Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Strike!, by Jeremy Brecher

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UPDATE: I updated the link that provides the source of the book—all the used copies were scooped up immediately, but the paperback (and clothbound) edition is still available new, from the publisher (at the link). Also, read the beginning of the Prologue.

Strike!: Revised and Updated Edition is a book well worth reading—important and relevant today more than ever before. And today Labor has new tools at its command. Let me just show you the Introduction—it’s a relatively long but (in my opinion) fascinating story:

This book is the story of repeated, massive, and sometimes violent revolts by ordinary working people in America. The story includes virtually nationwide general strikes, the seizure of vast industrial establishments, non-violent direct action on a massive scale, and armed battles with artillery and tanks. It encompasses the repeated repression of workers’ rebellions by company-sponsored violence, local police, state militias, and the U.S. Army and National Guard. It reveals a dimension of American history rarely found in the usual high school or college history course, let alone in the way that history is presented in the media.

The United States is often presumed to be a land of individual freedom. That view often leads people to try to meet their needs by individual effort. But from time to time people come up against another reality. Most of our society’s resources have long been controlled by a few. The rest have no way to make a living but to sell their ability to work. Most Americans are—by no choice of their own—workers. The basic experience of being a worker—of not having sufficient economic resources to live except by going to work for someone else—shapes most people’s daily lives, as well as the life of our society.

As workers, people experience a denial of freedom that is very different from the touted liberty of American life. “Opportunity” is reduced to the opportunity to sell your time and creative capacities to one employer or another—or to fall into poverty if you don’t. The “freedom to choose” is replaced by the freedom to do what you are told.

Meanwhile, the wealth created by the labor of the many is owned by a tiny minority, primarily in the form of giant corporations that dominate the national and now increasingly global economy. They control the labor of millions of people in the United States and worldwide. The wealth and power of corporations and those who own them is further parlayed into power over the media, the political process, the institutions that shape knowledge and opinion, and ultimately over the government. Workers are thereby rendered relatively powerless, as individuals, even in supposedly democratic societies.

But individuals are not alone in this condition. They share it with their co-workers and with the great majority of other people who are also workers. At times, therefore, people to a greater or lesser extent come to see themselves as having interests in common with other working people and in conflict with their employers. Then they may turn to collective rather than individual strategies for solving their problems. This process can be seen repeatedly in the lives of individuals, the experience of social groups, the history of the United States, and indeed worldwide.

When workers begin to pursue collective strategies, they discover they have far greater power together than they have alone. They are the great majority in any workplace, community, or country. All the functions of their employer, indeed of society, depend on their labor. By withdrawing their labor and by refusing to cooperate with established authorities in other ways, they can bring any workplace, community, or even country to a halt.

The extent to which people realize and act on their common interests and power as workers waxes and wanes. At times workers’ action has primarily taken the form of semi-clandestine resistance to authority in workplaces and communities, presenting a surface appearance of “labor peace.” Sometimes it has taken the form of orderly participation in institutionalized, government-regulated systems of collective bargaining by trade union representatives. But sometimes their struggle has been publicly visible, violent, and dramatic.

Strike! Is a history of those times—the times of peak conflict that it describes, borrowing a term from Rosa Luxemburg, as periods of “mass strike.” These periods show a great diversity of activities, including strikes, general strikes, occupations, mass demonstrations, and sometimes even armed confrontations. But they are all marked by three characteristics: an expanding challenge to established authority in workplaces and beyond; a tendency for workers to take control of their own activity; and a widening solidarity and mutual support among different groups of working people.

The main actors in the story are ordinary working people. What happens when people go to work, make a home, shop, and try to make a life may seem at first glance far removed from making history. But in trying to solve the problems of their daily lives, people sometimes find they must act in ways that challenge the existing order—and thereby make history.

“Ordinary” workers are often portrayed in the news media and even in history texts as a passive mass, controlled and directed by unions and labor leaders. But in periods of mass strike we find ordinary working people thinking, planning, drawing lessons from their own experience, organizing themselves, and taking action in common. They may use unions and other established organizations as their means to do so, but in many cases they have had to organize themselves and act outside established channels.

Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of this history is how frequently workers have found the unions and labor officials who claim to represent them thwarting their action instead. Far from fomenting strikes and rebellions, unions and labor leaders have frequently tried to prevent or contain them, while the drive to extend these struggles has often come from a most undocile rank and file. In part this because unions—no less than churches, governments, and other organizations—often become bureaucracies with professionalized leaders whose experiences and material interests diverge from those they represent. But it is also because of the accommodation that corporations and government, faced with continuing worker resistance and rebellion, gradually reached with organized labor. This “class compromise” gave unions the legal right to represent and bargain on behalf of their members, but also made them responsible for strictly limiting the means their members could use and the objectives they could pursue. Unions have often opposed the will of their own members to forestall devastating counterattack by employers and government. Strike! reveals repeated instances of this continuing tension between union structures and rank-and-file union members.

Strike! was first published in 1972. In some ways, the great mass strikes of the past are even more relevant today than when it was first published. For a quarter of a century, American workers have faced declining wages, growing economic insecurity, and worsening conditions on the job. The system of institutionalized collective bargaining that was established in national law and practice in the late 1930s and early 1940s is now hardly more than a remnant, covering barely 15 percent of the workforce. Government protections for working people are being dismantled day by day. Corporations and those who own them have grown wealthier and more powerful—not only on a national but increasingly on a global scale. While individualistic “free-market” ideology has become increasingly prevalent, working people are less and less able to solve their problems through individual strategies.

Worldwide, workers, indeed whole populations, have been turning to mass strikes and other kinds of direct action in response to the pressures from global corporations and their political allies. Just in the two years before this edition of Strike! was published, there were general strikes and other mass labor struggles in Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, France, Haiti, Italy, South Korea, and Spain, among others. Far from being a thing of the past, the mass strike is proving to be a significant feature of the era of globalization.

Today is not the first time that American workers have faced job degradation, inadequate pay, economic insecurity, and powerlessness in the workplace. Yet—despite the great increase in scholarly research on labor and other non-elite history—schools and media still teach us little about the history of workers and how they have dealt with such problems in the past. This neglect of ordinary people’s history is itself part of history. Half a century ago, two labor leaders described “the iron curtain” drawn “between the people and their past”: “The generals, the diplomats, and the politicos learned long ago that history is more than record of the past; it is, as well, a source from which may be drawn a sense of strength and direction for the future. At all costs, that sense of strength and direction must be denied to the millions of men and women who labor for their living. Hence the record of their past achievements is deliberately obscured in order to dull their aspirations for the future.” The purpose of this book is to help lift that iron curtain.

As working people begin to seek collective strategies, a knowledge of that past can be empowering. Consider the workers at the Pittston coal company who in 1989, like so many people in the past few years, were told they would have to accept cuts in their health care and pensions, give up work-rule protections on the job, allow their jobs to be subcontracted to non-union employers, abandon the eight-hour day, and work seven days a week—all to make their employer “internationally competitive.” When they refused to work under these conditions and struck, they were met by the importation of strikebreakers, restrictive injunctions, squadrons of state police, hundreds of arrests, and astronomical fines. But among the leaders of the strike were notorious labor history buffs who were well aware of ways workers had coped with such attacks in the past. They mobilized massive support: 46,000 miners in ten states joined sympathy strikes and 30,000 people from all over the country—as well as international delegations—came to the strikers’ “Camp Solidarity” to demonstrate their support. Strike organizers had studied the factory occupations of the 1930s. When miners occupied Pittston’s key coal treatment plant, they dubbed their occupation “Operation Flintstone” after the great sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, half a century before. Faced with such mobilized power, Pittston finally backed down and agreed to conditions acceptable to its workers.

Ultimately this book is about power. Many people feel powerless to affect what goes on in our society. The official channels through which they are supposed to be able to do so—elections, pressure groups, and the like—often appear useless. And yet ordinary people—together—have potentially the greatest power of all. It is their activity that makes up society. If they refuse to work, if they withdraw their cooperation, every social institution can be brought to a halt. By taking control of their own activity, they have the power to reshape society. That power is far different from the power we are familiar with in corporations and other institutions of authority. It is not the power of some people to tell others what to do. It is the power of people directing their own action cooperatively toward common purposes. It is that power we see rising in this book.

Written by Leisureguy

26 November 2007 at 10:29 am

Posted in Business, Daily life

Tagged with , ,

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