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From the Bolivian press, May 1936, this captioned photo illustrates the use of tear gas against American strikers during that turbulent period. The caption reads:
This mask to protect against suffocating gases is not worn by a soldier nor by a militiaman, but rather a youth in North America on strike, who goes forth here well protected from the effects of teargas.
No further details are provided about the strike or the source of the image.
I returned this week from nearly a full year researching mass protest in Bolivia. As luck would have it, 2010 has seen protests in greater numbers (67 per month!) than any year since 1971 , when the Center for Studies of Economic and Social Reality (Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Económica y Social) began keeping records on the subject. And based on both a comparative look at Bolivian history and pure population growth, it’s safe to extend that title to the most protests in a single year since the beginning of the 19th century, or even Bolivia’s history as an independent country.
Unlike 2003 and 2005, Bolivian protests did not mount into an overarching national wave capable of toppling a sitting government. However, many of the forces involved in those years are showing increasing independence from President Evo Morales and the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party. Morales was ratified by a 64% majority in the December 2009 presidential elections and his party won the mayor’s office in nearly two-thirds of the country’s 337 municipalities in the April 2010 elections. However, this year many of the voters who backed the MAS in national fights showed their willingness to take to the streets to denounce its policies. Meanwhile, the MAS itself mobilized its base in a spectacular welcome to a global summit of climate change activists and against a 2011 workers’ strike.
Here, then, are the one election and ten mass mobilizations that defined the past year.
The Republic Windows and Doors factory occupation turned out to be the right action at the right time. It attracted solidarity from Jobs with Justice, congresspeople, President Elect Obama, and from the New York City IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, a longstanding union built on anarchist principles). The NYC solidarity action visited 3 Bank of America offices:
The net result…
The 240 workers who had occupied the factory since its abrupt closing Dec. 5 voted unanimously Wednesday night to accept a deal to pay them severance, vacation time, and temporary health care benefits. The $1.75 million agreement was negotiated over three days with the workers’ union, Republic owners and lender Bank of America.
Union negotiators were unable to obtain a commitment from the parties to reopen the Goose Island plant, said United Electrical Workers organizer Mark Meinster. So the union has decided to forge ahead to find someone new to run the plant, he said, using some of the money donated from around the world during the sit-in. (Chicago Tribune)
The settlement, happily coming on my birthday, includes the following:
The settlement totals $1.75million. It will provide the workers with:
- Eight weeks of pay [workers] are owed under the federal WARN Act;
- Two months of continued health coverage, and;
- Pay for all accrued and unused vacation.
JPMorgan Chase will provide $400,000 of the settlement, with the balance coming from Bank of America. Although the money will be provided as a loan to Republic Windows and Doors, it will go directly into a third-party fund whose sole purpose is to pay the workers what is owed them. In addition, the UE has started the “Window of Opportunity Fund” dedicated to re-opening the plant. (Jobs with Justice)
Of course, larger success will come (or not come) as these tactics are taken up across the country, as they change agenda and form of contest, and if they make workers (and, yes, that’s us) think of themselves as owning the economy instead of just working for it.
For now the threat alone may have an impact as well, as U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) put it, “This Republic Windows saga, I’m sure, is reverberating throughout boardrooms in America.”
Bitch, Ph.D. notes insightfully:
The last time American workers resisted mass layoffs this way, we ended up with a middle class.And that’s change you can believe in.
[Yes, more of an overview update is coming soon; there's been big news in the past two months. The bailout has morphed into something bigger, with both interesting and scandalous implications (some times at the same time); we have a new president; anti-authoritarians have some interesting things to think through around grassroots political campaigning, public works projects and an economic crisis, etc. Plus, Thai mass direct action just brought down a government. But everything starts somewhere, so let's start with a new kind of protest..]
In Chicago, the economic crisis hit the road in the form of worker suddenly cut off from their jobs at Republic Windows and Doors (company website here). Republic’s (apparently one and only) factory closed Friday, three days after its 260 workers were notified. Standard notice is sixty days. Severance and unused vacation for the workers have not been paid. In response:
Members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, which represents 260 workers at the company’s Goose Island plant, have taken shifts at a sit-in at the plant, 1333 N. Hickory Ave., since Friday. (Chicago Tribune)
Scores of workers laid off from a factory here that makes windows and doors have refused to leave, deciding to stage a “peaceful occupation” of the plant around the clock this weekend as they demand pay they say is owed them.
The workers, many of whom were sitting on fold-up chairs on the factory floor Saturday afternoon, said they would not leave.
“They’re staying because the fact is that these workers feel they have nothing to lose at this point,” said Leah Fried, an organizer for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America Local 1110, who said groups of 30 were occupying the plant in shifts. “Telling them they have three days before they are out on the street, penniless, is outrageous.” (NYT)
Clearly, this is the face of the overall downturn: we saw 533,000 lost jobs in November, bringing the total ot 1.9 million in the current recession. It’s also the front end of the bailout: Bank of America, backed up by our bailout, is Republic Windows and Doors’ creditor, and is accused by workers of not releasing the funds for the company to meet its obligations. Bank of America, by the way now includes ABN AMRO North America, FleetBoston, LaSalle Bank, NationsBank, predatory lender Countrywide Financial, Merrill Lynch, credit card giant MBNA. As of July, after taking on Countrywide, the company controlled between 20 to 25 percent of the home loan market. As Jobs with Justice reminds us, “Bank of America has received $25 billion in bailout funds, ostensibly in order to extend credit to companies that need it.”
