Against the Current, No. 36, January/February 1992
WHILE IN HIGH school and college I began to learn about the working-class history of my hometown, Pittsburgh—not through the official curricula, but by references stumbled upon through my political involvement.
The Homestead Steel strike, the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee, miners’ struggles in the tristate Ohio-Pennsylvania-West Virginia region, all inspired me and renewed my political commitments. A decade after I left Pittsburgh, however, I stumbled upon two incidents from that history which made me bitter about how the school system in the region had denied me this knowledge:
• In 1919, I read in a leftist newspaper, steelworkers in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, both Black and white—the latter mostly Eastern and Southern Europeans—had driven the Klan out of town with sticks, bottles and stones. All I had known about Canonsburg was that it was the poorest part of our school district—the mills had long since shut—and that my classmates from there revelled in the district-wide tendency to spout racist and sexist jokes and insults as conversational commonplaces.
• For schoolchildren in Pittsburgh the Johnstown Flood held the status of regional myth shared by such other great catastrophes as the Great Chicago Fire or the San Francisco Earthquake. All we knew about it, though, was that the dam at Johnstown had burst and many people had perished. Not until twenty years later did I learn that the flood was not in fact a In 1892 natural disaster, but the results of criminally irresponsible altering of the environment and reconstruction of the dam, to provide facilities for a hunting and fishing club organized by Pittsburgh steel barons such as Andrew only to Carnegie and Henry Frick.
For every student of working-class background—or sympathies—there are similar amazing histories hidden from them by the official curricula. After having begun this article, I read of someone who’d been through the same embittering process.
In the course of reporting on a plan to strip-mine Blair Mountain, West Virginia, the New York Times referred to the area as the site of “the nation’s largest labor insurrection,” the 1921 armed battle between coal miners and company operators and their supporters in the local, state and Federal armed forces. I had stumbled upon this incident myself while researching a paper on veterans and labor, finding a contemporary pamphlet describing how World War I veterans drilled their fellow miners in battle tactics, and how the mine owners used airplanes, newly combat-tested in World War I, to bomb the miners.
The Times admits “the battle of Blair Mountain has never been written into the mainstream of the country’s history. That is even (or, perhaps, especially) the case in West Virginia, where public schools sought to place a gentler spin on the history of coal.” The paper quotes David Corbin, native West Virginian and author of a book on the battle: “Twelve years of schooling and I never heard a darn thing about it.”
All this makes me wonder how kids in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst community would react to the unearthing of the rich lore of Italian-American labor radicalism, or how Jewish kids in Crown Heights would react to inclusion in their courseloads of tales of militant union struggles led by Jewish workers in the garment district.
A Multicultural Dimension
I wonder also how, with this new information, these same kids might view in a new light the demands of the African-Americans, Latinos, women and other oppressed groups joined in the growing multiculturalist movement. Supporters of that movement have pointed to the impact on one’s pride, motivation, and self-assertion in pursuit of your rights consequent upon greater knowledge of your group’s heritage—and as a result also being potentially more sensitive to the claims of others whose claims had been denied.
Stripping working-class students of this self-assertion in class terms has obviously been a huge incentive to the ruling class in keeping class issues out of the curriculum. Adding class as a category for inclusion in curricular struggles would provoke discussions and reexamination of existing positions among students of color and feminists on campus.
How many African-American students have access to the new historiography about labor’s record, positive and negative, towards Blacks in unions? How many of them can contrast the records of charlatans like Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton with the achievements of Black Wobbly Ben Fletcher, Socialist and trade union leader A. Philip Randolph, or the hundreds of Black Alabama steelworkers and sharecroppers who fought segregation and capitalism in the 1930s under communist leadership? How many radical feminists know about the works still rolling off the presses reexamining the “Rosie the Riveter” legends, chronicling the legacy of female self-organizing among garment and telephone workers?
Furthermore, how many Italian-American kids have ever heard of Sacco and Vanzetti, of Ettor and Giovanetti, of Tresca and Marcantonio? That’s an important question to pose in a city like New York where the Italian-American college dropout rate is at 20% and growing, and where—unless labor fills the gap—the Columbus anniversary will likely lead to a revival of the least savory aspects of Italian history.
To this point the only example I’ve seen in a mass cultural setting making the link between Italian- and African-American circumstances is the anecdote told in Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever,” linking Southern anti-Black racism with anti-Italian sentiment A new labor scholarship could follow Spike’s lead.
