Sheila Cohen explores the relation of capitalist crisis to upturns in working-class struggle
Clearly, it’s difficult in the midst of the current “double dip” recession to predict whether further key struggles will follow the Vestas and Visteon occupations, or indeed the less obviously recession-related struggles of engineering construction workers, Leeds refuse collectors and postal workers – not to mention current disputes affecting airline employees, tube workers and bus drivers. The list could go on, and indeed has spurred recent thoughts of a “mini-upsurge” – but are these struggles symptomatic of recession or simply of the general (and grim) rigours of an unrelenting neo-liberal capitalism?
It has never been straightforward, historically, to work out whether recessions spark resistance or dampen it. The arguments are obvious on both sides of the coin – capitalist crisis, with its persistent tendency to dump the effects on the working class, can spur struggle through anger and desperation (the nothing-to-lose syndrome) or suppress it through the terrible fear of job loss, a disaster for working-class families. To use a wise old footballing adage, “It could go either way” – but which way will it go?
For some academics, the answer lies in a satisfyingly neat analysis of history in terms of “long waves” of capitalist economic development, which can in turn be linked to cycles of worker resistance. Although long wave theory, first developed by a Russian economist called Kondriateff, is itself uninspiring, it has been developed by some industrial relations writers, notably John Kelly, to apply to strike waves; and here the links are quite interesting. In a chapter of his influential book on worker mobilisation, Kelly usefully identifies the key “long waves” (p85):
Upswings: Late 1840s-early ’70s; Early 1890s-WW1; WW2-early 1970s;
Downswings: Early 1870s-early 1890s; WW1-WW2; Early ’70s-present.
There are also “transition periods” such as 1914-1920 and 1967-75. A lot of food for thought there.
But before getting too bogged down in identifying exactly the timing of these “long waves”, we need to focus on the key issue of interest to trade union activists – whether these periods of capitalist up- and downturn can be said to have any meaningful relation to the incidence of significant worker struggle. According to Kelly, “it can be argued that there are major strike waves towards the end of Kondriateff upswings (1869-1875, 1910-1920, 1968-1974) and minor strike waves towards the end of Kondriateff downswings (1889-1893, 1935-1948).” So strike waves can happen in a downturn…Interesting.
Before we start going round in academic circles, however, let’s start looking at the actual events and their impact on workers organised and otherwise. Here we can look at the issues from another standpoint – identification of the major worker upsurges of the past and their relation to those “long waves” or, more prosaically, booms and slumps.
The Great Upheaval
Perhaps the first historical upsurge of struggle under capitalism was that of Chartism – an industrial-political movement which began about ten years before before the first recognised capitalist upswing in the late 1840s and culminated in the 1842 General Strike – a magnificent yet doomed struggle which fell victim to the middle-class “moral force” wing of the movement. More typical, perhaps, of a characteristically industrial struggle was the “Great Upheaval” in the United States, a quasi-insurrectionary strike wave which began in July 1877 after a series of local strikes – most “without trade union support” – dating back as far as 1873-4.
Thus the Great Upheaval occurred bang in the middle of what has been firmly classed as a “downswing” by the Kondriateffists – hardly surprising, since its origins dated from the massive slump of 1873. Yet the catastrophic economic circumstances seem hardly to have dampened the spirit of the strikers. In fact the explosive character of the struggle was rooted in “the failure of other, less violent forms of action”. As another historian put it, “Three and a half years of severe depression ignited a series of local brush fires into a national conflagration.”
As with so many major upsurges, the roots of the Great Upheaval lay in everyday workplace concerns – wage cuts, work reorganisation, labour intensification. As workers on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad put it, they were “treated just as the rolling stock or locomotives” – worker machines squeezed, in Brecher’s words, for every last drop of profits.
So insurrectionary action was not based on insurrectionary demands, but simply on a revolt by workers who could no longer tolerate capital’s attacks on them. By July 19th, troops were arriving in Martinburg, Maryland, where the dispute had exploded due to workers’ rejection of their own union’s “moderate” response to the issues and the massive support the strikers received from the people of the town, who helped them fight the state militia.
