Movements now and then

The promises and hopes generated by election campaigns sometimes help to set democratic forces in motion that break the grip of politics as usual. That is what happened in the 1930s when Franklin D Roosevelt became US president, such as in the factory occupations in support of union recognition described in Studs Terkel's classic interview reprinted below, and could happen again today following Barack Obama's election victory, says Frances Fox Piven

January 30, 2009 · 19 min read

Pressure from below

As jubilation over the astonishing US election of 2008 subsides, a good many people on the left have turned to what has become customary at such moments. They are making lists of the policy initiatives that should be undertaken by the new administration to reverse the decades-long trends toward rising inequality, unrestrained corporate plunder, ecological disaster, military adventurism and constricted democracy.

The lists are long. We need a big, really big, economic stimulus package, as much as a trillion dollars, emphasising public works spending to restore a neglected public infrastructure, federal funding of green energy initiatives, loans to city and state governments, a restored safety net that would channel support to the unemployed, the poor, and the aged who are hardest hit by recession, more money for public education, and a huge national healthcare initiative.

We need a new wage policy and protection for unionisation. A moratorium on home foreclosures. An overhaul of financial and business regulation, and the imposition of strict terms on the banks that dip into bailout funds. An end to the bloody and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a scaling back of the military budget to limit new adventures in the future, a new internationalist foreign policy, and policies for economic globalisation that take the interests of the global South seriously.

We need a moratorium on immigration raids, coupled with migration policies that respect the humanity of working people from other countries. We need progressive tax reform. And, while we are making lists, why not include reform of the incoherent and undemocratic American system of voter registration and balloting so as to blunt the threat of stolen elections in the future, ensure wider voter access, and a transparent vote counting process?

A politician not a visionary

But if naming our favoured policies is the main thing we do, we are headed for a terrible letdown. Serious reforms that reverse the trend toward greater inequality, discipline the financial sector, the military and the defence industry, and rein in the for-profit health industry will provoke furious and sustained opposition. Inevitably, Barack Obama is a politician, not a visionary and not a movement leader. Let’s face it, he became the nominee of the Democratic Party, and then went on to win the general election, just because he is a skillful politician. That means he will calculate who he has to conciliate, and who he can ignore in political realms dominated by big money contributors from Wall Street, by powerful business lobbyists and by a congress that includes conservative Blue Dog and Wall Street-oriented Democrats. I don’t say this to disparage Obama. It is simply the way it is, and if Obama were not the centrist and conciliator he is, he would not have come this far this fast, and he would not be the President-elect.

Still, the political conditions that influence politicians can change. The promises and hopes generated by election campaigns sometimes help to set democratic forces in motion that break the grip of politics as usual.

I don’t mean by this that the Obama campaign operation itself is likely to be transformed into a continuing movement for reform. A campaign mobilisation is almost surely too flimsy, and too dependent on the candidate, to generate the weighty new political pressures that can hold politicians accountable.

But sometimes, encouraged by electoral shifts and campaign promises and the nature of the campaign and its rhetoric, the people who are typically given short shrift in political calculation become volatile and unruly, they become impatient with the usual promises and ruses, and they refuse cooperation in the institutional routines that depend on their cooperation. They refuse to work, they occupy the factories, they block the highways or simply mob the corridors of officialdom.

When that happens, their issues acquire a white-hot urgency, and politicians have to respond, because they are politicians. In other words, the disorder, the stoppages and institutional breakdowns generated by this sort of collective action threatens politicians, partly because normal social and economic life comes to a halt, and also because such breakdowns have serious reverberations on electoral coalitions. These periods of mass defiance are unnerving, and many voices of authority are even now pointing to the dangers of pushing the Obama administration too hard and too far. Yet these moments of indignation and defiance are also the moments when ordinary people really do enter into the political life of the country, and when authentic bottom-up reform becomes possible.

Parallels with 1932

The parallels between the election of 2008 and the election of 1932 are often invoked, I think with good reason. It is not just that Obama’s oratory is reminiscent of Franklin D Roosevelt’s oratory, or that both men were brought into office as a result of big electoral shifts, or that both took power at a moment of economic catastrophe. All this is true of course. But I want to make a different point.

FDR became the great president he was because he was forced to make choices he would otherwise have avoided by the mass protests among the unemployed, the aged, farmers and workers. FDR did not set out to initiate big new and controversial policies, especially not policies that would relieve the distress of people at the bottom. The Democratic platform of 1932 was not much different from the platform of 1924 or 1928. But the rise of protest movements forced the new president and the Democratic congress to take political chances and to become bold reformers.

