George Rawick 1968
Source: Speak Out, (June-July 1968).
Transcribed: by Christian Hogsbjerg, with thanks to Ian Birchall.
Before proceeding to some comments on the history of the American working class in the 1920’s let me say some general things about that American working class. First, the history of the American working class is at least as violent and bloody as that of any working class anywhere in the world. Indeed the nakedness of the struggle throughout most of American history and the armed force exerted on both sides have few parallels.
Second, while the United States is a country relatively devoid of social and political ideologies this does not mean that there have been no consciously radical movements in the American working class. The Socialist Party of Eugene Debs, whose rise and fall took place in the 25 years before the end of World War I, merged together immigrant workers from Europe, many of whom had come to the U.S. with a conscious socialist ideology, and native born American workers and poor farmers.
To the left of the Socialist Party was the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW, one of the most amazing social movements any country has known. The IWW engaged in mass strikes in the textile industry of Lawrence, Massachusetts, on the Atlantic coast, on the docks and shipyards of San Francisco, and in the lumber camps of Oregon and Washington on the Pacific coast. It led directly to the great steel strike of 1919.
The IWW displayed that great American geographical and social mobility at its highest level of development. On many occasions when a single IWW (or Wobblie) organizer would be put in jail in a small town in Oregon, the word would pass down the railway line, often with the aid of the telegraphers who were very attracted to the IWW, and 12 to 24 hours later five to ten thousand other Wobblies would appear in the town and tax its resources to the breaking point, even demanding their right to be imprisoned on the same charge. The prison was too small usually to accommodate them, the good citizens of the community were horrified at their presence and the town officials would convince them all to leave by releasing the prisoner.
Third, after the end of the IWW’s period of greatest activity, a period which ended when the bulk of its members joined the newly formed Communist Party after World War I, no new serious revolutionary political organization ever amounted to much in the United States. The Communist Party was rarely a genuine force in the working class except in marginal industries such as Southern textiles. The reality of the Communist Party has been sharp contradiction to the claims of the Communist Party, for example as presented in the writings of William Z. Foster, and those of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Both of these organizations’ bureaucratic needs require a great exaggeration about the reality of the Communist Party itself.
Now all this presents quite a problem, particularly when compared to the European experience. Here we have a working class with a history of armed struggle as bloody and extensive as virtually any known in the world. Out of this working class for a number of decades there seems to be developing a mass Socialist organization and party. Then this organization disappears. Why no Socialism in the United States although there has been great militancy and great struggles? There have been many answers given to this question, most of which stem, I believe, from a misreading of the European experience. Therefore I must attempt my own.
The Socialist parties in Europe have had one important task that was not necessary in the United States. They fought for and achieved or defended political democracy, the political participation of the working class in the parliamentary democracy. Political democracy after all was not something that was immediately or readily granted by the middle classes in Europe. Indeed the lesson of 1848 that the working class learned was that without its own independent political organizations there could be no parliamentary democracy for them to participate in. But as a result of this the Socialist parties did not attempt to smash the state. They were instead to become its administrators. The short-range gains the working class could make through the Socialist organizations did not automatically solve that class’s long-range problems.
The mass social democratic, parties in Europe and the Communist parties of France and Italy became representatives of the working class to and in the state in respect to certain matters;; mass education, the democratization of culture, social welfare advances, better pensions and better medical treatment, the protection and defense of the rights of the working class to full political participation. These are not minor tasks, they have precise meanings they are part of the legitimate goals of Socialism, but they are not Socialism.
In the United States, virtually alone in the world, the task of achieving the right of participation in parliamentary institutions for the working class was not up to mass working class organizations and parties. As there was no serious feudal past in America every man was a citizen, at least every white man. From 1848 on the working class in Europe learned that only its own organizations could gain and keep democratic rights and participation. But in pre-Civil War agrarian America every white adult male had the vote from the 1830’s on and in most places from earlier than that. While a few of the Eastern States had limited and relatively small property qualifications for voting up until the 1830’s, in the newest states of what is now the Midwest and the Eastern Mountain States such as Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia there was universal manhood suffrage from the beginning.
