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Gordon Lafer is an ambitious man. Not content to be an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center, now he wants to set himself up as the police dog of the American left.
Writing on June 15 at The Nation’s website, Lafer excoriated Doug Henwood of Left Business Observer, Andy Kroll of Mother Jones, and me of The Progressive for daring to express criticism of unions for their strategy in the Wisconsin uprising and for having the temerity to suggest that this strategy—a total focus on recalls—was unwise.
Henwood and Kroll are big boys and can speak for themselves.
So I’ll just give my own response to Lafer’s deeply foolish, ill-informed, undemocratic, and rabid growl.
The day after Scott Walker won his recall election, I wrote an article entitled “Accountability in Defeat in Wisconsin.”
In it, I pointed to what I consider to be several missteps, including the decision by top labor leaders to eschew nonviolent civil disobedience or creative tactics both in the streets and in the workplaces and instead to tell us to stop marching and go home and work within the Democratic Party on recalls.
But Lafer doesn’t want to hear anything about this. He wants me to shut up.
The essence of Lafer’s posting is that any criticism of organized labor from the left is de facto support for the Koch Brothers and their ilk.
Here is the final snarl of Lafer’s piece: “The only serious choices we have are to keep fighting even though times are hard, or to give up, or to enjoy the momentary rush of being on the same side as power and join in the anti-union attack.”
This is an outrageous slander.
To say that my criticism of some labor leaders’ decisions amounts to an “anti-union attack” is wrong on its face, since for the past sixteen months I’ve been doing everything in my power to support the union struggle in Wisconsin. And to say that criticism aimed at making the union movement stronger and more responsive is the same as the rightwing assault that wants to crush unions is to blur reality beyond recognition.
Further, to impugn my motives with the puerile accusation that after thirty-five years in progressive politics and journalism, I’ve finally decided “to enjoy the momentary rush of being on the same side as power” is to engage in the kind of ad hominem attacks that alienate so many from the left.
Lafer’s keyboard is covered with this kind of poison. “The notion that the path to victory is clear if only dim-witted union leaders would listen to progressive bloggers reflects not just magical thinking about organizing, but also the hubris of being far enough removed from the action to believe you are the only one to have thought of a new idea.”
Note to Lafer: The Progressive is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and my office is three-and-a-half blocks “removed from the action.” I was at the capitol square in Madison day after day for the uprising, joining in the protests and writing about them, as were my colleagues, constantly in The Progressive and on The Progressive’s website at www.progressive.org. I also got arrested in the capitol for standing up for free-speech rights that Scott Walker was suppressing, so spare me this charge of “hubris” for being so far “removed from the action.”
Nor were my criticisms those of a mere “blogger.” They flowed from the reporting I did in The Progressive as far back as June of last year in an article entitled “Dogging Walker,” where I interviewed and quoted some of the more farsighted local labor leaders: Jim Cavanaugh, then-head of the Wisconsin South Central Federation; Bill Franks, a senior steward for AFT-Wisconsin; and Dave Poklinkoski, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 2304; as well as Frank Emspak, founder of Workers Independent News.
Even back then, it was dawning on these labor activist, as it was dawning on me, that the people who were making the decisions about how to steer this amazing uprising were underestimating the power that 100,000 people in the streets represented and were failing to come up with innovative tactics to utilize that power. As Franks told me in “Dogging Walker”: “We blinked . . . It was a lost opportunity . . . The bureaucrats of labor backed off and effectively got in lockstep with the Democratic Party.”
Actually, Lafer falls into the same trap, believing that the recall was the only option available.
“While the electoral loss no doubt emboldened anti-union conservatives,” he writes, “not challenging the governor would have conveyed much the same message: It’s politically safe to follow Walker’s example … Labor leaders confronted a genuinely hard choice: roll the dice on the recall, which everyone knew would be an expensive and uphill battle, or give up.”
But the choice was never “recall … or give up.” There was a whole range of options available for “challenging the governor.” And they could have been exercised simultaneously.
Lafer’s attack is an attempt at silencing.
I will not be silenced.
Nor should anyone else who wants to offer an explanation for why we suffered such a grievous loss in Wisconsin. Let’s get it all out there. Let’s assess what went wrong so it doesn’t happen again.
Huge, inspiring uprisings of the working class and the middle class together—with real solidarity, with real consciousness raising, with joyous spirit and palpable power—don’t come along very often. The next time one does, let’s be better prepared.
Now is the time for honesty. Now is the time for openness.
Always is the time for honesty. Always is the time for openness.
Never is the time for silencing.
Gordon Lafer responds:
I disagree with a lot of what’s in Matt Rothschild’s piece, but he’s right about one thing: I was wrong to term his and two other authors’ writing “anti-union” or to suggest that he and others were driven by the desire to cozy up to power or enjoy the thrill of attacking unions. Those words were written in a moment of anger and they were a mistake. There are real enemies of working people and workers’ organizations, and they’re not these three authors. Nothing in this piece, or anything I’ve ever written, was designed to silence anyone. I know that some people read the headline as part of a history of left critics of internal union practices being silenced through accusations of treachery. I have never had any part in that history, although I understand why people read the piece that way; the tradition of left criticism of union practices – while I agree with some parts and disagree with others – has helped make the labor movement more accountable, more democratic, and stronger. I emailed Matt the day this Nation piece came out to apologize for the wording of the headline and last line, and am happy to do so again publicly. He does important work and doesn’t deserve to have his motives called into question.
The body of the piece – in between the headline and last line -- I stand behind. The piece nowhere criticizes people for raising questions or having doubts about the correct strategy, but on the contrary, criticizes those who write with certainty that it was obvious what path to take, if only union leaders didn’t stand in the way. Contrary to arguing that “the recall was the only option,” as Matt suggests, I actually said that “labor leaders confronted a genuinely hard choice.” I don’t feel certain that the recall was the right decision, nor do I know the answer to how to rebuild the labor movement. But I don’t think it helps to imagine that the choices are obvious, or that all that’s needed is for elected union leaders to make the right call. And while there’s plenty unions can do better, and that’s genuinely important, I think the suggestion that it’s not the corporate lobbies and their money but unions themselves that are primarily to blame for the loss in Wisconsin – this argument is not Matt’s but Doug Henwood’s, who my piece was primarily responding to – I think is out of touch with reality.
I hope we can move on to have the debate on those issues. For now I want to be clear that from my point of view, that’s a debate that will take place among people who, in the most important way, are on the same side, and want to apologize to Matt, Andy Kroll and Doug Henwood for implying otherwise.
If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story “Build Local Progressive Councils."
Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter