December 31, 2007

Problems in Marxism









The current (December) issue of Political Affairs magazine contains two interesting articles dealing with problems in Marxism. The first is “Last Exit To Utopia” by David Cavendish and the second is “Managing Markets And The Socialist State: An Overview” by David Pena. The articles have not yet been posted on the PA website, so please subscribe to the magazine, read the articles and then read the following response to them. This is a comradely attempt by a trade union activist to debate a few questions now current on the left—your response is most welcome.


1. The formulation that “socialism will be the next era of human history” repeats or disguises the old dogma that socialism is inevitable. It is alternately undeservedly optimistic or diminishes human agency. It discounts the possibilities that socialism may either appear in human history under another guise or label (e.g., democracy or autonomous society) or that human history itself may be at near-end due to ecological or environmental catastrophe.

2. It is an understanding of the basic concepts of class struggle and dialectical materialism that gives us reason to reject a “stages theory of history” and to instead understand that in any period of human development reflections of the past and images of the future are present and that there are not a predetermined or limited number of options available. The questions of how and where our struggles advance are essentially political questions and require, out of necessity, that different influences and possibilities mix to create dynamic movement by human beings. A negotiation over the terms of struggle takes place constantly between human beings and it is this that determines the course of daily events. This same understanding forces us to move forward from where we are here and now; expressing our program in terms of extending or building upon the gains made under Roosevelt’s New Deal diminishes the progressive gains made since the 1930s and 1940s and ties us to a social democratic or corporatist model. Advances in technology, the creative use of bioregionalism, public-private partnerships with significant community and labor control, the creation of public authorities, the need to think green and redevelop with environmental priorities and the progressive use of pension funds to support working class priorities offers different transitional models.

3. It cannot be logically or scientifically held that we are three steps from socialism and it cannot be yet known if the 2008 elections will have the same determining historical weight as other events. This is not to downplay the need for focused political struggle in the current moment. The importance of the 2008 elections rests in the relationship between the elections and the political struggles now taking place and other events; the elections do not stand alone and by themselves, divorced from the generalized capitalist world crises. Our left organizing--as distinct from what unions and Democrats and liberal social movements do--should rest on a set of key values, human and egalitarian relationships and a generalized vision of the future which is something more than a reaction to present-day crises.

4. We must abandon the use of the word “complex” as a way of avoiding analysis and work. A previous generation of leftists often spoke of “the dialectic” as a way of avoiding needed work and analysis and as a way of overlooking the fatal shortcomings of then-existing socialism. We run the same risk when we take refuge in the use of “complex.”

5. The fightback against the Bush policies and the ultra-right must logically anticipate and comprehend criticism of the Democrats on class-struggle issues and their muzzling of social movements. This criticism must be advanced in ways which encourage Democrats and the rank-and-file of the social movements to grow and to turn leftwards. Left leadership, by its very nature, must lead rather than follow in these moments.

6. Organized labor may indeed be a “centerpiece” of the people’s movements, but we do not hold this position exclusively or without contradiction and we do not lead the social movements. Organized labor is not the vanguard and the political parties of the working class have no historically grounded right to cede their vanguard roles to other social forces, even if we must constantly work for that role and win it through honest participation in social struggles. The crisis of shrinking union membership, the practical end of pattern bargaining and its replacement by concession-driven bargaining, the absence of a needed upsurge by workers rebuilding unionism at the base, our inability to maintain or win healthcare benefits for more union workers and the absence of direct union democracy in unions are inter-related. Unions fighting for their own survival have, generally speaking, been forced into battles around immediate issues. The sheer costs of organizing and maintaining unions also prevents unions from leading on larger social issues and even encourages retreat from struggles by union leadership. Unions run from crisis to crisis; organizing by the left should instead be relational and analytical, making the study-act-reflect process dialectical. The left will have to reinvent our relationship to organized labor under these circumstances and will have to project a vision of democratic and militant unionism linked to other social movements if unionism is to survive and hold a progressive leadership or centerpiece position. Trade unionism in the future will not appear or function as it has in the past.

7. In addition to the valuable reforms Cavendish mentions, we will also have to take seriously getting people out of the active workforce earlier and/or for longer periods of time as well as shortening the work day or work week. Our long-held core value prizing industrial labor will have to give way to a broadened understanding of class and class relations which accepts that class is relational and political (as well as categorical) and redefines productive work. We will have to politicize and prioritize struggling with many questions now considered personal--drug use, alcoholism, obesity and anti-social behaviors--in holistic ways. These are also essential tasks of a people’s democratic revolution.

8. We cannot logically forecast or predict that a socialist revolution in the US will be aimed at, or will actually provide, more for everyone. In redistributing wealth and in redesigning how wealth is produced in the US it is likely that many industries will disappear out of necessity. The concept “live simply so that others may simply live” may very well be transformed into a guiding principle of social solidarity in the US as a revolution progresses here, implying a massive cultural shift in the US with global implications. Talk of increasing productive capacity and using markets to build or further the socialist project in the US must take into account the need for green economies of scale and national and global divisions of labor.

9. Talk of increasing productive capacity under conditions of revolutionary centralization in the US is talk abstracted from the historical experience of the US. It may well be that the revolutionary project in the US will have to reinvent local or family farming, eliminate at least some large-scale industrial production and spend a great deal of time finding the legal and democratic means to prioritize socialized and collectivized property over privately held property and markets while making the most out of privately held production and distribution and market mechanisms.

10. Before we can agree or disagree on the issues relating to economic competition between China and the imperialist bourgeoisie—and chief among these questions are to what extent and in what ways this competition provokes capitalist crises and builds working class internationalism—we will need to know what mechanisms are in place to guarantee working class hegemony and proletarian democracy simultaneously with the creative use of market mechanisms in China.

December 30, 2007

6Killa And Others At Salem's Coffee House Cafe










Two of us went to hear 6Killa, Bongo Bob Petitt and two other poets read at Salem's Coffee House Cafe last night. Since our impressions of the evening and the work presented differ somewhat, I'm hoping that our comrade will also present her impressions here and give some balance or correct what I say.

