April 27, 2008

Oregon Union Retirees Meet: Medicare, Social Security & Struggle On The Agenda


(Please go here to see our great video from last week's antiwar action in Salem.)

About forty retired union members affiliated with the Oregon Alliance for Retired Americans (OARA) met at the Portland ILWU Local 8 hall on Saturday. OARA is labor’s main retiree organization here. At least 13 unions were represented in the convention. The meeting featured reports by OARA President Verna Porter, ARA Director of Field Mobilization Dani Pere, State Representative Jean Cowan, Dr. Jim, Davis, Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, Michael Leachman and others.

Convention turnout was light. This may have been due to the Clinton visit, the shifting nature of union retiree organizing in Oregon and our nice weather. The convention was determined to move forward and it was an interesting event. We know that about 50 per-cent of people 60 years old and older vote against their class and age interests while union retirees vote at 70 per-cent in defense of their class and age interests.

ARA is a relatively young organization. It took off with the Medicare Part D struggle. This work and Social Security and healthcare organizing continue, said Dani Pere, but these efforts are not now front and center. In 2010 private insurance companies will begin to compete with Medicare as a part of the largely overlooked Medicare Modernization Act, so the election cycle we’re in now is especially important for retirees. ARA and OARA could become centers for retiree political activity as word spreads about the threats to Medicare and Social Security.

Pere said that the Republican strategy is to gradually undercut or undermine Medicare while the ARA strategy is to incrementally rebuild the system. The Bush budget favored privatizing Social Security and McCain is a formidable candidate, but even McCain voted against the Medicare Modernization Act and even Gordon Smith has been good on some retiree issues. Pere raised the possibility that a senior or retiree Bill of Rights could be written which will help make the issues and the sides more clear.

Representative Jean Cowan spoke to many senior and retiree issues. She reminded us that “by the year 2030 we will double the population of the over-sixty-five age group” and she noted that the senior care workforce is not keeping up with this increase. She reported on the corporate decisions made to dump adult foster care home residents on Medicare in Oregon and the fracturing of our system of adult and senior care here. Fortunately, the industry has been forced to back away from some of their worst plans and DHS will be coming up with a long-term state plan on long-term senior care. Senior care in Oregon is a mix of public and private funding.

Dr. Jim Davis is Oregon’s principal advocate for seniors and he wears many hats. He is a labor-friendly leader in a regional campaign to fix the Medicare prescription plan. Political support for this struggle has been strong and there is the possibility that the effort can expand into a Medicare justice campaign aimed at dealing with senior addiction and mental health issues, forcing drug companies to negotiate with the government on prices and supporting children’s healthcare as well. This is an up-hill fight, despite the political support Dr. Davis has organized, because research on senior drug and alcohol addiction is not being done and because the legislature creates taskforces instead of taking action. Our system in Oregon has been a model for other states, and progress was made in the 2008 legislative session, but Medicare should be extended to everyone, Davis said, and much work needs to be done.

Davis also linked minority and senior health needs in his talk. He noted that Medicare “is one of the best run programs in the world” and that Oregon’s Senior and Disabled Services Department is a national model. Seniors experience especially high rates of depression and anxiety and this gives rise to addictions. The rising reimbursement rates are band-aids in a system where services are under-funded, however. His call was for a Medicare-for-all system that is community-based and government-run. “I do not feel that Medicare ever needed to be privatized and we should always oppose the privatization of Social Security. It only benefits the wealthy,” Davis said. “Any cutback in services is insane.”

Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian told us that the average age of people going into the trades in Oregon is rising and that the average age of workers in the trades here is pushing fifty. Companies moving to Oregon are increasingly bringing workers with them while traditional Oregon-based industry is using more high tech while Oregon isn’t keeping up. Oregon youth show interest in going into the trades but school budget cuts have taken out shop classes so there is no path from school into the apprenticeship programs. This accounts to some extent for the high school dropout rate. Avakian will stress training and entrance into the apprenticeship programs, restoring school funding cuts and retooling the schools in his new position. He cited the lack of affordable housing and healthcare and the absence of a stable retirement system as features of the social crisis which “makes it very difficult for society to function.” Avakian hit on this theme several times when he said, “None of our problems get solved without a strong democracy and people capable of solving problems,” when he criticized No Child Left Behind and other federal mandates and when he said,” I think that every citizen of this state should be totally focused on restoring public education.”

Cowan and Avakian took up the question of the salmon closure. Cowan put the blame for this on pollution and water diversion in California and reminded us that Oregon-based tuna, crab and pink shrimp that are harvested and canned in Oregon come from healthy and ecologically safe stocks.

Michael Leachman noted that five years of economic growth just ended with the current recession, but that that growth didn’t reach most working class Oregonians. Productivity per person is way up here while most of us continue to lose money in real wages while the wealthy do ever better. Measure 5 (1990) may have taken something like seven-and-one-half billion dollars of tax revenues away while Measure 50 (1997) shifted a greater share of property taxes from the wealthy to the working class. The poorest two per-cent of Oregon’s families pay over nine per-cent of taxes while the wealthiest families pay under two per-cent of taxes. Some of Sizemore’s proposed tax cuts will take over one billion dollars in revenue away and give the wealthiest one per-cent of Oregonians another boost.

Leachman sees the solution in terms of building unions and union bargaining power, social investing in infrastructure and education, solving the healthcare crisis in ways which benefit workers, stopping the Sizemore tax cuts, stopping the Sizemore senior property tax exemption, expanding the state earned income credit while increasing taxes on the corporation and the wealthy and insuring a government auction of cap-and-trade allowances which are not corporate giveaways while giving rebates to low-income consumers.

The salmon closure, cap and trade, restoring shop classes to schools, Medicare Part C and Part D and the role of religion today all provoked good discussions. Rev. Mark Knutson did a great job talking about his church and social justice and Ken Hennrich gave a wonderful account of the work he has done in New Orleans.

April 24, 2008

Candidates Debate At Western Oregon University

Candidates Jeff Merkley, John Frohnmayer, Steve Novick and Candy Neville were at Western Oregon University today for a debate. They’re all running against Gordon Smith for US Senate. Frohnmayer is the lone independent candidate running.

Common wisdom has it that Smith is unbeatable now, but today’s event was enthusiastic and focused on policy and on beating Smith. With unity and principled positions on key issues Smith can be beaten.

Novick started off by describing his background and accomplishments and gave an anti-Sizemore and anti-McIntyre rap. He’s antiwar and strong on healthcare. His strategy and emphasis are on changing leadership. Novick held on to his principles throughout the debate—at times he seemed to be the target for most of the candidates—but he also seemed to be supporting Bill Clinton’s economics.

Neville took her antiwar position as her lead issue. She wants a “new mentality” in place and supports “the will of the people”, but she’s vague on details and describing what this really means. She talks about attracting “new enterprises that make new money” without spelling out what this means. She describes herself as “a pioneer sort of girl” and takes some pride in building the first subdivision after the recession. On the positive side, she called for a freeze in military spending and increased funding for veterans’ services. She sees the need to withdraw US forces from Iraq, but in her thinking this should come with a kind of expanded international charitable effort and a “reintroduction” of the US to the world.

