Chris Mahin writes: On Thoreau’s 200th Birthday: His Plea For Captain John Brown

On Thoreau’s 200th Birthday: His Plea For Captain John Brown

by Chris Mahin

July 12, 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the writer Henry David Thoreau. Much of the commentary about this occasion has focused on Thoreau’s love of nature. This is understandable, given the current attacks on the environment.496e6f6286424697b36fa4e159c73599-640x433

But while “Walden” is justly celebrated, nothing Thoreau ever wrote did more good than the heartfelt essay he crafted on short notice to defend the opponents of slavery who attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in the autumn of 1859.

Just two weeks after John Brown and his compatriots staged their daring raid, Thoreau stood up in a church in Concord, Massachusetts to defend them. On Sunday evening, October 30, 1859, he read aloud his essay, “A Plea for Captain John Brown.”

Describing Brown’s character, Thoreau said:

John_Brown_portrait,_1859“He was like the best of those who stood at Concord Bridge once, on Lexington Common, and on Bunker Hill, only he was firmer and higher principled than any I have chanced to hear of as there. … They could bravely face their country’s foes, but he had the courage to face his country herself, when she was in the wrong. …

“No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature, knowing himself for a man, and the equal of any and all governments. In that sense he was the most American of us all.”

In the days and weeks after the Harpers Ferry raid, Americans were stunned. Many were willing to let Brown and his men hang. Thoreau’s early, brave stance helped pave the way for other Northern intellectuals to speak out in defense of Brown and his compatriots.

I have been to Walden Pond. I have been to the church in Concord where Thoreau uttered his plea.

Both are shrines.

 

  • Chris Mahin

For more information about the Harpers Ferry raid and Thoreau’s role afterward, see the article “Harpers Ferry: Courage and clarity changed history once – and will do it again” in Rally, Comrades!, Vol. 19, Number 5, September-October 2009.

To read the complete text of Thoreau’s “Prayer for Captain John Brown,” click this link.

A commemorative U.S. postage stamp in honor of Henry David Thoreau has just been issued, which you can read about here.

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WHAT IS MAY DAY’S MEANING FOR TODAY? By Chris Mahin

[Published 20 years ago in the People’s Tribune, this article remains relevant as we celebrate the workers’ one universal holiday.]

WHAT IS MAY DAY’S MEANING FOR TODAY?
By Chris Mahin

Holidays are important. Whether joyous celebration or solemn remembrance, each one conveys some meaning or teaches some lesson.

When we celebrate a particular holiday — or decide not to — each of us says something haymarket-reenactment-april-30-2011
about who we are and what we believe.

For the downsized and the dispossessed, one holiday stands above all others. It is the only one observed by victims of capitalism the world over: International Labor Day, observed on May 1 — May Day.

May Day began in America. The story of how it began needs to told; it is a tale of how dramatic changes in the economy created a new class of people. It is the story of how men and women of different nationalities, born in different parts of the world, stepped forward to lead a new class of poor people and were willing to pay a terrible price for that decision. Above all else, May Day is about the absolute necessity of the unity of the poor — white and black, male and female, immigrant and native-born.

The story begins in Chicago. By the 1880s, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world. Something new had been introduced into the economy — steam power. The introduction of this new productive force led to a gigantic expansion of industry and created a new class — the modern industrial working class. In Chicago, this new class included people from all over the world, as immigrants flooded into the city.

In the factories of that era, the pay was low, the hours were long and the conditions terribly unsafe.

On May 1, 1886, workers throughout the United States engaged in a massive strike to demand the eight-hour day. Chicago was the strike’s center. On May 4, a rally was held at Haymarket Square in Chicago to protest a police attack on a group of strikers. As this peaceful rally was winding to a close, 176 cops moved in to forcibly disperse the crowd. Someone threw a bomb. It killed one police officer instantly and wounded many others. The police opened fire, killing many participants in the rally.

A wave of hysteria followed. Hundreds of workers were arrested. The police broke into meeting halls, newspaper offices and even private homes without warrants. Suspects were beaten and even tortured.

The extent of the hysteria can be measured by comments published in the respectable Albany Law Journal just 11 days after the Haymarket tragedy. The Journal called for “a check upon immigration, a power of deportation, a better equipment of the police, a prompter and severer dealing with disorder” and denounced Chicago’s union leaders as “a few long-haired, wild-eyed, bad-smelling, atheistic, reckless foreign wretches, who never did an honest hour’s work in their lives.” The Journal declared: “This state of things almost justifies the resort to the vigilance committee and lynch law. … It seems Eagle Columnsthat the penal law of Illinois would warrant treating all these godless fiends as murderers, and we hope they will be so treated and extirpated from the face of the earth.”

In June 1886, several leaders of the Chicago union movement were put on trial, charged with being accessories to murder at Haymarket Square and with a general conspiracy to murder.

Most of the defendants had not even been present when the Haymarket bomb was thrown, but that didn’t matter. They were revolutionary leaders and Chicago’s capitalists wanted their blood.

