Joel Rogers ( nlr 210) has done the Left in the us a great service in pointing out that the current political conjuncture in the us ‘is the unstated invitation to progressive action, our opportunity to do some good.’ As Rogers argues, liberalism is dying, the Right is aiming at the majority of us, and discontent is nearly universal. The question is how do we seize the opportunity. The current mainstream political paradigm of money, media, and meanness is not available to the Left. We have to do it the old-fashioned, grassroots way. This means organization and Rogers is correct when he says the American Left lacks organization. Not organizations. Indeed, the Left in the us is composed of innumerable organizations: ideological tendencies at war with one another; small projects dug in around specific issues; race and gender advocacy groups with important, but usually separate agendas; environmental organizations; and letterhead coalitions with few troops. Many of these groups are doing good things, necessary things; but together they are less than the sum of their parts.

Rogers’s answer to this problem is one I agree with. We need a new political party with a new political culture: one that allows differences and is inclusive; one that combines universal social programmes with needed remedies for those at the bottom; one that is multicultural; one that isn’t afraid to ‘diss’ capital when it gets in the way—as it will. Rogers’s tactical vision of creating such a party through long-term, grassroots work is sound. His point that, given the enormous transformations of the last two decades or more, the social solidarities upon which such a new party would rest cannot be taken for granted and must, for the most part, be organized is also well-taken.

Rogers’s perspective on how to do this, however, misses much of the dynamism of the period we are entering, eschewing class as a central strategic principle, and brushing too closely to the notion of constituencies as consumers of programmes rather than agents of change. For all his originality in framing the political moment of opportunity, the path Rogers eventually follows is the all-too-familiar American practice of coalition politics: the cobbling together of different racial, ethnic, and social constituencies for electoral purposes on the basis of existing consciousness around programmes that appear to offer something for each group. Dressed up in postmodern finery, we would recognize this as a version of ‘identity politics’. In more commonsense language it looks all too much like one more attempt to recreate the long-dead New Deal Coalition.

Employing the concept of ‘organic solidarities’, Rogers silently dismisses the whole dynamic of class in the current economic and political restructuring as anything more than another constituency to bind together in coalition. While Rogers is quick to outline what is ‘long since lost’, he gives us no idea of what remains unchanged—for example, the social relations if not the organization of production—and, more importantly, what is emerging at the grassroots as a result of economic restructuring and the new production paradigm.

These were the words of Lorrell Patterson, an African-American woman locked out by the A.E. Staley Company along with eight hundred other, mostly white male, workers since 1992, as she addressed the 1995 Labor Notes conference in Detroit. Patterson’s Shelleyesque reminder that ‘ye are many, they are few’ reflects an increased sense of class in American society. Objectively, it reminds us of the fact that at the coming turn of the century, the us will be far more a nation of wage-earning ‘proletarians’ than at the turn of the last century when, as management futurist Peter Drucker points out, the largest groups of ‘toilers’ were farmers and domestic servants.footnote1 Today, over 80 per cent of the non-managerial workforce are semi-skilled or unskilled wage-earners, while the vast majority of skilled workers are those in traditional blue-collar jobs—two elements of the unchanged reality of working life. Furthermore, most of the new non-managerial jobs of recent years are not particularly high-tech or skilled. As a 1990 presidential commission report revealed, only 5 per cent of employers surveyed anticipated the need for workers with higher skills than their current workers. Or as Jack Gordon, editor of Training magazine put it, ‘Companies getting rid of their most experienced employees aren’t looking for higher skills. They’re looking for younger people who will work cheaper.’footnote2 In other words, the notion that we are leaving the era of alienating, semi-skilled labour for the gentler regime of Robert Reich’s ‘symbolic analysts’ is largely a fashionable fiction.footnote3

Patterson is one of tens of thousands of industrial workers recently engaged in resisting the brutal new production regime—a central feature of what is changing) that is rapidly replacing what Rogers styles the ‘institutions of mass production’. Patterson is supposed to be part of a dying breed—the blue-collar factory worker. The numerical and proportional decline of manufacturing employment, of course, is indisputable. But some of the twelve million production workers who still labour in us factories, whose voice was more or less stilled by years of restructuring, have begun to make themselves heard once again as the means of resistance to the new system become clearer. Forced into intense overwork and lengthening overtime, they have little choice. The Staley workers, like those at Caterpillar, Bridgestone Tire, General Motors, nummi (a state-of-the-art gm–Toyota venture) and elsewhere in the last couple of years, were fighting ten to twelve-hour day ‘alternative work schedules’, rising injury rates, and new levels of stress-related diseases resulting from what is debatably the greatest intensification of labour since the 1930s. In most of these struggles the unions have turned to the community and in Decatur, at least, fielded a ‘Friends of Labor’ slate of independent candidates in city elections backed by the unions at Staley, Caterpillar, and Bridgestone.

Like most other working-class people, these fighters have seen their real incomes fall for two decades or more. But what moved them to challenge the multinational giants that employed them was a new production paradigm almost universally praised in business and academic circles as ‘lean production’, the ‘workplace of the future’, the ‘high performance work system’. Though sometimes housed in their old shells, these were not the same plants they had been a decade earlier. In each, the technology had changed appreciably. The Staley workers, for example, say theirs used to be a simple corn-processing plant, while now it is a chemical plant. In each, labour–management participation programmes or human resources management had promised a new and better way of working. In each, it had delivered yet another regime of ‘oppressive management’, along with even more intensive work norms—what Mike Parker and Jane Slaughter call ‘management-by-stress’.footnote4