Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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.

Read full article

December 3, 2016

Gus Hall surrenders

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

NY Times, June 1, 1937

screen-shot-2016-12-03-at-5-10-48-pm

December 2, 2016

Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers

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

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-6-14-08-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.

Read full article

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.

June 23, 2016

Free Labor: The Civil War and the Making of the American Working Class

Filed under: Civil War,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 6:11 pm

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 2.05.00 PM

For most people on the left, including me, American labor struggles begin with the 1877 railroad strikes and come to a climax with the CIO organizing drives of the 1930s. This is especially true if you have read Philip Foner’s “The Great Labor Uprising of 1877”, a Pathfinder book I read in the early 70s. It was a companion piece to Art Preis’s “Labor’s Giant Step”, another Pathfinder book that served as a great guide to the 1930s labor struggles and still does.

I would recommend both of these books to people who want to learn about labor history even if the money goes to a group that has lost the thread completely on the labor movement if not to speak of the class struggle in general. To these two must-reads, I would add a new book by Mark A. Lause, a former member of the Socialist Workers Party who has followed in the footsteps of Philip Foner and Art Preis with the magisterial “Free Labor: The Civil War and the Making of the American Working Class”.

When you hear the term “free labor” in the context of the Civil War, the first thing that springs to mind is the Radical Republican agenda to abolish slavery but Lause uses it in a broader sense. His study amasses an astonishing collection of historical detail to demonstrate that the worker soldiers who fought for emancipation also thought the term applied to their own struggle against bosses, whether they owned a shoe factory in Massachusetts or a plantation in Mississippi.

In the very first sentence of the Acknowledgments, Lause states: “Work on this subject has gone on for decades, as I gathered up what has become the bits and pieces from almost every library or archive I’ve ever visited.” Support for this statement can be found on just about every page of a work that is studded with amazing profiles of personalities and events that have languished in obscurity for far too long.

As an experiment, I opened “Free Labor” randomly and felt positive that I would land upon the kind of revelation that makes the book so compelling. So on page 80, I read:

[DeWitt Clinton] Roberts went from Charleston to Atlanta for work, but, as the weeks wore on, the prospect of Confederate conscription once more threatened him. He had gotten a thirty-day leave from his employer, the Southern Confederacy, to visit Charleston, and then told the provost marshal that he wanted to visit his relatives near Oxford, Mississippi. On December 20, 1863, he abandoned his “trunk, books, and clothing,” saving what he “could carry in a handtrunk.” He found that war had crippled the Southern railroads, but he reached Oxford nevertheless, eight days later. There, he persuaded the Confederate cavalry to permit him through the lines to Holly Springs. Circumstances soon forced Roberts, who had thought so disparagingly of the blacks attacking Fort Wagner, to rely entirely upon African Americans for assistance in reaching Union lines.

Roberts was a printer from the North who had ended up in the South for work before the start of the war and became part of the modest trade union initiatives that were cropping up there as well, often incorporating the region’s racist ideology. When the prospects of being drafted into the Rebel army confronted him, he had no choice except to depend on Blacks to escape to the North. Whatever his racial attitudes, and as Lause points out he was no William Lloyd Garrison, he made common cause with those seeking freedom.

The printers are to the labor struggles of the 1860s that railway workers were to 1877 and auto workers were to the CIO in the 30s. This was a function of the vanguard role played by craftsmen in the 1860s, a period long before Fordism and assembly lines became dominant. Like the men who volunteered to fight against Franco in Spain, printers enlisted in the Union army as a way of defeating chattel slavery in the South and what was commonly known as wages slavery in the North at some point in the future. Lause cites a newspaper that observed in 1861 that every volunteer regiment had enough printers to open an office of its own.

The National Typographers Union was to the labor vanguard of the 1860s that the UAW was to Flint sit-down strikes even if it like the UAW failed to break the color line at General Motors. Lause points out that after the war the Washington, DC printers deferred to the Confederate veterans who refused to work alongside Blacks, including Lewis H. Douglass, the son of Frederick Douglass, who worked in the Government Printing Office.

For New Yorkers, there is a great pleasure in store to read about the most militant bastion of free labor in the city, the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Lause writes:

There, too, a vicious dispute in the Navy Yard among radicalized workers was raised. One of their leaders, Moses Platt, “made an extravagant speech about capital and labor,” calling on workers to throw off their yoke. At a meeting of a Brooklyn trade union meeting, one of the members rose to discuss working-class political action, adding that “the nearest approach to success was made in France during the last revolution, when the combination of labor became so strong that capitalists in all countries became alarmed and combined to put it down, and – did so through Napoleon.”

