Comrades in Fear

Anca Vlasopolos

At four
they made me memorize four lines
in praise: Dear Comrade Stalin,
Powerful and Good
I paused after each line.
They held their breath thinking
I had forgotten the rest
When it was over, I tried to leave the stage,
saw no way out save the sharp drop,
the sea of laughing faces,
voices from the wings hissing, “Get off,
you’re done.”
At last I saw my mother’s arms stretch from below
and jumped.

In the same year the radio let us know
Stalin was dead. My mother clapped,
face fierce. She came back from the office
a black band on her arm she ripped off
as she passed the threshold.

A woman in our apartment house
sailed forth in full regalia, black veils
streaming, purple cheeks, eyes red.
Weeping, she accosted my mother in the courtyard,
who tersely said, “We must learn to console ourselves.”

Nearby the dug a ditch, I now think, for a cable,
then, I thought, for Stalin’s grave. My friend and I
conferred, avoided walking on that side, knowing
that if we peered inside we’d see the mustache,
the khaki uniform, red star.

Statues come down and towns take back
their older names. And still I wonder
how many stages trap the bewildered child,
what ditches harbor what ghosts of power
that make children on the way home cross the street.

March-April 1992, ATC 37

Towards Unity of the Left

Langa Zita

WE HAVE CONSISTENTLY maintained that there is a dialectical relationship between the national liberation struggle and the class struggle. We further maintained that there can be no genuine national liberation without class liberation and vice versa.

The critical word is genuine, because there are any number of postcolonial societies—societies without national oppression—which, however, are far from being class liberated. The interrelations between these two forms of liberation are a historical product, and depend mostly upon the investment which the working class and allied forces put into the transition process.

In fact it has always been our contention that for the liberation to be genuine, the working class should lead this struggle. What does this mean? Simply that the perspectives of the working class should be the dominant ones in each area of restructuring and change, and that the workers should lead in all battles waged against the ruling class and its institutions. But we face great challenges to maintain this position.

To understand this, we must consider the past few years of transition. The unbanning of the ANC in 1990 led to a number of dramatic changes in the character of our mass democratic movement. It led to the disbanding of the United Democratic Front It shifted COSATU from the political center stage. It switched the political leadership of the movement from those who served in the 1980s struggle at home, largely to those who were exiled and who served time on Robben Island (the notorious prison camp where Nelson Mandela and numerous others were incarcerated—ed). It also brought substantial changes in function, style, strategies and tactics for trade union, civic, women’s, church and youth organizations.

The unbanning and therefore the commencement of the transition process also took place within an international context of the fall of bureaucratic socialism in Eastern Europe. This had a number of implications for the move ment. It meant that a formidable pillar, which symbolized a “left” side of the ANC, had collapsed, and thus could no longer support the ANC.

This, in turn, signalled a need for the movement to relocate itself within the existing international context, to contend with growing pressures from domestic and international capitalists (notably the International Monetary Fund), which have demanded that we tone down radical demands and maintain the economic status quo—and indeed that we adopt more neoliberal policies than even the outgoing government.

The Contradictions of Power

It has always been asserted that the ANC is an omnibus national liberation movement, with varied class forces. While certain conditions of struggle—in particular, the austere experience of exile in Africa, the mass uprisings of the 1980s and the common intense struggle against apartheid—solidified our movement and concealed the divisions, this has now come to an end.

Today the movement must understand what it means to ascend to the status of a ruling political group within a capitalist framework, continually lobbied by big business and its lieutenants, a situation which actively encourages the consolidation of anti-popular forces within our ranks. Similarly, the absorption of new layers of people into our ranks, unschooled in the radical democratic traditions of the movement, gives real scope to a further neutralization of the movement.

Add to these problems the legacy of the negotiations process, which was carried out over the heads of our people, whose very minimal participation amounted to the occasional mass action “tap,” turned on or off from above, leaving the people isolated and demobilized. Further, there is a growing sense within the movement that “reconstruction” activities should replace mass struggle. Such a trend could effectively conceal the power of capital and the need to fight capital as a critical element of genuine reconstruction and development.

One attempt at reconciling the dialectic of the national and class aspect of the struggle relates to the need to rethink what our transformative project is all about. The coming major conference of socialists in November will help profile and hopefully crystallize the implications of this symbiosis.

Strategic Options for the Left

The past six months have seen a burgeoning of Left discourse on the question of the “Unity of the Left.” This means addressing ourselves strategic challenges such as the prevailing conservative political-economic context Secondly it means reclaiming the radical tradition by deepening and transcending the framework of reconstruction as outlined by the ANC alliance in the interests of broader social transformation.

To do so requires us to undergo an autocritique of the movement as a whole. This means examining the subjective factor insofar as the objective factors are on the whole ripe for democratic transformation. But we can discern clear weaknesses at a subjective level People struggle because this is what makes life meaningful to them, yet the certainty of vision, the old compass, has been lost.

Those who still are guided by a socialist compass have difficulties relating it to their present realities. In this context therefore liberatory ideas are nothing other than faith—which is of course dangerous for a movement.

The question of the Unity of the Left then needs to be located within this context, but also—more hopefully—within a vibrant popular working class movement, which is busy with a process of its recomposition and within a context in which key layers of this movement will be lost to jobs in the state.

Some see the Unity of the Left as a South African version of the São Paulo Forum (a periodic gathering of parties of the Latin American left, so called because it was first held in São Paulo, Brazil, hosted by the Brazilian Workers Party–ed.), a loose plural platform with no program. This view would see claiming the left tradition as a key strategic goal, with the subsequent establishment of commissions on various policy issues. While this view points in the right direction, I think that it is too minimalist.

A different view is that the Unity of the Left should give rise to a united political socialist/workers party. The latter view is quite unlikely presently due to the historical division in the South African Left.

Toward a New Politics

I hold a third viewpoint: that the cry for the Unity of the Left in our country is a particular historical opportunity for the examination of the best weapons of struggle for the working class in our time.

In our country we have all the historical weapons that popular movements across the world have evolved over this century. We have a big nationalist movement including Pan Africanist and Black Consciousness variants, we have a relatively large Communist Party, we have a fairly strong trade union movement, there are healthy social movements. There are also Far Left organizations, various NGOs and leading independent left personalities.

There will also for the first time be a radical and popular superstructure in our society, as radicals and socialists in large numbers enter government.

None of the above is decisive on their own. What the Unity call seeks to address is how best can we develop these tools to maximally serve working class and the popular masses in our country. In summary, we will draw up a balance sheet of the entire movement and its values, strategies and tactics.

The question is how to do this without succumbing to mere, ineffectual pluralism. Put another way, how does an extremely diverse and competitive set of movements endeavor to pull themselves together without degenerating into sectarianism and eventual collapse? The challenge is that of a genuine Left praxis. This problematic is brought into sharp relief if we consider that the objective is not the pursuit of narrow electoralism (we are bringing Unity together on the morning after an election process).

To this extent the event is original, and can be seen to call into existence something more profound than ordinary politics. It is an attempt to bring into being motor forces for a new politics—perhaps more properly a new culture in left politics, and the embryo of a new civilization for our society.

A Basis for Unity

Thus these commitments cannot be realized through a mere platform that meets once a year. They need to be sustained through ongoing struggle coordination. In this regard it is my view that indeed we can draw on the struggles and the experience of the 1980s period of the United Democratic Front, albeit with a more plural and at the same time unequivocal commitment to radical socialist objectives. This is one critical way of sustaining the revolutionary zeal among many of our activists, while at the same time regrouping and rebuilding the Left movement.

For this to happen, minimal positions must be agreed upon, such as some or all of the following:

• The present terrain is within a local and global capitalist context, but the nature of our location and the character of our post-colonialism suggest immense possibilities for more transformative objectives.

• South Africa can and should go beyond limits to development set by the logic of capital, and the Unity of the Left must publicly contest, at every opportunity, bourgeois perceptions of these limits.

• We must acknowledge both the potentially radical state superstructure, and the need to synthesize it with the social weight of our mass organizations, and in the process transform the economic base. This calls for a dialectical, contradiction-ridden reconciliation of the relationship between popular masses and the democratic state.

• We must celebrate the intrinsic value and effectiveness of some of the present tools of the popular and working class movements, and avoid restructuring these instruments for the sake of it. Yet at the same time we must examine new ways of consolidating the Left project. For instance we need to ask whether there is a need for organized platforms within the ANC. Should we talk about a formal Left caucus in the ANC?

• Each participant in the Unity of the Left initiative should commit to a culture of debate and to avoiding sectarian arrogance. We must support and initiate radical socialist research units to enhance the input of the working class in all areas of engagement.

• We must above all commit to the practical development of the class power of the working class, and to support the leading role that this class should play in our society. In doing so we commit ourselves to promoting a radical, democratic and socialist hegemonic project.

• We must, in the process, support internationalist, socialist, and all other democratic links and struggles.

July-August 1994, ATC 51

Sweden: A Welfare State in Crisis

Eva Nikell

I GREW UP in a room with rabbits on the walls. My mother painted them on plywood pieces and dressed the room up to her waist with these rabbits.

This was in the very beginning of the ’50s, when “everyone” – meaning every conventional Swedish family regardless of class—could afford having a housewife. For those of us who were born in that period it was the absolutely natural state of affairs: daddies working, mummies at home with the kids.

In Sweden the ’50s saw the creation and stabilization of the working-class family come true, thus it seemed as a “natural law” to us. Forty years later, “all” women are in the work force. At the same time more Swedish women than ever have children, a figure that among European women is only slightly surpassed by Catholic Ireland.

How was this development possible? Feminist historians and women researchers in various disciplines now try to shed new light on the Nordic (Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland) experience. Within the women’s movement and within academic feminism, a debate has begun about what this experience means for the future.

“Backlash” of the Nordic Model?

It is easy to see that the Nordic model is something special in Europe. It has not only been beneficial for the independence of women—giving women their “own” work market, building up services for child care to enable women to become wage workers. It has also laid the basis for a highly effective and professionalized service sector in health, education, municipal transportation and other social and economic services required for smooth economic functioning—even in terms of profit for private companies—in a technologically developed society.(1)

The so-called “mixed economy” in the Nordic model, where private ownership of big industries is “balanced” by a broad public sector including nationalized industries, state-owned natural resources and big municipal companies, has been an economic success story for twenty-five years. Except in Denmark, the growth of the public sector checked unemployment in the Nordic countries during the industrial restructuring of the early ’80s, which caused mass unemployment in the rest of Western Europe.

But this development was also built on an extreme sex segregation of the labor market, often commented upon by foreign guest researchers but seldom discussed in Sweden itself. This placed women mainly in the new services—health, education and childcare, but also in services associated with private and municipal companies and with trade. The proportion of women in industry has been unchanged since 1915.

Now mass unemployment has been thrust upon us by a combination of rationalization in industry and deep cuts in social services. Women have become a vulnerable part of society despite our strength in the labor market. The conflict is causing an interesting political reaction among broad layers of women, who for the first time in history are demanding power as women.

Social Origins and Falling Birth Rates

The modern welfare-state project in the Nordic countries rests on structures already present since medieval times. The Nordic countries never had bourgeois revolutions, and industrialization came late. Based on a development where feudal hierarchies and the Church never had a strong impact on our societies, the popular movements and broad-based democratic structures are rooted in a old, “free” peasant tradition where women were economically and socially important.

But the Swedish welfare state in particular is also based on two other historic circumstances—an extreme centralization of the state since 1523, and a heavy export orientation of Swedish capital since the early mining era in the fourteenth century.

Both liberalism and social democracy were “imported,” mainly from Britain and Germany, and they became ideologically and organizationally connected. The first workers’ associations in Sweden were liberal workers’ guilds, and the social democratic ‘People’s Home-policy” in the 1930s was a sort of social-liberal welfare project planned by the state.

The “population question” is the thread connecting policy throughout the twentieth century. In Sweden the industrial revolution more or less “exploded” around 1890. In 1870 there were only 65,000 industrial workers in a population of more than four million. But by 1900 they numbered 300,000; thirty years later they numbered one million out of six million inhabitants.

After the Second World War this large-scale restructuring of the whole economy was more or less complete. The social costs, in terms of the breakup of family structures, had been a major political discussion during the 1930s. The “population crisis” debate, introduced by social democrats Gunnar and Alva Myrdal in 1934 and with proposals from the Population Commission in 1935, had triggered the first set of state-planned family policies—and a beginning construction of the broad welfare sector that was to be built upon in the ’60s.

