May 29, 2008

A Victory At Burger King!

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is announcing a victory in their campaign to pressure Burger King to do the right thing and raise the wages of Florida tomato farmworkers. This struggle, which has gone on for more than one year, won popular support throughout the US as it raised important questions about private equity funds, labor solidarity, the fastfood industry, still-existing slavery and related lawsuits and legal challenges and corporate spying and interference in union and social justice struggles. Many of those questions remain unreseolved, but the win announced by CIW will go far in pressuring other employers in other industries to come to the bargaining table and will be a step up and forwards for farmworkers everywhere. The win came through a brilliant campaign which moved a boycott, corporate pressure, worker organizing, media and popular support and pressure through a campaign around private equity funds and investment all at once. Several years ago many people in the labor movement doubted that this could be done, but today we see what unity and struggle can accomplish. CIW will continue to lead the struggle and is quickly becoming the conscience of the labor movement in the US.

May 28, 2008

Oregon State University Hits Another Low Point

Oregon State University is being positioned by University administration to compete internationally with corporate sponsorship in a globalized capitalist economy. We have discussed some of the rhyme and reason accompanying the changes needed to make this happen in previous posts.

This is a university in which the top three leading administrators direct well over $260 million in assets, with instruction and research getting only about $176 million; where the state provides (perhaps) only thirty-five per cent of the university's revenues; where staff and faculty salaries fall well below national and regional averages; and where cost-cutting and student tuition increases are expected to pick up budgetary shortfalls. The Campaign for OSU has raised something like $400 million from so-called private donations, many of which certainly come with strings attached, serve to direct or control education and educational opportunities and provide job security only for administration. Student labor, from research to blue collar jobs, becomes increasingly important to holding down costs while student services and opportunities suffer at OSU. Students are organized through student government, but lack political organization and organization on their jobs where their power potential is perhaps greatest. Other University workers remain divided or work without job security on jobs which are increasingly grant-dependent or which are constantly being "rationalized" to fit into the picture of the University as a player in the Pacific Rim and high tech economies. OSU administration therefore gets a free ride; they're essentially throwing a party with someone else's money. OSU's administration, along with the University of Oregon and Portland State administration teams, have built their political and economic power to the point that the resource allocation model they developed and pushed through some time ago may now be used to jettison the four smaller regional state schools and lead to the practical dissolution of the state's higher ed system.

Some of the more recent OSU administration adventures: cancelling at least eight foreign language classes and entirely cutting first-year Italian classes, attempting to take overtime salaries away from sixty-one classified staff, continuing the push to put university service centers in place and being less-than-honest with the university community while doing so, holding out in union contract negotiations with the grad student union on the fairshare-fee issue and continuing the push to bring the INTO Corporation onto campus. This is what business and modern capitalist methods look like to the OSU administrators. They can't make the transition they want to democratically or with fair play or honesty, but they're smart enough to maintain a veneer of transparency. A legislature which looks only at a financial bottom line and isn't too concerned with accountability will be impressed. This is, after all, a legislature somewhat beholden to OSU. A people's movement is needed in Oregon to turn our state institutions around.

May 26, 2008

Intimate Politics by Bettina F. Aptheker, Emeryville, CA.: Seal Press, 2006. Paperback. 549 pages with photographs.

Intimate Politics is slowly making an impact. Two years after first publication the book is being taken more seriously than it initially was and it is getting reviewed with something more than, or other than, the primary attention being paid to Bettina Aptheker's father and his sexual abuse. The author's full story and her hopes in telling her story are finally surfacing in reviews and discussions. We seem to be past the point of people who have not read the book reacting publicly to it.

Herbert Aptheker, Bettina Aptheker's father, remains as one of our great historians. He was years ahead of his time in researching and writing about Black slave revolts and mapping a history of Black freedom struggles. He was generous in his teaching and methodical in his scholarship. His popular and scholarly work, begun almost 80 years ago, must still be consulted by serious historians and referenced in any discussion of class relations and race in the American south. His best work in this area will stand alongside his daughter's account of him as a pedophile and as an irascible and dogmatic Communist as his epitaph. It will be tragic indeed if the significance of Herbert Aptheker's work is forgotten in light of his daughter's memoir.

Intimate Politics covers Bettina Aptheker's childhood during the Cold War, her role in the Berkeley student movement and in the movement to free Angela Davis, her coming out as a lesbian, the development of her spirituality, her leaving the Communist Party and the interior crises she has experienced along the way. The book is, at its end, forgiving and hopeful, although Fay and Herbert Aptheker come in for a good deal of criticism, or even bashing. We have no reason to doubt the authenticity of her experience or the validity of her journeys, but I wondered as I read it about all that was left out that also belongs there.

