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The Radical Labor Challenge


Responding mostly to Doug Henwood’s piece (I think), Corey Robin asks the labor-left a hard question:

This is a challenge to the left.

Not the left that’s out there already doing the hard work—the labor movement, the Occupiers, the immigrants rights’ organizers—but the left that’s like, well, me: the academics, the writers, the bloggers, the journalists, the think tankers, the kibbitzers. The people who talk too much.

My challenge is this: If you’re calling for the labor movement to be more radical—more adventurous, more willing to get out into the streets, to break laws, to challenge the social order (and let me be clear, that is an aim I share)—I want you to stop and ask yourself a question.

Have you ever organized a majority, even a plurality, of your co-workers—in an academic department, at a newspaper, in a think tank, at the little non-profit where you work—to confront the boss, whoever that might be, in such a way that all of your jobs were put into jeopardy?

There are many ways to answer this question so let me slightly rephrase the challenge to focus on the overall exhortations from people that workers should take more radical actions. Most of the time, this is an irresponsible thing to say if tied to specific workers. Urging these workers to strike and those workers to organize is an easy thing to say if your job isn’t on the line. Most people are, rightfully, fearful for their future. And it’s easy for labor radicals to look back to an idealized past of Haymarket and Pullman and the IWW, when workers were really radical–except all of those things were mostly horrible disasters for workers that people turned to out of sheer desperation to do anything to improve their lives.

If labor is to be more “radical,” however we choose to define that, it probably needs to come from within a union structure, very carefully planned out with a large solidarity network in the community and with other locals and unions, a media strategy, etc. Moreover, the urge to take more radical action has to come from the workers themselves. Any other source is probably illegitimate because it will amount to people whose jobs are not on line exhorting reluctant workers to risk their livelihoods for reasons not clear to them. And that would be a bad thing.

But let’s also be clear–workers can be pretty radical on their own. A story. In 1999 and 2000, I was in Knoxville, Tennessee working on a number of campaigns after I concluded my master’s degree. We worked on a living wage campaign, some student organizing, etc. Our group was getting very heavily involved in labor issues. This received a serious assist from the nearby Highlander Center, whose head at the time was Jim Sessions, a major figure in the labor world who was the minister who sat in with workers at the Pittston coal strike. We began to meet local union leaders through Jobs with Justice, etc. We decided we wanted to have a labor teach-in at the very conservative campus of the University of Tennessee. We planned it over the year and thanks to Sessions, were able to get some big names to come–Elaine Bernard, Bill Fletcher, and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka. Not bad for a bunch of kids, no.

As the time came to hold the teach-in, we were very aware that a labor event without workers lacked legitimacy. So we put fliers around campus about it, gave a number to call if workers were interested in talking. We get a call from a group of housekeepers. For whatever reason, I am sent over to talk to them. And boy howdy are they fighting mad. They are ready to tear down the university. Their primary complaint, as I recall 12 years later, was working conditions–including that they feared for their safety because they kept getting pricked with hypodermic needles cleaning the dorms and the university didn’t care. And that was the Eureka moment for everyone–we had done a ton of work preparing for an organizing campaign and there was a large group of workers very much ready to be organized. I don’t know how many came out to the teach-in rally, maybe 80-100 housekeepers and a few other workers too. Having Trumka rally the troops was a good start. We marched over to the administration building, gave them a set of demands, and started organizing.

I left soon after to start my Ph.D. program, but I am proud to say that this event, and years of hard work by others after it, led to the creation of the United Campus Workers which became CWA Local 3865.

I tell this story not to laud myself–it was a long time ago and my role in this was limited. But I want to point out that sometimes workers are quite ready to lay it on the line and if properly organized, the labor left can help shape that discontent into productive activity that leads to long-term improvement to workers’ lives that they themselves lead and create.

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  • bradp

    Horseshit, I say.

    Labor radicalism first comes with a radical change to the unions themselves. There is no point in responding to someone who thinks getting more radical simply means more aggressive confrontation with bosses. Once unions take a more radical position on what services they offer members (banking/financial, training, insurance, legal advice, basically all those areas where the collective mass of corporations can cover transaction costs where the worker can’t), then confronting bosses will not be the risk it is to current workers.

    Maybe this is a pipedream, I don’t know.

