Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 27, 2014

Pride

Filed under: Film,workers — louisproyect @ 5:13 pm

Opening yesterday at three multiplex theaters in New York rather than in the art house circuit, “Pride” is calculated to appeal to a broader audience than one might expect given its theme: the alliance between a gay liberation group and the coal miners on strike against Margaret Thatcher in 1984.

This makes perfect sense since the art house venue would be the classic case of preaching to the choir.

As I sat through the press screening on Thursday night, I was impressed with director Matthew Warchus and screenwriter Stephen Beresford’s popular culture instincts. Basically, they put together a kind of musical comedy along the lines of “Footloose” in which a transgressive outsider from the big city breaks down the prejudices of a backward rural village. “Footloose”, made in 1984 when British gays and strikers were bonding with each other, is about the uphill battle a teenage boy has in overturning a local preacher’s ban on rock music and dancing. In “Pride”, the struggle is to gain acceptance from the miners and their families even when the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) have raised more money than any other support group.

There’s a key scene in “Pride” that not only evokes “Footloose” but two other icons of pop culture as well. The LGSM’ers have come to the miner’s village to drop off the weekly collections and to join in the festivities at a dance in the local union hall. As has been the case since they first began showing up, the miners stay as far from the gays as they can. They appreciate the solidarity but deeply rooted prejudices keep them at a distance.

In a flash of inspiration, one of the gay men has the DJ play a wailing disco tune that brings the women out on the floor. He joins them in a bravura performance that starts off mimicking John Travolta’s in “Saturday Night Fever” and comes to a climax with him dancing across the union hall’s bar like Pee-Wee Herman did in a biker’s bar in “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure”. In all instances, a smoking hot dancer breaks down the stiffest resistance. Even if Pee-Wee and Travolta were not explicitly gay, those in the know always knew they were.

In a way, it doesn’t matter that the film fails to point out that the miners went back to work because Thatcher broke the strike. The film ends with a Gay Pride parade with three busloads of miners joining in under the banner of the LGSM, as happened historically. While not a documentary by any stretch of the imagination, the film does not exaggerate the importance of the alliance between two groups shunned by bourgeois society. When the Murdoch press tried to drive a wedge between the two by publishing an “exposé” about “perverts” infiltrating the miner’s support movement, the LGSM came up with the brilliant idea of organizing a fundraising dance under the title “Pits and Perverts” that raised record sums. The lead group was the Bronski Beat, a fabulous band led by Jimmy Somerville, a gay man with a falsetto that would make an angel cry.

If the film gave short shrift to the outcome of the strike for obvious reasons, it was perhaps an even bigger failing that it neglected to identify the political orientation of Mark Ashton, the young man who came up with the idea for LGSM and who died of AIDS in 1987. The film alludes to him as getting involved because he was from Northern Ireland but there was more to it than that as the Guardian reported on September 20th:

But while many of those who inspired the film attended its recent premiere, Mark Ashton was absent. He died in 1987 of an Aids-related illness at the age of just 26. But now the film has sparked a surge of interest in his political activism. A memorial fund in his memory has received donations of more than £10,000 since the film’s release this month.

“He was an everything person,” said his friend Chris Birch. “He was an Irishman, a communist, an agitator, a lapsed Catholic who still went to mass very occasionally. He was very charismatic. His communism governed everything he did. He spent a couple of months in Bangladesh in ’82 and the poverty really politicised him. I miss him terribly. People tell me I didn’t smile for three months after he died.”

The Communist connection was always there, even if it was missing from the film. The Guardian article continues:

“We sought to broaden the struggle beyond the picket lines to what we called an anti-Thatcher broad democratic alliance,” recalled Hywel Francis, MP for Aberavon, and a former member of the Communist party, who helped forge links between the gay community and Welsh miners. “That is why our support group also set up the South Wales Striking Miners’ Choir and the South Wales Striking Miners’ Rugby Team.”

I can’t recommend this film highly enough for your friends and relatives who were too young to have lived through a period when the class struggle was still in the ascendancy. As the “sixties” began to wane, there was still enough of the lingering spirit of rebellion and solidarity that British miners and gays could make common cause.

Heading back home from the movie on Thursday, I reflected on how many years had passed when such things were possible. It was thirty years ago when LGSM was in the vanguard. When I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, I had no idea what it meant to see the labor movement in action as was the case in 1937. I only wish someone had made a film about the auto workers in Flint that would convey what was possible long before I was born.

While the labor movement was not that much of a movement when I became an activist, there were still some signs that a broader mass movement could bring together disparate elements here just as would happen in Britain. This is a report on how truck-drivers, the American equivalent of the British miners, sought out student antiwar protesters to support their strike in 1970. David McDonald, who was a member of the student support group, is the author:

The Student Worker Action Collective got its start on the Monday after the Kent State killings. The UCLA Student Union building had been thoroughly trashed and its main assembly room was emptied of earlier stuff which had been replaced by over one hundred tables staffed by various organizations of do-gooders, radicals of all stripes, people handing out peanut butter sandwiches, you name it.

Up walks Steve __________ (God help me, I’ve forgotten his last name). He worked in the office of a trucking company. The week before the 1970 Master Freight Agreement had come up for a vote in Teamster Local #208, representing local delivery drivers. The membership had rebelled, because their prior local contract, like a few others around the country, had better provisions than the proposed contract. So it was a giveback contract, pretty unheard of in those days. This occurred because Hoffa wanted all the Teamster across the country to have the same contract (a worthwhile idea, of course). Anyway, just as the rebelling local drivers were about to vote down the MFA and go on strike the meeting was gavelled closed by the local leadership. The rump body voted to strike anyway, but of course their vote was technically illegal and the bosses instantly got the courts to limit their picketting to two people per terminal by injunction.

So Steve ________ came over to UCLA and said something like, you kids are on strike, we’re on strike, but we can’t walk our own picket lines, so what if you organized a bunch of kids to come out and walk the lines for us? It was absolutely the coolest proposition anyone had ever made to any of us, so we got started on it right away. There was nothing, absolutely nothing to organizing a turnout of 2-300 kids every day to go wherever the Teamsters wanted us. Our biggest problem was always finding the barns, tucked away in corners of south LA none of us was familiar with, but we got over that. There were lots of fights with cops and pretty soon the cops began bringing giant black and white buses to cart us off in. So the Teamsters adapted and started having us show up at different places each day. Once they sent us to one barn to draw away the cops, and set off a bomb at another. That got some attention. There was a kid named Attila who had one of the first video cameras I’d ever seen, and he got the Auto workers to pay him to do a documentary of the whole thing. I never saw it. It was a very cool introduction to working class politics.

Several strike leaders went to jail for reasonably short times because they would go up in the mountains and take pot shots at scabbing truckers. We went to their trial and supported them with our little newspaper. These efforts were appreciated and when they got sprung we were invited to the out of jail party, at which I order a Coors (scab, unknown to me) beer and got unmercifully kidded about it and had to drink it with about 50 guys watching me, laughing their asses off at my newbyness at union movement stuff. SWAC boiled down to about 25-30 regulars after the Teamster strike ended (in defeat, of course) who then got lost in search of more strikes to support. Meanwhile, lots of us graduated (or so we thought) to the IS, which with WWP was the only tendency to consistently view the radicals in SWAC as recruitment material. Through people we met in the strike we later got wind of a pension reform group called $500 at 50, whose initial meeting in Grover E.(Curly) Best’s garage Steve Kindred and I attended. They had no trouble spotting us for ringers, but they didn’t care, we were good kids as far as they were concerned, and they took us along to a national rank-and-file gathering in Toledo, Ohio where we were the only ones with a mimeo machine, which Kindred and I transported from LA in a 45-hour non-stop (except to pee) drive. This little grouping blew up in no time at all, but it was the direct precursor to Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and Ken Paff, its longtime organizer, was a Bay Area ISer who, in my view at the time, vamped on our group to do his own thing. It’s all pretty boring after that.

Those days will return. Trust me. You can’t keep kicking someone while they are down, especially when they number in the tens of millions and the people doing the kicking are in the thousands. If “Pride” succeeds in reminding a mass audience of how such things come about, it will be making a great contribution—not to speak of the wonderful music and dancing.

