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.



March 16, 2012

Two important books on last year’s struggle in Wisconsin

Filed under: Wisconsin,workers — louisproyect @ 7:38 pm


At first blush the collections edited by Paul and Mari Jo Buhle for Verso Press and by Michael Yates for Monthly Review appear to cover the same territory. Now having read both books over the past month or so, I can report that the two have different emphases and should not be seen as competing with each other. Moreover, I strongly recommend that anybody trying to figure out where the class struggle is going in the U.S. pick up both and read them the first chance you get. They are essential guides to understanding a reality that has not been seen since the 1930s: a confrontation between the two major classes of American society whose outcome all of humanity has a stake in.

Titled It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor Protest, the Buhles’ book is very much a participants’ account, often having the qualities of oral history—a genre that Paul Buhle has been identified with for decades. Considering the very long association that the state of Wisconsin has with progressive causes going back to the days of Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, it was a rich vein to be mined for such a collection. The book is also graced by some comic book material (a term that Paul Buhle’s former writing partner—the late and sorely missed Harvey Pekar—preferred to graphic novels, etc.), a medium that Paul Buhle has focused on for the better part of a decade now.

As a long-time labor educator and commentator on the trade union movement, Michael Yates sought to bring together a group of activists and writers who share his own concerns. For the contributors to Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back, the events in Wisconsin are of crucial importance in understanding where the labor movement has to go next. Considering the fact that attacks on labor are taking place in states with Democratic governors, the main lesson that the contributors tend to draw is that working people have to rely on their own strength and not favors from liberal politicians.

For those familiar with the American academy, it probably comes as no surprise that many of the shock troops of the Wisconsin struggle came out of the University of Wisconsin. Paul and Mari Jo Buhle got doctorates there in the mid-70s when the faculty was graced by such luminaries as William Appleman Williams.

As the most recent expression of these traditions, there is an article in the Buhle volume by the delightfully named Charity A. Schmidt titled Eyewitness: “Spread the Love, Stop the Hate: Don’t let Walker legislate”. Schmidt is a PhD student in sociology and an active member of the Teaching Assistants’ Association. When word got out to Schmidt and her teaching assistant colleagues that Governor Scott Walker’s “budget repair bill” would include massive cuts to higher education, they organized a sit-in at the capitol building in Madison, the same city that their university is located in.

By Tuesday morning word had spread widely among graduate and undergraduate students: plan to bring pillows, sleeping bags, and toothbrushes to the capitol, and prepare for the night shift. The goal was to keep the hearings alive in order to prevent the bill from going to a vote. Thus we needed a continuous stream of testifiers. If students and the Madison community could keep it going all night, reinforcements (buses of union members) would arrive in the morning and keep it going all the next day. So we showed up—in droves.

Another eyewitness contributor has an equally delightful name. David Poklinkowski, a member of the Executive Board of the South Central Federation of Labor and President of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, has an article titled Eyewitness: “This is what Democracy Looks Like”. Poklinkowski is a utility worker by trade, among whom you can find the sort of people who climb up electrical poles to work on transformers–like the character Richard Dreyfuss played in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You can’t really get much more mid-America than that.

Instead of pursuing flying saucers, Poklinkowski is out there looking for social justice. While utility workers were not quite as antagonistic to peace activists in the 1960s as construction workers, it would have been difficult to imagine a utility company worker in a hard hat being a natural ally. Now that the attack on labor is taking on the dimension of a war, those old divisions are breaking down, so much so that you can find cultural affinities between youthful rebels and an ostensibly Joe Sixpack figure like Poklinkowski as this passage from his article would indicate:

But if you want to know my very best day, it would have been one of the bitter cold ones, the kind you really had to bundle up for. I had learned from experience, so I had on thick wool socks inside my Sorel boots—for rallies on days like these, you had to dress like you were going to a Packers game in January. In these first few weeks of the struggle, it was the afternoon rally where the featured guest to be thanked was Tom Morello (aka The Nightwatchman from Rage Against the Machine). My favorite band would have to be The Clash, so Tom’s arrival was a very good thing for this struggle.

When a utility worker’s favorite band is The Clash, you know that the revolution cannot be that far off.

Turning to the Monthly Review collection, you will see some familiar names on the American left from Dan La Botz, the author of Rank and File Rebellion: Teamsters for a Democratic Union, to Dave Zirin, the radical sports journalist whose piece on the Green Bay Packers alone is worth the price of the book.

