Labor Advocate Online
Time to Say ‘Basta!’
by Bill Onasch
Edited text of presentation given at KC Labor's Third Anniversary Celebration. The mention of “mouseland” is in reference to an animated film produced by the Canadian labor party.
I have to confess that I am pretty much monolingual, just getting by in English. But growing up in diverse neighborhoods I picked up some words and phrases from Yiddish and Italian that have served me well.
Schlock would be quite descriptive of the bill of goods offered to the American people by the two major parties.
Schmuck would be a fitting designation for most of the politicians and talking heads we are condemned to watch on television.
But one word I believe deserves wider usage is basta! That’s what the Italians say when they have had enough—that’s what all of us need to start saying as well.
We are in an unjust war—basta!
Our civil liberties, including collective bargaining rights, are being trampled on—basta!
Health care is in crisis, Social Security threatened—basta!
Unemployment is growing while real wages are sinking—basta!
School teachers are being laid off; transit service is being slashed; environmental protections are being gutted; capital and job flight to other countries accelerated—basta!
This is the richest country in the history of the world. Yet working people are being told we have been living too high on the hog. We must lower our expectations from our employers and our government. We must postpone our retirements. We can’t afford the lifestyle once known as “middle class.” We can no longer provide the same level of education to today’s kids as was done for their parents.
The nation’s biggest employer is now WalMart, where low wage American workers help sell goods made by even lower wage workers in China, Mexico, and elsewhere. Up until a couple of years ago a growth industry was call centers but now more and more of that work is being contracted out to India where well-educated English-speakers will work for a fraction of the miserable wage paid here. A large part of the working class today is sentenced by necessity to work for day labor job sharks. Closely related are the new loan sharks with pay day loan outlets now as common throughout our neighborhoods as filling stations once were.
Yes, it’s time to say we’ve had enough, that we’re not going to take it silently, without a fight, any longer.
Of course some have been fighting on various fronts. We’ve seen some brave battles here and there in the union movement.
But many unions have been trying to make schemes like “win-win” bargaining, and “team concept” work. And those things work well—for the cats in our mouseland, but not for us mice.
Even the best led, most militant unions find that traditional collective bargaining alone is no longer sufficient. Not when you are up against the forces of globalization and the power of a bosses’ government. At any rate, less than twenty percent of American workers are organized in unions.
There have been some impressive actions around various issue movements. We’ve heard from a couple of them here today—the antiwar movement and the fight against globalization. Historically such movements have won important gains for the working class and still win particular battles here and there. But any such victories can only be temporary and tentative as long as the bosses and bankers maintain their iron grip on our economy and politics.
I’m sure some of you are well aware that workers in several European countries now earn higher wages than we do. Workers in Europe, Canada and Japan all have far superior health care and state pension plans. Europe and Canada have shorter work weeks and much more vacation and holiday time than we do.
Why is that? The living standards of American workers were once the envy of the whole world. Why, in this richest of all nations, have we fallen so far behind others?
The workers in Canada won their system of universal health care because of a persistent struggle by their labor party, known as the New Democratic Party. The social benefits and the reduced work time in Europe are a result of action by mass labor and social democratic parties.
We alone among all industrialized countries have no mass working class party. Most of us don’t even like to use the term working class to describe ourselves. We’ve been taught to aspire to be “middle class.” We accept the political choices offered us by two parties controlled lock, stock and barrel by a group that is quite class conscious—the capitalist class. We are reduced to going hat in hand to their politicians to beg for crumbs—and sometimes we come back without even the hat.
You know my first entry into the world of web sites was setting up a page for the Kansas City Labor Party. KC Labor, offering a wide array of Internet resources for working people came only later.
We now have pages devoted to union directories, union organizing, solidarity campaigns, health care, Social Security, needs of women workers, labor history, labor laws, labor education, labor culture, globalization, labor and the environment, transit labor and, of course, our daily labor news digest—you name it we probably have a link to it.
