Review: A Critique of Kim Moody’s An Injury to All

by Loren Goldner

(The following originally appeared as a book review in ‘z’ magazine, 1989)

Kim Moody has written an important book, which should, and will, be read and discussed by anyone interested in the past, present and future of the modern American working class. Moody, a journalist for the Detroit-based newsletter Labor Notes, has covered the U.S. labor scene for at least a decade, and is well-situated to present a synthetic overview. There is no other single work in print presenting such a wealth of detail on what has happened to American working people since the beginning of the economic crisis, almost two decades ago. Moody’s book is no academic study, but looks at the labor movement “from the bottom up”; the author has witnessed and to some extent participated in the many defeats and handful of victories of the past 15 years. It contains much information which never appears, for obvious reasons, in the mainstream media. Finally, the author is himself clearly committed to rejuvenating the American working- class movement, and undoubtedly sees his book as an active contribution to that rejuvenation.

For all this, Moody’s book is pervaded by a strange ambiguity. The author is a socialist and clearly sees the need for the struggles of working people to move beyond the workplace and into politics. He refers repeatedly to the more advantageous position of workers in other major capitalist countries where there is an important Socialist, Communist or Labor Party. He would like to see “an independent working-class party” in America, though he (rightly) doubts that it could be a Labor Party of the British variety, based on the trade unions. He sees the need for American workers in the new international division of labor, to break out of a merely national framework of struggle, even for narrowly defensive purposes. Yet at the same time, he refers to forces in the capitalist world market “beyond the powers of the strongest trade union movement to reverse”. One senses that Moody believes that only socialism, and therefore only a working-class revolution, will really reverse the downward spiral of the living conditions of American working people (not to mention those of workers in other parts of the world). Yet he leaves the reader with the sense that a rejuvenated rank-and-file labor movement in America can win a better deal for workers and their allies without taking political and economic power away from the capitalists.

This ambiguity is the problem with Moody’s otherwise extremely informative book. Although he paints a bleak picture of what has been happening–and will continue to happen–to American workers in the new conditions of crisis, he does not go far enough in depicting the social and economic dead-end in which they are currently trapped. As a result, the practical conclusions he draws from his analysis, far-reaching though they are, do not go far enough either. Moody leaves the reader with the impression, never confirmed, never denied, that there is some durable reform of the capitalist system, short of socialist revolution, that could improve the position of ALL American working people (and not just the stronger and better organized) as well as other groups, such as the black underclass, whose collective fate depends on reversing the capitalist attack on living conditions.

We would, however, do Moody’s book a great injustice in jumping right into this criticism without first outlining his well-argued case. He starts with the last great “mutation” of American’s labor’s social position: the formation of the industrial (or, in Moody’s terms, “social” unionism of the CIO during the Great Depression and World War II. For Moody, this social unionism–one that looks beyond immediate workplace and wage issues to the community and to politics–was truncated, during the McCarthy era, into “business” unionism, one that concerns itself only with narrowly- defined material interests (i.e. “pork chops”) of its immediate constituency. Using the United Auto Workers (UAW) as a paradigm (as it was for both capital and labor into the early 1980’s), Moody shows how the purges of not only Communist but all dissident leftist factions from most American unions had created, by 1950, a climate in which meaningful internal debate had become almost impossible. These purges broke up an often intense association of workers and left intellectuals, and cemented organized labor’s reliance on the Democratic Party as its sole voice in national politics. (Moody mentions various stillborn attempts to create an independent labor party.) In this situation, American workers settled into the postwar expansion, in which the apparent pragmatism of business unionism won steady wage increases for its members, and organized labor forget its origins in the social ferment and great struggles of the 1930’s.

