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Why we can’t go back to the way things were in Grand Rapids: Part III – Radically re-imagining work and a new economy

May 26, 2020

Last month, we posted an initial article about Grand Rapids can’t go back to normal after the COVID 19 crisis. We made the argument that the inequities that existed before the crisis which amplified with the crisis, but they would continue to exist long after COVID 19, unless we begin to radically re-image another way of organizing ourselves. 

In Part II, we focused on food, the current food system and why we need to radically re-imagine a new food system in this community. In Part III, we want to look at labor, labor unions and the future of work.

While most of this post will be discussing the nature of work within a capitalist system, it is critical that we think about and imagine work in a post-capitalist system. Part of the problem with labor/work in a capitalist system is that it is too often framed as jobs, specifically jobs that require bosses and owners.

Work, however, can be a liberating experience, if we see work as what people do when growing a garden, cooking, doing grassroots organizing, raising children, making music, art or any other activity that is uniquely human.

Unfortunately, before we can get to a more liberated notion of work, we need to create opportunities for people to see the possibilities of labor organizing within the current capitalist system.

Most of us have jobs, where we spend a great deal of time on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis. However, how many of us go to a job where the workplace itself is based on cooperation, where the workplace is democratic?

Current estimates are that only 10% of those who have a job in the US are part of a labor union. This percentage is the lowest it has been in more than a century. IF we want our workplaces to be more cooperative, more democratic, where people feel valued and have a voice in how things operate, then why not join a union or start your own?

How many people have been saying for years that they could do their job from home? Working from home has been a demand of those with disabilities for decades, but most employers were not interested in such ideas. Now with COVID-19 we see that indeed many people can work from home. If more labor unions existed, such a demand could have become a reality, way before we were in the midst of a pandemic. But here is thing, we have to make working from home a demand right now, even after the pandemic is over. What would employers use as an argument post-COVID-19 for not allowing people to work from home?

When people have labor unions, they have the possibility for workplace democracy. People can demand better wages, better benefits, better working conditions, plus they can advocate as workers to have greater say in day to day operations.

We know that labor unions have fought and won the 8 hour work day, workers compensation, workplace safety, better wages, pensions, improved workplace environment and the abolition of child labor. These were all victories that workers fought for, since they were never a gift from bosses, corporations or members of the capitalist class. For an important overview of this history, see From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend, by Priscilla Murolo and A.B. Chitty.

However, since the end of WWII, labor union have been losing ground on numerous fronts. The number of workers in the US that are part of a labor union has steadily declined since the 1950s. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 was a major blow to workers, since it attempted to make strikes, particularly wildcat strikes illegal. 

The de-industrialization in the US, also weakened worker unions, as did the rise of globalization, which included trade agreements that fundamentally undermined unions and workers rights in general. However, a major factor in the weakening of organized labor has been its decision to attach itself to the Democratic Party, especially in the past 50 years. Now, before people dismiss this point, I ask you to think about 2 things. First, how much money have unions and their members dished out in recent decades to support Democrats, and second, how has that money resulted in worker justice and increased workplace democracy?

Unions and the Financial backing of the Democratic Party

If we look at the data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics, we can see what the major unions have contributed to the Democratic Party since 1990. Lets take a look at four examples, especially four of the major labor unions in the US; the United Auto Workers, the AFL-CIO, the National Education Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

This means that these four major unions combined have spent $365 million to influence elections and another $231 million to lobbying those already elected. What this says is that these four unions have used $596 million of their members money to try to influence election and policy at the federal level since 1990.

In Michigan, the trend is not much different. If you look at the data provided by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN) for all the state races in the 2018 election, you will see that the Democratic candidates have received hundreds of thousands from various labor unions within the past 18 months and will continue to receive thousands more before the November election. In addition, some of the largest Political Action Committees in the state are labor unions, which you can also see from the MCFN. 

A more specific example of how unions have spent money during an election cycle, was in 2012, when unions spent $21.9 million to pass Proposal 2. The business community however, spent $25.9 million to defeat the measure, which it did. Just after the November election in 2012, there was a major rally held in Lansing, where some 10,000 workers and allies came to protest the austerity measures being passed by the state, particularly making Michigan a Right to Work state. Unfortunately, instead of occupying the capitol building or shutting down Lansing, most of the rally organizers proposed that they get their people elected in 2014……….which didn’t happen.

What have unions and workers won with millions going to the Democrats?

It will be argued that if unions did not support Democrats with millions during elections in recent decades that the GOP would have pass even more draconian laws to further weaken labor laws and give private capital even greater power. This may be true to some extent, but what such an argument doesn’t take into account, is the fact that in the heyday of the labor movement – late 19th Century through 1945 – is that workers won a great deal without primarily aligning themselves with the Democrats. In fact, what labor historians have made clear is that the labor movement, by engaging in massive organizing efforts and using direct action were the reasons why they won so many labor disputes.

In more recent decades, say during the 8 years of the Clinton administration and the 8 years of the Obama administration, we need to ask what major labor victories took place? My read on those years was that there were no major labor victories, but there was a steady decline of union membership and numerous set backs for working people. Think of the number of trade agreements that were enacted since 1992, when NAFTA went into effect. The massive WTO protest in Seattle took place in 1999, while Clinton was in the White House.

During the Obama years, the only significant thing that organized labor asked from the Obama administration was to not sign on to more trade policies like the TPP and to pass the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). The TPP did not pass, despite the Obama administration’s support of it and the EFCA never got any traction. Again, unions may argue that if they had not financially backed Democrats then workers would have lost more ground, but the real question should be, what are labor union getting/winning by giving millions to Democrats?

