by Bill Onasch
All Struggles Great and Small
The last couple of weeks I’ve devoted attention to discussion organized through live local, conference call, and Internet “listening sessions” leading up to the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles next month. They are purported to have involved thousands. The Listeners have now prepared a list of 45 Action Sessions at the conclave open to “delegates, community members and other stakeholders.” There will be fifteen a day over three days to choose from.
The present predicament of those who need to toil to live is full of potential “teachable moments.” But the menu offered in Los Angeles by those chefs who listened has only a few tempting appetizers, lots of thin soup–and some questionable shell fish that may cause a belly ache later.
There is a timely session about “Veterans and Labor Community Partnerships”–but nothing about ongoing war. The only oblique reference to global warming that is posing a threat to our very biosphere is “Infrastructure, Jobs, and Reducing Emissions: Upgrading Natural Gas Distribution Systems.” One entitled “Workers’ Voice: An Independent Movement to Elect Progressives,” will almost certainly be tweaked to the present policy of trying to advance “accountable” candidates within the two boss parties–especially the Democrats–with a fall back position of supporting a Lesser Evil when necessary.
While the working class has proven our resilience over the more than two centuries since we were created to serve the boss, we won’t survive a nuclear war. Future generations will be denied a sustainable environment if irreversible climate change continues its present pace. These mortal threats to human civilization cannot be successfully addressed as long as the class responsible for them–the bosses and bankers–continue their uncontested rule through a monopoly of all things political in the USA.
That doesn’t mean we can or should do nothing until these overarching questions are somehow satisfactorily resolved. Those of us who follow the Prime Directive of Class Solidarity fight for even the smallest improvements for ourselves and our fellow workers–while also educating, agitating and organizing around the bigger transformational issues.
Some of the AFL Action Sessions can be useful. Among them for example, the long overdue fight on behalf of fast food and retail workers for “fifteen dollars and a union” that has struck a responsive chord and has potential for at least some partial victories.
Sometimes small initiatives can unexpectedly mushroom in to very Big Deals. We saw that a couple of years ago when a relative handful of protesters occupied the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin as a newly elected Tea Party Governor and Legislature started enacting anti-labor laws.
Glad to see somebody finally fighting back, thousands of workers in Madison–many unorganized and not directly affected by the new legislation–responded in solidarity ranging from food for the occupiers to mass demonstrations numbering in the tens of thousands. Soon weekend caravans of trade unionists from around the country started arriving to show support. It was an inspiring example of what American workers are still capable given the slightest encouragement.
The Madison actions not only alarmed the Establishment; the top tier of union officialdom was also stressed by these unauthorized outpourings and they had to hustle at an unaccustomed pace to gain control. After wisely allowing the stoked ranks to blow off some steam our leaders laid out a bold strategy: petition to recall the antiunion state officials and then replace them with our “friends.”
Though exhausting for the activists, the petitioning, gathering more than 900,000 names, was mostly successful. But the union officials didn’t get their first choice for Governor candidate–the Democrats picked the same loser defeated by the Tea Party in the general election. Sure enough, he lost again. This stratagem devouring enormous amounts of money and volunteer time was a total flop. Wisconsin unions have been getting every part of their anatomy kicked ever since. An opportunity for an important breakthrough for our side in the class war was squandered.
The Madison experiences showed both the strength and weaknesses of semi-spontaneous grass roots actions–especially when political objectives are involved. Even if they are massive enough to prevent being slapped down by the courts and armed detachments of the state, they are still vulnerable to being hijacked by boss politicians and union brass. To win big class battles requires sound strategy and tactics from the onset, skillful organization of limited material resources, and a leadership team from top to bottom that has earned the confidence of the ranks. This is not easy to do on the fly.
While there are some honorable exceptions–such as the Chicago Teachers Union, National Nurses United, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers–to the mainstream bumbling bureaucracy, there is even much more to be learned from the proud achievements of past unexpected game-changing American worker struggles.
After a long stretch of defeat or dormancy during the first phase of the Great Depression, three localized labor battles in Toledo, San Francisco, and Minneapolis erupted in the spring and summer of 1934 that soon became national headline news. While each had their own unique story they had some important common features. All were led by political radicals with a class struggle perspective. Each managed to win support from the massive numbers of unemployed. All involved confrontations with the courts, police and the National Guard. And–most importantly–each ended in victory, inspiring a powerful new national labor upsurge.
I may be a bit biased but I’ve always thought Minneapolis was the most instructive of the three; it certainly is the best documented. And the battle of Minneapolis truck drivers and inside workers for union recognition and a raise generated every aspect of class warfare you could imagine.