The great Soviet photographer Yevgeny Khaldei published a photograph of victorious Soviet soldiers marching over a nazi flag and a building burning behind them as they took Vienna from the fascists in 1945. Khaldei said:

People often ask me if I put the flag there. I did not. What I did do was set fire to the building. The house belonged to the commandant of a concentration camp. I said to the soldiers, "Let's smash it up." And that's how we defeated the house.

In these words I think that Khaldei sums up the role of the revolutionary artist: s/he doesn't create art from nothingness and has a leading responsibility to participate in the social struggle and interpret the content and meaning of oppression and liberation for us in ways which push us forward. There is no responsibility to be formulaic or to work within inherited traditions. Neither is there a responsibility to throw our revolutionary traditions away. I measure art against Khaldei's words.

We first heard two young women read their poetry last night. I am sorry that I did not get their names. The first writer-reader seemed to get carried away with imagery and abstraction but I sensed in her writing something of a dialectic; I think that she was measuring her understanding of reality against her own self-development. The second writer-reader made a point of saying that she wasn't seeking approval or acceptance for her work. She also made a point of saying what the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva once said: poetry moves through her and she is not responsible for what is finally put down on paper. She read one particularly self-assertive poem about dating and another strong poem about a difficult friendship. Tsvetaeva's poems "An Attempt at Jealousy" and "Strong doesn't mate with strong" came to mind. She captured much of her age and environment in her writing and reading.

Bongo Bob Petitt filled in with some vaguely Afro-Cuban drum rhythms. Since I grew up hearing Cuban drummers and was intensely devoted to salsa and the historic salsa bands back in New York in the 1970s I didn't know what to do with this at first. This is the music of the islands and of distinct urban environments as well, places and times marked by immigration and longing and industrial labor. Can the music exist and be transmitted outside of that context and can it be transmitted across the landscapes of race, class and age? I'm still struggling with these questions. The music fit in to the evening and I'm glad that I heard Bongo Bob's work. He has a MySpace page here.

6Killa is hip-hop artist with some long poems about social justice, the oppression of Native Americans and the war. He introduces himself with a rap and gives a moving account of his friendship with a guy currently serving as a medic in Iraq. He is thirty-something, an army vet, Native American and definitely anti-imperialist. His work educates and reaches out from what seems like a (justifiably) angry place in search of friends and comrades. Like the other writer-readers and Bongo Bob, there is something touching about this vulnerability. What makes 6Killa different is that he uses the familiar cadences of hip-hop and the anger of the streets and the reservations to get his points across. This works well for him. What does not work as well is his anti-religious prejudices and his conspiracy theories. 6Killa will continue to grow and create, however, and at some point he's going to struggle with the dialectic conflict between his consciousness and class and racial oppression. He's strong and smart and this dialectic process will carry him through and help him to better craft his work. He has a MySpace page here.

A few people were probably offended by 6Killa's message and left early. Some of the young people who most needed to hear the message and internalize it were in the back of Coffee House Cafe talking through the readings, trying to find drugs and moving around with the manic energy of kids who can't yet find a place in life. I wondered if anything could or would engage them and I wonder every day what their class and political experience will be.

A common point for the writer-readers and many of the listeners last night was their vulnerability. In one sense or another, I think, the kids are building protective walls around themselves; they feel attacked. I struggle to understand this because I do not recall many kids being self-protective back in the late '60s or early '70s, though we were certainly under siege as a working class youth culture then. On the other hand, young people today are coming of age in the midst of an economic crisis and wars, unprecedented environmental destruction, a one-empire world and the practical eclipse of a living left-wing alternative here in the US. The evident search for safety in their youth culture probably forms unconsciously as a response to these social conditions.

A few points remain to be made here. 6Killa and other socially conscious young poets influenced by hip-hop might put themselves to work by looking to the past for inspiration. For instance, it would be great if someone would bring Langston Hughes' poem "One More 'S' In The USA" into hip-hop culture.

Put one more S in the U.S.A.
To make it Soviet.
One more S in the U.S.A.
Oh, we’ll live to see it yet.
When the land belongs to the farmers
And the factories to the working men—
The U.S.A. when we take control
Will be the U.S.S.A. then.…
But we can’t join hands together
So long as whites are lynching black,
So black and white in one union fight
And get on the right track.
By Texas, or Georgia, or Alabama leg
Come together, fellow workers
Black and white can all be red:
Put one more S in U.S.A.

And we need more patience with religion, even if it is natural for the young to be impatient and to make justifiable demands on what is old and giving way. In this regard I thought of these lines from Yevtushenko's poem "The graves of the partisans":

Long ago in the year 1919
some simple man who could read and write
spelt slowly out his universal truth.
They none of them read Marx:
they believed in the existence of a God:
they went to war and thrashed the upper classes,

as things turned out Marxist is what they were...
Who died for a new, young world:
Siberian peasants, crosses round their necks,
lying dead under not the cross
but a proletarian red-painted star.

Patriotism now seems to us as something dangerous or quaint, but in revolutionary socialist societies it came naturally and was needed. Revolutionary patriotism as expressed by Langston Hughes is also a part of our radical tradition and should not be entirely abandoned. Anna Akhmatova captured this when she wrote as a revolutionary poet about the difficulties in the USSR

I am not one of those who left the land
to the mercy of its enemies.
Their flattery leaves me cold,

my songs are not for them to praise.

Boris Slutsky, another revolutionary Russian poet, wrote after the war about his comrades

My friends in tanks were burnt
to cinders, to ashes, to dust.
Grass, covering half a world,
has grown out of them, of course.
My friends,
stumbling onto mines,
took off upwards,

were blown sky high,
and lots of peaceful, distant stars
from them,

my friends,
caught fire.
People recount their deeds on public holidays,
make films out of them for show,
and my fellow students, my classmates,

turned into verse long ago.


