Jeremy Brecher: Review and Interview

Jeremy Brecher is a well known labor historian in the United States.  Brecher spoke at the Commemoration of the General Strike of 1877, back in 2010.  As a veteran of radical Left-wing political and labor organizing affairs, Brecher's opinion is backed with a strong authority on economics, history, labor unions, workers' movements, and political strategies.

Jeremy Brecher’s newest book, Save the Humans?: Common Preservation in Action, came out last Fall (2011, Paradigm Publishers).  Save the Humans? is a semi-autobiographical recounting of his political worldview, from the post-World War II, to Occupy Wall Street.  Brecher was raised by liberal Jewish parents, of an extended family that escaped the Holocaust in Europe.  He saw the Red Scare and the Cold War at its height, watched the peace movement interact with the rise of the New Left during the Vietnam War.  This guy was handing peace leaflets to his 8th Grade classmates!  He witnessed the rise of feminist and cultural critiques of society integrated into the old socialist perspectives. 

Jeremy Brecher became a hit name after the publication of his book, Strike!, possibly the first radical, class-struggle attempt to concisely offer a history of labor history in the United States.  After Strike!, Brecher went on to hone in on internationalist labor strategy, co-authoring a number of cornerstone books for the “anti-globalization” movement. 

Brecher does not prefer to consider himself anti-globalization.  In fact, he moves to the affirmative and says that he is for “globalization from below”.  Instead of allowing corporations to show us what to oppose, Brecher contended that labor needed to actively organize workers on a class basis, not on the basis of shop, local, international trade, industry, or nation; no.  Instead, all workers (all people, actually) have a common interest—preservation.  No individual or one entity can be preserved on its own in a global economy with impending environmental catastrophe, because each workplace will need each other, as will each union and trade, as will each industry, as will each sector, as will each city, state, and nation; all workers will need the rest of the workers of the world to stop the market system and its arms of defense that threaten humanity’s survival. 

Brecher refers back to the Digger’s Movement of 17th Century England (possibly the first attempted egalitarian society in human history) to name his strategy for revolution—common preservation.  This is pleasantly unique, because anyone familiar with Brecher’s previous work knows that he has always been a bit hesitant to politically preach his ideas.  Instead, he has always preferred to tell the story of workers that led people to his own worldview, allowing them to conclude ideas without his preaching.  Save the Humans? explicitly states Brecher’s political take and spin on movements, events, and theories in history. 

For example, Students for a Democratic Society lacked a clear theoretical strategy and plan for roles of workers and non-workers (like students) to play in revolutionizing society for the “participatory democracy” they constantly demanded.  SDS degenerated as more of the result of personal squabbles than any other reason.  He and other men needed repeatedly corrected for their sexism in the rise of feminism.  Clearly stating an affinity for Rosa Luxemburg and “mass strikes,” Brecher lets a little more show here, than in most of his other books. 

Brecher offers a unique recounting of shifts and reorientation in the labor movement during the movement for “globalization from below” in the 1990s, contrasted with the 2000s, that drastically alters how one may view the failed strategies of protectionism and nationalist boycotts used by most American unions today.  He offers a clear understanding that labor and the environment are both intrinsically global questions, thus, great starting points to start the discussion of strategizing correctly.  He wraps the whole book back to his origin, though, by connecting the movements. 

Strike! begins by explaining that the first strike in workers’ history was in ancient Egypt.  Save the Humans? does the same, but connects that with the Arab Spring of 2011.  The Arab Spring, he argues, reignited the internationalist workers’ tradition of revolt for common preservation by lighting up the Middle East with people’s movements, and being an example for Americans to look to when starting  Occupy Wall Street. 

This Spring, Brecher spoke at Occupy Wall Street.  Many organizers and Occupations were attempting to declare a “general strike” in their area on May Day, and this ostracized many organizers from participating with and alongside organized labor and even many other working people.  Brecher argued that Occupations needed to understand their capacity and their relation to labor.  Occupy Wall Street does not actually represent janitors or hospital workers, but they can encourage actions through statements, slogans, and solidarity actions.  These efforts can encourage waves of “mass strikes,” which is what he covered decades ago and tried to highlight in Strike!  Occupations have no place, though, declaring general strikes separate from workers themselves. 

