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As we near the end of November, Meg is returning from the bargaining table, and I am about to take off for union meetings in Ottawa, with a fresh tattoo on my arm of the IWW sabocat – symbol of the wildcat strike and industrial sabotage.

I won’t write much myself today, but instead want to take a moment to remember our martyrs of the struggle – those few names we know, and those countless others in un-marked graves or left by the side of the road. They are in all times, in all countries, in all struggles, so what is here is only the smallest remembrance.

The IWW has long marked Red November, Black November – an occassion to recall all of those killed by state and capital – because that month, particularly, is the anniversary of some of the most notable murders, among them:

Nov. 22, 1886 – Thibodaux Massacre. Dozens of striking Louisiana sugar workers massacred. Newspapers of the day note, “Lame men and blind women shot. Children and hoary-headed grandsires ruthlessly swept down! The Negros offered no resistance, they could not as the killing was unexpected.”

Nov. 11, 1887 – The Haymarket Executions. Four leaders of the campaign for the 8-hour day in Chicago, Illinois, are executed by the state.  Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engle, and Adolph Fischer, whose struggles and murders are commemorated in the mural that is reproduced as the banner of this blog.

Nov. 19, 1915 – Murder of Joe Hill.  IWW organizer and author of countless labour songs and poems, Joe Hill is executed by the State of Utah on a trumped-up murder charge that even the US president of the day, Woodrow Wilson, didn’t swallow.

Nov. 5, 1916 – The Everett Massacre. Cops and deputies kill 11 Wobblies when they open fire on a peaceful crowd of 200 attempting to dock at Everett, Washington, for a free speech fight.

Nov. 11, 1919 – IWW organizer Wesley Everest, arrested after a confrontation between Wobs and Legionnaires,  is taken from his cell, castrated, and hung beneath a railway bridge. After his death, his body is riddled with bullets and returned to the jail to be laid on display as a warning to the other Wobs in custody.

November. A time to remember struggle and resistance, and captured by another Wobbly songwriter and poet, Ralph Chaplin:

Red November, black November,
Bleak November, black and red.
Hallowed month of labor’s martyrs,
Labor’s heroes, labor’s dead.

Labor’s wrath and hope and sorrow,
Red the promise, black the threat,
Who are we not to remember?
Who are we to dare forget?

Black and red the colors blended,
Black and red the pledge we made,
Red until the fight is ended,
Black until the debt is paid.

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Mavericks

Normally I write here about whatever’s on my mind. But this piece from the New York Times, following on the heels of the US Vice Presidential Debate and the Palin-McCain deployment of that age-old strategy to seize the populist imagination – however much of a stretch – deserves to be read. And not only because of the election. Actually, not even particularly because of the election. More interesting, in my opinion, is the origin of the word and the light it shines on a little corner of history. I like words, I Iike radicals, I like the ways strugglers and resisters capture the imagination and become part of our cultural landscape. And I always feel a little jolt of excitement when something like this comes along and gives me another little glimpse in something forgotten.

New York Times October 5, 2008

Who You Callin’ a Maverick?

By John Schwartz

There’s that word again: maverick. In Thursday’s vice-presidential debate,
Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, the Republican candidate, used it to describe
herself and her running mate, Senator John McCain, no fewer than six times,
at one point calling him “the consummate maverick.”

But to those who know the history of the word, applying it to Mr. McCain is
a bit of a stretch – and to one Texas family in particular it is even a bit
offensive.

“I’m just enraged that McCain calls himself a maverick,” said Terrellita
Maverick, 82, a San Antonio native who proudly carries the name of a family
that has been known for its progressive politics since the 1600s, when an
early ancestor in Boston got into trouble with the law over his agitation
for the rights of indentured servants.

In the 1800s, Samuel Augustus Maverick went to Texas and became known for
not branding his cattle. He was more interested in keeping track of the land
he owned than the livestock on it, Ms. Maverick said; unbranded cattle,
then, were called “Maverick’s.” The name came to mean anyone who didn’t bear
another’s brand.

Sam Maverick’s grandson, Fontaine Maury Maverick, was a two-term congressman
and a mayor of San Antonio who lost his mayoral re-election bid when
conservatives labeled him a Communist. He served in the Roosevelt
administration on the Smaller War Plants Corporation and is best known for
another coinage. He came up with the term “gobbledygook” in frustration at
the convoluted language of bureaucrats.

This Maverick’s son, Maury Jr., was a firebrand civil libertarian and lawyer
who defended draft resisters, atheists and others scorned by society. He
served in the Texas Legislature during the McCarthy era and wrote fiery
columns for The San Antonio Express-News. His final column, published on
Feb. 2, 2003, just after he died at 82, was an attack on the coming war in
Iraq.

