21 December 2010

America's Tame Politics and Labor Relations

One of the striking aspects of the politics of Europe and many other nations of the world is the high level of political violence that takes place.

In Spain, members of rival political parties beat each other up as demostrators and counter-demonstrators clash, controversial arrests can lead to street protests, and informal labor actions have put Spanish air traffic controllers under martial law supervision, Portugal has had a widely successful general strike, Greece is experiencing general strikes and violent clashes between demonstrators and law enforcement, controversial parlimentary votes in Italy trigger riots in Rome, the streets of Dublin are full of Irish citizens protesting austerity plans, and even London has tens of thousands of demonstrators doing things like walking over police cars and breaking the windows of Prince Charles' car while he was in it.

All of that was just in the past month, and is confined to Europe. The spin would be different from different sources, but nobody denies that major strikes, general strikes, street demonstrations, violent clashes between demonstrators and police, and all sorts of "street politics" outside formal political channels are far more common in most European political systems and labor relations than they are in the United States. If you looked back just a little further, you'd find similar activity in France and many other European countries. Spain, France and Italy have all had general strikes since the 1980s. Spain and Northern Ireland have had on and off armed insurgencies in my lifetime. Greece and Germany have both had domestic terrorism in that time period.

Latin America, and much of the rest of the world, has followed this pattern of politics that spill outside the constitutional process into the streets, and of labor relations that produce frequent labor actions as strategic tools in negotiations between labor and management.

There are occassional large marches and public demonstrations in the United States, and even some small scale clashes between police and demonstrators. But, the United States has really seen nothing like what Europe and much of the rest of the world is experiencing right now in terms of street politics in the last thirty years. Even the turbulent activism and political violence of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States was probably not quite as intense as what much of Europe is experiencing right now.

The Growing Docility of American Labor Relations

Wikipedia notes six general strikes in U.S. history, one in 1919 in Seattle, and four in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, one in Toledo, one in Minneapolis, one in San Francisco and one at West Coast Ports. There was also a general strike in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in 1998. The last one in the English Speaking United States was 76 years ago, and very few people living today remember it. The United States has never had a nationwide general strike and just two general strikes in its history, on restricted to a single industry, and the other to a U.S. territory, extended beyond a single city.

Union-management relations in the United States used to look a lot like they do in Europe. Strikes were large, frequent and involved a large share of the work force. National guard forces or private security forces were frequently called in to put them down in bloody conflicts. Openly socialist political parties were organized.

In 1950, a year that revisionist history remembers as a tranquil period in American history, there were 424 strikes involving 1,000 or more workers, in all involving 1,698,000 workers, which was more than one in nine members of the unionized workforce of 14.3 million workers who made up 31.5% of the total work force.

In 2008, there were 15 strikes involving 1,000 or more workers, in all including 72,000 workers which was one in two-hundred and twenty-three members of the unionized workforce of 16.1 million workers who made up 12.4% of the total workforce. The public sector which is 36.8% unionized, is as unionized as the private sector was at its peak. The private sector, which is 7.2% unionized, has the lowest level of unionization in the private sector since the 1920s, if not earlier.

The unionized workforce has remained more or less constant for half a century, despite a growing workforce, and that masks the fact that there has been substantial growth in public sector union membership and a substantial decline in private sector union membership over that time period.

The United States, there has been only one year since 1983 that more than 3% of unionized workers went on strike (1986), and there has only been one year since 1998 (the year 2000) when more than one in eighty union members went on strike. In the entire United States from 1990 to 2008, there wasn't a single year that there were more than 45 strikes involving 1,000 or more workers in the entire United States, in a period that started with a labor force of 103 million workers and peaked at just short of 130 million workers. In contrast, there wasn't a single year from 1950 to 1987 that had less than 46 strikes, despite that fact that the workforce was signficiantly smaller. Prior to the 1980s there were a couple hundred major strikes in the United States per year, about ten times current levels of labor action.

Almost all strikes in recent memory have involved workers at just a single employer. Those strikes that do happen have mostly been pretty tame by international standards. American labor unions do not, as the French do, for example, kidnap members of management until a deal is reached.

Japan is probably the only other developed country in the world with a lower level of recent labor action.

The Rarity of American Political Violence

Political violence has been very rare, and mass demonstration have been both rare and mostly peaceful. The only real riot worth mentioning in that time period was the L.A. riots of 1992 sparked by the acquittal of a policeman whose acts of racially tinged brutality were captured on videotape; the riots left 53 dead and thousands injured. In brief summary:

FIFTY-THREE PEOPLE DIED in L.A.'s riot . . . Gunfire killed 35, including eight people shot by law enforcement and two by National Guardsmen. Six died in arson fires. Attackers used sticks or boards to kill two others. Stabbings killed two. Six died in car accidents; two in hit-and-runs. One was strangled. The violence crossed racial and ethnic lines. The dead included 25 African-Americans, 16 Latinos, eight whites, two Asians, one Algerian, and one Indian or Middle Easterner. Men outnumbered women, 48 to 5.