 

November 20, 2013

Kshama Sawant at protest of machinists of Boeing, 18 November 2013

Filed under: trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 12:15 am

July 30, 2013

Obama doublespeak on the economy

Filed under: economics,financial crisis,Obama,workers — louisproyect @ 7:05 pm

Last week Obama gave a speech at Knox College in Illinois on the economic situation that like his remarks on Trayvon Martin a few days earlier was filled with the number of bromides calculated to give his MSNBC posse just enough to rally around. To give you a sense of the shallowness of it all, he uses the term “folks” 26 times. One supposes that with people like Al Sharpton and Ed Schultz, the only thing that would cause a breach with the President is a Swiftian modest proposal that hungry folks eat their children.

Early on in the speech he says:

See, I had just spent a year traveling the state and listening to your stories — of proud Maytag workers losing their jobs when the plant moved down to Mexico. (Applause.) A lot of folks here remember that. Of teachers whose salaries weren’t keeping up with the rising cost of groceries. (Applause.) Of young people who had the drive and the energy, but not the money to afford a college education. (Applause.)

The hypocrisy in this paragraph reaches achieves Olympian proportions. In 2008, when Obama was first making these demagogic appeals about the fate of Maytag workers, the Chicago Tribune reported that the main union at the plant urged a vote for Hillary Clinton. Leaving aside the logic of that advice, the union was correct to point out that Lester Crown, one of Maytag’s directors, raised tens of thousands of dollars for Obama’s campaigns since 2003. Crown’s son James was Obama’s 2008 campaign’s financial director for that matter. After Lester Crown revealed that Obama never brought up the plant closing with him, Obama’s alibi was that he was unaware that the Crowns had anything to do with Maytag. Oh, sure. To give you an idea of the incestuous relationship between big capital and the Democratic Party, as if you needed any reminder, here’s what warisacrime.org had to say:

Lester Crown first met Obama when he was a 27-year-old intern at the Sidley Austin law firm in Chicago in the summer of 1989. One of Obama’s law professors at Harvard, Martha Minow, had recommended Obama to her father, Newton Minow, who was a partner at the firm. Minow took Obama under his wing and introduced him to his friend Lester Crown. Crown recalls that Minow called him and “said we have in our office a young man who I think is really going places and I’d like you to meet him.” Crown says he has been a supporter ever since.

For people who applauded Obama’s plaint over the Maytag runaway plant, my advice is that outfits like SeaWorld get rid of their trained seals and replace them with these clapping fools.

Obama claims that he is also troubled by the fact that there were “teachers whose salaries weren’t keeping up with the rising cost of groceries.” Really? If Obama really cared about teachers, he would take a stand against the union-busting initiatives of his ex-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel or the charter school agenda of his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Using the excuse that teacher productivity must be raised, administrations across the country are firing teachers left and right. In 2010 the school board of Central Falls fired all 93 teachers, a move that Obama described: “If a school continues to fail year after year after year and doesn’t show sign of improvements then there has got to be a sense of accountability. That happened in Rhode Island last week.” This led Zeph Capo, a teachers union official in Houston, to state:

I ripped the Obama sticker off of my truck. We worked hard for this man, we talked to our neighbors and our fellow teachers about why we should support him, and we’re having to dig the knife out of our back.

One imagines that Capo fell into line when the 2012 election season started. After all, Obama was better than Romney. Romney would have not only fired the teachers but tied them to the roof of his car on a vacation trip to Canada. We can’t have that, can we?

Continuing along in the education vein, Obama added that the number of “young people who had the drive and the energy, but not the money to afford a college education” distressed him. This statement above all brought to mind the character that Jon Lovitz played on Saturday Night Live, the Pathological Liar.

I didn’t always lie. No, when I was a kid, I told the truth. But then one day, I got caught stealing money out of my mother’s purse. I lied. I told her it was homework – that my teacher told me to do it. And she got fired! Yeah, that’s what happened!

Just days after Obama’s speech, Congress passed a bill that tied student loan interest rates to financial markets. This proposal was not the typical Republican plan “forced” on Obama but was his own profit-making scheme inspired by a paper written by Jason Delisle at the New American Foundation, whose president Anne-Marie Slaughter (appropriately named) was Hillary Clinton’s Director of Policy Planning at the State Department. As a member of the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Delisle had just the right credentials to draft a policy paper that would stick it to the students. The Huffington Post reported that a record $51 billion profit could be expected from the student loan shark racket cooked up by Obama. That’s greater than the earnings of America’s most profitable companies and roughly equal to the combined net income of the four largest U.S. banks by assets.

Arguably the only Democratic Senator with a shred of integrity, Elizabeth Warren stated: “I can’t support a proposal that squeezes even more profits out of our kids. In fact, I think this whole system stinks.’’

After listing these items that fell in the doom-and-gloom category, Obama raised his hand over his eyebrows like the captain of a leaking vessel and saw the sun breaking through the dark clouds. Good-god-almighty, jobs were on the horizon: “So you add it all up, and over the past 40 months, our businesses have created 7.2 million new jobs. This year, we’re off to our strongest private sector job growth since 1999.”

An honest appraisal of the job market, however, would be based on the payroll-to-population ratio, something that reflects the real health of the economy. If, for example the population of a country was one million and the number of employed doubled from 100 to 200, who would cheer about that?

On June 6th Zero Hedge reported that the payroll-to-population was worse than a year ago and that “the unemployment rate is also rising with under-employment – at 18.0% – near 15 month highs.”

There is one sector that appears booming, however. The number of minimum wage waiters and bartenders hit an all-time high of 10,339,800 workers, increasing by a 51,700 in just one month. But mixing drinks like Tom Cruise in “Cocktail” must be a lot more fun than working in some boring factory with a health plan, so it is not that troubling to learn from Zero Hedge that manufacturing jobs have dropped four months in a row, now numbering 11.964 million jobs. Pretty soon the number of bartenders, waiters, and busboys will exceed the number of factory workers. I wonder what Marxist value theorists will make of that?

Obama was also pumped up over the fact that Ford is now hiring workers for its Kansas City plant. Glory be, America is coming back! Well, one can certainly understand why Ford would want to increase the number of workers in Kansas City since it cut a deal with the UAW that entry-level workers will be paid $16 per hour, just about the same amount that fast food workers in New York are struggling to win. Not only that, it will take a lot longer to get a raise. That’s about $31,000 per year, good enough for a mobile home and a night out once a week at the local Burger King. No wonder the UAW bureaucrats got out the vote for Obama in 2012. They, Obama, and the Ford bosses see eye to eye.

Obama made sure to get everybody on board the fracking bus. “We produce more natural gas than any country on Earth. We’re about to produce more of our own oil than we buy from abroad for the first time in nearly 20 years.” That’s great. With shale oil produced by fracking, we’ll be able to take advantage of all those new bartenders to get a pint of beer rather than put up with water catching fire as it flows from your faucet at home.

To make sure that Rachel Maddow will continue to coo over him, Obama made sure to throw in some cheap demagogy:

Even though our businesses are creating new jobs and have broken record profits, nearly all the income gains of the past 10 years have continued to flow to the top 1 percent. The average CEO has gotten a raise of nearly 40 percent since 2009. The average American earns less than he or she did in 1999. And companies continue to hold back on hiring those who’ve been out of work for some time.

Oooh, agitating against the top 1 percent. The Kenyan Marxist is at it again.

One understands why Obama would have to throw in a few words like these. Not only do they come cheap, at least those still laboring under the illusion that the capitalist system is redeemable can con themselves into believing that the President really cares.

Those illusions might finally be breaking down. Who cannot be cheered by the sight of fast food workers calling a one-day strike in New York? As the one host on MSNBC with a smidgen of liberalism left, Chris Hayes had on three people involved with the action last night, as well as my own Congressperson Carolyn Maloney who was on the picket line. Theirs is the voice of a new labor movement. It is a sign of its strength that it can draw upon Maloney for support:

HAYES: We`re talking about the fast food strike under way across the country tonight. Still with me at the table, Tsedeye Gebreselassie from the National Employment Law Project, McDonalds worker, Kareem Starks who is striking and Gregory Reynoso from Fast Food Forward, and joining us is Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, Democrat from New York. Great to have you here, Congresswoman.

