One of the impediments to our understanding of the “Trump” phenomenon is directly the result of our accepting Marxist, socialist and anarchist cant as the measure for evaluating the behaviour and political preferences of what is referred to as the “working class”. The emphasis on the dissatisfied workers of the Rust Belt voting ‘against their interests’ for Trump is a current theme of the post-election analyses. It is founded on the belief that the “working class” has a ‘class consciousness’ and a set of beliefs that guide or should guide them in how they behave. It proposes that working people will vote on ideological grounds rather than their economic interests. In practice this is seldom a reliable guide to predicting their beliefs or behaviours or how they choose to deal with problems.
I have been a trade unionist for fifty years and directly involved in collective bargaining, political action, lobbying and representation of working people in over thirty countries. I have found that the notion of ‘class consciousness’ does exist but is seldom a good guide to predicting behaviour; especially when it comes in conflict with workers’ economic interests.
My first experience with the conflict between cant and worker choice was a shock to my belief system. In 1964, while working for the United Auto Workers’ Union in Detroit I was asked to go with one of the political organisers of the union, Joe Berri, to visit Dodge Local 3, in Hamtramck (an enclave of Detroit inhabited primarily by Ukrainians and Poles). It was one of the larger Chrysler plants and very busy, working three shifts. Our job was to get the local union to take down the Goldwater posters plastered on the walls of the union hall. The UAW supported Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats and Goldwater was viewed as a right-wing anti-union Republican.
We got a meeting with the head of the local union and his assistants and we told them that the UAW leadership could not understand why they were supporting Goldwater. We pointed out that the working people’s interests were traditionally best served by the Democrats and that Lyndon Johnson was a very progressive member of the party. Surely, we asked, it was not in the interests of the Chrysler workers to support Goldwater. We asked why they supported Goldwater and the head of the local replied “Because Goldwater hates Negros”.
I was stunned. I asked why fellow union members in the same plant who were Negros would raise such a negative feeling. The local union leader explained that there was a likelihood that the plant would revert to a two-shift schedule and that they, who lived in Hamtramck, wanted to make sure that if anyone was laid off it would be from among those black workers who lived elsewhere in Detroit, irrespective of seniority. Their willingness to vote for an enemy of their union and the labour movement to further what appeared to be their racism and nativism was justified by them as ‘protecting their jobs. There was not a jot or tittle of class consciousness involved.
Labour union discrimination against black workers was an integral part of the British scene, especially among the seamen. In 1948 about 8,000 black people were based in Liverpool, most of whom had come to Britain to help the 'war effort'. The competition for jobs prompted the National Union of Seamen (NUS), under firm right-wing domination, to organise a drive to keep black seamen off British ships. About 30 per cent of black adults were seamen, and another 10 per cent had shore jobs. Sixty per cent of the black population was made unemployed as a result of this 'colour bar'. The attacks of the NUS leadership added to the general discrimination and hostility to blacks in the city. Race riots were frequent and deadly. In one strike the white workers took industrial action to get an agreement that if there were to be layoffs the black workers were to be laid off first.
With the crisis in the early 1970s well over 50 per cent of black workers were denied opportunities to work in industry. In 1975, there were only 75 black workers amongst the 10,000 employees in 19 Liverpool shops. Even as late as 1983, after millions of words and dozens of reports detailing the situation, a mere 12 black staff out of a sample of 3,000 employees in the city centre were found. It had become catastrophic by the early 1980s. Unemployment in Liverpool between 1974 and 1981 rose by 120 per cent, but in the same period black unemployment in Liverpool increased by 350 per cent. This discrimination was engaged in by the unions as well as by the council and by the management. Although many of the British unionists were keen Marxists and had a Communist Party-led Shop Stewards Movement representing them, discrimination continued unabated. The notion of any ‘class consciousness’ didn’t extend to black people as long as jobs were threatened by their presence.
Perhaps the most famous case of the battle between job competition and racial conflict was the 1922 Rand Strike in South Africa. The Boer War of 1899 to 1902 caused extreme disruptions in the mining operations on the Rand. During the war, some mines were closed, others worked only sporadically. The miners on the Rand consisted of White supervisors and skilled labourers. Because of the great loss of capital and profits in the mining industry during the war there were great pressures on the industry to cut costs. They did so by reducing the already meagre pay of the unskilled White miners. More importantly, the unskilled and semi-skilled White workers began to be replaced by Black African workers recruited from all over Southern Africa as well as some Chinese labourers brought in to work in the goldfields, arriving in 1904.
During the period 1907 to1922 there was a growth of militancy among the White miners and the formation of mineworkers’ unions which were dominated by both White nationalism and Communism There was considerable industrial unrest and action in the mining sector; evidenced mainly by the frequent calling of strikes. These were designed to put pressure on the mine owners and the government to maintain the ‘reservation’ of jobs in the mining industry to Whites only. In 1920 the Chamber of Mines announced that it was abandoning the policy of job reservation for Whites and was employing 2,000 Black workers who would replace the laid-off or striking White miners.
