And now, something incredibly rare for this blog: a non-fiction book!
I've continued to mull over The Iron Heel in the weeks since I finished it. Much of the book is clunky and unconvincing, but there's a sort of seething vibrant energy that helps propel even the most sedate parts of it, and certain dimensions of the story are incredibly compelling. I didn't mention this in my initial review, but this book, written during a period of profound social inequality and an active labor movement, reminded me of stuff I haven't thought about for years.
Back in eighth grade, our US History class included ongoing discussion of the history of organized labor. We learned about the Pinkertons, Haymarket Square, the AFL and the CIO, all sorts of stuff. At the time I just took it for granted, but thinking back on it now, I'm curious how common that is in public schools, both then and now. I get the impression that Minnesota is more progressive than much of the country, and I'm pretty sure that my teachers leaned towards the liberal side of the spectrum. All that being said, I'm curious if it's normal for most students to learn about, say, the Wobblies along with the WPA and the Lend-Lease Act. (And, in my case, that was supplemented by the surprisingly-informative Dave Barry Slept Here, if for no other reason than permanently burning Samuel Gompers into my memory.)
We're now once again in an era of accelerating inequality and starting to see a reinvigorated progressive movement advocating for economic justice, and I've been increasingly curious about how our present moment ties in with that legacy, the one that Jack London was in the middle of. After poking around for recommendations, I emerged with Strike!, a book by Jeremy Brecher. It seems like it's been widely recognized since its initial release in the 1970s, and has been periodically updated since then; I read the edition published in 1997, which is not the latest, but I believe the bulk of the book focusing on the 19th and 20th centuries is largely unchanged.
I liked this book a lot! It may be non-fiction, but it's very gripping, organized as it is around moments of great conflict and action. It starts off near the start of the modern labor movement in the 1870s. Part of what's interesting about this era is that the people we are reading about grew up in pre-capitalist times. They were born in a United States primarily consisting of agrarian and small-scale craftsmen: blacksmiths or cobblers or farmers who each owned their own property, worked out of their homes, and bought and sold directly to their neighbors. As these people grew up, they witnessed the country becoming transformed into an industrial economy, with centralized factories and yards built with large accumulations of capital. So people left their homes, where they labored for themselves, and went someplace else, where they labored for their masters.
That's all really interesting, and may help explain why the mass strikes of the 19th century can seem so much larger and more disruptive than the ones of the 20th. Those people witnessed the world changing, and knew that capitalism was not the only possible system. Those of us who have grown up under it tend to assume that it's a permanent feature of our planet, and it takes more imagination on our part to imagine other ways that the economy could be organized.
The book is filled with stories that would be exciting in their own right, and are even more engaging because they took place in cities where I've lived. It often felt like I was reading a secret history of the United States, wondering "Why haven't I heard of this before?" There were massive strikes in places like St. Louis that spread across the country, with the heartland showing the way. And while I tend to think of both industry and labor as being overwhelmingly Northern, there was also a vibrant labor movement in the South, especially New Orleans, that crossed racial boundaries as workers forged class consciousness to advance their needs.
Strike! has an interesting perspective: it's exciting, and does seem to have a pro-worker point of view, but it also feels like an academic tone, with voluminous endnotes and strong research. In the struggle between management and labor, Brecher inevitably sides with labor, but he also doesn't hesitate to point out labor's more shameful episodes. One early example comes from unrest in San Francisco, where an initial desire to protect wages turned into an anti-Chinese pogrom. (I believe this was the same period where Emperor Norton famously intervened with the Lord's Prayer.) In this case, the forces of law and order acted to protect racial minorities against labor activists. That's the exception rather than the rule, though, and one of the few times that police come off well in this book.
The mass strikes of the 19th century tended to cost a great deal in lives and property, but also led to some thrilling outcomes. It was very cool to see how local workers could quickly and smoothly handle essential functions of government. One great example was the general strike in Seattle, where ad-hoc committees organized to manage the strike and its impact on the city: they held court, and approved exemptions for the delivery of essential goods, like fuel for hospitals and milk for everyone. They created signage indicating who was exempt, and strikers throughout the city would honor it. The committee made decisions quickly, but there was still debate, and the whole system was refreshingly democratic. City officials would appear before the committee just like everyone else, and their needs would be judged and ruled on like all others.
Reading about this sort of victory, and this sort of conflict, has been incredibly inspiring and made me think about potential future stories of my own. I feel like I've been in a creative rut for a long time, where for something to be "exciting" and "epic" it has to involve military conflict and physically harming bad guys. The kind of action shown in this book is definitely exciting, but while violence is a possible element, it's by no means the preferred tool. I think a big part of what's so engaging about this book is that it's about mass action rather than individual heroism, and I think that's a dimension that hasn't been explored very much in video games, which almost always center around the impressive accomplishments of a skilled individual. You can still have clear-cut values, obvious goals, and relatable motivations for your characters. In the context of a game, I can imagine other systems being used to progress through it and measure your achievement: instead of tracking hit points or rounds of ammunition, you might track membership cards, or meals served in commissaries, or oratorical fervor.
