Labor’s Change of the Century

Against the Current, No. 93, July/August 2001

Stephanie Luce

U.S. Labor in the Twentieth Century:
Studies in Working Class Struggles and Insurgency
edited by John Hinshaw and Paul Le Blanc
Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2000, $25 paperback.

WITH A REVITALIZED labor movement comes a revitalized interest in labor studies. The past few years have seen a number of interesting volumes on labor, but missing in much of this discussion is politics.

We have great contributions on how to organize, make unions more inclusive, and build labor-community coalitions; books that address the need for the labor movement to build its political power; and some that chronicle the efforts of unions to influence labor policy. But most of this work still doesn’t talk about the labor movement as situated in larger struggles about the way societies and their economies are constructed.

U.S. Labor in the Twentieth Century, edited by John Hinshaw and Paul Le Blanc does connect current labor struggles with politics, past and present. The book is premised on the argument that class as a concept still must be at the forefront of labor studies. This is not to suggest race and gender do not matter, but that academics and labor activists need to continue in the tradition of working class studies.

The book includes twenty-one chapters of interviews, articles and speeches, some new works and some reprinted from other sources. The chapters, by authors including Lizabeth Cohen, Peter Rachleff, Dan Georgakas, Kathleen O’Nan, Manning Marable, Robert Korstaad and Nelson Lichtenstein, are separated into five sections.

The first section, titled The Working Class Still Matters, includes three articles that set out the basic argument of the authors, that the weakness of the labor movement in the last several decades is not an argument for the end of class politics. It just means that workers need to develop new strategies to build power.

These strategies should not be construed narrowly, as in what kind of message workers want to hear, or what organizing model works best, but rather in terms of political strategies necessary to build a working class movement.

Recovering Labor’s History

The need for this kind of book comes clear to me when teaching labor studies to students who were born after Ronald Reagan was elected. Younger students interested in the labor movement don’t often realize the extent to which the labor movement of the past was intertwined with left-wing politics — that sixty out of the 200 organizers hired by John L. Lewis for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee were from the Communist Party, for example, or that 37 percent of labor leaders endorsed the Socialist Party in 1910.

The history of the labor movement is inseparable from the history of the left. Young students of labor studies today learn quickly that the AFL-CIO has a conservative past, and that many unions have had a history of racial and gender discrimination. But in their quickness to critique past unionists, they sometimes fail to recognize that even some of the more conservative leaders of the past were to the left of today’s union leaders in some of their political positions.

Compare Samuel Gompers at the turn of the century, condemning U.S. imperialism: “the flag of the country should never be used as a cloak for tyranny,” to the positions of the AFL-CIO on China joining the WTO.

Similarly, Doug Fraser, UAW president in the 1970s, once stated: “I believe the leaders of the business community, with few exceptions, have chosen to wage a one-sided class war in this country — a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society.”

Compare that to today’s AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, the “new voices” leader who is a strong supporter of labor-management cooperation. Sweeney spoke a few years ago at a Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors meeting and declared, “I . . . believe in the `American way,’ that Democracy works best under a free enterprise system and that the best way to create jobs and spread wealth is through competitive and efficient businesses.”

Perhaps it is the solid ties that have been built up between the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party that have taken much political debate off the table in union circles. Perhaps it is the lingering legacy of the Cold War, purges of Communists from the unions, and secrets held over from the AFL-CIO International Affairs Department.

Whatever the reason, labor scholars and activists need to resurrect the larger questions that were the foundation of the labor movement of the past: Questions such as those asked by the Homestead strikers discussed in Irwin Marcus’ piece, about how wealth and power should be distributed in an industrial society. Or by A. Philip Randolph in his younger days, who wondered if it was possible to achieve socialism through electoral reforms.

Diversity or Fragmentation?

But today’s unionists also need to go beyond the questions of the past, to build a more inclusive movement. Articles in section II of “U.S. Labor in the Twentieth Century,” “Diversity, Insurgency and Fragmentation,” begin to explore ways in which these new strategies might be developed, taking into account a broader conception of the working class than some previous scholars and activists.

In this section, the authors argue that labor organizers must understand how race, ethnicity and gender have been used to divide workers, but have also served at times as a basis for strengthening organizing efforts.

