Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Workers of the world, unite!

This is the second essay I've written for the Steelworkers union newsletter down at the Libbey plant here in Shreveport. I thought y'all might like it as well.

The IWW: 100 Years of the Working Class Fight
By Michael Parker

June 27 will mark the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Industrial Workers of the World, the most militant labor union this country has produced. Though the long-term effectiveness of the union is questionable (particularly after many leaders were jailed during the repressive Red Scare after U.S. entry into World War I), the Wobblies (as they are popularly known) have contributed a great deal to working-class culture, and their legacy is one that still appeals to many uninspired by their more bureaucratic AFL-CIO counterparts. Their story is a colorful one, and one that demands some review.
Delegates from several unions and socialist factions gathered in Chicago in late June of 1905, representing a little over 140,000 workers. Although a wide spectrum of ideology was represented, the common theme was a dissatisfaction with the then-AFL model of craft unionism, meaning the organization of skilled workers to the exclusion of others in the same industry: “…the victory of the United Mine Workers in the great coal strike of 1902 revealed what labor could do when organized along industrial lines These lessons were not lost on the IWW leaders, who proceeded to organize all workers, regardless of skill, sex, or race, into industrial unions,” (Boyer and Morais 164-5).
Many of the larger-than-life figures of the turn-of-the-century labor movement were there, including Eugene Debs, a founder of the American Railway Union and five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate, capturing almost one million votes in 1912; miners union agitator Mother Jones, called “the most dangerous woman in America” by President Theodore Roosevelt; Big Bill Haywood, a one-eyed bear of a man, the secretary-treasurer of the Western Federation of Miners; and Lucy Parsons, the ex-slave and widow of Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons (see last month’s newsletter).
Volumes have been written by and about the Wobblies and their struggles on behalf of the working class, and this short essay will do little justice to them. However, I would like to touch on just a few issues relating to them: the murder of Frank Steunenberg, the free speech fights of the West, the Lawrence strike of 1912, Centralia, and the IWW in the South, particularly in Louisiana.
Frank Steunenberg, a former union man, was the Democratic governor of Idaho from 1897-1901. In 1898, he requested federal troops to break a silver and lead miners strike in the Couer d’Alene region, imprisoning 1,200 in barbed-wire encampments for months without charges. A man of many enemies, Steunenberg was killed by a bomb wired to his gate on December 30, 1905. With the flimsiest of evidence, a conspiracy was claimed, and, less than eight months after the founding of the IWW in Chicago, Big Bill Haywood and two WFM associates were illegally kidnapped in Denver and brought to Idaho to stand trial. That trial finally began in May of 1907, with legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow representing the accused and sitting Idaho Senator William Borah prosecuting. On July 29, following Darrow’s eleven-hour address to the jury, all three defendants were found not guilty. Nevertheless, priceless resources had been drained, and one of the IWW’s most effective and charismatic leaders was out of commission for over a year and a half.
Factional struggles within the IWW led to many defections, particularly among miners and socialists, around 1908. Migratory workers, many of them recent immigrants, now became the backbone of the union, spreading the gospel of industrial unionism in the great forests of the Pacific Northwest and the agricultural areas of the Great Plains, Rocky Mountain states and the Far West. Recruitment of new members was more likely to take place in lumber or hobo camp or on a street corner than in a union hall. A common tactic was to place a soapbox orator on a street corner in Spokane or Missoula or Fresno, testing the waters of the local police and political establishment. If the first one was arrested, there would be another waiting to take his place. Meanwhile, the word would get out that there was a free speech fight brewing, and Wobblies who were close enough would drop what they were doing and make their way to there. The numbers would discourage all-too-common vigilante actions on the part of company-hired goons, and law enforcement resources would be stretched to the breaking point by the overflowing jails and the resulting food, water and sanitation needs. The decentralized structure and freewheeling lifestyles of individual Wobblies contributed greatly to the success of this tactic, primarily from 1909-1912.
The 1912 textile workers strike was unique in the annals of IWW history, and one of the most interesting and inspiring in American working-class history. As a Massachusetts mill town, it was far from the Wobblies’ popular base in the West. And many women were members of IWW Local 20, unusual for the very masculine, even macho union. However, the ethnic mix was very indicative of IWW patterns, and of the demographic patterns of the United States was in the early 20th century:

…When they struck it was as if the great American melting pot had boiled over, for they represented at least twenty-five different nationalities. The largest groups were the 7000 Italians, 6000 Germans, 5000 French-Canadians and an equal number of English-speaking Canadians, 2500 Poles, 2000 Lithuanians, 1100 Franco-Belgians, and 1000 Russians, Greeks, Letts and Turks (Renshaw, p. 100).

