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Calling All Heroes' by Paco Ignacio Taibo II: A Review

by Tony
Tony's Reading List
February 17th, 2014

Last year, when I was lucky enough to review two books by Japanese writer Tomoyuki Hoshino, the publishers (PM Press) were kind enough to slip in one more piece of translated fiction, a slim novella which has been... shall we say 'resting' on my shelves for a good while?  Anyway, it was high time to give it a go - and it turned out to be a great little read :)

*****
Calling All Heroes - A Manifesto for Taking Power (translated by Gregory Nipper) is a short work by Mexican writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II in which he works through his frustration at the failure of the 1968 student protests.  Although short, it's an action-packed read, a book that looks at what might have been and then tries to make it so...

We start off in January 1970 with our central character Nestor, a journalist recovering in hospital after being attacked by a knife-wielding murderer.  With time to think, he decides that the moment has come to make the government and the police pay for the atrocities committed during the Tlatelolco crackdown (or massacre...), and to this end he dictates a series of letters, summoning an army of legendary freedom fighters to Mexico City to carry out his quixotic mission.  The actions of a deluded invalid?  Perhaps...  But what if all these heroes actually came?

Calling All Heroes is a chaotic, adrenaline-charged story, initially confusing, but eventually simply exhilarating.  The book consists of thirty-one short parts, alternating between two strands.  In the first, an unknown narrator addresses Nestor in the second person, describing the events as the bitter journalist plots his attack on the unsuspecting authorities; in the second, letters to Nestor (letters he has requested) describe his character and history, also hinting at what happened in the crazy few days at the end of January 1970.

Taibo's book is effective as an historical novel, looking at the disappointment felt by students after the government crackdowns of 1968, and several of the letters portray the feelings of helplessness and loss that followed the defeat.  What is described is a city attempting to recover from a traumatic battle:

"In the city the tanks had been replaced by solitude, with similar effects.  The wounds would seem not to have closed.  We would belong to a generation of idiot princes, hemophiliacs, whose skin the blood flowed down at the slightest cut."
p.15 (PM Press, 2010)

In fact, we later see examples of this in the story of a worker who one day decides, in the middle of the street, to set fire to himself in the hope of raising awareness of the plight of the workers...

...which may all sound like grim reading.  However, Calling All Heroes is anything but, sweeping the reader along with a story straight out of an adventure book.  You see, the band of mercenaries Nestor is summoning from around the world is not an anonymous band of guns for hire - there are some very familar names amongst these soldiers of fortune:

"The next sign that the conspiracy was thriving came on Friday, when the doctor, after pointing out that with a period of pleasant convalescence you would be in the clear, took from the pocket of his hospital coat a telegram from Dick Turpin, which gave the number of the Braniff International flight on which he would arrive in Mexico." (p.52)

Yep, that's right - Mr. Stand-and-Deliver himself.

The legendary English highwayman is just the first of many legendary figures to enter the fray, and many of them are not even real.  Still with Sherlock Holmes, Winnetou and the Light Brigade (who do a fair bit of charging) on your side, things are bound to be very interesting - and even when things do get hairy, there's always another legend of classic literature (or four) to save the day ;)

It all makes for a wonderfully-entertaining and (more importantly) well-written story, a personal catharsis disguised as a Boys-Own yarn.  The different strands work well, and a whole variety of voices come through in the letters Nestor receives from his friends.  It won't take you very long to finish Taibo's book (an hour if you're a quick reader), but it'll stay with you a lot longer than that - revolution and comic-book carnage: what's not to like?

*****
Before I leave you, I just thought I'd draw your attention to some similarities with another famous Latin-American writer, a certain Roberto Bolaño.  Last year, I read a couple of his works, including The Savage Detectives, and after finishing Calling All Heroes I couldn't help but compare the two.  The setting is the same, of course, and the letters to Nestor act in the same way as the interviews people give describing the enigmatic Lima and Belano.  The two books also contain their fair share of artists - and wry humour:

"...and René Cabrera, who wrote brilliant poems and then used the paper to fill the holes in his shoes so the rain wouldn't get his socks too wet." (p.25)

Given then that this appeared in English in 2010, a clear example of strong influences and jumping on Bolaño's coat-tails, no?  Not exactly...  You see, Taibo actually got there first - in 1982.  In the words of the writer:

"Under these deplorable conditions, this shortest of novels was created.  brewed in the midst of a premature divorce, following a premature marriage, of a political crisis, of an era of hunger and underemployment, the novel became a pretext, a vendetta, dealing with Power by other means.

 Then it was put away in a drawer and rewritten three times during the following twelve years." (Appendix Two, p.118)

I'm not an expert on Latin-American literature by any means, but it seems possible that Bolaño may have had a quick read of this one at some point ;)

*****
To finish today, a bit of music (something Stu, of Winstonsdad's Blog likes to do from time to time).  I was wondering what could possibly suit a crazy story like this, when it appeared of its own accord, unbidden - and it became clear that there was only one choice...

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He’s A Twentieth Century Knave

by Ron Jacobs
Counterpunch
Weekend Edition February 14-16, 2014

Some books exemplify the moment they are written about. These books, through the power of their narrative, provide a contextual ambience so real the reader becomes a part of the tale being told. Some such texts that come to mind are Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The engrossed reader of these two novels cannot separate themselves from the surf or the ship of Ishmael, Queegeeq and Captain Ahab. Nor can they view Kurtz’s jungle nightmare from a distance that might allow a dispassionate response. We are with Marlow in his discovery of the horror or we are one of Kurtz’s tortured victims.

The twentieth century has its share of such books, too. In Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer describes his experience in Washington, DC during a series of October 1967 protests against the US war in Vietnam so expertly that we too feel the thump of the nightstick, the excitement of the confrontation and the effects of the coffee cup of bourbon he drinks near the beginning of the text. Likewise, John Cheever’s suburban white folks in Bullet Park evoke the flatness of suburban life so well; we too become numb to the diversions his characters undertake. The despair, drudgery and dirt of the early twentieth-century slaughterhouse floor in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is masked only by the stench the author forces us to breathe.

The narratives of each of the four books mentioned above occur in a short amount of time. To write about an entire century would seem to require considerably more space. In that regard, Michael Moorcock’s Pyat Quartet encompasses three quarters of a century, three continents, and a couple thousand pages. The books, each bearing a title of an ancient geographical entity: Byzantium Endures, The Laughter of Carthage, Jerusalem Commands and The Vengeance of Rome, seem to represent the protagonist’s desire to see his times as equivalent to the histories of those great cities and their legions of the past. This epic is the story of one man with many aliases, national allegiances, and tales. Like their protagonist, the four books of this quartet are ceaselessly entertaining, thought-provoking, and engaging.

This is a tale of the century seen through the eyes of an irascible, narcissistic and possibly insane genius whose political sympathies lie with monarchists and fascists. In his political sympathies he is not so different than many of his contemporaries. Similarly, his prejudices are more universal than we as a people like to pretend. Combining self deception willful ignorance and genuine naïveté Pyat plays a convincing habitué of the twentieth century’s orgy of destruction, creation and confusion.

The author Moorcock’s pretense is that he is the editor of Maxim Arturovitch Pyatnitski’s journals (aka Colonel Pyat.) Born January 1, 1900, Pyat’s tale is that of an adventurer, dreamer and fantasist, lover, actor, hustler and soldier. As he blunders himself through the century he finds himself in the company of exiled nobility, drug smugglers, engineers, klansmen, prostitutes, and the up and coming leaders of the fascist governments of Italy and Germany. His intrepid adventures find him in the arid wilds of the Sahara, among addicts and hookers in Istanbul, upon some of the worlds finest yachts, imprisoned as a sex slave in Morocco, and as a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz. Other than his chameleon-like adaptability, the only other constants in Pyat’s life are his cocaine habit, his fascist sympathies, his certainty in the supremacy of Mother Russia, her Church and his platonic relationship with fellow survivor, actress and dancehall singer Miss Cornelius.

Pyat is part bumbling fool, part intentionally ignorant, and part victim of circumstance. Never acknowledging that he might be wrong, he forges ahead through the century, always choosing to side with those he thinks will be the victors. He is not a hero, and his humanity is not the stuff that happy tales are made of. His view seems to be that there are those who are worthy of life and those who aren’t. Like so many of his century’s denizens, he considers those not worthy to be those who don’t look like him. Likewise, he claims no hatred toward those he considers subhuman, just a lack of concern or compassion for their plight. In a previous piece where I reviewed the first book in this quartet, I wrote that “… Upon further thought, it is exactly that which makes Pyat unattractive that ensures his durability in a century of hate, genocide and disaster.” Like Brecht’s Mutter Courage minus her overbearing cynicism, Moorcock’s Pyat is a metaphor for modern humanity. Because he does not share the cynicism of Brecht’s character however, he is even more representative of our species’ current manifestation; too willing to believe the lies of the powerful and go along with their schemes and battles over land and ideas.

