[Marxism] Resuscitating the U.S. Labor Movement
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Tue Oct 13 07:16:46 MDT 2015
Resuscitating the U.S. Labor Movement
by Juan Cruz Ferre
A long-term left activist and scholar, Stanley Aronowitz has made
outstanding contributions to the analysis of the American labor movement
throughout his career.
Author of dozens of books, and tons of articles, he has been able to
combine academic work with political activism. His book The Death and Life
of American Labor touches on issues that warrant serious debate among the
Left in the U.S.
In his engaging and provocative book, *The Death and Life of American Labor*,
Aronowitz places labor unions firmly at the center of discussion,
presenting an uncompromising critique of union bureaucracies
now serve as “supplicants of the Democratic Party and depend on the
electoral system to resolve workers’ problems.”
According to Aronowitz, union bureaucracies have caved time and again,
particularly through collective bargaining agreements to employers’ attacks
on labor over the past four decades; long-duration contracts, no-strike
clauses, two-tier wage systems and increasing monetary contributions by
workers into healthcare and pension plans.
The main reasons behind these concessions are unions’ fears of relocation
and their “sacred respect for the law.” Instead of focusing on building
workers’ power and contesting the bosses and the state through direct
action, their efforts have been aimed at “convincing” Democrats in office
to pass protective laws or soften the blow of attacks on labor.
In the author’s view, unions have dug their own grave, no longer able to
“convert from a service organization to a fighting force.” Aronowitz also
asserts that, although once beneficial to workers, collective bargaining
agreements today only benefit the bosses.
However, taking this position, the author is in a sense tossing the baby
away with the bathwater. It is true that most collective agreements today
include a no-strike clause and are ridiculously long (3, 4, 5 years!),
undercutting workers’ ability to wage war against the boss. But this is not
a necessary component of the agreements.
There is a conflation of the tool of collective bargaining and the varying
negotiation outcomes themselves. I would argue against painting all
contracts as homogeneous conquests for bosses. I wouldn’t assert either, as
others have posited <https://solidarity-us.org/node/4476>, that a
signals* a defeat for the bosses.
However, even when law and regulation are bourgeois and therefore play the
game of capital owners, the total absence of legal rights is even worse for
workers. Binding the employer to a written contract t to respect workers’
conditions and payout of benefits is better than naught.
The problem, of course, is when the right to strike is given up, or when
other concessions, such as two-tier wage systems or benefit cuts, are
slipped into the agreement. I would argue instead that this is better
understood as a product of the relation of forces between labor and
capital, and of decades of business unionism, rather than the inherent
pitfalls of collective agreements.
Technology and Labor, a Barren Marriage
When discussing technology and the automation of industrial production,
Aronowitz disputes the liberal and right-wing doctrine that hails
technological development as intrinsically beneficial. He further explains
how these developments have, in fact, proven to be harmful for the working
class, causing the loss of jobs, worsening of working conditions and the
weakening of workers’ *workplace bargaining power*, to use Erik O Wright’s
In addition, the restructuring of work brought about by technological
innovation has deepened the divisions between low-wage, “unskilled”
workers, and the professional stratum. Aronowitz points out new
opportunities for the labor movement that came out of increasing
proletarianization and the strategic positioning of engineers and computer
scientists who by the 1970s “were no longer independent entrepreneurs, but
had become employees.”
He argues that the professionals who make the machines work are now in the
position to disrupt production: “[T]he need for effective action and
organized support from and among the professional working class will soon
be urgent, for we can expect further spread of almost completely automated
production processes in the near future.” He envisions a world of
production that is massively automated and proposes a focus on
professionals and even managerial workers (!) as a key sector to unionize
and win over to revolutionary politics.
Consequently, he pays little attention to the organization of low-wage
workers, such as retail workers who make up about 10% of the U.S. labor
force. One may wonder if this omission is warranted; recently, we’ve seen
examples of actions led by the most oppressed and exploited sectors of the
working class. The anti-police brutality movement propelled by black youth
and the fight for wage increases by retail and fast food workers
demonstrate the potential of “unskilled” workers. In an interview with Left
Voice, Charlie Post makes the case for organizing low-wage warehouse and
supply-chains for big box and fast food companies.
Union Reform versus Radical Unionism
The author makes an excellent point that *union reform* alone is not enough
to reverse the fall in power of the labor movement. It’s not just about
democratizing the unions (although in itself an enormous task): it’s about
building a radical “militant minority” of workers, who will form an
organization that goes beyond trade-unionism and criticizes the whole
capitalist system. Hence, the author continues, the need for a political
organization capable of “educating, agitating and organizing resistance to
Recovering the example of the 1920s Communist Party-backed Trade Union
Education League (TUEL), he calls for the formation of a circle of
intellectuals whose main task would be to educate labor activism. He
proposes a political-educational space shared by anarchists, socialists and
It is difficult to imagine different political groupings coming together to
share a space and discuss fraternally without also vying for political and
ideological hegemony or to win over workers to their own strategies.
