Note: This article was published in Rising from the Ashes?: Labor in the Age of “Global” Capitalism, eds. Wood et al., 1998, Monthly Review Press.
The left and labor-will they ever meet again? In my view, new political movements in the United States, in explicit opposition to imperialism, offer the best chance for a refusion of the socialist project with the workers’ movements. The central strategic premise of this proposal is the construction of a broad anti-imperialist united front led by the multiracial, multinational working class that recognizes the right of self-determination of oppressed nations and peoples both inside and outside the United States.
The U.S. labor bureaucracy has a history of complicity with U.S. imperialism. This was especially true during the Cold War, but the collaboration with imperialism has not ended. Today the Clinton administration is building its foreign policy strategy on two explicitly stated objectives: the penetration of U.S. capitalism into every market in the world—the destruction of what is left of self-determination in third world nations under a repackaged “open door policy”—and the rebuilding of NATO into a world military alliance to police those economic arrangements.
Yet organized labor has not opposed this new imperialist tactical plan, and there is a clear connection between transnational capitalist corporations, the Democratic Party, and the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. This became apparent at the 1997 AFL-CIO convention. President Clinton, knowing that many delegates opposed his fast-track proposals for the next round of NAFTA, went on the offensive. He justified his trade policies to the delegates by explaining, “This is how 4 percent of the world’s people can continue to hold 22 percent of the world’s wealth.” To its credit, the Sweeney wing of the AFL-CIO united with House, Minority Leader Richard Gephardt to defeat the fast track. But overall, the convention delegates engaged in a love fest—yelling “Four More Years” to a president who had just thrown women and children into the streets to “end welfare as we know it.”
Where was the left in the AFL-CIO? Where were the insurgent demonstrations against Clinton, the motions to withhold support for his candidacy, the floor fights over U.S.-supported torture in Indonesia, and the Clinton administration’s refusal to sign virtually every binding ecological and human rights agreement at the UN? Where was the criticism, let alone the outrage, that once even liberals would have expressed?’
U.S. imperialism’s far-reaching and aggressive actions are shaping the entire context of the world today, from corporate board rooms to factories, workplaces, and communities throughout the world. It is penetrating nation states and mass organizations, and colonizing minds by means of a pervasive culture industry. So analyzing domestic class struggles as component parts of an anti-imperialist struggle has never been more important than it is today in the last remaining superpower. Yet the U.S. left has never been less conscious that imperialism is the context in which strategies for class struggle must be constructed.
Debates on the left about whether struggles should be local, national, or international are missing the point. There are obviously many sites of struggle: the workplace, the community, the nation, and the international arena- But in today’s conditions, more than ever, it is impossible to detach even the most local struggle from its global setting, and the real test of a political strategy for labor is its capacity to integrate the various levels of struggle. There can be no effective color-blind class struggle, and certainly none that is complicit with, or even neutral toward, imperialist domination. This is especially true in the U.S., where domestic class struggles occur within the framework of racism and national oppression.
Again, the message here is a strategic one, as much as an ethical one. Just as struggles in the workplace spill over into the surrounding community, even the most local domestic struggles today are likely to implicate much larger international forces, and workers are likely to need the solidarity and support of other labor movements in other countries. Besides, even to forge alliances within their own local communities, especially in typically multiethnic communities in the United States, workers also have to recognize that community support involves a more profound understanding of and empathy for the struggles of others, often far beyond their own borders. It is ultimately suicidal for the organized labor movement to treat other working people as competitors and to pursue their objectives at the expense of other workers, at home or abroad.
From Workplace to Empire: The Case of GM in Van Nuys
The benefit of an anti-imperialist strategy was demonstrated in United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 645’s Campaign to Keep GM Van Nuys Open.2 From 1981 to 1987, as an auto assembler at the General Motors plant in Van Nuys, California, and a member of the League of Revolutionary Struggle (Marxist-Leninist), I served as the coordinator of this campaign to stop GM from permanently laying off 5,000 workers, of whom 2,500 were Latino, 750 were black, and 750 were women. We organized perhaps the only successful campaign to prevent a plant closing in the United States by uniting the multiracial, multinational working class and the oppressed nationality movements rooted in L.A.’s black and Latino communities to take on the transnational General Motors Corporation. Our main tactic was to project the economic struggle into the political and ideological realm, initiating the threat of a preemptive boycott of GM products in Los Angeles if General Motors ever closed the plant. We created the Labor/Community Coalition to Keep GM Van Nuys Open and forced then-GM president F. James McDonald to negotiate with a political movement—located in but not confined to a labor union local—-and kept the plant open for ten years.
