Another US is happening!
di SHARONS HOWELL e RICH FELDMAN
The massive protests focusing on the state capital building in Madison Wisconsin have brought new life to the American labor movement and new hope to progressive forces everywhere.
The protests in Wisconsin are the first battle in what promises to be a long fight between people concerned with the right to control our conditions of work and governors in states determined to use the financial crisis to further erode the power of people to organize on our own behalf. Currently about one-third of the states are expected to move to similar measures outlawing collective bargaining.
The growing polarization inside the U.S between right wing, corporate interests committed to dismantling government services and privatizing every aspect of life for profit and progressive people seeking new relationships with one another, with other nations and with the earth, is coming to a head.
With the election of Barak Obama as the first African American president, right wing forces, particularly under the influence of the Tea Party, talk show hosts and right wing think tanks have accelerated their efforts to consolidate power. Progressive forces have been unable to provide much of a response, muting criticism of Obama’s rightward drift and unable to challenge the tax cut, me first mentality that has become the creed of republican elected officials everywhere
Countering the right wing
Whether or not these protests in Wisconsin can raise the kind of fundamental questions that will move the American people toward a more just and democratic society remains to be seen. But there is no question that the people on the streets have already thrust critical value questions into public life. Ideas of compassion, caring for one another, fairness and strengthening our communities are ideas that have been too long silenced under the neo- liberal ideology that rests on pursuing individual and corporate wealth at all costs.
The people gathering in the corridors of the State House and on the streets of Madison are raising the first forceful challenge to this ideology and its pernicious value system in more than a decade. These are welcome questions, coming at a time when the people of the United States have an opportunity to look at the direction we have been going and to ask if we have the will and the capacity to become something better than we have been.
These protests were unexpected. For decades the labor movement has been losing ground as members from the manufacturing base dwindled. Today less than 12% of the labor force is unionized. Meanwhile, most union leadership has been more interested in preserving what jobs they have left than in challenging themselves or any one else to take a long hard look at what has been happening in the United States. For more than two decades unions have not only been making wage concessions, but they have agreed to unequal pay schemes, forced overtime rather, and a host of concessions on working conditions, pensions and benefits. Once the major force in standing for the dignity and importance of work, most unions became more concerned with preserving the economic American Dream for their own members and cared little about the community or those outside their union.
By 2010 the largest segment of the unionize population is within the service sector, especially public workers including police, fire, teachers and hospital workers. While these changes began in the early 1960’s with the advent of technological developments in production and the increasing mobility of capital, they accelerated with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
The long assault on unions
Reagan played on the discontent of white, mostly male workers who felt threatened by the advances of the civil rights, black power and women’s movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. With the defeat of Vietnam still raw in the American mind, memories of an oil crisis that highlighted our vulnerability and hostages held in Iran, Reagan promised to restore American power in the world. In his inaugural address in January of 1981 he pledged to reduce government, cut taxes and build up the military arsenal. He said, “And as we renew ourselves here in our own land, we will be seen as having greater strength throughout the world. We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom.”
Within the year, Reagan faced a strike by PATCO, the air traffic controls who wanted better working conditions and higher pay. The strike violated US law and Reagan declared it a “peril to national safety,” ordering everyone back to work. Most refused. Regan fired over 11,000 people banning them from every again working for the federal government.
In one of the cruel twists of history, it was the rank and file white union worker who most supported Reagan and his ideology. Today, it is this legacy of bold action against collective bargaining that is being invoked by the Governor of Wisconsin to justify his efforts to further dismantle union rights.
Looking in the mirror
This is one of the reasons why the potential of this emerging movement to move our country forward will depend on how much the unions and the people supporting them are able to look critically at our own role in creating this current crisis. The idea of cutting taxes, privatizing public services, judging things only in terms of how they affect our own private pocket books was not only an idea of corporate elites. The vast majority of Americans has embraced these ideas. Many of us have supported and encouraged the very philosophy and ideas that are now threatening to destroy the foundations of collective responsibility.
As a people we have been willing to look the other way as military might has been used around the globe to secure the resources necessary to support an increasingly unsustainable life style of most of America. Unless we are willing to look in the mirror and reevaluate the values we have come to embrace in the name of the American Dream, this moment made possible by the courage of our brothers and sisters in Wisconsin will pass us by, leaving the right wing further entrenched in our government and making our country an even greater danger to the world.
As American Revolutionary theorist James Boggs (www.boggscenter.org) said in his important work on dialectical thinking, revolutionary change can only come about when people “acquire the strength to fight against the external enemy by first struggling against their own internal contradictions and limitations. No potential revolutionary force has ever become an actual revolutionary social forcer except through struggle to overcome its limitations and weaknesses.”
Key Areas of Struggle
If the spirit unleashed in Wisconsin can grow into a revolutionary force to transform the U.S. into a more socially responsible country there are four key areas for struggle.
First, the American people must come to acknowledge that we have reached the end of the American Dream and the empire that has sustained it. This means that we have to not only acknowledge the concentration of wealth at the top but be willing to acknowledge that much of the wealth of the American working class has been secured at the expense of the earth and of other people here and around the world. We have to ask ourselves if we are prepared to live more simply so that others can simply live?
Second, we must be willing ask new questions about how to rebuild community life, not just individual advancement. Are we ready to acknowledge that the philosophy of thinking only about our own advancement has been at the expense of our fellow citizens and communities?
Third, are we willing to engage with one another to transform relationships distorted by dehumanizing attitudes based on race, gender, religion, nationality and differing abilities?
Finally, are we prepared to dismantle the military might upon which the U.S. Empire depends? With over 700 military bases globally, an economy tied to military production and a commitment to perpetual war in the Middle East, the U.S., we must not only turn away from war, but also assume responsibility for the tremendous destruction we have created.
At another revolutionary moment in the history of the U.S. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged us to overcome the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism. We as a people turned away from that challenge. As Dr. King predicted, we found ourselves consistently “on the wrong side of world revolutions.”
Another US is happening!
Over the last two decades, these fundamental questions have formed the background of efforts of people inside the U.S. to build a new, life-affirming culture. In cities abandoned by capital production, barrios and reservations used only for their labor and resources, and in unions struggling to become more democratic and to reconnect with their communities, people have been developing new ways of working together, redefining common values and deepening our understanding of the public good.
In our home city of Detroit, we have witnessed the resurrection of community ties through a vibrant urban gardening movement, the willingness to redefine education based in place, where students are seen as central to the rebuilding of our communities and the efforts to turn war zones into peace zones by creating new ties between neighbors capable of solving problems with respect and concern.
These efforts, happening outside the view of mainstream media, fueled the energy of the second United States Social Forum that proclaimed, “Another world is necessary, another world is possible” and “another world is happening here in Detroit.”
The battle unfolding on the streets of Wisconsin has already spread to Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. It is gathering support as people recognize that fundamental questions about the kind of country we are, and the kind of country we can become are once again before us.
March 4, 2011
* James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership (Detroit Michiga)