But, in my opinion, still none are more important than our Labor Party pages. The Labor Party is our best shot at giving some cohesion to the fragmented struggles of working people, the best bet for mobilizing the full potential power of our class.
Now the Labor Party is not yet a mass party. It is still a fledgling, still working to prove itself as a genuine contender. I hear criticisms all the time.
You people have little support among the unions we are told. Well, it’s true that we only have a few national unions on board—PACE, the UE, BMWE, AFGE, the United Mine Workers, the California Nurses Association, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. All told affiliated and endorsing unions have about two million members, a little more than ten percent of organized labor. Still, two million is not chopped liver. It’s more members than the CIO had when they launched their historic fight to organize basic industry.
Then I hear that we can’t be taken seriously because we don’t run candidates for office. That reflects the very narrow, warped view of politics that we’ve been taught by our masters, that only elections really matter.
The fact is that elections usually matter very little, at least from our point of view. Big, fundamental changes are never initiated through elections. Elections reflect the state of the class struggle, fought out primarily in the workplace and in the streets.
If there is no struggle behind you then you have to worry about maybe being elected. Just think what it would be like if we had put up candidates for the Kansas City School Board—and had won. We might well have been able to do that if we had put our minds to it.
But, given the limitations of urban sprawl and the overall crisis of education, a Labor Party controlled school board wouldn’t be able to do much better. After one term we would be just as discredited as everyone else who has held those thankless positions.
Let’s say we got lucky and elected somebody to congress. A lone Labor Party congress person would come under tremendous pressure—either play ball with the Democrats or face your district losing all of its funded projects.
Some day we will run candidates. When we have won over most of the unions, when we have recruited a mass base in the communities, when we have some real wind in our sails, then we will contest elections as well as other political activity. But not before.
So what does the Labor Party have to offer now?
First of all we’re reviving our class identity, class pride, that the bosses have done such a good job in denying us. We’re not a party for all the people. No one can honestly represent all the people because all the people don’t have the same interests. We are advocates of and for the working class.
We have a well thought out program to address the major political issues facing our society.
We build on a foundation of the unions—the only genuine mass organizations that workers have in this country. But we also recognize that most workers are not in unions and we have community chapters open to all who agree with us.
And the Labor Party is deeply involved in all forms of day-to-day worker struggles including, I am proud to say, in helping to launch U.S. Labor Against the War. No one has done a better job, in my opinion, of analyzing and opposing this war from a working class perspective.
Some of you have experience in union organizing drives. I think that’s a useful comparison to how we are building the Labor Party. Right now we’re still in that early stage where you would be getting folks to sign authorization cards, making some home visits, putting out a newsletter and a leaflet now and then. Some grow impatient with such a slow pace but there are no shortcuts, no substitutes for building a solid organization in a workplace that cannot only win a representation election but also exert enough pressure on the employer to get a first contract.
Where we’re at in the Labor Party is getting more union affiliations and endorsements and recruiting individuals to Labor Party local bodies. We can hold an occasional public meeting around an important issue, distribute our newspaper and leaflets, take our banner to picket lines and protests. That’s about it for now.
There will come a time, in the not too far off future, I believe, when many American workers will start saying “basta!” and start looking for alternatives. Greedy and incompetent bosses will see to that.
What we have to see to is that a credible alternative is in place that can lead the coming working class upsurge. Once things start to move they will move very quickly. If we wait until then to begin to act we will be passed by and dissent will either dissipate or—and this is a big danger—it will be co-opted by right-wingers like Pat Buchanan, or even worse.
Along with our work in unions, and in issue movements, we must also devote some time and attention to building an independent political movement.
If you are not a member of the Labor Party, or if you are a fallen away member who has drifted from us, I urge you to get signed up and plugged in.
I want to thank you all for coming this afternoon and for the support you have consistently given to KC Labor. These first three years have been a lot of work but also have been quite rewarding. Despite all the many challenges I look forward with confidence and anticipation to the future of the American working class.