[Cross posted over at MM's other blog; the feral cat of freedom]
There is a phrase heard more and more lately. “The Democratic Party is where social movements go to die. It is the grave yard of social movements. “ And Bob Fitch who wrote the 2006 book “Solidarity for Sale” makes a similar remark about reforming unions from within. He calls this attempt at reform “the roach motel syndrome”. “The leftists go in but they don’t come out.” When you enter these roach motels, you encounter bosses just like you do in the workplace. You encounter union bosses and mob bosses. The beauty of the Occupy movement and the original occupation in Wisconsin was the lack of bosses. But eventually some bosses took over in Wisconsin and we ended up with what cultural critic Stuart Hall calls “authoritarian populism” winning over limp noodle party politics. (More on this in " ‘Authoritarian Populism’ and the Wisconsin Recall" by Connor Donegan). Right wingers came across as brats and beer freedom fighters and the left came off as near beer party poopers.
Doug Henwood (“Left Business Observer”) who wrote what Nomi Prins called the “visionary” 1997 book “Wall Street” writes another excellent critique of what went down in the Dairy State; "Walker's Victory, un-sugar-coated". And within this critique was his prophecy a year ago that electoral politics might be the death of the uprising in Wisconsin.
The state AFL-CIO chooses litigation and electoral politics over popular action, which dissolves everything into mush.
And it is in this Henwood article that I discovered the Michael Yates interview with Bob Fitch about his book “Solidarity for Sale”. I cannot recommend this interview enough. As Henwood says, it is painful to talk about the unpopularity of unions whose past members were gunned down in massacres from Ludlow, Colorado to Haymarket Square in Chicago just so we can grill burgers on a weekend day off. But something needs to change.
Fitch points out that beyond negotiating better wages and better hours for workers, a union of workers gives people dignity and security. Those feelings are priceless and much better than an American Express card. Those feelings are the basis of turning the tables on greedy kleptocracy. They mean that we are rewarding work over wealth; that as David Graeber puts it, we are putting the care of humans and nature before the making of stuff for those humans.
I tried to “change the party from within” by getting involved in state Democratic Party politics in 2004. But it didn’t take me long to see the corruption and disease in the Democratic Party that led to neither security nor dignity. But Fitch opened my eyes to the need to rethink labor unions or at least what it means to be in solidarity. We still need to unionize for justice, but we may have to chuck the current unions and the myopia that comes from running locals like fiefdoms. A lord is still a lord. A boss is still a boss. Exploitation is still exploitation.
But what to do? Henwood suggested:
Suppose instead that the unions had supported a popular campaign—media, door knocking, phone calling—to agitate, educate, and organize on the importance of the labor movement to the maintenance of living standards? If they’d made an argument, broadly and repeatedly, that Walker’s agenda was an attack on the wages and benefits of the majority of the population? That it was designed to remove organized opposition to the power of right-wing money in politics? That would have been more fruitful than this major defeat.
“All politics is local” they say. But it’s also where the corruption is. That’s why Occupy works and parochial trade unionism doesn’t work as well. Occupy unites across class, gender, race, and age. But a real accomplishment was uniting across occupations. Transit workers in New York don’t really help out janitors unions, but they did join Occupy. Wisconsin firefighters joined teachers who joined janitors who joined teaching assistants who joined farmers. It was a sight to see. And it was a sight that caused a great deal of fear in the powers that be. So they ( union leaders, progressive front groups, Van Jones types, and the so-called progressive media) Pied Pipered the people away and into the roach motel.
Pink Scare offers an alternative to electoral roach motels:
What’s the alternative? The very sorts of actions that sparked the Wisconsin uprising in the first place; The sorts of possibilities opened up by the Occupy movement; The months-long struggle of Longview workers to fight for their rights; The inspiring struggle of teachers in Chicago to stand up and defend the future of public education. Succinctly put, the alternative is to mobilize the still unrealized potential of ordinary working people to use their own power to stop austerity, layoffs, foreclosures and all the rest. Once that sleeping giant is awoken, previously unthinkable possibilities emerge. In the 1920s, everyone thought the labor movement was dead in the water, but by the mid 1930s the US was experiencing an unprecedented surge in militant working class activism that shattered those expectations and transformed the social/political landscape for a generation.
We forget at our peril that every single major progressive gain in this country–from free public education to the abolition of slavery, from women’s suffrage to Social Security–was won through hard-fought struggle by social movements who set themselves on a collision course with both major parties. Without struggle, there is no progress. We can’t expect the licit leaders of corporate-funded political franchises to take care of us. We have to rebuild a fighting, self-confident Left and organize independent social movements that can confront the ruling class head on, no matter which of their two teams is in control in Washington.
Not much I can add to that except to stay out of the roach motels which includes deals like “Netroots Nation”. If you do go into these Potemkin villages, make sure to take a gas mask.