Marty Glaberman
& Seymour Faber

Working For Wages:
The Roots Of Insurgency


From Martin Glaberman & Seymour Faber, Working for Wages: the Roots of Insurgency, New York: General Hall, 1999.
Downloaded with thanks from Rich Gibson's Education Page for a Democratic Society
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


As we said earlier in this book, one of the crucial elements of our subject is contradiction. It is the element that is most difficult for traditional social science to comprehend and deal with. As a result, the conclusions and findings of academic research tend to be tentative and conservative. The status quo, despite acceptance of some criticism, is given the benefit of the doubt. This conservatism also makes it easier for observers, students, and researchers to draw minimal conclusions from their work. As a result, there is an ideological bias toward interpreting facts and events in as limited a way as possible. This is not a conservative or right-wing bias; it affects liberals and leftists as well. One of the consequences is that people observing the same events often draw different, even opposite, conclusions. A strike can be diminished by the idea that it was only for a nickel an hour. It can also be seen as a militant attempt to take on the most powerful corporation. Events can be interpreted in many ways. Victories can become defeats, or vice versa.

One of the most interesting and illuminating events in American labor history that illustrates this problem was the struggle against the no-strike pledge in the United Auto Workers (UAW) during World War II. An examination of those events, touched on briefly earlier, can provide the basis for drawing some fundamental conclusions about the nature of the working class and working-class activity.

In the first months of World War II there was a decline in the number of strikes. The end of 1941 through 1942 was a period that put a finish to the late 1930s, the massive organizational drives, the sit-down strikes, the violence – all the events that created the big industrial unions. That job had not been entirely done. Ford was not organized until early 1941. What was then known as Little Steel (all of the major steel corporations except for U.S. Steel) was not unionized until the war was well under way. But enough had been accomplished and government enforcement of the National Labor Relations Act was effective enough to bring a decline in the need for major organizing strikes.

Gradually, however, as the war went on, the number of strikes (by definition all of them were wildcats, all of them were illegal under union contracts and under union constitutions) began to escalate until, by the end of the war, the number of workers on strike exceeded anything in previous labor history. In the UAW, these events had a distinctive character. The wildcat strikes in the auto and aircraft industries were larger in number and more militant. But what was especially important was the fact that something took place that made it possible to make a certain kind of record. The UAW was the only union in which, because there were still two competing caucuses, rank-and-file workers were left with a certain amount of democratic leeway to press for their point of view. As a result, an actual formal debate and vote took place on the question of the no-strike pledge.

A small, so-called rank-and-file caucus was organized late in 1943 and early 1944 and began a campaign around a number of issues. The central issue was the repeal of the no-strike pledge. At an interesting convention of the union in the fall of 1944, the various caucuses presented their resolutions on the pledge. The majority caucus, the caucus that controlled the leadership, was the Thomas-Addes caucus, which included the Communist Party and was the strongest supporter of the no-strike pledge. It offered a long resolution, with a list of “whereases” about our “great Russian ally,” and so forth, concluding with, “therefore, we reaffirm the no-strike pledge.”

The minority was the Walter Reuther caucus. It submitted a deceptively worded resolution. It was also for the no-strike pledge, except in cases where plants had returned to peacetime production. Everyone understood that this was a copout, designed to win the support of militant workers without giving anything in return. Some plants had ceased war production, but not many and most plants had a combination of war and peace production, so the no-strike pledge would still apply.

Then there was the Rank and File caucus. In the context of this convention it was called the “superminority.” It was simply for the unconditional termination of the no-strike pledge.

Parliamentary democracy is an interesting thing; it can be very strange at times. The first vote was on the superminority report, and the motion to repeal the no-strike pledge lost by about two to one. Militants figured they ought to support Reuther’s resolution as the lesser of the two remaining evils. But some delegates prevailed who said no, let’s propose that the convention vote down both of the remaining resolutions. This handful of people distributed handbills the next morning asking delegates to vote down both resolutions. It is not clear whether the handbills had any effect or not, but Reuther’s resolution was so overwhelmingly defeated that there was not even a roll-call vote. Then, strangely enough, the majority resolution, which was for the reaffirmation of the no-strike pledge, was also defeated, almost by a two-to-one vote.

So delegates did not want to vote for the minority (presumably there were caucus alliances and similar questions involved), but they did not want the no-strike pledge. As a result, the UAW was without a no-strike pledge, and all the bureaucrats were up on the platform with visiting government dignitaries, and they could not deliver their own membership. And everyone was running around saying, “What are we gonna do?”