Terrellita Maverick, sister of Maury Jr., is a member emeritus of the board
of the San Antonio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

Considering the family’s long history of association with liberalism and
progressive ideals, it should come as no surprise that Ms. Maverick insists
that John McCain, who has voted so often with his party, “is in no way a
maverick, in uppercase or lowercase.”

“It’s just incredible – the nerve! – to suggest that he’s not part of that
Republican herd. Every time we hear it, all my children and I and all my
family shrink a little and say, ‘Oh, my God, he said it again.’ ”

“He’s a Republican,” she said. “He’s branded.”

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Last evening Mica and I went down to the local Neighbourhood House to check out their new community gathering – a movie and potluck the last Monday of each month. Tonight’s feature – The Wizard of Oz. Now, as I’m sure we all have, I’ve seen this movie countless times. But tonight was interesting, because I watched the film with new eyes for a number of reasons.

First, this summer Mica and I went to visit my brother David, who lives in Queens, New York. Mica’s been keen to see New York City, and among the must-dos we identified was a Broadway show. Our choice? Wicked, based on Gregory Mcguire’s simply fantastic novel about the back-story to that most infamous of villains, the Wicked Witch of the West. The musical’s a good show – lots of fun and worth seeing. But the book is just fucking incredible. The Wizard is a dictator, using political manipulation, Nazi-esque scape-goating, a network of spies and naked military force to bring the previously-autonomous regions which comprise Oz under his control. The woman we all know as the Witch is Elphaba – a strong-willed young girl who bit by bit begins to uncover just what the Wiz is up to, and enters into a life underground – her mentor an outspoken academic critic assasinated by Oz’ right-hand woman, her lover a freedom-fighter murdered by the Wizard’s guard, her teachers in all things spiritual and ‘witchy’ an ancient order of holy women increasingly self-cloistered to protect themselves and their knowledge. It’s a brilliant novel which not only delves deep into the ways that states manufacture consent to the poiint that governing myths become simply ‘culture’ but which manages to tell a damn-good story too. Needless to say, read through Wicked and you’ll never see the Oz story the same again.

But that’s just the start. A few years back I was in Chicago for a union conference, and went on a fantastic labour history tour that included some awesome mural projects, Haymarket Square – site of the events that inspired the banner at the top of this blog – and the home of Chicago’s Evening Post, the newspaper that employed Oz author Frank L. Baum.

This in a labour history tour? Yup. And why that was appropriate came out in a long story told by the tour leader, based on a thesis that’s been kicking around academic and political circles for a number of years: that The Wizard of Oz is much more than a kids’ story – it’s a parable about America, industrialization, and the political economy of financial markets. Now, whether this is indeed the case is widely-debated. But a concensus begins to be emerging that whether Baum intended the book as such or not is largely irrelevant at this stage. Increasing numbers of people read Oz as a story of nation-building and struggle, and so it means that now, whatever the original vision of its author. OK. That’s a logic I understand, and one I appreciate. So, making no claims to historical truth, here’s the myth that keeps growing in a nutshell.

The whole thing is a parable about the debate over the gold standard. The value of US currency was pegged to gold, whose small world supply was controlled by a small group of bankers and financiers. In the 1890s, a substantial political movement – represented most notably by William Jennings Bryan  – sought to have the dollar pegged to silver, which was plentiful in the American West, in hopes that this might break the political-economic power of the financial elite and give greater clout to the broader mass of the population. At the time, many of the characters and symbols we associate with the Oz story were common devices in editorial cartoons and popular media, representing specific figures or ideas of political import. So, what to us appear products of Baum’s imagination were widely understood in that time as something else entirely.

The cyclone was a common symbol of political upheaval and social revolution at the time, figuring prominently in many a political cartoon.

The Scarecrow is the politically-naive farmer, his common-sense knowledge increasingly eschewed in favour of the bullshit spewing from economists and bankers.

The Tin Woodsman is the industrial worker – alienated, dehumanized, reduced to a cog in the machine.

The Cowardly Lion is Jennings Bryan himself, talking a good game but never willing to go far enough to force the confrontation with big finance that is necessary.

The Wicked Witch represents the money-elite of the West, foreclosing on farmers and destroying the agricultural heart of America. And she is defeated, of course, by water – the rains being the primary protection for small farmers for whom drought so often preceded the eviction notice.

The Wizard himself, of course, is the political manipulator – no individual as much as the machine that is the political system.

