November 20, 2013
January 1, 2013
A couple of months ago I was exchanging email with Yevgeniy Fiks, the Russian conceptual artist who emigrated to the U.S. in 1994, and Allen Young, the veteran leftist who lived in the next village from me in the 1950s. Yevgeniy’s latest show was titled Homosexuality Is Stalin’s Atom Bomb to Destroy America, a subject that was right up Allen’s alley. As the closeted son of Communist parents, he knew firsthand what it meant to be up against the “red scare” and “pink scare” simultaneously.
In trying to provide Yevgeniy with some background information on Allen’s past, I sent him a copy of the obit that Allen wrote for his mom that included this item:
An active member of the American Labor Party of New York State in the 1940s and 1950s, she helped organize a successful civil rights campaign in the 1950s to improve the conditions of migrant African-American laundry workers in Woodridge.
Allen wrote back letting me know that a woman named Beryl Rubens had worked closely with Rae Young and the other activists in the community. Furthermore, she was living on the upper west side and still going strong. I followed up with a phone call and made a date to interview her on December 5th.
The Glen Wild chicken farmers who provided the backbone of the organizing drive were Communists. They were also deeply principled and fearless. They stuck their necks out in a time when CP’ers were losing their jobs or facing prison terms for their beliefs.
In my comic book memoir I try to pay homage to these dedicated souls whose example should serve us well in a period of deepening reaction. In many ways, the struggle to organize a trade union at a steam laundry in my little village in the Catskills was like the one depicted in Herert Biberman’s “Salt of the Earth” inasmuch as it combined class and racial dimensions.
If I ever get around to writing a novel about life in the Borscht Belt in the 1950s, such heroes and heroines will play a central role.
September 8, 2012
If you are under the impression that there’s nothing more to be said about the demise of the auto industry and its terrible impact on working people after Michael Moore, you owe it to yourself to see “Detropia”, a documentary that opened yesterday at the IFC Center in New York (screening information for other cities is here). Dispensing with Moore’s by now narcissistic intrusion into the narrative, “Detropia” allows Detroit’s African-Americans to tell their own stories. Thankfully, it is also free of Moore’s mawkish Capraesque pieties about “turning things around” by getting Obama elected. Among the lessons we learn from “Detropia” is that General Motors has used taxpayer money courtesy of Obama’s “rescue” of the auto industry to set up shop in China to build the Volt, their new electric car.
Oddly enough, the Ford Foundation funded the film, something I would liken to the German high command furnishing the sealed train that returned Lenin to Russia in 1917. Apparently the liberal program administrators there hoped that the film would raise awareness about Detroit’s phoenix-like return to prosperity, embodied in the closing moments of the film by a couple of white out-of-towners who came there in search of a cheap loft. If so, their money was wasted since the ineluctable message of the film is that capitalism has destroyed the city that once symbolized its rise under the rubric of Fordism, the very engine of growth that made the Ford Foundation possible.
Serving as a Greek chorus on the city’s decline is a cross-section of the Black community, including Tommy Stevens, the owner of a blues bar who is a retired schoolteacher, a young blogger named Crystal Starr, and local auto union president George McGregor.
We meet Starr walking through the ruins of an old building taking pictures with her cell phone. She muses as she walks, “Who lived here?” “Where did they go?” “What the fuck happened”? Those, of course, are the same exact questions that any sensible person would ask who remembers Detroit from the 1950s as the steam engine that was propelling America into a glorious future.
The press notes provide some quantitative answers:
- In 1930, Detroit was the fastest growing city in the world. (The Guardian)
- Detroit’s population shrank by more than 25% in the last decade. The city’s population has fallen from over 1.85 million in 1950 to 713,777 in 2010; a drop of almost 240,000 residents in ten years. That’s 100,000 more than Katrina-ravaged New Orleans lost. (The New York Times)
- Detroit has about 40,000 abandoned homes and 100,000 vacant residential lots. (The New York Times)
- The average price for a home in Detroit $7,100, down from $73,000 three years earlier. (The Wall Street Journal)
As a UAW official, George McGregor has his own set of answers, revolving mostly around the greed of some of the major automobile companies and their suppliers, including American Axle Company that used to be one of the city’s main employers. Axel has left Detroit except for one plant whose workers have been presented with an ultimatum. Workers have to sign a contract based on wage cuts of up to 25% or else. When we see them at a meeting voicing opposition to the contract and a willingness to fight, we probably anticipate what happens next: American Axle shuts down the plant and moves production to Mexico.
