Labour movement has gone astray- Witter

http://www.demerarawaves.com/read.php?article=4553

Published on 2011-05-05 12:55:05 in News

The labour movement has strayed from being a champion of the people to become the province of just the salaried and wage earners, a development which could lead it into irrelevance Guyana Trade Union Congress (GTUC) President Norris Witter told demwaves.com on Tuesday.

His comment followed that of social activist Andaiye who last week called on the movement to widen its membership to include the informal labour sector and unsalaried individuals.

In acknowledging the call Witter said it was not a new concept since that was how it was done in the days of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, who is regarded as the father of the labour movement in Guyana.

“Critchlow also paid quite a lot of attention to the unorganized and those persons who were not employees or who did not enjoy the employee/employer relationship, the self-employed and so on. I think what has happened over the years, the labour movement has limited its activities to only the wage and salary earners which is wrong,” he said.

“We operate more as a trade union rather than a labour movement and I think we need to once again refocus our attention as a labour movement rather than a trade union movement.”

Witter noted that there is a significant difference between the labour movement and the trade union movement although the two terms have been used interchangeably.

“If we were to continue to organise in the manner in which we have been organizing, that is focusing exclusively on wage and salary earners, what you are going to find is a continuation of the kind of configuration that currently exists and which to my mind makes it attractive for particularly the race-based parties to play on,” Witter stated.

According to him, if the unions were to extend their activities into the non-traditional areas such as the shops on Regent Street, the market vendors, domestics and the fisherfolk, that would influence the kind of policies they develop and change their perception as it relates to national politics.

Housework has economic value – women’s activist Andaiye

http://www.demerarawaves.com/read.php?article=4525

Published on 2011-05-03 12:30:51 in News

The work women do at home needs to be valued like any other income generating activity according to women’s rights activist Andaiye.

She articulated the position on Friday at an event organised by the University of Guyana Students for Social Change (UGSSC) at the insitution’s Turkeyen Campus. The activity was held under the theme Poverty, Development and Labour in Guyana.

“Our argument is first of all this thing called housework and this thing that is called care giving is work. It is true that women raise their children and look after their children out of love; it is also true that things they do out of love is work,” the Red Thread representative said.

According to Andaiye, what that work amounts to is the “production and reproduction of the whole labour force.”  Further, she argued, in addition to the social meaning people generally ascribe to it, there is also an economic underpinning since those activities are fundamental to the production of wealth.

However, she noted that there is also a social cost attached to that work which many mothers in Guyana are paying heavily. Andaiye stated that there are many women working in one part of the country, or even in the Caribbean, to earn wages while their families live elsewhere.

Additionally, she singled out the large number of women working as security guards and the exploitations they endure at the hands of their employers.

“The point we’re making in relation to the social cost of that is that if you oblige people who are parents, and if you oblige above all mothers, to work in that way then you must know that those people are not paying a great deal of attention to children. What they are doing is neglecting children in order to be able to feed children and then the whole society pays for the results of that,” Andaiye stated.

According to her, the blame should fall squarely on the way the economy is organised whereby there is a huge informal sector where people are “super-exploited.” She also noted the divisions in the labour movement along the lines of race and politics and called on the movement to address the issue of gender.

Andaiye stated that the unions have turned their backs on a potential source of a tremendous amount of power by ignoring the informal sector which is largely made up of women.

“Try to imagine Guyana for the next week with every housewife on strike, with every mother on strike, with every market vendor on strike, with every shop assistant on strike; we could close Guyana down from those locations that are presently so disrespected,” she declared.

The UGSSC is an on-campus society which states one of its purpose as being “to agitate on and of campus for changes that are conducive to the accomplishment of the age-old ideals of freedom, justice and equality.”

It also lists social research and the development of practical and implementable solutions for social problems among its intended objectives.

Radical Labour: Another Reflection

Alissa Trotz is editor of the In the Diaspora Column.

(This is one of a series of weekly columns from Guyanese in the diaspora and others with an interest in issues related to Guyana and the Caribbean)

Over the weekend both Stabroek News and Kaieteur News ran important pieces that addressed the significance of May Day, now celebrated all over the world. In its Sunday editorial, titled Radical Labour, Kaieteur News reminded readers that May Day started in the United States in 1886 as a general strike for an eight hour work day, with immigrant workers playing leading roles. It is interesting to reflect on this geographical beginning in light of the challenges facing labour and labour organizers across North America today. This is perhaps expressed nowhere more vividly than in the state of Wisconsin, where a Republican governor has introduced policies intended to destroy the collective bargaining rights of public workers. And across the US border just last Friday, in a decision that has shocked many labour advocates and organizers, the Supreme Court of Canada denied Ontario farm workers – numbering in the tens of thousands and many of whom are temporary migrant workers from countries like Mexico, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago – the right to join unions for collective bargaining like other workers across the province. These are difficult times indeed.

