Join Our Mailing List
Email:

Bookmark and Share


  Home > News > Additional Stories

John King: Book synopsises from London Books

From London Books:

John King is the author of seven novels – The Football Factory, HeadhuntersEngland AwayHuman PunkWhite TrashThe Prison House and Skinheads.

The Football Factory tells the stories of Chelsea boy Tommy Johnson and British tommy Bill Farrell, a World War II hero, and is set against a background of contemporary England, dipping into a series of related lives. Inspired by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and its power-of-the-proles message, the book has been adapted as a play by Brighton Theatre Events and as a film by Vertigo Films. It has also appeared on the stage in Germany and Holland.

Headhunters focuses on the lives of five men who form a light-hearted Sex Division, a league dedicated to female conquest. Carter is a charmer, Balti and Harry more dedicated to drink and curries than women, Will a thinker happy to settle down, while Mango is a wide boy in a smart car, an angry character traumatised by the loss of his missing brother. The Sex Division soon fades away, the so-called sex war meaningless when matched to the on-going class war, a tit-for-tat argument and prophetic dreams leading to a final explosion on the streets of London.

England Away is the third part of The Football Factory Trilogy, and in this novel characters from The Football Factory and Headhunters come together as they head into Europe for a football match against Germany in Berlin. Tommy Johnson narrates their passage through Amsterdam to Berlin, while back in London Bill Farrell retraces his war-time route to confront a horrific war memory, both men confronting their own demons, with very different results.

Human Punk is the first instalment of The Satellite Cycle and charts the life and times of Joe Martin, a Slough scruff who is changed forever by the arrival of punk rock in his school playground. Set in 1977, 1988 and 2000, the book follows his life through the eras of fading Old Labour, rampant New Tory, and emerging New Labour governments. With a soundtrack that features everything from The Clash to Argy Bargy via King Tubbys and The Ruts, Human Punk is about the importance of informal education and the power of friendship.

White Trash records the world as seen through the eyes of Ruby James and Jonathan Jefferies, at the same time dipping into the lives of a succession or men and women who are full of wisdom yet considered worthless by the money-motivated elite. Ruby is a hard-working nurse, while Jefferies is a mysterious time-and-motions expert, a sinister presence in the corridors of the hospital where she works. White Trash reflects the clash of two opposing mentalities and is essentially a celebration of everyday life and a defence of the NHS.

The Prison House is set in a foreign prison, Seven Towers, and is split into seven sections, each dealing with a deadly sin. Inmate Jimmy Ramone is a drifter, running from a truth he has yet to face, though it isn’t until the end of the novel that the reader learns the nature of his secret – and the crime he has committed. The Prison House deals with love and imagination and the will to survive, moving into split personalities and reality-splitting road trips across America and India, Jimmy finally able to confront the the nightmares lurking in the shadows.

Skinheads completes the loose The Satellite Cycle (which includes Human Punk and White Trash) and focuses on Terry English (original ska-loving skinhead), his nutter-nephew Nutty Ray (Oi skin and Orwell fanatic) and Terry’s son Lol (a fifteen-year-old ska-punk more than happy to embrace his family heritage). The futures of Terry and Ray are threatened by dark clouds, stories from their late-60s and early-80s youths weaving into the main narrative as they seek salvation. Skinheads is rooted in honour, decency and pride in self, family and culture.

Back to John King's Author Page




Putting solidarity back into Pride

The Socialist Review
By Nicola Field, Gethin Roberts
June 2015

Nicola Field and Gethin Roberts of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners spoke to Socialist Review about politicising this year's Pride season.

We’ve just seen a majority Tory government elected. How will this shape the context of the Pride marches this year and the wider work you are doing through the re-launched Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM)?

Nicola: The Tories, who were seen before the election by the bourgeois gay movement as heroes because they brought in gay marriage, have now shown their true colours. The cabinet is full of homophobes, such as the new equalities minister, Caroline Dinenage, who voted against equal marriage.

It exposes what they were doing as opportunistic, a kind of pink-washing, a way of appealing to liberals while carrying through a vicious assault on the working class through cuts.

Now they’re appeasing the right by kicking LGBT people in the teeth. It opens the door to us to reconnect the issues of class and sexuality. The cuts to welfare, especially housing benefit, will affect young LGBT people.

If you’re stuck at home with parents who don’t understand or you are in a rural situation or in a place where you feel isolated or unable to be yourself, you’re not going to be able to move away.

Cuts in health services mean that LGBT people won’t be able to access the help they need — maybe HIV services or mental health services. We know that LGBT people suffer particularly with depression, anxiety and isolation. Not being able to access services is life threatening.

With LGSM we want to put the politics back into Pride and march with trade unionists, regardless of their sexuality. It gives us a chance to connect the rights and needs of LGBT people with the class issue of opposing cuts and austerity.

Right wingers are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of the homophobes being in charge and we’ve got to show that we understand who our real friends are and who our potential allies are — and it’s certainly not the Tories.

Gethin: For me the most frightening thing is the contempt which is now really obvious and naked from the Tory party. Cameron has put the view that “we’ve been far too tolerant for too long”. It is terrifying that he can think that privately, let alone say it publicly.

We need to remind ourselves constantly that the majority of the population did not and would not vote for these people.

In stark contrast to what they’re proposing for trade union balloting, which is 40 percent of eligible voters, the Tories got less than 24 percent. In their own terms, therefore, they have no mandate.

What are your priorities for LGSM?

Gethin: The next few months will be very much focused upon how we can use the interest in the film Pride during the Pride march season.

We are there to encourage trade unionists and other activists, regardless of sexuality, to join us in putting forward the argument that sexuality is not something that divides us from each other; we have so much more in common.

We need to build solidarity with other groups — disabled people, people in receipt of benefits who’ve been victimised and targeted, Muslim communities and a whole range of other communities who will see for themselves very clearly that they are now in the sights of the Tories in the same way that the LGBT community used to be, and I think no longer is.

What Nicola said about pink-washing is absolutely right, but the battle for LGBT rights has moved forward so substantially in the last 30 years that our responsibility now is not to fight for our rights but to see that our rights are indivisible from the rights of all those others under attack. It’s about building solidarity. The connections we built 30 years ago are still there and still producing amazing things.

Some of us were in Istanbul, Turkey, recently and visited a picket line of electrical workers who had been on strike for 241 days, picketing the sites that they’d been employed at before they were sacked for raising health and safety concerns. We were very nervous, but we could not have had a warmer or more positive reception.

When we show solidarity with other people it is reciprocated, and that’s the way we will build a majority for change.

Nicola: We collected for the Barnet care workers when they were on strike, the bus workers and the Doncaster care workers.

We visited the National Gallery strikers and held a solidarity event with them on May Day, and we met the Kellingley coal miners who are fighting the closure of one of the last deep mines in the UK.

Gethin: During the Bafta Awards we were pleased to be outside picketing along with the cleaners and porters at the Royal Opera House in support of union recognition and the London living wage.

Nicola: Stephen Beresford [who wrote Pride] was inside collecting the award for the film while we were outside with our banner picketing!

Gethin: Stephen, to be fair, did express solidarity from the stage.

Nicola: When the film came out we found that young people in their teens and 20s were so inspired by the idea of solidarity, of changing the world and fighting a common enemy together.

Young people today have no sense of the political context of the 1980s. In the atmosphere of the time, setting up a support group was the obvious thing to do; it wasn’t any great revelation.

You could live on the dole, you could squat somewhere, and you didn’t have to work for benefits. Young people today need to understand that you should not have to qualify to survive.

Young people have been inspired by the political message of the film, and we’ve been able to connect that with what we want to do with the Pride marches.

We’ve already had support from several branches of the National Union of Teachers, Unison, the Royal Society of Radiographers, the Fire Brigades Union, Kellingley National Union of Miners and the Tredegar Town Band, who are currently performing at Sadler’s Wells with the Rambert dance company in a piece called Dark Arteries about the Miners’ Strike.

There’s also a group of sixth formers from Pontefract who have raised money from trade unions to organise a coach down to Pride, and they’re actually selling tickets to trade unionists!

The film made them want to march with us and has taught them how you make solidarity links in order to make it happen —– like in the film when Dai Donovan says this is what solidarity is: you shake hands and say I support you, you support me, wherever you are, wherever you come from.

And they have found that to be true — they had to go and speak at meetings and they learnt how to speak politically.

It’s crucial that LGSM uses the opportunity of the Pride season to unite everyone we can against austerity; this is the central message of what we are doing now.

Gethin: The other important message, especially in terms of London Pride, is that we do not want anything to do with the kind of people that the board have brought on board as sponsors.

We certainly don’t think that companies that don’t pay taxes in the UK should be given a platform at our event.

These companies are deliberately trying to associate themselves with what is seen as a progressive, right-on event, to deflect attention from the fact that they treat their employees appallingly.

There will be companies supporting Pride who use zero-hour contracts, who don’t pay the London living wage, even companies that don’t have trade union agreements. It’s completely unacceptable.

Very early on in our discussions with the Pride board it became very clear that they have no screening process whatsoever for donors.

The TUC ought to consider whether it should continue to sponsor Pride when that’s the basis on which they’re accepting sponsorship.

Is there resistance to Pride’s commercialisation within the wider LGBT movement?

Gethin: Over the last 30 years our minds have been colonised by the neoliberals and people think there is no alternative to the way things are. Many LGBT people think the battle is over because we have legal equality, but what is the point of that if we don’t have other basic human rights? If you’re unemployed and have no access to benefits, and now the Tories even want to abolish the Human Rights Act!

Nicola: Or if you’re being beaten up by a partner or family member and can’t afford to leave. Legal equality means little if these rights are taken away.

What do you think are the challenges for young LGBT people today?

Nicola: There is a contradiction between the outward appearance of the rights that have been won across Western Europe and North America and the reality for many young people, whatever their sexuality, who feel constrained, restricted, that there are lots of rules governing them, lots of disapproval, that there’s lots of misunderstanding.

I wrote a book 20 years ago called Over the Rainbow: Money, Class and Homophobia, looking at the way in which identity politics was colonising the LGBT movement.

