United States: Workers on the Move - Fred Pilgotsky

Article appearing in International Socialism, No.70, Mid-June 1974, by auto worker and socialist Fred Pilgotsky. In it he talks about wildcats in the auto industry, the conflicts between the unions and the rank-and-file, and the significance of race in the US.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on August 17, 2011

LAST JULY two black production workers, Larry Carter and Isaac Shorter, climbed over the gate to the power control panel in one of Detroit’s largest car assembly plants, the Jefferson Assembly Rant, and cut off the power to the spot-welding department. They demanded that management sack a white supervisor who had been harassing them, and give them a guarantee of no victimisation for their action.

Almost immediately about 100 workers in the spot-welding department crowded round the panel and defended their two brothers against the efforts – first of the Chrysler company and then of the police – to remove them. The majority of the workers in the area were black and had suffered all the harassment and indignities that Carter and Shorter were protesting against.

Chrysler management made the mistake, at this point, of allowing the next shift to come in, hoping to use them to restart production. But some 1,000 workers from the whole of the metal shop crowded round the control panel, forcing management to give in. Chrysler fired the supervisor, claiming that he had ‘violated company personnel policy’. In front of 1,000 workers, the plant manager came down to the shop floor and signed a statement that the two workers would not be victimised for their action.

This was the first complete victory for many years for action begun by the rank and file in the Detroit car industry and it sparked off a series of disputes in the city.

About two weeks later, in the Mack Stamping Rant, Chrysler’s biggest press shop in Detroit, some fans broke down on a hot day. As the temperature built up, a group of workers stopped and refused to work until the fans were repaired. One was sacked. A few days later he came back to the plant, demanding his job back. He sat down at his former machine and when the factory guard came to remove him a scuffle broke out. The company, fearing a repetition of the events two weeks previously, told all the plant supervisors to send the entire workforce home on the pretext of a bomb-scare.

The plant was evacuated, apart from this one area, where there was a spontaneous sit-down of 150-odd workers who demanded the reinstatement of the sacked worker and corrections to health and safety hazards in the factory.

At this point the carworkers’ union, the Union of Auto Workers – in the person of Douglas Fraser, head of the Chrysler department of the union – went on the radio and publicly called on the Chrysler Corporation not to consider the workers’ demands. He declared that if the company did so it would only encourage this kind of activity by the rank and file. Fraser claimed the action was the work of outside agitators, and went so far as to accuse Chrysler of softness in giving in to the demands of the Jefferson Assembly Plant workers two weeks before. By their actions, the company ‘had encouraged workers to take things into their own hands’.

Chrysler naturally then went on the radio and announced they would do as the union had asked and refused to negotiate with the strikers.

The men and women in the Mack Stamping Plant, isolated by the lock-out from their fellow workers and faced with the company’s and the union’s total refusal to negotiate over their demands, rapidly became demoralised and were evicted from the building by the police within 24 hours. But they went down from the factory to the union hall – the local branch offices – and there 200 or so voted, more or less unanimously, to continue their strike against the victimisation. The plant stayed closed for the next two shifts.

The next morning around 6 a.m., the first workers arrived to set up their picket lines in an effort to persuade the day shift to stay out. They looked up the street and saw an army of several hundred UAW officials marching towards them in formation. The same happened at every gate to the plant.

Altogether some 1,000 UAW officials came to the plant that morning, broke up the picket lines and beat up several pickets. When the day shift arrived, asking if the strike was still on, they were told the dispute was over and they should go in to work.

When they did go in, they found that about 70 of their workmates had been sacked, including some who had worked for the plant for more than 20 years and not involved in the dispute but known to the company as militants. Chrysler had seized the opportunity presented by the UAW officials to wipe out the rank and file movement inside the plant. It was an enormous defeat for the rank and file movement throughout the city.