REPRESENTATIVE CAROLYN MALONEY (D), NEW YORK: Great to be here.

HAYES: Gentlemen, I want to get your reaction to the bite I played. If people are feeling they`re not being paid adequately, they have to go find a job someplace elsewhere paid higher wages. What`s your response to that? Just go get a higher wage job.

STARKS: You know, I work for McDonald`s for, like, five months. Before that, I worked for the Parks Department, climbing trees. I made $10.25 more than what I`m making now. So I`ve had a better job, and I was never in poverty like I am now. But whoever is, like, against it, obviously isn`t ever made $7.25 and never tried to budget paying for two kids and an apartment and bills and food all for $7.25.

HAYES: My sense, Gregory, if there were jobs available that paid higher wages, you would be happy to take them.

REYNOSO: Yes, I would be happy. The point is, it`s not these types of opportunities for everybody. There are not a lot of people what can really go out and find these types of jobs. That`s why people have to live on $7.25.

HAYES: Congresswoman, it`s fairly unusual to find members of Congress walking the picket line. There were a number. Why were you out there?

MALONEY: Well, I was looking for you, Chris.

HAYES: I was prepping this segment.

MALONEY: We were out there to show solidarity, the fight we have before Congress. We have a bill before Congress, HR-1010. We have 142 co- sponsors, 30 in the Senate and it would raise the minimum wage to $10.10, over 3 years, 95 cents a year. The president even in 2009 was calling for minimum wage increase in his state of the union and, of course, last week in Illinois. It`s a priority of his. It`s a priority of ours. We`re working hard to pass it.

HAYES: In the past, raising the minimum wage, you`ve been able to get some Republicans to vote for it. There was a minimum wage raised under George W. Bush that happened. There were a number of Republican votes. Is the Republican Party, do you think you can find people on the other side of the aisle who would vote for this bill?

MALONEY: I believe it merits bipartisan support and we`ll certainly be working to secure it. You`re not going to secure it if you don`t try.

HAYES: That doesn`t occur to me very much.

MALONEY: We`re going to try. We`re going it try because it`s too important and talking to Greg and Kareem, you see the importance of it. I believe you`re working two jobs.

REYNOSO: Yes.

MALONEY: He doesn`t have time to sleep. He`s working two jobs and it`s hard.

STARKS: I actually work the overnight shift last night and I`m here now.

HAYES: Thank you for coming in.

STARKS: I just, like, want to thank everybody for the support.

HAYES: Tsedeye, when I was talking to Kareem and Gregory about this idea that if you want a better job then go get a job that pays a higher wage what is happening right now in this economy, I don`t think this is underappreciated. The jobs are being created at the bottom of the wage scale. That is a trajectory that many Americans are experiencing.

GEBRESELASSIE: Kareem`s story is the story of our economy and how our labor markets have shifted so we`ve like hemorrhaged these decent paying jobs. What`s taking its place jobs that pay low wages like fast food and retail. Not only are those the jobs that are being created. They`re also jobs where real wages are actually declining, you know, since –

MALONEY: Out of the 3.2 million low-income jobs, 2/3 of them are women. Women are disproportionately in these low-income jobs.

GEBRESELASSIE: They`re also adults. That`s the other thing.

MALONEY: They always say they`re teenagers. They`re not. Most of them are –

HAYES: Were your co-workers, your co-workers, the image is, like, these are teens on summer jobs. Your co-workers were supporting families.

REYNOSO: Yes.

STARKS: There`s a few co-workers I know that has kids and supporting families and paying bills and stuff like that. I mean, it`s probably — McDonald`s and fast food chains usually target younger kids or whatever, but at the end of the day, there are still older people that have these jobs. There`s, like, a 60-year-old lady in my store.

GEBRESELASSIE: The median age for a fast food worker in this country is 29 years old.

HAYES: Wow.

GEBRESELASSIE: That is an adult. The other thing the industry says these are stepping stone jobs.

HAYES: You could rise up in the ranks.

GEBRESELASSIE: That`s just not the case. There`s limited opportunities for advancement.

REYNOSO: People from 50 years old, they`ll be working in these companies. Imagine those people supporting families.

HAYES: Will you quickly show that mobility graphic? It`s 2.2 percent jobs in the fast food industry are managerial, professional and technical occupations.

GEBRESELASSIE: The vast majority, 90 percent are frontline occupations. The median wage is $8.94 an hour.

HAYES: Compared to all industries, 31 percent –

MALONEY: It hasn`t gone up in four years.

HAYES: And it hasn`t gone up in four years. Tsedeye Gebreselassi from the National Employment Law Project, McDonalds worker, Kareem Starks, Gregory Reynoso from Fast Food Forward, and Congresswoman Caroline Maloney from New York, thank you all.

March 28, 2013

Momentive Workers Hope Third Time’s the Charm

Filed under: workers — louisproyect @ 10:35 pm

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Chemical workers at Momentive in Waterford, New York, fought a losing battle against drastic wage cuts in 2010. This time they roundly rejected the company’s deal and are gearing up for a showdown.

Photo: Jon Flanders.

March 28, 2013 / Jon Flanders

Fourteen ballots were disqualified because “NO” was scrawled on the outside. But it didn’t matter—the vote was overwhelming. Members of IUE-CWA Local 81359 rejected a one-year extension of their contract, which expires in June, despite the intensive in-plant meetings that Momentive management organized to push for the deal.

“At first [the contract extension] looked fairly good,” said Frank Farina, a silicone operator for 26 years at Momentive Performance Materials in Waterford, New York, near Albany. The plant makes silicone products that go into caulks, adhesives, foams, cosmetics, and tires.

“Then I started looking back at what they did to us three years ago,” Farina said. “They violated our national contract, eight major violations, the main one being failure to negotiate in good faith, and I started thinking about it more and more, and you know what? I don’t think I can trust anything they tell me.”

There is speculation that the opening of a Momentive plant in China lies behind management’s interest in a contract extension. An extra year without a showdown in Waterford would have given the Chinese plant time to ramp up production and potentially undermine any industrial action in the U.S. in 2014.

Lived to Fight Again

Labor Notes readers may remember that the chemical workers of Local 81359 fought a losing battle against wage cuts a few years ago.

Momentive executives approached the union in early 2008 saying they needed to transform the business. The private equity firm Apollo Management had just taken over the plant from GE. They sought steep wage cuts and outsourcing, especially of jobs where veteran workers were employed.

Local 81359 offered many ideas to save the positions, including work area flexibility, fewer supervisors, and lower starting wages for new hires—all to no avail. Management imposed the cuts unilaterally, violating the contract. But by this time the economy had crashed and orders were way down, leaving the local little leverage.

When the next contract came due in 2010, management’s offer didn’t rescind the cuts but offered big lump sums. The local narrowly voted it down, but the votes of two smaller Momentive locals not affected by wage cuts (technicians in Waterford and quartz products workers in Willoughby, Ohio) were enough to put the contract over the top 388-337—leaving 400 Waterford workers still suffering pay cuts that in some cases approached 50 percent.

This year, the landslide of “no” votes in Local 81359 made the votes of the small locals irrelevant, though they passed the extension. The final tally at 81359 was 64 for extending the contract, 467 against.

“I am so proud of my members for standing up and fighting back!” said President Dominick Patrignani.

Patrignani, the executive board, and the members have put together proposals that would go a long way toward amending the hatred and disparity left in the plant by the 2010 contract. They are determined to use the fact that economic conditions for the industry are relatively favorable.

Momentive workers are gearing up for a showdown that will test the resolve of both labor and management. IUE-CWA 81359 members are now familiar sights at area picket lines—which has created favorable conditions for labor solidarity in the Capital District. Activists in the Troy Area Labor Council and other councils in the Capital District Area Labor Federation plan to pitch in for a serious contract campaign this spring.

www.labornotes.org/blogs/2013/03/momentive-workers-hope-third-times-charm#

Jon Flanders is a member of Machinists Local 1145 and of the Troy Area Labor Council.
IUE-CWA is the Industrial Division of the Communications Workers.

