Stanley Aronowitz writes for Root & Branch: The Rise of the Workers' Movements (1975), pp. 71-93. Class analysis of USA based on Aronowitz’s own family. Future generation needs to break racism, sexism, authority within the class—not fight for more consumption, but for the abolition of capitalism.
In the 1960s, during the New Left's apex of activity and influence, most radicals disdained the cornerstone of Marxist orthodoxy—the theory of the working class as revolutionary gravedigger. Having discovered its own limitation, the left is returning to this theory—albeit with a not inconsiderable dash of confusion and romanticism. Just as a section of the student left during the last decade deified the black movement as a result of its own guilt and sense of impotence, so a new generation (and a number of the older generation) has abstracted the proletariat in the same way. The loss of confidence in its own critical faculties is no less reprehensible today when the working class is uncritically embraced than it was in the bygone era when it was summarily dismissed. The underlying tendency to grasp at panaceas remains intact. If liberals have transformed George McGovern and the Kennedys from banal politicians into saviors, the workers have been equally objectified and falsified by some radicals. It is important to undertake a sober estimate of the history of and prospects for the working class in America. In undertaking this task, we must state at the outset that the working class is neither on the eve of revolutionary action, nor does it constitute the reactionary, racist mass which many infer from the huge Wallace constituency.
There are new currents in the working class, not the least of which is the rise of a generation of workers whose life experience has been radically different from all previous generations. Nor are the potentially revolutionary sectors of the working class sufficiently defined by Marx's famous concept of productive labor—that is, all those who own nothing but their labor power, but are engaged in the production of material commodities. The rise of corporate capitalism and its integration with the state, together with the rise of central bureaucracies as a critical locus of economic and social power, have broadened the working class, both in size and composition.
The traditional industrial working class remains a necessary condition for expanded capitalist production, and its centrality in the production of capital in most industries has been essentially unaltered despite its numerical stagnation. But the rise of the mass of workers employed in the public bureaucracies, in the distributive trades and in the services is a striking feature of late capitalism, illustrating its parasitic character. Moreover, the relationship between mental and physical labor has altered dramatically since World War II within the production sector itself, so that in several key industries knowledge has become the critical productive force. This development has not been even in all mass production industries, however. The assembly line of the auto industry is still highly labor-intensive, and productivity is still measured in terms of the speedup of human labor. Despite recent technological advances in some giant corporations, the textile industry has barely scratched the surface of possible cybernetic technologies. But the oil and chemical industries, the electronics industry, and important branches of the paper industry are examples of dramatic shifts in the composition of the labor force. Here the absolute number of technically trained wage and salary workers has begun to approach the size of the unskilled and semi-skilled workforce. In the oil industry, no newly hired production worker has lacked a high-school diploma for the past 20 years, and most of them aspire to college or technical school degrees so that they can work in the laboratories and as supervisors. Chemicals, oil, electronic equipment, synthetic fibers and some kinds of paper and food products are no longer produced by human physical labor, except for the maintenance workers who perform repair work. The production worker is a watcher of heat and volume gauges and his major task is to know the respective tolerances well enough to stop the flow of work when necessary. In the older plants, the production worker still adjusts some continuous flow operations by hand, but the recent expansion of the chemical and paper industries have made self-adjusting mechanisms more common. In plants where continuous-flow operations predominate, the key production workers are the chemist, the engineer, and the quality-control technician, not the machine watcher. It is not only the importance of the so-called research and development activities which define the growing importance of knowledge, but the production process itself.
Differences within the working class on the basis of race, nationality, sex, skill and industry are not obliterated by late capitalism. On the contrary, they constitute antagonisms which still act as a brake on the development of revolutionary consciousness within the working class. But the collective worker is emerging as the direct antagonist of the collective capitalist. What I shall describe in this article should be understood as tendencies in this direction, not accomplished historical changes. In my opinion, the direction is clear: the objective possibility for the emergence of a new revolutionary subject is in the process of formation. Not the old working class, which, as has been pointed out by Marcuse and others, was not a class in “radical chains” in America because it actually did become of society as well as in it. Nor is the new revolutionary subject only the controversial new technical and scientific worker. Knowledge has indeed become a productive force in our society, but it is widely disseminated among the whole new generation of workers, which is better educated than any in history. The new revolutionary subject is simply this generation of collective labor. It was created by the conjuncture of capital's own development and the struggles of previous generations of workers to limit the arbitrariness of capital. Its needs and aspirations are radically different from its ancestors. Its demands, not yet articulated, may be too far-reaching for capitalism to satisfy.
The most important change from all previous generations is the emergence of a homogeneous working class in America, a country which, as Daniel Bell has noted, corresponds more exactly to Marx's classic model than any other capitalist nation except Britain. This homogeneity is a result of 1) the decline of ethnicity as a critical factor of American political and social life; 2) the common experience of this generation of workers of being separated from the gnawing poverty or the constant threat of it that suffused the consciousness of its elders; 3) the decline of commodity culture as a determining ideology among workers; 4) and the weakness of the fundamental institutions of authority, such as the family, schools, religion, and labor unions.
