'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Going Down with the Titanic 

The AFL-CIO and Change to Win get behind the health care bill. This is a generational moment in US politics, a moment when a progressive infrastructure built over decades permanently loses what remains of its credibility. Unions, pro-choice groups, liberal advocacy organizations, desperately throwing overboard firmly held convictions developed over a quarter century or longer to retain a seat at the table, although I have to concede, MoveON.org has never conducted itself according to any principle other that expediency.

The decision of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win to support the bill is especially disheartening as they are among the only groups with sufficient membership and financial clout to chart a course independent of the White House. But no need to worry, they are going to get the Employee Free Choice Act passed, and ignite a new era of successful unionization in the workplace . . . you know, whenever they get around to actually putting resources into it instead of fighting with one another.

The sad fact is that the interests of unionized workers were better represented by tea party crazies than by their own unions, because the efforts of the tea party activists would have prevented an excise tax of employer based plans from going into effect, a tax that will, with the passage of time, either degrade the quality of their health coverage or cause them to pay substantially more for it. Having foregone salary increases for years in return for decent health care plans, the implementation of the health care bill will now take this away from them. It is all part of the new austerity, whereby workers are being forced by the government and transnational corporations to finance the reconstruction of the shattered financial system through a lower standard of living for years, and, possibly, decades. Marxists would probably call it a means by which the appropriation of surplus labor is increased.

It calls into the question the historic left commitment to trade unionism, as I observed in September 2009:

For those schooled in the traditions of the left, whether it be Social Democracy, Communism or anarchism, the reinvigoration of trade unionism is an essential precondition to any prospect of a progressive, not to mention revolutionary, social transformation. While there has been many points of disagreement between these leftist variations, there has been one constant. All three have emphasized the necessity of participating in unions as a means of educating and organizing workers in support of a radical, class based politics. None of them, with the exception of anarchists in the 1890s, believed that we could bring about a more just, more egalitarian society independent of the trade union movement. Furthermore, the unions served an essential purpose by providing a means whereby workers could learn how to manage their workplaces for themselves.

If the moribund trade union movement cannot be resuscitated, the consequences for the left are profound. An entirely new doctrinal approach will be required, one that reinterprets class and capitalism in such a way as to present the prospect of social change despite an immobilized union movement. It would require transcending nearly 200 years of modernist left thought that sanctifies the worker as given expression through trade unionism. It is hard to imagine, but it may be unavoidable.

For those of us who are not quite ready to fully confront this challenge, we must take hope in small victories.

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