The Yellow Brick Road is the gold standard. And where does it lead but the Emerald City, which represents the dollar, and is fundamentally a place of all style and no substance – an imaginaed wealth which has nothing of real value behind it.

And Dorothy? The Everyman/ Everywoman, just trying to make her way in the world. What’s critical here, though, is the slippers. We all immediately fly to images of the ruby shoes, but that was a device of the movie. In the book, Dorothy wears silver slippers – representing, of course, the silver standard proposal at the heart of Jennings Bryan;s campaign, and the only thing that can safely carry America through this land that is all magic and mystification.

Oh, and Oz as title? That’s something we still see today, in gold and cookbooks – shorthand for ‘ounce’.

Again, is all this true? Who knows. Frank L. Baum always maintained that The Wizard of Oz was just a children’s story. But he was a reporter, he fell on the Jennings side of the gold-silver debate, and in later books he was known to mention political figures by name and go hardcore on the offense against massive institutions like Standard Oil. But really, at this stage it just don’t matter. The metaphor is there. It’s been debated extensively, and has taken on a life of its own. Cause books are as much about the readers as the writer.

Well, with all that in the back of my mind, what better day to see The Wizard of Oz again than on a day filled with news about the financial crisis in the States and the House of Representative’s rejection of a $700 billion bailout package for the speculators behind said crisis. As I sit down to the film, all this other Oz-related stuff comes floating back to me, and all I can think about is how much of an Oz-like moment we’re watching unfold. The great Wizard huffs and puffs and casts about for the right combination of smoke and excuses to hide his complete and total failure; the political-economic crisis is mystified as some unforeseen bit of black magic rather than the structural crisis that it is; the screen comes down and the bankruptcy of the market is laid bare for all to see, but so far there’s no Scarecrow to state so plainly, ‘You’re nothing but a humbug!”

Capitalism is fucking amazing. Every few years a crisis. And every few years a state steps in to declare that nothing’s really fundamentally wrong, it’s just a little tweaking, just a little ‘tighten-your-belts-and-pull-up-your-bootstraps’ and somehow, with the smoke and mirrors and flashing lights of ‘freedom freedom freedom’ the state helps capital to pull itself back from the the precipice. Morally bankrupt. Politically-illigitimate. Economically-disastrous. Ecologically-murderous. But that great founding myth, that one that tells us the invisible-hand is some infallible Wizard, that cities of emeralds are worth the sacrifice of munchkins in the fields, that the glory of the state is somehow the glory of us all – it keeps ticking on.

Capital, like Oz, is all about mystification and sleight of hand. That’s the very nature of the market – to mask the real relations of labour and coercion, of theft and murder, in this oh-so-natural exchange of money. You kill some people and take their stuff. You put them to work to feed themselves. And their children go to work. And their children go to work. And after a while no one remembers anymore that this process of going to work to get some cash to buy some food so you can wake up the next day and go back to work – all this began with killing some people and taking their stuff, and that the exchange of money for work is just the carrying on of that same theft and violence by other means. It’s really quite brilliant, really quite magical, how it all works. Cause after a time, all that was stolen appears earned. All these relations of power appear to be timeless and natural. And the real history vanishes in a haze of new explanations magicked out of the air.

When Dorothy and her friends reach the Emerald City, and finally get their audience with Oz, he thunders at them: “I intend to grant your requests. But first you must prove yourselves worthy.”

And this is indeed capital’s primary message of obfuscation. Everything is possible. Everything is attainable. If you can’t find a job that pays more than minimum wage, if you can’t afford to go to school, if you can’t feed your kids, if the bank forecloses on your home – it’s all down to you. You have not proven yourself worthy. And this, in turn, engenders a culture of delusion-inspired risk. A culture than breeds pyramid schemes, get-rich-quick scams, gambling and the stock market. Cause if you haven’t made it, there’s only two explanations. Either it’s your own damn fault cause you just ain’t good enough, or your horse hasn’t come in yet, and it’s only a matter of time. It can be, it must be, just around the corner. It is magic – it just happens, it will just happen, it must just happen, cause the only other option is to admit that I’m the one to blame for my own improverishment. It’s a mass brainwashing, the greatest of behaviour modification programs.

But every now and then….every once in a while, something happens that belies that notion. Something happens to knock down the screen, and the cracks in the foundation become so apparent, so naked, that it becomes possible to see something else. That maybe it’s not all down to individual failure. That maybe there is something bigger that’s wrong. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a systemic problem here. Maybe, just maybe, there’s something amiss with that great myth we’ve been living by.

