(reprinted from Cosmonaut magazine)
In these waning days of Babylon, there seems to be little to give the class conscious among us hope. Every day a new outrage from America’s supreme warlord, a dire environmental prediction, and some horrific abuse perpetrated by vampiric overlords comes across our Facebook and Twitter feeds. Is it any wonder so many of our comrades are lost to suicide, drug overdose, or helpless despair? Is it any wonder so many leftists spend their time in Facebook debates instead of organizing their fellow workers? Thankfully, there are those among us who have taken the step from despair to action. There are people like organizers in Cooperation Jackson, Familias Unidas Por Justicia, and the Burgerville Workers Union fighting for a new dawn to break the darkness of capitalism. One of the groups, standing on the vanguard of the movement for emancipation from the despotic wage-system, is Target Workers Unite. TWU is a grassroots, communist-led, workers’ organization that is breaking from legacy models of business union and artificial divisions between spheres of organizing. Not only do they organize on the shop floor, but they also organize tenants as a part of the same campaign to create better conditions for Target Workers everywhere. Despite being a fairly new organization, they are experiencing rapid growth and have won several victories. What they’re doing isn’t rocket science, and any reader of this magazine can apply their strategies and experience to their own communities, workplace, and apartment complex. Inspired by their work I interviewed two organizers from Target Workers Unite so they could share their perspective. The full interviews are below.
A: Can you introduce yourself to our readers?
R: Yeah so my name is Remi Debs Bruno and I am a freelance writing and copy editor, a student, and, to get down to what matters here, an organizer for Target Workers Unite. I also work in freelance journalism and editing, and I’ve just recently returned to university here in Baltimore.
A: Thanks Remi, could you explain what Target Workers Unite is?
R: Sure. Target Workers Unite is an insurgent, multi-front, and stridently communist organization of workers in Target stores and within their communities. Our strategy hinges on bottom-up decision-making, militant tactics, and integrating labor struggle into broader community self-organization, such as tenants’ unions
A: So you’re a group of workers at Target coming together to improve your conditions?
R: At the most basic level, yes. And that novel concept seems to be an absolute epiphany for folks, judging by the rate at which we’re contacted nationally.
A: What differentiates TWU from a labor union?
R: Well, at the simplest level, we are not a recognized collective bargaining unit. But there are more important differences, I think.
A: Can you expand on that?
R: The traditional American trade unionist model is simply not effective within the post-Fordist neoliberal labor landscape. Where business union behemoths have even attempted to organize within “flexibilized” and “modernized” sectors— which comprise a huge proportion of workers— they have failed immediately. That being the case, TWU operates with a different goal. Consequently, we have a different strategy.
A: For our readers not as familiar with these terms, can you explain what Fordism is? And how changes in the economy cause older union models to fail?
R: Yeah, absolutely. Fordism is the moniker used by many Marxists and other economic historians to denote the period of Western political economy characterized by factory production, assembly-line style methods, the class collaboration typified by a single wage-earner being able to support a family, and the expansion of the social welfare model.
Starting around 1970, this uneasy truce between workers and owners ceased satisfying the owning class. They figured that if they could manage to shake those costly fetters of regulation, taxation, and a living wage, they could probably change the work-pay equation in their favor. During the intervening decades, the capitalist class and their political system commenced to crush labor unions, cut taxes, and roll back safety and ethics regulation. The unions we have today (to the extent they even exist) are structurally limited to operating within a paradigm that no longer applies. They pretend that there’s some mutually beneficial agreement that can be reached with owners. And they can only pursue this moronic vision by acting as a bureaucratic intermediary between workers and owners. So they come into workplaces as an outside force promising to manage negotiations in workers’ favor. But the old rules no longer apply. Production is largely gone from the West. Service employees are circulated among businesses in an intentional, endless turnover cycle. Oligopolist corporations will gladly close an organized store. So the Fordist process of ‘infiltrate-convince-negotiate-win contract’ is dead. And the trade union ecosphere is a zombie staggering on its last legs.
A: What role do you think automation has played in the breakdown of Fordism?
R: Well, it’s structurally inevitable that capital will tend to minimize the required labor in production. When it happens, this looks great for the owning class and its higher management. And it is generally a massive windfall for the first firms to institute labor-saving technologies. But what these segmented individuals can’t see is that, for the system as a whole (i.e., the economy on which we depend), less labor in production equals less valuable products. But this race to worthlessness can’t be stopped or even slowed. If one firm won’t do it, another will, and the first will be ruined. The disintegration of the postwar Fordist halcyon is complicated to explain, but a large part of it is simply the ineluctable imperative for capital to move where labor is cheap. Automation has ended the possibility of productive labor for millions and devalued the labor of millions more. Meanwhile cheap shit is slapped together by women in hyperexploited nations. Capital had to degrade the Fordist stability. It cannot sit still, ever.
A: That’s really interesting. So you’ve explained why the old AFL-CIO model doesn’t fit today’s conditions, but what about other union models like the Industrial Workers of the World or UE (United Electrical)? Wouldn’t it make sense to organize together with other revolutionary unionists? Or do you have a different strategy?
R: I personally think that the Wobs [IWW] put on the best Organizer 101 training there is. We’ve collaborated with them many times, and work with them as much as possible. As far as UE, we hold them as the best union extant in the US. So we have no aloofness in our relation with actual revolutionary organizations. It is institutional, social-fascist, opaque and undemocratic business unions that we truly hate. But we also differ from even the best syndicalist unions in that we’re trying for something different. We want to build distributed but connected local power along the lines of the Black Panthers. That’s why we build tenant unions along with labor orgs— we want to build the foundation of a communist majority that can take all of society for the people. So the difference there is objective— the fact that we’re not fighting to win a contract, but fighting to build direct, independent dual power which differentiates our strategy and actions from trade unionist and workerist organizations.
