Everybody Looks Up
By Bobby Summers
This summer, during the school holiday, I’ve been working for the school district’s landscape crew cleaning up and prettying the district’s 65 odd schools and buildings. So, here I am last Friday at the Whitteaker Middle School. My job after the lunch break was to clean up the school’s courtyard, which our crew had trimmed and cleaned up during the morning. It is a pretty courtyard, with magnolia trees, rose bushes, rhododendrons, even a resident duck. But lord, this courtyard really did need a cleaning!
After about an hour of picking up and consolidating the debris into nice piles so the next crew could come in and remove the piles, our crew’s second-in-charge comes in to ask if I’m almost done.
“Are you almost done?” he said.
“Well, I still have that corner to do, but I’m getting there,” I said.
“Well let me know as soon as you’re done, I’ve got some more clean up out front,” he said sounding concerned.
“Yup, I’ll check in with you when I finish here. But jeez, it’s a hell of a mess,” as I point to the main pile which is about five feet high and ten feet across.
“Wow!” he says as he looks at the pile, “OK,” he says.
Pretty mundane, but the whole conversation struck me as a little odd. We were in the courtyard. The pile I was referring to was smack dab in the middle of the courtyard. The only way you could miss this pile was if you were blind. But our second-in-charge is not blind, even though he didn’t see the pile and what really needed to be done.
You see, what our second-in-charge was seeing was not the work that needed to be done; what the project entailed. What he was seeing was the human hierarchy; what the schedule said needed to be done next; the possible displeasure of the crew leader should we get behind in our work.
Not that our crew leader is a slave driver. She knows landscaping well, is conscientious about her crew, but she too worries and gets anxious about projects. She has a boss too and is under a great deal of pressure to get 65 schools cleaned up in roughly 51 days… regardless of the work that needs to be done, which always seems to be secondary to a schedule and the all important operating budget.
Later on Friday, after work, I was having coffee with my best friend, a union organizer at the union where I used to work as an organizer. He’s telling me about a series of job actions that had been planned for during the past week. It turns out that the job actions went very unevenly. In some areas, worker participation in the actions was at nearly 100%. However, in the city of Portland where many of the workers work, participation was almost non-existent; as if the workers had never heard about the action at all.
What happened? Well, I used to work for this union and I have a pretty good idea what happened.
The problem came down to this. This was to be a statewide (State of Oregon) action, coordinated by my friend. He was the guy who was posting the plans to fellow organizers throughout the State, where the overall success of the actions was based on the widest possible mass participation.
My friend is not the boss of his fellow organizers; he is an equal, a co-worker. Because my friend’s plans for the action came from a co-worker, and were not ordered through the hierarchy of union bosses and supervisors, the action plans were simply ignored by my friend’s comrades. Thus, at least as far as Portland went, the actions never filtered down to the worksite leadership, and thus were never disseminated to the rank and file members, and, well, this how one organizes a non-action.
What’s a little more galling about the above state of affairs is that the particular union we are talking about says it highly prizes the kind of actions my friend was working on. Yet somehow, the union’s rhetoric regarding worksite power got lost in the shuffle. The union’s analysis regarding worksite power was completely forgotten, at least in Portland. The organizers’ commitment to the cause of workers’ power, a key ingredient in any workers’ movement, was completely forgotten about because simply, it wasn’t ordered through the hierarchy. Union organizers too are trained to only look up is my best guess.
A couple of weeks before, I was talking to another friend who works as an organizer for the same union. We are talking about the recent Mexican Presidential election where the peoples’ choice, Andreas Lopez Obrador and the Party of the Democratic Revolution had the election stolen out from under them once again.
“Hey,” I said, “Folks are angry and I think they’ve had enough. Hell, at least a quarter of a million folks in Zocalo Plaza in Mexico City, and the rhetoric sounds angry!” I said to my friend. I was remembering some of the quotes I’d read where some demonstrators were saying it might be time to take up arms.
“Lopez Obrador is toast.” My friend said.
“The Mexican and world press are predicting a million protestors next week in Mexico City. I mean this thing could really be escalating!” I said enthusiastically (incidentally, the press was right, a million folks did show).
“He’s toast,” my friend said and walked off.
Interestingly, my friend said that it was Lopez Obrador who was toast, rather than the 21 or 22 odd million people who voted for Lopez Obrador and the PRD. But that is the rub again. I’m sure that my friend was looking at the Mexican Electoral Court, the Mexican and world media, pressure from the United States, the institutional power of the Mexican political and economic elites, and quite honestly, looking at those factors and discounting the power of a committed people, Lopez Obrador does look like toast.
However, why would a committed and first-class labor activist be so quick to discount the power of the people?
A couple of weeks ago I got a phone call from my current union, the Oregon Education Association. Actually, I didn’t get a call from my union. Instead, I got a call from telemarketing firm paid for by my union. It was about the upcoming Oregon Governor’s election.
I’m afraid I drove the poor gal who had to talk to me insane. I didn’t mean to, but…
“Which of the below five issues do you think are most important? Jobs and the economy, the environment, education, taxes, or public safety (police)?” She asked.
“Hmm… Well there’s already too many cops, and taxes are too high for the poor and working classes… Taxes should be raised for corporations. Actually, most of those issues you stated are highly inter-related.” I stated.
“Job creation and the economy, the environment, education, taxes, or public safety?” she repeated.
Oh god, I don’t know…” I responded.
“Undecided?” she suggested.
“OK”, I said.
“How would you rate Governor Kulongoski’s performance? Highly favorably, favorably, neutral, not favorable, highly not favorable?” she asked me.
“Well, Kulongoski’s performance from my point of view has been terrible,” I said.
