[Marxism] John Halle lecture

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue May 14 16:05:27 MDT 2013

(For those who are understandably not on FB.)

Resurrecting Bob Fitch: Recovering Solidarity, Reclaiming Souls

John Halle

halle at bard.edu

Robert Fitch Memorial Lecture

LaGuardia College


Last year, I wrote a piece published in Counterpunch memorializing Bob 
Fitch in the course of which I made the fairly obvious observation that 
Doug would be a tough act to follow. I also made the prediction that 
Karen might have some difficulty lining up a successor since relatively 
few would be sufficiently knowledgeable about and/or sympathetic to 
Bob's work to be willing or able to commemorate his legacy. I should 
stress here that I was not pulling a Cheney, as it were: unlike the 
former Vice President, not for a second did I imagine that I would be 
asked to do the job. As Karen will attest, my first response was to 
wonder whether there was a mistake.  So I need to begin with the obvious 
caveat that I don't have anywhere near the erudition, breadth of 
knowledge or depth of insight which one should reasonably expect of a 
speaker commemorating Bob's legacy.

What I can offer is a deep admiration of Bob's work, particularly his 
work on labor and its relation to the broader left and, partly due to 
his influence, a commitment to positions on the fringe somewhere near to 
his.  As I just suggested, this is a marginal, or more precisely, 
marginalized region of the left. One reason for this can be found in the 
remark of a labor bureaucrat on Bob’s passing to be "spared the 
self-righteous crap (about) the resurrection of Bob Fitch, whose work is 
marginal in its influence because it is so remarkably thin in its 
insight." The same bureaucrat also describes Henwood as "a pontificating 
ass (who) has never organized any organization of any sort, but is 
always prepared to offer his expert advice to those who have some actual 
experience in that work."

Neither the content nor the tone of this should come as a surprise. 
Institutional power never takes kindly to criticism from apostates 
within its own ranks or from critics on the outside.  And insofar as 
they can do so, it’s a safe bet that they will attempt to suppress it, 
privately by sanctioning those issuing it, or externally by issuing the 
kinds of public denunciations on display here.

As for the criticism itself, it is not only natural but absolutely 
necessary that there will be apostates such as Bob: leadership needs be 
held accountable for its failures-and that goes in spades for labor. 
None of the huffing and puffing of its enablers will change the fact 
that the Wisconsin recall debacle (which precipitated the bureaucrat’s 
ire) was just that, the latest in a string of failures going back 
decades which have resulted in what was once called "big labor" now 
being close to irrelevant as a social force, with less than 7% of the 
private sector workforce represented by union contracts.

The surest sign of a dysfunctional leadership is not that it reacts 
badly to apostates but that it succeeds in squelching them.  And, as I 
discuss in the CP piece, the almost universally hostile reaction to 
Bob's work was an indication of its success.

All too often, in the academy in particular, labor advocacy has been 
conflated with turning a blind eye to some of unions’ less attractive 
features, most notably around the topics which were central to Bob's 
work, union incompetence, capitulation and corruption. That these are 
conspicuously under-represented can be confirmed by a perusal of the 
archives of the major journals of labor studies,  Labor History And its 
competitor Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas. 
Specifically exemplifying this point is a JSTOR search which finds 
ur-Fitchian rogues almost completely absent with the notorious “Greedy” 
Gus Bevona returning no hits.