The movements of the 1930s were often set in motion by radical agitators – communists, socialists, Musteites (after peace campaigner A J Muste) – but they were fuelled by desperation and economic calamity. Unemployment demonstrations, usually (and often not without reason) labelled ‘riots’ by the press, began in 1929 and 1930, as crowds assembled, raised demands for ‘bread or wages’, and then marched on City Hall or on such local relief offices as existed. In some places, bread riots broke out as crowds of the unemployed marched on storekeepers to demand food, or simply to take it.

In the big cities, mobs of people used strong-arm tactics to resist the rising numbers of evictions. In Harlem and the Lower East Side crowds numbering in the thousands gathered to restore evicted families to their homes. In Chicago, small groups of black activists marched through the streets of the ghetto to mobilise the large crowds that would reinstall evicted families. A rent riot left three people dead and three policemen injured in August 1931, and Mayor Anton Cermak ordered a moratorium on evictions, and some of the rioters got work relief. Later, in August 1932, Cermak told a House committee that if the federal government didn’t send $150 million for relief immediately, it should be prepared to send troops later.

Even in Mississippi, Governor Theodore Bilbo told an interviewer: ‘Folks are restless. Communism is gaining a foothold. Right here in Mississippi, some people are about ready to lead a mob. In fact, I’m getting a little pink myself.’ Meanwhile, and also in the summer of 1932, farmers across the country armed themselves with pitchforks and clubs to prevent the delivery of farm products to markets where the price paid frequently did not cover the cost of production.

Notwithstanding the traditional and conservative platform of the Democratic party, FDR’s campaign in 1932 registered these disturbances in new promises to ‘build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put … faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.’ Economic conditions worsened in the interim between the election and the inauguration, and the clamour for federal action became more strident. Within weeks, Roosevelt had submitted legislation to the congress for public works spending, massive emergency relief to be implemented by states and localities, agricultural assistance, and an (ultimately unsuccessful) scheme for industrial recovery. The unruly protests continued, and in many places were crucial in pressuring reluctant state and local officials to implement the new federally initiated relief programs.

Meanwhile, the political influence of business was plummeting. Partly the reason was simply that economic collapse had eliminated the tacit structural leverage of the promise of business investment or disinvestment. Partly it was that depression itself had discredited the business high-flyers of the roaring twenties, and congressional investigations of business practices helped to bring the point home. Nevertheless FDR still entertained hopes of enlisting some more progressive business leaders in his coalition, and he limited his early initiatives to the emergency relief measures that were less likely to provoke business opposition.

Industrial workers stir

Then, beginning in 1933, industrial workers began to stir. Inspired by the rhetorical promises of the new administration, and disappointed by its failure to act on those promises, they demanded the right to organise. By the mid-1930s, mass strikes were a threat both to economic recovery and to the Democratic voting majorities that had put FDR in office.

A pro-union labour policy was far from Roosevelt’s mind when he took office in 1933, and he stood aloof from proposals in the congress to throw the support of the federal government behind collective bargaining rights for workers. But by 1935, with strikes spreading and the election of 1936 approaching, he was ready to sign the National Labor Relations Act. Strike actions continued to escalate throughout 1936, in steel, rubber, and autos, seeming to gain a new righteousness from the legislative victory.

Then, in early 1937, with a Supreme Court decision on the new labour law pending, automobile workers occupied four plants in the town of Flint, Michigan. Their message to the governor exulted in their righteousness. ‘We have carried on a stay-in strike for over a month,’ they wrote, ‘in order to make General Motors Corporation obey the law and engage in collective bargaining…’ In April of 1937 the Supreme Court handed down its decision upholding the National Labor Relations Act.

Echoes of the Flint sit-in were apparent in Chicago in early December of this year when workers at a window and door frame manufacturing company were laid off abruptly, without pay for severance or their earned vacation time. The organisers of their local union began to talk about a sit-in, hoping to use the windows stored in the factory as a bargaining chip. They knew they’d be trespassing, but they also knew the factory was going to be closed.

