Remembering Haymarket: May Day and the Fight for Eight-Hours


This is an interview conducted by Adam Turl with University of Massachusetts-Boston professor and historian James Green on his book Death in the Haymarket. It was originally published in the International Socialist Review in 2007—about eighteen months before the 2008 financial crisis.

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 Original Editor’s Note:

On May 1, 1886, 340,000 workers were involved in strikes and protests across the country for the eight-hour day. Chicago was the hub—65,000 workers struck there. The employers counter-attacked. On May 3, 200 police attacked a group of strikers at Chicago’s McCormick Reaper works, killing four. In protest, 3,000 workers gathered in Haymarket Square the following day. As the protest was breaking up, someone, a police agent or an angry individual, tossed a bomb into the police ranks, killing one (several more were later killed by their own cross-fire).

Police then went on another rampage, killing four workers and injuring hundreds. Eight working-class radicals were arrested and tried. All but one (Oscar Neebe) were sentenced to death. One, Louis Lingg, committed suicide in his cell, one served some prison time, and three (Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, and Oscar Neebe) were later pardoned. Four—August Spies, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, and George Engel—were executed in 1887, even though there was no evidence connecting them to it, and only Spies and Fielden attended the event.

But that didn’t matter to the employers, politicians, and their press. As leaders in the labor movement, anarchists and socialists all, an example had to be made of them. “Anarchy is on trial,” declared prosecutor Julius Grinnell. “These men have been selected, picked out…and indicted because they are the leaders. They are no more guilty than the thousands who follow them. Convict these men, make examples of them, hang them, and you save our institutions, our society.”

August Spies’ last words before his hanging still ring powerfully today: “If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement…then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but there and there, behind you and in front of you and everywhere, flames blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.”

James Green is author of the acclaimed book on the Haymarket tragedy and the struggle for the eight-hour day in Chicago, Death in the Haymarket (Pantheon, 2006)—just released in paperback. He spoke to the ISR’s Adam Turl.

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IN YOUR book, you go over the different social, political, and economic dynamics that fed the struggle for an eight-hour day, both in Chicago and nationally. You quote Karl Marx on the impact of the Civil War, that “the first fruit” of the war “was the eight-hours agitation.” Why did the Civil War have this impact? Why did the initial eight-hours movement in the 1860s eventually decline? And what was the role of the Radical Republicans—the abolitionist wing of the Republican Party at the time—in the initial success and defeat of the eight-hours struggle?

THE CIVIL War aroused mixed feelings among Northern white workingmen. Many immigrants who served in the place of rich young men—who had bought their way out—were unwilling conscripts. But a lot of Northern white workingmen were, and they were a key element of the Union Army. Once the Emancipation Proclamation was declared—making it clear the war aim would affect slavery—workingmen started to think about their own freedom, and felt as though they had an opportunity to end what they called the “slavery of the twelve- or thirteen-hour day.” They made many references to “wage slavery.”

Workers also believed that if the U.S. Congress could amend the Constitution to abolish slavery and create voting rights for Black men, then certainly Congress could create an eight-hour day. Workers invested great hope that this could be the first step towards ending the wage-system and creating some sort of cooperative economy. As a result, in 1866, the first great wave of a national labor movement appeared around the “eight-hour leagues”—beginning in Boston—and becoming popular in cities across the United States. However, this first movement ends badly. A few legislatures pass eight-hour laws, but employers and the courts refuse to obey them. By 1869, the focus is entirely on getting a law passed in Congress for federal employees. The law was enacted, but it is a very small victory compared to the hopes raised in 1866.

There was a great deal of optimism in 1866. It seemed as though the Republican Party was headed by Radical Republicans, who believed in the reconstruction of the South and in depriving the slave-owners of their “property” and franchise in order to empower Black citizens. At the same time, these Radical Republicans were very indebted to the labor vote and seemed supportive of the eight-hour day movement. One of these Republicans was Governor Richard Oglesby of Illinois—who signed the first eight-hour law, which was supposed to go into effect on May 1, 1867. This date marks the first real May Day demonstration by workers.

When employers refused to enact the law—workers in Chicago went on a huge strike which resulted in violence and rioting. Workers never got the eight-hour law enforced. even though Oglesby had signed it. There were some underlying problems, of course, because the Republican Party was the party of manufacturers as well as workers. Ultimately the idea of the eight-hour day conflicted with a fundamental Republican Party principle that there should be no laws that would interfere with “property rights.” The Republicans also considered the “right” of employers to manage employees sacred.

YOU DESCRIBE Chicago as a dynamic city growing up almost overnight—with amazing wealth and grinding poverty, with slums like those that were destroyed in the Great Fire. How did the economic growth—and crisis—in Chicago feed into the eventual resurrection of the movement for the eight-hour day?

CHICAGO WAS caught in the midst of the huge depression that swept America in the 1870s. Before the depression there was the trauma of the Chicago Fire [1871] and anxieties that the crowds displaced by the fire would become mobs—and engage in the sort of things that the people of Paris did during the Paris Commune. There was a fear of communism. That fear heightened during the Great Depression along with huge demonstrations of the unemployed demanding work and bread. This is what radicalizes Albert Parsons and August Spies—who would later become anarchists. In the aftermath of the depression—which gradually comes to an end in 1879—a very strong socialist movement emerges in Chicago. The movement was led by German socialists—young immigrants like Spies, some of whom had followed Marx in Germany—and young Americans like Parsons.

Albert Parsons believed a strong socialist movement needed to follow the prescription put forward by Karl Marx: that is, such a movement needed a mass working-class following. Parsons thought that reviving the eight-hours movement was a way to do that. He began the eight-hours agitation in 1879—though it doesn’t go anywhere for quite a while. The federated trades met in 1884 and declared that on May 1, 1886, there would be a general strike for the eight-hour day. But no one did anything about this until late in 1885—when labor won a big strike. People were emboldened, when the Knights of Labor struck against the mighty Jay Gould Empire. Workers said, “if we can beat Jay Gould—who is the most powerful capitalist in America—maybe we can get the eight-hour day.”

This revived the “eight-hour leagues,” and built into a great movement that swept the United States in the spring of 1886, which culminated in the May 1 walkout. The trades were very much behind a strike for the eight-hour day, as were the revolutionaries, socialists, and anarchists. Parsons, Spies, and the revolutionaries gained quite a working-class following having organized this. In fact, they created their own separate Central Labor Union (CLU) and led some strikes that resulted in achieving the eight-hour day—without any loss of pay. This was a big breakthrough for them.

YOU CITE the Chicago Tribune heralding the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871, and the city elites comforting themselves that nothing like the Commune could happen here. At the same time, as you’ve said, many of the immigrant workers streaming into the city were supporters of the Communards—some were influenced by the ideas of Karl Marx—including August Spies. It is almost as if there were two political worlds developing in opposition to one another in the same city. How did such a divergence develop?

IN THE late 1870s the socialist movement in Chicago was quite strong. In fact, the socialist candidate for mayor made a pretty significant showing in 1879—preventing the Republican mayor from winning re-election. The socialists were very excited about this. Soon, however, they fought it out amongst each other. The militant faction favored direct action and advocated armed struggle, while the smaller, more conservative or conventional faction wanted to keep running socialist candiadates for office. So, by the early 1880s the socialist movement was really reduced to a small warring group of factions. But it revived. The old wing that favored electoral politics faded from the scene and a new militant movement developed that called itself “Social Revolutionary” or “Social Revolutionaries”—led by August Spies, Albert Parsons, and others. They formed an organization called the International Working People’s Association (IWPA).

