Progressives Must Revitalize the Labor Movement – Noam Chomsky

Trump didn’t win the working class, the Democrats lost it; it’s urgent that progressive organizing focus on the working class and unions – human civilization depends on it. There should be a focus on union organizing at Amazon. Noam Chomsky on with Paul Jay.

Paul Jay

Hi, I’m Paul Jay. Welcome to Please don’t forget there’s a donate button at the top of the webpage.

At 92 years old, Noam Chomsky never stops learning and never stops teaching. His latest book, Chomsky for Activists and that’s another thing that Noam never stops: his activism. Every drop of his life’s blood is dedicated to changing the world for the better. Now joining us is Noam Chomsky. Thanks for joining us now.

Noam Chomsky

Very glad to be with you again.

Paul Jay

So before we dig into this very peculiar moment in American history, let me ask you something a little personal, because the book kind of starts with some personal reflections.

What keeps you learning and teaching? How do you stay motivated? Given the existential threats facing us, the relative strength of the elites and I would say the relative weakness of revolutionary and progressive movements around the world, you seem to just never tire of picking activists up, encouraging organizing. You never seem to lose your fighting spirit. What gives you such hope and conviction?

Noam Chomsky

Well, what makes the commitment is what you just describe. We’re facing catastrophic threats, like nothing that has ever arisen in human history. There are ways to deal with them. There are opportunities. If we don’t deal with them very soon, in not many years we’ll be finished. Never risen before. We’re in a unique moment of human history where we have to answer the question of whether the human experiment will survive or whether it’ll end in glorious failure. We don’t have much time.

That’s enough to keep going. The actual situation doesn’t look as grim to me as you describe. It’s true that there are no revolutionary movements, but when were there? There are movements, substantial, energetic engagement over a very broad breadth of great many people, actually. I think if you count those, it’s higher than was the proportion of the population than it was in the 60s except for a very brief moment and its committed, engaged, doing things, making progress, we have a long history of success.

Countries a lot better than it was in the 1960s in many ways, thanks to the activism of the 60s in the aftermath. There are lots of things we don’t have to struggle about anymore because they won. It’s a bad period in many ways, a dangerous period, and there’s plenty of, there are both opportunities that are available and there are people engaged, should be a lot more. It’s kind of astonishing. We’ve been through seventy-five years of the nuclear age and things that I remember on August 6, 1945, and astonishingly then, still astonishing.

So on August 6th, I happened to be a junior counselor at summer camp, the news came over the loudspeaker in the morning, early morning: atom bomb destroyed Hiroshima. There was some light applause, great wars ending, all that, then everyone went off to their own activities, and that’s pretty much the way it’s been since. On August 6th, anyone who was thinking realized that not only had horrible events taken place, but that human intelligence had reached the point where very soon it would progress or maybe decline to the level where it could destroy all human life on Earth, and most of the species with it.

Which in fact happened in 1953 when thermonuclear bombs were exploded. How could nobody care? How could nobody care today? We didn’t know then that we were also entering into a new geological epic, so called Anthropocene, in which human activities have reached the point where they’re devastating the environment. We’ve known that for some years. We also know that there are a couple of decades that which we can hope to do something about it. Take a look at the impeachment proceedings or the electoral extravaganzas last fall. Barely a mention. I mean occasionally something about it, but it’s as if we’re sitting here watching ourselves destroy human life on earth.

We talk about something else. There are exceptions and important exceptions, and they’ve been active and engaged, but nowhere near what it ought to be like. We’re looking at things that are important, but nowhere near on the scale of these things. So it’s playing with a commitment comes from, and even the optimism, there are possibilities, every one of the crucial issues we face, there are feasible answers that can be given, that are given, that we can pursue that can not only overcome the existential threats, but lead to a much better world.

Well, that’s a reason for optimism.

