DONATE NOW TO HELP UPGRADE LIBCOM.ORG

Fragile prosperity? Fragile social peace? Notes on the US

Detroit auto workers

Collective Action Notes analyse the changing face of work and resistance to work in the US in the latter half of the 20th century, focusing in particular on the auto industry and prison labour.

"Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world"

- Schopenhauer in "Studies In Pessimism

Discussions of class struggle can be framed in many ways. For that reason, the results obtained by how the discussion is structured often depend as much on the view point adopted as they do on any conclusions gathered from practical observation or a review of facts.

This is perhaps better seen if you compare framing class struggle to exploring the topography of an uncharted territory to discover whether signs of life exist. If the land is examined by air, all that will most likely be seen is the outline of any hills or mountains, the presence of rivers and so on. Looked at this way, it would be easy to conclude that there's no living organisms present; but if you get out of the plane and walk around, you might discover that what seemed at first glance uninhabitable terrain is actually teeming with life. In other ponds, at first sight it might not be possible to see any signs of life but that doesn't necessarily mean that the ponds are dead. If a microscope is used, what seems on the surface to be dead is actually teeming with micro-organisms; after a first impression maybe it's not really dead after all.

The same analogy can be used in attempting to measure class conflict. The traditional method of getting at class conflict, and utilized by most on the left, is to examine statistics - the strike rate, unionization rates, rises or fall in the standard of living and other such indicators and thus is similar in method to the aerial view described above. Judged from this angle, the picture looks bleak indeed: a twenty year decline in the standard of living, unionization and strike rates at their lowest recorded levels; the list of reversals could go on and indeed are part of the standard leftist template for discussing class struggle in the U.S. over the past three decades. Certainly these are important figures, not to be lightly discounted or easily dismissed, yet ultimately, they provide a partial and unsatisfactory picture.

Why? From the start, two limitations arise from looking at class struggle solely from a perspective of accumulated statistics; limitations that only imperfectly appropriate the full complexity of the bigger picture.

One limitation lies in questioning the underlying accuracy of the data since official statistics aren't usually compiled out some objective underlying reality, but instead are the result of an intentional political message designed to cover up one side and draw attention to another. This can be seen in how unemployment rates and the national census are both doctored; in both cases (and many more could be cited), the "official" figures cut out significant numbers of people for what are essentially politically expedient reasons.

If this is the case, with these examples in mind, can it be said that the strike statistics are sanctified with any more accuracy or rigor?

I will cite a personal example. A couple of years back, there was a strike in Baltimore at the Poly Seal Corporation, a small plastics factory located in an industrial park on the edge of the city. I only discovered the strike was taking place because I happened to be in a bar one night and overheard a fellow patron tell the bartender that his fiancée had just walked out on strike. I contacted someone I knew who was then an organizer for a local union and asked if he had any information about this strike. He knew nothing about it. For the two weeks the strike lasted, there was not one mention of it in the local media; nor did the local AFL-CIO take the least action to make known that one of its affiliate unions had walked out, let alone provide any tangible support. For all intents and purposes, this strike never took place; it was invisible to all except to those people directly concerned. While it would be undoubtedly mistaken to overgeneralize from this one incident, it still raised doubts in my mind about whether or not that this strike would end up being tallied in the official strike statistics put out by the Department of Labor. Given the size of the factory and the small numbers of workers caught up in the walk-out, the strike at Poly Seal had no detrimental effect at the local level, let alone a measurable impact on the national scale.

In fact, only in researching this article did I discover that my question was misplaced: as a result of the "roll-back big government" theme of the Reagan administration, since 1980, strikes of less than a thousand workers have been cut out from inclusion in the Bureau of Labor statistics. However, according to one account, "Evidence suggests that, while the number of strikes fell in the early 1980s, the number of workers involved and the workdays lost actually rose, indicating longer walkouts" (Sharon Smith, "Twilight of the American Dream", International Socialism Journal #54, Spring 1992, p.27).

If the official statistics are collected based on the size of a workplace on strike and furthermore, strikes involving one thousand workers or more have declined to single-digit figures, a different question must be raised. Recognizing that the restructuring of U.S industry has led to smaller concentrations of workers than in the past, it seems reasonable to assume that such data cannot show very much about the absolute numbers of workers on strike. Put another way, thirty smaller strikes involving workplaces of a few hundred striking workers can quickly add up to more workers in real numbers than five workplaces employing a thousand workers or more. Without disputing that there has been a serious drop in militancy over the past two decades, there are equally good grounds to be skeptical of the capability of official statistics to yield a complete picture of the range of officially called strikes that occur, let alone measure any unofficial actions and work stoppages. In the case of the latter, there simply is no way to judge, one way or another, their frequency since the incidence of these unofficial actions is ignored completely in official figures.

Discussions of the accuracy of computing strike rates aside, the strike rates are still only one benchmark for grasping the full degree of class conflict in the U.S work place. In other words, if at current rates, a strike in a given work place only stands to take place once every 90 years and only 12% of the work force is unionized, what happens in the work place in the interim? One example of what goes on is mentioned in an article in BARRON's, a U.S. business journal, titled, "The Rise in Replacement Workers Discourages Strikers But Spurs Other Forms Of Labor Strife" (May 29, 1995). The article notes "Strikes have become rarer even at unionized firms. That doesn't mean, however, that labor-management strife has ended. It just means subtler weapons have replaced walk-outs."

A caption to a graph plotting the increase in the use of "work to rule" tactics, which have grown from 18% of contract disputes to around 55% in 1990, going along with this article reads, "Among unionized firms with 1,000 or more employees strikes have declined probably in response to the increasingly widespread use of replacement workers when walk-outs occur. In response, workers have stayed on the job and resorted to slowdowns to put pressure on foremen to meet their demands."

EVERYDAY RESISTANCE

" . . .the grandfather catches the boy plowing, unenlightened, through the Code's articles on contracts, dowries and diving walls and demoralizes him by saying it is not what is written down in black and white which matters but the blank spaces, the margins: the unwritten laws, the loopholes."

- W.D. Redfern in "Georges Darien" Theft and Private Enterprise" (p. 134)

This brings into sharper relief the second and more fruitful point about how class struggle is framed and analyzed. Investigating only statistics and the actions - or non-actions - of official organizations such as unions leaves out considerations of other expressions of class conflict that can't be measured so clearly. While economic data and statistics uncovers broader, underlying macro-level trends, such a general framing doesn't say much about what is going on in individual offices and factories, let alone get inside the intimacies of working people's consciousness, either at the individual or collective level.

Even at its most accurate, this type of macro-level framing only provides a rough outline of the material conditions under which people's responses of resignation or resistance come into play. For example, discussing whether the falling rate of profit or underconsumption is at work in the recent Asian fiscal crisis can't explain why in Indonesia, riots in certain regions focus on the State while in other regions, riots degenerate into attacks on Chinese shopkeepers and Muslims. Missing in this picture is the complexity of subjective factors. People are not puppets whose strings are pulled by "objective circumstances" or "long waves of history" but react and shape these circumstances as well. (1)

A related question to consider is the weight allotted by some analysis to the role played by formal organizations in any particular conflict. Looking exclusively at whether formal organizations are enmeshed in a visible struggle cuts out taking into account the impact of the range of informal actions that fall outside of the structure of formal organization; actions that in some situations can have a greater determining effect on social relations than the actions formal organizations manage to carry out. Someone once dubbed the scope of informal actions as adding up "an everyday guerrilla war" and the phrase is accurate because this type of "war" is not a battle waged with fixed boundaries and final victories, but a continual conflict fought out on ever shifting grounds with provisional victories and provisional defeats. The significance of these everyday struggles and the tactics used in them were questions that C.L.R James, Grace Boggs and Cornelius Castoriadis (writing under the pen name Pierre Chalieu) tried to address over 40 years ago when they collectively wrote in "Facing Reality ":

"Ordinary working people in factories, mines, fields and offices are rebelling every day in ways of their own invention. Sometimes these struggles are on a small personal scale . . . Always the aim is to regain control over their own conditions of life and their relations with one another. Their strivings have few chroniclers."

In a later article, "What Really Matters" (2), Castoriadis describes the underlying conditions which invariably leads to formal as well as informal struggles:

"- The way in which the capitalist factory is organized creates a perpetual conflict between workers and management on the very issue of how production is to be carried out,

- Management is always cooking up new ways of chaining workers down to "the discipline of producing" as this is understood by management. . .

  • Workers are always inventing new ways of defending themselves
  • This struggle has more influence over real wage levels than do most negotiations or even strikes."

ARE INFORMAL STRUGGLES APOLITICAL?

Sometimes on the left it is acknowledged that these types of actions exist but then the objection is made that these actions are primarily "apolitical" or even worse, useful and even necessary to the smooth operation of the system because such actions let workers harmlessly blow off steam while leaving the "big picture", the underlying structures of exploitation intact. After correctly noting that U.S. workers may be more difficult to manage, this is an error Doug Henwood made in Left Business Observer a couple of years ago when he concluded such activities as essentially "conservative" despite their surface "naughtyness."

This defines the question too narrowly. Informal resistance can't be so neatly compartmentalized on one side and 'proper' resistance on the other; with one form of struggle "accommodating" and the other not. In most cases, the two forms of struggle complement one another. Since informal resistance is a result of the day-to-day antagonisms and tensions that exist in every work place, informal resistance accordingly acts as a foundation for, and not a distraction from, open challenges to discipline and the work process. Underneath the small, even personal rejections, is a implicit recognition of a persistent underlying "us" versus "them" conflict of interests expressed throughout almost every aspect of bureaucratized, class society; from this society's unemployment offices and welfare lines through its workplaces, schools, prisons and street corners. Taken in isolation, these rejections are without a doubt insignificant, in the same way that it can be likewise said an individual atom has no significance on its own. Yet, just as individual atoms put together produce something qualitatively different than merely the sum of the individual parts, so it is that the small actions in class conflict are a leaven for the large.

Understood this way, informal resistance therefore becomes a key, if largely disguised part of what is often mistakenly labeled "spontaneity" in the historical record. Of course, much of what is labeled as "spontaneous" is not "spontaneous" at all at least in the strict definition of the word . Instead, what appears as spontaneous collective action is actually the end result of a steady progression of existing conflicts and tensions that circulate stealthily for some time beneath radar level without being observed by outsiders.