By 1886, the IWPA established a significant base in immigrant working-class neighborhoods—more so than any other socialist or leftist group had ever achieved in the United States up to that point. They saw themselves as social revolutionaries, or socialists of an anarchist type. They did not believe in a strong central government or state. They rejected the whole idea of a central government with an army, police, and court system, because they believed the capitalists controlled all this state apparatus. By the spring of 1886, the IWPA—energized by the eight-hours movement—appeared as a fairly formidable political force. The rich and powerful of the city were very worried about what this meant. Was it the tip of an iceberg? It was a fairly big tip. There was a daily German anarchist newspaper that reached 20,000 people.

There was a sense that there were two cities developing. The rich were more and more segregated off, and people where living in huge working-class ghettos were the socialists and anarchists were quite active. There was a large middling element of working people—many Irish Catholics and so on—who were not socialists or revolutionary. But they too were swept up into the eight-hours movement. The city was quite polarized by the spring of 1886. The Haymarket bombing then made that division even more serious and traumatic.

ONE OF the striking things about the book is how you present the dynamism of class struggle at the time. One of the key things for the political development of August Spies, Albert Parsons, Lucy Parsons, and the Haymarket martyrs appears to be the repression of the 1877 strikes. Albert Parsons runs for office—and believes the election was stolen from him—then turns to more radical positions and begins to call himself an anarchist. How did the 1870s struggles change the leaders of the 1886 fight for the eight-hour day?

IF YOU were a worker in Chicago in 1873—at the beginning of the depression—you were caught up in the unemployment movement and most likely the demonstrations for relief, which were strongly discouraged by the city authorities. Then, in 1877, something more serious occurred: an insurrection—or uprising—against the effects of the depression, which was put down very brutally by the police. People were killed. This had a profound effect on these young radicals. At first, they said, we have to take over the government and run our own police force. They made very aggressive attempts to get elected to office as socialists—through the Workingman’s Party. They achieved a certain amount of success. They even elected some aldermen.

But by 1880, they began to feel as if the deck was stacked against them—that they had been cheated out of office. So that radicalized them. Acting under the right they believed they had under the Second Amendment to form a “well-regulated militia and bear arms,” they formed a workers’ militia. They did this because of what happened in 1877, and because they believed the police and militia were being used against workers and strikers. They formed what they believed was a legal entity.

However, this was outlawed by the state legislature. Parsons and Spies believed the Second Amendment had been violated and abrogated for workers—but that business could have their own militia. That put them on a revolutionary road—that what was developing was not some election they could win, but a direct confrontation with the police, militia—with what was a new element in the picture, the Pinkertons, or privately employed guards.

These socialists began to advocate armed self-defense, armed struggle and they increasingly looked to anarchist thinkers—like Bakunin and Johann Most. They adopted an ultra-revolutionary position, and, at the same time, they were busy organizing their own unions. In that sense, they didn’t stop being Marxists. They didn’t believe that acts of violence in themselves would create a revolution. They believed there had to be a strong organization of working people. What they had in mind was the Paris Commune—the model where the workers, shopkeepers, and artisans of Paris took over the city, ran it, and had their own national guard. The Parisian National Guard in 1871 was the armed force of the workers and people of Paris. It managed to defend the city and the new Commune for a month against the French army. I think that is what Parsons and Spies had in mind—creating a Chicago Commune.

There were enough workers in Chicago who shared that feeling that the situation was quite desperate and was leading toward a violent confrontation. Out of this confrontation the socialists and anarchists believed a new society would come. Their enemies were always claiming that the anarchists were trying to create chaos and violence, but they were not terrorists or assassins. They believed they had to have a mass uprising behind them to take power.

THERE SEEMS to be overlap between the anarchism of several of the Haymarket martyrs and their socialist and Marxist ideas. You’ve described Chicago as something of a center for radical politics. How did the different ideas mix in the city among activists like Parsons? For example, some of the radicals seemed to think that trying to resurrect the eight-hours movement wasn’t radical enough, but Parsons and Spies threw themselves into a renewed eight-hours struggle.

BOTH PARSONS and Spies—and the other anarchists—were skeptical that the eight-hour victory could ever be achieved. They believed that the employers wouldn’t agree to it without a violent attack to defend their “rights” as property owners. But they believed in the eight-hour movement as a great rallying cry and ideal that would mobilize people—and indeed it did.

The anarchists believed that the state would be used against them—that they could never gain state power peacefully through an election. Furthermore, they came to believe that the state itself was the problem: that it wasn’t simply a matter of overthrowing capitalism but of getting rid of the state apparatus that sustained it. In modern terms, they were some of the first people to talk about something called “state capitalism.”

That was another reason they broke with the older German socialists who really worshipped the state—the question of a Hegelian ideal of the state being the perfection of human endeavor—and all workers had to do was “take it over.” The anarchists didn’t believe that and they thought the state would always work against the working class. They believed the working class had to have its own institutions and its own militia, its own communal forms of decision-making.

YOU DESCRIBE how Mayor Carter Harrison tried to do a balancing act throughout the period, relying on both the graces of the wealthy and the votes of the city’s workers. But in 1885, there was an incident at the Reaper Works, and the police brutally repressed a group of striking workers. That seems to be the end of the balancing act. You write, “By the end of 1885, Chicago’s working-class districts were seething with discontent.” There is also the rapid growth in the IWPA in Chicago. How widespread were radical, socialist, and anarchist ideas among Chicago’s workers at that point? Is it fair to say that the increasingly radical rhetoric of the internationalists was striking a chord among larger groups of workers?

HARRISON WAS trying to restrain the police. In certain strikes in 1883 and 1884, employers complained quite bitterly that police were not being used to protect strikebreakers. Then, in the summer of 1885, the mayor decided he had to let the police do what the employers wanted, so they broke a strike and brutally beat scores of workers. The police came in as a garrison into the McCormick Harvester Works. At this point, the mayor was no longer completely in control of the police.

On the night of May 3, 1886, the police killed two strikers in a struggle at the McCormick Works, which led the anarchists to call for the Haymarket protest rally. Without those police killings, there probably would not have been a demonstration in the Haymarket that night—maybe not even a bombing.

Police brutality became a principal point of provocation and a rallying point for the IWPA. I think this really helped them make their case.

Take a more contemporary analogy: the Black Panthers in 1969 and 1970—where young Black men had been shot, there were race riots in 1968 and there seemed to be a war that police were launching against Black youth and young Black men in the ghettos. The Black Panthers built a political party and movement around armed self-defense—around fighting the police. Something like that was going on in Chicago in 1885 and 1886.

In a positive way there was also the enormous enthusiasm for the eight-hour day and the key nonviolent role the anarchists were playing in it—which gave [the IWPA] a hearing and created a following for them, particularly among Germans and Czechs in the city of Chicago. I don’t know how you would exactly “rank” the size of the movement. Their paper had 20,000 subscribers—there were a lot of people reading it—and they had a thousand or so hard-core members, and many more were in their union, the Central Labor Union. The CLU had more members in the spring of 1886 than the mainstream trade union that would soon become a part of the American Federation of Labor.

Nowhere else in the world did revolutionaries have the kind of following among workers on the scale of what they had in Chicago. Not in London or Paris, and certainly not in Germany, where Bismarck had outlawed the socialist movement. European workers viewed Chicago as the world’s premiere “red city”—even though it was by no means a majority of the working class. It was a significant minority—a militant minority that was certainly moving very much to the left.

