Whither Wisconsin: A Guide to the Perplexed (Left)

Gordon Lafer on how to think—and not think—about the Wisconsin recall:

After all, if the real problem was overpaid union bureaucrats, then radical unions like the Wobblies or United Electrical workers—unburdened by highly paid staff or Democratic politics—should be meeting greater success in organizing. But, of course, they are not. The problem is not what unions are doing; it’s the coercive power of employers.

Read the rest here.


  1. Owen White June 15, 2012 at 6:57 pm | #

    I’ve been following these series of posts (both yours, Henwood’s, etc.), and I wonder one thing when I read them – how many of the writers and contributors to these threads have ever worked a real blue collar job? I’m sorry, but organizing teachers assistants at a nice university ain’t working class experience.

    I’m a coppersmith by trade. I work, currently, for $15 an hour, in Memphis, TN. I made $22 an hour prior to 2008 when my company (a lighting manufacturing company) made deep cuts, first laying me off, then hiring me back part-time at a lower wage. Prior to working in the South, I worked in the much more union friendly state of Minnesota. I have worked in both union and non-union shops. I currently am a dues paying member of the IWW, though mostly for nostalgic reasons. There is no real Wobbly presence to speak of in my city. I’m also a member of CPUSA, but I am to the left of that Party – I belong because I am a red diaper baby whose father was a communist who worked in shops.

    My mother-in-law is a diet tech at a state run facility in WI. She makes $13 and change an hour. She voted against Walker, twice now, but she is not at all happy with her union. She gets shit wages and her union protects people who are worthless employees – there is no self policing within the union and workers who do nothing are nearly impossible to fire, which is surely a factor in keeping wages down for workers like my mother-in-law. Her union does, which also covers several other trades, does little to advocate for diet techs. Now, I know any good liberal can postulate theories as to why such union orientations might come about, but to the extent that you embrace them you distance yourselves from actual working class persons who give a damn about the work that they do, which is to say, the majority of them. Lower wage non-union (and union!) workers have little regard for unions, and until the reasons for this are acknowledged and dealt with on a systemic level the unions will continue to be mostly impotent. The only unions that show much promise at the moment are those working outside the box – like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

    When it comes down to it, I agree with Henwood in this fight. The article linked to here reads like something one would read in an on-flight airline magazine. It doesn’t follow logically that because the mainstream unions are the problem that the radical unions would see great success, I mean, please. The line “Union members are, almost entirely, exactly the same as any other working-class Americans” is vague, useless, and immature. The skilled unions are notorious in taking care of their own, in spite of other workers. My own shop tried to organize some years back the the local sheetmetal workers union told us that all employees would have to test into the union. Our shop has all sorts of workers, skilled and unskilled, and we knew this would only serve to help some of the skilled workers so the decision to go union was tabled, because the workers in my shop wanted, of all things, to act together. Most of my coworkers, skilled and unskilled, could not see what they would get in return for the $80 a month in union dues. That’s 8 or 9 hours a month of work for most of the guys I work with. A day a month worth of work may not sound like much to people who sit in front of computers during most of their workday, but, when it comes down to it, fuck that sort. Gordon Lafer was said to have been a union organizer before his current digs. My question – did he ever spend years as an actual working worker, sweating and bleeding with the people he sought to organize? You can talk down the idealism of Doug Henwood bloggers till kingdom come, and whatever, his background is Ivy League too. But I daresay every one of the guys in my shop can identity with that sort of criticism of unions that Henwood gave. Most of them don’t think the Democrats and the machines that feed them are seriously vested in their interests, even if my coworkers that bother to vote do vote Dem.

    The unions in WI had given in to virtually every single one of Walker’s demands prior to his call for an end to collective bargaining, austerity measures out the wazoo, but they fought like hell against the first thing which really threatened the potential future income of union bureaucrats. In February of 2011 I took my family up to Madison to protest in solidarity with my mother-in-law. The energy there was amazing. I’ve never felt so proud to be working class. Ordinary working class folk were energized for radical action, and/or at least for all sorts of options. Then the “Fab 14” came home from Illinois and told them to leave Madison and go work for the Dems. The energy among rank and file working class folks dissipated nearly immediately, and then loss after loss came. When are “mainstream leftists” like Lafer going to admit that their tactics aren’t doing my class any more good, in terms of expedience, than Henwood’s blog posts are?

    • Jeff June 15, 2012 at 7:43 pm | #

      I agree with you 100%. The reason union membership has declined so dramatically in the last 30 years is because the union bureaucracy looked out for itself instead of the membership. The only way to right the ship is for a new generation of workers to start organizing new unions – unions that will fight for them instead of the three martini lunch crowd that has sold out the working class for the last 65 years – since Taft-Hartley was passed.

    • Alice Dubiel June 16, 2012 at 2:56 pm | #

      I agree with Owen White. I just responded to a Nation survey telling the journal it is liberal, not really progressive, and writing such as Lafer’s is the main reason. My father was a tool and die union member; most of my union membership was as an educator. Party politics is loser thinking in an environment such as the present in WI. Here in WA state, there are many anti public sector workers actions going down in Olympia with Dems control. Teachers and occupyers there were thrown out of the capitol last Dec by a too armed State Patrol by Obama’s friend, Gov Gregoire. I love your insights on fascism, Mr. Robin, but call me radical.

      • Corey Robin June 17, 2012 at 11:35 pm | #

        I don’t see how this is a response to Lafer’s argument. The point of his article is not a defense of unions support the Democrats.

  2. steve June 16, 2012 at 12:47 am | #

    or is the lesson that outspending your opponent by 10 to 1 generally wins?:

  3. denke robot June 16, 2012 at 8:09 am | #

    I’d say the article itself a pretty good example of how not to think. Starting with the title, which obliterates any distinction between being anti-these-unions and anti-union.

    The quote you pulled is absurd on two counts: first for constructing the straw man argument that someone is contending that highly-paid union bureaucrats are the only impediment to union growth, and second for the brazen ahistoricism of ignoring red-baiting and repression by both the employing class and the mainstream labor movement against the IWW and the UE.

    The article is full of loose thinking like that. Most laughably, offering up the serial incarnations of the UFCW’s failed Wal Mart campaign and the AFL-CIO’s Working America as examples of innovative/effective strategies.


    “But unions are supposed to be organizations of workers who improve their own conditions in their workplace. The problem is not that the model is bad, but the opposite: the best thing that could happen in our economy is for more people to have the right to bargain with their employers in exactly this way.”

    Trying to counter the argument of Henwood for industry and class-wide organizing by blindly reaffirming/naturalizing the peculiar atomized weakness of US labor movement is hardly a good example of “how to think.”. The US model is not the worldwide model.

    • Corey Robin June 17, 2012 at 11:37 pm | #

      You’re not actually confronting what Lafer is saying about how this process of organizing workplaces is in fact much more radicalizing than any amount of heavy breathing about “class-wide organizing.”

      • Denke Robot June 18, 2012 at 12:50 pm | #

        If you bury a pearl in a pound of shit, people are going to shake off the shit first.

        Acting in solidarity with your co-workers is indeed a radicalizing experience. A union may or may not be involved in with that. If a union is involved, very often it is to attenuate the radical expectations produced by the act of solidarity. Perhaps I’ve been involved in too many hotshop campaigns, but the radicality does not originate with or belong to the union. All too often the union will not know how to deal with that. I started a union drive wher I worked, and it did indeed radicalize me and my co-workers, but that conversion had little to do with the union, which suffered the embarrassment of having its leadership indicted and convicted by the Feds during our campaign.