Time for a new Labor Movement/Labor Strategy?

Ok, so lets say that organized labor decides to stop funding the Democratic Party and instead focuses on movement building. Union members could still vote for Democrats if they chose, but they could be part of a new labor movement that would not be beholden to political parties and could actually affect change.

There are already some signs to workers and unions pushing for more transformative justice. There is the $15 an hour movement, the numerous teacher strikes across the country and there are efforts to organize workers from corporations like Amazon. However, these efforts are often unconnected and they are not primarily focused on workplace democracy.

First, what if organized labor used the funding that they would have put towards elections and use it for paying people to organize shops and other work places? Not only would this scare the shit out of the capitalist class, it would give more workers an opportunity to be part of a union that actually fought for them. This kind of union organizing should also take place outside of specialized work and organize migrant labor, service sectors, restaurant workers and the unemployed.

Second, workers could engage in wildcat strikes, walkouts or other forms of direct action that would force companies to the table. In demonstrating their power, workers could negotiate wages, benefits and workplace dynamics that would result in victories. As individual shops and work places win labor battles, these same unions could join other labor struggles and support workers who were fighting get get a union and all the possibilities that come with being organized.

Third, unions could re-direct the money that they were spending for elections and lobbying to provide mutual aid to families that are experiencing poverty, facing foreclosure or any other economic hardships, including the corporate-driven health care costs. Not only would this kind of mutual aid help build relationships with working class people, it could result in an increase in union membership.

Fourth, what if the labor movement began to develop their own independent media. The commercial media will not represent the collective struggles of workers, in large part because they are dependent on advertising dollars from the very entities that exploit workers. We used to have a lively labor press in the US, but so little of that exists now. We need an independent media that tells the stories of the people whom the commercial media ignores. With an independent media, more people will have access to information that the commercial media marginalizes or represses. I’m not talking about just online media, I’m talking about labor-based press, a newspaper that is run by and for workers. Such a tool and other forms of media are weapons we need in the war of propaganda that the capitalist press is winning.

These proposals are not necessarily new, since much of what we have been talking about has been done before, with a great deal of success. However, we do need to do some things differently from what organized labor has done in the past.

Fifth, the worker-led movement needs to also connect to other movements around fighting white supremacy, patriarchy, ablism, homophobia, transphobia and fighting for food justice, immigrant justice and climate justice. Class issues can bring us together, but only if we do not make class the center of all justice struggles. The new work-led movement needs to be intersectional and transformative and not settle for just fighting against capitalism, but creating new economic systems that are democratic, local and multifaceted. We can take a cue from the wobblies who believed that, “An injury to one is an injury to all.

Organized Labor is Not Enough: We need a new economic system

As we noted in the beginning of this article, we need to radically re-imagine our beliefs about work and what is truly essential in a post-COVID-19 world. It seems that the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated to millions around the world that the current system of capitalism primarily benefits the super rich and it is ecologically unsustainable. 

Workers around the world have already been demanding more and going on strike in record numbers. Well, when I say record numbers, I mean for what we have seen in recent decades. However, if we look to a previous crisis in the US, say the Great Depression, then the amount of strikes that are happening now are minuscule, compared to then.

According to the book Strike!, by Jeremy Brecher, there were literally thousands of strikes that took place in the early and mid-1930s, mostly due to the growing unrest amongst workers and the Capitalist system. There was also lots of frustration with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which was focused on craft unions and did not share the same anti-capitalist sentiment that a growing number of workers felt. This political climate is what gave birth to the Committee for Industrial Organizing (CIO).

It is also important to note that many of these strike in the post-Great Depression era were wildcat strikes or sit-down strikes, where workers were not outside of factories on a picket line, but where workers showed up for work and then refuse to do anything. Sometimes these wildcats strikes involved workers literally taking over a factory and not allowing bosses or owners to enter. According to Brecher, in 1936, there were 48 sit-down strikes and in 1937, there were 477. Not only did these strikes scare the shit out of the capitalist class, it forced the administration of FDR to adopt more labor-friendly policies in the 1930s. When the labor movement was well organized and engaged in direct action, that is when they were able to win legislative victories. They did not need to be tethered to a political party.

Labor strikes and General strikes can and should be a tactic that we use today. What would it look like if migrant farm workers went on strike and had millions of people supporting them? If our food system comes to a halt, then the chances of winning demands of farmworkers would likely become a reality.

However, all of these efforts should not limit un to thinking about a new economic system(s), where people and the planet are truly valued. Equally important is the idea that we cannot limit ourselves into thinking that doing work is the same as having a job. There are millions of people who hate their jobs. They hate their jobs because they are not financially compensated in a just way, they have no power, and for many people they hate their jobs because it is meaningless, often soul-crushing, work.

Lets face it, there are millions of jobs that exist that perpetuate environmental destruction and the consumption of shitty products. In a radically imagined world, where work was truly valued and people were not forced to find a job, do you think people would willingly chose to build bombs or manufacture Monsanto products? Most of us have jobs to pay the bills, to pay off our student-loans and to have some form of health care coverage. In a radically re-imagined world we could all participate in doing doing work that was life affirming, that was nurturing, work that was creative and work that was not environmental destructive. In a radically re-imagined world we would all have more time for relaxation, for pursuing our creative interests and for play. Anything is possible if we are organized and practice direct action to win the kind of demands we want. Another World is possible!!!

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