Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 2, 2018

The shape of things to come

Filed under: trade unions — louisproyect @ 12:41 am

February 28, 2018

Mark Janus vs. AFSCME and the need for a real trade union movement

Filed under: trade unions — louisproyect @ 6:50 pm

The  late Robert Fitch: he argued that the automatic checkoff of dues weakened unions

The left tends to see the Mark Janus vs AFSCME case under deliberation by the Supreme Court as a life-and-death battle for the AFL-CIO. It involves agency fees, the money that non-union members are required to pay in a union shop. Janus sued to prevent them from being imposed. The case was submitted by Bruce Rauner, the Republican Governor of Illinois who is just as much a tool of the Koch brothers as Scott Walker of Wisconsin who pushed through legislation that led to his state becoming an open shop alongside Indiana and Michigan, two other former trade union bastions .

In a similar case (Abood v. Detroit Board of Education in 1977), public unions were permitted to divide expenditures between collective bargaining and political advocacy but Janus claims that any money that goes into the collective bargaining bucket is tantamount to political advocacy since it can be used to press for pension benefits that would drain state and local government treasuries. Liberal outlets like Huffington Post and In These Times fret that a vote in favor of Janus would weaken the Democratic Party since it relies heavily on contributions from AFSCME and SEIU. In a long and informative article for In These Times, Mary Bottari of the Center for Media and Democracy notes:

In 2016, labor was the largest contributor to state-level Democratic candidates, accounting for at least 18 percent ($128.7 million) of their total fundraising. Unions also mobilize their workers as persuasive door knockers at election time who can explain who they are and what they fight for.

Oddly enough, the Center for Media and Democracy received 60 percent of its funding in 2011 from the Schwab Charitable Fund, a philanthropy funded in turn by liberals who have accounts with Charles Schwab & Co. Schwab is a heavy donor to the Republican Party and has even chipped in to pay Donald Trump’s legal fees over Russiagate. Twice a year the Koch Brothers host a secret conference where they and other rich bastards can discuss how to screw the working class. Charles Schwab was there at the last one along with other billionaires who donated to Trump.

I’ve been following the news reports on the Janus case but an Adam Liptak article in yesterday’s NY Times really made me sit up and take notice. He called attention to the assessment of David L. Franklin, Illinois’s solicitor general who supported AFSCME’s case:

The lawyers in the case gave varying answers to questions about what would happen if the mandatory fees were eliminated. “When these kinds of obligations of financial support become voluntary, union membership goes down, union density rates go down, union resources go down,” said David L. Franklin, Illinois’s solicitor general, who argued in support of the union.

“When unions are deprived of agency fees, they tend to become more militant, more confrontational,” he added. “They go out in search of short-term gains that they can bring back to their members and say, ‘Stick with us.’”

Let me repeat what he said with emphasis: “When unions are deprived of agency fees, they tend to become more militant, more confrontational. They go out in search of short-term gains that they can bring back to their members and say, ‘Stick with us.’”

Bingo. No wonder the Democrats and the trade union bureaucracy want to defeat Janus. His victory would threaten to turn the clock back to when the trade union movement was really a MOVEMENT.

It is not just a question of agency fees. It is also a question of the automatic dues checkoff that would not be affected by a ruling in favor of Janus. When people get enrolled in a union today, their dues are deducted from their paycheck just like health insurance and any other “benefit”. With unions failing to fight effectively for workers’ interests today either on wages or benefits, no wonder they are having trouble representing auto workers in the south.

In the 1930s, there was no such thing as union dues payroll deductions. Nelson Lichtenstein, a radical who has written extensively about the UAW, discovered that despite workers joining the CIO en masse after the sit down strikes of 1937, many left the unions when the recession of the late ’30s made it more difficult to win gains. For example over 8,000 workers had signed up with the UAW local at Fisher Body in Lansing by late 1937 but a year later only a little more than 1,000 were still dues-paying members.

Writing for Libcom, an anarchist website, Tom Wetzel provides a history of the union shop that, as you might expect, has a distinctly anti-authoritarian perspective. Like Lichtenstein, Wetzel notes that union membership was voluntary under almost all CIO contracts prior to 1942. The dues “check off” was virtually unknown in the late ’30s and dues were collected on the shop floor by shop stewards and committeemen. It is of course ironic that when the trade union movement was really a movement, it was operating under rules that are now considered inimical to trade union survival.

Echoing the concerns of David L. Franklin but from the opposite class perspective, Wetzel writes:

So long as the union’s continued existence depended upon voluntary rank-and-file support, the local union organization was under pressure to continually mobilize to get results. Grievances were pursued whether or not they were clearly justified by language in the contract, and stewards or local officers supported slowdowns or short wildcat strikes if they thought they might work.

Even when they didn’t approve of wildcat strikes or other direct action, local union officials were reluctant to condone company repression of such actions. The most active participants were almost always key union supporters in the plants. If they simply abandoned them to the company, the local officials were afraid this would discredit the union in the eyes of the workers.

Once the “union shop” had been achieved, however, the local union organization would no longer be under such immediate pressure to mobilize a constant struggle with the employers in response to worker grievances and concerns.

In voicing similar concerns but from a Marxist rather than an anarchist perspective, the late Robert Fitch has tied automatic dues checkoff to the decline of the trade union movement. In an interview with Forbes Magazine, of all places, Fitch stated:

The big problems with American trade unions are the legal foundation of exclusive bargaining, and closed-shop and automatic dues check-off. That exists in SEIU. [Automatic dues check-off] means that, unlike the European system, as a union leader, I’m no longer really dependent for my income on voluntary contributions from the workers. So I can disregard their preferences much easier. In Europe, the union leaders have to depend upon the dues that are voluntarily contributed by the members, so if the members don’t like what the union is doing, they stop paying dues, or they pay dues to another union. They can switch from one union to another.

