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IWW Interview with Noam Chomsky: Worker Occupations And The Future Of Radical Labor

This interview was conducted on Oct. 9, 2009, at Professor Noam Chomsky's office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

DK: I would like to start this interview with a discussion of the economic crisis and how workers can deal with the issues which we face. In your recent piece titled "Crisis and Hope: Theirs and Ours," which was published in the Boston Review, you state that the "the financial crisis will presumably be patched up somehow, while leaving the institutions that created it pretty much in place." Following on that, there has been a recent upsurge of militant industrial action in workplaces, primarily throughout Europe, and also in North America. As you know, the Republic Windows and Doors Factory in Chicago was the first factory occupation in the U.S. since the 1930s.

NC: No, not quite, because the 1979 strike against U.S. Steel in Youngstown, Ohio was an occupation—and actually, that's a model that really should be pursued now. They went on from striking to trying to have the workforce and the communities take over the abandoned factories that U.S. Steel was dismantling. The legal effort that followed was led by the radical labor lawyer Staughton Lynd. They didn't win in the courts, but they could have won, and they would have had enough support. It could have meant a lot.

DK: That leads me to my question about how workers are responding to mass layoffs. I feel what they are aiming for are parochial gains without thinking more long-term of how they can move towards workers' self-management.

NC: That's what the IWW should be doing: providing that spark. You're right, it's reactive. But the same was true of the sit-down strikes in the 1930s. I mean the reason the sit-down strikes struck such fear in the hearts of management was that they knew that a sit-down strike was just one step short of taking over the factory.

DK: I feel at the moment we're gaining numbers and we're gaining a lot of strength and power, but the rest of the American labor movement does not perceive that we are very serious.  It is a very difficult feat to go from what we're doing now to really being a part of the broader labor movement in the U.S., which is important if we are to provide that spark.

NC: The U.S. is different from Europe and other industrial countries in this respect. The U.S. is, to a very unusual extent, a business-run society. There are all kinds of reasons for that—it has no feudal background, so institutions that remained in place in Europe did not remain in place here. There are a lot of reasons. But the fact of the matter is that the U.S. is run by an unusually class-conscious, dedicated business class that has a very violent labor history, much worse than in Europe. The attack on unions has been far more extreme here, and it has been much more successful. Also, the business propaganda has been far more successful. Anti-union propaganda has been considerably more successful here than in Europe, even among working people who would benefit [from] unions. In fact, a rather striking aspect of business propaganda in the United States is the demonization of government, starting after the Second World War.

The Second World War ended with a radicalization of the population in the United States and everywhere else, and called for all kinds of things like popular takeovers, government intervention, and worker takeovers of factories. Business propagated a tremendous propaganda offensive. The scale surprised me when I read the scholarship—it's enormous, and it's been very effective. There were two major targets: one is unions, the other is democracy. Well, [to them] democracy means getting people to regard government as an alien force that's robbing them and oppressing them, not as their government. In a democracy it would be your government. For example, in a democracy the day when you pay your taxes, April 15, would be a day of celebration, because you're getting together to provide resources for the programs you decided on. In the United States, it's a day of mourning because this alien force—the government—is coming to rob you of your hard-earned money. That's the general attitude, and it's a tremendous victory for the opponents of democracy, and, of course, any privileged sector is going to hate democracy. You can see it in the healthcare debate.

The majority of the population thinks that if the government runs healthcare, they're going to take away your freedom. At the same time, the public favors a national healthcare program. The contradiction is somehow unresolved. In the case of the business propaganda, it's particularly ironic because while business wants the population to hate the government, they want the population to love the government. Namely, they're in favor of a very powerful state which works in their interest. So you have to love that government, but hate the government that might work in your interest and that you could control. That's an interesting propaganda task, but it's been carried out very well. You can see it in the worship of Reagan, which portrays him as somebody who saved us from government. Actually he was an apostle of big government. Government grew under Reagan. He was the strongest opponent of free markets in the post-war history among presidents. But it doesn't matter what the reality is; they concocted an image that you worship. It's hard to achieve that, especially in a free society, but it's been done, and that's the kind of thing that activists in the IWW have to work against, right on the shop floor. It's not so simple, but it's been done before.  

