Monday, February 28, 2011

Wisconsin & the Future of U.S. Labor

The dramatic, ongoing protests by unionized public employees and their allies in Wisconsin and around the country mark a turning point in the history of the U.S. labor movement. As noted in an earlier post, public employees now make up the majority of union workers in the country, and if Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other governors around the country are successful in winning substantial curtailments of union benefits and collective bargaining rights, we could soon witness the end of the U.S. labor movement as we know it.

It's no coincidence that the confrontation is Wisconsin has been likened to President Reagan's 1981 confrontation with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). By firing striking the striking members of that union, Reagan signaled that the postwar bargain between labor and management was over - and it's no coincidence that unionization rates in the private sector (where workers have less legal protections) have plummeted since that event. As such, it is appropriate that Jefferson Cowie uses the PATCO firings as the place to end his narrative of the decline and fall of the New Deal working class in Stayin' Alive.

The struggle in Wisconsin is primarily a struggle over whether or not public employees should have the right to engage in collective bargaining with their employer to define wages, benefits, and working conditions. Since the 1935 Wagner Act legalized collective bargaining in the private sector (various states have legalized collective bargaining for their employees in various years), collective barganing has been the defining feature of unionism in the U.S. While recognizing the value of collective bargaining in winning material advances for working people, Cowie argues at many points in the book that an overreliance on collective barganing as the primary means of exercising workers' power on the job contributed significantly to the decline of the labor movement. On p. 9 he argues that collective barganing and other features of the postwar industrial relations system "were both srouces of power as well as systems of constraint on the future fortunes of the American working class." And in his concluding paragraph on p. 369, he argues that "whatever working class identity might emerge from the postmodern, global age will have to be less rigid and less limiting than that of the postwar order, and far less wedded to the bargaining table as the sole expression of workplace power."

I want to use these considerations as a jumping off point for discussion of these important questions about the future of the working class and the labor movement in the U.S.:

1) Is it sustainable politically and economically for remaining unionized workers to try to hold on to workplace-based benefits that most workers do not share? Should unions and their allies strive to maintain what has been called a "private welfare state" for their members or fight for universal social programs not tied to the workplace or to union membership?

2) If so, how could this be done?

3) Has the fight over public sector collective bargaining affected your views on the question of public sector unionism? Recent polls seem to suggest that a majority of the public supports public sector union rights. What do you think?

4) While the mid-20th century industrial working class has largely been eclipsed, as Cowie notes on p. 362, "Those steel mills and their surrounding communities may be gone, but the workers are still out there - part of the new Wal-Mart working class." Is unionism still relevant to these workers, or is it a relic of the New Deal era that should be scrapped completely? If not, what might a labor movement defined by a different kind of working class look like?

Friday, February 18, 2011

"We're All Devo!": Blue Collar Dada

It's likely that most people who were around in the late 1970s and early 1980s remember the band Devo as little more than a New Wave novelty act, a quirky band whose videos showed them wearing strange headgear and whipping the clothes off women in barnyard settings (I'm sure we've all seen the video for "Whip It" at some point in our lives). But Devo was way deeper than that. Hailing from Akron, Ohio, a blue collar city wrecked by the decline of the U.S. auto industry, these art-damaged kids offered the world an unsettling post-industrial vision of dysfunctionality and regression they called "de-evolution" - hence the name Devo. In songs like "Jocko Homo" and "Secret Agent Man," they looked into the abyss of late '70s disintegration and decay - and saw their hometown looking back at them.

The world that Devo made drew from two sources: sci-fi schlock and the social and economic decay they observed all around them. As Cowie explains:

For Devo, the common horde of their hometown, Akron, resembled the evolutionary disasters of the Island of the Lost Souls. “Those mutants were [bleeped] with,” the band explained. “They looked like people from Akron.” By the 1970s, the city’s decline had given it a “hellish, depressing patina” and the people’s “spirits were depressed; they were desperate…In other words, they were just ready to go over the edge at any moment.” The shuttered landscape, where the tire industry’s glory days once meant sweeping up black rubber dust from townspeople’s front porches, served as the backdrop to their innovative video creations. The scene fit “in with the early twentieth-century art movements—Expressionism, Dada and others that were influenced by those kinds of environments in Germany and England,” explained band member Jerry Casale. “We had our very own backyard version of it. A rubber version.”

Yet buried in the city’s growing rubble was a completely different history: that of Akron’s role as the birthplace of the working-class hero. There, in the midst of the Great Depression, dramatic sit down strikes, mass pickets, and guerrilla warfare against the rubber tire magnates of the 1930s made the tirebuilders “the first to fight their way to freedom,” in the words of one chronicler at the time. The Akron workers’ struggles blazed the path for the rest of industrial America to join the leap forward in labor organizing and then the blue-collar prosperity of the postwar golden age."

