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Lessons from a demonstration.

On June 17, we had what is by our standards in Chicago a major march and rally for jobs and justice. The turnout of about 3,000 was larger than the left has been able to generate here in some time. More significant than the numbers, though, was the kind of coalition that attracted them: an alliance of labor and community activists that's necessary if we are to build a social movement.

The demonstration grew from a loose coalition of groups that began meeting together after last November's elections. Several groups had planned a variety of separate events to mobilize local opposition to the Republicans' Contract on America. We publicized one another's actions, which had been scheduled through mid-may, but the feeling grew among us that it would also be good to stage one large, collective undertaking, a major demonstration.

The Jobs with Justice coalition, the labor movement's initiative for forging labor union/community alliances, was already planning a jobs march in mid-June as part of a national campaign. We all decided to broaden the focus of that march, to work aggressively to expand its base, and not to schedule any significant action between mid-may and mid-June. (The need to give Newt Gingrich a proper reception in Chicago when he came for a public appearance on June 5 led us to make one exception.)

We worked ceaselessly for what seems like much more than two months - no one harder than the staffs of the Service Employees International Union (especially Local 73's Phil Martini) and the Coalition for New Priorities - to organize the march and rally. This work included not only the standard tasks of acquiring endorsements, publicizing the event, planning its themes and structure, and trying to mobilize as much support as possible but also the delicate work of maintaining a fragile, embryonic coalition whose participants weren't equally cooperative or trusting of one another. In the process, we made contacts and formed solid working relationships among organizations and individuals that can give us a foundation for subsequent, ultimately more ambitious undertakings.

(We had a classic Jesse Jackson moment, however: on the morning before the march, his deputy called to say that Jackson would be in Chicago the next day and would like to speak at the rally. He did show up to give his standard speech, pressed the flesh for a few minutes near the stage, then left. As I watched him at the podium, I couldn't help noting that he was responsible for no more than five bodies in attendance - himself and his entourage. Yet he swooped in to plop down on the event while even some who had spent months of their own work to make it happen acted as though it was Jackson's deigning to associate himself with us that gave our effort luster and legitimacy.)

Our work in Chicago both reflects and reinforces other, potentially more exciting shifts on the political landscape. Key among them is the insurgency within organized labor. These insurgents want to revitalize the labor movement by adopting a strategy of mass organizing. They would refocus the labor movement as a more broadly based social movement. A challenge slate, headed by SEIU's John Sweeney, is likely to win leadership of the AFL-CIO, running on a platform of support for mass organizing. This could be the most important development in the mainline trade-union leadership in more than half a century.

There are other signs that labor is stirring finally from its lengthy doldrums. The United Electrical Workers and the Teamsters each have developed joint organizing campaigns with fraternal unions in Mexico. (One of our speakers on June 17 was a representative from one of the Mexican unions.) The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers, recently merged with the International Ladies Garment Workers and soon to be rechristened UNITE, has for some time maintained a Caribbean Basin-wide organizing project.

Similarly, momentum has accelerated in the effort to create a real Labor Party. At least three international unions have endorsed the idea and have committed substantial resources to build for a founding convention in the late spring of 1996. In addition, the California Council of Carpenters and scores of significant union locals have endorsed Labor Party Advocates, the group organizing for the convention.

I discuss these developments in the labor movement because our work for the June demo underscored the absolute centrality of organized labor for sustaining any progressive political activity on a significant scale. This event. for instance, cost thousands of dollars even before taking staff costs into account.

At a time when most progressive organizations are either highly dependent on a small pot of private foundation funds for their support or must live without staff altogether, the unions represent the only alternative base of support for the kind of full-time organizing we need. The unions also still have greater capacity to turn out bodies for mass actions than other left organizations.

A related practical lesson is the importance of classic, old-fashioned, street-level organizing. As we made our plans and established our goals, it was clear that we could work to gain endorsements from the leadership of existing organizations, but we didn't have the capacity ourselves to make certain that our message was getting out at the level of direct contact by connecting with people face-to-face at public libraries, supermarkets, shopping centers, block clubs, and neighborhood groups.

There seems to be a tendency among union activists to assume that gaining the support of leadership of popular organizations automatically trickles down to mobilizing their membership. It ain't necessarily so, and the only way to make sure it happens is to do direct, grassroots organizing ourselves.

But the fact that we had to work so hard to turn 3,000 people out for this event points up another lesson: just how thin our base is. We need to be clear and honest about what this point really means. Successes like our march are important building blocks, but they also remind us just how weak we are.

