Monday, November 17, 2014

Socialist Alternative members: Questions and Answers

From the 250 member YDC to Oakland youth, 1987
By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

In the wake of the successful election of Kshama Sawant, an open socialist to the Seattle City Council, I looked up
Socialist Alternative on Wikipedia. I found that Wikipedia’s US history of Socialist Alternative and the CWI to which the US group is affiliated, appears to have skipped over years when the group had a considerable influence in the US labor movement given its relatively small size. The “official” history is not a history at all. This is not an accident. This is what the Socialist Alternative historians have written on Wikipedia:

“Socialist Alternative was originally formed as Labor Militant in 1986. In the mid-1990s, Labor Militant became part of a national campaign to form the US Labor Party where it became influential in the New York Metro Chapter. Labor Militant members argued that the Labor Party should vigorously run candidates against the Democrats, whereas the national leadership of the Labor Party wanted to take a more cautious approach. After accusations of electoral fraud in the New York Metro Chapter around the vote to run candidates against Democrats, the chapter was subsequently closed.”

The official history jumps from 1986 to the mid nineties, apparently a ten-year period where nothing much happened.  Then the historians write: “From 1998 to 2002 Socialist Alternative was active……..”.  I want to attempt here to introduce the many young people who have joined or are supporters of the tremendous work Socialist Alternative has done of late, to some important history that has been left out and think about why some of us have been written out of history so that with some effort and some luck, the new fresh layers joining Socialist Alternative can rescue the organization from the bureaucratic centralist clique that heads it.

What the Socialist Alternative historians have done here is provide the reader with a tailored description of nothing.  According to this “official” history, Socialist Alternative began as Labor Militant in 1986. However, before we founded our paper in 1986 a paper called Labor Militant, we already used the name Labor Militant, and before that, the Labor and Trade Union Group.  Comrades since left or expelled like Martin Legassick, Marcie Barnett, John Throne were among the earliest contributors to the founding of what is now Socialist Alternative.  When I joined in 1984, there were three of us in Oakland CA, all union activists, Margie Clouser, (CWA) John Reimann (Carpenters) and myself (AFSCME.)

The early US section of the CWI also built various campaigns among the youth, in particular in Seattle where the Youth Defense Campaign had about 250 members. There were YDC campaigns in Chicago, New York and perhaps in Boston but I am not sure. Here in the East SF Bay Area we had a very strong working class branch with members of Afscme, the Carpenters, CWA, Maritime unions, electricians, Teamsters and teachers at various times. This strong rank and file union base was a factor in helping these comrades stand against the negative influence of the union bureaucracy. We had active branches in Oakland CA, Boston, Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia and Seattle. We had three branches in Canada I believe, Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton at one time. Many of the older members, present leading comrades in SALT, are still active. They are collaborators in the whitewashing of history.

In Oakland, before we had a US paper we used to sell the British paper and I assume comrades did in other branches around the country.  We also sold the Panther paper that was produced out of London UK and that disappeared as quickly as it appeared with no explanation as to why. Most of my activity was in the workplace and the labor movement.

Thanks from Sri Lanka for 444 support
I was an active member of Afscme Local 444 that represented blue-collar workers at a water district here in the East Bay. I held various leadership positions over the years. I attended practically every Afscme International Convention from 1980 to 1996 and became a well-known activist within Afscme International especially after joining the CWI around 1984 and the launching of our opposition newsletter in that union in the nineties. The US section of the CWI had a long and close relationship with Afscme 444 and its active members.  The CWI does a disservice to the working class by consciously hiding from history and its present members, the huge role this local and its members played in helping the CWI achieve successes and raising its US profile.  This obliteration of history, the expulsion (the CWI bureaucracy and its sycophants, often refer to expulsions as the expelled, “Walking away from the organization”) and demonizing of past cadre who held dissenting views or who simply opted out for whatever reason, is common to all the left groups and if we look further, was the method of the Stalinists. 