In the UAW (it’s still true) the cure for democracy is more democracy. If you vote the wrong way, you get to vote again and again until, eventually, people stay home and there are enough people left to vote the right way. The leaders said that this issue was really too important to be decided at a convention, it should be decided by a membership referendum. So they passed, without any “whereases,” a simple resolution reaffirming the no-strike pledge. This carried on the condition that there would be a membership referendum in which the three caucuses would participate with representatives on a committee to run the referendum so that there would be no cheating. Or, at least, there would not be more than the usual amount of cheating.

(A side issue was the role of the Communist Party, which was very interesting. The CP as part of the Thomas Addes caucus, accepted this deal-a simple reaffirmation of the no-strike pledge, leading to a referendum. As soon as the reaffirmation was accepted, the CP opposed the referendum. All they wanted was the pledge. Their fudging on the agreement was rejected, which was probably one of the many things that led to their ultimate demise in the UAW. It had left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth.)

The referendum was, in some respects, the classic sociological survey. Everyone got a postcard ballot. Errors, cheating, and the like were kept to a minimum. Everyone on the commission thought it was as fair as you get in any organization of a million or more members. It took several months to do. When the vote was finally in, the membership of the UAW had voted two to one to reaffirm the no-strike pledge.

The conclusion any decent sociologist would draw is that auto workers, on the whole, thought that patriotism was somewhat more important than class interest, that they supported the war, rather than class struggle and strikes. There was a little problem, however, and this is why this is a fascinating historical experience. The problem was that at the same time that the vote was going on, in which workers voted two to one to reaffirm the no-strike pledge, a majority of auto workers went on strike.

In other words, workers were saying that it is wartime and we really should not strike, but, by God, this foreman did me in and tomorrow we are walking out. There is another element that relates to the limitations of parliamentary democracy. A majority of auto workers did not vote in the referendum. So the vote was two to one of those who voted – and many more went on strike than voted. This calls into question some of the tenets of both the academic and political worlds. The idea that those who do not participate in voting are apathetic, less conscious of their interests, less militant, than those who do participate simply will not survive close examination. It also shows how limited, tentative, and temporary are the results of survey research.

How can this be dealt with? Many workers say one thing and do another. It strikes us that this element is crucial to understanding working-class activity. It can be turned any way that is desired. It can be said that workers are stupid, that they cannot understand that what they are doing is contradictory. On the other hand, on the basis of a belief in the potential for social change in the working class, then the problem is to understand how those contradictions appear. And more than that, to understand that contradiction is an essential element, not just of capitalist society as a whole, but of the working class which embodies in itself the contradictions of capitalist society.

To visualize it in this instance is fairly simple. You are not voting on the shop floor. You get this postcard, and you are sitting at the kitchen table, listening to the radio news with the casualty reports from Europe and the Pacific, and you think, yes, we really should have a no-strike pledge, we have got to support our boys. Then you go to work the next day and your machine breaks down and the foreman says, “Don’t stand around, grab a broom and sweep up,” and you tell him to go to hell because it is not your job, and the foreman says he is going to give you time off and the next thing you know, the department walks out.

There is no contradiction in the worker’s mind. Workers do not cause strikes, bosses cause strikes. If you want to end strikes, get the bosses to behave. It is not simply self-justifying rationalization, it is reality. Workers in general do not want to strike – they can’t afford to lose time. Yet they find themselves compelled, in order to be human beings, to behave as human beings, to carry on actions on the shop floor. This, in fact, means that life on the shop floor, or the office floor, or the mineshaft, or anywhere else, is a constant struggle. It also illustrates that class consciousness is collective, not individual.

Conflict and struggle are the reality and they take many forms. Some forms of struggle might win general approval, some might not. But if the attempt is made to understand the situation, then the reality is: work stinks, people fight against it. Traditional forms of struggle, such as strikes, are acceptable. But there are ways that are not generally acceptable. Absenteeism, sabotage, getting drunk in order to forget the past week and the coming week, taking drugs, changing jobs. There is a whole panorama, all of which is an attack on work in capitalist society, an attack on the capitalist control of work.

The fact was that in a war that was probably the most popular America took part in, workers in fact, if not in their minds or in theory, said that given the choice between supporting the war or supporting their interests and class struggle, they took class struggle.

The importance of this example is the historical accident of having the postcard ballot, the membership referendum, but the equivalent happens often enough. In the Vietnam War, for example, the picture most people had was of middle-class radicals, the New Left, fighting against the war and the hard-hats supporting it and beating up the antiwar students. Yet more war production was stopped by workers carrying on ordinary strikes in the course of their lives in the plants than by the whole antiwar movement put together. There were strikes at Olin-Matheson, which made munitions, at McDonnell-Douglas, which made fighter planes, on the Missouri Pacific railroad, which transported war materials for shipment from the Pacific coast. In a few instances, strikes lasted a couple of weeks, and the shortage of planes and war material reached the point where the Johnson administration was getting ready to take over the plants to stop the strikes.

