George Walford: We’re All Right Jack

A character of T. S. Eliot’s claimed to have measured out his life with coffee-spoons; other people see themselves differently, and the groups out towards the revolutionary and repudiative end of the ideological range like to think they are engaged in the political part of a struggle between classes, with the trade unions fighting on the economic wing. Kim Moody, a supporter and perhaps a member of the International Socialists (he credits his understanding of social affairs to experience with them) has published An Injury to All; the decline of American unionism. [1] The decline consists in the transition from ‘social’ to ‘business’ unionism which has accompanied the growth of the US unions to become mass organisations.

Americans tend, perhaps more than most of us, to regard their national experience as unique. Kim Moody writes as a marxist (or perhaps a post- or neo-marxist; the most careful observer may sometimes mistake one species for the other) with all the emphasis on the importance of class relations, and the triviality of national differences, that goes with that set of beliefs, but he takes the popular myth, that hard, honest work will ensure success for the individual, to be peculiarly American. Evidently he has never opened a French soldier’s knapsack to find the marshall’s baton, or read many of Mrs. Thatcher’s speeches. Condemning┬áthe myth as false, he nevertheless recognises that throughout US history it has not only dominated the thinking of officials, employers and entrepreneurs but also informed that of workers and trade unionists (p. xiv); the workers taking collective action have been in the minority. It may well be true, as he says (p. 38), that an active minority always precedes the greater developments, but the converse does not hold good; greater developments do not always follow an active minority.

In the USA unions have remained the only form of working-class organization, independent working-class parties not taking root and socialist ideas winning little support. Moody speaks as if this, too, is peculiar to America, but without naming any party anywhere that restricts its membership to the working class, or any socialist movement anywhere that enjoys mass support.

Early American unions were of two types. The AFL confined itself to negotiating the price of labour for skilled workers and trying to exclude unskilled ones from the labour market, while the Knights of Labor used a more thoroughly collectivist approach, trying to increase the well-being of individual workers by improving the condition of all. When introducing the CIO [p. xiv] Moody speaks of it as developing even farther the collectivism of the Knights of Labor; their embryonic social unionism had foreshadowed its rise. But the main theme of his book is the failure of the mass unions to develop a collectivism that should go beyond benefitting their own members to altering relations between the classes.

Presenting working class and capitalist class as social forces in mutual dependence and opposition, with unions as an expression of this relationship, An Injury to All ascribes their decline to a failure to adjust to changes in the economy and in work. The suggestion that only a trivial time-lag is in question is repudiated; in the past such delays have inflicted indignity and poverty on generations.

The activities Moody describes as ‘business’ unionism clearly have no aim beyond defending or improving the condition of the workers within the present social system; in all that he says about ‘social’ unionism a brighter hope is implied. This movement is identified as collectivist, and just beneath the surface sounds his belief that it constitutes a significant step towards a society using a collectivist economy. But this movement is not sweeping forward, gaining strength for its final triumph; it is in decline. In order to find a movement still making progress towards the object he approves he has to go abroad; the newspaper of an association of South African trade unions declares that there the unions have become schools for workers’ democracy. American unions, Moody says, have been unable for decades to make that claim; they are bureaucratic institutions that allow the rank and file no effective voice.

For all its strenuous attention to fact and detail – it is packed solid with information – the final effect of the book is to stress, once again, the gap separating the revolutionary intellectual from the great body of the people, workers and capitalists alike. The American mass unions are not doing what Kim Moody believes to be necessary. The great object has to be a change in the balance of social forces, and this requires the organisation of the workers at present unorganised [p. 339]. But those who have organised are going in the wrong direction [p. 341]. A new vision is needed and ‘enormous’ organisational changes, with restructuring and the introduction of rank-and-file democracy [p. 340]. If these demands were new we might expect them to produce effects, but they have been fought for over many years without any very noticeable result. Recognising that those supporting them remain a tiny minority [p. 350], Moody gives us no reason to expect that this will change.

Kim Moody has a vision of the trade union as it might be but in speaking of the American unions as they are his book presents, for the most part, workers’ equivalents of the associations, federations, cartels and attempted monopolies found among the employers. The union members, too, are pursuing their individual economic interests within a competitive, hierarchical society, and few of them show much interest in more remote objectives; ideology does not vary significantly with class position The slogan from which he takes his title needs completing: An Injury to One Member of this Union is an Injury to All Members of this Union and Those Outside it Must Look After Themselves.

[1] Moody K. 1988 An Injury to All; the decline of American unionism London & NY: Verso.

from Ideological Commentary 42, November 1989.