A lot of the killings in L.A. appeared to be random. Some of the killings in L.A. involved people trying to loot businesses or defending themselves from looting.

There have been other periods of civil disorder, in college towns after major wins and defeats in sports, and in connection with natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, but few that could properly be called political or labor related. Most of the other politically driven incidents of civil unrest, like the L.A. riots, involved instances of alleged toleration of police brutality.

You can count the number of politicans and judges assassinated in the United States in the last thirty years on your fingers (nine out of hundreds of thousands of politicians and judges over that time period) and in addition eight other successful assassinations of people for political reasons, a failed attempt to assassinate President Reagan in 1981 (that seriously injured three others), and a failed attempt to assassinate a civil rights leader in 1980. In the same period there have been more than a hundred political assassinations in Europe.

While we haven't been entirely free of domestic terrorism, particularly in support of animal rights and far right anti-government movements, it has been exceedingly rare and lacked any kind of mass support. But, the only fatal instances of terrorism in the United States by U.S. citizens were the Oklahoma City bombing and a couple of anti-abortion assassinations (one included in the list of political killings above).

There have been a few instances of deadly terrorism in the United States perpetrated by foreigners (e.g., the first World Trade Center bombing, an attack on CIA headquarters, and 9-11), but these instances have generally not involved a network of domestic supporters. Suspected foreign terrorist plots involving networks of domestic supporters have thusfar all been stopped.

It isn't that the U.S. has had particularly low levels of violence generally. Its murder rate was the highest in the developed world for much of this time period. Crime rates in the U.S. are quite low by historical standards at the moment, but the lack of political violence in the United States in the last thirty years hasn't been strongly linked to overall violent crime rates.

For whatever reason, perhaps demographic, perhaps in the political and legal system, perhaps because few issues have stirred Americans like the draft and civil rights movement did in the last major episode of street politics and political violence in the United States, politics has worked out the way we are taught in civics classes in schools, through voting, legislative action, and political litigation.

The Clarity of American Electoral Outcomes

The closest the United States has come to the kind of disputed Presidential election result that routinely come up in new democracies, such as the one pending in Ivory Coast right now, the most recent Presidential election in Afghanistan and Haiti, and the Presidential election in Ukraine a few years ago, each of which brought masses of supporters for both sides into the streets in mass demonstrations, was the 1876 Presidential election. We've had very close elections, such as the 2000 Bush v. Gore election, but that was resolved in courtrooms and election committees through basically normal channels and never led to public unrest.

Despite the fact that the 2010 election in the United States featured some of the most vitriolic and violent political rhetoric of a generation, and even a few instances of menancing with weapons, not a single person in the United States was killed or serious injured in election related violence, and no violence or threats of violence had no significant effect on the outcome of the election. The results didn't produce street protests or demonstrations. The election didn't even produce that many really large political gatherings in the course of the campaigns. The most notable rally of the campaign season was held October 30, by a couple of TV comedians on a more or less non-partisan basis.

The Demise of the Civil Jury Trial and Other Coincidences

Perhaps it is a coincidence, but the decline of labor union actions, street politics and political violence in the United States has coincided with the "vanishing trial" in which fewer and fewer civil cases actually are tried before a jury (or go to trial at all), despite swelling civil dockets. Criminal trials are also less frequent, although the decline has been less marked.

The decline has also coincided with a general decline in civil society membership organizations, and with declining church attendance and religious denominational affiliation.

A long period of economic growth may be a factor. The past thirty years has been a largely prosperous one of sustained economic growth with only short or mild recessions, until the current Great Recession. It has also been a period in which blue collar economic stagnation has been steady but mostly gradual.

Whatever the reason, the question of why American's politics and labor relations are so tame by international standards is a question worth considering.


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Notable US Public Sector Strikes in the last 30 years:

1980 New York City transit strike (April 1980, U.S.)
Air traffic controllers' strike/Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (1981, U.S.)
1981 UPR strike (Puerto Rico)
Yale University Clerical Workers' Strike (1984, U.S.)
Los Angeles County Sanitary Workers' Strike (1985, U.S.)
Yale University Clerical Workers' Strike (1985, U.S.)
University of California strikes (2003, U.S.)
2005 New York City transit strike
2005 UPR strike (Puerto Rico)
University of Miami 2006 custodial workers' strike (U.S.)
2007 Orange County transit strike (U.S.)
Hayward teachers strike (2007, U.S.)
2008 Puerto Rico Teacher's Federation strike
2008 University of California strike (U.S.)
2010 University of Puerto Rico Strike
2010 Plymouth-Canton Community Schools Local#6094 (Michigan)

Maju said...

Good article, though I'd dare say that you focus too much in the issue of violence, what really hides the central issue of popular protests, be them in the form of strikes or demonstrations.

