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

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Keep the red flag flying: notes on the British election

Like most of the U.S. Left, I was extremely heartened by the British elections last Thursday. I have been, well, not terribly optimistic about anything political for years, and this was a decisive and meaningful win for our side. There are numerous reasons (some of which I discuss below) to be cautious about assuming that “Corbynism” can be applied wholesale to the American context, or that it means that “Bernie Would Have Won.” However, I do think it indicates a promising way forward for the U.S. Left, and it has changed some of my own thinking, especially about electoral politics.

Most importantly, it provides good evidence that a Left political program can win broad support in a country of the imperial center, a country in which significant parts of the working class, having won a decent life in the 20th century from the scraps of the overflowing imperialist table, are prone to identifying as “middle class” and are susceptible to racist and xenophobic appeals. We don’t need to wait for a “new majority” to emerge from demographic changes, which has become a kind of disturbing trend in progressive circles in America — one which I suspect contributed to the complacency and demobilization during the Obama administration.

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Forced Labor

What kind of labor movement do we need in the era of Trump?

These should be exciting, if terrifying, times to be part of the labor movement. Following the actions at airports last weekend — a crucial part of which was a one-hour strike against pickups at JFK called by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance — novelist Francine Prose called for a general strike in the Guardian. Calls for a “#NationalStrike” on February 17th have been circulating on Twitter and other social media. And labor lawyers Moshe Marvit and Leo Gertner published a piece in the Washington Post, “Where’s the Best Place to Resist Trump? At Work,” whose pullquote is “From solidarity strikes to slowdowns and sit-ins, workplace revolt is a key strategy in opposing the new administration.”

Meanwhile, the institutional labor movement is under existential threat. National Right to Work legislation was introduced into Congress this week, and with Republican majorities in both houses and You-Know-Who as president, it is hard to imagine it not passing. In the state where I got my start in the labor movement, Iowa, new Republican majorities are planning to make it “the next Wisconsin” by gutting or rescinding entirely the state’s collective bargaining law for public-sector employees.

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Mourning becomes the Left

Earlier this week I came across a couple of pieces on Richard Seymour’s blog Lenin’s Tomb that I can’t get out of my head.  A long, meditative piece on “The Great Federation of Sorrows. Mourning and militancy in the age of Trump,” and a much shorter piece on the suicide of the blogger’s friend, Mark Fisher. Both pieces dealt with mourning, melancholia, depression and the Left.

For the last few years, I have had a really hard time engaging politically, even in the last two months, with the “all hands on deck” imperative of the looming Trump presidency. Most distressingly, it is precisely the aspects of political engagement that used to fire me up the most – gathering with comrades at local or branch meetings, taking collective action in the streets – that are most likely now to sour my mood.

In fact, I have shorthanded it sometimes as “political depression” — but haven’t really taken that diagnosis seriously. I have developed certain strategies and habits that help me function when my depression is triggered by events in my personal life — thankfully, my depression is mild and infrequent enough that I haven’t required medication. But in our society, where political engagement is not only not mandated but actively discouraged, it is far easier to simply disengage when this “political depression” looms.

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April 15: Presenting at “School Lunch”

Next Wednesday, April 15, I’ll be giving a talk on “Good, Old Fashioned Class Struggle for the 21st Century” at Radio Bean’s “School Lunch” series.

What does class struggle mean in the 21st century? Is it even relevant to the “new economy” of AirBnB, Uber, Kickstarter and startups? Will there even be a labor movement in the future, and what will it look like? What kind of stake do working people have in fights over state and city budgets? We’ll look at these questions as tens of thousands of fast food workers strike on April 15.

Wednesday, April 15, Noon
Radio Bean Coffeehouse
8 North Winooski Avenue, Burlington VT

Back to the Cooperative Commonwealth?

I think a lot about the problems of building a labor movement for the 21st century.  And, as a long-time labor activist who now finds himself a member of a worker-owned cooperative (I work at Webskillet Cooperative, which is both a worker coop and a UE union shop), I struggle with reconciling the militant traditions that have shaped my outlook with the sometimes overly optimistic approach of the cooperative movement.

