The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Today’s union-busters are following a centuries-old playbook

Broad solidarity and a willingness to engage in collective action are key to beating back anti-union efforts.

WASHINGTON, DC - May 3 : Circulator bus operators picket outside the DC Circulator headquarters in Washington, DC on May 3, 2022. Operators are on strike over pay and benefits. They chanted “Who moves this city? We move this city!” and “What is disgusting? Union busting!” as they stood in front of a parking lot that houses 54 empty buses. “It’s about more than money,” operator Sylvester Blow said. “If they treated us better, we wouldn’t be out here.” (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Corporations like Starbucks and Amazon (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post) are desperately trying to stop their workers from unionizing. Both have simply fired organizing workers and closed their stores. Amazon has called in the police to stop organizing activity, while Starbucks has threatened to rescind employee health care coverage. These measures have been supported by misinformation aimed at the public, such as Starbucks’s open letter to the National Labor Relations Board. Union-busters have relied on technology to suppress unions as well. Amazon’s warehouses are structured to minimize interpersonal interaction, with scanners giving workers orders from on high.

These tactics come directly from an anti-union playbook older than unions themselves. Today’s union-busting echoes the efforts of administrators in one of the earliest organized workplaces: Britain’s Royal Dockyards. Anti-union efforts in the dockyards reveal how employers break organized labor: a multifaceted strategy targeting workers, their relationship with each other and their work itself.

Home to thousands of skilled artisans, the Royal Dockyards were remarkably modern production facilities in which workers had surprisingly modern labor rights. By the mid-18th century, Royal Dockyard shipwrights — specialized carpenters who built and repaired ships — had the equivalent of lunch breaks, limited tenure and pensions. Job security and other benefits were invaluable in a period with no organized labor protections. Plus, men within the same trade — shipwrights, caulkers and blacksmiths, for instance — were paid similarly to one another, a marker of an egalitarian culture of work grounded in the collective nature of dockyard labor.

To be sure, the dockyards were not a laborer’s paradise. Wages were regularly months late, work was dangerous and taxing and a stingy Parliament refused to allow for pay increases even when inflation began eroding real wages. Still, the yards were a place where stable multigenerational families could count on a living, backed by traditional rights and defended by the community.

Shipbuilders secured their rights in the dockyard through organizing, backed by the power of artisan tradition and based in close interpersonal ties. Families, friends and neighbors worked closely together to cut timber, build frames and seal hulls. Within the yards, workers had significant control over the means of production, collectively influencing the intensity, hours and structure of their own labor.

When necessary, they engaged in collective action to protect that control. In 1739, when naval officials threatened shipwrights’ access to “chips,” waste wood produced in the construction process that helped supplement workers’ wages, workers at Chatham Dockyard went on strike. They were successful, as were similar strikes over the next decade.

Dockyard administrators were not pleased. In 1749, First Lord of the Admiralty John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich, proposed a plan to crush worker independence and remake the dockyards to emphasize thrift over workers’ rights. Known as “task work,” Sandwich’s scheme divided shipbuilding into discrete tasks, each assigned a preset pay value. To oversee labor and calculate pay, he appointed disciplinary supervisors.

Task work reduced shipwrights to isolated individuals valued by tasks they completed, while diminishing the control they had over production — and, crucially, disrupting the social relations workers relied on to resist. Sandwich estimated that with the implementation of task work, the Royal Dockyards would require far fewer shipwrights, and could fire perhaps half of their workforce. Fearing a strike, other administrators slow-walked the changes until 1751, when unrelated political scandal and intrigue removed Sandwich from office.

When Sandwich finally implemented his “task work” plan in 1775 after returning to power, workers denounced it as enacting “progressive suicide on our Bodies” and went on strike in a massive, countrywide, cross-dockyard work stoppage. Their “combinations,” ad hoc proto-union organizational forms, relied on inter-yard messengers, meetings of delegates from across the country and strike votes. When the Navy Board put the strike down in Portsmouth by firing workers, these laborer networks spread the strike to other yards and ultimately rekindled it again in Portsmouth. The strikers also appealed to the public with subscription campaigns for support against dockyard management.

Administrators fought back with their own opposing appeals to the public. For instance, an anonymous pamphlet published in the summer of 1775 denounced shipwrights as spoiled ingrates who enjoyed higher wages and better job security than many workers. As it turned out, the pamphlet was written by Navy Board Commissioner Timothy Brett. The Board made similar attempts to divide people inside the dockyard. When Deptford workers, who were too poor and too surveilled to strike, did not join their counterparts, the Board rewarded them with a lottery, drawing names out of a hat. The prize was a servant — generally a seven-year apprentice. Still, the strikers held out for months and, in the end, won a partial victory: task work was made optional and limited.

But a generation later, elite labor “reformers” once more made war on workers. Samuel Bentham, a witness to the 1775 dockyard strikes, worked after his apprenticeship in the dockyard as an engineer and a military consultant in imperial Russia. While abroad, Samuel devised the “central inspection principle” that he and his brother Jeremy would later expand into the infamous Panopticon prison concept. After returning to England and earning an appointment as Inspector General of Naval Works in 1796, Bentham used his expertise to propose machinery that would replace workers’ own skill by replicating their labor. His inventions were imperfect, but they helped reorganize labor and thus undermined worker power.

When workers organized another massive strike in 1801 hoping to improve wages amid hideous inflation, the new head of the Admiralty, the Earl of St. Vincent, took bold action his predecessors did not dare. He fired not only a few strike leaders, but hundreds of striking shipwrights, despite the difficulty in replacing them. The gambit worked: the strikes ended and administrators were able to ban chips, keep wages down and continue to reorganize labor. Dockyard radicalism continued, but by 1830, yard workers had lost their unique job security and become annual contract workers.

A combined economic, technological and political strategy was key to successful union-busting in the dockyards, as it is elsewhere today. New technology does not necessitate exploiting workers, but new methods of exploitation often require technology. Task work is an antecedent to recent organizational schemes like the “precision-scheduled railroading” that has devastated rail workers. In July, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) unveiled the “Worker Choice and Flexibility Act,” which would allow “gig economy” businesses to bypass existing labor protections by creating a new category of labor under the cover of technological innovation.

Employers’ anti-worker narratives (of the kind seen in the “impartial” 1775 pamphlet) enable this kind of legislative class warfare. Consider the pernicious “no one wants to work” narrative recently generated by business owners and right-wing politicians to demonize workers for seeking better pay in the strongest labor market in decades.

Prevailing against union-busters will require rejecting these dehumanizing narratives and the top-down implementation of quantifying work regimes they support. English shipwrights’ success over 200 years ago in holding back managers underscores the importance of bold action undergirded by broad solidarity. Shipbuilders’ ultimate defeat underscores the need to not only build solidarity within individual workplaces, but across the country.

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