Why Are There No Gen-X Socialists in the United States?

As one of the 50,000 members of Democratic Socialists of America, I periodically go to the general meetings of my local chapter, Pittsburgh DSA. And one of the most striking things about these meetings is that there is almost no one my age there (I’m 45). I’m not surprised that the majority of people there are millennials — you’d have to have been hiding under a rock for the last two years to not know that millennials are all socialists — but what is somewhat surprising is that the representation of “Baby Boomers” at the meetings, while less than that of millennials, is significantly more than that of my own “Generation X.”

There are logistical reasons for this, of course. Gen-Xers, now in our 40s and early 50s, are much more likely to be mid-career, to have responsibilities for small children or aging parents, or to be lost in the swamps of midlife crisis. But I think there are political reasons for this, too.

I would submit that the relative paucity of Gen-Xers in the ranks of open socialists has to do with something that many on the Left* are loathe to admit, but that we need to grapple with: that the “Third Way” political project of Clinton and Obama (and Tony Blair in Great Britain) was, and in many respects still is, a robust and attractive political program. Although the benefits it delivered to many people were more psychological and cultural than material, they were still real — and it is the political project that was dominant on the center-left when we came of political age in the late 80s and 90s. Continue reading

My first year of grad school, when I was 22 and apparently much less afflicted by social anxiety than I am now, I walked into this building to find the seven TAs in the University of Iowa Dance Department and ask them to sign authorization cards for UE Local 896/COGS. I didn’t know any of them, I didn’t know anything about dance, but in my department (history) almost everyone had already joined, so those of us who were most committed to organizing went out and adopted other departments. I took theater, dance and music.

I don’t remember how many of the seven Dance TAs I signed up personally, or how many were signed up by the woman I recruited to be an organizer for her department, but I do remember that Dance was the first, and possibly only, department to get 100% of their co-workers signed up on authorization cards.

The last two weeks I was in Iowa helping Local 896 prepare for the recertification election required by Iowa’s 2017 anti-union law and, I have to admit, I came in with a little bit of a doom-and-gloom attitude. In the last two-plus decades, I’ve seen the labor movement lose more than it won, and have gone through bitter and embittering internal struggles in almost every organization I’ve been a part of. I now have this wisdom and experience to see every potential terrible outcome of every action.

Of course, if I had had that “wisdom” when I was 22, I never would have stepped into that building. I never would have given those Dance TAs the option to say yes rather than no.

Happy Labor Day everybody.

Viewpoint: Unions Are Class Organizations, and Should Act Like It

This was originally published in Labor Notes, as part of a debate on how unions should deal with “free riders.”

In recent Labor Notes blog posts, Chris Brooks and Steve Downs have debated whether public sector unions faced with a “right-to-work” or open-shop situation should seek statewide legislation that would end mandatory exclusive representation.

An open shop means workers are not obligated to make payments to the union. Exclusive representation means that for a given bargaining unit, only one union at a time can be officially recognized—and this union is obliged to represent all the workers, even those who don’t pay.

Brooks describes how right-to-work Tennessee’s elimination of exclusive representation in its collective-bargaining law for educators led to competition from pro-corporate “associations” of educators.

Downs counters that Brooks is overgeneralizing from his experience, and that public sector unions in highly unionized states like New York and New Jersey who lose the ability to collect “fair-share” payments from all workers should “make quitters pay” by refusing to represent them in grievances or look out for their interests in collective bargaining.

My union, United Electrical Workers (UE), covers workplaces that have recently become open-shop and others that have always been open-shop. Our experiences suggest that the question of giving up exclusive representation is a distraction.

Instead, it’s in the best interests of union members to build maximum unity against the boss, in order to extract the best possible conditions for all workers—regardless of whether they are union members or not. Continue reading

The Smash Up Derby: Bringing Working Class Politics to Podcast Nation

Originally published at Labor Online

Earlier this year, my friend Sam Smucker and I started the Smash Up Derby podcast – a podcast about “working class politics.” By working class politics we mean a political perspective rooted in the shop-floor struggle for power in the workplace, expressed through unions or other organizations advocating for working people.

We’ve both been in the labor movement, on and off, for over two decades, and we were both inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign and the phenomenal growth of interest in socialist politics in the last year. However, we’ve been dismayed by the frequent disconnect between this new political energy on the Left and the labor movement. We started collaborating on this project with the hope that we could bring working class politics to new audiences while producing a show that is fun and entertaining.

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Quitting time

In the late-90s/early-2000s, when my trade of ticket-selling had not yet moved to the web, my co-workers and I had identified a number of archetypes among our customers.

One of these was the Tragically Hip fan. Working-class, generally with thick Vermont accents, mostly from the then-still-industrial towns along the Canadian border where they heard more Canadian than U.S. radio, they would flood into Burlington and sell out the 2600-capacity Memorial Auditorium. Most of them would refer to the band as “T. Hip,” and, in keeping with the economical approach to everything characteristic of New Englanders, some would say nothing more than “T. Hip tickets” when we answered the phone.

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Watching ourselves watch each other

A couple of weeks ago I read David Foster Wallace’s essay on television and American fiction, “E Unibus Pluram,”* and I have been turning it over in my mind ever since.

One of the commonplaces of “communication professionals” in the age of social media is that the advent of the internet, and especially social media, represents a qualitative, epoch-defining shift in how humans communicate with each other. The old era of one-to-many mass communication, stretching from Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press to cable television, has now given way to a new era of many-to-many communication, in which anyone with a smartphone and a YouTube account can “go viral.”

I am old enough to remember the pre-internet era, and when Foster Wallace refers to television as “having its pretty hand around my generation’s throat,” I relate, even though I never watched much television. My parents (East Coasters who relocated to the Midwest for an academic job, much like Foster Wallace’s parents) strictly supervised my TV-watching habits as a kid: limited screen time, mostly PBS. They refused to get cable until well after I left for college. They blamed the rightward drift of the country under Reagan in part on television.

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