And that’s what I’m watching these days. I’m watching the cracks in the order. I’m watching the eyes open up and the fingers start to point and the folks waiting for the bus talking and considering that maybe this ain’t their fault after all. I’m watching the screen go down, and we’re in that moment where Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion pause and look at each other, and begin to wonder if this little old man really is the Wizard he’s claimed, or if instead it is all humbug indeed. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is what’s the most fascinating and the most hopeful.

Will a second round of bailout talks save Oz for another day? I have no doubt. Indeed, Dorothy et al decide, after a few moments, to let the myth live on, and they take tjheir trinkets and smile and thank the Wiz and he floats off into the sky and everything goes back to normal again. Perhaps. Perhaps that is how the story ends. But, once again, how the story ends is only half of it. Cause it’s as much about the readers as the writer. And some readers remember. And as I know from my own experiences with Wicked and with that labour tour in Chicago, some readers never read a story quite the same way again.

Whatever happens, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

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Been a couple of days since I’ve managed to write here – not for lack of interest or lack of things to talk about, but simply because it’s gotten pretty damn busy all of a sudden. Tons of cases on my desk at work, preparing to enter collective bargaining for a first agreement with my employer, and – likely the biggest factor – I have been trying to get myself some regular exercise for the first time in a couple of years.

On that front, it’s all good. Did some early morning runs to start, but on the weekend Meg introduced me to the idea of the gym. Never actually set foot in one before, and had no idea what to expect. But I did find that the elliptical trainer, the rowing machine, and the stationary bike are all entirely manageable, and that doing exercise this way, moving between machines, I am able to go for 45 minutes or an hour as opposed to the fifteen minute run I was managing. So, feeling pretty damn proud of myself, and actually starting to enjoy the time each day to get a workout and listen to Dragonforce, Iron Maiden, Slayer or whatever else pops up on the MP3 player.

On top of this, I finally have been sent the author’s proofs for an article on the historical development of the trade union and the limitations of union structure and strategy for current struggles – an article that is now four years old, whose citations as a result appear far less current than they should, and which would likely be written quite differently were I to do it today. But alas, this is simply a reality of academic publishing – delays like this between submission and publication are not uncommon. At least it provides for a bit of change from the grievance work that normally takes my time, and gives my brain a little refresher in academic-think, which is nice every now and then…(but only every now and then!).

So, here I am now with just a few short minutes between meetings – not long enough to put together a proper post on anything, but sufficient for a really quick run-down of what’s been occupying my time and a historical review of the day.

Today is September 24. And it was ninety years ago today that the Industrial Workers of the World was declared illegal in Canada. This I’d known, as tonight is a local IWW meeting which I’m having to miss to attend a parent thing at Mica’s school. But I punched the search into google in order to have a moment to think back on the wobs of that time, the role they played in organizing workers and in opposing the war. And in so doing, I found one of those sites that always intrigues me – a daily recap of historical events and anniversaries.

Remembering is important. Memory shapes us, shapes our interactions with the world around, our expecations, our fears and our hopes. So, flowing from remembrance of the criminalization of radical unions and this article on my desk that needs a final edit, here’s just a taste of things worth remembering today.

1794 – US President George Washington sends in the militia to crush the Whiskey Rebellion. A protest-turned-insurrection in response to taxation on distillers – a tax that disproportionately hit small producers while allowing large, wealthier folks to pay a flat fee – the Whiskey Rebellion marked the first time under the US constitution that the government deployed its military power against its citizens. (Remembering, of course, that state violence against indigenous populations and slaves had a long and active history, but that these folks were not “citizens”.)

1862 – Suspension of habeas corpus in the US, resulting in the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of some 18,000 ‘subversives’ and peace activists over the next four years.

1869 – Black Friday – certainly worth remembering in light of the financial crisis currently rocking the US. On this day in 1869 panic sent the US financial system into freefall after speculators sought to corner a gold market which was backed by nothing but credit. One of the central players was robber-baron Jay Gould, famous for his proud assertion, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”

1918 – As noted above, Canada decalres the IWW a criminal organization, membership drawing jail terms of up to five years.

1953 – 23 American soldiers taken as prisoners by Korea during the Korean War refuse to be repatriated to the US, stating, “under present conditions in America, the voices of those who speak out for peace and freedom are rapidly being silenced. We do not intend to give the American government a chance of silencing our voices too.”

1968 – Mexican troops attack protesting university students, killing seventeen.

1969 – Trial begins of the Chicago Seven (initially eight, before Black Panther Bobby Seale was severed from the case and sentenced to four years for contempt). These were the folks, including Yippies Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, accused of conspiracy and inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago (noted in a previous post here about folksinger and fellow convention-disrupter Phil Ochs).

