The Crisis in the Trade Unions
Beginning in the late 1970s, U.S. big business and the government launched a coordinated assault on the wages and living conditions of the working class which, at the time this is being written, has lasted nearly six years. The magnitude of this drive, judged by previous historical standards, makes it the longest and most severe ever.
This anti-labor attack did not fall from the sky. It is the product of a cumulative process over years. It has spanned successive U.S. administrations of both Republicans and Democrats, surfacing especially during the last two years of the Carter administration. That period saw the onerous double-barreled effects of stagflation--a large increase in unemployment accompanied by rising inflation--which gripped huge sections of the population, particularly the working class and the oppressed.
Nor should it be forgotten that even in the early 1970s, presumably a prosperous period, the administration of Richard Nixon imposed so-called voluntary wage and price controls. This was meant to not merely control but to in some cases actually reduce real wages while prices of basic commodities for everyday living were already soaring.
Some in the labor officialdom would like to ignore all this and confine themselves to a study of the Reagan years. This, however, would do violence to a clear understanding of the inseparable connection between the different phases in the struggle of the working class. It would put completely out of focus the sequence of events and their interconnections.
AFL-CIO report on "changing situation of workers"
On the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), the Executive Council of the now merged AFL-CIO issued a study dealing with "the changing situation of workers and their unions."1
"The AFL-CIO Executive Council," the study said, "created the Committee on the Evolution of Work as part of its effort to assess the significance of the changes in the work environment for the federation and its affiliates." The committee was assisted by a group of luminaries that included Professor James Medoff of Harvard University, Louis Harris & Associates, and Professor Thomas Kochan of MIT, who in fact prepared the study.
The study purported to review numerous complex factors which had created the situation confronting the workers and their unions. It discussed the "evolution of work" and arrived at the conclusion that "the United States--indeed every industrialized nation--is undergoing a scientific, technological, economic revolution every bit as significant as the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century."
The study, however, did not live up to its promise. While it presented a mass of statistical data, most of which had already been published in the capitalist press, it was altogether superficial and concentrated on presenting the external features of the profound changes taking place in the working class.
The study purported to give an analysis of the "evolution of work." But it evaded the crux of the matter. There is work and work. There has been work over the ages, if one seeks to go to the roots of its evolution. There's work today both at home and in the mines, mills, factories and offices.
If one prepares one's meals at home, repairs an appliance or a broken door or paints the apartment or house, that is work. But work in the plants, in mines and mills, has to be especially differentiated, even though the scientific-technological revolution may have affected both. What differentiates this work from that at home is not so much the physical differences, important as they are, but that the labor process in the mines, mills, factories and offices takes on a special character--that of the exploitation of wage labor by capital.
The study used the term "work" but disregarded the special social characteristic which distinguishes the labor process in the workplace of the employer from that at home. It attempted to analyze work independent of social relationships, which are based on class antagonisms.
The study mostly confined itself to the last two decades. This period, it said, has undergone a scientific-technological revolution every bit as significant as the Industrial Revolution. If it is that deep and profound, and we agree that it is, it certainly deserves greater scrutiny.
The phrase scientific-technological revolution has been used so frequently in and out of context by bourgeois sociologists that it has become a cliche. Furthermore, trade unionists should note that those who have cheered loudest for the technological revolution have also jeered the most at the labor movement over these last years.
To examine the relationship between the technological revolution and the Industrial Revolution, one must go beyond the framework set by bourgeois sociologists. For trade unions in particular it is necessary to view it from the perspective of the working class as against that of the bourgeoisie and its cheerleaders.
In fact, no one better described the revolutionary achievements of the bourgeoisie in the Industrial Revolution which brought it to power than Karl Marx. Conversely, almost all bourgeois historians will point out this or that aspect of the devastating effects the Industrial Revolution had on the workers. But then, of course, they will praise to the skies its achievements for the bourgeoisie.
Aside from all the cruelties and inhuman treatment of the workers, however, there is an instructive aspect of the Industrial Revolution which is particularly relevant to the effects the technological revolution today is having on the contemporary working class.