Merkley didn’t introduce himself—by now its safe to assume that everyone knows who he is—and he led with talking about quality-of-life issues, why he’s antiwar and why he’s opposed to Smith. He’s the candidate with the money behind him. He used healthcare, global warming and the need for family-wage jobs to define his candidacy today. I think that he fudged on the question of immediate withdrawal from Iraq; his stated position on withdrawal could have been read either way.

Frohnmayer sees himself as the “voice that will moderate between the Republicans and the Democrats, between the left and the right.” He’s been both a Republican and a Democrat and we can wonder what’s so wrong with him that he can’t choose sides or correctly define the political left, center and right. He played to the university audience by defining his candidacy as being about tuition and textbook costs and student loans. Following on his theme of confusing political sides, he said, “We’re not a country of ‘them’ and ‘us.’” He followed that by saying, “We don’t need change, we need transformation.” His other blind alleys of choice are supporting impeachment and taking on “special interests.” Later in the debate he called clearly for immediate withdrawal from Iraq--a position the other candidates seemed hesitant to take up.

None of the candidates stated a belief that healthcare is a human right. Novick wants a single-payer, Medicare-like healthcare system or the Wyden plan and support for employer-paid healthcare. Neville is vague on the healthcare issue. Merkley supports the Wyden plan, expanding clinic systems and taking up the Medicare Part D struggle. Frohnmayer says he wants a “not-for-profit” system but did not say if he envisions a predominately universal, single-payer or employer-based system.

Novick tied his tax-the-rich message to most of the points he made and came out against NAFTA and for international labor rights. Neville and Merkley are probably also strong on opposing NAFTA, but as you move across the political spectrum represented by the candidates you end with Frohnmayer on the right seeing tax-based solutions to most of the problems caused by the trade deals and capitalist crises. Frohnmayer calls for universal free education to be paid for by cutting the Pentagon’s budget, but this is in the context of making the US a “sustainable society” without an industrial or manufacturing policy. Merkley’s solution to high tuition and education costs is also tax-based. Novick and Merkley led on attacking Smith.

Novick questioned Merkley about his support for Israel in light of news stories this week which indicate that he is flip-flopping in order to get elected. Merkley denied the accusations or implications contained in these stories and said that he supports Israel and a Palestinian state. Novick dropped the point and none of the candidates weighed in with positions on the Israeli occupation and war against the Palestinians.

None of the candidates score perfectly with us on most issues. Frohnmayer and Neville, whatever their strong points, really veer to the right in the context of all that is taking place and is at stake in these elections. Today’s debate didn’t cover much new ground, but we can see a struggle in this period between maintaining principled positions on issues and the perceived need to move to the right and away from anti-monopoly, class, gender and peace issues. It falls to the left, the labor movement, the antiwar movement and other left and progressive forces to keep the candidates on track and to make sure that the most progressive candidates win as parts of an all-out broader struggle against the right.

Last year we were hearing some people despairing over the state of the antiwar movement. We could have done more and better antiwar mobilizations and more sustained antiwar work, but today's debate at WOU showed the success of the antiwar movement and the left. We are no longer debating whether or not the US should withdraw from Iraq, but when that withdrawal will take place. The leading Presidential candidate is running on an antiwar platform and his movement is pushing and being pushed on the local level. A sign of this push was evident at the Obama table at WOU today; it was staffed by SEIU and AFT activists.

April 23, 2008

Forward Oregon Red-Baits Willamette Reds

The folks at Forward Oregon red-baited the Steve Novick campaign for mentioning us on their blog roll or they red-baited us for supporting Novick. It’s hard to tell what the point of their blog entry is, but it deserves a response.

Forward Oregon may be a kind of front for the Merkley campaign; I can't tell. That campaign can’t be doing too well after today’s news, bad polling numbers and maybe stooping to red-baiting.

Let’s restart here on a positive note. We don’t endorse people running in other parties. If Merkley comes out ahead in the primary race--unlikely as that is--I think that most of us will work for him because we take the need to defeat the far-right as a core value. That won't be an endorsement, and should not be read as even critical support--it's a tactical decision needed to help win against the right.

If that defeat of the right comes as a landslide caused by workers, people of color, women and young people then almost any candidate—including Merkley, I hope—can be moved to the left, even if it comes with much kicking and screaming.

If Merkley wins the primary we will work for him as we work for Novick now—through our unions and through our daily political work. If Merkley rejects our support, he will be rejecting an active force in his important labor base and either surrendering principles or giving Gordon Smith the election.

We know that candidates move to the right as elections get closer, that there is a pressure exerted on them to behave opportunistically and that we can’t rely on them to build a fundamentally different and better world. Our Trotskyist friends waste their breath reminding us of this. But our long view tells us that the same kind of force which moves candidates to the right can be marshaled by other forces to move them to the left and that that movement makes a great deal of difference to workers, and especially so after so many years of Republican control. This understanding makes us unique on the left.

We want a discussion around issues. Our program is simple: defeat the right, put people before profits, stop discrimination and root out prejudice, end the wars, provide security and basics for everyone, extend democracy into every area of life and build a multiracial and multigenerational socialism here in the US that workers and our allies can recognize and claim as our own. With the possible exception of our socialist goals, what is it in our program that Forward Oregon could object to?

This is not to say that Steve Novick shares every point in our program. But Steve is both a product and an agent of the political forces that need to be in motion in order to beat the right. He exemplifies the anti-monopoly, anti-war and progressive forces who can win and then move the political conversation taking place in the US in a good direction.

Forward Oregon says that they think our support sinks Novick’s campaign and the Democrats’ chances. We argue that we have the same rights as anyone to voice our views. We believe that corporate dollars and influence are greater barriers to a Democrat victory than is support from the left. A lack of support from the left at this point could sink many key campaigns in the present political moment, in fact.

When Forward Oregon tries to define for the Novick campaign who is and is not an acceptable supporter, they are trying to define options and outcomes and take momentum away from a winning campaign that has become the conscience of progressive politics in Oregon.

We tried to raise these issues with Forward Oregon after we discovered their blog attack by accident. They have not responded to our invitation to talk and they have not expressed any self-criticism over their unprincipled attack.

April 15, 2008

The Renewed Attack On Obama

Our reporting from the Labor Notes conference began here. Our reporting on the Chavista car caravan--a key event in the Willamette Valley-- is here.

"Obama bin Laden," the reporter said, asking Obama a question about Iraq and Afghanistan on the radio this morning. Pictures of Bill Ayers, former Weatherman, and stock footage of riots run next to Obama's picture on CNN and "journalists" start trying to match Ayers and Obama up because they both served on the board of the Woods Fund. An Obama comment about rural America is taken out of context and played against another long-ago comment that it is supposed to amplify--both comments are taken out of context, neither amplifies the other and neither of them are far off the mark if you stop and think about them. A hovering effort to link Obama to deals-gone-wild by Allison Davis and Tony Rezko doesn't get very far but creates a few headline blasts.

