Against the Current No. 28, September/October 1990

— The Editors

WHEN 120 JANITORS in Los Angeles ended their two-month-old strike and ratified their first union contract on July 26, it might not have seemed like the stuff of history. Yet this tiny strike against the contracting firm of International Service Systems (ISS) threw the city of Los Angeles into political turmoil; brought nearly 2,000 building service workers under Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 399's master contract; and, as one Los Angeles journalist suggested, rewrote the book on how to conduct an organizing drive among workers who have all the odds against them.

This organizing drive of largely undocumented workers succeeded because it threw out the window conventional wisdom as to why struggles like this are not supposed to be winnable. It consciously bypassed the traditional National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) procedures and at no time looked to a ballot as the primary way to win union recognition....

— Dolores Trevizo and Warren Montag

ON MAY 30, 1990 a seemingly unpromising strike began amidst the glittering towers of Century City, an office and shopping complex situated in posh West Los Angeles adjacent to Beverly Hills. About 120 janitors (primarily Central American and Mexican immigrants) launched a strike for union recognition, to raise their wages from $4.25 an hour, and to win health benefits.

Their employer, the Danish cleaning firm International Service Systems (ISS), is a billion dollar corporation that is not only the largest such firm in Los Angeles but in the world. ISS allied with the building owners in Century City, including some of the most powerful real-estate interests in Southern California (such as JMB Realty Corporation) to resist the janitors' demands....

— Mike Davis

On Friday, June 15, a march organized by the striking janitors and their supporters as part of the Justice for Janitors campaign was assaulted brutally and without warning by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). Mike Davis, a political activist and labor historian, witnessed the attack. This account first appeared in the LA Weekly and appears here with the author's permisston.

DOES THE AVENUE of the Stars now lead to Tiananmen Square? For two bloody hours last Friday June 15), the LAPD sealed off Century City so that they could beat and arrest scores of striking janitors and their supporters.,,,

— Rocío Sáenz

This talk was presented by Rocío Sáenz, an organizer in the Justice for Janitors campaign, at a Solidarity forum following the victory of the strike. The talk was in Spanish. The translation has been edited by ATC.

THIS ORGANIZING campaign started three years ago, out of the need to restructure the organizing that was happening at the time. The environment in Los Angeles wasn't good.

It looked like we were losing most of the buildings that we already had. The owners together with the managers of the buildings were driving down the salaries for the janitors who were working there. Contractors were reducing salaries and benefits....

— Marie De Santis

ON JUNE 4 the Nicaraguan Minister of Education, Ernesto Salmeron, issued the first official declaration of the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO) government on family planning and sex education. In a radio broadcast, Salmeron stated that the purpose of the sex act is to encourage procreation, thus signaling what many women's groups had feared: that the new government would seek to reverse many of the reproductive rights gains made by Nicaraguan women in the past decade.

The Minister of Education also announced that current materials used for sex education in the schools would be replaced by a new text in line with the government's stance, including the orientation that rhythm is the only acceptable method of birth control In the same radio broadcast he added that all school texts provided by the former Sandinista government are now being replaced....

— David Finkel

“THE STRIKE IS really well organized, well carried out (with a high) volume of participants. Actions are taken to help each other out, not cause repression. Water, transportation and phone lines (direct dial) are still available. Although the INE (the electric utility) is closed, the payment office was left open so people could pay their bills before the cordoba was devalued again?”

This was part of report from the Nicaragua Network's Managua office on July 5, during a mass strike movement that ended in victory a week later....

— an interview with Tony Benn

Tony Benn was first elected to the British House of Commons in 1950 and has subsequently been re-elected fourteen times. He was a member of the National Executive of the Labour Party from 1950 to 1960 but resigned over differences. In 1962 he was re-elected to the National Executive and has served in all National Executives since, in 1964 he served in the Labour Party Cabinet, and from 197579 he was secretary of state for energy. He has challenged three times for the party leadership. Benn is also...

