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Response to Dissent article on Republic


From: Martin Morand [mailto:martin.morand@gmail.com]
Sent: Thursday, July 02, 2009 7:23 PM
To: Maxine Phillips
Cc: Stanley Aronowitz; staughton lynd;
[email protected];
; john hovis

Roger Bybee:  

 "Sit-down at Republic" you announce and ask, "Will It Give Labor New Legs?", suggesting doubts. The article was worth the price of the summer DISSENT.  

You may be correct about the limited replicability of the tale. Stanley may be right about unions "worried about losing their treasuries… "  and Staughton correct that "a funeral director mentality has set in."  But Steven [Roberts']‘ "labor has an ‘unusually long fuse" may be a more basic comment.  

But first: there HAS been some inspired spillover. Hartmarx in Chicago and Essex house in Manhattan.  Just, MAYBE, each of these may have been an effort by leaders in the split up of UNITE – HERE to prove their militancy, the former in ITS base of Chicago and the latter in its NYC territory. There WAS a time in the post Wagner Act period that AFL unions vied with CIO and DID some successful organizing, NOT all of it on the basis that "we" are the lesser of evils. The fact that it was UE that led the way and that NOT ONE Labor Leader stooped to label it "commie-led" or "leftist" MAY have some significance.  

Back to the commentors: Stanley and Staughton are NOT wrong in reiterating Foster’s ancient complaint about "Misleaders of Labor".  But we may get further (and deeper) if we inquire into the sources of U.S. union passivity over the recent four decades that Greenhouse highlights.  It is NOT just the European unions/workers. Pay some attention to the canadians – the CANADIANS! who are in affiliates/subsidiaries of U. S. "Internationals" such as Teamsters and Service Employees,   Miners and Carpenters but who rejected the Cutbacks and Givebacks which overtook us in the Eighties. I actually heard Steelworkers’ President Leo Gerard, the sole  Canadian head of a U.S.-based international, say , "The Taylor Law, ANY law which punishes workers for striking and jails their leaders, is Stalinist!"  What U/S. union leader could Think, no less say, That?  

Howcum?  How is it that all the union leaders I met on a trip from British Columbia to Prince edward island were SOME KINDA socialist.  They might argue about What Kind but had no question that there was a Class struggle.  While we remain blinded by Color Consciousness to the realities of class.  

Desegregating workplaces 45 years ago (given an essential boost by the mean old man, George Meany) was the first, necessary but NOT sufficient, step toward allowing a focus on class rather than caste.  Election of an African-American may, given another several decades, be a next step. 

 

Meanwhile, leader bashing ain’t doing it.  (I could join in, citing chapter and verse, but i must recognize the accuracy of a comment by Eric Foner about the frequency with which union members either fail to throw the rascals out o replace them with others who soon succumb.  Just as the November action was an election, not a revolution, so too, as George Bernard Shaw noted, "Trade unionism is not socialism; it is the capitalism of the proletariat.") 

 

Roger, do not allow my depression to dissuade you. I have been a pessimist for 70 years and was accurate in my observations only 73 % of the time. 

 Up the rebels!

 

Martin Morand

 

*****

Dear Martin:

Thanks for the kind words about my article, and thanks, too, for an entertaining and provocative letter.

 

 

Let me try to address a couple key points:

1) MISLEADERSHIP: From my conversations with them and reading of their work, Stanley Aronowitz and Staughton Lynd offer a much more subtle explanation for the failure of US labor to address de-industrialization and plant closings.

 

 

There are structural problems behind the "funeral director" mentality in dealing with the outrageous conduct of corporate America capriciously shutting down factories and often relocating them to high-repression, low-wage nations.

 

The US labor movement set itself up to operate exclusively in the context of the social compact that prevailed from 1945 to roughly 1973. Conflicts were resolved bureaucratically and ritualistically at the bargaining table without mobilizing the membership or developing messages that would create alliances with other social movements and the public.

 

 

Even when the first signs of de-industrialization (then called "runaway shops" to the anti-union US South) began to appear in Milwaukee in the early 1970′s, it was only the UE and marginalized leftists in other unions who tried to build coalitions to confront an approaching tidal wave of job losses.

 

 

The bureaucratic modes of operation cultivated within the AFL-CIO simply made the larger labor movement utterly unequipped for the task of challenging capital’s right to relocate.

 

Eventually, responding to the outrages of Corporate America became routinized, and labor leaders became adept at negotiating plant shutdown agreements while withholding resources from campaigns to block plant closings. Especially memorable was one instance where the district director of an industrial union actually grew impatient with a sophisticated and fast-growing movement by a union local to save more than 5,000 jobs. As the struggle continued, building momentum, the director nonetheless exploded, "Why are you keeping this up? We know how to close plants!" That local’s leadership put the director back in his place, but that acquiescent mentality has been widely prevalent.

 

2) THE ROOTS OF PASSIVITY

Books by Lynd, Aronowitz, and the especially valulable Poor People’s Movements by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward explore the causes of the split between the bureaucratic elites of social movements and their activist base often inclined toward disruptive local protests.

 

I will not attempt to recapitulate all of their arguments, but just to stress that the root of this division is structural. To the extent that social movements mimic the top-down hierarchies of capitalist society, they build in a tension between bureaucrats–whose stated politics may be liberal or conservative–and rank and file members who  grow alienated from the bureaucratized handling of their issues and the dissipation of their power to exercise disruptive power at the local level.

 

 

Even now, labor is seemingly placing all of its chips on lobbying in Washington for the passage of increasingly-weakened EFCA and healthcare bills, while Corporate America is engaged in vast spree of plant closings and outsourcing.

 

 

The Republic Doors and Windows case reflects the necessity not just of more rank-and-file militancy, but of labor democratizing itself and allocating far more resources to waging coordinated local battles against capital’s prerogatives to shut down plants and relocate production.

 

 

Roger Bybee

 

 

 

 

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