The Left’s Cult of Ineffectuality: Labor union edition
Decades of dangerous, often deadly, idealistic, brave, militant, organizing in the United States had failed to break the effects of government suppression of labor unions until the Laguardia/Norris act and then the Wagner Act of 1935. What followed was a decade of rapid growth for labor that came to a sudden halt when the Taft-Hartley Act passed over Truman’s veto in 1947. Taft-Hartley had such a comprehensive effect on labor that its crippling effects are taken for granted:
- authorizing state “right to work” for less laws.
- forbidding secondary boycotts (can’t picket Bain Capital for looting your employer)
- excluding supervisors and independent contractors from unions
- forbidding slowdowns and wildcat strikes (and one effect of that is union leadership becomes less accountable)
- giving the Supreme Court license to weaken the Laguardia-Norris act
- prohibiting pass picketing, permitting employer anti-union campaigning, etc. etc.
Taft Hartley effectively stalled the growth of the labor movement. The 1950s red scares then purged “radicals” from the labor unions. By 1953, C. Wright Mills described the labor union movement as pretty much a tame subsidiary of the corporate system. As the government under right wing economic control moved to rewrite corporate and bankruptcy law to favor Mitt Romney style looters, changed the tax code to subsidize outsourcing, and facilitated centralized media under anti-union mega corporations, the tamed, purged, weakened labor unions did little. After Paul Volcker destroyed manufacturing, Ronald Reagan was able to crush PATCO and usher in a new age in which labor was reeling from defeat after defeat. And yet after the failed union effort to recall the right wing Wisconsin governor, the lesson that the elite left wing savants drew was
the horrible mistake of channelling a popular uprising into electoral politics.
You can search Doug Henwood’s “analysis" of the labor defeat for "Taft" or "PATCO" or "NAFTA" but you won’t find anything. Instead, Henwood explains
Suppose instead that the unions had supported a popular campaign—media, door knocking, phone calling—to agitate, educate, and organize on the importance of the labor movement to the maintenance of living standards? If they’d made an argument, broadly and repeatedly, that Walker’s agenda was an attack on the wages and benefits of the majority of the population? That it was designed to remove organized opposition to the power of right-wing money in politics? That would have been more fruitful than this major defeat.
I find it hard to imagine that anyone who ever knocked on doors could have come up with such a ridiculous program, but perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps someone could come up with a great pitch: “Hello, we’re here from the Labor Union and we want to take your time to explain why Labor Unions are so swell, like broadly, and repeatedly." Maybe that’s what Americans are waiting for - someone to show up on Saturday afternoon and lecture them. Matthew Rothschild in the Progressive came up with a similar, if more conspiratorial diagnosis:
Actually, it [ the MOVEMENT ] began to disintegrate the moment the leaders (and who were they, exactly?) decided to pour everything into the Democratic Party channels rather than explore the full potential of the power that was latent but present in the streets back in February and March of 2011.
They,those bastards, whoever they are, took the revolutionary people’s vanguard insurrectionary movement and tied it to that sad Democratic Party again. And we were having such a good time at the protests too. When Gordon Lafer dared to disagree
The notion that the path to victory is clear if only dim-witted union leaders would listen to progressive bloggers reflects not just magical thinking about organizing but also the hubris of being far enough removed from the action to believe you’re the only one to have thought of a new idea.
the response was a bellow of outraged entitlement. After all, the Left has spent three plus years ineffectually lecturing the Obama administration about what a bunch of weak, spineless, corrupt, neoliberal idiots they are. How dare anyone question the need to extend this brilliant line of analysis to labor unions? Here’s Rothschild in a piece entitled "I will not be silenced" (as if he’d been threatened with violent attack by the secret police instead of, you know, being disagreed with on the pages of The Nation, in front of hundreds of readers).
I pointed to what I consider to be several missteps, including the decision by top labor leaders to eschew nonviolent civil disobedience or creative tactics both in the streets and in the workplaces and instead to tell us to stop marching and go home and work within the Democratic Party on recalls.
But Lafer doesn’t want to hear anything about this. He wants me to shut up.
This is a response remarkably similar to the one the Left keeps generating to criticisms of their poorly reasoned attacks on the Obama administration - down to the theory that civil disobedience can only happen if “top leaders” will just listen to the right advice, for once. Rothschild’s language is great:
" Lafer’s deeply foolish, ill-informed, undemocratic, and rabid growl"," outrageous slander",
"Lafer’s keyboard is covered with this kind of poison"
and so on. Oh my - “rabid growl” is so deliciously retro, but it doesn’t make a good substitute for a logical argument and its not much of a defense against the obvious observation that years of demoralizing whining from “the left” is what let the far right take power in Wisconsin in the 2010 elections in the first place.
The Left is not the only group that detests ties between labor unions and Democrats - in fact, the anti-union fervor of the right is fueled not by fear of labor actions, but by a desire to cut off a remaining source of funding and support from the Democratic Party. The Right absolutely seconds the theory proposed by Rothschild that Labor should stop with “the assumption that the Democratic Party was the be all and end all.” God knows, if Democrats win too many elections, they could reanimate the National Labor Relations Board and push Boeing to sign a new union contract, pressure Florida agriculture to pay a living wage to farm laborers, save the UAW from destruction at the hands of the finance looters who controlled the company, and so on. The fact that all these things actually happened under the Obama administration is not lost on the Right, but is either invisible to or not important to the Left for some reason. One might think that actual exercise of political power was just not as interesting as something involving a march and a megaphone.
The big demonstrations in London and Washington against the US attack on Iraq a few years ago offer an exemplary case of this strange symbiotic relationship between power and resistance. Their paradoxical outcome was that both sides were satisfied. The protesters saved their beautiful souls: they made it clear that they don’t agree with the government’s policy on Iraq. Those in power calmly accepted it, even profited from it: not only did the protests in no way prevent the already-made decision to attack Iraq; they also served to legitimise it. Thus George Bush’s reaction to mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London, in effect: ‘You see, this is what we are fighting for, so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!’ Slavoj Žižek
Žižek then asks the key question:
So what should, say, the US Democrats do? Stop competing for state power and withdraw to the interstices of the state, leaving state power to the Republicans and start a campaign of anarchic resistance to it?
And though I doubt Žižek would agree with my appropriation of his argument, this is the reason why those of us who support the Obama administration, work within local and national Democratic politics, and try to “compete for state” power want Rothschild and Henwood and the rest of the Left lecture brigade to either shut up or put up. Put up an alternative plan that does not involve “leaving state power to Republicans” and that has a plausible path to something more effective than demonstration circuses, marches, speeches, and other futile spectacle - or put a sock in it. You may find protest marches stirring, but those of us who remember the protest marches against the Iraq war with bitterness and not nostalgia, don’t want to be participating in more spectacle politics, more charades that “make an argument”. We want to prevent evil from winning. Condescending bullshit about how people need to be lectured on class solidarity is not going to do the trick.