But in Moody’s view, the problems inherent in this retreat were already festering, as early as World War II, in the establishment of the system of “industrial jurisprudence”. Step by step, labor contracts relegated immediate grievances on the shop floor to bureaucratic arbitration, thus weakening the ability of workers to quickly settle disputes over speedup, safety, and enforcement of the contract. Instead, these problems were relegated to tortuous bureaucratic procedures oftening requiring months, even years, for resolution. Again using the paradigmatic UAW, Moody shows how, in exchange for annual wage and benefit increases, business unionism in effect traded away the workers’ right to challenge management’s shopfloor violations of the contract within “normal channels”. The result was the rank-and-file rebellion of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, occurring against the backdrop of a larger American social and economic crisis after 1965, expressed most notably in the Vietnam war, black insurgency, and the end of the postwar boom.

From 1966 to 1973, American workers, often led by black workers, became increasingly combative. The strike wave of 1969-70 (the most important since World War II) and the famous wildcats in auto in 1972-73 showed that both “business unionism” and management were losing control of the working class. At this point, the world economic downturn of 1973-75 intervened, and all the rules changed: faced with mass unemployment, workers found wildcat strikes no longer effective. Business unionism, whose “pragmatism” had been subsidizedby more than two decades of steady wage increases, became in reality what it had always been in effect: a liability for even the best-organized and best-paid workers who seemed to benefit from it. But by changing the rules, the crisis also ended the rank-and-file rebellion on the shop floor. Neither business unionism nor its immediate antithesis, the wildcat, were adequate to defend, let alone further, the interests of isolated groups of workers. In the new conditions of austerity, concessins and plant closings, the methods of both containment and rebellion were out of date. The world economic crisis had lowered the curtain on an era, and more than 15 years later, American workers are groping toward a strategy which must be radically new in order to meet radically new conditions.

With the onset of the crisis, Moody’s narrative becomes largely the bleak account of an even bleaker reality. He describes all the strategies devised by capital to impose the new rules on American workers: the dispersion of production to smaller units around the U.S., direct investment in production abroad, the “outsourcing” of work overseas, concentration (forcing small, isolated plants to confront big conglomerates with many sources of revenue), and the breakup of “pattern bargaining” on an industry-wide scale. By the late 1970’s, business was also engaged in a new political activism capable of defeating pro-labor legislation in a Democratic congress and which, by pressure on the future “Reagan Democrats”, helped to set the Reagan agenda even before Reagan. Because the UAW was the very model of postwar business unionism, Moody rightly underscores the Chrysler bailout of 1979-80 as a major turning point. To save Chrysler fom bankrupcty, the UAW made a series of concessions in exchange for such dubious benefits as a seat for union president Doug Fraser on Chrysler’s board of directors. Whereas Fraser had, in 1978, denounced the “one-sided class war” being waged by business on working people, he and other labor leaders hailed this contract as a “breakthrough”. It WAS a breakthrough– for management. By the early 1980’s, the precedent of the Chrysler contract had opened the floodgates for a “tidal wave of concessions” everywhere. Even companies with no apparent squeeze on their profits sensed the new balance of forces and demanded, usually successfully, the renegotiation of unexpired contracts, obtaining major concessions on wages, benefits and work rules. It was the biggest rollback for U.S. labor since the post-1929 Depression years, and it is not over. As Moody points out, the “realism” of business unionism faced with demands for concessions does not even achieve its minimum stated goal of saving jobs.

Business was way ahead of both the “business unionists” and the rank- and- file in taking advantage of the new situation. Even today, when the depth of the crisis has impressed itself on nearly everyone in both camps of capital and labor, the business unionists cling to the discredited practice of a bygone era. They have shown aggressiveness and imagination only in combating rank-and-file attempts, such as the P-9 strike in Austin, Minnesota, to break out of the suicidical “business as usual” mentality of mainstream organized labor. They have responded to the weakening of unions by complaceny, by organizing the limited constituency of middle-class service workers, by intimidation of rank-and-file insurgents, or by formless mergers of unions with little in common as a bargaining unit. Confronted with the challenge to organize the vast new proletariat in dead-end and low-paying service jobs, business unionists react wth the same condescension and lethargy that the bureaucrats of the AFL showed toward tthe unorganized mass of production workers in the 1930’s, prior to the rise of the CIO.

