The following articles are examples of the World Socialist Movement’s longstanding commitment to class struggle politics both in the workplace and on the political field.
From the June 1947 issue of the Western Socialist
What should be the attitude of socialists toward trade unions? This not a mere academic question. There are well-informed Marxists who contend that unionism should regarded in much the same light as reforms, since unions, like reforms, cannot abolish the ills of capitalism. Regarding unionism, the following proposition was posed by a socialist recently:
“The evils which exist within present society. Be they war, crime, poverty. Or exploitation, have no solution other than the abolition of private property relationships. To fight anyone specific evil is not only a losing battle in itself, but a divergence from the real fight. Hence the only job of a socialist organization is to make possible the speedy introduction of socialism and destroy with one fell swoop the cause of war, crime, poverty and exploitation.”
According to this proposition, the emphasis put by Marx on union activity was misplaced, in as much as such activity was “a divergence from the real fight.” it is not the purpose of this article rationalize the position taken by Marx. His position on unions may have been wholly incorrect. Or, again, his position may have been valid in the nineteenth century and yet he completely untenable today. Marx’s formulations were not infallible. They must be tested in the light of reality, do the present economic and social conditions warrant that socialists look at unions in the same perspective that Marx did?
What were Marx’s views on unionism?
The workers have discovered that the union is the only way for them to withstand the overpowering pressure of capital – Karl Marx
Everyone who is acquainted with the life of Marx and with his writings knows that he took a keen interest in developments of the trade union movement in almost every country, coming out openly with letters on the actions taken by unions when engaged in strikes, making suggestions, correcting mistakes. It was Marx’s idea that trade unions should be affiliated with the first international and he made it his business to keep in dose contact with locals of the british unions. So important did Marx deem union activity that he felt it urgent to clear away any theories likely to inhibit the struggle of workers on the economic field. Minutes of the first international record that Marx took up the cudgels against that “fine old scout” and old “Owenite named Weston” who propagated the paralyzing doctrine that strikes for higher wages are futile since any increase in wages will of necessity be offset by a corresponding increase in prices — a doctrine, by the way, which is still heard so much today, out of the Weston controversy came the pamphlet Value, Price and Profit. An incisive brochure whose theoretical and practical conclusions apply today as much as they did when they were written. In this pamphlet Marx phrased his stand on unionism in succinct language. After pointing out that “trade unions work well as centers of resistance against the encroachments of capital” he warned
“At the same time and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects. But not with the causes of these effects; they are retarding the downward. Movement but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerrilla fights increasingly springing up from The never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms. Necessary for an economic reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto. A fair days wage for a fair days work! They ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword abolition of the wages system!“
Why did Marx place so much value on union activity, not withstanding the fact that he was au too aware of the limitations of such activity? The answer, obviously, is that unions function at the focal paint of the economic phase of the class struggle – at the paint where the fight occurs over the division of the labor product. Unions are the workers most effective means of defense under capitalism. In the absence of unions, the workers have no way of braking the downward pressure on their living standards and their working conditions. Only by means of their combined numbers in labor unions are the workers able to put up same form of resistance against the insatiable drive of capital for mare land mare surplus value. Only through unions can the workers ease the strain on their nerves and mussels in the factories, mills, and mines. Since surplus value is produced at the paint of production, the most violent manifestations of the class struggle break out at that point.* At that point the organized resistance of labor meets the combined onslaught of capital. So important is organization that in a letter to Bebel, dated March 18, 1875, Engels wrote in reference to the Gotha Program:
“Nothing is said about the organization of the working class, as a class. By means of trade unions. This is a very important point, because these, as a matter of fact, are the real class organizations of the proletariat, in which the latter wages its day to day struggle against capital; in which it schools itself, and which even today, under the most ruthless reaction (as now in Paris) simply can no longer be knocked to pieces.”
The history of the American movement is rich with examples of the importance of unions to Workers. The struggles waged and the gains won by workers in the auto, steel and needle trades industries afford excellent case studies of improvements through organizing on the economic field. Before the united automobile workers union was formed, conditions in the auto industries were far worse than are today. The speed-up notorious and the slogan “too old at forty” was a guiding policy of Supervision. When a worker approached that age and could no longer keep up with the fierce pace an the production line, he was usually laid off and his place taken by a younger man. Health hazards in the industry took a alarming toll. Many workers in the metal body departments became afflicted with lead poisoning, a disease which the patient never wholly recovers. Respiratory diseases and speed-up neurosis fetched a larger percentage of victims than is the case today, it must not be assumed that the union succeeded completely eliminating industrial hazards. As long as profits are given priority rating over human welfare, industrial health and safety hazards will remain to menace workers.
Before the union, wages were substandard levels, since unemployment ran into the tens of thousands and manufacturers could hold wages dawn by taking advantage of the desperate competition for jobs. In the absence of, any kind of seniority, a worker could be fired at the slightest whim of the foreman. Consequently boss favoritism was rampant. To ingratiate themselves with supervision, a considerable number of workers would their foreman drinks or repair his garage, or perform other services gratis, the auto workers toiled under conditions characterized by no check on their exploitation save the natural limitations of their endurance. It was under such circumstances that they spontaneously rebelled, and by strength of their organized numbers formed a union, compelling one corporation after another to engage in collective bargaining and to sign contracts which netted substantial wage increases, a measure of security through seniority, amelioration of the speed-up and the end of “red-apple polishing” or boss favoritism.
Lessons of the class struggle
The history of the labor movement proves the Marxian contention that wages are not regulated by any “iron law” but can be modified by organized militant action on the part of the workers, the value of the workers labor-power is not only determined by biological limitations of the human organism, but also by what Marx calls historical and social factors. One of the most weighty of these factors is the relationship of the class forces, the interplay of social conflict. A comparison of the living standards of organized to those unorganized workers tells the story in a nutshell. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics issues statistics showing a breakdown of figures proving that wages are lowest in those occupations in which the workers are not organized or are at best only partly organized.
Those socialists who argue that unions are only institutions of capitalism are correct, but they miss a salient point. Unions are class struggle institutions, and a s such serve as a fertile field for socialist education and propaganda. To a self-styled middle class citizen living in a typical american community, the police are guardians of law and order. But organized workers who have been victims of police brutality on the picket line have no illusions as to whose side the police are on. School teachers may believe the text books which say the interests of labor and capital are identical but the workers of general motors, us steel and even american telephone and telegraph company know from their struggles that their interests conflict with those of their employer. Editorial writers may rhapsodize on the subject of individualism, but the men and women in the auto plants know that as individuals they would be as helpless before the mighty corporation that hire them as a canoe in the path of a battle ship. Abstract preachments about the desirability of labor unity regardless of race or nationality seldom impress anyone. But the necessity of native born whites and foreign workers, negroes and whites, to march together on picket lines, work together in strike committees and hold out together until their demands are won – all this constitutes an object lesson in class solidarity.
