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May Day reading: An Injury to All

An excerpt from Kim Moody's introduction to his classic book An Injury to All, which exposes the roots of modern “business unionism” and the causes of its decline.

Kim Moody29 April 2022

May Day reading: An Injury to All

Originally published in 1988, Kim Moody's An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism is a comprehensive history of the labor movement from Truman to Reagan. Kim Moody shows how the AFL-CIO’s conservative ideology of “business unionism” effectively disarmed unions in the face of a domestic right turn and an epochal shift to globalized production. Eschewing alliances with new social forces in favor of its old Cold War liaisons and illusory compacts with big business, the AFL-CIO under George Meany and Lane Kirkland was forced to surrender many of its post-war gains. Still essential reading, An Injury to All is key for understanding how the labor movement has arrived where is it today–and for mapping the way forward.

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In November 1986, as part of the celebration of the centenary of the founding of the American Federation of Labor, the Smithsonian Institution sponsored a two-day conference on work, technology and culture in industrial America. The discussion among a group of noted labor scholars centered primarily on the conflict between the values of collectivism and individualism in American culture and in the US labor movement. Historian Alice Kessler-Harris noted that ‘two competing ideas have run through the labor movement, as they have run through the American past. The first is the notion of community – the sense that liberty is nurtured in an informal political environment where the voluntary and collective enterprise of people with common interests contributes to the solution of problems.’

Kessler-Harris cited town meetings and movements for social change as examples of collectivist activity in US history, arguing that ‘the collective impulse lends itself to egalitarian values in that all citizens are deemed equal in their capacity to participate in democratic decision making processes.’

On the other hand, American culture and history have also been characterized by a strong belief in individualism. In this discussion, individualism is used in a specific way. It does not mean the dignity of the individual per se, any more than collectivism means some Orwellian barracks society. Kessler-Harris described American individualism in its specific historical form:

The second idea is that of individualism – a belief in the hard work and ingenuity characteristic of our Puritan forebears and of legendary frontiersmen and women; and faith in the capacity of people to rise by their own wills to the highest vistas of the American dream. Embodied in the notion of “free labor”, the ideal assured the dignity of honest toil and posited that its results would be economic success.

Perhaps the most obvious feature of the notion that honest toil assures economic success is its utter falsehood. American economic history, like that of all nations, demonstrates that wealth has not gone to the producers, but to the drones, the liars, and the ruthless. From the Robber Barons of the late nineteenth century to today’s ‘inside traders’, the fruits of society have accrued to those who already hold wealth and power or to those unscrupulous enough to take it. Even the apparently honest businessman accumulates wealth through the exploitation of the labor of others. Acting as an individual, the honest worker typically gets what the employer is willing to give, which sustains a life-style considerably below the ‘highest vistas of the American dream’.

For this reason, workers have always turned toward collective forms of action to increase the rewards of labor, and unions have been the major expression of working-class collectivism in American history. The history of such collective activity goes back to colonial days, but the birth of unionism as a mass phenomenon dates from the rise of a full-blown industrial capitalism in the aftermath of the Civil War. From that day to this, there has not been a decade in which workers did not strive to organize, expand, or defend trade unions. The forms of these unions changed as the shape of industry and the economy changed, but the impulse toward collective activity, mutual aid, and solidarity has been as much a part of the American landscape as the possessive individualism of the employers they confronted.

There is not much doubt, however, that throughout US history this conception of individualism has dominated official ideology and has thus long informed the thinking of workers and trade unionists as well as that of employers and entrepreneurs. Indeed, as Kessler-Harris also pointed out, the AFL was founded in 1886 largely with the view that the sole purpose of collective action was the advancement of the individual worker. This individualism reflected the consciousness of the skilled craft workers who composed the unions of the early AFL. The resort to mutual action was a necessary response to the collectivization of work itself that occurred with the rise of industrialism. But beyond the advancement of the individual members that composed the union, labor, in this view, had no broader responsibilities to the working class as a whole. They called themselves ‘pure and simple unionists and, in effect, invented business unionism – a unionism that sees members primarily as consumers and limits itself to negotiating the price of labor. This individualist approach to raising the price of labor expressed itself through attempts to limit the labor market to the skilled members of the various craft unions – resulting in exclusion rather than comprehensive organization in the new industries.

