A Defense of Wanting to Shoot the Foreman: On Speed-Ups and Union Decline
Gabriel Winant, historian and author of The Next Shift, joins the show to discuss the decline of union power in the face of speed-ups and an expanding framework of labor relations.
Our conversation focuses on worker rebellion, the political failure alongside economic gains for organized labor in the postwar era, and the lessons we can learn from the defeat of the New Deal.
He draws attention to the period known as the "great exception," where unions experienced their high-water mark in power and organization, and problematizes some of the common claims about this era. Winant shows how the present regime of privatized healthcare was embedded in the struggle over shop floor power in the postwar United States.
Get a copy of Winant's book, The Next Shift, at https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674238091
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Speaker 1 (1m 55s): So your book is called the next shift, and I really, really love it a lot. There's so much details in the book. It's such a rich history. It's not possible to cover everything in an hour that you cover and all the aspects that you look at in this rust belt, particularly Pittsburgh history of the steelworkers. So what I wanted to do is just focus on the story of unions, the story of working class power or lack of working class power in this period that you focus on. And I thought to start, it would be really great to hear the story about Pete DeConnick that you tell it's like kind of a quick story in the book, but I feel like so much is embedded in it in particular.
I feel like it counters in some way, this pretty typical story you hear about the capitalist class and unions, having something of a temporary labor piece. I fix somebody refers to it as the great exception where workers were treated well, high watermark of unions. And then in the eighties is when the capitalist class really said, fuck that agreement. Let's just destroy unions and go after them hardcore. So this story about Peter Honick seems to be like a great moment in time to problematize that.
So could, could you tell more
Speaker 2 (3m 6s): About him? Yeah. So he is a worker, this the story I'm glad you picked up on it is a story I often tell to kind of exemplify this early part of the book where I'm talking about the steel industry and the post-war decades, Pico Haneke, maybe Johanna, I'm not so sure how you say it. It was a worker at Duquesne works, which was one of the giant integrated steel mills outside of Pittsburgh. And, you know, to research this part of my book, I read a lot of old grievances, basically archive grievances, and you know, most of them go through a big piles of them.
And most of them have very little information, but maybe one in 10 has a whole narrative attached to it of some length. So this is one of those. And the reason I did that was because I was interested as a kind of method in the points of friction and everyday life. I figured if I could kind of identify points of friction moments when conflict erupted and just the kind of normal course of daily routine, that would be a clue for me about something structural going on.
So I found a lot of grievances in the late fifties that were in one form or another about the problem with speed up. And that's not my discovery. You know, it's been known for a long time, particularly since Jack Metzger's great book, striking steel, that the industrial conflict of the steel industry in the late fifties centered on the question of work rules. And under that the speed of production 59 steel strike was fought over that issue, which is the biggest strike in us history. So I was finding all these grievances that were in one way or another about speed up this one, basically, you know, what's happened is this guy, Pete has done something that has led to his termination and then the termination is being grieved.
So he basically, as a story is told it's from the perspective initially of the plant guard, who is like, yeah, I'm sitting in my booth at the edge of the plant. And you know, Pete comes up to me from the inside of the plant and says, give me your gun, give me your gun. I need it to kill my foreman and my gang leader. And the foreman like go back to work, man, like give me my gun. So he, you know, an hour goes by or whatever. And then again, the guy in the booth sees Pete Dohuk being dragged out of the mill.
Basically, apparently he seems kind of drunk, you know, I mean, who knows, but that's the impression that this guy has, and he has, he comes by, he kind of rents again and I'm going to get that bastard or something like that. Then an hour later, he turns up across the street in his pickup truck, visibly brandishing, a rifle and the management office, the plant office faces onto the street. They see him through the window, they call the cops come, they arrest him to take the gun, which turns out to be loaded. And you know, they terminate him.
Right. And this then leads to the grievance. And there's, I think a couple interesting things about this. Yeah. It's just a little story in some way, but a couple of distinct things about it. One, he doesn't be a fire. The union gets him reinstated, not in the job that he had had, but nonetheless, yeah, he's in the general labor pool. So he gets knocked down about Jerome's in the kind of internal workplace, but he doesn't get terminated from his job despite bringing a loaded weapon to work alone. I think just like tells us something right about, about the idea of the great exception, but we actually, what we do have to take seriously about that idea, right?