There is nothing abstract about Akhmatova's patriotism or Slutsky's war experiences. These were specific sentiments birthed in building socialism and defending it from the fascists.

The best advice to the young writer-readers comes from Nazim Hikmet's poem "On Living":

I
Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example--
I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.
Living is no laughing matter:
you must take it seriously,
so much so and to such a degree
that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
your back to the wall,
or else in a laboratory
in your white coat and safety glasses,
you can die for people--
even for people whose faces you've never seen,
even though you know living
is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you'll plant olive trees--
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don't believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.

II
Let's say you're seriously ill, need surgery--
which is to say we might not get
from the white table.
Even though it's impossible not to feel sad
about going a little too soon,
we'll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we'll look out the window to see it's raining,
or still wait anxiously
for the latest newscast...
Let's say we're at the front--
for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
we might fall on our face, dead.
We'll know this with a curious anger,
but we'll still worry ourselves to death
about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
Let's say we're in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
before the iron doors will open.
We'll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind--
I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
we must live as if we will never die.

III
This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet--
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space...
You must grieve for this right now--
you have to feel this sorrow now--
for the world must be loved this much
if you're going to say "I lived"...

December 26, 2007

That bad day at the office video

A popular video is making the internet rounds showing people--men, actually--freaking out at work and destroying their computers. You can view the video at
http://glumbert.com/wii/view.php?name=baddayoffice&return=vi .

The video was probably scripted and acted, despite its caught-on-camera or grainy cop show feel. The accompanying music isn't particularly great, or even particularly rebellious.

I'm waiting to hear about people getting fired for circulating the video. Bosses get touchy about this kind of thing, even when videos are scripted and acted with lousy music and no clear message.

I don't think that it's accidental that the video shows men freaking out and busting things up. It seems more common for men to threaten to do this, though few men give in and let go and actually smash things up at work. It's more common for U.S. workers--men and women--to take the stress out on themselves or on their friends and family. I imagine that more male workers fantasize about workplace violence and violent revenge than women do, though. I meet guys regularly who say that they have big plans to hack into work computers or take a boss on in the parking lot and it seems that nearly every Christmas I meet a woman who says she is going to kill herself because of problems at work. And everyone, it seems, says that they're going to court. All of these are individual solutions that are rarely used and they change nothing, used or not.

No one in the video looks any happier after smashing up the place than they did beforehand.

Is the urge to destroy a fundamentally creative urge or not? Is it a necessary first stage in rebelling against hierarchical work and work relations? Is negating existing reality at the most visceral levels the first steps towards the new and the positive?

I think not, but many people--particularly anarchists--will disagree with me. It's likely that the kind of behavior we see in the video reinforces individualism and eventually plays to the myth of decisive individual action and making a lone moral statement. Smashing things up at work isn't likely to appeal to our work mates, and it only rarely leads to involving other people in positive action. Most harmful of all, it alienates the people at work who care about the job, the tools and the work ethic--the people who are decisive in making real change at work and in society at large. Doing it doesn't make you a better or cleaner human being and it leaves you with even less power than you had before you whacked that computer.

Some anarchists have found the logical conclusion to their thinking in this area. We have the so-called "primitivists" who think they are mimicking pre-historic human beings in their fight against the industrial and post-industrial, the people who seek continually to withdraw from class society and work by becoming self-sufficient and the pacifists who make the lonely journey of "speaking truth to power" and being "witnesses" against war.

Many workers are attracted to these stands for good reasons. We rebel with good cause against conformity, there is something deeply rooted in American culture which reinforces individualism and individual solutions and work grinds on many of us so that we are often tempted to take any exit we can. But the system remains one step ahead of us. These urgings are now commercialized and have been sold back to us in politics, music, movies, television and computer games. Our individual rebellion gets (un)grounded and bought and sold in this way.

The technology is alienating, the work relations are inherently oppressive and the boss or co-worker who eggs you on probably does deserve a good poke. But you're better off--and the rest of us proles are better off also--if you turn that anger into something politically left of center and if you become the beacon at work for everyone who wants real change.

We need videos about collective action and with really good music circulating surreptitiously at work. We need a popular video showing other workers doing sit-ins and marches on bosses, strikes and occupations, people having a good time handing out leaflets and putting up posters.

December 23, 2007

The Eugene. OR. Register-Guard, Worker Safety And The Cold War
















As if you needed it, here's another reason to pass up reading The Register-Guard.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled last week that employers have the right to prohibit workers from using company e-mail systems to send out union messages. This blocks worker-to-worker and union-to-worker contact at a time when the Employee Free Choice Act seems to be gaining momentum and as unions intensify their political work. Consider this as a boss's pre-emptive strike against you doing better in 2008.

The ruling grew out of the 2000 "labor troubles" at The Register-Guard when Newspaper Guild President Suzi Prozanski sent out a number of union messages to co-workers. The NLRB majority opinion deciding against the union cited the "basic property right" of employers to police e-mail. The twin ironies of a newspaper restricting media workers' use of technology and restricting the flow of information seems to have escaped the mainstream press. Moreover, employers could surveil e-mail and discipline workers without this NLRB ruling. This is a strong win for the bosses because a distinction is being made here between non-work-related free speech (like posting Amway ads on a bulletin board) and the daily free speech needed to organize and maintain a union at work. The ruling does not take away the right to post messages relating to businesses like Amway, wedding announcements and the like. This ruling is part of an evolving body of labor law shifting the definition of discrimination away from group rights.

The decision will be one of the last rulings made under Board chair Robert Battista. Battista's term has expired and Bush has been smart enough to not renominate him. The struggle over who will be nominated to replace Battista will say a great deal about the Republican relationship with labor and the Democrat's willingness to fight for worker rights. This should become a test for both parties and for the willingness of unions to make it so and to defend union member's rights. Unfortunately, several unions have a bad record of cracking down on members who maintain websites and blogs critical of union leadership and employers away from the workplace. Most unions accept the premise of "basic property rights" in the workplace. There was an initial outraged wringing of hands and predictable promises of taking revenge in the 2008 elections by union leaders as word of the NLRB ruling spread, but tomorrow we'll all go back to work and accommodate ourselves to living with fewer rights. The initial challenge by The Register-Guard, and similar challenges elsewhere, so scared the attorneys who run most unions that union e-mails have either been significantly curtailed or watered down since 2000. A few far-sighted unions have negotiated contract language specifying the limited use of e-mail as a union right.

