Published on LBOnews, by Doug Henwood, June 18, 2012.
… The debacle in Wisconsin is deeply symptomatic of the crisis in American labor, and there’s no smarter commentator on that topic than Sam, even though he lives north of the 49th parallel.
Welcome Sam. The defeat of the Walker recall in Wisconsin has prompted some reflections on the state of the labor movement. What are your initial thoughts on that? I know you’re across the border in Canada, but it certainly has repercussions across North America.
- Yeah, I’m interested for the same reasons everybody else is. It has repercussions here, and also my wife’s family is in Wisconsin, so we’ve been in touch with them. The main thing is—and it’s a point that you’ve made—that we have to take a look at what happened and ask ourselves some hard questions. I’m sympathetic to people who feel like “Walker won the election through the amount of money he put in; we have to try to defend the labor movement; we have to hope that people don’t get demoralized.”
- But the real thing we have to do is be honest about what’s happened. And being honest means talking about the real, serious crisis in the labor movement. And it’s a crisis that’s actually been there for at least a quarter of a century. And it was especially evident when the financial crisis happened. And instead of being able to go on the offensive, labor was on the defensive. And it was revealed again with Occupy, when the labor movement supported Occupy but what was really called for was a question of labor showing that it can occupy things and that it had the power to do things.
- So this is a serious crisis. And I think we really have to be honest and step back and address the seriousness of the crisis. We have to stop talking about just the economic crisis and just how bad the rightwing is when it does all the things that we expected them to do—and actually have that kind of discussion about the labor movement.
How similar are things in Canada to things in the US? I mean a lot of people will say this is an American issue, an American problem—you’ve got American individualism, the brutality of American repression of labor activism throughout the course of the last century or so.
- Of course there are differences in Canada. In some ways the attack hasn’t been as aggressive. Canada doesn’t play the same imperial role that the United States plays and that leads to some differences, but the fact of the matter is that the differences are not that great in Canada. If anything we’ve been kind of converging to that same notion: of limited options, and ‘there’s nothing you can do about this,’ and lowering our expectations so that whatever happens ‘it could have been worse,’ or the Democrats—you know, ‘you have to make a choice between whoever is worse and whoever is worser.’
- So I don’t think the differences are that great here and I’d even go further: I don’t think the differences are that great generally in Europe, except for some places like Greece, where there’s been a particular kind of resistance because of how much they’ve been attacked. But I think there’s been a general crisis in the trade union movement everywhere. And I think we should talk more about ‘what is it’ exactly; but I think it’s also wrapped up with a crisis on the left, which is an integral part of this.
Some of the criticisms I’ve gotten for the things I’ve written is that, first of all, not having been an organizer myself I don’t understand how difficult things are. I think I do understand how difficult things are—but the other thing is that there’s some people who seem to think what we need to do is keep doing the same thing with increased dedication and intensity. What do you think? Is that the way out of the crisis?
- No. That’s part of the problem. I respect everybody who’s feeling like they’re put upon. It is difficult, and workers have immediate struggles. But seeing this as a problem of “let’s just plug on, let’s just be a little bit more committed”—if there’s anything we should learn it’s that that doesn’t get us anywhere.
- This is a really serious, radical problem. Let me just say what I think it is, and what we have to talk about. There is a problem in unions, that in their very formation they were sectional organizations, that the essence of unions is that you’re defending a group of workers. You’re not actually thinking about the class as a whole, or about other dimensions of workers’ lives. On occasion, in spite of that sectionalism, you see the potential of workers because they go beyond it, as they did when they were mobilizing in Madison. But the problem is that the structure of unions, and their culture and their logic, takes them back to returning to being very instrumental. The problem with being sectional and just thinking about yourself is you also tend to think instrumentally. You look to your leaders as—you pay some insurance for being in the union, you give them some dues, and they’ll deliver. And the leaders think in terms of “well, we occasionally have to mobilize the workers but we shouldn’t exaggerate that or really open the door to mass mobilization, because we just want to mobilize them enough to make a deal.”
- That problem is fundamental to what we’re seeing in this crisis. After World War II, this wasn’t obvious, because then you could in fact make gains by being sectional. And in fact some of those gains would spread to others. The defeat after the war was the defeat of the left inside unions, and part of that was promising people that “well, you can just win things within capitalism and just being instrumental, and you don’t really need a left.” And a lot of workers accepted that.
