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(en) NEFAC* - NEA #8 - Book Review: Strike! (Brecher)

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Tue, 5 Oct 2004 09:36:05 +0200 (CEST)

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A classic and 'must have' account of the history of militant labor
in the U.S. from the "Great Upheaval" of 1877 to the infamous
Teamsters UPS strike in 1997. To anyone interested in a
background check on the U.S. labor movement, and/or
enthusiastic about organizing in their own workplace and
community, this book is beyond inspiring. It chronologically
describes the high points of organized, self-managed mass strikes
and the unprecendented acts of solidarity seen between vast
sectors of the working class in the U.S.

First off, it's a page-turner, marked with exciting accounts that are
quoted by strikers and strike supporters along with candid and
revealing descriptions of the enemies of militant self-managed
labor: strikebreakers, capitalists, federal and state military/militias,
governors, presidents, U.S. Congress, and even (surprise!) union
beaureaucrats themselves. One of the most beautiful aspects of
the book is its accessibility and readiblity for someone who has no
formal education in labor history or is new to the research. It flows
more like a series of stories, more so than a dry textbook style
account. It brought goosebumps to my skin, it had me laughing
and crying. I haven't touched a book like this in years.

Most of the book reads as a 'play by play' focusing on the
cultural/economic/political/social ramifications of the most
massive strikes, their successes and failures, and the methods and
strategies used by labor and capitalists. The author goes further in
analyzing how these different events warranted a complete
revolutionary self-realization of huge sectors of the working class.
He explores how militant collective action and working class
solidarity crossed state lines, as well as the divisions between
industries and trades transformating the working person's
everyday social life. General strikes, wildcats, sitdown strikes,
sympathetic strikes, sabotage, slowdowns, and social strikes are
shown to be tactics used by massive sectors of the working class
throughout U.S. history, and not just by the explicitly
revolutionary unions and working class organizations like the
I.W.W. or communist parties. In fact, the actions of reformist
union members and non-union members organizing for their own
interests in democratic and councilist manners are the most
remarkable examples of revolutionary class struggle possibilities.
These militant rebellions managed to escape the limits of union
bureaucracy and collective bargaining for mere concessions, and
were the most successful in bringing labor close to the
actualization of a classless, wageless society.

Something the book revealed to me that I found to be of high
interest is how the major flashpoints were consistently ebbing and
flowing, and held a constant pattern throughout U.S. history after
the "industrial revolution." The waxing and waning of militancy
seems to attest to an ongoing battle between labor and capital,
from its very beginning.

Many of the extreme examples of struggle go as follows: They
start out as small rebellions within a specific industry, and most
likely originating in the strikes enacted by the pissed-off workers
at one or more jobsites. They are usually miserable, due to deaths
on the jobsite, lack of livable conditions and wages, etc. Scabs are
then brought in and protected by state militias. The strikers attack
the scabs and the militia. More than half of the time, the state
militia and/or the strikebreakers hand over their arms to the
strikers, refusing to break the strike and either go home or stay,
fraternize with the strikers and join the resistance. Either way, the
strikers continue to defend their right to strike, they become
extremely self-conscious of their ability to organize themselves,
and they mobilize the towns around them to defend the strike.
The federal government sends troops in to restore "law and
order," and capitalist business as usual, but are met with a general
strike, wildcat and sympathy strikes, and armed insurrection by
highly organized sectors of the working class. This usually leads
to regional and nation-wide labor solidarity, spreading to other
industrial cities and creating massive warfare between classes.

The outcome of the strikes were either decided by firepower and
state repression where the federal government always eventually
wins, or the capitalists give in to some watered down demands. In
all of these cases, there is an unprecedented level of
transformation of the types of demands the workers were fighting
for. The struggle began with requests for mere concessions, then
developed into a forum where workers had a growing class
consciousness, and all-out self-management by working people.
There are by-and-large refusals of the old demands of "rights, due
process, and wages," and the recognition that the fights have
turned into questions of ownership of property and production, the
abolishment of capitalism, and the organized working class
administering goods and services to each other in common
without state, political, or union beauracratic intervention of any

This change is shown in the resolutions drafted by several
facilitators of mass insurrections, as well as the clear direction
workers were taking in their actions (The seizure of property, the
democratic councilist decision-making of workers from different
industries, the socialization of distribution). Yes, these things
happened right here in the U.S. Jeremy Brecher is not talking
about the Paris Commune, Spain, the Ukraine or Kwangju. He's
talking about cities such as Detroit, Seattle, New Orleans,
Pittsburgh, and St. Louis.