An example of how important e-mail rights will be may be seen in the struggle of the workers who were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation in the cold-war era factories from the 1940s through to the 1970s. These workers were exposed to the radiation as part of cold-war era government arms economy production and were later given relatively small settlements to help pay their medical bills for work-related cancers. Now many of those workers are trapped by a bureaucracy which has routinely denied them coverage and care. Meanwhile, many of the companies directly responsible for the terrible safety conditions have gone belly-up and healthcare costs have dramatically increased. The Labor Department admits that there may have been problems in the program's offing, which finally kicked in in 2000, but the Department does not see a problem now. Almost 15,000 workers are involved.

These workers could not use company e-mail under the new NLRB ruling to organize, compare notes or discuss their conditions today. The companies could literally get away with murder. Are there more dangerous jobs out there which put workers at risk? Certainly there are. But without free speech and organizing rights workers will find it difficult to address these problems collectively.

An ironic twist is that many of these front-line arms economy production workers were eligible to join two of America's greatest unions, the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers union and the United Electrical workers. Both unions held out and refused to surrender their rights under the oppressive Taft-Hartley act. Taft-Hartley aimed at curtailing the kind of militant unionism which questioned the basic property rights of employers. They were expelled from the CIO for maintaining a progressive leadership and outlook. Mine, Mill was forced to merge with the Steel Workers union in the late 1960s and UE still exists.

The news today that J. Edgar Hoover had a plan to suspend habeas corpus and imprison 12,000 people designated as suspect during the height of the cold war--and apparently also had permission to do this at one point--is relevant here. No doubt that list included the Mine, Mill and UE union leaders. Mine, Mill successfully fought a historic heabeas corpus case more than 100 years ago and that effort is detailed in the book Big Trouble by J. Anthony Lukas. The best proactive voices these workers could have had back in the day had already fought and won historic battles for worker and civil rights. They were attacked by the government and corporations these workers gave their lives to help.

The best modern-day defenders of civil liberties and worker rights have proven to be the most militant unions which do not recognize the "basic property rights" of the bosses. And that is exactly why the NLRB officially took away union e-mail rights.

December 20, 2007

Oregon Workers Lose One Round















Oregon workers lost one last week when Senate Republicans blocked the extension of federal payments to the timber-dependent counties. We lost millions of dollars in funding which could have gone to pay for infrastructure and peoples’ needs. Senator Gordon Smith and Oregon’s leading Democratic representatives both showed a lack of leadership. In Smith’s case, we might have expected him to use his cross-the-aisles nice-guy-Republican credentials to make a case for the funding. He instead backtracked and allied himself with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in making sure that the money didn't get here. Smith no doubt needs this credibility with the Republicans in order to build his reelection campaign. In the case of the Democrats, we could have expected them to mobilize and to lead on the issue as a way of winning the money for Oregon and building momentum for a victory in 2008, but they did neither.

Many local politicians in Oregon who operate with more accountability at the county and city levels were apparently caught by surprise when the county payments extension fell through. The deal was, by almost any standards, non-controversial and much-needed. Their initial optimism seemed justified by the earlier extension of the program. Perhaps this will lead to some reshuffling of political alliances. Perhaps Salem mayor Janet Taylor, for instance, will rethink her support for Gordon Smith.

Thirty-two of Oregon’s thirty-six counties received past payments based on historical timber harvest levels and these funds have become a significant county revenue source. Should this be a primary means of funding county services? No. But withdrawing this money in this way broadens a developing social crisis in Oregon. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have a solution to this crisis at present. Probably 700 counties were affected nationwide, giving this a potential national twist as well.

What is this "developing social crisis" I'm talking about?

Other reports this week found that 850,000 Oregonians spend more than 10 percent of our incomes on healthcare and that 55 percent of current jobs in Oregon don’t pay a living wage for a family of four – even when both parents work. When companies like Pope and Talbot file for bankruptcy protection, you know there are systemic problems.

Most of the folks spending at least 10 percent of their incomes on healthcare are in families and are under 65--working people, in other words. The numbers of people in this situation has been increasing over the past seven years and we now have more people in this boat in Oregon, as a percentage of the population, than are caught in this situation nationally. And something like 8 percent of the population will spend more than 25 percent of their family income on healthcare in 2008. That number may well shoot up as services get cut at the county level because of the fiasco with the timber payments.

The problem is not necessarily a lack of health insurance, either. About 576,000 Oregonians, or 16 percent, are uninsured. On the other hand, many families have some kind of health insurance but the insurance is either inadequate or has premium costs which families cannot easily meet. Moreover, there may well be a total decline in real income, which means that percentage increases come to hit poor people disproportionately hard when it comes to healthcare spending.

Oregon's seasonally adjusted non-farm payroll employment grew by 3200 in October and 7,500 in November. Most of these jobs are in trade, transportation, utilities and the service sector. But Oregon still had about a 5.5 percent unemployment rate in both October and November so nothing really changed for the better this fall or over the past year. The national unemployment rate is at 4.7 percent, so we’re also lagging behind there.

Lost payments to timber-dependent counties and the strain this puts on local budgets, rising healthcare costs and bad or no health insurance, employment in low-wage jobs or unemployment—these are not, by themselves, a crisis. The gaps could be filled by ending the war and putting the money going to the war back into building the economy and giving catch-up raises to everyone working without a major disturbance to the system, but that isn't going to happen without an on-going political fight. From the point of view of the far right and the liberal forces they have either coopted or intimidated, the system is working pretty much as it should be. The problems cited here signify something deeply wrong and contradictory in the system overall, and in Oregon’s political environment particularly.

