A BOOK REVIEW

WORKERS IN A LEAN WORLD

by

Kim Moody

Reviewed by: Fr. Sinclair Oubre

Kim Moody in his book Workers in a Lean World, has done a tremendous service to the public in bringing together vast amounts of economic and labor data that sheds much light on the structure and practice of the world economy. For this he deserves much thanks and appreciation. On the other hand, much of the good work gets lost as it is filtered through an ideology that is based on class struggle and "militant unionism." As I read through Moody's work, I had first hand knowledge of some of the events and organizations that he described. I was uncomfortable about the way he described what had happened or what some of the individual groups stood far.

To enter into a dialogue with the author in his 310 page book would take more time than I have to write, and more space than Mark and Louise will give me. Therefore, I would like to reflect on some of Mr. Moody's underlying themes in light of our own Catholic tradition.

In the introduction to the work, Mr. Moody tells us:

"The real topic of this book is the working class: its paralysis in the face of global industrial restructuring; its difficulties in capturing or even influencing its own organizations; its disorientation in the face of changes in racial, ethnic and gender composition; its degradation in the dog-eat-dog competition of the world market; and its rebellion against these conditions." (page 1)

The type of working class that he is talking about is one that I, with all my work with workers and unions, do not know. Mr. Moody gives the impression that there is a "working class" that is lying just under the surface. It is made up of activists and the rank and file. These people are the ones who seem to have the secret about what the new unionism should be and how the world should be built. He states:

"In most cases, positive change in unions and other working-class organizations will come from below - from some combination of actions by the activist layer and the rank and file. The goal of these changes is a social-movement unionism that is internationalist in outlook and practice. This is the perspective that informs this book." (Page 38)

The idea that wisdom, truth and purity lies at the lowest level of the social structure, and the further one moves from this level the more one is infected with corrupting influences is foolish and flies in the face of experience.

I have had the opportunity to watch poor workers act cruelly toward each other, and on the other hand, watch those who are part of the business class struggle with their own consciences and their religious convictions to use the gifts that God has given them to do the right thing. The need for conversion by workers was brought home to me on the streets of Nairobi, Kenya in 1984. A teenager who was the money taker on a public taxi took a swipe at the head of a poorer boy walking in the gutter pushing a hand cart of empty soda bottles, as he hung off the rear bumper of the Toyota truck. There was no provocation. It was a capricious act of abuse by one human being who felt that he was superior because he rode on the back of a truck, and because he did not have to fear the weaker man in the gutter.

In my area, I have seen union workers leave the neighborhoods they were once raised in. Through their unions collective bargaining activities, they began to attain a certain economic security and prosperity. These workers decided that he or she didn't need to live in the old neighborhood. He or she could move into the "better neighborhoods" where the "better school districts" are, and where there are far fewer people who are poor and of different race and ethnic backgrounds. What my experience tells me is that once workers gain a certain economic security, they begin to act like the more affluent members of society, and they begin treating those whom they see as their inferiors with disdain.

What is needed is not a "class struggle" so that a new elite takes over the means of power in the community. Rather, what is needed is a conversion of heart in each worker. This conversion allows the worker to remain in solidarity with those who have less or who are weaker, and not seek to establish a new solidarity with those in power and wealth against the weak and powerless. In fact the Church has always called the rich and poor to recognize their obligations to each other and the common good. Pope Leo XIII recognized the falsehood of "class struggle," and attempted to impart the true call that all people have. He stressed that true dignity and excellence in people resides in moral living and not in the particular class. In paragraph 37 of Rerum novarum, he makes this point.

"Those who lack fortune's goods are taught by the Church that, before God as Judge, poverty is no disgrace and that no one should be ashamed because he makes his living by toil. And Jesus Christ has confirmed this by fact and by deed, Who for the salvation of men, "being rich, became poor"; and although He was the Son of God and God Himself, yet He willed to seem and to be thought the son of a carpenter; nay, he even did not disdain to spend a great part of his life at the work of a carpenter....Those who contemplate this Divine example will more easily understand these truths: True dignity and excellence in men resides in moral living, that is, in virtue; virtue is the common inheritance of man, attainable equally by the humblest and the mightiest, by the rich and the poor; and the reward of eternal happiness will follow upon virtue and merit alone, regardless of the person in whom they may be found. Nay rather the favor of God Himself seems to incline more toward the unfortunate as a class; for Jesus Christ calls the poor blessed, and He invites most lovingly all who are in labor or sorrow to come to Him for solace, embracing with special love the lowly and those harassed by injustice. At the realization of these things the proud spirit of the rich is easily brought down, and the downcast heart of the afflicted is lifted up; the former are moved toward kindness, the latter, toward reasonableness in their demands. The distance between the classes which pride seeks is reduced, and it will easily be brought to pass that the two classes, with hands clasped in friendship, will be united in heart."

