The Despair of Ta-Nehisi Coates

by Carl Proper

Coates

a review of “Between the World and Me”, by Ta-Nehisi Coates {Spiegel and Grau, New York, 2015}

and “The Beautiful Struggle,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel and Grau, New York, 2008}

When I was your age,” Coates tells his son, Samori, “the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.”

 Their fear is well founded.  There is no safe place for a black man in Coates’ America.  He sees a nation of Dreamers “who think they are white,” continuously chasing “plunder.”  Their heritage includes the right to destroy black men’s bodies with impunity.  And plunder now includes dreams that may destroy the Earth itself.

In this world, the descendants of slaves often take their fear and anger out on each other.

For Coates, fear begins at home.  His father, a military veteran and disillusioned former Black Panther captain, disciplines his children with his fists. Dad hopes his blows will prevent them from confronting police.  “Maybe this saved me.  Maybe it didn’t,” Ta-Nehisi demurs. “We were afraid of those who loved us most.”

In the West Baltimore ghetto of Coates’ childhood, “the crews, the young men who’d transmuted their fear into rage, were the greatest danger. [They] walked the blocks of their neighborhood, loud and rude, because it was only through their loud rudeness that they might feel any sense of security and power.  They would break your jaw, stomp your face, and shoot you down to feel that power.”

But “their knowledge peaked at seventeen.” And, as all understood, “young black men who dropped out of school were headed for jail.”  Their bodies were forfeit, after a few years of adolescent bravado.

Even in school, the street code demands violent response to disrespect.  Coates is twice suspended, once for threatening a teacher, once for a confrontation with another student. When Coates’ Dad hears of the threat to the teacher, he comes to school and punches his son in front of the class. “He swung like he was afraid,” Coates writes, like the world was closing in and cornering him, like he was trying to save my life.”

Growing up, Coates “loved Malcolm X”, not for his anger, but because “Malcolm never lied.”

Coates also does not lie. Threats come from all directions, from blacks as well as whites, from home and school as well as from police and strangers.

Only at Howard University, a predominantly black school in Washington, D.C, known as “the Mecca” to Coates, does the background fear begin to fade away.  Here, he finds himself as a man and a writer.  His closest male friend is Prince Jones, son of a former maid who has worked her way up to a position as Professor.  Prince is a bone-deep Christian, and a happy soulmate for Coates.  Then, driving one day through predominantly black Prince George’s County, Virginia, a few miles from the District of Columbia, Prince has a never-clarified encounter with a black policeman.  He is shot and killed.  No one is charged. No one is punished.

No one is safe.

Some years later, Coates finds a living as a writer in New York City.  He dreams again of protecting his family and son from the dangers he has experienced.  Then, in a confrontation on a movie theater escalator, a white woman shoves his five-year-old son out of her way. When Coates raises his voice at the woman, white theater-goers intervene.  “I could have you arrested,” one warns.

In the time of Trayvon Martin, Coates and his son both understand their bodies are always at risk.  As the book ends, he is driving through the rain, past the old “ghettos,” and the “old fear” returns.

Coates’ beautifully written, sparely worded second book evokes the despair of Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.”  Coates has been criticized by some for not offering hope or solutions to African Americans’ problems.  This reflects his experience, that neither violent resistance nor peaceful coexistence can put an end to Dreamers’ plunder.

But a farewell to arms, and fists, would be a start.

Carl Proper was a member and staff member for the ILGWU, UNITE and UNITE HERE for forty years. After leaving the Peace Corps, he took a job as a cloth spreader in a union factory, and was hired from there as an Organizer. He served at various times as Organizer, Educational Director and Business Agent for the New England Joint Board; and as Assistant and Executive Assistant to ILGWU and UNITE President Jay Mazur; and as Executive Director for the union’s labor-management industry development committee.
He is now retired and living in Washington, DC.

How Workers Lose in Negotiations: The ABCs of Corporate Rip-Offs

by Carl Finamore

runaway inequality (3)

Unlike the ninety percent of American workers who have only their own personal voice to influence their wages, benefits and working conditions, union employees use their collective organization to establish guarantees.

