Sunday, May 1, 2011

Solidarity: What is it Good For? (Absolutely Everything!)

Poster for League for Industrial Democracy, by Anita Willcox Great Depression,
For a while, the term solidarity developed a negative image among Americans, with many associating it with communists, stodgy old school unions, or the right-wing Polish Solidarnosc movement. Sometimes I would use the word when talking with teachers and immediately notice defensive posturing, perhaps a sign of anxiety or discomfort over the inevitable request to join a picket line or to do something extra beyond their teaching duties on behalf of other teachers or workers.

Recently we have been hearing more positive talk about solidarity, like it is a good thing, a personal responsibility, such as showing support for Wisconsin public sector workers fighting state attacks on their right to strike and to collectively bargain. The California Teachers Association and other unions sent out messages saying “We stand in solidarity with you.” However, this is not solidarity at all. Rather, it is a message of spiritual support. Organizations that sent money were providing material support. Solidarity, in contrast, is when a group or individual that is not currently in conflict with the bosses goes out and physically supports another that is in conflict, generally by taking the same or more extreme risks in the process.

A labor struggle cannot be won through messages of spiritual support, though such messages may be inspirational and help participants to persevere. Likewise, victory cannot happen through material support, though this is often helpful in sustaining a local struggle. What wins labor conflicts and most other progressive causes (on the rare occasions in which they do win) is sufficiently harming the bosses’ bottom line or so inconveniencing politicians that they decide it is easier and/or more profitable to negotiate than to continue strong arming workers.

An Injury to One is An Injury to All
Solidarity is not only about helping a group that is in conflict to win their struggle. It is also about connecting their battle to a larger struggle in hopes of building momentum toward winning that larger struggle, too. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) popularized the slogan: An Injury to One Is An Injury to All.  In other words, an attack on workers anywhere is an attack on workers everywhere. The threat to Wisconsin’s public sector workers threatens workers throughout the country because a victory by the bosses there emboldens them to launch attacks elsewhere. We can already see this happening with Democratically-controlled legislatures, like Massachusetts, also trying to gut labor protections (See Liberal Union Busting).

Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magon, L.A. Jail, 1917
The IWW not only supported other causes by sending members to join their picket lines. The IWW actively recruited people to “ride the rails” and physically travel across the country to help win local struggles. They even advertised for activists to “come fill the jails,” knowing that if they got enough of their members arrested, they would overwhelm the local government (both financially and physically) and be able to force them to negotiate. And they did not limit themselves to labor conflicts, either. They organized and recruited participants for Free Speech fights in Spokane, Fresno and San Diego, when local authorities tried to ban them from organizing and agitating on street corners. They even sent members to join the Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Magon in his uprising against the Mexican authorities. An IWW army briefly took over Mexicali and Tijuana in 1912 (See “IWW: Its First Seventy Years,” by Fred Thompson and Patrick Murfin).

ILWU Shuts Down West Coast Ports in Solidarity With Wisconsin Workers
Seattle ILWU Member Striking Against Iraq War (Image by WikiGolightly)
The International Long Shore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), especially Local 10 (San Francisco and Oakland), is one of the few fighting unions left in the U.S. Their website has even adopted the old IWW slogan: An Injury to One is An Injury to All.

Over the past 30 years, the ILWU has repeatedly shut down Bay Area ports (and occasionally the entire West Coast) in solidarity with other causes. On May 2, 2008, they shut down West Coast ports both to honor International Workers Day and to protest the war in Iraq. On October 23, 2010, they shut down Bay Area ports to support justice for Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man brutally shot to death by BART transit cop Johannes Mehserle. In 1995, during the San Francisco newspaper strike, they blocked newspapers from moving through Bay Area ports. In 1999 they shut down to ports in solidarity with Mumia Abu-Jamal, who continues to sit on death row despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence, including an admission of guilt by someone else for the crime Abu-Jamal was convicted of (See Mumia Death Sentence Ruled Unconstitutional). In the 1970s and 1980s they refused to handle cargo headed for the brutal totalitarian regimes in Chile and El Salvador, and in the 1980s, for 11 days, they refused to handle cargo from South Africa in solidarity with the anti-apartheid struggle (see Democracy Now, 4/29/11).

On April 4, 2011, the ILWU again shut down Bay Area ports, this time in solidarity with Wisconsin workers. For this they are being sued by The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping companies, terminal operators and stevedoring companies that lost money as a result of their work stoppage. The ILWU believes the suit is not only about recouping lost profits, but also about stopping such solidarity from occurring in the future. Indeed, such lawsuits are one reason why we don’t see more solidarity actions elsewhere in the country.

No comments:

Post a Comment