“Reports from the coalfront” January 2, 2012Posted by yourcousin in Unions, United States, US Politics, Workers Rights.
This post started as a response to CMK’s question on the Sean Garland thread, but as the response got bigger and bigger I thought that a new post might be more appropriate than a response to a dead thread. On a personal note, I appreciate the support, I am working and doing well.
I do think that the traditional relationship with Labor serving as the foot soldiers for the Democratic Party is fraying. Obviously the Wisconsin protests were huge, but when the Democrats tried to channel that energy, it fizzled for them. The grassroots campaigns in Ohio trying to get a referendum to over turn the anti-union legislation is seems to indicate that support for unions surpasses the support for Dems (obviously). There were calls for a general strike in Wisconsin, but it fizzled as labor leaders were anxious that things “not get out of hand” and promised relief through the Dem’s tactics, which included the recall campaigns and (off hand) a state supreme court election (which Republicans won btw). One of the interesting things is that the Firefighters stopped contributing to the national Dems and said that they would selectively target local/state elections. I believe they just recently reversed that decision within the last month or so.
The Occupy movement was also a catalyst of sorts, at least in the beginning. The sight of hundreds of uniformed pilots marching in protest, was impressive even to my cynical eyes.
Or maybe I just never got over seeing people in uniform stick it to the man. The point there was that these were everyday people venting their rage at the system that controls both political parties. When “normal” people take to the streets, not so much to protest abstract concepts so much as to protest for it means its touching a chord. It is also happening at a time that no one within the established political movement will actually doing anything in support of the marchers other than try to pander for a few votes. I predict that after 2012 you’ll see Dem hopefuls listing their involvement in say a human microphone on their resumes once it is “safe” for them to do so. “Progressive” city councils and mayors coordinated the removal of encampments like the ones in Oakland and Denver. So to me the chances of the occupy movement having an impact in that sphere aside from possibly staying home on election day or being more cynical of the dems is slim for right now. But with the coming of election season Obama is definitely polishing up his populist (and I mean this in the good sense of the word) credentials. So he and the Dems will have to walk a very fine line of trying to motivate folks to vote for him but not ask too many questions about the economic system. But in his favor he’s got the current batch of Republicans to go against so that may help. I mean the House had their run and I think that the debacle with the pay roll tax cut may be the beginning of their decline.
Something else that may work in his favor is people’s sheer desperation. A lot of people are living on the edge of disaster. So while many folks may not be enthusiastic about him like they were two years ago the idea of people who would hang pictures of Ayn Rand in their offices totally running the place is too much to even think about. And that’s pragmatics not “change we can believe in”. My brother is just as militant as me, but since he doesn’t have a union job, no insurance and has an injury from a work accident (third degree burns on the inside of right elbow and arm leaving him with some substantial nerve damage) he is on the very edge of destitution due to so much of his meagre pay check going to pay for medical bills and medication. It’s because of him that I support Obama care. He said flat out that he will vote for Obama because he has no choice. I hope my dad will remember that when polling day comes because I could see him falling for Romney’s bullshit. I don’t thinkthat our story is that unique either.
If I were try to predict where the labor movement is going (something which I’m loathe to do) I would simply highlight two trends. The first is the traditional role of labor as booster of the the Dems, but in a more frenzied fashion and dropping things like the Employee Free Choice Act which might upset the apple cart. I view this kind of like Dev’s “labor must wait”. Or like a popular front action where it’s all hands on deck in defense of basic civil society. And I agree with this branch in as much I think government ought to defend civic society from capital.
