As the Online Left Circular Firing Squad Continues, Workers Across America are Striking and Organizing
The left has been "pushed so far out of the political life of the country as a whole for so long that it has lost sight of what it takes to win," professor Richard Wolff tells Status Coup
Having covered a whole lot of protests around the country over the last decade, I must admit I often left frustrated.
As a journalist, I’ve always erred on the side of “who am I to tell” activists— whether they be Black people fighting for their lives in the face of police terrorism or indigenous and climate activists fighting for their sacred land, water, and planet earth —how to run their movements.
But this sinking feeling of “what are we actually accomplishing?” kept creeping in. After all, politicians and corporations will give you your protests and allowance to march a few blocks, or for indigenous people who fought Dakota Access Pipeline and are currently fighting Line 3 pipeline, protest on your own land as they ram toxic pipelines through it.
Of course, if you get too rowdy, the capitalist class will unleash the hounds (police) to beat, spray, and terrorize you. But, as long as Americans' protesting remain as largely a collection of feet hitting the ground—with no adjoining economic threat to the aristocracy—the donors are fine saying enjoy your exercise.
But, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues wreaking health and economic carnage across America—and Democrats who control the White House and Congress continue offering temporary band-aids to a 40-year economic gunshot wound—a sleeping beast has awoken.
20 years since the last significant work stoppages in America, workers are going on strike nationwide while others workers are organizing to form unions inside corporate Goliaths like Amazon, Starbucks, and MSNBC (owned by Comcast) to name a few.
In Alabama, the Warrior Met coal miners have been on strike for five months, fighting back against the company they helped avoid bankruptcy by accepting lower wages and shrinking benefits—only to see that company not pay them back when their bottomline turned the corner.
From Labor Notes:
The strikers are fighting to reverse concessions that were foisted on them in 2016 when newly formed Warrior Met Coal bought two mines and one preparation plant from Jim Walter Resources during bankruptcy proceedings. BlackRock became one of the three majority shareholders in the new company.
Since then, the union calculates that workers have forked over $1.1 billion in pay, overtime, vacation, safety, health care, and other benefits to help the company regain solvency. Today 26 hedge funds have investments in Warrior Met stock, signaling their confidence in its profitability.
“We want everything back. And then some. That’s the message we’re trying to send to BlackRock,” said Michael Wright, a miner for 16 years.
The workers have waged battle from Alabama all the way up to Blackrock’s doorstep in New York City, organizing hundreds of workers from Alabama, and labor allies from Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, to bring their strike in front of the corporate vulture and owner of their parent company.
From Alabama to Topeka Kansas, Frito Lay workers went on strike to say enough is enough to “suicide shifts”; 12-hour shifts with only eight hour breaks before you’re called back to work.
“It’s became a norm at the company for people to work 12-hour days seven days a week,” Esther Fanning told Status Coup, adding that she had recently met a worker who worked at Frito Lay in the 1990s who said she didn’t have a day off in 11 months.
“I don’t think no one’s ever had the nerve to speak up and say ‘we need some kind of change.’ But I guess maybe this group of young people that we are now are choosing to say no, we’re choosing to spend time with our children.”
Beyond Alabama and Kansas, the revolt against Oreos has spread nationwide as 1,000 Nabisco workers strike in Portland, Oregon; Richmond, Virginia; Aurora, Colorado; Chicago, Illinois; and Norcross, Georgia.
“Our fight is to really maintain what we have; we’re dealing with a company that in 2020 had a record year,” Mike Burlingham, a Nabisco worker whose worked at the bakery in Portland for 14 years told Status Coup.
Burlingham noted that after Nabisco’s profits soared during the pandemic, the company is thanking workers by pushing higher out-of-pocket healthcare costs, elimination of premium pay for weekend work, and implementing an alternative work week which would introduce 12-hour days among other things.
On top of worker strikes, workers at Amazon have been pounding the pavement daily for months in places like Staten Island New York, where workers are gathering signatures as part of a union drive gathering momentum.
“We’re breaking our daily records getting 50-60 signatures in a single day,” Christian Smalls, an Amazon worker who was fired at the beginning of the pandemic after serving as a whistleblower about Amazon’s unsafe conditions, told Status Coup.
And now after a local Milwaukee coffee ship successfully formed a union, Starbucks workers in Buffalo New York are picking up the baton, organizing to form a union at of the nation’s biggest companies.
“They give us outdated equipment, they give us equipment that won’t work, and then they understaff us and they’re still staffing us at pandemic levels,” Róisín Doherty, a Starbucks worker in Buffalo, told Status Coup. “We’re expected to work at non-pandemic levels of ‘we need to get coffee out in five minutes, we need to make 30 frappuccino’s in 10 minutes or less.”
But as the surge of workers striking back against their corporate overlords—after a decade lull in strikes and union organizing—you might see a video or tweet sneak through on popular YouTube shows or Twitter accounts about what, by all accounts, should be the top story among leftist and independent media.
In its place has been months of a new edition of the once-addicting program “Survivor”; only this iteration leaning more toward “Last Real Leftist Standing.”
On top of the surging workers’ strikes and organizing outlined above—and millions being evicted during the COVID-19 pandemic despite the federal eviction moratorium, homelessness exploding around the country, indigenous people and environmental allies protesting Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota, and a slew of other important stories —show after show, tweet after tweet, top trending hashtag after top trending hashtag, have decided the most important stories of our time are “leftist A BASHES phony leftist B” or livestreams providing commentary about other people’s commentary on YouTube host wars.
