How Labor is (Part of) the Problem in Building an American Left

October 11, 2010

Today I got to see Frances Fox Piven (distinguished professor of sociology and political science at CUNY; outgoing president of the American Sociological Association; author of this among many other things) give a talk with the above title and thesis. The argument was simple: organized labor in the United States is overly bureaucratized and institutionalized and run by extremely risk-averse leaders divorced from the rank and file. As a result, it has failed to adapt to the new realities of work presented by today’s globalized (and, in the U.S., deindustrialized) world.

Piven’s talk started with outlining three theorized sources of worker power: market power (ie when labor is scarce); political power (electoral influence); and strike power. Globalization, the argument goes, has eroded all three of these sources of power, although she also argued that the erosion of strike power has also been a product of unions shooting themselves in the foot. But, Piven says, the new global economy is a double-edged sword: it also presents brand-new possibilities for worker power, which the labor movement has completely failed to grasp.

The increasingly complex global chains of production, Piven claims, create opportunities for small pools of workers to exercise greatly magnified power over global capital. There are bottlenecks in the system where striking workers can shut down entire industries. But such actions would be extremely disruptive, and institutional labor would be unlikely to support them, and might even work to undermine them. Unions, she says, have become oligarchical, with leadership acting more out of self-preservation than the interests of the membership (much less the working class as a whole), and with damaging ties to the Democratic party as well as, in some cases, firms themselves.

Overall her argument seemed to be that unions have become too self-interested and parochial and what is really needed is a true working class consciousness. Her example was this: at a meeting between SEIU and COSATU (South Africa’s largest labor federations), the SEIU rep said, “We represent our members – that’s our job.” The COSATU rep replied, “We represent the working class. That’s ours.”

What troubles me is that both of the possible new pressure points that Piven highlighted – the above-noted bottlenecks in the global production chain, as well as the organizing potential of the huge new pool of place-based domestic service workers that cannot be outsourced – would seem to require pretty massive institutional support. It seems to me that workers striking to shut down a global production chain would be met with excessive and potentially lethal force, depending on where they were based. Such an action in the developing world would require a strong transnational movement to support them. And I would think that such an action in, say, the United States – a dock worker’s strike was her example – would still require some major institutional support. And how are domestic service and retail workers going to organize without union support? Perhaps I’m just having a major failure of imagination, but it seems that some pretty powerful institutional support is going to be needed if we are to overcome Wal-Mart’s anti-union strategies and actually organize those workers.

I posed this to Piven in the form of a slightly muddled question – if not from institutionalized unions, from where is the impetus for organizing going to come? – and I didn’t find her answer particularly convincing. She reiterated that such unions simply won’t support disruptive actions, and then basically stated that bottom-up movements from workers (both unionized and nonunion) are what’s really needed. She later used the immigrants’ rights rallies and the “Day Without Immigrants” of a few years ago as an example: the oppressed population organized themselves, spontaneously, without support from major institutions until the ball was already rolling.

I don’t know. That movement hasn’t really been sustained. How does the kind of sustained bottom-up movement needed for something as audacious as shutting down a global production chain happen without some kind of transnational labor movement or global class consciousness? Can you have a truly effective anti-systemic movement that arises without institutional support? Was the pre-9/11 anti-globalization movement an example, or does it fall apart under scrutiny given that it did enjoy support from some pretty institutionalized entities, despite its decentralized nature?

Piven emphasized that truly insurgent movements are largely unpredictable. They just happen when people get sufficiently pissed off about being oppressed, and simultaneously empowered because they’re talking to one another about it. So if these things are really so ad hoc and unpredictable, how does someone trying to organize for social change try to tap into these sources of discontent and resistance?


  1. […] movement and more of a global working class consciousness in order to get anything done. Somewhere, Frances Fox Piven is saying, “I told you […]

  2. […] While there are many things to say about this book (for now, I’ll just say that much of what Frances Fox Piven had to say a few months ago seems to line up perfectly with Lichtenstein’s viewpoint), one thing that struck me […]

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