Sunday, March 13, 2011

Labor Organizing, Last Refuge of the Bourgeoisie?

San Diego school board President Richard Barrera, a former labor organizer and erstwhile teacher ally on the school board, voted for teacher layoffs last week, much to the shock and dismay of teachers. Barrera had fought to avoid layoffs in the past and he has opposed Race to the Top. He did warn educators in advance: “I am going to violate your trust in me tonight,” as if this might lead them to have mercy on his scabrous soul and perhaps trust him again later.

Of course, if Barrera or anyone else really cared about workers they wouldn’t lay them off. According to Emily Alpert, from the Voice of San Diego, the 1,000 pink slips were completely unnecessary.

Barrera, like Obama, has a history as a community organizer. He has helped organize home healthcare workers for better wages and working conditions and he has helped organize residents of low income neighborhoods to obtain affordable housing and health care. However, such experience, as we saw with Obama, does not guarantee that a politician will continue to make personal (or career) sacrifices for the benefit of others. This is part of the paradox of electoral politics: You can vote in someone who seems friendly to your interests, but you can’t guarantee that they will act in your interests once in power. Once in office (and usually before) they make decisions that serve their own interests first and foremost, like obtaining donations, getting reelected, moving on to higher office, or gaining a job at one of their supporters’ businesses.

The San Diego layoffs were precipitated by a threat from the County Board of Education, which could prevent SDUSD from borrowing money to pay its bills. It was this threat, according to Barrera, that made him buckle. In other words, the banks and creditors have imposed structural adjustment on SDUSD and Barrera, being a loyal public servant, is simply doing their bidding. Resistance would drive a stake in any grander political (or business) aspirations.

So long as unions continue to invest the majority of their resources, time and energy into political campaigns, they will continue to be shocked and disappointed by their allies’ political decisions. The situation in Wisconsin is the clearest and most tragic example of this. Gov. Walker essentially destroyed the unions by the stroke of his pen. The unions’ response was to tell their members to go back to work and behave, while threatening to defeat the Republicans in June. However, in Wisconsin they lost their ability to collect dues directly from members’ paychecks, thus eviscerating their ability to fund political campaigns. If Wisconsin’s workers do not ignore their union leaders and Walker’s threats and launch a general strike, the game will be over. They will have lost and it will be due to the chicken shit and idiotic tactics of their unions.

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