To be sure, participation in the class struggle does not automatically make workers class conscious. And this brings us to the question of the role of the socialist in the trade unions. As a union member the socialist can participate in union affairs and in the course of doing so he can clarify events for his fellow workers in the light of socialist knowledge. No matter what issue happens to be under consideration, the socialist can explain it from the standpoint workers of class interests. Is the union engaged in negotiating with management for a wage increase? Then the socialist can make clear that wages represent only a portion of what workers produce, and that the unpaid portion is surplus value appropriated by the employing class.
Is seniority next on the agenda? Then here is an appropriate occasion for the alert socialist to take the floor and explain that seniority is at best a necessary evil in an economic system that breeds job insecurity and unemployment. After laying bare the roots of the trouble the socialist can indicate the cure. Or perhaps a union brother rises to bring to the attention of the union membership the existence of a grave case of discrimination in his department. This ought to provide the socialist an occasion to show how racial discrimination arises out of economic conditions, out of the struggle to get jobs and to hold them after they have been obtained.
And when the top ranking union bureaucrats seek to line up the members in support of the democratic party – or any other political party dedicated to perpetuating capitalism – the socialist can expose that party, pointing out to the workers that their only real hope lies in joining and working for the abolition of the wage system. “Unions fail partly from the injudicious use of their powers” wrote Marx, and the socialist can and should warn their fellow unionists what pitfalls are in store for them and their class if they give their time, money and votes to a party which can only work in the interests of their masters.
Another duty of socialists in the union is to wage an unceasing fight against the trend towards bureaucracy, urging the workers to be eternally vigilant in the defense of their democratic rights, opposing high salaries for the officials, proposing limited tenure of office, insisting that all major decisions be ratified by the membership – in a Word demanding that the the unions be conducted of, for and by its members in fact as well as theory. To the extent that a union gets settled with dictatorship, free expression is restricted, the rights of the membership are treated with contempt, major policies are formed at the top, and the bureaucracy tends to increasingly to act as a disciplinary agents for the employers, using such devices as the check-off and no-strike provisions to hold the workers in line. Socialists should consistently impress upon the workers the urgency of restoring the union to the membership, in whose democratic control it belongs.
The leadership fetishism propagated by certain so-called left wing groups who would have the workers believe that everything depends on the “right kind of leaders” must be vigorously combatted. Blaming union officials and yelling “labor fakirs” when incorrect policies are followed will solve nothing, a union is no better than the members who form it. The character of the leadership is to a large degree a reflection of the maturity or lack of maturity of the rank and file. For this reason socialists should seek to raise the understanding of the rank and file, to imbue them with an awareness that their elected representatives should be the servants, not the masters, of the membership.
There is one thing that socialists should avoid like the plague in their union activity, namely, the unfortunate practice practiced resorted to by avoid bolshevik groups of maneuvering and conniving to use unions as their vehicle for carrying out their political “line”. Unions are first last and all the time economic organizations operating within the framework of capitalism. Attempts to use them for purposes other than this can only react to the detriment of the unions and their members. The tragic consequence that follows when communists gain control of a union is a matter of sorry record. The unions should belong to the members, and not be dominated by any clique, political or otherwise. Sometimes such cliques rationalize their drive to worm their way into key union posts on the grounds that once in top positions they will be better able to advance the cause of socialism. Actually the only thing they advance is their party “line” or else themselves. Such “vanguard” outfits care not a whit about educating the workers, but are only interested in indoctrinating them and mobilizing them in accordance with the latest party shibboleths. They are not concerned wit making the workers class conscious but only slogan conscious.
The socialist does not sloganize workers, nor do we use the union simply as a soapbox from which to harangue the membership. We participate in the union, seek to give good account of our actions, and when issues arise we offer a class conscious interpretation of them. Fortified by the socialist outlook, we do not succumb to opportunism, and never cease to do what we can to make socialists out of trade unionists, instead of allowing the union to water down our socialism. By keeping clear of underhanded deals and political shenanigans, by taking a principled stand on controversial questions, however unpopular such a stand may be at the moment, by fearlessly opposing proposals inimical to the workers interests, and, finally, by judiciously presenting the socialist analysis of day-to-day problems confronting labor – this constitutes socialist activity in the union.
When workers are lock in combat with their employer, through strike action, socialists as an organized group should assist their fellow workers in whatever way they can, such as writing articles and leaflets from the workers point of view, speaking on pertinent working class issues when invited to do so at union meetings; offering the party headquarters to strike committees, etc.
The suppression of labor unions in any country usually signifies the suppression of all organized working class resistance. This fact should make apparent how deserving unions are of socialist support.This is the answer to the question what attitude should a socialist take towards unions.
*However, the exploitive nature of capitalism gives rise to the need for unions wherever workers labor for wages.
What about the Meantime? (1955)
Originally published in the March-April 1955 issue of the Western Socialist.
To the Editors:
I read your magazine regularly and find it interesting, informative and also puzzling. What puzzles me is that you advocate socialism and at the same time oppose social reforms. I always thought that socialists saw nothing inconsistent in working for the establishment of socialism while at the same time participating in the fight for immediate demands.
I believe democratic socialism can be achieved when and if a majority of the people become convinced that it is a desirable alternative to the present order. But I rather doubt that I shall see socialism in my time. In fact I doubt if the generations, old and young, living today will see socialism in their time.
Meanwhile people must live in the world as it is here and now. By nature most people desire to improve their lives and the lives of their children; they want to live in decent homes equipped with modern conveniences; to wear fairly good clothes, to eat wholesome food and to offer their kids better advantages. This is why working people turn to politics. That’s why I vote for Democratic Party candidates endorsed by labor. I work in an automobile factory in Michigan. I also belong to a union and my union fights for better wages, hours and working conditions for me and my fellow workers.
Because I worked in ‘the shop before we had a union. I know that the gains we made through our Union have been considerable and I expect we shall continue to make more gains in the future.
But there are groups in Michigan – mainly corporations and their Republican allies in the state legislature – who want to pass. anti-Union labor laws which would serioUsly weaken the union. Seventeen other states have already Passed “Right to Scab” bills and as a result the workers in those states cannot improve their wages and working conditions nearly as much as they might if those bills had been defeated.
Should workers in Michigan ignore attempts by big business and the Republican politicians to pass a similar bill in this state? Or should the workers support labor-back” candidates in the Democratic Party Pledged to do all in their power to defeat anti-union legislation?