The strike in Lawrence was called within 24 hours of a 32 cents/week pay cut. State militia were called in after machinery and windows at one mill were broken. The disruption of an IWW parade resulted in the shooting death of a female striker. Big Bill Haywood and other prominent Wobblies came to offer assistance. And the strike leadership began to evacuate children of strikers to sympathetic foster homes elsewhere, causing public officials to declare the practice illegal: “When the IWW continued the practice the police on February 24 attacked a group of women and children at the Lawrence railroad station, beating and clubbing them as they were arrested and hauled off in a National Guard truck,” (Fusfeld, p. 53). The publicity of this brutal act spurred investigations by state and federal government, and the companies soon settled on an offer of a pay raise, rather than a cut.
After the U.S. entered World War I, the Woodrow Wilson administration conflated opposition to the war with inciting revolt against the United States government, and hundreds of labor leaders, socialists, anarchists, pacifists and other “enemies of the state” were harassed, imprisoned (like Eugene Debs), and deported (like Bill Haywood). The IWW was rendered a shell of its former self, and some paid the ultimate price.
Wesley Everest was a lumberjack and World War I veteran in Centralia, Washington, a rare holdout of Wobbly strength. The local lumber trust planned to break the back of the IWW, and the American Legion was chosen as the instrument. On Armistice Day, November 11, 1919, the Legion parade passed the IWW union hall. Though no one knows who fired first, gunshots broke out. The building was stormed, and three Legion men were killed. Wesley Everest, in uniform, “…told a comrade, ‘I fought for democracy in France and I’m going to fight for it here. The first man that comes in this hall, why, he’s going to get it’” (Renshaw, p. 164).
After fleeing the hall, Everest was chased by a mob to a river, where he turned around and fired his pistol five times, killing another veteran. He was overpowered, and later that night castrated, hanged and riddled with bullets. Hundreds of Wobblies were arrested in Washington soon after, with six convicted of second-degree murder under highly suspicious circumstances. They were all paroled after a later inquiry, while Everest’s killers were never brought to trial.
The history of the IWW in the South and in Louisiana was never so dramatic or widespread, but there are mentions in Patrick Renshaw’s definitive history The Wobblies. The Saw Mill and Lumber Workers of Lake Charlesis described as “the basis of some remarkably stable unions in that state” (p. 76), while white and African-American loggers joined together as the Southern District of the Forest and Lumber Workers’ Union in 1912. Remarkably, they retained solidarity across racial lines during a lockout “which shut down forty-six mills and hit the whole Louisiana lumber industry,” (p.121). Incidentally, the class fervor of the next few months probably played a role in Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs receiving 5249 votes in Vernon and Winn parishes, more than the incumbent Republican William Taft.
This has been little more than a thumbnail sketch of the Industrial Workers of the World. There has been no detailed discussion of syndicalism, no mention of Joe Hill or Frank Little or Utah Phillips or Paterson or Everett. I haven’t talked about the current activities of the Wobblies, which can be explored at iww.org. I haven’t even talked about anything that’s happened in the last 86 years, when CIO unions like the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the National Maritime Union have tried to strike a balance between principled militance and practical day-to-day organizing, applying the lessons of the IWW. Nevertheless, those lessons are still vivid, still alive and still very much necessary. Solidarity forever.

Works Cited

Boyer, Richard O., and Morais, Herbert M. Labor’s Untold Story. United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. Pittsburgh, PA: 1955. (in print)

Fusfeld, Daniel R. The Rise & Repression of Radical Labor. Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company. Chicago: 1980.