Needless to say, people like Rich Trumka and Andy Stern have about as much interest in seeing the AFL-CIO transformed along these lines as Samuel Gompers did before there ever was a CIO. Speaking dialectically, it just may be the case that the total destruction of the organized labor movement will have to take place before a new labor movement comes about under the banner of workers power. Leon Trotsky considered such questions in an article titled “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay”:

Monopoly capitalism does not rest on competition and free private initiative but on centralized command. The capitalist cliques at the head of mighty trusts, syndicates, banking consortiums, etcetera, view economic life from the very same heights as does state power; and they require at every step the collaboration of the latter. In their turn the trade unions in the most important branches of industry find themselves deprived of the possibility of profiting by the competition between the different enterprises. They have to confront a centralized capitalist adversary, intimately bound up with state power. Hence flows the need of the trade unions – insofar as they remain on reformist positions, ie., on positions of adapting themselves to private property – to adapt themselves to the capitalist state and to contend for its cooperation. In the eyes of the bureaucracy of the trade union movement the chief task lies in “freeing” the state from the embrace of capitalism, in weakening its dependence on trusts, in pulling it over to their side. This position is in complete harmony with the social position of the labor aristocracy and the labor bureaucracy, who fight for a crumb in the share of superprofits of imperialist capitalism. The labor bureaucrats do their level best in words and deeds to demonstrate to the “democratic” state how reliable and indispensable they are in peace-time and especially in time of war. By transforming the trade unions into organs of the state, fascism invents nothing new; it merely draws to their ultimate conclusion the tendencies inherent in imperialism.


March 3, 2017

Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement

Filed under: trade unions — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm

The Scab Economy: the Origins of America’s Anti-Union Movement

The counter-clockwise rotation speeds up under Republican presidents and slows down a bit under Democrats but it never stops. Only a revolution will reset the clock once and for all.

I was reminded of this while reading Chad Pearson’s Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement that was published in 2015. If you knew nothing about the contents, you might assume from the title that it referred to the Truman presidency when the Taft-Hartley bill was passed. But instead it harkens back to the turn of the century when Theodore Roosevelt was president and whose Square Deal meant conservation, trust-busting, respect for workers and other progressive measures.

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January 29, 2017

Divided We Fall

Filed under: Film,financial crisis,trade unions,ultraright,Wisconsin,workers — louisproyect @ 9:03 pm

If victorious strikes by teamsters in Minneapolis in 1934, by San Francisco dockworkers the same year and auto workers three years later in Flint define the rise of the American working class as a powerful force to be reckoned with, three confrontations between labor and capital in our lifetime mark its retreat.

In 1981 Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 airline controllers who had gone out on strike as a signal that the partnership between labor and capital was a thing of the past. Four years later, the meatpacking workers organized as P-9 struck Hormel in an effort to maintain the good-paying jobs with generous benefits that were seen as essential for a decent middle-class existence. With the defeat of P-9, jobs at Hormel and other meatpacking jobs became non-union, low-paying and dangerous with a predominantly immigrant workforce made up in large part of vulnerable undocumented workers.

While not a strike as such, the union-led struggle in Madison, Wisconsin of 2011 was launched to prevent teachers and other public service employees from being “Hormelized”. When Governor Scott Walker introduced a bill in January of that year that would cut wages, benefits and eliminate dues checkoff—a mechanism that is essential to keeping a union functioning in a closed shop environment—over 100,000 people took part in a “kill the bill” movement that adopted many of the tactics of the Occupy Wall Street movement that erupted a couple of months later.

For those not old enough to have bitter memories of the P-9 strike, I recommend tracking down Barbara Kopple’s 1990 film “American Dream” that unfortunately is nowhere to be seen on VOD but that can be borrowed as a DVD from better libraries, such as Columbia University’s. Kopple is also the director of “Harlan County, USA”, another documentary about labor struggles, in that case a 1973 strike by coal miners in the legendary pro-union county that voted 8-1 for Donald Trump in November.

Kopple has declined in recent years, stooping so low as to make a documentary about Woody Allen in 1997 and following up with a docudrama about the Hamptons in 2002 that was a Yankee version of British soap operas like Upstairs/Downstairs or Downton Abbey.

Fortunately for us, a new Barbara Kopple has emerged, namely Katherine M. Acosta, the sociologist and obviously politically advanced director of “Divided We Fall”, a film about the Wisconsin labor struggle that I had the good fortune to watch yesterday. For now, the film has not found a distributor and hopefully this review will inspire some enterprising party to invest in this film that is equal to Kopple at her best and moreover a story that demands the attention of everybody trying to understand how we have ended up with an orange-haired baboon in the White House determined to throw us back to the 1880s. Essentially, the defeat of the public workers struggle in Wisconsin involved all of the players and all of the contradictions that led to the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the nightmare we are now living with.

Even if you’ve read every article about the Wisconsin struggle as it was unfolding in 2011, nothing comes close to seeing exactly how young people and workers rallied to the capitol building to put their bodies on the line to oppose Scott Walker’s anti-labor assault that was as calculated a bid to destroy organized labor that year as Reagan’s firing of the airline controllers was in 1985.

