MISSING THE POINT BY A COUNTRY MILE
My union local has invited us all to a “We Are One Rally” downtown this afternoon. (View .pdf of flyer here.) I’m going to sit this one out. I believe my union siblings’ collective heart is in the right place. After all, I joined a few dozen of them on a bus trip to Madison some weeks ago to join the Wisconsin firefighters who were part of the protests at the Capitol there. Something dawned on me the other day, and it came to me through my prolific web readings. What if this whole thing is counterproductive? What if the protesters in Madison, and others across the nation who are protesting these draconian statewide attacks on public labor, are mounting a poorly planned and counterproductive defense? My misgivings hinge on the concept embodied in the phrase at the bottom of the union local flyer: WE MUST STOP THE ATTACKS ON THE MIDDLE CLASS.
This morning I read an essay that speaks directly to my misgivings. Arun Gupta destroys the idea that the GOP’s anti-labor activism is an attack on the entire middle class, or that the activism is anything new:
The contention that the middle class is suddenly under attack – and by implication should be defended – is thoroughly flawed. For one, this trend goes back more than 30 years to the savaging of private-sector unionism and the social welfare state combined with deregulation, reloaded militarism and tax breaks for the rich. The current attack on public-sector unions and the remnants of welfare is just the latest stage.
Additionally, the attack on the public sector is by not an attack on the middle class as a whole. After all, the Tea Party movement, the right’s shock troops, is solidly middle class.
In their mind, we live in a capitalist meritocracy where everyone should be subject to the same chaotic, contingent and uncertain market forces. Its ideals are captured in the saying “Equality of opportunity does not guarantee equality of outcome.” The right rejects public-sector jobs that guarantee incomes, benefits, tenure and pensions because they violate the market, the wellspring of freedom and liberty.
How has the right wing managed to get away with this? In a previous post, I illustrated that the teabagger-led GOP is only barreling down the path to which they were invited by Obama and the Democrats, who have been the recipients of virtually unquestioning support from organized labor. (Notable exceptions, of course, are police and firefighter unions, who have led the way in cutting their own ‘middle-class’ throats; though their elected leaders local and national may frequently back Democrats, cops and firefighters have trended toward right-wing reactionism in politics and have generally been rewarded by even GOP pols in being given preferential treatment compared to, say, teachers. More on this shortly.)
This is a bed that organized labor in general has made for itself in more fundamental ways. Beginning with a mention of the counterculture revolutions of the 1960s, Gupta continues as follows:
Youth also revolted against the foundation of the middle-class lifestyle: the warfare state that spawned the terror of imminent nuclear war and U.S.-backed assassinations, coups, dictators and wars in the developing world that forced down the cost of commodities – copper from Chile, bananas from Guatemala, sugar from Cuba, oil from Iran, rubber from Indonesia and tin from Bolivia – so as to subsidize American businesses and the middle class. (Or to use a blunt term often employed in colonial studies, the United States was engaged in plunder.)
Liberals conveniently forget that the unions which gave birth to middle class were a full partner in the Cold War. The AFL-CIO worked with the CIA through the American Institute for Free Labor Development to destroy independent labor movements in the Third World.
This trend of supporting the empire that miraculously brings cheap consumer goods to the middle class didn’t die out after the 60s:
Organized labor has mostly left behind this sordid past, though it did play a role in the 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez’s government in Venezuela. Plus, it remains reluctant to confront the military-security state that consumes about $1 trillion in public spending even as public sector unions scrap for a few more pennies.
Perhaps U.S. labor leaders realize the Pentagon, with its thousand-odd overseas bases, still serves a useful role in ordering the world. After all, today’s middle class benefits as much as ever from depressed wages and commodity prices in the developing world that keep low-cost consumer goods streaming from factory to port to big box to McMansion.
Then there is the very notion of what the middle class is, and to what it is these public sector unions, suddenly so willing to engage in public political activism, have aspired:
Today, it is almost impossible to find working-class culture or life beyond the market and corporate media. Ultimately, the concept of the middle class is inherently anti-political. It is defined by consumption: a mortgage, multiple cars, stylish clothes, furniture and electronics, and affordable luxuries.
It is rare to enter a firehouse where one doesn’t find at least one luxury SUV parked out back, and it is even more rare to find a firehouse where a majority of the members on duty don’t have the latest personal data/communications device on their persons. I don’t point this out to suggest that my colleagues are wrong to possess these items; they work hard, and I wouldn’t argue that they aren’t entitled. I do so to illustrate what Gupta does when he suggests that the workers of the self-identified middle class have long since traded their political consciousness for the anesthetizing comforts of consumerism.
Sadly, the embrace of consumerism is perhaps one of the final stages of middle-class self-immolation. As pointed out above, organized labor was all in on the U.S. imperialism bandwagon. It also collaborated in the betrayal and decimation of the very political energies and movements that had provided it with the militant energies that had terrified the capitalist/investor class into sharing the wealth (however begrudgingly):
The social compact between labor and capital was premised on McCarthyism: purging communists socialists and anarchists by the thousands from unions. Labor’s Faustian bargain increased wages and benefits, but it sowed the seeds of its destruction. Without a mass-based anti-capitalist left, labor became the junior partner to capital. Once the social compact outlived its usefulness by the 1970s, capital ditched it, but organized labor is still unable to construct a real alternative. Capital was then free to exploit the low wages and lack of regulation in the Third World that the AFL-CIO had helped maintain.