Of course, there is also complexity, and not everyone on the same team will agree with one another. One constant throughout the entire book is an ongoing debate between two major philosophies of organized labor. Broadly, one faction is universal, seeking to include all workers under its umbrella. This includes groups like the Knights of Labor and the IWW, which were more influential in the early era of the movement. Interestingly, these groups also tend to be more inclusive of racial and gender equality: the KoL explicitly stated equality of women as a major goal, and these groups welcomed black workers alongside white. It's also interesting to me that this faction tended to have a religious dimension, or some other form of larger-than-life vision that stressed the social good and the responsibility to improve broader society.
The second major faction is craft unionism, where labor organizes around a skilled trade, like machine operators or train engineers or miners. This reminds me more of a modernized guild system. These workers are subservient to management, but form a privileged caste: they cannot be as easily replaced, and know the value they offer. Unlike industrial unionism, which would try to, say, organize all the workers in a plant under one structure, trade unionism would want to organize the same type of worker across many plants. These trade unions eventually coalesced into the AFL, and have dominated labor in the 20th and 21st century. They're primarily focused on maintaining and increasing the wages for their members, and haven't historically pursued the broader social goals of industrial unionism.
I remember way back in 8th grade thinking that craft unionism sounded like a smarter approach: an irreplaceable worker could win concessions just by withholding his or her labor, while an unskilled worker could only succeed through coercion or force. My thinking has evolved since then. Strike! overwhelmingly shows how important solidarity is in winning a conflict. Even a privileged caste can be replaced, and owners will accept the cost of doing so to maintain their power. There's no easy way to "win" a strike, but getting all hands on board seems to be an essential prerequisite.
As I was reading about these debates and struggles, I found myself thinking about the one strike I've paid attention to recently. Nearly two years ago, SAG-AFTRA struck against some (not all) of the largest video game studios, in the first major action in that industry since voice work started in the 1990s. The union had very legitimate grievances, mostly around actor safety (some recounted being required to scream for so loud and so long that their throats bled, or being required to do mocap work without safety supervision) and morality (not realizing until after being cast that a role required delivering sexually explicit dialogue or personally repugnant content). More broadly, though, the strike was about fairness and control: as the industry is currently structured, voice actors knew nothing about a role prior to accepting a contract for it, and they wanted to be able to know basic things about it (is this a sequel? is it a character I've previously played? what developer is making the game?). Thinking back on this strike after having read Strike!, it now seems clear to me that the big sticking point wasn't the headline everyone talked about at the time, residual payments for successful games: it was about power, with the owners wanting to maintain control over casting and information, and the union wanting to empower its members to choose their own roles.
One of the struck games was Life Is Strange: Before The Storm, the prequel to one of my all-time favorite games. There was one really interesting dimension to the strike and specifically the vocal talent involved. I should preface this by saying that the voice actors on the original Life Is Strange were and are amazing people, incredibly talented within the game, kind and generous outside of it, and are directly responsible for making us fans fall in love with the game. LiS is now an iconic LGBTQ game, and its queer roles were all voiced by (talented, wonderful) straight union actors. Those actors couldn't return to voice their own characters in the prequel, and the replacement actors included (talented, wonderful) non-unionized queer actors voicing queer roles, as well as more black actors voicing black characters.
The entertainment industry isn't necessarily reflective of the broader labor market: each profession and sector has its own gatekeepers and traditions. Entertainment work, especially acting, has incredible competition, very few positions, outsized rewards for a very few (though still a pittance compared to the owners' share) and little compensation for the many. In order to get decently-paying movie or TV work, actors need to support themselves for a long time without making any significant money, which dramatically shrinks the pool of available talent: people with outside resources will fare far better, regardless of skill. It's not surprising that straight white people are overwhelmingly represented in entertainment: regardless of any discrimination, people from traditional backgrounds tend to have more resources and can make it through the wringer of unpaid striving. Once they pass the threshold and get their union card, those same people become eligible for the good work that pays a living wage. The union protects their new privilege, which is a consequence of their original privilege.
Crossing a picket line sucks, but, orthogonally to the labor/management dispute, it can be sad to see an institution like a union acting as a gatekeeper that maintains and extends certain forms of privilege and blocks others from opportunity. Of course, responsibility ultimately lies with the managers who make hiring decisions and the owners who pay them: if there was sufficient will at the top, the demographics of the industry could be far more representative. Still, it would be great to see unions be more aggressive in recruiting diverse members and promoting opportunities for people who otherwise wouldn't be able to access them, rather than guarding the established money and influence of those who have already made it.