Another example. During the last year there has been much unemployment and part-time employment in Michigan; consequently thousands of workers and their families suffered hardship, especially those work; ers who remained jobless long after their unemployment benefits were exhausted.
Currently auto factories are rehiring work. ers by the thousands in order to step the tempo of production for the next months or until new 1955 models flood their market faster than they can be sold. TIll once again there will be mass layoffs.
If labor had enough friends in the state legislature they would press for unemployment compensation amendments to increase, weekly jobless benefits and to extend duration of payments. Similarly, if labor-supported legislators were in the majority they could push through other important reforms, such as a public works program for more jobs and better schools, hospitals, improved roads, etc.
Yet you say that in the area of politics workers should strive only for socialism and should spurn reform measures designed to! make their lives and the lives of their children a little better while they still live. Somehow this reminds me of those religious groups who admonish us to spurn the day-to-day life of this world and think only of a future in heaven.
Or do I misinterpret your position on political action? If so, please clarify.
AN AUTO WORKER REPLIES
[Editorial note: The task of answering this letter has been turned over to a worker in a Detroit automobile plant. inasmuch as, being “on the spot” he is in a position to deal familiarly and directly with the issues raised by “Interested Reader.”]
Dear Fellow Worker:
During the many years I have spent in the auto plants of Detroit, I have come into contact with literally thousands of workers organized in the United Automobile Workers (CIO) who believe, in part, as you do: that to improve their lot in life they must work not only through ‘the unions on the job, but also through Labor-endorsed candidates for political offices who presumably will pass legislation in favor of the workers.
The encouraging, refreshing – and challenging – part of your letter is that it goes much further than this limited union thinking. The question you raise is whether or not this fighting for immediate demands or social reform legislation conflicts with the movement to establish socialism.
The 99%, and more, of the auto workers who favor union-sponsored and union-controlled political action have not reached the stage where socialism enters into their thinking at all. They believe they can find a solution to their problems of living costs, unemployment, old age security and the like within the framework of the capitalist system.
To be sure, they gripe and bitch over high prices, short work weeks, inadequate income, long layoffs, and so forth, but when someone at a union meeting dares to take the floor and suggest that perhaps socialism is the answer to their problems, they greet him with cries of “throw him out,” “sit down,” or “send him back to Russia.”
The auto workers, like the rest of their fellow workers, want capitalism today, and capitalism tomorrow. You, Interested Reader, believe in working to get the good things of life under capitalism today, and postponing socialism to the indefinite future.
CONVINCING THE MAJORITY
You admit that “democratic socialism can be achieved when and if a majority of the people become convinced that it is a desirable alternative to the present order.” Thus, we are in agreement on the ultimate goal: socialism, and since you do not question our definition of socialism- common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution- we assume that you are in agreement with this also. What separates us is this one point: What do socialists do in the meantime, until the majority become convinced of their case? In a word: will the socialists win over the majority of people to their case by fighting to improve their lives under capitalism – as you advocate – or by spending all their energies in educating the workers to the necessity of eliminating capitalism and establishing socialism?
Just as you cannot see why there is nothing inconsistent in working for the establishment of a socialist society at the same time participating in the fight for immediate demands, we from our viewpoint can see nothing consistent in advocating a complete overthrow of the capitalistic conditions of life, at the same time offering programs to make , these conditions more tolerable to the workers, or in brief, to fight for reforms.
All through your letter you state that “workers” should fight for more unemployment compensation, against “right to work” legislation, for better roads, and other reforms. You do indeed misinterpret our position on political action, if you believe we, as socialists, are opposed to workers going after ‘these reforms. We do not set ourselves up as opposing the attempts of the workers to improve their status under capitalism. We know the limitations of these attempts, and the limitations of the unions. Our fellow workers have yet to learn them.
But it is one thing to say that socialists should not oppose the non-socialists fighting for reforms, and quite another to state that socialists should place themselves in a position of trying to make capitalism work in the interests of the workers, when all along they know it cannot. There are so – called “socialist” organizations which seek to gain leadership over the workers by aiding them to improve their position under the present order, at the same time they know this is a futile struggle. We hope you have not confused us with these “socialists,” when you admit being bewildered at our policy of advocating socialism, and not fighting for reforms.
Not only is it inconsistent, in our opinion, for socialists to seek to solve problems for the workers under a system which they say cannot solve these problems, but in a practical sense, such a two-directional approach would never bring about socialism. And the latter, we recall, is our goal, as well as yours.
Suppose the World Socialist Party were to embark on a high-powered Campaign to obtain better housing, hospitals, roads, and so forth. Perhaps we would get a lot of people to Join our organization. On what basis would they Join? The same basis on which we appealed to them. We would in the end have an organization consisting of workers who were seeking continUal improvement under capitalist methods of production and distribution, under a price, profit, and wage economy. What happens when such an organization is voted into political power as a majority? It merely uses the power of the state to carry on capitalism under different forms state- ownership or ‘nationalization. It cannot use the control of the state to abolish capitalism, because its own members who Joined on a reform basis, would be in opposition to it. The Party would have to carry out reform of capitalism, or lose its members to another organization which advocated remedial measures.
Is this a theoretical approach? Not at all. If space permitted, we could cite example after example where a party calling itself “socialist,” but advocating immediate demands now and “socialism in the future” came into political power, and instead of abolishing exploitation, merely altered the form of it. For five years, the British Labor Party was in power in England, but it made no attempt to establish socialism. History proved once more that the means sought social reforms – were identical with the ends sought – a state capitalist society. For another important illustration, we recommend Integer’s introduction to Rosa Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution, in which he proves that the social reforms advocated by the German Social Democratic Party before Hitler were inseparable from their ultimate goal – more reforms under state control.
METHODS OF THE SOCIALISTS
Now let us turn to the method advocated by the socialists. They appeal for members on the one plank of obtaining state power for the purpose of abolishing capitalism. Whereas, if elected to office, we would not oppose social reforms, at the same time we would not advocate them. By the same token, by putting forth a program of immediate demands, we would not be educating any workers to the necessity for socialism. We would instead be educating on the need to get all they can under the capitalist system. This latter type of education has never produced socialists from among the workers, altho it has contributed more than its share of members to the trade union officialdom. If you but take a glance around you in our union, the UAW-CIO, you would see many union officials who started out in the unions with your idea of “reforms today, socialism tomorrow.” They originally viewed reforms as a means to an end, but reforms became ends in themselves.