As James C. Scott points out in "Domination and the Arts Of Resistance", this off-stage ebb-and-flow of dissatisfaction and discontent rarely leaves behind measurable traces in the public record in the form of articles, leaflets, formulated demands raised, etc; the sort of "footprints in the snow" that can be examined later by historians for "precipitating causes" and "the big picture." Applying Scott's methods to the South in the 1960s, Robin Kelley shows how a covert struggle over controlling public space that broke out in the 1940s on the bus lines and streets of Birmingham, Alabama was the antecedent for Rosa Parks open non-cooperation a decade later, even if today, it is Parks, as a 'heroic' individual, who is credited with triggering the Southern civil rights movement (3).

Later on in Montgomery, faceless "rioters" threw bricks at police in Montgomery after the struggle erupted into direct confrontation with the state. These anonymous "rioters" almost certainly shaped the course of the desegregation struggle in that city more than the actions of organized ministers, whose quickly co-opted intervention as "representatives" and responsible mediators playing by the rules merely filled a gap already created by the actions of the unorganized.

ACKNOWLEDGING THE HIDDEN TRANSCRIPT

Acknowledging the presence of a hidden transcript strips away some of the unnecessary mystery clouding questions of why struggles can develop in some situations and not in others. In most circumstances, the specific, pre-existing causes on the micro-level leading to open struggles can't be measured with any precision, leaving many leftists and labor historians falling prey to the fallacy of seeking out the "one" precipitating factor.(4)

Once informal resistance is seen as a dialectical process or continuum, another false intellectual division can be avoided: the frequently drawn opposition between individual and collective action.

To come off successfully, even what on the surface appears as individual resistance is most of the time a product of a tacit often unspoken, collective cooperation on the part of others and shouldn't be separated from this collective context. For example, as anyone who works knows, most workers on the job will turn a blind eye to what others do in the way of goofing-off and stealing as long as their co-worker's actions don't impinge on them directly, such as in the case of work "slacking" that forces other co-workers to pick up the slack.

At other times, individual actions, even when they could be labeled as "merely" individual or "privatized", on closer examination can be seen more easily as an expression of a wider, dispersed, collectively-shared outlook. Michael Seidman has documented this well in his work on women workers "subversive individualism" during the Spanish Civil War, Seidman documents the extensive desertions from both sides of the fighting in the war and the response of factory workers in both CNT-controlled regions as well as Paris factories during the Popular Front, and notes "instead of neglecting or condemning the personal, historians should try to understand how an exploration of the varieties of subversive individualism - resistance to work place discipline, opportunism and petty fraud - can expand the boundaries of social history . . .". What is often decried among leftists as "individualism" is not the strong confidence and assertion of a "subversive" individualism, the type of individualism that Peter Sloterdijk captures when he says. "As soon as the laborer says "I want", things begin to change" ("Critique of Cynical Reason", 1987, University of Minnesota Press p. 66) but instead what could be more accurately described as an "atomized privatized collectivism".

In a similar vein, Bob Arnot in "Controlling Soviet Labor" describes how what seemed to be "fragmented" and "depoliticized" individual actions on the part of Russian workers had a critical destabilizing effect on the Soviet Union. Although Soviet workers were forbidden to strike or act in collective defiance of the State because the penalties for open noncompliance were severe, they were able to exert a profoundly NEGATIVE impact on the functioning of Soviet economy through absenteeism, job changing, and reduced production. (5)

At the same time, it's necessary to avoid another error sometimes made in discussing these "small" actions. Individual resistance cannot be uncritically accepted or romanticized in "spectacular" ways, as some Situationist accounts especially tend to do. The form, quality and extent of resistance is inevitably stamped as a product of the society that produces it. As a product of that society, of course, it can take quite meaningless, ambiguous and destructive forms as well. (6) Even if resistance is carried out in a "pure" form, at some point, it encounters obstacles that must be transcended or otherwise dealt with. For example, to use a hypothetical and extreme situation, a workplace where total resistance was practiced consistently as a norm by most of workers would soon stop being profitable in the larger capitalist economy and quickly go bankrupt.

***

HIDDEN AND OPEN RESISTANCE IN THE U.S. TODAY

  • "If you listen to workers gripe about their lives you notice that their gripes are potential building blocks of the revolution - discrimination, boredom, the stupidity and callousness of the bosses, the purposelessness of their lives, the never ending scratching for money and security that pollutes your relationships with other people - how many of these are even attacked by a good union like the U.E. or an adequate but liberal union like the UAW? . . .After all, how do you sit down at contract time and bargain with the cruelty of capital?" (John Strucker, "Class Struggle Unionism" - A Critique" in Sojourner Truth Organization, "Workplace Papers")
  • "Lisa, if you don't like your job you don't strike. You just go in everyday and do it really half-assed. That's the American way"- Homer Simpson

What is the level of hidden and open resistance in the United States today and how does the present evolution of U.S. capitalism affect the incidence and expression of both hidden and open struggles in the workplace and elsewhere?

It won't be helpful to attempt to answer these questions as a point of seeking out, as is so often the case, a set of definite, closed answers leading to pre-conceived "revolutionary" conclusions. Instead tackling these questions must be dealt with open-ended and provisionally; an examination subject to further discussion and debate. In many cases, the absence of information in many critical areas, makes it either impossible or else risky to arrive at hard and fast conclusions. It's possible however to sketch preliminary approximations - approximations that can be retracted, refined or further developed later.

With this in mind, the remainder of this article will look closely at two situations - auto workers and prison labor - where a fair amount of documenting material exists and question common leftist assumptions. To single out auto workers is not to mistakenly privilege manufacturing workers as the 'real' working class. Nor are workplace struggles the only field for viable conflict; gains won by struggles in the workplace can be circumvented by raising rents, property speculation and other such recuperative tactics applied in the community.

Yet a larger constraint towards discussing the U.S. in general terms emerges immediately: any attempt to look at the "big picture" in the U.S. today has to come to grips with and confront the country's geographic and social diversity and, taking this underlying situation into account, is it even possible to accurately generalize about the United States at all? Perhaps it's more accurate to see the U.S as several fragmented "countries"; despite being confined within the same set of borders, different areas and whole regions have very little in common with each another. This is a point brought out by journalist Robert D. Kaplan in a recent book on the U.S., "An Empire Wilderness", where he states the fragmentation he sees in the U.S. is as striking as anything he witnessed in former Yugoslavia. And through these fragmented geographic and cultural boundaries there are deep-seated class divisions. Seldom does the world of the working class and poor sectors, the minimum waged and welfare-waged ever emerge in public discussions; the ghettos, the barrios, the declining blue and white collar edge suburbs or the persistence of large pockets of grinding rural poverty are nearly invisible. The class divisions in access to health care were emphasized in a recent World Health Organization report which argued that in terms of health care, the U.S. is really three America's, with the top 10% getting the best health care in the world, the middle getting mediocre care and the health conditions of the bottom 5-10% having "health conditions as bad as in sub-Saharan Africa."

Cut out of this discussion too has to be specific considerations of the conditions of Blacks, Latinos and other immigrants, of younger people and women, because each of these sub-groups need and deserve separate articles. In fact, it would be quite fair to say that talking about class struggle and the U. S working class is a bit like running into the dilemma of the old tale of the blind men and the elephant; where each could make out a part of the elephant but none the whole. In this respect, some of the best descriptions of current social conditions in the U.S. come out of accounts written by journalists outside leftist circles. To mention one example, William Finnegan's "Cold New World: Growing Up In A Harder Country" gives an invaluable snapshot of the younger, non -college educated working class that can't be gleaned from anywhere else.

DETROIT AND DEINDUSTRIALIZATION

Despite deindustrialization, downsizing and outsourcing and the overall decline of the manufacturing sector, the U.S. auto industry still plays a considerable role in the economy; a role due to the centrality of the automobile as a primary mode of transportation within the advanced capitalist countries. Moreover, the auto industry in the U.S., as in other countries, was one of the industries most responsible for the creation of "workers fortresses": large concentrations of workers tied together in a specific relationship with the factory based both on geographical and psychological; factors.(7)

In the United States, Detroit in particular stood out as the prototype of the blue, collar, manufacturing city. The type of city that most epitomized this type of Fordist-era industrial concentration. Because of the auto industry's central role in the city's economy, looking at the pattern of deindustrialization and class recomposition in Detroit's auto industry supplies a significant case in point of the overall ebb and flow of restructuring in U.S. manufacturing in general . Yet what this closer look, a micro-level look to be more precise, suggests is a different process of decline, than what is attributed by conventional wisdom in assumptions about deindustrialization.

Thomas Sugrue, in an article in International Labor and Working Class History (8) and later, a critique expanded in more depth in his book, "The Origins of the Urban Crisis", shows how deindustrialization in Detroit was a far more prolonged and uneven process than is previously credited More importantly, this deindustrialization was a progression that can't be separated into simple stages: a working class "made" in the 1950s and 60s and then quickly "unmade" in the late 1970s.

Sugrue first sets the picture, situating Detroit in what was a national trend:

"In the 1950s, the decline of urban manufacturing and the loss of industrial jobs reconfigured the landscape of the most prominent industrial cities across North. Detroit, Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Trenton, Boston and Saint Louis all lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs beginning in the 1950s." (9)

And then, more specifically to Detroit:

"The work force at the Ford River Rouge plant declined steadily throughout the 1950s. But the loss of manufacturing plants was by no means peculiar to the Rouge plant. The number of production jobs in Detroit fell by nearly half between 1947 and 1963." (10) (Emphasis added)

In other words, already 50% of the manufacturing jobs had disappeared in Detroit industry at the height of the "Thirty Golden Years", the post WWII period when it was assumed that affluence and stability were the supposed norm for U.S. workers before being erased by the oil crisis and plant shut-downs of the late 1970s. At the River Rouge plant, to cite one example Sugrue mentions, employment dropped from 85,000 in 1945 to 30,000 in 1960.

This hemorrhage of jobs particularly affected Black workers, who far from being punished in some sort of capitalist conspiracy for their post-68 militancy as some accounts imply, were by and large already deindustrialized by the early sixties. At the time, James and Grace Boggs, troubled by the growing numbers of unemployed men congregating on inner city street corners, were two of the few on the left who vaguely sensed that this deindustrialization was taking place.