A: You mentioned tenant unionism, how do you bridge the gap between workplace organizing and tenant organizing in practice?
R: It seems like a big ask, but when you start to do it, you realize it’s intuitive. The people whose lives are determined by a Target scheduling program that “optimizes” their work and pay to 17.34 hours a week live somewhere. And, unsurprisingly, that somewhere is usually in the community, and in the poorer parts of it. The tenant union effort is easier in rural areas than it is in Baltimore, where I am, simply because of the huge distribution of housing in the city. But it’s doable regardless. And when you help folks come together and think of themselves as people with agency and the power to fight and express that rage we all have in us at work and at home, people activate. They become the most vociferous worker activists you can imagine. And, whether they put a label on it or not, they become socialists. They become conscious of who truly reproduces society every single day, and who naturally ought to rule and own the world.
We do it through simple stuff; things you’d think are laughable and meaningless. For example, we literally have a People’s Mower. We, the militant, armed communists will come now your lawn if you can’t. And then we talk to folks.
A: Besides tenant unionism and shop floor organizing, what other kinds of organizing do you do?
R: Well, the folks in Virginia are the pioneers here as far as our organization goes. There was plenty of endogenous work being done in the Baltimore area prior, but we are looking to duplicate such initiatives here under the loose banner of this… whatever it is. In Virginia, it’s under the name of New River Worker Power and comprises outreach of various sorts, responsive to the needs of the community and the resources we can Marshall to meet them. I’d talk to Bradley here, given that I don’t want to steal their thunder for work I haven’t done on their end. But I’m trying to forge working connections with the harm reduction (illegal here, but still present), prison outreach, food aid, and general mutual aid currents already extant in Baltimore while incorporating the workers themselves into that effort. And of course, they’d often be tenants, too. They’re also poor people largely who may need assistance. And we all need defense.
A: Wow that’s a really bold vision. Would you characterize your strategy as “whole worker organizing”?
R: That’s probably a good way to phrase it. Since our fundamental class identity is “workers”, second only to people. And framing this as a people thing is great l, but de-platforms the society-changing necessity of class relation.
A: That’s a good point, workers are still workers outside the shop. Speaking of work, I imagine there’s a lot of it ahead of TWU. For those of our readers interested in getting involved in that, how would they do so?
R: Well, first off I’d encourage any and everybody who wants to institute rank and file power to get with their friends, coworkers, and community and think through what they need and what they can do. But I also want each and every person at all interested in this to contact us using any of the following means: firstname.lastname@example.org, the Target Workers Unite Facebook page (a bit harder for us to respond on), the Target Workers Unite Chuffed page, or if need be at my personal email, Remi.Bruno@pm.me. We want to spread this method of building real democratic power everywhere and to fight back for workers’ control. So if folks want to keep track of our progress, they can follow us on Facebook at Target Workers Unite and New River Worker Power.
A: So, how did you get involved in TWU?
R: I think I first ran into TWU through the Marxist Center Labor Organizers Facebook page. I connected with Bradley, who founded TWU some time prior and eventually I asked him to attend a meeting of a coalition of far-flung, insurgent unionists for a training. Bradley and a friend of his, an organizer with TWU and the New River Workers’ Power outfit, came to my house in Baltimore and we connected a bit more over the course of that three-day convention. It just so happened that a bit before then, workers at two Target stores in the Baltimore area reached out to TWU. We were able to help them organize a semi-successful strike, and then to coalesce into committees. Now there are four Baltimore stores at which we have some level of engagement, and folks want to strike with a bigger force. And here we are.
A: How many people would you estimate are involved with TWU?
R: We’ve had a massive surge in interest recently within at least 7 states in the US, we’ve received around 800 reach-outs this month, we’ve got around $2000 in donations for our strike fund and general resources pool for publishing literature, etc., and we’ve got committees at stores in Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, and hopefully Texas soon. But we were caught completely unprepared for the exponential explosion in exposure. Lacking the resources of a massive union, we can’t send organizers to every store that’s reached out, and we’re trying our best to organize a good way to respond to all of the inquiries. So we’re forging connections with organizers throughout the country, many of them affiliated with the Marxist Center, and trying to develop a method to systematically plug these workers in.
Our survey, designed to counter the mandatory Target questionnaire and to collect worker info has been responded to by 500 workers so far. We’re using it to generate real information about conditions at various stores during the Modernization Plan and to generate demands.
A: What has the wider community reaction been to your efforts?
R: By and large, very sympathetic. And really sympathetic isn’t the right word. I think energized may be a better descriptor. They see an unexpected struggle from workers thought of as transient, low-skill, and poor, and they’re inspired by that. But it’s been a revelation to me just how deskilled we are, socially. People— grown, working people— have no clue that they can engage in class struggle or how to do so. There’s an incredible degree of anger and electricity within our workplaces and communities but we’re taught there’s no outlet for that. Life just sucks and it’s your own fault. But when people see collective, militant, effective action they’re almost mystified. And then they reach out. It starts as a request for us to send someone to fix things— almost in an “I want to speak to the manager” way. But once we make it clear that the only way out is through, people grok the concept quickly.
A: Has there been any negative response? Like accusations of being “outside organizers”?
R: There are a few anti-union folks, as there always will be. But in my experience, they have been vanishingly rare.
A: How has Target itself responded to your organizing efforts?