YOU REFER to the 1886 struggle as “The Great Upheaval,” and discuss Chicago as the center of a massive wave of protests and strikes that swept the nation, with some 610,000 workers going out by the end of the year. What were the dynamics in the course of the struggle leading up to the events in the Haymarket?

THE LEADERS of the eight-hour movement—including Albert Parsons—hoped that the movement could be peaceful. They did not want a violent outcome. They knew that everything would be lost. Parsons even thought that if it worked, it might be a peaceful solution to the conflict between capital and labor, and it was a peaceful movement until the night of May 3.

It is true that the eight-hour movement and the enormous strike created a lot of tension. The police were going to move at some point. Maybe they didn’t have to kill people, but they did—and that is what turned it from a peaceful mass protest into a smaller protest of the Left against police brutality.

ON MAY 4, a mass meeting is called for Haymarket Square to “denounce the latest atrocious act of the police, the shooting of our fellow-workmen yesterday afternoon” at the Reaper Works. Very few people arrive at the meeting, and even though the mayor was there and believed things were winding down, the police ordered the crowd to disperse, and somebody threw a bomb into their ranks. August Spies spoke that night in Haymarket Square. But very few of those who would later be charged in the bombing were present. What do we know happened and didn’t happen in the Haymarket that night?

IT REMAINS a mystery in some ways. Spies was charged with lighting the bomb and giving it to another anarchist who threw it. But there was plenty of contradictory testimony against that. The other anarchist who was present [in the Haymarket] was Sam Fielden. He was charged with shooting at the police when they arrived—which he didn’t do. So it is not quite clear who did throw the bomb at the police. But it clearly was not one of the men who were charged or later executed. In fact, the state charged them with being conspirators based on circumstantial evidence. They were convicted for what they said about armed struggle and the use of dynamite rather than what they did.

There is a lot of speculation about who did throw the bomb. The anarchists themselves and their defense lawyers—and some people in the labor movement—always believed it was an agent provocateur, a Pinkerton, or an off duty policeman who knew that it would create chaos, a red scare, and reaction—all of which it did. The historian who studied this most deeply, Paul Avrich believed that it probably was an unidentified anarchist. There were plenty of bombs being made. One of the men who was charged and convicted for the death of seven policemen was Louis Lingg. He confessed to making bombs. His defense attorney argued there was nothing illegal about making a bomb, that it was a form of self-defense. These bombs were distributed in various parts of the city. So someone, maybe an angry worker who had been at McCormick’s the night before, may have said, “here’s another case where the police are about to shoot us, let’s break their ranks up before they kill us.”

It is impossible to prove either scenario—but we do know that the men who were charged were not the actual perpetrators.

YOU DESCRIBE a frenzy that was whipped up by the press about bomb-throwing anarchists and the “dangerous class.” The press described the anarchists in racist terms, “Slavic wolves” and “incendiary vermin.” In the trial “every man on the jury” was native born, and mainly middle class, even though the martyrs were almost all immigrants and from working-class backgrounds. How much of a factor was racism in whipping up public opinion against the anarchists? Did the backlash break down at all, as more and more people became interested in the events surrounding what amounted to a show trial?

IT IS difficult today to think of racism directed by Americans against Germans—who after all, were Caucasians themselves—but the language that was being used, “Slavic wolves” and “incendiary vermin” was clearly meant to say these people were sub-human and demonic characters. This was somewhat like the way white Americans were describing the Chinese
or African Americans. It wasn’t strictly speaking “racism,” but xenophobia, and it was a kind of racism because some immigrants were seen as being from “inferior racial stock.”

When some WASPs saw another group of people who were “dangerous,” the charges against “aliens” became even more hysterical and lethal: these are people who need to be “exterminated.” Of course they were really exterminating the Indians on the frontier. But in this case they meant the leaders—the leaders “needed” to be put to death. They figured that if they cut the head “the head off the anarchist snake,” the rest of these immigrants would be safe from these “evil influences.”

Once Spies and Parsons and six other anarchists went to court, an enormous amount of attention was given to the trial by the press in Chicago—and across the country and even abroad. The press began to describe that these men appeared to be quite normal, sane, civilized, and even somewhat charming characters. They did not appear to be the demonic crazed terrorists the press had made them out to be. By the time their appeals had failed and their sentences were to be carried out there was broad sympathy, even in Chicago for clemency: for commuting their sentences.

There was a growing feeling that these men did not really commit the bombing. It was hard to believe that they should be charged with murder and executed, but of course, they were. That made them martyrs. Workers all around the world, particularly in South America, Spain, and Italy, believed them to be innocent victims of the struggle for workers’ emancipation. That is how their memory survived for so long.

IN 2006 there were mass protests on May Day in Chicago for the first time since the 1940s—in demonstrations against the anti-immigrant Sensenbrenner legislation. The 2006 protests in many areas included strikes, or boycotts of work that day. I was struck reading your book that the 2006 protests were organized in some of the same neighborhoods—such as Pilsen—as the 1886 demonstrations. What was the dynamic between the immigrant organizations and clubs and social class in the 1886 struggle? For example, the Lehr und Wehr Verein appears to be both an organization of German immigrants and a workers’ militia.

I WAS on the show, Democracy Now on May Day of 2006, discussing my book with Amy Goodman. It was really quite remarkable to look at the footage that was coming in from Chicago and Los Angeles, seeing immigrants on the streets exactly 120 years later. You could not help but notice some of the similarities. This was a demonstration against anti-immigrant legislation. It wasn’t a labor demonstration, per se—except that these immigrants seemed to be saying, “we’re not just on the streets because we are immigrants, but because we are workers, too—and we want the rights that native-born citizen workers have.” In that sense, there were stunning similarities. The fact these protesters chose May 1 as the day to culminate their protests was certainly symbolic and resonant with the past and tradition.

Furthermore, the way these demonstrations were organized were similar in some respects to the way the 1886 demonstrations were organized—not just by trade unions and craft unions but by community-based organizations, workers’ centers, groups that were functioning in immigrant neighborhoods today—in some ways very much like the way the IWPA was functioning in Pilsen, Bridgeport, and other immigrant neighborhoods in Chicago 120 years ago. So, maybe, when it comes to globalization, what comes around goes around.

DURING THE campaign to free the martyrs, the leader of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, wrote a letter to the governor, arguing that he stop the executions lest it make martyrs of the anarchists. In the execution courtyard—which is still a part of the Cook County jail—Spies made his famous speech that “the time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” Do you think that Gompers and Spies’ predictions—coming from different political ends of the labor movement—have proven true?

THE HAYMARKET anarchists were remembered for much longer than anyone would have thought. In the U.S., their memory was suppressed for a while—except among a small group of anarchists— but when the celebration of May Day revived in 1907 their memory was restored. People like Emma Goldman, Bill Haywood, and Eugene Debs became mainstream figures. For all of them the Haymarket case was the critical event of their youth. By the time they became mature radicals during the Progressive Era they were talking about the Haymarket martyrs. They became a group that was also remembered by civil libertarians. When the Sacco and Vanzetti case arose, people remembered what happened in Chicago in 1887.

Gompers was right about them becoming known as martyrs around the world. It was quite remarkable how powerful their memory was created in Cuba, Mexico, Uruguay. The memory was reproduced by anarchists particularly, but by socialists as well, who organized the first labor unions in South America and Mexico. The Leftists who organized almost all these early unions thought of the Chicago martyrs as the founding figures in the modern labor movement.

