Why socialists should support the Will Lehman campaign

by Karin Hilpisch, November 14th 2022

Will Lehman, a rank-and-file member of United Auto Workers (UAW), is running for president of his labour union. His election campaign (which will be referred to as WLC for short hereafter) was launched and is being organized by the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI)) whose organ, the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), has provided extensive coverage of the WLC.

There is criticism by other Trotskyist groups of the ICFI’s union policy and whilst I think it important to discuss the issue of union abstentionism, comrades who dismiss the WLC as undeserving of socialists’ support have, in my view, provided no valid reason for doing so.

In what follows I will briefly address three common points of criticism of the WLC campaign.

Rank and File Committees or Potemkin villages?

It is not without reason that critics claim the rank-and-file committees (RFC) presented a the WSWS, in general, and the International Workers Alliance of RFC, in particular, have no existence outside the ICFI, and constitute nothing more than Potemkin villages, smoke and mirrors, fantasy, fiction, a mirage, a phantom, Emperor’s New Clothes etc. Whatever there is finally to be said about that, the WLC is nothing of the above. It is taking place in the real world, it has a life outside of the WSWS. If other Left media choose to ignore it, the ICFI is barely to blame for that.

I attentively watched the complete online debate on 22 September featuring all presidential candidates, and I think Will did an excellent job challenging the UAW bureaucrats head-on. I believe the WSWS is justified in claiming that this debate 

was a historic event for the working class in the US and internationally. For the first time, a rank-and-file auto worker, presidential candidate Will Lehman, was able to directly confront the union apparatus in a forum that has been viewed by more than 10,000 workers.” (1)

In addition, Will’s propagation of socialism among co-workers involves a lot of social interaction. While the WSWS naturally features only workers who support him, it can safely be assumed that he encounters also others who don’t. Talking to people who politically disagree with us is a skill we don’t learn reading the WSWS or attending SEP webinars, but Will gives the impression of knowing how to competently engage in dialogue.

I appreciate his activism as something markedly different from ICFI events which offer little opportunity to non-members for participating in reciprocal communication. Delivering lectures to an anonymous audience can provide valuable information but it does not create a social context in which people can interactively develop, explore, and express socialist ideas. Will, by contrast, creates a social space for this when talking with co-workers on or the shop floor and vis-à-vis factory doors, which entails having to face harassment and intimidation by company management. Along with tremendous work, his campaign involves a considerable measure of personal courage.

A Paradox?

Is it paradoxical for a socialist to seek to use bureaucracy — by getting elected into it  — in order to abolish bureaucracy? It surely is, but the paradox here is a tactical one. Marxists seek to exploit at every opportunity contradictions produced by class pressures to advance the interests of the working class. I see the WLC as an example of doing this. Will effectually uses his candidature and the facilitated access to co-workers that it provides him with as a platform for propagating socialism, which is precisely what can be expected from such a campaign.

I haven’t heard him say anything I disagree with, although I wish he had elaborated on how to fight bureaucracy further. He did state:

The size of the apparatus must be massively slashed. Those whose employment is not clearly related to serving the interests of UAW members will be dismissed. The pay of all officials will be tied to the hourly wages paid to workers.” (2)

While that is certainly part of the process of debureaucratization, I think it should be emphasized that limiting all functionaries’ pay to the average wage of a skilled worker is one of the standard criteria whose application prevents bureaucracy from forming, in the first place.

In any event, what would a union without bureaucracy look like? I believe it would basically be what Will is talking about, i.e., a complexly coordinated network of RFC.

Incoherence of the ICFI

It can barely escape the notice of anyone who has been reading the WSWS regularly for some time that it routinely calls on workers to build RFC independent of trade unions, i.e., outside of them, not based on union membership. WSWS authors habitually use the expressions “independent of the unions” and “independent of the union bureaucracy” interchangeably. Putting aside that they are not synonymous, running for UAW president can by no stretch of the imagination be considered independent of either the UAW or the UAW bureaucracy. But this fact strikes me as hardly suited to discredit the WLC from the perspective of being critical of union abstentionism, which the WLC is precisely not an example of.

My campaign is about building a rank-and-file movement of workers in the UAW to fight for what we need, not what the corporations and UAW bureaucrats say is possible” (3)

Note Will’s speaking of building a movement of workers “in” the UAW. He did not  say, ‘If I get elected UAW president, my first official act will be to leave the UAW because I don’t want to be heading a rotten bunch of toadies. And I’m calling on all of you, brothers and sisters, who will have voted for me, to do likewise and leave the UAW, so that together we can build a rank-and-file movement independent of the union.’

 While the ICFI’s position on the unions is compromised by equivocation, the WLC is not. It is union activism, and an outstanding one at that.The sweeping rejection that it has nonetheless met with by some other Trotskyist groups is partly attributable, I think, to the absence of any clarification by the ICFI that would be suited to either contextualize the WLC within the framework of an overall anti-union policy, or to acknowledge a change of policy. Doing neither is profoundly confusing and as such not conducive to increasing working class consciousness.

What could be more clearly in the interests of the working class than an open socialist running an anti-bureaucracy campaign in a major union? Given that the WLC has a life of its own, as stated above, it is coherently possible to vote for Will independent of the ICFI. That the latter is the leading agent here does not, in my view, compel comrades criticizing the organization to reject the WLC wholesale; they should give it critical support in the spirit of a united front.

I for one support it unreservedly.

(1) https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2022/09/26/pers-s26.html

(2) https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2022/07/21/leh1-j21.html

(3) https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2022/07/30/lehm-j30.html

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