40 Years Later, Socialism Feels Even More Essential

All year, we at DL have been hearkening back to 40 years ago, when a new organization was born out of a risky merger. We asked DL regular Steve Early to reflect on his prescient piece in the issue below (PDF link here). It also included Barbara Ehrenreich’s thoughts on the recent defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment and Michael Harrington on the labor landscape both terrifying and promising. We thank Steve and hope readers can draw strength from the sound of history rhyming. — Ed.


As Democratic Left surveyed the landscape of labor forty years ago, one emerging day-to-day challenge for unions was how to deal with computerization of white-collar and blue-collar work. In his “Labor Day/Unity Issue” message to fellow DSA members, William (“Wimpy”) Winpisinger, then president of the International Association of Machinists (IAM), expressed the hope that labor and management would find ways “to adapt new technology to the worker, rather than adapting the workers to new technology.”

At the time, fewer than 20% of all U.S. union contracts even addressed technological change. But, as I noted in a cross-border survey of labor progress on this front, European unions—much stronger at the time—were gaining a bigger say in management decisions about the development and introduction of new production processes and equipment.

Meanwhile, the 1980s was already unfolding as an era of union defeat and retreat in the U.S. These setbacks began with the firing of 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981 and soon included other lost strikes and lock-outs in the private sector. Despite the valiant efforts of shop-floor radicals like Frank Emspak, then a unionized machinist at GE, bargaining about technological change ended up taking a back seat to bitter defensive battles against contract concessions.

As Emspak recalls in Troublemaker, his new memoir about factory life during this period, the same organizational weakness exploited by factory owners to win wage and benefit give-backs sharply limited labor’s ability to affect the transformation of work itself. Nevertheless, Emspak and others now believe that climate change is creating a new opening for unions to challenge production methods that are deskilling and dehumanizing, while also wasting resources, generating pollution, and putting planetary survival at risk. In short, there is no solution to the crisis of global warming without re-organizing work itself, and making sure that new technology is deployed in very different ways than Corporate America currently intends.