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Friday, June 29, 2018

“...Who would have thought that this circus would have come to town?”

You can’t say we weren’t warned. We should have seen it coming.

The carnival-like quality that best captures the flavor of today’s cable news has been unfolding for a long time. The imagery of barking, shouting, teeth-gnashing commentators is neither exceptional nor uncalculated. The picture of elite-school graduates, multimillion-dollar salaried regular “joes” and "janes" earnestly deploring political wrongs supposedly troubling the masses and saluting the banal antics of the US professional political stratum would be laughable if it weren’t so transparently contrived.

The early US success of Fox News didn’t go unnoticed by the heads of the other entertainment mega-corporations. When Fox leaped to the head of the pack with a posse of relentlessly partisan, right wing gas bags, competitors scrambled to find a way to recapture the ratings.
Immediate rivals, CNN and MSNBC, were locked in the jaws of a dilemma, however.

The management of both networks were genetically disposed toward the political space already occupied by Fox News. But they also understood that no gains could be made by merely duplicating the Fox News strategy.

Instead, they tried to find a position to the left of Fox, the space that made the most sense for a competitor. Unfortunately for the networks, the management suits were unnerved by even the most tepid leftists, leading to a revolving door of commentators who either crossed a cautious line in the sand or needed to be “balanced” by an always growing stable of right wingers hired to counter the appearance of left-wing rabble-rousing.

The 2003 firing of liberal Phil Donahue serves as a prime example of this paranoia. Despite the fact that Donahue generated greater viewership than either Chris Matthews or Joe Scarborough, Donahue was dropped from MSNBC because executives believed his show would become "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."

Nevertheless, the Obama victory opened the door for a network to attach to the youthful, media-savvy, and well-spoken President. Obama’s cool aloofness and measured manners served as a politically centrist counter to the ravings and bluster on Fox News.

MSNBC grabbed the brass ring and challenged Fox. The network earned the title of the “Anti-Fox,” awarded by The New York Times (November, 2012). The paper quoted Bill Clinton as saying, "Boy, it really has become our version of Fox."

And the presidential election of 2016 offered a unique opportunity to further reset the hierarchy of the cable news networks, depose Fox News, and construct a new entertainment-posing-as-news direction. As I described in an April, 2016 post:

...CBS CEO Les Moonves is ecstatic over the revenues flowing into entertainment coffers from the primary campaigns (“I've never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us.”). Moonves, the entertainment mogul, understands better than most the triumph of entertainment over substance, posture over issues; CBS and the other mega-corporations peddle reality television and tabloid news. So it's not surprising to see him hail the current electoral season's antics as special (“Man, who would have expected the ride we're all having right now? ...Who would have thought that this circus would have come to town?”). For Moonves and his ilk the more inanity and sensationalism, the more money flows into corporate coffers (“You know, we love having all 16 Republican candidates throwing crap at each other. It's great. The more they spend, the better it is for us...”).     

It was this “circus” and the subsequent election of Donald Trump that worked all the entertainment moguls into a frenzy. For MSNBC, it was a perfect conjunction of factors: a reputation as the liberal channel, a vulgar, truth-averse President with absolutely no basic principles, a host of conspiracy theories concocted by hollow and incompetent Democrats, and, not least, a stable of sharp-tongued, ambitious personalities even more adept at the Fox News method of earnest fibbery. Thus was born the 24-hour news cycle of alleged leaks, anonymous tips, suspicions, and exaggerated fears. Thus was spawned a reserve army of self-styled experts: think-tank hired guns, rejected politicians, pensioned generals, hectoring columnists and commentators, and publicity-seeking celebrities ready to affirm any threat, any scenario fabricated by the guiding lights.

What appears to some as a deplorable, but hopefully temporary state of media childishness-- a departure or deviance from good practices-- is really the culmination of the persistent, advancing concentration of media assets-- books, newspapers, radio, television networks, communication systems-- into fewer and fewer hands. A handful of giant corporations control what we are to see, to hear, to read, and-- the ultimate goal-- what to think.

Entertainment monopolies do not look to innovate; they prefer settled, tested genre. Monopolies do not like surprises; they favor reproducible formulae. That is the essence of brand building. That is why we swim in a cultural sea of reruns, prequels, sequels, celebrity pulp writers, revivals, homages, and other diluted art forms that are repeated and are repeatable until the last dollar is collected.