By the 1970s, Devo could find no traces of such working-class nobility—just militancy regressing to corporate stasis, blue collar fading to grey, “Solidarity Forever” disappearing into the “Devo Corporate Anthem.” Working-class activism spawned consumerism, and consumption generated apathy. Industrial and consumer cultures turned out to be as vacuous as the empty tire factories and boarded-up buildings of their hometown. “Look we are spuds,” explained one of the band members. “We’re very average looking, normal gene pool. In Akron, it’s the Goodyear Museum and the Soapbox Derby and McDonald’s and women in hair rollers beating their kids in supermarkets. We were products of it and used it.” The band neither criticized nor shied away from the socio-economic failures of the seventies; instead, they took it as fact, and embraced the decline

Monday, February 14, 2011

Blue Collar: The Working Class Against Itself

As Cowie makes clear in Stayin' Alive, the story of the 1970s is in many ways the story of the working class and what to do with it in a time of massive political, economic, and cultural change. The concerns, problems, and aspirations of working people inevitably bled into the popular culture of the era, which abounded with widely varying representations of the working class. It's no coincidence that many of the enduring cultural productions of time - All in the Family, Saturday Night Fever, Rocky, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, Norma Rae, the music of Bruce Springsteen and Merle Haggard, among many others - revolved around the trials and tribulations of working class life in a period of transitiion.

In my last post, I noted that the 1972 Lordstown strike best captured the rebellious blue collar spirit of the early 70s. Paul Schrader, a veteran of the New Left who made a name for himself for writing the Taxi Driver screenplay, saw in Lordstown a rich source of material for his blistering 1978 film Blue Collar, starring Yaphet Kotto, Harvey Keitel, and Richard Pryor in a rare dramatic turn. But by the time Schrader wrote Blue Collar, the optimistic mood of the early 70s gave way to a profound pessimism about the future, and this shift is reflected in the film. As Cowie observes:

The original Lordstown dispute contained all the variables of the new labor politics: youth, inter-racial solidarity, and protest against the quality of production rather than the quantity of compensation. In the hands of filmmaker Paul Schrader, the event was reinterpreted from one of hope and agency to one of the bleakest meditations on blue-collar America ever made...Schrader believed that the film was an exploration of the 'self-destructiveness' of workers who 'attack the organization that was supposed to defend them [their union]. And how that kind of dead-end mentality is fostered and engendered by the ruling class in order to keep the working class at odds with itself'...In a complete inversion of 1930s proletarian drama, however, the working class is in the midst of meltdown, not unification...If we accept Blue Collar as more allegorical than literal, the confusion of identity, the questions of agency, and the dissolution of the limited racial solidarity make it one of the more succesful explorations of working-class identity of the decade."(p. 334-337)

The final moments of the Blue Collar trailer posted above capture the vengeful, inward looking mood that came to define working class life to a significant extent in the final years of the decade. Keitel and Pryor, whose characters were great friends on and off the job earlier in the film, grab their tools and lunge at each other in a murderous fury as the voice-over intones, "The American Dream - if you're rich, you can buy it. If you're anything else, you gotta fight for it." The scene echoes a line by columnist Jimmy Breslin quoted by Cowie on p. 6 of Stayin' Alive. As the economic horizons of working people, black and white, began to shrink, the result was a "'Battle Royal' between 'two groups of people who are poor and doomed and who have been thrown in the ring with each other.'"

Friday, February 11, 2011

Strike Out

On Tuesday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual report on strikes and work stoppages. Considering the long and continuing decline of the organized labor movement - the unionization rate in the U.S. hit an historic low of 11.9% of the workforce in 2010 - the numbers were not very surprising. As the Wall Street Journal reported:

Over the course of 2010, there were only 11 major strikes or lockouts involving 1,000 or more workers...The lowest year for work stoppages was 2009. Last year’s work stoppages “idled 45,000 workers for 302,000 lost workdays, a large increase compared to 2009 record lows, with 5 stoppages idling 13,000 workers for 124,000 lost workdays,” the report noted.

While work stoppages rose last year, they were historically low and can be seen as yet another signal of a highly challenged employment sector. High levels of unemployment resulting from the worst recession in generations have evidently made many workers gun shy in taking major action to secure better employment conditions.

