1. The Mass Strike Process
If, as Rosa Luxemburg wrote, mass strikes form "a perpetually moving and changing sea of phenomena," how is it possible to make sense of them? What ties together the disparate local, national, and general strikes, occupations, street fights, armed confrontations, and other actions we have seen arise during these peak periods of social conflict?
Let us start by isolating three related processes: the challenge to existing authorities, the tendency of workers to begin taking over direction of their own activities, and their development of solidarity with each other. These processes begin in the cell-unit of industrial production, the group of those who work together. As Elton Mayo discovered in his study of factories,
In every department that continues to operate, the workers have - whether aware of it or not - formed themselves into a group with appropriate customs, duties, routines, even rituals; and management succeeds (or fails) in proportion as it is accepted without reservation by the group as authority and leader.1
The development of these work groups was studied in 1946 by the Committee on Human Relations in Industry at the University of Chicago. In a number of factories in the Chicago area, they found that most work groups established a "quota" beyond which the group expects that no individual worker will produce. The new employee was systematically "indoctrinated" by the work group. The work group "expects him to conform to its system of social ethics."2 This system was backed by. the workers' knowledge that management would use higher production by one of them to speed up everyone else. As one worker expressed it, "They begin by asking you to cut the other guy's throat, but what happens is that everybody's throat is cut, including your own."3 The workers worked intensively for a short time to meet the quota, then used the remaining free time as their own.
Much of the time accumulated in this fashion was used "shooting the breeze" or reading newspapers in the toilet. The observers, however, believe . . . that the greater part was spent in "government work." Such work included making the "illegal" devices and fixtures which served as shortcuts in production, repairing parts damaged by men in other departments so that repair tickets might be avoided, and making equipment for their automobiles and homes. Most workers did not like to be idle for too great a time, but all of them preferred "government work" to production work.4
The workers saw the cooperation and sociable relaxation created by such action as valuable in themselves. As one put it, "Sure, I think most of us would admit that we could double our take-home if we wanted to shoot the works, but where's the percentage? A guy has to get something out of life. Now my little lady would rather have me in a good humor than have the extra money. The way it works out none of us are going to be Van-Asterbilts so why not get a little pleasure out of living together and working together."5
The work groups also created their own ways of getting the work done, contradicting those of management. The scheduling of work was often reorganized so that machine operators could eliminate extra time setting up the work. Each work group had special cutting tools, jigs, and fixtures, usually made on "government time," through which operations could be performed in a fraction of the time allowed for them. As the study concluded,
Such restrictive (and, from management's point of view, illegal) devices make necessary a system of social controls imposing, upon the individual, responsibility to the group. Essentially what results is an informal secret organization. . . workers employ a social ethic which requires that each individual realize his own goals (social and pecuniary) through cooperation with the work group.6
It is in these groups that the invisible, underlying process of the mass strike develops. They are communities within which workers come into opposition to the boss, begin acting on their own, and discover their need to support each other and the collective power they develop in doing so. The end product of this process is precisely the rejection of management as "authority and leader," and the transformation of the work group into what one industrial sociologist described as a guerrilla band at war with management.7
Although the unofficial actions of these groups generally go unnoticed and unrecorded, we have been able to catch glimpses of them from the cooperative action of the railroad workers in each town in 1877 to the wildcat strikes and informal control of production by factory workers during World War II.
The large-scale struggles of periods of mass strike develop out of the daily invisible and unrecorded skirmishes of industrial life in normal times. Clayton Fountain, later a U.A.W. official, but at the time an auto worker so untouched by unionism he was still willing to cross picket lines, describes such a conflict at a Briggs auto plant in 1929, one of the quietest years for industrial conflict in American history:
According to the theory of incentive pay, the harder and faster you worked, and the more cushions you turned out, the more pay you received. The employer, however, reserved the right to change the rules. We would start out with a new rate, arbitrarily set by the company time-study man, and work like hell for a couple of weeks, boosting our pay a little each day. Then, bingo, the timekeeper would come along one morning and tell us that we had another new rate, a penny or two per cushion less than it had been the day before.
One day when this happened we got sore and rebelled. After lunch the whistle blew and the line started up, but not a single worker on our conveyor lifted a hand. We all sat around on cushions waiting to see what would happen.
In a few minutes the place was crawling with big-shots. They stormed and raved and threatened, but our gang stood pat. We just sat on the cushions and let them rant and blow. When they got too abusive, we talked back and told them to go to hell. We told them that the Briggs plant was run by a bunch of rats who did nothing but scheme how to sweat more production out of workers and that we didn't care a damn how many of us they fired; we just weren't going to make any more cushions or backs at the new low rate.
We didn't belong to a union and we had no conception of organization. There were no leaders chosen by us to deal with the angry bosses; we all pitched into the verbal free-for-all with no epithets barred. Some of the workers threatened to take the bosses outside and beat the hell out of them - in fact, they had a damn good notion to do it right then and there inside the plant.
Finally, after about forty-five minutes of confusion, the bosses relented. They agreed to reinstate the previous piecework rate. With this assurance, we went back to work. Looking back, I can see that, in a small and disorganized fashion, we tasted the power of the sitdown strike on that far-away day in the Briggs plant in 1929.8
This miniature revolt and innumerable ones like it, unknown to all but those directly involved, form the submerged bulk of the iceberg of industrial conflict, of which the headline-making events of mass strikes are the visible tip. Because workers do not direct production, they find it is directed to their disadvantage-in a way that tries to hold down their income, extract more labor, and increase the power of the employers over them. Against this, as in the example above, workers are forced to fight back, thus discovering their own power.
Out of the day-to-day conflict in the workplace, the sense of exploitation revealed in inadequate wages, and the general resentment against subordination, develops the sentiment for a strike. As the Interchurch World Movement's Report on the 1919 steel strike put it,
It cannot be too strongly emphasized that a strike does not consist of a plan and a call for a walkout. There has been many a call with no resultant walkout; there has been many a strike with no preceding plan or call at all. Strike conditions are conditions of mind.9
Whether triggered by a relatively trivial incident or by a strike call, at some point in the accumulation of resentment workers quit work. Already this is a kind of revolt, as Alvin Gouldner put it, "a refusal to obey those socially prescribed as authorities in that situation, that is, management."10
Workers are immediately faced with the problem of making the strike effective by preventing production. This means in effect denying the owner free use of his own property. The result is a natural tendency toward de facto seizure of the productive apparatus by sitdown strikes, crowd action, and mass picketing. We find this as early as 1877, when railroad workers and supporting crowds virtually took possession of the railroad system of the country; it was dramatically illustrated by the sitdowns and mass picketing of the 1930's.
When strikes seriously disrupt production for long, they generally call forth state intervention. For one thing, as the official History of Violence in America by the President's Commission on Violence wrote, "Today, as always, employers have the legal right to move goods and people freely across a picket line and the duty and practice of police has tended to safeguard this right."11 Further, the government has generally been held to have the right and responsibility to end strikes which create an "emergency" by disrupting the ordinary life of society.