It was pulling the movement away from a class analysis of sexual oppression into a set of hierarchies of oppression in which we were competing over who was most oppressed and challenging it through internal consciousness raising.

It was an incredibly paralysing approach which played right into the hands of the bourgeois gay movement, who were able to get on with making money out of the movement and commercialising it.

Looking at the LGBT movement now on the campuses we can see the modern version of identity politics in intersectionality and privilege theory. Queer theory is really the left wing of it, the best of the activists who we want to relate to.

But you get this notion of “you can’t say anything about this because you haven’t experienced it yourself”. If that’s the case then we will be a very beleaguered set of people! If you can only talk about your own experiences then you can’t reach out to support others.

We must remember that Pastor Niemöller poem where if you don’t speak out for others there’ll be no one left to speak out for you.

I think those young people who’ve been inspired by the film are fed up with being told they can’t understand or they can’t speak out.

They’ve found a place in LGSM where we say we don’t care who you are or where you come from or what your experiences are — you support us and we’ll support you.

Going back to your point Gethin about neoliberalism, it relates to the general election and why Labour lost — because they never challenged the notion that austerity is necessary and that the economic crisis was a result of Labour’s overspending. If there is no challenge to the neoliberal agenda then many people will accept it.

Gethin: Yes, and the result in Scotland confirms that — where an alternative argument was put by the SNP they won a resounding victory.

Nicola: I hope that isn’t a case of “poor-washing” by the SNP. I hope Sturgeon and the other new MPs prioritise an anti-austerity agenda that becomes a focus for political debate in this country.

I have just been commissioned by PM Press to write a book looking at class and sexuality today, about how sexual liberation is absolutely bound up with the question of class struggle.

That’s why it’s vital that we defend trade union rights and oppose austerity — and build a movement that’s capable of building another world, because it’s in that other world altogether that we’ll be able to find out who we really are.

Facebook: LGSM Pride 2014
Twitter: @LGSMpride
Pints and Perverts socials are held monthly at the London Welsh Centre on Gray’s Inn Road, King’s Cross.
For a list of Pride marches around the country go to prideinlondon.org/pride-uk-2015/




Gabriel Kuhn's Playing as if the World Mattered reviewed in the New York Journal of Books

By Russell P. Gantos
The New York Journal of Books
June 2015


Author Gabriel Kuhn’s Playing As If The World Mattered: An Illustrated History of Activism in Sports is a thoughtful and easy to digest compilation of one-page commentaries with supporting full-color images, tracking examples of activism within the changing influence of the role of sports as integral parts of all societies.

Covering a period of more than 120 years, Kuhn begins with the advent of sports clubs and sports associations in Europe in the 1890s and carries it through the role of sports as it collides with the Civil Rights movement right through today’s period of mega-professional sports teams and world-wide sporting events like the World Cup of Soccer and the Olympic games.

His 160 pages covers a great deal of ground with example after example of activism threading its way throughout a pantheon of sports, from cycling to something known as radical cheerleading. It is an impressive pulling together of well-known and heretofore generally unknown to the general public, events, and individuals who played roles in the arena of sports activism.

While the book is definitely not for the average pro sports fan, those who have a keen interest in the role of sports as an influencer within past and future societies, particularly those who share Kuhn’s leftist viewpoint, will certainly find observations that should reinforce his belief that viewing and participating in various sports can and does have an important place in shaping the world in which we live.

The author concludes however, there should be a more enlightened goal for the role of sports within society, and that is to return to the ideal where everyone competes on a level playing field with no highly-compensated superstars, greedy owners or politicians who use sports for their own personal or political gains. What is lost is that despite its warts, mega-sports and world-wide sporting events do bring people of all races, income levels, and ages together in a shared passion for a beloved sports team. That too is a noble accomplishment.

Unfortunately, like a lot of great causes intended to help build a more perfect society, once people actually get involved, it pretty much all goes to hell, as Kuhn so aptly reveals.

Russell P. Gantos Jr. has been a researcher for more than 40 years as well as a journalist and newspaper sports editor and columnist. He has a degree in journalism from Ohio University.
- See more at: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/playing#sthash.FZQTqXVS.dpuf

Buy book now | Download e-book now | Back to Gabriel Kuhn's homepage




Waging Peace receives 2015 Skipping Stones Book Award!

By Daemion Lee, and Paulette Ansari
Skipping Stones Magazine
June 2015

David Hartsough has been a peace activist all of his life, and this book tells his story. Born in 1940, he par- ticipated in many of the major peace movements in the U.S. and around the world. His recounting of various nonviolent protests make this book more than his personal story. It also chronicles a his- tory of peace activism that Mr. Hartsough witnessed.

Both of his parents were activists, and the childhood memories he includes in the book present an interesting per- spective on the early makings of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1940s and 1950s. He remembers challenging his teacher over a patri- otic march around the flag to support the military draft when he was in fifth grade. He also met Dr. Martin Luther King briefly as a teenager, which proved to be a influential experience.

He recalls, when he was only twenty, sitting at a segregated lunch counter all day in Arlington,Virginia with other black and white college students. He heard a voice behind him say, “Get out of this store in two seconds, or I’m going to stab this through your heart.” An evil looking man was holding a switchblade about an inch from his heart. David was grateful for his many hours of nonviolent role playing just days before. Still, it took all the courage he could muster to put a smile on his face, turn and say, “Friend, do what you believe is right, and I will still try to love you.”The man lowered his arm, turned and walked out of the store.This single event proved the awesome power of God’s love.

Hartsough’s work took him from Cuba to Yugoslavia to Germany and back to America. He also went to Kosovo, El Salvador, Palestine, Iran and else- where. He continues to protest against war, racism, and militarization in nonviolent ways.

Hartsough is a Quaker and his sense of faith clearly sustains his work. He has witnessed much injustice —most chilling is his descriptions of the accident his friend Brian Wilson suffered in 1987 during a peace- ful blockade of a military train carrying weapons.Yet Hartsough has maintained a deep sense of compassion and a reverence for life that is evident in his writing.
This book shows what made Hartsough into a peace activist, and it chronicles the major achievments, as well as setbacks, in his life’s work. All together, this book is an excellent resource to help inspire those who will come after him.



Buy Waging Peace | Buy Waging Peace e-Book | Back to David Hartsough's Author Page


Positive Force: More Than A Witness reviewed on SLUG

By Nick Kuzmack
Salt Lake Under Ground (SLUG)

It’s always good to see what is preached in song lyrics, then practiced through example. Director Robin Bell takes the viewer through the extensive history of DC based punk-activist group Positive Force. Bell explores the origins during the Reagan era, the establishment of their communal headquarters, the beginnings of Riot Grrrl, the modern-day controversial affiliation with the mainstream and what it means to be an underground movement. Supporters like Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi), Allison Wolfe (Bratmobile) and Ian F. Svenonius (Nation of Ulysses) lend narratives of their varied experiences with Positive Force. This DVD is also packed with cool bonus features that look into Positive Force’s involvement with groups like the “We Are Family” senior service advocacy group. It also contains sweet music videos from groups like Chumbawamba’s “Rappaport’s Testament: I Never Gave Up” and Anti-Flag’s “You’ve Got to Die for the Government.” There are a lot of films on the gritty, rock n’ roll–inspired lifestyles of punk rockers, but not nearly enough idealize it. It is punk movements like these that inspire viable alternatives and the possibilities of creating a whole new world. So dig this, and be inspired to create something new.

Buy the DVD now | Back to Robin Bell's Director Page




Chin Wag At the Slaughterhouse: Interview with Kenneth Wishnia

RichardGodwin.net
June 10th, 2015

Kenneth Wishnia is the author of numerous highly acclaimed novels, among them 23 Shades of Black. His work is imbued with the hybrid knowledge of Noir. An articulate narrator, he is at once both ancient and modern. Kenneth met me at The Slaughterhouse, where we talked about identity and his fictions.

To what extent is identity important in your fictions?

Identity is tremendously important in my work. My protagonists are almost always marginalized outsiders, members of ethnic and/or religious minorities, or hanging by a thread economically. Some of this likely stems from the ancient tribal prophetic drive to “give voice to the voiceless,” a tradition going back to one of the earliest people’s prophet, Amos, an 8th century BCE “sheepbreeder from Tekoa” who is called upon by God to take on those “who defraud the poor, who rob the needy” (4:1).

Some of it is a reaction against a certain kind of contemporary “thriller” protagonist. You know the type—she or he is always a junior partner in some high-powered law firm who’s desperately trying to make senior partner; an intrepid investigative journalist or police detective whose job is in jeopardy; or a mid-level military or special agent, something like that. I think the idea behind such protagonists is that middle class readers will identify with them more than with a working class protagonist, especially since, in U.S. culture anyway, such professionals are seen as having more at stake, as having something to lose. As if working people don’t risk losing everything they’ve got if they dare to step out of line or miss a day of work.

In fact, I’ve found that once people reach a certain level of professional and economic stability, they are often far less likely to rock the boat, while those who have a much smaller stake in the economic system are often the ones who are willing to risk their livelihoods to take on the big bad guys.

Do you think there is a sub-genre of Noir that may be identified as the Noir of alienation, particularly when applied to the Jewish experience?

The theme of Jewish alienation goes back at least as far as the patriarchal era of the Middle Bronze Age (circa 1900 BCE) when God tells Abraham to leave his home city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia, with the warning: “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs” (Genesis 15:13). Even the word Hebrews conveys our wandering nomadic origins: the root letters of this ancient tribal name, e-b-r, can be found in the words ebra and ever, which mean cross over and other side, respectively. In other words, the Hebrews have been transgressive border crossers since way back.

This legacy has bred prejudices and superstitions that have followed us into the modern era:

Think of all those absurd conspiracy theories about the Jewish plot to take over global media and finances, which along with other hate-filled stereotypes contributed to the deadly assaults on the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC (where the victim was an African-American security guard) and the recent attacks on Jews, police and representatives of free speech in Paris and Denmark.

That’s some pretty dark stuff.