Acosta draws from a wide variety of interviewees, from relatively lowly teaching assistants at the U. of Wisconsin, including FB friend Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, who is a brilliant Marxist analyst in her own right, to sociology professor Rahul Mahajan, who I first ran into in the mid-90s as a graduate student on the list that would evolve into Marxmail. Rahul is witty, wise and as informed in class analysis as Wrigley-Field. So, with people like that in the front ranks of the occupation of the capitol building and in strategy meetings, what could have gone wrong? The title of the film says it all. The movement was divided and as such bound to fail.

There were basically three blocs involved within the workers’ camp but each with its own priorities. Those closest to the student movement like Wrigley-Field and Mahajan were revolutionaries, to put it bluntly. They saw the fight against Scott Walker in exactly the same way that Farrell Dobbs saw the fight to organize truck drivers in 1934, as the first step in building a new (in this instance, renewed) labor movement that could fight effectively for the interests of workers in general and lead ultimately to a transformation of American society.

In the middle were union officials at the local level who had to stand up for the rights of their membership, those people who would be forced to pay more for health insurance and face wage stagnation. Like the average member, the officials had a class status just one step above precarity. Losing a job as a clerical worker in an AFSCME union could plunge some into penury and worse. The officials often came directly out of that social layer and knew what was at stake.

The head of AFSCME, who was led off in handcuffs toward the end of the film, was Marty Beil. Beil, who died two years ago, was a bear of a man with Michael Moore’s physique (or lack thereof) who understood the importance of AFSCME better than the top officials in Washington. Formed in Wisconsin in 1932, AFSCME was the first and foremost organizer of predominantly white collar clerical government jobs even though it grew to include firefighters. It is of some interest that Beil’s first job was as a probation and parole officer, not exactly the sort of position that you would associate with labor militancy. As the film makes clear, the police presence at the capitol building was initially drawn from campus and local cops who were much more sympathetic to the struggle, even to the point of marching in support. Such contradictions might vex those addicted to Marxist schemas but one that the film skillfully engages with especially as these cops were replaced by state troopers who had no use for workers at all.

Another powerful presence from the local labor movement was John Matthews, the president of the city’s public schoolteacher’s union who combines a soft-spoken Midwest speaking style with a willingness to openly confront the national leadership of his union. These big shots parachuted into Madison and stayed at a luxury hotel, where they mapped out a strategy to settle the strike on terms favorable to Scott Walker.

For reasons probably having something to do with being reluctant to defend their role in in Acosta’s film, they are not heard from. But you don’t need to hear from AFSCME president Gerald McEntee to know what agenda he would follow in Madison. In 2009, McEntee was being paid $480,000 per year. When you make that kind of money, plus fringe benefits such as staying at Madison’s best hotel on the membership’s dime, you tend to lose track of the sort of class antagonisms that drove the average worker to rise up.

Another problem was the reliance on Democratic Party “friends of labor” who were just as eager as McEntee to deescalate the struggle in Madison and get things back to normal, even as they were giving speeches in support of the unions and in working to undermine Republican attempts to steamroll through Walker’s legislation.

If the film consisted of nothing but talking heads, it would still be worth watching, particularly to hear from Wrigley-Field, Mahajan and other radical students and professors at the U. of Wisconsin. But beyond that, Acosta was present throughout the occupation directing her film crew to capture the Occupy Wall Street type drama of those sitting in. That footage combined with the commentary by people involved with the struggle make up for an unforgettable movie experience that screams out for nationwide distribution.

The film makes clear that occupy type tactics could only go so far. The Republicans had a majority in the state legislative bodies and would ultimately prevail. Of course, the real question is why a shit-hook like Scott Walker could ever become governor of a progressive state like Wisconsin.

Once the occupation ran out of steam (helped along by “kettling” tactics by the state troopers), the trade union officials and Democrats thought that the answer was to replace Walker. Instead of considering ways to block the legislation by either a general strike (probably an over-projection by some leftists) or guerrilla tactics in the workplace like “sick-outs” or working by the rule, all the energy went into the recall campaign.

But the recall was to no avail. Walker was reelected. Why?

He was reelected because he was to Donald Trump as his Democratic Party opponent Tom Barrett was to Hillary Clinton. Walker had defeated Barrett in 2010 and by even more votes in the 2012 recall election. This has to do with Barrett running exactly the same kind of campaign as Clinton, one geared to the “swing voter” and careful to avoid any association with trade unions, sit-ins and the like.

But looking past the Wisconsin context, which the film understandably did not try to address, I would suggest that there was an important element that militated against success. As the film’s title implies, there were problems of being divided—but not just within the labor movement but in the Wisconsin population as a whole. Seen as benefiting from Democratic Party largesse, the taxpayers felt that these unions were a privileged layer. If Wisconsin was facing a fiscal crisis, why shouldn’t teachers et al not have to “chip in” to bail out the state?

The fiscal crisis, of course, was rooted in a system that included “starving the beast”. State budgets were in the red because taxes kept being cut. If the Democratic Party had stood up to the rich, returned tax rates to what they were under Eisenhower, pushed through single-payer health insurance and stood up for the rights of homeowners who had been devastated by the subprime meltdown of 2008, maybe the voters would have been more motivated to back the Democrats. This would have required a total transformation of the labor movement that might yet be in the offing as we sail into the stormy seas facing us over the next four years. As Harriet Rowan, one of the politically astute graduate students interviewed in the film, put it toward the end of the film, we can’t wait for the leadership to catch up with the people.



