Since the early period of the industrial revolution, in Charles Dickens’ and William Blake’s time, we have seen enormous changes for the better, and a great deal of those changes can be credited to the labour movement. Work weeks that are 40 hours and not 80, 100 or more; work days that are eight hours and not 12 or 18; enormous gains in workplace safety and working conditions; the abolition of child labour; a tremendous, although still far from adequate rise in pay for the average worker; the emergence of the middle class, and more, are all primarily the accomplishments of the labour movement. To fail to recognize this is not only to be ignorant of our history, but to be unaware of our power, and where the gains we have made have come from. They have come from the people, from below, and not, generally speaking, from on high. However, the labour movement has lost much of its power over the past several decades, and also much of its prestige and even its credibility, and for clear reasons, and this too must be admitted. But a new era for the movement is on the horizon, and emerging now.
The labour movement has continued to fight valiantly and nobly for the rights of workers, families, communities, and also, frequently, for a wider social justice, peace and environmental stewardship. Its failures however, cannot be ignored. But this spring, and perhaps not coincidentally, coinciding with a renewed spring of dissent and popular empowerment in the Occupy Movement and elsewhere, the labour movement is showing serious signs of what may be nothing short of a rebirth.
More than a century of union-busting, which continues with full and even renewed vigour to this day, has decimated the labour movement. Forty years of globalized corporatism, out-sourcing and off-shoring has emaciated the labour movement, and set working people against one another, playing cities and communities against one another world-wide for reduced pay and lower labour costs, in a collective race to the bottom.
Over four centuries of state-sponsored capitalism, with massive and on-going government protection, subsidies and bailouts for the super-rich and their corporate appendages, has shifted the balance of power ever further towards the plutocratic ruling elite, whom Thomas Jefferson called “the new monied aristocracy,” and away from both democratic governments and the vast majority of people, who more and more are coming to resemble the peons of Blake’s “dark Satanic mills,” or feudal peasants, than empowered, free citizens.
The unchecked rise of global corporate power – which Jefferson warned of two centuries ago – has yielded an unrelenting and continuing war on democracy as well as the people, and we have, as a result, witnessed a roll-back of many of the gains that have been made by and for ordinary people over the past seventy, two hundred, and even eight hundred years, since the Magna Carta. This clearly has to stop. People are fed up. Something has to change, and labour must cease its compliant role, and be part of the leadership – not the sole leadership, but a part of it.
Historically, it should also be noted that the New Deal grand compromise, which staved off revolution during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, effectively led to a rapid slide into conciliatory politics on the part of labour leaders, which led to a virtual self-evisceration by the labour movement as a whole.
Between an ongoing, multi-generational, even multi-century propaganda war in the mass media against the labour movement and popular power in general; the frequent corruption of unions and union leaders; the divide and conquer stratagems waged successfully by the ruling class of the financial elite upon the vast majority of the people; the general decline of power of the labour movement over the past several decades; and the attitude of banal complicity, compromise and conformity that arose and crept through the movement since the New Deal compromise, labour has lost its once glowing and well-deserved sheen, much of its credibility, and, many would argue, has lost its way. Now this may be changing.
Monday, March 27, 2012, the largest industrial union in the United States, the United Steel Workers, made a proclamation that may signal nothing short of a rebirth of the labour movement. In a joint announcement with new its new allies in the largest worker-owned co-op in the world, the labour leaders spoke of a new direction for labour: worker ownership. This is a return to the bold and uncompromising politics of the labour movement prior to the 1930’s grand concession. It is a rediscovery, you could say, of labour’s vision, and also – forgive me for saying so – its spine.
After several decades of compromise, complicity, concessions, servility, cooptation, meekness, and frequent outright corruption among the top ranks of labour, a new spirit of boldness seems on the rise. What does the labour movement have to lose, after all? It is gutted, side-lined, and losing power daily, fighting a rear-guard action against an advancing, raging wildfire, and running backwards as fast as it can. Meanwhile, globalization, off-shoring, divide and conquer politics and class warfare take their continuing toll. When your back is against the wall, what have you left but to rediscover your ability to fight? When you have nothing left to lose, it is time to lose your servility, and discovery a boldness and imagination that had lain dormant within.
