I was pleasantly surprised to see Howard Zinn's name right on top of the rec list. The diary highlighted some excellent points such as:
We don't live in a democracy . . . we live in a capitalist oligarchy, with some democratic representation. In fact, we have enough democratic representation, it turns out, to occasionally get some things we want. Have you ever heard of Social Security, Medicare, rural electrification, the minimum wage, or labor unions? The capitalist oligarchy didn't want those reforms . . . but they were forced to accept them.
However, the diarist failed to answer one key question: "why were they forced to accept the reforms?" This is a question Howard Zinn has spent his career answering.
What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but "who is sitting in" -- and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.
Zinn has explored the causation of virtually every step of progress in American history. I unfortunately don't have enough time to discuss everything, so I'll focus on FDR and the New Deal specifically the labor movement.
The Roosevelt reforms went far beyond previous legislation. They had to meet two pressing needs: to reorganize capitalism in such a way to overcome the crisis and stabilize the system; also, to head off the alarming growth of spontaneous rebellion in the early years of the Roosevelt administration- organization of tenants and the unemployed, movements of self-help, general strikes in several cities.A People's History of The United States
It was about more than electing democrat, FDR, the bankers, and the corporations were all forced to the left by ordinary people acting (often illegally) together. While a variety of movements came and went, the most significant was the labor movement. Howard Zinn spoke of a consciousness on the part of business and government that they must bend somewhat to popular will or break under the threat of revolution.
Perhaps it was such a consciousness that led to the Wagner-Connery Bill, introduced in Congress in early 1934, to regulate labor disputes. The bill provided elections for union representation, a board to settle problems and handle grievances. Was this not exactly the kind of legislation to do away with the idea that "the problems of the workers can be solved only by themselves"? Big business thought it was too helpful to labor and opposed it. Roosevelt was cool to it. But in the year 1934 a series of labor outbursts suggested the need for legislative action.
A million and a half workers in different industries went on strike in 1934. That spring and summer, longshoremen on the West Coast, in a rank-and-file insurrection against their own union leadership as well as against the shippers, held a convention, demanded the abolition of the shape- up (a kind of early-morning slave market where work gangs were chosen for the day), and went out on strike.
Two thousand miles of Pacific coastline were quickly tied up. The teamsters cooperated, refusing to truck cargo to the piers, and maritime workers joined the strike.
When the police moved in to open the piers, the strikers resisted en masse, and two were killed by police gunfire. A mass funeral procession for the strikers brought together tens of thousands of supporters. And then a general strike was called in San Francisco, with 130,000 workers out, the city immobilized. Five hundred special police were sworn in and 4,500 National Guardsmen assembled, with infantry, machine gun, tank and artillery units.
This general strike didn't just shut down a few businesses, it paralyzed the entire economy of a huge city and indirectly hurt countless companies who bought products imported from the West coast. This showed the power of ordinary workers to shut down commerce and it scared the shit out of the political and business establishment. Just listen to this San Francisco Mayor Angelo Rossi's response to the strike.
I must insist first that law and order shall prevail. Second that those desiring to furnish the people of san francisco with the necessities of life must be permitted to do so without hindrance. Third that the municipal government must continue to function the general public must and shall be served. I again appeal to the interested parties to permit the president's arbitration board to settle the controversy which besets us.
Mayor Angelo Rossi
The LA Times respone was even more alarmist.
The situation in San Francisco is not correctly described by the phrase "general strike." What is actually in progress there is an insurrection, a Communist-inspired and -led revolt against organized government. There is but one thing to be done-put down the revolt with any force necessary.
Not everyone involved in this or other strikes was a communist, but there were many communist, socialist, and anarchist groups leading and involved in this and other 1930s strikes. These groups did want to overthrow capitalism, and while never a majority, they were growing in size and influence.
In addition there
That same summer of 1934, a strike of teamsters in Minneapolis was supported by other working people, and soon nothing was moving in the city except milk, ice, and coal trucks given exemptions by the strikers. Farmers drove their products into town and sold them directly to the people in the city. The police attacked and two strikers were killed. Fifty thousand people attended a mass funeral. There was an enormous protest meeting and a march on City Hall. After a month, the employers gave in to the teamsters' demands.