Finally, the government has frequently defined strikes as insurrections to be suppressed by military action. According to the official History of Violence in America there have been no fewer than "160 occasions on which State and Federal troops have intervened in labor disputes."12
Leon Wolff hardly exaggerated in his study of the Homestead strike when he concluded:
The decisive effect of militiamen cannot be overemphasized; one searches United States labor history in vain for a single case where the introduction of troops operated to the strikers' advantage. In virtually all conflicts before and after 1892 the state guard acted, in effect, as a strikebreaking agency. . .13
Use of guards, deputies, police, militia and army in turn have generated frequent large-scale battles between crowds and occasionally armed bands of strike supporters and the forces of "law and order." Thus by a natural progression we have observed dozens of times, strikes move toward miniature civil wars between workers and the state.
In the course of strike actions, the ordinary life of workers, in which they act under the constant direction of their boss, ceases, and they have to think, act, and coordinate their actions for themselves. Even in shop conflicts over speed and organization of production they begin to coordinate their own action and to take over part of the management function. Once a strike begins, it involves a tremendous amount of activity, including picketing, countering employer and governmental violence, providing food, health care and other vital needs of the strikers, coordinating activity, and setting strike strategy. If the strike seriously affects the population, the strikers often find it necessary to continue part of their usual work to show their social responsibility and keep public sympathy; for example, railroad strikers have generally run passenger and mail trains. This tendency of strikers to conduct social activities under their own management perhaps reached its height in the Seattle general strike of 1919, when the various trades provided the necessary services for an entire city.
Though the cell-units of mass strikes may be the individual work groups, industrial conflicts by no means remain limited to them, but rather tend to spread in wider and wider circles. Indeed, in many cases we have seen solidarity spread across even the deepest divisions within the working class. The range of this process can be seen by selecting a few examples from the many we have described above. Practically the whole body of railroad workers in America joined in the sympathetic strike with the Pullman workers, who were not even railroadmen, as did workers of a great variety of trades in Chicago and elsewhere. Scores of traditionally hostile nationality groups separated by religion, language, history, and the deliberate policy of the employers joined together with close cooperation and mutual trust in the steel strike and the Lawrence textile strike of 1919. Black and white workers in such Southern cities as St. Louis in 1877 and New Orleans in 1892 joined together in general strikes supporting each others' demands.
Numerous general strikes throughout the periods covered in this book reveal the willingness of workers in completely unrelated trades and industries to support each other. The railroad strike of 1877 and the Toledo Auto-Lite strike of 1934 illustrate the unemployed and impoverished joining together in the streets with those on strike. The Homestead strike showed mutual support between skilled and unskilled workers. The General Motors sitdown of 1936-1937 showed employed women taking a full part and nonemployed wives, whose social participation had previously been limited to home and family, emerging to play an active role in the struggle. The tendency of mass strikes - never fully realized - is toward joint action of all working people.
If the mass strike is a process marked by workers' challenge to existing authority, direction of their own activity, and spreading solidarity, what is its source? If workers possessed society's means of production and managed them themselves, there would be no basis for strikes against management. But since they do not, they have to work for those who do. The result is that all workers share a subordination to the control of managers, who have the power to make decisions which shape their daily lives.
While the particular issues which trigger workers' resistance to this domination may vary, their underlying source-control of production and the product by others-is thus always the same. This is why the most intense battles may be fought over the most trivial issues, such as a fraction of a cent in wages; in such struggles "the issue is not the issue." The real issue is an attempt of workers to wrest at least a part of the power over their lives away from the industrial managers and exercise it themselves. This is frequently recognized explicitly by management; as an employer in Milwaukee said during the 1886 May Day strikes for the eight-hour day, it was a question of "my right to run my works and your right to sell me your time and labor."14 Or as President Sloan of General Motors wrote at the height of the 1936-1937 G.M. sitdown, the "real issue" was, "Will a labor organization run the plants of General Motors. . . or will the Management continue to do so?"15 Because it challenges the real power-holders of our society - the industrial managers-and because carried to its logical conclusion it would have to replace them, the mass strike can be considered in essence a revolutionary process.
This revolutionary process is not merely a struggle for power between two groups, however. For out of the very necessities of that struggle develop the two other aspects of mass strikes we have emphasized above: the tendencies toward self-management and toward solidarity-qualities which if extended could form the basis of a society different from any now existing. Most people in their work life and community life are passive-submitting to control from above. They are also atomized-separated from each other. What we see in mass strikes is the beginning of a transformation of people and their relationships from passivity and isolation to collective action.
The tendency toward self-management is rooted in the simple fact that unless people direct their own activities, somebody else will direct them in a way which does not let them pursue their own ends. Self-management is the only alternative to management by somebody else. At one level it arises out of the immediate needs of the struggle-keeping the plant closed, feeding the strikers and the like. At a more profound level, all the actions of a mass strike are responses to the fact that when a small minority manage society, they will generally do so in a way that conflicts with the needs of the majority; mass strikes are thus implicitly an attack on the elite organization of management.
Of course, self-management is not the only tendency within mass strikes; it is always possible that the authority wrested from the old managers will be taken up by some new power. We can see this, for example, in the establishment of industrial unionism in the 1930's when the unions subsequently took over much of management's responsibility as the instrument of labor discipline. Where this occurs, however, conflict next arises between the agency attempting to assert the new authority and the subjects of that authority.
Solidarity likewise is a response both to the immediate needs of the struggle and the fundamental problems of society. In the course of social struggles it arises directly out of the realization that the struggles will be lost without it. But fundamentally it is a response to the obsolescence of individual solutions to people's problems. As the powerlessness of ordinary individuals makes their position look less and less tenable, the psychology of "looking out for number one" becomes futile, the need to support others who in turn will support you becomes obvious, and a spirit of all-for-one and one-for-all spreads in a bond which is at once intellectual recognition of reality and emotional feeling of union. The reason this sense of solidarity crystallizes so suddenly is that "I will only make sacrifices for you when I can sense that you will grasp the need to make sacrifices for me." This mutual trust develops in a thousand miniature experiments taking place in the background of a mass strike. As an Akron rubberworker quoted above put it,
during the sitdowns last spring I found out that the guy who works next to me is the same as I am, even if I was born in West Virginia and he is from Poland. His grievances are the same. Why shouldn't we stick?16
The end product of this process is the sense of being part of a class, in some ways comparable to the sense of being part of a nation which can be seen developing, for example, in the American Revolution, the Confederacy during the Civil War, or more recently the Algerian revolution or the Quebec nationalist movement. But its source and result are different from those of nationalism. The common situation of workers is that individually they are powerless, but together they embody the entire productive force of society; their solidarity is the discovery of this. It reflects the fact of modern society that individuals can only gain control of the social forces that determine their lives by working together. Thus, "individualism" keeps the individual weak, while solidarity increases his control over his life; once the consciousness of this develops, it becomes impossible to say whether the motive for an act such as joining a sympathetic strike is altruistic or selfish, for the interest of the individual and the collective interest are no longer in conflict: they have come to be the same.
This unity of individual and collective interest and the feelings of unity it generates are the necessary basis of a society based on cooperation rather than competition. From one perspective, therefore, the mass strike can be seen as a process in which workers are transformed from competitors to cooperators. Combined with a replacement of managers by self-management, this would result in a society of free human beings working together to meet their own needs by meeting each others' needs. Thus we may consider the mass strike as a revolutionary process whose outer expression lies in contesting the power of the existing authorities, and whose inner expression is the transformation of those who do society's work from passive and isolated individuals to a collective of self-directing cooperators. (Of course, not all the organized manifestations of mass strikes have these characteristics; see "containment of mass strikes" below.) The last chapter of this book will try to project that process beyond the stages it has reached so far.