Among the most persistent demographic influences stultifying working-class consciousness has been the fact that a huge sector of the basic industrial working class in America was formed out of the waves of immigration between the end of the Civil War and the end of World War I. In the early days of trade union organizing, a frequent complaint of militants was that the task of bringing “unskilled” and semi-skilled workers into labor unions was made extremely difficult by ethnic splits within the working class. These splits were nearly all encompassing. Different nationalities were recruited into different industries: Italians and Jews into the garment industry; Italians and Portuguese into the New England textile industries, with a minority of Irish; Irish into the transport industry; Eastern Europeans into the steel industry. Within the same industrial plant, the technical division of labor was also organized along ethnic lines. Germans became foremen and skilled workers, closely followed by the Irish. Eastern and southern Europeans of all nationalities were relegated to the hottest, hardest and lowest-paid jobs, until the blacks occupied these positions after the First World War.
The tremendous growth of American capitalism between 1865 and 1920 was made possible by the agricultural crisis in Europe (and later within the U.S.) which forced millions of rural laborers to pour into European and American cities. The hierarchical organization of immigrant labor within our country, corresponding to the stratification of labor within the workplace, reinforced cultural and ethnic divisions. But the waves of immigration made possible some mobility within the working class itself. As long as the system kept expanding, the frontier myth could be sustained on the basis of the chance for upgrading as well as real and imagined opportunities for small-business ownership. Even if only a few workers ever left the shop or reached the exalted status of foreman, it was difficult to persuade workers that their own class solidarity was the best guarantee for change. The efforts of radicals to educate workers to the principle that they should rise with their class, rather than above it, were always counteracted by the differential access of different ethnic groups to opportunities within the system. The social division of industrial labor, combined with its ethnic divisions, was the core of the development of racist, chauvinist and egotistical ideologies within the working class.
Prior to the 1930s, success in the unionization of industrial workers was achieved among two groups: those who were native born, and those within industries where the bulk of workers in the plant shared the same nationality. Among native-born workers, for whom the entrance into industrial occupations was often a defeat in comparison to their expectations of remaining on the land or owning a small business, the conditions of industrial labor were intolerable. During the first decades of the American industrial revolution between the Civil War and the close of the century, the frequency and severity of strikes, food riots and other forms of mass actions were of deep concern to the rising capitalist class. The response of both employers and the government was swift and sure. A national guard was mobilized to smash protest movements, the courts were prepared to mete out class justice on a mass scale, and, in some cases, the employers themselves retained private armies to deal with labor violence.
Where mass unionism was successful among immigrants, such as in the steel industry after World War I, organization could only proceed by taking ethnic differences into account, that is, by organizing separately by nationality as well as together by class. William Z. Foster, the chief organizer of the great steel strike of 1919, describes the immense obstacles presented by ethnic divisions. Characteristically, after having achieved a degree of unity among the diverse groups comprising the basic steel labor force, employers resorted to herding black scabs, an explicit admission of the significance of race and nationality as an employer tool for dividing the working class.
But the fact of cultural diversity was not sufficient to explain the low level of class consciousness among immigrant groups (except for skilled workers, many of whom shared socialist and anarchist leanings or activities in the old country). Equally important was the exquisite sense of the promise or American life deeply embedded among the foreign born. To the extent that historians have dealt with the impact of immigration on the development of social and political life, emphasis has been placed on the importance of the frontier or Horatio Alger myths as determining the conservatism of the immigrants. But the ideology of social mobility was more than a myth. It corresponded to the real opportunities for advancement within and from the ranks of the unskilled made possible by the rapid expansion of American capitalism at home and abroad.
My grandfather fled the Czarist military draft for the war with Japan to come to America. His family were Jewish peasants in Lithuania who were able to make a living on the land, but never had the security of daily life in the literal sense of the phrase. Most immigrants were victims of famines or other forms of agricultural crises, or were similarly victimized by repressive regimes. Many European peasants filled the cities of their native lands. For others, like my grandparents, there was no room in Amsterdam or London. The United States may not have been the promised land, but there was a chance to live.
Some immigrants had been imbued with the revolutionary traditions of the old country. When they came to America they sought out the labor and socialist movements. Others were attracted, after some years of life and labor in the United States, to the militant and idealist movements of immigrants and native born. Having fled from oppression, they were determined not to endure it all over again. But the majority saw a chance in America, if not for themselves, at least for their children. And this country did provide an opportunity for some of their children. Of course, the route of higher education was not available to most first- and second generation children of the immigrants. But many of them found their way into the skilled trades or out of the lower paid industrial jobs. America was not exactly the land of milk and honey, but it was certainly better than Sicily or County Cork.
