Worker Action in Not-So â€œCenter-Rightâ€ America:
Rock Island Reflections
I've never been comfortable with many pundits' tendency to describe the United States as a "center-right nation." This description is appropriate when it comes to the United States' business class, its dominant corporate media, its two reigning political parties (both firmly dedicated to the combined and interrelated imperatives of empire, inequality, and thought-control. Incorporated) and its political class more broadly. "Center-right" may accurately reflect how many millions of Americans identify themselves on the limited ideological menu offered to them by MSNBC exit pollsters. But it doesn't fit very well with the interesting facts that:
*Twice as many Americans back more government services and spending (even if this means a tax increase) as the number who support fewer services and reduced spending (National Elections Survey, 2004).
*64 percent of Americans would pay higher taxes to guarantee health care for all U.S. citizens (CNN Opinion Research Poll, May 2007).
*69 percent of Americans think it is the responsibility of the federal government to provide health coverage to all U.S. citizens (Gallup Poll, 2006).
*80 percent of Americans support a government-mandated increase in the minimum wage (Associated Press/AOL Poll, December 2006).
*71 percent of Americans think that taxes on corporations are too low ( Gallup Poll, April 2007).
*66 percent of Americans think taxes on upper-income people are too low(Gallup Poll, April 2007).
*59 percent of Americans are favorable toward unions, with just 29 percent unfavorable ( Gallup Poll, 2006).
*52 percent of Americans generally side with unions in labor disputes. Just 34 percent side with management (Gallup Poll, 2006).
*A majority of American voters think that the United States' "most urgent moral question" is either greed and materialism" (33 percent) or "poverty and economic injustice" (31 percent). Just 16 percent identify abortion and 12 percent pick gay marriage as the nation's "most urgent moral question" (Zogby, 2004). Thus, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the population think that injustice and inequality are the nation's leading "moral issues."
*Just 15 percent of Americans think the U.S. should play "the leading role in the world" (Gallup Poll. February 2007)- a remarkable rejection of U.S. global hegemony and empire.
*Just 29 percent of Americans support the expansion of government spending on "defense." By contrast, 79 percent support increased spending on health care, 69 percent support increased spending on education, and 69 percent support increased spending on Social Security (Chicago Council on Foreign Relations [hereafter "CCFR"}, "Global Views,"2004).
*77 percent of Americans think the U.S. has the unilateral right to go to war only if the U.S. has strong evidence it is in imminent danger of being attacked (53 percent) or (24 percent)if the other country attacks first (CCFR, 2004).
*Two thirds (66 percent) of Americans think the US should be more willing to make international relations decisions within the UN even if this means the U.S. will sometimes have to go along with a policy that is not its first choice (CCFR, 2004).
*Fifty-nine percent of Americans favor dropping the veto power granted to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, including the United States (CCFR, 2004).
* Just barely more than half of all Americans (and only one third of all Americans 18 to 29 years old) are sure that "capitalism is better than socialism" when it comes to how organize economic life (Rasmussen Reports, 2009).
At the same time, the description of the U.S. as "a center-right nation" doesn't match numerous real-life experiences like my recent participation in a union-led protest against Wells Fargo Bank (WF) last Thursday afternoon in Rock Island, Illinois. Wells Fargo is the recipient of more than $25 billion worth of federal money this year - part of the not-so Temporary Assistance for Needy Banking and Insurance Parasites (TANBIP) program that has recently expanded along with unemployment and poverty rates (whose impact is worsened by a 1990s public family cash assistance "reform"/elimination that leading Democrats including Barack Obama champion as a great bipartisan policy success) across "America, best democracy that money can buy." WF is the bank that recently attempted to eliminate 4000 U.S. jobs by trying to liquidate Hartmarx, the Chicago-based clothing manufacturer that makes Barack Obama's suits. WF was pressured by labor and progressive politicians to save those jobs by selling the company.
