THE STEWARD'S POSITION
by Sojourner Truth Organization
In recent weeks a number of people at work have suggested that I run for shop steward and replace the one we presently have, whom most of the workers find inadequate. This is not the first time the question has come up, but now it calls for a decision on my part. My tentative decision was no. I told people this but also said I would think about it. I have been thinking about it and talking to other members of the organization. I have come to the conclusion that it would be counter to our goal of building independent workers organizations and the best revolutionary strategy for me to take the steward's position. In this paper I will argue that this is the correct decision, not only for my situation, but for any communist doing workplace organizing anywhere in the U.S., regardless of company, industry or union.
For the revolutionary who is doing production work it may at first seem obvious that if the majority of people in the department want him/her to be the shop steward he/she should do so. The call itself is the recognition that he/she is a militant fighter and respected by his/her fellow workers. To refuse would seem to be withdrawing from the fight. If the reasons why are not adequately explained, the workers will not understand and the revolutionary might lose creditability.
And as shop steward the revolutionary would have a number of advantages. It would be easier to organize job actions, newsletters, committees, etc. because he/she would be the recognized leadership in the shop. The steward has more mobility and access to information about the company and the union. And through union functions he/she will have contact with other stewards who are likely to be militants.
But these are just tactical advantages. None of them are absolutely necessary for good work. None of them are things that can't be gotten around or accomplished in other ways, with difficulty perhaps, but done nonetheless. And it is best that they be done in other ways because the steward's position has such strategic limitations that it is much more of a hindrance than a help in building revolutionary class consciousness.
Before we can discuss the validity of the above statement, we need a strategic perspective by which we can analyze and discuss the various pros and cons of the communist as shop steward. Below is my understanding of the theory upon which we base our strategy of working mainly outside of the trade union structure and building independent workers organizations based on the shop floor.
The consciousness of working people is made up of many competing and complimentary forces, each of which finds its material base in bourgeois society. Some of these, like individualism or white supremacy, are a product of a particular culture or privileges to a part of the class. Many are even more transitory, rooted in a particular area or era. But there are two forces within the consciousness of working people which are so general and important that they deserve to be called class consciousness. They both find their roots in the capitalist mode of production, and are a result of the roles workers play as wage earners on one hand and as producers on the other.
Trade union consciousness is based in the role workers play in capitalism as wage earners. Its practical manifestation in workers' activity is the struggle for better terms in the sale of labor to the capitalist. While it does struggle to better the conditions of the lives of workers, it accepts the permanence and legitimacy of capitalism. Trade union consciousness does not go further than that to call for a change in the system because it is based in transitory fact, the present relationships of production.
Revolutionary consciousness is not a higher form of trade union consciousness. It's not trade union consciousness taken one step further. It is the consciousness of workers as producers. It finds its motivating forces precisely because, as Marx put it, the forces of production (workers) find the present relationships of production to be a fetter. Since it is based in permanent fact — workers are producers — it drives toward the understanding that production, and society, can be better organized by the autonomous power of the producers without the capitalist class.
In normal times the revolutionary aspects of workers' consciousness remain submerged. The sale of labor is fact, while the possibilities of society organized by producers is just that, a possibility. But often in instances of mass activity and class struggle the revolutionary aspects of workers' consciousness come to the fore. And even in more normal times their manifestations can be seen in the daily activity of workers.
The primary tasks of communists are to separate out those autonomous aspects of class consciousness from those features which accept class rule, to bring to the fore those aspects of revolutionary class consciousness and crystallize them into a world view that seeks to change capitalist property relationships and organize production in the interest of the producers, and to build organizations that embody the working class's ability to function as a potential ruling class.
Trade unions are the organizational manifestation of trade union consciousness, and even at their best they do not go beyond it. Even when trade union demands go beyond the pure economics of wages and hours to issues of health and safety, speed up and seniority, they are demands for better conditions in the sale of labor and nothing more. The struggles for these demands, even when they reach mass proportions, remain well within the capitalist framework. This is not to deny the importance of these struggles for a better price; within them, divisions within the working class can be combatted, the self-confidence of the workers will increase, and a solid and united class can be forged. But left to itself, trade union consciousness or its organizational manifestations do not go far enough.
It is from this theory that we see the need to build independent organizations in the workplace — organizations which not only attempt to defend the day-to-day interest of workers under capitalism, but see as their main focus (or at least the primary focus of the revolutionaries involved) the preparation that is needed to seize state power.
