‘We are witnessing a crime against humanity’: Arundhati Roy on India’s Covid catastrophe

It’s hard to convey the full depth and range of the trauma, the chaos and the indignity that people are being subjected to. Meanwhile, Modi and his allies are telling us not to complain

by Arundhati Roy

Wed 28 Apr 2021

From: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2021/apr/28/crime-against-humanity-arundhati-roy-india-covid-catastrophe

During a particularly polarising election campaign in the state of Uttar Pradesh in 2017, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, waded into the fray to stir things up even further. From a public podium, he accused the state government – which was led by an opposition party – of pandering to the Muslim community by spending more on Muslim graveyards (kabristans) than on Hindu cremation grounds (shamshans). With his customary braying sneer, in which every taunt and barb rises to a high note mid-sentence before it falls away in a menacing echo, he stirred up the crowd. “If a kabristan is built in a village, a shamshan should also be constructed there,” he said.

“Shamshan! Shamshan!” the mesmerised, adoring crowd echoed back.

Perhaps he is happy now that the haunting image of the flames rising from the mass funerals in India’s cremation grounds is making the front page of international newspapers. And that all the kabristans and shamshans in his country are working properly, in direct proportion to the populations they cater for, and far beyond their capacities.

“Can India, population 1.3 billion, be isolated?” the Washington Post asked rhetorically in a recent editorial about India’s unfolding catastrophe and the difficulty of containing new, fast-spreading Covid variants within national borders. “Not easily,” it replied. It’s unlikely this question was posed in quite the same way when the coronavirus was raging through the UK and Europe just a few months ago. But we in India have little right to take offence, given our prime minister’s words at the World Economic Forum in January this year.

Modi spoke at a time when people in Europe and the US were suffering through the peak of the second wave of the pandemic. He had not one word of sympathy to offer, only a long, gloating boast about India’s infrastructure and Covid-preparedness. I downloaded the speech because I fear that when history is rewritten by the Modi regime, as it soon will be, it might disappear, or become hard to find. Here are some priceless snippets:

“Friends, I have brought the message of confidence, positivity and hope from 1.3 billion Indians amid these times of apprehension … It was predicted that India would be the most affected country from corona all over the world. It was said that there would be a tsunami of corona infections in India, somebody said 700-800 million Indians would get infected while others said 2 million Indians would die.”

“Friends, it would not be advisable to judge India’s success with that of another country. In a country which is home to 18% of the world population, that country has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively.”

Modi the magician takes a bow for saving humanity by containing the coronavirus effectively. Now that it turns out that he has not contained it, can we complain about being viewed as though we are radioactive? That other countries’ borders are being closed to us and flights are being cancelled? That we’re being sealed in with our virus and our prime minister, along with all the sickness, the anti-science, the hatred and the idiocy that he, his party and its brand of politics represent?

When the first wave of Covid came to India and then subsided last year, the government and its supportive commentariat were triumphant. “India isn’t having a picnic,” tweeted Shekhar Gupta, the editor-in-chief of the online news site the Print. “But our drains aren’t choked with bodies, hospitals aren’t out of beds, nor crematoriums & graveyards out of wood or space. Too good to be true? Bring data if you disagree. Unless you think you’re god.” Leave aside the callous, disrespectful imagery – did we need a god to tell us that most pandemics have a second wave?

This one was predicted, although its virulence has taken even scientists and virologists by surprise. So where is the Covid-specific infrastructure and the “people’s movement” against the virus that Modi boasted about in his speech? Hospital beds are unavailable. Doctors and medical staff are at breaking point. Friends call with stories about wards with no staff and more dead patients than live ones. People are dying in hospital corridors, on roads and in their homes. Crematoriums in Delhi have run out of firewood. The forest department has had to give special permission for the felling of city trees. Desperate people are using whatever kindling they can find. Parks and car parks are being turned into cremation grounds. It’s as if there’s an invisible UFO parked in our skies, sucking the air out of our lungs. An air raid of a kind we’ve never known.

Oxygen is the new currency on India’s morbid new stock exchange. Senior politicians, journalists, lawyers – India’s elite – are on Twitter pleading for hospital beds and oxygen cylinders. The hidden market for cylinders is booming. Oxygen saturation machines and drugs are hard to come by.


India Covid crisis: families’ plea for help amid oxygen shortages and mass cremations – video report

There are markets for other things, too. At the bottom end of the free market, a bribe to sneak a last look at your loved one, bagged and stacked in a hospital mortuary. A surcharge for a priest who agrees to say the final prayers. Online medical consultancies in which desperate families are fleeced by ruthless doctors. At the top end, you might need to sell your land and home and use up every last rupee for treatment at a private hospital. Just the deposit alone, before they even agree to admit you, could set your family back a couple of generations.

None of this conveys the full depth and range of the trauma, the chaos and, above all, the indignity that people are being subjected to. What happened to my young friend T is just one of hundreds, perhaps thousands of similar stories in Delhi alone. T, who is in his 20s, lives in his parents’ tiny flat in Ghaziabad on the outskirts of Delhi. All three of them tested positive for Covid. His mother was critically ill. Since it was in the early days, he was lucky enough to find a hospital bed for her. His father, diagnosed with severe bipolar depression, turned violent and began to harm himself. He stopped sleeping. He soiled himself. His psychiatrist was online trying to help, although she also broke down from time to time because her husband had just died from Covid. She said T’s father needed hospitalisation, but since he was Covid positive there was no chance of that. So T stayed awake, night after night, holding his father down, sponging him, cleaning him up. Each time I spoke to him I felt my own breath falter. Finally, the message came: “Father’s dead.” He did not die of Covid, but of a massive spike in blood pressure induced by a psychiatric meltdown induced by utter helplessness.

What to do with the body? I desperately called everybody I knew. Among those who responded was Anirban Bhattacharya, who works with the well-known social activist Harsh Mander. Bhattacharya is about to stand trial on a charge of sedition for a protest he helped organise on his university campus in 2016. Mander, who has not fully recovered from a savage case of Covid last year, is being threatened with arrest and the closure of the orphanages he runs after he mobilised people against the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed in December 2019, both of which blatantly discriminate against Muslims. Mander and Bhattacharya are among the many citizens who, in the absence of all forms of governance, have set up helplines and emergency responses, and are running themselves ragged organising ambulances and coordinating funerals and the transport of dead bodies. It’s not safe for these volunteers to do what they’re doing. In this wave of the pandemic, it’s the young who are falling, who are filling the intensive care units. When young people die, the older among us lose a little of our will to live.

T’s father was cremated. T and his mother are recovering.

Things will settle down eventually. Of course, they will. But we don’t know who among us will survive to see that day. The rich will breathe easier. The poor will not. For now, among the sick and dying, there is a vestige of democracy. The rich have been felled, too. Hospitals are begging for oxygen. Some have started bring-your-own-oxygen schemes. The oxygen crisis has led to intense, unseemly battles between states, with political parties trying to deflect blame from themselves.

On the night of 22 April, 25 critically ill coronavirus patients on high-flow oxygen died in one of Delhi’s biggest private hospitals, Sir Ganga Ram. The hospital issued several desperate SOS messages for the replenishment of its oxygen supply. A day later, the chair of the hospital board rushed to clarify matters: “We cannot say that they have died due to lack of oxygen support.” On 24 April, 20 more patients died when oxygen supplies were depleted in another big Delhi hospital, Jaipur Golden. That same day, in the Delhi high court, Tushar Mehta, India’s solicitor general, speaking for the government of India, said: “Let’s try and not be a cry baby … so far we have ensured that no one in the country was left without oxygen.”

Ajay Mohan Bisht, the saffron-robed chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, who goes by the name Yogi Adityanath, has declared that there is no shortage of oxygen in any hospital in his state and that rumourmongers will be arrested without bail under the National Security Act and have their property seized.

Yogi Adityanath doesn’t play around. Siddique Kappan, a Muslim journalist from Kerala, jailed for months in Uttar Pradesh when he and two others travelled there to report on the gang-rape and murder of a Dalit girl in Hathras district, is critically ill and has tested positive for Covid. His wife, in a desperate petition to the chief justice of the supreme court of India, says her husband is lying chained “like an animal” to a hospital bed in the Medical College hospital in Mathura. (The supreme court has now ordered the Uttar Pradesh government to move him to a hospital in Delhi.) So, if you live in Uttar Pradesh, the message seems to be, please do yourself a favour and die without complaining.

Funeral pyres in Delhi april 2021.
Funeral pyres in Delhi last week. Photograph: Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images

The threat to those who complain is not restricted to Uttar Pradesh. A spokesperson for the fascist Hindu nationalist organisation the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – of which Modi and several of his ministers are members, and which runs its own armed militia – has warned that “anti-India forces” would use the crisis to fuel “negativity” and “mistrust” and asked the media to help foster a “positive atmosphere”. Twitter has helped them out by deactivating accounts critical of the government.

Where shall we look for solace? For science? Shall we cling to numbers? How many dead? How many recovered? How many infected? When will the peak come? On 27 April, the report was 323,144 new cases, 2,771 deaths. The precision is somewhat reassuring. Except – how do we know? Tests are hard to come by, even in Delhi. The number of Covid-protocol funerals from graveyards and crematoriums in small towns and cities suggest a death toll up to 30 times higher than the official count. Doctors who are working outside the metropolitan areas can tell you how it is.

If Delhi is breaking down, what should we imagine is happening in villages in Bihar, in Uttar Pradesh, in Madhya Pradesh? Where tens of millions of workers from the cities, carrying the virus with them, are fleeing home to their families, traumatised by their memory of Modi’s national lockdown in 2020. It was the strictest lockdown in the world, announced with only four hours’ notice. It left migrant workers stranded in cities with no work, no money to pay their rent, no food and no transport. Many had to walk hundreds of miles to their homes in far-flung villages. Hundreds died on the way.

This time around, although there is no national lockdown, the workers have left while transport is still available, while trains and buses are still running. They’ve left because they know that even though they make up the engine of the economy in this huge country, when a crisis comes, in the eyes of this administration, they simply don’t exist. This year’s exodus has resulted in a different kind of chaos: there are no quarantine centres for them to stay in before they enter their village homes. There’s not even the meagre pretence of trying to protect the countryside from the city virus.

