Debating the lessons of March 4

April 22, 2010

James Illingworth, a student activist at the University of California Santa Cruz takes up some of the discussions about the meaning of the March 4 Day of Action.

CALIFORNIA ACTIVISTS who work with the Advance the Struggle (AtS) blog have posted their assessment of the March 4 Strike and Day of Action to defend public education."

It's a very detailed analysis, with some points I agree with and others I strongly disagree with. These issues should be the subject of discussion and debate.

However, there are some major inaccuracies about the successful student strike at the University of California Santa Cruz. I want to make four important points, in the hopes of clarifying the discussion.

1. "March 4th at UC Santa Cruz exhibits all of the best characteristics of Left and adventurist organizing," writes AtS.

In fact, most of the forces that AtS refers to as "adventurist"--the insurrectionary anarchists, left communists and autonomists grouped around the OccupyCA blog--played almost no role in building the strike. They consciously abstained from the Strike Committee and instead tried to "build excitement" for March 4 with a series of poorly attended dance parties and abortive "direct actions."

AtS has repeatedly argued that the anti-cuts movement needs a synthesis between the "adventurist" method of building small, militant actions such as occupations, and the "Trotskyist" or "centrist" approach of building coalitions and trying to bring new forces into action.

While this is not the place to comment on why I disagree with this argument overall, it is important to note that the student strike at Santa Cruz actually contradicts, rather than confirms, the AtS formulation.

2. "At Santa Cruz...student organizers related directly to rank-and-file workers and bypassed union bureaucracies."

Again, this is simply inaccurate. Certainly, the Strike Committee did reach out to rank-and-file workers. We wrote and distributed thousands of copies of an open letter to campus workers, explaining the political logic behind the strike. We also made direct contact with rank-and-file members of AFSCME 3299 in particular.

But in both of these cases, we worked with the existing structures of the unions. We took the idea of the open letter to the University Labor United (ULU) coalition, which brings together leaders and activists from all the campus unions, and we were assisted in reaching out to AFSCME workers by a sympathetic staffer from that union.

Indeed, given the state of the labor movement at UCSC, it would have been folly on our part to attempt to "bypass the union bureaucracy." With the exception of AFSCME, none of the campus unions have particularly strong traditions of rank-and-file militancy. None have reform movements operating within them.

In this context, the most politically conscious workers still look to the existing leaderships of their unions--they would have been unlikely to trust student organizers if we had just gone straight to the base.

And we actually received pretty solid support from the union leaderships. From the beginning, shop stewards, local officials and staff members from UAW, CUE and AFT attended Strike Committee meetings. The UAW statewide leadership provided money for picket line supplies and logistics.

The ULU coalition, impressed with the seriousness of our organizing, pledged to "treat the student strike like an official labor action." I believe the CUE leadership encouraged its members to take furlough days on March 4. On the day of the strike, leaders of several unions approached me personally to state their admiration for the Strike Committee's organizing efforts. These are hardly the actions of a conservative and sclerotic bureaucracy.

There are some signs of hope in the U.S. labor movement. But overall, basic working-class organization and consciousness remain weak. We cannot afford to make sweeping generalizations about whether "bureaucrats" or "rank-and-filers" are key to breaking labor's impasse.

We have to assess each situation as concretely as possible and develop a method that moves workers into action. A dogmatic and schematic approach to this question is a dead-end for revolutionaries who hope to have any real impact in the U.S. working class today.

3. AtS also mention what they perceive as "the differential approaches activists in the same Trotskyist organizations have taken in different geographical locations, specifically between UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz." They argue that "in Santa Cruz... individuals associated with organizations that exhibit centrist tendencies elsewhere...manifested 'genuine class struggle left' tendencies."

This is a clear reference to my own organization, the International Socialist Organization (ISO). AtS is claiming that the Santa Cruz branch of the ISO "manifested 'genuine class struggle left' tendencies" while the rest of our organization fell into the centrist swamp.

Perhaps I'm supposed to find this flattering, but it's total nonsense. We in the ISO perceived no difference in tactical and strategic approach to the demonstrations wherever our members were building for March 4. If the results were uneven, it was only because the political development of the movement is itself uneven.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the Santa Cruz branch of the ISO was only able to play the role it did in the student strike here because we were able to work closely with our comrades at Berkeley, San Francisco State University and elsewhere.

4. AtS write: "Santa Cruz built a strike committee that was focused not [on] abstract actions but [on] a concrete strike at UC Santa Cruz."

This is correct. The UCSC Strike Committee brought together activists from a variety of political tendencies--Marxist, anarchist, liberal, progressive, etc.--in order to build for a concrete action in defense of the immediate interests of all students. In other words, the Strike Committee was a successful attempt to build a united front.

It was not necessary for revolutionaries working in the Committee to water down our politics: we were free to advance criticisms of the Democratic Party, for example, and to advertise our own events and ideas. At the same time, revolutionaries in the Strike Committee could appeal to an organic desire for unity among most radicalizing students and workers. We did not make a fetish of the political differences that separate us from other activists, and thus appear as an obstacle to cooperation and coordination around specific objectives.

To me, this is the real lesson of March 4 at UCSC: the importance of the united front method.

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