Stuck somewhere in the media--try finding this true story easily--is the news that rural Pennsylvania is contributing more heavily to the Obama campaign than to Clinton's.

The renewed attack on Obama seems less about giving another candidate a victory over him and more about stopping a landslide and intimidating people running on Obama's coattails.

Coming after Obama's defensive speech on racism, which continues to echo and draw support, these attacks are also attacks on a liberal attempt to create or manifest kindness and gentleness.
The right thought that it had appropriated or expropriated all religious space and that they could use this space as they wished. Obama has challenged that from the center and now the right is arming itself with particular bluster and spite.

This renewed attack is also an attempt to shift attention away from the bad news in our living rooms and in our kitchens. Wholesale prices just saw their biggest jump in 33 years. Food prices are increasing by somewhere between 4.5 and 10 percent; economists can't agree on the percentage, but there is general agreement that we're experiencing the worst food inflation in 17 years. Bankruptcy filings jumped 38 percent last year. The Republicans largely own these crises.

The renewed attack has a vicious cultural accompaniment as well. Two Ohio state troopers apparently thought that it would be fun if one of them dressed up like a klansman and the other took photos. Fortunately, they got caught. Mumia Abu-Jamal is denied a new hearing and will either face execution or life imprisonment. A fascist group tied to terrorism marches in Jena, La. on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the media barely mentions it. A study by SPLC shows a rise in the number of hate groups nationwide--Oregon has 11 that they could identify--and we barely feel the shrug of the shoulders from the center and the right.

As we get closer to the election various social crises deepen and the right becomes more dangerous. The renewed attack on Obama is the tip of their iceberg.

April 13, 2008

Labor Notes Conference--The Private Equity Struggle--7th Posting

The Willamette Reds posting on the Chavista Car Caravan is probably more important to most readers than what I am writing about at this point. Please look for that posting here.

The Labor Notes conference workshop on the union-backed struggle with private equity firms was particularly good. The key question posed at the workshop concerned the impact that private equity has in our workplaces. Speakers came from the United Electrical Workers (UE) and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). The UE and CIW experiences with private equity struggles are different and reflecting on those differences has been helpful for me.

Private equity funds, as I understand it, are pools of capital used to buy companies. The tendency has been for companies to accumulate large debts in order to purchase other companies and then strip or flip these purchased companies in two or three years time. Many prominent private equity investors are pension funds. The speakers said that some of the best work on private equity is being done by SEIU. You can see the direction that that work is taking here.

UE's traditional base has been in manufacturing. The UE speaker spoke of several struggles the union has led in which a private equity firm purchased a manufacturing firm to either flip or or bleed it. One struggle took six years to win. Part of winning that victory meant actively discouraging people from applying for jobs in the plant while workers continued to work under threats and management provocations. The resulting labor shortage forced the company to concede.

A manufacturing union like UE usually has very little time to respond to a private equity buyout or closure because of weak US labor laws. Time becomes the enemy so the union has to use community organizing, in-plant strategies, political pressure and the threat of eminent domain. For a small union like UE this is difficult.

The union takes the position that its best to get the best buyout deal possible for workers before a plant closes if the closure really cannot be prevented. UE's primary concern in a plant closure fight is to give the company a black eye and to lead the workers through the hard fight; the union is not concerned if the employer has a place to go or not. If the company does stay the union moves a community and workplace campaign to make the employer a responsible employer.

CIW started in the early '90s with immigrant workers in rural Florida meeting in a Catholic church to discuss the basically degrading conditions they worked under. These workers used work stoppages, community organizing and hunger strikes for years in order to get the tomato, orange, fruit and vegetable growers to the negotiating table. After seven or eight years they realized that the big buyers dictate prices and conditions to the growers and that behind these big buyers is the fastfood industry.

CIW launched and won a historic campaign by leading a boycott against Taco Bell. That struggle took four years. Unlike manufacturing, consumer-driven boycotts in the food industry are not time-dependent.

After winning against Taco Bell, CIW went after Burger King. Three private equity companies stand behind Burger King. BK is being slowly milked of its tremendous profits and reinvestment in BK by the three firms seems almost minimal. BK is fighting CIW. Stop eating at Burger King!

During our question and answer period several important points were made. The animal rights movement is having more success than we are in moving boycotts. It may turn out that we are unable to move our pension funds to do the right thing, but European public pension funds operate differently and are heavily invested in the US. They should a greater willingness to support human rights struggles. The Change to Win union federation has a private equity project underway and SEIU has been assisting CIW with their research.

Labor Notes Conference--Staff Unions--Sixth Post

The Labor Notes conference workshop on staff unions--the unions which represent people who work for unions--was made up of organizers from a number of different unions and coming to the table with diverse backgrounds and experiences. The motivating group behind the workshop seemed to be a few people from the Progressive Organization for Workplace & Employee Rights (POWER).

There are apparently over 100 staff unions in existence. A national gathering is planned for July 11 in Washington, D.C.

The questions framing the discussions were expressed negatively so that discussion focused on the many downsides of working for a union rather than on the positives. Past meetings of union staff have apparently accomplished little; this meeting was designed to move quickly with small group discussions around the questions the group thought most relevant.

In my breakout group I briefly described the complex situation existing in the union local I work for. Another organizer said that my membership in the reform movement within the union would change the conditions I found most challenging. When I said that I was not a member of that movement, she responded by saying that if I got more people to join the group my fear factor would go away. I responded that I'm not afraid to join, but that I have political or ideological differences with the movement. My response drew a slightly stunned silence. The facilitator moved on, ignoring much of what I had said.

The workshop was reaching for an overall strategy for staff unions and not finding it. The session agreed to support the formation of a union staff caucus within the Labor Notes network and little else. A POWER person briefly summed up the organization's goal as "raising the standards of organizers"--not much vision there, you know.

It was announced that the Department of Labor now recognizes union organizers as a career field. The D. of L. will now certify organizers and has developed, or will develop, an intensive certification program for organizers not grandfathered in. Am I the only one who thinks this borders on the bizarre?

Getting certified by the D. of L. under a Bush administration as a union organizer reminds me of the old line, "They have one bomb for every man, woman and child on the planet. If you don't like that, call 'em up and tell 'em and they'll send you yours."

Labor Notes Conference And SEIU--Fifth Post

The small brawl which took place here last night when SEIU folks arrived at the Labor Notes conference in large numbers in response to a scheduled speech by California Nurses Association President Rose Ann DeMoro has indeed made the news.

Conflicting reports say that two, six or seven SEIU buses showed up. From where I was at the conference I only saw one bus. Several people attempting to stop SEIU staff and members from coming into the banquet and demonstrating reported light injuries. Apparently SEIU has issued a press release.

One news report giving the SEIU side may be found here. Another report giving the CNA side may be found here. The Labor Notes statement on the incident, with a photo, is here.