There are a number of evident objections to this concept of the mass strike. The most obvious is that those who have taken part in the actions described in this book simply have not aimed for any such revolution, but rather at much smaller and more specific changes in wages, hours, and working conditions. While it is true that strikes do in fact have such specific goals, this does not prove they have no other implications; similarly, the fact that the Boston Tea Party protested the English stamp tea tax did not thereby rob it of meaning in the struggle for national independence. As sociologist Robert E. Park put it,
While a strike may be regarded as a single collective act in which minor clashes and individual cases of violence are incidents, every individual strike may be regarded as a single episode in a larger revolutionary movement, a movement of which the participants are perhaps only dimly conscious.17
Or as Business Week once put it, such industrial disputes are not "a series of isolated battles for isolated gains. Rather, they are part of a long-term, irrepressible struggle for power."18 In fact, revolutionary movements rarely begin with a revolutionary intention; this only develops in the course of the struggle itself. To take a classic example, the Third Estate in the French Revolution did not initially intend to replace the monarchy; at first it demanded only specific reforms. Then the Constituent Assembly aimed to exercise a counter-power to the King. Since such a dual power is inherently unstable and can hardly last forever, the new class is sooner or later forced either to replace the old or to fall back into subordination.
Thus even if replacing the old power- revolution - is not the deliberate aim, it may be necessary to achieve or hold other aims; therefore, the struggles of a subordinate class for greater power can still be understood as part of a revolutionary process, even when its members do not consciously assert such a goal.
A second objection is based on a neat distinction between political and economic struggles. The former are seen as challenges to the state and therefore potentially revolutionary. The latter, on the other hand, are merely attempts to win better conditions within the existing framework of society. The lack of working-class political action in America, combined with the extraordinary struggles of American workers at the point of production, is therefore interpreted as satisfaction with the existing system combined with an effort to make maximum gains within it.
But in a period of mass strike, the political/ economic distinction breaks down. Strikes aim not just to win concessions but to increase the power of workers within industry-a quintessentially political objective. For industry itself is a system of political power - indeed, in our society the central one. The challenge to it is revolutionary. Indeed, forms of action which changed the state but left the organization of power in industry and other production intact would be no revolution at all from the standpoint of the ordinary worker. The relative disinterest of American workers in traditional forms of political action largely reflects the irrelevance of traditional politics to their daily problems; their militance at the workplace is their mode of political action. But the economic/ political distinction breaks down for another reason as well. Even purely "economic" strikes, as we have seen, arouse the direct political and military opposition of the state-making the conflict political even in the most narrow sense. In the final analysis, state authority and industrial authority function as parts of a unified system.
Of course, not all strikes challenge the organization of industrial power. The classic trade union bargaining strike takes the power organization as given, and plays only on the marginal disadvantage a strike causes the employer in the market place. It is precisely to the extent strike actions go beyond this to the altering of power relations that their implications are revolutionary.
Another, related criticism is the assertion that strikers aim to increase their power only in the narrow sense of their bargaining power in the market. This is the usual view of economists and of many labor leaders, who see workers essentially as people selling a commodity-their labor-in the market. If the price is too low, they withdraw their labor from the market. Since this is ineffective if done by individual labor-sellers, they join together in trade unions and withdraw their labor together-strike-until their commodity's price is raised. The emphasis placed by unions on the timing of strikes, bargaining strategy, organization of the labor market, and the like flows from this perspective. Above all, their conception of "what is possible" flows from their conception of what is possible in the existing market, a view which is applicable enough to collective bargaining strikes in ordinary times, but which renders incomprehensible the kind of social struggles reviewed in this book. For in them the workers think, speak and act not as vendors in a market, but as oppressed and exploited human beings in revolt. Their criterion is what they need, not "what the market will bear." Their strikes are not timed to the balance of supply and demand, but to the felt intolerability of their present condition. Their relation to employers and to each other is not expressed in terms of buyers and sellers, but in terms of anger at their oppressors and human solidarity with each other.
2. The Course of Mass Strikes
If the inner dynamic of mass strikes is generally the same, the particular forms they take are always different. To discover why a period of mass strike developed in the particular way it did requires looking at its particular circumstances-the approach we have followed in the bulk of this book. But we can identify a number of factors affecting their general course, and make a number of comparisons among them.
The course of each mass strike is naturally set by the existing structure of industrial society. Before the widespread development of industry and employees, there could be no mass strikes. In the nineteenth century, by far the most important aspect of capitalism was the railroads, and so the core of the 1877 and 1894 mass strikes were railroad strikes. Because railroads were so dominant and reached every industrial center, railroad strikes tended to spread rapidly to national proportions and to workers in all industries.
In the twentieth century, no single industry played this role. In 1919, the basic industries of steel and coal, along with other mass employers of the unskilled, formed the mass strike storm center. By the 1930's, the automobile was the new heart of the economy, and Teamsters, auto and auto-parts workers, and rubberworkers were the most prominent in the strikes of 1934-1937. Generally speaking, the units of production have become larger and larger through the years, so that the size of individual strikes has tended to grow.
The cyclical development of capitalist economy affects the occurrence of mass strikes. Periods of depression generate widespread social misery and bitterness among workers; not only are millions unemployed, but wages are cut and managers try to cut labor costs through speed-up. The large number of unemployed at such times as 1877 and 1934 add a potential mass urban crowd of extreme bitterness ready to join street battles in support of strikers.
Strikes during depressions are often extremely bitter, but they are difficult to win because employers have little margin of profit from which to grant wage increases or improvements in working conditions, and little to lose by closing down. During periods of business recovery, on the other hand, workers take advantage of their improved bargaining position to conduct a great many strikes. These tend, however, to be primarily aimed tow:ard making up ground lost during the previous downturn. Finally, periods of rapid inflation, such as after World Wars I and II, cause real wages to drop for virtually all workers at a time of relatively full employment, thus generating discontent at a time when strikes can generally be won.
The conventional wisdom that high labor conflict is exclusively a product of depression, or of the business upswing, or of any other particular part of the business cycle, does not hold up on examination. Yet at another level, there can be no question that mass strikes are part of the periodic crises-whether economic, political, or military-which have marked industrial capitalist society from the time of its establishment. The mass strikes of 1877, 1886, and 1894 were each phenomena of world-wide depression, as were those of the 1930's. Those of 1919 and 1946 were part of the reorganization that followed industrial capitalism's greatest crises, World Wars I and II.
Such crises potentiate industrial action even when (as in World Wars I and II) they raise workers' wages. This is in large part because they undermine the rhythms of daily life, the pattern of adaptation to which people have become accustomed, and to which they tend to cling even when it is impoverished. After all, people will try to adapt to even the most unpleasant situation if it seems stable and they feel unable to change it-that is why they are not in a state of revolt continuously. Only when something disrupts the normal life pattern and makes it impossible to go on living in the old way or provides a new sense of potential power will large numbers of people cease to act in accustomed ways.19 Once objective forces have broken these familiar patterns, people begin acting in new ways. The fact that mass strikes are a response to crises in the system of industrial capitalism gives them a further significance. For it means that mass strikes are essentially mass responses to the failures and irrationalities of that system.