Throughout this period our strategy was in direct conflict with the strategy of the leadership of the UAW international. During the 1980s, the UAW and most of the Democratic Party leadership explained the massive loss of unionized jobs as a bitter but necessary “downsizing” so that the U.S. could compete in the brave new world of Japanese, German, and Mexican imports. As we tried to organize a movement against the automakers, the international countered with a war against the Japanese. At the 1986 UAW convention, large posters proclaimed: “Unemployment—Made in Japan.” UAW workers bashed Toyotas in parking lots, and at the height of the frenzy, I feared for the safety of Mark Masaoka, one of the most popular left organizers in the plant. We were able to convince the most progressive workers in the plant that at that time in history, the central issue of the class struggle was to directly challenge anti-Japanese xenophobia in the working class. We explained to our co-workers, often in fear for our physical safety, that the international union was using the anti-Japanese campaign to deflect the struggle from the U.S. capitalists and, through more than a year of organizing, were able to at least beat back that wave of mass and reactionary hysteria. Who would argue that avoiding that struggle and focusing instead on “shop floor” or self-interested campaigns alone could have unified the working class?
The integration of rank-an-file insurgency in the union local, black and Chicano national liberation movements, and an anti-imperialist strategy with left leadership, led to one of the labor movement’s few victories in the 1980s. Even then, the opposing strategy of labor-management cooperation between the UAW international and General Motors and their joint attacks against our local led to the eventual closing of the plan in 1992.
The L.A. Bus Riders Union: Multiple Sites of Class Struggle
In response to the situation in Van Nuys, we organized in 1989 the Labor/Community Strategy Center, a multiracial “think tank-act tank,” first, to continue the Campaign to Keep GM Van Nuys Open in a context independent from and therefore more protected from the repression of the UAW international and, second, to expand this experiment in new forms of multiracial labor-community working-class insurgencies to other sites of struggle against transnational corporations and the capitalist state.
One of the Labor/Community Strategy Center’s test-case campaigns to build the interconnections between class, community, and anti-imperialist struggle is an experimental political working-class union, the Bus Riders Union/Sindicato de Pasajeros in Los Angeles, a mass, antiracist organization fighting against the government for civil rights in the form of a first-class, clean fuel, public transportation system in the most air-polluted, auto-dependent region in the United States. The BRU was organized from the ground up by activists trained at the Strategy Center’s National School for Strategic Organizing: Kikanza Ramsey, Chris Mathis, Rita Burgos, Martin Hernandez, and Ted Robertson, who have now been joined by BRU members Lupe Rivera and Mari Aguirre. The Union/Sindicato is a new form of working-class union—a mass political organization of low-wage workers, particularly women, people of color, and immigrants in both manufacturing and service industries as well as the most unemployed and underemployed sectors—focusing on mass campaigns against transnational corporations, the corporatization and privatization of government, the racism of domestic public policy, and increasingly, the role of the United States in the third world.
The BRU is a democratic organization. It is run by an elected Planning Committee of twelve members, and the grassroots direct action work is led by an Organizing Committee of another fifteen members. We have an active general membership of 200 people, of whom 50 to 75 usually attend monthly meetings. We have a dues-paying membership of 1,500, and at least 35,000 bus riders read our news leaflets, wear our buttons, and identify as BRU members.
The immediate focus of our class and race struggle is our demand that virtually all the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority’s $3 billion annual budget go to rebuild the bus system, and that the MTA place a moratorium on all construction of light rail and subways. This “Billions for Buses, Fight Transit Racism” campaign is based on the analysis that the bus system, serving 94 percent of all the MTA’s riders, is a segregated, discriminated-against system, with 350,000 riders, most of whom are from minorities, yet it receives only 30 percent of all MTA’s funds, while the rail system, serving a small, suburban, more affluent, and chiefly white ridership—and the profit objectives profit objectives of contractors and developer—-steals 70 percent of the MTA’s funds to serve only 6 percent of its riders.
Sometimes there is the sense that the work of the left is inherently outside mass consciousness and only in the realm of criticism, whereas the Riordans, Clintons, and Sweeneys are in the “real world.” In this case, however, the Bus Riders Union is understood as even broader than its name. It is a very militant, visible, influential, and political force fighting for the rights of the low-income working class, Latinos, blacks, Asians, the elderly, students, the disabled, the unemployed, and welfare recipients in a world urban center. We have managed to develop a high-visibility media strategy, with frequent features in the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and ABC’s World News Tonight, weekly and sometimes daily stories in every major L.A. newspaper and television station; our own guerrilla postering campaign; and a forthcoming documentary by the Academy Award-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler.