In Rock Island, Wells Fargo (WF) has recently pushed more than 100 workers at Quad City Die Casting (QCDC) into a race to save their jobs, health insurance, and pension benefits. Earlier this year, WF, flush with government assistance, announced that it would be pulling financing from QCDC, whose workers happen to be organized and represented by the progressive United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE Local 1174). The Quad Cities metropolitan area (consisting of Rock Island and Moline, Illinois along with Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa) stand to lose more than $ 6 million in wages and tax revenue.
Adding insult to injury, WF has refused to guarantee the payment of vacation pay and extra wages owed the workers under their legally binding collective bargaining agreement. August. According to QCDC managers, WF approves all company expenditures only on a week-to-week basis.
The UE, many ZNet readers probably know, is the same union that boldly occupied the North Side Chicago Republic Windows and Doors plant last December. That militant shop-floor action won a $1.75 million settlement for workers from an employer who attempted to abscond without making legally mandated severance, vacation, and back-wage payments and from that employer's tight-fisted financier, the leading federal bailout recipient Bank of America. The sit-down strike at Republic held national media attention for at least two days, receiving (consistent with my suspicion that the U.S. is NOT "a center-right nation") widespread popular support - it even compelled the "business liberal" Barack Obama , then president-elect, to voice support for the UE action - before it was knocked off the news cycle by the Rod Blagojevich scandal.
Last Thursday's action, coordinated by the UE, begin with a brief union roadblock outside a WF branch office at 18th Avenue and 30th Street in Rock Island. More than 120 racially and ethnically diverse pickets (union members plus numerous community supporters) carried signs saying that WF is "Roadblock to Recovery" and chanted "Banks Get Bailed Out, We Get Sold Out." Twelve workers were very quickly and gently arrested a short (two minutes) and careful step into traffic.
There was little animosity between the workers and the Rock Island police during the action. The penalties for the arrested workers came to nothing more than a $75 fine. There were no misdemeanor charges. "It's the same as a parking ticket," the leader officer in charge told me. "Look," the officer added, "we're union too." His sympathies were clearly with the workers - consistent with my sense that the U.S. populace is more center-left than center-right. The officer looked on with a smile as the arrested workers posed for a photograph holding up their little yellow "traffic obstruction" citations.
"First time arrested?" I said to one of the UE road-blockers, a young woman. "Yes," she said, "I'm glad we did it." It might seem small but her action was a major step for a good cause in a young life fortunate to have been touched by the special culture of solidarity that lay at the heart of the best aspects of America's forgotten and often fiercely contested labor history.
Automotive passers-by seemed highly sympathetic to the picket action. I heard and saw numerous motorists honk their horns and wave in approval. There was no negative feedback at all, as far as I could make out. I was unsurprised. Rock Island is an old time working-class town with a strong union and even distant Socialist history. It has been severely abused by the masters of capital for decades, especially since the onset of massive de-industrialization in the mid 1970s.
A young Iowa City radical I ran into later muttered about the action being "tepid" - you know, insufficiently radical and transgressive and the like. But the young radical also admitted that it wasn't her position to tell workers what to do. Quite right! Personally, I had the impression that UE Local 1174 is playing the situation quite well. Its workers are trying to keep their heads above water and save whatever employment chances and incomes as they can at present. It's a good move too stay on the right side of the union brothers and sisters in the police force. According to a union spokesperson I spoke with on the picket line, a Republic-style occupation is not out of the question in the future. Union and public pressure has convinced TANBIP recipient Wells Fargo to keep the QCDC plant open (to "fill orders") through late August. If no buyer can be found to keep 100 union jobs alive there, however, things could turn a bit nastier and Republic-style tactics could come into play. If so, it would be nice for the police to permit a workplace occupation last as long as possible. As my Iowa City comrades would surely agree, we need hundreds of long-lived sit-down strikes across the country.