That is kind of high watermark of working class organization. Power was such that this guy didn't lose his job. You know, he's buddies or his work mates on his crew testify, you know, he's right. Our foreman is constantly writing us. He's always trying to make us do things that we can't get done. You know, he threatens us to that kind of thing. So there's a kind of operational shop floor solidarity that's in place. And that translates into a kind of larger, you know, plant level power, right in the kind of grievance committee and ultimately into an industry wide power.
So in 59, the industry steel management, which bar basically big a dozen or so firms bargain, jointly one contract with the United steel workers of America. They'd been doing this for the whole post-war period. No, that's not true, but okay. A couple of contracts and you know, they are oligopolistic. They organized basically they coordinate their prices pretty much in sync. They don't have a ton of global okay. Competition yet in the fifties. And they're increasing actually technologically stagnant in part because they don't have a lot of competition.
They haven't invested in a new kinds of steel production technology. So their productivity is slipping behind labor costs in terms of its rate of growth. And they can try to pass this onto the customer. And they do, to some extent in the form of a cost increases on steel, which mean cost increases on cars. But if you do that too much, you invoke the anger of the federal government, which is constantly trying to control inflation. And this is the constant political dynamics throughout the fifties, every field strike winds up, getting settled, basically in the oval office, it becomes a kind of issue of national concern.
Famously Harry Truman tries to nationalize the industry during the Korean war so we can control this problem. So in 59, the companies, you know, they try to solve this problem by going after work rules and in bargaining this provokes, this huge strike. And you know, again, basically the Republican administration, which for its entire area years after this point has been saying, Eisenhower's been saying again and again, and again, we can't politicize collective bargaining. The government cannot be involved in resolving strikes.
And again, and again, again, you get drawn into resolving strikes because it's so costly to the federal government and you know, the people who control it and their political agenda to have the steel industry shut down. So that's the 59 strike is ultimately resolved too, right? Is that the administrative Republican administration basically liens? I mean, I'm simplifying it, but basically leans on steel companies to give up on the work rules issue after four months of strike. So like that's at the macro level, a version of a similar story, right? Which is like, there's this structural contradiction about providing security to the working class economic security to the working class, through the mechanism of private sector, collective bargaining, right?
That that's how it's going to happen. It's fundamentally political concern. It's political project of incorporating the working class into capitalist democracy is happening through, through public supervision of private sector activity. And that plays out at the macro level at a structural level, you know, as like Nixon and Eisenhower call up U S deal and say, this is over. And it plays out at the individual level for a guy like Pete Yohanna. And, you know, I think that it's really important both to right, as I was saying earlier both to recognize what's so extraordinary about that moment of working class power and also how incredibly contradictory it is.
They can't fend off the speed-ups. They can't fend off the attacks, right. They can't, I mean, the conflict is ongoing because, and there's not a satisfactory resolution either in a moment like a strike or in like a showdown over this guy's job. It was kind of constant trench warfare leading to a kind of unstable situation for the industry as a whole over the longterm.
Speaker 1 (10m 11s): Right. And I think it also challenges that narrative around how the eighties were the moment of like real capitalist class counter offensive and reaction against working class power and unions. And that companies would have to have been bold enough to even introduce these changes in the workforce in the first place to think that they can test the union power enough to compel them to them come up to the strike. So that's another thing I just want to think about a little bit more and talk about more is like probably not a fair enough question, but how much power did unions really have in the fifties?
It seemed like they were actually like battling for inches. Were they ever really battling for yards this high watermark? How accurate is that?
Speaker 2 (10m 50s): I put the moment, the kind of hinge moment. And I'm far from alone in doing this in the immediate post-war years for like the late forties. So basically there's something kind of, I think it's fair to say indeterminate in what's going to happen with the labor movement between its recognition and legalization in the mid thirties and the end of world war II. That's a period of 10 years. That's the 10 years of the CIO has grass, right? When it emerges from nothing organizes mass production industry, really dynamically and rapidly consolidates and institutionalizes itself during world war II, increasingly under the protection of the federal government.
Generally, I don't do the protection of its allies in the democratic party in particular, and also begins to get incorporated into kind of mainstream politics through that process, the over this period of time. And this is a kind of argument that often gets made. And I think it has some truth in it. This sort of systemic threat posed by an organized working class to the American political system is diminished by the incorporation of labor as element in the liberal coalition rather than having American politics and society be structurally polarized on class lines, right?