The new industrial capitalism that emerged from the Civil War in the United States made no serious effort to destroy the political rights of the working class. These were too well established. Therefore, no mass political party of the working class was required to maintain or advance the political rights of the working class, and in America until the present there has been no threat to take away these political rights of the working class as has been the case throughout Europe.
In the United States the Democratic Party for the last quarter century has functioned in many respects as a mass social democratic party without of course any social democratic ideology. Thus, for example, whatever passes, for social welfare measures in the United States today stems from the Democratic Party. It is the Democratic Party which has been involved in the increase in aid to Education, social security with Medicare, and the expression of the political participation of, if not of the working class itself, then of the trade unions.
With this as background we can proceed to a discussion of the history of the American working class in the l920’s. The great steel strike of 1919 marked the end of a period. Building upon the tradition of the mass union of the IWW, the tradition that had given rise to such militant actions as the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile strike of 1911 and the Seattle general strike at the end of World War I, there was a gigantic strike of almost all steel workers against the giant United States Steel company. The workers were divided into dozens of small craft unions and under the leadership of two members of the EWW, William Z. Foster and Elizabeth G. Flynn, soon to become leaders of the newly formed Communist Party, they tried to overcome the organizational limits of this craft structure. After all, during the war there had been the introduction in the steel industry of significant technological rationalization and the introduction of the entire apparatus of Taylorism, from time and motion study to the development of newer, more effective equipment which increased the rate of exploitation significantly. The craft union form of organization was not powerful enough to withstand the onslaught of such highly rationalized industry and the strike was broken by dividing the members of one craft union from those in other unions.
As a result of this defeat the 1920’s were characterized by social peace in the heavily rationalized industries. One must remember how inportant Taylorism had been in the continuing transformations of labor into a commodity and the continuing resistance to this on the part of workers in the factories. If one reads a book which has been published about the introduction of Taylorism to the Watertown, Massachusetts, arsenal during World War I, one sees that much living space at work for workers had been retained in the United States before the introduction of that greatest product of Taylorism, the assembly line. In the Watertown arsenal, workers had significant control over their own time, they had the right to take fairly long breaks from work at their own discretion, they organized their work to suit their needs and whims. Workers could regularly take off a day or two in each month to handle personal affairs which often included a small garden farm of other sources of income, there were established routines of work which workers struggled to protect. Workers controlled much of the hiring process, they handled directly the relationship with their work mates in such things as sick and death benefits and related matters.
Taylorism and the assembly line were designed to rationalize all of this, to take away from workers, these areas of living space in behalf of greater efficiency. The 1920’s were characterized by significant rationalization in steel, automobiles, electrical equipment, petroleum, and chemical products. Not only did the consequent rate of exploitation increase but wages increased although at a slower rate than did the rate of exploitation and employment became more steady for those who were employed. For example, it was Henry Ford I who led the revolution both in the introduction of the assembly line and in the payment of wages of $5 a day which represented a major increase for workers over the pre-war standard. While a worker on $5 a day could not live well, he could have a home, sufficient food, and clothing. No money beyond that, but of course that represented a significant increase for American workers who had known previously a wage level certainly no higher than that known by workers in other advanced industrial countries.
It must be remembered that this comparison between the new American experience and the European experience was most significant for American workers most of whom were themselves foreign born or were in contact with relatives in Europe and for those workers who did not have the European comparison there was the comparison between their living standards in the new rationalized industries as against either the rural background from which they came or the situation in the low capitalized, less rationalized industries. The transformation of rural people to industrial workers in the 1920’s in the United States occurred under conditions which meant apparent increases in the standard of living. This of course was significantly different than, for example, the experiences of English workers at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution who experienced a worsening of their conditions as they were pushed off the land by the enclosure movement and 18th century social legislation.