There was a history of rank and file action before the success at Jefferson Assembly. In that same plant some six months earlier, for example, an alternate chief steward (chief steward’s deputy) was disciplined by the company for refusing to have his work speeded up. This provoked the workers in that part of the plant into a spontaneous walk-out. After several were sacked for this, the workers managed to keep the plant shut for six shifts, with the day shift’s support.

The strike ended, though, with eight workers sacked, and with the men who went back having no guarantee that the eight would be reinstated or that there would be no more speed-up. The strike had lacked much in leadership, the workers had had to face an injunction in the courts, the union officials had been down to press for a return to work and in some cases to escort workers across the picket line into the plant.

In all these disputes working conditions have been a key issue. The UAW has consistently refused to take up the improvement of working conditions in its negotiations with the car manufacturers. At certain times the union has paid lip-service to demands concerning health and safety at work, but even there their real level of concern is abysmally low.

This is illustrated by an incident last summer in Chrysler’s Detroit Forge Hant. Here some 1,500 workers found out that the demands concerning health and safety in their plant -demands for things like proper insulation of electric cables, guards on machines, fixing holes in the roof where the rain came in, condensation points – were exactly the same demands the UAW had placed on the bargaining table three years before! None had been resolved since then.

When the word got around, and the complete farce of the negotiations was exposed, the workers walked out. The officials, as usual, told them to get back to work, but when they refused made a big show of doing a tour of the plant and demanding a clean-up and other things the company had refused for three years. Even so, when the workers went back, after their main demands had been met, they went back without 16 of their number, who had been sacked – and they went back with no guarantee that the 16 would be re-hired.

Why America is Different

MANY of these situations would be almost impossible in British factories, at least where there is a tradition of trade unionism. The differences in the American situation derive essentially from two things: the structure of the unions and the feelings of the rank and file.

In the US we have one union per industry. This makes it much easier to centralise power within a union. We don’t have the possibility as in Britain, of a factory with several different unions and a Joint Shop Stewards’ Committee involving stewards from the different unions which can provide something of a counter-balance to the union officials and can call local disputes and so on.

Most important, though, is the fact that there is no shop steward system. Such a system did exist in all the car companies, apart from General Motors, before and during the Second World War. But after the war the unions signed a series of contracts with the companies which lengthened the contract from one to three years and took away the right to strike over most grievances. Instead, the workers were given a system of binding arbitration and the shop steward system was wiped out.

All that is left is the next level up from the shop steward, the chief steward, who is a full-time union representative, paid by the company, and represents about 300 workers.

So there are many more full-time union officials than in Britain and no layer of union representatives who work with those they represent. As a result there is a much greater gulf than in Britain between the rank and file membership and the union machine. So it’s much easier for the union machine to be used against the membership.

Also important is that British workers have a much greater feeling that an injury to one is an injury to all. In Britain, in most situations, if a small group of workers stops working, other workers will refuse to take their jobs. In the US, on the other hand, workers can much more easily be bullied into taking the jobs of other workers. The effect is that disputes can only happen when a sufficiently large number of workers are ready to stop work so that they can paralyse operations in the plant as a whole.

People are constantly driven to an ‘every man for himself’ attitude by the companies. Once in my plant the supervisors were harassing a worker about 20ft away from me up the track. Further down the track, in a repair hole, a supervisor in the next area was removing the bolts the man had fitted and then claiming he had never put them in. The company was trying to build up a ‘shoddy work’ record on him.

I went round the section and told everyone what was happening, and asked some of the workers to check his work. The supervisor called me aside and told me to ‘mind my own f...ing business’, and when I continued to defend the worker the company switched their attack from him to me. For over a week I was constantly supervised and harassed in innumerable ways to the point where my doctor ordered me off work to prevent a nervous breakdown.

When I went back the supervisors refused to let me have my old job back and instead put me on what the company, the union and the workers all referred to as a ‘punishment job’. In the end, when I refused to break, the company became embarrassed by the spectacle of their organised campaign against one man, called me into the office and negotiated a truce. They told me then that their actions against me were not motivated by the fact that I was a ‘militant’. It would have been okay if I’d been acting for myself, but what had annoyed them was that I had interfered in their disciplining of another worker.