Of course these “values” carry over to the monopoly-controlled news-as entertainment-sector. It explains the cookie-cutter, robotic gesturing news readers, as well as the search for sensationalism and political narratives that, like a mini-series, can be repeated until the public grows bored.

That certainly captures the allure of the Mueller investigation to the big corporate media-- it is the gift that keeps on giving, until it doesn’t. And it seems, more and more, that it has stopped giving. That would likely be the meaning of Senator Mark Warner’s comments last week at a retreat with important fellow Democrats: “If you get me one more glass of wine, I’ll tell you stuff only Bob Mueller and I know,” Warner reportedly told the 100 or so guests, according to the Boston Globe (6-25-18). “If you think you’ve seen wild stuff so far, buckle up. It’s going to be a wild couple of months.”

Warner knows better than most that Mueller and Russiagate are the only meatless bones that the Democrats have tossed to the ravenous corporate media. Also, he knows that the Democrats need the issue to stay alive for the next “couple of months” to help the Democrats in the interim elections.

But most significantly, he knew when he spoke that confidence in the Mueller investigation had waned and was in need of some juice. As The Hill reported on June 13: Mueller’s public image sinks to all-time low in new poll. “The Politico–Morning Consult poll found that 40 percent of voters believe that Mueller's probe has been handled unfairly — a 6-point increase from February…”, and a greater number than those who thought the investigation to be fair.

That, too, explains the endless, desperate, nagging emails that I get from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) begging for my support for the Mueller investigation (Breaking: Robert Mueller’s image is at an all time low.)

And in an opinion piece in The Hill, former National Security Prosecutor, Joseph Moreno, hopes to let the faithful down gently with Prepare to be disappointed with Russia investigation conclusion (6-26-18).

Clearly, this mini-series is losing the public, a development that backs the Democratic Party into an awkward corner. The Democrats needed wildly sensational stories to court the sensationalist monopoly media and to cover the embarrassing loss to a vulgar entertainer who makes Ronald Reagan look like a seasoned, measured diplomat.

And we can draw some consolation in knowing that the cable news shows each draw no more than a couple of million viewers each night, despite the pose they take as the opinion makers for the entire country.

Meanwhile the youthful Democratic Socialist (DSA) wing of the Democrats continues to demonstrate to an intransigent corporate Party establishment that Democratic Party voters really place more importance on the issues that the voters want addressed rather than the issues that consultants believe that voters want answered. Good jobs, debt relief, healthcare, education-- the issues that have always mattered to working people-- are anathema to the corporate Democrats who cannot touch these issues without touching up the wallets of their fundraising base.

It is no small pleasure to see the media lackies squirm with the victory of a young, outspoken DSA woman over a ten-term house member, possible Pelosi successor, and corporate Democrat in this past Tuesday’s New York primary. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s overwhelming success underscores the dilemma faced by a corrupted Democratic Party locked into a Republican-lite posture by its corporate masters. The ruling class really only needs one corporate party. And the people are in dire need of their own party.

While many are growing tired of the 24-hour news cycle of Russia-baiting, while many are weary of watching politicians “...throwing crap at each other,” as CEO Moonves so eloquently put it, corporate-owned media and corporate-owned political parties dare not address the fact that 43% of US citizens live from paycheck to paycheck with no room for even a minor unexpected expense. They run from the fact that Baby Boomers are faced with insufficient wealth and income to successfully negotiate their retirements. Both recent studies point to desperate straits that can only be engaged by a substantial redistribution of wealth and income to the needy, a solution completely unacceptable to the elites that control our media and our politics.

Instead, they choose to attack what they deem “evil”: Russia, President Putin, Chairman Kim, and a host of other imagined threats that will distract many from the real problems.

And so the carnival continues. When you have nothing to say, tell a joke!