Paul Jay

These events of January 6th, which as far as I can make out, included at least an attempt by Trump to organize a military intervention, which seems to have been rebuffed by the military leadership, but a real dysfunctionality in the state, and it comes about not just because of the person of Trump, I think, but there’s a real social base for, as there was from McCarthyism, as there was for Reaganism. Trumpism, which is, I think, somewhat a continuum of this kind of far-right rural supported, primarily right-wing of the elites and so on. That social base aren’t going away, and that social base is a climate change denier, never mind a nuclear war denier, and the possibilities of another Trump being president, if not Trump himself, are very real.

Your book is for activists, and one of the themes in the book is how to talk to people who are supporting that kind of politics, which I don’t think the left has been very good at. Can you speak to that?

Noam Chomsky

They have to be reached and I don’t think it’s impossible. There are many different strata. I mean, extreme Christian nationalists who are listening to the word of God. It’s going to be hard to reach them. Not impossible possible, we should recall, for example, that during the 1980s, in many respects, the most remarkable social movement in the history of imperialism, the first time in history where people from the attacking country [United States], into Central America, not only protested, but went to live with the victims. That never happened before, didn’t happen in Vietnam, didn’t happen in the French Algeria. 

Nobody would have dreamt of it. That thousands of Americans went there to help and many of them were from churches, including evangelical churches, and they were some of the most dedicated. These are strata of the population that can be reached. There are others, ultranationalists, white supremacists where that’s going to be hard, but a large number of them are people who have some basis for their complaints. You mentioned rural America, where most of them come from. Take a trip through rural America. What do you see? You see towns where the stores are shuttered up, the bank is closed, the young people have left.

There are reasons for that. Their lives and communities were destroyed by the neoliberal soul of the past 40 years, including the neoliberal version of globalization that Clinton implemented, not just Reagan it’s a long series. They were betrayed by Obama. They voted for Obama. They were quickly betrayed. They believed the pretty rhetoric. Within two years, they lost it. I was living in Massachusetts, the most liberal state in the country, I suppose, and there was an election, you may recall, in 2010 to replace Ted Kennedy, the liberal lion.

Two years after Obama, a year after Obama was in, by then even union voters weren’t voting Democrat. They’d been betrayed, quickly, and they turned. Well those people can be brought back. People talk about the working class base for Trump, it’s not very accurate. You take a look at the careful studies. Anthony Dimaggio’s work. He’s done very careful work on this ( The real conclusion is not that Trump won the working class, but the Democrats lost it.

They basically gave up on the working class back in the 70s. The last gasp of the Democratic commitment to the working class was the Humphrey Hawkins bill in 1978. The full employment bill. Carter didn’t veto it, but he watered it down so it had no teeth. After that this very pale rhetoric, we saw it in the 2020 election, for example. So there’s been a lot of talk about what happened on the southern border. Texas is pretty astonishing. The Mexican American area hadn’t voted for a Republican since Harding, a century, but a lot of it went to Trump.

There were some reasons. One reason is that the Democrats didn’t bother organizing. Ok you are a bunch of Mexican American people that [inaudible].

That didn’t help. There were other things, the message that they heard was that Joe Biden wants to take away our jobs, wants to destroy our economy, which is oil-based just because of some pointy headed liberals somewhere who claim the climate crisis and that he wants to devastate our lives, why should we vote for him? Not unreasonable.

What could have been done is to be working down there. Getting people to understand, as they certainly can, so you don’t have any choice about fossil fuels. You’re going to get rid of them in the next 20 or 30 years or you’re going to be toast. Finished. You, your children, your communities, you’re gone. People can understand that and they can also understand that they can get better lives. It’s not that their jobs are being taken away from them.

