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The hidden history of workers' struggle in the U.S.
Subterranean Fire

May 19, 2006 | Pages 8 and 9

Socialist Worker columnist SHARON SMITH is the author of a new book that tells the hidden history of working-class radicalism in the United States. Here, we reprint excerpts from the introduction to Subterranean Fire.

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THE UNITED States ranks not only as the richest society in the world today but also as the most unequal among advanced industrialized nations.

The scale of poverty among the poorest Americans, according to the United Nation's 2005 Human Development Report, is comparable to that in parts of the Third World. The U.S. infant mortality rate matches that of Malaysia. African Americans living in Washington, D.C., have a higher infant mortality rate than residents of the Indian state of Kerala. Across the United States, Black mothers are twice as likely as whites to bear low-birth-weight babies, and Black children are twice as likely to die before their first birthday.

Child poverty rates in the United States have been rising steadily since 2000, following 20 years of decline, and, mirroring Mexico, surged past 20 percent in 2005. On average, a male child born into the wealthiest 5 percent of the U.S. population will live 25 percent longer than a male child born into the poorest 5 percent.

From its earliest years, U.S. capitalism has relied upon massive social and class inequality, despite all rhetoric to the contrary. Even during periods of economic boom and rising median incomes, a significant portion of the working class has consistently lived in extreme poverty.

This cold fact was easier to hide during the economic boom that followed the Second World War, when the wages of unionized manufacturing workers in the United States were the highest in the world.

When the postwar boom came to a halt in the mid-1970s, however, U.S. employers united to launch a sustained attack intended to shift the balance of class forces decisively in favor of capital, by forcing down working-class living standards and destroying union organization.

Class inequality has increased almost without interruption ever since, through boom and slump alike, and has now returned to the record levels of the 1920s, the decade before the Great Depression.

In 1970, the average real compensation for the CEOs of the top 100 U.S. corporations was 39 nine times the pay of the average worker. By 2002, they earned more than 1,000 times the average worker's wage. As Warren Buffett, the world's fourth-richest man, commented in his 2004 annual letter to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, "If class warfare is being waged in America, my class is clearly winning."

Shifting the balance of class forces is the urgent challenge facing the working-class movement today. The working class is facing a profound social crisis in the 21st century. Yet this crisis rarely merits a mention in the nightly news or on the floor of Congress.

Tracing the roots of this crisis requires a historical perspective--but one aimed at pointing the way forward.

Union organization is, of course, crucial to the success of the labor movement. Yet labor unions have never represented a majority of U.S. workers. Union membership peaked at 35.5 percent of the workforce at the end of the Second World War. Since the 1980s, union membership and strength has been in a downward spiral. In 2004, just 12.5 percent of wage and salary workers belonged to a union, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rate for workers in the private sector dropped to 7.9 percent in 2004--roughly half of what it was in 1983.

In the interests of building a stronger union movement in the future, this book examines why union membership has remained comparatively low and why it has declined so much in recent decades.

The strikes and struggles that led to permanent organization represent labor's biggest victories. But some important battles that were lost nevertheless impacted the balance of class forces. To understand the dynamics of class struggle in the United States, it is important to look at both the victories and defeats of the U.S. labor movement.

Likewise, some relatively short-lived labor organizations have been as important to shaping the character of the working-class movement as those that survived and prospered.

The Knights of Labor, the most powerful union organization in the 1880s, vanished as a significant force by the late 1890s. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) peaked in influence in the first two decades of the 20th century, but faded as a major force well before the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s.

Yet both the Knights of Labor and the IWW played a crucial role during key periods of class struggle, advancing the cause of industrial unionism and training activists who played a role in organizing the next generation of workers.

The Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), an organization of Black autoworkers that grew out of a wildcat strike at General Motors' Dodge Main plant in 1968, lasted just a few short years. But during its brief existence, DRUM showed the potential for African American workers to wage a powerful fight against racism, while winning solidarity from a sizeable layer of white unionists.

In addition, because race and class are so closely intertwined in this historically segregated society, movements against racism have often profoundly impacted the direction of the class struggle, even when they have taken place outside the arena of organized labor.

