WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?
In this chapter you will find out what the proper target of working class
power is. You will learn about the importance of independent organization
for the exercise of working class power, and think about the ethical and
religious aspects of that power. Questions in each section will help develop
your thinking about the issues. Talk about the questions with friends or
co-workers before coming to any conclusions.
The Target of Working Class Power (pp.115-116)
Power needs a target. Effective power needs an appropriate target. One
consequence of class analysis based on power is that it suggests the target
for working class power is the capitalist class, not “the rich.” Looking
back at the 20th century history of United States, almost every progressive
social change has come over the objections of the capitalist class and
has involved limiting the capitalists’ power.
Q.6.1: What are some practical differences in identifying capitalists as the
target of political power rather than the rich? Think about the different policies
that follow from each approach. In what ways is it easier, and harder, to convince
other people that the target is appropriate for each way of putting it?
in Labor-Management Co-operation? (pp.116- 119)
It sometimes seems like management is willing to give up some power at work to
the employees in one or another form of labor-management co-operation. The limits
to this as a source of worker power include continuing ultimate authority in
the hands of management, lack of union representation, and the difficulty in
establishing trust between workers and management, especially when “cooperation” is
offered in the context of management demands for wage and work-rule concessions.
Whatever co-operation might be appropriate, workers must enter the process with
their own independent power.
Q.6.2: The Clinton Administration has stressed that workers in the future will
have six or eight jobs in their working lives. What effect does this have on
the prospect for labor-management cooperation?
The Need for Independent Unions (pp.119-123)
Q.6:3: Is there a company with over 20 employees in your community that practices
some form of labor-management cooperation? If not, interview the management of
some of the larger firms to find out why not. If so, interview workers and management
to find out how it works. Does the program make the workers middle class or capitalist,
or are they still in the working class despite their inclusion in company decision
making? How do your findings shed light on the meaning of class?
One of the most important parts of the National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner
Act, passed in 1935) is section 8(a)(2), which outlaws “company unions” and
any form of management interference or participation in worker organizations.
This has been one of the few parts of the law never amended since its original
passage. Independence makes it possible for unions to support the objectives
and needs of the workers.
American labor law recognizes the importance of independent unions as a foundation
for the improvement of working peoples’ lives. Congress has justified this
for both technical economic and broad ethical reasons. Looking at the legislative
history of the Wagner Act gives us guidance in making these arguments today.
If we keep these themes in mind, we can overcome the argument that unions are
just a “special interest” no different from any other.
Q.6.4: Do you think a company union can be an effective advocate for workers?
Explain your thinking.
Making Competition Constructive (pp. 123-126)
Q.6.5: Do you think the arguments Senator Wagner put forward to justify support
for independent unions (p.121) are still valid even though we are living almost
seventy years later? What does your answer tell you about the continuing presence
of class in the U.S.?
Q.6.6: Do you think that David Brody is justified in the pessimism he expresses
about the “fatal weakness of welfare capitalism” (p. 120)?
One of the goals of working class power is to make companies compete in ways
that are constructive rather than destructive. Often, destructive competition
is the easy way, resulting in lower wages, worse conditions, degraded environment.
The logic of corporate competition draws workers into competing with each other
when they identify mainly with their own employer and when there are no social
limits on competitive behavior. By taking wages, health, safety, and the environment
out of competition, companies will be pushed towards improving products and producing
with better technology to reduce costs, as examples of constructive forms of
competition to attract customers and make profit.
Industry-wide and pattern bargaining have been used by unions towards these ends,
as have government regulations that limit what companies can do. These have all
been sharply reduced in scope over the past twenty-five years, in association
with the decline in workers’ living standards. To make competition constructive,
working class power will have to challenge the power of capitalists, both at
work and in politics.
Q.6.7: Is there an industry in your community that used to have industry-wide
or pattern bargaining but no longer does? Find out when and why the change
occurred and what happened to wages and working conditions as a result. If
one in your community, identify an industry where the change did happen and
check out the timing and results.
Ethics and Working Class Power (pp. 126-129)
Working class power is about issues of dignity and fairness as much as it is
about wages. Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of
Labor (1886-1924) is often quoted as saying workers want “more.” But
he also presented a much broader agenda that includes social reform to improve
all workers’ lives, not just those of union members. Workers and unions
today need to build on the broad ethical themes of social and economic justice
as the context in which day-to-day shop-based organizing can succeed.
Q.6.8: In what ways do your hopes for a better work life go beyond the issue
of wages and benefits? How do ethical considerations fit in? Can pay itself be
a moral question? What are some implications of your answers for the ways you
might explain the importance of unions and labor participation in the political
The Working Class
and Other “Identities” (pp. 129-134)
Q.6.9: Look at the Gompers quote on p. 127. How would you express these sentiments
in today’s vocabulary? How would you update the issues?