Bettina Aptheker is trying to build a bridge between her experience and the experiences of young people with this book. She is also trying to examine the connections between the personal and the political. Writing the book was a step for her in a recovery process to the extent that it allowed her or helped her explore "the politics of trauma." She also chose to make it an account of her spiritual journey and work.

Aptheker succeeds in reaching these goals with her book. Intimate Politics does all of this and does it well. It communicates the author's pains and joys and the heady nature of leading a movement in the best of times and in times of social and political retreat.

This book is also a journey to and through identity politics and the author does not evaluate identity politics with the same materialist criteria that she judges so much else. We see some of the negative and flawed sides of Communist identity during the Cold War and the 1960s--difficult times, indeed--but few of the positives. Frozen in the difficult times of the author's life, we do not get a strong sense of where Fay and Herbert Aptheker really came from or what their movement and their families meant to them and to others from one day to the next. That generation deserves better.

This book will no doubt be used by some to attack the left. The easy criticism will be to say that it is impossible to build a movement for freedom while leaders struggle with their own demons, or have leaders in a movement for freedom at all. I do not believe that this was Bettina Aptheker's purpose in writing and a close reading of the book will prove that point. In fact, this book requires a close reading in order to avoid simplistic criticism. The author could have proactively guarded against this by presenting something of the fruits of her father's considerable intellectual and political development and writing more about left culture during the Cold War. We read of parties at which leading left and civil rights activists were present at the Aptheker home, but we are left wondering what they talked about. Dr. Du Bois makes a great entrance in the book but remains one-dimensional, as do so many others.

Finally, Aptheker's book joins a long list of books critical of the left and the Communist Party over the last 50 years or so. There is room for valid criticism, but surely these books and this criticism do not fully express what a majority of people who passed through the left and the Communist Party in these years experienced. There have been tremendous victories along the way won by people who no doubt struggled internally with all kinds of demons--and those victories remain and nourish others despite our intimate shortcomings. The search for community on the left has given many people the means to survive and do well, even while there have been losses. Constituting an optimistic collective identity in a society which prizes a distorted form of individualism is hard work, and not all of us can make that work across our lives, and certainly not without intimate contradictions appearing. How can we not be a little crazy in a world ordered as it is?

May 25, 2008

Our Tito: May 25, 1892--May 4, 1980

"From the very beginning, our people's government has shown the greatest concern for the working people, for the people of our country in general. If it were not to do so, it would no longer be a people's government. Everything that is being done and built here has one purpose: to make our workers happier, to give them better living conditions. The workers of town and country are masters of the present and of a better future for themselves. How rapidly that better future comes when it will no longer be necessary for people to make such great efforts, depends on the working people of town and country themselves, on their persistence, self-sacrifice and patience. It depends on how hard they work, on there being fewer people just standing aside, on everyone's giving something of himself to the daily struggle for the fulfillment of the Five Year Plan, for increasing the productivity of labor, for producing the best possible consumers' goods for the citizens of our socialist country. The peasants in the cooperatives, which they run themselves, and the workers in the factories, which they will from now on be managing themselves, today really have their destinies in their own hands."--Our Tito

May 21, 2008

Oregon's Primaries--A Left Perspective

Our primaries drew record numbers of voters, with an especially high number of Democrats voting. These numbers and the primary results cannot be seen apart from the voter mobilization for Obama, which grew and then plateaued with the Pennsylvania primary and then kicked into motion again. The Obama campaign had the push from below after Pennsylvania needed to win, as last Saturday's rallies in Portland and Pendleton showed, but not every liberal or progressive campaign was able to do so in synch with movement around Obama. Many of the Democrats who were able to follow the movement won, but others either could not or would not do so and lost. The primaries took place as Oregon faces massive cutbacks in public services, with rural Oregon perhaps continuing to take especially hard hits. Many of the races featured real campaigns with differing messages.

We have to remember that the overwhelming message of the closing days of the primary was 75,000 people in the Portland streets and another 3500 people at a rally in Pendleton supporting the Obama candidacy. Implicit in their presence was a rejection of racism and a call to end the war, regardless of any other factors or Obama's rock-star qualities. Portland's African-American community mobilized on their own to build the Portland rally, as I'm sure the Native Americans who attended the Pendleton rally did also.

Labor wins with victories taken by Obama, Kroger, Kate Brown, Doyle, Schrader and Michael Dembrow and a few others. Since this is not a completely inspiring list, we have to ask what happens next with these candidates. Steve Novick's loss, close as it was, is a loss for the left and the state. Novick's loss is less about his politics and message and more about the determining role big money plays in elections, the not-always-helpful work done by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the organizational inability of the left to move our message beyond a certain base at this point in time. It also points out that the right is so nervous about the possibility of a left challenge that we can force people like Gordon Smith to campaign, spend money and change positions.

