The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 51 (Spring 1996).

ISO’s Right Turn to Labor

For a long time, one of the nice things that could be said about the labor work of the International Socialist Organization was that they were pretty much not doing any. The ISO found a home on upper middle-class college campuses, where they recruited to the most minimal pseudo-socialist politics. Their mentors in the British Socialist Workers Party of Tony Cliff had devised the strategy of building a large base through middle-class student activism – and then bringing those politics into the working class.

For the past couple of years the ISO has been making a turn to labor work, by and large playing the role of cheerleaders for leftish trade union bureaucrats. This article will analyze the ISO’s behavior on the labor scene and show that at no time has the ISO waged a fight against the pro-capitalist labor leaders that would be worthy of an organization calling itself revolutionary.

The Staley Struggle

The ISO’s own account of their approach is presented in article in a March 1995 Internal Bulletin by “Lance S.” of Chicago. Unlike those who believe in “keeping their socialist politics completely separate from their trade union work,” Lance writes, they aim to “link socialist politics with the trade union struggle” and “to make socialist ideas part of the ongoing debate in the labor movement.” For the ISO, however, this means not raising the necessary political strategy, but simply not hiding the fact that they are socialists. The ideas they contribute are not at all socialist, just a version of what they think workers will accept.

The key example is the ISO’s work around the fight of the locked-out workers of the A.E. Staley company in Decatur – the pivotal struggle in the central Illinois “war zone.” The ISO was active in the Staley Workers Solidarity Committee in Chicago, which specialized in muting criticisms of the union bureaucrats and imposing a virtual ban on revolutionary politics. (See PR 47 for amusing details.)

A decisive event was the June 25, 1994 demonstration in Decatur. Strike leaders Dave Watts (head of the local union) and Ray Rogers (the publicity hack known for his disastrous “Corporate Campaign” strategy) led the workers into a trap, where many got pepper-gassed by the cops. Rogers and Watts had planned a quick, staged civil disobedience action – a barrier to militancy, not a step toward it. In practice the workers strained to confront the cops because many really wanted militancy, not just pacifism – although they didn’t necessarily see the two as counterposed. But Rogers and Watts had intended the event to be a brief photo opportunity, not a real struggle of any sort. When things got hot they withdrew their support and left the militants in the lurch.

As the LRP’s leaflet at the event argued, what was immediately necessary was mass militant picket lines to shut down the plant as well as a strategy to spread the struggle into a general strike. The ISO, in contrast, joined in the civil disobedience without counterposing the need for militant pickets or mass self-defense. Given a real opportunity to put forward a new course and expose the leadership’s pacifist strategy, the ISO deliberately ducked it.

The Internal Bulletin explains the ISO’s line on June 25:

In the current period, when workers are beginning to regain confidence to fight back, we need to relate to workers at their current level of consciousness, rather than at a level we would want it to be. For example, it would be ideal if the Staley workers occupied the plant and barricaded the doors to keep the scabs out. But even the most militant workers don’t believe this is possible.

This is a classic example of tailism. The ISO judges in advance the limitations of workers’ thinking and then “follows” the supposed limited ideas of the ranks rather than putting forward what they believe is necessary and possible.

Lance offers further excuses:

Moreover, if the ISO was a predominantly working class organization, dozens of whose members were Staley workers, we would be in a better position to organize around a concrete program to win the struggle. In the absence of both of those conditions, we should take our stand with the best militants and attempt to argue with them a strategy that will take the struggle further.

If they had dozens of Staley members they would be better placed to offer a concrete program. True enough, but no excuse for not telling the truth. Lance adds that the ISO is not “a predominantly working-class organization”; it had been known in Chicago as “that student group.” So the only route is to “take our stand with,” i.e., tail, “the best militants” and argue for “a strategy that will take the struggle further” – but certainly not raise revolutionary politics.

Lance continues:

In the context of the Staley struggle, in which many workers compare their struggle to that of the civil rights movement, “civil resistance” marked out the tactics of the most militant workers. Also, the civil resistance campaign represented a step forward from the more passive tactics, such as the corporate campaign....

