It’s a cold grey day in Flint, Michigan. The date is December 30, 1936, the day that workers at the General Motors Fisher body plant decide to sit down to force GM to recognize the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and keep them from outsourcing jobs to non-union plants. They won’t get up again until February. By that time they will have won one of American labor’s great victories and paved the way for the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Fast-forward almost exactly 76 years. The date is December 11, 2012, and the Republican-controlled Michigan House of Representatives passes a “right to work” law which will, according to Mike Ludwig at Truthout, “make payment of union dues voluntary for public workers such as teachers even though unions advocate on their behalf.” In short, a law designed to eviscerate unions like the UAW.
Several things, actually. During the 1940s-1960s, American organized labor used the immobility of capital to its advantage, leveraging its powerful hold on U.S. manufacturing to keep wages and benefits high. Faced with this less-than-optimal (to capital anyway) scenario, capital reorganized, leading to the hegemonic rise of finance capital over the past 30 years. At the same time, the 1 percent decided to move their factories to countries without pesky labor laws like Honduras and Taiwan and China.
The advent of globalized labor markets left American labor high and dry. Traditional unions like the UAW were unable to keep either wage rates or membership rates up when factories were closing left and right. Sure, they could strike. But why on earth would the 1 percent capitulate to strikers when they could simply outsource production to China, where labor costs are a fraction of those here and the flood of urbanization provides a reserve army of cheap, exploitable labor?
At a time when U.S. unemployment is still hovering around 8 percent, there is now a reserve army of cheap, exploitable American labor too. And just as it did in the case of China, the existence of this reserve labor army gives the 1 percent a powerful weapon. They can set wages as low as they like (within reason and within the law, assuming they don’t hijack the political process – which is precisely what happened in Michigan). And if a worker doesn’t want to work full-time for minimum wage, it’s her loss – there are millions of unemployed out there who are clamoring for a steady job. And generally speaking, subsistence-level wages are better than no wages at all when you have a family to feed, or medical bills to pay.
Indeed, as President Obama and other critics have rightly pointed out, right-to-work laws grant workers no rights except “the right to work for less money.” This kind of Orwellian language is a hallmark of capitalism, where capitalist and worker are conceived of as “legal equals.” The capitalist has the legal right to set wages at a certain level, possibly below the level of subsistence; and the worker has the legal right to starve if he doesn’t take them. The neoclassical doctrine of “individual preference” collapses in the face of economic necessity.
Combine that with growing income inequality and a propaganda war funded by the likes of the notorious Koch Bros., and you get Michigan’s right to work laws or the so-called “Wisconsin budget repair bill” (more like “Wisconsin union destruction bill”) of 2011, both designed to crush unions already struggling in the face of capital’s global reorganization
Over the past few days, however, liberal pundits have predictably been framing the fight over unions in terms of Republicans and Democrats. For instance, Rachel Maddow read the following excerpt from a Detroit Free Press editorial on Monday:
For us and for the hundreds of thousands of independents who voted for Snyder with the conviction that they were electing someone more independent and more visionary than partisan apparatchiks like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker or Florida’s Rick Scott. The real motive of Michigan’s right-to-work champions is pure greed, the determination to emasculate once and all the Democratic Party’s most reliable financial and organizational support.
Snyder’s right-to-work legalization, excuse me, is an attempt to institutionalize Republicans’current political advantage. Everything else is window dressing. Michigan’s governor has abdicated his leadership responsibilities to Republican legislators bent on vengeance.
As true as it may be that unions tend to support Democrats, I’m not buying it. This is not about enshrining Republican power. It’s about enshrining the power of the capitalist class. This isn’t a party political issue. This is class struggle.
And I’m worried that workers and progressives are going to get fooled into channeling their righteous anger into electoral politics, as they did when the energizing direct action campaign against Scott Walker’s anti-union legislation in Wisconsin was transformed into an unsuccessful recall election.
Longtime activist George Lakey wrote a great piece earlier this year about just how dangerous it is to succumb to the electoral game, especially in the wake of court decisions like Citizens United that empower the 1 percent to hijack the political process even more than they already have. Progressives are outmatched and outgunned in the electoral arena, where the 1 percent controls the narrative and the 99 percent is all too often distracted from the real issues. And remember, it wasn’t pro-labor legislation that brought GM to its knees in Flint; it was workers wielding their considerable power to bring production to a shuddering halt:
But, whether we’re in Wisconsin or Pennsylvania or any of the states where the class struggle is being deliberately escalated from above, can we step aside from the assumption that the Electoral Game is “the only game in town”?
Yes — but only if we get as serious about the craft of direct action campaigning as are the smart young organizers who are recruited by the Democratic Party to waste their talent in the Electoral Game. Direct action campaigning is a craft, and in the United States the skills for it were once more widely distributed, especially among African Americans. Now, not so much.
Certainly not among institutional unions like the once-radical UAW, which once waged the great struggles of American labor but now has collaborated in quashing labor militancy.
But there may be a new workers’ movement growing at the so-called “margins of the former labor movement.” Even as the 1 percent seeks to cripple institutional unions in Michigan, fast-food, car wash, and grocery store workers in New York City and Walmart “associates” across the country—all groups passed over by traditional labor organizing—have been leading the struggle for workers’ rights.
Not only that, but they have coupled the struggle for higher wages and benefits to struggles for affordable housing and health care: “Like organizers before the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, the organizers working with low-wage workers these days focus on issues beyond just those of the workplace; it’s worth noting that this campaign began with NYCC [New York Communities for Change] organizers working on housing issues.”
There’s hope yet. But it’s going to require stepping outside the box of traditional union organizing and electioneering to search for new ways for the 99 percent to wield their People Power.
—Tom Emanuel is the Executive Director of the SDPJC