From Wal-Mart, to Burger King, to Guitar Center, workers from historically under represented sectors have been organizing and achieving early victories. While once powerful unions are fighting a slow, losing battle, we see glimmers of hope popping up from workers with little to no formal political power.
However, there is a dangerous possibility that those of us with “white collar” career paths and higher education might think that these struggles have nothing to do with us. For those of you with salaries, advanced degrees, or “white collar” career paths, you might think this has nothing to do with you. For the relatively comfortable, it may seem tempting to sit the upcoming struggles out, assume the jobs will come back, and weather the economic storm until recovery.
In every jobs report, we see cosmetic signs of promise. We are told that unemployment is gradually going down, yet the over half of jobs created last month were in retail and service. These jobs are largely part-time and low wage. Moreover, the real unemployment rate, accounting for discouraged workers who are not counted in the official statistics, is estimated to be as high as 14%. But even if you manage to snag a salaried job with benefits, things aren’t looking too rosy. It’s a terrifying market, and many of us are desperate to hold onto our jobs, even if it means accepting pay cuts, increased workloads, and countless dreams deferred. Today, even a college education and middle class background doesn’t protect us from worsening conditions.
Yet, there is increasing resistance coming from “invisible” communities, and the most powerless workers among us are taking the biggest risks to push back against the inaction of both government and the private sector. Many of you have heard about fast food workers striking across the nation, demanding a living wage and the right to organize. As the movement grows and achieves early success, it faces the same criticisms and attacks of generations past:
“Why should they get paid as much as I do when they’re flippin’ burgers?” “If they want a better job, why don’t they go to college?” “It’s a job, not a career.”
These criticisms are levied under the assumption that service industry work is for the uneducated, less motivated, unskilled. For the sake of argument, let us set aside the classist, sometimes racist, implication of such criticisms. This is the same rhetoric used against industrial workers in the 19th & early 20th centuries. And yet, by the mid 20th century, factory workers enjoyed benefits and wages high enough to purchase homes, and provide for their family. How did industrial work go from wage slavery to the American dream?
Oh! isn’t it a pity, such a pretty girl as I
Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die? – Factory Girl Poem, 1836
History shows us that the earliest rumblings of social change often emerge from the most powerless, sometimes invisible members of our society. A century before the New Deal era, young women known as “Factory” or “Mill Girls” were organizing in New England. These young women, some as young as 16, were seen as unskilled, temporary laborers who could be paid as little as possible. After a 15% pay reduction in 1834, they led their first “turn-out”. This first strike failed, but led to greater organization and larger future strikes.
By the 1840’s, these women were writing and publishing their own newspapers and literary magazines. A decade before educated, wealthy women would launch the suffragist movement at Seneca Falls, working class women were creating their own institutions and formulating radical visions for the way labor ought to be organized.
Many of the workers who would organize in the coming decades came from other powerless groups, primarily immigrants from Europe. Unions such as The Knights of Labor included both whites and blacks during the peak of their organization.
The workers of the mid-19th century working class movement were not reading Marx. By the time Marxism and Anarchism reached American shores towards the end of the century, strikes and clashes with security forces had become a regular occurrence. The intellectual elite were taking notice. Speaking of the railroad strikes of the 1870’s, Howard Zinn wrote:
The railroad strikes were making news in Europe. Marx wrote Engels: “What do you think of the workers of the Unites States? This first explosion against the associated oligarchy of capital which has occurred since the civil war will naturally again be suppressed, but can very well form the point of origin of an earnest workers’ party…” (pg. 250, A People’s History of the United States)
As we entered the early 20th century, educated men and women of conscience such as Mark Twain and Helen Keller lent their support to working class political movements. Yet, this was an organic political awakening born in the factories, not in the Universities or intellectual circles. This is not to say that intellectual radicals were not important in the working class struggles of the early 20th century, but the later accomplishments of the New Deal democrats were built on the backs of rank-and-file workers with little to no formal education.
Workers formed and allied with increasingly politically powerful workers organizations such as the Congress of Industrial Organizations, The Socialist Party, and yes, even the dreaded Communist Party. Our history books often give credit to Franklin Delano Roosevelt for saving capitalism and creating the New Deal programs that kept America afloat until WWII and the surge of affluence in the 1950’s. But the New Deal could not have been possible if not for the working class coalition of Unions, socialists, liberals, and communists:
The Roosevelt reforms went far beyond previous legislation. They had to meet two pressing needs: to reorganize capitalism in such a way to overcome the crisis and stabilize the system; also, to head off the alarming growth of spontaneous rebellion in the early years of the Roosevelt administration-organization of tenants and the unemployed, movements of self-help, general strikes in several cities. (Zinn, pg. 392)
You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man. – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Now, the warehouse, fast food, and retail industries are not nearly as voiceless or powerless as many of the workers of the history we’ve just gone over. But today, one can’t think of a group of people more invisible and powerless than the undocumented.
Among the forbearers of the “Alt-labor” movement, as coined by Josh Eidelson, is The Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The majority of workers who form CIW are undocumented immigrants. These workers endure treatment reminiscent of the 18th century, enduring beatings, threats of violence, and wage-theft They are unable to rely on law enforcement for protection due to fear of deportation, and thus become invisible.
And yet, the most powerless of workers are now winning victories against some of the nation’s most powerful corporations, despite their lack of legal recognition as a union. In a piece for The American Prospect, Eidelson writes:
But workers’ groups have some advantages that unions lack. Labor law restricts unionized workers from picketing companies that aren’t their direct employers; groups like the Florida farm laborers in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), however, are free to organize national boycotts of chains like Taco Bell that buy produce from the agricultural companies that employ the workers. In 2010, after more than a decade of boycotts and legal wrangling, CIW finalized a landmark agreement with local tomato growers and buyers to pay the pickers a higher rate for the fruit they harvest. Last October, another major chain, Chipotle, agreed to a settlement in order to stave off a potential boycott.
The CIW teaches us another lesson. To paraphrase Vaclav Havel, they found their power in their powerlessness. Lacking legal protections and formal recognition as a union, they are free to engage in new tactics and adapt to conditions of the present and future. Like the Factory Girls of Lowell, their militancy comes not from the state, the law, or the University. Rather, their power comes from everyday experiences, solidarity, and fearlessness. Those of us who enjoy power and privilege must support them, for our own sake.
The eight-hour workday, social security, collective bargaining, these are just a few of the fruits of the labor of generations past that we enjoy today. The middle class was created by the achievements of the labor movement in the 1930’s. But before the labor movement achieved such political power, it started as a scattered garden of seedlings all across the country. These seeds were sown by women, blacks, immigrants, and poor, native whites.
In many ways, we are starting from scratch, and history has a frustrating habit of moving slowly. However, while the movement of people, resources, and information once took weeks, even months, we are now able to communicate in real time, and travel nearly as fast. In this context, solidarity is contagious. As we receive reports of upcoming “massive” escalation of activity and expansion of the fast food workers movement, we must prepare to support these efforts.
How many of us sit in cubicles, overworked and underpaid, dreaming of a better life and secure future, but do nothing? The seeds of true working class political power are sown by the powerless. So rather than scoff at the low-wage workers of today, we ought to imagine the possibilities that these movements present for the future our children and grandchildren will inherit.