Last Thursday, April 14th, was a march that incorporated the $15 minimum wage demand, black community control of the police, and opposition to the new stadium construction plans at Temple University.
I was happy to see Philly Socialists student members present, which is not usual given Philly Socialists’ abstentionist past with the $15 movement. I found myself really pumped and amped up by this march, something I kind of needed. After a slog of a campaign season in Philly Socialists, the incremental and low-visibility accumulation of forces in the tenants’ union, and the stupid divisiveness in the Left over Sanders, it was a breath of fresh air.
That being said, many of the critiques of the $15 movement (and nearly every movement) which circulate among the Philly Socialists crowd do have some merit, and were somewhat verified by the April 14th march.
My analysis of Stadium Stompers has tended to be that, since it is based around a specific incident rather than a general fight based around people’s units of daily economic circulation (housing, jobs, transit, schools), it will not tend to pull in as much of the actual North Philly community as the student organizers hope. (This is in contrast to, say, a tenants’ union, which deals more directly and obviously with the economic needs of the community; even if the stadium would indeed be disastrous for the community, it’s not as easy to mobilize around it or build lasting power from it.)
This seemed confirmed to me by the fact that in truth, the march was not that big. The recent Sanders marches have been larger actually. I myself have been overloaded with events and was not even going to attend, except that I just happened to be working in Center City and I heard the drumbeats of the march at the end of the working day. (The drums were cool in building energy but also drowned out chanting, pro’s and con’s.)
This blends into general problems with the $15 movement. I would describe it as having similar issues as the Stadium Stompers movement. It’s a good demand, and directly related to class struggle and people’s own standard of living, which means ordinary people might care about it and get involved more than many other activist demands. That being said, it’s a demand on the state rather than necessarily a specific demand against specific, concrete local institutions. We always harass McDonald’s, but the amount of actual fast food workers we’ve attracted has been minimal. Movements around demands on the state tend to be self-limiting to a student-and-activist crowd who can afford the time to mobilize around issues that aren’t of direct relevance to institutions and life conditions they themselves may not be connected to. This means only a small activist minority of the population will be mobilized, instead of the broader working class.
It’s true that, for mostly including causes initiated by white college kids, the march was wonderfully multiracial. Maybe I’m being optimistic but certain parts of the crowd seemed to be 50/50 (which is good because that’s roughly the actual racial composition of Philadelphia). Part of this had to do with the presence and involvement of the Black Hammer, a socialist and black nationalist group which incorporates both black national and class struggle demands in its focus. (Dude, what an epic name.) This to me was one of the most positive aspects of the march: the confluence of class and race demands, in what has often been a toxic left environment which counterposes these issues instead of conjoining them (or conjoins them without actually being multiracial in the composition of participants). But in sum the overall smallness of the march lends to the notion that actually not much of the community has actually been mobilized by ANY of the demands – not $15, not the stadium, etc.
What could we do to change this? One thing which seems to be in the works is making $15 a campus-oriented demand, ie demand the campus pay its workers $15. This makes it more easy to build a student critical mass as well as engage the workers who work there, and lends itself to building a student power network based on campus-specific demands that are directly relevant to students’ own economic self-interests (tuition, room and board, things not mentioned in any of the Temple student government platforms – in fact the cost of the stadium may be more directly impactful to students in a dollars and cents fashion than anybody else, in the form of tuition hikes and fees). Another thing would be to build up an inter-workplace workers’ alliance in distinction/complement to the traditional local-based union structure. The Restaurant Opportunities Center seems to play a related role to this in Philadelphia. The Philly IWW also used to run a South Street Workers’ Alliance which at its peak had 100 members, though this may have been a decade ago and collapsed. The direct involvement of socialists in these alternative union initiatives makes sense to me. At the moment Philly Socialists is building a tenants’ union, which serves a slightly different but also very similar role of creating activity across multiple locations, struggling around units of people’s daily economic circulation.
Now these predicaments are not entirely our fault. The unions involved are, well, unions, with all the shit this often implies. Fight for $15 is not really a self-organized grassroots movement, but an SEIU front where the SEIU paid staff mobilize members. Now I’m glad they’re doing this, but it makes their involvement contingent upon the possibly tenuous approval of the bureaucrats (who actually used their influence over this march to ban any campaigning for Sanders, which myself and others gleefully disobeyed). Furthermore many of the West Coast $15 laws have involved exceptions against the unions themselves, negotiated by the unions themselves (this would almost be unbelievable, except we’re talking about union bureaucracy).
On a more positive labor note, it was nice to see Caucus of Working Educators people there too, though I have no idea who plugged them in or what their relationship was to the forces involved. What relationship socialists and socialist organizations should have to such reform caucuses is itself a huge topic which deserves an entire separate article.
It was enjoyable to see electoral politics enter directly into the issue-oriented march, with the contention over campaigning for Sanders, a handful of people (probably SEIU staffers) holding Clinton signs getting harassed, and a speech by a state senate politician McGinty who was booed by some anarchists and others (okay maybe me for a second) for being the “Hillary Clinton of the PA senate race.”
Overall despite the criticisms I’ve made, it was a beautiful confluence of varying currents worthy of this psychedelic era, and benefited from a lot of red energy. As an outsider to the actual organizing preparations, I wonder how the different forces involved felt about it. For example, the $15 demand predominated in the chanting. Did the black police control or stadium people feel slighted by that? I have no idea.
I am not sure what precise role I play in this movement(s?) except as a supporter and marcher (hell, I am not exactly sure what my role really is in anything at the moment). But I hope the Philly Left and these movements are full of enough thoughtful, open-minded, strategy-oriented, and driven people to maybe take some of these thoughts and run with them. Better to talk about it than not.