February 4, 2013

Jim Zarichny on the lives and struggles of the working class

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,workers — louisproyect @ 3:21 pm

Jim Zarichny, who died last week at the age of 89, was a Marxmail subscriber from the late 90s and was still subscribed at the time of his death. Apparently he began to suffer from Alzheimer’s in recent years and was not able to be of much help to younger radicals trying to pull together a collection of his work. Fortunately his papers have been turned over to the University of Colorado but probably not his email messages to Marxmail that are among the jewels that made all the idiotic flame wars worth putting up with over close to 15 years. (The list was launched on May Day, 1998)

Today I am posting Zarichny’s reflections on the lives and struggles of autoworkers in Flint, Michigan and in the Ukraine. Tomorrow I will post about his involvement with the new left of the 1960s. Amazingly enough, this was a man who remained politically active over a 70 year period.

Going to International Workers Order (IWO) picnics in Flint, Michigan in the late 30s

The Coldwater Road Picnic Grounds

Shall we be slaves and work for wages?      It’s outrageous!

Somebody bought the picnic grounds located just outside the city of Flint where Coldwater Road dead-ended about an eighth of a mile from the Flint River. Some people said the grounds belonged to a Hungarian doctor. Others said it was a Macedonian businessman. Jimmy never did find out whose it was.

From Memorial Day until Labor Day, every Sunday would be reserved by some organization for its annual picnic.

A large variety of organizations held picnics there. Mostly, they were foreign language groups, primarily IWO lodges. The International Workers Order (IWO) was a Communist led fraternal society that offered cheap life insurance policies. There were ten or fifteen IWO lodges in Flint. The larger lodges were the Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian lodges. But there were smaller Serbian, Polish, Croatian, and other Slavic lodges. At its high point, the IWO had nine hundred members in Flint. Typically, the picnics lasted all Sunday afternoon and well into the evening. Usually, the picnics drew from fifty to a hundred fifty people.

The picnic grounds were fenced in. Usually, some one was at the gate collecting an admissions fee. It was three or four miles out of town, so one needed an automobile to get there. Near the parking lot was a large roofed open-air dance pavilion. Often, the sponsoring organization would hire an orchestra to play polka music for people to dance to. Nearby was a booth where beer and soda pop were sold. Very rarely did they sell hard liquor because a one day hard liquor license was much more expensive than a beer permit. Food was sold. Sometimes it was ethnic specialties, but more often ordinary foods such as hot dogs.

The picnics were important fundraisers for the organizations, which were always in need of funds, especially to support their newspapers. At that time there were about thirty pro-Communist foreign language newspapers published in America. None of them got enough money from subscriptions. The various IWO lodges were always sending money to the national office of their newspaper to keep it afloat.

Tom (my dad) would take his family to three, four, or five picnics every year. He always went to the Russian IWO picnic, the Macedonian picnic, and the picnic put on by the Flint Communist Party. He avoided the Ukrainian, Polish, and Hungarian picnics. Jimmy looked forward to the picnics. Sometimes he would talk with the other boys of junior high school age. He could not swim. And he didn’t think he wanted to join with them in swimming in the Flint River after he noticed raw sewage floating in it. Instead, Jimmy helped to scrounge the second growth scrub forest for dead logs and wood to keep the campfire burning.

In the evenings, sometimes the campfire would be dominated by the older folk who would sing traditional songs in their native language. But on other occasions, it would be dominated by the younger adults who sang labor songs and songs of Wobbly origin. Songs by Joe Hill were still popular. Probably the most popular song was sung to the tune of Red Wing. Red Wing was still widely known by the general public. The original song was a raunchy, sexist, Chauvinistic song about an Indian maid. But the new words were probably of Wobbly origin. They began

“Shall we be slaves and work for wages?         It’s outrageous!”

The words seemed to hit a deep chord in the hearts of the young autoworkers.

But the thing Jimmy enjoyed the most was listening to the conversations of the young auto workers. One conversation that left a particularly deep impression on him was about the attitudes of workers in the factory. The man talking had observed that immediately after the sit-down strikes, the workers had spoken of the union as “we”. But within eight months, after the bargaining procedure had been formalized, the union became “they”. The speaker was concerned about this because he felt it reflected a growing gap between the workers and their union. Over the years, this theme of the bureaucratization of the labor movement was returned to again and again in the concerns of the local Communists. Concerns about this became especially pronounced years later when the Union got a contract saying that the company would collect union dues through a check-off system. Before that, the shop steward had to go around and collect dues from every union member. In the course of doing that, he could hear the complaints of individual members. This was a channel through which communication flowed between the membership and the union leaders. The Communists were troubled by the fact that the dues check-off broke this link and the bureaucratization hardened, but they could not oppose the check-off because they had learned from their study of the IWW experience that one of the reasons for the IWW failure was its refusal to institutionalize itself.

A long running discussion centered on how to develop class awareness among the workers. It was obvious that the American working class lacked class-consciousness. The problem was how to crystallize the working class into an entity that acted in its own behalf. At the time, a big chunk of the Flint working class was newly newly proletarianized. Many of the local youth had taken off for California, and big chunks of the working class in the local General Motors factories were farm boys newly arrived in Flint. The most frequent discussion centered on the theme of how to change the working class from a class in itself to a class for itself. The most popular position was a “stages” theory, which might have originated with the full time Party organizer, Earl Reno. According to this theory, mass awareness would proceed in three stages. The first stage was trade union consciousness. Workers would learn that they needed a labor union, and they could only get it through strike action, an almost spontaneous form of class struggle. In this first stage the workers would learn that they needed their own organization in the factory to defend their interests. According to this theory, they first had to consolidate the union victory. Later, the union would have to take up the interests of the workers that existed outside of the factory. This would require the entry of the union into political activity. From this, the workers would learn that they were in conflict with the capitalist class over a wide range of issues, and from this would grow the second stage, class-consciousness. Over a longer period of time, workers would become aware that their problems could not be solved within the framework of capitalism. This would lead to the third stage, socialist consciousness. This is why the local Communists were so concerned about bureaucratization in the union because if there were a gap between the workers and their union, it would slow down the development of class-consciousness. The opposition to the stages theory ran along the lines that issues such as fascism, women’s rights, Negro liberation, etc. had to be taken up immediately, and could not be made to wait for the appropriate stage. The stages theory was the more popular and it seemed to make sense to Jimmy, who was deeply aware of the lack of class-consciousness among the children of the autoworkers in his junior high school.

The Russian IWO picnics were always well attended. After the strike, the Russian IWO had grown to fifty or sixty members. Not only did its members come, but also people from the general non-political Russian community. They came because they wanted to be among Russian speaking people and to take part in the singing of traditional Russian songs around the campfire. As at all of the picnics, some local Communists and a large number of people from the other ethnic groups came because they wanted a relaxing Sunday afternoon.

But Jimmy gradually became aware that one significant element in the Russian community never came. These were the members of the Russian Progressive Club. From his parents, he learned how this had come about.

Twenty years earlier, the Russian community in Flint warmly welcomed the Russian revolution. Most of them were newly arrived young immigrants. They had left Russia for economic reasons and they believed that the Revolution would improve economic conditions there. Most of them had a limited education and the word democracy was absent from their thinking. One of their greatest concerns was that their children were losing the Russian language and culture. They conceived the idea of building a Russian Cultural Center. This Center would have weekend classes in which their children would learn the Russian alphabet and to read Russian books. There would be music classes where the children would learn to play the bayan and the balalaika. The children would learn traditional Russian folk dances. There would be a meeting hall that could be used as a dance hall for older teen-age children. This vision inspired a large number of fund raising events. By the late twenties, they had a substantial sum of money, almost enough to build a decent building.

This was the period when the American Communist Party was trying to organize independent Communist led labor unions. At that time there was a substantial number of coal mines in Pennsylvania that had a predominantly immigrant work force. A Communist led union, the National Miners Union, tried to oust John L. Lewis’s union, the United Mine Workers of America. The National Miners Union called a strike, which turned out to be long and bitter. Many mines were closed for half a year by the strike. But strike funds ran out. Loyal strikers were on the verge of starvation. In desperation, the Communist leadership searched for every possible source of money. They appealed to the Russian Cultural Center of Flint to turn over its entire building fund to the strike support committee. This led to a long and bitter debate. The Communists organized and brought every possible supporter to the meeting. By a narrow margin, the organization voted to donate. In bitterness, the others left to form the Russian Progressive Club, an anarchist oriented organization. They were convinced the Communists had behaved in an unethical fashion and had betrayed the trust of the many people who had worked so hard as fundraisers. The victors evolved into the Russian IWO. It was not until World War II, when both groups supported Russian War Relief, that they ever talked to each other again.

