It’s easy to feel discouraged about the state of the left today, especially in the United States. While there are a number of exciting victories to be found, it feels like defeat is much more common. But as Eve Weinbaum argues in To Move a Mountain: Fighting the Global Economy in Appalachia, there is a difference between successful failure and failed failure. Failure is an integral part of any social movement, so we need to find ways to make some of that failure part of a longer-term organizing project.
Weinbaum was an organizer for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE!) and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) before the two unions merged. As political mobilization director and education director for the Southern region of UNITE!, she worked throughout the South in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In this capacity, she worked closely with a number of campaigns to fight plant closings. To Move a Mountain is the story of three of these plant closing struggles. All took place in eastern, rural Tennessee. All involved manufacturing workers who saw their factories shut down.
Greenbrier Industries, a textile company in Clinton, Tennessee, declared bankruptcy and closed its doors in 1993. The largest employer in a town of 8,000 people, Greenbrier left 700 people without warning when it shut its doors. Similarly, Acme Boot Company was the largest employer in Montgomery County. But despite record profits, the company closed its factory in Clarksville in late 1992, finishing a long process of subcontracting work and moving jobs overseas. These closings were not a new thing: starting in 1988, General Electric (GE)—which had been seen as a model employer in Morristown—began to institute dramatic changes in the workplace, such as efficiency standards. Workers began to feel harassed and vulnerable and soon faced layoffs. The workers responded with a unionization campaign, but one week after that was defeated, the company laid off another 200 workers. Next, some workers learned that their jobs were being moved to a nearby town and wages and benefits were to be dramatically reduced. By the end of 1989, the GE workers were told they could keep their jobs as low-wage, temp jobs, or they were out of work.
In all three cases, workers fought back. In none of the cases did the workers win their jobs back.
But Weinbaum argues that there were important differences between the campaigns. Often with a plant closing, she asserts, workers may look to blame themselves, their coworkers, or their supervisors for the situation. Other writers have also noted this phenomenon: that job loss is highly personalized in the United States, making unemployment an individual rather than a collective problem. Neither the legal system nor the level of political consciousness encourages workers to look for a systemic explanation. Instead, workers must develop this on their own through struggle and organization. This may be aided or hindered by outside forces, such as dialogue with other workers, or input from community organizers or union staff.
In Clinton, Greenbrier employees did organize themselves. But in the end they were not able to transcend their individual approach to the plant closing. All the workers blamed management, and many blamed their coworkers. There was a strong belief—racially coded—that Greenbrier suffered because welfare reform brought in lazy, single mothers, whose work ethic was not up to the company’s standards. The workers did not have a union, and they held contradictory attitudes toward the concept of a union. Their interactions with a local community organization ended up reinforcing the idea that experts—lawyers and accountants—were better equipped than they were to understand both the reasons for the closing and workers options for fighting it. In the end, despite their efforts at protest and collective activity, the workers did not develop an alternative framework for understanding the closing. Weinbaum writes, With no apparent options, the Greenbrier workers were forced to accept the expert’s simple analysis: a company had declared bankruptcy, and there was no recourse. Their solution? Give up (98).
The Acme Boot workers didn’t win their jobs back, but they organized themselves differently. Weinbaum explains how the Acme Boot workers had an advantage over the Greenbrier workers, because they were represented by the United Rubber Workers (URW). The URW was not able to save the jobs, but utilized its connections to connect the Acme Boot workers with other organizations and analyses. These outside groups provided financial and technical support, free research and organizing assistance, but more importantly, helped the workers put their campaign into the context of a larger struggle. In the end, Weinbaum writes that the Acme Boot workers created success out of failure by transforming themselves and their community, and creating the possibility for further political action around the issues that they had raised (173).
Finally, we read the story of GE workers who began their fight as a way to get their regular jobs back, but ended up sowing the seeds of a movement to fight contingent work and global capitalism. When faced with the choice of keeping their jobs as temp workers or losing their jobs altogether, the workers began meeting with one another to strategize. They quickly formed themselves into Citizens Against Temporary Services (CATS) and planned to research the contingent economy and launch a public campaign against GE. They were surprised to find little support from local officials who warned that such a campaign might spur GE to leave the area altogether and create a bad business climate for recruiting future industry. They took their campaign to the community and in the process connected with the Committee on Religion in Appalachia (CORA) and the newly formed Tennessee Industrial Renewal Network (TIRN), a labor, community, and environmental coalition. These connections led to lawyers, networks, conferences, and other small groups working on contingent work and plant closings, and soon developed into a multi-pronged campaign against GE. However, their efforts mostly met with frustration: they could not enlist support from local elites or the state legislature. They were not even supported by the president of the state AFL-CIO. But the members had transformed their consciousness through these struggles, coming to see the larger economic model in which cities, states, and countries compete against one another as part of the problem. In 1992, two CATS members accompanied seven women workers from other factories in East Tennessee on a trip to Matamoros, Mexico, coordinated by TIRN. They went to one of the new GE plants there and met with workers in the maquiladoras. They came back to Tennessee and prepared a slide show and presentation about their trip, educating former coworkers about what they saw.
Through years of struggling, encountering resistance where they had not expected it, and gaining support from strangers, many of the GE workers were transformed, creating democratic citizens and political actors out of individuals (249). Weinbaum argues, Testimony by members [of CATS] proves the truth behind Tocqueville’s description of community-based organizations as classrooms of democracy (249).
The transformation of the GE workers energized their allies. TIRN and the nearby Highlander Center began to focus closely on contingent work, helping spark a host of new organizations and campaigns, including the first statewide campaign in the country aimed at temporary work. Weinbaum argues that CATS helped inspire other campaigns, such as the Knoxville living wage campaign. CATS members also participated directly in the campaign against NAFTA in 1994, and some went to protest the WTO in Seattle in 1999.
To Move a Mountain makes the case that all social movements involve failure and indeed, primarily, grow out of a series of failed campaigns. However, not all failure creates a social movement. Weinbaum lists five factors that distinguish successful failures from failed failures and that build longer-term movements: campaigns that demonstrate that resistance is possible, create organization and structure needed for mobilization, train people to become effective political actors, teach the value of collective action, and teach communities the strength and power of their opposition—essential knowledge for any political effort (267).
In addition to the lessons it draws for social movements, To Move a Mountain also makes an important contribution to our understanding of the global economy. These stories show that resistance against global capitalism is possible. Many of the small locally rooted campaigns can build upon each other to form a larger movement. But Weinbaum suggests that the current emphasis on globalization is perhaps misleading. While global factors do influence local economies, many of the challenges U.S. workers face in their fight for jobs are from forces that are as old as this country. She writes: Local governments’ overriding emphasis on attracting new private investment is frequently and dramatically at odds with the exigencies of a democratic polity and community. In this light, our economic crisis is not global at all, but rooted firmly in American political structure and ideology (17).
To Move a Mountain is an important book. Its contributions to the study of globalization and its impacts are timely. Its lessons about turning failure into success and the need to view social movements from a broader perspective are timeless.