Our Weekly Discontents, 2/8/2021

Trying to get the bird.

Hey everybody, it’s Derek from Foreign Exchanges here. When we created Discontents one of our goals was to help spotlight people we thought were doing important work on Substack. So this week, in addition to the usual updates from the team, we’re very pleased to welcome our first guest writer, Jonah Furman. Jonah’s newsletter, Who Gets the Bird?, offers a weekly compendium of the latest labor news across the United States. It’s a valuable resource for anyone trying to stay informed about organized labor and a good example of the kind of thing Substack can be at its best. We hope you’ll check it out, and to help convince you here’s Jonah to tell you a bit more about himself and his newsletter. And don’t forget to subscribe to this newsletter, if you haven’t already:


“A few years ago, when labor was dying, that was interesting. But now it’s dead, and it’s been dead. People want to hear about something else.” Tom Geoghegan wrote those words before I was born. And yet.

There is nothing quite like organized labor in the US. Those of us who find out about it—whether through an inherited bomber jacket; a rare, stumbled-across picket line; or a real life union job—tend to get hooked. It is the only permanently organized expression of countervailing power against capital that exists in this country, a country that sees sporadic upsurges and rebellions burn brightly and just as quickly flame out, and that has an entirely, perfectly, and fully calcified elite capture of political life, and almost nothing in between. The organized labor movement is the one link between these bipolarities, more like a line of spit than a chain link, both a movement and an institution, and too often somehow neither.

My name is Jonah Furman, and I write a Substack newsletter called Who Gets the Bird? I am a unionist because I believe two things: one, the world is currently bad; and two, the world may, one day, through human intervention, become less bad. It will take many millions of regular people to equal the power of America’s 800 billionaires, and the unions are the only social form in which millions of regular-ass people are already gathered, on a basis of opposition to those billionaires and their toadies.

Our unions are, however, incredibly weak. World-historically weak. Who Gets the Bird? is an effort to peer into the window of the room where organized labor bleeds out on the operating table, and see what it looks like as it writhes, and what its chances might be for recovery.

By way of introduction, I figure I should explain the title, which some will find too obvious, and others totally opaque. It comes from a famous-in-labor-circles quote from John L. Lewis, the larger-than-life president of the United Mine Workers of America from 1920-1960, and the founder of the CIO, the industrial union federation that in many ways upended the US labor movement & nearly formed a labor party.

When asked why the CIO tolerated Communists and radicals in its ranks, Lewis responded with a question: “Who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?”

Lewis himself was no leftist. His point was that the radicals could be used (like a dog) to bring the working class (the dead bird) into the unions (the hunter).

These days, our dead bird lays uncollected in some distant field, with something like 10% of workers belonging to unions. What happens when the global hegemon has one of the least organized working classes in the world? What happens to that class? What happens to that hegemon, and to its empire?

And who gets the bird? I mean who should we collectively flip off for bringing us to where we are today? Is it Jimmy Carter deregulating trucking and airline and euthanizing the New Deal era? Is it Reagan and his sociopath apostles? Is it the Democratic Party for going along with it all, with Clinton’s successful NAFTA, Obama’s failed EFCA? Is it the unions themselves, the labor bureaucracy getting fat skimming pensions, the labor aristocracy moving to the suburbs and buying boats? Is it the left’s sectarian navel-gazing, in-fighting, and do-nothing-ism?

I don’t plan to explore these questions directly; they’re kind of too much to look at directly. What I hope to do here is to explore the actually-existing organized labor movement, while all of the above hums menacingly in the background. By which I mean, yes, I’d like to take you through the maze of unpronouncable acronyms, of Joint Councils and AFSCMEs and International Amalgamated United Brotherhoods. Somewhere in these glyphs and artifacts I hope to find footprints of the boot that grinds ever-downward on labor’s neck.

My hope is to bring you into the world of organized labor, and to express, if only in dull approximation, what ticks within the labor-obsessed few among us. For all this talk of apocalypse, 14 million union members remain in this country, quietly conducting steward elections, holding conventions, ratifying contracts, squirming inside the boss’s shoe, occasionally landing a good bite on the heel of capital. If I have two guiding lights for this project, they are: (1) Derek Davison’s incomparable Foreign Exchanges, in its unbelievable way of distilling huge amounts of information and bringing a dope like me some limited understanding of a topic that felt previously impenetrable; and (2) Thomas Geoghegan’s “Which Side Are You On?” which is the one and only piece of writing that I’ve seen attempt to capture the sick thrill of being hopelessly in love with a wilting labor movement.