At a time of growing discontent, in which invisible, low-level conflicts at the shop level are everywhere generating the potential basis for solidarity, the action of one group of workers often serves as the triggering example to large numbers of others. The strike and defeat of the militia in Martinsburg, West Virginia, started a chain reaction in the Great Upheaval of 1877; victory over the nation's most notorious industrial magnate in the first Gould strike was a major factor in precipitating the struggles of 1886; similarly, the Great Northern strike laid the basis for the Pullman strike and the mass strikes of 1894; and it was the successful sitdowns of the rubberworkers that triggered the sitdown wave of 1936-1937. Each exemplary action demonstrated the power workers held because they could stop production, often backed by their willingness and capacity to withstand violence by company or state forces, thus infusing other workers with self-confidence and an appreciation of their own power.
It is not only workers' victories that lay the basis for mass strikes, however. In many cases it is defeat or impending defeat that drives home the need for a wider solidarity and stronger tactics. The dramatic defeat of the Homestead strike of 1892 at the hands of the Carnegie Steel Company and the state militia had a great impact on workers throughout the country, laying the groundwork for the sense of class war that accompanied the 1894 Pullman strike and the intense solidarity revealed in that struggle. Similarly, the San Francisco general strike of 1934 resulted from the impending defeat of the longshoremen by the National Guard. And the solidarity that marked the General Motors strike of 1936-1937 grew largely from the experience of defeats in the preceding years in isolated plants in Toledo, Cleveland, and elsewhere. Thus within mass strikes we can see an evolution based on lessons learned from the successes and failures of the recent past.
The visible events that compose mass strikes are in large part community or national polarizations. As the impact of a strike on daily life grows greater, it tends to dissolve the infinite variety of subcommunities into two opposed camps: those who identify with the strikers and those who identify with the employers. This polarization can be seen most dramatically in general strikes, such as those in Seattle in 1919 and San Francisco in 1934. Here the entire population divides into two organized blocs with the social fabric that usually holds them together virtually dissolved. Violence or armed state intervention often plays a critical role in precipitating this polarization-an important reason why those in positions of authority generally prefer to avoid them. Once blood is drawn or troops intervene, social struggles are dramatized as fundamental struggles over power, to which members of each side respond by coming to the aid of their fellows. It is through such events that the hidden development of class solidarity becomes manifest.
The same process of polarization occurs nationally, although it is often less visible due to the vastness and diversity of the country, and less tangible because it takes place largely in the realm of public opinion rather than direct action. It can be seen most vividly in the Pullman strike of 1894; but in all the periods we have studied, national sentiment became polarized on class lines as a result of dramatic strikes and confrontations. The development of public opinion on the employers' side is easy to trace; it is revealed in newspapers, statements by public figures, and the action of government officials, stressing law, order, authority, and property rights.
The change in workers' attitudes, on the other hand, is extremely hard to investigate, except as it is revealed in mass actions. However, a few observations can be made on the development of workers’ consciousness during periods of mass strike. In normal times, American workers do not have a strong sense of being part of a class that is separate from the rest of society.
As Charles R. Walker put it, "In everyday life . . . [the working class] tends with slenderer means to approximate the social fashions and cultural content handed to it"20 ; their style of living is as close as they can bring it to the classes above them. This is in contrast, for example, to England, where the awareness of being part of a separate class is expressed in a wide range of cultural forms - pubs, co-ops, and benefit societies, entertainment, folklore, neighborhood, family, and the like - regardless of the current level of industrial conflict. In the United States, such separate subcultures tend to divide much more on ethnic and generational lines. This does not mean that workers have not felt exploited and kicked around; they have felt consistently that the managers are powerful and that they are powerless, and others are rich while they are barely able to get by. But class consciousness involves more than an individual sense of oppression. It requires the sense that one's oppression is a function of one's being part of an oppressed group, whose position can only be dealt with by the action of the entire group. It is this consciousness that arises in the course of mass strikes, revealed in workers' attitudes as well as in concrete acts of solidarity. For, as Walker continued, members of the working class
are united by a common insecurity and despite variations a common way of making a living - by wages and not profits. They are united as well by the union against them-in time of crisis-of all other forces in society. At such times, the working class for brief periods develops ideas of its own interest apart from the middle class, and the faint beginnings of an original culture. It produces leaders, thinks up fresh forms of organization and strategy, and above all scans skeptically its own relation to the rest of society.21
This transformation can at times be seen in individual lives. In normal times American workers generally look to individual advancement for themselves or their children as the means to escape working-class status; in periods of mass strike millions of them risk their jobs, their meagre savings, and whatever security they have built up through respectability, trade unionism, or relations with their employer, to engage in collective action.
But the most important change in consciousness in periods of mass strike is the heart of revolutionary consciousness - "people's understanding that they can initiate and control action and themselves make the decisions about their lives."22 This awareness is of course only partial, but we can see it in every mass strike action, superceding the feeling of impotence that marks life in ordinary times.
Occasionally, this consciousness has reached a realization that workers need and are able to take over the direction of production and society. The participants in the Seattle general strike explicitly saw their own activities in management during the strike as a preparation for the time that workers would run society. As the Seattle Union Record wrote,
If by revolution is meant that a Great Change is coming over the face of the world, which will transform our method of carrying on industry, and will go deep into the very sources of our lives, to bring joy and freedom in place of heaviness and fear-then we do believe in such a Great Change and that our General Strike was one very definite step towards it.
We look about us today and see a world of industrial unrest, of owners set over against workers, of strikes and lock-outs, of mutual suspicions.
We see a world of strife and insecurity, of unemployment, and hungry children. It is not a pleasant world to look upon. Surely no one desires that it shall continue in this most painful unrest. . . .
We see but one way out. In place of two classes, competing for the fruits of industry, there must be, eventually ONLY ONE CLASS sharing fairly the good things of the world. And this can only be done by THE WORKERS LEARNING TO MANAGE. . . .
When we saw, in our General Strike:
The Milk Wagon Drivers consulting late into the night over the task of supplying milk for the city's babies;
The Provision Trades working twenty-four hours out of the twenty-four on the question of feeding 30,000 workers;
The Barbers planning a chain of co-operative barber shops;
The Steamfitters opening a profitless grocery store;
The Labor Guards facing, under severe provocation, the task of maintaining order by a new and kinder method;
When we saw union after union submitting its cherished desires to the will of the General Strike Committee:
THEN WE REJOICED.
For we knew that it was worth the four or five day's pay apiece to get this education in the problems of management. Whatever strength we found in ourselves, and whatever weakness, we knew we were learning the thing which it is NECESSARY for us to know. . . .
Some day, when the workers have learned to manage, they will BEGIN MANAGING. . . . And we, the workers of Seattle, have seen, in the midst of our General Strike, vaguely and across the storm, a glimpse of what the fellowship of that new day shall be.23
The outlaw coal strikers of 1919 similarly saw their actions as a first step toward taking over "the mines for the miners," and attempted to spread the aim of a workers' take-over of production to other groups. More typically, however, workers have aimed for 249 some kind of counter-power over management, neither realizing the inherent problems of such a state nor feeling their own power to direct society.
