Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Accident on the Potomac

Obama Set to 'Fold' Too

Well, if you’ve been trying to follow the accident on the Potomac, good luck. It’s like a crashing plane zig-zagging across the sky. Republicans making $350B math mistakes, Obama putting Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block, Vice President Biden getting a backroom deal to cut the bejesus out of the U.S. budget to the trillionth degree, the Tea-Party standing strong, markets dropping and rating agencies ready to downgrade U.S. treasuries and probably munis too, even without a formal default. And a frankly dysfunctional government. This is really a moment for U.S. capitalism, and we have to understand it fully. In 2008 the economy nearly collapsed. Now their government is on the edge of a crash similar to 2008. Although lord knows the U.S. debt is justifying a downgrade. Its just that many other country’s debt is even sadder, including the EU. Except perhaps the Chinese.

The silence on the left of the Democratic Party is deafening. Black representatives standing in Congress telling us that, no, Medicare and Social Security should not be cut for hard-working people, who spent their lives paying in. And all for show. Not a real spine in the House so far. Will Obama raise the debt limit by executive order? Hmmm. Not many indications he will do so.

The national course will be similar to the local course, unless something unlikely happens. And that is cuts. The vast agreement will be to cut trillions in aid to states and local governments, for one. States are already ‘planning,’ if you can call it that, because this situation is unprecedented. And it almost guarantees an ‘official’ recession to add to the unofficial one. Krugman is even calling the present situation the “Little Depression” and, based on length and actual unemployment, he has a point. Right now I'd say we are in the Great Stagnation or Great Decline.

In anticipation of a decline in bonds, or a crash, some investors are betting against an increase in value for U.S. Treasury bonds, the center of this financial storm. Right now PIMCO, a large mutual fund company, is shorting U.S. Treasury bonds, and has been since April. And who else is shorting Treasury bonds? Eric Cantor, Republican from Virginia, House Majority leader, is shorting Treasury bonds. So he will gain financially with a decline in bond values and even a government default. A Democratic Party with spine would go crazy over this, but not a word from the 'oh so polite' ones. Other's who are shorting the market or treasuries? Still hidden.

Here is what Jeffrey Sachs has to say. This is the man that brutally instituted instant capitalism in the Soviet Union, which lead to 10 years and more of misery under Boris Yeltsin. And regretted what he did ever since. Jeffrey Sachs on July 23rd, 2011:

“"The idea that the Republicans are for the billionaires and the Democrats are for the common man is quaint but outdated. It's more accurate to say that the Republicans are for Big Oil while the Democrats are for Big Banks. That has been the case since the modern Democratic Party was re-created by Bill Clinton and Robert Rubin.

Who runs America today? The rich and the multinational corporations. Who runs the White House? David Plouffe, whose job it is to make sure that ever word, every action of the president is calculated for electoral gain rather than the country's needs. Who runs the Congress, on both sides of the aisle? The lobbyists, who win in every negotiation. And who loses? The American people, who have said repeatedly that they want a budget that sharply cuts the military, ends the wars, raises taxes on the rich, protects the poor and the middle class, and invests in America's future - not just in Obama's speeches but in fact.

America needs a third-party movement to break the hammerlock of the financial elites. Until that happens, the political class and the media conglomerates will continue to spew lies, American militarism will continue to destabilize a growing swath of the world, and the country will continue its economic decline."

So get this, even intelligent capitalists are calling for an anti-corporate third party to keep capital from driving itself off the rails. Of course, they don’t call for an end to the capitalist system, which is actually the real culprit – not just a rigid bunch of free-market political chuckleheads. The working class can take advantage of this moment – of the supreme weakness of the capitalist government – to understand that it too is fundamentally broken – and will remain so permanently. There is no hope that the U.S. government will become a friend of labor, or able to change its declining stripes.

Red Frog
July 27, 2011

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Accident on the Mississippi

Lockout Over - Dayton Blinks, then Dayton Collapses

Well, the sad, sorry story of the state government shutdown in Minnesota is nearly over. 22,000 mostly union workers let go, many other contractors out of work or sent away, parks shutdown during the 4th of July, gaming and gambling money not coming in, job search facilities shutdown, workers compensation investigations stopped, funds for private daycare facilities for poor parents stopped until a few days ago, no fishing licenses being issued and a looming transit shutdown in the Twin Cities. And worst of all - to some - liquor licenses not being renewed and booze disappearing from store shelves and bars.

Was it worth it? As one MAPE union official commented, "If Dayton would have gotten something out of this, it would have at least been worth the lost days. "

However, 'class-warrior' Mark Dayton, standing alone against the whole vicious Republican Party, like King Canute before the waves, or George Wallace in the Schoolhouse Door, with his union allies turning out in small numbers and most of the DFL silent on the issue of taxing the rich - blinked, then collapsed like a house of cards.

