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  • authored by Wanda Marie Pasz
  • published Sat, Feb 26, 2005

So You Want To Be Free? P.02

Past the Outposts To Where It All Started

In the first part of this series about workers' freedom, I contrasted the distinguishing characteristics of movements and institutions. Based on those characteristics I offered up the controversial suggestion that there is currently no labour movement in North America and that nothing that bears any resemblance to a workers' movement has existed on this continent in over half a century.

This seems to me a logical conclusion. Based on the characteristics of movements described in Part 1, the unions that comprise the current North American "labour movement" are not a movement. They bear no resemblance to one.

Each one is an institution pursing its similar institutional interests.

Each provides a service, in relation to a narrow range of workplace issues, to a group of people defined by the state.

Each requires the approval of the state before it can do anything that alters the circumstances of people that it represents. That right is acquired through the state.

The state grants each union the right to provide service to a specific group of workers, for the purposes of regulating relations between the workers and their employer.

Each union must play the rules of the state or risk significant penalties.

The leaders of these unions preside over their organizations and govern the people they represent. They do not inspire the people. They preside over them at rituals and proceedings in relation to their members. They manage relations between their institution and the members.

The leaders coalesce under the umbrellas of their own regulatory institutions, to further their institutional interests and sort out institutional disputes (all of which, in one way or another, involve the distribution of resources).

Although some of these union institutions provide better service to their members than others and some are more effective in their representation, none seek as their primary goal - or as any kind of goal - to the fundamentally change the existing order.

Each ultimately supports the existing order and serves the interests of the state: To maintain order in the workplace. To minimize disruption of the economy by job action. To preserve the economic order.

Have you ever wondered why your union is so reliant on the courts, the labour relations boards and other administrative institutions? Why it's so reluctant to strike? Why the mere mention of an illegal strike gives its leaders panic attacks? Ever wondered why your union's leaders shun activist groups that promote alternative economic models? Why your representatives behave more like managers? Why your relationship with them takes a distant second place to their relationship with your employer or the LRB? Ever wondered why your union's leaders never talk about alternative ways of running an economy? Or workplace democracy? It's because your union is an institution. An institution is not a movement. And a bunch of institutions don't make up a movement - no matter how you arrange them.

So why is it so widely accepted that there is a labour movement in North America and that the line-up of institutions under the umbrella of organizations like the AFL-CIO or CLC is it?

Why We Believe Things That Aren't True

Historian Howard Zinn says, "If you forget history you will believe anything." It doesn't get any shorter or sweeter than that.

We are a huge community that has only the faintest notion of our own history. If you ask an average working person, "What is the history of the labour movement in North America?" they will probably respond with something like:

"A long time ago things were really bad for workers. They were treated very badly by their employers. They wanted to have better pay and working conditions so they joined unions. That's how the labour movement started. The unions fought for their rights and got the state to give them rights. Things got at lot better. Union leaders were tough negotiators and got good contracts. The middle class was created. For a while things were good. Then things started to get worse again. Companies got greedy and stopped caring about their workers. Millions of jobs disappeared and are still disappearing. People are getting poorer. Market forces are causing this change in their behaviour. The labour movement is trying to fight this trend but it's having a hard time - because of the mysterious forces of the market. They're trying to get politicians to pass some laws to protect workers and make things good again but the politicians don't seem to want to do anything.

That's it. That's "North American workers' history". Actually that's a lot more than many people in our community would be able to say if the question were put to them. Maybe it's not such a bad thing. Most of the statement in the previous paragraph is factually incorrect.

It's not that information about our history doesn't exist. It's out there in countless books, journals, documentaries and other media but you have to seek it out. The activist history of our community is largely left out of mainstream teaching about labour. If you took a course on labour history at a community college or university, chances are good that you'd get the roughly same story as I've laid out above only with more details. So if you're interested in knowing the history of our movement you have to do a lot of legwork to find it and then have to be prepared to sift through it, weight the different versions and come to your own conclusions about what we really did and why we did it. That's not something that a lot of people have been willing to do. Apart from accessibility issues, we are a community that - and I'll elaborate on this more in a minute - has been discouraged from wanting to know our history.