But not everyone has taken this rollback lying down. The last section of Moody’s book covers various attempts, going back to the mid-1970’s, to confront the new conditions effectively. Moody describes a “new layer of union activists” who are, in his view, the vanguard of a turnaround for labor. As in the earlier discussion of the capitalist offensive, much of his story focuses on lesser-known currents and struggles. The media have provided some coverage of the P-9 strike against Hormel in 1985-86, of the 18-month battle waged by Watsonville cannery workers in 1985-87, or the Teamsters for a Democratic Union’s (TDU) 14-year fight to reform that organization. But Moody also recounts the internal reform politics of other major unions, grassroots movements of unemployed steel workers in the “rust bowl”, attempts b blacks and women to fight racism and sexism both on the job and in the labor movement, increasing discontent with the AFL-CIO’s complicity in U.S. foreign policy, and the international shopfloor networks established in response to the globalization of capital.

Moody shows the limitations of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, the middle- class black politicians who are its most immediate base, and the dead end of its confinement to the Democratic Party with a lucidity that has become rare on the left in the past decade. He analyzes– rather charitably– the strengths and weaknesses of such new strategies as Ray Rogers’ “corporate campaigns”. He recounts bitter, isolated defeats such as the Greyhound strike, the Phelps-Dodge copper strike, or the little-known and remarkable A.P. Parts strike in Toledo in 1984. The significance of these latter battles was the increasing willingness of “outsiders” to come to the aid of beleaguered and losing struggles. The high point of such action, to date, was undoubtedly the outpouring of support around the country for the P-9 struggle in Minnesota, even when a fair section of “business unionists” openly organized against it.

Moody sees that most of these efforts, to date, have occurred in a broader context of defeat, and that their greatest significance lies in the emergence of a new stratum of labor activists aware that a radically new strategy is necessary. It is in the elaboration of this strategy that the ambiguity of Moody’s book, noted earlier, emerges, leaving the reader to wonder whether Moody himself has grasped the depth of the rollback underway or the solutions required to combat it.

Moody wants to see an “independent working-class party” in America. He argues, for example, that a break with the Democrats by various constituencies (black, labor, farmer) of the Rainbow Coalition could, at minimum, redraw the map of American politics, even as he demonstrated that the Rainbow’s electoral base never significantly cut into the biggest American party of all, the overwhelmingly working-class and poor “party or non-voters”. But when Moody casts about for a notion of what such a party could be, he produces nothing better than his frequent allusions to the Socialist, Communist, and Labor parties of the other major capitalist countries, whose political independence has supposedly slowed the capitalist offensive against workers. Moody is not too specific here, though he mentions in passing the left wing of the British Labour Party and some of the innovations of the now-defunct Great London Council.

Perhaps Moody has not noticed, or hopes that his more provincial American readers will not notice, that these parties are themselves in complete crisis and retreat, for the same reasons that have paralyzed American Democrats. The “Socialist” parties of France, Spain and Greece have ruled those countries for nearly a decade with austerity policies that Margaret Thatcher could endorse. The British Labour Party was run out of office ten years ago because it could not CONTAIN working-class strikes against its own austerity policies in 1978/79. As for the “Communist” parties, to the extent that they represent anything different from the Social Democrats in Western countries, it is only nostalgia for the very Soviet-type economies that, in the Soviet Union and China, are rushing headlong into neo-liberalism.

Moody knows this. The success of international neo-conservative hegemony since the 1970’s has been based on the belief, shared by many working people, that the statist alternatives of the “Socialists” and the “Communists”, i.e. the capitalist welfare state of the West and the “centrally planned economies” of the East are dead ends. Moody knows this, too, and also thinks they are dead ends. When, then, does he says that American working people would be better off with a party committed to what has revealed itself as bankrupcty in other countries a hundred times? Here, the programmatic vacuum that has engulfed the Western left opens up at Moody’s feet as well. He is as incapable of saying what a revived American working-class movement should BE as what it should DO. And he is incapable of this because his analysis, as dire and as informed as it is, is ultimately shallow.