Renshaw, Patrick. The Wobblies: The Story of Syndicalism in the United States. Anchor Books. Garden City, NY: 1967. (in print)

Michael Parker is a local freelance writer and a founding former member of ILWU Local 5 in Portland, Oregon. He is also the host of “Invisible Republic” on KSCL, 91.5, which alternates music with news and political commentary about social and workplace struggles for democracy, justice and dignity.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Early Summer Reading Review

Well, the Red River Red needs to return some books to the fine people at the Shreve Memorial Library tomorrow, so why don’t we review some recent reading.
Two just-finished tomes stand out, for the insights they offer into today’s America through very different vessels and messengers. David Shipler’s The Working Poor: Invisible in America and Marc Cooper’s The Last Honest Place in America: Paradise and Perdition in the New Las Vegas were both published in 2004 by veteran journalists. Shipler, a New York Times foreign and diplomatic correspondent of 22 years, won the Pulitzer Prize for Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land, while Nation contributing editor Cooper’s Pinochet and Me was a riveting memoir of his time as a translator for Chilean President Salvador Allende.
As a democratically-elected Socialist head of state in 1970, Allende aroused the wrath of ITT and Pepsi, as well as the Nixon Administration. On September 11, 1973, a CIA-assisted coup was launched, resulting in Allende’s murder and the ascension of General Augusto Pinochet, illustrating the point that Osama Bin Laden has nothing on Nixon and Kissinger when it comes to terrorism associated with September 11.
Like other North Americans and Europeans enamored with the humanistic revolutionary politics of socialist Chile, Cooper had to flea the country and Pinochet’s murderous thugs, receiving no help from the treacherous U.S. embassy. This is a man who’s seriously earned his leftist street cred.
Shipler’s book is exhaustively researched, including interviews with dozens of individuals and families working and living in or on the edge of poverty, as well as their employers, social workers, the teachers of their children, and others intimately involved in their lives. The Working Poor raises numerous questions, the most fundamental and underlying being, why are there working people in the richest society in the history of the world living on the economic margins? The answers are complex and multi-faceted, and Shipler shies away from none of them: inadequate health coverage, rapacious corporations valuing shareholders over employees, deteriorating public education and transportation, multigenerational welfare dependence, sexual abuse of and pregnancies among teenage girls, the challenges of being an illegal immigrant in this country. While these obstacles can be overcome, and are regularly, Shipler makes the point that such challenges are not usually faced in an isolated manner, that they tend to feed into each either, making forward progress practically impossible.
The strength of this book, and I would assume a strength of Shipler’s previous work, is the depth of immersion in the lives of the people he writes about. People like New Hampshire residents Tom and Kara King are followed over the course of years as small victories and larger tragedies regularly collide with each other, as the lack of affordable health care and a living wage for well-done blue-collar work (not to mention a fighting union) take their toll.
Whatever issues I have with this book are mere quibbles, but I do believe Shipler generalizes a bit much about the inevitable nature of corporate globalization, and the short-sightedness of those protesting it. Perhaps he’s reading his New York Times colleague Thomas Friedman’s columns to uncritically, but I think the current situation in Bolivia, for instance, where a coalition of indigenous coca growers, tin miners and other trade unionists, students and others has forced two presidents from power in less than three years and is very consciously fighting the multinational corporations, the International Monetary Fund, and their other enemies among the globalized elite.
When the working poor can manage to escape their situation, Marc Cooper makes a strong case that they’re heading for Las Vegas. The Last Honest Place in America is a more freewheeling, personal work, written by someone with an obvious fondness for the gambling mecca, but still meticulously researched, particularly at the blackjack tables.
Cooper, a Southern California native and resident, has been visiting Las Vegas since he was a child, and his account of historic personalities and casinos is enlivened by personal recollection. He is nostalgic for the Rat Pack days, counterintuitively celebrating the days when gamblers wore suits and faced each other as well as the dealer in games of skill, and bemoaning the current proletarianization of Vegas, with its Wheel of Fortune slot machines and scale-model volcanoes.
Cooper interviews politicians, scholars, dealers, homeless advocates and others trying to penetrate the heart of the city that Americans should have rejected after 9-11, when we were told that irony and excess were dead. What he finds is a place where a version of the American Dream still exists, and even thrives. Nick Kallos’ Casino Gaming School claims to place 80 percent of graduates in jobs in a growth industry immediately after finishing a 100-hour course. How many colleges, universities or technical schools can make similar claims in this economy? And despite a conservative business and political climate, Las Vegas claims a high rate of union density, its fighting working class spirit embodied for Cooper by strip club dancer Andrea Hackett, a former machinist, draft card-burning hippie, and, oh, yeah, a former man named George. Also a self-identified socialist, Hackett founded the Las Vegas Dancers Alliance in 2002, with the eventual goal of forming a full-fledged union. I know dancers in the Bay Area have attempted the same thing in the recent past, but I’m afraid I don’t the current status of either effort, ande Cooper doesn’t shed any light.
The only obvious issue Cooper doesn’t touch on is the ecological cost of maintaining the artificial environment of Las Vegas, with its lush suburban lawns, multiple golf courses and extravagant casino fountains. With the end of cheap oil possibly on the near horizon, the day of reckoning for this desert oasis could come much sooner than for other American cities. But hey, Thirst and Loathing in Las Vegas will have to wait for a later day, and Marc Cooper's book is a fine addition to the literature of the city until that time.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

