Minor Victories: Labor Exploitation and the “Affirmation Trap”
When Donald Trump arrived at the Carrier plant in Indianapolis in December of 2016 he hadn’t even taken office yet. It was just weeks after his shock victory, and he was in Indiana to announce that he was keeping a campaign promise: Carrier would not be closing the factory, and the company would still be employing hundreds of people to make furnaces in the area. Mission accomplished.
Trump and his soon-to-be vice president, Indiana governor Mike Pence, strutted and preened and posed for photos with the factory workers. They praised the CEO of Carrier’s parent company, and most of all, they praised themselves. “President-elect Donald Trump did just what he said he would do,” Pence said. “He picked up the phone. ….He talked from one American to another. He talked about our plans, our plans to make America more competitive, to reduce taxes, to roll back regulations, to put American jobs and American workers first again.”
To Chuck Jones, then president of United Steelworkers Local 1999, which represented the workers at the plant, it was “a dog and pony show” from the start. Jones, a gruff-voiced chain-smoking and smack-talking man in his sixties, now retired and holding local elected office, had seen a lot of politicians make a lot of promises to Indiana’s working class over his decades with the union. He knew from experience that they usually didn’t amount to much, and Trump’s was no exception. The only difference was the amount of fanfare put into it. “It was sickening,” he said. “They put this presentation on for, I don’t know, 45 minutes, never said anything about the 550 people still losing their jobs to Monterey, Mexico. All they talked about is ‘he worked it out and we’re going to save 1100 jobs.’”
Hundreds of jobs would still be lost at that particular plant, and another seven hundred from another of the company’s facilities in Huntington, Indiana. And then there was the Rexnord plant around the corner, which would shutter without a peep from the president. “I’m grateful that he got involved and was able to keep the jobs here that are staying. But be honest with people, don’t put people on a rollercoaster ride thinking they’re going to have a job,” Jones said.
Trump’s promise wavered even in his speech that day. He told a rambling story of seeing a worker on TV—“great guy, handsome guy”—who told reporters “No, we’re not leaving, because Donald Trump promised us that we’re not leaving.” In that circular, obsessive way he spoke, the president-to-be chewed on the topic: “I never thought I made that promise. Not with Carrier. I made it for everybody else. I didn’t make it really for Carrier,” he said. “They played my statement, and I said, ‘Carrier will never leave.’ But that was a euphemism. I was talking about Carrier like all other companies from here on in…when they played that, I said, ‘I did make it, but I didn’t mean it quite that way.’”
Nonetheless, the promise was kept, at least sort of. In 2018, the New York Times revisited the factory and found that “morale is through the floor.” Employees, reporter Nelson D. Schwartz wrote, showed up to work—or didn’t—with the sense that shutdown was inevitable. Worker Paul Roell told him, “They still have the warehouses and the factory in Mexico, and they can move down whenever. We all know that Carrier has the money to do whatever they want.”
In 2020, just before the election that would cost Trump his job, Jones told me, “It’s been devastating.” People had to pull kids out of college, he said, or sell their homes. Others lost them to foreclosure. “Our people were producing good quality products, had won awards for quality, and for no other reason both of them moved jobs to Monterey Mexico because they were paying the Mexican workers about $2 an hour and no benefits.”
Trump’s triumphant moment at the Carrier plant would wind up being more of a signal that he was done caring about the struggles of Rust Belt factory workers than anything else. Factories would keep closing in Indiana and elsewhere. In 2019 the iconic General Motors Lordstown plant would roll the last car off its assembly line and shut down. It turns out that the wheels of global capital need more than a big speech to stop grinding people to bits, that a one-time infusion of seven million dollars in state funding isn’t enough to turn companies away from seeking out the cheapest labor possible. Trump’s attention span for such problems seemed limited; a tariff here, a tax cut there was supposed to solve everything, and when it didn’t, the president preferred to simply pretend it had.
This is the reality in which “mission accomplished” moments are made and in which they fail: you can declare the mission accomplished all you want, and delude yourself into thinking your words have power, but material conditions inevitably catch up with you.
In his book Riot. Strike. Riot., Joshua Clover dubbed it the “affirmation trap,” where “labor is locked into the position of affirming its own exploitation under the guise of survival.”