The conflict began to spread rapidly through the country, to New York State, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and ultimately as far as Texas and the American West as a whole. It was by now ” increasingly perceived as a struggle between workers as a whole and employers as a whole…[an outlook] reflected in the rapid development of general strikes”. As such, the strike began to take on an increasingly revolutionary character. In one Pennsylvania railway town “a remarkable transfer of power took place …Economic management and political power had in effect been taken over by the strikers.”
As the economy went on to experience some recovery in 1878-83, the then formidable force of the Knights of Labor played its part in a massive growth in trade union organisation. 1886 saw a General Strike for the eight-hour day which mobilised hundreds of thousands across America and led to the historic May Day commemoration now followed by workers across the world (except in the United States!).
Against today’s America of red-baiting and union-busting, this strike-based dual power scenario upsurge appears extraordinary. While, as the logic of history tells us, this “civil war”, as it was described by the press, failed to turn into truly revolutionary insurrection, for our present purposes the Great Upheaval scores one very significant point against the hypothesis that recessions will always have a dampening effect on working-class militancy.
The Great Dock Strike
According to the Kondriateffs, the “downswing” which followed the 1873 slump lasted right into the early 1890s – which again covers a period of major working-class upsurge symbolised by the British matchworkers’ and dockers’ strikes which instigated the great upswell of “New Unionism”. This wave of unionisation amongst hitherto unorganised unskilled sections such as gas workers and dockers was welcomed by Engels, who unlike Marx lived to see the day, like a draught of water in the desert: “These new Trades Unions of unskilled men and women are totally different from the old organisations of the working-class aristocracy…In them I see the real beginning of the movement here” .
In many ways this new “movement” can be credited to a conscious strategy of challenging the then stifling hold of craft unionism by leaders like Tom Mann and Benn Tillett. But it also, as with the Great Upheaval, arose from the barrage of attacks on workers stemming from employers’ own desperate efforts to rescue themselves from the impact of capital’s first major economic depression. As John Charlton’s vivid history of these struggles points out, the “long period of uncertainty commencing with the onset of Depression in 1873” saw “a battery of solutions” attempted by the ruling class ranging from imperial conquest and other forms of export of capital to, more significantly for our present purposes, “intense technical and managerial innovation”, including a significant shift of investment away from land towards capital investment. This last factor meant massive rural depopulation and thus intense competition for unskilled jobs, such as those of dockers and gasworkers, in the cities, with obvious consequences for a demoralising increase in insecurity, poverty and intensified demands in the workplace.
However, Charlton also makes the important point that even during a major period of downturn, short upswings can occur, with corresponding implications for worker resistance: during these “short periods of recovery and falling unemployment, [w]orkers in work would grow more confident. They would seek…wage rises and shorter working hours.” One of these brief upturns occurred during 1888-9, a year when “success bred success, as such demands ran through the poorer sections of society.” This appears highly relevant to our own times, as the current “double-dip” recession has indeed featured such mini-upturns.
Again, however, it was not only the objective fluctuations of the market but also the impact of employer responses to such economic events on workplace conditions which provoked resistance. The evocative title of Charlton’s book – “It just went like tinder” – is taken from a direct quote from the matchworkers describing their outburst of anger over the sacking of three of their colleagues.
Yet workplace conflict was nothing new for the “girls” (and they were girls, in their very early teens if not younger) of Bryant and May. As long ago as 1871, after a match tax was announced which threatened their jobs, match workers and their working-class supporters “surged out of the East End in a vast march on Parliament which ended with a brutal battle with police in Trafalgar Square”; in 1882, after Theodore Bryant had deducted a shilling from their meagre wages as a contribution to building a statue of Gladstone, the workers armed themselves with stones and bricks and surrounded the statue at its unveiling in a militant protest.