Greg Godels

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

False Choices: Globalism or Nationalism

In November of 2008, in the midst of the most severe global economic crisis since the Great Depression, I wrote that the era of global internationalism-- so-called “globalization”-- was coming to an end. “Centrifugal forces” of self-preservation were now operant, pulling apart existing alliances, blocs, joint institutions, and common solutions:
The economic crisis has reversed the post-Soviet process of international integration – so-called "globalization." As with the Great Depression, the economic crisis strikes different economies in different ways. Despite efforts to integrate the world economies, the international division of labor and the differing levels of development foreclose a unified solution to economic distress. The weak efforts at joint action, the conferences, the summits, etc. cannot succeed simply because every nation has different interests and problems, a condition that will only become more acute as the crisis mounts… It is highly unlikely that the [European] Union will come up with common solutions. Indeed, the unraveling of the EU is a possibility.

A decade later, it should be apparent that this projection anticipated the rise and growth of economic nationalism, a political trend that threatens to sweep away the institutions and policies of free market globalism. Just as the failure of the Keynesian consensus to address a new crisis in the 1970s brought the ascension of market fundamentalism (so-called “neo-liberalism”) and its later international consolidation as the “globalization” consensus, the shock of 2007-2008 brought the weaknesses, shortcomings, and failures of market fundamentalism to the fore. Consequently, the policy of open global markets is now engaged in a life-and-death struggle with economic nationalism. To a great extent, the larger capitalist states are retreating toward aggressive self-interest and intensifying global competition.

The most obvious expressions of these growing rivalries are sanctions, trade barriers, shifting alliances, military buildups, saber-rattling and, inevitably, wars.

That a global consensus has been disrupted is neither widely acknowledged nor accepted. But keen bourgeois observers are beginning to expose the fractures in global economic integration. Mohamed A. El-Erian, a prominent columnist for The Financial Times and Bloomberg News writes of the “cracks” in the “global policy coordination that can make the whole much larger than the sum of the parts…”. He laments how “...too many years of low and insufficiently inclusive growth… tears at the fabric of society, erodes trust in key institutions, and fuels the politics of anger.” “[S]omething deeper is going on here-- a common thread, if you like,” he opines. “And the ramifications will be accentuated by what are now widening inequalities brought about by differing growth rates and policies in advanced economies as the U.S. increasingly outpaces other economies.” (Bloomberg Businessweek, 6-11-18) The “common thread” is intensifying rivalries, a scramble to secure advantage in a global economy increasingly resembling a ‘state of nature.’

Despite the glowing US reports of booming employment, economic growth, rising wealth, and stock market euphoria, serious observers are noting the disparate economic news emanating from the reaches of the global economy. Recent Wall Street Journal headlines underline this reality: Global Growth Loses Steam, Emerging-Market Route Feeds Contagion Fear, U.S. Profit Boom Leaves Europe Behind, Growth In U.S. Leaves World Behind. With competition for fewer and fewer crumbs, the strongest, healthiest economy-- the US-- is snatching them up at the expense of its friends and allies alike. Ironically, the PRChina and Russia are the staunchest public defenders of the old order of global “cooperation,” while preparing to forge new partnerships and tactics to meet the disintegration of that order.

As Lenin wrote in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism: the realities of the capitalist system… alliances, no matter what form they may assume, whether of one imperialist coalition against another, or of a general alliance embracing all the imperialist powers, are inevitably nothing more than a ‘truce’ in periods between wars. Peaceful alliances prepare the ground for wars, and in their turn grow out of wars; the one is the condition for the other, giving rise to alternating forms of peaceful and non-peaceful struggle out of one and the same basis of imperialist connections and the relations between world economics and world politics.
Thus, we are seeing the passing from the global “alliance” moment towards intensifying competition now contained by a regimen of sanctions, tariffs, other “peaceful” forms, and “limited” wars, but with general war looming off-stage.
Getting It Wrong

It is a mistake or a witting mischaracterization to see the break-up of the global open market consensus as merely the result of crackpot policies of Trump and his ilk. It is a serious error to associate sanctions, tariffs, and sharpening rivalries simply with the tactics of the rightwing populist parties and their partisans.

In the first place, the nationalist, protectionist policies emerging today are not rooted in policy whims or ideological dispositions alone. Instead, they are urged on by a badly performing capitalism. While the prevailing paradigm-- the globalism consensus-- has served capitalism well, generating profits and growth, it is profoundly in need of repair or replacement. The ruling class recognizes this failing and is searching for a solution, a process expressed, in one way, through the political confrontation between traditional centrist parties and upstarts.

