#OWS and Organized Labor
October 28, 2011

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 18:  Members of the Occ...

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Having previously compared the New Left to Occupy Wall Street, Shawn Gude wonders aloud why the latter is so much more inclined to play nice with labor unions. His theory:

Constant rearguard attacks and mass deunionization have surely play a part. Labor is beleaguered—not an ossified, establishment force. And the cultural chasm between the labor rank-and-file and leftist seems to have shrunk; organized labor has moved to the left in recent decades, and the left has moved to the right (no more antiwar sentiments transmogrifying into anti-soldier enmity). I just can’t imagine anything comparable to the Hard Hat Riot happening now.

The first part of that sounds right, though I’m not so sure about the bolded portion. It may well be true that organized labor has liberalized significantly on social issues, but I don’t think they’ve done so out of proportion with trends in overall societal norms — and besides, it’s not like all the true leftists were ever entirely purged from the movement. As for “the left,” whether or not it moved right sort of depends on who you’re talking about. The Democratic Party has certainly undergone a sharp rightward tilt in many respects, but I don’t think Shawn was referring to them. If we’re instead talking about the anarchists and other hard leftists who were caucusing at OWS from the beginning, then I’d argue there’s been very little shift towards the center in those intellectual traditions. It’s not like anarchists have gotten significantly less anarchist of late. (And outside of those ideologically concentrated cells, the intellectual makeup of OWS is too diverse and fraught with internal dissent to even call it “the left” without qualification.)

But then, I know very little about the New Left. What I can talk about with slightly more authority is US labor history in the first half of the 20th Century. That was a period when organized labor was the left in America; maybe not necessarily all of the rank and file, but among staff and leadership the philosophical gamut ran from center-leftism to syndicalism, socialism, anarchism, and out-and-out Communism.

I won’t be able to do justice to the possible causes for the New Left’s formal split with organized labor, but I will note one key factor Shawn didn’t mention: overall economic climate. The 60s were a time of relative prosperity, at least for white America. Between the New Deal and the Great Society, ambitious social welfare proposals were now mainstream propositions.. These weren’t exactly the conditions for class struggle.

Contrast that with the current economic climate, which more closely resembles the conditions that led to peak labor activism in this country. The modern labor movement was born in the Gilded Age and sustained itself through a succession of financial crises which eventually culminated in the Great Depression. Today we face decades of stagnant wages, a crippling financial crisis, Gilded Age-level inequality, and what one might well call another depression. In times like these, one of the left’s primary concerns is class, and organized labor’s value becomes self-evident. The big question now is whether that’s enough.

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