So the matchworkers were no strangers to industrial conflict, and their famous 1888 strike over job losses, pay and the appalling and unsafe conditions in which they were forced to work lasted three solid weeks before they were persuaded back to work with a “face-saving compromise” brokered by the secretary of the London Trades Council. We cannot write its epitaph better than with Charlton’s concluding remarks: “…the strike is not just of historic interest. It is an absolutely critical example of how after decades of low struggle and disappointment a militant movement can revive. Its genesis could come from the most unpredictable and apparently unpromising source. Call centre personnel? Supermarket till staff? Well, not in 1888! It was 12 to 15 year old kids in the match industry!”
The following year’s “Great Dock Strike” was not unrelated to the matchworkers’ struggle, given the overwhelmingly strong family and class ties within the same historic East End area in which activists like Tillett, Mann and Will Thorne had already been active. However, the dispute itself began, like so many others, with a relatively minor catalyst, in this case the operation of a form of piecework known as the “plus” system which dockers rightly suspected of being manipulated to deny them bonus payments for extra tonnage moved. Workers walked out after a “plus”-related dispute on board a ship called the “Lady Armstrong”, and the Great Strike, itself carrying a vast cargo of grievances relating to the employers’ “war of attrition” – casualisation, underemployment, work intensification, abysmal poverty – was on.
Despite its militant start in the workplace, the story of the Great Dock Strike is itself one of propaganda and moral pressure rather than of direct struggle – although the withdrawal of all labour from the Port of London by 50,000 dockers was of course no small event. As is widely known, the strike was won more through the intervention of Australian dockers and their fellow trade unionists, who sent the then enormous sum of £30,000, than by the strength of the dockers alone. The public face of the struggle was one of a series of massive marches through the City which “made an enormous impact upon middle class conscience” (Charlton p41) – the poverty of the dockers was almost indescribable at the time. These innovative workers also used a series of effective exercises in public relations through, for example, effigies of “the docker’s cat” and “the sweater’s cat”, docker’s baby and sweater’s baby etc, of which it can be imagined which was the most sleek and fat.
However, ironically this huge event, the spark which lit “New Unionism”, was far from the bitter class struggle which characterised the next major upsurges, those of the “Great Unrest” (see below) and first shop stewards’ movement (see below). This was not due to any lack of what one newspaper labelled “STRIKE FEVER”, nor from any lack of solidarity or enthusiasm from similar workers – as the same paper put it, “coal men, Match girls, parcels postmen, carmen, rag, bone and paper porters…have followed the infectious example of coming out on strike” (Charlton p99). What limited the class nature of the struggle was the early stirrings of the bureaucratic approach which, even in these nascent general unions, was beginning to emerge. A statement “strongly deprecat[ing] the rash action taken by unorganised workers not directly connected with the dock work of coming out on strike…” was swiftly issued by the official strike committee, and an explicit general strike call a few days later was firmly dismissed by strike leaders, including Tom Mann, at the behest of “moderate elements”, such as Roman Catholic church leader Cardinal Manning, who had given their support to the strike.
The nature of this early bureaucratisation, and of Marxist involvement in the strike which nevertheless failed to turn it in a class direction, are questions which go beyond the present discussion. But the points which can be maintained are, once again, that widespread strike action occurred during a period of relative depression in the capitalist economy; that this resistance was based almost entirely on conditions in the workplace, themselves a product of capital’s efforts to maintain profitability in that context; and that the “economistically”-based action generated by such conditions has much wider significance and potential.
The Great Unrest
In the next strike wave to be considered, the “Great Unrest” of 1910-14, the second of these two points was even more to the forefront. While the 1890s to World War One are defined as an “upswing” in long wave analysis, a fascinating study of Glasgow workers in the 1910-14 period demonstrates that, along the lines shown above, a number of economic “dips” occurred during that same period, influencing workplace experience through the usual intensified employer aggression. Thus “The years 1908 to 1910 were years of intense economic depression on Clydeside, as elsewhere in Britain, with massive rises in unemployment levels…”, while the period as a whole had seen increasing “strategies to control [the] workforce and to maximise productivity [through] deskilling, speeding-up production and intensifying workloads…Such policies could be used to hold down wages” through manipulation of piecework (p198).