One of Pyat’s fixations is that he is an engineer of transcendent ability. Beginning with his youth in Kiev, he designs and, when funding is available, builds airplanes of different sizes and functions. Never tiring of touting his engineering designs and perceived abilities in the field, he carries his favorite designs wherever he travels. No matter what circumstances he finds himself in—luxury accommodations or a dank prison cell, one of his primary concerns is always the whereabouts of those designs. The unwavering presence of Pyat’s airplane designs and the interest shown in them by capitalists, state bureaucrats, revolutionaries, and reactionaries alike raise a question regarding the role played by technology in our time as surely as the development of cinematic technology discussed in the quartet explores the relation of that technology to its role in the propagating the myths of modern society, both private and governmental.

One might wonder how this litany of prejudice, arrogance and wrongheadedness can be told in a manner that is delightful to read. The fact that it is is testament to Moorcock’s ability to weave a tale. The situations Pyat finds himself in are amusing and horrifying, sometimes at the same time. The product is multidimensional, longwinded yet not stagnant, and as colorful as any cloth taken from a Turkish rug weaver’s loom. There are numerous women, all of whom are equivalent in desires, intelligence and understanding as Pyat himself. The fascist leaders who play a significant role in the fourth book of the quartet are portrayed as simultaneously clever, creative and depraved. Pyat’s willingness to make excuses for their behavior is not of their design, but from his desire to believe. That phenomenon in itself comes incredibly close to defining the essence of modern man; despite so much evidence to the contrary, we insist on maintaining faith in our leaders’ ultimate goodness. Conversely, we refuse to acknowledge the possibility, no the likelihood, that their weaknesses are greater than ours. Indeed, much of their strength lies in that refusal, thereby providing these men and women with a means to manipulate our actions and even our thoughts. Michael Moorcock’s production of the fictional Maxim Arturovitch Pyatnitski’s journals is a task whose reward lies in its enjoyment by the reader. Immerse thyself.

Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of  The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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5 Reasons People Wanting to Change the World Should Read Crime Fiction

by Kenneth Wishnia
AlterNet
February 13th, 2014

Sometimes the only place where bankers go to jail for their criminal activities is in the pages of crime fiction

Let’s face it: some of the most ideologically committed people rarely read fiction, even socially conscious fiction, which means they’re only getting part of the story.

If you’re writing a research paper on the Great Depression, you’re probably going to start off by reading non-fiction accounts of the events of that decade. But if you want to know what it actually felt like to lose your home to the banks, travel across the country just to work a seasonal job with long hours under appalling conditions, and get assaulted by vigilantes because you dared to speak up, you should look no further than John Steinbeck’s masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath.

The same goes for crime fiction.

1. Crime fiction has the longest tradition of progressive social criticism of any American popular literary genre.

While some of today’s best-selling authors are attracted to the vigilante law-and-order and CIA-assassin type of crime thrillers, American hardboiled crime fiction began as a product of the rampant lawlessness and corruption of Prohibition in the 1920s. Dashiell Hammett, best known for The Maltese Falcon (1930), worked as a Pinkerton detective for several years and witnessed the violent suppression of the Anaconda copper miners’ strike in 1920. His first novel, Red Harvest (1929), draws on that experience, set in a mid-sized western city that is completely controlled by two rival criminal gangs. (One of my favorite lines from this novel: “The room was as dark as an honest politician’s prospects.”)

Raymond Chandler, best known for The Big Sleep (1939) and Farewell, My Lovely (1940), perfected a cynical style in response to the ravages of the Great Depression, the systemic corruption, brutality, and racist tendencies of the LAPD, and the age-old unwritten rule of “one law for the rich, another law for the rest of us.” Chandler’s polished writing style can turn a drive from downtown Los Angeles to the Hollywood hills into a sociological essay on the class dynamics of each neighborhood that his detective Philip Marlowe passes through.

Closer to our own era, authors such as Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky and K.C. Constantine have staked their claims to this territory, and opened up a path for a host of worthy descendents.

2. Crime fiction exposes the social conditions that lead to crime.

Walter Mosley’s first novel, "Devil in a Blue Dress," was made into a film in 1995. I once heard him tell an audience, “Hollywood wants a Ku Klux Klansman and a Black Panther to watch the same movie,” because the filmmakers had cut most of the racial politics depicted in his novel so as not to risk alienating potential ticket buyers. This is one reason why in so many films and TV shows featuring serial killers, the typical story line is about catching the killer before he kills again, but there is no indictment of the larger society that produced him.

It’s not as simple as the cliché that “society made him do it.” But there is clearly something about U.S. society that makes us number one in serial killers in the world. We also have the most gun deaths of any stable, industrialized democracy, and the fact that apocalyptically-inclined extremists and other mentally unstable people have such easy access to guns is a major factor. But the country’s violent history — of genocide against the Native American population, enslavement of African-Americans, and imperialist expansion beyond our borders — is surely a factor as well.

The effects of this violent history play out on many levels. If you want to experience a powerful depiction of how Americans’ devotion to the culture of football produces and condones brutal group behaviors and allows star athletes to get away with rape and other crimes, read S.J. Rozan’s novel, "Winter and Night."

Check out the Filomena Buscarsela series: 23 Shades of Black | Soft Money | The Glass Factory | The Red House | Blood Lake | Back to Ken Wishnia's Author Page




Tools of the Trade: Drawn to New York

by Rob Clough
High-Low
January 14th, 2014

The cover of Peter Kuper's compendium of New York-related illustrations, short stories and sketches, Drawn To New York (PM Press), reflect the varied approaches by the artist to comic art itself. We see a colored pencil, a Micron pen, a graphite pencil, and a paint brush each spelling out one of the words of the title. It may as well be a snapshot of his toolbox as an artist, because he's proven to be one of the more versatile and visually dynamic illustrators of the past thirty years or so. The theme of the book is simple, because it's one of an easily understood contradiction. A Cleveland boy is dazzled by New York upon visiting it and wants to live there. He comes to understand, however, that the city is as squalid as it is spectacular, and his drawings reflect the reality of crushing capitalism against the creative spirit. Despite the forces arrayed against the middle class and poor, he can never quite escape the rush that living in the city brings. That contradiction becomes even sharper post 9/11, when the city suddenly becomes the unwelcome symbol of interventionist US foreign policy.

Kuper has always wielded his artistic weapons as blunt instruments. He has rarely been subtle, whether in his own books or doing strips for the left-leaning World War III Illustrated, which he founded over thirty years ago. His best strips tend to be in the "show, not tell' category, cleverly letting images dissolve into each other and morph into new but related transformations regarding some essential truth related to poverty and despair, often with a rueful laugh or two thrown in for good measure. He's especially good at using the city itself to relate cyclical stories, like "One Dollar" detailing what happens to a dollar when it leaves the mint: the lives it's briefly part of, the pain that's inflicted just to get it, etc. As always, his jagged figure drawing (inspired in part by street art) is a highlight of any of his strips. "Chains" is a similar strip about the drug trade that pops off the page thanks to his powerful use of colored pencils. "Twenty Four Hours" simply goes through a day in New York City: good, bad, miserable and otherwise, giving the reader a fly's eye view of what can happen.

On the other hand, his autobio strips about 9/11, while containing a sort of powerful immediacy, don't quite hold up as well due to the bluntness of his own writing. That said, "Bombed" is fascinating simply because 9/11 was the fulfillment of the horrible daydreams Kuper had had in the form of comic strips about New York getting bombed, buildings being smashed into by planes, etc; the reality wound up being much worse than his fantasies. Speaking of which, "Jungleland" gets at the heart of his feelings about the city: savage beauty, the fear of that beauty being destroyed, and the fear of being destroyed by that beauty.

Throughout the book, Kuper throws example after example of this push-and-pull love and hatred that most New Yorkers feel about their city. There are moments of fleeting beauty, visceral expressions of disgust, extended riffs on decay and corruption, and an understanding of constant and unrelenting change. Kuper depicts a kind of race between the exploiters and the preservers, hoping against hope that the preservers stave off police brutality, the increased divisions between rich and poor, and the potential destruction of the city. Kuper's aesthetic is a melting pot of influences not unlike the city itself: graffiti, collage, line drawing, paint, etc. His drawings featuring a multitude of different colors in colored pencil are especially lively and tend to represent a free expression of his imagination. The heavy, painted drawings tend to represent doom, distopias and the general sense that the city's ecosystem is a fragile one, susceptible to extinction at any moment. Kuper seems to view his own role much like Mick Jagger in the Rolling Stones' song "Street Fightin' Man": "What can a poor boy do, but to sing in a rock and roll band?" In his case, what can Kuper do but desperately, ecstatically and compulsively record New York as he sees it? It's a case of a cartoonist's blunt style that is limited in terms of nuance being matched up perfectly with its subject: a raucous, energizing, frustrating, depressing bundle of contradictions, a metropolis of codependence, an organism that sustains and feeds on its own.