It’s no accident that so many of the directors and screenwriters who explored the dark side of the American experience in the classic films noir of the 1940s-50s (many of whom were blacklisted as a result) were Jewish émigrés from Fascist Europe. But many of them were the U.S.-born children of immigrants, whose experiences clearly parallel those of the contributors to Jewish Noir, the anthology I am currently editing for PM Press (pub date: Oct. 1, 2015), who have endured more subtle forms of discrimination, exclusion, identity and/or uniquely Jewish moral crises.

I’ll close with a (generalized, oversimplified) statement about the (simplistic, triumphalist) Christian view of the world–e.g., the Hebrew God is distant and terrifying, while Jesus loves you–and especially the idea that, for Christians, if you follow the right path, everything will turn out great for you, whereas in Judaism, you can follow the right path and still get fucked (cf. Job). THAT’S noir.

How do you convey this in your novel 23 Shades of Black?

It’s central to the main character’s experience. The novel takes place in New York City in the early 1980s, when my character, Ecuadorian-American female detective Filomena Buscarsela, would have been one of the first Latinas on the NYPD. So not only is she a woman in a man’s world, she’s a woman of color in a white man’s world. And they put her through hell for it, which makes it very difficult for her to live up to the ideals she has set for herself.

She’s also something of an outcast within her own “community” as well: immigrants from Ecuador were still a very small group at the time, and she’s also a cop, so she is not fully accepted by the Latino community, either, which makes her a minority within a minority. (This phrase also describes the protagonist of my Jewish-themed historical novel, The Fifth Servant, and my current novel-in-progress, so it’s clearly a motif that I revisit again and again.)
So she’s alienated from her job, her community, and from American society in a general way as well. I guess that covers everything. So what’s left?

One idea I was working with while writing 23 Shades of Black was to invert a cherished Hollywood type: the righteous individual who, through sheer grit and determination, kicks open the doors to his or her group’s participation in some wider aspect of the culture that had previously been closed off. Baseball legend Jackie Robinson, who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, is a perfect example of this type of individual, single-handedly breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and his place in baseball history is unassailable.

Hollywood just loves that kind of story.

But what if he had failed? What if the taunts finally got to him? Or, perhaps worse, what if he simply hadn’t been a very good baseball player? What might that have been like?

Rather than write about an untarnished superwoman who takes on all comers, beats the odds, and ends up triumphant, I wanted to explore the human reality of someone who simply can’t take the weight of the entire world on her shoulders, who shows incredible personal strength—but it isn’t enough. (I guess my Marxist upbringing is showing: collective action is the only way to go, people!)

That’s my idea of drama. And yes, when a righteous person tries their best and still ends up getting chewed up by the system, you’re in the realm of noir.

What event has changed your life?

That’s easy: Getting nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel for 23 Shades of Black. I went from a nobody to a somebody overnight. I went from pressing my face up against the glass looking through the bulletproof glass window at the party to being inside at the party. The only thing that could top that would be getting a call from Hollywood. (Hello, Hollywood. Hello? Hello? Anybody there…?)

How important is legacy to you as a Jewish man living in America?

I’ve certainly never been interested in writing something trendy that will sell tons of copies in a single season but will disappear and be forgotten within a few years. Books are supposed to have a longer shelf life than a carton of milk, after all. My goal has always been to write something that will still be readable—and still be read—in a hundred years (at the very least).

One example: A couple of years ago, I read the Ace Books paperback edition of Harlan Ellison’s MEMOS FROM PURGATORY, about his experiences going undercover and joining a street gang in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood in the mid-1950s. First published in 1961, it was 50 years old when I picked it up—and Ellison’s voice was as engaging as anything written today. In terms of emotional realism, it didn’t feel dated at all. I even wrote to Harlan Ellison to tell him my reaction, saying that this book was still fresh after 50 years, which meant that it would still be fresh after 100 years. (And so on, until the language changes so much they’ll need footnotes to understand the references.) That’s definitely taking the long view, but really, what writer doesn’t fantasize—even a little bit—about still being read centuries later?

I think this attitude has less to do with my Jewish roots than my general goals as an artist, but perhaps the fact that Judaism is a text-based culture with a written legacy dating back thousands of years could have something to do with it.

Graham Greene wrote, ‘There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.’ What do you make of his observation?

Any artist, good or great, has to be a bit driven.

One thing that distinguishes writing from many other professions is the requirement for a certain level of analytical and observational distance—the separation that comes with the need to step outside a situation to observe or record it, while others seem to be able to live in the moment with no need to preserve something of the event (except as a digital photo) in order to use it as material for creative development, expansion, or significant alteration. We are the ones who look past the glitz in order to spot the staples holding up the chintzy curtains that seem to dazzle so many regular folks. This spoils some of the fun, of course. But we’re also less likely to be taken in by scams, especially if they involve written documents or email communication. I suppose we’re a bit like lawyers in that regard, trained to spot the inherent weaknesses and contradictions of a given text.

I think ALL writers have a bit of that “It’s great meeting you, but could you all please leave me the hell alone so I can go home and write?” going on. I know I do. The average shmuck thinks that being a writer means that they pay you millions of dollars, the book writes itself, and you spend the rest of the day drinking in a bar surrounded by admirers. They have no clue that it’s damn hard work and it takes a long time to get something to come out right. And when you’re working on something you end up resenting interruptions—dentist appointments, wedding receptions, phone calls from anyone who isn’t offering you paid work—and I think that a lot of people can’t relate to the fact that one has to cultivate a level of indifference to many distractions that seem to enthrall other people.

You also need to be ruthless when you edit, and many people cannot manage this level of rethinking about any type of problem, much less one that calls for serious self-analysis and criticism.

And of course, the best stories never end with an unequivocal triumph. There’s always a “Yeah, but…”

What do you make of the e-book revolution?

E-books are both good and bad for authors. They’re good for two principal reasons: easy access and no returns. I was once on a panel at Left Coast Crime, and after the panel an audience member came up to me and said, “Your book sounded really interesting, so I just bought it.”

She held up her smart phone and showed me that she had just purchased the e-book version of my novel The Fifth Servant. What’s not to like about that? Also, in terms of plain dollars and cents (or pounds and pence if you prefer), ask any author about their royalty statements, and they will usually complain about the large amounts kept in reserve against returns, or the large number of returns of physical books that this system allows. No one returns e-books. That sale is final.

On the down side, e-books can divert a lot of traffic away from independent bookstores, which are often our biggest supporters, so that’s not so good for us.

What are you working on at the moment?

As I mentioned earlier, I’m editing an anthology of all-new stories for PM Press called Jewish Noir, which is launching on Oct. 1 at the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, followed by events in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and elsewhere. Anyone in the UK care to invite us all over for an event? The roster of contributors includes Marge Piercy, S.J. Rozan, Eddie Muller, David Liss, Charles Ardai, Gary Phillips, Heywood Gould, Jason Starr, and many more. For more info, go to: http://secure.pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=733


I’m also working on an extremely ambitious Jewish-themed historical novel with parallel storylines set in the modern era and the 6th century BCE. I had to do a TON of research for this one, since I’m taking on the biblical era–and believe it or not, one or two people have written about the Bible before me, so I’d better know what I’m talking about. In any case, my take on the subject is sure to outrage all kinds of people. Ha ha ha.

What advice would you give to yourself as a younger man?
Spend a lot more time and money on publicity and promotion. (A lamentable state of affairs, but that’s how it is, folks.) Oh, and don’t forget to write The DaVinci Code.

What do you find to be effective methods of promoting your work and do you think publishing is in crisis?

Argh. I fucking hate the fact that we’re supposed to spend thousands of hours promoting ourselves. When the fuck am I supposed to do the actual writing? I have a full-time day job, an autistic son, and I’m supposed to write a piece for the Huffington Post for free? KRAK!

WANGGG! I did a piece for AlterNet last year called “Five Reasons Why Committed Activists Should Read Crime Fiction.” It’s a nice little piece and I’m reasonably proud of it, but it took me eight hours to do the work and I didn’t get paid one cent for it. GDDZZZZT! SISSS! BOOOM!

The people who set up and run the site don’t do it for free, but I’m supposed to put in eight hours of unpaid labor for them? KSSSHHHH! For the exposure, they say. I’m too old for that crap. When I was in my 20s, I routinely put in seventy-hour weeks for no money just to get experience. BADABOOM! STOMP! KSSHH! Even when I was in my 30s, and married with two children, I spent six months translating a novel from Spanish in order to get the experience, get a line on my resume, and maybe, just maybe, get some karma points for helping out a fellow author. I got $500 for six months’ work, so I sure didn’t do it for the money. YANNNGGGGG!

WEEEE-OOOO-EEEE-EEE! I also taught a bunch of college courses for no money at all while I was in graduate school just to get the experience that led to my full-time teaching job. But that was twenty years ago, and I’m sick of this new dynamic. KLANNGG! ANNGGG! ANNGGGG! All the big places have the money to pay for office space, electricity, equipment, and of course, administration costs. So fuck them. Pay me for my work, assholes. ZINNGGG! ANNNGGGG!

WEEEEEEEE! And if you want to read my work for free, go get one of my books out of the library. KSSSHHHH! BOOOM! KRNCHH! KRKRNCH! WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE-OOOOOOOOOOOOOO-EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! KONNNNNNNnnnnnnnggggggggggggggggg….
Guess I should mention that I’m currently reading Pete Townshend’s autobiography, Who I Am.
Does it show?

Thank you Kenneth for a great interview.

Buy Jewish Noir | Buy the e-Book | Back to Ken Wishnia's Author Page




Snapshots from the Bay Area left

By Todd Chretien
Socialistworker.org
May 27th, 2015


Todd Chretien reviews a combination memoir, history and political statement written by a well-known activist in the Bay Area.

IF YOU'VE been politically active in the Bay Area any time during the last 20 years, as I have been, then you will know Chris Crass, or at least know of him. He has earned a lot of respect among activists based on his work in Food Not Bombs (FNB), and then as an anti-racist activist and trainer in the Challenging White Supremacy workshops, the Heads Up Collective and the Catalyst Project.