        Are the irony quotes around “class-wide organizing” supposed to mean anything ,or are you just indulging in the semiotics of snark?

      • Owen White June 18, 2012 at 2:22 pm | #

        Since WWII, I think a little less than 1/4 of all work stoppages in the U.S. have been wildcat strikes, and that includes most of the better known strikes, and most of the strikes in which there was any notable radical presence whatsoever. I’d bet my house that a study of worker opinions in the U.S. would show that most workers working in union companies believe that they are just as likely to have to fight their union in the future as to have to fight their company.

        Look at the percentage of workers who vote in most union elections – it is generally minuscule. The state of affairs makes the unions quite happy – they get nervous when participation is on the rise, and this almost always corresponds with a challenge to union leadership. Once a union has won a contract with a shop/company, the last thing they want is a radicalized or agitated workforce, they want complacency at that point, and this is exactly what they work for.

        When a union tries to organize a shop/company, it is amazing how little the rhetoric coming from the union proper actually confronts employer coercions and exploitation. I’ve even been amazed at how little the union promotional materials dwell on “what’s in it for you.” The materials and messages coming from the union are generally a mix of that vague “themeism” political type language used in political campaigns today, and defenses of unions themselves, with a lot of “we’re not as bad as you’ve heard” type messages and a lot of “we’re not going to destroy your company” messages which emphasize the union’s ability to work with your management despite your management suggesting otherwise. In fact the unions typically mimic Democratic political strategies in a sense – they portray themselves as a moderate, civil, genteel force in contrast to the outlandish, bomobastic, uncivil anti-union rhetoric coming from management. Well, just as in politics, this doesn’t work, because even in the rare event you win, you lose, because you have to de-radicalize and sell the farm in order to gain anything in this game. Of course there is a big caveat here – and that is that the ground troops in any given union organizing struggle are, sometimes, more leftist/progressive than the union leadership, as union organizing attracts true believers on the low end of the ladder (you’ve either quit or compromised if you have climbed the ladder into union leadership). And in some cases these low level union organizers do somewhat radicalize a particular shop or a particular portion of a company. But as a person who has been in a meeting where a co-worker of mine asked a union organizer why they sounded so different from the materials coming out of the union leadership and the union lawyer who got sent to speak to us, my sense is that a radical on the local level can only do a little bit of nudging when the union itself is committed to the status quo. And once that contract is won, the union has a strong interest to push down any radical tendencies and any radicals that were born during the organizing time are now acting as free agents if they are doing any agitating.

        But one last thing – if we aren’t discussing the WI unions being little more than cash funnels for the WI Dems here, and are instead focusing on union organizing as a radicalizing force, then I still don’t see why Henwood & Co. are being painted as “pie in the sky” escapists who can’t deal with reality as it is presented to us. I mean, seriously, how many people in WI have, since Walker took office, become dues paying union members because of union organizing efforts? How many shops and companies have been organized in WI since the beginning of 2011? I’d venture to say that the total number of new members of unions in WI who became new union members because of union organizing efforts (and not just because they got a job at an already union shop/company) is less than the number of readers Henwood has in WI. I’m sure as hell the number is far less than the number of non-union people who showed up to protest in Madison in February of 2011.

      • Denke Robot June 18, 2012 at 7:48 pm | #

        Owen’s comment is very articulate. One thing that bothered me about Lafer’s article was the sense that he wanted to reproduce rather than describe the “mild-mannered” worker in order to justify his broader point, in a similar way that an arrogant and condescending union apparatchik would. Then when the author of Fear: A History of a Political Idea seemed to vouch for Lafer’s position regarding this anxiety-ridden worker-subject, a position he wrote a book to debunk/theorize, I felt the need to make a comment on the internet.

  4. Todd June 16, 2012 at 11:04 am | #

    A nice summation of what Doug Henwood did _not_ write.

    I’m a little surprised at you, Corey, backing such a distortion of Doug’s position.

    But I guess if you’re not with the union, you’ re Not With The Union, right?

  5. Glenn June 16, 2012 at 3:41 pm | #

    At the time of the Madison capitol occupation I heard a Wisconsin Democratic Party office holder on Wisconsin Public Radio (FM 90.7) criticize Walker’s attempt to dis-empower the public unions. She–I don’t remember her name–said there was no need for Walker to take such radical action, that this was only going to cause a big reaction, that the Democrats were in agreement with Republicans in that austerity was necessary, but it should be done more slowly, not in one fell swoop.

    This is consistent with the Democratic Party’s participation in labor’s decline over past decades.

    My understanding is that years ago unions were illegal and strikes were held in order to gain the right to form unions. Now people need to have unions in order to gain the right to strike without legal consequence.

    Workers are now too terrified to hold general strikes because of the indirect life and death authority exercised over them by employers. People in unions generally have some form of health care insurance and the loss of a job in this time of a capital-strike-imposed austerity puts them and their families quickly at risk of early death, bankruptcy, social ostracism, and foreclosure, etc. Union leadership is threatened by severe financial penalties for violating the severe restrictions on legal strikes. My understanding is that the Madison, WI occupations were bottom up and the union leadership feared bankruptcy of the unions themselves.

    Perhaps the high death and poverty rates existent at the time of the Haymarket may have made the increased risk of being fired seem minimal in comparison to the gains to be made, such as the 40 hour work week.

  6. michael yates June 16, 2012 at 10:36 pm | #

    Gordon Lafer’s essay shows signs of being written by someone who has gotten a bit too cozy with the labor leaders whose support might be critical to the program in which he works and with the Democratic Party politicians and their labor leader friends with whom he came into contact when he was Senior Labor Policy Advisor for the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and Labor. The essay is shot full of cliches, devoid of data, and woefully lacking in historical perspective. I at least hope he didn’t pick the title of the Nation article. If he did, here is a labor leftist who says, well, I won’t say it here.

    • Corey Robin June 17, 2012 at 11:43 pm | #

      Except I agree with him, and I’m not cozy with labor leaders whose support is critical for my program. Nor did I work on Capitol Hill. But I guess I get summer vacations, so that must be the source of my corruption. Honestly, Michael, is this how you argue? Why not show how he’s actually wrong?

      • michael yates June 18, 2012 at 12:49 am | #

        Corey, my comments aren’t about you. Is this how you argue? Ego first?

  7. Corey Robin June 18, 2012 at 6:46 am | #

    Michael: The point is that you’re making a classic ad hominem argument. Rather than engage in Gordon’s substance you make juvenile insinuations about him and his motives. So I’m saying I agree with him and I would have written much of what he wrote. I have none of the interests you ascribe to him — need for funding from big labor, etc. — so you can’t dismiss what I would say on those grounds. But then looking to the other comment you made on the other thread (the one about summer vacations), I imagine you’d dismiss me making the claim with some claim about cushy professors and the perches. Got it? So back to square one: you want to disagree with Gordon, go ahead. But disagree with him, show why he’s wrong, and forgo the insinuations.

