Why Do Workers Strike?

Think conservative workers won’t strike? Think again. History shows it’s not workers’ ideas that count, it’s the conditions they face on the job.

A 1945 telegram to IBT president Tobin, explaining a stoppage in violation of the no-strike pledge. Teamster Local 804

It is rare for history to provide so clear-cut and well-documented a contradiction. On the one hand, a majority of auto workers voted to sustain the no-strike pledge. On the other hand, a majority of auto workers went out on wildcat strikes.

It should be a fruitful source of analysis and understanding. But traditional social science cannot easily deal with this kind of contradiction. The facts strike a powerful blow against sociological surveys and academic views of consciousness. The UAW referendum was a pretty good version of a sociological survey — a simple statement of belief on a clearly stated subject. And yet, even while the survey was being made, the events belied the results of the survey. There had been some understanding that opinion surveys are static and their results cannot be projected too easily into the future. T. Lupton, for example, noted:

The interview is often useful as a means to ascertain attitudes, opinions, and beliefs, but it is not possible to proceed logically from statements about attitudes to descriptions of actual or probable behaviour. Attitudes expressed in an interview may not affect the choice made. Many choices involve a clash between attitudes stated with equal conviction in the situation of the interview.

But here is a situation in which they do not even have validity in the present and the recent past. Part of the contradiction is illuminated by the following:

We tackled Jimmy on this apparent conflict of views — asking him why it was that he could support an Act which intended to curb the use of union power while, in his own work situation, he advocated the greater use of that power. He then made it clear that he didn’t think all strikes were a bad thing “because some do have a good foundation, you know the workers have got reason to strike — but some I believe are Communist inspired and so if the Act can stop that sort of strike then I’m all in favour of it.” It becomes clear that it is not working-class action that is being rejected but working-class action as it is projected by the mass media. Not militancy but “mindless militancy.” Jimmy and his mates are told that strikes are bad, that workers are led by Communists and they believe it. To an extent, that is. Certainly they believe it to the point of arguing it in a pub or of answering a public opinion pollster. But when it comes to daily activity at work they know that strikes can be justified. Maybe they won’t go on strike but they won’t decide not to strike because “strikes are bad for the country” or because “strikes are the results of agitators.” Their decision to strike, or not, will be geared to their own particular situation. It is this tension between generally propagated abstract ideas and practical necessity which explains why — even at a time when wider and wider sections of the workforce were involved in strike action — public opinion polls continued to find so many workers who considered strikes “a bad thing.”

One of the problems of academic social science is the difficulty it has in dealing with any kind of contradiction. Contradiction is viewed as a problem to be straightened out, to be interpreted away. On the other hand, a dialectical view of reality not only assumes contradiction as normal and natural, it views contradiction as the source of all development, change, and movement. It makes contradiction central to its concerns.

The one major investigation into the effect of “affluence” upon the British working class, for example, begins with the assumption that the sort of understanding which workers have of their situation can be analysed in terms of its overarching consistency. Given this assumption “models of consciousness” can be arrived at in which one set of ideas are seen to relate in a formal logical manner to others. The problem with this view of things is that it fails to root “consciousness” in the structure of the real world where experience is more characterised by contradiction than consistency.

One question that is raised by the no-strike pledge referendum is: who are the militants? It has long been the received wisdom of the Left (and the Right, as well) that the more militant workers are also more “conscious” (whatever that word means) and are therefore also the more active in union affairs. That is, militancy is defined as some combination of a radical point of view on particular questions and activism in the union. It is not too distant from the point of view of many leftists that abstention from the political process is a sign of backwardness. People who do not vote for Republicans or Democrats and yet cannot be enticed to vote for Marxist candidates are perceived as needing education. To put it crudely, conscious militancy is to some degree related to participation in the parliamentary system. In the UAW referendum many workers, a substantial minority, voted to rescind the no-strike pledge. It seems reasonable to conclude, however, that the workers who did not vote at all exhibited a greater degree of militancy than those who did. First, of course, there is the fact that acting in a militant way (striking) in the face of considerable sanctions demands more dedication and courage than simply expressing a point of view (especially in a secret ballot). But there is a more important element involved than that. It is not a matter of standing in judgment on workers, measuring their militancy on a scale of ten, or any similar nonsense. It is a matter of finding out why workers behave the way they do and what that indicates for the future. And in that context it is important to understand the significance of abstention from the vote.

