Take Back the Capitol? Don’t Get on the Bus on December 5.
I was enjoying the Thanksgiving holiday in New York with my wife and her family, when I noticed that there was a voice message on my cell phone. The message was from a staff person from Jobs With Justice I had met through my involvement with Occupy Boston, asking me to come to Washington DC from December 5-9 and help “take back the capitol” through “direct action.” Well I’ve been active in the labor movement for nearly 40 years, and if it’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that union leaders and established solidarity organizations, like JWJ, are not exactly fans of militant direct action in the nation’s Capitol. Could it be that they had learned something from their participation in some of the Occupy Boston events?
If that were true, they must have learned the lesson very recently. About a week into the occupation, I was at a labor rally at what amounts to Occupy’s outdoor forum, the area where the General Assembly meets, and had noted the lack of interest the labor movement seemed to have in connecting with Occupy activists. I was already at the site because I had taken students there from an applied ethics course I teach at UMass Boston to interview activists in preparation for a writing assignment. I watched as the contingent of union leaders and members marched in and took their place. It was a typical labor rally, with the leadership commandeering the electronic mike (no people’s mike at this event), and with the crowd of roughly 300 union members restricted to the obligatory cheering on of the leaders. After the speeches, the union people who had marched in marched out again, without interacting with the Occupy campers. Very few of the campers had attended the rally since no attempt had been made to attract them.
But maybe my negative impression of the rally was mistaken, or maybe it was an isolated event. I went to JWJ’s website and read the description of the Take Back the Capitol trip. Except for the militant rhetoric, a planned march or two, and the construction of a small and very temporary “tent city,” obviously meant to get Occupy supporters on the busses to DC, Take Back the Capitol is the sort of mass lobbying effort dear to the hearts of labor leaders. The purpose of the trip is to drum up Congressional support for President Obama’s anemic version of a jobs bill, as well as legislation to extend unemployment benefits. Don’t get me wrong. Extension of unemployment benefits, at least, is a worthy cause. The question is whether lobbying or genuinely militant direct action is the way to go about getting it.
After a couple of phone calls to friends in the know, I discovered that Take Back the Capitol is really the project of Service Employees International Union. I knew SEIU’s reputation for top-down control, because two of the local unions on my campus had left the International in order to escape its heavy hand. In its usual manner, SEIU is operating behind the scenes in the case of Take Back the Capitol; its name does not appear as a sponsor of the trip on either the JWJ or MassUniting websites (MassUniting seems to be claiming to be the trip’s actual sponsor).
The American labor movement has been led to near self-destruction by its own conservative culture. With the exception of a few strikes here and there, the last time it seriously challenged the power of the 1% was in the 1930s, and that was because there was at that time a real left wing (socialist, communist, and even anarchist) in the unions. But the mentors of most of today’s labor leaders expelled the left during the McCarthy era. Whatever the faults of the leftists, they were the only serious force for democracy and militant direct action in the unions. Without them, we have a labor movement that acts as a pathetically junior partner in the Democratic Party, a movement unwilling to organize cross-union solidarity in support of important strikes, a movement whose national leaders seem to want nothing more badly than an occasional invitation to the White House, and consequently a movement that now represents only 13% of American workers.
My recommendation to Occupy Boston activists and supporters is very simple: don’t get on the bus! Ignore the union officials, and make direct contact with Boston’s rank-and-file workers. This is what the Occupy movement is doing on the West Coast. The General Assemblies in all of the West Coast port cities have voted to work toward shutting down their ports on December 12 in support of embattled longshore workers and truckers in Longview, Washington, as well as to protest the violent dismantlement of Occupy camps throughout the US by the police. They have been denounced as an “outside force” by the leadership of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, while receiving support from many rank-and-file workers, as well as a few local union presidents.
I’ve often thought of the mainstream American labor movement as a carcass lying in the middle of the road. It’s dead, or near dead, and yet it blocks the way of the living who want to pass by. Occupy Boston should be helping to move the carcass off the road, instead of getting on the bus with it to Washington.
Gary Zabel is a philosophy professor at UMass Boston, and a longtime labor activist.