Getting to Full Employment continued…
George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Fortunately, our class has a collective memory more durable than any individual’s, in fact spanning centuries. It is embodied not only in published format but also in our organizations, traditions, culture.
But like an individual subjected to trauma, a class can also suffer temporary amnesia and identity loss. Even though the working class is the big majority, and “without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn,” repeated blows over the last couple of generations have blurred class awareness and diminished struggle. Recovery has been impaired by a great deal of alt-history forged by alternative facts. A good dose of the real thing can be therapeutic.
That’s why, despite my lack of credentials beyond graduating from Ruskin High School, I devote so much space in these weekly missives trying to view the present in historical context. I hope you will stay with me as even this continuation fails to complete the objective promised in the last one.
I closed the lead section of the last WIR, “I’ve tried to explain the obstacles to genuine full employment and a resulting improvement in wages. It is not a pretty picture because the system itself is inherently ugly. But I wouldn’t be writing such stuff—and you probably wouldn’t be reading this—if we thought the situation is hopeless. In the next WIR, I’ll offer some suggestions about–what is to be done?”
It since occurred to me that I was making a perhaps unwarranted assumption that the benefit of full employment is self-evident. I remembered that Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue wrote a small book entitled The Right to be Lazy. When Les Leopold wrote his excellent biography of Tony Mazzocchi he chose the title The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor. And the idea of a guaranteed basic income to all as an alternative to wages is again trending.
But these are not really as dismissive of full employment as they are supportive of work to live versus live to work. Lafargue didn’t disagree with his father-in-law’s ultimate goal of a classless society where work and reward is governed by “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”
Mazzocchi dedicated his life to improving the conditions of the work he hated while toiling on the shop floor by fighting for reforms for workplace safety and health, shorter work weeks, longer vacations, earlier retirements—and a working class labor party needed to win such objectives.
Shorter hours to share available work, and get more time to do “what we will,” has long been a principal objective of organized workers. At the depth of the Great Depression in 1933, the U.S. Senate passed the Black-Connery bill for a standard work week of 30 hours with substantial penalties for overtime. It was strongly endorsed by the American Federation of Labor–and initially President Roosevelt. But FDR soon caved in to pressure from the National Association of Manufacturers and the bill died in the House.
Five years later, during the turbulent rise of the CIO, the Fair Labor Standards Act finally secured the goal pursued since the Haymarket battle in Chicago in 1886–a 40 hour standard work week. Despite exponential increases in worker productivity, it has remained unchanged for nearly eighty years. The only current amendment being offered by Republicans would allow the bosses to substitute compensatory time off—at their discretion—instead of paying time-and-a-half rate for hours over forty.
In 1978, I participated in a Detroit gathering of more than 700 local union officers in several industrial unions that launched an All Unions Campaign for a Shorter Work Week. At that time I was president of the 2400-member UE Local 1139 in Minneapolis—an amalgamated local since virtually wiped out by plant closings, including my own. But in those days stretches of compulsory overtime between and even during layoffs was a major issue.
The impressive Detroit conference took place as Social Democratic parties in Europe were beginning to enact shorter work weeks of 35 hours, and in some countries also increased vacations, retirement at age 60, and paid parental leaves for all workers as well. John Conyers, a Detroit Democrat with ties to the UAW, had introduced a bill in the House that would, in two stages, reduce the legal standard work week to 35 hours. After giving Conyers a standing ovation, the conference unanimously endorsed this reform that potentially could have expanded job openings by 12.5 percent.
But while many Democrats style themselves as “friends of labor,” and some, like Conyers, may even believe they are our allies, their party is dominated by bosses and bankers–not worker institutions. This is known and accepted by most mainstream union officials. Accounts in both the New York Times and Washington Post noted the “practical” AFL-CIO top leadership took no position one way or another on the Conyers bill—that never made it out of committee. Efforts on the state level did no better.