1994 – Protesters disrupt the celebrations for the fiftieth anniversary of the IMF and the World Bank in Washington, DC.

Hmmm. Not bad as days in history go. Lots to recall, lots to ponder, lots to remind us that as much as these same battles face us today, it’s just as true that folks keep on struggling, keep on resisting, and that resistance continues to educate and inspire.

And with that…back to the grievance files. Sigh.

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We look out the hotel window over the Plains of Abraham, the St. Lawrence loping along one side, three-hundred year-old cathedrals and row houses jostling with chain restaurants along the other.

I arrived a few hours before my luggage last night, early enough to meet Megan after her first day of union convention and have a drink and appies with PSAC folks from across the country before heading off in search of dinner. We skipped the tourist ‘hood for Cartier Street, its line of bistros and bars serving a primarily-local clientele. Lovely dinner of scallops and prawns and venison, and we are so happy to be in Quebec! And then, a little pub where we find a quiet, dark nook to start our drinks, soon to be joined by a few older and drunker Quebec nationalists who recognize our spot as the prime place to smoke some hash.

What follows is a couple of hours of laughter and ranting in three languages – Spanish being the one we revert too when their decent English and our pitiful French fail us entirely, and hand gestures won’t do. What you expect from an alcohol-fueled conversation – some knee-slapping and sex-talk, some work and personal stories, some jokes and well-intentioned slurs. And frequent trips into nationalism and Canada and the ongoing fascism of the English, initially to let us know our place, but increasingly as the night goes on to bond over, as these two Anglos seem somewhat sympathetic to the cause.

Yup. A good first night in this town, spent in exactly the way we wanted, far from the crowds here for the McDonald’s and Celine Dion version of 400-year celebrations.

And this morning, a breakfast of good strong coffee and mounds of fresh fruit, leading Meg off to another day of resolutions and interventions and votes, leading me off to the Plains of Abraham with a notebook and a fresh pack of smokes.

I don’t normally write here the sometimes-stream-of-consciousness, sometimes-poetry ramblings that fill my Moleskine, but today I can think of no better way to capture what’s in my mind. And so..

It couldn’t be more grey without rains

But the Jardin Jeanne D’Arc bursts with fragrances yellow and violet.

Mostly, though, there is the orange-red of fire in these beds,

Each petal licking at my fingers where I scribble.

Somewhere here those farmers, furriers, fishers

On whose throats stood Montcalm and Wolfe

Lie scattered together, arms and legs and bits of steel

In this dry, dark earth.

Yes, one statue reaches past her puberty here.

Yes, one table invites us to recall that fascism makes a country more than any railroad.

But more than that, it’s something in the maple taps and the sweet sticky syrup on snow

That still tastes of blood

Thick like history, salt like our three oceans.

The bees know.

Fidgeting and flitting in the yellows and violets,

They find their rest and their nectars in the oranges and reds.

The bees know what grows these Plains of Abraham.

The bees know who nurtures and how.

The bees tend to deeper memory.

Yeah, not great poetry, but it’s a pretty accurate picture of my head-space in this place this morning.

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In 1973 my parents returned to BC from a two-year CUSO stint in Nigeria, three young boys in tow. In one step up from the lumber mills of Vancouver Island, my dad found work in Kitimat, working a white collar job for a  major mining company. My mom jumped into political work on Africa, beginning with the community she knew best – the Catholic Church.

 

We didn’t last long in Kitimat. Mom wrangled an opportunity to speak at the church about our experiences in Africa, and closed off with a statement to the effect that the church was the whore of imperialism. In her view, this was just good Christianity; but the congregation, and the local church leadership, evidently took a different view. The Greens left town.

 

We didn’t, however, leave the church. For the next 15 years, mom and dad worked and organized through Catholic networks to foster what became widely known in the 80s as liberation theology. This was anti-capitalist, anti-racist, feminist work. This made common cause with revolutionaries in Latin America, Africa, southeast Asia. This was a church with close links to armed resistance movements. It was a church that took seriously the Christian command to be among the poor. But if it was revolutionary movement, it was one built on the Church, with a strict moral code, disdain for meaningless pleasure-seeking, and within which the greatest were those who articulated no desires, no needs, but submitted every moment and every day to service, and – ultimately – who died for their comrades.

 

But the church-based activists were not alone in their articulation of revolution as duty, as a dour activity of sacrifice and self-denial. A long-standing communist tradition articulated similar values, condemning the self-indulgence of drink, drugs, leisure, sex. No rest til the revolution was a motto equally shared by Catholics and Communists in this struggle.