Marriage and birth rates fell in direct relation to the industrialization process. While due to better health conditions the population doubled between 1750 and 1850, this rapid growth of the landless countryside proletariat led to the first weakening of patriarchal peasant family institutions. The second, most far-reaching development took place when this landless proletariat was very quickly converted into an industrial proletariat.

The marriage rate marked its lowest point between 1891-1900; the birth rate fell from 30 births per thousand inhabitants in 1871 to 13 in 1933. The national alarm over slow population growth in the 1930s, and the threats it posed to “the Swedish nation,” won support in the establishment for an extensive family policy.

General social services were introduced to ease the burdens for families. The first day care centers were built; schools, books, lunches and health programs were made free for all schoolchildren. But families also got “private” aid as family units: credit for housing, tax reductions for married couples, housing benefits for big families, early forms of maternity leave.

The economic aim behind these policies was to benefit marriage and childbirth within the young industrial proletariat—where else would future industries get the necessary work force?

Ideologically the goal was to strengthen family ideals and marriage among the whole population. Alva Myrdal, at the more visionary side of affairs, proposed marital and sexual education to reach this goal because there were “not many economic incentives to get married and hard for young people to get inspired by the dull marriages of their parents….”

This broad state support for the family was successful, accompanied by an economic development in postwar Sweden where growth and prosperity could become “every man’s gain.” There was a strong wish among many Social Democratic leaders to gain for the working class what the bourgeoisie already had, the possibility to earn enough money to support a family on one wage only, or more bluntly the “right” for even a [male] worker to have a housewife.

Thus motions against “a married woman’s right to work” came from young Social Democratic men in Parliament in 1925, 1926, 1927 and in the beginning of the ’30s. Gradually these motions won support from male Parliamentary members in other political parties. Despite the fact that firing married or pregnant women was forbidden in 1939, the 1950s were definitely the decade of the housewife.

Visions and Real Politics

According to the visionary politics of Alva Myrdal (today often named “social engineering”) and other women politicians in the ’30s and early ’40s, women should play an important role in society as educated professional workers. Children should be brought up in professional day care, and collective services were needed in housing, cleaning and food preparation.(2)

The other side of “social engineering” was very paternalistic. People should be “educated” to like new things, should “learn” to become responsible people. The “democratic citizen” must be shaped from above, and the scientific revolution should be the instrument to shape this new being—with Social Democracy being its main political agent.

Heavily influenced by liberalism, Swedish. Social Democracy also envisaged different places, even different spheres, for women. The founders of the “People’s Home-policy” in the ’30s saw the “big home” as public life for men, side by side with the “small home”—private life for women. In this strange combination of visions and real politics, housewifing became a professional skill, where women should be the masters of health, nutrition, childcare psychology—helped out by good professional household equipment, informative books on “how to make your home work well,” and the like.

That’s why I grew up with my rabbits on the walls, my mother being a self-educated woman from a working-class family from Bohuslan, a quarry region.

The Independence of Women

But the Population Commission in 1935 was only the first of many: 1941, 1954, 1955, 1962, 1967, 1968, 1969. Behind them all was the need to support a family institution that could not live by its own virtue.

In the 1950s the historically dominant export orientation of Swedish industry deepened. Unharmed by the war, Swedish companies had been able to specialize and develop a high technological skill in new branches including telecommunication (Ericsson), refrigeration and household equipment (Electrolux, Alfa Laval), high-tech industrial gear (Sandvik), and industrial energy and transportation construction (AseaIABB).

A whole new market lay wide open for penetration by these new industries when the old base of Swedish trade (ore, lumber, steel, shipbuilding) narrowed. Industrial expansion moved hundreds of thousands of workers from the north and the inlands to the south. In the 1960s the government completed the construction of one million new apartments to house them.

Again the discussion went back to the central point—the population crisis—or where to get more work force? But this time, “women” became the answer instead of “family.” Thus came the next big phase of the welfare state, starting in the late ’50s and early ’60s, to get more labor into the market. Again the “threat to the nation” was the main argument, because the only alternative to Swedish women were foreign workers. In government papers from the early ’50s we can read discussions of the need to build day care centers in order to strengthen the competitive position of the Swedish export industry.

Today 85-90% of all Swedish women are wage earners. The “professional housewife” of the 1950s has become the even more professional health worker, teacher, librarian or child care worker. Due to the strong underlying need for social and economic change—both in the ’30s and the ’60s—reform policies and visions of a good society, a good life, became intertwined with and shaped by the effort to support the dominant export orientation of Swedish capital. And the centralized state, headed in Sweden by Social Democratic governments (1932-1976,1982-1991) became the means to do so.

Women—A New Political Agent?

What kind of conclusions do women researchers draw today from this experience?

The thesis of social scientist Helga Maria Hernes in her work Welfare State and Woman Power (Norwegian University Press, 1987) is that women in the Nordic countries have been the objects, not the subjects, of a gigantic social experiment resting on structural needs. The development itself, however, has created a new social force, the independent women’s movement.

Hernes compares the role and size of the public service sector in creating this social force—women organizing as women on a broad scale—with the role that industrialization played in creating the male working class and traditional workers’ movement She sees recent women’s mobilizations as the result of a politicization process within this new social arena.

In the same way that workers in the labor movement developed their own demands and arguments around production and working conditions as a result of their new social position in the factories, women in the Nordic countries have started to formulate their own arguments concerning economic values, rational planning and how the links between social and economic needs can be met by well-functioning social services.

The exclusion of women from the democratic process is the other important factor for understanding why women’s protests take such a radical and visible form in Sweden today. The corporate political system in the Nordic countries, completed in the late 1930s with a tripartite power balance among the state (both Parliament and bureaucracy), private companies and the unions—all of them male-dominated structures—have been effective in excluding women from the decision-making process.

Hernes notes that the only decision-making area where women have been able to raise their numbers a bit is in Parliament. Even there the representation sank from 38% to 33% in the 1991 election. Men still exclusively run both circles where real economic and political power rest: In Sweden only 25 out of 1000 board members in big private firms are women, and the central union leaderships are similarly male-dominated. Hernes sees the main conflict here:

“Women became part of the representational system only very slowly, yet they became more and more often the object of tax and social policies that they themselves were not invited to shape politically. Areas that are of direct concern for women’s lives became the object of political decisions before women themselves were a part of the decision-making apparatus. This was not considered problematic because women were not defined as a relevant interest group with a separate representational claim. One could therefore say that women became mobilized by public policies….”


“The mutual dependence between production and reproduction has become more visible in the public sector than it used to be, but the unequal distribution of power between women and men has become confirmed and even ossified.”

Hernes’ perspective answers the question about the contradictory “squeezed” position of women in the Nordic countries—so strong in the labor market yet so impoverished in the political field. One obvious follow-up question then becomes: Is it really so much better to shift from dependence on a man to dependence on the state? And what happens when this “male state” turns with its full force against women—as in Sweden since 1991?

To this Helga Maria Hernes has no answer. Her approach is that a “woman-friendly” state is possible, and should develop as a natural result of the growth of the public sector. Her book was published in 1987, before the experience in Sweden of a very harsh Thatcherist type of bourgeois government, and before the birth of a Women’s Party debate.

This debate, for feminist researchers and activists, is really the most interesting effect of women’s status. From being social and economic objects, acted upon in this economic process, women now have become political subjects who demand that the “visible mutual dependence between production and reproduction” should be taken seriously.

Increasingly political differences are referred to as “male” or “female” demands. And according to leading national economists and media editors, “the new feminists are today’s main threats to the nation.” As political scientist Maud Eduards ironically puts it, “When women come forward politically as a group they make it visible that men usually act politically as men.”

The defense of the public sector has come to be the core of a program for the “building a new party” debate. But other related demands—the six-hour work day for everyone instead of new “maids” in the households of stressed middle-class women, good public transportation instead of new highways and more cars, better social services instead of weapons and military expenditures—are also central.

Together with “traditional” feminist demands for a woman’s right to economic and legal independence and to decide about her own body, these “social, green, collective” demands form an explosive threat to the capitalist rulers inside and outside Parliament. And the most dangerous thing for the establishment is apparently that women as women demand influence and power.

Gender has become a dividing line as never before in Swedish politics. Where general equality has always been put ahead of gender equality, the new feminist slogan is “the whole wage and half the power.” It’s the second part of the sentence that causes most heated feelings of happiness, rage, confusion and lots of discussion, among women and men. In Sweden it is especially notable what Iris Young writes in Justice and the Politics of Difference (1990):

“It is a mistake to reduce social justice to distribution … this focus tends to ignore the social structure and institutional context that often help determine distributive patterns. Of particular importance … are issues of decision-making power and procedures, division of 1abor, and culture.”

Women in Sweden today demand the possibility of shaping their own work in the public sector. Furthermore they demand a say over economic spending, they want to be part of the planning of the whole of society rather than mere clients of state subsidies, and they want to be subjects, not objects, in their capacity as women.

For the traditional women’s organizations, especially for the Social Democratic women’s organization, this development is both welcome—and frightening.

Given what Hernes says about women’s fragile political influence in Sweden, a threat like a “Women’s List” in Parliamentary elections can definitely speed up things. But women in different parties fear possibly having to run against an independent feminist force. On the left also, the reaction of many is this is either “just a media thing” or a class collaborationist project.

Further, the mere word “feminism” has been seen as “confrontational and anti-Swedish,” as Joyce Gelb writes in her comparison of women’s movements in Sweden, Britain and the United States (Feminism and Politics, University of California Press). Radical feminism especially, or feminists who demand political representation as feminists, confront head-on the consensus and corporatist model of Swedish society.

Gelb notes that “special interests in Sweden are thoroughly organized,” but that doesn’t go for women as a group. She concludes that “gender-neutral politics in a society still highly stratified by gender end up by benefiting the already powerful—that is, males.”

This explains why the so-called “new feminists”—independent feminist activists in the universities, the media, the shelter movement and other groups together with networks in the unions and Social Democratic and liberal women in Parliament—have become, in the eyes of media directors, male journalists and politicians, today’s “threat to the nation.”

What of the Future?

Maybe we will have a Social Democratic government after the election in September, or possibly a bourgeois-Social Democratic coalition. The networks behind the “Women’s List” are not yet organized as a real party; thus it would probably be a mistake to run in this year’s election. For now, the debate goes on.

In any case political change will not come easily. The broad women’s movement has successfully defended some very important issues, like the right to free abortion. But the government is feverishly “fanilly-fundamentalistic” and has just put through Parliament a “homeworker’s wage” bill. “Christian ethics” are again the formal guideline in school work, and sex education has become non-compulsory and divided into one biological—and one religious!!—part.

The rapid destruction of social services are accompanied by these very reactionary ideological politics, the motor force behind which are the so-called “moderates,” the leading right-wing party that dominates the government Yet all the traditional political forces, including Social Democracy, are lost in this battle.

Sweden is in a deep turmoil. For a great many ordinary people—men and women—women seem to be the only possible political alternative. Whatever the outcome of the Women’s List, a unity of the broad women’s movement on national scale is both possible and necessary for the future.


  1. Thus the public health system in Sweden, for example, takes only 8% of GM’ as compared to 13-15% in the United States. When I visited the United States in the summer of 1992 the “Rebuild America Coalition” criticized the U.S. system for having too few functioning public services, and defined this as one of the biggest threats to American profitability.
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  2. My home in Stockholm is a living illustration of these “good” visions. It was built in 1940 by a foundation for professional women (based on a will by two sisters living at the turn of the century). The house itself is beautiful building in a very modernistic architectural style with 270 apartments and a restaurant at the top.
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July-August 1994, ATC 51

On the French Students' Demonstrations

an interview with Daniel Singer

Daniel Singer was interviewed by Susan Weissman for her program on KPFK. She asked about the French student demonstrations last spring. We are printing his response.

IF WE ARE offered in Europe an American future, this was very much a strike against the American future. What was the government hying to do on this occasion? I’ve said that one of the things it wants to do is have the working poor, like in the United States. Therefore you have to have an attack on the minimum wage.

The policy was announced by Edouard Balladur, a kind of Teflon prime minister, and who now can’t put his foot right anywhere. This was a clever move, they thought You take the students who have graduated from a two-year technical college. We’ll start them on their first job at minimum wage, minus twenty percent. This was one way of bypassing the minimum wage—you either break the minimum wage, or you attempt to bypass it.

