Former ATU Organizing Director Chris Townsend issues this letter to the Virginia Worker in response to the Virginia Worker Editorial Board’s ‘Draft Platform for the Virginia Working Class

I do not disagree with probably 90% of the Platform. The platform asserts that it will be the points of unity for workers within and outside of the unions. Let’s deal with this first. About 95% of the working class in Virginia is unorganized. Union density is around 5%, and that’s being generous. Virtually the entire public sector is unorganized and only bare fringe garrisons of unions exist only here and there. Recent organizing of new workers into existing or new unions has been sparse.

When I was the ATU organizer we organized 13 new units in Virginia. The sum total of what I did – winning those nearly 1,000 workers and then trying to recruit them to actually join the union was a titanic task. ATU is not equipped politically or ideologically to do very much with those workers so they will at best maintain a minimum style business union in the years to come in those shops.

So, I’m not going to knock the program, but instead ask the question of how this is relevant today when we are confronted with this catastrophic situation? Unorganized workers are just that – they are unorganized. The chicken and the egg dilemma. It falls to the leftwing to stimulate their organization both directly by working with them and by pushing on the unions to get busy. We have managed to scatter the Starbucks movement across the state with probably 15 or 17 locations won so far.

There are other campaigns around Virginia but isolated and small. How else could it be otherwise? We are now seeing movement in other retail and service sector outfits nationwide; Trader Joe’s, REI, now Ben and Jerry’s, Target. And others. This is all being generated by the few of us that are pedaling as fast as we can to help it and the many thousands of folks in the young generation who are brave enough to go forward and try to organize.

The labor “leadership” is virtually all asleep, at best tailing along with some supportive words. We have had a few pockets of public workers organize in Virginia too, but tiny when compared to the overall public workforce. We have a lot of work to do but there are now real signs that we can move forward. We stood no chance of moving forward for decades, so I value this moment.

All these things are amazing in a way for Virginia, although they are still microscopic in this state of 8.6 million people. But this is the difference that the left can make. Can we keep it going? Maybe? Can we keep expanding it? I hope so. I’m not against the platform I just don’t see it as an exercise likely to attract very much support. A few dozen people? A couple hundred? We would be lucky at this stage since after all the platform deliberately only appeals to a slice of a slice of a slice of an already tiny leftwing in this state. 

My opinion is that we all need to put the oar in the water to row with whatever union organizing we can find or start. We need to confront the real power in this state: the employers. This is the only proven venue where we can make contact with the huge numbers of working class folks that we so desperately want to teach and lead. Of course, most on the left prefer to treat their political activity as a hobby, or their own feelgood therapy, so as you point out in the platform they continue to repeat failed formulas.

These left elements are nice people, sincere people. But they have no base,no significant numbers, and as history has shown us sooner or later they tire out, burn out, and move on with little to show for all their efforts. You know enough about our history that when the IWW and the early Socialist Party engaged in mass union work they built real power and in some places had a mass membership and some actual power.

The Communist Party likewise in the 30 years from 1925 to 1955. All three of those efforts were union centered in large measure. Are we moving into a phase like that today? Not yet, but I can say that the amount of activity today on the left/labor front is 100 times what it was just 15 years ago.

I see our primary, over-riding task as stimulating new organizing of the unorganized, efforts toward that goal, and a parallel push on the unions to support that in tangible ways. I see that as having a greater possible effect to build our movement at this moment than a new platform with no mass support from the folks it asserts that it wants to lead.

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