Of course, the mass consciousness at any moment is always full of contradictions. Workers often feel that big business controls everything in America including the government, but simultaneously believe that America and its government represent the ordinary people and should be supported by them. Indeed, they resist believing that the government is their enemy. It is painful and unpatriotic to believe that the government systematically uses armed force against its own people to protect the interests of the wealthy, for that belief means giving up hope that anything can be gained without revolutionary change.
This conservatism of thought is quite natural. The Declaration of Independence puts it: "all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."
Here lies the explanation of the Homestead strikers, one day indicted for treason for levying war against the State of Pennsylvania, and the next voting for Cleveland, the very man who was to suppress the Pullman strike. Seemingly conservative ideas can be deceptive, however; for instance, at the height of the General Motors sitdown, union war veterans planned to take over the city hall and jail - a completely insurrectionary act - yet planned to take over authority in the name of the Constitution as well as the union. It is a cliche that people walk into the future facing backward; a radical intention is often clothed in the language of the past. For, as Leon Trotsky wrote, there is a "chronic lag of ideas and relations behind new objective conditions," so that the process of revolution "consists in the gradual comprehension by a class of the problems arising from the social crisis-the active orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations."24 Only the first stages of this process can be seen in U.S. history.
One other change in consciousness-indeed in life-develops in mass strikes. This is the break they create within the day-to-day boredom, monotony, subservience, and limitation of individual possibilities of which most people's daily lives are made up. This is revealed in the frequent statements to the effect that "suddenly I felt like a human being, not a machine." It comes out in the gaiety, the festival atmosphere that marks so many of the mass actions we have described, even when they were colored by anger and bitterness as well. And it can be observed in the explosion of spontaneous creativity in tactics, in songs, in organization, that we have seen. It is this which most of all foreshadows a real change in ordinary life, in which human activity flows from individual and group creativity, rather than from a minority who direct the social activity of others in their own interest. No mere increase in "leisure time" provided by the present system can provide this sense of liberation from the limits imposed on all of us by those who now determine social life.
3. The Containment of Mass Strikes
Although in this book we have focused on the actions of the workers, this is of course only half the story - the other half is the action of those who oppose them. It is a truism that ruling groups try to control challenges from those subordinate to them by a combination of repression and concessions. The detailed history of employer and government labor policy during mass strikes can in most cases be reduced to various combinations of these two tactics. For, as Peter Drucker wrote,
A strike is essentially a revolt. . . . Historically, revolts have been ended in one of two ways: by force of arms or by giving the rebels what they wanted and thus taking the steam out of the revolution.25
Ruling groups call on force and violence only reluctantly, for it is a great liability to do so. It shatters their image of benevolence and fairness to all parties, revealing them instead as oppressors ready to kill to retain their privileges. It reveals that their authority is breaking down, that they no longer receive automatic obedience by consent but must obtain it by force. In turn, violence pushes its victims into more extreme forms of opposition. Nonetheless, the industrial managers and the state have again and again had to resort to force to maintain their position. An entire history could be written of the apparatus constructed for this purpose, from the armories built in American cities in the wake of the Great Upheaval of 1877, to the Pennsylvania Coal and Iron police, to the industrial munitions uncovered by the La Follette Committee, to the military surveillance of potential sources of civil disturbances-demonstrations, strikes, and riots-revealed by Senate investigations in 1971.
A general pattern marks the mobilization of the forces of repression in the periods we have studied. Generally speaking, the industrial managers wield enormous power over the local politicians in strike areas, and with their assistance can put together a force of company guards, sheriff's deputies (often paid for by the employer), local police, vigilantes, and the like. They try to break up the picket lines and generally harass and intimidate the strikers.
If this is insufficient to break the strike, the next step is the calling in of the National Guard. Often the tensions generated by the conflict have already led to confrontations which can be used to justify this step; if not, the employers can easily provoke or fabricate them. Once the National Guard enters the scene and allows free entrance to the plants, the strike can generally be broken unless the workers respond with mass action on a large scale. Oftentimes, a conservative Governor will himself want to send in the Guard in order to assert the power of "law and order" and assist his political allies.
But, as we have observed, liberal Governors elected by labor votes may also end up calling out the Guard against strikers. A vivid example is Governor Floyd B. Olson of Minnesota, elected by a Farmer-Labor Party representing the unions and radical farmers' organizations, who personally contributed $500 to the Teamsters strike fund and stated, "I am not a liberal. . . I am a radical" - yet who sent in the National Guard to arrest the Minneapolis Teamsters strike leaders and capture strike headquarters in 1934. The reason for this seeming anomaly is that the government, its supposed neutrality in labor matters notwithstanding, is bound to protect private property rights and the orderly processes of society, and any politician who fails to do so will stand condemned for failing to fulfill his job and creating anarchy.26
The formal division between State and Federal government allows the Federal government in most cases to avoid the onus of repression, thus maintaining its appearance of neutrality between labor and capital. Of course, this appearance is illusory, for the various National Guards are trained, equipped, and supported by the U.S. Army. And when the National Guard is unable to do the job, the U.S. Army is always there to help out. We have seen Federal troops directly suppressing strikes in the Great Upheaval of 1877, and in the Pullman Strike of 1894 (without the request and over the objections of the Governor); we have seen them poised to intervene in the textile strike of 1934 and the railroad strike of 1946, as well as in various plant seizures during and after World War II. Such events are an index of the extent to which the normal authority of the rulers has broken down and they are driven to resort to naked force.
But force is only one face of their policy; the granting of concessions is equally important. No doubt the greatest number of strikes are ended simply by wage increases and related concessions, giving the appearance of a victory for the workers while leaving the power of their employers intact. Very often the government steps in at a point of deadlock, bringing conciliators, mediation, arbitration, fact-finding boards, and the like to propose or impose a settlement of this kind. Unlike armed intervention, this presents the state as neutral or even pro-labor, since it generally recommends concessions from the employers. In fact, of course, it throws the authority of the government behind a return to work on terms that do not threaten the powers or prosperity of the industrial managers.
More significant than the granting of particular concessions, however, has been the recognition of trade unions and the acceptance of collective bargaining.
Industrial management has been far more reluctant to grant these than wage increases, for it has seen in them a threat to its own powers. The government, on the other hand, has frequently supported collective bargaining, recognizing (as the much-cited report of the English Royal Commission on Labor argued as early as 1894) that
the evidence. . . points to the conclusion that on the whole and notwithstanding occasional conflicts on a very large scale, the increased strength of [labor] organization may tend toward the maintenance of harmonious relations between employers and employees.27
Collective bargaining was endorsed by all twentieth-century Presidents28 and finally required by the Wagner Act. Union representation left the subordinate position of workers intact, but provided a mechanism for eliminating those grievances which could be rectified without undermining the profit-making of the employer.
Management and government often started by supporting various schemes for collective bargaining through company unions, works councils, and other "house unions." But unions that are formally opponents of the employers are superior to company unions in disciplining the workforce for a very simple reason - workers will not obey leaders they think represent the boss. Thus a high police official in San Francisco in 1934 reported that the trouble which culminated in the general strike began when regular A.F.L. leaders lost control because "the rank-and-file workers became convinced that their leaders were too much hand-in-glove with the industrial interests of the city."29
Trade unions often started when the industrial work-groups we described above simply formed into permanent organizations. As they grew their character changed, however, and they became quite separate from the workplace, controlled from above by professional officials kept in office by their own political machines.
