Less than two hundred years ago, only a minute percentage of the workforce were employees, with the vast majority of free working people being self-employed farmers, artisans, and merchants. Today, 92 percent of the American workforce works as an employee. This transformation from ‘freedom’ to ‘wage slavery’ did not happen without a struggle. As Sam Dolgoff writes in Revolutionary Tendencies in American Labor, resistance to the wage system took the form of protective and mutual-aid organizations of all kinds:
“schools, summer camps for children and adults, homes for the aged, health and cultural centers, insurance plans, technical education, housing, credit associations etc. All these and many other essential services were provided by people themselves, long before the government monopolized social services wasting untold billions on a top-heavy bureaucratic parasitical apparatus”.
Moreover, unions and cooperatives strove not only to raise their members’ income and improve working conditions, but also to take their members out of ‘wage slavery’ entirely. For most of the 19th century the greatest labor associations promoted and organized worker cooperatives as a way to cross the boundary of class between employee and self-employed.
The cooperative movement in the United States peaked in the 1880’s and at its core was a chain of approximately 200 industrial cooperatives organized by the Knights of Labor. Almost a million members strong, the Knights were the largest labor organization in the world. According to John Curl, in his book For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements and Communalism in America :
“The Knights planned that these cooperatives would grow and spread across America, eventually exerting democratic control over the entire economic system, until they transformed the country into what they came to call a Cooperative Commonwealth. Wage slavery would be abolished and the American promises of equality, freedom and democracy made a living reality.”
With such a broad grassroots labor movement and the goal of social transformation, the threat of organized labor to entrenched interests became insupportable. Under pressure from big business, federal troops successfully put down two massive strikes in 1877 and 1894, with violence occurring on both sides. By the turn of the 20th century the leadership of the labor movement had passed to the much more radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies). Socialist in their ideology the IWW opposed America’s entry into World War I and so became a prime target of the Department of Justice, which raided their offices in September 1917, sending 101 of their leaders to prison for up to 20 years and effectively destroying the IWW in the process.
By the 1930’s big government and big business had learned the lesson that an uncontrolled labor movement was “unpredictable, politically dangerous and bad for commerce”. It was in this context that Roosevelt’s New Deal gave birth to the modern labor union stripped of its core of volunteerism. In a voluntary union, individual members voluntarily assign their negotiation rights to a union representative but they also remain free to leave and negotiate for themselves. In modern unions some members may join freely but they cannot later negotiate for themselves if they disagree with the union. Other members may be required to join as a condition of working in a specific industry or at a unionized company. The Wagner Act of 1935 also turned union bureaucrats into enforcers of contracts against their own rank-and-file and brought into being the “no strike” clause, the notion that your rights are limited by the needs of the state.
The volunteer and solidaritarian spirit that inspired the network of cooperatives and mutual aid organizations that flourished in the late 19th and 20th centuries is an essential ingredient of a free society as it is one of the primary ways by which workers can take control of their own lives without depending on bosses or bureaucrats. While big government shows no signs of reversing decades of legislation privileging big business and big unions, there are nevertheless indications that new forms of work organization are emerging that parallel the spirit of worker cooperatives in a former era. Networked organizations, crowd-sourced credit and the implosion of capital outlays required for physical production are increasingly empowering workers to walk away and essentially take the firm with them in all but name.
“The labor movement means just this: It is the last noble protest of the American people against the power of incorporated wealth.” Wendell Phillips