American labor: new beginning

The U.S based group, Unity & Struggle's first political document from 2009, analyzing the situation as they see it.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on January 6, 2014

There is much we can be and do on a local, national, and even international scale. We will never find out what that may be, far less carry out, unless everyday people seek to become politically organized in workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods. There will never be any progress unless we begin here.

This can’t be taught like a school lesson. Only through the practice of independent activities, and the new understanding drawn from them, is it possible to achieve a new way of life. By discerning the signs of independent self-activity in the history and struggles of working people, it is hoped that this way of life may emerge as a new beginning: an independent labor movement through which ordinary people aspire to extraordinary acts.

However, there are many obstacles to self-government; obstacles that stem from the repression experienced on a day-to-day basis as well as our own fears, desires, complacency, and lack of hope.

Against these odds, a new beginning can only emerge if working people begin to put forward and implement programs and perspectives of our own, transforming workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods, and redefining what is currently meant by work, the labor movement, and the union. No political party, no movement vanguard, no capitalist, progressive, or “socialist” rulers can do this for us.

What We Need is Direct Democracy

Generations of people have criticized the private ownership of property and production, and have thought in terms of the reorganization of society by workers, the great majority of the oppressed, the exploited and disinherited. Many have thought that people like this were only small bands of nationalists, socialists, communists, anarchists or radicals of some sort. It would be difficult to understand history if this were the case.

Such attempts have been made at times by millions. However, these have often been destroyed not just by imperialism or reactionaries; but also by ruthless authoritarians—those who claimed to be a revolutionary ruling class. The old Soviet Union, China, and many national liberation struggles are examples of this. There are those pessimists who believe that if such experiments were made today it would be bound to result in tyranny all over again. However, in general it has never been everyday people, who in revenge, wish to destroy the world.

Yet many are still not so sure about their bosses. We see daily the irrationalities of capitalism. People know this when they watch the news or when it affects their town or family. On Wall Street and in Washington, rich investors, managers, politicians and experts create disaster and call it progress. Businesses close down leaving thousands jobless. Pensions and benefits are slashed or stolen. Education and health care are elevated to social ideals only to be offered as substandard or denied to many. Military contractors produce weapons to destroy people around the world who seek freedom and a better way of life. Many continue to see each of these incidents as simply an accident or an isolated incident of corruption. It is necessary to see the larger picture.

These ills are caused by a class society. In the modern era, class society is a product of capitalism. Capitalism organizes society for the benefit of the few by monopolizing, through the use of violence, the means of producing wealth and government. Millions and billions produce wealth, but we have no say when it comes to defining the terms on which it should be created and used. Whether run by “private” or “public” bureaucrats and elites; whether managed as private or state property; capitalism undermines democracy.

It is true that it seems most ordinary people have no grievances with the self-professed principles of capitalism. Most accept a consensus that children, the unemployed, the elderly, and the injured or impaired should be provided security in society, but the majority must earn an honest living. However, this is not a permanent endorsement or satisfaction with the principles of the welfare state and capitalist social relations. It is a reflection of a natural spirit of community responsibility impatient with unaccountable peers and neighbors as much as unaccountable elites.

It is also true that most working people accept the principles of representative democracy. No doubt there is widespread cynicism about this system—only rarely does a majority ever vote in an election. However, many still do. A few not only vote for president and politicians, but sometimes get out the vote for them, including the conservatives. The majority of people would sincerely repudiate any idea that they were some kind of radical.

But careful observation through workplace experiences show that the political ideas of working folks is one thing and their deep responses to work, family and community is something else. That is the solid ground that shapes their existence and what they know. Therefore, over and over again, the same workers who express, as far as general politics are concerned, conservative and even reactionary, racist and sexist sentiments, will immediately turn around and express with regard to their daily life beliefs the most revolutionary implications conceivable. For those who cannot grasp this duality, everyday people will remain a mystery.

When we think about what democracy means, it cannot be equated with capitalism. Democracy means a form of government in which economic and political discussion and planning is collectively controlled and organized through committees, councils and assemblies; mandating delegates to carry out specific tasks of an administrative or technical nature when necessary, but subordinated to the sovereignty and decision-making of the people as a whole. An independent labor movement is a movement for this freedom and responsibility.