The idea was first you do it with the students and nobody notices. Then you can do it in general.

The biggest demonstrations were not in Paris but in the provinces. Paris would have 50-60,000 but Leon would have 15 20,000 and as many in other towns, proportionately much more than in Paris. And the reason for that is that the students in the province have less possible outlets than in Paris, they are more desperate. Here was the government trying to apply this recipe: go the American way. That was the choice.

So the government attempted and failed, completely. The students got mad. They were demonstrating against no future, they were not accepting it.

At the first Paris demonstration I attended, our suburbs (which are the equivalent of your inner cities) were involved. I was in the underground going to the demonstration. The crowd was about ninety-five percent students. There were a lot of “berrs,” that is, young Algerians. There were Blacks and some whites. But it was the suburbs coming to Paris and disliking that rich, opulent city.

If the government succeeds in imposing the cut, then you will see a right-wing backlash If the left is identified with the government’s attempt—successful or unsuccessful—to impose lower wages and to destroy the social services, then who will reap the advantage? The extreme right, which will say, “We’re the only ones who are up to something else.”

So the crisis of the left is a real crisis. In the past the social democracy has been quite willing to do the dirty work for the capitalist establishment. But now what they are being asked to do will destroy them as even that “respectable,” traditional left.

The second demonstration I attended was somewhat different because the young people from the suburbs were blocked by the police and didn’t reach the demonstration. It began near a big prison, La Sante. This became the highlight, stopping in front of the prison. The demonstrators said, “We are the outcasts and the outsiders,” identifying more with the people who are the extreme victims—-not political prisoners, just prisoners.

So you have this revolt, a deep revolt. The demonstrators this spring were as determined, as anti-establishment, as anti-government, although more proletarian than ’68, because there were more people coming from the poorer districts. But there is one big difference between that demonstration and ’68. They were against. They didn’t have hope or illusion that they were for something. What was lacking—and that is much more our fault than theirs— was a radical alternative.

July-August 1994, ATC 51

The Future of Socialism

Daniel Singer

THE TIMES ARE a-changing. Do you remember all the fuss about Francis Fukuyama and the end of history? History, as if offended by such silly pseudo-Hegelian nonsense, quickened pace. And we have had difficulty keeping up with it ever since.

Today nobody will seriously suggest that everything is for the best in the best of all possible capitalist worlds. But “the end of history” was only part of a bigger propaganda package. Helped by the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the message of our establishment proclaimed that socialism was dead and buried. Therefore there was no way out.

A few years earlier our pundits used to preach—remember Jeane Kirkpatrick?—that the Soviet Union,(1) the empire of evil, was a hell from which there was no exit. Now they have cleverly changed their tune. It is from capitalism—hell, paradise or purgatory—that there is no exit. There is no alternative and there can be no alternative. This is the refrain that you can see on your telly, the chorus you hear on your radio, the text you read in your newspapers. It is this pernicious, all-pervading message—still a successful message unfortunately—that we have to combat and counter.

In the available time I will deal with two alleged reasons for the funeral of socialism: the collapse of the neo-Stalinist empire in the East and the crisis of the social democracy in the West of Europe. Quite a lot has happened since the crumbling of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The people of Eastern Europe, who had rejected not just really existing socialism, but alas the very idea of asocialist society, have since discovered really existing capitalism.

With its huge differentials, its social injustice, its mass unemployment, capitalism does not look as glittering as it did on TV in the old American soap operas like “Dallas” and “Dynasty” The recent electoral results—in Poland last September and Russia last December—with the striking defeats of the advocates of shock therapy and the cures prescribed by the International Monetary Fund, reflect both that discovery and the resulting disappointment.

In Western Europe, at the same time, the lengthening lines of the jobless confirm that mass unemployment is not just a phase of the trade cycle but a permanent feature of the new era. They also show, symbolically, that capitalism, for all its technological inventiveness, cannot cope with the fundamental issues of our time.

Does that mean that socialism is now on the agenda? In historical terms, yes. In terms of immediate, practical politics, it obviously is not My purpose today is not to talk to you about the inevitability of socialism—-I’m no religious preacher—but to talk about its necessity and about the dangers of a barbarian future contained in the survival of our system.

Nature abhors the void and if we don’t provide rational, progressive solutions, reactionary, irrational ones will win the day. They already do: From Bosnia and Algeria through Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia to Tajikistan the gruesome warning is being written in letters of blood. As Goya, the Spanish painter, put it on one of his drawings, “The sleep of reason breeds monsters.”

Let me start with the easiest issue: the clever identification of socialism with the Stalinist model and its subsequent more diluted versions. It is perfectly simple to say that socialism did not die in Eastern Europe because you can only die if you have lived. And these countries could be defined as countries of really in existing socialism. We may argue now historically about the true nature of these social formations, but nobody except a propagandist can seriously suggest that these regimes, where all power was flowing from above, corresponded to Marx’s vision of the “associated producers” collectively gaining mastery over their work and over their fate.

In fact there were no illusions about it any longer. True, in 1917 the revolution did capture the imagination of people throughout the world and did inspire millions of downtrodden to action. For quite a time after that as well people believed a socialist future was being forged in the Soviet Union. Those hopes had vanished long ago. Some will say they disappeared in 1956, the year of Khrushchev’s not so secret indictment of Stalin and, at the same time, the year of the invasion of Hungary.

Others will maintain that illusions persisted until the entry of Soviet tanks into Prague [1968]. But more than twenty years later even the party hardliners and the most faithful Communist parties in the world no longer really pretended that Russia was socialist.

Naturally we must learn all the bitter lessons of [the Soviet] experience, and notably about what happens when people are deprived of democracy—apparently “just for a time” and apparently “just for valid reasons.”1 But to draw the conclusion from the collapse of that system not only that socialism is dead but that it cannot be resurrected anywhere is pure propaganda when proclaimed by the other side. And it’s a strange case of masochistic perversion when argued by people who claim to be on our side.

The other reason why socialism is apparently doomed is the example from Western Europe: the failure of social democracy in Sweden or of Francois Mitterand’s experiment in France. But here, if we think about it, the lessons point in quite the opposite direction. What these examples show is not that the socialist transformation is impossible. Rather, that the reformist management of the capitalist system, which is the current definition of social democracy, after a period of glory, is now in deep crisis.

It is worth stopping for a moment to examine this development. The thirty years after the last war in Western Europe will go down as the years of deep social transformation and unprecedented growth. These were the years of the vanishing peasant, of mass migration to town, of production rising in continental Europe by an average of about five percent a year. Some of the growing profits could be passed on to the worker. Those were therefore the years of rising living standards, of a changing pattern of consumption, of the developing welfare state, and, you may recall, the so-called end of ideology.

Naturally things were not as rosy as they were being painted. The rising of the students and young workers, particularly in France and Italy in 1968-69, revealed the depth of pent-up discontent below the glittering surface. Still it could be argued, at that time, why change the system when you can improve your life within that system? It not only could be argued—it was argued. By the mid-70s not just the Socialists, but the Communist parties as well, got converted to the idea that what was at stake from now onwards were changes within the capitalist society and not its abolition.

The irony is that by the time they had opted for what the Italians called “the historical compromise,” that compromise had ceased to correspond to the stage of history. The years of unprecedented expansion were over by then. True, we were told that our perestroika, our restructuring, was only temporary. It would only affect the traditional branches of coal, steel or shipbuilding. We were told that the surplus labor from industry would be absorbed by the service industries. And it did work that way for a time.

But then the same reasons—streamlining, computers, automation—produced the same results in banking, insurance. By now, according to official figures, unemployment accounts for twelve percent of the labor force in Western Europe. And just as here, the official figures don’t tell the full story.

If you include those who were just taken out of the labor force, the share would be much higher. And if you take into account trainees, short-timers and so on, those who do not have a normal, full-time job comprise one-third of the total labor force. And the proportion is rising all the time. It is no longer a cycle of boom and slump; the unemployment figure is higher at the end of each cycle. Nor does unemployment only affect the young, the women, the blue-collar workers. The so-called middle classes are now hit as well, and this may be why there is more debate at present in Western Europe.

It is no longer in Europe the age of great expectations. Something is clearly rotten within a society when one doesn’t know whether a rise in productivity is a blessing or a curse. There is something fundamentally wrong, and people feel it, when a system can be driven by arms spending but cannot prosper on the development of education, health, culture or the protection of our environment. If we take the advanced capitalist countries in isolation—something one should never do, but which I do here for the sake of the argument—we could reduce working hours dramatically. In technological terms, we are quite close to the times Marx described prophetically, notably in the Grundrisse:

“The theft of somebody else’s labor time, on which wealth now rests, does indeed appear as a miserable base, compared with the means at our disposal. To take working time as the standard of wealth is to base wealth on poverty. It means reducing time as a whole to working time and degrading the individual to the simple role of working man dominated by his labor whereas technically we could be approaching the moment when the surplus labor of the masses win no longer be the condition for the development of general wealth, as the leisure of the few will cease to be the condition for the full development of the human brain.”

So in purely material terms, in the advanced capitalist countries we could soon be tackling the frontier between labor and leisure. But, contrary to what is being said in certain quarters, the drastic reduction in working hours will not be obtained by some magic decree, leaving production in capitalist hands. The organization and the division of labor is connected with the organization of society at large. And the battle for a different organization of labor, imposed by growing mass unemployment, will have to be fought in the factory and in the office. It can only be part of the struggle for a different society.

Let us go back to what the French call the “respectful” left—”respectful,” that is, of the established order, which as we saw by the ’70s included the Communists as well as the Socialists. The economic crisis hit them hard. They had chosen historical compromise, we saw, when it ceased to be historically valid. They opted for class collaboration just as the other side, headed by Thatcher and Reagan, opted for open class war.

The Socialists, in particular when they were in office—as in France—in the 1980s, presided over a decade of deregulation within the European Community of frontiers opened for capital, of an extraordinary expansion of international finance, which drastically reduced the possibility for a national government to carry out even a Keynesian policy of expansion.

They have swallowed a lot, but that was not enough. What the “respectful” left is being asked now is to give up its very reason for existence: to lose its essence as a reformist manager of capitalism. Social democracy is not just a question of capitalist corruption and revolution betrayed. To flourish it requires a special climate. The thirty years after the last war were in Western Europe such a golden age. A compromise, a social contract, implies give and take. And the social-democratic leaders could tell their constituency that it was getting something in exchange. Now it is to be all give and no take.

Indeed the working people of Europe are being asked to give up their postwar conquests. To fight foreign competition, to avoid the flight of capital in search of cheaper labor, they are asked to give up the minimum wage, the sliding scales insuring the purchasing power of their pay packet, all the guarantees limiting the powers of the bosses to hire and fire. They talk about reducing the working day or week—it’s just talk.

What capital is proclaiming in earnest is that Europe can no longer afford the existing system of national insurance, a state-subsidized health service for all, the so-called welfare state that the social democrats used to praise as their great achievement. Now, when the leaders of the “respectful” left are called to office, it is no longer to act as the reforming managers of the system but, if I may say so, as the transmission belts of capital. No wonder that within the Labor Party in Britain, the Socialist Party in France, the PDS (the ex-Communist Party) in Italy, some people have suggested Clinton’s Democratic Party as a model.

The left and the labor movement in Western Europe are thus now at a crossroads. They can reawake, tackle the questions that were raised, though not answered, by the students and workers in 1968: Growth for what purpose? For whose profit? For what kind of society? Inserted within what environment? They can remember the classical dilemma of all socialist movements, which must fight within the framework of existing society but provide solutions that ultimately take us beyond that society. Or they can take the American road and cease to perform the function that was traditionally connected to the left within the European context.

Now let us go back to Eastern Europe. The West discovered with great surprise that the people of Eastern Europe were not in love with the shock therapy they were being offered. This surprise was only hail surprising, since Jeffrey Sachs and company, the International Monetary Fund and all the pundits, were telling us how happy the people of Eastern Europe were with the blessings of private enterprise. They would have had to be strangely masochistic with their life savings wiped out, their not very high living standards drastically reduced, if with their belts tightened they had voted for the arrogant power of money. But they didn’t.