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Saving Our Unions: Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win?

By Steve Early
Monthly Review

Steve Early was a national union representative and organizer for twenty-seven years. He is the author of three books about labor.

This article is excerpted from his new book Save Our Unions: Dispatches from A Movement in Distress (Monthly Review Press, 2013).

Any review of the recent ups and downs of U.S. labor must start in Michigan, long a bastion of blue-collar unionism rooted in car manufacturing. Fifteen months ago, this Midwestern industrial state became another notch in the belt of the National Right to Work Committee, joining the not-very-desirable company of Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, and twenty other “open shop” states.

The emergence of sun-belt labor relations in the birthplace of the United Auto Workers (UAW) was shocking to some. But this political setback was preceded by high-profile defeats in neighboring states that began in 2005. First Indiana, followed by Wisconsin and Ohio, stripped public workers of their bargaining rights (although the Republican attack on government employees was later repelled by popular referendum in the Buckeye State). Then in early 2012, GOP legislators in Indiana passed a right-to-work law applicable to private industry. It banned any further negotiation of labor-management agreements that compelled workers to make a financial contribution to the cost of union representation, in established bargaining units or newly organized ones.1

In November 2012, organized labor tried to buck the emerging anti-union trend with two ballot questions designed to strengthen public-sector bargaining rights in Michigan. Despite the expenditure of many millions of dollars by affiliates of the AFL-CIO and Change To Win, both measures were defeated.2 In its lame-duck session just a few weeks later, GOP legislators in Lansing took retaliatory aim at union security in Michigan’s private sector. When the region’s latest “right to work” bill landed on his desk, Republican Governor Rick Snyder was most pleased to sign it into law.

During the intervening political furor, even labor’s “friend” in the White House, felt compelled to speak out. “We should do everything we can to keep creating good middle-class jobs that help folks rebuild security for their families,” Barack Obama told a union crowd in Detroit, after his own reelection victory. “What we shouldn’t be doing is trying to take away your rights to bargain for better wages and working conditions. The so-called ‘right-to-work’ laws—they don’t have to do with economics, they have everything to do with politics. What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money.”3

A Battered Workforce


Unfortunately, by this point in Obama’s presidency, working for less money, with fewer job rights or benefits and little employment security, was an experience shared by millions of white-collar and blue-collar workers. Even those still lucky enough to have union contracts (just 11.3 percent of the workforce in 2012) were battered by the great Wall Street meltdown and its continuing aftershocks. When push came to shove in 2008–2009, there was much emergency relief for those at the top of our economic pyramid and far less for the millions of wage earners and homeowners at the bottom. The latter suffered from layoffs, pay cuts, loss of home equity, and the evaporation of retirement savings. As a result, by 2013 overall employee compensation—including health and retirement benefits—dropped “to its lowest share of national income in more than 50 years while corporate profits have climbed to their highest share over that time.”4

Union members had more protection, of course, but only if their legal rights were not undermined by political friends and foes alike, both influenced to varying degrees by corporate funders. Just as President Obama’s own tutorial on the politics and economics of “right-to-work” failed to sway Governor Snyder in Michigan, labor’s efforts to enlist prominent Democrats in a vigorous defense of unionism has been a serial disappointment. During Obama’s first term, the desperate plea to “Save Our Unions!” often fell on deaf ears among labor’s supposed allies in Washington and many state capitals. From New York to California, Democratic governors and other public office holders joined the budget-cutting Republican chorus criticizing teachers and other government workers or seeking to curb their bargaining rights.

Thanks to this bipartisan hostility and/or indifference to collective bargaining, U.S. labor can expect little respite from its uphill battles in recent years, despite much initial union relief over Obama’s defeat of Mitt Romney. Throughout our last three decades of retreat and defeat, the generally agreed-upon left-wing formula for union revitalization has been a “to-do” list more easily recited than implemented. In some combination or fashion, most labor leftists agree that unions should resist contract concessions, do more systematic and radical membership education, become internally democratic, engage in direct action on the job, organize the unorganized (particularly foreign-born workers), build cross-border solidarity, and get involved in broader community-labor alliances leading to greater independence from the Democratic Party.

If this recipe for change were easy, there would have been far more union transformation than we have seen to date. Instead, thousands of dedicated labor activists have toiled diligently, for years, to change their own particular nook or cranny in the “house of labor,” while myriad private and now public sector enemies have tried to demolish the whole shaky structure.

Reform campaigns, new organizing initiatives, and some high-profile bargaining standoffs have helped slow the process of de-unionization and contract unraveling, but they have yet to reverse the steady decline in union membership and bargaining clout.

As Labor Notes reported, unions confronted with impending open-shop conditions in Michigan rushed to lock in automatic dues deduction for one more contract term, before the new state law went into effect. But the quid pro quo was “long, concessionary contracts” that will not enhance dues collection on a voluntary basis in the future. When that day comes—and some disgruntled workers drop their union membership or cease to be “agency fee”-payers—their unions will still have the legal obligation to represent them, a financial burden that can be debilitating over time.5

Unexpected Uprisings

Since 2011, an unexpected wave of collective activity, involving workers and their allies, inside and outside of unions, has become a beacon of hope for saving our unions. In all its diverse manifestations, this multi-front struggle has been a revolt, from below, against “the right to work for less money.” In both the public and private sector, older forms of protest—like tent cities, worker sit-downs, building occupations, civil disobedience, and quickie strikes—were recast by a new generation of activists searching for effective ways to resist corporate domination and workplace exploitation, by linking labor and community concerns.

In the year following the big midterm Republican gains in 2010, the uprising by Wisconsin public employees and the more diffuse Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement both mounted a long-overdue challenge to working-class disempowerment and the not unrelated growth of income inequality. From their earliest stage, the mass marches and rallies in Madison sought to unite private and public sector workers, and thwart Governor Scott Walker’s right-wing populist strategy of “divide and conquer.” The demonstrators (and occupiers) included public-service providers and those who rely on tax-supported state and local programs, working together as allies, not fiscal policy adversaries. Whereas the Tea Party activity of 2009–2010 had scapegoated taxes, immigrants, and big government, Wisconsin and OWS refocused public attention on the real threat to all working people, namely the power of big business and the political agenda of those doing its bidding.

Both protest movements also gave our timorous, unimaginative, and politically ambivalent unions an ideological dope-slap, not to mention a much-needed injection of youthful energy and ideas. AFL-CIO union leaders first sought an infusion of those scarce commodities in labor when they jetted into Wisconsin in the winter of 2011. Without their planning or direction, the spontaneous community-labor uprising in Madison managed to reframe the debate about public-sector bargaining throughout the United States. So the top officialdom flocked to the scene even though the protests were launched from the bottom-up, rather than in response to union headquarters directives from Washington, DC. Six months later, OWS became another Lourdes for the old, lame, and blind of American labor. Union leaders began making regular visits to Zuccotti Park and other high-profile encampments around the country, offering material aid and union reinforcements for Occupy-related marches and rallies.

Occupied Labor?

Based on this interaction with the 99%, Stuart Applebaum—a New York City union leader whose annual earnings put him near the 1%, income-wise—assured the media that “the Occupy movement has changed unions.” The question was: How much? And in what fashion? It would be a miraculous transformation indeed if organized labor, inspired by OWS, suddenly embraced more direct action, greater democratic decision-making, rank-and-file militancy, and salaries for officials closer to the pay of workers they represent. It would also be helpful if unions more consistently positioned themselves as champions of America’s working-class majority against the economic elite represented by Wall Street, while adopting Occupy’s brilliant popular framing of that class divide as a conflict between “them and us.”6

Unfortunately, many national unions, pre- and post-Occupy, utilize the same high-priced Democratic Party consultants, focus groups, and opinion polls that fuel the Obama administration’s endless conflation of “working class” and “middle class.” As labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein argues, proclaiming yourself to be a defender of the latter “will only mislead and confuse.” The contemporary category of middle class “has no sense of agency, purpose, or politics—while the idea of a working class is (by virtual definition) a font of all of this.” Says Lichtenstein:

We need to construct a sense of class dignity and destiny for all those whose work fails to provide social recognition and economic wellbeing. We need to restore some definitional precision to those who truly constitute America’s working-class majority. Unionists and those who advocate on their behalf need to use the kind of language whose emotive power and historic resonance match the political audacity of those who occupied both the Wisconsin statehouse and the Wall Street parks. To speak on behalf of the working class is to begin to educate millions of Americans to the realization that their future is linked to their own capacity of organization and empowerment.7

As educational and empowering as they were, the Wisconsin and OWS protests proved hard to sustain. Both ultimately fell short of achieving their goals, which, in the case of OWS, tended to be far more diffuse than the demands echoing through the Wisconsin state capitol building when it was occupied. In Wisconsin, union-backed efforts to recall anti-union Governor Scott Walker failed at the polls, as did various legal challenges, so the Republican rollback of public-sector bargaining rights was still largely intact for the duration of his four-year term, if not longer.8

Return of the Strike

In 2012, while Obama’s reelection campaign commanded most of mainstream labor’s available resources and attention, there were further grassroots stirrings that pointed in a positive direction. The year’s biggest strike, by 25,000 public school teachers in Chicago, combined elements of the Wisconsin upsurge with the anti-corporate themes of OWS. Under new and more activist leadership, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) also provided a much-needed demonstration of the powerful synergy between union reform, internal democracy, workplace militancy, and effective community organizing.