R: It’s a funny situation borne of the total death of unionism over the preceding decades. Neither workers nor management have any clue what’s going on at first. Management typically first responds by being stunned and completely befuddled at the concept of workers associating beyond their assigned drudgery. So management overstepped a few times, no doubt ignorant of the very fact of labor law in the US. So we had to file ULPs a couple of times, which succeeded. Since then, there’s clearly been a memo circulated telling lower/mid-management not to fuck with us: they figure we’re an isolated nuisance, maybe, and it’s best not to lose cases at the NLRB. But the fact of our wins speaks volumes as to the fertility of this terrain. Angry, oppressed workers plus ignorant and arrogant management equals serious potential.
A: Can you explain what a ULP is and what the NLRB is?
R: Sure; I’m glad we’re defining jargon rather than glossing over things we all need to know and engage with. The NLRB is the National Labor Relations Board, created by the National Labor Relations Act. Within the framework the capitalist state created to defuse and mediate labor struggles and gatekeep protected unionism, workers can allege wrongdoing on the part of businesses. These are reported and adjudicated by filing an Unfair Labor Practices complaint. So we try to use the tools of the bourgeois state so far as they go, even if we don’t use an NLRB election or formal contract negotiation as our horizon.
A: What would you consider your horizon?
R: Well, the beauty of that is that it’s always in flux, as any democratic, flexible movement should be. What we do know is our uncompromising principles. We are communist. By that, we mean, of and for the masses. We aim for the establishment of worker control and the collective dissolution of capitalism and its coercive, destructive, soul-killing structures. We want to be one patch in a quilt of similar, insurgent movements which create multi-front organizations in their areas. The labor movement— even at its long-gone height was economistic. That is not a new idea. But the antidote to that limitation, one which is urgently needed and possible today, is a comprehensive organization of people into formations through which they control their lives. We can overcome our alienation this way, we can defeat our oppressors this way, and we can take and run the society we and our predecessors built this way. Naturally, as events progress our concrete goals will instantiate themselves accordingly. Thus far this level of flexibility and anti-programmatic principles have worked and has been attractive to people. Naturally, we will eventually be able and willing to engage in collective bargaining and such, but we don’t want to circumscribe our vision to that extent while we’re still fluid, insurgent, and rigorously democratic.
A: On that note, I want to thank you for taking the time to interview with us here at Cosmonaut. This has been really illuminating and for myself, I’m pretty inspired by the work and vision embodied in your organization.
R: I’d like to thank you for taking the time and effort to conduct this interview. I hope there’s something of interest and value here.
D: Can you introduce yourself to our readers?
T: My name is Bradley, I am a retail worker for Target Corporation going on 2+ years now. I’ve been working in retail and the service industry for the majority of my working life here in the state of Virginia. I have been involved in leftist and working-class organizing for over a decade. My organizing at Target is only my latest effort.
D: Thanks Bradley, could you give us a brief overview of your past organizing experience?
T: 9/11 was a defining moment for me in what became the starting point in transforming my politics from the right to the left, going through that standard process of conservative-to-liberal, liberal-to-leftist in large part because of the buildup to the Iraq War and the lies perpetrated to justify it as well as the War on Drugs and my initial self interest of not wanting to be criminalized for smoking pot. It was from that point when I was in high school that I attempted to organize against the Iraq War and against the War on Drugs. It was a very defeating experience. The amount of apathy and pushback from both the student body and the faculty really left me feeling isolated. Granted where I grew up is in the middle of Appalachia and the South where militarism, patriotism, and all-round chauvinism is the default culture. Our local economy is built around it as an industry, from the explosives plant to the military officers school at our local college, even my family was dependent on the local military industry, not to mention we are talking about the early 2000s where all those elements were hegemonic across the entire country and the Left was practically dead.
I saw what some of the local liberals were doing at the nearby college against the war and all it amounted to was some symbolic protesting, there was no material struggle behind their efforts nor would they have an interest in doing so considering they were comprised of either naive privileged college students or middle-class faculty living comfortable lives.
Because of a lack of a leftist presence in our rural area, I basically had abandoned any idea of real political action and drifted towards a lifestylist drop-out culture. I moved off to a small farm in an even more rural area than where Im from to pursue those ends and it was by chance I ran into some political anarchists who were doing work around the Virginia prison system in collaboration with Kevin Rashid Johnson and the New Afrikan Black Panther Party – Prison Chapter.
I quickly dropped the drop-out thing and got involved through this joint effort under the name SPARC (Supporting Prisoners Acting for Radical Change). We did a rideshare program for the families of prisoners, offered a political education program to prisoners wanting revolutionary theory, we helped to coordinate and support multiple hunger strikes in two of the most notorious prisons in our state. We even teamed up with an IWW branch to sponsor prisoners as union members – a sort of proto-IWOC effort before that became established nationally among the IWW. It wasn’t half – bad but it was a ton of work for a tiny amount of working-class people trying to support ourselves on top of all this organizing. We got burnt out, the demand from prisoners was tremendous, going beyond state lines even, and we were never more than a dozen people trying to sustain this all the while we were dealing with internal drama like snitchjacketing, a scandal of sexual abuse by the IWW branch secretary, and splits from the abusers in the former Revolutionary Students Coordinating Committee in New York during our period of affiliation with the New Communist Party – Organizing Committee, now the Maoist Communist Group.
After sorting through all that we took a break to restructure and rethink our strategy (or lack thereof) and launched a new organizing effort as Richmond Struggle. In the process of all this work, we relocated to Richmond, Virginia to be closer to the families of prisoners we were working with. We decided we were too small to organize against the most well-funded state agency and turned our focus on organizing in the city itself. It was through these efforts we waged some struggles against public school closures and tuition hikes at the local state college – trying to draw connections between the two issues and their ties to the legacy of white supremacy, which includes denying access to the Black working class for education and re-enforcing the capitalist division of labor. Unfortunately, we experienced, yet again, a series of internal crises that split the group and which resulted in my loss of housing in Richmond since I never had a formal lease (couldn’t afford one) and always had to pay under the table to live somewhere in the city.