Not having worked in the plants in the old days, I don’t know if there was a tradition of solidarity that has been wiped out, or if perhaps it was never there. Of course the history of the American trade union movement is very different from that in Britain. The big organising drive in the production industries in the 1930s were carried on among workers, many of whom were quite new to America – immigrants or the children of immigrants – and the workers who had migrated long distances within the US itself too – and who therefore didn’t have the common traditions in a sense that British workers have.

The old AFL (skilled workers’) unions do have stronger traditions of solidarity than the production workers, but even they don’t have much of a tradition of respecting other unions’ picket lines. There is something of that kind of tradition, but over the past five years there has been case after case, to the point where it’s becoming a general practice, of unions telling their members to cross other workers’ pickets.

Naturally socialists in the States are working to try to recreate and foster a tradition of basic working-class solidarity. Many workers do feel unhappy about crossing picket lines, but often they feel they’ve no choice when the union tells them to: after all, they run the risk of being disciplined if they don’t do what the union says.

Workers in US production industries don’t belong to a union as lifetime members; they belong to it for the time they work for a particular plant or company whose workers are required, by a union shop provision, to belong to that union. So for most workers belonging to a union is not something they do, but is something imposed on them. They never pay any union dues themselves – the money is simply taken out of the first pay-check of the month.

So the union is something external to their lives – though workers are aware they’d be in a much worse situation if there were no union. It’s not that workers are opposed to the idea that there should be a union, in any section of the workforce. But there is a great deal of cynicism and dissatisfaction with union officials, who many people identify with the union as a whole. So workers tend to think of the union as something it’s probably better to have, but not as a workers’ organisation.

In addition, the race question is central to the divisions inside the American working class. It is the chief obstacle to the solidarity workers need in the face of the employers’ attacks of recent years.

But it’s not always understood that though the majority of white workers are prejudiced against blacks, that prejudice is not just the product of the white workers’ backward attitudes – as the liberal defenders of the system usually claim. The fact is that whenever united action between white and black workers is threatened, all the institutions of the establishment bind together to recreate race divisions among the workers.

I can illustrate this from my own experience. In my plant, when some of us, black and white, began to raise some grievances, I was taken aside by a white supervisor and told that although there was some justice in the complaints I was raising I should have nothing to do with the black workers in the shop, who were ‘only out for the coloured man’. At the same time black workers were being told by black supervisors to have nothing to do with me or other white workers because we were ‘Whitey’ and would sell them out.

We face the same kind of thing from the union. The United National Caucus of the UAW is a militant rank and file group that works to unite black and white workers in Detroit. We get white union officials telling white workers not to support the caucus as it’s a black man’s caucus, and black officials going round to black workers and telling them the caucus is ‘run behind the scenes by Whitey’.

That kind of thing isn’t completely effective: obviously people are aware how the bosses and unions try to use these divisions. Still, it’s not without its effects, given the suspicions that have built up over the years because of the whites’ prejudice and the fear blacks have that if they do unite with the whites they’ll be left with the short end of the stick.

The Chief Steward

ITS not possible to be a good chief steward within the structure of the union, at least not to the extent that a militant can be a good shop steward in Britain, even in a fairly corrupt union. The structures and procedures that the union tries to enforce on both workers and union representatives are stacked in such a way that union officials and the company have almost complete power over the worker on the shop floor.

I myself was credentialed to serve as a chief steward after we had recalled the union representative in my own shop. The first thing that happened after I came out on the floor was that I was taken aside by the general foreman and told that for every grievance I wrote out, he would suspend two workers in my district.

When I went to the union for help in this situation, the only response I got was that the company would not harass the workers in this way unless we took action that was unfair to the company. The attitude of the official I saw was that if you got trouble from the company it must be proof that you were a troublemaker yourself – as bald as that.