Destructive social impact of revolutions in technology
In Capital, Marx fully described how the basis for the Industrial Revolution was the expropriation of the land from the peasants and their concentration into factories. That was part of the process that undermined the feudal system, which stood in the way of the bourgeoisie.
The Industrial Revolution destroyed the feudal labor guilds, the first known labor organizations. These guilds had contained both masters and craftsmen or journeymen. It was these independent craftsmen of the feudal period, members of the guilds, who were then drawn or herded into the plants and factories, lost their status as independent producers and were reduced along with the peasants to the status of wage workers, of proletarians.
The current scientific-technological revolution, viewed from a trade union point of view (which is often completely ignored), is having every bit as significant an impact on the labor movement as the Industrial Revolution had on the first known labor organizations. Its tendency is not to demolish the unions per se but to swallow them up, bring them into the fold of so-called labor-management cooperation.
Therefore the destructive effect of the scientific-technological revolution upon the working class and particularly upon the unions has to be seen in the light of historical evolution.
It was the historic mission of the Industrial Revolution to bring together the scattered handicrafts, formerly the work of independent craftsmen and apprentice workers, and develop large-scale industry. It was a bloody process, but this large-scale production laid the basis for the creation of the modern working class, the modern proletariat. It was by such ruthless measures (the "evolution of work") that it came into existence.
This process was not without sporadic struggles of the workers. To the extent that these very early forms of workers' struggle are given any attention at all by the bourgeoisie, they do so in a derogatory manner, leaving out the essential lesson.
Luddites is a name frequently given to English workers who staged a series of uprisings between 1811 and 1816. These struggles began in Nottinghamshire, where groups of textile workers began to destroy knitting machines. They spread later to Lancashire, Cheshire and the West Riding of Yorkshire. Workers began to wreck cotton power looms and shearing machines. They had no coherent plan, no general aims and no political orientation.
This movement was of a thoroughly spontaneous character and was an expression of frustration. It was not ignorance as such which led to these wrecking and sabotage tactics. What it demonstrated was the organizational immaturity of the workers at that time, but also the character the class struggle can assume in the absence of a trade union that can respond to the needs and aspirations of the workers.
Marx said about the Luddites: "It took both time and experience before the workpeople learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and to direct their attacks, not against the material instruments of production, but against the mode in which they are used."2
It is very interesting that this form of struggle should be cropping up again today, and in a country which is supposed to be in the advance guard of the technological revolution, with all its highly touted "benefits" for the workers.
We are referring to the situation of the Japanese railroad workers. Few labor movements are more affected by the scientific-technological revolution. The Japanese government wants to split up the national railway and return the railroads to private industry, with the projected loss of 100,000 jobs, or one-third of the total number of railway workers. (Isn't this what the U.S. government wants to do with Conrail and Amtrak?) When on November 29, 1985, the workers went on strike, organized bands of radicals dismantled railroad facilities in Tokyo, Osaka and other cities in an effort, however fruitless, to aid the striking workers.
Labor organization in different stages of capitalist production
Manufacturing or handicrafts
The first stage in the development of the working class movement took place in the period of manufacturing or simple cooperation, which brought the handicrafts under one roof for the purpose of exploitation. It led to some technological development and a further division of labor.
Manufacturing brought into one workplace the mechanical fitting together of partial products made independently. The final product owed its shape to a series of connected processes or manipulations. The manufacture of a watch illustrated this type of division of labor. The handicraft period of development left as a legacy such great inventions as the compass, gun powder, type printing and the watch. In that period machinery played a smaller, subordinate part.
It was the manufacturing period that in fact produced the skill of the detail laborer. This was done by reproducing and even driving to a great extreme within the workshop what Marx called the "naturally developed differentiation of trades" which had already existed in society.