In the past I've felt kind of traitorous for thinking thoughts like that. As I got further into Strike!, though, I was... uh, struck, by the division between union and labor. In the past I've thought of "labor" and "union" as being absolutely synonymous, but Brecher is very careful to distinguish the two. Labor is people, the mass of humanity, the lower class, those performing the work. The union is created by those people and ostensibly serves their purpose, but in practice is becomes a new institution, a sort of professional management class that sits above the rank-and-file workers, and very often the union leadership seems to be on the side of management and government, opposed to the workers they represent.
There are tons of examples of this division, growing more pronounced over time, especially notably around the World War 2 era. Understandably, patriotism brought traditional rivals into alignment, and unions pledged to keep production high. Even when their members were suffering, the unions refused to back them up in their struggles against (very profitable) owners, and actively undercut them: expelling elected local officers, warning other unions in the AFL against supporting them, using the press to ostracize them.
The CIO in particular comes across as kind of insidious. The AFL is at least straightforward in its "looking out for ourselves" orientation. The CIO sees an opportunity in going after disaffected workers, presenting itself as a means to get what they want. And then, once the CIO is in charge, it actively works to blunt the workers' impact and maintain a status quo. You gradually come to realize that the AFL and CIO's primary goal is to prevent strikes, to preserve the capitalist system by forcing its members to think in terms of concessions from owners and not in terms of taking power or reshaping the economy to their own benefit.
So, if the national union leaders don't want to reshape the system, then what purpose do they serve? Brecher speculates on this a little near the end of the book, and I have some thoughts of my own. The obvious answer is that the union seeks power and money for its own sake: it's another way that they can get ahead, and they can experience a fraction of the privilege enjoyed by owners. A more charitable and pessimistic view is that they're being pragmatic. The union leaders may believe that true structural change is impossible, that the best they can hope for is better wages: they're acting in the workers' own best interests, even if their members can't understand that by striking they risk losing everything. Or it may just be a social phenomenon: the negotiators spend much of their time face to face with managers, so perhaps they become more accustomed to management's way of thinking and framing of problems.
The top of labor unions can be frustrating, but the bottom is thrilling, and the entire book continues to emphasize that every important event is always driven by the bottom up. Every single strike is initiated by disaffected anonymous laborers on a site, and always opposed by national leaders, even unimpeachable allies like Eugene Debs. This aligns what what I've read in other books like Homage To Catalonia and In Dubious Battle that focus on labor unions. The labor movement seems like the most democratic molecule in our political system, with the people directly voting on and agitating for their issues. Everyone is free to speak, everyone gets a vote, and the will of the people is carried out. And that will is strong: even those who may have voted against an action feel thrilled to be a part of it as they feel themselves becoming part of a larger movement.
Sometimes labor leaders feel compelled to go along with these actions, driven by their members' enthusiasm or fearful of losing their leadership position. Sometimes labor leaders are simply ignored as the workers go ahead with their action. Often, though, the leadership will try everything in their power to stop it. Interestingly, this doesn't seem to be a factor of leaders, but of leadership: there are some fascinating examples in Strike! of situations where a general strike breaks out, the workers resist any compromise, one of their rank is elevated to negotiate... and then that same person who was resisting compromise suddenly becomes much more likely to want a deal. Constant pressure from below is necessary to keep a strike on track, because any representation at the top will be strongly inclined to end it, however radical they may have been before.
While there can be significant tensions between union leaders and union members, the external forces arrayed against unions are incredibly strong: they were overwhelmingly powerful from early on, and grew even stronger as time went on. This is one of the things Jack London predicted in The Iron Heel that proved dead-on accurate. In the 19th century, the biggest force facing the unions were private armies, like the Pinkertons, that were hired by managers to break the strikes. In the decades following London, the resources of the state were increasingly brought to bear. This usually followed an escalation of jurisdiction, reliability, and malice. Local police would be called on to protect owners' property; usually they would fight the strikers, but often they would be sympathetic, and in several cases local elected officials would take the side of labor. The next stage is the governor calling up the National Guard, usually mustering in an adjacent municipality and then arriving with a show of force. This phase often results in picketers getting shot and killed by soldiers, which causes the protesters to get angrier and more active, which is then used as justification to imprison labor leaders and crack down further. In some cases entire towns unite to support the demands of the strikers, at which point the federal government will deploy the army to put it down with force.
All this is in the name of law and order, of course. But it's remarkable that the government has a 100% track record of deploying deadly force to protect the property of wealthy owners, and a 0% track record of deploying deadly force to defend the bodies of laborers against the violence of private security forces.
