The official earth day is this Friday and so our program this week commemorates the arrival of earth day coinciding with the nuclear disaster in Japan, the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, the one year anniverary of the BP oil spill, and the incredible efforts to revive both nuclear power and deepwater drilling. We have songs about all of this, to help you recall past struggle and engage the future.
culture of protest thurs 4/21/11 6-7pm pdt kcsb 91.9fmwww.kcsb.org
We were in NYC at the end of March for a couple of days to take part in some of the many events observing the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Fire. An academic conference at CUNY graduate center, the official rally at the site of the fire off Washington Square and a rich program of performance and speeches at the Great Hall of the Cooper Union were some highlights.
The tone of these happenings was surprisingly invigorating. The focus was more on the meaning of the Fire today than on what happened then. The Triangle catastrophe was defined as the trigger for the New Deal and the massive immigrant based labor movement of the first several decades of the last century. And so, now, many were seeing the events in Wisconsin and the larger attack on collective bargaining rights as important potential sparks for a revival of a grassroots workers movement. Such a movement wouldn't just be about defending rights and gains of the already organized, but about fighting back in the class warfare that Warren Buffet says the rich have been waging against the working classes.
When we think about the power of the labor movement we focus on union memberships and what is called the ‘density' of unions-i.e. what percentage of the labor force in a given industry is represented by unions. As everyone always says, by the density measure, the labor movement is in its death throes. Here's the official story from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
In 2010, the union membership rate--the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of a union--was 11.9 percent, down from 12.3 percent a year earlier, the U.S.Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions declined by 612,000 to 14.7 million. In 1983, the first year forwhich comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.
Equally striking, about 1/3 of public employees belong to unions while less than 7% of private sectors are now in unions. That statistic helps explain why Republicans are using the public workers as scapegoats-they're deliberately promoting division among workers based on the relative advantages public workers have achieved because they've been organized. A good friend, with a long record of major union leadership, recently told me he thought that public employee unions would soon be ‘untenable' because of this disparity.
The decline in union power is not helped by internecine warfare and the bad feelings and demoralization that come from intra-union battling. Such fighting, like the warfare inside UNITE-HERE which led to its recent breakup, and ugly struggles within SEIU, have affected some of the strongest and most progressive unions, and undoubtedly diluted their focused strategies.
It's these things that make the class struggle in the US look like a one-sided massacre.
But such appearances are not necessarily the real or only story. The spirit, size and impact of the well-publicized battle of Madison changed the tenor of talk about the labor movement. Talk of revival is much in the air.
Why is the Madison movement so inspiring? First, of course, because of the remarkable size and spirit of the demonstrations-people came and stayed and marched and organized for days (not just for a momentary protest spasm). They did this with a lot of creativity and humor that made it possible for them to seize the high ground. Their ranks were surprisingly diverse-not just the public workers themselves but lots of people representing private sector work of every age and background. Their determination had the immediate effect of compelling those Wisconsin Democratic legislators to stick out their exile (against the instincts of many of them)-and their sticking helped sustain the mass mobilization. The Madison protests had noticeable effects of public feelings in Wisconsin and nationally-and helped reframe the discourse about public unions and the budget crisis. And, accordingly, the political dynamic in the state and nationally seems significantly changed, as labor activists organize to recall the anti-union legislators in Wisconsin, and to repeal anti-labor legislation just passed in Ohio.
So, in the states where tea partying Governors have initiated attacks on workers and their rights, a real ‘fight back' spirit has come to the fore. The momentum continued on April 4, anniversary of the killing of ML King, with hundreds of local ‘we are one' actions led by union coalitions, on April 5 when dozens of campuses participated in a national teach in carried on the internet and featuring leading academics and activists. And today, tax day, Move-On and other groups called out dozens of protests targeting corporations like Bank of America and GE for their ability to evade tax bills. If you want to get a flavor of the scope of these three national days of protest, try Google News (putting in key words like ‘we are one', ‘teach-in', ‘protest banks')
I think the fight back moment needs to lead into examination of the potentialities for a workers movement that can transcend the limitations inherent in the conventional understanding of what unions do. The power of a workers' movement need not be measured by the ‘density' of union membership and bargaining representation.
