Report from the Left Forum

On Sunday, June 3rd, Patty Friend, Sheldon Ranz, and I got ready to present our second panel of the weekend: “Domestic Violence: How Capitalism Fails Survivors.” This panel was a little different than most that were offered at Left Forum. Following this year’s theme of “Towards a New Strategy for the Left,” the SD, USA decided to present a series of panels that focused on real, pressing issues and how, as leftists, we can rally to find solutions. Domestic Violence, though not a new concern, is finally gaining national attention. We felt that a discussion about how American Capitalism protects abusers and falters survivors, and to outline some practical solutions, would be a fitting addition to the conference.

Well, it seems we were wrong. Fifteen minutes after we were supposed to start, we were looking at an empty room. While some panels, debating obscurities of leftist purity were packed to standing-room-only, no one showed up until we had already broken down and called it a loss.

The day before, we had a good turn out at our panel “Mental Health in America: The Capitalist Crisis and Socialist Solutions.” We were booked in a day-long series of healthcare related panels. We had a surprising amount of doctors, social workers, and mental health professionals in attendance and we were able to facilitate some great discussion. We also had the opportunity to see a panel, moderated by Howard Waitzkin (author/editor of the book “Health Care Under the Knife”) which offered an array of insight into America’s long-broken health care system.

Coming out of the first day, we were hopeful that the engagement we experienced would continue, but I started seeing the growing bark of sectarian squabbles first thing Sunday Morning. I went to a panel that morning entitled, “What’s left of the Left?” hosted by a delegation from the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). They discussed the current state of affairs in Germany and parallelled them with what is going on here, suggesting that anti-establishment conservatism is on the rise.
One of the speakers also suggested that a huge base of support for people like Trump and Merkel are more interested in finding people from “outside the system” and that is why Trump and Bernie had a lot of the same supporters.

Here is where people in the audience began to push back. For some reason, a “revolutionary” in the audience was so angered at the mention of Bernie Sanders as an outsider, he interrupted them to tell them “Bernie is not an outsider! He is a part of the system, too!” Regardless of your opinions of Bernie as an outsider (and I definitely have some) this outburst speaks volumes about the revolutionary left: they are much more concerned with calling out enemies within the left than they are with actual enemies from the far right. The man had no issue with Trump being seen as an outsider, worthy of popular appeal, but someone who speaks about socialism from a two-party podium could not be stomached.

Someone asked the panel “Why not participate in a REAL leftist party? Isn’t the SPD a bunch of neoliberals?”

To this, the panelist said “Because, I want to get shit done!”

I clapped. Alone.

The point of the conference was coalition building, to connect and strategize so that we can move “Towards a New Strategy for the Left.” I believe the conference was run well and that the organizers are in the right place. The big-ticket panels, featuring Kali Akuna, Ajamu Baraka, and Jane Sanders, were productive and featured a variety of approaches and suggestions on how we can all move forward together. Unfortunately, this message was lost on petty protestors who took these opportunities to grandstand instead of listen and disruptors who had no intention of contributing to the conversation, but came to take away from it.

I commend Left Forum on the unyielding amount of dedication they put into this and I appreciate the opportunity I had to participate. I also plan on attending in the future. Hopefully, as the need for unity and actual progress becomes more apparent, more of the attendees will come in the name of Solidarity.

Audio of the Mental Health panel: https://youtu.be/fK43xHFItJA

Unionism For Millenials

I will never forget a discussion I had last year. A friend of mine was discussing socialism, a word that he admitted was new to his lips. He was explaining why he was a socialist and why Bernie Sanders needed to be president. In response, I mentioned that Hillary Clinton had more support from organized labor and I asked, “how do we reconcile that? How can our socialist flag-bearer not have labor behind him?”

    My friend, without a blink, or trace of sarcasm asked me, “Who cares? What do unions have to do with socialism?” My eyes rolled with a weight I had never experienced.

