Workers and work, before and after the pandemic

Labor’s path in the post-pandemic US economy – itself still an unknown quantity – is no clearer than it was before the first cases were diagnosed. Faced with immediate dangers that bosses weren’t exposed to, frontline or “essential” workers called back to work without safeguards found the deck stacked against them more than ever. The time-limited boost to unemployment insurance (UI) payments was only a boost until disgruntled bosses decided to retaliate against workers if they wouldn’t return to the still-unsafe workplace when ordered, reporting them to states as un-qualified for UI. Workers were shocked, though they shouldn’t have been, to see how quickly Congress backed the bosses with a revival of the Lazy and Shiftless Worker meme to justify allowing the UI boost to expire without a followup.

SEIU President Mary Kay Henry was quoted in an excellent late-April USA Today article saying "Every one of these workers [holding out for a safe workplace] thinks of this moment as 'We can't go back to the way things were before the pandemic.'"

But would US labor have a strategy to match the newness of the times? Most evidence about the question shows new public respect for labor and for the value of collective response by workers to the immediate conditions of the coronavirus pandemic. But in its current weakened condition, the labor movement may well struggle, as it has for decades, to meet the refined and evolved practices capital can counter with.

If the question in today’s landscape is how labor might get back on its feet faster than capital and its current and prospective servants in government, history may offer some clues.

Among recent labor histories, journalist Steven Greenhouse’s late-2019 account – Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present and Future of American Labor – has helped set the stage for this discussion even though it predates the pandemic and its economic and social effects worldwide, which in many respects replicate the scenario of the worldwide Great Depression of the 1930s.

Alternatively, a new report from the Economic Policy Institute, for instance, argues that strengthening unions as they are – that is, as they existed before the pandemic – will have positive effects. Just as they would have had before the pandemic. No question that strong unions are able to wrest better protection against the virus in the material sense – masks, other PPE and enforcement of distance from customers and one another – as well as in being able to “work to rule” (see Mike Elk, “The Power to Slow Down Re-Opening”) when rules are inadequate or supervisors look the other way. But are their immediate safety and health needs, once attended to, going to buoy them when the effects of the coronavirus continue to—perhaps irreversibly -- disaggregate work, labor value, workers and customers?

More than may be completely clear to us right now, in the rapids of COVID-19, the forms of labor are changing, and the modes in which worker solidarity can take place are shifting as well. The increasing worldwide growth of a consumer market premised less on product and more on presentation has sparked the commodification of what used to be interpersonal relationships. They are increasingly located in “settings” like restaurants, bars, cruise ships and so forth where use-value is buried in the implication of privilege. The class of workers that hover in these “settings” is by the classic definition a subaltern class, whose presence and subordination is critical to the identity of those who are served.

This was not really sustainable before the pandemic, and the coerced role of the subaltern class, forced to work despite clear personal hazard, has been made naked by the conditions of the pandemic. Many standard and tested ways of building labor solidarity are badly shaken by the imperative to keep workers isolated for safety. New modes have to be created, and they must track with the new patterns and modes of communication being articulated in the face of the virus.

As the labor-capital landscape is upended by the pandemic, what technologies will be accelerated that might keep it upended? And what technologies of work have changed quickly in the past that can give us a perspective on the current situation and a path to worker power? Even though the goal of the New Deal in many ways was to return the US – economy, workplaces, everyday life – to the status quo ante, change in the workplace and the boardroom meant that the post-Depression economy would unfold differently.

