Capitalist 'Astro-turfing' Finds its Way Into the Unions

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ICC introduction

We are publishing a contribution from a comrade in the USA which takes a very critical stance on the recent ‘fast food strikes’. He provides a good deal of evidence that far from being a spontaneous expression of the workers ‘from below’, this was essentially a campaign waged by updated forms of trade unionism and popular frontism. We invite comments, especially from other comrades in the USA, in order to help place these developments in the broader context of the class struggle in the USA and internationally.

The recent campaigns among retail and food service workers in the United States are portrayed as a rank and file revolt in the new growth industries, a sense that it is the beginning of a second wave of the Popular Front, where unions grow by leaps and bounds and coalitions of progressive and left forces agitate for reforms. This spirit of the 1930’s is real in the media and at the upper echelons of the trade union apparatus, but in the workplaces around the country, the workers themselves are largely a backdrop rather than an active agent. It is important for Marxists to be aware of the organizations operating within the working class and the character of apparent struggles. Why various class reactions take the form that they do is central to understanding the social forces of capital. 

The sense that what is going on in America is a public relations campaign rather than a new viral spread of militant unionism can be seen in this admission from the left labor press:

The Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which started OUR Walmart, says 30,000 participated in Black Friday actions last year. Most of those were supporters; 88 were strikers.” [1]

Out of a population of 1.2 million Wal-Mart workers in the United States, only 88 workers walked-out nationwide (not including supply chain, warehouse and production workers employed by Wal-Mart contractors and sub-contractors, which have been the site of traditional strikes in recent years). The social media campaign and media blitz in the lead up and following Black Friday 2012 focused on a map of the US with dots on every store where there was a planned or sanctioned protest. The number of strikers and actual Wal-Mart workers was dwarfed by the throngs of Popular Front-style coalitions and alliances of the bourgeois left and center (Workers World Party, Coalition for a Mass Party of Labor, OURWalmart, UFCW, clergy, activist groups, low level Democratic Party representatives) that made up the majority of bodies present at the store protests.  

This phenomenon of a media-centered narrative peddled by the unions with little connection to the shop floor is important for understanding the history and trajectory of the fast food struggles this past year and larger developments in American trade unionism as of late. Like the Wal-Mart Black Friday strikes template, another large service sector union is the main force behind the narrative in the fast food campaign: in the former case, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), in the latter the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). While UFCW announced at the end of August 2013 that they will be re-affiliating to the AFL-CIO federation, they have been a major force in the smaller Change to Win federation. Understanding the changing orientations of the largest unions in the country and a miraculous revival of nationwide organizing drives in growth industries has to begin with the origin of Change to Win. 

The Change to Win federation began as a coalition of discontented union leaders within the AFL-CIO: the 'New Unity Partnership' in 2003. Within 2 years, the 'New Unity Partnership' became an upper echelon reform movement rebranded as 'Change to Win'. Led by the Service Employees and animated by unions like the Teamsters, Food & Commercial workers, UNITE-HERE and the very small United Farm Workers, these unions represent a younger membership in the few growth areas of the domestic US economy. Leaving the AFL-CIO in 2005 saw the reform coalition morph into a new trade union federation, whose focus was a return to an 'organizing' model and greater resources devoted to industry-wide agitation and organizing. It was a move by growing unions to dominate the declining trade union center, the AFL-CIO, and focus on new frontiers rather than maintaining a rump union movement tied to long organized manufacturing and construction industries. These changes in the institutional foundations of American trade unionism have, for the last 8 years, led to a changing orientation that became apparent in the retail and food service industries this past year.

