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Comment: making history but not under circumstances chosen by ourselves.

Jeremy Brecher and the Work Relations Group have offered an insightful analysis and useful suggestions to guide participants in present and future struggles of American working people. They argue that the type of industrial unions and collective bargaining developed during the 1930s are now as badly out of date as 1900-vintage craft unionsim was during the Great Depression. They ar right. Moreoever, they do a good job, up to a point, of explaining why labor's accomplishments of the 1930s have turned out to be so vulnerable today. Consider the developments they underscore. the international mobility of capital and its agglomeration by holding companies which are engaged in as many different types of enterprises as they were crafts in yesterday's factories have minimized the economic leverager of a union in General Motors or Greyhound. Productive investment per se has been crowded off the list of businees priorities by the lure of quick returns (thus not only weakening workers' collective ability to influence a company's long-term development, but also eliminating from corporate planning virtually all consideration of an economy's social purpose: the provision of use values). Finally, a protracted, international economic crisis has made deals cut with unions for the sake of predictability and productivity seem far less attractive to business executives than the destrcutive impact a glutted labor market can exert against union wages and conditions. Greyhound's gestures of lining up unemployed job applicants parallel to the strikers' picket lines and Reagan's dismissal of all PATCO strikers dramatize this return to pre-NEw Deal styles of industrial relations.

Such an analysis remains incomplete, howerver, unless more attention is paid to the role of the state and to the present and future roles of existing labor unions than Brecher has offered us. The strategies of capital in the 1980s cannot be understood without a recognition of teh decisive power of the state in shaping economic and social relationsf and conversely, no strategy for labor will suffice that does not include a systematic struggle for control of the machinery of state. Nineteenth-century-style self-organization and self-help will simply not do, no matter how red (or black) the ribbons in which they are wrapped.

the state today ardently supports free movement of capital ona aglobal scale and militarily buttresses market relationshiop and political regimes that are needed to keep it moving freely adn profitably. Americans' collective protests against their government's aggression toward the peoples of Nicaragua and el Salvador and against plant closings in their own communities converge against the same political target. Just as economic regulatory commissions had once provided shelters for exclusive, but well-rewarded, union practices, so "deregulation" has now made the huge gap between the earnings of unionized and non-union workers in the same industris a virtually irresistible invitation to concessions bargaining. Moreover, the state has contributed decisively to the bureaucratization of unions, both through legislation and court decisions that encouraged contractual activity by workers but prohibited other forms of class solidarity, and by refusing to enact such elementary measures for the benefit of the whole society as national health insurance, adequate and universal retirement benefits, and housing developments suited to popular needs (rather than those of real estate developers). Those welfare measures are commonplace in Europe, but labor's struggles on their behalf were decisively defeated here in the late 1940s. the fringe benefits and commercial schemes that arose instead served not only to maximize corporate influence over everyday life and sharply segregate protected workers from the unprotected, but also inspired union officers to cultivate the talents needed to manage pensions and services for their members, rather than to mobilize them for mass actions.

Second, at no time in American history has any emerging movement among the workers been able to ignore the organizations that had been created by previous waves of struggle. The Knights of Labor grew alongside many existing trade unions and shared members with them; just as the AFL was later formed by major unions partially in opposition to the Knights. At no time during the IWW's headiest days could its mulitants forget the presence of a 2-million-member AFL, whether it was openly sabotaging the Wobblies' strike in Lawrence or aiding their strike in Akron as a way of attracting new recruits into the Federation. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s the CIO was sharply opposed, always outnumbered nationally, and severely limited in its options by the AFL. It is also worth remembering, however, that some of the most militant actions of that epoch, such as the 1934 strike of Minneapolis teamsters and their subsequent industrial organizing, the rise of the Maritime Federation of the Pacific, and the 1946 general strike in Lancaster, Pennyslvania, took place under the banner of the AFL.

