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The Politics of the Individual vs. The Politics of Solidarity

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The comment thread for yesterday’s Chicago Teachers Union strike post was typical. Inevitably during any strike, especially a public sector strike, people who claim to be liberals find their sense of solidarity with working people ends precisely at the point where they might be personally inconvenienced. They put aside the great common ground they should have with the strikers to create policies that would benefit all and instead engage with a politics of personal short-term selfishness. That’s sad. When BART workers go on strike for better wages and working conditions, it absolutely makes things harder for commuters. On the other hand, if the city wants to make life miserable for BART employees, that is going to therefore lead to tired drivers, long-term service deterioration, and the general decline of the system. Not to mention that better paid employees place more money into the economy, which stimulates the city, allows a middle-class to still exist (very important in a place like San Francisco), and creates a principle of paying working people dignified salaries. Is all of this worth a few days of not having the BART system operational? I would certainly think so, but many people struggle to think outside of their own current situation at a given time.

Similarly, the Chicago Teachers Union is striking because of the general failure to invest in education at the city and state level, the attacks by Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Rauner and on unions generally (he’s nothing more than 1-issue governor and that issue is union busting), Rauner’s unwillingness to pass a budget, not to mention the larger issues of police violence and injustice in Chicago. These issues affect every person in Chicago. But if taking an action to fight for these issues is a bad thing because for one day I have to deal with child care, a day that is basically like a snow day except that you time to prepare for it, then there’s no really no hope for any kind of coalition to fight for broader issues of racial justice. Sure it makes life harder for parents for one day or one week. That sucks. But life is far longer than one day or one week.

What is solidarity? There are many definitions but I think at the core is the willingness to accept and embrace personal inconvenience in order to support larger causes of justice. Rather than focus on just how such an action affects me on a particular day, you need to take yourself out of the equation and evaluate a particular action based upon whether you would support it if it does not affect you at all. If a Black Lives Matter protest decides to blockade I-93 through Boston when I am driving up there and I am delayed for an hour, I might be frustrated. But I also have to remember that the broader cause of justice is far more important than whatever I have going on in a given day. It is my duty as a human to support whatever action is necessary to end police violence against people of color. That’s far more important than the talk or band I want to see. Moreover, what cause has been advanced without inconveniencing the public? Protests block streets, strikes take money out of the economy, ACT-UP made people feel uncomfortable, the Black Panthers scared whites, environmentalists threaten entire industries to save the planet. Direct action is disruptive. If you can’t support it whenever it might possibly affect you in some way, you don’t really have the right to think of yourself as someone supports justice.

As for individual strikes, we don’t necessarily have to support each and every one, although if you claim to be a liberal or on the left, the burden is on you to say why you can’t support it. There are two fundamental scenarios where it makes sense not to support a strike. The first is when it’s about a turf war between two unions. At that point, it’s dependent on the situation. The second is when the strike is aimed at hurting the broad cause of justice rather than defending it. Thus, while police absolutely should have the right to unionize and collectively bargain a contract, the NYPD engaging in a slow down because Bill DeBlasio wants to do something about their open racism and use of violence is not something we should support. Unfortunately, it makes many on the left engage in open union-busting that would do nothing to stop police violence instead of fighting the evil at hand. Otherwise, while one can question the wisdom and strategy of given actions, anyone who makes claims to be liberal needs to be showing at least some support for the principle of collective action by workers to both maintain the middle class and fight for larger issues of social justice, as the CTU did on its strike yesterday.

It’s funny to me that people say the labor movement is antiquated, unimaginative, ineffective, etc. And that it needs to use new tactics or more aggressive tactics in order to force change to society. And then when they use those tactics, large swaths of the general public, including those who claim to wish for a stronger labor movement, judge the strike entirely based upon how it affects themselves on the given day of the strike. That’s not the politics of solidarity. That’s the politics of the empowered narcissistic individual. And it’s at that point where people start supporting the position where they would have supported Reagan firing the air traffic controllers. The public supported the firing not because PATCO was engaging in an illegal action. They supported it because by doing so, they shut down the airlines and got in the way of people’s travel plans. The politics of individual desire defeated the politics of solidarity in 1981 and it continues to do so today.

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