The socialists, where they are employed in shops which are organized, do not spurn the day to day struggle, as you put it. By the very nature of the fact that they are workers they participate in the fight for better Wages and working conditions. But with two qualifications, which qualifications arise from the fact that they are socialists first, and members of unions second. First, socialists understand that this economic struggle against the capitalists is merely a defensive struggle, to keep capital from beating the working class living standards down. For this reason they couple their struggle on the economic front with political education of the workers in the shops. They point out the limitations of wage increases.
Socialists point out the limitations of the latest union demand, the guaranteed annual wage, in that it would prove an annual wage, at best, for those who have enough seniority to remain on the job, and that it will merely stimulate employers to introduce new methods so that they will have fewer workers for which they will have to guarantee.
NO LEGISLATIVE REFORM
Second, socialists in unions do not advocate political legislation to reform capitalism. To do so would put the socialists in a position, not only of advocating reforms – which is opposed to socialist thinking – but also of educating, or rather miseducating, the workers to believe that the capitalist state can function in their interests, when it is in the final analysis the agency by which the capitalist class maintains its domination over the working class.
So the socialist is involved in the economic struggle by the fact that he is a member of the working class which naturally resists capital. But this is not the same thing as stating that the socialist party engages in activity for higher wages and better conditions. This is not the function of the socialist party. Its task is to fight for socialism, and the method it employs is education of the majority. The socialist party is not concerned with reforms under capitalism.
This is the concern of the ruling class which uses reforms to bribe off the working class, and the concern of those groups, such as the unions and their political arms, which seek to get all they can out of the present system. Were the socialist movement to vanish from the earth, the capitalist, by the very class nature of the system, would still grant reforms to forestall the development of revolutionary thought among the workers. On the other hand, a rapidly rising socialist movement would force the capitalist class to grant more and more reforms.
It is not true that the socialists “spurn the day to day life of this world and think only of the future in heaven.” Rather it is those who postpone socialism to the unlimited generations ahead who are spurning day to day life. By this we mean that socialism today is a practical proposition. As you know yourself from working in the automobile plants and living in the industrial area of Detroit, modern technology has reached the point where people can receive what they need for themselves and their children – today, and on this earth. It is the profit system which prevents workers from obtaining decent homes, clothes, education – all the things you say the union is fighting for, but which we say they cannot obtain because it is limited by its support of the profit system.
Those who call themselves realists, and call the socialists dreamers and utopians, are in truth unrealistic themselves in believing they can gain the good things of life under capitalism. By the way, if the latter be true, then why fight for socialism at all?
As a final point, we would like to suggest a contradiction in your approach. You believe in socialism, but because it is so far in the future, you think it best to spend your energies in the reform movement. Multiply yourself by thousands upon thousands who have thought, and do think; in the same way. Had all these people spent one tenth of the time for socialism that they spent in fighting for reforms, the socialist movement today would indeed be a large one, and as you yourself implied, the bigger the socialist organization gets, the closer we are to socialism.
Only if people see the need for socialism, and work actively for it, will we ever obtain socialism. On the other hand, if everyone who reaches a socialist understanding comes to the conclusion that socialism will never come about in his lifetime, this is this the best guarantee that we will never see socialism. Indeed, workers who admit they believe in socialism and then fight for reforms under the excuse the workers are not ready for socialism, are in an unexplainable contradiction. They really mean to say that they themselves are not ready for socialism.
AT LEAST ON THE ROAD
In not fighting for reforms but in expending all our energy in educating workers to socialism, we know we are at least on the road to socialism.
This is our case for not advocating reforms at the same time we advocate socialism. We ask that you consider it.
DETROIT AUTO WORKER
The Wildcat Strike (1953)
From the July-August 1953 issue of the Western Socialist
(The author of this article has participated in dozens of wildcats in the automobile industry, and thus writes from first-hand observation.)
The workers mill around in small groups. A buzz goes through them rapidly. The huge steel-cutting machines lapse into silence. The conveyor lines halt as if struck dead by some unseen hand. Everything is at a standstill. A wildcat strike is being born. The workers await its delivery.
A chief steward has been fired. Or perhaps the line has been speeded up, and the workers walk off in protest. Or perhaps . . . rumors . . . facts . . . confusion . . . unrest . . .
A group of men push their way through the workers. These are the committeemen, perhaps accompanied by local union officials. They listen to the workers’ complaints. Go back to work. We will settle this through the regular grievance procedure.
Some of the workers nod in agreement. But they are pulled back into the circle by those who voice defiance and protest. We have followed the grievance procedure before and got nothing. This time we are going out.
The officials try another argument. The walkout has not been approved by the International Executive Board of the union. The workers answer: Hell, we voted 98% to strike three months ago, and the International still hasn’t authorized the strike. We’re hitting the bricks.
The situation is getting beyond the control of the local union officers. They deal one last card. They tell the workers: you will be violating the Taft-Hartley Act. The union will be sued, its treasury wiped out. This has even less effect than the other arguments. Washington is a long way off to these workers. Their immediate grievance looms larger. Suddenly someone cries what are we waiting for. Let’s go. Survey the scene as if you were seated in a high crane with a view of the entire shop.
Large knots of workers formed here and there in the various departments begin to break up into small knots. The workers are arguing, discussing. Then they begin to leave the plant.
They merge like so many rivulets into small streams, then into large rivers, until finally all are swept out through the gates in a mighty flow. The company enters the scene. Telegrams are sent out to the workers. Return to work or be considered as having voluntarily quit your jobs. Still the workers remain away, in sullen defiance.
Momentarily the company has lost control of the workers. The union goes into action. A mass meeting is scheduled. The “big guns” from the International union scold the workers. They spend most of the meeting, talking, repeating, talking, and repeating. Very little time is left for the rank and file. When a rank and filer speaks, his limit his five minutes, while each International man speaks for half an hour, often longer.
The International tells the men: you will lose your jobs. The plant will move out of town. Other companies will get the work. The arguments have a telling effect. Thousands of workers have come to this meeting for one purpose only: to vote to go back to work. The motion is made and passed to return to work and “continue negotiations.”
The militants who argued in favor of continuing the strike are defeated, the conservatism of the workers prevail. On this the International office had pinned their hopes to end the stoppage.
Wait. All is not over. The men return, but the following week other wildcats take place. The International officers apply a heavy foot. An administrator is placed over the Local union. Bargaining continues with the company, but the administrator has the final words on everything. The democratic right of the workers to make their own decisions has been abolished.
Despite this dictatorship over their affairs, the workers continue to strike. The “instigators” are fired. The union remains silent, in approval of the company’s action. Gradually the strikes fade out until the administrator leaves. Then the process begins all over again. . .
Not all wildcat strikes follow this pattern. The one above – an actual situation which took place in the auto industry recently – enables us to view a wildcat strike from beginning to end.
