On the Virtual Picket Line

On the Virtual Picket Line

The unfortunate flaw in From the Telegraph to the Internet is its title, which suggests a highly specialized account of an industry when in fact it is a deeply moving narrative of a commi


The unfortunate flaw in From the Telegraph to the Internet is its title, which suggests a highly specialized account of an industry when in fact it is a deeply moving narrative of a committed labor leader who has written a compelling autobiography about what it means to fill various roles (labor leader, visionary, father, politician and negotiator) at a time of tumultuous change in American technology and corporate restructuring. This book should be required reading in education programs at labor institutes, universities and especially business schools, so that its readers may gain insight into the present-day struggles, tactics and organizing purposes of a US labor union. Morton Bahr, president of the Communications Workers of America, discusses how the union coped when AT&T was broken apart by court order and how the CWA, which had its origins in a company union that had virtually no role or say in the changes that affected hundreds of thousands of workers, was militant enough to elbow its way into sufficiently protecting workers’ benefits and status.

Then the union began the difficult job of creating a vibrant new entity for information service workers, who would fit into new patterns of competitive business while reinforcing the principle that the CWA was an international union. What Bahr has sought with some success is to find a way of cooperating with business while maintaining labor’s separate and distinct voice. This is no easy matter and one that requires great subtlety in advancing the cause of workers in labor-corporate relations. Whatever unions hope to achieve for their members and society, they must expand their base through organizing and identifying the causes of the labor movement with community interests.

Now Bahr has a new job as AT&T seeks communications hegemony. Like the mythological snake that is cut apart but then reforms itself, the “re-merging” and new acquisitions of AT&T are intended, in the words of the May 6 New York Times, to achieve dominance in “the communications landscape unmatched by any company since the old American Telephone and Telegraph broke up under government pressure in 1984.” The inclusion of the cable TV industry is intended to integrate various communications services to consumers.

But where is organized labor in this story? Is it a partner, antagonist or bystander? As Bahr points out, organized labor is already marginalized. Unless it responds by building bigger unions, workers will be reduced to commodities without voice in the Brave New World of the twenty-first century. The CWA has expanded to public service workers, technical workers and professional workers in governmenrt. But its success will stand or fall on the basis of how it is able to adjust to and cause changes in the communications industry. “Contracts covering the vast majority of our membership,” Bahr points out, “now provide for joint discussion of the impact of new technology, as well as training and retraining opportunities.” Rather than wait for collective bargaining agreements to expire, unions and companies should have the capacity to adjust wages and profit sharing during the life of a collective bargaining agreement–an idea predicated on the actual strength of the union at the grass roots. The CWA already tested that in 1992, when it called for an “electronic picket line” against AT&T. It urged its members to switch carriers and organized other unions to boycott AT&T services, as well as immensely profitable caller ID and call waiting services at the local level–an effective strategy in a competitive market. Can the CWA now have any say in the production, allocation of resources and likely layoffs as AT&T seeks efficiencies? Will any vision be large enough and conscious enough of itself and the national community to offer alternatives to be heard above the din of clichés regarding “competition”?

As I read Bahr’s account I could not help but wonder where labor leaders fit into the folklore of American life. For Americans outside the labor movement, labor leaders are thought of as square pegs in round holes, not quite fitting the story of Capitalist Realism–namely, that the nation’s gains and prosperity came from the immaculate conception of the Founding Fathers, who anointed businessmen as their disciples. To doubt this story is to enter into a far more densely textured view of American history, one integrally tied to organized labor and its leaders. This view requires consideration of the struggles of freestanding labor unions, which in turn raises deep questions about social and economic organization, capitalism, class conflict, class collaboration versus business-labor cooperation, the role of government, electoral politics and the courage and charisma of labor leaders.

These questions have not been easy for the labor movement to confront internally, torn as it has been at different times between the industrial and craft unions, the left and right, issues of international solidarity versus patriotism, and shrinking memberships within the shift to a service economy. In the US context such issues have not been made easy, given the lack of a major political party to present the needs of workers consistently. Even the most naïve among us cannot fail to notice that the two political parties adhere to one business ideology: The personal ambitions of Republicans and Democrats may not coincide, but the views of the parties have been virtually consonant in limiting labor’s rights, keeping its role as sotto voce as possible. Thus in recent years the Democratic Party of Carter and Clinton has been supportive of blatantly business-oriented ideas such as bipartisan agreements on export capitalism. The “early” Bill Clinton took a leaf from the anti-union stance of Ronald Reagan. Coming from an anti-union, right-to-work state, Clinton kept the story of Capitalist Realism going, emphasizing world trade and global competition fueled by individual consumer desire in the marketplace, with workers left virtually without protection.

