As has been extensively documented on this blog and elsewhere, the massive financial collapse that hit the core of the capitalist global economy in the autumn of 2008 kicked off what could turn out to be the terminal crisis of neoliberalism. The intervening four years between then and now has seen the gradual onset of a deep recession of global scope, forcing people all over the world to endure prolonged unemployment, slashed wages, the scaling back or elimination of vital public services, and, in the United States, the renewal of a deeply reactionary, nationally coordinated program to destroy the last ramparts of organized labor through an attack on public employees. Thus far, all the major political parties of the European Union, as well as the Republican and Democratic parties in the U.S., have marched in lockstep in their support for and imposition of these draconian economic measures, which they see as necessary for propping up an economic system that is clearly failing. The broad bipartisan support for these programs across the board, along with a still relatively scarce supply of credit – the main vehicle of economic growth under neoliberalism – suggests that the “austerity state” is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
I should mention that this analysis is extremely schematic, as it is restricted to the U.S. and focuses only on a few of the most noteworthy strikes of the last four years or so, and then only on a few of their most salient aspects that might point beyond neoliberal society. Accordingly, it does not engage with the momentous uprisings that have swept across Europe, the Middle East, and other parts of the world since 2008. That said, I hope to provide some insight into evolving forms of radical subjectivity that might help us get a handle on what a contemporary leftist and genuinely anti-capitalist political practice might look like today.
The Return of Union Militancy in U.S. Labor Struggles
A major strike of the Eastern Seaboard Longshoremen’s Union was only narrowly averted recently after the U.S. Maritime Alliance, the association of shipping and distribution companies responsible for commerce in east coast ports, rather quickly agreed to some key concessions in order to head off a potential strike. This was probably because only a couple of weeks earlier, a strike of some 400 clerical workers at the Port of Los Angeles won decisively after a brief 8 days after it became evident that 10,000 of their fellow dockworkers would honor the picket lines, effectively shutting down the biggest port on the west coast. Their union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), made headlines a little over a year ago when a rogue local in Longview, WA initiated a wildcat strike in which they not only refused to work, but also smashed things with baseball bats, blocked and overturned supply trains, fought the police and company guards, and generally caused problems for multinational shipping conglomerate EGT. The company had refused to honor an agreement with the Port of Longview requiring them to bargain in good faith with the union. The strike action, which was not officially sanctioned by ILWU brass (and which, notably, was more fairly covered in Business Insider than in the NYT), came after months of peaceful picketing and protest that were completely ignored by the company. According to the Portland Occupier, the final outcome of the conflict after several months of tense negotiations appears to have been a significant victory for the union, which succeeded in forcing the company to do away with scabs and honor the initial, agreed-upon contract to hire union labor for their business in west coast ports. Perhaps even more significant, the Occupy movement played a major role – at least according to some of the union’s own officials – in advancing the goals of the striking workers, bolstering their numbers and contributing to the efforts to block grain shipments and shut down the various ports.
The west-coast longshoremen were not the only union to recently return to old-school strike tactics. Over on the east coast, the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) launched one of the biggest private sector strikes in years against Verizon Communications in August of last year. While the ultimate outcome for the union lies somewhere between a defeat and a stalemate, during the strike itself some 45,000 workers stopped work and exhibited some of the creativity and energy reminiscent of the militant, confrontational side of organized labor’s past. Flying pickets, harassing and denying scabs access to work sites, and mass picketing were some of the tactics utilized by the union to try to combat the expected strikebreaking tactics of the company. As per usual, the company obtained a barrage of court-ordered injunctions against the strikers that effectively neutralized most of their tactical advantages, but, despite this fact, two unions that only represent about 30 percent of the workforce of a multinational telecom conglomerate were able to force the latter back to the negotiating table after a little under two weeks of work stoppage. The spontaneous outburst of militancy seems to have caught Verizon offguard and, although the patently company-friendly labor law of the U.S. allowed Verizon to drag out subsequent negotiations for over a year, eventually yielding major contract concessions from the union, it is still an instructive case for getting a grip on the role and utility of the strike as an instrument of the left today.
