The rest of the lecture and Q + A session can be found at http://zinnlectures.wordpress.com/.
On Friday, January 20, Professors Elaine Bernard and Immanuel Ness spoke at Encuentro Cinco, a community organizing space in Chinatown, as part of the Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture Series. The series is coordinated by Free School University – a working group of Occupy Boston – and has featured professors from universities across the East Coast in the last four months, including Noam Chomsky and Bruno Bosteels among many others. Bernard and Ness came to discuss the possibility of the Occupy Movement moving from encampments to workers taking power.
Immanuel Ness, a political science teacher at Brooklyn College, is a longtime labor organizer and activist. He co-edited the book Ours to Master and to Own: Workers Councils from the Commune to the Present with Dario Azzellini, which covers 22 instances of workers’ factory occupations and councils since the Paris Commune of 1871.
Elaine Bernard is the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. Bernard contributed to Ours to Master and to Own with a chapter that details her experience and research as a part of the largely women’s British Columbia’s Telephone Workers’ Occupation of 1981.
Ness discussed workplace activism in the United States and how “occupying workplaces and enterprises is a much larger task than occupying a public place,” referring to the idea of a worker council where workers are able to manage and produce democratically at the point of production, without bosses. Ness explained that the aspiration for workers councils in the United States has its roots in a long tradition of workplace autonomy from the nineteenth century “where workers demanded certain respect and were producers on their own.” Workers were able to have such power because their unions were able to dictate wages to bosses. However, workers lost their autonomy with the rise of mass production industries by the early 1920s that cheapened their labor, simplified work, and allowed for easier control by capital.
In response, unions such as the Congress of Industrial Organizations sought to organize everyone in a factory in order to build working class power. The mass strikes of the 1930s were an example of what workers’ direct action could accomplish, and Ness explained howthe Flint Sitdown Strike of 1937 for union recognition by the automobile industry showed the power of workers who sit down and take over a factory.
Bernard discussed the Telephone Workers’ Occupation seizure of phone exchanges which arose as part of a long struggle between the company and workers over automation and the contracting out of work which weakened the power of the union. As the workers fought to sustain their job security, they questioned the right of the company to determine the choices of equipment and the nature of work.
She discussed how the telephone workers were able to get on the public’s side. The workers wanted to provide good phone service to the wider community and felt that “automation was removing the human factor.” The union talked with the public and took their side by acting as a whistle-blower.. For example, when the company planned to increase phone fees, the union urged for no rate increase while the company provided poor service.
Bernard contrasted the workers before the occupation, who were subdivided into different job categories based on gender. Once the occupation began, the workers went around to the exchanges and learned what their coworkers did. The workers ran the exchanges cooperatively with better service and less stress. Bernard said that “workers began to see themselves as whole people, who were thinking very differently about themselves, their communities and their rights.”
Bernard finished her talk by saying that worker occupations and the Occupy Movement show “things can happen very quickly and we can dream the impossible.”
During the discussion period, Ness discussed the strengths and weaknesses of worker cooperatives. Although cooperatives show a different way to organize production, Ness warned “cooperatives don’t challenge capitalist logic since they are working within the logic of profit.”
Many in the audience stressed the value of direct action and self-organization rather than waiting for a union to come and help them. Some of those in the audience advocated moving towards workplace takeovers as the next stage of the Occupy movement.