The irony of the immigration was that its conservative influence was entirely misperceived by both radicals and the government. The rise of nativistic movements seeking to exclude immigrants from this country on the basis of their alleged radicalism and/or laziness was belied by the fact that American capitalism was built on the backs of black and white imported labor. Government suppression of immigration was prompted more by the slowing growth rate of the economy and the appearance of frequent economic crises after the turn of the century than by the clear and present danger of revolution. But it is important not to underestimate the significance of the anti-radical impulse behind nativist ideology. As with the emergence of the permanent war economy in the 1940s and 1950s, the "red menace" provided the rationale for government suppression of not only radicals but the entire working class as well. The most militant of the industrial workers' movements, the IWW, organized among immigrant groups as well as the native born. Although it never achieved a solid base of support among either group, its successful strikes were conducted as much among foreign-born workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, as native Americans working in the lumber camps of the Northwest. The IWW did not disappear under the weight of its internal conflicts or the failure of its ideology or organizing tactics. It was defeated by a determined repressive state apparatus during the First World War when patriotism was rampant within liberal and socialist ranks, paralleling the jingoism rampant among large segments of the general population.
The last great waves of immigration came to our shores during the three years following World War I. In the wake of the Palmer raids against radicals, the government clamped down on immigrants and only permitted a trickle after 1921. Exceptions were to be made for the victims of the fascist terror in the late 1930s, the refugees of the Hungarian uprising in the late 1950s, and the Cubans after the rise of the socialist regime. Still, first-generation workers are often influenced by the attitudes of their parents, even though the mass culture of 20th-century America, together with the expansion of compulsory schooling, has created important differences between the generations. The rapid acculturation of new Americans was a key objective of the corporate-minded liberals at the turn of the century. Settlement houses, adult evening classes in English, the emphasis on public education, and the patriotic orientation of the ethnic social and fraternal clubs which sprang up to help immigrants make a successful adjustment to their new environment, were all assisted by large corporations and the government in the quest for a docile labor force.
Even though socialist-minded nationality groups were a powerful influence among some new arrivals and formed a significant part of the socialist and communist movements well into the 20th century, most foreign-born workers belonged to such organizations as the Polish Falcons or the Sons of Italy, which were strongly conservative, if not down right reactionary. These ethnic organizations preserved the contradictory goals of the American ruling class: on the one hand, homogenization seemed to be a strong preference of corporate and government planners; on the other, within industrial towns and plants, ethnicity was an important industrial-relations tool for the employers.
The Democratic party in the later 19th century developed into another powerful representative of ethnic interests. Apart from its role in national politics, the party built its popular support on the basis of its links with the everyday needs of immigrants thrust into a hostile urban environment with few resources to deal with the bewildering welter of problems facing them. Because it often competed with socialist groups for the loyalty of the immigrant populations, it became a further factor in reducing the strength of radical movements among foreign-born workers.
It was not until the second and third generations of native-born workers that the process of homogenization was complete. Although many workers born in the 1920s were already well on their way to breaking from the hyphenated American syndrome, a second important event in American life prevented the emergence of mass working-class consciousness.
Among the most commonly held shibboleths of radical thought is the notion that misery brings revolutionary awakening. Unfortunately, this has long been proven false . There is convincing evidence that the leading forces in the rise of industrial unionism in this country were the native-born younger workers—who actually did not suffer as greatly from the Depression as their elders, but rather occupied the better semi-skilled jobs—the skilled trades workers within industrial plants, and the most stable of the older semi-skilled workers in the mines and the largest mass production shops. The skilled workers had suffered deterioration in their living conditions during the early years of the Depression, as did the basic work force in the mines. But none of the crucial elements in the general strikes in Minneapolis and San Francisco or in the Flint sit-down strike were the down-and-outers. The persons who were crushed by the Depression—older people thrown off the lines and out of their jobs-were part of the solid support for the New Deal, which offered them a life raft. The impulse behind industrial unionism was somewhat different. It was born of the resentment of workers who had suffered setbacks during the Depression, particularly as a result of the boldness of employers in cutting wages and speeding up the work. The workers who conducted the mass textile, mining and transportation strikes during the early years of the New Deal did not perceive the government as a friend, much less a savior. These mass strikes were genuine expressions of self-activity and remarkable class solidarity. It was the trade unions which tried to channel the explosive protest against blatant employer attempts to use New Deal institutions to make surplus profits into bureaucratic molds.
For the mass of Americans, the Depression was a deeply traumatic experience which resonated long after the economy resumed its upward movement. The fear of unemployment and outright starvation haunted the working class for at least another generation. My father reached his industrial coming-of-age in the late 1920s, on the eve of the Depression. He spent a year in college, but quit to work on a newspaper as a cub reporter. Since he was the son of immigrant parents, he always had one foot in the ghetto and the other in the American mainstream. The contradictory part of his Lower East Side childhood was his inheritance of a passion for social justice alongside a gnawing yearning for economic security. The gnarled, decrepit tenements of his childhood stamped themselves indelibly on his social consciousness. In his boyhood, he helped his father deliver cases of seltzer to customers living in fifth-floor walkup apartments.