The New Deal may have brought in much-needed reforms and some minor redistribution of wealth, but it did successfully tame the bulk of the labour movement by luring them into a comfortable compromise and conciliation with big business and the state.
Globalization may be wonderful in some certain respects, such as the global sharing of culture and information, but globalized capital has been rampaging the earth and communities around the world at an accelerated pace since the early 1970’s when the era began in earnest. The majority of the people in both industrialized and “emerging” nations have suffered, poverty has increased dramatically, and the gap between the rich and the poor has widened exponentially. The labour movement has found itself weaker and poorer as a result, although this was not inevitable, but came with the combination of attacks, duress, and an attitude of lingering subservience and compromise that was carried over from the New Deal “partnership” between labour, capital and the state.
On top of all of this, we now live in the wake of severe economic crisis, and in reality, in the midst of on-going and profound economic turmoil. What does the labour movement have to lose? Nothing but its chains.
Maybe now, when stakes are as high as they can be, with the corporate assault on the planet driving us all towards extinction, or at least towards a very dark neo-feudal, dystopian future, with economic crisis shattering and disembowelling the middle class as well as labour, with old strategies of compromising, concessionary rear-guard action having failed miserably and repeatedly, almost ad nauseum, perhaps the labour movement can do what is essential, and face reality, recover its grand and majestic roots and heritage, and take its lead, not from the likes of a corporate happy-face Wall Street front man such as Obama, nor from the almost thoroughly corrupted Democratic Party, nor from the family dynasties of the Rockefellers and the ruling business elite, but from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, from Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Emerson, Whitman, Blake and Thoreau, and more directly perhaps, from Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Rocker, Emma Goldman, Chomsky, Albert, Bookchin, and Robert Owen.
It is time, my friends.
The labour movement has nothing to lose and everything to gain by remembering and reclaiming its historically bold and creative, imaginative and even visionary legacy. Now is the time, and thankfully, the movement is listening, and responding. Here are some very hopeful signs of a rebirth of labour, which bodes well for the future of all human beings on this fair but troubled earth.
A joint proposal by the United Steel Workers and the Mondragon Co-op titled “Sustainable Jobs, Sustainable Communities: The Union Co-op Model,” was presented by labour leaders Monday, March 27, 2012 – which may be the signal of a rebirth of the labour movement. From the document we read:
“In contrast to a Machiavellian economic system in which the ends justify any means, the union co-op model embraces the idea that both the ends and means are equally important, meaning that treating workers well and with dignity and sustaining communities are just as important as business growth and profitability.”
Leo Gerard, president of a very new kind of international USW, spoke well to the moment:
“To survive the boom and bust, bubble-driven economic cycles fuelled by Wall Street, we must look for new ways to create and sustain good jobs on Main Street…. Worker-ownership can provide the opportunity to figure out collective alternatives to layoffs, bankruptcies, and closings.”
The new model presented, and the new direction for the labour movement, represents not only a potentially major change in relations of wealth distribution and in values and business operations, but in power. Most significantly, the new proposal indicates a renewed willingness to pursue worker-ownership. Compared to what we have seen for the past seventy years in an enfeebled labour movement, this is not only exciting, but potentially, revolutionary.
Get ready for some exciting times. Labour is alive!
Raising capital or begging for government funds to create a worker co-op is a long way yet from a direct take-over of factories, farms and corporations by workers at the local level, but even raising the idea, and embracing the idea, of worker ownership, is a breath of fresh air, and signals the beginning of the end for conciliatory politics in the once and future great labour movement, and in the broader popular movements which have always been intertwined with it. The signs are extremely hopeful. What we make of the opportunities that are present and opening up before us, as always, is up to us. Be bold I say, a new day is yet to dawn.
J. Todd Ring,
March 28, 2012
From the forthcoming book, Enlightened Democracy, by J. Todd Ring
Further reading, audio books and videos:
Worker Ownership for the 21st Century?