Class Warfare?

lech_20walesa-300x244My History in politics series:

Solidarity was founded in September 1980, and its leader was Lech Walesa, a worker at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk.

Maine’s new Governor, Paul LePage, a quondam, Tea Party-backed businessman, has so far (four months since his Inaugural) not directly taken on the State’s labor union… Whoa, wait a minute, didn’t I in my Blog #2 tell how he peremptorily had removed a pro-labor mural from the building housing his Labor Department, thus creating a nationwide stir? True enough. But LePage, to date, hasn’t yet confronted the state’s unionized workforce in the brutal manner of several Midwestern governors, who have sought to end their employees’ collective bargaining rights.

You can quibble about the tactics behind this revived hostility in the U.S. to organized labor, but no one doubts that union bashing is openly palpable again after an absence of decades. In return, the unions are forcibly resisting, and one of their arguments is they represent the American middle class ⎯ that is, they are assuring their members through paychecks and benefits that their way of life is on a par with that of most other working Americans. To look at this issue of equality in another fashion, it is safe also to say that the very existence of unions offers a yardstick by which to measure entrance into the middle class, itself.

Some conservatives argue that bringing up this point and decrying our nation’s powerful downward drift into inequality is “class warfare.”

My own rejoinder would be to trumpet back: “You’re damn right. There is class warfare out there. It’s warfare against the middle class, and the middle class is now waking up and fighting back, after years of sitting on its hands. Already in 1990, when I was the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Maine, I was warning about “the squeeze on the middle class,” More than 20 years have passed, and the situation has progressively grown worse and worse.

Whether the current Recession was deliberately instigated by shadowy rightwing groups, among which can be discerned the oil barons, Charles and David Koch and the Heritage Foundation they control, is a fact that will be hard to prove. But intentional or not, the effect has been to wipe out the gains made by millions of Americans prior to this latest episode in the long line of crashes, crises and financial catastrophes that have accompanied the rise of capitalism in the U.S.

Without going deeply into the origins of capitalism and its earliest raw forms of exploitation, particularly in Great Britain and Western Europe, suffice it to say that reaction to its 19th-century horrors was not long in coming. German-born Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels brought forth the concept of communism, governments run by industrial workers, and also the idea of class warfare ⎯ the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie. Taken over by men like Lenin and Stalin, who were essentially Russian imperialists, this dogma became a powerful propaganda tool and attractive in non-Western settings to local nationalists, such as happened in China, Vietnam, North Korea, parts of Africa, and even Cuba.

The clash between communism and capitalism reached a crescendo after World War II, and then, starting in the late 1980’s, communism began to diminish in power, and the world soon witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

American right-wingers seek to credit Ronald Reagan with causing that collapse by spending so much on American military capability that the Soviets went into bankruptcy trying to keep up with us. It’s no surprise that these folks never recognize the role that labor unions ⎯ especially U.S. unions ⎯ played in undermining the Soviet power bloc.

In fact, it was a Polish union, Solidarity or Solidarnosc in Polish, backed by U.S. labor groups, that became the first labor organization not controlled by the Communist Party in any of the Warsaw Pact countries. Solidarity was founded in September 1980, and its leader was Lech Walesa, a worker at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk. By 1989, pressure from Solidarity had created the first semi-free elections behind the Iron Curtain, and a year later, Lech Walesa was elected president of Poland.

You see, there were labor unions in the USSR. But they were what we would call “company unions,” like the type that Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and others are trying to create in the United States ⎯ toothless unions, entirely subservient to the bosses. This is what the Bolsheviks put in place once they took power in Russia; it’s what the Reds were aiming at in infiltrating unions in France, Italy, Portugal, and other countries; it’s what they still have in places like China, North Korea, Cuba, etc.

U.S. unions have always been known to be hostile to the Communist formula. They are more concerned in winning a middle-class life for their workers, rather than being a sham façade for exploiters of the working class.

In the fall of 1989, I had a chance to observe personally the effect on the Soviet Union of a revitalized non-communist workers’ movement. It happened in Leningrad at the tail end of a trip arranged by the Eisenhower People-to-People Exchange program, which links up specialized groups of Americans with people of like interests in other countries. We were mostly all state legislators on this trip, or people who worked in state government, and we were meeting with our Soviet counterparts in the Communist “Republics” of Russia and Uzbekistan. Our leader was a Republican senator from Colorado, Bill Owens, who later went on to become governor of Colorado. We represented every facet of American political belief, from the extreme left wing (State Representative Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, later briefly a congresswoman) to the extreme right (John Andrews, a former speechwriter for President Richard Nixon and later Republican senate president in Colorado) and everything in-between.

Earlier on our trip ⎯ in Moscow and the Uzbek cities of Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara ⎯ we had had glimpses of the turmoil beneath the surface in the USSR. I had been to those places a dozen years before, during the height of the Brezhnev era, and the difference between 1977 and 1989 was clearly apparent. Then, in Leningrad, when we were visiting Lenin’s carefully preserved office in the Smolny Institute, I overheard one of our Russian escorts saying (in English) to one of our members: “This is not a good time to be a Communist in Russia.”

Not too long afterward, back at our hotel, John Andrews, the arch-conservative from Colorado, approached me and said: “After lunch, Neil, will you come to my hotel room? I want you to meet someone. He’s from the Underground, and I’ve heard that you have connections with some unions in America and can possibly help him. Okay?”

“Okay, sure,” I responded.

He thereupon gave me the number of his room, and I promised to be there.

Back in 1977, I might have hesitated to accept, fearful of the KGB that so obviously had Americans under surveillance. But I will never forget the context in which I walked to John’s room and how it visibly reflected the quiet upheaval then going on within what had once been the scariest country in the world.

First of all, there were the Russian kids patrolling the corridors. They all looked like eager college students, and each had a backpack, and, in effect, they were mobile black marketers out to sell the goods they were carrying. Twelve years before, this never would have been done in the open, but here they were publicly practicing a bit of capitalism.

Next, through a window at the end of the hall, I also encountered another scene symptomatic of why the Soviet system was sinking. This was the familiar sight of a line of people waiting to get into a government-run Gastronom, the only place where they could shop for food, which was mostly of very poor quality and limited choice. Thus the black market that now was flourishing. Our waiters at the hotel were even selling us tins of top-flight caviar, at bargain prices.

Inside John Andrews’s room was a third element of the equation, neither past nor present, but of the future. A slightly built, almost baby-faced young man was already there, talking to John. He was the Underground representative, and he was introduced to me as Oleg. Trained actually as a nuclear physicist, he told us, he had been mistrusted by the authorities and forced to take a factory job. Now he was organizing the workers, and what he wanted from me was a simple enough request. They all knew that American unions had been helping Solidarity in Poland. Their special need here in Russia was for mimeograph machines, in order to give them a more effective way to get their word out to the workers.

It wasn’t a prolonged meeting. I promised that when I got back to the U.S. (I was going to visit friends in France first) I would seek labor-union help for his efforts. And I would have too, except that things were happening so fast behind the Iron Curtain (the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989) that the whole structure of the Soviet Union and its empire was soon disintegrating.

The point, in any event, is that as far as I’m concerned, American labor unions are one of the pillars upon which our type of reformed capitalism rests. Labor and management and government all work together, and when yahoos like Scott Walker in Wisconsin try to end this cooperation and turn their employees into “company unions,” there is bound to be trouble. The oligarchs behind Governor Walker should cease their class warfare against the middle class.

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