Monday, October 5, 2009

Learning from Unions Abroad

Writing about American labor unions is an exercise in self-defeat. It is not just that unions in this country went from about a third of the work force in the 1950s down to a tenth today. It is the conservative nature of unions, which has led to so many of their problems. Oftentimes, union folk can learn from our brethren abroad, who seem to know better how to show a free citizenry should practice their rights. Thus, our brothers and sisters in Romania, a nation that is 1/15 our size in population, partaking in its largest strike, and what would be comparatively our largest since the Great Uprising of Southern mill workers in the 1930s.

Romania: 800,000 state workers in one-day strike

BUCHAREST, Romania—Some 800,000 teachers, medical workers and other public sector employees are on strike to protest a law they say cuts their salaries.

Some schools were closed Monday and in others teachers were only supervising. Medical staff members are only treating emergency cases.

Police wore white armbands to show solidarity.

The Alliance of State Workers, a group of trade unions, is calling on the government to renegotiate a wage law, end lay-offs and stop unpaid vacation.

The government introduced new measures to cut budget spending in September by agreement with the International Monetary Fund, which has lent Romania US$17.1 billion.

Trade unions say they will stage a rally Wednesday in Bucharest to continue their protest.

Juxtaposition that with the lacking response by unionized public sector workers in education and accompanying industries and agencies in the US, in spite of the fact state and local governments are drastically cutting back budgets to meet the balanced budget amendments in their state constitutions (an amendment that has never existed in our federal constitution). We accept as a matter of course that our federal government can spend more than it takes in, and has on a consistent basis since the Andrew Jackson administration, and yet over the last century have allowed right-wing state governments, starting in the Jim Crow South and spreading later on, to impose strict limits on spending at the state and local level. The results has been nothing short of a disaster for state and local governments, and the lack of faith that people have in government services at that level.

Ever wonder why the cops like to pull people over at the end of the month? Federal law enforcement would never dream of partaking in such behavior (you never see the federal marshall's service taking to the roads to meet their money requirements). You can thank our state constitutions for this inequality.

Here is another story you will never see about unions abroad reported on too widely in our media--and that is the manner in which unions outside of the US are active as independent political actors, outside of being lemmings for a political party. Here are our brothers and sisters in Venezuela, protesting and demanding justice from the government over the violence they endure at the hands of large estate owners who kill and maim their workers.

Venezuelan Farmer Activists March Against Killings by Estate Owners
October 4th 2009, by James Suggett -

Mérida, October 3rd 2009 ( -- Thousands of farmer rights advocates marched in Guarico, Venezuela on Thursday to demand an end to impunity for the killings of 220 farmer organizers since the 2001 Land Reform Law was passed. The march was sparked by two recent attacks presumed to have been planned and paid for by large estate owners against well-known land reform activists.

Just outside the state headquarters of the National Land Institute (INTI) on September 11th, two unidentified men on a motorcycle shot José Pimentel, a leader of the Simon Bolivar National Farmers Front, in the body and the head, placing Pimentel in critical condition in a hospital emergency room.

Two weeks later, eight armed men attacked a group of 28 families who had collectively occupied idle sections of a large estate and were in the process of obtaining legal land titles from INTI. The assailants beat several people, destroyed property, shot one leader of the group twice in the legs, and ordered the group to leave the estate, according to a report by the Ezequiel Zamora National Farmers Rights Front (FNCEZ), which is named after the legendary 19th Century land reform fighter.

Since 2001, the government has redistributed more than two million hectares (5 million acres) of idle or underused land to small farmers and state-owned enterprises for food cultivation, for the most part by opening up state-owned land and also by expropriating some idle privately owned land.

During this process, however, hundreds of prominent land reform organizers have been attacked, illegally detained, or killed, in what appears to be a campaign led and financed by large estate owners to exterminate those who challenge their privilege and dominion in rural areas.

Following the September attacks, the president of the Farmer Federation of Venezuela, Miguel Moreno, declared that his organization and many other national farmer organizations were in a state of emergency, and remain on 24-hour vigil to protect the lives of their comrades.

Moreno praised the government's efforts to redistribute land, but criticized the judicial system, saying only a handful of investigations of the attacks against farmers have proceeded, and there have been no convictions thus far.

"We accompany the commander and president [Hugo Chavez] in his policy against the large estates," said Moreno. "We do not want to move toward an open confrontation or war in rural zones... we firmly believe in the institutions, we believe in our government [...] But we are tired of being the ones who die."