The critical role of Frances Perkins in the unrolling of the New Deal’s comprehensive program and strategy is well sketched by Greenhouse, crediting Kirsten Downey’s 2010 The Woman Behind the New Deal [here’s a thorough review]. Perkins’s comprehensive and innovative vision was sparked in many ways by resistance to a woman with such power in Roosevelt’s cabinet. Already an anti-sweatshop activist, Perkins was an eyewitness to the horrifying denouement of the Triangle Waist Co. fire of 1911, where 146 workers died because exits had been locked by management. A seasoned manager of large state agencies, including as New York’s Industrial Commissioner for Governor Franklin D Roosevelt, she was tapped by FDR as Labor Secretary despite opposition from the all-male senior leadership of the AFL. She had, Greenhouse said, become FDR’s “right hand on economic and social matters” and New York had become an early leader on programs to combat the Depression, fueling his rise to the nomination and crushing defeat of Herbert Hoover in 1932. Before she accepted, she told Roosevelt her list of proposed federal initiatives she wanted, asking “Are you sure you want these things done, because you won’t want me for Labor Secretary if you don’t want these things done.”

The list included, as Greenhouse enumerates, “general relief  for the poor, a public works program to put people back to work, a federal minimum wage, a shorter workday (preferably eight hours) and prohibitions on child labor. … nationwide systems of unemployment insurance, health insurance, and old-age pensions [the germ of Social Security] and safety regulation [of workplaces] in states across the country.” It was the New Deal in essence, and Perkins was to see a large measure of it come to pass in the twelve years and three terms she was Labor Secretary. Many battles ensued through those years but Perkins’s unmatched skills as a manager of bureaucracies – including those of others – brought many more wins than losses. Only health insurance failed to emerge in some recognizable form.

Perkins was instrumental in at least two more signal events – the UAW’s 1936 Flint sit-downs at General Motors plants, and the negotiations that led to the National Industrial Recovery Act, which allowed corporate interests to form temporary cartels to survive the depression – but into which she inserted  wage, hour and organizing rights for workers that Sen. Robert F Wagner Sr. turned into permanent law in the National Labor Relations Act (1935), called by contemporaries a “Magna Carta for American Labor.”

Greenhouse shows off the feature writer’s greatest gift – of making the details interesting – as he follows the off-again, on-again swings from negotiation to confrontation and near-combat that permeated the 44 days of the Flint sit-downs. Though the National Labor Relations Act, passed the year before, gave workers the right to organize into unions, General Motors infiltrated and spied on the still-weak UAW such that workers were afraid to talk union, even in whispers. GM imposed speedups on the line, empowered autocratic supervisors and kept a stable of 200 Pinkerton goons in Flint, which teemed with body and parts plants. So when UAW strategists picked up on the effectiveness of sit-down strikes in other US states and France, a plan was hatched and the plants were shut down by the workers, who remained in them.

Perkins was the final arbiter in this as in many such disputes, applying an iron hand to GM (losing millions) and the UAW (losing enthusiasm but unwilling to follow a judge’s order to vacate the plant). She essentially invoked Roosevelt’s authority to bring a truce both could call a – sort of – win. The UAW had six months as tacit sole bargaining agent to gain membership before other unions could poach, and the reputation for fierceness the union had gained in 44 days brought an explosion of members.

When the sit-down participants, singing “Solidarity Forever,” marched out of Flint’s Fisher 2 body plant, “I never saw a night like before and perhaps may never see it again. I liken it to… a country experiencing independence,” said Roy Reuther, one of three brothers whose names would be associated with the burgeoning UAW through World War II and beyond.

Sit-downs were in some respects the inevitable path for labor action in the long technological transition from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century “putting-out” system, in which nascent manufacturing entities in the globalizing mercantilist environment began by providing materials (and sometimes advanced tools) to workers in their homes – hence “cottage industry.” The workers had to find ways to keep up with demand from their supplier-bosses but had no supervisor other than a head of household, so a class hierarchy was absent. On the other hand, cottagers engaged in “putting-out” work had some but not consistent solidaristic contact with other family groups in similar arrangements and it was easy for them to be cheated. As mercantilists opened shops and sheds to contain their increasingly sophisticated machinery, ownership of the means of production became what Engels described in his account of the hellholes of Manchester. As workers were aggregated under one or several connected roofs, the machines became too complex (and expensive) to keep in homes, of course. But workers, as Marx and his many followers detailed, became subordinated to the machines because their organizing capacity lagged the accelerated technology.

