by Scott Jay
Every two to four years, we are told by the Democratic Party hangers-on that we are in the midst of the most important election of our life times. In cities like San Francisco and Chicago, which hold local elections on odd-numbered years, we are graced with the honor of hearing these arguments non-stop. The promise of many 2014 electoral campaigns, from minimum wage initiatives to left-leaning candidates, was that their work toward November could lay the basis for ongoing organizing. By the end of November, the invisibility of many of these forces was already plain to see.
For some of us, watching our fellow Leftists succumb to the pull of the graveyard of social movements after proudly resisting for so long meant that November 2014 really was the most important election of our lifetimes, and not in a good way. The saving grace for social movements in the US, though, is that while November 2014 began with some of the most disastrous and conniving lesser evilism by the most respected labor activists in the country, it ends with a nationwide mini-rebellion against the ongoing murder of young Black men by completely unaccountable police officers. This seemingly spontaneous eruption on the one hand and the ongoing collapse of labor Left into the Democratic Party on the other hand are not contradictory but rather two sides of the same coin.
The worst election of our lifetime
November 2014 opened with one of the most shocking political setbacks that the labor Left has seen in some time. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), for several years one of the leading lights of a labor movement stuck in concessionary bargaining and political back-room dealing, has for several years battled the Democratic Party machine in Chicago led by Rahm Emanuel. The CTU not only took up classroom issues outside the narrow bounds of wages and benefits but also social issues affecting ordinary Chicagoans. The widely popular 2012 teachers’ strike was only the highlight of these efforts.
That strike made CTU President Karen Lewis one of the most popular figures in Chicago, not to mention the national labor movement. Polls showing that she could beat Emanuel in a mayoral election moved her and her supporters to rapidly consider this option, which was halted due to a serious illness.
Within days, a contingency plan was in place that was shoved down the throats of the CTU membership. At a Halloween night dinner to honor supporters of teachers, Lewis appeared in a video to provide her endorsement of Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Cook County Commissioner who had announced his candidacy only four days earlier. Lewis’s statement, her first public appearance after brain surgery, was quite moving. But it also reeked of back-room deals and political patronage at the expense of rank-and-file democracy–which presumably was the purpose behind the election of her and her leadership team in the first place.
The entire event positioned the CTU as would-be kingmakers with Vice President Jesse Sharkey introducing Garcia as the “Next Mayor of Chicago”–before any CTU members had a chance to argue otherwise. It also produced a last ditch effort to re-elect Pat Quinn, another invited guest, as Governor of Illinois. This, in spite of Quinn and running mate Paul Vallas’s attacks on teachers and other public sector workers, was a sorry display of political wheeling and dealing.
The CTU endorsement of Quinn had little impact on the election as he lost to the “worser evil” Bruce Rauner. The Democrats across the board faced significant losses, in spite of labors efforts to get out the vote with minimum wage and other pro-worker initiatives. Yet, the CTU leadership continued their path undeterred.
The day after Quinn’s electoral defeat, the CTU House of Delegates agreed with Lewis and endorsed Garcia, but the lack of any time to seriously consider the alternatives in a process forced by the leadership, left many openly angered. Most notable has been George Schmidt, a former Chicago teacher and the publisher of Substance News, who has published several articles on the CTU endorsement debacle in comparison to the lengthy debate in 2010. Lewis’s star power sealed the deal, proving her stardom to be a double-edged sword that can both challenge Rahm Emanuel but also curtail rank-and-file democracy.
A CTU press release assured us that the endorsement was made through “an internal, democratic vetting process [by a ] committee comprised of rank-and-file teachers, paraprofessionals and school clinicians.” Many teachers would disagree. It also assured us that “Garcia has strongly endorsed an elected school board” whereas the current school board is appointed by the Mayor. In fact, the previous week Garcia gave lukewarm support to an elected school board, noting that “I’m more for an elected school board than against.”