For example, Karen Olson’s excellent chapter on “The Gendered Social World of Steelmaking” is a case study of a Bethlehem Steel plant in a small Maryland town, its workers and their community. This work allows us to see how women’s unpaid work at home, as well as their paid work, was intertwined with the work of men in the production of steel.

Men working long hours and rotating shifts depended on the existence of wives or boarding houses to provide food and maintain their shelter. This set up a system of mutual dependence, yet segregated the working class on gender lines.

The segregation hurt women’s chances of finding their own work, and often made women bear the brunt of hard economic times: When husbands were on layoff, women had to stretch out the family food and search for income. This also led to increased domestic violence. As one woman remarked, “When a man loses his job he’s much more likely to hassle the woman he lives with.” (122)

But despite the forces separating the genders, Olson argues that the gender segregation and its negative effects had a common enemy: “this community, its way of life, and its family structures were set in place not to accommodate women, not to accommodate families, not even to accommodate men, but to accommodate the profitable production of steel.” (123)

This idea, that what divides can also unite at times, is found in the fascinating study of Black workers’ struggles for jobs and civil rights in Pittsburgh, by John Hinshaw. Hinshaw highlights the ways in which institutionalized racism within unions hurt the trade union movement in general, but also helped spur organizing that led to hard-won victories including the 1973 consent decree between the Steelworkers Union and companies such as U.S. Steel.

This agreement required steel companies to pay $31 million in damages to African American, Hispanic and women workers, allowed workers to bid on jobs based on plant seniority, and set aside 20 percent of new hires for women or racial minorities.

These victories came out of organizing within Black communities and civil rights groups that organized in spite of white resistance, not because that resistance had been overcome. The racist foundations within the unions had not been conquered, only pushed to the side.

As the economy worsened in the 1970s, mills began to close and jobs were lost, opening a space for a conservative backlash against Black workers. White workers were hit hard by deindustrialization, but Black workers were hit harder. Hinshaw’s work suggests that further civil rights struggles will not succeed until the working class finds a way to work together in the interests of the entire class.

New Beginnings

New questions for the labor movement are also brought out in chapters such as “The Struggle for Survival,” a talk given by longtime Detroit union and political militant General Baker in 1993.

General Baker discusses the way that work life and social conditions in Detroit have changed over  the past thirty years. In the 1960s, political activists based their organizing inside the large auto body shops that employed between two and three thousand people as spot welders. Today, there is no one left: “the entire work is done by robots and computer-chip controls, with no human labor at all.” (383)

The once vital work force has been removed from the shop floor. Many are now out of work. Homelessness and welfare cuts are the main issues they confront, not union contracts or strike strategies. General Baker asks, “How do we approach the question of a new society in which we’re not needed any longer to be productive?” (386)

These are hard questions. Of course, the book cannot answer them all, and in fact may begin to leave the reader feeling overwhelmed. The material offered in the numerous chapters leaves one wondering where to start in efforts to rebuild the labor movement.

One source for answers is the chapter by Paul Le Blanc on revolutionary vanguards in the U.S. Le Blanc quotes a 1938 study by journalist Ben Stolberg, called The Story of the CIO. Stolberg summarizes the experiences of the AFL moving from its strength in the pre-World War I period to postwar collapse, noting the repression of the leftists within the labor movement during and after the war.

It was not a coincidence that the AFL fell apart when the leftists were pushed out. Stolberg writes, “For even the most conservative trade union oligarchy flourishes far more on its sound compromises with its own Left than on its necessary compromises with the boss. Forward movements grow on their inner tensions.”

Stolberg then argues that it is precisely the opening for leftists that creates the space for the growth of the CIO. “The CIO is an effort on the part of the American labor to revitalize itself and to modernize its outdated structure,” he writes. “This it cannot do without the stimulus of political and social radicalism. Mere trade unionism as such, without left agitation, cannot recast its point of view or remodel itself functionally.” (137)

To rebuild today’s labor movement will require similar revitalization. Union organizing must be “modernized,” but not just in a technical sense. Unionists must be pushed from within the labor movement to think through the questions of the past and present.

Some may argue that in labor’s weak stage, we must consolidate and avoid the difficult questions. But the authors in U.S. Labor in the Twentieth Century might suggest the opposite. While we must avoid sectarianism and in-fighting, the time is now to rebuild a left politics inside the labor movement, in order to stimulate new thought and strategizing about the larger direction and purpose of our movement.

from ATC 93 (July/August 2001)