DK: You mentioned that business is very class conscious. Can you elaborate on that statement?

NC: Well, all you have to do is read the business literature. In the 1930s they were very frightened and they were concerned about how the rising power of the masses was hazardous to industrialists. They used straight Marxist rhetoric—just the values were changed. The literature is like that—they are constantly talking about the masses, the danger they pose, and how to control them. They understand what they're doing, and they're very class conscious. They press policies which work for their interests. For example, the insurance industries and the big banks are absolutely euphoric now—on the business pages they don't even conceal it—because they've succeeded in coming out of the crisis even stronger than they were before, and in a better position to lay the basis for the next crisis. But they don't care, because they'll get bailed out again. That's class consciousness with a vengeance.

DK: On the topic of how businesses use propaganda. I would say now they use propaganda more so for union-busting than they use the violent tactics. Would you agree?

NC: For a while, after the Second World War, when there was strong support for labor, this was done subtly. But since Reagan, it has been done openly. I mean Reagan bitterly hated unions and wanted them destroyed. This began with the air controllers' strike and went on from there. The Reagan administration told the business world that they were not going to enforce the labor laws. The number of illegal firings tripled during the Reagan years. It was at that time that you started getting these companies that specialized in how to destroy unions. They don't make it a secret, and they have all sorts of techniques for management to destroy unions. Well, when Clinton came along, it sort of moderated a little bit, but Clinton had a different device for breaking unions called NAFTA [North America Free Trade Agreement]. Because the government was entirely lawless, employers could exploit NAFTA to threaten union organizers with transfer. It's illegal, but when you've got a lawless government, it doesn't matter if it's illegal. I think the number of union drives blocked increased by about 50 percent. Part of the NAFTA legislation required studies of labor practices, and there was quite a good study that came out by a labor historian on the use of NAFTA to undermine and destroy unions. Well, that was going on in the Clinton years, then, of course Bush...who we don't need to even talk about. But starting with Regan it became quite open, the attack on unions. It wasn't the Pinkertons anymore, but it was just not applying the laws.

DK: We're seeing that very much in the IWW, especially in the Starbucks Workers Union, whereby Starbucks will put out all kinds of anti-union propaganda both internally, within the company, and externally. A lot of what they do is tell workers that they don't need a union.

NC: They're better off without it, that's the Whole Foods line.

DK: Right, they use the line of Corporate Social Responsibility, and a lot of it is very effective.

NC: It is.

DK: So how could we, as a small, independent labor union, work to fight against that kind of propaganda?

NC: You've just got to get people organized and tell them the truth. There aren't any magic tricks to it. You know, sometimes it's pretty amazing. Actually, I mentioned a pretty striking case of this in "Crisis and Hope," which was the Caterpillar case in the early 1990s. Caterpillar was quite important because that was the first manufacturing industry that used Reaganite strike-breaking techniques. They illegally called in scabs to break a major strike. It was reported pretty well in the Chicago Tribune, who pointed out something very interesting. They said that the workers got very little support in Peoria when scabs illegally broke the strike, and that was particularly striking because that whole community had been built up by the union—it was a union-based community. But when it came to the crunch, the community itself didn't support the union. Now that's kind of interesting about Obama, because Obama was supposedly a community organizer in Chicago at that time. Now I'm sure he read the Chicago Tribune, so he knew about it, but when he went to show his solidarity with the workforce, the first place he went was Caterpillar. I don't think he's forgotten, and the labor movement didn't react. Even radical labor historians didn't remember. It was only 15 years ago, after all, but that's a real triumph of propaganda in many ways.

It's a lot of work to reconstruct a strong labor offensive, but it's happened before. I mean in the 1920s the labor movement was almost completely destroyed. Well, in the 1930s it really revived and became pretty radical. Things can happen, but not by themselves. I mean, then you had the Communist Party, who was right at the heart of civil rights activism and labor activism and so on, but something else has to provide it. You don't want to have their Russia worship, but domestically they had a pretty good record. I can remember it pretty well from childhood, because my family was mostly union people.

DK: Your father was in the IWW, right?

NC: He was in the IWW... but do you want to know the truth? [laughs]

DK: Yes I do.