In this framework, labor unions retained the aura of illegitimacy, not to be mentioned in speeches and ill considered in polite company or where major policy questions were to be thrashed out. Bahr makes this point in a telling way by gently upbraiding former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who by the estimate of many was a progressive-minded secretary. It took Reich three years to mention the word “union” in public and then only at a meeting in Geneva of the International Labor Organization. As Bahr notes more out of sorrow than controlled anger, “Every other Cabinet secretary can advance the cause of their constituencies. It is perfectly all right for the Department of Commerce to carry water for corporate America. The Secretary of Veteran Affairs is unashamedly ‘pro-veteran.’ The Secretary of Education is never blamed for being ‘pro-education.’ But for some reason the Labor Department cannot be seen as being ‘pro-labor.'”

The cultural reasons for this require some explanation. One of the interesting aspects of the American working class is that it is not known as a working class. Instead, it is nominated as middle class (even by its leaders), or, in the case of those in the secondary labor market, referred to as working poor. The working class is not an acceptable American category, perhaps because it reflects group or social solidarity in a nation that prides itself on individualism and “making it on your own,” a very silly self-deception indeed. Thus the term “middle class” conjures a certain economic independence while it prizes individualism. The reality is different in that this “middle class” is insecure, often overworked and greatly in hock. It is a debtor class. A labor leadership that seeks to point out this reality can hardly be expected to receive much praise in the “free press.” Indeed, as Bahr points out, the New York Times no longer bothers to have a labor beat reporter. Similarly, the Washington Post gave up such notions of “specialized” coverage long ago, as its business and sports pages expanded.

One should not be surprised that under the catechism of Capitalist Realism labor leaders are depicted as greedy and self-interested, even those who are moderate and community-minded. Thus Bahr points out that the legendary leader of the AFL, Samuel Gompers, is fixed in the minds of millions of schoolchildren as the labor leader who was asked what labor unions wanted. He is reputed to have said, in an answer like that of a Wall Street yuppie, “More.” What was created in the minds of generations of Americans was that no essential difference existed between capital and labor. Both wanted “more.” But what Gompers said was far different. “What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails, more books and less arsenals, more learning and less vice, more constant work and less crime, more leisure and less greed, more justice and less revenge.” In other words, Gompers had a social democratic conception. Like other labor leaders, whether Eugene Debs, Walter Reuther, the Dobbs brothers or Bahr, Gompers had a clear vision of the role of labor and the individual: The liberation of the worker and the liberation of society go hand in hand. Yet this social vision could not compete with the romance of the American individualist.

In the popular culture, we have created loner archetypes, heroes and antiheroes, self-made and unconnected to the social forces around them–the American cowboy, for instance: independent, uses force when necessary, can be counted on in a fight, etc. (There is a tragic quality about the cowboy as well, for he is also a failure in financial terms, lacking that magic of commercial entrepreneurialism that the economist Joseph Schumpeter writes of as the spark of capitalist innovation.)

The paradox, of course, is that a worker’s individuality and dignity can be best protected through his or her organization, the labor union, the institution in which personal and community interests are brought together. This fact is something that Bahr understands, for he knows that individuality needs safeguarding–big time. Hundreds of thousands of people are now employed in management and public relations offices to mask this need by discouraging workers from joining unions. What is at stake, under the banner of “productivity,” is control over workers’ time and space. Bahr tells of a worker being treated for an illness with a medication that caused her go to the lavatory several times a day. Each trip was announced on the plant loudspeaker by management. Such corporate control over the worker’s life is no sideshow. It defines, albeit in extreme form, the situation of millions of people.

This brings us to labor leaders. Where do they fit into the pantheon of heroes and villains? We’ve seen them drawn out in Ray Ginger’s biography of Debs, The Bending Cross; Mary Jones’s The Autobiography of Mother Jones; Harold Livesay’s Samuel Gompers and Organized Labour in America; Melvyn Dubofsky and Warner Van Tine’s biography of John L. Lewis; Victor Reuther’s The Brothers Reuther and the Story of the U.A.W. and elsewhere. They are part of the romance of America, but the question is whether they will be rendered irrelevant when labor movements don’t organize and lose membership or moral purpose.