The hope that Mr. Moody places in a new "working class" appears to be very similar to the new left "working class" of the 1970's, the bolshevik "working class" of the Russian Revolution or the Das Capital "working class" of Marx and Engels. All these "working classes" engaged in the fantasy of a "pure" worker who had not been corrupted, and from which the new society would be built. What the money taker in Nairobi showed me was that everyone must undergo conversion to the vision of the Kingdom of God, and this is the essential first step in building the new world order.

As one reads Workers in a Lean World, one becomes aware that Mr. Moody believes that there are good guys and there are bad guys. One can list them out according to the way that he presents them, but it is not clear why one earns inclusion in one list or another. I do get the impression, though, that the more leftist or communist the group is in its propaganda, the better chance the group will be included as a good guy.

Among the good guys are: activists, the rank and file, militant union movements, social movement unionism, and the Transnational Information Exchange. The bad guys are: business unionism, "service model" unionism, the AFL-CIO, anyone involved in unions above the level of the local president, international federations of unions like the International Transport Workers Federation, Social Democrats-U.S.A., the American Institute for Free Labor Development, and a host of others.

After reading the book, I was reminded of a comment made by Msgr. Higgins in his book Organized Labor and the Church. He recalls a time in which he was visiting a South American country, and was meeting with a young trade unionist. The union leader proceeded to go on about how the American unions were not revolutionary enough and were coopted by the employers. Msgr. Higgins responded by stating that the United Auto Workers may not be big on revolutionary rhetoric, but they have delivered for their members some of the highest wages, best health care and biggest pensions for workers anywhere in the world.

Over the last few years, I have watched a number of the maritime unions go through major internal revolutions. The leadership that had governed the union for years was replaced by new leadership which ran on a reform platform that called for accountability for some of the practices which had taken place, and promised the membership that they would end concessionary contracts that brought about fewer jobs and lower wages. What the new leadership learned was that there is a significant difference in promising to make changes, and getting these changes done. All the rhetoric and posturing with management may be good for one's ego, but the day-to-day common good of one's members may be damaged beyond recovery.

The responsibility of a union is to work for a more just society. It does this not only by engaging in collective bargaining and, on some occasions, in-your-face labor actions and strikes, but also by policing their contracts to see that they are being adhered to by the companies, defending their members interests in grievance procedures, overseeing and administering pension and health care programs, recruiting and supplying workers for contracted employers, and training the future workers in their union apprenticeship program.

All these activities are the mundane activities of union work, but it is no less significant than the high profile class warfare stuff the author lauds so highly.

As I read, I wondered if I really knew any "real" workers. The men and women who I knew wanted to go to work, earn a decent living in a safe environment and have some security and confidence that their job would be there the next day.

Any discussion about strikes, at least with the workers I know, does not generate a sense of revolutionary class action, but fear and trepidation. No union worker wants a strike, looks forward to it or wishes to unnecessarily prolong it. They only go out on strike when they feel that the issue which they are striking over is so essential to their dignity as persons or their livelihood that they are willing to put everything on the line. The idea that workers are to carry on this constant class struggle is foreign to my experience with union members and my own Catholic tradition.

There is no glory in it. Rather, strikes are seen as the last stand a worker can take in any collective bargaining process. When the worker strikes they are saying that they will not give up their labor in conditions that are laid out by the management. This position is only taken when all other means of resolution have been exhausted.