It is true that from 1964-1969, there was an increase in the number of jobs in Detroit auto plants, a result of the Vietnam war era economic boom which rippled through every sector of the economy, but this increase in employment was a deceptive and transitory phenomenon; a "bubble" effect which then made the decline in the late 70s appear more dramatic than it actually was. It's easy to understand why the visible effect of the wave of plant shut downs in the late 70s - locked gates and boarded-up factories - created a more powerful impact on people's perceptions of deindustrialization than the less visible but steady attrition of jobs that occurred in still-open plants during the 1950s and early 1960s.

Was the loss of manufacturing jobs from the big cities in the 1950s an uniquely American trend? In France, a similar deconcentration of industry to the countryside had began in auto in the 50s and not as a result of May 68. (11) Perhaps only in Italy could this industrial deconcentration be attributed to an intentional employer response to an "unmanageable" workforce but it's difficult to separate the technological changes from the political.

A PATTERN NOT AN EXCEPTION

Was Detroit or the auto industry in general somehow an exception, a pattern atypical of U.S. manufacturing? Apparently not. Robin Kelly, in his study of Black workers in Birmingham, Alabama concludes that the identical process was underway in Birmingham heavy industry during the same period:

"During the 1950s, seven out of every ten miners in Birmingham lost their jobs, in part because Birmingham steel companies began importing higher grade ore from South America and the coal industry introduced a machine called the "continuous miner" which replaced scores of black underground workers." (12)

and

"Thus industrial opportunities for black workers began to diminish much earlier and more rapidly in Birmingham than in other industrial cities including Detroit: the percentage of blacks employed in heavy industry declined from 54% in 1930, to 41% in 1950, to 33% in 1960" (13)

To where did all these jobs disappear? In the case of auto, for those jobs that were that weren't wiped out on the spot, the remaining migrated to newly built plants in smaller, nearby Midwestern cities such as Lima and Lordstown, Ohio. Thanks to the opportunities for decentralization thrown up by the introduction of new production techniques, a concentration of industry and workers such as what existed in Detroit was no longer necessary. By moving instead to outlying rural and suburban areas, with predominantly white workforces, the auto industry hoped to escape Detroit's unionized work force and an entrenched "us-versus-them" informal shop floor culture that was expressed both inside and outside the unions. During this period, the United Auto Workers (UAW) fought a defensive, rear-guard campaign, barely aware of what was then occurring, focussing more on weeding out "troublemakers" in dissident locals like Local 600 at River Rouge rather than grappling with the profound changes underway.

It is in this context, the "big picture" as it were, that the famous 1972 Lordstown strike can be placed. Instead of heralding heralding a new form of militancy based on a 'refusal of work' among younger workers, the Lordstown strike can now be perhaps better viewed as the last gasp of traditional militancy.

THE REFUSAL OF WORK: MYTH OR REALITY?

This seventies-era 'The Refusal Of Work" has to be looked at in its specific context, steering clear both of over-exaggeration and under- appreciation. Despite the surface radicalism in form, underneath of all the labor militancy of the late 60s was still was a belief in sharing a bit of the pie, in other words, the form may have been more radical but the content was not. This is not to deny the importance of the 1960s era struggles but to merely approach these struggles realistically, acknowledging them for what they were rather then retrospectively over-estimating them for what they were not. As The Sojourner Truth Organization, a group influenced by CLR James and one of the few groups who were involved in factory organizing during this period, could write at the height of the 70s "refusal of work":

"From the beginning of our work we have had practical evidence that we were wrong in the assessment that the unions would be an important initial obstacle to organizing workers along our perspective. On the contrary, the reality of low levels of struggles, of primitive forms of struggles and of sporadic and episodic character to struggle have been much more striking than has the ability of trade unions to suppress struggle. Frankly, there isn't all that much to suppress."("Production Work", 1973, "Workplace Papers") (14)

Truthfully, this "refusal of work", to the extent that it existed, was much more widespread in those sectors of industry that were already unionized and guaranteed. "The refusal of work" rarely surfaced in the wider range of workplace settings where no such guarantees existed; the 'secondary' tier tackled in the labor market segmentation analysis. This secondary tier of jobs was present in manufacturing and elsewhere, but especially visible in retailing, distribution, services etc. where wages were low, protections few and a system of bureaucratized administration absent; in what has been aptly described as a labor market divided into a core and several peripheries. (15)

As an under-legal working age teenager, I was hired on in several Baltimore plastics factories during this "refusal of work" period in the mid 70s. At the time, the draft was still in effect even if you weren't subject to being called-up for active duty This meant that to get most jobs, you had to produce proof of your registration status at the time of employment. Since I was ducking draft registration, the only jobs that were open to me were in this secondary, non-unionized sector. Working in these plastics factories, which intentionally hired young people like myself who were avoiding the draft, meant you were at the mercy of the harshest working conditions. For example, no breaks or no lunch hours were ever provided; if you were lucky you had to squeeze in the time to eat at your machinery - if you could find the time, that is. Ditto for bathroom breaks. Unsurprisingly, there was no 'refusal of work" ever shown in any of these settings. That today, these same plastics factories are most likely hiring undocumented immigrants, who also are a bit short of another kind of "the proper papers" strikes me not so much as a case of qualitative shift as much as it is a case of a HORIZONTAL shift in oppressive conditions.

This divided labor market in all of its multiple forms - contingent labor, sweated labor, day work and so forth - has been one of the crowning achievements of U.S. capitalism for almost a century. In 1900, one eyewitness wrote that nearly 22% of the U.S. work force was contingent, describing thousands of men who were unemployed on a regular basis at least for some part of the year and working precarious jobs, floating from job site to job site with few guarantees, forced to seek work through the medium of the notorious labor halls. These labor halls were targeted by the IWW in on-going campaigns against the despised "labor sharks" and frequently, the workers pressed into using the halls were successfully organized despite their contingent and free floating status.

After the IWW was sidelined as an effective force by state repression, the campaign against labor halls was continued by local coalitions of philanthropic groups, liberal foundations and others who successfully lobbied for legislation to regulate hiring practices. These local reform campaigns abolished or curtailed many of the worst abuses in the hiring halls such as the practice of charging of multiple "fees" for bogus services.

But in the immediate post WW2 period, - and again, it is possible to pick up subtle changes taking place in what is maybe too easily labeled a period of unblemished prosperity and working class strength - the temporary labor industry successfully counter-organized. By then better prepared, the temp industry overturned local regulations through a coordinated low-key, lobbying campaign waged state by state, thus paving the way for the growth of temporary labor beginning in the late 1970s and even more explosively so in the 1990s. As one report describing the current growth of contingent work puts it, "Taking the long view reveals the distinct continuities of present-day "temporary work: with earlier forms of American labor relations"

Today, the work relations found in this 'secondary' sector are much more widespread and have seeped into the "primary" sector as well. Where at one point, the unionized part was able to exert an upward influence on wages and working conditions now the balance has shifted and it is the contingent and precarious sector that exerts downward pressure on those layers above. While conditions have unquestionably deteriorated in the past two decades, for most workers in the bottom rung of the dual labor market, there was never any "golden age" to pass through.

NO BARRIER TO ORGANIZING

Even so, in painting the "big picture", it is important to come to terms with the fact that the growth of temporary and contingent labor is not an absolute barrier to organizing nor is the existence of temporary labor an preordained guarantee of free fall to the bottom, as it is often gloomily presented in traditional leftist analysis.

In France in the early 1900s, the anarcho-syndicalist CGT was able to pressure local city administrations to set up "bourses du travails" (Houses of Labor) in dozens of French cities which were hiring halls employers had to go through to hire workers. Although the Houses of Labor as permanent institutions inevitably became part of the process of bureaucratization of the CGT, in a narrower sense, the Bourse du Travail were still a practical tool erecting a floor successfully arresting the downward pressure on French workers living and working conditions. More recently, there is the example of "The Lump" on British construction sites, as described in Dave Lamb's prescient pamphlet issued by Solidarity London in the late 1970s. Closer to home, Latino day laborers in Los Angeles, forced to sell their labor on inner city street corners, have collectively self-organized on their own in the absence of any interest from traditional organizations in recent years by informally setting a minimum wage beneath which no worker would work. As Lamb put it in discussing "The Lump", "What form of alienated labor is not divisive? . . . the main point is that the real cohesiveness of the working class is not smashed by different ways of selling one's labour power." Of course, in itself, there is nothing "revolutionary" about the FORM of how this is done but it merely points out that jobs brokered by unions and union contracts are only one method of selling your labor under capitalism. If the AFL-CIO doesn't take an interest in these workers - and right now, it doesn't because the AFL-CIO is torn between seeing contingent workers as a threat and as a source for potential new dues-paying members - why should these workers sit back and wait for it to take an interest?

THE EROSION OF BIG CITY INDUSTRY

To return to the question of deindustrialization, was the erosion of industry from big cities something really new? As The Economist correctly notes, "The familiar picture of solid old companies like IBM, General Motors and Ford pulling together for the greater good of corporate America had long since turned brown at the edges. International competition had arrived ages ago." (16)

In the 1920s, textiles - then a major New England industry - left the region for the lower waged South, gutting towns like Fall River, Lowell, and Lawrence in the process, followed a decade later by furniture and wood-working manufacturers. There was the decimation of the maritime industry in the late 50s, with the transfer of merchant marine operations overseas to 'flag of convenience" status in Third World countries as an example of "globalization" at the height of a period of "prosperity and stability". In one sense, this process is really nothing new because the dynamics of capital accumulation means capital is always looking for an escape option; therefore the system never stands still but is always forced to restructure in the search for maximum profits.