Jimmy never thought about why his dad chose to go to the Macedonian picnics. Perhaps it was because Tom’s friend, Sidor Milnechuk, always went to them. Sidor was a Russian who worked along side him in Plant # 40 at the Buick. Sidor’s daughter was married to a Macedonian restaurant owner. Nor was it clear to Jimmy whether the Macedonians were an IWO lodge or some other organization. But the thing that Jimmy long remembered was the Macedonians bringing a butchered lamb to be skewered over the bon fire. After they roasted it, they cut it into pieces, put sauces on it, and sold it calling it “Shashlik.” Most of the Americans loved it, but Jimmy never tried it because it appeared unappetizing.

Over a long period of time, Jimmy pieced together a great deal of information about the Macedonian community in Flint. One of their key figures was Mrs. Evanoff. In the early years of the twentieth century, she still lived in the Balkans. Her father was an important figure in the Macedonian Orthodox Church. The region she lived in was still ruled by Turkey. Most of the Macedonian people wanted independence for their country and there were almost hopeless uprisings against the Turks. The extreme nationalists believed that everyone who was not an active supporter of their organization was a traitor. They assassinated Mrs. Evanoff’s father because he remained silent on the question of nationalism.

Shortly after World War I, many of the Macedonian nationalists as well as Mrs. Evanoff came to live in Flint. There, some Macedonians developed a uniquely Flint type of hot dog restaurant called the coney island. Before World War II, they were the most popular fast food places in the city. When Flint people asked the owners, “What country did you come from?” most of them replied “Greece.” That is how the mistaken notion developed that the coney islands were Greek restaurants.

Turkey was defeated in World War I, but Macedonia did not become independent. Earlier, it had been divided between Turkey and Greece. After the war, it was divided between Greece, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. In the twenties, the Communist International declared its support for an independent Macedonia. It declared its support for taking the Macedonian lands from Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Greece and uniting them into an independent nation. The Flint Macedonians were impressed. The Macedonian business community became an important source of funds for the Flint Communist Party. Mrs. Evanoff joined the CP where she became a key leader, a post she held for a number of years in the late twenties.

At one of the picnics late in the summer of 1938, one of the older IWO people asked Jimmy, “Why don’t you join the Twentieth Century Youth Club? You’re starting senior high school this fall, and there’s a lot of high school kids there. They meet every Friday evening above McKeighan’s Drug Store on North Saginaw Street.” This was the first that Jimmy had ever heard of the Twentieth Century Youth Club.

Sorry about not replying to M.N. Ryutin earlier. But I was off list for a couple of days to do some more urgent things such as house cleaning and going to Denver for the demo. I regard the Denver march as successful. People were eight abreast for several blocks. As we walked thru the crowded shopping district, I saw no hostility from the people watching us and I believe they were impressed by the size of the demo..

Recollections of the Flint Sit-Down Strikes challenged by Jack Lieberman, a young Trotskyist

M.N. Rvutin says “The Democrat party was never a labor party.”

I had hoped from the context that I was making it clear that I was talking only about Michigan and not the national party. People first heard about Stanley Nowak when he was a UAW organizer at the Ford factory. He used his enormous popularity to run for the Michigan Senate. By 1947, he was the floor leader of the Democratic Party in the State Senate. His record leaves no doubt that he was following the agenda of the CIO and not of the business interests. As I said in the prior post, it was a de facto labor party. They were hampered by the ancient state constitution which gave rural areas more votes than urban areas and were forced to be the minority party. Eventually the U.S. Supreme Court in its one man-one vote decision declared the clause in the state constitution unconstitutional. But in 1948, the decision of some of the leading Democrats to leave the Democratic Party to support Henry Wallace undercut all of this. But vestiges of it appeared when Coleman Young, who I first met when he was a militant in the Civil Rights Congress, was elected Mayor of Detroit. I should also point out That George Crockett, who was later elected to the U.S. Congress was one of the people who worked on the brief in my appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

M.N. Rvutin goes on to say:

“The book by Art Preis, _Labor’s Giant Step_, is very, very clear on this. Preis details the measures taken by Democrats from Frances Perkins, the Roosevelt Secretary of Labor, on down, against the Flint sit-down strikers.”

Preis may know this, but I wonder why is it that none of the sit-down strikers that I talked to knew about it.

This reminds me of an incident that happened while I was working in Tallahassee about 40 years ago.

Some of the SDS kids asked me to give a talk on the sit-down strikes because I had attended many of the pep rallies in the Pengelly building auditorium during the strike. I was a junior high school student then. In the summer of 1937, I was the president of the Junior Union. In senior high school, I was treasurer of the CIO youth Club.

After I had been talking a while, a young YSA’er by the name of Jack Leiberman got up very angry.

“What you are saying is a lot of bull shit! I know the real facts and people who want to learn should follow me to the next room where I will explain what really happened!” He walked out followed by 4 or 5 others.

I had started my speech by describing Governor Frank Murphy as a deeply conflicted individual. At a gut level, his sympathies were with the underdog. After all, his grandfather had been an Irish revolutionary who was captured by the British and executed.

After one of the big battles in Flint between the local cops and strikers in which more than 20 people were hospitalized, Murphy was obliged to act. He sent the national guards. At first it was not clear what the guards were sent for. John L. Lewis made his dramatic speech.

In the end, Murphy opted for the position of “no violence”. The guards would form a physical barrier and not allow the conflicting forces to fight each other. The most decisive question was food. Murphy finally agreed to let food reach the strikers inside the Chevrolet factory. The Chevrolet factory was surrounded by the troops. Once the strikers had food, they could hold the plant forever. So Genera Motors capitulated. The anger of the G.M. stockholders was intense. On election eve in 1938, HUAC brought in Witnesses to swear that they knew Murphy was a Communist. This was the main headline in the Detroit Free Press on the morning of election day. Murphy lost.

One of the top officials in the Buick local was a pall bearer at my Dad’s funeral. When I visited the official at his office, I noticed that he had a wall labeled LABOR’S HEROES. Among the photos was one of Frank Murphy.

My brother, who was a skilled tradesman in Chevrolet was in local 659 which was heir to the sit -down strike ,gave me a copy of their 50th anniversary calendar. The caption underneath one photo reads”

“Sit-down strikers at Plant #4 receive food supplies under the supervision and protection of the Michigan National Guard.

Incidentally, as regards Radical Jack, many years later we met at a demo at the bicentennial celebrations in Philly, and the hard feelings evaporated.

Unemployment in Flint in the early 50s

In 1950 or 1951, a lot of people were laid off from the factories in Flint because the factories were being reconverted to war production for the Korean War. We got the UAW to sponsor unemployed organizing. We passed out leaflets at the unemployment compensation office. All the unemployed had to go there to register every week. The older workers still worked but the younger workers were laid off. Each UAW local had its own unemployed organization with a total of over 300 activists. But just before the lay-offs ended, the local morning newspaper began an intense red baiting campaign against me.

The Flint City Council was considering a resolution asking the State legislature to increase the inadequate weekly unemployment compensation. I came to City Hall late. It was jammed with unemployed. All standing room and seats were taken. I could not get inside, but the doors were open and I sat on the stairs outside where, because of the microphone, I could hear everything. I did not say a word.

The next morning, the headline in the morning newspaper, the Flint News-Advertiser screamed ZARICHNY AT CITY HALL LAST NIGHT. The whole story was a rehash of the events three years earlier at my trial by the State Senate Committee on Un-American Activities. We were called back to work the next week. Some of the former unemployed would no longer talk to me.

I realize that red baiting is now diminished, but I suspect that if needed, the media will find its equivalent.