One of the points made unintentionally by the film is that working-class weakness is tied directly to the disappearance of jobs. Classical Marxism has always been premised on the idea that struggles at the point of production will escalate until the workers realize that their only option is to seize the means of production and produce for their own benefit rather than that of the bosses.
In the 1930s, when Detroit was the fastest growing city in the U.S., a militant trade union movement found itself on a collision course with the Henry Fords of the world. Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler had no other option except to produce cars within our nation’s borders and workers could use their collective strength to force retreats. Ultimately, a reformist leadership of the UAW struck a Grand Bargain with the bosses that made business unionism acceptable and a good life for the workers the norm.
The emergence of powerful competitors in Japan, Korea and Europe made that Grand Bargain not worth the paper it was written on. Unfortunately for the working class, the UAW still acts as if it is still in place. But even if it didn’t, there is some question about its capacity to push back the bosses on their heels. In the late 70s, when the American Trotskyist movement embarked on its ill-fated “turn to industry”, it assumed that we would be reenacting the 1930s with the working class at “center stage”. As it turned out—in the words of Peter Camejo in 1983—the opposite was true:
If any class has stood in the center of U.S. politics in the last ten years, it has been the bourgeoisie. Following its sharp divisions during the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal, it has been able to reunify itself (a unity which may be once again coming into question), and go on the offensive. The industrial working class — along with the oppressed nationalities, white-collar workers, women and students — responded to the attacks in disarray and disunity. No leadership arose in these defensive struggles to promote an effective united response, nor has there yet been any nationwide class struggle political alternative to challenge the complete dominance of the bourgeoisie in electoral politics.
As the economic crisis has grown, generating an increasing number of unemployed and worsening conditions both on the job and in life in general, there has been a reaction reaching into the industrial unions. The capitalists, forced by their drive to maintain their profits under increasingly difficult economic conditions, have begun testing and challenging the power of the industrial unions. The results at this stage are a stand-off. While the ruling class has made some important gains and has forced a series of concessions, they have not been able in open struggle to destroy any major industrial union. All their victories, at least in terms of the relationship of forces, can be rapidly put in question by the first generalized upsurge of the industrial workers.
The only modification I would make to Peter’s words, with the benefit of nearly 30 years of hindsight is to change “The results at this stage are a stand-off” to “The results at this stage are a blitzkrieg victory of the ruling class.”
It would be too much to expect co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who worked together on the excellent “Jesus Camp”, to tackle the problems facing the working class, who in the final analysis is the only force capable of changing Detroit, America and the planet, and put forth any kind of strategy for social change. If they did, you can bet that the Ford Foundation would have opened the trap door beneath them.
Despite the lack of an answer to Detroit’s problems, the filmmakers have performed a major service to the left and to the socially aware film audience (my readers, in other words) by putting the challenge on the front burner. This is a film that is must-viewing for anybody who is unhappy with the mounting class divisions in the U.S. today.
As blues bar owner Tommy Stevens put it, America is facing a situation in which the ruling class has more wealth than at any time in our history while the middle class (in other words, the Fordist working class of the 50s and 60s) is rapidly disappearing. Those left at the bottom will only have a single recourse, and that is to overthrow the capitalist system. Those are his words, not mine.
July 10, 2012
August 13, 2011
March 16, 2011
Back in the late 70s, the Socialist Workers Party in the United States began a “turn to industry” that identified a number of sectors to be “colonized”. At one time or another, this included steel, rail, auto, coal, meatpacking, and garment. It pressured “petty bourgeois” elements like me to “make the turn” in order to save my soul. Despite all the usually overblown projections about what could be done in a given factory, the real goal was to “proletarianize” the membership and protect the revolutionary party against ideological deviations. Party leader Jack Barnes referred to those who questioned the turn as “Marielitos”.
As a computer programmer, I felt particularly vulnerable to charges of being “petty bourgeois” since I had worked at banks and insurance companies since the age of 23. But I was not the only one feeling the pressure. All sorts of trade union activists in the party had come under scrutiny because they were in the wrong industry, or—for that matter— not in industry at all. If you were a social worker, a librarian or a school teacher in New York City, you were instructed to leave your job and join a “fraction” in an auto plant in New Jersey. After Ray Markey, who had become a highly respected activist in the librarian’s union, refused to quit his job, he became viewed as just another petty-bourgeois element.