The company began a campaign of harassing the workers in my shop over shop-floor rules, the kind of rules that are usually loosely interpreted. The supervisors began interpreting all the rules strictly and systematically trying to demoralise the section. In a short time the more conservative workers – especially those who had come from the South – were taking the attitude that because the company and the union would pay no attention to our grievances anyway, we were only making trouble for ourselves by trying to raise them. It was better in the long run, they felt, for us to play the game according to the rules that had already been laid down. When these workers, with the help of local union officials, signed a petition against being ‘represented by a communist’, my credentials were removed.

So in practice, unless you have the power, the consciousness and the organisation to confront both the company and union in a determined way, there is no way you can use an official union representative position within the structure to change the conditions. It happens time and again, even to those union representatives who run on an extremely militant programme. They are forced at once to recognise this as soon as they begin to work within the system. Without a big movement behind them, there’s no way they can operate, no way they can change the conditions workers suffer, and no way they can transform the role of the chief steward.

How the Unions Went Wrong

IN THE early days the unions in the CIO, the Congress of Industrial Organisations, were much more democratic. The early movement to organise the mass production industries -motors, steel, machines, rubber, and so on – was not begun by the union officials at all but by revolutionaries. At that time, in the early 1930s, the revolutionaries were the only ones with organisations willing to organise and lead the big struggles needed to build the unions.

Within a couple of years the important strikes that paved the way for industrial unionism had shown the union officialdom it was inevitable. They then set out to control these new unions, to organise them themselves, so that they wouldn’t be under revolutionary leadership.

The key figure in this was John L. Lewis. His idea was that they should organise steel first, and then use the power won in steel as a lever in other industries. But in fact the rank and file, in the car industry, did the key job without waiting for the go-ahead from the CIO leaders. They organised from the bottom, took on General Motors, and won. This victory led to the surrender of the other employers and to the organisation of the other industrial unions.

Naturally where the unions were being organised by the rank and file, they were very democratic bodies. However, before the new unions had had time to establish any real tradition of rank and file control, World War Two came along and changed them fundamentally.

The union leaders supported the war and gave the government and employers a ‘no strike’ pledge, which they were able to enforce – at least in the early period of patriotic feeling. The result was that immediately there was some shift in power on the shop floor back to the foremen and the companies, for the basic weapon for resisting arbitrary authority had been taken away from the workers. In return for this concession, the unions were given the dues check-off system, union shops, and national bargaining. All these strengthened the unions, but strengthened them at the top at the expense of rank and file control.

In this situation the shop steward system declined. The purpose of the shop steward, as the representative of the rank and file, was to see that all workers were in the union, to collect their union dues, and to negotiate on their members’ behalf with the company. Now all these functions were taken away and centralised in the hands of the national officials of the union.

After the war, in the period of Cold War hysteria, many militants were expelled from the unions, and the officials were able to consolidate their power through the three-year contracts mentioned earlier. These were really productivity deals: in return for becoming the highest-paid workers in the world, the American production workers lost all their hard-won controls over conditions at work.

This process went on in all the unions, but it was most dramatic in the UAW, where rank and file control had previously been most advanced. There isn’t a union in the States today that isn’t dominated by the officials, with the partial exception of the Mineworkers.

Miners for Democracy

THE Mineworkers were, until recently, one of the most corrupt unions in America. An official called Jack Yablonsky sensed the degree of dissatisfaction among rank and file miners and ran against the established union leadership of Tony Boyle. Yablonsky, with his wife and children, was murdered in his home on Boyle’s orders. This has since been proved in court and Boyle is now in jail.

The rank and file immediately believed that the officials had ordered this murder, which only intensified their determination to bring charges inside the union.