Employers reacted coherently when workers beyond the Navy Yard showed signs of militancy: stonecutters, blacksmiths, carpenters and laborers went on strike as did painters and hatters, while piano makers faced a lockout, and plasterers, molders, jewelers, machinists, and musicians organized for a pay increase. A “Farmers’ Protective Union of the counties of Kings, Queens, Suffolk, Westchester, Richmond and Rockland” formed. At the same time, the use of convict labor drew the molders and other trade unionists into politics, urging a bill to regulate such innovations.

You get a sense of the craftsmen character of the early labor movement from the inclusion of jewelers, musicians and piano makers fighting for higher wages. Many years ago just after I had completed a training program as a machinist in Kansas City in order to help me get a factory job as part of the SWP’s “turn to industry”, the word came down that party members should only work in unskilled jobs like in the meatpacking industry. Clearly, they had a very poor grasp not only of the role of skilled workers in this period but how workers become politicized in the first place. As was the case during the Civil War and will surely be the case in the next radicalization, workers will move against the class enemy not because of their role in surplus value creation but as a reaction to social crisis in general. When Lenin wrote in “What is to be Done” that a socialist party has to respond to every injustice, including the right of artists to paint as they please, he was polemicizing against the “point of production” mentality that has confused so much of the left over the years into adopting a “workerist” orientation.

African-Americans, either those still enslaved or those in the ranks of “wages slavery” were on the front lines of the labor movement. In the South, they engaged in mass resistance to the Confederacy as they abandoned their slave-master’s plantation or carried out sabotage and arson to undermine the rebel cause.

In the general insurrectionary mood, poor whites in the South began to make common cause with Blacks as Lause points out:

The growing numbers of aggrieved nonslaveholders, including armed Confederate deserters and escaped Union prisoners, provided slave rebels a growing number of whites ready to transgress the color bar. Civilian authorities far from Federal lines clamored for martial law and the assignment of troops to suppress small bands of armed blacks. Increasingly, Confederates feared a convergence of “deserters from our armies, Tories and runaways.” By early 1864 Confederate officials in South Carolina reported “five to six hundred negroes” not in “the regular military organization of the Yankees” who “lead the lives of banditti, roving the country with fire and committing all sorts of horrible crimes upon the inhabitants.” Florida officials reported “500 Union men, deserters, and negroes . . . raiding towards Gainesville,” while similar groups formed to commit “depredations upon the plantations and crops of loyal citizens and running off their slaves.” At Yazoo City, Mississippi, they not only attacked such private estates but successfully burned the courthouse.

As it happens, this is the scenario of a film I saw at a press screening last night. Titled “The Free State of Jones”, it is about the pro-Union resistance of Newton Knight, a poor farmer in Mississippi who deserted from the Confederate army, and his Black allies. It is a great film just as “Free Labor” is a great book and one that I will be reviewing in a day or so.

June 24, 2015

When Junius Scales went into industry

Filed under: trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 1:39 am

Today I started reading “A Red Family: Junius, Gladys and Barbara Scales”, a review copy of a book that had been sitting on my shelves for about five years. I wish I had gotten to it sooner since it is a great read, especially for the parts of this essentially oral history that is devoted to Junius who I had the great pleasure to meet and interview a couple of years before his death in 2002. He was a leader of the CPUSA in the south and a scion of a very wealthy North Carolina family and the first CP’er to be convicted on the Smith Act.

What follows below is my write-up on my meeting with Junius long before I began blogging followed by an excerpt from his memoir “Cause at Heart”, which for my money is the best memoir ever written by a radical. It concludes with an excerpt from “A Red Family” that deals with him “going into industry” as we used to put it in the SWP. I imagine that when I went into industry in 1978 if I had anything remotely similar to his experience in a textile company town in 1940, I would have stuck with it. In the back of my mind I knew that the whole thing was a fantasy in contrast to Junius’s transformative experience.

My meeting with Junius Scales:

I had a grand old time yesterday with Junius Scales at his country home up on the side of a mountain near Pine Bush, New York. We sat on the porch while he offered pointed observations about well-known and not so well-know figures on the left.