Although my father resolved to escape the ghetto, first through sports and then through journalism, these avenues proved too risky in economic terms. After the newspaper he worked for folded in 1931, he worked briefly for the Associated Press, but he finally left the low-paid and extremely shaky newspaper business. After some time in a textile factory and in the WPA, he finally landed a clerical job with the city. Most of the rest of his life was spent in the choking confines of the civil service and, at the end, back in the factory. He died having worked and worried himself to death, but with some savings.
My father loved Walt Whitman's America, but lacked his recklessness. He respected the muckrakers and the radicals, but could not summon either the energy or courage to join their ranks. The spectre of the 1930s was never far from his nightmares and so he died an angry and frustrated man, unable and unwilling to take chances to realize his aspirations.
For the generation of workers reared in the first half of the 20th century, the quest for economic security dominated their lives. There was no way they could more than sentimentally respond to radical ideas, even when they were willing to accept the help of radicals in their struggle for social justice within the prevailing order.
Even the members of my own generation were too close to the scarcity mentality of the Depression to transcend it. I rebelled against my family's neurotic lust for upward mobility, so I remained a worker. My mother had been a member of the CIO retail union, having participated in the sit-down strikes in the 1930s. She was always more “class” conscious than my father. Her family was intimately tied to the labor and socialist wings of Jewish immigrants. Her father was a cutter in a men's clothing factory for much of his working life. He was an extremely unstable man, capable of blowing his whole pay on a pinochle game or his savings on an ill-fated venture into the candy-store business. Grandpa was a lousy businessman. He gave candy to the kids, and they robbed him blind besides. But momma always worked and fought for her union. She feared the bosses, but hated them more. I guess my propensity to take chances was learned from my mother and her family. My father's sisters married businessmen and that fact put a hell of a lot of pressure on him to match their achievement in some way. On the other hand, my mother was crazy enough, according to my father, to quit her department store job in the middle of the second depression in 1938, after the defeat of the strike. I was five years old then. And I didn't understand all this until recently. But looking at my childhood friends in the East Bronx and the second-generation workers I encountered in my years as a shopworker and union organizer, it seemed that few of them went much beyond the aspirations of their parents.
But most white kids born after 1940 never experienced real hunger. For them, the struggles for union security, health benefits and pensions were taken for granted. They could not get hot for welfare capitalism or the guarantee of a job, because they really had no sense of what it is like not to find a job for a good part of their lives. Instead, they were reared on the doctrines of infinite opportunity within an expanding economic system and the expectation that they would not starve, no matter what. Just as the workers of the 1930s often took factory or clerical jobs as a temporary cushion to ride out the storm of the Depression, so many high school and college graduates took these jobs in the 1960s as an aid to finishing college, technical or professional school. The relative freedom of this generation from the expectation that hard times are a permanent condition, interspersed with the opportunities provided by war, made the need for decent, satisfying jobs more important than the goals of decent income and job property rights guaranteed by a union contract.
The older generation was often grateful for the chance to work, even though it became necessary to rebel against the excesses of the companies, which took advantage of the plentiful labor supply to wring the last drop of profit out of the workers. But behind the gratitude was the eternal hope of escape into the middle class. The wartime and postwar expansion of U.S. capitalism, bringing steady work and rising wage levels, revived the expectation that some workers could escape the shop into their own tavern or small construction contracting business. Most of the postwar working class became quickly smitten (but also burdened) by huge mortgages, time payments for mechanical gadgets, and finally, college tuition for their children. Thus, steady work bringing regular paychecks helped to repress the realization that the distance between their rising educational levels or vocational aspirations and the routine character of their work was widening.
During the years immediately following the war, the idea of education as a rite of passage to better jobs was widely disseminated. Returning veterans were given the chance to go to college free of tuition and with government subsidies to defray living costs. The increasing reliance on schooling as a means of moving up the occupational ladder was prompted by the resumption of technical innovation within the production industries, particularly those which produced means of production, as well as the rapidly expanding public sector. Technicians and engineers were required by the war industries, particularly the aircraft companies which were not really dismantled after the war because of the decision to solve many of the economic problems of conversion by perpetuating the permanent war economy. And the baby boom following World War II created the need for teachers by the early 1950s.
Public employee unionism began to grow in the mid Fifties as millions of new workers found jobs in state and local governments which were still offering salaries and fringe benefits appropriate to the prewar Depression decade. The public worker was a returning veteran who received his bachelor's degree under the GI bill of rights, a black worker able to get a job in the post office or in the sanitation department, or a woman leaving her home for a job because her husband was not taking home enough or had split. These workers were no longer grateful to be working. The more plentiful, but also higher credentialed, public service jobs were often taken at a sacrifice in comparison to better-paid industrial work. In this environment, weak, forgotten unions were able to revive. The nearly moribund State, County and Municipal Workers Union and the equally ineffectual American Federation of Teachers seized the opportunity provided by the restlessness and militancy of the public workers. During the late 1950s, the growth of public workers' unions was among the few bright spots in the already sclerotic labor movement.
