The Resurrection of Bob Fitch and the post-Occupy Left
2011 saw the passing of two seminal figures on the left.
One of these, Yale professor David Montgomery, was granted a long and respectful obituary in the Times.
Robert Fitch’s obit required a paid advertisement to find its way into the newspaper of record.
This asymmetry was not unexpected.
Fitch was at the end of his life on the faculty of Laguardia College after stints as an organizer, journalist, and independent scholar often living on the fringes of what had become by late century a rather charmless bohemianism. He was, however, by no means obscure having authored what some regard as two classics of radical history, The Assassination of New York and Solidarity for Sale. A memorial brought out approximately 50 friends, admirers and associates to whom Left Business Observer editor Doug Henwood delivered an affecting and eloquent remembranceof Fitch’s life and work. What came as a bit of a surprise to those unfamiliar with Fitch’s role in the left culture of New York City were the questions which followed: most were, to a greater or lesser degree, hostile, criticizing Fitch’s work as divisive and accusing him of functioning as de facto ally of capital.
No such stains were apparent on Montgomery’s career as it was memorialized not only at his home institution, but at the Universities of Pittsburgh and Minnesota and elsewhere. Condolences poured in from those for whom Montgomery had served as a mentor, many now tenured faculty at leading institutions. Augmenting these were communications from those at all levels of the labor hierarchy, as well as from those at labor studies institutes straddling both worlds. As Peter Rachleff observed, Montgomery’s students “wanted not only to write about labor history but also to help make labor history . . . from within the labor movement” and it was apparent that they did so with considerable success.
As for Fitch’s intellectual legacy, it is not clear to whom he had passed the torch if to anyone if at all. Henwood’s lecture was to be the first in a series, however it is not clear whether it will continue, or who would deliver it. For other than Henwood and possibly the labor economists Michael Yates and Sam Gindin it is hard to think of more than a few who evince much sympathy or understanding of the lines of argument in Fitch’s work. Then there is matter of what might be called the Fitch stigma. Reminiscent of the reaction to “Noam Chomsky” and “Ralph Nader” in some circles, the mere mention of “Bob Fitch” can elicit passionate denunciations from the most ecumenically minded liberals and leftists. Having received the Robert Fitch memorial lectureship would be regarded by some as a dubious honor.
The wide gap between Montgomery and Fitch’s posthumous reputations is at least superficially puzzling given that both took labor and its relation with capital as the defining issue of the modern age, and “The Fall of the House of Labor” (the title of Montgomery’s magnum opus) as the central crisis confronting the left. The difference resides in the nature of Fitch’s critique which, as is familiar to readers of Solidarity for Sale, is uncompromisingly and aggressively radical in the most literal sense of the term. The abject failure of organized labor and its eventual collapse has derived not from individual bad actors (though he identifies plenty of these) but from its institutional root. Whereas Montgomery tends to be sympathetic to those working within unions, attributing their failures to the relentless assault of capital and the treachery of elected officials, Fitch sees them as inevitably compromised by a commitment to preserving their institutional authority and privileges, a pattern which began with, and flowed directly from, the closed shop arrangements taken for granted by union leadership going far back in domestic labor history.
While it is probably reasonable to assume that Montgomery would have taken issue with Fitch’s work, he did not do so in print–perhaps due to Solidarity for Sale having appeared in 2006, toward the end of Montgomery’s scholarly career. Fitch, for his part, did offer a critique of Montgomery albeit in one sentence in Solidarity for Sale within a review of the literature surrounding the 1905 Chicago Teamster Strike. Fitch takes aim at labor historians, who “like to see in the fighting spirit of the Teamsters . . the germs of American solidarity.” Of these, “Yale Professor David Montgomery has gone the farthest . . . compar(ing) the Chicago Teamsters strike of 1905 with the St. Petersburg revolution of 1905, which overthrew the czar of Russia.”