In formulating an answer to the question, what is the work to be done, both Stabroek News and Kaieteur News provocatively challenged the trade union movement in Guyana to take a long hard look at itself. The Kaieteur News, in editorials on Saturday and Sunday, made the point clearly that a key piece of the work involves thinking about divide and rule politics, and the ways in which the trade union movement has operated to restrict, and not expand, the scope of workers’ demands.

On Saturday the Stabroek News reported on a forum, titled Poverty, Development and Labour in Guyana, hosted by the University of Guyana Students for Social Change, with labour attorney Randolph Kirton, General Secretary of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union Seepaul Narine and social activist and Red Thread member Andaiye. This was an excellent initiative on the part of the student organizers, and one hopes it will continue. Notwithstanding examples from our past (like the establishment of the Sugar and Bauxite Worker’s Unity Committee in the early 1980s under the PNC dictatorship), the divisions facing the trade union movement today stand in the way of effectively addressing the difficult conditions faced by the majority of Guyanese women and men, a point made by Saturday’s Kaieteur News editorial when it talked about the likelihood of three different rallies. In this context, the role of the university should not be underestimated. Events like this can offer a space for conversations which bring people together – and young people in particular – to discuss key issues affecting people in their everyday lives, away from the politicking, the nastiness and the tribalism that have become such a feature of Guyanese life at home and in the diaspora.

Andaiye’s observation, that “widening the trade union base to include various groups of currently unorganized workers could be the key to bridging the racial and political divide pervasive in the local labour movement,” seems to me to be the kind of radical and necessary move that is required. The significance of what she is calling for becomes clear if we look at the labour unrest that swept through the English-speaking Caribbean between 1934 and 1939 during the Great Depression. The strikes, riots and demonstrations were the combined result of high unemployment and terrible living conditions, and the absence of channels through which people could air their grievances. In addition to an unrepresentative political system, trade unions were also illegal across much of the region at that time. The disturbances were therefore not just about challenging social and economic conditions. They were also anti-colonial struggles, raising key questions about representative government in the Caribbean.

The response of the British government was to announce a Commission of Inquiry, led by Lord Moyne, into the conditions in its colonies in the Caribbean. The British were famous for these Inquiries – into indentureship, into the state of the sugar industry – which have left us with a wealth of rich data, and which historians have convincingly shown were investigations that in the final instance shared an investment in the maintenance of the imperial status quo. Members of the Moyne Commission travelled across the region between 1938 and 1939, and produced a comprehensive document that was embargoed until after the war for fear that it would be used as enemy propaganda. Only its recommendations were released in 1939. It is a significant document, one that clearly identified the miserable living and working conditions facing the vast majority of peoples. Its recommendations were, not surprisingly perhaps, aimed at appeasing popular discontent while securing a transition to self-rule in the Caribbean that would protect and entrench the interests of established and newly emerging economic and political elites. And many of those recommendations would be bought into by a generation of leaders who as yesterday’s Kaieteur News editorial noted, came to power on the backs of these struggles, only to turn around and  participate in these policies of containment.

This is what makes Andaiye’s remarks at the UG symposium on labour so far-reaching, for what we have here is a challenge to think about how colonial definitions of labour have come to settle firmly in the contemporary trade union movement in the Caribbean. The Moyne Commission’s notion of responsible trade unionism was aimed at reducing worker militancy, by creating a distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. This division would be upheld, not challenged, by many spokespersons and principal organizers. Historian Melanie Newton, for example, recalls finding an interview in the archives, done in the 1970s, in which a prominent Caribbean trade unionist reflected on the labour disturbances of the late 1930s. There was little place in his recollections for the unemployed, large numbers of women among them, who he dismissively referred to as the “barefoot people,” separated from those who the labour movement recognized as having respectable and legitimate grievances. Such a comment ignores the diverse backgrounds of participants in those struggles, and the radical challenge at the time this represented to the existing order. More importantly, it refuses to recognize that without these “barefoot people” those challenges to colonial authority across the region would not have had the force that they did. It is a betrayal of those who took to the streets, who helped force a door open that in the end precious few would be allowed to pass through.

The Moyne Commission’s vision of trade unionism was also based on the idea of the male breadwinner and female housewife model. Such a model is based on the idea that the only work that matters is the work that is regular and has a price attached to it (a wage or salary), and which takes place outside of the home.  One of the consequences of accepting this definition is that today trade unions across the Caribbean have no real language or room to deal with the vast numbers of people working in the informal sector, as own-account workers, in irregular jobs, whose creativity in trying to make ends meet has found no similar imaginative response from the labour movement. In Guyana, we should also ask ourselves, how does such a definition serve to exclude hinterland regions and the kinds of work and challenges facing Amerindian communities, and what are the implications of recognizing that Guyanese trade unionism is really coastal?

