“Frenzy of Greed” – Narratives of Working Class Power in the 1970s, Part I

Dominic Sandbrook has a new book out soon called Seasons in the Sun: The Battle For Britain, 1974-79. It’s his fourth on Britain between 1956 and 1979, and the Daily Mail has excerpted a section on the Winter of Discontent, the months of strikes by local authority workers in response to Prime Minister James Callaghan’s cap on wage increases in late 1978. Sandbrook notes on Twitter that the excerpt has been “heavily abridged and slightly Mailified,” but presumably it doesn’t distort his argument too much. I like Sandbrook’s work; he’s usually even-handed and his broad approach to political and cultural history is just my kind of thing. State of Emergency, the last volume in his series, is excellent, and his book on American right-wing populism in the post-Watergate years is a decent starting point for understanding the cultural influences on the conservative movement in the 1970s. One criticism I do have of Sandbrook is that the voices of ordinary Britons and Americans rarely make it into his analysis. His narratives of the 1960s and ’70s are mainly told through the actions of political players and cultural figures, or with polling and analyses which tend towards painting the public with broad strokes. You can only tell so much about the average working Briton from the headlines of The Sun, or indeed, the Daily Mail.

The Mail’s excerpt of Seasons in the Sun follows the same pattern. There are details on James Callaghan’s mental state throughout the winter of 1978-79, cribbed from his personal diaries, and the views of Michael Palin and Philip Larkin are given plenty of space here, both heavily critical of the work stoppages. But Sandbrook doesn’t let any of the striking workers explain their actions. Perhaps this is the “Mailified” aspect Sandbrook referred to in his tweet, and not reflective of his larger manuscript. I’d hope that his book attempts to give some kind of voice to those on strike in 1978. The one quote from a named source outside of government or union leadership here is from Peter Ellis, a lavatory attendant, used to illustrate the inflationary effect of the strikers’ demands for significant wage increases on non-union workers’ purchasing power. Otherwise, there are only anonymous workers making vague threats such as, ‘It’s not whether the country can afford to pay us, […] [i]t’s whether they can afford not to.’

This is strange, as Sandbrook’s argument here is that the strikes during the Winter of Discontent were led by the rank and file union membership, who had seized control from their weak leadership:

The trades unions scuppered this strategy [to control inflation] — not the leaders, as is commonly assumed, but the rank and file. They were not politically motivated. Most young workers dreamed of new cars, colour televisions and foreign holidays, not the inevitable triumph of socialism.

They were tired of being told to wait for jam tomorrow; they wanted it today, tomorrow and the day after.

If you’re going to make the case that the strikes were about “the pursuit of material security,” as Sandbrook does here, then you need to offer some evidence to back that up. But the strikers are almost entirely absent from this narrative, except as a singular mass of pickets besieging the city of Hull, or battling police outside Berkshire factories. Where does Sandbrook get the impression that striking bin-men just wanted a Thomas Cook package holiday to the Canary Islands? Is it wrong to assume that Sandbrook and/or the Daily Mail have an agenda in portraying the typical union member of the late 1970s as being motivated by personal gain rather than any carefully thought-through political belief? I had thought Sandbrook was more sympathetic and understanding to the working class than this.

The Winter of Discontent may well have been the “dreadful nadir in modern British history” that Sandbrook emphatically sums it up as, depending on your political persuasion. It’s surely an exercise in futility to look to the Daily Mail for sympathy towards any striking workers; but I think this piece is illustrative of the dominant narrative of working class power in the 1970s, in both the UK and the United States. This is the narrative of an “irresponsible” rank and file, who had gained too much power and were motivated simply by greed for more, as Sandbrook illustrates with the image of Downing Street adviser Bernard Donoughue “horrified to be told by pickets outside a hospital: ‘Our purpose is to get more than you offer and whatever you offer it won’t be enough.’” According to the author of the piece, this encounter “was a perfect summary of the Winter of Discontent.”