Moody says: “While no degree of working-class organization can change the fundamental social structure of capitalism or erase the laws of political economy, mass combative organization can effect social policy. In this U.S., this means massive new organization of the organized and unorganized through a new social/industrial unionism on the one hand and a new, independent political strategy for the working class on the other.” (p. 335)

This is a remarkable statement. Moody, in the first half of his book, demonstrated clearly that, in the post-1973 conditions of crisis, it was not enough for workers to “be more militant” on the shopfloor. Yet today, after all that has happened, he is just extending the logic of this programless call for more militancy to a much larger scale. Moody knows the old adage that “people do not rebel because they are oppressed, but because they see an alternative to oppression.” And if one thing seems irrefutable today, in America and in Europe, it is that working people, and their “socialist” political parties, see no (desirable) alternative to the capitalist market, and the austerity it demands. The twice-elected French “socialist” Francois Mitterand would say nothing else in defense of his complete abandonment of the “break with capitalism” for neo-liberalism.

The problem is this. Capital, as Moody acknowledges, has in the past two decades virtually exploded the framework of the old capitalist nation-state. Individual countries, including even the U.S., are today increasingly mere squares on a vast global Monopoly board, where investment is shunted from one square to another with blinding impunity. It is this “fact”, more than any other, that has totally changed the rules for labor, everywhere. Caught between the rising share of industrial production in the Third World and the impact of “high tech” automation and robotics in the First World, workers in America and Europe are slated for an unprecedented for in their living standarrds; in the U.S., since 1973, a modest estimate for this fall would probably already be on the order of 15 percent. Any strategy for American workers that fatalistically accepts “global economic pressures”–the capitalist world market–as inscribed in stone and tries to work largely within the national framework that the capitalists themselves have already abandoned is nothing but a dead end.

The internationalization of capital in the past 20 years requires an equally radical internationalization of any strategy for the renewal of the movement of the working class. There is no “socialism in one country”, as Moody knows; there is still less any “social unionism” in one country.

Moody’s facile invocation of the Socialist, Communist and Labor parties of other major capitalist countries obscures what is perhaps the central fact confronting the international left and working class today: that the vision of a society superior to liberal democratic capitalism is largely in ruins. As Moody knows quite well, Social Democratic welfare statism and Stalinist centrally-planned economies offer no solution to workers in countries where they have influence or power. Workers also know this well, which reinforces their allegiance to liberal democratic capitalism. Were he writing fifteen years ago, or perhaps even today for a more specialized audience, Moody would as a matter or course define the solution as “nationalization under workers’ countrol” of the existing economy, perhaps with reference to the soviet and council experience of the Russian or German revolutions of 1917-1918. But Moody lives and writes in the American rust bowl, and he knows that “nationalization under workers’ control” of the slag heaps that constitute much of U.S. industry today is no solution either. Rather than face hard questions, he slips into empty talk of “affecting social policy” through “mass combative organization”. As for what that “social policy” should b, particularly when, by his own account, the “laws of political economy” dictate austerity, Moody says not a word.

The laws of political economy today are, for the international working class, and particularly Western workers, a NEGATIVE-sum game. In earlier periods of capitalism, new investment drew new workers into the work force and expanded the “total social wage”, the total expenditures that capitalists had to provide for the reproduction of the work force. (The “total social wage”, then as now, consists not merely of money wages but of all the education, health care, and other social infrastructure which enables the working class to work.) In the current crisis, the result (and often the conscious aim) or new investment, on a world scale, is to REDUCE the total social wage. New mass production in parts of the Third World, such as Asia’s “Gang of Four” or Brazil, combined with ultra-modern “high-tech” innovations in Europe, the United States and Japan, have already driven down the living standards of millions of formerly well-paid Western workers.  Even worse, it has marginalized a generation of working-class youth in Europe and the U.S. (with young American blacks and Hispanics the hardest hit). This international process is the backdrop to the rollback described, within a purely union framework, by Moody.