This is not to say, of course, that the situation of workers in rationalized industries was good. While the real wages of workers in rationalized industries went up, the rate of exploitation increased more than proportionately.
Not only were the 1920’s characterized by rationalization, Taylorism, and the assembly line, it was the period of the greatest advance of American capital outside the borders of the United States. Until shortly before World War I not only did American capital find ample opportunity for most satisfactory investment in the United States – the South and the West were in many ways internal colonies of the East – but the United States was a net importer of capital from Europe.
But with World War I, the advances begun in the Spanish American War in Latin America spread throughout the world. The government worked with the consortium led by the Rockefeller and the Morgan-Mellon interests to extend American control into Middle Eastern petroleum; American steel and electrical equipment manufacturers began to develop cartelized links with German and French organizations; American chemical production became tied more closely with German, Dutch, French and Italian interests. These advances provided a certain burst of development for American capital and provided for those American workers who were employed in these industries a certain economic advantage over other workers both in the United States and elsewhere.
All of this development largely left out the South which with the exceptions of a few areas remained a colony of the North based either on agriculture or upon low-paid and low-capitalized consumer goods industries primarily in textiles and furniture. There were exceptions in Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, where the production of steel led to consequent differences in these cities. But the great bulk of the South remained rural with increasing transformation of the farms into rural factories and the consequent pushing of farm labor off the land and into the cities. From this source has come the great bulk of the internal American proletariat, proletariat being used here in its strictest technical sense, after, the end of mass immigration from Europe in 1924.
There were indeed serious workers’ struggles in the United States in the 1920’s. These strikes were all in relatively low-capitalized industries such as textiles, clothing, and low-priced consumer goods. There were only limited technological innovations possible, most of the industries were in the South and utilized low-paid white workers or were in the North and utilized women; and the strikes came about as a result of attempts to make the workers work harder, and take decreased wages and worsened work conditions. In strikes in places like Loray, Tennessee; Danville and Gastonia, North Carolina; and Passaic, New Jersey, the Communist Party was able to play a leading role precisely because the American Federation of Labor was unwilling to attempt to organize such relatively unskilled workers in such backward areas.
This kind of strike activity continued in the early 1930’s in a wave of strikes in bloody pitched battles in the bituminous coal mines of Kentucky and West Virginia. Here too we have a similar industry unable really to modernize and here too the Communist Party was able to play a meaningful role.
While one must remember these particular battles, as significant moments in the history of the American working class, their importance should not be exaggerated. The main body of the industrial working class in the United States in the 1920’s particularly after the defeat of the steel strike of 1919 was unable in this decade to find new methods of organization and struggle to meet the assembly line and Taylorism, particularty in the absence of any significant leadership from the American Federation of Labor. There ought to be nothing surprising about this, for when workers take action, they must do so unanimously, or at least unanimously within the given productive unit. The problems posed by mass production and the assembly line required some time and constant pressure before workers could fight back. But when they did, they did so with the swiftness and certainty
of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, through the device of mass industrial unionism. And in this struggle, American workers won, in virtually pitched battle the highest standard of living working people have ever known.
In 1958 an article in The New International (an American Marxist periodical, now defunct) on the New Deal, had the following conclusion:
“The New Deal represented the furthest left that was available as a mass phenomenon in the United States. While one can blame, with some justification, the wholesale support of the New Deal by the labor movement on the machinations of Stalinists, social-democrats, business unionism, or just plain cowardice, that is not enough to account for the fact that the American labor movement did give its wholehearted support to the New Deal in return for what the editors of the Economist summed up as the accomplishments of the New Deal:
“Relief there had been, but little more than enough to keep the population fed, clothed and warmed, Recovery there has been, but only to a point still well below the pre-depression level. Reform there has been, but it is slight in comparison with the reformers’ blueprints. The great problems of the country are still hardly touched.”
