Friday, October 02, 2009

Participation and Subjugation

The italicized text below is from a recent article by Rick Wolff in response to a Democratic primary in New York City this month, a very important one, in which only 11% of registered Democrats turned out. Wolff sees this not as apathy, but alienation. As a commenter on the article put it: why should people legitimize their own subjugation?

Using Wolff's words, I have inserted arrows to illustrate his argument like a chain:

Since the 1970s, real wages stagnated while workers' productivity kept rising...

--> ...providing employers with rising profits. They used those profits...

--> remake US politics ever more to their liking...

--> Flat wages drove US workers' families to send more family members out to do more hours of paid labor...

--> The lost time, exhaustion, and stress undermined working families' participation in politics. Flat wages also led to massive worker borrowing and thus rising debt anxiety.

--> Holding together family and finances became ever more difficult; it absorbed what time and energy remained after work. Politics became ever more irrelevant and remote from workers' real lives. It disappeared as an activity and resurfaced instead as spectacles made for TV couch potatoes.

There is one dimension, however, that Rick Wolff does not discuss and I think has some bearing.

It reminds me of something that came up at the first meeting of our teacher's union here in Deming. Eight of us showed up at the library of Deming High School. There is important business going on, yet out of 200 members in Deming, this was the turnout. This is certainly not an indication of everyone's satisfaction: concerns and complaints, concerning work or the union, have reached all of us who were there. The low turnout was definitely not a symptom of universal satisfaction.

There was some conversation about this phenomenon, and I offered an observation that historically, unions have provided some education to its members to help them understand the importance of participation. Union strength is not a retail purchase, yet in recent years American labor has treated the labor union more like an insurance company. The idea goes like this: "I pay dues, and in exchange I receive union services." When problems arise, members then expect the union to go to bat for them, without requiring the member's participation. This is not a paradigm that puts labor in a position of strength.

Another member suggested we meet off-site, as some people may feel intimidated going to a union meeting on school grounds. That is understandable, and the members present voted to convene meetings at other locations. I had to remark, however, that union members need to realize that union activity is legally protected (for the time being anyway) and one cannot be timid when it comes to negotiating with power.

The word participation needs to be prominent. Union participation. Democratic participation. Those folks who sat in at the Aetna headquarters this week were participating, not just sitting in their armchairs grumbling about the fact that their government is openly working on behalf of private corporations and conspiring to make the health care crisis even worse than it already is.

If some of us thought we would get the changes we need by electing Barack Obama last fall, I hope the lesson has been learned. Reform on behalf of the people does not typically come from the top. It comes from social movements, people organizing themselves and putting themselves on the line, being uncomfortable and gumming up the works. It's not a retail transaction. It requires participation.

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