Sunday, April 5, 2009

Strikes and Streets vs. the Lobby

On why European labor takes to the streets so readily, while American workers seem more reluctant to do so:


Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, said there were smarter things to do than demonstrating against layoffs — for instance, pushing Congress and the states to make sure the stimulus plan creates the maximum number of jobs in the United States.


I actually believe that Americans believe in their political system more than workers do in other parts of the world,” Mr. Gerard said. He said large labor demonstrations are often warranted in Canada and European countries to pressure parliamentary leaders. Demonstrations are less needed in the United States, he said, because often all that is needed is some expert lobbying in Washington to line up the support of a half-dozen senators.


This, mind you, from a union that got protectionist legislation out of the adamantly free-trade Bush II administration. This is a man who, by "politics," definitely means "the art of the possible" and not the construction of utopian ideals or ideological dreams--or even democratic majorities. It's getting done what the members need to get done.

6 comments:

MYOS said...

I'd say that, indeed, the French don't believe in the political system and certainly don't believe much in their president. The fact he said he would "save Gandrange" then left it to die is already coming back to haunt him.
I think I can pinpoint the moment where, in my book, that distrust happened: unions and parliament voted on something.... signed and all... and then the government went ahead and did something entirely different.
Also, they take to the streets and even take hostages simply because.... nothing else seems to work. In fact, in the past, taking to the streets used to be enough to cause shifts in governmental decisions. Since the recent protests seemed to be unheard, the workers stepped it up and accomplished some prophecy I'd heard: once the unions are totally circumvented, then nothing contains the workers' actions. It's as if taking hostages is the one thing that gets negociations going. Shouldn't there be some kind of system where it doesn't have to come to this? It seems that French democracy is disfunctional on many fronts right now.
Will you address this in Grenoble?

Arthur Goldhammer said...

In Grenoble I'm supposed to talk about the US, so France will come up only as a term of comparison.

James said...

I don't think I accept the implicit view that demonstrations can't be an effective form of lobbying and whatever about your protectionism-under-Bush example I don't think the US labour movement is necessarily in a great position to lecture its French counterpart on how to influence policy.

What I would say though is that French labour is over-reliant on the manif, and perhaps that the manifs are too broad in their goals. Essentially though the problem is that the demonstrations are not paired with an effective negotiating capacity - this would seem to be cheifly die to the lack of a single encompassing confederation plus the lack of a mass membership to confer legitimacy.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

James,
Agreed.

brent said...

I'm no labor economist, but whatever sweet deals it may have cut with Bush 2 (and Clinton, et al.), I think it would be hard to argue that US organized labor has been successful recently--or over the last 30 years--in protecting workers' interests. Stagnant wages, gradual give-backs of benefits, rapid growth in unorganized, unbenefited low-wage sectors: isn't this the big story of post-Reagan US labor? Instead of making self-serving claims about their lobbying 'successes' (and how DOES that stimulus bill look when compared to the trillion dollar subsidies for the financial sector?), maybe US labor leaders should spend more time in the streets ...

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Brent,
Good points, but neither France nor the US has a robust labor movement. Unionization rates are at historic lows in both countries. This weakens the effectiveness of both lobby and street, and I don't think one can argue that the street has been more effective for the French worker than the lobby for the American. Unfortunately, "success" in both countries has been confined to a relatively small portion of the working class. Unions in both countries have tended, understandably, to protect "insiders" rather than press for systemic reform or even revolutionary overhaul, if you believe such a thing is possible. I was interested mainly in the comment on "belief" in the political system, not in the relative efficacy of labor tactics. I'm not sure it's correct: there is plenty of anti-system populism in the US, especially now. But I still think there may be some truth to the remark, particularly when you consider the past of American labor and its deep implication in party politics.