While this is all that Fitch has to say about Montgomery, he is quite expansive in his critique of what might be called Montgomerianism. As Fitch documents in Solidarity for Sale, the donning of rose colored spectacles has become a virtual reflex for labor academics and their radicalized students who are quick to see in any labor action, no matter how insignificant the storming of the winter palace, every union member a potential Jacobin and every union president a potential Rosa Luxembourg. Fitch’s book details numerous instances of academic leftists besotted with this or that “progressive” union boss, whether Richard Trumka, Ron Carey, Andy Stern, all of whom upon closer examination, turn out to differ mainly in packaging from the parade of venal and thuggish reactionaries which have sat at the top of labor bureaucracies.
Conversely, criticism of these leaders, at least when they are still in office, is routinely denigrated as akin to treason, as Fitch shows. While Fitch is, alas, no longer around to let us know of recent instances, a parade example noted by labor journalist Mike Elk finds critics of the high salary and perks enjoyed by AFSCME president Lee Saunders charged with “knowingly (giving) ammunition to the union’s enemies at a time when the right-wing media want nothing more than to destroy the labor movement.”
This attack, delivered in a press release issued by AFSCME, was nothing more than a routine exercise in damage control and is easily dismissed. What is disconcerting is the degree of continuity between PR boilerplate and the prose of supposedly disinterested and objective scholars in the field of labor studies. The latter were well represented in the chorus of denunciation which greeted the publication of Solidarity for Sale. Prominent among these was NYU Professor Kim Phillips Fein who, in the Nation, recycled the already familiar charge that Fitch’s “focus on the union shop might have been lifted from the campaigns of the National Association of Manufacturers during the 1950s, which sought to associate monopolies with unions in the public mind, or perhaps from the National Right To Work Committee.” While not disputing the accuracy of Fitch’s facts or the logical force of his analyses, Phillips Fein concludes that “Solidarity for Sale offers too sweeping an indictment to be persuasive.” Rather than consider Fitch’s structural explanation of the factors which make corruption and co-optation inevitable, Phillips Fein prefers a half-full analysis focusing on “those anticorruption measures (which) have sometimes been able to succeed.” These “help the reader to grasp the hope (my italics) that the labor movement still embodies for millions of Americans, . . . despite the many failures of the past 100 years.”
In 2007, the italicized monosyllable would not have stood out so glaringly for most readers as it does now. Just a few years later, it is a different story as we begin the second term of a neoliberal Democrat whose cynical appeal to “hope” along with the receipt of hundreds of millions in donations and countless man hours of support from nearly bankrupt unions is consistently coupled with expressions of contempt for organized labor and attacks on the most sacrosanct portions of its agenda.
Fitch’s view of labor hierarchy as irredeemably compromised and organizationally feckless became increasingly impossible to ignore under the conditions ushered in by the Obama presidency as rates of unionization sank to historical lows. Attacks on their last stronghold, the public sector, were in the offing as labor having lost its seat at the table was now on the menu of austerians in both parties. Among the most conspicuous Fitchian moments was the aftermath of the Wisconsin uprising where, as it will be recalled, following massive grassroots protest in support of public sector workers, union leadership made the disastrous decision to channel activist momentum into a Democratic Party led recall campaign.
In the period of soul searching that followed, union leaders found themselves in the uncomfortable and unfamiliar position of having to answer questions as to their strategic competence and ability to represent workers interests not from the right, but from the left. Montgomery students were instrumental in providing union leadership cover. Among the more ridiculous of these was Montgomery student, Brooklyn College Political Scientist Corey Robin, who simply refused to be believe that labor had any role in the debacle, requiring confirmation from three separate sources before he would accept that labor leadership would have embarked on such a foolish and self-destructive strategy.
Also weighing in on the side of the bosses would be another Montgomery student, Gordon Lafer ensconsed at the union financed University of Oregon Labor Research Institute. The only grounds for critique, according to him, invoking the by now tired mantra, those “join(ing) in the anti-union attack” “enjoy(ed) the momentary rush of being on the same side as power.”