The Nature of Work and the Workplace

Work is fundamental to human life. Human beings are creatures who constantly create themselves by transforming their surroundings—nature and each other. The impulse to do so is a desire and a necessity. We have to collectively organize for survival and we seek beauty and fulfillment in our daily lives. This is the nature of work in its ideal. Looking at the workplace today it is clear that this collective and individual endeavor is constantly harassed, blocked and at times ruthlessly smashed.

The necessities and realities of work are a preoccupation for the majority in society. Working people produce the food we eat, build and maintain our homes and environment, transport us to see our families and the world, create and distribute our clothing, education, and healthcare. This is an important achievement, but its inefficiencies and irrationalities take a toll on human lives to make the bosses profits. Desire and frustration about how this might be fixed dominate much of how people in our societies think about the world. Our culture is filled with the signature of this desire as a criticism of daily life and the imagining of utopian futures.

Ideally, work would be an expression of one’s humanity. Going to work would be an opportunity to express creativity and satisfaction, in community with fellow workers, citizens, and neighbors. However, our work proceeds under forced conditions and not under our control. What is worse is that people are constantly compelled to accept these conditions. The need to maintain homes and families makes us slaves to the routine of this economic system. Theoretically, people are free wage earners and not slaves. We are told we have “the right” as individuals not to accept these conditions. In reality such freedom cannot be pursued if one is to survive.

The resulting pressures tend to foment a deep frustration. People don’t have control over their own lives and sense they could have so much more. The monotony and drudgery takes its toll. It tends to corrode home life, personal relationships and builds up a smoldering hatred. The individual and social nature of work is constantly thwarted. Disrespect is built into this system. Relations between management and workers center around keeping the latter “in their place” in the constant skirmish for control.

The struggle for control defines our daily life in the workplace. Management says employees have a stake in the company and should care for it like their own. Yet they constantly harass people if initiative and planning is carried out to make the work better or more efficient. Yet it is workers who, more often than not—knowing the job better—make sure the workplace is running smoothly or more efficiently than whatever plan management schemes up in their offices. Management always says sacrifice is needed—unpaid work, extra overtime, budget cuts—but when it comes down to it, loyalty is betrayed. In the end we learn that they had been planning lay-offs and shut downs all along. Committed only to their freedom to live at ease, the bosses use people as mere material resources, as if they are disposable things.

The resulting cynicism produces anti-social people, who work to barely take care of themselves and their families, who can take no pride in their work or community. In the end, many accept that the company and the politicians are in control and nothing can stop them. It leads to a belief that ruthless budget cuts in government services and worsening job conditions are necessary to make society more viable.

The absurdity of this situation becomes even more painful when we conclude that the way present society is organized is not a meritocracy. Although official society says this, when set against the realities, it is almost laughable. Everyone doesn’t earn their living. Those that work the hardest have much less than those who work little or not at all. Many produce the wealth in society, while there are a small number of rich folks who enjoy it without working. Managers of workplaces have mostly not earned authority with wisdom and skill. They just have a piece of paper from a college that means nothing.

Meanwhile, multi-national corporations, who own representative democracy, organize our economy for the big profits of a few by firing us, laying us off, moving our workplaces away and making us compete with our neighbors. There can be no more striking contrast to the heroic traditions of the self-managing impulse of the family farmer, “mom and pop” shopkeeper, small-time entrepreneur, artisan, or the wage earner striving to be autonomous than the monstrosities that are the multi-national corporations and managerial bureaucracy which control our workplaces today.

Yet folks don’t only try to avoid or forget about these problems. They also try to overcome them. Sometimes this is done by individuals with noble instincts. People come back from breaks late, leave early or call in sick. Stealing or individual sabotage are not uncommon. Every once in a while someone curses out or takes a punch at the foreman or manager. In extraordinary cases people have killed their bosses. While official society reacts in shock, some stressed workers, who normally reject violence, take quiet satisfaction. This reflects not only that workplace conditions are wretched, but also that people don’t accept them.

However, it is a potential breakthrough when people collectively resist. Sometimes people organize meetings and collective confrontations to get a demand or get back respect. Sometimes the grievances pile up and strikes are undertaken. In extraordinary moments, people begin to reach out to other workplaces and begin to contemplate general strikes. When this happens a great tremor moves through everyone and new possibilities of organizing our lives differently have been grasped if not yet realized.