I am told by a Quad Cities lefty that the local television news coverage of the UE picket and roadblock was unsympathetic and otherwise "terrible." Well, sure: corporate media owners and managers are from the same class as the owners and managers of Wells Fargo. Their contempt for ordinary working people and the cause of social justice is boundless and thoroughly predictable. Expecting them to accurately and fully report current events in unbiased ways is like expecting General Motors' company newspaper to accurately report on wage and shop-floor conditions and environmental impacts in and around its (shrinking) network of automobile plants. If dominant media is your concept of "the United States," then, yes, we are most definitely a "center right nation." In the real-life workplaces and communities of the country beneath and beyond the official representations in legislatures and on the business-run airwaves, however, things are rather different and more hopeful.
Paul Street, a onetime U.S. labor historian, is the author of many books, articles, speeches, and chapters. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. For a useful discussion and citations, see Media Matters, "Research: Conservatives Claim America is ‘Center-Right, But Political Scientists Challenge Reliance on Voter Self-Identification," Media Matter for America (November 10, 2008), read online at http://mediamatters.org/research/200811100013
2. For more data and sources, see Katherine Adams and Charles Derber, The New Feminized Majority (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008), pp. 67-75; Paul Street, "Americans' Progressive Opinion vs. ‘The Shadow Cast on Society by Big Business,'" ZNet Sustainer Commentary (May 15, 2008), read at http://www.zmag.org/zspace/commentaries/3491.
3. Ed Tibbets, "Dispute Escalates as Wells Fargo Rejects Bid for Hartmarx," Quad City Times, May 29, 2009, read at http://www.qctimes.com/news/local/article_feea6846-4cb3-11de-bbf7-001cc4c03286.html; U.S. Congressman Phil Hare, "Hartmarx and Wells Fargo" (2009), read at http://hare.house.gov/?sectionid=255§iontree=30,228,255.
4. Robert Ginsburg, Ph.D, "Economic Impact of Quad City Die Casting to the Quad Cities Economy," Center for Work and Community Development (Chicago, Illinois), June 15, 2009.
5. United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, Charge Against High Ridge Partners, Successor/Assignee of Quad City Die Casting, U.S. National Labor Relations Board (July 7, 2009), detailing violations of National Labor Relations Act Sections 7 and 8 (a)(1), (3) and (5).
6. For a compelling portrait of Obama as emblematic of, and captive to, "business liberalism," see Kevin Baker, "Barack Hoover Obama: The Best and the Brightest Blow it Again," Harper's Magazine (July 2009).
7. Paul Street, "Two Chicago Stories: Hope and Shame," ZNet Sustainer Commentary (December 12, 2008), read online at http://www.zmag.org/zspace/commentaries/3709.
8. Pam Cunningham, reporter, "QC Die Casting Workers Arrested as Planned," WQAD TV (July 9, 2009): http://www.wqad.com/news/wqad-die-casting-arrest-070909,0,6663919.story
9. The Republic sit-down has yet to spark a wave of imitations but it is interesting to note that Wells Fargo-financed Hartmarx's Des Plaines Illinois workers - enrolled in Workers United local - voted to authorize a sit-down strike at their plant last May. See WBBM-CBS 2 Chicago, "Workers Approve Sit-In at Hartmarx Suit Factory" (May 11, 2009), read at http://cbs2chicago.com/local/hartmarx.workers.sitin.2.1006811.html. The threat of a Republic-style sit-own strike was certainly part of the equation compelling Wells Fargo to relent on its original plan to shut down the plant.
10. He may have seen the WQAD broadcast that is transcribed in Cunningham/reporter, "QC Die Casting Workers" (see note 8, above). The WQAD reporter seemed more than a little biased against the union in the following commentary: "The union representative said it's about the national economy because Wells Fargo got stimulus money. I asked what about the Rock Island city tax payers and the money used to make these arrests...Deb Johann a worker at QC Diecasting for 31 years says she doesn't know what she will do if she loses her job. It's the only job she has ever done. I asked her what would happen if this arrest was unsuccessful and she still lost her job. Would an arrest be worth ruining her currently spotless record? She said, ‘I never thought of it as that. This just proves a point that the whole economy and the whole Quad Cities knows what Wells Fargo is doing to a small business'...There were eight Rock Island police officers assigned to the protest, and many were paid overtime to be there."