Having discovered they were not being offered a choice between social-democratic Sweden and Thacherite Britain but a choice, at best, between Bolivia and Mexico, they voted against it-—in Poland and Russia, and probably tomorrow, in Hungary. The parties connected, in any way, with shock therapy got between twenty or twenty-five percent of the vote. The bulk of the nation, understandably, voted the shock therapists out.

In Poland the ex-communists came in first, with over twenty percent of the vote. In Russia it was the jingoist party of Viadamir Zhirinovsky; but if you add to the Communist vote those of the agrarian party, which can be treated as an ally, they are not very far behind. This does not mean that the people of Eastern Europe are hankering after the gulag or the long lines. If there is any nostalgia, it is for the security of employment, for the welfare state, however elementary it may have been. The people of Eastern Europe are not voting for really existing socialism. Nor, alas, for genuine socialism either Things are much more complicated than that. They are voting against.

To understand what it is all about, it is necessary to restate some generalities. What we are witnessing now in Eastern Europe, and particularly in Russia, is something quite unprecedented. It is an attempt to create a class of property owners—and I don’t just mean shopkeepers—not within decades and centuries as Western Europe did, but within months and years. It’s an attempt to impose capitalism from above by hook and by crook Rules are dictated by international capital but the drive is domestic. It is an attempt by the nomenklatura at the end of its tether to perpetuate its power and privileges by acquiring property. It is a complicated transition, with class interests not really crystallized and still seeking their expression.(2)

Most political parties, except possibly for the peasant parties, are still rather artificial creations. As a prominent practitioner, JacekKuron, told me in Poland, these parties are being formed in a drawing room on a settee by members of the intelligentsia, who then start looking for an electorate.

This struggle so far in Russia has not been between the advocates of capitalism and the advocates of socialism. It has been the inner struggle between two sections of the establishment over the pace at which Russia is moving toward capitalism. It is a bitter struggle because the position of power determines the distribution of property and the ownership of that property will then determine the position of power.

Very crudely we can distinguish the advocates of shock therapy in the darlings of the IMF on one side—like Yegor Gaidar, once acting Prime Minister, or Boris Fyodorov, the orthodox Minister of Finance. They and their allies could only win if the existing economic system collapsed completely and they could build on the ruins or buy the remnants at bargain-basement prices with the help of foreign capital or domestic speculators.

On the other side there is the managerial lobby, headed by people like the present Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, or the chair of the industrialists union, Arkady Volsky. I would not describe them as the defenders of state property, rather as its caretakers, since they want to run one day as capitalists the economy they did run as representatives of the party. But for this very reason they don’t want the property ruined, or turned over to foreigners.

As to Yeltsin, who sided first with the shock therapists, he is mainly interested in his own survival at the top. If I say essentially this was a struggle within the establishment, I don’t mean that it does not affect society or that others did not take part in the struggle. It is simply that others, and in particular the workers, have not so far been the main actors in their own drama. They flex their muscles, they occasionally strike in defense of their immediate interests, but they do not present their own interests as the superior interests of society as a whole.

In the language of young Marx, they are a “class in itself, not a class for itself.” They are too confused, too bewildered for the time being. This confusion is one of the heavy prices we are still paying for Stalinism and the identification of socialism with it.

With this sketchy background, we can now recall the dramatic events of last year. To begin, there was the behavior of our own leaders, in which not just Clinton but all the Western chancelleries gave their blessing to Yeltsin for the shelling and storming of parliament The way in which they turned a blind eye when Yelstin grabbed full control of television; the Orwellian manner in which they called dictatorship “democracy;” all this made it plain that in Eastern Europe the interest of our rulers, for all their great proclamation of principles, had more to do with potential profits than with devotion to democracy.

The fact that we [the Western socialist left] condemned Yelstin and his stooges, asserting that the Western backers also had blood on their hands, does not mean that we identify with the defenders of Russia’s White House [parliament building]. Some of the jingoists among them were people I would not touch with a barge pole. If we took sides in the conflict it is partly because, unlike our preachers, we don’t think this storming of parliament does not matter. But it is also because Russia needs time. An explosion now would end in bloodshed, and a dictatorship would slow down or prevent the development of political forces.

If we are in favor of the managers in Russia, or the ex-communists and peasants in Poland rather than the shock therapists, it is also because these countries need time for the class conflicts to clarify, for the workers to recover their autonomy and forge an alliance with the technicians and the uncorrupted sections of the intelligentsia so that together they can find a third way between the old Stalinist road and the new capitalist one. Yet this will not happen overnight.

Thus for all the differences there is a certain similarity in the problems we have to face between the two halves of Europe. In both cases we need a respite, time for social movements to grow. Time also with the Stalinist model shattered and the social democratic one bankrupt, to evolve a new radical alternative.

This brings me to my last point, namely the intimate connection between the social movements and the existence of a project, the vision of a radical alternative. It is possible to imagine the left winning elections all over Western Europe. It’s true it hasn’t won in Italy, but it may in Germany, and one day in Britain. Yet what would it do with its victory?

If the “respectful” left follows in the footsteps of the “respectable” right, if it fails once again and the crisis deepens, then the extreme right will get its chance. Ghosts from the past will re-enter the stage in a new disguise. In fact, they are already there. It started with Le Pen and his xenophobic National Front in France, now in Italy there is separatist Lombard League and Citizen Kane Silvio l3erlusconi and the neo-fascists. In Germany there is the revival of the neo-nazis.

Their progress depends on the gravity of the crisis. For this reason people are even more likely to run amok in Eastern Europe, where society is falling apart In Poland the rejection of shock therapy was fortunately coupled with the defeat of the Catholic Church and the far right, but if the so-called left now in office, which does not dare to defy the International Monetary Fund, fails to keep its promise of a new deal, the results could be quite different And in Russia Zhirinovsky is already waiting in the wings.

So it’s not just the problem of gaining time. In a deepening crisis the consensus collapses, the right, sensing it, has long ago moved on the offensive. The left, clinging to the middle of the road, is doomed. It can only recover by offering a radical alternative.

Gone forever, one hopes, are the days of socialist troops marching to orders from headquarters, the days of blueprints handed down from above. We must relearn that socialism, as Rosa Luxemburg put it, cannot be a Christmas gift to passive members who voted well. By definition, it can only be the result of a movement from below, of a growing political consciousness of the people who change themselves as they change society.

I’m not saying that we don’t need a project. Quite the contrary. If the classical Marxist writers did not indulge in speculation about the future, we can’t afford the same luxury. After all the dreams that have been shattered and all the promises broken, people may rebel spontaneously but they will not join a movement for coherent, long-term action (what we used to call hegemonk action), the only one that can lead to a radical transformation of society, unless they know where we are heading and how we intend to get there. And so the problem is not the project but its shape and the manner in which it is elaborated.

It must spring from below and be discussed publicly in an open debate. There won’t be a serious project without a genuine movement. But there will be no coherent movement without a vision. The intellectuals, therefore, have their part to play in this debate as keepers of the collective memory, advisers on the international comparisons as providers of some elements of theory. But they can do so only and exclusively as part of the movement, not as outsiders bringing theory or the truth to the working class.

There can be no question of a fixed blueprint, only of a vision, of a project, bound to be reshaped as the movement advances. Though we do not deny our heritage, we must adapt it to a fast-changing world. The West European working class, for instances has been transformed by the inflow of immigrants and women as well as by the replacement of blue- by white-collar workers. Is it still capable, as I believe, of performing its role as the agency of history?

Capital has spread spectacularly across national frontiers. To give just one figure, foreign transactions now carried in one day are estimated at $1,000 billion—as much as all the gold and dollar reserves of all the members of the International Monetary Fund. Even allowing for double accounting, this gives us an idea of the reduced powers of national governments. Can the nation state still provide, as I think it can, the first platform for the radical transformation of society?

Though the Soviet Union should never have been a model, its terrible experience does force us to tackle some questions. What would motivate people to work, without replacing the gulag by our forms of coercion, the fear of unemployment and the dazzling tyranny of the market? What forms of democracy must we invent, at all levels from the shop floor to the very top and back, if we want to turn planning from a system of command from above into self-government, a system of the self-organization of society?

So we have plenty of work on our agenda. There is a task that is preliminary, but categorically imperative. If we want people to build a new vision, we must first convince them, despite the chorus of official propaganda, that there is space and scope beyond the capitalist horizon. Faced with the paid and unpaid propagandists of the establishment, with the turncoats and the fainthearted, the temptation is great to throw at them the moving words of Rosa Luxemburg, written on the eve of her murder, “Order reigns in Berlin. You stupid lackeys, your order is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will raise its head again and proclaim to your sorrow amid a brass of trumpets, ‘I was, I am, I shall always be.”

But shall we be? Can we assert it now, with such certitude? Looking at the contradictions of present-day capitalist society, the explosions are inevitable. But shall we be able to guide them to their logical conclusion? Marx wrote to Kugelmann, “World struggle would indeed be very easy to make if the struggle were taken up only on condition of invariably favorable chances.” Or in more personal terms, you can’t climb even metaphorical barricades with an insurance policy in your pocket.

Yet why should we not just cultivate our own garden? Why should we embark on such a long, dangerous and uncertain journey? Because we want to be actors in our own drama rather than playthings of history: Because we are part of humankind’s unfinished struggle for mastery over its own fate. And because to contract out now would just be suicidal.

Look at Sarajevo, the symbol of our powerlessness; at the former Soviet Union where atavistic forces may be unleashed at any moment by the explosive mixture of ideological void and economic collapse. Look at the fires in racist Los Angeles and at the xenophobia in East German riots. It is true that if we don’t provide rational, progressive solutions, reactionary, irrational ones will triumph. The future will be what we shall make it, what you of the younger generation will make it.

And I will end, therefore, echoing the slogan which a quarter century ago, in the streets of Paris, revived hope for a while: Be realistic, ask for the impossible; ask for what our system, its high priests and pundits, its propaganda machine and its media have as a task to describe as impossible, namely the construction of a radically different society in which the associated producers will collectively change their life and forge the future.


  1. The collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of what I call a Marxist tragedy, which began in 1917 when the revolution broke out not in the advanced capitalist world for which it was designed, but in the backward Mother Russia. And when that revolution failed to spread, the Bolsheviks were then faced with an entirely unexpected task of carrying out their country’s industrial revolution. Whether this primitive socialist accumulation—a contradiction in terms, since primitive accumulation spelled oppression and exploitation while socialism meant liberation—whether this contradiction was bound to produce a system of bloody repression and byzantine cult, known to us as Stalinism, is a question that for the time being we can leave to historians.
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  2. Editor’s note: The theme of nonwnkiatura [bureaucratic] self-preservation is explored in more depth in Kit Wainer’s essay, “The Bureaucracy That Can’t Die,” Against the Current 47, November-December 1993.
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July-August 1994, ATC 51

UAW: Death of a Union?

Peter Downs

CONTRACT NEGOTIATIONS BETWEEN the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Big Three automakers in 1993 brought the union to a new low. In the months leading up to an agreement, company and union officials barraged UAW members with claims of corporate poverty. Both predicted a titanic struggle over concessions. But behind closed doors negotiators settled terms amicably. The ink was scarcely dry on the concessionary contracts when Ford and Chrysler announced near-record earnings and executive bonuses. Sales figures for all of the Big Three soared upward at a frenzied pace.

The deception shouldn’t have been surprising. Companies always try to inspire fear in their workers. They predict the worst so their employees will accept management’s “compromise” with relief.

The UAW administration has the resources and know-how to blow away the specter of disaster. It could reveal the companies’ strengths and prepare members for battle. It doesn’t. Instead, it follows the Texas Ranger model of unionism—the president and his cowboys ride in to rescue powerless workers from a fearful end.

Workers must believe they are helpless, however, to appreciate their rescue. They must tremble before huge multinational corporations, fearful of being consumed in the frenzy of competition, to appreciate what their leaders do. Then the union president, a John Wayne of a man, can step forward and, with witty arguments and sheer physical presence, stop the companies in their tracks and save the workers.

The Texas Ranger myth makes a pretty model, with only one little drawback: corporate managers know it’s an act. They are perfectly willing, however, to let others have their little fantasies. They are even eager to help the UAW administration make-believe.

Company and union officials in 1993 prophesied a long, unsuccessful strike in the face of bankruptcy, wage cuts and a loss of health insurance or pensions, then engaged in mutual back-slapping for adroitly avoiding those virtual disasters. Union members had heard it all before. This time, they greeted the hoopla with a gigantic shrug of indifference. They boycotted the ratification vote in droves.