To achieve our goals, the BRU has used a number of tactics. We are known as a militant organization that engages in direct action, such as taking over intersections to block traffic for hours, and sit-ins in which many of our members have been arrested. In addition, as a result of a civil rights lawsuit, we became the “bargaining agent” for L.A.’s bus riders. Through a consent decree we signed with the MTA to settle our lawsuit, they agreed to major improvements for L.A.’s bus riders—reduced bus fares, many new buses, reduced overcrowding, and service to new areas to overcome the racially discriminatory impact of L.A.’s separate and unequal transportation system. Moreover, the courts established the BRU as the “class representatives” for 350,000 bus riders, functioning in an adversarial relationship to the MTA for the next decade in an institutionalized Joint Working Group (JWG), of which I am co-chair in tandem with a representative of the MTA. The JWG meets weekly to struggle over future bus routes, funding for bus stations, reducing overcrowding, and every other aspect of the future of mass transportation in Los Angeles. Needless to say, our new role as bargaining agent has made the construction of democratic, working-class structures of initiative and accountability within our own union even more crucial.
The Bus Riders Union/Trade Union Connection
The Bus Riders Union is unique, because it is a community-based, regional political movement with strong support for, and participation in, the trade union movement. We are experimenting with multiple sites of working-class organization.
The BRU/Sindicato has many members, many of whom are Latino immigrants, who are also active in struggles of their traditional labor unions: the Hotel and Restaurant Workers, UNITE, and SEIU’s Justice for Janitors. While we sometimes have differences with the local union leadership over their willingness to take on, for example, powerful Latino politicians who are good on most union issues but reactionary on public services issues, the BRU’s well-publicized fights for late-night bus service for janitors, maids, and garment workers, and our own members’ participation in those unions, has led to a constructive and often very positive alliance.
Nonetheless, on almost every major political issue facing the working class as a whole (for example, immigration, affirmative action, crime, police, prisoners rights, and tax policy), the BRU often takes more progressive political positions than the existing trade union leadership and many look to the BRU as an alternative and competing political center to the AFL-CIO.5
For example, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and Hotel and Restaurant Workers endorsed conservative Republican, pro-corporate Mayor Richard Riordan (just as the AFL-CIO endorsed Riordan’s twin, Rudy Giuliani, in New York) on the basis of the self-defeating, realpolitik argument that they were “the only game in town.” The BRU did not endorse either Riordan or Senator Tom Hayden, out of our general neutrality about the two dominant parties, but also out of our many disagreements with Hayden.
Similarly, the BRU has taken a strong position against the privatization of bus lines, while the United Transportation Union (UTU) has signed contracts allowing the MTA to privatize up to 13 lines, and in their last contract, signed what we call a ” self-privatization” agreement in which the UTU will compete with nonunion, privatized bus companies and, if necessary, work for significantly lower wages to keep the jobs in the union. Several militant bus drivers approached the Strategy Center, and we helped them organize a rank-and-file caucus to oppose privatization and more explicitly ally with the BRU.
At the same time, the BRU has excellent relationships with the rank-and-file bus drivers, members of the United Transportation Union. Our organizers do most of their organizing right on the buses, and the first order of business is always to check in with the drivers, who are usually harried, with buses so overcrowded they can barely drive, let alone think. Most bus drivers love the BRU—we are, after all, fighting for more buses, more drivers, more mechanics, more maintenance people, clean fuels, better wheelchair lifts, and (of course) more jobs! Many drivers take the microphone and tell the passengers, ” The Bus Riders Union is here. Give them your attention, they are fighting for all of us.” Still, for many years the leadership of the UTU refused to meet with us. According to their more militant members, it is because “they are threatened that you are fighting harder for the drivers than they are.”
Another example occurred in our organizing work in Wilmington, California, where the Strategy Center built a watchdog environmental organization to fight for the public health of a very low-income, Latino working-class community exposed to astounding levels of toxic emissions. In the struggle against Texaco and other polluting refineries, we made many overtures to ally with the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union, only to have them oppose our campaign and even threaten to march against us, on the grounds that if the community had the right to know about the chemicals to which they were exposed and demanded a massive reduction in toxics, the company might shut down the refinery and they would lose jobs.