National Assembly Legislator Braulio Alvarez, who is also a national farmers' rights organizer, connected the killings of farmers to the infiltration of paramilitary groups from Colombia into Venezuela. "We denounce with revolutionary morale the paramilitary activities and hired killings," he said in a press conference in the Foundation for Training and Innovation to Support the Agrarian Revolution (CIARA).

Alvarez also demanded that the Ministry of Justice and Internal Affairs and the Attorney General's Office open a special investigation and provide protection to farmer rights activists. "How long is the flagrant impunity going to continue?" Alvarez asked.

Officials from INTI, CIARA, the Agriculture and Land Ministry, and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), as well as all major farmers rights fronts echoed his demand.

The Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) also called for "an exhaustive review of the proceedings on the farmers' cases, through the agrarian courts," but warned that the "opposition sectors" which are responsible for the crimes are in some cases "embedded in the structures of the state." These culprits "utilize police functionaries from the [national investigative police] CICPC," said Eduardo Linarez, the National Secretary for Agrarian and Farmer Affairs of the PCV.

In addition to demanding action by the state, several farmer rights fronts have gradually united forces on the regional and national level. With the support of national PSUV officials, including Agriculture and Land Minister Elias Jaua and Guarico Governor William Lara, these new federations plan to hold a series of assemblies and form armed militias in order to organize and defend themselves against attacks.

"We already have our own organization. What we're going to do now is grassroots reinforcement in the communities and rural settlements," said Argimiro Berroterán, a spokesperson for the National Farmers Front in Miranda state. "The idea is to travel around the whole country to discuss the concerns expressed by different farmer groups, in addition to re-launching this front as an organizational tool in defense of our achievements and for the deepening of the revolutionary process," he added.

Minister Jaua, who is also a regional vice president of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), spoke to the crowd at Thursday's march. "We must consolidate popular strength in rural Venezuela and among the fishers... in order to prepare the conditions for the formation of a great popular and revolutionary organization in the National Fishers and Farmers Front, to concretize the deepening and construction of the Bolivarian Revolution," said Jaua.

According to Jaua, farmer militias may be formed as early as this December for the purpose of farmer self-defense in rural Venezuela. "The Bolivarian government is willing to confront the oligarchy and the large estate owners by way of the law... but if they insist on continuing to act on the fringes of the law, violating our Bolivarian Constitution and murdering farmers, then there will be an armed response," said the minister.

Many farmers' fronts, including the FNCEZ, have advocated armed self-defense for years. The invitation to Thursday's march that the FNCEZ posted on its website calls for, "THE PEOPLE IN ARMS, conscious popular power organized into farmer militias and coordinated by the National Bolivarian Militia and directed by our Bolivarian Armed Forces, in socialist patrols directed and coordinated by our PSUV... with the indisputable leadership of our partner, President Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias."

Our businesses, particularly in poultry and agriculture, kill, maim, and oppress workers all of the time. You typically do not hear about them until a bunch of those workers are killed in a fire or industrial accident. Why is it that unions in the US do not make more of issue about it? The right to strike is the most important of any union. It is the equivalent of having a gun at the head of the proprietor. They understand that. Why is it that we do not? We constantly score at the bottom of the list of nations in work stopages and political activity is never on such a massive scale in demonstrations, except when get-out-the-vote drives from traitorous Democrats come November (Democrats who will quickly forget that labor exists upon taking power). How could it be that unions in this country are so complacent?

It is an open question and one I have yet to see adequately answered. I asked that question quite often when I was growing up, witnessing my father's union almost get busted several times during strikes, with little to no support from the national union leadership, which ultimately led to the steel company succeeding in breaking the union, firing all of the workers, and "hiring" them back at half the pay and with practically no benefits (and this was a company that made money every year my father worked for them). When I was in my first union as a young adult, I was treated like a cash register for dues by the local reps, even though my employer had lied about hiring me on full-time, and refused to give me full-time hours, along with the increase in pay and medical benefits. The union sided with the employer (my complaint was co-signed by several other workers at the company who were lied to in a similar manner). Compare that cowardice to the relative militancy of American labor unions before the 1950s, even when the more conservative AFL was around, and you may begin to see a trend in American unions. As bad as the legal environment is for unions in the US, we are at times our own worst enemies.

When unions in this country are more like this....

Instead of this.....

.....we may finally have a positive outcome for those whose labor creates the wealth of this country (or what still remains of that wealth, before it is outsourced and hidden in offshore bank accounts by the managers and owners).

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