January 22, 2017

Wilbur Ross: the dubious savior of the steel industry

Filed under: Donald Trump,economics,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 11:29 pm

Wilbur Ross

When it comes to Trumponomics, most of the left’s attention has been riveted on the new Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin for obvious reasons. As CEO of OneWest, he pushed mercilessly to foreclose on homeowners whose mortgages he held, making the banker played by Lionel Barrymore in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” look like a member of the Catholic Workers by comparison. Politico reported:

Two years ago, OneWest filed foreclosure papers on the Lakeland, Florida, home of Ossie Lofton, who had taken a reverse mortgage, a loan that supplies cash to elderly homeowners and doesn’t require monthly payments.

After confusion over insurance coverage, a OneWest subsidiary sent Lofton a bill for $423.30. She sent a check for $423. The bank sent another bill, for 30 cents. Lofton, 90, sent a check for 3 cents. In November 2014, the bank foreclosed.

So, this is a guy that is supposed to stop “the carnage”?

Much less attention has been paid to Wilbur Ross, the 79-year old “King of Bankruptcy” that is the new Secretary of Commerce, a department that is charged with promoting economic growth. Ross would seem to be a perfect fit for Trump’s “America First” outlook since he is credited with saving thousands of jobs in the Rust Belt, particularly in steel. His approach is to buy distressed companies and make them profitable again, saving jobs in the process. Part of his strategy is to lobby for tariffs that would protect companies like LTV (Ling-Temco-Vought) that he bought at fire sale prices in 2002. His strategy mimicked that of Steve Mnuchin who bought IndyMac in 2012 at a bargain basement price and turned it into OneWest.

As the ostensible savior of American steel, Ross earned plaudits from Leo Gerard, the USW president. NPR, a public radio station with a liberal slant a bit to the left of PBS, put Ross in the best possible light:

“With Wilbur it’s been almost 15 years now, and those mills are [still] running and some of them are the most productive in North America,” Gerard says.

By that time, ISG had become the largest steel company in America by buying up failing steel companies including Bethlehem Steel, LTV Steel and Acme Steel. Gerard says the jobs Ross saved were at the mills themselves and at the companies in supply chain.

If Trump and Ross are hoping to replicate policies that are supposed to be a radical departure from neoliberal “carnage”, it is useful to remember that George W. Bush was a major supporter of protectionism for the steel mills that Ross owned.

With Bush anxious to win over the kinds of voters that helped Trump win the presidency, he announced on Feb. 27, 2002 that tariffs would be imposed on steel imports for three years and a day. That was the same day when Ross announced a deal to take over LTV. Perfect timing, I’d say.

What NPR did not mention is the downside of the deal. After taking over LTV, he fired half the workers. His “rescue” was the same kind as Trump’s of Carrier, which also sustained a heavy loss of jobs to stay in the USA. Since Ross bought LTV in bankruptcy court, he was able to shed $7.5 billion in pension funds to the government.

In 2006 Frontline, a PBS documentary show, reported on the fate of LTV retirees, including a man named Chuck Kurilko. This was his story:

After 38 years in the mill (most of it working night shifts so he could be with his kids after school), Chuck had retired from LTV in late 2001 with a lifetime pension and guaranteed health coverage for himself and Carolyn. “It was looking great,” recalled Chuck. “The first retirement check I got was $2,700 a month. And that’s a nice pension.” Health insurance, he said, was running about $200 a month.

But the Kurilko’s retirement security didn’t last long. Through bankruptcy, LTV had sold off its productive assets and jettisoned its unwanted and underfunded liabilities, like pension and health benefits. LTV’s pensions were taken over by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (the PBGC), the federal corporation that insures private pensions. PBGC uses a reduced payout formula for retirees under 65, and retirees like Chuck were among the hardest hit. He saw his monthly pension checks slashed by $1,000, and his monthly health insurance payment skyrocket to $1,300. The bankruptcy proceedings that “saved” LTV cost the Kurilkos about $25,000 a year, a devastating turnabout in fortunes. By the time I arrived, the Kurilkos’ savings were down to about $13,000. Every month was a struggle to keep from digging the financial hole deeper.

I expected anger and dismay. What I found was more troubling. Good people that had been justifiably proud of what they’d accomplished through a lifetime of hard work — in the mill, in their community and at home — had lost control of their financial future, and with that their dignity. “We just shouldn’t have to live like this,” Carolyn kept saying, shaking her head as if it was all just a bad dream.

A couple months later, Carolyn’s nightmare got worse. She called me in early April to tell me that Chuck had died from a massive heart attack. We talked about Chuck and about his funeral, and after we talked, I began to think about how Chuck’s passing had come to represent the passing of an era when a lifetime of hard work, at most big companies, was rewarded with retirement security and with dignity. I also thought about Carolyn and the financial predicament she suddenly faced alone. But it wasn’t until later that I came to understand that Carolyn too represents a troubling national trend — the growing number of women facing severe financial difficulty in retirement.

One huge problem in retirement for women like Carolyn Kurilko is longevity. On average, women live longer than men, and nearly a third of all women who reach 65 will live to at least 90. “Chances are the husband will die and the wife will live on and on and on, and she will be the poorest she’s ever been in her whole life,” explains Notre Dame labor economist Teresa Ghilarducci.

The story of LTV and Wilbur Ross is a microcosm of the American class struggle—or the lack thereof. You have labor bureaucrats like Leo Gerard making common cause with a scumbag like Ross in the same way that UAW president Dennis Williams has gone along with deals that led to a two-tiered pay system and reduced benefits so as to “save jobs”. If there was a labor movement instead of what we have now, both Obama and Trump would have been put on the defensive.