Read letter from Rob Rooke here:

Throughout the 1980’s Labor Militant comrades, with the help of the members of Afscme Local 444, were involved in many campaigns of some significance, campaigns that we always took to the ranks of trade union movement.   There were huge struggles and campaigns throughout this period, particularly around union issues, strikes, racism and youth.  The Hormel strike was a strike Labor Militant comrades on the West Coast were heavily involved in.  When the Campaign Against Domestic Violence was initiated out of the British section I believe, the US section took that up vigorously. We were involved in a number of cases and in the Bay Area anyway, always raised these issues in our unions.  Members of Afscme local 444 supported this drive and as always helped with funds. I personally had an amendment to a resolution accepted at an international convention stating that “battered women’s syndrome” should be recognized as a legitimate form of legal and self defense if a woman was driven to kill her abuser; when he, slept for example.

Labor Militant and Afscme local 444 also played a role in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict and exoneration of the cops. I used to visit a former LA gang leader in prison, he had organized the gang truces after the King verdict and was framed by the cops and given a 10 year sentence.  LM organized a Free Dewayne Holmes campaign in the labor movement with local 444’s help.  LM was involved in numerous cases of youth shot by police, like Jerrold Hall, and also had a member who was on death row, another former gang member who was eventually executed by the state.

Local 444 to Israeli embassy on Mahmoud's behalf
LM was more directly involved in the strike Afscme Local 444 was forced to engage in in 1985. I was on the negotiating team at the time. At the request of the CWI, Labor Militant and local 444, were involved in a huge solidarity campaign to free the Palestinian labor activist Mahmoud Masawra.  Support for trade unionists like Moses Mayekiso in South Africa and the Nigerian Femi Aborisade were also taken up as well as trade union struggles in Sri Lanka the UK and throughout the world. We also have to thank my former co-workers and, members of Afscme local 444, for helping make the campaign to free Mahmoud Masawra a success. It was such a success that the Israeli labor federation, the Histadrut, wrote to then Afscme International president, Gerald McEntee noting what they called a “concerted” campaign to free the imprisoned Arab Israeli.  It was through Afscme Local 444, that the CWI was able to play the role we did in the historic Hormel strike of the mid eighties and the numerous strikes that took place in that decade.

ILWU local 6 endorses Mazzochi meeting
Through the CWI and my role in the union, Local 444 had become one of the leading locals in the country on the issue of a Labor Party based on the trade unions. I had introduced numerous resolutions calling on the union leadership to break from the Democrats at the local, state and federal bodies, including the bi-annual convention of the California Labor Federation. There was a period when no Democrat could get money or an endorsement from Local 444.  I was also for a whole period, the only delegate at the Alameda Labor Council that voted against the COPE Committee endorsements that were always Democrats.

Also in the eighties, myself and another co-worker were elected Local 444 delegates to a Labor Notes conference in Detroit.  At that conference Anthony Mazzochi of the since disbanded Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union was speaking on the need for a Labor Party.  OCAW merged with the United Paperworkers’ International Union in 1999 after existing for 82 years.  If you have seen the movie Silkwood, it was Mazzochi Karen Silkwood was going to meet when her car was driven off the road ending her life.

LM had discussed this labor official as he was traveling the country calling on the need for workers to have our own party.  We approached Mazzochi in Detroit and asked if he would come and speak at a public meeting in Oakland CA on the issue of a Labor Party based on the trade unions.  He said that he would if invited to do so by a union.  I raised the issue at my union meeting and Local 444 officially invited Mazzochi to speak and the meeting, was a great success. With the support of Afscme Local 444, the meeting was also endorsed by SEIU locals, ILWU local 6, and other Afscme Locals and I think the Teamsters. I still have the video of that meeting. Mazzochi told us afterwards that it was the success of that meeting that led him to form Labor Party Advocates in the mid nineties. There was also a meeting in NYC that he spoke at and comrades in NYC were very much involved in this effort.

LM also sent the West Coast full timer, John Reimann, a member of the carpenters union and since expelled from it for his role in the 1999 wildcat strike, to Chiapas where he spent time and discussed with the Zapatistas after that uprising in the late nineties.

I was perhaps the most widely known oppositionist in Afscme at one point, a union in the US that had about 1.3 million members in it at the time. It was I think the fastest growing union in the country back then. Before five of us were expelled from the CWI the Oakland branch was the most union oriented. We were practically all active in our locals and the higher bodies. The expulsions meant the collapse of the CWI branch with the strongest links to the rank and file of the union movement where our influence was significant given our relatively small numbers, due in many ways to the local to which I belonged.  I had already built somewhat of a rank and file base in this union before I met and joined the CWI.  The CWI more than any other force, helped me understand the period we were in and how we got there, which meant I has a much clearer understanding of the dynamics that existed in the movement and my workplace especially.  Why could I not get my co-workers active?  Why would the union leadership not fight? And how could I change that? In short, the CWI helped me develop perspectives based on the material conditions around me and helped me fight for reforms and raise the ideas of socialism in the workplace in a way that was not ultra left and disconnected from the consciousness.