But civil disobedience was not a step toward more militant action: workers who had been unprepared to defend against cop attacks on June 25 hardly felt more confident to move forward at the next big action, on October 15.

Tailing Militancy No Answer

In fear of a repeat of June’s confrontation at the plant gates, in October the leaders marched the workers to a deserted road, about a mile and a half from a Caterpillar plant which could have been a rallying point for action. Watts and Rogers climbed aboard a pick-up and offered the workers a choice: “We can all go home ... or we can sit down and block this intersection. We can sit all night if you want.” At this point, many workers simply began walking away in waves of hundreds. About 100 workers hesitantly sat down in the middle of the intersection, militants who wanted to fight but had no way forward. Most got back up quickly, recognizing the futility of this humiliating, symbolic gesture. Other militants refused to join the charade; the majority stood back.

Naturally, the leaders excluded any march to Caterpillar from the “democratic” choices. LRP supporters at the rally pointed this out, shouting that “We should march to CAT and shut it down!“ But demoralization had already set in by this point and we were unable to effect a change.

As for the ISO, Lance reports:

At the October 15 event, when Staley workers occupied a state highway intersection, we encouraged all ISO members to sit down in the intersection. Several ISO members also circulated around the crowd with the Staley activists agitating for more people to sit down as well. Our actions were in sharp contrast to the actions of the few dozen members of the ultra-sectarian Revolutionary Workers League ... [who] agitated around the edges of the crowd against civil disobedience in favor of greater industrial militancy. Needless to say, this sort of ultraleft posturing does nothing but bring the left a bad reputation.

There may have been an incorrect approach in the RWL’s agitation that day, but the opportunist ISO proves no such case. It was simply not true that winning workers to a more militant strategy was ruled out, especially earlier in the struggle when the ISO was muting public criticisms of the boycott and civil disobedience. But even if agitation were not possible at a given point, the ISO became part of the problem and not the solution when it actively aided the bureaucrats in agitating for passive civil disobedience.

In united-front action with our fellow workers in situations where civil disobedience was chosen by the ranks (which was not the case on October 15), revolutionaries might well participate, out of class loyalty. We would explain that we are not sectarians and will participate in united action of our class – but within the united front all workers should be free to express their views. In such actions we would want all the more to be open about the dangers – like getting gassed or kicked by the cops – and continue arguing for a change in strategy.

Revolutionaries believe that only through class victories will workers gain the confidence to become revolutionaries and take on the system altogether. We fight for strategies that can actually win. When the bureaucrats succeed in imposing a defeatist strategy on a struggle, we show what a revolutionary party leadership could do. Our aim is to convince the most advanced that the problem is not caused by the mass of workers (a notion that breeds further demoralization and lack of confidence), but by the traitorous leadership.

But for the cynical ISO, the questions of how the struggle was actually doing and of warning of the dangers ahead never came up. They presented no real alternative and therefore contributed to the defeat of the Staley strike. The ISO relied on the argument that they were simply following the will of the most militant workers as their excuse for not advocating the changes in policy they knew were necessary. In reality, in their “turn to labor” the ISO also wanted to maintain good relations with the bureaucrats. Tailism and hiding criticisms of the bureaucracy go hand-in-hand.

In a recent edition of Socialist Worker (Jan. 19), after the collapse of the Staley struggle, the ISO featured a centerfold of interviews with Staley strikers who were “road warriors” during the strike (members who went around the country on behalf of the union). The strikers still retain illusions in the struggle’s misleaders. They don’t see how Tucker’s in-plant strategy failed to prepare workers for the lockout originally. Or how Rogers’ Corporate Campaign was always an attempt to substitute for, not supplement, a fighting strike strategy. They now disclose how Watts sabotaged June 25, but they don’t see his reformist politics as the reason why. (See PR 45 for background.)

Such criticisms were never made in any article the ISO had run before (or since). While some articles suggested the need for more militancy, they never championed a course of rank-and-file control and never discussed any significant dispute with Rogers or Watts over the course of the strike. So here the ISO hints at criticisms by taking them from workers, still not putting forward a critique from its own point of view, never mind a socialist analysis.

ISO: “Ultraleftism In Action”?