McCarthyism at Michigan State

When I got out of the army after World War II, I went to Michigan State University. One day I passed out handbills on campus for an organization called American Youth for Democracy (AYD) that had originally formed under the inspiration of Earl Browder. Michigan State University reacted sharply. They charged me with unauthorized distribution of literature on campus and put me on disciplinary probation. (Actually, I was unaware of their rule against literature distribution.) The probation basically said I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t join anything; I couldn’t attend meetings. Somewhat later, the State Senate of the State of Michigan formed a Committee on Un-American Activities and I was subpoenaed as their first witness. I wound up with a 17 hour suspended sentence for contempt of the Senate of the State of Michigan. This resulted in my name in the banner headline of the front page of the Detroit Free Press as well as my photo being there. (The Detroit Free Press is the primary newspaper in Michigan.)

Still later, I attended a meeting off campus at which Carl Winter spoke. Carl Winter was the State Secretary of the CP in Michigan and he had been indicted under the Smith Act. The meeting was in the conference room of People’s Church across the street from campus and about 50 people attended . The local newspaper ran a story about the meeting and featured prominently the fact that I had been there. Michigan State University reacted sharply and expelled me for violating probation. Actually, when I had been placed on probation, I thought the probation meant I could not attend meetings on campus. I did not realize that it meant I could not attend meetings anyplace in the world.

The Civil Rights Congress took up my case, and it was appealed all the ways up to the US Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case. The Civil Rights Congress also formed a defense support committee on my behalf. As I look at their literature, I am impressed by the names listed. Among the signers are Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Dubois and Congressman Vito Marcantonio.

Eventually, I went to work in the Chevrolet factory in Flint, Michigan. In 1956, the level of political demoralization in Flint was so intense that nothing could be done there. I realized a totally fresh start was needed. I moved to New York to be able to start over again politically. A year later I decided that there was no future unless I returned to a university. So I enrolled in the school of General Studies at Columbia University so that I could study part time while I worked. I had to do this because the Veterans Administration had sent me a letter canceling my right to attend a university under the GI Bill. That is how I wound up among students a lot younger than myself.

Reflections on Genora Dollinger, Flint autoworkers, and the Democratic Party

In the pamphlet, STRIKING FLINT, on page 27, Genora Dollinger wrote:

“What else changed? Workers felt that they had the right to run for political office if they wanted to and they did. Many of the later legislative people in the state of Michigan and other political posts were either strikers themselves, if they were young enough , or the sons of former strikers. But the whole nature of the city changed.”

From reading the items submitted to this thread, it is clear that the majority disagree with Genora. They would say that she should not praise people who ran for office as Democratic Party people because in fact they were strengthening illusions in the Democratic Party.

But I agree with Genora. It was a period when, as the old song goes:

“When the union’ inspiration through the worker’s blood shall run,

There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun.”

My dad’s wages went up from 50 cents an hour to 75, cents, a fifty percent increase. In the new 40-hour workweek, he was making as much as in the old 60-hour workweek. The workers who had been doubters became believers. They trusted the union. When the Political Action Committee of the UAW endorsed Roger Townsend, an African American foundry worker at the Buick, he was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives in a constituency that was 90 per cent white.

This was the period when Michigan elected McNamara, an official in the plumbers union, to the U.S. Senate. How often do we hear of a senator who is a union leader?

About two years after World War II, I was subpoenaed By the Callahan Committee, formally known as the Michigan State Senate Committee on un-American Activities. Of course, I refused to cooperate with the Committee because I believed it was not proper for the state to inquire about a person’s political beliefs. Senator Matthew Callahan demanded that I be cited for contempt. This was when Michigan was under the old state constitution, which organized the state Senate along geographical lines, and the urban areas were a permanent minority, so most of the state senators were Republicans. The floor leader of the Democratic Party was Stanley Nowak. He believed I was in the right and except for one man who abstained, all of the Democrats voted against citing me for contempt.

At the time of my trial for contempt of the State Senate, there was a tremendous outpouring of fellow students from Michigan State University. Half an hour before the trial, the fire marshal blocked off the entrance to the state capitol because the huge crowds were a fire hazard. At a time when the Hollywood 10 were serving a year in prison, I wound up with a 17 hour suspended sentence after I was convicted.

That fall, Stanley Nowak and two others of my key supporters left the Democratic Party to campaign as Progressive Party candidates and lost

The conclusion I drew from these experiences is that the sit down strikes were crucial. They created a situation where locally, the Democratic Party became a de facto Labor party. We don’t know if this can happen again on larger scale. But at the moment, it does not seem to be an area that we should worry about. At the moment, the places where our forces can be built are outside the framework of the two party system, such as for example, the peace movement.

I want to close with the statement that we should aim at building a broad movement. To do this, we will have to engage in more respectful debate. Instead of attacking individuals who we believe to be wrong, we should try to win them over by presenting a better view, and by explaining the shortcomings of the other view.

My brother was a skilled tradesman in a General Motors factory in Flint, Michigan.  About two decades ago, he told me about his local union’s negotiations for a supplemental contract covering the skilled trades. The union used the points given to veterans as a precedent for the demand to give extra points to historically deprived groups such as women and racial minorities. The company agreed. Before, there had been no Black women in the skilled trades. As a result of accumulating points as veterans, as women, and as African Americans, a number of Black women entered the skilled trades in the plant. There is the old saying about making lemonade out of lemons.

Retirement in the Ukraine, workers under socialism

Can workers be exploited in government run factories? Obviously. it is possible. The question is, did the workers in Soviet factories perceive themselves as exploited?

Before I comment, let me introduce myself.

I decided to retire when I reached the age of 65. At first, I moved to Western Massachusetts and enrolled in a couple of classes per semester in economics at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I wanted to understand what bourgeois economists believed, and how the left critiqued those beliefs.

But in 1992, a friend pointed out that I could go to live in Ukraine. I had a minimal Ukrainian vocabulary from my childhood growing up in a Ukrainian speaking household in Michigan. It was perhaps no more than 3000 words. I did not even know the Ukrainian alphabet. So I began by enrolling in the intensive Ukrainian language program at Shevchenko University in Kiev for a year. Then I bought a condo in the city of Khmelnitsky in western Ukraine. I lived there from 1993 to the year 2000. My objective was to learn how ordinary people interpreted and reacted to Soviet rule. If at all possible, I wanted to put myself in their shoes and see things through their eyes.

Prior to going to Ukraine, I had met a Jewish student whose family had emigrated to Massachusetts from Kiev. His mother had an advanced degree in mathematics. In Kiev, she had worked in the price setting office. This was separate from the planning office. This office gathered information from every factory in the region: What quantity of goods was produced? How many hours of labor? How much did the various inputs such as raw materials, electricity, etc cost? From this information, they calculated a price that should be attached to the commodity. Prices were calculated by a small group of mathematicians. The market had no impact on prices. It took them about seven years to go thru all the factories in the Kiev region. At that point, they would start the process over again, recalculating prices.

After I got to Khmelnitsky, I visited the nearby village my mother left before the revolution. I was told that the late collective farm manager had been a relative. The village itself had been designated a model collective farm for the area. During the Breshnev period, the people were well paid. But the problem was the lack of commodities. Things that people wanted were not being produced in sufficient quantities. Nearly everyone had enough rubles to pay cash for a new automobile. But new automobiles did not exist in sufficient quantities. When you went to buy a car, you were placed on a waiting list and told it would take about seven years. But it actually took longer because people with a higher priority were inserted ahead of you. The same was true of telephones. Almost everybody that I talked to had had 8000 or 10000 rubles in a bank or hid under a mattress.

During my first year in Ukraine, I lived in Kiev in the graduate student dorm with the graduate students, the aspirante. I did not meet any graduate students that considered themselves Marxists. The only western Marxist that was ever mentioned was Alex Nove, the theoretician of market socialism. I was told that after Gorbachov came to power, he began to talk about market socialism, that the market should be given a role in setting prices. But the basic problem was that there was too much money chasing after too few goods, and inflation began under Gorbachov. After Ukraine became independent, the inflation galloped into hyperinflation. By the time I got to my mothers’ village, the inflationary process had wiped out everybodys savings. All of the villagers that I talked with believed that Gorbachov had set off the inflationary process and wiped out their life savings. They hated Gorbachov with a passion.