The largely Latino workforce occupied the factory and the six-day stand-off that followed became a national drama with sympathetic protests in Baltimore, Buffalo, Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Raleigh, and San Francisco. In Chicago, hundreds of sympathisers joined workers picketing the Bank of America, which had cut off financing for the company. ‘You got bailed out, we got sold out,’ they chanted, along with the now familiar Obama slogan, ‘Si se puede! Yes we can!’ In short order, President-elect Obama told a press conference that the workers were absolutely right, and Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase announced new loans to the company for the purpose of paying the workers the monies they were owed. This was, to be sure, a small event, and so was the victory of these workers was a small victory. They did not even get their jobs back. Yet I think it points the direction we need to go if people who have so far been the victims of the economic crisis are to have some influence on the policies that will resolve it.

Barack Obama’s campaign speeches emphasised the theme of a unified America where divisions bred by race or party are no longer important. But America is in fact deeply divided, by race, by party, by class. And these divisions will matter greatly as we grapple with the whirlwind of financial and economic crises, of prospective ecological calamity, generational change, and widening fissures in the American empire.

I for one do not have a blueprint for the future. Maybe we are truly on the cusp of a new world order, and maybe it will be a better, more humane order. In the meantime, however, our government will move on particular policies, dealing with mortgage foreclosures, with fiscally strangled state and local governments, tottering financial institutions and a ragged safety net.

Whether most ordinary Americans, and especially the poor, will have an effective voice in these policies will depend on whether they tap their hidden source of power – their ability to threaten widespread disorder by refusing to cooperate on the terms imposed from above.


Men of Flint

On Christmas Eve 1936, the workers at several General Motors plants in Flint, Michigan, occupied their workplaces in pursuit of union recognition. General Motors had refused to recognise the union and together with the Flint Alliance, a front of local businessmen, witch-hunted trade union activists, trying to drive them out of town. In this extract from his classic book, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, Studs Terkel interviews Bob Stinson, who worked at one of the plants and was a member of the United Automobile Workers Union, about the sit-down protest that saw the union emerge victorious

The Flint sit-down happened Christmas Eve 1936. I was in Detroit playing Santa Claus to a couple of small nieces and nephews. When I came back the second shift had pulled the plant. It took about five minutes to shut the line down. The foreman was pretty well astonished. (Laughs)

The boys pulled all the switches and asked all the women who was in Cut-and-Sew to go home. They informed the supervisors they could stay, if they stayed in their office. They told the plant police they could do their job as long as they didn’t interfere with the workers.

We had guys patrol the plant, see that nobody got involved in anything they shouldn’t. If anybody got careless with company property – such as sitting on an automobile cushion without putting burlap over it – he was talked to. You couldn’t paint a sign on the wall or anything like that. You used bare springs for a bed ’cause if you slept on a finished cushion, it was no longer a new cushion.

Governor Murphy said he hoped to God he would never have to use National Guard against people. But if there was damage to property, he would do so. This was right down our alley because we invited him to the plant and see how well we were taking care of the place.

Organising the sit-down

They’d assign roles to you. When some of the guys at headquarters wanted to tell some of the guys at the plant what was cookin’ I carried the message. I was a scavenger too.

The merchants co-operated. There’d be apples, bushels of potatoes, plates of oranges that was beginnin’ to spoil. Some of our members were also little farmers, they’d come up with a couple of baskets of junk.

The soup kitchen was outside the plant. The women handled all the cooking, outside of one chef who came from New York. He had anywhere from 10 to 20 women washing dishes and peeling potatoes in the strike kitchen. Mostly stews, pretty good meals. They were put in containers and hoisted up through the window. The boys in there had their own plates and cups and saucers.

Didn’t the guys want a drink every now and then?

That was one of the hard ones. Even though you had strict discipline in there, anybody want to climb through a window, you couldn’t stop him. He could leave any time he wanted. There was always some of the boys who would take a day off, go out and see how the old woman was doin’. When they come back in, if somebody didn’t search ’em, why there’d be a pint.

The plant police would start bringin’ in some women. That was damned quickly stopped. We had ’em outnumbered. They may have been anti union at the time, but it wasn’t more than four or five years before the plant’s guards union was organised. I don’t blame ’em. They were dependent on the supervisors for their jobs just like we were.

Most of the men had their wives an’ friends come down, and they’d stand inside the window and they’d talk. Find out how the family was, if the union supplied them with enough coal …

Ladies’ auxiliary

We had a ladies’ auxiliary. They would visit the homes of the guys that were in the plant. They would find out if there was any shortage of coal or food. Then they’d manoeuvre around amongst themselves until they found some place to get a ton of coal. Some of them even put the arm on Consumer Power if there was a possibility of having her power shut off.