These are villages where people die of easily treatable diseases like diarrhoea and tuberculosis. How are they to cope with Covid? Are Covid tests available to them? Are there hospitals? Is there oxygen? More than that, is there love? Forget love, is there even concern? There isn’t. Because there is only a heart-shaped hole filled with cold indifference where India’s public heart should be.

Early this morning, on 28 April, news came that our friend Prabhubhai has died. Before he died, he showed classic Covid symptoms. But his death will not register in the official Covid count because he died at home without a test or treatment. Prabhubhai was a stalwart of the anti-dam movement in the Narmada valley. I stayed several times at his home in Kevadia, where decades ago the first group of indigenous tribespeople were thrown off their lands to make room for the dam-builders and officers’ colony. Displaced families like Prabhubhai’s still remain on the edges of that colony, impoverished and unsettled, transgressors on land that was once theirs.

There is no hospital in Kevadia. There’s only the Statue of Unity, built in the likeness of the freedom fighter and first deputy prime minister of India, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who the dam is named after. At 182 metres high, it’s the tallest statue in the world and cost US$422m. High-speed elevators inside take tourists up to view the Narmada dam from the level of Sardar Patel’s chest. Of course, you cannot see the river valley civilisation that lies destroyed, submerged in the depths of the vast reservoir, or hear the stories of the people who waged one of the most beautiful, profound struggles the world has ever known – not just against that one dam, but against the accepted ideas of what constitutes civilisation, happiness and progress. The statue was Modi’s pet project. He inaugurated it in October 2018.

Narendra Modi at the inauguration of the Statue of Unity, the world’s tallest statue, in India’s western Gujarat state in 2018.
Narendra Modi at the inauguration of the Statue of Unity, the world’s tallest statue, in India’s western Gujarat state in 2018. Photograph: HANDOUT/AFP/Getty Images

The friend who messaged about Prabhubhai had spent years as an anti-dam activist in the Narmada valley. She wrote: “My hands shiver as I write this. Covid situation in and around Kevadia Colony grim.”

The precise numbers that make up India’s Covid graph are like the wall that was built in Ahmedabad to hide the slums Donald Trump would drive past on his way to the “Namaste Trump” event that Modi hosted for him in February 2020. Grim as those numbers are, they give you a picture of the India-that-matters, but certainly not the India that is. In the India that is, people are expected to vote as Hindus, but die as disposables.

“Let’s try and not be a cry baby.”

Try not to pay attention to the fact that the possibility of a dire shortage of oxygen had been flagged as far back as April 2020, and then again in November by a committee set up by the government itself. Try not to wonder why even Delhi’s biggest hospitals don’t have their own oxygen-generating plants. Try not to wonder why the PM Cares Fund – the opaque organisation that has recently replaced the more public Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund, and which uses public money and government infrastructure but functions like a private trust with zero public accountability – has suddenly moved in to address the oxygen crisis. Will Modi own shares in our air-supply now?

“Let’s try and not be a cry baby.”

Understand that there were and are so many far more pressing issues for the Modi government to attend to. Destroying the last vestiges of democracy, persecuting non-Hindu minorities and consolidating the foundations of the Hindu Nation makes for a relentless schedule. There are massive prison complexes, for example, that must be urgently constructed in Assam for the 2 million people who have lived there for generations and have suddenly been stripped of their citizenship. (On this matter, our independent supreme court came down hard on the side of the government.)

There are hundreds of students and activists and young Muslim citizens to be tried and imprisoned as the primary accused in the anti-Muslim pogrom that took place against their own community in north-east Delhi last March. If you are Muslim in India, it’s a crime to be murdered. Your folks will pay for it. There was the inauguration of the new Ram Temple in Ayodhya, which is being built in place of the mosque that was hammered to dust by Hindu vandals watched over by senior BJP politicians. (On this matter, our independent supreme court came down hard on the side of the government and leniently on the side of the vandals.) There were the controversial new Farm Bills to be passed, corporatising agriculture. There were hundreds of thousands of farmers to be beaten and teargassed when they came out on to the streets to protest.

Then there’s the multi-multi-multimillion-dollar plan for a grand new replacement for the fading grandeur of New Delhi’s imperial centre to be urgently attended to. After all, how can the government of the new Hindu India be housed in old buildings? While Delhi is locked down, ravaged by the pandemic, construction work on the “Central Vista” project, declared as an essential service, has begun. Workers are being transported in. Maybe they can alter the plans to add a crematorium.

Crowds at the Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar april 2021
Crowds at the Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar earlier this month. Photograph: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

There was also the Kumbh Mela to be organised, so that millions of Hindu pilgrims could crowd together in a small town to bathe in the Ganges and spread the virus even-handedly as they returned to their homes across the country, blessed and purified. This Kumbh rocks on, although Modi has gently suggested that it might be an idea for the holy dip to become “symbolic” – whatever that means. (Unlike what happened with those who attended a conference for the Islamic organisation Tablighi Jamaat last year, the media has not run a campaign against them calling them “corona jihadis” or accusing them of committing crimes against humanity.) There were also those few thousand Rohingya refugees who had to be urgently deported back to the genocidal regime in Myanmar from where they had fled – in the middle of a coup. (Once again, when our independent supreme court was petitioned on this matter, it concurred with the government’s view.)

So, as you can tell, it’s been busy, busy, busy.

Over and above all this urgent activity, there is an election to be won in the state of West Bengal. This required our home minister, Modi’s man Amit Shah, to more or less abandon his cabinet duties and focus all his attention on Bengal for months, to disseminate his party’s murderous propaganda, to pit human against human in every little town and village. Geographically, West Bengal is a small state. The election could have taken place in a single day, and has done so in the past. But since it is new territory for the BJP, the party needed time to move its cadres, many of who are not from Bengal, from constituency to constituency to oversee the voting. The election schedule was divided into eight phases, spread out over a month, the last on 29 April. As the count of corona infections ticked up, the other political parties pleaded with the election commission to rethink the election schedule. The commission refused and came down hard on the side of the BJP, and the campaign continued. Who hasn’t seen the videos of the BJP’s star campaigner, the prime minister himself, triumphant and maskless, speaking to the maskless crowds, thanking people for coming out in unprecedented numbers? That was on 17 April, when the official number of daily infections was already rocketing upward of 200,000.

Now, as voting closes, Bengal is poised to become the new corona cauldron, with a new triple mutant strain known as – guess what – the “Bengal strain”. Newspapers report that every second person tested in the state capital, Kolkata, is Covid positive. The BJP has declared that if it wins Bengal, it will ensure people get free vaccines. And if it doesn’t?

“Let’s try and not be a cry baby.”

Anyway, what about the vaccines? Surely they’ll save us? Isn’t India a vaccine powerhouse? In fact, the Indian government is entirely dependent on two manufacturers, the Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bharat Biotech. Both are being allowed to roll out two of the most expensive vaccines in the world, to the poorest people in the world. This week they announced that they will sell to private hospitals at a slightly elevated price, and to state governments at a somewhat lower price. Back-of-the-envelope calculations show the vaccine companies are likely to make obscene profits.

Under Modi, India’s economy has been hollowed out, and hundreds of millions of people who were already living precarious lives have been pushed into abject poverty. A huge number now depend for survival on paltry earnings from the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which was instituted in 2005 when the Congress party was in power. It is impossible to expect that families on the verge of starvation will pay most of a month’s income to have themselves vaccinated. In the UK, vaccines are free and a fundamental right. Those trying to get vaccinated out of turn can be prosecuted. In India, the main underlying impetus of the vaccination campaign seems to be corporate profit.

People with breathing problems caused by Covid-19 wait to receive oxygen in Ghaziabad, India, April 27, 2021.
People with breathing problems caused by Covid-19 wait to receive oxygen in Ghaziabad. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

As this epic catastrophe plays out on our Modi-aligned Indian television channels, you’ll notice how they all speak in one tutored voice. The “system” has collapsed, they say, again and again. The virus has overwhelmed India’s health care “system”.

The system has not collapsed. The “system” barely existed.

The government – this one, as well as the Congress government that preceded it – deliberately dismantled what little medical infrastructure there was. This is what happens when a pandemic hits a country with an almost nonexistent public healthcare system. India spends about 1.25% of its gross domestic product on health, far lower than most countries in the world, even the poorest ones. Even that figure is thought to be inflated, because things that are important but do not strictly qualify as healthcare have been slipped into it. So the real figure is estimated to be more like 0.34%. The tragedy is that in this devastatingly poor country, as a 2016 Lancet study shows, 78% of the healthcare in urban areas and 71% in rural areas is now handled by the private sector. The resources that remain in the public sector are systematically siphoned into the private sector by a nexus of corrupt administrators and medical practitioners, corrupt referrals and insurance rackets.

Healthcare is a fundamental right. The private sector will not cater to starving, sick, dying people who don’t have money. This massive privatisation of India’s healthcare is a crime.

The system hasn’t collapsed. The government has failed. Perhaps “failed” is an inaccurate word, because what we are witnessing is not criminal negligence, but an outright crime against humanity. Virologists predict that the number of cases in India will grow exponentially to more than 500,000 a day. They predict the death of many hundreds of thousands in the coming months, perhaps more. My friends and I have agreed to call each other every day just to mark ourselves present, like roll call in our school classrooms. We speak to those we love in tears, and with trepidation, not knowing if we will ever see each other again. We write, we work, not knowing if we will live to finish what we started. Not knowing what horror and humiliation awaits us. The indignity of it all. That is what breaks us.

The hashtag #ModiMustResign is trending on social media. Some of the memes and illustrations show Modi with a heap of skulls peeping out from behind the curtain of his beard. Modi the Messiah speaking at a public rally of corpses. Modi and Amit Shah as vultures, scanning the horizon for corpses to harvest votes from. But that is only one part of the story. The other part is that the man with no feelings, the man with empty eyes and a mirthless smile, can, like so many tyrants in the past, arouse passionate feelings in others. His pathology is infectious. And that is what sets him apart. In north India, which is home to his largest voting base, and which, by dint of sheer numbers, tends to decide the political fate of the country, the pain he inflicts seems to turn into a peculiar pleasure.