While it developed great skill, it had its reactionary side. As Marx put it, "The conversion of fractional work into the life-calling of one man, corresponds to the tendency shown by earlier societies, to make trades hereditary; either to petrify them into castes, or . . . to ossify them into guilds."3 This is in very sharp contrast to the later period of the rise of capitalist development proper, which did not at all try to preserve and enrich the skills of the workers but relentlessly and mercilessly reduced them.
The manufacturing period simplified, improved and multiplied the implements of labor by adapting them exclusively to special functions of each detail worker. (In the current stage of industrial development and technology, the detail laborer is reduced to the most minute, repetitive, monotonous operations requiring less and less adaptability and skill. The aim in fact is to abolish the worker altogether.)
It was in the period of manufacture that the separation of the workers from their means of production and the conversion of their property, their means of production, into capital began.
The Industrial Revolution
The division of labor led eventually to the Industrial Revolution, or production based on the use of machinery. In the machine, wrote Marx, "we find . . . as a general rule, though often no doubt under very altered forms, the apparatus and tools used by the handicraftsmen or the manufacturing workmen, with this difference: that instead of being human implements they are the implements of a mechanism or a mechanical influence."„4
The expansion of capitalist production by means of machinery was directly proportional to the number of workers whose independent means of livelihood gradually became destroyed by their inability to compete with the machinery.
However, the use and development of machinery allowed the organization of large-scale production. Each step was accompanied by a rise in the productivity of labor, either through greater intensity in the use of labor power or through the introduction of labor-saving devices.
All this laid the basis for the progressive development of the modern trade union movement. It is this second stage of capitalist production which gave a stimulus to the early development of the giant modern unions of today.
Mass production, which began with what has been called the Ford Revolution, is the third stage. It further undermined the crafts and the skilled workers and created a new form, the so-called semi-skilled workers. Its merit was that it expanded the work force. The assembly line, which entailed the employment of more workers than ever, was considered the great accomplishment of Henry Ford.
The difference between mass production and the earlier forms of large-scale production is that it brought about a greater simplification and division of labor into ever smaller tasks, finely delimited methods and more detailed specification and further reduced the variability of jobs. This is the significance of the assembly line, of mass production.
The current scientific-technological revolution
This stage has now given way to another phase of technological development. The mass production period which began with Ford and continued for a period of time after the Second World War was characterized by expansion. But the current stage, the scientific-technological stage, while continuing some of the earlier tendencies of development, contracts the workforce.
Like all the previous stages of capitalist development, the current phase is based on the utilization of workers as labor power. But its whole tendency is to diminish the labor force while attempting to increase production. The technological revolution is therefore a quantum jump whose devastating effects require a revolutionary strategy to overcome.
The division of labor in the early manufacturing stage built up and developed the skills of the workers to the point where they became hereditary. The process of true capitalist production, however, with the introduction of machinery, began to reduce the skills of that early division of labor, until in the current period they have introduced a micro-division of labor where the workers are more and more an appendage of the machine, instead of the machine being an instrument to develop the aptitude of the worker.
Isn't this what Saturnization (the procedures to be introduced in GM's planned Saturn auto assembly plant in Tennessee, about which we'll have more to say later) is all about? It is hailed as ushering in a new period in labor relations where the workers, because of the further micro-division of labor and the introduction of computers and robotization, will have "less monotony" and "more variability" because they'll be doing more jobs. But in truth it means the wiping out of whole classifications of skills, the elimination of more workers and a greater rate of exploitation.
The problem with the AFL-CIO study on the "evolution of work" is that it presents a mere description of the technological revolution. It alludes to what are in effect mechanical processes as though in a void, without showing the different stages in the evolution of the class struggle. It is as though one had nothing to do with the other, as though the technological revolution were not in essence a social process.
The uninterrupted revolutions in science and technology which generally have gone by leaps and bounds in the modern era have now taken a quantum jump, producing a qualitative change. The technological revolution in relationship to the labor process, to the process of extracting profits from the workers, boils down to this: reducing their skills, displacing millions of workers and throwing them on the unemployment rolls.
When bourgeois sociologists refer to the scientific-technological revolution as a structural change, they are not including but are really excluding the social changes, the changes in class relations which are the result of the technological revolution. The latter is the cause of the former, not vice versa.
