The hidden history of US radicalism

Issue: 111

Megan Trudell

Put plainly, the US is moving steadily and solidly to the right. That poses a problem for Democrats, who have to learn to speak to the people of those red states if they are ever to hold power again. But it also poses a problem for America, which has somehow to house two radically diverging cultures in one nation.1

Jonathan Friedland writing in Britain after Bush’s 2004 re-election expressed the dominant explanation among liberals and on the US left for the erosion of the Democrats’ vote. Sydney Blumenthal, a former Clinton adviser, agreed: ‘The Democratic Party, despite its best efforts, has failed to rein in the [right wing] radicalism sweeping the country’.2 Many commentators were quick to blame working Americans for Bush, citing the 39 percent of trade unionists who voted for him, and the Democrat rout in industrial ‘safe’ states like West Virginia. Writing in the Nation magazine Katha Pollitt considered that ‘maybe this time the voters chose what they actually want, nationalism, pre-emptive war, order not justice, “safety” through torture, backlash against women and gays, a gulf between haves and have-nots…’3

Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?4 was written before the election, but has become a key liberal point of reference since. Frank, righteously angry about the fate of America’s ‘heartland’ after 30 years of neo-liberalism, tries to account for the ‘derangement’ of working class Americans falling for right wing ideology against their real interests. He
writes of a kind of ‘false consciousness’:

of blue-collar patriots reciting the Pledge while they strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper healthcare; of working class guys in mid-western cities cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life, will transform their region into a rust-belt, will strike people like them blows from which they will never recover.5

Neo-liberalism has undeniably worsened the conditions of the US working class. US workers start work younger and are more likely to work past 55 than most European workers.6 They work harder for less. Real wages fell by over $1.50 an hour between 1973 and 2000, while productivity rose by more than a third.7 Inequality has widened dramatically. ‘The real income of…90 percent of the US population…actually stagnated since 1979, while for the top 0.01 percent, real income quadrupled’.8 Since 1980 company labour costs have been driven down consistently,9 and unionisation has fallen from 23.3 percent to 12.6 percent of the workforce.10 Over 2.5 million manufacturing jobs and 850,000 professional service and information sector jobs have been lost since 2001.11

In January government figures revealed that ‘American workers have rarely taken home a smaller share of the nation’s prosperity… Wages and salaries as a share of the cash corporations are generating from the expansion stood at 51 percent in the second and third quarters, the lowest in government records going back to 1929’.12

One good example of Frank’s ‘derangement’ is Ohio. Part of the industrial area extending across West Virginia and Pennsylvania built on the auto, rubber and steel industries and now dubbed the ‘rust belt’, hundreds of thousands of jobs have gone in Ohio since 2000; Cleveland has become the poorest city in the US, while the population of former steel town Youngstown has halved. Lack of prospects means high army recruitment—by mid-2005, 47 Ohio marines had been killed in Iraq. Ohio narrowly went to Bush in the election.13 It would appear that, faced with such devastation and uprooting, US workers are moving rightward.

However, the vote for Bush was more complex than a right wing backlash winning the hearts and minds of workers. To judge the election accurately the level of abstention had to be taken into account, which it often wasn’t. Bush won 51 percent of the American voters. Forty percent of workers, around 60 million people, did not vote. Fifty eight percent of voters under 24, and over 40 percent of black people did not vote. The electorate was disproportionately white and better off: around 35 percent of voters earning below $15,000 a year voted, while 75 percent with incomes between $75,000 and 100,000 did so.14 Such statistics show that very large numbers of workers were unexcited about voting for either of two pro-business parties.

Moreover, not all those who voted for Bush are right wing. According to the Brookings Institution, ‘38 percent of those who thought abortion should be legal in most cases voted for Bush. So did 52 percent of those who favoured civil unions. “Moral values” (however defined) appeared to be the leading concern of slightly more than a fifth of the electorate. For the overwhelming majority of voters a combination of other issues such as the Iraq war, the terrorist threat, and the state of the economy were more salient’.15

In other words, where workers voted for Bush they did so not necessarily because they accepted his moral agenda, but for other reasons—most obviously that the Democrats did not represent their best interests either. During the 1990s the ‘New Democrats’ heavily punished their working class base. Clinton promised healthcare for all, but the number of Americans without health insurance increased by 8 million between 1995 and 2000, from 37 to 45 million.16 Clinton continued neo-liberal policies, signing up to NAFTA, slashing welfare and abandoning federal assistance to the old industrial ‘heartland’ in favour of the computer and information industries in the South and West.

As Mike Davis has stressed, ‘for the “false consciousness” theory to fully apply, West Virginians (or Kansans or Ohioans) must have had the opportunity to make a choice between “values” and “interests”, culture and class’.17 Yet Kerry maintained the neo-liberal New Democrat position, offering nothing to those at the sharp end of lay-offs and plant closures, and giving no voice to the millions of Americans who oppose the Iraq war.

The language of ‘moral values’ played well in the heartland to the extent that it chimed with the experience of dislocation wrought by these attacks. But the lack of an alternative is key to explaining its attractions. As Frank puts it, the backlash ‘movement speaks to those at society’s bottom, addresses them on a daily basis. From the left they hear nothing, but from the Cons they get an explanation for it all’.18 The moral conservatism is a confused expression of anger at the new ‘turbo-charged capitalism’.19 Conservative Republicans used the language of class to take aim at the ‘latte drinking, Volvo driving’ ‘liberal’ establishment and portray themselves by default as representative of the average American and the Democrats as the wealthy elite of the new information economy.20

But Frank ends a strong critique with a whimper, seeing those hurt the most by rampant capitalism as dupes of the right, unable to see what is good for them.

The reality is that Bush’s ‘working class vote’ is proving unstable. Just a year after the triumphant re-election, polls put Bush’s approval ratings at historically low levels, around 35 percent, and the Republicans are expected to do very badly in November’s mid-term elections.

Frank underestimates the capacity of social and political struggle to sweep away the easy, poisonous ‘explanations’ of the cultural backlash.

He recognises that social welfare reforms ‘didn’t spring out of the ground fully formed in response to the obvious excesses of a laissez-faire system: they were the result of decades of movement building, of bloody fights between strikers and state militias, of agitating, educating, and thankless organising’.21 But his point is half made. Massive, powerful strikes and revolts have rocked the US ruling class repeatedly since the civil war, forging unity across barriers of race, language, gender and craft, and producing impulses for independent political organisation. It is during such struggles in the past that not only have reforms and economic gains been won, but also collective action has altered the political culture of the US, overcoming much more significant and deeply rooted divisions than exist today, and from conditions of greater weakness.

The ‘gilded age’ and the birth of a new class

Mark Twain referred to the period following the end of the civil war in 1865 as the ‘gilded age’ of American capitalism—the age of rapid industrialisation, the mechanisation of production techniques, the development westwards with the building of the railroads that created vast wealth for a few in a spirit of ‘money-fever, sordid ideals, vulgar ambitions, and the sleep that does not refresh’.22 The massive expansion of the working class into growing cities that accompanied economic growth came from millions of Irish and German immigrants in the 1840s, as well as from the countryside. Collective activity to resist the pressures of capitalist expansion spread alongside it; Karl Marx described how the agitation for the eight-hour day ‘ran with the seven-leagued boots of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California’.23

National railroad strikes in 1877 aroused establishment fears of an American Paris Commune, and forged a unity that shaped the Knights of Labour workers’ organisation. In St Louis black dock workers struck in solidarity with the rail workers. A black striker who asked a mass rally, ‘Will you stand with us regardless of colour?’ was assured by the shouting crowd, ‘We will! We will! We will!’ The Knights, though strongest in the North, also organised black and white coal miners in Alabama, dockers in New Orleans and tobacco workers in Virginia. Its membership rules stated that ‘the (outside) colour of a candidate shall not debar him from admission; rather let the colouring of his mind and heart be the test’.24

Although the Knights were smashed in 1886 with the defeat of further rail strikes, these struggles and the agitation for the eight-hour day led to the establishment of the American Federation of Labour (AFL), which organised unions according to separate crafts, and the American Railroad Union (ARU) led by the Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs which aimed, in its short life, at organising across the railway industry. The Haymarket massacre that year—in which eight anarchists were falsely accused of throwing a bomb at a meeting over the eight-hour day and five of them were hanged—was followed by reaction, but the first ever May Day two years later ‘touched off a spontaneous month-long wave of mass marches, walkouts, and quasi-general strikes that culminated in nationwide violence as newspaper headlines asked: “The Revolution?”’25

In 1894 the ARU organised a mass national boycott of the Pullman railway company involving hundreds of thousands across the country. Coal miners struck, and a united black and white general strike rocked New Orleans. At the same time a political alternative to the Northern industrialists’ Republican Party and the Southern planters’ Democratic Party emerged.

