Tuesday, August 11, 2009

An editorial: Learning from the mistakes of the past

I mentioned in an earlier posting the book, "Them and Us: Struggles of a Rank-and-File Union" by longtime UE (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America) leader James J. Matles and labor writer James Higgins. Published in 1974, this book is as fiery and committed-to-the-core as the union whose history it tells. It also offers some perspective about our struggles today, and it points to where the labor movement can learn from mistakes of the past.

One of the things I've gleaned from this book is how the "New Left" of the 1960s--the student protesters, civil rights and anti-Vietnam activists, and so on--missed a tremendous opportunity by not finding a way to align with workers at that time. It was the key missing element in their efforts to revolutionize America. How many of those protesters--and I was one of them--truly knew of the "general feeling of rebellion, cynicism, and disgust among young workers" in the 1960s because of their worsening working conditions. "Management pressures for more and more production per worker, combined with the mounting economic pressures of life, were creating a mood of resentment and rebellion steadily on the rise," Matles and Higgins write.

The "New Left" failed miserably to tap into that frustration. Maybe the broader cultural wars of the times (long hair, sex, drugs, etc) made it practically impossible. As for the labor movement, it still suffered from the fractures created by the Cold War and the McCarthyite excesses of the 1950s, so widespread mobilization and politicization of workers never really took place.

Stanley Aronowitz and the Fifteenth Street Manifesto Group wrote about this in their "Manifesto for a Left Turn" pamphlet in October 2008. "The considerable political weight of the civil rights, feminist and anti-Vietnam war movements did not result in the formation of a unified political opposition and alternative."

So now let's look at today's workers. Talk about frustration. Whether blue or white collar, they're under the heel, usually that of a company headquartered far away and one making increasing demands of them in return for decreasing pay and benefits.

They're frustrated and angry, but they're afraid, too. They're made to feel lucky if they have a job, luckier if they can keep it without a major pay cut. And they better be willing to work extra hours and stifle the complaints if they want that job tomorrow. I'm in the journalism business, and I know lots of folks working for corporate-owned newspapers who've never been lower morale-wise. They're overworked, underpaid (nothing new there), and often given no real respect for what they do or how they do it. How many reporters and editors can take pride in what they do anymore? They know the dark truth about the "business" today: Corporate-run newspapers have become corporate-ruined newspapers, and let the public be damned.

It's not only the newspaper business, however. It's everywhere. Talk about "rebellion, cynicism, and disgust"! The labor movement and what's left of a progressive Left in this country cannot afford to repeat the failures of the past. They can replace that cynicism with hope, that disgust with action, give that rebellion some direction. Anybody listening?

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