In the 1970s, 80-90% of members at target companies voted on pattern-setting agreements in auto. Not anymore. Only 40%’ of Ford workers voted on the 1993 pattern-setting pact. To many workers, the union had become irrelevant. Despite the scattered nature of opposition, 33% of those who voted cast ballots against the pact. Many who voted “yes” expressed a fatalism that union bureaucrats “were going to do whatever they want anyway.”

Officials at Local 879 (St Paul, MN) refused even to entertain questions about the contract after International representatives told them the UAW does not allow contract meetings just so people can debate the agreement. At Local 980 (Norfolk, VA) officials didn’t even want to risk debate. They sprang the ratification vote so suddenly that only 177 of 1100 eligible voters cast ballots—about what you’d expect if each officer and appointed union representative brought along a friend or two.

The 1993 agreement may have been the baldest in a long line of concessionary pacts negotiated by the UAW. A GM worker in Bowling Green, KY said “usually they give something to one group while taking away from someone else. This time, they didn’t give anything to anybody.” They did steal from the future, however. Wages for workers hired after the contract-signing date were cut to 70% of the base rate, and their benefits eliminated. It will take three years for them to reach full rate. Each of the Big Three has a high-seniority work force and expects massive retirements in the next few years. This concession was worth billions to them.

Tall Tales ‘Round the Campfire

Officials brazenly depicted other concessions as gains. Union negotiators trumpeted that they held onto fully paid health care, while diverting twenty-two cents an hour of each worker’s pay back to the companies to help pay for that health care. At $40 a month, that’s nearly the same size co-pay as the American Airlines flight attendants struck against later that year.

Combining losses from the health insurance co-pay and SUB pay means a worker takes a pay cut of nearly $2000 a year. No wonder so many workers were relieved to see only such “gains” instead of whatever horror the UAW administration would acknowledge as a “loss.”

The UAW administration also hailed mandatory vacations during plant shutdowns as winning the right for everyone to “have two consecutive weeks of paid time off during prime summer vacation time.” (Employees used to get unemployment and supplemental unemployment benefits. They either pocketed the vacation pay or took vacations when they wanted.) Mandatory vacations on the plant’s scheduling really mean workers have to work two more weeks each year, and a worker can no longer plan a vacation for when it best fits his/her family’s schedule.

On the first day of the UAW Special Bargaining Convention in April 1993 over 1,000 UAW members formed a chanting, jeering line of five and six abreast in front of the entrance to the convention at Cobo Hall in Detroit. They had come in response to the UAW administration’s call for a show of force against concessions.

But the size of the demonstration so frightened UAW officials that they lost control of the demonstration—and of their wits. They locked the doors and called the police to clear away the crowd. What more graphic illustration could there be of the UAW’s deterioration?

The Reign of the Clipboard Jockeys

The rot in the UAW began showing in the 1970s, when UAW Vice President Irving Bluestone introduced “quality of work life” as the cure for blue-collar blues. QWL puts low-level managerial responsibilities on workers. At the same time, the union abandoned the democratic principle of elected representation in favoring of letting the national president appoint local union representatives. The mating of the two produced a bastard spawn called “clipboard jockeys”—company-paid union representatives appointed by the International UAW and local officers.

Clipboarders strut through assembly plants, accountable to no one and doing nothing but lording it over workers actually building cars. Today, they outnumber the union’s own staff more than fifteen to one. In some plants they even outnumber elected officers, accounting for as much as 4% of the membership. They are accountable only to the officer who appoints them, not to the members they are supposed to serve.

A recent decision by the Public Review Board, the UAW’s “Supreme Court,” stressed that appointed representatives may be fired for criticizing any national UAW policy. Even when elected by their local union to serve as delegates to a convention, they must speak and vote as directed by national officers, not as directed by their membership.

Most often, the activities of clipboarders are buried in secrecy. Members and genuine union representatives fought long battles in GM plants (Wentzville, MO and Anderson, IN) just to find out what clipboarders were doing in private meetings with management and what shop-floor rights they secretly agreed to relinquish.

Clawed by the Cat

Even when the UAW bureaucracy tries to act militant, it is only acting. Support for Caterpillar workers, who are still without a contract, is only pro forma. In 1991, Caterpillar came to the bargaining table seeking, among other things, a permanent two-tier wage schedule, complete flexibility in job assignments (gutting job descriptions and seniority rights) and reductions in the company’s health insurance payments.

Caterpillar is the world’s largest producer of earth-moving equipment. It is solidly profitable. A decade of cost-cutting and jointness—during which the company reduced the Peoria workforce from 24,000 to 9,000—saw productivity soar. Yet, the company began 1991 with a public relations campaign against the workers. Cat said it needed the concessions to survive.

The union did not respond. Not a word leaked from UAW headquarters at Solidarity House contradicting the company’s pronouncements. Right up to the day the strike began, the UAW pretended there was nothing unusual. Members worked overtime and built up inventories while sales were slow. Union-backed committees sought ways to save the company money. On November 4, 1991, the union called a partial strike, bringing out only a small percentage of the Cat workforce. The company locked out a few thousand more. Then the union brought more out on strike. Workers who made every product that Cat had stockpiled were on the street.

Those making replacement parts, at the time the bestselling and most profitable Cat products, stayed on the job. Not once during the twenty-three week strike did the union pull those workers out of the shops.

Union officials put on the appearance of militancy. They organized a huge rally in Peoria with supporters from around the country. They raised one million dollars for the strikers. But they refused to cultivate ties with Brazilian Cat workers. They rejected offers of sympathy strikes from Cat workers in Europe and South Africa, and from the U.S. Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union.

When management began bringing in scabs, union officers crumbled. Without any advance word, let alone membership discussion, national officials told members to report back to work.

National officers then talked of conducting an “inside campaign.” In rapidly scheduled meetings with local union officers, they spoke of organizing work-to-rule campaigns in the plants. Then they flew back to Detroit and left the locals to their own devices. They held no meetings with workers. They developed no strategy for overcoming the demoralizing effects of defeat or rebuilding the workers’ organization.

The job was too big for the UAW’s Texas Rangers. Still, UAW President Owen Bieber compared the UAW to a lighthouse that would force the haughty officers of Caterpillar to change course for their corporate ship. “We did not make the difficult decision to change our tactics at Caterpillar as a public relations ploy to cover up some kind of surrender,” he thundered in June 1992. “I say shame on those who think we did. Shame on those who would condemn us to never shift gears, whatever the consequences to our members or to our union. Shame on those whose vision is so narrow and whose thinking is so rigid, that they can’t see that there is, indeed, more than one way to skin a Cat.”

By mid-1993, Cat workers were overcoming the devastating emotional effects of their defeat. Little by little, support for the orphaned “action teams” in the plants grew. When Caterpillar fired a shop steward last November, 13,000 Cat workers walked out. The International worked overtime to get them back in the plants, but without a program for carrying on the struggle. Over the next five months, workers would walk out seven more times. Each walk out started on the shop floor, without the prompting or even support of the national union.

Larry Solomon, president of Local 751, representing Cat workers in Decatur, IL, says workers are ready for a company-wide strike. Now is the time, he says, because sales are up and inventories are down, unlike 1991, and unfair labor practice charges leveled by the National Labor Relations Board give the workers a strike basis that bars the company from replacing them legally. Cat workers say the International doesn’t seem interested. It continues to treat their struggle as an afterthought, a struggle the Rangers would prefer to forget.

Shot in the Back

Back in 1973, when wildcats and strikes were frequent, International Vice President Douglas Fraser led a “flying squadron” of 700 armed union staffers and administration loyalists to break up an “unauthorized” UAW strike and picket line at Chrysler’s Mack Avenue stamping plant in Detroit. Today, a strike is a rarity.

By 1980-82 UAW President Fraser’s concessions to Chrysler, Ford and GM opened the floodgates to union concessions throughout the economy—the same flood that swamped Cat workers. In 1989, Big Three UAW members worked nine more days a year and were $4000 a year behind where they were under the old contract Reformers labeled the ’80s the “decade of decline.”

Concessions sparked a rash of injuries: The industrial injury and illness rate increased fourfold during the ’80s, and continued to rise thereafter. Officers of UAW Local 1999 (Oklahoma City, OK) figured the high injury rate at their plant was the workers’ fault for being in poor physical condition. They started a physical therapy team and a “work-hardening team”—as if work wasn’t hard enough already!

Fraser’s concessions also opened the door to ruinous competition within the union, such as the Arlington, TX GM local union giving the company concessions rejected by Willow Run in a bid to take the Michigan plant’s work. The UAW International Executive Board declined to block those concessions, even though Article 19.6 of the Constitution of the International UAW requires it to do so:

“…so that no infringements by Local Unions with inferior agreements in workplaces doing similar work may be committed against the Local Union with advanced agreements.”

Instead, the UAW administration called out the Rangers to squash a budding movement against the Willow Run plant closing. City officials filed suit to stop the closing, saying GM had promised to keep the plant open in exchange for tax concessions a few years earlier. The UAW administration refused to support the suit. They told leaders of the Willow Run local to stay away from the city’s action, an order some of them ignored, and intervened in unions around the country to prevent expressions of support for Willow Run. They threatened Detroit-area local union officers with the end of their careers if they joined demonstrations and protests against the plant closing.

Privileges of Rankness

By the late 1980s, the whiff of corruption in the UAW was becoming too strong to ignore. International Secretary-treasurer Ray Majerus was the subject of a federal investigation when he died. Election rigging in the union’s Region 5 led to a court-supervised rerun of the election for that region’s seat on the International Executive Board in 1988.

In 1992, the federal government began investigating workers’ complaints at several Ford plants that union officers were being paid off by management with “free” overtime. Companies pay top local officers up to four times their regular wages through unworked overtime, if they only stay out of the way—as International Vice President Ernie Lofton admitted at a hastily assembled meeting called to address the Ford members’ complaints to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). New contract language freeing union representatives from the time clock and entitling them to extra pay eliminates records that could prove such charges to the DOL’s satisfaction.

A worse scandal broke in Kansas City in 1994. Apparently company and union officials at Ford’s Claycomo plant had joined together in a fraud and extortion ring. Union officials got free overtime. Supervisors got kickbacks from workers for scheduling the unworked overtime Ford Headquarters fired eighteen employees, including supervisors and union officers, for their role. The DOL is investigating complaints that grievance handlers and supervisors raked in fees up to ¶1500 from workers for getting them jobs at the plant or transfers.

When the head of the UAW Legal Department spoke to a meeting of local union officers from around the country to advise them on how to use their company-donated cars without running afoul of federal regulations, few of those present suffered enough pangs of conscience to even blush. Vice President Lofton did get angry, however, when he discovered that one union representative taped the meeting and then went public with its content. (That officer is a member of the national reform group, the New Directions Movement.)

Father Knows Best

UAW President Bieber says the UAW Constitution “equitably balances democratic guarantees with procedures that will allow decisive action should that be necessary to protect the interest of a member of the Union,” and it “provides the one standard against which the behavior of members and leaders alike can be judged.” The UAW Constitution reflects the theory that the union is a hothouse for democracy, preparing workers to have “a voice in their destiny and the right to participate in making decisions that affect their lives before such decisions are made.” It pledges the UAW to work for “real and meaningful participatory democracy and responsible and accountable government.”

The UAW’s practice, however, is quite different. When faced with widespread opposition to a concessionary pact at GM in 1984, Bieber announced that he didn’t care how the members voted. He was not going to renegotiate the agreement.

Len Rudd, a member of Local 2250 in Wentzville, MO, has many anecdotes reflecting the actual operating philosophy of the union. He used scrap cardboard to make signs near his work station, detailing violations of the contract and calling for union action. Management always tore down the signs. The most supportive response a union cowboy ever gave him was to say “you have balls as big as watermelons, but you don’t have a brain in your head.”

Rudd says International Representative M. Fred Singleton worked with the unit chairman to deny office to four officers-elect three years ago. Outspoken opponents of a philosophy of concessions, the four were elected to the shop committee, the highest local body for settling grievances and negotiating with management. Before they could take office, however, Singleton and the chairman redistricted the plant, gerrymandering new district boundaries to eliminate the offices. President Bieber’s office upheld the chairman on appeal.