It's instead kind of the American politics and divided by party and the kind of liberal coalition or the democratic coalition, which includes the liberals, you know, also includes labor includes Northern African-Americans, who are connected to labor includes famously Southern Dixiecrats, whose elements of the bill, you know, a business and the capitalist class. So it's kind of pluralistic system is going to emerge by the cold war. And the question is, how do you get from the kind of dynamism of the CIO, the moment of the sit-down strikes and the kind of heroic polarization of, of American society by class to this later moment when labor is kind of one interest group among many, and, you know, you could argue that happens during world war two.
You could even argue happens in late thirties. And I think there's some truth in that, but certainly after the war, right, this proposition is tested in the largest strike wave in us history, which is a 45 46 strike wave. Virtually every industry goes on strike in the year after the war ends in spring 45 or summer 45 auto steel, coal rail electrical, I mean, on and on. And, you know, in some cases like the auto strike is a somewhat kind of systemic challenge to your dimension to this and that, you know, w Walter Ruther and the auto workers are still kind of demanding input over investment decisions at this point, which you don't succeed in winning one in, I forget the number, but some incredible it's like 5% of all Americans or something like that are on strike in 1946, not workers, but Americans.
And, you know, they win a lot of really good contracts in many cases, but I think it's fair to say that politically labor is resoundingly defeated in this moment. So they have success at the economic level, but at the political level, the defeated in as much as the political controls of the economy that had been in place during world war two, all get rolled back, like for example, the office of price administration, the system, by which the federal government set prices for all kinds of goods during the war, you know, there was an effort to preserve some version of that in the post-war years, which might have helped with the problem of inflation that we were just talking about in the steel industry a decade later.
So they lose a bunch of fights like that. And most significantly they lose the fight over labor law itself, right in the form of the Taft-Hartley act, which was passed in 1947 in direct. But first the Republicans take back Congress and 46 indirect kind of reaction against the strike wave and then pass the Taft-Hartley act shortly thereafter. I think your listeners probably all know the outlines of it in the Taft-Hartley act, but, you know, severely constraining in a very various ways what labor is allowed to do.
Illegalizing various tactics that had relied upon and banning more or less from leadership communists, who had been instrumental to the construction of many unions. And in particular had been kind of the bearers of the vision of the labor movement as a transformative social force, right? Not just as a kind of voice for the workers. So they have a brand voice just like everyone else has an organized voice, but rather as a transformative social force, that vision had been nourished by the radical left. And when it came under attack in the kind of Taft-Hartley and, and McCarthyism moment and get purged and later movement get purged from the kind of what had been the popular front, that vision also has to retreat.
And with it, the idea not just to kind of labor as a transformative social force, but, you know, that's closely associated with a kind of early phase of civil rights, agitation around race and racism. It's associated with a certain kinds of, you know, avant-garde feminism that we could, we could point to. So labor becomes, I mean, again, this is a very classic story, but labor becomes kind of bureaucratized and ossified by this process, right? As it, as it is reduced to nothing more than an interest group, it's still a very effective interest group.
So long as its members have this tremendous economic leverage that they continue to have for decades more, the 59 seals strike is a good example of they're still able to deliver for their members in significant ways. But what the relationship is between delivering for your members in the UAW or the U NWA or the steel workers or whatever, what the relationship is between delivering and transforming the larger society gets a lot harder to figure out
Speaker 1 (16m 19s): Taft-Hartley and labor law. I want to hear more of your thoughts on this, because the story that you told is one that you, like you said, it's kind of well, charted repeated a lot, Taft Hartley, everybody agrees really regressive piece of labor legislation that constrained organized labor and the power of unions to really transform society writ large. But there's a challenge to that story that I'm pretty warm to that argues that the seeds of that constraint, the seeds of the labor defeat were really captured in the national labor relations act like more than a decade prior to that, because it insistent on a kind of conformity of labor unions to accept collective bargaining as the paradigm, the premise for unions existing is a contract.