The announcement that UFCW was leaving Change to Win and re-joining the AFL-CIO, made on August 8th 2013, let some of the inner workings of the trade union bureaucracy seep into the narrative: the 'Strategic Organizing Center' of the Change to Win federation is credited with 'leading some of the best campaigns to give workers rights and dignity'; and that the UFCW desires to integrate the AFL-CIO unions into the SOC campaigns.[2] This is a vital part of understanding the origins and the content of the ongoing fast food and retail workers struggles. The rise of worker's centers, union fronts (or 'pop-up unions'), long-term corporate campaigns and Alinskyite activist groups, are all related to changes in the functioning of the trade unions in the midst of an existential crisis and declining memberships. Still in the Change to Win federation is the Service Employees International Union; which has done to fast food what the UFCW has done to Wal-Mart, directed and coordinated through the Strategic Organizing Center and allied inter-organizational efforts. The importance of the SOC cannot be overemphasized as it relates to these developments. The left labor press outlet In These Times noted, "Change to Win itself is small–only about 35 employees–and three-fourths of its $16 million budget goes to the Strategic Organizing Center."[3]

The fast food agitation and media narrative only makes sense in light of the changes at the top of the American trade union apparatus. Seemingly spontaneous waves of shop floor anger, described as strikes in the press, complete with matching signs and t-shirts, do not arise from nothing.

"While the farmworkers [Coalition of Immokalee Workers] have made progress by cajoling and boycotting highly advertised fast food brands, the restaurant workers have been employing a strategy of short strikes. Two hundred workers from dozens of different restaurants in New York struck for a day in November [2012], and then double that number walked out in early April from McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, KFC, Wendy’s, Domino’s, and Papa John’s." - Labor Notes, May 24 2013, Jenny Brown [4]

"After years of downplaying strikes, the union that’s funding fast food organizing is now embracing the tactic. The Service Employees have underwritten short strikes by fast food workers in seven cities in the last two months—including the largest, in Detroit, where 400 workers walked out of dozens of restaurants and completely shut down three." - Labor Notes, June 24 2013, Jenny Brown [5]

The national campaign is an amalgamation of city-based and local campaigns that operate in the same manner (directed and funded by SEIU). The national ‘Fight for 15’ campaign ($15 an hour and the right to union representation) manifests itself in local campaigns often made up of the same organizations or types of organizations who agitate among the working-class. As an example, picking any city that has seen strikes and protests by workers of multiple fast food employers demonstrates these national trends: for this article, we’ll start with Seattle, Washington:

May 30, 2013, workers from different fast food chains (Burger King, McDonalds, Jack InThe Box, etc.) walked off the job. The liberal magazine The Nation reported, "Like those cities’ strikes, Seattle’s is supported by a coalition of labor and community groups; in each case, the Service Employees International Union has been involved in supporting the organizing efforts. The Seattle campaign, Good Jobs Seattle, is backed by groups including Working Washington, the Washington Community Action Network and One America."[6]

The ‘Fight for 15’ campaign’s local component in Seattle is a coalition called ‘Good Jobs Seattle’, which is comprised of a social media presence online which is a cloned website (the same template as other local coalitions like Fast Food Forward in New York City and others that comprise the ‘Fight for 15’ campaign). On the ground, it depends on activists and staffers from several organizations:

  • Washington Community Action Network: a local Saul Alinsky-style activist organization.
  • One America: a civil rights organization that combines National Action Network type activities with those of a traditional ‘Beltway think-tank’, producing lobbying efforts and policy documents for elected officials.
  • Service Employees International Union: the most telling part of this coalition is the ‘Working Washington’ component, which is how the SEIU center and efforts of the Change to Win Strategic Organizing Center express themselves on the local level and in the lives of rank and file workers in this targeted industry.

Working Washington, like the 'Good Jobs Seattle' title and website, appears at first to be an umbrella coordination and organizing center for the state of Washington; on its 'About Us' page, Working Washington says it is a "coalition of individuals, neighborhood associations, immigrant groups, civil rights organizations, people of faith, and labor united for good jobs and a fair economy," and references the slogans of the Occupy Movement (the 1% vs. 99%). However, the catch tag of the website is, "Fighting For A Fair Economy: Working Washington"[7].  Fighting For A Fair Economy is a campaign of the Service Employees International Union; like the various umbrella and coalition websites, searching for "Fighting For A Fair Economy" online turns up several results, such as this website which carries SEIU's trademark purple in the background and also references the language of Occupy Wall Street:

"The Fight for a Fair Economy (Ohio) is a collaboration of efforts between SEIU, labor allies, community partners and grassroots supporters to fight back against attacks on working people and their families all across Ohio."[8]

