the wall” demand made by “otherwise sensible” militants?

Specifically, we need to deal with the question of special demands for oppressed national minorities, such as special seniority systems, preferential hiring, etc. These are not simply economic questions, but are essential political questions which must be answered to build the unity of the multinational working class. Without a clear line on these questions the leadership of the revolutionary struggle will be held back by the inability to forge the power of the national liberation movements and the proletarian class struggle into a single weapon for the destruction of capitalism.

In particular, we must scientifically answer the question of whether or not the Chicano people constitute an oppressed national minority in which the struggle is a question of bourgeois democratic rights; or an oppressed nation in the Southwest, with the right to self-determination up to and including secession. Regardless of which, both democratic rights and self determination must be given concrete program and content in terms of demands and slogans, as part of a line on the national question.

This work summary by a cadre of the MLOC has helped the organization focus its attention to answer these questions.

In summary, we must consider the national question and the labor aristocracy in their interconnection. Both are the result of imperialism, and indeed, the merger of the national and colonial question in the age of imperialism means precisely that the super-profits are derived from oppressed nations, whether they are internal to the oppressor nation or are colonies overseas. These super-profits supply the material basis for the creation of the labor aristocracy, which Lenin characterized as “the watchdogs of capitalism”.

Through national oppression the working class is divided, and by the poisonous activity of the labor aristocracy these divisions are further sharpened. Both must be fought against. The labor aristocracy, because a clear understanding of their role constitutes “the pivot of the tactics in the labour movement that are dictated by the objective conditions of the imperialist era”, as Lenin pointed out (“Imperialism and the Split in Socialism”, Lenin, CW, Vol. 23, p. 114). National oppression because it directly works to politically divide the multinational proletariat, which must be unified in order to smash imperialism. Communists must base their fight against these imperialist creatures by programmatically upholding the genuine material basis for unity which objectively exists for the multinational working class as a whole.

Main errors

A. Systematic investigation: The first task faced was the need to overcome ignorance of the problems and conditions in the shop and in the union. Fai ling to do this in a systematic manner led to an over-reliance on personal observations. This meant that there was a failure to grasp many of the complex problems in the workplace and in the union until very late, for example, ignorance of the distinction between helpers and apprentices for the first six months in the shop. Another example is the problems stemming from “red circling” of which there was only the vaguest notion for the first eight months of work in the shop. Yet another example was the failure to systematically investigate the relationship between industrial and construction workers in this union and in the local. This failure to conduct systematic investigation was due partially to a lack of experience in communist methods of work and to the lack of conscious direction to our work.

This failure to do systematic investigation flies directly in the face of Marxism. Marx developed a questionnaire of over 200 items which he used in interviewing workers, and analysing work places and factories. And Lenin was known to have conducted such rigorous interviews with workers to ascertain the nature of the conditions in the various factories that many workers said they would rather work ten hours in a steel mill than go through three hours of interview with Lenin, except for the fact that it made them think so much about the obvious need for change.

It is the task of a factory nucleus to carry out this investigatory work in order to lay the foundation for communist organizing and propaganda. A nucleus would need to be given systematic and direct instructions in the daily workings. From this guidance the tasks of the nuclei include: I. to acquaint themselves with the area of work and determine exactly where each worker in their shop stands politically; 2. plan campaigns which should be carried out in order to win over the advanced; 3. Get under its influence all the advanced elements in the shop, and then factory; 4. by its actual practice make the workers realize that the factory nucleus reacts immediately to every event in the factory and country; 5. carry on persistent daily work in order to solidify connections throughout the factory and with all workers possible, bringing constantly new sections of the plant into its influence; 6. establish a factory paper for propaganda and for spreading the slogans of the communist movement among the workers and mobilizing the workers around these slogans.

Factory nuclei exert a broader influence through connection with trade union fractions, and thus the work of communists should also include developing a fraction within the unions and locals which serve the given shop or factory. Through this, the specific situation on the shop floor can be linked up with the daily demands placed on both the unions and the capitalists. Again, the factory paper is the best possible means whereby instructions and slogans and information can be circulated throughout the factory and between factories. Working in this way, the nucleus would serve as the conscious leadership of the class struggle and would best implement the political line, making the fusion of the working class with communism an ongoing process. The nucleus can operate throughout the various periods and phases of the revolutionary struggle to truly make every factory a fortress in the battle for the seizure of state power.

B. Linking Propaganda with Agitation: The next problem was that of linking propaganda with agitation around the immediate demands and needs of the workers in this shop. Obviously, without a systematic investigation of the situation, the task of linking the two was bound to bow to spontaneity.

Another aspect of this same problem was that of carrying out agitation in a manner that would not bring about getting canned. As with most questions of security, the long-run surest guarantee is close connection with the workers, close ties with the masses. In building a factory nucleus or even laying the initial basis for carrying out communist agitation and propaganda, communists must be aware of the security question, but only in order to overcome the obstacle it raises. In all capitalist countries communist nuclei are illegal. The main way to overcome this obstacle is through close and persistent recruitment into the communist movement of workers off the factory floor.

However, this may mean that the bulk of the initial personal contact in winning the worker over takes place outside the workplace.

We must remember though that the best elements of the class will come forward through the mobilization of the class for daily work of the class struggle.