Mother Jones, near the end of her life in the 1920s, recalled Chicago (she was there too) in 1886 and 1887: “Labor leaders don’t have any courage anymore. They are dining with, and cooperating with the employers. But in those days, people really knew what the cause of labor meant, those were the days of the martyrs and the saints.” The idea was that these men were somehow both the saints and martyrs of the labor movement. Their lives and deaths took on an almost religious significance in parts of the world. That lasted for a long time. When I go to Europe now, there is still knowledge of this. In fact, my book is being translated into Greek and maybe Italian. This is still an important story of America around the world.

Even, to some extent, in the United States, the story was revived in 1986 when Studs Terkel went on National Public Radio and talked about it. It came up after 9/11 with Molly Ivins writing in her column on the USA Patriot Act, that we’ve been through this before with the mistakes made after Haymarket. From my perspective as an author, I have been quite amazed at the response to my book from mainstream readers. If you look it up on there are about ten reviews. None of the reviews are by academics—a couple of them are by leftists—but otherwise they are by very mainstream people who see this as an important American story that has been covered up and forgotten.

I would like to see this as a timeless story, like Sacco and Vanzetti, a case that will never really die as long as there are immigrants and workers and struggles for social justice, these men will be recalled from history.

LUCY PARSONS also figures throughout that story of Haymarket as a major organizer. What was her role in the struggle for the eight-hour day, and what spared her the same fate as her husband? What role did she play in keeping alive the memory of the eight-hour struggle, her husband, and other comrades?

LUCY PARSONS was very much a part of the movement and the IWPA. In fact, she was a quite outstanding figure, because, along with her husband Albert, everyone else in the movement—except for William and Lizzie Holmes—were German, English, or Czech immigrants. So she really stood out. As she was a woman of color, it was even more extraordinary, because Black women were not to be seen in public. They did not go out and give speeches. They certainly did not call for the revolution. She was a very notorious character. After the bombing, one of the leading Chicago newspapers called for here arrest, sentencing, and execution. In one of his last parting shots at the authorities, Albert Parsons wrote the governor, that he should delay his execution so that his wife could be executed with him, as she was there too: “So if I am guilty, we are all guilty.”

Lucy Parsons was so traumatized by her husband’s execution that it became an obsessions with her. She dedicated her life to preserving her husband’s memory. She suffered greatly for it and was arrested many times, being viewed all the way through the 1920s as “a dangerous woman.” Like Emma Goldman or Mother Jones, she would come to a town and the police would not let her speak. They would arrest her.

But she never gave up. She moved on to other cases, Tom Mooney, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro Boys. She moved away from anarchism and the “propaganda of the deed” and into the orbit of the Communist Party—partly I think because the Communist Party was organizing all these defense campaigns very much like the ones she had participated in for her husband.

After the execution of the anarchists in 1887, Parsons became well known in some European radical circles, and then became something of a forgotten figure. When she died, many thought of her as an eccentric old woman who continued to carry a torch. But then she was rediscovered in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s by young socialists, feminists and Black militants and has become quite famous again.

THE EIGHT-hour day has become more and more of a memory for workers in the United States. Human Rights Watch has reported many migrant workers are forced to work up to fourteen hours a day What do you think of the prospects for a new eight-hour day movement in the United States?

IT IS always difficult for history to repeat itself. The phenomenon that we have now, in the early twenty-first century is the compulsion to work more hours. Overtime pay is a very strong motive. A lot of people are working two jobs.

There was a logic to the eight-hour day movement a hundred years ago that was very compelling. People were working for one employer and there was no overtime. People weren’t getting any extra money for working extra hours. The context has changed. I don’t know how today’s workers would respond. First of all, the forty hour week is supposed to have been achieved by a federal law. You are not supposed to be forced to work for more than eight hours. You could say that we should make sure the law is enforced.

A century ago the eight-hour movement was a rallying point, a universal demand, that became associated with May Day—which was an internationalist celebration. Eduardo Galeano calls it the only really universal day in humanity. It isn’t religious or nationalist—it’s internationalist. This is what is missing today. If there were a revival of the labor movement in this country and all over this hemisphere it would probably be the result of workers grabbing onto something like that again. Maybe it would be the six-hour day. The problem with wage demands is that people are paid in such different ways. Some people get salaries, some get hourly wages. What the shorter workday does is really unify everyone.

Would American workers say, “we want more paid family leave?” “We want more early retirement?” I think what’s problematic is the state of the engines for creating that kind of movement. We love to say that national health care would rally people around. It should. Why hasn’t it? That is what we are looking for right now: something like the eight-hour day to really give people the sense that everybody would gain.

Furthermore, it should be a step to something more. The eight-hour day movement wasn’t just an end in itself. It was the first step towards creating a new society where workers would have more time to be citizens, to be socialists, to be whatever they wanted to be—and therefore would engage much more in politics.

I think that’s the part of the eight-hour demand that people have forgotten. It wasn’t just two to three extra hours a day to spend in a saloon—although some people wanted to use it that way. The fathers of the eight-hour day felt that if workers were working all day they could never become political people. You could say that about today’s immigrants. Where are they to find the time to get involved in social struggle? The fact is this past May 1, people had to not show up for work just so they could go on the demonstration.

I hope people look back on that, read Death in the Haymarket, and feel like something like this—something like the eight-hour day—is the kind of universal demand that workers need once again. A few years ago I thought it was the “living wage”—and maybe that might be the right demand. But workers have to grab onto it themselves. It isn’t just something that activists can be talking about. That is what happened in 1886: the workers took up the demand, made it their own, and acted on it.

Adam Turl will graduate from SIU in May 2014 and will begin working on an MFA at Washington University in St. Louis in the fall. He is on the editorial board of


Get to Know a Steward: James Anderson

j_andersonFor the ninth installment in our Get to Know a Steward series, the GAU Communications Committee asked our very own James Anderson, Steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, as well as Co-chair of the GAU Legislative & Political Action Committee, several questions about his life, growing up in Illinois, love of journalism and Amy Goodman, Noam Chomsky and rumors about James’ intentions to run for GAU Vice President of Communications when elections roll around.

GAU Communications Committee: Where are you originally from, and what brought you to SIU?

James Anderson: I’m originally from Greenville, Ill., which is about 45 miles east of St. Louis. I came to Carbondale from Springfield, Ill., after getting a master’s in communication at the University of Illinois Springfield. (I received a bachelor’s from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.) I came to SIU to get a doctorate in mass communication and media arts and to get teaching/research experience as a Graduate Assistant.

GAU: Talk more about growing up in Illinois. Who were the major influences on you during your early years?

Anderson: I spent most of my formative years growing up in a small rural town. It was somewhat cloistered, but not in the privileged way associated with certain suburban areas in the Chicagoland area, or like the affluent parts of some urban areas after gentrification. Greenville is in many ways a rural working class town. It also has pockets of affluence, partly attributable to the small Christian college in the town. And it has some abject poverty – some rural precariat.

My mother taught eighth grade literature at the junior high school in Hillsboro, Ill., which is about 20 miles from Greenville. She helped foster in me at a young age an appreciation for pedagogy, love of learning and passion for reading. Although not radical by any stretch, she was also a member of the teacher’s union when she taught. Ma encouraged me to be active as well, and gave me the necessary freedom when I was a lad to try some things that in retrospect might have been a little life threatening – like back-flipping off the roof of our shed onto a trampoline.

My grandmother, an extremely well-read woman who will turn 83 in mid-May, was another major influence. Along with loans, a University dining services job, a little aid and assistance from mom and dad, she helped me pay for college when I was an undergrad.

My sister and I also watched a lot of television growing up. For example, “The Simpsons” first premiered when I was about 5 years old, and I grew up with the show. So I’m sure the sarcastic repartee of Bart Simpson was a major influence.