    I am beyond excited at the level at which social democracy is freely discussed in our political discourse. I know so many people my age (30) and younger who have come to accept, learn, and proselytize these ideas in a truly impressive way. It is exciting. It is also a little scary. Just like any ideology, it dies without a sense of unity (and probably a sense of history).

    Our generation comes with some unique factors. Everything is commoditized. You can make a living sitting on your couch, with a cell phone and a car, or with whatever combination of twenty-first century niceties we have around us. Don’t forget the artists, the academics, and the professional helpers (activists, advocates, etc.) It seems difficult to connect a party line based on labor to the modern workforce, but it must be done.

    The sad fact is, most socialists I have met in the last couple of years have been artists (of all varieties), adjuncts, non-profit workers, part-time retail associates (often with multiple jobs), and low-level corporate managers. Meanwhile, labor elected Donald Trump.

    So, what do we artists, independent workers, and people-centered workers do? There are options. In grad school, I was a GTA, while also working in various settings, providing Drama Therapy services to children. In total, I worked four jobs. I found the Freelancers Union (https://www.freelancersunion.org). While they might not appear to be a formal labor union, they boast 350,000 members under the motto: “Independents. United.”

They will help get you health insurance and they will get you connected with groups of workers who are living just like you. Architects, bloggers, designers…pretty much any profession that works independently, or anyone who is working more than one job is considered a freelancer. They have rallied and fought alongside other unions and are making quite a name for themselves.

I graduated with my masters and found employment at a non-profit agency that helps survivors of domestic and sexual violence. My union membership does not come from this job (though I am often caught whispering a Draper quote, or a Seeger lyric into my co-workers’ ears) but, these unions do exist.

To some, it seems selfish. If your job is about helping people, why would you unionize? The clients come first!

    Of course, the clients come first. However, my line of work is rife with burnout. Non-profits in the human services world experience extremely high turnover. You cannot put a price on helping those who need it, but that does not mean that you should be taken advantage of. Everyone deserves free time. Everyone deserves to be safe. Everyone deserves to have their voices heard. This is why workers with the IFPTE, Local 70 (http://ifptelocal70.org/home/), the SEIU (http://www.seiu.org) and so many, many others have come together.

When I am not working as advocate, I am writing. I am currently a member of the National Writers Union (https://nwu.org). We are officially local 1981 of the United Auto Workers. There are 12 internal branches of the union and their activity ranges from defending free speech, mobilizing for any political activity that threatens our work, and providing legal assistance to writers when their contracts aren’t being honored.

The first  story I ever sold was for $4 and a contributors’ copy. I didn’t get it. I know that a check for $4 and a magazine worth $10 doesn’t sound like a lot, but that is not the point. My work has value. The publisher made money off of it, so should I. If I had been aware of the NWU back then, they could have helped. Of course, there are many options for any creative workers out there.

    Navigating the labor world is complicated. If a movement toward a social democracy is based in the labor movement, we need to organize. Before we do, we need to accept a few things:

 

  1. We creative types do not perform blue collar work. No matter how grim our background, or how much sweat we conjure over our manuscripts and canvases, this remains a fact. I am the first person in my family to finish high school and I worked (and borrowed) my way through college. It’s hard. I get it. No one is saying art is not important. It is essential! However, without the mills and textile plants, our creative vision would remain in our heads.

  2. Our work has value. There are also many ways we get paid: money, contributors’ copies, access to resources, etc. A deal is a deal. There is nothing glamorous in being taken advantage of. Protecting your work from a corporate interest is not selling out. They will make money whether you do, or not. If I never sold a story again, I would keep writing. However, if I do sell a story and they don’t pay me, I will demand what I was promised.

  3. Make sure your work does not come at the cost of others. Your great, new, technologically advanced, well-intentioned idea is sometimes all it takes to push a fellow worker out into the cold.

 

If for no other reason than to meet like-minded people, organize. Protect your work and the work of others. Fight for what is fair, fight for what you deserve. It must remain that (much to my friend’s surprise) unions have everything to do with socialism.