To the many thousands of auto workers who wildcatted but did not vote in the referendum, the referendum did not matter. At least it did not matter enough to exert a very minimum effort. But to say that it did not matter is quite ambiguous. I believe it is valid to surmise that it did not matter because to most workers the union structure (like the institutional structure of society generally) is an alien reality. Union leaders are seen as “politicians.” Union leaders, politicians, businessmen, intellectuals, are seen as “them, ” as opposed to “us.” The kind of satisfactions workers can expect to receive from “them” tends to be marginal. Things may get a little better or a little worse, but the fundamental reality of life at work is not likely to change.

The basic argument against this view is that the abstention of voters contributes to the powerlessness of those voters. This view, however, is both reformist and false. It is reformist because it argues that people should take seriously minor adjustments in the system. In the case in point, the adjustment involves the difference between contracts that have no-strike pledges and a union leadership that is not likely to authorize many strikes and a more sweeping pledge that covers all exceptions. In one sense, of course, everything matters, every improvement, no matter how slight. But this sustains the idea that fundamental changes are simply an accumulation of trivial ones, and that all expenditures of energy are equally valid.

The view is false, both in unions and in the society generally, that power resides with voters in proportion to numbers of votes. It is interesting to note in passing that the rejection of the parliamentary process in the United States on a significant scale dates from the turn of the present century. After a quarter of a century of extraordinarily violent and revolutionary struggles on the part of workers, farmers, and others, struggles which were beaten down by military force, and after two successive defeats of William Jennings Bryan for the presidency, running on a populist program, there was a significant and continuing drop in the proportion of eligible Americans who took part in the electoral process. This reflects, it seems to me, a cynical but accurate estimate of the value of the electoral process to workers and poor people generally. It is inherently critical of this society (or, more narrowly, the unions). It is more revolutionary (actual or potential) than the urging of workers to get out and vote, no matter how valid the cause. Objectively, however they interpret their actions in their own minds, workers who reject the institutional framework and take action outside of that framework are expressing a revolutionary potential. To put the matter negatively, workers do not have sufficient loyalty to the institutions of this society (including “their” institutions) to prevent them from abandoning those institutions in a revolutionary situation.

The vote in the UAW referendum indicates a contradiction between activism and activity, but it is a contradiction that is imposed from the outside and is not inherent in working-class activity. It is only a rigid and artificial definition of activism that produces the contradiction.

However, at least among those who voted to retain the no-strike pledge, there was a real contradiction between a verbalized belief and activity. There were many, many workers in the UAW who thought the no-strike pledge a necessary thing and who, nevertheless, went on strike. It is in this area that the most significant conclusions can be drawn.

The first conclusion is that belief does not govern activity. Marx and Engels noted:

The question is not what this or that proletarian, or even the whole of the proletariat at the moment considers as its aim. The question is what the proletariat is, and what, consequent on that being, it will be compelled to do. Its aim and historical action is irrevocably and obviously demonstrated in its own life situation as well as in the whole organization of bourgeois society today.

There is a contradiction between the workers’ being and the workers’ consciousness. It would be quite remarkable if this were not so in a capitalist society. If that was where the matter rested, with the control by the ruling class of all the significant means of education and communication, then this whole discussion would be meaningless because it wouldn’t matter in the slightest what workers thought. But the domination over the production of ideas is never enough for those who rule, because the reality of workers’ lives is in contradiction to the ideas that dominate the society. It is the contradiction between being and consciousness which produces change. The hostile and alienating nature of work in this society (in addition to all the institutions inside and outside the factory designed to sustain the discipline of work) forces workers to resist their daily reality, individually and collectively. The response to that resistance tends to expose the mythology of freedom and equality and continually transforms the consciousness of workers. This is especially true of workers who have not yet been socialized into the accepted and institutionalized forms of resistance, such as the union grievance procedure, government boards, and so on. It is likely that those sections of the working class who were relatively new to the factories, such as the southerners and women, were least likely to accept the discipline of factory work and the discipline of the union. This is borne out by the complaints of spokesmen for the military and spokesmen for the union.

