[Marxism] Why are American workers so passive?
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
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
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
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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