Across the world and at home, we are learning how to improve
our societies. At a breakfast meeting Sunday, November 17, we discussed the
present situation and went over some of the lessons of the past.
The United States had more workers on strike in 2018 than in
any year since the crackdown against the working class began in the 1970s.
Working families in Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Iraq, Iran, Spain, and
Greece and other nations are holding massive protests. The progressive movement
is far broader, that is that more disparate individuals and groups are
practicing solidarity, than in recent history.
How do we make sense of it all and decide which of the many opportunities most merit our resources? We posed some interesting questions that, for most of us, are not easy to answer:
Why are there so many arguments in the progressive movement? What are some of the major divisions in the progressive movement today?
What is happening in Bolivia? In Hong Kong?
Are all the world’s protesters working toward similar goals?
Would you defend the right of the Ku Klux Klan to recruit members in public places?
Would you defend the right of American armed forces to recruit members in public places?
Would you defend the right of ISIS, Middle Eastern religious fighters, to recruit members in public places?
Would you defend the right of your local police department to recruit members in public places?
Would you urge police associations to join organized labor federations?
Does America really need a revolution?
Will revolutionaries be elected into power?
Were the Bolsheviks correct in taking power in 1917, or has
history shown that the Menshevik gradualists had a better understanding of
One would like to think that all progressive activists would agree, even on difficult questions. But the truth is that arguments have always racked and divided the movement. Our group tried looking at the time-tested ideas of great thinkers of the past. We were looking for guidelines, not specific directions.
For guidelines and to initiate discussion, we used the
automated learning modules in the “ABC” section of the Little School at http://lilleskile.us/school. I am its
author. So far, we’ve looked at the first nine lessons. The next one will be on
trade unions. Some people finish a module in five minutes.
Here are some of the main points we’ve discussed so far:
Activists need to study in order to become more unified and effective
Almost everything we have been taught has been filtered by reactionaries
Of the two main branches of philosophy, idealism and materialism, materialism is the best guide
In general and in the long view, the human condition has improved
People’s views are strongly affected by their station in society
Different classes of people have strongly divergent views
Everything, including societies, is constantly changing
We plan to get together again on the morning of December 1.
Let me know if you’re interested
I am worrying that members may resign from the United Auto Workers because they see no way to overcome the union’s problems. Leaving the union would be a disaster for those individuals and for all their brothers and sisters. Better to stay in the union and force it to change.
Here is a short
list of reform suggestions:
One-person-one-vote for critical decisions
No staffer control over membership deliberations
Join the rest of the labor movement, especially in politics
Full disclosure and cooperation with the membership
Meetings in most economical venues
Put “joint” activities under the same rigorous accounting oversight as regular union activities
Hold meetings in economical venues
The new acting
President of the United Auto Workers (UAW) is named Rory Gamble. His peers on
the International Executive Board asked him to take over after they pressured
the elected president, Gary Jones, to take a paid leave of absence. On UAW.org,
Gamble writes: “…I know recent events concerning members of our leadership have
disappointed and angered many of you….”
He is referring
to federal indictments against a number of active and retired top union leaders
and published allegations against some more, including Gary Jones. Newspapers
also reveal that other former leaders are testifying in the federal
investigation. Charges and allegations include embezzlement, corruption, and
money laundering. Two former top staffers published an op-ed calling for the
entire leadership to be fired.
The specifics in
the newspaper articles say that union officials could not account for money
spent on wrist watches, golf fees, expensive cigars, and fine liquors. I’d like
to come back to that.
Union Busters and
In these times,
no one should be surprised to learn that the government is trying to destroy
the UAW and its leaders. No one should be surprised that the corporate media is
doing all they can toward that same end.
surprising is the commentary that follows the news releases. Writers who say
they are union members are buying into the anti-union onslaught wholeheartedly.
When Gary Jones stepped down, for instance, hardly anyone wrote on social media
about whether or not he had actually done anything wrong. Almost all of the
comments, instead, were calling for his head. The mildest among them were
saying that his salary should be cut off immediately. This is before any
official charges have been filed.
problems are built in, even when the union is working well.
reps and negotiators know that their efforts are unlikely to please any union
member without pissing off another one. If the union wins a raise for someone,
for example, someone else demands to know why they didn’t get the same raise,
or a higher one.
results of union ratification votes in the recent General Motors strike reveal
that 42% of those voting did not like the contract offer well enough to accept
it. They must have known that they were voting to continue the grueling strike,
but they bravely voted against the offer anyway. After the other 58% ratified
the contract, that 42% was certain to be discontent. It’s built in to contract
negotiations that somebody will be glad and somebody else will be mad.
union contracts, servicing reps spend a lot of time, maybe the majority of
their time, helping the very worst members. A worker who stays sober and comes
to work on time regularly may not see his/her servicing rep for months on end.
