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Labor Unions, Culture, And Strive for Hegemony in Early 20th Century US

Labor Unions, Culture, And Strive for Hegemony in Early 20th Century US

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12/13/2012

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AMST 3252W
Labor Unions, Culture, and Strive for Hegemony in Early 20
th
 
Century US
 “…
the student honestly seeking the truth about unionism is faced at the outset with a mass of absolute butcontradictory interpretations. He is told that unionism is a narrow group organization designed to benefitcertain favored workmen at the expense of all other; that it is an artificial monopoly of labor, an impossibleattempt to raise wages by unnatural and therefore socially inimical means; that it is the creation of selfishand unscrupulous leaders primarily for their personal gain and aggrandizement, a thing foisted uponunwilling workers and designed to disrupt the natural harmony of interests between employers andemployees; that it is a mere business device for regulating wages and conditions of employment by meansof collective bargaining; that it is a great revolutionary movement aiming ultimately to overthrowcapitalism and our whole legal and moral code; that it is a universal expression of working-class idealismwhose purpose is to bring to all the toilers hope, dignity, enlightenment, and a reasonable standard of living; that it is, in short, autocratic and democratic, violent and law-abiding, revolutionary andconservative, narrowly economic and broadly social.” (Robert F. Hoxie, 1914).
1
 The lengthy quote above illustrates the roles labor unions played in the political life of the early20
th
century United States and the diversity of contradictory interpretations, emotions, andresponses they evoked. The early 20
th
century in the US has been a tumultuous period full of  promises and disappointments, prosperity and crisis, freedom and repression. The period ismarked by many emblematic features, among them: unprecedented immigration and internalmigration, industrialization (especially rise of Fordism, which revolutionized production andconsumption), and World War I. It is also a period marked by a diversity of ideologies, working-class politics, and labor unionism. The Great Depression facilitated unparalleled stateintervention in the US free market economy and opened an opportunity for the increasinglyconsolidated labor union movement to institutionalize and legitimate their influence. However,the gains appeared to be temporary and fragile and, under closer scrutiny, unions appeared to beneither equal partners with capital, nor able to resolve their own internal contradictions in termsof social differences, inclusion, and long term strategies.In trying to understand labor unions’ role within the US, culture more broadly and popular culture in particular needs to be examined as well. Not only how pop culture politicized or depoliticized the working-class but also how culture was also employed by various labor andrevolutionary movements. Popular culture emerged as a site of contention through representationof existing conditions and articulation of hopes and possibilities, as well as opportunity for profitmaking. Culture, according to Gramsci, is central in creating and maintaining hegemony, as wellas counter-hegemony.
2
In this paper I will examine specificities of a US historical context, willanalyze the utilization of popular culture for hegemonic and counter-hegemonic ends, and willargue that, while culture is an important site for understanding the trajectory of labor unionism, itis inadequate in itself and needs to be combined with legal and political dimensions.Despite the variety of perspectives and interpretations, the most basic premise in creating thelabor unions lays in its promise to shift power balance between employer and employee. Thelabor struggles in the US and elsewhere came out of conditions of exploitation and frequent poverty of the workers in the process of industrialization. According to Gramsci “the ‘subaltern’forces, which have to be ‘manipulated’ and rationalized to serve new ends, naturally put up aresistance.”
3
 However, the US did not see working-class labor and political movement to the
 
extent they have developed in Europe. Various leftist revolutionaries attempted to explain the USfailure to fit theoretical models of Marxist historical developments by claiming that USexceptionalism was allowed by “the ‘frontier’, continuous immigration, the attraction of agrariandemocratic ideologies bound up with petty-bourgeois property, the international hegemony of American capital, and so on.”
4
Gramsci, for example, also differentiates the US from Europe for its lack of “purely parasitic” classes (that were smaller in the US because of more dynamic“world of production”) that emerged and maintained themselves throughout European history.
5
 While, at least in part, these perspectives attribute lack of the developed working-classconsciousness and unity to individual worker agency and strength of the American Dreamideology, there are also structural obstacles that prevented widespread labor radicalism. Theanalysis of working-class disunity cannot be separated from the particular historicalcircumstances of racial relations and slavery. Although, the industrialization in the Northrequired substantial immigration outside of the US as well as internal migration, ethnic and racial politics were accompanied by structural and spatial exclusions. For example, according to Davis,“By 1914, when Henry Ford began to create his ‘brave new world’ of assembly production at his
 
