Old Left, New Victories

Tony Pecinovsky

How one workers' center is drawing on the past to revitalize the radical movement of the present.

Volunteers registering voters as part of the WES Votes program. Niles Zee / workerseducationcenter.com

Interview by
Meghan Brophy

Last week, unions in Missouri announced that they had gathered three hundred thousand notarized signatures to block the state’s new “right-to-work” law from taking effect at the end of the month. With national right-to-work legislation in Congress and continued attacks on labor by the Trump administration, this is a critical victory.

One group that played a role in gathering signatures is the St. Louis Workers’ Education Society (WES). Founded in 2014, WES aims to “facilitate ongoing worker-education campaigns, partnering and advising union and community groups, to build a permanent culture of worker-education in St. Louis.”

Since its founding, WES has assembled a coalition of local unions, community organizations, and elected officials, and taken on a number of campaigns. From fighting right-to-work legislation and campaigning for single-payer health care, to registering voters and training rank-and-file union activists, to hosting community potlucks and concerts, WES has a significant organizing record.

Jacobin editorial intern and student-labor activist Meghan Brophy interviewed Tony Pecinovsky, the president of the St. Louis Workers’ Education Society, about the history and politics behind the WES model, its successes, and the challenges it faces going forward.

Meghan Brophy

St. Louis WES is a workers’ center, but its mission seems more ambitious than many existing centers. What were you aiming to do differently?

Tony Pecinovsky

First, while we are an official workers’ center — we were chartered by the St. Louis Central Labor Council in January 2017, and we work closely with a number of unions — we do not take legal action on behalf of workers like some workers’ centers. For example, we do not organize day laborers or farm workers. Nor do we have lawyers on hand to litigate against employers or contractors. That’s not our model. That not our mission. It’s an important and necessary function of some workers’ centers, but it’s not what we do.

Our model is a bit different, and more ambitious, like you said. Perhaps less reform oriented, and more uniquely placed within St Louis’ radical labor history.

We are a worker-education society reminiscent of the ethnic workers’ societies that existed across the country at the turn of the twentieth century, including in St Louis.

Different ethnic groups — Czechs, Germans, Lithuanians, etc. — had different workers’ societies and they served a different role than workers’ centers today. They were often mutual-benefit societies. They offered old-country continuity, while also helping recent immigrants acclimate to the new environment, to the new country. They were also left-leaning and socialist oriented. They were a political home. Many had an affinity towards Karl Marx’s International Workingmen’s Association, the First International, and drew inspiration from that history. So that is part of what makes us different. We’re a political home in the tradition of the old ethnic workers’ societies.

Additionally, we’re more akin to the popular-education institutions led by the Communist Party during the 1930s and ’40s. Institutions like the Jefferson School of Social Science, which offered ongoing adult education geared towards worker activism, unionism, challenging racism and sexism, philosophy, expanding democratic rights, and culture.

At its peak — before the McCarthy-era witch-hunts — the Jefferson School had about ten thousand students annually. And it was only one of the many different schools the party ran throughout the country. This was popular education at its best, not just lectures, or the banking model. It was dialectical education geared towards activating workers, moving them into action while providing a political and historical foundation rooted in Marxism and class struggle.

So we see ourselves as a merger of the traditional ethnic workers’ societies and the Communist Party-led popular-education institutions. However, we’re also very contemporary and offer an array of community services aimed at building what we call a WES Votes constituent base. We have monthly potlucks, community concerts, organizing and training opportunities, leadership development classes, and meeting facilitation, and offer a welcoming space available for community and labor allies. On top of that, we engage in targeted, ward-specific voter registration, education, and mobilization.

We have a number of community engagement campaigns. Our WES Votes campaign is a voter registration campaign. Our Four Wards Forward program specifically targets folks for leadership development in our concentration, or service areas: wards 8, 9, 15, and 20 — the four wards that surround our headquarters.

Due to this targeted approach, our members now sit on the boards of all of the ward organizations, as well as some of the business associations, in our concentration area. And three of the four alder-people in our service wards are WES members, as are the two state representatives whose districts overlap our concentration wards.

Unlike some other workers’ centers, we are attempting to build a ward-based progressive political machine with a solidified base of WES Votes constituents. Voter registration, education, and mobilization in partnership with local unions is central to this effort. So, we’re also a lot like the old ACORN with a constituent base of sustainers and dues-paying members who drive the work of the organization at a local level.

Finally, we assist unions — specifically, the skilled trades — in building membership among people of color and women. For example, our partnership with the Painters’ Union DC58 and their Advanced Skills Workforce Center, has graduated eighty-plus African-American men over the past two years into union jobs.

Mind you, many of these folks were making minimum wage — if they were lucky enough to have a job — prior to their participation in this program. Now they are card-carrying union members making around $20 per hour plus benefits, health care, pension, and vacation time, and they have a have career, a skilled trade they can take anywhere.