The trap was set in the 1970s, when capital began in earnest seeking once again the most exploitable workers for its plants, and that meant packing up and shipping overseas. Bosses had never really stopped moving work around, seeking lower costs within the US or even just getting away from a plant that had a reputation for being a little too Bolshy. But they had for a while accepted a basic détente with unions. Then, newly business-friendly governments allowed this process to expand and go global with a combination of de- and re-regulation, and in 1973, as Clover noted, labor unions experienced a first: they began to have to mobilize to keep factories open.
But what can a union actually do to keep a plant running when its owners want it closed? The traditional weapon of the working class, organized, is the strike, the shutdown of production, the refusal to work. GM workers struck in 2019 but their demands to keep Lordstown open failed. The problem, as Clover and Aaron Benanav and others have noted, is that we exist in a world that simply doesn’t need as many workers in order to produce as it used to. This manifests, Benanav wrote in Automation and the Future of Work, in “jobless recoveries, stagnant wages, and rampant job insecurity.” Those who lose their decent jobs, in Lordstown or Indianapolis or across the planet, “join new labor market entrants in low-quality jobs—earning less-than-normal wages in worse-than-average working conditions.” They are in a worldwide race to the bottom, and the only winners are CEOs with their sights set on rocketing to space.
In 2008, workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago occupied their little factory when it was due to close thanks to the financial crisis. They were in the backyard of another changemaking president-elect at the time, and they too drew national attention, but it still took them years to get New Era Windows Cooperative off the ground. Their one example has had to bear a lot of weight in the ensuing years, because the reality is that the odds are massively stacked against workers trying to take over the production process.
As Clover wrote, “Capital and labor find themselves now in collaboration to preserve capital’s self-reproduction, to preserve the labor relation along with the firm’s viability.” Workers need to affirm their desire for jobs in order to try to save their means of survival; in doing so, they reaffirm the whole damn edifice. We accept that we must work in order to eat, to live, to relax and play. We tell ourselves that this is all we deserve.
Just the year before that first union action to keep the factory open, workers were walking off the Lordstown floor of their own accord, raising hell and demanding changes to a production process that treated them like robots, ratcheting up the pace and breaking their bodies and dulling their minds. At that point, though, a lot of the leadership of American unions had declared “mission accomplished” and considered it their job simply to manage the distribution of wages and benefits. The Lordstown wildcat strikes confused the leadership of their own union, which opted to settle on its traditional terms. Historian Erik Loomis told me, “The Lordstown strike of 1972 could have been the first blow toward a new era of thinking about work and life for the American working class,” Loomis said. “Instead, deindustrialization, capital mobility, automation, and union-busting decimated the working class.”
If we were to date the American labor movement’s mission accomplished moment, it would probably be the Treaty of Detroit. It wasn’t a real treaty, of course—it was a five-year contract between the United Auto Workers and GM, signed in 1950 during the postwar boom, and setting a standard for workers’ share in the proceeds of growing companies. Quickly followed by similar agreements at Ford and Chrysler, the UAW’s deal meant steady wage increases and good benefits and a regular work week, and all workers had to give up was any say in how things would be done or how work would be organized. The UAW, under the leadership of Walter Reuther, gave up what were euphemistically called “management rights” but what was, for both the union’s left flank and the left writ large, their central demand: control over the means of production. When workers refuse to see those rights as inherently belonging to the boss, they enter a continuing struggle for self-government and against subordination.
The Treaty was praised effusively in the business press at the time: Business Week called it “industrial statesmanship of a very high order,” and Fortune noted “GM may have paid a billion for peace, but it got a bargain. General Motors has regained control over … crucial management functions…” Labor sociologists Judith Stepan-Norris and Maurice Zeitlin, in Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions, wrote that the Treaty was “a class accord ending nearly two decades of workers’ insurgency, self-organization, and open class warfare.” It also signaled the defeat of the Communists and other radicals within the UAW and the broader union movement.