And then through that helped facilitate that ossification and bureaucracy at the top because he had to figure out how to administer collective bargaining agreements, learn the, the, the grievance procedure become somewhat informal attorneys and then even have professional attorneys on retainer all the time. So that's the argument, I'm just kind of curious what you think about that, particularly as it pertains to your research on the steel industries and the rise of the healthcare industry.
Speaker 2 (17m 32s): Yeah. I mean, I think it's a really good question. I think it's, I find it a very hard question for myself to answer, you know, I think that the, that process that you just described, which I alluded to earlier, when I, I think I used the phrase, the legalization of the labor movement, you know, there's no question there's no, I think it's very difficult to resist the idea that it has a kind of conservatizing effect in the way that you just described, you know, in that comes in numerous ways, right? It comes, as you say, through the elevation of the contract act of the collective bargaining agreement as the kind of purpose for existence of the labor movement and of a union, you know, I mean, there's a certain way in which I think the NLRA is designed to mimic in important ways designed to mimic the kind of liberal civil, civil freedoms and civil rights of like citizen of American democracy in the political sphere, right?
So like you cast a vote in a secret ballot election to determine who's going to represent you that institutional setup, which is not how all countries do it, is designed to mimic an existing kind of political representation in order to kind of be swelling easily, basically. Right. That was the theory was that if we, if we extend those principles into the workplace, but this will kind of go over legally and constitutionally and maybe politically and culturally, but, you know, there's something fundamentally false about that because forming a union is not like casting the vote in a representative.
I mean, it's, you know, doing the same kind of action when you vote, we're a union informing union versus when you vote for your Senator, they're totally different, different from each other. Because when you're voting to form a union, you are voting to transform your own situation, right? You were becoming the thing that you're voting for you are an entry you, or sorry, a signatory. And in fact of the contract in a certain way, I mean, not literally, but you get, you know, your, your relationship to your employer is transformed to me. You bargain a contract.
And, you know, I think that has led to a tremendous amount of kind of institutional coherency and the labor movement. The bureaucratization has been the kind of solution that's I know on the other hand of this argument, one doesn't want to root against before motion of the CIO. I think at a basic level, you know, I mean, it's just like that did affect the transformation in the lives of millions and millions of people. And we have no idea what the alternative was. I think it's very difficult to speculate about it, nor is it totally obvious. I think that all of the kinds of possibilities of, you know, more radical unionism were already foreclosed by the shape of the Wagner act itself, as opposed to by the late forties.
I think, you know, there's a good case you can make either way. However, what w whenever you dated to, however you think it happened, right? It did happen that this kind of overall social settlement in which emerged in which to be a member of the working class who enjoyed economic security, you got it through collective bargaining Layne Wyndham's book is really good on, as she describes in collective bargaining and manufacturing, as the portal to move to working class, people had to pass to access economic security.
And this has the effect also of dividing the working class. And this is something that my book makes a lot of, right? That when you are dispersing security and social citizenship through employment, but obviously a capitalist labor market is internally differentiated on equal. Then it's going to differentiate and equalize the working class and set up potentially a tagging mystic relationships between those who are party to collective bargaining and economic security, and those who are excluded from it. So something else that Taft-Hartley does, and this is a kind of central concern of the book is clarify that healthcare is not covered.
Healthcare is exempted from labor law by the Taft-Hartley act. It's kind of an ambiguous state in the period before that, because they didn't specify in the original Wagner act. And it's a nonprofit, philanthropic undertaking at this point in time. So they don't know if it counts or not, but has hardly I clarify that health care is not covered. And what this means is that I say in the book is that the economy becomes sort of dual aligned between the kind of protected areas, which are oligopolistic the organized in terms of, you know, their power to set prices and you know, how they relate to their markets.
That's on the one hand, on the other hand markets that are much, much less concentrated and much more fragmented, often more competitive, more labor intensive, rather than capital-intensive and whose workforces are not organized, and which therefore draw on more socially marginal elements of the working class workers of color immigrants. Women depends on the sector, but that, you know, healthcare falls into that category. And between these two categories, we can think of something kind of like an unequal trade relationship between nations by the late forties collective bargaining comes to include, frankly, we call fringe benefits.
I mean, basically healthcare pensions, and in particular thinking about health insurance, what is health insurance, right? It's like a coupon for someone to take for someone's else's labor, especially in this period of time. And medicine is much less technologically and scientifically intensive while you're buying with health insurance is labor from the unprotected zone. Oh, there was a kind of structural antagonism. It becomes manifest in the form of healthcare prices between these sections of the working class. And that's something that the book then tries to develop further.