All the dissident groups in the union came together into a movement called Miners For Democracy (MFD). Last year the MFD won power inside the Mineworkers, and earlier this year they had their first real union convention. Miners were actually elected as delegates from the pits and coalfields, and came together to confer for ten days over what they wanted to do now they’d made the changes in the union they wanted.

The feeling that came over clearly from the miners was that they wanted their officials to understand that when their contracts expire this autumn they want a real fight against the coal-owners. They want to fight to win satisfaction on the many grievances that have been accumulating for years over pay, safety and working conditions, including recognition and compensation for Black Lung Disease (pneumoconiosis).

There’s likely to be a hard battle, and the miners do seem to have a chance of victory. This will be important, first, for wages, for the officials are still negotiating in terms of the government’s wage guidelines of 7 per cent – at a time of 10 per cent inflation. Also, if the miners win basic changes in working conditions it will be a glaring example to other workers of the effects of breaking the monopoly of union officials.

The MFD has had a lot of publicity: once it was clear that the MFD leadership was going to win the liberals inside the labour movement and inside Congress began courting them systematically to ensure they’d act in a ‘responsible’ fashion. Many workers will be watching the Mineworkers with special interest this autumn.

The Farmworkers’ Struggle

THE other major development, with important implications for American trade unionism as a whole, is the battle of the farmworkers. Most of these workers are Mexican Americans or Filipinos, for whites generally won’t work for the appalling wages and in the terrible conditions farmworkers suffer. There are some two million of them in the USA, and the growers have consistently refused from the start to recognise any form of union organisation.

This attempt to organise the farmworkers has had to face the opposition not just of the growers, but also of sections of the official trade union movement. The Teamsters’ Union, with two million members the most powerful single union in the US, has signed contracts representing the farmworkers, quite openly at the request of the growers.

Farmworkers are not covered by the section of the labour legislation which gives workers the right to elect their own union, so if the Teamsters get away with signing these contracts the farmworkers will be forced to be members of the Teamsters and denied the right to belong to a union of their own choice. The Teamsters have signed these contracts even though the farmworkers have not voted for them, have never voted to accept these contracts, and have thrown the Teamsters’ officials out of the fields when they’ve attempted to go in. So the Teamsters’ Union is totally imposed from the outside.

Nonetheless, these contracts will be legally binding. They can only be defeated through strike and boycott action. But the AFL-CIO, the American equivalent of the TUC, though it has given official verbal support to the Farmworkers Union, has refused to lend support to the kinds of strike action and boycott activity which will be necessary if the Farmworkers are to break these contracts.

So the Farmworkers’ Union, a new union with only a small membership, with no resources, representing the poorest workers in the country, somehow has to take on the most powerful union in the States, the growers and the courts, and all with virtually no support apart from such aid as the rank and file in the various unions can render them. The Teamsters’ Union, of course, is not a member of the AFL-CIO, which is why they can openly raid the Farmworkers’ Union without having even to justify their actions to other trade unions.

Right now the biggest struggle is over the boycott of grapes. A few years ago the Farmworkers did win contracts with the grape growers, an important victory for the union. But when these contracts expired the Teamsters had already embarked on their systematic campaign to destroy the Farmworkers’ Union. The Teamsters went to the grape growers and got them to sign contracts with them, taking away from the Farmworkers the only contracts they’d managed to win.

If the Farmworkers are to survive, they have to win back those contracts, and win back the right to represent the grapeworkers. The aim of the present campaign is to boycott grapes, and especially to boycott Californian wines, which account for the major part of grape production.

The only way it can be done is by picketing liquor and other stores stocking these wines in an attempt to persuade shoppers to buy elsewhere, using this kind of economic power to persuade the stores to stop handling these products. This tactic of the ‘secondary boycott’ is illegal under the Taft-Hartley Law, though as the farmworkers aren’t covered by the other provisions of that Act it’s not clear if the tactic is actually illegal for the Farmworkers. Nevertheless, the AFL-CIO, under George Meany, has forced the Farmworkers to stop the secondary boycott, which means there is no way they can apply sufficient pressure to stop stores stocking and selling these scab products.

