Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 16, 2012

Two important books on last year’s struggle in Wisconsin

Filed under: Wisconsin,workers — louisproyect @ 7:38 pm

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At first blush the collections edited by Paul and Mari Jo Buhle for Verso Press and by Michael Yates for Monthly Review appear to cover the same territory. Now having read both books over the past month or so, I can report that the two have different emphases and should not be seen as competing with each other. Moreover, I strongly recommend that anybody trying to figure out where the class struggle is going in the U.S. pick up both and read them the first chance you get. They are essential guides to understanding a reality that has not been seen since the 1930s: a confrontation between the two major classes of American society whose outcome all of humanity has a stake in.

Titled It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor Protest, the Buhles’ book is very much a participants’ account, often having the qualities of oral history—a genre that Paul Buhle has been identified with for decades. Considering the very long association that the state of Wisconsin has with progressive causes going back to the days of Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, it was a rich vein to be mined for such a collection. The book is also graced by some comic book material (a term that Paul Buhle’s former writing partner—the late and sorely missed Harvey Pekar—preferred to graphic novels, etc.), a medium that Paul Buhle has focused on for the better part of a decade now.

As a long-time labor educator and commentator on the trade union movement, Michael Yates sought to bring together a group of activists and writers who share his own concerns. For the contributors to Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back, the events in Wisconsin are of crucial importance in understanding where the labor movement has to go next. Considering the fact that attacks on labor are taking place in states with Democratic governors, the main lesson that the contributors tend to draw is that working people have to rely on their own strength and not favors from liberal politicians.

For those familiar with the American academy, it probably comes as no surprise that many of the shock troops of the Wisconsin struggle came out of the University of Wisconsin. Paul and Mari Jo Buhle got doctorates there in the mid-70s when the faculty was graced by such luminaries as William Appleman Williams.

As the most recent expression of these traditions, there is an article in the Buhle volume by the delightfully named Charity A. Schmidt titled Eyewitness: “Spread the Love, Stop the Hate: Don’t let Walker legislate”. Schmidt is a PhD student in sociology and an active member of the Teaching Assistants’ Association. When word got out to Schmidt and her teaching assistant colleagues that Governor Scott Walker’s “budget repair bill” would include massive cuts to higher education, they organized a sit-in at the capitol building in Madison, the same city that their university is located in.

By Tuesday morning word had spread widely among graduate and undergraduate students: plan to bring pillows, sleeping bags, and toothbrushes to the capitol, and prepare for the night shift. The goal was to keep the hearings alive in order to prevent the bill from going to a vote. Thus we needed a continuous stream of testifiers. If students and the Madison community could keep it going all night, reinforcements (buses of union members) would arrive in the morning and keep it going all the next day. So we showed up—in droves.

Another eyewitness contributor has an equally delightful name. David Poklinkowski, a member of the Executive Board of the South Central Federation of Labor and President of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, has an article titled Eyewitness: “This is what Democracy Looks Like”. Poklinkowski is a utility worker by trade, among whom you can find the sort of people who climb up electrical poles to work on transformers–like the character Richard Dreyfuss played in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You can’t really get much more mid-America than that.

Instead of pursuing flying saucers, Poklinkowski is out there looking for social justice. While utility workers were not quite as antagonistic to peace activists in the 1960s as construction workers, it would have been difficult to imagine a utility company worker in a hard hat being a natural ally. Now that the attack on labor is taking on the dimension of a war, those old divisions are breaking down, so much so that you can find cultural affinities between youthful rebels and an ostensibly Joe Sixpack figure like Poklinkowski as this passage from his article would indicate:

But if you want to know my very best day, it would have been one of the bitter cold ones, the kind you really had to bundle up for. I had learned from experience, so I had on thick wool socks inside my Sorel boots—for rallies on days like these, you had to dress like you were going to a Packers game in January. In these first few weeks of the struggle, it was the afternoon rally where the featured guest to be thanked was Tom Morello (aka The Nightwatchman from Rage Against the Machine). My favorite band would have to be The Clash, so Tom’s arrival was a very good thing for this struggle.

When a utility worker’s favorite band is The Clash, you know that the revolution cannot be that far off.

Turning to the Monthly Review collection, you will see some familiar names on the American left from Dan La Botz, the author of Rank and File Rebellion: Teamsters for a Democratic Union, to Dave Zirin, the radical sports journalist whose piece on the Green Bay Packers alone is worth the price of the book.

With all proportions guarded, the struggle in Wisconsin for this book amounts to a kind of dress rehearsal for future struggles—our version of Czarist Russia 1905, so to speak. And just as the lessons of 1905 were crucial for 1917, so will the events that took place in Wisconsin give us some clues as to how to move the struggle forward when future attacks on labor lead to new explosions. Given the prospects of an ongoing economic crisis, these confrontations seem inevitable.

One of the finest pieces in Michael Yates’s collection is the editor’s introduction, titled Something is in the Air. Drawing upon his family’s own blue-collar experience, he describes his hometown Ford City, Pennsylvania in terms similar to Michael Moore’s Flint, Michigan before it became part of the rust belt: “It was a hopeful and prosperous period for the white working class, and I couldn’t imagine anything but good times ahead. I never thought, much less worried, about the future.”

But “today the good times are all gone.” He adds, “Every day, the local paper lists a slew of arrests, jail admissions, and fines levied. The sad effect of the shoppers at Wal-Mart and the crowds in the store at midday—retirees and younger men and women who in a more prosperous time would be at work—are symptomatic of what has been happening.”