  8. michael yates June 18, 2012 at 9:20 am | #

    Corey, We wrote a book about Wisconsin, and critiques of Gordon’s views are in it, especially the move to do standard politics such as the recall effort and the abandonment of a nascent mass movement by labor leaders in alliance with the Democratic Party. My own views on unions and the US labor movement are in my book Why Unions Matter. In terms of what can be done, I suggested on your facebook page the essay by Fernando Gapasin. The summer vacation comment was a joke. But you wondered about my remarks on labor education, etc. I’ve published more than a million words on unions, labor markets, work, class and class struggle, and the like. I have written extensively about labor education and done it for more than 30 years, in every kind of venue imaginable. I know the ins and outs of labor studies programs, labor centers, etc. I know how access to leaders of labor and political leaders tends to corrupt. When Jared Bernstein of EPI takes a job as economic advisor to Joe Biden, he is right away sucked into a structure that he must rationalize. No doubt a little good is better than none at all and none of us are simon pure. But we do make choices, and these are fair game. It has nothing to do with a person’s motives, which no one can know. But labor needs its radical, people who are independent and make as few compromises as possible. Like Gregg Shotwell, whose book I hope you have read. So, you have time. Get busy and write your own articles and books about labor. We don’t need talk about back in the day. Maybe you could come up to UMass and teach a class in their Union Leadership program, right now.

  9. jonnybutter June 18, 2012 at 9:48 am | #

    I’ve published more than a million words on unions

    Can you address Lafer’s arguments in fewer words than that? I want to be sympathetic to you, but you’re just doing an appeal to authority (your own). Can you – or anyone here – answer ONE question? It would have been better to respond to Walker….how? No one has made a good case that a general strike or something like that – assuming it could have been pulled off – along with walking away from electoral politics, would have been more efficacious. I am as disgusted with the Dems as anybody else, but I don’t believe in being emotional about that when trying to plot strategy. There was a pretty good case to be made for challenging Walker – who was, after all, critically injuring unionism – which is what they did. All of the above criticism of old unions can be true, but that still holds.

    I will admit to having no expertise in the labor field – my only experience with unions is a.) having belonged to two shitty, semi-corrupt locals – Musicians and AFTRA; and b.) voting to unionize a workplace in the late 80s. But I’m virtually sure that neither I nor anyone else who needs convincing about any of this stuff wants or needs a million words to do it.

    • Todd June 18, 2012 at 12:31 pm | #

      “It would have been better to respond to Walker….how?”

      I’m pretty sure that the answer to that one would’ve required the re-think that’s being argued about _now_ to have taken place a fairly lengthy time ago.

      Walker was done in a certain context that’s shown its weakness; the question at hand is what is to be done next: the same-old-same-old or moving in a somewhat different direction?

      • jonnybutter June 19, 2012 at 9:26 am | #

        Well, since the Lafer article, and the Henwood one, are about what should have been done in WI in recent months, what’s with the controversy we’re having in this space?

    • Michael Smith June 21, 2012 at 12:04 am | #

      “No one has made a good case that a general strike or something like that… would have been more efficacious.”

      Well, it could hardly have been *less* efficacious, could it? Strategies that result in a resounding defeat have little to recommend them.

  10. Paul June 18, 2012 at 11:58 am | #

    This line, “The problem is not what unions are doing; it’s the coercive power of employers.” truly perplexes me. I agree with the fact that employers have coercive power – I experience it personally all the time and I love this blog for recording it so well – but how do you fight that? Isn’t that what unions are supposed to fight? Well, they seem to be failing. So, the left is beginning to stir a little bit, and start thinking about possible new routes of action to fight this power of employers. What’s wrong with that? I get that you don’t like the Monday morning quarterbacking, but analyzing a losing strategy is important for coming up with new ideas. So an implication of Mr. Lafer’s line is “leave unions alone and focus on the money in politics, and the koch brothers, etc.” But what does that have to do with the abuses in the work place which unions are not adequately preventing? I would put it this way, “The problem is what union’s are not doing (or can no longer do) and the coercive power of employers – which are intricately related.” The left is simply saying that it might be tempting to go after the coercive power of employers through legislative measures, but that this has proven itself to be a failed strategy in the past and present. When it was successful, there were a lot more radicals around and involved.

  11. Corey Robin June 18, 2012 at 1:06 pm | #

    Denke Robot: “Are the irony quotes around ‘class-wide organizing’ supposed to mean anything ,or are you just indulging in the semiotics of snark?” The quotation marks around your words are meant to mean precisely what quotation marks are usually meant to mean: namely, that I’m quoting you.

  12. michael yates June 18, 2012 at 9:02 pm | #

    johnnybutter, if you write to me at mikedjyates@msn.com, I’ll send you a couple of things. If you’d prefer not to write me, then just google my name and labor unions and you can pick something less than a million words!!

    • jonnybutter June 19, 2012 at 9:20 am | #

      thanks mike. I will do one or the other.

  13. Todd June 19, 2012 at 2:06 pm | #

    jonnybutter wrote:

    “what’s with the controversy we’re having in this space?”

    What to do post-Walker.

  14. Owen White June 19, 2012 at 3:02 pm | #

    I’d be interested to know the thoughts of Corey and commenters here on Henwood’s reply to Lafer just up at the Nation site: http://www.thenation.com/blog/168435/opinionnation-labors-bad-recall#

    • Jeff June 19, 2012 at 5:35 pm | #

      Doug is spot on correct. I work for a unionized company but haven’t belonged to the union for many years. My epiphany was when I went to a series of monthly meetings and the meeting was over in 5 minutes so everyone could get drunk on union-provided liquor. Unions have lost their spine and they are directly responsible for the decline in membership because they do not speak to the working class’ needs. They’ve sold out the working class for my entire working life. My position, like so many others, is this: if you need someone to defend you, why would you pay someone who stabs you in the back to “defend” you?

      It’s way past time for the harsh reality to bite these three-martini union bosses in the behind. If it takes a Romney victory to wake people up, so be it. I wish it weren’t so, but I’m thinking that it will be necessary.

  15. michael yates June 19, 2012 at 4:57 pm | #

    Doug’s comments are right on the mark. And so are Matthew Rothschild’s at http://progressive.org/lafer_discussion_wisconsin_loss_walker.html

    Doug’s best line turns Lafer on his head. Rather than organizing being slow and incremental, Henwood suggests that the reality of organizing has been decremental (and rapidly decremental I might add).

    Corey accused me above of an ad hominem attack on Gordon. Is he prepared to level the same charge against Doug?

    While I am at it, here is a story. I worked for the United Farm Workers in 1977. I wrote an article for the Nation critical of Cesar Chavez. The union’s attorney threatened to see the Nation, and I was accused of the same sort of thing Lafer now accuses leftwing critics of organized labor in the United States. Given that the UFW has degenerated into a racket run by Chavez’s relatives, much as organized labor as a whole has degenerated if not into a racket then into a sclerotic shadow of what it was and could be, who was right? Who is right in this debate now. My money is on those supposed anti-labor leftists.

    • Corey Robin June 19, 2012 at 5:29 pm | #

      Michael: I said you issued an ad hominem attack on Gordon because you did. Doug, in the particular statement you’re quoting, did not. Which is why I wouldn’t issue the same charge about that statement. What I will say about that statement is that it is a classic non-response response. Rather than deal with the point that’s being made, Doug has merely skirted it. It’s hardly news to Gordon or any of us that union rates have been declining. How that alters the fact that most transformations are in fact slow and incremental I’ll leave it to others to explain.