One of the tasks of the antihero of modern capitalism, the corporate gunslinger, is to turn the labor leader into a dying breed without relevance, who must fall before the wonders of changing technology and social organization. Cultural stereotype celebrates business as the innovator and the entrepreneur as the heartbeat of America. As President Coolidge put it, “The business of America is business.”

With its prerogatives, business becomes the locomotive of American life. And in countless texts US entrepreneurs are presented as folk heroes who, through determination and innovation, keep society going in a progressive direction. This is an old story. Even John D. Rockefeller, thanks to the massaging of the press by his public relations experts, ended his days less as the villain of the Ludlow massacre than as a grand paternal figure whose largesse, along with that of Andrew Carnegie, guided education and science. Never mind that Henry Ford was almost overwhelmed by his own anti-Semitic ravings and undermined by a brutal internal police force aimed at destroying an independent labor union. Ruthlessness is forgiven because US economic ideology claims to be serving a greater good: the project of production, which has received intellectual blessing through modern economic ideas, from left to right. In the popular culture the question became one of whether there was a counter to these men among leaders of labor. The “disinterested” needed a picture of what labor leaders were.

There are two prevailing, composite perceptions of the labor leader. One comes to us through the corporation and the media, the other through literature and folklore that oftentimes does not find its way into middle-class or “mainstream” literature and consciousness. In Hollywood the labor leader is commonly depicted as selfish, brutal and uneducated, a villain, invariably on the take from a businessman or from crime bosses who remain the shadowy string-pullers.

The cliché of the arrogant and parochial but cunning labor leader who cares nothing about local communities is almost perversely the inverse of the extraordinary sophistication that labor leaders/organizers tend to possess concerning their workers, irrespective of the industry involved. Indeed, just like CEOs at major corporations, national union heads, for good or ill, commonly depend on highly trained staffs. And while some labor leaders undeniably have been corrupt, they have hardly been a match for the likes of the senior Annenberg, or even of Hollywood moguls.

The second and more sympathetic account of labor leaders is that an overwhelming number of them were cut from a different mold. They were organizers who at great personal risk and undeniable suffering built the movement in the United States. Joe Hill told his comrades not to mourn for him but instead to organize. Such great labor leaders of the twentieth century as A. Philip Randolph, Eugene Debs, John L. Lewis, Harry Bridges and Walter Reuther were powerful organizers who saw no contradiction between the demands and needs of the larger community and those of workers as a class.

This deep understanding of the role of organized labor continues into the twenty-first century. Its organization does not represent capital, it represents the community–that is, people in terms of their everyday needs. This can be seen in the extraordinary work of Morton Bahr. The CWA represents 630,000 workers from diverse industries, “all of whom have common concerns.” Bahr envisions his union as a broad social and economic movement. As he sees it, the labor organizer must not only win recognition for the union but organize the basis of material benefits both inside and outside the workplace. Unions must fight for the rights of the unorganized so they can become citizens of the political nation. Like other of his forebears, Bahr believes that organizers are teachers with two objectives. One is serving notice that workers are more than extensions of a machine or marginal, disposable as used Kleenex.

Second, that workers’ dignity is the key element in this nation’s drive for its humane identity. While the two major political parties, supported by their corporate sponsors, are concerned about “competitiveness,” workers know that human dignity is the purpose of work. And where that is not present, union leaders must reshape industry (indeed, the nation) to that purpose. Bahr believes that unions have moral as well as financial capital in their pension funds, which the nation–and business–has been trading on throughout the twentieth century.

So, what does a modern labor folk hero look like? He or she seeks a moral vision grounded in sophistication about law, business, government and politics, as well as technology. He or she knows the difference between selling out and business-labor cooperation, and seeks ways to insure that technology is understood as a tool of workers and society rather than an instrument to which people must refashion themselves as in a Procrustean bed. And he or she is not afraid of being either on picket lines or in boardrooms when necessary. Nor is that leader passive about investment of pension capital in the regeneration of society. It would appear that Bahr qualifies as a modern labor folk hero.

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