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The Role of Radical Labor


Matt Yglesias disagrees with my call for increased radicalization among labor in kind of a weird way. He argues that the modern economy has treated working-class people well, using increased rates of consumption as a measurement, and notes:

“Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your cell phone and your car and your HDTV and your large house” isn’t the most inspiring slogan in the world. So while even though labor unions, as such, have very little downside risk the individual people who’d be putting things on the line in a more radical struggle have a great deal more to lose than did their predecessors of 70 or 80 years ago.

Unfortunately, this is an argument used to justify American inequality for a long, long time.

He then notes that we have major structural problems in this country that need to be solved.

Well, yeah. But isn’t that why we need radical labor?

I think Matt has a couple of misconceptions about the relationship between radical labor and capital in post-WWII America, about where working-class people stand in the current economy, and about what labor is about in the end. A few specific points:

1. I think people have this image of “labor radicalism” as a bunch of guys wearing 1930s clothes sitting in a factory responding to 1930s needs. And when you mention labor radicalism they assume you are romanticizing what was a very unpleasant past for working-class people. They also assume you argue that labor radicalism is good for its own sake, because it’s fun to strike and sing songs and be radical.

Those things can be fun, but that’s hardly the point. Nobody wants to strike for the hell of it. People struck in the 1930s because their lives were rough. Then they weren’t so rough anymore (or at least for white urban industrial workers). The reason for this was the activist government of the New Deal liberal state and the deal made between unions and companies during the 1940s and 1950s to end the radicalism and the strikes in return for high wages and benefits.

Those good jobs led to an increased standard of living for American workers. And that was great. But what Matt doesn’t seem to get is that this era of American history is dead. Those good jobs don’t exist anymore. As historians such as Jefferson Cowie have shown, unions may have bought into the idea of stable unionized jobs at high wages but the companies never did. Even in the 1950s and early 1960s, when it seemed the American working class would see their lives improve and improve, corporations like RCA were bailing on their unionized plants, building new factories in the South and then overseas in order to escape having to pay workers good wages.

Real wages have stagnated since the early 1970s. There are many reasons for this but a very important reason is the fleeing of good paying industrial jobs overseas. This is hardly fresh news, but Matt measures working-class standard of living based upon consumption patterns. And I feel he should know better than that because he knows much of this consumption was unsustainable, coming out of artificially inflated home prices and personal debt spending that helped wreck this economy in 2007. People might have giant homes–but that doesn’t mean they can AFFORD those giant homes. They might own an HDTV, but how are they paying for it? We have record low savings rates, employment remains shaky with long-term unemployment a real possibility, and personal debt levels remain very high. So I just don’t see this consumption argument as particularly useful in isolation.

Moreover, Matt takes a shortsighted view about the future of the American working class, seemingly believing they will continue to consume more and more. Instead, isn’t a far more likely future a continuation of the road we are on now, with long-term unemployment, declining social services, increased poverty, and a declining middle class? It sure seems so to me.

During the Great Depression, we had a labor movement with a long history of radicalism to try and improve people’s lives. It succeeded. During the Great Recession, we do not have that. Corporations, the Republican Party, the courts, and even a lot of Democrats are sending us back to the Gilded Age as quickly as possible. And there is no radical labor to push back. That movement has to be rebuilt. To think that relative socioeconomic equality is going to be achieved without an activist labor movement is short-sighted.

I don’t think Matt believes otherwise. But I do think he needs to read more on the history of American labor. At the same time that the supposed deal between labor and companies was made, unions were kicking out their radicals. This was during the McCarthy years. Without those radicals, organizing in many unions virtually ceased, as did the push for major structural changes to the economy that helped propel the New Deal. Without a radical base within labor, the chances of that movement propelling America toward a better tomorrow is low. Why has labor has proven so unable to counter the decline in industrial jobs, the attacks upon labor rights, etc? There are many reasons of course, but one is that all the people who knew how to organize were tossed out of the unions after Taft-Hartley.

2. Matt seems to assume that the primary goal of American radicalism is to get more money in the weekly paycheck. Certainly that’s been one goal of labor over time. But radical American labor has pushed for precisely the kind of concrete societal changes he himself wants. Does labor not want better medical care? Better schools for their children? Less crime? And doesn’t less poverty usually lead to less crime and better education?

Radical workers in the early 20th century didn’t just push for better pay. They wanted to get their children out of the workforce and into school. They wanted the weekend. They wanted social security and national health insurance. They wanted workers’ compensation and disability pay. They wanted the 8 hour day. They wanted, essentially, the entire New Deal and more.

In the Pacific Northwest of the late 1930s and 40s, radical loggers in the International Woodworkers of America even pushed for an early form of environmentalism, accusing the timber industry of wantoning wasting the resource, destroying the beautiful forest, and undermining long-term employment in the woods. This is my own research here.

Today, mainstream labor is about all those things that Yglesias claims are more important than a bigger paycheck. The small pockets of radicalized labor working today call for wide-reaching social programs that are about much, much more than pay.

3. Moreover, the idea that radicalism is somehow opposed to personal consumption doesn’t hold a lot of water. Is radicalism the same thing as doctrinaire Marxism? I don’t think so. Radicalism to support a society that maintains working-class ability to be consumers can still be radicalism. This is not a zero-sum game here. Workers of the world can unite and still have televisions and cell phones.

I know Matt is a big reader of American history in his spare time, which is laudable. I do think that he should mix a bit more labor history into his reading list. I believe it would help him gain a better understanding of labor’s role in American democracy and the needed role of labor in solving our problems today.

Today, people’s lives are getting rough again, for many things are tougher than at any time in the past several decades. And when people’s lives suck, a turn to increased radicalism is a likely end. What kind of radicalism that takes remains to be seen. The right is certainly ready to pounce on people’s discontent. The left is very much not. That scares me.

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