The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Workers' Movement

Reviewed by Elvira

Stanley Aronowitz, The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Workers' Movement (New York: Verso, 2014), 192 pp., $26.95.

Stanley Aronowitz's critique of American labor unions is searing without being cynical. The reversal of the natural order of life and death in the title indicates that his is not a deathwatch, not primarily an account of labor's decline, but rather an exhortation to revival. Aronowitz faults unions for adopting a course of concessionary bargaining and electoral endorsements that, with diminishing returns, seeks to safeguard victories of the New Deal era. He notes that unions cede their agenda “to capital in the hope of preserving their institutional arrangements” (139). Crucially, he claims that unions which “abandon the picket lines for the ballot box” are betraying labor as a movement (31). He criticizes the unions for failing to imagine for contemporary workers the kind of good life that would inspire them to action. When workers in the ‘30s entered negotiations about speedups and working hours, they were mobilized by the idea that they could exercise autonomy over their labor power. So were the black freedom fighters of the ‘60s and ‘70s, who were not mollified by formal concessions of equal rights but pressed for equal power. Unions today attend to rights, grievances, and benefits. These are important activities, but they do not inspire or sustain a workers' movement.

The author draws a parallel between medical professionals and educators. Both groups have challenged the evaluation criteria of their job performance reviews. But although they have stirred up solidarity among workers, the evaluation protocols have not raised their class-consciousness. To build a social movement, workers need to rise above sectarian interests and focus on those aspects of workplace organization that make jobs precarious. Aronowitz observes that “[t]he idea that technology, for instance, could be the subject of deconstruction and intellectual debate is far from the mentality of contemporary unionists, even those on the left” and complains that this “avoidance is remarkable, considering that the massive devastation of the working class and its trade union sectors is not primarily a result of global migration but rather of technological displacement” (113). Online learning has been adopted by private and public research institutions alike and, Aronowitz reports, faculty “are encouraged to upgrade their Internet skills to be able to take advantage of electronic study aids such as Blackboard or, more extensively, to enlist themselves as instructors in online courses” (111). Educators do not object to receiving suggestions and feedback about their use of technology, which marks a tacit concession to be evaluated on how well they contribute to the work ethos that makes them disposable. In this respect, industrial workers have proven to be theoretically more astute than academic workers even if they were no more successful in surviving the effects of technological innovation. The United Steel Workers insisted on a contract-clause making adoption of new technologies subject to the union's review, and led a strike to protect workers from displacement by technology. The West Coast's International Longshore and Warehouse Union accepted new technologies but insisted on guaranteed pay for qualified workers “whether they worked or not” (115).        

In his discussion of healthcare and education, Aronowitz acknowledges the impact of globalization and technological innovations on the US labor market. After the bulk of industrial jobs disappeared, the government emerged as a major employer of professional and administrative workers. This change was attended by a corresponding rise in public sector unions. If one in eight workers, as Aronowitz reports, is a professional, no robust labor movement can emerge without theorizing the concerns of non-material labor, such as the issue of professional autonomy. On the other hand, we have seen already that intellectual workers are not necessarily better than industrial workers at theorizing their professional concerns. They too easily accept the necessity of technological progress. Progress may be a structural feature of the world we live in, but not all of its consequences are inevitable. We need not become Luddites: Aronowitz proposes that we cut the working day to six hours without a corresponding reduction in wages and that there be a guaranteed wage for the unemployed. This would, of course, increase the employers' cost of doing business, but given a historical pattern of wealth transfers from public coffers to private pockets in the shape of infrastructure, government contracts, tax subsidies, and corporate bailouts, there is no reason, the author suggests, not to call for labor bailout and not to demand that companies that profit from job-displacing technologies compensate the unemployed.

 Aronowitz expects a quarter of the US population to be unemployed by 2020, but it is the fantasy of capital, he writes, to dispense with human labor altogether. The point of reducing the workforce is to cut the costs of production. But to eliminate the costs of the reproduction of labor power is to admit that, from the perspective of capital, there would be no longer a structural need for workers, only for consumers. The reserve armies of the unemployed had been structurally necessary to capital because they depressed the wages of the employed; the “automatic factory, a capitalist dream of the workerless workplace” makes the category of worker, employed or unemployed, obsolete. Technology promises to solve for capital a set of problems posed by the category 'worker' by the elimination of that category and by transferring the burden of organization and support of actual human life to the state.

We can now consider the compensation proposed by Aronowitz: the universal wage guarantee. Would technology continue its progress if employers had to contribute to a guaranteed wage whether they needed workers or not? It might. Quite possibly new developments in technology would continue to optimize the costs of production or distribution and generate profits by giving a temporary advantage to one capitalist over another. Nevertheless, entertaining the capitalist fantasy and Aronowitz's wage proposition, even if only as a thought experiment, we discover the fault lines of economic determinism: to yield to technological progress does not at all entail a dissolution of social obligations. To think that it does is to capitulate ideologically to “[p]rivate property and the law [that] had become sacred, subject neither to collective bargaining nor to labor's broader program” (25). Capitalism integrates economic determinism into the narrative of technological progress because it prefers to argue for the impossibility of turning time backwards rather than to defend mass unemployment for the sake of profit. The rhetoric conceals the free choice and bad faith of our social contract.

Aronowitz's concern for the unemployed as well as for precarious workers is the unifying thread running through The Death and Life of American Labor. Traditional unions, whether of the private or the public sector, whether they organize the trades or professionals, come up short as a social movement precisely because they attend exclusively to the rights of their members. The left takes it for granted that the workers' strength lies in their self-understanding as producers of wealth. Aronowitz points out that class-consciousness of the workers and unions alike is marred by bad faith, whereas capital, which understands itself exactly, pursues a one-sided class war. He defines bad faith as people's capacity to maintain “positions that contradict their beliefs” usually out of “fear of losing their comfortable berths in the professions, the unions, and the universities” (59). Aronowitz accuses the unions of being too much in “awe of the law” and maintains that the “no-strike provision of most labor contracts reveals the true character of labor law” (23, 54). He argues that the mission undertaken by contemporary unions is qualitatively different from that which belongs to a social movement: a union addresses itself to what is legally binding in the contract, but what is legal ought not to delimit the horizon of expectations for a social movement lest collective bargaining become “a kind of collective begging” (22).

When unions trade away their right to strike, they become in practice the agents of capital for policing the shop floor. Workers who want to understand themselves in terms of class must realize that their fundamental interests are defined not by employment and its benefits, but by employment's precarious nature. They must make this knowledge programmatically actionable instead of internalizing it as fear. Unions have to organize both kinds of workers, the employed and the unemployed, and should attend to all aspects of workers' lives which are affected by the precarious nature of work.

Reviewed by Elvira Godek-Kiryluk English Department University of Illinois at Chicago