As workers learned the technology, the technology learned them faster. It included not only the machinery at which they toiled but the technology of capitalist practices that surrounded and supported the machines – the workings of which were largely hidden from workers and even from their unions. Workers adapted, but were always still behind. As Greenhouse recounts, the sit-downs in Flint attacked the new links of corporate capitalism that saw manufacturing supply chains linking parts flow from outlying manufactories and the huge body-stamping plants like Fisher 2, where a smallish group of UAW activists were able to shut down GM’s network of assembly.

Subsequent sit-downs by workers brought work-arounds by management, always better prepared and war-gamed for the next strike action. The role of Walter Reuther in the pattern of grand contracts that brought labor peace to GM, the auto industry and then by emulation wide sectors of the postwar economy is well told in Greenhouse’s history. “Engine Charlie” Wilson, the postwar head of GM who recognized that stability in the marketplace was worth the concessions (shared health care costs, pensions and more) that Reuther demanded, provided a model that swept across industries and was, perhaps oddly on the face of it, called “Fordism.” That was from the apercu attributed to Henry Ford, who wanted to make a car his workers could buy and so persuaded himself to pay them well enough to afford one. This sweeping change, reflected in public appreciation of the role of unions, was one of several swings in public perception that noted labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein notes in the long march of labor’s rise and decline. More on this below.

In this heady era, one in which Greenhouse suggests Walter Reuther and other “labor statesmen” created a middle class, the seeds of labor’s trouble were planted when a newly Republican-controlled Congress after the 1946 election began to fight back on behalf of corporate power against worker power. The 1948 Taft-Hartley Act struck big blows against labor, tightly controlling unions and making organizing much more difficult. It systematically undid many of the labor protections built into New Deal law by Sen. Robert F. Wagner senior in concert with Frances Perkins. Though its effects were slow in coming, labor’s decline after the mid-1970s was relentless. The political and regulatory attack on unions from government was complemented by a corporate capitalist pattern of union-busting behavior. Here again, the technology was not new machinery but a new combination of regulatory machinery and of systematic demolition of unions and their effectiveness by a coordinated campaign from the corporate sector, which had more and more become a full partner in the state. Greenhouse links the corporate attacks to a falling rate of profit in many business sectors – a late-capitalist phenomenon often said to have been predicted by Marx’s analysis, though this is disputed among Marxist scholars.

Unions were totally unprepared to combat this two-pronged attack from the state and its corporate co-rulers. The decline was made more virulent by a collapse in public support for organized labor linked to widespread corrupt union practices, an adherence to business unionism and corresponding abandonment by most of labor’s hierarchy of any attempt to organize the unorganized. Greenhouse shows in a devastating litany of union complacency and failure. Keyed by the obdurate George Meany, an anti-Communist cold warrior who as AFL-CIO chief held out against bringing the civil rights revolution and diversity to the old craft unions in the AFL (from which he, a union plumber from the Bronx, had sprung). Unions became isolated in abandoning any serious attempt at organizing the unorganized. They lost the crucial support of progressives for putting the federation’s weight in favor of the Vietnam War as well as for refusing to back the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Walter Reuther and the UAW, typically, instead provided significant funds for his old labor ally A. Philip Randolph’s march, where the name Martin Luther King Jr. fully entered the public consciousness. Reuther spoke at the event, just before King’s appearance.

But US labor’s slide was already under way in 1963. As complacent leaders of large industrial unions skipped organizing during the comparative peace of the multiyear contracts favoring the bosses and their dividend -hungry stockholders, labor began suffering big, visible defeats. The one that sent its fortunes irreversibly on the road to today’s low point came when Ronald Reagan broke the strike of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association (PATCO) not long after taking office, firing many thousands of controllers. This effort was not only successful in scaring industrial unions; public employees were rendered wary by Reagan’s sweeping decree. One of the oldest technologies in management’s playbook – the pink slip – had been definitively deployed by the state. But it was the private sector, as Greenhouse details, that took heart from Reagan’s example and relentlessly followed his lead, demanding give-backs on contracts or else threatening offshore moves. And they deployed one of the newer technologies in the business arsenal, the union-busting consultant or law firm, to bring unions to their knees. Unprepared for these strategies and hemorrhaging the good will with the public that had been built up in their fighting days, unions were sitting dinosaurs.

Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, a longtime DSA member and one of our strongest analysts of working-class history, has described these broad swings in the general public’s perspective on workers:

..our new appreciation of [the pandemic’s “essential workers”] these poorly paid and precarious strata of the working class reflects not just the vital role they play in the current crisis, but the centrality of these workers to firms and industries—food processing, fulfillment centers, mass retailing, and healthcare—that now constitute a new “commanding heights” of Western capitalism. This realization echoes the great social and economic shift that took place 90 yearsago when our conception of the American working class was transformed, from that of the tradesman, railroader, or victimized immigrant to a stratum ofself-confident mass-production workers organized into a set of powerful trade unions led by ‘the new men of power” to use a phrase first coined by C.Wright Mills.”

Now that the public perception has swung again, Lichtenstein says in his contribution to an April 29 American Prospect symposium on post-pandemic labor prospects, “The celebration of these workers opens the door to their empowerment."

Before the pandemic, labor was on its knees, with around 10 percent of the workforce in unions compared to one-third at its height in the ‘50s. Increasingly, US labor is represented by public employees while union membership among employees of the corporate sector and small business is approaching invisibility. Though the post-Reagan “big squeeze” reflecting increasing income inequality brought some appreciation of labor as a bulwark against bosses, the picture was complicated by a well-orchestrated campaign to portray public employees as autocratic and costly to taxpayers (as if public employees were not taxpayers as well). This campaign has been financed by Koch Brothers interests and paralleled by their campaign to capture state legislatures on an anti-tax premise that included that invidious image of public employees. Congress has echoed that sensibility in a quite bipartisan way with continued and prolonged legislative assaults on the heavily unionized US Postal Service, leaving it a sitting duck for Trump’s savage misrepresentations and manipulations, which now endanger a pandemic-secure election.

The American Prospect’s April 29 issue on labor’s future offers innovative perspectives on the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic. The coronavirus’s disaggregation of the workplace, and therefore of the traditional technologies of solidarity that grew from putting workers under one roof with the technology that ensnared them, is not new, David Weil notes in “Fissured Workplaces.” There was already disaggregation enabled by independent-contract law evolved to benefit management and resulting in gig work, proliferation of temp and medical staff agencies, and so forth.

Ruth Milkman, like many left theorists, puts more hope in new sentiment and outrage than in new strategic modes of struggle, though she notes that younger activists’ skills with social media afford a way to dodge the classic corporate stranglehold on conventional media. Still, who owns social media? Until they become in law the public utilities they are in fact, they are only the organizing outlets that their ownership will permit.

The latest report from the Economic Policy Institute says, rightly, that a push along the traditional pathways of labor solidarity will at least keep the worst at bay during the pandemic’s ever-recurring peak. That is likely accurate. But if labor stands only on that platform without a parallel effort to recognize what new forms of organizing will be needed against the new forms of work evolving under the most current version of disaster capitalism, continued losses are likely. “There will be no upsurge [of labor power] if, guided by rose-colored nostalgia, we try to recreate the labor movement of the past—before the economy was fissured, reorganized, and financialized. If we are on defense instead of offense, we will fail,” asserts Michael Lerner in the Prospect symposium. Lerner, in “What is Not to be Done,” argues that “the precondition for a labor upsurge is to develop organizing, bargaining, and political strategies appropriate to a world in which power is concentrating in the hands of fewer actors. Monopolies like Amazon and private equity giants like Blackstone and Cerberus increasingly dominate every part of Americans’ lives.”