December 16, 2007

(Some) Oregon State Workers Get A Raise

















You have to wonder where Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski is coming from sometimes.

Most State workers working in Department of Administrative Services (DAS) units will see a tenth step added on to their salary schedules on June 30, 2009. The bottom steps will also disappear at that time. This is essentially a selective salary increase for these workers done at the least cost possible for the State: workers in the middle ranges of the salary schedule will not see an immediate benefit, but low-wage and topped-out workers will see unexpected raises in 2009. Not covered are people working in higher education and state workers not employed in the DAS units. Money to fund this raise will come out of the next biennium's budget and, I believe, from agency budgets--the current state worker wage and benefit fund is not affected. Read about it at the Local 503 website and the Oregon AFSCME website.

The anticipated attack on the Governor for signing off on this deal by the media and by the far right has not yet materialized. Labor's friends in the legislature will have to defend the pay raise and budget for it. In a certain sense, then, these contracts do not cost the Governor anything politically or in the budget.

SEIU-represented state workers had voted to accept their relatively good union contracts when the Governor announced raises for state department heads and managers last summer. Anger at these raises by rank and file SEIU union members was muted, perhaps because their contracts contained good raises and held the line, for the most part, on health insurance. There was also hope then among the SEIU-represented state workers that the agreed-to clerical worker classification study would address inequities in the salary package and help some of the most exploited workers. That study now seems almost dead in the water. AFSCME-represented workers were still in negotiations and anger among the AFSCME-represented workers was more pronounced. A Salem AFSCME-organized rally last week gave expression to this anger. Unfortunately, AFSCME rallied alone and without other unions supporting their efforts. About one-half of the state worker AFSCME units voted down the state's contract offer at that point, in large part because of anger over the raises given to department heads and managers.

Adding the tenth step and doing away with the bottom steps essentially creates a per centage parity in raises between front-line managers and union-represented state workers over time and possibly creates moree unity for workers in all state worker unions.

Higher ed workers were not included in the deal because higher ed managers did not receive the wage increases their state-employed counterparts did and so the union parity argument is more difficult to make in higher ed. Funding such a raise in higher ed would realistically mean a tuition increase which the state is unwilling and unprepared to push for and which most higher ed workers probably don't want to see happen either. The unions are not strong enough at this point to take on the issue of the top-heavy bureaucracy which exists in Oregon's higher ed units and the state doesn't want to raise the issue or cut these unnecessary positions as a way of funding raises for union-represented workers. State higher ed workers can hope and work for catch-up raises in 2009. This may put pressure on the system to reunite DAS and higher education or this may further divide state and higher ed workers and become an argument, however wrong-headed, to continue the dissolution of a unified higher ed system in Oregon.

Neither union involved has yet addressed the strong possibility that contract bargaining is likely to take place during a serious and deepening recession, making needed wage increases and holding on to healthcare benefits particularly difficult. It is also likely, or at least quite possible, that state worker unions will lose their ability to collect political contributions and do political organizing in that environment. A ballot measure sponsored by the Mannix-Sizemore forces aimed at knocking out state worker union political contributions and organizing is favored to win in 2008.

As the political field for Oregon state workers is shaping up, a number of races will give workers the choices between moderate and progressive Democrats with Republicans pulling back from certain key races entirely. Many union members will be running in the coming elections, in fact. Conservative forces in the Democratic Party are recruiting their candidates in areas where doing so may threaten some possible progressive victories. We will see more official union support for centrist Republicans in 2008, opportunistic support for Ben Westlund and perhaps a union surrender on beating Gordon Smith. There will certainly be an attempted Republican resurgence in 2010 and 2012 in Oregon. Thinking nationally, then, we will have to hope that the politically-driven union organizing campaigns now taking place in North Carolina, Colorado and Wyoming will be successful and counter possible Republican gains in Oregon in those years.

The MacPherson run for Attorney General will be challenging for state workers because he led the charge against Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) benefits and will likely make a run for Governor in 2010 if he wins the AG race in 2008. The Mannix forces will be pushing to build three new prisons in the state at the expense of people's services and funding union contracts. The fragile union presence in state corrections units could shatter as the right pushes against union political organizing and for the three prisons.

The race for State Treasurer brings with it additional challenges and complications. Unlike most other states, the State Treasurer here invests centralized PERS funds so that the funds themselves have acquired some economic force and so that investment decisions are especially politicized. It stands to reason that the right will eventually take this on as an issue and either push into the AG and Treasurer races or seek to pressure candidates for these offices. A divided labor movement could unintentionally give them that victory.

Union officials unfortunately tend to view immigram worker rights as a wedge or distracting issue being used to take members' attention away from other core issues. The rank and file, meanwhile, is divided on this issue and needs leadership here that is not obviously apparent. We would prefer to see this become a core union issue, I think, and prefer to see unions orient towards organizing immigrant workers and making this a front-line civil rights issue even if it means sacrificing some other possible gains temporarily. A test will come this week at the rules hearings. We hope that the raises did not come in exchange for practical silence on immigration issues, but that possibility should not be discounted yet.

For SEIU, the core issues in 2008 will be universal healthcare and cost containment, stopping contracting out, long-term care for seniors and the disabled and stopping attempts to kill union political organizing. The union is unable to directly take on the insurance industry and win on single-payer healthcare and there are, as of now, no political allies on the contracting out fight. The union will partner with the long-term care industry and AARP--suspect allies, to say the least--on how to stop low-income seniors and the disabled from being hustled into the nursing homes. This strategy plays one part of the capitalist class against another, might negatively affect the non-union sector of the nursing home industry and win the unions some popular support. It might also backfire and end in disastrous class collaboration and make union organizing in the nursing homes more difficult over time. SEIU now represents at least 22 nursing homes in Oregon; the latest home to go union went union through a union-boss partnership and card check.

