Volume 40, Number 5: September/October 2006

Working People’s Assemblies

Can We Learn from American Activists

The editorial in the July/August issue of Canadian Dimension – “Building a Grassroots Opposition to Harper” – noted that some members of the CD collective have been discussing the possibility of establishing local “people’s assemblies.” In this article, CD Editorial Collective member Sam Gindin explains how a project of this type has already emerged in the U.S. – and bears close observation on this side of the border.

In the spring of 2006, a small but impressive group of American activists came together to initiate a “Center for Labor Renewal” (CLR). The group included long-time union activists, local union leaders, representatives of worker centres (in the U.S. there are some 135 such centres servicing unorganized workers) and a smattering of academics. Of the thirty-or-so participants, one third were women. And, of the group as a whole, a slight majority were people of colour. The meeting took place in Washington, DC, but included people from New York, Miami, Seattle, the Midwest and two Canadians. The larger context of the meeting was the combination of heightened attacks on working-class standards and the failures of the formal U.S. labour movement to develop a matching response – whether in specific unions, via an AFL-CIO reform group that came to power with much promise in the mid-nineties, or in the recent split in the AFL-CIO itself. These frustrations with the stagnation in the formal U.S. labour movement led to the CLR discussions about a fresh organizational form based on “new strategies, new alignments and new objectives.” That organizational form was dubbed “Working People’s Assemblies.”

There have of course been multiple examples of similar-sounding initiatives around for some time in the developing world, especially in Latin America (Argentina, Venezuela and Bolivia). As well, the World Social Forum and its regional spin-offs seemed to represent the embryo of just such a project. And, ever since the free trade debates of the mid-eighties, Canadian activists like Tony Clarke have thrown around the possibility of establishing a “Popular Assembly.” So, what makes this la- test initiative any more interesting or promising?

It’s useful to step back and review the core thinking that got the CLR to this point. First, the traditional left identification of the “working class” with the unionized sector simply won’t do any more – especially in the U.S., where only about one in ten American workers belong to a union. The need to broaden the scope of whom we include in working-class activism couldn’t be any clearer (to hammer this point further home, as the CLR began its initial meeting, the largely non-union Latino section of the American working class stunned not just the Right but the Left with the extent of its confidence and mobilizing capacity). Second, even among unionized workers, workers’ needs and potentials have been narrowed to their role as wage earners. But the experience of class oppression is experienced in our communities and homes, as well as at work, and the making of the working class into a social force depends upon recognizing and developing the capacities of workers as more than sellers of labour power. Third, and overlapping the above, a movement that truly aims to contribute to building a working class that can transform itself into a collective agent capable of transforming society needs a vision. Absent such a vision, talk of reform and revival has no anchor to sustain or orient struggles.

Necessary Steps

This perspective led to the fresh take on popular assemblies. The starting point, as the founding draft emphasizes, is not to launch a pre-formed set of local assemblies, but to begin a particular process. Step one is to identify, in a range of urban centres, all those groups currently involved in actions and activities to defend or extend working-class rights and needs. This would, for example, include local unions, anti-poverty and unemployment groups, groups servicing immigrant workers, those fighting anti-racism or involved in women’s shelters, groups working with street youth, international solidarity groups, etc. Step two is to engage these groups in a discussion of the limits of their own struggles and how we might, within a larger collectivity, address those limits. This would include one-on-one discussions initiated by members of CLR, discussion papers circulated to groups for their input, and small meetings for frank and sober exchanges of goals, strategies and tactics.

