Left Behind

by Carol Hanisch

Over at Jacobin, Irish activist Bernadette Devlin, who brought the movement slogan, “Dare to Struggle—Dare to Win” to the U.S, is interviewed about what is known as “the peace process” in Ireland and its aftermath today. One particularly interesting observation she makes is that the professional classes on both sides of the Catholic/Protestant divide fared far better than the working class from the years of struggle. Not only that, the peace process is further dividing the Catholic and Protestant working classes.

This has happened in the U.S. as well. The lower income, less well-educated sectors of the Black and Women’s Liberation Movements of the 1960s—as well as the Labor Movement itself—have not made the gains that the professional classes have or have actually lost ground. That is changing somewhat since the recent Depression set in and professionals find themselves sliding down the class ladder, but there is still a “shared interest among the educated, professional classes” in the U.S. that crowds out or ignores the interests of those farther down the ladder. With this in mind, certain parallels with Devlin’s analysis come to mind. She says:

To understand the peace process [in Ireland] you have to see that the people who have gained the most from it are the educated professional classes, and their children, on both sides of the sectarian divide. There is now a shared interest among the middle classes in defending what they have gained—on the back of struggle by others. 

We now have two parties in government who are representing the middle classes and who benefit from the status quo, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party. They are kept apart by the sectarian nature of the peace process and its institutions, which divides things between two communities.

Then we have a layer of people below who have been left out completely and are becoming disillusioned. But, because of the underlying sectarian logic, not just of the institutions but of the story told to put this all together, this feeling is pushing the Catholic and Protestant working class further apart, not closer. At the same time, the two parties in government tell their constituencies “we’ve won” while they cut corporate tax rate and introduce austerity measures.

Sinn Féin have moved further and further to accommodate this new reality and, in doing so, created a dynamic they largely don’t see. They are losing the trust and the support of the people who once voted for them, the Catholic working class.

Those people have been replaced by the Catholic middle class which most benefited from the peace process. These are former Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) voters. They have a vested interest in stability and participation in the state, so they now support Sinn Féin.

But many who fought in the democratic and the armed struggle perceive themselves to be no better off. The economic and social system we have has consigned them to is continued welfare, poor education, and now austerity. Yet their opposition to this is described as “dissidence” and dismissed.

Meanwhile, I am seeing things come full circle. I have lived to see food banks in Dungannon, where I work. When we were young and angry enough to be marching here against poverty in the 1960s, there was nobody living on food banks. The social housing waiting list in this town is now greater than it was when the Dungannon Housing Action movement started.

And yet, at exactly the same time, the Catholic middle class has never been better off. They were brought in from the cold in the first years of the peace process when there was the security of state jobs. There weren’t jobs for the working class, in many cases, but there was welfare.

The situation has reached such a stage now, though, that even that is under attack. The Tories don’t feel that they need it. Why would they? People want peace and are willing to comply. The flip side of this is that for many people poverty will be written in as a condition of the peace.

*  *  *

In December of 2009, a heated discussion erupted on the list-serve of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) about who was—and wasn’t—welcome to be on the program at the organization’s 50th anniversary celebration. SNCC had emphasized grassroots organizing and had successfully (if not always smoothly) fielded a staff that included both college students and people from the local communities where they worked. Fifty years later, the program for the anniversary event was heavy with the people who had gone on to make names for themselves, often in academia and/or as writers, and neglected the community people, some of whom were still organizing. This brought to mind a pattern that I had been noticing, and I wrote to the SNCC listserve in January 2010:

It may or may not help to be aware that this is also the situation in every other major movement for social change–feminism, environment, labor–in the country at the moment. To put it simply and bluntly: academics run everything. (Oh, yes, and they are the President and advise the President.) They write the histories and hold the conferences and in the process have become gatekeepers of who is heard. They have silenced (whether on purpose or out of negligence) the voices and activity of what’s stirring below, no matter how much those grassroots voices are needed in the current dire world situation. They assume this as their right and, of course, this is how it should be since “smart” people need to run the country.

Some examples that come to mind:

FEMINISM: Many histories of the modern WLM don’t even start with the 1960s, but with the 1970s after women’s studies departments came into being and a safe, apolitical, “post-feminist” individualist form of feminism began to be taught that leap-frogs over not only the SNCC contributions to the beginnings of the Women’s Liberation Movement, but the several very important years of organizing of a militant mass movement until it was washed out into various forms of individual struggle and reactionary forms of identity politics. Some of the early WLM writings may get included in these academic histories or may be quoted by professional writers from time to time, but the radicals who mushroomed the movement are given no contemporary platform. (And yes, the lack of women “keynoters” at this conference sticks out like a sore thumb.)