In the aftermath of these events people from UHW-West and SMART, the SEIU reform group, at the conference seemmed somewhat less vocal than yesterday. Some of these people tried discussing their issues with the SEIU staff and members who came to the conference to confront De Moro and CNA but the disciussions didn't get very far. It's hard discussing anything in a jammed hotel lobby while chanting, pushing and shoving are going on and as the cameras are rolling. These events do not seem to have affected the UHW-West and SMART members in any great way. Conference organizers remain visibly upset.

The negative affect that last night's tussle is having was illustrated at a gathering of African-American union activists held earlier this afternoon. Several people took the floor at that meeting to denounce SEIU. It's a bad thing when attention shifts from antiwar and anti-racist activities to internal union disagreements.

The SMART and UHW-W people plan to be present at a number of union-sponsored gatherings between now and the SEIU International Union convention in Puerto Rico. They say that they will not be running a candidate against SEIU President Andy Stern. A union leader in UHW-W and SMART committed to me that CNA is not funding the SMART effort.

I hope that between now and the SEIU convention the forces involved in this fight can build some principled unity bertween themselves which helps us win a landslide victory for Obama in November, stop the war and deal racism a fatal blow. It can be done.

Promoting Latino voting: Chavista Caravan

Saturday morning promised a beautiful warm spring day in the Willamette Valley. Tim and I met up with other participants and Voz Hispana organizers at the Colonia Libertad Farmworker Housing complex in south Salem, and spent a couple of hours taping signs made by young people (see Statesman Journal article ) on vehicles participating in the caravan to promote voter registration - specifically for Latinos in Oregon. To vote in Oregon's primary election May 20, one must register by April 29.

Organizer Francisco Lopez emphasizes that voting Latinos will influence the political climate, not only with elections in May and November, but also in January 2009, when the Oregon legislature reconvenes and there is the opportunity to restore the human rights of immigrants to obtain a driver license. Recently passed legislation requires persons to have documents that prove "legal presence" in the US to obtain a driver license. This legislation was passed amid the general anti-immigrant scapegoating atmosphere currently infecting the US including Oregon. Oregon legislators were a big disappointment in their lack of courage to stand up for their constituents.

Caravans from Independence and the farmworker housing complex in south Salem, Colonia Libertad, merged at Chemeketa Community College (CCC). Speakers there included the president of the College, Cheryl Roberts who reminded us that the name "Chemeketa" is from the indigenous people, the Kalapuyans, and it means peaceful gathering place. She and the head of the Woodburn campus, Elias Villegas, emphasized that CCC is open and will remain open to all community members and students, and that the upcoming levy for CCC funding is important for many reasons, one of which is that Chemeketa Community College serves more Latino and immigrant students than any other college in Oregon.

Other speakers were the pastor of the 1st Congregational (UCC) Church in Salem (Gail McDougall) and five members of their peace and justice committee; Pastor McDougall and parishoners have been visible in the community in support of immigrant rights and present at many events locally that support justice for immigrants. McDougall told us in case of immigration raids on workers that the church is ready to be a safe community gathering place to support and protect workers and their families through their family response center.

Maribel, an external union organizer with SEIU 503, spoke about the wall being built along the US southern border and the problems this will cause.

After lunch and other speakers the 55-car caravan processed down Lancaster Drive. People stopped in their tracks to look at the signs and listen to the message broadcast by Voz Hispana representative Eduardo on the sound system vehicle: "Do you want affordable health care? Register to vote! Do you want affordable housing, a clean environment, education, good jobs, an end to the war in Iraq....? Register to vote! Your vote is your voice! Se puede? Si se puede!"

The caravan ended in Woodburn High School where it tied in with the 15th anniversary commemoration and celebration of the life, work and legacy of Cesar Chavez.

For photos from the Caravan, see link at top right of main page.

April 12, 2008

Labor Notes Conference And SEIU--Fourth Post

The SEIU workshop at the conference today was one of the worst workshops I have attended in recent years.

Fifty-plus people came and went without discipline, complaining about the union. The main complaints concerned union call centers, staff turnover, trusteeships, internal union reorganizing, how the SEIU International Convention is being organized, local union autonomy, employer-union partnerships, deskilling union staff, local union mergers, how SEIU functions in England and Germany and "template bargaining." SMART--the SEIU reform group--maintained a kind of staccato monologue throughout.

SMART claims to have members in twelve states and Canada. They got the last word, but the session broke up without a plan. SMART leaders warned that the SEIU International Convention will pass one resolution which will take funds now set aside by local unions for organizing away from larger local unions and another resolution which will take all dues money from smaller local unions. SMART summarizes its program with the simplistic slogan "One member-one vote."

A Kaiser worker from California and I both said positive things about our local unions and a New York City local union president supported some of my comments. These points were ignored in the rush to criticism.

During the dinner banquet I saw a group of people pushing against the main doors to the banquet room. There was a great deal of yelling from that direction. Someone else took the podium and was shouting into the microphone but she was difficult to understand. A conference staffperson was promising that no one had been hurt, or would be hurt. People began gathering and cameras and cellphones started working. What happened?

Apparently at least one bus of SEIU folks arrived to either picket or disrupt the conference and to confront the California Nurses Association (CNA) leaders present. They were barred from the conference but refused to leave. The police arrived and intervened and the SEIU people then left. The entire event is probably on Youtube by now.

Rose Ann DeMoro, CNA Executive Director, addressed the banquet by teleconferencing in. Her talk was disjointed but boiled down to an attack on neo-liberal trade policies and labor leaders who she believes are making a home for these policies in the labor movement and, predictably, criticism of SEIU leaders for pushing a corporate agenda and restructuring the union along corporatist lines. She said that she was unable to attend the conference because of SEIU intimidation aimed at CNA leaders in California this weekend.

Someone shouted at me, "Are these your people?!" An SEIU staffperson fretted that "We're all on someone's list now. There go our jobs!" An older woman got poked in the head pretty hard in the melee. Hotel staff remained on guard and anxious for hours afterwards.

This situation is likely to get much worse before it gets any better. Someone needs to find a progressive path that gets us back to moving the class struggle into the polls now and prioritizes building a unifying agenda that gives first place to workers' and peoples' needs and ending the war. This conference, we have been told several times from the podium, is all about "safe space" and discussing rebuilding the labor movement. I'm not seeing it.

Labor Notes Conference--"Pumping Up The Public Sector" and Neutrality Agreements--Third Post

The "Pumping Up The Public Sector" workshop was moderated by a woman from United Healthcare Workers-West and featured some speakers who spoke to problems and issues we also confront in Oregon.

The first speaker came from Washington. She told us that it took 18 years to get collective bargaining for public employees there. The Washington AFSCME public sector local union has had to struggle with large-scale decertification attempts launched by disgruntled members and funded by the so-called "right-to-work" forces. The union has a union security clause in its contract and has emphasized building its program at its membership base around issues like whistleblower coverage for members, environmental programs, training and certification needs and building mold mitigation.