Another consequence of this restricted definition of work is that it leaves no room to consider the unpaid caring work that sustains families and communities and that falls primarily to women. We call this housework but that is a misnomer because it does not just take place in the house. A survey done with thousands of Caribbean women in the 1980s found that when asked to describe work, money was not the only or even the main characteristic that was identified. Women frequently said work was something that involved time, energy, and was something that could not be avoided. Not recognizing caring work is a fundamental mistake, one that leads to the continued invisibility and devaluation of a set of practices that are the very foundation of our economy.

Fully challenging our received understandings of work and labour is an act of decolonization. As Andaiye suggested in her talk, it has the potential to create a broad-based movement that can address workers in their diverse capacities and locations. Nor is this a far-fetched or unrealistic proposition, as some readers may conclude. Take the case of Guadeloupe. Two years ago, on January 20th 2009, a political movement was launched that would take the Caribbean island and French overseas territory by storm, rippling outwards to Martinique, French Guiana and as far as Réunion in the Indian Ocean. For 44 days the country ground to a halt as a mass general strike took effect. Schools and workplaces were closed, many roads were barricaded and even cars stopped running. By the end of the strike Guadeloupean activists had secured an agreement with the French government on 165 demands that ranged from increases in the minimum wage to reduction of prices on food, housing, gasoline and other goods. In a diaspora column written at the time, anthropologist Yarimar Bonilla noted that the umbrella organization, Lyannaj Kont Pwofitasyon (Alliance Against Profiteering), represented some 48 groupings, including but not limited to trade unions. The coalition led to a broad and collectively developed political platform. People had to work together, to listen to each other (a skill Guyanese everywhere seem increasingly to be losing), to find acceptable compromises, to find a language that spoke to everyone, to come up with a set of demands that everybody could own, could feel they had a stake in. This was the basis for the strike and negotiations with the French government. This was the basis for the solidarity that Sunday’s Kaieteur News editorial called for. This successful strike – the only real success across the Caribbean in recent memory, one might add – speaks volumes to how trade unions across the region need to radically reinvent themselves, and the potential for effecting meaningful and lasting change if they do.

Unions must enlist unorganised labour

http://www.stabroeknews.com/2011/news/stories/04/30/unions-must-enlist-unorganised-labour/

Unions must enlist unorganised labour

-to heal division, end exploitation, says Andaiye

By Mark McGowan 
Local News | Saturday, April 30, 2011

Widening the trade union base to include various groups of currently unorganised workers could be the key to bridging the racial and political divide pervasive in the local labour movement, social activist Andaiye believes.

Speaking at a forum on labour yesterday organised by the University of Guyana (UG) Students for Social Change, Andaiye said that such a move would also help to guard against the exploitation that many of these workers are regularly subjected to.  She noted too that many of the workers that fall into this category are women.

Labour attorney Randolph Kirton addressing the audience yesterday. Seated at the head table from left to right are: GAWU General Secretary Seepaul Narine, UG Lecturer Dr Christopher Carrico and Social Activist Andaiye of Red Thread. (Jules Gibson photo)

Andaiye, who was representing Red Thread at the event, said that the unions had turned their backs on this important section of the workforce. “The weakness of the labour movement tends always to be discussed, in terms of…divided on the grounds of race and divided on the grounds of party. And that’s true,” she said.  She added, however, that “there is a capital-defined definition of labour by which we are operating, which means that we are going to exclude thousands upon thousands of our women, particularly women with the lowest income.” She identified domestics, market vendors, security guards and housewives as among the categories of workers which belong to this group.

While acknowledging that the unions need to address the racial and party divisions that exist in the labour movement, Andaiye pointed out that the persons belonging to the unorganised workers come from all races and are of different political persuasions. She suggested that reaching out to these groups could help bridge the existing divide.

The idea of organising these various categories of workers, Andaiye said, was not a novel one and had been done before in the Caribbean. She told the gathering of mostly university students that Trinidad had employed such systems during the 1940s.

The social activist also said that the housework and the care giving that many women also do is work that has both social and economic value. These activities, she said, result in the production and reproduction of the labour force.

Andaiye said that the existing economic structure in the country allows for the creation of jobs that are “super exploitative.”  She cited examples where security guards often find themselves working two successive 12-hour shifts and cases where mothers are working in locations far away from their children.  This, she said, had a lot of social spin offs.  “If you oblige people who are parents, if you oblige, above all, mothers to work in that way, you must know that those people are not paying a great deal of attention to their children. What they are doing is neglecting their children, in order to make a living. And then the whole society bears the result of that,” she said.