There are alternatives that are better. Right now they can be working on capping wells and moving to the renewable energy right where they are. They can turn into not only a better environment, but better lives, better communities and so on. All that’s there, but if nobody brings it to people and tries to organize them then they’ll hear what they hear on Fox News. Well OK. Plenty of opportunities, but not if you don’t take them. It’s kind of interesting because in Arizona, where I’m living in Maricopa County, there had been extensive Latino organizing. People actually out there talking to people, working with them, doing things. Didn’t go the path of South Texas. That’s the difference.

Paul Jay

The ability to see this kind of need to organize in south Texas and to have a national strategy of the kind of organizing you’re talking about, I don’t think progressives should depend on the Democratic Party for doing it. First of all, the leadership, predominant leadership of the Democratic Party, there’s nothing progressive about them, but there really does need to be the kind of organizing you’re talking about.

Why do you think, unless there’s something happening that I’m not seeing, there isn’t more of a national organization forming that can play this kind of role, you know, support Democratic Party candidates when it’s the right thing to do, but organize outside the Democratic Party, but with more of a national strategy, like a national broad front of some sort.

Noam Chomsky

It’s perfectly reasonable to try to organize alternatives. There are models, recent ones that we can think of. Take Tony Mazzocchi, the head of the Oil Chemical Atomic Workers Union and one of the earliest environmentalists of his union back in the early 70s, was in the forefront of working of pressing for environmental protection, Health and Safety Act, and so on. These are the guys who are right on the front line. They’re suffering from pollution and so on, their community is suffering for it, and it’s the oil chemical atomic workers who were organized by serious organizers, led by Tony Mazzochchi. In fact he tried in the 1990s to set up a Labor Party with enough support and someone could do it now, but the choices you mentioned are exhausted. It’s not either support Democrats or set up an alternative third party. First of all you can do both, but you can also pressure the Democratic Party.

Paul Jay

 I wasn’t even talking about setting up an alternative party.

Noam Chomsky

It’s not a bad idea.

Paul Jay

I’m talking about a broad front that I would say in these conditions winds up supporting progressive candidates within the Democratic Party. Maybe at state and city levels you might think about running some third party level, but nationally…

Noam Chomsky

And also pressing the others. To take Biden. He is not a progressive. We don’t have to talk about that. We know his record. Nevertheless, he came out with the most progressive program in living memory on crucial issues, not because he had a religious conversion, but because people were pounding on the doors. There was a lot of pressure from people in the Sanders movement who were actually becoming part of the Biden’s program committee. The Sunrise Movement, very successfully succeeded in moving the idea of a Green New Deal from something that was ridiculed onto the legislative agenda, by action, by sitting in Pelosi’s office. That had an effect.

The Biden climate program, for example, is far from perfect, but it’s much better than any that’s been around for some time, and there’s pretty good indications that the Democratic Party leadership didn’t like it. So there were some strange things that happened last August. You can guess what they were caused by, but I noticed them. I was constantly giving talks all the time, so I kept checking the Democratic Party program on the website, and right through August, if you checked the Democratic Party program on the climate change you had Biden’s  program, which is not bad, better than anything before. By the end of August it had disappeared, when you clicked on that same thing, it’s how to donate to the Democratic Party. We can each make our decision, but I think there’s clearly a conflict between the donor-oriented, Wall Street-oriented, Clintonite neoliberal Democratic National Committee and the popular base of the party, which is pressing for different directions.

There’s a big split in the Republican Party too, a different one, but it’s part of the erosion of centrist parties that has been taking place all over the world, wherever the neoliberal assault had an impact, everywhere it went for good reasons. The centrist parties are collapsing. In Europe they’ve basically disappeared. In the United States, with our two party system, they keep their names, but they’re splintering pretty much same thing. If you look at the effect of the neoliberal programs, you can see why. I talked before about the rural towns, let’s just take the general population.

I think you’ve even talked about this on your show, but you sort of remember the Rand Corporation report that just came out. It was estimated what they call transfer of wealth, which means robbery of the lower 90 percent of the population. How much was robbed from them in the neoliberal years, 40 years, to go into the pockets of the very rich? Their estimate is almost 50 trillion dollars, which is a serious underestimate ( When Reagan came in, among the various changes that were institued was opening the spigots on various forms of robbery.

