21 December 2007

A must-read for wage earners and other people who work for a living

Jeremy Brecher
South End Press, 1997

"The United States, while founded in revolution and proclaiming itself based on the consent of the governed, reveals under its democratic veneer an ambiguous reality....the emergence in the nineteenth century of a class system whose main actors are workers and corporate capitalists and the persistence of that system through the twentieth century violate the cherished tenets of the American myth. Instead of a society based on freedom and consent, we find a small, circumscribed realm of protected liberties, surrounded by vast--and now increasingly global--hierarchical institutions based on command and backed by force." (pp. 273-4)

Using the phenomenon of the mass strike as his focus, Brecher examines this "ambiguous reality" of circumscribed liberties, of command and force, and the way that it has played out in the lives of America's working people. From the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, when previously independent farmers and craftspeople suddenly found themselves poor wage earners in someone else's factory to the successful Teamster strike against UPS in the late 1990s, the stories that Brecher relates demonstrate the power and integrity that working people have demonstrated repeatedly in their attempts to realize democracy in the workplace. This book demonstrates that, far from being protectors of our liberty, as patriotic platitudes would have us believe, the police and military far too often have been used by the state to defend the economic interests of the few against the needs of the many. It also puts the lie to other cherished myths, such as the notion that working people don't have the capacity for self-management or that labor unions are unambiguously pro-worker and anti-employer. Most importantly, though, through its detailed and energetic accounts of spontaneous insurrections on the part of working people, this book restores a lost history and dignity to the American worker, which is essential for the labor struggles that will be an inevitable part of global capitalism's future. As Bob Marley noted, "if you knew your history, then you would know where you're coming from." In short, this book provides an engaging and highly readable introduction to one aspect of the "lost" history of American labor and whets the appetite for more.

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