One of the earliest critiques of conventional trade union organizations was presented by socialist organizer and polemicist, Daniel DeLeon. DeLeon has a generally justified reputation as a rather sectarian fellow in the history of the workers' movement, but his inability to get along with others doesn't negate his fairly sharp analytical skills in understanding the limitations of reformist structures. DeLeon notes, "It has become an axiom that, to accomplish results, organization is requisite. Nevertheless, there is “organization” and “organization." That this is so appears clearly from the fact that the “pure-and-simplers” have been going about saying to the workers: “Organize! Organize!” and after they have been saying that, and have been “organizing” and “organizing” for the past thirty or forty years, we find that they are virtually where they started, if not worse off; that their “organization” partakes of the nature of the lizard, whose tail destroys what his foreparts build up." For DeLeon, conventional or 'pure and simple' trade unionism continually fails in its effort a producing an effective organization because it accepts the basic structure of what it is ostensibly trying to fight. More significantly, he argues that the 'organization' of the conventional trade union takes on the formal characteristics of that system. He phrases it in an interesting manner, offering a peculiar metaphor, 'a lizard, whose tail destroys what his foreparts build up.' I'm not sure what it means for a lizard to build with 'his foreparts,' but the metaphor clearly indicates a organizational structure that is in conflict with itself, an organization that unknowingly undoes its own accomplishments. DeLeon describes an organization in conflict with itself, an organization that still accepts the premises of its own exploitation without recognizing that contradiction. Pushing this to a set of epistomological concerns, we find ourselves with an organization that doesn't recognize the implications of its own theoretical framework. Or drawing on a different context, literary theory, Terry Eagleton notes, "Hostility to theory usually means an opposition to other people's theories an oblivion of one's own." (Eagleton viii) It opposes the anti-capitalist perspective but through that action, it can't recognize the full implications of that decision, which place the organization in collusion with the institutional structures that it is ostensibly opposing. At a more basic level, we are facing a set of people who have naturalized a set of social structures, putting them in a position where they not only refuse any alternative to it, but are unable to meaningfully recognize an alternative.
I found myself returning to these questions out of fairly immediate and prosaic concerns. The joint council meeting of the grad student union, UAW 2865, was held a week ago on my birthday, January 21st. One of the central concerns of that meeting was to discuss the question of membership recruitment, in response to the loss of members over the past few years. Within that discussion, it became obvious that our differences with the remnants of the USEJ (United for Social and Economic Justice) caucus had a number of substantial organizational differences at the heart of it, and that the USEJ members of the JC were incapable of recognizing this. Before I move into this conversation, I want to make it clear that the question of membership is a serious one, and that our ability to meaningfully function as a union is dependent on the active consent and participation of the vast majority of the potential membership. Our ability to negotiate contracts as well defend our rights cannot operate without this, as is our ability to use the social and institutional power of the union to create a genuinely democratic public education system. Signing a card becomes the first step in getting involved in the (hopefully) vast assemblage of the union, contributing to it, and reshaping it. The difficulty is that the previous dominant model of the union frequently operated on the premise that our first and last interaction with workers was the attempt to get that card. (For a longer critique of the UAW membership model, read this.) In effect, the meaning of membership has been hollowed out, transformed into a passive acceptance of representation, rather than creating a constitutive model.
So when the USEJ members of the Joint Council from Santa Barbara made a proposal for increasing membership, it contained these sorts of assumptions within its structure. The proposal was designed to fund organizers at all the campuses that fell below a certain level of membership, funding these positions at a 50% funding level, which is the same level of funding and work as a teaching assistant position. This part of the proposal was fairly uncontroversial. There was a bit of volunteerist over-enthusiasm within the AWDU (Academic Workers for a Democratic Union) camp early, but most folks seem to recognize that have someone spending twenty hours a week just thinking about organizing might be necessary to keep the organization strong and coherent. However, the Santa Barbara proposal had a number of other stipulations that proved to be much more troubling. In addition to funding local positions, they wanted the executive committee to control both the hiring and the direction of work of the organizers, effectively cutting out the local branches from having a say in how organizing occurs on their own campuses. Fortunately, this got revised in the discussion to allow for a substantial amount of local control over these funds, but I think that the original proposal is revealing of an organizational common-sense, one that operates on the basis of top-down control and one on one organization that cuts out forms of horizontal communication and solidarity.
A number of other moments in the meeting revealed a similar set of assumptions. Within the conversation about the vision of the union, the Santa Barbara contingent was concerned about the absence of any discussion about defending the contract in the vision statement. I happen to agree with this sentiment. The contract provides an important site for creating social power and solidarity in the workplace. But rather than thinking of the contract in these terms, the remaining USEJ forces continually posed this work in terms of 'servicing' the contract, and 'doing our job.' In effect, we were offered the servicing model of the business model, a model that isn't that different from the anti-communist unionism of Samuel Gompers. Their discussion of grievances operated under similar model, working to have a greater say by union officialdom in the secondary documentation (this is the document that states what we are expected to do as workers), but no thought on how this sort of agency could be taken on by workers themselves through collective action. Furthermore, these officials were unable to or were unwilling to recognize that this is only one of many ways of organizing a union, insisting that the only thing lacking within the current framework of the union was enthusiasm, refusing to recognize the role of their own organizational structure in the lack of union membership. Even though there are folks involved in these fights that I don't particularly care for, I want to emphasize that I don't think that the issue with the former USEJ is a matter of a lack of sincerity or enthusiasm. We're talking about some genuinely committed folks, but that commitment is based on a set of class-collaborations that have been dead for years, and on the basis of an alienated worker that has never adequately described the labor practices of folks involved in public education.
At the same time, we at AWDU have had our own limitations, as well. We've done a lot to contribute to the renewed struggle in defense of public education, but we haven't given enough thought into how we can make the union more relevant to the day to day life of the union. We ran on the premise that our union should be in a position in which we could meaningfully go on strike, but we are very far from this position. Comrades such as Josh Brahinsky, Anne Kelly, Alfredo Carlos, Adam Hefty, Katy Fox-Hodess, and others have been offering some useful ideas on the sort of work that we need to take on in order to accomplish this, but we haven't put the kind of collective intellectual labor that is necessary to imagine the new sorts of organizational structure and practice that are needed to produce a successful union within our current crisis. We need to build stronger horizontal structures such as steward's councils, as well as creating reproductive mechanisms in those departments to allow for a continuity of the union at the departmental level. We need to produce a set of organizational models that allow for a lot of folks to play the part of activists, while completing their education, rather than a few specialists that move on to work for the international of the union. These questions will not be resolved by the simple application of enthusiasm to a model that destroys with its tail what its front parts are trying to create (returning to the lizard model.)