Most of the massive uprisings are separated by a decade and a half
on average, up until post-WWII. The book's updated section
focuses mainly on the descent of militant labor, the decrease in
strikes in general, and the reasons for this direction. After the
1960's it seems like capital remained ten steps ahead of labor as
far as being able to win battles more frequently and consistently.
They employed legal and illegal political repression, beefed up
street level policing, weaponry, sneaky propaganda campaigns,
and finally a massive capital transformation into a globalized,
international mode of labor exploitation. These capitalist
advancements, which benefited the U.S. and the international
ruling class, resulted in a tremendous loss of even the smallest of
demands made by the working class. Millions drastically lost their
job security, benefits, and rights they had all fought so hard to
maintain for decades. Their attempts at defending these
concessions led to an increased capitalist clampdown and tactical
changes to defeat the rising tide of labor resistance. The late
1970's and the whole of the 1980's revealed the most atrocious
anti-working class, anti-union politics and economic restructuring
done by capitalists in the U.S. and abroad. The author tells of
union’s shifting gears several times in this era, in order to
present new tactics like internationalist solidarity or explicitly
'non-violent' marches and demonstrations in reaction to often
very violent police attacks on picket lines. There are very few
sucessful campaigns in this sad era of capitalist globalization.

Brecher explains the shift in strategies inside the AFL-CIO in the
'90's that helped to redevelop a progressive and growing labor
movement, connecting communities and concerns like
pro-immigration, women's rights, and equity for people of color
into union organizing. There have been successful campaigns for
immigrant rights, like the Justice for Janitors campaigns in
Century City and elsewhere, as well as worker's centers in New
York City organized by immigrant workers. Some unions have
organized respectfully and tactically, sometimes they did it with
degrees of ignorance to the concerns of these previously excluded
sectors of the working class. Some unions and locals have won
back small concessions, but by and large labor no longer displayed
the kind of militancy and refusal of wage and private property in
the way it once did.

Several times throughout Strike! I found a brief exploration into
the social and cultural roles that immigrants, women, and people
of color (especially blacks) faced in these manifestations of class
warfare, and the labor movement in general. I was disappointed
that Brecher didn't explore these elements further, since he did
take the time to very lightly touch on these subjects. When he did,
he barely wrote about the reality of exclusion that existed for those
who consistently weren't welcomed in the largely white, male
dominated labor movement. He did however, speak highly of
instances during the most extreme examples of working class
control of cities and regions, around the turn of the century. These
instances stand as important insights into the organic
development of anti-racism and the dissolving of patriarchal
gender roles.

These examples are due to the self-organization of these sectors
of the working class during great labor and social crises.

In the largest social and class upheavals, black workers were quite
active and even started radical workplace rebellions. During the
1877 labor explosion, blacks organized as Virginia coal miners,
Texan railroad workers, and St. Louis steamboat workers. During
the massive labor movement of 1892, in New Orleans, three
seperate unions formed a city-wide "Triple Alliance," which saw
divisions in race to be an obstacle to ALL workers. The general
strike that followed showed extreme examples of cross-racial
solidarity and breakdown of longtime "Deep South" racial
divisions. Brecher points out several times when blacks were
excluded from the union and labor activity. At times, blacks were
historically unsympathetic with the strikes, due to their being
barred from joining many unions. Sometimes they felt no guilt in
being a scab. I'd have loved to have read Brecher dig into the roots
of where these racist union policies originated. Were the union
leaders only organizing white workers as a strategy specifically
designed to be exclusive to certain European nationalities? Often
they did organize European immigrants with great difficulty due to
language differences, yet failed to allow blacks and newly-arrived
Eastern Europeans and Irish folk to be members. How come
Brecher doesn't delve further into the instances of racist actions
taken by the Western European rank-and-file even in opposition
to their union leader's policies? Though the theme of the book
does explore the significant developments of labor militancy, class
conciousness, and even cross-racial solidarity, ignoring blatant
examples of racism by the rank-and-file is a mistake. Later, after
the militant and highly organized black working class movements
of the 1960's and 1970's, unions, on an institutional level,
gradually started to realize the importance of an organized working
class that included people of nationalities and races that were
previously left out. Of course this is due to the self-organization of
working class people of color and women, building movements for
social change, and demanding recognization by the union leaders
as well as the acceptance by their white male rank-and-file