The second speaker came from the University of Minnesota. Those workers recently ended their second strike. Four AFSCME local unions represent four campuses there. They have a 20% turnover rate, which requires the union to sign up twenty to thirty new members every month just to stay even. Layoffs, students taking union work, salary and pay inequities and the transferring of union work to non-represented workers are problems for these local unions. Still, the University of Minnesota has the highest minimum wage of any university in the US. Ninety-three per cent of the workers are women, with many of the workers eligible for some form of public assistance. The locals have focused on using graphs and charts comparing their salaries to the salaries of administrators for agitational purposes. They have also used person-to-person interviews and calculations of how inflation has affected salaries in order to build their local's involvement. At one point they did human graphs and Youtube videos to illustrate their points. Many of the workers work for benefits, particularly health insurance.

The AFSCME council did not fully support the University of Minnesota strike, the speaker said, but membership has increased 10% since the strike, new stewards and worksite leaders have stepped forward and a group called "The Living Wage Avengers" has been formed. This group uses the slogan "Living Wage Avengers--We Do Whatever We Want."

These workers have a two-year union contract and are facing budget cuts. "It's not a budget crisis," said the speaker. "It's a distribution crisis."

Angaza Laughinghouse was the third speaker. He is always one of my favorite speakers and teachers. He comes from United Electrical Workers (UE) Local 150 in North Carolina, the leading public sector union in the state, and the Black Workers for Justice organization (BWfJ). BWfJ has a strong history organizing for workers' rights and against racism.

Angaza pointed out that UE is growing in North Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia among public sector workers who have no collective bargaining rights. He tied the laws which limit union rights in the solid south to the old Jim Crow laws and said that all of these laws are aimed at dividing workers. Anti-immigrant legislation is based in large part on this legal legacy.

Housekeeping and landscaping workers, mainly African-American, are key to the UE's victories and to its public sector organizing. Cuts in vital state services affect these workers as public service workers and as people who need and use state services. From these struggles has come a labor-and-civil-rights-led alliance working on state budget issues. UE members do teach-ins on the state campuses, run "workers' summits" which unite union members and base at least some of their campaigns on workers' bills of rights which express what the workers are fighting for. This level and kind of activism is unheard of in the solid south and UE has won an executive order which enables the union to meet with the governor or his staff. North Carolina law forbids public sector union negotiations and contracts.

The final speaker was Nicolas Galepides. His union represents French postal and telecom workers. I believe that he is a member of the left-led French CGT. The French public sector is now a mix of public and private service providers. There is a lack of union unity so the gap is filled by an informal alliance of unions, political forces and NGOs.

The question-and-answer period provided people with the opportunity to talk about tax policy, labor and worker unity, job attrition in higher ed and the effect the war is having on state and public sector budgets. Angaza spoke quite well about building unity between the labor movement and struggles for immigrant rights and against home foreclosures and the war. At least one of the speakers said that lobbying does not unite union members by itself and that we should be demanding state audits and cuts in management expenditures. Someone from the United Teachers of Los Angeles reported that his union has taken a "no cuts-tax the rich" position.

At some point during the question-and-answer period I began to feel as if we were talking repetitively to ourselves. The speaker from the University of Minnesota revived my interest in the discussion by saying that the union response to job losses in higher ed has been slow because people are affected in ones and twos. Workers at the University of Minnesota are working on defining union work on campus. We struggle with these questions in Oregon every day.

The workshop on neutrality agreements and union card check agreements was difficult. Steve Early, a noted labor writer and activist from the Communication Workers (CWA), moderated the discussion. Early framed the discussion as one about "bargaining to organize strategies," which helped clarify our discussions.

The first speaker came from a CWA local in New England and she discussed card check agreements won and used at AT&T Wireless and the Dover, N.H. passport processing center. At Dover the CWA started training their stewards before the union was recognized, believing that Weingarten rights start immediately with union recognition. She felt that the card-check concept is good, but that that process makes building a union much more labor intensive later. One of the dangers is that the law allows workers to sign up to decertify the union which wins a card check before the union is actually established.

A speaker from United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) said that employer neutrality agreements are a mixed bag. He told us that there were few union victories in nursing home union campaigns in California due to the federal reimbursement system. The need to change this system is politically driven and SEIU Local 250 and their International Union cooperated early on in changing the union's relationship with the nursing home owners; the thinking was that joint advocacy on reimbursement rates with neutrality agreements would create better union-employer relations and help build union density. The speaker went on to say that he believes that the staffperson assigned by the International Union was effectively wined and dined by the employers and that union staff tended to view the neutrality agreements as a "risk-free" union-building strategy. The result was that workers later came into the union under "template" contracts which contained extraordinary management rights language and severe restrictions on union rights and patient advocacy rights.

A Teamster speaker gave us a history of the fight at Overnight. The early struggles at Overnight were bitter and were carried on terminal by terminal. The Teamsters struck Overnight and expected a win which did not materialize. UPS later bought Overnight and then went into early negotiations with the union. Before these negotiations got underway, UPS gave up card check at Overnight and the Hoffa forces used this win to attack union reform forces.

It turned out that the UPS/Overnight agreement only covered one terminal. If the union succeeded, the agreement reached at that terminal would become a model for other terminals. Contract negotiations then led to a situation in which large numbers of UPS workers were taken out of the Teamster pension plan and placed in a weaker single-employer plan and large numbers of full-time UPS jobs disappeared. UPS workers were locked into a two-tier wage system and part-time new hires lost healthcare coverage for their first year of employment. The agreement brought into the union about 10,000 new members, but the opportunity to unite these workers with Teamsters covered under the union's powerful National Master Freight Agreement was lost.

A Canadian autoworker detailed for us how his union traded full access to Magna autoparts workers for an almost-forever no-strike agreement with the company and the right of union members to directly elect representatives to the company's works council. Company wages are now directly tied to average increases in manufacturing wages in Canada. It will take the union about 10 years to get through all of the Magna plants. Meanwhile, the speaker said, the union gets weaker because of the agreement, other parts manufacturers will demand to get the deal Magna got with the union, union democracy gets squelched, other unions suffer when a major union gives up its right to strike and union member mobilization falters.

The question-and-answer period was long and difficult. The speakers from UHW and CWA both explained that card check and neutrality agreements can work to the union's benefit and that there are legitimate differences of opinion over these questions. They also seemed to be saying that union leaders have adopted a discredited strategy for building union membership. The UHW speaker made the strong point that new union contracts without neutrality agreements are often substandard and cannot maintain industry standards.

An autoworker from Canada said that he thought that the Canadian Autoworkers union leaders had calculated job and member loss and measured this against the members and dues they would pick up from Magna eventually and went with that pick-up option. The UHW speaker, a critic of SEIU President Andy Stern, said that the merging of SEIU union locals in California was wrong. He blamed the union's structure, not Stern, for these mistakes and he countered them by urging an approach which emphasizes making discussion about neutrality agreements, card check agreements and union mergers a discussion about class and about who produces wealth.