Out of that experience, it might be possible to identify a few urban centres where there is genuine interest in establishing a “Working People’s Assembly.” This assembly would not simply be another “forum” for the occasional meeting, nor focus upon a particular campaign with the consequent tendency to dissolve as everyone returns to her/his own world at campaign’s end. Rather, each city-wide assembly would be a permanent structure made up of representatives of the various groups that met regularly, had an elected and accountable executive and began moving towards pooling resources for mutual support (like a common newsletter, website, educational forums, pamphlets), initiating new campaigns (for example, improving and expanding public transit as part of a worker-environmental-equality coalition) and eventually moving towards developing an independent political platform. Whether this would lead to supporting candidates who endorsed that program or running independent candidates is something that would be resolved later – the focus of unity being the importance of developing that independent working-class platform collectively. Though the assemblies would be built locally, the dynamics of their functioning would force the crucial question of a national coordinating body, since job issues, immigration issues, environmental issues and the impact of American imperialism upon human rights at home must all reach beyond the local. (As well, the ideology of solidarity and the need to learn from other struggles implies an internationalist sensibility.)

A political point needs to be made, here. The Center for Labor Renewal could not make, nor does it desire to make, the “Working People’s Assemblies” into its “political arm.” Rather the intent is to have the CLR act as a catalyst for the creation of new kind of working-class organization that can contribute to the rebuilding of the working-class movement and to the creation of a space within which socialists might play a role in influencing where that movement goes.

Two questions immediately crop up. First, is it at all realistic to think the CLR has the capacity to make such an ambitious project possible? Second, is this relevant to Canada, where our unionization levels are so much higher, where the NDP provides a political choice beyond the Republicans and Democrats, and where there is no comparable base below of diverse worker centres?

Of course, the CLR does not currently have the capacity to pull this off. It does, however, have an impressive educational arm with some funding and a great deal of experience, which remains from the battles against the concessions of the eighties and nineties. But its perspective is that the needed capacities do not appear magically, but might be developed in the very process of building the assemblies: attracting new people to an exciting project with possibilities; convincing progressive union locals that this is the project that carries hope (and there are a good number of them locally in spite of the general crisis in organized labour); discovering more about the lay of the land through the political mapping of communities and the corresponding exchanges with various groups; learning how to work collectively and democratically with diverse sections of the working class; rejuvenating movements already out there, but struggling alone, and pooling some of our collective resources; overcoming the fatalism that saps the mobilizing energy of workers and activists; and so forth.

Relevance to Canada

As for its relevance to Canada, it is true that our labour movement is not in as bad shape as the U.S. movement, but the problem of scope (reaching beyond those unionized or likely to be unionized) is clearly also of crucial importance, here. So, too, is the need to rethink the expressions of class resistance beyond the workplace. It is equally evident that the NDP is not the answer, ideologically or organizationally, to bringing the working class into motion. And though we do not have the base of local worker centres that the U.S. does, there are certainly a good number of groups doing impressive work in each of our communities.

It would, on the other hand, be a serious mistake to rush into any such project and underestimate the difficulties that will surely emerge. Even if we were able to get it started, it could not be sustained without a great deal of creativity and organizational work. Our history is littered with projects initiated amid high expectations and newfound enthusiasm, which then floundered because of a lack of preparation and direction. Yet, what else shows any promise? At a minimum, the idea seems worthwhile to pursue and explore with others. And any serious Left will at least have to take the first step in such a project – whatever its overall strategy – mapping the various dimensions of working-class struggles that already exist in our communities. (The Socialist Project is currently planning to work with others to initiate just such a political mapping of working-class organizing – with “working class” defined broadly – in Toronto.) As part of this process, discussions could also begin on some potential common campaigns. These might vary from place to place, but could include the example raised above – access to and extension of public transit – as well as living-wage campaigns; city-wide mobilizations to support immigrant-based struggles in the hotel sector; getting rid of temp agencies and replacing them with union hiring halls; addressing the right to adequate housing; taking on hospital privatization through P3s; mobilizing to establish city-wide elected job boards to link community needs with underutilized community capacities; and education campaigns to revive, within each of our particular struggles, broader national and international struggles (from free trade to justice for the Palestinian people to opposition to the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq).

It would be great to hear, by way of Canadian Dimension, of the interest and opinions of others.

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