The Days of Bread and Roses

In a time when most Americans feel only a paycheck away from disaster, can unions rouse beyond their ranks?

ON A HOT CHICAGO TUESDAY 100 years ago this June, 70 of the country's most radical union organizers and agitators—men and a few women, including Mary Harris (a.k.a. Mother) Jones, a group who had survived bullets and Pinkerton goons and, most of all, the breaking labor of mine and mill, dock and railroad and farm—gathered for what they called a Continental Congress of the Working Class.

The evocation of 1776 was deliberate. The assembled were messengers from the unpropertied multitude whom the American ideal had left out: immigrants and Indians and descendants of slaves, a "hobohemia" of rootless job-seekers, old Pony Express men, and ethnic communards; the working class as opposed to the owning class, those two, the conclave's preamble announced, "hav[ing] nothing in common." It might be hard today to imagine a time when almost everyone in the country was poor—not just struggling and insecure but desperate, starving or near to it, as likely to perish from work as from the lack of it in the Industrial Revolution's economy of unregulated violence. The delegates represented 50,000 organized workers but claimed the majority of Americans as their constituents by circumstance and spirit; and with romantic hubris they christened themselves the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW.

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Over 11 sweltering days they debated a constitution and organizational structure, and gazing across the class chasm at the bounty reserved for the tiny cohort that called itself "Society," they sounded the great themes: freedom, leisure, internationalism, possession. By that last they meant the common right to possess not only the means of production but "all the good things of life"—childhood and joy, health, creative satisfaction, and dignified old age. They became known as the Wobblies, a term of unknown provenance that captures their unique position at an angle to the known ideological universe. As Paul Buhle and Nicole Schulman note in Wobblies!, a marvelously quirky "graphic history" just out from Verso, they loved two tracts above all others, The Communist Manifesto and The Right to Be Lazy, a paean to idle pleasures by Marx's son-in-law.

Skip ahead across the decades and we now find Chicago readying itself for yet another anniversary, and another debate over a labor organization's future. The centenary festival of footloose globo-kids and anarchists who compose most of the Wobbly remnant will be followed in July by a more dour party: the convention of the AFL-CIO, marking 50 years since the craft unions of the American Federation of Labor merged with the industrial unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Today a federation of 58 national unions with some 13 million members, the AFL-CIO is in crisis. Externally it faces the most hostile corporate-government combine in modern times. Internally its member unions are in disarray. And the vast sea of people who don't pay union dues wonder why they should care, if they wonder at all.

To those people, labor talk can be like alphabet soup, the acronyms strange and excluding. Unions are partly responsible, though they hardly control the means by which the culture defines the familiar. Newspapers largely eliminated the labor beat long ago. Labor history finds no home in public schools, though the structure of our lives traces directly to it. Again, it's hard to imagine that people had to die for the eight-hour day, die for the weekend, die for freedom of association and speech, for education rather than child labor, die for time.

The Wobblies emerged as the radical alternative to the older, more conservative AFL. Naturally, they were crushed. But the unions that ultimately formed the CIO borrowed some of their poetry and strategy, and in the 1930s finally won the eight-hour day. It was a compromised victory (New Deal labor law effectively excluding most black workers), the first of many. By 1955, when the CIO merged with the AFL, the poetry was used up, and much of labor's rough, inventive power subsumed in a tangle of laws, collective bargaining, cold war collaboration, and union professionalism.Yet for all their failures—the IWW's vanished hope of utopian socialism, the AFL's and CIO's often hard-nosed ruthlessness—these unionists did, together, redefine society. Not completely, not even close to the revelrous brothers-under-the-skin Wob ideal, but enough so that in the present era, every time the overdogs set the social contract in their sights, as they are now with Social Security, they go after labor first.