In the early nineties I handed out a one-page article at one of the International conventions in San Diego to which I was a delegate. I was an elected delegate to most of the Afscme Conventions from 1980 to 1996. It was a piece called “lets be realistic” or something similar (I have it somewhere). The purpose was to test the waters, see what the mood was like for building some sort of United Front within that union. It was critical of the leadership’s politics and philosophy that was handed to us in a concise nutshell every time they refused to take on the bosses, “ We have to be realistic” we are always told as a justification for concessions.

AMSU flier for convention caucus meeting 1996
The reception was very good so we ended up publishing an opposition newsletter called The Afscme Activist. (I was brought up on charges at a later date for using the name). Afscme local 444 endorsed the newsletter that had a program of reforms including the call for a labor party based on the trade unions. The local also donated some start up money to get the newsletter off the ground.  I had made some connections over the years and sent copies to some of them. A solid activist, a dishwasher at the university in Madison WI got her local to take out a subscription and encouraged others in her state to do so.  Through these connections I’d made over the years at conventions, and being a leading campaigner for a break with the Democrats and for a Labor Party, the Afscme Activist and local 444 as a leading campaigner in the entire country for a labor party (as opposed to an individual or lefty in a union), became the most left wing union in Afscme I would say and some have said the entire US labor movement at the time

The Afscme Activist went on to be subscribed to by locals in 10 states (usually 50 copies each for their meetings) from Arizona to Wisconsin as well as having 250 individual subscribers.  We also sold it at meetings, union gatherings and events and at other conventions like the California State Labor Federation which I attended, and District Council meetings. The Labor Notes crowd for sectarian reasons and because it was too critical of the bureaucracy, avoided it like the plague.

I was on the LM National Committee and at our meetings we had decided this was to be a United Front effort.  We accepted that in such a formation it was possible we could lose the leadership of it and would take our place in the ranks if that happened, although at the stage we were in it was unlikely. Supporters would send me articles and suggestions and we got to a point where we decided we would try to get the workers involved in more than a secondary way as supporters etc. by electing an editorial board at the convention in Chicago in 1996. As the editor and a prominent rank and file member of Afscme with a very supportive local, it was natural it was me that had encouraged these Afscme members to support the newsletter and bring them in.  So in Chicago we took two steps. One was to elect the editorial board and the other was the holding of public meeting of rank and file activists, particularly those whose locals had supported the paper.

The public meeting was a great success with over 100 rank and file members attending and mostly absent the usual suspects, the left and the so-called revolutionaries. We had planned to run Afscme Activist candidates at the next convention two years down the road as a means of building a caucus. 

The election to the editorial board would have been a success as it would have been the beginning of a real opposition caucus around a newsletter with a growing audience in a major US union.  The two CWI comrades that came, one from the East Coast and another from Chicago, voted against the formation of an editorial board and tried to wreck it.  The position now apparently was that the Afscme Activist was not the publication of a United Front but a Labor Militant/CWI organ.  This was news to me not to mention all the rank and file unionists connected to it.  The comrade from New York (unbeknownst to the rest of us they were in secret discussions with the Walsh/Taffe faction behind our backs) along with other Afscme comrades in Philadelphia did very little to build this United Front using the Afscme Activist as a tool, despite having the two largest Afscme District Councils on their doorstep. The NYC council, DC 37, had 128,000 members at the time.

I was trusted by these (mostly women) that had helped build the AA. After the vote, when the two CWI comrades, Steve Edwards and Tom Trottier, opposed these rank and file union members being on an editorial board of a newsletter they were central in building, the workers were perplexed. I still remember the looks on their faces.  I never lied to them about my CWI membership or our US group but they couldn’t figure out why my comrades behaved the way they did. So I told them. I am still clean with these people today.