Administration supporters in Local 1999 took a more direct approach. They basically expelled leading reformers from the union for supposedly getting reimbursed for union business when they were on the company clock. Their pay stubs prove their innocence, but they were unable to get a fair hearing at any level of the UAW. Bieber’s office sanctioned barring the reformers from voting in the union, holding union office or getting strike pay in the event of a strike. His office also overturned bylaws approved overwhelmingly by Local 2250’s membership, requiring that members be informed of changes in agreements with management and invalidating those not approved by membership vote.

When the members of Local 2250 exercised their right under the International UAW Constitution to shorten the terms for grievance handlers from three years to two, Bieber’s office reversed that too. It seems whenever the members are restless, the president’s office rides in to protect endangered officers and save the ignorant rank and file from itself.
The Bieber-led bureaucracy even set itself against solidarity. It uses every opportunity to administratively divide local unions:

• When GM moved the seat assembly at Wentzville into a different building, the International decided that different buildings have different contracts.

• When Ford contracted to build minivans for Nissan at its Avon Lake assembly plant, the International decided that different products have different contracts.

• When workers on the Nissan line rejected their local agreement in March 1994, the bureaucratic Rangers told the workers on the Ford line that if their union brothers and sisters struck, they must ignore their pickets and report to work

The bureaucracy also opposes solidarity with individuals. Instead of voting to support a member who appeals to the UAW membership for help in a dispute with management, Bieber’s office issued explicit instructions not to discuss grievances at membership meetings, and to reject all such appeals. That way, says Local 2250 president Jerry Gorski, the member can more quickly appeal to Bieber’s office, which unlike the membership has the expertise to evaluate those disputes. Bieber, he adds, can get something done if there is a problem, but the membership can’t

Such roadblocks turn members away from the union. Attendance at Local 2250 meetings fell from an average of 600 people five years ago, to less than 150 today. Even Rudd rarely goes to membership meetings. “What’s the point,” he asks? “It doesn’t matter how we vote. They’re [the union officers] going to do what they want anyway.”

Union officers aren’t accountable to their members, but they are accountable to the International administration. They can do whatever they want only as long as they stay within its limits. That is a powerful motivation for most local officers to become ardent supporters of the bureaucracy. At the 1993 bargaining convention, for example, most delegates wildly cheered President Bieber when he imperiously told delegate Tom Laney that he didn’t have to answer Laney’s questions because he was only a convention delegate, not a national officer!

Delegates to the bargaining convention characteristically spoke as supplicants to International officers. Gomer Goins, from Local 22 in Detroit, thanked officers for the “incredible job” they had performed in past negotiations without a hint of irony. He pleaded with them to “do something” about health care (which they did by diverting money from wages back to the companies). Such delegates equate union power with their president’s persuasiveness. They exhibit no awareness that the union’s power is based on the willingness and ability of workers to act in concert to interfere with production and sales.

Rank-and-file members are not always as respectful towards international officers as were the delegates, but they often share the notion that it is leaders who get things done, while the members are helpless or just too busy. Eric, a member who has since transferred to the Saturn plant in Tennessee, told me he doesn’t want to know what’s going on in the union or between union and management “I elected officers to make those decisions for me,” he said.

Only Retreat, Only Surrender

In the Texas Ranger model of unionism, the membership has no power, and the union cannot match the financial or legal resources of a large multinational company. The only power left to the union is the power to make concessions. The only strategic question is how best to organize retreat.

Al Wilson, a unit chairman in Local 600 in Detroit, MI, clearly expressed this at the bargaining convention: “Don’t blame these guys [international officers] if your plant closes. You’re elected by your plant. It’s your job to do whatever it takes to keep it viable…. We have to try new things or we won’t have a plant to argue about anymore.” Wilson’s speech drew rousing applause.

Other delegates followed the International’s lead in painting concessions as victories. Karen Messinger, from Local 664 in Tarrytown, NY, advocated that the UAW promote the team concept and “pay-for-knowledge,” which are integral parts of the modern speed up. They are a frontal attack on classifications, the traditional union tool for defending fairness, seniority and job rights. Messinger said the team concept would “increase pay, job security and process ownership.”

It is a mark of how effectively the UAW’s administration teaches submissiveness that such delegates as Messinger can both praise jointness and report that it doesn’t work She complained that after her local union gave the company everything it wanted—cooperation to increase productivity and quality and lobbying for tax abatements and lower energy prices—GM broke its promise to keep the plant open until 1999. The plant is now scheduled to close in 1995. Messinger can rest easy, however, because she “owns the process.”

Tom Laney, a former president and former recording secretary of his local union, argues that to implement its bureaucratic and concessionary policies, the UAW administration “has to mobilize the most right-wing, antiunion people in the union.” The administration is very good, however, at maintaining a left cover while mobilizing the right, often with the help of social democrats. The International executive board will issue statements backing progressive issues, but it doesn’t communicate those to the membership, much less organize around them. The only limes, other than elections, the administration sought to mobilize the membership in Wentzville, MO during the last eight years was to oppose environmental legislation: the national Clean Air Act and a state Natural Streams Act.

UAW Region 5 belongs to a progressive electoral coalition in St. Louis, run by a former ACORN organizer who wears Red Army hats and hangs posters of Che Guevara on his walls. But it is a coalition based on old-time machine politics rather than principles. In return for endorsing a candidate backed by abortion rights and gay rights organizations, for example, the Region got them to back two of its candidates.

More typical of the Region’s approach to politics was its backing for Democratic candidate for governor. When that candidate won, he rewarded the UAW by appointing the head of its political action committee to a lucrative patronage position in state government. That individual officer got a reward, not the working class.

It’s the Ranger independence which enables the bureaucracy to make such deals. The administration can back “unpopular” causes without worrying about membership reaction, because the membership won’t know. Often a statement or the union’s name on a paper is all it takes to bind progressives, reformers and social activists within the union to the bureaucracy’s authoritarian rule.

For example, in 1992 the UAW administration faced a challenger in the election for president, the first time in over forty years. The administration’s victory was never in doubt, but it wanted to humiliate the opposition, to smash it so thoroughly that no one would ever pay it any attention again. The National Writers’ Union, newly affiliated with the UAW, had several members who sympathized with the opposition reform movement. Its president, Jonathan Tasini, had written favorably about the reformers. What could swing him around?

As it turned out, it didn’t take much. The UAW Constitution states that one of its objects is to unite employees regardless of “race, creed, color.” All it took was to add “sexual orientation” to the list and Tasini took to the floor of the convention in support of the bureaucracy. Reformers also favored the change, but didn’t have the votes to deliver it. What does it matter if administration delegates voting for the change returned home and, like the president of Local 879, organized to support anti-gay movements in their states? Progressives are satisfied with words. Conservatives want power.

How To Revive A Union?

The problem for UAW reformers is how to mobilize the more union-oriented workers in the UAW. Do you run candidates for office and reinforce the cowboy ideology that it’s leaders who get things done and not workers? Or do you try to mobilize the rank and file before standing candidates, and risk being ignored or dismissed as “not serious”? It may seem irrational to pose the question as an either/or proposition. Isn’t there a dynamic relationship between the two? Aren’t both approaches necessary to the reform process?

Jerry Tucker, former national organizer of the national reform movement in the UAW, the New Directions Movement, points out that it is easier to mobilize the membership when in office, than it is out of office. More fundamentally, he says, “If you don’t have a horse in the race, nobody pays any attention to you.” The choice, he says, is simple. Either you orient to taking power, or you’re irrelevant.

Others, however, maintain that elections are only a formal recognition of power John Borsos, a writer who works with members in Lordstown, OH, says “if you seize power on the shop floor, you have the strength to withstand concessionary pressure from management and the international union. If you don’t have that power, your election is irrelevant.”

The basic question reformers face is how to start the process of the rank-and-file retaking of their union and reorganizing for struggle. In my experience, those who argued for building a rank-and-file organization simultaneously with running in elections built electoral campaign organizations, not activist groups. The lure of winning elections propelled them to drop controversial platforms and to reach out to the conciliationist right in order to “broaden” their appeal and gain victory. The logic of elections compelled them to substitute themselves for the membership, to promise to provide better contracts to the members, not better struggles.

Once elected on such appeals, actually trying to reform the union became a career-damaging “betrayal” of the voters. Most of those elected as New Directions candidates succumbed to the UAW administration’s pressures. They turned their backs on New Directions.

In most local unions there are elections two out of every three years, either for delegates or local officers. Ted Kayser, a New Directions activist in Local 2250, thinks that nationally New Directions needs to take a break from at least one election season to organize local groups of activists. Kayser argues that elections are when you find out how much support you have. The time to organize and build support for your program is between elections. When people have had passivity beaten into them, it takes more than one year to organize them to act for themselves. Reformers squander most of their time contesting elections instead of organizing.

This year UAW reformers seek to deepen their caucus into more than an electoral front with a campaign called “Fight for Your Life: A Union Action Plan” focusing on such shop-floor issues as speed-up, health and safety, and shorter work time. The absence of any major elections enables them to sidestep the election issue for a year. But what about next year?

Making the debate more urgent is the fear that the UAW is hanging to life by a very thin thread. “If something doesn’t happen in the next few years,” says Tucker, “it may be too late.” In that case, there will be no chance of turning the UAW again into a workers’ organization. It will be a solidly company union.

July-August 1994, ATC 51

Chines Workers Defeat Silver Palace Lockout

John C. Antush

ON MARCH 13 a euphoric crowd of 600 celebrated a victory for the workers and community of Chinatown, New York The thirty-six waiters and dim-sum cart-pushers, members of the independent 318 Restaurant Workers’ Union and of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association (CSWA), who had been locked out of the Silver Palace Restaurant for seven months, defeated management’s concessionary demands and would be going back to work Speakers from groups ranging from the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence to the Gay and Lesbian Freedom Project congratulated the workers on their victory. The speakers also voiced their support for the workers’ demands that the government enforce labor laws and that slave-like conditions be ended in Chinatown.

How did this small group of immigrants, in a community where labor laws are commonly ignored and mainstream unions seem toothless, win? Why did Chinatown workers feel the need to organize a workers’ center and an independent union?

This victory is part of the growth and development of the CSWA, whose members and staff have been advancing mutual aid strategies for Chinese workers organizing in the garment, restaurant, construction and other trades for fourteen years. CSWA’s workers’ center approach offers one model for building a new, politicized workers’ movement that is based on the development of grassroots power and leadership through struggle.

The dynamics of the U.S. economy, in the absence of working-class pressure, have dictated the spread of deregulation and the cheapening of labor. Immigrants in New York’s Chinatown suffer disproportionately due to the divisions among workers caused by racism and business unionism, pro-business government policies, anti-immigrant legislation and, especially, the unwillingness of the state to enforce its own labor laws.

In June 1993, most New Yorkers were shocked when the Golden Venture, a ship carrying 300 Chinese indentured servants, went aground off the coast of Queens. Virtual slaves like those on board the Golden Venture are forced, on pain of torture and death, to work off their debts to the gangs that smuggled them into the United States. This underground has created a gravitational pull in the Chinatown labor market, as wages have plummeted, working conditions have worsened, competition between businesses and between workers has grown, and racism against Chinese immigrants, documented and undocumented, has increased.

For employers there are many advantages to turning away documented workers and hiring the undocumented instead. The undocumented are paid off the books and their wages are twenty-to-thirty percent below that of legal residents and citizens. Employers of the undocumented save on payroll taxes, including Social Security taxes and statutory insurance payments. Desperate, sometimes unaware of their rights, and often too scared to demand them, undocumented workers tend to be more submissive. The threat of a call to the INS is a powerful weapon in the bosses’ favor.

The government plays a major role in encouraging the growth of the lawless slave economy. While the State Department of Labor is underfunded and understaffed, it also tends to be unusually unresponsive to the concerns of immigrant workers. Regressive legislation, such as the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (known as the Simpson Mazzoli bill), has increased the power of gangs and the more ruthless employers.

The Employer Sanction Provision of the Act requires employers to verify that their employees are legally allowed to work in the United States and includes fines for those who break the law. Far from curbing the growth of the slave underground, this law has made undocumented workers dependent on the goodwill of whoever will hire them. If workers object to not being paid, to long hours, to unsafe working conditions, their employer asks to see their work authorization papers.

The repeal of this law continues to, be a major goal for immigrant and civil rights organizations. Incredibly, the SEIU was the only AFL-CIO union to oppose the introduction of this bill. Other AFL-CIO unions, particularly those with large immigrant memberships, such as the ILGWU, only officially changed their positions later, after years of lobbying for its passage and then supporting it.

