Crisis Economy: Born-Again Labor Movement?

By Brecher, Jeremy | Monthly Review, March 1984 | Go to article overview

Crisis Economy: Born-Again Labor Movement?


Brecher, Jeremy, Monthly Review


The U.S. economy is going through a transformation that is fundamentally altering the situation of American working people. It is removing the majority of workers from relatively secure job structures and thrusting them into a semi-casualized labor market. It is destroying the existing bases of power for both union and non-union workers.

Such changes have occurred before. The transformation of the industrial economy in the early decades of the twentieth century virtually destroyed the craft unionism that had been the principal basis of the American labor movement. The Great Depression gave the coup de grace to a form of labor organization that had long been dying. But the obvious obsolescence of craft unionism also created the basis for a new labor movement, based on industrial unionism.

Today, the industrial unionism that originated nearly half a century ago appears practically as obsolete as craft unionism did in 1932. Working people will have to transform the labor movement, and create new kinds of labor organizations, if they are to meet their needs in the new world economy. While the social and political dimensions of this process will be crucial, I will focus here on the economic aspects.

The triumph of industrial unionism in the late 1930s and 1940s was made possible by specific developments in American capitalism. Industrial specialization concentrated large numbers of workers from particular industries around large industrial cities--auto workers in Detroit, St. Louis, and Cleveland; rubber workers in Akron; steel workers in Pittsburgh and Chicago. A few large national companies dominated most major industries. Techniques of mass production and "scientific management" had made company production systems highly integrated, so that striking a key department could stop an entire factory, and closing a few key plants could cripple a giant company. Mechanized production meant heavy, long-term capital investment of a kind which made plants difficult to move. It was this set of economic and productive characteristics which made possible the sit-down strikes, backed by mass picketing by tens of thousands of workers, which forced steel, auto, rubber, and other corporations to recognize the CIO.

In the decades which followed initial recognition of industrial unions, most employers came to accept them as a bearable and in some ways advantageous phenomenon. With heavy, long-term investment in highly integrated, highly mechanized factories, employers could better afford increases in wages than they could disruptions of production. By creating a channel for grievances, unions helped maintain a high-morale labor force; by enforcing no-strike clauses in contracts, they served to discipline the workforce and prevent wildcat work stoppages. Stable unions which gave workers a stake in the existing system served as a bulwark against potential radicalism. Union political power was strong enough to make an all-out attempt at union-busting exceedingly costly. finally, the continuing growth of the American economy during the era of industrial unionism, based largely on the expansion of military spending and of U.S. international ascendancy, made rising wages and benefits compatible with rising profits for American corporations. American business felt little need to terminate its marriage with the labor movement, even though it was based on necessity and convenience, not love.

During the three decades that followed the Second World War, a series of economic changes gradually undermined the power bases of industrial unionism. National highways and diesel trucks eroded industrial specialization, so that basic industries became gradually less concentrated. Combined with suburbanization, this reduced the dense urban working-class environments that had supported union organization; it also undermined the tie between workplaces and ethnic neighborhoods and other communities. White flight to the suburbs, together with black migration from declining southern agriculture to the central cities, and then renewed immigration from Europe, Asia, and Latin America, intensified the division of the working class along racial and ethnic lines. …

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