The question of how people shift to the right after leaving Marxist-Leninist groups has come up on this list time and again. Junius’s trajectory seems far more typical. After leaving the CPUSA in disgust back in the mid 1950s, he has continued to embrace socialist or progressive values which were very much in evidence when he recently spoke at a conference at the University of North Carolina on campus radicalism in the 1940s. He was in the thick of things back then as the leader of a 150 member (!!!) party club there in 1947.

We spoke some about Trotskyism which he never had the pleasure of encountering until he left the CP. When he was a proofreader at the New York Times, he met Dave Weiss who worked in the same department and who was the brother of Murray Weiss, married to Myra Tanner Weiss. These were two SWP leaders in the 1950s. Dave Weiss, a rank-and-filer, eventually became a documentary film-maker of some repute while Murray and Myra were typical party leaders, intolerant to a fault and convinced of their own intellectual and political superiority to everybody else.

At a big cocktail party in the 1950s, Junius was having a pleasant chat with Alger Hiss who spotted Myra Tanner Weiss. Also at the party was a left-wing Labour Party MP who Hiss mischievously decided to introduce to Myra. He brought the two together and within a matter of minutes the two of them were castigating each other loudly and had drawn a circle of onlookers about them, as if a fist-fight was going on. Hiss stood on the sidelines enjoying the spectacle thoroughly.

Junius was pretty close to the Robeson family and is convinced that the psychological collapse of the great man was linked to his bad faith over Stalin. Robeson had enormous affection for the dean of the Yiddish stage in the Soviet Union, Isaac Pfeffer, who Stalin had executed. Robeson found a way to justify this. A lifetime of making excuses must have taken its toll. Junius visited Robeson in the 1950s when the psychosis was in full sway. They sat in the living room chatting pleasantly with Robeson’s wife and children when all of a sudden Robeson himself emerged from the bedroom and confronted the group with a wild, unrecognizing look on his face.

Junius became very close to Earl Browder after Browder was expelled from the CPUSA. He says that despite Browder’s support for a more open and less dogmatic socialism, that he personally was extremely dogmatic in the way he promoted these beliefs. It was impossible to disagree with him.

As we discussed politics and personalities, we watched large birds soaring in the skies above the mountain-tops. Were they hawks, I asked him? If they flap their wings every five minutes or so, they’re hawks. If not, they are buzzards. He had become an expert bird-watcher living in the mountainous wilderness over the past twenty years or so. Black bears were frequent visitors to his property.

My mother sat in the living room reading the Sunday New York Times while Junius and I chatted. When we broke for lunch, my mom announced that she had found an interesting quote. The judge in the Vincent Gigante trial had once presided in a case against the terrorist Jewish Defense League. He told the accused that it was more Jewish to uphold the book rather than the bomb.

I informed my mom that it was a small world, since Gigante had saved Junius’s life when he was at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary doing time for a Smith Act violation. Junius had mentioned to a Mafia prisoner that Daniel Bell’s new (at the time) book “The Decline of Ideology” had a chapter making the case that there was no such thing as organized crime. This chapter was read by all the Mafia prisoners who passed the information on to their lawyers. Gigante, a boss of the Mafia both in prison and outside, felt that a debt was owed to Scales. When a hulking, murderous prisoner threatened to kill Junius, Gigante stepped in and told him to lay off and that was that.

I will take up Junius Scales’ book “Cause at Heart” in a subsequent post.

From “Cause at Heart”:

Suddenly I remembered a bright autumn morning fifteen years before, when I had been a Communist for only a few months. I had been going cheerfully to my job in the tax office in the county courthouse in my native Greensboro, North Carolina, when I looked up at barred windows on the top floor of the white stone building and stopped in my tracks. “My friends and I will go to jail someday,” I had imagined in my idealistic innocence, “because our belief in the socialist world is something that these grim lawyers and smug pillars of society I work among will never tolerate; they will hunt us down and box us in, even though what we advocate they hear preached in church and even mad about in the New Testament.” I had felt a twinge of fear raise gooseflesh on my neck and scalp, even as I felt it then in Memphis, waiting that evening to take my lumps at last, like many another radical “do-gooder” and “bleeding heart.” I had a fleeting moment of self-doubt during which I wondered how I could have allowed my adversaries to entangle something as beautiful as the advocacy of a better world in criminal proceedings; I myself must have botched the job somehow.

