Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Labor and the Left in SF: Refusing to Mingle

I marched for workers on May Day in San Francisco. The march was morale-building, energizing, an extremely SF-style event. Mission Street brimming with thousands of foks. (I won't get into the estimating racket here but 3-7,000 probably covers it). Immigrants rights, all kinds of civil rights, queer immigration rights, Arizona boycotts, Gray Panthers, Code Pink and of course, worker's rights. Individual members of unions were there with some renegade signs, but the split between labor and the left in the Golden State was evident. SEIU held separate events and will hold a rally of its own on the SF Embacadero today, Tuesday May 3rd.

This isn't a lovers' quarrel, this spat between organized labor and the organized left. It's more like a gaping abyss, a great divide. In Wisconsin, the two groups, labor and the left actually came together and it was inspiring to see cops and firefighters in the same room as avowed socialists, pulling together for the same end.

Here in San Francisco California it's kind of a warriors versus worriers situation. Leftists want big change, but have a bad reputation for being insular and dogmatic. There is some truth to this. But the left is way ahead of labor on the analysis part of the big picture. You can't have rights for working people without considering the ways that society oppresses everyone. The Latin origin of the word radical means "at the root." And deep rooted change is what we need. An end to severe economic disparities, civil rights for all people, freedom of speech and the press and the whole laundry list of causes that shape societal attitudes and cause the repression of some individuals.

But the labor movement is worried. Part of that worry is because it isn't the thirties anymore. Labor has gotten far too complicit with management, forcing workers to take all sorts of concessions to pacify and pander to the bosses instead of focusing on improving the quality of life for their members. They are also worried about aligning themselves with the "wrong" people. Many union big-wigs rely on the status quo for their paychecks. Still, the public face of labor is changing. It isn't as straight, white and male as it used to be. In spite of that it still keeps one foot in the McCarthy era. The "Red Scare," is part of what prevents them from uniting with another despised segment of the population, radicals and leftists.

So much is at stake now. If we're going to win this struggle we're going to have to unite and find some common ground. It will take more than the unions' "working families" rhetoric to bring people together. Fighting bigotry is an essential component of our struggle. If organized labor won't come out for these issues we will just have to come to them. So move over boys. Ready or not, here we come!