Highland Park (Michigan) Model-T plant, the majority of this enlarged proletariat were foreign- born workers, more often than not politically disenfranchised and segregated— by poverty or deliberate discrimination—into slum areas apart from the native working class.”
6
Ethnic and
 
racial divisions were artificially exacerbated whenever possible and eventually all the Europeanimmigrants consolidated into a category of “white” in order to prevent cross-racial working-classsolidarity. Those unions, such as IWW, that represented immigrants and racial minorities, as well
 
as critiqued capitalist system, were perceived as particularly threatening and suffereddisproportionate amounts of repression.
7
 “Race, creed, color, and sex were made no bar to[IWW] union membership” as long as they were wage earners, contrary to many mainstream
 
unions, that were directly or indirectly exclusive.However, that is not to say that racism did not exist among either “native” working class or newly arrived immigrants. According to Mann, “the white working class, newly (if unevenly)empowered by union organization, was busily engaged in defining itself as free, native, and
 
occupationally and geographically mobile – in other words, not southern, and definitely not black.”
8
Moreover, it was not infrequent that union solidarity was enhanced precisely byexcluding immigrant and ethnic others, thus espousing race, rather than class, solidarity.
9
 Although specificities do exist when analyzing the US context in comparison to other Western
 
nation-states, the thesis of the American exceptionalism
 needs to be approached with caution.Although, the workers should not be seen as mere “masses” that need to obey the laws of Marxist theorizing to fulfill their role in the dialectical unfolding of history, the reasons for 
 
fragmentation of class-consciousness needs to be thoroughly examined. Gramsci, for example,have argued that in the US “it was relatively easy to rationalize production and labor by skillfulcombination of force (destruction of working-class trade unionism on a territorial basis) and
 
 persuasion (high wages, various social benefits, extremely subtle ideological and political propaganda) and thus succeed in making the whole life of the nation revolve around production.”
 What Gramsci suggests here, and in his theory of hegemony in general, is that the
 
exercise of power is most effective when variety of technologies of governance are utilized -force as well as persuasion. Persuasion, or “the manufacture of consent,”
is a critical element in
 
maintenance of any given political and social order. However, in the US, contrary to the“American exceptionalism” rationalities, working-class struggles were often quite intense andevoked not only cultural means and political means but also quite often violent repression. For example, IWW’s anti-war and anti-capitalist sentiments (“The working class and the employingclass have nothing in common”
) gave pretense for the state to virtually destroy the union in1917.
Nevertheless, the explanations of violence or the context of the American exceptionalismalone are not sufficient in trying to understand working-class inability to neither establishcollective consciousness nor labor and political organizations to represent its interests. Moreover,class, should not be seen as essentialist entity neither economically nor culturally that must act insome predetermined ways – “classes, after all, are organized (or disorganized) entities acting (or not acting) in what they perceive to be their own interests (or they either do not perceive their 
 
interests to be obtainable, or they misperceive them).”
Thus, the role of cultural politics utilized by the labor movement and the role that the pop culture played in early 20
th
century working-class life needs to be considered.The rise of mass or popular culture coincided and facilitated massive industrialization.
 
According to Denning, prior to the rise of Fordism, “low” and “high” culture was much moreclearly divided along the class lines.
From the elites’ perspective, “masses” are associated with“gullibility, fickleness, herd-prejudice, or lowness of taste and habit.”
According to E.P.
 
Thompson, “class is a cultural as much as an economic formation.”
While for certain socialreformers earlier working-class “low” culture was an object of scrutiny and censorship
in their aims to “uplift” the poor from economic as well as moral decay, the later popular culture was
 
seen as carrying within itself a promise of erasing class and social boundaries in the pursuit of all-encompassing Americaness.
While initially some forms of popular culture such as cinemawere dismissed by the higher classes and were consumed almost exclusively by the working-
 
class and the poor, popular culture assumed increasingly important role in public life acrossdifferences. Perspectives on the role of popular culture varies widely. For example, theorists suchas Adorno and Horkheimer saw popular culture as signifying depoliticization, appeasement, and
 
distraction of working-class politics and revolutionary potential; others, such as Lizabeth Cohen,called for much more nuanced analysis of the context, production, and consumption of popular culture.
 Williams similarly argued that understanding popular culture as merely one-way
 
transmission of ideas overlooks how “reception and response” complete the act of communication.
 Thus, culture, inevitably, becomes a site of hegemonic struggle. The legitimacy of social andeconomic system is questioned but also reinforced within the cultural field. Ever expanding field
 
of pop culture genres was being passionately consumed although with mixed responses and notnecessarily according to the producers intents. Workers and artists in the 1930s who were deeplyinvolved in militant labor struggles also formed “proletarian literary clubs, workers theatres,
 
camera clubs, film and photo leagues, composers collectives, Red dance troupes, andrevolutionary choruses: the proletarian avant-garde of depression.”
Although it might seem thatsuch cultural expressions were merely subcultural developments of the left radicalism, the
 
 popularity of working-class motifs often circulated within “mass” culture proper.According to Ross, “labor and the left used the newest medium of mass culture, silent movies, as political weapon in their struggles for greater justice and power.”
Films such as
Why?
(1913),

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