So the Farmworkers are thrown back on the strike weapon, which is difficult to use because of the poverty of the Mexican Americans and the easy availability of strikebreakers. Those strikers who are illegal immigrants can be deported, though the key factor here is that the growers can easily go over the border and get strike-breakers who can’t get jobs anywhere else.

Still, what happens to the Farmworkers’ Union this time will be important, one way or another, for the future of American trade unionism for some time to come. It provides an important test of the strengths and weaknesses of the official movement and the rank and file.

The Rank and File Movement

THERE are two important aspects to the rank and file move ment in the States: the impact of the black rebellion, and the rank and file caucuses.

In the 1960s there were rebellions in the ghettoes of all the major cities in the USA. In Detroit there was an enormous uprising in 1967 which was suppressed by the National Guard. That uprising gave the thousands of black workers who took part in one way or another a sense of having acted collectively, increased their self-confidence and inspired them to carry their new self-activity and initiatives into the production plants. The black workers actually began to fight to change conditions in the plants, particularly developing offensives against the prevailing racism and discrimination against black workers.

It was this kind of movement that led to the formation of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and other similar organisations, such as the Ford Revolutionary Union Movement, the Black Panther Caucus in Fremont, California, the United Black Brothers in Mahwah, New Jersey, and others less publicised. The strength of these was considerable: in one single plant DRUM had 700 dues-paying members, held weekly meetings on Sundays of 400 workers and was able – despite the fact that it was completely outside the union machine – to mount and conduct a day-to-day struggle inside the plant against racist harassment of black workers.

The weakness of DRUM and similar movements derived in the main from the prejudices of white workers, but DRUM can be faulted for paying insufficient attention to overcoming the racism of white workers and for not distinguishing between the union leadership and the union itself. This made it easier for the leadership to isolate them, to brand them as splitters and to win the compliance of other workers in their victimisation.

Ultimately this made it possible for the organisations to be destroyed. But despite this, the black workers, who form about a quarter of the nation’s production workers, continued to be involved in and to lead shop-floor battles all over the country. The black workers continue to be without doubt the most important yeast of the rank and file movement.

Our feeling is that the way forward for the rank and file movement lies through the organisation of rank and file groups inside the plants, based on demands for changes not just in the personnel at the top but in the whole structure and aims of the unions themselves, for a turn from the unionism of class collaboration to the unionism of class struggle. That means fighting for the involvement of the rank and file in the control of their unions on the basis of a policy of workers’ control, to win better wages, better and safer conditions. It means a struggle against the alienation of the workers and management’s arbitrary authority.

These rank and file organisations, or caucuses, are being built in many plants around the country, especially in the car industry. There are several in the Detroit area, many of which have made the first step towards a national organisation by affiliating to the UAW United National Caucus, which attempts to co-ordinate the activities of the various groups and to unify them into a single struggle.

We have a paper, titled the United National Caucus, which is distributed to plants around the country and paid for by groups of workers in the plants where it is distributed. In the recent elections for delegates to the UAW Convention the groups affiliated to the caucus ran slates of candidates in about ten plants in the Detroit area.

Although most of these candidates were not elected, their strong showings revealed the tremendous dissatisfaction of the rank and file. The election results showed that the caucuses are going to be a real force in the future, and that they do provide a basis on which the rank and file can challenge the official leadership. The UAW leadership has not felt strong enough to ban the United National Caucus altogether, as there are some well-known older militants openly associated with it, but we know they have been involved in complicity with management attempts to victimise UNC militants and, indeed, at local level they have been involved in several physical attacks on the rank and file militants.