— Tony Benn

The following is an excerpt from Tony Benn's lecture in Cincinnati:

What we are seeing in Eastern Europe now -- and I think it is only beginning -- will provide a test for the theory that market forces represent the answer to its problems, because, of course, the social cost of market forces is going to be enormous. Lech Walesa came to London recently and gave a lecture at the Institute of Directors - what I think you would call the National Association of Manufacturers -- and his face appeared on the cover of their magazine. Underneath that face it said, 'Our reforms are your profits." He was saying, cheap Polish labour for Western capital to exploit....

— James Petras

THE MOST LASTING IMPRESSION one receives after living in Spain is the striking contrast between the promise of the Spanish regime and its practice. The contradictions of Spanish socialism are numerous: a party that contested for power from a strong working-class base (it is called, after all, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, PSOE) and which, upon assuming power, has pursued a business orientation with a single-mindedness that would impress the most earnest Thatcherite.

The PSOE promised comprehensive social changes and realized a capitalist transformation; ascended to power based on rising working-class militancy and presided over a policy aimed at weakening working-class organization. It is a party whose ideologues and publicists promoted an ideology promising to extend the power of civil society against the state, and who in power witnessed the extension of state control over civil society; a party that attracted a substantial number of "anti-bureaucratic intellectuals and transformed them into functionaries of the state....

— David Mandel

SOVIET MEDIA TIRELESSLY repeat that almost everyone is convinced there is no alternative to the market reform. And indeed, few today in the Soviet Union would deny the necessity of significantly expanding market relations. But this is not necessarily the same as support for Mikhail Gorbachev's "regulated market."

Despite a massive liberal ideological assault on popular consciousness, opposition among workers to the government's reform remains a major obstacle to its consistent promulgation and to a large extent explains the vagaries and the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the reform process. Despite their efforts to identify their social program in the public mind with freedom, many liberals find themselves subscribing to Vasily Leontiev's lament that "it’s a pity that glasnost came to you before the radical reform connected with the transition to the market."(1)

— James Morton

THE CANCER EPIDEMIC is the most important single issue confronting the left in the first (industrial, capitalist) world because it represents the most pressing danger in our lives and in the lives of our children. While the epidemic of cancer and environmental collapse in the Third World has at least as devastating an impact as it does in the first, there starvation is the survival issue.

Environmental crisis and the epidemic of cancer can only be successfully challenged through a revolutionary transformation of the global economy. Most people do not make revolution to secure civil rights; in solidarity with another people's oppression, however severe; or in response to forced overtime. They only seem to be willing to endure the extreme personal sacrifice that revolution demands when their lives and their children's lives are at stake. The epidemic of cancer is the revolutionary issue that is most relevant in the lives of first world people, and it presents a logical strategic focus for a mass movement....

— James Morton

SCIENCE FOR THE PEOPLE re-examined their stance on the question of the cancer epidemic in their January/February 1990 issue and reached a conclusion that was neither scientific nor in the interest of the people. This error was made possible by a failure to engage in principled debate.

The proper procedure for criticizing claims of  cancer epidemic is first to take the principal work on that issue, Samuel Epstein's The Politics of Cancer (Anchor/Doubleday, 1979), compare it with the latest and most pertinent data and show where he is in error. The primary writers in SftP, "Rick Hester," a public health official who used a pseudonym, and Howard Frumkin, a physician on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, dismiss Epstein with a couple of sentences as being wrong, without a clue as to why he is so....

— Ivan Szelenyi

Ivan Szelenyi, a long time Hungarian democratic activist, teaches macro-sociology at UCLA. He co-authored The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power (English translation by Andrew Arato and R.E. Allen published in 1979) with Gyorgi Konrad, a leading Hungarian novelist. This article is part of a paper presented earlier this year.

OUR BOOK ended in 1974 with these sentences: "Paradoxically, no transcendent intellectual activity is thinkable in Eastern Europe so long as intellectuals do not formulate the immanence of the intelligentsia's evolution into a class. That however must wait for the abolition of the ruling elite's hegemony and the consolidation of the power of the intellectual class as a whole. As to when that hypothetical third period of socialism will arrive, we can only say that when some East European publisher accepts this essay for publication it will be here, and not before."

— The Editors

In ATC 27 we introduced a dialogue on the Third World after the Cold War, particularly in terms of how liberation movements are being affected by glasnost, perestroika, and the Soviet Union's precipitous decline as a world power. The discussion continues here with a comment by David Finkel on James Petras and Mike Fischer's essay in ATC 27, the authors' rejoinder, and two further contributions. The topic will be explored further in future issues of ATC.