The trial opened on June 21, 1886, with only seven of the eight defendants in the courtroom. All seven had been born or raised outside the United States. Chicago’s newspapers had noted the foreign roots of most of the defendants and denounced them as “European assassins” and “foreign barbarians.” But just as jury selection began, the eighth defendant entered the courtroom. Albert Parsons was a native-born American. He had escaped the police roundup completely and had been living safely in Wisconsin, but bravely returned to stand trial with his innocent immigrant comrades.

Tried before a biased judge and jury, the defendants never had a chance. They were convicted; seven were sentenced to hang. (An eighth was sentenced to 15 years at hard labor.)

At that point, many people thought the case was closed, but they had not reckoned with Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, the wife of Albert Parsons and a leader of the Chicago labor movement in her own right. While the case was being unsuccessfully appealed, Lucy Parsons took her two small children and travelled across the United States, speaking to anyone she could about the case. In almost a year, she spoke to about 200,000 people in 16 states. Her heartfelt eloquence helped spark a movement to stop the executions.

Despite worldwide protests, four of the Haymarket defendants were hanged by the state of Illinois in November 1887. On the morning of the execution of her husband, Lucy Parsons was arrested and locked with her children in a cell for attempting to see her husband one last time.

On July 14, 1889, at the International Labor Congress in Paris, a delegate from the American Federation of Labor proposed that the Congress adopt May 1 as International Labor Day and a day to remember the “Martyrs of Chicago.” This was accepted. Ever since, May 1 has been a day for the workers of the entire world to march in unison.

Holidays do teach lessons; May Day teaches many. The Haymarket Affair shows that America’s tiny handful of rulers will throw away all pretense of democracy once the stability of their rule is challenged by vast changes in the economy. It shows that they will make scapegoats out of the immigrant workers. It shows they will do anything to hold on to their rule.

But Haymarket also shows us the weapon that a new class created by vast changes in the economy can wield against its rulers: unity. Perhaps the lesson of May Day can be summed up best in the words of Haymarket defendant Oscar Neebe. The last words of his autobiography read simply: “I call on all workingmen or working women of all nationalities and all countries to unite and down with your oppressors.”

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Haymarket Martyrs Monument, Waldheim Cemetery

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This article originated in the PEOPLE’S TRIBUNE (Online Edition), Vol. 24 No. 5/ May, 1997; P.O. Box 3524, Chicago, IL 60654.  For the current issue and archives to past issues see http://www.peoplestribune.org.

Ali Hangan writes – The Canary in the Cage: Black Families and the White Working Class

The Canary in the Cage: Black Families and the White Working Class

by Ali Hangan

Folks,

The black population’s history is one of tragedy and triumph. On the one hand, the population has suffered over 400 years of slavery and entrenched segregation. On the other hand, the Civil Rights movement is considered an American success story. The Civil Rights movement opened up a renewed sense of optimism for the future of the black working class and other oppressed groups. But in the late 1970’s and 80’s, that spirit of optimism began to wane.

American industry confronted with increased competition from abroad, cut costs by outsourcing work and adopting automation. A large swath of black workers in the cities that were once employed became unemployed and ultimately became unemployable. Those families that could move left to the suburbs leaving the remaining population on urban islands with few economic opportunities.

The lack of economic opportunities in the urban black communities provided a fertile ground for a drug economy. Crack cocaine and the culture associated with the drug began to spread at epidemic levels throughout the nation. In the wake of the crack epidemic more intensified policing policies arose in response. The purpose of these policies was not to stop crack per se, but rather to prevent its spread among the more politically organized suburban communities. The tactics to carry out these new policies became the genesis of increased militarization of the police.

The enhanced police tactics entered into the national consciousness by black Hip Hop th-6artists. In 1985, Toddy Tee produced “Battleram” about the LAPD armored vehicle used to smash in crack houses. In 1988, the song “Fuck the Police” by NWA told the story of police intimidation of young black males. And in 1990, “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy called upon black communities to defend themselves against the police.

While these songs brought a consciousness to the Gestapo tactics being used to police black communities, it paradoxically renewed old stereotypes about urban black males. With the music industry’s new marketing of music through videos in the 1980’s, they streamed images of black males as gang members into households across the country. This perception of a “black Armageddon” on MTV shifted public opinion toward support of a more comprehensive strategy to police urban black communities.

The new strategy fell under the auspices of the Federal drug enforcement policy, which became known as the “War on Drugs.” The War on Drugs began during the Nixon Administration in 1971. It was a Federal campaign for the prohibition of drugs and enhanced military intervention, with the stated aim being to reduce the illegal drug trade. In 1982, Vice President George H. W. Bush led a push for the involvement of the CIA and U.S. military in drug interdiction efforts. In 1989, under now, President George H. W. Bush, he authorized the creation of a Federal Drug Czar to oversee the war on drugs. Later, raised to a cabinet-level position by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Currently, the Federal Government spends 51 billion annually on the war on drugs. [citation]

The War on drugs has had a devastating effect on the black population:

“The US Department of Justice (DOJ) reports 2.2 million people are in our nation’s jails and prisons and another 4.5 million people are on probation or parole in the US, totaling 6.8 million people, one of every 35 adults. We are far and away the world leader in putting our own people in jail. Most of the people inside are poor and Black.” —- 40 Reasons Our Jails and Prisons Are Full of Black and Poor People, Common Dreams, June 2nd, 2015

