In Black Orchid Collective, we are inspired by the work of the Johnson Forrest Tendency, a grouping of Marxists in the mid-2oth century who saw both the Soviet Union and the trade union bureaucracy here in the U.S. as oppressive, state capitalist forces that needed to be overcome through the self-activity of rank and file, everyday workers. They had a vision of direct democracy built by workers, for workers.
As part of this vision, one of their members wrote a famous description of his work in a Detroit Auto factory, under the pen name Paul Romano. This work, titled The American Worker, details the everyday experiences of alienation on the job and the revolt against capitalist discipline. It was ahead of its time in attempting to analyze how race and gender divisions on the job contribute to this alienation. By today’s revolutionary standards, this analysis is limited, but at the time it was a key step forward.
Romano is a good example of a worker-militant-intellectual who doesn’t simply focus on fighting for small bread and butter gains like slightly higher wages; indeed he shows how the daily struggles on the job are intimately related to the overall struggle against capitalist oppression, and how the contradictions and violence inherent in the modern workplace can only be overcome through revolutionary action. The class struggle is not about selling ourselves at a higher price, it is about reclaiming our humanity, our creativity, and the dignity of our labor, by revolting against the capitalist organization of work, and the bureaucratic management that enforces this irrational organization. As a worker-intellectual, Romano was a tribune of the people, not merely reporting but also analyzing his own oppressive experiences- he refused to leave the analysis up to petty bourgeois liberal intellectuals who might screw it up. His words show the universal struggle for human freedom contained within the daily struggle to find dignity on the job.
His pamphlet, however, is dated. It represents a type of capitalist production based in large scale, concentrated urban heavy industry in places like Detroit. These relations of production are still present in parts of the U.S., especially in parts of the South and Sunbelt regions that are industrializing (more often than not in small factory towns instead of large industrial cities like Detroit). It also reflects a reality that exists in similar form today on the East Coast of China, in parts of Vietnam, Brazil, on the US-Mexico border, and in other export processing zones around the world.
However, much more of the US working class today is employed in the service industry, not in factories. Today many of us work in jobs at nursing homes, hospitals, fast food restaurants, schools, hotels, etc. Given this change, what would it look like if someone were to write an American Worker pamphlet today about their experiences in the Service Industry?
Two short pieces begin to go there. The first one is by our comrade Jomo, who works in the health care industry. She discusses her experiences on the job, and the alienation caused by the racist and sexist division of labor in nursing homes. She shows how this division is produced and reproduced through the micromanagement of everything from who showers residents to the facial expressions required of Certified Nurses Assistants. The second piece is by a hotel worker who describes his experiences as a modern day “house slave.”
If you are a worker reading this, we encourage you to write up , reflect on, and theorize about your own daily struggles on the job. Please send us your writings and we can post them here. As workers, we can’t wait for others to recognize the humanity of the work we do, we need to speak up for ourselves and our coworkers. We need to show them we are subjects – conscious, thoughtful people with subjectivity, meaning we have an awareness of the world and how our labor builds it. We are not objects to be bossed and moved around like cogs in a machine or like fake smiles to be delivered on cue to make the customer happy.