So having no place to go I ended up back in my hometown living with my family like a typical millennial. I initially planned to regroup, save up funds and move back to Richmond, but I found it very hard to build up any savings and stability. I also felt a compulsion to do some organizing back in my hometown because if I’m not doing it I feel defeated and passive towards what’s going on in the world. That’s how New River Workers Power started back in 2016/2017. Since then we’ve been doing tenant and labor organizing with our Target organizing having the most prominence and success.
D: I think a lot of our readers can relate to economic situation deciding what kind of conditions they’re going to organize in. So you said you started New River Workers Power in 2016. When and how did Target Workers Unite start?
T: I think you can place the origins of Target Workers Unite with our initial organizing at my hometown Target store. When we first launched NRWP I had built up a core of myself and some grad students at the local college and began a period of social investigation. We went to trailer parks all over our county to canvass and talk with poor and working-class tenants about the most prevalent issues for them, we had no preconceived notions of what we would organize around, instead of applying the mass line to determine our direction and focus. It was out of this that tenants decided the biggest issue were slumlords. Our first wave of tenant contacts came under slumlord harassment very quickly. Threats of retaliation via eviction were made and scared the tenants back into hiding. Unfortunately, in our state, the tenant law gives a slumlord the ability to evict tenants rather easily. It’s very common for tenants to be late in their rent and it’s that issue which leaves open a wide door for slumlords in our state to legally retaliate by evicting any troublemakers.
Because of this initial setback, we shifted focus to labor organizing. It emerged in a very organic manner from our efforts around working-class housing. As we were doing social investigation and building contacts across the trailer parks we discovered several contacts worked at our local Target store and would mention how the boss there was a reactionary abuser of women workers, LGTBQ workers, and POC workers. We decided we could go salt this store and build up both community and workplace support to oust this boss via a strike action.
We did this in a matter of about four months, first starting with an accumulation of testimonies from current and former workers who could speak on their experiences of abuse or witnessing abuse by this boss. As we did this we also did a lot of community outreach to the few labor unions in the area as well as other community groups. We didn’t really care if they were primarily liberal groups, we were more concerned about building a united front to win a concrete demand, besides it was our initiative which liberals had to tail if they wanted to be relevant.
Our efforts worked with a minimal amount of people, we technically only had two workers go on strike, but the timing and preparation for the action made it a success and we forced out the boss by the second day of the strike, we even forced Target to cancel its annual “college night” event where they hire bus fleets to shuttle the nearby college students to the store because we called for a student boycott.
It was after the success of this strike action that we had the NGO United For Respect (formerly OUR Walmart) reach out and ask if we wanted to work with them to organize Target and other retail workers as part of a national effort. I’ve always been skeptical of NGOs and unions, but still was curious to see what they had going on. This set off a process that has only recently come to an end which featured a perpetual struggle between us rank and file workers and the board of directors and their paid organizers. We came to find out the level of interest in organizing by this NGO was limited to essentially turning workers into lobbyists collaborating with the corrupt Democratic Party with no actual emphasis on workplace organizing. (Read about the break from United For Respect here)
The second action we attempted to organize after our first strike was at a Target store in the Baltimore metro area. I linked up with Target workers at this store through the NGO and emphasized the importance of direct action and strikes based on our success at the Target store. Initially, it seemed the NGO was supportive of another strike action against more abusive bosses at this Target store in Baltimore, but as we got closer to the strike we were discouraged by the NGO to follow through. All gains made from this strike action were a result of our own efforts as rank and file workers, we had no other choice if we wanted this to happen and we were told by the NGO to not mention them or associate our action with them to the media and we didn’t. But then the NGO went and took credit for our action after the fact. It was after this that other Target workers were now legitimately skeptical of the NGO and its intentions to “organize” retail and Target workers. At one point the NGO even told us they were going to close down their efforts to “organize” Target workers, leaving us hanging. That’s when we decided that we needed to have our own independent structure not reliant on this NGO and launched the Target Workers Unite project. We still tried to collaborate with this NGO despite their many transgressions and their refusal to discuss the issues we raised. The last effort we really collaborated on was our Target worker survey project we crafted.
I noticed they were trying to work around us Target workers involved with Target Workers Unite and attempted to bring in new Target workers who wouldn’t cause them as much “trouble” as we had. I’m not surprised by their actions at all, but it’s still infuriating nonetheless to be continually disrespected by an organization claiming to be about respect and represent workers. I and others have sunk a ton of personal labor and money into fleshing these efforts out while still trying to work with this NGO and they have largely played a parasitic role on our efforts. I made sure to let every Target worker we had contact with know the transgressions and character of this NGO so as to not be duped and go through the same demoralizing process as we had. As a result, I and other Target workers were kicked out of the spaces we built up and anything we had collaborated on, like the survey project. We lost access while this NGO claimed it was their property, despite the fact it was Target workers who crafted and labored over the survey project the last several months with little-to-no help from the NGO. Thankfully, because we have the support of Target workers as Target workers ourselves, this sleazy behavior has only revealed to workers involved how they don’t really have us workers interests at heart.
D: That’s a really harrowing story. I want to ask you more about this NGO but first could you please explain for our readers what the “mass line” is both in theory and now you actually practiced it?
