Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ferguson: Remember history, neither the courts nor the Democrats are a way forward.

This is not a misstep
By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

I have always maintained that we should vigorously defend our right to vote.  We must defend this right because we won it; it wasn’t given to us. We took it after a protracted struggle. The writers of history never give credit to the social forces that force them to make concessions.

Even so, for some sections of society, women, people of color, Native Americans, suffrage came much later than white male workers who have been more numerous, and have benefited from being the same color and sex as those holding the reins of power, both economic and political. Blacks as we know weren’t even considered citizens until the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1868. This was in response to the civil war and was passed during reconstruction.

So while defending the right to vote we need to recognize that we have won nothing of any major importance through the ballot box really; and we defend it simply because it is a right we won and it was won in the streets before it was codified in legislation.

It was the general strikes, mass movements, factory and workplace occupations of the 1930’s that led to the labor and social legislation passed in that decade. The Norris LaGuardia Act, (1932) was introduced to defend workers’ right to strike, join a union, picket and generally protest among other things, mass strikes were taking place in this period. The idea put forward was that labor was too weak and the bosses too powerful so the state needed to intervene to level the playing field a bit.

The Wagner Act (1935) or National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) as it is called, created the NLRB and legislated the right to bargain, to have our own representatives etc. It was the three great general strikes in 1934, Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco and other battles that created the climate for this legislation. Incidentally, as Staughton Lynde points out in his famous, Labor Law for the Rank and Filer, the ACLU and others opposed the act initially as it would give government too much power over labor organizations.

Those that opposed the acts were correct of course, the bosses don’t legislate protection for workers to make us strong.  They do it to weaken us, to derail any independent movement of our own and have us rely on their capitalist courts where money reigns,  and on their egalitarian generosity rather than our own strength both economically and politically. It’s true that in the big strikes that were defeated in the early 1930’s workers were brutalized as usual with the bosses hiring thugs and Pinkerton’s to terrorize us, that is the norm in US history, not the exception. But this was before the 1934 strikes and the rise of the CIO and industrial unionism. Those early strikes were led by the craft oriented AFL-CIO bureaucracy and the potential power of the working class was not brought to the table.

The Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938 regulating working hours and wages. The great 44-day Flint occupation and breaking of General Motor’s resistance to unionization was just a year earlier. It’s clear if we take the time to look at it.

While strikes and disputes continued during the war years, especially given the background of war profiteering, things heated up again and 1946 saw the last general strike in US history in Oakland CA and by that year’s end there were a recorded 43,000 strikes involving 26 million workers.  It became obvious that workers had the power if we had leadership that would use it. The bosses returned to the courts and a year later the infamous Taft Hartley Legislation was passed. This time, labor was too strong the bosses’ thought----- the past ten years showed that. Taft Hartley amended the NLRA (Wagner Act) and banned solidarity strikes or political strikes, secondary boycotts and mass picketing that had been so successful in 1934. The closed shop was illegal.  (Read more on Taft Hartley here.).    In other words, the bosses that were so concerned about worker’s getting the crap kicked out of them a decade earlier were now introducing legislation that barred under threat of prosecution, solidarity between workers whether they were on strike or not on strike.

Not only that, politically, the Communist Party ranks had swelled, the CP had also led many battles in housing including many rent strikes during the turbulent thirties and there was also a move toward an independent party of the working class, a Labor Party.  The 1% was very worried things might get out of control.

The legislation that was passed in this period was simply codifying what workers had won through mass struggle and shutting down production.  They only respond when you hit them where it hurts most----profits. The Farm Security Administration, Social Security Administration, unemployment insurance which first appeared in Wisconsin in 1932 and was codified in the Social Security Act of 1935 all came about through the bosses’ fear of the potential power of the working class not because they cared, not from their generosity and kindness.

Roosevelt, who had used the National Guard against workers more than any other president before him according to Art Preis writing in Labor’s Giant Step, was an astute bourgeois politician.  All could be lost unless concessions were made, but the stick and the carrot are never far apart. Roosevelt and the war, saved capitalism from itself.

The civil rights movement, another direct action mass movement brought about changes in education and curtailed the blatant effects of the racist Jim Crow laws in the US South.

Cops fight firefighters in Spain 2013
They are quite worried at the moment. Not so much with regard to organized labor which is kept fairly quiet shackled with a pro-corporate leadership, threatened by anti-union legislation and massive police assault in strikes. But by the movement in the communities, most importantly in the aftermath of the Occupy Movement and the recent uprisings in the black communities over the murder of black youth like Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin and most recently, Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri. But any social upheaval will not by-pass the organized workers and their important role in production.

Business Week a sober bourgeois magazine owned by the multi-billionaire Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of NYC and rabid Zionist, tells black capitalism in the hope that it will straighten out the black working class, that the only way forward for the people of places like Ferguson is to vote. The body politic of Ferguson is broken BW implies. It is a “..mixture of incompetence, misjudgment, and neglect….”.    “The miscalculations and missteps were mind-boggling.”, this journal of the 1% writes in its December 1st edition.

Business Week sounds almost like it’s on our (workers, the poor and black folks) side, “….the police seemed more interested in protecting government offices than private property and the public.”  the magazine adds.  By private property BW means small business. And we would agree, it is pointless to destroy small community business but the real corporate culprits are hard to reach and in times like these, anger takes a hold when justice is denied and people lash out.

But Business Week and its owners are not concerned about small business either, they are concerned that at some point the anger may turn in to organized political opposition coupled with direct action activity on the ground. The response from the police and the government representatives are not “missteps”.  The militarization of the police, the attacks on organized labor like teachers and public sector workers, the assault on working class and poor communities, especially communities of color and the incarceration of two million people are not missteps.  They are a conscious response to what the 1% sees as a rising opposition to its efforts to drive the US workers and middle class to third world conditions.

So the seemingly sympathetic reference to missteps and bad governance is followed by the, “Way Forward for Ferguson”.  And they way forward is to “vote”.  Half of the city council is up for election in April BW points out and the resident need to put, “…together a slate of candidates…” and register voters.  Or they could organize a recall campaign against the mayor. This would “channel residents anger” BW argues.

It would channel resident’s anger alright; straight in to that black hole we know as the Democratic Party where it can melt in to thin air.  This is a major issue we have to think about and we have to learn from our history.   The two Wall Street parties have a dictatorship over American political life.  As I point out here, what we have won and what is cemented in legislation was won in the streets, not the ballot box, and it can only be defended there.

A crucial aspect of the struggles we are seeing throughout the country is that we have to return to our direct action roots (strikes are certainly direct action) and we have to reject, actually condemn the two parties of Wall Street and not allow our movement to be sucked in to the Democratic Party and emasculated which is what Business Week is suggesting.  The two capitalist parties function like the good cop, bad cop, one gives you a cigarette, the other beats you but they both are after the same result.

The way forward for Ferguson and the rest of us is building a united mass movement of action on the ground and a political party independent of big business and based on our movement, our organizations and our communities.

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