The populist movement—organised from 1892 as the People’s Party—represented the most important challenge to one-party rule and racism in the South. Agricultural production on large-scale plantations was still the cornerstone of the Southern economy; the main cash crop was still cotton. Under the crop-lien system, farmers would sign over part of the coming year’s crop in exchange for supplies, often leading to heavy debt if the harvest was poor, which could mean the loss of their farms. Populism, the voice of radicalising black and white tenants and sharecroppers who worked the land, united them in protest at their shared conditions.

Frank uses the example of populism repeatedly in his book. He refers to historian Vernon Parrington’s assessment of the way the average farmer’s ‘political slackness’ had previously helped ‘provide the rope for his own hanging’ (rather like Frank’s assessment of workers in 2004), and of the dramatic difference populism made. Farmers were now ‘enlisted in a class struggle. They used the vocabulary of realism, and the unctuous political platitudes and sophistries of county-seat politicians rolled off their minds like water from a duck’s back’.26 Left unsaid in Frank’s account is what this demonstrates about the speed at which individuals involved in collective movements cast off false conceptions of the problems in society, including cultural ‘explanations’.

Populism spread. In Chicago the People’s Party united farmers and radicals with trade unionists, creating the concrete possibility of a united movement of labour and rural militants. But a more conservative wing of wealthier midwestern farmers also emerged, and its anti-labour right wing populism formed an unholy combination with the AFL leadership of Samuel Gompers—whose ‘pure and simple’ unionism opposed any radical or socialist politics. They split the party and forced fusion with the ‘Reform’ wing of the Democratic Party.

The Southern ruling class wreaked revenge on the rural revolt. A campaign of lynching and segregation broke black and white unity and entrenched reaction. The crushing of the New Orleans general strike destroyed urban unity at the same time and, as Mike Davis describes, ‘out of its ashes arose a stunted, Jim Crow white unionism on the one hand, and a pariah black sub-proletariat on the other’.27

AFL refusal to support the strike and repression by federal troops defeated the Pullman strike, the ARU collapsed, and Debs and other activists were jailed. Defeat generalised the repression faced by the US working class, North and South, and the deflection of aspirations for a political alternative towards the Democratic Party deepened its impact as employers went on the offensive.

The second wave of struggle

Confrontations like Pullman had been shaped by changes in the structure of US capitalism, its reorganisation into increasingly large-scale corporations. New technology and ‘scientific management’ techniques gave employers more control over the labour process and forced workers to work faster and harder to maximise production rates. Agents of the new industries travelled to Eastern and Southern Europe promising a land of opportunity to hundreds of thousands of Poles, Italians, Hungarians and Serbs. The influx of immigrant workers after 1900 provided much needed workforces for the coal mines, steel mills, railroads, textile mills and auto factories that were making huge profits for ‘robber barons’ like steel’s Andrew Carnegie and the Rockefellers. Industrial development led to a contradictory situation—creating more jobs and lowering prices which benefited workers and attracted new immigrants, while also reducing workers’ control over the labour process and strengthening increasingly powerful corporations.

German and Irish immigrants in the 1840s had met with hostility from ‘native’ workers, and successive waves of immigration involved recurrent tensions. The nature of the US working class as one constantly growing by pulling in workers from other countries presented some obstacles to class unity. Between 1870 and 1920 ‘wave upon wave of immigrant labour inundated industrialising America, helping to decompose and recompose the US working class in ways that disrupted and fragmented labour organisation and class consciousness’.28

The Irish revolutionary James Connolly described the impact of the growing American economy on Irish immigrants working in its factories and mills in the first years of the 20th century:

Undoubtedly the standard of comfort here is much higher than at home. But the intensification of labour is greater here, machinery is developing more rapidly, and the worker is an old man in this country when he is still regarded as being in the prime of life at home. The emigrant sacrifices his future for his present for the sake of a few extra dollars.29

New immigrants provided often unskilled workforces for mass production industries that were threatening the skilled craft jobs of longer-standing immigrants or ‘natives’. Immigrant labour was used by the employers to pile pressure onto existing workers to drive down wages and conditions for all, so reinforcing the divisions between ‘natives’, German and Irish ‘old’ immigrants, and new communities of Slavs and Italians. In addition, the fluidity within the working class interrupted the inheritance of class traditions, fragmenting the class generationally as well as ethnically.

The official labour movement did not resist these tendencies. The AFL had become increasingly conservative, representing only skilled white workers, and its leadership considered the new workforce a threat. Hostile to radicalism and to racial unity, it denounced the immigrants as an unorganisable rabble who were stealing the jobs of ‘natives’. Its ideological position reflected the fact that many union locals were exclusive ‘ethnic enclaves’ and many of its craft unions had been built by ‘old’ immigrants now fearing the erosion of their skills in the workplace.30

Working conditions for the new immigrants were appalling. At Lawrence, Massachusetts, for example, textile mills employed 40,000 unskilled workers housed in dangerous, overcrowded tenements; 36 percent of mill workers died before they were 25 from malnutrition, disease and overwork. In mining and steel towns, as John Sayles’s film Matewan portrays, workers were bound hand and foot to the employers, whose companies owned entire towns—workers bought food in company shops, sent their children to company schools, and lived in company camps.

In 1909 the ‘rabble’ workforce rose in rebellion. Sixty thousand women garment workers in New York struck against sweatshop conditions and continual sexual harassment from foremen. Their demonstration became the inspiration for International Women’s Day, and ignited a strike wave which hit almost every section of US industry as the ‘unorganisable’ took on hugely powerful employers. They were often organised by the International Workers of the World (IWW)—revolutionary trade unionists who fought to organise workers across barriers of craft, race and language into ‘one big union’ to build for a general strike and workers’ power—and by members of the Socialist Party which won 6 percent of the vote when Debs stood for president in 1912, electing 1,200 candidates in 340 areas. The party had 323 papers in various languages, 5,000 branches and a subs-paying membership of 120,000.31

In 1912 in Lawrence 25,000 workers from 25 different nationalities, organised in large part by the IWW, struck against wage cuts—a reduction that meant three fewer loaves of bread a week for workers’ families. The ‘Bread and Roses’ strike was a beacon of unity, and a dramatic example of the power of solidarity. For ten weeks workers’ mass pickets were met with repression. They were soaked with fire hoses, arrested and attacked by the state militia, their organisers were victimised and martial law was declared. Despite the privation, the extent of strike relief raised across the country kept the strike solid.

Lawrence was a new kind of strike. The United Textile Workers leader denounced it as ‘anarchistic’ and ‘revolutionary’, but as one reporter described, ‘it was the spirit of the workers that was dangerous. They are always marching and singing. The tired, grey crowds ebbing and flowing perpetually into the mills had waked and opened their mouths to sing’.32

The turning point came when police and militia attacked 150 strikers’ children who were being sent to sympathetic families in other cities. Nationwide protests exposed conditions at Lawrence to the entire country; the strikers’ demands were won and wages raised throughout the textile industry—inspiring battles across the country.33

Strikes became open battles between workers and the state. In Ludlow, Colorado, 9,000 miners walked out on strike in September 1913 in protest at low wages. After nearly seven months of the bitter strike the state militia—operating on the orders of the mine owners, a Rockefeller company—waged war on the strikers and their families, opening fire with machine-guns and killing over 40 people. Two women and 11 children were killed when the militia set their tent on fire.

