Newsletter #29: Can Labor Rise Again?, with Rob Baril, Jaz Brisack, Luis Feliz Leon, Alex Press, and Chris Smalls

by Maia Silber

In July 1936, a majority of the 3,000-member Associated Employees of South Works voted to affiliate with the CIO’s Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee. The South Works group was a company union, established by US Steel to suppress real labor organizing. But seven years into the Great Depression, the South Works employees had had enough of the company’s empty promises of worker empowerment. The company union had become “a Frankenstein’s monster to the employers who created them,” according to one journalist at the time.

I thought of that incident — recounted in historian Lizabeth Cohen’s classic book Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 — while listening to this week’s episode of The Dig. In it, labor organizers Rob Baril, Jaz Brisack, and Chris Smalls, and labor reporters Luis Feliz Leon and Alex Press, discuss what’s motivating the recent surge of labor militancy. One clear theme that emerges from their wide-ranging discussion is labor’s increasing unwillingness to accept management’s fictitious claims of equality in the workplace.

Listen to the live episode, recorded at The People’s Forum in New York City, here.

Starbucks, notes Brisack, calls its staff “partners,” even while compelling them to work in unsafe conditions during a pandemic. Workers at her now-unionized Buffalo store and at least twenty other locations that have voted to hold National Labor Relations Board elections nationwide are now demanding the power their title implies.

I’m not the only one to make the parallel to the 1930s. As Leon and Press point out, many of today’s organizers themselves hope to fulfill the unrealized calls of activists in that era for “industrial democracy” — a substantive form of worker control in the workplace. There are obvious parallels between today’s crisis and those of the Great Depression that might again help engender the rise of a mass labor movement.

Still, I’d temper that optimism somewhat: workers organizing today also face novel challenges after a half-century of neoliberal policies that have not only weakened organized labor but also decimated working-class communities.

Today, we don’t face a revival of the laissez-faire-ism of the early-twentieth century so much as a new regime characterized by mass incarceration, punitive welfare programs, and imperial state-building. Confronting that new regime will require new vision and new strategy, even if we draw on inspiration from the past. What gives me hope is that organizers such as Baril, Brisack, and Smalls are embracing such innovation, seeking to build a labor movement that will not only match the achievements of New Deal-era industrial unionism but go far beyond them.

As Cohen’s title suggests, no moment of crisis inevitably gives rise to union power. Workers had to make a New Deal, as we will have to forge whatever era of labor history we hope will come next.

Further Reading and Listening The Dig has closely followed the uptick in labor organizing this past year. Listen to our episodes on “Striketober” with Alex Press, Johan Furman, and Victor Bouzi, and labor’s path forward with Jane McAlevey. For a look back on the 1930s that highlights a different and in many ways more radical tradition than that of the CIO, check out Robin D.G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe: Alabama’s Communists During the Great Depression (1990); Dan interviewed Kelley about the book here.