Calling for action and activism without raising any opposition to reformist leadership is the ISO’s trademark. But with the turn to labor, the ISO is going opportunistically from situation to situation, deciding what best suits their narrow organizational needs rather than even consistently following their usual opportunist line of tailing militancy.

This was most crassly demonstrated in their work in a contract struggle at Brown University in Providence. Here we quote from an internal account by “Jesse S”:

As contract negotiations came to a close it became clear that the union was prepared to accept a fairly strong offer ... in return for a two-year wage freeze affecting only new hires. Although a significant fraction of the rank and file was disgruntled by the freeze, there was virtually no desire to strike. Despite that fact, and the fact that we had only tenuous links inside the union ... we were impatient and decided to challenge the union leadership with a leaflet which called on workers to ... “vote no.”

The results were predictable: first, the union membership followed its inclination and its leadership and voted “yes” by a fairly large margin; second, the meeting took on a divisive tone as more militant but also crankier workers unproductively blasted their union leaders (including their rank and file representatives); and third, the union leaders – who are among the labor movement’s most left-wing, and certainly among our most valued allies – were furious at us. We had set ourselves up for potential disaster....

This article criticizes the ISO for “ultraleftism in action.” It argues for staying on good terms with “left-wing” leaders instead of advocating ideas that neither these leaders nor the less militant workers under their sway favor – the more militant workers be damned! As it makes clear, it is unity with the bureaucrats the ISO is really after:

We should be aware that right now we need left union leaders more than they need us. And to go against them publicly during a sensitive union vote artificially opposed us to them in a sectarian way that only angered them and made us look arrogant in their eyes. This is not to say that there won’t be times when we must, for reasons of principle, go against union leaders – but this was not such a case. We must remember we are on the same side as the union leaders – against the bosses – and forgetting that will be ruinous. It also means paying attention and showing respect (not calling people “union bureaucrats” in public.)

The ISO’s desire to rationalize their kiss-up to the bureaucrats comes through loud and clear. Temporary factors (how many ISO members are in the union, how many workers are already convinced to vote down the contract) do not remove the obligation of true revolutionaries to tell the objective truth to our class, above all to the fighting layers whom the article calls “crankier” and professional bureaucrats call “troublemakers.” It may under some circumstance be necessary to accept a contract with concessions, but never can we say that voting for a two-tier system promotes unity and not divisiveness.

Ultra-Opportunism In Action

The Providence report is a blatant exercise in rationalized opportunism. In the Staley fight, the ISO’s unwillingness to take on the treacherous policies of union bureaucrats was made even clearer in 1995. The struggle had been so clearly butchered by two years of sellouts that its ability to survive much longer was starkly posed. At that point the ISO attempted to play a more “independent” cheerleading role, breaking out to get their own solidarity franchise.

For example, on June 13, 1995, the ISO organized a meeting in New York, officially sponsored by the “Solidarity Organizing Committee of Decatur, Illinois.” This was a pretense at a united-front solidarity meeting attended overwhelmingly by ISOers – one that had everything to do with puffing up the ISO as insiders in the labor scene and just about nothing to do with real workers’ solidarity.

The only ISO speaker was the chairman, who began by pointing to the attack on workers by Republicans and the bosses, thereby catering to the pro-Democratic bureaucrats present. He then glorified the worker and student struggle against the New York budget cuts that spring (see PR 49), singling out Local 1199 (the hospital workers union) for special praise. This meant hiding the acts of 1199’s leaders in deflecting the student struggle against the cuts, a history quite well known among student activists. (We don’t even expect the ISO to talk about 1199 President Dennis Rivera’s refusal to lead the workers’ fightback that was really needed.)

Then Terry Alaimo, a vice president of 1199, gave a straightforward appeal for support to the Democratic Party, saying that the lesson workers should learn is that they’d have been better off with ex-Mayor Dinkins and ex-Governor Cuomo; disgracefully, the ISO applauded her when she concluded. Other bureaucrats also got away with making their usual Democratic Party endorsements without any challenge from the ISO.

