Friday, September 18, 2009

Where's the fight?

Bill Moyers' interview of guests Michael Zweig and Bill Fletcher Jr., who spoke about the current state of unions in America, touched on themes that I discussed earlier this week with someone online who had previously been a paid "netroots" organizer for single-payer style reform to the US health care system. She's now pushing for the so-called "public option". She and others have given up the fight for single-payer because they believe this public option (however it's defined and despite the fact that Obama has called it just a "sliver" of his health care plan) is the best they can get - if they can even get that.

I pushed back.

I asked what would have happened if Rosa Parks had decided on that fateful day to just sit in the middle of the bus - believing that was what she still deserved because to fight for real rights would have been too much of a struggle.

Crickets chirped in response.

The union fight throughout the last century in America parallels, politically, what's happened to the now much-aligned left in this health care reform debate.

BILL MOYERS: Those conservative protestors we saw are not afraid of confrontation. They're willing to use sharp elbows and brass knuckles in fighting for what they believe in. Why isn't labor more confrontational in behalf of those very people, the working people of this country?

BILL FLETCHER: Well, part of it is that there's I know people won't appreciate my saying this. But among many of the leaders, there's really a fear of losing respectability. I mean, you have leaders that have now gained these positions and they're really afraid that if they shake the table too much, that they will be excluded.

MICHAEL ZWEIG: What has happened is that the corporations and the corporate elite have structured what this country is, what's valuable, what's important, how we organize our lives. And labor has not come forth with an alternative set of values.

BILL MOYERS: But why haven't they? Now, that's

MICHAEL ZWEIG: Well, there I think because we used to have that. And all the labor movement did have that.

BILL MOYERS: Solidarity forever, right?

MICHAEL ZWEIG: Well, and the labor movement had a very militant, very aggressive stance in the '30s, '40s, '50s that challenged capital. That got tremendous benefits. You know, the labor movement is the people who gave us the weekend. Let's not forget. The labor movement is what…

BILL MOYERS: The eight hour day.

MICHAEL ZWEIG: Got us the eight hour day, and the social security, and all the other things that we think are so very important, but are just natural. That came out of a labor movement, but a labor movement that was led by people and was fueled by people who understood that there was antagonism. That there was a battle that they were involved in. This was not just, 'Let's sit down and have lunch and figure out what's the best thing to do for America.' This was, 'Here's a group of people who run the country and run businesses. And they have a certain set of interests. And they do not have our interests at mind at heart. They are not for us.'

BILL MOYERS: For the working people.

MICHAEL ZWEIG: For the working people. We have to be organized and be a contrary force, a counterforce that's a real force. That isn't just a debating society. That doesn't just have resolutions that it passes.

BILL MOYERS: A real force to take on capital

MICHAEL ZWEIG: To take on capital.

BILL MOYERS: And power.


BILL MOYERS: And why have they lost that?

MICHAEL ZWEIG: Well, because they got crushed.


MICHAEL ZWEIG: Because the people who tried to do that. And the people who did do that were leftist. They were people who had a class analysis of society. Many of them were socialists and some of them were communists, but not all. But that sentiment, that understanding of the basic structure of society as divided by class interest. That there's a working class that's a majority of the population in this country. And they have interests. And they have a set of values that that convey those interests. That are very different from the corporations. They're very different from capital.

And if the people who held those views and mobilized the labor movement at an earlier point in our history. Those people were pushed out. And they were pushed out by the labor movement, internally, because there was great division and splits. And so then the labor movement got drawn into an era of cooperation. An era of, "Well, let's all sit down. And we'll all be reasonable. We'll all figure out what to do that's best for America." And it turns out America is not one thing. America is divided by these deep class antagonisms that we are now living with.

The AFL CIO, by the way, voted to support single payer last week.

But Democrats and their so-called "progressive" online members and supporters of the party have managed to accomplish, systematically - by buying into the decades-long demonization of "liberals" and "the left" by the corporate right - the wholesale abandonment of their golden opportunity for real change in their health care system. Even Obama dismissed the "fringe" elements of the left because he wants to be that "reasonable" man who appeals to all. He only has to read a newspaper to see that that idea has already failed.

This new "progressive" (conservative), fear-based American left has lost its fighting spirit.

Zweig and Fletcher explained how that's affected the union movement as well:

BILL FLETCHER: Well, first of all, I think that the election of Richard Trumka has a great deal of potential. Because

BILL MOYERS: The new president of the AFL-CIO.

BILL FLETCHER: The new president of the


BILL FLETCHER: Because Trumka comes out of a history of militancy. He you know, in terms of his vision of the United Mine Workers that he led. His emphasis on organizing. His clarity on the nature of the economic crisis that we've been facing. And what he has articulated so far. And all I can say, this is a hope, is the notion that we have to engage in that confrontation that you're describing.

We have to do much more massive organizing. Particularly of the poor, the increasingly poor sections of the working class. So, I think that there's a vision here. And I can't overstate this issue of vision. Because it's not simply the technique of unions putting resources into organizing. People have to feel compelled that there's a vision of success, but a vision of a different kind of country. And indeed, a different kind of world.

MICHAEL ZWEIG: It's also a different understanding of how you do politics and how you exert power. It's one thing to say, "I'm the leader of an organization of eight and a half million workers. I'm the head of the AFL-CIO. We have eight and a half million members in our affiliates." And I'm going to sit down at a table. And I'm going to say, "I have eight and a half million members out there." It's another thing to have eight and a half million members out there, who are in the streets, who are not just sending in letters and not just signing petitions. But who are actively engaged in exercising power, in building power in the streets, in the communities, in the schools.

BILL MOYERS: And we don't see that happening. Why? Why isn't that happening?

MICHAEL ZWEIG: But see, I think that Rich Trumka understands something about the need to do this. And we'll see where this goes now. But, you know, it's hard to change culture.


MICHAEL ZWEIG: It's hard to change the way we understand how things should happen.

Online Democrats are doing busy work - sending those letters and signing petitions while also contributing donations to politicians they think they can influence with their $5 or $10; politicians who've been raking in money for also standing up for this lowest-common denominator form of health care reform with enforced mandates resulting in fines which will only be a boon for already massive insurance companies. A public option that may have a trigger or the latest incarnation: a useless, regionally-based trial run.

Where are the left's health care reform protests? Surely they must be able to match the numbers that turned out for last week's right-wing tea party protests? One would think...

But as Zweig pointed out, it's hard to change culture. And the culture that permeates the majority of these online activists is one of timidity - the same posture embraced by their leader, president Obama.

They'll tell you that they'll be grateful to get whatever table scraps that come their way as a result of this battle and that later - sometime way later in the future, I guess, when the Democrats again control the white house, the house and the senate - then they'll push for more.

People are dying.

Just how much longer are they willing to wait?

This culture of self-imposed defeatism is at the root of despair for millions. Yet they call it "hope".

They'd be wise to learn from history: that when you push away the voices around you who demand the absolute best (those "fringe" dwellers), you cede a tremendous amount of ground to your adversaries that may well take you twice as long to get back. And you also find yourself living in a state of compromised principles that doesn't serve you or the ones you claim to fight for - regretting that you didn't try harder when you had the chance.

If we'd seen that kind of attitude in Canada during the 1960s, we never would have achieved universal health care. Tommy Douglas must be rolling over in his grave over this debacle currently going on in the United States. He knew that if you wanted reform, you made it happen. You changed the culture.

America needs a Tommy Douglas. But if he did materialize there today, the Democrats would just write him off as some fringe radical and go back to the table with their corporate overlords in the guise of doing what's "right".

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