The drunk who screws up has the servicing rep on speed dial. There’s really no
way around that.
When the union is working well, seniority is strictly observed. The first people to get promotions and raises are the ones that have been on the job longest. The first ones laid off are the newest. There’s no way around that, either, because the alternative would be to let the boss decide, and he will go with his nephew every time! But seniority creates a built-in problem for unions, especially during times like the last few decades, when more people are getting laid off than hired and the membership keeps aging.
revolutionary. Hot-blooded young members with high ideals and little to lose
are always wanting their union to take on and destroy the establishment. They
are always disappointed because unions don’t want to destroy companies or
systems. They just want better treatment for their members. It’s built in.
But There are
Unions became increasingly isolated after the 1947 Taft Hartley law was passed over President Truman’s veto. The progressives in the union movement were kicked out en masse. The conservative union leaders then embraced “business unionism.” They stopped struggling for social programs like shorter working hours, increased Social Security, and national health care. Instead, they bought management’s suggestions for company-provided pensions and health care. The UAW, in what is often called the “Treaty of Detroit,” led the charge backward.
Most union members were glad. They started seeing their wages, pensions, and health care get better and better while people without unions could only enjoy a residual effect. Union officers learned to play golf with management while growing more and more isolated, not only from the working class at large, but from their own members. In the long run, it was a recipe for disaster, but in the short run, during America’s great post-war boom, it worked great for the members. To this day, many union members think the leaders of the 1950s and 1960s were some kind of geniuses.
Membership fell steadily after 1957. Disaffection, separation of union leaders from everybody else, grew worse. Membership participation in union meetings declined. Leadership became increasingly opportunist. That is, they took UAW staff jobs because they were really good jobs, not out of any commitment to the union (witness them today hurrying to testify for the union-busters). Nepotism is one of the uglier aspects of opportunism, and it is weakening the UAW.
Then came Reagan
By the late
1970s, the United States began to lose its economic hegemony over the rest of
the world. Other industrial nations rebuilt the factories that were bombed flat
during the war, and they started producing products that were as good or
better, and often cheaper, than those made in the United States. Little foreign
cars, for example, became quite trendy in America.
presidential election of 1980, the employers committed to a solid plan to drive
down unit labor costs in America. They found an excellent spokesperson and
mobilized the government, the media, and most of the establishment around him.
With government help, they shipped the best American manufacturing jobs
overseas. They automated jobs away. They busted unions when they could and
passed anti-union legislation at every opportunity.
Unions, who had completely
forgotten about the historic fight to shorten working hours in response to
automation, bled members. Some of them tried to adapt through strategic mergers
with other unions and by innovative approaches to organizing. A few of them did
OK, but the UAW wasn’t one of them. Membership fell from 1,500,000 to around
The UAW responded
to the Reagan assault mostly by embracing the “Big 3” auto companies and
declaring that the enemies of the union were not managers but, rather, were
foreign workers, especially the very successful Japanese. They pushed “buy
union-made cars,” without mentioning that most of the foreign auto companies
were unionized. They immersed themselves into company-led “jointness” ventures
and “team” production. Union editors were encouraged, even directed, to give up
their union newspapers and join forces with management.
One result was
that “joint” ventures created opportunities for corruption, and one direct
result of that is some of the UAW leaders now in jail or under indictment. They
are charged with stealing funds that were designated for joint training
programs that had poor fiscal accountability.
The other result, far worse, was that UAW leaders were more than ever isolated from the members. Instead of interacting with members at work, they built a hierarchy of union staffers around them that completed their isolation. The union staffers, who have their own separate staff union, continued to get the best that the UAW could offer, while members’ wages and benefits eroded away.
One could argue that the UAW staffers, not the members, run the union. It is true that the UAW still has a good democratic constitution with regular elections and constitutional conventions. The problem with those conventions is that they are orchestrated by the staff. While some unions prohibit staffers from even being on their convention floor, UAW staffers literally lean over every delegation during conventions. Hardly anything happens at UAW conventions that was not planned out in advance by the top UAW leaders and executed by their paid staffers.