The founding of the Committee for Industrial Organization (later the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO) in 1935 was a challenge to the existing power structures of organized labor in the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The troublemakers who made up the early CIO were united by a desire to organize the unorganized and to do so on a wall-to-wall, industrial basis rather than by skilled craft level like so many AFL unions did. Beyond that commonality, they had a variety of political beliefs and commitments, as Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin wrote, “ranging from ‘run-of-the-mill’ unionists to radicals of all stripes, anarchosyndicalists, “Wobblies,” socialists, and Communists.” The radicals, who saw labor organizing as a path to power for the working class across society, not just on the shop floor, were often the most dedicated organizers, and without them, even hard-headed practical types like the United Mine Workers’ John L. Lewis readily admitted, the CIO would not have been built.
Yet Lewis had no intention of letting the Reds run the place. He famously quipped, when warned that hiring Communists might cause him problems, “Who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?”
Communists dominated in some unions, and held at least a corner of power in many others. Within the UAW, for example, the massive Local 600 at Ford’s River Rouge plant was long led by the Reds, and fiercely opposed the Treaty of Detroit. The local saw “decentralization,” or the break-up and distribution of the work done at big plants like the Rouge, coming—they wanted to prevent it. Reuther’s deal ceding management rights, as Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin wrote, gave Ford and other companies “the unrestricted ‘right’ to freely dispose of their property (and their workers),” and thus “Detroit and the downriver communities soon became, as Local 6oo leaders had foreseen and tried to prevent, ‘industrial wastelands.’”
A charitable reading of the situation chalks this shortsightedness up to Reuther’s inability to predict global capital mobility of the type we have in 2021; a less charitable one is that he wanted to break up the power of the left at the Rouge and didn’t much care about the collateral damage. Certainly Reuther, though under pressure himself from the ramped-up Red Scare well underway in the country and across the union movement, had enthusiastically purged the Reds from the union, hounding many out of jobs, relationships, and homes.
The Treaty of Detroit marked the apogee of the CIO’s growth and power. Purging Red-led unions and the Reds from the unions meant a loss of around a million members; the AFL began to outstrip the CIO, and by 1954, over half the CIO’s members were in just four states. Meanwhile, Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin note, “from 1947 to 1954 alone, during the very years of the CIO’s self-immolation in the flames of anti-Communism, ‘capital mobility’ substantially transformed America’s ‘economic geography.’” Before the plants moved to Mexico, in other words, they moved to the American South, and what the leaders of Local 600 called “Operation Runaway”—a term the workers at Carrier and Rexnord would no doubt understand—was underway.
But this history reminds us that the direction that American labor took was not a foregone conclusion. Certainly capital would have fought continued attempts by unions to exert power over production, but capital never stopped fighting in any case. The Reds tended to run more egalitarian unions, to fight for parity along gender and race lines, to challenge workers to see the union as a vehicle for their desires and dreams; that doesn’t mean, necessarily, that if they had maintained control of the UAW or the CIO or even just thrown a wrench into the Treaty of Detroit that they would have won.
Nevertheless, the defeat of class struggle unionism and the rise of business unionism, which sees itself as managing rather than battling the boss, has coincided with a catastrophic loss of power for working people, and saving one factory here and there has not arrested the decline. Donald Trump held no answers for the Rust Belt beyond race-baiting. Can the radical approach be revived?
The CIO’s origins were in a time of crisis and its massive growth both coincided with and spurred the implementation of laws encouraging unionization and supporting working people. All right: we have crises to spare these days, particularly crises of the labor force as Covid-19 has upended people’s relationships to their jobs and in fact to wage labor itself. Joe Biden has made worker-friendly noises, and parts of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act appear to be in the budget bill.
But simply attempting to return to 1935 will not solve our problems. For one thing, the time of unlimited expansion and economic growth fueled by manufacturing and increased consumption is over. For another, that would eventually lead us back to the affirmation trap, to jobs for jobs’ sake, to accepting the terms of the debate and wrangling over distribution.
But if climate change and Covid-19 have taught us anything, they have taught us that a world where the decisions about production are made by a few whose obscene wealth insulates them from all consequences is a world that will rapidly become unlivable. Under these conditions, labor needs to reclaim the old demands for control over the means of production—and of reproduction, which has too long been ignored. To do so is of course to recognize that the battle will be long, and messy, and that there will come many temptations to concede along the way. It is, after all, a struggle for a different world.
