Sam Gindin: The unions are wedded to electoral politics and disarm the mass movement as a result
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul in Toronto. We’re continuing our discussion with Sam Gindin. I guess this segment’s called “What Is To Be Done?” Thanks for joining us again, Sam.
SAM GINDIN, EXEC. ASSISTANT (RET’D) TO PRESIDENT OF CAW: Great title.
JAY: And Sam was the–an executive assistant for a couple of presidents of the Canadian Auto Workers union. So watch part one and you’ll know where we’re picking it up in part two. Alright. So we kind of described a problem, to a large extent, in part one, and a lot of the problem is the paralysis of the trade union movement, both in their ability to organize their thinking. [sic] They’re sort of, in both countries, US and Canada, one way or the other, wedded to the existing political parties. So what should people do?
GINDIN: I mean, one thing that has to happen, obviously, is people simply have to resist. If people aren’t resisting and fighting back, forget it; things are going to get worse, and we have to get it into our head that they’re going to get worse. And the second thing is we really do have to appreciate how radically we would have to ask. [sic] There is no easy quick fix. So let me just give a couple of examples with unions. If we’re really talking about union renewal, one of the problems in the private sector is that the most important issue for workers is a job. Yet that’s not what unions do. They don’t provide jobs. So–and if they can’t provide the jobs, then unions–workers are afraid to fight for better wages or working conditions, so you really get to the paralysis you talk about. So the question is: what could you do about jobs in this kind of environment? And one example is what happened around General Motors during the crisis. General Motors was falling apart. It was in fact in a deep crisis. And the question is: well, what should unions do? And unions responded, because they only think in terms of the system as being given, they think in terms of themselves, not in class terms: is there a bigger solution? Their solution was give General Motors some more money, and maybe get the government to encourage people to buy more cars. An alternative that should have really been thought about is let’s not think about this in terms of how do we save General Motors, but how do we save the productive capacity, all these plants that are closing with all these machinery and equipment and all these skills that workers have. Let’s not think about this in terms of a competition, but in terms of solidarity. Let’s not think about this in terms of profits, but what do people need. And what you end up coming up with is, well, maybe we should convert all these plants. They can do things useful. Why let them sit and be wasted? And if you’re going to convert them, well, what do we need? So, suddenly, we actually talk about not just having a job, but actually doing something that’s useful for other people as well. And you could start talking about, you know, if this century is going to mean that everything has to be converted for the environment, why don’t we start? Why don’t we start making things that have to do with converting our homes and converting our factories and converting the infrastructure? I mean, that’s the kind of thing. Now, that leads to a whole different way of thinking, and it begins to change what unions are, who they relate to, how they relate to their members. Let me take a step further with the public sector. In the public sector, the critical question is: you can’t protect yourself in the public sector unless you’re defending public services. You can’t stand up and say, I like my pension, please support me. Now, unions get that. They do start–they do talk about the importance of public services. But people are skeptical. They see that as opportunist–it’s just in their interest. You have to prove it. Well, proving it means you have to really lead. And to lead, it means that you change what you put your resources into.
JAY: [incompr.] and perhaps seeing an example of that in the United States now, where the nurses are waging a national campaign to have a tax on Wall Street transactions that would create more money, not just for nurses, but for social programs across the board.
GINDIN: Exactly. You start raising class issues around social services.
JAY: ‘Cause that’s something UAW in the States, when it came to health care–and they did very little on any national campaign, because the autoworkers always had a great health care plan, so they didn’t care very much.
GINDIN: And then they ended up seeing it eroded. And what they could have done was actually called for a national health care scheme and say, we’re not settling. Put it on the bargaining table. We’re not settling until we get a national health care [incompr.] We want to get a national health cares. And the answer would’ve been: no, you can’t do that, and if you strike, you’ll be isolated. And they would have had to take up that challenge, they would’ve had to say, yeah, we have a strike, but we’re going to speak on behalf of all the people who don’t have health care and those who are losing it. And I think it’s the same kind of an issue here. Unions would have to change what they put their resources into. They’d have to change what they put on the bargaining table. They’d have to actually go into bargaining and say, we want to talk about the level of quality in the administration of public services. That’d have to be the whistleblowers. We’re the ones that aren’t defensive but actually say when there is a problem in terms of how this is–what happens with the service.
JAY: Actually, I was just talking to somebody in a hospital. I went for a test. And I finally got it out of the doctor, and–’cause he didn’t want to talk too much about it, but the idea of waste in the health care system, he says–you know, he was talking about there’s a lot of waste, but they don’t talk about it.