Readers of the many anti-UAW articles may have wondered what union leaders might have been doing with all those expensive cigars, golf fees, watches and bottles of liquor that they were supposed to have stolen. They couldn’t have worn that many wrist watches. They couldn’t have drunk and smoked that much while playing that much golf. The answer is pretty obvious. They probably used luxury items to guarantee, through small bribes, the continuing loyalty of the legions of staffers.
We end up with the situation in the UAW today. A significant number of union members are so confused and alienated that they actually vote for their own executioners. Others, possibly with the best of intentions and highest motives, are joining the media call for destroying the union!
On the Upside
No one should
overlook the fact that the General Motors workers were able to carry out a
successful 6-week strike even while the biggest and sharpest union-busting
effort since the McCarthy period was directed against them. No one should
overlook the fact that the UAW still has 400,000 intelligent members and
several hundred million dollars. No one should overlook the fact that the UAW
has one of the proudest and most progressive histories in America. No one
should fail to notice that the American people are becoming more and more aware
of just who their real enemies are and how to fight back. That’s a lot to build
Solutions for the UAW
It isn’t likely
that President Rory Gamble is going to be able to pull the union together with
a few worn platitudes about “solidarity in the ranks” and “a few bad apples.” Even
if union leaders survive the government investigation, their alienation from
the membership will continue to eat the union away.
There are two
guys who think they have found a section of the UAW constitution allowing for
the members to call a special convention and elect new leadership. They have a
Facebook page with 12,000 likes. The two guys are arguing that members should
join their effort rather than doing what has become almost traditional –
“voting with their feet” – and leaving the union.
I hope they can
pull it off, because it might help keep our union together. But just holding a
new convention under the same old system isn’t really a long-term reform. For
example, the convention delegates are already elected. Under the UAW
Constitution, they are the same ones that attended the last convention, and
they will be sitting in front of the exact same staffers.
Our union needs
an entirely new attitude toward its members. Staffers must stop subverting our
democracy. Members must be consulted and listened to. Top-down thinking must
The union also
needs a new attitude toward the public. More and better communications are
needed. “Go it alone” must be condemned as a union strategy and “solidarity
with all workers” must become our new guideline. We need to completely get rid
of our isolated, separate, political program and join with the other unions in
The United Auto
Workers, once the most progressive and democratic union, must take its place
again at the head of this wonderful new progressive movement that is sweeping
I’m on KNON’s “Workers Beat” talk show every Saturday at 9AM Central Time. If you care curious about what I really think, check out my personal web site
Gao Xingjian, “Soul
Mountain.” English translation published by Perennial (Harper Collins) New
complete the 500 pages and you wonder why it is written mostly in second person.
You wonder why it won the Nobel Prize. You assume it may be because the Nobel
judges are eager to encourage dissent in China. You wonder if it might have
been more poetry than prose. You wonder if it would have worked out if you had
been able to read it aloud to the woman.
She said she didn’t
want to hear it read aloud. She thinks it would be pretentious. You wonder if
you only wanted to read it aloud because you are pretentious. Or is the book
itself pretentious? Is it pretentious to think about being pretentious?
You say that she
would have enjoyed it as a romantic experience. She says you have no idea what
women might enjoy. Men only exploit women and never care what they want.
You say that
women are not that different from men. She says they are different and that you
are chauvinistic to say there is no difference. You challenge her to define chauvinism.
She says she does not need to define it because you are before her and you are
the finest example of chauvinism.
You say she is
acting silly. You try to embrace her.
She warms a
little. She says maybe you aren’t chauvinistic. Maybe you are only patronizing.
You say that you
have wondered all over China and investigated many ancient cultural ideas. You
say that you discover a great deal of Chinese culture and that it is in this
She says it only
shows what a hopeless idealist you are. You aren’t even slightly interested in
the real world, she says.
Movie Review: “Jo Jo Rabbit” Directed by Taika Waititi, 108 minutes
A boy’s best friend is his Fuehrer. Yes, ten year old Jo Jo’s best friend is Adolf Hitler. They share all of each other’s secrets. Adolf gives Jo Jo confidence as he gets ready for Hitler Youth Camp. Jo Jo’s greatest aspiration is to someday be in his idol’s personal body guard. He is thoroughly Nazi.
But it’s already 1945 and Nazi dreams are almost run out.
