Saturday, May 18, 2013

Does 2013 Rhyme With 1934?

"History never repeats, but it does rhyme." - Mark Twain

Joe Johnson is an old Trotskyist, a one-time comrade of Farrell Dobbs and Vincent Ray Dunne. Dunne was a leader of the famous 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters' strike, vividly chronicled by Farrell Dobbs in his excellent book, Teamster Rebellion. Dobbs was also the National Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) from 1953 to 1972.

Johnson's thesis, in a piece published in Socialist Viewpoint, is that 2013 is an echo of 1934. He predicts a major upswing in the labor movement. His title, also a rhyme on history, is Today's Situation and What Is To Be Done Next. At first impression, Johnson's claim is silly. Upon closer reading--well, it's still silly. But the argument makes for a fun ride.

Johnson begins by pointing out two important innovations that, back in 1934, led to the Teamsters' victory. Most unions in that time were craft unions, and thus divided carpenters from plumbers from electricians from machinists. The Teamsters initiated the concept of industrial unionism, i.e., a union that organized all workers in an industry, regardless of craft. This gave them much more power than they previously had. The second new idea was an ability to connect with the larger community--in Johnson's example the Teamsters successfully turned small merchants into allies.

So how does it rhyme today? Johnson reasonably suggests that today's unions are much more like the craft unions of yore than the industrial unions they claim to be. The union movement has gotten too small and too isolated to effectively counter capital. Strikes are increasingly impossible. Johnson blames anti-union legislation for this--I think more fundamental changes in the economy are a likelier culprit.

In his telling the modern day echo of the Teamsters' industrial union is the fast-food strike! (You never heard of that? That's only because you haven't been reading the Trotskyist literature enough.) Most recently, 500 fast food and retail workers from Chicago's Michigan Avenue went on a one-day strike demanding $15 per hour. There's a nice news account (by Josh Eidelson from The Nation) reprinted in Socialist Viewpoint here. Similar demonstrations took place in New York, Milwaukee, and other cities.

Johnson argues this is a Teamster-like response to a 1934-like problem. Rather than trying to organize individual companies, such as McDonald's or Macy's, as a traditional union is wont to do, instead it goes after the whole shootin' match. Anybody who works minimum wage retail is invited to join--who cares who your capitalist boss is. Beyond this, gone is the traditional union strategy: organize a union, bargain for a contract, and then call a strike if you have to. No--instead these folks went straight to the strike--screw the bourgeois process. It's all very exhilarating and radical--and doomed to fail.

It will fail for at least three reasons:
  1. The companies are simply incapable of paying $15 per hour. They can't raise prices, and their profit margins are already pretty thin. So the demand is impossible to meet. (Eidelson recognizes this.)
  2. Retail workers are not in a very strategic position vis-a-vis the economy. There will always be a non-union retail sector, including family-run businesses. Indeed, many Dunkin' Donuts franchises come under that category. No union will ever be able to shut down retail in the way the Teamsters shut down trucking.
  3. Even if hurdles 1 and 2 are surmounted, then automation will do them in. Long run, Baxter can flip hamburgers better than any human being. With sufficient capital investment, McDonald's can  greatly reduce the number of employees. Macy's and Walmart are already being undercut by, who books the same revenue with a fraction of the workforce. 
Retail unionism is doomed. And this explains the small turnout--500 retail workers in Chicago is not a very effective strike. It's not even that good--there were 500 people at the demonstration, but only a percentage were actually skipping out on work. This isn't serious, and reading between the lines in Eidelson's piece, the companies don't take it seriously, either. They all took the employees back as if nothing had happened. Actually, nothing did happen.

For the second rhyme--making connections with the community--Johnson points to the Chicago Teachers' Strike. He claims the teachers "were only able to get support by enfolding within their union demands the needs of the community." I think he is on pretty thin ground here. The teachers demands are mostly in opposition to the community, for they insist that property taxes be raised to support their privileged position. I don't think community solidarity had much to do with this strike's success.

To the contrary, the teachers won only because of special circumstance. The 2012 strike was right before the election in Obama's home town, unions are a core part of Obama's coalition, and Mayor Emanuel is closely associated with the Obama administration. This was not a fight Emanuel wanted to take on, so he just caved. In almost every other instance the public employee unions have gotten their clocks cleaned: Wisconsin, New Jersey, and most recently, Michigan. The Chicago teachers are an exception, not the start of a trend.

So I think Mr. Johnson has it mostly wrong. He is correct that, had it been successful, the fast-food strike would be a game-changer. That's the interesting idea which inspires this post. But it was mostly a non-event, and it is nearly impossible to imagine how it can ever be more than that. He badly misinterprets the teachers' strike, which was a once-off success in an election year.

The rest of Mr. Johnson's article goes off the deep end. He writes about forming soviet-style assemblies--councils of working people representing different constituencies: unions, neighborhoods, environmentalists, etc. He asks that these take over government, and suggests Detroit would be a good initial target. He cites the "fact" that Congress has a 90% unfavorable rating as evidence the time has come for revolutionary change. He's just wrong.

So history has no rhyme, and methinks Mr. Johnson has no reason.

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