Here are some imponderable questions: what role should big labor play in progressive coalitions? If so, how? What about Occupy?
If we look at the political landscape in recent times it is clear that there is not one answer. On one hand, labor unions are most definitely not the voice of the 1% – they have been the voice of the working people they represent at a time of cutbacks and increasing austerity, and often one of the only voices of reason as cities and states decimate all kinds of public services. And, from Los Angeles to Madison to New York City there are all sorts of examples of community-labor coalitions that have been for the good. On the other hand, the big labor unions seem to be stuck in a co-dependent and abusive relationship with the Democratic Party. And if you speak to progressives and radicals within those unions, you don’t have to dig too deep to learn about undemocratic practices, hierarchical leadership structures, and an instrumental relationship to communities. It sometimes seems that for every inspiring example you hear about a progressive coalition you then you also hear about unions playing hardball with community groups. The charge you sometimes hear – that “unions only care about their own,” seems to find evidence in the checkered record some of the big organizations have with regards to immigrant and not-documented workers, temporary laborers, and youth.
One of the things I have been writing about, here in Spain, has been the way that the 15M movement has maintained a distance from the labor movement, which is seen as in the pocket of one of the political parties, as well as made up of anti-democratic and hierarchical organizations. In an essay coming out in the next Boston Review, Ernesto Ganuza and I close the essay with some reflections on this very theme:
In spite of the strict ban on special-interest promotion, the lesson from the Indignados of Spain is not that unions or other groups have no part to play in a radically democratic movement. Rather, to play a part, they need to make their demands for just democracy more than a slogan or an election strategy. Yes, unions need to focus more on speaking for the common good, as some leaders have acknowledged in efforts to connect with Occupy. But they need to understand that ossified leadership structures and dependence on political parties are at odds with the larger goal of achieving a genuinely democratic renewal.
Recently I received a story from “Truthout” about a recent primary election in my hometown of Providence. The article, called “The 99% takes Office” tells one version of the story of the special election to replace city councilor Miguel Luna, who unexpectedly passed earlier this year, leaving us with a huge gap in the world of social justice. Miguel – whom I’d had actually the privilege of working with earlier this year, had been city councilor for Providence’s Ward 9 for eight years. A leader in what seems like every meaningful struggle in the city in recent years – affordable housing, workers’ rights, police misconduct, lead poisoning, he held the distinction of being the first Dominican elected to political office in Rhode Island and was a founding member of DARE – Direct Action for Rights and Equality. Miguel was also fiercely independent.
I was stunned to read the story, and given its tone it is not hard to understand why so many people in the social justice world of Providence are furious at its publication.
What the story does not tell, in its effort to make the winning candidate a “voice for the 99%,” is what actually happened in the election. The article says that the winning candidate,
drew support from the Laborers, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the Painters, SEIU and the Teachers Union, as well as from the city’s Central Labor Council.
Another way of putting it is that Local 217 of UNITE HERE and its allies above, put tens of thousands of dollars into an election, and bringing scores of out-of-town white organizers into Ward 9, a primarily Latino and Black area, so as to support one of its members in the election. UNITE HERE did this against the wishes of very many progressive community organizers who had come together in near-consensus around the candidacy of Rochelle Lee.
In what is, unfortunately and sadly, not a new turn of events, organized labor steamrolled community. The campaign of Rochelle Lee, which was essentially unfunded, lost in the end by only 29 votes. A participant in her campaign recalled:
it was one of the most beautiful examples of Black/Latino (and Asian and White) unity ever in Providence politics, again, part of Miguel’s legacy. We know that we won in many ways, not the least of which was dollars per vote. We were also able to keep Miguel’s broad vision and menu of issues, his revolutionary spirit, and especially his heart front and center during the campaign.
And then, to add insult to injury, is the spin-piece going around by Truthout. There are several inaccuracies in the piece, and most of the details won’t concern people outside of Providence, but for example, the winning candidate, who never had much to nice to say about the late Miguel Luna is quoted as being his “best friend.”
And then, of course, it ignores how the election was won. Here is what we take to be UNITE HERE’s election playbook during this election: Steam-rolling community folks; using professional organizers; winning a campaign with dollars; following it up with cynical propaganda pieces like this one. Shame on UNITE HERE: this helps give labor bad name, and this kind of thing goes some way to explain why people are hesitant about unions. But the very worst inaccuracy is the claim that is somehow the spirit of Occupy. This behavior is, in every way possible, business as usual. The chant comes to mind: “You do not represent us!” And the question comes to mind: is it time to occupy big labor ?
You can read the letter here: Open Letter to Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi | UCDavis Bicycle Barricade.
The text of the letter, by Nathan Brown, assistant professor of English follows:
18 November 2011
Open Letter to Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi
Linda P.B. Katehi,
I am a junior faculty member at UC Davis. I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, and I teach in the Program in Critical Theory and in Science & Technology Studies. I have a strong record of research, teaching, and service. I am currently a Board Member of the Davis Faculty Association. I have also taken an active role in supporting the student movement to defend public education on our campus and throughout the UC system. In a word: I am the sort of young faculty member, like many of my colleagues, this campus needs. I am an asset to the University of California at Davis.
You are not.