Regan Gray's loss also hurts, but this loss only shows what happens when there is not broad unity around a common program based on jobs, the environment, equality and peace. Lloyd Chapman, who ran for Salem mayor on a progressive program, lost to incumbent Janet Taylor. That loss says more about the strength of the real estate and development interests in Marion County than it does about the strengths or weaknesses of Chapman's program. That loss should also tell us that we need to base progressive programs in the multiracial working class communities. Chapman could have won with real working class support and by identifying openly with the Obama movement.

The Oregon primaries cannot be fully understood as a contest between the left and the right or, for that matter, as a contest of wills between the working class and the bourgeoisie. The left has made great advances here, and the primaries prove that while also pointing out our weaknesses. Labor went into the primaries somewhat divided and if you aren't a member of SEIU, CWA, UFCW, AFSCME, ILWU, or OEA you probably had to find your own way politically. Every election creates odd alliances of convenience and these primaries were no different: labor support for Dennis Doyle (Beaverton), Republican Ed Glad(McMinnville) and Ben Westlund (State Treasurer) came with corporate or even reactionary support.

This primary settles little, but it does help to create a new political landscape by more sharply defining political options and sides and by giving Obama some needed numbers. People--and particularly working class people--want the kinds of changes that the Republicans cannot provide and which too few Democrats address in meaningful ways. New forces are coming into political struggles and are making themselves heard. They come with optimism but with almost no political experience. The push for change now also comes at a time when workers are understandably fearful and hesitant. There is always a class struggle, of course, but the present-day class struggle looks so one-sided because the working class remains so divided. The Oregon primaries reflect these contradictions.

From now until November we have to build the unity needed to beat the right-wing candidates and their ballot measures. If this historic moment and its political tasks are tests for labor and the left, they are also the proving grounds for every "friend of labor" who made it through the primaries. Labor and the left cannot yet talk about principled unity behind a common program and shared leadership here. On the other hand, both labor and left forces are now strong enough to talk seriously about holding candidate friends accountable and demanding that they move to the left as the attack from the right continues and inevitably deepens.

May 13, 2008

Moving Through Oregon's Primary

It has been a stunningly odd week in Oregon politics.

The Republican party continues to self-destruct, with the latest hiccup being the open Mannix-Erickson conflict taking place in a broke (and broken) state party. This is then mirrored nationally with McCain’s convention coordinator, Doug Goodyear, having to step down because of his ties to the Burmese dictatorship. McCain seems to be reaching out to Kulongoski, possibly because every other Republican leader in Oregon is so...well, so Republican. You get a sense of the Republican party becoming an out-of-control and off-message train wreck.

Gordon Smith slips below fifty-per-cent in the polls. He’s being forced to campaign—surely a new experience for Smith—and the race between Novick and Merkley is too close to call at this point. We all know that it’s Novick making Smith run and spend Republican money, though, and we're waiting for the national help in the race that turned away months ago because Smith's victory then seemed assured. Rumor has it that Smith’s ad conceding possible defeat for his party in the presidential race was paid for by national Democratic money. If that’s true, whose foundation is cracking?

Sizemore, Mannix and Loren Parks have returned with a bunch of bad ballot measures and have probably spent over $2 million pushing them. Parks has the deep pockets here; everyone else on that side of the table seems either unwilling to ante up or broke. When you talk to people at the base of the Republican effort they seem either ashamed or uninformed about their ballot measures, though. Republican hit commercials targeting the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA)seem to be making a bigger splash than anything Oregon's Republicans have at hand--and this only because the ads make opposition to EFCA appear bipartisan. They can't win on their program.

Kulongoski remains in the Clinton camp with Hooley. This and the attention from McCain raises the question of whether or not their wing of the Democratic party can be counted on to actively support an Obama candidacy or not. This is the wing of the Democratic party known for vacillation and “pragmatism,” of course. Blumenauer, Wu and DeFazio (finally) are committed to Obama. Bradbury and Wyden are characteristically waiting on the sidelines.

Meanwhile, 57 Oregonians have died in Iraq, 58 have died in Afghanistan and Oregon’s 919 food banks are serving about 192,000 people.

May 7, 2008

Book Review: Red Chicago

Red Chicago by Randi Storch, Urbana/Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2007. Hardbound. Pp. 230.

Over the years myths and stereotypes have grown up around the Communist Party in the United States. Most of these mischaracterizations have their origins in anti-communist media and they have endured, in one form or another, for almost 90 years. When an open Communist introduces herself as a member of the Party in a social setting the common reaction is often, “You’re kidding, right?” The reality of a “regular” person identifying as a Communist does not jive with the still-existing media-created image of the uptight, dogmatic and nearly-fearsome robot.

