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Sorry Jacobin, But Crushing Rail Workers’ Right to Strike Is Not Progressive

Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic is applauding progressive Democrats like AOC and Jamaal Bowman for their vote to force rail workers to accept a contract they explicitly rejected on terms that are not even close to their original demands.

James Dennis Hoff

December 1, 2022
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While many of us have seen it coming for years, it should by now be clear to almost everyone paying attention that Jacobin has finally completed its grotesque metamorphosis from a social democratic platform for lukewarm left reformism into little more than a cheerleader for the left wing of the Democratic Party. In fact, if staff writer Branko Marcetic’s views are any indication of the developing editorial line of the publication, it seems that Jacobin has abandoned any lingering pretensions of promoting the actual struggles of working people. Instead, it has chosen to double down on its uncritical and undying support for politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other so-called congressional socialists, even as these same figures continue to align themselves further with the interests of the capitalist Democratic Party and the imperialist U.S. state.

Nowhere is this ongoing turn to the right clearer than in Marcetic’s backwards response to Congress’s attempt to squash any possibility of a national rail strike next week. In an editorial published almost immediately after last night’s vote, Marcetic focused neither on the awful decision to subvert workers’ democratic right to bargain on their own terms, nor on the fact that almost all of the DSA members in Congress voted in favor of the bill, but on the small concession of seven additional paid sick days that were amended to the resolution at the last minute. For Marcetic this legislative maneuvering is an indication of the power of congressional progressives and a “sign of the modest but significant political shift that’s taken place in US political life.” According to Marcetic, the Democrats were “dithering,” but the Left forced them to take action to provide rail workers with additional sick leave. This is supposedly a sign that the reformist strategy is winning. But the question remains: winning for whom? Surely not for the rail workers being threatened to accept a deal they rejected. Surely not for the thousands of union workers who may be contemplating illegal strike actions. And surely not for the broader unorganized working class whose power is undercut by such state interventions in service of maintaining the flow of commerce and profit making for the ruling class. 

By focusing exclusively on the supposed gains won in the amendment, Marcetic overlooks the fact that the very existence of the amendment itself, introduced by former House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, undercut debate and criticism and helped to make passage of the bigger bill possible. He also fails to consider the ways in which the amendment lends ideological support to the idea that the state can and should intervene in labor struggles either for the benefit of “the economy” or in place of workers’ struggles themselves. 

And indeed, rail workers are not fooled by these legislative games, nor are they happy about the cooptation of their demands for sick leave by congressional Democrats like Sanders and AOC. The rail workers that Left Voice has spoken to have been adamant that this strike isn’t only about sick days, but about decades of cost cutting, automation, downsizing crews, and grueling work hours. “I am sick of the idea that the ‘left’ Democrats accomplished anything,” said conductor and SMART-TD member, Nicholas Wurst.

The focus becoming sick time is a huge problem because it smothers the rest of the issues, and so they can throw seven days at us, pat themselves on the back and crow about how great they are, while the contract with shitty pay, insurance increases, attacks on extra board jobs is still rammed down our throats.

Wurst, who is a socialist and member of the Independent Socialist Group, went on to explain that the difference between the original and the amended legislation was like “being stabbed with a knife, versus being stabbed with a sanitized knife.”

And this is where the ideological faults and contradictions of the Jacobin strategy for socialism become most apparent. The very idea that the working class can use the capitalist state apparatus to win victories for itself is a fantasy that reformists can’t seem to shake. By presuming to speak for workers, and by privileging minor short-term legislative gains over the more difficult long-term project of building power from the ground up through class struggle unionism, strikes, work actions, and demonstrations that actually help to organize the whole class, they wind up pulling working people away from the source of their real power. 

While the sick days amendment has already, unsurprisingly, failed to pass the Senate, the original bill forcing through the old contract has overwhelmingly passed. It goes without saying that a successful rail strike — which this provision is attempting to stop — would be an incredible demonstration of the might of the working class. It would also be a powerful reminder of the fact that it is the rail workers, the truck drivers, the farm workers, the warehouse employees, the machinists, and all other workers from Safeway to Starbucks who make our society run. Such a historical strike is far more important and meaningful than any single demand that might be won through legislation, but such a scenario does not fit into the reformist strategy of winning gains for the working class through parliamentary majorities. 

None of this, of course, suggests that working people must give up the political arena. Building a party of the working class with a socialist program is one of the most important tasks before us if we hope to avoid the worst of the economic and environmental crises of capitalism on the horizon. But the purpose of such a party is not merely to win elections or to pass legislation. The real power of a workers’ party lies in its ability to popularize and organize working class power across the entire country. That means confronting and exposing the crimes of the imperialist state, the police, and capital; it means fighting for the most oppressed members of the society with working class methods of struggle; and it means supporting worker self organization and working class struggle, including mass strikes by strategic sectors of the economy, wherever and whenever it turns up. It does not include forbidding workers to take strike action or telling workers what their demands should be or what they should settle for. If we want to build real working class power, we will have to break with the Democrats, but also with the erroneous idea that we can ever use the capitalist state to liberate ourselves from it.

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James Dennis Hoff

James Dennis Hoff is a writer, educator, labor activist, and member of the Left Voice editorial board. He teaches at The City University of New York.

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