      • michael yates June 19, 2012 at 6:01 pm | #

        No, the decremental statement is not the one I was talking about. And I have offered explanations as to how a person’s choices can be commented upon, even negatively, without impugning a person’s motives. The very fact, for example, that a person chooses to run for president of the United States as a candidate for one of the two major parties, means to me that he or she is prepared to become a mass killer. I wouldn’t go to work for Richard Trumka, because I know the kind of compromises that would involve. Now it might be that another person wouldn’t see it that way, but am I not to point out that this person is making those compromises just by virtue of the fact that he or she accepted that job? If I knew nothing about the AFL-CIO. its history, its structure, and the like, it wouldn’t be proper for me to do that. But I do know these things. Just like I know how labor studies progams work. I do know that many of them have become just another academic department and abandoned the workers they once were proud to serve. I do know that it is difficult for those who administer and work in such programs to criticize organized labor when they depend upon union support. So not many do, no matter how deserved the criticism. Structures often determine our behavior.

      • denke robot June 19, 2012 at 7:31 pm | #

        Given that your “challenge to the left” and lafer’s piece are basically a generic ad hominem troll against “pundits,” you hardly occupy the high ground in this kerfuffle with Mike Yates, whose book “Power on the Job,” I remember being passed among the members of our organizing committee. You write like there’s some kind of wall separating people who mostly think for a living and people who mostly use their bodies, but it isn’t so.

    • Jeff June 19, 2012 at 5:35 pm | #

      Go Matt!!!

  16. Corey Robin June 19, 2012 at 9:05 pm | #

    Denke Robot: A little more denke, a little less robot. My challenge was not even remotely an ad hominem attack. As for the rest of what you say in your comment, well, it doesn’t tell me much of anything. Except, apparently, that you like Mike Yates’s book.

    • denke robot June 19, 2012 at 9:37 pm | #

      Really. Not even even remotely? You’ll have to take your word for that.

      • Corey Robin June 19, 2012 at 9:52 pm | #

        Really, not even remotely. I will note that you’ve still not supplied anything but your word to substantiate the claim that mine was an ad hominem attack.

      • denke robot June 19, 2012 at 10:00 pm | #

        Hey. I used a qualifier – “generic” ad hominem. That should not be problematic for anyone who has previously advocated “incremental” transformation. Get it?

  17. Corey Robin June 19, 2012 at 10:03 pm | #

    Um, no. Still waiting for some substantiation of your claim. Nice try, though.

    • denke robot June 19, 2012 at 10:26 pm | #

      OK. Corey. I’ll file a claim with the assessor’s office and they’ll settle it once and for all. I hope you accept their deliberations.

      • Corey Robin June 19, 2012 at 10:38 pm | #

        God, you’re totally shameless. You make a claim, you can’t back it up, you know it, and so you resort to glib evasions. Whatever the truth of your claims, we definitely know the truth about you.

      • denke robot June 19, 2012 at 10:50 pm | #

        Nice ad hominem.

  18. jonnybutter June 19, 2012 at 10:06 pm | #

    I notice that Doug H’s overall response to Lafer is much less black and white than are the posts of Henwood’s defenders here. Is Corey R suggesting that union corruption, provinciality, etc. have nothing to do with the decline of labor? Is Henwood saying that the legal and institutional war on unions of the last 30+ years is not a serious factor in that decline? The answer to both questions is ‘no’, right?

    btw, I think Henwood is absolutely correct to bristle at Lafer’s contention that Henwood is ‘enjoying “the momentary rush of being on the same side as power” and joining an “anti-union attack.” That is a really unfair comment on Lafer’s part, and the fact that he feels the need to make it is not a good sign. But I don’t understand why we have this either/or thing going on. I didn’t understand Corey R’s quotation of the paragraph from Lafer’s piece to be an endorsement of every word in the entire piece (why would anyone?). And I think Henwood’s second piece, notwithstanding the well-deserved scorn he heaps on Lafer for the above mentioned gratuitous insult, is clearer and sort of triangulates closer to a workable position than did his first reaction to WI perhaps did. But you wouldn’t know it reading threads here!

    • Corey Robin June 19, 2012 at 10:22 pm | #

      I agree that Doug’s response is more nuanced. His original post however said the “major reason” for labor’s declining position was that it was run by a bunch of hacks dedicated to protecting their insider privileges. His defenders here are merely reiterating that line. I also find the amount of time that people are spending on one line in Lafer’s piece to be astounding. I suppose it’s an easier target, and from the get go, I’ve found that people taking Doug’s line prefer to go after the notion that people like Lafer and I are bullying the lonely prophets of wisdom into silence than the substance of what we are saying.

  19. Glenn June 19, 2012 at 11:41 pm | #

    If this government was a democracy, or if democracy had a significant influence in this government, we would not be seeing the interests of the 1% looked after so closely while the interests of the 99% are dismissed as politically inconsequential. Even if a Democrat had won the recall election, the people who fought for recognition of their interests in Madison could not have gone home and gone to sleep assured of labor victories coming without further efforts in the months after the electoral victory. This didn’t happen after Obama won, and it wouldn’t have happened after this election.

    The problem with voting for Democrats is one of cognitive dissonance: one must cheer for the candidate’s rhetoric with as much enthusiasm as one can muster to elect him while, at the same time, be planning the most effective possible opposition to his policies in service to his funders. This ability to be of two minds seems to be more common in candidates than in the electorate.

    That this government is a democracy is an often told lie. However, there is strength achieved when people act as if this lie is the truth in confrontation with the lie’s propagators.

    So, just as the need for public spirited resistance would not have ended if a Democrat had won, so neither should the necessity for resistance be thought to end with the Walker win. There should not be the resignation—such as those believers in the USA as a democracy will hold—that the people have spoken, and in recognition of, and with respect for the democratic process, that they must graciously accept this loss as a member of a loyal opposition. The rights and interests of the people cannot be terminated by a democratic election; the recognition of the rights and interests of the people are the precondition for democratic elections. We have not yet achieved the preconditions for democratic elections in this nation so we must learn to do the best we can with what is available to us outside of the electoral process.

    Quoting Taleb: “The best revenge on a liar is to convince him that you believe what he said.”

    I excuse people for acting as if the lie—that of justice being achievable through the electoral process—is a truth in their seeking of the recall; but not that they convince themselves that this lie is some species of truth, and that for supporting this lie there is a moral necessity in graciously accepting the consequences of this loss. The philosophy of ‘as if’ has limits. Don’t let their lie become your ankle chain. This is what the lie was crafted for at its inception. They may win an election but you must not allow them to capture your consciousness.

    This is difficult for the teachers and parents who must teach children to have faith in the system as authority says they must teach it, it but not as it truly is.

  20. ld June 20, 2012 at 12:00 am | #

    I don’t know, Corey, besides those who’ve gotten drawn into a pissing match or two with you, I’d say that the prevailing message supplied by “those talking Doug’s line” is that organized labor’s crisis is an opportunity to try something other than the currently failing model of unionism (one centered on reaching and enforcing wage-/conditions-/benefits-centered collective bargaining agreements in specific capitalist workplaces), not that they are being “bullied” by Lafer and you. Who’s really evading the central topics of discussion here? It’s easy for you to claim it’s the other side when you cherry-pick tangential comments. You’re not coming off terribly well and many can see through it.

