[Marxism] Why are American workers so passive?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Apr 5 07:27:38 MDT 2009

NY Times, April 5, 2009
In America, Labor Has an Unusually Long Fuse

The workers and other protesters who gathered en masse at the Group of 
20 summit meeting last week in London were continuing a time-honored 
European tradition of taking their grievances into the streets.

Two weeks earlier, more than a million workers in France demonstrated 
against layoffs and the government’s handling of the economic crisis, 
and in the last month alone, French workers took their bosses hostage 
four times in various labor disputes. When General Motors recently 
announced huge job cuts worldwide, 15,000 workers demonstrated at the 
company’s German headquarters.

But in the United States, where G.M. plans its biggest layoffs, union 
members have seemed passive in comparison. They may yell at the 
television news, but that’s about all. Unlike their European 
counterparts, American workers have largely stayed off the streets, even 
as unemployment soars and companies cut wages and benefits.

The country of Mother Jones, John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther certainly 
has had a rich and sometimes militant history of labor protest — from 
the Homestead Steel Works strike against Andrew Carnegie in 1892 to the 
auto workers’ sit-down strikes of the 1930s and the 67-day walkout by 
400,000 G.M. workers in 1970.

But in recent decades, American workers have increasingly steered clear 
of such militancy, for reasons that range from fear of having their jobs 
shipped overseas to their self-image as full-fledged members of the 
middle class, with all its trappings and aspirations.

David Kennedy, a Stanford historian and author of “Freedom From Fear: 
The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945,” says that 
America’s individualist streak is a major reason for this reluctance to 
take to the streets. Citing a 1940 study by the social psychologist 
Mirra Komarovsky, he said her interviews of the Depression-era 
unemployed found “the psychological reaction was to feel guilty and 
ashamed, that they had failed personally.”

Taken together, guilt, shame and individualism undercut any impulse to 
collective action, then as now, Professor Kennedy said. Noting that 
Americans felt stunned and desperately insecure during the Depression’s 
early years, he wrote: “What struck most observers, and mystified them, 
was the eerie docility of the American people, their stoic passivity as 
the Depression grindstone rolled over them.”

By the mid-1930s, though, worker protests increased in number and 
militancy. They were fueled by the then-powerful Communist and Socialist 
Parties and frustrations over continuing deprivation. Workers also felt 
that they had President Roosevelt’s blessing for collective action 
because he signed the Wagner Act in 1935, giving workers the right to 

“Remember, at that time, you had Hoovervilles and 25 percent 
unemployment,” said Daniel Bell, a professor emeritus of sociology at 
Harvard. “Many people felt that capitalism was finished.”

General strikes paralyzed San Francisco and Minneapolis, and a six-week 
sit-down strike at a G.M. plant in Flint, Mich., pressured the company 
into recognizing the United Automobile Workers. In the decade’s ugliest 
showdown, a 1937 strike against Republic Steel in Chicago, 10 protesters 
were shot to death. That militancy helped build a powerful labor 
movement, which represented 35 percent of the nation’s workers by the 
1950s and helped create the world’s largest and richest middle class.

Today, American workers, even those earning $20,000 a year, tend to view 
themselves as part of an upwardly mobile middle class. In contrast, 
European workers often still see themselves as proletarians in an 
enduring class struggle.

And American labor leaders, once up-from-the-street rabble-rousers, now 
often work hand-in-hand with C.E.O.’s to improve corporate 
competitiveness to protect jobs and pensions, and try to sideline 
activists who support a hard line.

“You have a general diminution of union leadership that was focused on 
defending workers by any means necessary,” said Jerry Tucker, a longtime 
U.A.W. militant. “The message from the union leadership nowadays often 
is, ‘We don’t have any choice, we have to go down this concessionary 
road to see if we can do damage control,’ ” he said.

In the case of the Detroit automakers, a strike might not only hasten 
their demise but infuriate many Americans who already view auto workers 
as overpaid. It might also make Washington less receptive to a bailout.

Labor’s aggressiveness has also been sapped by its declining numbers. 
Unions represent just 7.4 percent of private-sector workers today.

Unions have also grown more cautious as management has become more 
aggressive. A watershed came in 1981 when the nation’s air traffic 
controllers engaged in an illegal strike. President Reagan quickly fired 
the 11,500 striking traffic controllers, hired replacements and soon got 
the airports running. After that confrontation, labor’s willingness to 
strike shrank markedly.

American workers still occasionally vent their anger in protests and 
strikes. There were demonstrations against the A.I.G. bonuses, for 
instance, and workers staged a sit-down strike in December when their 
factory in Chicago was closed. But the numbers tell the story: Last 
year, American unions engaged in 159 work stoppages, down from 1,352 in 
1981, according to the Bureau of National Affairs, a publisher of legal 
and regulatory news.

Michael Kazin, a historian at Georgetown University, said that while 
demonstrations remain a vital outlet for the European left, for 
Americans “the Internet now somehow serves as the main outlet” with 
angry blogs and mass e-mailing.

Left-leaning workers and unions that might be most prone to stage 
protests during today’s economic crisis are often the ones most 
enthusiastic about President Obama and his efforts to revive the 
economy, help unions and enact universal health coverage. Instead of 
taking to the streets last fall to protest the gathering economic crisis 
under President Bush, many workers and unions campaigned for Mr. Obama.

Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, said there were 
smarter things to do than demonstrating against layoffs — for instance, 
pushing Congress and the states to make sure the stimulus plan creates 
the maximum number of jobs in the United States.

“I actually believe that Americans believe in their political system 
more than workers do in other parts of the world,” Mr. Gerard said. He 
said large labor demonstrations are often warranted in Canada and 
European countries to pressure parliamentary leaders. Demonstrations are 
less needed in the United States, he said, because often all that is 
needed is some expert lobbying in Washington to line up the support of a 
half-dozen senators.

Professor Kennedy saw another reason that today’s young workers and 
young people were protesting less than in decades past. “This 
generation,” he said, has “ found more effective ways to change the 
world. It’s signed up for political campaigns, and it’s not waiting for 
things to get so desperate that they feel forced to take to the streets.”

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