It was not only collective farmers that had huge savings, it was also factory workers in the cities. Based on the enormous savings that people had, I suspect that they did not feel exploited under Breshnev. But people were unhappy because they were denied access to certain stores. To enter certain stores they had to have documents that they were part of a group authorized to shop in the store. People without the documents could not enter certain stores that either had cheaper or higher quality goods.

At the other extreme, some poorly run collective farms paid part of their wages in fiat money issued by the collective farm. With the fiat money, they could only shop in the store owned by the collective farm. They could only use the fiat money in that store and nowhere else. I brought some fiat money back to America to show people.

After I had lived in Khmelnitsky for a while, people began telling me what had happened just before I arrived. There had been a major strike wave in Khmelnitsky. They told me that the strikes were to protest Communist exploitation. They claimed that surplus value was drained from the workers to support a parasite caste. As an example, they pointed to libraries in the factories, which had a librarian, and one or two assistant librarians. Since the libraries featured such books as the collected writings of Lenin or the collected writings of Breshnev, nobody actually used them. Another example was the Communist labor union, which was financed by deductions from the workers paycheck. Many people had cushy well paid jobs where they did no useful work. It was claimed that a full 25% of the work force consisted of such parasites and the demand was that they be fired. The strikers won.

Lenin had written favorably about the consumer cooperatives that had developed in Ukraine prior to the revolution. They had survived the entire Soviet period. When I arrived, they were on their last legs. All of them in the Khmelnitsky region were collapsing. With the hyperinflation, they had sold the goods for less than the price of replacements. None of the co-ops survived.

Among the older people, one could find a hatred for Hitler and fascism. But most younger people felt that Hitler and fascism were from a different era and had nothing to do with them.

January 22, 2013

Ernie Tate and Jess MacKenzie

Filed under: cuba,Ireland,socialism,workers — louisproyect @ 2:13 am

In January 2011, when I and my wife were on a month-long vacation in South Beach—a place that both of us love—we were pleasantly surprised to run into veteran socialists Ernie Tate and Jess MacKenzie who were staying only two doors away from us.

I did an interview with them that was supposed to be part of a longer video on “The Unrepentant Marxist Goes to South Beach” but for some reason I never pulled it altogether. I don’t tend to procrastinate but in this case things have slipped to the point where I decided to put up the interview with Ernie and Jess since it is just too good to get shelved any longer. After doing my interview with Beryl Rubens, a 90 year old CP’er who organized a trade union in my little village in the 1950s, I realized that there’s no greater calling than to get out the story of those who challenged the status quo in good times and bad.

Born in 1934, Ernie was a working-class Irish Protestant kid from Belfast who took a vacation in Paris in 1954 just after the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu. The powerful demonstrations celebrating the victory organized by the CP were such an inspiration to him that he decided on the spot to become a communist.

Jess joined the movement in 1964 and before long found herself on a trip to Cuba that would put her in touch with Robert Williams, the NAACP leader who had organized a militia to defend African-Americans against Klan terror. She found herself functioning as a courier between Williams and his comrades in the U.S.

They relate their experience in the movement and offer some thoughts on why they remain socialists to this day. A very inspiring story.

December 8, 2012

The blood on Alice Tepper Marlin’s hands

Filed under: Asia,workers — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

In the second and concluding article on sweatshop safety prompted by the Tazreen disaster in Bangladesh on November 24th, the New York Times focused on the nonprofit organization founded by Alice Tepper Marlin that gave Ali Enterprises in Karachi a clean bill of health. Just two months before the Tazreen fire that resulted in the death of 112 workers, Ali Enterprises was the scene of another and more devastating version of the latter-day Triangle Shirtwaist disasters wrought by corporate greed:

Fire ravaged a textile factory complex in the commercial hub of Karachi early Wednesday, killing almost 300 workers trapped behind locked doors and raising questions about the woeful lack of regulation in a vital sector of Pakistan’s faltering economy.

It was Pakistan’s worst industrial accident, officials said, and it came just hours after another fire, at a shoe factory in the eastern city of Lahore, had killed at least 25.

Flames and smoke swept the cramped textile factory in Baldia Town, a northwestern industrial suburb, creating panic among the hundreds of poorly paid workers who had been making undergarments and plastic tools.

They had few options of escape — every exit but one had been locked, officials said, and the windows were mostly barred. In desperation, some flung themselves from the top floors of the four-story building, sustaining serious injuries or worse, witnesses said. But many others failed to make it that far, trapped by an inferno that advanced mercilessly through a building that officials later described as a death trap.

–NY Times, September 12, 2012

The brothers who owned Ali Enterprises are now awaiting trial for murder. They claim that they are innocent since the factory had gotten a stamp of approval from Alice Tepper Marlin:

Despite survivors’ accounts of locked emergency exits and barred windows that prevented workers from leaping to safety, the Bhailas’ lawyer says their SA8000 certificate, issued under the auspices of Social Accountability International, a respected nonprofit organization based in New York, proves they were running a model business.

The certificate that Ali Enterprises boasts about is considered the most prestigious in the industry. It is the creation of Alice Tepper Marlin, a Wellesley College graduate and former Wall Street analyst who, after starting an activist group in 1969 to push for greater corporate responsibility, eventually settled on trying to make the world’s sweatshops less horrid.

The problem is that the SA8000 certificate is awarded after local subcontractors have had a look at the factory, in many instances serving as a rubber stamp for unsafe conditions. Recently UNI Global Union, a grouping of 900 labor unions, quit the board of Marlin’s outfit to protest its ineffectiveness. According to Khalid Nadvi, an expert on monitoring at the University of Manchester in England, certification systems like the SA8000, said, are “very patchy and in many cases totally ineffective.” He added, “Factories often know when the inspectors are coming. You have workers being coached what to say. There may be two sets of books.”

Buried within the article is a quote from Marlin that explains her differences with people like Khalid Nadvi and the labor movement:

Mr. Nadvi recommended that the voluntary monitoring system be replaced by a government-run system developed in consultation with industry and the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency.

But Ms. Tepper Marlin warned that jettisoning certification programs could cause an exodus of apparel orders and jobs from Pakistan and Bangladesh.

“This type of trade and development has played an important role in bringing people out of poverty,” she said. “Do we really want to say that we should move away from it because there are some factories with problems?”

You know what I’d like? To see Alice Tepper Marlin and her “power couple” husband John Tepper Marlin, a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School, put in one of those locked-door sweatshops and see an “accidental” fire burn their sorry bodies into a pile of smoking ashes.

The Marlins are superstars of the liberal left going back for decades. Here’s a profile on them from 2008:

The Tepper Marlins are, in many respects, old-line Kennedy-era liberals, from blueblood backgrounds, steeped in sixties ideals, with Harvard and Wellesley, Wall Street and City Hall prominent on their impressive resumés. Yet just as they eschew the obstreperous, vein-popping Type A personas you might expect from such a pair of intellectual power brokers, they’ve also avoided becoming relics of a bygone era. Instead, they’ve evolved, adapting their careers to changing trends, responding to the events of the times.

Alice is acknowledged as the architect of corporate social responsibility in America. “She invented the field, which is now conventional wisdom and very hot,” says John, who cheerfully admits to being the second most famous person in the family.

What the Tepper Marlins represent is the ability of the ruling class to create the illusion of reform through nonprofits and NGO’s that use all sorts of progressive rhetoric reminiscent in many ways of Obama’s campaign speeches. For example, if you go to the website of Social Accountability International (SAI), you will see it described as “a non-governmental, multi-stakeholder organization whose mission is to advance the human rights of workers around the world. It partners to advance the human rights of workers and to eliminate sweatshops by promoting ethical working conditions, labor rights, corporate social responsibility and social dialogue.”

But if you go to the SAI board of directors page, you’ll see that the emphasis is on corporate rather than social responsibility.