Sporadic strikes began across the Transvaal and the Reef leading to an increase hostility between the two camps. By January 10, 1922 the shutdown of the mines was complete. This became a general insurrection against the South African state. In February 1922, the armed miners marched on Johannesburg and took over parts of the city. On March 6, they declared a general strike. They besieged police stations and government offices and beat up, shot and killed large numbers of Black Africans whom they found in the city. They marched under the banner “White Workers of the World Unite”.
The Smuts government declared martial law and called out the troops. By March 18 the rebellion was over, leaving about 200 people dead (including many policemen) and more than 1,000 people injured. Fifteen thousand men were put out of work and gold production slumped. Some of the rebels were deported and a few were executed for deeds that amounted to murder. Most importantly the government passed three laws which enshrined the notion of racial segregation in South Africa - The first was the Industrial Conciliation Act of 1924, which set up machinery for consultation between employers' organizations and trade unions. The second was the Wage Act, which set up a board to recommend minimum wages and conditions of employment. The third was the Mines and Works Amendment Act of 1926, which firmly established the principle of the colour bar in certain mining jobs and the principle of job reservation by race.
There are scores of similar examples of workers across the world who have taken the notion of ‘job reservation’ as a leitmotif of their industrial status. They have sought to preserve their jobs and their livelihoods against competition introduced by economic circumstances or, most frequently, by their companies trying to save money and weaken the industrial strength of the workers and their unions. It is management who bring in scabs and ‘blacklegs’; who hire foreigners or outsiders to replace their workforces; who move their factories away from the workers already employed in their companies; or introduce machinery and automation to reduce the workforce and lower the skill set for further employment.
Racism, xenophobia, misogyny and nativism among workers and their institutions are not a commonplace occurrence. The large majority of the working and middle classes don’t see themselves as racists or nativists. They rarely identify with or vote for extremist parties nor identify themselves with such movements. They do have an overriding wish to maintain their jobs, their incomes and their standards of living. They fear and resent those whose presence in the workforce threaten their incomes. When their jobs are secure, when they can pay their bills, when they can envision a better life for their children they have always shown kindness and support to those less advantaged than they.
Their problem has been that they believe that the institutions which they relied on to protect their jobs and aspirations have abandoned them. One can call it globalisation, runaway employers, automation, or a dozen more euphemisms to describe their plight, but the end result is that the factories have closed, the jobs have gone, the wages have been reduced for the jobs that have remained and their political power has been diminished. The state and federal governments have not intervened to protect them, Their unions have fought a desultory battle to maintain their jobs.
In the auto industry in the US the financial crisis was followed by a collapse of the motor industry. When Obama engaged with the union and the local governments to ‘save the industry’ in 2009 the reorganisation program led to scores of plant closings and tens of thousands of layoffs.. A partial list includes: GM assembly plants in Janesville, Wisconsin and Pontiac, Michigan; the Grand Rapids Metal Center in Michigan and Chrysler assembly plant in Wilmington, Delaware plant in 2009; GM’s Indianapolis Metal Center, Willow Run assembly and Saginaw Steering plants in Michigan; Ford’s Cleveland Casting and Chrysler’s Detroit Axle, Kenosha, Wisconsin engine plant; and Twinsburg, Ohio stamping plants in 2010 and two Chrysler assembly plants in Fenton, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis in 2011.[i]
The industry was saved and is now thriving but the jobs of the displaced workers have not come back. The Obama restructuring of the auto industry in 2009 cut wages for new hires in
half and decimated their health care as well as benefits for retirees. This was the case in other industries as well. The Carrier Company has continued to threaten to move its U.S. plants to Mexico as part of a ‘bargaining policy’ with its workers. The large numbers of industrial enterprises which have been shuttered across the Rust Belt are not coming back. The job uncertainty and growing poverty seem likely to increase. The workers understand that no one has said that they were coming to their rescue or announced a credible plan for their salvation.
Across the Midwest, workers left their traditional home in the Democratic Party to vote Republican because, even though they doubt Trump will do so, he at least recognised their distress. They didn’t vote for Trump because they were racists or nativists. They were Bernie Sanders’ most ardent supporters until he was defeated by Clinton. They voted because they knew that they needed change and the Clinton Democrats were not providing it or even promising it.
These problems are not going to be resolved by stigmatising the white working class for their supposed racism and nativism or by any appeal to their ‘class consciousness’. What will change their votes and their opinions is a program of economic interventions which will give them jobs and a future in which they can believe. Perhaps the shock of Trump will spur the Democrats to adopt such policies and press for a deep reset of the industrial system.