NC: He came over as an immigrant and didn't know any English. He went to work at a sweat shop in Baltimore. He told me later that this guy was coming around, and the guy seemed to be for the workers, so he signed up. It turned out that guy was an IWW organizer [laughs]. My father didn't regret signing up; he just really didn't know what was going on.

DK: What industry was he in?

NC: I don't even know if I ever knew [laughing]—some sweatshop in Baltimore. I knew with my other relatives—some of the women were in the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and men were shop boys and things like that. I happened to be in Philadelphia, but the family was in New York. I could see what the union was doing for them. It really saved their lives. I had two spinster aunts who were seamstresses, and of course unemployed in the 1930s, but the union gave them a life. They had a couple of weeks in the country for a union installation and they had educational programs and all sorts of things. There was a life, you know, a real community. And they were members of the Communist Party—they didn't care one way or another about Russia, they just cared about the United States. 

DK: On that note, I'm also looking to think ahead with what's in the future for the labor movement and the IWW.  More generally, if you had one piece of advice to offer future generations of Wobblies—especially in light of the tough financial times that we are facing and will probably continue to face for a long time in the Western world—what would it be?

NC: Well, I get a lot of letters from people. When I go home tonight I'll have 15 letters today from mostly young kids who don't like what's going on and want to do something about it, and [they ask me] if I can give them some advice as to what they should do, or can I tell them what to read or something. It doesn't work like that. I mean, everything depends very much on who you are, what your values are, what your commitments are, what circumstances you live in and what options you're willing to undertake, and that determines what you ought to be doing. There are some very general ideas that people can keep in mind; they're kind of truisms. It's only worth mentioning them because they're always denied.

First of all, don't believe anything you hear from power systems. So if Obama or the boss or the newspapers or anyone else tells you they're doing this, that, or the other thing, dismiss it or assume the opposite is true, which it often is. You have to rely on yourself and your associates—gifts don't come from above; you're going to win them, or you won't have them, and you win by struggle, and that requires understanding and serious analysis of the options and the circumstances, and then you can do a lot. So take right now, for example, there is a right-wing populist uprising. It's very common, even on the left, to just ridicule them, but that's not the right reaction. If you look at those people and listen to them on talk radio, these are people with real grievances. I listen to talk radio a lot and it's kind of interesting. If you can sort of suspend your knowledge of the world and just enter into the world of the people who are calling in, you can understand them. I've never seen a study, but my sense is that these are people who feel really aggrieved. These people think, "I've done everything right all my life, I'm a god-fearing Christian, I'm white, I'm male, I've worked hard, and I carry a gun. I do everything I'm supposed to do. And I'm getting shafted." And in fact they are getting shafted. For 30 years their wages have stagnated or declined, the social conditions have worsened, the children are going crazy, there are no schools, there's nothing, so somebody must be doing something to them, and they want to know who it is. Well Rush Limbaugh has answered - it's the rich liberals who own the banks and run the government, and of course run the media, and they don't care about you—they just want to give everything away to illegal immigrants and gays and communists and so on.

Well, you know, the reaction we should be having to them is not ridicule, but rather self-criticism. Why aren't we organizing them? I mean, we are the ones that ought to be organizing them, not Rush Limbaugh. There are historical analogs, which are not exact, of course, but are close enough to be worrisome. This is a whiff of early Nazi Germany. Hitler was appealing to groups with similar grievances, and giving them crazy answers, but at least they were answers; these groups weren't getting them anywhere else. It was the Jews and the Bolsheviks [that were the problem].

I mean, the liberal democrats aren't going to tell the average American, "Yeah, you're being shafted because of the policies that we've established over the years that we're maintaining now." That's not going to be an answer. And they're not getting answers from the left. So, there's an internal coherence and logic to what they get from Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the rest of these guys. And they sound very convincing, they're very self-confident, and they have an answer to everything—a crazy answer, but it's an answer. And it's our fault if that goes on. So one thing to be done is don't ridicule these people, join them, and talk about their real grievances and give them a sensible answer, like, "Take over your factories."  

This interview was edited for length and clarity. To listen to the full interview, please email [email protected] or visit Thanks to Charngchi Way and the Authority Smashing Hour radio show.