One of the Most Interesting Articles You’ve (Probably) Never Read

BY  Jeff Goodwin

I’d like to take this occasion to celebrate one of the most interesting and, it turns out, unusual articles published in Mobilization over the past quarter century. It is not, alas, one of the more highly cited articles published in Mobilization. But I think that says more about us readers of Mobilization than about the article. And what it says about us is not very flattering.

My love for this particular article reflects my own rather old-fashioned political views. You see, it’s my belief that those of us who have to sell our work to the rich, or to the state, in order to get by—the vast majority of people in our society—possess tremendous latent power. The challenge, of course, has always been to make that latent power real. The most potent power we possess is our ability to refuse to work. But we have to enact that refusal collectively and simultaneously or we have no power at all—and the kind of solidarity this requires is very hard to come by.

Nonetheless, the “structural power” of ordinary people has been successfully leveraged from time to time, to a greater or lesser extent, to our greater or lesser benefit. Our power to disrupt by collectively refusing to work is largely responsible, directly or indirectly, for a great many of the things we cherish, including the 40-hour work week, the weekend, vacation time (for some of us), comfortable retirements (again, for some of us), and democracy itself. As scholars of social movements, we know these things aren’t the gifts of the high and mighty.

The labor organizer “Big Bill” Haywood put it best: “If workers are organized, all they have to do is put their hands in their pockets and they’ve got the capitalist class whipped.” Of course, that’s a mighty big “if.” There are many obstacles to working-class solidarity. And in the United States and many other countries, perhaps none is greater than racism—by which I mean white racism—and racial inequality. You cannot be interested in labor solidarity and not also be interested in understanding, and destroying, white racism and racial inequality. “Identity politics” and class politics are in this way complementary and not at all at odds with one another.

Working-class solidarity, alas, is not something that interests many social movement scholars these days. We seem to have outsourced this issue to labor sociologists. Not more than a handful of articles have been published in Mobilization over the past 25 years which touch upon working-class solidarity, and I know of only one—the one I’m here to celebrate—that focuses on the question of interracial or multiracial working-class solidarity.

Let that sink in for a moment. In a better world, surely a great many scholars would worry out loud about working-class solidarity and about how we might understand and destroy the racism and racial inequalities that make such solidarity so difficult. And yet over the course of a generation, the leading journal of social movement studies in the English-speaking world has published exactly one article on this matter.

Now, this is not in any sense the fault of Mobilization, or of its editors. It’s of course a symptom of what interests—and in this case, what does not interest—university-based scholars of social movements. It reflects who we are. And we are, evidently, just not very interested in working-class solidarity or in obliterating the kind of racism that makes precisely this solidarity so tenuous. Or perhaps we are interested in these things in our private lives, just not in our academic work. In either case, why this is so merits reflection and self-reflection.

The Mobilization article I think we should celebrate was written by Cliff Brown and John Brueggemann. Brown teaches at the University of New Hampshire, and Brueggemann at Skidmore. Their article is titled “Mobilizing Interracial Solidarity: A Comparison of the 1919 and 1937 Steel Industry Labor Organizing Drives,” and it was published in March 1997, in just the third issue of Mobilization. Nothing at all like it has been published in Mobilization since. Again, why this is so ought to cause us to reflect. In any event, I think it’s one of the most interesting articles you’ve (probably) never read.

Brown and Brueggemann want to know how interracial or multiracial working-class solidarity is possible—a question, I’ve suggested, of transcendent importance, especially in this age of Trump and Brexit and rampant nativism and xenophobia. To address this question, they look closely at the successful trade-union organizing campaign of 1937 led by the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee (SWOC), which would later become the United Steel Workers of America. This campaign saw substantial cooperation and solidarity between white and black workers. (Latinx and Asian workers were not a significant part of the industry’s workforce.) To get additional leverage on this question, Brown and Brueggemann compare the SWOC campaign with an earlier, failed attempt to organize steelworkers in 1919. That campaign was fatally undermined by white racism and by the use of black strikebreakers by the steel corporations.

So what changed between 1919 and 1937? How did interracial solidarity among steelworkers come about? Briefly, Brown and Brueggemann suggest that both objective, structural factors and subjective, strategic decisions by union organizers played a role. These conditions and choices subverted interracial solidarity in 1919, but encouraged it in 1937. One important structural factor was the declining importance of craft unions for steel production as a result of the deskilling of the labor process. Black and white steelworkers were more likely to identify and cooperate with one another when they saw themselves in the same boat in terms of wages and working conditions, and that was increasingly the situation during the Depression. Back in 1919, by contrast, craft unions played a larger role in steel production, and few skilled and better paid workers in craft unions, who historically were overwhelmingly white, saw any point in cooperating with poorly paid unskilled workers, black or white.

Labor organizers, furthermore, pursued entirely different organizing strategies in 1937 as compared to 1919. Labor organizers in 1937—including many Communists and radicals who were ideologically committed to multiracialism—used racially inclusive methods to organize steelworkers. Given the racial composition of the workforce, it was simply impossible to build a strong industrial union that excluded African Americans. Crucially, SWOC used black as well as white organizers, and drew on the recent experiences of United Mine Workers (UMW) organizers. In fact, many union locals employed the so-called “UMW formula,” according to which the local would have a white president, a black vice president, and a number of black officers. According to some estimates, blacks were actually overrepresented among union officials. Thus, organizers did not pursue “race neutral” policies nor simply employ racially inclusive rhetoric. Rather, they institutionalized racially inclusive policies.

There is much, much more to Brown and Brueggemann’s analysis than what I’ve summarized here. Like all important scholarship, their analysis raises many more questions than it answers. Suffice it to say that I love their article, and I love the fact that Mobilization published it. But I’m disappointed that there has been no follow up to their research in the pages of Mobilization. Their article might have been the opening salvo in a long and productive discussion in the pages of Mobilization about the social forces that facilitate multiracial unionism and working-class solidarity more generally—a discussion that would bring Latinx and Asian workers as well as black and white workers into view. I hope it’s not too late to start that discussion. I hope more social movement scholars become interested in working-class solidarity. That might happen should the labor movement grow once again in the United States, and there are hopeful signs that this is beginning to happen.

 

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