The attitudes and assumptions among academics with respect to labor tend 
to be reflected by journalists covering labor at agenda setting liberal 
and left media outlets. As labor journalist Mike Elk has written:

     Left writers also tend to view labor leaders as allies, instead of 
the people they are assigned to cover. I've met a number of reporters 
from left-leaning outlets who inprivate will voice criticism of union 
leaders, but dare not print these criticisms, fearing loss of access or 
being seen as "left anti-union," as a June Nation op-ed infamously 
labeled left reporterscritical of union leaders. This mentality has lead 
many left publications to not cover widespread union corruption or the 
perspectives of rank-and-fileunion workers who consider union leaders 

I would add as a complement to the blind spots Elk mentions a tendency 
to see through rose colored glasses unions’ conduct of what should be 
among their core functions: their direction of organizing drives. These 
are rolled out by the unions, usually with great fanfare on the left, 
but almost invariably, after a few weeks or months, are abandoned or 
scaled back with little recognition or notice of their failure. The real 
story for the left, the continual pattern of failure and the factors 
which were implicated in it, is effaced from the record. Rather than 
becoming a central topic of discussion, as it should be among the left, 
it is consigned to an obscure labor/technocratic corner and soon forgotten.


A good indication of this pattern, one which I will focus on here, are 
some of the issues involved with the Walmart Black Friday actions 
instigated by the ad hoc, unofficially UFCW sanctioned and staffed 
organization OUR Walmart. I was personally involved in these in having 
responded to their call, organizing a protest at my local Kingston NY 
store and finding it a pretty easy matter to induce some 70 or 80 others 
to join me on less than two days notice.  While the action was in some 
ways inspiring, no one was under any illusion that it came close to what 
we took to be our ultimate objective: exerting sufficient pressure to 
force Walmart to recognize the union.  Despite our leaflets, chants and 
decent numbers, we saw no sign of any worker considering joining in the 
walkout and while 150 workers from around the country did, according to 
reports, these represented, as a Walmart press release noted, only a 
tiny fraction of the total workforce and made not the slightest impact 
on the company's bottom line. Reports in The Nation, The Progressive and 
In These Times were universally focused on the half-full reality that an 
attempt to organize Walmart had been launched, while having little to 
say of the half-empty reality, first, that the numbers involved were 
comparatively paltry and secondly, that the unions have for a half 
century failed to organize a single worker of the nation’s larger 

This is not to suggest that Black Friday, wasn’t worth covering. It 
surely was but from the perspective that what was significant was not 
its concrete impact but the education it provided in the kinds of 
strategies which would be necessary to achieve mass walkouts and 
boycotts on the scale necessary to force Walmart’s hand. For what became 
clear to those of us involved was two things.  First, that while the 
resources which the national unions have at their disposal constituted 
an asset, their direct involvement was at the same time a liability. 
This became apparent several weeks later when, in response to a Walmart 
lawsuit, the UFCW was required to agree to a 60 day moratorium on 
picketing.  The threat for their not doing so, substantial penalties up 
to and including jail time and even the ultimate "death penalty" of 
decertification, was sufficient to force the UFCW leadership to pull the 
plug on the strikes. Just as the call to strike came from the top, so 
did the call to back down.

Furthermore, even if the national union were able to continue its 
support, there is reason to believe that no strategy devolving from the 
top would succeed in fomenting mass walkouts of the size which would 
register on Walmart's balance sheets.  To see why, it is necessary to 
recognize that due to Walmart’s success in crushing the union, Walmart 
employees are already on the edge of the precariat. "Discipline", which 
was sure to be meted out to those engaged in the work stoppage would 
take the form of reduced hours or termination, amounting to a leap off 
the economic cliff.

Striking under these circumstances requires a degree of personal courage 
bordering on recklessness. Workers in the past, and in the present have 
shown that they have that courage but only when it is combined with an 
awareness of an unshakable network of support and real trust-a firm 
belief that a community would reliably have their back.  They would need 
to know that it could beat back near-certain retaliation by Walmart 
management to be assured that it was willing and able to support them 
including financially-help with rent, groceries, child care and 
transportation-for as long as the action would take. In short, a real, 
demonstrable, not just rhetorical, commitment to mutual aid on a 
person-to-person basis.

