This is chapter twenty of the book RPS/2044: An Oral History of the next American Revolution. RPS/2044 has its own book page, with front matter, reviews, essays, interviews, testimonials and place for user interaction with the interviewees.
Mark Feynman, Lydia Luxemburg, and Juliet Berkman discuss issues of class in RPS and beyond.
Mark, what impact did new understandings of class have on RPS internally. What was the problem to address?
The uncontroversial commitment we all shared was to remove the basis of capitalist domination, their ownership of the means by which production occurs – land, equipment, factories, resources – the means of production. That much we all knew with zero reservations. Cooperating workers had to take all that property for self managed administration. The question we weren’t so sure about was how to eliminate capitalist owners ruling without enshrining a new boss in place of the old one?
How could we attract, retain, and elevate working class members to control economic life, but not lose too many coordinator class members? Railing at capitalism wasn’t sufficient to ensure we arrived where we desired.
Our project would entail that current doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists and all who benefitted from holding a monopoly on empowering work, do a fair share of disempowering work for a fair income. But not all coordinator class members were quick to see the upside or discount the downside. Unless they developed solidarity with others, coordinator class members would cling to the idea they are special and deserve better conditions and income.
It was one thing to envision future institutions sustaining classlessness. It was another thing to find a path to implementing those institutions that maximized workers’ rise but didn’t unnecessarily polarize coordinator opposition.
We knew that once workers became attuned to the reason for their plight being not only that owners buy and sell their labor, but also that coordinator class members monopolize empowering circumstances to gain great power and income, their intuitive dislike for the dismissiveness they so often encountered from coordinator class members would escalate into profound class anger.
So that anger is on one side and on the other side, you have some coordinator class folks agreeing with the need for classlessness but still harboring a whole lot of habits and assumptions degrading workers who had suffered worse schooling and conditions, and you also have other coordinator class members – a large majority at first – who don’t accept the aim at all, but instead persist in believing that their dominance is simply a fact of life due to their intrinsic talents and capacities and not anything unjust, and that trying to overcome the difference would actually hurt everyone.
This is actually not so different than navigating race and gender divides in ways that undo the oppressions but do not jettison those who had benefitted from them, but it had been so much less discussed before RPS that for all intents and purposes RPS was first traversing this class terrain and encountering these class difficulties.
With owners it was simple. Get out of our way, period. With the coordinator class, it was more complex. Yes, the goal was to end their dominance. But their work had to be spread and refined, not eliminated.
Our RPS task was to have self management inside the organization, just as we sought it outside. We needed a consistent way of dispersing organizational tasks and responsibilities to make up for prior differences in training and confidence. We needed daily participation to elevate working class members and hold coordinator class members in check, even if we sometimes had to lose some people’s talents. And just like racism and sexism have structural institutional bases that must be challenged but also have long term effects on behavior and culture which if left to fester can easily bring back the old role relations, so too for coordinator classism.
Many types of movements, sometimes even labor movements (due to their bureaucracies) and certainly ecology movements, anti war movements, and more local movements, had for many decades embodied coordinator class preferences. It would appear in almost every facet – not just who made the decisions but also what TV shows people would extoll or denigrate, what sports, what foods and diets. A leftist would read the New York Times, even while proclaiming it was a monstrous hotbed of manipulation and lies. A worker would read the sports page of a local tabloid. Who was foolish?
Indeed, often self proclaimed progressives and radicals had classist attitudes – as in negative gun control overtones castigating workers favoring guns, or the anti McDonalds franchise campaigns that were often about keeping low income people out of neighborhoods. Even ecological movements often embodied such values and assumptions. I remember once asking an anti nuke power plant activist (and I opposed nukes too) what he thought about the clear and present damage of coal mining in generating black lung disease and other ailments for the miners, as compared to the quite healthy circumstances, for the most part, of nuclear power plant workers, and he had not only not thought about it, he couldn’t even hear it.
For him the plight of miners didn’t exist. His focus was plant failure that could kill people like him. He had the right position about nukes, but his tone and manner put off working people from supporting the no nukes cause, and understandably so. The same would occur in the utter unconcern from some – not all – ecological activists for people’s jobs. Instead of emphasizing getting miners new jobs, coordinatorist climate fighters emphasized only shutting mines, rather than shutting them and ensuring improved life conditions for all who previously worked in them or depended on their proximity.