The working class is made up of people with many “identities” of
race, gender, ethnicity, etc. So are the middle and capitalist classes. Since
the civil rights upsurge of the 1950’s, the many strands of identity politics
have extended basic rights and improved the lives of many millions of women and
minorities. The rise of identity politics coincided with the decline in class
politics, in the context of the unwillingness of most unions to address racism
and sexism in society, even as suffered by their own members.
The fact that each class is divided among various “identities” and
each “identity” is divided into different classes makes the politics
of class (and identity) particularly complicated. But the discrimination faced
by women and minorities tend to foster the values of mutual aid and interdependence
that are also the basis of working class politics. These common values provide
a basis for political cooperation between class and “identity” politics,
although conflicts are also bound to arise.
There is nothing automatic about working class politics advancing the interests
of women and minorities. For example, affirmative action policies based on economic
disadvantage, sometimes promoted in place of traditional affirmative action,
would benefit working people. But as long as racism and sexism operate among
employers and university officials, as well as among workers themselves, affirmative
action on the basis of race and gender will still be appropriate within preferences
for the economically disadvantaged as a whole.
Q.6.10: How does the interaction between class and race and gender work on the
question of seniority where women and minorities have only recently been drawn
into the company workforce? How can the conflicts be handled?
Religion and Working Class
Politics (pp. 135-136)
Q.6.11: What are some current examples of unions fighting racial or gender discrimination?
How are they doing it? What are some examples of ways in which organizations
of women or minorities are now supporting workers?
At the start of the 21st century, religious influence in politics is usually
associated with right-wing Christian organizations. But there are also many examples
of pro-labor religious activism on the liberal and left wing side, such as the
Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and the U.S. Catholic bishops’ 1986
statement on the economy. The National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice
is now working with the AFL-CIO to build labor-religion coalitions across the
Religious beliefs and practices are subject to disputes that reflect different
class interests, just as all aspects of society are. While the fundamentals of
economic justice can also be defended in secular terms, a growing labor movement
based on ethical norms will need to contend with the religious right for the
moral high ground in the thinking of millions of religious people. It can only
be good for working class politics when religious people come to understand that
their religious commitments can be expressed with a pro-labor voice.
Q.6.12: Look at the quote from the U.S. Catholic bishops (p.135)
that calls for holding business accountable to “the common good and the norms of justice.” What
could this mean specifically? What stands in the way of business accountability?
Organization (pp. 136-139)
Q.6.13: Many communities are developing “labor in the pulpit” programs
in which workers and union leaders speak in houses of religious worship to
explain the needs and values of the labor movement and to encourage a spiritual
to social activism. If you are active in your religion, how might you explain
to your congregation what worker needs are in a way that rests on your religious
beliefs? Consult the leaders of your congregation about these matters. What
do you learn about the relation of class to religious belief and practice?
Just as workers need independent unions, the political instruments workers use
need to be independent -- in the hands of working people without the influence,
let alone domination, of employers. Whether this can be done effectively by the
AFL-CIO operating within the Democratic Party, or by the new, independent Labor
Party, founded in 1996 and based in unions across the country, or by some other
means, remains to be seen.
The same independence is needed in cultural matters. In the nineteenth and well
into the twentieth centuries, workers had a variety of cultural institutions
to express their lives, aspirations, and interests. But working class theatre,
radio, and literature have almost entirely vanished. Working class power requires
working class cultural expression, which can come only through an array of contemporary
cultural forms and institutions in workers’ hands.
Working class power is not the same as union power. Fewer than fifteen percent
of workers are in unions, fewer than five percent of workers aged 16-24. Unions
naturally have a critical role to play in promoting a broad working class movement,
given the resources and organizational infrastructure at their disposal. But,
to build the broadest possible movement, unions must operate in a democratic
and honest fashion, and participate in a movement not entirely under their control.
To challenge capital effectively, a working class movement needs to think big
and assert itself not just on direct economic issues but in all aspects of society.
Q.6.14: How important do you think it would be to organize an independent
union if there was already a company union at your workplace that responded
to the needs of management? Is your thinking different if you consider the
main political parties in the United States, which are in many ways “company
parties”? What would it mean to have an independent political party under
the control of working people, with no management influence or money allowed
by law? Do you think it would be a good idea to have such a party?
Useful links for this chapter:
American Social History Project
Association for Union Democracy
National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice
Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA)
Q.6.15: What should a working class radio station broadcast to attract an audience
and make a positive difference in the community?
Black Workers for Justice
Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU)
Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW)
Labor Council for Latin American Advancement
Pride at Work