Of course, the entire basis of colonizing (love that word—what an unconscious adaptation to alien class influences) steel and all the rest was a schematic expectation that a new working-class radicalization would be a repeat of the 1930s. The SWP brass, particularly Farrell Dobbs who was an important leader of the Teamsters Union in the late 1930s, assumed that the blue collar workers in the UAW, USW et al would become the vanguard of resistance to attacks on labor.
Surprise, surprise. The crucible of struggle has been in exactly those trade unions that were dismissed as “petty bourgeois” by the SWP leaders, testifying once again to the folly of looking at the class struggle through the lenses of the past. In particular, the public school teachers of the U.S. have become targeted especially by both the Republican ultraright and their pals in the Obama administration with their devotion to charter schools. If you were expecting a repeat of Flint 1938, naturally you would miss a Madison 2011 with schoolteachers on the front lines.
Here are some recent dispatches from the public schools battleground.
The most egregious case of teacher hatred can be found in New Jersey with Republican Governor Chris Christie earning a love poem from the execrable Matt Bai in the February 27th NY Times Magazine section. Bai, an Obama supporter of the highest magnitude, has apparently found a new best friend. He told his readers:
And with political consensus building toward some kind of public-school reform, teachers’ unions in particular have lost credibility with the public. Forty-six percent of voters in a poll conducted by Stanford and the Associated Press last September said teachers’ unions deserved either “a great deal” or “a lot” of blame for the problems of public schools.
And so, when the union draws a hard line against changes to its pay and benefit structure, you can see why it might strike some sizable segment of voters as being a little anachronistic, like mimeographing homework assignments or sharpening a pencil by hand. In a Pew Research Center poll this month, 47 percent of respondents said their states should cut pension plans for government employees, which made it the most popular option on the table.
The Times followed up this labor-hating item on March 9th with special pleading on behalf of the lily-white hedge fund managers in Bronxville who were trying to find ways to kick the teachers in the teeth. Titled Even a Wealthy Suburb Faces Pressure to Curb School Taxes, we encounter a truly odious fellow named Peter P. Pulkkinen, a 40-year-old investment banker with children in the first and third grades. In order to cut costs, he would “attack ‘structural’ expenses like tenure, the accumulation of unused sick days and the rising amount the school board pays for pensions and health insurance.”
But the main weapon has been the charter schools, a type of institution that draws from both public funding and donations from multimillionaires who see this non-union bastion as a market-based solution for a deeply entrenched social problem.
Last Sunday night, “Sixty Minutes”, a kind of harbinger for informed liberal opinion in the U.S., featured an episode on one charter school in New York titled Katie Couric on paying teachers $125,000 a year. The emphasis in charter schools is to reward good teachers and to fire bad ones, just as is the case supposedly in the private sector.
The charter school under examination in this episode is named appropriately enough as The Equity Project (TEP). It was launched by a former teacher named Zeke Vanderhoek who is a Yale graduate—no surprise there. The school has a 3-member board of trustees, one of who is Peter Cove who is described as “one of the nation’s leading advocates for private solutions to welfare dependency, ex-offender reentry initiatives and for meeting the needs of underserved, marginalized populations.” Cove is also CEO of America Works in 1984, a corporation seeking to “link private-sector investment and employment with welfare reform.”
(For a thorough debunking of Zeke Vanderhoek’s project, read this: http://normsnotes2.blogspot.com/2011/03/relentless-self-promotion-of-zeke.html.)
In order to launch TEP, Vanderhoek drew upon funds he had accumulated from a company he started called Manhattan GMAT that provided instructions in how to pass a standardized test that will get you into business school. This makes perfect sense in a way since Mayor Bloomberg has become associated with the need for standardized testing, another specious way to improve primary schools that goes hand-in-hand with union-busting.
All you ever need to know about standardized testing can be found in a Monthly Review article by Dan DiMaggio, who put some time in at a place similar to Manhattan GMAT. This is what he observed:
Test scoring is a huge business, dominated by a few multinational corporations, which arrange the work in order to extract maximum profit. I was shocked when I found out that Pearson, the first company I worked for, also owned the Financial Times, The Economist, Penguin Books, and leading textbook publisher Prentice Hall. The CEO of Pearson, Marjorie Scardino, ranked seventeenth on the Forbes list of the one hundred most powerful women in the world in 2007.