I wonder too how many of the growing number of orthodox Jewish students at Columbia have ever heard of the thousands of radical Jewish working-class leaders? The objective pressures driving these students to religious fundamentalism—and a Zionism more openly racist and conservative in expression—will mean only a minority will be swayed by this history. But that minority is a precious one for the Left.
In one of his novels Kurt Vonnegut refers to an old American working-class saying, usually used as a rejoinder to a fellow worker expressing an opinion contrary to one’s own: “If you’re so smart, how come you ain’t rich?” This saying reveals the low esteem in which that class often holds itself. Part of the key to this low self-esteem is also explained by Vonnegut when he describes in Palm Sunday how his German-American ancestors were taught to hide and be ashamed of their ethnic heritage.
This forced renunciation of their culture in the great “melting pot” has hidden from European-Americans a vibrant history of class struggle in both Old and New Worlds. Labor historians in recent years are beginning to exhume this history. Just perusing some of the chapter headings in recent books on the American labor movement is already a lesson in its multicultural nature: Readers of these works learn about Scottish-American coal miners in Illinois, German brewery workers in New York, French Canadian textile workers in Rhode Island, Finnish iron workers in Minnesota, as well as Jewish, Italian, Czech, English, Irish, Black. Latin and Asian American workers.
Learning about the cultural diversity within the European-American workers’ movements can only improve our understanding of the more general relationship between white workers and Black, Latin and Asian American workers. To be sure, other social movements have come too far for us ever to return to the old undifferentiated or reductionist “Black, white, unite and fight” slogans preferred in earlier times by leftists of many stripes. But a class complement to multiculturalism will both enrich it and hopefully redefine the terms on which the separate components relate to each other As we defend the multiculturalism movement from the PC.-bashers we need to begin figuring Out how to include class in it as an integral component.
Class Struggle, the Movements and Access
I’ve been at Columbia University for six years, and have been active in a dozen ad-hoc single issue coalitions which unite a broad spectrum of campus activists. Almost never in any of these coalitions have I seen or heard the excesses attributed by conservatives to “politically correct” partisans—these excesses when they occur tend to flow instead from nonactivist professors and grad students who write about these issues in self-enforced isolation.
All the participants include class in their laundry list of forms of oppression. And Lord knows all these activists have responded immediately to appeals by the various campus unions for support I’ve seen this openness also in the national student milieu, from the National Student Conference at Rutgers to the National Student and Youth Campaign for Peace in the Middle East. But compared with the profusion of demands, concepts and organizations already forged for people of color, women, lesbians and gays, the disabled and other oppressed groups around curricula, admissions, and institutional reform, supporters of labor on campus are years behind.
The primary reason that till now race and gender have been the predominant terrain of struggle for campus radicals is obvious: The corresponding movements off campus were far broader and more militant in the last three decades than the labor movement. And those movements saw plainly how universities, which had always excluded their constituencies, had failed even to open their doors in response to postwar demographic shifts—Blacks moving North, women escaping homebound lives for the workplace—which added new objective weight to their inclusionary demands.
A parallel economic shift—the raise in income for huge parts of the white, and smaller parts of the Black, working class in the 1950s and ’60s led to a swelling of working-class representation on campus. But this was a passive reflection of economic prosperity, not a response to an articulated demand by working-class students as such.
That prosperity is gone, and working-class students—most especially students of color among them—are being driven out year by year. Yet people of color and women have continued their fight for inclusion on the grounds of racial and gender equity, demanding diversity despite academic budget cutbacks. If class were to become a criterion in admissions, financial aid, staffing and curricula, this would not only broaden the battlefront between supporters of justice vs. advocates of austerity. It would also force supporters of greater working-class representation to again raise political and theoretical explanations of the class character of the university—and in so doing further the dialogue with students of color and women on the added (and distinct) dynamics of race and gender within academia.
Of course, seeking to construct a self-conscious pro-working class student milieu in one sense goes against the very aim with which students enter academia, that is, to leave their class by attaining middle class and/or professional status. Mobility-seeking Black students know they’ll leave academia still Black, women still women—but working class students enter with the goal of changing their class status.
