Magazine article Monthly Review

The Role of Professional and Technical Workers in Progressive Social Transformation

Magazine article Monthly Review

The Role of Professional and Technical Workers in Progressive Social Transformation

Article excerpt

During the 1930s, a small but significant group of radical professional and technical workers formed the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians (FAECT), a predominantly left-led labor union within the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The formation of this union took place within the context of the emerging "new working class" of professional and technical workers, the consequence of US capital's embrace of science and "scientific management" during the period of rapid capitalist development between 1890 and 1930. FAECT was instrumental in demonstrating that at least one sector of these workers could break the hegemony that the elitist and often anti-union professional societies had over those workers by more successfully addressing their pressing economic and professional concerns. By integrating these members of the "new working class" into the older, blue-collar working class, FAECT also helped to weaken the ideological, psychological, and organizational ties management h ad sought to build with this new stratum, winning them instead to the progressive social agenda of the growing trade-union movement. An examination of FAECT's history and ultimate demise offers us insight into the prospects for organizing such workers today and illuminates the role they can play in progressive social transformation.

Professional and technical workers have played an ambivalent role in capitalism. With rare exceptions, they have not seen themselves as members of the working class, but they have also imagined themselves as distinct from the owners of the means of production and distribution. As skilled workers trained to analyze, design, plan, and manage production and distribution with maximum efficiency, they have often viewed owners as irrational and greedy in their concern to maximize profits rather than allocate scarce resources rationally. They saw themselves as a "third force," located nervously between labor and capital. It was from their ranks that the Scientific Management Movement, active during the Progressive Era between the 1890s and the onset of the Great Depression, was born.

The Scientific Management Movement saw itself as the only force that was competent, by training and professional commitment, to run industry properly--that is, "scientifically." To most of its members, employers and especially unions were perceived as interested in protecting their own turf rather than maximizing production for the good of society. For Frederick Taylor, the dominant voice of this movement, scientific management "renders labor unions and strikes unnecessary." Unions and collective bargaining meant "interference" with what he defined as natural laws governing work and production. All that was necessary was that management use "correct methods." It was simply impossible to bargain about "scientific fact." [1]

However, the more progressive members of this movement sought labor's support in achieving more rational organization of industry to serve society better. Their intellectual leader was Thorstein Veblen. Influenced by the end of a devastating world war and the Bolshevik Revolution, Veblen saw the potential for radical social change led by society's technicians and supported by the rest of the workforce; he wrote, "... the situation is ready for a self-selected, but inclusive Soviet of technicians to take over the economic affairs of the country provided that their pretensions continue to have the support of the industrial rank and file ..." Of course, Veblen was realistic enough to know that the technicians traditionally were a "safe and sane" lot," "placidly content with the 'full dinner-pall' which the lieutenants of the Vested Interests allow them," but he foresaw that, "In time, with sufficient provocation, this popular frame of mind might change. [2]


Sufficient provocation did indeed occur with the devastating onset of the Great Depression, which brought technical and professional workers unprecedented levels of sudden unemployment, job insecurity, and reduction of income and benefits. …

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