The Progressive Era Experience
by David Montgomery.
This was the subject of one of Advance the Struggle’s first posts, which was reported to be viewed by only one person. How is that possible? It demands a re-release! As a new working class struggle simmers under the surface, we should educate ourselves by learning our labor history and seeking out the best traditions and authors in that discipline. David Montgomery was a machinist before he was a professor. He wrote Workers Control in America about how the Taylorized method of production was more than just a method for economic efficiency; it was a mode of control and domination over the labor process which undercut workers’ power and autonomy at the point of production.
Most view the organized labor movement as being a static, conservative body that was often hierarchical and racist. Much of it was. David Montgomery investigates the opposition and internationalism that nonetheless persisted in the bodies of organized labor at the turn of the century, illuminating a powerful counter movement with internationalist principals. The American Federation of Labor from 1886 to 1955 and the AFL-CIO from 1955 to the present have worked and do work with the CIA and US foreign policy, from the pragmatic view that helping maintain the US’s share in the world will produce jobs for US workers. This essay shows on the one hand that the Pan-American Federation of Labor was more a product of diplomatic imperialist maneuvering than of class solidarity, and on the other, that there was still a militant internationalist movement that cross-fertilized in US, Mexico, Cuba , Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Specifically in Mexico, where major US investments shaped the economy, Montgomery states, “anarcho-syndicalists enjoyed strong support on both sides of the border, and the path to union growth was opened by revolution.”
The timid nature of today’s unions and their policies for fighting back is a complete joke compared to the organizing and militancy of 100 years ago. American labor history has been an inspirational force around the world with the first American general strikes of 1877, workers taking control of St Louis for three days, Chicago worker anarchists starting May Day through a gigantic strike wave involving over 500,000 workers in 1886; the IWW organized incredibly difficult areas that no other union or party could organize, integrating women, immigrants and workers of color unlike the dominant trend within the AFL; the 1934 general strike wave in SF, Toledo, Ohio and Minneapolis, the Memphis Tennessee sanitation workers wildcat strike that led Martin Luther King to call for a general work stoppage (he was assassinated a few days later), the justice for janitors strike campaign of Los Angeles, the wildcat strikes of independent truckers (largely immigrants) in 2004, and finally the great May day marches of 2006, which were numerically the biggest protest in American history and were joined with job actions and wildcat strikes across industries and across the country. This is our history and our legacy; we should learn from it and build on it!
With massive amounts of cuts and layoffs, the American working class can take only so much! Water can heat and heat, but only begins to boil off into steam at a specific, critical point. With the student insurgency across the US, and the wave of global strikes in France, Spain, Greece, Southeast Asia, Honda plants in China, tobacco plants in Turkey, a dynamic context is developing for politicizing the consciousness of workers here in the US. A new working class movement will be born that is also an extension of a long historical experience of class battles.
David Montgomery’s essay contains key knowledges and also serves as a tool. Learning from past struggles will better inform how we engage in struggles today. And successfully engaging in struggles today will come from both a contemporary experience of practice, and historical knowledge of struggles. Especially important is for us to concentrates that knowledge into programmatic theory. If the American working class wants to emancipate itself from the rule of capital, it must master both. Enjoy David Montgomery’s Classic essay, Workers’ Movements in the United States Confront Imperialism: The Progressive Era Experience.