Workers during World War II were generally aware of the class nature of the American government, its favored treatment of corporations, its oppression of workers through a myriad of institutions — price controls, wage controls, restrictions on job transfers, the draft, housing priorities, etc. (To say that they were aware does not mean that they were able to express this awareness in these abstract, intellectual terms.) When they went on strike and when they saw others such as the miners and the MESA members go on strike, they could not help but feel the terrible pressure of management, union, government, and press, all of which denounced them as unpatriotic, subversive, red, and so on. Going on strike made it necessary to modify their views on other things. Being workers made it necessary for them to go on strike.

The second conclusion is that activity modifies belief. What exists, in fact, is a continually developing contradiction between being and consciousness. They act upon each other. It would be nonsense to say that consciousness has no effect on activity, if only to delay or restrain activity. But activity continually emerges to assert itself as the overriding element in that combination. That this is borne out by the way that auto workers behaved during World War II does not make it new. Marx and Engels were aware of it a century earlier:

Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.

They did not think of the working class as revolutionary “because they consider the proletarians as gods,’ or because they thought that workers could be convinced of socialism by revolutionary intellectuals. They assumed workers who were ground down by their life under capitalism. “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.… ”

What can be said of auto workers, then? That they were forced continually to overcome their limitations, to do battle with their union leaders and their government despite their patriotism and their prejudices. “There can be little question that if the total picture of national unity and the no-strike pledge had been presented to a democratic vote of the American working class it would have been roundly defeated.”

But what was the meaning of these struggles? Weren’t they, after all, simply narrow strikes over economics and working conditions? I think that to deal with this it is necessary to go beyond the self-imposed limitations of traditional social science, to avoid “the obscurantism of pure empiricism.” The contradiction between being and consciousness has a corollary, the contradiction between objective and subjective reality.

It is necessary to draw a third conclusion from the events of World War II, that events have to be understood objectively rather than simply in terms of subjective motivation. When workers say that they are treated in a discriminatory way and they need improved working conditions or increased wages and that this does not contradict their desire that the United States win the war, that is an empirical fact. But if we limit ourselves to the perception of the participants we make a mockery of the study of historical events. When thousands of workers are striking for a variety of ends, all of them rather local and narrow, the accumulation of strikes makes for a qualitative change in the objective reality. Objectively it is a threat to the existing social structure, no matter what the participants believe. And if the government and other major institutions respond on that level then continuation and escalation of the strikes reinforces that threat. Taking into account the tendency toward exaggeration in political rhetoric, the attacks upon the working class by corporate executives, congressmen, and senators, and the executive branch of the government, clearly posed an awareness of a subversive threat. This was buttressed by the introduction and passage of anti-labor legislation and anti-subversive legislation. Was this simply a way of using the war to weaken unions? Enriched by the hindsight of the post-Watergate exposures, it would be dangerous to conclude that that was all that was involved. At least in terms of the narrow concern of defending their own society and their own rule, at least some of the fears of working-class activity must have been rooted in an accurate perception of where working-class wildcats could lead. It is a strange and unfortunate reality that revolutionaries have historically had less confidence in the revolutionary capacity of the working class than have had the rulers of capitalist society.

In any case, the firings, the use of the draft against militants, arrests, and harassments were directed not against what workers thought but at what workers did. And, in turn, what workers thought was changed by what those in power did. The wildcat strikes were, in fact, political strikes because they were directed against the government. The government, through military and other personnel, made sure to make that clear.

In the end, not very much seemed to be changed. There were massive legal strikes at the end of the war. The unions emerged from the war infinitely more bureaucratized than they were at the beginning. The UAW moved rather quickly to end the factional divisions and turn power over to the one-party machine of Walter Reuther. The power of the workers within the union structure continued to erode. American capitalism did not seem very threatened as it moved into the Cold War.

However, it seems to me necessary to draw as much as possible, rather than as little as possible, out of the struggle over the no-strike pledge. As was noted earlier, such well-documented contradictions are rare enough in history. The narrower the interpretation, the more likely it is to be locked within the framework of acceptance of the status quo as an overriding given. At the very least, certain negative conclusions can be drawn. The revolutionary potential of the working class is not limited by day-to-day level of activity or by the superficial consciousness of workers, singly or in groups. Workers often act in contradiction to their own statements of belief. Expressions of satisfaction with life (they are rare enough), patriotism, hostility to radicalism of a formal sort are totally useless in determining the future direction of American working-class activity. The contradiction between being and consciousness is what produces change but it is change that tends to be sudden, explosive, and spontaneous.