This division between the union organization and the workers who may be its members can be seen in normal times in the "discipline" imposed by union officials on workers defying company or union authority, as in wildcat strikes; in times of mass strike, the conflict between the trade union organization and the so-called rank and file becomes one of the dominant realities, as we have seen repeatedly. The formal democratic structure of many trade unions does not contradict, but merely ratifies the division between ordinary workers and the trade union leadership), As E.A. Ross wrote in a study of collective bargaining,
There are few institutions in the economic or social life of the nation with so many channels of communication between the rank and file and the leadership.
It does not follow, however, that trade union wage policy is actually made up of rank-and-file decisions, in any real sense. And in point of fact, the rank and file is extremely dependent on the leadership for guidance on what is equitable, what is possible, and what is acceptable. The most important business of meetings and conventions is to permit the officers to communicate with the members. The essential function of the strike vote and the referendum is to demonstrate the solidarity of the union in support of its leaders.30
Furthermore, as Ross argues, this centralization of union power in the leadership grows out of the very function of the trade union, bargaining for the workers:
The wage policy of a union, like the foreign policy of a nation, is a matter poorly suited to the methods of primitive democracy. . . To expect a rank-and-file determination of bargaining strategy is about as plausible as to expect the government of the United States to conduct its foreign policy through a monthly plebescite of registered voters. . . . At some point or other, it is wise to conclude negotiations (or terminate hostilities) and sign a treaty for another year. This is another strategic decision which the rank and file is not equipped to make.
Thus, trade union wage policy is inevitably a leadership function.
The reason is not that the leadership has wrested dictatorial power from the rank and file but that it alone is in possession of the necessary knowledge, experience and skill to perform the function adequately.31
ETs not for combat that the union leadership is needed, but for diplomacy. Even democratic procedures on the part of the leadership do not belie this, according to Ross.
It is interesting to observe how the procedures for rank-and-file participation in the wage bargain have increasingly become tools for the use of leadership. Originally intended to implement the final authority of the rank and file, they have gradually undergone a subtle metamorphosis, until they have become a means of conditioning the membership, communicating indirectly with the employer, and guarding the flank against rival leadership. . . the procedures originally designed to guarantee control by the rank and file have become devices for control of the rank and file.32
Militant gestures on the part of the union leadership play a similar role.
From time to time, prudence may also require the vigorous prosecution of lost causes. A group of workers may feel strongly about some fancied grievance, or a grass-roots wage demand. . . . Notwithstanding the virtual certainty of defeat, the issue may be militantly pressed in collective bargaining. employers frequently understand that union officials are required to support improbable demands, and develop a spirit of tolerance toward the practice if it is not carried too far. If it is politically impossible for the officials to accept a refusal, the issue may be carried to arbitration, again without expectation of success. All of these procedures are part of the equipment of successful trade union leaders.33
Ross concludes that trade unions must be considered as organizations with aims quite separate from their own members. "The formal rationale of the union is to augment the economic welfare of its members; but a more vital institutional objective - survival and growth of the organization-will take precedence whenever it comes into conflict with the formal purpose."34
The key to understanding the role of trade unions in periods of mass strike is the labor contract. For the past half-century, this has essentially been an exchange of certain concessions from management for a union pledge to prevent strikes during the term of the contract. (Such contracts have been the objective of all modern American unions, though many unions in the nineteenth century and the I.W.W. in the twentieth did not sign contracts running fixed times. Labor organizations which do not make such contracts can hardly be considered trade unions in the modern sense and they are not necessarily subject to the dynamics we discuss here.)
As long as such a contract does not exist, a union will support and encourage the most militant action on the part of workers, including spontaneous strikes, violence, and occupations. Once employers accept a contract, however, the existence of the union and the jobs of its officials will depend on its enforcing the contract-that is, preventing strikes. The union's central office
detaches itself from the masses it regiments, removing itself from the fickle eddy of moods and currents that are typical of the great tumultuous masses. The union thus acquires the ability to sign agreements and take on responsibilities, obliging the entrepreneur to accept a certain legality in his relations with the workers. This legality is conditional on the trust the entrepreneur has in . . . [the union's] ability to ensure that the working masses respect their contractual obligations.35
Thus we have seen unions lead determined struggles with illegal means and full encouragement of mass initiative, only to turn around after winning recognition and apply the full panoply of employers' strikebreaking tactics-including red-baiting, physical attack, importation of strikebreakers, loss of employment and blacklisting-to put down workers' strikes. This is not necessarily the result of personal corruption. Indeed, it flows from the very function of unionism - setting the terms on which workers will submit to the managers' authority. This function can only be carried out if the workers do in fact submit!
This development in the role of unions helps clarify their contribution to the two elements of labor struggles which foreshadow a different society: self-directed action and solidarity. In the pre-recognition period, unions generally offer themselves as the vehicle of workers' self-initiative; where there is serious discontent but they fail to do so, as with the A.F.L. in the 1930's, new leaders or unions offer themselves for this role. The union attempts to build support by championing the workers' acts of defiance against the employer, and does not oppose spontaneous strikes except on the basis of bad timing. Once a contract is signed, however, the statements of the union leaders-including radical leaders-suddenly ring with the need for discipline and order. The responsibility of the workers is no longer to act, but to obey union orders. When a conflict arises in the workplace, the union leaders immediately tell the workers not to take impulsive action, but to let the union authorities take care of it through the grievance machinery. (Of course occasional shop-floor militants do not take this attitude, but, reflecting their own position not as officials but as workers, encourage their co-workers to use their power directly; this is one of the reasons that the lowest level of union officials are frequently involved in wildcat strikes not authorized by the union.) Above all, the workers are not to strike - that is a violation of the contract which jeopardizes the union's whole relation to the employer and thereby its existence.
J. Raymond Walsh, professor of economics at Harvard and one-time director of research and education for the C.I.O., explained the methods by which unions try to forestall strike movements:
. . . the records demonstrate that most unions make every effort to settle disputes without recourse to the strike. Many unions guard against hasty strike judgements by taking from their locals all authority in such matters, and concentrating it in the hands of national officers. Frequently the national officials, removed from the heat of the dispute and the miseries that engender it, we might add], are much more likely to be reasonable and willing to mediate than are local officials, or an irritated rank-and-file.
. . . National officers. . . are much easier to deal with than union committees from the shop. Far from fomenting trouble, they spend most of their time settling disputes before the strike stage is reached.36
Of course to retain support of the workers, a union must appear to fight the employer. It does this by means of the collective bargaining strike when the contract expires. In these strikes, however, the union generally tries to limit workers' initiative by keeping them under strict discipline, although pent-up feelings sometimes break out in mass action initiated by the workers themselves, and the workers often refuse to accept the limited objectives proposed by the unions, or refuse their terms of settlement.