Of course, everyone loves an entertaining food fight from time to time and there’s nothing wrong with internal squabbles on political strategy, ideology, and motivations from time to time with the predictable clickbait-y trash-TV YouTube headlines.
But, unfortunately for the left, this has become the most dominant strand of news and information among independent lefty media for nearly a year—centering around disagreements about Force The Vote—which I was for and still am—as well as whether certain individuals or shows who brand themselves as leftists are, instead, frauds and sheepdogs for the Democratic Party.
And viewers are soaking it: many of the shows and Twitter accounts providing this kind of content as the appetizer, main meal, and desert have seen big subscriber gains, Twitter growth, and more.
It’s good for them but a “dead end” for the left, economist and professor Richard Wolff told Status Coup.
“I’m always depressed by the left in this country,” Wolff told Status Coup. “I ascribe that to having been pushed so far out of the political life of the country as a whole for so long that it has lost sight of what it takes to win. So, if you’ve given up, even if you’re not conscious of it, the idea you can ever win, then you become vulnerable to thinking ‘ok, we can’t win but at least I can be right, have the right answer, the right program, the right analysis’—and that’s a dead end.”
Christian Smalls, the fired Amazon worker whose been stationed outside the Staten Island warehouse for months leading efforts among workers to form Amazon’s first unionized workforce, sees the online leftist wars as an impediment to real change.
“It’s unfortunate and counterproductive to any cause,” Smalls, who’s sat underneath a blue tent outside the warehouse speaking with Amazon workers daily and persuading them to sign cards expressing interest in forming a union, told Status Coup. “My only wish is that the left breaks this cycle of infighting and realize when we come together we can accomplish great things.”
Jay Ponti, a progressive organizer who was so inspired by the 2016 protests he joined at Standing Rock that he shifted to helping form and lead successful financial divestment campaigns against major banks funding the Dakota Access Pipeline, Keystone XL pipeline, and other fossil fuel projects, noted that the current online leftists wars shows a basic misunderstanding of how progressive victories have historically been achieved.
"Consumerism is at the heart of online slackivism and infighting on the left,” Ponti told Status Coup. “The worldview of these so called leftists and progressives are operating out of is rooted in consumer-based cultural conditioning that unconsciously assumes that some invisible force is going to deliver us everything we want—that it is someone else's job to co-create democracy. This infighting and apathy has nothing to do with real organizing. Organizers realize that candidates and YouTube platforms are merely tools and tactics to mobilize the masses.”
Ponti also pushed back against a growing trend on the left of completely disregarding and exiting electoral politics.
“Collective bargaining requires an inside and outside the electoral system strategy, and no theory of change is going to bring about real change on a policy level without both,” Ponti said, adding that if humans are going to survive the climate apocalypse, we’re going to have to operate outside of this worldview and our comfort zones and get out from behind “the keyboard and build broad coalitions with people outside of our echo chambers.”
And for a current worker helping to lead unionizing efforts at Starbucks in Buffalo, the left has to swallow a tough pill.
Purity isn’t power.
“I think the biggest disconnect between online and actual action is online is allowed to be morally pure,” Róisín Doherty, a Starbucks employee currently involved with unionization efforts in Buffalo, told Status Coup, adding that leftists who attack organizers or folks they deem to be un-pure or phony leftists often have no idea just how “complicated and messy the legal and political process” is.
Of course, many leftists will read this and reflexively default to “stop the tone policing!” or, my personal favorite, “stop punching down!”
The truth is, most of the leftists who might react this way, or have been consumed by the online leftist war, are understandably fed up, angry, hopeless and cynical toward politicians, media personalities, and a host of other entities.
And why shouldn’t they be?
They went to the rallies, donated to progressive politicians, knocked on doors for them, made calls for them, or maybe all of the above.
But the question, and answer, isn’t whether we all collectively have a right to rage and want to burn it all down (trust me, after 18 reporting trips to Flint Michigan in five years—which still doesn’t have clean water—I’m right there with you).
If what Richard Wolff says is true—if the left “has lost sight of what it takes to win—the real question becomes what is the online rage left’s strategy to WIN Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, a ban on fracking, a $25 minimum wage (fuck $15), defunding the police, securing real anti-trust and monopoly reform, radically increasing the percentage of unionized workers in America, clean water, and, in my view, the important need for reparations for Black people?
If you ask me, the answer is becoming clearer by the day, and unfortunately, it’s not spending the next five years fighting amongst ourselves on the Internet.
Inhale the energy from workers striking and organizing around America and, after you exhale, connect with people in your community to start organizing local hubs for economic boycotts, mutual aid, digital media strategy, and ways you can support these workers and encourage other workers to fight back.
Along with this, start forming protests outside your local or federal representatives that merge on-the-ground bodies speaking out against them with organized political and financial targeting against their donors.
You might think this is small-ball, long-term strategy type of stuff—but it’s not. The unsexy, less clickbait-y reality is the corrupt system of legalized bribery masquerading as our government was not built overnight and its corruption and evil has been built brick by brick over the course of five decades.
As the workers striking and organizing know: we won’t topple and uncorrupt America overnight. But what we can do is start fighting back and putting some fear into the corporate overlords who’ve bought our politicians, and therefore, our futures.
They also understand the way to instill that fear isn’t through an endless hamster wheel of online rage and lefty purity tournaments, but instead, one strike at a time, one union drive at a time, and ultimately, local economic boycotts that organically grow into a national movement.
The choice is ours.
I hope the left takes a collective deep breath and starts shifting toward actual action.
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-By Jordan Chariton