Assessing the Fight for 15

September 9, 2013

TWO LETTERS that have appeared at regarding the Fight for 15 (FF15) campaign in recent days have raised many important issues worth discussing.

Zach Zill and Gary Lapon brought up two important questions ("Some faults of the Fight for 15"): First, on the question of the "nature" of the campaign, which includes questions about the Service Employees International Union's (SEIU) intentions and the models of organizing being implemented; second, on the question of what role socialists can and should play in this movement.

These questions were not, I feel, approached in a way that helpfully illuminates the campaign, or the role that socialists can play in advancing it.

Much like the Adam Weaver piece that sparked this debate, Zill and Lapon paint the FF15 movement, and even more so, the SEIU, as a monolith. If this is taken as the starting point, the rest of their argument makes sense, but the reality of FF15 organizing is much more complicated.

Across the country, it is being carried about by a host of unions--including SEIU, United Food and Commercial Workers and United Electrical Workers--by community organizations (only some of which have union backing), by Industrial Workers of the World organizers and by independent workers inspired by the campaign to take up organizing.

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Even among the SEIU organizers, there is not cohesion on the strategy, tactics or vision for this campaign. In some cities, like here in Chicago, it feels mostly like a unionization campaign. In other places, the character is more of a social movement in genesis pushing for a specific legislative reform.

Given the vast heterogeneity and unevenness of the campaign nationally, and the multitude of organizations involved in building it, it might be a more useful starting point, rather than painting the movement with a static SEIU brush, to think instead about why the campaign looks so different from city to city.

This is not to ignore the history of SEIU, but to simultaneously acknowledge that it is an organization shaped by the period in which it finds itself. SEIU, like other unions, is looking down the barrel of a gun. This doesn't mean it will magically transform itself, but if the low-wage worker organizing is, as Zill and Lapon argue, a game-changer, we should consider this as a moment of great historical and organizational contingency, where nothing is certain or set in stone.

TO ADDRESS these criticisms, let's look at Chicago, where I am a rank-and-file member of the Workers' Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC), the local Fight for 15 organization. Based on the reports from and experiences in other cities, Chicago seems to lead the nation in terms of depth of organization, worker initiative and militancy. And yet the city's campaign is fully funded and staffed by SEIU. What factors have created this situation?

First, I don't think we can understate the importance of the 2012 Chicago teachers strike, which gave the entire Chicago working class a lesson in how to fight, and more importantly, how to fight to win. Many of my union brothers and sisters have children in Chicago public schools, and many actively supported the strike. Loop workers were treated to the sight of mass marches for an entire week a year ago, as teachers stood up to neoliberal plans for public education and to Rahm Emanuel's bullying. This experience is not one that can be easily transposed onto another location, but we should understand its role in shifting the consciousness of a layer of workers in the city.

The second factor is the presence of organized revolutionary socialists as rank-and-file leaders in WOCC. We have consistently pushed for increased worker leadership by actively helping to build the confidence of fellow union members on the picket line and in the organizing meetings. We have made suggestions, many of which were implemented by paid staff organizers who want to see this campaign succeed, including the formation of a woman's caucus, labor history movie nights to stimulate rank-and-file discussion about the issues facing the labor movement, and specific demands based in each shop.

We have brought our politics into the union in a consistent and principled way by challenging racism, sexism and homophobia in organizing meetings, and by leading chants and workplace actions. And finally, we are pushing to train even more union members to think this way.

My second disagreement with Zill and Lapon is with their push for a rank-and-file caucus. The rank-and-file caucus, in the traditional sense of caucus fighting for control of the union, does not make the most sense at this time in the movement.

As socialists, we should always push for more rank-and-file activity, but this must always be done in order to build power and to fight the boss, who is the real enemy. The rank-and-file caucus model, at this stage, would accomplish neither task, and would undermine our ability to deepen and strengthen workplace organization. In our experience, pushing for increased rank-and-file activity has been welcomed by SEIU organizers.

Finally, I think that the discussion of the "top-down" nature of the strikes misses a crucial point: The fact that the SEIU leadership is organizing strikes and advocating continued use of them as a means to build a revitalized labor movement is an unquestionably good thing. As socialists, we always push for bottom-up organization, but the fact that the union leadership is calling for strikes rather than doing anything to prevent them is a major step forward.

I would encourage all socialists with low-wage jobs to become actively involved in this campaign. We have an ability to help shape this movement in a way that can make it more worker-led, more democratic. The best place to push for the kind of union we want is from inside of it.
Trish Kahle, Chicago

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