“Only piece of the issue is ever being discussed. If you have a majority of the labour force that is, in fact, unorganised, large numbers of them in an informal sector and so on then all of those issues that are informal sector issues, those are not even coming up anywhere on the agenda, although they are crucial issues,” Andaiye told this newspaper when she was approached after the forum.

Expounding on why the unions should push this issue, Andaiye said “not only would you be increasing in numbers but you are bringing fundamental issues about the economy and the society into the struggle you’re supposed to be waging for betterment for all workers.”

“It will at least allow them [the workers], in an organized way, to put their issues centrally on the table,” she said. According to her, the system that currently exists allows for much absurdity.  Citing an example using market vendors, Andaiye said “(Minister of Works) Robeson Benn can break down the stands, then the President can come and give them back the stands and they say `yes Mister President, thank you very much’ and so on.”

According to her, when people examine this situation, it is not even about race.  “Now if people look properly at the vendors they will see that it is not even about race,” she said. “I insist that many of these sectors cross races because they are always moving vendors at Parika…all over the place, that’s how they treat vendors,” she said.    Vendors, she said, “are now not only a key part of this economy, a key part of the distribution of not only foodstuff but other goods and so on, but they are fundamental to the maintenance of thousands of households and yet all we would talk about is whether the vendors should move or don’t move in front of this shop, or that shop. Our way of dealing with those things is extremely trivial, and subjective and personal, when these are fundamental issues about how we want to organise as a people, as a society, as an economy.  And capital doesn’t have any direct interest in vendors as a category of workers, but surely labour should,” she said.

The other panelists at yesterday’s event were GAWU General Secretary Seepaul Narine and Labour attorney Randolph Kirton, with UG Anthropology lecturer Dr Christopher Carrico serving as moderator.  TUC President Norris Witter and Jinnah Rahman of the Rice Farmers Association were scheduled to be part of the panel but they did not show up.

The theme of yesterday’s session was “Poverty, Development and Labour in Guyana.”  And Narine, when responding to a question from the floor on the theme, said that while there have been some improvements in the lives of workers in Guyana, there were questions about how far-reaching they were. He noted that there were many projects that have been implemented but questioned whether they were filtering down to the ordinary people. “Benefits such as tax relief, concessions are not filtered down to the ordinary people,” he opined.  Kirton, meanwhile, expressed concern about the number of contracted employees in the public service system.  This, he contended, was a way of keeping wages low but opening up to way for some persons to receive super salaries.

UG students urged to be more militant for change

http://www.demerarawaves.com/read.php?article=4451

Published on 2011-04-29 19:48:46 in News

University of Guyana (UG) students were on Friday urged to become proactive and look to themselves for the solutions and leadership they would like to see in Guyana instead of waiting for someone else’s opinion of what should be done.

The call was made by speakers at a symposium dubbed the Guyana Labour Forum which was organised by the UG Students for Social Change (UGSSC) and was in response to a student’s question on their role in solidarity for development.

The event’s theme was Poverty, Development and Labour in Guyana with the panelists being Red Thread’s Andaiye, GAWU’s General Secretary Seepaul Narine and labour attorney Randolph Kirton.

“I used to read about the University of Guyana Student association … about how active they were and what they used to do about changes for this university; you don’t do those things now, simply because many of you feel that it has become a situation of hopelessness. You can’t give up hope, you have to continue and if it means being rebellious you have to do that,” Narine declared.

He told the mostly young students that they will one day become workers and parents and if they witness wrongdoings without doing anything about it then they too are culpable. According to Narine, they need to examine how much importance they will attach to their working lives and proceed from there.

“You got to ensure that as students, as lecturers, as teachers at this university, you also have a role to play in ensuring the administration does what it is required of them,” he said.

“Somebody believe I shouldn’t talk because if I talk I will annoy somebody, but once you say the right thing it doesn’t matter who you annoy, history will record you a saying the right thing.”

Meanwhile, Andaiye lamented that students seemed to believe that it was up to someone else to provide them with impetus to effect change. She urged them to band together with other groups in the society who may have similar issues.

“Don’t think of yourselves only as students and so the market vendors who are being set aside and these other categories who are being set aside are somehow lesser than you,” she said. Andaiye told them to analyse who comprise those groups and to start small since they are feeling “relatively powerless” at this time.

Anthropology Professor Christopher Carrico, who moderated the programme, told the students that the generations from the late 1960s, 70s and up until the 80s, were changing things while still in their 20s and he cited the example of Walter Rodney.

“If you’re looking for leadership you have to look around the room at each other,” he stated.
The UGSSC is an on-campus society which states one of its purpose as being “to agitate on and of campus for changes that are conducive to the accomplishment of the age-old ideals of freedom, justice and equality.”