We have had high-visibility battles with the bureaucratic leadership of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 660, the L.A. county workers’ union, when we opposed their raiding of bus-eligible funds from the state legislature-which pitted one social service against another. SEIU’s leadership, in a desperate effort to find funds for deteriorating hospitals, refused our offer to work with them to demand new taxes on corporations and a reduction in prison construction. Instead, they tried to raid bus funds, thinking the bus riders were a weaker constituency than the prison guards’ unions and the large corporations. The Bus Riders Union countered with a “Don’t Tear Us Apart Campaign,” arguing that our members needed more funds for both hospitals and bus service, and chastising SEIU’s leadership and the Democratic Party for orchestrating a divisive campaign in which either outcome hurt working people. We were able to kill most of the bill and reduce the raid from $350 million to $50 million. Then the courts overturned the entire bill as an illegal raid on transportation funds. These splits are tragic: the refinery workers are exposed to hazardous chemicals, and the county workers are now forced to conciliate with a new wave of privatization schemes in a desperate effort to keep their jobs when a more militant, pro-active strategy was offered to them and is still available.
From Local Class Struggle to Anti-Imperialist Internationalism
A great deal of our work goes into struggles for the daily class needs of our members—on-time bus service, workable wheelchair lifts, dramatic reductions in overcrowding. This focus on the daily needs of the low-income working class may seem to make us very similar to a traditional, albeit more than typically militant and democratic, labor union. However, as we grew and expanded, it became clear that our daily class struggles intersect with larger political issues, especially those revolving around U.S. imperialism. This gave rise to intense internal conflicts.
The first political challenge came in the debate over immigrant rights, when the Republicans, in 1996, put on the ballot their latest in a series of racist propositions, this one cleverly called the “Save our State” initiative, Prop. 187, that would force the state to eliminate the medical, educational, and food benefits of “illegal immigrants.”
The Democratic Party and the trade union bureaucrats tried to find ways to go on record against the initiative while downplaying their opposition, focusing instead on the election of Kathleen Brown, running for governor against Pete Wilson, one of the sponsors of the initiative. The Brown camp, along with the Latino and trade union establishment, put forth the view that “187 is not the best way to solve the immigration problem,” while liberal Democratic Senators Boxer and Feinstein proposed to criminalize the international mobility of labor by placing more INS agents at the Mexican border. The Strategy Center wrote a polemic, “Immigrant Rights and Wrongs,” in which we argued for full rights for immigrants and chastised many of the labor unions for conciliating with nativism in a pathetic effort to elect Democrats on the backs of immigrants. But how would our BRU members react?
In October 1996, as many immigrants’ rights groups organized a “No on 187″ rally, several of our Salvadoran and Mexican immigrant members initiated a motion that we organize a large BRU delegation to the march. This led to a turning-point debate in the development of our organization. Other members, mainly black and white, argued that while they opposed 187, we should not get involved in divisive issues, in that ” immigrant rights has nothing to do with improving the bus system.” Some Latino members threatened not to work with a Bus Riders Union that defined its cause so narrowly as to turn its back on the human rights of its own members. Other white and black members implied that if we did endorse the march, they would leave. Pat Elmore, a black woman from a communist and black nationalist background, argued that if the BRU turned our back on any member, it didn’t deserve to exist. She had not risked her life in the fight for civil rights to listen to black people attack Latinos for “stealing their jobs.”
I watched the room as the votes and minds of many members changed. The final vote was seventy-five in favor of endorsing the march and ten against. Most of the members who voted against the motion never came back. But the organization was shaped and, in my view, saved by that vote—it represented a commitment to working-class politics beyond immediate self-interest. Now we have principles of unity as well as the bylaws of the Bus Riders Union/Sindicato de Pasajeros that include immigrant rights. The entire organization is going through a major expansion of our international understanding and disposition of forces.
In 1997, we invited Jorge Cuellar Valdez, the international representative of the independent, left labor union, SUTAUR 100, in Mexico City, to speak at a mass BRU meeting in which we discussed the struggle against privatization in Los Angeles and Mexico City. Soon afterward, Martin Hernandez and I went to Mexico City to attend an international meeting, sponsored by SUTAUR, against privatization and neoliberalism, in which we worked with forces all over the world to stop the Mexican government’s efforts to break that amazing union.