So what steps were taken to deal with class in RPS?
First, we adopted balanced job complexes and self management as goals for our own chapters and organization, including making up for deficits in learning and confidence on one side, and for excesses of arrogance and entitled expectation on the other side.
Second, we recruited heavily among people with working class backgrounds and instituted changes to make their participation manageable despite other pressures they faced.
Third, we self consciously had working people take the lead regarding the internal culture and forms of celebration and socializing within RPS.
Okay, but in your local RPS chapter, what did all this translate into and what difficulties had to be overcome even once you were doing the above?
Everyone in the chapter had responsibilities such as scheduling meetings, preparing snacks, cleaning up after meetings, preparing an agenda, preparing materials, recruiting, researching for possible campaigns, and, later, developing views and preparing materials for current and future campaigns. We assigned tasks in a balanced way, or even sometimes we would have those with the most experience and confidence actually do more of the less empowering tasks, to redress the prior imbalance. And self management, wasn’t just about democratic votes, it also focused on the process leading up to voting. We insured that those with greater confidence and prior knowledge did not dominate discussions and that those with less confidence and prior knowledge became steadily more vocal and involved. We had an unusual rule, for example, that votes could not be taken until working class members were collectively satisfied they had fully voiced their views and been sincerely heard. In the beginning this created tension, but the emphasis on attaining real solidarity overrode backsliding.
Part of participating was people becoming knowledgable about social change and specifically about RPS views and vision. People also had to become skilled in public speaking and in making compelling arguments. So we soon realized we needed internal training and practice.
Then something remarkable became evident. The gap between a coordinator doctor, engineer, or accountant and a worker driver, assembler, or short order cook obviously included a huge difference in particular specific knowledge and to bridge that difference would require conveying knowledge of particular disciplines. But, the gap between a coordinator RPS member and a worker RPS member regarding issues of social change involved quite modest differences in knowledge, and was overwhelmingly, instead, a matter of using different terms and having more or fewer references to book learning.
We did have a big language gap as worker and coordinator members used different words. There was also a big confidence gap and also a big public speaking gap – especially if the speaking had to adhere to coordinator class norms. But it turned out that as far as actual understanding and insight, there was no large, one way gap. And as far as communicating with non members, worker members were quickly better at it than coordinator class members.
When we asked a worker to explain, challenge, or support RPS views, he or she typically had a hard time, at first, either not yet knowing the specifics or being too nervous. But when we asked a coordinator class member to do it, the presentation was mostly mechanical. The coordinator class person could reel off a bunch of words but couldn’t explain their meaning for daily life situations in a convincing fashion. It was often rote, with little relevant meaning.
When working people saw and felt that, they saw a reason to chime in. And as they got more confident, they realized that they brought a level of understanding and experience that the coordinator folks lacked but covered over with fancy words. These steps therefore proved beneficial not only for worker participation, but for the substance of discussions and understanding. First hand knowledge had to be shared. Obscure words had to be jettisoned.
We also had a really demanding recruiting norm. At the outset we had fourteen people in my chapter, nine of coordinator background and aspirations, and five who were working class. So, we talked it through and agreed that RPS would ultimately need to much more closely reflect societal conditions – roughly 80% working class and 20% coordinator class. We did not want to not recruit people, yet we agreed for every new coordinator class member we would need to recruit at least two new working class members. We then also assigned recruiting disproportionately to working class members so that in time the ratio would get still better. Like everything else, this was difficult for everyone. For the coordinator class members it meant they could not just go out and recruit friends, family members, and the like, even if those individuals were strongly pro RPS. Recruiting more coordinators often had to wait. And for the working class members, it also imposed a burden. They had to do great recruiting, and they had to push their coordinator class fellow members to do so as well, but among working class people. Otherwise everything would stall.
RPS was about winning new institutions but along the way, with old institutions in place, we needed new movement focus, style, and composition. When someone would say, “But we could be bigger quicker if we ditched these silly requirements,” we had to not just reject the view, but also to understand their feelings and convince them that being bigger quicker, without classlessness, was not better. Slower the right way was better.
Getting working people to join, attend meetings, and energetically relate was difficult even for those who were eager to do it. How did we provide ways for people with incredibly demanding work and home lives to participate?