But leaving this aside for the moment, one may still make the admission
that the situation of the U.S. left is quite bleak. In the last few
decades, when implantation in the working class seemed impossible, the far
left has only managed to build in small numbers, mostly on college
campuses. Many point out the breach
the revolutionary left and the working class.
A tactic that gets at this problem effectively is paramount. But how can
this be achieved? How can we build a revolutionary organization within the
ranks of the working class? Not through pure intellectual work, that’s for
sure. How about encouraging young socialists and members of revolutionary
parties to seek strategic positions as workers instead of pursuing careers
as academics, “freelancers”, or isolated contractors?
The “industrialization” or “proletarianization” of left militants has been
repeatedly dismissed as a failing tactic to coalesce with the organized
working class and inject it with revolutionary ideas. It was a common
practice among American left parties in the 60s and 70s, but the majority
of activists who entered the mining, auto, steel, and garment industries
with the aim of recruiting ended up isolated, with little progress to speak
of for their efforts.
However, those who completely rule out this tactic should take into account
that happened during a major shift in the relation of forces between labor
and capital, with the simultaneous rise of the neoliberal era and blows to
the labor movement. Even if we can’t put all the blame on these “external”
factors, they played a major role in the ebb of working-class militancy.
A new TUEL is an appealing idea. Under this schema, a concentration left
militants operating within certain workplaces — deemed as strategic
priorities — can begin to build “bastions” of rank-and-file militancy. The
piece that is missing here is the role of the revolutionary party. Who else
would provide these spaces, pin down workers to come to meetings, encourage
and facilitate political and theoretical discussion?
A Gradual Transition to Socialism?
Aronowitz’s enthusiasm for factory occupations and workers’ co-ops is
accompanied by a balanced description of its limitations as productive
units within a capitalist system. Especially refreshing is his call to
“socialize banks, large-scale industry, health and education institutions.”
This can only mean the socialization of the means of production under
For the working class to achieve this goal, he proposes a progressive
appropriation of industries in the form of cooperatives. Adding businesses
and shops one by one to a network of cooperatives, the “cooperative
commonwealth” (a term he borrows from the 19th century socialists and
anarchists) would at some point replace the capitalist system of production
and distribution: “Workers’ and consumers’ cooperatives producing goods and
services would initially compete with supermarket chains and other private
enterprises and eventually replace them.”
This gradual conquest of *trenches* within the capitalist society takes the
fight for socialism to the arena of market competition between co-ops and
big capital. To be honest, it is difficult to imagine co-ops winning these
battles across the board. How can a small-sized coop paying living wages to
their workers/associates beat a retail mogul such as Walmart, who relies on
poverty wages for its employees and large-scale economy? The role of the
state in securing private profits and maintaining a sophisticated fabric of
laws and rules that perpetuate individual wealth and capitalist
exploitation should not be overlooked or avoided, but instead must be
confronted. No socialism will ever be achieved unless the capitalist state
is confronted full-on, battled, and defeated.
How to Resuscitate Labor
Towards the end of the book, Aronowitz lays out a set of proposals to build
a “New Labor Movement.” His “Ten-point manifesto” includes the elimination
of no-strike provisions in bargaining agreements, a national campaign for
universal income, single-payer healthcare, the fight against gender, race
and ethnic discrimination at the workplace, credit unions for co-ops, and
building an international labor movement able to wage war against
multinationals in different countries, rather than compete with workers
He also proposes a two-fold fight for a shorter working journey: pushing
for legislation that mandates a reduced workday, while at the same time
engaging in direct action such as marches, demonstrations and strikes. This
is a very important point, and even when the author does not make the link
explicit, it is closely related to the fight for the share of the profits
brought in by technological improvements and the rise in productivity.
Another point stressed in the ten-point manifesto and developed in the book
is the need for the rank-and-file to demand the right to create minority
unions. In this type of representation arrangements, the union does not
seek the right to represent the whole shop, but instead leaves open the
chance for another union to represent a portion of the staff
(characteristic of representative arrangements is shared by countries such
as France, Spain, and Argentina). In theory, the heightened “competition”
between unions compel them to be more democratic and combative. Critics
have argued that in the U.S. context, where nationwide bargaining by trade
is not in place, these arrangements could weaken workers’ power.
Despite criticism from some scholars and labor activists, *The Death and
Life of American Labor* by Stanley Aronowitz offers a sharp assessment of
the labor movement and a suggestive —though controversial— strategy to
revive it. It should be widely read and debated among the left.
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