For a New Left Bloc
Many know by now that protests exploded in Madison, Wisconsin last week in response to the drive by Republican Governor Scott Walker to ban collective bargaining for most public sector workers. Thousands of workers, including firefighters and police not directly threatened by the governor’s actions, and a multitude of supporters, flooded the state capital. Notwithstanding the protests by University of California students in 2009, and the sizable immigrants rights march last year, as well as the ‘One Nation’ march called by unions and civil rights groups in the fall of 2010 (not to mention the ‘what the hell was that?’ ‘March to Restore Sanity’ initiated by Jon Stewart), it can truly be said that this is the first popular mobilization from the left in the Obama era to break through the general complacency (tension?) and constitute an event. To put it another way, this is probably the first union-based action since the Teamsters strike against UPS in 1997 that has galvanized the country. Everyone, not only ‘the usual suspects’, is paying attention to this one. There has been another action in Ohio, and unions are energized in numerous states for similar fights. Dan Le Botz correctly notes that this is likely the coming out of a new movement, a decidedly political union movement. I’m sympathetic to practically everything he says, but here I want to emphasize the prospect for building political alliances, including with groups outside of traditional definitions of the working class.
First of all, there is the African American community. What special stakes do they have in this fight? Large numbers of public sector workers are African American, and the public sector is the key to what remains of the African American middle class. It is urgent to protect this. Attacks on the public sector often carry racial overtones, as well. More generally, African Americans tend to more readily accept the idea of public services, since many do not have the means to privately buy their way out of public transportation or educational options (among others). Additionally, there are very high rates of unemployment in the African American community, which could be addressed through an expansion of the public sector (which, again, has a relatively good record of providing decent jobs across racial boundaries). This would benefit the public sector unions, as it would inflate their ranks. There has long been a strong social democratic tendency within civil rights movements, although ‘identity politics’ concerns tend to get more attention in the U.S. Witness the recent HKonJ mobilization in North Carolina. Working with this tendency, as well as traditional allies in the churches, could create new alliances for the nascent workers movement. Furthermore, there is considerable interest among youth in involving themselves in politics. In contrast to nearly all white and Latino hip hop fans, 40% of African American fans wish hip hop was more political (page 78). In this day and age of social media, shouldn’t it be possible to break through the inane focus of commercial radio on bling, sex and gangsterism with a message of joining together to struggle for the support of the African American working/middle class and the expansion of the public sector? Although Green Bay Packers players get paid a lot more than public sector union members, some have embraced the cause. Which rap stars, with all their bravado, would take this up, and which would bury their heads in the sand while they continue to count the millions they get from their licensing deals and concert ticket sales?
A close second in terms of new allies is students, particularly at state universities. Students face attacks (in the form of budget cuts and tuition hikes) that obviously parallel the attacks on public sector workers. No one in the U.S. – including unions – is more comfortable with mobilizing for protests than students. Furthermore student protest is the forge through which middle class liberals and sometimes radicals are produced, so these sorts of alliances can pay off for decades to come. The unions should be embracing student demands to not cut or make unaffordable higher education (union members, after all, are among those likely to wish to send their children to these institutions) while students need to embrace the union cause under the simple principle of an attack on one is an attack on all. It is a simple win-win situation all around.
Industrial workers, particularly those in unions, are also an almost self-evident ally. They have every reason to be alarmed by an attack on another wing of the union movement – especially one of the only ones that has shown much growth over the last couple of decades. The other side of the coin is that the public sector workers’ unions should embrace industrial unions’ concerns about misguided trade pacts (the latest being the one with South Korea that Obama negotiated) and, more generally, the decline in manufacturing and the need to change the climate for union organizing in the private sector. SEIU, an important union in the public sector, has sometimes embraced ‘globalization,’ with former leader Andy Stern, rather like Obama, entranced by the prospect of creating a liberalism acceptable to Wall Street. We see all around us how far that has gotten us. Any discussion of how to revive manufacturing in the U.S. – including just investing in infrastructure a bit, as Obama occasionally hints at – would involve some sort of expansion of the public sector, a win for public sector unions. There is a discussion that needs to occur to align public sector workers with industrial workers, but it is overdue and will be immensely productive when it takes place.