Yet traditionally working-class students, sensitive to the fact that they’re trying to escape the world of their parents, are thus also often forced to examine more closely the differences between the worlds of different classes. (On this topic see Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey’s essay on working class student life in academia in ATC 35.) Similarly Black and women activists often explain their radicalization by reference to the class difference education has opened between them and their elders. By the same token the labor movement has always found part of its leadership from those of its sons and daughters whose frustrated middle-class aspirations led them to analyze the predicament of their class.
Radicalizing Labor Studies
Butler Library on Columbia’s campus is often cited as a symbol of the continuing need to struggle around cultural diversity. Lining the top of the classical facade in letters visible hundreds of yards away are the names of dead Greek and Roman men. Two buildings north, however, sits a modern, prison-like edifice whose potential symbolism remains unanalyzed—Uris Hall, home of the Business School. No one asks: Where’s Columbia’s Labor School?
We can all generate a list of “common-sense” responses: Look at where Columbia gets its money, where the jobs are in the real world, why would Columbia’s ruling class trustees want a Labor School—questions all pointing to the implicit silliness of someone who would even make such a suggestion. But as is often true, the seeming silliness of the suggestion and the “common sense” nature of the responses reveal the potentially radical and subversive nature of the problem.
There are, on a handful of other campuses, “Labor Relations” or “Industrial Relations” programs, and schools, or, as in the case of the biggest—Cornell’s “Industrial and Labor Relations.” Aside from theoretical and case study research, Cornell also provides some useful training in basic organizing and bargaining skills for union stewards. Despite the low level of politics imparted in such training, and the tactical conservatism recommended, this training fills a huge void in a period when most union locals do little or no internal education for members—and when the lack of democracy and mobilization in even the most progressive unions means that internationals with significant research and education departments are unable and/or unwilling to reach an atomized and disempowered membership.
The weakness of the labor movement, both in its activism and theory, makes it understandable that campus activists have not begun on their own to raise class demands within academia. But as radical scholars in countries like South Africa have shown, this is a two-way street, and students with more direct access to labor history and theory can have a huge impact on consolidating these ideas and bringing them to workers.
Doing so in the United States requires first coming to terms with the pro-status quo methodology of the few labor studies centers that do exist In keeping with the still dominant trend in all academic disciplines—contrary to those who assert that universities have been captured by Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals—by and large the various labor and industrial relations programs, including Cornell, serve mostly to analyze the attitudes and actions of labor within an assumed permanent labor-management hierarchy. They don’t examine how that hierarchy was constructed, and how bitter struggles here and abroad have questioned in practice not only the regular functioning of that hierarchy but often even its existence.
Most recently the focus for labor relations experts on campus has been on advocacy of the various collaborative schemes such as Quality of Work Life, Team Concept, etc. One of the newest entries in this field is perhaps the most crass example, in terms of its sponsorship, of the collaborationist nature of existing labor studies: Victor Gotbaum’s Center for Labor-Management Policy Studies at the City University of New York The Center’s board is composed in equal parts of New York’s top labor bureaucrats and the city’s business elite (including the heads of AFSCME DC 37, the biggest municipal union, TWU Local 100, the subway workers’ union, and current and former Chief Executive Officers of Citibank, Lazard Freres, Morgan Stanley, and Macy’s).
The Multiversity and Labor Control
This state of affairs can be traced back to the growth in the early Cold War period of a school of thought centered around such figures as Clark Kerr and John Dunlop. Kerr was the theorist of a business-allied “multiversity” and, as President of the University of California-Berkeley, was the foe of that school’s Free Speech Movement in 1964, the mass successful civil disobedience movement around students’ rights to engage in political activity in general, and in defense of the right to set up literature tables for the Congress of Racial Equality in particular.
Before this Kerr was known primarily as an industrial relations expert, and had led a Ford Foundation project which sought to apply new advances in sociology and economics to problems of labor in the postwar world—especially as it related to labor in the “developing” world. As outlined by James Cochrane in Industrialism and Industrial Man in Retrospect: A Critical Review of the Ford Foundation’s Support for the Inter-University Study of Labor (published by the Foundation itself), a memo outlining the Study’s goals explained it “would involve not only research … but also consideration of possible action by the U.S. government for the purpose of influencing the development of the labor movement in other parts of the world and of encouraging the development of free rather than communistic-controlled labor unions.”
A rather eerie case in point of the impact of the Inter-University Study’s contributions—in light of recent developments in the Gulf—was a 1960 work sponsored by the Foundation’s Overseas Development section under the auspices of the Inter-University Study, entitled Manpower and Oil in Arab Countries, by Albert Badre and Simon Siksek.