Specifically, over each ten-week session WES provides political education, labor history, and a training on your rights as a worker. We even do mock contract negotiations with the students. We prepare them politically. We lay the foundation that prepares them to hopefully become activist members, shop stewards, and elected union officers. That’s our role — popular education geared towards activism. The union, of course, provides the skills-based component, the actual trade skills, the certificate programs. That’s their role.

We see our partnership with the Painters, as well as with other unions, as a mutually beneficial relationship, the hallmark of a healthy left-labor alliance, albeit on a small scale within a geographically defined area.

We are also unique in that it is the skilled trades — a section of the labor movement not always known for its foresight, progressive politics, or attention to race and gender equality — that we work with most. In a sense, at least locally, they see and acknowledge the problem — the history of racism within the trades — and are taking steps to correct this history, at least within those trades which which we work. So that also makes us different.

So those are four very unique aspects of WES and the work that we do.

Meghan Brophy

Traditional unions are under attack lately and union density doesn’t show any signs of recovering. Where do you see workers’ centers fitting into a larger project to rebuild the labor movement?

Tony Pecinovsky

Well, first let’s focus on the fact that the labor movement does need to be rebuilt from the ground up, and that this is a long-term project, possibly a decades-long project. Maybe I’m a pessimist, but labor’s long decline didn’t happen overnight, so rebuilding the labor movement isn’t going to happen overnight either.

That said, there are positive signs from certain sectors of the labor movement realigning to this reality and shifting gears, trying new things and experimenting. The Fight for $15 is a really good example.

The emergence of workers’ centers is part of this healthy and democratic attempt to deal with the reality of decline, to explore non-traditional types of worker organization. By non-traditional, I mean the generally agreed-upon definition of being outside of the confines of a collective bargaining agreement and the NLRB.

Workers’ centers are at once both an acknowledgement of labor’s weakened position and a sincere attempt to deal with and overcome that reality. Workers’ centers and coalitions like Jobs with Justice — organizations that function outside of the confines of the NLRB — can bring community pressure to bear in ways traditional union structures can’t. This is a good thing, and should be expanded upon. Its part and parcel of what the unemployed councils did in the 1930s, as workers took collective action outside of traditional union structures.

The establishment of the NLRB, while historically a progressive victory, can at times serve to bolster dependence on “acceptable” or “safe” forms of worker organizing, whereby labor and management sit calmly around a table and politely discuss contracts, wages, benefits, and grievances. Ideally, workers’ centers can act as a left flank when, or if, traditional means of collective worker action fall short.

Additionally, workers’ centers are viewed differently in the public: newspapers, social media, and right-wing ideologues haven’t figured out how to vilify workers’ centers in the same way they vilify unions and so-called “union bosses.” In this regard, workers’ centers are simply another vehicle that helps us get to the desired destination: building worker power and collective action at the grassroots.

Workers’ centers like WES can also be a bridge between labor and the community, bringing people together who may not have had a chance to work together before. Our partnership with the Painters’ Union is a perfect example, as is our relationship with local elected officials.

Is short, workers’ centers are a healthy response to an unhealthy situation, namely the prolonged right-wing assault on labor and the corresponding decline in union membership.

But workers’ centers aren’t a silver bullet. They can’t create a paradigm shift on their own, and we shouldn’t have illusions about this. They do not exist at the point of production, in the workplace. They can’t enter into collective bargaining agreements, nor should they try. That’s what unions are for. But they can bring pressure to bear and provide a space for workers to organize outside of union recognition. They can also help push unions into arenas of struggle in which they may initially be reluctant to engage.

Meghan Brophy

As a Communist Party USA (CPUSA) member, how important is your broader political analysis and vision for your work in the St. Louis WES?

Tony Pecinovsky

It’s very important. As I said earlier, our success as an organization can be directly traced back to the organizing models of the so-called “Old Left” and the Communist Party.

It was Old Left organizing that lead to the greatest surge in union activism, organizing, and militancy in US history: the birth of the CIO through the unemployed councils and William Z. Foster’s Trade Union Unity League (TUUL). It was Old Left organizing that gave birth to the civil rights movements of the 1960s through organizations like the National Negro Congress, the Southern Negro Youth Congress, the Council on African Affairs, and the Civil Rights Congress.

It was the Old Left that gave birth to the modern feminist movement of the ’60s and ’70s, as female party leaders like Betty Millard, who wrote Women Against Myth, and Claudia Jones, who wrote An End to the Neglect of the Problems of Negro Women, redefined working-class feminism for generations to come. Hell, it was the Old Left that defined culture for a period of time, too, as Agnes Cunningham, Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, and Pete Seeger, among others, lent their names, talents, and — if they had money — finances to Old Left causes. There was a formal relationship in many cases, and this organizing model ushered in many of the most significant gains for working people, especially African Americans, in US history.