American entry into the First World War in 1917 broke the rebellions. An avalanche of patriotic propaganda and increased employment in war industries combined with a serious weakness in the working class movement. At the same time as the IWW were organising the mass rebellions of the unskilled, skilled workers represented by the AFL were being squeezed by the new production processes. Work became increasingly fragmented and specialised as the factory system expanded. The basis of craft unionism was being ripped apart, and the fight to defend conditions for a section of the working class became, in the hands of conservative AFL leaders, an attack on much of the rest of the class, resulting in violence between AFL and IWW members.

Those divisions were not insurmountable. AFL rank and file members were capable of being won to a generalised struggle against US capital alongside unskilled workers, but their leadership fought to reinforce the divisions at every turn with anti-Communist propaganda and racism. Despite the strengths of the IWW and the Socialist Party left, both organisations were dominated by syndicalism and sectarianism towards ‘privileged’ workers and did not grasp the opportunity to combine organisation of the unskilled with a defence of the skilled that could have made unity possible. The pre-war strikes left behind little lasting organisation for the masses of unskilled mass-production workers despite their great imagination, courage and spirit.

The red scare

The relative social peace of the war years did not last. In any case, it was a peace forged by collaboration and repression. While a deal between the AFL and Democrat President Woodrow Wilson ensured no strikes in exchange for greater influence for ‘patriotic’ union leaders, the IWW was persecuted, its members beaten and on occasion lynched by vigilantes. By the end of the war its entire leadership was in jail along with many other radicals.

The revolutions in Russia and revolts across Europe had an impact in the US. The immediate post-war years saw strikes and revolt across the country that made ruling class fear of revolution seem real. The press and conservative politicians were hysterically anti-‘Bolshevik’ in their attacks on the IWW and the left, and demanded state suppression of workers’ revolt. While Wilson was at Versailles attempting to contain Bolshevism in Europe, the conservative right and sections of the US ruling class were fighting hard to break the working class movement at home.

In 1919 a strike of shipyard workers in Seattle demanding wage rises after wartime controls became a tremendous citywide general strike of 60,000 workers as 110 local unions struck in solidarity. The city’s mayor launched a concerted attack on the strike—arming police, threatening and encouraging vigilantism which drove workers back after a few days. IWW and Socialist Party headquarters were raided and their leaders arrested. National papers screamed about the threat of revolution in Seattle. The mayor’s victory of ‘Americanism’ over ‘Bolshevism’ was the trigger for a national campaign against ‘reds’. The discovery of alleged bomb plots whipped up fear of anarchist terrorism and striking workers were demonised as anti-American communists.

The September steel strike was the turning point. In 1918 the Chicago stockyards had been successfully unionised through the combined efforts of unions in the local Federation of Labour, winning union rights for 100,000 workers across the industry and providing a powerful lesson in the potential of cross-craft solidarity. The national steel strike took its cue from Chicago and the AFL joined forces with the IWW in a battle for unionisation against Carnegie’s corporation. Previous attempts had been violently suppressed. In Pennsylvania in 1892 seven workers had been killed and thousands blacklisted following action by skilled and unskilled workers and a community uprising against state militia at the Battle of Homestead.

Over 100,000 of the mainly non-English speaking workforce were recruited to the union between the end of 1918 and summer 1919 by organisers including Mother Jones of the IWW. The US Steel Corporation refused, despite Wilson’s urging, to negotiate, and 400,000 workers across 50 towns in ten states walked out of the mills. The reaction was violent and relentless. Meetings were outlawed, groups of more than three people were broken up in the streets, martial law was declared in Gary, Indiana, and company police in Pennsylvania carried out continual raids which resulted in the murders of 26 union organisers and strikers. The steel strike, enormous and resilient for over three months in the face of sustained attack and the climate of anti-communism that demonised foreign workers and radicals, eventually collapsed in defeat in January 1920. It was a massive blow to skilled and unskilled alike.

In the aftermath the ‘red scare’ took on frightening proportions. There was an intimate connection between the needs of American capital and the ideological ‘hold’ of the red scare. Much of the red scare was carefully orchestrated, often portrayed as the spontaneous anger of patriotic American workers enraged by anti-war radicals and strikers. The government set up an anti-radical division of the Bureau of Intelligence under J Edgar Hoover to collect information on individuals and groups, resulting in the imprisonment and deportation of thousands of suspected radicals.

Economic competition between returning soldiers and a wartime workforce swollen by the mass migration of Southern black workers to the North provoked race riots in Chicago and St Louis as ‘frustration and fear combined with racism’.34 The American Legion was founded and recruited a million members by the end of 1920, its mission of upholding Americanism translated into anti-communist propaganda and vigilante violence. The Ku Klux Klan moved north to terrorise black workers and ‘reds’ across the industrial midwest. Reaction cleared the way for a massive employers’ offensive which smashed unions across the country.

The failure of a militant union alternative brought a new rank and file impulse for independent political representation. Eugene Debs captured 1 million votes standing from his prison cell as presidential candidate in 1920—an expression of support for his anti-war stand, and for a political alternative. The impetus for a party that was rooted in working class organisations, with a genuinely reformist platform, came from ‘progressives’ in the union movement (‘progressives’ was a broad term to denote those politicians concerned that industrial progress was dangerously exacerbating social problems) and the conditions of the red scare shaped the attempts to create labour organisation—the Chicago labour paper Majority called for a vote for labour in a 1919 mayoral election to ‘prevent revolution’. Nonetheless the attempt represented working class aspirations for political institutions expressive of their interests.35 There was a sharp division within the AFL between this element and the conservative leadership, which fought to prevent the federation allying itself to the new labour parties. Gompers actively used the red scare atmosphere to generate hostility to the new parties, accusing them of communism, and to frighten away the Wisconsin Progressive Robert LaFollette from standing as the Labour Party candidate. Progressive AFL supporters of the new parties were unwilling to break from the AFL, feared the radical left, and capitulated to Gompers. LaFollette won 5 million votes standing as an independent, but his severing of his link with labour was a political defeat for the working class movement to compound the industrial defeat and reinforce its internal divisions.

Mike Davis regards it as:

difficult to exaggerate the magnitude of American labour’s defeat in the 1919-1924 period. For almost a decade, the corporations were virtually free from the challenge of militant unionism…employers accelerated the attack on worker control within the labour process, the new mass-production technologies advancing side by side with new forms of corporate management and work supervision.36

The war had been a spur to industrial production in the US, and its expansion continued through the 1920s: ‘A whole host of new industries grew up—radio, rayon, chemicals, aviation, refrigeration—the wave of car production that had begun in 1915 really took off, and there was substantial re-equipment of industry on the basis of electrification’.37 Following Henry Ford’s pre-war example of introducing assembly-line production, welfare schemes and the ‘five dollars a day’ wage to raise both productivity and the degree of corporate control over workers’ lives, employers launched the ‘American Plan’. This combined patriotic, anti-radical propaganda with ‘welfare capitalism’—company welfare plans and social activities to instil loyalty in their workforces—backed up by repressive measures like ‘yellow dog’ contracts, which made workers promise never to join a union, and the blacklisting of radicals and trade unionists.38 The combination of boom and a labour movement in retreat saw unionisation plummet from 5 million in 1920 to 3.5 million in 1923, while the richest 1 percent of the population concentrated a staggering 48 percent of the country’s wealth into their hands.39

1930s: depression and hope

US capitalism’s prosperity was dealt a devastating blow in 1929 with thebeginning of the Great Depression. Industrial production fell by 46.2 percent, and three years later was still declining.40 By 1932 one quarter of the workforce was unemployed. Over 300,000 farm workers migrated to the promised land of California as small banks collapsed and farms were repossessed.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the photographs of Dorothea Lange and the music of Woody Guthrie have borne witness to the extraordinary pain and poverty that millions of Americans were thrown into.

The continuation of the slump produced panic within the ruling class. Some sections, including General Electric, Standard Oil and US Steel, began to push for state intervention in the economy, arguing for reforms and government expenditure to solve the crisis. In 1932 after three years of economic meltdown Franklin D Roosevelt was elected on a ‘New Deal’ platform in coalition with those business interests, using government money to prop up banks, buy up and destroy crops to raise prices, and fund work camps for the unemployed. The National Recovery Act (NRA) established cartels to control prices and production.41 Roosevelt’s measures were mild, given the extent of the economic crisis, and their success in stabilising capitalism was limited.

