Submitted on Dim, 02/21/2016 - 4:02pm
By Dennis Gravey - Hampton Institute, February 15, 2016
It is very possible that in the next few years millions of American workers could win significant wage increases through minimum wage legislation, and do so without militant strikes or building their capacity for shop-floor direct action. For those of us fighting for significant wage increases this is great news, but for those of us fighting for an overthrow of capitalism, this should be very worrisome. Central to this tension is a strategic question, namely, Shall unionists prioritize direct or indirect action? If we aim for revolution, we must choose the former?
Direct action here refers to action on the shop floor using the power of workers in their position as the life-blood of social production. This includes strikes, slow-downs, and various other tactics that directly contest the bosses' power at the site of production. Direct action not only disrupts production, it also questions the legitimacy, and even viability, of the bosses' power. In contrast, indirect action refers to those tactics that exert pressure through the various channels of contestation in broader society, whether that be through legislation, elections, or corporate smear campaigns that fight an institutional tug of war between the companies and the unions. Indirect action stages workers as one interest group among many, vying for influence. Today, within the American union movement, there is a prioritization of indirect action over direct action. When direct action is taken it is only within an overall strategy of indirect action. In this scenario, whether that be strikes included in a corporate campaign or mass worker demonstrations in support of minimum wage legislation, the overall logic of indirect action takes over and explicitly aims to foreclose the more radical possibilities immanent to direct action. The current dominance of indirect action is so entrenched for good reason. That is, because it is the result of decades of careful work developing successful union strategy. However, revolutionaries in the union movement must be committed to a reverse prioritization, not because direct action makes for better union strategy, but because from a revolutionary perspective, direct action is an end in-itself.
To begin, we must establish another distinction, between a purely union framework and a revolutionary one. A purely union framework is aimed exclusively at increasing the bargaining power of workers in their workplace and thus is content in advancing influence with those in power without ever challenging their rule. However, insofar as the union movement is a manifestation of an overall workers movement, it contains more revolutionary possibilities such as those implicit in direct action. The task of revolutionaries working in the union movement is to promote and expand these possibilities. Within this framework a workers movement must not just influence those currently in power to do better by us, but prepare to seize that power and succeed in doing so. Thus, revolutionaries in the union movement must look beyond whether or not something is an effective union tactic, but interrogate how it supports the development of workers' capacity to move from demanding more to taking power. For this, direct action is indispensable. We revolutionaries must be committed to direct action not because it gets the goods, but because it gets beyond them.
What follows has two sections, the first exploring the current dominance of indirect action and establishing why it is so reasonable as a union strategy. The second section argues that direct action is necessary for building a revolutionary workers' movement and that there is an opening in this historical moment for re-establishing direct action within American workers' common experience.