Two hundred years ago, the Industrial Revolution made major changes to the the way people work. Wherever it spread, the capitalist factory system put pressure on the feudal agricultural system to adapt, and many social traditions were strained. Some of the countryside was privatized, and many people who had previously grown their own food and made crafts by hand had to move into the cities to find jobs that paid wages.
Many of the new jobs in the capitalist workplaces were miserable, and workers who didn’t like being exploited produced a number of responses. Some workers formed cooperative businesses in which everyone voted on what to do with the profits. Other highly skilled workers — shoemakers, for instance — formed craft unions to protect their livelihoods from the cheaper competition coming from the capitalist-controlled factories.
Both of these systems were able to protect their followers from exploitation to some extent, and both are still around today. However, the advance of machine-driven work and the creation of jobs which did not require much skill (“deskilled” jobs) meant that increasingly, the working class, whether in factories or shipyards, on farms or in restaurants, was becoming one big mass of industrial workers pulling levers and pressing buttons, lifting loads and smiling at customers.
Because of these changes, and because the craft unions often refused to allow anyone but white male workers to join them and benefit from their protection, some labor organizers formed a new union in 1905 called the Industrial Workers of the World. The idea behind the IWW was to make one big union of all workers from every industry, and the union would organize both for better wages, shorter hours, and safer conditions, and for a permanent end to capitalism and the wage system. Nothing else, said the IWW, would really be a solution to workers’ problems, just a temporary truce in the class conflict between capitalists and employees at best, which could always be reversed if the capitalists thought they could get away with it.
In 1919, just a few years after the communist revolution in Russia, radicals in the the United States began to experience a period of extreme repression called the Red Scare. The truth is that, although they were growing, the anti-capitalist revolutionary groups in the U. S. were not nearly as strong as in Russia, but the capitalists, with their private armies and with the state police, still decided to attack. Many radical activists and organizers were deported to other countries, and many more were imprisoned, tortured, and killed, often with the help of local militia groups and racist organizations like the KKK.
Ten years later, the Great Depression had brought deep poverty to large parts of the U. S., so the union movement started to pick up again as workers sought a way out of hardship. One segment of the ruling class, led by U. S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, decided to respond by meeting some of the workers’ demands through government reforms. Their idea was partly to respect workers’ basic human dignity, but perhaps even more than this, they wanted to use government regulations to prevent capitalism from destroying itself. As part of what they called the New Deal program, they passed workplace safety laws, introduced some social insurance measures like Social Security, and launched steep taxes on the biggest capitalists to help redistribute some of the wealth that the capitalists had taken from the workers.
The New Deal reforms made conditions at some jobs better and set some new standards for how businesses could run, but it was not what anti-capitalist organizers really wanted. Reform was not necessarily bad, but it was not a final solution. Although these workers now legally had the right to form labor unions, very few businesses were brought under direct worker control, instead remaining under capitalist ownership. And even though a plan was made to redistribute some wealth to workers in the form of hospitals, public schools, and other resources, the only marginally democratic, capitalist-controlled government, and not the workers’ unions themselves, was still mostly directing how these programs were run.
Nonetheless, workers continued to organize through the 1940s, empowered by these partial class victories as they were. Even during World War II and despite a no-strike pledge from some of the more conservative trade union bosses, workers struck anyway, and in record numbers. When the war was over, the U. S. emerged as the main winner and the world’s leading industrial power, with the Soviet Union taking second place. Conservative elements within the U. S. ruling class decided to use this situation as an opportunity to launch another round of anti-communist hysteria. This was the second Red Scare, also known as the McCarthy era. During this time, in the late 1940s and 1950s, the big labor federations like the AFL and CIO were compelled to purge their ranks of strongly anti-capitalist elements: anarchists, communists, socialists. Therefore, the labor organizers who were the most militant and radical were pushed into the darkness, and the major unions became friendlier to the employing class.
In the 1960s, a new wave of radical activity started in the U. S. which would eventually become known as the New Left. Groups like SNCC, which advocated for racial integration and racial equality, middle-class student organizations like SDS, and the feminist movement became the foundation for the civil rights movement, which eventually joined forces with the movement against the war in Vietnam. All of these interests left a powerfully democratizing impact on U. S. society, but unfortunately, there was by this time a big split developing between economically oriented organizing and individual rights oriented organizing. This was a major problem because, as many radicals had previously argued, political and social power comes most of all from economic power. In other words, if you don’t have control over the economy, you don’t have real bargaining power to get what you want in other areas of life.
What started happening is a backslide in the many economic rights that the previous generation of workers had won, and which the New Left wrongly assumed were going to stay in place on their own. Consequently, the purchasing power of wages reached its peak around 1970 and then started to drop, which it has continued to do ever since. Likewise, labor unionization started to slide from about thirty-five percent in the 1960s to about twelve or eleven percent, where it is today. And a political philosophy called neoliberalism, which calls for an end to wealth redistribution and public services, started becoming more popular among the ruling class (and among some very confused workers). Neoliberalism made its major debut during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, a former corporate spokesperson, and it has continued its dominance in one form or another ever since.
What this shows is that the “Old Left” radicals were right: all arrangements with the employing/ruling class are temporary, and until workers have taken over the economy and replaced capitalism with a cooperative system of industry, there will be no lasting peace or justice in society. As soon as workers stop organizing around economic issues, making these the central rallying point of all other efforts, conservative capitalist forces will start working to roll things back toward the Social Darwinist, “laissez faire” system in which employment is at its most insecure, exploitative, and undemocratic, nothing material is guaranteed, and ruthless competition rules the day. That is no way to run a society!
How now do we escape a descent into even worse kinds of economic brutality? The IWW says that the entirety of the economic infrastructure, also called the means of production — all of the workplaces and tools, everything material that’s used to produce goods and provide services — must be turned over to the organized working class and run by radical union democracy. Naturally, the major challenge for radical unionists is, first of all, to demonstrate to the working class (by which we mean all those who sell their labor to earn wages or salaries to survive, even highly skilled “professional” workers), the necessity of organizing. “Free market radicals,” such as Ron Paul supporters and some Tea Partiers, for instance, want simply to eliminate the government, thinking that this will create peace and prosperity. However, without an organized and educated working class to provide order in its place, society will simply succumb to the desires of the next most-organized faction, the corporations themselves. Likewise, communist and socialist political parties which propose to turn over the economy to the workers by decree will be unable to do so until the working class has organized enough to receive it! In the Soviet Union, for instance, work life was often the same as under capitalism, just with a government bureaucrat as the boss instead of a privately wealthy capitalist.
So, working people of all backgrounds, this is your task today: to organize to replace capitalism with union democracy, as one big union of all workers laboring to meet human need, not some boss or stockholder’s selfish expectations. We in the IWW aim to do all we can to help shed light on the way toward this possibility, drawing lessons from the past as we go the best that we can. In the short term, you are likely to win higher pay and more control over your job conditions. In the long term, we just might make some major changes for the better. Contact the IWW today to talk to us about your work situation — even if you are currently unemployed — and we’ll be happy to tell you what we can.