Secondly, the struggle is trivialized and obscured if it is posed as a struggle between reaction or fascism and the forces of enlightenment or progress. Economic nationalism has no necessary ideological link to either. In the Great Depression, autarky-- economic self-sufficiency, isolationism-- was as identified with Roosevelt as it was with Hitler. The fact that the creepy politics of Trump, Farage, Le Pen, and Salvini most vigorously embrace economic nationalism is historically contingent. While the US media have portrayed Trump’s tariff-mania as an affront to economic sanity, they fail to portray the other weapons of economic nationalism-- sanctions and wars-- similarly. While the Obama administration hewed to the orthodoxy of foregoing new tariffs, it briskly accelerated the use of sanctions and war.

Thus, the sanction/tariff initiative in the US is often not a matter of pro or con, but rather who is targeted. Senator Schumer, the leading Democratic Senator and harsh critic of Trump, is not against tariffs per se. Instead, he differs from Trump only on which countries should be attacked. He is sharply critical of tariffs against NATO allies or Japan, but enthusiastic for punitive tariffs (and other maneuvers) against Russia, the PRC, Venezuela, and other rivals or perceived delinquents.

The current ZTE controversy demonstrates how economic nationalism infects both US parties. ZTE, a leading Chinese multinational telecommunications corporation, is accused of defying US sanctions against the PDRKorea and Iran. Trump, the arch-America-First warrior negotiated a $1 billion penalty and an outrageous arrangement that would make ZTE pay for a team of on-site US inspectors! This insulting affront to Chinese dignity is opposed by leading Senators of both parties who hope to go further and put ZTE completely out of business by denying it access to essential US components.

While the US ruling class may be debating how to address disappointment with the reigning paradigm, it fully understands that the US is still the world’s leading economic and imperialist power. The clash between Trump and his European counterparts is over how best to engage and expand that power with or without concessions to international cooperation.

Entrapping the Left

In the 1970s, capitalism suffered a severe crisis of inflation, stagnation, and declining profit rates. The tools that had stabilized and steered capitalism from The Great Depression until the 1970s (popularly identified with JM Keynes) proved to be largely ineffective against the particular mix of problems then afflicting the global economy. In the US, a new paradigm (rather, the revival of an older paradigm) of unfettered, unregulated markets gained political traction as an answer to that failure, first in the second half of the Carter administration, and then more intensely in the Reagan administration. By the mid-90s, the new market-centered paradigm dominated both US political parties, attained broad ideological hegemony, and reached into every crack and crevice of life in the US, from public services to cultural production. With the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the European socialist countries, and the reorientation of the many socialist-oriented countries, market-obsession and deregulation spread worldwide like a virus.

With a market-based answer to every problem, ruling classes began to dismantle the protective and social-maintenance structures that had been hard won by generations of working people. Market fundamentalism clashed with the very notion of social guarantees or a welfare safety net.

Understandably, the left rallied to defend these gains against the full assault on living standards. To a great extent, the left initiative was an attempt to achieve a broad popular front to defend the twentieth century victories-- limited as they were-- of the broad masses.

The left failed. It failed at great cost.

By the end of the twentieth century, every center-left political party of consequence had fully embraced market fundamentalism and had become wholly untrustworthy allies in the defensive battle against deregulation, privatization, and the evisceration of the welfare state. This left the anti-capitalist and revolutionary left to fight alone for the historical center-left program. In the US, we like to joke that this was the era when Democrats became Republicans, and socialists, even Communists, became Democrats. Nonetheless, the Democratic Party programs-- the 1930s New Deal and the 1960s Great Society -- continue to erode.

Most of the anti-capitalist and revolutionary left placed the socialist program aside in the interest of an ephemeral unity with the center-left. The option of a serious replacement of capitalism was shelved to achieve a united defense of working-class gains, a common defense that never materialized. Consequently, a generation of rebellious youth-- scorched by poverty, unemployment, underemployment, and student debt-- are searching for a radical alternative, but finding anarchism, ersatz socialism, and other miraculous potions.

We’ll Not Do that Again!

Today’s fight between the market fundamentalists, the globalists and the economic nationalists is not our fight. It is a fight over how to maximize profits and sustain capitalism. The working class has no stake in its outcome. Unlike the dismantling of the welfare state, there is no defensive battle to be waged.