On Saturday I drove down to Glens Falls, New York, for an international meeting of union cooperative workers.  The newly-formed network of cooperative workers inside UE, which includes four worker coops and the organized workers at two food coops, was hosting a coop delegation from Mexico’s Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT).

FAT coop delegation at UE Regional Council Meeting

The UE and FAT have a long and deep relationship.  Initially formed during the fight against NAFTA, when the “official,” government-controlled trade unions in Mexico supported the free trade agreement, the UE-FAT Strategic Organizing Alliance has included joint organizing projects targeting the same multinational employers, support for each others’ organizing — including the FAT organizing Mexican unions to file a complaint against the US for denying collective bargaining rights to public sector workers in North Carolina, and many, many exchanges of rank and file workers.

The UE’s semi-official slogan is “The Members Run This Union,” reflecting both a commitment to democracy and a belief that working-class people have the capacity to run their own unions.  The FAT’s slogan, “¡Por la autogestión de la clase trabajadora!” doesn’t translate smoothly into English, but it means, roughly, “for the self-management of the working class” — reflecting a belief that working-class people have the capacity to run everything about their lives.

The FAT, unlike UE, is not solely a union (the name literally means “authentic workers’ front”).  While the union sector is the largest, they have long had a cooperative sector.  In large part, this stems from the fact that Mexican labor law, in some cases when an employer cannot pay the settlements they owe to the workers, allows workers to take over buildings and equipment and either sell them or run them cooperatively.  However, it also reflects the FAT’s commitment to autogestión.

The FAT delegation we met with on Saturday included the director of the FAT’s cooperative sector, a leader from a state workers’ union which is forming coops to help its members build their own green housing, the general accountant of a credit union which was formed by the FAT in the wake of a strike 26 years ago, and a member of Bicicooperativa Urbana, a coop of young bicyclists in Mexico City who are sort of an incubator for bicycle-based businesses in the city, including a parcel delivery service, bicycle repair and bicycle parking lots.  This was the second UE-FAT exchange to focus on the cooperative sector, following a visit by UE coop members to Mexico in November of last year.

The cooperative movement and the labor movement, of course, emerge from a similar history of working-class organization.  The modern coooperative movement generally traces its history to the Rochdale Pioneers, a group of weavers, Owenite socialists and other workers who started a cooperative grocery in 1844, in an area of England with a rich history of working-class agitation.  Not unlike the FAT credit union, the Rochdale pioneers started their cooperative after an unsuccessful weavers’ strike.

In fact, the principles of cooperation, as an alternative vision to capitalism, animated the vision of the first large-scale labor movement in the US, the Knights of Labor.  The Knights, along with many other radicals in the late nineteenth century, expressed their goal of an exploitation-free society as “The Cooperative Commonwealth.”  The fact that they used this term rather than being explicitly socialist, as most European labor movements were, combined with the fact that some leader of the Knights expressed distaste for strikes (stating that workers should instead form cooperatives), has not done wonders for their reputation among labor historians, who tend to be a rather left-wing and pro-strike bunch.

I don’t think cooperatives are the answer to everything (my UE brothers and sisters currently fighting a GE plant closure in Ft. Edward, NY are not going to be able to take over and run that capacitor plant as a worker coop — but I think they do have a shot at convincing GE to keep the plant open).  Nonetheless, I think the idea of the cooperative commonwealth, and of various forms of cooperative organization of social life, bears reexamining in a couple of ways:

1. I think we need more historical investigation of the Knights’ practical experience with cooperatives.  Did they actually try to form cooperatives, and if so what kinds (worker, consumer, producer)?  What challenges did they face, and how did they try to overcome them?  What was the organizational role of cooperatives within the Knights’ assemblies (their form of local organization), and what relationship (if any) did they have to groups of workers who engaged in more traditional collective bargaining?