In contrast, the Knights of Labor, from whom the AFL’s initial affiliates withdrew, attempted to organize all workers and saw unionism as a means of raising the well-being of the individual worker by elevating the condition of all ‘toilers’. They did not counterpose individuality to the collective mass but saw that the fate of the individual was tied to that of all workers. Kessler-Harris described their view this way: ‘In practice, protecting the dignity of the individual required what has come to be known as social unionism: collective activity in the community, the workplace, and above all in the political arena.’

While the Knights failed to adapt their own collectivism in organizational modes adequate to combat the rising national corporate giants of the era, or to square their collectivist ideas with a modern understanding of social classes in capitalist society, their all-inclusive approach to organization and their embryonic social unionism foreshadowed the rise of the CIO half a century later.

The vast social movement that created the CIO and organized basic industry in the US has been the greatest achievement of the American working class to date. In a matter of a few years, what appeared to be a fragmented mass of individual workers paid at rates and worked at speeds imposed by the employers transformed themselves into an organized force that changed the economic and political fabric of society. Even before they formed unions, of course, the innate collectivism imposed on these workers by the conditions of modern industry expressed itself on the job through informal group actions. But these could not fundamentally alter the balance of forces that allowed employers to determine the living standards of the entire working class. That achievement required massive, all-inclusive organization: industrial unionism.

Like the Knights, the inclusive character of modern industrial unionism bred an egalitarianism that led it into the political arena and into alliances – albeit tentative in practice – with other oppressed groups in society. The CIO espoused a modern version of social unionism, in which organized labor was envisioned as a force that would lead to the raising of the living standards of an entire nation. This social unionism was half-formed and often contradictory, but it pointed to an egalitarian future for all that won the CIO respect far beyond its own membership.

The embryonic social unionism of the early CIO unions represented the only ideological expression of the democratic, collectivist thrust of the new industrial unions. In the US, unions remained the only form of working-class organization. Independent working-class parties did not take root in the culture of the American working class. Perhaps because of this, the inherent collectivist instincts of the working class rarely expressed themselves in socialist ideas. The egalitarianism of industrial unionism and the broader vision of social unionism were thus the only real potential springboards toward the development of an aggressive, class-based movement in post-World War Two America. But both the practical promise of egalitarianism and the ideological potential of social unionism were cut down in their youth.

[An Injury to All] is about the demise of the labor movement that was born in the 1930s and 1940s. Labor’s decline as a force in US society is, by now, universally recognized, but it is seldom acknowledged that the roots of this contemporary decline lie in the struggles of that era and in the decisions and directions taken by the new industrial unions in their infancy – in the abandonment of the early social unionism of the CIO in favor of a modern version of business unionism.

Viewed from another perspective, the decline of unionism was rooted in a shift from a collectivist, egalitarian ethic to an individualist one. This change involved more than a style of unionism or of union leadership; it involved a historic change in the way working people in the US viewed themselves. A development as massive as the CIO upheaval of the 1930s is inconceivable without a certain measure of class consciousness, and it seems clear that for a brief moment in history the US working class, in its majority, thought of itself as just that – a working class.

The concept of social class, used in this manner, does not refer to income levels, educational attainments, or other static measures of social stratification. A social class in this sense is a social force acting in relationship to other social forces. In the case of the working class, it acts primarily in relationship to the capitalist class which employs the active workers in its ranks. Indeed, the working class is defined by its relationship to, dependence on, and opposition to the capitalist class. This relationship begins in the workplace at ‘the point of production’, but it extends throughout society, influencing politics, culture, and the quality of life in general.

Unions are a product of this social relationship. They appear everywhere the capitalist social order exists and are eliminated only by means of enormous repression or when they are unable to adjust to changes in the structure of capitalism itself. That was the fate of the Knights of Labor and other early union movements; that is the threat facing labor today. The changing structure of the economy and of work has disoriented labor in the past and is doing so today. But because the system itself tends to move workers toward self-organization, new labor movements typically spring up to replace failed ones.