Prior to the strike, CTU members elected new officers and board members from the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE). CORE remained active, as a reform group, after the election of new president Karen Lewis, and its members played a key role in the systematic internal organizing that CTU undertook to rebuild union structures and prepare for 2012 bargaining. CTU activists also did extensive outreach to the community to neutralize, as much as possible, anti-teacher union sentiment whipped up by city hall, the school board, and corporate-backed “education reform” groups.

When the CTU strike began, then Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney expressed his solidarity with Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who formerly served as Obama’s White House chief of staff. During the nine-day walkout, tens of thousands of students, parents, and other community members stuck with the teachers, making it difficult for Emanuel to isolate and demonize the CTU, as planned.9 In May 2013, CORE-backed Karen Lewis was elected to another three-year term as president of the CTU with 80 percent of the vote, a strong membership endorsement of her strike leadership during the previous year.

At the same time that the CTU was providing an inspiring example for embattled teachers everywhere, other workers in the private sector showed that similar militancy is possible. While strike activity in large established bargaining units has reached an all-time low in recent years, retail, warehouse, and fast-food workers, who lack collective bargaining rights, staged a series of walkouts over low pay and unfair labor practices that generated national publicity. These protest strikes involved low-wage workers who are pro-union. Unfortunately, under current legal conditions they have little realistic chance of winning union recognition at any single work site of the corporation that employs them, either directly or through a sub-contractor or franchisee.

So, they have banded together in broader and looser networks, like OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect at Walmart) or Fast Food Forward, which generally disclaim unionization as a short-term goal. Instead, they have picketed, appealed to the public, and petitioned management for better pay and working conditions, with the backing of local workers’ centers or national unions, like the United Electrical Workers (UE), United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), or Service Employees International Union (SEIU). In the case of Warehouse Workers for Justice (aided by the UE in Illinois) and Warehouse Workers United (a group backed by Change-to-Win in California) one strike objective was to force Walmart to take responsibility for the personnel practices, including wage and hour violations, of the logistics chain staffing agencies that it employs.

In New York City, fast-food workers used their one-day work stoppage in November 2012 to protest the long-term wage stagnation of the nearly four million workers trapped in these $8 or $9 an hour jobs. The campaign there was kicked off by New York Communities for Change (NYCC), a successor to the now defunct community organization ACORN. NYCC had previously supported neighborhood-based organizing of immigrant workers at carwashes and supermarkets. To dramatize the plight of fast-food workers, NYCC joined forces with the SEIU, which provided more than $2.5 million to hire forty organizers and pay other campaign expenses in 2012.

As NYCC organizer Jonathan Westin explains, Fast Food Forward’s initial “roaming strike” was an approach influenced by Occupy because it involved “confronting [industry] power more openly and publicly and directly” than formal union drives in the past.10 Even though only a small fraction of the city’s 55,000 fast-food workers participated, media coverage was widespread and favorable. The initial New York City protest—and others patterned after it—generated new political pressure for long overdue minimum-wage increases, at the state or city level.

Last winter, both Fast Food Forward in New York and the SEIU-backed “Fight for 15” campaign in Chicago (to raise industry wages to $15 an hour) organized a broader round of protest activity at McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Dunkin Donuts, Burger King, Subway, and similar chains. In Chicago, SEIU spent nearly $2 million jump-starting the campaign. Similar one-day walkouts and demonstrations soon followed in Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and other cities. Over the summer, even fast-food workers in southern locales like Memphis and Raleigh joined the fray. On December 5, 2013, organizers extended strike activity to first-time locations in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, as part of a projected two-hundred-city “day of action” by fast-food workers and their supporters. According to one journalistic observer, the rapid spread of Fight for 15, combined with recent Walmart strike activity, is generating a serious and sustained challenge “to two industries that increasingly define the new U.S. economy.”11 In Seattle, community college professor Kshama Sawant became the first socialist, in nearly a century, to be elected to municipal office there—after she campaigned as a Fight for 15 supporter. Also active in Occupy, Sawant won impressive union backing for her race against a centrist Democrat, who was a longtime incumbent with past ties to the local labor establishment.

Black Fridays

The parallel escalation of OUR Walmart organizing began in October 2012, when workers walked off the job in thirty stores in twelve states. On Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving a month later, strike activity by four hundred Walmart workers—backed by a much larger number of labor-community supporters—spread to one thousand locations, in three times as many states. In the spring of 2013, Walmart workers and their supporters confronted store managers in one hundred locations to keep the pressure on Walmart to make scheduling improvements first promised after the Black Friday protests. In early June 2013, just prior to the company’s annual meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas, some workers tried to mount a longer work stoppage in several states where the OUR Walmart has been strongest. The nation’s largest employer responded by firing or suspending more than sixty workplace activists, including some who left their jobs to attend the shareholders meeting.12

On the eve of Black Friday last fall, the National Labor Relations Board announced its intention to issue a wide-ranging unfair labor practice complaint over management discrimination against the several thousand “associates” (Walmart’s name for its employees) who have signed up to be OUR Walmart members. The NLRB action would contest some of the retaliatory dismissals and a company-wide pattern of supervisory threats, intimidation, and interference with legally protected strike activity. With this timely legal boost, OUR Walmart reported Black Friday protests in 1,500 locations on November 28, 2013. Demonstrators waved picket signs and banners challenging the company to “Stop Bullying, Stop Firing, Start Paying.” (More than 800,000 of the company’s 1.3 million U.S.-based employees earn less than $25,000 a year.)13 Workers and their usual labor allies were joined by members of Congress, environmental and consumer activists, ministers, and economic justice advocates. Civil disobedience, which began with fifty arrests in Los Angeles two weeks before Black Friday, continued on the retailer’s busiest shopping day. More than twice that number of activists were jailed in the protests after Thanksgiving.

Back to the Future?

U.S. labor’s revived use of direct action harks back to an earlier era of industrial relations, prior to the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. It draws on organizational models more typical of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than the last seventy-five years. At a conference last year on “New Models of Worker Representation,” AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka declared that our “system of workplace representation is failing to meet the needs of America’s workers.” He touted “new models for organizing workers” that do not necessarily involve traditional collective bargaining relationships and pledged to assist “any worker or group of workers who wants to organize and build power in the workplace.”14

The “Alt-labor” initiatives now being embraced by the AFL-CIO reflect a broader conception of labor organization long championed by the left. Critics of “contract unionism,” like Stanley Aronowitz and others, have argued for years that union membership and functioning should not be defined by statute or limited to formal collective bargaining units. Losing a Labor Board election, not having enough support to get one, or lacking a union contract does not pose any legal barrier to workers acting collectively for their own benefit. With or without outside organizational backing, they can maintain workplace committees and engage in “concerted activity” aimed at getting management to improve wages, working conditions, and benefits. At least one well-known labor law professor, Charles Morris, has even argued that the NLRA supports such “minority union” efforts to engage employers in “members-only bargaining.”15

(Several labor attempts to get the real-existing NLRB to act on this theory have been unsuccessful in workplaces where union supporters had not yet demonstrated the majority support necessary for legal certification of a new collective bargaining unit.)
Not surprisingly, “do-it-yourself workplace organizing” was championed on the margins of organized labor, before it became, under duress, more mainstream. In their lively pamphlet, Solidarity Unionism at Starbucks, former Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizer Daniel Gross and labor historian Staughton Lynd recount the history of recent IWW skirmishing with the coffee-shop chain created by billionaire Howard Schultz.16 In 2004, the century-old radical union became active among New York City “baristas,” most of them part-timers, who were “fed up with living in poverty and being mistreated.” According to Gross and Lynd, Starbucks workers are not, as a practical matter, able to seek NLRB-sponsored elections “even if they wished to do so,” because the company “maintains that the appropriate bargaining unit for employees would be a prohibitively large multi-store unit.” In addition, the low-budget IWW has a political bias against even “using the statutory mechanism designed to produce exclusive bargaining representation.” When U.S. unions get legally certified, they acquire “the power to bargain away members’ rights to engage in concerted direct action.” That is why, the authors believe, “workers themselves on the shop floor, not outside union officials, are the real hope for labor’s future.”

