The Common Good
September-October 1995

What Justice Requires

by Kelly Green | September-October 1995

A '90s vision for the labor movement.

Assuming capitalism and American society as we know it, is it possible for workers to have a meaningful voice in the activities of the market? Or are workers doomed to be tools, disposed of at will? In Can Workers Have a Voice?, Dale Hathaway attempts to answer these questions by developing three case studies of organizations that sided with workers during the massive plant shutdowns in Pennsylvania's Allegheny County during the early 1980s.

As a political scientist, Hathaway is deeply interested in analyzing the balance of power at work. In an analytical manner, he consistently refers to a "citizen-elite interaction matrix" to determine what level of power workers had in various situations. The matrix delineates what conditions tend to exist given the posture of the workers relative to the elites who control their livelihood. (The worst conditions exist when management is completely authoritarian and workers are non-mobilized. The best is when workers are mobilized and the elite is facilitative and open to workers' input.)

His matrix is helpful to visualize what workers can be looking for. It demonstrates that justice doesn't necessarily come with specific material gains. Justice requires a relationship that allows workers' voices to be heard systematically-a much more balanced relationship between owners and workers.

As pointed out so well in Frances Fox Piven's and John Cloward's Poor People's Movements, when people organize, they often are coopted by people in power, especially politicians, who derail the movement by emphasizing one particular means of meeting a particular demand. Then that one aspect becomes the cause. One concession thus silences the people, while the root issues remain unaddressed.

In an angry manner, Hathaway describes the experiences of three different groups who tried to give voice to workers being displaced by policies of an impersonal, uncaring corporation. His interview with an engineering professor typifies Hathaway's contact with the corporate world. "In singing [a robot-controlled vehicle's] praises, he unwittingly revealed the institute's cavalier disregard for the social consequences of its work: 'Why not have the ore stripped from an open-pit copper mine carried by a Terragator than by a dump truck run by a totally unnecessary man?'" It's an ugly world painted in this book, where evil comes in shiny new buildings cloaked as "progress," smiling as it slices away at people's livelihood.

This book is predictable, sad, and lopsided. It is the honest attempt of a political scientist to tell the story of the human suffering involved in the beautification of Pittsburgh. He ends with a sober analysis of power and the many ways corporate America maintains its hold on the American people. He tries to maintain a positive attitude, yet struggles with the reality of the systemic nature of the oppression that makes it difficult to hold people accountable. In frustration, he identifies with a bankrupt farmer in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath who asks, "But, who do I shoot?"

IN THE WORKERS' war for justice and dignity, battles are waged on many fronts. While Pittsburgh's steelworkers' jobs disappeared, Detroit's auto plants moved south. Detroit Lives, edited by Ron Mast, is a compilation of hopeful words by those who still call Detroit home. Aside from introducing himself as a student of the "left," Mast largely leaves readers on their own to learn lessons from the interviews in this gem of oral history. These are the workers and labor activists who, by some standards, would seem to have lost the battle. Some of these activists know that, but refuse to give up the war.

Speaking in this book are a variety of voices, from ardent champions of black power to white activists who do what they do in the name of a "social gospel." What comes across is deep love for Detroit, a city largely abandoned by the rest of the nation. The talent, passion, and experience presented in this book, which is but a sampling of the talent present in the city, are overwhelming. Articulate voices speak of the need to come together, to work together, to hold on to what is good, to adapt, to persist.

Although those speaking here see through urban, factory-oriented eyes, they speak a universal language that can be tapped by like souls in farming communities who find themselves struggling against the hostile presence of food conglomerates and meat-packing plants.

Read with Detroit Lives, Hathaway's vague faith in the future for workers becomes justified. Both Hathaway and Mast's books detail the injustices that still exist, just as they did in the days of John L. Lewis and the Congress of Industrial Organizations' genesis. The authors also point to how gritty it is really to align with those workers who may hold racist or sexist attitudes or think the philosophies, theories, and theologies of "social justice" are useless.

Tenaciously, the authors hold on to the belief that common agendas can work together for good in the midst of the grit, and that it is not the activist who will save the day. Those who love their city, their way of life, must and will find their voices. It is a chorus I long to hear.

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