Market fundamentalism and globalism were disasters for the working class, allowing capitalism to drive down the price of labor power to its historically determined cost of production and reproduction-- wages in the US have been stagnant for nearly 50 years. Economic nationalism, on the other hand, offers workers nothing but ephemeral gains at the expense of brothers and sisters in other countries or the destruction of war.

When liberal pundits attack Trump’s tariff plans they are defending profit and growth, not the working class. When Krugman, Reich, or Stiglitz defend the sanctity of unfettered global markets, they are making “trickle down” promises, promises that have not been delivered in the many decades of expansive trade growth.

And when self-styled populists offer protectionism for jobs, they are protecting corporations and not jobs; they are selling snake oil to workers while seizing competitive advantage for corporations and their CEOs.

Nothing demonstrates the shell game of economic nationalism, of protectionism, better than the machinations of generations of class collaborationist trade union leaders who latched their careers to protectionism. Preaching the approach of “identity of interest,” they became cheerleaders for corporate success. When faced with rank-and-file stirrings, they join the chorus of “unfair competition.” Joined at the hip with corporate bosses, they discover foreign countries that don’t “play by the rules.” It should not go unnoticed that US union leaders typically point to “cheaters” in predominantly non-white countries-- Japan, the RoKorea, and now the PRChina.

Eventually, this no-struggle, blame-foreigners strategy as an explanation of stagnant wages and job loss backfires. For decades, the United Steelworkers Union has blamed the plight of steelworkers on foreign steel. So now, with President Trump promising a large tariff against the largest exporter of steel to the US, USW president, Leo Gerard, is in a quandary. His union represents the steelworkers in Canada, the largest exporter of steel to the US.

“‘The steelworkers believe in tariffs. We just believe they should be brought against countries that cheat,’ Mr. Gerard said, adding that is clearly not the case with Canada.” (Pittsburgh Post Gazette, 6-13-18). Of course it is hard to square this response with the fact that PRC only accounts for 2% of US steel imports. To this, Gerard uncovers a conspiracy: PRC surreptitiously ships its steel through third-party countries, thus, “masking the real country of origin.”

If true, how would tariffs targeted directly at the PRC change the flow of disguised “cheating” steel to the US? Wouldn’t the imports still sneak through?

Gerard followed up with a lengthy op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette (6-17-18) notable for its transparent appeal to crude patriotism and relentless China-bashing. As for the leading threat to the US steel and aluminum production industry, Gerard weakly reminds us that “American steel is used to make some cans in Canada that are then shipped to the United States where they are filled by American food companies.”

Hopefully, steelworkers are beginning to see this ruse designed to distract union members from the continuing rapacious exploitation of workers by the corporations.

For the left, there is, as there always has been, a third way: the fight for socialism. Those wedded to reforming capitalism and social democratic programs will, indeed must, choose between greasing the skids of global capitalism or closing the borders to foreign competition. Those are false choices for the working class. Those choices are dead ends for the left.

The struggle for socialism is neither a false choice nor a dead end.

Greg Godels

Monday, June 4, 2018

Labor’s Betrayal


“Nor can I understand how men who aspire to the leadership of labor are able to sacrifice labor’s interests in favor of the Democratic Party. I cannot understand men to whom a visit to the White House is more important than getting the workers out of the dog house.” Wyndham Mortimer

At a time when ex-FBI chief James Comey’s self-serving, self-righteous book becomes a bestseller, in a season when ex-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the enthusiastic apologist for genocide against Iraqi children, joins Comey on the bestseller list with a preposterous lecture on fascism, it may well be time to retreat to the library.

I found some solace and much enlightenment from a dusty, cobweb infested paperback in a corner of a basement book self. I had read Organize! some years ago, maybe forty or more years ago. Published posthumously by the author’s daughter and a colleague, the book is a memoir of one of the US working class’s most valuable leaders-- Wyndham Mortimer-- at one of labor’s most important junctures.

The first time that I read Organize! In the 1970s, I thought it another chapter in the rich legacy of US labor militancy, one of many engaging stories of the militant roots of the then powerful institutional US labor movement.