It is from this perspective of building independent workers organizations and the theory behind them that we should look at the question of the steward's position. I will argue that it is counter to a strategy of building independent workers organizations and a hindrance to building revolutionary class consciousness.
Every shop steward I have ever known has performed two separate functions to a greater or lesser degree. First, he/she has defended workers in their day-to-day struggle with management. Usually he/she is just enforcing the contract, but occasionally trying to expand its meaning or even going beyond it. He/ she derives his/her power to do so from the contract, union, and the legal structure behind them, and in rare cases from his/her ability to mobilize support on the shop floor. He/she also derives a great deal of his/ her ability to win grievances because of the second function he/she performs — enforcing labor discipline for the boss.
In the microcosm of the department, the shop steward is subject to the same dynamics of the trade union compromise that the union is. Except to the extent that he/she is able to win grievances on a strictly legal basis, his/her ability to win victories on the shop floor is closely tied to his/her ability and willingness to keep his/her people in line. Perhaps the dynamics of this can be better understood by examining some not-so-hypothetical situations.
A foreman sends a worker home early for not wearing safety shoes. The steward wins back pay for the man because the contract does not specify safety shoes. But he tells the man in the grievance meeting that he should know better next time and won't have any defense.
Some people on a particular job complain about safety hazards. The steward argues with them that the job is not really that dangerous and is only of a short duration anyway. On another job the men have stopped work because of safety conditions. Before the foreman does anything himself, he goes and gets the steward, who convinces the men to go back to work. In a third case the same steward is able to get an unsafe condition corrected merely by making it clear he is going to fight it.
Someone asks the steward if he can get out of working overtime since the company has posted it incorrectly and instead of an answer receives a lecture about why he should help the company out by working it anyway. The steward is then able to get someone else relief from overtime even though there is no contract violation by pleading hardship.
The steward informs a worker, who is bragging to his co-workers about a victory in a particularly important grievance, that he shouldn't say anything because it will make it harder for him to win again if management knows people will make a big thing out of it.
A person has come in late, drunk, has missed too many days, has turned out bad work, etc., and is about to be disciplined for it. The steward gets the man off by saying he will talk to the man and it won't happen again.
Management is willing to allow the steward to win some victories because he is performing the important function of keeping his people in line. Management understands that the steward will be unable to maintain discipline unless he is able to deliver some victories to his people, and the steward will win victories only so long as he delivers something of value to the bosses.
I have been talking here about how stewards usually operate. It is a product of forces on the shop floor to which any who accepts the legitimacy of capitalism is likely to fall prey. It is by no means the only method of operations which the steward is limited to. In fact I find the acceptance of the trade union compromise by communists so unthinkable that I won't deal with it further as a real alternative.
Instead I will look at two other ways in which the steward can attempt to defend the day-to-day interest of the workers he was elected to serve. As stewards, we would probably be using some combination of the two.
The first is the legal defense of workers, by which I mean the use of the contract, grievance procedure, arbitration, and NLRB to defend workers. This method limits itself to defending gains already won in the contract. Since it is dependent on bourgeois legality, it is inadequate for raising demands that go beyond bourgeois legality. Its narrow dependence on expertise and skill run counter to the needs of building workers' self-confidence. And in the practical sense, it is almost wholly dependent on the support of the union to be effective, a factor which the revolutionary can not count on.
The second and more obviously revolutionary method of defending workers is to depend on the mass activity of the workers involved. Direct action on the shop floor, or the threat of it, in the day-today defense of workers is a large part of the best revolutionary strategy whether one is a steward or not. But for the communist steward there is a rub.
The workers elected the communist to the steward's position because they believe that he/she would be better able to defend their interest on the shop floor. The communist has shown him/herself to be a militant and consistent fighter in the defense of the workers. He/she has some good ideas about how to go about things and is knowledgeable about workings of the company and the union.
There are also some more backward motivations that must be considered as having more or less weight in the specific situation. The call to become steward may not be a push for militant leadership so much as it is a call for someone who can better take care of business for them. This particular aspect of backwardness is part of the push for all inter-union work, and since the union, with its dependence on expertise, only serves to reinforce those feelings, it is a particularly bad arena in which to combat them. To the extent that the push is for someone to "take care of business," the communist steward is immediately faced with the task of turning the steward's position into something it is not — a leadership position. Another reason why workers would want many of us to be the steward is because of our superior ability to verbalize ourselves and deal with things like contract legality — a product of our educational and class background, and the over-emphasis workers place on those qualities.
