How Can We Teach What Folks Have to Learn? Jamming, 02/02/2018

It's been a few kind of rough days, and that’s okay. But I wanted to take a break from the more hardcore philosophy I’ve been on for the last few days and apply some of these concepts to some of our contemporary situations.

This is a conversation about the labour movement. What there is of it today, anyway. Let me start with my own material position on this issue – I’ll lay my cards on the table.

I’m a district association vice-president in the New Democratic Party here in Canada. I chair our policy committee, which makes me a kind of central coordinating philosopher, if I can be pretentious about it.

When I was watching the Ontario college instructors' strike last Fall,
I saw dedicated activists wasting their time when the government
understood that defeating them was a matter of waiting them out.
When enough students became frustrated with the strike, they
blamed the unions for choosing to strike instead of the government
for refusing to compromise. It seemed no one in OPSEU
understood that this was a possibility, when it's exactly what's
been happening at York University for decades now.
If you know the history of the New Democratic Party, you know that the NDP is, in many essential aspects of its development, the party of the labour movement. Now, the NDP is much more than the party of the labour movement alone these days, but those organizational tensions are for another day.

I'm an ally and a friend of the labour movement – but the movement has to adjust to two new realities if it’s going to thrive as it did a century ago. 1) The working class is too diverse for any necessary solidarity to develop. 2) Anti-union interests know exactly how to defeat the old union methods of bargaining and strikes.

See, while I’m not a marxist, I work in the political party and write Utopias embedded in a tradition of thought where Karl Marx’s works are important and influential. The theorists most influential on my own political thinking were Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and Antonio Negri. Their works are positioned clearly in the marxist tradition.

That said, none of them are what you’d call orthodox marxists. If you want a summary of the fundamental premises of orthodox marxism, read the last two posts from earlier this week.

The key lesson you can take from there is that the world is fundamentally contingent – so the processes that were driving your social movement aren’t necessary. New technologies that never existed in Marx’s time and were barely imaginable transformed every aspect of human civilization.

One of those changes that computer, internet, and robotics technology did was fragment the nature of labour. Many different categories of worker exist now – factory floors and mine shafts, the home offices and Slack forums, the smartphone notifications delivering $8 shawarma.

Have you ever tried to get any of these people to talk to each other? Yes, they can all agree that their jobs stink. But they have nothing in common in their personalities.

We in the New Democrats have a beautiful attitude toward Tommy
Douglas, the founder of our party in bringing together the
farmers' socialist movement with the Canadian Labour Congress
and their supporters. But we can't let ourselves be limited by what
we've inherited when the world has changed so radically.
Here’s an example of the working person’s solidarity. When I was on strike in 2009 as a teaching assistant at McMaster, I spoke to a contract electrician who was driving through one of our picket lines. He said he had a son, so I told him one thing we were on strike to secure was more coverage in our benefits plan for parents of small children.

And he told me to go fuck myself because he never had a benefits plan in his life, already a decade longer than mine.

On top of that, look at the example of the big college instructors’ strike in Ontario last year. It was a failure on so many fronts, and I can’t help but blame the instructors’ union itself. Not in the sense most people mean by this, that their claims were unreasonable. No, the instructors’ concerns were valid, important, and vital.

I blame the instructors’ union in the sense that I’m incredulous that they walked into such an obvious trap! It was amateurish.

The union made their first offer to the provincial government months before the Fall semester started. The government didn’t respond until classes were well underway. They made such unreasonable proposals to the union that refusal was the only rational response.

At this point, a union official in Toronto – where the union-administration battles of York University have become legendary over the century – should see that he’s being set up. Yet OPSEU walked right into this trap, filling their public relations messaging that expected solidarity from everyone – especially the students.

We’re working people on strike! Of course the people will support us!

Nonsense. The strike was broken by the first student union coming out to say that instructors should back down and take what management will give them.

The people are too fragmented for solidarity to come through the old-fashioned vectors. Singing “Solidarity forever” only reminds people outside the local that your solidarity is not for them.

Now let’s look this problem in the face and deal with it.

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