This was not because the workers were anti-war. Many workers were, but many weren’t. What the workers were doing was trying to live as human beings in the process of production. It is important to understand two things about working-class struggle. First, it is an inherent necessity and takes place all the time whether the means are socially approved or not. And second, the bourgeoisie is constantly aware of that fact, and the related potential for major social upheaval, and goes to great lengths to protect against it, to derail it, and to prevent it. In fact, the most radical perspective on the American working class can be found, not in the leftist press, but in the Wall Street Journal and Fortune. They are serious about that stuff because their readers have to deal with it. They try their best, when necessary and when they cannot control what workers are doing, to reincorporate workers into the system of production. Some years ago it was called job enrichment; let the workers think that they have a say in what they are doing. That did not work too well, so now there is quality of work life, worker participation, team concept, and labor-management cooperation-management works out a different agreement with the unions so that they are no longer antagonists. They have got to join together to keep discipline on the shop floor.

One of the problems is that the general analysis tends to lead, in the hands of most analysts or historians or sociologists or radicals, to saying that all this is very interesting, workers are militant, but what does it all mean? Workers support capitalism, male workers are sexist, white workers are racist, workers are divided by skill, older workers are against younger ones, and so on. That is part of existence. As long as there is capitalism, that is an inevitable feature of the world. It does not help to believe that people will be convinced by some abstract definition of solidarity, or some abstract definition of socialism, and then the workers will transform society.

It does not work that way. Marx said that the ruling ideology in any society is the ideology of the ruling class. If that can be changed before or without a social revolution, then a revolution is not needed. It is only necessary to convince everyone that the ruling ideology is wrong and that they should accept some other ideology. That is the concept at the heart of the vanguard party. The party embodies the right ideology and if you have enough people following the party, it can do whatever it wants. It can make a revolution or, more likely, it can make what amounts to a counterrevolution and introduce totalitarian state capitalism, as in eastern Europe before 1990.

But workers have tried to transform society, sometimes successfully, most times unsuccessfully. How does that happen? How do shop-floor struggles lead to massive social change? How do things like wildcat strikes, which have no visible leadership above the local union level, become transformed into actions with revolutionary potential, despite the divisions, despite the contradictions? It is necessary, not as a matter of argument but as a matter of method, to look at the most advanced points that the working class reached internationally in the post-World War II world.

One such example occurred in 1956 in Hungary, a country that had been dominated by a totalitarian dictatorship for ten years. All the means of education and information were controlled by the state and the Communist Party. There were no independent organizations of the working class; there were only the official trade unions and the organizations approved by the party.

In October 1956 a massive demonstration was organized by dissident Hungarian students and intellectuals in support of developments in Poland, where the Poles were resisting attempts by the Soviets to dominate Polish society further. The government was unsure of itself in its reactions to the demonstration, alternately permitting and banning the demonstration. But the demonstration took place without hindrance and, finally, the demonstrators insisted that their demands, which consisted of a whole range of things, including withdrawal of the Russians, rights for workers, independent unions, and so on, be broadcast on government radio. The government did not respond, so the demonstrators decided to march to the radio station in another part of Budapest. It was late in the day, and people getting out of work joined the demonstrators. When they reached the square in front of the radio station, the secret police guarding the station opened fire; the Hungarian revolution had begun.

There was some street fighting. There were signs that the Hungarian army was not going to support the government. The soldiers either melted away or joined the demonstrators or turned their arms over to the demonstrators. Then, within twenty-four hours, the workers of Budapest took control of fact6ries and offices, the means of production, and created workers’ councils to run them. Within forty-eight hours, workers’ councils had spread all across Hungary. The councils, in fact, toppled the Communist Party, which had to be reorganized under another name with a figurehead government under Imre Nagy put in place. For a short while there was an attempt to create a new society, neither capitalist nor Communist. But, after a couple of weeks, the revolution was crushed, not by any power within Hungary, but by an invasion of Soviet tanks.

Another example took place in the spring of 1968. There were massive student demonstrations in Paris, with street fighting between students and police that lasted for a couple of weeks. Seemingly unconnected with that, there was a sit-in at a small aircraft factory in Nantes, in which the workers imprisoned the plant management. And then the same thing that happened in Hungary happened in France. Within forty-eight hours, 10 million workers occupied all the factories. The revolt did not go as far as the Hungarian revolution, although it was not defeated and came within a hair’s breadth of toppling the De Gaulle government. In hindsight, perhaps the difference might have been that there weren’t the visible cracks in the military structure that had appeared in Hungary, which allowed Hungarian workers to go further than they might otherwise have gone.

