Of Teamsters and Turtles, Plumbers and Progressives, a MayDay rumination

Ever since the much-promoted alliance between “teamsters and turtles” at the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, there’s been a renewed hope that the decades-long opposition between organized labor and environmentalists might be resolvable. The original Teamsters and turtles weren’t really in much of an alliance in 1999, what with AFL-CIO leaders trying their best to keep the labor march away from occupied downtown Seattle on November 30, 1999. But we don’t have to rehash that old story because we have a new, local angle on this here in 2009 San Francisco.

Steve Jones wrote about a split between “progressives and labor” in the SF Bay Guardian last week. It is an interesting framing of the current possibilities for social liberation, improvement, or” gasp” even revolution. While thoughtful and well-researched, Jones fails to escape a recurrent set of assumptions that continue to confuse the possibilities of a more thorough-going reshaping of oppositional politics in this era. The most delusional assumption is that “pwogwessives” of a green hue should find a common platform with old-style unionists, most likely over the empty demand for “green jobs.” Before laying out why “˜jobs’ don’t work, let’s recap the recent tempest in a teapot:

The basic story is that Larry Mazzola, Jr., the son of Mazzola Sr. (together they run the nepotistic Plumbers Union), was denied a seat on the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District Board of Directors that has traditionally gone to a Labor representative. Mazzola Jr. was fully backed in his attempt to get the appointment to the seat by the San Francisco Labor Council and other local Labor leaders, but was thwarted by a 6-5 majority at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The Board’s Rules Committee, chaired by lefty Chris Daly, rejected Mazzola and quietly asked local labor leaders to advance an alternate candidate at least vaguely qualified to address transportation issues, but the Labor Council and Building and Construction Trades Council and other labor luminaries refused, insisting that Mazzola get the nod. The impasse was resolved by the full Board vote which appointed Dave Snyder to the seat instead of Mazzola or any other labor choice. Snyder (a personal friend of mine) is widely credited with resuscitating the SF Bike Coalition in the mid-1990s, and later helped launch Livable City and most recently has been the Transportation analyst for SPUR. (He took this appointment as his chance to resign from SPUR, which he generally found too conservative, especially when it comes to class issues and development.)

Dave Snyder represents a new cognitariat-rooted kind of politics (for a recent, provocative essay/speech from the theoretical wing of this kind of thinking, find Bifo’s latest here), one that has been framed most often as “environmentalist” but is actually a lot more than that. It is an emergent political tendency that looks at urban design, transportation, food, housing, and every part of daily life as inextricably linked. While Snyder is no flaming radical, he at least understands that the 21st century and its unfolding crises require new approaches and fresh, wholistic thinking. He wasn’t happy to have been chosen by the Supervisors, feeling he got caught in the middle of a political spat between the progressive majority on the Board and vocal elements of organized labor.

His discomfort, like that of Steve Jones writing in the Guardian, represents a hangover that is long overdue to go away. It’s one of those Emperor-has-no-clothes situations: the unions in San Francisco, and trade unions more generally, are not bastions of progressivism or forward thinking! As Jones notes throughout his article, the local unions are at each other’s throats in jurisdictional squabbles, with Andy Stern’s SEIU jettisoning local union democracy and expelling Sal Rosselli, long-time stalwart of the United Healthcare Workers, while raiding the UNITE HERE amalgamation of hotel, restaurant, and textile workers (whose head, Mike Casey, leads the SF Labor Council)”¦ It’s all very Byzantine, and if you’re in the (backwards-heading) “movement” it becomes a matter of great urgency which faction’s flag you fly, or which leader claims your loyalty.

But at the end of the day (no, wait, it’s right at the beginning of the day!) the unions are peddling a lost cause, whose purpose even in the best of times was primarily to broker the price of labor power to capitalist employers. Over the past few decades they’ve become more transparently “service-providing businesses,” hawking credit cards to their members along with insurance deals and various other deals. Leftists and progressives of various stripes find it very difficult to come to grips with just how reactionary unions often are. The problem is that we’ve long lost a critical ability to distinguish between unions (business and legal entities hemmed in by extremely restrictive labor laws, in addition to the union management being primarily self-interested in their own survival as highly paid salaried professionals) and workers. All of us concerned with a better world know in our hearts that workers organizing themselves are a crucial part of a broad strategy for social liberation. The problem is that the unions as we know them are almost always at odds with worker self-organization. (Even in the glorified 1934 Big Strike in SF, union leaders played a conservative role, doing their best to undercut the strike when it became general, and urging their members back to work on capitalist terms.)