There is no indication that I am aware of that thirty years later American workers have resolved their contradictions and have lost their revolutionary potential. If anything, the hostility to work, to politics, to government, among workers has become deeper and sharper than at any time since the Great Depression.

There is a combination of elements involved in examining the reality of class, class consciousness, and class activity. The need to generalize and to condense can lead to confusion and misunderstanding unless terms and their use are clearly understood.

When we talk about what a worker thinks, we are talking about something very specific. But no two workers think exactly alike or have identical work or life situations. So that when we talk about group or class consciousness we are not talking about simply generalizing from the individual (although examining an individual in depth can give us significant insights into the general). And we are not talking about an average consciousness or about a total which adds up all the individual consciousnesses. We are talking about a very complex and changing reality.

A worker sits at home filling out his ballot on the no-strike pledge. He might be married or single, he might have relatives in the armed forces or not. He comes from a particular family, region, ethnic background, etc. He is, let us say, listening to the war news on the radio while he is examining his ballot. He may have doubts, he may be unsure, but hearing the casualty reports it might seem reasonable to him to support the pledge.

The next day, at work, his foreman tells him that they have temporarily run out of work for his machine and that he should grab a broom and keep busy by cleaning up the aisles. The worker resents an order to do unnecessary work just for appearances sake, talks to a few of his fellows, and walks off the job. There seems to him no contradiction between that attitude and his vote of the day before. After all, it was the foreman who caused the strike, not the worker.

If there were ten other workers involved, they may have had ten different combinations of attitudes for joining the strike. These could range from aggressive militancy through a belief or sense of class solidarity to lack of interest or fear. One source of consciousness is simply the presence of other workers, that is, the visible signs of class. A worker, sitting at home, is a citizen (although he has many characteristics, even as a citizen, which are working class). The same worker, at work, or at a meeting, is part of a group and, unlike groups of lawyers, businessmen, students, etc., is compelled to think in group terms. His work requires it; and his life experience requires it. Georges Friedmann saw this in his critique of the famous Hawthorne experiment:

Observing methodically a group of workers taken at random, the investigators are thus led to recognize that the mainspring of their inner, spontaneous, secret organization, of their personal inter-relations, and of their behavior inside the factory, is the defense of their collective economic conditions. They think they contribute most effectively to this — on the basis of a system of piece wages and bonuses — by restricting output. Such an attitude clearly implies a solidarity among workers which transcends individual psychological distinctions, antipathies, membership in such and such a group or clique and even, very often, their immediate financial interest. The practice of restriction of output, the recognition of a certain duration of work as a “norm of conduct,” unites them more or less consciously into a collectivity surpassing the internal differences and limits of a firm, even one as vast as Western Electric. The investigators grasped the intrinsic importance of restriction of output, but did not see that here they confronted a socio-economic fact [Is it too much to add — political fact?] going beyond the company’s horizon and relating the workers’ attitude to that of other workers, in other factories, in other industries — in other regions, and even in other countries. Far from being explained by the purely internal factors of the firm, this phenomenon involves the economic and social conditions of the industrial wage worker within the total society to which he belongs.

This is the irreducible minimum of class consciousness, from which leaps in consciousness and activity develop. But although it is always there, it is extremely difficult to record, or even see. An observer could spend a week, a month, or even a year in the department of a factory and see nothing but conflict, horseplay, and apathy among the workers. The production standards and modes of behavior would, of course, be taken for granted and assumed to stem from management decisions or some agreement by management and union that took place at some distance from the factory floor. The actual role of present and former workers in that department in establishing, or helping to establish, the reality of life and production in that department would not be visible. What the observer would see would be factually true, but fundamentally false because key elements of reality would be missing.

Another complication is the definition of class and the use of terms related to class. I do not want to present some final authoritative definition since that is not what is involved in this discussion. E. P. Thompson’s definition is a useful place to start.

By class I understand an historical phenomenon, unifying a number of disparate and seemingly unconnected events, both in the raw material of experience and in consciousness. I emphasize that it is an historical phenomenon. I do not see class as a “structure,” nor even as a “category,” but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.