The early impulses behind the mass migrations from factory labor to the colleges were prompted by the common perception that the need for new entrants into semi-skilled factory work was levelling off and, among the unskilled, actually declining. As technical and scientific labor expanded vastly in the 1950s, workers possessing administrative skills were in great demand.
Workers were still seeking jobs with more pay to offset their enormous debts, and the pay was more important than the quality of the job. The struggle for higher wages was a product of the inflationary spiral of the economy and the rise of consumerism as a way of life. In some instances in the 1950s, the speedup and stretchout in the shops were met with stiff worker resistance, but for most of the Depression babies who entered the labor force from 1945 to 1955, the emphasis was on higher pay, even if these monetary gains were purchased at the expense of the erosion of their hard won right to limit the company's ability to displace labor with machines.
The fight for pension plans and health insurance also took place in the 1950s, but this was actually a sign of the aging of the industrial labor force owing to the restrictions on younger workers entering the shops. This situation was created by the two recessions of the 1950s and the rise of technical labor relative to manual labor. I remember entering a large steel fabricating plant in northern New Jersey as a trainee lathe operator in 1953 and finding most of the guys 30 years or younger breaking their asses on piecework, while the older guys who pretty much controlled the union were interested in retirement benefits. The few young (under 25) people in the plant who did not work on piecework jobs, particularly the black workers, were ready to fight for more money on the hourly rate. But the majority couldn't have cared less about “time workers.” They fought the company's attempt to lower piece rates on new jobs. The family men were willing to work like hell, and even protested the so-called "small jobs" which required more skill and more time to set up, while yielding less money, because the only way to make out on a job was to have a long run.
Two years later I found a job in a small but technologically fairly advanced steel-making plant with about 1000 workers. The two strikes I participated in during the late Fifties had to do with protection of jobs against mechanization. This plant had a group bonus method of wage payment. Like piecework, workers were paid according to their output, but not on an individual piece. In the hot rolling mill, a gang produced a certain number of pounds of refined metal each day. Although everybody had different tasks, the work process was interdependent. We did not need bosses to push us. We pushed each other, since if one man fucked up, everybody's pay was affected. It was only when the company tried to bring in a machine which displaced 33 men and left three on the job to operate the push-button equipment that a wildcat strike became possible. The second strike was the 116-day steel strike of 1959, affecting 600,000 workers all over the country, over the issue of the company's right to alter the established work rules which stipulated that no changes in production methods could be introduced without prior consultation with the union. The strike was successful on paper, but the companies quickly disregarded the work rule provision of the contract in succeeding years as output soared while employment remained the same. The result of the union's failure to stem the company onslaught against working conditions was rank-and-file revolt against the established leadership of the union. The new leadership was more careful for a while, but slowly sank back into the patterns of its predecessors.
It was not until the next generation of workers entered the shops and the public bureaucracies in the 1960s that the Depression-wrought issues of job security were pushed to the side of workers' struggles. In the service industries, particularly the public bureaucracies, workers possessing educational credentials entitling them (or so they thought) to work of genuine service to the community, or at least intellectually interesting to themselves, found that they had not succeeded in escaping the monotony of industrial labor—even if they were a little cleaner and less physically exhausted at the end of the day. But the expansion in the '60s generated by the Vietnam war, combined with the tremendous rate of retirement among those who had entered the labor force in the decade after the First World War, helped to build the CIO, and won the right to get out of the shop at 65, brought a relatively large number of young workers into industrial plants.
The new generation of workers was not prepared to endure a working life suffused with repetitive tasks performed with mindless submission. Neither the endearments of two cars in every garage, which had become a compulsion of their parents, nor the fears of plunging into the lower depths of poverty, which had propelled their grandparents, were sufficient to contain their resentment against the betrayal represented by highly rationalized factory or service work. Even those such as teachers or health workers, blessed with the chance to escape the most severe forms of rationalized labor, found the hierarchies of authority no less repressive.
Nearly all members of the present generation of wage and salary workers have jobs whose routinization bears no correspondence to the expectations generated by their educational experiences. This is not the place to argue that education prepares workers to accept routinized and boring labor. Everybody knows that the curriculum and authority relations in the schools breed submissiveness. But the dialectic of schooling consists in the tension between its socialization functions and its promise of deliverance from the banality of everyday life. It is too simplistic merely to assert that students stay in school in order to obtain the credentials needed for the shift from blue-collar to white-collar and gray-collar labor. This is true enough. But they are also motivated by powerful and persistent illusions—that school is a place of learning and that education is a means not only of escaping manual labor but of gaining access to interesting, meaningful jobs which will give them personal satisfaction and even, perhaps, enable them to make a social contribution.