Each week, I publish a roundup of every sign of life of organized labor in the US that I can find. A couple times a month, I write about things like the race for the presidency of the firefighters union, why the NYC teachers haven’t struck in half a century, and why it matters whether unions are democratic institutions. If you’re a union member or staffer yourself, tell me what’s going on in your union. Thanks again for reading, subscribing, sharing, whatever. Solidarity.

Check out Who Gets the Bird?


Foreign Exchanges

Derek Davison

I swear I did not make Jonah write that very nice thing about Foreign Exchanges as a condition for publishing his essay. Speaking of FX, though, columnist Daniel Bessner returned this week with a look at new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. I think it’s fair to say he’s not impressed:

One might have expected that Trump’s election would have encouraged prominent liberal internationalists to reexamine, or at the very least question, their fundamental assumptions about the world. But this is precisely what didn’t happen. In manifold quickie books with titles like The Empty Throne, American establishmentarians argued that in the post-Trump era the United States needed to do little more than reaffirm its commitment to global leadership.

Liberal internationalism is thus a zombie ideology, shorn of any connection to real-world events and intellectually exhausted. Nowhere is this clearer than in a recent conversation that took place at the Hudson Institute last summer between the writer Walter Russell Mead and Antony Blinken, Joe Biden’s longtime foreign policy aide and the recently confirmed secretary of state. In it, Blinken says nothing especially novel, persuasive, or interesting about the future of US foreign policy. It thus looks like we’re going to be in for a long four years in which little will be done by the United States to address the multiple crises—of imperialism, inequality, and climate—facing the world over the next decade and beyond.

Wars of Future Past

Kelsey D. Atherton

Three bombers flew over the Super Bowl yesterday. While not all of them can carry nukes at present, they were each designed to, and the conventional bombs they’ve dropped have ended plenty of real human lives as it is. I can’t really recall any sporting events before 2001, so I don’t know if they were as steeped in this weird showcase of military might as games post-9/11, but regardless, it’s a weird feeling.

The Super Bowl was invariably a superspreader event; the post-game celebrations in Tampa are superspreader events, and while vaccination means a race between immunity and mortality, roughly a 9/11 worth of people in the US died of COVID everyday this week. What possible meaning can bombers have against all that, except a stark reminder of how we have misspent the public coffers?

In my latest newsletter, I look at the Space Force, and why it would take more than abolishing it to end the militarization in orbit.

Welcome to Hell World

Luke O’Neil

“One thing that helped with us, that we learned on the spot actually, was exploiting the hell out of the kids,” Gunnery Sgt. Jeff Kurek said. “We’d take some candy and care packages, or we’d take a bouncy ball from a care package and we would launch this shit down the alleyway, and if the kids ran after it we knew it was safe, right? And so we’d walk behind the kids, or we’d walk behind an elder. If we launched this bouncy ball down the damn alley and these kids just stayed put, we were like OK screw that alley we’re not going down there.” Read more here.

“I guess I always sort of thought if someone killed me in America it would be with a gun or a car the two most famous American products besides dickheads but now it’s more likely it will be with their mouth. It’s like everyone is in the fucking X-Men now but we’ve all only got the same one power of shooting poison out of our holes.” Read more here.

Sick Note

Libby Watson

Last week I interviewed Jesse Raub, who woke up one day and found that one of his eyes (mostly) didn’t work anymore. After seeing his primary care doctor and then waiting five days to see a specialist, Raub had to spend 5 days in hospital—and owed at least $6,000 for it. He still can’t see out of his right eye, and was recently given a preliminary diagnosis of MS. Take his case as a reminder that the universe can fuck you over at any time, and that America will happily kick you while you’re down, too. I also interviewed a cardiologist in a large Southern city about fighting with his employer, a large hospital system, to remain practicing on the poor side of town, and the general pressures that financial incentives put on cardiology and American medicine as a whole.