This study of labor problems in Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia admitted that “with the exception of Syria, there are no unions in the oil companies operating in Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.” It cited a workers’ petition saying problems “cannot be solved except by establishing a trade union,” yet concludes that “most oil workers … now accept the fact that unions will not be permitted.” The authors pointed approvingly to the workers’ alleged reconciliation to company-sponsored joint committees, even though employee representatives couldn’t be elected to them in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and many workers wouldn’t join them for fear of being labelled “stooges.”
The authors recognized that the lack of unions, pay equity and other grievances are only subsets of a much more explosive issue: the unique wealth created by oil—still in this period under foreign ownership. They noted too the spread of Arab nationalist sentiment, which they predicted would soon end the “concessionary” system. When Arab workers take action, they reported, it was as often for region-wide social and political causes as for workplace-based grievances.
Furthermore, they noted the belief of Arab nationalists that oil wealth should be used for the benefit of the entire Arab world, as it “does not belong to the companies nor to local governments or individual states.” The nationalists’ goal instead was “acquisition by the government of a united Arab World of the whole oil operation The proceeds of these operations should be used wherever the need is greatest in the Arab World regardless of the localities where the oil is produced or transported.” In sum, a type of political unionism was germinating akin to that found today in newly industrialized Third World countries. No wonder the authors refrained from encouraging the unionization of Arab oil workers!
Thirty years after this report, workers in almost all industries in these countries, including oil, have no unions, and the broader dream of a unified, economically-integrated and democratic region has been repeatedly coopted and/or crushed. How many students in the recent antiwar movement, dealing painfully with the task of organizing against a war where the “enemy” was Saddam Hussein—although the actual victims were an unorganized and powerless Iraqi people—know how the suppression, both physical and ideological, of the Arab labor movement helped lead to this situation?
New Struggles and Old
A long and tenuous connection? Perhaps, but referring again to the labor relations’ school’s foremost ideologue, Clark Keri and his vision of the “multiversity,” we can see the link. In his 196 “Uses of the University” Kerr happily described the physical, personnel and resource integration of industry, military and academia—all made possible, of course, once radicals had been witch-hunted out of unions, government and lecture halls, although Kerr doesn’t mention this. Until the 1960s academia, through modernization theory and its subtheories such as Kerr’s industrialism school, helped shape government and business policy globally.
Despite the profusion of radical scholarship and activism disrupting the multiversity in the 1960s and 70s—and the valiant attempts today by multiculturalists to maintain and expand the footholds gained in that period—the multiversity is making a resurgence, with growing government and business intervention in and sponsorship of academic affairs (as seen in the increase in corporation-endowed chairs, CIA-funded research at Rochester Institute of Technology, etc.).
Meanwhile some of Kerr’s antagonists at Berkeley in the Free Speech Movement, and their counterparts elsewhere, went on to become labor militants, many of them still active in various rank-and-file reform efforts in the auto workers, teamsters and other unions, and in organizing new unions in the service sector (including on campus). Other FSM types joined a burgeoning milieu of academics and independent writers that has churned out thousands of articles, books and pamphlets on labor issues.
But the demobilization and fragmentation of the mass movements spawning this scholarship has led to the ghettoization of gender, race and class studies, even while they proliferate in size and scope. Reinvigorating radical labor scholarship could play an important role in relinking these categories, and perhaps for the first time launching an effort to integrate in a sophisticated way our various theories of systems of exploitation and oppression—and in so doing help us think more strategically about the actual struggles in these spheres and their interaction.
A friend of mine at Columbia recently complained that “I wish they’d stop calling it gender studies and go back to doing feminist studies.” The former accepts gender divisions and definitions, the latter challenge them, she explained. Naturally a movement for labor studies would produce a similar schism pitting advocates of an expanded, mainstream labor relations discipline, practiced with the help of labor officials and liberal business executives, against supporters of a political, pro-working class studies done in association with rank-and-file union militants. Those on the radical end of this schism might have something unique to say about how gender and race scholars wound up isolated in academia, and how we might lead a joint break-out.