The CWA/IBEW strike, along with the earlier walk-out of the ILWU, both suggest how the strike is changing under neoliberal conditions. There is, however tentatively, a burgeoning class consciousness on display here, for instance, through which a narrowly economic focus on winning benefits for the members of any individual union is being displaced by an explicitly political awareness, a sense that the struggle of one’s union is inextricably connected to the wellbeing of workers everywhere, unionized or not. This was also a major element in the progressive discourses of the Madison mobilizations of early 2011 (the UW-M Teaching Assistant’s Association provide one example). This is directly related to the course of neoliberal historical change: the sustained, across-the-board assault upon union strength of the past 30 years has led to a situation wherein the vast majority of union members, in both the private and the public sector, are having to fight tooth and nail merely to hold on to what they still have. Spokespeople for the CWA evinced a keen awareness that their very existence as a union was on the line, and that Verizon fully intends to eventually squash them out of existence – hence the bitter hatred of and confrontations with the scabs. Far from the “business unionism” of the Fordist period, the workers of the CWA, the IBEW, and the ILWU are agitated and ready to scrap – the labor struggle as a whole has become decisively politicized for them. This may explain the willingness to grab the baseball bats and confront scabs, company guards, and the representatives of state power over union rights: it may be the case that a collective imaginary is re-forming around the old dichotomy of Capital vs. Labor, prompting union workers to return to the “you’re either with us, or against us” mentality of the 1930s.
The conditions conducive to the mass generalization of this attitude were not in place in Fordist America, when wages and benefits rose with productivity and the great bulk of the industrial working class was sharing in the profits of capital and the prestige of nationalism. These were the conditions for the mass identification of industrial workers with the space and time of the “nation,” which – aided by the great post-war purging of radical Socialist and Communist organizers from union ranks – decisively replaced class solidarity as the primary form of political universality during the Fordist period. But the basic form of society from which that type of subjectivity emerged and that made it possible is long gone, and, while it has taken some time, it would seem that workers are beginning to wake up to this reality. It would seem that the very inhumanity of neoliberalism is paradoxically generating a renewed sense of solidarity within the famously sectarian and divided U.S. labor movement. While this renewed solidarity, if it is genuinely emerging, does not in and of itself point beyond capital, it does presage a form of collective identity that is capable of acting in ways that we haven’t yet seen by a mass subject in the neoliberal era.
This explicit politicization of the struggle and identification with workers everywhere – regardless of union membership – hearkens back to the radical traditions of the Knights of Labor, the Industrial Workers of the World, and the early days of the C.I.O., and thus it should not be underestimated. It means that highly politicized, significant sections of the working class are again taking to the streets in the name of a broad social vision that goes beyond the stifling, atomizing individualism of neoliberal capitalism. Participation in a strike is often a transformative experience for people, as it energizes scores of workers at the rank-and-file level and, when successful, imparts a sense of empowerment, a feeling that people really can intervene to affect the basic conditions of life for the better. As such it is an indispensable source in the generation of sturdy, resilient oppositional attitudes, which, in the last analysis, must constitute the raw material in any project to decisively change the basic form of society.
That said, there are some significant additional qualifications that must be made at this point. Both of these strikes were part of an anemic private-sector union workforce mired in a deeply entrenched, mindless bureaucratic apparatus that is unique in the western world for its density and conservatism. Further, the self-understanding of many of the participants remains, for the moment, constrained by the persistence of the conservative legacy of a Fordist social imaginary that denies any basic contradiction between a worker’s right to a decent life and American capitalism, but goes no further than that. As such, the anti-capitalist moment is missing from the strikers’ self-understanding in these cases – the struggle is still understood to be directed towards a bloc of venal politicians and employers, rather than towards capitalism as a system. Nevertheless, the leaders and spokespeople for these unions articulate a vision of struggle that is genuinely socially general and attempts to include the wellbeing of workers everywhere. What kind of social and historical conditions would be required to bring this critical attitude to the bulk of the rank and file, and what are the subjective possibilities for action in this direction in the present moment? One such possibility lies in the internal reform of existing unions and the radicalization and mobilization of their members, which will be the subject of the next post in this series.
i. Rosa Luxembourg, “The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions,” The Essential Rosa Luxembourg. Chicago: Haymarket 2008, 120.