Towards Industrial Democracy

By Blum, Albert A. | Contemporary Review, September 1993 | Go to article overview
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Towards Industrial Democracy


Blum, Albert A., Contemporary Review


Oscar Wilde once wrote that there were only two tragedies: |One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it'. The American labour movement is and was the victim of both tragedies. For years, until the Second World War, it suffered through the first tragedy as it sought to secure a protected place in American society. What it wanted was to be the voice of American workers, first in industry and then in politics, in order to achieve what it believed was a better life for its members. It succeeded as much as most groups can hope to achieve. As a result, the second tragedy took place. It got what it wanted. And what followed? The American labour movement is now losing members; its influence is declining and its future is unclear. An alternative which Wilde forgot to mention is what happens when one gets what one wants and then begins to lose it, a form of classical tragedy. That is what is being acted out by American labour.

The American labour movement, as the protagonist, is now struggling with superior external forces and with itself to protect what it has, and is being defeated. One wonders whether Americans, as the audience, are reacting to this on-going drama with a sense of pity or anguish as should occur during a performance of a tragedy. I think not, for the fact is that Americans are barely noticing what is happening to the once powerful and still proud movement. Those Americans who have noticed do not seem to care. They are being distracted by many other seemingly more important performances. Drug-pushers and terrorists are much more interesting actors to watch than union leaders. But the tragedy of American labour (and unions round the world) is that if its decline continues, Americans not only should be feeling a sense of pity for a disappearing force but also a sense of anguish for themselves. The weakening of unions as one of the |countervailing powers' in American society may result in a tragic loss for all Americans.

There are many reasons for this loss of union power. One is that the labour movement is the victim of its own past. In the beginning, its power grew as local unions bargained with local companies over local market issues. Then, as the market became regional and eventually national, local unions joined into national unions and negotiated with managers concerning national market issues. But in recent years, the national markets have increasingly become international and the managers have their bases anywhere and the companies they control are everywhere. But American unions still continue in the nationalist ways they remember. They do not try to practise trans-national bargaining since they are transfixed by national boundaries while managers, who are not, are able to follow the dollar anywhere. So American unions have become weaker as they wonder, |Where Oh Where Have the Bosses Gone?' Unfortunately, they think they still reside in Pittsburgh.

When they find the bosses, they discover that many of them are pursuing goals that are making unions appear redundant. Many companies are installing technological changes which are reducing the need for workers in manufacturing where unions have been strong and are altering the nature of work among service and |white collar' workers where unions have been weak. In addition, unions still believe they are only fighters for worker rights and that the only way to secure those rights is the way unions have followed all along -- namely collective bargaining. They have not recognised that the worker definition of rights may be broader and different from the way in which unions perceive them. Management has, in fact, pre-empted some of this field. These rights, old and new, are all part of a movement toward industrial democracy, a movement in which all unions should have been in the forefront (although many of them were and are). Particularly in the United States, a large number of labour leaders have not done so.

The fight for industrial democracy began in Europe in the wake of the union struggle there for political democracy -- something already a part of the workers' heritage in the United States.

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