“The War on Drugs targets Black people. Drug arrests are a big source of bodies and business for the criminal legal system. Half the arrests these days are for drugs and half of those are for marijuana. Despite the fact that Black and white people use marijuana at the same rates, a Black person is 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than a white person. The ACLU found that in some states Black people were six war-on-drugs1times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites. For all drug arrests between 1980 and 2000 the U.S. Black drug arrest rate rose dramatically from 6.5 to 29.1 per 1,000 persons; during the same period, the white drug arrest rate barely increased from 3.5 to 4.6 per 1,000 persons. ” [Ibid]

The same process that I have attempted to describe amongst the black population is reaching into much broader sections of the working class. Since the economic crash of 2008, capitalism has transitioned into a new stage of development. The increased demands on American companies to compete in the “Just in time” global economy has compelled each to be more flexible adopting more advanced automation and robots. The results have been increased productivity but at the expense of middle-income and unionized jobs impacting many white workers.

The latest wave of economic restructuring has had strong parallels to the process that began in the urban black communities in the 1980’s. This process of decay amongst the white working class has manifested in two visible ways:

1) The surge in the use of meth among the white population.
2) The groundswell of support by the white working class of Donald Trump’s proposals to scale back protectionist policies.

The first two articles that follow focus on the black population but, should be viewed more broadly as a canary in the cage for the entire American working class. In other words, the declining social conditions of the black population provides us with a window into the future for the entire working class as a whole. The flip side is this: As more sections of the working class become equally impoverished it creates a practical basis to move beyond silly notions of race to unify workers politically around a broader class struggle for their common economic survival.

What do you think?

One love,

AH
Excerpt from The incredible crushing despair of the white working class:

“Carol Graham, a happiness researcher at the Brookings Institution, recently analyzed Gallup’s data on life satisfaction and found that when it comes to their outlook on the future, the most desperate groups are poor and near-poor whites.

Gallup asks people to rate their current lives on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is the worst possible life they could be living and 10 is the best. Crucially, they also ask people to imagine what their lives will look like five years in the future.

Among the poor, whites are the demographic group least likely to imagine a better future for themselves, Graham found. Poor Hispanics were about 30 percent more likely to imagine a better future than poor whites. The difference for poor blacks was even larger: They were nearly three times as likely to imagine a better future than poor whites.”

“Part of the optimism gap is indeed because of “a shrinking pie of good jobs for low-skill/blue collar workers,” Graham said in an email. “Whites used to have real advantages (some via discrimination) that they no longer have … they are looking at downward mobility or threats of it, while poor blacks and Hispanics are comparing themselves to parents who were worse off than they.”

And paradoxically, while some inequalities between races are shrinking, other inequalities within races are growing. Across all races, for instance, the wealthy are gobbling up an ever-growing share of the income pie and leaving less behind for everyone else.”

The Average Black Family Would Need 228 Years to Build the Wealth of a White Family Today
KPCC Airtalk with Larry Mantle: The Movement for Black Lives platform and politics

Half of US jobs could be taken by robots in the next 20 years — here’s how likely it is that yours will be one of them

The incredible crushing despair of the white working class
— “The heights by great men [and women] reached and kept were not attained in sudden flight but, they while their companions slept, they were toiling upwards in the night.” —- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

On My Mother’s 120th Birthday: The Ideas of a New Generation

 

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Anna Rosenbaum with Meyer Lederman, 1922

LEW ROSENBAUM· SATURDAY, JUNE 25, 2016

My mother, Anna Hodos, was born June 24, 1896. The place was Oshmyany, a town at that time in Lithuania. I write “at that time” because it was close to the border with Russia, and, from time to time, was either in the Russian empire. . . or not. Borders are often political constructs imposed by imperial states, after all.

My grandfather brought his family to the United States ahead of the Russian (czarist) army attempting to conscript him (we believe that he assumed the name Hodos to escape conscription; when we talked about it, my sister Greta and I could never be sure what their real surname might be). They came to the U.S. after the failure of the first Russian revolution of 1905, traveling across Europe and shipping to the U.S. from Liverpool, England. Arriving in Ellis Island in 1906, my grandmother was turned away because she had an eye infection, trachoma. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, trachoma was the leading reason for immigrants to be deported from Ellis island. She returned to Europe with her youngest child, to return some time later through Canada. I can only imagine her fear at leaving her family behind to go back to Liverpool, knowing no English; her strength returning to Liverpool, only to fight her way back to her family in the U.S.

The family must have had some kind of network to rely on. It was a time of great Eastern European immigration to the U.S. The garment factories and the tenements where the garment workers lived in New York were filled with Jewish refugees from the pogroms of Eastern Europe. Upton Sinclair wrote about Lithuanian immigrants to Chicago in his epic novel of the same period, The Jungle. Several Lithuanian language newspapers served that large community and periodicals in nearly every other European language brought the news to those working in the stockyards and the steel industry. Branches of my family would settle in New York and Chicago, but my grandparents settled in the small industrial and farming community of Ansonia in Southern Connecticut. The town was situated on the Housatonic River valley, the home of metal industries and textile mills. My family must have brought some resources with them, because they established a feed and grain store serving the agricultural community.