Such restructuring in the U.S. over the past several decades has led to North Carolina threatening to edge out the Midwestern states and become the leading industrial state in the U.S., with a larger proportion of its workforce employed in manufacturing than anywhere else in the country:

"From 1964 to 1996, the number of manufacturing jobs declined by 1.1 million in the rest of the country while increasing by 2.2 million in the South. (. . .) North Carolina, for example, is one of those states which has attracted a great deal of industry in recent decades. It has almost as many people employed in manufacturing as does Ohio, Illinois or Michigan. And it has large industry. Already, in 1990, it had 81 factories with over 1,000 workers" (17)

THE ROLE OF THE SOUTH

In this context it's worth discussing, the economic role that the South played in the past and continues to play today in relation to the rest of the country. Throughout U.S history the South can be seen in many ways as a special type of internal colony; a domestic version of the Third World, where cheap labor and the presence of a disenfranchised Black population functioned as a reserve army of labor mirroring the conditions found in Latin American and Asian countries now. One of the many dirty secrets of U.S. capitalism is that most of the infrastructure of the American south - the railroads, the bridges, the roads and highways -was built using different forms of unfree labor besides slavery; a point brought out in several recent histories of this intersection of business and enslaved labor. Indeed, as The Economist noted in a review of a recent book on the role of unfree labor in the U.S. economy, "Bondage of one sort or another has played a central role in American history from the beginning. It is no exaggeration to say that prisoners did as much as free men and women to establish the United States as a nation." (18)

Nor is this role confined to ancient past history. Even if many of the harshest signs of the South's social backwardness, such as open segregation and legal terror, were rolled back by the struggles of the 1960s, the economic attractions of the region as a magnet for investment has lingered. In the past twenty years, the South has become a prime location for foreign investment in the U.S. as shown by the well-known examples of Mercedes-Benz locating new plants in Alabama and South Carolina. One reason why this investment in the South continues is suggested by the series of articles in the Baltimore SUN examining the hidden subsidies, amounting to millions of dollars in a package consisting of direct giveaways, tax abatements, infrastructure improvement provided by states to attract investment.

It would be interesting, if excruciatingly difficult, to calculate the effect of all these subsidies, when tied together with a developed infrastructure, a skilled and literate but non-union, low-wage workforce and the area's proximity to key markets and see how the American South compares with Third World countries as a bargain for capitalists.

Despite the fact that all the states in the U.S. carry out this massive behind-the-scenes, subsidizing of business with little public accountability, no where else is this no- strings-attached policy of financial support practiced so extensively as it is in the South. (19) This practice of State hand-outs shows too the practical limitations of current globalization analysis. Blanket claims about the death of the nation-state obscure the continued existence of and need for a very traditional and necessary role played by the State: that of a being a "handmaiden" to private capital by subsidizing the latter's development, its accumulation and hence its profits. In an era of increased international competition, every national state still seeks to protect its own capitalists at the expense of rival foreign capitals.

The search for cheap labor and extraction of surplus value has been present in the nonstop expansion of U.S. capitalism from the beginning. It is a process that is still going on today, even if in new forms. At very few moments has it been arrested or contained by unions, even during the alleged "thirty golden years."

To point this out doesn't mean that U.S. capitalism is resistant to crisis and opposition; far from it. However what needs to be disputed is the view that mistakenly separates a 'golden age' for the U.S. working class from a 'decline'. As has been shown, during the post-war WWII period up and up until the late 1970s, while many leftists were arguing that the U.S. working class was "affluent" and "bought-off", beneath the surface, a continual and relentless restructuring was occurring. The effects of this restructuring can't be confined to the late 1970s.

INTERNAL RESTRUCTURING

Over the past several decades, this internal restructuring has led to a continual churning in both the old structures of everyday work and in traditional class composition. Some of the effects, again each of which can't be taken in isolation but seen as mutually interdependent, are:

*An increased rate of exploitation. Application of computers and technology to further rationalize the work process, the end result being getting more work out of less people.

*Declining employment in traditionally unionized heavy industries.

*The explosive growth of the service sector fueled by the influx of women into the workforce and, more recently, the expansion of the 24 hour a day service economy. Supermarkets, convenience stores and many other businesses, are now operating around the clock 7 days a week through the increased use of shift work. Patterns of shift work and weekend work now extending beyond the traditional shift-work patterns set in the past by sectors like health care.

*Industrial growth in previously underdeveloped parts of the country, with decline in others areas followed by regional restructuring.

*On the one hand, overwork (not "the end of work") through extensive use of mandatory over-time for some sectors (manufacturing stands out) and on the other hand, multiple job holding as a necessity (low-skilled service sector jobs in particular)

In recent years, the threat of moving industry overseas, when joined with threats of downsizing, has been largely successful in limiting workplace struggles and has led as a result to a widespread climate of fear and insecurity. For example, a 1996 study by Cornell labor researcher Kate Bonfenbrenner found that 62% of manufacturers threatened to close plants down soon after a union drive began, whether or not an overseas transfer was even immediately practical.

In contrast to the 1960s, where the struggles were mostly over a bigger share of a still-growing pie, today you have the paradox where you can see and hear almost everywhere in the U.S. evidence of a much more widespread class polarization. This current polarization, is expressed in heightened feelings that the "rich are getting richer", doubts your children are going to have it better than your own generation did, withdrawal from participation in institutions and voting charades and so forth. It is a form a 'negative" class consciousness, since these more accurate perceptions of U.S. reality in comparisons with the 1960s are accompanied at the same time by a decrease in open struggles.

THE MYTH OF FOOTLOOSE CAPITAL

Such a situation can last indefinitely or it can change very quickly. However it is a DIFFERENT situation that has to be faced than what is usually presented in the broad pictures of deindustrialization and globalization painted by the traditional left. These analyses by failing to take a long-term view, examine specifics or the contradictions that crop up, often ends up overstating the "determining" role of these "objective" factors more than the capitalists. This can be seen in a closer look at specific cases of the export of domestic jobs overseas. While as a general trend, low-technology, labor intensive industries do indeed frequently pull up stakes and flee the country to Third World sites, today much of this relocation still ends up either situated internally or else shifted to countries flanking the host country. This point is brought out at greater length in Chris Harman's excellent article in International Socialism Journal # 73, (Winter 1996) debunking many of the wholesale globalization theories, where Harman dubs the process as "glocalization" not "globalization".

This "glocalization" is further confirmed by The Economist which notes "There are sound reasons why the higher value parts of these new global chains will remain in America and Europe. In an era of mass customization, the smooth and relaxed relationships that is possible between manufacturers, customers and suppliers in the electronic world of Silicon Valley - or the textiles and footwear world of Emilia-Romangna or the car-making worlds of Baden-Wurttenberg and Bavaria give a special new advantage tot those who operate in such places." (June 20th, 1998, p. 18)

While the cross-border outflow of certain jobs undeniably does occur, sometimes the reverse process happens as well, a process that receives little attention or fanfare in comparison with job loss through overseas plant relocations. In these former cases, a company will shift production off-shore as long as such production is labor-intensive and then move operations back to the country of origin once the labor process is automated, and requires increased skills to be performed:

" For example, by automating the welding of computer chips, the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation is able to do a portion of its chip assembly at it's plant in South Portland, Maine; the chips had been previously assembled manually in Southeast Asia" (from an article by Susan Walsh Sanderson quoted in " Harley Shaiken and Steve Herzenberg, Automation and Global Production: Automobile Engine Production in Mexico, the United States and Canada", 1987, p.5).

A major reason for this reverse job inflow taking place, as Shaiken and Herzenberg point out, is that "The United States historically has been able to achieve low unit costs even with high wages as a result of high productivity" (ibid. P.4). This high productivity is an important point in understanding why investment in the U.S., despite the "high" wages paid U.S. workers in comparison to their Third World counterparts, still remains an attractive option. This process can also be seen in recent developments in the U.S. textile industry, which has been one of the traditional industries hardest hit by cross-border migration. In the past few years, job losses in textiles have, if not ended, at least slowed down, as huge automated looms where one specially trained worker can now tend up to 8 machines, have replaced the old labor intensive production process previously the industry norm. Since the U.S. is, after China, the second-largest producer of cotton in the world, it's still cheaper and more cost-effective despite the abysmal wages paid to Mexican textile workers for textile manufacturers to locate textile production near the source of raw materials in the south rather than ship the work overseas to Asia or even to Mexico. With the introduction of capital-intensive production techniques, restructuring in textiles has led to the further rationalization of the work-process in the industry; a situation where more output now can be squeezed out of fewer but higher-skilled workers, even in a sector historically more vulnerable than most to international competition.

THE REINDUSTRIALIZATION OF THE MIDWEST

In the case of deindustrialization, it is often possible for this continual restructuring to work both ways too. A case in point is the Midwest, deindustrialized in the 1970s, and now reindustrialized in the 1990s since current economic conditions have proven favorable to capital accumulation (20). Describing the Midwest now, The Economist says, "America's once-rusty manufacturing heartland of Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana has restructured, retooled and reinvented itself as the country's economic powerhouse. Its exports are growing far faster than the national average. Its unemployment rate, at 4.4% is the country's lowest. In short, this region is booming." (21)

This redevelopment is described in greater detail in an article titled "Reversal of Fortune: Understanding the Midwest Recovery" in Economic Perspectives, published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago:

"The Midwest lost 2.5 percentage points in its share of the nation's manufacturing employment from 1977 to 1983, going from roughly 19.5% to 17%). It has since regained 2 percentage points and the rate of gain has accelerated in the 1990s. Manufacturing industries such as auto and steel have reconcentrated in the Midwest. For example, the region had 31 auto plants in 1996, compared with 27 in 1979. Although nine Midwest auto plants closed between 1979 and 1996, 13 new plants opened." (22)

Why is this reconcentration of industry taking place in the formerly deindustrialized Midwest?

"External factors in the Midwest's economic turnaround include technological and organizational changes in the automobile industry which have favored its reconcentration in the midsection of the nation; the geographic pattern of federal defense spending; declining real energy prices, important both as an input to the region's industries and as a determinant of demand for its products; and from the mid-80s until recently, a declining dollar, which improved the international competitiveness of the region's companies." (ibid., p.6)

A later Economic Perspectives article (23) describes how implementing lean manufacturing production techniques contributes to a clustering of new auto supplier plants:

" (the changing spatial pattern of Ford's supplier network) . . .shows a marked increase in concentration of Ford's supplier base around Southern Michigan. During the most recent decade, 31% of newly opened supplier plants located within 100 miles of Dearborn (versus only 17% during the earlier decade)

An article in the December 16th, 1999 Wall Street Journal points out that jobs in mostly non-unionized auto parts making plants have increased by 40,000 over the past ten years while G. Mustafa Mohatarem, G.M's chief economist claimed in the March. 20. 2000 Oakland. Michigan Tech News (Michigan) that "since January 1, 1994, U.S. auto industry empoyment has increased by about 165,000"

Crucially, there's nothing in these articles discussing wage scales or rates of unionization in comparison with industry standards of twenty years ago. However images presented in the last issue of Collective Action Notes suggesting laid-off Black auto workers huddling around fires before they are silently carted off to prison for slave labor may be suited to poorly selling Bruce Springsteen albums but are misleading as a reflection of conditions in the Midwest now. Or elsewhere in the United States.