The short "info byte" paragraph above is not our history. It's not even an outline of our history. It's a distortion of our history with the most important parts left out completely. The reality is that the labour movement that existed decades ago and almost reached the point of critical mass, no longer exists. It was snuffed out by institutions including those that are passing themselves off as a labour movement. The state did not give us meaningful rights - it gave certain institutions institutional rights. The good times that followed during the long economic boom of the 1950's and 60's were not the product of committed union leaders doing their all for the people. There's a whole other explanation for that phenomenon. While things are getting worse, there are no mysterious forces - unstoppable and unchangeable - behind that either. For-profit entrepreneurs have not started getting greedy and uncaring - they've been that way all along. They're just more open about it now

The problem is that when you don't understand how you got here, you'll believe any explanation that's offered to you. If the explanation is consistent over a period of time, you'll come to believe it. Why wouldn't you? You have no basis upon which to doubt it.

So what really went down? What's the real history of our movement? What are the parts that have been blanked out, glossed over or rewritten? That's what I want to get into. In the next few installments of this series I aim to shed some light on these aspects of our history - the one that the institutions of the existing order don't want us to know about - especially the one about how our movement almost caught fire and what the institutions did to stop it.

Outpost Removal

"It's hard to fight an enemy that has outposts in your head." Sally Kempton

Before we go there however, we need to get some of their outposts out of our heads. The notion of history being rewritten or spun a certain way may sound to some of us like some bizarre conspiracy theory. It's not.

If there was An Idiot's Guide to Oppression, it would have a whole chapter on how revising (or even better - erasing) the history of a group of people that you want to dominate is worth your while. Their history influences their sense of identity. It plays a big part in determining how they think about themselves and how fully they will submit to domination. Captured societies as well as non-conformist elements within established societies need to be rid of histories that might encourage non-conforming behaviour. If their history includes the proliferation of ideas that are dangerous to your existing order or - worse yet - is full of stories of struggles to achieve them, then a rewrite is pretty much imperative. People walking around with that kind of stuff in their heads might feel compelled to pick up where they left off. Within those histories are values that don't mesh with the existing order and messages about overcoming oppression that don't help the cause of the oppressor.

If you rewrite their history to portray your subject population as weak, helpless, inferior - they will come to perceive themselves as that. If you inject yourself into their history as a protector or - better yet - liberator, chances are good that they'll come to think of you as one as well. If you can erase their history altogether, all the better for you. It will be easier to impose your own version. If you can make them not even want to know their own history - you'll rule indefinitely and comfortably for a long time.

Once your version of their history is planted in their heads, they are on their way to internalizing oppression. Once oppression is internalized, they're oppressed and you don't even have to work at oppressing them that much anymore.

Oppression is the unjust exercise of power by one group over another. It includes imposing the oppressing group's belief system and way of life over the oppressed group.

Oppression becomes internalized when the oppressed group comes to believe that the oppressor's belief system and way of life is right for them,

The result of internalized oppression is a sense of shame about being who you are and an elevation of the worthiness of the your oppressor.

Identity Theft of a Different Kind

This kind of "identity distortion" has been used by oppressors through the ages. It was used extensively in the oppression of the Native American community. For decades, Native children were herded into residential schools so they could be taught "to be white". Kill the Indian, save the man was the motto of a General responsible for running a military style residential school in the late 1800's. The mentality and the schools lived on into the latter part of the 1900's.

Similarly, the history of the African American community was substantially altered to erase much of the era of their enslavement and put a more positive spin on what couldn't be erased.

In his Autobiography, civil rights leader Malcolm X wrote:

The teachings of [Nation of Islam leader] Mr. Muhammad stressed how history had been "whitened" - when white men had written history books, the black man simply had been left out. Mr. Muhammad couldn't have said anything that would have struck me much harder. I had never forgotten how when my class, me and all those whites, had studied seventh-grade United States history back in Mason, the history of the Negro had been covered in one paragraph.

This is one reason why Mr. Muhammad teachings spread so swiftly all over the United States, among all Negroes, whether or not they became followers of Mr. Muhammad. The teachings ring true - to every Negro. You can hardly show me a black adult in America - or a white one, for that matter - who knows from the history books anything like the truth about the black man's role.

X was horrified to learn the true history of his community - what it was and what they had been taught about it. In the 1940's (less than one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation) some actually believed that the era of slavery was a better time - that their ancestors lived in relative peace under the caring, if sometimes firm, hand of the southern plantation owners.

Civil rights activist and educator Carter G. Woodson actively sought to educate his community about its history.

Fundamentally Carter G. Woodson viewed the study/learning of Black History as an exercise in education for liberation. In his seminal work The Mis-Education of the Negro, Woodson argued that a people who are not clear about their history, culture and identity are severely handicapped in their ability to shed the shackles of oppression. This he saw as a particularly devastating problem for Africans in America who were being socialized in the history, culture and values of America, Europe and "western civilization" without a foundational knowledge and understanding of their own history. This "Eurocentric" socialization, he concluded, was producing Black people with "white minds." Woodson said (to paraphrase him), he would controls minds has nothing to fear from bodies. This was the essence of the "mis-education" process he believed must be overcome.