Some of ’em would have foremen come to their homes. ‘Sorry, your husband was a very good operator. But if he don’t get out of the plant and away from the union, he’ll never again have a job at General Motors.’ If this woman was the least bit scared, she’d come down and cry on her husband’s shoulder. He’d more than likely get a little disturbed, get a hold of his strike captain … Maybe we’d send a couple of women out there. Sometimes you just had to let ’em go. Because if you kept them in there, they’d worry so damn much over it, they’d start ruinin’ the morale of the rest of the guys.

Morale was very high at the time. It started out kinda ugly because the guys were afraid they’d put their foot in it and all they was gonna do is lose their jobs. But as time went on they started to realise they could win this darn thing ’cause we had a lot of people comin’ in showin’ their sympathy.

Time after time, people would come driving by the plant slowly. They might pull up by the kerb and roll down the window and say, ‘How the guys doin’?’ Our guys would be lookin’ out the windows, they’d be singin’ songs and hollerin’. Just generally keeping themselves alive.

Nationally known people contributed to our strike fund. Mrs Roosevelt for one. We even had a Member of Parliament come over from England and address us.

Lotta things worked for the union we hadn’t even anticipated. Company tried to shut off the heat. It was a bluff. Nobody moved for half an hour, so they turned it back on again. They didn’t want the pipes to get cold. (Laughs) If the heat was allowed to drop, then the pipes will separate – they were all jointed together – and then you got a problem.

Some of the time you were scared because there was all kinds of rumours going around. We had a sheriff – he came in one night at Fisher One and read the boys the riot act. He told ’em they had to leave. He stood there, looked at ’em a few minutes. A couple of guys began to curse ‘im, and he turned around and left himself.

National Guard troops were there, some from the Pontiac, some from Detroit. I lived within a block where they camped. I would pass these young fellas everyday. One boy, he was pretty young, ‘e had a union button on. Was it his union button or his dad’s? I walked up to him. ‘Your captain allow you to wear that button?’ He says, ‘I don’t know, but I’m gonna find out.’ (Laughs) They were 20-year-olds. Well behaved boys. No rough stuff, nothing untoward happened.

Winning the struggle

The men sat in there for 44 days. Governor Murphy – I get emotional over him (Laughs) – was trying to get both sides to meet on some common ground. I think he lost many a good night’s sleep. We wouldn’t use force. Mr Knudsen was the head of General Motors and, of course, there was John L Lewis [the United Mine Workers president and Committee for Industrial Organisations leader]. They’d reach a temporary agreement and invariably the Flint Alliance or GM headquarters in Detroit would throw a monkey wrench in it. So every morning, Murphy got up with an unsolved problem.

John L was as close to a Shakespearean actor as any I’ve ever listened to. He could get up there and damn all the adversaries – he had more command of language. He made a speech that if they shoot the boys out at the plant, they’d have to shoot him first. *

There were a half a dozen false starts at settlement. Finally we got the word: THE THING IS SETTLED. My God, you had to send about three people, one right after the other, down to some of those plants because the guys didn’t believe it. Finally, when they did get it, they marched out of the plants with their flags flyin’ and all that stuff.

You’d see some guys comin’ out of there with whiskers long as Santa Claus. They made a rule they wasn’t gonna shave until the strike was over. Oh it was like – you’ve gone through the Armistice delirium haven’t you? Everybody was runnin’ around shaking everybody by the hand sayin’ ‘Jesus, you look strange, you’ve got a beard on you now.’ (Laughs) Women kissin’ their husbands. There was a lot of drunks on the street than night.

When Mr Knusden put his name to a piece of paper and says that General Motors recognizes the UAW-CIO – until that moment, we were non-people, we didn’t even exist. (Laughs) That was the big one. N

* When Governor Murphy was being urged to use the National Guard to oust the sit-downers, Lewis orated: ‘I shall personally enter the Chevrolet Plant Number Four. I shall order the men to disregard your order, to stand fast. I shall then walk up to the largest window in the plant, open it, divest myself of my outer raiment, remove my shirt and bare my bosom. Then, when you order your troops there, mine will be the first breast that those bullets will strike. And, as my body falls from the window to the ground, you will listen to the voice of your grandfather as he whispers in your ear, “Frank, are you sure you are doing the right thing?”‘

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