But cost-cutting investment is itself only one aspect of the problem. Moody says nothing about the fact that without America’s unique role in international finance, and the subsidization of America’s effective national bankruptcy by foreign creditors, the situation of American workers would be even worse than it is. In the event that Moody’s militant trade union movement came into existence and started to affect social policy, one presumes that such creditors would not sit idly by; he knows that international finance has punished even the mildest left governments from Chile’s Allende to Britain’s Wilson to France’s Mitterand. One need only imagine the international financial turmoil that would greet a Jesse Jackson administration in the United States, not to mention a radical government propelled to power by a militant movement of “social unionism”.

To break out of the negative sum game created by the new international economy, the working class must do far more than “affect social policy”; it must move onto the terrain which the international left for 100 years has relegated to the capitalists: the terrain of production, reproduction, and investment. This is not to be confused with the “industrial policy” discussed over the past decade in various liberal and Social Democratic circles, which mainly aims at making individual countries more internationally competitive. To break out of the negative-sum game, a new international workers’ movement must aim at overcoming precisely the “laws of political economy”– the world market–which Moody fatalistically, and fatally, accepts as the insurmountable context for his nationally-conceived mass militancy.

If we imagine for a moment a movement of working people in America successfully taking political and economic power away from the capitalists, how would it transform the negative-sum game into a positive one? Since we are in essence talking about revolution, it is necessary to abstract from a thousand unforeseeable social, political, and even military contingencies, both in the United States and abroad. What is central is the “programmatic imagination” that such a movement would attempt to create, in coordination with like-minded allies in other countries, long before it actually took power. And that imagination would have as its first task the RE-INDUSTRIALIZATION of America (and eventually Europe) in context of an international program aimed at rapidly raising world living standards, starting in Latin America, Africa and Asia. To accomplish this, a workers’ movement in power would have to “deflate” the U.S.-based world financial system, eliminating the special international role of the dollar as a reserve currency and the gargantuan levels of Third World and Eastern bloc debt, as well as the similar American levels of Federal, state, municipal, corporate and personal debt. In so doing, it would similtaneously have to establish a NEW international financial system, together with like-minded allies abroad, aimed at spurring a coordinated investment boom that would STOP PITTING WORKERS IN ONE COUNTRY AGAINST WORKERS IN ANOTHER.

It is easy to see that in such a situation, the current stagnation and wage austerity in America and Europe would rapidly give way to a severe strain on existing productive capacity and labor power. But when one adds to the above scenario, sketched here in absurdly brief detail, the retraining of the tens of millions of people currently employed in jobs that exist solely because America is a capitalist society–that is, in such sectors as defense, law enforcement, state and corporate bureaucracy, the bloated supervisory strata, banking, insurance and real estate, as well as the training of tens of millions more currently assigned by the crisis to the scrap heap and to crack wars–one begins to grasp the tremendous wealth that would be unleashed by this transitional government of working people and the possibilities of not merely shortening the working day but of transforming much of what is currently called “work” beyond recognition.

A fairy tale? Perhaps. But by posing the problems and solutions at the international political and economic level, where they actually exist, it is already less of a fairy tale than Moody’s contentless call for mass militancy to influence “social policy” in one country. If the last 15 years should have taught leftists in America and Europe nothing else, it is that in the absence of  programmatic, alternative conceptions of “social policy”, that is, of a perspective that explodes the false choices imposed by capital, militancy is quickly channeled into narrow sectorialism or, even worse, never erupts at all. After showing us why the rank-and-file labor revolt of 15 years ago was defeated by bleak new economic realities, Kim Moody wants to convince us that a new militant movement, in far bleaker conditions, can achieve comprehensive reform without social revolution and without doing what no working class has ever had to do before: re- industrialize the very basis of its own existence.