Some strikes never reach the point where the workers leave the plant. They are in the nature of sit-downs, where the workers stay at their machines without turning a hand, or let jobs go by until a jam piles up at the end, and the line must shut down. Still other actions take the form of slow-downs. The workers let every other job on the line go, or if running a machine reduce the speeds and feeds. They are working, but not producing their quotas. Both the company and the union terms this a strike.
Why do these wildcats take place? What significance do they have toward developing the thinking of the workers?
To some these wildcats are the work of an “irresponsible few,” of a “small dissident element,” or even of “Communists.” This is the attitude, not only of union leaders, but also of many workers.
There is no use denying the facts. In certain isolated cases a few individuals might agitate for a wildcat and succeed in bringing it off, but can a few lead thousands, if the conditions are not present for these thousands to be led? What becomes of the “communist” arguments when wildcats break out in plants where there are no known “communists” and where the participants are all “loyal American workers”?
ORIGIN OF WILDCATS
The point is that the wildcat walkouts, the sit-downs, the slow-downs have their origin in the economic system we have today. To allege the cause of these works stoppages to “leaders,” and not to conditions, is to cover up the real nature of capitalism. Labor leaders do it from ignorance or from plan – because of their belief in and collaboration with the capitalist system – but the workers do it out of sheer ignorance of the real conditions.
In a system of society such as we have now where one class works for wages and another class reaps the profits from their labor, a struggle goes on continually between the two classes over the fruits of production.
Socialists call this the class struggle. This struggle embraces a multitude of matters. It takes place over wages and hours at work. It takes place over working conditions, safety, speedup, etc. It takes place over firings, penalties for being late and absent, even over the location of a time clock.
The outlets of this struggle are numerous and varied. Already we have mentioned the wildcat, the sit-down, and the slow-down. Other forms exist. When the worker reaches up and flips the counter on his machine a few dozen times without increasing his production, when he turns in production figures beyond what he actually produced, when he spends half an hour beyond that time necessary to perform his biological functions, he is engaging in a struggle against those who exploit him. When he tightens up a nut, takes it off, and then puts it on again to kill time on the line, he is carrying on a struggle against his capitalist employers.
The wildcat strike is just another manifestation of the class struggle. When workers have grievances over speed-up, these grievances arise out of the fact that a class is seeking to make more profit from them. When workers have grievances for higher wages, these grievances stem from the fact that the workers must struggle for their standard of existence against the class which seeks to keep wages down.
The wildcat takes place when the workers feel that the grievance procedure is too slow, when on-the-spot action is necessary, or when they have no confidence in the ability of their leaders to solve their grievances through the regular procedure.
The labor leaders may clamp down hard, may place one administrator after another over one local union after another, but the conditions of capitalism continuing, wildcats are bound to result. Not a day passes that a wildcat does not take place in some shop throughout the country. Still the union leaders are foolish enough, or ignorant enough, to believe they can suppress the class struggle. Even Hitler could not stop strikes under his dictatorship, nor as recent events in East Germany showed, could the armored tank divisions of the Red Army.
What is the political significance of these wildcat strikes? One school of thought in the working class political movement sees these wildcat strikes as bona fide rebellions, not only against the labor leaders, but against the capitalist system itself. This school views the wildcats as the beginnings of a real rank and file movement which will eventually result in the workers throwing out the union bureaucrats, taking over the factories, establishing workers’ councils and ultimately a “workers society” based on these councils.
If one reads the newspapers – and at one time half of Detroit’s auto workers were idle because of wildcats – he might gain the impression that a tremendous political movement of the workers was under way. To one directly involved in these struggles, and in daily contact with the workers, another, more accurate, picture enfolds itself.
These wildcats are purely economic struggles on the part of the workers. They have a grievance arising out of the conditions of their work, instinctively they bring to bear their only weapon, withdrawal of their labor.
For a brief period the workers are aroused. They assail their union leaders in no uncertain terms. But they learn nothing of the role of these union leaders in support of capitalism because they do not understand the society under which they live. In a few days, after the wildcat is over, the workers return to their routine thinking.
A LEVER TO EMANCIPATION?
Another school of thought believes these wildcats can be used as a lever to push the workers along a political road, towards their “emancipation.” How is this possible if the workers do not understand the political road, and are only engaging in economic struggles? The answer is that “leaders in-the-know” will direct the workers, much as a Seeing Eye Dog guides a blind person.
But these leaders can also lead the workers in the wrong direction, toward the wrong goals (nationalization and state capitalism), as the workers later find out to their sorrow.
The socialist approach of education – rather than the non-socialist approach of leadership – is much better.
Through education it can be pointed out to the workers that wildcat strikes arise out of the nature of capitalism, but that they are not the answer to the workers’ problems. These economic struggles settle nothing decisively because in the end the workers still wear the chains of wage slavery. It is the political act of the entire working class to eliminate the exploitative relations between workers and capitalists which can furnish a final solution.
Is not this giving leadership to the workers, to point these things out? In a sense it is, but it is a leadership of a different type. It is not the non-socialist leadership of a minority which knows (or thinks it knows) where it is going over a majority which does not know where it is going, and merely follows the minority.
It is the socialist leadership of educating workers to understand the nature of both capitalism and socialism, so that, armed with this understanding, the workers themselves can carry out the political act of their own emancipation.
The non-socialist leadership is based on lack of understanding among the workers. The socialist leadership is based on understanding among the workers.
This is the lesson of the wildcat strike and all other outbursts of class struggle among the workers. These struggles can be used as a means of educating workers to the real political struggle – socialism. They should not be used as a means to gain leadership over the workers, or to lead them along a political path they do not understand.
Interview with WSPUS and Union Activist
The following is an interview conducted in May, 2006 with a WSP member – “W” – who is an organizer for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in the US.
R. What is the condition of the working class today? How do you see the status of people who work for a living?
W. Speaking very generally, in the early 21st Century, it’s true that certain luxuries are more easily available: it seems that everybody has television, running water, electricity. Certain consumer goods are very available. Food is also widely accessible in the United States as well, unlike in other parts of the world. In some ways, particularly the American working class is in some respects, I think, sheltered from some of the more horrible aspects of global capitalism.
At the same time, plenty of statistical and anecdotal evidence suggests that people are working harder and harder, the productivity of the working class continues to rise, measured by the number of goods produced and the value of services rendered, and yet real, monetary income — the material reward for that work — has gone down, relative to what is produced. Workers today earn less in real dollars than they did 20-30 years ago. The other thing we have seen happen, particularly in the last 50 years (not that capitalism was ever a stable system for working people anyway), is some economic shifts in North America that have led to now-familiar practices like “downsizing” and the outsourcing of higher paid, higher skilled manufacturing jobs along with a definite rise in low-income service-sector jobs in retail and wholesale. Even in healthcare, for instance, non-professional jobs like certified nursing assistant have grown much faster than registered nurse (which is a skilled, high-paying job).