Reading the book today, I am struck by the foretelling of the labor movement’s decline, the causes of the decline, and its source in misleadership. Light is shown on the devastating effects of anti-Communism and opportunism in the US labor movement. The sad, pathetic state of the labor movement today brings the accomplishments of Mortimer and his comrades into even sharper relief than it did forty years ago.

Who was Wyndham Mortimer?

Wyndham Mortimer was the son of an expatriate English/Welsh family that settled in Central Pennsylvania coal country. Like many coal-patch youth, Mortimer went to work in the mines at age twelve. He later worked in a steel mill, on the railroad, as a street car conductor, and finally at the White Motor Company in Cleveland. Throughout his working years, he had both a deep understanding of the exploitation of working people and a burning desire to remove that burden. His experience and study took him from the United Mine Workers, to the Socialist Party, to the Industrial Workers of the World, and finally to the Communist Party, a logical journey that equipped him to lead the fight to win the organization of industrial workers.

He learned from his railroad experience that not all forms of unionism were the same. The Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen (BRT), for example, preached the philosophy of “identity of interest” between workers and capital. He confronted the Grand President of the Brotherhood with the question: “You tell us the interests of the company and us workers are identical. What then is the reason for this union we call the BRT? Why don’t we join the same organization as the [railroad] carriers?”

The same question could be asked today of most AFL-CIO union presidents who advocate class collaboration or labor-management cooperation: Why do you need a union if the capitalists and the workers share common interests?

Mortimer garnered another valuable lesson from the encounter. Grand President Lee shouted back: “You are a socialist!”

“And I found out quite early that any time any organization or any individual spoke up in favor of the working people, they were immediately labeled [socialist or] Communist-- even though they might not have known the difference between Communism and rheumatism!”

And the old craft-union AFL was soon recognized to be no friend of the industrial worker, placing every obstacle in front of Mortimer’s organizing efforts in the auto industry. In the summer of 1932, Mortimer and his fellow workers approached the Cleveland Federation of Labor for help in organizing White Motors. CFL executive secretary, Harry McLaughlin dismissed the request: “Why, no one can organize that bunch of hunkies out there.” Unfortunately, this kind of craft-union insularity and elitism still infects too many of the trades.

At the famous 1935 AFL Convention, Mortimer stood by John L. Lewis when he raised the question of industrial-union organization. Apart from the celebrated punch-out of Carpenters’ union president, Bill Hutcheson, Lewis and his allies organized a challenge to the vice-presidency of the reactionary, vocal exponent of “identity of interest,” Matthew Wohl. Though they failed to defeat Wohl, they signaled that class-struggle unionism was on the industrial-union organizing agenda. The Committee of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was born from these encounters.

                             Organizing the Unorganized

It should be an embarrassment to present-day trade union functionaries, who have overseen the decline of trade union membership, when Mortimer becomes almost apologetic that workers of his era were so accepting of their fate: “To those who marvel at the docility of a working force that could accept this kind of insanity, let me explain the conditions existing at the time. Unemployment was widespread… Men were kept in a state of fear, workers were fired on the slightest pretext, or for no reason at all… In the absence of a union, some workers became sycophants and stool pigeons… So great was the fear of losing the precious job that men would even work through their lunch periods.” And yet skillful and dedicated leaders were able to overcome these obstacles to build the most powerful, militant movement in the history of US labor.

Today, labor “theorists” and their Democratic Party colleagues decry the backwardness of the workforce, blaming the sorry state of labor on the workers themselves. They fail to correct the growing sentiment that workers are “deplorables”-- uneducated, bigoted, and uncultured.

It takes Wyndham Mortimer to remind us that workers, like everyone else, are subjected to the worse prejudices, baseless rumors, and crackpot thinking that popular culture can conjure. Prior to the great organizational drive, “Fisher #1 [General Motors plant] employed about eight thousand workers in 1936. The Black Legion boasted a membership of three thousand in the plant at that time. Its membership was composed exclusively of white, protestant, gentile, native-born individuals. This fascist outfit was another powerful obstacle put in the path of the union… This group did not stop at murder if it served their ends. A number of union organizers had, in past years, been found shot. A bullet would be left on their chests and applications for membership in the union were found scattered about.”

