Science for the People and Workers’ Groups

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email sftp.publishing@gmail.com

Workers Groups Hold Joint Meeting with Science for the People

By B.F.

Science for the People’ Vol. 2, No. 2, August 1970, p. 16 — 17

In recent months there has been a marked increase in the number of workers’ groups formed in the Boston area. Women workers, employees in universities, computer workers, city employees, workers in industrial research firms have gotten together in their workplaces, not as a consequence of outside agitators telling them what to do but rather in response to their own conditions. People are beginning to relate the microcosm of their workplace to the structure of American society as a whole. Through study and joint action they are becoming aware of the oppressive nature of this society. This consciousness is manifest in the fact that almost all of these groups cut across traditional occupational lines, particularly those that separate manual workers from white-collar workers. Some of the groups were originated by secretaries over internal concerns; others were formed in response to the invasion of Cambodia. All of them demonstrate that working people do not categorically belong to the “silent majority” and that students are by no means the only ones pressing for radical change. Many workers are realizing that the individualistic competitive solutions prescribed by the American ideology lead nowhere and that only joint political action will make the machine break down.

On June 10 the workers’ study group of BBN1 and Science for the People held a meeting to bring several workers’ groups together to exchange experiences and to plan possible joint actions for the future. Some forty-five people attended despite short notice and a rain storm. The BBN group reported on their activities (for more detail see article on BBN Underground newspaper, p 8) as did the MIT employees group and computer workers from Codon Corp. Two speakers from New York Local 65 told about successful organizing efforts at NYU. Eventually time ran out before we could get to the workshops. So another meeting was decided upon.

This second get-together of workers’ groups was planned by the MIT group and held at MIT on June 30. About sixty people came, members of 13 different workers’ groups2. The workshops dealt with (1) how to set up workers’ study groups, (2) organizing across caste lines, (3) working women and (4) future actions of the workers’ group coalition.

The workshop on workers’ study groups brought out clearly that there is no patent receipe for getting workers together. Isolation and unfreedom of a workplace can be a powerful obstacle to sustained workers’ organizations. This is particularly true when the people are white-collar workers whose identification traditionally lies closer to management. Nonetheless the BBN experience shows that workers of very diverse occupations can achieve cohesiveness and continuity by engaging in a multiplicity of activities. Some of these activities arose from oppressive company practices which mobilized the workers to act against the management. But immediate and narrow self-interest are not the only motives that move people. Empathy and identification with other oppressed people was evident in the response to a Black Panther speaker, the invasion of Cambodia and the murder of the Kent and Jackson students. A combination of action and study projects not abstractly conceived, but rooted in an analysis of the particular workplace, linked to a radical understanding of American society and designed to actively involve as many people as possible has the best chance for success because it responds to the real needs of the workers.

Discussion in the workshop on vertical and horizontal organization moved from the question of organizing along traditional lines or among all workers in one workplace regardless of caste to the question of whether to organize around bread and butter issues or social issues such as alienation, the war, etc. The several kinds of workers present—construction, electrical shop, technician, computer programmer, physicist—spoke from their different experiences. Many of the white-collar workers were quick to point out that traditional unionism, by emphasizing material concerns, led to company response on those very issues leaving questions such as artificial divisions among workers and alienation among white-collar workers outside the struggle.

There was consensus that vertical organizing is necessary but extremely difficult and that the BBN group was so relatively successful because of the tolerant attitude of management. However one person from a small computer firm described how company tolerance can stifle worker opposition altogether. This outfit is operated on the we-are-all-a-big-happy-family principle. How do you deal with the boss in that situation? Some recommendations were offered: Even though you may like the boss as a person it is important to recognize that his role is the antithesis of yours. Don’t talk to him alone or as a friend. Always remember your labor is his profit.

Fragmentation among working people is part and parcel of the American ideology and it serves capitalism well. Whites are set against blacks, men against women, white-collar workers against blue-collar workers. Disunity in the guise of individualism is elevated to a virtue, thus quite effectively preventing concerted action of workers in their common interest.

The women’s workshop was productive and helpful to its participants in pointing out the need for separate women’s organizations and caucuses to deal with the real problems and oppression confronting working women.

Finally there was the workshop deliberating about the future of the coalition of workers’ groups. Joint anti- war action in the fall, further meetings and a newsletter were considered. There was a general feeling that the various groups still needed to get themselves together at their respective workplaces, but that it would be useful to have continuous information about the activities of other groups exchange speakers. Such information will be published m a newsletter edited by David Jhirad, 289 Broadway Camb., Mass. 02139; Tel. 868-4637 or 495-3747

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REFERENCES

  1. BBN: Bolt Beranek and Newman, a research, development and consulting firm with many offices throughout the U.S. has 440 employees in Cambridge.
  2. MIT Employees’ Group, MIT Secretaries Group, Rosenthal Paint, Computer Professionals for Peace, Boston State Faculty, United Electrical Workers, Emmanuel College Faculty, Harvard Observatory Employees, Harvard Medical School, BBN Study Group, Working Women’s Conference, Tyrnshare, Honeywell, Urban Underground.