It is at these times when people confront directly the problems at the workplace and visualize potential ways out of them. In these small workplace struggles, people begin to realize that they have more power within their grasp than they once thought. It shows that there is nothing natural or normal about how these social relations are arranged. Far more than we know, we produce our social relations, whether they liberate us or oppress us. They are within people’s ability to change as they represent obstacles to solidarity and problems of organization.

The greater of people’s waking hours are spent in the workplace. It is here we must learn to think and act for ourselves and as a community. No matter what the conditions of life are in the workplace, it is the basis of making a living; a matter of survival for the family and ourselves. Folks may wish for and try to negotiate a little more security in wages, pension or healthcare; a little more leisure, or better workplace conditions, but to see working people only in this way is to see us as barnyard animals. We must see and expand the battle for freedom within the fundamental realities of our lives.

To provide the necessities of life we work most of the days of the week and most hours of the day. With the daily grind we find ourselves deeply formed by the conditions we face. The need to make a living is central to the way we try to change the conditions of our work or make due with them. This situation leaves deep impressions on our individual lives and social relations. Yet when people come together in solidarity, there is much they can do. They not only resist, but also attempt to take charge of their work and govern the workplace.

Who is the Working Class?

Work can be one of the worst things people can think of spending their lives doing. We are not talking about work as creative activity like that of an individual artist, a business person or lawyer manipulating capital and state to suit their own ends. We are talking about work in terms of the working class, which means predominantly industrial and agricultural work, and the various kinds of routinized labor such as clerical work and the service sector.

There is no simple list or series of various kinds of work that add up to a totality of working class occupations. However the overriding reality, from which most managerial relations derive, is the subordination of blue collar, physical or manual labor. You don’t need excessive feelings for the hardhat, the tool belt, the greasy hands, the face covered in dirt, or the sweaty face. These are not primarily signs of exploitation, but production.

Yet an important distinction should be kept in mind. Teachers are exploited, should unionize and strike, and join a popular struggle; but they primarily oversee the development of students under them as a professional class, whereas manual workers use tools, machinery and routinized labor to produce things under a managerial class. This is decisive in a moment of labor action. With some exceptions, when teachers go on strike they potentially transform workplace relations for themselves alone, while students go home and wait, the younger ones causing child care inconveniences for their parents.

When industrial, service and agricultural workers in strategic locations go on strike they have the potential to transform social relations for themselves, trade and political relations for communities, nations, and the world. Crucially, workers, whether their payment is high or low (many skilled workers make more than high school or college teachers), begin to be conscious of their strategic location in their workplaces for liberation.

The working class has many faces, and there is no one essential “working class experience.” There is no single “class consciousness” that everyone should have, and in writing about work we do not pretend to speak for the entire working class or to predict or expound what it is automatically destined to achieve. Nevertheless, we believe that working people across the globe do experience similar problems, aspirations, and struggles.

There is another central point to the question, “who is the working class?” Working people are multi-racial, men and women, gay and straight, young and old, citizen and immigrant. The working class reflects the immense diversity and array of people and experiences that constitute this country. Black folks, Latinos, Asians, Africans, and West Indians—in a word, black, brown, red, yellow and white alike—are all part of the working class. The old imagery of the straight white male skilled laborer as the backbone of labor, inaccurate even in decades past, is all the more fictitious today.

Yet, the bosses, politicians and even union leaders have held up the mantel of white supremacy, intentionally aggravating the supposed differences of race and nationality in an effort to divide the working class. But racism and patriarchy have also been expressed quite independently of the ruling class. History has shown how white working people have at times imagined their interests as somehow separate or in conflict with other workers. White supremacy has given white ethnics a false sense of security under capitalism.

Today many non-white workers run up to the table of the capitalists and white supremacy and claim special privilege as citizens against immigrants in order to claim breadcrumbs. In this way some people today say “it’s my turn now” and organize their own networks of patronage, carving out their own fiefdoms under the same old system as if this were a form of anti-racism and liberation. This is still a form of petty ethnic chauvinism that blocks the emergence of a powerful community of sovereign working people.

