The practical constraints of “voting power”

A few weeks ago, I was at a union conference for shop stewards in Oakland, CA. As you might imagine, the union was 100% committed to the election season. The union had long since endorsed Hillary Clinton and the Democratic slate nationally and statewide. The “hype lady” (is there a formal term for this in fundraising?) led a chant that I found very troubling, given what else I know about this union. It goes something like this:

“Who’s got the POWER?”
“We’ve got the POWER!”
“What kind of POWER?”
“Worker POWER!”

“Who’s got the POWER?”
“We’ve got the POWER!”
“What kind of POWER? Voting POWER!”
“Voting POWER!”

Things trundle off into the weeds at the end. It feels strange to ask a room to lead in a chant about voting, given that a significant portion of the stewards (and a huge number of regular members) are not citizens and cannot vote. Some are undocumented or otherwise not on a path to citizenship. On UC San Diego campus, meetings of the union are conducted entirely in Spanish, because the custodial staff are overwhelmingly Latina immigrants.

It taps into a larger issue I’ve had with political communication this cycle in general. It presupposes citizenship. It makes voting an essential part of political participation. It’s a manifestation of privilege- non-citizens cannot vote, much like people of color cannot expect the protection of law enforcement. People like me were handed the vote at birth post-dated eighteen years.

This might seem a bit petty, but modern American unions overwhelmingly focus on electoral politics and lobbying. Non-citizens can still work campaigns, but there is an inherent two-tier system that develops. The speaker was right though- unions have worker power. What that is, and what it is used for, depends on the vision and direction of the particular union. Social justice campaigns that center participants in being a member of a community, rather than citizen or non-citizen, allow workers to use their power in a context of equality. The broader the political vision, the more inclusive it will ultimately be, and the better served its membership.

Forever seeking solidarity

The big development in radical politics this week is the so-called Corinthian 15 (all interesting radical developments include a physical space and a number), who have refused to pay the debts they incurred at their now-defunct for-profit colleges. The New Yorker captured the promise of this action with their article title- “The Student-Debt Revolt Begins”. Given that there exists over $1.2 trillion dollars in student debt, a move towards nonpayment would take the initiative away from private loan companies and overpriced schools.

However, reading an online left-wing community, I was disheartened to see a sentiment that is common, but could fatally undermine mass action. Many of us see for-profit education for the expensive scam that it is, and are at least concerned about the population that goes there. But there’s also an urge towards thinking these people are dumb, and deserve the debt they accrued.

From the start, a potential rift between for-profit students like the Corinthian 15, and other students, plus the public at large. This goes against the basis for popular action in the left-wing ideology- solidarity. The success of the 15 depends on people who aren’t directly affected supporting and expanding the resistance. Contempt for for-profit students creates a hierarchy, where some but not all students are victims of their loan companies and boated universities. If capitalism really is the underlying problem of exploitation, then this split cannot persist. A lack of solidarity is the reason that the British left became a joke in Life of Brian- many groups with the same general goal, but refusing to work united due to minor differences.

If there is no solidarity, no mass action, then the differences are pointless. Arguing over the right path means nothing if the path is not walked to its conclusion.

Another troubling aspect is the trend online for left-wing commenters to say “solidarity from Ireland” or “solidarity from Ohio!” when reading stories or posts about protest activity. It’s harmless, but I feel it cheapens the term, which is about concrete mutual support. When the Gezi Park protests broke out, activists used Indiegogo to raise $100,00 from individuals, many not living in Turkey, to let protestors run a full-page ad in the New York Times. It allowed the movement to speak for itself, and didn’t smother the resistance with rhetoric from outsiders. That is true solidarity, and shows that even if you can’t physically participate, there are things you can do beyond a social media comment. We must becomes more creative

“Solidarity Forever” begins with one of the best encapsulations of what solidarity is and should be:

When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one
For the Union makes us strong

There is nothing weaker than small groups that could be one large group. Even dedicated socialists and progressives can have elitist tendencies. That’s not surprising, but we have to teach ourselves to accept all exploited people, even if their plight might seem self-inflicted. There’s a world to win, and we must act united.

War brings people together. War gets dissenters thrown in prison.

 

Eugene V. Debs- socialist, labor organizers, snappy dresser, jailed for opposing World War I.
Eugene V. Debs- socialist, labor organizers, snappy dresser, jailed for opposing World War I.

Hopefully this will be part of a trend towards a more critical approach to how World War I affected the United States: The Atlantic published “Why Wars Always End Up Hurting the Most Vulnerable Americans” yesterday. A choice quote:

Most Americans have forgotten how repressive a period World War I was. “You can’t even collect your thoughts without getting arrested for unlawful assemblage,” quipped the writer Max Eastman. “They give you ninety days for quoting the Declaration of Independence, six months for quoting the Bible.” Walter Lippmann said Woodrow Wilson’s administration had “done more to endanger fundamental American liberties than any group of men for a hundred years.”

What it comes down to is that there are two sides to any event, like a war or a terrorist attack, which rallies people together. There is union, but also violence and repression to those that are in the wrong place (or of the wrong race, or nationality) at the wrong time. Triumph over Nazi Germany and imperial Japan gets so much romanticism, but for 100,000+ Japanese-Americans who were herded into camps, they suffered because of the drive to war. Intellectuals of both liberal and conservative background have often welcomed war as an engine for social good, but as Randolph Bourne thought, “using war powers to achieve domestic reform is like using a firehose to fill a water glass”. Social solidarity in wartime comes with special symptoms: jingoism, inflexibility, and mob sanction.

1917 wasn’t just about giving the Kaiser a good licking, it was about government-led oppression against trade unionists, socialists, and anyone who opposed the war. That legacy remains with us- Edward Snowden, should he end up in US custody, would face charges under the Espionage Act of 1917, which doesn’t even allow him any kind of legal defense. Any justification, no matter how good, is irrelevant. That was the dark mentality of America at the time. You’re with us, or against us. No extenuating circumstances, no middle ground.

Despite defeat, need for powerful and democratic American organized labor

Union membership versus middle class income.
http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/06/who-killed-american-unions/258239/

So the vote is back from the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, and the workers there have rejected joining United Auto Workers by a few percentage points. Not surprisingly, union groups have condemned the election as rife with conservative interference. The South has long been the most hostile to any form of organized labor; a victory at a foreign-owned plant would have set a precedent to work off of.

Rich Yeselson, writing for the leftist magazine Jacobin, found the result predictable. Going over the various factors that contributed to the result:

Anybody can take the litany of factors I mention above and pick out the ones they think were most salient. Yes, the opposition of political elites was potent. Yes, the UAW neutralized VW, but, by turning it into a corporate pussycat, could barely provide a rationale for workers joining the union at all. Nor did it convey to the workers that it had the leverage to fight the company when necessary on their behalf, rather than accede to it as it had done with GM, Ford, and Chrysler.  Yes, it’s the mostly white South, and it was a likely largely evangelical workforce, to boot.

In an environment naturally hostile to unions, the advocates for change need to produce compelling reasons and tangible benefits. They were playing to an area where unions are viewed as part of a cast of evil- a worker grouped them in with Planned Parenthood, gun control, and the Democratic Party. Workers are stronger together than they are isolated and apart, but the most progress must be made in the most inhospitable places- not only in terms of perception, but the labor laws created in the past few decades.

What happened in Chattanooga is a bit of proof that unions like the UAW can’t get the key victories needed to reshape 21st century labor relations. It is not proof that there is no need for organized labor- but that the push should come from smaller and more unorthodox groups that can give the struggle the militancy and urgency it requires.