I believe that my mother finished high school. She was slated to work in the store while her younger brother went to college. Regardless of her educational level, she was caught up in the intellectual ferment of the period. She would have none of being bound to the small town store. Greta told me that she ran away to New York to try to make her way there, but her father came after her and brought her back to Ansonia. She remained rebellious, however, and joined the radical movement of the time, the YPSLs or Young People’s Socialist League, and was influenced by the Russian Revolution of 1917. In 1919, John Reed (at that time perhaps the best known journalist in the U.S.) published his pathbreaking Ten Days That Shook The World, describing his observations while in Russia during the revolution. Anna got a letter from Reed along with a copy of the book. Reed wrote that “the Capitalist press is endeavoring to suppress the sale of the book,” refusing to review it and give it any distribution outside of the big cities in the Northeast. He appealed to the Comrades to help distribute the book and to make money for their collectives at the same time.

New ideas permeated the immigrant working class movement in this period. The big garment workers unions, headquartered in Chicago and New York, led organizing drives in New York and New England. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911 killed over 100 workers and sparked the fight for labor law reform for the next two decades. The Bread and Roses strike engulfed the textile mills of Lawrence, MA in 1912, with 23,000 workers taking to the streets, defying ethnic differences that the employers had used to keep them apart.. Workers and intellectuals around the world rallied in defense of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, accused of murder in 1920 and executed in 1927 in Boston.

In this turmoil Anna met Meyer Lederman, pictured above in 1922 with her. He styled himself something of a “socialist Zionist,” though I never knew what he meant by that. There was, among the socialist leaning Jewish workers of the period and going back to the late 1800s, a trend who argued that wherever there was a Jew, the Jewish nation existed. This group refused to integrate themselves into the revolutionary organizations of the nations in which they lived, demanding a separate organization for themselves. This strand of socialism sparked debates in the garment workers movement. Perhaps this was a fundamental disagreement between Anna and Meyer; that I do not know. After the Communist Party was formed, she became part of that movement, but she and Meyer remained friends to the end of his life.

But somewhere in the early 1920s she met George Rosenbaum, whose last name she would assume without ever getting married. George never became a citizen.. Anna considered him an anarchist if he had any definitive political philosophy. He made friends with people on Book Row in Manhattan, worked in the Dauber and Pine used book shop, and then opened up his own store as the depression deepened. The store went out of business in a few years, and from the store he took what he thought were some of the valuable titles — and about 25 volumes of Russian and Soviet politics and history. The fear of deportation hung over his head throughout his life. His and Anna’s memory of the Palmer raids to arrest and deport radicals (1919-1920) revived in the post WWII McCarthy witch hunt.

From this union came my sister in 1928, and me in 1942.

I’m thinking of Anna today, June 24, of course, since she would have been 120 years old on this day. But there’s more. We are immigrants, the objects of the kind of hatred that the presidential race in the U.S. today is stoking. My people would have been those Trump would ban from immigration: after all, we bore the infection of Bolshevism. We were the wave upon wave of immigrants who took jobs from Americans in the steel plants and stockyards, driving the wages down. We were the scum feared by the voters in the British election to exit the European Union. I’m thinking of Anna today, because the Lithuanian/Russian border is today even more a figment of the political imagination, as is the U.S./ Mexican border.

In the era of globalization information flows freely ignoring borders. Capitalist relations have flown freely to the far reaches of the earth, leaving no nation untouched. Attempts to limit labor migration fail very much for the reason that labor follows the trail of capital and information. You can no more build a wall against labor than you can against electrons. But just as in 1919, when John Reed wrote to my mother, the new ideas and experiences of the immigrants in our society add to our understanding of the world. A social revolution is brewing today, even more than in 1919, because of the globalization and the electronic/technological revolution that has taken place.

Anna died in 1983, the same year that the bookstore I worked in got a computer. She would not recognize the world of today, almost 100 years after the third Russian Revolution of 1917. She would see instantly that the expectations of her working class life no longer beckon to the class created by the computer. And I suspect she’d quickly understand, that broad equality of poverty represents something fundamentally different in the new class structure of America and the world. Her generation could expect to participate in the expanding economic benefits accruing to workers. Reforms would take care of that. This generation can only reform society by taking it over, by wresting power from those who control the means of producing what we need to survive. By wresting power from those who are accelerating their calls to ban immigrants and build walls.

Our ideas and hopes, which come from the lived experience of our expectations, pose the real danger to the rich and powerful. I think Anna would be eager to distribute these ideas, just as she was called on to distribute the ideas of her generation.

.

Memorial Day Massacre by Christian Sullivan

[At this year’s commemoration of the Memorial Day Massacre, an annual event sponsored by steelworkers who help us remember the history of our working class, high school student Christian53851b99d6e88.preview-620 Sullivan read his award-winning, very perceptive essay. What I found particularly useful was the author’s consideration of what is different today. Things are indeed different, fundamentally different, and it is exciting to see young people grappling with what this change means.  — Lew Rosenbaum]  

Memorial Day Massacre  by Christian Sullivan

“On Memorial Day, May 30, 1937, police opened fire on a parade of striking steel workers and their families at the gate of the Republic Steel Company, in South Chicago. Fifty people were shot, of whom 10 later died; 100 others were beaten with clubs,” a quote by Dorothy Day from her book Selected Writings summarizing the events of the Memorial Day Massacre. There is no doubting that date was one of the worst tragedies in Chicago history, and nothing can justify the actions of the police officers, press, and steel companies involved during, and after, this horrific incident occurred. There were a number of causes and aftermaths of this event, and these valiant steelworkers should be an example to workers of the modern day of how important and powerful labor unions truly are.