Top-down business unionism and racism have prevented mainstream unions from acting in the interests of Chinese immigrant workers. If regressive laws are going to be changed, pro-worker laws introduced and enforced, and slave labor stamped out, immigrants, both documented and undocumented, must organize. A movement—that goes beyond individual shops and separate trades, from the workplace to the community and from the economic to the political plane—is necessary.

The CSWA has been working to develop such a movement from the bottom up, with a membership of approximately 700 workers concentrated in the garment, construction and restaurant trades. The grassroots organizing and community consciousness-raising that helped win the victory at Silver Palace is an example of how a workers’ center can bring people together to build workers’ power.

Chinese Garment Workers Organize

More than 25,000 Chinese workers in Manhattan work in garment factories. Many work twelve hours a day in the sweatshops, earning $20-30. To make up for this meager pay, workers are forced to put in more hours. Bosses often force workers, mostly women, to work overnight in order to meet deadlines. It is also increasingly common for the children of immigrant families to work in garment factories, at ages as young as 13-16.

In addition to wage and hour law violations, safety regulations are ignored. Health problems such as back pains, swollen hands and feet, eye strain and respiratory problems due to dust and fiber particles plague garment workers. Factory owners often withhold wages for months, telling workers, “You’ll get paid next week” Many groups of workers go to work one day to find that their boss has closed shop, still owing them back wages. Workers who have tried going to the police or the Department of Labor have generally found them unresponsive.

Most Chinatown garment factories agreed to unionization in the 1970s, after working out a deal in which the established unions would help provide Chinese factories with a steady supply of orders from large manufacturers. In many cases the unions have little contact with their members. Often there are no shop representatives on the floor, in spite of a provision in the union contracts that makes the union responsible for appointing one in every shop. Union officials generally do not insist on a “strict” reading of the contracts in Chinatown The result: In many unionized shops the piece-rate that workers get paid not only amounts to less than minimum wage, but is actually lower than it is in some non-unionized shops.

CSWA members in garment, mostly women, organized the Garment Industry Working Group to address these and other problems. Since 1991 the Non-Payment of Wages Campaign has helped workers win back thousands of dollars in withheld wages. Workers have used tactics ranging from demonstrating in front of manufacturers’ showrooms to petitioning in the community for the State Department of Labor to respond to their cases. Inspired by their successes, workers in the construction and restaurant trades are also organizing and winning back wages.

The CSWA has worked with over 300 workers in non-payment cases. Non-payment of wages is so common that it is serving as a unifying issue for garment workers to share information about conditions in all the factories.

Last year the CSWA held a public forum where garment workers confronted labor-law enforcement officials. Currently the CSWA Women’s Project is petitioning the ILGWU to demand better contract terms, including health benefits. Also the Garment Working Group is organizing a Garment Workers’ Network through which garment workers around the city will be able to talk about their working conditions and concerns.

Through the CSWA, garment workers also got involved in the Silver Palace struggle. “When they won this battle [at Silver Palace],” explains Pauline Tsaung, CSWA president and a former garment worker, “it gave other bosses a good example. It said, ‘Don’t take away workers’ benefits.’ Especially because this year the [regional garment] contract is coming up.”

Susan Chan, CSWA member in the garment industry, has not been working since August due to a twisted spine developed from working long hours. She explains:

“We hope that someday the garment workers will have an eight-hour day. The Silver Palace workers are our ideal. We just hope for minimum wage. Why do all the benefits just go to the manufacturers? Before 1982 the garment workers worked an eight-hour day. Why, ten years later, do we need to work so many hours, more than twelve?”

Garment workers in CS WA’s Women’s Project leafletted for the Silver Palace rally on the street during International Women’s Day. They encouraged workers to bring their non-payment of wages cases to the CSWA to present to the governor along with the rally’s demands. They also invited the manager-secretary of ILGWU Local 23-25 to attend the rally, after presenting him with petitions supporting the union but also outlining their concerns. Unfortunately, he declined.

Since the rally, several groups of garment workers have come to the CSWA to find out how to fight for their withheld wages. One group of 100 workers from Elmhurst, Queens is owed more than $300,000.

Chinese Construction Workers

Chinese construction workers are rarely hired and are systematically excluded from the building trades’ unions. Immigrants are often given the least desirable and most dangerous jobs, such as asbestos abatement without the legally required protective gear. The CSWA helped form the Chinese Construction Workers’ Association (CCWA) in 1991.

Through the CCWA, Chinese construction workers organize to get hired, to win safe working conditions, and to fight non-payment of wages and other labor-law violations. Tactics range from sit-down discussions with government officials and developers to visits at construction sites to interrupt work (until the contractor agrees to give Chinese workers jobs). The CCWA participates in the Coalition to End Racism in Construction, a coalition of Lath-to, African-American and Asian-American organizations that fights the exclusion of workers of color in the construction industry.

In the Spring of 1991 the CSWA and the CCWA organized the Campaign for Economic Justice at Foley Square to protest the exclusion of Chinese Americans from two multimillion-dollar federal projects being developed in the Chinatown area. At Foley Square the federal government is building a U.S. Courthouse and a Federal Office Building.

Although these two projects are generating more than 2,000 jobs, less than one percent have gone to Chinatown workers. Only after a rigorous campaign, including two August 1992 demonstrations drawing 3,000 people each, were over eighty jobs awarded to Chinese construction workers.

The campaign is continuing with a lawsuit filed by CCWA members against the projects’ developers for discrimination in their hiring practices.

In 1992, CSWA members who worked at the Silver Palace took off their lunch hour to demonstrate against racism and for access to jobs at Foley Square. Last year CSWA members went to the workers’ picket line at the East River Restaurant. Construction workers also attended CSWA membership meetings to discuss the significance of the Silver Palace struggle and joined the picket, telling their friends to support the boycott.

“What happened to the Silver Palace workers is similar to what’s happening in the construction industry,” explains CCWA organizer Peter Lin. “Wages are going down to $40 a day in the Chinatown construction industry…. The campaigns that we put together are campaigns that bring people together.”

Silver Palace: Tip of the Iceberg

Not far from where the Golden Venture crashed, in Flushing, Queens, Chinese restaurant workers who had been fired from the East River Restaurant for trying to unionize were picketing to get their jobs back They had been working for seventy cents an hour. They had been told if they did not stop their efforts, the restaurant would have them killed.

One worker was knocked down a flight of stairs by a pro-management employee claiming affiliation with the “Ghost Shadows” gang. These kinds of conditions are common in the restaurant trade.

In 1978, a group of Chinese restaurant workers attempted to organize a union where they worked (Uncle Tai’s on 63rd Street in Manhattan). They approached Local 69 (which later merged into Local 100) of the AFL-CIO-affiliated Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE).

After a walkout, these workers won the first union contract for Chinese restaurant workers in New York City. As Local 69 went on to organize other restaurants, the workers began to realize that many of the bad conditions they hoped to improve with unionization still existed. They did not have medical benefits or vacations, they were subject to unfair fines for incidents on the job, and they could still be fired or laid off at any time.

The HERE local was run from the top down, and was not responsive to the concerns of its members. The workers started to hold meetings, eventually forming the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association.

In 1981, one year after it was founded, the CSWA helped to organize the first successful restaurant union in Chinatown, at the Silver Palace. Before unionization, the Silver Palace stole waiters’ tips and fired workers arbitrarily. The contract won by the new independent 318 Restaurant Workers’ Union included a forty-hour work week, above-minimum wages, overtime pay, health benefits, paid holidays, collective bargaining and job security. These terms of employment—unheard of in the slave-subsidized Chinese restaurant trade—were a hopeful example for workers.

The independent union inspired a wave of militancy throughout Chinatown, with workers in four other restaurants organizing and joining the union. At the height of this activity, the CSWA’s office was mysteriously burned to the ground.

Undeterred, the CSWA continued its work, organizing the women’s committee, which forced the ILGWU to set up the first union daycare center in Chinatown. In 1982 Chinese garment workers organized sitdown strikes to protect their benefits and wages. Most were members of the ILGWU, which consistently refused to back their efforts and did not protect them from bosses’ illegal harassment. Consequently, the garment workers did not get the wages they struck for, and working conditions have since deteriorated.

The CSWA was also battling the gentrification of Chinatown and won a landmark decision for New York state against a developer who refused to include the displacement of people in an environmental impact statement Even though a twenty-one story tower was stopped with this case, gentrification continued and led to the closing down of many Chinatown restaurants—including the unionized ones—except for the Silver Palace.

The betrayal by the union bureaucracy, the frontal attacks on the CSWA, the intense growth of the slave economy after the passage of the 1986 immigration act—all discouraged worker militancy and set the stage for the Silver Palace management’s decision last fall to try and bust the union.

Drive for Concessions

When the contract came up for negotiation, the Silver Palace demanded a series of illegal concessions. Management canceled the workers’ health insurance and cut the number of paid vacation days, holidays and sick days.

They threatened to fire two dim-sum cartpushers, saying that they wanted “younger,” “prettier” women to serve customers. Finally, they drew up a contract stipulating that, in violation of labor law, part of the waiters’ tips would go to management and other employees. Dim-sum workers’ salaries would fall from $8.42 to $2.90 an hour. (The minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.90 an hour, but dim-sum workers are not tip recipients.)

According to this new contract, management would also have the right to arbitrarily replace full-time with part-time workers, who would share tips and work with no benefits. Workers were told that they had to sign the contract by August 20, 1993.

On August 20, the union workers of Silver Palace gathered at the CSWA office. After hearing advice from CSWA staffers, discussing and voting, the workers went to the Silver Palace, where management refused to talk to them or pay them their wages. Management had two workers who refused to leave arrested.

Immediately the workers organized daily picket shifts during the restaurant’s busiest hours: 11 am-2 pm and 5-8 pm. With little more than their bodies and voices, and the possibility of favorable NLRB decisions, they embarked on what would be a grueling and transformative seven-month campaign.

During the lockout, workers, not paid unionists or CSWA staffers, were the heart of the campaign leadership. The 318 members discussed and voted on how to react to the gang threats they received, chose members to carry out tasks, and made decisions on various aspects of their demands when negotiations resumed.

The workers decorated a coffin with the slogan, “No More Slavery, Justice for Workers,” and carried it on the picket line. They said they would not bury it until the Silver Palace ceased its promotion of slave-like working conditions. Sonny Wong, Silver Palace worker and shop steward, summed up the struggle by saying, “We are fighting for the community, not just ourselves. We are the pioneers.”

The Silver Palace management used the illegal conditions that exist throughout the restaurant industry as justification for its actions. In an ad placed in a Chinatown paper, the Silver Palace openly defended some of its illegal terms, complaining that it had to compete with restaurants in which workers labored under much more severe conditions.

In order to lure customers across the picket line, the Silver Palace reduced restaurant prices by thirty percent. In fact, the restaurant is a multimillion dollar operation and one of the Chinatown’s largest restaurants. When called on its claims about its dubious viability during negotiations, management refused to open its books to the union.

With the picketers outside during the lunch and dinner hours and coverage in both the Chinese- and English-language media, the Silver Palace conflict became a symbol for all of Chinatown. The CSWA conducted an outreach program so that every Sunday morning members of a wide range of groups—including, but not limited to, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Women’s Action Coalition, the Gay and Lesbian Freedom Project, the Lower East Side Workers’ Center as well as other students, activists and workers—joined the picket to chant and help leaflet.

Eventually these supporters came together with 318 members and CSWA staff members to plan a rally. The coalition attempted to broaden the public focus of the campaign to expose the slave economy and the government’s failure to enforce labor law.

For over three months, the coalition planned the rally, conducted outreach, created press releases and flyers, wheat-pasted ads and helped organize teach-ins. Fundraising events such as a book party for Robert Fitch’s The Assassination of New York and a Valentine’s Day party thrown by the Lesbian Avengers were also organized. CSWA volunteers and members made a video documenting the Silver Palace struggle for use as an educational tool. These activities brought 318 members into contact with Asian students all over New York state as well as with diverse progressives and socialists, and allowed supporters to get to know and work with some Chinese workers.