“The problem is really simple if one is willing to lay aside romantic notions based upon the experience of other countries and their working class movements. The American working class had not yet reached a level of consciousness that enabled it to do anything but accept the concessions it was able to force out of the pro-capitalist parties. The task in the New Deal period for the labor movement was the mass organization of the industrial workers. Prior to the nineteen-thirties the American working class had been divided and at a lower level of development than European workers. One could not reasonably expect the American working class to leap so far ahead as to reject a New Deal, with its undeniable benefits, in the interests of a more class conscious and politically mature radical objective.”
I was the author of this article. By writing it I demonstrated the backwardness, not of the working class, but of intellectuals whose level of development was not equivalent to that of the working class itself. I don’t think this is a uniquely American pheonomenon. Instead of understanding what the working class accomplished, I only could see what had not been done.
I was not the only one convinced of the backwardness of the American working class. Some ten years ago I had occasion to spend some time with Madame Francis Perkins who was then a professor of labor economics at Cornell University. Madame Perkins had been the Secretary of Labor in Roosevelt’s New Deal Cabinet, the person most responsible for a policy to deal with the labor unions. Madame Perkins said to me, “Why didn’t the working class in America ever attempt to change American society? We all expected that it would in 1933. We were so worried about the working class that we were looking at all possible solutions, including fascism. At the first meeting of the Cabinet after the President took office in 1933, the financier and adviser to Roosevelt, Bernard Baruch, and Baruch’s friend, General Hugh Johnson who was to become the head of the National Recovery Administration, came in with a copy of a book by the Italian, Gentile, the fascist theoretician, for each member of the Cabinet and we all read it with great care.”
Madame Perkins was quite wrong. The American working class did change American society, despite the fact that American capitalism was very powerful and. Had indicated clearly in the 1930’s that it would resort to any means, if allowed to do so, to stop such a transformation.
In Italy the crisis of capitalism of the decade of the Bolshevik Revolution and World War produced fascism as an answer to the bid of the Italian working class for power. In Germany, the crisis of capitalism produced first the Weimar Republic which did nothing to alter the situation and then Nazism and the consequence was the greatest defeat any working class has ever known. The German working class was pulverized – unlike the Italian working class which was never smashed to bits under fascism, which survived to destroy fascism itself. In France essentially the same pattern as in Italy was repeated with the difference that full-fledged fascism came only as a result of the German military advance as the French working class had managed to defend French democracy throughout the 1930’s.
In the United States the situation was different. Throughout the 1920’s the working class struggled, unable to make any significant gains. It found its organizations weakened. But in the 1930’s the working class struggled and it created powerful mass industrial unions of a kind never known anywhere in the world, unions that organized all the workers in most major industries throughout the nation.
But not only did the working class in the United States organize itself in a way and on a scale not known anywhere else in the world, it won victories that are monumental victories in the history of the working class. Only the capture of state power by the small working class of Russia – a state power which it did not maintain – has surpassed the magnitude of the victory of the American working class in the 1930’s. This working class not only won great advances for itself; it prevented the full development of American state capitalism, a development whose full victory had to wait upon the incorporation of the trade unions themselves into the state apparatus in the past 20 years.
Let us look carefully first at how the American working class organized itself, then let us look at what it won. Then we can turn to its conflict with state capitalism and after that to the incorporation of the trade unions into, the state capitalist structure with a word or two about the current level of the class struggle in the United States.
First we must state what should be obvious: the full organization of major American industries came as a result of the victories of the working class, is a mark of the victories, not the cause of the victories. The total organization of certain industries came as a result of the struggles which won for the workers in America the highest standard of living in the world. The formal organization – how many workers organized into unions and parties, how many subscriptions to the newspapers, how many political candidates nominated and elected, how much money collected for dues and so forth – these are not the heart of the question of organization of the working class. The statistics we need are not these. We need instead the statistics about how many man hours lost to production because of strikes, the amount of equipment and material destroyed by industrial sabotage and deliberate negligence, the amount of time lost by absenteeism, the hours gained by workers through the slowdown, the limiting of the speed-up of the production apparatus by the self-activity of the working class which resists this speed-up.