Fredrick Douglass said it right: “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” How we in India pride ourselves on our capacity to endure. How beautifully we have trained ourselves to meditate, to turn inward, to exorcise our fury as well as justify our inability to be egalitarian. How meekly we embrace our humiliation.

When he made his political debut as Gujarat’s new chief minister in 2001, Modi ensured his place in posterity after what has come to be known as the 2002 Gujarat pogrom. Over a period of a few days, Hindu vigilante mobs, watched over and sometimes actively assisted by the Gujarat police, murdered, raped and burned alive thousands of Muslims as “revenge” for a gruesome arson attack on a train in which more than 50 Hindu pilgrims had been burned alive. Once the violence subsided, Modi, who had until then only been appointed as chief minister by his party, called for early elections. The campaign in which he was portrayed as Hindu Hriday Samrat (“The Emperor of Hindu Hearts”) won him a landslide victory. Modi hasn’t lost an election since.

Several of the killers in the Gujarat pogrom were subsequently captured on camera by the journalist Ashish Khetan, boasting of how they hacked people to death, slashed pregnant women’s stomachs open and smashed infants’ heads against rocks. They said they could only have done what they did because Modi was their chief minister. Those tapes were broadcast on national TV. While Modi remained in the seat of power, Khetan, whose tapes were submitted to the courts and forensically examined, appeared as a witness on several occasions. Over time, some of the killers were arrested and imprisoned, but many were let off. In his recent book, Undercover: My Journey Into the Darkness of Hindutva, Khetan describes in detail how, during Modi’s tenure as chief minister, the Gujarat police, judges, lawyers, prosecutors and inquiry committees all colluded to tamper with evidence, intimidate witnesses and transfer judges.

Despite knowing all this, many of India’s so-called public intellectuals, the CEOs of its major corporations and the media houses they own, worked hard to pave the way for Modi to become the prime minister. They humiliated and shouted down those of us who persisted in our criticism. “Move on”, was their mantra. Even today, they mitigate their harsh words for Modi with praise for his oratory skills and his “hard work”. Their denunciation and bullying contempt for politicians in opposition parties is far more strident. They reserve their special scorn for Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party, the only politician who has consistently warned of the coming Covid crisis and repeatedly asked the government to prepare itself as best it could. To assist the ruling party in its campaign to destroy all opposition parties amounts to colluding with the destruction of democracy.

So here we are now, in the hell of their collective making, with every independent institution essential to the functioning of a democracy compromised and hollowed out, and a virus that is out of control.

The crisis-generating machine that we call our government is incapable of leading us out of this disaster. Not least because one man makes all the decisions in this government, and that man is dangerous – and not very bright. This virus is an international problem. To deal with it, decision-making, at least on the control and administration of the pandemic, will need to pass into the hands of some sort of non-partisan body consisting of members of the ruling party, members of the opposition, and health and public policy experts.

As for Modi, is resigning from your crimes a feasible proposition? Perhaps he could just take a break from them – a break from all his hard work. There’s that $564m Boeing 777, Air India One, customised for VVIP travel – for him, actually – that’s been sitting idle on the runway for a while now. He and his men could just leave. The rest of us will do all we can to clean up their mess.

No, India cannot be isolated. We need help.

 This article was amended on 29 April 2021 to correct the year in which the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed. It was 2019, not 2020.


May Day and the Haymarket Martyrs, by Tom Whitney

(Source: Labor Standard, Vol1, No3, 1999)

(Image Credit: Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Jose Marti, author of “A Terrible Drama”, which is cited in the present article, lived in exile in the United States for 15 years until 1895. Having organized Cuban rebel forces fighting in Cuba’s Second War for Independence, Marti died in battle early in the war. In the United States he was a correspondent for Latin American newspapers.

On May 1, 1886, Albert Parsons, head of the Chicago Knights of Labor, led 80,000 people
through the city’s streets in support of the eight-hour day. In the next few days they were joined nationwide by 350,000 workers who went on strike at 1,200 factories, including 70,000 in Chicago.

On May 3, August Spies, editor of the Arbeiter-Zeitung (Workers Newspaper), spoke at a
meeting of 6,000 workers, and afterwards many of them moved down the street to harass scabs at the McCormick plant. The police arrived, opened fire, and killed four people, wounding many more.

On May 4, Spies, Parsons, and Samuel Fielden were speaking at a rally of 2,500 people held to protest the police massacre when 180 police officers arrived, led by the Chicago police chief. While he was calling for the meeting to disperse a bomb exploded, killing one policeman. The police retaliated, killing seven of their own in the crossfire, plus four others; almost two hundred were wounded. The identity of the bomb thrower remains unknown.

On June 21, 1886, eight labor leaders, including Spies, Fielden, and Parsons went on trial,
charged with responsibility for the bombing. The trial was rife with lies and contradictions, and the state prosecutor appealed to the jury: “convict these men, make an example of them, hang them, and you save our institutions.”

Even though only two were present at the time of the bombing (Parsons had gone to a nearby tavern), seven were sentenced to die, one to fifteen years imprisonment. The Chicago bar condemned the trial, and several years later Governor John P. Altgeld pardoned all eight, releasing the three survivors (two of them had had their sentences reduced from hanging to life imprisonment).

On November 11, 1886, four anarchist leaders were hanged; Louis Lingg had committed suicide hours before. Two hundred thousand people took part in the funeral procession, either lining the streets or marching behind the hearses.

Unfortunately, the events surrounding the execution of the Haymarket martyrs fueled the
stereotype of radical activists as alien and violent, thereby contributing to ongoing repression.

Over the years the remains of many deceased or martyred radicals, among them Emma
Goldman, Bill Hayward, and Joe Hill, were deposited at the Haymarket Monument in Chicago, where seven of the eight men on trial lie buried. Ever since that time, in almost every country except one (guess which?) May 1 has been honored as International Workers Day.

The internationalization (if not “globalization”) of the Haymarket legacy was apparent two days after the hangings when José Martí, leader of Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain, who was then living in exile in New York, wrote a detailed, emotion-filled report of the events leading up to the executions. Full of analysis, his article entitled “A Terrible Drama” appeared on January 1, 1888, in the Argentine paper La Nación, published in Buenos Aires. Early on in his piece he notes:

“Frightened by the growing power of the plain people, by the sudden coming together of the working masses (previously held back by the rivalries of their leaders), by the demarcation of two classes within the population — the privileged and the discontented (the latter a thorn in the side of European high society) — the republic determined to defend itself with a tacit covenant, a complicity whereby criminal action is triggered by the authorities’ misdeeds as much as by the fanaticism of the accused, in order to use their example to terrify — not by means of pain directly visited upon the rabble, but by the fearsome revival of the hangman’s hood.”

At the end of his long article José Martí quoted from the Arbeiter-Zeitung issued on the day of the executions:

“We have lost a battle, unhappy friends, but we will see in the end an ordered world that
conforms to justice: we will be wise like the serpent and quiet like the dove.”
In our own time the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano has commented on “A Terrible Drama” (in his Memories of Fire, vol. II):

“The scaffold awaited them. They were five, but Lingg got up early for death, exploding a
dynamite cap between his teeth. Fischer was seen unhurriedly humming the ‘Marseillaise.’
Parsons, the agitator who used the word like a whip or a knife, grasps the hands of his comrades before the guards tie his own behind his back. Engel, famous for his sharp wit, asks for port wine and then makes them all laugh with a joke. Spies, who so often wrote about anarchism as the entrance into life, prepares himself in silence to enter into death.

“The spectators in the orchestra of the theater fix their view on the scaffold — a sign, a noise, the trap door gives way, now they die, in a horrible dance, twisting in the air. [Here he quotes Martí.]

“José Martí wrote the story of the execution of the anarchists in Chicago. The working class of the world will bring them back to life every first of May. That was still unknown, but Martí always writes as if he is listening for the cry of a newborn where it is least expected.”

Venezuela Border Conflict Mixes Drug Trafficking and Regime-Change Ambitions , by Tom Whitney

1182 words

Since mid-March Venezuelan army units have been attacking and expelling Colombian operatives active in Apure state, in western Venezuela. Colombians have long used the border regions to prepare cocaine arriving from Colombia and ship it to the United States and Europe. Fighting has subsided; eight Venezuelan troops were killed. Seeking safety, 3,500 Venezuelans crossed the Meta River – an Orinoco tributary – to Arauca in Colombia.

Venezuela’s Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez addresses the media at Miraflores Palace, in Caracas, Venezuela April 5, 2021. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

The bi-national border is porous and long enough, at 1367 miles, to encourage smuggling and the undocumented passage of cross-border travelers such as the narcotraffickers in Apure. These include paramilitaries, bands of former FARC-EP insurgents, and drug-trade workers – pilots, truckers, laboratory workers, and more. Also involved are Colombia’s Army; Mexican drug cartels; officials in Washington; and DEA functionaries in Colombia. 

The paramilitaries in Apure represent Colombia’s largest drug cartel, “Los Rastrojos.” Colombia’s paramilitaries in general are the products of advice given Colombia’s government by U.S. Army consultants in the 1960s. They claimed paramilitaries were essential for defeating leftist guerrillas.  The Colombian military controls the paramilitaries’ actions, as verified recently by the prototypic paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso.  He was testifying before a Colombian judge virtually from a U.S. prison. 

The former FARC-EP insurgents active in Apure are known by the name of their leader, Gentil Duarte. In 2016 they rejected the forthcoming peace agreement that the FARC-EP would be signing with the Colombian government. They’ve taken up narcotrafficking.  Other dissenting ex-FARC fighters took up arms again in 2019. Calling themselves the “Second Marquetalia,” they are not present in Apure.

In March, the Colombian Army transferred 2000 troops to the Colombian side of the border. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke with Colombian President Iván Duque by telephone on April 5; they discussed “their shared commitment to the restoration of democracy and rule of law in Venezuela.”  U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela James Story, stationed in Bogota, held meetings from February 19 to 26 with Venezuelan opposition leaders Leopoldo López, Julio Borges, and Manuel Rosales. They style themselves the “Venezuelan Presidential Commission.”