Similarly, I read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and George Orwell’s “1984” in junior high around the time I started listening to the music of Rage Against The Machine, Public Enemy and other groups with similar outlooks to those two, which radicalized me in different ways.

GAU: You’re pursuing a doctoral degree in journalism. Can you help us understand, why such a poor life choice? Haven’t you heard journalism is dying? Kidding! But really, why?

Anderson: I’m actually getting a PhD in Mass Communication and Media Arts, which is broader. But point taken.

Let me provide some more background on my intellectual work in order to explain the way journalism and media function in contemporary society.

For my master’s thesis, I used the “propaganda model” (PM) outlined by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their book, “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media,” which suggests institutional filters (e.g. concentrated ownership, reliance on advertising revenue) help ensure mainstream media coverage remains within narrow ideological parameters reflecting elite consensus. So debate can rage and divergent views can be reported, but through omissions and framing, the coverage that would challenge hegemonic assumptions (e.g., critiques of capitalism, reporting on US war crimes, double standards in foreign policy) get filtered out or marginalized. Insofar as mass media remains a capitalist institution – and as a result major media conform to the postulates of the PM, which is not difficult to demonstrate – then robust journalism, in the main, is a near impossibility. As media ownership consolidation continues apace, and the Internet is making the old advertising model insufficiently profitable for many media organizations, journalism takes an even heavier hit. With new Federal Communications Commission rules that militate against a free and open Internet by privileging agglomerated private power that stands to benefit by being allowed to pay more for faster content delivery, communications systems suffer and journalism is indirectly, adversely affected.

Even so, there are at present burgeoning alternative media projects that challenge conventional journalistic norms and push beyond capitalist institutional constraints in exciting ways. Amy Goodman, my always and forever unrequited love, hosts Democracy Now, an independent grassroots global news hour, covering significant stories corporate media ignores while also often offering a level of context and analysis necessary for understanding.

I periodically cover social movements, protests and heterodox challenges to dominant ways of doing for Truthout, an independent media outlet providing in-depth investigative reporting and critical analyses. Truthout is one of several sites breathing life back into, stimulating and transforming journalism today. ZNet, Counterpunch, Toward Freedom, Truthdig, Inter Press Service, the Independent Media Center network and The Intercept – a new media venture started by Jeremy Scahill, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras – are just a handful of others trying to do that as well.

GAU: How and when did you get involved in GAU?  Why are you passionate about union work? Why are you on fire for economic justice?

I met with Jim Podesva, former GAU president, as soon as I started my first semester at SIU back in 2010. Unions have traditionally been what economist John Kenneth Gailbraith called a “countervailing power” – a potent force protecting working people from the ravages of a system predicated on private control of productive property, exploitative expropriation of surplus value and ceaseless accumulation of capital at the expense of democratic self-management and life, generally.

Whether the university is value-generating in the capitalistic sense is up for debate. (David Harvie – not to be confused with geographer David Harvey, who teaches Marx’s “Capital” and offers free video lectures from the course online – has an interesting journal article, “Value production and struggle in the classroom: Teachers within, against and beyond capital,” arguing that labor at university is in fact value-producing.)

But the university is indubitably a site for struggle and contemporary contestation of injustice. Academia is rife with hierarchy, which I consider a violent (or oppressive) form of power relations. That hierarchy is institutionalized. The violence is exacerbated by the business model approach to education and the authoritarian structure that entails. It’s also reflected in part by egregious administrative pay – our incoming president is poised to make $430,000 when he starts in July – co-existing alongside near poverty level wages for grad assistants who pay about two months of their salaries back to the university in fees each year. It’s also apparent in the coercive work relations that exist between graduate students who work under professors who, despite pretenses of radical democratic ethos, too often contribute to the super-exploitation of GAs so as to reduce workloads for themselves. Without neglecting the increase in precarious academic jobs writ large, many professors are still in a position of privilege. It’s unjust that they should be able to make 10 times as much as those working underneath them make – if not a lot more – and still shift the burden of work onto grads, as surely happens more often than we like to admit. The positions of power some professors are in all too often – but expectedly – engenders apathy, indifference or complicity in the violence done to GAs.

Even as adjunct positions replace tenure-track jobs and GAs increasingly provide cheap labor allowing the university to eliminate tenured professor spots, the cowardice and complacency of some professors in positions of privilege impinges upon graduate student struggles for fairness.

The student-worker union at the University of California, UAW local 2865, went on a two-day, system-wide strike in early April because of ongoing intimidation from the university and the administration’s refusal to negotiate certain work conditions. Malcolm Harris wrote an opinion piece for Al Jazeera America assailing the attitudes “of faculty members who are too cowardly to stand in solidarity with the people who make their work possible.” As Harris explained, famed critic of neoliberalism, Wendy Brown, ironically sent an email critiquing students for inveighing against a 32 percent fee increase. “Such people clearly have nothing to teach about labor struggle; they have more in common with the right-wing cartoon of ‘radical’ professors who preach Marx during the day and return to their houses in the Berkeley Hills at night to sip merlot and complain about their gardeners,” Harris wrote with hilarious veracity apropos the irony.

I reported on the strike for Truthout. Covering the story, I got the sense that disgust with factions of the faculty at UC has been pervasive. Sadly, I have seen similar disconnects between those of us struggling to survive in the neoliberal university and the sensibilities of professors. Cowardice and callous indifference are traits among certain sections of the professorial class not limited to California. I have no respect for professors in California, Illinois or anywhere else that support, if only tacitly, covert privatization (in the form of tuition hikes for undergrads and fee increases for all students), privation of graduate students and undue stress on grad student workers through excessive workloads, which always comes on top of tough coursework, making it that much harder to hang in there. By virtue of their positions, many professors have a kind of agency, which could be used as part of a praxis oriented around socioeconomic justice. Some exercise their agency in that way, but not enough.

Part of that has to do with the stratified institutional structure within which they are ensconced.  Those institutional roles characteristic of the administration and some professors reinforce relations of “power-over,” which I also consider a kind of structural violence. More broadly, I’d argue structural violence is a necessary part of the capitalist world economy. But it’s not a necessary feature of human organization.

With the advent of neoliberalism, a public pedagogy promoting an ethic of market worship in conjunction with a political project for concentration of political and economic power wrapped in ideological rhetoric of equality and freedom, unions have been under systematic attack. The idea that working people should have a say in the work that they do simply cannot be tolerated. Democracy, which to me means a process whereby people have a say in the decisions being made in proportion to the degree to which they are affected by those decisions, just cannot be allowed in the economic sphere.

But in addition to being the driving force behind basic aspects of economic justice like the 8-hour work day, weekends, adequate remuneration, employment grievance procedures, etc., unions have historically also played an underappreciated role in democratizing workplaces and society. There’s a whole radical history of unionism that needs recuperating.

For instance, the Knights of Labor recognized back in the 1880s that the working class would suffer if divided, so the integrated union included both black and white members in projects to promote worker and farm co-operatives for a 10 year period, as Jessica Gordon Nembhard documented. In her new book, “Collective Courage: A History of African-American Economic Thought and Practice,” Nembhard describes how organized labor complimented the highly efficient forms of mutual aid found throughout black communities throughout history. Likewise, in Spain throughout the 1930s, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (National Confederation of Labor; CNT), an anarcho-syndicalist union, augmented a libertarian collectivism ethos and helped create a short-lived comunismo libertario society for several months at the onset of the Spanish Civil War. The CNT catalyzed decentralized, direct democratic collectivized ownership of farm land and cooperatively self-managed workplaces, even abolishing money in some areas, until the revolution was crushed by the combined forces of Francisco Franco’s fascist army, the Moscow-controlled Spanish Communist party, foreign capitalist “democracy” and the war effort.