Pope John Paul II touched on the place of strikes in his encyclical On Human Labor. Here he warned against the use of labor conflict for class struggle. He writes:

"Catholic social teaching does not hold that unions are no more than a reflection of the "class" structure of society and that they are a mouthpiece for a class struggle which inevitably governs social life. They are indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people in accordance with their individual professions. However, this struggle should be seen as a normal endeavor "for" the just good: in the present case, for the good which corresponds to the needs and merits of working people associated by profession; but it is not a struggle "against" others. Even if in controversial questions the struggle takes on a character of opposition toward others, this is because it aims at the good of social justice, not for the sake of "struggle" or in order to eliminate the opponent. It is characteristic of work that it first and foremost unites people. In this consists its social power: the power to build a community. In the final analysis, both those who work and those who manage the means of production or who own them must in some way be united in this community. In the light of this fundamental structure of all work -- in the light of the fact that, in the final analysis, labor and capital are indispensable components of the process of production in any social system -- it is clear that, even if it is because of their work needs that people unite to secure their rights, their union remains a constructive factor of social order and solidarity, and it is impossible to ignore it." (On Human Labor, #20)

He then goes on in the same section to explain the proper and moral place for labor strikes.

"One method used by unions in pursuing the just rights of their members is the strike or work stoppage, as a kind of ultimatum to the competent bodies, especially the employers. This method is recognized by Catholic social teaching as legitimate in the proper conditions and within just limits. In this connection, workers should be assured the right to strike, without being subjected to personal penal sanctions for taking part in a strike. While admitting that it is a legitimate means, we must at the same time emphasize that a strike remains, in a sense, an extreme means. It must not be abused; it must not be abused especially for "political" purposes. Furthermore it must never be forgotten that, when essential community services are in question, they must in every case be ensured, if necessary by means of appropriate legislation. Abuse of the strike weapon can lead to the paralysis of the whole of socioeconomic life, and this is contrary to the requirements of the common good of society, which also corresponds to the properly understood nature of work itself." (On Human Labor, #20)

The last comment that I would like to make has to do with what Mr. Moody sees as the model of a future worker's organization. He rejects the AFL-CIO, he rejects many of the international trade federations like the International Transport Workers Federation and finds fault with most of the other traditionally democratic worker organizations. Beginning on page 255 of his work he introduces me to what I believe he sees as a type of worker's organization of the future.

"By far the most ambitious and long-lasting of TWN's (transnational workers' networks) effort is the Transnationals Information Exchange (TIE). Though this organization has existed for almost two decades, its functioning, structure, and perspectives have changed over the years. The TIE experience offers lessons that are key to building rank-and-file internationalism."

The TIE was founded in Nairobi, Kenya in a joint meeting between members of the World Council of Churches, researchers, activists, local union activists from various countries and national, private research centers.

Mr. Moody then goes on to tell us what TWN has done. He says:

1. In 1980, they hired their first employee, and focused "almost entirely on research and publications. It was research 'with the people;' (page 255);

2. Formed task forces of researchers and workplace activists to produce reports. (page 255);

3. "During the first half of the 1980's, TIE moved from being the center of a network of research groups to a more direct role in facilitating international exchanges among workers, particularly in the auto industry.

4. "By 1984, TIE was attempting to 'globalize' these networks and set them up on a company basis..."(page 256)

5. The development of the cocoa-chocolate network. "Like the auto network, this one was characterized by many meetings, an 'internationalism of events.' It also produced a great deal of analytical material and still publishes a Cocoa Newsletter."(page 257)

6. "In 1992, TIE restructured itself to be more in line with its own new reality, but also with a changing perspective. The largely European Board disbanded itself and was replaced by an International advisory Committee with inputs from all the regional projects, which were themselves given a greater degree of autonomy." (page 259)

As I read through this section, which continues for another couple of pages, I was left asking myself how was this new organization going to really affect the conditions of workers. They were meeting, holding conferences, developing networks and publishing research, but how was this really affecting the organizing of workers, the institution of good labor law, the signing of contracts, the monitoring of those contracts and the empowerment of workers to really affect their local situations.

In the end, all the meetings, research papers, networks and international conferences can do nothing until we see ourselves as intimately tied together in a union of solidarity that joins all men and women into one bond of love. Dorothy Day had heard many of the things that Mr. Moody espouses. She lived through them, preached them and then found them wanting. Her response to the class struggle rhetoric which was published in the Daily Worker was to publish the Catholic Worker. She teaches us that it is in recognizing Jesus, who comes to us every day in the person of the poor man and the rich woman, and welcoming him, that we really begin to bring about social change, but a social change mirrored on the Kingdom of God.