[Marxism] Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers

Michael Yates mdjyates at gmail.com
Fri Dec 2 10:03:16 MST 2016

This is an excellent essay. It is hard to believe that anyone familiar with 
the Steelworkers Union, its origins and history, could argue that it was in 
any way a paragon of racial justice. Or that race didn't play a crucial 
role in it, in the plants, and in the steel towns. This is a "whitewash" of 
history that is astounding. For example, in its collective bargaining 
agreements with the steel corporations, until a consent decree basically 
forced an end to the practice in the 1970s, seniority in the mills was 
department- rather than plant-based. Black workers were typically confined 
to the most dangerous and dirty departments, such as foundry and coke plant 
(in Johnstown, PA there was a bar in a black neighborhood called ironically 
The Coke Plant). If a black worker managed to transfer into to better 
department, his department seniority would be zero, no matter what his 
plant seniority was. So now if there was a cutback in the new department he 
would be first laid off. He could have 20 years in the plant and a white 
worker with say two years of plant seniority would keep his department job 
over the black worker if the latter had less than two years seniority. Thus 
did the INSTITUTION of collective bargaining keep black workers on the 
bottom, irrespective if whether or not white members were racist (not a few 
were racist, however, but you have to wonder how strong racism would have 
been if the union had indeed confronted race directly and not 
institutionalized racism in its contracts). Here is a brief description of 
the EEOC consent decree:

"EEOC, the Department of Labor and the Department of Justice file suit 
against the nation's nine largest steel producers for discriminatory 
hiring, promotion, assignment and wage policies directed against women and 
minorities. These nine companies employ a total of 350,000 workers and 
produce 73 percent of the country's steel. The government's suit also names 
the major steelworkers' union, the United Steelworkers of America, as a 
defendant. After five and a half months of negotiations, the government and 
the defendants resolve the dispute through a consent decree providing for 
approximately $31 million in back pay to be distributed to about 40,000 
minority and women employees. The companies and the union also agree to a 
set of goals which include hiring women and minority persons for half the 
openings in trade and craft jobs and for 25 percent of the vacancies in 
supervisory jobs. The decree also provides that seniority will now be 
determined on the basis of plant (rather than departmental) seniority 
permitting women and minority access to the better paying and more 
desirable jobs."

On all of this, see the fine filmmaker Tony Buba's excellent documentary 
Struggles in Steel. I could say a lot more about this, but this gives you 
the gist of it. Contra Stein, Jacobin, et. al. race is central to all of US 
history. It has to be confronted head-on if we are to have any chance to 
build a radical movement here. http://www.newsreel.org/guides/struggles.htm 
STRUGGLES IN STEEL - Facilitator Guide 
Aliquippa Update–A Pittsburgh Milltown Struggles to Comeback, 1984-86 and 
Trouble in Electric Valley, Local Leaders Assess the Difficult Future of 
Their Communities

On Friday, December 2, 2016 at 8:32:04 AM UTC-7, lnp3 wrote:
> Although the question of identity politics has been simmering for years 
> in academic journals and the left press, it came to a full boil in the 
> 2016 elections when Hillary Clinton became its symbol. Often referred to 
> as multiculturalism, neither term was adopted by Trump in his racist and 
> sexist attacks on the Democrats. He preferred “political correctness”, 
> an epithet intended to stigmatize his opponents as giving preferential 
> treatment to gays, women, and minorities. In the aftermath of Trump’s 
> victory, supporters of the Democratic Party have been nursing their 
> wounds and trying to figure out where to go next, with an emerging 
> tendency around the fizzled Sanders campaign arguing that abandoning 
> identity politics will help it win future elections. Sanders put it this 
> way: 
>         It goes without saying, that as we fight to end all forms of 
> discrimination, as we fight to bring more and more women into the 
> political process, Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans – all of 
> that is ENORMOUSLY important, and count me in as somebody who wants to 
> see that happen. But it is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘hey, 
> I’m a Latina, vote for me.” That is not good enough. I have to know 
> whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class in this 
> country and is going to take on big-money interests. And one of the 
> struggles that we’re going to have…in the Democratic Party is it’s not 
> good enough for me to say we have x number of African Americans over 
> here, we have y number of Latinos, we have z number of women, we are a 
> diverse party, a diverse nation. Not good enough! 
> As someone who had little use for Hillary Clinton or any Democrat for 
> that matter, there was something a bit troubling about the “class 
> trumping identity” plea since it reminded me of contradictions that have 
> bedeviled the revolutionary movement from its inception. While the idea 
> of uniting workers on the basis of their class interests and 
> transcending ethnic, gender and other differences has enormous appeal at 
> first blush, there are no easy ways to implement such an approach given 
> the capitalist system’s innate tendency to create divisions in the 
> working class in order to maintain its grip over the class as a whole. 
> full: 
> http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/12/02/deepening-contradictions-identity-politics-and-steelworkers/ 

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