  • Derelict

    Hell, I WAS the boss and I tried to organize my employees to take on the corporate structure. They couldn’t understand why I would want to put my job on the line to make their jobs better. In the end, they made it clear that they just weren’t comfortable in a participatory work environment: They did not like being ruled by a tyrant, but they understood it and so demanded it from me.

    These days, labor is doomed because workers don’t seem to want anything better than what they have, and expect to get much worse down the road.

    • Steve LaBonne

      That’s one of the most discouraging things I’ve read in a long time.

    • wengler

      I’ve seen this attitude before. Workers must think they got something out of it because when the boss isn’t around they just do nothing. But nearly the whole time they are ordered around like obedient serfs.

  • DrDick

    I have to agree with this. I would argue that the first step toward a more radical labor movement is radicalizing the workers themselves. Educating them on the political economic conditions and forces impacting on them. Making them aware, as many are not presently, that while their wages and benefits are stagnant or declining, those of management and capital are not. Make them aware of the massive rent extractions by those at the top which impoverish them. Remind them of the history of labor and what is possible. Then let them decide what actions they wish to take.

    • joe from Lowell

      I would argue that the first step toward a more radical labor movement is radicalizing the workers themselves.

      I would argue that it is listening to the workers themselves.

      You just might find that they already know quite a bit of that.

      • joe from Lowell

        Actually, I take that back.

        If your goal is to make labor more radical – to inculcate an ideology among them – then “education” probably is the best way to get there, while listening to them and building your activism around what you learn from them is probably counter-productive towards that particular end.

        • DrDick

          You obviously do not live in a red state, where a large portion of the work force does not know or understand those things and consistently votes against its own economic self interest. You also do not read too well, since I explicitly said, “Then let them decide what actions they wish to take.” Like Erik, I do not think outsiders should be making any decisions for labor or even telling them what they should do.

          • joe from Lowell

            You obviously do not live in a red state, where a large portion of the work force does not know or understand those things and consistently votes against its own economic self interest.

            Voting on cultural issues doesn’t mean you misunderstand economic issues, as much as prioritize them less, or don’t consider electoral politics to be a good way to advance those interests. Try to keep this in mind the next time you’re tempted to conclude that the people you unwittingly condescend to don’t line up the way you want them to.

            You also do not read too well, since I explicitly said, “Then let them decide what actions they wish to take.”

            I read the “THEN” part – the part where you, Mr. Awesome Educated Fellow, let them have the influence you generously decide to cede to the once you’ve decided the time is right – just fine, thanks.

      • JL

        It’s not either-or. Well-meaning idealistic educated radicals should be listening to the people they purport to empower, not going in to “teach” their particular ideology. But that doesn’t mean that they have nothing useful to offer. Listen, but also contribute.

    • Lee

      I agree with this but the issue becomes how do we educate workers. Its not like we have a lot of tools at our disposal and employers have many distractions available at their disposal. What will be the outlet of education? Most old media like newspapers, tv, radio, or movies are out for various reasons. The internent is available but it depends on people (a) having internet access) and (b) finding the websites. What could be done?

      • DrDick

        That really is the big question and I am not sure what the answer is. One possibility is to work through unions (or rather have the unions doing this) as part of their larger organizing efforts.

  • owlbear1

    How about a “Stupid Down” strike. Don’t walk off, don’t scream and yell, just become so stupid you can’t accomplish a thing without specific detailed instructions?

    • Walt

      This is basically a “work-to-rule” campaign.

    • Richard

      And then what do you tell them after they get fired?

      • owlbear1

        Fired for what?

        • Richard

          Fired for being stupid and slow. It would be done in a heartbeat

          • Richard

            Just to clarify. Unless you have an incredibly strong union contract which sets out work duties in detail, which are much less common these days than, say, thirty years ago, you are not going to be able to use the “stupid down” tactic.

          • owlbear1

            Ok I see, if there is any type of risk involved with getting better pay and working conditions it’s just not worth it.

            Got it.

            I’m sorry I misunderstood.

            • It’s not clear what you meant by your first comment, but the reasonable reading was that such an action was less risky than a strike.

              It’s not.

            • Richard

              I’m not saying dont take the risk. I’m just saying that there is a lot of risk involved in a “stupid down” tactic. You presented it as a risk free tactic. Its not.

              • owlbear1

                I apologize if I’ve made it sound too simple. I’ve never had a job where I could “just be replaced”.

                • Murc

                  You have been extraordinarily lucky. I have had jobs where not only was I considered a replaceable cog, but company policy was to fire anyone who approached their second year in my position or the equivalent.