To understand the causes of the Memorial Day Massacre, one must understand the way businesses think. When it comes to the production of a product, the profit of the company is based on how much money and resources are put into making said product versus the amount of money they bring back selling said product; the smaller the production fee, the larger the profits. One large production fee is the salary of every worker and employee who help in the making of the product. In the business world, the smaller their employees’ salaries are, the better the company’s profits. At the same time, as executives at higher pay, they don’t want to lower their own, regardless of how gross or unfair it may be. The only other way for them to increase profits would be to raise the prices of their goods and risk upsetting the consumer, which could potentially lead to lesser profits and loss of business to lower priced competition. With that being said, we can now better understand the cause of this massacre that took place outside of the Republic Steel Company.

The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), previously known as the Committee of Industrial Organization, was an organization that heavily encouraged and aided the unionization of workers in industrial jobs such as the steel industry. CIO was quickly succeeding in the creation of a steel workers union, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), even being recognized by one of the largest companies in the steel industry, U.S. Steel, which was notoriously anti-union beforehand. They signed a contract with SWOC, promoting the act of “collective bargaining,” the negotiation of terms and treatment between companies and employees. Many other large and small steel companies signed this same contract, recognizing the union and agreeing to negotiation; yet, six companies, known as “Little Steel” still refused to accept the unionization of steelworkers, one of these companies being Republic Steel.

In the business world, unionization equals less profit. If companies are to maximize profit, they must be in full control of wages and treatment of their workers, otherwise, they must sacrifice profit for the health, well-being, and fairness of their employees; therefore, collective bargaining was out of the question for any company looking to make the most money they possibly can. Allowing collective bargaining and unionization forces a company to recognize the power and say its workers have in its business, disallowing them to continue taking advantage of them.

As such, Republic Steel continued to refuse any dealings with SWOC, resulting in mass protest in order to hurt production to the point of forcing Republic Steels hand into union acceptance, as done with many other opposing steel companies before it. SWOC planned a march to the Republic Steel company and a peaceful picket; however, Republic Steel, already knowing about the picket, set up a police blockade outside of its company gates. When the march reached its destination, they were immediately confronted by the police. With the peaceful picketers refusing to give in, several officers drew their guns and began firing into the crowd, killing 10 innocent civilians and injuring 30 others whilst they were fleeing. Other police officers drew their clubs and brutally beat several other protesters, permanently disabling nine of them, and severely injuring another 28. That was the Memorial Day Massacre.

Press and media tended to be completely bias, supporting the police side. Any footage of

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The New York Times called the demonstrators a “mob.”

the massacre was held from the public in order to prevent “mass hysteria.” Not a single police officer was convicted of a crime and any evidence that could have shown the use of excess force was hidden from the public eye. The story was even morphed by police and media, claiming that the protesters carried weapons and were under the influence of drugs.

As aftermath, protest was completely changed for the future. As mass gatherings and pickets often lead to violence, injury, and sometimes death, it became a lesser focus of organized unions. Instead, unions began focusing a lot more on legal action and communication with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in order to make safer, more concrete change. After just five more persistent years, those who had given their lives that fateful day in front of the Republic Steel company no longer did so in vain. Legal actions with NLRB caught the attention of the Supreme Court, and all remaining steel companies included in Little Steel were forced by national law to unionize, showing that unions can succeed and can do so through the system. It showed that unions had the power to change things for the better, whether it be through protest in a field or plea in the courtroom.

As years went on, that feeling of power was reduced. The decline in labor unions in the past 50 years is in no way a natural one. Companies, as well as the government, have been purposely trying to decrease the popularity of labor unions. Companies have armies of lawyers looking for loopholes in contractual obligations, and government, mostly those of the Republican Party, have been doing what they can through congress to legally decrease the amount of power labor unions withhold. On top of all of this, companies who do not want to deal with the fair pay and treatment of union workers are simply outsourcing their jobs to other countries where unions have no power and displacing American citizens from jobs in the process. All of this is adding to a mental effect on American citizens that unions are no longer powerful enough to change anything. People no longer believe in unions’ abilities to protect them from the unfairness of large companies, some even blaming them solely for the loss of jobs in America. Even though our problems remain the same, the unions protecting us from those problems have grown weaker and less numerous.

Today, people are still facing the exact same problems the steel workers were back in 1937: unfair wages, unsafe working conditions, and unfair pensions; however, unlike back then, companies and government know what to do to get around labor unions. Labor unions game has not changed, but the companies’ has. At the same time, union support as fell so greatly, that even old tactics are not being implemented for change. No one believes they can make a difference, so they often do not try. Places where simple picketing and court actions would work are not even making the attempt. Taking a lesson from the steelworkers of the 1930s may not fix some of the more complex issues in bigger businesses nowadays, but it still has untapped power in some work places. People are just simply too disheartened to use them.

