Saturday, May 10, 2014
I have an ongoing curiosity and unanswered question about the interrelation between the nonviolent movements (say, the Kingians or Gene Sharp) and the tepid-ization of organized labor relative to the hard-edged sitdown strikes and other strikes in the early part of the 20th century. I don't know enough about it and would like to find out about it from two angles. One is as a historical matter. I'm curious how they talked to each other, if they talked. The second angle is whether there is an argument, either from efficacy or morality, that would promote a particular approach to nonviolence during a strike, and what the arguments are for and against. It is a strange thing to be looking at in 2014. The first question is, "what strikes?" Labor is in a pretty miserable state of affairs. Then you have the actions by, let's say SEIU. Several militants I know who I have a very high regard for, are extremely critical of these short strikes, which (either I am asserting, or my friends are asserting, or some combination), are intended for the press coverage or for a lame sort of "moral witness", rather than DOING THE THING ITSELF, namely, stopping production and making the target lose revenue and agree to workers' demands (redress of grievances, proactive measures to improve things, or both) because they are losing revenue. Now, I think there are a few things conflated here and I am not positive they are the same. Kingians tend to be from the liberal/progressive end of Christianity, asymptotically approaching Dorothy Day. "witness" is a Christian phrase, as in, the phrase from a gospel or soul song, "Can I get a witness???" A Kingian I know (who I also have tremendously high regard for) was describing a waterboarding protest where someone was going to deliberately undergo waterboarding as a "powerful form of witness," which I think is a little presumptuous. But that's what it's like to be an atheist among Kingians- they use their vocabulary and phrasing, and it's unlikely you're going to criticize them because they are so relentless in their civil disobedience and the degree of their selfless devotion. This is another facet of this topic: that the idea of moral witness suggests that the person is going to do it til the day they die, and this is sort of appropriate for a problem that is gargantuan and probably can't be tackled by mere materialists. So I think there may be some sort of correlation where labor has calcified over time and is now locked in to labor-law rules over how they can behave within what is sanctioned, or face huge fines if they go outside of it. I think this may correlate somehow with this questionable tactic of trying to push society through shame or sympathy, as though the SEIU's of the world may use this because they can. But I don't know the reason. Recent articles have described indifference and mismanagement in the fast food and Walmart campaigns. They're bought... they're wrapped up with the Democrats.... they're used as a way to keep labor in a box, making sure it has no teeth. How did this happen? I found out a lot about this from Joe Burns' great book, _Reviving the Strike_. It is decades of repressive court decisions, beginning with Taft-Hartley's prohibitions on secondary strikes, on through the court decisions on management being allowed to permanently replace strikers, and many others. And Burns' core point is, the production-stopping strike! Bring it back! Stop abdicating the power! So here are my two angles: trying to get the facts on how these two things evolved and whether they were in conversation with each other, and then whether the Sharp/King adherents have anything *particular* to say about nonviolence in labor relative to nonviolence in, let's say, the decision on whether to have an armed struggle against a dictator or a nonviolent struggle. The former is more subtle. The former can take place in the neoliberal aftermath once you *have* brought down the dictator. For instance, after apartheid, South Africa is part of a vast, bland, neoliberal story. My heroes. Instead of one gigantic story against Ceaucescu, you have labor struggles, economic struggles. Here I also need to bring in Chris Hedges and the video'ed debate between Hedges and the guy from Crimethinc. I listened to Hedges around this time and I found his argument persuasive. Armed struggle rots you away on the inside. If I have Hedges correctly. It seems like a good approach, yet there is an argument for not doing it on the basis of effectiveness, because it elevates those who are good at violence and I think Hedges is saying this narrows who can feel comfortable in the movement, and how they will be treated. It elevates bullying, because those in a militia who are good at fighting the enemy will be good at intimidating the members of the movement who don't happen to make good guerrilla fighters. I guess the elevation would be a sort of increased social standing based on their accomplishments. If the fabric of what goes on, what people talk about, and the axis of whether you are making gains or suffering defeats is put in military terms, the axis for figuring out who is putting a 110% effort towards winning is based on a war lens. The others will be second-class citizens in the movement. The thing I have not seen expressed is whether Hedges, or anyone else, is asserting that this achilles heel of a "militia" mindset applies to something like this passage from Burns: "During the great textile strike [of 1934], 'flying squadrons' went from mill to mill, forcing owners to shut down and suspend production. Although the squadrons were