Eighty percent of those entering high school now graduate. The number of college graduates exceeds the number of jobs available for which the degree is a prerequisite. The proliferation of youth who have successfully endured school has reached explosive proportions, and there is no room for them either in the teaching profession or the public bureaucracies. These youth find themselves in factories, offices, working as truck or cab drivers or as sales personnel in department stores. They are furious that they have wasted their time and have been bullshitted about the importance of school. The educational process for working-class young people is many-sided: it teaches a high tolerance for boredom, but it is unable to pay off in jobs which are significantly better than those of their parents.
The present generation of workers is qualitatively different from any in the history of American capitalism. It has shared the transcendence of ethnicity, the distance from scarcity, the partial recognition that consumerism is insufficient to overcome the alienation of bureaucratically rationalized labor, and the experience of having been incompletely socialized because of the loosening grip of the institutions and ideologies upon which capitalism relies for its survival.
The satisfaction of old needs has created new ones. Many young workers have begun to evolve new work patterns to avoid having to do jobs which are essentially meaningless in terms other than bare survival. In many companies, absenteeism is massive on Mondays and Fridays. The huge turnover in auto plants mitigates the disruptive impact of the refusal of many youth to work steadily. There is always a new crop of students looking for summer jobs or those who need money badly enough to work intensively for short periods.
But in other industries, management has been forced to consider, and in some cases introduce, shorter work weeks with similar hours. The mass strikes in the postal industry, among truck drivers and, more recently, in the Lordstown plant of the GM company, were symptomatic of the refusal of young workers to accept boredom and monotony for five and six days a week, even at more than $4 an hour. Workers who refused overtime work or Saturday work were given disciplinary layoffs by the company.
In fairness to critics who maintain that wildcat strikes against the company and the union are not new in the auto industry or among youth, it should be stated that a similar development occurred in the early 1950s in the auto plants; however, there was no mass strike among the rest of the workers, except for the big wage strikes in 1946 which could be attributed to the pent-up rage against the wartime wage freeze. Young workers, it is claimed, are always ready to fight. But they get older, their debts grow, and so do their families.
The differences this time are substantial, I believe. The old mediations are losing their force. Neither the unions nor the anti-communist ideologies which were nurtured by immigrant fears are capable of containing the discontent.
On the other hand, this generation still shares the legacy of racism and sexism. This legacy is a force which counteracts the development of revolutionary consciousness. The division of labor according to race and sex remains a potent material force undercutting ideological struggles to overcome it. Despite the fact that American capitalism has brought women and blacks into the economic mainstream since the end of World War II, they occupy the lowest economic niches. In the productive sectors, women remain excluded except in the consumer-goods industries. Women and blacks have been massively employed in the emergent service sectors. For example, more than 75 percent of health workers are women, a large number of whom are from minority groups, especially in the large cities. But women and blacks are concentrated within clerical and skilled paraprofessional jobs, at best, and constitute the overwhelming majority of the semi-skilled and unskilled categories in such departments as housekeeping and dietary.
Black males found their way into the basic mass-production industries in large numbers during the War and again during the expansion of the 1960s. More than a third of auto and steel workers are black, many with substantial seniority, so that the old phrase "last hired and first fired" has been somewhat mitigated. But here again, few black workers are to be found in skilled trades or in the higher-paid semi-skilled occupations. They are the bulk of the low-paid semi-skilled and the unskilled in many important industrial plants.
A second brake on the development of genuine political consciousness is the persistence of the hierarchical division of labor in general. In recent years, the struggle of the black movement around workplace issues has been against discriminatory hiring, promotion and lateral transfer policies of employers and unions. Few blacks have been permitted to enter managerial ranks within corporations, although there has been a greater integration of blacks into middle management of government bureaucracies. Black workers remain excluded from the construction trades, and only a token number have been admitted to the traditional professions of law, medicine and engineering. But these struggles have been circumscribed by the prevailing occupational stratifications which are based as much on bureaucratically determined divisions as on the technical division of labor.
The social division of labor has been a source of persistent conflict within the working class. The division is not based simply on race, sex, or actual work requirements. The credential routes to higher occupations, the seniority system as a basis for promotion, the classification of jobs grounded in arbitrary distinctions which have no basis in job content or skill level, are important barriers to class solidarity. There are few industries where the levelling of status and skill is so complete as the automobile assembly line. The united action of the workers in Lordstown and other auto assembly plants in recent years is abetted by the relative uniformity of work assignments among the workers. There are distinctions between the grimy, heavy work for blacks in the body shop and the fast, but clean and light tasks, of final assembly. But the distinctions are not nearly as sharp as between foundry work and cold rolling in a steel mill or between the nurse's aide's job of emptying bedpans and the quasi-supervisory tasks of a registered nurse.
