Trade unionism, capitalist competition and fragmentation of bargaining

Submitted by martin on 2 September, 2003 - 2:03

Discussion notes on the working class in "globalised" capitalism

Lash/Urry discussion notes 8: Capitalist competition and fragmentation of bargaining

The main theme of Lash/Urry's chapter 8 is the trend for trade-union bargaining to become more fragmented. Company bargaining, plant bargaining, or even departmental bargaining replaces overall national collective bargaining.

About the factual trend they are right. Sixteen years after they published their book, there can be no doubt about it.

The question for debate is the nature of the forces driving the trend. For Lash/Urry, the trend reflects the diminishing "capacities" of the working class. In their view, the working class still exists, and still struggles, but has become less capable of setting coherent collective goals and pursuing them in a concentrated way. The working class has contracted a collective Attention Deficit Disorder.

Cause, on their account: the geographical dispersal of industry and working-class residence, and the rise of the service class.

But they make no concerted effort to establish a tight causal relation. They argue that increased sectional militancy by white-collar workers has contributed to disrupting coherent working-class strategies. Factually this seems doubtful. Lash/Urry's suggestion that this phenomenon is part of the rise of the service class also falls down because on their account those white-collar workers are not part of the service class, an altogether more elite group.

We discussed whether the increasing proportion of service workers in the working class can be seen as a cause of weakness. Argument: industrial workers can see and measure the tangible commodities they produce, and thus see surplus value as a tangible reality. For service workers the product is altogether more intangible.

But: for the appropriation of surplus to be manifested as a tangible confiscation of products typefies the feudal-peasant condition, not the wage-worker condition. The aspiration to gain "the full fruits of their labour" is, as Marx pointed out in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, a petty bourgeois one, not a working-class one. The manifestation of capitalist exploitation of wage-labour is through the reduction of labour to alienated labour, not primarily through the tangible confiscation of tangible products.

In fact the relation between the individual's labour and the tangible product may be very remote even for manufacturing workers. A certain level of self-esteem, of appreciation of one's creative potentialities, is necessary for any working-class self-assertion. That need not take the form of pride in a physical product. Where it does ("we make the best widgets in the world"), that is as likely to feed into craft sectionalism or company-loyalism as any class militancy.

Many groups of service workers - rail workers, seafarers, power workers, postal workers, truck drivers... - have long and continuing traditions of militancy. Other service workers may have a weaker economic position, teachers and health workers for example, but teachers also have a fair history of trade union organisation.

White collar workers generally tend to have a weaker economic position, a smaller ability to hit capitalist income directly, than manual workers; but that is not always true.

In some countries, white-collar workers have strong trade-union traditions - for example, bank workers in India, retail workers in South Africa.

The radical restructuring of the working class in recent decades, with huge changes in technology and organisation, obviously tends to weaken trade-union organisation for as long as no adequate organising drive in new areas compensates for loss of old bastions. The increasing differentiation of the working class over that period - the re-emergence of a labour aristocracy - is in part the consequence of trade-union defeats, but also, once in place, a weakening factor in its own right.

But there is no general, inevitable law which says that a working class with a higher proportion of service workers or of white collar workers must have smaller capacities.

One central, structural trend of capitalism over recent decades does create a structural pressure towards fragmentation of trade-union bargaining, not via diminished working-class capacity, but via greater capitalist incentive to fragment. That is the intensification of capitalist competition, the world-wide slide into "ruinous competition" chronicled and discussed by Robert Brenner.

Whether that slide into "ruinous competition" explains all the things Brenner claims it explains is to be debated. For certain it implies a greater capitalist incentive to fragment bargaining.

As Lash/Urry themselves recount, industry-wide or nationwide collective bargaining was not something won by working-class struggles. Generally it was something instituted in wartime, which persisted for a long time after wars.

In wartime market competition between capitalists is at a minimum, and markets are tight. It is in the collective interest of the capitalist class to institute some national system of wage regulation, for if bargaining is left to individual capitalist units the result will be a leapfrogging of wage rises.

In conditions where competition remains limited, markets relatively safe, and unemployment low, it is good sense for capitalists to continue that collective bargaining.

When competition sharpens, the calculus changes. All capitalists are under great competitive pressure to cut costs. Fail to cut costs, and they lose their markets. Each capitalist unit must be free to respond to its own conditions of competition. In some cases it may make competitive sense for a capitalist to pay a big wage rise. But he wants to do that only if it makes sense in terms of the conditions of his unit and his sector, not if it is just a flow-on from a much broader system of bargaining.

It is therefore worth while for capitalists to make the extra effort, and devote the extra resources, to bargain unit-by-unit. Government departments simulate or artificially evoke competition in order not to be left behind in the push to limit costs.

This means harder struggles, and worse consequences of working-class defeat, but not necessarily an organic weakening of the working class. On the contrary, one implication of increased competition and tighter supply chains is that at least some sections of workers have more economic power than ever before. It may however be the case that a higher political temperature of ignition is needed for large working-class struggles to develop.