The U.S. Air Force on March 30 and 31 flew four C-17 “Globemaster” troop and equipment-carrying planes to airports in Colombia. Colombia’s Semana newspaper anticipates that the U.S. Congress will soon authorize the sale to Colombia of fighter aircraft worth $4.5 billion. The report laments the “worrisome picture” of air force capabilities in comparison with those of Venezuela.

Colombian President Iván Duque in late February announced the creation of the “Special Command against Narcotrafficking and Transnational Threats.”  This will be a 7000-person elite military force with air assault capabilities.  Its “certain objective,” according to the Communist Party’s website, is war against Venezuela.

During the tenure of left-leaning Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and that of his successor, President Nicolas Maduro, Colombian paramilitaries repeatedly crossed the border on destabilization missions.  Organizers for a 2000 seaborne anti-Maduro assault called Operation Gedeon were based in Colombia, as were some of the plotters who mounted a drone attack against Maduro in 2018. The U.S. and Colombian governments in February 2019 failed in their attempt to deliver humanitarian aid across the border at Cucuta, Colombia. Their idea had been to divide Venezuela’s military.

The outcome of the fighting in Apure is unclear. The Colombian and U.S. governments undoubtedly would utilize any humanitarian crisis as an opening to further destabilize Venezuela’s government.

It’s certain that the U.S. government in the Biden era continues to seek the overthrow of Venezuela’s government. Without question the reactionary Colombian government is at the beck and call of the U.S. government. The U.S. capitalist hierarchy, of course, has its eye on Venezuela’s massive reserves of crude oil, in excess of 550 billion barrels.

What is underappreciated is the role of drug-trafficking in serving interventionist purposes, as in Apure. U.S. military aid under Plan Colombia, which began in 2000, was supposed to have reduced narcotrafficking. The same was to have happened after the FARC-EP insurgency gave up arms in 2016.   Nevertheless, Colombia afterwards continued to produce 70 percent of the cocaine consumed in the world, according to a 2019 United Nations report. Production has increased since.

Some 70 percent of Colombia’s cocaine heads to the United States – the world’s leading consumer – via the Pacific Ocean route. But much of the remainder does pass through Venezuela, and Washington officials pay attention.  

The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission is “an independent, bipartisan entity” serving U.S. policymakers.  Its December, 2020 report noted that: “Traffickers operate freely in large swaths of the country s territory [and] The US State Department is offering rewards of $15 million for information leading to [President] Maduro’s arrest and $10 million for information on four other top officials.”

The U.S. Fourth Naval monitors Venezuelan waters and air space for supposed Venezuelan drug-trafficking.

The assumption here is that Colombian narcotrafficking has great appeal to Washington deciders on Latin America. Nobody likes drug dependency. The United States suffered some 70,000 drug-overdose deaths in 2019. In short, to trumpet war on drugs has great public-relations value. It’s an easy sell to promise to stem the flow of drugs into the United States in return for free rein for harsh policies in Latin America.

Therefore, the United States uses the presence in Venezuela of Colombian narco-trafficking to serve regime-change purposes. Public support for U.S. Plan Colombia told a similar story. After 2000, U.S. taxpayer money readily flowed into what was billed as war on narcotics. The real purpose was assistance to the Colombian military as it attempted to defeat leftist FARC-EP guerrillas. 

Jaime Caycedo, secretary general of the Colombian Communist Party, outlined these dynamics in writing about Plan Colombia in 2007:

“For the purposes of strategy, it’s essential to have it understood through continued propaganda that the guerrillas are associated with narcotrafficking and understood too that the war is being fought precisely because of that characteristic.”  Drugs become a “demonic phenomenon [and] imperialist military intervention figures as something ‘natural.’” The imperialists offer “no tie to history or realities that might explain things,” with the result that, “violence in the form of daily manifestations of repression and super-exploitation of workers appears simple as a consequence of narco-trafficking.” (Colombia en la Hora Latinoamericana, Ediciones Izquierda Viva)

Capitalists taking a broad view accommodate drug-trafficking for another reason. Selling cocaine yields vast amounts of money; laundered, cocaine becomes a source of liquidity for their financial system.

Former director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Antonio Maria Costa, writing in 2009, claimed that, “In many instances, drug money is currently the only liquid investment capital.”  According to the Samuel Robinson Institute, “the events in Apure show off Venezuela … as a threat, but only in what has to do with allowing the (narco)metabolism of the West to continue functioning.”  He cited journalist Roberto Saviano who notes that, “Cocaine is a safe asset … an anticyclical asset…. Cocaine becomes a product like gold or oil, but more economically potent than gold or oil. [Without] access to mines or wells, it’s hard to break into the market. With cocaine, no.”


Thanks to the Maine AFL-CIO and communications director Andy O Brien for these news briefs, selected from the many appearing on the Federation’s website at https://maineaflcio.org/

PMA Workers and Allies Demand Museum Cease Attacks on Workers’ Rights

(April 1) Museum workers and fellow union members with the Southern Maine Labor have been handing out leaflets to patrons calling out management for their union busting tactics.

After months of organizing, PMA workers voted in December to form a union with Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers. The museum workers asked PMA leadership to respect their right to organize without delay or interference, but instead of doing so,the museum has tried to defeat the union by challenging the right of 22 gallery ambassadors to join the union. Results of the union election have not been released because the ballots have been impounded due to the PMA’s obstructionist legal challenge. Local 2110 has also filed charges against the museum for laying off gallery ambassadors without providing notice to or negotiating with the union.

The Southern Maine Labor Council is looking for a few volunteers to continue leafletting PMA. If you’re interested please email southernmainelaborcouncil@gmail.com

IBEW member Barney McClelland and AFT member Harlan Baker leaflet outside PMA last week).

Maine Med Nurses are Voting

(April 9) Last week, the National Labor Relations Board mailed ballots to the nearly 2000 registered nurses at Maine Medical Center who are eligible to vote in the union election. Nurses are voting to form a union and to be represented by the Maine State Nurses Association/ National Nurses United. The ballots went out March 29th and will be counted on April 29th. 

Community support remains strong for the nurses. Lawn and window signs of support can be spotted all over Southern Maine, and patients are wearing stickers of support into the hospital.  Join the Friends of Maine Med Nurses group on Facebook to stay connected, and consider posting a photo with a sign of support to your social media with #MMCUnionYes! 

Nancy Begert and Mary Kate O’Sullivan, RNs at Maine Med, proudly cast their ballots for their union.

Senators King and Collins Must Support Pro Act!

(April 9) The PRO Act is the most significant worker empowerment legislation since the Great Depression. And it’s also a civil rights and economic stimulus bill. If we can get this passed, generations of working people could thrive. 

It passed the House on March 9 with bipartisan support, and President Biden has urged Congress to send it to his desk. The Senate is the final obstacle.

So let’s flood the Senate phone lines with support for the PRO Act. Call Senators Angus King and Susan Collins and tell them to vote YES on the PRO Act.

Important addendum: Maine Communists will proudly join DSA in demonstrating for the PRO Act in front of Senator King’s offices in Maine on Workers’ Day, May 1.

Settling with Our Past, by Greg Godels, from ML Today

As the Empire declines, as the myths binding together US economic power, social harmony, and international prestige dissolve, many people want answers.

Why is the US political system dysfunctional? Why does inequality of wealth and power march to ever greater heights? Why does the US government assume unwanted governance beyond its borders, while turning a blind eye to the sins of its allies?

These questions appear challengingly complex and intractable. Politicians, academics, and hordes of pundits offer numerous wide-ranging, but unsatisfactory answers.

But few, very few, are disposed to face the twin towers of ignorance that left their indelible stamp on US political progress. Racism and Anti-Communism remain the greatest obstacles facing those hopeful of a better, more just future for the US.

Since its revolutionary, but contradictory beginning as an uninvited settler-colony parting company with an oppressive mother country, the US has been cursed by its reliance on the institution of slavery at the core of its early economic life. That institution could only be justified with a racist, dehumanizing ideology of white supremacy.

After the institution of slavery was violently overturned, the legacy of racism remained deeply embedded in the US, remaining as an often-used tool of class division by the US ruling class. Race as a weapon of distraction and super-exploitation proved invaluable to the maintenance and domination of capitalism throughout the twentieth century.

Likewise, anti-Communism, applied with a broad brush and used against challenges to capital and steps toward racial unity, has been a consistent tactic of the rich and powerful. Red-baiting, like race-baiting, casts a veil of ignorance over the protagonists of progress. By placing a people or an ideology beyond any acceptance, by making them dangerous, barbaric, or adversarial, mass manipulators can conjure fear, stir hatred, and shape behavior contrary to the interests of a vulnerable majority. Fear of the manufactured “other” fosters divisions, distraction, and demobilization, rendering the masses confused and impotent.

Fresh Air

Despite the oppressive weight of years of relentless indoctrination, there is a welcome skepticism, a growing questioning of the inherited ideas on race and revolution.

For most people in the US, the Cold War was the source of an enormous body of myths attached to the US and its role in the world. But there are many people hard at work in terminating those myths. A recent event sponsored by Code Pink, Witness for Peace, and Addicted to War is a fine example of that effort. Rachel Bruhnke and Frank Dorrel moderated a ten-hour online COLD WAR TRUTH COMMISSION – A Day of Education, Testimonials & Action on Sunday, March 21. Billed as “putting the Cold War on Trial,” the event engaged over fifty testimonies, challenging the entire spectrum of US Cold War fictions.

The Commission billed the leadoff session as “The Roots of US Anti-Communism and Cold War,” a bold announcement that the organizers were not going to bend a knee before the national dogma of unthinking anti-Communism. Where far too many liberals will condemn the “excesses” of McCarthyism while turning a blind eye to the repression of actual Communists, this event made no such compromise.

The sessions can be viewed here.


Another welcome development is a growing academic “rediscovery” of the essential role of African American Communists in the struggle for both Black equality and the emancipation of the US working class.