To cap off the night, the ISO chair let Ray Rogers speak at length from the floor about the boycott and Corporate Campaign that he falsely claimed would win the Staley battle. Unfortunately, Staley “road warrior” and forum speaker Mike Griffin saluted Rogers as a “friend” and declined to raise his differences with him. So did the ISO, and as usual the chair effectively avoided allowing open discussion from the floor from which this hogwash could be challenged.

Another ISO-sponsored forum, entitled “Fighting for Labor’s Future,” took place in 1199’s hall on the night of the Sweeney victory at the AFL-CIO convention, October 26. This meeting was different in that the speakers were not entrenched bureaucrats. Those present were open to hearing a different point of view, and there was no threat of censorship from labor bureaucrats. Nor was there any pressure to capitulate to pro-Democratic Party speeches.

Nonetheless, the ISO showed an impressively wide opportunist streak. For example, ISOers roundly applauded Mike Griffin when he touted Sweeney’s victory as a big step forward for labor. The fact that the ISO officially gave no political support to Sweeney (not even “critical”) did not stop them from allowing their meeting to take on the atmosphere that a victory was at hand. On a superficial level, ISOer Lee Sustar criticized Sweeney for crushing rank-and-file opposition in Local 32B-32J in New York as well as in SEIU locals in Los Angeles. But he called it positive that “Trumka was out there making a difference in Detroit,” a woefully false statement, and also applauded having Linda Chavez-Thompson, a Latina, on the slate. Most importantly, Sustar skillfully covered the ISO’s political ass on the question of the Sweeney leadership by saying that rank-and-file control was decisive rather then who was elected on top!

Here’s the big lie the ISO always invokes when it needs to argue that the betrayals by pro-capitalist leaders of the workers are not decisive. Taken to its logical absurdity, it matters not if the president of a union is Sweeney, Donahue, a fascist or a supposedly socialist ISO member. This is a pure rationale for the ISO not waging a fight against Sweeney’s politics at their own meeting, or at least warning the workers there that Sweeney would do no more to aid the Staley struggle than had Kirkland – which is of course what happened.

It is fine to raise money for striking workers and to express solidarity and respect despite political differences. But the ISO patronized the strikers by not telling them what they really thought of the strategies being put forward.

After the speeches no discussion was allowed, only announcements. An ISO supporter who is an 1199 delegate announced an upcoming management/union demonstration against the Republican health care plan as a “walkout,” even as he noted that the bosses were supplying buses to the rally and were allowing the workers to leave work early to attend!

The only break in the “solidarize, don’t criticize” atmosphere came when a shop steward announced an upcoming public hearing over the possible privatization of Harlem Hospital and took the opportunity to openly criticize local labor leaders by name; he aptly described 1199’s Rivera and District 37 President Stan Hill as demagogues who have always refused to unite the unions for any fighting purpose. He also brought up the question of a needed fight against racism in the workers’ movement. Not a socialist, this worker appeared far more politically advanced than the ISO!

On November 2, the ISO brought the same miserable politics and slogans to the joint hospital union and bosses’ demonstration; they marched proudly as participants with their implicitly pro-Democratic “Fight the Right” and meaningless pseudo-activist “Turn Anger into Action” slogans. In contrast, the LRP leaflet for this event took on the 1199 bureaucrats for sponsoring a pro-boss, pro-Democratic lovefest under the guise of a workers’ rally. (Copies are available to readers on request.) The demonstration was indeed a virtual tribute to the Democratic Party, even more than expected since it was capped off by a guest speech by Hillary Clinton. Apparently “Turn Anger into Action” means calling on the bureaucrats to turn workers’ anger into pro-capitalist action.

ISO’s Rank-and-Filist Origins

The ISO originated two decades ago as a political tendency fighting to defend rank-and-filism against the turn of their predecessor organization, the International Socialists (IS), to a more direct bureaucratic approach. Rank-and-filism meant ardent calls for rank-and-file control of union struggles, elected strike committees, democratic mass meetings and the like – notions that were hardly at the forefront of any phase of their recent work.