In Sunday's Shreveport Times, Preview editor Alexandyr Kent asked for reader input on the topic of local arts coverage. I e-mailed him my response, and also thought it would be appropriate for this venue.

Hi, Alexandyr, this is Michael Parker. We met at the science fiction book discussion group about three months ago, when Frankenstein was the book discussed. I welcome your call for a discussion of arts reviews. I’ve been back in the area for about 10 months, so I wasn’t privy to any public discussions about the restoration of such coverage. However, my immersion in the very vibrant arts community since my return gives me some personal and professional interest in this issue. As I like the questions you proposed to “get the conversation started,” I’ll deal with them one at a time. Incidentally, I will also be publishing this in my blog, mptheredriverred.blogspot.com.

What is the role of a local arts critic?

I believe the role of a local arts critic is two-fold. First, the local arts critic should be an advocate of the best of the local arts. I believe you and Jennifer Flowers do this quite well, particularly through her interviews and profiles of a wide variety of local artists and you profiles of local bands. Secondly, the local arts critic should provide thoughtful, constructive analysis of the arts: reviews of local art exhibits, the productions of local theatre groups, musicians, writers and the like; as well as reviews of movies playing locally and books readily available at local stores and libraries. This second part is where I believe the Times falls short.

Do reviews benefit you? If so, how? If not, why?

Certainly, reviews are beneficial, over a long term. I remember reading Lane Crockett’s movie reviews when I was a teenager, the first time I can remember such journalism seriously. I was able to do that because I was able to register his enthusiasms and idiosyncrasies through weekly reviews of a great variety of movies. I value and trust my own critical faculties in my own viewing of a movie, or reading of a book, or experience of a painting, but critics from Pauline Kael to Thomas Disch to Robert Hughes have contributed greatly to the process by which I choose the works of art to experience. I don’t agree with Kael’s judgment of Network, for instance, but I’m fascinated with the obvious erudition and passion she brought to that judgment.

How has a newspaper critic’s ability to shape public opinion changed over time?

To the degree it has changed, I think the word “newspaper” is the key to your question. The role of newspapers in the media landscape has changed tremendously over the decades. When major cities had five or more daily newspapers competing for readers, in an age before the internet, or even widespread cable television, newspapers were the home for serious journalism.
I can’t help including politics in this discussion, as well. While there have always been William Randolph Hearsts and Rupert Murdochs willing to bend or outright break journalist integrity in the service of ideology or economic opportunism, the corporate consolidation at work in today’s media means there is little critical analysis of the political and economic issues of our day in our daily newspaper (emphasis on the singular).

What is missing from our local coverage?

In a nutshell, visual art reviews, book reviews and movie reviews written by local writers. There is an amazingly vibrant visual arts scene in Shreveport right now, which is benefiting greatly from the advocacy of local journalists. However, there is not a corresponding body of critical analysis necessary for the further evolution and dissemination of that scene. Even traveling exhibits by Ansel Adams, Zelda Fitzgerald, or the recent show of Tibetan religious art are presented with little more information than a press release, unless there is some human interest angle.
For movie and book reviews, we must depend on anonymous serfs from the Gannett empire, reflecting the ongoing corporate domination. While grassroots groups like the Centenary Film Society, the Film Club organized by Chris Jay and the Trapped Truth Society provide local cinephiles and writers opportunities to gather and discuss their passions, there is little opportunity to see the independent movies or hear the iconoclastic writers who are actually contributing to the public discourse, unless one wants to travel to Dallas or New Orleans or even smaller metropolises like Little Rock or Lafayette.