Nonetheless, social security, unemployment relief and Section 7a of the NRA, which gave workers the right to organise and to choose their union representation, are the bedrock of FDR’s reputation. Here, according to liberal nostalgia, were the good old days of the Democratic Party, and it is true that Roosevelt seemed to offer a dramatic change from the profiteering of the 1920s. The implementation of social welfare measures, the deals with organised labour, the abolition of ‘yellow dog’ contracts, his attacks on ‘economic royalists’ among the business class—and theirs on him for implementing ‘socialism’—marked a vocal shift from the rapacious profiteering and employment repression of the 1920s.

However, important as the reforms were, they were above all a plan to save American capitalism, something Roosevelt made clear, calling himself ‘the best friend the profit system ever had’.42 The pro-labour measures in the New Deal came from the need to keep the moderate union leaders on board, so guaranteeing the labour vote, and to appease a combative mass movement. ‘Section 7(a) was a reluctant response to labour pressure,’ Art Preis argues. ‘The same upsurge of protest against conditions that had swept Roosevelt into office was also expressed at the start of 1933 in the biggest strike wave since the early 1920s’.43

The revolts of the 1930s gave vent to mass bitterness—industrial workers were the majority of the working class and a third of the white population, but their lives were stunted by poverty and the tyranny of the production line. In 1934 three cities were rocked by massive strikes of auto workers in Toledo, truckers in Minneapolis and dockers in San Francisco. Workers organised across craft and industry lines, united against the employers and city and federal governments.

The revolts were tremendous demonstrations of workers’ power. In Minneapolis the ‘teamster rebellion’ created a situation of virtual dual power with workers organising the distribution of food and medical supplies and forming their own militia,44 while in Toledo thousands of unemployed workers joined pickets and fought the National Guard. In California, a Republican state which rejected the New Deal, San Francisco dock workers joined forces with migrant Mexican and Filipino workers to challenge the powerful employers and agribusinesses and provide a base for novelist Upton Sinclair’s bid for state governor on an anti-poverty platform.

Decisively, socialists were central to the organisation of each strike—Trotskyists in Minneapolis, members of the Workers’ Party in Toledo and Communists in San Francisco—and their militancy won union recognition and collective bargaining rights. The AFL leadership understood the strikes were a force pushing towards industrial rather than craft unionism and desperately fought such a development, but the lesson that different politics could win was difficult to avoid. John Lewis, the leader of the UMW mine workers’ union, led a split by a section of the leadership to form the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO). The development of industrial unionism with the establishment of the CIO was a great victory for the US working class. But it was a bureaucratic organisation from the beginning. Lewis had a reputation for top-down leadership, and had acted as he did not from radicalism, but because a powerful mass movement had made clear the necessity of a new type of unionism, ‘a movement with dangerous embryonic proclivities towards an anti-Gompersian model of “class struggle unionism”,’45 that he wanted to lead, rather than see it captured by the left. But most of the new unions which joined the CIO had been built from the ground and were much more democratic organisations.46

The years 1936-37 were a high point of rank and file militancy. Victories at Goodyear Tyres, General Electric and RCA came in 1936. Workers at Cleveland’s General Motors plant occupied their factory and sparked a wave of sit-down strikes—factory occupations like the strike at GM’s Flint plant, which won union recognition across the auto industry and made the CIO a mass organisation.

The playwright Arthur Miller visited the Flint occupation as a young journalist and described the scene:

The Fisher plant stretched out along a broad avenue facing the General Motors administration building, where the office help and executives worked. The two buildings were connected by an enclosed overpass…three National Guardsmen…were tending a machine gun…they had fired on three workers taking the air on the roof, wounding one of them. Other soldiers moved around silently, rifles unslung, and a couple of army trucks filled with young troopers blocked both ends of the street. Two overturned police cars lay at odd angles, upended…by a powerful stream of water from firehoses manned by workers who had connected them to hot-water outlets to keep police and soldiers at bay. To prevent invasion through the covered overpass, they had welded it shut with several Chevrolet bodies set vertically on end. This was the third day of the strike. There was a silence broken only by a muffled saxophone from inside the plant, where an improvised jazz group would periodically blow up a few numbers…47

In Detroit 60,000 workers occupied eight Chrysler plants; another 10,000 occupied the Hudson company. There were 477 sit-down strikes in 1937 alone, involving over half a million workers. The struggles built the unions incredibly rapidly. In 1937 the CIO had 1.5 million members while the AFL had 2.5 million; by 1941 both had nearly doubled their membership and nearly one third of the US workforce was unionised.48 Workers’ class consciousness expanded along with their organisational strength. Half the sit-down strikes were over political demands for union recognition, union membership among women trebled, and the CIO grasped that an increasingly interracial workforce made the need to recruit black workers critical to the success of industrial unionism. The strikes and occupations brought a new sense of power, as one contemporary remembers:

As it gained momentum, this movement brought with it new political attitudes—towards the corporations, towards police and troops, towards local, state, national government. Now we’re a movement, many workers asked, why can’t we move on to more and more? Today we’ve forced almighty General Motors to terms by sitting down and defying all the powers at its command; why can’t we go on tomorrow, with our numbers, our solidarity, our determination, to transform city and state, the Washington government itself?49

The upsurge in struggle also led to calls from union militants for a labour party. One poll in 1937 after the sit-down strikes found 21 percent of the population in favour of a national farm-labour party.50

Two factors were decisive in breaking the momentum for independent parties and delivering the union vote to Roosevelt: civil war between the AFL and CIO, and the role of the Communist Party. AFL hostility to the CIO led it into collaboration with employers to keep out the new unions, and to refuse to support any electoral candidate sympathetic to the CIO, which undermined the base and effectiveness of the movements for independent representation.

By the late 1930s the CP had 75,000 members and controlled or had substantial influence in 40 percent of CIO branches and a reputation as a party of committed activists. However, its politics were by now utterly dictated by the requirements of Russian foreign policy. Stalin’s ‘popular front’ strategy after 1935 led Communist parties to seek alliances with the ‘progressive bourgeoisie’. In the US this meant support for the openly capitalist Democratic Party. Within the CIO the CP’s ‘popular frontism’ took the form of increasingly relating to the bureaucracy, using its influence to deflect calls for an independent party, and distancing itself from its rank and file base in the process.

Roosevelt had been re-elected in 1936 on a more openly ‘pro-labour’ platform—a reluctant and temporary but necessary measure to win union votes. His 1932 coalition including ‘progressive’ capitalists had crumbled as many business supporters fled, fearing the militancy that had been unleashed. But the new alliance with labour was one-sided. Roosevelt ignored the pleas of his CIO ‘partners’ while the Democrat governor of Ohio sent in the National Guard against steel union organisers, and in 1938 when steel workers in Democrat Chicago were shot down in the Memorial Day massacre, Roosevelt declared a ‘plague on both houses’ against the victimised
strikers as well as the police and steel goons.51

After the Flint victory Lewis fought hard to impose his will on the new unions’ militants. The bureaucracy’s desire to deal with Roosevelt led it to dampen the strikes, preventing sit-downs at Chrysler and a potential general strike in Detroit. The abandonment of radical tactics contributed to the failure of second attempt to break into the steel industry, which was critical in halting the movement’s momentum. Workers in steel did not occupy and the employers locked them out. At the very moment Roosevelt was exposing the shallowness of his support for workers’ interests, the labour bureaucracy were delivering the containment of radicalism that was their side of the New Deal bargain.