And, union workers come to negotiations very well prepared with lots of economic data, with each contract proposal “costed out,” and with the whole team backed up by a professional staff of legal and industry analysts. So, then, how is it that we still get hammered

In real dollars, wages and benefits have not risen since the middle 1970s. We know this, but it still doesn’t make any sense. Why haven’t things improved for most of us and how has the seemingly impossible happened with 95% of all new income since the 2008 “recovery” going to the top 1%?

To answer these questions properly, we have to go beyond just blaming offshoring and contracting out and dig deeper, right down into the heart of how finance capital operates today.

Aside from the fact that unions seldom use their most powerful weapon, the strike, and aside from the fact that even fewer unions ever mobilize and organize their biggest asset, the members, our biggest problem in bargaining is that labor’s financial analysis of corporations only touches the surface. It misses the vast bulk of corporate hidden wealth.

As it stands now, the Top 500 corporations come to the negotiating table after already having played most of their big money cards elsewhere, in the stock market – thus, earning the well-deserved moniker of “casino capitalism.”

In essence, CEOs try to squeeze every dollar they can from offshoring, contracting out, terminating pensions, keeping wages low and reducing the workforce, just so they can push more cash into funding their ultimate prize – buying back stocks and paying dividends. This is where the real money is for investors.

Labor economist Les Leopold explains it in his new book: Continue reading

Who Built the Golden Gate Bridge?

book
I am a Northern California labor historian. Late last year I published a book entitled BUILDING THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE: A WORKERS’ ORAL HISTORY. The book is based on interviews I conducted with surviving 1930s construction veterans some years ago when they were still available. Together their voices chronicle the rough job conditions, the tragic accidents, and the ultimate triumphs experienced by workers who built an American icon during the Great Depression. The book ends with the testimonies of two nurses who cared for the injured and the recollections of an African American iron worker who overcame gender and racial challenges when she did maintenance labor on the great bridge in later years.

On Thursday, January 21, I will be reading from the book at Time Tested Books, 1114-21st Street, Sacramento, at 7 pm.
In solidarity, Harvey Schwartz

Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and Why Unions are Needed

by Duane E. Campbell

On March 31, 2015, Eleven states and numerous cities will hold holidays celebrating labor and Latino leader Cesar Chavez. ChavezConferences, marches and celebrations will occur in numerous cities and particularly in rural areas of the nation. A recent film Cesar Chavez: An American Hero, starring Michael Peña as Cesar Chavez and Rosario Dawson as Dolores Huerta presents important parts of this union story.

The current UFW leadership, as well as former UFW leaders and current DSA Honorary Chairs Eliseo Medina and Dolores Huerta are recognized leaders in the ongoing efforts to achieve comprehensive immigration reform in the nation.

ArturoUFW President Arturo Rodriquez says, “We urge Republicans to abandon their political games that hurt millions of hard-working, taxpaying immigrants and their families, and help us finish the job by passing legislation such as the comprehensive reform bill that was approved by the Senate on a bipartisan vote in June 2013,” Rodriguez said.  Similar compromise proposals, negotiated by the UFW and the nation’s major agricultural employer associations, have passed the U.S. Senate multiple times over the last decade. The same proposal has won majority support in the House of Representatives, even though House GOP leaders have refused to permit a vote on the measure. “The UFW will not rest until the President’s deferred relief is enacted and a permanent immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants, is signed into law.” www.UFW.org Continue reading

Bringing Labor Back:

Labor-management partnerships will not revive the union movement.

By Chris Maisano. Reposted from Jacobin Magazine.

[ed.note- we encourage responses to this piece and the prior post, First Stop the Self Flagellation]

Workers occupy a factory in the 1937 Flint Sit Down Strike. Library of Congeress

Workers occupy a factory in the 1937 Flint Sit Down Strike. Library of Congress

As late as 2008, it was not unreasonable to think that the stars were aligning for a long-awaited revitalization of the US labor movement. The financial crisis focused popular anger on the Wall Street financiers whose speculative activities brought the global economy to the brink of collapse. The election of Barack Obama and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress raised labor’s hopes for the passage of an economic recovery program and long-sought labor law reforms.

And it seemed as if workers themselves were finally willing to take action against the decades-long trend of increasing corporate power and inequality. The occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors plant in Chicago by a militant United Electrical Workers local — an action that drew approving notice from the president-elect and much of the public — electrified labor’s ranks and seemed to echo President Franklin Roosevelt’s support for unionization and collective bargaining during the New Deal.