T: The simplest way to describe it is from the slogan “from the masses, to the masses”, the ability to synthesize the scattered, yet correct idea of the masses into a programmatic fashion and re-transmit those ideas back to the masses to further the real movement towards communism requires a large enough core of cadre who have the capacity to synthesize the masses’ ideas and carry out the praxis based on that. In our conjuncture the Left is largely amateurish, having lost a living tradition of revolutionary left institutions to train up younger generations to not only be organizers but also theoreticians, to be both red and expert. We can’t claim we are professional revolutionaries, we are young working-class leftists trying to learn from revolutionary history around the world and the working-class history in the US while experimenting to see what works without degenerating into reformism. I would say our efforts with the Target campaign both locally and nationally are an example of an attempt at applying the mass line, incorporating aspects of workers inquiry as well. Our survey project is probably the most organized effort to engage in a “mass line” practice at the moment. It’s a perpetual cycle that militants must constantly engage in, which requires us to be able to “swim like fish in the sea of the masses”
D: So you used workers inquiry to gather the disparate ideas and interests of Workers, but how did you synthesize them and retransmit them?
T: In the instance of these abusive bosses we gathered worker testimonies and from that digested their experiences to determine what would be the best course of action to get rid of the boss. For example, we were told by workers others had attempted to use the internal channels provided by Target Corp to hold these bosses accountable which only resulted in worker retaliation. Because we had prior knowledge and experience with labor organizing and labor law we were able to develop a plan we thought would be most effective to realize the apparent demand that the bosses be fired and without turning it into a campaign for unions or politicians to recruit workers into their efforts.
D: Thanks, that makes a lot of sense. So you took your more advanced knowledge of the conditions of society and class struggle and used those as a lens for seeing how to address grievances among the workers. And this led to an NGO taking an interest. Can you give a little background on the NGO? You said they wanted to make workers into lobbyists and are associated with a union? Which union was this and what sort of “help” did they initially give?
T: United For Respect, formerly OUR Walmart, has its origins as a UFCW front founded during the 2010s. Their organizing efforts are largely like the SEIU front Fight For $15. The emphasis isn’t on actually organizing workers, but rather to stage public actions which can then be used to generate some polished media and use “pressure” to try to get policy changes. In 2015 UFCW decided to cut funding to OUR Walmart and forced their directors to find a new source of revenue, which led to them partnering with Center For Popular Democracy – an offshoot of the defunct ACORN organization. So they are not tied to any union now, but thoroughly the NGO industrial complex, reliant on grants and philanthropists to pay the salaries of staff. And yes they instrumentalize workers for their predetermined agenda set by their board – which they like to claim has Walmart workers on it, but I don’t think the few who are on the board are still Walmart workers. I think because they also have had no real traction in organizing on the shopfloor (not that I think that was a real priority as much as they emphasized organizing “small circle groups” in stores) at Walmart or really anywhere else it’s cheaper and less risky to just take workers away from their jobs and put them in front of a city council, politicians, wall street firms, or shareholder conferences to talk about how workers’ lives are shitty because of a lack of pay, benefits, or stability. Then they use these public speeches to push for legislative reform, which inevitably leads to GOTV efforts for Democrats. This is a good critique of their sort of strategy.
One thing I noticed is how much the directors and staff emphasized all these “victories” they had won as a result of their efforts, yet if you point out things like the wage increase at Walmart came at the expense of thousands of Walmart workers being laid off they will deflect and say this mantra of “this is a marathon, not a sprint” as if we should celebrate workers being laid off. That doesn’t build trust or solidarity among workers at all, completely the opposite.
D: So you’ve obviously had serious tensions with this NGO and have shown how their model is bad for the workers you’re organizing, but besides organizing minority strikes and boycotts how does your strategy differ from theirs? And more importantly, how does it differ from a traditional union like UFCW?
T: Firstly, we have no delusions about how monumental a task it is to organize workers in a giant corporation with very little funds and capacity. We still have to develop a larger strategy that aids us in growing beyond our current confines. Some tactics used by unions and labor NGOs are fine for us to use as workers and leftists, but we recognize that we cannot have a win or force concessions without worker organization on the shopfloor. Amilcar Cabral’s slogan of “tell no lies, claim no easy victories” I think is crucial for us to remain grounded and not try to peddle bullshit like the unions and NGOs do (which is why they have little traction and a lot of skepticism from the working class in general). We have to build a solid foundation in order to build an organization that is substantial, we still are at the point of building our foundation. And that is determined by our conjuncture of low levels of class consciousness and worker activity. Workers are not even educated on labor law, here in the South private sector workers think Right To Work laws means they have no rights, that unions are illegal. It’s a frequent idea I encounter which goes to show how pervasive the fear and feeling of powerlessness workers have. Our small scale strike actions across stores are attempts to build the knowledge and experience with coworkers, showing and demonstrating to them you can take direct action on the job and not be fired, that you can have victories. It’s crucial we be able to build morale among workers. We have to popularize the idea that workers themselves are the agents of change in all this.
Until we have built that up enough and more thoroughly cement shopfloor worker committees in the stores the ability to fight and win will remain on a limited scale. This is also why we are conducting our survey project as a means of synthesizing the ideas of Target workers across hundreds of stores to craft a master demand list and to begin propagating that along with other materials to build up class consciousness and a militant, fighting spirit among the workers.
We also are not seeking a formal union, that would be a disastrous strategy at this point and would result in more demoralization. Instead, we are trying to operate in a similar manner as the Knights of Labor and other early labor organizations in the US who operated in an underground fashion which wasn’t centered on official recognition from the state. I think it’s similar to Mao’s conception of Peoples War. He defines the process of military struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie as one of overwhelmingly comprised of asymmetrical warfare which doesn’t operate according to conventional warfare and that only in the last instance of this process does asymmetrical warfare transform into conventional warfare. If establishing a formal union were to be a goal it would only come about after a protracted process of workers waging an asymmetrical struggle against the corporation.
