The Struggle for Control
The articles in this section address questions about power and authority in the capitalist workplace. How have industrialists and managers attempted to control the workforce in the twentieth century? How did they manipulate the labor market and foster divisions within the workforce? How did they try to dominate skilled workers who enjoyed some control over their work and how did they attempt to discipline new immigrant laborers? And, most important, how did workers respond? Did they assert their own demands for control?
Radical America writers examined the structure of capitalist control, but they also explored the workers’ own culture of resistance. Only by discovering the hidden history of workplace struggles could historians understand the workers’ search for power. Susan Porter Benson’s article on the work culture of women department store clerks provides an excellent example of this approach. She studies management strategies and shows how workers exerted their own kind of control even though they were not formally unionized. Indeed, the existence of a vibrant “clerking sisterhood” indicated that workers created a life for themselves on the job. Benson also suggests through this case study that women workers’ struggles differed significantly from those of skilled male workers whose crafts were being destroyed by modern management and new technology. In many areas women workers have been required to gain new skills, and in some cases they have been able to use the opportunity to gain increased power as well.
In “The Stop Watch and the Wooden Shoe,” Mike Davis describes how industrialists used scientific management to gain greater control over workers around the turn of the century. The capitalist drive for efficiency and productivity produced a militant response not only from entrenched craft unions defending job control but also from unorganized immigrant workers resisting speed-up and management tyranny. The revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World intervened in many of the mass strikes of the early 1900s. The Wobblies urged workers to fight scientific management with sabotage or what they called the “conscious withdrawl of efficiency.” The IWW also countered the capitalist drive for total control with a radical vision of worker-controlled industry.
Capitalist control over the international labor market gave industrialists decided advantages. They could tap the reserve army of the unemployed in boom times and fire the newcomers in hard times. They could also pit the white English-speaking workers against immigrants or Afro-Americans. Radical America historians tried to show, however, that in feeding their demand for cheap labor the capitalists often created unforeseen results. The unskilled East European workers who provided stability for the steel industry in the early 1900s became the backbone of the 1919 steel strike and the mass upsurge in industrial unionism during the mid-1930s. And as Harold M. Baron argues in his influential essay “The Demand for Black Labor,” Afro-American workers came to bedevil the same employers who thought cheap black labor was an answer to their prayers.
In the once-segregated Southern textile industry, manufacturers have been forced to hire blacks, and in some plants these new workers are now predominant. Despite the racist practices of white trade unions, black textile workers are today the strongest supporters of unionism in the South. As Mary Frederickson indicates, civil rights struggles for political and social equality created a consciousness among Southern black workers that supported collective workplace action.
Like Old Left historians, the New Leftists who wrote for Radical America emphasized the potential militancy of the unskilled and unorganized workers, and highlighted examples of unity and solidarity that cut across divisions based on skill, race, nationality, and gender. Nonetheless, RA writers never underestimated the divisions created by racism, sexism, and nationalism or the degree to which trade unions exacerbated those divisions with exclusionary policies. Indeed, the black power and women’s liberation movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s forced historians to recognize the importance of autonomous movements against racism and sexism, even if these struggles seemed to heighten disunity within the working class. As Harold Baron maintains, capitalists created a separate labor market for blacks which made unity with white workers exceedingly difficult. In fact, he argues, blacks caught in an “urban web of racism” experienced their oppression not just as workers but as a separate national minority. Therefore, black nationalism should not simply be dismissed as a divisive, separatist movement. Rather it should be viewed as an autonomous struggle to free the nation’s most oppressed group of workers—a struggle with positive implications for the entire working class.
In her historical essay on sexual harassment, Mary Bularzik reveals how capitalists used sexism to maintain control over women workers. Just as white supremacy could be enforced by the constant threat of violence, patriarchy could be strengthened by creating fear of sexual assault. Like Baron, Bularzik shows that chauvinism is not simply the product of capitalist practices. White male workers have often engaged in racist and sexist violence or in the forms of intimidation related to it. Union women have gained little support from “union brothers” in opposing sexual harassment. Like black workers, they have looked outside the organized labor movement for strategies to combat harassment and intimidation on the job. Unfortunately unions have lost the spirit of the principle the Knights of Labor articulated a hundred years ago: “An Injury to One is an Injury to All.”
The articles in this section suggest that a constant battle for control has been waged in the American workplace. Indeed, the struggle to resist capitalist control has been bitter and protracted, like a guerilla war in which the invading forces of capital have enormous scientific and technological advantages, but are unable to subdue the forces of resistance. The workers’ struggle for control has generally been defensive and localized. In fact, as the articles in this section suggest, these struggles have been different for various groups of workers. To some extent they reflect existing social and cultural divisions. Localized resistance to capitalist control reveals that workers, even the unskilled and unorganized, have unrecognized resources to employ in their search for power. The essays in this section uncover ordinary workers’ striking tenacity and creativity in the face of oppression. They constantly assert their humanity against capitalist rationality and the tyranny of market forces. But the historians also suggest that these qualities are difficult to apply to a larger movement for workers’ control if they remain isolated in localized struggles. Unless white and black workers, citizens and non-citizens, men and women, see their specialized struggles as essentially similar, they will remain isolated and divided. Then of course capitalists will maintain the initiative in their drive for total control, and the workers’ movement will remain largely defensive.