This narrative deliberately excludes the voices of individuals within the larger group of striking workers that might explain why a local authority employee would choose to strike in late 1978. By creating such a “frenzy of greed” explanation, working class political and economic power, through the vehicle of organized labour, is therefore discredited and ultimately de-legitimized. There is no space for working class solidarity, as each striking worker is purely looking out for his own material interests. This has almost become the accepted narrative of the labour struggles of the late 1970s, and the obvious point behind it is to imply that workers held too much power and were fundamentally unequipped to handle it. Sandbrook’s argument, similar to many others from both the political right and the centre-ground,  suggests that the working class misunderstood economics, failing to account for the inflationary effects of wage increases, and therefore proved their inability to handle the political power they had gained through the labour movement. The implications of this narrative are, firstly, that working class power and representation in the political system needs to be urgently restrained, with limits placed on the right to strike and on the ability to organize in the first place, and secondly, that the rightful political power of the elite be restored for the sake of the smooth running of the country. The Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher, of course, pitched itself to Britain on exactly those two principles in the year following the Winter of Discontent.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the same political and economic struggle was playing out at roughly the same time. The idea behind the “Lordstown Syndrome” that this blog is named for was essentially that American workers had gained too much power to disrupt the economy, and that any further coddling of the rank and file would likely lead to similar scenes as those occurring in Britain’s cities in 1978-’79. “Syndrome,” of course, implies a sickness or disease at the heart of American labour. I’ll explore how the “frenzy of greed” narrative was applied to America’s unionised coal miners in a second part of this post tomorrow, but this seems a good place for a break.


A Framework for Studying Labour History

Two labour studies scholars, Tom Juravich and Kate Bronfenbrenner, wrote an introduction to an issue of Labor Studies Journal back in 2005 that really helped to shape my understanding of labour history, and of work in America today. They argued that as a result of the postwar agreements between American companies and unions, a period in which organised labour adopted what could be called business unionism, the focus of the labour movement shifted away form organising and addressing workers’ grievances and toward negotiating massive agreements and trade accords:

this postwar paradigm also marked the beginning of labor’s move away from work, the labor process, and workplace struggles […] as bargaining became more centralized-across local unions and often employers-it increasingly focused on wages and benefits, and less on specific workplace issues.

Juravich and Bronfenbrenner frame this period as one in which the everyday concerns of workers, their relationship to each other, to their workplaces, and to their own unions, became alienated from the aims and methods of organized labour. In practice, the movements to reform the United Mine Workers and United Steel Workers in the early 1970s were a response to this, and were somewhat successful in forcing international unions to respond to workers’ discontent. There’s a relationship between the kind of anger and frustration hourly employees at Lordstown-which Juravich and Bronfenbrenner cite here as a key example-showed towards their jobs and the distant, unconcerned attitudes of organised labour in this era.

Juravich and Bronfenbrenner’s article outlines the huge changes that have reshaped the workplace for millions of Americans in the past 30 years, not just for nonunion workers but for those who have the security of union membership. “Forced overtime, twelve-hour shifts, seven-day weeks, job combinations, two-tiered benefit structures, cross training, are all, unfortunately, part and parcel of too many union contracts today,” the authors point out. Partly as a result of the labour movement taking its eye off the ball on workplace issues, the structure of American jobs has been radically altered over the past 50 years, often in ways which have made the traditional workday longer, harder, and more intensive.

These are the kinds of nuts and bolts issues that interest me, and that often don’t get much attention when we talk about work today. What do jobs mean to the people who work them? And how have their perceptions and understanding of their work chaged over their careers, or compared to the ways in which their parents’ generation understood those same jobs? Juravich and Bronfenbrenner summarise the importance of looking at the everyday experience of work in America quite succinctly, “Up and down the occupational ladder, what workers want is some kind of control on the job, some dignity in their work, some measure of fairness in their workplace, and some chance at life outside of work.”

Tom Juravich and Kate Bronfenbrenner, “Bringing the Study of Work Back to Labor Studies,” Labor Studies Journal, 30.1 (Spring 2005): i-vii

(Tom Juravich is also a brilliant songwriter and musician who has recorded several albums of songs on work and the labour movement in America)

Polling the American Public on Organised Labour

Over at the New York TimesEconomix blog, Steven Greenhouse, the Times‘ labour correspondent, notes a recent Gallup poll asking Americans for their opinion of labour unions. The results of the poll show that 52% of Americans approve of unions, while 42% disapprove.