Speaker 1 (23m 7s): Going back to what you were saying about how one of the consequences of Taft-Hartley was facilitating the expulsion of communist and leftist in general, from organized labor. It really limited and constrained the vision of the labor movement made it more of a battling for inches rather than, you know, trying to change society. I find that interesting to counter it, contrast that with like the vision of the capitalist class, cause all in this story, there's a lot of moments where you kind of see the capitalist class organizing for the long-term.
It seems like they actually have a very large and penetrating vision, even thinking about how to make healthcare privatized and exclude it from the masses clearly marks to be a moment where the vision of the capitalist class was deep, but it counters the things that we usually hear conventionally is that capitalists are only interested in short-term profits. They have no vision, they can only think about tomorrow. Right. So how, how true is that? Like how organized the question really is, how organized is the capitalist class and how organized are they around like a longterm vision?
Speaker 2 (24m 14s): This is a historically variable question. And I don't think there's one answer that applies to all capital's classes and alternative places, right. But a degree of organization fluctuates, but you know, in this period, you know, I think that fractions are elements of the capitalist class. We're interested in a new deal for various reasons, or at least willing, I mean, some actively participated in it. Thomas Ferguson's writing is classic on this. So, and then, you know, some kind of resisted it more than others. So there's a kind of spectrum between people between factions among the capitalist class who were like, especially during the war, really, you know, helping run the government factions that were kind of going along with it and factions that were dragging their heels and resisting, you know, the moment of national mobilization, both the new deal.
And then the war once that ends and, you know, a set of kind of compromises has kind of been ha you know, temporary compromise, basically, it's kind of been hashed out, you know, these kind of questions. Are we going to continue the momentum of the war of the new deal after the war, or kind of getting raised, you know, then there is a real campaign to kind of reorganize Capitol the reorganize, the capitalist class politically to, you know, resist any kind of movement toward an American social democracy, which is a real serious threat.
I mean, welfare states are getting constructed, left and right in the spirit. And, you know, that would make sense in the American context given what had happened in the prior 20 years. So, you know, you raised the question of healthcare, which is I think a very good example of this. It, you know, Truman tries to establish what we would today, call Medicare for all. And, you know, particularly in the context of the cold war, you know, encountered tremendous resistance to this. I mean, in general, the national association of manufacturers, the chamber of commerce, these kinds of organizations are campaigning very, very actively politically through throughout the late forties, early fifties against, you know, such extensions of, of the welfare state.
And, you know, also in, in industrial relations itself, I mean, 1950 is famous as the year of the treaty of Detroit, which marks the settling of the second contract between the UAW and GM after the war, when gets settled in 46 and then another, it gets settled and implemented in 50. And in the 50 contract, Daniel Bell bill later became a famous sociologist, famously, says GM paid a billion dollars and they got a bargain. And what he's describing is the basically trading of economic security in the form of these kinds of private privatized fringe benefits, pensions, and healthcare.
And so on trading those for the UAW kind of renouncing its ambitions to participate in the direction of investment and control, you know, control of the process of production. So the kind of United front around the kind of idea of a right to manage, which that represents and, you know, around resistance to, you know, extension of the welfare state further and any kind of universal forms, you know, is I think a fairly significant kind of hegemonic accomplishment for capital in these years.
One way of characterizing this period of, you know, post-war economic growth that kind of get a kind of classic way of thinking about it is that management invests in the, you know, with a view to the longer term, which helps sustain high rates of growth. Exactly because it has, is, has the kind of protections of that have been constructed themselves by the new deal state to kind of guarantee its security and its ability to, you know, operate freely.
So paradoxically the concessions of the new deal state in terms of regulation and, you know, the expanded footprint of the state in terms of infrastructure create an environment where management can actually invest for the longer view is more independent of ownership. This is a big deal in this period of separation of management from shareholders and can take a kind of longer view. I, you know, I think that basically holds up, I mean, in some ways the distinctive thing about capital in this period is that management, as opposed to proprietors are kind of calling the shots and that will be undone in the eighties.