The battle for Reconstruction after the Civil War shaped the character of the labor movement for generations to follow. The urban rebellions that rocked U.S. cities in the 1960s were struggles against racism and poverty, and helped to transform the political landscape alongside the powerful civil rights and Black Power movements.

The 1992 Los Angeles rebellion erupted in response to the acquittal of four white police officers captured on videotape beating Black motorist Rodney King. That outpouring of rage lasted four days--put down only by thousands of National Guard and federal troops occupying the city--forced the issues of racism and police brutality into mainstream discourse.

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The Working-Class Majority

THE WORKING class is often caricatured as white, male and blue collar. In reality, the working class includes skilled and unskilled workers in factories, laundries, restaurants, schools, offices and sweatshops; sharecroppers, tenant farmers and migrant workers laboring in fields; women workers and the non-working wives of male workers; and those who have jobs and the currently unemployed.

White males, in fact, hold a minority--just 46 percent--of working-class jobs, according to economist Michael Zweig. He estimates that women make up 47.4 percent of those in working-class occupations.

Zweig also finds that "[B]lacks and Hispanics are over-represented in the working class." African Americans make up 10.7 percent of the labor force, but 12.6 percent of those in working-class jobs. Latinos made up 9.2 percent of those employed, but 11.3 percent of those in working-class occupations.

Zweig estimates that the working class makes up roughly 62 percent of the U.S. population, a clear majority. But Zweig probably underestimates the proportion of workers in the population.

Zweig correctly regards those who have a degree of "independence and authority" at work to be middle-class professionals. This category includes most lawyers, doctors, and computer scientists.

But Zweig also includes public schoolteachers and university professors in the "middle class" category, although teachers have been well represented in the union movement for decades. Like registered nurses and many social workers, teachers have experienced the progressive deskilling of their once-professional occupations in recent decades, with their work process increasingly dictated by authority from above. The growing number of doctors employed by profit-making managed care corporations likewise have little "independence and authority" over their professional medical decisions.

Zweig acknowledges, "By the way, the Department of Labor comes up with an even larger number for what might be considered the working class than I do. The Department notes that 82 percent of the 100 million non-farm, private-sector employees in the United States in 1996 were 'non-supervisory' employees."

Since the Department of Labor statistics include accountants, doctors, lawyers and other professionals in private practice, the actual proportion of Americans in working-class jobs probably measures somewhat less. The real figure is likely to fall somewhere between Zweig's estimate and the Department of Labor's--numbering more than 70 percent of the U.S. population, a large majority.

Working-class struggle has advanced only through building solidarity, uniting workers in a class-wide movement. The examples of such solidarity are hidden from mainstream historical texts, and their importance is often downplayed or ignored even in recent labor history.

This study devotes considerable space to the high points of class unity because understanding how workers have overcome divisions in the past is crucial to charting a course for future solidarity.

Viewing working-class history in all its complexity also challenges the existing myths about the gender and racial composition of the labor movement and the American working class as a whole.

White, male, skilled workers were well represented within the ranks of the skilled crafts that dominated the American Federation of Labor (AFL). But the Knights of Labor, the IWW, and other labor and political organizations drew unskilled Black, immigrant and women workers into some of the most important class battles in history well before the CIO in the 1930s broke through the exclusivity of craft unionism.

Too often, labor historians have downplayed or ignored the role of working-class women in the class struggle.

To be sure, many unions made no effort to organize in female-dominated occupations until the 1960s. But those who assume that women have been passive bystanders to the labor movement will be surprised to learn the heroic role women have often played in important strikes. During the highest points of class struggle, strikes have traditionally drawn entire families into battle, on and off picket lines.

In the case of mining, for example, women were rarely employed as coal miners, but fought in solidarity with husbands, brothers and sons, in some of history's most bitter and violent confrontations between labor and capital.

It is no accident that Mother Jones, the charismatic woman who traveled the country in support of striking miners a century ago, is one of the most legendary figures in working-class history.

Typically, mining companies evicted miners and their families from company housing as soon as a strike began, forcing entire communities into homelessness for the weeks or months of the strike. Striking families would set up tent colonies, often near the mine entrance, and entire families would band together to block the roads from strikebreakers.