We need to learn about the many experiments and ideas in recent years about forms of organization and strategies for worker action that don't depend on achieving contracts to defend people's needs and rights. Here are some:
1. Unions have political power because of their membership size and resources-power to affect elections, (this they do a lot of, of course) and to have impact on mass media (something they've done less of). To use union resources in the wider political arena is as old a strategy as collective bargaining, and in this point in history may be a lot more important. AFL:-CIO has been developing forms of organization aimed at political mobilization. WORKING AMERICA is a federation sponsored membership organization that anyone can join-and now claims 3 million participants. A recent development is STAND UP FOR OHIO-a facebook page aimed at mobilizing resistance to the efforts by Gov. Kasich to attack worker rights and standards-some 150,000 people have signed on to this site in recent weeks. Some central labor councils in various cities are experimenting along similar lines-i.e. creating a membership base not restricted to those who belong to established unions, but who want to connect to direct action and electoral campaigns aimed at social justice and ‘defending the working middle class."
2. In their negotiation strategy, unions are beginning to see the need to give voice and priority to the needs of the wider community, not just their own immediate wages and conditions. So the auto union is beginning to frame their goals to include influencing the kinds of vehicles they are building-and whether these meet the needs of consumers and of the environment. Teachers have begun to see that they can and must take leadership in fighting for educational quality and defining the ways their teacher members can be made accountable in partnership with parents. Public employee unions should be setting highest standards for public service, leading in sustaining a work culture that serves the people.
3. There are now more than 200 WORKER CENTERS providing support for rights of low wage and immigrant workers, dealing with individual grievances and workplace issues, and providing assistance for worker organization and mobilization which appear inhospitable to old style union organization.
4. National leaders of major unions-private as well as public sector-are clearly speaking the language of ‘social movement unionism'. Leaders like Richard Trumka (now head of the AFL-CIO) and Bob King, president of the UAW, actively acknowledge the fact that national labor laws are broken, and that labor action can no longer be constrained by them. They claim to be fostering member participation and the development of a young generation of union activists. And they claim to be seeking real alliance with wider community based movements.
5. Beneath such striking shifts in the stance of national labor leaders are efforts to promote local strategies of class struggle. A significant case is the effort by Steve Lerner, legendary organizer of Jobs for Justice, and then one of Andy Stern's right hand people in SEIU, advocating mass mobilizations targeting banks and demanding renegotiation of mortgages. Lerner is arguing that the basic strategy of the labor movement-to disrupt employers' capacity to conduct business as a way for workers to get leverage-can be extended to target banks so that communities and debtors can get some fairness. Lerner's ideas have been given much publicity by Glen Beck (defining them as the latest socialist plot to destroy America), and not much in the left media.
These ideas and experiments suggest the possibility that overt class struggle has begun. We could sense that mood in NY at the Triangle Fire observances, where a very diverse array of voices, representing global as well as US based worker organizations, spoke quite clearly in a language of ‘class' (without at all neglecting particular ethnic identities and traditions). It was inspiring in this regard to see young Latino, African-American and Asian performers and activists connecting to the historic struggle of Jewish and Italian garment workers, and defining that history as their own.
Share your thoughts (State St is the great street in Santa Barbara)
Tags: class struggle, labor unions, labor strategy, Steve Lerner, richard Trumka
Tonight our annual pre-pesach musical seder on the air, features a lot of ways to ask the four questions, sopme acknowledgement of how Egypt's meaning this year has changed, and a good deal of music that takes off from but remakes tradition.
culture of protest thurs 4/14/11 6-7pm pdt kcsb 91.9fm www.kcsb.org
I haven't posted a blog for quite a while. We've done a bit of travel, have been otherwise busy, and also trying to figure out what I can contribute as the political whirlwinds intensify. I decided to wait until Pres. Obama responded to the rightwing onslaughts of recent weeks, being as dismayed as you are by the apparent success the tea party drive has been having in setting the terms of public discourse.
Obama gave a big speech this morning at George Washington U. All us handwringing folk on the left might breathe just a little easier in the aftermath. Obama laid out a reasonably progressive and powerful alternative framing of the deficit matter and made points that need to be reiterated and driven home from now on:
A primary cause of the deficits he inherited is the enormous tax benefits awarded to the super-rich.
