In an era of neo-liberal globalization where trade unions, the working-class and the working-poor are constantly under attack from vicious right-wing forces in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia, it is very refreshing to read a book that provides a comparative history of Workers’ control in factories where rank and file workers waged struggles that linked shop-floor issues to broader societal issues of democracy and the transformation of society where the working class as in the words of the late CLR James, “every cook can govern.”
This edited book is not only historical in nature but provides a rich theoretical framework through which we can conceptualize worker control. Collaborating with a number of scholars in the field of history, political science, sociology, economics, and media studies, Dario Azzellini writes an introduction where he places the book in historical context and elucidates on a number of critical issues such as Workers’ control and self-administration as emancipatory and anti-capitalist praxis, Limits and contradictions of the co-operative model, Workers’ autonomy versus unions, Workers’ control in revolution and state socialism, Workers’ control and the emancipation of humanity, Building a workers’ economy, and the Context of the collection. In chapter one, Alex Demirovic expounds on “Council Democracy, or the end of the political,” where he discusses contemporary issues of democracy and how we can learn from history by examining the works Karl Marx and his analysis of the practice of democracy in the Paris commune. The focus on chapter two is “Contemporary crisis and Workers’ control.” Here, Dario Azzellini examines contemporary workers’ control has they occurred in France, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and Chicago. Additionally, he focuses on “Common challenges for workers recuperations,” and “Common features of workers’ recuperations.” Elise Danielle Thornburn, in chapter three, discusses “Workers’ Assemblies: New formations in the Organization of labor and the struggle against Capitalism.” In this chapter, she contends that because of the crisis in global capitalism, the working class in the Global North has re-merged with renewed strength and organizational capabilities that go beyond norms of organization that existed in the U.S. and Canada. “The Austrian Revolution of 1918-1919 and working class autonomy is the subject of chapter four, and Peter Haumer brilliantly elucidates how the Austrian working class was instrumental in establishing workers’ councils, which was part of a larger movement that existed in Europe during the period examined. Chapter five discusses “Chile: Worker self-organization and Cordones industrials under the Allende government (1970-1973).” Frank Gaudichaud provides a rich history of the relationship between the working-class and its organizations during the reign of President Allende. While the working-class made an alliance with the Allende government, it called for more radical reorganization of the society that Allende had proposed. In chapter six, Kimiyasu Irie focuses his essay on “Production control” or “Factory Soviet”? Workers’ control in Japan.” He traces the trajectory of workers’ control in Japan while simultaneously addressing each development with different theoretical frameworks. Henrique T. Novaes and Mauricio S. de Faria, in chapter seven, focus their essay on “The Factory commissions in Brazil and the 1964 Coup d'Etat.” Their analysis recounts the role of the factory Commissions in Brazil from the 1964 to 1978. While these commissions played a major role in giving space to workers’ control, they have basically failed to transform the capitalist nature of the Brazilian economy. Patrick Cunninghame's, “Self-management, Workers’ control and resistance against crisis and neoliberal counter reforms in Mexico,” is the subject matter of chapter eight. He analyzes the development of workers’ control in Mexico and the ability of the working-class to struggle against the implementation of neo-liberal economic reforms that sought to wipe away the gains made by the Mexican working-class. In chapter nine, Anabel Riero's essay “Collective self-management and social classes: The case of enterprises recovered by their workers in Uruguay” examines the collective actions of workers in Uruguay in their attempt for co-management and self-management in recovery efforts of factories that were used as co-operative models as examples of workers’ autonomy.
A summation of all these chapters accounts for workers’ quest for workers’ control across three continents. While the trajectory of the movements in each country varies, there is a common thread of workers’ resistance, organization, and mobilization that was not seen in struggles waged by workers who were members of traditional unions. The fact that workers engaged in workers’ control of factories suggests that they rejected the old forms of trade union struggles that tend to die out when union bosses made settlements with management. By undertaking workers’ control, the working class in the individual countries demonstrated that the construction of building a socialist society is not an abstraction but one that is attainable given that the working class engages in the process of the democratization of society. While these essays shed important light on workers’ control, the scholarship in the field is not new. Historian Jonathan C. Brown, in his seminal work Workers’ Control in Latin America, 1930-1979, was one of the historians to tackle this subject.1 In his seminal work, Brown focused on workers’ control in Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, and Chile. Though Azzellini examined workers’ control in some of these countries, his work failed to answer a number of important questions, define workers’ control, and provide a new theoretical framework to explain workers’ control.
