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Monday, February 21, 2011


It is distressing, but not really surprising, that heroic struggles for freedom and justice, even when successful, tend to be forgotten by subsequent generations. Young people in South Africa, who have benefited directly by the successful anti-apartheid freedom fight, have grown up in a land in which they have, and take for granted, rights that their parents, and even their older brothers and sisters, risked their lives for. Young women in America can scarcely believe that their mothers and grandmothers had to brave ridicule, dismissal, and much worse for the rights they enjoy so unthinkingly. Even in the Afro-American Studies Department in which I taught for the last sixteen years of my career, doctoral students whose field of study included the Civil Rights Movement found it hard to call to mind the names of men and women with whom their own professors had marched. And so I ought not to be surprised to find that so many working men and women in America are utterly ignorant of the bloody battles union organizers fought for the five day week, health care, paid vacations, safe working conditions, and decent wages.

Right now, we are witnessing a blatant and unabashed effort by an emboldened right wing to strip working men and women of the simply right to organize and bargain collectively. Let us not be misled. Republicans are attempting to dismantle, piece by piece, the structure of social justice and welfare that it has taken a century and more to construct. They want to eliminate labor unions, terminate Social Security, phase out Medicare, get rid of safety and quality controls on products sold in the marketplace, and reduce the vast majority of Americans to the status of virtual serfdom, all in the name of free markets, liberty, and the American Way.

This is a fight worth fighting, and each one of us must do whatever he or she can do to support those who are on the front lines. Give money to the strikers and the Wisconsin State Senators who have absented themselves to block the Governor from forcing through a bill to destroy public employee unions. Sign petitions, go to rallies, and proclaim everywhere the truth that labor organizing is, in our country at this time, THE progressive thing to do. It is more important right now than buying a Volt or separating your garbage for recycling. It is even more important than saving the whales, although all of those are worthwhile efforts.

This fight began in earnest with the successful attempt by that Potemkin Village of a man Reagan to kill PATCO [google it, if you don't' know], and it will not stop until we have driven the troglodytes back into their caves. There cannot be a compromise on this issue, because our success in winning it is the condition for all future meaningful compromises on any other issues of public policy. It is fully as important as ending slavery.


Anonymous said...
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Noumena said...

As I gear up to teach Charles Mills' The racial contract in my Intro to Philosophy class (next to the one day where we read Matthew Crawford and about the labor movement, it's my favorite part of the semester), I've been re-reading his little book and thinking about analogues to the issues you raise here.

For Mills, white interest in remaining ignorant about the full extent of structural racism, past and present, does a lot of explanatory work, and I think it does so plausibly: whites don't want to talk about the racial impact of the war on drugs, say, and so they don't, and so their kids think of drugs as a matter of individual responsibility that either should be outlawed (because they're so dangerous) or legalized (because prohibition doesn't work), rather than as the mainstay of the economy in some black and brown neighborhoods and a rationalization for harassment by the police. The mechanism maintaining white ignorance here is quite simple: a combination of de facto segregation and white parents (schools, &c.) not talking about structural racism. I'm trying to keep this comment on the short side, but let me know if I need to explain this more carefully.

Ignorance of the benefits of the labor movement is probably just as widespread as ignorance of structural racism. I wonder if a similar mechanism can explain this ignorance as well: The successes of the labor movement enabled many (white) families to get a college education and white-collar jobs and move into the petite bourgeoisie. White flight from the cities was also the flight of the petite bourgeoisie from industrialized manufacturing areas, and the children of lawyers and doctors no longer came into regular contact with the children of factory workers and auto mechanics. That is, we have de facto class segregation. At the same time, the parents and schools of the petite bourgeoisie don't talk about the labor movement except as something that happened long ago and far away (in California in the mid-'90s, we learned about the Pullman Strikes and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, but not Cesar Chavez) and, in any case, did nothing to create a stable middle class (that was the state, through the New Deal and Great Society).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think that is right. [By the way, I think Mills' book is terrific. I also have a copy of his unpublished ideological critique of LORD OF THE RINGS, which is just brilliant, but it is his paper, and not mine to put on the web.] Let me add one more bit to your explanation. To many White Americans, "middle class" means "not Black." To acknowledge that they are workers, hence beneficiaries of and natural constituents of labor unions, is to risk identifying with non-whites. So they embrace the epithet "middle classs" regardless of their income level and role in the social relations of production.

Where are you teaching this, or would that be telling?

Noumena said...

I vaguely recall hearing something about a rewriting of Lord of the Rings from the perspective of the Orcs, but I can only imagine how much fun Mills would have with it!

Anyways, your point is well-taken. That would mark a significant change from the early decades of the labor movement, when many labor unions excluded blacks, right? (And Catholics, but that was also racial in a way.) Maybe I'll see if I can steer the conversation about Mills this semester towards this issue -- this semester's class really enjoyed the day on Crawford and the labor movement, and we haven't had a chance to talk about the events in Wisconsin yet.

My identity isn't actually anonymous, you just have to find the right series of links to follow. I'm a grad student at Notre Dame, which is where I taught Mills last semester. (It was quite the education for the scions of the wealthy white Chicago suburbs -- I think I convinced about two-thirds of the class that if our society isn't deeply racially unjust then it's deeply economically unjust.) This semester I'm teaching the same Intro to Philosophy syllabus at our local state college, to a night class of much more diverse (and much more interesting) `non-traditional' students. If you can help me remember, I'll write a comment letting you (and anyone else who wanders past) know how our sessions on Mills went.

john c. halasz said...

Umm... Nou, the CIO movement didn't exclude RC's, since that was a large part of the urban working-class at the time, (the late 1930's). You might want to consult the case of Monsignor John Egan, who, despite the later defections of the Chicago Arch-diocese, still has a building in his name on the DePaul campus.

Mack said...

Noumena, here's what you're looking for:

Noumena said...

john - What I had in mind was the pre-'30s labor movement. IIRC, the CIO was much more successful than prior organizations in large part precisely because they weren't whites-only. Cf. this little oral history:

Mack - Yes, that's the book I remember hearing about. Thanks!