I write to you and to my colleagues for three reasons:
1) to express my outrage at the police brutality which occurred against students engaged in peaceful protest on the UC Davis campus today
2) to hold you accountable for this police brutality
3) to demand your immediate resignation
Today you ordered police onto our campus to clear student protesters from the quad. These were protesters who participated in a rally speaking out against tuition increases and police brutality on UC campuses on Tuesday—a rally that I organized, and which was endorsed by the Davis Faculty Association. These students attended that rally in response to a call for solidarity from students and faculty who were bludgeoned with batons,hospitalized, and arrested at UC Berkeley last week. In the highest tradition of non-violent civil disobedience, those protesters had linked arms and held their ground in defense of tents they set up beside Sproul Hall. In a gesture of solidarity with those students and faculty, and in solidarity with the national Occupy movement, students at UC Davis set up tents on the main quad. When you ordered police outfitted with riot helmets, brandishing batons and teargas guns to remove their tents today, those students sat down on the ground in a circle and linked arms to protect them.
Without any provocation whatsoever, other than the bodies of these students sitting where they were on the ground, with their arms linked, police pepper-sprayed students.Students remained on the ground, now writhing in pain, with their arms linked.
What happened next?
Police used batons to try to push the students apart. Those they could separate, they arrested, kneeling on their bodies and pushing their heads into the ground. Those they could not separate, they pepper-sprayed directly in the face, holding these students as they did so. When students covered their eyes with their clothing, police forced open their mouths and pepper-sprayed down their throats. Several of these students were hospitalized. Others are seriously injured. One of them, forty-five minutes after being pepper-sprayed down his throat, was still coughing up blood.
This is what happened. You are responsible for it.
You are responsible for it because this is what happens when UC Chancellors order police onto our campuses to disperse peaceful protesters through the use of force: students get hurt. Faculty get hurt. One of the most inspiring things (inspiring for those of us who care about students who assert their rights to free speech and peaceful assembly) about the demonstration in Berkeley on November 9 is that UC Berkeley faculty stood together with students, their arms linked together. Associate Professor of English Celeste Langan was grabbed by her hair, thrown on the ground, and arrested. Associate Professor Geoffrey O’Brien was injured by baton blows. Professor Robert Hass, former Poet Laureate of the United States, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, was also struck with a baton. These faculty stood together with students in solidarity, and they too were beaten and arrested by the police. In writing this letter, I stand together with those faculty and with the students they supported.
One week after this happened at UC Berkeley, you ordered police to clear tents from the quad at UC Davis. When students responded in the same way—linking arms and holding their ground—police also responded in the same way: with violent force. The fact is: the administration of UC campuses systematically uses police brutality to terrorize students and faculty, to crush political dissent on our campuses, and to suppress free speech and peaceful assembly. Many people know this. Many more people are learning it very quickly.
You are responsible for the police violence directed against students on the UC Davis quad on November 18, 2011. As I said, I am writing to hold you responsible and to demand your immediate resignation on these grounds.
On Wednesday November 16, you issued a letter by email to the campus community. In this letter, you discussed a hate crime which occurred at UC Davis on Sunday November 13. In this letter, you express concern about the safety of our students. You write, “it is particularly disturbing that such an act of intolerance should occur at a time when the campus community is working to create a safe and inviting space for all our students.” You write, “while these are turbulent economic times, as a campus community, we must all be committed to a safe, welcoming environment that advances our efforts to diversity and excellence at UC Davis.”
I will leave it to my colleagues and every reader of this letter to decide what poses a greater threat to “a safe and inviting space for all our students” or “a safe, welcoming environment” at UC Davis: 1) Setting up tents on the quad in solidarity with faculty and students brutalized by police at UC Berkeley? or 2) Sending in riot police to disperse students with batons, pepper-spray, and tear-gas guns, while those students sit peacefully on the ground with their arms linked? Is this what you have in mind when you refer to creating “a safe and inviting space?” Is this what you have in mind when you express commitment to “a safe, welcoming environment?”
I am writing to tell you in no uncertain terms that there must be space for protest on our campus. There must be space for political dissent on our campus. There must be space for civil disobedience on our campus. There must be space for students to assert their right to decide on the form of their protest, their dissent, and their civil disobedience—including the simple act of setting up tents in solidarity with other students who have done so. There must be space for protest and dissent, especially, when the object of protest and dissent is police brutality itself. You may not order police to forcefully disperse student protesters peacefully protesting police brutality. You may not do so. It is not an option available to you as the Chancellor of a UC campus. That is why I am calling for your immediate resignation.
Your words express concern for the safety of our students. Your actions express no concern whatsoever for the safety of our students. I deduce from this discrepancy that you are not, in fact, concerned about the safety of our students. Your actions directly threaten the safety of our students. And I want you to know that this is clear. It is clear to anyone who reads your campus emails concerning our “Principles of Community” and who also takes the time to inform themselves about your actions. You should bear in mind that when you send emails to the UC Davis community, you address a body of faculty and students who are well trained to see through rhetoric that evinces care for students while implicitly threatening them. I see through your rhetoric very clearly. You also write to a campus community that knows how to speak truth to power. That is what I am doing.
I call for your resignation because you are unfit to do your job. You are unfit to ensure the safety of students at UC Davis. In fact: you are the primary threat to the safety of students at UC Davis. As such, I call upon you to resign immediately.
Department of English
Program in Critical Theory
University of California at Davis
A super cool discussion with Josh Cohen on OWS, at Occupy the Airwaves. A very thoughtful set of reflections on a Rawlsian theory of Justice and unfolding events.