“Class” is one of the most useful conceptions in social science. It is especially useful to Marxists. But it needs to be understood in all its complexity and “disparate and seemingly unconnected events.” For example, one can say, “The workers went on strike”; or “The working class overthrew the Czarist government.” There is an assumption of totality which is not contained in those sentences. All the workers, each and every last one of them, did not overthrow the Czar. All the workers, each and every one of them, did not go on strike, or, at least, did not want to. Is talk about “workers” and “working class” then only revolutionary rhetoric? I do not think so. I think these are valid uses of the terms — but they cannot be understood as absolutes, any more than, “The French people overthrew the monarchy,” can be understood as an absolute.

In any group of workers, some are more active than others. There are many reasons for this: background, skill, family obligations, etc. Age is always an important factor. I have seen older workers discuss actions that needed to be taken to deal with certain problems, agreeing that a strike was needed, but noting that they were unable to initiate such action, that younger workers with fewer responsibilities would have to do it. That is a fairly general, although not absolute, pattern, for revolutions as well as strikes. It tends to be the young who initiate and lead. The older workers follow.

There are also numbers of workers who oppose militant or revolutionary activities but go along out of fear of reprisals. There are workers who are apathetic who either take part in strikes out of inertia or who simply go home to wait out the events. All these are part of the class and have to be assumed in discussing class activity and class consciousness.

What is crucial, however, is the role of the politically active and effective workers in initiating events and in bringing the majority of the class along. Again: “politically active and effective” must be understood free of the myths of the old left. I have indicated above that by politically active and effective I do not mean (necessarily) union activists or people who are effective speakers or who otherwise relate to parliamentary institutions, in or out of the unions. A handful of workers can initiate a wildcat strike if they sense that a majority of the workers will go along and that those who will not go along will not be effective. Parliamentary majorities are not what is involved. Informal shop-floor organizations and the dispersion of leadership among any group of workers is what is involved. Workers might choose a careerist type to represent them in the grievance procedure while choosing a young militant to represent them on a picket line. Leadership within the class is not a full-time job or the attribute of particular individuals. It is apportioned out depending on the tasks that need doing.

This is one of the reasons that opinion surveys are relatively useless in determining working-class consciousness. Working-class consciousness, as a guide to future activity, as an indication of revolutionary potential (apart from the fact that it changes from day to day), is not an average of what all workers believe, or a division of the class into proportions of 100. It is an historically developing reality made up of many elements. “The question,” in the words of Marx and Engels, “is what the proletariat is and what, consequent on that being, it will be compelled to do.”

Their being compelled auto workers (not to mention miners, mechanics, and others) to strike during World War II in violation of their patriotic sentiments. Their being and those strikes contributed to modifying their beliefs and limiting their patriotism. Abstractly, there were no limits to what American workers could do during the war. Concretely, I believe that the activities of workers were limited to wildcat strikes for two reasons.

One was the fact that sufficient concessions were made to prevent the lid from blowing off. An irregular pattern of concessions in response to some strikes, adjustments by the government, etc., both served to encourage further strikes and to discourage going beyond strikes. Physical police or military force against strikers tended to be used sparingly.

Two was the quick incorporation of the accumulated militancy of the war years into major official strikes very shortly after the war ended. The General Motors strike led by Reuther in particular served to channelize the wartime militancy of the UAW.

As a conclusion to this discussion I would like to relate the wartime wildcat strikes to the two major postwar revolutionary events of the industrial world: the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the French Revolt of 1968. Both began with student demonstrations and were transformed into social revolutions by the intervention of workers on a mass scale in wildcat actions that led, in Hungary, to the creation of workers councils and, in France, to the near destruction of the de Gaulle government. There was nothing in the observable consciousness or overt activity of either the French or Hungarian working classes that could possibly have led to a prediction of coming revolution. If anything, all the conditions led almost all observers to assume the reverse.

How, then, did these revolutions take place? The assumptions that would make those events intelligible, that would remove them from the category of historical accidents that are of no interest to observers, are the assumptions that I have tried to apply to the wartime wildcat strikes in the auto industry. They indicate, it seems to me, a fundamental class solidarity and a huge hidden reserve of consciousness and activity which can produce similar spontaneous outbursts on a vast social scale in the United States. This is not a prediction that these events will occur. It is, rather, a suggestion that those who are concerned with fundamental social change would do better to base themselves on a working-class revolutionary potential than on the limited empirical evidence of the day to day.