It also lists social research and the development of practical and implementable solutions for social problems among its intended objectives.

The return of student movements as a social force

History this week No.52 /2011

Stabroek News Thursday, March 24, 2011

‘It was telling that Obama said in his 2010 State of the Union Address that universities would have to make more sacrifices in the current economy. FDR gave a similar speech once, except he called on the captains of industry and bankers to make sacrifices, not public employees and universities.’ Okla Elliott, asitoughttobe.com, 3 March 2011

Last month in CounterPunch, in the article ‘Why Madison matters’, scholar and policy researcher Andrew Levine wrote: “Almost overnight, the world changed. Madison (Wisconsin) became Ground Zero in America’s domestic class struggle; and, just as amazing, labor launched an uprising in defense of union rights which thousands of students joined.”

There are two things that Levine finds amazing here. First, he finds it amazing that class struggle and a labour movement have found new life in the US. Given American labour history of recent decades, this is reason enough to be amazed. A second amazement was the fact that a student movement and a labour movement were working in solidarity with one another.  This is a remarkable development for the American scene, where student-worker alliances remained largely matters of theory in the 1960s (not realized as a concrete reality as they were in some other countries).

Levine noted that in the US in the 1960s, one major reason for the failure of a real student-worker movement to materialise was the fact that the majority of the American working class did not support the student anti-war movement. On asitoughttobe.com on 13 March, I argued that the main reason that the present situation is different was that:

“Unlike the labor-capital pact that supported the military industrial complex of post WWII America, many more working people in the US today see a connection not between military spending and their livelihoods as workers in the military-industrial complex. Rather, the experience of today’s working class and poor is that spending on never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has created a federal debt crisis in the US that the government attempts to partially offset through dollars saved by the destruction of what remains of a social safety net and basic social services. The same class fraction that once formed the American ‘labor aristocracy’ now, incredibly, has begun to see the truth that Martin Luther King, Jr, among others, articulated in the US during the late 1960s: that the anti-war movement, and the movement for social and economic justice in the United States, are indeed a part of the same struggle and the same fight.”

If the American working class has stripped away some of its illusions about the War Economy, American students have also stripped away some of their illusions that gaining a tertiary education will guarantee them the possibility of rising above their class. “We see students in the United States and elsewhere faced with the harsh reality that, in spite of their higher level of education, they have no reasonable basis by which to believe that they will do better, or even as well, as their parents’ generation did economically.” The US is one of many countries where this scenario is true. About the UK I wrote: “Something of this same realization lies behind what has driven the recent student movement in the UK. Sparked in part by drastic tuition hikes put into place by the new Lib-Dem/Conservative coalition government, one interesting fact about the UK movement was the widespread participation of secondary school students. This is perhaps because the tuition hikes end the illusion of a meritocracy, and signal that even those poor and working class students who worked hard and achieved high test scores will increasingly be locked out of tertiary education.  Locked out of the possibility of rising above their class by way of higher education, poor and working class students face a bleak future, with dwindling opportunities for employment without further education, accompanied by dwindling opportunities for advancement by pursuing diplomas and degrees through the university system.”

In the US, students and workers in Wisconsin were responding to the newly elected ‘Tea Party’ Governor’s bill to eliminate the right to collective bargaining for the state’s public sector employees. It was opposed by a strong and fighting movement among the public sector unions, and was opposed just as strongly by student activists from Wisconsin’s colleges and universities. The student and worker battles ended in calls for a general strike.

The immediate battles have been lost. The bill was passed and signed by the Wisconsin Governor. Workers in Wisconsin did not go out on General Strike. But there is still the feeling among American progressives that something new was born in this fight; in spite of its failure to achieve its immediate objectives.

I would argue that a new spirit has been born worldwide in recent years that has meant, once again, as in the 1960s, student movements are at the vanguard of social change in many parts of the world. For many years, the student movement in Iran has been major force in opposing the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The student movement has been a steadfast leader in the anti- and alter-globalization movements around the world (usually more steadfast that the trade unions and the political parties), and in many places has transformed these into very assertive movements.

Massive student protests were central in the recent unraveling of the North African regimes. They played and continue to play a critical role in Tunisia and in Egypt, for instance. One factor at work here is the large numbers of young people in these countries, many of whom are unable to find much in the way of economic opportunities.  A New York Times article of 30 January, 2011, entitled ‘Egyptian opposition’s old guard falls in behind young leaders’ argued: “Both newcomers and veterans of the opposition movement say it is the young Internet pioneers who remain at the vanguard behind the scenes.”