Gallup has been polling Americans on this question since 1936, the year after the Wagner Act was passed, at regular intervals, and the historical results show public approval for unions remained high (near or above 60%) throughout the twentieth century and right up until 2009, when approval suddenly dropped eleven points to a record low of 48%. Disapproval reached an all-time high that year of 45%. In 2010, approval for unions rebounded slightly to 52%, with disapproval at 41%, so this year’s results suggest some flattening out of public opinion, and perhaps the beginning of a new era in how Americans understand and relate to organised labour.

Back in 2009, when Gallup’s poll recorded the nadir of public approval for labour unions, Nate Silver pointed out that public support for organised labour was closely related to the unemployment rate. Silver used Gallup’s polling on this question going back to 1948 to conclude that “for every point’s worth of increase in the unemployment rate, approval of labor unions goes down by 2.6 points.” Silver didn’t speculate as to why the two factors seemed to be related, but it doesn’t really need pointing out that when Gallup asked this question in August 2009, the U.S. was in the midst of the harshest period of the Great Recession, with unemployment above 9% and rising. Now, unemployment in 2011 is still up around 9%, whereas public opionion of labour unions has risen by 4 points since 2009, so Silver’s trend line can’t fully explain the phenomenon. Nevertheless, there’s a substantial link between the American public’s concerns over unemployment and the state of the economy as a whole, and their view of labour unions. It might be fair to say that more Americans sympathise with the belief that unions hinder the American economy and prevent employers from creating jobs in a tough climate when economic growth is stagnant. That’s not to say that this is true of unions, but it is a major image problem the labour movement faces in convincing the public of its relevancy in the twenty first century.

Steven Greenhouse notes the explanations both Labour movement officials and business leaders give for this year’s polling results, suggesting the former blame the recent decline in union approval on conservative groups’ messaging of union responsibility for such issues as the bankruptcy of General Motors, while business groups claim that workers “no longer see a need for unions.” Clearly many Americans do still see a need for unions, and the discrepancy between the 52% who approve of labour unions and the 11% of American workers who belong to a union suggests that there’s something other than workers’ hostility to organised labour preventing unions from reaching much of the workforce. The gap between Americans who approve of unions and those who disapprove is undeniably shrinking, though, and as both Greenhouse and Gallup’s Jeffrey M. Jones point out, that might have a lot to do with the increasingly partisan debate over the role of labour unions in American society. The recent skirmishes in Wisconsin and Ohio, where Republican Governors led conservative state legislatures in attacking public sector unions, have intensified a much longer trend of Republican antagonism toward the labour movement.

If you look at Gallup’s polling data, the first time public support for unions dipped below 60% was in January 1978, right in the middle of the long, bitter coal miners’ strike that had huge effects on energy markets in the eastern U.S. Often, the 1981 PATCO air traffic controllers’ strike is referred to as the key moment in changing the attitudes of both the Federal government and the general public toward labour unions in the U.S., but I’d say that the 1977-78 coal strike was arguably more important in setting that change in motion. It’s not the beginning of the story by any means, you could go back to several Supreme Court decisions in the 1970s forcing significant changes that would affect that relationship, or as far back as the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, and the subsequent failure of several Democratic-controlled Congress’ to repeal that law. But the 1978 coal strike was perhaps the beginning of the public belief that unions were overly pampered and too willing to hold the rest of the economy to ransom for the sake of their high wages and great benefits, an attitude which has now been transferred onto public sector unions in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and New Jersey. I’d suggest that both Greenhouse and Gallup are right in arguing that the politicisation of labour issues is key in shaping this tightening of public opinion on unions. For all intents and purposes, to many of the respondents to Gallup’s 2011 poll, labour unions have been definitively tied to electoral politics as an arm of the Democratic Party. As a result, I would expect that public approval of unions will remain as polarised as public support for each of the main political parties for the forseeable future, even if unemployment drops and the U.S. emerges from the current recession.

The full historical results of Gallup’s polling on labour unions can be found here (pdf).

UMW Journal

One of the reasons I wanted to blog on occupational safety and labour studies was to try to compile all of the resources I’ve been using into one place. At the moment my hard drive is a mess of files, newspaper articles, official reports, photographs, songs, etc. I’d like to build a website from scratch, as a digital history project maybe, but I don’t really have the skills to do that at this point in time.

