Solidarity for Who? Part II: One Theory of the Union Movement’s Downfall, A History Boy, 15/08/2014

Would Bakunin have liked Rage
Against the Machine?
Bakunin’s writings about the politics of the First International and the conflicts among the trade union movements in 1860s-70s Europe also carry some important lessons for the modern era. They have a lot to do with the limits of solidarity, and intersect quite a lot with my own most formative union experiences. 

Here’s how deep union solidarity goes in my family. When I came back to visit St. John’s after being out on the one and only strike I’ve so far gone through in my life (McMaster University Teaching Assistants CUPE local 3906 in Fall 2009), my aunt and uncle, both pushing 70 at the time, played me old school British union anthems from the 1960s. It was a wonderfully strange moment of family solidarity, especially as I had to inform them that we spent most of the strike listening to Dead Prez and Rage Against the Machine. That’s generation shifts for you.

But for my part, whenever I’ve heard union chants of “Solidarity!” among my own generation, I’ve tended to feel more excluded than included, even when I’ve been a union member. Here’s an example of the corrosion of solidarity that Bakunin identifies as a key means in which a union movement self-destructs, as workers with different interests turn against each other. 

The union leadership of CUPE 3906 when we were on strike came almost exclusively from humanities and social science faculties, where TAs legitimately are overworked, often having to read and correct assignments and papers for 35-50 students while also attending lectures and familiarizing themselves with the course material enough for them to correct them effectively. 

There was almost no outreach to the engineering and science faculty TAs, whose correction labour mostly consisted in making sure the Scantron cards were properly collated and stored without bending. An entire faculty worth of TAs thought the union’s claims of overwork were bullshit because they had never actually been told what humanities and social science TAs had to do for their work. No wonder we accepted the administration’s terms when the entire union membership actually came out to vote. Our union couldn’t even maintain solidarity in a single local.

Bakunin also describes a macro-economic way to break worker solidarity. Since he was writing in the context of the First International, the first attempt among the European trade union / socialist / revolutionary communist movements to network all the different local groups into one organization for mutual support and knowledge sharing, continent-sized processes were important for his thinking. It has to do with the fact that every local situation is different.

Union demonstrations no longer face violence, but they
also rarely achieve the transformative political power that
they used to wield.
So some regions or industries would successfully unionize before others. In that case, if you’re a venture capitalist opposed to union organization, it doesn’t really make sense to combat that unionized sector directly. I mean, people did. That’s what the Pinkertons and other private security forces were for in the early 20th century. But there was a much less violent, more morally and politically legitimate, and insidious way to break organized labour. Citing greater efficiency accruing to lower labour costs, you could divest your investments in a unionized sector and instead plough your capital into non-unionized sectors or regions. I think this is analogous to the pressure between American states with unionized manufacturing sectors and right-to-work policies.

If enough venture capitalists do this, then you’ll break a union movement through simple impoverishment. A manufacturing industry without any investment capital grinds to a halt. You can’t work in an industry whose investors have all pulled up stakes and financial obligations and gone to right-to-work or militarily-ruled pastures. They could then pressure unionized workers to move to these greener pastures if they wanted work: after all, better a poorly-paid job than no job at all.

This, says Bakunin, is why an international network of communication and mutual support among workers’ organizations is so important. It would build connections of solidarity across regions so that people in right-to-work states or the 19th century equivalent would see the change for what it was: a means to break unionization movements in more progressive regions. Such networks of communication would let workers learn more about the struggles of other areas, and better understand the global economic system in which they were embedded.

When I was on strike in 2009, I spoke to an independent contractor who was driving onto campus to do some electrical work. He asked me what some of the issues were that we were striking for. I told him that one issue close to me was that we wanted improved benefits for graduate students with children, because several of my colleagues had kids and they struggled to stay on their feet financially on their TA incomes and stipends. 

His response was that I could go fuck myself because he’d been working as a journeyman electrician for years and he never came anywhere near getting employment benefits at all, and he slammed his truck through our picket line. 

When I was looking for entry-level sessional work teaching in universities in my area on a per-course basis, I spoke to several department heads and adjunct union officials, and relatives also inquired on my behalf at unions in other regions. I had supported the unionization of per-course faculty as a student, but once I became an academic labourer, those unions actively worked against me. A sessional faculty union's first priority is to institute seniority as the major or only criteria for hiring, guaranteeing jobs to those who have already taught courses in their unit.

One department head told me that he actually had no control over who was hired for a per-course position; he requested one from the union and the union named the professor. The head of one per-course union openly told my relative that the purpose of his job was to prevent better-qualified new PhD graduates from being able to compete with his members for work.

Maybe if, instead of simply looking out for their own members, union locals spent more time networking with other labourers in their industries and their communities who were outside union locals to educate each other about all their different struggles, the Western workers’ movement would be in somewhat better shape. It's not as if these networks aren't being made. But there aren't nearly enough of them to be effective, and too many leaders and executives of individual locals are too willing to deny the rights of outside workers in the name of protecting their own.

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