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‘This is no time to retreat’ – an interview with Kim Moody

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Do workers still have power to fight the bosses—and if so, how can they use it? Author Kim Moody spoke to Charlie Kimber about his new book on the potential for resistance
Issue 2584
A Warehouse Workers for Justice protest in 2012
A Warehouse Workers for Justice protest in 2012 (Pic: peoplesworld/Flickr)

Do workers still have power to fight the bosses—and if so, how can they use it? Author Kim Moody spoke to Charlie Kimber about his new book on the potential for resistance

How have bosses used new methods to attack workers?

There’s been a massive intensification of work—people working harder and coming under extreme pressure.

Where there are trade unions, their leaders have basically surrendered to this process, and it has cost many jobs.

Pay is a big question for workers. But I noticed that at our Labor Notes conference what comes up repeatedly is the employers pushing and pushing, measuring and standardising everything they can.

It’s what Mike Parker and Jane Slaughter called “management by stress”.

Most of the union leaderships still have the old view that the way you get better pay and benefits is by productivity improvements where a worker produces more and more. So they see this intensification of work as a good thing.

In the factory or the office or the warehouse it’s a disaster.

How has big business changed?

There’s a process of what Karl Marx called concentration and centralisation. There are fewer firms and they are bigger.

But we’ve also seen a move away from conglomerates since the late 1980s and 1990s. Those conglomerates would bring together, say, an oil company and a steel company in one firm.

It meant that if there was a strike in one branch the firm always had revenue from the others.

The trend recently has been towards focusing on one main line of production.

From the point of organising workers it’s better. But will the unions take advantage?

Unions have to think in industrial terms. Most have moved towards being general unions, such as Unite in Britain.

The steelworkers’ union in the US has around 20 divisions from nurses to travel and hospitality to public employees and, yes, some steel workers.

I’m all for workers uniting, but the process of creating these general unions avoids some big industrial questions. Why haven’t steel unions organised in the mini mills that have taken the jobs from the unionised plants? For union leaders, that’s not a priority.

Is the logistics sector an area where capitalism is vulnerable?

It’s not new for firms to move components, raw materials and finished products around.

But in the last 25 years or so supply chains have reorganised. The practice of lean production means you have as few suppliers as possible to cut costs and put pressure on those supplier firms.

“Just in time” production means that firms don’t hold big stocks and need constant deliveries. The parts you need arrive just as they are required.

This makes firms vulnerable if the supply stops.

In the 1970s and 80s manufacturing moved away from the cities, partly to get away from concentrations of unionised workers.

But this has created long supply chains, which in turn have created huge clusters of warehouses and workers.

Supply chain risk management says labour is a theat. This is our opportunity.

There are about 60 logistics clusters in the US. The three biggest are in New York and northern New Jersey, Chicago and Los Angeles.

In the Chicago-Joliet-Naperville metro area there are around 250 warehouses with around 150,000 workers, including 40,000 heavy truck drivers.

Warehouses are no longer places you store things, they’re where you move things—continuously.

A truck arrives, it’s unloaded by hand, the goods are loaded by hand on to another truck and out it goes.

Put it together—concentration of firms, long supply chains, just in time methods, clusters.

They’ve laid it out for us. Of course the problems are enormous. Governments, even before Donald Trump, are hostile to unions. The courts find against unions.

But let’s ask ourselves—how were the docks organised in the US and Britain?

They faced dozens of employers but they fought for recognition.

And it doesn’t end there. Organise at the hubs and then go down the spokes, the supply chains.

The model is what the Trotskyists did in the Teamster revolt in Minneapolis in the 1930s.

Through very militant struggles they organised the truckers in the city and then went to organise the over-the-road truckers.

That lesson is even more relevant today.

You’ve shown the potential but how do we get struggle?

In the book I quote the British historian Eric Hobsbawm. He says union growth and mass strike movements do not come in “a mere rising slope,” but from “accumulations of inflammable materials which only ignite periodically, as it were under compression”.

You can’t predict when this happens, but there’s plenty of inflammable material in the US today.

Not being able to predict when the explosion will happen doesn’t mean you sit still. Before the huge struggle of the 1930s in the US there were strikes and other fightbacks. Some won, most didn’t.

In the late 1920s Communists tried to organise their own unions. That didn’t work, but the cadres involved then participated in the explosion of the 1930s.

There were old Wobblies, veterans of an earlier upsurge. The Socialist Party people had a huge role in the 1936-7 Flint sit-down strike.

Today the United Electrical Workers have set up Warehouse Workers for Justice. They judged that a traditional organising drive would mean major employers would come down on them like a ton of bricks.

So there are these workers’ centres, which attract a lot of immigrant workers. They educate and develop an activist layer.

They do petitions, around issues such as making agency workers into directly-employed workers. Sometimes they are successful.

Even when they’re not they take up an hour of management time, and it raises confidence. There have been some warehouse strikes.

Then there are the New York taxi workers. You might remember them from the strike they held at the airport after Trump’s Muslim ban.

It’s won recognition. It’s based on South Asian workers. Now they are organising taxi drivers nationally.

There have been two major strikes in the US by migrants, one in 2006, one in 2016.

We’ve seen the women’s strike this year and some fast food workers’ strikes.

These political movements have seized on the strike weapon just as many unions are abandoning it!

You make the point in the book that the workforce is now multiracial and multicultural. How important is that?

Racism and anti-immigrant sentiment have always been there and union leaders have tried not to deal with it. That really weakens workers organising.

It’s why the auto workers keep losing union recognition in the South of the US. You can’t break in without addressing the questions of racism as well as class resistance.

Official union leaderships will say you have to fight racism. But how?

Corporate-style diversity awareness stuff is a waste of time. We have to address how we use union power to elevate people who suffer from racism.

You can get a backlash from some white workers.

But most workforces are very multiracial—black, Latino, Asian, white. You have to deal with racism to achieve unity. Young people are very open to this. More and more young people are ending up in in crap jobs. They want something different.

There are political developments too. The Bernie Sanders campaign shook things up enormously.

Bernie’s socialism is pretty lame. But trade union group Labor for Bernie was one of most exciting things I have seen in a long time. You could talk about socialism.

There are other developments, most notably the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) which has grown from 6,000 in 2015 to 30,000 or more today.

It brings together social democrats, anarchists and everyone in between.

This is no time to retreat. Don’t moan, organise!

Kim Moody is the co-founder of Labor Notes, a radical trade unionists’ media and organising project in the US.
His new book, On New Terrain: how capital is reshaping the battleground of class war, is out on 4 January

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