So there’s definitely been a lot of downward pressure on workers, and it’s become more difficult, I believe, for workers in this country to organize themselves in a fashion that allows them to effectively change their conditions for the better. Simply put, in the political sphere the choices that most people feel they have are between two political parties that certainly represent the interests of the elite. I guess one could argue that the Democrats are maybe slightly better than the Republicans, but if you look at the Clinton Administration or the Congress, where for many years we had Democratic control of both the House and the Senate, things weren’t really better because of that. The same pressures of capitalism came down on people: people worked harder; it became more difficult to make ends meet.
Part of what’s happened, too, as a result of this, at least in the political sphere, is that many Americans have become cynical (and very rightfully so) about the political system, because fewer than half of the people in this country who could vote do vote. And then, among the people who do vote, it’s very polarized between the two parties, even though the choices aren’t all that clear. For instance, in the last election voters had to choose between George W. Bush and John Kerry: two elite white men who by and large are going to pursue the same economic policies with the same ramifications for everyday people.
So I think the political system’s not a very useful remedy for most people. It’s not that we’re getting a choice at the ballot box between capitalism and socialism or anything like that — only between capitalism one way and capitalism a very slightly different way.
R. It’s more a matter of philosophy than a real difference.
W. Part of my job has been to meet with a lot of people, talk to a lot of workers, and I’ve also found that somebody’s voting habits don’t necessarily translate into any kind of specific class consciousness. I’ve worked in the so-called “red” states — such as Ohio, West Virginia and Georgia — and some of the workers there who on the one hand are probably very conservative socially and still go to church and do things like that, at the same time had a pretty decent understanding of their jobs and the position of their jobs, and were pretty enthusiastic about supporting a union organization. They were trying to do something to positively affect themselves economically; they weren’t trying to form a union purely for ideological reasons. They kind of got it economically that this would be a way for them to have more power. So I don’t really know that there’s that much of a correlation necessarily between whether or not somebody votes Democratic or Republican and the likelihood they’ll have good understanding of the way the economic system is working on them (or working down on them).
R. Is it your impression that our fellow members of the working class see beyond the bread and butter stuff, or are they looking right at the immediate gains and not thinking about broader, bigger questions?
W. It depends. One thing to understand in labor and labor organizing: you’re dealing with capitalism on a very daily basis. The term “daily struggle” gets tossed around a lot in journals like the Socialist Standard. In the daily struggle you’ve got to worry about daily things — how much money do I have to buy food for my family and pay my rent, and that stuff. So a lot of union efforts do go towards trying to remedy economic problems that are immediate. At the same time, I think people are more and more starting to turn around and embrace a progressive outlook. I wouldn’t necessarily call it radical — it’s probably a more reformist thing. Although you will meet radical-minded people who do work in the labor movement and who have a better sense of this stuff. Some unions are embracing an agenda that’s more social than socialist. People are becoming more conscious of long-term problems like healthcare, and unions are starting to endorse universal coverage and living-wage campaigns that affect workers beyond the ranks of particular unions.
Major unions, too, both inside the AFL-CIO and outside it, have developed a better stance in the debate now going on about immigration. If you go back a while, even Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers was having the union call immigration officials to get illegal immigrants kicked off agricultural fields in California 30 to 40 years ago. The argument would be that the illegal immigrants are destabilizing the work [opportunities for union farm workers], and so the reaction is to get rid of ’em. But I think now, particularly in the Service Employees International Union, there’s more of a tendency to embrace workers in spite of their legal status, to recognize that all workers deserve rights and the ability to fight for their rights. We represent a lot of people who work in building services and non-professional lower-income service jobs in healthcare and public services. (Many of these jobs are done by illegal immigrants, who are just as active when it comes to fighting for better wages and benefits.) We shouldn’t keep splitting hairs over who’s illegal and who isn’t, about who gets to take part in the labor movement and who doesn’t.
It’s good in a way to think beyond that, to realize that capital doesn’t have borders, so labor shouldn’t have borders either. It doesn’t really serve our interests in the long term to take a narrow, jingoistic approach like “Buy American” or “Work American.” I think it’s probably untenable right now, but it’s very exclusive and not very open. If organized labor is in any way going to be part of a socialist movement in the future, then we need to be more open than restrictive about who takes part in it.
R. What would you say is the critical mass there? What do you think it would take in the world of capitalism at large to spark workers to think about either keeping the system or replacing it?
W. I’ve thought about that a lot, and at the end of all my thinking, I have a pretty ambivalent answer, in that I don’t really know. It’s hard to tell now because I think we’re a long way off from that, practically speaking. I know it’s going to take more people. More people are going to have to get organized, with an understanding that they’re going to want to change the system. I think, too, in order to build a socialist movement, it can’t only be through the ballot box; there has to be a component about work, about being on the job. That’s everybody’s experience with capitalism in a nutshell — their experience at work. Of course, in order for anything to be successful, there has to be a real consensus. There has to be a real, conscious majority of people. That’s not to say, if 30 percent of the people went out on strike tomorrow that it wouldn’t be significant. It would mess things up. Maybe it might get a lot of other people thinking along [socialist lines].
R. So do you think the socialist slogan, “Workers of the world, unite!” might interest people now more than it might have back in the 60s or the 70s?
W. It may or may not; it’s hard to gauge. In some ways our general political discourse has moved further away from the concept of workers uniting. On the one hand, you do have groups of working people who realize there are problems that need to be solved: their pay’s going down, they can’t get the stuff they need, they want to improve healthcare, they want to improve education, they want jobs to be [available], they want to be able to make a living: embracing a more social outlook on things. But on the other hand, you also have strong economic pressures that push people toward the kind of home-owner’s politics, for instance, that centers around lower taxes, gated communities, and so on — basically getting rid of any sort of social contract between human beings. In some ways it’s gotten worse.
But the way to get out of this, I think — and it’s true for labor and for the WSP too — is that we have to do a better job communicating with people and educating them. It’s always frustrating. When I’m out organizing, talking to workers at their door, going into their homes and talking to them about forming a union, I can’t come out and say, “Well, this is how you ought to think; this is how you ought to feel; you’re getting screwed; this is what you’re going to do about it.” You’ve got to start planting the seeds; ask questions like, “Are you satisfied with your job right now? Oh, you’re not? What would you like to improve?” You know, try to get people in the process of thinking critically, like, “Hey, wait a minute! My life (job) isn’t that great, it should be better; what am I going to do to make it better?” [The point is] getting people to think about that. I think maybe basic union members — people who are active at all — because they’re part of a union, an organization that’s trying to fight for economic rights, think about that more than the rest of the population. You’re forced to.