The ruling class has gone to great lengths to hide the role of Communists in laying the foundation for the modern-era Civil Rights Movement, anti-imperialist action, and subsequent anti-racism struggles. Moreover, they have sought to erase the leadership of the earlier struggles by Black US Communists. The myriad organizations initiated and/or led by Communists have been buried in the past: Council on African Affairs, Civil Rights Congress, National Negro Labor Council, National Negro Congress, Committee for the Negro in the Arts, and a host of other organizations.

Similarly, the role of figures like W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Lorraine Hansberry in founding, participating, and advancing these organizations has been side-stepped by mainstream scholarship.

As the Cold War receded, historians like Nell Irvin Painter, Robin DJ Kelley, and Mark Naison– part of a “revisionist” wave reconsidering the role of the Communist Party USA– began to reveal the historical symbiotic relationship of the Communists, associated radicals, and Black liberation.

Mary Helen Washington’s 2014 book, The Other Blacklist, does a similar service for Black cultural and artistic figures who moved within or in the orbit of the Communist Party.

No scholar has and continues to plumb the close trajectory of Communism with the Black freedom movement more thoroughly or more diligently than Gerald Horne. Horne’s research has produced over a dozen books on Communists, the Cold War, and radical African American struggles. Horne summarizes the target of his research: “It is easy to see why future generations will be displeased with much of the present history that has been written to this point about the Communist Party because it has been incredibly biased, one-sided, deeply influenced by the conservative drift of the nation – not unlike pre-Du Bois histories of Reconstruction – and, fundamentally, anticommunist.”

And, today, scholars are linking the role of Communism with anti-racism and feminism, importantly through the life and works of deported US Communist leader, Claudia Jones. Scholars like Charisse Burden-Stelly and Denise Lynn are fairly and sympathetically chronicling the contributions of Communists, especially African American Communists, without genuflecting to Cold War shibboleths. See their work (Burden-Stelly) hereherehere and (Lynn) hereherehere.

Also, scholar Melissa Ford has done important research, including Black Women, Black Radicalism, and the Black Midwest.

Much of this research finds its way to the estimable Claudia Jones School for Political Education, an essential source.

Doubtless the pursuit of these forgotten histories will encourage and embolden others to consider Marxism-Leninism as a beacon illuminating the road ahead in the direction of finally defeating racism and achieving socialism.


Equally welcome is a growing hunger among workers– in the labor movement– for something more nourishing than the simplistic slogan of “Throw the bums out” directed at the labor leadership.

Reports grow that workers are discovering the writing of William Z Foster, the mastermind of class struggle unionism as practiced in US labor’s most militant days. Foster’s history in organizing workers in the early twentieth century and in crafting the US Communist Party’s labor strategy until his death in 1961 has been largely smothered by anti-Communism. But, as long-time union activist Chris Townsend reminds us, his ideas are available today with the reissue of his book, American Trade Unionism (International Publishers).

International Publishers now offers another reissue of an essential labor classic, Roger Keeran’s The Communist Party and the Auto Workers’ Union. Keeran’s scholarly book gives the true account of the building of unionism among auto workers without a Cold War spin or the usual Reuther brothers hagiography.

As an eye opener for union militants, Toni Gilpin’s The Long Deep Grudge joins the Keeran book to show how militant, multi-racial class-struggle unionism can be achieved and maintained. What Keeran does for the UAW, Gilpin does for the United Farm Equipment Workers of America in Louisville, KY.

If history is to be a guide to the future, it must be shorn of the illusions, deceptions, and distortions imposed upon it. We must move beyond Cold War myths, restore the missing chapters of race and labor militancy, and reject hysterical anti-Communism, if we are not to be participants in the death throes of a racist, exploitative empire.

We are fortunate that the quest for the truth is an irresistible force.


The business of sickness is perverse. In too many instances, medical interventions are ineffective Band-Aids. Other factors, like where you stand in the social, racial and economic pecking order — and what ZIP code you were born in — determine far more about your health. As Bertolt Brecht said so well, in his “Worker’s Speech to a Doctor”:

When we’re sick, we hear
You are the one who will heal us.
When we come to you
Our rags are torn off
And you tap around our naked bodies.
As to the cause of our sickness
A glance at our rags would
tell you more. It is the same cause that wears out
Our bodies and our clothes.

In “The Hospital: Life, Death, and Dollars in a Small American Town,” Brian Alexander shares this reality from the perch of a struggling rural hospital, known to its Bryan, Ohio, community as the “Band-Aid Station.” While the nonprofit hospital fights to stay solvent and independent, each day brings new gut-wrenching stories. From the C-suite’s tension-filled strategic planning meetings to life-or-death moments at the bedside, Alexander nimbly and grippingly translates the byzantine world of American health care into a real-life narrative with people you come to care about.

Reporting over a period of two years, which only ended this past August, Alexander went into exam rooms, patients’ homes and pathology labs, and rode along with ambulance crews. He provides a deep investigative account that chronicles the staff of nurses, doctors, technicians and administrators trying to keep the patients of northwest Ohio alive.

You will root for the hospital C.E.O. who is tiptoeing around minefields, and for the immigrant doctors who are decidedly unwelcome in Trump country, even as they try their best. But the work is grueling and the lives are almost impossibly hard to save. In sensitive portrayals, Alexander shares how patients become sicker as care is delayed, costs spiral out of control and all too often patients die from preventable deaths. The entire mess is plagued by a malignancy of despair. Everybody in this story is drowning.

Just as Brecht captured in 1938, what often makes patients sick are conditions we don’t see — or choose not to see. Alexander identifies them with surgical precision, the underlying pathogens of pernicious poverty and the widening chasm of income inequality. Add in systematic racism, early childhood trauma and inequitable access to healthy food, healthy air and high-quality health care, and you have a perfect storm.

What transpires in “The Hospital” isn’t an aberration, though, and it isn’t only small-town Ohio that Alexander is telling us about. Weaving in the power- and profit-driven history of American health care, he describes how “the system had grown by accident, by ad hoc ‘solutions’ over many years, decade upon decade.” Policies with unintended consequences dating back to postwar prosperity forced employers to offer health benefit packages as a way to entice workers and avoid wage controls, eventually leading to our tragically bad employer-based model of health care.

When the Reagan era brought a decline in union strength and workers’ rights, and greater economic inequality, things started falling apart. “Fewer people were able to stand on the shoulders of their parents to make the all-American climb,” Alexander tells us. And the system began its slide to perversity.

“The modern American version of capitalism encouraged — even demanded — that employers extract the value from their employees while returning scraps to them and their communities.” As the decades passed, employers offered less robust health care coverage. For most, it became a sort of game: how to whittle down the care being offered and make everything indecipherable so nobody would notice how little coverage there really was. Smaller local hospitals and individual practitioners joined chains to survive. Health care stopped being about those moments of healing that occur between a doctor and a patient. Far removed from the bedside, it became about big money run by monopolies and corporations.

Public health systems were eroding during the same time, he writes, “from inattention and financial starvation in the same way other public goods like bridges, water systems and education eroded, and so the health of Americans eroded, too.” Alexander’s book places a stethoscope on America — and the diagnosis is bleak. It wasn’t an epidemic of viruses, but an epidemic of greed, that corroded the social contract and public health. Our country’s promise has evolved from “an ongoing project to improve democratic society and live humanistic ideals to being a framework for fostering corporate profit.” We don’t need more biopsies or autopsies, or drugs that cost more than a mortgage. It is unchecked capitalism that is making us sick.

Alexander’s reporting takes us into the pandemic, our system’s biggest moment of reckoning, and suggests it could offer an unexpected opportunity. After half a million deaths, Covid has exposed two false narratives: individual behavior as the sole cause of poor health, and universal care as an “evil of socialized medicine.” Things don’t have to be this way; we can do more than hand out Band-Aids. If health care is a public good, then public institutions should replace the for-profit models and profit-motivated private systems, and it should finally be a universal right, untethered to employment.

By the end of “The Hospital,” you’ll be making signs to carry at the next Medicare for All march. With the stories of these characters — from patients and doctors to the C.E.O. — etched in your heart, Alexander will make you see that a healthier America will only be realized when we begin to look beyond the patients in front of us and prescribe solutions that lift people out of poverty, eliminate inequities and respect the dignity of all.

Brian Alexander’s book sometimes reads like post-apocalyptic science fiction. He pushes us to ask, How can citizens of the richest nation in history allow loved ones to die because we can’t afford lifesaving medication, like insulin, while C.E.O.’s of for-profit hospitals earn millions per year?

Mona Hanna-Attisha (@MonaHannaA) is a pediatrician and professor at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in Flint. She is director of the Pediatric Public Health Initiative and author of “What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City.”This review first appeared in the New York Times

Maine’s Labor Historian, Charles Scontras (1928-2021): His Contribution / by Chris McKinnon

Historians had long neglected Maine’s diverse working class. That changed in the 1960s when Charles A. Scontras, a young historian at the University of Maine, set out to rescue the State’s laboring classes from what the legendary British Historian E.P. Thompson once called, “the enormous condescension of posterity.” In the 1950s, British and other European social historians sought to broaden the study of history by including the lived experiences of everyday people that traditional historical narratives elided, with narratives of institutions and elites.

Thompson, and other distinguished Marxist historians formed an influential group whose work had a considerable impact on their field. Early labor historians had struggled to account for Labor’s ascent in the 19th Century.  But as a new generation of scholars adapted to the methods and conventions of the new social and labor history, there was an opening to reinvigorate the trade union movement by focusing attention away from leaders of industry and the politicians who served them and by allowing Labor’s story to be told. Labor history, as practiced by Charles Scontras, and more celebrated American labor historians like Herbert G. Gutman and David Montgomery, concentrated on the history from below, the history of organized labor and the working-class movement. 

Dr. Charles Scontras died on March 7th, 2021 at the age of 91.  He was predeceased by his wife, Joanne McKay Scontras and is survived by their children, grandchildren, and many nieces and nephews. He was born in Buffalo, New York, on November 25th, 1929, the son of Greek immigrants. He spent his childhood and adolescence in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, where he attended public schools. He completed a B.S. in Business Administration from the University of New Hampshire and earned an M.Ed., and then M.A. and Ph. D. in History, from the University of Maine, where he went on to serve on the faculty for 36 years. Following a distinguished career as a professor in the Department of History, he retired in 1997 but continued to work as a research associate at the Maine Bureau of Labor Education well into his later years. Along the way, he lectured in history at Westbrook Junior College and was adjunct faculty at Bangor Theological Seminary.