The answer was that joining the organization had to reduce people’s life difficulties. For example, a chapter, much less an organization, had people with diverse skills and talents. These could be directed at reducing the time working class members had to spend dealing with bureaucracies. We could collectivize and reduce the costs of certain life tasks, not least food shopping and day care. We knew scale was critical for all this, and so we proposed to RPS that when chapters grew and divided in two, the assembly of chapters take as a key priority utilizing energies and talents across all member chapters on behalf of all the members being able to better participate.
Lydia, what about class writ larger, in society?
Larger scale meant more ways to address issues, and more resources to bring to bear, but the impersonality of dealing with people you didn’t know made some things harder.
Of course we fought owners for changes weakening them and challenging their control and profit making, but that was familiar and obvious. What was new was that we applied the same kinds of anti classist thinking, and even program, to society and its components as we did to RPS. We undertook campaigns for accountability in a great many workplaces but, even more important, we undertook campaigns for job redefinition to spread empowering tasks in workplaces and later in industries. This meant battling for worker power in day-to-day decision making as well as broad social policies – sometimes via union battles, sometimes via workplace councils. It also meant applying the same participation and leadership norms to national RPS campaigns and events as we were opting for in chapter-based campaigns and events.
Perhaps the largest example was the massive campaign RPS undertook for a shorter work day and work week. We knew we had to fight for working class, not coordinator class, needs. So the campaign began around minimum wage increases. Workers in particular industries – in this case it was at Walmart and Amazon and a few other mass suppliers – began to agitate for more time off. This was initially partly about vacation and partly about forced overtime, but relatively quickly matured into more general demands for a thirty hour work week.
Seeking a shorter work week had to mean hourly wages had to go up so total income didn’t drop, which meant an hourly wage increase by one third. If you were earning $15 an hour earlier, then after a switch to a 30 hour work week you would be earning $20 an hour so your total income of $600 a week would not change.
But what if you were earning $60 an hour before or $150 an hour or more before. Should you now earn $80 an hour, after, or $200 an hour or more after?
Workers decided if your income was over $70,000 per year, why not have the battle for a shorter work week bring things more into line?
So now the demand was that everyone would work 30 instead of 40 hours a week. Everyone would then receive an hourly pay increase of at most one third up to their earning $70,000 a year but would get no increase beyond that.
The next question was how would owners pay more to their lower income employees for fewer hours? By earning less profit, of course. But what if, to avoid losses, owners imposed overtime to raise output to try to make up for new costs? Okay, let’s allow overtime, but make it always optional, not forced, and have overtime pay being not time and a half, but triple time.
There was another aspect. Consider doctors in a hospital. After the change the owners would have them working thirty hour weeks and would have to pay triple time to get more labor from them. Hospitals needed labor, as did society. What would happen?
The answer was either the owners would pay the higher rate, or they would have to redefine work to get more doctor-like contributions out of other employees, mainly nurses – and even start to pressure the school system to produce more doctors. These trends all positively impacted class relations. And this wasn’t just about hospitals, it affected the whole economy.
Juliet, did challenging class division succeed? What was the turning point?
I think it all worked incredibly well when you consider it was challenging hundreds of years of uninterrupted class division and regimentation, and it was doing so not in a comparable number of centuries but in just a few decades while also confronting and winning gains against owners. I doubt there was only one turning point – but I will offer up a possibility, or two, actually.
The first was when almost all Amazon workers sat down at their posts and declared that they would not move and would not allow anyone else to take their places, and would not cease their sit down strike until Amazon changed its policies in accord with their demands. That was monumental. I can still remember hearing reports of it, seeing videos on the news, and going there and lending my support. It was my most exciting moment up to that time.
How did people react?
At first, people throughout the country were flabbergasted. These workers, after all, were effectively invisible beyond Amazon’s doors. How many were there? It turns out there were almost 300,000. We had bought our books and goods of all kinds from Amazon by simply clicking a link. There appeared to be no humans involved. We had no awareness of 300,000 people working in harsh conditions for long hours at low pay.
After just a few days it became clear this was a massive escalation of militance and innovation in labor activism. Families and friends brought food and tents so the Amazon workers could make good on their threat to stay until victory. Students from nearby campuses turned out in force to bring needed supplies and stand outside, providing a buffer against police intervention. Everyone was watching, and then came the turning point.