Dayton's position started by 'taxing the rich." That is what he was elected on. However, as the negotiations got underway, he quickly agreed to $3.2-$3.5 billion in spending cuts to solve the $5B deficit. Then 'rich' was redefined down to the 2% of the Minnesota population who are mostly millionaires. The unions like AFSCME got out their little banners out and waved them to 'tax the 2%.' Well, then that negotiating point disappeared a few days ago, and Dayton decided (like a long line of Democrats before him) to tax anyone who'd pay the bill, not just the rich or the 2% rich. You see Dayton, and the Minnesota DFL, long ago abandoned the position of 'progressive taxation' as some kind of socialist plot.

Of course, the Republicans said no again. And so ... Dayton agreed to the original Republican position on June 30 and opted for selling more tobacco bonds and delaying payments to the schools to make up the remaining $1.5B or $1.8B. These are same accounting tricks used by former "Real Estate Taxes" governor Tim Pawlenty of Nothing to postpone a real day of reckoning. The MAPE officer was pointing out that the 'lockout' lead us all right back ... to the beginning. In other words, the workers died for no one's sins.

Tobacco money is to be used to improve the health of the people in Minnesota - not to subsidize the rich or the corporations in this state. Minnesota's taxpayers will have to pay investors tobacco bond interest for up to 20 years, just to fix the budget for one year. Delaying payments to the schools only makes their situation more precarious.

Barring some right-wing culture war crap, this 'deal' has to be approved by the legislature. We can assume the Republicans will vote for it, and Dayton will sign it and all the disgruntled DFL'ers will ... grumble. It would be voted down by anyone with a spine.

Now let's look at the union leaderships on this. They had a demonstration on June 30 in the morning of about 700. They had a 'vigil' that night, shining lights on the Capitol as if that might make it come to life. They had a demonstration the next Wednesday of 400 calling for taxing the 2% and a demonstration the next week too. They also had signs saying that a deal had to be reached to get state workers back to work. Unsaid, they wanted any kind of deal. And they got their wish - any kind of deal. This confusion of aims, and slavish following of Mark Dayton has once again made the AFSCME leadership, and the leadership of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, an embarrassment to their members. They don't have an independent thought in their heads. And it seems the Minnesota AFL-CIO, the Minneapolis Labor Council, the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly and even the state employee unions did not really pull out their members for any of these events.

The crisis of the labor movement is too serious to paper over with cliches and reliance on people like Mark Dayton or the Democratic Party. It is time for labor to run its own candidates on a program of progressive taxation and supporting militant labor action. Meet fire with fire.

Red Frog
July 15, 2011

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Strike This! Workman-Like Book by Local Activist

“Reviving the Strike” by Joe Burns, 2011.

Joe Burns hits the nail on the head. A local activist and officer in many different unions, Burns recently got a law degree, and put it to work analyzing labor law and case law. After diligent study of the corpus of labor laws in the U.S., including various key decisions, he concluded that the only way for the labor movement to succeed in the present circumstances is to … break those laws. This advice, incidentally, was raised by the AFT initially. This is not advice you usually hear from a union lawyer. Of course he is not speaking in that capacity, as lawyers (including union ones) are for the most part taught to advise clients on how to minimize risk … not build a movement. Which is why any union that relies heavily on its attorneys is headed for the ash-bin, albeit slowly.

Essentially the AFT proposal was based on isolating unions from fines or jail by organizing strikes outside of the official union structure. I.E., there is no ‘leaders,’ no treasury, no by-laws, no union hall, no membership lists for the state to go after - nothing to lose, just a shadow organization.

Burns carefully goes through the various strategies that the labor movement has come up with to avoid breaking the laws that prevent effective strikes. The sorry list is familiar to anyone who was told or shown the ‘latest’ thing – work-to-rule, corporate campaigns, civil disobedience, organizing the unorganized, work centers, consumer boycotts, inside strategies, working for Democrats, organizing community-based organizations and campaigns, consumer mortgage-strikes, etc. Or, as seen this Thursday at the Capitol – labor vigils. Burns is not against any of these strategies, although he gently derides them as occasional middle-class sociology or closer to ‘bearing witness’ than class struggle.

By going through the history and opinions of even the conservative labor movement – people like Samuel Gompers and George Meany - he shows how these methods have replaced one method guaranteed to succeed, and that actually built unions in the first place – the successful mass strike that stopped production.