The more visionary Detroit conference came as a combined employer-government offensive forced the working class in to bitter defensive battles. During the double-digit inflation that became rampant, labor “friend” Jimmy Carter tried to impose a 7 percent cap on raises—patriotically supported by most bosses. There was a wave of strikes and some companies hired strike-breakers. The United Mine Workers shut down most coal production for 110 days, defying a Taft-Hartley injunction ordering them back to work. But while winning higher wages the miners had to accept other major concessions.
In 1980, many workers angry with Carter voted for Reagan and a few unions actually backed him as well. One of those was the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) who had made no progress in negotiating with the Carter administration. But when PATCO went out on an “illegal” strike in 1981, Reagan fired the lot of them.
The AFL-CIO huffed and puffed and even called a Solidarity Day march in Washington. Much to their surprise, hundreds of thousands turned out. It happened to come at the end of the week of a UE national convention in Pittsburgh and I joined hundreds of other delegates who stayed over to ride chartered buses to DC.
But solidarity was undermined as the airline unions had continued to work during the strike and proposals by Tony Mazzocchi and others to lead the Solidarity Day marchers to National Airport to shut it down were rejected. PATCO’s ultimate destruction was used by the timid top bureaucracy as justification to pursue concessionary bargaining, avoiding strikes if at all possible. Even once militant CIO unions, such as the UAW, began openly embracing “partnership” with their employers.
Reagan and Bush I facilitated early moves of U.S. plants—including some UAW “partners”–to the Maquiladora zone on the Mexican side of the border. That trickle turned in to a flood when Bill Clinton cajoled and threatened enough in his own party to join the GOP in approving NAFTA—a landmark in what became known as Globalization.
Once again the bosses got the mine while we got the shaft—and it didn’t seem to matter much whether it came from the evil Bush or the lesser evil Clinton. Even hard won gains through collective bargaining could be reversed by the political duopoly of capital.
At the 1978 UE convention in Minneapolis I introduced a resolution from Local 1139 calling for the formation of an independent labor party. After some enthusiastic support during the discussion it was approved by acclimation. At that time most of us would have been pleased by even a mild-mannered formation such as the Canadian NDP as a start.
But in the outrage against NAFTA an alternative closer to the labor party vision of the great Eugene V Debs seemed possible. After a few years of probing and preparation through Labor Party Advocates, a Labor Party Founding Convention was held in Cleveland in June, 1996. It was attended by 1400 activists representing national and local affiliated unions and community chapters open to all who agreed with the perspective of building a new working class party.
Called to order by honorary “Founding Brother” Tony Mazzocchi, the convention debated a comprehensive draft program submitted by the precursor LPA. Entitled A Call for Economic Justice, it was certainly not an explicitly socialist agenda. Socialist Bernie Sanders wasn’t a bit interested. But those of us who were socialists identifying with the tradition of Debs thought it was just what the doctor ordered. In anticipation of a union conference considering the labor party question in 1924 Debs wrote what he would like to see,
“…a party with a backbone and the courage to stand up without apology and proclaim itself a Labor Party, clean, confident of its own inherent powers, bearing proudly the union label in token of its fundamental conquering principle of industrial and political solidarity…”
and went on to say,
“If a genuine labor party is organized at Chicago I shall not expect the platform to go the limit of radical demands but shall be satisfied with a reasonable statement of labor’s rights and interests as well as its duties and responsibilities, doubting not that with the progress of the party its platform will in due time embrace every essential feature of the working class program for deliverance from industrial servitude.”
The program adopted in Cleveland was more than a “reasonable statement of labor’s rights and interests.” The new party itself however, after a promising start did not survive to become a “genuine labor party” as defined by Debs. The reasons for its demise and the prospects for revival have been discussed by many and a selection of these views, including mine, are available on the Labor Party Advocates page of this website.
I promise to really complete this thread on Full Employment in the next WIR by showing how implementation of an updated and expanded version of the Labor Party program can lead to good jobs for all—and a whole lot more.
That’s all for this week.
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