The resources which can provide this are necessarily local, starting 
with primary networks of friends and family, and moving outwards from 
there. Most prominent among secondary networks of support are those 
churches whose congregations are often home to Walmartshoppers and 
employees (the pastor of one of these joined in our action) as well as 
anti-poverty groups, left/labor alliances at local colleges and 
universities, and racial justice groups such as local chapters of the 
NAACP.  Other members of a de facto coalition supporting the walkout 
could include preservationists appalled by thedevastation which Walmart 
has wrought on the built environment and environmental organizations 
aware of the Walmart’s role in promoting carbon intensive development 
patterns. Also potentially included are localpoliticians, at least those 
who have not been successfully courted by Walmart, whoare in a position 
of being able to set limits on the aggressiveness of tactics employed by 
the local police force. Finally there are the remnants of Occupy which 
I'll have more to say about later. Assistance to strikers, which is to 
say the collection and disbursement of a de facto strike fund, would be 
a central component within this campaign.

In any case, there was no attempt by OUR Walmart to lay a foundation 
through coordinated organizing among these groups.  Outreach went in the 
other direction with individuals initiating contact with OurWalmart, 
receiving announcements of the times and locations of the protests and 
then appearing, if one managed to navigate the website, with downloaded 
instructions and talking points prepared by OUR Walmart/UFCW organizers.

As it was, Black Friday, while a qualified success, left the feeling 
among those I talked to at the action that it could have been much more: 
converting the huge reservoir of ill will from numerous constituencies 
into concrete action with a massive and sustained attack on Walmart’s 
bottom line.  Furthermore, now that Walmart has gotten wind of the UFCW 
strategy, the element of surprise which could have been used to our 
advantage then is no longer available as one can be sure that Walmart 
consultants are at least one step ahead of what the union is planning.


It should be mentioned that OUR Walmart remains in operation though its 
scale seems to have diminished, the most recent action from a few weeks 
back according to the Nation's Josh Eidelson, having targeted 150 
stores, down from over 1000 on Black Friday.  A more recent Eidelson 
piece also indicates scaled back ambitions:  It appears now the UFCW is 
not aiming at the goal of achieving union contracts but will initiate 
public confrontations with management with the goal of addressing 
employee grievances such as reduced hours and inconsistent, 
unpredictable scheduling imposing a major hardship on associates.

It is not impossible that small but significant improvements along these 
lines will be achieved: Nelson Lichtenstein is quoted by Eidelson as 
suggesting that, ”sufficient sustained pressure could establish de facto 
‘arms-length negotiations’ in which OUR Walmart members made public 
demands, and Walmart, without crediting the critics, made concessions in 
order to tamp down discontent.” Achieving this would, according to 
Lichtenstein, constitute a “breakthrough” in the authoritarian culture 
of Walmart and may set the stage for further concessions in scheduling, 
benefits and wages.

But these fall short of what which those of us participating in Black 
Friday were hoping to be a part of: the recognition of all 2.2 million 
Walmart employees, insodoing bumping rates of unionization back into the 
double digits, drastically reducing poverty rates and the strains on 
social service organizations like our local soup kitchen (at the local 
pastor’s church) which supports and enables Walmart’s near starvation wages.

This was not mere impatience on our part but rather reflected the 
historical reality that radical change is almost never gradual but often 
occurs with lightening speed, shocking not only not only those trying to 
prevent it but those advancing it: The UAW was formed in 1935 and within 
less than 18 months had achieved recognition fromtwo of the big three 
auto manufacturers. The seminal achievements of the New Deal, famously, 
were undertaken within the first hundred days of the Roosevelt 
Administration.  The Berlin Wall fell while opposition leaders were 
discussing (with journalist Chris Hedges) the possibility of limited 
free travel in a few years time.