Scontras came by his interest in Labor and Maine’s working class honestly. His mother, Koula “Gloria” Diakakis, worked in the textile mills of nearby Biddeford and his father, Andrew Scontras was a shoe repairman. Prior to his academic career, Charles owned a shoe store and shoe repair business. It was this experience, along with as his identity as a son of laboring parents, that drove his interest in working-class culture. Today he is widely known in Maine as the foremost authority on Maine labor history. “I never appreciated the changes my mother had to go through as an immigrant, how she struggled in that textile mill,” Scontras said, “That’s how I became interested in social reform and the experience of my family. A lot of people think public policy relative to labor was formed and someone picked up a rock and there it was. But … it [was born] of struggle.” “Picture as best you can two immigrants coming here along with 25 million plus other immigrants in that 50 year stretch of time between 1877 and 1927 … picture my mother who knew nothing about the industrial revolution, facing 20th century technology as she worked in the [textile] mills.” “Every time I pass one of the old textile buildings that now get converted into boutiques and professional buildings and restaurants,” he reminisced, “…  my main interest falls back to the people who paraded through those gates.”

Not much was written about organized labor in Maine before the 1960s. Scontras illuminated an area of darkness. He authored a succession of books, pamphlets, and articles, and lectured on Maine’s labor movement for five decades. He devoted his working life to researching, writing, and teaching about Maine’s working class, the organizations it formed, the victories it won and the defeats it suffered. Along the way, he scoured libraries, used bookstores, antique dealers and informal markets in search of “documentation and memorabilia” of Maine’s early labor movement. His oeuvre revealed the hidden conditions that Maine workers faced and the struggles they fought to improve their cultural, social, economic, and political position in a state long dominated by a small wealthy elite and business interests.  A Maine Bureau of Labor Education colleague remembered him as a “tireless advocate for workers and for the preservation of Maine’s history of working-class struggle… He created a body of knowledge that would not otherwise exist and provided a framework for historians to peer deeply into Maine’s past for guidance on the controversies of the present.”

Professor Scontras probed the history and current condition of Maine Labor with unmatched dedication. The core of his work is preserved in 12 volumes of Maine labor history covering the period from 1636 to the present. His op-ed columns appeared in local newspapers and he spoke at union halls, setting the record straight, keeping a tradition of struggle alive in the consciousness of his contemporaries and passing it on to future generations.

His early works, Organized Labor and Labor Politics in Maine, 1880-1890 (1966) and Two Decades of Organized Labor and Labor Politics in Maine 1880-1900 (1969), situated 19th century Maine labor unrest in the context of a “national reawakening” of unions that emerged in the 1880s. Scontras wrote about the difficulty of organizing in Maine, as the “attitude of workers towards organized labor and, consequently, their commitment to labor politics, was in large measure determined by the fact that they were not far removed from the soil.” He explained the hurdles obstructing the Knights of Labor and the Greenback Party from motivating “geographically dispersed unorganized workers in disparate industries.” The desire for progressive reform was there but the means were often wanting. Yet admirable intentions were rewarded when organizing efforts succeeded. Scontras showed that the desire for “humanitarian reform” alone was insufficient to achieve social progress. It was not until that longing was bolstered by “the power of organized labor that it was possible to translate noble ends into deeds.” With the arrival of the AFL in the 1890s, the movement was more narrowly based as it was focused on ‘purely trade interests’ and therefore more disciplined.”

With the publication of Organized Labor in Maine in the 20th Century, the 1st in a series that would offer an encompassing view of Maine labor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Scontras established his reputation as a leader in Maine labor history. The book launched an expansive narrative that dealt with the revival of trade unionism in Maine, the hidden legacy of resistance among Maine workers, sparks of radical unionism, and organized labor’s fight to empower the working-class. “Organized Labor in Maine,” Scontras wrote, “was inextricably linked to the movement to extend and purify democracy by supporting the suffrage initiative and referendum, secret ballots, direct election of senators and the direct primary… part of a larger scholarly undertaking to tell the story of collective efforts of the working men and women to exercise control over their workplaces, improve their standard of living and secure a measure of social justice.”

Reflecting on the manuscript, Scontras said that “Maine has a noisy protest side. Workers sniped away at some injustices and made the difference. It is the story of working men and women and their collective efforts to improve their own lives. Maine has had its radical voices, but one would never know by traditional literature. This changes the image of the state to more realism. Maine was not Shangri-La.” “We’ve always painted a picture of the self-reliant lobster-person who was always immune to collective effort,” he averred, “but the lobster fisherman’s union, the first of its kind in the history of the labor movement, was founded in Vinalhaven in 1905.”

The AFL led the trade union movement, at the turn of the century, but their efforts proved “weak” and “ineffectual.” More militant organizations like the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) soon emerged on the Maine scene. In 1903 in Rockland, the Socialist Trade & Labor Alliance (STLA) organized a strike in the woolen and worsted mills of Skowhegan. The strike ended in failure but the STLA found a home in the IWW. A new era in Maine labor’s evolution was rising.

Figure 2  The Socialist Alternative (1985)

In The Socialist Alternative: Utopian Experiments and the Socialist Party of Maine, 1815-1914, the 2nd book in the series, Scontras excavates Maine’s rendezvous with utopian socialism in the form of the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth (an experiment with which Eugene Debs briefly flirted), Equality Colony and the Industrial Brotherhood. Trials and errors that were followed by the founding of a “radical political alternative” in the form of the Socialist Party of Maine. Here, Scontras introduces some of Maine history’s most colorful radicals: Norman Wallace Lermond, Maine’s first socialist candidate for Governor, who was influenced by the utopian novelist and author of Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy, and founding members of the Maine Socialist Party, Portland artist, Charles Lewis Fox and the prolific early science fiction novelist, Edward Allan England.  England, the Socialist Party’s candidate for Governor in 1912, was,” as Scontras would have it, “without question Maine’s intellectual socialist.”

In subsequent volumes, Organized Labor in Maine: War, Reaction, Depression, and the Rise of the CIO 1914-1943 (2002) and Labor in Maine: Building the Arsenal of Democracy and Resisting Reaction at Home, 1939-1952 (2006), Scontras examined the experience of Maine labor through World Wars I and II, the reverberation of the Russian Revolution, the ensuing “Red Scare,” and the limits of political dissent in Maine. The Great Depression, the rise of radical voices, the emergence of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and the growth the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) and their impact on Maine workers are woven into the story.

In 1919, as the pro-business Eastern Argus deplored the “seething cauldron of unrest” and “the spirit of dissent” emanating from the “most radical” creed of “Bolshevism, … , “Tom Lyons, granite cutter, labor leader and Maine’s first Commissioner of Labor, voiced the sentiment of many in Labor that the camouflaged story of Bolshevism, IWWism, Sovietism, socialism… [were] part of a well-organized movement to discredit and check the rapid advance of organized labor.” Regrettably, the voice of skepticism was lost in a sea of rhetorical conformism. Maine Labor was cool to the appeal of radical voices, and Scontras made clear that “it could never escape the inevitable linkages made between Bolshevism and organized labor by those intent on weakening or destroying the labor movement.”

The lukewarm response by Maine labor to calls for industrial unionism and independent political action was tempered and conditioned by Samuel Gompers’ American Federation of Labor (AFL). But the calls of more radical solutions persisted. “Scattered leftist voices in Maine continued to resent the reluctance of the AFL to break with its non-partisan political stance.” The venerable AFL founder had his critics. A socialist spokesperson for the paving cutters union in Vinalhaven asked, “does Gompers expect us to believe that we will ever get legislation favorable to labor from a government of businessmen … radical changes to be made by the very people who thrive on the present system?”

By the 1930s, socialists had become a “permanent fixture on Maine’s political landscape” causing establishment political figures, businessmen, industrialists, and reactionary civic organizations to panic. Following the Communist Party’s engagement with the 1933 shoe strike in Norway Maine, the Maine State Labor News reported, “Communistic agencies during the past few years have been especially active in preaching the gospel of Communism wherever shoe and textile strikes occur.” The Maine Federation of Women’s Clubs issued a warning that “we are ripe for communism and destruction.” Overblown reactions, but the presence of communist cadre in Maine “fueled the fears of conservative groups and proved … a constant challenge to the Maine State Federation of Labor (MSFL).” As is often the case, fear turned to repression.

In 1935, Gustav Saderquist, a Clark Island paving cutter, “avowed communist,” alleged reader and distributor of the Daily Worker, was forced to surrender to immigration officials. Represented by International Labor Defense, Saderquist was eventually deported for “being a member of an organization, which advocates the overthrow by force and violence of the government of the United States and of all forms of law.” Some “considered the charges fallacious. [S]ince the Communist Party was a legal party in the U.S., how could it be illegal to be a member of it?” But the reactionary campaign against communism carried on well in the 1940s and ultimately the new Red Scare, Cold War, McCarthyism, and the Taft-Hartley Act gave the Republican Party, American Legion, Chamber of Commerce the weapons they needed to purge communists and socialists from the unions. The radicals resisted but to no avail. Scontras’s histories of the era are packed with detail and suggestive insights for further research.

Dr. Scontras’s interests also lead him into the public domain and occasionally into controversy. In 2007, Maine artists Judy Taylor won a competitive award from the Maine Arts Commission and the Maine Department of Labor for a mural featuring Maine labor history. Taylor collaborated informally with Scontras on the work. In personal communication with the artist, Scontras suggested what might serve as a primary focus for the mural: “Maine,” he said, “is a bit more than the stereotypical romantic images that have become commonplace and marketed by our gift and souvenir shops, Down-East humor, lighthouses, lobster fishermen, … its rock-bound seacoast, … [and] larger than life lumberjacks. While these things do describe Maine, and I am glad that they form part of our heritage, Maine was not Nirvana. The creative role of dissent, protest, conflict, and the demand for social justice in the workplaces of the state, form an integral part of our historical legacy.”