Some companies and agencies will hire people of color managers as token representatives of “their” people in order to buy off potential popular discontent by showing that they are committed to diversity. This “rainbow coalition” consists of a diverse collection of bosses, professionals, politicians and union bureaucrats who preside over a system of ethnic patronage politics, gaining workers’ loyalty by claiming to bring resources to “their” people.

This is not a matter of affirmative action uplifting “unqualified” or “ineffective” people. In fact these misleaders are quite effective; effective, that is, at using their body politics to create the illusion that the bureaucracy is somehow anti-racist and progressive even when it continues to beat down people of color. In fact, institutionalized white supremacy could not remain in existence today if it were not for these token people of color in high places who willingly serve as a spiritual salve for the majority of women and people of color workers that they continue to oppress under their own watch. This rainbow coalition emerged as a result of the struggles in the 1960s and 1970s that, like the emergence of the union bureaucracy and New Deal state in the 1930s and 1940s, helped manage capitalism and the state and prevent a true direct democratic transformation of our society. The all-out attack on working people and people of color today testifies to the bankruptcy of the labor and rainbow coalition bureaucracies that emerged from the 1930s to the 1970s.

However, we should never sink into despair, saying that all white male American workers are “bought off” by white male privilege and will never rebel with others. Rather, we should persistently and militantly confront racism and sexism and empire in our own workplaces and communities, holding out the belief that all people, of whatever skin color, gender, or nationality, can and ought to come around and stand for democracy, anti-racism, gender and sex equality in and through workers’ self-government. Those who give up this hope end up concluding that the American working class cannot pursue self-government and end up concluding that they need to be tutored or re-educated by a group of progressive intellectuals or benevolent rulers.

White supremacy and patriarchy weigh heavily on the defeats and oppression of working people in America. Stratification in the working class along the lines of race, gender and citizenship—which typically follows the division between skilled and unskilled labor—has created a caste system. In terms of race we see it everyday in the workplace and the community. People of color tend to be the last hired and the first fired. They tend to work the most backbreaking jobs, and are paid less despite the grueling labor. Circumstances outside the workplace solidify this social relation—racist brutal policing in black communities, ICE and Homeland Security raids on Latin American laborers, violence against gay folks of color, extraordinary incarceration rates, massive dis-investment with little to no access to decent education or housing.

To the extent that working people were excluded from the American Dream consensus on the basis of ethnicity or nationality or gender, they were either used as strikebreakers or the companies hired them along lower pay scales, driving down everyone’s wages through an artificially maintained competition. This is not the fault of people of color or immigrant workers, but the fault of racist unions who in their shortsightedness refused to see this coming and refused to extend solidarity against white supremacy.

One of the greatest obstacles facing an independent labor movement today will be overcoming the artificial divide that capital has fostered between workers of different nationalities. Undocumented and documented immigrant laborers alike are attacked for “stealing our jobs,” for milking the system, and lowering wages when really it is the fundamental contradiction of capitalism that the working class will always be squeezed tighter to compete for fewer and fewer resources and jobs. The supreme irony is that capital can cross borders freely and with ease, yet increasingly our borders and our neighborhoods are militarized to prevent the free movement of workers in search of a better life. The American working class must understand the importance of anti-imperialist solidarity with working people in other countries.

Racist populists and their elite sponsors say they want to rally working folks to the “threat” of immigration. Many union officials join this sentiment either by looking the other way, or supporting the state’s efforts in establishing a new indentured labor system and stepping up criminalization. They say this is the reason why wages are low and social services are bankrupt, using classic racist images of “crime” and “Third World invasion” in a bid for leadership of what they think is the “white worker.”

The reality is the American rulers build factories and exploit working people in other countries to help drive down wages and benefits here in America. With the help of local ruling classes they kill union organizers and terrorize the population in other countries who are organizing not to be exploited. When they find easier exploitation they leave and set up shop somewhere else. They flood other countries with cheap goods, making millions jobless and sending people to look for work in America and elsewhere. They preside over slashed budgets at home for everyday people and big tax breaks for themselves.

They show no loyalty to working folks in America or around the world. They claim they are good citizens, but they are loyal only to their own profits whose interests cross all national boundaries. Why can’t our interests and solidarity cross those same boundaries?