GINDIN: No, they don’t want to talk about it. And unions tend to be defensive for the same reason. But it’s quite the opposite. You know, the leading–you’d actually have some credibility if you stood up and you said, there is waste, we want to talk about it, and, you know, there are problems, we want to talk about it, and we have the kind of solutions that we think can defend our jobs and actually improve it. Let me give you some other examples. If you’re going to go along this line, you have to ask, well, what do you do in a strike? Here you are trying to mobilize the public, and yet you’re in a strike situation. Well, then you have to talk about doing strikes differently. Maybe you’ll end up in a traditional strike, but why not try out some other things? People in the long-term health care sector, for example, have been having discussions about why don’t we have a work-in instead of a strike, why don’t we bring more people in than they had before, to show the kind of services that you could provide. That’s–begins to raise some really interesting questions, ’cause management’s not going to let you in. Maybe you’ll have to organize the services yourself. Maybe you inspire other people to start thinking about this. You know, garbage men are on strike. What should they do? Maybe they shouldn’t pick up garbage in the richest neighborhoods. Maybe they should dump the garbage not in parks when they’re on strike but on Bay Street and make a connection, as the nurses are doing, between income inequality and the crisis.
JAY: I mean, instead what we’re seeing a lot of the unions–and I think the nurses are an exception to it in the US. If you look at what happened in Wisconsin, what had become this mass movement, you know, thousands, tens of thousands of people in the streets to support public sector workers, you had private sector workers had come out in support of the public sector. They tried to divide firemen off from the other public-sector workers, and the firemen marched in in support. And then the whole thing kind of turned into an electoral issue, it became all about the recall, and they kind of fizzled out the mass movement, and the unions kind of were part of the–you know, cooperated. And I should say maybe not all the unions, but enough of the leadership, with the Democratic Party, to turn it back into Democratic Party politics, essentially.
GINDIN: Yeah. Well, I think you’ve gotten to exactly the key point. And it gets back to what you raised originally about electoral politics. What you see is that it gets turned into electoral politics and then gets disarmed. Yeah, it was important to challenge them electorally. But, in fact, the outcome of that was this incredible energy gets pissed away. And the question is: why? And I would argue that you’re not going to convince some of those trade union leaders that they should have acted otherwise. They’re getting a little bit nervous about all this turmoil, this instability. Their life isn’t as comfortable as it might have been before. It’s not bad to have some demonstrations, but where is it going?
JAY: But they would argue with you, we’re dealing with the reality of look what happens when Republicans take over a state legislature or take over the House of Representatives. I mean, look at what you get. Defeating these guys matters.
GINDIN: Yeah. But what you get out of that is a lowering of expectations. It does matter. It matters whether you’re going to get Republicans or Democrats. But people also see what happens when you get Democrats: you don’t see a massive change in the tax system; you don’t see, you know, a massive change in what’s considered rights of citizenship in terms of public goods. So it matters. But what we have to recognize–I think it’s two things. One is that we need a social force that could have actually sustained what was going on in Wisconsin, that could have built on what was going–built on all the kids that came out of school and built on all the workers that suddenly–who probably, you know, the previous week thought that nothing was possible. Now we’re talking about all kinds of possibilities, from general strike to changing things. And we’re interested in, you know, alternative ways of running society. The question is: how do you build on that? And it’s only if you’re actually building on that–. If we really do have all kinds of Wisconsins everywhere, that’s what’s going to get rid of Republicans, that’s what’s going to change, that’s what’s going to mean that when you get Democrats into power, they might be a little different. So what we actually need is–it comes down to an organizational question. We need an organization that inspires people with an alternative and says there are ways to fight back if you want to join. If you want to make a commitment, here are ways to fight back. And if we do that, then you’re going to be supporting all those rank and filers in unions who are wanting to change things in their unions but they can’t because on their own they’re working in one workplace, they have no connections anywhere else, they don’t have resources, you know, their spouse is working, they’re busy when they get home, they don’t have time, which is so fundamental.
JAY: And is another piece of this–is it not critical that there needs to be a vision to fight for that isn’t just the liberal variation of neoliberalism versus the conservative variation? Because there’s so many holes in the liberal variation that a lot of the conservative right-wing critique is actually correct.
GINDIN: Yeah. No, that’s–it’s true. If you make certain small changes in capitalism, and all that happens is that business decides not to invest, and you throw up your hands, then you are finished. You come up against that contradiction. You have to be prepared to say, well, maybe we should take over the banks. You know, if you’re going to say, well, we’re going to do that but the banks won’t let us, well, what are you going to do? You have to be able to say, we have to take over the banks, we have to make them into a public utility. This is a democratic question. If you really want to convert those auto plants, where are you going to get the funds from? If you really want those social services, where are you going to get the funds from? And it’s not just that. The banks are, you know, a powerful section of the capitalist class. Taking away their power is weakening the capitalist class, which has to be part of what you’re doing. They’re a crucial part of what disciplines everybody. They’re the ones who tell businesses, if you don’t really tighten wages and working conditions, we’re not going to give you money. And then they–you know, they transfer it down to workers. So taking on the banks would, for example, be critical. You know, we’re at a point that we really are talking about cultural change [incompr.] the culture of capitalism is bankrupt in terms of moving people. And what we have to do is give people confidence that it’s possible to change this.