More recently, the United Steelworkers have connected struggles across time and space, and are working with the Mondragón Corporation, a half-century old worker-owned enterprise located in the Basque region of Spain, to create a string of unionized worker co-operatives throughout the US. And after two occupations led by a union, UE Local 1110, at the Republic Windows & Doors factory, the first of which took place back in 2008 in Chicago, the workers bought the factory collectively. Kari Lydersen, a Chicago-based journalist, covered the story extensively as it evolved, and later published “Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What It Says About the Economic Crisis,” a book that developed from her reporting on the occupation and take-over. The place is known now as New Era Windows, and it’s worker-owned and democratically controlled.

Historic and contemporaneous examples alike illustrate potential for revolutionizing existing-institutions in emancipatory ways through unionization and collective action that can take us beyond oppressive mainstays of the capitalist mode of production. Richard Wolff, professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, advances this sort of “social movement for a new economy,” termed “democracy at work,” which articulates one vision for deepening economic democracy. Wolff advocates for worker self-directed enterprises (workplace arrangements wherein those who produce a surplus democratically decide how it is distributed).

Capitalism – and education that reproduces it – is incompatible with economic justice, so these are the sorts of developments and ideas everyone concerned with economic justice should think through. The role of union activism in such a movement is still very much open.

It’s worth pointing out too that worker co-operatives at this stage are still producing for a market, and market systems have serious in-built problems that do violence to humans. To be sure, economic democracy at the enterprise level ameliorates some of the alienation associated with selling labor power and producing goods for their exchange value – and it helps militate against the super-exploitation that gets normalized by commodity fetishism. But, when worker co-operatives face market competition it can result in a kind of collectivized self-exploitation. Market-based exchange also generates externalities. That is, actors in an exchange take into account the cost and benefits to themselves pertaining to the transaction, but not necessarily the effects on others. So, due to a profit squeeze, corporations might disregard externalities like severe environmental degradation that stem from production, consumption or allocation of the commodities exchanged.

There are ways to mitigate effects of externalities in a primarily market-based economy. Gar Alperovitz, author of “America Beyond Capitalism,” and proponent of a “Pluralist Commonwealth,” model, discusses how to democratize wealth and ownership through networked worker co-ops buoyed by the purchasing power of anchor institutions, like universities. A report from the Democracy Collaborative, “Raising Student Voices,” shows ways in which students can mobilize to democratize the university and the economy based on community-oriented procurement.

Anchor institutions, like universities, cannot just pick up and offshore production, leaving a de-industrialized wasteland as evidence of growing global labor arbitrage. With the network co-op and anchor institution structure characteristic of Alperovitz’s model, those most affected by the decisions often have some say, albeit an institutionalized one, in making them. The networked relationship strengthens the democratic thrust of worker-ownership, potentially limits externalities and protects against precarious labor.

Another germane model is Michael Albert’s “Participatory Economics,” an envisaged system of participatory planning with worker and consumer councils (instead of markets) and balanced job complexes to eliminate the hierarchical structures of both capitalist and state socialist economies characterized by the presence of a “coordinator class” – including doctors, lawyers and some college professors – who monopolize the creative and empowering work. Parecon seeks to address coordinatorism while also removing mechanisms, like markets, which trample upon the very values and conditions of solidarity many of us would like to promote.

Perhaps some important work could be done extending the general critique of the coordinator class, along with the broader vision for a properly participatory society not extricated from our fundamental social relations, and relating it to education.

And rather than just promoting a predetermined blueprint for posterity, it’s imperative to recognize cracks in the edifice of domination as well – the micro-political ways in which people refuse oppressive conditions of coerced abstract labor, and the evidence of desire for greater self-determination regarding the fundaments of our social reproduction.

Those cracks and straight-up collective resistance – like the two-day UAW local 2865 student-worker strike at the University of California in early April – should both be recognized as singularities in a shared struggle for economic justice.

Theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, argue in “Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire,” that the older form of trade unionism “is no longer sufficient,” and must be transformed so as to go beyond traditional industrial divisions. Drawing on the work of Kim Moody, they suggest a new mode of “social-movement unionism,” merging unions with powerful social movements as part of an initiative “to create labor organizations that can represent the entire network of singularities that collaboratively produce social wealth.” Examples include, the “piqueteros,” movement of unemployed workers in Argentina, which Marina Sitrin discussed in “Everyday Revolutions,” in relation to the emergence of horizontalidad after the economic crisis hit the country hard in 2001. Sitrin, another unrequited love and intellectual crush of mine, recently wrote “They Can’t Represent Us!” with Dario Azzellini. The book reflects a lot of the work Sitrin and Azzellini have done documenting burgeoning direct democratic organizational forms corresponding with the tendency and movement of significant portions of society toward rejection of liberal capitalist democracy and disavowal of the associated, demobilizing hegemony of representative democracy. As Sitrin explained in a talk she gave with Azzellini at Central European University on March 26, unions usually are not the driving force behind this recuperation of agency through collective self-organization in assemblies and participatory forums from Greece, to Spain, to Occupy in the US. But, she noted, there are exceptions.  And perhaps we should be creating more spaces of exception — and “moments of excess,” of over-flowing, ec-static processes of projecting beyond what is —  to challenge the dominant mode of doing things while also doing what we can to eliminate exploitation and to take care of each other without appeals to concentrated power.

“In any case,” Hardt and Negri averred in their co-authored book, “a union worthy of the name today—and worthy of the legacy of labor struggles—must be the organized expression of the multitude, capable of engaging the entire global realm of social labor.”

In my view, the movement must be explicitly pedagogical, and unions within the educational sphere will play an important role. Activists in the Chicago Teachers Union just recently helped create the Network for Social Justice Unionism. Michelle Gunderson, a CTU member involved in the new NSJU project, said in an interview that a more militant unionism extending to the social and political realm, has piqued interest of “many higher education unions,” who have championed these aims because “when you start wanting democracy for yourself, and when you actually experience it, you want it for your students as well.”

And as Cornel West told GAUnited backstage after his April 17 lecture in Shryock, the university is “absolutely” still a site for contestation, transformation and unionization.

At SIU, that contestation can take the form of fighting for a fair wage for GAs and some agreement ensuring we don’t pay an inordinate amount of our salary back in fees just to work at the university. We need some agreement ensuring quality control, so GAs cannot simply be told to “work quicker,” or “grade faster,” so that the university can suck up more surplus value from our ever-exploited biopolitical labor – that is, our labor involving all facets of human life, the whole terrain of our species-being and affective, creative capacities.

Long-term, I’d like to see unionization lead to thorough democratization of the university; I’d like us to create conditions for a student-teacher-researcher-worker run place of de-commodified learning and cooperative creating/producing. This should absolutely also mean our union embraces a social movement orientation. This means recognizing the struggle of everyone fighting against injustice and for democratic control as part of our own struggle.

This entails, in my view, GAU solidarity with assemblies against debt on campus, the first of which took place April 10 outside the Student Center. That’s why as co-chair of the Legislative and Political Action Committee I pushed for GAU to support it. If we truly want a formative democratic culture on campus, replete with healthy dissent and direct democratic organizing outside our own institutional contexts – the kind of culture conducive to continual conscientization – then we should absolutely be supportive of assemblies and marches against the insidious social relation of debt and the system that supports it.