“If labor isn’t willing to challenge capital, monopolies, and those who control capital, and how it is allocated and managed, not only won’t there be an upsurge, but labor will be swept into irrelevance,” Lerner warns. He advocates for a strategy broadly termed “Bargaining for the Common Good,” that has been used by teachers’ unions in their significant strikes of 2019-20 and that they are continuing to push as a community-based response to the pandemic. Lerner was an organizer in the SEIU’s groundbreaking “Justice for Janitors” campaign, that captured and enhanced support within a wider public for the public benefits of improving the lives of downtrodden but widely visible workers. More broadly, teachers are promoting the benefits of community schools and the “wraparound” health, safety and educational improvements they can offer to children from high-risk environments – services that extend into the communities surrounding the schools and embrace a sense of public benefit that had been fading among especially big-city populations.

Lerner puts his finger on a key need – for labor and workers to collectively recognize that monopoly capitalism is firmly in place and has captured large sectors of the state. This monopoly capitalism has, at its core, engendered the mechanics of increasing inequality of income and status that Thomas Piketty has demonstrated.

As Lerner also points out, many of those monopolies are uniquely situated to profit handsomely from the pandemic’s deadly hand on everyday life. And Tim Wu, among others, has detailed how the federal government’s antitrust defenses have been eroded over the decades by the federal government’s own judiciary.

Capping the Prospect’s symposium, Greenhouse gets a chance to provide a post-pandemic coda to Beaten Down, Worked Up. The best-case scenario in his projected future is “a renewed workers’ movement that will take worker power to a new level and reverse labor’s decades-long slide.” It is, as in Ruth Milkman’s formulation, fueled by anger and a new spirit of anticorporate sentiment that could capture the allegiance of a broader public. He did note, however, that the past two years (pre-pandemic) saw “the largest eruption of strikes since the mid-1980s. A Gallup poll last year found that public approval for unions has climbed to 64 percent.” Ever the reporter, Greenhouse consulted organizers who were focusing on the unorganized, the sector much of organized labor has continued to leave out of its efforts. Daniel Gross, a food service organizer, said catching the wave of discontent would be optimal “if we organize hard enough for it and intentionally enough for it. The working class is very mobilized right now.” But, Gross warned, “…so is the employer class.”

There’s a modest sense in the Prospect’s symposium of the increasingly fluid nature of work, in the immediate prepandemic as well as the aftermath. Also present (especially in Lerner’s account though not otherwise presented as dispositive) is the current joined-at-the-hip nature of monopoly capital and the state (emphatically including the Koch-saturated US states).

Just as the human effects of automation depend as much on who owns the robots as on how clever they are, so the hopes for worker power come from a recovery by everyday people of the control panel of the increasingly digitized environment in which we live, work and consume. The role of workers as consumers too, with different but related collective concerns in each role, has been underplayed by labor unions throughout their history, and needs more examination and activism.

Physical contact may well recover fully as a part of human behavior. This writer has argued, however, that many of those forms of human behavior connected with leisure – restaurants and bars, vacations, cruise ships and much else – have been commodified and create face-to-face inequalities that have become part of the commodification. If their interruption by the pandemic can become a way to decommodify those formerly companionable relationships, many inequalities will be eroded – a good outcome. If they are re-commodified – which is to the advantage of corporate capital -- then increasingly concentrated monopoly capital will continue to control how we feel about who we are.

The solidaristic nature of organizing has through modern history been premised on the idea that collecting workers under one roof with the machinery of their servitude should be mirrored by collecting workers in various venues to develop and reinforce their class consciousness – a consciousness that is routinely dampened and “falsified” by the psychological and physical apparatus of capitalist practices both imposed on workers by ruling opinion and also willingly adopted by them as coping mechanisms for what they have been persuaded is an inevitable limit on their lives.

Has mass, collective union activism run its course in an era of smartphones and Zoom? The answer probably lies less in the nature of organizing and how it might adapt to the present, and how the nature of future work  calls the tune as far as worker consciousness and collective behavior. Will workers be part of the Internet of Things, controlled by the owners of both the Internet and the “things”? Or will workers be the always-adapting core of an Internet of People?

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