Woodson's assessment is even more cogent when we realize that, in many respects, the effects of the holocaust of enslavement on Africans in the U.S. was the most damaging experienced by any African people in the diaspora. The British-American form of "chattel" slavery was the most dehumanizing in world history. The African captives who were forcibly transported to North America were reduced to "property," sub-humans, things, and subjected to a systematic process of de-Africanization. As a method of control, there was a concerted effort to make certain that too many Africans from the same ethnic group were not situated together on the same plantation - the natural bonds of ethnic identity were broken. Even more insidious and damaging, Africans were taught that their heritage was tainted and their color was a badge of degradation. Consistent with the racist theories that emerged to rationalize/justify the horrors of the holocaust of enslavement, to be "black/dark" was to be a part of an inferior and despised race. Africans were forbidden from speaking their own languages, practicing their native religion and playing their own musical instruments.

Internalized oppression is not the cause of our mistreatment, it is the result of our mistreatment. It would not exist without the real external oppression that forms the social climate in which we exist.

Once oppression has been internalized, little force is needed to keep us submissive. We harbour inside ourselves the pain and the memories, the fears and the confusions, the negative self-images and the low expectations, turning them into weapons with which to re-injure ourselves, every day of our lives. Micheline Mason, entitled "Internalized Oppression" it was first published in Reiser, R. and Mason, M. (eds) (1990) Disability Equality in Education, London: ILEA

How has the revision of our history affected how we think about ourselves? Well, already some of you may be thinking, "Why do I need to know this? It's boring. It's depressing. It's not going to teach me anything useful or empowering." That's one of those outposts that's been planted in your head through the identity distortion that comes from understanding your history a certain way.

We've been taught that we're helpless, confused, at the mercy of mysterious forces, that we aren't very smart. Our history - the one that we've been told about - tells us that we had our asses kicked for a whole lot of years before we were rescued and given a whole bunch of rights. We don't understand how much we've been given because we're too stupid to understand these things. Besides, there's nothing to gain by thinking about them. It won't make us successful in ways that count. We're too busy to think about these things - producing and consuming and trying to be "better people" - like the ones we serve. Trying to win their approval and never quite making the grade. We don't have time to understand how it got this way for us and that's OK because we can't understand it. It's beyond us. We haven't got the institutional credentials. We don't even want to know our history. That's quite an achievement of brainwashing. Getting people to believe that they're stupid is one thing. Getting them to believe they're happy being stupid is a real feat.

Before we proceed to look at the interesting parts of our history, we must understand the distorted messages and distorted facts buried in our "official" history:

  • That the unions of today are a labour movement - a more highly evolved, more contemporary, version of the workers' movement that was gaining momentum in the first half of the 20th century.
  • That the people who created the movement that almost caught fire were a bunch of (a) well-intentioned but misguided dreamers, or (b) dangerous subversives intent on imposing their own despotism.
  • That the existing order they moved against is immutable - unchangeable - so there's no point in trying to change it.
  • That the existing order is good for us. It might need some tweaking but all things considered it's as good as it gets. It's only the weak, the stupid, the unmotivated, the delusional and the slow among us who don't see it that way.

So successful has our programming been, that even those of us who have gone to lengths to educate ourselves and know:

  • That the thing that currently calls itself a "labour movement" isn't one - because it lacks the essential characteristics of a movement, and
  • That the people who moved against the existing order as far back as two centuries ago were neither crazy nor malevolent - because there is no evidence that they were, and
  • That existing orders can and do change - the history of human civilization is chock full of good examples - and,
  • That the existing order is harmful to millions of us - because we know when we are harmed,

...still have a hard time talking about it because the enemy's outposts are in our heads as well.

You need to know this if you want to explore what's in the memory hole of our movement and sort out fact from fiction. If you have grown up, been educated and worked in North America, your perceptions have been coloured by a lifetime of programming that has repeated the message "things are the way they are supposed to be". You can't interact with the brainwashing machine every day of every year of your life and not be affected by it. So, as we go along if you find yourself recoiling from ideas because you've been told that they're "crazy", "hopeless", "unrealistic", "disloyal" and other labels along these lines, you have to remind yourself that it's your programming that's causing you to react this way.

Crazy, hopeless, unrealistic, disloyal when used in relation to ideas are opinions. They are not facts.