So you want to set up a tax haven. Before Reagan, it was a illegal, the Treasury Department enforced it. The Reaganites, the neoliberal libertarians said no you can’t have any constraints, do whatever you want. Nobody knows exactly how much that is, but general estimates are maybe 30, 40 trillion dollars. Plain robbery of the public. Many of the devices, shell companies, all sorts of other devices. Well, a profession developed, significant profession of busting unions. Of course, it had always been done before, but it came from a practice to a skilled, profitable enterprise. During the Clinton years, this particular version of globalization, the World Trade Organization, was bitterly opposed by the labor movement who proposed alternatives that would be much higher growth, much better wages worldwide, better for everyone. He wouldn’t listen, literally wouldn’t listen, couldn’t get reported.

The labor organization proposals, the Labor Action Committee were, in fact, echoed by Congress’s own research bureau the Office of Technology Assessment came up with very similar proposals. Silenced. Congress finally took care of that by just eliminating the office. They don’t want to have facts at their hands there’s more important things like serving the rich. The effect of these is not only to set American workers in competition with the poorest and most oppressed workers all over the world with obvious consequences, but it’s also a device for employers to break unions, and that was done.

There’s a very good study under NAFTA rules, which Kate Bronfenbrenner, Cornell University labor historian, describes the way employers could use NAFTA as a way of breaking up organizing efforts, or you put up a sign saying transfer operation Mexico (Final Report : The Effects of Plant Closing or Threat of Plant Closing on the Right of Workers to Organize

You can try to organize. We’ll get out of here. They didn’t intend to do it, but the threat is serious. A very substantial number of organizing can be broken that way. That happens to be illegal. It doesn’t matter if there’s a criminal state. It was obvious and Reagan continued  in later years. I mean under Trump it got absurd. You can tell positions on the NLRB, but he’s basically just raising to caricature things that were already going on.

Well while the population suffered from this. In Europe also, the austerity programs imposed by most of the German banks were very destructive. Furthermore, the functioning democracy was degraded seriously. In the structure of the European Union, major decisions are shifted from the national states where people have some type of representation to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels who just act on their own. The Troika, the IMF, the European Central Bank, with the European Commission. So there was a lot of anger, a lot of resentment, a lot of fertile terrain for demagogues of the Bolsonaro, Trump, Orban variety. Fertile ground for them.

They can claim what Trump did, in fact, I have to say, very brilliantly. It’s not easy to stand up before a crowd with a sign saying, I love you, while with your other hand, you’re stabbing them in the back as his legislative program did. It’s a pretty tricky operation carried out very successfully, and exactly as you said, he’s got most of the voters in his pocket. It puts people like Mitch McConnell in a real bind. It’s pretty interesting what happened on January 6th. The big guys, the guys who own the place and fund the party decided this was too much.

They’re willing to tolerate Trump’s antics and like them as long as he was lining their pockets, but January 6th, too much. They pretty much unanimously stood up and issued the marching orders. Then finished. Get out. McConnell, a lot of other senators started running for the exits. They heard the voice. They couldn’t go too far to the edges because they got Trump’s voting base out there. Now they’re stuck. You watch McConnell’s performances. It’s interesting. One minute they’re denouncing January 6th. The other minute they’re saying other things, it’s fine. You can go on like this. They’re stuck in the middle.

I think to a lesser extent, that’s also true of the DNC, the Democratic National Committee. They’ve got the young progressive voters active, pressing in one direction. They have their Wall Street donor base pressing in the other direction. Well these are difficult moments and a lot of people need to recall Gramsci’s famous statement about the old world is collapsing the new world isn’t taking shape. Their are morbid symptoms everywhere. I think we have to add that are also favorable symptoms, many more good ones.