Sick of harassment and exploitation in an underground economy that props up big profits in America and maintains a super exploited reserve of labor, millions of immigrants have gone on strike and marched in the streets. From campuses, to homes, to union halls, it got a lot of people talking. What is clear is that everyday people competing to swear loyalty to elites for a few extra crumbs is not the answer. History has shown that this leads only to giving up our democratic power and the slashing of wages and standards of living for all. In our community the forces of racism and imperialism are not welcome.

Like with immigrants and black people, management has at times used women as a reserve army of laborers recruited to help rebuild an ailing economy. In other times, women’s presence in certain industries has been as the result of heroic organizing to break through the barriers that would relegate them to inferior positions in the workplace. Women have worked in industrial workplaces and the public sector, as agricultural laborers and as housewives. Women have dominated the low-wage end of the service sector, often working in jobs mass producing “service with a smile” in call centers, doing clerical work, as cashiers, in the hospitality industry, in child and home care, in education and healthcare.

These jobs “outside” the home have often accompanied the labor that women continue to fulfill inside the home. Often we see that when the capitalist pays the man’s wages they are actually getting two workers for the price of one; the male worker who shows up at the job and the laborer at home—the mother, sister, wife or daughter—who nurture, cook and clean in order to ensure that he will return to work tomorrow. Some claim that women’s waged labor equals “progress,” that it is a beacon of Western enlightenment and a model for women to follow around the globe. We know that only women’s free labor, self-governed wherever their workplace may be, will secure a progress that represents more than a fleeting economic gain.

Subordinating anti-racism and women’s liberation to a narrowly defined class interest will not resolve these divisions. A renewed labor movement must build on the legacies of those examples in American history where working people have built solidarity with all instead of sacrificing some. If the problems and necessities of people of color, immigrants, and women are not in the forefront of a working people’s movement, then, as history has shown, white workers go down with everyone else. We must remember that the gains of past struggles, such as the Civil Rights movement and labor struggles that cross all castes in the class, were not solely gains for one group of people but represented the advance of democracy and anti-racism for all working people in the U.S.

What About the Unions?

Over the past century or more, working people have fought many courageous struggles for better working conditions, higher wages, and shorter workdays. These struggles have given birth to unions, which have been an important means for working people to secure favorable reforms and concessions from the capitalist system.

However, many union bureaucrats today seem to have forgotten that workers organize the union, the union doesn’t organize workers. For example, while there were many heroic strikes in the 1930s and ‘40s leading to great gains for industrial workers in the United States, the CIO unions that came out of these struggles eventually decided to sign a treaty with management. Workers in auto, steel, and other industries went on wildcat strikes, slowdowns and even general strikes. Not only did they assert their will to control the work. At times their struggle spread to whole towns and cities in pursuit of self-government.

Management thought it could buy off this militancy and regain its control over production by getting the state to repress and jail the movement’s most strident participants while recognizing unions as its only legitimate representatives. A deal was struck. Workers in key industries would be compensated in terms of higher wages or benefits in exchange for giving up their efforts to control the workplace and not seeking solidarity with others workers.

The union would bargain with management for higher wages or pensions but would also commit to no-strike pledges under the duration of these contracts. They would get a few economic gains for the workers while ensuring “productivity” for the bosses. Grievances were channeled through union professionals removed from the day-to-day life of everyday workers on the shop floor, and often would get lost in a sea of paperwork and red tape.

For a time it seemed as if ordinary people, through their unions, were telling the state what to do. But such a premise would prove illusory. In national politics support for the Democratic Party would be paramount for creating the welfare state, adding luster to a hierarchy dedicated to placing band aids on the wounds of the working class, even though these wounds were caused by the very economic system these elites presided over.

Union bosses stopped pushing for better working conditions through direct action. Leaders policed rank-and-file workers, preventing them from dealing with things as they come up. This coalition of the union bureaucracy and managers created “business unionism,” waiting until the next round of lawyer-like, back-door contract negotiations to push for measly gains in wages and benefits. Unions, which had originally been autonomous organizations of workers, became part of the machinery used to keep them productive and quiet until professional leaders, whose interests now resided with politicians, managers and the state, could intervene benevolently on their behalf.

