cwi: international conference – A year of significant opportunities

Report from the Socialist Alternative , the cwi in the USA, presented to the 2004  meeting of the International Executive Committee (IEC) of the cwi, held in Belgium 14 – 20 November.

cwi international conference.

A year of significant opportunities

The past year has presented significant opportunities for building the CWI in the United States. There has been a deep polarization of the country and a growing process of radicalization among layers of workers and youth, though still in its early stages. Anti-war sentiment has grown dramatically. This was indicated in the massive popularity of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, as well as a series of huge demonstrations such as the 1.25 million strong march for women’s abortion rights on April 25 (the largest protest in U.S. history) and the 500,000 demonstrating against the Republican Convention and the Iraq war (the largest protest at a political convention in U.S. history).

However, the "Anybody but Bush" mood succeeded in diverting the majority of activists into focusing on getting Kerry elected, cutting across the growing anti-war and anti-corporate mood from developing into mass struggles. At the same time, despite the low vote for Nader (which was squeezed by the close election, the powerful "Anybody but Bush" mood, and being denied ballot access in a number of states), the interest generated in Nader’s campaign signified that an important minority were disgusted with Kerry and looking for a left-wing alternative.

We have made significant recruitment gains during the past year, particularly in the second half and have made progress in developing a new layer of cadres. But we are only scratching the surface of the possibilities inherent in the situation for intersecting the vast majority of the radicalizing layers in the country.

Campus recruitment drive and Nader campaign

In September and October at the start of the school year we carried out a recruitment drive among students. We had public meetings on the war in Iraq and the case for socialism (with an international speaker, Elin from Sweden), as well as meetings on why people should vote for Nader. In total we had 18 public meetings with 605 attending (an average of 34 per meeting).

We have become much more systematic and rigorous in our approach to recruitment. We are also trying to immediately integrate new members into our paper sales and campaigning activity.

A key part of our activity in the fall was our Nader campaign, which was decisive in providing us with a concrete vehicle to effectively intervene into the intense presidential election. The capitulation of the vast majority of the left to Kerry provided our small organization a major opportunity to dramatically stand out on the left and attract the best elements towards us. Unlike other issues where we face competition from many left groups, with the Nader campaign we had a relatively unobstructed road to the radical layers who were attracted to Nader (with the exception of the ISO which endorsed Nader mid-way through the campaign in July).

This meant that while we had a somewhat smaller turnout at our public meetings this year due to the powerful "Anybody but Bush" mood, the layer we drew around us by boldly advocating a vote for Nader was easier to recruit from. As in 2000, our organization was the first to endorse Nader. This stand dramatically raised our profile on the left and allowed us to reach a far larger audience than normal. Given the vacuum on the ground, we were able to play a far larger role in the Nader campaign than in 2000 and were widely accepted as a legitimate trend within the Nader campaign.

For example, we were regularly allowed to have Socialist Alternative speakers at rallies that Nader spoke at (which regularly drew 500-1000 people). We had speakers at Nader rallies in Seattle, Boston (2 times) and Minneapolis (and were the central organizers of some of these rallies). We were also able to organize Peter Camejo rallies (Nader’s Vice Presidential candidate) and have Socialist Alternative speakers, which regularly drew 80-100 people, in Seattle, Minneapolis and Oberlin. In addition we spoke on behalf of the Nader campaign at numerous local debates in Boston, Minneapolis, Seattle and Tacoma.

From these activities we received more press coverage in the media than ever before. The campaign also was a tremendous experience for our members in terms of training in public speaking, agitation, mass electoral work, debate, etc. It also helped to harden the membership politically, by testing our ability to withstand the massive "Anyone but Bush" pressure and attacks from the liberal left.