AFAIK the latest huge demo in the USA was the One Million Men March organized by Martin Luther King and co. There are other demos (for example I reported in August one quite large in support of Bradley Manning at Quantico Bay) but in general this seems to a rare phenomenon.

In fact, it stroke me as extremely odd that not even one demo has been held in relation to the criminal abuses in relation to the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, in spite of all the very real health aggression it is against citizens. It was with this that I really lost hope (at least by the moment) on US people being able to change anything. If you don't seem able to organize a simple demonstration at, say, New Orleans or Pensacola, on all this criminal state and corporate abuse, you don't seem able to resist any other abuse, much less revert it.

I understand that a good deal of why things are this way is the Red Scares, which were true massive inquisitorial persecutions of the working class movement. However the main reason why this has not resurfaced is surely that the system has been able to guarantee certain standard of living that has prevented so far people from going too radical.

This is not the case anymore, so I presume that eventually this situation will change. But I do not know how or when exactly.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

"the main reason why this has not resurfaced is surely that the system has been able to guarantee certain standard of living that has prevented so far people from going too radical."

As plausible as this would seem, surely it isn't true. If there is any respect in which the American political economy differs from the European one, it is that Americans have far, far less economic security. We have no guarantees of any vacation days. A large share of terminated workers have no right to unemployment benefits at all, and those who receive any receive benefits that are meager and short lived. Our pensions are less generous or much more subject to market fluctuations. A large minority of the population has no health insurance (about one person in six, more in the case of the young). Foreclosures and evictions are much more common. Our criminal penalties are comparatively draconian and the likelihood of being a criminal or a crime victim is much greater. We have less social mobility, and virtually no protection against wrongful termination from employment. A large share of people have limited access to higher education dependent on large loans that make graduates less economicalyl secure and sucess in college savings investments.

The facts seem a better fit to the hypothesis that insecure people are timid, while a more secure working class is willing to assert itself.

I'm also inclines to see the Red Scare as a pretty minor part of the overall mix.

Maju said...

"If there is any respect in which the American political economy differs from the European one, it is that Americans have far, far less economic security".

Up to a point only (there are big differences within Europe in this aspect) and anyhow salaries are generally much higher in the USA. Less security is compensated with larger incomes overall. The lowest echelons are surely worse (though this has been compensated by nearly zero unemployment until recently) but the middle classes used to be solid and ample.

"The facts seem a better fit to the hypothesis that insecure people are timid, while a more secure working class is willing to assert itself".

A "more secure" working class is a self-made class. Nothing has been gifted: all has been fought for in many many struggles.

A peculiar phenomenon of the USA is the lack of a labor party or even a "social" right (like Christian-Democrats and even fascists used to be somewhat). In the USA, somehow, the ideology of "socialism" (in its most ample sense) is taboo. While even in a similar electoral system as the British one, Labour soon replaced Liberals, in the USA the evolution has been the opposite: with Liberals becoming social-democrats in all but name (but also preventing a real Labor party from rising).

Also the USA never experienced anything like the 1917-21 revolutionary wave that spread through half Europe (not just Russia but Hungary, Germany and even Norway and Spain). This probably put the bourgeois class on their toes for a good while (causing the spread of fascism in fact).

Socialist parties were strong in all this period and Popular Fronts ruled in France and Spain just before WWII, in a context of extreme class war (fascism and such).

After the war, when communist guerrillas were strong, poverty was widespread and the allies feared that one country after another could slide to the Soviet bloc: Greece experienced a civil war, while Italy was for decades ruled by anti-communist wide coalitions that blocked the largest party (the communists) from reaching power. Also in the 60s and 70s communist urban guerrillas were widespread.

Not even mentioning strikes and unions, all kinds of demonstrations, civil disobedience, etc. What Europeans have is largely because Europeans fought for it (but also because European bourgeois classes decided in favor of social peace, specially in the North of the continent - welfare state).

If in the USA you have the ideal of the "self-made man" in Europe I think we are more in the line of a self-made people, really.

It all may begin in school maybe: pupils here have always tended to band together against the establishment (teachers), so cheating (seldom acomplished for long anyhow) is ok and you feel obliged to help your less bright or less hardworking buddy, not the system. Also we live in towns where you shop around the corner, not in some distant mall, so some neighborhood feeling exists, we do not need nor use cars so much, nor so early in life, we are not so incredibly religious... there are many differences in our ways of life.

Not everything is ideal, not at all. But I think I can spot some sociological differences.

Also the US mentality is very parochial, not in the neighborhood sense I said before for Europe but in the sense that only the USA seems to exist, the rest being nothing but exotic vacation destinies, often hard to place in a map. Unlike Europe, which has been defeated in wars or has otherwise declined from an imperial past, the USA feels still the center of the universe. Even miss splendid isolation Britain could not help being just a short trip away from the heart of Europe. The USA is far away from everywhere but Mexico.