It was 7:28. As I walked past the apparently empty FBI car at the next intersection, I was overwhelmed with the helplessness of my situation. I was like an animal surrounded by hunters and with no bushes to hide in. Inside the peaceful lower-middle-class houses around me, people were finishing dinner, washing dishes, reading the paper, watching TV. Meanwhile, ahead of me, the gathering FBI cars were making their own traffic jam in the otherwise deserted, rainswept streets.

From “A Red Family”:

But when I got back to North Carolina I was really a “professional revolutionary” and completely committed. I had no intention of going back to college. I went to see my mother, and she was very distressed.

I went to live in the mill village in High Point and boarded with one of the families I had met with Bart [CP organizer for North Carolina] I liked them tremendously and lived with the man, his wife, and three daughters in a miserable three-room company house.

You could tell if the stars were out at night by looking through the cracks in the wall. In the wintertime, a thread would stand almost horizontal from the breezes through the cracks. There was no water inside and a cold-water faucet out back. Twenty-five feet back of the house was a little outhouse. When you got off, the seat flew up, and an automatic flush business occurred.

The entire family slept in the same bedroom. There were beds jammed into this one room: the mother and father the older daughter in one, and the two youngest daughters shared the other. The living room was mostly for ornament. It was a wasted room, because in the wintertime the only room heated was the kitchen. ‘The kitchen was the social room, and both stoves were needed to keep it warm it didn’t stay warm for too long because the house wasn’t insulated. But that’s where the whole family lived during the entire winter. And all the houses in the village were about the same.

They were a lovely family. The husband and wife were about thirteen years older than I. She was always very motherly to me, and he was like a big brother. He was quite sophisticated, a worldly sort of guy, and she was a woman of wonderful courage and drive, very strong and yet very tender. And their kids were absolutely delightful. I got a tremendous case on the older daughter. I didn’t know her age at the time, and I assumed she was at least seventeen, because she sure looked it. I swear, it absolutely frightened me when, after we’d been going together pretty steady for about six months I discovered that she was only fourteen. I was twenty at the time. Her mother told me, and I nearly died. Then she had her fifteenth birthday and I felt a little bit better.

I even liked their dog. Through this family I got to know most of their relatives, and it was a big family on both sides. I must have stayed there for three or four months, and it was darn cold when I left. The mother didn’t think I was going to survive the winter in that living room, so she switched me over to her sister’s house.

Like many people’s, the sister’s marriage had broken up, and I lived there with her mother and son for what seemed like years. In spite of everything I survived the first winter there. I had so many covers on that if Ir tried to raise my feet upright I’d have broken my toes off. I had two sets of overalls: I’d work in one and sleep in the other. There’d be frost in the house sometimes, and I’d make a mad dash for the kitchen in the morning. They kept the stove going. And the lady of the house had the most marvelous breakfasts. Country food. Sunday morning would usually be pork chops and hominy grits, eggs, and biscuits.

I got a job in the Burlington mill in walking distance of the village. I worked the night shift at Hillcrest and devoted all my days to Party activity. I just got wedded to life there. I got to know practically everyone In the plant where I worked. I just loved the people there. Burlington was pretty hopeless for a union. They had about  eighty mills, and if anyone tried to organize a Burlington mill, they just closed the mill down and transferred operations to another. They’d leave four or five hundred people out of work and desperate, and then blacklist them. You couldn’t get a job anywhere. So we had no intention of organizing at Hillcrest. I just had to get a job someplace, and that was fine.

I made thirteen bucks a week, the minimum wage, thirty-two cents an hour, and had money to spare. I was in awfully good physical shape, but it was fantastically hard work. And what amazed me was that guys my age working there had faces like they were thirty-five or older. I’d find out some of them were younger than I. They were used to hard work, and they were wiry, but they absolutely couldn’t take the pace.

Burlington was the most rationalized of all the mills down there. They knew how to take every last drop of energy out of you on an eight-hour shift. To survive I rationalized my job, too, and it didn’t crush me. It’s true I wouldn’t have a dry seam in my clothes when I’d come out of the place. You’d have to take salt pills all night to keep from sweating yourself into heat prostration. It was about ninety degrees most of the time and very humid because of the rayon yarn.

These working-class guys my age would be old men by the time they made forty, if they made it, and they were just drained most of the time. The women had it even worse. A girl who started at nineteen was an old woman by twenty-nine. Usually the height of the machine was such that the women would have to sort of stoop their shoulders forward and poke their abdomens out, and the same was true in the cotton mills. The spinners had the same business: a pooched-out abdomen and slumped shoulders. It was the most frightful thing, and they all looked really old by the time they were thirty.