If you think about it, we’re entering into a major class war on the international level of the pandemic. This is going to end sooner or later. Hundreds of thousands of needless deaths with little end, and then comes the post-pandemic world. What’s it going to be? Well, the people who created the situation for which all this arose, they’re relentless, the business community and its agents in the political system are working very hard to ensure that the post-pandemic world is an extension of the neoliberal bonanza for them and disaster for everyone else.

They don’t give up their class conscious, relentless, know what they’re doing. The question is whether competing forces, popular forces will be able to overcome them.

Paul Jay

And you put a great deal of emphasis in the book on the work of revitalizing the labor movement, and I totally think you’re right. In fact, I find it hard to imagine a popular movement in the country of any scale and clout without a revitalization of the union movement.

You could even see from the Sanders campaign just the nurses, communication workers like two or three unions that were actively supporting the Sanders campaign made an enormous difference. I’m not sure there would have been a Sanders campaign as successful as it was with only two or three unions really actively supporting. I don’t think this gets enough attention on the left in progressive circles, just how important it is to start working to both organize workers and like right now, this fight that’s taking place to organize Amazon in Alabama. Critical fight, and if that could be replicated across the country, organizing Amazon and make that a cause celeb for the progressive movement, I think it could really breathe some life into the organizing of a popular movement on all the big questions.

Noam Chomsky

You’re absolutely right. Let’s go back to the. I mean we are in a situation which is kind of like the early 30s, not identical but there are similarities. In the 1920s, the American labor movement had been crushed. It was a very vibrant, lively, effective movement, destroyed, by, a lot of it just by violence. In the United States there’s an unusually violent labor history, much worse than comparable countries. Partly by Wilson’s Red Scare, the most repressive period in American history, worse than McCarthyism by the 20s it was pretty much gone.

Early 30s, my childhood, I remember it, it started revitalizing. CIO organizing began. That, incidentally, overcame a lot of racist conflict. Black and white workers were working together to build the CIO. There was a solidarity commitment. That got to the level of sit down strikes. From the employer’s point of view, a sit down strike is very frightening. The sit down strike is one step before saying we don’t need you. We can run this place by ourselves. We don’t need you ordering us around and you don’t know what you’re doing anyway.

You don’t know how to run it. OK, just short of it. At that point the Supreme Court shifted. It had been blocking every real effort to switch, started tolerating. The business world didn’t like it but they kind of went along. That was from almost being crushed – worse than now. That’s right. They were in the forefront of all the labor organizing methods. They were in the forefront of all the New Deal measures.

I think go back to Tony Mazzocchi. He was on target. Effort to revitalize labor, maybe create a Labor Party, certainly press very hard on the Democrats to the extent that they can, and also reach people who were voting Republican against their interests for good reasons. They’ve been smashed. These people who live in rural towns are facing a kind of disaster. Once you have economic [inaudible], you start getting pathological symptoms. So there are, you can’t forget it, there are deeply rooted currents in the country of white supremacy, racism, yearning for a traditional life, what they call a traditional lifestyle, where everyone’s white, Christian friendly, they all know each other, the colored folk know their place. They don’t intrude..

There’s none of these strange guys like gays around, no minorities, all of that. Trump was, in fact, a genius at tapping the poisons that are right under the surface of American society. Reagan, was a dedicated racist, who constantly was trying to elicit an arousal. Trump was doing it very well, but I think a lot of this would go away. The Amazon actions that you’re mentioning, it’s worth pointing out that they’re international. So there’s an international strike one day strike against Amazon. There are others being planned.

Also an international one day consumers strike. So there are a lot of actions going on at the international level, which is important. A lot of the unions have the word international in their name, but it’s been just pro forma for a long time. It’s picking up again, and that’s very important.