The same development applies to solidarity. In the pre-recognition period, unions try to show that workers' problems can be solved only through collective action. They try to build up the sense of solidarity first among those who work together directly, then throughout the whole industry. When a strike breaks out, unless they consider it poorly timed, they try to spread it, at least to all of those who would be covered by the same contract. Once a contract is achieved, however, the process is reversed. If a strike breaks out, everything possible is done to isolate it and prevent its spread. Any direct coordination by the workers outside union channels is either taken over or fought by all means necessary. Solidarity with workers in other trades, industries and unions is undermined most of all. This occurs continuously through the context created by unions in which only those in a particular union advance together. The unions' divisive role becomes most clear in the bitterness with which union leaders oppose sympathetic strikes and general strikes, on the grounds that they violate the sanctity of the contract.
Finally, trade unions play an important role in circumscribing the aspects of life with which workers are supposed to concern themselves. First, the union contract explicitly recognizes the right of management to make the basic decisions affecting the company. This perpetuates the unpleasant and demeaning character of work by preventing workers from attempting to organize the work more to suit their own convenience. It also prevents them from taking any responsibility for what is produced, how well it is made, whether the production process poisons the environment, and similar questions. Thus workers are prevented from trying to make their work serve each others' needs rather than those of their employer.
Second, the union framework limits workers to questions which affect their particular sector, rather than the more general question of social organization and policy that affect all workers in common.
The first blocks development toward workers' management of production, the second toward their management of society
Of course, these characteristics of trade unionism have not always"been clear either to the workers who supported it or the employers who fought it. Generally speaking, both parties saw in trade unionism a steadily encroaching control by the workers, leading to a power at least equal to that of the employers. As Judge Gary of U.S. Steel, long champion of the open shop, put it,
the contemplated progress of trade unions, if successful, would be to secure the control of the shops, then of the general management of business, then of capital, and finally of government.37
But in fact trade unions turned out to be a means for taking unformed aspirations toward such control and channeling them into demands which were "realistic" - in the sense that employers could meet them without giving up their power or going out of business. With rare exceptions, trade unions have opposed as irresponsible and unrealistic workers' demands which went beyond this.
Since 1877, the trade union leadership as a whole has recognized the mass strike process and consciously opposed it, even when trying to use certain of its manifestations. This is vividly revealed in Terence Powderly's attempt to break up the 1886 general strike out of fear of another 1877; in Samuel Gompers' and the A.F.L.'s killing off of the Pullman strike; and in the C.I.O.'s attempt to break up the sitdown movement in 1937-1938.
What about the radical parties and organizations whose self-over proclaimed goal is not just marginal improvements but a different kind of society? We have run across them from time to time in the course of this book-Communists, Socialists, Trotskyists, Musteites, Socialist Labor and other parties, as well as their members in the A.F.L., C.I.O., and dualist trade unions. Yet they have had little significant role in instigating the mass struggles we have described. They have generally been preoccupied with building their own organization, whether party or union, and have seen the significance of mass movements in their possible addition to the membership or support for such organizations. They have done little to clarify the possible revolutionary significance of mass actions or to develop their more radical potentialities. For example, the Communist and Socialist union leaders involved in the Flint sitdowns of 1936-1937 made a point of emphasizing that the sitdowners did not even discuss the idea of reopening the plants - then or eventually-under their own management.
When radical leaders have succeeded in gaining organizational control over unions, the unions have operated within the framework of orderly collective bargaining like any others. In those cases where their members have played a radical role in mass movements, they have generally done so in response to the conditions they shared with other participants, not as a result of their organizational connections. Most radical upheavals have generally been as much a surprise to the radicals as to everyone else
If mass strikes constitute a revolutionary process, they have never yet in America made a revolution. On the whole, workers have believed-or at least hoped-that their needs could be met within the framework of the existing society. Further, they have believed in the inevitability of that society, and have believed themselves powerless to change it fundamentally. Only rarely has it occurred to them that they could run society themselves.
Even when workers discovered their own power, they retained the gravest doubts about its legitimacy. For it contradicted all the long-inculcated values of law, order, authority and property. They understood instinctively that such action undermined the "republican" form of government by substituting direct action for state action. The belief in existing political forms has thus served as a constant brake on more radical forms of action. The failure of American mass strikes to pass over into revolution requires two levels of explanation. First, we must look at factors largely beyond control of the workers. American capitalism started out without a feudal class, and therefore escaped constraints and struggles against them which have generated revolutionary tendencies in many other countries. Similarly, it has experienced unique opportunities for continental and then world expansion, and consequently has been able so far to grant considerable concessions to its own workers without undermining its profit-making capacity. And it has so far gained enormously from the cataclysmic wars of the twentieth century while escaping relatively unscathed from the devastation that generated revolutions elsewhere.
In the last chapter of this book, we will examine three foreign cases in which workers during periods of mass strike tried to take over the means of production and run them themselves. In each case, the repressive power of the state was seriously shaken, while at the same time the old owners were unable to make further concessions without giving up their control of production or going bankrupt, and therefore had taken the offensive against the workers through lockouts or civil war.
While the conditions under which a mass strike develops revolutionary goals are not completely clear, the weakening of the apparatus of repression and the lack of a margin for making concessions seem to be most important. The failure of American mass strikes to attempt revolution is in large part the result of the fact that so far the state, its army and police forces, have remained solvent and intact, and that the industrial corporations have been able to make concessions on wages and trade union issues while retaining their profitability.
But if the power and wealth of the existing system has been the main factor in containing American mass strikes, it is important to look at the limitations of the working class' own response. Perhaps the most important of these was workers' lack of appreciation of their own potential power. Even when they discovered, for instance, that they could shut down their department, plant, or industry, this was rarely seen as revealing their ability to stop - and therefore to change-the entire society. And even when they exercised a counter-power over production or organized the complexities of social life under strike conditions, they did not draw the conclusion that therefore they could manage society and production.
For this reason, workers have always assumed that at the end of any strike, no matter how large or powerful, they would end up going back to work for somebody else. And this assumption automatically limited their objectives, even in periods of mass strike, to improvements within the system rather than an end to the rule of the boss. Trade unionism was felt to offer a counter-power, in which workers would be presented with management plans and could challenge them - backing up the challenge with a strike if necessary. No organizational alternative to trade unionism-based on a refusal to accept the established rights and powers of the industrial managers-developed, even though the workers were repeatedly contesting those prerogatives, even in opposition to the unions. Workers continued to accept trade unionism in general, even when actually opposing trade unions in their own actions, because trade unionism represented the concessions the employers were willing and able to grant, and workers could not envision getting rid of this limitation by getting rid of the employers.
A sense of powerlessness is natural in a society where the real power is held by a small minority.Workers-indeed, everyone but the managers-have little experience in controlling anything outside their private lives. They are kept in ignorance of how society is managed. Their education from kindergarten upward is designed to impress upon them their limitations, and to unfit them for the exercise of power. As adults they are limited to highly specialized and often stultifying jobs. Under these conditions, they naturally doubt their ability to direct their own workplace, let alone society.
This feeling of powerlessness is accentuated by the ever-increasing concentration of decision-making in the hands of the managers. In short, the division of labor between those who decide and those whom they order to carry out their decisions leaves the latter feeling incompetent to do anything but obey.
The sense of powerlessness is of course enormously increased by the actual power workers find facing them in this society. The importance of direct economic dependence on the employers cannot be underestimated; the result of disobedience on the job is simply getting fired. While a main purpose of unions was to modify this power through seniority, union hiring halls, and other forms of job security, they have become another instrument of this control by themselves authorizing or even demanding the firing of workers who engage in wildcats and other acts of rebellion. Once workers do rebel they find not only the employer, the local police and state militia, and eventually the U.S. Army ranged against them, but also their own union. In the fact of such power, resistance seems hopeless and a fatalistic adaptation the wiser course.