R. Would you say that two of the benefits of being in a union are that there’s a better chance of becoming a critical thinker, and at the same time getting a sense that by joining with others you can really do something?
W. Yeah, I think there’s definitely more potential for that in a union than without one. Not to say that’s always how it works out. Plenty of people never seem to be able to connect the dots. I don’t know quite why that is. Part of it’s the fault of those of us who are left to run things on a day-to-day basis, because we can’t communicate with everybody and we don’t necessarily communicate effectively. In some cases, there are obviously people who will take more reactionary views on a lot of things.
The part of being in a union is that you should be actively in a position where you’re trying to change stuff — and change it for the better, and do it in an economic way, not just some ideological or rhetorical way. It’s like we’re going to take an action to increase our pay, or we’re going to file a grievance as a group against our boss who’s discriminating against one of our co-workers. It’s definitely the idea that as individuals we’re not that powerful, but if we’re in it together and organized as a group, we can accomplish things we can’t accomplish as individuals.
And when you’re in a union, of course, you pay dues, and that’s not just to pay staffers; that’s to have resources available. We live in a capitalist system right now, and the bosses and our employers have a lot of money. And the other thing about a union: unlike other social change organizations that exist, there’s a more stable base of revenue that you can use to fight back. I know people who work for reformist organizations out there, who are trying to fight for various [pieces of] legislation, and part of the problem non-profit organizations have is, they don’t have any money. And when you’re fundraising and concerned to make payroll at the end of the month as an organization, when do you actually have the time for any kind of struggle? The thing about unions is, when you have a stable dues base, you can use your power better, I think, than any other organization can.
That said, American unions in particular have to develop a much more critical analysis of the political system and get away from this idea that we have to support the lesser of two evils. Organized labor’s been throwing a lot of support behind Democrats who don’t give a shit about workers, and who frankly don’t give a shit about organized labor either. We have to think, OK, if we can master some power on the job, how can we use that to make better changes on the job — or to really change society?
R. What sort of role would you say labor organizing plays, in political and economic terms, in the context of the society that we now have?
W. First of all, on the political side of things, organized labor in this country has very roughly 15 million members. That’s only about 13 percent of the working population, of people who would otherwise be eligible to form a union, and that’s spread out of course among a variety of unions. You’ve got some relatively large ones, like the National Education Association (the largest union in the country with about 2.7 million members, most of whom are public school teachers — overwhelmingly they’re public school teachers or other school employees).
The union I work for, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), has 1.8 million members. It split from the AFL-CIO last summer and is the fastest-growing union in the country. We try to organize public sector workers, like state employees, healthcare workers, human service workers and janitors. Those are the big sectors of the Union; and in any of those sectors, we probably represent only a very small percentage of the overall population. Of course, in New York City we have a critical mass of healthcare workers: hospital and nursing home employees; in states like Massachusetts and Maine, we represent almost all of the state workers. So we do have density in certain areas, but it’s not uniform.
A lot of the rhetoric around our leaving the Labor Federation is that it did not use its resources well enough to do a couple of things: one was to hold politicians more accountable — and that’s a pretty convoluted thing. The second point was that the AFL and most of the unions in the AFL were not doing enough to organize workers. And that’s by and large true: the overall density of union workers has declined; the sheer number of union workers has declined. Meanwhile, parts of the job market are expanding, some more rapidly than others; and as we know, the capitalist system is not going to pay workers a suitable amount of money on its own. It’s not on its own going to give people the tools they need to live.
And so the Change to Win Coalition — made up of SEIU, the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers, UNITE HERE (which is the Garment and Hotel Workers Union), the Carpenters Union and the Laborers Union — said, OK, we’re going to do something about it; we’re going to take the money we would have given to the AFL-CIO (which comes out to like $30 to $60 million) and we’re going to spend that money on organizing, and as organizations ourselves we’re going to spend more of our own resources on organizing. What that means in SEIU is that the International Union (the U.S. and Canada) spends more than half of the money it gets from affiliates on organizing the workers, and then every local union throughout the country is expected to spend 20 percent of its resources on organizing.
At the same time, just throwing money at something isn’t the end-all and be-all: there needs to be a better mobilization, a better communication among members. It’s often said the best organizers are members of the union, and I think that’s probably true in most cases. There could be a better use of resources and mobilizing with what we already have. It’s going to take time, but hopefully the new members who come in through organizing efforts will be able to participate and really make the decisions. I think if the emphasis is on communication and education, and doing things to create power for working people, then that’s something I think workers would want to be a part of — rather than just saying, OK, it’s up to the top leaders of the union to make all the decisions.
The other concern that’s been put out there by various people is more scary: the Change To Win Coalition is a highly centralized federation that’s very top-down. It has to be careful about not becoming undemocratic. SEIU’s President, Andy Stern, is the architect of the Change To Win Coalition and kind of a visionary, frankly. He’s also been really instrumental in making sure the union is spending its resources on growth and organizing and winning economic power. But at the same time SEIU has also cut deals with various employers. It’s good for a union to be able to make demands on an employer and make them change. But [you’ve got to ask] could we end up cutting deals with employers that maybe don’t meet all the concerns of the workers? That can happen, too.
What all this means is that, in certain contexts with certain employers, where we’re well organized, our union — as well as other unions in the same situation — can be very effective. It still holds true, in 2006, that a unionized worker makes one-third more money than a non-union worker doing the same type of job. It’s also true that 90 percent of union workers have access to healthcare plans, while only 60 percent of non-union workers do. A union worker’s much more likely to have access to a defined benefit pension than a non-union worker.
So unions, I think, at least in a purely economic sense, do still play an important role for many, many workers out there. The problem is that, without density, how relevant can organizations be that only represent 13 percent of the working class — not only nationally, but globally as well? SEIU is in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico — and that’s the extent of our real global reach. We started to expand and work with unions in other parts of the world, because, frankly, some of the employers that exist in the United States exist elsewhere, and if we’re going to organize in the U.S. or North America, we need to be able to coordinate our efforts with workers in other parts of the world, like in England or Poland or France — wherever they may be. We’ve started working with unions in India and Australia now, as well.
