Of Teamsters and Turtles, Plumbers and Progressives

filipino_guy_w_two_violins_and_a_snger1011.jpgCultures meet over real work at Heart of the City Farmers’ Market

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 recently. 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 policy 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.

ggbridge_and_crissy_field_marshes1472.jpgRestored Crissy Field wetlands foregrounding the Golden Gate.

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!

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