Figure 3  Maine Labor History Mural / Judy Taylor, artist

Taylor’s partnership with Scontras resulted in the scenes that were depicted on the eleven-panel mural. The artist paid tribute to the historian’s contribution by using his likeness in the unplanned eleventh panel that portrays apprenticeship. Scontras is shown teaching an apprentice how to hand sew shoes, a scene harkening back to his youthful days demonstrating his skill at his father’s craft. [It is the 1st panel as it is currently displayed at the Maine State Archives]. Commenting on his likeness, Scontras said, “Apprenticeship has always provided opportunities for workers to learn a skilled trade on the job. At the center of this panel is a shoemaker teaching his craft to a young apprentice. I was a shoe repairer in my youth and was selected by the artist as the model for the mentor in this panel in appreciation for my commitment to labor education.” Taylor called Scontras a “guiding light” in her design and creation of the Mural’s subjects. “If you want to know Maine labor history,” she said, “you have to talk to Charlie.”

Figure 4 Scontras depicted as a cobbler with apprentice

The entire mural with images of Rosie the Riveter at the Bath Iron Works, child laborers, and the Lewiston–Auburn shoe strike of 1937, was displayed in the Department of Labor until Republican Gov. Paul LePage ordered its removal in 2011, citing complaints about the works pro-labor bias and later shifting to a more philosophical rationale focused on depicting business and labor harmony. The governor’s rhetoric betrayed a deep-seeded, anti-labor predisposition and unyielding commitment to capitalist ideology. LePage included in his administrative directive the demand that Department of Labor (DOL) conference rooms honoring Labor Leader & Civil Rights Activist, Cesar Chavez, the first female U.S. Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, Rose Schneidermann of New York’s Women’s Trade Union League, and one of Scontras himself be renamed. In response, to LePage’s transparent and petty suppression of the cultural expression of labor’s contributions, Scontras said “totalitarian regimes erase history as well. We manage to do it by indifference or for ideological reasons.” He voiced “surprise that a Franco-American like the governor whose wife was once a union steward, would take such a move when the mural honored the work that generations of Maine Franco-Americans had done in the shoe, textile and paper industries.” “It’s enough to make you weep,” Scontras said of the mural removal, “I’d prefer to see my name removed than see history removed.” Ultimately, the mural and the conference room names survived. The mural is prominently displayed in the entrance lobby at the Maine State Archive and State Library and the hallowed names of Chavez, Perkins and Schneiderman have been restored to the DOL conference rooms.

Scontras remained engaged on issues of voting rights, pedagogy, the right to organize and more. Reflecting on the upsurge of voter suppression, he reflected, that “today the nation is awash with commentaries on preserving the purity and integrity” of our elections and democracy. “Perhaps the concept of corporations as persons and money as free speech is the real gorilla in the room eroding the purity of democracy and should be the focus of our energy and concern.”

He was active with online correspondence to the end. The day before he died, Scontras posted a piece on Facebook for Women’s History Month about women in the workplace and their struggles over the years for equal pay. “While the struggle of Maine women to fight their way out of the historical shadows of inequality reaches deep into the nineteenth century,” he wrote, “the embers of the struggle continue to billow…” Indeed, in his final days, the nurse’s struggle to form a union at Maine Medical Center was much on his mind. O Maine Medical Center’s hiring of an anti-union consulting firm to defeat the push for “workplace democracy,” he said, that it is but “a more recent example of [a] species of legal opposition which reaches back nearly a half-century.” Scontras saw nothing new in these tactics, just a renewed subversion of worker agency. Who needs the “strike-breaking, club-swinging thugs,” the “labor spies,” and other assorted crude anti-union strategies and tactics anymore, he asked, “to ensure that the sparks of unionism do not billow into a genuine worker countervailing-power of resistance, a demand for democracy in the workplace and a voice in the decisions that directly impact their lives?”

Beyond the workplace, Scontras was concerned about the “racism, xenophobia, bigotry and hate that spark social division and intolerance” to this day, he cautioned against the “shortcomings [of] an education that narrowly focuses on making people marketable.” “Should it be a requirement,” he asked, “that all students enroll in a course that seek[s] to address such questions as a condition for graduation in any public school?  In a nation that is rapidly becoming a microcosm of the races, ethnicities, and cultures of the world, is it not necessary to systematically cultivate a mind-set for a multi-cultural democracy in the interest of social harmony?” Professor Scontras was dedicated to his profession. His students, colleagues, and associates lauded him for his commitment. He is affectionately remembered by them in part for that reason.

But Charles Scontras was far more than an academic and Maine’s premier labor historian. He was a public intellectual who cared deeply about his community and sought through his life’s work to give voice to Maine’s working-class and raise its concerns and aspirations above the exclusionary narratives that dwell on the wants and rationalizations of wealth and privilege. He was recognized for his unflagging commitment to elevating labor’s story. Scontras, like the late Gutman and Montgomery, believed in ‘the empowering quality of history’, for scholars and the working-class itself.

“Professor Scontras told the stories of common Maine people banding together for dignity in the workplace and society, building organizations and forever struggling for basic rights in the workplace,” affirmed Matt Schlobohm, Executive Director of the Maine AFL-CIO. “At a fundamental level, Charlie told the ongoing story of everyday working-class Mainers fighting to become citizens in the workplace, not property. More than any other human being to walk this earth, he chronicled, catalogued, and kept alive the history of Maine workers, our unions, and collective struggles. He taught us our working class and labor history too often neglected in schools or textbooks. We are all eternally grateful and better for Charlie’s work.”

Charles Scontras gave much but his work is unfinished. “One of his dreams was to see the creation of a monument honoring the first strike over working conditions in what would become the United States, a direct labor action which occurred on Richmond Island off the coast of Maine in 1636 by overworked and unpaid Maine fishermen and laborers. It was important to Professor Scontras that they not be forgotten. We must not forget him.

Stopgap Methods Won’t Fix Migration Challenge, by Tom Whitney

The continuing press of migrants from Mexico and Central America arriving at the U.S. southern border has forced the Biden administration to send Vice President Kamala Harris south on a negotiating mission. According to The New York Times, “She will work with the leaders of Central American governments.” Armed with “billions of dollars,” she will seek collaboration in  “reducing the violence and poverty” that predispose to migration.

A look at realities in Honduras and Guatemala suggests her goal is unattainable.  That’s because past U.S. policies and actions in the region, interventionist and exploitative, contributed to the very life-threatening conditions Harris is targeting. To succeed, the Biden administration must grapple with a dark legacy fashioned by the United States itself.

In Honduras presently, 62 percent of the population live in poverty, 40 percent in deep poverty. The impact of the pandemic and of hurricanes during 2020 caused 700,000 more Hondurans to fall into poverty and 600,000 more to lose jobs. Estimates of Hondurans facing food insecurity range from 1.3 million – with 350,000 close to starvation – to   2.9 million.

Journalist Giorgio Trucchi recently catalogued other hazards of Honduran life. He cites at least 2000 attacks on defenders of human rights in 2016-2017, 278 murders of women in 2020, 86 journalists killed over two decades, 372 killings of members of the LGBTQ community over 10 years, and a 12.5 percent GDP loss in 2018 ascribed to corruption.

As of September, 2020, 2.8 million Guatemalans were “severely food insecure. Now 80 percent of Guatemala’s indigenous population are malnourished, and 59 percent of Guatemalans live in poverty. According to the World Food Program, “The number of households that did not have enough to eat during COVID-19 nearly doubled in Guatemala compared to pre-pandemic numbers. In Honduras, it increased by more than 50 percent.”

That agency indicated that, “Hunger in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua has increased … from 2.2 million people in 2018 to close to 8 million people in 2021 – a result of the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 and years of extreme climate events.” Now, “nearly 15 percent of people surveyed by WFP in January 2021 said that they were making concrete plans to migrate.”

U.S. political leaders have turned a blind eye to the suffering. The two governments win points by welcoming multinational corporations and repressing leftist political movements.  All three governments are fine with a worldwide economic system featuring support for healthcare, schools, and pensions; freedom for corporations; and the selling-off of public assets. 

Officials in Washington put Honduras to good use. The country is a transfer point for illicit drugs heading north, with the result that Honduras is a regional center for drug-war activities. The Soto Cano U.S. airbase was ground zero for U.S. support in the 1980s for Contra mercenaries fighting Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government. That base, where 1500 U.S. troops are stationed, is the hub of U.S. military operations in the country and farther afield.

President Manuel Zelaya was advancing progressive reforms, that is, until June 29, 2009, when a military coup deposed him. U.S. interventionists played a role.  The plane transporting Zelaya from Tegucigalpa to Costa Rico stopped at the Soto Cano base. And, according to Wikileaks, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton knew beforehand what was happening, but took no action.

Corruption and criminality took over after the coup. The drug-dealing activities of President Porfirio Lobo, winner of a low-turnout election shortly after the coup, recently came to light. Analyst Karen Spring explains that a drug cartel financed Lobo’s campaign; that Lobo reciprocated by arranging for foreign agencies to finance developmental ventures; that he, along with family members, fixed it so that drug money was laundered through projects like mining operations, hydroelectric works, highways, and other energy-related initiatives.

In 2019, a U.S. court convicted Juan Antonio Hernández of drug-trafficking. His brother is Juan Orlando Hernández, who is Lobo’s successor as Honduras’s president. Citing evidence from other trials, The New York Times recently suggested that Juan Orlando is “a key player in Honduras’ drug-trafficking industry [and] that formal charges against Mr. Hernández himself may not be far away.”

Guatemala’s recent history set the stage for another anti-people government.  A 36-year war pitting leftist guerrillas against military forces led by U.S.-trained officers and assisted by the CIA led to the deaths of 200,000 people. Most of them were poor, rural, and indigenous.

In 2019, lawyer and activist Jennifer Harbury lamented that “so many of the high-level Guatemalan intelligence leaders of that era, who were trained in the School of the Americas and who served as CIA paid informants [became] involved in the drug trade and … started their own cartels… And they’re devouring the country using the same techniques of torture and the terror that they used before. Once again, everyone is roaring north.”