This place was organized by time-study experts. The speedup was incredible. One girl was twenty-five, and when I think back, she looked more like she was thirty-five. She was the star operator. She could do almost twice as much work as anybody else, their “show” operator. My God, she’d go around like she had six hands. It was just dizzying to watch her. Then one day she went stark-raving mad right at her machine, and it took five people to haul her out screaming and kicking. And she never came back. She ended up in a mental institution.

Even though I was working in another plant, I joined the cotton mill union so I could edit the monthly union paper and attend all the meetings. The chairman used to make me his parliamentarian, and I used to help smooth the meetings out. And I was always willing to do any kind of leg work.

After every union meeting on Saturday night, there’d be a big social gath-ering. In these days, you worked a half-day on Saturday, and that afternoon all the men in the village would go to the barbershop. This was the only bath you could take during the whole week, so we all lined up and tackled their six stall showers. They gave you a little bar of Lifebuoy soap and a towel for quarter.

Meanwhile, back in the houses, the women moved into the kitchens. No man could go into the kitchen because all the women, from infant to grandma, would be bathing. Every house had a huge corrugated iron tub, and hot water would be heated in everything that could hold it. Everybody would use this big tub. They couldn’t go dumping it out, and you couldn’t give everybody a new tub of water. So you’d just add water to it, and it’d get pretty raunchy by the time the last one got their turn. But, one way or an-other, everybody would go to the union meeting all sweet and clean.

Saturday night was always a light dinner, and about half the village would show up at the union meeting. The meeting would begin about seven o’clock, and we’d usually try to get the business over by eight-thirty. There would be very wide participation, and if it was near strike time, there’d usually be some pretty fancy oratory, mostly delivered by women. They were much more , verbal than the men, generally, and God, they were effective. I’d love to have been able to record some of those speeches.

As soon as the gavel pounded, the meeting adjourned, and a little string band would strike up, usually of union talent, with a couple of banjos, guitars, and a fiddle or two. The chairs would disappear like magic, and the whole huge hall became a dance floor. For a nominal fee, anybody could come to these marvelous dances, and we had our committee to keep things orderly and throw out the drunks.

I didn’t know how to square dance worth a hoot, and some of these real tough textile women took me in hand. I swear to God, there was one woman there who was a little five-by-five but strong as an ox, and every time I’d find myself in the wrong place, she would absolutely pick me up and put me where I belonged. I had to learn in a hurry in self-defense. She’d have killed me or at least taken my arm out of the socket. I got to be a real good square dancer and used to enjoy it immensely.

I think the social part of the evening was actually more important than the meetings, because those square dances were just unforgettable, and probably did more than anything to solidify the union. Everybody from toddlers on up would take part. The old folks would sit and watch the young’uns and relive their youth, and the little squirts would be dancing with each other just so they wouldn’t get trampled. The young squirts were dancing for real. The older folks up to forty or fifty were just having a marvelous time, and, of course, the teenagers were romancing like crazy. It was an extremely wholesome and delightful business. Some of my student friends from Chapel Hill would come over, and they absolutely got hooked. They’d be back every time they could.

These textile workers were about one generation, if that much, off the farm, and they had come to the city because life on the farm got tough. They had all of the country ways. One of the problems in the mill village was to try and stop people from keeping hogs in their small yards. Much of their charm and lingo was strictly farm and country. Yet they had acquired new ways, and many of them had been proletarianized by a lifetime in the mills.

The trade-union movement had really created a social revolution in the South, and I saw it in this mill village. This had been a place where the fore-man reigned supreme. It was a company town with a company store and a company church. The company paid the minister, and the minister preached that the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] was the antichrist. And if anybody fell afoul of the company, his credit was stopped at the company store. The company owned all the houses in the village. And if someone re-ally fell afoul, he could be evicted from his company house. So they lived under a real reign of terror.

Well, the organizing drive was undertaken with great risk and difficulty, and a lot of people joined together and pulled a strike. The strike staggered the company, and they put on a lot of police pressure. It was a tremendously educational thing for the people there, who thought if they stayed on the good side of the foreman they would make out pretty well.

The village split down the middle on whether or not to go to church. The union people didn’t want to hear the company say that the CIO was the agent of the devil, so a great many of them quit going.