2. The labor movement, and the left more generally, has been on the defensive about the public sector.  Partly this reflects ruling class strength, partly this reflects strategic weaknesses and mistakes on our part, but partly this also reflects the reality that for many people (especially, though not exclusively, poor and working-class people), dealing with the actually-existing public sector can be extremely frustrating.  Racist teachers, unhelpful bureaucrats and condescending social-service providers are not the rule, but they are not uncommon either.  While I think we absolutely need to close ranks to defend the public sector, and public-sector workers, we also need to think more creatively about ways to make the delivery of social goods more participatory and accountable to the people who are being served.

3. Finally, I think most people who care about such things realize that our currently-existing institutional labor movement (i.e., the trade unions) are at the very least not sufficient to defend the working class from the assaults of capital, let alone improve the condition of the working class and the people as a whole.  In order to “join the labor movement” in America right now, a group of workers needs to win legal collective bargaining rights.  This involves, at a minimum, overcoming a significant set of legal hurdles.  In almost all cases, the boss will hire professional union busters, a whole industry of people who are highly skilled at “persuading” vulnerable workers.  And there is a large and increasing sector of the working class who don’t even have access to these minimal legal avenues, because they are prohibited by state law, classified as independent contractors, working off the books or unemployed.

Yet there are no obvious answers to this problem.  “Alt-labor” groups are almost exclusively dependent on foundation funding.  “Non-majority” or “pre-majority” unions, while no doubt a crucial strategy, are extremely difficult to build and sustain, and so far few of them have either won majority status or become financially self-sustaining.  And it is hard to imagine how “associate membership” programs like Working America — where the “members” share little more than a general support for working-class political issues and the experience of being door-knocked — can do much more than build mailing lists and recruit a small handful of activists.

The FAT structure, bringing worker coops and other forms of coops into a democratic structure with unions, seems to offer a useful model to explore (as I understand it, in the FAT the coops affiliate with the FAT as coops — it’s not like the more transactional United Steelworkers-Mondragon agreement, where workers at coops are simply enrolled as members in the union).  It allows a way for working-class people who cannot otherwise “join” the labor movement to join together with others in a collective effort to improve their own material conditions.

Coops, like unions, at their best require their members to be accountable to each other, and have a direct, positive influence on their members’ day-to-day lives.  That is what creates the kind of loyalty, to each other and to the institution, that is necessary for sustained struggle.  And in this moment, the labor movement, the working class, and everyone who cares about social justice is clearly in for a sustained struggle.

This blog was also posted at the Labor Online blog.

Practicing Scales

The day after Obama was first elected, in 2008, I had a deep sinking feeling, and was incredibly depressed all day. Don’t get me wrong — the night before I was caught up in all of the excitement of, among other things, a Democrat winning Virginia and North Carolina, and a sense that a small but significant victory had been won over white supremacy. But while Obama had always been pretty clear that he was a candidate of the center-right — he was just going to be smarter about pursuing imperialism abroad and austerity at home than Bush was — I could just see the widespread politicization and popular mobilization that characterized the last few years of the Bush administration dissolving into vagues “hopes” for “change.” Having been a Reagan-era kid who was caught up in the excitement of Clinton’s election in 1992 (as, I might add, the first president from the modern working class), I had seen this movie before.

This time around, I am cautiously optimistic that things will be better. The labor movement seems to understand the need to fight the austerity measures being proposed by both parties in the upcoming “fiscal cliff” negotiations, the remnants of Occupy (still organized enough to do a better job than FEMA in Hurricane Sandy relief) are not exactly lining up for cabinet positions, and the sector of the left that I identify with most strongly — the independent community- and worker-based organizations that make up such alliances as the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Grassroots Global Justice and Jobs with Justice — seem to be very clear on the need to both maintain independence from the Democratic party while building broad alliances.

However, none of this really matters if we can’t, as it’s often put, “organize to scale.” Having been in and around conversations on this question as a staff person at NDWA, a leader and strategist at the Vermont Workers Center, and a pretty much lifelong member of the United Electrical Workers union, I thought now would be an opportune time to put down some of my thoughts on, um, paper.