Widely-admired author and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz wrote in a glowing Forward to Crass' Towards Collective Liberation that he is a mentor to a new generation of radicals. There are laudatory blurbs from the likes of historian Robin D.G. Kelley, legendary activist Elizabeth "Betita" Martinez, Black Lives Matter organizer Alicia Garza, Combahee River Collective founding member Barbara Smith, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement organizer Kali Akuno, and other left-wing voices such as Vijay Prashad, Maria Poblet and Silvia Federici, among many more.

Of all these, my favorite is from Yvonne Yen Liu of ColorLines.com, who locates Crass among a generation of activists who "refused to accept the end of history, that capitalism was the only way." As it turns out, I am a couple years older than Crass and also fit into what Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara uncharitably (if lightheartedly) pegged as the "donut hole" of radical left politics--referring to the relative scarcity of long-term committed leftists who came of age politically in the late 1980s to early 1990s.

Our little generation is few in number compared both to the radicals of the 1960s and '70s struggles and the growing layer of young people entering left politics since the late 1990s, under the banners of global justice, the antiwar movement, Occupy, the Fight for 15 and Black Lives Matter.

Revolutionary politics in the years of the Reagan-Bush ascendency were not particularly common--and the last 25 years have been, some important victories notwithstanding, a period of working-class defeat. So I have a measure of respect for anyone who made it through this period and lived (politically speaking) to tell the tale.


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
TOWARDS COLLECTIVE Liberation is composed of four distinct, but related parts: Crass' autobiographical journey into radical politics; a social/political history of Food Not Bombs in the 1990s; an exposition of Crass' critique of oppression and capitalism; and a series of interviews with a variety of anti-racist and anti-poverty organizers from the Bay Area and beyond.

Bringing these strands together into a whole is at times a challenge, but Crass' conviction that a "vibrant and healthy democratic and socialist society" is within our reach helps bring the book into focus. Readers will be inspired by his optimism.

In this brief review, I want to focus on two points.

The first is about the concept of collective liberation--a phrase taken from bell hooks. Crass proposes this as a method to link the liberation of oppressed peoples with that of people described as possessing various kinds of privilege under capitalism, so that all can eventually unite to achieve socialism by means of mass, bottom-up, democratic movements.

The strength of Crass' thesis is the focus on collective struggle and systematic transformation, against an acceptance of a pluralist identity politics that simply aims to reapportion crumbs from the capitalist cake.

Crass rightly lays great stress on the structural and psychological impact of racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, his view of a bottom-up revolution is not based firmly on the power of the working class to overcome its internal divisions and overturn capitalism. Rather, Crass' political strategy includes a wish for "middle and upper-class people to decolonize their minds and work with working class and poor people for an economic justice agenda with socialist values."

The danger with this cross-class perspective--which also includes tactical support for Democratic Party politicians--is that it can blunt the practice of building working-class power and fall into a sustained focus on individual subjectivity, as opposed to mass struggle.

Much of Crass' life has been dedicated to direct action, large and small, so he is adamant that our "complex intersectional analysis of systems of oppression and privilege" not serve as an excuse for falling into passivity on the basis that it is impossible to "address all the shortcomings" of past movements all at once.

Nevertheless, I can't help but feel that Crass' emphasis on personal subjectivity reflects his experiences in a certain kind of struggle that has, historically speaking, failed to reach a certain critical mass of social power. This is not his fault, of course. For many people active in politics today, our lives have been devoid of the large, multiracial class struggles dominant in other periods of U.S. history, or which have taken place internationally.

Crass is right to emphasize the need for organizers to confront oppression, but he often speaks as if the ideas of collective liberation will have to be brought to the working class from the enlightened organizers who have absorbed Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which he praises for its call to "begin with the end in mind."

This isn't to say that Crass proposes to rely on the enlightened few to do the thinking and doing. It's simply that the twin concepts of class struggle and ideological argumentation--via trainings, readings, workshops, etc.--aren't fully reconciled in his account, so he tends to speak of one and then the other, rather than a relationship between the two.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
MY SECOND point deals with Crass' history of Food Not Bombs in San Francisco and elsewhere, from the late 1980s through to 9/11 in 2001 and beyond.

Crass was one of Food Not Bombs' central organizers beginning in the early 1990s, and his critical analysis of the group makes for fascinating reading--especially as someone who worked with and around FNB for years (hundreds of us were arrested together at a 1995 march for Mumia Abu-Jamal), but who could never quite figure out how it functioned. He describes the group's successes in defeating a string of anti-homeless measures taken by police and politicians, and at the same time, he pulls no punches when it comes to describing externally and internally generated fractures within the group.

Read alongside Max Elbaum's Revolution in the Air, the essay collection Ten Years that Shook the City, James Tracy's Dispatches Against Displacement and the STORM Collective's Reclaiming Revolution, among others, Collective Liberation helps paint a picture of one of the most tenacious and enduring left-wing movements and cultures in the country.

Unsurprisingly, there are times when Crass falls into an FNB-centric history of the period. Nevertheless, I realized that I never really appreciated Food Not Bombs as the well-defined political project he and many others conceived it to be. I'm not convinced FNB ever reached anything like the size and influence Crass claims--he estimates 50,000 members "at the low end" in the late 1990s in the U.S. and abroad--but it certainly was a critical component of the radical left in the Bay Area when I arrived in 1994.

It is in this spirit of historical reflection that I hope Crass reconsiders his dismissal of the Bay Area International Socialist Organization. He relegates our decades of work to what I consider to be an ill-informed and narrow-minded footnote--all we do is sell Socialist Worker, we stand on the sidelines, we never organize anything, etc.--which seems out of step with the rest of his approach.

In writing this review, I considered passing over this point without comment, but having spent almost my entire adult life operating in many of the same geographic and political spaces that Crass reviews in his book, it seemed dishonest not to lodge a protest.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
OVER THE past 20 years, the Bay Area left has revived and fractured again along several lines, but we're still here. The most recent challenge we all face is the rapid restructuring--physically, demographically and politically--of the entire region by an unprecedented influx of high tech, real estate, finance and health industry capital.

Either the Bay Area left finds a way to rebuild a sense of unity and momentum that can help make possible a new round of rebellion from below, or the Tech Bros will remake our neighborhoods in their own image.

Recently, there have been hopeful signs of collaboration and growth on the left--ILWU Local 10's shutdown of the Port of Oakland on May Day in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement was the most visible sign.

Many people connect this revival with the experience of Occupy Oakland. I won't disagree, except to say that Occupy Oakland was only possible because of the mobilizations against Oscar Grant's murder in 2009, and the hundreds of thousands of immigrants marching on May Day 2006, and the failed effort to stop the execution of Stan "Tookie" Williams in December 2005, and the Green Party's Matt Gonzalez almost winning the San Francisco mayoral election in 2003, and 250,000 people marching against the drive to invade Iraq in February 2003, and thousands going to Los Angeles to protest the 2000 Democratic National Convention, and the Battle in Seattle in 1999, and the UPS, BART and Contra Costa sanitation workers' picket lines in 1997, and the thousands marching for Mumia Abu-Jamal in 1995, and on and on.

In other words, if the resistance to global capitalism's outrages and the crystallization of the New Jim Crow state find expression in a bigger, more united left in the coming period in the Bay Area, then it is only because the left never stopped fighting. Disagreements aside, Crass' book contributes to our understanding of where we've been and where we need to go.


Author, educator and organizer Chris Crass is often at the forefront of multiracial and feminist movements. Crass sat down with the Review this week to talk about his experience as an activist and his thoughts on antiracist organizing.

 The topic of your talk, “Anti-Racist Organizing in White Communities,” is something that our college has been struggling with, both as an institution and as a student body. Could you begin by talking about the difference between racist and anti-racist organizing?

It’s a really common experience for white people who are socially conscious and who are coming to awareness about issues of race, particularly with the campus having the Day of Solidarity. There’s going to be a lot of folks — white folks in particular — being like, ‘Oh my God, I haven’t thought about this before,’ or, ‘I didn’t think it was this bad,’ or, ‘I thought this was something that was in the past,’ or ‘I don’t want to be part of the problem,’ and then one of the first next steps [ for those groups] is often the question of how to diversify. I’ve had a lot of experience being a part of mostly or all-white social justice progressive efforts where [that drive to diversify often comes first]. But the question that’s often more helpful is, ‘How can we be a part of challenging racism? How can we be a part of ending institutional white supremacy? What are positive steps, as a white environmental group, we could take to support environmental justice efforts by students of color?’ One of the ways that white supremacy really impacts white people is to invisible-ize the work that’s happening in communities of color, the leadership that’s happening in communities of color, the voices, the perspectives — sometimes you’ll have white activists come to consciousness about race and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to get people of color to join our group,’ and then there’ll be activists of color who will be like, ‘Well, we’ve been working on these issues for a really long time, so rather than coming to us and asking us to diversify your group, it’s more of how could you, as a mostly white group, support the work that students of color are already involved in and build partnership and trust.’

 

What are some positive steps that Oberlin can take toward anti-racist organizing?

Some key ones are learning about work that’s already happen[ed] historically in communities of color, learning about issues. So if you’re in a social justice or progressive student group that’s mostly white, what are issues that students of color are working on, and what are some ways that your group can help support that work? A way that racism often operates is [by determining] whose voices are prioritized. Who’s been told all of their life, ‘You have an important story to tell. You should tell the world about what you think.’ And then there’s a lot of folks — women, queer folks, trans* folks, working class, folks of color — who are regularly told, ‘You have nothing useful to contribute. These aren’t spaces that you even belong in, let alone that you should be working in.’ [It’s about] working to recognize those kind of barriers and having open conversations with activists, leaders of color on campus about the struggles that [you’re] facing and how to think about it together. It’s not going to folks of color and [asking them] to solve all the problems but having genuine conversations about how to overcome these obstacles.

 

How would you explain the reality of institutional racism to someone who might not be familiar with its historical and cultural background?

