Solidarity Blues: Race, Culture, and the American Left

By Richard Iton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO

Race, Ethnicity, and the
Cooperative Commonwealth

"But it ain't decent to scab," said Jake.

"Decent mah black moon!" shouted Zeddy. "I'll scab through hell to make
mah living. Scab job or open shop or union am all the same jobs to me. White
mens don't want niggers in them unions, nohow. Ain't you a good carpenter?
And ain't I a good blacksmith? But kain we get a look-in on our trade heah in this
white man's city? Ain't white mens done scabbed niggers outa all the jobs they
useter hold down heah in this city? Waiter, bootblack, and barber shop? . . . I got
to live and I'll scab through hell to live."—Claude McKay, Home to Harlem

Labor unions are one of the foundations of the left. In their characteristic struggle over the organization of the means of production, unions are perhaps the primary conventional means by which the collective asserts itself in the economic realm. The move to unionize also symbolizes the development of an identity, an effort to define a collective presence, prior to and usually in conflict with the alternative corporate notions of cultural and national identity. The struggle of unions in the West and elsewhere has been to reconcile the cross‐ pressures of national identity and one's place in the economic sphere, especially as modernization has created a tension between the two (in other words, the emphasis on interstate competition characteristic of the modernization process has tended to weaken working-class movements within individual countries).

The development and maintenance of a collective identity as demanded by the movement to organize labor depend on a clear delineation of the differences between the interests of capital and those of labor. In societies in which social conflict has developed primarily in the realm of production, an "us-and-them" vision of some sort has been necessary to sustain the unionization effort. In the West, to the degree that it has been agreed that "the other" is capital, labor has been successful. To the degree that the primary other has been a different entity, labor has failed to achieve its goals.

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