    • Corey Robin June 20, 2012 at 8:11 am | #

      Id: The problems with the claim that we must try something other than the currently failing model of unionism are multiple. (And I should explain that this blog is not the only place where we’re having this disagreement. I’ve been arguing with many folks on FB, Twitter, and elsewhere.) Anyway, here are the problems: 1) Insofar as anything concrete has been offered in this discussion, one can cite many cases of the labor movement already doing it, sometimes successfully, a lot of times not. So the grassroots political mobilizations that are being mentioned, around issues that have nothing to do with the workplace, SEIU has spent close to 80 million dollars alone on precisely that (not connected to any political party at all). That’s twice as much as the entire labor movement spends on the Democratic Party. The successes have been very minimal. Again, insofar as anyone’s specific (and there’s a lot of vagueness in the discussion), people complain about labor supporting Dems (a complaint I share, by the way), but don’t look at — again, I stress — twice as much money they’re spending, in this one case alone, on grassroots non-electoral, non-Democratic Party based mobilization. And it’s not really doing much. So that proposal from other folks seems like not a lot. 2) Often times it embraces calls for radical modes of action like a general strike that have zero basis in reality. As I and others have tried to explain multiple times, there’s no getting around the question of organizing. It is, in fact, easy to call for a general strike, but it has to be done. I’ve yet to see anyone present even a remotely credible plan for pulling it off. 3) This brings us to the more general question of organizing. Most of the calls I’ve seen — not all, but most — show precious little understanding of how organizing works. And there is an interesting irony here: insofar as those with whom I disagree acknowledges that factors like state repression, conservative backlash, etc. do play a role in squashing worker mobilization — if we do acknowledge that, how is it we imagine that workers, who are not able to do much in the current moment (something we all agree about; you say that as if it comes as a revelation; I’ve been writing about this for close to two decades; it’s not news to me, I assure you), doing something even more expansive and radical? I don’t say this to say we shouldn’t be talking about it. Quite the contrary. I would just like someone to explain to me, concretely and carefully, with real analysis and not vague invocations of labor leaders holding back worker militancy, how we get from this terrible situation to the brave new world — all the while leapfrogging over the real questions of worker organization.

      • michael yates June 20, 2012 at 10:33 am | #

        Some random thoughts. These are all good points. Organizing takes time, commitment, and a certain vision. I offered Fernando Gapasin’s efforts in Eastern Oregon as a good example of what we might call broad-based, class-centered organizing. You offered the model of the Frontier strike in Las Vegas. There are others as well. Right now, SEIU/1199 is in the midst of a big campaign against UPMC, the hospital behemoth. The organizers will do all the right things and hopefully they will succeed in the face of vicious antiunion actions by the employer.
        You mention the SEIU campaign to reach out to all working people, with an $80 million effort. I understand that there have been some good effects of this but not nearly enough. However, while SEIU does this, it also sanctions the work of Dave Regan, truly a disgrace to the labor movement. SEIU is also an extremely undemocratic union, and how do you counter this, along with the gross corruption of recent years? Sam Gindin points out that the failure of labor is also the failure of the left. Let me speak to this from my own, admittedly narrow, experiences. I have never taught a class to workers, many in places that were extremely conservative, in which the ideas of Marx did not resonate. Students always eat this up. Many come to see that it is capitalism that is the root of their problems. Now, I don’t know any other economists who do labor education, much less take a radical perspective. Unions don’t teach radical economics. They don’t teach history either. Yet these things are badly needed if working people are to develop a worker-centered way of seeing the world. Ideology is important, but labor has no ideology other than cooperating with employers. Many labor studies programs don’t connect anymore to workers, and focus way to much on service work for unions. They have no ideology either, certainly not a radical one.
        Unions as currently constituted can, sometimes, organize, though organizing budgets are not very large in most unions. They don’t seem to be able to or want to educate their members, radically, as is necessary, especially today when it becomes clearer by the day that capitalism will never deliver the goods to workers. They don’t seem to be able to unite workers across even the workplaces inside their own jurisdiction, as, for example, the United Packinghouse Workers did with their stewards’ councils and willingness to support their brothers and sisters in other workplaces. The ILWU put forth a plan to have members not working participate in anti-eviction actions. This helps working people think in terms of a working class life and not just in terms of being a worker. Tornoto’s left has experimented with securing and dedicating spaces for workers to meet, socialize, and organize broad-based support actions.
        Kim Moody shows that every election period, union organizing efforts flag. This shows a real weakness in labor’s thinking. As I said above, ideology is important. Labor’s ideology is bankrupt today. Hopefully, OWS-like movements, rank and file revolts, imaginative organizing, and the like will get things moving. Therein lies our hope.

      • Todd June 20, 2012 at 12:08 pm | #

        Corey wrote:

        “1) Insofar as anything concrete has been offered in this discussion, one can cite many cases of the labor movement already doing it, sometimes successfully, a lot of times not.”

        OK, so how does that square with the “sometimes successfully” being the result of labour outliers? You talk as though every last union in the US was involved with this sort of thing, and the successes and failures have all been evenly distributed. From what I’ve read, I don’t think that’s the case.

        (And SEIU isn’t the best example to use in this context; what did they spend the money on? Ads? Free beer? How is what they did so different from the supposed successes of the NNU?)

        “2) Often times it embraces calls for radical modes of action like a general strike that have zero basis in reality.”

        Who here (or in the two articles that are our focus) has mentioned a general strike as the way to go (and who has endorsed the idea)? Not to mention the fact this is kind of an open forum; anyone who knows much or little can speak. Just because someone says something stupid doesn’t mean they have to be speaking on behalf of someone else.

        “3) This brings us to the more general question of organizing.”

        Since that’s already been brought up by Gordon, what does Doug say about it? Does he say it’s super easy? No, although he does point out that, in the past, it was generally more dangerous, yet labour volunteers did it anyway. Are labour leaders being shot at? Are they afraid for their lives? I can’t think of anybody since this whole argument started stating that labour organizing was a piece of cake, yet it seems to appear with the regularity of a scare-crow in a cornfield.

    • denke robot June 20, 2012 at 9:05 am | #

      ld, I think the problem is that Lafer has taken a very non-controversial assertion, something like “organizing is hard and we should do it when we can” and lacquered it with ten coats of provocation primed with genetic fallacies. Since the “substance” of his primary claim is obvious and uninteresting, the provocations will necessarily come to the fore as the source of energy in the discussion, producing the opportunity for cherry-picking, pissing matches, etc. Henwood as a professional writer producing a piece for a 150 year old publication is naturally going to be more nuanced in dealing with this state of affairs. The ratio of nuance to noise in tweets and blog comments is smaller, although there have been some pretty good comments here. 😉

  21. michael yates June 20, 2012 at 12:20 am | #

    Something I wrote last year, which might offer reasons why I am an “antilabor leftist.” Might also make me a “lonely prophet of wisdom.” http://cheapmotelsandahotplate.org/2011/09/17/hoffa-and-trumka-babble-while-the-house-of-labor-burns/

  22. Corey Robin June 20, 2012 at 12:23 pm | #

    Michael: Your point re the bad things SEIU is doing — with which I do not disagree — gets to why I find this debate so endlessly frustrating. I brought up the SEIU $80 million effort in order to show that here we have a union taking twice as much money as the entire labor movement devotes to the Democrats and doing the things that critics of the labor movement say they want done: devoting resources to non-workplace organizing, non-contract based campaigns, non-protect your own fiefdoms. I didn’t say SEIU is a good union; I merely said what I just said. But rather than confront the significance of that point — which is threefold: a) all the focus on labor and the Dems and calls for labor to do non-electoral work obscures the fact that in this one instance alone, one union is spending twice that money doing the very thing you want them to do and; b) they’re still not meeting much success; so c) stop acting as if these ideas aren’t already being tried and that you have the magic bullet to succeed where others have failed — you make a quick acknowledgment of the fact and then instantly switch gears to saying SEIU sucks in other ways. A point I don’t disagree with but which seems the definition of irrelevance to the question at hand. I’m not picking on you here. I see this time and again in this debate. And it makes this entire argument feel pointless. If people’s attention spans can’t stay focused on one point long enough in order to hammer it out, figure out who’s right and who’s wrong, and build from there (assuming we’re all ultimately in favor of a much more radical workers’ movement, which I think we are), or if people are operating in such bad faith as to want simply to win points on issues that are not up for debate, I’m not sure why we should continue the conversation.