What We Moved Against

That's really important if you want to understand what's down the memory hole of the last workers' movement because what those people - our people - moved against was the economic order (the way in which a society chooses to use its resources, to produce things and distribute them among various people and groups in society). They moved against the order imposed on them by the capitalist free market economic system. They believed that it made slaves of them and that this was fundamentally unjust.

To anyone steeped in the values of the North American society, these ideas are - just crazy. The enemy's outposts in our heads tell us that this is crazy shit. If we don't immediately dismiss it as crazy shit, then we we're crazy.

If you're already feeling weak, here's something from Steve Biko, a leader of the remarkably successful anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Murdered at the age of 30, Biko helped to change the world for his people. Although the widely acknowledged leader of the anti-apartheid movement was Nelson Mandela, Biko's contribution was significant in helping the movement reach its critical mass.

Biko understood the concept of internalized oppression and how it operates when he said, "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed".

Let's move along.

Our Enslavement

Our predecessors believed that the capitalist free market system enslaved humans by treating them as a commodity - a resource that could be purchased for the lowest price, exploited and discarded. The enslavement of humans was not right, they believed, and so they moved against it. Some believed that this "wage slavery" was as bad if not worse than the chattel slavery. The reasoning behind this was that the chattel slave owner had some minimal responsibility for ensuring that his slaves had the necessities of life. The capitalist acknowledged no such responsibility. His slaves could be purchased for bottom dollar, worked to death and replaced with newer - maybe even cheaper - slaves.

That's it. People really believed that. A lot of them believed it.

That's what sparked the evolution of the labour movement in North America: A fundamental belief in the denial of basic human rights to a group of people who were being exploited led. This led, rapidly, to communication and to action aimed at changing the order that was denying those people their freedom.

Where and how did it all begin? There is a lot of confusion about this. Many people believe that the labour movement in North America got its spark from immigrant workers arriving from European countries but that wasn't the case at all. It's also widely believed that craft workers had a lot to do with the evolution of the labour movement but that isn't quite the case either. While the crafts were the first working people to form their own associations, their contribution to the workers' movement that almost caught fire was not a supportive one (more about that in a future installment).

The reality is that the workers' movement that almost caught fire had its origins with especially poor, especially exploited women industrial workers.

Probably the best description that I've read about the origins of this labour movement is in Noam Chomsky's Understanding Power. In a chapter about the evolution of the labour movement in North America, Chomsky is asked about its origins. His reply:

It's what were called at the time the "Lowell mill-girls" - meaning young women who came off the farms to work in factories. A good deal of the labor organizing in the 19th century in the US was done by women, because just like today in the Third World, it was assumed that the most docile and controllable segment of the workforce was women - so therefore they were the most exploited.

Remember, the early industrial revolution was built on textiles. And very extensively the labor force was made up of women. In fact, some of the main labor journals at the time were edited by women, and they were young women mostly. And they were people who wanted to read, they wanted to learn, they wanted to study - that was just considered normal by working people back then. And they wanted to have free lives. In fact, many of them didn't work in the mills for very long - they'd work there for a couple of years, then go back to some other life. But in the early stages of the American labor movement, it was the Lowell mill-girls, or farmers who were being driven off their farms by industry, who were the ones who built up the early working-class culture.

... this was just a natural reaction: you didn't have to have any training to understand these things, you didn't have to read Marx or anything like that. It's just degrading to have to follow orders, and to be stuck in a place where you slave for twelve hours a day, then go to a dormitory where they watch your morals and so on - which is what it was like. People simply regarded that as degrading.

It was the same with craftsmen, people who had been self-employed and were no being forced into the factories - they wanted to be able to run their own lives. I mean, shoemakers would hired people to read to them while they were working - and that didn't mean read Stephen King of something it meant read real stuff. These were people who had libraries and they wanted to live lives, they wanted to control their own work - but they were being forced into shoe-manufacturing plants in places like Lowell where they were treated, not even like animals, like machines. And that was degrading and demeaning - and they fought against it. And incidentally, they weren't fighting against it so much because it was reducing their economic level, which it wasn't (in fact, it was probably raising it) - it was because it taking power out of their hands, and subordinating them to others, and turning them into mindless tools of production. And they didn't want that.

In fact, if you want to do some rally interesting reading, one book I would suggest is the first book of labor history that was written - ever I think. It came out in 1924, and it was just republished in Chicago: it's called The Industrial Worker, by Norman Ware, and it's mostly excerpts from the independent labor press in the US in the mid-nineteenth century. See, there was a big independent workers' press in the US at that time - it was on the scale of the capitalist press, actually - and it was run by what were called "factory girls", or by craftsmen.

