22 February 2013

Labor Pains and Party Poopers

The latest Nation magazine forum asks its participants, "How Can Labor Be Saved?" It's a sadly familiar question with sadly familiar answers. There seems to be a common recognition that labor needs to merge itself with a larger movement of the unorganized working class and the poor in general, but somehow the most obvious idea keeps getting missed. Karen GJ Lewis notes that "The Democratic Party has taken us for granted for too long," and argues that "It is time for some self-reliance. Identify, train and support union members as candidates for elected public office," but that's as daring as anyone gets here. Larry Cohen's contribution is headlined, "Build a Democracy Movement," but Cohen seems to confuse the thing to be built with the Democratic party that exists today. While insisting that labor should "build political organizations at the state and federal levels that link economic justice to democracy," he adds that "We need a caucus inside the Democratic party that exposes the role of big money and holds elected officials accountable to our issues, including launching primary challenges at every level." That's a very familiar answer; we've been hearing it for close to a century now, and the frequency with which this need is reiterated should show the futility of trying to fulfill it the old way. Is it impossible to imagine an actual labor party in the United States? If so, perhaps the Republicans should rewrite their old script about Democrats kowtowing to "Big Labor," since reality actually seems to work the other way around. Unions, meanwhile, should ask whether their continued alliance with or complacency toward the Democratic party lives up to the imperative articulated most forcefully by New York Taxi Workers Alliance founder Bhairavi Desai.

Unless we become a movement with a membership that recognizes its historic responsibilities -- rather than just a set of institutions answerable only to our own members -- we will lie under capital's feet. Labor must embrace its role as the movement of the oppressed, animated by progressive ideals and an unapologetic militancy....Traditional labor has to move away from a National Labor Relations Board-dependent (and -deadlined) organizing approach, which is dismissive of the real potential of workers to build power. Laws are necessary to keep the other side in check, and so we need to fight for better ones. But we don't have to wait for the law to tell us whether we have a right to organize, or to define who we as unions and union members are. Workers alone do that.

Until Desai recognizes the necessity of a political organization by, of and for the workers -- with whom other interests can ally -- she too will remain dismissive of the real potential of workers to build power. If laws are necessary to keep the other side in check -- that is, if there is to be a rule of law in the workplace that respects workers as well as property, contrary to "capital's" apparent preference -- workers need to not just fight for but make those laws. Desai seems to recognize this in her implication that workers can define their own rights, but as far as I can tell she'd still leave the law-making to the self-styled experts, as if the Democratic party were the skilled legislators' union. It may still seem unrealistic to imagine a labor party supplanting the Democrats, but a persistent failure of imagination within the labor movement would only prove that you can be realistic without really being serious about your situation and your options. To be serious in this case might mean acknowledging that the odds are and will remain against you -- that your only real chance is a small one -- yet you must act. It all depends on what you think your historic responsibilities are.


Anonymous said...

It seems to me that labor can only be saved by labor. That is to say, the intelligentsia who sees itself sided with labor cannot save labor.

For the working class to get what they deserve, what they merit - a true share in the wealth that they create - they need to become a political force in and of themselves. Not merely followers of some party or other who claims to represent them, but a true labor party whose members are not career politicians, but working class people.

That won't happen until all working class people are educated enough to understand where their best interests lies.

Philip Kushmaro said...

this isn't exactly the labor pain
article I was looking for but... I liked how it was written and I appreciate the effort that was done to explain the situation. Thank you!