Test-scoring companies make their money by hiring a temporary workforce each spring, people willing to work for low wages (generally $11 to $13 an hour), no benefits, and no hope of long-term employment—not exactly the most attractive conditions for trained and licensed educators. So all it takes to become a test scorer is a bachelor’s degree, a lack of a steady job, and a willingness to throw independent thinking out the window and follow the absurd and ever-changing guidelines set by the test-scoring companies. Some of us scorers are retired teachers, but most are former office workers, former security guards, or former holders of any of the diverse array of jobs previously done by the currently unemployed. When I began working in test scoring three years ago, my first “team leader” was qualified to supervise, not because of his credentials in the field of education, but because he had been a low-level manager at a local Target.
In other words, just as we are dealing with all along the line, is an attempt to cut labor costs. This is what this is about. A god-damned rich bastard like Peter P. Pulkkinen refusing to pay $100 more per year in property taxes while he is making millions of dollars at Deutsche Bank. Or Michael Bloomberg, Chris Christie and Scott Walker trying to do to teachers what Reagan did to airline controllers. And all of it goes back to the 1930s when the auto companies were determined to make a profit over the maimed bodies of assembly line workers who could not even afford a modest bungalow.
Returning to the Socialist Workers Party, that has always had a tendency—even when Leon Trotsky was advising it (maybe I should say because)—to demonize the “petty bourgeoisie”, even the auto workers were fair game at one point.
In the 1950s, a group around Bert Cochran decided that a less sectarian approach was needed and split with the party in order to launch the Socialist Union. One of their activists was Sol Dollinger, who had been married to Genora Dollinger—the leader of the woman’s auxiliary in the great Flint sit-down strike. When the Cochranites left, the SWP leaders dubbed them as embourgeoisified workers who had gotten tainted by prosperity.
Sol Dollinger had this to say about that charge:
Three decades later, I am amused by the explanations made by Frank Lovell [SWP trade union leader] that you heard as a new member of the SWP. He contended that the members of the auto faction had become embourgeoisified by high wages in the industry. My position as a Chevrolet worker is not much different than other autoworker members of the party. We rented in Flint and when I quit after seven years my wages were under five thousand dollars a year. When Genora’s father died of a heart attack in front of the Buick gate where he worked as a janitor, he left his four children $700 each. Genora rushed out to make a down payment on a house with a $3800 dollar mortgage with monthly payments of $35.
At any rate, the goal is clear today. We have to everything in our power to make sure that the clock is not turned back to that time when auto workers did not have a pot to piss in. Thank goodness the school teachers, the librarians, and the social workers have the backbone to take on the bourgeoisie in the decisive early stages of the battle.
March 12, 2011
February 22, 2011
October 8, 2010
Brothers and sisters,
I could spend my allotted time at this podium telling you how hateful the Republican Party is. But you already know that. This is a party that has fought against trade unions and racial equality for the past 60 years so this should not be news to you.
What might be news to you is the failure of the Democrats to honor the promises that they made to us in 2008. In light of that, we have been forced to do some tough thinking about how to advance the interests of working men and women.
This year the AFL-CIO contributed 10 million dollars to the candidacy of Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter who ran unsuccessfully against incumbent Senator Blanche Lincoln in the Arkansas Democratic primary. Blanche Lincoln had threatened to join the Republicans in a filibuster over any health bill that had a public option. So imagine our disappointment when President Obama recorded an ad urging a vote for her. And imagine further what we must have felt like after Bill Halter lost, when an unnamed White House official said that we had flushed our money down the toilet.
You also might have heard about Steve Rattner’s new tell-all book about running the auto industry. Rattner heard Rahm Emanuel say “fuck the UAW”. With so many of our brothers and sisters in the UAW losing their jobs and their benefits, those are not the words we want to hear.
Nor were we happy when the president came out in support of the firing of public school teachers in Central Falls, Rhode Island. There’s a crisis in public education in America but privatizing schools is no answer, even if Secretary of Education Arne Duncan thinks it is. Haven’t we had enough of privatization?
Instead we should be thinking about ways to protect the public interest in education, health and in a dignified and comfortable retirement for all our citizens. When Alan Simpson, who the president appointed co-chair of a commission to study the deficit, described Social Security as a “a milk cow with 310 million tits”, working men and women had to wonder whose interests this administration is protecting. Those hundreds of millions of people either on social security or due to receive it down the road are entitled to live a decent life. If there’s a deficit, let’s cut spending on guns, not butter.
Now on the question of guns, isn’t it about time that we let the Afghans solve their own problems? At last count, 1230 Americans have died and 8300 have been wounded. That’s not to speak of the 350 billion dollars that has gone down the drain there. Just one-tenth of that money could have created 342,292 affordable housing units or provided health care for 22,070,721 children. It’s time to get our priorities straight. We have to pull out of Afghanistan now.