In the Caribbean, in April last year, the students of the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus staged an action that was originally intended to be a 2-day strike on one campus, that turned into a strike that shut down 10 of the 11 UPR campuses, and saw students occupying the Rio Piedras Campus for 60 days. Among the issues at stake were tuition hikes, and the government’s refusal to provide adequate financial support to the university system.

In modern times, student movements have often played key roles in struggles for the transformation of the wider societies of which they are a part. Even in their most narrowly focused and parochial forms, student movements have played important roles in the democratization of education systems, in reforms and transformations to the educational curriculum, and engagements between academia and issues of wider social significance.

In the Caribbean, as in much of the world, 1968 was a watershed year for student movements. In October 1968, when UWI lecturer Dr Walter Rodney was refused re-entry to Jamaica by the Hugh Shearer government, a student group from UWI Mona held a demonstration that shut down the campus, and led a march on the Prime Minister’s office and Parliament. The chaos and destruction that followed as a result of the actions that poor and unemployed Jamaican youths also took in protest of Shearer’s ban have come to be known as the Rodney Riots.     When student movements look beyond their narrow parochial interests they can become truly significant agents of change in the societies of which they are a part. They have been a part of coalitions of forces that have helped to end wars, change budgets, change constitutions, and bring down governments.  Student movements with this wider social vision seemed to have reached their highest degree of significance in the 1960s, but in 2010 and 2011 they have shown themselves to be serious contenders in the fight for social change once again.

However, as Alex Callinicos noted in The Guardian late last year (26 December 2010), “Student demonstrators can’t do it on their own”. Students lack the collective power and the organizing ability to fundamentally transform the societies around them without making linkages, and acting in clear solidarity with other social movements, particularly the labour movement.

Callinicos writes (referring to the situation in the UK, but making an observation that is widely applicable in many other places) that “students lack the collective economic strength that, for all the setbacks it has suffered, the trade union movement still possesses”.

It is precisely this kind of student-labour alliance that caused so much hope in the case of the movement in Wisconsin, and student-labour alliances were (and continue to be) a major factor in the Egyptian revolution. There is something about the character of these kinds of alliance that gives them a tremendous amount of potential.

Perhaps it is because they bring mental and material production in their most organized forms together into a single movement. Whatever the underlying social reasons might be, student-worker movements have historically sometimes become movements for revolutionary social change.

INSURGENT ANTHROPOLOGIES: THEORIZING WISCONSIN

originally published on As It Ought to Be on 13 March, 2011

 

“It was telling that Obama said in his 2010 State of the Union Address that universities would have to make more sacrifices in the current economy. FDR gave a similar speech once, except he called on the captains of industry and bankers to make sacrifices, not public employees and universities. We need to teach these Democrats that they need to be taking FDR as their model, not Ronald Reagan.” – Okla Elliott, Incomplete Thoughts on Wisconsin and Political Enthusiasm, AIOTB, March 3, 2011.

Okla Elliott asked here on March 3, “how do we theorize the political enthusiasm generated around the Wisconsin movement?”  He calls our attention to an important political task, and not merely to a task that is abstract and intellectual.  Andrew Levine attempts to show what is stake domestically in this battle in his article “Why Madison Matters: Endgame of the Reagan Revolution” [i].  “Almost overnight,” writes Levine, “the world changed. Madison became Ground Zero in America’s domestic class struggle; and, just as amazing, labor launched an uprising in defense of union rights which thousands of students joined.”  Okla draws our attention to the fact that we almost instinctually know that Madison matters, before we have even reasoned it through.  And knowing it matters generates an enthusiasm that is contagious, but not having reasoned it through means that the movement that this enthusiasm creates does not yet have a sufficiently “(self)-critical or theoretical component.”

In one sense, the very absence of that self-critical theoretical component is one of the keys to understanding the cultural-philosophical underpinnings of the peculiarities of American students and American labor in this instance.  Americans are the inheritors of a particularly Anglo-Saxon loathing of theory and speculation, and American capital, American labor and even American students, by and large, adopt a single dominant philosophy: pragmatism. The situation could not possibly further from that of much of North Africa and Europe, where, in recent strikes, protests and direct actions, theory and practice seem to have developed together dialectically; and there is a wide range of ways in which recent movements are theorized.  As Mao would have said, “a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend.”  In America there is no time for flowers.  In America, there is only what works.

What works, for the past 30 years, my friend Charles Brown has pointed out to me, can neatly be summarized using one word: Reaganism. Reaganism is the strange marriage of two seemingly contradictory worldviews: neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism.  What these two philosophies combined have amounted to, in their instrument effects in the world, are a justifying ideology for the global retrenchment of capitalist class power, as has been noted about neo-liberalism by David Harvey in A Brief History of Neo-liberalism, and by Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy in Capital Resurgent.