At that meeting, in which every independent union in Mexico was represented, along with representatives from the Zapatistas (EZLN), the lack of support from the AFL-CIO was painfully apparent. In my remarks to the plenary session, I criticized the Clinton administration for its strong pressure on the PRI to privatize the bus system and other public services to protect the interests of U.S. transnational investors. I also criticized the AFL-CIO for its lack of intervention in this important struggle (it had sent only a rather pathetic letter of support from Linda Chavez Thompson) and asked why the AFL-CIO did not organize a demonstration and bring at least hundreds of delegates to this important international meeting—when a real-life struggle was in the balance. Several of the Trotskyist organizers felt that while my statements were true, they were not tactically appropriate. They explained “off the record” that I had no idea how hard it had been just to get that simple letter of endorsement.
That day, as we brought a delegation to the Zocolo in Mexico City to demand the release of eight SUTAUR leaders who had been imprisoned for one year for their refusal to go along with privatizing the bus system, our bus was surrounded by Mexican police, and we were detained for two hours—-until long after our press conference. That night, at a rally of more than 25,000 bus drivers and their families, we participated in a truly international event of solidarity. This time a battalion of more than 2,000 Mexican police attacked our demonstration, at which time we took to the streets in an orderly and militant extension of the protest. Throughout the time the police were chasing us, I asked myself a question I understood the answer to only too well—where the hell are the U.S. labor unions?
Within a week, after more than a year on strike, the SUTAUR movement had to accept a massive defeat. With its leaders still in jail, and its members literally starved back to work, it agreed to disband its labor union and accept the government’s offer of reconstituting itself as a workers’ “cooperative” to run three bus lines—with the loss of half its members and its union altogether. Even then, it took the election of the moderate progressive Cuauhtemoc Cardenas in Mexico City’s federal district to restore the union’s seized treasury and finally release its leaders from prison.
In addition to our participation in the struggles of Mexican workers, we are involved in other international actions. Rita Burgos just returned from Cuba, and we are trying to find resources to spend more time on antiblockade work. Many Strategy Center and BRU members are working with the National Committee for Democracy in Mexico (NCDM), focusing on support for the Chiapas struggle, and many of the NCDM members are joining the BRU, both as bus riders and because of our Politics.6
At the Strategy Center, we are engaging in discussions with organizers throughout the United States about campaigns based on a working-class internationalism: the repeal of the Helms-Burton Act, in which President Clinton allowed Congress to tighten the embargo on Cuba; bills to oppose all Congressional contributions to the International Monetary Fund and reverse the structural adjustment plans for third world nations, including the forgiving of third world debt. We are trying as explicitly as we can to formulate the entire theory of our work in an international context.
The benefits of empire run deep, and we all have to confront our own ideological and material stakes in the existing order of things. But that kind of searching criticism is what a transformative left politics is supposed to represent. Progressives, socialists, and trade union, civil rights, and community activists who desire a new vision for a left working-class politics will have to combine opposition to imperialism with commitment to labor if they hope to advance either cause.
1. See Eric Mann and Lian Hurst Mann, “How to Stop the Clinton Assault” in Z Magazine, September 1997, and an expanded version in AhoraNow no. 3 (October 1997), in which we argue that the frontal opposition to Clinton’s center-right transnational capitalist politics was the greatest challenge to a new left.
2. For a detailed discussion of this struggle against GM, see Eric Mann, Taking on General Motors: A Case Study of the UAW Campaign to Keep GM Van Nuys Open (Los Angeles: UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, 1989).
3. For a more complete understanding of the work of the Labor/Community Strategy Center see Eric Mann, LA’s Lethal Air: New Strategies for Policy, Organizing, and Action (Los Angeles: Strategy Center Publications, 1990); Urban Strategies Group, Reconstructing Los Angeles—and US. Cities—From the Bottom Up (Los Angeles: Strategy Center Publications, 1993); Urban Strategies Group, Immigrant Rights—And Wrongs (Los Angeles: Strategy Center Publications, 1994); and AhoraNow, the periodical publication of the Labor/Community Strategy Center.
4. See Eric Mann, A New Vision for Urban Transportation (Los Angeles: Strategy Center Publications, 1996), and Eric Mann and Chris Mathis, ” Bus Rider Organizers Meet the Law: Legal Tactics for Left Strategy,” AhoraNow no. 4 (1997).
5. See Eric Mann and Kikanza Ramsey, “The Left Choice is the Best Choice,” AhoraNow no. 1 (1996).
6. In the hope of forging international alliances, we participated in the Paris conference on the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, in May 1998. See my paper for that conference, “The Struggle Against Imperialism is the Key to Socialism’s Reconstruction,” in Le Manifeste Communiste: 150 ans apres, 5e dossier (March 1998), reprinted in AhoraNow no. 5 (1998).