Sunday, June 8, 2014

Alliances Across the Political Spectrum in the Movement Against Common Core Have Antecedents in the Depression Era Labor Movement

Many of my friends on the left, with the best of motives, have raised questions about my wilingess to work with Conservatives and Libertarians in the movement against Common Core and other top down attacks on public education. They think that alliances of this kind are both dangerous and historically unprecedented.
However, while such alliances may not have been very common in the post World War 2 Era, they were extremely common during the Great Depression and in fact contributed to the enormous success of the American labor movement as well as the breadth of New Deal policy in that era.
During the Great Depression, labor activists in the American left were one relatively small portion of a great populist upheaval that swept through the US, taking the form of huge grass roots movement that challenged the excessive concentration of wealth in the US and the overwhelming power of banking interests. The largest of these uprisings were the "Share Our Wealth Movement" led by Louisiana Senator Huey Long, the grass roots movement for Old Age Pensions led by Dr Francis Townshend, and the movement led by Father Charles Coughlin, the Michigan based radio priest. Each of these movement attracted millions of followers and each caught the attention of the politically astute advisors of President Franklin Roosevelt, who feared they might coalesce into a European style fascist movement if he didn't undercut their appeal. Two key aspects of the array of Second New Deal reforms, Social Security and the Wealth Tax on the highest incomes, were a direct reponse to these movements. Both were policies which wrought a permanent change in the American political landscape.
But the impact of these movements was not just reflected in legislative policy. They had a tremendous impact "on the ground" in labor organizing. Everywhere organizers for the new industrial labor movement, who were primarily from the socialist and communist left, tried to get masses of workers to put their jobs and lives on the line to win collective bargaining rights, with the great Flint Strike of 1936/37 being the greatest example, they ran into many more followers of the Long, Coughlin and Townshend movements than they did those who followed traditional left wing parties. And this shaped how they organized. They did not inject their own long term political goals into these life and death struggles. They fought for ideas of dignity, self-respect and democratic control that touched a chord with all workers who felt victimized by powerful interests-- adding one crucial element that the conservative movements had NOT promoted- interracial solidarity. Industrial union organizers insisted, to their credit, that Black, Latino and Asian workers had to be included in any movement to achieve collective bargaining rights and respect at the workplace, and made that a central part of the organizing strategy in all the great strikes of the Depression Era, from San Francisco, to Minneapolis to Toledo, to Flint.
The lesson here, for me, is that as long as people on put their anti-racist politics front and center, they should be open to working with grass roots activists from across the political spectrum, because the left alone cannot achieve victories over corporate School Reform now any more than their counterparts in the 30’s could have built the industrial labor movement by staying in their comfort zone.


Anonymous said...

Excellent. Thanks for saying this.

Melissa Westbrook said...

I believe this refusal to work with others - even those we may have major disagreements with - is what holds back Congress. Sure, dig in your heels, draw your line in the sand and how far does that get anybody?

I have no problem joining with others across the spectrum on single issues. I'm not there to be their friend OR supporter (nor does it mean I support their movements) - it means we found common ground on an issue.

I am going to get a student data privacy bill passed in Washington State and I have no problem reaching out for help and support across the board.

It's how you get things done.

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