The issue of an elected school board is now being taken up as a non-binding advisory referendum, so even if 100 percent of voters approve it there is no guarantee whatsoever that it will be implemented. These non-binding ballot initiatives are a blatant maneuver to bring people to the polls to elect politicians who will do nothing with their promises. This is made even more obvious by the fact that the effort is led by some of the same people who redirected the 2011 Wisconsin capitol occupation out of the streets and into a (failed) campaign to recall Governor Scott Walker, “raising $50 million along the way,” the Chicago Sun-Times noted..
This disastrous move by the CTU leadership to embrace the Democrats was not as sudden as it seemed, as Schmidt’s archives reveal. Yet it was a huge blow to the project of building a political alternative to the Democrats within the labor movement and exposes once again the folly of expecting Left union bureaucrats to lead the way. How this played out and how teachers continue to resist it has been well documented in a Labor Beat video worth watching for those interested in the whole story.
Nobody should take glee in this turn in events in CTU, as flawed as the effort may have been from the very beginning. Labor is in a desperate situation when its brightest hope shows such backtracking. There is, however, hope for working people who want to fight for their lives.
A rejection of the status quo
This came toward the end of the month with the announcement that Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for killing an unarmed young Black man, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. The rebellion that has erupted around the country was nearly as predictable as the announcement that a racist murderer would go scot free. We may not be at the heights of the massive urban rebellions of the 1960s, in particular after the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, but the widespread revolt is a rejection of a racist status quo. It is also a rejection of the politics of negotiating the terms of ones own surrender, as the US labor movement is so fond of doing. The contemporary political and labor organizations simply have failed to connect with the bitterness among broad layers of young people and who are rebelling as they see fit, regardless of what people tell them they should do.
It is also a rebellion that is showing itself as having grown stronger and more powerful over the years. Not only are the numbers larger since the response to George Zimmerman being found not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin just over a year ago, but the tactics have grown more bold and militant. This is seen not only in the number of fires set to buildings and cars in Ferguson–and these have been quite substantial–but in the tactic of shutting down bridges and freeways.
During the Zimmerman revolt, there was a loud and immediate outpouring, but the freeway shut downs were fewer and grew slowly. After a Los Angeles action took over Highway 10 the morning after the verdict, some were inspired to reproduce this same tactic, which briefly succeeded in Oakland and Houston, for example. Yet, this time around, this tactic was immediate and widespread. In Oakland, for example, there were at least two successful freeway shut downs within hours of the non-indictment announcement and at least two more the following night, not to mention at least a dozen other attempts as thousands of marcher played cat-and-mouse with vigilant police. In New York City, three bridges were shut down the second night but there were also freeway actions even in places like San Diego, Durham, North Carolina and Providence, Rhode Island.
For a march of a couple thousand people, shutting down a freeway or some other disruptive action is now simply the order of the day. This is not happening because there is some organization that has laid out a strategy of upping the ante, but rather the participants have simply chosen to up the ante themselves. Unfortunately, the organized Left is often more interested in getting in front of the stage with a bullhorn than in figuring out how to push the envelope on what is possible. These militant tactics are then left to relatively unorganized young people, many of whom really do have nothing to lose but their chains.
Which is not to say any of this is unorganized, or would not benefit from greater coordination and organizing structures. Those are being built as we speak, but largely from the ground up and not as part of some other ideological project.
The disparity between the bottom up rebellion of the oppressed and the top down deal making by professional activists was laid out quite well by one of the participants of last year’s Oakland protests. Describing the freeway action and other attempts at disruptive direct action, he noted how many want to keep their hands clean of messy urban rebellions:
None of these important moments would have been possible without the “chaos” that some commenters even on the traditional left have been quick to denigrate. One can only imagine the meek demonstrations that would have ensued if such voices had their way: one-day marches, rather than week long contestations of public space; chanting and speechifying instead of hours-long halts to business as usual; marches approved by liberal politicians and thus useless for pointing out their own complicity in the economic and police violence assaulting communities of color. In short, everything we’ve come to accept as the usual profile of powerless political activism.