The United National Caucus paper’s distribution varies according to what is happening in the union. It has been as high as 35,000 copies, though it’s probably not as high as that now as it is appearing more frequently. Still, it’s often around 20,000. It’s almost impossible to give anything like accurate estimates of membership. Certainly after the sell-out of the Ford contract by the leadership and the successful fight back by the Ford skilled trades workers who rejected the contract, the UNC, which had played a leading role in mobilising the opposition, had a big increase in membership and influence among that sector of the UAW. At the same time UNC membership is still pretty weak in the most important section, among the black production workers, who are vital for any real struggle for basic changes in the union.

More Open Politics

THE political situation in the USA is opening up, and making workers more receptive to all kinds of ideas they were closed to for a whole generation. Though it is difficult to generalise, it should be made clear what the opposition to the Vietnam War did not produce.

The movement did not decrease most workers’ antipathy to socialism and communism. That hasn’t yet happened. Most American workers, particularly whites, still associate the ideas of socialism and communism with taking away workers’ rights, statifying everything, and so on.

The Vietnam War experience did, though, decrease the popular Cold War feeling of ‘America Right or Wrong’, the fear of the destruction of American civilisation, the feeling of the threat of world war and the complete identification of the American people with the government’s foreign policy – all the things that led to the witch-hunts, McCarthyism, the really hysterical and irrational form of anti-communism. That doesn’t exist any more. The Vietnam War didn’t do this alone, but also the détente with Russia and China – and of course Watergate! There’s much more distrust of the government and its motives, more readiness to take government statements with a grain of salt.

We don’t now have the completely closed kind of situation that existed in the 1950s, when if a worker said he was a socialist or a communist his fellow-workers would actually throw him bodily out of the plant, refuse to work alongside him, and so on. That kind of thing certainly did happen.

In 1949 John Anderson, the president of Local 15 of the UAW, saw every member of his local caucus visited by the FBI in the middle of the McCarthyite movement. John was a revolutionary socialist, and his fellow-workers were told by the FBI that if they didn’t want to be branded as communists, possibly sacked and blacklisted, then they should support Walter Reuther’s candidate for office against John Anderson. John Anderson is today one of the leading members of the United National Caucus.

Now the workers I work with know that I’m a socialist. Though they don’t agree with my point of view they do consider I have a right to hold it and it’s even possible to have discussions and arguments at work over my views. Ten or twenty years ago that would have been quite impossible. Even though they knew I was a socialist, most still wanted me to have a crack at being the union representative. The tendency for the struggle between East and West to override every other question in the country has ended.

So it’s possible to make too much of something like the famous ‘hard-hats’ demonstration, when the New York construction workers beat up a student demonstration against the Vietnam War a few years ago. It wasn’t a typical phenomenon. The US construction workers are overwhelmingly white and are among the best-paid workers in the country. They tend to be the most conservative. Their union leaders have an alliance with the Republicans, unlike most of the other unions who usually urge their members to support the Democrats. President Nixon appointed a Construction Union official, Peter Brinner, as his Secretary of Labor.

Even so, that demonstration’s significance can be overestimated. The workers were given time off with pay to go on it. And the popular opposition to the Vietnam War wasn’t as deep and complete at that time as it became later.

I don’t believe it would be possible to get a similar demonstration today. In the beginning the big majority of workers, and particularly the white skilled workers, were in favour of the war. By the end though, the majority were against it and were much more sympathetic to the students – and even to a degree sympathetic to black workers who were trying to demonstrate for basic changes in the country. Now that the student movement is finished, a lot of workers say that, looking back, they think the students were right – of course it’s easier to say that when there’s no student movement! Still, it’s likely that if there were another student movement it would get a rather different reception from the factory workers.

The key thing is that the battleground for social change has shifted from the campus to the factories. Today, all the radical movements that have any basis and any future are linked to the factories. Where in the 1960s radical ideas in American society were separated from the working class and radicals tended to see workers as part of the establishment, as bastions of reaction, today the centre of attention in radical thinking is more and more focussed on the working class as the agency of change in American society.

Taken from Marxist Internet Archive