One thing I can do right now is compile a list of links to some of these resources, most of which I’ve found in various corners of the internet. The United Mine Workers Journal is an important one, and the UMWA have kindly hosted several issues on their servers, from the current issue going back nearly five years to January-February 2006. The current issue is available here. These have been indispensable to me for understanding the union’s outlook and positions over this period. I haven’t been able to find older issues anywhere online, except for the occasional single issue on eBay, but this is a really useful source of information for research on coal mining in the 2000s. I’m really grateful to the union for making these available online free of charge.

“Bonecrusher” – The United Mine Workers and Mine Safety

There’s a 2009 documentary called Bonecrusher, which is well worth seeing for some insight into modern coal mining. It focuses on a young coal miner in Dante, Virginia, Lucas Chaffin and his relationship with his father, Luther, who is a retired miner with black lung. There’s a lot of attention given to mine safety in Bonecrusher, particularly on Luther Chaffin’s concerns for his son’s safety at work. In one scene Luther is watching a CNN report on the Sago disaster (the documentary was filmed over 2006 and 2007), and there’s definitely a sense at that moment that he is deeply worried about his son facing similar dangers as the miners at Sago. This concern turns out to be well justified; at one point Lucas tells the film-makers, ‘Two weeks after I left [a job at a mine in Cucumber, WV] up there, they had two men get killed in the pillar line. It was on the section I worked.’

What’s left unsaid in the film are the two men’s thoughts on the United Mine Workers’ relationship to safety. Luther Chaffin wears a UMWA baseball cap and a shirt with a UMWA badge embroidered on it in many of the film’s scenes, and the cancer treatment he gets in the film is largely provided by union health insurance. Luther Chaffin is actually quoted in the United Mine Workers Journal July-August 2006 issue, talking about the importance of the 1989-90 Pittston stike in securing his own health and retirement benefits. He’s clearly proud of his union membership and the effect it’s had on his life. As far as I can tell, the mine Lucas Chaffin works at is not represented by the UMW, which might suggest that Luther’s concerns are linked to his son’s lack of access to UMW safety practices and rules. The film doesn’t really make a link between the Sago disaster and the fact that the mine wasn’t organised, though. This was quite a divisive topic in 2006, and again after the Upper Big Branch disaster in 2010; some of the Sago miners objected at the time to the way the UMW and the media portrayed them as exploited workers who did not have a say on their working conditions.

I think it says something about what the film-makers wanted to show of coal mining in the 2000s that they chose not to touch on this debate. The documentary is political in that it focuses on Lucas Chaffin’s experience of the work he does, rather than being political in finding a scapegoat for unsafe working conditions. I think it’s quite admirable that it doesn’t weigh in with an opinion, although I understand why someone might not feel the same way. The film deals carefully with its depiction of Lucas, who is of course a working coal miner who would not say anything on camera which might threaten his job, and I think the absence of any explicit discussion of the union reveals something about non-union coal miners’ relationship with the UMWA in the mid-2000s.

Here’s the trailer for the film. It’s a very moving, detailed look at being a coal miner today.

Blogging Troubles

I’ve been putting off writing a second post on Lordstown for a month now. I really wanted to talk about the actual work that Lordstown’s autoworkers were asked to do by General Motors; the structural changes to their jobs on the production line. Stanley Aronowitz’s book, False Promises, describes a lot of these changes, and I’ll link to a good passage below. I haven’t had time to finish Aronowitz’s book and I honestly can’t say when I’ll have time to get back to it. I’d kind of felt as though I’d committed myself to looking at Lordstown, and it was stopping me from blogging about other things that I’ve spent the past month reading about. So, for the time being I’ll compress my Lordstown post into this one note and get back to some other topics.