The WPA at the time had some educational programs going, so the union (and the Party had considerable influence in the union) began encouraging and organizing adult-education classes on everything you can think of. People who had never finished sixth grade were enrolling and just getting the biggest joy out of it. Some learned things like typing and were able to get part-time jobs. It gave everyone a tremendous sense of self-confidence, and they were able to hold their heads up. It was a true social revolution, and most of these people became missionaries for unionism. It’s true that it lost most of its momentum after a while, but at that time it was a tremendously exciting thing to participate in. The union became the social center of the whole village.

Of course, it’s easy to remember the pleasant events and forget the horrors of poverty. One Saturday, I’d just gotten paid and had so much money I didn’t know what to do. I decided I’d take the three kids in the family to the movies. Well, next door was a family named Tysinger, and Ot and Mary Tysinger were probably in their late thirties and had nine children. They both worked in the mill. But Mary had been sick and hadn’t been able to work,which meant that Ot’s salary—he’d been working there for twenty years, since his teens, and was making fifteen dollars a week—had to support the family of eleven. The entire family was surviving on fifteen dollars a week.

When the kids, naturally excited, announced that Junius was taking them Iii the movies, I saw these nine Tysinger kids next door looking at me with big sad and dejected eyes. So we got hold of the Tysinger kids. I think the bus fare was a nickel each way, and the kids could get in for a dime at the movie, so I spent quite a bit. But it was the first time any of these Tysinger kids—and the oldest was twelve—had seen a movie. So I got to see the horror of living on this kind of a wage in a textile village. The oldest Tysinger child, Carrie, was a lovely little girl, but she was skinny, and her color was bad. She had a kidney ailment, and the doctor said she should have a lot of fresh vegetables, and this and that and the other, you know, an elaborate diet, which on Ot’s fifteen dollars a week was about as feasible as a snowball in hell. They ate white beans, the staple. They had biscuits sometimes, corn bread, cabbage, and fatback, but that was about it. If they had anything else, they considered it a gala occasion. And for Carrie’s kidney ailment, this was not the thing.

One day, these God-awful screams came from the Tysingers’ outhouse, and I ran over to find that Carrie’s guts had collapsed, and she had eight inches of intestines hanging out of her. I pushed them in with the handle of a hearth broom. This was the horror this poor kid lived with. Later I heard she was married and had moved away, but it was just nip and tuck whether she would grow up or not. And I bet you anything that by the time she was thirty she was a physical wreck, if she even lived that long. You’d see kids with rickets from undernourishment, bowed legs toddling around.

What poverty and those incredible wages did to these people was horrible. And, yet, the mill owner was always putting on the dog, as we would say, flashing his money, and you’d read about all his doings, all about his family, in the society section of the High Point Enterprise, and here were these poor people, and it was all wrung out of them.

If anyone could doubt the existence of the class struggle, you surely couldn’t while living in a mill village. It was unforgettable, especially when somebody stopped being a case and became a person. They weren’t welfare cases: they were people you lived with and loved and spent your time with. It just increased my dedication and determination to do anything and everything I could to change this kind of thing.

The union grew and prospered and in the winter of ’41 I was named chair-man of the organizing committee of the Textile Workers’ local. Actually, we had one little foothold of organized workers in a sea of unorganized workers. And seamless hosiery, men’s socks and cheap women’s hose, was one of the largest industries at the time. I began to collect names and contacts in various hosiery mills to see if we couldn’t eventually stage a drive to organize some of those unorganized workers. I was planning to leave Hillcrest to get a job in a hosiery mill.

I was going with a girl at the time, a southern Jewish girl, a sophomore at Chapel Hill, and began courting her pretty seriously. In June of ’41, the day after the invasion of the Soviet Union, we got married.

Back at Hillcrest, the company had gotten on to me and had discovered I was a union bug. The day after my wedding weekend, they fired me. I got a job in an unorganized cotton mill, and we got a two-room apartment nearby the village. It had a toilet outside in the hall, and the walls were painted a shit brindle, the most horrible color I have ever seen. But we were happy, and I was working day and night building up my contacts among seamless hosiery workers in about thirty different textile mills. I had a little file case of names on three-by-five cards, which I kept hidden in the chimney.

It was an easy walk to the Pickett Cotton Mill, but it was a killer of a job. I lasted about three months and learned to do most of the jobs there. They fired me for union activity.