In virtually every year from 1919 through the present, American workers led the working class of the world in both the absolute and relative number of hours lost by strikes, or was second or third. These figures are the answer to those who talk about the one-dimensional working class in America ready and willing to accept anything. The only real answer to Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man is in the figures for the man hours lost through strikes in the United States.
It was in the strikes of workers that the organization of the new industrial unions occurred. The unions did not organize the strikes; the working class in the strikes and through the strikes organized the unions. I know of no more important thing I am going to say at this conference than this.
In 1930 there were 637 strikes, involving 133,000 workers, or .8%, of the work force. This meant 18.1 man days idle per worker involved.
In 1931 there were 810 strikes involving 342,000 workers or 1.6% of the work force. This meant 20.2 man days idle per worker involved.
In 1932 there were 841 strikes involving 324,000 workers or 1.8% of the work force. This meant 32.4 man days idle per worker involved.
In 1933, 1,685 strikes involving 1,170,000 workers or 6.3% of the work force. This meant 14.4 man days idle per worker involved.
In 1934, 1,856 strikes involving 1,470,000 workers or 7.2% of the work force.
In 1935, 2,014 strikes, involving 1,120,000 workers or 5.2% of the work force.
In 1936, 2,171 strikes, involving 789,000 workers or 3.1%, of the work force. This indicates the spreading of struggles to small factories and marginal industries while in the large factories there is the lull before the storm.
In 1937, the year of the sitdown strikes there were 4,740 strikes involving 1,860.,000 workers or 7.2% of the workers, the largest year of struggle in American history other than for 1919 when there had been 3,630 strikes including the Seattle General Strike involving 4,150,000 workers or 20.8% of the work force. (And in 1937 a much larger percentage of workers ware white collar workers than in 1919.)
In 1938, there were 2,772 strikes involving only 688,000 workers, or 2.3% of the work force.
In 1939, there were 2,613 strikes involving 1,170,000 workers or 4.7% of the work force.
In 1940, there were 2,508 strikes involving 577,000 workers or 2.3% of the work force.
In 1941 there were 4,288 strikes involving 2,360,000 workers or 8.4% of the work force, the third biggest year in the number of strikes and number of workers involved.
In the first year of U.S. participation in the fighting, 1942, there were 2,968 strikes involving 1,170,000 workers of 4.7% of the work force, despite the fervor of the war activity and the fact that strikes were in fact virtually illegal.
In 1943, the number of strikes rose to 3,752 involving 1,980,000 workers, or 6.9% of the work force. Most of these were “quickie” strikes of short duration (the average strike meant only the loss of 5 days of work per worker involved as over against much higher losses earlier.)
In 1944, the number of strikes rose to 4,954 involving 2,120,000 workers or 7% of the work force. Again, the quickie strike in basic production. (Workers in marginal industries were doing fairly well because there were too few workers.) Workers in basic industries were striking not because of low wages but because they knew their power and found the pace of work and the work conditions intolerable.
In 1945, there were 4,750 strikes involving 3,470,000 workers or 12.2% of the work force.
In 1946, there were 4,956 strikes involving 4,600,000 workers or 14.5% of the work force. If we take into account the fact that a much larger percentage of the work force was white collar in 1946, 1946 is the year of the greatest militancy up until that point.
When the crises came, the response of the AFL unions was to protect their own members’ jobs and wages from the onslaught of the millions of unorganized workers placed into the pool of proletarians by the crisis. After all, even a most skilled tool and die maker becomes a proletarian when there is no job available for him at his skill and he must accept unskilled work if he can get it.
