Unions in Science Fiction

I mentioned, a few posts back, that John Barnes was one of the few science fiction authors who took the concept of “memes” seriously. He’s also one of the few that occasionally include a favorable mention of labor unions in his stories. At least, he’s among the few that I’m aware of. There is quite the flood of work labelled “science fiction.” It would be a full time job just to keep up with it, which is another way of saying that I’m not all that hip so maybe there are a lot more such authors these days: IDK.

Most science fiction authors do not consistently write from a particular ideological point of view, so what is it about unions? Part of it is that a good story-teller generally relies upon the reader to supply part of the story. Stories, true or fiction, are collaborative efforts, and the readers who have had direct contact with unions are a distinct minority, and most of those experienced the union the way most of us experience an insurance company. Including unfamiliar plot elements such as unions comes with a cost: You must explain and show as otherwise the readers don’t know. (That’s also one of the reasons most science fiction tales resemble a Dr. Frankenstein’s monster of re-used plot elements.) Another part of it is the assumption that in a futurama future productivity is so great that… why would most people need a union? We’re “post-economic,” right? On the other hand, how few hours a week did the early 20th Century economist John Maynard Keynes predict we would be working by the end of that century? Gee, where did all that time and money go?

Whatever. My ulterior motive in bringing up unions here is as an excuse to quote a paragraph from one of the John Barnes books that I recommended in that previous post, Candle. The series that includes Candle was written around the turn of the century, when failed states seemed to be the likely theme for the 21st Century, including the United States. This is part of a recruiting pitch made to the residents of a Seattle orphanage by the captain of a militia hired to protect that part of the Pacific northwest:

“Burton’s Thugs for Jesus is a union shop, represented by the United Combatants, Engineers, Medics, and Chaplains, and we use the standard UCEMC contract for a battalion-sized unit. You get room and board, medical, dental if we ever get another dentist under contract, and locked-in rent control for basic uniforms and equipment. In the event of combat against other UCEMC units, you have a much better POW contract — which can make a big difference if you’re captured — you keep your seniority without penalty if you elect to defect, and you fight under the strict form of the Hague Convention, so the union is a good deal for most of you, and it’s a flat four percent of your pay. You also pay for your training with a five-percent deduction from your pay for your first year, which I waive if you’re decorated for bravery in combat. You don’t pay any local or episcopal taxes.”

Lest I give the wrong impression, unions appear in only some of Barnes’ works. But even those few inclusions are enough to stand out an otherwise silent or hostile fiction genre. When I finished reading the recruiting pitch for the first time many years ago, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to weep.

But as Billy Bragg sang:

Money speaks for money, the Devil for his own;
Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone?

Democratizing the Economy

a presentation by Olof Palme.

The recording features a presentation at the December, 1980, Eurosocialism and America Conference by Olof Palme (1927 — 1986). At the time, Palme was a leader of the Swedish Social Democratic Party. He was then between two of his stints (1969-1976 and 1982-1986) as Prime Minister of Sweden. At the time, the Swedish Social Democrats were attempting to implement the “Meidner Plan” which would have euthanized the rentier class essentially by buying it out over time.

The Eurosocialism and America Conference was organized by the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC)’s 501c3 arm, the Institute for Democratic Socialism. A few years later, DSOC merged with the New American Movement to form the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The conference was held at a strategic moment, after the pivotal November, 1980, election but before the January change in government. At least a few of Palme’s remarks are directed specifically at this. The conference was a Beltway wonder for a few weeks in that December but was ultimately buried by the flood basalts of the erupting Reagan Revolution.

Olof Palme is introduced by Chicago’s Carl Shier. Shier was an International Representative with the United Auto Workers Region 4 and a leader in the DSOC. While it is true that Olof Palme had many connections with the United Auto Workers, it is also true that a truly surprising number of foreign lefty politicians and union leaders knew Carl Shier, Palme among them.

[Recording time: 56:48]

This particular recording was among the several dozen tapes that Frank Llewellyn from the Democratic Socialists of America’s national office had sent to me sometime after the turn of the century. Allowing for duplications and individual tapes expiring from old age, I guessimated those tapes amounted to at least a week’s worth of full time work. I listened to a few of them and did an inventory, but that’s where I left it.

They remained in my closet for well over a decade. Now, voilà.

“Toyota Man”

When I was watching this short video from Neon Indian, I realized that I had seen it before. And this time I thought it was worth sharing. There’s no memory of why I had decided not to post it before. Maybe because it’s a music video.

In any case, what’s not to like? See if you can spot all the pop references. I only know a few of them. Many others are sufficiently caricatured that they are obviously references but the originals are beyond my ken.

Mr. President

a message for Donald

This is a remastered from the version that was on Randy Newman’s 1974 “Good Old Boys” album.