No one was born with it all figured out. First of all, the way that racism operates is that it socializes and rewards white people to be completely ignorant of racism. The fact that there are so many white people who feel attacked, or who think that it’s racist to even talk about racism, is evidence of how powerful racism operates. Because in communities of color, historically and today, the impacts of racism are so stark. Often white people today look back at white people in the past — whether it’s the white people who were participating, supporting, oblivious [to] or on the sidelines of slavery, or white people who were supportive or on the sidelines of Jim Crow and apartheid in the sixties — and say, ‘How could they have just done nothing?’ [They think] it’s so obvious. People 30 years from now will look back on us today and say, ‘How could white people have not been aware of the mass incarceration, of the mass poverty, of the incredible disparities and not done something?’ As students, [we need to] recognize that we are historical actors, and just as we look on the past and think it was so clear, people will look back on our day and think that it’s so clear. Because in the past, people often said that it was too confusing, that there was  no issue, that it was cultural. [We have to] recognize that we need to make a choice [about] what side of history we want to stand on. It can be a hard journey, but it’s one that ultimately connects us back to our deepest humanity. [We need to get] away from fear, away from ignorance, away from hate and toward a deeper love for ourselves and the people in our community. [People say,] ‘Well, the reason there’s so many black and brown people in prison is because of these reasons,’ and there’s all this justification in the way that the media portrays it, and throughout history that’s always been true. It wasn’t just this super clear cut obvious right and obvious wrong. So we need to take responsibility to investigate and learn and also to open ourselves up to really learning.

 

I’m sure, as a white male talking about feminism and racism, you have been told that you have no right to speak about these issues. Can you talk about your thoughts on who can legitimately contribute to these conversations?

We’re organizing students of color around ethnic studies, around anti-prison issues, around the over-policing of our communities and the underresourcing of our communities, but there’s so much resistance from so many white people who either refuse to believe that this is a reality or accept that it’s wrong but that there’s nothing that they can do about it. We need white people to organize other white people who can relate their own experience about coming to consciousness around these issues, to try to move and support more and more white people to join in multiracial efforts and take on injustice. For me, it’s always [about] trying to remember that it’s absolutely important to amplify and support the voices and leadership of folks of color. This is not about trying to get a bunch of white people to fix the problem for everybody else. Racism is really a cancer in white communities, killing white communities. [It] raises people to racially profile others, to hate or be completely ignorant of other people’s lives and experiences. For me, it’s less about taking [people of colors’] stories and bringing them to white people, and more about connecting with other people as a white person around: How can we come to consciousness about racism, how can we overcome some of the barriers that hold us back from becoming involved, and how can we make really powerful contributions to working toward social justice and structural equality?

- See more at: http://oberlinreview.org/5225/uncategorized/off-the-cuff-chris-crass-author-activist-and-anti-racist-organizer/#sthash.5w2pEyva.dpuf

Author, educator and organizer Chris Crass is often at the forefront of multiracial and feminist movements. Crass sat down with the Review this week to talk about his experience as an activist and his thoughts on antiracist organizing.

 The topic of your talk, “Anti-Racist Organizing in White Communities,” is something that our college has been struggling with, both as an institution and as a student body. Could you begin by talking about the difference between racist and anti-racist organizing?

It’s a really common experience for white people who are socially conscious and who are coming to awareness about issues of race, particularly with the campus having the Day of Solidarity. There’s going to be a lot of folks — white folks in particular — being like, ‘Oh my God, I haven’t thought about this before,’ or, ‘I didn’t think it was this bad,’ or, ‘I thought this was something that was in the past,’ or ‘I don’t want to be part of the problem,’ and then one of the first next steps [ for those groups] is often the question of how to diversify. I’ve had a lot of experience being a part of mostly or all-white social justice progressive efforts where [that drive to diversify often comes first]. But the question that’s often more helpful is, ‘How can we be a part of challenging racism? How can we be a part of ending institutional white supremacy? What are positive steps, as a white environmental group, we could take to support environmental justice efforts by students of color?’ One of the ways that white supremacy really impacts white people is to invisible-ize the work that’s happening in communities of color, the leadership that’s happening in communities of color, the voices, the perspectives — sometimes you’ll have white activists come to consciousness about race and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to get people of color to join our group,’ and then there’ll be activists of color who will be like, ‘Well, we’ve been working on these issues for a really long time, so rather than coming to us and asking us to diversify your group, it’s more of how could you, as a mostly white group, support the work that students of color are already involved in and build partnership and trust.’

 

What are some positive steps that Oberlin can take toward anti-racist organizing?

Some key ones are learning about work that’s already happen[ed] historically in communities of color, learning about issues. So if you’re in a social justice or progressive student group that’s mostly white, what are issues that students of color are working on, and what are some ways that your group can help support that work? A way that racism often operates is [by determining] whose voices are prioritized. Who’s been told all of their life, ‘You have an important story to tell. You should tell the world about what you think.’ And then there’s a lot of folks — women, queer folks, trans* folks, working class, folks of color — who are regularly told, ‘You have nothing useful to contribute. These aren’t spaces that you even belong in, let alone that you should be working in.’ [It’s about] working to recognize those kind of barriers and having open conversations with activists, leaders of color on campus about the struggles that [you’re] facing and how to think about it together. It’s not going to folks of color and [asking them] to solve all the problems but having genuine conversations about how to overcome these obstacles.

 

How would you explain the reality of institutional racism to someone who might not be familiar with its historical and cultural background?

No one was born with it all figured out. First of all, the way that racism operates is that it socializes and rewards white people to be completely ignorant of racism. The fact that there are so many white people who feel attacked, or who think that it’s racist to even talk about racism, is evidence of how powerful racism operates. Because in communities of color, historically and today, the impacts of racism are so stark. Often white people today look back at white people in the past — whether it’s the white people who were participating, supporting, oblivious [to] or on the sidelines of slavery, or white people who were supportive or on the sidelines of Jim Crow and apartheid in the sixties — and say, ‘How could they have just done nothing?’ [They think] it’s so obvious. People 30 years from now will look back on us today and say, ‘How could white people have not been aware of the mass incarceration, of the mass poverty, of the incredible disparities and not done something?’ As students, [we need to] recognize that we are historical actors, and just as we look on the past and think it was so clear, people will look back on our day and think that it’s so clear. Because in the past, people often said that it was too confusing, that there was  no issue, that it was cultural. [We have to] recognize that we need to make a choice [about] what side of history we want to stand on. It can be a hard journey, but it’s one that ultimately connects us back to our deepest humanity. [We need to get] away from fear, away from ignorance, away from hate and toward a deeper love for ourselves and the people in our community. [People say,] ‘Well, the reason there’s so many black and brown people in prison is because of these reasons,’ and there’s all this justification in the way that the media portrays it, and throughout history that’s always been true. It wasn’t just this super clear cut obvious right and obvious wrong. So we need to take responsibility to investigate and learn and also to open ourselves up to really learning.

 

I’m sure, as a white male talking about feminism and racism, you have been told that you have no right to speak about these issues. Can you talk about your thoughts on who can legitimately contribute to these conversations?

We’re organizing students of color around ethnic studies, around anti-prison issues, around the over-policing of our communities and the underresourcing of our communities, but there’s so much resistance from so many white people who either refuse to believe that this is a reality or accept that it’s wrong but that there’s nothing that they can do about it. We need white people to organize other white people who can relate their own experience about coming to consciousness around these issues, to try to move and support more and more white people to join in multiracial efforts and take on injustice. For me, it’s always [about] trying to remember that it’s absolutely important to amplify and support the voices and leadership of folks of color. This is not about trying to get a bunch of white people to fix the problem for everybody else. Racism is really a cancer in white communities, killing white communities. [It] raises people to racially profile others, to hate or be completely ignorant of other people’s lives and experiences. For me, it’s less about taking [people of colors’] stories and bringing them to white people, and more about connecting with other people as a white person around: How can we come to consciousness about racism, how can we overcome some of the barriers that hold us back from becoming involved, and how can we make really powerful contributions to working toward social justice and structural equality?

- See more at: http://oberlinreview.org/5225/uncategorized/off-the-cuff-chris-crass-author-activist-and-anti-racist-organizer/#sthash.5w2pEyva.dpuf

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Chris Crass's Author Page




Workers’ Self-Empowerment

By Seth Sandronsky
The Progressive Populist
July 1st-15th, 2015

Changes are coming on the job. Case in point is New Forms of Worker Organization: the Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class-Struggle Unionism edited by Immanuel Ness (PM Press, 2014).

In 13 chapters, case studies contextualize workplace struggles across industries, e.g., from car factories in Russia and India to coal mines in Colombia and South Africa, natural habitats in Madagascar, and building sites in Australia. Ness’ book has three sections.

Autonomist unions (grassroots-centered) in Italy, China and Russia comprise the first section. Here and in sections two and three, workers and neighbors coalesce to take on employers, a capitalist state, bureaucratic unions and restrictive labor laws upholding the status quo. Steve Manicastri explores the autonomous workers’ movement in Italy. He details the arc of Confederazione dei Comitati di Base, or COBAs, for teachers and other occupations, in fighting the nation’s state-capitalist offensive against labor.

In a scintillating study, Chinese workers making athletic shoes strike over insufficient pensions and shelter. This labor action united older and younger workers. What China’s leading labor federation did (not) do during this conflict is instructive, given the government’s branding of itself as a workers’ state.

Au Loong Yu and Bai Ruixue unravel the arc of workers’ self-directed efforts in the face of party-state power after the Mao era.

In Russia, a former Communist Party leadership dominates the populace in the shift to capitalism. An employer-friendly Labor Code, write Piotr Bizyukov and Irina Olimpieva, sparks two “spontaneous resistance and organized offensive strategy,” with employers’ non- and tardy payment of wages lighting the fire of workplace actions.

The legacy of the International Workers of the World runs a red line in the pages of Ness’ book.