This appeared to be the most favorable set of circumstances for the US labor movement in decades, and the first significant hope for revitalization since the successful Teamsters strike against UPS in 1997.

It didn’t happen. Labor law reform was sidelined in favor of health care reform, and the Republicans rolled up big electoral wins at all levels in 2010 and 2014. Despite widespread popular anger at the multi-trillion-dollar bank bailouts, the financial sector has come out of the crisis stronger, and corporate profits are at record levels. Economic inequality has continued its upward path.

Fast food and retail workers have shown a new willingness to protest and engage in collective action, and their efforts have spurred minimum-wage increases in a number of states and cities. Still, private-sector unionization continues to move toward total collapse. And in the public sector, the labor movement’s last stronghold, state-level attacks on collective-bargaining rights and anti-union cases in the judicial system have set the stage for a decisive offensive against organized working-class power.

The writing is on the wall: unions as we have known them since the 1930s are in their terminal stage, and likely have only a short time left as a social institution of any major political significance. The private sector is essentially union-free, and public-sector unions don’t have the capacity to defend themselves against legislative and judicial assaults, even in states that are supposedly union strongholds (see Wisconsin and Michigan). Continue reading

Three lessons for young labor organizers

by Neal Meyer

Young activists seeking an introduction to the contemporary US labor movement have few places to turn. There are countless histories of labor’s golden age in the middle of the twentieth century. But there are too few analyses which have the courage to be critical and the perspective to place the movement today in the context of the last 40 years of struggle. Fortunately for activists in search of such an introduction, one does exist now in Steve Early’s latest book, Save Our Unions (Monthly Review Press, 2013).

Save Our Unions is a collection of Early’s recent writing on the history and prospects of US labor. Spanning the heyday of the rank-and-file rebellion of the 1970s to the organizing battles of the Great Recession, Save Our Unions will help any new labor activist situate herself. A young organizer who seeks answers to where she should concentrate her energies, what values organizers need, and what prospects there are for labor in the next decade will find much to think over.

To give you a taste, I’ve compiled three of the most important lessons from Early’s new book.

 Union democracy is key

The rank-and-file rebellion has sadly been forgotten by most activists. But for a few years in the 1970s, democratic caucuses were launched by shop stewards and union members in many of the countries’ most important unions. Early’s first section, “Rebels with a Cause”, is a great introduction to the emergence of some of these caucuses and their fate.

The key lesson here is that when workers are engaged and participate in the life and decisions of their union their loyalty to one another and their capacity to fight their employers increases immeasurably. Early focuses in on the example of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, one of the most successful of the reform caucuses and one which actually succeeded in electing its candidate, Ron Carey, as president of the Teamsters in 1991. In 1997, Carey went on to lead one of the most successful strikes in an otherwise depressing decade. Carey and TDU were able to mobilize 185,000 teamsters to actively participate in a strike against UPS and built a 30 member bargaining committee which included rank-and-file workers for the first time, tactics which played a critical part in defeating UPS.

Too many unions today are content to substitute the organizing power of staff organizers for the initiative of shop stewards and members, and far fewer still have real contested elections for leadership. Early demonstrates how mistaken this strategy is. To combat cynics who will argue that this kind of participation is not possible, young organizers should approach the first section to Early’s book as a primer on really existing rank-and-file rebellions.

 2. Where you work matters

Eventually every college labor activist faces the question of what to do with themselves when they graduate. Should they try to get a job as a union organizer or researcher? If so, where should they go? Again, Early’s work will help give activists direction.

For the activist committed to working directly for a union the key question will be how democratic the union you are considering is. Are members an integral part of the life of the union, or are they cajoled into signing petitions and holding signs during contract negotiations and then relegated to the sidelines?

But Early also introduces an alternative to the union staff route, known as “industrializing” in the 1970s and as “salting” today. This is the practice of sending politically committed organizers directly into the workplace to get jobs and organize from within, and it’s one of the most challenging but potentially rewarding experiences a young organizer can take on. In Save Our Unions, Peter Olney, who after dropping out of Harvard had worked as a refrigeration mechanic and elevator operator in a unionized hospital before becoming a full-time organizer and eventual Organizing Director of the ILWU,  argues that in an organizing campaign “nothing can replace the presence of these politicized organizers in the workplaces of America.”

