RE The Demo planned at the Masonic Temple In Detroit on Saturday, the role of the unions, etc

Fri, 31 Mar 2006

Thirty years ago, as a member of the State Workers Organizing Committee (an organization of state workers, welfare recipients, community people, etc), I participated in a mass demonstration just down the street from the Masonic Temple, at 640 Temple, then the massive Detroit welfare office. The focus of the demonstration was "No Cutbacks, Making Concessions to Bosses is Like Giving Blood to Sharks, they Only Want More."  Because of the direct action militancy of Swoc (which involved people in every big city in Michigan), state employees did not make concessions, though many of us were suspended, jailed, and ultimately fired. In the same period, the UAW not only made concessions, but violently smashed rank and file action using their own goons/staff, as in the 1973 Mack Ave Sitdown strike.

Time passed. The UAW lost one million members and did nothing, except perhaps organize bogus locals of grad assistants, and lead failed strikes of those people, like the one now collapsing at NYU, heralded with much fanfare by the usual batch of opportunists academics who still think there is hope for the AFL-CIO, or who at least find some privileges inside that preposterous idea.

Today, the local that the State Workers Organizing Committee eventually put together, state of Michigan employees (who do not have rights of collective bargaining, but have the right to pay dues to the UAW), is the largest local in the UAW, outstripping any auto plant by far.

So, thirty years later, some honest UAW members are going to have a demonstration demanding No Concessions. With great sympathy...too late, fellow workers. That fight is over and lost. Time to decide where power lies in US society today, where the potentials are, and what to do.

There is no way to reform the labor movement, if Labor Movement is the AFL-CIO, though there are reasons to keep one toe in it, and nine toes out. Here are a few reasons why.....

1. The union leadership is utterly corrupt and cannot be transformed­fully alienated from the rank and file members who are forced to pay dues but who become slaves to a contract that is owned, not by them, but by the bosses and the union leadership who work in concert to protect that union bank.
2. The union leadership is guided by a dishonest and largely fascist ideology that snares their membership base. That stance can be summed up by what NEA’s former president, Bob Chase, calls New Unionism; the unity of business, government, and labor (all labor) in the national interest.
3. Even if union reformers succeeded in creating more democratic and egalitarian unionism, which the last sixty years suggests is unlikely, the unions would still be structurally unable to meet the challenges of capitalism itself. The unions do not unite people, they DIVIDE people ( by craft, skill, industry, race, sex, nation, public vs private, etc). There are, nearly, no progressive lessons to be learned from the Labor Movement, except when the rank and file fights the union­with the goal of overturning it entirely. The IWW notion above, that “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common,” applies to workers and their union leaders as well.
Moreover, many, many of the people in unions today are cops, jail guards, and state-enforcement officials who will, invariably, take the other side---yet under bogus forms of union democracy, they hold votes, and they are well funded, powerful.
4. Many argue that radical work should be concentrated in the unions because, “that’s where the people are.” Actually, that is where only about 12% of the people are. Most people do not belong to unions­and those who do don’t participate in them, for good reason. Moreover, the industrial working class which once, under the banners of communists and the CIO in the thirties, civilized the US by winning the right to strike, to speak, for social security, medical care, and against child labor, this once-powerful industrial work force is simply no longer centrally positioned to introduce change. Their jobs have been outsourced, and those who remain are relatively privileged, even though they are working long, long hours. These workers have been habituated to decades of retreats, concessions, and betrayals, and while it is reasonable to expect occasional outbursts, it is highly unlikely that they will take the lead in social change in the foreseeable future. Indeed,  history suggests the outbursts of this privileged section of the work force (even at critical junctures, like the dockworkers’ unfulfilled threats to strike against war) , can as easily lead those workers to become fascists as anything else­and recent trends in the US make this possibility more real than others.
Unions are not schools for radicalism, but schools for hierarchy, racism, narrow self-interest, sexism, and, above all, rank opportunism. The counter-lessons that might be learned in a union will have to be initiated outside of it, by groups like the State Workers Organizing Committee--which take as a central principle that there is a war going on, an international war of the rich on the poor--and have the courage to ask the old union saw, "which side are you on?" .
5. The central organizing point(s) of life in North America is no longer industrial work places, but schools, prisons, and the military, the carrot and the stick.  The velvet glove is usually more potent than the obvious iron fist. More than 49 million kids are in schools now, more than ever before. One-half of them will be draft-eligible in the next five years. Many people now rely on schools for safety, food, health care, mental care, and above all, a modicum of hope. When the hope from schools is extinguished, youth are the most likely to initiate the struggle for social change, even if they may not be able to carry it through to the end, as 1968 in France demonstrates.

Those who seek social change, justice, equality, and want to connect reason to power, might well look to these centripetal organizing points of US society, ie, the jails, the military, and the schools, as places to start---since resources and cadres are at a minimum. But justice will demand organization, and a clear ethic by which to judge it.

best r
To Rich Gibson's Home Page