 

I recall finding a copy of Jerry Rubin’s Do It! on my parents’ bookshelf sometime in the mid 1980s. I was appalled by the anarchy and depravity, by the idea that these white kids somehow thought they could make a revolution without hard work, somehow thought that sex and booze and sleep and music constitute some anti-capitalist potential. I scoffed, I dismissed, and I turned my disdain on every kid in my highschool who got stoned at lunch – quietly condemning them as petit-bourgeois party-makers whose indulgence was paid for by those in Guatemala, Salvador, the Phillipines and Angola who were too busy fighting to worry about when they’d next get laid.

 

But something stayed with me from Do It!, and if I never really bought the Yippies wholesale, I certainly retained some sense that that period of time – 1968–1973 – was important. Across continents, across sectors of populaton, across ideologies, this five-year period witnessed an incredible explosion of struggle, debate, experimentation, creativity, in which conservatism was as much a feature of left parties and trade unions as it was of the Nixons, Goldwaters and Kissingers.

 

The turning-point for me was ‘work’ vs ‘zerowork’. In the post-cold-war world, as I was determined to hold the line against class-neutral post-modernisms, I found that few of the old left publishing-houses still had anything to say, and the bulk of academic work on marxism consisted of confessionals from former believers and left versions of Thatcher’s ‘there is no alternative’. Stunned at the ease with which old Marxists jumped ship, I joined up with an eclectic reading group of SFU faculty and graduate students who were exploring a post-socialist class theory. Mike was the most orthodox of the bunch, but willing to read and debate marginal traditions so long as they didn’t cross the bounds into anarchism. Julian, Dorothy and Bob had more libertarian communist backgrounds, and brought forward literature from the Situationists and certain critical post-structuralists – Deleuze, Guattari, Foucault. And Conrad, who offered the meeting space and coffee for these gatherings, fed us on old mimeographed broadsheets poorly-translated from the Italian, CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya.

 

For two years we read and debated and discussed. I re-read my Marx, and thought about the centrality of labour rather than specific forms of property. I followed the critique of development as a concept, and the anti-growth, anti-economy writings of radical ecologists. I explored the repressive history of socialism, from Krondstadt sailors to North Korean schools. i examined the Sino-Soviet split, the Stalin-Trotsky war, the fracturing of the European communist parties after 1968. And I began my MA research on Cuba, attempting to make sense of that county’s socialism from two distinct perspectives – a pragmatic, distribution-based analysis, and another more deconstructive approach, which looked at strategies for social order and technologies for labour discipline.

 

And it suddenly made sense to me what I’d heard from my friend Athene when we studied together in Cuba – how that revolution makes socialists of anarchists, and anarchists of socialists. And as I returned to that island to conduct interviews for my thesis, I left my University of Havana guest housing for a bed with a cleaning woman and sometime black-marketeer. And instead of speaking of western imperialism to Communist Party representatives, I spoke about the contradiction between equality and tourist-only zones with heavy-metal kids in Havana suburbs. And instead of going to the official film festival, I drank rum and danced with drag-queens and practitioners of african magic in loud, cramped dance-halls.

 

And piece by piece, as Cubans taught me that the work of socialism requires that on occasion one gets a little lit up and flirts or fucks; and as trannies taught me that crossing the boundaries is important and a new generation of revolutionary and playful feminists advised I get out of the books and dance, I began to see the relationship between Jerry Rubin and the disintegration of the left – cause even if those Yippies were just spoiled white kids looking for thrills, could I honestly say I was any different? And who wants a revolution just to work more? Isn’t the whole point to dismantle this imposed labour, this growth-economy? And whose interest does restraint really serve, anyway?

 

Celebration and play were starting to look real revolutionary. And if the 1868-1973 rebellions didn’t leave us books and books on a new revolutionary theory, they did leave us something even more important – a lesson in play, which carried within it a complete re-thinking of social analysis, of organization, of resistance, of revolution, and of power.

 

Don’t know exactly why I’m thinking of all this today. Most likely it has something to do with Chris, a dear dear friend of mine who lives on the other side of the country, but who just dropped me an email about a radical gathering in the US where he finally met the Conrad I have so often spoken about. Likely it’s also cause as I’ve been singing with Megan I’ve been thinking alot about Phil Ochs – post on him one day soon – who together with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman tried to run a pig for president and was arrested at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Then again, maybe it’s just cause things pop up every now and then. Really, doesn’t matter why. I’m just thinking – thinking of history, thinking of the left, thinking of struggle, thinking of what freedom means.

