Working In These Times
Q & A With BBC’s Paul Mason on ‘How the Working Class Went Global’
In his new book “Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global,” BBC economics editor and blogger Paul Mason celebrates "child laborers in Dickensian England, visionary women on Parisian barricades, gun-toting railway strikers in America’s Wild West, and beer-swilling German metalworkers who tried to stop World War I…urban slums, self-help cooperatives, choirs and brass bands, free love, and self-education by candlelight."
Mason's new tome, which made The Guardian's short list for First Book Award, is published by Haymarket Books and, not surprisingly, includes a chapter on the Haymarket martyrs. In advance of a Chicago reading at the Haymarket Brewery on Wednesday March 16 (see details below), Mason spoke by email with In These Times.
KL: What do you think Wisconsin means for the immediate and long-term future of US labor?
I think, before we link it to the wider global discontent, we have to see it as part of a developing American situation. It’s a kind of marker – if the anti-Obama protests over healthcare signaled how far a Democratic president could go over health, Madison signals the limits to what a GOP president could do to U.S. labor: tactically, when people in Egypt start ordering pizza for American workers, it’s hard to claim the center ground. I think the GOP presidential candidates will note this and move on.
Now, with the wider global context, clearly there is an opportunity, but only an opportunity, for this to become part of the wave of discontent that is sweeping the globe. The mood on the ground clearly reflects the mood of discontent -- of “anything is possible”-- but it has not broken out of essentially a militant labor struggle pattern.
What we’ve begun to see in [Europe, the Middle East and Africa] – that handy business term that now reflects exactly the arena of mass unrest – are movements that actually bypass parties, trade unions, etc and draw on spontaneity.
KL: What impact do you think the Republic Windows and Doors occupation of 2008 had on workers in other countries, either at the time or in a lasting sense? Do you see it as an important part of the recent global labor movement?
I think it was incremental. The unions being nationally focused, as they are, an occupation is going to permeate through mainly to the organizers and activists in other countries. But within the Chicago area obviously the importance was that this pattern emerged of solidarity from community organizations, local churches, etc. I think this was just one of a number of strikes which prefigured the emergence of the new pattern – which you can see from Greece to Cairo – of the urban poor being quick to align themselves with the workers.
About the same time as Republic Windows there was the Mahalla strike in Egypt, where the strike lost but the local community erupted. In my book, I’ve tried to de-compartmentalize workers struggles of the past: showing how community, church, gender, etc were all issues as well as the specific industrial dispute. These strikes are actually very typical – the only problem is the way we’ve written the history of past strikes is to break them up into economic, political and social compartments.
KL: Given the recent explosion of strident anti-immigrant state laws in the U.S., and the ongoing and escalating anti-immigrant sentiment in many European countries, is there anything you can say about how this sentiment can be addressed or averted through a global, progressive labor movement?
You have first got to address the problem of “nobody asked us.” The waves of migration, in Europe and the southern USA, were never announced – indeed, in Britain, the Labour government badly underestimated the social and economic impact of mass migration from Eastern Europe. As a result it has lost a significant proportion of its vote to the far right. So you have got to have an open debate about the relationship between migration, real wages and social cohesion: there will be all sides expressed, some of them not palatable to the left.
The demographic crisis looming in the developed world is of a labor shortage and an ageing population glut. Employers will clamor for increased migration so the logical thing for organized labor to do is to negotiate the economic terms – because the arriving migrants will neither be strong enough nor inclined to start bargaining hard. It’s a question for all western societies: in the process of opening your labor markets to the world do you want to be cheap labor venues or high-value venues? If the latter, you can either stem the flow of migrants – with all the implications that entails for curtailing civil liberties and human rights – or you give the migrants the same bargaining power as workers already living here.
Finally, and I have seen this happen in London, the power of community organizing can go a long way to healing the social hurt over migration.
Details for Paul Mason’s March 16 Chicago reading:
Madison to Tehran: The Great Unrest - Then & Now
Featuring Paul Mason, BBC Newsnight and BBC World News America Economics Editor
Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global
*Shortlisted for the The Guardian First Book Award*
A Presentation / Author Q & A / Book signing
At the new: Haymarket Pub & Brewery
Drinking and Writing Theater
737 W. Randolph, at corner of Halsted & Randolph
Chicago, IL 60661
6:30 pm Drinking & Writing Theater opens for food and drink
7:00 pm Presentation begins