Speaker 1 (28m 29s): And th this period of time clearly has a lot of ramifications for today. And particularly when you're talking about what the new deal and how that, you know, both facilitated some progress at some places, but also like was a repressive force. And others what's interesting to me is that I think I saw I'm a guy get a little bit wrong, but I saw you tweet out a while ago about the curiosity of today's organizers and activists, really going deep and trying to go all out to basically recreate the new deal.
And you pointed out that we tried that and it failed. So why, what, what lessons does the spirit in time teach us about the failures of the new deal as well as the promises and whether or not this is actually something we should be trying to reconstitute today?
Speaker 2 (29m 15s): Yeah. You know, I have to say if it give it such a hard time, I feel like, sorry,
Speaker 3 (29m 19s): I brought it up. I thought it was a good, no, no.
Speaker 2 (29m 21s): It's okay. Well, I lock and unlock my Twitter account periodically. And I said, it wasn't a game. It's like a block to that moment. And it blew up in a way that led to the misunderstanding in part, because historians often use the phrase new deal to mean the liberal political regime from the thirties to the seventies, which is not how normal people use it. Right. Even like historically people that you think about Roosevelt as opposed to a kind of political order, hegemonic political order that lasted for decades. But you know, what I was trying to get at with that, listen to that, I would never deny, as I was saying before, the real gains from millions and millions of working class people, both economic gains, but also, you know, dignity on the job in various ways, power on the job at various ways.
And beyond the job, you know, things like, you know, attempt to construct public housing and, you know, for all that, that got messed up by later policy. And, you know, you can name a million different areas of life where the new deal had a positive, progressive effect. However, first of all, like it felt right. And I think it makes sense when you look back on something that you think was in many ways positive, but which fell under attack. I think, you know, it's incumbent on you, if you're politically serious to do more than just say, well, the bad guys got it.
Right. I mean, that's like, okay, fine. Sure. But you know, why were they able to, that's a question you have to ask, right. And if your ex historical explanation consists of like, sometimes there's bad guys who get us, then you have no way of thinking about how you're going to head off those challenges. Right? How are you going to be prepared for them? Have you given up, oh, like deal with whatever contradictions in your own program make you vulnerable? So, you know, thinking about what was vulnerable about the new deal that opened it to challenge in that way.
You know, I mean, my book argues, and I, I guess I would argue that there's both the kind of, these are related to each other, both the kind of limits of collective bargaining for those who are represented by it. And then there's the, the limits of it in terms of who it represents. Right? And so these both like auto workers don't control the process of production. And also there's the fact that it's harder for African-Americans to begin become auto workers. And if they are, they have the worst jobs, right. There's the fact that, you know, steelworkers like Pete HENAAC are getting sped up and that's making them miserable.
And there's the fact that no women are still workers and, you know, for women to get access to social citizenship and economic security, they have to get married to a steelworker. And, you know, it's very, I mean, I think this is amazing how unknown this is. It's very, very explicit. It's like lots of new deal policymaking that the agenda is to create single breadwinner households. This is like what they're trying to do. They're really clear about it. So then by the seventies and eighties, what are the politics that undo the new deal there?
The politics of white racism, which succeeded in establishing a major constituency among working class people of, you know, kind of revenge kind of polit politicized, patriarchal politics, which, you know, again has a kind of pretty broad social constituency and see what's being contested in the moment. But the new deal order falls is the question of the white single breadwinner family. And whether you can kind of have what it would mean to continue to organize a social order through, or can you continue to organize a social order through a routing economic security through that figure?
I mean, politics of inflation, which are like calamitous in the seventies for liberalism are all about this because some sections of the working class are relatively shielded from inflation by collective bargaining and some are not. And then those are again, are pitted against one another. So, you know, I think like the way we should think about history is not, was it good? Was it bad? Was this a good guy? Was this bad guy? I don't think that's that helpful. I think rather what's more useful is to think about history as a kind of evolving, contradictory process in which like everything that happens is in some way, both bad ed goes like we were talking about with the Wagner act earlier.