 

I’ll end with this image of that time in struggle, from Len Bracken’s Guy Debord, Revolutionary:

 

One truly amazing aspect of May ’68 was the way the protest encircled the globe: Saturday May 11, 50,000 students and workers marched on Bonn, and 3,000 protesters in Rome; on May 14, students occupied the University of Milan; a sit-in at the University of Miami on May 15; scuffles at a college in Florence on May 16; a red flag flew for three hours at the University of Madrid on the 17th; and the same day, 200 black students occupied the administration buildings of Dower University; on May 18 protests flared up in Rome, and more in Madrid where barricades and clashes with the police occurred; on May 19, students in Berkeley were arrested; a student protest in New York; an attack on an ROTC center in Baltimore – the old world seemed to be on the ropes.
On May 20, Brooklyn College was occupied by blacks, and occupations took place the next day at the University of West Berlin. On May 22, police broke through barricades at Columbia University. The University of Frankfurt and the University of Santiago were occupied on May 24. Protests in Vancouver and London in front of the French Embassy on May 25. On Monday May 27, university and high school students went on strike in Dakar. Protests by peasants in Belgium on May 28. On May 30, students in Munich protested, as did students in Vienna the next day. On June 1, protests spread to Denmark and Buenos Aires. The next day the Yugoslav insurrection began. In Brasil, 16,000 students went on strike on June 6, followed by a large protest march in Geneva for democratization of the university. Even in Turkey, 20,000 students occupied the universities in Ankara and other cities. The chronology just keeps going as occupations, protests, scandals and barricades continued throughout the summer in Tokyo, Osaka, Zurich, Rio, Rome, Montevideo, Bangkok, Dusseldorf, Mexico City, Saigon, Cochabamba, La Paz, South Africa, Indonesia, Chicago, Venice, Montreal, Auckland.

Yeah. That’s worth thinking about every now and then.

 

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It’s been a union-centred life of late, even more than normally. Meg spent last week in Ottawa bargaining and rallying to express offense at the flat-out shitty offer the government has made to its workers, so I was thinking about her and her frustrations alot. And here in Vancouver I was getting settled into my first week back as grievance rep from Executive Director and working on drafting a first collective agreement for our staff union (part of CEP Local 467, which brings together union staffers from a number of union-employers).

I work with collective agreements all the time, but it’s been a long while since I’ve worked with one that applies to me, and never before have I been involved in writing an agreement from scratch. So it’s an exciting thing to be doing, and taking the edge off any lingering resentment I have about being forced out of my old position – well, perhaps not taking the edge off, but providing me a productive outlet for my anger at the kind of shit positions my employer has taken with regard to its own staff.

Collective agreements are strange things. They are peace treaties, really, promises by a union to do what it can to control workers in exchange for some commitments from the boss and legal recourse for the union should the boss renege on those commitments. Agreements, then, really are the union. Though it wasn’t always that way. Radical unions like the IWW originally refused to sign collective agreements – the attitude being, “No, the boss signs an agreement. The boss makes concessions because otherwise we don’t work and his business is fucked. We don’t make any promises to be satisfied or pretend we’re satisfied, because we’re not after a bigger piece of the pie but the whole damn bakery. And we don’t make any promises to control workers’ anger because workers’ anger is exactly what we’re all about.”

Unions haven’t been about that for a real long time, however. And so I am finding that the whole process of organizing my workplace, setting my “will-do” / “won’t-do” boundaries and writing a first agreement is leading me to think alot about the relationship between all the shit I hate most about unions and the day to day work that I do.

Unions as managers; unions as employers; unions as bosses.

In 1951 eighteen workers employed by the US Air Line Pilots’ Association (ALPA) embarked upon an organizing drive, and for the first time in North America, staff working for a trade union sought to unionize themselves. And the employing union challenged their right to doso, presenting to the US Labor Relations Board two central arguments:

all union staff should be seen as managers, as they deal with confidential membership information;

a union by definition cannot be an employer as that term is defined legally, and so the right to organize does not extend to employees of unions.

ALPA lost. The Board ruled that the union was indeed an employer, whatever its self-defined “class position” might be. And the significance of all this wasn’t lost on unions or union staff – or the public for that matter. On January 15, 1952, the New York Times printed a story on “Union as Employer”, suggesting – quite rightly – that something had dramatically changed in the way unions should be understood politically, economically, and socially:

The increase in number, variety and complexity of

issues has subordinated the local union and has

compelled the national unions to engage experts,

technicians and professional employees, and the

union structures have tended to fit their new functions.