The Wobblies emerged in the early era of industrial capitalism in the global North. We are a long way from then, but the capital and labor conflict remains at the center of workplace conflicts. Section two highlights autonomous organizing and radical unions in the Global South. Two-tier wage rates spark employment conflict in case studies of self-directed labor dissent in India and South Africa. Readers will gain a better grasp of the particular situations, given the paucity of Western press coverage. In South Africa, labor maltreatment is the rule, despite the fall of apartheid. Nowhere is this more evident than in the platinum industry. Workers form assemblies from 2009 onward to win higher pay and safer workplaces, Shawn Hattingh writes. These pay increases reach the workers on the lowest rungs of the wage ladder. The South African business-union-government triad uses lethal force, e.g., the 2012 killings of striking Marikana mine workers, in a bid to quell such dissent.

Arup Kuma Sen maps out India’s precarious workers at Maruti Suzuki in an auto factory that produces one car every 12 seconds. They organize against speedup conditions on the line, plus a two-tier employment structure, demanding equal pay for part- and full-time workers. Unequal pay for equal work that unites employees to act collectively and independently is a recurring theme in the book. Section three unpacks independent organizing and militant unions in Sweden, Australia, the US and UK. In the Global North, capital flight drives the rise of service jobs. Still, capitalists accumulate profits by paying service employees less than their labor creates.

Erik Forman’s study of IWW organizing at Jimmy John’s in Minneapolis sheds light on useful strategies and tactics these sandwich workers use to combat tyrannical bosses. Professional union organizers are not part of his case study of this slice of the fast food industry. Forman stands alone among the contributors as a worker directly involved in shop floor actions. In the shadows of Starbucks youthful workers’ actions for higher pay as a major if unstated precursor to the Fight for $15 hour minimum wage movement funded by trade unions sweeping the USA, Ness critiques US trade union leadership. It has, according to him, disempowered the US working class over the past four decades, pursuing a defensive trend of concessions to capital, and coming to resemble the corporate foes hammering labor.

New Forms of Worker Organization delivers intriguing cases of capital and labor clashing in the 21st century. The parallels to a century ago are stark, economically and politically. Accordingly, the case studies prefigure a local and global politics. It aspires to a democracy that has at its core economic democracy centered on the workplace.

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild.

Can recent experiments with alternative forms of organizing, such as worker centers and minority strikes, offer a solution to the labor movement’s long half-century of decline?

Racked by globalization, union-busting, and weak legal protections, unions in the U.S. have fallen from representing 35 percent of the working population in the 1950s to 12 percent today. Other countries have seen similar trends.

An excellent new book, New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class-Struggle Unionism, presents examples of present-day organizing around the world—inside and outside of unions.

What these efforts have in common is an approach that editor Immanuel Ness calls “autonomous worker organizing,” which is largely a renewal of an old form of unionism called syndicalism. He promotes it as the best way forward for labor, in the U.S. and globally.

Revival of Syndicalism?

Syndicalism arose in late 19th-century Europe as a more revolutionary alternative to the traditional unions of the time. Its goals were to improve working conditions in the near term, while organizing in the long run to overthrow capitalism.

It’s characterized by a participatory structure, use of direct action in the workplace, embrace of class struggle, rejection of electoral politics, the organizing of general strikes, and advocacy of workers’ control of production. This model rejects any partnership between workers and bosses, and sees the government as on the bosses’ side, not a neutral party.

The new book’s case studies take place in Italy, China, Russia, India, South Africa, Madagascar, Colombia, Argentina, Sweden, Australia, the U.S., and England. Most have a militancy that’s lacking in many traditional union fights. For instance, they use wildcat strikes and occupations. Ness suggests these diverse efforts share some of the core principles of syndicalism, particularly member-initiated direct action in the workplace.

The book’s U.S. example is fascinating: a detailed, firsthand account by a worker who participated in the Industrial Workers of the World fast food organizing campaign at Jimmy John’s in the Twin Cities.

The campaign demonstrates the IWW’s “solidarity unionism” model. Without relying on union staff, workers run their own campaign, developing demands and using direct action tactics to fight for them. Jimmy John’s workers created an organizing committee, listed their demands, stopped work, marched on the boss, picketed and occupied the store, published a campaign website, ran a campaign for paid sick days—and over time, made improvements to wages and working conditions.

They also held a National Labor Relations Board-supervised union election, which they narrowly lost after a union-busting campaign by the boss. This raised questions among workers about the utility of the established procedures for organizing.

Bottom-Up Organizing

In many of the book’s case studies, nonunion workers organized independently because of disinterest or hostility from established unions. In others, though workers were unionized, their unions didn’t offer adequate channels to resolve their workplace grievances, so they had to take their own initiative.

Official unions often did little to help the workers, and sometimes even worked to undermine them. This was true in the chapters about several groups of auto workers—at Honda in China, Ford in Russia, and Suzuki in India. Despite the opposition of the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the Honda workers held a successful and high-profile strike for better wages, inspiring actions at many other plants.

When mineworkers in South Africa launched a wave of wildcat strikes and sit-ins, they faced interference from the National Union of Mineworkers on top of severe repression from the government, which killed dozens of workers in the mining town of Marikana.

Workers organizing independently within mainstream unions are covered in chapters on the militant subway workers caucus within the transportation union in Argentina and on workplace takeovers in the construction, garment, and mining industries in Australia. Workers took over the construction site at the famous Sydney Opera House and ran it for over a month—with greater productivity. They won higher pay and shorter hours.

Two chapters discuss autonomous workers’ movements or organizations that cross industries within a country: the Confederazione dei Comitati di Base (Cobas) in Italy and the SAC syndicalist federation in Sweden.

This book provides a great overview of the non-traditional part of the global labor movement, which needs more attention. A common thread: workers are building power in ways that rely on worker initiative and solidarity, not on formal legal certification or union contracts.

It raises crucial questions about the role of rank-and-file power in a union revival, and offers a challenge to traditional union practices.

Much-Needed Spark

To solve the labor movement’s problems, first you have to understand their origins. In the U.S., mainstream unionists tend to believe the era after the 1935 enactment of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was a golden age for organizing.

That law is seen as a progressive breakthrough that protected workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively. In this version of the story, our current troubles are the result of a renewed corporate anti-union offensive begun in the ’70s and ’80s, coupled with a lack of enforcement of labor rights.

If that’s true, then the solution is reformed labor law and better enforcement. But Ness ends the book with a compelling essay that critiques this traditional understanding.

He sees the NLRA as a loss for the labor movement. It created a bureaucratized industrial relations system that stifled workers’ initiative and militancy on the shop floor. Unions traded away their disruptive rank-and-file power for an NLRA that shackled unions as contract administrators and eventually enabled their decline.

Ness shares the syndicalist view that disrupting production is what makes employers yield. Empowered workers should be free to stop work at any time, not hindered by the no-strike clauses and multi-step grievance procedures contained in most union contracts. Without this kind of militancy, he believes, there’s little chance of a revived labor movement.

If Ness is correct, the initiatives the U.S. labor movement has developed over the last few decades—more resources for new organizing, better corporate campaigns, increased turnout for elections—will not be enough. Instead, to make room for the widespread, combative workplace activism we need, unions will have to rethink our attitude toward rank-and-file power.

Of course this is risky. Strikes are often hard to win. Workers can usually be fired easily, no matter how organizing is done or who does it. But the resurgence of a participatory, syndicalist approach to organizing could provide a much-needed spark for labor.

Eric Dirnbach is a union staffer and labor activist in New York City.

- See more at: http://www.labornotes.org/blogs/2014/10/review-alt-labor-or-not-it-will-take-rank-and-file-power-revive-us#sthash.pEZlw0kP.dpuf

Can recent experiments with alternative forms of organizing, such as worker centers and minority strikes, offer a solution to the labor movement’s long half-century of decline?

Racked by globalization, union-busting, and weak legal protections, unions in the U.S. have fallen from representing 35 percent of the working population in the 1950s to 12 percent today. Other countries have seen similar trends.

An excellent new book, New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class-Struggle Unionism, presents examples of present-day organizing around the world—inside and outside of unions.

What these efforts have in common is an approach that editor Immanuel Ness calls “autonomous worker organizing,” which is largely a renewal of an old form of unionism called syndicalism. He promotes it as the best way forward for labor, in the U.S. and globally.

Revival of Syndicalism?

Syndicalism arose in late 19th-century Europe as a more revolutionary alternative to the traditional unions of the time. Its goals were to improve working conditions in the near term, while organizing in the long run to overthrow capitalism.

It’s characterized by a participatory structure, use of direct action in the workplace, embrace of class struggle, rejection of electoral politics, the organizing of general strikes, and advocacy of workers’ control of production. This model rejects any partnership between workers and bosses, and sees the government as on the bosses’ side, not a neutral party.

The new book’s case studies take place in Italy, China, Russia, India, South Africa, Madagascar, Colombia, Argentina, Sweden, Australia, the U.S., and England. Most have a militancy that’s lacking in many traditional union fights. For instance, they use wildcat strikes and occupations. Ness suggests these diverse efforts share some of the core principles of syndicalism, particularly member-initiated direct action in the workplace.

The book’s U.S. example is fascinating: a detailed, firsthand account by a worker who participated in the Industrial Workers of the World fast food organizing campaign at Jimmy John’s in the Twin Cities.

The campaign demonstrates the IWW’s “solidarity unionism” model. Without relying on union staff, workers run their own campaign, developing demands and using direct action tactics to fight for them. Jimmy John’s workers created an organizing committee, listed their demands, stopped work, marched on the boss, picketed and occupied the store, published a campaign website, ran a campaign for paid sick days—and over time, made improvements to wages and working conditions.

They also held a National Labor Relations Board-supervised union election, which they narrowly lost after a union-busting campaign by the boss. This raised questions among workers about the utility of the established procedures for organizing.

Bottom-Up Organizing

In many of the book’s case studies, nonunion workers organized independently because of disinterest or hostility from established unions. In others, though workers were unionized, their unions didn’t offer adequate channels to resolve their workplace grievances, so they had to take their own initiative.

Official unions often did little to help the workers, and sometimes even worked to undermine them. This was true in the chapters about several groups of auto workers—at Honda in China, Ford in Russia, and Suzuki in India. Despite the opposition of the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the Honda workers held a successful and high-profile strike for better wages, inspiring actions at many other plants.