With this kind of self-destructive behavior, it’s no wonder that organized labor gets no respect from those political entities to which it gives unconditional support. (Glenn Greenwald illustrates the continuing utter futility of this dynamic in his blog post “The impotence of the loyal partisan voter“.) Gupta points out how the UAW, for example, finally triangulated itself into obsolescence with the Obama White House:
The UAW fell into the corporatist trap after the government took over GM and Chrysler in 2009. With a White House proclaiming, “Fuck the UAW,” it hammered labor in the interest of capital. The result was a contract forced down the throat of autoworkers that cut wages by 50 percent for many new hires and even some existing workers, putting them on par with non-unionized workers in foreign auto plants in the United States. Meanwhile, Obama’s “pay czar,” whose job is to ensure that executives of bailed-out corporations are not excessively rewarded, approved GM CEO Dan Akerson’s $9 million compensation package for 2011.
The UAW endorsed Obama for president in 2008. I’m interested to see what, if anything, they do in 2012. As Gupta illustrates, the near future, if events in Madison are any indication, is not promising. The focus there is not on organizing all labor with the goal of, say, a general strike, which would shut down the state and (in theory) force the hand of the political/business elite. The focus is on recalling Republican state senators, and presumably eventually the governor. What does this accomplish besides the fleeting satisfaction of vengeance rightfully served? Ask Gupta:
A recall election, on the other hand, is authoritarian politics run by Democratic Party honchos, wealthy donors and liberal elite (such as MoveOn.org) with their hired guns: lawyers, consultants and pollsters, They need unions, but only as a cash machine and for battalions of obedient foot soldiers to gather signatures, attend campaign rallies, phone bank, get out the vote and spread messaging decreed from above.
Even if all eight Republican State Senators are recalled next year, that only means labor’s fortunes rest once again on a Democratic Party that has betrayed labor more times than Charlie Sheen hits the crack pipe during a three-day orgy.
This is suicidal, yet it is predictable. Gupta sprints down the stretch by pointing out how SEIU has strengthened its hierarchy while making itself practically obsolete (from the vantage point of rank-and-file workers, but not corporations):
It is part of SEIU’s strategy of creating huge centralized locals that can pool resources and cut costs, but which is also aimed at suppressing rank-and-file democracy. Combined with its tendency to cooperate with employers, SEIU has become hard to distinguish from a corporation.
Labor long ago abandoned the poor. In today’s political discourse the poor are largely invisible. If labor is not acting out of real solidarity by fighting vigorously for everyone who is dispossessed, then different social groups will be demonized and pushed into low-wage work that can supplant union jobs.
I don’t see the “We Are One” rallies making a difference. Unless public sector unions are willing to make a concerted effort to organize with other as-yet unorganized workers, and unless they are willing to make broader connections and create the sort of universal labor unity that can shut down the whole nation when crossed, then public sector unions will be obsolete. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that obsolescence is inevitable unless U.S. workers are willing to cross borders (as capital has no trouble doing) and organize with foreign workers. The current last-ditch effort at self-preservation in the face of a perfectly timed GOP onslaught is too little, too late. Clinging to dreams of a ‘middle-class’ existence while fighting for diminishing crumbs is a delusional and fatal strategy.
I will add one more thing to this, and it relates to something I heard on the 8 April episode of the always-brilliant BlueGal/Driftglass podcast. Driftglass pointed out that the GOP’s strategy has– surprise!– a racial component. The GOP and its billion-dollar propaganda orchestra hasn’t been attacking the middle-class directly. They’ve been attacking public sector unions. Driftglass also pointed out that a GOP congressman (Darrell Issa? Eric Cantor?) recently stood up to rail against the Post Office, even though the Postal Service exists outside of the budget that the House was attempting to slash. What was the point of this? I can explain with a joke I once heard at my old gas company job:
Q: What do Florsheim Shoes and the Postal Service have in common?
A: 20,000 pairs of black loafers.
The congressman’s verbal assault on the Post Office was relevant in the sense that the Post Office was a place where, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, black people could go to work and begin to build the foundations of a middle-class living. The same was true of the teaching profession and other government work. In government fields that offered federally protected employment discrimination prohibitions (which are either tougher to enforce or nonexistent in the private sector), black folks and other traditionally disenfranchised groups– including women– could get stable jobs that earned them decent, living wages.
So now that the GOP sees (in the Democratic Party’s shameless and naked fealty to concentrated wealth) its own opportunity to go apeshit on the lower 99.9%, what better place to start than with the havens of their base’s most feared and loathed demographics? In other words, as Driftglass and BlueGal illustrated (most humorously), it’s the Southern Strategy yet again, and it’s working like a charm.
I won’t spend a lot of the alphabet bashing my colleagues, but let’s just say that the rank and file of my profession has traditionally had a little difficulty with racial issues. Organized labor as a whole has also had issues in this area, and now we are seeing it come back to haunt them in a big way.
I suppose at this point I’m supposed to offer some positive thinking, some possible strategies that public sector unions can take to turn back the tide. Sorry, I’ve got nothing. I think the goose is cooked, and the .1% has donned its collective bib for the feast. As I am not too humble to suggest (quite often and quite caustically), you’ve all had your chances, electorally at least. Now I have to agree with Morris Berman regarding the near-to-not-quite-distant future. We’re in for a major collapse, and your best bet (if you can afford it) is to get the fuck out, abandon ship. If you can’t afford to emigrate, then you need to let go of the dream, unplug from the Matrix. It may not save you or your children, but at least you’ll have the grudging satisfaction of dying with your boots on.