None of this means organized labor is beaten, defeated, dead, or gone; simply outdated.

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Roman Villarreal’s sculpture, a tribute to Chicago steelworkers, dedicated in 2015 in Steelworkers Park

Union power needs a revamp. They need to come up with new ways to picket, new ways to negotiate, and new ways to combat unfairness. As companies update their ways of avoiding union power, unions need to update their ways of checking companies. All of this is made even harder by the fact that sometimes even our own government is suppressing the unions and the public is losing faith in organized labor. Unions need to update their ways, show people they have the power to equalize employer/employee relations again, and show them that becoming an active union member can make a difference. All of this could be made much easier by having a government that will also support union power and push bills in their favor rather than against. None of this is possible overnight. This is a process that will take years to happen and, as with all things, will not happen at all without people taking action to make happen.

In all, the fact that unions have power at all is a thing to be thankful for, and we owe a great debt the CIO, SWOC, NLRB, and every group, union, and national association that keeps workers from unfair treatment and pay as best they can today. Sure, we may not ever be as successful as our predecessors who worked toward work force equality and fought and even died for us, not only in the Memorial Day Massacre, but in every protest, movement, or event. The Memorial Day Massacre was a tragic incident, and from it came one of the most important strength our generation need to make it in this country, a stronger, more active labor union. Now it is time to rejuvenate it and strengthen it just as they did. How? We will not know until we make the effort to figure it out as a whole, together, as a union.

 

 

Nelson Peery: Why Is African American History The Heart of American History?

Portrait of David

Illustration from The Future Is Up To Us, Portrait of David, painting  by Diana Berek

This is the beginning of Black History Month, February 1, 2016, and I think it’s appropriate to quote from Nelson Peery’s The Future Is Up To Us:

WHY IS AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY THE HEART OF AMERICAN HISTORY?

To suggest such an analysis is bound to make the majority of eyebrows arch upward. African Americans have always been looked upon and treated as if they were at best on the periphery of our coun- try’s history. Their being marginalized in the social and economic sense reinforces this outlook. Nevertheless any serious inquiry into history will show that the control, manipulation and exploitation of the African American was at the heart of every major and most of the minor decisions of state prior to the Civil War, and a good many of them afterwards.

Let’s start at the beginning. For a number of ideological and political reasons, the American colonies resisted African slavery, pre- ferring to populate the New World with European indentured ser- vants. In the Caribbean, the plantation and slave system was being fine-tuned. There, unheard-of fortunes were accumulated on the basis of the most reckless expenditure of human life known to history. A goodly portion of the colonies’ economic intercourse was servicing the slave system of the Caribbean. The colonies were never discon- nected from African slavery. It was not some inopportune landing of a Spanish ship carrying twenty African captives that inaugurated

African slavery in the colonies. As the capitalist system evolved from the slave trade and the Caribbean plantations, capitalism became firmly planted in the colonies and slavery was its inevitable result. Every colony had slavery, and none of the colonies, north or south, could have accumulated and economically moved forward without the brutal working to death of the slave.

Rudimentary capitalist agriculture—that is agriculture for the market, rather than consumption—never reckoned with ecology or preservation of the land. This is especially true of cotton culture. The solution was the constant westward motion for virgin land. I often laugh at these falsifiers of history who wave the flag and talk about the westward move of liberty. In fact, it was the westward move of slavery. Two examples that come to mind are the removal of the five

“civilized” (i.e., slave-holding) Indian tribes from their native lands to the Oklahoma Territory. The “Trail of Tears” is an indelible moral condemnation of U.S. state policy for the expansion of slavery. The Indians suffered terribly on that journey. Can you imagine the con- dition of their African slaves?

The other instance was the annexation of Texas and later the war against Mexico and the ripping-off of half her national territory. There was no other reason for this expansionism but the promulga- tion of slavery. The westward march of liberty is a joke.

Most people understand that the Civil War was fought over the African Americans’ condition as slaves. Few realize that Wilson probably would not have been elected if Blacks were able to vote. Certainly, Roosevelt would not have won his third term without a solid African American vote. This goes for Truman and a number of presidents who changed the political direction of the country.

Take a look at the body of law developed around the control of labor. Every single one of these oppressive laws had their foun- dation in the control of the African American. If we go beyond the written law it is easily seen that the control of a disjointed working class was achieved through uniting the white worker and capitalist to exclude the African American.

In the realm of culture, if it weren’t for the African Americans we would still be dancing the minuet. At the heart of American cul- ture beats the culture of the African American people. They would not have created this culture if not for the isolation, brutality and segregation that lies at the heart of the African Americans as a people. Eleanor Roosevelt put it quite well when she said that apart from the culture of the Indian, the culture of the African American is the only American culture. Clearly everything else was an ethnic culture brought over from the old world. The other aspect is, it is becom- ing a world culture. Every time I’ve gone abroad, I’ve been shocked by the breadth of the assimilation of this culture into French, British, Egyptian—what have you—popular culture.