JUST-IN-TIME: NEW CHAINS - OR NEW VULNERABILITY?

To paraphrase Marx, rulers may indeed make rules but they don't do so in circumstances completely of their own choosing. "An employer does not buy an hour of passive labor as the Marxist model suggests, he buys an hours output which will vary according to the worker's resistance" (24). Thus, the missing part of the picture painted so far is the submerged subjective response. So let's return now to the second half of the equation; U.S. workers reaction to the new changes in work and the production process .

From the late eighties, "just-in-time" production techniques have troubled many leftists, who saw these techniques as a potent weapon introduced to undermine working class gains. Yet this was only partially true. While new production techniques change the playing field for workers and capitalists, it is not always to the latter's advantage. So it has been with "just-in-time" in auto and elsewhere. In the past several years, recent strikes have highlighted the new vulnerability of "just-in-time" to strike action in ways that didn't exist previously.

It's not hard to see why this new vulnerability comes about. An inventory system based on low stocks of essential materials gives workers additional leverage, not less, to halt production during a strike . This is now belatedly recognized by capitalists themselves, who are far less gung-ho about the positive effects of "just-in-time" once the limits of "just-in time" came to light then was the case a decade ago. This fact was noted in an April 10th, 1997, Journal of Commerce article covering the GM strikes then taking place where it was pointed out, "With strikes against the world largest auto maker proving disruptive to their global supply chains, it may be time to change just-in-time to just-in-case. Automobile supply changes are vulnerable to work stoppages because the industry is dependent on just-in-time production."

QUALITY OF LIFE WORK CIRCLES

When "quality of life", "team work circles" and other Japanese-style management techniques were implanted in U.S. auto factories over a decade ago, leftists feared, perhaps not without foundation, that these new management techniques were a potent stratagem incorporating workers into increasing production. But two of the few investigations on based on actual contact with workers, show a different picture; a picture that finds workers are not as placated or blindly lulled into "false consciousness" as many believed.

In "Farewell To The Factory", Ruth Milkman studied several thousand auto workers at a New Jersey GM plant who had taken a buy-out in the late 80s rather than continue to work the assembly line. The numbers of workers taking a buy-out was by far higher at this GM plant than others, a fact Milkman relates to the barracks-like atmosphere and harsh prison like conditions of the assembly line. Among these workers - nearly 1/3 of the total plant work force - few of them, even years after the buy-out, expressed any regrets about leaving GM. This lack of nostalgia for the assembly line was remarkably consistent, a general attitude expressed among both those workers who had been successful in the post-GM period as well as those who ended up downwardly mobile. Although workers in this last group regretted the loss of benefits and high hourly wages, few expressed any qualms about leaving factory work behind them.

Over the next several years following the buy-out, Milkman extensively interviewed those remaining workers at the Linden GM plant where in the interim "team management" techniques had been introduced. What she discovered was that the language of teamwork, far from incorporating workers into a harmonious management-controlled effort to increase their output on the job, instead became a contested daily terrain that was used to criticize management for failing to live up to the glib and meaningless cliches about valuing individual participation. Auto workers agreed to accept team work circle production techniques, not out of "false consciousness" about their "true " interests, but because the old shop floor regimen was so hated nothing else could be worse.

According to Milkman, disaffection actually increased rather than decreased after team concept production was introduced. Milkman quotes from a study of a plant shutdown in Wisconsin where to the author's surprise, few workers expressed regret about the plant closing, despite the substantial economic impact the shutdown wielded on the surrounding community (25). Like the New Jersey GM workers who detested the current system of work relations prevailing in the auto industry, few workers at the Kenosha plant mourned being removed from it.

Milkman's findings echo those of Laurie Graham (26), who worked at a Subaru-Izusu plant in Indiana and thus was in a good position to tap the "hidden transcript" there. Isuzu, a Japanese transplant, introduced the most advanced Japanese-style management techniques - kaizen (continuous improvement) in this Indiana plant. Yet what Graham noted was that while her co-workers complied on the surface they also resisted in many covert and open ways, including a refusal to participate in company team spirit building outings, manipulating the rules as individuals to benefit themselves personally, and even occasionally staging coordinated collective actions to reduce the pace of assembly line work. Graham remarks that 70% of her co-workers viewed team work as a method to get workers to work harder. Like Milkman, from what Graham observed while working at the plant, the end result was more anger at management after "quality of life" was introduced, not less. (27)

REJECTION OF TEAM CONCEPTS

This rejection of team concepts and quality of life work circles is further confirmed by recent examples where these concepts have been quietly dropped after initial management fanfare (28):

  • At UPS, a team concept program set-up in 1995 has been abandoned at the request of UPS workers. As one UPS worker stated, "Work without management sounded enticing. But when you looked at it, it was really plain as day in front of your eyes - they weren't interested in giving us control over anything different"
  • The founder of the Bolivar Project at Harman Automotive Inc, once hailed as one of the most innovative "quality of work life" projects in the U.S., announced the project was dead.
  • At Saturn, the number of employees voting to discontinue "participation" programs rose from 13 to 34% in just a few years, leading one union supporter of the concept to declare that the "project's days may be numbered"

NEW TECHNOLOGY; OLD WORK RELATIONS

Nor is the ability to see through management cant confined to the "declining" manufacturing sector, as noted by the Washington POST in a recent article (29) investigating Amazon, the large internet-based bookseller and one of the strongholds of the New Economy, where technology is supposed to grant a glittering new future of co-partners going beyond the old labor-management adversary relations. The POST article observes that " . . a nagging reality underpins the late-century giddiness. This promise of speed still rests heavily with rote-work employees, the men and women who spend their days and nights boxing books at Amazon's distribution centers and those who answer e-mail when a customer forgets a password . . . most of the jobs created in the New Economy are low-paying, low-skilled and monotonous."

One worker, writing about his experience in an article for a Seattle alternative weekly entitled "How I escaped the Amazon cult", described working at Amazon as " . . . we did basically drone work and had people breathing down our necks all the time . . . the only difference is that a lot of the supervisors had pierced ears and wore leather." The factory-like conditions led to a group of workers called The Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WASH TECH) organizing at Amazon. Again, a change in technology and production techniques produces a very old response. A response allegedly overcome as an outdated relic of the past .

THE MICROLEVEL BUREAUCRATIC BURDEN

Assessing levels of workplace discontent can also be discerned by looking at this question from the reverse aspect: if American workers are so defeated and demoralized, why is there so much effort made, at enormous costs to capitalists, to surveil and manage workers nowadays? To return to Doug Henwood's observation: can it be that American workers are more difficult to manage?

 

The late Timothy Mason once wrote in History Workshop pointing out the astonishing number of articles, adding up to over 50,000, compiled by the Committee of Industrial Relations Librarians on the subject of industrial relations and scientific management just in the immediate post WW2 period alone. Mason remarked, "the bibliographies are a remarkable testament to the fierce, relentless, subtle and comprehensive effort which has been made by management in the USA to contain and coopt the industrial working class." Nor was this a specific development of the post-WW2 labor-capital accord; as even as far back as the 1930s, Gramsci observed: "the enquiries conducted by the industrialists into the worker's private lives and the inspection services created by some firms to control the 'morality' of their workers are necessities to the new methods of work." Speaking of the employers imposing both increased rationalization and prohibition of alcohol, Gramsci noted, "a forced selection will ineluctably take place; a part of the old working class will be pitilessly eliminated in the world of labor"; eerily prescient of the present-day use of widespread drug testing in the U.S. to weed out the "good" productive workers from the "bad" unproductive ones.

Although it is no longer as fashionable in leftist circles to examine such questions as it was briefly 20 years ago, it would be worthwhile to review the current literature of industrial relations and see how the present-day management techniques stack up with the old, both in quality and quantity. If anything, with the growth of "human relations" as a separate discipline, it's reasonable to assume attempts at controlling and manipulating worker's behavior at work have increased rather than decreased, not just among industrial workers but among service sector workers as well.

In the absence of an wider analysis, one answer to this question is floated in David Gordon's article, "Underpaid Workers, Bloated Corporations", which was later expanded into a book (30). According to Gordon, a largely unacknowledged cause of the growth of recent wage stagnation in the United States, a trend unique to the United States as compared to the other developed economies, is the huge discrepancy in ratio between supervisory personnel and workers. Using data from the International Labor Organization (ILO), Gordon labels this phenomenon the "bureaucratic burden" noting the " massive size and cost of the managerial and supervisory apparatus" of private U.S. corporations. Despite fears of downsizing, this middle management sector actually increased as a percentage of the workforce from 12.6% in 1989 to 13.6% in 1985. Gordon states "the wage squeeze and the bureaucratic burden are integrally connected, that each contributes heavily to one another.", quoting a study pointing out that wage stagnation was as equally pronounced in those sectors of the economy not exposed to global competition as it was in sectors vulnerable to it, providing yet another example where overstatements about globalization frequently disguise more than they reveal. (31)

 

For the past two decades, little hiring has taken place in the traditional industrial sectors. But in the next decade, thousands of workers taken on in the employment boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s will be retiring and an influx of newer workers will come in to replace them. Even if the jobs this latter group fills will be greatly reduced and require more skill than the previous generation.

How will these younger workers respond to the conditions they come up against in increasingly computerized factories? It is difficult to predict. But one article looking at the present generation gap between new and old workers in manufacturing (32) notes that younger working class people lack strong attachment to both work and the employer and as a result, exhibit less of an identity in or pride toward being a "worker" than previous generations did. This delinking of your source of income from your identity could have far reaching consequences. Perhaps even from this perspective, the true "the refusal of work" is yet to come. As Marx wrote over a hundred years ago in Capital Vol 1, " . . .nowhere are people so indifferent to the type of work they do as in the United States, nowhere are people so aware that their labor always produces the same product, money and nowhere do they pass through the most divergent kinds of work with the same nonchalance" (33)

DEMYSTIFIYING THE ROLE OF PRISON LABOR

"Show me an inmate watching television all day and I'll show you a dangerous inmate" - Maryland Correctional official

In discussions of prison labor in radical publications, phrases like "slave labor", "prison industrial complex" pepper the articles. The image conjured up, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not, is a situation akin to a Nazi-like work camp regime.