                  The reason being that people who’d been there that long acquired institutional knowledge and company contacts that began to make them feel like they deserved to be taken seriously, and two annual raises put their pay level above what was considered worth paying.

                • owlbear1

                  In reply to Murc:

                  Oh without question I’ve been lucky in my jobs.

                  And I have no delusions that couldn’t actually be replaced. Just that doing so would likely end up costing more than giving me a raise.

            • Katya

              No one said that, but the point of the OP was that it’s really easy to tell workers what they should do when it does not involve your own job at risk.

    • We’re in a suspended one of these, i.e., a “work to contract”.

      (That working to contract is not the norm is…wacky!)

      Work slowdowns are a lessor sort of action. They can be effective. They can short circuit pay loss. But if you don’t have good labor protections then you can get creamed.

      I can’t tell you how much having protection against being fired for participating in an action makes it easier to participate in an action!

  • One of the Blue

    These days, labor is doomed because workers don’t seem to want anything better than what they have, and expect to get much worse down the road.

    I think the Taft-Hartley Act was designed to foster this mentality. Among the things it did was by technicalizing the mechanics of labor activity and setting a variety of somewhat complex restrictions around it, its authors made labor activism among non-union workers forbiddingly difficult. For example, if non-union workers pull a strike inthe private sector, they better be pretty careful about how they frame their issues, or they will get fired, quite legally.

    This is important because the labor activism in the period of labor’s greatest growth in the United States (1935-46) was driven by an emphatic demand among non-union workers for representation. How to encourage sush a demand again in the Taft-Hartley environment is the greatest current challenge for labor and its supporters.

    • Ed

      This. It’s odd how infrequently Taft-Hartley comes up in these discussions.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        And how odd that the only Democratic Presidential candidate I can remember mentioning it in the last quarter century is the constantly ridiculed (and recently primaried out of Congress) Dennis Kucinich.

  • rea

    Success for a labor movement, though, is that it becomes unradical. Collective bargaining over terms and conditions of employment is the norm. Management and union start with expectations that the other side is not seeking their destruction, they they have common interests, and that compromise and accommodation are going to leave them with results they can both accept.

    • TT

      I don’t think the phrase “compromise and accommodation” is in corporate America’s vocabulary when it comes to labor rights. Not in this era at least, when they see final victory within their grasp. Going all-in to destroy public sector unions is one of the pincer movements they see as vital to achieving the goal of having all workers accept their fate–insecure, low-wage jobs that can be outsourced or replaced with the snap of a finger.

      • rea

        Well, but I wasn’t talking about now–I as pinting out that the goal of a successful labor movement is to become unradical.

        • rea

          darn sticky keyboard . . .

        • Steve LaBonne

          But that requires unradical management to talk to- i.e., Germany, more or less.

          • rea

            Or my dad, the ex-management labor negotiator (and later, federal mediator. But he died in ’81.

        • Bill Murray

          Isn’t the goal to attain, grow and keep your desired achievements?

          Unradicalizing throws out grow immediately and keep long term, so I don’t see where becomeing unradical is a particularly useful goal.

      • One of the Blue

        When it comes to the overall ideology of Corporate America (and just about all of Small Business America let us not forget), I agree completely with this statement.

        However at individual tables, compromise and accommodation often is the order of the day, because the employer finds the alternative too expensive or too tricky to accomplish,or the alternative just isn’t a sufficiently high priority at the given time.

  • rea

    And it’s off on a tangent, I know, but I can’t help wonder what the hell is going on at the University of Tennesse that injuries from hypodermic needles are a major problem for people cleaning the dorms.

    • Richard

      I wondered about that too. Also, do janitors clean UT dorms? My dorm experience is that janitors never entered dorm rooms and all cleaning of rooms was done by dorm residents (except at the end of the semester). Did things change somewhere along the line?

      • rea

        maybe all the students are mainlining heroin and discarding the needles in the common area wastebaskets?

        • Richard

          If so, college life has changed a lot since my day (and even since my kid’s days in college)

        • DrDick

          Hell and here I thought we were the drug-addled generation in the 60s and 70s.

    • Remember that this was a little over a decade ago, which was the height of the saline epidemic

      • Richard

        What was the saline epidemic?

