The Workplace Papers

The Workplace Papers, from the Sojourner Truth Organization

The Workplace Papers are a collection of articles and reflection pieces assembled by members of the Sojourner Truth Organization involved in workplace struggles during the 1970′s and early 1980′s. Although coming out of the new communist milieu of the early 1970′s, the organization took up a number of unorthodox and critical positions around race, workplace organizing and revolutionary organization that have today become influential discussion points among those those on the left influenced by anarchism and by some members of the radical IWW union.

With the Workplace Papers, STO took a position similar to the early IWW of building independent worker organization and rejected the approach held by most of those on the left of reforming existing unions. While ultimately unable to build any form of permanent organization, their members published workplace bulletins and were influential in contributing to a number of wildcat strikes and short lived committees in various factories and meat packing plants around Chicago. Well worth the read are there reflective discussions of worker consciousness and organizing around workplace issues, as they are one of the few revolutionary groups during this time (and sadly still to this day) to understand and take up Antonio Gramsci’s ideas of dual consciousness.

Another gem to be found in the Papers is the piece, “A Golden Bridge: A New Look at William F. Foster, the Great Steel Strike and the ‘Boring-From-Within’ Controversy” by Noel Ignatin. William Foster was a labor organizer and anarchist who started with the IWW during the early 1910′s until he became convinced that labor radicals should leave independent structures such as the IWW and seek to “bore from within” and revolutionize the mainstream, conservative unions. Failing to convince more than a handful, he left the IWW to apply his own strategy and became an organizer with reactionary AFL craft unions in attempting to organize the meat packing and steel industry in Chicago. Following this, Foster published several accounts of his organizing efforts and joined the US Communist Party, becoming an influential leader and later seen as upholding the ‘golden era’ of CP influence in labor unions. Most of the new left communist organizations as well as the Trotskyist tradition, despite their critical views of the CP, still uphold this golden era as well. Ignatin breaks this legacy down around race and its actual accomplishments, offering a critical and revisionist look at the legacy of Foster and the ‘boring-from-within’ strategy. You can read the Workplace Papers at the bottom of this page.

Background on STO: If you would to learn more about the organization and the discussions their legacy is still creating, I recommend checking out the blog STO: Notes Towards A History and the digital archive of their pamphlets and writings (where you can find the Workplace Papers article in text form). Both are maintained by Michael Staudenmaier, who is working on a book around the group’s history and legacy. Here is a snippet from his writing posted in the STO Wikipedia entry:

“The Sojourner Truth Organization was founded in Chicago at the end of 1969, partly by people who had been involved with the Revolutionary Youth Movement II faction of the recently crumbled Students for a Democratic Society. The group largely turned its back on the student milieu, and instead focused its efforts on what has been variously called “industrial concentration” or “(point of) production work.” This focus dominated the group’s first several years, until the mid-1970’s. During this time, the bulk of the membership (close to 50 people at some points) was employed full-time in a variety of factories throughout the Chicago area. In this context, the group agitated for what it called mass revolutionary independent workers’ organizations, built alliances with black and Latino revolutionaries in workplaces, and struggled around a variety of campaigns that reflected the group’s strategic orientation of placing the struggle against white supremacy front and center. Since STO was the first post-new left group in Chicago to emphasize production work, it was able to tap into and relate to a strikingly broad range of workplace struggles, wildcat strikes, and independent organizing efforts. Some of the best stories told by former members focus on these experiences. Still, the failure to build any sort of lasting momentum (much less a mass organization) caused STO to reflect critically on the limitations of industrial concentration as the group had practiced it throughout the early 1970’s.”

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