Similarly, the study shows that worker upsurge can often be related to upswings immediately after such temporary slumps. Thus the study documents an increase in grassroots militancy even before the major period of the Great Unrest: “As the economy improved after the deep 1908-9 depression workers increasingly took unofficial action” (p199). Moreover, the period demonstrated a lack of effective union leadership across a number of decades, in a pattern very similar to today’s dismal scenario: “From the 1890s there was a clear trend amongst the existing unions to accept institutionalised collective bargaining with employers and to oppose militant direct action…”. The similarity of date and dynamic between these factors in 1909-10 and the recurrence of workplace-based resistance 100 years later is both notable and, to a limited extent, encouraging. If the “Great Unrest” could rise out of the marshes of official bureaucracy and timidity, who knows what 2010 will bring!
To return to sober analysis, the forces behind both these increases in grass-roots action in the run-up to Great Unrest and, of course, that massive upsurge itself, were once again the workplace-based pressures referred to above – as evidenced by the many strikes which galvanised Glasgow workers into action. One of these, the Singer Sewing Machine workers’ strike of 1911, is particularly of interest in demonstrating the massive impact of “Taylor”-style forms of work intensification on semi-skilled factory workers. The strike is significant for, if nothing else, demonstrating the bankruptcy of predictions as to the “docility” of certain sections of workers, in particular women. But it also illustrates the pertinency of immediate workplace issues in sparking unrest: “The dispute which arose quite spontaneously in the polishing dept of the Singer plant at…Clydebank…triggered a strike which escalated rapidly to assume major proportions”. And the issue? A work squad of 15 polishers had been reduced to 12, and piece rates cut through the application of Taylorist work measurement techniques. By the second day, the majority of the 11,000-strong female workforce had struck in solidarity with the polishers – this in a company with “no history of labour militancy like this” (p193).
While Singer was a US company and therefore more likely to employ the draconian work intensification techniques pioneered by “speedy” Taylor, the push towards such disciplining and increased exploitation came, as has been noted, from capital’s attempts to restore profitability in the wake of the first great slump of the system, 1873. This shock to principles of classical political economy led to the wholesale reorganisation of capitalist industry towards the more “mass production” character of which Taylorism was a symptom. In terms of the issues of worker response with which we are concerned here, the lesson thus again appears to be not that workers will resist or retreat as a reaction to such upswings and downswings per se, but in terms of the impact of capital’s response to these on their own concrete experience of labour power, labour process and labour market – issues of pay, work organisation and job security or otherwise. This is not to deny the influence of syndicalism, as discussed in the Kenefick and McIvor collection, but to indicate – as contributions to this collection affirm – that workers will take up syndicalist and other more broadly “political” ideas when driven into conflict by the kind of workplace-related “spark” exemplified in the Singer dispute.
The Great Depression
The above is, of course, only a brief and cursory glance at the “Great Unrest”, which was far from being confined to Scotland and which, after a brief pause when workers temporarily tripped over patriotism, was renewed in the First World War Shop Stewards’ Movement. However, in following our plan of monitoring major worker upsurges, next up is the astounding wave of struggle which took place in the United States during the early to mid 1930s – a phenomenon which most certainly confounds any association between “upswings” and “upsurges” given its timing during the most serious depression ever recorded within capitalism (with the exception, perhaps, of today’s). While some accounts (eg Piven et al) have attributed the upswell of strikes, occupations and union organisation largely to Roosevelt’s “Section 7a”, which gave government approval to union formation, it remains clear that this was largely an unofficial movement and that the struggles of semi-skilled workers to organise themselves were in many cases rudely rebuffed by the craft-conscious AFL (American Federation of Labor).