Then, with elaborate phony references, I got a job at Thomas’s Hosiery Mill, a long bus ride away. And, of course, working in a seamless hosiery plant made it that much easier to make contacts. There were about eighty mills in the vicinity of High Point and something like five thousand seam-less hosiery workers. Anybody with twenty thousand dollars’ capital could go into business and get a couple of knitting machines.

The American Federation of Hosiery Workers had been eyeing this area because it was such a wide-open shop and ripe to be organized. The wages were so terribly low and the working conditions awful. But It was tough to organize because the companies were blacklisting right and left. They soon found out that I had made contact with all the best and likeliest union people. So in the fall of ’41, our union and the American Federation of Hosiery Workers decided on a joint organizing drive.

A busload of hosiery workers came in from Roanoake, Virginia, and the president and several vice presidents of the national union and a whole crew of organizers came down. We had a big meeting in the High Point union hall officially launched the drive. I was to quit my mill job the next day and join the union payroll as an assistant chief organizer.

The meeting adjourned Sunday afternoon in early December, and as we got downstairs, somebody told us Pearl Harbor had been bombed. And that watt the end of the hosiery drive because, within forty-eight hours, the government had frozen all the raw rayon and silk. By the end of the week, practically all the seamless hosiery workers were heading for Norfolk, Virginia, and Wilmington, North Carolina, to get jobs in shipbuilding and other port-related industries. It was a major exodus, and one hosiery mill after another dosed down. The industry just melted away, and all my contacts and my little card  file just went to pot. It didn’t take me more than twenty-four hours to realize that all my organizing plans had gone down the drain, and the following day I volunteered to enlist in the army.

April 15, 2015

Adalen 31

Filed under: Film,Sweden,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 4:48 pm

After a number of false starts, I was finally able to upload Bo Widerberg’s “Adalen 31” to Youtube, a film that I saw when it came out in 1969 and that has lingered in my memory all these years. The title is a reference to a general strike in the Adalen district by paper mill workers in 1931 that led to the first in a series of Social Democratic governments that for many people defined the word socialism. What I took away from the film, besides its stunning artistic power, was the idea that there was a dialectical relationship between revolutionary struggle and reform. If not for the four men and one young girl who were shot down in the village of Lunde on May 14, 1931, it is altogether possible that the modern Scandinavian welfare state never would have been born.

Yesterday I watched the film for the first time in 46 years and realize now why it has stuck with me. Despite the languid and pastoral quality of the first two-thirds of the film, which typified Widerberg’s “Elvira Madigan” made two years earlier, the final third is a powerful recreation of the armed attack on a demonstration that resonated with the struggles taking place around the world in 1969. And it will resonate now with people watching it for the first time who have the Marikana massacre fresh in their mind, or any other military attack on protesters in the Middle East and North Africa.

The film opens in the house of Harald Andersson, a man who has been out on strike for a number of months. He has three sons, the eldest of whom is named Kjell and is in his late teens. Kjell plays trumpet in the trade union marching band but probably prefers playing jazz.

The primary drama in the film revolves around Kjell’s romance with the daughter of one of the paper mill owners, a blonde girl named Hedvig who is troubled by the bitter strike but not to the extent of breaking with her father.

Widerberg is obviously interested in tensions between the personal and political since another story line involves Harald giving first aid to a wounded scab worker in his home. When he is confronted by his fellow trade unionists, he makes the case that violence undermines their cause and insists that negotiation was the only way forward.

When the army is brought in to defend the scabs’ barracks, the union organizes a march on their stronghold with the marching band in the front ranks playing the Internationale. In an interview with the NY Times’s Mel Gussow in October 1969, Widerberg revealed that 3,000 extras were used in the scene and that he developed the action just two hours before shooting began.

Despite the absence of the word Communist throughout the film, there is little doubt as to the affiliations of the leadership of the strike and many of the rank-and-file workers. Axel Nordström, who served 2 ½ years of hard labor for his role as a strike organizer, was a Communist member of Parliament from 1937 to 1940. In an article on the Adalen general strike that appeared in the Swedish section of Alan Woods’s International Marxist Tendency (http://www.marxist.se/artikel/adalen-31-det-vi-aldrig-far-glomma), there’s a report on the killings that day from Harry Nordlander, a member of the Communist youth group in Adalen:

As we approached the ferry pier near the meadow, where we said that we would turn, a soldier on horseback charged us. The rider shouted something and then fired his gun over his shoulder, probably frightened by a banner that fluttered. Some of the marchers saw bullet holes in the banner. Then we heard clearly a loud command: Fire! The bullets began to whistle through the air. They did not come from the front, but from the side a few yards from the lead.