Since we are leftists our goal isn’t economism, we are not doing this for “pure and simple unionism” but to further the overall objective of establishing workers control in the US. We have limited time and energy, why waste it on compromises that might have more “buy in” among a larger base of the masses at the expense of advocating for positions that will address the fundamental issues of the capitalist mode of production? The overwhelming majority of US history and the workers’ movement has been dominated by reformism. We have too little time to spend trying to dance around that issue for the sake of maybe building broader alliances with liberals and social democrats. We have to push hard and propagandize among workers in conjunction with material struggles to build revolutionary class consciousness and present what sort of demands and what sort of struggle will actually build an independent working-class power.
D: As unapologetic communists, you must face a lot of push back on ideological grounds. What has the response been from workers about your politics and what has the response been from the wider community?
T: In my experience, especially as someone growing up in Appalachia and the South, reactionary ideas are hegemonic. The bourgeoisie has been very effective in establishing and reproducing the various ideological state apparatuses that perpetuate these ideas among the masses and the working class. So we have always been in a position where these buzzwords like communism and socialism create a knee jerk reaction among the people to immediately dismiss the term despite not even understanding the concept, moreso a caricature of the ideas and history of communism and socialism (which is partly because of the bad practices of various socialist and communist leaders and parties around the world).
I think if you can describe what these terms mean without using the buzzwords you find workers agree with you. It’s not to hide our politics, but to present them in a way that workers identify with and associate something positive with vs the shorthand terms that have been so loaded for so long. This is why I advocate using the terms “workers power” and “workers control”. Workers are always pissed off at bosses largely because they recognize they do nothing while we make things function or do the building, it’s a class instinct to see the unfairness of these capitalist social relations, what we have had a terrible time doing historically as the Left is offering a viable alternative to the capitalist logic which encourages workers to compete against one another and seek to move up the ranks from worker to boss.
Right now our efforts at agitating workers have been successful on the basis of pointing out the contradictions and exploitation between Target Corporation and Target workers. We basically are trying to “red pill” from the Left in online spaces, such as these giant facebook groups where workers go to gripe about conditions. We aren’t saying “communist revolution now!”, we are saying “these corporate CEOs are leeches who make record profits and live lives of luxury off our backs by creating unstable and inconsistent scheduling of hours, and cutting costs at our expense so they don’t have to invest in the workers – including healthcare and other benefits, we need to fight back, use the strike, and ultimately take over the workplace”. People are still unsure of what “workers control” looks like and we haven’t really developed a practical vision of what that would look like in the context of Target. It’s easier to say what it won’t or shouldn’t look like vs what it would and that’s something our core needs to think more about and develop. Again, we are still in the beginning phases of all this and we still need to work on developing an explicit strategy based on our politics, which we can then transmit through a national newsletter and mass digital communication like facebook groups.
D: So what you’re saying is that you don’t hide your politics but you lead with approachable ways to talk about them?
T: Ideally, yes, but we do have to be more explicit about that, which is why our survey project is so crucial to this objective because we are going to draw out the communist essence of the workers’ demands to present back to them that our material interests as workers are the abolition of our exploitation.
D: Going back to how your organizing has been received, what has Target’s response been?
T: Ever since our first strike action, they have done a complete 180 in terms of how aggressive they respond to our efforts. After we finished our first strike in my hometown the management at the store waged a heavy campaign to intimidate and threaten workers. The thing is we never called for forming a union, we had two demands, fire the boss and recognize our independent workers’ committee to handle all grievances between the workers and management. In our minds, we never believed we would win the second demand, but moreso were trying to propagate the idea to coworkers of the need for worker organization and worker control on the shopfloor. Target ran a typical anti-union campaign, which was funny in a way since we weren’t actually calling for a union, they would have captive audience meetings where they would tell workers not to sign union authorization cards, they even were trying to use the commentary on our facebook page as indicative of how shady we were, they tried to portray us as “outsiders”, they even told workers to create a hostile work environment for us. Unfortunately, it did get too hostile for our other salter and they quit. We held a few “know your labor rights” meetings that we invited coworkers to and had the privileged workers (more hours, benefits, and stability) who were colluding with the supervisors to come to disrupt our meetings. It made things lively, to say the least.
I remember the time we were putting out a store newsletter and one of the supervisors got in my face yelling at me about how I didn’t use proper Chicago style citations and that using the raised fist symbol was “cultural appropriation”. I think it was a good example of how it doesn’t matter if one identifies as a liberal or leftist but what material position one assumes in the production process. We have plenty of “progressive” supervisors but when they are faced with the threat of independent worker action they change their tune and show they side with the corporation.
But ever since we filed charges with the NLRB and won our case reaching a settlement which Target agrees to not violate our rights and threaten us they have taken a totally hands-off approach. Our last strike action at another Baltimore store we had total leeway in terms of being on their premises with workers and community supporters swarming the main entrance of the store. They haven’t even tried to push us away from the entrances like they did during our first strike.
Granted it makes the most sense for Target Corp to basically ignore us as if we are not a problem or threat because the retaliation would only bolster our cause and raise our profile. They don’t want to make us martyrs but want to wait us out and hope we run out of steam, lose interest and move on like most workers do in the service sector. Now if we can actually turn a corner in our efforts and have qualitative growth in terms of presence and effect with large-scale actions their current approach is bound to change. We also have to recognize the conditions right now with formal full employment, labor shortages across industries, and an economy not stuck in a recession are all favorable for us workers. This won’t last forever and when the next recession hits we may be looking at mass layoffs again, we need to be prepared for that moment when the winds shift.