The problem, of course, is that the bosses can exercise leverage on the workers by threatening to pick up and move to another country. The threat of runaway shops is what helped Trump get elected even if his solution a la Ross is to make an offer that workers can’t refuse.

Global competition puts pressures on workers everywhere to accept less. This is what “globalization” has accomplished. It cheapens the price of labor and commodities simultaneously. Indian steel mills supply commodities at a price far below those of their competitors in more advanced capitalist countries. Ross cashed in on globalization in 2005 himself: He sold his steel company to an Indian company Lakshmi Mittal for $4.5 billion in 2005, making 12 ½ times on his initial investment.

Mittal is now the far largest steel producer in the world. A lot of Trump’s animosity toward China has to do with its ability to produce steel even more cheaply than Mittal. Like Ross, Mittal screws workers out of their pensions and fires them when they no longer serve the bottom line.

What is happening now is a race to the bottom. Trump is incapable of reversing this trend since it is not susceptible to policy solutions. It is tantamount to King Canute commanding the tide to stop. We are in the throes of capitalism’s decay. I think Trotsky was misguided in the way he went about building a Fourth International but each time I return to his writings, I remained impressed by his ability to size up the political conditions of his epoch in a work like the Transitional Program:

All talk to the effect that historical conditions have not yet “ripened” for socialism is the product of ignorance or conscious deception. The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only “ripened”; they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind. The turn is now to the proletariat, i.e., chiefly to its revolutionary vanguard. The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.

We are not in any position today to construct such a revolutionary leadership but if there is one thing that is clear, it is the need to break with the two-party system that entrusts people like Wilbur Ross, Leo Gerard, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to get us out of a deathtrap they created in the first place.

December 23, 2016

FDR and the Little Steel strike

Filed under: Counterpunch,New Deal,trade unions,two-party system — louisproyect @ 4:57 pm

FDR and the Little Steel Strike

Frank in particular has built a virtual career out of making such points. In April 2016, he gave an interview to In These Times, a citadel of such hopes, titled Thomas Frank on How Democrats Went From Being The ‘Party Of The People’ to the Party Of Rich Elites  that was based on his new book Listen, Liberal, which argues that the Democrats have gone from the party of the New Deal to a party that defends mass inequality. In the interview Frank chastises Obama for not carrying out a new New Deal despite having control of Congress. “He could have done anything he wanted with them, in the way that Franklin Roosevelt did in the ’30s. But he chose not to.”

For many on the left, particularly the DSA and its journalistic sounding boards such as Jacobin, In These Times and Dissent, FDR is an icon who embodies their hopes for what they call socialism, a Scandinavian style welfare state that ostensibly put the needs of the workers over the capitalist class. While likely admitting that this is not the socialism that Marx advocated, they certainly are right that a reincarnated New Deal would be better than Donald Trump or the corporatist presidency of Barack Obama. Whether that would be feasible under a capitalism that has been leaking jobs to automation and runaway shops for the past 40 years is debatable. Many on the left have argued that it was WWII that lifted the USA out of the Great Depression rather than any New Deal program.

But the gauzy, halcyon portrait of the New Deal does not stand up to the reality of the Little Steel Strike of 1937 that is the subject of Ahmed White’s magisterial The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America that I discussed in a previous CounterPunch article focused on identity politics and the racism endured by Black steelworkers. For those new to the topic, “little” refers to the group of companies that blocked the CIO from organizing its workers, as opposed to US Steel, the “big” company that had they had come to terms with in March 1937. Little Steel consisted of Republic Steel Corporation, Bethlehem Steel Corporation, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company and Inland Steel Company. Despite being called “little” in comparison to US Steel, each ranked among the hundred largest firms in America.

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December 3, 2016

Gus Hall surrenders

Filed under: trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 10:13 pm

NY Times, June 1, 1937


December 2, 2016

Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers

Filed under: Counterpunch,New Deal,racism,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 3:36 pm


She argues that affirmative action divides the working class

Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers

It goes without saying, that as we fight to end all forms of discrimination, as we fight to bring more and more women into the political process, Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans – all of that is ENORMOUSLY important, and count me in as somebody who wants to see that happen. But it is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me.” That is not good enough. I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class in this country and is going to take on big-money interests. And one of the struggles that we’re going to have…in the Democratic Party is it’s not good enough for me to say we have x number of African Americans over here, we have y number of Latinos, we have z number of women, we are a diverse party, a diverse nation. Not good enough!

As someone who had little use for Hillary Clinton or any Democrat for that matter, there was something a bit troubling about the “class trumping identity” plea since it reminded me of contradictions that have bedeviled the revolutionary movement from its inception. While the idea of uniting workers on the basis of their class interests and transcending ethnic, gender and other differences has enormous appeal at first blush, there are no easy ways to implement such an approach given the capitalist system’s innate tendency to create divisions in the working class in order to maintain its grip over the class as a whole.

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November 24, 2016

Rand Wilson’s road to Damascus-like conversion to the Democratic Party

Filed under: parliamentary cretinism,trade unions — louisproyect @ 6:01 pm

Rand Wilson

If I was a conspiracy theorist like many on the left, I’d suspect that the glowing tributes to the fresh-faced Marxism of Bhaskar Sunkara’s Jacobin Magazine in the bourgeois press are a calculated bid to keep radicals tied to the Democratic Party. Unlike the musty, grandfatherly Dissent Magazine that was tainted by the likes of Michael Walzer, Jacobin was graced by the brash hipster image of Sunkara who was clever enough not to hide the fact that the seed money for the magazine came from “hustling away, doing whatever: from selling marijuana to small-scale bootlegging”. Certainly, if you were in your early 20s and on the left, that was something you could identify with as opposed to the magazine that Woody Allen once described as being merged with Commentary in order to form a new one called Dysentary. Plus, it also helped to have flashy graphics. If you are going to sell people on the Democratic Party, it helps to have magazine covers that look like they were drawn by some Futurist living in Moscow in the early 20s.