Here’s the section of Aronowitz’s case study on Lordstown workers which interested me:

At Lordstown, efficiency became the watchword. At 60 cars an hour, the pace of the work had not been exactly leisurely, but after GMAD* came in the number of cars produced almost doubled. Making one car a minute had been no picnic, especially on a constantly moving line. Assembly work fits the worker to the pace of the machine. Each work station is no more than 6 to 8 feet long. For example, within a minute on the line, a worker in the trim department had to walk about 20 feet to a conveyor belt transporting parts to the line, pick up a front seat weighing 30 pounds, carry it back to his work station, place the seat on the chassis, and put in four bolts to fasten it down by first hand-starting the bolts and then using an air gun to tighten them according to standard. It was steady work when the line moved at 60 seconds an hour. When it increased to more than 100 cars an hour, the number of operations on this job were not reduced and the pace became almost maddening. In 36 seconds the worker had to perform at least eight different operations, including, walking, lifting, hauling, lifting the carpet, bending to fasten the bolts by hand, fastening them by air gun, replacing the carpet, and putting a sticker on the hood. Sometimes the bolts fail to fit into the holes; the gun refuses to function at the required torque; the seats are defective or the threads are bare on the bolt. But the line does not stop. Under these circumstances the workers often find themselves “in the hole,” which means that they have fallen behind the line.

*GMAD stood for General Motors Assembly Division, which was the new efficiency program GM was testing at Lordstown Assembly to try to compete with foreign competition in the early 1970s.

What’s interesting to me about this is just how much GM’s ability to compete with Japanese cars was reliant on the willingness (and capability) of Lordstown’s workers to go along with this intensification of the production line. It says a lot about why the workers’ reaction to this, the “Lordstown Syndrome” that the media latched onto, seemed such a threat to the auto industry, and to the United States’ economic power in the 70s.

Aronowitz’s book, False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness, is a broader New Left critique of organised labour, but the first chapter focuses on Lordstown, mostly through Aronowitz’s own interviews with autoworkers. Aronowitz argues that labour unions are inherently conservative and restrictive to any real working class power. That’s quite a significant part of New Left thinking, and it’s very relevant to reform movements within the United Mine Workers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Black Lung Association and Miners For Democracy both formed out of dissatisfaction with the UMW. Like in the quote above though, what’s really significant to me about this critique of labour is the focus on the types of job and the physical and mental content of work. The disconnection of the AFL-CIO, or of Tony Boyle’s UMW administration, from their members’ labour is really the starting point for looking at work and the labour movement in the 1970s.

“Lordstown Syndrome” and the American Workplace, pt.1

Lordstown workers assemble a Chevrolet Vega in 1971. Image from Wikipedia.

In 1971, General Motors began production of the Chevrolet Vega at their Lordstown Assembly plant in northeast Ohio. The brand new production line was the fastest in the world, cranking out 100 cars per hour. Lordstown workers protested the speed of the line, and the lack of control they held over their own work. As Jefferson Cowie describes, “The workers balked at the speed and discipline by working strictly to rules, letting production slip by unfinished, pushing absenteeism and turnover to new highs, taking drugs and alcohol on the job, and engaging in a wide array of sabotage on the job.”* The situation led to a long strike, beginning in March 1972, and the press coined the term “Lordstown Syndrome” to cover the dissatisfaction many American workers felt toward the quality of their jobs in the early 1970s.

In January 2010, six months after General Motors had filed for bankruptcy, The New York Times returned to the Lordstown Assembly, where GM now produce the Chevrolet Cruze. Interviewing local United Automobile Workers officials, the Times found no signs of the radicalism and discontent of 1971-72. Mike Ramsey, a forklift driver and 25 year veteran at GM, told the interviewer, “Your main focus is to keep a job and work toward a pension, […] I don’t think that animosity is there anymore. We all realize we have to do our part to keep the company going.”

The change in attitudes among workers at Lordstown is not surprising, considering the near collapse of GM in 2009, but the stark contrast between how auto workers see their jobs  in 1971 and 2010 is hard to ignore. What I’m trying to do here is to get a handle on the events and forces which have convinced American workers that holding onto their jobs outweighs most other concerns about the actual quality of their working lives. Of course, in many cases, this isn’t true, but in coal mining and many other industries, workers have been forced to abandon issues on which they would have fought management and their own unions tooth and nail in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The 40 years since the Chevy Vega went into production have reshaped the workplace for every American worker, in terms of the work they do, their relationship with their colleagues and employers, and in the value they and others place on their labour. I’ll try to explain how some of this happened in future posts.

* Cowie, Jefferson. Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. New York: The New Press, 2010. p.46