Labor Unions, Culture, and Strive for Hegemony in Early 20
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).
The lengthy quote above illustrates the roles labor unions played in the political life of the early20
century United States and the diversity of contradictory interpretations, emotions, andresponses they evoked. The early 20
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.
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.”
However, the US did not see working-class labor and political movement to the