This analysis seriously misses the mark. The fact is that right now prison labor is used more often as a control mechanism of reward and punishment, with the right to work granted as a 'privilege' for "good" behavior and likewise employment is withdrawn for "not playing by the rules". Far from being some sort of Nazi type work camp regimen, the bona fide, if submerged, role of prison labor is to act as a means of control in the hands of the prison administration to defuse potential unrest, as a recent article on prison labor in the Wall Street Journal implicitly acknowledged when it stated, "Guards report busy prisoners are easy to manage." (34). Likewise, in a Covert Action article on prison labor, it can be read that prison work schemes fulfill "the need to impose discipline and control over an ever-larger and increasingly restive prison population" (35)

It's not hard to see why prison labor plays this role. Inmates faced with boredom and an almost total lack of meaningful activities as a result of cut-backs in educational and recreational programs are more inclined to get involved in gang activities and other forms of 'troublemaking' detrimental to the "orderly" functioning of a prison than those inmates worn out from a day's work.

Inmates also size up this situation accurately, if from a different vantage point since no inmate is, rightly, terribly concerned about the problems prison administrations run into managing them. Following from this accurate assessment of the institutional balance of power, they use the right to work as a means to escape the numbing boredom of being confined to a cell most of the day, which reinforces why the threat of withdrawing the right to work is used as punishment by the authorities to impose discipline in the correctional systems. This connection between the "right to work" and conforming to prison rules is further confirmed in an article describing the operation of a textile shop in the Eastern Oregon Correctional institution in Pendleton, Oregon which manufactures jeans marketed under the brand label "Prison Blues." One article describing the Pendelton workshop - one of the longest-running and most established prison industries and frequently mentioned in reports on the growth of prison-based industries - emphasizes that "inmates must have 90 days of continuous good behavior to be considered." for employment (36)

There are also infrequent but not unheard of situations where prisoners make a demand for the right to work. For example, a group of women inmates at the Jessup Women's Correctional Facility on their own initiative petitioned the Maryland State AIDS Administration for the right to assemble condom kits; the women saw this not only as a way of occupying their time but as a way of "giving back to the community." One article describing the project bears this out, stating, "The employees work 13 hour days and although they're only paid $120 per month, their moral is high. They believe in the importance of their mission. Besides it beats sitting in a jail cell all day". (37)

Unquestionably, this is a form of self-exploitation in that these women are performing socially useful work at next to no compensation; a situation that would not exist if they weren't locked up in inhumanly overcrowded conditions. But it is a far cry from "slave labor" Nazi work-camp images of Dachau and "arbiter macht frei".

There are exceptions to this general rule, such as the use of chain gangs in several Southern states, but chain gangs have been set up mainly as a vicious way of pandering to perceived public demands for visible punishment of law breakers. Endlessly breaking up rocks on the side of the road serves no larger purpose of capital accumulation. Instead, the chain gang supplies the correctional industry with a gratuitous self-serving spectacle showing how prisons are being "tough" on criminals; a spectacle presenting a visible proof of activity which is usually hidden from public view behind walls; an activity that can then be marshaled to support the prison industry's appetites for increased budgets.

SLIGHT WEIGHT OF PRISON INDUSTRY

Further indication of the slight weight private industry plays in prison labor schemes can be found by taking a look at the actual numbers. Out of roughly a million and a half people incarcerated, a total of 80,000 are employed in all types of prison industries. This figure is deceptive because the public sector (including the prison system itself) remains the largest employer of inmate labor, by far dwarfing the private sector . In Maryland, for example, out of 22,6000 inmates working, the majority work inside the prison system cleaning floors, manning kitchens, etc, with only 1,300 employed in "State-Use industries", which is a catch-all category describing production for a limited sector of pre-approved non-profit groups and government agencies. (38)

Private sector investment barely registers in these figures. According to the Village Voice, the Prison Industry Enhancement Program (PIE) set up by Congress in 1984 to stimulate private sector involvement in prison industries has had only "modest success." (39) Twelve years later, only 25 states managed to lure private industry into prisons - and the majority of these firms establishing correctional work shops were small local companies which have turned to the prisons as a last resort for a supply of labor. As the president of one small Maryland company, one of the few companies in the state to establish a prison-based enterprise, described his reason for setting up a shop in a prison, "it has been almost impossible to attract and hire qualified people (on the outside)." (40).

With over a quarter of unskilled jobs in the U.S. labor market experiencing 100% turnover per year, prisons might be one of the few places which a stable work force can be recruited. In other words, prison labor has to be seen in its specific context in the present day U.S economy; as a source of workers used reluctantly by employers desperate for new sources of labor to cope with current labor shortages.

Yet, even with labor shortages on the outside, why is prison labor so under-utilized, if prisons are supposed to provide a pool of cheap, captive "slave" labor for a growing gulag-like "prison-industrial complex", as leftist mythology has it is?.

Because, as the Village Voice article previously quoted succinctly notes, "Prison labor isn't just much of a bargain." The reasons aren't hard to fathom: " (prisoners) must be closely supervised and correction officers must constantly count inmates and keep track of tools - often wasting production time." Furthermore, production inside a prison can be interrupted by lawyer's visits, family visits as well as lockdowns, riots and protests - all factors usually not present in your more orderly and routine outside settings. These daily institutional interruptions, endemic to institutional life itself, contribute to the ultimate unprofitability of prison labor. Which is yet another reason why the majority of inmate workers are used still in internal institutional tasks like janitorial and kitchen work. Such jobs can more easily weather frequent disruptions because the task performed don't require maintaining continuous output to be carried out.

Something else that is immediately striking in most accounts of "the prison-industrial complex", which amply quote what correctional officials, reactionary politicians and private industry say and assume this must be the case, is that there's almost no description of what "really goes on" from inmates working in these work shops. Do prisoners just file docilely into the work place and dutifully produce because they're told to? Isn't it likely that inmates also find ways to hold back output just like workers on the outside? If you've been around convict culture, you know there's nothing LESS controlled than a U.S. prison. In such a context; to talk about the "everyday guerrilla war" looses any possible literary connotations the phrase might have and becomes a quite literal description of the way things actually are.

Overstating the role of prison labor, which is done in the same way that many of the same people making the prison work gulag arguments point some incident in the ordinary functioning of the U.S. state and declares impending "fascism", detracts from a very real issue: the continuing incarceration and criminalization of a whole layers of Black and Latino youth. Furthermore, this criminalization is not an accidental policy of the U.S. state, but bound up with the explosive growth of the drug economy. The growth of the drug economy is a new feature of labor market segmentation that can also explain to some extent why welfare reform has not materialized into the wholesale slide of AFDC families into the streets as many predicted. From rural Tennessee to inner city Baltimore, the drug market has become a primary employer of last resort, with far more lucrative wages paid out than in the legal sector. As one micro-level study of the drug economy in East Harlem noted, wages were averaging $30 per hour even if hours were irregular and the chances of an occupational fatality rather high. Analyzing the role of the drug economy and its relationship to the expansion of U.S. capitalism today is a task the surface of which has barely been scratched.

A further comment needs to be made on the current conditions inside U.S. prisons. A recent article in The Nation pointed out that according to the Bureau of Correction's (BOC) own figures, since the mid-90s, there have been MORE disturbances in the prisons than at any point since the 1970s. In 1995 secretly coordinated riots at four geographically scattered Federal prisons that took place over the drug sentencing laws, the BOC stating they were "the most serious nationwide period of disruption" in its history. At the time, the BOC confessed it was completely unaware of the cause behind the riots, providing yet another concrete example of the ability of the "hidden transcript" to circulate out of sight from would-be controllers since pre-planning was certainly necessary and probably thousands of inmates were aware of it without the guards ever being aware.

More recently, there was the example of the January 2000 Y2K strike in New York state correctional system over the reduction of liberalized parole. It was a strike action that forced the administration to lock down prisoners statewide for two weeks. What has changed is not the levels of struggle and conflict in the prisons since the days of Attica but media attention to these incidents. (The ever-present potential for unrest also reinforces the view of seeing prison labor as one means of control to prevent outbreaks.)

OVEREMPHASIZING THE FORCES OF REPRESSION

Nor is overemphasizing the panoptical forces of control and repression confined to analyzing conditions inside prisons. Such analyses ignore the inconvenient fact that half the time, this control apparatus fails to work in its intended manner. A case in point is the use of surveillance cameras in downtown Baltimore, which is one of cities where deploying cameras is the most advanced in the U.S. This dense network of surveillance, so impressive on paper, didn't prevent half-ton wrought iron doors from being pried off courthouses located at one of the most heavily traveled intersections of Baltimore. Nor did the presence of cameras prevent, much to then Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke's acute embarrassment, a national television network van from being broken into in broad daylight as the Mayor was shepherding the television crew around downtown Baltimore bragging about the "success" of such cameras in preventing crime in the downtown business district (41).

Claims about the effectiveness of such tactics can only have validity if you have a baseline of crimes committed and therefore can estimate whether crime has increased or decreased as a result. But since the vast majority of property crimes in the U.S. go unreported, - by one estimate of the American Bar Association, the rate runs as high as 91% of "serious crimes" and another study of addict criminality notes that addicts are only caught for "about 1%" of the crimes they commit - it is difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to objectively make out the effectiveness of such counter-measures. Especially when, as in the case of Baltimore, it recently came to light that the crime figures had been juggled for political purposes to produce a crime rate 30% lower than it really was. (42)

***

HIDDEN RIOTS

As noted earlier, what appears sometimes to be a non-political event can surface as the outcome of a behind-scenes build up of grievances and, as a result. have a very political impact. No formal organizations are caught up in the conflict or created nor open slogans or a list of demands raised by the participants.

A case in point is the 1992 Chicago Bulls Riots, described in an article by sociologist, Michael J. Rosenfeld, in the November 1997 issue of Social Problems ("Celebration, Politics, Selective Looting and riots: A Micro Level Study of the Bulls Riot of 1992 of Chicago"). Here was a situation that on the outside looked as if it had no political point of reference at all. When the Chicago Bulls basketball team won the National Basketball Association championship, mass rioting and looting swept much of the city. This widespread disorder had two sides. One aspect, which the media especially focused on, was the predominately white fans rioting in the downtown bar district. Yet at the same time, there was another facet to the rioting, occurring side by side with the first, but having a different significance and origin. Throughout the South Side and West Side ghettos, hundreds of shops were looted, more than a thousand people arrested and nearly one hundred police injured. Although past championship games won by the Bulls had also led to rowdy confrontations, the 1992 rioting caused more damage and was more extensive than any previous celebrations.