Through a CSWA membership meeting that gathered seventy or eighty workers, a series of demands synthesizing the most urgent needs of the workers in the garment, construction and restaurant trades was developed. These were articulated at the rally, where the Restaurant Workers’ Union, the CSWA and their supporters declared Chinatown a disaster zone and demanded an end to slave labor and that Governor Mario Cuomo:

1. Commit more resources to the State Department of Labor to enforce labor law;

2. Establish a task force to investigate and prosecute labor-law violations in Chinatown;

3. Exert leadership to pass proposed bills that strengthen laws governing nonpayment of wages and garment manufacturer accountability for the wage-law violations of contractors;

4. Create jobs that are stable and pay decent wages.

Rather than serve simply as the goals of a traditional lobbying campaign, the CSWA feels that these demands will heighten the consciousness of immigrant workers regarding their legal rights and will inspire them to organize. By focusing on workers’ legal rights and government accountability, rather than on individual bosses, the CSWA advanced from specific economic demands (for a contract at the Silver Palace) to a set of political demands in the interests of all Chinatown workers.

During the week prior to the rally, concerned about its tarnished image in the press and its reputation in the community, the Silver Palace management agreed to bargain with the union. On the day of the rally, it was announced that a contract had been agreed upon and that the Silver Palace’s 318 members would be going back to work.

Among the speakers who addressed the crowd were Eileen Clancy from the Gay and Lesbian Freedom Project, members of the Lower East Side Workers’ Center, Sonny Wong as a representative of the Silver Palace workers, Jim Haughton of Harlem Fightback, and Tim Schermerhorn from New Directions in Transit. The rally organizers invited everyone to come to a victory banquet and meeting to discuss what should be done next to build a movement that could eliminate slave labor.

Building A Workers’ Movement

Chinatown workers face immense obstacles, including gangs, a union bureaucracy that is unable to respond to theft needs either as workers or as Chinese immigrants, and a government that refuses to enforce labor laws. Whether in discussions about NAFTA or about immigration, stereotypes—that portray immigrants and workers of color as always willing to work for less—continue to divide workers.

The organization of the CSWA, in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, proves that these workers want to organize. If the rest of the labor movement continues to exclude them, it will lose strong allies, and will continue having to compete with slave labor. In view of the inaction of the government and the trade unions, obviously Chinese immigrants need to organize independently.

The CSWA also used the opportunity presented by the Silver Palace struggle to clarify the similar concerns of its members across the trades.

Through this struggle the leadership of 318 was also strengthened. Significantly, ten dim-sum women became union representatives, responsible for maintaining the picket line, organizing women to speak at teach-ins or with the media and in meetings with management. Over the course of the campaign, workers moved from their immediate demands for a fair contract to issue political demands in the name of all Chinatown workers.

These advances were made possible by the type of organization that CSWA is, a workers’ center. Chinatown workers are not the only workers suffering due to a failing trade union movement and a worsening economy. We need a new labor movement, one that uses new methods of organizing. Workers’ centers, now most commonly set up by immigrants and low-income workers, are a form that offers hope for building such a movement Workers’ centers bring workers together across trades, allowing them to form their own grassroots organizations, bridging the gap between communities and workplaces.

This encourages workers to look beyond economistic trade unionism and to advance their interests collectively and politically. Grassroots, worker-led forms of struggle also allow women and workers of color to organize around their distinct concerns.

Left radicals often talk of the need for a party of workers. How should we build such a political movement or party? Should it be built around the trade unions as they currently exist? Should we begin with a program and candidates? Or should we start gathering an active base? Perhaps community/labor formations, such as Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association and the Lower East Side Workers’ Center, are a step toward posing this question more clearly.

July-August 1994, ATC 51

"La Causa" on the Road

Dennis Dunleavy

CESAR CHAVEZ IS gone now, but the United Farm Workers’ recent re-enactment of his 1966 march from the fields of Delano to Sacramento paid tribute to the movement he founded. The 320-mile march culminated on April25 at the steps of the State Capitol with as many as 15,000 people waving UFW banners and demanding pretty much the same things they did nearly thirty years ago.

The roots of the UFW movement in the 1960s were enmeshed in the collision of social forces, the economic desperation that came with the end of the bracero program and the determination of a leader who possessed charisma and vision.

During the early years, the UFW spread its message everywhere: “Na Basta!” The backbreaking work in the fields, subhuman wages, inadequate housing and little hope of advancement were confronted under the banner of the farmworkers’ black eagle. With cries of “iViva la Causa!” and “1St Se Puede!” for almost a decade and a half the winds of change and reform swept through the fields of California and spread across the country.

Times have changed. Public apathy toward farmworker rights reigns, and anti-immigrant bashing has become popular. The union’s ranks have dwindled, from 70,000 in the 1970s to about 15,000.

Rights gained by the workers have been eroded. Wages that were $10 an hour are now $5—or less for some workers. Health care is limited. In parts of California, where housing is extremely expensive and the market is tight, workers live in overcrowded conditions and pay high rents. A few years ago as many as 700 farm workers, who were mostly undocumented, were found living in caves and makeshift shelters near Salinas. Recent stories have surfaced of families paying as much as $500 a month to share a garage with no access to toilets or a shower.

When Chavez died last year, more than 35,000 people came to pay tribute. What we have again seen in this recent demonstration of solidarity is a sense that with the re-enactment of an historic event, sacrifice and tribute can again help to unite people in struggle.

A few of the marchers were veterans of the first march, and remembered the marches, hunger strikes and boycotts with a sense of pride and nostalgia. But most were a younger generation, learning to forge their response to injustice.

During the late ‘70s the UFW lost favor among the rank-and-file workers, in part because many felt they were not allowed to share in the decision-making process of the union. Chavez, although still a workers’ hero, was not democratic in his leadership style.

This recent march represents an attempt by the present UFW leadership of Arturo Rodriguez and Dolores Huerta to breathe new life into a movement. The spirit of Chavez—its willingness to try against all odds—lives. The conditions and times are difficult, but farmworkers are prepared to fight once again.

July-August 1994—ATC 51

WE! Confronting Violence

Chani Beeman

“AS WOMEN WHO have long worked to end all forms of violence against women, we are enraged by the rape and murder of our sister activist Nancy Lynn Willem. Nancy was murdered while at her workplace on the 4th of February, 1992. Our pain and anger over yet another act of terrorism against women has brought us together as Women Enraged! (WE!).” So begins the WE! Mission statement. WE! Is an activist collective committed to confronting violence against women and transforming ourselves in the process.

Nancy had been deeply involved in the lesbian and gay community, domestic violence and rape crisis counseling, local Central America solidarity groups, as well as in the development of a Women’s Resource Center at the University California, Riverside. Her murder unleashed a rage that rocked the lesbian and women’s communities Nancy helped create.

Women activists of all stripes joined together to confront this heinous act that flew in the face of all Nancy represented.

Since Nancy’s death, and with remarkable commitment, members attend meetings and work to organize events. The core of ten to fifteen women draws as many as fifty activists to actions.

Over time women have joined WE! without having known Nancy. What attracts new members—and keeps the group together—is a combination of grassroots activism and a thoughtful perspective that has been developed through the weekly meetings.

WE!’s structure is a collective consensus-building based on the trust of working together over time and a willingness to challenge previous assumptions in working through a problem and coming up with solution. The group has spun a dynamic that is very accessible to women.

The group’s analysis and approach addresses violence in the broadest terms including economic, racist, heterosexist, as well as patriarchal violence. Members continuously challenge the group to expand traditional feminist thinking to a more “third-wave” feminist practice. The result is a group environment reminiscent of ’70s feminist consciousness-raising mixed with radical activism.

Most women involved in WE! are activists with very little background in the political left. The politics evolve with practice. The result: the creation of a politically active group that has gained recognition as a powerful force.

Activities organized by WE! include a local Clothesline project—modeled on the AIDS quilt, it is composed of T-shirts that tell the story of a woman’s experience with violence—”Take Back the Night” marches; protest demonstrations against sexist media coverage; drawing public attention to sexist, racist comments and rulings by a local judge; and helping to negotiate for improved medical services for poor or uninsured rape victims.

WE! has established a reputation in the Inland Empire as a no nonsense group that gets things accomplished. Women are referred to the group by the local newspaper, the Victim/Witness division of the District Attorney’s office or even service organizations. And, while some mainstream service organizations experience some discomfort in dealing with WE! and our unique style, most do not dispute the transformation to empowerment  women experience.

THE CLOTHESLINE PROJECT is a visual display of shirts with graphic messages and illustrations that have been designed by women survivors of violence, or by their friends and family. The Clothesline Project may also contain shirts made to honor women who have died as a result of violence. Its purpose is to increase awareness of the violence against women by breaking the silence, to celebrate women’s strength in surviving and healing and to mourn those who have died as a result.

The Clothesline Project is a grassroots network and a lifeline of support. It is rooted in the understanding that violence against women is a manifestation of sexism rooted in a hierarchical society.

For more information on how to organize a clothesline display, contact the The Clothesline Project National Network Box 727, East Dennis, MA 02641, phone 508-385-7004, fax 508-385-7011.

July-August 1994, ATC 51

The Rebel Girl: Is Population the Problem?

Catherine Sameh

A DANGEROUS AND misguided notion continues to be expressed in some parts of the environmental movement today that the root cause of environmental problems is population growth. When activists in this movement link population control to the fight for safe and legal abortion, the results are troubling, particularly in the context of a growing anti-abortion and anti-contraception movement worldwide.

As women’s health and reproductive rights activists, we must challenge our allies in the environmental movement to reject even the “best” population control analyses and policies as fundamentally racist, sexist, anti-poor and anti-working class. Together we must oppose attempts everywhere in the world that deny women access to abortion and contraception, and at the same time oppose “family planning” schemes that target women’s fertility as the cause of poverty and ecological devastation.

It’s essential to maintain the distinction between population control and birth control: population control is the external domination over people’s reproductive lives while birth control involves individual autonomy and empowerment. The difference can be spotted easily in practice: Do family planning programs offer poor women an educated choice in the selection of birth control methods? Are hormonal methods promoted over less invasive technologies? Are appropriately trained medical personnel available for follow-up?

Today, as author and activist Betsy Hartmann points out, the population control establishment “has incorporated the language of women’s rights into its technocratic lexicon.” Powerful institutions such as the World Health Organization and the UN now include feminist demands like the education of women into their programs, at first glance giving the illusion of a more comprehensive approach. But in reality these programs still blame women for perpetuating the cycle of poverty by having more children, and fail to challenge the unequal global distribution of wealth and power.

Demographic data has illustrated two crucial points. First, while population growth rates have slowed in many countries, environmental conditions continue to get worse. This is not to say that reducing population growth has no effect on environmental conditions. But, as the Committee on Women, Population and the Environment points out, reducing population growth alone will not solve global environmental problems. Secondly, when women’s quality of life improves through increased economic opportunities, better and more comprehensive health care services, and access to education and political participation, population growth rates go down.

The root causes of global ecological deterioration are far more complex than any population control program reveals. For example, the Research Institute for Peace Policy in Starnberg, Germany estimates that twenty percent of all global environmental degradation can be directly or indirectly attributed to the military. This includes global air pollution, carbon dioxide, ozone-depletion, smog- and acid rain-forming chemicals. But the alarm bell is never rung for the military, industry or the affluent who consume luxury goods that generate significant pollution.

The Committee on Women, Population and the Environment outlines five major causes of environmental destruction in their statement calling for a new approach. These include “economic systems that exploit and misuse nature and people in the drive for short-term and short-sighted gains and profits,” and the “disproportionate consumption patterns of the affluent the world over.” Among other demands, the Committee calls on governments, international agencies and other social institutions to end programs which “sacrifice human dignity and basic needs for food, health and education to debt repayment and free market, male-dominated models of unsustainable development,” and to provide “affordable, culturally appropriate, and comprehensive health care and health education for women of all ages and their families.”

As the poverty of women and their families increases around the world, and as global ecological degradation worsens, activists in all movements must come together to construct thoughtful analyses and demand comprehensive changes like those that have come from the Committee. In the attempt to “get things done,” environmental and pro-choice activists must resist the temptation to look toward simple, but coercive, solutions. In fact, that’s the hallmark of conservatives—blame poverty on those who are poor.

For more information, contact the Committee on Women, Population and the Environment, do Population and Development Progran/SS, P.O. Box 5001, Hampshire College, Amherst, MA 010025001, Phone 413-582-5506, Fax 413-5825620.

July-August 1994, ATC 51