The just-won state worker raises need to be seen in this roughly-drawn political context. The questions are not whether these raises will or will not be wiped out by inflation, or whether they were given in a top-down way to insure silence or buy labor peace at a critical time for Democrats regionally, but whether or not workers can hold on to these gains and build on them between now and 2012.

December 13, 2007

Independence, OR., Our Lady of Guadalupe and Class Struggle In The Pews




















Tito, the great leader of socialist Yugoslavia, once had an animated confrontation with the Roman Catholic Croatian Cardinal Stepinac after the war. Stepinac and sections of the Croatian Roman Catholic hierarchy had actively supported the fascists during the war. Their slogan or aim was to kill one third of the Serbian population, deport one third and force one third to convert to Catholicism. Their policy of genocide extended to Jews and Roma (Gypsies) and they sought to liquidate their opposition. In defeat, as in power, the fascist elements of the Catholic hierarchy were defiant. Stepinac was tried, convicted, held under limited isolation and finally deported.

During their confrontation, Tito lost patience with Stepinac lecturing him and shouted, "As a Catholic I protest!" His outburst was not made public until after he died. How would it have looked at the time for a communist leader to be claiming religious affiliation? And how would such an exclamation be understood in a multi-ethnic country in the early stages of socialist development?

This came to mind last night when I attended Our Lady of Guadalupe Mass in Independence. The presiding priest was an old man who does not speak Spanish. The community of the faithful were working class Mexicans. His hands were made for chalices, not for callouses, while so many of the faithfdul present were obviously coming from hard jobs. The priest took the opportunity to use the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe to lecture us on the evils of abortion and the need for the traditional family values he feels most strongly about. It was a sermon from the early years of the last century.

The children then put on a well-acted play about Juan Diego and the appearance of the Virgin. The girl who took the part of the Virgin was believable and the young man who played Juan Diego did so with real heart. The bishop and the disbelieving friar were played by girls. On some level then, despite the efforts of reactionary clergy, the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe remained a story of people asserting their rights with the help or presence of God--an assertion which confronted, from the standpoint of faith, the Church as part of an occupying power.

The faithful deserve better than lectures from reactionary priests in foreign languages. I say this as a believer. "As a Catholic I protest!" We need a Church which works to liberate the oppressed in the cultural contexts and languages of the faithful, we need catechists with class and national consciousness to lead this struggle and we need a theology of liberation which speaks to the here and now of our oppression as well as to what God requires of us for salvation.

Here
is a link to a film section dealing with Stepinac.

I was pushed to think about this after reading an article in the current Call To Action bulletin by Jamie T. Phelps, OP. Please do not only watch the video about Stepinac and Jasenovac. Please also read what this great African-American feminist Catholic theologian has to say. The article is here.

We cannot cede the faithful to the right any more than we can cede the unions, the workplace or the Democrats to the right. However unconsciously or carefully the play done by the children was crafted last night, it told a story of resistance and struggle in subtle ways. That struggle belongs, in some sense, to all of us and it needs to be encouraged and deepened by the people ourselves in the pews.

December 12, 2007

Steve Novick--People's Candidate In Oregon


I got to hear Steve Novick speak to a group of union retirees yesterday. Steve is running for US Senate against Gordon Smith and Jeff Merkeley and a few others as well.

Steve is antiwar, supports universal or single-payer healthcare, supports the Employee Free Choice Act (and wants to see Taft-Hartley repealed), opposes NAFTA and CAFTA and he carries a strong anti-Sizemore message. He is strong on taking on polluters as a way of working on global warming and he also carries a "tax the rich" message, arguing that people who sell stocks for a living should at least pay taxes at the same rates as Social Security and Medicare. He supports a shorter work week and public works programs to rebuild schools and infrastructure and develop an environmentally-friendly energy sector.

When was the last time you heard a candidate talk about these issues with workers and say that he favors "the needs of labor over the desires of capital"?

Much of the conversation with the retirees revolved around the war and the economy and the fight against Gordon Smith. As the election draws closer, Smith increasingly comes off as the nice-guy Republican who is anti-war and looking for compromises on immigration. This gets him some credence with independents and some Democrats. Salem's mayor, Janet Taylor, is one of his supporters.

Novick made the point in his talk that we have to win back the independents and Democrats who support Smith by holding Smith's record on the minimum wage, the environment, the national debt, the Haliburton investigation and big pharma up for discussion. Behind Smith stand people like the Wendt family, the folks who founded Jeld-Wen, and Haliburton and big pharma. These issues and the people involved make Novick's campaign a real people's fight. An example of how this works can be read here.

Novick is a lawyer who did anti-polluter legal work with the federal government for eight years. He fought Sizemore and McIntyre for ten years through labor and non-profit political groups and he built business and civic group support for an anti-Sizemore agenda. He worked on the successful campaign to take additional lottery proceeds from the taverns. His visible support comes from workers and from some of Oregon's elected progressive Democrats.

Steve is informal and for-real--he knows how to talk to working people. You can find his website at http://www.novickforsenate.org/. You can get a quick read on him here. There is a great video on Steve here.

Two or three weaknesses are apparent in Steve's campaign. Like many progressives, Steve gets stuck on Iraq and Afghanistan. We have not been able to move forward and voice and build on what most Americans seem to want--an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Steve wants negotiations with and help from states bordering Iraq and immediate withdrawal if that doesn't work. He has no worked-out strategy on Afghanistan, but I'm glad that he's honest enough to say so and not try to sell me soap. An additional weakness is that Steve wants to on at least some of the committees Ron Wyden is on. Finally, Steve did not talk about HR 676, the single payer healthcare legislation introduced by Congressman John Conyers (D-Mich).

The retirees liked hearing from Steve and Steve responded to every concern they raised directly and honestly.

December 11, 2007

Oregon Payday Loans
















I first became aware of payday loans in Oregon when we came to crunch time in negotiations for a new union contract and people were telling me that they could not strike because of debts. The workers get paid once a month, don't have quite the money to make it through the month and they hit the payday loan and car title loan places for money. The interest and fees are outrageous.