The Hungarian revolution, the French revolt, Solidarity in 1980 in Poland, the Czechoslovakian revolt in 1968 are absolutely unintelligible in any kind of traditional radical or liberal or conservative sociological and political framework. There is a standard list of givens: A revolution cannot be made without a party and a press. A revolution cannot be made unless there is the possibility of public discussion of matters of program. Revolution is not possible without a depression (there was no depression in any of the countries in which these events took place). In other words, all the criteria that seemed to be essential to the possibility of fundamental social change were absent. 

How could these revolts happen? How could workers who could not even talk to each other beyond the next machine for ten years in Hungary take over the entire productive plant in the country in forty-eight hours? How could French workers do the same thing? (Here again, the role of the Communist Party was interesting. The CP tried desperately to get the workers out of the plants and into a traditional strike situation, walking up and down with picket signs. Next to De Gaulle, the CP was probably the most counterrevolutionary force in France.)

It is impossible to understand these events as isolated from the rest of working-class experience. If there had not been constant struggle on the shop floor, with all its contradictions, if all there had been was peace and quiet and those struggles did not mean anything, there could not be a Hungarian revolution, there could not be a French revolt, and there cannot be the equivalent in the United States. Marx said many years ago that strikes cannot be interpreted in terms of how little or how much is won economically, that there is a political character to them. They are resistances to life in this society. Some battles are won, some are lost, but all can be learned from. In a capitalist society, more are lost than are won. Occasionally, workers win great victories; more often, they suffer great defeats. Still more often, there are modest victories and modest defeats. But if these struggles have not been going on for one or two or three generations, then there cannot be a revolutionary potential.

If, with all the advantages of hindsight, a sociologist did a survey of the working-class suburbs of Budapest in September 1956, that study would never have shown that one month later there would be a working-class revolution in Hungary. How could it? The workers themselves did not know what the future would hold. If a similar survey were conducted in the working-class suburbs of Paris in April 1968, the result would have been the same. Workers would have expressed gripes about their jobs but, in all likelihood, would have expressed approval of the society in which they lived.

The referendum on the no-strike pledge in the UAW and the events in Hungary, France, and elsewhere, raise some important questions about working-class consciousness. There is a very interesting statement in Marx’s German Ideology. Marx wrote that a revolution is necessary, not only because bourgeois society cannot be over-thrown in any other way, but because without it, human beings cannot be transformed to create the kind of society that a future society can be. You do not create revolutionaries and then make a revolution. You make a revolution and that, in his phrase, gets rid of all the crap of centuries. And short of the revolution, you cannot get rid of that crap. If, in order for a revolution to take place, one first had to get rid of the racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry and division that are endemic in capitalist society, then the possibility of revolution does not exist.

What this involves is not a prediction of revolution but a matter of methodology. The ordinary understanding of working-class activity is based on the idea that consciousness leads to, or causes, action. It would seem more valid to say that action leads to consciousness or, more precisely, that activity and consciousness interact in ways that are rarely predictable. For example, when workers in one department of a plant walk out to protest some grievance, their objectives are usually quite limited. But if that walkout triggers the shutdown of the entire plant, working people are then likely to raise their sights. They have learned, through their activity, that their grievance (and, presumably, other grievances) is shared by fellow workers throughout the plant. They have also learned that not only are their grievances shared but their power is also shared and is made more substantial by being shared.

This can be taken a step further. Suppose that a strike at one plant triggers strikes, either at other plants of the same corporation or at other workplaces in the same city. Suddenly, what began as a simple departmental walkout has become a general strike and has attained a whole new political dimension, requiring decisions by workers or strike committees on such questions as what production should be allowed and what should be stopped, how to ensure public order, how to deal with government attempts to break the strike, and so on. Under those circumstances it is only natural that workers, made more and more aware of their own power, also find that deeply held grievances and long hidden desires rise to the surface and become expressed in ways that would have been unthinkable before the actual struggle had begun. Without this dialectical and deeply contradictory development of working-class consciousness in the course of struggle and conflict, such events as the Hungarian revolution, the French revolt, the Czechoslovak Spring, and Polish Solidarity would be totally unintelligible. The conclusion, of course, is that as long as the workplace is a place of continual struggle and conflict, then massive social explosions are always possible. Not inevitable, not limited to this or that country, but possible anywhere in the industrial world.


Last updated on 9.7.2004