I can’t help feeling the same way when I check my local paper from upstate New York, the Middletown Times-Herald. In the early 1960s, when my family began subscribing, it was Norman Rockwell territory: ample and profitable harvests for the local farms, well-paying jobs with the county or the IBM plant in Kingston, and a general feeling of security that was reflected most of all by the tendency of families to leave their car doors and front doors unlocked.

Nowadays when I check the paper, this is the typical story:

KINGSTON — A longtime backer of nursing home privatization was selected Friday as the final member of the group to sell the Golden Hill infirmary.

Dare Thompson, League of Women Voters president for the mid-Hudson, was approved 4-0 as the final local development corporation member.

The league came out for privatizing in October 2010 – a full year before Ulster Executive Mike Hein took a position – and Thompson frequently backed the sale during public comment sessions.

Legislator Jeanette Provenzano – a vociferous critic of both privatization and the league’s advocacy – nominated Thompson. Former deputy executive Marshall Beckman, budget director J.J. Hanson, and deputy executive Bob Sudlow voted for the appointment.

Dr. Michele Iannuzzi abstained since she wished to interview the six candidates.

“I can’t fathom, with the importance of this decision, that it would be decided with a single sheet (resume),” she said.

The primary importance of Wisconsin was the peoples’ willingness to stand up to the one-percent’s austerity drive. For the first time, ordinary working people decided to use the same kinds of militant tactics once associated with the students’, women’s and Black/Latino movements, and even more importantly those that were shaking up the Arab world. Greetings were sent back and forth from Madison, Wisconsin to Tahrir Square.

Among all the fine articles in this book, I would single out Dan La Botz’s A New American Workers’ Movement Has Begun. It is notable most of all by its departure from the kind of routinist journalism about the trade union movement that is based on the premise that the struggles of today will be a repeat of the 1930s. La Botz writes:

The new movement that is arising does not focus on the usual issues of collective bargaining — working conditions, wages, and benefits — but focuses rather on the political and programmatic issues usually taken up by political parties: the very right of workers to collective bargaining, the state budget priorities, and the tax system which funds the budget. The new labor movement, because it has begun in the public sector, will not be so much about the process of class struggle as it will be about how class struggle finds a voice through political program. This will have tremendous implications for the traditional relations between the organized labor movement and the Democratic Party, especially since the Democrats, from Barack Obama to state governors like Cuomo, are also demanding that public employees give up wages, benefits, conditions, and rights.

Both books devote an ample amount of space to the problem of how to relate to the Democratic Party, complicated in the case of Wisconsin by the trade union leadership’s tie to the party as well as the willingness of Democratic legislators to defy the governor by going into hiding outside of Wisconsin in order to thwart his draconian legislation.

Ultimately the failure of a militant, nationwide working-class movement to take shape and reach critical mass makes this setback almost inevitable. As was the case with 1905, there is no reason to despair. The struggles taking place around the Occupy movement are in many ways a continuation of the Wisconsin struggle and a harbinger of continued worker-student solidarity.

As was the case in the 1930s, we are facing deepening class polarization that will make future Wisconsins and future Oaklands inevitable. Our responsibility is to understand the tasks before us and prepare for momentous battles ahead. These two fine books from Verso and Monthly Review will help arm us for that showdown between humanity and the reactionary forces that threaten it.

9 Comments »

  1. I’m taking this Friday off but my substitute hosts on “Speaking in Tongues”, Ed Martin and Mary Champeny, are going to interview Yates about his book today at 5pm, California time on KDVS 90.3 FM, which can be heard over the Internet:

    http://www.kdvs.org/show-info/1992

    If you or anyone else is interested, you can go to the KDVS website at that time, and listen to the livestream.

    http://www.kdvs.org

    If only one phone line is being used, you might even be able to call in and ask Yates a question at (530) 752-2777.

    Comment by Richard Estes — March 16, 2012 @ 9:35 pm

  2. Thanks for the review, Louis. Much appreciated. Richard, the interview went well. Michael Yates

    Comment by Michael Yates — March 17, 2012 @ 3:24 pm

  3. The Wisconsin thing was overshadowed in the monomaniac press by Occupy, but really both movements are part of a larger phenomenon. Thanks for reviewing these books.

    Comment by Joe Vaughan — March 17, 2012 @ 4:27 pm

  4. Within the TAA, the debate about the political direction of our union and the labor movement more broadly has begun after the introduction (and subsequent passage, and subsequent motion to rescind) a resolution establishing political criteria for endorsement of a candidate. The resolution, as it currently stands, precludes endorsement of Kathleen Falk, who is the Democratic hopeful. More can be seen about that debate here:

    http://socialistworker.org/2012/03/12/we-need-a-pro-labor-candidate

    http://inthesetimes.org/working/entry/12803/leading_wisconsin_union_unsure_if_they_will_endorse_anyone/

    http://www.progressive.org/recalling_scott_walker.html

    I haven’t had a chance to look at “It Started in Wisconsin” (aside from Charity’s contribution), so thanks for the review. Yates’ book is also fantastic.

    Comment by Michael — March 18, 2012 @ 5:09 am

  5. One of the reasons I’ll read Michael Yates is because way, way back in 1977 he had the courage to write about the United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez. I’m still grateful, all these decades later, to Yates for explaining the UFW’s devolution away from labor organizing.

    Comment by Walter Dufresne — March 21, 2012 @ 4:21 pm

  6. Walter, That is a very nice compliment. Thank you. Michael Yates

    Comment by Michael Yates — March 23, 2012 @ 1:30 am

  7. […] from Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist […]

    Pingback by Socialist Party NYC » Two important books on last year’s struggle in Wisconsin — March 24, 2012 @ 10:33 pm

  8. […] Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back […]

    Pingback by Michael Yates, “The Great Inequality”: a review | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — November 7, 2017 @ 7:50 pm


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