The discussion became to some great extent a struggle between SEIU members, UHW activists and members and officers from the California Nurses Association (CNA). CNA people spoke against the kinds of neutrality and card check arrangements that the speakers had described, but they did not really say that there is never a place or need for card check and neutrality agreements. These were slight-of-hand comments and the CNA folks played to the room by trying to turn the conversation towards the need to build a movement for healthcare and reminding us that neutrality and card check agreements don't work when a union has to negotiate from a position of weakness. They made an involve-the-members pitch which is very similar to what SEIU says. Their only novel comments dealt with the need to mobilize union members to fight for the best possible Employee Free Choice Act. At least two SEIU folks took the floor to speak against CNA. One SEIU member said that it took Local 1199 50 years to win all that they have won in New York and that people should know the histories of particular struggles before criticizing a union for doing a card check or neutrality agreement. A nurse from Ohio who supports SEIU took the floor to say that CNA has denied her the right to choose a union by intervening in an SEIU campaign at her facility. Autoworkers in the room emphasized the need to build the working class, saying that union leaders don't want to build expectations and hopes. The CWA speaker and an organizer from UNITE-HERE both essentially said that a strong union can be built after a card check or neutrality agreement is used by a union. The Teamster presenter said that he did not oppose card check or neutrality agreements, but that the Teamster leadership had not run a good campaign to build the union at Overnight. The speaker from UHW said that we need to look at whether or not a card check or neutrality agreement is based on long-term restrictions of workers' and union power or not.

As this conference proceeds it gets more difficult for people to think through strategic and tactical questions in groups or to recognize when others are trying to find common ground with them.

Labor Notes Conference--Saturday Morning--Second Post

The conflict between SEIU and the California Nurses Association (CNA) is front-and-center at this conference, with supporters from both camps taking one another on in workshops. Overnight an SEIU leaflet attacking CNA was slipped under the doors of most of our hotel rooms. Rumors quickly spread of planned disruptions by SEIU. The Executive Director of CNA cancelled her appearance at the conference.

I began my conference morning by meeting with two state workers from Wisconsin and listening to some soulful Tex-Mex music protesting immigration policies.

The first conference session dealt with organizing across borders. Anita Chan, billed as "the foremost expert on labor in China," spoke. Jane Slaughter framed the discussion as being about Chinese workers "who are trying to throw out their do-nothing union officials." Chan took a more nuanced view and said that engagement with the All-China Federation of Trade Union (ACFTU) is still considered controversial, but that Change to Win and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) changed the debate about dealing with the ACFTU when they engaged with it.

Chan believes that China began dismantling socialism 30 years ago, which really is a controversial stand to take. She noted that the ACFTU has achieved gains which most western workers would envy if we knew about them. She sees ACFTU as an arm of management, refers to it as "quite useless" and says that the ACFTU doesn't know how to function independently of the state. Fortunately, she added that in the past 20 years the ACFTU has worked successfully to win good labor laws. "Whatever China's faults, Chinese labor laws are very good, the enforcement is very weak," she said. This qualifier allowed her to talk about how the base of the ACFTU has been able to organize Chinese Wal-Mart workers with help from the union's center and to talk to us about how Chinese Wal-Mart workers have used blogging to build their union efforts.

Chinese workers can win union representation when only 25 workers in a workplace sign a petition or join the union. This gives the ACFTU a bigger membership than the entire ITUC and this, in turn, has forced some European unions to begin working seriously with the ACFTU. Chan said that the Vietnamese unions follow much the same model as the ACFTU does and she introduced three representatives from the Vietnamese labor federation. European unions have been engaging with Vietnam's unions for 20 years. She posed the question--but did not provide an answer--of whether or not we should engage with the ACFTU.

In my posting last night I talked about the political origins of Labor Notes. These anti-USSR roots, I believe, have given the magazine and the conferences a certain bias against most forms of socialism. The magazine had a terrible position on the unions in the former USSR, Soviet and post-Soviet. There are no representatives here from the former USSR or its European, Balkan and Caucasian allies. I hope that the magazine takes Chan's views as point of serious departure from its past.

Baldemar Velasquez, President of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), spoke after Chan. FLOC has a ground-breaking cross-border organizing structure in place. Velasquez reminded us that the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) excludes farmworkers, but said that FLOC is seeking to win an EFCA through contract fights. He also reminded us that over 6 million corn farmers have been displaced by NAFTA.

FLOC continues to organize in Mexico and build their union on both sides of the border despite the brutal murder of a FLOC organizer in Mexico last year. The union represents 8000 guest workers. The US south is now key to FLOC's strategy and tobacco is key to the south. RJ Reynolds is FLOC's current target. The union wants to use its model of organizing and bringing pressure on the region and the tobacco industry to win another multi-party union contract. The RJR campaign has international repercussions because so many of the tobacco field workers in the US are immigrant workers and because RJR blends its tobaccos with foreign-grown tobaccos. "The object is not to win (against RJR)," Velasquez said. "It's to do the right and good thing."

Velasquez's involvement and leadership goes back to at least the historic Poor Peoples Campaign. The FLOC model has become a combination of worker mobilization, pressure on corporations and corporate campaigns used to win multi-party union agreements. This is a "from above/from below" strategy which works, at least in the short-run, and it should help us think critically about how we win and use card check and employer neutrality in other industries.

April 11, 2008

Labor Notes Conference--Friday Night

Labor Notes magazine has its political roots in the old Shachtmanite socialist movement. Max Shachtman was an American communist and was expelled from the Communist Party in 1928 as part of a group who followed Trotsky. Shachtman moved far to the right over the years, leaving Trotsky behind in favor of a "Third Camp" position and, later, he moved into the AFL-CIO and led or greatly influenced much of the Federation's anti-communist work. He died in 1972. Many of today's neo-conservatives can claim Shachtman as a political grandparent. Shachtman and his peers believed, at one point or another, that the USSR was "bureaucratic collectivist"--that is, not socialist--and, to one degree or another, an enemy of workers' class interests internationally.

This might be ancient history, but some of Shachtman's followers remained within their socialist traditions and influenced the course of events in some key unions. For many years political struggles were waged in the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, for instance, in which Shachtman's followers figured prominently. There is a splendid essay by Victor Devinatz in the current issue of Science & Society about the role Shachtman's followers played in attacking the progressive Farm Equipment workers union in the 1940s and 1950s and building the anti-communist union bureaucracy that has nearly killed organized labor in the US.

The political group which founded Labor Notes grew from the Shachtmanite tradition but has always remained on the left. That tradition still encompasses Against The Current magazine, the Solidarity organization and a number of other efforts. Labor Notes has grown from that tradition and has become a meeting ground for generally progressive union dissidents in the US and Canada and a resource for left-pointed labor struggles internationally. It has always featured news from the historic centers of Shachtmanite labor activism as well as from the Teamster reform movement. The annual conferences sponsored by the magazine draw hundreds--and often over one thousand--people.

I attended many of the early conferences and found them valuable. Besides the information you get at these events, you can also pick up good training techniques and do a great deal of networking. Speakers come from almost every activist wing or effort within the labor movement. The international guests add their valuable perspectives and link us to an international movement that, even with its ups and downs, hopefully promises us a better world and a clearer social vision. Shachtman would be disgusted with this.