And our job is not to kind of reach a final verdict on it, but rather try to position ourselves historically downstream from it, understand how whatever was good and bad about that. Whatever was going on in a given historical episode led to where we are now,
Speaker 1 (33m 49s): One of the good things about the history that you tell. And I go back to pizza, Hanok a lot, not saying that it was a good thing, that he had brought a shotgun, he was going to kill us for a minute, whatever, but the fact that the workers defended him and came to his defense and came to his side and they thought that it was legitimate for him to be that angry and frustrated. I think that really speaks volumes to the differences between then and now, because now, you know, my world is organized labor. I deal with grievances. I kind of feel bad for you reading through all of those grievance archives and documents, cause I'm sure that was tedious and terribly boring work.
But you know, today I hear so much complaints from people that have been kind of in the union world for a long time, for many decades, staffers leaders, you know, elected and so on about the younger generation and how disrespectful they are, both to the company, how much they complain about all the policies on the shop floor, how much they just don't get it. And I'm like, what they're really saying is like, they're just not obedient enough, you know? And they won't often fight over a lot of grievances that summer, maybe legit.
And some we might say are not legit, but the end of the day, the role should be for the union to represent its members and the grievance procedure in this moment in time, not only did they represent this person and not get and like somehow get them off the hook for being fired, the workers came and defended him. And I just think that speaks again, volumes to the difference in what you would call like the common sense today. So that's one of the things that I think is good. And I wonder, like what, what do you think about this? Like how distant we've gotten from that kind of culture of working class solidarity?
I mean, I
Speaker 2 (35m 33s): Think there's something real to that, you know, I guess I think it comes from a couple places, you know, first of all, and I'm sure you've had this experience or recognize what I'm saying in your own organizing life solidarity emerges where workers think that solidarity will be successful, right? You need other conditions too, but it's very, very hard to get people, but for people to stick up for one another in that kind of way, when they don't have much evidence in their own experience and memories of that working never.
And so partly, you know, as the labor movement overall has gotten weaker as workers structural position in the economy has gotten worse over the last 45 years, you know, fewer people have less and less out there, fewer and fewer people have any evidence. And what evidence they do have is less and less over time that it does anything for you. Just stick your neck out for the guy next to you, right. It's just like not an experience as many people have had. So that's one part of it that, that both due to union decline and also to structural features having to do with how much costs you can impose on the company by being disobedient for a moment or a day, or, you know, a week or a month in continuous flow production, you know, in an industrial context, not all workers all the time, but many more workers were positioned economically in such a way that they just obedience immediately started imposing costs on companies.
And that meant that, you know, they had a kind of structural power that made it easier for them to stick together because there was an accumulation of experience of how that can succeed workers in the service industry. You know, it's not, I mean, I, I think it just doesn't work quite in the same way you don't participate, you know, in most many industries, anyway, you're not positioned in relation to production in such a way that if you start sitting on your hands, even for an hour, it's going to create a big problem.
It's just not how it is for a lot of workers. I think that's a key thing. Another thing I would point out though, is that in the thirties and forties, the organization, I mean the organization mass production is at the core of the kind of transformation in the class structure of the country, but workers activity wasn't limited to mass production. And in fact, it was very, very widespread in the culture industries, in journalism, in radio, in Hollywood Disney and music theater. What that meant was that objects of mass culture, you know, the things you heard on the radio or eventually television or the movies that you saw were produced in many, many cases by workers, culture workers, who themselves had experience of class conflict.
And that, that showed up in a variety of ways in the cultural artifacts that they produced and then show dev what else I played for everyone else. This is Michael Denny's argument in the classic book, the cultural front, that for a period of time from the thirties into the forties, and maybe even a little later, there was a kind of working class presence in American popular culture. Like if you think about classic early first-generation sitcoms, like the honeymooners Ralph Camden's character, who's named in a show, I forget is a milk delivery guy.
And then, you know, things like that are common across culture in that period, people working class, people are represented and even unions and labor and strikes are represented quite frequently in one way or another in culture because of the power of the working class and the way that power spilled into the culture industries. So that's again, quite different from today. You just don't have that kind of cultural repertoire to draw on. And I think it makes it harder, but, you know, I think on the other hand workers just like they ever stopped resisting, right? It's a structural component of capitalist production that workers resist in one form or another.
They attempt to develop solidarity one form or another they're more or less successful, you know, depending on a whole host of circumstances I've just been talking about. But, you know, I think our job, if we want workers to resist successfully, as much as possible is to figure out how to take the limits of the situation that I just described and try to figure out, well, what are the, you know, where are the moments of give in that way? What are the weak spots in that, in those kinds of challenges that we face?