A Labor Curriculum
What would a movement for working-class studies demand, what would it have to say? There’s certainly no lack of sources or people to rely upon: A glance through the Resource column in the monthly newsletter Labor Notes over the last decade, for example, uncovers a wealth of labor books, magazines, videos, plays, art, conferences and the like. The staffs of the Midwest Center for Labor Research, the Labor Institute, and the Center for Popular Economics—along with the thousands of college and union scholars organized in Workers’ Education Local 189—could help student radicals figure out how to begin including class in their demands for expanded and diverse curriculum and admissions.
In addition to the new approaches and oral and archival material generated by U.S. labor scholars in the last two decades, a more recent, global tendency in class analysis has arisen, what authors like Ronaldo Munck and Peter Waterman call the “New International Labor Studies.” The birth of the latter, which examines the rise of new trade union movements and workers’ parties in South Africa, the Philippines, Korea, Brazil and elsewhere, arose at the same time as mainstream academics began to study the ramifications for their patrons of the new internationalization of capital.
So while historian Paul Kennedy is he1pin the U.S. ruling class figure out how to avoid the seemingly inevitable fate of previous “great powers” like Rome, Spain and England, class studies partisans can begin helping American students and workers learn from and identify with the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the Philippine KMU, the Workers Party in Brazil. The solidarity and self-identification of the May’68 student generation with Third World peasant liberation struggles could find a ’90s counterpart inspired by international labor struggles. The spade work for this process has already been laid in part by the converging of anti-intervention and labor activism (see in particular the American Friends’ Service Committee’s The Global Factory for several inspiring case studies).
Raising class issues will also help the multicultural movement reexamine some of its tactics and theories, perhaps enabling us to junk some of the silliest and exclusivist tendencies exhibited by nonactivist PC.’ers. This will happen, I believe, as gender and race activists begin to compare tactics used on campus against harassment with those used in the workplace.
There’s a debate on campus, for instance, over the relative merits of administration-imposed restrictions on racist speech versus active student mobilizations to isolate and intimidate racists. This debate could only benefit by a comparative analysis of how workers deal with harassing bosses (and coworkers), of how they treat scabs, of how they decide to use the law, the union and/or their own power for these problems.
For example, CWA Local 4309, to which I belonged in Cleveland, would not only file grievances against bosses who had verbally abused employees, but had also on occasion forced such bosses to stand up in front of their departments’ employees and publicly apologize to the abused worker At several jobs I’ve held workers told stories of how someone who’d scabbed on a strike years, even decades ago, was still being given the silent treatment by the rest of the workforce.
Are these and other tactics used by workers to discipline offensive behavior more or less effective than those used by students? We need a dialogue both to compare notes and to reinforce our respective efforts in this sphere.
While engaging in struggles around multiculturalism, campus radicals should begin thinking how class enters the picture when calls are raised for diversity in curricula, in course content, in teacher hiring and student admissions, in financial aid. We should also consider labor concerns when discussing speakers’ lists, timing and format of campus political events, and in weighing how we divide our time between on-and off-campus struggles. – make our politics more mature, both by making it more sophisticated, and at the same time more down-to-earth. Being aware of the absurdities and excesses of post-modernist and deconstructionist trends on campus need not mean the rejection of grand theory. I’ll never forget being admonished by a radical South African scholar who’d been an adviser to an affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, for my scoffing at the theories of Nicos Poulantzas.
I’ll also never forget the button hanging on the partition wall of a fellow worker and union activist at Ohio Bell. It read: “Sounds Like Bullshit To Me.” This healthy cynicism toward authority, this implicit warning to take no one too seriously or uncritically, is a perfect example of the sentiment needed on campus these days. Yes, we must be politically correct, but also politically critical, including of ourselves, able to sense our own stupidities and silliness as we maneuver in uncharted waters of new-found oppressions and sensitivities.
Notes for Further Reading
For an interesting example of the role of German-American workers during one of the high points of labor radicalism, see Eric Hirsch, Urban Revolt: Ethnic Politics in the Nineteenth Century Chicago Labor Movement. Recent anthologies on ethnicity and labor are Dirk Hoerder’s “Struggle a Hard Battle”: Essays on Working-Class Immigrants and Labor Divided: Race and Ethnicity in United States Labor Struggles, 1835-1960, edited by Robert Asher and Charles Stephenson.
For an example of attempts to bolster radicalism by encouraging European ethnic pride see accounts of the Communist Party’s International Workers Orders in Theodore Draper’s Roots of American Communism and Paul Buhie’s Marxism in the U.S.A.
© 2020 Against the Current
January-February 1992, ATC 36