Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Unions and Democracy

The Guardian UK managed to report one of those under the radar bits of news that only it seems to find.


“Perhaps the most overlooked factor in the demise of the authoritarian Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, and the weakening of Hosni Mubarak's grip on state power in Egypt, has been the trade unions in both countries.

While the media has reported on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook as revolutionary methods of mobilisation, it was the old-fashioned working class that enabled the pro-democracy movements to flourish.

As working men and women in Egypt became increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and a deteriorating quality of life, the only legal trade unions – the ones affiliated to the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) – proved worthless. The result of all of this was an unprecedented wave of strikes across the public and private sectors that began in 2004 and has continued to the present day. During the first four years of the current strike wave, more than 1,900 strikes took place and an estimated 1.7 million workers were involved.”

Social networking and Web 2.0 is all well and good, but revolutions need more weighty and sustainable means of organization. The web is just too ephemeral and passive. In the end it is literally nothing more than ones and zeros. Posting a naughty bit of prose on a website is nothing like putting your body on the line in a confrontation with riot police.

The type of discipline that is required for real acts of protest and subversion can only come from something like unions. Unions have the masses of warm bodies, they have the support structure, they have the required loyalties. Most importantly unions have the strike. With the strike they can bring an economy and a government to its knees. They are the lynchpin for democratic change in every authoritarian state out there.

In the U.S. we have forgotten how critical unions are to a healthy and functioning democracy. Most U.S. citizens when they think of unions, they think of corrupt, thuggish, autocratic organizations that strangle the economy.

The disconnect between this cartoon characterization of Unions, and reality could not be larger. It is one of the bigger lies that the right wing trades in; the overarching power of the Unions.

Unions have never been weaker, they crawl around at a pitiful 6% of the private economy. Public Sector Unions do a little better, but not by much. Unions are far from all-powerful, they are on life support. And this is not a good thing.

This is because unions are a firewall against authoritarianism. They are a sanctuary from the overarching control of the government and the elites.

It is no accident that Republican Hagiography of Reagan painted out and painted over the story of how unions were a critical part of bringing down Communism. If they mention the contributions of the Poles in that historic event, they might mention the role of the Polish Pontiff, John-Paul II. Of course, it is all the much better if they can lay the whole victory at the feet of the Gipper and the huge amounts of money spent on military expansion by the USA. It has such a feel good resonance ( at least if you are Republican) to think the reason we “won” is because we outspent the former Soviet Union; that we broke the Bear’s bank by throwing money down the rat-hole of SDI.

But that story is pure bunk. The Gipper was a peripheral player at best. Capitalism did not beat Communism. Communism collapsed of its own contradictions; with a healthy push from Solidarity.

This is because Solidarity was the perfect antidote to the Empire of the Commissars. Unions are, at their best, inherently democratic. Unions are grass-roots organizations that live or die via their members. They are also, at their best, inherently meritocratic, the best tend to raise to the top. More so they are, at their best, public spirited and public minded, they are their bother’s and sisters’s keeper.

This makes unions the perfect training ground for democratic processes and democratic organizations. They are the seed-beds for democratic institutions. Show me an autocratic nation and I will show you a nation with weak unions, or unions that have been co-opted by central power or have no unions to speak of. Free, healthy Unions and tyranny are like oil and water; they don’t mix.

The other way unions preserve democracy is by raising the working class out of penury and into the middle income brackets. From there the children of the working class can become true middle class. Unions, by providing decent pay, become engines of social and economic upward mobility. This too is important for a healthy and function democracy.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that weak and dysfunctional unions have lead to a weak and dysfunctional nation with a weak and dysfunctional governance. Forty years of union-busting, trickle-down, Reagan- Voodoo economics has shifted wealth away from the vast majority of U.S. citizens and into the hands of a hyper-wealthy few. This few has used this gain to further warp the playing field so they gain even more wealth. The result is epic corruption in Washington D.C. 

The gilded elites, the malefactors of great wealth as FDR put it, are running the table because the check of the Unions is gone. Unions are a mere gadfly buzzing around the heads of the Plutocrats that own and operate our economy. But even that small buzzing noise is too much for Lords of the Universe; they tolerate no opposition to their egomania and greed. Therefore they are tying to deliver the last blow to Unions in the USA.

And where is the great Hope and Change man on this battle front of union busting? Why he is AWOL. Let’s be clear about what that means. This is much worse than Chicago Messiah's failure on Card Check. This is economic treason.  This is the real betrayal of democratic principles and Democratic Party principles. This is not some mythical Manchurian Candidate, he-is-really Muslim, Communist, Socialist, Vegan, pick your racist trope here.

This is reality, this is being the lackey of Corporatist Crony Capitalists. We are no longer discussing some failure of some behind the scenes eminence gris advisors. The rot begins at the head. Obama chose these advisors because he “values” there input. This means, at best, he does not have the common sense god gave a turnip. At worst it means he has bought into the group-thing of the fever swamps of D.C. It means he is a willing accomplice  in ruination of the Middle Class.

Let me rewind that last sentence. Let me define terms. I have no choice because some TEA Party partisan will latch on to it, to pour out all sorts of nonsensical drivel about the what Obama is “really up to.” He or she will attempt to ride off into his or her favorite crypto-racist rant. S/he will get the point exactly wrong. Obama’s betrayal has nothing to do with some hidden leftist agenda. You have to have an ideology, a guiding principle, or set of beliefs to have an agenda. Obama has no such guiding light.  The man is a Bourbon Democrat; he is the 21st Century equivalent to Grover Cleveland. He has tied himself to the economic mast of Wall Street. The monied class owns this man. He is no Marxist. People that charge him with Socialism ( as if Socialism was somehow evil ) do not know  Karl from Groucho Marx. They are just tossing random brickbats around to see if any will hit Obama.

Obama’s failure is that he believes in nothing. He is transactional. Everything is negotiable. He conflict adverse; always looking for the “reasonable compromise.” This natural inclination has been richly rewarded. The conventional wisdom loves it when a fresh face asks its advice. The inner sanctum of the Senate loved the new kid from Illinois because he always deferred to their “wisdom.” Obama does not triangulate to win, his default is triangulation with no other idea in mind. He totally plastic in his political thinking. The man could not lead a troop of Boy Scouts to the outhouse, never mind a major U.S. political party.

What mystifies me, and I do have company, is why others have decided to stay on this burning deck that is Obama’s leadership. Where is our vaunted Progressive movement? Why are they not supporting both small ‘d’ and large ‘D’ democratic principles? Why are they not supporting the very core or modern democracy? How about it ladies and gentlemen? How about making a stand with the Unions? To rebuild the nation, to rebuild the Party, rebuild the unions. It is that simple.
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