The diminishing pool of organized workers also likely has something to do with what the BLS noted is a long decline in the trend for strikes and lockouts. “From 2001-2010, there were approximately 17 major work stoppages on average per year, compared with 34 per year from 1991-2000, 69 from 1981-1990, and 269 from 1971-1980.”

The government noted that work days lost to major work stoppages over 2001 to 2010 have fallen 90% from 1971-1980 period. Work stoppages were far more common before 1970. For example, there were 470 such events in 1952.

A quick look at the nearby graph tells a lot about the history of the American working class since World War II. An unprecedented strike wave hit the country after the war, when workers sought to make up for the sacrifices made by their unions to support the war effort. As labor-management relations calmed down and became institutionalized through widespread collective bargaining, the number of strikes went down during the 1950s and early 1960s. But as the system began to break down in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the number of large-scale strikes went through the roof. In 1970 alone, there were about 5,700 strikes involving some 3 million workers, many of them unofficial (often illegal) "wildcat" strikes called by the workers themselves without the permission of a union.

Workers weren't just responding to the pressures of inflation, which became one of the biggest socioeconomic problems of the 1970s. In many cases, they rebelled against the whole postwar deal between the unions and management, what Cowie calls the "unwritten rule" that "higher compensation and thus consumption could be promoted but the organization of production was not to be touched." (p. 43) In exchange for decades of soul sucking work in a dirty, noisy, dangerous factory, the industrial worker of the postwar years received a golden ticket into the world of middle class consumerism. By the early 1970s, more and more workers wanted more than just a steady paycheck - they wanted to make the conditions of their work less alienating and more humane. The "blue collar blues" gave rise to a rebel rank and file.

As Cowie tells it in his first chapter, these rebellions broke out in a number of different industries all over the country, but the strike that most clearly embodied the spirit of the time was probably the strike at the Chevy Vega plant in Lordstown, Ohio in 1972. The assembly line at the plant was the fastest in the world at the time, cranking out a hundred cars per hour (one every 36 seconds). Unsurprisingly, the toll on the workers on the line was enormous, and many responded by doing drugs and drinking on the job and by engaging in acts of sabotage. At one point before the strike, there were 5,000 outstanding grievances against the speed of the line. As Cowie describes it, the workers at Lordstown combined the class militancy of the 1930s with the countercultural impulses of the 1960s, a combination that terrified their bosses:

Like the other insurgencies, the Lordstown conflict was generational as the young, hip, and angry began to take over. The average age at the plant was only twenty-five years. As the treasurer of Local 1112 [the Lordstown United Autoworkers local], J.D. Smith, explained, 'It's a different generation of workingmen. None of these guys came over from the old country poor and starving, grateful for any job they could get. None of them have been through a depression. They've been exposed - at least through television - to all the youth movements of the last ten years and they don't see the disgrace of being unemployed.' Encapsulating a package of desires that simultaneously rested upon and challenged the accomplishments of the previous generation, Smith noted, 'They're just not going to swallow the same kind of treatment their fathers did. They're not afraid of management. That's a lot of what the strike was about. They want more than just a job for 30 years.' (p. 46)

The strike lasted for three weeks, and the results were mixed at best. Read Stayin' Alive to learn the details of the Lordstown strike and the other rebellions of the period - as you'll see, while many people at the time thought that they might be the harbinger of a new and more humane deal for working people, by the end of the 1970s it was clear that they were little more than the death throes of the golden age of the American working class - if they have been remembered at all. Cowie quotes the assessment of a labor lawyer who worked for Miners for Democracy, an insurgent movement within the United Mine Workers of America:

An attorney friend once asked labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan, 'What do you think historians will say when they try to figure out why, in the seventies, these guys in the Mineworkers and the Steelworkers rose up the way they did?' Looking at him as if he were 'nuts,' Geoghegan replied, 'What historians? It's as if the whole thing ever happened now.' (p. 260)

Let's Discuss
1) Have you ever been on strike? If so, what was it like? Did you live through any of the famous strikes in New York history, like the 1970 postal strike or the transit strikes of 1966, 1980, or 2005? Do you think that going on strike can ever help workers in today's circumstances, or is the strike just another embarrassing fad from the 1970s like bell-bottoms or pet rocks?

2) In response to the first post on Stayin' Alive, an anonymous commenter made the following observation: "A lot of economists and historians have pointed out that the decline of the economic power of the middle class may have caused a lot of economic stagnation over the past thirty years." I agree with this statement, as does the International Monetary Fund, one of the institutions that governs the global economy. The commenter recommends continuing education and as the best remedy for working and middle class Americans struggling to keep up with economic changes. Do you agree, or would you advocate other kinds of policies to improve the economic fortunes of American workers?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What We Talk About When We Talk About Class

Before proceeding to a more in-depth discussion of the main themes of Stayin' Alive, it is necessary to structure our discussion by attempting to arrive at a common understanding of what exactly we mean when we talk about the concept of "class" broadly and the "working class" in particular.

