Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Respect goes West: Mikes Letter from America #1

Before I left for the USA, I was repeatedly asked ‘how are you going to cope as a socialist in America?’ The assumption is that the USA is irredeemably reactionary, and that being a socialist will mark me out as an un-American alien. Well, there is some truth in the idea that the USA is more right-wing than Europe; this is a country, after all, in which there isn’t even a Labo(u)r party, and where ‘liberal’ means left-wing.

My early experiences in mid-Michigan seemed to confirm this. The first political posters I saw at the university where my wife works were placed there by the Right. One even said ‘Happy Columbus Day’ below a picture of a heroic Columbus surrounded my kneeling subservient ‘Indians’. Since then, there have been a number of such incidents culminating in the hanging of nooses (a racist act designed to invoke the memory of lynchings). Fortunately, these acts are being resisted by both faculty and students.

While this is obviously hardly a left-wing hotbed, the city has its share of progressive groups, such as Amnesty International and the Sierra Club (an environmentalist group with slightly dodgy politics on population control – we are talking RELATIVELY progressive here), and a Green Party city commissioner (equivalent of a councillor in the UK). Not too bad for an area which is colored red (i.e. Republican) on the electoral map.

So much for the local scene – what about national politics? I will write some other time about the presidential election campaign – it has another 12 months to run, so I’ll have plenty of opportunity to do so. What I suspect will interest Respect supporters more is the small upsurge of labor (as they spell it here) militancy. I am not referring here to the auto workers strikes, which were something of a charade, called by the union bureaucracy to distract from the fact that they are busy negotiating away their members’ pensions. They were dubbed by some ‘Hollywood strikes’ – that is, just for show. I am referring to the real Hollywood strike, of TV and film script writers. They have been out now for over two weeks, striking against the refusal of studio bosses to give them a share of the sales of DVDs and internet downloads. This may seem a rather obscure cause, but it is basically another example of bosses trying to screw some extra surplus value from the workers. The strike began to bite immediately, with talk shows being replaced by re-runs. The studios fear that drama series will be affected next, which could result in more ‘reality’ TV shows, which require no scriptwriters. Now, if that doesn’t make the public beat on the doors of the studio bosses demanding they concede, I don’t know what will.
No sooner were the writers out on the picket lines in California than another group of entertainment workers followed them on the opposite coast. This time it was the Broadway stage hands. They have been working without a contract since July, and came out when management tried to impose new work rules, threatening to lock out the stage hands if they did not accept. Readers will be sad to hear that the strike failed to stop Duran Duran’s appearance in New York – they relocated to a theatre not affected by the action.

Now, these may not sound like major strikes compared to the action of the French rail workers, but it would be wrong to dismiss them as trivial. Firstly, there is great symbolic importance in two of the most American of institutions – Hollywood and Broadway – being shut down by strike action. But more importantly, entertainment is an important plank of the ‘new economy’ in the US. It has been estimated that the New York economy loses up to $2 million every day the theatres are on strike. This is not small change for US capitalism. More broadly, the service sector is seeing the highest increase in levels of unionisation. For example, here in central Michigan, the Teamsters union is attempting to organise casino workers.

Moves like this are significant, as casinos are seen by some state politicians as a way of replacing the declining auto industry, much as Tony Blair promoted ‘Super Casinos’ in Britain.

So, far from being ‘unAmerican’, militant trade unionism is as American as apple pie!

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