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Rebuilding our Economy from the Ground Up

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In one of the great events in our nation's history, the United Auto Workers brought GM to its knees with the Flint sit-down strike of 1936-37. For six weeks, the workers defied antiunion court orders and resisted tear gassing as they occupied the Fisher body plant, a crucial component of GM's manufacturing process. Buoyed by the active participation of the women's auxiliary and food and sustenance from the Flint community, the UAW workers refused to budge until they won collective bargaining rights and better working conditions--not just for themselves but for all GM plant workers and eventually all Big Three autoworkers.

The rights and benefits that both union and nonunion workers have enjoyed over the past seven decades are due in no small measure to courageous and imaginative actions like those of the Flint sit-down strikers. But while the current economic meltdown has brought to mind memories of the Great Depression, we need to understand how far we are removed from the 1930s.

In the 1930s, our manufacturing structure was still intact; the working class was growing in numbers, and defying the economic royalists by singing "Solidarity Forever." Hi-Tech had not made the majority of industrial workers obsolete. Transnational corporations, cheap oil and globalization had not normalized the export of jobs.

In the 1930s, the UAW told GM they would shut the company down until their voices were heard and their humanity respected. Today, the UAW is scrambling to make whatever concessions are necessary to keep GM in business.

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In the 1930s, the UAW captured the imagination of millions around the world, who saw in its struggles the makings of a new social movement and willingly offered their material and moral support. Today, the UAW, rightly or wrongly, is viewed by most Americans as an interest group that exists primarily to serve the needs of its own membership.

As Abraham Lincoln said 140 years ago in December 1862: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so must we think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we will save our country."

If the UAW wants a GM that works for its members, it will need to take ownership of the company and thrust the workers into the position to assume responsibility for the tough decisions lying ahead. Just imagine if GM were a worker-owned company, building the world's most environmentally-friendly vehicles (not just cars but buses, trains, and other forms of mass transit), prioritizing doing business with local communities, and using its clout to advocate for progressive domestic and foreign policies.

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Our belief is that socially-conscious people, including those turned off by the us-against-them rhetoric of the old "Buy American" campaigns, are anxious to rally behind this new kind of business. What we know for sure is that the old business model--upon which both GM and the UAW have relied since the 1950 "Treaty of Detroit" labor-management agreement--has failed and cannot be resurrected. Thus, we need to offer the American public a clear alternative to pouring billions and billions of public funds down a sinkhole.

It won't be easy for the UAW to break with years of "business unionism" or for its members to take on a new set of unprecedented challenges following decades of relative economic security. Should they choose this path, they will need our love and solidarity more than ever. But even if they fail to do so, we can look to other sources of inspiration.

Today, the laid-off United Electrical workers occupying the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago are attracting attention and support from diverse directions because they have had the courage not only to demand what they are owed but also to expose the warped values of an economic system--made worse by the initial phase of the bailout--that puts the economic interests of corporations ahead of human needs and concerns. Characterizing their plight as "reflective of what's happening across this economy," President-elect Obama--reminding us why his campaign of hope inspired so many to work for change from below--declared the UE workers were "absolutely right" to wage their struggle.

Still, the workers did not wait for the approval of politicians before they acted. And for this reason, their local action--just like the Flint strike or the refusal of Rosa Parks to leave her seat--can be a model of inspiration for all kinds of new efforts to rebuild our economy from the ground up. Regardless of what happens to the UE workers, the solidarity they are both demonstrating among themselves and building with others is a vital step toward the "revolution of values" that Martin Luther King, Jr,. called for when assessing an America in crisis owing to entrenched racism, the Vietnam War, and a culture of materialism that privileged things over people.

Once we understand that the current economic crisis is not a downturn in the business cycle that will eventually run its course but a product of dehumanizing and destructive patterns of living, we can prioritize both in our daily lives and in our collective political activism a form of solidarity economics emphasizing sustainability, mutuality, and local self-reliance.

In a thoughtful article for YES! magazine entitled "Help Wanted," Ethan Miller, who works at a land-based mutual aid cooperative in Maine, calls for a paradigm shift in the way we think about economic development. The conventional wisdom, especially promoted by politicians, is that economic development only comes from outside--in other words from developers. In fact, our economy includes all the ways we sustain and support ourselves, our families, and our communities. What actually holds the very fabric of our society together are local activities that are not done for money: household activities like raising children and cooking; barter activities like trading services with friends or neighbors; and cooperative enterprises based on common ownership and control. These mutual care and cooperative activities are the seeds of "another economy."

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The movement towards community self-reliance and an economy rooted in human solidarity rather than amoral competition has become especially prominent in some Asian and Latin American countries. It may be hard for some to appreciate that another economy is possible in America--i.e. within the belly of the beast. But in fact it is already emerging. Gar Alperovitz, a historian and economist who teaches in the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland, documents this emergence in his book America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty and Our Democracy (2004). Out of his first-hand experiences in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements and with steelworkers in Youngstown, he has gained an understanding of how new movements can arise seemingly out of nowhere when systemic changes become necessary.

Alperovitz is deeply troubled by the downward trend of the past few decades, as Americans have been steadily becoming less equal, less free, and less the masters of our own fate. However, he has also witnessed millions of Americans responding to the insecurities and suffering caused by huge multinational corporations by creating new forms of community-based institutions to give "we the people" ownership and control over the way we make our living.

Some of the notable developments documented in America Beyond Capitalism are the following:

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Scott Kurashige is an associate professor of American Culture, History, and Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies at the University of Michigan and currently a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History. He is the author of The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton (more...)

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Rebuilding our Economy from the Ground Up