The concept of class is at the heart of much sociological and historical study. One of the first writers to engage in class analysis in a systematic fashion was Karl Marx, who along with Emile Durkheim and Max Weber is considered one of the founders of sociology in addition to his more well known role as the intellectual godfather of the modern socialist movement. From a Marxist point of view, a class is a group of people who have a common relationship to labor and the means of production (the tools and raw materials used to make things) and who therefore share a common way of looking at the world - a "class consciousness" - based on that relationship. In his earlier writings, Marx identified two main classes in society - the capitalists (those who own the means of production and make decisions as to how it will be employed) and the working class (people who do not own the means of production and need to sell their ability to work to a capitalist in return for a wage). Marx argued that the relationship between these two classes is inherently antagonistic and would result in conflicts for power and resources - and that this class struggle was the basic motive force of history. But as capitalism became more complex in the later part of the 19th century, he revised his view to incorporate the middle classes that occupied a space somewhere between the capitalists and the working class (this category can include small businesspeople, professionals, and white collar workers). This development has complicated the class structure as well as the nature of class conflict in advanced capitalist societies in North America, Europe, and elsewhere.

Like Marx, Max Weber was one of the most influential social thinkers in modern history. Unlike Marx and many later Marxists, Weber did not think that one's position in society should be conceived primarily in economic terms, but should be supplemented other considerations, namely status and power. Status derives from one's popularity, prestige, or honor in society, and power derives from one's ability to achieve one's goals despite opposition from other groups (typically conceived in political terms). Both of these factors may not necessarily be tied to one's economic position, and one's class position may not necessarily depend on one's earnings - is a unionized blue collar worker who makes around $100,000 per year to be considered part of the working class or the middle class?

Toward the end of the 20th century, the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu advanced a theory of social class based on questions of aesthetic judgment. He argued that one's class position is defined by how one presents his or her mode of being to the world. This would include one's clothing, reading and eating habits, furniture and interior decoration, and other lifestyle choices associated with one's class position. In such a view, the most important difference between a worker and a bourgeois would not be their different relationships to the means of production but rather their differing tastes. Integral to this concept is the idea of cultural capital - the knowledge, skills, and education that a person has that gives them a higher staus in society. For example, a CUNY graduate may be just as smart or have the same skills as a Harvard graduate, but the cultural capital confered by a degree from the former simply does not measure up to that of the latter in the eyes of society.

The view of class that I would like to emphasize, however, comes out of the Marxist tradition and was best summarized by the historian E.P. Thompson in the preface of his classic book The Making of the English Working Class. There he argues against the more rigid Marxists who saw a class as an objective structure that necessarily had to produce a certain kind of class consciousness, and not coincidentally, tended to be at least somewhat authoritarian in their politics. In contrast, Thompson's perspective was much more open and fluid:

By class I understand an historical phenomenon, unifying a number of disparate and seemingly unconnected events, both in the raw material of experience and in consciousnes. I emphasize that it is an historical phenomenon. I do not see class as a "structure," nor even as a "category," but as something which is fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships...Like any other relationship, it is a fluency which evades analysis if we attempt to stop it dead at any given moment and anatomize its structure. The finest-meshed sociological net cannot give us a pure specimen of class, any more than it can give us one of deference or one of love. The relationship must always be embodied in real people and in a real context. Moreover, we cannot have two distinct classes, each with an independent being, and then bring them into relationship with one another. We cannot have love without lovers, nor deference without squires and laborers. And class happens when some men (sic), as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men (sic) whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs...Class is defined by men (sic) as they live their own history, and, in the end, this is its only definition.

Jefferson Cowie, the author of Stayin' Alive, adopts a similar view when he defines his conception of class in footnote 4 on p. 376, one that also draws from an approach to knowledge called social constructionism: "this study uses 'the working class' as a socially, politically, culturally, and economically constructed category with multiple possible meanings, expressions and outlets. The elastic nature of class in politics and social life - especially in the elusive American context - is, arguably, more important than defining the term with statistical accuracy."

I will talk about class in this sense in the course of this discussion, but I don't mean to imply that this is The One True Way of thinking or talking about class. How do you define class generally, and the working class in particular? What class would you place yourself in? How do you think class works in America, and do you think this differs from the way it works in other countries?