Militant Minority Unionism?

Instead of seeking formal bargaining rights via NLRB-conducted representation elections, IWW supporters at Starbucks tried to extract concessions from the company through direct action on the job, combined with creative public protests and embarrassing publicity. (When Starbucks retaliated against inside organizers like Gross, the IWW did file unfair labor practice charges at the NLRB, just as OUR Walmart has done to contest the retaliatory dismissal of its supporters and other forms of illegal management behavior.) As one sign of the IWW’s impact, Gross and Lynd cite wage increases introduced by Starbucks, in response to New York City barista agitation, which “increased pay almost 25% in a period when retail wages in the city were essentially stagnant.”

In Massachusetts, an IWW-assisted online petition campaign and a threatened strike by shift supervisors won concessions from management worth a million dollars annually in bonuses and raises. This dispute broke out after Starbucks was forced to exclude its shift supervisors from sharing in tips—a practice that violated the wage-and-hour law rights of hourly workers. For some supervisors, however, this policy change meant a pay cut of nearly 20 percent. The supervisors sought help from the union for a protest campaign that led to an increase in their hourly wages from $11 to $13.59 and additional bonuses of $350. “I think this is the shape of things to come,” predicts IWW-activist Erik Forman. “Workers are deciding to take action on the job because capital is destroying the legal framework that unions have existed under in the U.S. since 1935 in the private and public sector.”

As a former fast-food worker himself, Forman finds the “prospect of a new militancy emerging with backing from bigger institutional players” to be “exciting.” Over the past year, he notes, “a wave of telegenic one-day fast food ‘strikes’ has exposed an ugly reality. The world of exploitation behind every hamburger and fries is hidden no longer.” But Forman worries that Fight for 15 may not represent a sufficient “departure from business unionism as usual.”

Already, he reports, “rank-and-filers in the Fight for 15 have begun building their own organizations autonomous from the campaign bureaucracy, connecting with community supporters who are free from the fetters of a paycheck signed [by the SEIU].”17

Reflecting similar left skepticism, Labor Notes reporter Jenny Brown observed, with no small degree of wonder, that “after years of downplaying strikes, the union that’s funding fast food organizing is now embracing the tactic.” Some activists interviewed by Brown worry that SEIU is not “providing a sustainable organizing home beyond the workplace—particularly important in the high turn-over restaurant industry.” Others question whether “the union will commit sustained resources and not leave workers in the lurch if legislative goals [i.e., a higher minimum wage] aren’t immediately met.”18

After his own extensive interviews with Fight for 15 organizers around the country, In These Times writer Arun Gupta praised the campaign for “setting in motion thousands of working poor, mainly African Americans and Latinos” and “generating excitement that a popular movement can finally go on the offensive against corporate power.” Like Forman and Brown, however, he also expressed doubts about “whether Fight for 15 is fundamentally a worker organizing campaign or a ‘march on the media,’” masterminded by SEIU-funded PR consultants like BerlinRosen or Purpose, which helped “brand” the campaign as part of its own multinational promotion of “movement entrepreneurship.”19

Opening for the Left?

But other young leftists, including some directly involved in recent strike activity, see expanded opportunities for bottom-up organizing. According to Whole Foods worker Trish Kahle, the city-wide walk-out by two hundred fast-food and retail workers in Chicago last year emboldened nine coworkers in her own store to take a stand against “a draconian attendance policy and poverty wages.” Kahle notes that “strikes are nearly non-existent in shops like mine, and almost none of my co-workers have ever been in a union.” The cofounder and CEO of Whole Foods is Texas-based John Mackey, a libertarian union-buster who once famously compared unionization to herpes because “it won’t kill you, but it’s very unpleasant and will make a lot of people not want to be your lover.” Nevertheless, after joining the strike, Kahle got a raise from her store manager and more than a dozen other Whole Food workers all wanted to know how they could join “the union.”

“Is this a worker-run campaign that workers have conceptualized and carried out entirely by themselves? Not yet,” Kahle admits. “But workers are being transformed into union leaders for the first time by participating in this movement and radicals are in a position to shape it by rebuilding the tradition of radical unionism.” In Chicago, one other influence cited by Kahle is the local teachers’ union, whose striking members were seen as “standing up for all working people” in the fall of 2012. Months later, Kahle reports, “workers would break out into applause” whenever the CTU was mentioned at fast-food organizing meetings.20 She believes that picket-line fraternization between fast-food workers and rank-and-file SEIU members could raise expectations among the latter. “They’re thinking, ‘I only make $10 an hour and I’m in the SEIU,’” she says. “The people on top at the SEIU aren’t interested in organizing on the shop floor, but we are.”21

Texas labor activist Ryan Hill takes a similar ecumenical tact in his appraisal of both OUR Walmart and Fight for 15. “There’s an impressive boldness in both of these campaigns that we haven’t seen from labor in many years of defensive struggles, setbacks, and outright defeats,” Hill contends. “Many of the activists involved cite the Occupy encampments of two years ago as a formative political experience…. Most importantly, workers have been energized—not just any workers, but those in industries still largely considered ‘unorganizable.’”

In Hill’s view, “both campaigns have been building organizations that can keep workers plugged in for the long haul,” even if the current “layer of leaders, activists, and supporters within targeted companies is still thin.” He urges others on the left to forgo the comforts of armchair generalship, not to mention the temptations of Monday-morning quarterbacking. If more labor activists pitched in to build “independent support committees”—or better yet, took a job with an employer targeted by one of these campaigns—the “army of dedicated, militant, and motivated supporters” needed “to beat a company like Walmart or McDonalds” would be much stronger and deep-rooted.22

Whatever long-term fate awaits either campaign, the opportunity to be part of a “militant minority” within the working class—that is currently engaged in rediscovering older forms of labor struggle—is not one to be missed. And there is no better place to relearn lessons about workers’ capacity for self-organization and empowerment than struggles that are not going to be won if either force for change is constrained in any way.


Notes
    1.    ↩Union security clauses typically require that all union-represented workers have either dues deducted from their paychecks or, if they choose to be non-members, an equivalent amount in the form of “agency fees.” The strongest form of union security requires everyone in the bargaining unit to become a union member. In September, 2013, a county judge struck down Indiana’s right-to-work law but the state supreme court was expected to uphold its constitutionality. See Tim Evans, “Indiana Attorney General Appeals Ruling That ‘Right-to-Work’ is Unconstitutional,” IndyStar, September 12, 2013, http://indystar.com.
    2.    ↩Change To Win is the coalition of unions—now numbering only three—that broke away from the AFL-CIO in 2005, with the original intention of creating a rival national labor federation.
    3.    ↩Quoted by Monica Davey, “Michigan Labor Fight Cleaves a Union Bulwark,” New York Times, December 10, 2012, http://nytimes.com.
    4.    ↩Steven Greenhouse, “Our Economic Pickle”,” New York Times, January 13, 2013, http://nytimes.com.
    5.    ↩See Jane Slaughter, “Coping With Michigan Right-to-Work Law,” Labor Notes, May 2013, 4–5.
    6.    ↩For a lengthier appreciation and defense of Occupy’s resonant political rhetoric, see Michael Yates, “‘We Are the 99%’: The Political Arithmetic of Revolt,” New Labor Forum (Winter 2013): 10–13.
    7.    ↩Nelson Lichtenstein, “Class Unconciousness: Stop Using ‘Middle Class’ to Depict the Labor Movement,” New Labor Forum (Spring 2012): 11–13. For the most persuasive book-length statement of this argument, see Michael Zweig, The Working-Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000).
    8.    ↩For the best collective assessment of all aspects of the struggle in Wisconsin, see Michael D. Yates, ed., Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).
    9.    ↩For more detailed accounts of the CTU struggle, see Lee Sustar, Striking Back in Chicago: How Teachers Took on City Hall and Pushed Back Corporate Education ‘Reform’” (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014); Micah Uetricht, Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity (New York: Verso/Jacobin Books, 2014); and Alexandra Bradbury, Mark Brenner, Jenny Brown, Jane Slaughter, and Samantha Winslow, How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers (Detroit: Labor Notes, 2014). Also, multiple contributors to Monthly Review analyzed the Chicago contract fight and related public education trends in the June 2013 special edition “Public School Teachers Fight Back,” edited by Michael Yates.
    10.    ↩Alan Feuer, “Life on $7.25 an Hour,” New York Times, December 1, 2013, 34–35.
    11.    ↩Josh Eidelson, “Surprise Fast Food Strike Planned in St. Louis,” Salon, May 8, 2013, http://salon.com; and “Fast Food Strikes to Expand Massively,” Salon, August 14, 2013, http://salon.com. For a more sober appraisal of the difficulty of building durable, self-sustaining workers organizations in these sectors, see Arun Gupta, “The Walmart Working Class,” in Leo Panitch, Greg Albo, and Vivek Chibber, eds., Socialist Register 2014: Registering Class (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014).
    12.    ↩Jenny Brown, “Retaliation is Illegal, But Walmart Doesn’t Care,” Labor Notes, September 2013, 14–15. As Brown reports, “some fast-food workers have also been fired for organizing.”
    13.    ↩Peter Dreier, “Walmart Workers Will Make History on Friday as America Confronts Growing Inequality,” Truthout, November 27, 2013, http://truth-out.org.
    14.    ↩For a summary of this Trumka speech, see Jackie Tortora, “Future of Unions: New Models of Worker Representation,” AFL-CIO Now, March 7, 2013, http://aflcio.org.
    15.    ↩Charles Morris, The Blue Eagle at Work: Reclaiming Democratic Rights in the American Workplace (Ithaca, NY: Cornell ILR Press, 2004).
    16.    ↩Daniel Gross and Staughton Lynd, Solidarity Unionism at Starbucks (Oakland: PM Press, 2011).
    17.    ↩Erik Forman, “Fast Food Unionism: The Unionization of McDonald’s and/or The McDonaldization of Unions,” Recomposition, November 17, 2013, http://recomposition.info.
    18.    ↩Jenny Brown, “Fast Food Strikes: What’s Cooking?,” Labor Notes, July, 2013, 1–3.
    19.    ↩Ibid.
    20.    ↩Trish Kahle, “Beyond Fast Food Strikes,” Jacobin, October 22, 2013, http://jacobinmag.com.
    21.    ↩Quoted in Peter Rugh, “Low-Wage Workers, Top-Down Unions,” Waging Nonviolence, September 30, 2013, http://wagingnonviolence.org.
    22.    ↩Ryan Hill, “Opportunities Present for ‘Labor Left’ in Walmart and Fast Food Fights,” Solidarity, October 1, 2013, http://solidarity-us.org.