  • So, I joined my union about a year ago, maybe a bit longer. When I came to the UK in 2006, it was my first real chance to join a union and they were in the middle of an industrial action (not that I could have participated…it was a “don’t grade” slowdown and I had no grading duties just having started). I was supportive though. When the union sorta caved, it interacted with my normal foot dragging to keep me from joining. (Stupid, I know!) As the pension fight started heating up, I knew I wanted to be more involved, so I joined (it was fairly easy). In particular, I wanted to be able to participate in actions and have the protection being a union member affords.

    So, I joined. Our first strike after that came before I had gotten Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR, essentially, a green card). I asked all levels of the union if I were safe from retaliation on this front. (Sure, I couldn’t be fired, but I couldn’t find any statement as to whether the decision for me to stay in the country was protected.) So, no formal participation. The next round I had ILR so I participated.

    One thing that had never occurred to me was the fact that they dock your pay. It makes sense, of course, but I hadn’t really thought it through. So, in addition to all sorts of risks to your job (less so in the UK as we’re protected for at least 12 weeks), you get hit in the wallet right off. Some Unis threatened to suspected co-payments to e.g., pension funds. Such an interruption could seriously screw your pension (and, as they said, if you got hit by a bus while striking, your family could be screwed extra hard).

    Then there’s the fact that it’s hard on students. Some of the students make it easier (my students who said, “Striking? If I were in charge, I’d fire you all.” Upon my pointing out that it would be illegal to do so, they said, “You can always find a reason!”), but most don’t. Some of them (even before the fee rise) pay a lot of money and suffer hard.

    The whole thing left me a wreck. It was hard, draining, scary, and necessary. I didn’t want it to be necessary, but it was. It wasn’t remotely easy.

    • DrDick

      At least you have the option of striking. That is barred for all public sector workers here in Montana. doe not really give us much leverage with the administration or legislature (many of whom would just as soon shut us down anyway).

      • Yes! In spite of the challenges involved, it’s amazing to 1) have that right and 2) to have robust protections of that right.

        Of course “robust” is in the eyes of the beholder…the current UK protections are HUGELY watered down from their peak. It’s just that compared to the US, they feel so amazing.

  • joe from Lowell

    It seems to me that the concepts “radical” and “activist” are being conflated.

    • JL

      Somewhat, yes. But what I see conflated a lot are the concepts of political radicalism and tactical radicalism (keeping in mind that radicalism is relative). As I keep trying to explain to both my non-protester liberal friends and my protester socialist/anarchist/whatever friends (as a liberal and a protester), you don’t have to be an anarcho-syndicalist or something like that to take it to the streets.

  • Anonymous

    Your organization doesn’t matter in a post-Citizens United World. It will be crushed under the weight of unlimited corporate spending.

    • owlbear1

      So make it as expensive as possible.

    • Walt

      I think somebody is masturbating to Citizens United again.

    • Malaclypse

      “You know you’re a peasant when you worship the very people who are right now, this minute, conning you and taking your shit.”

      • Davis X. Machina

        Someday we’ll know exactly which chromosome carries the toady gene, and can offer counseling to those affected…

        • Lee

          Its probably realted the psychopath genes but for people with greater need for community.

      • Holden Pattern

        Oddly, stupid troll seems to think that the only possible reaction by the masses to the boot of the corporate overlord is meek acceptance.

        Maybe he’s right at this moment in time, but worker and peasant rebellions have been a commonplace throughout history, as has ongoing street violence and crime directed *specifically* at the toffs when the plebes have nothing to lose.

        “No justice, no peace” is not a threat, it’s a statement of fact about human beings.

        • DrDick

          Have we no tumbrels? No pitchforks nor torches? No guillotines?

          • Davis X. Machina

            Ames/TruValue shut its West Virginia pitchfork plant in 2002, moving production offshore.

            I’m pretty sure we can still do torches.

      • rea

        “Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
        And you think you’re so clever and classless and free
        But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see . . .”

      • DrDick

        the very people who are right now, this minute, conning you and taking your a big steaming shit on you.


  • Barry Freed

    Maybe I missed it but this roundtable discussion at Corey Robins place is FUCKING FANTASTIC, it includes Scott and Erik from LG&M as well as Doug Henwood, Nathan Newman, Seth Ackerman, Stephanie Luce, and more, all incredibly smart and all incredibly well informed and why is it not the subject of a front page post? Hie the hence!

  • Barry Freed
  • Pingback: A Solidarity of Strangers « Corey Robin()

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