The Labours of Labour: Keeping the good and honest fight going…

“While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
—Eugene Debs

Along with the many Wobblies who were literally brutalized, even killed, Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned for refusing to fight in the ‘imperialist’ World War I. Why would they choose fight and kill fellow exploited workers the world over? In prison Debs ran for President and, astonishingly, received almost a million votes. Can you imagine today someone running for the presidency from prison? Can you imagine someone without a fortune of their own or a fortune in corporate funding running for presidency?

Researching the history and ongoing-story of labour is inspiring, fascinating, surprising, invigorating and even, at times to be sure, depressing.

Friends much more intelligent than I on the subject of labour have pointed out reports of corruption (in particular) in American labour are very Union specific—the Teamsters, Longshoreman etc—and often grossly exaggerated as compared to overall benefit of the Union, not to mention that a certain amount of corruption, given human nature, is unavoidable. Still, the corruption seems pretty ugly to me. Ah, human nature. Either way, as far as I can tell, unions and the idea of unions remain the best (and perhaps only) real “self-defense” against worker exploitation yet invented.

Only with solidarity, in most any cause, can change be brought about against an oppressive foe. And the awe-inspiring, humbling courage, commitment and solidarity of workers and others in so many places today (who are often beaten, abused, threatened, black-listed or even killed for standing up) is truly amazing.

But regarding what I’m talking about above, the opening two paragraphs from Mark Leier’s Red Flags and Red Tape say a lot (the entire chapter asking ‘What is labour bureaucracy?’ was really interesting):

On 5 November 1916, 260 members of the Industrial Workers of the World left Seattle, Washington, aboard the ferry Verona. They were bound for the logging town of Everett, to take part in a free-speech fight that was entering its fourth month. As the ferry docked, the men were met by a crowd of deputies and vigilantes determined to stop the landing. Sheriff McRae shouted out to the Wobblies crowding the gangway, ‘Who is your leader?’ In a chorus of voices the answer came: ‘We are all leaders.’

This is a grand Wobblies’ (IWW) response, and vocalizes their anarchist sensibility and commitment, and below is what happened to them, as compared to, say, the modern day Teamsters:

As they pushed towards the shore, they [the IWW] were met with rifle fire from the sheriff’s gang. At least five were killed; many more were wounded.

The 1986 convention of the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters was held in the glittering rooms of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada. The highlight of the evening was the opening night entrance of the Teamster president Jackie Presser. Presser, reported to weigh over three hundred pounds, was brought to the convention floor in a chariot pulled by four burly Teamsters dressed as Roman centurions. The imperial procession set the tone for the rest of the convention.

Despite Presser’s recent (at the time) indictments for racketeering and embezzlement, the delegates supported him virtually unanimously—what a surprise—humiliated his opponent, shot down a motion to lower his salary of $555,000 dollars a year, and voted to make murdered ex-Teamster Boss Jimmy Hoffa…

“‘…general president emiritus for life,’ just in case he showed up again.”

The Teamsters illustrate vividly what union democracy is not. What then is the labour bureaucracy?

I thought the juxtaposition of philosophies between the two groups—Wobblies and Teamsters—in practice and reality, were beautifully expressed, and with humour.

And here’s an interesting exposé, in the Monthly Review—again, recalling that, according to friends of mine, experts in the area, this is an exaggeration of the situation of labour in America. Nonetheless, Robert Fitch doesn’t pull any punches:

Very few Americans experience the power of a union anymore. U.S. unions today represent just 7.8 percent of all private sector workers. Organized labor can’t stop wages from falling; hours from increasing; jobs from being offshored; or health and pension benefits from disappearing. Conditions in unionized garment and meat-packing factories here have regressed to the point where they actually mirror those described in muckraking exposes of a century ago. It’s the lack of countervailing union power that best explains the widest income inequality in the advanced industrialized world, the most limited workers’ rights, and what is easily the meanest and the crummiest welfare state. In Europe, where unions are on the defensive but haven’t lost the capacity for large-scale resistance, labor activists refer ominously to “The American Disease.”

Another friend of mine reminded me that although he can definitely sympathize with Fitch’s overall argument, relentless attacks on labour Unions in America without an accompanying radical critique of capitalism nevertheless end up being more of an attack on workers (and god knows they have enough problems) then something constructive—or as constructive as it could be. Still, if one can’t criticize, there is no chance for improvement. The Wobblies didn’t die for Free Speech for nothing.

And one could surely ask, who in the so-called business class is truly attacking the what some describe as the rapacious nature of capitalism? Not Ben Bernanke, that’s for sure. Foreign Policy magazine chose him the the top global thinker of 2009.

For what? Well, according to those on his pay-roll (okay, I don’t know if that’s true), but he was given the butt-kissing accolades for his:

“…blueprint for action, for single-handedly reinventing the role of a central bank, or for preventing the collapse of the U.S. economy. But to have done all of these within the span of a few months is certainly one of the greatest intellectual feats of recent years.”

Now that’s corruption: And the writing for Foreign Policy here is, for me, so uninspired, about on the level of Pravda, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, long term, Bernanke’s ‘brilliance’ will be about as effective as one of Mao’s dreaded and totalitarian Five Year Plans. And if not, it will be because America increases its still surprisingly strong manufacturing sector (it’s the drastic decline of workers in that sector that is a different danger).

How will the manufacturing sector be held onto or improved? Hopefully, alternative sources of energy. Nonetheless, given the inconceivable debt, the bail out strikes me as an economic coup d’etat and morally repugnant, not least of which because it was dead-set contrary to the wishes of the American people. And also because the hypocrisy of the bailout (whether one agrees or not) is limitless, being contrary to everything the “Washington Consensus” has shoved down developing countries starving, and still starving, throats, for decades. Actually, it’s not at all contrary: Perversely, it’s directly in line with those interests.

As my old joke goes, “I think I’ve said enough, perhaps too much.”

“Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and bruised itself. We have been enjoined by the courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, traduced by the press, frowned upon in public opinion, and deceived by politicians. But notwithstanding all this and all these, labor is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known, and its historic mission is as certain of ultimate realization as is the setting of the sun.”
—Eugene Debs

Keep intellectually searching!

Pete

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One Response to “The Labours of Labour: Keeping the good and honest fight going…”

  1. [...] wrote in a blog a few days or weeks ago: “While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element I am of it; while [...]

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