As Rosenfeld argues, the Bulls rioters in the ghettos were responding to accumulated, pent-up "political, economic and racial grievances", further connecting the riots to multiple, long-standing sources rather than to the impact of one precipitating event. Two of these precipitating events were, first, the largest cut-back in welfare benefits in Illinois history which occurred in April 1992 followed a few weeks later with the second, the impact of the Rodney King verdict in May on ghetto dwellers in Chicago's inner city. Although the Chicago newspapers, with the notable exception of the Black-owned Chicago Defender, quickly labeled the looting as "inter-ethnic" conflict because the majority of the looted stores were owned by Koreans and Arabs, Rosenfeld demonstrates that only certain type of stores were done over (liquor and food) - and these stores were looted regardless of ethnic ownership.

 

In other settings it's easier to see the connection between disturbances over sport events and protests over lingering grievances. For example, massive crowds took over Teheran streets a couple years ago when an Iranian soccer team won a world match against the U.S., turning what was superficially a sports celebration into a thinly disguised demonstration against the existing regime, which had been vocal in its disapproval of soccer as an example of "harmful Western influence." Likewise, in the Portuguese colonies in Africa, as one historian notes, " After WW2, Africans grouped into officially recognized sporting organizations within which protest and dissent persisted." (As this article was being wrapped up, TIME magazine could note in describing rioting that broke out in Los Angeles after the Laker's victory in mid-June, "that when that same crowd began hurling debris at the limousines carrying those privileged enough to have been inside the hall, it began to take on a class dimension - insiders versus outsiders mimicking the city's wider social divisions")

DIFFUSE REFUSALS

So-called atomized individual actions that seem to be private acts can be the articulation of a collective process. An example applicable to the United States can be found in the Washington POST article, "In Jury Rooms, A Form of Civil Protest Grows" (Feb. 8, 1999) The POST article, after noting that "in court houses across the country, an unprecedented level of juror activism is taking hold, ignited by a movement of people who are turning their back on the evidence they hear at trial and instead using the jury box as a bold form of civil protest" . . ."in all of these cases the jury box is turned into a venue for registering dissent, more powerful than one votes at the polls and more effective at producing tangible satisfying results."

This form of negative protest, expressed by the jury's refusal to convict a defendant, is linked to a crisis of confidence in the way legal institutions function and a mounting lack of faith in prosecutors and judges. One poll conducted by the National Law Journal found that "three out of four Americans said they would act on their own beliefs of right and wrong regardless of instructions from a judge to follow the letter of the law."

WHAT TO DO?

To discuss in this article what can seem like fragmented, barely visible events is not to assume two things are going on. One is the pretense of creating an impression that there is some "hidden class struggle" underway out of sight in the United States that can be picked up only if we substitute a micro-level view for the traditional views. This would amount to a gross exaggeration, no less deceptive than the complete denial that anything antagonistic is happening at all in American society.

It would likewise be equally misleading to say the current period is not a defensive one overall for U.S .workers. There has been an almost complete eclipse of the "organization" strike; that is, the type of strike that seeks to challenge management control over work and the work process as opposed to merely bartering over better wages: the sort of strike George Sorel, despite his productivism and moralism, referred to as an example of a producer's consciousness as opposed to a consumer's consciousness, a consciousness produced by "taking and doing" rather than "asking and waiting.".

However to say the U.S. working class is on the defensive, if true, is not very profound. What needs to be open to critical analysis is not only how dismal present prospects are today, but also a healthy skepticism towards the determining weight of allegedly "objective" factors such as "globalization", "deindustrialization", the declining rate of unionization and others. Factors that are used, as Daniel Singer argued in "Monthly Review" several years ago regarding the case of globalization, as leftist versions of TINA (There Is No Alternative). This tough-minded skepticism towards the conventional wisdom of the conservative left (43) needs to be taken further into the related but more positive work of making libertarian socialist, ultra-left, socialism-from-below, autonomist, class struggle anarchist analysis (the labels are secondary and to a great extent meaningless but the content is not) relevant to the present context: the current evolution of capitalism, the resulting changes in the system and the class struggle today.

In grappling with these developments in all their inevitable complexity and contradiction, their hidden threads as well as their obvious connections, the pitfalls and roadblocks are many. Attempts must be made to escape the following conscious or unconscious snares:

  1. The posturing of the small sect practicing a sort of "Maginot" drawing of lines.
  2. The contemplations of academic circles who have every footnote of "Capital" memorized - but don't have a clue to what is going on in the heads of the minimum waged worker cleaning their offices
  3. The temptation to look backwards and dwell in past historical glories (Russia 1917, Germany 1921, Barcelona 1936) as compensation for the unfavorable present. We live in none of these periods. Nor do we live in 1968 for that matter. Instead, there's the need to look outward and forward, "to neither laugh nor cry but to understand".

A few small proposals may be able to help take this necessary process a step further:

*Use of the 1970s era autonomist "Workers' Inquiry", itself based on a questionnaire Marx developed and applying this method as much as possible to different aspects of social life in the U.S. (and of course, elsewhere.) The proposal by the German group Kolinko for an investigation of call-centers in this issue of Collective Action Notes is a constructive example of how such a class analysis approach could be applied. Furthermore, the Workers' Inquiry is a tactic that can be adapted to many other settings as well (welfare reform, the Black community), facilitating the exchange of information, locally, nationally and internationally about struggles and social and economic conditions. Of course, this is not to write off running into the inevitable technical and political problems, problems ranging from how to digest "facts' so that that they don't hang in isolation separated from a wider context to the difficulties in transcribing discussions. But these are secondary questions.

*What is needed is the possibility of a newspaper, or better still a series of local newsletters, that strive to reflect and circulate information about the everyday small struggles that take place. Leftist newspapers are always full of articles about what unions are doing or not doing and nothing on these kind of issues, which are written off as trivial or otherwise not worth mentioning. In the 1930s, Trotsky once sharply criticized the American Socialist Workers Party paper, "The Militant", for not reflecting how the workers drink, fight the police, etc. but instead for focusing on reaching the "advanced" layer. Those workers were presumed to have higher levels of political understanding than ordinary, non-politicos. By these standards, certainly none of the Trotskyist group's papers today are very "Trotskyist".

In the U.S., putting out the type of newsletter that talks openly about this 'everyday' of work and circulates information and reflection about it in accessible, yet not patronizing language, is something that has rarely been done, perhaps only at one point by the Facing Reality group in Detroit with their idea of the "full fountain pen".

*Following through from the first two points, what can be done to encourage the growth of informal networks loosely organized around this attention to the "everyday" struggles? If it's true, as the Sojourner Truth Organization wrote years ago, that the daily gripes workers make about the " discrimination, boredom, the stupidity and callousness of the bosses, the purposelessness of their lives, the never ending scratching for money and security that pollutes your relationships with other people" are potential " building blocks", how can a form of organization develop that reproduces, amplifies and extends this existing critique rather than inhibiting it? However muted, this sort of critique, of wanting a different life and society than the present one, continues in the hidden transcript and not as a rule in the actions of official organizations. This critique, underscoring the points of vulnerability (44), flows through workplaces, communities, street corners, and bars. What Reich referred over 75 years ago as the need to expose the politics of everyday life, in the dance halls, crèches and pavements still holds true today and yes, can even be extended to Mac Donalds and suburban shopping malls.

In Baltimore, there is a concept of "work resistance" groups circulating; discussions of small but concrete ways to link people in various work settings, ranging from construction to printing to computers, to share successful tactics (or develop them) to reduce the rate of exploitation in the here and now, especially in situations where organizing a union is either undesirable or impractical (i.e. the majority of work places in the U.S.) So far, the idea is in development and hasn't led to anything firm.

But at least it's a potentially productive basis for a different type of practice; a practice moving away from and beyond the present impasse of the existing "revolutionary milieu."

  • Curtis Price, July 2000

FOOTNOTES

*Although this article is slanted more towards struggles than economics, the "fragile prosperity" part of the equation can be seen in such factors as high debt levels, increasingly dependence on foreign capital and volatile consumer incomes; cracks in the edifice of the so-called New Economy.

(1). Much of the rarified macro-level economic analysis so popular within leftist academia, stripped of a vital link with human agency, comes uncomfortably close to being a simple consoling or even religious discussion about the wonders of the intricacies of the workings of capitalism. Theory then becomes the narrow domain of specialists and a dialogue between a tiny layer of the university trained experts; a point brought out in different ways and at different times by Paul Mattick in "Marxism: Last Refuge of the Bourgeoisie?", and Russell Jacoby in " The End of Utopia". However, Jacoby makes the mistake of requiring a preconceived vision of a different society before meaningful practice can take place.

But "revolutionary" results can occur independently of the will and consciousness of social actors, as Barrington Moore showed in "Injustice: The Social Origins of Obedience and Revolt" where he documented how most German workers during the German Revolution, if they had an idea of an alternative society at all, had conceptions of a new society as essentially consisting of the old society stripped of its unpleasant aspects.

Likewise, "counter-revolutionary" effects take place independently of the will and consciousness of "revolutionaries" cf. Russia 1917 and the often pointless scripture quoting by Leninists of what Lenin wrote and said separated from the concrete and objective analysis of what Lenin and the Bolsheviks were REQUIRED to do by the pressure and limitations of historic and economic circumstances, namely bring capitalist development to Russia through state-capitalist methods, despite Lenin and Trotsky's undeniable subjective hatred of capitalism as they knew it.

(2) "Political and Social Writings", Volume 2 (University of Minnesota Press, 1988)

(3) See the first three chapter's of Kelley's "Race Rebels"

(4) If it were possible to gauge the hidden transcript accurately, a different take on the role of organized and conscious "revolutionary" minorities in sparking struggles would probably come up too, but that's another story.

