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Monday, February 21, 2011

Organized labour under attack, from Pinochet to Ford to Wisconsin

Sometimes the connections between history and current events aren't that easy to see. Sometimes, however, they're hard not to see – especially when they're framed in the context of the widening gap between haves and have-nots, the polarization of society between those who have power and those who do not, and the attendant implications for social cohesion and democratic governance.

On September 11, 1973, the elected government of Chilean President Salvador Allende was overthrown in a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. This is no mystery, of course. Over the next two decades, the Pinochet dictatorship established a savage record of murder, repression, torture and extraterritorial assassinations.

It's beyond the scope of a single blog post, of course, to give an exhaustive or definitive history of Chile's ordeal under the junta, or its efforts to heal and come to terms with Pinochet's dark legacy. Over the past few weeks, however, I've been struck by the parallels between the junta's actions during its first few weeks and contemporary attacks on organized labour.

In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein writes:

In both Chile and Argentina, the military governments used the initial chaos of the coup to launch vicious attacks on the trade union movement. These operations were clearly planned well in advance, as the systematic raids began on the day of the coup itself. In Chile, while all eyes were on the besieged presidential palace, other battalions were dispatched to "factories in what were known as the 'industrial belts,' where troops carried out raids and arrested people. During the next few days," Chile's truth and reconciliation report notes, several more factories were raided, "leading to massive arrests of people, some of whom were later killed or disappeared." In 1976, 80 percent of Chile's political prisoners were workers and peasants.
(Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine, Chapter Four. Cleaning the Slate: Terror Does its Work, p 126)

Lest anyone think this is ancient history, just take a look at contemporary Colombia, where kidnapping, death squads and murder are still very much a part of life for anyone who dares to try organizing a union in the face of corporate and financial pressures for "free trade."

Fast forward to modern-day Toronto, where the Ford junta, aided by its meat puppets in the braying tabloid press, has all but openly declared war on public-sector unions in the guise of securing "value for tax dollars," all the while demonizing organized labour for pretty much everything that ails the community. As if unionized workers aren't also tax-paying members of the community.

And now in Wisconsin, Republican governor Scott Walker, under the pretext of budgetary pressures, wants to strip state workers of the right to bargain collectively, backing up his assault with threats to call in the National Guard. (How far is Wisconsin from Ohio, by the way?) It's gotten to the point where opposition legislators have fled the state in order to avoid arrest.

Writing in the New York Times, economist Paul Krugman has what may be the definitive perspective thus far. Unfortunately it's behind a pay wall so I can't post a direct link, but there are some nice juicy excerpts here:

On paper, we’re a one-person-one-vote nation; in reality, we’re more than a bit of an oligarchy, in which a handful of wealthy people dominate.

Given this reality, it’s important to have institutions that can act as counterweights to the power of big money. And unions are among the most important of these institutions.

You don’t have to love unions, you don’t have to believe that their policy positions are always right, to recognize that they’re among the few influential players in our political system representing the interests of middle- and working-class Americans, as opposed to the wealthy. Indeed, if America has become more oligarchic and less democratic over the last 30 years — which it has — that’s to an important extent due to the decline of private-sector unions.

And now Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to get rid of public-sector unions, too.

Same old, same old. Not content with hoarding most of society's power and resources for themselves, the oligarchs are now using their muscle to attack one of the working class's few remaining ways of defending itself: the right to organize and bargain collectively. Whether it's Pinochet's bayonets and cattle prods or a manufactured race to the bottom aided by a divide-and-conquer narrative obligingly proffered by the lapdogs of the subservient media, the strategy and goals are apparent to anyone who cares to look. As Mr. Sinister warns us, what's happening to our southern brethren has some ominous implications for us as well.

(Update: a little extra-tasty context from Mound of Sound at the Disaffected Lib.)

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