On the other hand, Labor Notes magazine often lacks the accuracy in reporting that a left-leaning labor publication should have. It's emphasis on "troublemaking for the long haul" is problematic because it casts itself as a kind of permanent and ever-complaining opposition, a negation, rather than as a force which affirms class struggle and the kind of socialism which ought to develop from that. In the 1980s its response to the anti-concessions movements among union members was (understandably) gut-driven but also lacked critical thinking and needed examination. For awhile it seemed critical of every union except SEIU; now it seems to only criticize SEIU. The spirit of Shachtman survives here to the extent that many of the people gathered around Labor Notes often seem to believe that union bureaucrats are as much the enemy as the boss is: they have substituted union bureaucrats for the USSR in their thinking. I felt that something had gone terribly wrong with Labor Notes when I attended a Labor Notes conference featuring the opportunistic Victor Reuther some years ago.

But here I am at another Labor Notes conference this weekend.

It's good to be here with people like Cathy Austin of CAW Local 88. She works in a Canadian auto plant that had a high degree of labor-management "cooperation" that eventually undercut her union's effectiveness. A winning strike in 1992 changed the workers' consciousness. New leaders of her local union model solidarity and are making space for younger workers coming into the union and the plant.

Richard Berg of Teamster Local 743 in Chicago is also here. His local union is a non-traditional local with over 120 separate contracts and, I think, at least four languages spoken by members. He was elected president of his local union 3 months ago after trying 4 times. The former local officers are now facing federal charges. Richard says--and I agree--that leaders have to take on the issues which move most people, lead with a vision of a just society that is global in its reach, go through struggles as a group and build a vision out of our victories. His local will be marching in Chicago on May Day and will be participating in protests at the Republican convention in Saint Paul on Labor Day.

I arrived late to the conference, but just in time to catch part of a speech by a woman from Mexico giving a first-hand account of the Cananea mine workers struggle. She was followed by a leading activist from the SEIU United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) and one of the Freightliner Five. I have written previously about the Freightliner Five on this blog, so if you're curious about that you can go back a few pages and find my article.

The UHW activist was Stanley Lyles--I may be getting his name wrong--and he spoke to his background in SEIU as a respiratory therapist, worker and local union leader. He is a middle-aged African-American union brother who came into the union through an organizing campaign that was built by worker activism. That model apparently became for him the model for how a union should be structured and run. His local union organized almost 65,000 workers between 2001 and 2006 by using that model.

The growing conflict between UHW and the SEIU leaderships is no secret and it seems that UHW and Labor Notes are at the centerpoint of a movement within SEIU building around demands for increased union democracy and decentralization. Lyles repeatedly expressed this conflict in "us-versus-them" terms. "We're not making deals with them," he said. He later said, "The conflict is that the SEIU International Union is trying to take the voice away from the people. Our message is that it ain't gonna happen."

Lyles ran down a list of criticisms he and UHW have of SEIU President Andy Stern. Stern and other SEIIU leaders were criticized in the main for cutting deals with California employers without involving the members, for dissolving a unity council during contract negotiations and taking over those negotiations and for allowing contracting out of union jobs. "We need a change in which the people have a voice in their union. We put them in office and we can take them out," Lyles said. He referred to Stern and other SEIU officers as "fat cats." Still--and remarkably--Lyles was restrained in discussing the bigger picture of UHW-SEIU controversies. He went out of his way, I thought, to say that he does not know about the conflicts between Andy Stern and California UHW leader Sal Rosselli. The hundreds of people present gave Lyles a standing ovation. UHW has a large contingent here and many other SEIU members and staff are here as well.

It's impossible to say from a distance what has gone so wrong in California for SEIU and no one can speak about it without bias and, as often than not, the kind of strong feelings which inhibit critical thinking. There is probably never a good time for a split in labor, but a split before the elections which shifts attention away from political struggle now will hurt us for years to come. The internet makes it impossible to keep an in-house struggle in-house. Democracy is always messy and dangerous and any union which thinks in terms of mass organizing will encounter struggles of this nature, democratic or not. There is no excusing trampling on the rights of union members to act collectively for control of their union and for better contracts, but reasonable people can argue over how democratic rights can be prioritized--or if they can be prioritized--and what "collective action" really means. I think that these are the at-heart questions at stake in the UHW-SEIU struggle. Someone needs to think about how the bridges which are being burned can be rebuilt; it's a critical question directly tied to beating the right in November.

I ran into someone I needed to talk to and had dinner with him and his wife. They are active in the struggle to pass HR 676. As we were getting through our conversation a guy at another table started what became an animated discussion about healthcare with us. In a few minutes there was shouting back and forth and nervous waiters circling around. I missed the reception for the international guests, which I would have liked to have attended, and the benefit held for the Freightliner Five, which carries with it in my thinking some ambiguity.

April 10, 2008

Mark Rudd Weathers Corvallis

Mark Rudd was a leader of the first Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organization and, later, a leader of the Weatherman or Weather Underground faction. In 1965 he started at Columbia University, by 1968 he was engaged in the antiwar movement and by late 1970, after SDS had split, he had passed through the Weatherman organization and was living underground. He remained underground for almost eight years. Today he is working as a remedial math instructor at a community college in New Mexico.

Rudd is the latest of many former leftists to make it to Corvallis and talk in sentimental or apologetic terms about their past mistakes and to impart a vaguely constructed humanism to the students and anyone else who will listen. This is the stuff of individual existential crises and it cannot be debated. It should also not be confused with politics.

To his credit, Rudd has been active in anti-nuclear work, Central American solidarity efforts, electoral politics, union organizing and movements for environmental justice. He still thinks of himself as an organizer, but admits that he is now more of a historian. As with the others marching in the ex-leftist parade, he has a book coming out.

Rudd read us a bit of his writing which will not be included in his forthcoming book. That chapter of fifteen pages dealt with the matters of non-violence and violence in social change, the "foco theory" of armed nuclei forming as a revolutionary core, Che Guevara, feminist theory and his angst. Almost predictably, it carried in it Rudd's account of his transformative moment, that catharsis he needed to understand and reject his past errors and move on, that necessary step so many former leftists need to find acceptance, a good night's sleep and a publishing contract.

Rudd says that he is ashamed of his role in leading the Weather group, which helped break up SDS at its high point and then engaged in a series of violent and misdirected acts to the point that a culture of isolation and violence grew up around it and spread through sections of the left in the 1970s. He excuses the errors he made in his youth with the slogan "Don't believe everything you think." He explains Weatherman largely as a response to "dogmatists and fundamentalists" who believed in a "left-over marxism."

This is an extremely self-critical guy. Weatherman had plenty of help breaking up SDS. Rudd was not the central force in that breakup, and neither were all of his past mistakes the errors he says they were. More to the point, he is apologizing to almost everyone he may have wronged except the "dogmatists and fundamentalists" who held on to marxism and who may now have the satisfaction of saying, "We told you so." A transformative moment followed by apologies substitutes for political analysis and critical thinking here. And Rudd is apologizing for being what he never was--a serious revolutionary. An angry young man, a rebel, a conscience-driven militant--he way all of that, but he ws never a serious revolutionary.

