Socialism, as an indictment of capitalism, has a threatening strength that workers can harness. The capitalist system, with its disasters and inaccessibility, its famines and poverty, its daily indignities and great wealth divides, is working just fine. In the aftermath of the last great factory disaster in Bangladesh, when over 1000 workers died (literally crushed under the weight of capitalism, choked to death on its dust, and engulfed in its flames); people around the world shook their heads, blinked in disbelief, and wrung their hands. The “failures of capitalism,” when the system shows its true colors, are not failures at all. The failures of capitalism are just its truth. Workers will be crushed, choked, and burned as long as capitalism exists. Even so, the American capitalist system shrugs.
A crucial first step that workers need to take to fight back against capitalism is to understand the relevance of socialism to the current job market. Manufacturing jobs, now routinely sent overseas to avoid pesky labor laws and regulations, are what we imagine when we envision socialism. The popular image of labor is the idealized Soviet worker: steam filling the air, heat pulsing, sweat rolling from the brows of workers on an assembly line; holding gleaming metal tools and hammers. The image that American workers have cultivated for themselves is quite different. “We” don’t typically work on assembly lines in factories, or in the agricultural fields. With the growth of the service industry, the self-employed, and the expansion of outsourcing, which shuttered those factories, and left agricultural jobs to immigrants (many of whom are forced to stay working slave wages due to undocumented status); work in the United States just doesn’t look like it used to.
Combined with the systematic dismantling of labor unions and their power, the evolution of work changed while the image of the worker, the laborer, and the union member did not. Labor history in this country is full of similar stories: strikes broken with violence and intimidation, workers killed for having the audacity to demand their rights, safe fire exits with unlocked doors, unequal pay for equal work, and fear of boss retaliation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 11 percent of all workers in the US belonged to a union in 2014. Matching the trends of outsourcing and labor identification, union membership has decreased since 1983 when data were first available and when 20 percent of all workers belonged to a union.
Knowing our own labor history is integral to our identifying as workers. If we are disconnected from the movement, alienated from the victories that workers helped to achieve, then it becomes more possible to distance ourselves from the current struggle. The dramatic decrease in union membership follows the familiar individualist ideology, which continues to reinforce the lack of class consciousness in the country. This absence of cohesion is what makes it so easy for folks to identify themselves as separate from workers: the, “We don’t need labor unions anymore” sentiment.
Enter the Labor Liberation workshop. The good folks at “Jobs with Justice” in Denver, Colorado had an idea: create an educational training for people to encourage them to identify as workers. They wrote a curriculum, created a comprehensive labor history timeline, and then essentially gave it away to interested workers.
The workshop uses a “Popular Education” model that is based on participation and flattening the power structure in practice. The “teacher-student” relationship is a horizontal method, rooted in participation and mutual conversation. Learning through actively contributing means inserting one’s own history into the labor history timeline. Participants tell stories of work and share memories that flow from all participants and connect them not only to each other and to each other’s stories, but to labor history, and to labor itself. So, not only is the group-dynamic strengthened through storytelling, but being able point to an event in labor history and saying, “that’s me,” or “that’s my family,” helps produce and reinforce labor identity.
Moving on from labor history, the workshop discusses the American Dream ideology, which is patently anti-labor. This ideology creates the isolated identity of the American worker. The connections made get at the root of why Americans do not identify as workers. What implications does the isolationist, individualistic ideology have on the country’s institutions, and on its people, in their conversations with each other? Lastly, what do we internalize about ourselves, about class, labor, and socialism, through this ideological filter?
We are so socialized with this ideology that it can be a real bummer to face it in order to bring it down and move on. The workshop confronts this anti-labor ideology by splitting it into its oppressive pieces, the “isms” of the dominant culture: racism, sexism, classism, and citizen-ism. Participants talk, creating art, and give names to the ways workers can strive to overcome the “isms” in order to create a just, pro-labor world; where all labor is honored and all workers are treated with dignity. In this way, participants who subscribe to myriad identities develop class-consciousness.
I love this workshop. When I became part of the “Jobs with Justice Trainers’ Collective,” I already identified as a worker, and as part of the movement. What I did not expect from this type of workshop was a constant eye towards intersectionality. My favorite part of this is discussing exactly where labor and worker identity meets social justice. What excites me, and why I continue to participate in this workshop and others like it, is that labor is often left out of the social justice conversation. Institutionalized racism and sexism are pervasive in our culture, which those of us who are “bought in” into it quickly to note. Nevertheless, we often don’t express solidarity with the labor movement. Institutionalized, internalized classism and anti-labor sentiment is also common and often goes unmentioned when we discuss social justice. The things that divide labor and social justice movements are just as false as what isolate us socially.ic marriages with the help of the “underground women’s shelters” i.e., other people’s houses that her church group established.
Because our educational system is designed and run to reflect the capitalist system, it propagates the anti-labor American Dream ideology. As socialists, it is our job to educate, agitate, and organize our communities. It’s up to us, as the vanguard that believes in socialism’s ability to destroy capitalism for a more just world, to lead others to make the connections between themselves and labor. Let us be the first mouthpieces for the revolution, which will never arrive if our colleagues, friends, teammates, and enemies do not join. Workers of the world, unite! But first, workers of the world, identify!