Because a core of workers was not built, when layoffs came, there was little basis for unified action by employed and unemployed workers and ail but friendship contacts within the shop were severed.

C. Inconsistent Propaganda: Yet another mistake was the inconsistency of the propaganda carried out. This error was tied to the first two very closely. Propaganda must combine an overview of the conditions and problems with some real occurrence in the lives of the workers. From here we work patiently and systematically to develop workers’ knowledge and understanding from a lower to a higher level, broadening the narrow economic consciousness into a wide political consciousness capable of responding to every abuse by capital. Correct propaganda develops in conformity with the dialectical development of knowledge, that is from lower to higher, from narrower to broader.

Our method, on the contrary, was to comment on things that were happening around us without, however, having any political or organizational follow-up. Making one point about health and safety abuses and their relationship to the greed of the employers, another about high unemployment and yet another about overtime but without connecting them, without going from lower to higher. This reflected a basic tendency of economism on how political consciousness develops.

More importantly, this error held back winning of the progressive elements in the shop as it did not correctly relate propaganda to agitation, and neither to political action. Without mobilizing the workers on the basis of a clear understanding of the situation, it was not possible to consistently draw out the progressive workers.

Role of the MLOC

The major difficulty in assessing the role of the MLOC comes from the fact that there had been a long period when work was carried out in this shop by this comrade as an “independent” communist. Employment was not politically motivated as both this comrade and the organization did not view this workplace as being of any strategic importance. There developed out of this situation the error of failing to systematize the flow of information from the shop floor to the organization. Along with this was the failure of the comrade to seek out advice and direction and the failure of the organization to follow-up with the comrade’s work.

By attempting to go along with a “business as usual” attitude, rather than developing conscious communist leadership, problems were not solved but compounded. The MLOC failed to take an active role in evaluating the relation to production of the workers in this shop, the role of communists, the significance of the national question, how to develop propaganda and agitation, how or whether to build factory nuclei, and most importantly, did not determine quickly enough the course of work to follow in this shop.

In summing up the work of this cadre it became clear that two principle errors were at the root of the problem. First, was the lack of consistent, clear political guidance. This reflected existing right, economist tendencies in methods and styles of work. Compounding this was the fact that the cadre didn’t demand this guidance from the organization. Overall this illustrated that the tendency in this organization was to concentrate too much upon the internal tasks of the organization and the communist movement, not actively taking up the task of fusing the workers and communist movements. This is clearly an ideological question which demands correction. The organization must regularly review all political work of cadre, follow up on the needs outlined by developing definite goals which are to be accomplished in a given period of time, and must move to break with old styles of work. Taking up the task of building factory nuclei in an active and conscious way is a definite requirement.

Second, the relatively undeveloped political line of the MLOC on trade union work did not offer the cadre genuine clarity on a number of questions This clarity is the basis for firmly developing policy in this and similar shops. With progress on the Trade Union Question, the Chicano National Question and other issues, resulting from the deepening of lessons learned in such shops and many others, a relatively correct political line is being developed by the MLOC, a line which will be a reliable guide to action for cadre in this daily work.


The experience of work in this shop, and other work summations, combined with a careful study of the historical experience of the communist movement, clarifies several points:

1. The Role of the Labor Aristocracy A careful and deep-going analysis of these watchdogs of capitalism must be taken up, if the work of communists is to advance. Without the smashing of the influence of the social props of the bourgeoisie, the proletariat will not be able to act as an independent class. This is what Lenin meant in saying that the struggle against the labor aristocracy is “the pivot of tactics” for communist work in the labor movement.
2. The National Question Clearly defined positions of policy derived from a correct stand on the National Question are essential to forge unity of the multinational proletariat in revolutionary practice. It is clearly the most pressing question for the unity of the working class. The political needs of the proletariat demand an understanding of the special demands of the oppressed nationalities, the relationship of self-determination to democratic rights in concrete programmatic terms, etc. Also, the role of the labor aristocracy in heightening the division of the class by playing on the real differences which arise out of national oppression, must be combated primarily through the defeat of oppressor nation chauvinism.
3. Factory Nuclei The need to establish functioning factory nuclei to carry out communist work, i.e. agitation and propaganda, investigation, winning the advanced, mobilizing the workers, etc., etc., is clearly demonstrated by this experience. Developing the shop nucleus into a factory-wide nucleus as the work advances and the party is formed and grows should be an immediate goal of communist work.
4. Political line is key, theory is decisive The political work was held back by the lack of a fully developed line on several questions. Old styles and methods of work continued because of a need to deepen the theoretical grasp of questions in order to correctly guide political practice. (See article on Agitation and Propaganda in this issue).
5. The need for a vanguard communist party Communist work in the workplace, like all other communist work, is best carried out under the guidance and discipline of a communist party. In order to carry out the development of political line, build factory nuclei as the basic unit of the party, win over the advanced to communism, forge the unity of class struggle and the national liberation movements, a communist party must be reconstituted in the United States. Through this party the program and tasks of the working class revolution will become realized. The seizure of state power by the proletariat can only be guaranteed by the leadership of a communist party, armed with Marxism-Leninism. The experience of the working class movement in all countries proves the correctness of this principle of Marxism-Leninism.