While neither Robin and Lafer could accept the possibility of good faith criticism, others on the left were beginning to understand that a radical shift in strategic priorities was necessary and that the union leadership was a prime obstacle standing in the way of this transformation. Long time labor intellectual Bill Fletcher and SEIU organizer Jane McElevey were willing to break a decades long fatwa in recognizing two lessons from Wisconsin. First, they noted that “unions need to reinvest in mass participatory education” not just among its own rank and file, but with the goal of creating a broad left consensus in support of organized labor. While they do not mention Fitch, Fletcher and McElevey’s explanation for their failure to have done so could have come from Solidarity for Sale: “an educated and empowered membership can be unpredictable (in that) (t)hey may start asking questions that many leaders wish to avoid. . . And, horror of horrors, they may actually run for office in the unions themselves.”
What is probably the most encouraging labor action in recent years, the Chicago Teachers Strike is an object lesson of the importance of participatory education and its potential to overthrow union hierarchies. On several occasions, Chicago teacher’s union president Karen Lewis has made mention of The Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) having, as the Chicago Tribune reported “started out as a book club to review Naomi Klein’s best-seller ‘The Shock Doctrine.’ ” This provided the impetus for Lewis to stand for election replacing a capitulatory local which had failed to challenge No Child Left Behind Reforms among them the establishment of non-union charter schools promoted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The successful strike which followed also relied crucially on a knowledgeable and aware workforce capable of making their own case with friends, neighbors and acquaintances, pre-empting the hostile caricatures of teachers which had become a staple of local and national media.
Fletcher and McElevey’s second lesson is also fundamentally Fitchian, namely that “unions can’t go it alone.” In other words, they need to be seen and see themselves as part of a broader left reaction against the core neo-liberal premises which have dominated both political parties and the Washington consensus for generations. They also need to recognize that organizing campaigns not only can but must extend beyond the bargaining unit being recognized to benefit all sectors of the community which are effected by low wages.
As the Occupy movement demonstrated, not only can the public be mobilized, they will enthusiastically participate in support of labor actions provided that they are convinced that it is a two way street-that unions are offering real, not just transactional solidarity. Here the recent Walmart Black Friday was an exemplary first step. Many thousands, only a few of these present or former Walmart associates, participated in what was designed to be a show of support of those workers who would commit, not immediately, but sooner or later to a mass walkout. The numbers assembled served Walmart notice that communities would have workers’ backs should they take what is for them a frightening step by choosing to join an “unauthorized” strike against America’s largest and most viciously anti-union employer.
The New York City fast food workers organizing drive shares similarities with the Black Friday Walmart action. Here the New York based Occupy movement should play a central role in mobilizing its core in a strong show of solidarity, one which could result in union recognition and have a substantial positive impact on wages of those at the bottom of the 99%.
Both of these initiatives were an unfamiliar and maybe unprecedented blend of top down union directives and bottom up community support. The willingness of the national unions to relinquish control was in part due to Taft Hartley restrictions which prohibit national unions from supporting what are effectively wildcat work stoppages. But it may also be that unions have recognized the bankruptcy of their traditional focus on negotiating favorable contracts for their members in isolation from the concerns and agenda of the broader left. Having put a price on solidarity and made clear their willingness to sell it off to the highest bidder has come at the cost of the own destruction.
It’s a bit hard to know how Fitch would view these new forms of hybrid activism. On the one hand, he would certainly applaud, and would likely have participated in the grass roots mobilization in support of low wage workers. However, he would also have been at least willing to ask questions and at maybe even suspicious of the role of national unions given their long history of channeling activist energies into organizational dead ends, most notably the Democratic Party.
As Fitch’s criticisms of labor have now, it would be seem, been accepted, albeit tacitly, by those who had been sympathetic to labor leadership and its prerogatives, it would probably be a good idea to keep these in mind as these movements move forward. Their success would be the deepest validation of Fitch’s life and work-far more so than a few column inches in the nation’s paper of record.
JOHN HALLE is Director of Studies in Music Theory and Practice at Bard College. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Mike Elk and Arun Gupta are others who come to mind.
 Robin’s demands for confirmation were made during a Facebook exchange.