    • michael yates June 20, 2012 at 1:04 pm | #

      Corey, I have nothing more to say. Someone told me you were difficult. They were correct. This is pointless. I am under no obligation to hammer things out with you. Save your comments on short attention spans for your students.

  23. Corey Robin June 20, 2012 at 12:34 pm | #

    Todd: Re your first set of questions. I don’t understand the first one, and the second one is premised on your “You talk as though.” I’m not talking as though that were the case, so no point in responding. Re your questions about SEIU: good questions. I don’t know the whole answer but I’ve been told the bulk of it went into door to door mobilization, using on the ground community organizers (and in fact working with pretty good non-union organizing groups). Re the general strike: it came up on the threads here (https://coreyrobin.com/2012/06/07/a-challenge-to-the-left/), here (https://coreyrobin.com/2012/06/08/a-solidarity-of-strangers/), various different threads on my FB page, and Twitter. As I said above, I’m not only having this argument here. Re organizing: acknowledging is one thing, understanding it is another. I haven’t gotten any sense people understand the difficulties at all, and your comment re being shot at only confirms my sense that you don’t. Doug made a similar point to me on FB. And it kind of flies in the face of most American and American labor history. The bulk of repression that was ever visited on the labor movement was in the form of mass firings and other modes of disciplinary workplace coercion. Although US labor history wsa extremely violent — more so than in many European states – that violence truly paled in comparison with workplace coercion. Also, if you know anything about McCarthyism in America — which most US historians take as the touchstone of twentieth century repression in the US — the stats are clarifying. Less than 10 people killed, upward of 40 percent of all workers investigated for their political beliefs (with something like 15,000 workers fired for those beliefs. Most people believe this was the most potent instance of repression in the 20th century in the US (more so than the first Red Scare, the violence against the Civil Rights Movement, the surveillance of the New Left and antiwar movement). By comparison, in a single year, according to NLRB estimates, upwards of 20,000 people are illegally fired or disciplined for union activity. You can tell me all you want how much you know about the difficulties of organizing, but when you invoke the fact that workers aren’t being shot at as somehow a useful comparison with the true difficulties they faced once upon a time, it’s hard for me not to conclude that you don’t in fact have much of a sense of the difficulties.

    • Todd June 20, 2012 at 9:52 pm | #

      Corey wrote:

      “Todd: Re your first set of questions. I don’t understand the first one,”

      OK, I’m trying to reconcile what you wrote here:

      “one can cite many cases of the labor movement already doing it [ie concrete examples of the currently failing mode of unionism], sometimes successfully, a lot of times not.”

      with what Doug wrote in his Nation piece:

      “Lafer points to the nurses’ union’s efforts to tax the 1 percent. By that I presume he means National Nurses United (NNU). NNU is doing many very good things, but they’re outliers in the labor movement.”

      You come across as implying that every union is already deeply involved in non-union associated work, as though there are no outliers in this regard.

      re. the general strike: yes, there have been mentions of it (as there always are in these sorts of talks); so what? Did someone recognizable, with an ounce of authority and experience make that sort of call? I don’t remember any named contributor in your first post-Walker post from the Facebook discussion writing that.

      “your comment re being shot at only confirms my sense that you don’t [understand the difficulties].”

      I don’t think I can equal your length of time doing it, or any particular experiences to colour what happened, but I was one of the first people who helped try to organize part-time teachers at a local college where I was working a few years ago. I was there first thing in the morning with the guy who had started the ball rolling, trying to talk to teachers as they came through the front doors. I think even the president of the college came by when we were working the crowd; certainly plenty of his aides and fellow executives came by. You think I wasn’t risking my job then? I sort of stand out; it wouldn’t have been too hard for any one of them to find out who I was and make some calls. Not to mention the letters I and other part-time teachers got threatening us with dire consequences should our org be recognized as a union.

      I doubt I have your exact experience, but don’t sniff at what little I do have or assume that because I don’t march in lock-step with you I obviously don’t have a klew.

      So what am I supposed to do with the statement about the difficulty of organizing? Am I just supposed to shut up when that particular sacred cow gets trotted out?

      “I would just like someone to explain to me, concretely and carefully, with real analysis and not vague invocations of labor leaders holding back worker militancy, how we get from this terrible situation to the brave new world — all the while leapfrogging over the real questions of worker organization.”

      Ah. You want The Plan. And if nobody can put it into your hands, well, obviously it’s all smoke and mirrors, right? Just keep right on with the same-old-same-old, never mind that The Plan doesn’t exist, has never existed, and probably will never exist.

      • Corey Robin June 20, 2012 at 11:23 pm | #

        Todd: How you get from “many cases” to “every union is already deeply involved” is beyond me. As for my point re your understanding of organizing, it’s pretty clear that I didn’t say you had no experience; I said you have no understanding, and I explained why. You still haven’t demonstrated you have much understanding. As for the general strike issue, you asked, “Who here (or in the two articles that are our focus) has mentioned a general strike as the way to go (and who has endorsed the idea)?” By “here” I assumed you meant “here.” i didn’t realize that what you really meant was “someone recognizable, with an ounce of authority and experience [to] make that sort of call.” (Though I am amused by your conflation of name recognition, authority, and experience.) As for your meditations on the plan, well, I leave the metaphysics to you.

  24. michael yates June 20, 2012 at 5:15 pm | #

    Corey, since I have been a teacher for nearly as long as you have been alive, let me try again. SEIU spent a lot of money on its fight for a fair economy program, but you, who brought it up, don’t give us any real details. What did it do with the money? Who worked on the campaign, and what did they do? My friend, Jim Straub, a great organizer who works for SEIU, says this:

    “This [the fair economy campaign] has involved canvassing working-class neighborhoods and organizing lots of protests in lots of cities around economic issues in general. Anyway, there is some humorous irony in the fact that SEIU has been expending all this organizational resource and effort into trying to spark an upsurge of economic anger in politics, and then along comes some protesters occupying Wall Street, and they have the success SEIU was trying to generate! Anyway, we haven’t been jealous or whatever and we basically have just folded our Fight For A Fair Economy protest activity into the occupations all over the country. Who knows if our own efforts were part of laying the groundwork in public sentiment for the enthusiasm over OWS? Regardless, I think you could say that it’s a rare moment of unions and the radical protest left having perfectly converging goals that result in success for all.”