This resilience on the part of the working class is sometimes cited as a reason for complacency about the current decline of labor. AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, for example, in an essay entitled ‘It Has All Been Said Before…’, reminds us that just as the Horse Collar Makers disappeared, so the United Auto Workers arose ‘to meet new circumstances and needs.’3 By implication, everything is under control and only hopeless nay-sayers bother droning on about the decline of organized labor.

The problem with this kind of smug retrospection is that a number of decades elapsed between the demise of the unions whose members catered to the horse-and-buggy trade and the organization of the mass-production automobile industry. A generation or two of industrial workers suffered indignity on the job and poverty at home because unionism could not adjust to the changes in work and business organization that capital wrought in a relatively short period of time. And it was difficult for labor to comprehend the changes that took place in the US economy, in part because of the very narrowness fostered by craft and business unionism in the late nineteenth century. The price in human terms was high.

There is a crude determinism in the view that unions simply come and go. This view sees unions solely as products of the organization of capital: capital acts, labor reacts. But social reality is far more subtle and complex. The very changes in business organization or the structure of work that threaten the existence of unions are themselves often a response to labor’s organization. The captains of industry of the late nineteenth century responded not only to objective changes in the technology of transportation and production, but in addition shaped them in response to labor’s own self-activity. The works of writers such as Harry Braverman and David Montgomery attest to this process in great detail. The social relationship between capital and labor is a two-way street that involves constant interaction. Even allowing for lags in awareness on the part of labor, the inevitability that unions based solely on disappearing industries or occupations will themselves disappear like the Horse Collar Workers, the view that unions simply come and go, tells us very little about contemporary social reality or about the consequences of economic restructuring.

The direction of labor organization has never been a simple or inevitable one. Each change that has challenged labor has brought with it fierce debates within the labor movement about direction: craft unionism versus industrial unionism; business unionism versus social unionism; pressure politics versus independent class politics. The conditions imposed by capital at any moment, along with the broader economic and social context in which labor organizes, weigh heavily on the outcome of such debates, but there is no single, predictable outcome, nor is there anything inevitable about the decline of organized labor if it is understood in terms of social classes in conflict.

Some unions decline or disappear because of changes in the labor force, but the working class is not the same thing as the labor force. This is a common confusion in today’s discussions of the crisis of the labor movement, and I will return to it at the conclusion of this book. For now, it is sufficient to note that while the part of the working class that is active in the labor market may change occupations, switch from declining industries to growing ones, or experience massive unemployment, the class continues to exist by virtue of its relationship to capital: it must sell its ability to perform labor in order to live. Since unions spring from this relationship and not from the particular nature of the work performed or the products produced, they can as well be organized in one industry as another. But this will not happen simply because time marches on. Different occupations and industries present different obstacles to organization. The workers and their leaders must analyze their situation and act on that understanding. Their organizations will have more or less durability and impact according to the accuracy of that analysis.

For some time now, capital has been responding to a variety of pressures, including unionism itself, in a more flexible manner than labor. Capital seeks to invest where it will get the greatest return and to organize the labor it employs in any investment to its greatest advantage. In pursuing this course, capital has proved highly mobile and organizationally experimental. Organized labor in the US has proved far less adaptable. Unions are not declining simply because of changes in the industrial landscape, they are declining as a proportion within all industries. There is no shortage of workers who toil under the regime of capital and who do so for increasingly smaller rewards, but the unions have lost sight of how to organize them.

Unfortunately, much of the literature available on the subject encourages the belief that the problem of declining unionism is simply one of changing occupations and shifts among industrial sectors. Ultimately, these definitions of the decline of the working-class organizations are based on the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ definitions of industry by product. Because many of the products of the growing sectors of the US economy are services rather than physical objects, some analysts have wondered whether those employed in them are really part of the working class at all.