The wave of rank and file organising which took place in the mid-1930s in the US adopted many forms which were quasi-revolutionary, or at least syndicalist, in character. Four major waves of struggle – those of the “longshoremen” (dockers), of Toledo Auto-Lite workers, of Minneapolis Teamsters and textile workers in the south – were matched by magnificent sit-down strikes by rubber workers in Akron, Ohio, General Motors workers in Flint, Michigan and, perhaps most astounding of all, “a virtual sitdown wave” in Detroit, which began in December 1936 and involved workers across the city, including bakery, textile, metal manufacturing, retail and of course auto workers. Overall, “in the wake of the General Motors strike, people throughout the country began sitting down…the Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded sit-downs involving nearly 400,000 workers in 1937” (Brecher p226).
To reiterate our earlier argument, much of this unrest and organisation was rooted in relatively “mundane” issues. In the case of the longshoremen “their greatest grievance was the shape-up, a system of hiring that [they] referred to as the ‘slave market’…When the [union] made no attempt to challenge [this], the more militant workers began forming a rank and file movement…” (Brecher p167). Out of this organisation against an intolerable form of labour market organisation developed a movement in which “the feeling had begun to spread among San Francisco workers that a general strike might be necessary to back up the longshoremen” (p170). Similarly, the textile workers’ conflict was rooted in an employer imposition known as the “stretch-out” in which workers were required to work twelve rather than eight spindles, crews of four carders were reduced to three, etc (p184). The rubber workers’ revolt was typified by a walkout of tyre makers at one company against piece rate changes introduced as part of the Taylorist “Bedaux” system. And, of course, speed-up was rife in the auto industry, where workers played a central part in the historic wave of “sit-down strikes” or occupations in 1936-7.
Again, space precludes a full account of the magnificent wave of struggle taking place in this most unlikely context – a catastrophic depression involving mass unemployment. To make the point raised in the account above of the Great Upheaval, all this potentially revolutionary activity, involving workers seizing and occupying units of capital worth billions of dollars, took place in a country seen – even more in the 1930s than in the 1870s – as dominated by an ideology of individualism and “opportunity”. capitalist. Another parallel is that this upsurge also was rooted entirely in the rank and file of the movement, many new to union organisation, and largely repudiated by that movement’s “leadership”. A lasting legacy of the US Great Depression upsurge was the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO), which as its name suggest was originally rooted in principles if industrial unionism – although, only too predictably, the conjoined AFL-CIO, formed in 1955, is now as ponderously conservative as its elder partner.
The 1968-74 Upsurge
We finish this overview with the most recent wave of significant working-class struggle, symbolised by conflict across the industrialised world in 1968 and, at its “other end”, the 1974 near-revolution in Portugal. The period was widely considered across left and right to be a precursor of systemic change.
And what was happening in the economy? The late 1960s were not, of course, a period of major recession; the broad “long waves” presented by Kelly have “World War Two to early 70s” as an upswing, although 1967-1975 is characterised as a “transition period”. Both are accurate; British capital was already considerably worried about its productivity and profitability levels as the upsurge got underway. 1969 saw a determined, but unsuccessful, attempt by the Labour government to put legal curbs on both unofficial and official strikes, while 1974 saw the launch of the perhaps more ideologically damaging “Social Contract” based on a deal between the Labour government and union leaderships. However, for the first three or four years of the “upsurge” period, no taint of bureaucracy sullied the uproarious wave of working class struggle which spread from the engineering and car production sector to broader groups of workers including refuse collectors (a “dirty jobs strike” was staged in 1969), low-paid hospital workers and while-collar groups.
As indicated above, the beginning of the “upsurge” period can be located in the closing years of the post-war boom, while 1973-4 saw a significant recession across the capitalist world, response to which formed the beginnings of the fatal neo-liberal revolt which came of age less than a decade later. Yet levels of grass-roots resistance and militancy, at least in Britain, changed little during the period. In 1974, the first year of the Social Contract and, according to some on the left, the marker of a significant downturn in struggle, a wave of unofficial strikes provided a raucous response to Labour’s attempts to discipline the working class.
