Start of Rant:

Fresh from the red carpet at the White House Correspondents dinner, AFT President Randi Weingarten monopolized this morning's conversation on the Chris Hayes' show with the kind of small ball political blather symptomatic of many union leaders today. In the face of unprecedented income inequality in the modern era, the overwhelming political power of big capital, and the Tea Party driven cannibalism of the middle class, (as I type, an advertisement on the right side of this very page says "Labor unions take 381 dollars a year from workers' paychecks and give it to politicians. It's an unfair system. Let's start taking back California") Weingarten invokes Haymarket and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, calls for "education" of labor issues in our classrooms, and offers a weary and pallid narrative almost doomed to inevitable failure. I like Randi Weingarten, but she's out of touch.

Weingarten certainly exposes the classic problem of the leftist intellectual's frustration with mobilizing a client class amongst working people. There were hints of this on Haye's show today, a head fake to the problem of false consciousness. But this was left little explored. Certainly references to Haymarket are historically important. Certainly references to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster are historically important. Certainly the hard won benefits of labor organizing should be understood in historical context. But, for American students today, these events are sepia moments almost indistinguishable from the Trojan War, the Renaissance, or the American Revolution. They are data points to be mastered for the quiz, the midterm, the final, or the standardized test. They are vexing "facts" to be memorized (and then forgotten after the exam), not part of a viable consciousness raising exercise or instruction in the life of the polity. We don't have the historical context today to make these moments from the past politically real. The past really is a foreign country.

Bill Fletcher gently challenged Weingarten by invoking John L. Lewis and suggesting that labor leaders like Weingarten need to "roll the dice" when it comes to labor action. In other words, take action now that may have disastrous consequences for individual players or the so-called labor movement more generally. (It's not as if labor unions are on a roll and can play it safe.) In other words, raise consciousness within our historical context, not by referencing our glorious past in a self-congratulatory exercise that most Americans don't care about, but by direct action today. Appeals to the historic struggles of labor during the Gilded Age or the Great Depression are academic. They are obtuse abstractions. We need a language that works within the historical context we occupy today. I'm afraid Weingarten is unable to articulate our context, unable to work herself out of the privileged position she occupies inside the extant political structure or the historical patterns that have little purchase on our current reality.

We need to occupy our moment. Teach-ins are nice. Taking a day off from school to listen to your professor in the park (or simply stay home) is nice. Watching May Day on the television is nice. Blogging (like this) is nice. But this won't cut it. "May Day" comes but once a year. Strikes are illegal outside a carefully and highly restricted legal framework? Tell it to John L. Lewis. Capital will push back aggressively, perhaps even with violence, and will likely win? Tell it to the miners of Ludlow, Colorado. We just need to show the 99% where their interests really lie? Tell it to the IWW in the face of the AFL. You may lose your position within the system? Tell it to Mario Savio. Those were historical moments responding to their historical context. But those moments are past. What is our historical context and how will we respond? How will we "roll the dice?"

End of rant.


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