In terms of the products produced by labor, the only social fact that is decisive is that labor produces commodities for the market. For some, the concept of the workers’ collective product as a commodity sold on the market has been reduced only to objects that can be possessed and used over time – perhaps because that is the way Karl Marx and other economists of the nineteenth century usually discussed the labor process. Yet we know that most ‘services’ are organized on a capitalist/corporate basis, are produced by collective labor for the profit of the firm, and are sold on the market like so many shoes or pieces of cloth. Indeed, a growing number of commodities embody characteristics of both goods and services. Modern communications, for example, involves the purchase of traditional goods (computers, telephones, data transmitters and receivers), energy and transmission sources (electricity, microwaves, satellites), and services – often provided by the same firm. Without the collective labor of the workers in such an industry, the ‘service’ and the goods themselves are useless. In this case, we have bought a final commodity that is an inseparable melange of goods and services as defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The commodity is no less a commodity for all the different types of labor that compose it; the workers are no less workers for the heterogeneous character of their collective product; and the capitalist who reaps the profits from the entire process is no less a capitalist because the total product cannot be held in one’s hand or stored in a warehouse. All of this is to say that the changes that have occurred within the developed capitalist economies have not altered the fundamental condition of labor, which must still sell its capacity to work to an employer and must still work as part of a collective effort organized by capital, largely on the terms set by capital.

The growth of the service sector is not a result of deindustrialization, but a function of the continued growth of goods-producing industries on a global scale. The locus of manufacturing will continue to change, more or less unpredictably, according to the economic and political situation in different parts of the world. US capital will flow to Brazil, South Africa, Mexico or Korea only as long as labor costs and political stability provide an above average rate of return on investment. Japanese capital, also faced with rising labor costs, has already turned toward industrial investment in Korea and even in the US. The rise of a new, militant trade union movement in South Korea could, in turn, make it less attractive as a focus of international investment. But within a given nation, the continued expansion or even the stability of much of the service sector depends heavily on manufacturing – domestic and foreign. Even in the US economy, manufacturing continues to provide a major source of national income. Thus, though goods-producing employment in the United States dropped from 36.1% of the labor force in 1965 to 25.6% in 1985, the proportion of the gross national product derived from the production of goods (measured in constant dollars) only dipped from 57.3% to 54.1% in the same years.

We are seeing vast changes in the structure of the US and world economies, these changes are reflected in the structure of both the labor force and the working class as a whole. We are not seeing the disappearance of the working class. If anything, the proportion of the population dependent on wage labor has increased, and as a result the most conscious workers will continue to seek ways to organize to better their lives. The success or failure of such efforts will depend in part on what those participating in them see as the problem and what they see as proper responses. Thus, the competing ideas that currently flow through the debates about the nature of the problems facing the unions and the directions to be taken to deal with them are of enormous importance to working-class people and all those who see the working class as a potential source of progressive social change.

The working class remains the central agency of progressive political and social change. The concept of a social class as an ‘agency’ of change is, of course, rooted in the broader Marxist conception of how history is made – largely through the active intervention of people organized consciously along class lines. In this view, working-class self-activity and self-organization are both the means for changing society and the means of preparation through which working-class people learn to take on ever greater and more difficult historical tasks. A clear statement of the relationship between genuine class-oriented social unionism and the grander notion that working-class people can democratically control the process of production and even society as a whole appeared in the newspaper of FOSATU, the forerunner of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the militant labor movement of Black South African workers that has taken center-stage in that people’s struggle for freedom:

The gains made by trade unions have been many. But more impressive than these gains has been the formation of an organization directed and controlled by the workers themselves. Workers are gaining experience in decision making in their trade unions. They are able to have some control over their own lives. Such an organization opposes the strict authority of the capitalist bosses and trains workers for the role they will play in a future society. In South Africa trade unions have become schools for workers democracy.

With rare exceptions, American unions cannot claim to have been schools of workers’ democracy for decades. They are bureaucratic institutions that deny rank-and-file participation in decision-making and that have abandoned the fight against the authority of the capitalist boss both on and off the job. This, the heritage of nearly forty years of modern business unionism, explains much of their inability to respond to capital’s initiatives.

An Injury to All
Over the past decade American labor has faced a tidal wave of wage cuts, plant closures and broken strikes. In this first comprehensive history of the labor movement from Truman to Reagan, Kim Mood...

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