Even his personal Adolf, once invincible in the boy’s mind, is beginning to seem
like a childish fantasy. His wonderful, charming, romantic mother is starting
to seem a little less fanatic than the little boy would like. He is beginning
to suspect that she doesn’t hate Jews nearly enough. The Russians and Americans
It’s hard to categorize “Jo Jo Rabbit.” It’s not a comedy. It’s hardly a romance, a war story, or a coming-of-age story. There are elements of many movie types juxtaposed in a surreal, very surreal, attempt to explain what it must have been like to be ten in Germany in 1945.
Needless to say, it isn’t going to be easy for Jo Jo. And it
may not be easy for moviegoers, either. But few really worthwhile experiences
I’m on KNON radio’s “Workers Beat” program every Saturday at 9 AM Central Time. If you are curious about what I really think, please check out my personal web site
I attended the DFW Archives Bazaar in Denton, Texas, on November 2. They may seem like introverted bookish people, but they are revolutionaries.
Forty archives had tables up all day. Some of them such as public libraries are familiar to all of us, but some were slightly more esoteric. There are, for example, collections called “Dallas Jewish Historical Society,” “Diocese of Dallas,” and “The Dallas Way: an LGBT History Project.”
We have more information at hand than ever before in history. Even though the forty archives at the bazaar are walk-in study centers, they also have digital aspects. All the information ever collected by anybody, in the six millennia since writing began, is in some stage or another of being digtitized and made available on the internet. It’s getting easier to find, too, thanks to these revolutionary librarians and archivists.
I wish there was an international digitization plan, so it would go even faster, but it’s going pretty fast now.
When we have enough information, truth becomes available to us. We may choose to hide it behind lies and opinions for a time, but there’s something to the old adage, “truth will out.” Lies and superstitions are wound around the truth and cannot long escape its gravitational pull.
Well-informed people are people who can figure out what to do. Eventually, they will, and that’s revolutionary.
Today’s young people are the first generations to have this incredible bank of knowledge at hand. We can hope that they will use it well, and I am certain that they will.
Movie Review: “Parasite,” Directed by Bong Joon-ho, 132 minutes
People who don’t appreciate important movies, who only go
for the entertainment and distraction, may not like this one. Or at least they
might not like this one if they don’t have time or just aren’t in the mood to
look at something that matters. It’s long and in Korean with subtitles. For the
rest of us, though, this one’s a keeper.
If you saw his “Snowpiercer” a few years ago, you already
know that this writer/director is not afraid to take on important social issues
in the most graphic way. In that one, the great unwashed poor were in a
life-or-death struggle to get to the front of the train, where the rich people
Arguably, the biggest social issue in the world today, Korea
or anywhere else, is inequality.
It’s a story of two families, maybe two-and-a-half families,
of great difference in income and wealth. One of them has a fancy house
surrounded by thick trees to block out all view of anything but comfort. The
other family is crammed into a sub-basement, mostly underground, where the only
window looks up into a dismal alley where drunks come to piss and puke.
The plot unwinds meticulously as the families come together.
The first half could be compared to one of Shakespeare’s comedies, where
everybody thinks everybody is somebody else. But it’s hard to tell the story of
shameful inequality in a comedy, isn’t it?
In a comfortable, easy-to-watch movie, good and bad are well
delineated. There’s always somebody to like and, nearly always, somebody to hate.
The ending is comfortable and pleasant with a musical fanfare and, if you’re
fortunate, an extra little joke in the middle of the credits. “Parasite” isn’t
one of those.
I’m on KNON’s “Workers Beat” talk show every Saturday at 9AM central time. If you are curious about what I really think, check out my personal web site
Movie Review: “Harriet,” Directed by Kasi Lemmons, 125 minutes
If you study Harriet Tubman’s life and accomplishments, you’ll wonder how the film makers thought they could cram it all into a mere two hour movie. I heard a radio review with the director, who said that she wanted to make sure that people didn’t see the film as a mere biopic.
It is a biopic, though, complete with those little written sub-headings that
show the times and places where important events took place. There was probably
no other way to do it, because Harriet Tubman was not a one-time heroine. Her
personal exploits in saving people from slavery and in actually ending slavery
spanned decades in time and hundreds of miles in distance.
We really loved this movie, but my movie buddy and I love
history and the civil rights movement. We think of the American Civil War not
as a meaningless tragedy as it is usually portrayed, but as a giant leap
forward for all of us. Those who agree are really going to like “Harriet.”
So get comfortable for a long and edifying experience when
you go to this one. It’s worth it.