“Highly favorable, favorable, neutral, not favorable, or highly unfavorable,” she repeated.
Anticipating the next question, I said, “Well, I guess I’ll pick not favorable.”
“The Republican candidate, Ron Saxton, has proposed to create jobs through privatizing state services, building a business-friendly environment, improving education, and reducing taxes. How do you view Ron Saxton’s candidacy? Highly favorably, favorably, neutral, not favorably, highly unfavorably?” she asked.
“Highly unfavorably”, I stated
“If the Governor’s election was tomorrow, would you vote for Democrat Kulongoski, Republican Saxton, or Independent Westlund?” she asks.
“Well, I’m wondering if it’s worth voting in this election because none of the candidates are even close to my views, but if I was to vote it would be Kulongoski,” I said.
“Should I record Kulongoski? Or undecided?” she asked
“Oh jeez,” I said, “Put down Kulongoski for the time being.
And on we go…
The woman who interviewed me certainly earned her $7.15 per hour spending 20 odd minutes on the phone with me. By the time I was done, however, I had pretty well decided that I was going to sit out this election. After all, why should I dignify a system that has reduced political dialogue to nothing more than a market choice between Dial Soap and Zest Soap?
As for me working in public education and my fellow state employees, I’m thinking maybe our best option is to go back to the old ways, like withholding our labor; what used to be called a strike.
“But, our members won’t strike!” I’m hearing the imaginary chorus of one hundred union officials.
I want to respond, “How the hell would you know! You’ve never had an honest dialogue with any membership in you lives….”
And how the hell would they know? I’m remembering my last six months at the union where I used to work. As a union, we worked like dogs to get Kulongoski elected to his first term. Two days before taking office the guy announced pension cuts and wage freezes for our 21,000 members working in the State system.
“So, what’s the union going to do now?” said angry member number one.
“Yeah, good work union! You got us screwed… What is the union brass getting for this? Gonna vote themselves big raises?” said angry member number two.
Angry members number three, four, five and six just stared, looking angry.
“Well guys,” I said, “You might very well be right. This idiot Governor might have been one of the worst choices we’ve made. But it’s not over yet. Maybe the best thing we can do now is to start acting like a union. You know, hang together and aim to cause this Governor as much pain as we can. Strike the bastard. Disrupt the guy… Make life as painful as we can for him…”
I had a lot of dialogue like the above with a lot of the members I worked with. A funny thing started happening too. These members started showing up at rallies and demonstrations; something that hadn’t happened before. This was even noticed by the top union brass, who were pretty free with, “Hey, good work” compliments.
However, no one ever asked why these members were now showing at rallies and demonstrations. And anyway, the direct action/strike formula had been foreclosed within a couple of months of Governor Kulongoski’s taking office. With an organizational half-heart, no discussion, no context, no background, sign-up forms went out that said something like, “Sign here if you want to strike.” Few members signed.
No wonder the members didn’t want to strike. So instead, for the next three, four and five months members were urged to call their legislators. Organizers were told to go out with cell phones. “Call your legislator,” was the plan. And the pension cuts happened, and the wage freeze too.
This article is titled, Everybody Looks Up. And there is a common theme here. What I’m trying to describe, from my life as a landscaper to the continued failures of the American labor movement, to a stolen Mexican election, is a modern form of social pathology.
The pathology is this: people are so in awe and afraid of institutional power, and have such an ingrained sense of powerlessness that perception itself has been altered, even for those who should know better.
How else can I describe it? An experienced landscaper who is so worried about the work schedule that he misses the obviousness of the work that needs to be done right under his nose…. And this guy is a good guy and excellent landscaper.
Or, how about the unions?
One experienced organizer, a guy I greatly respect, has gone entirely cynical about the power of people engaged in concerted activity. Where I see-self activity building to the extent of demonstrations that go from a quarter of a million, to a million, to today, July 30, two million people expected in Mexico City (7/30/06, Prensa Latina), he can only see defeat.
Another organizer puts together a plan that is based on the best traditions of empowering workers and it turns out to be a half effort because it wasn’t ordered from above, and maybe because the union itself didn’t rate the action worth ordering.
My past and current union have let opportunities go by because when you get right down to it, for them the power is not in the people, instead it’s in the elected officials, the institutions, the apparatus, the “big guys.”
This is in spite of 150 years of experience that says every bit of social progress has been based on mass-activity and organization.
Something here is wrong.
If you asked me what I think the biggest victory of the Left has been in the last year or so, I’d have to say it’s the May/June 2005 French and Dutch “No” votes on the corporation designed European Union Constitution.
And there is a lesson here:
The European media, governments, every major political party, Europe’s corporate elite, kept saying, “Vote for the Constitution, it’s good!” When it came to the TV talk shows, there were four advocates saying, “vote yes” for every advocate of the “no” option.
Yet, the Left won in both France and Holland. And decisively too! Not with slogans, attack ads and slick advertising, but instead, with honest dialogue.
In France, roughly 900 collective study groups were formed at municipal and regional levels. These study groups did something really radical, they actually read and dissected the roughly 300 pages of trade agreements and appointed corporate commissions that were the European Constitution; every damned page and every damned footnote.
Instead of slick public manipulation, the Left honored the intelligence of the people by saying simply, “let’s look at the details.” And thus, the devil was found. The key ingredient here is putting the trust in the people, an honest dialogue, a set of values, and the notion that it is this tradition that constitutes what democracy really means.
If we who call ourselves the Left in the United States could ever start looking down and putting our trust in actual human beings, in each other and what human beings can be, we might actually get someplace. But first, we would have to cure ourselves of the pathology of always looking up and seeing all-powerful gods where there is only false advertising and clever “smoke and mirror” games.