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Real Revolutionaries Carry a Banjo

by Jesse Drew
Retort

 [Jesse Drew sends us his reflections on the late Pete Seeger, whom he met during the making of his documentary on the politics of country music. A rough mix of Open Country was screened and presented by Jesse and Glenda at last January's Retort, during which we learnt that the new Billboard category 'Country and Western' was a McCarthy era (December 1949) coinage intended to break the lineage with political 'folk' e.g. Guthrie, the Almanacs and the Weavers. Jesse himself worked as a sound engineer at Dolby Labs in San Francisco and recently as director of Technocultural Studies at UC Davis, where he specializes in digital arts, media archaeology, documentary studies and the history of labor. He contributed 'The Commune as Badlands as Utopia as Autonomous Zone' to West of Eden (PM Press 2012) where he described himself as 'a young teenage runaway, who roamed the United States and thrived thanks to a strong network of urban and rural communes and collectives, spending many years as a labor activist in traditional smokestack industries before becoming involved in grassroots video production and the nascent digital arts movement.' IB] 

29. i. 14

I spend a lot of time thinking about Pete Seeger.  I was even thinking of him the night news of his death flashed on my screen.  In the course of working on an excruciatingly long-term film project on the politics of Country music, the influence of Pete Seeger arises quite often.  Part of the thesis of the film, called Open Country, is that Pete Seeger should be considered a founder of Country music.  Not folk music, mind you, as that has been around for some time.  Country music.  Nashville, I believe, owes Pete a statue in the center of town. But I will return to this seemingly absurd point later.

It is not possible to sum up the contributions of Pete Seeger in this commentary, nor in any article, anthology or book. His connection to the labor rebellions of the Great Depression and the post-War years, battles with HUAC and the anti-communist witch-hunts, participation in the Civil Rights movement in the South, agitation against the wars in Vietnam, Central America, and the Middle East, building a community effort to clean industrial waterways, acting against global warming—these are all rich areas where Pete Seeger would have to be included.  To do justice to the legacy of Pete Seeger, indeed, one would have to write about every significant movement for social justice in the United States, if not the world, within the last 80 years.
With his passing, as I try to take the long view of his life, I am tainted not by what I know from books, recordings and word-of-mouth legacy, but by the small personal experiences I had of him. Growing up in the 1960s, I had heard a few songs of his in school, sung “Where Have all the Flowers Gone” in summer camp and saw him as a distant dot on a stage at anti-war rallies.  Our family watched the Smothers Brothers television show religiously, and was vaguely aware of his censorship battle while “waist deep in the big muddy”. But in my transition from pro-war patriotic teenager, to peacenik, to militant revolutionary, Seeger was too much “kumbaya” and not enough “street fightin’ man.” It wasn’t until the mid seventies, as I transitioned into a life in factory jobs and labor activism, that I realized how profound Seeger’s contributions were.  I discovered “Talking Union,” a record album of the Seeger-led Almanac Singers, with the labor songs that sitdown strikers and factory-occupying industrial workers sang across America in the 1930s and 1940s. They called themselves the Almanacs after Lee Hays remarked that "back home in Arkansas farmers had only two books in their houses: the Bible, to guide and prepare them for life in the next world, and the Almanac, to tell them about conditions in this one". I was surprised that I knew many of these songs from the Civil Rights movement, and discovered that they were indeed transported by Seeger and others from Flint and Pittsburg to Selma and Montgomery. Pete believed singing gave people the strength and resolve to maintain courage and dignity in the face of clubs, mace, jail and violence.  “Like a tree standing by the water” was relevant wherever your fight.  Throughout his life, he brought music to every arena of popular struggle.  He believed in the power of music.  He also believed deeply in the power of individuals to rise above their daily lives and join in a struggle for the greater good.  Quite simply, he believed in two facets of society no longer mentioned in polite company.  He believed in “the masses” and he also believed in “the working class.”

In the late seventies, a friend of mine whose father had fought in Spain invited me to a reunion of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.  We entered the dark, wooden lodge-like old union hall in the East Bay of San Francisco, to encounter perhaps 50 older, somewhat grizzled men sitting on folding chairs around tables. Sitting casually amongst them was a tall, slim Pete Seeger, plucking a banjo, and chatting amiably with his table of military veterans, those who chose to fight prematurely against fascism.  No generals, politicians or Chamber of Commerce people to thank these veterans for their service, just Pete Seeger, who stood later during the evening and roused them with the songs of their militant youth.

Years later, while on a visit to the squatted community gardens of the “Loisaida”, the remnants of a once working-class and Nuyorican Alphabet City on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I spied the man ahead of me walking with an instrument case.  As I approached from behind, I could see it was not a guitar, but a banjo.  The man turned into a small pocket park, and shortly ahead was a group of perhaps 25 school children, sitting in the park in a semi-circle.  It was Pete Seeger, of course, who serenaded the kids of the neighborhood with children’s songs. I spoke with him after his casual performance, sitting in a wooden gazebo in the park, while he packed up his banjo. “I try to get out here as often as I can, to play for the children, and to visit the neighborhood.”  He left unaccompanied, on foot, just an old man and a banjo.

Years later I found myself beginning research on the politics and history of Country music, which I believe is rightfully the progressive voice of the rural and working poor, not the right wing, cowboy hat, pickup truck listeners of Nashville pop.  Preparing to examine the long history of Country music, I was stopped short in the late 1940s-early 1950s. That was pretty much as far back as music called “country” went.  Before that, it was called “folk”.  All the music we would call “country” today was listed on the charts as “folk.”  Hank Williams, the standard by which every self-respecting country musician holds themselves  (What would Hank do?) considered himself a folk musician.  Country music only showed up in the midst of the McCarthyite and HUAC assault on popular culture, whose impact is widely known on the film industry, somewhat known on the television and radio industry, but fairly unexamined in the music industry.  As Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Weavers and others who would dare sing about the struggles of poor and working people were dragged before HUAC and other un-American investigative committees, the industry read the lyrics on the wall.  Their self-preservation stance was: We don’t do “folk” music, we do “country” music: God, guns and beer, not coal miners, sharecroppers and strikers.  Almost overnight, the industry charts and lists separated “folk” from “country,” with Nashville as the homeland of country.  Folk music with suspect lyrics were marginalized and pulled from the air, while the now safe Country music hit the charts.  So, Country music—that’s Pete’s fault.