The president of the board is one Tom DeLuca, who was vice president of imports and compliance for Toys “R” Us, a company that was inducted into the Sweatshop Hall of Shame in 2008. Sweatfree Communities detailed how they earned the award:

 According to the National Labor Committee, Guangzhou Vanguard Water Sport Products Company Ltd in Guangzhou, China produces swim gear and sporting goods for its major clients Speedo, Toys ‘R’ Us, and the giant French retailer Carrefour. Workers’ routine shift is 14 ½ hours a day, from 8:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., seven days a week. Workers report going for months at a time without a single day off. One worker, forced to toil a 23-hour shift at a compression molding machine, shed tears as he described how exhausted he was, and terrified that his hands would be crushed by the relentless motion of the machine if he slowed down for even a second.

You also have one Don Henkle, who is Gap Inc.’s Senior Vice President of Social Responsibility. “In this capacity, he heads a team of over 90 employees worldwide, responsible for the company’s social responsibility efforts improving working conditions in garment factories.”

Since many of the people who buy clothes at the Gap are young students tuned in to the evils of sweatshops, Gap Inc. has orchestrated an ambitious PR campaign to sell the public that it is different from the typical scumbag multinational. Somehow, the campaign has yet to meet the advertised goals, by the corporation’s own admission:

Between 25 percent and 50 percent of the inspected factories supplying Gap from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean paid their workers below the minimum wage at some point last year. Between 10 and 25 percent of the factories in Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and South America shortchanged their workers, the report said.

Now that’s not the minimum wage in the U.S. but the minimum wage in some hellish country like Honduras.

Another board member is Dana Chasin, a lawyer who used to be on the staff of Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler. Heard of them? I hadn’t myself but a bit of investigation revealed that the training he got there served him well as overseer of SAI policy:

NY Times, March 3, 1992
U.S. Moves to Freeze Assets Of Law Firm for S.& L. Role
By STEPHEN LABATON

The Federal Government sued a leading New York law firm and its former managing partner for $275 million today and moved to freeze their assets for their role in representing Charles H. Keating Jr., the convicted savings and loan executive.

The lawsuit is the largest ever to be brought by the Government against an adviser to a failed saving institution. It is the first time the authorities, who are stepping up their prosecution of lawyers and accountants linked to the savings and loan scandal, have tried to freeze a firm’s assets before going to trial.

Throughout the 1980’s, the firm, Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler, and its managing partner, Peter M. Fishbein, represented Mr. Keating, the founder of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, who was convicted of fraud in one of the costliest of savings failures.

In their lawsuit filed today in an administrative court, the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Justice Department contend that Mr. Fishbein and other lawyers at Kaye, Scholer repeatedly misled thrift examiners by overstating Lincoln’s worth, and engaged in obstructionist tactics that kept the institution open and hemorrhaging for many more months and at a much greater cost than necessary.

The way I see it, if you are setting up a nonprofit whose goal is to protect Walmart’s profits, who else would you put on the board of directors except someone who worked for a law firm that helped pull off one of the most massive bankster crimes in American history. Who would you expect them to invite? Ralph Nader? Don’t be an idiot.

With credentials equaling Dana Chasin’s, there’s Nicholas Milowski, an audit manager for KPMG, one of the country’s leading accounting firms. Since most of you are aware that outfits like Arthur Anderson (put out of business for its role in facilitating Enron’s crimes) exist mostly to help their clients evade regulations and oversight, it should not come as any surprise to learn that KPMG was a bunch of crooks. From Wikipedia:

The KPMG tax shelter fraud scandal involves allegedly illegal U.S. tax shelters by KPMG that were exposed beginning in 2003. In early 2005, the United States member firm of KPMG International, KPMG LLP, was accused by the United States Department of Justice of fraud in marketing abusive tax shelters.

Under a deferred prosecution agreement, KPMG LLP admitted criminal wrongdoing in creating fraudulent tax shelters to help wealthy clients dodge $2.5 billion in taxes and agreed to pay $456 million in penalties. KPMG LLP will not face criminal prosecution as long as it complies with the terms of its agreement with the government. On January 3, 2007, the criminal conspiracy charges against KPMG were dropped. However, Federal Attorney Michael J. Garcia stated that the charges could be reinstated if KPMG does not continue to submit to continued monitorship through September 2008.

In 2003, whistleblower Michael Hamersley testified before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee and assisted the investigations of U.S. Senate Homeland Security Governmental Affairs Committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The subcommittee’s report (S. Rept. 109-54) detailed the misconduct.

On 29 August 2005, nine individuals, including six former KPMG partners and the former deputy chairman of the firm, were criminally indicted in relation to the multi-billion dollar criminal tax fraud conspiracy.

If you want to see how truly outrageous these people can be, you have to go to the board of advisers page that is broken down into three groups, including one for business. In this group you can find Manuel Rodriguez and George Jaksch from Chiquita Brands International, formerly known as United Fruit Company. If I were to spell out all of Chiquita/United Fruit’s misdeeds, it would take me hundreds of pages. Of course, a good place to start is Stephen Kinzer and Stephen Schlesinger’s “Bitter Fruit”, a book that indicts the multinational for its role in overthrowing Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and causing decades of near-genocidal suffering. You really have to wonder how shameless Alice Tepper Marlin was in lining up these bastards. I guess it was her way of telling the big bourgeoisie that she could be relied on to protect their vital interests, like Kerberos the three-headed dog guarding the gates of hell.

Got the picture? The SAI boards are filled with characters who, to put it in the immortal words of Woody Guthrie, will “rob you with a fountain pen”. Now if it was just a question of robbing a worker of a living wage or the American taxpayer of their hard-earned savings, it would be bad enough. But we are talking about hundreds of workers being burned alive–all because fucking SAI was complicit in issuing clean bills of health for factories turning out cheap goods for Walmart.

A couple of people, who I consider good friends, had SAI figured out long ago. Liza Featherstone and Doug Henwood got under Alice Tepper Marlin’s skin for writing a Nation Magazine article in 2001 that questioned the effectiveness of the SA8000 Certificate that gave the Karachi factory the go-ahead to put hundreds of workers’ lives at risk. Miffed at their impudence, Marlin wrote a letter to the Nation stating:

Unfortunately this article, lauding people who fight to improve the plight of workers, misrepresents a code of conduct with the same goals and an effective implementation record: SA8000, the Social Accountability International standard for decent working conditions, and its independent verification system. This information is readily available on SAI’s website, www.sa-intl.org.

I include Doug and Liza’s reply in all its glory:

New York City

Nowhere do we say that SAI is “led by multinationals”; we quote an outside observer who calls it a “PR tool for multinationals,” a characterization repeated by many sources. Watching Alice Tepper Marlin fawn over a Toys ‘R’ Us exec at the SAI conference this past December lent considerable credence to this view. On the advisory board, business members outnumber labor members by more than two to one (not counting the New York City comptroller, who manages one of the world’s largest stock portfolios).

Inspections every six months sounds reassuring, but scheduled at predictable intervals and announced in advance, they’re unlikely to expose abuses. Snap visits would be much more effective. We’re happy to hear that the offending factory eventually lost its certification, but it’s troubling that it got approved in the first place; auditors are supposed to see through managers’ attempts at bamboozlement. SAI’s auditor on the scene, Det Norske Veritas, told the South China Morning Post that it’s impossible to do reliable audits in China: “The factories always manage to find a way around the auditors.” We’re also happy SAI is broadly trying to improve the lot of workers in China, but certifying factories there implies that they meet the criteria of free association in SAI’s high-minded code, which they clearly do not. We don’t see how “parallel means,” whatever they are (and they sound like company unions), could possibly be a substitute for independent organizing.

As for Tepper Marlin’s “economic argument,” we’re always amused when NGO directors suggest they know more about running businesses than managers. If profits are fatter when workers are well paid and well fed, why are there so many miserably exploited people in the world? Businesses pay higher wages only when they’re forced to.

LIZA FEATHERSTONE

DOUG HENWOOD

September 16, 2012

RAW VIDEO: CTU Pres. Karen Lewis speaks at Union Park rally | Video | abc7chicago.com

Filed under: Education,workers — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

RAW VIDEO: CTU Pres. Karen Lewis speaks at Union Park rally | Video | abc7chicago.com.

September 8, 2012

Detropia

Filed under: Film,financial crisis,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 7:35 pm

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.

August 16, 2012

Striking miners killed in South Africa

Filed under: repression,South Africa,workers — louisproyect @ 8:59 pm

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