As suggested above, a massive community mobilization would differ from 
the incremental, piecemeal campaign which OUR Walmart has adopted both 
in scale and timing. But underlying this difference is something more 
fundamental in that the OUR Walmart campaign was based on what Sam 
Gindin in a recent Socialist Register article calls "sectionalism," 
traditional organizing of workers in the workplace. A community-based 
strategy goes beyond the bargaining unit to include the active support 
of the Walmart workforce by Walmart customers and all those 
constituencies negatively effected by Walmart’s business model.  As 
such, it would require a rejection of the go it alone, self-reliant 
stance of most unions. Most conspicuously, unions wouldbe required to 
relinquish control taking on faith that by making it anequal partner, a 
mobilized community could and would take the necessary initiative, 
setting up its own campaigns to support work stoppages, store boycotts 
and civil disobedience up to and including the blockading of stores. 
The latter, in particular, a decentralized community movement could do 
on its own initiative, while unions, subject to severe legal sanctions 
and institutional constraints cannot without putting their organizations 
and their staffs in jeopardy.

Is it Polyannish to believe that a massive outpouring of protest like 
this could succeed if it were attempted? Maybe. But it is now easier to 
conceive of.  For as in many other areas where it extended the realm of 
the possible, Occupy Wall Street provided us with a concrete albeit 
small scale premonition of this possible future.  This occurred on Nov. 
6 of 2011 when the OWS general assembly voted to support the Teamsters 
locked out by Sotheby’s, dispatching an impromptu protest delegation to 
crash a gala party for Sotheby’s clients in lower Manhattan. Sotheby's, 
stung by the negative publicity among its core market and concerned 
about the potential for further disruption, quickly settled.

Subsequent to this, Occupy established the 99 Pickets working group, a 
strike force of activists which is available to be dispatched in support 
of labor actions, initially striking Verizon workers and which has been 
activated on many occasions since, most recently in the current Cooper 
Union protests.  Of course, a serious Walmart campaign would require 
more like 99,000 pickets.  But as Occupy became established in more 
cities, numbers of organized activist supporters of labor in this range 
could have materialized. And there is little doubt that the potential 
challenge these could have posed to major corporations, including 
Walmart, had plenty to do with the militarized, federally directed 
crackdown on Occupy.


Consistent with his advocacy of class based, as opposed to sectionalist, 
organizing, Gindin also is one of the few figures credible within union 
circles to have recognized, in his Socialist Register piece, the 
potential of OWS along these lines for having “demonstrat(ed) that 
audacious action can touch a populist nerve." And Gindin went further, 
criticizing labor for its “failure to build on the golden opportunity 
offered up by Occupy.” That’s not to say that the labor movement was 
entirely unaware of Occupy’s potential to advance its agenda.  In the 
brief period when OWS was receiving grudgingly favorable mainstream 
media attention some labor leaders were eager to be publicly associated 
with OWS, with AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka having visited Zuccotti Park 
in early October.  This was followed by the shining moment in mid 
October when the New York Central Labor Council responded with a 
mobilization of its membership to thwart Bloomberg’s first eviction 
attempt, helping to swell the ten thousand strong amassed on the streets 
in the early morning hours to beat back (literally)-police attempts to 
access to the park.  Unfortunately, subsequent history showed that 
unions could only engage Occupy on their own verticalist terms, finding 
themselves either unable or unwilling to support it in the ways would 
would have arrested Occupy’s slide into dysfunctionality. Ultimately, 
when the final assault on OWS was ordered, labor leaders did not renew 
their call for support either in New York or innumerous other cities 
where OWS had established a presence.

Again, we are confronted with more what might have been questions. 
Could a more enlightened union leadership have recognized OWS’s 
potential, working with Occupiers to, for example, allow them the use of 
union facilities for General Assemblies and working groups during the 
winter? Would OWS have agreed to withdrawing its encampment under these 
circumstances? Could these have developed into the kind of hybrid 
“worker assemblies” along the lines of what Gindin proposes in his piece?