Do you often disagree with what critics write? If so, how do you respond?

Of course I do, but one has to look at the context. If a critic has proven him or herself over the long haul to be provocatively thoughtful and consistent, such as Robert Hughes, I can appreciate his assessment of Basquiat without agreeing with it completely. But if a reviewer shows consistent bias against an artist or a genre because of personality or political differences, say, then that reviewer should be confronted.
Again, I’m more likely to respond to political inaccuracies or omissions than something in an arts review, as your editorial staff is no doubt well aware. The American media’s refusal or inability to forcefully challenge the Bush Administration on its patterns of lying and incompetence has contributed to the unjust and unnecessary deaths of at least tens of thousands of people. The stakes aren’t usually that high in the world of the arts.

What can the Times do to encourage you to become more involved in the local arts scene?

Outside of paying me to do freelance book and art exhibit reviews, both of which I have experience with, any action or inaction on the part of the Times will play little part in my involvement. My ultimate wish is that a weekly or monthly publication, devoted to the arts and politics of our area, could be established. Most legitimate cities both larger and smaller have such publications, and the holes left by the coverage in the Times, the Forum, City Lights, etc., leave a niche the size of the proverbial Mack truck to drive such a publication through.

Thanks again for this opportunity, Alexandyr, and keep up the good work.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Conspiracy of False Starts

Whenever there are plans for comprehensive social change, such as those envisioned by yours truly, the Red River Red, America's Greatest Living Public Intellectual, the grand vision must be accompanied by patience, seven generations and all that. This past week provided a couple of lessons in that.
First, I attended the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Group at Pete Harris Cafe, ready for a confrontation of some sort with Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti regarding the forced resignation of community advocate Willie Fontenot, whose situation I discussed in my last post. I had handouts ready, I had formulated a very respectful yet hard-hitting question,... and then he wasn't there.
Evidently, Attorney General Foti's father died recently, and he hasn't been up to traveling yet. Understandable, and our thoughts should be with him and his family. Consequently, a nice enough, rather bland replacement speaker from the Shreveport branch of the A.G.'s filled in. I still Made my comment, which went something like this:

Thank you for coming to speak today, and thanks to the organizers of this event, which allows for uniquely direct interaction between citizens and government officials. It sounds like the Attorney General's is doing some very innovative things in our communities. However, there are also some recent actions of the Attorney General's office which reek of the worst of traditional Louisiana politics, mixed up with environmental racism. I'm speaking of the forced resignation of Willie Fontenot, the community advocate on behalf of the poor and working-class residents of the parishes between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, better known as Cancer Alley. Do you have any comment?

Of course, the Shreveport office wouldn't have been involved in the railroading of Willie Fontenot, so the speaker had no comment. Attorney General Foti sent along his intentions to come speak to the group in the near future, so you can rest assured that the Red River Red will be there to greet him, despite the other unusual aspect of the morning.
As is implied by the title, this is a breakfast group, and a tasty breakfast of eggs, grits, toast, bacon and sausage is served for a modest $5. However, I was never served breakfast, nor was I asked if I wanted breakfast, as I was the previous time I attended. Very curious. As I had posted my intentions to attend and bring up the issue of Willie Fontenot, I am tempted to assume that the Attorney General's office gave specific instructions to the staff at the Pete Harris Cafe not to serve me, hoping to sap my strength and render me unable to speak truth to power. What will happen the next time, Mr. Foti? Maybe try to slip me a mickey? Buy me off with a lucrative government position? Rest assured, dear readers, that the Red River Red cannot be bought off, scared off, starved or otherwise brought under submission.

Finally, unfortunate human error prevented Invisible Republic from airing on KSCL, 91.3, this past Thursday from 6-9. As the Red River Red and family will be vacationing this coming week, my legion of fans will have to wait until Thursday, June 16 for the next installment. Of course, given the final meeting of the Science Fiction book discussiongroup on that date, at 7:00 at Artspace (710 Texas St.), Invisible Republic will run from 3-6, then return to its regular 6-9 slot on June 23. Incidentally, we will be discussing William Gibson's Pattern Recognition on the 16th. Paperback copies are available at Artspace, and there are also remainder hardbacks on sale at Barnes and Noble. Just a typical couple of weeks in the life of America's Greatest Living Public Intellectual, keeping it real in River City. Peace, y'all.