With all proportions guarded, the struggle in Wisconsin for this book amounts to a kind of dress rehearsal for future struggles—our version of Czarist Russia 1905, so to speak. And just as the lessons of 1905 were crucial for 1917, so will the events that took place in Wisconsin give us some clues as to how to move the struggle forward when future attacks on labor lead to new explosions. Given the prospects of an ongoing economic crisis, these confrontations seem inevitable.

One of the finest pieces in Michael Yates’s collection is the editor’s introduction, titled Something is in the Air. Drawing upon his family’s own blue-collar experience, he describes his hometown Ford City, Pennsylvania in terms similar to Michael Moore’s Flint, Michigan before it became part of the rust belt: “It was a hopeful and prosperous period for the white working class, and I couldn’t imagine anything but good times ahead. I never thought, much less worried, about the future.”

But “today the good times are all gone.” He adds, “Every day, the local paper lists a slew of arrests, jail admissions, and fines levied. The sad effect of the shoppers at Wal-Mart and the crowds in the store at midday—retirees and younger men and women who in a more prosperous time would be at work—are symptomatic of what has been happening.”

I can’t help feeling the same way when I check my local paper from upstate New York, the Middletown Times-Herald. In the early 1960s, when my family began subscribing, it was Norman Rockwell territory: ample and profitable harvests for the local farms, well-paying jobs with the county or the IBM plant in Kingston, and a general feeling of security that was reflected most of all by the tendency of families to leave their car doors and front doors unlocked.

Nowadays when I check the paper, this is the typical story:

KINGSTON — A longtime backer of nursing home privatization was selected Friday as the final member of the group to sell the Golden Hill infirmary.

Dare Thompson, League of Women Voters president for the mid-Hudson, was approved 4-0 as the final local development corporation member.

The league came out for privatizing in October 2010 – a full year before Ulster Executive Mike Hein took a position – and Thompson frequently backed the sale during public comment sessions.

Legislator Jeanette Provenzano – a vociferous critic of both privatization and the league’s advocacy – nominated Thompson. Former deputy executive Marshall Beckman, budget director J.J. Hanson, and deputy executive Bob Sudlow voted for the appointment.

Dr. Michele Iannuzzi abstained since she wished to interview the six candidates.

“I can’t fathom, with the importance of this decision, that it would be decided with a single sheet (resume),” she said.

The primary importance of Wisconsin was the peoples’ willingness to stand up to the one-percent’s austerity drive. For the first time, ordinary working people decided to use the same kinds of militant tactics once associated with the students’, women’s and Black/Latino movements, and even more importantly those that were shaking up the Arab world. Greetings were sent back and forth from Madison, Wisconsin to Tahrir Square.

Among all the fine articles in this book, I would single out Dan La Botz’s A New American Workers’ Movement Has Begun. It is notable most of all by its departure from the kind of routinist journalism about the trade union movement that is based on the premise that the struggles of today will be a repeat of the 1930s. La Botz writes:

The new movement that is arising does not focus on the usual issues of collective bargaining — working conditions, wages, and benefits — but focuses rather on the political and programmatic issues usually taken up by political parties: the very right of workers to collective bargaining, the state budget priorities, and the tax system which funds the budget. The new labor movement, because it has begun in the public sector, will not be so much about the process of class struggle as it will be about how class struggle finds a voice through political program. This will have tremendous implications for the traditional relations between the organized labor movement and the Democratic Party, especially since the Democrats, from Barack Obama to state governors like Cuomo, are also demanding that public employees give up wages, benefits, conditions, and rights.

Both books devote an ample amount of space to the problem of how to relate to the Democratic Party, complicated in the case of Wisconsin by the trade union leadership’s tie to the party as well as the willingness of Democratic legislators to defy the governor by going into hiding outside of Wisconsin in order to thwart his draconian legislation.

Ultimately the failure of a militant, nationwide working-class movement to take shape and reach critical mass makes this setback almost inevitable. As was the case with 1905, there is no reason to despair. The struggles taking place around the Occupy movement are in many ways a continuation of the Wisconsin struggle and a harbinger of continued worker-student solidarity.

As was the case in the 1930s, we are facing deepening class polarization that will make future Wisconsins and future Oaklands inevitable. Our responsibility is to understand the tasks before us and prepare for momentous battles ahead. These two fine books from Verso and Monthly Review will help arm us for that showdown between humanity and the reactionary forces that threaten it.

February 23, 2011

Governor Scott Walker gets punked

Filed under: Wisconsin — louisproyect @ 5:50 pm

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