These questions, it must be admitted, seem more or less idle. Despite 
the clear mutual benefits which could have resulted from an alliance, 
the cultures of the two are at present too distant to imagine bridging. 
Occupy is explicitly counter-cultural, famously refusing to issue 
demands of institutions it regards as fundamentally illegitimate.  In 
contrast, labor unions have proudly defined themselves as operating 
within the mainstream consensus.  American flag logos adorn the AFL-CIO 
website and Richard Trumka’s lapel; the slogan “unionism is Americanism” 
was adopted by the UAW in the thirties to attempt to turn the tables on 
the reactionary right by staking a nationalist, even jingoist, claim and 
setting the tone for union rhetoric ever since.

But has the steadfast commitment to rocked-ribbed American values served 
the unions well? That the answer to the question is an obvious no 
suggests an equally obvious direction for unions to pursue, albeit one 
which will be unpalatable (for some): unions need to start talking and 
acting not as mainstream but in opposition to it. In other words, they 
need to embrace their history as “counter-cultural” institutions.  As 
those who have read it will recall, that unions were just that was the 
essential conceit of Thomas Geoghegan’s classic Which Side are You On? 
which saw them as

     "a black hole in American culture, with all the American values 
except one:individualism. And here, in this black hole, paunchy, 
middle-aged men, slugging down cans of beer, come to hold hands, touch 
each other, and sing “Solidarity Forever.” OK, that hardly ever happens, 
but most people in this business, somewhere, at some point, see it once, 
and it is the damnedest un-American thing you will ever see.”

The “essence of counterculturalism”, inheres in unions rejecting what is 
perhaps the defining quality of the American character: competitive 
individualism.  In the years since Geoghegan’s book appeared the gap has 
widened: with a winner take all/devil take the hindmost neo-liberalism 
having assumed grotesque, soul destroying ascendancy.  And, as Gindin 
notes, the unions themselves have tragically capitulated to it, with 
predictably catastrophic consequences. Catastrophic because “For workers 
. . .  competition undermines their most vital asset– their solidarity– 
and so leaves them weaker as a class.”

Gindin continues by noting that

     unions have all too often internalized competitiveness as a goal . 
. . Once making concessions becomes central to protecting jobs in the 
name of the ‘new reality’, unions themselves become vehicles for 
lowering the expectations as well as disciplining recalcitrant workers. 
. . Occasional flights of radical rhetoric aside, union leaders have all 
too often come to play a disturbing role in socializing workers into 
accepting the limits imposed by the constraints of competitiveness.

Or, as Bob Fitch’s book title reads, solidarity was put up for sale.

The problem which Gindin and Fitch recognized has its ultimate roots not 
so much in ideology, but within labor’s self-definition: of those 
officials who have become accustomed to their institutional role in 
administering neo-liberalism, to rank and file unionists who have 
tolerated it, and even to those of us who have been in a position to 
challenge it, at least rhetorically, but have not done so.

Given that these self-imposed obstacles have at their root a faulty 
understanding of the realities of the economic system, Bill Fletcher 
among many others have suggested, that “unions need to reinvest in mass 
participatory education—sometimes called internal organizing in union 
lingo;” and relearn how to “kick down the walls separating workplace and 
non-workplace issues by going all-out on the broader agenda of the 
working class and the poor.”

But education seems insufficient. Rather, what is necessary is to 
address the deep seated attitudes which prevent real learning from 
taking place.  This requires not education but rather, to resuscitate an 
admittedly problematic term, re-education. For while we might not 
recognize the extent of our failure, our class enemies have recognized 
the extent of their triumph.  Margaret Thatcher famously noted that 
“Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.” 
Given the territory neoliberals have conquered, the battle goes beyond 
labor, economics, and even politics. What we are no longer fighting for 
wages, working conditions or even respect.  Our real battle is to 
reclaim lost souls including our own.

Bob’s work, which represents a profound and prescient understanding of 
this cultural pathology, will be perpetually resurrected until such time 
as it is no longer necessary to do so.

More information about the Marxism mailing list