THE LEFT: I went to the Left Forum in New York City a couple of years ago to hear C— speak on a panel. My impression of the conference was that its academic structure, approach and participants list was mostly about academics (overwhelmingly white and male) selling their books. Nothing from the grassroots. C— was one of the few non-academics on the program. …

LABOR: This quote speaks for itself: “On the general topic of union leadership, one difference between labor leaders today and those of, say, 50 or 75 years ago really stands out.  It’s the fact that most of the current crop are not only college graduates, many of them have law degrees to go along with their sheepskins. Look at the roster. James P. Hoffa, president of the Teamsters (and son of Jimmy), is a graduate of Michigan State and Univ. of Michigan law school; Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO is a Penn State grad with a law degree from Villanova; Jerry McEntee, president of AFSCME, is a La Salle Univ. grad; Andrew Stern, president of the SEIU is an Ivy League alumnus (Univ. of Pennsylvania), as are the CTW’s Bruce Raynor (Cornell) and UNITE HERE’s John Wilhelm (Yale).” 

This quote is from “What Would Bill Haywood Think of Andy Stern? Who is the Ideal Labor Leader?” by David Macary. I might add that these guys pull in obscene salaries, many, many times what the people they supposedly are working for make. 

Don’t get me wrong, I believe lawyers and the intelligentsia have an important place in movements, but they obviously aren’t getting very far without the grassroots. 

The question that C— and D— are raising of how and by whom SNCC is interpreted at this conference is of great relevance. The silencing of the bottom, both in history and of those who are attempting to organize now has become so complete that I’m pretty sure that Fannie Lou Hamer (just for one example) would not be allowed to speak at a Democratic Convention today if she were still alive. And her voice was only heard then because SNCC and some others (yes, with supporters in the North) had been in there organizing and agitating the grassroots for several years and were able to develop a force to be reckoned with and that wasn’t willing to settle for the compromises and go away. 

Those of us old enough to remember what brought about changes need to put forth those lessons. We may not always agree, but sidelining those who aren’t “players” is not the way to go.

I learned many things from my experience in Mississippi [in the Civil Rights Movement], but one of the most important is how crucial it is to organize the grassroots and let its leadership bloom. We need to recognize the critical contribution of those who so easily get drowned out by those farther up the ladder who are busy securing their jobs or are willing to compromise what doesn’t affect them directly. People are literally dying from too much compromising by people who’ve got theirs and are getting by, even though their own lives would be so much better if the needs of those on the bottom were met. 

*  *  * 

An article from Labor Notes gave some startling statistics about the salaries of labor union leaders and pointed out some the consequences. Many (certainly not all) of these leaders are part of the 1 percent. While much of the deterioration of unions can be laid at the feet of union busting, including that done by the political class in the decades since the 1960s, something is very out of kilter here. (The article quotes 2004 statistics. Recent statistics are available here.)

Beyond the missed opportunities for strategic campaigns or new organizing, excessive salaries can do lasting damage to union solidarity. Labor’s top earners fall into the upper reaches of U.S. income distribution, far removed from most rank-and-file members.

For example, any official or staffer earning over $157,000 in 2004 found themselves among the richest five percent of American households. Meanwhile the average union member earned $43,000 that same year, placing them just above the median individual income of $36,500.

Table 2 gives a sense of just how wide this gap can get, presenting a list of the 20 highest paid officials in the labor movement in 2004.

Donald Doser from the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) was at the top of the heap that year. Doser pulled down $775,279 from two union salaries and, factoring in allowances and reimbursed business expenses, raked in a total of $807,626.

Doser is not alone in the payola. Six other union officials received more than half a million dollars in union funds in 2004, with everyone in the top 20 pulling down more than $400,000. Half of the highest paid officials in the labor movement in 2004 also received more than one salary. 

That most of these highly paid union officials are in the pocket of the corporate two-party political establishment should come as no surprise. They have more in common with them than with the workers they supposedly represent. They endorse candidates and move union dues into campaigns while failing to fight for their members or do the organizing that should be their main job.

Where does that leave the working poor and nearly poor? Is the U.S. working class, like its Irish counterparts to sink further into poverty as the price of labor peace both within the unions and with the bosses?

“Solidarity Forever” once a much-sung labor song, goes,

“When the union’s inspiration
through the workers’ blood shall run,
there shall be no power greater
anywhere beneath the sun.”

Bob Weil, once suggested it should go:

“When the WORKERS’ inspiration
through the UNION’S blood shall run….”

And the same goes for the Women’s and Black Liberation movements. After the grassroots paid the piper with hard struggle (and sometimes their lives), control was taken over by the “educated, professional classes” who tend to serve themselves first while paternalistically promoting individual “empowerment” of the oppressed, not the organized power of the class. They often collude with the ruling class and their corporate sponsors through foundation funding which comes with the proper strings attached while offering some well-paying jobs of their own.

As long as such politics and policies remain in charge, there will be no real mass power capable of bringing about the changes we must have if we are to have a livable future.

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1 comment for “Left Behind

  1. Dogtowner
    June 2, 2016 at 4:35 pm

    I would add, in addition to the academics, the trust funders (my husband likes to point out they have something in common with “vagrants”: no visible means of support). How can one expect a “leftist” group to be actually leftist when it is being run/staffed by people with inherited money? Yes, it may not be very much, but $10,000/year gives one a great deal of freedom. Working people are working harder than ever before and often have little time to devote to political activism, but academics and trust funders have the time. I do respect engaged academics, very few of whom are actually intellectuals, but they will never lead genuine challenges to the status quo.

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