The top 1% have been getting much richer while the rest of us have lost ground ion terms of income
The size of the deficit over the next decade must be reduced but not in ways that damage the lives of those ‘without clout'
The America we cherish is a place where we care for each other and where public investment is crucial to both sustaining our lives and remaining a great power
Taxing the super-rich is a major component of any effort to reduce deficits
Reducing the costs of healthcare is a major component of this, but that can be done by reforming and strengthening public health funded programs-whose existence is in fact a tool for reducing costs.
The federal spending that is most important is that which represents investment in the future
Military budgets are ‘on the table'
I think these points are valuable in advancing a progressive vision. Such a vision is absolutely crucial, since Obama's centrist agenda can only marginally advance jobs, justice, equality and democracy. Here's a sample of what he left out:
A concerted movement toward a green economy that will create jobs, save energy and turn away from climate disaster-that vision was one he once articulated but is now trying to implement in piecemeal and unarticulated ways.
The best way to control costs of healthcare is to reduce the control of insurance corporations over the healthcare system. Medicare available to all (as an option) would be a feasible path to reducing those costs and that control.
No specifics on what he thinks should happen to social security except for usefully mentioning that it is not itself a deficit problem. A progressive vision should go beyond defending the existing benefit structure to seek real security for everyone who has aged past their work lives.
Putting the military budget up for possible reduction is a very useful move-and it will be upt to progressives to spell out specifics that add up to a move away from the ‘long war' and Empire.
Obama's speech should be read as a response, not only the right, but to grassroots movement on the left-movement that has demanded that the deficit debate focus on tax benefits for the wealthy and war spending, that has demanded protection of medicare and social security, and job creation through alternative energy, public transit, weatherization and other green economy potentials.
If this blog is about anything its been about urging folks on the left to think strategically. For me the pillars of strategy involve promoting grassroots movement , articulating alternative vision and program and using the openings provided by the Democrats in power as resources for change. Obama's speech today suggests how these can work-at least to enable and compel the president to challenge the rightwing.
Tags: deficit, military spending, progressive agenda, obama speech
Phil Ochs, the legendary 'protest' troubadour of the sixties, died by his own hand on April 9, 1976. A new film bio about Phil is playing in theaters around the country and this has greatly revived interest in his story. So tonight we'll do a musical memorial to Phil Ochs, featuring a number of songs in tribute to him, and various renditions of his work by a wide range of artists, as well as by Phil.
culture of protest thurs 4/7/11 6-7pm pdt kcsb 91.9fm www.kcsb.org
Dick Flacks here...sociology professor emeritus at UCSB. Budget cuts mean that I can't continue my annual course on political sociology. Maybe a blog will be a space for me to continue to ruminate and pontificate. And maybe (as a veteran teacher on these matters) I can offer some ways of thinking about what's happening nationally and locally that will be useful, as we struggle to make sense of the tortured complexities of these times.
I've been a leftwing activist for more than 50 years. What we've been struggling for all these years is full democracy--to increase the opportunities for people to have real voice in the decisions that affect them. Step by step over these years we've made some gain...but it is a long march, and one that never ends. The big barrier to democracy in our society is the concentrated power of corporations. At the same time, democracy is undermined by the felt powerlessness of people in their daily lives--the persistent belief that our problems are only our own personal concern. It's a strong cultural theme--such individualism--constantlly reinforced by mass media and everyday circumstance. But the current big crisis of the economy maybe makes it more possible for more people to understand that we've got to have social reform and economic reform. So my writing here is aimed at helping us figure out what to think and act on that so that we can hope for new democratic possibilities. WE'll be talking about the local and the national.
The blog name comes from an old labor union hymn:
Step by step the longest march can be won. Many stones can form an arch...singly none. And by union what we will can be accomplished still. Drops of water turn a mill, singly none, singly none.
For 27 years I've had a weekly radio show on KCSB (91.9 fm. www.kcsb.org) It's called the Culture of Protest. It's comes from my fascination with music and social movements. I collect 'political' and 'protest' music and that's what we play each week (Thursdays 6-7 pm). So sometimes here we'll share and talk about that.
I'm worried about one thing about the blogosphere. And that's the way that some people use the blog comment space for anonymous nastiness. I'm sick of the kind of political blather that assaults the motives of others, and sees dark conspiracy behind every thing one doesn't like. This kind of stuff is helping to poison the political atmosphere. So I'm going to strive for a civil tone to whatever interaction may happen on this blogsite.