The Chinese, Cubans and Black Panthers all correctly told Weathermen to knock off the street fighting and to organize people instead. Weathermen were deaf to those criticisms. It took the feminist Robin Morgan--who acted as a police snitch--to turn Rudd towards what eventually became his "Ah-ha!" moment. Morgan's view is, or was, that all violence is terrorism and that the roots of violence extend back to the institution of patriarchy. Reflecting on this, Rudd moved off of seeing violence as a viable vehicle for social change.

From that point Rudd engaged in a critique of Che. That lead to a critique of socialism. That led him to the kind of humanism which gives him the space to refer to the privileged, and probably racist, Dalai Lama as "His Holiness" and to criticize the USSR, Cuba and China and to say that these societies have "lost all (their) legitimacy." He fills in the intellectual vacuum he has created with almost meaningless sayings on the order of "Coercive power is brittle. Real power is consensual." He admits that some of his thinking puts him close to the far right.

Rudd says that he wants an organizing model for social change, a mass movement based on people talking to one another, one that works through educational forums, electoral action, petitions and protest movements. He wants activists to ask if a given action builds that movement or not before acting. This is all very good, but he is vague in his details. A mass movement for what ends? Led by who? Rudd said little this evening which tied this to the present political moment.

Rudd has his own dogmatism and fundamentalism now. He offers the debatable proposition that "People don't join a movement because they see people taking action." He can only see the new SDS as a reflection of his old SDS. He wants a movement without symbolism, heroes and myths. He off-handedly says, "Maybe I'm just a white racist" when discussing the Black Panther Party. He says that "anti-imperialism now takes the form of right-wing clerical fascism" and he advocates a vague "international law" as a social alternative to capitalism. Some of this sounds good at first hearing, but it falls apart with critical examination.

In 1970 I thought that Rudd had nothing to say to me.

In 2008 I feel the same way.

April 8, 2008

Book Review: Wobblies on the Waterfront



























Wobblies on the Waterfront
by Peter Cole. Urbana/Chicago, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2007. Hardbound. Pp. 227.

Peter Cole's book on the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW--or Wobblies) on the docks of Philadelphia during the 1910s and 1920s is the only book-length account of how revolutionary industrial unionism, or syndicalism, functioned there and how it was defeated. The book is a study of multiracial radical unionism on the docks during explosive times. It profiles not only the leaders of longshore Local 8 of the IWW, but also tells us a great deal about the union's rank-and-file and the work they did.

Local 8 was a remarkable local union. It had a strong commitment to racial equality on the Philadelphia docks, withstood attacks from employers and the government and rival unions, refused to sign contracts while winning gains on the docks through protests and strikes, developed a core of tested leaders and attempted to reach out to other workers in related trades. It remained relatively strong as the IWW was attacked nationally and was a center for controversies occurring within that organization. When the reader considers all of the forces arrayed against it and the pressures the local must have been under to fold at key moments, the history and strength of Local 8 seem all the more remarkable.

Philadelphia was a leading world port and the longshore workforce was multiethnic and multiracial, with African-Americans being in the majority on the docks as Local 8 was founded and grew. Peter Cole spends a great deal of time examining the interaction of work, class, ethnicity, race and community in his book. This is an ambitious attempt at writing a history of a local union which existed for nine difficult years and then was beaten in a tragic lockout. It left hardly a trace of its existence, which made the author's job particularly difficult. When unionism returned to the docks after the 1922 lockout, it came through the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA). The ILA absorbed some of the IWW's leadership but none of its commitment to racial equality, union democracy or revolutionary politics. The book serves well in reminding readers of the difficulties which face Black workers and militant labor movements and the points at which these forces may converge or diverge.

Labor histories have tended to follow the fortunes of the present-day labor movement. For a generation we were stuck with institutional histories which told us little or nothing about workers and our struggles. As mass and practiced militancy returned to the labor movement labor histories provided us with a better background in historic shopfloor struggles. As feminism and movements of nationally or racially oppressed workers took center stage, these forces also began to find their places in our labor history. As bureaucratization again set in, labor history seemed to come to a near-standstill. Now we have some well-considered look-backs into how labor institutions, workplace struggles and social movements interacted historically as our labor movement works to find new footing. Cole's book expands the existing research on the IWW, takes it in a new direction and raises important questions which will require further research.

Longshore work remains difficult and dangerous to this day. Cole says--and I agree--that unionism on the docks may have arisen organically out of the crews and gangs on the docks and expressed or reflected the contradictory nature of these relationships. The solidarity of a work group may be either liberating or exclusive and may at any moment carry with it something of past traditions which retard consciousness and hold something of the present which points to more radical options. Cole details this with an account of how Irish longshoremen held jobs and power on the Philadelphia docks and lost much of their ground to African-American and other workers over time. Along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts this resulted in segregated ILA local unions and eventually gave the bosses a powerful means of dividing and controlling workers. In Philadelphia something more promising took place. But even Local 8, Cole says, with its strong commitment to racial equality was never free of the tensions birthed in the history of Philadelphia's racial conflicts. What Cole also adds to the picture is some valuable insights into Philadelphia's Black working class consciousness and Black working class communities.

Cole does not deal with the shortcomings of the IWW's revolutionary industrial unionism, or syndicalism, and he does not take up the question of working class political action. The reader is left wondering if classwide political action in Philadelphia could have given the local some needed options when it was fighting for its survival. The author barely deals with the question of how a revolutionary union which rejects political action might survive in non-revolutionary or reactionary times and how such a union might relate to conservative union members and workers generally. Cole also does not mention the IWW's Emergency Program movement, which was certainly relevant to union controversies he mentions, and the high level of organizational experimentation unionists engaged in during the 1920s. He incorrectly sees the Universal Negro Improvement Association only as a threat to working class unity.

Cole accepts the anti-communism of the Local 8 leadership at face value and does not delve into its basis or its real effects on the union's struggles. When Soviet intelligence apparently found that a ship in the Philadelphia port was being loaded with ammunition destined for the anti-Soviet forces in 1920, IWW leaders intervened to stop the loading. This intervention coincided with other internal struggles taking place within the IWW and Local 8 was briefly suspended by IWW leaders. Cole sees this largely as a matter of communists fighting anti-communist syndicalists within the IWW. He does not deal with the possibilities that the intelligence may have been accurate and that Communist leadership on the docks in those years might have laid a stronger basis for a more enduring radical unionism there.

The reader comes away from the book wanting to know much more. Why was the Philadelphia experience so radically different than what took place at other ports? What happened to African-American IWW leader Ben Fletcher, the Irish George McKenna and the Lithuanian Polly Baker? Did the IWW help Local 8 in any major way during its strikes? How did the IWW respond over time to a majority African-American local union? How would Local 8 have adapted to changing times had it developed further? Why was the lockout of 1922, which effectively killed Local 8, so complicated for the IWW? Why did the organization disappear so quickly and leave almost no trace of having existed?

We are left hoping that the next wave of labor historians will address the matters Cole has brought forward for study.