The complex legacy of past struggles must be kept in mind when we assess Brecher's advocacy of mobilzations not linked to bargaining rights, of new organizational forms (especially those reflecting geographic solidarities), of internationalism, and of direct attacks on "management's prerogatives." I heartily agree with the notion that the legal forms of collective bargaining have become so tightly circumscribed that many important future actions of working people are bound to assume styles that make no demands for contracts or for recognition of certified bargaining agents. There are plenty of precedents--not only in the IWW but also in the practice of many nineteenth-century craft unions and of the famous American Railway Union (ARU)--large-scale strikes in which unions organized workers, formulated demands, and negotiated with employers, without ever raising the question of contractual recognition. Perhaps the lessons of the ARI would be especially relevant, not only becauase that union had to deal with huge corporations of continental scope, but also because it had to contend with a deeply entrenched network of previously created contracts, railroad brotherhoods, and Knights of Labor assemblies.

Local attacks on managerial controls are far from futile today, even within components of multinational corporations. In fact the type of specialized plant, computerized coordination, and low inventories that such corporations now favor makes them highly vulnerable to sudden job actions. It is also true that civil rights boycott and feminist organization in offices have suggested patterns of self-organization quite different from those prescribed by the Wagner Act. Even at this point, however, it is worth remembering that as early as 1938-39 the courts ruled mass picketing and boycotts by the Future Outlook League (the militant voice of Cleveland's black community) illegal, on the ground that they were not related to formal collective bargaining.

Just as some major innovative workers' efforts of the 1930s and 1940s took place within the AFL, so it is worth noting that organization of the clerical and service sectors is expanding within the framework of legal-contract unionism. Even 925, which is mentioned by Brecher, transformed itself (after careful consideration and shopping around for terms) into a district of the Service Employees International Union. Despite the passivity of many public-sector unions, some of them exhibit the most visible dynamism in the labor movement today. They cannot be disregarded. In short, we must anticipate and cultivate new forms of struggle both inside and outside of the collective bargaining framework.

Similarly, when we think of city-wide solidarities, we must deal with the fact that so far they have been most likely to appear where an established union is combatting plant closures (or Morse Twist Drill), or where a public service union has locked horns directly with the government (as in the 1946 general strikes of Newark, Pittsburgh, and Oakland). In such battles the character of the people active in central labor councils is of critical importance. It is also noteworthy that the One Big Union, which was formed by western Canadian unions that had withdrawn from the Canadian Trades Congress in 1919, and which spread to Lawrence and other parts of the United States in the early 1920s, deliberately organized workers into neighborhood rather than industrial branches, because its activists considered industrial unions to be as divisive as craft unions.

If the OBU ideal made sense at all, however, it did so only in the very congested neighborhoods of cities that were dominated by a single industry. Such tight links between residence and workplace are rare today. Nevertheless, where a large bloc of workers does live adjacent to the factory, a community-based form of organization (or even a local union which acts like a community organization) can provide the form of expression for just such solidarities. During the 1979 strike at New Haven's Olin-Winchester works a neighborhood did mobilize very effectively around its strikers. A draconic injunction against picketing at the plant gates was foiled when all streets leading toward the plant were cordoned off by strikers and their allies.

The fact that the neighborhood which produced such solidarity was black raises questions about how the various strands of popular struggle discussed in Brecher's essay may converge. At every stage in the development of the American labor movement, its unions, assemblies, and parties have taken on a special cultural and political flavor imparted by the ethnic group which dominated the workforce at the particular time and place. The power of the black presence in industrial and service unions today encourages an orientation toward political action (and especially toward action aimed at ending the exclusion of blacks from municipal power), a sensitivity to the needs and aspirations of the third world, a sense of abuse by the existing social order, and a lack of enthusiasm for bellicose jingoism, all of which run counter to the political orientation of Lane Kirkland and the AFL-CIO's Executive Council. Witness the number of union banners and hats worn by blacks at recent mass peace and civil rights demonstrations. This orientation is as significant for the unfolding political struggles of American workers as it is for their activity at the point of production.

These issues deserve discussion for the same reason that makes Brecher's analysis important. Ultimately what decisively shapes workers' actions and our future is what is in people's heads. No style of struggle and no militant "fight-back" will lead out of the crisis of capitalism unless it evokes widespread popular debate about the basic nature of our society and what sort of life we as people wish to create. Reagan has done us an unwitting service by reminding us of the importance of ideology--of the terms of discourse that inform public discussion of policy and objectives. What has always been true of labor movements, whateven their form, is that their ultimate strength and significance lies in the ideals, analysis, and common aspirations of their constituents. Action, argument, and analysis must be promoted on all possible fronts.
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Author:Montgomery, David
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Mar 1, 1984
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