From recovery to union renewal gas and sand

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Labor movements emerge from class conditions. This seems easy enough to accept but too general to provide solutions to US labor’s problems. If we turn to history, it would be hard to argue that major advances or retreats were caused by just one factor — be it economic, political, or organizational — rather than many. Most important labor histories, from E.P. 1 unit electricity price india Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class to Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive, center on the idea of multiple causality, or what Louis Althusser called “overdetermination.” These authors drill down beneath quantitative indices of social change to the qualitative dimensions of everyday life. They find — again and again — that cultural practices, such as “blue Monday” among nineteenth-century craftsmen, or “disco sucks” events in the 1970s, helped accelerate or inhibit working-class action.

So far, however, most of our contemporary thinking on union decline and renewal has sidestepped this question (with notable exceptions, like the work of Paul Buhle). We focus heavily on unions’ internal structures and organizing strategies while integrating accounts of political economy, labor law, and worker demographics. A common, unstated assumption is that if only the right organizing model, legislative reform, or economic conjuncture presented itself, workers would burst forth in a new wave of membership and militancy. gaslighting examples What is left unexamined are the ways precarious employment and the rise of a host of substitute activities have reshaped workers’ practices, identities, and their willingness to take collective action.

In 2015, I went to Woonsocket, Rhode Island, with these questions in mind. It was a storied center of textile production in the early twentieth century and of militant, social-democratic unionism in the 1930s and 1940s. But it had fallen on hard times, suffering the ravages of deindustrialization and failed attempts at renewal, though over a longer time frame than Flint or Detroit.

My visit was not purely academic. During my teens, I had lived in a neighboring town where people looked down on Woonsocket. Earlier, growing up near Lowell, Massachusetts, I spent almost every school trip touring its textile museum’s sanitized version of mill life. And before that, my grandfather and his generation had worked in Rhode Island mills. Though decades removed, his family’s culture still bears the marks of hardship, solidarity, and relative gender equality imprinted by that first wave of industrial capitalism.

And Amanda, a mom in her twenties who had moved from Massachusetts for the cheap rent, recounted similar struggles applying for aid: “They denied me every single time saying that I make too much money. But when I open my fridge, I have no milk — like, I can’t afford to get it. I feel like I am always stuck under something. electricity production in chad I’m stuck under the things that I can’t have.”

Deprivation was not hard to find. Nor were expressions of resistance and favorable views of unions. But beneath economics lay a deeper source of suffering that I was ill-equipped to understand. It provided both joy and pain in ever-shifting doses, and though more private in practice than union or political activism, it had clear social dimensions. I am speaking, of course, of opioid addiction.

At the level of culture , where identity is formed socially through channeling desire, substance dependence seemed to have replaced wage dependence, and recovery to have replaced unionism. This dynamic, buttressed by the confluence of union decline and overdose death at the national level, confounds most approaches to union renewal. It suggests that workers’ loss of power is no longer simply a deficiency to be corrected, but a problem that has bred its own answers. Responding to these answers in a way that overcomes shame while tapping the moral energy of recovery should be a central task of union activists.

But its primary industry — woolen and worsted textiles — had a longer, skill-dependent shelf-life than cotton-centered production. While those better-known cities’ labor movements were hobbled by the early flight of cotton in the 1920s and experienced the 1934 textile strike as a rearguard defeat, for Woonsocket it inaugurated an impressive rise of worker power under the Independent Textile Union (ITU).

Under the leadership of Franco-Belgian socialist Joseph Schmetz and American-born Lawrence Spitz, the ITU organized 84 percent of Woonsocket’s workforce, achieved record wage gains, and sought to wrest control of daily life from employers and the clergy with an ambitious cultural program that Gerstle calls “working-class Americanism.” Though delayed by ethnic insularity and church-enforced piety, class, in something close to its Marxian form, happened in Woonsocket.

And class has continued to happen there, in ways less liberating. Unions have largely evaporated and work, for many, has become intermittent and low-wage. Jobs were something subjects endured and were compelled to constantly seek but were not a stable source of bonding or identity. electricity generation in india Even more so unions: none were current members and only a handful had ever been, though many had relatives who were.

