Being political on the job: notes toward a future summation
by Jay R.
In the [US] SWP we were trained to view jobs as political assignments. National priorities were set for which trade unions we would colonize, and at the local level in each city/branch we would determine opportunities. We had weekly local fraction meetings coordinated with the branch executive committee, and national fraction meetings were part of any general party gathering. All these perspectives were laid out in reports contained in the excellent SWP/Pathfinder book The Changing Face of US Politics.
There were several goals:
-become the best and most reliable co-workers;
-build and support rank-and-file militancy and consciousness;
-leverage union structures for solidarity with social struggles far and wide;
-talk socialism on the job;
-recruiting co-workers to subscriber base, event attendance, and eventually party membership.
This was an incredibly rich and contradictory experience, and though it ended for me about 20 years ago, the lessons I learned from more experienced party comrades, and from my co-workers, are still vital to me today, and are a permanent conquest of my "universities" as a cadre.
But what does a non-party communist do on the job? There is no fraction to meet with and rely upon for collective guidance and thinking; there is no national party with propaganda resources [newspaper, magazine, books] to leverage the work.
For communists these are not moral issues. Merely a question of what the individual is able and willing to do, and whether there is political space to do it. Unless in a party, the What Is to be Done? strictures and line do not apply.
Modes of non-party-member on-the-job politics
1. Contrarian Mode. Categorically opposed to all boss proposals; a Cassandra about all issues on the job and in the news. A demobilizer without a fightback perspective. If a Republican president is in office, the Contrarian gets the reputation for being a Democrat. If a Democrat [BHO] is in office, contrarian attitudes can give one the reputation of being a racist or a Glenn Beck-style nut. In my most recent job several Black co-workers assumed I was a conspiracist when I expressed political opinions. Why? Because I am a middle-aged white guy with glasses who knows about current events.
2. Know-it-all Mode. No matter what show is on TV in the break room, or what a couple of co-workers are talking about, the Know It All feels obliged to give their opinion, even when it is not asked for.
3. Topical Mode. Raises the issues of the day organically in conversation with co-workers, and gives a rounded Marxist analysis on the fly.
4. Propaganda Mode. A builder. An activist outside the job who brings their activism to work and encourages their co-workers to take part. Listens to concerns co-workers voice about everyday life, finds organic ways to re-express them as transitional demands/ideas.
A book and newspaper sharer.
Follows up. Reports back from outside events.
A few lessons learned the hard way
a. It is critical to stake-out a reputation as an anti-racist and an anti-sexist at the earliest organic opportunity.
b. Learn the job well and demonstrate to your co-workers that you are not a shirker who leaves work - or mistakes and messes - for others to clean up. Being an excellent employee will also protect you, all proportions guarded, with the boss: no matter what opinions a worker might have, they will be chary to fire the worker if he is a top performer and takes a constructive attitude. Just don't get the reputation for being a ****-kisser.
Learning to do the job right should be the top priority for the first 6-12 months. During that time period, remember: "Better to keep quiet and be thought a fool than open your mouth and prove it." Many a time I wish I had followed this advice!
c. In a non-union workplace, do not be the first or second to propose unionization. Proposing unionization as the solution to every work-a-day grievance only serves to put you in the Human Resources Department crosshairs. When the majority of co-workers are ready, work to introduce some circumspection into their spontaneous desire for rupture. Only a scientific reading of the local and national relationship of forces, and the caliber of the union whose leadership is sought, can determine the appropriate time to risk all.
d. Steer clear of any boss who appears liberal or leftist and likes to talk about politics and current events. Engaging in political discussions with such a boss is a no-win situation.
e. Steer clear of co-workers who use drugs or drink on the job. There is always a dragnet coming for them, whether obvious or not.
f. Observe strict separation of work and church [and anti-church]. There is no religious test for on the job life. Countless times I have observed the eye-rolling and head-shaking of coworkers when a fellow worker starts talking about the superiority of their own beliefs. People who spent every Sunday for the first 18 years of their life stuck at church know the pros and cons of it, and are tired of it hearing about it.
g. At start of employment, be careful to navigate clear of cliques and gossips until true relations between different co-workers become clear. For me this usually takes about 6-12 months. Be slow to become close to co-workers. Do not discuss personal life.