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Strikes and Class Consciousness

by RON JACOBS

Strikes by labor have a way of bringing individuals’ consciousness to the foreground. This is especially true when the workers on the picket line primary work is serving the public. Teachers, police, firemen, public works and transit workers fall into this category and, when they strike the public feels the difference. In the place I live—Burlington, Vermont—the transit system drivers have been on strike for a week and a half. The local media, from the Gannett-owned daily paper to the so-called alternative weekly, has varied in its coverage of the issues, with the bulk of the stories presenting management’s side without challenge. To its credit, the Gannett paper did a feature which did a good and fair job of presenting the drivers’ side of the dispute.

In what can only be termed disingenuous and transparent, all of the media outlets have pretended to represent the riders’ view by sharing anecdotes about individuals affected by the strike. In presenting these stories, there have been very few (if any) that question management’s ongoing refusal to bargain in good faith as the cause of these riders’ frustration. Instead, the media’s presentation places the responsibility for the disruption of these riders’ lives in the lap of the drivers. In other words, their demands for a fair contract are given as the reason there is no service instead of management’s refusal to bend on the key points proposed by the union. (As a point of clarification, management has presented essentially the same contract to the drivers at least three times over the past year and all three times it has been soundly rejected.)

In the conversations carried on while walking the picket line in support of the drivers and in the comments sections of local media outlets, I have noticed a commonality among those who oppose the strikers. In general, these folks tend to be rightwingers ideologically opposed to labor unions or younger folks who seem to have never been part of a unionized workforce or have always been in management. I am not sure what conclusion can be drawn from this fact, but the question of consciousness certainly comes into play.

However, it is in the anecdotal stories presented in the media where the question of consciousness is truly glaring. Virtually every one of the individuals whose story of how their lives have been negatively affected by the strike are either at the mercy of public programs designed to help them survive (Social Security disability, VA benefits, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, etc.) or working minimum wage jobs without any job security. Besides perpetrating the myth that it is mostly the poor and disabled who ride public transit, this presentation plays on an element of pity that not only denigrates the individual whose story is being told, but also pulls on the heartstrings of the well-meaning media consumer. In doing so, the issues of the drivers becomes secondary and, by becoming secondary, so do similar issues faced by workers everywhere. In addition, the media’s anecdotal stories replace a meaningful discussion of how the struggle of the bus drivers for a say in their working conditions and salary is the struggle of all working people.

Philosopher George Lukacs wrote in his book History and Class Consciousness that the consciousness of bourgeois society (which would be our current society) is “always, if not always consciously, an apologia for the existing order of things or at least the proof of their immutability.” The mainstream media descriptions of the abovementioned transit workers strike (and every other strike) exemplifies this truth. So, too, do news stories discussing budget cuts, school closings, crime legislation, war and every other endeavor of the current powers-that-be. For example, how many times has the reader heard a government or corporate official explain that the reason for cutbacks and layoffs is beyond their control, as if these phenomena were the acts of some god?

An element of the creation of consciousness is that which causes a worker (employed or not) to oppose labor actions of their fellow workers not because they support the bosses, but because they do not identify with other workers in a class sense. It is a cornerstone of our society (and of bourgeois society in general) that the individual is paramount in all aspects of history. This idea permeates the economy and the culture. Furthermore, its presence is so engrained in our cultural DNA, we usually are not even aware of its influence on our thoughts and actions. Consequently, it is our interest—and ours alone—that define our relationship to something like a labor strike. If we are inconvenienced, we are supposed to believe it is the result of the striking workers refusing to work and not the refusal of management to negotiate in good faith.

This idea also causes us to see history as being the result of a relatively few powerful individuals and not the rest of us. I am not one who thinks that individuals have no role in making history. However, it seems clear that believing an individual always acts separate from any societal influences creates a situation where such individuals will act against the interests of their own class. This can be seen when working people consistently vote into power politicians who represent those who continue to make their lives ever more difficult in order to further enrich the wealthy. It can also be seen in the media stories of unemployed men and women lambasting the striking bus drivers for wanting a say in their working conditions and salary. The point of these types of stories seems to be to imply that the drivers’ desire for workplace justice is the cause of the unemployed individuals’ plight. In reality, the reason unemployment exists and the fact that the drivers need to strike to get a fair contract lies with the economic and political system we all exist in.

Despite the ongoing attempts by media and management to paint the drivers as the villains in the bus strike in Burlington and surrounding towns, there continues to be an ever- crescendoing display of support for the drivers. Picket lines are usually enhanced by riders and union and non-union workers from around Vermont. Several rallies have been held or are scheduled. Indeed, a region-wide rally is scheduled for Saturday March 29th at noon in Burlington’s downtown City Hall Park. This rally has been endorsed by over a dozen union and student organizations and the list of endorsers continues to grow. City council members and state legislators have issued statements of support, as have local clergy. In other words, the support for the drivers continues to grow while management struggles to gain a sympathetic hearing for its message. It’s encouraging to know that class consciousness still exists. The true test will come in the weeks ahead as management and its allies step up their assault.

Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of  The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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