While partisans of collective bargaining and union dues check off cards wish to convince us the company is threatened by these kind of unions, in fact the bosses’ “anti-strike, anti-union” videos and literature say something most workers already know from experience and observation. When collective bargaining comes to your workplace, increased wages and benefits are not guaranteed. Since workers have been attacked by union and company bosses the short-term benefits of the compromise deal between the union bureaucracy and the bosses have been lost.

Since unions have become a way of convincing folks to shy away from militant rank-and-file struggles to control the workplace, people have been left without the means of direct action they need to truly enforce demands for basic necessities like health care and pensions. As a result, even these disappear.

Workers were convinced to sell their right to organize in and out of the workplace for gains in wages, benefits and community demands by trusting the union bureaucracy to secure these through contract negotiations, legal wrangling, and support for the Democratic Party. Now these labor professionals are selling out and negotiating away even these benefits as the companies close plants and ship work overseas in search of the cheapest labor, hoping to exploit someone else even more.

Among unions there is a sense of crisis but few viable alternatives. Within union leadership today there is a gathering of forces who say some seemingly attractive things. However, when given a second look they seem quite peculiar. Seeking to place “the movement back in the labor movement” and argue why unions matter, they seek to advise the rank-and-file and the trade union bureaucracy at the same time. In doing so, they suggest that working class politics happens not in the workplace, but in corporate boardrooms and union halls, where a professional staff and a cultural apparatus—which doesn’t work alongside everyday people—advocates on their behalf.

This vision of “social movement unionism” attempts to give a progressive shine to the union bureaucracy, without dealing with the basic problem. They advocate a social agenda on labor day once a year; offer a film night about the struggles of women workers overseas; hold a forum on the healthcare and educational policies of governments abroad that U.S imperialism is attacking; open an art exhibit depicting heroic workers; or extend “solidarity” with immigrants only to help them register with the state so as to avoid excessive brutality by border patrol. These window-dressing activities obscure some profound things.

They continue to bargain for labor contracts, hoping to secure diminishing wages and benefits in exchange for guarantees that workers under their leadership will not strike. They continue to defer to management about anything to do with the planning and control of work. Such union leaders and activists insist on trying to convince working people that corporations are threatened by the idea of embracing a unionized workplace. Most often this is far from the truth. It was progressives not conservatives who created this state of affairs in the first place because a progressive government at one point needed unions to create “labor peace” by enforcing this compromise. The cultural politics of “social unionism” attempts to cover up the fact that it does not struggle for working people to be self-governing, but instead is committed to a “progressive” labor peace.

However, there is no doubt that many problems face workplace groups, mixed locals, union leaders who stay on the job and other autonomous groups and organizations. There is no formula that guarantees that these instincts and initiatives will not get lost in union caucusing or politicking for politicians. They will also at times emerge as the forum for discussion and the organizing means for direct action in the workplace and in the neighborhood. What is important is that people maintain the vigilance necessary to keep their autonomy from the union bureaucracy and the politicians. Only in this way can we safeguard the freedom to experiment, learning from mistakes and trying again.

It’s About Work, Not Consumption

American official society projects the idea that there is a huge “middle class.” They say that this has something to do with how big our house is, how many cars we have, how much stereo or computer equipment we have, whether our children go to college, or how many vacations we take. Many working people believe this false idea of the “middle class.”

To be middle class used to mean you were a hard working independent farmer or entrepreneur where there was little distance between mental and manual labor. However, today the bulk of the middle class can be defined by the small number of professionals who earn a salaried position in managing people who work hard under them.

Class struggle is not about consumption. However, working people don’t generally imagine themselves as collective autonomous producers but consumers alone. When people have a little extra money they buy another pair of shoes or jeans or some more DVDs. If people have a little more they might buy a new car or a trip to Las Vegas. Others might try to start a business or invest in the stock market. If all goes well some might seek to buy a retirement condo or move to a new suburb. We seek an important, but fleeting feeling of freedom and power in this consumption.

Sometimes working people seek to enjoy a fleeting moment of self-management by selling or practicing their skills, whether doing roofing or electrical work on the side, or exploring writing and photography. However, most often working people see independent economic self-activity as a means to more personal wealth or a better life for their own family and themselves, not as a means to transform social relations of whole communities and nations.