The point of organizing, into unions or anything else, is to change the distribution of power. As Alyssa Battistoni put it, “the entire problem of collective action is that it’s rational to act collectively where it’s not to act alone. And you build the collective piece by piece.” This is why, she noted, organizing is relational; it is built on trust and trust is built person by person. It is built by finding out what people need, and what they want, and helping them to get it.
During the Depression, the Communists in particular organized by fighting for people’s immediate needs: food, relief, and homes. They halted evictions by bringing hundreds of neighbors to stop the process, and moved families back into houses they’d been pushed out of. They did it to win supporters, sure, particularly in Black communities where trust had been scant, but they also did it because they believed that people should have these things, and could win them in the here and now. That was what organizing the working class looked like, when the working class was being fragmented by economic crisis.
The way Marx wrote it, “Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests.” That’s the first part of the equation. But the hard part, as noted by generations of Marxists since, is the second: “This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself.”
The struggle, then, as Battistoni wrote, is and must be both pragmatic and transformative. The little wins—a union contract, a saved home—are, to be sure, little “mission accomplished” moments, and they are not just nice asides but necessary to keep people involved. You cannot expect people to break themselves against an unwinnable struggle for a lofty ideal for very long if in the immediate term they are losing everything that matters to them.
It needs, too, to be embedded in people’s lives and their culture. One of the biggest failures of business unionism is that it taught workers to think of the union as something outside of themselves, as the people they call when they have a grievance or a complaint, a service provider rather than a container for their militancy. It is no surprise that this is the boss’s first tactic when workers demand a union: the anti-union consultants will always paint the union as a third party, as someone the workers don’t really need, rather than the workers themselves. Rather, the union will only come into being if the workers act like a union; if they do not, it doesn’t matter how they vote.
The emptiness of our lives these days—so often filled by social media and other apps promising to sell us happiness—could be filled not just by the grind of organizing but the joy of sociality with people with whom we share interests. The entire sphere of social reproduction was deemed off-limits by too many unionists even as Henry Ford’s inspectors were still peering into workers’ homes to make sure they were respectably heterosexual. But in fact, as the feminist movement knew, the fabric of our lives is political, too, from how we care to how we play. As Stuart Hall knew, the struggle will not be won on just one front; a working class movement that aims to win will have to challenge hegemony on every front.
To ask for all this, and then to ask for it in order to win forty hours a week on the assembly line is, as the Lordstown workers knew back in the 70s, futile. To place a horizon on what is possible just as new demands are emerging is to concede defeat, because new demands will inevitably emerge from struggles—both those that succeed, and those that fail. And there will be failures, always and inevitably.
But it is also true that the ground is already shifting in the right direction. Before 2008, before Occupy, there was so little discussion of capitalism in public that it was shocking then to see the word used at all. Labor had certainly given up talk of the system at all, let alone of overturning it. The pandemic has been horrifying, most of all in the willingness displayed by our supposed leadership class to watch millions die horribly and do nothing, but it has also shown us how quickly the world can change as much as it has shown us that those in power do not care if we die.
And finally, a world that does not need as many workers as before to produce need not be a dystopia, because it is in fact a world that does not need as much work. It can instead be the grounds for a world where we are freer to live, not just to grind. Where we need not affirm our own exploitation to justify our existence; where, indeed, exploitation is a thing of the past. To make it so will be an enormous challenge, a mission unlike any other. But it starts when we refuse to accept any more half-assed promises and cut-rate deals.
 Aaron Benanav, Automation and the Future of Work (New York: Verso, 2020), Kindle edition, location 29-32
 Benanav, location 733-734
 Joshua Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (New York: Verso, 2016), Kindle edition, location 1867-1868
 Judith Stepan-Norris and Maurice Zeitlin, Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), Kindle edition, location 1287
 Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin, location 1290
 Skilled craft workers, like in today’s building trades where carpenters, painters, and others each have their own union, had organized together by job title and could butt heads about what was best for each craft rather than in a wall-to-wall union. Industrial unionists focused on the factory, and wanted to organize everyone who worked there into one big union, the better to get the better of the boss.
 Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin, location 1327
 Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin, location 3017-3019