D: How are you preparing for that shift?
T: Well the first step is acknowledging the problem, that’s about where we are at. But I think this is where my local organizing with New River Workers Power has the most chance at intervening on something like that. We have to be saturated in our local communities. It’s a lot to ask workers who are unorganized and have no sense of communist strategy to not only organize themselves on the job but within the community around other fronts like housing. But in some hypothetical situation where a local layoff was to occur, we would like to be in the position of being able to mobilize local working-class neighborhoods on behalf of their neighbors who may be the ones facing a layoff. I think it’s something that we should be trying to realize even outside the context of a layoff but in regards to any struggle, we may have on the job or in the community. If we are saturated in our locales we should be able to mobilize more than just our immediate coworkers on behalf of another worker. That’s partly one of our primary tasks as leftists, is rebuilding an infrastructure and culture of solidarity among the working class beyond just a single industry. We want to organize the whole class, not just one sector, not just one location, but the class in general, and we are trying to do all that both locally where I live and with Target Workers Unite to engage in the same process but work outwards from each Target store in other communities vs what we initially did by starting from the outside of the store via our tenant organizing which led to infiltrating the store.
D: What does saturation look like in practice? What kind of organizing are you doing beyond the shop floor?
T: Saturation would mean we have red bases established all over a given locale, on the job, in the schools, in the neighborhoods, any front which workers deal with on a daily basis.
NRWP has been pretty consumed with our New River Tenants Union project, and that is one way we are trying to use our networks on the neighborhoods as jumping-off points for future labor struggles. By building up our contacts we find out where people work, we discuss with them their workplace conditions and their labor rights and what they could potentially do to change it, but because we are so focused on waging struggles with slumlords. Currently, those jump-off points are on the back burner until we can expand our capacity and resources. The flipside to this is that I make it known to my coworkers we have a tenants union and because of that we now have coworkers reaching out and wanting to get involved with our local housing struggle. Operating on both fronts helps enrich our knowledge and ability to more easily build red bases and a red network among workers both locally and through Target Workers Unite.
D: So you’re combining the struggle against the landlord class with the struggle against capital? What led you to begin that approach?
T: Well we started with housing when I launched NRWP and ended up doing labor organizing as a response to the barriers that emerged from trying to organize around tenant issues. They are both strongly connected fronts, you could say that about a lot of different fronts as well, such as mass transit and jobs, or jobs and schools, but starting from the housing front does offer similar benefits that the labor front offers, a concentration of workers in a physical space, a strong dividing line between workers and their store managers and property managers/slumlords, it creates the conditions in which we can step in as militants to trigger a process of political socialization and organizing against these class enemies of workers.
Forgive me for this tangent, but going back to the issue of the bourgeoisie and their ability to establish ideological hegemony in society, one of our tasks is politicizing these spaces workers occupy. One of the tasks of liberalism as a political ideology and blueprint for the political-economic structuring of society is to depoliticize all spaces, to remove and deny the friend/enemy distinction or at least redirect it on the basis of nation or maybe more reactionary variants that apply it on the basis of race, gender, religion, etc. By us organizing on these fronts and presenting our demands based on the material interests of workers we are repoliticizing these spaces by affirming what the bourgeoisie and their liberalism works to deny – that the enemy is lives among us on the basis of class.
D: No need to apologize, I think your insight here is really useful and important. How do you politicize the struggle concretely? Are you holding reading groups on communist theory or sharing leftist media with your less educated members?
T: Political education is some of the hardest work to do. I’ve always struggled with trying to find a method that is digestible and approachable to the average worker, which isn’t texted based. We had a lot of debates and fights over this very question in my prior left groups and on what basis do you recruit workers, do you apply a sort of vanguardist position that if a worker won’t or can’t read a several hundred-page book of theory should we be orientating to them? Do we just want the advanced? How do we define the advanced among the working class? Is being able to read high-level theory part of that definition? There’s also the other end of the spectrum on this question which shifts the focus from being able to basically be a theoretician to downplaying the theory. Communists that have had vibrant revolutionary movements had to have effective popular education programs and I think that does entail having an oral or visual-based approach to pedagogy, even in our time where workers have higher literacy rates and more education than prior generations of workers. I think verbal agitation and some written propaganda have been our primary means of doing this, also propaganda of the deed – like our strikes. We have to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the political crowd – who usually default to a conception of politics which is still within the tradition of liberalism where all political action is seen emanating from the voting booths and the parties. We are trying to redefine what politics even is to workers and the masses by showing through action and prioritizing their struggles vs expecting them to subordinate themselves to the whims of middle-class liberals and capitalists – which is why workers are largely “apathetic” when it comes to what they view as politics as usual.
D: Besides strikes are there any other examples of “propaganda of the deed” NRWP has done?
T: We’ve done anti-fascist organizing, a lot of low-level activity that is more centered on mutual aid efforts, like getting repairs for working-class tenants from local slumlords, writing up and sharing exposés on certain slumlords. We’ve also been pushing back against the local municipalities that have been working with the State of Virginia to pass more restrictive measures on our ability to picket, protest, and assemble under the guise of “public safety”, using Charlottesville and nazis as a justification for these measures. Local liberal groups, like the now-defunct SURJ chapter, were working with local municipal officials and cops to justify these measures as if these authorities are here to “protect the community”. We’ve agitated a bit around police militarization, state surveillance and the collaboration between local PDs and the Department of Homeland security, working together to spy on even non-threatening liberal groups. We want to show people how the local government is part and parcel of the federal government and that even though they formally will never announce workers as the enemy they will disguise it under the rhetoric of “anti-terrorism”.