Brecher then explained the limitations of many unions and labor law in the United States, and offered potential directions and strategies labor may move soon.  Two necessary directions he mentioned, as may be expected, we to globalize labor strategy (beat back against the market-driven “race to the bottom”) and to make the labor movement also a movement for ecological sustainability.  Together, Brecher conceives global strategies of labor and environmental movements as humanity’s only hope for common preservation from the systems of power, domination, markets, and profit. 

Below is an interview between Andy Lucker and Jeremy Brecher. 

Andy Lucker: Thanks for taking this interview Jeremy.  I've long admired your work, beginning with Strike!  It's a great starting point to learn about US labor history.  Not to dig up or revisit old stones, but in 1973, you reviewed Murray Bookchin's famous Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971).  Bookchin responded with a half-efforted rebuttal, to which you responded.  One of your major criticisms was that the 1960s radical youth and student movement lacked connection to any workers' movement or strategy to overturn capitalism.  Do you see this problematic tendency today within Occupy?  

Jeremy Brecher: I was always a big fan of Murray Bookchin and Post-Scarcity Anarchism was a very influential book for me.  Among other things, it should never be forgotten that he was one of the first people to lay out the connection between greenhouse gases and climate change, and to show their roots in capitalism and industrialism.  In retrospect think our conversation around the issues we didn't agree on was more polarized than warranted.  I thought then and I think now that movements originating in radical youth need to reach out to the working class majority, though without giving up their independence and willingness to challenge the status quo.  In much of the New Left there was a sentiment of hostility not only toward unions but toward workers; I once heard a prominent SDS leader say that there was going to be a revolution in America, and that it would be made over the opposition of the white working class.  Such attitudes made it very difficult for the New Left to reach out to and join forces with the quite significant worker movement of that time, which was reflected in such activities as the postal workers wildcat, the teamsters' wildcats, the coal miner's political strike, among others.  (There's a chapter on these in the revised 1997 edition of Strike!.

The Occupy movement of course has diverse tendencies and is quite different in different localities.  (Most of my direct experience has been with New York City.)  I think the attitudes toward both workers and unions have been radically different from the mainstream of the New Left of the 1960s.  Occupy's definition of the "99%" seems to be pretty much equivalent to "those who do not own the means of production" — i.e., a Marxist definition of class.  Workers of many kinds are generally regarded as part of those oppressed by the 1%.  Social change is generally seen as coming from the self-activity of the 99%.  And this attitude has been reciprocated to an extent that is amazing to those of us who lived through the 60s.  Instead of "hard hats" coming into the New York City streets to beat up radical young people, we've seen tens of thousands of union members coming into the streets to defend them from political and police attack.  


Andy Lucker: What advice do you have for the labor movement today?  

Jeremy Brecher: For the labor movement to have a future, it needs to function as the advocate for the working class as a whole vis-a-vis capital and the state, rather than just separate groups of workers vis-a-vis their employers.   


Andy Lucker: What advice do you have for young people in the labor movement today?  

Jeremy Brecher: You have the future within you.  No matter how beaten down the labor movement becomes, the basic truth remains that working people's conditions will grow worse and worse unless they organize themselves.  That's why the labor movement has arisen from the ashes over and over again.  If you embody what Eugene Victor Debs called the "spirit of organization," your work will be meaningful and effective.  The forms of the labor movement have always had to change in the past and they have to change again now.  The task is to find out the forms that are necessary for the spirit of organization to express itself today.  And your experiments—unsuccessful and successful—are the most important way to find them.


Andy Lucker: Many Leftists are fond of distinguishing the "old Left" from the "New Left".  Do you find these distinctions useful and good to uphold in organizing?  Do you find them at all opportunistic or unnecessarily divisive?  

Jeremy Brecher: Back in the 1960s, the "New Left" was very clearly demarcated from the "Old Left" in a way that was descriptively useful, even though neither was itself homogeneous.  Since then there have been so many waves of leftism and so many overlapping generations that I don't find the term useful outside that specific historical context.  


