Overtime (was Re: happy autoworkers)

Michael Eisenscher meisenscher at igc.apc.org
Sun Jul 12 20:49:24 PDT 1998


I'm sorry you found so little of redeeming value in my response to Maggie, and I agree that I may have burdened the argument with too many "facts." But you neatly ignored what I did have to say with respect to differences with Maggie (whether meritorious or not) in favor of, as you acknowledge in closing, repeating exactly the crime of which you accuse me. So I have to ask, what have you contributed to this discussion in your response?

Maggie made a number of points with which I have no agrument, but some with which I did. In particular, I think I took issue with reducing so much that is wrong with the labor movement to an explanation of its sexism and racism. This is not to say that there is not sexism and racism in the working class and it finds its expressions in unions. You cite a good example in Mitsubishi. But to generalize from that case to the whole class or labor movement seems over-reaching to me. If, as I suggest that Maggie does, you attribute so much of what is wrong to these two expressions of reactionary thinking, it will be impossible to develop any kind of an effective strategy for dealing with either. Most working people are no more or less racist or sexist than, say, college professors. If anything, they are more honest about their views. In fact, for many whites, the workplace is the most integrated part of their lives -- a place where they are exposed to had can develop relationships with people who are not like them. In many this results is greater, not less tolerance and acceptance of differences. Having spent time on both college campuses and in more traditional workplaces with both blue and white collar workers in all sorts of occupations and sectors, I can say that I find less sexism and racism, not to mention elitism, among those union members than their more privileged and educated counterparts in academia. But that does not excuse or explain away the substantial array of prejudices that remain, some quite virulent and vicious.

I agree that the obligation of anyone who seeks fundamental social change is to challenge all those expressions of bigotry when they occur, whenever possible by confronting the perpetrator directly and making it quite clear that you do no share their views and find them offensive and divisive. I think there must also be more systematic organized effort to compel the union institutions to raise these issues and deal with them, with their own members and with management of the workplaces where they occur. It would be useful, given you own experience, for you to share some of the ways you may have found for successfully do so in the workplaces where you labored.

I happen to agree with you that at the heart of any struggle against sexism and racism, as well as many other deficiencies of the labor movement, is a struggle to develop far more democratic participation by union members. I also agree that there are many union hacks who will resist to the end any effort to open the channels of participation and decision-making to a wider circle of members, preferring to hold firmly to their control even at the price of continued decline. But there are also union leaders, particularly at the local and regional level, who understand they can not continue to operate as they have and defend, not to mention advance, the interests of either their members or their organizations. They may not know what to do differently; they may fear loosening their grip on the administration of their locals; but they are becoming open to new approaches for sake of survival if not for sake of principle. And there are more than a few who actually will make changes for sake of principle.

Unless you believe that unions are irredeemably and inherently prone to reaction and maintenance of the status quo, making those distinctions is important to any effort to advancing the cause. We need to talk about the working class and labor movement we have, not the one we'd like to have or the one we imagine in our most fearful or angry, frustrated moments.

My point is actually quite simple, and maybe I should just make it and shut up: the working class and labor movement is too complex, too varied, and diverse to make broad sweeping claims or criticisms as though either all workers or all unions think and operate in the same basic ways.

If we are to use this list to engage is respectful discussion of ways in which we think social problems can be most effectively addressed, it helps to avoid such reductionist characterizations or exaggerations.

Thank you for pointing out some of the weaknesses in my own contribution. I'll try to do better next time.

In solidarity, Michael E.

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