mainly non-violent, 'the characterization of the squadrons as "peaceful picketing" misses entirely their character as extralegal enforcers of justice. Swiftly, militantly, the squadrons were not only picketing but forcing the closing of mills. ... Historian Irving Bernstein describes a key battle [now talking about the 1934 Teamsters strike] ... dubbed the "Battle of Deputies Run": "The pickets, more numerous and better armed with clubs, baseball bats and pipe, won control of the market place within an hour. The fighting then spread over the city as the pickets pursued the disintegrating police and Citizens' Army remnants ..."'" And two other quotes come to mind that just set a backdrop level of attitudes towards the usefulness of violence relative to the possible self-destructiveness. One is from Frank Bardacke, author of _Trampling Out the Vintage._ In a talk, he mentioned that the farmworkers had a past history of doing things like "beating up the foreman." The other famous quote, I'm trying to find the source for. I have heard it at least twice in conversation. It involves the phrase "hit 'em with a brick." I think it involves the racial integration of the ILWU. If I have this wrong, I apologize, but the point I am getting at is a nonchalant entertaining of an ends justify the means approach to extralegal enforcement of justice, which is fine if you are right, but my anxiety is that labor is just as subject as Hedges' militia or a drone pilot to the fog of war: mistakes, false positives, disingenuous abuse. The third quote is something like, the ILWU leaders were faced with an influx of African-American and Asian workers. Someone (I wish I could attribute this), says, "if they don't ????, hit em with a brick. Otherwise, sign them up into the union!" The framing of the story is often in terms of making a point about the laudable anti-racism of the ILWU and of Harry Bridges. The quote about the foreman, the quote about hit em with a brick, and the Burns quote is my evidence, among other evidence, that either that the rot Hedges describes doesn't occur in a solidarity situation ( and if not, my curiosity is to know why not?) or it does, but we don't pay attention to it (and if we don't pay attention to it, maybe this could bite us.) I'm probably misinterpreting King and need to read more about what actually happened. The militants I know are pretty disdainful of MLK and they may have a point. I suspect that the passage of time has made nonviolence in the civil rights fights seem different than it was. I recently tried to argue to a friend that the left is as subject to false positives due to fog-of-war, accidental and deliberate false positives as the right is and that it would be equally perilous to act on the basis of a belief (seeming a bit religious to me) that the banal things will go well because we're right on the ideas. I suggested to my friend that when someone fighting police brutality or fracking or unionbusting delegates to another activist the banal task of going to Kinkos and making 200 fliers to hand out, the project has an equal chance being marred by incompetence, mistakes, or fraudulent mischief (say by an agent provocateur), as when an "activist" for Westboro Baptist Church, dealing with the banal matters of putting their demonstration on, delegates to *their* co-congregationalist or whatever, the banal task of going to Kinkos to copy the fliers for the next day. There's nothing about the fact that I like and agree with progressive values that should lead to a suspension of disbelief towards the possibility of false positives either in the boring mechanics of getting a project done, or even in our susceptibility to the fog of war. Another thing I need to get down here is the argument by labor militants about the sheer overwhelming force of the other side. Cops use overwhelming violence in allowing scabs to cross picket lines. I take their point. These friends - who have a deep and profound CLASS analysis above all - also pointed out that my dichotomy is naive, because there are many kinds of violence. "Poverty is violence," said one. Another asked me if I had ever been fired - and led off of the work site on the spot. My question is, does being outnumbered, outgunned, does the fact that in the case where someone has been killed, it is surely a picketer being killed by cops, change the rot and trauma of beating up the foreman? Does the fact that we're doing it for a righteous goal matter? The Latin American or Bosnian militias that Hedges saw-- they were doing it for a righteous goal as well. Probably trade union freedom was one of the things they wanted to win. (if neoliberalism didn't get there first.) Here is a final passage from Burns which I think suggests not that nonviolence is superior, but that the left is not immune to false positives in the fog of war. "...when the U.S. auto industry came under assault from the import of lower cost Toyotas in the early 1980s, unions responded with appeals to U.S. nationalism in an attempt to persuade consumers not to purchase Japanese automobiles. Rather than devising a strategy capable of combating capital, the United Autoworkers instead fostered racist xenophobia, as groups of angry autoworkers would bash Toyota cars with baseball bats. Ultimately, the attacks degenerated into the exact opposite of the international workers solidarity required to confront global corporations. The level of venom reached such heights that a Chinese-American man in Detroit, Vincent Chen, was beaten to death by autoworkers in 1982 who believed he was Japanese and somehow to blame for the loss of their jobs."