We took this on as an issue at a time when churches, community groups and the credit unions were also getting involved. I went to one legislative hearing and sat in front of some payday loan industry lobbyists while a Lutheran minister from Eugene was testifying for legislative oversight and regulation of the companies. The lobbyists smirked and made fun of the minister. It's one thing to ridicule some one's politics but it's another thing entirely to make fun of God and it says a great deal about the companies that their lobbyists did this. We won a compromise bill that caused at least a few of the companies to go out of business and we slowed the growth of the industry overall, I think. We should have capped this with raises for every working person and some kind of a social wage as well.

As we went through this fight against the payday loan companies and the legislative process I was uneasy with the role played by the Oregon credit unions. They came to the table with a plan for high school education on handling money and budgets which sounded like something out of Ben Franklin's playbook and they occasionally mentioned that they would soon have "products" out which would better serve the needs of people going to the payday loan places. Still and all, they did oppose the payday loan companies on interest rates and interest caps. I think that they eventually backed out of cooperating with the wider movement fighting the payday loan companies; after a certain point we didn't see them in hearings anymore.

Now we hear that bank regulators, banks and credit unions are "concerned" about the 73 million Americans who are alleged "underserved" by the banks. These regulators and banks are also looking at the 81 million people who use the payday and car title loan places. They see potential markets here--the "concern" amounts to market calculations. It seems that the credit unions will be in the vanguard of developing and penetrating into these markets with the new "products" they were talking about while we were fighting the payday loan companies. Besides lower cost loans, the credit unions will also offer check-cashing services and will open restricted accounts for people with some portion of loan fees. "The more loans borrowers take, the more money they can save," says one story.

Several thoughts come to mind here.

  • We (unions and progressive groups) coalesced to win a successful battle against one arm of the system, we needed allies in order to win that fight, our victory was a compromise and now part of that alliance or coalition turns on working people in order to create new markets and take from working people part of the value we create in the form of interest rates, loan and banking fees and terms of credit.
  • Capitalism frequently finds itself at war with the old, with tradition, with sentiment and with religion. Perhaps the further removed from the productive process, or production and distribution, industries and companies are the more cynical and cold-hearted this corporate war becomes.
  • This payday loan "industry" is not an industry in any conventional sense; it produces nothing except misery. This is not an industry which produces "products." This is true whether we are talking about Oregon's payday loan and car title companies or the credit unions competing in these markets.
  • Some thought and some fight needs to go into increasing the wages of all working people together and overall, with some thought and fight going into social wages as well. We should build to the point of demanding that all working class debt to the loan companies and banks be cancelled.
  • The present crisis of the banks and banking industry is not an anomaly; this is how the system is designed to work.
  • This demonstrates a unique characteristic of capital and capitalism. Millions of people may be losing their homes due to foreclosures and too-high interest rates and disadvantageous mortgage deals, talk is that a recession is either under way or coming, there is no will by the party in power to save homes and housing and the banking industry is moving on by developing new markets among the near-poor and soon-to-be-poorer as they hit the ropes. Moreover, a vulnerable section of the banking industry--the credit unions--is out-front on this adventure, with the potential of taking down Oregon's small-town and worker savings if there is a failure here.
  • Capitalism is creating new words and new rhetoric to describe this adventure, obscuring the need for profit and exploitation behind alleged concerns for poor and soon-to-be-poor working class people.



December 9, 2007

Salem, OR. Solidarity With El Salvador


















Salem's First Congregation Church United Church of Christ sponsored a Salvadorean solidarity event this evening. About sixty people attended, ate together, heard presentations from two Salvadorean women and socialized.

The speakers represented CRIPDES, the Corporation of Rural Communities for Development of El Salvador. CRIPDES is a non-governmental organization which does community organizing in seven rural provinces in El Salvador with young people and women. Key issues for CRIPDES are human rights, services for youth, the empowerment of women, stopping the privatization of water rights and health care, land ownership, food security and education. This work takes place as globalization--given expression in El Salvador through CAFTA and the migration of men to the US and Canada for labor and cash remittances--continues and as the Salvadorean government partners with the US government in Iraq and invites into the country trainers from the School of the Americas.

The speakers and CRIPDES are looking for international solidarity and are focusing on winning solidarity from North American communities of faith. The American SHARE Foundation gives some visible expression to this solidarity.

One of the speakers spoke in some detail about human rights in El Salvador. She spoke as a single mother with four children and as an experienced activist. She said that the peace agreements signed in 1992 silenced the bullets but did not bring social justice. Salvadorean presidents have been civilians since 1989, but they have shared a military mentality and progressive rural and grassroots organizers are persecuted. The main demands put forward by these organizers and leaders are for access to water, access to healthcare, access to education and land.

Fourteen leaders were arrested in El Salvador in July of this year for actively opposing the privatization of water and these arrests were apparently part of a wave of military repression. They were accused of being terrorists. One of the speakers pointed out that human rights violations occur in the US as well as in El Salvador and offered the international struggle for human rights as a vehicle for building cross-border unity. She asked how the coming US elections might impact El Salvador.

Salvadorean elections will be held in 2009. The speakers favored the candidacy of Mauricio Funes of the Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional (FMLN). The translator went through some trouble explaining that Funes comes from the center, that he is not from the FMLN and that he was nominated by forces outside of the FMLN.

The speakers both stressed that the Salvadorean government faces a crisis of credibility. International solidarity and the strength of progressive movements in El Salvador has stopped the Salvadorean government from implementing the anti-terror law as the government has wanted to. There was repeated recognition of the special role Salvadorean migrant workers play throughout the evening. Archbishop Romero and the progressive religious movements were mentioned several times. CRIPDES has its origins in these movements.

This event came two days after a labor rally in Salem led by AFSCME, one day after two Salvadorean workers were killed in a terrible work accident in New York and before the December 19 showing of a film on Cuban healthcare in Corvallis. The weakness of the event this evening was that these events were not discussed and connected to one another. It would have helped our understanding of the events the speakers were describing had more context been provided and if the Funes candidacy, which drew much interest, had been more clearly explained. Funes' running-mate is Salvador Sanchez-Ceren of the FMLN.