It is these so-called structural changes, these very deep and abiding technological revolutions, which have caused havoc and disorientation in the perspective of millions of workers and their unions. Clearly the trade unions, indeed the whole labor movement, have reached an historic turning point.
Turning point for labor movement
Some of the bourgeois ideologists are beginning to view the industrial infrastructure of the U.S., built over decades and decades of capitalist development, as a dinosaur. They are giving voice to the thinking in ruling class circles which likens the industrial infrastructure of the U.S. to huge ocean liners which should perhaps be broken up into the small ships and frigates of long ago--but based on the introduction of Saturn-type technology and above all Saturn-type labor relations.
What we are witnessing, therefore, is the wholesale dismantling of plants which began much longer than a decade ago and is now in full swing. All this propaganda about eliminating the "dinosaurs" and breaking the "ocean liners" into small vessels is meant to facilitate the abandonment of the huge steel mills, textile plants and other complexes for "mini-mills" which can reap "maxi-profits." It's a line of development which threatens the very existence of the unions.
It has also upset and undermined the traditional labor relations approach of the unions. The attempt of the bosses to introduce a "new type of labor relations," a "nonconfrontational" kind of "friendly cooperation" between management and labor where decision-making power is supposedly granted to the workers, is nothing more than a new despotism of the bosses meant to accelerate profits, reduce costs and introduce an unprecedented era of permanent displacement and enlargement of the unemployed rolls.
The remorseless and relentless trend of barbarously dismantling whole plants and industrial complexes does not by any means negate the scientific-technological revolution but on the contrary will intensify it. The breakup into smaller units (like mini-mills and so on) is not a progressive trend, as some in the camp of bourgeois sociology see it, toward small businesses or the dissolution of the monopolies and oligarchies. That is a ridiculous conclusion based on utterly false assumptions.
The trend toward small high-tech units is financed by the huge banks, the source of the recent wave of buyouts, corporate reorganizations and dissolutions. The net result is the further concentration of the wealth in fewer hands and strengthened monopoly. As even the liberal economist Lester Thurow has pointed out, only 1% of the population owns 48% of the stock in this country, and the rest is not owned by the workers except for a small, utterly insignificant sprinkling.
In all earlier phases of capitalist production, beginning with simple cooperation, the tendency had been to concentrate larger and larger numbers of workers under one roof or in contiguous areas. In the latest phase of development, however, there is the deliberate dispersal of the large concentrations of workers into widely spread geographical areas. Often this is not necessarily for immediate economic gain, especially by the huge multinational corporations, but for broad social and political reasons.
Large concentrations of workers are more susceptible to union organization and are more affected by the "contagion" of progressive, militant ideas. The other aspect is pure and simple racism--to get away from the areas of the country where oppressed people especially are concentrated. The Pentagon is a principal promoter of this.
The AFL-CIO study mentions "unstable labor conditions" but does not recognize the great importance in all this, that the technological revolution has broken up the old mold of labor relations.
The workers and their unions are trapped in an historic labor relations framework at a time when the structure of capitalist industry has undergone a wholesale transformation. This is to the great advantage of the ruling class, the bosses and bankers who own and control the industry, and to the tremendous disadvantage of the workers who have produced the industrial infrastructure, who laid the first bricks, forged the iron and steel, hammered in the first nails and have mastered it all, up to and including the very summits of the most sophisticated high technology.
There is no question that these changes constitute a revolutionary development which requires the development of a corresponding revolutionary strategy. It is required not only for the further development of a working class offensive to meet the anti-labor offensive of the bosses, but for the sheer survival of the trade union movement.
The great necessity is to reverse the anti-labor offensive. New forms of struggle are necessary.
References1. "The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions," a Report by the AFL-CIO Committee on the Evolution of Work, February 1985.
2. Marx, Karl, Capital, Progress Publishers (Moscow, 1984), Vol. 1, p. 404.
3. Ibid, p. 321.
4. Ibid, p. 407.
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