The strikes of the 1930s, however, remain a pinnacle in US working class history. Lasting organisation of workers across industry was created in a few short years and, as journalist Mary Heaton Verse wrote in 1938: ‘Labour has shown in its struggles an inventiveness, intelligence, and power greater than anything before in its long history. Whole communities of workers have been transformed’.52

The contradictions of the long boom

In 1938 US unemployment stood at 19 percent, and 40 percent of industrial capacity was unproductive. The New Deal had not been able to prevent a renewed slump. But massive state and private investment in production for the Second World War soon changed all that. From 1940 onwards US industrial production expanded enormously, and sucked in millions of new workers—the working class grew to 62.9 million in 1943.53 The composition of the working class also changed again as women entered war industries in large numbers and black workers migrated to Northern industry on an unprecedented scale. Along with the expansion of the working class went a near doubling of union membership from 9 million to 15 million.54 Both the CIO and AFL agreed to a wartime no-strike pledge, and wage and price controls, but coal strikes in 1943 and wildcat (unofficial) strikes in 1944-45 challenged wartime measures despite the best efforts of the bureaucracy to persecute militants and gain control.

With the end of the war, an employers’ offensive led to a massive strike wave. Over 3.4 million workers were mobilised in 1945 and 4.6 million in 1946, winning wage rises across auto, steel, electrical, rubber and other industries.55 However, in contrast with a decade earlier, they were overwhelmingly strikes controlled from above by the bureaucracy. The conservative union leadership had increased its influence during the war, with guarantees from employers to allow union membership and growth in exchange for delivering wage restraint. The bureaucracy increasingly made concessions that eroded shopfloor organisation, as in the 1946 contracts with Ford and Chrysler in which the United Auto Workers (UAW) under Walter Reuther gave the employers the right to discipline workers and limit shop-floor representation within a no-strike deal.56 Even the strike at GM that started in 1945—which helped establish ‘pattern bargaining’ where basic industries got the same raise—was, Reuther’s brother Victor explained, ‘designed to take the ball out of the hands of the stewards and committeemen and put it back in the hands of the national leadership’.57

Truman backed the employers’ strikebreaking offensive, and in response militant local leaderships with a renewed base again pushed for an independent party. To rein workers’ radicalisation back behind the Democrats, the CIO had backed the launch of the Political Action Committee (PAC) in 1944 to organise working class voter registration and create the ‘CIO voter’, while in 1946 Truman promised to veto the Taft-Hartley anti-union bill so as to consolidate working class support behind the Democrats—knowing Congress would override him and make sure it came into effect.

The emergence of long term contracts, the Taft-Hartley anti-union law and the anti-Communist crusade interconnected and undermined rank and file strength and radicalism in the context of the longest boom in capitalism’s history.

General Motors initiated the first two-year contract in 1948 and won the principle of tying wages to productivity. The bureaucracy was therefore in a position to ensure workers’ acceptance of speed-ups and new technology, and operated to limit shopfloor resistance to any changes in the interests of not damaging productivity.58 Three years later Lewis—by now back leading the miners’ UMW, replaced at the CIO by Philip Murray—negotiated the first three-year contract in coal. By 1957 one third of all contracts were for three years; by the 1970s the figure was three quarters.59

Strikes during the 1950s became passive affairs, bargaining chips for the union leaders when contracts expired, but with little or no rank and file initiative.60 Shop steward numbers were reduced and, with the increasing moves to centralised bargaining by the leadership, increasingly less control over the work process could be negotiated at a local level and stewards came to resemble a combination of bureaucracy staff and contract enforcers for management.

This strangling of union democracy with the strategy of ‘business unionism’—narrowly concerned with contractual negotiations with individual employers on behalf of a section of workers—did not provoke mass rank and file resistance, largely because it delivered. The US had emerged from the war as the world’s largest economy, producing half of the world’s wealth and, sustained by high levels of arms spending, US capitalism continued to expand for 25 years. In this context, hourly wages nearly doubled in ten years, from $1.07 in 1946 to $1.95 in 1956,61 and increased 250 percent over the 30 years 1945-75.62

Employers could afford to contribute to pension funds, social insurance and medical benefits, and the transformation in workers’ living standards produced by economic security was dramatic. By 1960, 60 percent of Americans owned their own home, production of consumer goods expanded massively and workers could afford to buy refrigerators, televisions and cars, and expand their leisure time.

Meanwhile, anti-union laws and anti-Communism served to weaken militants and the left inside the unions while further bolstering the bureaucracy. Taft-Hartley placed limits on picketing, banned secondary action and imposed ‘cooling-off ’ periods for strikes; the law ‘was designed to moderate and de-radicalise the labour movement’, undercutting ‘the natural militancy and organising techniques that had been so effective in the 1930s’.63 Truman didn’t repeal the law, but used it 12 times in the first year of his term to break strikes, and between 1947 and 1950 began the process of persecuting militants in the unions, with the help of the union leadership.

This task was ideologically legitimised through the anti-Communist crusade embodied by senator Joseph McCarthy. In 1948 Communist Party backing for an independent presidential candidate rather than the Democrats led to red-baiting of those unions which had not kept to the CIO ‘line’ of support for Truman. Between 1949 and 1950 11 unions with a collective membership of 1 million workers were thrown out of the CIO—all but two of them subsequently destroyed by a combination of witch-hunts, victimisation by employers and raids on their membership from anti-Communist unions. Left wing workers were driven from union positions. Radicalism and militancy of all shades—Communist or not—was suppressed in the name of ‘Americanism’. The CIO leadership’s cooperation with anti-Communism was essentially motivated by a fear of damaging its relationship with the Democrats. Conservative politicians in the US, keen to roll back the reforms of the New Deal, launched an ideological campaign of red-baiting and support for American foreign policy in the Cold War, and liberal politicians and the union bureaucracy rushed to prove their patriotism.64 One of the results was the ‘crushing of internal democratic life and political pluralism’ within the CIO unions.65 Business unionism was consolidated with the 1955 merger between the AFL and the CIO, dominated by the AFL under George Meany, who declared, ‘I stand for the profit system; I believe in the profit system. I believe in the free enterprise system completely’.66 The federation had 15 million members, 36 percent of the workforce.

In the boom era the reality of a degree of affluence and stability gave substance to the idea of the ‘American Dream’-that all Americans could share in the economic growth without resort to the conflict between employers and workers. The post-war ‘social compact’ of big business, big labour and big government symbolised this lack of friction, while the ideological polarisation of the Cold War justified the suppression of dissent in the name of democratic values. Many workers accepted the prevailing ideas, as their material circumstances were transformed and class conflict diminished.

One casualty of the tightening grip of business unionism and the desperation of the union leadership to appease Democratic Party politicians was the CIO’s commitment to breaking into the non-union South, where the party was operated as the political wing of the racist, ‘Dixiecrat’, ruling class. Operation Dixie, launched in 1948, had been the federation’s attempt to ‘mobilise the entire labour movement to aid in unionising the South’.67 But it could not broaden and deepen its roots in the South without taking up the issue of black civil rights and therefore challenging the Democratic Party machine. The CIO leaders refused to do this and scrapped Operation Dixie within a year.

The abandonment of the opportunity to overthrow the segregationist ‘Jim Crow’ system doomed Southern black people to a further two decades of racist inequality. It also cut off the white working class movement from the chance of forging lasting solidarity, leaving the South and the West as antiunion strongholds—the South still has the lowest rate of unionisation in the country, around 3 percent. The post-war defeat of Southern labour organisation, and ‘correlatively, the failure of the labour movement to become a civil rights movement’, was the ‘Achilles heel of American unionism’.68

Let freedom ring

The conditions of racism and inequality may have been hidden beneath the image of general prosperity and social peace, but for millions of black Americans they entailed segregation and disenfranchisement in the South, and unofficial segregation in the North with discrimination in housing, the job market and education.

In the 1940s and 1950s black workers moved in massive numbers off the land into growing Southern cities and to the North: 1.26 million moved in the 1940s and 1.17 million in the 1950s.69 There was growing pressure on racist institutions and laws as a result of the changes in the black working class, the mass entry into industry but almost always into the worst, most unskilled jobs, alongside the apparent bounty of the economic boom available to white workers and the ideological language of democracy and the American Dream. Resistance to unequal treatment erupted in the South in the middle of the 1950s and spread throughout the United States in the next decade and a half, in the process changing politically to produce challenges to the state.