Burns shows how labor law – even the hallowed National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) of 1935, ultimately puts the government in control of defining the labor movement. Sit-down strikes themselves were outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1939. Burns spends much time on Taft-Hartley – the draconian anti-labor law passed in 1947 – which prohibited solidarity action. Wildcat strikes, jurisdictional strikes, solidarity or political strikes, secondary boycotts, mass picketing, closed shops (creating ‘right to work’ states), the right of the federal government to institute injunctions and anti-communist affidavits for union officials were all part of the Act. Labor called it a ‘slave labor’ law. Even Truman said it restricted the freedom of speech of working class people. It imposed, in essence, a barrage of laws against labor protest so stringent that no other kind of activity in the U.S. faces the same restrictions. John L Lewis denounced it as the ‘first, ugly savage thrust of Fascism in America.” (Lewis, speech to AFL Convention, October 14, 1947). Taft-Hartley was a spear pointed at the heart of the effective strike and the labor movement itself.

Burns points out that, while labor grew even after the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, as the labor movement in the 1950s was still strong, eventually the Act began to have its effect when the counter-offensive started in the early 70s. Judicial decisions built on the act had crippled labor in the courts. Burns has a section on how judges are from the upper-middle class, part of the ‘cream’ of the attorney strata, and most of them have never been in a union or workplace situation, and hence have no connection to the American labor movement, and no sympathy with it. Burns quotes one author who looked at many labor decisions and found that the hidden role of "property' was always primary, in spite of the fact that this 'force' was not even in the law. Just in the prejudices of the judges, the courts, the decisions, the lawyers, and eventually, the juries themselves.

Burns also clearly illustrates how the Democratic Party has played little role in defending labor. Many judges, especially liberal ones, enthusiastically enforce Taft-Hartley and other anti-labor decisions. A minority of the Democratic Party voted for Taft-Hartley itself. Truman himself, after panning it, used it 12 times. And can we forget that it was a Democratic governor, Rudy Perpich, who called out the National Guard on the Austin strikers in 1986, thus helping break the Hormel strike by escorting scabs past pickets? Or Jimmy Carter, who called out federal troops on the miner’s union in 1977? The Democrats recent tepid response to the card check is just the latest indication of where its real interests lie.

Burns calls capital’s laws ‘a system of labor control.’ He concludes that even when a law exists, if labor is strong enough, it can push past the law. Focusing on 5 recent strikes – the successful Republic Window’s and Doors sit-down, the Hormel and Staley strikes, the successful Charleston 5 solidarity actions and the successful Pittston strike, Burns hopes to draw lessons for a turnaround in labor, which he clearly admits is at a low point. Pittston, a strike lead by Richard Trumka, featured the union ignoring fines, at one point taking over a mine, engaging in mass civil disobedience, blocking roads with junk vehicles, sending masked roving pickets to other mines, and even tolerating random violence against scabs. The strike was won, leading to no concessions and an increase in health benefits.

Burns also clearly calls on an ideological change in American labor. The anti-communist clause in Taft Hartley – which John L Lewis refused to sign, and eventually did – is no accident. It is no accident that, de-fanged of socialist activists and ideas, labor is fighting with one – or eventually perhaps two - hands tied behind their back. The simple idea that labor and humans are not merely a commodity – which both Marxists and conservative labor leaders understood thoroughly in the past – is now no longer mentioned. We are instead told to sell ourselves to the highest bidder, like well-proportioned whores on parade. And indeed we are - until the concepts of real labor rights are renewed at the heart of the U.S. labor movement.

Burns makes a mention of how card check laws in Canada have stemmed the tide of losses in labor in some provinces there, but did not ‘revive’ labor there. However, the very fact of a card check law existing in Canada is a reflection of the New Democratic Party (“NDP”), a Party in which labor has a controlling stake. The NDP pushed for card check, and made it a reality in several provinces. Recently both Canadian postal workers and Air Canada workers staged large strikes shows that in Canada, like in every other country in the world, a strike movement is closely aligned to a strategy of labor political activity. It is no accident that in the U.S. labor is both virtually quiescent on the strike front and the political front, though events like Wisconsin shows this need not be the case.

And here is the main problem in Burns’ book. He makes, essentially, a syndicalist or ‘economist’ mistake – as Lenin used the term. Leaving politics (and law) to the bourgeoisie, and thinking that only militant strike activity is useful – actually hobbles the fight for an effective strike. The ‘30s are over – and one of the great failures of the 30s was the failure to create a political party based on the labor movement. If one had been created – not just in Minnesota but throughout the United States – the ease of instituting Taft-Hartley, of judges signing off on injunctions (80% of judges are elected - and who do you think is paying for their campaigns?), of political figures calling out police, of maintaining and increasing anti-labor laws, of a national debate where labor's needs are totally absent – would have been limited by a fierce fight in the political arena. Just using the ‘bully pulpit’ of political leadership to denounce anti-union, anti-labor laws will make them that much weaker and easier to break. Now we are relegated to the role of begging Democrats to be nice – a strategy that has clearly failed again and again.