Working parents labor hard to provide care and education for their children. Mostly they want children to attain a diploma (however empty in value), not creativity and aptitudes associated with renaissance and civilization. Many youth yearn for these, which leads to fights with parents who enjoy the latter only to the extent it allows their children to make a comfortable living more quickly than they.

However, those who would say that the desire for wealth and consumption degrade us, leaving us passive before the television set while our children waste their lives at the mall or with video games, underestimate the intelligence and humanity of working people. Certainly, this is a reality for many. But it is false to say that the entire American working class is “bought off.” Underneath the dream and realities of consumption are profound experiences of alienation and deep desires for control of society.

Many workers realize that owning a washing machine and a new car is hardly compensation for the monotonous, undemocratic, and repressive nature of workplaces where we spend the greater part of our waking hours. The struggle continues, even among workers who can afford to consume. While some workers might be happy enough with their computer and cell phone not to jeopardize this life by organizing or going on strike, others use these to help them organize against the management and elites.

The skew towards consumption also effects some labor solidarity organizing. Often supported by fellow travelers in academic circles, student-labor alliances, church groups and such, pro-worker organizations present campaigns for the “dignity of the worker” by, for example, calling a boycott of clothes produced in sweatshops. These campaigns are often more focused on washing the hands and absolving the guilt of consumers or narrowly protesting particular abuses. They rarely contribute to pushing for the right of sweatshop workers or any other workers to actually control their workplaces. College students and church social action groups could do no better than to buy stock in sweatshop companies when it is low, sell it when it is high, and send this money to sweatshop workers who are organizing to demand the social relations they want.

From Self-Activity to Self-Government

We have talked about acts of rebellion in the workplace such as telling off the boss, slowing down the work process, and going on strike. These are all signs that many people do not accept the alienation and frustration of life under capitalism and are willing to struggle for something better. These signs of personal responsibility, or “self-activity,” often shrink after small crises pass.

However, there have also been times in history where large numbers of working people have come together and formed popular councils and assemblies to govern workplaces, schools and neighborhoods, and defended this new form of government from reactionary attacks. Historically, from the workers councils of the Russian Revolution to the copwatches of the Black Panther Party, working people have taken responsibility for judicial, military, economic, cultural, and educational affairs in our communities and workplaces.

Telephone workers have turned off the phones of police stations in times of revolution. Railway and maritime workers have granted free travel. Striking workers have been armed by their compatriots in factories, and have sat in judgment of their workplace managers, firing them or keeping them on as desired. Working people have decided on who should be jailed and who should be released and how healthcare should be directly administered. Industry and agriculture have been reorganized, generating a bounty with a minimum of alienation. And when they have been ready, some teachers, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, merchants, and artisans have gathered round in aid and support for this redefinition of society.

Artistic and intellectual works have been produced to celebrate and memorialize these historical moments of workers’ self-management. A few professors today will speak about them but with no concept of organizing for their further advancement. Politicians and official society exalt them as monuments to justify their origins, and obscure the hideous character of their current regimes.

We must confront the fact that if self-government is not chosen through revolutionary aspirations and the hope for a better way of life, it may be thrust upon us by the decay of the state, and its massive failure to secure freedom, justice, and ecological sanity.

When will working people realize that many tragedies have already occurred because of the irresponsibility of the state and ruling class? When will we decide to proactively take responsibility for our own cities, towns, and villages? When will we take matters into our own hands? What will be definitive is when we arrive at these crossroads of autonomy and self-government again and never let go.

Originally posted: April 27, 2009 at Gathering Forces



10 years 2 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by tylerzee on March 29, 2014

Hey Juan,

Thanks for throwing this up. This isn't a super important qualification but this was actually written back in 2006-7 for a short-lived one issue labor journal called New Beginnings. It is no longer online but you can access it here: It was a great series and it actually emerged out of U&S' (prior to our 2011 split) first attempt to develop a labor strategy/orientation and based on a meet with Staughton Lynd and discussions around his concept of a mixed local. If you ever getting around to reading the other pieces let me know what you think.


Juan Conatz

10 years 2 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Juan Conatz on April 12, 2014

Hey Tyler,

Thanks for the clarification. Yeah, I remember New Beginnings, I actually put some other articles from it in the library 3 years ago. I think I intended to put all of it on here, but like many projects for the library, I end up drifting off to something else!