    Now canvassing working class neighborhoods and organizing lots of protests around economic issues are good things. But what kind of economics education did the SEIU give the people doing the canvassing and protest organizing? I have taught many SEIU staff, and I have never been struck with the depth or their understanding of political economy. Nor have I ever heard that SEIU devotes resources to educating its staff, much less its members. There have been unions in the past who did both. Why not a rich union like SEIU? Another friend of mine, Bill Fletcher, developed the AFL-CIO’s Common Sense Economics program. It wasn’t bad, and I used it once (I was doing a program in W. VA where we were testing it, so I had no choice). It was just too superficial and full of errors. All of this builds on the notion of fairness, which is problematic for lots of reasons, mainly because it doesn’t get to the root of inequality, namely the capitalist mode of production (see my recent article in Monthly Review on this: The Great Inequality). Note too that in my comments above, I juxtaposed SEIU’s Fairness campaign with certain SEIU problems, which to my mind are endemic to that union. This is a fair thing to do in terms of how seriously we can take the multimillion dollar Fairness campaign. So I don’t think I was showing a short attention span here. I could just as easily say that you appear to be obsessive compulsive, unable to entertain multiple thoughts unless the one you are concerned with in the moment is fully argued and resolved to boot, on a blog page no less.

    I also suggested other thing labor should at least try. Sam Gindin has been doing this for a long time, and his bona fides are a lot greater than yours or mine. Yet you make no mention of his interview with Doug Henwood nor do you address what he has to offer. Same with the labor studies programs I discussed. And etc.

    Maybe as Sam Gindin says, it is not these discussions that are frustrating but the times in which we live. We don’t have answers to reversing the downward spiral in which so many workers find themselves. And even as I say that unions need to educate their members, who would do the teaching in most unions? Andy Stern? Hoffa? And if struggle is the best teacher, why aren’t all unions engaging in it?

    Finally, I do not agree that organizing is always slow and incremental. it often happens in bursts. That is why the Walker recall represents such a wasted effort. There was an outburst but labor leader and Democratic politicos sucked the air right out of it. Maybe just maybe, while organizing is occurring, slow and incremental or otherwise, labor’s lonely radical prophets have to keep plugging away too. Trying to argue for and help to create new (or old but abandoned for that matter) structures of class wide solidarity ready to act the next time a Wisconsin Uprising occurs.

    Addendum: Corey, by all accounts you are a good teacher. But this isn’t a classroom and you’re not the omnipotent prof here. Understanding often comes in fits and starts. Show a little patience, a little less petulance. It’s a virtue of considerable worth.

    • Corey Robin June 20, 2012 at 6:28 pm | #

      Michael: I assume you know the Dr. Seuss story The Cat in the Hat and perhaps also The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. In the sequel, the cat comes to the kids’ house, takes a bath, and leaves a pink ring around the bathtub. He then cleans it off, but the pink just ends up on the mother’s dress, then the wall, then elsewhere. The pink spot just keeps shifting around.

      That’s kind of how I feel talking to you. Only it’s not a pink spot that keeps moving around; the spot keeps turning into different colors and getting bigger and bigger.

      So let’s recap. In Doug’s original piece, he wrote, “Since 2000, unions have given over $700 million to Democrats—$45 million of it this year alone (Labor: Long-Term Contribution Trends). What do they have to show for it? Imagine if they’d spent that sort of money, say, lobbying for single-payer day-in, day-out, everywhere.”

      So I say, hmm, well, one union did spend just about the much in one year alone, not lobbying for one issue but agitating for broader working class concerns, the kind of thing Doug says he wants to see more of. Note that Doug didn’t say anything about funding a campaign to instruct working-class people in theories of political economy. Now, as I said, the point of bringing up SEIU was not to celebrate it or even this program but, among other things, to point out that Doug’s proposal is already happening on the ground, with more money than he could ever imagine, and with far greater vision than even he called for.

      You come along and say, well, SEIU does bad things. I point out that that wasn’t my point and wasn’t germane to why I brought up SEIU. Now you come back and say, yes, well, the program is pretty good, but it doesn’t teach to the level you think such a mode of instruction ought to be at. Again, I say, not my point. I didn’t raise SEIU as a model of Michael Yates’ theory of labor education; I raised it for a different reason entirely.

      Now, if you want to change the topic to your preferred issue, that’s totally cool, and I have zero interest in stopping you. But you bring these issues up as if you were responding to me and my points — and you’re not. I’m making a different point altogether. Your response, while it may be completely accurate — I have devoted zero time to questions of labor education, what works and what doesn’t work — is, in terms of what I was saying, completely besides the point.

      B/c even if everything you say about the insufficiencies of SEIU’s program is true, it still is the case that it’s way beyond anything Doug was calling for in his original article. Which just demonstrates how out of touch with the facts on the ground that article is. In Doug’s world, unions are devoted far too many of their resources to electing Democrats when they should be devoting those very same resources to on the ground education of the working class. In the real world, one union — one with one of the very worst reputations, I might add — is doing that and more. Not to your standards, I understand (and would probably agree with you if I knew more about it). But certainly far beyond anything Doug claimed he wanted to see. And the results, not surprisingly, are not the transformed universe Doug and others seem to think would come about from such efforts.

      Okay, so you’ll say this is me trying to impose my will on a reluctant classroom of students (for someone who’s never met me and never even talked to me virtually until now, you seem to know an awful lot about me). You have a strange idea of a classroom; in a classroom I have zero interest in imposing my will on students or shoving down my preferred analysis of political theory or political economy down their throats. Instead, I’m trying to get them to examine their own positions, not to change them, but to deepen them, to get them to learn how to support their positions, revise them if their own logical analysis and empirical inquiry doesn’t support those positions.

      To my mind, this blog isn’t a classroom; this is what’s commonly called an argument or a debate or a disagreement. Person A says x, and Person B says I disagree with x because of y and z. Person A responds, well, y and z don’t really challenge x, they challenge a different point, w, and if you really want to challenge x, you’re going to have to come up with better reasons than y and z.

      Again, you’re under zero obligation to engage with my points. You can write in and say, “Corey brought up SEIU. I was chatting to a friend and here’s what I found out about that campaign. Blah blah blah.” But don’t try to dress that point up as a critique of my position because it’s not.

      One last point: You make a big deal about being a labor educator and labor education. I would have thought one of the first obligations of any educator, whether of workers or anyone else, was to make sure that they understood the position of the person or student they’re engaged with, to respond to that position rather than engage in a debate with some other position that they find more congenial or interesting to debate with. That, as you know, takes time and effort. You have to listen, you have to restate the position of the person you’re in conversation with, to make sure you know what it is that they’re saying. You’ve done none of that here. You’ve merely gone on about your preferred theories, which have nothing to do with what I’m talking about, all the while pretending as if you are responding to what I’m talking about.

      If this an example of how YOU do labor education, well, I’m not that impressed.