If there was a conspiracy to keep the left tied to the Democratic Party, you might wonder if Bernie Sanders was part of it. What a perfect complement to the Jacobin, a musty, grandfatherly politician who was not part of the Dissent old guard. Or wasn’t he? Like Obama in 2008, Sanders was a Rorschach test that allowed you to see him in multiple ways. For Jacobin readers, he was the key to moving toward a socialist future in the USA. Of course, neither Sanders nor Sunkara really meant socialism in the way that Marx meant it. They really meant welfare-state capitalism after the fashion of FDR’s New Deal, an altogether utopian project given the American capitalist class’s ineluctable drive toward finding cheap labor overseas. The answer to Rust Belt desperation was not in electing a president who made empty promises to bring jobs back to the USA. It was in abolishing the capitalist system globally and creating one based on human need rather than private profit. You can bet that it burns my ass to see Sanders running around professing his love for Eugene V. Debs out of one corner of his mouth and urging a vote for Hillary Clinton out of the other.

Today on the Jacobin website today, you can read Labor Notes editor Dan DiMaggio’s interview with SEIU staff member Rand Wilson who was a convert to the Sanders political revolution. It is about as probing an interview as the kind that Charlie Rose conducts with Bill Gates or Nancy Pelosi.

DiMaggio has had a rather predictable trajectory trying to find himself after leaving Socialist Alternative in 2010. His first foray was into academia, entering NYU’s sociology department where Political Marxism is the reigning ideology. After I raised a ruckus over being heckled by NYU’s Vivek Chibber at a Historical Materialism conference, DiMaggio told me off on the Marxism list. How dare I tell such a highly regarded professor that he would regret it if he ever heckled me again? I guess anybody who has different expectations from a loudmouth like me hasn’t figured me out yet. Eventually DiMaggio sent me a note trying to smooth things over. As is always the case with me, I responded positively. Despite being an asshole, I really don’t hold grudges.

A few months ago, my wife asked me about DiMaggio having a kid, something she noticed on FB. I told her that was news to me and wondered how I hadn’t noticed that. The answer was that he had defriended me at one point, almost certainly because I was opposed to Sanders and the Democratic Party. In other words, I had run into the same crap I had run into when I “threatened” Chibber. If you are building a career out of the NYU sociology department or the “progressive” wing of the AFL-CIO, it is best not to be associated with riffraff like me. Running into situations like this, I am always reminded of Groucho Marx’s telegram to the Friar’s Club: “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member”.

The interview is designed to get leftists to join the Democratic Party, just like Rand Wilson tells DiMaggio: “I joined the Democratic Party the day after Bernie announced, because I knew I wanted to go to the convention. You’ve got to be a member of the party to participate in its activities. So I joined, at sixty-two years old, for the first time.”

It must be said that Wilson was not exactly opposed to the Democratic Party in principle as are troglodyte Marxists like us. In 2006, he ran for State Auditor as the candidate of the Massachusetts Working Families Party. You are probably aware that the NY WFP endorsed Andrew Cuomo for Governor in 2014, a candidate who is as hostile to the working class as Hillary Clinton and one who probably has the inside track to be the DP candidate for President in 2020. If Trump decides not to run in 2020 and the Republican Candidate ends up being the alt-right’s Richard Spencer, you can bet that The Nation will beat the drums for Cuomo and lash out at any Green Party candidate who dares taking votes away from Cuomo.

Wilson contrasts being part of the “political revolution” with the time he spent in the Labor Party in the 90s. Like Seth Ackerman, Wilson saw it as a valiant but doomed venture mainly because it threatened to siphon votes away from progressive Democrats. When the Republicans were running a reactionary monster like (fill in the blanks), of course you had to rally around Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, Clinton… I always got a laugh out of how Ted Rall saw this logic:

Wilson puts it this way:

In the day-to-day life of the union, you’re expected to deliver for your members, and to do that, you’re going to have work with incumbent politicians, with Democratic Party politicians. Naturally they will expect you in turn to support them. So what are you supposed to do? Go off and support some third-party candidate who’s going to wreck their chances of winning? Supporting a minor party candidate because they’re perfect and inadvertently electing your worst enemy will certainly piss off your friends.

Sounding exactly like the Sanders campaign sheepherding tendencies diagnosed by Bruce Dixon, Wilson describes how he corralled a stray sheep who maybe had figured out that he was destined for the slaughterhouse:

But I know many people are disgusted with the party. I have a friend who’s worked at GE for many years, up in Lynn, Massachusetts, and before that, at a GE plant in Fitchburg. He’s a lifelong union guy, a working-class, gun-toting factory worker. He lives in a little town in Massachusetts called Westminster, and he’s the chair of the Democratic Party there. He was a big Bernie guy.

But after the primary, he was so disgusted with what happened to Bernie that I had to talk him off the cliff of quitting the Democratic Party. I said, “Don’t quit now! I’m just getting into it.” A few moths later, he says, “Okay, now I want to be part of taking over the Democratic Party. How are we going to do that?” I said, “Join Our Revolution.”

I assume that the “moths” referred to in the paragraph above is not a typo since being a radical in the Democratic Party is akin to eating insects.

