The US Labor Culture: Does It Exist?

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.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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2 Responses to The US Labor Culture: Does It Exist?

  1. As usual, I´m interested to read the reflections at this blog.

    I agree that worker co-operatives are a means to involve workers preoccupied with other facets of life in the prevailing economic system. However, my experience in psychology leads me to an examination of the thought processes, even the range of them, expressed by the diversity of people along different lines. Whether based on ethnic identifications or personality orientations, people reflect something like what Howard Gardner called “mutliple intelligences.” A quick assessment that occurs to me is the way that topics like music or home-ownership have appealed to different people in various conversations. I recall having just watched a documentary from 1980 or so of Isaac Stern the maestro violinist and his informal tour of China following their invitation.
    In one discussion with a Chinese conductor, the conductor referred to Mozart´s being influenced by the socioeconomic changes in his time from fedudalism to capitalism. To me, years of reflection have confirmed the importance of these kinds of dynamics. The Renaissance, after all, did not take place when the non-Roman tribes were sacking Rome, nor before the Italian city states had initiated trade with the Silk Road merchants of the Middle East and Asia.
    Isaac Stern, on the other hand, showed no recognition of the dynamic at all. Typical of many people, at a minimum his consciousness has not experienced sufficient exposure to the necessary concepts. In 1980, for one, the significant economic shifts from corporate deregulation and influence by corporate civil society e.g. the Heritage Foundation had only been pricked under the Carter Administration, and were just entering their new stage of ignition under Reagan. I was awakened to the detailed examination of these processes by James Crotty´s 2000 article on the “…Golden Age to Global Neoliberalism.” I explored them in depth in a 2009 article on International trade, the Rwandan Genocide, and Fair Trade “The Real Price of Coffee….”.
    In the case of Isaac Stern and classical music, I´m reminded of a conversation last Christmas with a long time friend named Moritsugu and his wife from Mississippi where they both now live. While both in fact are members of a local food co-op there, my fascination with our mutual interest in co-ops elicited myfriends´ comments about the existence of employee-ownership efforts within the classical music sector. Louisiana´s philharmonic became employee-owned, or musician-owned, about ten years ago. I placed some parts of the story and a link at the Solidarity Economy Network site.
    However, my experienc has shown me that many people are not necessarily interested in classical music or orchestras. Thus, while I find the story of James Connolly and the Irish workers to be significant and interesting, I agree that most people have their minds elsewhere. In terms of the fascinating roots in history, I have been reading some Joyce Rothschild and David Ellerman articles in the journals American Behavioral Scientist and Review of Radical Political Economics, and they respectively refer to the difference between Marx and Kropotkin at a post 1870s conference, and the wage labor orientation of American labor. One result in a convergent sense, are the assumptions people have about how the economy works.
    One aspect of this is discussed by Michael Parrish in his book Anxious Decades, and also by Richard Robbins in his book titled something like Global Problems of Capitalism, both who touch on the historical development of advertising and publicity. One simple dimension is price consciousness. As such, I´m big on approaches like the underadvertised NYPIRG Fuel Buyer´s group, and the ´potential of co-ops to buy solar panels and other renewable energy approaches. In the latter case, the NYPIRG FBG facilitates discounts of heating fuels around 10%. It´s a low-level co-op practice, but with significant financial benefits that can entice the average “middle-class” consciousness of our indoctrinated populaces.
    I suppose we could imagine the great South American freedom fighter Bernardo O´Higgins perhaps wanting to meet with that great American Cesar Chavez, along with James Connolly, and who knows, British-American Samuel Gompers, Afro-American A.P. Randolph, and Ms. Maida Springer, to discuss that option, if we could put time in a bottle. In reality, though, we may have to settle for the various international and local forums of the World Social Forum, from Atlanta to Detroit or where have you.

  2. Just noticed that my comment above on NYPIRG was the “former” case, not the “latter”. In addition to indoctrination, I might add that many in our populaces have beenm oriented to blame government regulation instead of corporate predation and profit maximization. Also, Cesar Chavez was a Mexican-American. Heck, for that matter, the Molly Maguires deserve some recollection and recognition.

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