So when we say that the African Americans are at the heart of American history, we don’t mean to imply that they were in control of that history. The sad fact is that up until the integration period, con- trolling and manipulating the Black ten percent was the way to con- trol the white majority. This is the only way we can make sense of a history that gives the world the most exalted visions along with the most brutal and callous exploitation and destruction of human life.

Time to Go Beyond Petitioning Pharaoh

[My good friend and comrade, Adam Gottlieb, asked me to be part of a unique celebration at the end of Passover this year. He called it, in a scriptural reference, “Love the Stranger.” The celebration, on April 13, 2015, was an artistic performance that reflected on slavery and its modern consequences, and he asked me to reflect on capitalism and slavery. I began by asking people to help me sing the lyrics of “Let My People Go,” a song that I identify with the rich bass voice of Paul Robeson. This was more or less what I said.]

When Israel was in Egypt’s land: Let my people go,
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand, Let my People go.
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

In 1861, three slaves escaped from a work detail building defense batteries for the confederate army, and presented themselves at Fort Monroe in Virginia. When Confederate Major John Cary demanded their return, General Ben Butler refused, on the basis that since Virginia, after secession, was now a foreign territory, the Fugitive Slave Law no longer applied. The U.S. Secretary of the Navy, in September of 1861, referred to the slaves as “persons of color, commonly known as contrabands,” and directed that they be paid for their work for the Navy; three weeks later the Army followed suit. In August of 1861, the U.S. government passed the confiscation act, which forbade returning all contraband, including slaves, to the Confederacy. The numbers of escaped slaves increased as this policy became known, and the earliest recorded use of the song was as a rallying cry among the contrabands somewhere before July 1862. It appears to have been sung by Virginia slaves as early as 1853.
I want to take you back to a period a couple of thousand years before 1853, though, to the area from what became fort Monroe to the area that became St. Louis and Chicago and ask you to consider what that area looked like, what was the dominant form

The wall around the Great Circle at Newark, Ohio, was built by digging a trench on both sides of the wall and massing the dirt thus excavated.

The wall around the Great Circle at Newark, Ohio, was built by digging a trench on both sides of the wall and massing the dirt thus excavated.

of getting your means of survival? What were means of production and survival in those days? I want to challenge you to think of a time before private property, when for the most part people lived in small groups, relied little on cultivation, and “owned” everything in common. When survival was at the mercy of the seasons and nature, where cooperation was essential for survival, where in good years/seasons the means of survival was abundant, where in times of scarcity, survival hung on a slender thread. This is the vast majority of human “prehistory,” in the sense that we have no written records of this, what we commonly call history.
Fast forward to about 500 in what we call the “Common Era.” The largest group of people living together in North America (that we know about) lived in Southern Illinois, in a center we call Cahokia; about 20,000 to 30,000 people we think lived there. And in another 1,000 years, by the time the first European settlers came along the Mississippi in that area, no people lived there. What happened to them? There is no evidence of plague or disease wiping them out. There is no evidence of them having been conquered. What happened?
There are many forms of private property in history. Still, we’ve lived most of our history, tens of thousands of years, in a cooperative or communist form of social organization. Because in North America early communist society persisted so long, some of what happened in Europe, for example, never happened here. Private property began in North America somewhere between 2,000 and 1,000 years ago. Private property begins with the accumulation of means of survival and means of production in some form of agriculture (including the domestication of animals). Slavery is a system of the ownership of private property. It becomes the dominant form of the ownership of private property as agriculture is able to produce enough to (barely) feed the slaves and a surplus product for (the lavish benefit of) the slave owner and his family and household. If you have a choice between being a member of a society that gives you what you need without being owned by someone, under what circumstances would you become a slave? Coercion? What would make such a society attractive?