The rest of the interview is as nauseating as what you have read so far and there is no point in commenting further on it.

There are some things that should be pointed out however. To start with, the SEIU, Wilson’s union, was led by Andrew Stern from 1995 to 2010. Stern was the figure most associated with “progressive” trade unionism over the past twenty years, just the kind that Jacobin orients to. He is now a senior fellow at Columbia University where he will be promoting progressive causes of the sort that he trashed when the SEIU organized a hostile takeover of a genuinely progressive union, the California Nurses Association/NNOC. For a good takedown of Stern and the officials who like Wilson are part of his machine, I recommend Steve Early’s Counterpunch article where he writes:

Opportunities for … career-advancing appointments abound in SEIU, to a degree unique in the labor movement. That’s because, under Stern, nearly 80 local unions have been put under headquarters trusteeships and/or re-organized with new leaders named by him, rather than elected by the members. (Due to its consolidation into huge, regional bodies, SEIU now has only 300 “locals” left.)

No wonder Wilson has become a registered Democrat. His training in the SEIU was ideally suited to the top-down, corporate-minded, business as usual, class-collaborationist dealings of the Democratic Party—the oldest continuously functioning capitalist party in the entire world.


September 24, 2016

Michael Ansara’s special pleading for Hillary Clinton

Filed under: corruption,parliamentary cretinism,student revolt,trade unions — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

Michael Ansara

It makes perfect sense for Michael Ansara to be urging a vote for Hillary Clinton in Vox.com, the website launched by Ezra Klein in 2014. Klein is a 32-year old wunderkind who got started at the Washington Post, a newspaper to the right of the NY Times. Klein, who Doug Henwood once referred to as a “Neoliberal über-dweeb”, supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Like Hillary Clinton, he came to rue his decision but only because it went sour. As the dweeb put it:

I thought there was no way the Bush administration would neglect to plan for the obvious challenges of the aftermath. I turned on the war quickly when I saw how poorly and arrogantly it was being managed.

So who is this Ansara guy anyhow? Unlike Klein, he would seem to have some credibility as a radical, at least on the basis of how he describes himself in the Vox article:

I am a New England regional organizer for Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the largest New Left student organization spearheading the opposition to the war in Vietnam. Living in Cambridge, I swim in a river of others just as young and just as committed — committed to ending the war in Vietnam; committed to radical change for black Americans; committed to creating an American New Left, rooted in American realities and traditions. But in this year of 1968, what we most want is to end the seemingly endless war in Vietnam, a responsibility that rests uncomfortably on our too-young shoulders.

To begin with, you have to unpack the statement “the largest New Left student organization spearheading the opposition to the war in Vietnam”. By 1968, SDS had largely abandoned opposition to the war except for campus-based actions such as opposing military recruiters, etc. It did very good work on campus but it stood apart from the mass demonstrations being organized by a coalition consisting of the SWP, the CP and pacifists that it regarded as ineffective. SDS had organized the first antiwar demonstration in Washington in 1965, largely through the prodding of the SWP, but had become disappointed by the continuation of the war. It combined anti-imperialist rhetoric with adventurist tactics that mirrored the frustration of much of the student left. By 1971 SDS had fallen apart with the Weatherman faction going underground to carry out foolish terrorist attacks on “enemy” buildings as if a pipe bomb could halt the war in Vietnam.

While some New Leftists went off in an ultraleft direction, others pinned their hopes on “peace” candidates like Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy. In fact, the 1968 protests at the Democratic Party convention were designed to put pressure on the delegates to nominate such a candidate even if people like Dave Dellinger and Abby Hoffman were cagey about not putting it in exactly that way. Given the fact that the DP was still the party carrying out the war, it would have been inadvisable to give it carte blanche.

Referring to the 1968 elections, Michael Ansara is repentant for not supporting Hubert Humphrey:

We sit out the election. We organize street protests. We march. We mock. We do not organize young people to vote in one of the closest elections in American history. There are tens of thousands of young people looking to us for direction. We do not say, “Make history. Swing this election to Humphrey and show how powerful we as a group now are.” No, we say, “A plague on both your houses,” and walk away.

He depicts Richard Nixon as fomenting “a right-wing counter-reformation to hold power and warp American politics for most of the next four decades.”

Actually, Nixon looks pretty good in retrospect compared to Barack Obama. Keep in mind that Nixon was far more ambitious on environmental questions than Obama and directed all federal contractors to develop “an acceptable affirmative action program.” He also carried out an essentially Keynesian economic program that included a budget in 1970 based on “the high-employment standard”—ie, deficit spending.

Leaving aside the fiction that SDS organized street protests, Ansara likens SDS’s leftist opposition to the two-party system to those of us today who prefer Jill Stein to Hillary Clinton as he puts it:

The one irreducible fact of this bizarre election is this: The only way Donald Trump does not become president of the United States is if Hillary Clinton does. In any closely contested state, staying home or voting for a third-party candidate is, in its impact, a vote for Trump. It does not take a great leap of moral or political imagination to envision the damage a Trump presidency will bring to our nation and to the world.

Todd Gitlin

This business about how the left should have voted for Humphrey in 1968 is not new, especially coming from an SDS muckety-muck. Todd Gitlin, who was president of SDS from 1963 to 1964, argued this long before Trump reared his ugly head. In 2003, Todd Chretien took note of the Humphreymania in a review of Gitlin’s pompously titled “Letters to a Young Activist” in a CounterPunch review:

Playing fast and loose with the facts, Gitlin tells his young activist reader–who he prefers to call a “social entrepreneur”–that had the antiwar movement supported Democrat Hubert Humphrey (who personally helped escalate the war for the five previous years as Johnson’s vice president) for president in 1968, “he would have phased out the war.” Thus, the lesson is, if you don’t vote for the Democrats, you are morally responsible for Nixon and Pol Pot.