In the infamous Ludlow, Colo., strike in 1913, women did not merely organize the tent communities to feed and give shelter to the ten thousand miners and their families--they also joined the men on pickets and organized international solidarity.

Women workers, when given the opportunity, have often been willing to fight inside the union movement for their rights as women. Although such examples are often anecdotal, they offer a powerful challenge to gender stereotypes.

In just one example, women were "especially prominent" among the delegates to the Washington state convention of union boilermakers in June 1919, "and when they heard a proposal to denounce the employment of married women, in the words of one reporter, they 'beat it to a frazzle.'"

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Politics and Struggle

THOSE WHO focus only on the machinations of the official union apparatus can easily underestimate the potential of the rank and file below. The growth of union membership has never proceeded as a seamless advance, but has been concentrated within relatively short periods of social turmoil.

As socialist historian Bert Cochran noted in 1959,

Large-scale union growth never takes place in isolation from large social events but is one of the components of a generalized labor surge...If we set the 1880s as the beginning of the modern labor movement, and go over the figures from that date to the present, we are immediately struck with a startling result: The growth of American trade unions occurred in five brief explosions concentrated in relatively short periods of time against a background of major social upheavals brought on by depression or war.

These explosions in struggle, and the competing strategies for the direction of the class struggle in each of these eras, are a central concern of this book.

Below is a table of the five periods:

Cochran was writing after union membership as a share of the U.S. workforce had already entered the steady decline from which it has yet to recover.

One key argument of this book is that this decline in union membership coincided with a dramatic fall in working-class radicalism--the direct consequence of the anticommunist witch-hunt in the 1940s and 1950s known as "McCarthyism" (named after its most ardent proponent, Senator Joseph McCarthy). The witch-hunt, initiated at the highest levels of government, purged radicals from the labor movement, permanently uprooting radical traditions from their historic base inside the working class.

No longer faced with the pressure that working-class radicals so often provided in the past, union leaders have pursued a strategy that seeks collaboration and avoids class conflict over the last 50 years. This strategy has proven disastrous for the union movement and the working class as a whole.

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Working-Class Radicalism

RADICALISM IS by no means alien to America, as has been so often assumed in recent decades.

Indeed, the struggle for the abolition of slavery and the battle for Reconstruction that followed were radical movements that proved decisive to the future of the working-class movement, North and South.

The victory of abolition created the possibility for a multiracial labor movement. Subsequently, the defeat of Reconstruction represented the triumph of modern racism--the key obstacle to working-class unity ever since. The ongoing competition of a low-wage, non-union labor force in the South has shaped the character of the entire working-class movement, giving Northern employers an inbuilt advantage when their workers seek higher wages.

Key points of class struggle have typically involved a strong radical component. Strategies are informed by politics, and radical politics have tended to rise in influence among workers whenever the labor movement has advanced and confidence has risen.

Until the McCarthy era, political debates were aired inside the labor movement at virtually any given moment, and at various junctures, anarchists and socialists played a key role in leading the movement forward.

Studies of labor's formative years provide tremendous insight into the turbulent dynamics inside and well outside the AFL many decades before the dominance of craft unionism gave way to the rise of mass industrial organizing in the 1930s.

Labor's first "Great Upheaval" during the 1880s--when the Knights of Labor swelled from 60,000 to 700,000 between 1884 and 1886--was, as historian John R. Commons described, a movement that "bore in every way the aspect of a social war. A frenzied hatred of labor for capital was shown in every important strike."

Labor party efforts surged around the country during this period, including the union-backed 1886 New York mayoral campaign of Henry George, running on an independent ticket.

Election Day in New York City was marked by massive voting fraud. According to historian Eric Chester, "At certain polling places, gangs of toughs, with the complicity of police, made sure that only Democratic voters could cast their ballots...Ballot boxes were stuffed with spurious ballots, while other containers holding votes for Henry George were cast into the East River." Even so, George received 68,000 votes, one-third of the total.