Nevertheless, by the end of the year, the workers at Fisher #1 were at the center of what was one of the most militant labor actions in US history, an action that firmly planted the foundation of the United Automobile Workers Union (UAW) and gave impetus to the explosive growth of the CIO-- the General Motors sit-down strike.

And Wyndham Mortimer, along with Robert Travis, were the lead organizers of that action. In the words of Mortimer’s colleague, Leo Fenster, “Nothing that the UAW had done before, nothing that it has done since, had that kind of impact on events. The UAW has since, to a considerable extent, taken care of many of the problems of its members. But it has done so within the routine of the status quo… But this was the one occasion when the status quo was wrenched loose from those who would cling to it, when the establishment was yanked from its moorings, when the sacred, inviolable, indispensable open shop was turned into its opposite-- the union shop.”

A former UAW leader and Communist, Fenster did not live long enough to see the UAW’s full retreat from even the “routine of the status quo,” but he correctly understood the dramatic achievements of 1936-37.

For the first time, US workers en masse refused to accept the sanctity of property rights by refusing to leave the plants “owned” by US corporations.

US Workers overcame the differences of race and national origin to empower their class, a victory that led to the CIO becoming the most integrated institution in US society (second only to the Communist Party).

The notion that the boss could fire workers at will was defeated in the first CIO contracts, along with many of the other privileges claimed by management.

Mortimer and other Communists’ success and popularity in building the UAW did not go unnoticed by the more conservative elements of the leadership. The year after the settling of the Flint sit-down strike, the reactionary UAW president (Mortimer was first vice president) attempted to expel the most militant leaders of the union on the ludicrous charge of delivering the union to the Communists. Of course the attempt failed and was repudiated at the next UAW Convention.

Nonetheless, anti-Communism, careerist intrigue, false “leftism,” and Democratic Party influence combined to marginalize Mortimer’s influence and leadership. Like most CIO Communists, his continuing commitment to strengthening the hand of the workers and weakening the power of capital stood in the way of the center-right forces who sought to consolidate personal power and distance themselves from the rank-and-file. Despite his retirement in 1945, Mortimer continued to reflect and write on the labor movement.

                            Reflections on Labor’s Direction

● The modern-day wedding of the Democratic Party and the labor movement began with the Roosevelt administration and the New Deal. Despite the cult-like admiration of workers toward Roosevelt, especially encouraged by the more conservative elements of the labor leadership, Roosevelt’s efforts on behalf of labor were greatly exaggerated. Little was accomplished without a firm and insistent push (threat?) from the left. In Mortimer’s words: “I have dealt with President Roosevelt only because millions of American workers regard him as labor’s friend. Certainly destroying food and plowing little pigs underground was not the work of a friend when hunger was widespread in the land. We should understand that ‘friends’ of ours are not found among millionaires.” Were he alive today, Mortimer would thus find no “friends” of labor in Congress.

● “The time has come to convince the workers and common people of America that we must produce wealth to use and not to make people rich. I am well aware of the fact that we in America have been brainwashed and intimidated until such words as peace and socialism are never mentioned in polite society. But these two words must be heard loudly and constantly.”

● In January of 1950, Mortimer wrote an open letter to the CIO urging affirmative action to bring African American participation into the all-white leadership: “If the present leadership is sincere in its claims of opposition to Jim Crow, a most convincing way to demonstrate its conviction would be to do something about demolishing discrimination inside the unions. It is not an accident that the two largest unions in CIO, the UAW and USA [Steelworkers], with several hundred thousand Negro members in their ranks, do not have ONE Negro in any elective post. The Negro membership is not represented because, in my opinion, the present leadership does not want them represented.” The first Black elected to the UAW International Executive Board was Nelson Jack Edwards in 1964, a shameful delay abetted by the McCarthy-era purging of Communist and left-wing leaders from the CIO.