As I spent more time on research into Country music, I kept being dragged back to Folk music, and to the role of Pete Seeger.  For the film, I dreamed of interviewing him.  But how? After months of asking around, all I could come up with was a PO Box in upstate NY.  But he did not know who I was, or anything about my intentions.  Why would he speak with the likes of me? One night I wrote him a letter and sent it off to the PO Box, not expecting any response.  No response came and I quickly wrote off the possibility. Then, nine months later I had a voicemail.  “This is Pete Seeger, finally got around to opening your letter. Looks like an interesting project.  Why don’t you give me a call and we’ll set something up.”  Then he left his phone number.  I immediately called back and booked a plane for NY.

Picking up a friend and his daughter for technical support, we drove from Brooklyn up to his house in upstate NY in sub-zero weather, negotiating around dirt roads and frozen landscape.  We approached a complex of cabins at the top of a hill, not knowing if we’ve reached our destination or not, when we saw an elderly man with a knit cap splitting wood on the side of the house.  Pete, of course.  He invited us into his house, where his wife Toshi insisted that Pete “build that fire higher, as it’s freezing in here”, so our crew pitched in splitting and carrying wood to get the house warmer.  We got to roll camera and talk for hours, about country music, traditional music, revolutionary change.  We heard the great stories about writing “Union Maids” with Woody Guthrie in the back room of a union hall in Oklahoma, about sharing “We Shall Overcome” with SNCC and other civil rights activists, about his involvement in organizing a community push to clean up the Hudson, about his optimism for the future.
Pete Seeger and Jesse Drew up the Hudson

It struck me in the months afterwards that Pete Seeger embodied two of the most important characteristics I value in a revolutionary.  He truly believed in the power of ordinary people to act for social change on a mass level. Many today give lip service to that idea, but Pete really believed it.  And why not?  In his lifetime he was witness to rank-and-file workers standing together and occupying their factory, of communities sitting in and standing up to brutally racist attacks, of students who put down their books and took over administration buildings, of young people who blocked trains of munitions heading for war, of thousands of young and old who occupied Wall Street. He’s advocated for “the little drops that add up to buckets, that become a tidal wave of change.” And he sang for them all. The other valuable attribute I found in him: his political ideas were lived in his daily life. His generosity and respect to individuals was genuine, not rhetorical.  While interviewing him, I found there was a major film crew from Europe coming by the next day.  Yet, it was clear my little production was as important to him as that production was.  He remarked that just a few days before, “that fellow Bruce Springsteen” was sitting in the same chair, asking him similar questions.  I still had the impression that my sitting there was just as important to him. Pete lived the politics he believed in, he built his own house, grew a garden, chopped his own wood, was kind to people, and yet on top of it all still managed to change the world.  And in the true tradition of punk rock, “he booked his own damn life” although he may have been many months behind!

In the weeks to come, there will be many eulogies to Pete Seeger.  Many will downplay and sanitize who he was, stripping his politics away and leaving a kindly man who played banjo songs about America. Others will question and poison his motives, bringing in the spectre of the Communist Party, USA and when he broke from its Stalinist past.  One thing is for sure. A profound link with the long trajectory of revolutionary change in the US has been lost. 

Someone who understood the links between labor, race, ecology, peace, culture and music. 

One who understood the importance of bringing masses of people into the struggle, to be respectful, inclusive and inviting. These are all qualities we are in desperate need of today.  May his passing inspire the ranks of many new Pete Seegers.




Barred For Life: An Encounter and A Tattoosday Book Review

by Troy Denning
Tattoosday Blog
December 15th, 2013


As a Gen-X child, the Black Flag bars are familiar to me. I’ll be honest, I was never a huge fan, but I had friends that were, coming of age in the 1980’s.

I remember first seeing Black Flag on film in the groundbreaking The Decline of Western Civilization, screened at the University of Hawaii Physical Science Auditorium, whose film series had a cult following  among teens in Honolulu in the early 80’s. It was there that I saw Rocky Horror (many times), Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards, Russ Meyer's Up!, The Song Remains the Same, and the Black Sabbath/Blue Oyster Cult concert film, Black and Blue.

And, Decline.

The film didn’t shake my core like it did many of my friends, but my middle-aged memory cites it as my first encounter with Black Flag. Their emblematic bars found their way onto my notebooks, sharing the doodling of metal band names and logos. The bars remind me of adolescence and rebellion.

Other people’s rebellion, not mine, mind you.

I won’t claim to be someone I’m not, or someone I wasn’t.

I don’t have any Black Flag tattoos on me, and I never will.

This past summer, on my way to a job interview, I was in lower Manhattan in a suit on a sweltering day when I met Harley, a woman with a lot of ink. I had a few minutes before my interview and asked her about her work. She showed me her back:


Running into Harley and having her share this tattoo seemed fortuitous, as I had just received a copy of Barred for Life in the mail. Subtitled “How Black Flag’s Signature Logo Became Punk Rock’s Secret Handshake,” this book was on my list of titles to review, and there had just been several events in New York celebrating its release.

I envisioned a big post, combining Harley’s tattoo and the review. This is that post (obviously), but just fashionably late to the party.

A word first about Harley’s tattoo, which she credited to Troy Denning at Invisible NYC. Harley told me, when I asked her why she got the "Rise Above" tattoo, simply, “to rise above.” She added later, “And to … let nothing keep you down...”

As for Barred for Life, I can’t think of a more compelling gift for someone who is either a 1) punk/hardcore fan; or 2) a fan of simple tattoos that mean a whole lot. So, if you know someone looking to use a bookstore gift card this holiday season, tell them to special order this book.

Let’s face it, the Bars are fairly rudimentary – four rectangular blocks offset in equidistant parallel orientation. Barred for Life unveils a wide array of variations on the tattoo, which anchors album art and other punk sentiment. The really compelling aspect of each tattoo is that of the interview that accompanies it.
We get an inside view into the minds of people who have been “barred for life,” including the fan’s relationship with the band, the story behind the tattoo (right up our alley!), and the favorite singer/song/album trifecta. We’re also treated to interviews with current and former band members, with Henry Rollins noticeably absent.

The scope of this volume is magnificent. The number of people who are “barred for life” is staggering, just based on this sampling alone. Think of the thousands of others who have been similarly branded – where a tattoo of a band logo goes above and beyond one’s appreciation of the group itself.

That said, this is more than just a tattoo book – it’s a chronicle of a mindset, a visual exploration of a family that united around a symbol that inserted itself as a logo of a punk band, and evolved into a cultural icon.
Thanks to Harley for sharing her Black Flag tattoo with us here on Tattoosday, and to Stewart Dean Ebersole for putting together such a great chronicle of bars tattoos.

More info on the book here.

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The Rhetoric of Life: S. Brian Willson’s Blood on the Tracks

By Charlie Canning
Kyoto Journal

In some respects, S. Brian Willson’s Blood on the Tracks is similar to Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July. Both Kovic and Willson are Viet Nam Veterans who had to change their way of thinking once they’d discovered that the reality of the war had little to do with the ideals that had been used to sell it. But while Born on the Fourth of July is limited to Kovic’s Viet Nam War experience and its aftermath, Willson’s Blood on the Tracks takes a more encyclopedic approach to U.S. history.

At times, Blood on the Tracks reads like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. There’s a lot of tangential material woven into the narrative and Willson doesn’t mind departing from the timeline if there is something on the periphery of his experience or his education that he feels people should know about. There’s an attempt at psychohistory as well, but this thread is less developed than the personal memoir and historical parts.

In terms of subject matter, there are at least three books here: one on Viet Nam, one on Latin America, and one on sustainable living. The event that cauterizes all the parts is Willson’s encounter with a U.S. Navy munitions train in Concord, California on September 1, 1987. Willson and two other men were sitting on the tracks in a public right-of-way to protest the shipment of arms to Central America and other places around the world including Asia.

Willson’s protest at the Concord Naval Weapon’s Station was textbook civil disobedience. He had read his Martin Luther King, Jr., his Gandhi, and his Thoreau. Willson had fully expected the train to stop.

I had been following Willson’s campaign in the local newspapers and thought that we were in for a fairly predictable, drawn-out battle of wills. Willson would sit on the tracks — the Navy would remove him from the tracks; Willson would sit on the tracks — the Navy would remove him from the tracks. This would go on until some concessions were made or until the Navy had figured out a way to keep Willson and the other protestors off of the tracks. Never did I expect that the train would run over Brian Willson.

What a shock it was to hear that the train hadn’t stopped. In fact, not only had the train not stopped, it had speeded up. Willson’s legs were a mass of pulp. There was no way to reattach the severed leg or to save the other one. Both legs had to be amputated below the knee. More shocking still was how quickly the story had faded from public consciousness. Soon it was like the whole thing had never happened. Brian Willson is one of the Beach Boys, isn’t he?

Like Ron Kovic, Willson is savvy enough to understand that suffering can, in itself, be a form of activism. In order to pull this off, you have to have both innocence and will. Without innocence, the suffering becomes masochistic and only brings on further pain. Without will, there’s no arc to the suffering.