All of this activity was again distinguished by its character as a “revolt from below”  in which the affront to capital was almost equally a rude gesture to the established union leadership. Yet again, as with every one of the working-class upsurges described here, the roots of this upsurge of militancy and working-class anger lay in workers’ experience – again one of ever-increasing exploitation and intensification of labour – rather than in some conscious, thought-out response to economic upturn, capitalist injustice or any other broad-brush aspect of the system confronting them. Rather, the process worked the other way – from workplace resistance in response to these exigencies to a broader understanding of and interest in alternative ways of looking at the world.
The above account of the relationship between recessions and worker response, however incomplete, does at least demonstrate with reasonable certainty that recession per se, however serious, does not automatically act as a brake on worker struggle. Of the five major worker upsurges reviewed here, from the Great Upheaval to the 1968-74 upsurge, three – the US upheaval, the 1889 dock strike and the US 1930s sitdowns, took place in the context of clearly marked Kondriateff “downswings”. Enough said: there is no need to assume that the current recession will of itself necessarily act as a brake on worker struggle.
Indeed, one of the lessons not only of the struggles surveyed but of other, less conspicuous periods of worker activity is that worker activity is an explosive, essentially unpredictable process which often confounds the careful “lines” and “programmes” adopted by sympathetic organisations. One example from the decidedly hostile recessionary environment of the early 1980s is that, while the closure of the Chrysler plant at Linwood in Scotland failed to evoke the upsurge of anger predicted by many on the left, a totally unexpected outbreak of magnificent class struggle occurred at the hands of women workers from the Lee Jeans plant, also in Scotland, who occupied their factory against closure.
Once again the lessons of history seem not to consist of neat links between economic upswings and periods of increased trade union strength and influence, but one of a ragged, essentially unpredictable series of furious struggles against the depredations of capitalism, often by previously unorganised groups of workers. The Prisme and Vestas occupations earlier this year, staged by workers previously indifferent or hostile to trade unionism, are eloquent testimony to this dynamic, as was the militancy and activism of Visteon workers who, while unionised, had little previous experience of struggle. In such circumstances, and in the midst of grinding recession, the classical Marxist judgement of workers having “nothing to lose” acquires new resonance, and indeed I can do no better to conclude with the words of a Visteon steward active in the occupation: “The feeling was tremendously exciting – taking back that little bit of control after having everything taken away from us. And the thing is we knew we had nothing to lose, because we’d already lost everything, and so as far as we were concerned it was ‘We can’t lose – we can only win’.”
 John Kelly, Rethinking Industrial Relations: Mobilization, Collectivism and Long Waves, Routledge 1999.
 Jeremy Brecher, Strike! South End Press 1997, p16
 Herbert Gutman, ‘Trouble on the Railroads in 1873-4: Prelude to the 1877 Crisis?’ Labor History 1961, cited by Brecher 1997, p17.
 Brecher 1997 p22.
 Brecher 1997 p29.
 Letter to Lafargue, 1889, quoted by Hal Draper in Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Monthly Review Press 1978, p.111.
 John Charlton, It Just Went Like Tinder: The Mass Movement and New Unionism in Britain 1899, Redwords 1999.
 Charlton 1999 p63.
 “Well, it just went like tinder. One girl began, and the rest said yes, so out we all went.”
 Charlton op cit p27.
 William Kenefick and Arthur McIvor (eds) Roots of Red Clydeside 1910-14: Labour Unrest and Industrial Relations in West Scotland John Donald Publishers, 1996.
 The Great Unrest, of course, extended far beyond Scotland to Britain as a whole, involving the three key groups of dockers, railway workers and miners as well as factory workers. This study of “the roots of Red Clydeside” does, however, cast an interesting light on the details of the conflict.
 Kenefick and MicIvor op cit, p203.
 Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail Vintage Books 1979.
 Brecher 1997, op cit p213.
 For a more detailed account of these and later developemnts, see Sheila Cohen Ramparts of Resistance: Why Workers Lost Their Power, and How to Get It Back, , Pluto Press 2006.
 Stanley Weir, USA – The Labor Revolt, New England Free Press, 1967.