As the Afscme Activist had magically become a Labor Militant publication or “organ” as it was put to me. The CWI demanded that I handed over the names and addresses of the Activist subscribers to the group. I refused to do so. My position was this was not my decision; it was the decision of the United Front.  It was also becoming apparent to me that the position they were taking regarding the Afscme Activist was for purely factional reasons.  The CWI leadership in London was working behind the scenes to expel John Throne. There was also other stuff developing, the secret discussions with a degenerate named Carlos Petroni and his group who helped expel us then left the CWI after some crap I don’t know what. So my position re the CWI’s tactics was when the so-called vanguard does not represent the interests of the class, the vanguard has to go.

I have no regrets for my years with the CWI. The CWI taught me a great deal. I am a better man for my association with the CWI and a healthier one by being expelled. But for all the money I donated, we had ferocious fundraising drives; it was still worth it. But what gets me about CWI people I am still connected to via FB or other means, is they have claimed they didn’t know that I was expelled and that the CWI hasn’t expelled anyone. Where the hell did they all go I wonder?  There are literally thousands of socialists, dedicated revolutionaries and activists from all walks of life who are outside the left groups, not just the CWI. There are more revolutionaries outside of left groups than in them.

Surely, the question has to be asked why so many dedicated loyal revolutionaries end up this way.  They treated us worse than the bourgeois do. John Throne, who was the leading figure here in the US was becoming sicker by the day as he has an auto immune disease (the CWI spread the rumor he had Aids and accused him of extortion and stealing money, outrageous slanders that the accusers have never retracted. He was dumped and had no health insurance or job).  John Reimann our full timer had been out of work for 10 years. I was fortunate in that I had a public sector job. What is it that one closes one’s eyes to all this?  Is it the desperate desire to belong?

I don’t intend to go in to the details behind our expulsions in depth.  Differences became more apparent after we became involved in Mazzochi’s labor party efforts. We never had the position that a labor party would be built with Mazzochi’s method, going after the one’s and twos. We intervened in Mazzochi’s campaign because we knew that many genuine workers, fresh layers of activists, would be drawn to the campaign and we believed it was important to be there to help them maintain their political activity (hopefully with LM) after it became obvious Mazzochi’s efforts would come to nought. This was to come sooner than later as the left wing of the labor bureaucracy, many of them members of socialist organizations, became involved once a section of the labor leadership did so.

Proposal for public forum for Mazzochi, Sanders and Stump
The claim by the Socialist Alternative historians on Wikipedia that, “Labor Militant members argued that the Labor Party should vigorously run candidates against the Democrats, whereas the national leadership of the Labor Party wanted to take a more cautious approach.”, is simply not true.  This was our official position, But by the time of the Labor Party conference in 1996 and after a short flirtation with the left wing of the union bureaucracy through the LPA activity, the undeclared Taffe/Walsh faction abandoned this position and adopted the, recruit the one’s and twos approach, which was no different from the union bureaucracy’s left wing.  The LP was dead.

The last thing I want to say is that the most aggrieved here is the working class and particularly those that helped the CWI through me, play a significant role in the trade union movement and also in the formation of Mazzochi’s Labor Party Advocates. It was the Walsh/Taffe faction’s US comrades that got lost in that trade union milieu and how the original division first manifested itself. Changing the name of the paper to “Justice” was tell-tale enough; it would offend no one. Everyone believes in Justice. It was diverted to organizational details and John Throne was the target as the “top down” guru.  I agree he was top down, so was John Reimann, Alan Akrivos, Tony Willsden, Steve Edwards Rob Rooke and others still around today. And so was I.  All of the leadership was.  Brand new young ambitious student comrades like Philip Locker opportunistically jumped on this bandwagon although we hardly knew them and had no interaction with them at all for the most part.

We all agreed to and accepted a false method. The Taffe/Walsh faction used this to rid the CWI international of John Throne who was not on board with the program and was questioning the CWI’s methods and Reimann who raised issues that were not popular also. They were both on international bodies, I was not. It was thought I might come on board but I was not about to scapegoat two comrades who had played such an important role in making the CWI a small force within organized labor and in this country as a whole.  That the organization had serious flaws is correct, we all agreed to the methods. Some of us drew conclusions, saw the weaknesses and have admitted them. Others refuse to do so and still either participate in the slanders, either directly or by their silence.  All for a peaceful life.