Bus boycotts began in 1953 and spread, famously, to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. In 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, black students refused to move from a white-only lunch counter sparking similar protests across the South. Student support groups for black civil rights began to spring up in colleges in the North and among white as well as black students. Those organising ‘freedom rides’ and voter registration drives across the South were met with systematic repression from a particularly savage section of the state. To face down armed police and challenge the endemic racism of local political machines were acts of great courage.

In 1964 during the ‘Freedom Summer’ the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee sent 150 organisers into Mississippi to openly challenge the ‘Dixiecrat’ Democratic Party machine and to build an alternative, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.70 Despite the bravery, that year’s Democratic Party convention gave the Mississippi seat to the white racist delegation, supported by the AFL-CIO, entrenching frustration among black activists with official politics and with the organised labour movement. But expectations were raised among black Americans North and South. 1964 and 1965 saw mass uprisings in the black ghettos of Harlem in New York and Watts in Los Angeles. The ghettos burned as young black men fought the police and targeted racist businesses. In the ‘biggest outburst of working class anger’ since the 1930s,71 the uprisings spread to 13 cities in 1966 and to enormous eruptions in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit in 1967. Detroit was ‘a theatre of war. Whole streets lay ravaged by looting, whole blocks immolated in flames. Federal troops occupied American streets at bayonet point’.72

Meanwhile the military build-up in Vietnam was also igniting anger at US foreign policy. By 1967 there were 470,000 troops in Vietnam, and the initially small protests against it were growing. The war was putting increased pressure on the government of Lyndon Johnson—his antipoverty pledges evaporated while war expenditure mounted, contributing to an escalating political crisis.

1968 took that crisis to new heights. In January the national liberation forces in Vietnam rocked the US occupation in coordinated attacks during the Tet offensive, leading President Johnson to send still more troops into an increasingly unpopular war. At the same time the urban uprisings had transformed black politics, and the openly revolutionary Black Panther Party, which advocated armed self-defence against the police and racists, grew dramatically in the first half of the year, recruiting thousands of members in cities throughout the US and claiming mass support among the black population in the US. Their openly revolutionary statements were influencing wide layers of young people.73 The autumn of 1968 saw one of their leaders, Eldridge Cleaver, leading college meetings against California state governor Ronald Reagan, counterposing the confidence and vivacity of the movement to the conservatism and piety of the establishment, and connecting students with the ideas of black liberation.

Johnson began losing ground to his opponent for the 1968 Democratic nomination for president, Eugene McCarthy, and it became obvious that if he fought for the nomination the Democrats would lose the election. The Democratic Party convention where the selection between Johnson’s favoured successor, Hubert Humphrey, and McCarthy would be made in Chicago was organised by Mayor Daley’s political machine. While liberal opponents of the war set their sights on convincing the party to back McCarthy, Daley sent the police to attack anti-war protesters outside the convention. Ten thousand demonstrators were repeatedly beaten bloody over three days while Daley fought for Humphrey’s nomination on the convention floor. The AFL-CIO leadership refused to back McCarthy, never wavering from support for the war.

The stand of the Democratic Party handed Richard Nixon the election, and millions around the country had seen white students beaten the same way young black men were on the streets of their cities. Two years later the invasion of Cambodia and the killing of four students during a demonstration at Kent State University in Ohio sparked massive occupations and demonstrations across the country. Within the armed forces discontent was also growing and increasingly threatening the ability of the state to fight the war. Sections of the establishment began to push for withdrawal as the social and political crisis spiralled dangerously out of control.

The engagement of the organised working class in the political struggles could have been the tipping point for US capitalism. However, the conditions of the long boom, increasing bureaucratic control of the unions and the resulting atrophy of democratic political culture within them created a significant buffer between the organised white working class and the new movements.

Nonetheless workers did fight. In the decade after 1963 wildcat strikes to resist speed-ups and for higher wages reached a post-war record.74 Price rises in the mid-1960s put pressure on contract negotiations to deliver more for workers. Over a thousand contracts were rejected in 1967 alone. Strikes rose dramatically between 1968 and 1970 in the auto, electrical and copper industries, and in communications, reaching their height in 1970 with an official strike at GM lasting 67 days, a walkout among New York postal workers that spread to 200 cities, and a strike of 40,000 miners in the coalfields in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.75 The following year Nixon introduced a wage freeze and price controls that subdued but did not end the action; a strike at GM’s Lordstown, Ohio plant in 1972 was followed by three wildcat strikes at Chrysler in Detroit in 1973 that ended with thousands of UAW stewards carrying baseball bats ‘escorting’ black workers back to work, beating those who tried to picket.76 The union bureaucracy didn’t want independent rank and file action any more than the employers.

The black civil rights, anti Vietnam war and student movements were a massive challenge to the US ruling class and radicalised a generation. The complacency of the post-war social compact was shattered by armed uprisings, battles between demonstrators and the state, a war that was being lost with soldiers who no longer willingly fought, and unofficial, independent working class action. The reverberations from the movements of the 1960s made it impossible for the US to fight another major war for 30 years. Traditions of subservience were broken and the racism in US society challenged. The control of the union bureaucracy was shaken for the first time since the war.

The impact of those struggles changed the face of the US. The defiant challenge to the status quo spread out to encompass women’s rights, most crucially legalised abortion, and gay demands for equality, and transformed US culture in myriad less political ways that liberated young people from the stifling world of the 1950s. The 1960s continue to haunt the establishment, and the backlash leaders for whom the 1960s represent the root of all current immorality and ‘liberalism’. For a few years there was a mighty and unexpected challenge to the US ruling class, their priorities and ideals, and they still fear its renaissance.

Yet, powerful as they were, the movements were contained, in part because the connections between the upsurge of rank and file anger and the movements were shaped, and weakened, by the conditions of the long boom. White workers were often dismissed by the left as being part of the system, and in truth many white workers did endorse the ruling ideas of patriotism and racism in the absence of economic hardship, struggle or an independent political culture within the unions.

This is not to say that connections were not made. At Lordstown, among the first of GM’s plants to be relocated to a rural area away from the rebellious cities, young white workers with long hair fought the police in what became a symbol of the new generation resisting restructuring. One of the most radical and inspirational elements of the 1960s, the Detroit-based Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), was a revolutionary movement among black auto workers who rejected the Black Panthers’ orientation on ghetto youth in favour of the organised working class. Formed at the Dodge Main plant to oppose speed-ups and racism, by 1968 revolutionary union movements (RUMs) had spread to other plants, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was formed to connect them. Yet the gap between the movements and the working class was not bridged in any systematic fashion. The conservative and reactionary politics of union leaders seemed to be unchallenged within the white working class, and much of the revolutionary left, like the Panthers, looked to other forces, like the mainly young, unemployed ‘brothers on the block’. There was widespread identification with the politics of separatism and Third Worldism, which looked to the struggles of oppressed nations, or sections of the oppressed within the US. Where there was a class orientation, separatism intervened to fragment revolutionary engagement with workers. This was the fate of the Revolutionary Union Movements, which did successfully lead strikes but were ultimately defeated by not attempting to unite black and white workers. By confining themselves to building within half the workforce they undermined solidarity as white workers crossed picket lines.77

The result was that powerful anti-war and black liberation struggles were cut off from the force that could have deepened the challenge to capitalism, and the working class lacked the immersion in the radicalism of the movements that could have rebuilt its rank and file organisation more permanently. In fact, with the end of the post-war boom in the mid-1970s, rank and file organisations were very weak, most not having survived the upsurge in struggle in order to build in harsher times.

The de-escalation of the war in Vietnam brought an end to the anti-war and student movements, and the rank and file of the black movement were physically smashed—more than 30 Black Panthers were murdered by police and over 100 imprisoned. The Nixon government consciously set out to create a layer of black capitalists, while many other leaders of the movements were incorporated into local and state Democratic Party political machines, creating a black middle class to blunt future militancy. Black mayors in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Atlanta were later responsible for union-busting and worse against their mainly black workforces and communities.