Andy Lucker: What campaigns did labor once take up that we might be well to learn from in our strategizing today?  

Jeremy Brecher: Historian David Montgomery once outlined great variety of forms that labor organization took in the 19th century, such as labor lyceums, consumer and producer coops, consumer organizations, political parties, recreational and social clubs, social reform campaigns, 8-hour leagues, etc.  Unions were only one part of the labor movement.  I don't think the point is to imitate any of these, but rather to look at the problems working people face in the real world of today and try to invent ways that people can respond better through acting together.  Anything from campaigns for healthcare to community gardens to workers centers to informal worker organization on the job to occupations to general assemblies in neighborhoods and workplaces all have their historical antecedents.  So I wouldn't look for any one "magic bullet" from the past, but I would say that learning about social movements and workers struggles from the past is a great way to get ideas about what to test in the present.     


Andy Lucker: Are workers weaker today than 20 years ago?  Why? 

Jeremy Brecher: Measured by union membership, strikes, collective bargaining clout, and most other measures I can think of, American workers are somewhat weaker than twenty years ago.  They are much weaker than they were before the great decline that began in the 1970s.  There are many reasons, most of which have been widely discussed: globalization, the use of permanent replacement workers, the decline in the major industries that were the stronghold of trade unionism, the rise of an individualistic consumer culture, the decentralization of production, the mobilization of the right, the domination of the political system by large political contributors, and no doubt others.  The labor movement's own weaknesses and failures to change have also played a significant role.  Similar forces have led to the decimation of the working class at many points in the past — and did not prevent an eventual resurgence.  


Andy Lucker: In your articles and books, I have never perceived you as politically preachy.  In fact, for years, I understood your political views as somewhat vague, radically labor oriented, insightful, and consistent, but never much more defined than that.  Is that intentional on your part, or just an accident, due to the limited amount of your writings I had read?  

Jeremy Brecher: As someone who tries to think historically, I try to ground my views in specific historical contexts.  As someone who believes that people can only solve their problems by coming together and creating something new, I am reluctant to try to dictate "correct" policies.  Close to my heart are the words of Rosa Luxemburg: The errors of a movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.


Andy Lucker: When you came to St. Louis, in 2010, you spoke at the Commemoration of the General Strike of 1877.  You talked some about labor organizing and activity in China.  This has been the topic of many of your recent articles and books.  Why is China's labor organizing important to American workers?  

Jeremy Brecher: Specifically, the market price for labor, from the lowest paid unskilled worker to elite designers and engineers, is largely set by the labor market in China.   So there is a very direct connection.  Beyond that, the whole future of the world, from the nature of production to wage levels, and from war to climate change is going to be deeply affected by what happens in China.  If there is going to be a global labor movement, it must include the workers of China.  And if there is going to be a global transformation, it will have to include China.  The international labor and human rights support for Chinese labor law reform really opened a door for cooperation between various elements of the Chinese working class (official, unofficial, and oppositional) and labor movements in the rest of the world.  We need to keep it open. 


Andy Lucker: Should we "Buy American"?  Is this a useful slogan for unions to raise?  What would you rather see as a slogan from unions?

Jeremy Brecher: In the era of globalization, "Buy American" is a highly ambiguous slogan.  Most products people buy are produced in the "global assembly line," produced by workers in many different countries.  The fact is that there are few genuinely American products.  So the "Buy American" slogan, and economic nationalism in general, often just makes workers weaker by dividing workers in different countries and making them appear as rivals.  The result is a race to the bottom based in the competition of workers.  An alternative slogan: "An injury to one is an injury to all" is good enough for me. 


Andy Lucker: Do you have any final comments?  

Jeremy Brecher: As the past year's extreme weather events reveal, the destruction of the earth's climate by the uncontrolled dynamics of capitalism and the nation state system provide threats not only to the future of our species but to the immediate wellbeing of American working people.  We need to realize that climate catastrophe is an existential issue for working people.  At the same time, converting to a climate-friendly economy can be at the core of a global full employment strategy and the political and economic transformations that are necessary to make it happen.  I think that needs to be at the core of the alternative vision for the future that we project — and of the day-to-day alternatives that we try to create locality by locality. 

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