* * *

1. Relevance

One line of thinking about “organizing to scale” looks at the organizations which have scale — trade unions, churches, Planned Parenthood, the National Rifle Association, etc. — and focuses on their relevance to people’s day to day lives. Unions represent workers in their dealings with their bosses, churches provide a sense of community, address spiritual needs and increasingly act as the only social safety net around (as public programs are defunded), Planned Parenthood provides reproductive health services, the NRA gives people access to gun safety classes, shooting ranges, etc. The American Association of Retired Persons is, essentially, an insurance program. These organizations collectively have millions of members, and can still wield significant power in the electoral arena.

I think that in some sense, this analysis is spot-on. For a dozen years, I worked in a small shop with fairly high turnover. The likelihood that any of my co-workers would have ever gotten involved in any “movement” activities through their own social networks, or through being leafletted or door-knocked, is, I think, pretty small. The union gives us three things. First, it gives people an experience of collective action through the grievance and bargaining process. Second, it essentially forces people to take on leadership roles (“someone’s gotta step up and be the steward, people”). Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it gives us a shared cultural context and identity which allows a college-educated dorky political guy in his 30s to engage younger hipsters and older working-class folks in political discussion and action.

But I think that, in a deeper sense, this analysis is deeply un-historical. Quite simply, trade unions, churches, Planned Parenthood and the NRA did not get to be the size that they are by behaving the way they currently behave. If that were the case, they’d still be growing, right? — something that is most emphatically not happening to the labor movement. We can rightly fault the particular weaknesses of the American labor movement, but the reality is that labor movements are in crisis throughout most of the world. *(but more on the recent growth of mega-churches below)

This is not to say that the existing mass organizations (trade unions especially) should not continue to try to organize, or that our smaller, more ideological and grassroots organizations shouldn’t try to figure out ways to be more relevant to our members’ (and potential members’) day-to-day lives. We should just think carefully about how we’re doing that — and we should be especially wary of strategies that rely on, essentially, modern mass-marketing techniques.

* * *

2. Participation

The labor movement couldn’t have grown by offering workers collective bargaining and grievance handling — before collective bargaining was widely established (in the railroads in the late 19th/early 20th century, in mass industry in the 40s, in the public sector in the 70s, etc.), unions simply didn’t have the power to “offer” representation to workers. While there are some unions that can organize this way in some industries today through card-check agreements, or political deals, anyone who has been through a knock-down drag-out organizing campaign — especially any successful one — knows that the one thing that is absolutely essential to organizing is a strong, representative organizing committee of committed leaders from inside the shop, who know and can move their co-workers.

I’m most familiar with the labor history of the CIO, which established collective bargaining in America’s mass production industries in the 1930s and 1940s — and this pattern certainly holds. We frequently complain about how hard it is to organize workers under our “broken labor law” — and certainly the psychological sophistication of the multi-million-dollar union-busting industry is much greater now than it was then — but the reality is that workers in the 30s on the whole faced much more difficult conditions and “stuck with the union” for much longer, with much less in the way of “services,” than we expect workers to do today. When my union, the UE, was founded in 1936, only one of the seventeen independent locals that gathered in Buffalo to form a new union in their industry had a contract. The United Auto Workers — founded a year earlier — didn’t win a collective bargaining agreement with Ford until 1941, and only after suffering, among other things, direct violence at the hands of company goons.

What kept folks going? There’s a variety of theories (and different unions had different organizational cultures), but crucial to the initial organizing of UE locals — much of which was initially underground, kept secret from the boss — was a structure of stewards organizing small groups of workers in each department. To this day, UE policy is that there should be a minimum of one steward for every ten workers, and some shops have even more.

These stewards were not people who “enforced the contract” — there was no contract initially — or navigated a bureaucratic grievance procedure. They were, fundamentally, rank and file workers who stepped up and took responsibility for leading a small group of their co-workers, in manageable tasks such as collecting dues and, frequently, organizing direct, collective confrontations with the foreman in the department. Numerous oral histories testify to the importance of these confrontations — of, in modern left-speak, people participating in their own collective liberation — in maintaining loyalty to the union.

