The Other America

Submitted by AWL on 18 November, 2005 - 12:55

I spent three interesting months in the U.S between April and the end of June.

I was last there in 1992. Post 9/11 there are a lot more American flags around on houses, buses, trains etc and my experiences of airline workers in particular was that they are much more stressed. One pilot I spoke to told me he had taken a $ 75,000 pay cut in one year last year, the justification being less people travelling post 9/11. Retirement could not come quick enough for the older pilots.

In California, Big Arnie has united public sector workers in opposition to him and his policies. Lacking the guile of many bourgeois politicians he has made the mistake of attacking all public sector workers at the same time. He refers to them as "special interest groups" and this has become a phrase that has come back to haunt him as public sector trade unionists have adopted the phrase on their placards and in speeches.

The Governor has made attacks on pensions, workers compensation for industrial injuries, pay, and also ripped up agreements on contracts . This in particular has angered California's State nurses who follow him all over the US protesting everywhere he goes. He is also engaged in criminalising the homeless, pressurising police to make sure those sleeping rough are moved on between 11pm and 7 am. There is an army of homeless in California and one gets a shock at both the volume of homeless people and the close proximity of dying homeless people with displays of ostentatious wealth.

One of my first images was of a black man lying face down on a pavement in front of a posh wine bar in San Francisco, the wine bar opening out on to the street on a hot summers evening. He was a few feet away from those eating and drinking but no one looked at him. This is the most common response. The more assertive homeless people now beg in the cafes and restaurants and there is often confrontation between shop workers and the homeless and a lot of embarrassment all round.

The attacks culminated in a 25,000 worker protest in the State Capitol of Sacramento on the 25 th June. It was the biggest demonstration in Sacramentos' history with many demonstrators being first time protesters. Added to this are the gaffes of the Governor calling for California's borders to be closed in the face of illegal Mexican immigration.

While there I witnessed many other protests, a strike by California State university's workers in pursuit of a pay increase and a decent contract, a well organised protest by the main anti-sweatshop campaign Global Exchange inside SF City Hall - organised like a military operation - to end sweatshop labour in San Francisco, an ongoing 2 year strike by Chicago hotel workers, and a well organised campaign to get a one-hour workers' rights slot on KPFA radio in San Francisco.

Labour video festival

One of the most heartening experiences took place in Santa Cruz during a week long labour video festival. Before showing a number of labour films made by the students of University College of Santa Cruz , trade union officials addressed about 200 of the college’s students.

The week before the film showing students had walked out of classes in solidarity with a one day strike by the college workers over better contracts and pay. The college authorities had called in the police who were heavy handed with the students. The college authorities' response had been severe because of growing anger at student protests about military recruitment on campus. To rapturous applause by the student audience, one of the trade union officials declared a hunger strike to get the name of the college official who had contacted the police and the names of the police who had been particularly heavy handed with the students.

There were other films that week that served as a bridge between local issues and campaigning by activists. A film on How to stop Walmart was shown in Watsonville on a Saturday night with around 150 people there. It led to a discussion about the practicalities of preventing Walmart setting up in Watsonville. Another film about the occupation of the Argentinean factories, called "The Take", was shown to an audience of about 300 in Santa Cruz's main Del Mar cinema, and this was followed by a discussion with the workers who had been instrumental in the occupation movement.

I also witnessed 200 people turning up to give a standing ovation to Basra oil workers who had been on a speaking tour of the US. The oil workers were clearly moved; with many of their stereotype images of Americans being dispelled (They said this from the platform).

Although patchy, there is clearly another America to that of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al. There is no such thing as a bad nation.

Good images of the Santa Cruz tent university and police arrests can be viewed at www.bobfitchphoto.com

and the Santa Cruz indymedia site.

Peter Burton