GAU: You are the main contributor to the GAU Advocate.  Can you talk about your vision for the Advocate? What role do you see it playing in the mission and work of GAU?

Anderson: The Advocate, our union e-newsletter delivered to GAs via email once per month, functions as a form of public pedagogy. We feature lists of upcoming events, union-related news stories, articles on union activists, analytic pieces and commentaries on both campus-specific struggles and broader socioeconomic justice issues. My hope is that the contextualization and incisive writing supports conscientização (critical consciousness raising) among members. Contributions are always welcome from GAs or other interested persons, so it would be great if that public pedagogy became more dialogue-oriented.

I’d also love the public pedagogy to pervade the cultural realm. One prominent historical example would be the myriad radical weeklies in Spain during the anarcho-syndicalist revolution, like Solidarida Obrera, Solidaridad Proletaria, Unión Obrera, Sindicalismo and Revista Blanca. Those publications featured everything from scathing critiques of concentrated power, to recipes for vegetarian cooking, to information on treatment for sexually-transmitted diseases.

Of course, the CNT actualized a rich public pedagogy beyond the pages of rebellious publications. The union supported literacy and education, and organized day-long excursions where people would hike, read and debate politics all day.

These lessons are not lost on us. GAU organized a hike over spring break that was well-received. The communications work with The Advocate should be part of a larger praxis-oriented approach.

GAU: Give us the skinny on your doctoral research. Do you have the capacity for brevity?

Anderson: The working title for my dissertation is “Cracking the World System,” and I intend to do a genealogical problematization of critical junctures in modern world-system history to pose as problems – and open question-concepts about the contingencies and conditions of possibility for – the public pedagogies of social movements (and media) in a time of world system structural crisis.

GAU: I’m interested in how history informs your vision for the future. Who are your intellectual heroes? Who is doing contemporary work that you’d like to emulate?  What’s so great about Amy Goodman and Noam Chomsky?

Anderson: Goodman is both my unrequited love and intellectual hero. From covering US-backed genocide in East Timor, to interviewing hip-hop artist Immortal Technique at Zuccotti Park before the eviction of the Occupy Wall Street encampment, she gives voice to the stories silenced by corporate media. And I love her.

I mentioned Chomsky’s critique of the mass media before, which is still relevant. And in addition to his unapologetic critiques of US foreign policy, for which he is perhaps best well known, his articulation of the left anarchist tradition is also one of his major contributions, in my view. His conceptions regarding the anarchism-derived Libertarian Socialism are still worth referring to.

Anarchism has been long debauched in mainstream culture, probably because of the tradition’s historic challenges to concentrated power. As Chomsky explains, the main thrust of left anarchism has long been identification of structures of hierarchy, domination, oppression and control, deciding democratically then if they are at all legitimate, and if not, proceeding to disassemble them and create something different from below.

Drawing on some of his linguistic work and thoughts on human nature – discussed in part in his 1971 debate with Michel Foucault – Chomsky conceives anarchism and its expression in anarcho-syndicalism and similar praxis as thought and action for human freedom. This is freedom not as “an abstract philosophical concept, but the vital concrete possibility for every human being to bring to full development all the powers, capacities, and talents with which nature has endowed him, and turn them to social account,” as anarcho-syndicalist historian Rudolf Rocker wrote and Chomsky quoted in the introduction he wrote to “Anarchism: From Theory to Practice,” a book by French anarchist thinker Daniel Guérin.

Chomsky gave a talk not long ago “On Anarchism,” in which he suggested both anarchism and the labor movement might be reinvigorated together. I happen to agree and hope he is right.

As far as how history informs my visions for the future, I’ve explained that in sufficient detail I suppose. With regards to other intellectual influences, I’d point to philosopher Paulo Freire, whose conceptions of critical, problem-posing pedagogy still resonate with me and countless others interested in education for social transformation.

The late Andre Gunder Frank – uncompromising contrarian, economist, historian, dependency theorist, world system analyst and social movement scholar – continues to inspire with the legacy he left behind.

John Holloway, Marxian poet and theorist of changing the world without taking power, writes in such a humanistic way and with an affective potency that moves me. His recuperation of negative dialectics for going against and beyond capital without recourse to the oppressive state is an approach I am keen on.

Holloway, who teaches at the Autonomous University of Puebla in Mexico, draws inspiration from the Zapatistas. Similarly, the poetry and prose of the Zapatista’s Subcomandante Marcos fuses incisive critical insight with expression of dignified resistance. Marcos also brought back romance! We all could use a little more romance in our lives. I know I could.

An Eros of the political is desperately needed. Following Marcos and others, I’d like to contribute to and cultivate that without sacrificing intellectuality or dumbing down theory.

GAU: What the hell are prefigurative politics and why should anyone give a shit? Why is public pedagogy an important tool to fight dogmatism and unreflective ideology, power politics and unfettered capitalism?

Anderson: Wini Breines popularized the term “prefigurative politics” in her book, “Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-1968,” referring to it as the attempt “to create and sustain within the live practice of the movement, relationships and political forms that ‘prefigured’ and embodied the desired society.” Although the idea antedated the New Left and has been synonymous with many currents of anarchist praxis, social movements in the 1960s who practiced participatory democracy within their organizations really advanced that effort of trying “to embody personal and anti-hierarchical values in politics,” as Breines wrote, expressing “the desire to create a sense of wholeness and communication in social relations,” through “non-capitalist and communitarian institutions that embodied such relationships, for example counter-institutions” – and anti-institutional relations as well, I’d add.

Prefigurative politics were a big part of the Global Justice Movement, or alter-globalization movement, around the turn of the millennium. Occupy Wall Street embodied a form of prefigurative politics with the consensus-based decision-making practices used in the General Assemblies – a mode of direct democracy. Echoing elements of Breines’ explanation, David Graeber, a self-identifying anarchist who helped organize OWS at its inception, wrote in “The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement,” that prefigurative politics puts into being “the idea that the organizational form that an activist group takes should embody the kind of society we wish to create.”

This is not altogether different from the call of the Industrial Workers of the World, an international revolutionary industrial union organization, which used to advocate forming the structure of a new society in the shell of the old.

Importantly, trying to prefigure a more just society has the potential to transform people and our relations to one another in the present. Those prefigurative practices create cracks in the predominant hierarchical and exploitative structures – cracks from which another world might emerge. The relational transformation brought on by prefigurative political action is inseparable from the revolution. If we wish to revitalize unionism, prefigurative politics should become a central aspect of our movement.

A public pedagogy that recognizes the educative (often hegemonic) functions of institutions and entreats critical reflection regarding those functions can be a powerful force for democratization. People’s power-to that gets institutionalized in frequently oppressive ways can be re-appropriated as part of a pedagogical project for prefiguring truly democratic, affective relations on a broader scale.

GAU: To what do you attribute the recent and dramatic increase in GAU’s membership over the past year?

Anderson: Some of it surely has to do with our fledgling social movement unionism, as well as our critical public pedagogy – from our work on The Advocate to organizing of social events and support for other activist projects – involving an approach to learning not content with existing social relations.

GAU: Rumors are afoot that you might run for Vice President of Communications for GAU next year. Any truth to that?

Anderson: There are still many things up in the air. Kevin Taylor, who currently holds that office, is also running again, and he’s done a phenomenal job in the position thus far.




Cornel West poses key questions, concerns


West pic 2

By James Anderson

Speaking to a capacity audience at Shryock Auditorium on Southern Illinois University Carbondale campus, Cornel West drew on an array of thinkers to pose the question so many have wrestled with before: What does it mean to be human?