The other branch which exists and is growing however slowly with fits and starts is the old school unionism which existed in the shadows until the late seventies. While it might take full advantage labor law it relied upon traditional solidarity and direct action. The thing that I think alot of people don’t understand about this current is that these folks in many facets appear reactionary. A prime example of this is a guy I currently work with. He’s a straight up conservative/reactionary. We almost came to blows over his justification of the Iraq war and Saddam’s WMD being the gassing of the Kurds. I about came out of my seat and folks came out of the trailers due to the yelling. But he is as steadfast a union man as one could want. Once during a wobbled job (ie during an unofficial work stoppage) he happened to show off a new M-14 to a co worker in view of the superintendent. Of course the police were called and came guns drawn but as he hadn’t threatened anyone with it and it isn’t illegal to have a rifle in your trunk he was left alone and the pay dispute was resolved quickly there after. He was also part of a “clearing crew” during an official strike. The “clearing crew” were guys who would wait until work started and any scabs who crossed the line were at work. At this point the “clearing crew” would enter the site with baseball bats and clear the job out. The guy who trained me to do doors and hardware saw his first strike in the army during his tour of Vietnam. He knew of a carpenter’s strike in the mountains where the scabs spent the entire day pinned down by a sniper who promptly wrapped up his sport shooting at the end of shift. It isn’t all violence but these examples told to me by first person participants and witnesses highlights labor’s untold story of declared Republicans and decorated vets (my guy came back from ‘nam with a bronze star which is a whole other story) who are “upstanding Americans” who are also part of the army of labor.
This back story of sorts is simply used to highlight the legacy of direct action up through the Reagan years as a connection the actions which took place in the Pacific Northwest where back in Sept. hundreds of longshoremen stormed a grain terminal, dumped grain on the tracks, cut brake lines and walked off the jobs in other ports after the president of their local was arrested for blocking the tracks during a dispute with the operator of the terminal. They were accused of holding six security guards hostage though it was later revealed that the guards simply hid out for a number of hours in their shack rather than face hundreds of angry longshoremen. Even the police backed down and retreated when called out. The sherriff although largely hostile made a unique comment as to why no arrests were made during and after the terminal storming after which the longshoremen simply returned to their hall unmolested with threats of further action. He pointed out the fact that the longshoremen were members of the local community and that he could understand their anger at their liviehoods being threatened during these difficult economic times and while condemning their actions refused to condemn them. The irony is that while the ILWU (west coast longshoreman’s union) has a known history and reputation for militance and political actions this was a new front and one which was done with absolutely no fanfare or rhetoric, indeed even members who I know personally and who have stayed in my home were extremely tight lipped about the action and others that might happen. I can of course understand because as Jimmy Diamond once told me, “whatever you say, say nothing” (circa 2007).
As I see it as the “respectable” wing of labor continues to lose ground I see more and more workers turning to the more direct approach. Obviously my examples highlight a very specific demographic that is unfortunately a shrinking part of the American workforce. That being said solidarity unionism, direct unionism or whatever you want to call it remains a viable form of resistance to capital, indeed it is, I would argue one of the fundamental pieces of resistance to capital. Far outweighing any Political adventurism that may be put forward. It should also be noted that union bosses vhemently oppose direct unionism and as was the case in Wisconsin rather see their unions destroyed than give up control to “irresponsible” forces. The largest challenge for the labor movement (note the lower case “l” denoting an all encompassing movement rather Organized Labor) is to bridge the chasm from the shrinking demographics of the trade union movement (though as Wisconsin demonstrated can still be impressive) to the growing working poor and private sector who never really thought about the class war until it arrived on their doorstep.
As for mortgages and what not. I’m sure there are groups out there that do help people, but the sad reality is that many, many people stopped viewing their home as a place to live and viewed homes as commodities. Many like my friend took out lines of credit on their homes and second mortgages. Indeed I bought my home as a foreclosure learning only after closing that the house in question was previously owned by my uncle’s girlfriend who took out a second mortgage to pay for heart surgery to repair a defect. The surgery wasn’t successful and she lost the house. I just don’t see any grouping with the political will let alone the knowledge and finances to challenge many of the foreclosures. Also the fact that at best the challenges would be addressing some of the foreclosures for errors, not challenging the idea of throwing people out of their houses due to their inability to pay is another major shortcoming in my eyes. So no, I have no hope of outflanking capital on that front and I foresee the rise and return of the landlord class as a new enemy for the working class to face off against in the foreseeable future.