If any real discussion of the direction of the country and its priorities is to pick up steam, the question of the warfare orientation of the U.S. will have to be brought to the fore. It is a vast waste of money that could, among other things, resolve the debt question many states face. Although the ‘war on terrorism’ was misguided from the start, as the democratic uprising in the Middle East and North Africa picks up steam, the U.S. will find itself more isolated in the region, increasing the dangers of the policies it is now following. In other words, no time like the present to get out of this mess and choose peace. Although the anti-war movement went to sleep with the election of Obama (with some in the anti-war camp seemingly unhappy about the prospect of reviving protest), a great deal of anti-war sentiment exists in the country. If this demand were aligned with the public sector fight, the slogan ‘money for jobs, not for war’ could cease to be something a few hundred on the left yell to themselves at protests and start being the orientation of a grounded movement preparing to reshape the US polity.
There are two other groups that might seem more remote, but are quite important to the future of a left bloc. One is the community of anarchistic direct action types that made such a splash at the WTO meetings in Seattle in 1999 (supported by the participation of labor unions, definitely, but I think this would not have been nearly the news story it was if it had just been a labor march). They reinvigorated the concept of cultural radicalism, and the emphasis needs to be on both elements in that term – cultural, in the sense that they appeal to anyone alienated from the mall/cubicle/cul-de-sac culture of the U.S., and radical in the sense that they did not just talk about defensive demands but tried to imagine the institutions of a new world. The alliance with labor on the streets of Seattle didn’t really come to life as a durable movement (as much because labor couldn’t find any footing over the last decade as because of anything the radicals did or didn’t do themselves), and the cultural radicals found themselves in the familiar trap of making institutions appealing to themselves without really changing the world (the dynamic has also been complicated by the consolidation of a hipster culture that makes no political demands on its members while addressing the cultural dilemma, but that is a story for another time). They – and I really think they are still out there, even if lying low – urgently need to ask themselves what contribution they can make to the new sort of struggle emerging. A movement can’t just be defensive, but should begin to sketch out solutions that break with the status quo and create a more inclusive world.
Last, but by no means least, there is the question of undocumented immigrants. Undocumented immigrants have been one of the livelier groups over the last decade in terms of engaging in protests. They make up a very substantial portion of the American working class. And we have seen the way anti-immigrant sentiment is frequently manipulated to drive a portion of the working class into the hands of the right. Repressive technologies have also been tested and developed on immigrants, and then they will be imported into the rest of the U.S. as class struggle heats up. The question of immigrants has been ‘back-burnered’ by the Obama administration. Anti-immigration sentiment drifts like a toxin through the body politic, including the working class, across racial boundaries. I know this sounds like a crazy dream, but I would suggest a genuine North American union where everyone would have the right to move and work freely (as well as related citizenship rights) and the economy was based on restoring those areas of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico most devastated by thirty years of neoliberalism as an alternative to the ‘empire of bases‘ and ‘empire of finance‘ that exclude ever more North Americans.
That, in outline, is what I think would constitute a left bloc in the U.S. I know there are many people out there already sympathetic to all of these groups – I’m friends with some of them on Facebook and I’m sure there are more. What can we do to make their unification a reality?
Notice I haven’t said anything about the question of political strategy. The U.S. political environment is truly hellish. The Democratic Party is wholly inadequate to the needs of such a movement, but there are fundamental structural impediments to the emergence of a third party. This debate will obviously continue for some time, but I suggest that people do everything possible to not make it a fundamental element of membership in any sort of left bloc (i.e. ‘Anyone pushing for a third party is a sectarian jerk!‘ or, ‘Anyone who won’t break with the Democrats immediately is a sellout.‘). Let the debate simmer and encourage people to keep their options open. Sometimes there are opportunities at the state level that aren’t present nationally, or vice versa.
Okay, so that is my version of what could be. I am sure it will not work out in quite this way. I would love to hear criticisms. Ultimately I just hope to stimulate thinking about how the communities on the left of the political spectrum can effectively work together and strengthen each others political demands. Whether we call that the multitude or U-N-I-T-Y, it is long overdue and must be a priority.
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