According to nacla.org, “Guatemala’s market democracy” was founded on “genocidal violence that murdered successive generations of political leaders.” The peace process itself led to “neoliberal policies of resource extraction, free trade, and privatization” with the result of “poverty, landlessness, decrepit institutions.”

The U.S. Vice President deserves a little sympathy. She and the Biden Administration do get credit for recognizing that migrants from Central America are running for their lives. But as she confers with Central American politicians, her hands are tied.

Her negotiating partners understand the rules of international capitalism: loan payments are continued, labor is cheap, natural resources are plundered. Her government and theirs operate on the premise, one, that “money talks” and, two, that satisfaction of human needs is provisional.

Vice President Harris embodies a contradiction. She wants to fix a migration problem due mostly to capitalism. But to do so, she must betray basic capitalist assumptions.

The pressure is on. News item, March 30: “A new migrant caravan began to form Monday night (March 29) in the Honduran city San Pedro Sula … Hundreds of citizens have gathered at the main bus terminal to organize and begin the new mobilization.”

‘Lighting a fuse’: Amazon vote could spark more union pushes by Joseph Pisani and Bill Barrow from ‘People’s World’

In this Feb. 9, 2021 photo file photo, a car enters an Amazon facility where labor is trying to organize workers in Bessemer, Ala. | Jay Reeves/AP

What happens inside a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, could have major implications not just for the country’s second-largest employer but the labor movement at large.

Organizers are pushing for some 6,000 Amazon workers there to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union on the promise it will lead to better working conditions, better pay, and more respect. Amazon is pushing back, arguing that it already offers more than twice the minimum wage in Alabama and workers get such benefits as health care, vision and dental insurance without paying union dues.

The two sides are fully aware that it’s not just the Bessemer warehouse on the line. Organizers hope what happens there will inspire thousands of workers nationwide — and not just at Amazon — to consider unionizing and revive a labor movement that has been waning for decades.

“This is lighting a fuse, which I believe is going to spark an explosion of union organizing across the country, regardless of the results,” says RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum.

The union push could spread to other parts of Amazon and threaten the company’s profits, which soared 84% last year to $21 billion. At a time when many companies were cutting jobs, Amazon was one of the few still hiring, bringing on board 500,000 people last year alone to keep up with a surge of online orders.

Bessemer workers finished casting their votes on Monday. The counting begins on Tuesday, which could take days or longer depending on how many votes are received and how much time it takes for each side to review. The process is being overseen by the National Labor Relations Board and a majority of the votes will decide the final outcome.

What that outcome will be is anyone’s guess. Appelbaum thinks workers who voted early likely rejected the union because Amazon’s messaging got to them first. He says momentum changed in March as organizers talked to more workers and heard from basketball players and high-profile elected officials, including President Joe Biden.

For Amazon, which employs more than 950,000 full- and part-time workers in the U.S. and nearly 1.3 million worldwide, a union could lead to higher wages that would eat into its profits. Higher wages would also mean higher costs to get packages to shoppers’ doorsteps, which may prompt Amazon to raise prices, says Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

Any push to unionize is considered a long shot since labor laws tend to favor employers. Alabama itself is a “right-to-work” state, which allows workers in unionized shops to opt out of paying union dues even as they retain the benefits and job protection negotiated by the union.

Kent Wong, the director of the UCLA Labor Center, says companies in the past have closed stores, warehouses, or plants after workers have voted to unionize.

“There’s a history of companies going to great lengths to avoid recognizing the union,” he says.

Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, and biggest private employer has successfully fought off organizing efforts over the years. In 2000, it got rid of butchers in 180 of its stores after they voted to form a union. Walmart said it cut the jobs because people preferred pre-packaged meat. Five years later, it closed a store in Canada where some 200 workers were close to winning a union contract. At the time, Walmart said demands from union negotiators made it impossible for the store to sustain itself.

The only other time Amazon came up against a union vote was in 2014 when the majority of the 30 workers at a Delaware warehouse turned it down.

This time around, Amazon has been hanging anti-union signs throughout the Bessemer warehouse, including inside bathroom stalls, and holding mandatory meetings to convince workers why the union is a bad idea, according to one worker who recently testified at a Senate hearing. It has also created a website for employees that tells them they’ll have to pay $500 in union dues a month, taking away money that could go to dinners and school supplies.

Amazon’s hardball tactics extend beyond squashing union efforts. Last year, it fired a worker who organized a walkout at a New York warehouse to demand greater protection against coronavirus, saying the employee himself flouted distancing rules. When Seattle, the home of its headquarters, passed a new tax on big companies in 2018, Amazon protested by stopping construction of a new high-rise building in the city; the tax was repealed four weeks later. And in 2019, Amazon ditched plans to build a $2.5 billion headquarters for 25,000 workers in New York after pushback from progressive politicians and unions.

Beyond Amazon is an anti-union culture that dominates the South. And unions have lost ground nationally for decades since their peak in the decades following World War II. In 1970, almost a third of the U.S. workforce belonged to a union. In 2020, that figure was 10.8%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Private sector workers now account for less than half of the 14.3 million union members across the country.

Advocates say a victory would signal a shift in the narrative about unions, helping refute the typical arguments from companies, including Amazon, that workers can win adequate compensation and conditions by dealing with management directly.

“It is because of unions that we have a five-day work week. It is because of unions that we have safer conditions in our places of work. It is because of unions that we have benefits,” says Rep. Terri Sewell, whose congressional district includes the Amazon facility. “Workers should have the right to choose whether they organize or not.”

Union leaders are circumspect about specific organizing plans after the Bessemer vote, and Appelbaum says he doesn’t want to tip off Amazon to any future efforts. But there is broad consensus that a win would spur workers at some of the 230 other Amazon warehouses to mount a similar union campaign.

It’s less clear whether any ripple effects would reach other prime targets like Walmart and the expansive auto industry that has burgeoned across the South in recent decades. Both have largely succeeded at keeping unions at bay.

The auto workers union has had some of the largest union pushes of the last decade, but their most intense and publicized efforts ended in failure. In 2017, a years-long campaign to unionize a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, ended with a decisive 2,244-1,307 rejection of the union — the kind of margin that would be devastating in Bessemer. Two years later, however, Volkswagen workers in Tennessee had a much more evenly split vote, with 776 workers supporting unionization and 833 voting against it.

Besides the number of Amazon workers involved, the Alabama campaign has stood out because of how explicitly many advocates have linked the effort to the civil rights movement of the 20th century. The RWDSU estimates that more than 80% of the warehouse workers in Bessemer are Black.

Robert Korstad, a Duke Emeritus professor and labor history expert, says those dynamics could help in Bessemer.

“The history of the Black struggle in Alabama is pretty deeply entrenched in the social, political, and religious institutions there,” he says. “We’re starting to see people rise up again. So this Amazon struggle is part of a larger struggle that’s gone on a long time.”

The question, Korstad says, is whether a win in Bessemer truly becomes a “ripple effect” that inspires workers across racial and ethnic lines elsewhere.

Universities Now Need Govt Approval for Online International Events on India’s ‘Internal Matters,’ from The Wire.

Revised guidelines issued by the MEA and education ministry appear to extend rules applicable to physical events – for which foreigners require visas to come to India – to online conferences and seminars that don’t involve any travel to India.

New Delhi: In a new restriction on academic freedom at the country’s publicly-funded universities, professors and administrators will now have to get prior approval from the ministry of external affairs (MEA) if they want to hold online international conferences or seminars that are centred around issues relating to the security of the Indian state or which are “clearly related to India’s internal matters”.

The latter phrase is so broad as to include virtually every topic of interest to academics. The farmers’ protest relates to ‘India’s internal matters” as does the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, or caste issues or even the pros and cons of demonetisation.

In addition, the names of all participants in such seminars will have to be approved in advance by the government.

Permission will also be required for events that involve “sensitive subjects” with provisions for sharing data in any form, according to a revised set of guidelines issued by the education ministry two weeks ago.

The guidelines, which clarify the permissions required for online seminars organised by a government department or publicly-funded university,  note that any virtual conference being organised requires approval from their “administrative secretary”.

However, the revised rules specifically note that applicable ministry is required to ensure that the subject matter for the online event is not related to “security of State, Border, Northeast states, UT of J&K, Ladakh or any other issues which are clearly/purely related to India’s internal matter/s”.

For those international conferences and seminars that are structured around discussing these specific issues, approval will continue to be required from the MEA.

“While seeking approval/after approval, link to the online event should be shared by email at socoord@mea.gov.in,” the guidelines note, adding that this also applies to programmes having foreign funding or sponsorship.

The two page guidelines were circulated to all universities by the Ministry of Education earlier this month and draw on MEA guidelines on November 25, 2020.

Akin to ‘visa restrictions for online conferences’

Historically, prior approval has been required from either the MEA or home ministry for a subset of international conferences and seminars that are organised physically in India – specifically those involving foreign participants coming to the country on a conference visa.

Events that have participants from closely watched countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, China and Pakistan are subjected to additional layers of scrutiny.

The revised guidelines, on the face of it, appear to mechanically extend these rules to online conferences and seminars that don’t involve foreign participants entering India.

Requiring government approval for foreign participants is akin to creating a de facto visa system for online participation – a hurdle no country has so far sought to subject its universities to.

It is not clear how these guidelines would affect international webinars which allow audience participating by giving open access to the meeting link.

The Wire has contacted the MEA for a response and asked how ‘international conferences’ are defined in this context and whether approval is also required for online seminars that don’t have any foreign participants.

Thumbs down to apps run by ‘hostile countries/agencies’

The education/MEA guidelines  encourage universities to avoid using apps having servers that are controlled by countries or agencies that are “hostile to India”, a clause that appears to point a finger at Zoom, a popular conferencing app that is based out of the US but has been known to route user data through Chinese servers. The document says:

“There should be judicious selection of IT applications/platforms, medium for interaction; preference should be given for those apps having servers not controlled/hosted/owned by countries/agencies hostile to India.”

However, no list of “countries/agencies hostile to India” is provided.

State ministers participation

The revised guidelines also include a provision for state government ministers — and government officials, including doctors and scientists, of the rank of JS and above — who wish to participate in any online international conferences and seminars.

For these officials, permission to participate in any online conference will first have to be taken from the MEA.