The owners said clean this up to the police. And first attempts to do so were made, but the workers said no. You come in these warehouses you won’t go back out again with any of us. We will die first. The warehouses will be ravaged, and you will suffer in the chaos, as well. That was a hell of a message.
At the same time, tens of thousands of supporters rallied outside. We pledged to ward off attempts at violent suppression. The spirit was incredible. Here we were, in the streets, ready to be bashed mercilessly, but hellbent on staying. Like the workers inside, we were set to remain.
With such an atmosphere of resistance and solidarity emanating from Amazon workers, what could the owners and the police do? It became clear to Amazon, to the police, and to everyone else, that force would breed more resistance. And right there a lot of people learned that the way to prevent the state, or scabs, or private police, or anyone else from using force to suppress dissent was to create a situation where the use of force would do more damage to the interests of those employing it than would not using force. And it became clear, as well, that what could accomplish that, was having so much support and so much willingness to not give in, that forceful intervention would totally backfire.
We learned not only about warding off repression, but also about the ins and outs of collectivity and struggle. Mutual aid was essential. It came from people surrounding the sit ins, from families, and then even from local restaurants providing food, and from farmers. Young lawyers and doctors volunteered. Off duty cops surreptitiously visited, talked, and learned, and then started visiting openly.
Support took countless forms including support strikes spreading outward in unity. Every day people were learning all across the country from what they were seeing and hearing about the events. And after just a week, UPS workers stopped delivering, and then Fed Ex workers did too, and by that point, society was reeling, and the companies had to give in. Bam. New work hours. Bam. New payment schemes. And then, as the campaign spread and workers in other firms raised similar demands, everyone knew what came next.
Say no to our demands, and we will sit in our workplaces, and you will lose. Bring on the cops, smash us, and we will come right back. Lie about us all you want, the days of people believing you are over. Issue court orders and injunctions, and we will rip them up and add to our demands that there be no prosecutions. Get even tougher, and watch chaos collapse your workplaces while causing our support to grow greater.
Owners were hog tied. Police felt officially responsible to follow orders, but police wanted normalized work hours, too. And in response to that, another lesson emerged. Instead of regarding police as spawns from hell, we should save that category for their bosses and the owners above. We should see rank and file police as citizens, as workers. We should realize how they are like us. And as we managed to do that – even in the face of their often bludgeoning us – we undertook to reach out and talk with them, meet with them, and even rally them.
Do you remember when children of the workers plus their friends started pushing for local schools to visit the sites and provide support. That was another image unbearable to the authorities they could not suppress. For owners, capitulation became the only solution.
A second but related turning point in class conflict, I think, was a change in underlying ideas, assumptions, and habits bearing on coordinator/worker relations. This was most evident in a campaign at Harvard medical school, of all places. There had been a campaign on campus to raise the wages of Harvard’s low income kitchen and custodial workers. Initially this was undertaken by workers with some undergraduate student allies, but then became a broader movement. The students were, in many cases, RPS-influenced or RPS members, and they joined the campaign to improve the conditions of workers while also trying to educate the whole campus about what incomes and class relations really ought to be.
While demands sought specific wage increases, as they had a few years earlier in a similar struggle, this time the rhetoric altered and began asking why those who clean classrooms should earn less than those who stand in front of them comfortably talking to students. And sure enough, after who knows how many dorm and classroom discussions plus work stoppages, teach ins, and repressive administration threats and actions, a group of med students, some in RPS, started to raise a ruckus about admissions policies, training methods, and the culture of the profession they were supposed to enter.
From its start among medical students at Harvard and a few other sites there exploded into visibility groups like Doctors for the People, Lawyers for the People, Accountants for the People, Engineers, Architects, and Faculty for the People, and so on. Every case had some operational flaws and many residual bad habits operating obstructively, and every case encountered intense resistance from folks not wanting such radical change, but the mood was sincerely about redefining the relations between each profession and the population, and even about redefining the responsibility of the profession, including its tasks, remuneration, and social responsibilities. For many in the coordinator class service and not self rose from rhetoric to reality.
So I think these two examples, both fighting owners but the latter also addressing the distribution of empowering work, including within their own ranks, were “turning points.” We would not only attenuate class rule, we would eliminate all forms of class division.