A CNN poll released just before the verdict noted that 22% of non-whites and 10% of whites believed that “violent protests are justified” if Wilson was not indicted. This may not be the basis for electing the next union president but it is certainly the basis for widespread traffic blockades. This is one reason why the sudden revolt has been far more explosive, disruptive and destabilizing to the capitalist system than years of official labor organizing, even if it is unlikely to continue indefinitely.
There is really no reason why there cannot be a merger between the struggles of those fighting in their workplace and those rebelling against police repression. No reason, except for the ongoing efforts of those paid full-time to assure that this sort of thing does not disrupt their media-savvy strategy of winning favor with those in power.
For example,there was some very positive moves by the St. Louis Fight for 15 group, Show Me 15, to actively support the rebellion once it broke out in Ferguson, where they had been organizing. This included mobilizing their supporters to protest the police the day after the shooting as well as protesting the presence of the National Guard nine days later. This meant taking on a real, “non-labor” issue that deeply affected the workers involved in the campaign. Unfortunately, Show me 15 would later go out of their way to demobilize their members’ involvement in the campaign.
Just a month after the killing of Michael Brown, a nationwide day of action for fast food workers was held but without any activity in Ferguson. “Organizers say workers have decided to skip St. Louis ‘with deference to the community of Ferguson and the desire for peace after recent events,’” reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The workers were sent to support actions in other cities instead, even though “[t]he Ferguson McDonald’s on West Florissant Avenue was among the frequent St. Louis area targets of earlier fast-food strikes. That restaurant is near the scene of last month’s protests of the police killing of Michael Brown.”
Quite a few Democratic Party aligned forces have been working to put Ferguson back to “normal”–the racial status quo that led to Michael Brown’s murder–since the rebellion broke out. It is a shame that Show Me 15 has helped in this effort. In fact, they could have played a role, as they briefly began to, that could link the battle of fast-food workers with the battle against police brutality, a battle that many of their members face every day. They could have prepared to walk off the job if Wilson was not indicted, as some of their members may have done spontaneously anyway. This would not have been unprecedented as many area schools canceled classes in advance of the announcement. Nurses earlier in November held a strike and national day of action, which they somewhat disingenuously claimed was related to the appearance of the ebola virus in the US. A walkout against the indictment would have held far more resonance to fast-food workers and the community at large.
Striking against police terror would have been well timed and well received, unlike the calls for a “general strike” that go out regularly and arbitrarily among some Leftists. However, it would not have fit the strategy of using worker mobilizations to get legislation passed through Congress and local state capitols.
A glimpse of the possibilities could be seen with the various Walmart actions on Black Friday in the St. Louis area, which saw tense confrontations between protesters and police with some stores temporarily shut down, including one closed with the protection of the National Guard. No doubt, the ongoing rebellion had an impact on these actions and the participants could not help but make the links between these issues in their politics and their tactics. This confluence of worker organizing and anti-police rebellion was more a happy accident than a planned response which will not likely be repeated in the near future, unfortunately.
Instead, the most militant actions carried out at fast food joints involved smashing up and looting the local Starbuck’s or Subway. This should not be lamented–these are legitimate expressions of political dissent by people who live in a society that will allow them to be shot down in the streets by racist cops with no accountability. The only lament is that there is not more ongoing solidarity to support their cause from official channels who could spread their rebellion rather than just issue press releases.
Nonetheless, their cause is spreading, not by waiting for the right people to support them but by insisting that they be heard. And if official channels do not listen and take action, the millions of Michael Browns and Trayvon Martins and Oscar Grants will take it themselves, as they have been doing spectacularly. If there is eventually a merger between workplace organizing and the struggle against state repression, it will not be coordinated from above but as a result of the fact the future grave diggers of the racist, neoliberal social order are no longer willing to quietly abide by it.