Map of Fort Ancient

Map of Fort Ancient

I like to think (or fantasize) that in Cahokia, as the town grew larger and possibilities for accumulation grew, the people of Cahokia rejected the direction toward private property and dispersed. Probably they still had oral traditions of their past, even in some cases actual memories. We know that when Europeans did arrive in the Ohio and Illinois River valleys, they found evidence of the past in large effigy and burial mounds throughout the area we now call the Midwest and Southeast. As settling agriculturalists from Europe took and plowed the land, they probably destroyed most of the evidence of the existence of a diverse people we call “Mound Builders” now. However there are still extensive formations, such as the ones at Newark, at Fort Ancient, and at the Great Snake Mound, all in Ohio. And alongside these areas cultures developed that knew warfare, cultivated maize, and were in some transitional phase perhaps toward what we are describing as slavery.
But the Europeans, and particularly the English, brought to these areas a new form of private property, one that was just emerging. The development of trade was fundamental to this new form. Certainly some form of exchange has existed ever since private property existed. But trading societies were rare in antiquity. They were also subject to the dominance of slavery (e.g. Rome and Greece as prime examples) where warfare reduced conquered peoples to the status of slaves on agricultural plantations; or colonies required to purchase the goods produced in the trading society. In Europe that changed as first the dominant form of property ownership changed from people to land, that demanded that the person who worked the land have some stake in producing the product. And then, as the land produced increasing wealth, beyond what would be consumed in Europe; and as means for calculating the wealth changed; and as the means for exchanging the wealth improved with the extraction of precious metals from, and genocide of the peoples of, the Americas; so capitalism began to emerge.
Sometimes we tend to look around us and dismiss capitalism as super-consumption; empire; selling a product for more than you pay for it. Some of all of that is true, of course. But fundamentally, what capitalism does is it reduces everything to the level of a commodity, something made for sale, made for exchange rather than for the use of the maker.
In the case of slavery, where control of the human being is the form of private property that dominates, there is no exchange. The slave owner dispenses the product that the owner owns as he sees fit. There is no exchange between members of the slave owners’ family or between master and slave. Capitalism, however, grafted something new on the body of classical slavery. The French with sugar (Haiti for example) and the British with cotton (in the South of the U.S.) used the old form of slavery to build a world economic system of commodity production. This was capitalist slavery.
In the case of commodity production, the producer is ostensibly free to sell the only commodity he or she owns: the ability to work. Yes it is true that there are other commodities out in the world that the worker purchases. But once that commodity is purchased, it suffices as a substance of use for the buyer. It’s easiest to see this in terms of food, clothing, shelter for example. Capitalism is an economic system in which the worker is personally free; without work, he or she is also free to starve. Capitalists have no obligation to an unemployed worker as the Lord might have had toward the peasant on his land, or for that matter the classical slave owner. It is in this sense that we call capitalism, for the working class, wage-slavery. The worker has no place to turn except to the capitalist for obtaining the means of subsistence which the working class has produced. The capitalist then purchases the commodity that worker has to offer, but finds in that worker’s commodity something that no other commodity has: the ability to produce more means of subsistence than he or she needs to survive.
Slavery is a contract that says: you are mine, you owe me everything you produce. In return for producing for me, I the owner will keep you alive. I own whatever surplus product you make. Only force could compel this kind of contract.
Feudalism is a contract that says: the land is mine. I will let you have a parcel of land to work for yourself on a given number of days during the year. I will protect you from marauders. The rest of the time you must work for me on a different plot of land. I own everything you produce on that plot. Clearly the peasant has more incentive here: it is a system where it is clear what is mine and what is yours, without artifice. But as the peasant plots were reduced in size, the time allotted to cultivating them was decreased, and the forced servitude in the Lord’s armies increased, even this incentive vanished and force became primary.
In capitalism the contract says: I buy your commodity and set it to work in my means of production (factory, school, office, etc). Because I now own your commodity, I can work it as long as the contract says I can (to the limit of 24 hours per day – and that has been the case). Whatever you produce in that time is mine. With the wage that I pay you, you get to buy back from me and my class what you need to survive (food, clothing, shelter). But I get to accumulate the surplus product as mine, and to transform it into money. Not only that; I get to improve your productivity – that is your ability to produce more in the same amount of time for less cost. Thereby I get to make even more money.
A new quality has entered the realm of capitalism. Up until the last 30 years or so, the inevitable demise of capitalism, predicted 150 years ago because of increases of productivity, has been delayed. The main reason for this has been as the intensity of production (and productivity) exceeded the boundaries of each national market, capitalism had somewhere else to expand (meaning make war on, conquer, make part of an empire and export capital to in order to exploit). The intensity of exploitation was matched by extensivity. As capitalism has exported its commodity production from Boston to Bangladesh, from Iowa to India, from California to Chile, it has also streamlined production to eliminate or reduce its purchase of the commodity of the

Getting Back on Track: Service Robots 2010

Transforming what we know as productivity: Service Robots 2010

ability to work. Automation, in the era of electronics, has fundamentally transformed what we know as productivity. So the workers of India are competing against fully automated factories elsewhere (and the workers in the U.S. cannot find jobs at all).
What do we call it then, when workers are totally ejected from the relationship between employer and employed, when wage-slavery is not even an option? What do we call it when a totally surplus population is no longer needed by the owning class? When public housing is torn down, schools are closed, mental health facilities destroyed, water is privatized, school districts get military grade weapons to patrol the corridors, and police departments are equipped with military armored vehicles?
We are faced with a situation similar to many other transformations in society – yet totally new. It is a transformation in which the old form of ownership is attempting to protect its control of private property. But the impulse to transform society is not to another form of private property but to abolish private property entirely, to return it to common ownership. And the impulse is two fold. First and foremost, the impulse is the survival of the species. Secondly, within that, the survival of those cast out by capitalism can only be reached by the transformation to a society that provides for all.
Capitalism globally is moving to find ways to protect private property, which lead to increased use of force and violence. More and more the state merges with corporations and nationalization takes place in the interest of the corporations. We’re talking about fascism.
The people are increasingly and globally finding it necessary to challenge a system which can only destroy them. And that is the challenge of our time, the meaning of “Go Down Moses” today.
We are living in a time of abundance AND slavery, when the choices open to us are narrowing by the minute. Here is the bleak landscape capitalism offers us .Either we exist in a vortex of ever more impoverishing wage-slavery, or we are reduced to actual chattel-slavery or death. .
BUT we have an opening we have NEVER had before. We can choose abundance for all. We really have no option but to develop the revolutionary networks that go beyond petitioning pharaoh to “let our people go.” That is the task that the League of Revolutionaries for a New America has set itself. Please talk to me if you want to know more about the LRNA.