- When neoliberalism came, in the absence of a wider vision, in the absence of a left, that sectionalism was dead. You just couldn’t make gains when you’re facing not just an employer but you’re facing the state, and you’re facing the employer in an entirely different context. I don’t think the trade union movement ever came to grips with that fact. They stumbled on doing what you just raised: “well, we’ll just have to try harder, this is cyclical, it’ll get a little bit better, maybe we’ll elect somebody else.” They didn’t realize that that whole era was over and unions really had to reinvent themselves.
- And then came the financial crisis, the biggest crisis we’ve seen since the 1930s. In the 1930s, unions at least had recognized the limits of craft unionism and developed a new organizational form in terms of industrial unionism. The question that was being posed by the financial crisis is: okay, what are you going to do this time? What is the new organizational form that workers might come up with, given that the organizational form that that they have, sectional unionism, isn’t capable of doing it. The public sector unions can say “we’ll put up billboards to say we support the public sector,” but nobody really believes them—they see it as opportunist.
- So there’s a real question of, what might a different unionism mean? I don’t think that people who are trying to defend unions—by saying “they’re okay, don’t attack them, just plug along”—are actually doing the unions any favor. I think what really needs to be done is we have to challenge unions. And I think that was the excellent part of what you were writing about.
There’s a perception in the broad public that unions are mostly interested in themselves. The leaders seem to be very interested in their own salaries and perks, too. But it seems that the leadership thinks it has a product to sell. That product is a contract and certain privileges in wages and benefits. That seems to foster a perception among the broad public that unions just don’t care about the working class as a whole. Is that a fair perception on the part of the public? … //
… Is there really any hope for a model in which the goal of union activity is organizing a group of workers to get a contract and then have them pay dues for union membership? This is the central model of American unionism. Could this survive another generation, or has this got to go?
- I don’t know if it has to go. But we need another kind of organization, which doesn’t mean this one has to go. It might mean that if we in fact had workers’ assemblies and spaces and places where workers were actually mobilizing and organizing around class, that might begin to have an impact on unions. Injecting that into unions might actually demonstrate to them that you actually need some kind of strategic thinking to even be effective at what you’re trying to do. So it may be that there’s a way of renewing unions—but only because you’ve actually responded to the times, and learned something, and said, “We need new forms of working-class organization.”
- I just got back from Montreal. It’s fascinating because it’s one of those moments where in retrospect you can say it was predictable—there was a lot of student organizing and mobilizing before. But they’ve had marches of around 300,000 people. They’ve been fighting around the cost of tuition. Quebec has the lowest cost of tuition in the country and yet they’ve been fighting around it because they think it should be a public good that’s free. So what recently happened is they began to actually go into neighborhoods, banging pots, and what’s happened is neighbors have come out to join them. Nobody would’ve predicted this. They would’ve thought they’d be, you know, isolated as spoiled university kids.
- You begin to see that once people begin to see that something’s possible, it opens everything. There are people on the streets supporting them. People in the bars run out and join the demo, There are all kinds of discussions taking place. People are actually talking about capitalism, because they’re being forced to as they do this. And the students have been running assemblies—democratic spaces in every university, in different faculties, to make decisions about where to go and what to do and about tactics. And then this is now being imitated to some extent in some of the communities, where people are forming community assemblies to talk about broader issues. Not just tuition fees but the educational system or why there are cutbacks. As struggles take place, you get surprised and things emerge. Then the question is well what do you do next to sustain it?
- If you’re sober you have to be pessimistic. But there’s a quote that’s usually attributed to Gramsci—I don’t know if he actually said it—that the challenge is to have no illusions but not get disillusioned. That’s the trick. It’s just one of those historical moments where we have to figure out how to do something. If you think of the periods since The Communist Manifesto it’s always been as if there were some answers that somebody had: unionization, insurrection, forming communist parties, forming social-democratic parties.
- Now we have to come up with our own answers because those answers weren’t real answers. It’s very difficult to live through this period because there’s no answer on any shelf to take, and we don’t have an example abroad to say why don’t we just do it like so-and-so.
- It’s an incredibly difficult period, but I think capitalism has really been delegitimated. I don’t have any trouble talking to workers, telling them that capitalism is a barrier to human development. They nod their heads. They’re just not sure how to change it or have confidence in changing it; but it does mean that there’s an opening if we can organize and figure out how to organize and take advantage of it. And that’s a difficult challenge. It is crucial that we take our heads out of the sand, stop pretending that if we just keep trying, and defend workers, that things will change. That’s actually becoming a barrier to change. I say that with real respect for the fact that while you’re doing this of course all kinds of struggles are going to take place, and of course we should support them. But we should also be pointing to their limits.