Glaberman and Faber’s Working for Wages

Sheila Cohen

Working for Wages: The Roots of Insurgency by Martin Glaberman and Seymour Faber (Dix Hills, NY: General Hall, Inc., 1998)  $26.95 paperback.

OVER THE LAST few years I have been privileged to teach a number of basic economics courses to trade unionists-“privileged” because in every case the students’ experience, their awareness and critical understanding of what goes on in their lives, has provided a rich fund of knowledge of which I have become in my turn a grateful student.

What has not been a source of gratification on any of these courses, however, has been the assigned texts, ranging from muddled liberalism to the kind of “high road” economics so beloved of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy (high wages and strong unions are “Good for America”-as for some reason the companies are too foolish to understand).

These texts have usually been more of an obstacle than an aid to linking students’ daily experience to useful economic and political ideas.  How much more valuable as a “set text” would be a book like Working for Wages.

Written in straightforward, forceful but not dogmatic language, Glaberman and Faber’s study of “the roots of insurgency” covers issues like unemployment and the changing composition of the working class with the lively clarity that I can imagine connecting directly with trade unionists’ view of the world.

But of course, Working for Wages isn’t an “economics textbook.” In fact, one of its major objectives is to counter the “rigid segmentation” which has dogged academic approaches to labor studies or any other socio-economic subject.

In contrast to the makers of such “narrow academic categories,” Glaberman and Faber ally themselves with Marx in “view[ing] the working class as a whole .  .  .  not fragmented into distinct economic or political or social categories.” (4)

At the same time the authors are clear that their own participation in “labor and other movements” is a central factor influencing their theoretical approach.

It might be more accurate, then, to describe Working for Wages as a kind of primer on class struggle.  Imbued throughout with a unswerving focus on class, this examination of “the roots of insurgency” is itself rooted in the understanding that (to quote from the first chapter), “The working class struggles against capitalism because its objective conditions of life force it to, not because it is educated to some `higher’ consciousness by some outside force such as a political party.” (8)

With this crucial understanding Glaberman and Faber neatly reverse the characteristic “radical” focus on ideology, hegemony, etc. as centrally defining working-class consciousness, particularly in the second half of this century.  Allied to their equally important focus on contradiction as “an integral part of our methodology,” these insights construct the theoretical foundations of the book.

Sudden Leaps

Given this depth of theoretical understanding, some of the more “empirical” aspects of the book, as it surveys the various aspects of class structure, activity, resistance and consciousness, prove a little uneven and patchy.  The argument frequently undertakes disconcerting “leaps,” as in a passage which suddenly links everyday workplace conflict around the “humanization of the workplace” to (in the same paragraph) the formation of workers’ councils in Poland and Hungary in 1956.  (38)

A few pages earlier, the argument “jumps,” or rather plunges, from a subtle and innovative analysis of the ultimate significance of victories and defeats for the working class (see below) to a merely factual description of the toll that post-Carter regimes have taken on the organized labor movement.  (31)

The missing links here are the absence of consideration of the role of any conscious or organized leadership within the working class, or of the complex relationships between workplace struggles and larger economic and political battles.  This reflects the weak side of the tradition associated with C.L.R.  James, where the grand sweep of history seems somehow to propel the working class toward victory in some unpredictable yet automatic process.

A similar problem is the rather uneven acknowledgement of the impact of lean production on the working class and labor movement.  While the advent of these new forms of work organization is noted, recognition of their significance tends to be cursory:

“There have been all sorts of management tactics designed to try to stop workers from limiting production.  The most recent is the so-called Japanese technique of forming work teams and Quality Control Circles.  Successes tend to be limited and temporary.” (69)

But such inconsistencies are themselves born of another of the book’s merits-what might be termed its “optimism of the intellect” (as opposed to Gramsci’s more cautious “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”).

In direct contrast to the almost unrelieved pessimism of academic commentary on the openness of “ordinary workers” to political awareness and understanding, Glaberman and Faber, rightly in my opinion, focus on the “against the current” significance of any and all worker attempts at resistance to capital.

The few sentences just prior to the “leap” in argument mentioned above make a valuable and often neglected point: “Given the capitalist nature of society, unions have usually lost more battles than they have won. But neither victories nor defeats are absolutes.  Even lost strikes force changes in company labor policies to avoid the future costs of such battles .  .  .” (31)

In other words, even defeated struggles represent some kind of move forward for the class.

This argument is reminiscent of Marx’s point in the Poverty of Philosophy that unions, formed as “permanent combinations” out of earlier phases of resistance, now “serve as ramparts for the workers in their struggles with the employers”-in other words as a lasting gain and weapon, whatever the fluctuations of consequent victories or defeats.

Such an approach applied to today’s struggles may seem naive if not positively pollyannish, given the tendency for most defeats to be experienced as nothing if not “absolute.” But what lends this perspective its political force is its role as a form of interpretation of existing events which, if understood and adopted by worker leaderships, could be used to reap a cumulative harvest of organization and strength from every small movement of resistance against capital.

This point about differing interpretations is made explicitly in Chapter 4 (“The War on the Job”), when the authors quote an unpublished paper by Noel Ignatiev to illustrate two widely varying approaches to the concept of “movement.”

Asked about “the movement of workers” in the steel industry, a supposedly “progressive” local union official had replied “Movement?.  .  .  There is no movement.” In fact the “movement” referred to was that of workers in the local steel mills who had established the (not uncommon) practice of making their rate in half the shift and then repairing to the tavern across the street until “punching- out” time.

In response to the official’s dismissal of this as “.  .  .  not a movement, it doesn’t mean anything.  They’ve been doing that for years .  .  .” the author of this anecdote comments:

To him “Movement” meant the number of workers who attended union meetings, voted for resolutions introduced by his caucus and supported his slate at election time. The accumulation of shop floor battles that has succeeded in ripping half the work day out of the hands of capital did not constitute part of the category of class struggle as it existed in his mind. (85)

It’s worth recalling that a similar practice of “working down the line” was one of the many points of conflict in last summer’s GM strikes.  Yet even those most sympathetic to rank-and-file action might have difficulty in classifying this kind of activity as a “movement,” lacking as it does the element of conscious intention which turns symptoms and expressions of conflict into active organization.

The value of Glaberman and Faber’s position lies in their recognition of the class meaning of such low-level resistance; the missing factor is an appreciation of the need for a class leadership both aware of that meaning and willing to set itself the task of building “class-for-itself” activity out of the “class-in-itself” material of everyday resistance.

The absence, in general, of any such leadership in today’s or indeed most of yesterday’s labor movement, and the importance of initiatives like the Labor Notes project in building a current of aware, independent leadership within the class itself, are crucial issues for consideration by today’s socialist and labor movements.

Perhaps the most valuable contribution of Working For Wages is to put such items-and the linked awareness of the essentially contradictory nature of working-class consciousness-back on the agenda, in a form that is eminently approachable (at least for those trade unionists organized enough to afford its rather exorbitant price! [The book can be obtained for a special reduced price of $20 from Bewick Editions, P.O. Box 14140, Detroit, MI  48214.]).

Sheila Cohen is a labor educator.  From 1990-95 she edited Trade Union News, a British rank-and-file union paper.  Her review of Alan Thornett’s Inside Cowley appeared in Against the Current 78.

ATC 80, May-June 1999