United States workers’ history

This video from the USA is called Michael Parenti — Some Labor History.

By Gordon Parsons in Britain:

The Lean Years 1920-1933/ The Turbulent Years 1933-1941
by Irving Bernstein (Haymarket Books, £16 each)

Friday 08 October 2010

Apart from the conscientious reviewer and the dedicated student of labour history few readers can be expected to negotiate the 1,300 pages, forest of statistics and plethora of trade union acronyms of this two-volume, exhaustive and exhausting study of the epic struggles of US workers in the interwar years.

It is a fascinating story that holds essential lessons for our upcoming battles.

Bernstein has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the loaded legal framework which supported employers in every major industry in their ferocious and often murderous determination to prevent workers from organising.

The sheer weight of facts is complemented by vivid descriptions of the main protagonists on both sides. The great mine workers’ leader John L Lewis, for example, had “shaggy red eyebrows either one of which a French gendarme would be proud to wear on his lip.”

Bernstein notes how many of the workers’ leaders were from poor immigrant families who understood capitalist exploitation from their experiences back in Europe.

The first book charts the labour movement’s fortunes from before the Great Depression, when it was close to extinction, to the fightback and introduction of Roosevelt’s New Deal in the early ’30s.

Not only were employers happy to use subservient police and hired thugs to enforce their will, they also relied heavily on in-house company unions, which they controlled, in order to give the illusion of worker representation.

Obviously such matters as wages and working hours, injury compensation and old age pensions were not on the agenda, let alone strikes.

The US Constitution reduced the federal government largely to a spectator. Neither the employers nor the unions, under the auspices of the American Federation of Labour (AFL), expected the White House or Congress to intervene.

The devastation of the Great Depression, with one in three workers unemployed, made Roosevelt realise the need for progressive legislation to counter the ruthless hegemony of employers in industrial affairs, and the traditional craft union philosophy of the AFL, which which was resistant to the mass unionisation of workers advocated by Lewis’s Committee for Industrial Organisation.

Bernstein’s second volume details the tortuous path through widespread strike action and court proceedings that ultimately led to the workers’ victory, as World War II demanded that even Fordism had to face up to fascism.

The essential lesson of Bernstein’s work is summed up in the introduction by Frances Fox Piven, which notes that “popular moods and understandings that fuel protest movements can change, and change rapidly. We should hope for this in our own time, and we should do more than hope. We should work to make it true.”

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