Strike! is a long book, and the big picture can feel deflating. While there are admirable actions taken throughout history, it feels like the biggest and most exciting outcomes came in the early decades of the movement. I think this is largely because the scale grew more challenging: the power of labor is in numbers, which grows linearly, while the power of the owners comes from capital, which grows exponentially; and owners are aligned with government, whose power comes from force, which has also grown exponentially.
This reminds me of some recent research demonstrating that peaceful revolutions are more successful than violent ones, and that peaceful approaches have grown even more successful over time. One reason for this is power differentials. In previous centuries, private citizens held armaments comparable to what the government wielded: swords, muskets, things like that. The government was better trained, but when push came to shove, sufficient numbers of people could defeat their own government. Today, private citizens may wield automatic rifles; but the government has tanks and artillery and stealth bombers. So the odds of armed revolution succeeding drastically diminish. Political pressure becomes more necessary, and maybe more effective: nonviolent direct action catches the attention of fellow citizens, and foreign nations; it can shame the government into changing its course, inspire other governments into withholding support, perhaps demoralize the military and make them less willing to kill their citizens. It seems to me that all of this may apply as well to the labor movement; and, indeed, the (few!) successes Brecher shows near the end of the book do not involve seizing physical control of plants, but of winning the war of public opinion, convincing other institutions to divest, and making strategic partnerships toxic.
(As a side note, though: while I tend to think of rapid transit and mass communication as being a very modern phenomenon, it's surprising just how quickly word spread back in the 1800s, when local strikes would rapidly propagate throughout the country, seemingly overnight. In some ways, our contemporary overabundance of information probably makes it more difficult to discern important news that merits taking physical action.)
Even when I was first learning about this stuff back in 8th grade, part of me kept asking, "So what?" Unions aren't as powerful as they once were, far fewer people belong to them, and they can seem like relics of the past. Unions were born in the crucible of the industrial economy, and as we move more and more of the workforce to the supposed "information" economy, organized labor can seem irrelevant.
But, of course, it shouldn't be. The underlying capitalist system is still in place, the division between the ultra-rich and everyone else continues to accelerate, basic human needs are still not being met. So why hasn't there been the same sense of urgency around organization? Why aren't there unions in tech companies, or in fast food? Brecher has his thoughts, and I have some too.
One recurring complaint of workers through the book is the mindless tedium of work and the lack of input or creativity. Laborers grow especially upset when their good ideas are ignored by management. Some management trends like kaizen might be helping with this, making individual workers feel more empowered. They're still working for others' profit, but feel like they have more input into the process: a form of power!
Really, I think a lot comes down to power, and specifically, making today's workers feel a sense of power and autonomy while still withholding profits and true decision-making. Simple visual and architectural elements can contribute to this illusion. In a traditional manufacturing line, the manager may be physically elevated over the workers, looking down on them from a panopticon, leading to a very clear physical separation of roles and power. Today, the visual story speaks equality: Mark Zuckerberg sits in an open office, at the same style of desk as other workers. Larry and Sergei drive the same type of Prius that their workers do. The impression is of equality in power, while the economic differential accelerates.
Finally, though, it's worth noting that companies now "voluntarily" provide much of what was once demanded and fought for. Ideas like paid time off, paid overtime, and health care benefits are now taken for granted, but were once unthinkable to owners. People are at their most dangerous when they are pushed below their tolerable levels, when their lives are miserable and they feel they have nothing to lose. As long as people are kept above that line, they may be more compliant, regardless of how much more their boss makes. (You may be angrier if you earn $10/hr and I earn $100/hr than if you earn $50/hr and I earn $5000/hr. I can make a higher profit if I cut your pay from $50 to $10, but if keeping you at $50 keeps you working for me and keeps my business running smoothly, I'll gladly pay that so I can earn an extra $4900.)
I'm left wondering about the future. Jack London (and Karl Marx) were confident that labor would inevitably triumph: it wouldn't be easy or quick, but they were convinced that over the long run capitalism would defeat itself and the mass of united workers would claim the power to control what they produced. But that was before Henry Ford, before automation, before robotics and artificial intelligence. Will the day come, if it isn't already here, where labor is no longer needed? When managers can run factories by themselves? What will happen then?
The "working class" will still be numerically superior to the ownership class, and could organize to win at the ballot box; but if that class no longer holds "real" producing economic power, then will democratic systems continue to last, or will legal oligarchy triumph?
I'm sure that smart people have studied and talked about this; I'm (rhetorically!) asking out of my own ignorance. Reading this book has made me really curious what the academy has to say and what the future may hold. We still may one day arrive at the Brotherhood Of Man, but if we get there, it will be by a different route than people imagined during the heart of the industrial era.