The era of industrial capitalism was theorized by Marx just as it was coming of age. Marx asserted that it created the conditions for socialism through the centralization and concentration of capital, but more importantly, it created its own gravediggers by facilitating the development of the self-consciousness of the working class through the centralization and concentration of labor in giant industrial factories. In one sense, the dwindling numbers and the inertia of labor in core capitalist countries also would seem to vindicate the notion that classical industrial workers had conditions more conducive to the development of proletarian consciousness when compared to the disarticulated, more atomized and isolated workforce that has emerged during the post-Fordist Era of production in places like the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan.  However, I would argue that the fact that capitalism since Reagan and Thatcher has taken on a more rapacious form has, in the longer term, created a consciousness of shared conditions of immiseration in much of the world, as persons from China, India, Brazil, Egypt, the American Midwest, etc., are beginning to recognize, to perhaps a greater extent than ever happened before, that they are indeed fighting the same struggle and the same fight, against the class warfare of the transnational bourgeoisie.

For the domestic scene in the United States, one factor that Andrew Levine [i] does not mention that grew out of the Reagan Revolution, is the longer-term trajectory of the disappearance of a middle class.  Alternatively framed, he does not address the longer-term disappearance of a large, relatively prosperous fraction of the American working class. These are the concrete material conditions that now show the potential to make possible in the United States the movement of coalitions and class alliances that remained largely matters of theory rather than of practical and sustainable alliances during the 1960s.  The worker-student alliance that Levine mentions, for instance, now has conditions which make it a potential that can be realized in practice and not just posed as a theory.

Levine emphasizes the fact that a student-worker alliance was impossible in the 1960s, in part because of the ‘counter-cultural affinities’ of the student movement, and because the American working class, in large part, was not supportive of the student anti-war movement.  Unlike the labor-capital pact that supported the military industrial complex of post WWII America, many more working people in the US today see a connection not between military spending and their livelihoods as workers in the military-industrial complex.  Rather, the experience of today’s working class and poor is that spending on never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has created a federal debt crisis in the US that the government attempts to partially offset through dollars saved by the destruction of what remains of a social safety net and basic social services. The same class fraction that once formed the American “labor aristocracy” now, incredibly, has begun to see the truth that Martin Luther King, Jr., among others, articulated in the U.S. during the late 1960s: that the anti-war movement, and the movement for social and economic justice in the United States, are indeed a part of the same struggle and the same fight.

At the other end of the student-worker convergence, we see students in the United States and elsewhere faced with the harsh reality that, in spite of their higher level of education, they have no reasonable basis by which to believe that they will do better, or even as well, as their parents generation did economically.  Richard Wolff has pointed out that this is the first time in American history, as far back as statistics have been kept on these matters, that the American working class has not experienced long term rising prosperity in comparison to workers of the past.  This generation has experienced the end, in effect, of the American dream – the dream of perpetual progress towards ever greater wealth and prosperity for the majority of its citizens.  Something of this same realization lies behind what has driven the recent student movement in the UK. Sparked in part by drastic tuition hikes put into place by the new Lib-Dem/Conservative coalition government, one interesting fact about the UK movement was the widespread participation of secondary school students. This is perhaps because the tuition hikes end the illusion of a meritocracy, and signal that even those poor and working class students who worked hard and achieved high test scores will increasingly be locked out of tertiary education. Locked out of the possibility of rising above their class by way of higher education, poor and working class students face a bleak future, with dwindling opportunities for employment without further education, accompanied by dwindling opportunities for advancement by pursuing diplomas and degrees through the university system.

Simultaneous with the convergence of the material interests of students and workers, there has been, at least at the rank-and-file level, the emergence of a genuinely multi-cultural/multi-racial labor movement in the United States. While much of established white labor only came on board with the goals of the Civil Rights movement slowly and begrudgingly during the 1960s, the old slogans of “same struggle and same fight” have actually become a part of the lived reality of a greater part of American labor, and have become an institutional reality at the level of rank-and-file union membership during the years of the hegemony of Reaganism. The attack on private sector unions having largely been successful, and the greater representation of people of color in the ranks of the public sector unions, combined with the gradual realization on the part of labor leaders that a large part of the hope of recruiting new union members and reviving the labor movement lie in organizing some sections of the working class where African Americans, Latinos, and immigrants and people of color generally are disproportionately found.  These are the low wage service sector, the remaining low wage agricultural and industrial jobs, and the public sector.

While there may be a significant contingent of the non-white middle class, that believes, along with Barack Obama and Bill Cosby, that the United States has largely become a “post-racial” country, the lived experience of the majority of African Americans, Latinos, and other oppressed minorities tells us a different story.  What establishes the basis for recognition of real common material interests is the fact that the white working class, the old labor aristocracy, has largely been decimated, and has also experienced, albeit to a lesser degree, declining material conditions during a time with capitalist elites are richer and more powerful than ever.