      • michael yates June 20, 2012 at 8:53 pm | #

        i posted this on Michael Smith’s blog. The reference to evolution references discussion about a poll showing that large numbers of people in the US don’t appear to believe in it. Not a full statement of my teaching methods and I make no claim for its impressiveness. The University of Pittsburgh did see fit to name me an outstanding teacher the first year such an award was given. A committee of peers made the awards, eight I believe in a faculty of a few thousand. I offer this not as a reply to our host but for anyone who might do labor education:

        “In 1980, having come to see that college teaching was becoming a useless endeavor (but still needing a paycheck, so I didn’t quit), I started teaching workers in Johnstown, PA. Mostly steelworkers at first, but as the mills closed, all sorts of workers. They had all kinds of beliefs with which I strongly disagreed. Some were racists, some were fanatic patriots, some hated teacher strikes, most were fervently anticommunist, many were, I am pretty certain, opposed to abortion, most were strongly religious, and so forth. No doubt, a fair number didn’t believe in evolution, though I never asked. When it mattered, I would challenge them on their beliefs, say if racism reared its ugly head or US imperialism was defended. We’d discuss things, and hopefully by the end of the class, they at least were willing to entertain a different perspective. What united us and allowed the class to proceed in relative harmony was that they hated their bosses and I hated mine. I hated all bosses. I’d listen to their hatred, and we’d build on it, slowly but surely,moving outward from their workplaces, to the government, to the schools that had shortchanged them, to race and gender, even religion sometimes (they always loved that rich man and the eye of the needle story, and salvation by acts not faith alone). My liberal colleagues at college thought themselves above my rabble students, who often wrote and spoke roughly and who had probably never read The Emperor of Ice Cream or listened to Charles Ives. I never could get any of them to teach a class. And on various mailing lists, when I suggest that leftwingers ought to teach workers, I am always met with silence. Better to thumb your nose at the masses and harp about the barbarians at the gate.”

  25. Owen White June 20, 2012 at 6:28 pm | #

    I’ll set aside all the personal animus on this thread which I don’t really understand. Corey sent me a free copy of his book when I was unemployed and for that I am very grateful as it is an excellent book in my opinion and I have tried to get dozens of people, including conservative friends, to read it, with some success even.

    I think Corey makes a good point about SEIU doing exactly what Henwood was suggesting, and about the amounts of money involved, and pointing out that this resulted in a big fat zero. Perhaps Henwood’s original suggestions were too vague and too broad. Perhaps traditional unions like SEIU are dead ends to begin with because they are already so associated with anti-worker bureaucracies and corruption. Perhaps they just did a really shitty job with their initiative and with some practical reforms they could make a better go of it in the future. But this thought does come to me – the SEIU campaign was one effort, albeit one with a lot of money behind it. It constitutes one failure. But for over a generation we have seen failure after failure after failure after failure with regard to the traditional tactics of mainstream unions, and they are still committed to that path. If we judge Henwood’s suggestions a dead end by the evidence of the SEIU failure, aren’t we all the more obligated to suggest that the status quo outreach/political operations of mainstream unions are also a dead end?

    In Corey’s book he brilliantly observes that the reactionaries use radical and revolutionary tactics against the left, and frequently they use them with more success than the left does. Corey notes how we see this in the right wing populism of our day, which in so many cases mimics prior leftist populisms. The thought occurs to me that the GOP, the Koch brothers, ALEC, and the like would never keep throwing dollars at institutions with the rate of failure our unions have. Without a decent “return on their investment” fairly quickly they would quit an effort that wasn’t working and try something else. Look at the brilliant political success they have had in state legislatures across the country, which has given them a great advantage in recent redistricting manipulations. That effort was an incremental effort on their part, but one which showed steady positive results for them over time. The focus on state level politics was born in the 80s when conservatives realized that they couldn’t plan on winning on the national scale long term if they kept loosing so many local battles. I don’t think they would ever defend a given method using the “slow and incremental” language if it wasn’t at least slowly and incrementally making progress for them. With mainstream unions we aren’t even talking about 2 steps forward, 1 step back, hell, we aren’t even talking about 1 step forward 2 steps back. If the data Henwood gives us is correct, It’s more like 20 steps back, one step forward. Is there not some point at which we admit that we will never win if we are not as ruthless in rejecting methods which don’t work as our opponents are?

    • denke robot June 20, 2012 at 8:03 pm | #

      Does anyone have some forensically relevant links describing the lineaments of the SEIU campaign?

      Owen, I think Corey’s books are good too. I’m just wondering if presently, when he’s defending his thesis on the coercive power of the private-sector over fearful employees, that he’s not stepping over the line into the re-inscription of that fear, given, say, other people’s first-hand observations of the prevalence of some apparently fearless organizing subjects. It may have to do with people who are hired into union membership rather than organizing one themselves, or the professional status and career potentials of the people who are organizing.

      • Edward Brooks June 21, 2012 at 8:47 am | #

        denke robot refers to “the professional status and career potentials of the people who are organizing”

        I think Corey has done a decent job of pointing to some examples of non-workplace and non-electoral political organizing that outfits like SEIU are engaging in or supporting. (Efforts that Doug Henwood may have unintentionally overlooked, chosen to downplay, etc.) Without presuming to know much about the content and results of these efforts, I’d wager to say that many in this discussion would happily concede that SEIU is doing such things — and also that one problem (and not the only one) with their approach is their dependence on middle-class (sic) organizers with professional training, the sort of people with backgrounds, worldviews, and yes, interests, quite different than those they are organizing. Obama, after all, was a “community organizer” of a certain kind. But that’s just an educated guess on my part.

  26. Jon Flanders June 20, 2012 at 6:34 pm | #

    I am hoping that all the debate over the recall debacle in Wisconsin will have at least one result: more questioning of a turn towards electoral politics as a solution during the next uprising, which will surely come.

    Or at least, there won’t be a “suck it up” attitude about settling for a Barrett as a standard bearer in electoral politics. A lot of the problem after all is that we don’t have a working class mass party in the field to propose working class solutions to the crisis of capitalism that we are in. Since we don’t, Henwood is left with just talking about some sort of general campaigning around issues, whereas a workers party would put those issues directly on the table and force people to take a position on them.

    Its always good to go back and review Engel’s writings on the stirrings towards a workers party in the US in the 1890’s.He contended that a mass party of workers would be where they learned, would be their classroom in politics, so to speak. And this period did end, after all with the great Socialist Party campaigns of Debs. Think of what a mass rally for a Debs would have been like if he had been labor’s candidate in the recall! That tells you how far we have to go.

    And of course we have to ask, why did Debs emerge? In fact it took a great mass workplace struggle, the Pullman strike, to put him on the map for workers. Whatever the virtues of the Wisconsin Uprising, it never became a battle in the workplace. I think the next uprising may very well be one however. Then we shall see what might come of that.

  27. Benedict@Large June 21, 2012 at 3:15 am | #

    Thanks for the link to Henwood’s response. I had commented on Lafer’s original post when it came out, but had missed the reply. Lafer seemed to be saying that doing anything different (and ESPECIALLY more leftist stuff) was just too difficult. Very defeatist. Henwood at least has some ideas, Will they work? Who knows? But when the boat’s leaking and your only pail has a hole in it, it’s time for a different strategy.

  28. Todd June 21, 2012 at 6:39 am | #

    Corey wrote:

    “Todd: How you get from ‘many cases’ to ‘every union is already deeply involved’ is beyond me”

    Then I guess it’s beyond you to explain how the NNU are such apparent outliers when it comes to labour activism? And how the SEIU somehow stands in for other unions on this matter?

    “when you invoke the fact that workers aren’t being shot at as somehow a useful comparison with the true difficulties they faced once upon a time, it’s hard for me not to conclude that you don’t in fact have much of a sense of the difficulties.”

    Nobody shot at me, and I was in danger of losing my job despite what I was doing.

  29. P. Aitch Deeholder June 21, 2012 at 3:53 pm | #


    Topcoat Brownstone PC Dogmatist Professor’s best claim in this thread is that he imagines himself avoiding ad hominem and finds himself seeking to label others’ comments as such.

    With such a schoolmarmish attitude, how could he not become a professor at a post-HS inculcation academy?

    “I’m the professor here! I am! I have parchments that prove it… and everything!”

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