R. Do you think that will prosper, as late as it’s coming?
W. Well, I want to hope it’s not too late to do something. To give up on organized labor as a whole would be to give up on any kind of potential to change anything. As socialists we know that as long as capitalism continues, the pressure to accumulate capital — to make profits — necessarily comes at the expense of workers and their families. And as long as there are pressures coming down on workers, some of them are going to fight back. The problem is that, with such low density, it’s hard to fight back. Plus, in the U.S., it’s become very difficult (not impossible) for workers to form a union in the traditional way that we’ve had since the 30s: to come together and petition the National Labor Relations Board (I’m talking about the private sector), using the traditional channels of filing a petition for a union election and then being able to hold it together. The National Labor Relations Board is not fair and does not really give both sides [equal time]; for a group of workers to successfully organize a union, they have to be very well organized amongst one another, they have to trust one another, they have to communicate well with one another, and basically they have to be able to hold it together in order to win just the election. And then of course beyond that, they have to be able to hold it together to win the contract or the improvements they want to win: better pay, better benefits, better working conditions — whatever.
R. So you think organizing globally is the key to the future?
W. I think so. Capital long ago figured out how to go global. You go to any country in the world and you’re going to find a lot of the same brands, the same companies, the same employers. I’m not just saying that’s true for manufacturing, like Sony TVs made in Malaysia, or whatever. You’ve also got service-level employers like Aramark, Sodexho, Securitas, Walmart, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, McDonald’s. They’re everywhere. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of healthcare companies — hospitals — went global. Capital is global. And when they can, capitalists are always going to look for other parts of the world to do business in, to open up markets, to find cheaper labor forces. When we talk about organizing workers and trying to help workers have the tools to make their lives better, I don’t think we can say, morally/ethically speaking, that this is only for people in North America and not for people in other parts of the world. It’s like we say in the WSP: you can’t have socialism in one country. By the same token, I don’t think we can have a viable labor movement that’s restricted to only one part of the world.
Even on a practical level, [isolating ourselves] doesn’t make sense. I think [organizing on a global scale] is going to be difficult, too, because systems of labor relations are different in other parts of the world. We’ve got to be careful, if we want a global movement, about what sort of assumptions we bring to the table as Westerners — even if we think of ourselves as internationalists and globally-minded, fair-minded people. You can’t be totally cultural-imperialist on people, either.
R. How is organized labor taking advantage of the Internet?
W. Most unions have Web sites; not to say that there’s full potential out there [yet], but it’s good, and there has definitely been a real growth of on-line campaigning. That’s good because it allows people to take part in campaigns when we’re not all physically in the same location. But at the same time, I must say, for organizing purposes, when it comes to organizing workers, the Internet is not anything. At this point, it’s just not a replacement for communication between humans. Talking to workers on the phone is OK, but if you’re going to organize your union successfully, I still think you need to have workers meeting, planning and agreeing with one another about how they’re going to change things. You can’t do it over the phone, and you definitely can’t do it through email. At some point, even though this is the 21st Century, people still need to come together and communicate with each other if they want to change things.
R. How would you compare the possibilities of organizing the workplace now with, say, 80 or 90 years ago?
W. Prior to the 1930s, the passage of the National Labor Relations Act and some level of Federal enforcement under the Roosevelt Administration, it was very difficult, more difficult [than today] for workers to organize unions. If you go back and read, say, histories of the Industrial Workers of the World at that time, or of the Knights of Labor before them in the 1880s, workers in this country or indeed anywhere in the world had no right to collective bargaining; they had no real right to free speech. But workers constantly tried to organize: whether it was the strike in the Lawrence textile mills in 1912 or in Patterson, or the various struggles that miners got into in the east — West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania — or out west in Colorado, Montana and those places, railroad employees, loggers in the IWW, and so on.
If you go back 80 or 90 years ago, on the other hand, from what I’ve read, I think it’s safe to say there was probably a higher level of class consciousness among workers; but at the same time the repercussions of trying to form a union were really severe. You had the National Guards show up; you had the Pinkertons and Baldwin-Phelps agents showing up, shooting people and killing them, burning down their houses. Labor leaders like Big Bill Hayward were deported to the Soviet Union. The repercussions for workers were swift and severe from both the government and employers themselves.
Today, [in contrast], as a union organizer, I must say I’ve never felt threatened personally with violence; bosses and governments today don’t fight workers through violent means so much. Although it’s different in some cases: if you look at the struggles that farm workers continue getting into, or illegal immigrants who are here, the stakes are a bit higher, and I think there is more violence used against them in the physical sense than there is against your typical hospital employee.
R. Do you think that if workers were to try to regain the position they had going into the second world war, they would stand to face as much violence from the capitalist class as they had before?
W. Potentially, yeah. I don’t know that violence is going to be perpetrated in the same way, though; I don’t know if we’re going to have National Guardsmen with bayonets out there, but the resistance will be stiff. We could have a crackdown on civil liberties; there could be mass lockouts or layoffs or deportation of immigrants. There are all sorts of potential ways to undermine [a movement].
R. The whole union movement could become “terrorists.”
W. They (the capitalist class) have lots of legal tricks. As I’ve already said, it’s already difficult to form a union using the National Labor Relations Board system. They could undermine collective bargaining; there are all sorts of things they could try. And if that didn’t work, they could bring out the Army again — that could happen.
R. There is a point of comparison here with what goes on in comparison with the countries of Latin America. If you read through the histories of the 70s and around that period, it sounds very similar to what used to happen to unions in this country. Not quite as bloody and gory, maybe, but…
W. Right. I’ll give you an example of today. On a couple of occasions I’ve met union activists from Colombia, who are actually here being sponsored by American unions as refugees, essentially, because in Colombia right now, rank and file union activists are routinely getting jailed, beaten or killed. So there is a reality in Colombia and certainly in other parts of the world, where workers are fighting for pretty basic economic rights — the right to be able to congregate and fight for better conditions, however modest or radical their demands may be. The apparatus of the state and of business does come down hard on people. I don’t think we American workers generally see that. But at the same time, maybe not physically, there is a certain violence done to somebody when their economic livelihood is taken away from them for trying to improve it, when they get fired from their jobs or whatever. It happens all the time in this country. That’s economic warfare against a person.
R. Capital’s weak point is the workplace.
W. Absolutely. There is a weakness, if workers take a notion — I think there’s an old Joe Hill quote, something like: we can stop all the machines and make the world stand still. And that’s still true. With low density and stuff, [it’s true] we’re a long way from making that happen. But there are definitely vulnerabilities out there. There’s always that potential, and I think what we’ve got to be working towards (not just in the unions but in the socialist movement, too) is people figuring out how we’re going to get people together to use that power that is potentially there to make revolutionary changes, to get rid of this system that creates divisions between people economically and socially, and try to actually build a new society rather than [just keep patching up the old one all the time].