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Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin: Occupiers and union activists should build
class organizations that challenge for power

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

In 1893, in one of the earliest May 1 celebrations, Frederick Engels, the collaborator with Karl Marx and a theoretical and practical leader of the workers movement of his day, wrote that in London around 240,000 workers gathered, 100,000 with the trade unions council and then another 140,000 with the committee for the eight-hour working day. Engels critiques the trade union council as being limited in their vision and not willing to fight and make political demands for the eight-hour working day, wanting to confine those demands to simple contract negotiations and payment for overtime. Somewhat in another place, Engels writes that such politics essentially was acting like voting cattle, where workers would simply vote for one, as he called it, bourgeois party or the other. So how different are we today? Perhaps that same fight in the working class still goes on.

Now joining us to talk about May 1 then and now and joining us from Toronto, Canada, is Leo Panitch. Leo is Canadian research chair in comparative political economy and a distinguished research professor of political science at York University in Toronto, and he’s the author, along with Sam Gindin, of the new book The Making of Global Capitalism. And also joining us is Sam Gindin. He’s the former chief economist and assistant to the president of the Canadian Auto Workers union. Thank you both for joining us.



JAY: So, Sam, why don’t you kick us off? To what extent does this struggle still take place, whether there will be independent working class politics or not?

GINDIN: It still takes place. One of the problems is that there isn’t enough division over that difference, that the movement for independent action is so much smaller. And there’s been a major defeat of the working class over the last quarter of a century, and that culminated in the response to the financial crisis. That should have been a moment when the working class actually was on the offensive. Instead, the right’s been on the offensive. And then you see it in terms of the response to the crisis, where the attacks on the working class are even larger and the response of the working class has been much too timid.

JAY: Now, we’ve—in Europe it seems that we’ve seen more of an offensive by the workers, certainly much more than in North America. Leo, what do you make of the difference in the response?

PANITCH: Well, Paul, that was a really great intro, and really worth pulling out that quote from Engels and giving us some perspective on this, because what was happening when he wrote that stuff in the early 1890s was the working class getting organized politically and in independent trade unions in an entirely novel and new way that had never happened before. You know, after the great revolutions or attempted revolutions of 1848, there was almost a half a century of confusion and quietude. And just in the late 1880s and 1890s, you saw the development of mass trade unions, you saw the emergence of socialist parties. When he said what he did about being voting fodder like cattle, he was referring to the British working class, which was either then voting Conservative or Liberal. And it was only at the end of the century, the beginning of the 20th century, that the Independent Labour Party was formed and the Labour Party emerged. So it was a very important decade in terms of labor struggles, and the most important struggles were actually going on by farmers and workers in the United States in the 1890s.

Now, today—and one has to say from your reference to Europe, where the great socialist parties emerged, those parties that emerged, like the Labour Party, like the German Social Democratic Party, now, despite of their working-class roots, are largely, you know, the versions of the American Democratic Party in Europe. They aren’t more radical. They don’t have much closer ties, even, in any organic sense, to the working classes in their countries. They still get funding out of the unions, but so does these Democratic Party in the United States. So yes, there have been struggles in Europe, there have been demonstrations in Europe, but I’m not sure that the political situation’s all that different from being voting fodder for the two parties, the two main parties in any election that offer you slightly more or less progressive Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

JAY: Yeah, we’ve seen mass protests in Europe, but we’ve yet to see, really, a political expression of an independent political movement. I’ts mostly at the level of mass protest. So, Sam, in terms of looking at the American workers movement and American trade union leadership, what do you make of their response to the Democratic Party or relationship to the Democratic Party, and then to some extent the Occupy movement, which certainly does include some young workers, who mostly are trying to differentiate themselves from the Democratic Party and at least want to or have an intent of creating an independent movement?

GINDIN: One of the exciting things about the Occupy movement was that it did show that audacious action is possible, and it put the question of—in some way or the other, put the question of class on the agenda by speaking about inequality. The challenge for the labor movement wasn’t just whether it should support the Occupy movement. The question was whether the labor movement would itself see the opportunity for that kind of audacious action and begin to occupy things itself. And it has to be said that very little of that has happened either in Canada or the United States. The labor movement is still lowering its expectations, as Leo said, and just looking to the lesser of two lessers, essentially.

JAY: The—yeah, go ahead, Leo.

PANITCH: Well, I was going to say, you know, the first Occupy after Obama got elected was the plant being closed in Chicago. And that presaged—or one might have thought it was going to lead—Obama’s election was going to lead to, us as Sam says, much more courageous action on the part of workers. And had that been taken, one wouldn’t have had to wait until Occupy last year to really capture so much of the mood of so many Americans on, you know, we should be having a discourse, a political discussion that’s focused around class and class inequality. That’s what Occupy did. There was some union action right at the beginning which indicated that the labor movement might take the lead on that. They didn’t.

