Mike Davis and David Bacon on “The Decline of California”

My recent posts have focused on the California Teachers Association’s failure to fight the slash-and-burn cuts to  public schools and other services and on potential allies in a real fight back. At the Socialism 2009 conference in San Francisco, July 2-5, authors Mike Davis and David Bacon critiqued the overall paralysis of labor “leaders” tied to the Democrats and the politics of accommodation. Video of this panel is posted online under the title, “The Decline of California, Mike Davis and David Bacon” Part 1 and Part 2. Here is a transcription of excerpts from that video, beginning with an analogy that came to Davis while watching the recent remake of the movie, “The Taking of Pelham 123” about the hijacking of a New York City subway train.

Mike Davis: I kept thinking, “Is this set in Sacramento?” I mean, here you have the governor and his gang of Republicans, and they’re holding the people captive and threatening to shoot them one by one unless their demands for budget cuts and a new stage in the Republican fiscal revolution occurs. And on the other hand, you have the leadership of the Democratic Party in Sacramento, [Assembly Speaker] Karen Bass and [Senate President Pro Tem] Darrell Steinberg, saying, “Oh no, don’t shoot all the passengers, just shoot half the passengers…

I think we are in a situation that is eerily reminiscent of 1978 when the California labor movement was like a deer in the headlights watching Proposition 13 acquire just invincible momentum and only reacting actually at the last minute to what became a groundswell. I actually think that the public sector unions in California are at the edge of a historic defeat that will squander a lot of the gains that have been accumulated by incredibly hard work and struggle over the last 20 or 25 years. …It’s above all a question of the credulity of labor leadership and the Democratic leadership in California.

And the sectarian point that I’m making—because I think it’s now time to be sectarian and utterly intolerant, because we’re faced with non-negotiable human rights and human needs and human survival—is the Democrats are in the process of comprehensively betraying their own constituencies and the labor movement itself by accepting the idea that we have to balance a few moderate tax increases with massive and deadly cuts in the public sector that will allow the hard-won rights of public sector workers, and therefore other workers as well, to be given away in a day by the governor’s decree that he’s going to take away five percent or eight percent of your wages. …

We’re going through in both California, and I think nationally, a defeat that we really don’t want to look squarely in the face, because amongst other things, it involves acknowledging the fact that, despite people’s hard work and many protests, there’s no movement out there.

…The same thing happened during the Depression. After the collapse in November 1929, there’s no automatic guarantee that just because millions of Americans are out of work, in the streets, unemployed, unable to eat, that that’s a political issue. What made it a political issue was the fact that hundreds of almost kamikaze cadre of the Young Communist League went out and faced the truncheons and the tear gas and the jailings across the country to build an unemployed movement. And it was by tens and then hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers in the face of massive repression that finally got the newspapers to notice that there were unemployed.

David Bacon: I have to say I’ve been very, very disturbed for almost a year now at the fact that we have had the worst crisis for working people in the memory of most working people, and yet we have not had any national demonstration in Washington calling for an end to foreclosures, calling for putting people back into their homes, protesting about the role of the banks, just simply calling for jobs, calling for a direct jobs program—not money given to public works projects and contractors in the hope that that will eventually create jobs by those private sector contractors employing us, but the direct kind of job creation programs that were part of the New Deal. Nobody’s even raising that, much less organizing demonstrations to support it. I think it’s a sign of the problem of our labor movement

… The reason we have not had massive protest by our labor movement is because of our relationship with the Democratic Party…We have so much of the superstructure of the labor movement that is convinced that the only way to survive here is to negotiate some kind of deal at the table in Washington, or in Sacramento for the matter, and the object of union political action should be to get to the table, to be at the table, and therefore not to prejudice that by going out into the streets and protesting or alienating those legislators…

So how do we win than? What is it that is on our side that is going to allow us to be able to fight? We do have to mobilize. We do have to show some opposition. It’s very dangerous to have these things happen and have so little visible opposition out there. It’s dangerous because it encourages those people who are trying to shaft us, and it gives no encouragement to people who actually want to fight.  So we need some visibility, and we need some movement in the streets.

But the reality is that this is a long-term fight and we’re not going to be able to solve it with a single demonstration in Washington or even multiple demonstrations in Sacramento. So we need to also use this opportunity to talk to our own members, to talk to working people about who is responsible for this crisis. Are autoworkers responsible for the closures o their plants? Are homeowners responsible for the fact that their incomes weren’t high enough to make those payments that the loan officers talked them into? What is the nature of this system?  So I think that that’s part of what we have. We have to have sort of a long term approach that sees the need and the possibility for building our ranks so that we can actually win this battle in the future.