There were casualties on both sides in confrontations with police and “special deputies” with the union side prevailing. A later mobilization of the National Guard required a more nuanced response as the strikers maneuvered with the union backed Farmer-Labor Party Governor. The insurgent union published a daily newspaper answering the lies and rumors of the boss controlled press, distributed not only to strikers but also the working class public. Alliances were formed with family farmers as well as the jobless. The strike headquarters included a garage from which auto and motorcycle flying squadron pickets were dispatched; a kitchen serving hot meals to strikers and their families; and even a small hospital where volunteer doctors and nurses took care of picket line injuries. The central strike leaders included a broad based Committee of 100 in all their deliberations about major strike objectives and the bosses and politicians soon knew the union negotiators had solid backing from the ranks. This rare democratic unionism was indispensable in resisting pressure from Federal mediators for a rotten compromise.
Farrell Dobbs, one of the principal strategists, wrote Teamster Rebellion, a detailed account of how the strikes were prepared and implemented. He went on to write three more volumes about the subsequent history of further victories–and ultimate decisive defeat as a result of the first use of the odious Smith Act–of this dynamic union current. These books deserve to be read by every labor activist. They are widely available; if you can’t find them in your area they can be ordered from MayDay Books in Minneapolis.
There is also an excellent 43 minute documentary film about the 1934 strikes aptly titled Labor’s Turning Point. It weaves together visual records of the strikes with interviews of veterans of the 1934 battles and historians. Through the use of newsreel footage it also sets the struggle in the social and political context of the day.
Kansas City Labor Party Advocates has chosen a screening and discussion of this film for our Labor Day Weekend event, this coming Saturday, August 31, 1 PM, at the North Kansas City Library. We don’t expect that we can exactly duplicate what was done in Minneapolis 79 years ago but we think we can find plenty of relevant lessons from this heritage that can help us find at long last a turning point in the class war against us today.
I will give some brief introductory remarks–mainly about some personal discussions I was fortunate to have with the late Ray Dunne and other 1934 leaders while I lived in Minneapolis in the mid-Sixties. After showing the film, and taking a short break to consume some provided food and beverage, Danny Alexander, a professor at Johnson County Community College, will use his pedagogic skills to moderate a discussion. If you are in the Kansas City region I hope you will join us.
Race to the Top South of the Border
The Mexican government’s attempt to emulate their senior NAFTA partner’s education “reform” has encountered a few glitches. AP reported,
“As Mexican children trooped back to school on Monday, they had already learned one lesson: You can’t believe everything you read in your textbook. Their new government-provided books are riddled with the sort of errors that students are supposed to be learning to avoid: misspellings, errors of grammar and punctuation, and at least one city located in the wrong state.”
Today’s New York Times tells of further troubles before the blush of embarrassment on expert faces over that gaff could fade,
“Mexico’s highly anticipated education overhaul program–intended to weed out poorly performing teachers, establish professional hiring standards and weaken the powerful teachers’ union–is buckling under the tried-and-true tactic of huge street protests, throwing the heart of the capital into chaos. A radical teachers’ group mobilized thousands of members in Mexico City last week, chasing lawmakers from their chambers, occupying the city’s historic central square, blocking access to hotels and the international airport, and threatening to bring an already congested city to a halt in the coming days.”
Could there be a lesson here for U.S. teachers?
* From the Washington Post, “Emboldened by an outpouring of support on social media, low-wage fast-food and retail workers from eight cities who have staged walkouts this year are calling for a national day of strikes Aug. 29….The workers are calling for a wage of $15 an hour and the right to form a union.” In Kansas City, if you are available to help for the day you can get an assignment at 6:30 AM at St Mark Church, 3800 Troost. If you’ve got a day job you can join a 4:30 PM rally at Grove Park, Truman Rd and Chestnut.
* The recent annual report of Social Security Trustees shows payroll contributions increased 54 billion dollars in 2012 boosting reserves to 2.73 trillion. It also confirms the extremely low cost of administration–eight tenths of one percent. Despite these numbers a spokesman for the American Academy of Actuaries told a friendly Congress they must quickly act to raise the partial benefit minimum retirement age from 62 to 64. Many long term unemployed have reluctantly chosen the “early” retirement as their only option for steady income.
* A union to which I once proudly belonged, the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers, are beginning their convention in Chicago. Reflecting their connection to many struggles, guest speakers include the Reverend Doctor William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, who has been leading the dramatic “Moral Mondays” mass protests at the North Carolina state legislative building in Raleigh; Kristine Mayle, financial secretary of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU); Benedicto Martínez, co-president of Mexico’s FAT, (Authentic Labor Front); Keisuke Fuse, director of the international bureau of the Japanese labor federation Zenroren; and Dominique Daigneult, general secretary of the Central Montreal Council of the Confederation of National Unions of Quebec. They, of course, will devote much of their attention to the fight against runaway jobs at GE Erie and the union’s campaigns in Chicago’s Logistics Belt. I wish them well.
That’s all for this week.