On the other hand, one has to say the assault on public sector workers did lead to some mobilizations which proved to be very effective, especially the defeat of the Ohio legislation, which was really going to remove all collective bargaining rights from public-sector workers. And the current mobilization against the Wisconsin governor, the attempt to recall him, is also pretty impressive. So I just want to make the point that although the labor movement certainly is not taking the lead, there have been some important mobilizations, and it does show you the extent to which the American public is willing to get behind them if they really put their shoulder to the wheel.

JAY: Well, I thought it was interesting that the Occupy movement decided to make May 1 the day for the launch of what they’re calling the American Spring (some people are calling it that), or that it is May 1 because there’s been an attempt over the decades to marginalize May 1 as even a day of celebration. You know, the conventional mainstream trade union movement wants Labor Day, as do most of the governments. But Occupy did make a statement, didn’t you think, that May 1 was going to be the launch of this spring—quote-unquote, “spring offensive” or—.

GINDIN: No, definitely, in both Canada and the United States. And you also see that in the student movement in Quebec here, where there’s been hundreds of thousands of people out in the streets, and they’re also looking to Labor Day, May Day, as a way of making links with the labor movement. I think the point is and that people are seeing is that if you really want to build a movement that can challenge things, one way or the other you have to link up with the labor movement. And I think what Leo said earlier is very important. There’s a lot of sporadic struggles, and then there are some very impressive struggles. But to really be effective, this raises questions about a much higher level of organization to sustain them. And that’s what hasn’t been there.

JAY: You know, I think we should take this back, in fact, to over a century ago. People forget that the original celebration of May 1 as Labor Day comes out of commemoration of the Haymarket riots, primarily a police riot, back in 1886, and it was a militant American labor movement that Europe was looking to when May Day began. Secondly, Sam and I, when we were walking into the studio today, commented to each other that insofar as students are taking the lead today, as they are from Quebec, up here, to Chile, all the way down the American continent, in the most militant struggles, we should remember that back in the 1960s the trade unions weren’t so closely aligned to the radical student movement and often were hostile to it. So it isn’t as though this is entirely something new. And indeed, insofar as unions have been much more (at least openly, if not substantially) supporting the Occupy movement, providing it with some of its funds, the union leadership showing up at its rallies, and so on, and then the students reciprocating by making May Day the day for relaunching Occupy, I think this is indicative of something positive relative to what we usually look back to, which is the great 1960s. And I think the tide may be turning, and in some ways may be turning in a more positive way than they even were in the 1960s, when the unions entered their very long period of not evolving organizational forms that would let them take on capitalist crises which happened in 1970s and then—of course, we’re living through another right now. And I’m looking forward to the unions developing organizational means. They’d have to be radical changes, radical organizational needs—organizational changes, organizational means of that independent labor action that you asked us about, Paul.

JAY: Now, when we see the trade union movement, it’s not monolithic. There are unions, for example, the California Nurses Association (or also, I guess, they’re known as the national nurses union), they have taken a more independent position. They’ve been far more critical of the Obama administration in the U.S. And in Canada you see some unions who take a more independent position than others. What is, Sam, the state of this sort of struggle within the union movement itself on these issues?

GINDIN: Let me just go back to something that Leo said in terms of comparing this to the ’60s. One of the points about the ’60s isn’t that the labor movement was so wonderful at that moment in time, but it was a moment in time when, basically, focusing on bargaining and focusing on rather narrow union interests you could make gains. And one of the things to recognize is that period is over. It’s ended. And now there’s a challenge to the labor movement to just be effective, just to be effectively reformist. It’s actually going to have to think much more radically.

My sense of what’s going on in the labor movement is there is potential. I mean, you see it in sporadic strikes, you see it in, you know, an openness to certain kinds of issues. And yet we still have to be quite honest about how far we have to go in terms of really seeing and imagining a trade union movement that has a class perspective, that recognizes that you have to start thinking in terms of the class interests, you can’t just take on the state one by one, you can’t just enter into bargaining one by one. And we’re still a long way from doing that. And I’m skeptical about that simply emerging from fights within each union. It seems to me that for that to develop, there have to be links across unions, there have to be networks of activists across unions, so workers develop their confidence, so there’s that kind of education, there’s a kind of recovery of history that takes place. So I think the organizational question is absolutely critical. I’m skeptical about this kind of just emerging spontaneously.

PANITCH: I’d say to Occupy as well that just as one has to make the case for new trade union organization, one needs to make the case to so many young people who, I think, you know, are carrying this zeitgeist that parties and organization are inevitably dangerous and hierarchical and need to be avoided at all costs, that while they’re engaging in all of this impressive protest activity, are quite determined that it be done in a way that avoids institutional sclerosis, so one mustn’t engage in institution building. I think that that’s a dead end, frankly, that will lead us to spend the rest of the future organizing one protest after another. We need to be looking forward to building new class organizations. That’s what the 99 percent slogan should lead us to. And, you know, they need to be broad organizations, they need to be democratic organizations. But we do need new class organizations. And I hope that the young people who are so suspicious of organization today will overcome that and engage in a struggle to build new types of democratic organizations, and out of that a new type of democratic state.

JAY: Thank you both for joining us.

PANITCH: Good to talk to, Paul. Happy May Day.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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