One of the more harmful enduring myths is that the Communist Party in the United States was a creature of the Soviet experience, living in the shadow of the Russian Party and depending on that party for its direction, ideology and money. This myth cuts across the political spectrum to this day, in one form or another, so that it is difficult for many people to imagine an American Communist Party rooted here and basing itself in a distinctly American experience. Storch’s valuable book seeks to overturn this particular myth with solid research reaching deep into the history of the Communist Party in Chicago between the years 1928 and 1935. This was a transitional moment for the left internationally and Storch does a good job of showing how the Communist Party transitioned from being a relatively isolated and dogmatic sect to a leading force in key social movements of the day. The author does this without stressing the Party’s relationship to the rest of the left so that the reader is able to maintain a sense of movement and time without getting bogged down in obscure sectarian competitiveness.

Storch looks carefully at how Communists in Chicago lived out their politics in their neighborhoods and in their workplaces and how this early work at the grassroots laid the basis for what became Popular Front culture, a distinctly American mixture of progressive values and dreams which reached deep into the labor movement, the civil rights struggles and community organizing. That growth was not easy and, for the Communists, it came at the expense of sectarianism and as the result of what must have been difficult and compelling personal and collective struggles. Along the way many good people and many opportunities for the Party to organize were lost.

The author focuses on how many Communists ignored, sidestepped or struggled with Party discipline and politics in their efforts to construct socialism in Chicago at their neighborhood and workplace levels. She documents how this was done by using a mix of traditional and newly-available sources. She goes several steps further by following these efforts over an important seven-year period, by showing how these efforts existed independently of outside direction and pressure and by effectively arguing that the history of the American left can best be understood by looking at the lived experiences of American radicals at the base. Storch makes this real by going into some great detail about Chicago's Communist rank-and-file. What emerges from the book is an account of real and fallible working people, Black and white, who sought justice and meaning in on-going close-at-hand struggles.

The book has some weaknesses. The author errs in saying that Georgi Dmitroff was “revered for his role in a conspiracy to burn down the German Reichstag” and her analysis of the 1939 nonaggression pact signed between the USSR and Germany is seriously mistaken. Storch is not a union or community organizer and so she does not grasp the finer points of organizing strategies, and so she misses the point of Communist organizing in some cases. In her efforts to show the real creativity of the Communist Party she often trivializes the Party’s political line and some of its strengths and weaknesses.

Still, this book challenges many of the invented myths surrounding the Communist Party and it challenges historians to do their work more thoroughly. It provides a map and the kind of documentary evidence needed to make a part of Chicago’s radical past come alive for readers. It raises good questions about how the left has responded to racism and sexism in the past and the place of the left in American society. Perhaps unintentionally, the book becomes an argument against sectarianism and for a leftward political course which reaches American workers where we live, work and socialize with one another.

May 1, 2008

May Day Salem Oregon

Several thousand people gathered in Salem at the State Capitol to demonstrate their commitment to defeat anti-immigration legislation, and to demand immigration reform and restoration of the right to an Oregon driver license.
Dancers prayed and blessed the crowd which covered the spectrum of ages from young to old. There were many middle and high school students, families, young men, and children.

Senator Chip Shields spoke and reminded us that he voted against Oregon Senate Bill 1080, which made it a requirement to prove legal presence in the US before applying for an Oregon driver license or ID card. He called upon us to hold these legislators accountable to their anti-worker votes. He cited NAFTA, CAFTA and other trade agreements and international policies as factors that drive people from their place of birth to other places to work.

Pastor Gail McDougle of the UCC church in Salem spoke to the fact that we are all immigrants, immigration is the story of the USA, that we all need to speak up against the lies that are being told about immigrant workers. She reminded us also that undocumented immigrants contribute to our infrastructure by paying billions of dollars in taxes per year and social security taxes while not receiving the benefits of citizens. She called upon us to pressure the Oregon legislature to restore the right to drive.

Ramon Ramirez, director of PCUN (Farmworkers union) reminded us that May 1 is an historic day in American history and it is now internationally celebrated as International Workers' Day. He wanted us to remember and acknowledge our ancestors and all the workers that have made the wealth of this country. Ramirez asked us to commit to be back here in Salem at the Capitol Building in January 2009 to demand, through statute change, the right to drive. "Today we march, tomorrow we vote!"

Other speakers asked us to remember that this is just the beginning of the struggle. A popular Mexican hip hop singer named Chris Meza sang political songs. An open mic session was well received; the DJ asked for young people to come up and shout out gritas and speak briefly. This was exciting for the kids and made the event fun. During the speakers and the march around the downtown Salem area, there was a strong feeling of solidarity, high energy, and "we're in for the struggle." A great event on May Day in Salem Oregon.