When mineworkers in South Africa launched a wave of wildcat strikes and sit-ins, they faced interference from the National Union of Mineworkers on top of severe repression from the government, which killed dozens of workers in the mining town of Marikana.

Workers organizing independently within mainstream unions are covered in chapters on the militant subway workers caucus within the transportation union in Argentina and on workplace takeovers in the construction, garment, and mining industries in Australia. Workers took over the construction site at the famous Sydney Opera House and ran it for over a month—with greater productivity. They won higher pay and shorter hours.

Two chapters discuss autonomous workers’ movements or organizations that cross industries within a country: the Confederazione dei Comitati di Base (Cobas) in Italy and the SAC syndicalist federation in Sweden.

This book provides a great overview of the non-traditional part of the global labor movement, which needs more attention. A common thread: workers are building power in ways that rely on worker initiative and solidarity, not on formal legal certification or union contracts.

It raises crucial questions about the role of rank-and-file power in a union revival, and offers a challenge to traditional union practices.

Much-Needed Spark

To solve the labor movement’s problems, first you have to understand their origins. In the U.S., mainstream unionists tend to believe the era after the 1935 enactment of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was a golden age for organizing.

That law is seen as a progressive breakthrough that protected workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively. In this version of the story, our current troubles are the result of a renewed corporate anti-union offensive begun in the ’70s and ’80s, coupled with a lack of enforcement of labor rights.

If that’s true, then the solution is reformed labor law and better enforcement. But Ness ends the book with a compelling essay that critiques this traditional understanding.

He sees the NLRA as a loss for the labor movement. It created a bureaucratized industrial relations system that stifled workers’ initiative and militancy on the shop floor. Unions traded away their disruptive rank-and-file power for an NLRA that shackled unions as contract administrators and eventually enabled their decline.

Ness shares the syndicalist view that disrupting production is what makes employers yield. Empowered workers should be free to stop work at any time, not hindered by the no-strike clauses and multi-step grievance procedures contained in most union contracts. Without this kind of militancy, he believes, there’s little chance of a revived labor movement.

If Ness is correct, the initiatives the U.S. labor movement has developed over the last few decades—more resources for new organizing, better corporate campaigns, increased turnout for elections—will not be enough. Instead, to make room for the widespread, combative workplace activism we need, unions will have to rethink our attitude toward rank-and-file power.

Of course this is risky. Strikes are often hard to win. Workers can usually be fired easily, no matter how organizing is done or who does it. But the resurgence of a participatory, syndicalist approach to organizing could provide a much-needed spark for labor.

Eric Dirnbach is a union staffer and labor activist in New York City.

- See more at: http://www.labornotes.org/blogs/2014/10/review-alt-labor-or-not-it-will-take-rank-and-file-power-revive-us#sthash.pEZlw0kP.dpuf

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Immanuel Ness's Author Page




Until the Rulers Obey: A review by Staughton Lynd in Z Magazine

By Staughton Lynd
Z Magazine
May 27th, 2015


The title of this book is drawn from the Zapatistas’ Second Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle: “We will resist until the rulers govern obediently.” The underlying principle is, in Spanish, “mandar obediciendo”: to govern in obedience.

In the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, on January 1, 1994, the Zapatistas projected themselves as rulers. They said: “we give our military forces of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation the following orders: First, Advance to the capital of the country, conquering the Mexican federal army.”

Clearly, between the first and second declarations the Zapatistas changed their strategy. Henceforth, their posture would be one of looking to the democratic forces of the people as a whole for changes in the Mexican national government but devoting their own energies primarily to building up the liberated villages of Chiapas.

It is important to understand that, at different moments in their history, the Zapatistas imagined themselves both as rulers (the First Declaration) and as participants in the rank-and-file population that gives the rulers direction (the Second Declaration). This unique perspective reflects the historical fact that by the mid-1990s the guerrilla movements of Latin America had (with the exception of Colombia) made peace with the armies they confronted, and in several cases social activists, even former guerrilla commanders, were elected as presidents of their countries. That is why Evo Morales, in his inaugural address as president of Bolivia, could say that he too intended to “mandar obediciendo.”

Until the Rulers Obey cannot be understood without recognizing this dialogic or dialectical context of Latin American leftism. It is as if Barack Obama, besides having once been a community organizer, had throughout his presidency been obliged to encounter grassroots organizations of varying character and strength but all intent on reminding the president what he had advocated before his election.

Mexico and Central America


The book is made up of interviews, with an introduction for each country. It moves North to South, beginning with Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. Many readers will recall trips to one or more of these countries. My wife and I used vacations to make five short trips to Sandinista Nicaragua between 1985-1990. We visited Mexico several times, once when our daughter Martha was teaching in a remote village in the mountains of Oaxaca, and twice to attend a labor school associated with the Authentic Workers’ Front (the FAT). We have been to Guatemala more than half a dozen times where Martha and her family live in a village bordering Lake Atitlan.

A remarkable interview in this first part of the book tells how, during the Zapatista uprising, large landowners in Chiapas fled and the Zapatista army took over vast tracts of land. When the landowners tried to return, “each time the army or the police entered the village, the people took refuge in the mountains and then returned once the attackers left.” The two women who tell their story explain: “[We] began to build our houses, and then the soldiers kicked us out. We were afraid, and we went back to the villages where we had lived before. We started coming back little by little. At first, just for a little while: for a day, then for a week, then for a month. When we left, we took all our things—our chickens, our tables, everything—because we didn’t want the soldiers to take them. But our houses were still here. We stepped to one side, but we didn’t leave altogether.”

In Guatemala, as in so many Latin American countries, the essential struggle is with North American mining companies and associated hydro-electric projects. The people respond with a systematic effort to retrieve the memory of how it was in the past and with “community consultations…as it has been practiced for hundreds of years in the communities.” Similarly in Honduras, the 2009 coup led to “more horizontal and consensus-based forms of organizing.” Nurses who had previously not been political became part of the resistance when “patients started pouring in by the dozens, bloodied and beaten.” In both Guatemala and El Salvador the accords between guerrillas and government armies that ended the civil wars are said to have provided protection for the social movements but, at the same time, also to have legitimized the counter-insurgency. In El Salvador the FMLN ran as a candidate for president a journalist from outside its ranks. He was elected, made progressive cabinet appointments in the education, labor and health ministries, but also continued the neo-liberal economic program.
The neo-liberal agricultural program featured the development of monoculture, producing commodities for export rather than food for the domestic market, and favoring the use of genetically modified seeds that must be purchased anew for each planting.

Capitalist agriculture also involves the use of harmful pesticides. Bananas are grown in Nicaragua, and are sprayed with a substance called “Nemagon.” All sorts of cancers and other chronic diseases abound among the banana workers.

Luisa Molina, a Nicaraguan, may speak for many of her Central American comrades. She took part in the struggle to overthrow Somoza. She has become increasingly disillusioned with Daniel Ortega who she perceives to be “without a vision for the country,” and part of the “authoritarian, patriarchal, machista culture” of the political parties. She says that she doesn’t “know what ‘revolutionary’ means anymore because two years ago a law approving therapeutic abortions dating back to 1860 was overturned.” She concludes: “the only thing we know for sure is that we have to build collective projects by consensus and maintain our autonomy.”

Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, Peru

In Colombia, the contest for state power continues but, in the words of Jesus Tuberquia, “we can live life differently within an unjust system.” He goes on: “We’re trying to be a model of a different world…. We’ve learned it’s possible to build an alternative… where life will be different.” And this is so because we’re not a theory written on paper, we’re human beings who walk, live, and feel. We’re not fables, because on paper you can put anything, theoretically I can invent anything, but reality can’t be invented; it’s made. And we, as an experience, we’re a reality.”

In Colombia, nonviolent struggles have unfolded alongside “seemingly endless leftist armed insurgencies.”  There has been a superficial fascination with constitutional reforms, but without structural changes. As in Nicaragua, the Left has been insensitive to the deep peasant desire for individual ownership of the land on which one sweats out his or her life. Some popular efforts in Colombia have achieved an admirable ecumenical inclusiveness, with members who belong to different churches.

Turning to Venezuela, this is the place where the editors (who were for the most part also the interviewers and translators) found the most disillusionment. I have never been to Venezuela, I know no one who lives there, so I cannot judge. But the accusations are consistent with my experience in my own country.

The Venezuelan state, it is alleged, builds parallel institutions where long-standing indigenous networks already exist. The people “don’t identify with socialism” so for socialists there is a need to “deepen the revolution.” What must happen is for militants to “respectfully accompany the communities.”

Discontented interviewees ask, How can you oblige a candidate to follow a party line? “That won’t work.” Maria Vincente Davilas observes: “It’s cement for the sidewalk…but no work done in forming people.” People are told, “You’re not Chavista.” But if the person thus admonished does not agree, there is a “criminalization of protest.” Perhaps most disturbingly for one who sought to maintain production in Youngstown steel mills, what is advocated by the government is said to be not “workers’ control” but “controlled workers.” Orlando Chirine, an oil industry worker, says: “Venezuela isn’t a socialist but a capitalist country.” I leave it to readers to find their own way through these conflicting perspectives.

Ecuador companeros and companeras repeat words heard in many other places. “They evicted us and we returned and built again.” And: We need to educate not with words but with “concrete things.”

Brazil offers the strongest validation of the perspective of social change from below. Brazil is the site of the movement of landless workers (MST).

In the MST, decisions are made by consensus. But this is not because of some petty-bourgeois deviation. On the contrary, participants believe that “This is a class struggle.” The ultimate goal is socialism. Socialist anticipations created by the MST include the We Shall Overcome cooperative. The struggle seeks to eliminate the intermediaries between producer and consumer. Communities formed by the MST are permitted to grow to no more than thirty workers. Beyond that number, communication becomes difficult and it is time to form a new community.

Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile

Bolivia, together with Venezuela, is probably the Latin American regime most celebrated by international supporters. It does not come off very well in these interviews. To begin with, and most generally, the Bolivian government is said to talk about a “development that doesn’t destroy nature.” But in practice the government promotes, for example, a highway that will damage the area through which it proceeds, but will encourage trade with Brazil.