The unions were weak, they had only a bit more than two million members in 1933, almost all in skilled crafts and artisan work. They made no effort to organize the unorganized, they carefully avoided listening to the demands of workers to be organized. Only John L. Lewis and the oldest industrial union, the United Mine Workers Union, and a few other older semi-industrial unions such as those in clothing and printing, responded at all. For the most part, what occurred was simple and direct. The workers in a given plant organized themselves into a strike committee, they went out on strike, they won some limited demands or they lost, but they maintained their organization. Eventually they joined with workers in other parts of the industry to form a national union. Listen to Frank Marquart, who was deeply involved in all of this describe the situation. Listen to this carefully because all the official descriptions of the organization of the American working class will never tell you anything like it. The description is taken from Speak Out, No. 9, Detroit, Marquart writes,
“Early in 1933 hell broke loose in the auto industry. The Detroit dailies reported that on January 11 of that year 450 Briggs Body workers walked off their jobs to protest a wage cut. Less than a week later Motor Products workers struck for the same reason. Then on January 23 some 6,000 workers downed tools in four Briggs plants. A few days later 3,000 Hudson workers “hit the bricks.” A rash of similar strikes spread in other auto centers. These spontaneous revolts grew in number and intensity year by year until they culminated in the 1936-1937 sitdown strikes that brought the powerful General Motors Corporation to its knees.”
Marquart reports three obstacles to the efforts of workers to organize unions. First there was the resistance from the employers who hired spies, blacklisted workers, fired activists and finally created company unions. Second was the set of obstacles created by the top ranking union leaders. Fearing that a strong industrial union would threaten the entrenched interests of craft union leaders, the American Federation of Labor decreed that auto workers were to be organized in local federal unions, and later these federal unions were to be broken up and their members divided among the craft unions. In the early years of the 1930’s these tactics of the unions confused, demoralized and slowed down the organization of workers. Only after a few years did the workers gain renewed confidence to organize, if need be against the unions.
Third was the set of obstacles created by the government under the National Recovery Administration. With the cooperation of the established unions, the NRA saw to it that demands for more money or a check on the growth of speed-up were ignored.
Let us see how these obstacles worked to defeat workers in the first stage of the struggle and then see how these defeats led inevitably to the sitdown strikes where the mass power of workers was felt in such a way as could not be contained by anyone.
Take the strike at Budd Manufacturing Company in Philadelphia. (The following comes from Frank Marquant’s article, quoted above.) A few days after workers in the Budd Manufacturing Company in September 1933 voted to apply for an AFL federal charter, Budd management hastily installed a company union and requested the workers to elect representatives. Told by their foremen to vote in the election, 92% of the workers cast ballots. Rank and file leaders said later that workers feared they could be fired if they refused to vote. Nineteen representatives were elected. When a committee of the new federal union asked management for recognition, they were flatly told that the company had already recognized an association for bargaining purposes. When this was reported back to the membership they voted to strike the plant. The company responded by hiring strike breakers and continued to operate the plant, but production was badly crippled anyhow.
Then the Regional Labor Board stepped into the picture. The Board’s first act was to criticize the union for not applying to the National Labor Board before striking. It then ordered that the strike be ended, that the strikers be returned to their jobs, and that an election be conducted to determine whether the workers wanted the federal union or the company union to represent them. Management refused to abide by the Board’s recommendations on the ground that the company union spoke for the workers. The National Labor Board then called a meeting in Washington, but only union representatives attended; the company took the position that the strike was at an end and there was nothing further to discuss. The Board now ruled that the strike be officially ended, that strikers be given priority in hiring, and that an election be conducted within 30 days, supervised by the National Labor Board.
The workers accepted the Board’s decision and voted to return to work. But the company had other ideas. They let it be known that they had no intention of laying off non-strikers. “We will only hire loyal employees,” said a Budd boss. The National Labor Board answered this by referring the case to the National Compliance Board of NRA. The Compliance Board handed down recommendations which pleased the company but horrified the workers. The recommendations called for an election under rules favorable to the company union and discriminated against the strikers to the advantage of the strike breakers. The Compliance Board’s decision settled nothing, and so more complicated legal procedures were invoked by the NRA, but the company insisted it would not hire strikers.