We described the split of the ISO from the IS in Socialist Voice No. 5, in writing about a dispute over the IS’s desire to support the Steelworkers’ Ed Sadlowski in his oppositional run for the union presidency in 1975. His campaign involved no genuine mass mobilization (it opposed involvement by the ranks) and therefore support could not be justified even on the IS’s customary rank-and-filist basis. We cited a document on the Sadlowski campaign in which the IS minority, the future ISO, indicted their organization for abandoning rank-and-filism. Among other things, the minority complained:

We are abandoning our orientation to change from the bottom up, and beginning to claim that the union can be significantly changed from the top down.... We now claim that the immediate problem blocking the formation of a rank and file movement is the absence of effective leadership (ours), rather than a problem of steelworkers’ consciousness, i.e. steelworkers are not convinced of the necessity of fighting.

This revealing passage shows that rank-and-filism was not simply a term signifying support for workers’ democracy and control of the unions by the ranks. The future ISOers knew that it meant blaming the ranks instead of the leadership for the union’s problems; that is why they counterposed a change in the ranks to a change “from the top down.” As a method of covering up the central political treacheries of the bureaucracy, the difference between the anti-worker ideology of “rank-and-filism” and the IS’s more overt bureaucratic approach was one of style, not substance. The only way to fight the pro-capitalist bureaucrats is to counter reformist with revolutionary leadership. As we put it:

There is no particular politics of the rank and file. The ranks’ consciousness is often a mixture of conservative and rebellious ideas co-existing in contradictory fashion. Those members of the ranks who are organized by the self-proclaimed rank-and-filists are provided with an amorphous program and “anti-elitist” spokesmen, who interpret the ranks’ will through their own unacknowledged class outlook and hide their own supposedly socialist politics. The rank-and-filists thereby vocalize (tail) the demands of a section of non-revolutionary, therefore, pro-capitalist workers. The ISO demonstrates, like the IS before it, that what this comes down to is placing the blame for the lack of heightened class struggle upon the workers rather than the bureaucrats. (SV 5.)

It is true that non-revolutionary workers accept the limits of capitalism; in that sense their consciousness can be described as reformist. But it is also true that capitalism pushes workers toward rebellion in ideas and in action. Thus the consciousness of the vast majority of the ranks is mixed, subject to change and flux. The drive toward class struggle holds great promise for overcoming the current consciousness – if revolutionary workers intervene to lead the way. The reformist rank-and-file leaders who claim to vocalize the demands of the members as a whole, really choose their own politics with which to try to lead their fellow workers – without being honest enough to say that they are trying to lead, an approach they denounce as “top-down.” They too inevitably propose a reformist path which can not really empower the ranks.

The ISO abandoned rank-and-filism as its dominant strategy for the period when it followed its British mentors and declared that working-class politics had entered a “downturn.” This meant an objectively determined stage (which turned out to be from 1975 through 1990) in which class struggle would be limited and low-level. In essence, the downturn was an excuse for the Cliffites to end a phase of attempting to build through rank-and-file movements and turn to the middle-class sectoralists. The aim was immediate growth, and it meant functioning even more conservatively in labor. (In the great British miners’ strike of 1984-85, the SWP would not even raise their usual demands like rank-and-file control of the strike, because the “downturn” doomed the struggle to stay under the leadership of Scargill.)

In reality, there was no practical basis for rank-and filism, since the pro-capitalist policies of the union leaders, along with the objective factors of economic recessions in the late 1970’s and early ‘80’s, dried up the layer of “rank-and-file” militants whom the ISO had tailed.

Reformist Rank-and-Filism

Today the ISO wavers between the reformist line of “left” and local labor bureaucrats and the occasionally more militant reformist line of rank-and-file leaders like Staley’s Dan Lane and Mike Griffin. Socialist Worker‘s belated exposure of leadership defects in the Staley strike exhibits the problem. In either case the ISO avoids sharp counterposition to the leadership of the unions. They carve out an organizational justification for their existence as the socialist group that will help the ranks to fight harder – or, at present, often help the bureaucrats themselves fight a bit harder. Either way, their militant activist stance requires no particular criticism of the bureaucracy.