Speaker 1 (39m 45s): Well, I want to bring us to a conclusion here and I guess what you're just suggesting about the questions that we should be asking. I want to ask you the question and you, so where do you think today the moments of give are, where do you think working class solidarity can emerge or has been emerging and on how much, because one of the key insights of your book is clearly about the battle over power on the shop for battling against speedups and how the ripple effects of speed ups, you know, cascaded into the house, into life at large, where do you think these moments are today that workers can really fight back?
Speaker 2 (40m 19s): I think there are three kind of categories to think about the possibilities of working class power. Today are three areas of the economy is more how I would put it. You know, one is today's culture industries. So to kind of continue from the answer I was just giving. I think it's hard to dispute that the area of the economy today, where you find the most eagerness to organize and most successful organizing is in relatively kind of more educated and professionalized activities, higher ed tech, to some extent, journalism, certainly non-profits this kind of thing.
You know, I think that's, I mean, that's sort of how I got formed initially as a person involved in the labor movement was in my grad student union. And, you know, that certainly is exciting and something we should celebrate, but there are, well, there are potential kind of cultural spillover effects from that. Maybe comparable to what I was just talking about with, you know, radio in the thirties. I don't know, we could hope so, but you know, the structural power of those workers is not so great, right? Their ability to really impose costs on the capitalist class and therefore struggle with the shape of society in some larger way is not so great.
On the other hand here, we see a lot of structural power potentially with, I think in particular in logistics sector. I mean the organizing efforts at Amazon are an effort to capture this as well as, you know, struggles with like poor truck drivers in LA other warehouse workers around the country. I think we all understand that if those workers really had the kind of organization that their predecessors had in a previous moment, they really could have quite a lot of structural power potentially. You know, that the Amazon warehouse Bessemer costs, you know, a billion and a half to build, I'm making that number up, but it's something like they cost a lot to build.
It was brand new. They weren't likely to just shut it down right away if they, if the workers had one and you know, a ton of value flows, students, workers hands, particularly when you think of the whole sector in the way it's, you know, makes possible global commerce. But that sector is very difficult to organize, right? Very difficult. The workers tend to be very replaceable. Often. Those are the best jobs that anyone is like, they didn't get anytime soon in a given local labor market. So, you know, it's very easy when management implies that you could be replaced tomorrow is very easy for work. No, what that means.
And then the third I would say, and this is what my book is about, is what I think of as the industries of social reproduction in particular healthcare and its associated things like home care and education, maybe childcare, which is sort of associated with education. These are industries where there's not a lot of economic power, necessarily an indirect way. In fact, you know, these industries are very often either public or not-for-profit and where workers legal rights are pretty heavily burdened. In many cases, you know, public employees and a lot of places don't have the right to strike home care.
Workers have a very vexed and weird legal position. And even like hospital and nursing home workers who can typically go on strike and organize and do so. Some, you know, it's not like you didn't really shut down a nursing home or hospital in the way that you can potentially share factory. So there's much of, you know, economic and legal burdens on them. But I have a ton of kind of associational political power. What I mean by that is that those industries hold our society together.
They make us a society in some way. They, you know, we depend on them for basic kind of social functioning and people often, no that understand that we saw this really clearly with the red for ed strike wave. And that potentially gives these workers the ability to kind of form a political Vanguard in some way for a larger working class movement or working class struggle because they embody a kind of larger principle of social solidarity. And when they fight for their own, you know, working conditions and economic conditions, it's possible for them to fight also for a larger group of people.
This is the idea we've come to call bargaining for the common good. I don't think we've really figured out how to do it yet, except, you know, in a couple of cases, but you know, in principle, the interests of teachers or nurses or, you know, home care workers can be made to align with good political work with the, of the kids or the patients or the residents they take care of. And that's a potentially very potent political Alliance, if you can figure out how to organize it. So that's what my book is kind of trying to find the material basis for,
Speaker 1 (44m 44s): Oh, that the book is called the next shift, the fall of industry and the rise of healthcare and rust belt America. I got to say that I love this book a lot. Wait, we really only scratched the surface of what's detailed in it. So folks should check it out, read it. It's easily. One of my favorites of the year. And I really appreciate your time talking to us about it on layaway radio. Thanks for having me. This was great.