In his book Power and Innocence, psychologist Rollo May makes an important distinction between innocence and pseudo-innocence. Innocence “is the preservation of childlike attitudes into maturity without sacrificing the realism of one’s perception of evil….” Pseudo-innocence, on the other hand, “is childishness rather than childlikeness” and leads to unconscious “complicity with evil.”* According to May, the United States is a pseudo-innocent country that has repeatedly invoked the “design of Providence” to rationalize genocide, slavery, the use of atomic bombs on largely civilian populations, and a host of other evils.

What makes Brian Willson so effective as an activist is his innocence. He doesn’t expect to find blackened bodies of women and children on the battlefields of Viet Nam. Willson doesn’t expect that the U.S. Government will secretly fund arms shipments to mercenaries in Central America to kill poor farmers working in small village cooperatives. He doesn’t expect that a Navy munitions train will run him over. But once he sees the truth, Willson doesn’t shy away from it or pretend that the evil doesn’t exist.

The other quality that Willson has in abundance is will. Like other activists before him, Willson has been consistently overmatched. In every single one of the causes that he has fought for, the other side has had most of the power and most of the resources. What they haven’t had is the right.

Brian Willson’s had that and his life has an extraordinary rhetoric to it. As a young man, he goes off to Viet Nam a “Commie-hating, baseball-loving Baptist.” By bitter experience, he learns that there are no just wars — only justifications. He attempts to stop a Navy munitions train from making its run to protest the killing and maiming of poor farmers in Central America.

He loses both his legs in the attempt. After an absurd legal battle in which he is countersued for causing distress to the train crew that ran him over, Willson wins a large civil suit and increases his activism. For three years, he travels around the world campaigning for human rights. Sensing that it is the American Way of Life that is driving the U.S. imperial juggernaut, Willson begins to focus his attention on his own consumption patterns. He builds a solar house with a composting toilet and starts driving electric cars. Currently on a speaking tour to promote Blood on the Tracks, the now seventy-year-old Willson is transporting himself to the bookstores along the route by three-wheeled hand-cycle.

Each day that Willson meets with people to discuss the events recounted in Blood on the Tracks, he uses the rhetoric of his life to raise the consciousness of those around him. Each day, Willson is outgunned by the Patriot Act and the banality of the mass media. And each day, Brian Willson prevails.

*May, Rollo. Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence. New York:
W.W. Norton, 1972, p. 49.


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Jobs With Justice: 25 years to trying to transform Gompersism in the labor movement

By Paul Buhle
LAWCHA
Labor and Working-Class History Association
October 31st, 2013

These days, successful labor activity among the unorganized seems to depend, in ever greater degree, upon “faith based organizing,” union efforts interfacing with the constituencies of churches and the occasional synagogue. If this is a major trend, it surely begins with the story of Jobs with Justice. One of the shining stars in the general darkness of the past thirty years, JWJ has often felt more like a missionary organization than a collective project for self-interest—just as in the most vital moments in American labor history, before the dead hand of the functionaries took hold.

Looking way back, the AFL of Samuel Gompers, exclusionary by intent, eventually yielded to an AFL-CIO run by highly paid figures of the 1950s little interested in unpromising avenues including (mostly women) office workers, agricultural workers, and, of course, the undocumented workers who were considered unwanted at best. No wonder labor went to rack and ruin.

Enter JWJ, a most unusual venture supported by progressives and even a few noted regressives, i.e., Cold Warriors with suspicious past connections, like certain officials of the Communications Workers before Larry Cohen stepped into the presidency. Cohen’s rise was doubly important because more than anyone else, he pushed the idea that community organizing movements, support groups for non-English speaking immigrants and others, could coalesce with sections of labor was the right one at the right time, i.e., the 1980s. Here is the secret for a valuable little book, impressive as an oral history project, equally impressive for the ideas that it brings to labor. Jobs with Justice: 25 Years offers deeply personal stories, varying widely according to local conditions, allies and prospects. Here we rediscover some considerable victories and, inevitably, some bitter defeats. Perhaps beyond the details, we find a sensibility that could be, might yet be, a rebirth of a solidarity labor movement.

Larry Cohen himself suggests lucidly, without being polemical, about why that moment has not arrived for the AFL-CIO generally. Members disappear but “institutionitis” even more than a growing scarcity of resources (including money for organizing) hangs on. It could be called the Dead Hand of the post-1950 past, although that would be too simple. Readers are directed to dig into the details for themselves. It’s a rich trove, and tells us much about efforts in the nonunion South, for instance, armed with civil rights allies, women’s groups, and the coalitions around Living Wage efforts. Or post-industrial cities like Cleveland and Buffalo, where strong unions had come and gone, leaving the community (and especially minorities) behind.

Jobs with Justice aimed at a “permanent coalition,” placing labor where it would naturally be, and was in the days of the ethnic halls near the big manufacturing plants reached largely on foot from the neighborhoods.

In the days before Social Security, sickness-and-death benefit societies, consumer coops and music on weekends wove a fabric of solidarity. Now, the fabric needs to be rewoven with all the resources available and more.

That “more” is, in significant degree, a spiritual thing. Thus a cofounder of the Cleveland chapter describes growing up Catholic, boycotting lettuce in solidarity with the United Farm Workers (and Cesar Chavez), feeling uplifted by Martin Luther King, Jr., and fighting for health care reform arm and arm with local black ministers. That the Cleveland Federation of Labor vigorously opposed the US role in Iraq as well is a tribute to how labor could be turned around from the hawkishness of the George Meany/Lane Kirkland years.

Jobs with Justice: 25 Years, 25 Voices
is not a critical history, and the weaknesses of the movement remain to be addressed. But this is a wonderful beginning on preparing any reader for the story of labor in the 21st century

Jobs with Justice: 25 Years, 25 Voices.
Edited by Eric Larson, with contributions by Larry Cohen, Rev. Calvin Morris, and Sarita Gupta. Oakland, PM Press, 2013. 180pp, $15.95

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How To Make Trouble and Influence People: A Review

By Meredith Jacka
Socialist Party Australia
November 4th, 2013

How to make trouble and influence people – Pranks, protests, graffiti and political mischief making’ provides a brief yet diverse historical account of Australian radical politics over the last 225 years.

But unlike many other history books, this one is delightfully easy to read, you can pick it up and open it to any page and you’ll learn something. It could be about a convict uprising in 1798 or anti nuclear activists in 1986.

There’s no need to sift through dry, academic, text book style stuff, Iain McIntyre has done that for us, with the result being an aesthetically pleasing and easily accessible resource book for anyone interested in progressive activism.

You certainly don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy this but by the time you get to the end you will be armed with a very good picture of the ways in which people in Australia have developed through two centuries of struggle. McIntyre documents the rise and fall of various movements and how they are all intertwined throughout history.

The first section of this book is comprised of short accounts, all are a paragraph or two long, of regular people standing up for their rights.

From the moment Captain Cook landed his boat, and two Indigenous warriors tried to warn him off, right up until the Occupy movement in 2011, and everything in between. And if like me, you like visual aids, there is an amazing archive of photos to go along with it.

These snippets of history highlight the willingness to struggle and the progressive views and held by the working class since the beginning of the colonial era. The book also highlights the continuous and unrelenting exploitation by the ruling class, whether it is at the hands of governments, police or bosses.

‘How to make trouble and influence people’ pays particular attention to some of the more obscure social movements that wouldn’t otherwise be published in mainstream capitalist press. Very importantly McIntyre doesn’t neglect to mention the many battles fought by Indigenous people over the last two centuries.

The second section of the book contains interviews with pranksters and theatrical activists and again there are some very interesting insights in to how some of Australia’s most famous stunts came into being. From The Chaser team making it into the ‘red zone’ of the 2007 APEC convention dressed as Osama bin Laden to my personal favourite – the John Howard Ladies Auxiliary Fan Club. A group of women who frocked up like it was the 1950’s and followed John Howard around drawing attention to his racist and bigoted policies.

All of the interviews provide us with a many ideas for challenging the system and having a bit of fun along the way. However where this section falls flat is the lack of politics in the views of many of the interviewees. There is very little mention of organised class politics or even of the use of direct action. While the people interviewed have many creative ideas most lack a clear political strategy to actually build movements and win lasting social change.

I love street theatre, graffiti and pranksters, but these things alone can’t change the world. Certainly there are times when the radical left could use some added vibrancy, but we mustn’t lose sight of the strength of ordinary people collectively organised and fighting for a common goal.

How to make trouble and influence people
By Iain McIntyre
Published by Breakdown Press
Available in Melbourne from the New International Bookshop, Brunswick Bound, Polyester Books and Readings Carlton. Sydneysiders can find it at Jura Books and Resistance Books. Everyone else can order it directly from pmpress.org

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