I had an interesting conversation this weekend with a long-time activist in labor and social justice circles. During our talk, we discussed how Mondragon works, the sense of solidarity within their ranks and the difficulty of creating that solidarity in the US movement.
Why is that?
At one level, Mondragon’s solidarity stems a lot from its uniformity of nationalism. The Basque have struggled to maintain their identity as The Basque for over over 2,000 years! They have a uniformity of language, religion, and ethnicity–or at the very least, they profess to these things. In the United States, of course, we exist as a mosaic of cultures, languages, ethnicity, race and religions. Like a mosaic, the pieces aren’t uniform and some tend to dominate the pattern more than others.
This mosaic gives us a lot to talk about, but little to organize around. In terms of economics, it allows us to ignore our status as workers preferring instead to focus on other struggles. This hasn’t always been the case, of course. From the late 1800’s through the 1930’s, there was a strong and powerful labor movement in the United States that had class consciousness and expressed solidarity. As these workers became middle-class, I would argue, they started to differentiate among themselves and allowed other, less significant, differences to become dominant in the culture. Of course, their children and later generations seem even more divorced from class politics focusing instead on all of the other parts of the mosaic.
This discussion brought me back to one of the many heroes of my life. A man whose writings clearly shaped my world view: James Connolly.
James Connolly was an essayist, an Industrial Unionist, a socialist, and leader of the 1916 Easter Uprising for Irish independence from England announcing the proclamation on the steps of the General Post Office. He was executed by English soldiers after being severely wounded during the Crown’s suppression of the Uprising.
His view was centered on the worker and he strove to divorce the workers of Ireland from their focus on being “Irish” as opposed to being a worker. He saw the industrial union movement must be an international movement predicting the effect of globalization on the each nation’s workers.
“How can a person, or class, be free when its means of life are in the grasp of another?” he asks in his essay Labour, Nationality and Religion. Connolly continues: “How can the working class be free when the sole chance of existence of its individual members depends upon their ability to make a profit for others?”
This isn’t to say that the other struggles aren’t important. Obviously, the divisions of race, religion and ethnicity still provide excellent tools for the people who control society to divide and conquer the people who create the profit for them. How do we get beyond these issues to work on creating a vibrant culture of workers who express solidarity as workers?
We live in a society in which everyone is “middle class”. Recently, before the election, I heard a radio report in which the reporter asked people on the street if they were lower, middle or upper class and their income. Everyone said “middle class” regardless if they made $17,000 a year (under the poverty level for a family of four) or over $500,000 a year. Things such as cell phones, satellite dishes, computers and other culture forming devices have been eased into the mass market through cheap (practically slave labor) from other countries. Here is what Karl Marx had to say about this in 1867:
“Owners of capital will stimulate working class to buy more and more of expensive goods, houses and technology, pushing them to take more and more expensive credits, until their debt becomes unbearable. The unpaid debt will lead to bankruptcy of banks which will have to be nationalized and State will have to take the road which will eventually lead to communism.”
Karl Marx, Das Kapital, 1867
Of course, Karl didn’t quite predict just how easily the culture domination would be to prevent that road to communism and simply place the burden on the backs of the workers. It will be the workers who pay for this debt through lower wages and lower benefits and a culture that has ostracized them from each other.
Worker Co-operatives provide a means to reach out to these easily distracted workers. We provide a means of changing our nation’s culture to one in which the worker is honored. We can do this by keeping our focus on a fair and just work place for everyone and not letting outside distractions and differences take over. It isn’t an easy chore and will likely take generations, but we can re-discover the culture of US Labor that created May Day, the IWW, the CIO and 8-hour work day, the 40-hour work week. We have to eschew the current dominant culture of immediate gratification and keep our eye on the prize.