Dan had a longer and more checkered career than April. “I started off bouncing around different schools and not having much of a work history, just bouncing from one job to another,” he explained. I asked how his current search was going: “It’s not easy,” he said, “because it’s like a new digital age with the resumes, everything is all computer instead of paper applications. gasbuddy login Nowadays there’s a lot of people who are working for less money, instead of for what they should — especially people that don’t have a college education.” Dan had no experience with unions and made no mention of them.

Attachment to the formal economy or even to a craft or occupation that could provide “ontological security” had declined considerably in post-industrial Woonsocket. A predictable result of deindustrialization, the subjective effects of this process have rarely been followed to their conclusion. Workers left behind by such shifts are not merely surplus: April, Dan, Fred, and Jeff are still exploited by capital on an as-needed basis, and their role as consumers is far from negligible, though supported more by public assistance and informal income than by formal earnings.

I used to have a bad drinking problem and that’s what mainly got me into trouble. The guys that I hung around with they all used drugs, drank heavily, and partied hard … I burned years like that off my life. Now I’m forty-nine and it’s like “Damn, what the hell was I thinking?” And I find myself — I feel like, damn, I don’t what to think anymore. From Precarity to Substance Abuse

“When we lived in Worcester,” she explained, “it was like you would walk down the street and people would ask me if I was working [as a sex worker]; they would ask me if I wanted drugs. 76 gas card payment Now in Woonsocket I’ve tried to connect with people that I see have kids and I find out they do drugs with their kids — not with their kids, but they are home watching them and not really paying attention.”

Cami, however, had a different experience of Woonsocket. Born in Massachusetts to Puerto Rican parents, she had traversed much of southern New England in cycles of addiction. “I can’t even count how many times I was in rehab,” she told me, “how many times I’ve seen substance-use counsellors. But I finally surrendered and went into rehab November 2015. It changed my life in a really big way because I was able to stay clean.”

I came to Rhode Island in the mid-nineties to better myself, to get an education and so forth, but I lived in Providence and got caught up in drugs. So I went into rehab and then moved to Woonsocket [four years ago] to get away from my family, who used alcohol or have a party mindset …. It has been very much helpful to live here in Woonsocket.

One moral from this story might be that the rust-belt working class is too drugged or immersed in personal struggles to mount credible movements against capital, be they labor-based or otherwise. Without indulging in conspiracy theory, there is an established pattern of subaltern groups deemed “superfluous” by elites succumbing to mass addiction and hastening their own demise.

Here, the West Virginia teachers’ strike is instructive. In 2016, West Virginia was by far worst hit by the opioid crisis — in Figure 2, its dot occupies the top rung, displaying an overdose death rate of 52 per 100,000. It also experienced one of the steepest declines in union density since the early 1980s, a sharp contrast to its long tradition of mine-worker unionism.

Yet in February 2018, teachers across the state launched one of the most successful mass strikes in recent history. Some, like one South Charleston high school teacher, directly referenced the degradation of addiction: “We’re feeling a cumulative effect of West Virginia’s bad economy. All the economic desperation in the state, the opioid crisis — kids bring that with them into the classroom …. There’s a feeling that the whole state is ready for a strike.”

The task for union activists who seek to reinvigorate these communities will be to address these practices as they exist and forge links from class-internal recovery to class-external resistance. This might take the form of incorporating language from recovery programs in workplace-based organizing. More broadly, it might consist in community-based initiatives that provide collective support for addiction recovery (or avoidance) while pointing to its wider social causes and solutions. The latter extends well beyond traditional trade unionism but is not inconsistent with the holistic approach of many worker centers — a model which, despite limitations, unions have tried to learn from.

As preliminary as these lessons are, they suggest that job loss, union decline, and opioid addiction are bound by more than coincidence. electricity transmission Woonsocket’s story points to drugs as a conspicuous replacement for wage dependence and recovery as something similar for unionism. It reminds us that there are deeper registers to working-class life than the higher frequencies of wages, conditions, and NLRB elections. To those who would bypass the messiness of culture in pursuit of these more tangible “deliverables” the answer is simply: it ain’t like that. End Mark Share this article Facebook Icon Facebook Twitter Icon Twitter Email Icon Email About the Author