We’ve taken all you’ve given
It’s gettin’ hard to make a livin’
Mr. President have pity on the working man

We’re not asking you to love us
You may place yourself high above us
Mr. President have pity on the working man

I know it may sound funny
But people ev’rywhere are runnin’ out of money
We just can’t make it by ourself

It is cold and the wind is blowing
We need something to keep us going
Mr. President have pity on the working man

Maybe you’ve cheated
Maybe you’ve lied
Maybe you have finally lost your mind
Maybe you’re only thinking ’bout yourself

Too late to run Too late to cry now
The time has come for us to say good bye now
Mr. President have pity on the working man
Mr. President have pity on the working man

— Randy Newman, 1974

Why We Need Socialism in America

Bob Roman

Happy May Day, folks!

May Day (May 1st) is the international labor day that commemorates all those who have risked life and livelihood for justice in the workplace and in the community and specifically the Chicago martyrs who were unjustly imprisoned and executed as part of the labor movement’s struggle for the 8 hour work day. Normally this day would be marked with parades, rallies, speeches and, yes, picnics and entertainment, but this being the Year of our Plague 2020, we’ll have to do this day online and in our hearts.

That being the case, I decided to post this booklet by Michael Harrington as an appropriate way of making an argument for the occasion. It was originally published as an article (almost the entire issue, apparently) in the May – June, 1970, issue of Dissent Magazine. It was reissued that year as a booklet by The Norman Thomas Fund, a short-lived entity that was intended (I think) to be an educational vehicle for the old Socialist Party – Social Democratic Federation. Much of the content went on to be incorporated into Harrington’s 1972 book “Socialism”. Note the cover price of $1.25. This was not cheap. In March, 2020, dollars that comes to $8.45. This PDF was created for the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America website back when I was serving as the web master.

A lefty Of A Certain Age would remember Michael Harrington because for much of the last third of the 20th Century, he was pretty much the public face of democratic socialism in the United States. I think it was William F. Buckley who observed this was rather like applause for being the tallest building in Wichita. (Or was it Topeka?) So it’s entirely understandable if Harrington is not as well remembered in 2020 as he should be. Also, he did die way back in 1989 — a lifetime ago for some. At times, while Harrington was alive and after, the Democratic Socialists of America as a national organization functioned more or less as the Michael Harrington Permanent Book Tour and Appreciation Society; sooner or later, it is time to move on and this brings a new generation who understandably have an urge to pee on the fire hydrant to make it their own. And finally, if one had (or still has) a devotion to Marxism-Leninism, it may be (for some) uncomfortable remembering someone who was very much a skeptic (at least!) of “real, existing socialism” as the Soviet-bloc was often styled.

Why is Harrington is worth remembering and why this publication in particular? Well, for one thing, the debates over socialism, and policies inspired by socialism, have been going on for a very long time. While the arguments for or against change slowly, it’s worthwhile revisiting them for a fresh perspective. Take a look at this document and decide for yourself how well, or not, Harrington’s argument holds up.

Robert Gorman’s 1995 biography of Harrington was aptly titled Michael Harrington: Speaking American. Harrington had a talent for combining the pragmatism of “what do we do on Monday?” with utopian idealism, and it was that political pragmatism that made his idealism plausible to an American audience. I don’t know that Harrington ever framed it this way, but there is a difference between politics as a means of implementing a philosophy and philosophy as means of guiding one’s politics. I view Harrington as firmly in the latter category. And for a surprising number of American lefties of a certain age, Harrington and this publication in particular strongly informed their politics then and even today.

In the 21st Century, this booklet may be the very definition of TLDR. But if you wish, nonetheless, to read / download the work, CLICK HERE or on this cover thumbnail:

cover

The Shutdown

I’m not sure that this is poetry, but it should be. It may as well be. It is truly amazing:

“Alan Bissett recalls the intense experience of growing up next to one of Europe’s largest petrochemical plants and the harrowing experience of an explosion that temporarily deformed his father.”

Directed, edited & composed by Adam Stafford
Written & performed by Alan Bissett
Filmed, produced & edited by Leo Bruges
Produced & edited by Peter Gerard

Strike as Performance Art

On Saturday October 26, a community support rally for the striking members of the Chicago Teachers Union and the Service Employees International Union Local 73 was held out in Union Park on Chicago’s near West side. (“Union” as in “United States”, though there is a statue of Governor Altgeld there.) For reasons good and not, I did not go. But, to wave the flag in support, here is an example of something that’s been happening on more than one picket line, so I’ve heard.

Chicago Teachers Strike Rally

Photos by Roman.

When I was in school several decades ago, I despised pep rallies. Then I became active in lefty politics. It’s been a lifetime of pep rallies. Here’s the latest, in support of the strike by Chicago Teachers Union Local 1 and Service Employees International Union Local 73.

When I take these photos, I’m mostly looking at two things: the signs and the faces. The faces I keep for myself, mostly. The signs are the politically significant dimension, especially as at so many rallies and demonstrations, it’s nearly impossible to hear the speakers.

Click on any thumbnail below to enlarge it.