The Left today should not be too proud to look at and build off of the successes of the Old Left. That is what we’re doing. Perhaps, this is part of why there is an attempt to systematically remove the Old Left from our collective memories, washing it away, our contributions obfuscated or denied. It isn’t accidental.

As far as the labor movement is concerned, it doesn’t take a political scientist or historian to see the parallels. You can trace the decline of the labor movement starting with the attacks on communists, the passing of Taft-Hartley, the institutionalization of loyalty oaths, and the Red Scare more generally. These things are all connected.

So, yes! My CPUSA membership and the Old Left traditions passed on through that organization and its nearly one-hundred-year history are very important, and provide the political and ideological foundation for the WES — though I should add, WES is much bigger and broader than the CPUSA, like the Popular Front organizations it hopes to duplicate.

Meghan Brophy

I saw that the St. Louis WES is involved in mobilizing union members and activists for a Citizen’s Veto of Right-To-Work. What is the role of local elected officials, small businesses, and union leaders? Have there been any contradictions in bringing these groups together?

Tony Pecinovsky

So, to your first question: the role of elected officials, small businesses, and union leaders? It depends on where you’re at geographically.

St Louis remains a union stronghold, with higher union density than the national average. Elected officials and politically active small businesses are either actively supporting and working with unions, or only passively support right-to-work. They know who butters their bread: union members spend a lot of money at restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, car dealerships, etc. To publicly support right-to-work, at least in St Louis, could result in a dramatic loss of revenue. It’s political calculus.

Most people in St Louis, have a family member, uncle, aunt, cousin, grandpa, or friend, who was or is in a union. They know what unions do for our community, for charitable organizations and nonprofits, and for the churches. A lot of union members spend their hard-earned money in smart and strategic ways.

If you’re outside of St Louis or Kansas City, it’s a more complex story, though unions are still widely supported through Missouri, especially in the trades where they set wage and benefit standards through prevailing wage and project labor agreements.

To your second question: politics can sometimes lead to strange bedfellows. This campaign is no different. The immediate goal is to defeat right-to-work at the ballot, which would be a major setback for the right-wing here. However, many businesses — even multinational companies — see unions and union members as the only way to get a qualified and skilled workforce, which in the long run saves money, reduces turnover, and provides a stable work force, which is good for profits.

So there are some contradictions. But this is realpolitik 101, not abstract theory. Some would argue — and I would probably agree with them — that the most revolutionary thing we can do right now as a movement in Missouri is defeat right-to-work. There is nothing revolutionary about letting big businesses — and their bought and paid for politicians — take away 240,000 Missourian’s right to bargain collectively, especially when we know that the real goal of right-to-work is to bankrupt unions, and thereby bankrupt the Left — or at least seriously drain a financial base from which the Left operates.

And this isn’t a rhetorical statement, it’s not an exaggeration. I’ve been in meetings where a union turned over a $50,000 check, which isn’t chump change, for general support.

Additionally, the struggle against right-to-work raises the question of democracy, power in the workplace, and — not to be too dramatic — what kind of world we want to live in. One in which bosses control everything and make the decisions, or one in which workers have democratic say over wages, benefits, and working conditions? For me, this is fundamental to the larger project of building socialism.

Meghan Brophy

There are a number of spaces and organizations that host concerts or other community events at the WES. What is the relationship between the WES’s political leanings and some of these non-educational projects it’s taken on?

Tony Pecinovsky

Well, it would be a mistake to call these events, potlucks, concerts and workdays “non-educational.” They’re very educational and political, both formally and informally.

For example, potluck attendees — of which there are usually about a hundred — not only have informal conversations, whereby individual community activists and union leaders talk about what they are working on and upcoming plans, actions, meetings, rallies, and protests, but they also access a space to build community, relationships, trust, and support. People learn from each other. That’s educational. It’s very political. Just attending a WES potluck is a political act, as we are known for our politics. That’s the informal side.

However, education is also a very much a formal component of the potlucks, concerts, and workdays. For example, we always invite different labor and community leaders, depending on the theme, to speak with participants. Our most recent concert, titled “They Owe Us A Living,” included three union reps, a state representative, and a choice leader as speakers who addressed folks in between bands. And the bands themselves are often political.

In many ways, it was this merging of the cultural, educational and political that made Popular Front organizing so powerful. And that is also part of what we are trying to duplicate. We want to bring people together and provide the space for them to engage politically in a way that they are comfortable with while breaking bread, having fun, and building community. We have to meet people where they are at.

Meghan Brophy

What other campaigns or initiatives taken on by the WES have been most effective?