Some rank and file members of my local played a huge role in helping the CWI grow and gain influence, they gave it credibility in a sense that we were not an organization of usual suspects.  We had genuine worker supporters. The CWI betrayed my local and its members, and the working class as a whole wanting to control and eventually destroy a United Front simply for factional reasons.

Like the Stalinists, the CWI has written Afscme local 444 out of history, strike and all. John Throne who played such an important role in building the CWI here and always did the work on the ground with all of us has been written out of history as has Lisa Hane, a worker who was our treasurer and one of the builders of the Seattle Youth Defense Campaign. Socialist Alternative history begins in 1996 and before that a vacuum?  There have been similar occurrences, splits and expulsions in many countries where the CWI has a base.  In Ireland, two women members of the Irish parliament, Clare Daly and Joan Collins are no longer in the CWI. Instead of slanders and demonizing former comrades, it is crucial the CWI membership discuss these issues from the ground up and in a political way.

In countries where there was an active opposition these are not mentioned. This is information the SA members have to have. An organization that does not discuss these issues from the ground up cannot survive. We were all part of the method that led to the leadership handing down the line and with the help of a loyal full time apparatus, the members being convinced of its greatness.  The slate system for electing the leadership for example is profoundly undemocratic, expecting a new person to challenge the outgoing leadership’s slate.  Some of us have admitted these mistakes and are trying to learn from them, not just mistakes in general, but openly admitting our role in perpetuating them.

We have also drawn the conclusion that the internal life of the CWI was always top down, always bureaucratic centralist.  It mattered less during the post war boom when the perspectives were generally correct but after the collapse of Stalinism in particular, the organization began to disintegrate.  New young members excited by the successes should be aware that the CWI has had great successes before. It had members in the British Parliament, controlled the City of Liverpool Council, had over 10,000 members and organized the Anti-Poll Tax federations that helped bring down Thatcher.

I want add that this is primarily a commentary based on the author’s experiences. There are many comrades that played important roles that I have not mentioned here, comrades on the East Coast, Canada, like Steve Pybus who has since passed away, and other comrades throughout the world from Ireland to South Africa. The CWI like all the left groups has an unhealthy internal life. Why does the leadership keep this history and the history of the numerous oppositions and dissenting opinions from their own members? 

For years, I told my co-workers the former Soviet Union could not go back to capitalism.  We were wrong. What happened to the Panther paper, the splits and decline?  These issues, like all issues as well as the history of an organization has to be discussed thoroughly throughout an organization from top to bottom, not the other way round.  Not brought to the membership after the leadership has decided the line on it.  The new young comrades joining the CWI in the wake of the recent successes must remember that they are not the first such successes, it is the duty of the membership to ensure that a democratic internal life becomes the norm.

There is one simple issue that should warn us of the degeneration of an organization, or its incorrect methodology. Any organization that has the same leader for 45 years (and almost always male) is not a healthy one.

Heavens forbid they gain state power.

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3 comments:

Bruce Wallace said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Myra said...

I was part of SA for a while until a couple years before Sawant's success. In general, the group was opaque about the group's history and positions. I watched new members who brought a certain brilliance with them, and were eager to contribute, get swatted down by leading cadres because there was already a different, settled opinion on the matter. Even today, there's still no easy way for a new or prospective member to learn what the party line is on certain issues, and if you want to do anything but hawk newspapers to the same few dozen activists or to college students, you have to know what they are.

The internal structure is already one that strongly tends toward groupthink, and the opacity of the group's history makes it practically impossible for a member to effectively counteract any of it. The failure to learn any modern psychology, game theory, or political science, is only exacerbating the problems, as the leadership trots out (ha! pun intended!) in response to any criticism the same tired quotes from Lenin and others as though they were the infallible wisdom of the Buddha.

My conclusion is that Socialist Alternative and the entire CWI function like a cult. I'm not the first to make this claim, either. It's hopelessly dysfunctional and soul crushing, and the membership is better off just getting out before they waste too much of their life on this or any other fossil of the Leninist dinosaur.

Richard Mellor said...

Hi Myra, thanks for taking the time to comment on this piece. Is there some way I can contact you? My e mail is aactivist@igc.org or you can use the blogs e mail to the right of the main page at the top.