[lbo-talk] Reflections on labor bitchiness

Chuck Grimes cgrimes at rawbw.com
Sat May 26 20:49:07 PDT 2007

``If we can't formulate kinds of political expression that were apt for our own era, as, in their time, Marx...then, we are going to continue to fail to influence our future in contrast to the way they influenced theirs...'' jks


This reminds me of a thought I had sometime ago when there were big Mexican-American rallies here over immigration crap the USG was trying to pull. I forget what the specifics were.

I watched the news as thousands of people in Oakland demonstrated. There were others, around the country.

I thought this is the new working class. This is the class that desparately needs radicalization beyond its civil rights bound sentiments. They were the working class, literally created out of the new US imperialism under NAFTA and other neoliberal policies. They were demonstrating out of solidarity for immigrants caught in the absurdities of immigration laws/labor exploitation.

The whole US legal framework/economic policy complex completely contradicts itself. On the one hand the US wants cheap labor, no benefits, no unions, no labor law, just bodies to break. The one class who can supply that demand are mostly illegal/immigrants. On the other hand, the USG doesn't want illegal immigrants and wages war on them.

``What's it going to be Merv?'' (see Matrix Revolutions)

All the movements devoted to these issues really need to get radicalized hard left. I say that not from principle, but from the concrete realities that have created their oppression, i.e. USG and its corporate empire.

And yet, from my limited view through the barrios and hoods of Oakland and San Francisco, where I pick up and deliver wheelchairs, my impression of the people who filled these rallies and demonstrations poses a completely understandable but utterly contradictory dilemma. The people I meet and deal with everyday identify themselves as middle class Americans in the classic sense. This is why they see the immigration issue through the lens of civil rights. In other words, if the Mexican-American households I've visited where to suddenly get a decent paycheck tomorrow, they'd immediately move to a nicer neighborhood and maybe even forget about how they got here, what they had to do, how they had to struggle and so forth. In other words they would re-capitulate the de-politicalization of the white working class of fifty years ago--who after WWII came home after the war, got better paying jobs and moved out of the cities---and later voted for Nixon.

Whether this impression is accurate or not is possibly questionable because of the way I came to meet and work with people is already pre-filtered by the nature of my job. I only see people who have figured out how to work their way through the welfare and or children's services maze--in other words the success stories.

One amusing situation is when a family member will come to the shop and try to stock up on wheelchair parts because they are going to be in Mexico for a few months and are worried about the chair breaking down. Because I don't speak Spanish, I go get Laticia in the office to translate. (L is from Chile. Her family escaped to Guatamala and then here after the coup--they were lefties.) I usually have L ask them where they're going. If it is a city like Durango, Guadalajara, etc, then I have to explain that there are dozens and dozens of bicycle shops and other small fixit places where there are guys like me who fix just about anything---not to worry. Besides third party providers (MediCal, Medicare, etc) won't pay for spare parts. So, if they still want to pick up parts, they have to pay cash...

Anyway, how to break the cycle? The cycle of de-politicalization of the working classes as they rise into some livable condition. I think this is the crux of the matter.

Remembering L, mentioned above. A year ago she was going to her son's wedding in Guadajara (the girl's family is from there). I looked up the church in google, got a map location, and realized it was less than a quarter mile away from the street we lived on when I was ten. So I asked her to take some pictures. The street was blocked off---repairing the sewers as usual. More than fifty years and they are still working on the same damned sewers.

When I was getting to know L, I had asked where she was from, and then persisted about it a little---what her father did for a living, etc. It turns out he worked in Allende'sgovernment. When the coup came, they had relatives in Guatamala so they went there first.

Judging from L's Spanish, her dress and demeanor, plus of course hearing this story, I realized that L was probably from the upper crust. Whenever I bring up politics, lefty sounding politics, L will change the subject or start shaking her finger at me, saying you are all crazy, Chuckie. What she means is her family and people like me are crazy.

A very similar thing used to happen whenever I brought up the old Panther and Civil Rights rhetoric with another woman who used to work in the office. Her father was one of the founders of the Oakland Black Panthers. She used to laugh at me, with a very cute mocking smile (she was my son's age) and start a Woopie Goldberg routine to dodge the subject. On the other hand when D told me that her mother was thinking of writing a book on her experiences during O-town's waayback time, I tried to help figure out how to get her mother some contacts or something to get the project going. My suggestion was to look into the UCB Bancroft Library where there is an archive project for local political and cultural developments. D was all ears---just not on the political end of things.

See? This is a socialization (I think of it as an Americanization) process at work that de-radicalizes, de-politizes, and alienates people from their own histories. Hmm, maybe that's not so, but only my misplaced idealization that such histories should be a radicalizing influence. Maybe they are not.

Reflecting on all this, makes me wonder just how on earth did I ever get political? Dreams, movies, books, conversations? I can't honestly explain it even to myself. I can mention the old draft resistance demos, my own struggles refusing induction---but thousands did all that. There was one key point though, and it came when I got into the disability movement here and I got hired as a counselor (independent living stuff) for a federal project run by the old HEW as part of Johnson's war on poverty projects. It was the combination of throwing rocks at the government, then working for it. Something in that combination that really turned on the political lights---seeing, working, doing the process itself. I was radicalizing myself, but apparently nobody else... Weird.

But again, dozens of people I knew had been on the outside and then on the inside, so to speak. While a few stayed with their political views, almost none expanded them---out away from just their own condition, but towards a kind of realm that was much more comprehensive and definitely included seeing the present political economy as the root foundation of almost all these various and diverse oppressions---all masks over the same ugly mug---pig capital. But still there were still a few more pieces to fit into the puzzle. One of my last personal projects in that program was to unionize the work shop crew. The dean's office that handled oversight on the whole program was not interested in providing or supporting the key service this project offered which was the direct material service of keeping disabled students mobil and their living arrangements completely accessible. The way we did that was to keep their power chairs in good working order, or building them new power chairs with a lot more speed and range from our extensive junk pile plus new motors/drive systems for free---or remodeling their apartments for free. All that free stuff really bothered the administration to no end--as if we were a perversion, like sex with animals or something. So I knew sooner or later they would try to get rid of us in the shop. As a preventative health measure we got the AFSCME(?) labor rep involved and unionized all the shop personnel, because the UCB administration were already making moves to get rid of our director and replace him with somebody they liked. Getting rid of a union shop was very tough going and it took nearly ten years after I left to finish it off.

Then the last piece to fit in, was leaving that kind of protected environment and getting plunged into the private sector at an extreme wage drop, pure working class existence with no hope of ever leaving or rising again out of the economic struggle to make ends meet.

But even all that doesn't really suffice, since millions have had similar working experience reversals. About the only thing I can really come up with is not wanting the American Dream in the first place. Imagining a different life, preferring a different life.

Well, a last vingette. The office manager is from Panama, black, and evangelical. I am always chided for my language which is foul. Nevertheless, we like each other. So after eating some of her chicken curry I ask her to get me some Caribbean curry and she did. Tonight, I cut up some chicken meat, browned it lightly in olive oil with onions, tomatoes, and garlic, then mixed in some curry, lime juice and jalapanos---and let it sit for about an hour---then returned the mix to the pan with white wine and half a cut lime to simmer for about thirty minutes. For vegetarians, you could probably use egg plant instead of chicken and get the same effect. An hour later, I am still smelling my fingers like a desert.


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