“What does it mean to be a featherless, two-legged, linguistically conscious creature born between urine and feces?” West, an author of 19 books who has taught at Yale, Harvard and Princeton, asked as he cited “the inimitable James Baldwin,” whose life struggle reflected the force behind the question.

“No deodorized discourse here,” West said, referring to his talk the evening of April 18.West pic 3

Drawing on thinkers like W.E.B. DuBois, West said there are additional concerns – “perennial questions,” which should continue to inform theory and action.

Integrity, West said, is “not cupidity or venality,” nor does it permit “becoming well-adjusted to injustice” or “well-adapted to indifference as long as you are doing well.” It entails something more than “fleeting pleasures and instant gratifications,” he said.

“But we live in a moment in which we are ruled by big money, big banks and big corporations,” West allowed, with “market forces of titillation and stimulation,” and a corporate media system culpable for mass distraction.

Given the impoverished media discourse, West said that to “pierce through the thick forms of obfuscation,” a reflective ethos is needed now. He gave the example of Henry David Thoreau when he went off to Walden Pond and the spirit of John Coltrane whose music compelled “Socratic interrogation of yourself,” as exemplars of what society needs now.

That reflection should be geared to key concerns, including: “How does integrity face oppression?”

“What does honesty do in the face of deception?” West also asked, highlighting another concern.

He emphasized “intellectual honesty,” and explained that while no one has the monopoly on truth, the mendacity dominating institutions today must be challenged. Baldwin, West said, stressed honesty and integrity throughout his life when grappling with that question of what it means to be human.

West also asked what decency does “in the face of insult” and injustice, evoking another crucial consideration for contemporary praxis.

He said, like Frantz Fanon, it is imperative to start with “The Wretched of the Earth,” and he questioned the lack of moral outcry surrounding that fact that 22 percent of children in the US live in poverty while one percent of the population owns 47 percent of the nation’s wealth and earned 95 percent of the income in the last few years.

West went on to pose the problem of how virtue meets brute force.

“The criminal justice system itself more and more looks criminal,” said West, who recently has been teaching in prisons.

In addition to eliding abject poverty, dominant discourse renders mass incarceration invisible, he said.

In “looking for justice,” then, West said, it is important to “first keep track of the structures and institutions.”

Pointing to the three tendencies of neoliberal capitalism – financialization, privatization and militarization – West noted that “no person who is trying to be decent can flower and flourish under these conditions.”

West faulted the Obama administration for contributing to the three tendencies and thus impeding human potentials. He criticized the administration for militarism in the form of dirty wars and drone bombings. West excoriated the Obama White House for extra-judicial killing and expansive surveillance programs brought to light recently with the Edward Snowden NSA revelations.

Obama’s selection of people with strong financial industry ties and finance capital ideology – like Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers – for positions in his administration evinces other problems, West said.

Typified by the push for the Trans Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade agreement discussed in secret without congressional input or public deliberation, West said there is a move toward “reshaping the whole world in the image of the corporations,” which are essentially totalitarian institutions and anti-democratic private tyrannies.

West also alluded to a growing injustice gap.

On one hand, he noted, there have been bailouts for big banks. He pointed to how financial institutions received $787 billion after the 2008 crisis yet continued to award big bonuses. Alongside other corporations, West told people in Shryock, banks keep $2.2 trillion of wealth offshore to avoid contributing to the society from which they emerged.

On the other hand, he said, there is growing poverty, push toward privatization of education and concomitant accumulation of debt among students.

Student debt, West said, should be a “more central,” social concern than attending to the insolvency of mega-banks. When a graduate student in attendance yelled from the balcony seating about a movement for collective debt resistance, West said he would be in full favor of it.

An assembly against debt recently took place at SIU in front of the Student Center on campus. Participants created a space to share experiences about how debt has impacted them the first time they assembled together on April 10. Recognizing the issue of debt not as a source of individual shame, but as a systemic problem and form of social control, there was a call for “collective outrage,” and future assemblies are planned.

West said at his talk that fortification of a “moral sensibility,” in the spirit of the blues – a “narrative of catastrophe lyrically expressed” – becomes paramount in ongoing struggle, as does prophetic pedagogy inseparable from advancing pressing concerns.

West and Ryg

“We need more serious talk about the proletarianization and the sub-proletarianization of academicians,” West told GAUnited backstage after his talk.

He said the work of people like Stanley Aronowitz, Frederic Jameson and David Harvey provide potent analyses from within the academy, which are fruitful for praxis.

The university is “absolutely,” still a site for contestation and transformation, West said backstage.

The two-day system-wide strike across University of California campuses in early April illustrates one way collective action is going against and beyond institutional parameters associated with neoliberal education.

“I think it’s a beautiful thing,” West said about the UAW local 2865 student-worker union resistance to neoliberal violence in California.

Attempts to democratize the university as part of a project to democratize society is a matter of justice, he said.

The sentiment echoed a saying from the civil rights movement West uses to express a truth about advancing aforementioned key concerns: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”


James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and the GAU Steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.

Graduate students of the world, unite!

Source: Al Jazeera America

At the beginning of April, one of the most important labor unions in U.S. higher education staged an unexpected two-day strike. It wasn’t the American Association of University Professors — the left-leaning professors’ union — or a chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, representing service workers; it was United Auto Workers Local 2865. Auto workers might appear to be an odd group to strike across American university campuses, but Local 2865 represents 12,000 teaching assistants, associate instructors and undergraduate tutors at University of California campuses. These nonprofessors are responsible for an incredible amount of teaching and grading work at the country’s largest public university system, and their union is one of the nation’s orneriest. With the help of their supporters on campus, they’ve taken a stand against the exploitation of low-wage academic labor.

Read more here.


University of California Student-Workers Strike, Reject Neoliberal Violence

By James Anderson

Source: Truthout

Members of the United Auto Workers local 2865 – the union representing teaching assistants, associate instructors and undergraduate tutors across the University of California system – went on strike for two days last week over working conditions and intimidation.

The first day, April 2, saw actions by a select few campuses – namely Berkeley, Santa Cruz and San Diego – as most mobilized to strike. The next day, nine UC teaching campuses participated.

UAW local 2865, the UC Student-Workers Union, which represents some 12,000 academic employees – the teaching student workers – hit the picket lines not in relation to ongoing contract negotiations but rather in response to unrelenting repression and the university’s refusal to negotiate key working conditions.

Caroline McKusick, 24, a doctoral student in anthropology at UC Davis and the press contact for the union, said the “strike was related to a pattern of intimidation that’s gone on throughout our bargaining process,” epitomized by the forceful arrest of union organizer Josh Brahinsky at UC Santa Cruz. Workers at UCSC almost went on strike prior to the two-day system-wide affair when the campus continued employing tutors without including them in collective bargaining, thereby withholding benefits that other academic workers at the university receive.

Read more here.

Nozicka: Graduate assistants file charges against trustees


An ongoing labor complaint against the university administration by a graduate student union remains unsettled. 

Graduate Assistants United filed unfair labor practice charges against the SIU Board of Trustees after many months of waiting for the university to negotiate time allowed to work.

The complaint filed Feb. 10 with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board alleges since Aug. 12 the board and administration has refused to “bargain in good faith,” regarding graduate assistant contracts.

GAU President Matt Ryg said the charges were filed because the university violated the collective bargaining agreement within the graduate assistants’ contracts, specifically regarding full-time equivalency rates, or the maximum number of hours a graduate assistant is allowed to work in a week.

Read more here.


Asian American Heritage Month