Then we saw how one of the musicians rushed forward in the hail of bullets and blew “cease fire” [recreated by Kjell in the scene]. The guns fell silent. It was the young Communist Vera who showed courage and presence of mind to stop the killing. But there were already five comrades dead or dying and several more wounded. One of those killed was a young girl who stood in the garden at the side of the road. Her name was Eira Söderberg and was a member of our youth club in Svanö.

 The best account of the Adalen struggles can be found on the Global Nonviolent Action Database located at Swarthmore University. Interestingly enough, Axel Nordström is cited in this article as being opposed to violence against scabs—this despite the fact that the CP’s were aligned with the Kremlin’s ultraleft turn at the time:

In the fall of 1930, the management of a sawmill in Lunde in the Ådalen Valley announced wage cuts for all workers. In response the laborers began a strike.

The workers continued their strike through the fall, shutting down the mill. The director of the Lunde mill also had investments in two pulp mills in nearby towns. In January 1931 the laborers in these two mills began a sympathy strike. Meanwhile workers and management held ongoing negotiations.

Axel Nordström, a communist leader, was one of the leaders of the strike campaign and the workers also had ties to LO.

On May 12, when management called in outside strikebreakers to commence work in the three mills, the strike leaders immediately put up fliers against the strikebreakers. These fliers also called for further protests, work stoppages in other industries, mass demonstrations, and a meeting scheduled for the next day.

The county government ordered police to protect the strikebreakers and sent several officers to the meeting. At the meeting Axel Nordström called for demonstrations, but did not condone violence against the strikebreakers. The strikers decided to march and demonstrate at one of the mills where workers were holding a sympathy strike. Once at the mill another leader spoke and a band played the workers’ theme song. The demonstrators there decided to get rid of the strikebreakers.

Police asked Nordström to prevent the protesters from hurting the strikebreakers, but he was no longer in control of the situation. Demonstrators pulled strikebreakers from the mill, and inflicted some minor injuries. The strikers then chose to hold another meeting the next day and follow it with a march to the mill in Lunde where the strike had begun. They continued protests that day, throwing stones at the strikebreakers’ barracks and knocking out electricity for the city of Lunde.

Bo Widerberg is pretty much a forgotten figure today with very poor representation on the usual sources. None of his films are available on Netflix or Amazon, and in the well-stocked Columbia film library you can only locate “Elvira Madigan”. Despite the fact that his films are now in the public domain, the only one that could be seen previously on Youtube was “Joe Hill”, a 1971 film about the martyred IWW member who was born Joel Emanuel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden.

Widerberg died on May Day 1997, a symbolic date for the radical filmmaker who was born into a working-class family in Malmo sixty-six years earlier. He started off as a film critic professionally, creating controversy with his 1962 book “The Vision of Swedish Cinema” that took aim at Ingmar Bergman and his followers for being “preoccupied with problems that didn’t interest me and my generation of comrades.” He found that the Sweden Bergman represented was “not contemporary at all”.

Clearly Widerberg was tuned into the Marxist detective novel authors that I wrote about for CounterPunch back in September 2014. Fortunately his 1976 “Man on the Roof” that was based on the Martin Beck novel co-authored by Marxist husband and wife writing team Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall can be seen with English subtitles at Daily Motion, something that I hope to see along with “Joe Hill” the first chance I get.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.

Syrian Revolution Commentary and Analysis

“You can jail a Revolutionary but you can’t jail The Revolution” – Syrian Rebel Youth banner, Homs 24/7/2013

Exiled Razaniyyat

Personal observations of myself, others, states and exile.

Qunfuz

Robin Yassin-Kassab

amerikanbeat

cerebral. communist. hyper. analytical.

Sangh Samachar

Keeping Track of the Sangh Parivar

Cerebral Jetsam

JETSAM–[noun]: goods cast overboard deliberately, as to lighten a vessel or improve its stability

Paulitics

Paul's Socialist Investigations

The Cedar Lounge Revolution

For lefties too stubborn to quit

Canadian Observer

A home for satirical, edgy and serious articles about Canadian politics and business

auntie vulgar

notes on popular culture

Una Voce

The obscure we see, the completely obvious takes longer

WordPress.com

WordPress.com is the best place for your personal blog or business site.