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A Conversation Worth Having

by Tobias Michaels Thursday, Jul. 05, 2012 at 4:12 PM

The Nation magazine recently held a roundtable blog discussion that debated the effects of the failed Wisconsin recall. The discussion is important because of the seriousness of its subject. Such open and frank conversations have been sadly quite rare, so it is something of a credit to the Nation that they hosted this discussion.

In the wake of the failed Wisconsin recall there are two distinct schools of thought emerging within the Labor Movement. Should Labor double down on its current strategy of funneling massive amounts of members’ dues into politics, or should Labor undertake a new as yet undefined strategy that would be a break from this previous model?

The discussion began with Gordon Lafer’s essay entitled Left Anti-Unionism(?). In this essay, Lafer is responding to Doug Henwood’s blog post, Walkers Victory, Unsugar Coated. In this post, Henwood, makes the case that Labor lost to Walker because of its failure to connect the campaign with broader social issues. Henwood openly questions the strategy of labor leaders in the campaign, a strategy that prioritized electoral action over mass action. He also identifies Labor as insulated from the outside world and unable or unwilling to connect with masses of unorganized workers.

In response, Lafer equates this questioning of the strategy of labor leaders to anti-unionism from the left, thus his title, “Left Anti-Unionism.” Lafer’s point is that radicalism alone cannot carry the day and that Labor was justified in the strategic decisions made in Wisconsin just as they were in Ohio. The Ohio AFL-CIO successfully fought back against SB5 a ballot measure that would restrict collective bargaining. So Lafer asks: where were the critics of Labor when Labor won in Ohio? Lafer advocates staying the course by ending his article with a now clarified statement:

The only serious choices we have are to keep fighting even though times are hard, or to give up, or to enjoy the momentary rush of being on the same side as power and join in the anti-union attack.

It is with this somewhat ironic jab that Lafer equates the current strategy of the AFL-CIO with “fighting.” What Lafer is missing is that the more Labor “fights” in the way that Labor is currently fighting, the more likely workers will become despondent and give up, a cycle that has already weakened Labor and threatens to kill it.

For example, a recent report in The New York Times highlights the despondency among youth regarding this year’s election. There is a significant possibility of record low youth turnout in this election. If the “continue fighting” strategy that Lafer espouses had actually produced real gains for this generation, it is highly likely that these young voters would participate in droves, voting for Obama as Labor urges them to do. As it is now, these young men and women are rightfully despondent over the state of the economy and the fact that there is no meaningful solution on the horizon; they see labor union’s pro-Obama stance as foreign to their experience, and they are not alone.

Henwood’s central point, though, must be discussed and cannot be ignored.

Since 2000, unions have given over $700 million to Democrats — $45 million of it this year alone (Labor: Long-Term Contribution Trends). What do they have to show for it?

The youth of this country at this time and place is squarely on Henwood’s side; his criticism that Labor muddied the issue and helped diffuse the struggle in Wisconsin is completely valid. In doing so, Labor laid the groundwork for its own defeat. What was once an attack by Governor Walker on all Wisconsinites became an attack on a “special interest,” Labor, that launched a recall campaign to elect a corporate Democrat. The massive inspiration that Wisconsin launched was funneled into the demoralizing arms of the Democrats, who were insisting that public workers make concessions.

Further commentators weighed in on the subject.

Adolph Reed puts forward an almost laughable analysis: that workers’ struggles, from which social movements are often created, are not an effective way to build a long-term movement. As if the mass demonstrations in Wisconsin were of no importance to galvanizing the entire state, while also re-energizing the nation’s union movement. Of course, mass demonstrations were instrumental to the Egyptian and other Arab revolutions.

Bill Fletcher and Jane McAlevey put together a call for a less focused, more dispersed approach, where all demands of working people are treated equally, and thus should all be collectively pursued.

But all demands are not equal. Revolutions are born from the few, most pressing needs/demands of ALL working people: the demands that have the potential to UNITE all working people. Demanding that every social issue be addressed in a social movement — at its beginning — serves to water it down, confuse its goals, disperse its energy, and sever the ties that bind working people with massive collective action.

Any good analysis of the Occupy movement’s loss of momentum must include its focus on too many social issues, which created the pro-Occupy issue-based division that Occupy initially overcame.

In reply to the above writers, In These Times reporter Mike Elk defended the right of union members and was sympathetic to writers who criticized the strategy of union leadership. Labor, he argued, must reform itself and produce victories and if they don’t, face destruction. A thorough analysis of Labor and its tactics is absolutely necessary, as is holding accountable those who crafted failed strategies via discussion, and to begin the search for a new leadership.

Elk rightfully juxtaposes the mega salaries and other benefits as well as countless perks enjoyed by labor leaders with the failed strategy displayed in Wisconsin. Where Elk fails is in his salute to the fourteen Democrats of Wisconsin who initially allied themselves with the labor movement.

Not only do the Democrats deserve no praise, they are also to blame for the recall loss against Governor Walker: the Democrats produced the truly awful candidate Tom Barrett to run against Walker because their party has evolved to mimic the Republican’s right-wing economic/anti-worker policies that take the form of demanding concessions from public workers while remaining somewhat socially liberal.

The fact that Wisconsin unions were front and center in helping select and run the right-wing Democrat against Walker was another big part of the problem. Working people were forced into marrying the Democrats or letting Walker win, a repulsive choice.

The above educated and esteemed writers provide no real answers for Labor’s way forward, whether it is the nonsensical posturing of Lafer or Elk’s cut-the-wages-of-the-union-leadership militancy.

Workers at this hour need clear demands with no ambiguity around the issues of greatest concern to them. Greatly increasing taxes on the rich and corporations to fund a job creation program with living wages for millions of people is a vital starting place for the Labor Movement. The job crisis has lumbered on and threatens to get worse while Labor has stood nearly silent on this all-important social issue.

Of course labor leaders have not put forth aggressive job-creating demands because the Democrats have absolutely no intention of pursuing these policies, given their ties to corporations. Thus, Labor’s demands remain watered down and irrelevant to millions of working people who would otherwise support them in a Wisconsin-type, mass action fashion.

As long as Labor poses no challenges to the Democrats by ignoring the necessary demands of working people, the Labor Movement will remain frozen from poisonous lethargy, spinning its wheels at a time where forward movement is necessary to fight back against a nationwide, bi-partisan attack.

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