These stewards networks in the UE and in the early UAW (and in many other industrial unions) not only kept the union alive when it had little to “offer” its members, they also created a culture of vibrant democracy within the unions and opportunities for women and workers of color to step up to leadership at a time when local officers were almost always white men. It was precisely the establishment of collective bargaining (and, it must be said, the eagerness of many union leaders to be incorporated into the power structures of the capitalist state) that, in most unions, turned the steward from a leader into a bureaucrat, and, in many unions like the UAW, eliminated their shop-floor power altogether.

* * *

3. (counter-)Culture

My wife grew up in the Church of Christ (not to be confused with the liberal United Church of Christ). She was never a liberal, she pretty much went directly from Republican-voting Christian to Marxist. We often talk about how for her, growing up in a culture that had a strong sense of values that countered the materialism of the dominant culture made it a lot easier for her to recognize the deep inhumanity of capitalism, once exposed to a Marxist critique of it. (To be transparent, the other members of her family are all over the map, politically).

Similarly, when I think about why the UE is so different from the rest of the American labor movement, and had such a transformative effect on me, there are plenty of structural reasons, sure — the ongoing commitment to a grassroots steward system, strict rules on preserving democracy within the union, frequent opportunities for local leaders to get together regionally — but I keep coming back to the culture of the organization. As just one example, UE meetings are officially run using Roberts Rule of Order, but they are far more participatory than many of the lefty “convergences” and “spokescouncils” and so forth I’ve been at that are run through consensus, with lots of agreements and ground rules and sitting in circles and so forth. This, I think, because there is a deep culture of leadership which sees the role of the person with the gavel as facilitating discussion and building consensus.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that the UE’s organizational culture is the end-all and be-all; it is a culture that comes out of industrial trade unionism, and I don’t think that trade unionism alone is going to get us where we need to go. But I think we need to think about organizational culture seriously, and especially think about how it connects to broader cultural struggles.

We talk a lot about “culture” on the left, while simultaneously bemoaning how we don’t incorporate it enough into our work. But I think we have too narrow an understanding of culture. We frequently have an admiring but ultimately utilitarian and tokenizing relationship to artists or “cultural workers” — we open our meetings with the reading of a poem, or have a mural painted on our building, or ask musicians to play benefits for our organization. Or we get everyone singing — before we get down to the “real job” of presenting a panel discussion or hashing out who is going to be overworked by how much at a staff meeting. Or we try to get broader exposure for our issues by linking it to a bit of popular culture or enlisting a celebrity to back our case.

All of which is good, but what we don’t do is see cultural work as the work of transforming how people think, how people see the world and relate to each other.

Social transformation is complex and contradictory, and the tools that we use — leaflets, YouTube videos, online petitions, marches, rallies, occupations and strikes — simply can’t hold all of that complexity and contradiction. At least not the way that stories, music, poetry, and the other arts can. And I think this is important, especially in the current moment when we need to hold both a sense of victory from the elections and a realistic assessment of the Obama administration and the Democrats.

This is not simply an encouragement for “organizers” and “cultural workers” to rethink how we relate to each other — though we should certainly always keep having that conversation. I think we need a deeper conversation about how organizers can think of our work as cultural work, and how (left) cultural workers can think of their work as organizing — and how we can all build a movement, and organizations, that are relevant, participatory and deeply (counter-)cultural.

* * *

One of the pieces I keep thinking about is this New Yorker article about Rick Warren, one of the most successful leaders of the “mega-church” movement. The mega-churches (unlike the unions, or the traditional churches) have actually been growing, and most importantly, they have been growing in the places that most embody the tearing-apart of the social fabric that has been characteristic of neoliberalism. You should go read the whole article, but what I take from it is that mega-churches combine all three of the elements I discussed above – relevance (meeting people’s needs for community, spirituality and frequently for material assistance), participation (in small groups, doing manageable tasks), and a strong culture that counters (some aspects of) the dominant materialistic culture of neoliberal America.

Christian mega-churches, of course, benefit from already having one of the most market-tested stories ever told — and one that has, over the millenia, easily adapted itself to not challenging hierarchies. We don’t have anything that can compete. Yet. But that is our challenge.