I recently attended the Working Class Studies Association national meeting at the University of Pittsburgh. Along with the usual array of academic panels and plenary lectures, the conference program included a history of Pittsburgh in words and music and short excerpts from plays about the Sago mine disaster and Thomas Bell’s classic novel, Out of This Furnace, about the steel town Braddock Pennsylvania. The playlets were accompanied by inspiring labor folksinger Anne Feeney and a group of her musical friends. In addition conferees had the option of viewing a powerful documentary of the life of socialist/feminist worker, writer, and teacher, Tillie Olsen, Tillie Olsen-A Heart in Action. Finally, along with drama, music, and film, conference attendees were offered tours of significant historic sites pertaining to workers. I took the tour to Homestead and Braddock, Pennsylvania.
These various experiences underscored for me in an emotional way a variety of impressions I had about capital and labor in conflict and profit and power versus humanity only as a series of abstractions. First, the iron law of capital accumulation involved killing, enslaving, and exploiting whatever population was needed to achieve ever greater rates of profit. Original inhabitants of Western Pennsylvania were tricked, used, and killed to create a new land made ready for the industrial revolution. The trees were cut, the land was plowed, and the beauty of the landscape destroyed for the construction of factories. For much of the twentieth century the community of Homestead was shaped and shrunk to accommodate the huge steel works; three miles long, 300 acres, and over the century employing over 160,000 workers. After the steel mill closed, the land lay unused for a decade before a huge shopping mall was built. It surrounded 12 smoke stacks which remained to provide a meager clue as to what the land had been used for during the prior century.
During much of the 100 year domination by big steel of the Greater Pittsburgh region, workers engaged in dangerous backbreaking work while inhaling smoke and soot-filled air every day of their lives. The mighty steel craft union of the nineteenth century was busted in 1892 and workers did not win the right to form unions until the United Steel Workers of America (CIO) was formed in the late 1930s. From the shop floor to the streets life was hard for the many so the few could accumulate more wealth.
Second, the working class, despite leading lives of near desperation felt pride in their work, shared a sense of community with neighbors on the shop floor and in the streets, and celebrated their lives, their families, religions, and their country as best they could. It was clear from the plays, the music, the tour guides, and the scholars and trade unionists from the area that people had powerful attachments to their history and the place that was theirs: Homestead, Pittsburgh, Braddock.
Third, despite the brutality of capitalism, the magnitude of exploitation, the defilement of the environment, and the sheer power represented by militias, the Pinkertons, the police, the National Guard, class consciousness survived. It is a consciousness about the capitalist system, the solidarity of the working class, and at the same time a consciousness about place.
My experiences at this conference reminded me of the need to understand at the most human level what capitalism means to communities of people; how it shapes people’s work and leisure lives; how it creates physical space and affects the natural environment; and how workers have responded and continue to respond to the circumstances that have shaped their lives.
In the end, our political analyses have to include political economy, environment, geography and space, and consciousness. Practical political work in our communities must be based on our understanding of the ways in which the general features of economic, political, and social life intersect with particular structures, spaces, and local histories.