The Insurgents

Jordan Uhl & Rob Rousseau

After we nearly face an intern revolt when Rob arbitrarily changes their compensation package to be based around the nearly-worthless but still very promising AMC shares that he invested in at the height of Gamestonk mania, we’re joined by Liv Agar a.k.a. Livposting.

We talk about the bleak prospects of the future, Prop 22, cryptocurrency, Elon Musk, meme stocks, and how we’re going to link and build a few years from now when we’re all stuck in the Amazon Eastern Seaboard Innovation Zone. Like every episode of this podcast, it gets very dark but we manage to squeeze out a few laughs.

Perspectives: Past, Present, and Future

Patrick Wyman

I’m staying far, far away from the present for a while, focusing instead on the dawn of written history in Mesopotamia and Egypt more than 5,000 years ago. Last week, I talked about what came before the first cities in Mesopotamia: namely, swamps and irrigation, which provided the resources necessary for urbanism, writing, and the state. This week, I’ll be discussing the prehistory of Egypt, and what had to happen for the pharaohs to eventually emerge in the Nile Valley.

The Flashpoint

Eoin Higgins

This week I reviewed my recent reporting on the Alex Morse scandal and gave a few thoughts about the state of the Massachusetts Democratic Party.

The state party absorbed some blows from the scandal but has come out of it in one piece. It remains to be seen if progressives can mount an effective internal challenge to its power.

It’s difficult to see that happening. What’s more likely is that residual anger boils along for another year before the pressure to come together to lose another gubernatorial race supersedes the unfinished business of the past. The architects of the scheme will avoid consequences.

It’s the Massachusetts way.

BORDER/LINES

Felipe De La Hoz & Gaby Del Valle

One of the tricky things about immigration reporting is explaining why semantic differences—like, say, the distinctions between an asylum seeker and a refugee—actually matter. People use these terms interchangeably, and it’s not hard to understand why: both asylum seekers and refugees flee their countries of origin and apply for legal protection elsewhere. Who cares what you call them? They’re looking for refuge all the same.

Last week, we dug into a new Biden executive order regarding the refugee admissions and resettlement process. Unlike his orders on asylum seekers and family reunification, which were pretty vague, the refugee order was incredibly detailed. The Trump administration all but ended the refugee resettlement program; here’s how we rebuild it. The order included specific directives for the various federal agencies involved in the complex refugee admissions process, addressed obstacles to taking in more refugees (mostly that resettlement agencies have been decimated after four years of willful negligence by the government) and steps to overcome them, and alluded to a looming surge in climate refugees in the coming years and decades. It also had a couple red flags, including the time-honored liberal obsession with “efficiency” and “high-tech” solutions that will no doubt lead to biased algorithmic decision-making.

This is mostly good! Meanwhile, asylum seekers at the border are still mostly being turned away thanks to a “public health” rule imposed by the Trump administration. The Remain in Mexico policy will apparently be dismantled, but no one knows when. The real effects of all of these policy changes are still to be determined; Biden is directing federal agencies to develop policies to set the direction of these programs. In the meantime, thousands of lives will hang in the balance.

Discourse Blog

Hi everyone, Crosbie from Discourse Blog here.

This past week we covered a lot of the continuing saga of Marjorie Taylor Greene and subsequent media panic.

It’s trite at this point to say that Greene is the future of the Republican Party, but only because the past week or so has shown that to be a painfully obvious fact (we called it from the beginning, just saying). Paul Blest’s blog, did a great job of explaining why the token step of removing Greene from congressional committee assignments is largely toothless, because her role in Congress isn’t to actually govern or legislate.

The problem, of course, is that the Democratic Party is still struggling to define what their caucus actually stands for. We saw a small example of that today, when eight Democrats joined forces with Tom Cotton and the GOP to pass an amendment to the Senate COVID-19 relief bill that barred undocumented immigrants from receiving stimulus payments, despite the fact that they were already barred from this by existing law. There’s no reason to do this, as Jack Mirkinson wrote, except for some idiotic ideal of “tough on immigration” messaging that these eight moderates think they have to continue to cater to.

Alongside this, Paul also found the time to chronicle Jeff Bezos’s reign of terror over Amazon’s workers, and Caitlin Busch took us inside the grim mathematics behind Kroeger’s cutthroat treatment of their own employees. We also interviewed the editor of a new socialist feminist magazine, and laughed at rich people renting shitty apartments.