According to Brecher, women have been integral in the
development of labor militancy. "Strike!" provides the reader with
countless examples of women acting in the forefront of strike
activity. They provided support drives, community awareness
campaigns, as well as organized economic and material resource
collections. Often times, women have gone on the picket lines
with children in tow. They've consistently stood in the front of
labor marches and demonstrations, and have bravely confronted
armed Pinkerton thugs and militia men with babies in their arms.
Women have occupied factories, defended workplaces from scabs,
attacked troops, and helped to build worker's centers. They
enacted organizations dedicated to educating women at large that
a labor movement is and should be a women's movement. During
the Depression Era, women involved in the massive auto worker's
sitdown strike were breaking out of gender expectations and
passivity into militant self-organized agents of feminist class
struggle. They organized emergency brigades that attacked
strikebreaking police in the streets, first-aid stations, welfare
committees, childcare co-ops, etc. Against the protests of the men
involved in the strikes, they set out to prove that they too are
affected by capitalism, and have the right to take action against
their exploiters. After realizing the power they held, and the
potential for radical transformation of societal limits, women
started to shed the expectations forced on them by men. At one
point, housewives were known to go on strike against their lovers
and husbands. They refused to cook, clean, and have sex, until
their male counterparts recognized certain demands for equality.
These, and many other cases of women's struggles were briefly
explored throughout the book. After the civil rights movement,
the labor movement has slowly become pro-active in organizing
for women's rights in the workplace and at home.

The role of unions in these moments of advanced struggle are
explored throroughly in Strike!. Brecher does great service to
exposing the ills of the history of the U.S. union’s top-down
structure. He goes in depth about how union leaders would either
take control of strikes, or would outright condemn the
rank-and-file's right to organize militantly and democratically. In
virtually every case where the rank-and-file broke a contract or
went against the will of union leaders to act on their own, the
union leadership systematically mobilized AGAINST the
rank-and-file. There are a few exceptions, and most of these rare
exceptions where attempts by the union leadership to seize control
of the strike committees, in order to de-escalate rebellion, stifle
dissent, and spy on radical organizers. Often, rank-and-file
workers would denounce the union leadership, claim the union as
their own, and use the union resources at their disposal for their
own end. Other times, rank-and-file unionists would tear their
union cards up, and/or create or join different unions (ex:
industrial unions as opposed to trade unions) that claim to be in
line with the tactics the rank-and-file would like to see employed.

Overall, Strike! was a treat to read. I felt that the areas I wanted to
be explored more may have been whole books in themselves, so
despite some concerns, I remained quite satisfied until the last
page. It provides real examples of hundreds of thousands of
working people acting in their own interests, organizing to feed
themselves, work for themselves, and throwing off all attempts to
stop them by capitalists and their reactionary allies. The events
explored are windows into the possibilities for the real abolition of
class society free of political bureaucracy and statist means. It is
telling of the breakdown of social divisions within the working
class in the midst of extreme forms of unconditional solidarity
between workers. "Strike!" proves to be a resource for any
working class person interested in discovering the rich history of
class struggle right here in the U.S.

- reviewed by Fruitti Durruti, Class Action (NEFAC-
* NEFAC = North East Federation of Anarchist Communists

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