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The "American Way"

Solidarity Requires Sacrifice

by RON JACOBS

It was a dismally cold winter across much of North America. In the state of Vermont, USA where I live, temperatures were below 0 degrees Celsius for all but four days in January. Most of those days, the temperature was well below that zero. To illustrate how cold many days were, the tears that streamed from my eyes because of the temperature froze on my cheeks. To add to this winter misery, many regions also experienced floods when ice backed up. If I were a more religious man, I would think the gods were punishing this people for their greed and the blood they have shed to feed that greed. However, not being religious, I forge on, doing what I can to wage battle against the forces thriving from the world’s misfortune. Not just thriving, actually, but being responsible for much of it.

Despite nature’s relentless assault this winter, it is the ongoing offensive of the superrich against the world that creates the true despair in our world. Anecdotal stories pop up in the news: an elderly couple dead because their heat was shut off when they could not afford to pay their heating bill; propane costs skyrocketing to higher levels than ever before due to manipulation of the propane market; the rich men and women in the US Congress cutting not only heating subsidies to low-income individuals but also the food subsidies (known as food stamps) to these individuals; the list goes on. Meanwhile, funds for war and other machinations of imperial dominance are not just granted, they are increased. Nationally and internationally, whatever resistance exists is ignored, silence or both.

Yet, there are vaguely hopeful signs. Across the United States, resistance to the increased transfer of working peoples’ wealth to the wealthiest among us—or austerity, if you prefer—is being mounted. Workers, unionized and otherwise, are organizing strikes, demanding wage increases and job guarantees, and even considering socialist candidates in some areas of the ultimate capitalist nation. The victories are few and their permanence is always in question, but the act of resistance itself has revitalized those individuals involved. In Chicago, teachers in the public school system have held one day work stoppages in opposition to the austerity moves of the Chicago mayor and his friends in the charter school business. For those who don’t know, charter schools are (with a few exceptions) essentially corporate initiatives designed to privatize public education. University of Illinois faculty struck for one day in support of their part-time colleagues. There have been similar actions around the continent.

The town I live in is Burlington. It is the most populous city in Vermont, which is a mostly rural state. The University of Vermont, which is located in Burlington, faces work actions after its administration announced austerity measures that did not include any cuts to the administration. At a small college administered by a priestly order of the Catholic Church, custodians found themselves at an impasse in their negotiations with the administration. Students, faculty, other staff and local unions all worked together demanding the administration negotiate a fair contract. A contract was finally signed. One of the primary reasons given by the union was the solidarity shown by the campus and local community.

After months of negotiations between the union representing the bus drivers in the regional public transit system that met only intransigence from management, the union originally set a strike date for March 10, 2014. I began writing this column two days before that date. However, the strike is not necessarily the story here. Instead, it was the growing solidarity expressed by the community served by the transit system. Bus riders, workers in other fields (restaurant workers, nurses, school teachers and university staff and faculty) rallied behind the drivers and their position. Everyone understood their call for dignity and a say in their working day. After twenty straight hours of negotiations March 8-9, management presented the union drivers with the exact same contract proposal the drivers already rejected. A ratification vote was held March 12-13, where this contract was unanimously rejected. A strike began March 17, 2014 with a series of solidarity rallies and marches by the community, most of them bus riders who were affected negatively by the strike but saw it as a chance to stand for labor rights.

An essential part of the “American Way” is the often pathological reverence for the individual. This reverence is what informs the myths that citizens live by and what they believe draws immigrants to its shores. After the events on September 11, 2001 in Manhattan and at the Pentagon, US residents were told those attacks occurred because of the freedoms s guaranteed to every American individual. When this emphasis on the individual is examined historically, one discovers that such freedoms were originally only for those individuals who owned property. Furthermore, since only white men were allowed to own property, it was only white men with property who were considered individuals worthy of individual liberty. Women, tenants, and other humans without property were not guaranteed much of anything. Furthermore, most humans of African descent in the US and parts of Europe were not even considered human, much less perceived as individuals.

Placing the rights of the individual above all has served US capitalists quite well. Besides the obvious favor the law usually grants property owners in environmental and other such disputes, there are the US Supreme Court decisions granting corporations the same rights as indivdual persons. The world has watched as these rights once only validwithin the borders of the United States have spread to the rest of the planet through trade agreements and organizations like the World Trade Organization. In addition, the domination of much of the world by US cultural phenomena have created a situation where humanity has internalized the consciousness prevalent in the US that makes the individual supreme. In other words, the element of the human psyche that demands selfishness and disregard for other humans is encouraged not only in the marketplace but also in that part of our lives where thoughtful and even spiritual considerations traditionally dominate.

That is what made the expressions of solidarity for the Burlington bus drivers even more remarkable. Those riders expressing said support understood quite well that a strike by drivers would inconvenience them in numerous ways. Yet, their support relayed an underlying comprehension that solidarity with one’s fellow humans often demands some kind of sacrifice. It is this understanding that is present in every strike, boycott, and direct action undertaken against those who would subvert our livelihoods in the name of their freedom.. It is this understanding that provides some hope for the human species.

Originally published in Torture: Asian and Global Perspectives, vol. 3, no. 1-2

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.