You can back up their protest with letters to Bank of America here.
Once again the U.S.’s now right-shifted Supreme Court has reaffirmed the concept that limiting spending on political ads is limiting speech. They threw out campaign finance regulations that restricted corporations from funding issue-based ads that are parallel equivalents to giving money to candidates. As John Bonifaz of Voter Action puts it:
The court continues to equate money with speech in the political process. But beyond that, it gives First Amendment rights to corporations. And these artificial entities don’t have the same, obviously, qualities as you and I do as breathing human beings, and they should not be given those kind of First Amendment protections.
The fact is, is that we need to protect the electoral process and to protect our democracy. And we should not have big money corporate interests drown out the voices of ordinary citizens. The court does not weigh in any way whatsoever the First Amendment rights and the equal protection rights of voters, of people who do not have access to wealth, but yet under our Constitution and our promise of democracy have an equal right to participate. And that continues to be a problem with the court’s jurisprudence in this area.
In a way the ruling is no surprise, as the legal equation of money with speech is long standing in the U.S., and corporations have maintained the status of “people” with legal rights (except the right to die after a reasonable period, it would seem) since the 1880s. More importantly, the U.S. view of what exactly is free speech is stuck in the eighteenth century. That’s how you have the traditionally liberal ACLU supporting this strange entitlement for corporations. (See also Kaja Tretjak’s “Why U.S. Liberalism Must Change or Die“)
What do I mean by stuck in the eighteenth century. Take this snippet of the ruling:
The First Amendment requires us to err on the side of protecting political speech, rather than suppressing it. Where the First Amendment is implicated, the tie goes to the speaker, not the censor.
Now it’s easy enough to argue about whether buying television and radio ads is political speech, especially when it’s a kind of speech that 98% of us could never have, or whether protecting a kind of speech where a few people are massively louder than everyone else makes sense at all.
But I’m writing this from Mexico City, and that offers a bit of perspective. One of the prime issues in last year’s disputed presidential election is the intervention of private corporations into the election at all. And, they intervened quite massively by using fear-stoking political ads insisting the left-leaning PRD candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was a “danger to Mexico” and threatening massive economic collapse should he win. An entire block of Reforma Avenue, a central thruway in the City which is now lined with a massive outdoor exhibition charging the winner with fraud, is devoted to this corporate intervention. Now in Mexico, corporate funding of candidates is just plain illegal, while in the U.S. it’s an industry (for all you ever wanted to know about that industry, ask the Center for Responsive Politics). Free speech is a shared concept in both countries, but it means something different.
Encoding the right of free speech and a free press, our First Amendment is a bit vague: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;”. That “make no law” clause meant that violations of free speech weren’t even subject to lawsuits until after the Supreme Court took the 14th Amendment (1866) to mean that rights were defensible. And it took decades of defiance of baton-wielding cops to guarantee regular practice of free assembly, something not really achieved until the unionization push of the 1930s. For the press, though, the no-interference nature of the 1st Amendment boils down to what A.J. Liebling said: “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.” So Eighteenth Century.
What do I mean by Valley Girl-style dissing the Constitution? I mean, get with the program. This press freedom for those who own one thing isn’t convincing anyone, in the same way that giving property owners only the vote is passe. And like a lot of things, if you zoom out from the U.S., you see a lot of people have different ideas. The biggest change is to think of rights as belonging to people (all of them, right) instead of restricting the government. So you have South Africa’s constitution:”Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes 1. freedom of the press and other media; 2. freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; 3. freedom of artistic creativity;” or even clearer the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Whoa, “any media” for everyone. That’s going to take some work. Yeah, it’s time to move from our limited idea of freedom (the government leaves you the heck alone) to something which takes work, but is worth fighting for. Building our own media is as much a part of the free speech struggle as is suing for it. That takes all kinds of forms: When the Solidarity movement in Poland (look ‘em up, ’cause they were once so rad) demanded a free right to publish, it’s demand was backed up by printing press workers taking over their shops to print & by the free use of pasted poster & graffiti if they weren’t going to be allowed on air. The May 1970 student takeover of Berkeley and the May 1968 revolt in France essentially turned universities into giant publication factories (all those xerox machines and paper), with Berkeley having public competitions among art students to design the best posters and students running from Berkeley and downtown Paris to outside and inside factories organizing blue collar folks to join them. Oaxacan women nonviolently invaded a TV station last summer when they were tired of being ignored, and when a long while later riot police chased them out, activists took over at least ten more broadcasters and opened their doors and their airwaves.
Less confrontationally, but just as effectively, zine publishers & internet folks have been spreading out “those who own one [a press, remember]” to the rest of us. Check out Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has been acting as the legal and legislative defense arm of that effort for the past couple decades.
Cue soundtrack: They Might Be Giants, “I should be allowed to think.”