— David Finkel

IN "FROM MALTA to Panama: The Third World's Uncertain Future" (ATC 27), James Petras and Mike Fischer have opened an important and wide-ranging exchange concerning the impact of the new East-West relationship on the struggles for Third World national liberation and development.

It is undoubtedly a critical question, or, more properly a whole set of questions: With the former "superpower rivalry" replaced by inter-capitalist competition in which the United States retains clear military superiority, will liberation movements be choked off for lack of access to arms formerly supplied by Eastern Europe?...

— James Petras and Mike Fischer

David Finkel's reply to our essay "From Panama to Malta" rightly argues that "What's needed is a cold-blooded calculation of the impact of the new [global] situation, without illusions or sentimentality." We couldn't agree more, which is why, in our assessment of how Gorbachev's "new thinking" affects the Third World, we explicitly state that "there is no sense in being nostalgic for the system being swept away in the East" (ATC 27, 45) and why, in our references to the cynicism that has frequently characterized Moscow's foreign policy, we caution against an endorsement of Moscow's "less than benign" intentions in giving the Third World material aid (ATC 21, 42).

But one can attack the Kremlin's foreign policy while nonetheless seeing the importance of the Soviet Union's commitments— however motivated—to the Third World. Moreover, as one of us cautioned recently in the Guardian, criticism of Moscow's police state apparatus and bureaucratic command economy can and should be balanced by an appreciation for the full employment and range of social services that characterized many of the postcapitalist states....

— John Pape

AT THE EASTERN European revolution is an epochal event, there cannot be the slightest doubt. That it has already sparked off a very intense Ideologically-inspired intellectual and political debate, there can also be no dispute. The debate has already undermined the weak case for a one-party structure... This is a positive development.

“Already we can say socialism will never be the same again. The desire to build 'socialism with a human face' was one of the slogans and hopes of the Prague Spring of 1968. We will hear more of it in the 1990s and no less so in Southern Africa.”(1)

— Gregory Elliott
From Kabul to Managua:
Soviet-American Relations in the 1980s
By Fred Halliday
New York, Pantheon, 1989, $12.95.

IN THESE NEW times scarcely a day passes without a proclamation heralding the end of the Cold War and the arrival of One World. On the right, the triumph of glasnost and perestroika in the second world signal an exhausted Soviet Union's belated recognition of the bankruptcy of socialism and the superiority of capitalism. Combined with the first world's vigorous rearmament, the result is an Evil Empire being inexorably rolled back and a constantly expanding Free World, as East and West set course for convergence rather than collision....

— R.F. Kampfer

WHAT THEY USED TO teach the kids: The following are excerpts from Catholic high school texts of the 1950s.

• Mohammedanism (sic) made many converts in Africa, since it offered no barriers to polygamy or the other vices of the poor Blacks.

• Lenin died of syphilis in 1924....

— Tim Dayton
Prime-Time Families:
Television Culture in Postwar America
By Ella Taylor
Berkeley University of California, 1989, 196 pages.

TELEVISION, THE PRODUCT of twentieth-century technological developments, sign of the expansion of the purchasing power of the American working class, and (along with radio and film) replacement for older forms of popular culture, presents itself to the viewer as the natural and intimate companion to the nuclear family. Natural, because its predominantly realist form masks its character as a highly refined and convention-bound entertainment product; and intimate because, unlike movies or oral narratives, and to a much greater extent than books or radio, the TV set forms a palpable part of the borne furnishings....

— Bill Resnick
d: the peace dividend (including conversion and social service expansion) will become a hot issue, the left must get involved and raise far reaching demands, and nothing can be won without popular struggle.

But the editorial missed a wonderful opportunity to follow the sound advice of your previous (ATC26) editorial, "The 1990s: A Socialist Agenda" In discussing the revolutionary left in what is certainly a new era, ATC identified two crucial tasks: to renew a vision of democratic socialism, and to develop analyses and proposals that offer a convincing socialist alternative to social democracy, whose reforms "reinforce the social order."...