While not quite veering into the pro-war camp in 2003 like Ezra Klein, Gitlin came coquettishly close:

Hawks unquestionably have their arguments. Various pro-war cases deserve to be made, as does the point that they sometimes clash. If the administration makes these arguments shoddily, they still deserve to be made cogently somewhere.

I never met Michael Ansara but his name came up frequently in SWP meetings in 1970 when I arrived in Boston. Ansara was a leader of the SDS faction that was trying to ward off the Maoist Progressive Labor Party’s bid to take over the group that had already started to decline—mostly as a result of its abstinence from the antiwar movement.

After graduating Harvard in 1968, Ansara worked for SDS until the group split into three different Maoist sects, one led by PLP, the other by Mike Klonsky, and the last that still exists as a cult around Bob Avakian.

Like many others with a Harvard degree, Ansara was blessed by the doors that it opened for him. Eventually he started a citizen’s action group called Massachusetts Fair Share that was inspired by Nader’s Public Citizen. In 1983 auditors discovered that Fair Share had more than $1 million in debts, which led to Michael Ansara resigning in the face of criticism that he was responsible for its financial collapse.

That did not seem to faze Ansara who moved on to start a telemarketing firm called the Share Group that in a partnership with another money-raising firm called The November Group was hired by Ron Carey, a leader of the rank-and-file Teamsters group that Dan La Botz wrote a book about. Many people who were to become members of Solidarity were Carey’s most effective organizers.

The November Group was a part-owner of Ansara’s outfit. Its CEO was a sleazeball named Martin Davis, who made big money hiring out to big-time campaigns in the DP, including Clinton-Gore’s presidential campaign in 1992. Between 1992 and 1996 the November Group raked in $650,000 from the Teamster’s treasury. It also exercised influence on Carey to keep the nascent Labor Party at arm’s length.

All this worked to Ansara’s advantage. He also earned big fees and flattered himself into believing that his work had something to do with a renewed labor movement. The ability of some people to betray their youthful ideals in the name of upholding them is quite remarkable. One imagines that a Harvard education goes a long way toward helping the intellect get twisted into such knots.

In 1997, Ansara’s world collapsed after a Federal Grand Jury began investigating illegal kickbacks to Carey’s campaign for the Teamster presidency. Ansara’s wife Barbara Zack Quindel had donated $95,000 as part of a quid quo pro deal with the Share Group. The NY Times reported:

The teamsters paid the Share Group $48,587 last Oct. 22, and nine days later Ms. Arnold contributed $45,000 to the Carey campaign. The teamsters international paid the Share Group another $48,587 on Nov. 15, and Ms. Arnold donated an additional $50,000 11 days later.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. It is the same kind of dodgy backroom deals that the Clinton Foundation thrives on.

In September of 1997 Martin Davis pleaded guilty to mail fraud, embezzling union funds and conspiracy to commit fraud while Ansara pleaded guilty to conspiracy. For each count, they faced up to five years in prison and possibly a $250,000 fine or twice what they made from the scheme.

Ansara eventually was sentenced to probation and forced to make restitution of $650,000. But the biggest damage was not to him but to the labor movement. Carey’s culpability allowed Jimmy Hoffa Jr. to regain the Teamster presidency and help tighten the bosses’ grip over the labor movement.

Labor leftist and journalist Steve Early summed up the sad state of affairs in “In these Times”:

Meanwhile, federal prosecutors in New York are continuing a criminal investigation. Three Carey associates have already pleaded guilty and face heavy fines and jail time for mail fraud, conspiracy or embezzling union funds on Carey’s behalf. They are: his campaign manager, Jere Nash, a onetime leader of Mississippi Common Cause and consultant to the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign; Martin Davis, a millionaire teamster political adviser, who also aided the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and brokered deals for the AFL-CIO’s Union Privilege credit card program, and Michael Ansara, a former community organizer and leader of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at Harvard University in the late ’60s, who later became a “socially-responsible” businessman.

Other alleged participants in or casualties of this troika’s illicit scheming include the Teamsters’ political director William Hamilton, an alumnus of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and a former business associate of Ansara. Hamilton was forced to resign in July and now faces Teamster Independent Review 3card charges of aiding the diversion of dues money to Carey’s campaign—a matter that a federal grand jury in New York is also investigating. Ira Arlook, director of Citizen Action and another ex-SDSer, has run up more than $200,000 in legal bills defending his organization against possible criminal charges over its Teamster money-laundering role. The scandal so damaged the fund-raising ability of Citizen Action’s national organization that the group just closed its Washington, D.C., office and laid off 20 staffers.

The biggest potential losers, however, are Teamster members—particularly those who have worked for change in the union. In the face of beatings, black-listing, redbaiting and other obstacles to reform, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU)—labor’s most durable and successful rank-and-file group—sacrificed and struggled for more than 20 years to eliminate corruption, gangsterism and sweetheart deals. The reformers’ efforts finally bore fruit six years ago with Carey’s victory in an election conducted as part of the settlement of a Justice Department lawsuit filed under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Working with TDU activists around the country and a minority of local officers, Carey has since put 75 troubled locals under trusteeship, cut waste, stepped up Teamster organizing, hired aggressive new staff and won significant bargaining victories like the recent United Parcel Service (UPS) strike.

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