Paul Jay

Yeah, I think it’s critical. You know, Mark’s talked about the industrial revolution giving rise to the proletariat and modern proletariat and all of this. Well, the digital revolution has actually really given rise to the international working class. It hasn’t taken as much organizational form yet as one hopes, but, yeah, this Amazon campaign could really be a game changer globally.

Noam Chomsky

I think so.

Paul Jay

Which also raises another question about this issue of revitalizing the unions is that for many, many unions, there are not activists of any sort leading them. I play a game when I go to grocery stores because many of the grocery stores in the U.S. and Canada are actually are unionized. And I go in and I say, do you know the name of your union? And often the person working here not only doesn’t know the name of their steward, but doesn’t know the name of their union. I’ve covered strikes where people on the picket line are getting so little information from the union leadership.

The idea of unions as a place for educating workers about class struggle, about these issues is so important to take up, and I don’t have an answer for this, but we those of us who have the privilege and what’s the word time to do this kind of intellectual work, we got to figure out ways to get to young workers better than than we have been. I mean, you’re one of the people that actually really does get read very widely but we got to get to young workers because there’s got to be a fight in the unions over who’s going to lead the unions. I mean, I was a railroad worker for five years. I was a steward. I worked at the post office for three years. So I have some of that experience, and, you know, most workers just never hear the kind of arguments that we make.

Noam Chomsky

Well, it’s very striking. It hasn’t always been like this. The unions back in the 30s, for example, and in fact way back to the 19th century, the unions were educational institutions. I can remember from my own childhood, my family was first generation immigrants. Not much education, little schooling, working class, mostly unemployed in the 30s, but they were very highly educated. They read current literature, went to concerts, went to plays.

They were involved, they learned about the sciences. A lot of this was in worker educational and worker cultural institutions. That was just part of the union movement. You go back earlier to the 19th century. I mean, if you read the work and there was a lively labor press then. When you read it, it’s mind boggling. These, again, were people most of them never went to school, but it’s highly literate, do a lot of things.

Unemployed, uneducated workers, workers who had no schooling, itinerant mechanics, and so on were developing a theory of labor based on they didn’t know Marx, but they knew Adam Smith and Ricardo and were working on that basis on a labor theory of value, which justified their opposition to the employment contract. They were strongly opposed to the concept of dependency on a master. The idea that was so deeply rooted. It was the Republican Party slogan under Lincoln. It was all over. It was the slogan of the Knights of Labor and others.

They developed an intellectual framework for saying surplus value – they didn’t use the term– surplus value is being stolen from you by the employer. You shouldn’t tolerate that. The person [owners] isn’t producing. He has no role in the enterprise. OK, that factory that enterprise should be owned by the workers working there, and this was developed in a very sophisticated way, and plenty of other things. These are people who, it was all part of being part of the union activism.

Now there’s been a long struggle to beat that out of people’s heads, and a lot of it took place during the postwar period. The United States, like other countries, came out of the war, the depression, with a very strong wave of commitment to a kind of radical democracy. We have to change the world. There’s a horrible world. The depression was awful. The war was awful. We’re going to create a new world. That required a major battle to suppress it. Part of it was in the unions. The Taft Hartley Act of 1947, didn’t wait long, was a major attack on union organizing.

It barred many of the activities that unions use to organize. Became illegal. The right-wing was able to take over the government even under Democratic leadership, and supported it. Truman actually veoted it [Taft-Hartley Act], it was overwritten, and it went on from there. Major campaigns by employers to try to, as they put it, indoctrinate working people with the capitalist ideals so rigorously they’ll just come out of their mouth without thought. They were worried about what they called it was necessary. If you read the business literature it’s very revealing. It’s like little red books, Marxist tracts, and they’re dedicated Marxist just with values reversed.

So we have to be concerned with the pressure of the organizing masses. We have to repress them and indoctrinate them, and they had many devices for doing it. We don’t have time to get into it, but it’s quite a story on the fifties, and the union leadership went along with the McCarthyist demands that they eliminate many of the most activist members of the union on charges they were communists. So they get rid of them. They lost a lot of the activists. These were people who were the main activist forces, and the union leadership settled for a kind of class colaboration.