Some of these important questions that should be asked include: What were the economic and social changes that occurred during the period the workers engaged in autonomous actions? What was the role of the urban and industrial workers in the changes that took place during the periods examined? How did the workers struggle to achieve their goals? When did the workers struggle? What prompted the workers to rise above their differences and influence the course.2 Second, Azzellini failed to provide a thorough explanation of what he means by workers’ control. Because it is a theoretical abstraction, Azzellini owes readers a full explanation of its meaning. The concept of workers’ control has been examined by a number of scholars including Carter L. Goodrich, Antonio Gramsci, and David Montgomery.3 Third, Azzellini, like some scholars continue to write from the Marxist Euro-centric paradigm that does not address issues like race, gender, ethnicity, and religion. He needs to use a more sophisticated theoretical framework that addresses these issues because in the modern era of globalization and its relation to workers’ control, these issues loom large and critically determines the extent of workers’ control on a global scale.
Criticisms and shortcomings notwithstanding, An Alternative Labour History breaks new ground by connecting workers’ control to a larger historical framework, which by provides the reader with a better understanding of “workers’ control and self-administration in emancipatory and anti-capitalist praxis,” “Limits and contradictions of the co-operative model,” “workers’ autonomy versus unions,” “workers’ control in revolution and state socialism,” “workers’ control and the emancipatory of humanity,” and “building a workers’ economy,” This historical framework enriches the content of the book and leaves room for scholars to build on these issues. Additionally, the book places at the center the issue of democracy not as an abstraction but as a practice when workers struggle against wage cuts, layoffs, arbitrary supervisors, declining real wages, reorganization of the workplace, internal divisions, state repression, and state co-option.4 Azzellini demonstrates that when workers struggle for control of the production process and also the distribution process, their level of consciousness rise, and they begin to understand the contradictions inherent in the capitalist system that divorces workers from political control of the society. It is in the engagement of these struggles and the lessons learn that workers organize and mobilize independently of any so-called vanguard party. The engagement and practices are not isolated activities but are global in scope that connects workers as they struggle against a capitalist system that is imploding from one crisis to the next. Rather than lose hope and live in despair, Azzellini demonstrates that the working class is not resigned to “the dustbin of history” but is sowing the seeds for the building of socialism by their collective actions.
In 2015, I participated in a panel entitled “Book Launch An Alternative Labour History: Worker Control and Workplace Democracy” with Camillo Turi, Claudia Bernardi, Post Doctoral Fellow in Global History at Harvard University, and Darrio Azzellini, Johannes Kepler Universitat. During the session, each panelist offered his/her critique of the book to an audience that was engaged and very interested about the issue of workers’ control. At that panel, I raised some very important issues about the book. The first was how does worker control transform the society, create a new form of democracy and transform the society? The second issue was what are the limitations of workers’ control? The third, was can workers’ control limit choices for workers’ future struggles? The fourth was what are the implications of workers’ control? The fifth was how does state control limit worker control? The six was does state sponsored workers’ control co-opt the working class? Both the panelists and members of the audience tried to answer these salient issues, however, because of time, many questions were left unanswered. Over all, Azzellini's book was well received, and participants left with a full understanding that the discourse on workers’ control must be continued at all levels of the society.
I strongly urge scholars engaged in the field of labor history to read this book and place it on the recommended reading list for the graduate studies program. Secondly, I request that all labor activists purchase a copy and use it for a book study in the various work places and communities. Workers' control must be the top priority of the labor movement as we move into the next phase of struggle as the gathering storm of fascism approaches. It is very critical that we understand this issue. Just as the Polish workers unfolded the banner of Solidarity, we must be determined to fly high the banner of Workers’ control and use all our networks to make the connection so that the working class will be inspired, educated, mobilized, and ready for action.