Although as Early notes salting has not yet become “sufficiently fashionable” to make a real breakthrough possible, it’s a route that more activists should consider seriously. Not only will they become more powerful organizers on the job to the benefit of their coworkers, but especially for college-educated activists from any class background, this strategy can be the best way to keep or find a firm political foundation in working-class communities.

  1. Vision is central

The most important lesson young activists can take from Early’s book is a constant refrain in each story. This is the importance of having a vision of what you’re fighting for and a political commitment to the cause. The heroes of Early’s stories are the radical organizers who make sacrifices for the labor movement because they see it as part of a long-term struggle. They are the socialists, communists, and anarchists who lead democratic reform caucuses, salt unionized and non-unionized workplaces, and champion unconventional, working-class electoral campaigns.

In the official history of the labor movement, and in too much of contemporary journalism around labor, union activists are depicted as bread-and-butter pragmatists fighting for higher wages and better fringe benefits. Laudable as these goals are, this approach misses one of the most important factors in what determines the success of organizers. Organizers need an ideological commitment to building a better society and a structural analysis of capitalism and the role that labor plays within contemporary society. It’s this vision and analysis that keeps salts and reformers in the struggle to build a better and more militant labor movement.

There is so much more to be gleaned from Save Our Unions. Activists of any age or familiarity with labor will benefit from Early’s coverage of battles in telecommunications, hospitality, and healthcare. Everyone should acquaint themselves with the latest developments in the multi-year fight between SEIU and the National Union of Healthcare Workers on the west coast. But especially for a young activist looking for lessons and an introduction to labor, Early’s book delivers.

Neal Meyer is a Brooklyn-based activist and member of DSA. He was previously an organizer for YDS.

Hong Kong Labor Supports Ongoing Struggle for Democracy

Ed. note: Although students and young people formed the tenacious shock troops of the Umbrella Movement for democracy in Hong Kong, they received strong support from the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU). This press statement from the HKCTU commits the labor confederation to the ongoing struggle.

The new era of Democratic Movement begins

umbrella_movement_699_524

HKCTU leaders and members who were arrested at the 75-day Admiralty occupation on Dec 11th 2014 while they stayed with other protesters to resist the police to clean up the occupation zone, were all released on Dec 12th 2014. Ending of the occupation was just a beginning of a new era of the movement for true democracy.

It was reported that 247 protesters were arrested on Dec 11 and 7 of them from HKCTU: General Secretary Lee Cheuk Yan, Chief Executive Mung Siu Tat, Bar Bender Workers Union Chairperson Wong Wai Man, Community Care and Nursing Workers Union Ar Dick, Van Delivery Workers Unions Simpson, Organizing Secretary Fredrik Fan and a volunteer Wu Sui Ming. They all were released in 12 hours without any charges. After the release, the two leaders of HKCTU made the following comments.

Brother Mung Siu Tat reflected that, “I have been fighting for labour rights over 20 years in my life time seeing how the workers were exploited by bosses and unfair systems. If we would accept the ‘fake universal suffrage’ proposal from the National People’s Congress, the policy making will still be business leaning, as the big corporates are the few but powerful nominators. It implies universal labour rights, such as standard working hours, right to collective bargaining, universal pension fund, would continue to be “blocked” by the functional constituencies. When the roads are occupied, bailiff and the police would conduct the clearance, yet, what happen if our democratic rights and labour rights are “blocked”? If we don’t join force, who can clear up the road to democracy and labour rights? We have to open our roads by our peoples’ power.”

Brother Lee Cheuk Yan said that, “the authorities can use police to clean up the protest site but they cannot kill the spirit and courage of people for democracy. It is going to be tough in future, we have to prepare that the government will use rules and orders as tools for suppressing the social activists and civil society after this battle. At the same time, we see hopes from the active political participation and strong leaderships of youngsters in this movement. HKCTU will try to reach out to the young activists among working class so as to build up an emerging and powerful trade union movement in Hong Kong”.

umbrella supporters

There were a lot of solidarity actions locally and internationally to call for immediate release of the protesters. HKCTU is very thankful to IUF for launching the online petition to show international solidarity to HK democratic struggles. HKCTU will continue the struggle with all working class, students and citizens in Hong Kong to fight for universal suffrage of Chief Executive and Legislative Council in 2017 and 2018.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,612 other followers