Decades of defeat

The recession in 1974-75 was the deepest since the 1930s. Industrial productionfell, the percentage of unproductive manufacturing capacity rose from 17 percent to 35 percent between 1973 and 1975, and unemployment hit 8.5 percent, its highest in decades.78

Industry had begun to migrate to the South and the West during the 1950s and 1960s, away from the traditional industrial belt and away from areas of strong unionisation. Production also increasingly became dispersed within states—as with GM Lordstown—away from cities into previously rural areas with little connection to union traditions. This restructuring accelerated in the 1970s as the economic crisis cost thousands of jobs in the steel, auto, mining and shipbuilding industries. The beginning of serious attacks on the working class came at the end of the 1970s when 85,000 workers were told to make sacrifices to ‘save’ jobs as Democrat Jimmy Carter’s government bailed out the ailing Chrysler corporation. 1980 saw a $1.15 an hour wage cut in a deal which gave UAW president Doug Fraser a seat on Chrysler’s board.79

The huge concession at Chrysler was a signal to employers that the patterns of bargaining that had held throughout the post-war period were over. Industries clamoured to get what Chrysler had, whether they were in crisis or not, knowing the unions would help them sell wage and condition cuts to their workers.

Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 with 43 percent of the union vote, after endorsement by union leaders, continued the neo-liberal business agenda. Reagan’s anti-labour offensive began in 1981 with the smashing of the air traffic controllers’ PATCO union (whose leaders had also endorsed him), appearing on national television to announce the sacking of all 11,500 strikers and jailing their leaders. The pattern of wage cuts and concessions continued, with Ford and GM winning concessions from their workforces worth billions during the 1982 recession. When the economy recovered, the attacks kept coming, in steel, copper mining—after a long and violent strike at Phelps Dodge in Arizona and Texas—and airlines. Wage cuts and ‘give-backs’, including reductions in holidays, cost of living allowances, benefits and pension payments, became standard practice despite increased profitability. The reality of the ‘Reagan revolution’ was that in each year of the 1980s 2 million people lost their jobs while corporate profits rose year on year.80

These attacks were enforced while the AFL-CIO leadership intervened to prevent and isolate resistance. For example, in Minnesota in 1985-86, when meatpackers struck against the Hormel company, every local in the country was instructed not to support the strike, which was isolated and defeated. Campaigns were fought to prevent plant closures and help families of sacked workers in steel towns in Ohio and Pennsylvania, as working class communities were wrecked across the ‘rust belt’ and attacks on ‘welfare cheats’ wore away unemployment benefit.81

Not all strikes were defeated: miners beat the Pittston Coal Corporation in a violent strike conducted with guerrilla tactics in 1989, and in 1997 teamsters at UPS won an important victory, but these successes were unable to kick-start a general breakthrough and strikes like the 70,000 grocery workers in California were defeated. Independent rank and file action was limited by the bureaucracy’s collusion in the cuts and weakened by the absence of rooted organisation; the growing service sector and ‘new economy’ of communications and information were established often in non-union areas like the sun belt, and in the absence of successful struggles did not become unionised.

The pattern of restructuring has continued, as Thomas Frank movingly describes in his discussions of the destruction of meat-packing centres in Kansas City and Chicago by the early 1990s as the big meat firms relocated to rural areas where they could demand wage cuts and state handouts in return for jobs. In February 2006 General Motors and Ford announced 30,000 job losses each and the closure of 23 plants between them.

By 2006 levels of unionisation were lower than at any time since the 1920s. There are 123 million workers in the US, approximately 35 million more than in 1983, around 13 million of whom are unionised. The average union rate of 12.5 percent conceals areas with relatively high unionisation, like the 25.3 percent in New York and 21.7 percent in Michigan, while some, mainly in the South and West, have incredibly low levels like the 2.8 percent and 3.1 percent in North and South Carolina. Private sector unionisation has halved from 16.5 to 7.9 since 1983, though public sector unionisation has proved difficult to break—at 36.4 percent, it is virtually unchanged from 1980.

Millions of workers who are not unionised face lower wages—on average three quarters those of unionised workers—and worse conditions in retail, social care, food production, farming, banking and computing. There are 10 million migrants without papers in the US, many of them working in low-wage jobs in Western and Southern states.82


Despite the picture of devastation for working class communities and the brutal consequences of capitalist restructuring in the US, the pessimism that pervades work like Thomas Frank’s is misplaced.

There is a strong tradition of resistance in the United States. The working class has repeatedly posed a serious threat to the power of its rulers. To underestimate this, or to write workers off as reactionary, is a mistake. Time and again struggles have erupted that are spontaneous and explosive, uncontrolled by existing structures and often creating new, more responsive, organisations as a result. Huge struggles created the first unions in the 1880s, unorganised workers shattered prejudice and their battles forged a new working class in the years before 1914, a local general strike in a revolutionary period shook the country in 1919, the titanic waves of struggle of 1934-36 broke through the dreadful conditions of the 1920s with sudden force, reversing low levels of unionisation, and the movements of the late 1960s burst post-war complacency, took on entrenched racism and transformed the political landscape.

The defeat or deflection of past struggles also contains vital lessons for the rebuilding of class strength in the US when the next confrontations come. The history of tremendous impulse to unity and radicalisation on a mass scale has repeatedly seen those struggles defused and their radicalism incorporated into the Democratic Party. There has also been a tendency for the inexperience or weakness of the left to lead to an over-emphasis on one section of the class at the expense of another, so reinforcing rather than breaking down the internal divisions in the working class.

But most crucially, the history of resistance in the US points to the potential for rapid outbursts of struggle to overcome those same divisions between workers and to build organisations reflective of new forces.

The dramatic changes in US capitalism in the last 30 years have created intense hardship in the lives of US workers, conditions which have made some receptive to right wing ideas in an increasingly polarised global political climate.

Yet part of the impact of neo-liberalism has been to chip away at the consensus politics of the post-war period that bolstered workers’ identification with the system.

Restructuring has resulted in attacks on the mass of white workers as well as black and Latino workers. The majority of white workers are no longer in a position of significant material advantage. This doesn’t mean that racism has disappeared. It is still very much a feature of US society. In 2005 black unemployment was 10.8 percent compared to 4.7 percent for whites, black Americans earn an average three quarters of the white wage, and are five times more likely than whites to be imprisoned and six times more likely to die violently.83 Nonetheless, there are fast growing levels of poverty among whites, up from 8.2 percent in 2004 to 8.6 percent in 2005, and whites are the majority of the poor: 15.9 million whites live in poverty alongside 8.7 million blacks and 9 million Hispanics. Over 21 million white people have no health insurance, along with 7 million black people and 13.2 million Hispanics.84

Wage and benefit cuts and concessions have hit the entire working class and eroded ‘privilege’, and in the process, the disjuncture between the organised working class and sections of the oppressed and new movements no longer has the material roots that existed in the 1960s. This opens up the possibility for big confrontations to overcome divisions—crucially those of race—among US workers.

The Los Angeles riots in 1992 following the videoed beating of Rodney King, a black man, by police that was beamed around the world illustrated some of these changes as well as the dynamism and explosive nature of working class battles as black and Latino youth rebelled against their shared immiseration and the police, while white high school students joined demonstrations in their support.

The birth of the anti-capitalist movement at Seattle in 1999 with its ‘teamster-turtle’ alliance brought the verve and dynamism of the movement and the organised power of 30,000 workers onto the streets together in unprecedented unity against the World Trade Organisation and the impact of neo-liberalism. As one steel worker put it at the time, ‘This WTO is about
jobs. It’s about standards of living falling right the way round the world as trade liberalises. Corporations are writing the rules to maximise profits’.85

The immigrant movement in spring 2006 was another sign of change. Mexican and other Latino workers are a very large and integral part of the US economy and are forming new layers of the ‘unorganised’ who organised enormous demonstrations in Los Angeles, New York, Dallas and other cities in a day of action defying proposed anti-migrant laws. The confidence of the marches and the slogans, ‘We are workers, not criminals’ and ‘Yes, we can!’ indicate awareness of the central economic role they play but also had the flavour of anti-capitalism and the radicalisation in Latin America.

These struggles are not exclusively outside the unionised workforce, as Seattle showed. An illegal three-day strike of 34,000 mainly black and Hispanic transport workers in New York in December 2005 resisted attempts by the transit authority to enforce a divisive pensions deal in a tremendous show of strength and solidarity despite a vicious campaign led by mayor Michael Bloomberg against the union.