The strike was finally settled in March 1934. The Budd case was included in the general settlement forced through by the government to head off widespread strikes in auto scheduled for March. The company agreed to reemploy one striker for every two men hired and to “do something” about speedup, although they did nothing of course.
What about the official trade union, the American Federation of Labor, in connection with the Budd Strike? After the strike began, a whole month elapsed before AFL president William Green gave it official recognition. He let the strikers know they could not expect financial help because they had not been affiliated to the Federation for a year. The legalistic formula absolved the union of responsibility. The strikers got no help from the AFL. This did not endear the AFL to Budd production workers. By the time the strike had ended, the federal labor union affiliated to the AFL in the plant was dead. The workers had abandoned it, because they realized they needed a better form of organization.
Such experiences were had by auto workers throughout the industry. And after two and half years of such defeats, defeats inflicted on workers by the combination of employers, government, and union officials, a new movement began, the movement that would wage the great sit-down strikes out of which would grow a strong union, the United Automobile Workers of America. Let us look at the history of the organization of the Sit-down strikes. In this most advanced example of working class struggle there was demonstrated that the genuine advances of the working class were made by the struggle from below, by the natural organization of the working class, not by the bureaucratic elaboration of administration of the working class from above.
During the early years of the depression, until 1937, the struggles remained fairly small, while workers looked for a new form. With the further downswing of wages and employment in 1937, the working class struck and the method was the sitdown strikes. In auto first, then rubber, and then in other industries, workers occupied the plants, slept there, ate there, refused to leave and refused to produce, protected themselves in the plants and with mass demonstrations outside of the plants. Thousands of troops surrounded the: factories
with tanks and heavy artillery. They did not fire because it was clear that to fire xvould have provoked revolution. Out of the strikes, the following occurred: the right of workers to join unions was granted with virtually closed shop conditions in many industries; there was some increase in wages, but these wage increases were to be largely wiped out in 1938, not to be restored until 1941 when under the pressure of full-employment once again, brought on by the war, workers were able to use the unions to win great wage victories.
Throughout the war, workers were faced with the fact that there was a general wage freeze and that there wasn’t much to do with money in a commodity scarce economy. Workers made good money by working much overtime and demonstrated that they would not accept lower wages ever again. However, the most basic struggles workers engaged in were attempts to improve working conditions, slow down the speed of work, and resist the attempts of management to turn the factories into smaller military camps, that is, to resist the attempts to discipline the workers. Workers in coal production engaged in very militant strikes -these were to increase wages directly because during the nine teen-thirties coal miners had not been able even to begin to raise their wages and there was resistance during the war to raise them even then. The workers themselves raised their wages.
At the end of the war, there was an attempt to roll back wage increases during the war, to make the working class accept a smaller share of the product. This led to the greatest outpouring of strikes and militancy since 1919 and workers succeeded in protecting their gains. Only then did American capitalism accept a new wages policy. When it had to use this wages policy to incorporate the unions in the structure, the workers were already beyond this stage.
Today in the United States, and this has been true since 1955, at least, the unions regularly get from the state and management more money for the workers – although not really as much as they claim because of the steady inflation -and the workers indicate that the lesson they learned in World War Two is still with them because capitalism is still with them: the real issue is not wages anymore – wages are guaranteed but they don’t change the fundamental exploitation of capitalism. Workers today struggle to grab greater shares of production for themselves by struggling to work less, to resist speed-up, to gain control over working conditions. But to gain control over working conditions requires the perfection of a method of struggle, a tactic and organization of struggle beyond the trade unions which are now fully incorporated into the state apparatus. And such a means of struggle is not something that can be discovered easily.