Burns does point out that only two forces recently brought up getting rid of Taft Hartley in a mass way. The first was the Labor Party of the latter 1990s, which involved at least a 1/3rd of the union movement, including Trumka’s UMW – and the second, Ralph Nader, who always mentioned it in his speeches in 2000 and 2004. Burns has stated in talks that you ‘can’t get rid of Taft Hartley’ or engage in independent political activity – but then, the difficulty of ‘reviving the strike’ is equally significant. Somehow promoting one without the other makes little sense.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, July 5, 2011

Monday, July 4, 2011

Another Place is the Space

Just Kids,” by Patti Smith, 2011

This is the story of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s not a biography so much as an homage to a time, a place and a relationship.

The time is the late sixties and early seventies. The place is New York. The relationship is a friendship/love between a young gay guy and a young punk girl. Although ‘punks’ hadn’t been invented yet. Mapplethorpe is the ultimate ‘gay best friend’ and lover, I guess.

Smith writes in a poetic but somewhat childish manner, which fits.

The first thing you notice is that Patti is no slouch. She has read more than most English P.H.D.’s – and is none the worse for that. She drops the ‘Rimbaud” bomb repeatedly (and the Verlaine, Genet, Cockteau, Gide, Baudelaire bombs, along with a wide array of other weapons), then follows up with plain old name-dropping. Allen Ginsburg tried to pick her up in an Automat. Until he saw she wasn’t a boy. But she did get some food out of the deal. See? She even pals around with Sam Sheppard, the playwright, by ... accident. While Patti hangs out in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel, Salvador Dali arrives, cape and all, and approves of her hair-cut. (!) If you are a poetry or culture junkie, this book is for you.

At some point, Smith's fascination with French symbolism twice leads her to a trip to France, once to visit Rimbaud’s museum and grave. Her self-education contrasts with a great many of the hippies thronging Washington Square at that time. Smith came from a working-class background in New Jersey, and, if not for finding $32 in an abandoned purse, might not have had the money to buy a bus ticket, escape New Jersey factory life and land in the Big City. She wrote a song, “Piss Factory,” about escaping the factories. Essentially it shows that self-education is many times the route to a creative life. Just as self-education is the route to a political life.

Mapplethorpe is a young artist who looks a bit like Jim Morrison. Patti meets him by accident on the streets, and after he rescues her from some old guy, they move in together. They stay together, for the most part until he dies of AIDS. He’s an adept at three-dimensional constructions and collages, working through a Catholic upbringing. She writes poetry, and together they decide to be artists. Moving from living on the street to dumpy apartment to arty apartment, from junkie-ridden hotel to the Chelsea hotel, and then to a loft across the street from the Chelsea, the two trace slowly improving fortunes. Mapplethorpe has his eyes set on the Andy Warhol crowd in the back room at Max’s Kansas City. He makes friends with a prominent patron, and begins to sell photos to an august group – people like George Plimpton. August as all that.

Patti didn’t know quite what she wanted, but ended up reading poetry backed by a guitar, and the rest is history. She ends up at the Bowery bar CBGB’s with Television and Richard Hell, and the New York punk scene is born. That is, after she cut her hair and got a rooster. She eventually marries Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith of the MC5, after dating one of the members of Blue Oyster Cult. When Bob Dylan visited CBGB’s for a Smith show, she knew that ‘something was happening here.’ Dylan was the reclusive crown prince of the rock and roll scene in the city.

What is fascinating about this book is the sense of the place and time percolating a ‘scene.” Like Laurel Canyon (reviewed below) or the Mississippi Delta (reviewed below), the scene had a dynamic of its own, not determined by some outside influence. Patti, while living at the Chelsea in 1969, listens to Kris Kristofferson sing “Me and Bobbie McGee” to Janis Joplin, and doesn’t know what she just witnessed. The Chelsea is the historic hotel that Dylan Thomas, Thomas Wolfe, Bob Dylan, Arthur C Clarke and Oscar Wilde stayed in. At one point she goes next door to the Chelsea’s bar, the El Quijote, and in the bar sits Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Country Joe and the Fish, and Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane, waiting for Woodstock to begin. Slick says ‘hi to you’ – and Patti feels at ‘home.’ If you are a music junkie, this book is also for you.

This scene closely parallels the eruption of creativity that occurred in Paris, involving surrealists, symbolists, existentialists, and others in the 20s and 30s, which ended with the start of World War II. The earlier sequential development fed into the later one in the U.S., as transmitted by Patti Smith and others. The real question is if bourgeois culture has another spark of creativity within its ‘bohemian/beatnik/hippie/punk/alternative’ impulse, or if those counter-cultural impulses have finally been commercialized and made harmless by corporate capital. In other words, is rebellion now a commodity? Quoting Thomas Frank, I think for the most part, it is. So the real question is to make a 'culture' that cannot be bought.

And I bought it at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi
Red Frong, July 4, 2011