It was very significant, the way it worked. Take, say, the UAW, one of the most progressive unions, autoworkers. It has branches in the United States and Canada, same union a couple of miles apart, Detroit, Michigan. They acted very differently with long-term effects. The American branch of the union established contracts with management in which they essentially gave up control of the workplace. That’s your business, but we’ll get some goodies out of it. Like we’ll get a pretty reasonable health plan.

They did. North of the border was different. The same union was struggling for health care for everyone, not just for themselves, not just class collaboration. One of the main reasons why Canada has a functioning health care program and the system in the U.S. is a disaster. When you make a compact with the bosses, that’s a one sided contract. If they feel they don’t have to live up to it anymore, they’ll say get lost. That’s what happened in the 70s. By the 1970s when the neoliberal reaction was beginning management just said, sorry guys, it’s finished, we’re getting out of this.

You probably recall in 1978, Doug Fraser, who was the head of the UAW, was at the Labor Management Conference set up by Carter. Cooperation of labor and management. He resigned, made a powerful speech in which he denounced management as breaking the contract they had with us and fighting a one-sided class war – his words – against labor ( He learned a little too late.

Management knew it all along, they’re always fighting a one-sided class war against labor and if the other side bails out, they win. Fraser found out that it was too late. That was the end of a period of less collaboration. Reagan came in, biterly anti-labor. One of his first moves was to pack labor unions with scabs, opened the doors for private enterprise, and did the same thing. That escalated a very short attack on unions, you see the result today.

Well, that’s a result of class collaboration. That’s what you experienced. You don’t hear it anymore. There are no educational activities of. I see it pretty often when I go to other countries, even Canada, England, Australia, I give talks in labor halls. Can’t do that in the United States. How are you going to give a talk at a labor hall? Where are they? Maybe the unions aren’t great but at least they are there. The leadership kind of sold them out the way Obama later did. They worked very closely with the neoliberal Democrats.

So, yes. But that can all be reconstructed. Happened that way before, it was like in the 1920s. Then it changed. Had a lively, vibrant labor movement which operated at high culture. Incidentally, this is nothing surprising. You go back to the 19th century, for example. There’s a very interesting study, scholarly study by Jonathan Rose who wrote a study (The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes) of what the working class was reading, just the literature they were reading. He concludes at the end that they were better educated than aristocrats.

They were getting what we now call classical literature, great literature of the 19th century, and even the economics literature like Smith and Ricardo later on, but this was just part of working class culture, even without an education. I mean in Boston, a blacksmith, an Irish blacksmith, who never went to school and was illiterate. He had a little extra money and would hire boy to read to him. Read classics to him. This was just part of working class culture. Left intellectuals, like [Edwin S.] Burdell others were giving courses in worker education on the side in the sciences and mathematics. Books like Mathematics For the Million (Lancelot Hogben), written by a mathematician, written for the education of workers. There were a lot of pretty good ones. A lot of that has disappeared and can be reconstructed.

Paul Jay

There’s also, I think, a real distortion taking place. They’re assessing the working class, almost defining the working class in terms of who they vote for and such as noncollege educated. A large section of the working class is college educated.

In fact, increasingly people with college educations get working class jobs because they can’t get anything else. There’s a real stratum of the working class that’s educated, many of whom supported Sanders and got excited by the Sanders campaign, but I don’t know if there’s anything going on that’s organizing them for the fight that has to take place in the unions for a more progressive activist union leadership.

Noam Chomsky

Well, there are interesting things happening often outside the unions. Like take the teachers strikes.

Paul Jay

Yeah that was very important.