In the fall of that same year, 1934, came the largest strike of all- 325,000 textile workers in the South. They left the mills and set up flying squadrons in trucks and autos to move through the strike areas, picketing, battling guards, entering the mills, unbelting machinery. Here too, as in the other cases, the strike impetus came from the rank and file, against a reluctant union leadership at the top. The New York Times said: "The grave danger of the situation is that it will get completely out of the hands of the leaders."
Again, the machinery of the state was set in motion. Deputies and armed strikebreakers in South Carolina fired on pickets, killing seven, wounding twenty others. But the strike was spreading to New England. In Lowell, Massachusetts, 2,500 textile workers rioted; in Saylesville, Rhode Island, a crowd of five thousand people defied state troopers who were armed with machine guns, and shut down the textile mill. In Woonsocket, Rhode Island, two thousand people, aroused because someone had been shot and killed by the National Guard, stormed through the town and closed the mill.
By September 18, 421,000 textile workers were on strike throughout the country. There were mass arrests, organizers were beaten, and the death toll rose to thirteen. Roosevelt now stepped in and set up a board of mediation, and the union called off the strike
These massive strikes shut down entire cities or regions and were not just local disputes. Workers had a real sense of solidarity back then and the phrase "which side are you on" actually meant something. Grievances were widespread and strikes spread like wildfire. The revolt was so severe that the national guard and police had to be called in so that commerce would not be disturbed.
Scariest of all, this shook up the traditional AFL craft unionism and was often a spontaneous uprising from the rank and file against the union leaders wishes.
In 1934 and 1935 hundreds of thousands of workers, left out of the rightly controlled, exclusive unions of the American Federation of Labor, began organizing in the new mass production industries-auto, rubber, packinghouse. The AFL could not ignore them; it set up a Committee for Industrial Organization to organize these workers outside of craft lines, by industry, all workers in a plant belonging to one union. This Committee, headed by John Lewis, then broke away and became the CIO-the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
But it was rank-and-file strikes and insurgencies that pushed the union leadership, AFL and CIO, into action. Jeremy Brecher tells the story in his book Strike! A new kind of tactic began among rubber workers in Akron, Ohio, in the early thirties - the sit-down strike. The workers stayed in the plant instead of walking out, and this had clear advantages: they were directly blocking the use of strikebreakers; they did not have to act through union officials but were in direct control of the situation themselves; they did not have to walk outside in the cold and rain, but had shelter; they were not isolated, as in their work, or on the picket line; they were thousands under one roof, free to talk to one another, to form a community of struggle. Louis Adamic, a labor writer, describes one of the early sit-downs:Sitting by their machines, cauldrons, boilers and work benches, they talked. Some realized for the first time how important they were in the process of rubber production. Twelve men had practically stopped the works! .. . Superintendents, foremen, and straw bosses were dashing about... In less than an hour the dispute was settled, full victory for the men.
This was the climate in which the New Deal was passed. General Strikes, lawlessness, solidarity, anti authoritarianism, and a revolutionary threat.
But what did Zinn say about Obama? He did endorse him back in 2008, but with conditions.
Even though Obama doesn't represent any fundamental change, he creates an opening for a possibility of change. That's why I'm voting for him, that's why I suggest to people they vote for him. But I also suggest that Obama will not fullfill that potential for change unless he is enveloped by a social movement which is angry enough, powerful enough, insistent enough that he fill his abstract phrases about change with some real solid content.
So is voting, blogging, and calling your congressman enough or is more action needed like we saw in the 1930s?
Reclist? Awesome. I hope we can use this as a positive discussion for how to organize and fight back against the oligarchy.
If this remains a respectful discussion, I promise to donate my tip jar to the center for Neopets rights, the foundation for world of warcraft refugees and other fictional online charities.
Also I suggest all of you read Howard Zinn's people's history which is available online here