Curtis Price – Fragile prosperity? Fragile social peace? Notes on the US (2000)

Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world
Schopenhauer in „Studies In Pessimism“

Discussions of class struggle can be framed in many ways. For that reason, the results obtained by how the discussion is structured often depend as much on the view point adopted as they do on any conclusions gathered from practical observation or a review of facts. This is perhaps better seen if you compare framing class struggle to exploring the topography of an uncharted territory to discover whether signs of life exist. If the land is examined by air, all that will most likely be seen is the outline of any hills or mountains, the presence of rivers and so on. Looked at this way, it would be easy to conclude that there’s no living organisms present; but if you get out of the plane and walk around, you might discover that what seemed at first glance uninhabitable terrain is actually teeming with life. In other ponds, at first sight it might not be possible to see any signs of life but that doesn‘t necessarily mean that the ponds are dead. If a microscope is used, what seems on the surface to be dead is actually teeming with micro-organisms; after a first impression maybe it’s not really dead after all.

The same analogy can be used in attempting to measure class conflict. The traditional method of getting at class conflict, and utilized by most on the left, is to examine statistics – the strike rate, unionization rates, rises or fall in the standard of living and other such indicators and thus is similar in method to the aerial view described above. Judged from this angle, the picture looks bleak indeed: a twenty year decline in the standard of living, unionization and strike rates at their lowest recorded levels; the list of reversals could go on and indeed are part of the standard leftist template for discussing class struggle in the U.S. over the past three decades. Certainly these are important figures, not to be lightly discounted or easily dismissed, yet ultimately, they provide a partial and unsatisfactory picture.

Why? From the start, two limitations arise from looking at class struggle solely from a perspective of accumulated statistics; limitations that only imperfectly appropriate the full complexity of the bigger picture.

One limitation lies in questioning the underlying accuracy of the data since official statistics aren‘t usually compiled out some objective underlying reality, but instead are the result of an intentional political message designed to cover up one side and draw attention to another. This can be seen in how unemployment rates and the national census are both doctored; in both cases (and many more could be cited), the „official“ figures cut out significant numbers of people for what are essentially politically expedient reasons.

If this is the case, with these examples in mind, can it be said that the strike statistics are sanctified with any more accuracy or rigor ?

I will cite a personal example. A couple of years back, there was a strike in Baltimore at the Poly Seal Corporation, a small plastics factory located in an industrial park on the edge of the city. I only discovered the strike was taking place because I happened to be in a bar one night and overheard a fellow patron tell the bartender that his fiancée had just walked out on strike. I contacted someone I knew who was then an organizer for a local union and asked if he had any information about this strike. He knew nothing about it. For the two weeks the strike lasted, there was not one mention of it in the local media; nor did the local AFL-CIO take the least action to make known that one of its affiliate unions had walked out, let alone provide any tangible support. For all intents and purposes, this strike never took place; it was invisible to all except to those people directly concerned. While it would be undoubtedly mistaken to overgeneralize from this one incident, it still raised doubts in my mind about whether or not that this strike would end up being tallied in the official strike statistics put out by the Department of Labor. Given the size of the factory and the small numbers of workers caught up in the walk-out, the strike at Poly Seal had no detrimental effect at the local level, let alone a measurable impact on the national scale.

In fact, only in researching this article did I discover that my question was misplaced: as a result of the „roll-back big government“ theme of the Reagan administration, since 1980, strikes of less than a thousand workers have been cut out from inclusion in the Bureau of Labor statistics. However, according to one account, „Evidence suggests that, while the number of strikes fell in the early 1980s, the number of workers involved and the workdays lost actually rose, indicating longer walkouts“ (Sharon Smith, „Twilight of the American Dream“, International Socialism Journal #54, , Spring 1992, p.27).

If the official statistics are collected based on the size of a workplace on strike and furthermore, strikes involving one thousand workers or more have declined to single-digit figures, a different question must be raised. Recognizing that the restructuring of U.S industry has led to smaller concentrations of workers than in the past, it seems reasonable to assume that such data cannot show very much about the absolute numbers of workers on strike. Put another way, thirty smaller strikes involving workplaces of a few hundred striking workers can quickly add up to more workers in real numbers than five workplaces employing a thousand workers or more. Without disputing that there has been a serious drop in militancy over the past two decades, there are equally good grounds to be skeptical of the capability of official statistics to yield a complete picture of the range of officially called strikes that occur, let alone measure any unofficial actions and work stoppages. In the case of the latter, there simply is no way to judge, one way or another, their frequency since the incidence of these unofficial actions is ignored completely in official figures.

Discussions of the accuracy of computing strike rates aside , the strike rates are still only one benchmark for grasping the full degree of class conflict in the U.S work place. In other words, if at current rates, a strike in a given work place only stands to take place once every 90 years and only 12% of the work force is unionized, what happens in the work place in the interim? One example of what goes on is mentioned in an article in BARRON’s, a U.S. business journal, titled, „The Rise in Replacement Workers Discourages Strikers But Spurs Other Forms Of Labor Strife“ (May 29, 1995). The article notes „Strikes have become rarer even at unionized firms. That doesn‘t mean, however, that labor-management strife has ended. It just means subtler weapons have replaced walk-outs.“

A caption to a graph plotting the increase in the use of „work to rule“ tactics, which have grown from 18% of contract disputes to around 55% in 1990, going along with this article reads, „Among unionized firms with 1,000 or more employees strikes have declined probably in response to the increasingly widespread use of replacement workers when walk-outs occur. In response, workers have stayed on the job and resorted to slowdowns to put pressure on foremen to meet their demands.“