● Mortimer foresaw the abandonment of rank-and-file activism and its replacement with legal and financial maneuvers. He attacked the UAW’s $25 million strike fund when the union had a no-strike contract: “No ‘defense fund,’ however big, has ever won a battle between capital and labor, for the very good reason that the class struggle is not fought with money. If money were the deciding factor, then our fight would be hopeless… The UAW was built and won its right to live without any money. The great struggles of 1936, 1937, and 1938 were won because the American working class supported us, and any future struggles will be won in the same way… Trying to match monopoly capitalism’s bank balance is the greatest piece of hypocrisy, and the most dangerous delusion that any fast-talking phony labor statesman ever put over on the rank and file.” (1951)

● By 1950, Mortimer exposed the secretive, treacherous collaboration between US Cold Warriors and the leadership of the labor movement. He named the names of labor functionaries who enjoyed lucrative salaries to help undermine labor militancy in Europe and Asia. He traces this to the “...Foreign Service Act of 1946. This act provides, among other things, for two categories of ‘Labor Advisors’... The list of ‘Labor Advisors’ is too long for this letter, but they infest Europe and Asia like an army of locusts, spending their time and our money trying to weaken and destroy the organized labor movements…” This sordid activity morphed into the insidious AIFLD and exists with many bogus “solidarity” actions of the US labor movement today.

● While many leftists, even Communists, were seduced by the social democratic “road” to socialism in the 1950s, Mortimer stands out as a clear-headed, unmoved advocate of revolutionary socialism. In a 1949 response to an article lauding British “socialism,” Mortimer responded sharply:

You say, “British socialism is not abhorrent to UAW members.” Again, you say, “Most UAW members believe in a future non-Marxist world that includes privately owned corporations, paced by cooperatively owned activities and government-owned authorities-- the so-called mixed economy, like Sweden, like Britain, but with the UAW and Roosevelt and Senator Norris [a New Deal icon] added.

Now isn’t that a precious piece of nonsense?

I would remind you that surplus value would be perfectly safe with either Roosevelt or Norris. Their crime, in the eyes of monopoly, was that they saved capitalism from itself....

The British coal baron who formerly held a million pounds in coal securities [before nationalization], is now the holder of a million pounds in government bonds upon which he is guaranteed six per cent. Is this what you call a “middle” economy?

For my part, I am waiting to see what the [UK] social democratic government will do in the present economic crisis. Will it drop its policy of gradualism, and tackle the emergency on socialist lines? Or will it drop all thought of socialism in order to reassure Wall Street, thereby getting another billion dollars and a breathing spell? My guess is that it will forget the working class. It will seek to transmute the gold of working class militancy into the lead of passivity and subservience [Labour began a retreat and was pushed out of power in 1951].

Social democrats in general show a touching faith in the infallibility of capitalism-- a faith not shared by the more shrewd and clear-sighted capitalists themselves.

● Today’s trade union movement bears the deep scars of the purges of hundreds, of thousands of Communists like Wyndham Mortimer, Communist-sympathizers, and militants from the labor movement. By driving the most visionary, most uncompromising, and most dedicated fighters from the organizations that they were essential in building, the labor movement was destined for a decline that is today on the verge of restoring the open shop (80 years after labor’s victory over the open shop). With a Supreme Court decision looming, a decision that will likely make the open shop the fate of public workers in every state (It is already legislatively established for public workers in 28 states), how does the labor movement meet this attack?

With dollars spent on lawyers and lobbyists. And today, at the last minute, with text messages, phone calls, and letters begging members to commit to future dues payment!

On May 30, my local paper carried an advertisement sponsored by the AFL-CIO, between ads for a mattress sale and weight loss solutions, appealing for workers to visit the Internet and join a union. An impressive response to a life-or-death challenge!

Mortimer saw it coming in the midst of the 1950s purges. Writing in 1951:

[The treacherous, anti-Communist union leadership] plan to make the American labor movement the staunch ally of monopoly capitalism in its war against the exploited and poverty stricken peoples of the world. And here at home, their witchhunting, disrupting, and raiding of other unions, is treason to the working class…

They eagerly enlisted in monopoly’s army set out to cripple the unity and solidarity of the world’s working people… and their job is to disrupt, confuse, and, if possible, destroy the labor unions of those countries.

They have scuttled the once powerful CIO. They have assassinated the greatest hope American labor ever had, and have dealt the working men and women of America a cowardly blow from which they will not recover for many a long day.

A blow from which they have yet to recover.

Greg Godels

Many thanks to Roger Keeran who encouraged me to write about Wyndham Mortimer. His book The Communist Party and the Auto Workers’ Unions  is a classic on the subject.