Within a few years, many of the largest international unions were confronted with staff organizing drives – the Teamsters, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the International Association of Machinists and more, so that by 1961, the AFL-CIO leadership was actively and publicly engaged in the battle to halt unionization of labour staffers. Staff who sought certification were vilified for promoting factionalism, seeking to undermine the growing strength of the workers’ movement, and for promoting –  yes, get ready for it…communism! The message was simple – staff either submit their interests to the good of the union, or they actively undermine the union and so serve instead the interests of corporate America or Bolshevism or both. Here’s then-ILGWU President, David Dubinsky:

We have always had a concept of the union leader as a

leader of masses and not as a paid mercenary or as one

engaged in a business for self-aggrandizement.

I spent time in a Czarist jail because I was part of a struggle

to free people, not because I was paid to agitate. The founders

of the ILGWU starved themselves into sickness and death,

faced beatings and crippling, gangsters and prisons because

they felt that this was their responsibility to their consciences

and to their fellow workers…We chose to stay with the labor

movement not because it paid better, not because it offered

more security, not because it offered greater leisure, but

because it was our dedication, our struggle, our belief – our

very lives. What a bitter joke that we are now characterized as

‘management’

Dubinsky went on to lament the ‘materialism’ of union staff, intimating that it was in fact their unionization that caused the bureaucratization of labour. Staff insistence on higher wages and benefits created a “class of super-citizens” within the union, and by organizing they made the union a business rather than a ‘movement’.

I’ve heard variations of this line a whole many times – every time, in fact, staff at a union take issue with the crappy behaviour of their employers. The Telecommunications Workers’ Union staff strike in 1999; numerous job actions by BC Teachers Federation staff; pickets by employees of the Canadian Labour Congress and the BC Government and Services Employees Union – in each case, the debate arose again, and in each case a significant part of the left leapt up to defend the “real” working class from these pretenders.

At the TWU, for example – where I was an elected local rep at the time – the Executive went through various responses – initially declaring at a local meeting, “We’re the employer in this situation and we intend to behave like an employer”, later recanting and hiring an Executive Director precisely because “we don’t want to be bosses” – as though establishing an intermediary could make the conflict disappear. The BCTF, for its part, wrapped itself in the professional association flag, lamenting staff’s “old-style trade unionism”. And the CLC and BCGEU strikes each generated considerable debate among the left generally, the former on a left-wing electronic bulletin board, the latter causing such a schism within BC’s Solidarity Notes labour choir that performances and practices were cancelled after a number of its members suggested a trip to the picket line to sing in solidarity with the strikers.

So, yeah, it’s an old story, but a current one, too.

“Union staff shouldn’t be allowed to organize – they work for the working class.”

“Staff unions just divide workers – how dare these people undermine the credibility of unions when labour is in so much trouble.”

“Union staff have no loyalty – we all volunteer our time, why shouldn’t they?”

It goes on and on.

Really though, the power dynamics at play in union staff/ union executive relationships are variations of general tensions at play within the union as an organization. Whatever is happening with staff at a union is probably happening with members as well.

Now, I’m not whinging about how bad I got it. Union staffers aren’t victims any more than union members are. Professional staffers like me have significant power – we are the drivers of the machine, even though we often find ourselves crushed beneath its wheels and even though we spend every day convincing workers to give the machine their trust. We are often the most critical of the labour movement, but we’re also the most responsible for its continued operation as partner in the industrial relations regime. Staff like me, in short, embody all the contradictions of the labour movement. We are uniquely positioned to reveal that the emperor has no clothes and yet our jobs depend on loyalty – whether genuine or phony – to that emperor. So going to work is alot like walking a maze, and though many of us understand that the only way out is through or beneath the walls, we continue to walk, searching for a door marked exit.

I am a union staffer. I work for an organization recognized under a legal code as a representative of workers’ interests. I am a negotiator, bargaining with management to write joint agreements.  I am an advocate, campaigning for improved working conditions and higher wages. I am a politician, brokering deals, managing political support, selling policy. I am a counselor, offering advice and support, drying tears, referring to specialists. And I am a unionist, arguing with bosses, fighting discipline, seeking more money for less work against managers who seek more work for less money. I work in an environment of contradictions. But make no mistake about it – I work; I have a boss; and my job depends on my ability to serve the interests of that boss.

So I am not, in my work-life, part of a working class movement. I am not, in my work-life, charged with organizing workers against capital. I work as one small part of a regime designed to maintain, if not increase, productivity, to satisfy workers’ immediate and specific demands, and to dampen their long-term and general aspirations. I serve labour peace, industrial calm, and good citizenship. My office is a workplace like any other, in which we as employees give up our skills, our experience, and our labour to an employer who directs that labour in its interest. In return, I get a salary, a pension, benefits.

It’s not a bad job, as jobs go. But make no mistake – it’s a job.

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