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Unions, Trade and Nationalism

A recent statement from the AFL-CIO regarding a rejection of NAFTA and other corporate/globalist trade agreements unfortunately only skims the surface of the issues working people face.

As the dominate union leadership in America, the AFL-CIO and its member unions need to take a deeper look at their historical behavior, and their role in enabling the evolution of the corporate state with its current right wing/anti labor swing.

American unions never were interested in taking responsibility for production. American unions developed to confront management but not to replace it. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was the only organization that tried to organize horizontally across all sectors to create a “new world in the shell of the old”. The vision of workers building a society where prosperity was available to all and artificial class barriers would dissolve was never a popular theme in American labor. We have always felt that we needed the owners, agreeing at least subliminally that capital has more power than basic human needs; that human weakness, pettiness, and laziness would wreck any sort of money-free effort to exchange services; that hierarchies of wages and benefits were natural and that those at the bottom were there due to their own fault.

The evolution of trade unions cemented in place these hierarchies, leaving the least skilled workers unorganized until the CIO attempted to fill the need while organizing mine workers and African Americans during the Great depression. . The following era of war-induced prosperity, and the ongoing economic expansion during the Cold War, created a phony, unsustainable sense of American prosperity for a growing middle class, where 5% of the world’s population consumed 80% of its resources. The AFL-CIO was active in this period wrecking third world union organizing attempts as a front for a CIA run, right-wing sponsored, American style Imperialism. On the home front, a rising middle class of workers were happy to build low quality products, for good wages, as the disposable society offered an endless supply of the “latest” consumer goods. Conspicuous consumption and keeping up with the Jones’s did not include the working poor or the third world.

The rug was pulled out from under the middle class when post WWII American Exceptionalism allowed a “guns and butter” attempt by corporate liberals to intervene in a class war in Vietnam without making the sacrifice of paying for it directly. The cost was passed on through record breaking inflation, which combined with the social disruptions of the civil rights, anti war, feminist, and environmental movements to open the door for a right wing backlash that we see reaching its zenith today. The unions of the 60s and 70s were not liberal, they fought the anti-war movements in the streets. They were to a large degree segregationist and anti-feminist. No ideal of a world-wide working peoples movement existed in the leadership. In fact, as the right-to-work movement developed, parasitic efforts to steal jurisdiction from other unions often supplanted organizing efforts to bring in new members to grow the ranks at large.

At root of the problem is a missing American vision of where we are going as a society. Our mythos is wrapped up in conquering the “wild” lands, inhabited by people we don’t respect or understand, whom we can push out of the way. Those days are over, but something really important is missing. By conflating freedom and capitalism we accept the idea that planning is the road to totalitarianism; when in fact allowing capital markets to determine the shape of our world opens the door to the worst form of totalitarianism: the oligarchy that destroys even the pretense of freedom, and ignores the long term in favor of the quick and easy. Unions should have a much greater say in operations and a seat at the table for all planning. As the implementers of the plan, workers have the expertise to develop best practices, and as the consumers we offer not only demand for the production, but also suffer the results of poor decisions. Purchasing “cheaper” items from a big box store that underpays it workers costs us in taxes for their benefits and their inability to contribute to the commonwealth, just as “cheap” natural gas costs us in unchecked chemical pollution of our water tables, and methane leaks that threaten all of our previous gains in CO2 reductions. We can have big box stores, and we can have energy, but as educated consumers we need to see that prices cover actual costs. We need to see our daily effort as workers add up to solving our communities’ problems. Unions, operating in an international framework, offer a better platform to empower us than political parties do.

The influence of corporate money in politics has destroyed the Democratic Party’s ability to support a strong labor movement. The Republican Party’s 80 year effort to rip apart the social fabric created in the New Deal has made them forever the enemy of working people. Their recent success in hoodwinking blue collar Americans only underlines the weakness of the Democrats and their ‘partners” in Labor. The “99%” should be able to run away with every election, but the divisions of class and race in America are the symptoms of a deeper lack of self awareness that manifests itself in the propaganda of materialism and individual narcissism. Our cultural solidarity rises up only in crisis, and it is easily directed to do the bidding of the 1%.

We have not yet been able to agree on America’s role in the world. The post WWII “policeman of the world” has always been a myth. Policemen keep the peace by administering agreed on laws. Instead of acting as policemen, separating factions and preventing genocide, (such as we were loathe to do in Rwanda between the Tutsi’s and Hutu’s) our interventions have supported the worst dictators in a “1984 style” series of revolving boogeymen. Today Saddam is our ally, tomorrow he’ll be the enemy. Today we pay Osama to build Tora Bora, tomorrow we will use bunker busters to destroy it. Our labor unions support our military adventures because they make jobs at home, and support the lifestyle we have decided we deserve, regardless of the cost to other peoples or the environment. An international approach would bring our troops home, offer assistance when and where needed, and free up the tremendous waste of people and materials to develop better lives for all. How do we pay for universal health care, education, the 35 hour week, and affordable housing? We stop the military madness, so aptly described by President Eisenhower in his Military-Industrial Complex speech, and invest in peace with an educated workforce that receives a living wage.

We need to develop a new consensus that will allow a transition to a sustainable economy that protects the eosystem while offering full employment and a wide array of social benefits. Union organizing needs to go beyond individual trades protecting their piece of the current production. We need to fight for the rights and the power to steer the ship of state into calmer waters. The climate change expressway is approaching a cliff. Instead of building more lanes we need to build off ramps. The political swing to coal supports 50,000 dirty jobs and is not competitive when all the costs are calculated. The switch to alternative energy supports hundreds of thousands of union scale jobs and offers a future. Unions can no longer be blind to the differences.

The idea that protecting American jobs is a zero sum game with the emerging economies of the former third world is false. We need to get rid of the neo-liberal/corporate manipulation of the world’s economic system, stop using the military to impose it, and develop consensus that a sustainable economy offers peace and prosperity to everyone. Unions need to take the lead. Individuals can only do so much and the politicians won’t.

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