Unions which are part of the Change to Win split from the AFLCIO like UNITE HERE, the textiles, hotel and restaurant workers’ union, and SEIU, the service workers’ union, were part of organising and supporting the immigrant day of action, although conservative about the proposed immigrant workers’ boycott for May Day. The split itself, bureaucratic and representative of the desire of sections of the union leadership to increase membership, is a top-down response that nevertheless reflects the changes in the US working class. The movements can have a transformative effect on these unions at the base, but are unlikely—precisely due to the weakness of those structures—to be restrained by them.

Such movements need not remain separate from the non-unionised white working class majority either. The conditions of ‘levelling’ of the working class and collective impoverishment and disenfranchisement are made more volatile by the political crisis facing the Bush government. The war in Iraq is undermining the administration and politicising wide layers of US society. A January poll showed 60 percent of the US population disapproved of Bush’s handling of Iraq and 55 percent believed the war was not worth fighting.86 By April those figures had increased to 65 percent and 57 percent respectively.87 The administration is floundering, deep in scandal and corruption and alienating sections of the establishment, including the military.

In the summer of 2005 Cindy Sheehan’s vigil outside Bush’s Texas ranch brought home how deeply unpopular the war is among the people Bush claimed to speak for. Sheehan’s stand has resonated in the very heartland areas that liberals despair of, and presents an opening for anti-war organisation to sink roots in areas that are economically driven to send their children to die, at a time when Democratic dominance in former strongholds is shrivelling.

That political alienation from the New Democrat elite agenda, combined with the fragmentation of the organised trade unionism that the Democratic Party machine has depended on for decades in key industrial areas, has created a vacuum. As Frank and others have illustrated, the right can fill that vacuum in the absence of struggle, but the contradictory nature of working class consciousness means that it can also be pulled to the left. Many who may be attracted to ‘moral values’ politics in the absence of an alternative can be won to collective struggle when it breaks out and can quickly reject right wing ‘explanations’ for their hardship.

The prospect for rolling back US capitalism and reforming the conditions of the working class and the poor is bleak if it is seen to depend on the Democratic Party. Neither is the project of rebuilding class organisation reliant on the AFL-CIO. Rather the contradictory impact of capitalist restructuring means that the potential exists for future struggles to forge durable links between different sections of workers and movements. It is those struggles that contain the possibility for creating new rank and file organisations and remaking existing unions, connecting the demands of unionised and non-union workers, white, black and immigrant alike, and unleashing new political forces that can challenge the institutions and ideology of US capitalism.


1: Guardian, Thursday 4 November 2004.
2: As above.
3: K Pollit, The Nation, quoted in Tom Mertes, ‘A Republican Proletariat’, in New Left Review 30 (November-December 2004).
4: Published in Britain under the title What’s the matter with America?
5: T Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America(New York, 2004), p10.
6: US Department of Labour website,
7: Real hourly wages (in 2001 dollars) fell from £15.72 in 1973 to $14.15 in 2000. See D Harvey, A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005), p25, citing data from R Pollin, Contours of Descent (Verso, 2003).
8: G Duménil and D Levy, ‘Neo-liberal Income Trends: Wealth, Class and Ownership in the USA’, New Left Review 30 (Nov-Dec 2004).
9: Bureau of Labour Statistics press release, 27 October 2005, available at
10: Bureau of Labour Statistics table: State Union Density 1964-2004, available at
11: AFL-CIO website,
12: Bloomberg, ‘Bush’s Expansion Leaves Workers Behind, Sparking Fed Friction’,
17 January 2006,
13: J Straub, Monthly Review, vol 57, no 8, January 2006.
14: For detailed data on the 2004 elections see the US Bureau of Labour Statistics website:
15: P S Nivola, ‘Thinking About Political Polarisation’, Policy Brief 139 (The Brookings Institution, January 2005)
16: J Neale, What’s Wrong with America? (London, 2004), pp83-84.
17: M Davis, ‘Losing West Virginia’, Socialist Review, December 2004.
18: T Frank, as above, p248.
19: As above, p134.
20: As above, p23.
21: As above, p246.
22: Quoted in P Le Blanc, A Short History of the US Working Class (New York, 1999), p43.
23: K Marx, Capital, student edition, C J Arthur (ed), (Lawrence & Wishart, 1992), p174.
24: P Le Blanc, as above, pp46-47.
25: M Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream (London, 1986), p32.
26: V L Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought, vol 3 (New York,
1930), pp262, 266, quoted in T Frank, as above, pp78-79.
27: M Davis, Prisoners…, as above, p38.
28: P Le Blanc, as above, p51.
29: C Desmond Greaves, The Life and Times of James Connolly (Lawrence & Wishart, 1972), p152.
30: P Le Blanc, as above, p57.
31: As above, pp62-64.
32: Quoted in J Kornbluh, Rebel Voices: an IWW Anthology (Chicago, 1988).
33: See J Kornbluh and, for more on the Lawrence strike and many of the other strikes referred to in this article, see S Yellen, American Labor Struggles 1877-1934 (first published 1936, NY, 1974).
34: P Le Blanc, as above, p71.
35: See A Strouthous, US Labor and Political Action 1918-24 (Macmillan, 1999).
36: M Davis, Prisoners…, as above, p51.
37: C Harman, Explaining the Crisis (London, 1999, first published 1984), p55.
38: P Le Blanc, as above, p78.
39: D Harvey, as above, p16. Source: G Dumenil and D Levy, Capital Resurgent (Harvard University Press, 2004).
40: C Harman, Explaining the Crisis, as above, p55, p62.
41: As above, p64.
42: Quoted in L Selfa, Socialists and the Democratic Party: A Lesser Evil? (International Socialist Organisation, 1988), p6.
43: A Preis, Labor’s Giant Step (Pathfinder Press, 1964), p12.
44: See F Dobbs, Teamster Rebellion (New York, 1972).
45: M Davis, Prisoners…, as above, p57.
46: K Moody, An Injury to All (London, 1988), p30.
47: A Miller, Timebends (London, 1999), p266.
48: P Le Blanc, as above, p91.
49: L DeCaux, Labor Radical, From the Wobblies to the CIO: A Personal History (Boston Beacon Press, 1970) quoted in P Le Blanc, as above, p88.
50: M Davis, Prisoners…, as above, p67.
51: As above, p64; P Le Blanc, as above, p92.
52: Quoted in P Le Blanc, as above, p88.
53: C Harman, Explaining the Crisis, as above, p74.
54: K Moody, as above, p19.
55: P Le Blanc, as above, p96.
56: K Moody, as above, p33.
57: V Reuther, quoted in K Moody, as above, p33.
58: K Moody, as above, p27.
59: As above, p64.
60: As above, pp63, 68.
61: As above, p44.
62: P Le Blanc, as above, p108.
63: As above, p98.
64: As above, p100.
65: K Moody, as above, p33.
66: G Meany quoted in P Le Blanc, as above, p105.
67: P Le Blanc, as above, p96.
68: M Davis, Prisoners…, as above, p137.
69: C Harman, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After(Bookmarks, 1988), p24.
70: As above, p30.
71: K Moody, as above, p80.
72: J Boskin, Urban Racial Violence(Los Angeles, 1969), p126, quoted in C Harman, The Fire Last Time, as above, p64.
73: C Harman, The Fire Last Time, as above, p79.
74: M Davis, Prisoners…, as above, p126.
75: K Moody, as above, p86.
76: As above, p92.
77: For an excellent account of DRUM, see D Georgakas and M Surkin, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying (Redwords, 1999).
78: K Moody, as above, p64.
79: As above, p138.
80: P Le Blanc, as above, p122.
81: As above, p120.
82: J S Passel, ‘Estimates of the Size and Characteristics of the Undocumented Population’, Pew Hispanic Center Report, 21 March 2005, available at
83: US Dept of Justice,
85: Guardian, 1 December 1999.
86: ABC News/ Washington Postpoll, 23-26 Jan 2006,
87: USA Today/Gallup poll, 7-9 April 2006,