Magazine article Monthly Review

Comment: Making History but Not under Circumstances Chosen by Ourselves

Magazine article Monthly Review

Comment: Making History but Not under Circumstances Chosen by Ourselves

Article excerpt

Jeremy Brecher and the Work Relations Group have offered an insightful analysis and useful suggestions to guide participants in present and future struggles of American working people. They argue that the type of industrial unions and collective bargaining developed during the 1930s are now as badly out of date as 1900-vintage craft unionsim was during the Great Depression. They ar right. Moreoever, they do a good job, up to a point, of explaining why labor's accomplishments of the 1930s have turned out to be so vulnerable today. Consider the developments they underscore. the international mobility of capital and its agglomeration by holding companies which are engaged in as many different types of enterprises as they were crafts in yesterday's factories have minimized the economic leverager of a union in General Motors or Greyhound. Productive investment per se has been crowded off the list of businees priorities by the lure of quick returns (thus not only weakening workers' collective ability to influence a company's long-term development, but also eliminating from corporate planning virtually all consideration of an economy's social purpose: the provision of use values). Finally, a protracted, international economic crisis has made deals cut with unions for the sake of predictability and productivity seem far less attractive to business executives than the destrcutive impact a glutted labor market can exert against union wages and conditions. Greyhound's gestures of lining up unemployed job applicants parallel to the strikers' picket lines and Reagan's dismissal of all PATCO strikers dramatize this return to pre-NEw Deal styles of industrial relations.

Such an analysis remains incomplete, howerver, unless more attention is paid to the role of the state and to the present and future roles of existing labor unions than Brecher has offered us. The strategies of capital in the 1980s cannot be understood without a recognition of teh decisive power of the state in shaping economic and social relationsf and conversely, no strategy for labor will suffice that does not include a systematic struggle for control of the machinery of state. Nineteenth-century-style self-organization and self-help will simply not do, no matter how red (or black) the ribbons in which they are wrapped.

the state today ardently supports free movement of capital ona aglobal scale and militarily buttresses market relationshiop and political regimes that are needed to keep it moving freely adn profitably. Americans' collective protests against their government's aggression toward the peoples of Nicaragua and el Salvador and against plant closings in their own communities converge against the same political target. Just as economic regulatory commissions had once provided shelters for exclusive, but well-rewarded, union practices, so "deregulation" has now made the huge gap between the earnings of unionized and non-union workers in the same industris a virtually irresistible invitation to concessions bargaining. Moreover, the state has contributed decisively to the bureaucratization of unions, both through legislation and court decisions that encouraged contractual activity by workers but prohibited other forms of class solidarity, and by refusing to enact such elementary measures for the benefit of the whole society as national health insurance, adequate and universal retirement benefits, and housing developments suited to popular needs (rather than those of real estate developers). Those welfare measures are commonplace in Europe, but labor's struggles on their behalf were decisively defeated here in the late 1940s. the fringe benefits and commercial schemes that arose instead served not only to maximize corporate influence over everyday life and sharply segregate protected workers from the unprotected, but also inspired union officers to cultivate the talents needed to manage pensions and services for their members, rather than to mobilize them for mass actions. …

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