There is no progressive movement that exists as a practical force in American political life. This is a tough fact for those on the left to confront, and we can produce any number of reasons to explain it away or to deny it. However, we'll never be able to improve the current situation until we do face up to this most unattractive reality and act accordingly.

Facing up to our utter weakness and isolation on the current political landscape is frightening because doing so seems to court demoralization. Admitting that progressive politics has no effective, popular constituency also seems to come uncomfortably close to a main justification of the Democratic Leadership Council's line about the need for a "new liberalism" that sheds all association with commitments to social justice and equality in the name of pragmatism.

Nevertheless, we have to craft a strategy that proceeds from recognizing that we are marginal in American politics, even among those we think are more likely to support progressive interests. That's daunting, but hardly a call for surrender. Just as outfielders are trained to go to the wall first on deep fly balls, we have to take realistic stock of the worst aspects of present conditions and adjust to them. That's what optimism should mean for the left. The real pessimism is insisting that things are rosy in conditions like these when we secretly fear that the truth is hopeless. The current situation is ugly and dangerous, but not hopeless. It can't be hopeless in part because we can't allow it to be. The stakes are too great.

It's unfortunate that the charge of fascism, now that it most nearly describes the dominant thrust in American politics, has become so inflated by cavalier use. (Although I'm not prepared to accept responsibility for Timothy McVeigh, I think radicals of my generation had a lot to do with cheapening this linguistic currency.)

To most Americans, fascism evokes images owing more to art than politics - from Leni Riefenstahl's films to Hogan's Heroes, depending on one's artistic preferences. Fascism is sleek, chrome and leather, larger than life in its demonic, Teutonic, vaguely yuppie efficiency and its unemotional, well-organized, and gratuitous cruelty.

Ironically, by so thoroughly demonizing fascism, this imagery also pacifies it by divorcing it from specific historical conditions and social relations. Fascists appear to descend on society like extraterrestrial invaders. But this means that we only imagine them in power and through their own mystified self-perceptions. The link to fashion also provides a reassuring distance by both freezing fascism to a sort of art deco/Bauhaus moment and providing a set of comfortingly anachronistic warning signals - no jackboots, everything's cool. We don't look for fascism or fascists in the process of development, in the mundaneness of the neighborhood, or in a disposition toward governance.

This bowdlerized view overlooks the most significant and frightening point about fascism - its roots in self-righteous ordinariness. Those who spearheaded and ran National Socialism in Germany were haberdashers, osteopaths, third-rate academics, lawyers, and physicians, as well as enthusiastic patrician reactionaries. They were distinguished by adherence to crackpot social theories, deep mean streaks, and more than typical greed. Guess who now controls the United States Congress and sets the terms for national political debate?

That's right. German fascism was embodied in and driven by the Pat Buchanans, Newt Gingriches, Robert Dornans, Phil Gramms, Williams Welds, Antonin Scalias, Connie Macks, Clarence Thomases, Beverly La Hayes, Ralph Reeds, Helen Chenoweths, Charles Murrays, and Peter Brimelows of the day.

This is the environment in which we must operate, one in which even what passes for liberal political discourse is polluted by this updated brand of free-market fascism that seems particularly American. Yet American exceptionalism may not apply even in this domain; Berlusconi in Italy and the Thatcherite right in Britain equally join a general social authoritarianism with idolatrous faith in the free market.

In any event, we must acknowledge that we have to build a movement from scratch in a political climate dominated by these frighteningly nasty forces. We don't have time for the luxuries of mystification or self-delusion. Now least of all can we succumb either to the politics that pretends to find political resistance lurking in every mundane social act or the inane solipsism of identity politics. Nor can we afford the pretense that national initiatives of the left are anything other than hollow fictions at this point.

And we certainly can't accept the notion of political realism that concedes the terrain to the forces of hatred and oppression. Our only possibility is to go back to the very basics and to focus on trying to build a coherent political movement in specific places and from the bottom up. Whatever national objectives we have must proceed from a real social base.

In this regard as well, a revitalized labor movement is our most important ally and foundation.

Our hope must lie in our recognition that a bleak present isn't the product of abstract social laws. Political will and action shape the concrete limits of possibility.
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Title Annotation:June 17, 1995, Chicago, Illinois, rally for justice and jobs
Author:Reed, Adolph Reed
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Aug 1, 1995
Words:1838
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