Change Is In The Air
I am beginning to think that history will look back on the first decade of the new millennium as a tipping point. A time when ordinary people around the world suddenly got fed up with their institutions and chucked them.
We see that going on now in the Middle East. Regardless of how you may feel about George W. Bush, he has clearly shaken up the ruling status quo in the Middle East. Egypt announced last week that it will now allow contested elections for the first time. The Palestinians democratically chucked Arafatism and are finally doing what needs to be done to get a peace deal and their own homeland. Even sulky Syria seems to be feeling the pressure. Over the weekend they turned over 30 Iraqi Baath Party members, including Saddam’s half-bro. Since Syria is also run by the Baath “pan-Arab” party, that’s pretty remarkable.
Then this morning we awake to discover that opposition protesters in Lebanon had forced the resignation of their pro-Syrian Prime Minister. Clearly something important is stirring in that part of the world.
I feel it here at home too, especially on the left. Since the 1930s two institutions; the Democrat Party and labor have led the left. The GOP was for the wealthy and the Democrat Party for “the little guy.” So an alliance between labor and Democrats was a natural match.
And it was a good match too. A half-century of improving wages, benefits and working conditions forced upon companies by this alliance created the strongest, most productive and most affluent working class in the world. And, it exposed the lie that Communism was the only way to achieve a fair and equitable distribution of wealth and public welfare.
But then something went wrong. Labor morphed into Big Labor. And as it did its leadership, which once met at the bargaining table with the grime from the work floor still fresh under their fingernails, became indistinguishable from those they were negotiating with. And, as the money from union dues grew into the tens and then hundreds of millions of dollars, union leaders diverted more and more of it into activities that had little or nothing to do with organizing.
Then the sellouts began. First Big Labor began making deals with organized crime. The first thing the Mob did was to get rid of union democracy. Union elections were rigged and its membership cowed into silence.
I saw this up close and personal. I once belonged to the Boiler Makers Union. I only went to one union meeting. The smoky union hall was full of working guys sitting on folding chairs. On the stage sat a big fat guy in a suit, the local’s president. Two big-necked guys stood at either end of the stage facing the members.
During the meeting a member raised his hand and objected to an expense item being voted on. It was several thousand dollars supposedly for new carpet and furniture for the union president’s office. Why, he asked do they have to spend their dues on something like when the president’s office was already carpeted and furnished? Wouldn’t it be better, he asked, to use that money to recruit new members?
The president mumbled something about how his office had to look nice because he conducted union business in it. But the member who raised the objection was unconvinced and insisted that the matter be tabled for further discussion.
Clearly annoyed, the president glanced to his left and addressed the thug at that end of the stage.
“Will you fellas take the brother outside and explain this matter to him so we can get on with business?”
The”brother” was escorted outside, feet barely touching the floor, and the vote proceeded. It was unanimous.
That would have been around 1965 and I suspect that event was repeated thousands of times in union halls across America, as labor officials became farmers and members their personal cows.
By the late 1980s the FBI had chased most organized crime out of the larger unions – although it took years of federal receivership to loosen their grip on the lucrative Teamsters pension fund.
But by then union officials had found new friends. (No, not their members, silly.) What they discovered is they had a lot more in common with the suits in management than they did with their working class members. They liked the same comforts. They appreciated the “burdens” of leadership. They road in limos, flew first class, or in their own planes. They related.
Around the same time union officials made another discovery. Actual labor organizing was hard, dirty work. It forced them out of their comfortable executive offices and into direct contact with working class guys and gals. Sometimes they even had to go onto factory floors, which was hell on wingtips.
If they could just figure out a way to show their members results without having to actually DO anything, well, that would be just the ticket. That’s when Big Labor met Big Politics. And, again, they found they had something in common. Both Big Labor and Big Politics both loved Big Money.
So, just as the FBI was stopping the flow of member’s dues to Mob coffers, union officials begun diverting it to politicians. What about organizing? Who needs organizing when you can buy politicians who can pass laws that benefit workers? Right?
Apparently not. In the 1950s, the height of union organizing prowess, 34% of America’s workers were unionized. Today it’s down to 12%, and falling faster than ever.
But that may be about to change. Big Labor officials are beginning to feel heat from below. Even the well-fed, well-housed, well-insured, well-driven, well-flown, well-officed AFL/CIO boss, John Sweeney, is getting worried. Last week he indicated he might finally agree to let locals have back a portion of the $124 million in dues they pay each year to use for local organizing efforts.
Of course Sweeney did not decide to give back money from what he sees has his personal checking account because he became a born-again union man. No, it was pressure form below, places like the Service Employees International Union which gave him an ultimatum, “cough up the money John or we will leave the family and form a new union.”
American workers have not been treated this badly since the 1920’s. Robber-baron corporations, like Wal-Mart, are exploiting workers here and around the world with impunity. They no longer fear workers because they no longer fear unions. And they don’t fear unions because they co-opted their leadership years ago.
Worker's wages, in real terms, have dropped like a rock. Working families now make so little that growing numbers of them now hover around the poverty line. The combined incomes of two Wal-Mart employees cannot provide the standard of living a plumber enjoyed in the 1960s. Not even close. Workers have no bargaining power, and they can’t quit because there are no other jobs. They are stuck. They can’t get ahead on what the make. It boarders on indentured servitude. How far are we from the old days when workers were so tied to their exploitive employers that they ended up owing them money at the end of every month?
So the conditions are ripe for a rebirth of the labor movement. The only question is can existing union institutions handle the job or do they need to be replaced by new, grassroots, worker-run unions? The answer depends on whether or not existing unions will tolerate truly democratic elections. If they can then grassroots members have a shot at unseating the tired, corrupt and clueless leadership who offer nothing but a mouthful of “give me,” and a handful for nothing.
The same goes for the Democrat Party.
Memo to Howard Dean: You have less than two years to put the roots back into grassroots. I can only speak for myself, but I want new faces at the top. I want faces I have never seen mugging on CNN. I want people to run for office who, until yesterday, were one of us. Yes, that’s right, I want inexperienced people, because in Washington “experience,” too often means corrupted rather than educated. I don’t want more people representing me who have “learned the ropes” in that way. Instead I want Mr. Smith, Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Smith’s hairdresser. I want people representing me who still drop their jaws in shock and anger when someone offers them a smarmy deal. Call me silly, but I want naïve, idealistic, honest folks representing me from now on.
So, since the stars seem to be in position and ready to facilitate massive institutional changes around the world, let’s hope that it extends to Big Labor and Big DNC. Both have been skating for decades, living off the goodwill of members only to fail them. No, they did worse than just fail them. They have sold them down the river of self-interest. In order to build their own fortunes, reputations and power, they sold their members into lives of low wages, low expectations, no healthcare and, as if that were not enough, they are letting the bastards send the remaining good-paying jobs overseas.
DNC… Big Labor…. both of you should be ashamed – or maybe just gone.
It's up to you guys. Pick one.
For more on this subject see:
Labor Pains: Eight Simple Rules
by Jonathan Tasini
In Today's TomPaine.com
Quote of the Day
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--Tom Fenton, former CBS News foreign correspondent