Lessons of the victorious Harvard dining hall strike, Part Four: Marxism-Leninism and unionism

The 750 striking Harvard University Dining Service workers — cooks, dishwashers, servers and cashiers — brought multibillion-dollar Harvard University to its knees on Oct. 25, 2016. After a three-week strike, the university bosses caved, giving the members of UNITE HERE Local 26 even more than they had initially demanded. Most importantly, all the health care takeaways the Harvard Corporation had demanded were off the table. The strike victory holds valuable lessons for workers and oppressed in the age of global capitalism — particularly under the Trump administration and the rise of fascist, racist elements. Workers World’s Martha Grevatt interviewed Chief Steward Ed Childs, a cook and leader in Local 26 for more than 40 years. This is the fourth in a series of articles based on the interviews where Childs explains how the workers won.

We had no illusions that we could beat this country’s oldest corporation — Harvard Corporation, which follows the dictates of Wall Street — by just going through the motions of picketing each worksite. Our tactics were all militant, class-struggle tactics: constant pickets, marches and rallies with raucous chanting and constant drumming on plastic buckets. You could hear us all over campus and in classrooms.

Beating back the attack on health care — saving it from the 1% — is the beginning of something with national and international significance. People see Trump attacking even the limited Affordable Care Act and feel hopeless about the fight for health care. We showed we can win.

By the third week, Harvard’s position was crumbling. We pushed them over the edge when students occupied the building where we were negotiating. Seizing the means of production isn’t just about factories. When you are up against a for-profit university, where finance capital trains its own, a classroom building is the means of production.

Occupations are a left tactic communists perfected in the 1930s. As Sam Marcy explained in the book “High Tech, Low Pay,” “Seizure and occupation of the plants and other facilities have the effect of hastening a crisis in the relationship between the employers and the workers. … It can change the form of the struggle, take it out of its narrow confines and impart to it a broader perspective. In truth, it brings to the surface a new working-class perspective on the struggle between the workers and the bosses. It says in so many words that we are not tied to a one-dimensional type of struggle with the bosses at a time when they have the levers of political authority in their hands.”

That is as true in a restaurant, hospital or university as inside a plant.

In the middle of the occupation, the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald, which had not covered us since the first day, suddenly had an editorial saying to settle with the workers. TV news, which had been negative, said the same. Even Harvard’s own press people told the media to say it was time for Harvard to settle.

Now the UNITE HERE International has claimed the Harvard strike as its own. Because it was so successful and had so much support, they wanted to call for a general strike on Inauguration Day. The international president of the union could not convince anyone in the AFL-CIO, but he said that the Harvard strike proves it can be done. The union also asked its employers to give workers the day off to protest immigrant-bashing. Would this be happening inside our union if we had not waged a successful strike against Harvard — and indirectly against Wall Street?

Employing communist tactics

With the strike victory behind us, we need to absorb its lessons. What is the role of communists in unions: What do they do? All of our tactics have to be viewed as Leninist tactics as distinct from ultra-leftism. We need to revive a revolutionary Leninist union perspective and not let Lenin’s union work be lost.

What Lenin wrote in “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder” describes revolutionary tactics to a “T.” Lenin was worried that his experience leading to the success of the Russian Revolution would be lost because Russia was a backward country and the bourgeoisie was organizing to crush it.

Union leaders like Samuel Gompers in the U.S. and others in Europe laughed at Lenin, but Lenin said to fight it out with the labor bureaucracy!

Look at the union leadership in the U.S. since the American Federation of Labor’s founding in 1886. There have only been six presidents: Gompers, Green, Meany, Kirkland, Sweeney, Trumka — the first three were for life. But Lenin said to stay in the unions.

There has been a debate in the labor movement about what won our strike, but it was classic Leninism: We won with a political struggle. I’ve learned from Sam Marcy, Milt Neidenberg and others how we struggle — “mild in manner, bold in matter” — by bringing the officials along but controlling our message and getting the politics across. If we ignore the fact that this was led and nurtured by communists, we lose half the meaning of this strike.

All of my work in the union has been about applying a classic Marxist-Leninist approach to a current situation. Workers World Party has been the guiding light of this union from the time when we first organized, through past strikes and last year’s battle. Workers World was the only news source anywhere to chronicle every event of the strike from the workers’ viewpoint.

What Marx wrote in “Trade Unions: Their Past, Present and Future” in 1866 applies totally today: “Apart from their original purposes, [unions] must now learn to act deliberately as organizing centers of the working class, in the broad interest of its complete emancipation. They must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction. Considering themselves and acting as the champion representatives of the whole working class, that cannot fail to enlist the non-society [workers] into their ranks.

“They must look carefully after the interests of the worst paid trades, such as the agricultural laborers [and today the service proletariat, including precarious workers], rendered powerless by exceptional circumstances. They must convince the world at large that their efforts, far from being narrow and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions.”

Workers World Party First Secretary Larry Holmes, speaking to party labor cadre in September, brought this up to date: “The organization of the working class must advance to encompass larger and larger numbers, whatever their circumstances — not based on an industry or a country, but on overthrowing capitalism.”

Phebe Eckfeldt, Steve Gillis, Martha Grevatt, Steve Kirschbaum, Milt Neidenberg and Minnie Bruce Pratt contributed to this series of articles.

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