One of the most compelling examples in San Francisco’s past that demonstrates how self-interested unions oppose the city’s best interest is back in the fateful fight over the freeways in San Francisco (had they been built, some of our favorite neighborhoods like the Valencia corridor, the Haight-Ashbury, the Inner Sunset, and more would have been destroyed by elevated cement freeways). In the crucial vote in 1964, the Board of Supervisors was split 5-5 between the labor-leaning progressive faction (pro-freeway) and the more neighborhood-oriented and small business-leaning faction (anti-freeway), while the mayor at the time was Jack Shelley, a former head of the SF Labor Council (he was of course pro-freeways). Organized labor strongly backed the freeway-building plans. The deciding ballot was cast by the first-ever black Supervisor, Terry Francois, who surprised everyone with an hours-long speech before casting his “˜no’ vote on the Panhandle-Golden Gate Park Freeway.

The past decades are littered with back-biting, betrayals, and narrow self-interested behavior by most U.S. unions (e.g. back in 1980-81 OPEIU #29 settled a strike with Blue Cross in Oakland while their sister local #3 in San Francisco was still on strike against Blue Shield, leading to their defeat; in the mid-1980s meatpackers were de-unionized across the Midwest with the active complicity of UFCW” See Barbara Kopple’s remarkable documentary “American Dream“; local union offices in the Bay Area have often mistreated their own unionized workers; the more you look the more you find.). But even if you put all that daily corruption and unethical behavior aside, the basic issue that organized workers ought to be centrally concerned with” what work is done, why and how” has been left off the agenda for over a century. New progressive forces, whether environmentalist, housing- or transit- or food-oriented, DO start” haltingly” to address fundamental technological and economic issues. What work is done, how and why do we do it, and what are the ecological and social consequences of various choices? These are issues that trade unions might begin to address to save their skins in this era of radical change, but up to the present, they are mired in an obsolete pro-growth agenda that sees jobs and income as the only goals, rather than a broader view of a good life for everyone on the planet, including the planet itself!

The radical restructuring of capitalism since the early 1970s has destroyed most of the politically once-powerful working class. In our daily lives we are all workers who think of ourselves as “middle class,” whether we’re making $18,000/year or $88,000 a year (or more!). Instead of seeing ourselves as part of a broad social class that reproduces daily life with our shared labor, we tend to see ourselves as individuals on career paths, negotiating individually our upward (or downward) mobility through complicated networks of short-term contracts, precarious jobs subject to sudden elimination, temporary holding patterns while we wait to find work doing what we “really do,” etc. Our political agency, the place where we feel we can be effective and take action, is hardly ever the workplace any more. Nowadays, it’s all about buying the right products, disposing of our garbage correctly, shopping “responsibly,” and supporting groups that are helping oppressed groups in other places.

I’m sorry to say, but we’ll never shop our way to a free society. Of course “better is better than worse,” so go ahead and make your best decisions as shoppers and consumers. But until we begin to redesign work at its most radical root, and stop making such a mess with the work our culture does all day long, we’ll never make meaningful changes to the dynamics that are destroying us. Individual trade union locals might join this broader push, but so far it’s unheard of. Most unions are top-down entities that at best pay lip service to union democracy (even the much-vaunted union democracy of the ILWU is a pale shadow of what it once was).

Most unions think “jobs” are something to demand! I say, “Start Talks Now on Work Reduction!” We are working too long, too hard, at activities that are a complete waste of time if they’re not actually destroying us and the planet (why not eliminate banking, real estate, advertising, military production, shoddy commodity production, bad medicine, etc.?). We have to stop! We should be organizing ourselves in a political fight for a world where we work a lot less, everyone has everything they need (scarcity is largely a product of markets and money), and life is much more enjoyable than this sped-up, frantic, fear-mongering, and increasingly barbaric world. Expecting unions to support an urban agenda that actually changes how we live is to ignore that they are firmly committed to an obsolete and retrogressive agenda of capitalist growth with “jobs” controlled by bottom lines and corporate managers. We can invite them to join our more thoughtful and far-reaching agenda, or we can ignore them. But we cannot let them continue to retard the urgent tasks of social transformation that are before us. It’s time for the unions to join us or get out of the way!

1 comment to Of Teamsters and Turtles, Plumbers and Progressives, a MayDay rumination

  • mjosef

    A fine essay – very important and a pleasure to read.
    So why do I end up with my head in my hands?
    Public-sector unions, such as the one I belong to through work,  exemplify the worst traits of ossified top-down unionism you have so cogently described.  Charles Dember , a Boston College prof (there are innumerable contradictions in that fact), wrote in Corporation Nation in the late 90’s about the fantastic potential of shareholder activism from large institutional pension funds.
    And it all amounted to a big fat nothing. Collusion permeates all actors in the supersystem.
    Thanks for talking sense.

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