Furthermore, at the level of its leadership, trade unionists in the United States have gradually recognized that adopting an anti-immigrant stance is counter-productive, and that labor’s goals should not be to fight against the immigrant worker, but rather fight alongside these workers against the common enemy of the transnational capitalist class.  Shared reasons to oppose NAFTA were perhaps one turning point here.  This recognition by trade unionists, however, has not yet had the sufficient power to challenge anti-immigrant ideologies that we see spreading like wild-fire among some fractions of the American working class, leading them to vote against their real material interests as they hear right wing populists and nationalists falsely blaming the decline of the material prosperity of the American working class on the competition it receives from immigrant labor and from the relocation of industrial production to the developing world.

The Tea Party faction of the Republican Party, which came to power electorally during the mid-term elections of 2010, has been making some of the last moves in the “Endgame of the Reagan Revolution”. It came to power on the basis of thinly veiled racism against a black president.  It came to power on the basis of xenophobia, nationalism, and anti-immigrant sympathy.  It came to power by appealing to cultural wedge issues that obfuscate what is at stake for working class people economically. Portraying themselves as the representatives of, and counting on the continuous support of, white, working class Middle America, once in power their main actions are aimed at stripping away what remains of a degree of hope and dignity on the part of working class Americans.  As they are really the representatives of the most reactionary factions of big capital, the Tea Party cannot operate in any other manner than to shed pretenses, to take off its mask, and bring the illusions of Reaganism to an end.  They can no longer wear Ronald Reagan’s happy face.  They must reveal themselves finally as what many of us argued they were from the start: corporate goons, creeping Fascists in sheep’s clothing.  And they came first for the trade unionists.

While the Endgame is being played out domestically in the United States, where a breaking point has been reached, a breaking point has also been reached internationally.  Internationally, as well, the strange bedfellows of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism have played themselves out.  Internationally, there is a populist revolt against the cumulative effects of the increasingly rapacious character of capital as it has developed over the past 30 years.  There is also a concerted effort on the part of entrenched power around the world to crush this populist rebellion by any means necessary.

On March 3, Okla Elliott wrote here at As It Ought to Be, that “mass movements that do not have a (self-)critical or theoretical component have a habit of either failing or turning into things almost as bad as what they sought to depose.”  Commenting on his piece, I echoed this sentiment by saying:

“Improperly theorized political movements have little chance of achieving long term success, and failed movements can sometimes strengthen the hand of reactionaries. Nazism and Fascism, for instance, moved in to fill the void left by the failure of workers’ movements in Germany and Italy. And in Egypt today, only daring to struggle and daring to win will ensure that a new Egyptian military regime does not emerge that is even more repressive than the Mubarak regime that it overthrew.”

Similarly, in the U.S. and Western Europe, neo-Fascism looks on hopefully at the legislative defeats experienced by labor in the United States.  Legislative failures that have come in spite of resistance such as that in Wisconsin, where the largest protests that have taken place in the United States since the Vietnam War occurred.  Neo-Fascists look on with glee as they come for the trade unionists.

Meanwhile, there is an active, engaged, and very real populist revolt that will not be easily persuaded to give up rights to collective bargaining even if the manner in which these rights have been stripped away is deemed as legal and constitutional.  Contained within this revolt is the potential that the political enthusiasm it generates will, at long last, awaken the sleeping giant of the American working class.  On February 21st, Wisconsin’s South Central Federation of Labor voted to endorse a general strike opposing Governor Walker’s bill that would, among other things, eliminate the right to collective bargaining.

Calling any kind of solidarity strike is against the law under currently existing American Labor Law as defined in the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947.  American Labor has not called for actions like General Strikes in the United States since the time of the Great Depression.  Hopefully this is a sign that the sleeping giant is awakening, because if it is not, then we will certainly have a world that is more oppressive and totalitarian than the one that we have had up to now.  The fundamental theoretical question that we must ask is not one that is new.  It is one that has been thrown up repeatedly during capitalism’s major crises.  It is largely agreed that we are at the greatest moment of crisis that has been faced since the Great Depression.  The question that we must ask today is fundamentally the same as the burning question of that earlier crisis: do we want to fight for a world that would move us closer towards socialism, or do we want to accept a world where big capital day-by-day makes the world ever more barbaric?

SUPPORT A WORLDWIDE GENERAL STRIKE FROM THIS DAY UNTIL CAPITAL IS PUT IN ITS PLACE.




[i] Andrew Levine, 2011  “Why Madison Matters: Endgame of the Reagan Revolution”, CounterPunch, Vol. 18 No. 4, pg. 5-6.