The sponsoring church and the group who put this presentation together did a great job. This was a strong event which translated into practical solidarity.

It occured to me during the event that the current situation in El Salvador in similar in some respects to post-war Greece. In Greece at the close of the second world war a popular movement held at least nominal power in the countryside despite fascist repression and US and British intervention. The CIA's first intervention was in Greece, I believe. After the (temporary) defeat of that popular movement Greek workers were sent abroad and the economy was propped up with foreign aid and by cash remittances sent home by expatriate Greek workers. Meanwhile, in Greece a fascist "parasatate" took power and held on to it; some people argue that that parastate still exists. The fascists were dislodged by a centrist party pressured by the left, by international isolation and by international capital's need for markets and capitalist market relations.

The SHARE Foundation can be found here.

CRIPDES is here.

The FMLN website is is here.

Reports on the arrests of the 14 activists can be found here and here.

The film on Cuban healthcare will be shown at the Corvallis Oddfellows hall on Wednesday, December 19 at 7:00 pm.

December 5, 2007

Palestinian Childrens Welfare Fund Appeal










Several members of Willamette Reds have worked with the Palestine Childrens Welfare Fund mentioned below. We recommend this organization to our readers and members.

The Palestine Childrens Welfare Fund is please to announce that it sponsored a big party for the children in Alfaraa refugee camp in Palestine to celebrate Childrens Day and Disabled Children Day. The event included clowns, music and the distribution of toys and gifts to the children which can be seen at http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=11561&id=763114530&l=9a147&ref=share.


PCWF is also planning to distribute for the upcoming Eid El Adha almubarak sheep, chickens, toys and gifts to the children in Alfaraa refugee camp, the Hebron Orphans House, the city of Beitlehem and other cities in Palestine where we work.

Please consider supporting our work by buying Palestinian arts and crafts whose proceeds go back to the men and women in Palestine who produce the goods so that they can live with their pride and dignity. Furthermore, it will support the Palestinian economy and create jobs for the men and women to feed their families. Donations can be made on our website at http://www.pcwf.org/.

All donations will be listed on the website to recognize the donors and maintain the integrity of our work for the sake of the children.

December 4, 2007

Bush Overboard!


Last Sunday's New York Times carried a front-page article reporting that business lobbyists are expecting gains by Democrats in the coming elections and are preparing for that by pushing for new rules which will further tip the balance of power their way. The proposed rules changes and this corporate offensive will negatively effect worker rights and worker safety and environmental protections if it is successful.

The article goes into a great deal of detail on what this push from corporate America looks like. What is at stake is the potential for these forces to do a great deal of environmental damage and not have to fix or clean up that damage and further restrict or constrict workers' rights. Beyond that, what is at stake is a push for the continued redistribution of wealth taking place and the practical continued looting of public treasuries by American and global capital. The article identifies the National Mining Association, National Association of Manufacturers, Chamber of Commerce, National Chicken Council, U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, Edison Electric Institute and others as leading these efforts.

What I found most interesting in the article is the point that the corporations have apparently decided that the Republicans are not salvageable at the moment. Someone apparently did a cost-benefit analysis and decided that, in this period at least, the possibility of deepening barbarism presents some barriers to globalized capital and capitalist relations. The many national Republican leaders who have stepped back from politics, or out of political races entirely, apparently figured this out earlier. They have left the hard soldiers of the libertarian and religious rights on the field to take the hits, regather and reconnoiter.

The article also pointed out that business interests are "recalibrating" their political strategies. One analyst is quoted as saying, "Defense contractors have not only begun to prepare for the next administration. They have begun to shape it. They've met with Hilary Clinton and other candidates."

The pessimistic view holds that all is therefore decided and that voting will mean very little. We can read the quote above as justifying our cynicism, but we can also read it as an admission that capital has been forced to throw Bush & Co. overboard and that the Republicans are in crisis and as a call to build the left at the base so that the Democratic candidate must choose between our demands and theirs. And we must be prepared for the showdown when those choices are made.

It is also interesting that the Republican and corporate leaderships are assuming a Clinton candidacy. It may well be that they are conserving their money and options to attack Clinton full-front if she is nominated, thus potentially provoking a social crisis. The assumed crisis within the Republican party may indeed hide an attempt to regather and then unleash some of their worst forces.

But what if Clinton is not the candidate? What if they are preparing to attack someone who does not run? It is doubtful that they could reorganize and "recalibrate" in time to either provoke a crisis or win an election. A fundamentally racist attack on Obama would not succeed and would set conservatives back for years. A class attack on Edwards would alienate key sectors of the Republican base and split their party.

The best tactical move for Democrats would be to keep Clinton out front but run another, more progressive candidate. As always, the Democratic leadership will have to be pushed kicking and screaming into the fight against racism and for peace. The extent to which we are able to do this will approach the extent to which we are able to move forward over the next four years through organizing, mobilizing, pressure tactics and by forcefully asserting a left agenda.

December 3, 2007

Immigrant Rights Portland Event

Hola CompaƱeras y CompaƱeros,

To celebrate the United Nation’s International Immigrant's Day and to raise funds to benefit the victims of the Del Monte raid, there will be a video documentary festival addressing the struggle of immigrant communities in the U.S. as well as the roots and causes of immigration issues. The videos will start at 11:00 a.m. and finish at 6:00 p.m., with a tamale sale throughout the day. The event will close with the serving of various Latin American appetizers and a performance by Alfonzo Maya - a Mexican troubadour (Latin American new song).

What: Benefit Concert for Immigration Raid Victims.
When: December 16th, 2007
Where: SEIU Portland Union Hall (SEIU Local 503)--6401 SE Foster Rd.
Time: 11am to 6pm Films/Video -
6pm Alfonso Maya performance

(This event is organized by the victims of the Del Monte raid and the Portland Immigrant Rights Coalition)