The campaign also provided a good opportunity to educate our members about how to take up left-populism and reformism as we explained our criticisms of Nader’s politics. When Nader accepted the Reform Party endorsement, we ran an article in our paper and issued an open letter to Nader demanding he reject the ballot line of this racist, anti-immigrant party. This statement was widely distributed throughout the Nader campaign and was personally given to Nader at a press conference, which was reported in the Washington Post. We also regularly challenged Nader on his various weaknesses at the Nader rallies we attended during the discussion period.

As part of the rally we organized for Peter Camejo in Minneapolis the branch had the opportunity to have a meeting directly with Camejo (as well as personal discussions) where we put to him our views on the limits of the Green Party, the criticisms we had of Nader’s campaign, and the need to raise the question of challenging capitalism and advancing a socialist alternative. (Interestingly, despite Camejo’s background as a leader of the US SWP, as is the general trend among this layer, he strongly argued against raising the question of socialism or even capitalism, arguing they were distant, unimportant theoretical matters!).

We had our biggest gains in Minneapolis, where we recruited new members from what was our largest public meeting (87). Minneapolis has been the only branch to be able to succeed in building a stable group at a local high school, where we now have 7 members. In Boston, a whole new layer of comrades are playing a leading role and the branch carried out a successful campus recruitment drive.

In Seattle we had our most successful campus recruitment drive in finally making a breakthrough at a local school, which we have previously never succeeded in. The branch recruited 9 new members and had our largest public meeting in the campus drive on the case for Nader (50). Over the last year the Seattle branch opened up work in Tacoma (a nearby city), leading to the formation of a new branch there. In New York we have recruited new members over the summer, including from our intervention at the protests against the Republican convention in NY. At the Republican convention protests we sold around 400 newspapers, held two public meetings and had daily street activities and interventions for 2 weeks leading up to and including the RNC.

National Conference

In May we had a national conference. 70% of attendees were under 30, many of whom were attending their first national meeting of Socialist Alternative. The election of a new national committee also reflected this process of a new layer stepping forward and playing a leading role. More than one third were elected on to the NC for the first time.

Following an extensive discussion and debate on our analysis of the Ralph Nader for president campaign and how to intervene in the presidential election, the conference adopted a document (which was circulated throughout the cwi in July).

Socialist Alternative now has branches in seven cities and other members scattered across the country.

Trade union work

The organization enthusiastically took up the call put forward by a number of left-wing unions for a Million Worker March to voice opposition to big business and the war on Iraq. Unfortunately, the turnout was only 5-10,000 people. However, the march was an important pointer of things to come, and could develop into an ongoing movement of the more dynamic forces in the unions. We had members attending the rally from New York, Oberlin (Ohio), Boston, Chicago, and Minneapolis, and sold a lot of papers and a new pamphlet we produced especially for the march.

Last year we began a campaign to unionize Pizza Hut stores in Tacoma. While we found a keen interest from many workers, we had difficulty building up a core of activists. In the spring Pizza Hut management carried out a serious campaign of intimidation (including holding mandatory anti-union propaganda meetings), which succeeded in weakening the support for the union among sections of workers.

Due to these developments we were forced to scale back the campaign, but we are still maintaining a presence at Pizza Hut and trying to hold together the best layer of workers in preparation for events that could lead to renewed demands for unionization at a later stage. Through the campaign we were able to recruit Pizza Hut workers to Socialist Alternative and have gained tremendous experience for our members, as well as forcing Pizza Hut to make a few small concessions.

In New York, a comrade led a successful union organizing drive at his workplace and is now chief shop steward. He also helped organize a union meeting on the elections at which he put forward our Nader position and sold the paper. In Boston, we organized a rally against layoffs of 125 workers.

A very important sign of the growing anti-war sentiment and how it extends deep into the working class was shown in the large number of unions which have passed anti-war resolutions in the past year. In particular, this summer the two largest unions in the AFL-CIO (AFSCME and SEIU) passed anti-war resolutions. A comrade who is president of an AFSCME local in Chicago played a key role in getting the resolution passed at the AFSCME convention, especially in successfully moving an amendment clearly demanding the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

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December 2004