Tony Pecinovsky

We were very involved in the campaign to raise St Louis’s minimum wage. Our members helped organize rallies at city hall. We testified at Board of Aldermen (BOA) hearings. We worked directly with elected officials, letting them know our perspective on raising the minimum wage.

In fact, Al Neal, who now works for WES as director of education and advocacy, was the Midwest director for the Fight for $15. We were a part of the larger coalitions — led by Jobs with Justice — that fought for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, which was passed in August of 2015 by the BOA as an $11-an-hour phased-in minimum.

Despite our city passing the wage increase, the Missouri Legislature recently rescinded it, claiming that only the state has the power to set municipal wage scales, thereby preempting local ordinances from waging these campaigns in the future. Over thirty thousand St Louis low-wage workers saw a wage increase last month, and now later this month it will be taken away.

This is a very concrete example of the power of big money in politics. Missouri currently has no campaign finance limits. It’s like the wild wild west here, which makes the struggle against right-to-work so much more important, as unions are one of the only political and financial counterbalance to unbridled, right-wing control.

Our most effective campaign has been our partnership with the Painters’ Union that I described earlier, which we are in the process of duplicating — albeit in different forms — with other unions.

Additionally, like I said, WES members hold a number of elected positions — from block captain, to ward organization, to alderperson and state rep. If you think about it, it’s amazing that an organization like ours has been able to do so much in less than three years. We were officially founded and purchased our headquarters in fall of 2014.

Meghan Brophy

What challenges has the WES faced?

Tony Pecinovsky

Our main challenges stem from owning and operating a ten-thousand-square-foot community center. WES is a political movement, but we’re also a physical space that requires maintenance, upkeep, repair, and insurance. We have to pay air conditioning and heating bills. We need to keep the lights on.

Providing a safe, inclusive space is part of our mission, especially for women, people of color, queer and trans folks, the differently abled, immigrants, and union members. Our space is a political home to people from all of these movements. And our facility houses immigrant rights groups, disabilities empowerment groups, union contractors, and an immigrant-owned taxi cooperative, as well as the WES staff and all our affiliated operations.

Related to the challenge of maintaining our community center, obviously, is the question of money and political independence. Unlike most other nonprofits, we receive no grant or foundation money. Which means we aren’t beholden to anyone but our members. We’re entirely funded by our members, sustainers, donors, union partners, and events, like our upcoming WES Awards honoring historian Gerald Horne, a St Louis native and WES supporter.

However, due to the unique political nature of our organization and the fact that we own a physical space, we’ve dealt with some unique challenges. For example, we purchased our headquarters in September 2014.

But what happened in August 2014? Mike Brown was killed. So, what did we do? We opened our doors to the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” coalition, which hosted a series of nonviolent civil-disobedience trainings; we let the National Lawyers Guild use our space for free for months. We made our space safe for movement leaders and as a result, our occupancy permit was delayed and we received numerous surprise inspections.

So, we face financial challenges — like all community centers — but we also face unique political challenges. However, I’m happy to note that the alder-person who is likely behind the harassment — and who also opposed the minimum wage increase — was earlier this year replaced by a WES member in the BOA. So, challenges create opportunities.

Meghan Brophy

Is there something unusual about St Louis, either because of its history or union density, or do you think the WES model would work elsewhere?

Tony Pecinovsky

Well, St Louis is undoubtedly unique. Union density is still high compared to the national average. There is left-labor infrastructure here that I haven’t seen elsewhere. There is a proud history of struggle — for workers’ rights, for African-American equality, etc. There is also a radical tradition passed on from generation to generation. The Left has always been relatively strong here, too. I would argue that it is much easier for left-labor alliances to form here than elsewhere due to the city’s small size and the relational nature of its politics, for good and for bad.

Also, it’s much easier to get to scale here. Make no mistake about it, power responds to scale. In places like Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York, it’s very difficult for the Left to get to scale. Here, however, it’s a little different. We take the question of scale for granted.

The concept may be new to others, but basically, for the Left to be taken seriously, we need to have infrastructure and capacity enough to be able to respond in kind. We need to scale up to the challenges that we face. I don’t know if there is enough talk on the Left about scale and power, whereas it is acutely on our minds here.

That said, I do think the WES model could be duplicated elsewhere. Anywhere people are eager for organization and action, a WES-type organization could exist. And I’m more than happy to help.

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Tony Pecinovsky is the president of the St. Louis Workers’ Education Society. He serves on the St. Louis Jobs with Justice leadership team, is a member of the United Media Guild (TNG-CWA), and a delegate to the St. Louis Central Labor Council. He is also a member of the national board of the Communist Party USA.

Meghan Brophy is an undergraduate student at Barnard College. She is an organizer with Student-Worker Solidarity (USAS Local 12) and New York City Democratic Socialists of America.

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