In any case, if it is not the popularity contest it often is, workers elect the person they think can best defend their immediate interests. Now if the communist could consistently defend their interest by relying on the mass activity of the workers, there would be no problem. But if the workers are able to consistently defend their interest through mass activity, and have the level of consciousness and organization that that implies, the question of shop steward becomes a moot one.
In anything short of a revolutionary period, mass activity is likely to be sporadic at best; here today, gone tomorrow; coalescing around some issues and not around others. So that the shop steward will be unable to provide a consistent defense of the workers based on mass activity, and if he/she tends to rely more and more on legal defenses, he/she teaches bad political lessons. Also, since the tactics of a revolutionary steward will come more and more into conflict with the collaborationist role of the union, it is unlikely that, over time, he/she will receive the support of the union necessary for even a minimal defense of the contract through the grievance procedure.
No matter where he/she turns, the communist steward is likely to find that he/she can not consistently defend the workers and still provide the best revolutionary leadership in the shop — a fact that both the company and the union will make full use of in teaching the lessons they want the workers to learn.
Of course if the revolutionary is not a shop steward, he/she will still face the same objective limitations, but in this case he/she can pick his/her own turf. He/she can fight around some issues and not around others, and he/she does not bear the burden of winning or losing every grievance that comes up in the shop. He/she can fight around issues that have mass support but not be expected to win every grievance.
There is also something of a safety in having someone else be steward. When the revolutionary rises to the leadership in any mass struggle, or his strategy is adopted, it is because the workers support a new way of doing things — not because as steward he has foreclosed on the old way.
To be sure, the revolutionary who runs for shop steward should make his/her politics clear. He/she should try to make it clear that he/she does not accept the compromise and intends to do things in a new way. But I submit that no matter how much we prattle about socialism, workers' control, direct action and the limitations of trade unionism, these ideas and especially their immediate implications will not be clear to workers who have not fully thought them out and experienced their own self-organization. When they elect us as stewards, they think they are electing militant trade-unionist leadership, not revolutionary leadership. They don't think they are throwing the industrial compromise out the window.
And it is unlikely that they will throw the compromise "out the window." In a shop where there is dual leadership — the trade-unionist steward on the one hand, and the revolutionary cadre on the other — it is more likely that for a long time they will vacillate between the two — choosing now to fight the boss with direct action, choosing then to make the compromise; choosing the leadership of the communist when they decide that, in this case, they want a new way to do things, and not when they feel the old way will suffice. It is inconceivable that the communist as steward can do things either way according to the inclination of the workers and still represent a clear alternative to the old way.
Even with all these limitations, taking the steward's position might be seen as an interesting experiment if it did not carry with it certain long-term liabilities.
Taking the union position, no matter what is said about its limitations, will make the union a more important area of his/her work and teach people that he/she thinks changes can be made through the union structure. People learn as much, or more, from what you do than from what you say. It is likely that a lot more people in the shop will hear that a revolutionary took a union position than will ever hear him/her talk about the limitations of work within trade unions. I don't argue that communists must abstain from work within the unions, but that we shouldn't consciously push the work in that direction. The relatively low level of consciousness and self-confidence of the working class assures that more than enough work will be done in the trade unions. The task that falls to communists is to consistently point out the limitations of that work and devise alternatives to it.
If the revolutionary steward is seen as a good fighter who is failing because the union won't back him/her, then the problem will be seen not so much as a result of the inherent contradictions of the trade union compromise as it will be seen as bad leadership higher up. What is likely to develop then is a demand for a strategy of taking over the union.
In any case, it is likely that the revolutionary steward who doesn't compromise will do an even worse job of consistently defending the workers than the steward who did. In this case he will either have to step down or be removed, and the workers will learn, not that the steward was a bad person, not the limitations of the trade union, but that the steward's revolutionary strategy was at fault.
The call to stewardship will probably be heard by any communist who is doing good mass work. It should be accepted for what it is, a recognition that the communist is a fighter and a call to take a greater role of leadership. It is framed in the steward's position because it is the only type of leadership position currently in existence.
To the extent that it is a call to leadership, the communist should respond not by taking the steward's position but by creating an alternative to it.
If the demand that I become steward is raised again in a mass way around election time, I will propose instead, making my position on the union clear, that if a sufficient number of people desire it, I will act as a representative of the workers in the department and intervene in struggles on the shop floor by consciously trying to organize the workers for their own defense. By making such a proposal I will deal with the question in such a way that I won't appear to be withdrawing from the fight and lose creditability. And if such a proposal is accepted, I can be a clear alternative to the leadership of the steward and bring people closer to developing their autonomous power.