Affiliates of the SEIU as well as numerous local unions all make use of the same template in their internet-social media orientation and organizing; the same slogans, the same language, the same message. This discrepancy between the narrative promoted in the mainstream and liberal-progressive press and the obvious stamp of a national organizational apparatus (and lack of signs of traditional working-class struggle) on the whole phenomenon have led to rumblings in the left-labor press about what is truly going on. At first, unnamed union sources could be found quoted sporadically in press stories of a ‘PR blitz’ rather than a new union fever or grassroots demand for a return to Keynesian common sense taking place in the working-class. Recently, voices in the left-wing of American trade unionism have begun to publicly question the retail and food service campaigns. This is most clearly demonstrated in the article, “Fight for 15 Confidential,” originally published online in the left labor press outlets In These Times and Labor Notes. The article’s author (with greater resources compared to those of small revolutionary groups) was able to further verify the roots of the phenomenon and the true character of the ‘strikes’ and ‘minimum-wage rebellion’. The story contains numerous anecdotes and opinions from rank and file food service workers across the country.[9]

Pick any city where the campaign is underway (Fast Food Forward in New York City, Raise Up MKE in Milwaukee, etc.) and the template and organizations involved will largely be the same. A combination of SEIU, Jobs with Justice, clergy, national and regional civil rights and community activist organizations (descendants of ACORN), workers’ centers and the same social media-press release model are always present. Like the Wal-Mart Black Friday actions, which just took place again for the second year in a row, there are examples of traditional strike actions and relatively higher levels of workers’ participation depending on the local conditions. There have been arrests of retail and food service workers who refused to abide by the ‘protest rally’ tactics of the union representatives and leftist allies and instead attempted to demonstrate autonomous class action (such as obstructing customers from entering establishments that have striking workers) - but these were the extreme minority of an already small minority of workers involved. 

What it means for the class


In this era of high unemployment, particularly among minorities and young people, part-time and precarious work, the forms chosen by trade unions to enrol workers located in industries that are inherently resistant to traditional collective bargaining units are largely irrelevant. That a union drive takes place through a strong social media presence and with “alt-labor” forms like workers’ centers does not change the basic nature of what is happening. Campaigns which are tangential to the shop floor, such as municipal and statewide attempts to raise the minimum wage, combined with different forms of union membership give the appearance of a resurgent working-class movement demanding a return to the Keynesian consensus even if the militancy and workplace roots of past movements in class history (for the 8 hour day and unemployment insurance for example) are absent. In practice, the fast food and Wal-Mart campaigns are a phenomenon of reverse-base unionism. Unlike the experience in Europe in the 1970’s and 1980’s, where rank and filist and left-unionism tendencies absorb real class anger and turn class action back into the channels compatible with the labor relations regime of capital through unofficial base unions and workplace committees, these recent high profile phenomenon in the United States are almost exclusively the child of trade union bureaucrats and union war chests. The left labor press in America admits the role played by full-time union officials and union funds to prop up and direct nationwide agitation in targeted workplaces and regions through various forms [9]. The result is a media spectacle, a phantom class movement with only the most miniscule participation and involvement of regular workers. 

Communists can only ascertain the nature of what is unfolding, and question why there is such loud protest generated from a historically worn down section of their class. Hundreds of thousands of dollars and directives from paid staffers and activist volunteers create a situation not unlike the Tea Party linked groups who put on elaborate protests during the 2010 election under the pretense of a grassroots rebellion against big government. ‘Astro-turfing’, the art of orchestrating a media campaign to give the appearance of a movement that does not exist, was used to change the dominant political-social narrative in a bourgeois election season. Communists must view the pseudo-movement in retail and food service as a union organizing drive operating under the pretense of being something else. 



[2] "[The SOC] is leading some of the best campaigns to give workers rights and dignity. While no longer an affiliate of CTW, we continue our strong relationships with the Teamsters, SEIU and the Farmworkers.  We will remain active in the SOC and bring our AFL-CIO partners into collaboration with private-sector unions in an effort to build more power for workers." UFCW Press Release 08/08/2013









Recent and ongoing: 


United States