The minute division of labor, whose hierarchical structure is reinforced by the seniority and bidding system within union-organized industries, and by the system of educational credentials within both technical and human services' industries, provides the material roots for elitism within the working class. In many industries the so-called generation gap is produced as much by the relatively good jobs secured by older, high-seniority workers as by cultural differences. The unions have become representatives of the older workers and guardians of the prevailing occupational differentiations which produce higher pay and less onerous jobs for their constituency. Since the younger workers have taken for granted the real achievements of the unions, the union is increasingly judged not by its past record but by what it has done for the membership lately. Young workers find that the unions, like the school and the family, promise more than they are structurally able to deliver. The unions have all but abandoned the fight for decent working conditions and, insofar as they are perceived as staunch defenders of the status quo in terms of the organization of work, they are increasingly looked upon as enemies.
It would be a mistake to exaggerate the degree to which young workers have liberated themselves from the institutions of socialization or the authoritarian structures and ideologies which accompany them. The internalization of arbitrary authority within consciousness cannot be rooted out in one generation. In fact, because the material supports within society for these structures remain powerful, without a convincing movement whose objectives are consciously anti-authoritarian, these structures of domination reassert themselves within the individual and the class. Although they have been weakened, the familiar subjective forms of labor's self-alienation still persist-workers “tune-out” on the content and implications of their work; production becomes nothing more than a means to consumption. The efforts of management to exceed the historically acceptable pace of work in a given location will be resisted by workers. But this is not the same as recognizing that deadening labor is immoral when the technological possibilities exist for its abolition. Young auto workers have neither challenged the object of their labor, the production of cars, nor have they transcended the inevitability of submitting to the old methods of production. Their struggle remains defensive even when they have an inkling of a different vision of life and labor.
Most young workers, whether in the factory or anywhere else, take their money and run. The idea is still to concentrate as little as possible on what actually happens on the job and to try to live as full a life as possible during leisure hours. But lacking the elements of an aesthetic culture, or an alternate concept of work, workers have been made manipulated objects of the productions of mass culture imposed from above. Here, the roles of the various spectacles of the capitalist marketplace are particularly relevant. Among these, especially for men, spectator sports play a unique part in replacing the traditional forms of folk or high culture.
The most significant characteristic of the capitalist division of labor is the transformation of the worker from an active producer to a spectator of his own labor. Workers who perform a set of discrete operations that are only a tiny part of the whole commodity and who have no real grasp of the object's destiny after it leaves the work station, tend to view the production process from the outside as if it actually emanated from the ingenuity and initiative of the company. The managerial function at the workplace is often regarded with awe. Workers have even made the reification of management part of their everyday self-deprecation: "If you're so smart, how come you ain't rich?"
Only in rare moments such as strikes does the understanding that workers themselves possess the real power over production make itself somewhat clear. The introjection of domination within the consciousness of the working class prevents this perception from being fully comprehended in ordinary life. To the extent that the real relations of power and initiative remain obscured in production, domination extends beyond the workplace to all aspects of existence.
Spectator sports retain the alienated character of labor, but create the aura of participation for the observer. Emotional catharsis is the mediation between the reality of the powerlessness of the fan over the events taking place on the playing field and the feeling of control which sustains personal involvement. The spectator appropriates the skills required to play the game symbolically. His involvement is energized by the passions of partisanship.
The sports arena has its own elan among spectators, who become strategists, generals and other substitutes for the authority they do not enjoy in their personal lives. In the workplace and in the home, sports is both a shared pleasure and a field of competition among observers. Like the movies, sports provides a way for total immersion in a manner that removes the observer from the banality of his own life, and creates the forms of manipulation which generate a sense of power and a vision of an alternative to the mundane.
Spectator sports is a way for men to establish contact with their children which is denied them at home. The father remains the supreme authority but his power does not have the appearance of arbitrary domination. If the son is willing to share the excitement and love of the games, he can get some love from his father, since most men can only express affection in a mediated way.
Everybody played the numbers in my plant. Every morning the numbers runner came around to collect the nickels and dimes from the guys at their machines. The numbers runner was usually a worker whose job assignment was bringing materials from machine to machine, so his illegal activities could be hidden behind legitimate work. Of course, everybody, including the foreman, knew who the runner was. But the identity of the "banker" was less obvious. I never knew who ran the numbers or the football pool until I hit the pool one week. You hit the number when you guessed the last three digits of the paramutual take for the daily double at a certain race track. It was a matter of pure chance. But the football, basketball and baseball pool required genuine skill. In football, you not only had to guess the winners of ten leading college games, but you had to guess the margins of victory. I rarely played the numbers except when I had a sentimental attachment to it, like my kid's birthday or some famous historical event. But I always played the football pool.
Discussions about football and baseball were serious shit house conversation. Passions often ran pretty high, easily outdistancing raps about electoral politics or women. After all, you could not have much effect on these problems, but you could make money and earn prestige if you were lucky enough to hit the number or were smart enough to hit the pool. Workers daydreamed about sex while turning out thousands of parts on an automatic screw machine, but with sports, the sense of power was more concrete.