In conclusion, I am going to propose something that is totally new for the AFL-CIO but something we should have done a long time ago. Words about helping working men and women don’t count anymore. We’re tired of broken promises. We need action, not speeches or TV commercials in the next election.
Starting this week, we will be taking the steps necessary to build our own party based on the trade unions that will act in our own interests. We will control it with our money and our own hard work. This party is not just about saving the jobs of our trade union members. It will be a party that works for peace, a clean environment, racial justice, immigration rights, and all the other goals that brought you to the Lincoln Monument on this beautiful October day. We plan to fight for a better America and ask you to join our cause whether you are in a union or not. For in the final analysis, it is the human race and not just the trade unions that we seek to improve. The time of selfishness and greed is past. Let’s dedicate ourselves to a beautiful future based on the goals of this great American republic, the last great hope of all humanity.
October 5, 2010
John L. Lewis, president of the CIO
Labor and the Nation
delivered 3 September 1937 in Washington D.C.
If there is to be peace in our industrial life let the employer recognize his obligation to his employees — at least to the degree set forth in existing statutes. Ordinary problems affecting wages, hours, and working conditions, in most instances, will quickly respond to negotiation in the council room.
The United States Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and similar groups representing industry and financial interests, are rendering a disservice to the American people in their attempts to frustrate the organization of labor and in their refusal to accept collective bargaining as one of our economic institutions.
These groups are encouraging a systematic organization of vigilante groups to fight unionization under the sham pretext of local interests. They equip these vigilantes with tin hats, wooden clubs, gas masks and lethal weapons and train them in the arts of brutality and oppression. They bring in snoops, finks, hatchet gangs and Chowderhead Cohens to infest their plants and disturb the communities.
Fascist organizations have been launched and financed under the shabby pretext that the C.I.O. movement is communistic. The real breeders of discontent and alien doctrines of government and philosophies subversive of good citizenship are such as these who take the law into their own hands.
No tin-hat brigade of goose-stepping vigilantes or bibble-babbling mob of blackguarding and corporation paid scoundrels will prevent the onward march of labor, or divert its purpose to play its natural and rational part in the development of the economic, political and social life of our nation.
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, at the Oct. 2nd rally:
Hello, America. You know, you look like one nation, one beautiful nation. And I’m so glad you got to hear from the hard-working men and women who have come up here from all across this beautiful nation. There is nothing—and I mean nothing—that we can’t do when we stand together, side by side, shoulder to shoulder. You see, there is no power greater than what you see all around here today in our nation’s capital. You know, if you watch too much TV, you might think that we’re a nation full of hate, that we’ve turned against the values that made our country great. But no, that’s not America. America is here today. America is freedom of religion. America is Dr. King and President Lincoln and their spirit living in you and me today. America is one nation, and we signify that nation. But never forget, behind the voices of fear and hatred are the forces of greed, the moneyed powers that put us in the economic mess that we’re in today. So we have a lot of work to do to repair the damage that greed did to our country.
Brothers and sisters, we come together today because America needs jobs—good jobs—jobs that will support families, all families; jobs that will give our young people paths of opportunity, not obstacles; jobs that will allow people to retire with dignity; jobs that provide the means to support small businesses, like the one owned by Diana Ortiz, who came all the way from Pueblo, Colorado, to tell us that we need an economy that works for Main Street, so that small businesses can innovate and move America forward.
We’re gathered here to say that we believe in America, and it’s time for America to believe in each and every one of us. You see, it’s going to take something big to get America going again. And if we’re going to build our dreams, turn them into reality, then we have to be bold. We have to rebuild our schools, our roads, our bridges. We have to compete and win in the world economy with investments in world-class energy, high-speed rail and green technology, so that we can fight climate change and create good jobs. And we have to ensure that working men and women have the freedom to make every last job a good job, by joining together in a union to bargain for a better life. You see, that’s the American Dream—the promise that if you work hard, you can have a good life, earn a living wage and a future for your children. And that’s what we can do as one nation.
Brothers and sisters, I want you to make a promise today. Promise that you won’t let anybody divide us or turn us against each other. And promise that you’ll make your voices heard for good jobs and justice and education today and on Election Day. Because we believe in America, in this one nation, this great nation, our best days are ahead, not behind us. And we’re ready to fight for it. So it’s time for you to stand together, fight together. And we will win together, and we won’t let anyone—I mean anyone—stand in our way.
God bless you.