Further, the ideology of the existing society exercises a powerful hold on workers' minds. The longing to escape from subordination to the boss is most often expressed in the dream of going into business for yourself, even when you realize that the odds against success are overwhelming. The civics book cliche that the American government represents the ordinary people and is therefore legitimate survives even in those who find the government directly opposing their own needs in the interests of their bosses. The desire to own a house, a car, or perhaps an independent business maintains a belief in private property which makes an expropriation of the great corporations seem a personal threat. The idea that everybody is really out for himself, that it can be no other way, and that therefore the solution to one's problems must come from beating the others rather than cooperating with them is inculcated over and over by the very structure of life in a competitive society.
The divisions within the working class keep workers from realizing the power they have together by turning them against each other instead of against their common rulers. This has often been fostered by the employers, who deliberately imported mutually hostile nationalities, used women, blacks and students as strikebreakers, and played skilled and unskilled, blue- and white-collar workers against each other. But these divisions have also been deliberately perpetuated by the workers themselves. In part this has been the result of traditional prejudice, suspicion, ignorance and racism. But to a great extent it has resulted from a deliberate policy of maintaining a favored position at the expense of other workers.
This is seen most vividly in the craft unions, which operate as closed guilds-often controlled by particular ethnic groups, and almost invariably by white men-to exclude outsiders from the trade.
But it is true of all unions insofar as they use their bargaining power primarily to improve their position vis-a-vis other workers. And it is true of all who hold privileged positions within the working class: skilled, male, white, native-born, and white-collar workers.
The more these groups have turned their power against other workers, the weaker has been the working class as a whole. As S.M. Lipset and Reinhard Bendix wrote in Social Mobility in Industrial Society (1959):
A real social and economic cleavage is created by widespread discrimination against. . . minority groups and this diminishes the chance for the development of solidarity along class lines. . . . This continued splintering of the working class is a major element in the preservation of the stability of the American social structure.38
The process of mass strike which we have described in this chapter is the process of overcoming these weaknesses. In the mass strike, workers learn that they are powerless only insofar as they are divided; that together they represent the entire productive force of society. So far, however, mass strikes in America have failed to develop far enough to replace the existing organization of page society. Whether they may do so in the future depends upon the rapidly changing social context in which they occur.
But even in terms of the workers' position within capitalism, mass strikes have not been a failure. As a railroad engineer put it after the suppression of the Pullman strike, "If there had never been a strike or a labor organization I am satisfied that every railway employee in the country would be working for one-half what he has been working for of late. Strikes are not generally successful, but they entail a heavy loss on the company and it is to avoid that loss that the company ever meets us at all."39 The same is true of the various "reforms" like the Wagner Act, grievance procedures, seniority system, and the like: they are the result of the threat of disruption and revolution contained in the mass strike. In our society, even reform has occurred only under threat of revolt.
- 1Elton Mayo, The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization (Harvard, 1946), cited in Paul Romanto and Ria Stone, American Worker (Detroit: Facing Reality Publishing Co., 1947), p. 53.
- 2 Orvis Collins, Melville Dalton and Donald Roy, "Restriction of Output and Social Cleavage in Industry" in Applied Anthropology (Summer 1946), p. 4.
- 3 Ibid.
- 4Ibid., p. 8.
- 5Ibid., p. 7.
- 6Ibid., p. 9.
- 7Donald Roy, "Making Out: A Counter-System of Workers Control of Work Situations and Relations," in Industrial Man, Tom Burns, ed. (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969).
- 8Clayton W. Fountain, Union Guy (N.Y.: Viking Press, 1949), pp. 28-9.
- 9The Commission of Inquiry, Interchurch World Movement, Report on the Steel Strike of 1919 (N.Y.: Harcourt Brace and Howe, 1920), p. 147..
- 10Alvin W. Gouldner, Wildcat Strike, A Study in Worker-Management Relationships (N.Y.: Harper& Row, Torchbooks ed., 1965), p. 66.
- 11Hugh D. Graham and Ted R. Gurr, The History of Violence in America, A Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (N.Y.: Bantam Books, 1969), p. 380.
- 13Leon Wolff, Lockout, The Story of the Homestead Strike of 1892: A Study of Violence, Unionism and the Carnegie Steel Empire (N.Y.: Harper & Row, 1965), p. 228.
- 14Milwaukee Daily Journal, May 5, 1886, cited in Roger Simon, "The Bay View Incident and the People's Party in Milwaukee," unpublished paper, 1967, p. 9.
- 15Sloan, cited in Sidney Fine, Sit-Down, The General Motors Strike of 1936- 1937 (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1969), p. 182.
- 16Louis Adamic, My America 1928 – 1938 (New York: Harper & Bros, Publishers, 1938), Page 409.
- 17Robert E. Park, in introduction to E.T. Hiller, The Strike (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1928), p. x.
- 18Business Week, Mar. 8, 1941, p. 52, cited in Joel Seidman, American Labor from Defense to Reconstruction (University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 46.
- 19 See "Keep on Trucking," by Mac Brockway, in Root and Branch No.3 for a discussion of this phenomenon.
- 20Charles R. Walker, American City, a Rank-and-File History (N.Y.: Farrar & Rinehart, 1937), p. 239.
- 22Paul Mattick Jr., in introduction to Anton Pannekoek, Workers Councils (Root & Branch Pamphlet I) 1970, p. ii.
- 23History Committee of the Seattle Gen Strike Committee, The Seattle General Strike (Seattle: The Seattle Union Record Publishing Co., Inc., 1920), Pages 7 to 8.
- 24Leon Trotsky, The Russian Revolution, Selected and edited by F.W. Dupee 263 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959), introduction, pp. x-xi.
- 25Peter Drucker, "What to Do About Strikes," in Collier's, Jan. 18, 1947, p. 12.
- 26See for example C.R. Walker, pp. 73-6, 203.
- 27"Final Report of the Royal Commission on Labor," Parliament Papers, 1894, V. xxxv.
- 28Graham & Gurr, p. 387.
- 29New York Post, July 19, 1934, cited in Wilfrid H. Crook, Communism and the General Strike (Harnden, Conn.: Shoe String Press, 1960), pp. 142-3.
- 30E.A. Ross, "The Trade Union as a Wage-Fixing Institution," in the American Economic Review. Sept. 1947, p. 582.
- 32Ibid., pp. 582-6.
- 33Ibid., p. 587.
- 34 Ibid.
- 35Antonio Gramsci, "Unions and Councils- II," Nuovo, June 12, 1920, in New Left Review, No:51, p. 39.
- 36 Raymond Walsh, C.I.O., pp. 173-4.
- 37Judge Gary, Steel Institute Yearbook (1920), p. 19, cited in David Brody, Steelworkers in America, the Nonunion ti'a (N.Y.: Harper Torchbooks, 1969), p.275.
- 38S.M. Lipset and Reinhard Bendix, Social Mobility in Industrial Society (Berkeley and L.A.: University of California Press, 1963), p. 106.
- 39U.S. Strike Commission, p. 121.