That Monday when I knew I had hit the jackpot, I immediately contacted the go-between. He told me that he did not give out the money (the odds were 150-1), so I had to wait until after work to meet the banker in the parking lot. I practically ran out of the washroom after work that day. A few minutes after I reached the parking lot, the runner came walking slowly towards me in the company of the vice president of the local union. I was a steward in my department at the time, so was well acquainted with “Tex,” a long stringy Southerner who worked as a maintenance man. I'd always had him down for a pretty good guy. He was soft-spoken, sometimes downright taciturn, but he was an effective grievance man. Tex greeted me with a mumble and took out the bills to pay me off. I was stunned. It's one thing to play the numbers; it's another to be part of the apparatus.
Later that night it dawned on me that the company had to know about Tex. I began to wonder how many other union officials were operating similar businesses in the shop. Guys would come around all the time with watches, offers of cheap television sets and good buys on used cars. We all suspected that the merchandise was hot, but never begrudged a guy for trying to make a living. Almost everybody held down an extra job, sometimes even another full-time job. But at the time I thought it ought to be different for union officials: they should be free of that kind of vulnerability, especially illegal activity. This was going to be a field day for the company. The deal appeared simple. The union leader could operate his business, the company would shut its eyes, the men would get screwed.
It was not so simple. Tex was like a basketball player who scores 30 points a game instead of 40 and makes sure that his team only wins by 10 instead of 20 points, or a boxer who knocks his opponent to the canvas in the eighth round instead of the first. But how many other union officials were in similar positions? Later on I learned that in the large plants, few union leaders were so obviously corrupt, but in the medium-sized or smaller shops the union officer as businessman was the rule, not the exception. It was not so much that shop leaders take money from companies. It was more a matter of being tolerated for illegal behavior, or equally common, being allowed to roam the plant ostensibly on union business without having to work. It's hard to imagine a unionist selling the workers out for the price of freedom from being chained to a machine all day. But for many shop officials, that freedom is worth more than money.
More recently, many state governments have started lotteries, whose enormous appeal is comparable to the Irish Sweepstakes of a decade ago. The lottery, like sports, is a way to perpetuate the fantasies of many workers that there is a way out of the oppression of the routines of their labor. In the old days, becoming a fighter or baseball player was a universal dream of young boys for a way to escape having to go into the factory, just as becoming a movie star served the same function for Marilyn Monroe and the millions of girls who ended up in offices. For blacks and members of other minorities, the sports and entertainment industries still serve as the "impossible dream"—but not so impossible that it is completely discounted as a route to fame and fortune.
The sad thing is that many workers cling to gambling and sports as serious avocations even after the illusions of youth are shattered by the realization that they are not ever going to get out. Sports becomes the veil for the incapacity of workers to face the inevitability encompassing daily life. It is at once the protest against the worker's self-concept of her or his failure, and the means by which the ruling class is able to manipulate and channel discontent. As long as the workers can participate in the games through betting, and drain their passions in heated arguments about whether Mays or Mantle was the greatest all-around outfielder of all time, the system has a few years left.
But there are better ways for workers to structure their leisure. The typical working-class barroom of the first half of the century was the place where the fraternity could be asserted that was denied to workers in the isolating environment of the shop. Drinking itself had important rewards as a refuge from both the shop and the home. But it was more an excuse for entering social life. The tavern was the center of political discussions, gossip about the shop and the neighborhood, and some sports activities such as miniature bowling, pinball and darts. The older working-class groups did their drinking in the ethnic fraternal clubs or veterans organizations. Later, the bowling alley and the union ball were added as places for workers to congregate.
The dispersal of industry to farmlands surrounded by non descript housing developments or, worse, by no community or neighborhood center at all, has made it difficult for working-class people to enjoy any form of social contact. This generation of workers is often confronted by the absence of opportunities for communal ways to reaffirm their experience of anger against the quality of life, particularly of their work. The widespread practice of year-round daily overtime, rob bing workers of time to meet other people, the long distance travelled from home to work (which also takes away any sense of common experience associated with a home town), the 24-hour shift, seven-day-week patterns of many plants and transportation industries, have helped defuse any sense of solidarity which arises from the emerging homogeneity of experience, language and culture.
We are witnessing the disappearance of daily life beyond the workplace in huge chunks of American society. The lack of social life has increased the capacity of bureaucratically organized cultural institutions to influence social consciousness, particularly through the media and mass sports. Moreover, under conditions of increasing isolation, workers reintegrate the protective function of the family which was eroded during the evolution of urban industrial society. Although Reich is right to describe the ways in which the authoritarian family structure reinforces the susceptibility of workers to the authority of the corporate and state institutions, the family is also experienced as a shield against the tyranny and the terror of the everyday world.