(5) Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening up of previously inaccessible Soviet archives, new evidence suggests that Soviet workplaces were not as controlled as previously assumed because the Soviet ruling class was forced to accede concessions to ward off possible discontent. See the special issue of "International Labor and Working Class History" (Fall 1996) devoted to "Labor Under Communist Regimes", where the widespread presence of kiosks and newspaper stalls on Russian factory shop floors and a steady stream of workers wandering in and out of the plant during the work day is described.

(6) See for example, the book "Sabotage in the American Workplace" (AK Press, now out of print) and the perceptive critique made of this book in "Common Sense" # 14 and also much of John Zerzan's pre-primativist work.

(7) I will leave to the side questions that can come up about the classification of "workers fortresses" For example, how many workers have to be concentrated in one factory before it is considered a "workers fortress" Five thousand, ten thousand? Furthermore, putting too much weight on a concentration of workers in one geographical location sidesteps different considerations. One is that it is the worker's relationship to production and ability to halt production that constitutes their social weight; a small factory critically placed in the production process can have a much more disruptive impact than a larger plant. You can see this impact out of proportion to actual numbers in the recent strikes at small auto supplier plants, such as the strike in a Dayton GM supplier that ended up shutting down much of GM's production a few years back.

(8) "Forget Your Unalienable Right To Work", International Labor and Working Class History, Fall 1995

(9) Ibid, p. 112

(10) Ibid, p. 124

(11) As mentioned in a recent issue of the French edition of "Echanges"

(12) From "The Black Poor and the Politics of Opposition in a New South City, 1929-1970" in "The Underclass Debate", edited by Michael B. Katz, p. 313

(13) Ibid, p. 312

(14) Another account of shop floor relations in the post WWII era concludes, " . . .workers' expressions of workplace discontent during the late 1960s and early 1970s were acts of desperation, not the calculated moves of an increasingly empowered rank-and-file" ("Shopfloor Relations in the Postwar Capital-Labor Accord", David Fairris in "Social Structures of Accumulation" edited by Kotz, McDonough and Reich, 1994)

The alleged economic impact of the 'refusal of work" has been challenged elsewhere. See Jim Devine's article, "The Stagflation Crisis" in "Against the Current" (first series), Winter 1985 where it is argued that "productivity slowdown can be explained mostly by the poor quality of the U.S. stock of fixed capital, not by militant or lazy workers"

(15) For the few years in the late 60s/early 70s when leftist students temporarily colonized factories and thus had a glimpse of real life working conditions and the contradictions of worker's consciousness, most of these experiences were in the primary, unionized sector of the economy and half-submerged then as now were workers in the 'secondary' market. Even the 'new labor history' rarely delved into this secondary labor market, a market which was a product of specific, often radicalized dynamics unique to U.S. capitalism. A true history from below has to take into account these conditions as well as the different forms of struggle that evolved in this large, unprotected sector of the workforce. Should such an examination happen, I think it would show less of an absolute decline than usual estimates. As will be repeatedly stressed, seeing a 'golden era' of rebellion contrasted with a completely unfavorable present errs to the extremes of both measures

(16) Economist, June 20, 1998

(17) CLASS STRUGGLE (Spark, U.S.) # 20, May-June 1998

(18) In a review of "With Liberty For Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America" by Scott Christianson, ECONOMIST, February 13, 1999. See also, "Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South", Alex Lichenstein (Verso, 1996). Lichenstein rightfully points out that the use of convict labor was not a hold-over from the ante-bellum past but part and parcel of the South's modernization.

(19) See the series in the Baltimore SUN, "The Giveaway Game" October 9 - 12, 1999

(20) This process is not only confined to production. In many inner-city areas hard-hit by the late 60s riots and left in ruins since, large national chain stores are beginning to reinvest in ghetto areas as the suburban market becomes saturated. See "Cities May Be Retail's Next Target" Baltimore SUN, Feb. 28, 1999.

(21) Although true in a general sense, this economic growth in the Midwest has left pockets of exclusion everywhere. Witness the recent study of Chicago area temporary labor pools which thrive off of Back men living in shelters and excluded from employment in the regular economy because of criminal records; a further example of continuing labor market segmentation in the present U.S. economy.

(22) "Reversal of Fortune", Economic Perspectives, July/August 1997, p.3

(23) "Agglomeration in the U.S. Auto Supplier Industry'", Economic Perspectives. First Quarter 1999, p. 27-28

(24) Dave Lamb, "Libertarian Socialism" in the last Collective Action Notes

(25) Milkman refers to Katherine Dudman's study of a Chrysler plant shut-down in Kenosha, Wisconsin., documented in her book, "The End of the Line: Lost Jobs, New Lives in Postindustrial America" (1994) where Dudman states' Nothing I'd read before starting my fieldwork on the Chrysler shut-down quite prepared me for the fact that a .lot of people in and around Kenosha were HAPPY to see the plant close.".

(26) See Graham's "On the Line At Subaru-Izusu" (1995)

(27) Nor just confined to the United States, as noted in The Economist, no radical journal, June 19th, 1998 in the Survey on Manufacturing, where the article contrasts the apologists of lean production "lean production is all about jolly teams of problem-solvers working together to improve products and processes, If only. They should watch the stampede for the door when the hooter sounds for the end of a shift."

The same Economist article quotes from a recent book "Life on the Line in Contemporary Manufacturing", based on sociologist Richard Delbridge's first hand work experience in a Wales cart-parts maker and a television assembly plant in southern England, where a gung-ho "quality inspector thought of as a management lackey was tied up and dumped in a rubbish bin" Another was not so fortunate, being "put into a consignment of parts headed for Birmingham and found only at a gate inspection. "

(28) These examples are taken from "Labor-management cooperation fails", Baltimore SUN, April 19, 1998

(29) "At Amazon.com, service workers without a smile", Washington POST, November 22, 1999

(30)"Fat and Mean: The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of Managerial Downsizing "(1995)

(31) Not discussed in Gordon's article is the "proletarianization" of a least a sector what were formerly considered "management" jobs. An article in the Wall Street Journal, "For Richard Thibeault, Being A Manager is a Blue Collar Life", Oct. 1, 1996) captures this proletarianization well. Thibeault, a former factory worker after describing 70 hour weeks and the continual pressure exercised by computer supervision of hourly output, states his current management position with a national restaurant chain "Some days I think maybe I should go back to factory work. It was easier" states "factory work was easier". Supporting his views, the article states, "These people carry the title manager but they lead a blue-collar life - working long hours, often doing the same tasks as those they employ and carrying out orders from above. Their autonomy is tightly circumscribed by corporate headquarters."

(32) "Young and Old See Technology Sparking Friction on Shop Floor", Wall Street Journal. April 3, 2000

(33) Quoted in the AUFHEBEN article, "Resurgence of Class Struggle in the USA", issue # 7, Autumn 1998

(34) Wall Street Journal, June 20th, 1998

(35) "Workin' for the Man", Covert Action, Fall 1995

(36)"Look for the Prison Label", Washington POST, January 30, 1999

(37) "Behind Bars But In the Forefront", Washington POST, January 30, 1999

(38) Both figures from "Prison Labor Courts Private Industry", Baltimore SUN, Sept. 9, 1999

(39) "Look for the Prison Label", Village Voice, May 21, 1996

(40) Ibid, Baltimore SUN

(41) And presumably sold for scrap metal - three years later, the culprits haven't been caught

(42) These tendencies to overestimate the power of State repression are so widespread among leftist milieus that it almost deserves a separate article. For all the surface radicalism of such critiques, underneath is a basic message of lost hope and resignation.

This can be seen in the U.S. where conspiracy theories claiming that AIDS was concocted in government laboratories have a certain currency in left and right wing fringe circles as well as among Black nationalists; groups like the Nation Of Islam (NOI) where the role of secret laboratories in unleashing unspeakable evil seems to hold a special place in group mythology (according to the NOI, the white race was invented thousands of years ago by a renegade mad scientist in a laboratory.) Or in how the well-documented revelations a couple years ago by Gary Webb in the San Jose MERCURY that the CIA opportunistically ignored the knowledge that pro-Contra operatives on its payroll were setting up crack markets in California becomes transformed into a full-blown conscious CIA conspiracy to actively push crack in the inner city.

In both cases, alarmist campaigns to organize people around these issues lead nowhere; after all if the State is so powerful that it can create deadly viruses in the laboratory and spread them, with pinpoint accuracy to target specific populations or the same State can set-up, unhindered, a vast network of crack markets, both actions in a systematic effort at "genocide", how is it possible to oppose all this? As an excellent article by David Gilbert on AIDS conspiracies in TURNING THE TIDE a couple of years ago put it, "These theories divert energy from the work that must be done in the trenches of marginalized communities are to survive this epidemic: grassroots education and mobilization for AIDS prevention and better care for people living with HIV . . . What's the use, believers ask, of making all the hard choices to avoid spreading or contracting the disease if the government is going to find a way to infect people anyway?"

Thus it can be seen how the alleged critique in leftist conspiracy theory instead becomes transformed into an unintentional homage to State power and efficiency. The fact that the hidden transcript of a large minority of Black people in the U.S. today includes beliefs about both these things is a separate phenomenon. But such beliefs are poignant testimony of the despair and perceived inability to change things in the world today and not signs of a growing radicalism, as is mistakenly believed by would-be-leaders attempting to capitalize on these sentiments. This is underscored in a recent poll where 62% of the Black respondents "believe that HIV and AIDS are being used as part of a plot to deliberately kill African Americans" while 85% of the same respondents also agreed with the statement "generally people can't be trusted."

(43) A prime example of the conservative left. While Perry Anderson in the first issue of New Left Review (New Series) gloomily extols an American capitalism that has "resoundingly reasserted its primacy in all fields", two editors of Business Week in their recent book "The Judas Economy" discuss laissez-faire U.S. style capitalism as being "extremely vulnerable to instability and perfectly capable of producing recessions or worse". Here the traditional roles are reversed, with the system's supporters focusing on the flaws while the alleged opponents point out its strengths.

(44) To mention these everyday sites as points of vulnerabilty is not to deny that these sites can also be points of integration; after all, if they were only points of vulnerability, there would be much more serious continual struggles and conflicts than there are and class society would be unable to function. But the two aspects jostle continuously and uneasily, a state of permanent disequilibrium, and it is very easy for social peace to slide into its opposite because of the underlying unresolved tensions .

Posted By

libcom
Jul 24 2005 23:55

Share

Attached files