Chicago anarchists August Spies and Albert Parsons, two founders of the International Working People's Association, helped lead the 1886 strike for the eight-hour day and ultimately paid with their lives for their leading role. The organization's founding manifesto, issued in 1883, set as its key objectives, according to historian Paul Avrich:

FIRST--Destruction of the existing class rule, by all means, i.e., by energetic, relentless, revolutionary and international action.

SECOND--Establishment of a free society based upon cooperative organization of production.

THIRD--Free exchange of equivalent products by and between the productive organizations without commerce and profit-mongery.

FOURTH--Organization of education on a secular, scientific and equal basis for both sexes.

FIFTH--Equal rights for all without distinction of sex or race.

SIXTH--Regulation of all public affairs by free contracts between the autonomous (independent) communes and associations, resting on a federalistic basis.

The anarchist manifesto described above concluded with Marx's famous phrase, "Workmen of all countries unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains, you have a world to win!"

Elements of Marxism, reform socialism and the "revolutionary socialism" of anarchist trade unionists often overlapped during this formative period, reflecting the political fluidity and debates among labor radicals in the late 19th century.

The 20th century brought the consolidation of the AFL--but also witnessed yet another upsurge in class struggle, accompanied by the rise of the anarcho-syndicalist IWW and the founding of the Socialist Party.

By the early 20th century, as labor historian David Montgomery argues in The Fall of the House of Labor, "[s]ocialists, Democrats, and independents were all competing effectively for the votes of workers in search of a new political regime." A 1910 voting survey of three Pennsylvania mining towns, for example, found that socialist votes were nearly double those for Democrats and almost equal to those for Republicans.

The working-class upsurge of 1917-20 involved a broad reaction against an unpopular war coupled with the global inspiration provided by the victory of a working-class government in the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Montgomery noted, "The appearance of workers' councils in Russia and Germany, and even in the creameries of Limerick in Ireland" deeply impacted U.S. workers' consciousness. "By 1919, 'council' and 'delegate' were words with revolutionary resonance similar to what 'convention' and 'citizen' had carried in 1789."

The radicalization that followed the Russian Revolution involved a generation of workers, many of them veterans of the Socialist Party and the IWW. Many of these radicals went on, as communists, socialists or Trotskyists, to play a leading role in the most important era of class struggle in U.S. history--the Great Depression.

The labor insurgency of the 1930s was a revolt against mass unemployment and poverty caused by economic depression. The Depression decade is unparalleled in the size and scope of working-class radicalization that grew out of a wave of unprecedented victories for organized labor. Membership in the Communist Party swelled to tens of thousands, while socialists, communists, and other radicals emerged as rank-and-file leaders in key strikes.

This high point of class struggle offers invaluable lessons about the dynamic between struggle and radicalization, and directly challenges the notion that U.S. workers are inherently too conservative to embrace radical ideas.

The final period of union growth noted by Cochran took place during and immediately following the Second World War.

While the war was followed by a massive strike wave, this period was significantly different in political character from previous advances for unions. Left-wing opposition to the war was dwarfed by the Communist Party's enthusiastic support for the U.S. war effort and the strike ban. This period cemented union leaders' alliance with the global aims of U.S. imperialism for more than six decades, and set the stage for the success of McCarthyism in persecuting left-wing unionists in the postwar era.

Since Cochran's analysis in 1959, the class struggle saw another major spike--in the years between 1967 and 1974, in the context of a social upheaval against war, racism and other injustice, which reverberated inside the working class.

This upsurge witnessed a wave of wildcat strikes, major advances for public sector unionization, and the rise of significant rank-and-file union movements in major industries. But unions were nevertheless unable to prevent the onset of an employers' offensive that has continued without interruption since the mid-1970s.

For those interested in the potential for revitalizing the labor movement today, past political debates and struggles are as important as the outcome at any given point in labor history.

In essence, the outcome is rarely a foregone conclusion and involves a battle over strategies, often shaped by competing sets of politics. The interests of the working-class movement are best served not when these debates are avoided, as they have been since McCarthyism, but when radical viewpoints are welcomed and discussed inside the labor movement.

The arguments in Subterranean Fire--admittedly and unapologetically informed by Marxism--are offered in this spirit.

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