Thirty years after capital made its initial salvo of concessionary demands on unions, 24 years after Ronald Reagan launched his domestic program by firing striking air traffic controllers, 11 years after Bill Clinton bullied through NAFTA and blessed a welfare reform that drove poor women into subminimum-wage slavery and union workers out of jobs, 3 years after George Bush moved to strip 170,000 federal workers of union rights, organized labor is on the ropes. So are the rest of us. Across the board wages have remained nearly flat or actually declined in real terms over those 30 years. Representing 12.5 percent of workers, unions are at their lowest level in 70 years. Each year, while hundreds of thousands of people join unions, more are lost through downsizing and the like; 20,000 alone are fired or punished for trying to unionize. Contract victories are rare; political victories rarer, as at every level of governance Republican officeholders work to eliminate unionization as an option.

Surveying the wreckage, a faction in the AFL-CIO led by Andy Stern, president of the 1.8 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), argues for sweeping internal reform. Peculiarly, the argument centers not on social vision, which might rouse legions beyond labor's dwindling ranks, but on organizational scaffolding. In essence it goes like this. Unions aren't structured to win. They are too numerous: the 58 national unions should be consolidated into about 15 mega-unions to match megacorporations.They are too general: power depends on density within industrial sectors, and with various unions (from the SEIU to the Steelworkers) competing for, say, health care workers, power is diffuse, hence squandered. They are too tied to the Democratic Party: they should court Republicans, also build progressive alliances. They should have joint organizing strategies nationally and internationally. And they should get a rebate on half the dues they pay to be member unions of the AFL-CIO. If the federation doesn't impose these changes, some unions, most prominently the SEIU, might pull out. Those points, with copious elaboration and counterarguments—the latter emphasizing rank-and-file participation— have generated heated papers and web discussions (see www.unitetowin.org, www.aflcio.org, www.labornotes.org).

Useful as some proposals may be institutionally, the debate so far misses the historical moment. For, as in 1905, the union crisis is but part of a society crisis, the latter gripping all but a tiny cohort of the population. The larger crisis is measured not in mass poverty this time but in mass insecurity—in cultivated racial or ethnic suspicion; in a minimum wage lower in real terms than it was in 1973; in precarious health care, child care, education, retirement; in work as the predicate for social goods such that, as in colonial tyranny, if you don't work you don't eat, you don't count, and neither do your children; in the loss of time, the elusiveness of leisure, the ubiquity of surveillance, the prospect of prison, the sacrifice of nature, the reality of war. One-quarter of U.S. workers live in poverty, but it's not only the poor who are afraid, who are dangerously indebted or live one paycheck from calamity, for whom life seems out of control, and who see no avenue for changing any of it.

This larger crisis was tolled in Margaret Thatcher's icy declaration that, as for society, "There is no such thing! There are individual men and women." It is reiterated in the rollback theories of the Bush brain trust. When Grover Norquist muses about remaking 21st-century social relations in the image of "the McKinley era, absent the protectionism," he is signaling a vast ideological project for which labor's structural tinkering is no match. The great victory of corporate supremacy has been to consign man's fate to alienation, with family and church the only relief. The great challenge, then, is to reclaim society through the linkage of our fates. For labor, that means speaking for something bigger than itself: not just for Social Security, as the AFL-CIO has admirably done, but for social security in the broadest sense and for all those who haven't enough of it.

Union boosters like to say that a union card is the best antipoverty program ever devised, that it made the middle class. It's arguable that in the process unions unmade their own vision of society, institutionalizing a labor hierarchy, narrowing social goods to a union benefit, protecting white power, guy power. What's unarguable is that historically there has been no redistribution of power, no sharing in "the good things of life" without collective action. And it's that collective ideal—the mere possibility of it, in defiance of sink-or-swim individualism—that unions still represent, even in weakness.

When organized labor was far smaller than it is now, a strike-busting prosecutor called Mother Jones "the most dangerous woman in America." Back in 1901, she told a convention of mine workers: "I don't say that it [the union] will do everything for you, but it is the school, the college; it is where you learn to know and to love each other and learn to work with each other and bear each other's burdens, each other's sorrows and each other's joys." There was little division for her between the good union and the good society. Today's union men grow impatient whenever old history pokes its nose in, but it might be helpful, amid the talk of density and power, if they considered what it might mean to take up their brothers' and sisters' sorrows and joys, and recalled just what it was that made their forerunners so dangerous.