An internal movement that raises questions about such projects is thought to be regarded as “a little rock in the shoe.” The democracy permitted by the Morales government is said not to be a “democracy of participation.” As perceived by Morales’s former comrades in the local movements, the transnational corporations are considered to be using the state rather than the state restricting the corporations.

The Uruguayan interviews bring out two points perhaps not sufficiently emphasized elsewhere. The first is the degree to which the Amazon rain forest is being laid waste to make possible the growing and exportation of soy beans. The second is a profound challenge to the UN campaign to banish child labor. The counter-theory eloquently advocated is that from the beginning of time the labor of children alongside their fathers and mothers is the way that human beings have learned to become adults.

The Argentinian interviews suffer from the delay required by book publication. We have all heard about the ceramics factory, the butchery, and other enterprises where the owner abandoned production and the workforce intervened to keep the factory open. But, in fact, how effective and resilient have been these new enterprises? The experience of the United States is that, historically, worker-owned companies appear either to have failed or, under pressure from the market, to have shed their indicia of worker ownership and control and to have become typical capitalist enterprises.

Nonetheless, we can stand beside the Argentinian interviewee who says: “Collective construction is the challenge of our time.”

In my opinion, it is good for this book and speaks well for its editors that Chile is the last nation discussed. I believe this because there are readers who may feel that the book is unduly critical of Chavez and Morales (and also of Lula in Brazil). If so, I urge them to persevere to the chapter on Chile at the end.

The government of Chile elected in 1938 is said to have been one of the three Popular Front governments in the world. The others were the government of France headed by Leon Blum during years when French workers occupied their plants, and the Spanish republic on behalf of which young men from all over the world came to Spain to form “international brigades” in its defense. (One such brigadista carried me on his shoulders on May Day 1936, went to Spain, and was mortally wounded at the battle of Belchite in September 1937.)

The economic strategy the Popular Front government used to lift Chile out of the Great Depression shaped the country for the next 35 years. The government supported industrial growth to diversify the economy, adopted steep tariffs to protect homegrown industry, and participated directly in several economic sectors: electricity, petroleum, iron and steel, transportation, communications, and banking.

The government of Salvador Allende, elected in 1970, tried to carry this inheritance forward. Rekindling the fire after his government’s overthrow and Allende’s murder has faced special challenges.

Unlike the headlines of the morning newspaper, this book leaves one filled with hope. I believe that is its most important message.

It is beyond me, and I should think would be beyond most North American readers, precisely to weigh the book’s more than 50 interviews on the scales of historical truth. But certain conclusions seem to me solid.

First, there is very little reference to religion in these testimonies. Good news in Latin America is commonly associated with the influence of liberation theology.  Perhaps the causal sequence is the reverse: enormous stirrings from below in country after country find an echo in the emergence of a people’s church.

Second, these witnesses offer evidence of a synthesis between Marxism and anarchism. It is not a doctrinal synthesis but a coming together of traditions in action. Indeed, what it is tempting to call “anarchism” may be better understood as the practice of living together in small indigenous communities stretching back hundreds of years.

Third, one must not forget that terrible things can happen in Latin America, like the apparent massacre of students in Ayotzinapa, Mexico last September. However, these days, with new circles of hell surrounding us in all directions, for me Latin America is the most hopeful place on earth.

Finally, the tumultuous variety of experiences presented in these pages is itself an important fact. We have for too long sought a single Emerald City, in the Soviet Union, or People’s China, or Cuba, or Nicaragua. There is no point in trying to decide which person, or party, or nation, is “mas linda” (most lovely), as we used to sing of Nicaragua, little Nicaragua. There is no “final conflict.” But there may well be a series of springtimes.
 
Staughton Lynd is a conscientious objector, peace and civil rights activist, tax resister, author and lawyer. Lynd’s contribution to the cause of social justice and the peace movement is chronicled in Carl Mirra’s biography, The Admirable Radical: Staughton Lynd and Cold War Dissent, 1945–1970, published in 2010 by Kent State University Press.

Buy the book now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Clifton Ross's Editor Page | Return to Marcy Rein's Editor Page




Solidarity, Not Bureaucracy— Building Workplace Organizations Anew

By Pete Dolack
CounterPunch
Weekend Edition June 26-28, 2015

Workplace solidarity in the face of the neoliberal onslaught is as crucial as ever, yet present-day unions become ever more fearful. How do we build solidarity in an era when the tools of the past have lost their effectiveness?

New types of organizations are not only necessary, it is essential to look at past upsurges in union activity, particularly those of the 1930s, with clear eyes rather than romanticization, argues Staughton Lynd in Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below. A new re-issue and updating of a classic work, the book has lost none of its timeliness. Critical to understanding how unions lost their way, becoming too cozy with the corporate managements they are supposed to challenge, is the stifling of rank-and-file activity, particularly of militant tactics, by Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) unions in the 1930s.

Self-activity from below in the mid-1930s catalyzed a big upsurge in union membership; solidarity through striking was a critical component. When the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act, was moving toward enactment in the 1930s, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) opposed it because they foresaw the National Labor Relations Board that would be formed to arbitrate disputes would hinder the right to strike. The board would inevitably aid capital, not labor, they believed.

The Wagner Act was passed, the board came to be, and although specific decisions have favored one side or the other at different times, those fears have come to pass. Mr. Lynd argues that the CIO opposed and suppressed rank-and-file and independent activity, opposed an independent labor political party and agreed to no-strike clauses that would be in force the entirely of contracts, thereby handing all power to company management. And although Mr. Lynd doesn’t discuss it, many of the gains that were achieved in the Wagner Act were taken back a decade later with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which further restricted union activity, including prohibiting sympathy strikes, a serious blow to solidarity.

In U.S. labor mythology, the CIO is the “radical” union umbrella organization, infusing new life into Great Depression organizing after the slow pace of unionization under the guidance of American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions. But CIO contracts ceded decision-making to management in all aspects of operations from the start, while union leaders promoted themselves as guarantors of labor peace. Going back to the CIO of 1936 or 1945 is useless, Mr. Lynd argues, because it set out to suppress independent activity from the start.

Democracy is the essential ingredient

Interestingly, he also argues that the dues-checkoff system is another factor contributing to the undemocratic and collaborationist tendencies of unions, because it makes union leaderships unaccountable to the rank-and-file. New worker organizations must be democratic to have any chance of being effective. Building new labor organizations of a different kind, that demonstrate their usefulness in responding to problems, is the way forward. Mr. Lynd writes that democracy is the starting point:

“Trade unions are among the most undemocratic institutions in the United States. Far from prefiguring a new society, they are institutional dinosaurs, resembling nothing so much as the corporations we are striving to replace. … Democracy means, at a minimum, the freedom to criticize frankly and fully. Union bureaucrats have a tendency to view criticism as treason. But rank-and-file members must be able to criticize, not just the policies of incumbent union officers, but the structural shortcomings of the labor movement. For instance, CIO contracts have always contained no-strike and management-prerogative clauses, but if we think (as I do) that these clauses are wrong and should be abolished, we should be free to say so.” [page 21]
From such democracy arise the conditions to begin moving toward a better world, instead of the defensive retreats of recent decades.

“Working people believe in solidarity, not because they are better than other people, but because the power of the boss forces workers to reach out to each other for help. Because of the vision and practice of solidarity, the labor movement with all its shortcomings does prefigure a new kind of society within the shell of the old. And by building organizations based on solidarity, rather than on bureaucratic chain-of-command, we build organizations that by their very existence help to bring a new kind of society into being.” [page 24]

The author gives three local examples from the area around Youngstown, Ohio. One was a solidarity club consisting of workers from several unions that organized united actions in defense of strikers and other workers facing layoffs or other unfair labor practices; one was a group of retirees that defended pension benefits, especially since, as retirees, they were not allowed to vote on contract changes; and the third organized in defense of workers suffering health problems due to working with toxic chemicals.

Solidarity, not bureaucracy

Although each of these three groups won victories, the author acknowledges that they did not have far-reaching impacts. They did, however, demonstrate what is possible with different kinds of labor organizations that are democratic and based on direct action. Mr. Lynd writes:

“I want to suggest that trade unions as they now exist in the United States are structurally incapable of changing the corporate economy, so that simply electing new officers to head these organizations will not solve our problems. I argue that the internationalization of capital, far from proving that such centralized unions are needed more than ever, has, on the contrary, demonstrated their impotence and the need for something qualitatively new.” [page 47]

Putting life into the concept of “an injury to one is an injury to all” by striking on behalf of workers in other enterprises in one form of this necessary solidarity. Shop-floor committees that organize around grievances and problems rather than negotiating contracts and that use direct action, even in opposition to their union leaders, and “parallel central labor bodies” that organize workers in a geographic region, across industries, are two alternative forms the author advocates. As an example, he recounts a 1916 incident where the 2,000 workers of a factory walked out when an organizer was dismissed; within a couple of days, 36,000 workers across the region walked out in an organized show of strength.

Militancy is what is needed:

“The critical analytical error … of established unions about their current crisis is the assumption that labor and management have the same or mutually consistent interests. … It is the assumption that underlies business unionism, because it induces trade unions to leave investment decisions to management while directing their own attention to wages, hours, and working conditions, and to surrender the right to strike (for the duration of the collective bargaining agreements) in the belief that workers no longer need the strike to protect their day-to-day interests.” [page 78]

By ceding all decision-making to capitalists, negotiating over wages, hours and working conditions will always be defensive because unions are bargaining the extent of their members’ exploitation and can do nothing more. Staughton Lynd has given us a concise guide to thinking about workplace organization differently. (At barely a hundred pages in compact form, I was able to read Solidarity Unionism in a single evening.)

And once we realize we don’t need capitalists to make decisions for us, and learn to organize collective self-defense, getting rid of bosses and running enterprises ourselves enters our imagination.

Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog. He has been an activist with several groups.


Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Staughton Lynd's Author Page



Search

Quick Access to:

Authors

Artists

New Releases

Featured Releases


No Gods, No Masters, No Peripheries: Global Anarchisms

The Last of the Hippies: An Hysterical Romance