D: Can you expound on your mutual aid efforts? Does it mainly involve organizing for concessions from landlords or do you do any direct service work?
T: We’ve been slowly expanding efforts, first we started with repairs, and now we have branched off into other efforts like helping tenants move from one unit to another, court-watching with tenants, mowing lawns for tenants who face long-grass fees and are unable to cut their grass, cookouts, fundraisers, we are now talking with tenants about starting a women’s auxiliary, you start to build relationships with folks and you end up helping them in a lot of little ways and they even can help you, it really builds a sense of community.
D: What role do women have in your organization currently?
T: Women are at least half of our membership/leadership and have played leading roles in our efforts from the very first struggle we initiated. I feel like the most enthusiasm and energy are coming from working-class women and in my experience women tend to be the ones who are more interested and motivated in what we are doing or trying to do than men, maybe there is a stronger sense of empathy and connection for women than men and if that’s true, it’s definitely because of patriarchy.
D: Would you say that feminism informs the outlook of your analysis personally? Or the analysis of NRWP?
T: Most definitely, it’s not a coincidence we’ve centered the struggles of working-class women in our efforts. I think it’s hard to say there is a formal organizational analysis of feminism as NRWP, we still are trying to work that theory and pedagogy thing out, but I think we all have a base level understanding of triple oppression and how that constitutes the working class. And again if you look at revolutionary movements you see working-class women having a huge role in the movements. Because of that additional form of oppression on the basis of gender, the desire to fightback is even greater.
D: So with regard to triple oppression, how would you situate the struggle against white supremacy and for black and brown liberation in your organizing? Can you give any specific examples of how NRWP has fought this struggle?
T: Sexual harassment was a big focus of our first strike, but that boss was also racist too and we made it a point to include testimonies of workers witnessing his racist actions towards third-party Latino cleaning crews. TWU’s second strike was primarily on the basis of racism by the Target bosses in Baltimore. Through our housing work, we have supported Black working-class families who had to live in unsafe and unhealthy living conditions and also experienced homelessness. Through our anti-fascist efforts, we have rallied white male workers on behalf of our POC workers when pressing for a local Nazi to be banned from our store. There are a lot of ways in which we can show and build solidarity as white workers with fellow workers who are POC. We do push back on anyone who may say racist things, but there hasn’t been an instance of racism emerging in our organizing spaces with fellow workers. We have to be careful how to press this issue, our core in NRWP understands white supremacy as a structural feature to the US, but within our mass fronts we have to utilize moments where instances of racism could occur. We’ve purposefully said things to potentially trigger some contacts we might suspect hold racist beliefs, like challenging the narrative about the Confederacy in the Civil War or what even the character of the Civil War was, but no one has ever come at us for it, other than the Nazis we already know about and work against. We’ve also attempted to build some sense of internationalism with the international students who come to our local college. Internationalism is definitely a part of the remedy to white supremacy.
D: Is NRWP majority white?
D: What efforts are you making to more accurately represent the demographics of Virginia?
T: We live in Appalachia, which historically is disproportionately white, even higher than the national average. In our county, the Black population was at its highest proportionately to white people during slavery. Even before slavery was abolished the state of Virginia forced any free Black person to leave the state, you can see in recent history when miscegenation laws were still in effect these race laws in the 20th century still forced Black people to leave the state unless they complied with segregation. I think this is in large part why our county’s Black population is tiny. There has been an influx of Latino workers in the area, but because none of us can speak Spanish we have a communication barrier. We have had our materials translated in the past and have distributed them at the one or two Latino stores in our area, but the language barrier is a problem. Because of the local college, we now have a larger Chinese population than Black population and have worked to make inroads on that effort as well. The working class is diverse and even though we have a disproportionate amount of white people here we find the most diversity (outside of the college campus) is in working-class housing. I think it’s a matter of expanding our outreach and contacts. As things develop and we have more capacity and resources I think we can spend more time and effort on a popular education of what white supremacy even is, and why it’s crucial for white workers to know.
D: How about in TWU more generally? Would you say that it accurately reflects the demographics of the places it’s present in?
T: Well we know the majority of Target workers are women and think we have good representation in the group. We do have several POC working-class women in our network, but we will hopefully be able to see from the results of our survey what that racial composition of the total workforce is as well, right now we are unsure. But the issue of race hasn’t presented itself as a problem in the group yet. Our last Target strike had the most amount of workers out on strike and they were all Black, in fact, that store committee is all Black. I would say in any city we would have a presence in the composition of the workers are going to skew more towards people of color. It’s something we will have to pay more attention to as we grow, but because we do right by all workers involved in our efforts we aren’t having any internal issues as of yet.
D: That’s really heartening to hear. Often leftist groups assume that having the right ideas is sufficient and it seems like your organization backs theirs up with practice. Are there any things you would say that TWU or NRWP has failed on?
T: I think we have a problem of informalism, as much as we feel the need to not set up and create formal, legal entities – like a union – we are struggling without a more developed system of administration in regards to both groups. This is something we are trying to work on as we speak, but part of that task is training up workers to assume these roles as mental laborers that we otherwise aren’t used to. There’s momentum in all of this and we are continually building, but it always feels like I’m trying to play catch up. We got plenty of work to do.
D: If our readers wanted to get involved in that work how would they do so?
T: go to Targetworkersunite.com and fill out our “get involved” form, we’ll be in touch.
D: Awesome, I might just do that myself.
I really want to thank you for taking the time to be interviewed and giving us an insight into your work. It’s inspiring to see people take class struggle on and power back into their own hands.