The question must be raised, “Did the New Deal lead to the reconstruction of American capitalism and the U.S. state?” The answer is that it did – but the implications of this are not easily seen. I have chosen to describe the United States without any reference so far to the changes in the structure of capital and the structure of the state because I wanted to focus upon the fact that the conflict of the working class with American capitalism did not cease nor was even abated throughout the 1930’s and World War Two.
The basic program of the New Deal was based upon the need to use the state to integrate and further rationalize capitalism. Ideas that were developed in the 1920’s were placed into operation in the 1930’s during the war. Under the New Deal the state encouraged corporate integration, monopolization, cartelization, rather than attempting to prevent or limit it. Such integration was controlled by government sponsored agencies which represented the needs of the associations in industry. Security issues, prices, adequate wages, production levels and standards, and working conditions, the encouragement of patent-pooling and other cartelizing devices, all were sponsored by the state.
Carefully controlled, legalized mass industrial unions, were a necessary part of the operation. Industry-wide bargaining agents able to impose wage rates high enough to drive out all marginal smaller producers who cut prices by super-exploitation of workers, were in effect incorporated into the state apparatus. These unions were made legally fully responsible for the carrying out of carefully drawn contracts; they became the agency to discipline the working class. The unions were incorporated into the new state capitalism by guaranteeing increased monetary benefit for their members in return for disciplining the workers in order to prevent them gaining control over production in the factories themselves.
Perhaps it would be worthwhile to indicate that this incorporation took place after a series of struggles in which American workers threatened to take over production itself. Perhaps it would also be worthwhile to recapitulate briefly the data as to the level of these struggles.
In 1932 there were only 840 strikes; in 1933, 1700 strikes; by 1936 there were 2200 strikes; by 1937, 4740 strikes; down to 2500 strikes in 1938; up to 4000 strikes in 1941; up to 5000 strikes in 1944 and 1945. During the 3 and a half years of war there were 14,731 work stoppages, or more than 3800 per year, many of them for short periods. Most of the strikes were not about wages but about work conditions or if about wages, wages only when the issue was tied into work conditions.
To return to the main point. During the New Deal itself, from 1933 to 1945, parts of the program of state capitalism was put into force, but the entire scheme did not work properly until workers no longer controlled the unions. The pieces were the National Recovery Administration, which was soon declared unconstitutional as it did the task too nakedly and through it the homogenous American ruling class was being forced to share power with union officials not yet tamed and house broken. It regulated wages, prices, production standards, etc. It was replaced by a battery of acts: the Banking Act of 1933 which gave the Federal Reserve Bank more direct government control over banking and gave it great power over the expansion and contraction of credit; the Securities Act and Exchange Act to regulate the stock market, to police the activities of corporations in the offering of securities on the market; the Agricultural Adjustment Act to set a program of government controlled prices for agricultural products etc. The government in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1937 set minimum wages for most workers and enforced a forty-hour legal week.
These acts provided the legal context under which workers through massive strikes at the end of the war raised their real wages. That on the one hand. On the other side the CIO unions became the political weapons of the state in the working class. “While this took place through the alliance of the unions with the Roosevelt – Truman – John Kennedy – Johnson – Humphrey center of the Democratic Party – the unions were used to defeat the reformist pseudo-left of the Democratic Party and the right wing Southern Bourbons – it also functioned, although less effectively, through the Republican Eisenhower regime.
This full incorporation of the unions within the structure of American state capitalism has led to very widespread disaffection from the unions on the part of workers. Workers are faced nakedly with the problem of finding means of struggle autonomous of the unions – a problem which while always present under capitalism is more advanced in the United States than anywhere else. As a consequence workers struggle in the factories via wildcat strikes and sporadic independent organizations. Outside of the factory only young workers and black workers find any social-political expression and even the struggles of blacks and youth in society are at best weakly linked to the struggles in the factory. While it is clear that the movements of blacks can provide the catalyst for the development of a unified struggle, no one knows how this will come about.