Noam Chomsky

They took place in possibly the most reactionary areas, West Virginia, Arizona, where the teachers. And the strikes were interesting, outside the unions, often against the unions. They were not only calling for better pay, which is very much deserved. Schools have been devastated during the neoliberal years. Way underfunded. They were calling for better conditions for students, for children – smaller classes, better staffing, things that would improve the educational process, and they had enormous popular support.

In Tuscon you drove around the city, there were signs on lawns all over the place supporting the strike.

Red for ed. It’s springing up all over. There was also the nurses unions and others. Outside, but some of the main unions are starting to get into it, like GM had a big strike. United Steelworkers are having some initiatives towards Mondragón, the great, huge worker owned enterprise in northern Spain. Huge conglomerate worker owned, very successful, trying to figure out how to duplicate some of their efforts here.

I think there are plenty of possibilities. Amazon is a striking case because first of all, it’s taking over the whole economy. It’s everything, and a strike at that is very important and has international connections. It should be fought for.

Paul Jay

Yeah, we’re going to start at theAnalysis. We’re going to start doing regular interviews with activists that are organizing at Amazon.

We have one coming out in the next few days of an effort that’s taking place in Detroit to demand Amazon actually make some promises. There’s a new warehouse that they’re opening, both the fight from communities where warehouses opening offices and warehouses, and then obviously there’s the fight to organize workers that are in Amazon warehouses and workplaces. I think it needs to be a big focus of progressive attention.

Noam Chomsky

Well, that should be brigate consumers as well. I mean, it’s almost impossible not to use Amazon now, but you can have consumer actions which support worker organizing like coordinated strikes. If workers stop working and they stop consuming for the day from Amazon. There are a lot of things that can be done.

Paul Jay

Well, just to end up Noam, some final words to activists.

Noam Chomsky

I mean, it’s been much harder before and people haven’t given up, and they’ve achieved things. We actually enjoy their legacy. We can start working from a much higher plane than activists in the past because of the legacy of their achievements, which weren’t easy. I mean, take say Black Lives Matter. Organized the biggest social movement in American history not long ago. You go back to the history.

It’s violent and brutal. Black organizers were murdered by FBI organizers. The Gestapo style murders, for it happens. It wasn’t simple, but there’s a legacy. I mean we don’t have to talk about the civil rights movement, sink workers were facing conditions that activists now can’t even imagine. People riding freedom buses in the south to try to encourage a black farmer to vote in the face of lynching mobs, some of them suffering, getting killed themselves. We’re not facing that. We’re very privileged in comparison.

Serious challenges. Get to work, pursue them, undertake them. You can make a better world.

Paul Jay

Thanks very much Noam. And to you, thank you for joining us on, and please don’t forget the donate button at the top of the webpage.


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  1. Paul, thank-you for such an in-depth interview on the history and promise of the labor movement. I often wonder if Noam has practiced such calm, as he does not raise his voice or become angered in ways I might expect with such passion for social justice and knowledge of the wrongs done to protect privilege.

    One idea you raised was the murders and dirty tactics by corporations and the gov’t, via the FBI, against unions and black activists. I don’t often see activists of any sort recognize these dark tactics and how tough a sacrifice fighting these forces really is. I suppose it is because the many decent people that are activists would never think to use such tactics themselves.

    I recognize that all people want good lives, and your reporting on the protests and union efforts against Amazon reflects that. I could be wrong, but I still think a larger issue is the consumer culture, and its effects on the Earth. Even if all workers had great benefits and decent wages, we are still headed for extinction the way we use, consume and throw-away so much.

    As we head into full-automation and AI, the idea of a cornucopia society seems relevant: the idea that because we can create the things we need and want so efficiently, eventually without any human intervention, the fruits of our economy deserve to be shared, and in a sense, owned, by everyone. After all, such knowledge is the legacy of our ancestors to all human beings.

  2. What would things look like if the Fed’s Prime Lending Rate was set at 21% and the savings rate at 6%; do you see a 1970s rerun of runaway inflation on the horizon?

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