Note that the “rank-and-file” formations supported by the ISO in the past were not swamped by rank-and-file workers. Generally the members were leaders who put together a program based chiefly on what they thought would attract numbers, not on what they saw as necessary for the working class. As in the case of Lane and Griffin, such leaders can be sincere. But because they still hold reformist politics, they pose no alternative to the bureaucracy.

It is nevertheless significant that while the ISO has turned back to labor in recognition of the declared ending of their “downturn,” it still doesn’t see workers as capable of reaching revolutionary consciousness. Here is the description of the present period in the ISO Members’ Handbook:

At the ISO convention in 1991, we adopted the following organizational perspective: the fall of Stalinism, imperialist realignment and economic crisis signify the onset of protracted crisis on a world scale. In the U.S., the present period is one of transition, between a period of capitalist stability to one of instability – and between the retreat and setbacks for the working class which characterized the years from the mid-1970’s through the end of the 1980’s, and a future period of upturn in working-class struggle, which is some years away. This period of transition is one in which, over time, workers will begin to rebuild their confidence to struggle. The present period is one during which there will be a growth of reformism – growing numbers of workers, students and those oppressed by capitalism will begin to fight back against various aspects of the system, around limited demands, such as for abortion rights, against racism and police brutality, around wage demands and so


What fatalism to see a foreordained “growth of reformism”! This is the epoch of capitalist decay, in which capitalism can only progress in one sector at the expense of others, and never make lasting or widespread reforms. The objectively necessary demand of the epoch is workers’ socialist revolution. Political periods within the epoch are shaped by the interplay between the objective circumstances pushing toward revolution and the subjective forces available for the revolutionary struggle, most decisively the revolutionary party. With this understanding, there was nothing at all automatic about the past period being a downturn at all, since the objective economic crisis was undermining pro-capitalist illusions. It was the pro-capitalist leaderships and their centrist left-covers propping up the system that decisively held back workers’ struggles.

With the fall of Stalinism, a main prop for the system has been defeated; together with the deepening of the world economic crisis, this points to a new revolutionary period ahead. Struggles like the recent French strike wave, where the workers have gone way beyond their leaders’ wishes but have not reached revolutionary conclusions, do not necessarily imply a sustained growth of reformism – that is, a growing belief in capitalism’s ability to render reforms.

Reformist Stages

We cannot assume that when workers rise up against racism and the like that their struggles must remain reformist. Such stagism is in fact a centrist method that insists on fixed stages of struggle for democratic and reformist demands under pro-bourgeois leadership – and continually postpones the fight for revolutionary politics and leadership. As we see clearly with the ISO, these “objectively” reformist stages are then declared to rest on the masses’ level of consciousness, also defined as fixedly reformist. Given this vicious cycle of perpetual reformist stages, for centrists the revolutionary stage never comes.

The labor policy of the ISO is a backhanded capitulation to the labor aristocracy, whose role is to defend capitalism by providing a continual base for reformism. Cliffite theory denies that reformism and the reformist labor bureaucracy rest on a specific strata within the working class, the labor aristocracy. Rather the ISO sees the whole class as the base for reformism. Thus when they use the label “bureaucrats,” the term is a hollow putdown; it does not signify the enemy of our class. No wonder there is no principled reason why pro-capitalist bureaucrats have to be politically opposed.

There is no reason to believe that the ISO can carve out a place for itself directly on the bureaucrats’ coattails. Other reformist and centrist groups in the U.S. – among them Solidarity, SWP, DSA, CoC and the CP – are already positioned to occupy those spots. With an inevitable upheaval in the unions, the ISO, given its slightly more left-wing stance and its rank-and-filist heritage, may orient again to a layer of union militants. But this will be a layer with far less viability than during the prosperity period, the heyday of local union militancy.

One thing for certain is that when the class struggle heats up we will see new and deeper splits among ISO members arguing over whom to tail. Given the identification with rank-and-filism and “socialism from below” (on the level of rhetoric if not the real content), most members may cling to this supposed raison d’être for the ISO’s existence as a separate organization. Others may be unwilling to abandon their courtship of local bureaucrats. Those truly committed to the working class will hopefully come to understand the contradictions between ISO practice and proletarian Marxism.