Right through the 19th century, working people in the US were struggling against the imposition of what they described as "degradation", "oppression", "wage slavery", "taking away our elementary rights", "turning us into tools of production", everything that we now call modern capitalism (which is in fact state-capitalism) they fought against for a full century - and very bitterly, it was an extremely hard struggle. And they were for "labor republicanism" - you know, "Let's go back to the days when we were free people". "Labor" just means "people", after all.

The textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts were built in the early 1800's. The first strike by the Lowell factory workers took place in 1836. The outcome of that strike (it was defeated by the mill owners) isn't remarkable. What is remarkable is that it happened.

The Origins of Our Movement

There they were, two hundred years ago, these young (most were between the ages of 16 and 25) farm women. None had any formal education, all of them were far from home probably for the first time in their lives. They lived in a paternalistic society where they had no rights (they were not recognized as "equal" persons in their society). They were earning good money (by the standards of the day) in these mills. Yet they perceived their treatment as inherently inhuman. They identified it as unjust - fundamentally unjust - and they proceeded to educate themselves and to communicate their beliefs and to act on them.

This was the beginning of the North American workers' movement. These were the beliefs that gave it its initial spark. And a lot happened in the century that followed.

A pragmatic institutional unionist in 2005 might write these women and their beliefs off as "quaint" or "misguided" or somehow no longer relevant. The institutional unionists might dismiss these workers' revulsion with "wage slavery" as resistance to change. On this score they'd actually be right. These workers were resisting change - one that they believed was reducing their status in society to that of "less than fully human". Were they just being negative (as institutional unionists are prone to saying) about the order that was being imposed on them or where they insufficiently brainwashed to accept it and so, quite conscious of their rights?

I think that it must have been the latter, for two reasons:

1. People's beliefs about how they want to live are valid despite how others might want them to live. The right to self-determination is basic principle of freedom. Labels (like "negative") applied to those beliefs don't invalidate them.

2. The capitalist order was in the process of establishing itself during this period. The machinery of indoctrination was in a primitive stage. These workers understood, instinctively, who they were and what was right for them - and it wasn't enslavement by an emerging ruling class.

Their beliefs were about workers' freedom. They're as valid today as they were two hundred years ago.

There's More

The next installment in this series will deal extensively with the concept of wage slavery and its impact on the evolution of the North American Workers' Movement.

Slavery is a concept that is not well understood in our society. To help get your head around it, you might want to read up on the practice of slavery throughout civilization (it has been used extensively and in many different contexts). Alternatively, you might want to reflect on this excerpt on the subject which comes from Blood, Sweat and Tears: The Evolution of Work by Richard Donkin.

More important than the concept of slavery, perhaps, is the concept of freedom. Only when you understand what it is to be free can you determine whether your condition is that of a slave. Ancient Greeks who consulted the Delphic Oracle could see definitions of the four elements of freedom inscribed in the walls of the shrine. The free man, said the Oracle, could represent himself in legal matters, he would not be subject to seizure and arrest, he could do what he wished, and he could go where he wished. All of these factors, of course, needed to be interpreted within the bounds of the laws.

The difficulty for those seeking to arrive at a modern interpretation of classical slavery is that it was possible in Greece for people to fill some of these definitions in part. Thus there were different degrees of slavery and there was no sharp dividing line between slavery and freedom. Some slaves in industrial towns, for example, lived together, away from their masters. Some could attain a degree of elevation in their social rank. According to Moses Finley in Slavery and Classical Antiquity, "the efficient, skilled, reliable slave could look forward to managerial status."

The difference between slavery and freedom has taxed philosophers throughout the ages. In De Cive, published in 1642, Thomas Hobbes decided that the free man was subservient only to the state. The slave, he concluded, was an individual who was subservient to his fellow man as well as to the state. This is not so very different from Aristotle's observation that "the condition of a free man is that he does not live under the restraint of another."

Free men in ancient Greek society tended to work on their own. Where people were employed in groups they tended to be slaves. A classical Athenian dragged into the twenty-first century might struggle to determine the status of a corporate employee working under managerial control - under the restraint of another. Are these free men and women, he might ask, or are they slaves to their jobs or to their employers?

He would be even more flummoxed to discover that these people are paid for their work, that they are free to leave their employment, can live where they wish and can possess a passport, so that they can go where they please. They even have rights when faced with arrest. Yet he might, nevertheless decide, that they are something less than truly free. Perhaps he would return to his contemporaries, confiding to them that "slaves have come a long way these past 2,500 years".

Conspiratorially yours.

Wanda Marie Pasz is a contributor to Members for Democracy who has traveled far and wide in the institutions of labour-management relations.

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