Working class and trade unions I: Marx

Submitted by AWL on 14 December, 2005 - 11:52
  • Marx argues that class struggle and working-class combination (trade unions) is endemic in capitalism, at all stages. "The contest between the capitalist and wage-labourer dates back to the very origin of capital..." (Ch.15.5). Workers' "struggles for the standards of wages are incidents inseparable from the whole wages system" (WPP); the basic "activity of the trade unions... cannot be dispensed with so long as the present system of production lasts" (TUPPF).
    The trade unions become "centres of organisation of the working class", and if deliberately developed as such can become "organised agencies for superseding the very system of wage-labour and capitalist rule" (TUPPF). If the elemental struggle starting over issues of wages and working-time expands and generalises itself, the working class can "become united, and constitute itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle" (PP).
    This basic argument is resoundingly confirmed by the fact that there are today maybe 200 million organised trade unionists in the world, and that just the last few decades show many examples, from Brazil through South Africa to South Korea, of trade unions becoming the base for radical working-class struggles and sometimes new working-class parties. When Marx published Capital volume 1, the British trade unions had just 250,000 members and were all Liberal in politics, and hardly any other country had any sizeable or stable trade-union organisations at all.
  • But there is working class and working class. The working class changes as capital changes. And Marx also addresses this question.
  • In volume 1 of Capital he analyses the evolution of capitalist production through three stages: handicraft; "manufacture" (which here means production which is still largely by hand, but on the basis of splitting up production into a very large number of very specialised tasks among a large workforce in a large workplace); and large-scale machine industry (i.e., pretty much, what would later be called "Taylorism" or "Fordism"). He argues that each of these stages produces a characteristic type of working class. Or, rather, since he is well aware that these stages coexist - even in the capitalism of 2005 there are large elements of handicraft production, for example in the construction industry - as each stage develops it introduces a characteristic new dynamic element within the working class.
  • "Manufacture", so Marx argues, tends to create a highly differentiated working class, with each worker tied to a specific skill. Large-scale machine industry introduces a new sort of workforce.
    • It "generalises the direct opposition to... the direct and open sway of capital". It "provides, along with the elements for the formation of a new society, the forces for exploding the old one" (Ch. 15.9).
    • How? Not straightforwardly and easily. Large-scale machine industry also increases the power of capital. "The science, the gigantic physical forces and the mass of labour that are embodied in the factory mechanism... together with that mechanism, constitute the power of the 'master'." "Machinery... is the most powerful weapon for repressing strikes". (Ch.15.4, 15.5).
    • Marx also argues that large-scale machine industry generates a lengthening of the working-day - and, especially where that lengthening is counteracted by factory legislation, intensification of labour. By its creation of an industrial reserve army, large-scale machine industry fosters alongside its own larger workplaces a regrowth of technically-primitive small workplaces based on employing pauperised workers at very low wages and in especially bad conditions. That again is counteracted by factory legislation.
    • But large-scale machine industry also does things subversive for capital. It creates a workforce of people who are more generically "workers", less tied to a specific trade or craft. "In place of the hierarchy of specialised workmen that characterises manufacture, there steps, in the automatic factory, a tendency to equalise and reduce to one and the same level every kind of worker that has to be done by the minders of the machines". (Ch 15.4).
    • And the machines change all the time. "Modern Industry, by its very nature, necessitates variation of labour, fluency of function, universal mobility of the labourer". It calls for, while at the same time in its capitalist form stunting, "the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production" (Ch.15.4). In a footnote at this point Marx quotes a worker from France (where modern industry was then still little developed) commenting on his experiences when he moved to the USA (the most purely bourgeois country of the epoch) - "in succession I became typographer, slater, plumber, etc." Large-scale machine industry requires a higher degree of general workforce education than handicraft-based industry; but at the same time it frustrates the capacities of the "fluent" worker to a greater extent, tying her or him always to subordination to one or another machine, or rather system of machines. It creates a sharper opposition between workers in general and capital in general.
    • More women and children are drawn into production. Unlike in "manufacture", we have "the collective working group being composed of individuals of both sexes and all ages" (Ch. 15.9).
  • Thus large-scale machine industry brings the general tendency for capital to generate its own gravedigger to a sharper point; it "generalises the direct opposition to... the direct and open sway of capital"; it "provides, along with the elements for the formation of a new society, the forces for exploding the old one".
  • Marx is well aware that large-scale mechanised factories of the sort he describes cover only a minority of the workforce. His analysis of the workforce in Britain (the most industrialised country of the time) is as follows (Ch. 15.6):
    • Textile factories - about 8% of workforce;
    • "New" industries (see below) - about 1% of workforce;
    • Metal works (which would mostly have been not very highly mechanised at that stage) - about 5%
    • Mines (again, not highly mechanised) - about 7%
    • Agricultural labourers - about 13%
    • Domestic servants - about 15%.
  • He doesn't give figures for the food and drink processing industries (though at the turn of the 20th century the biggest companies in Britain after J P Coats were Huntley and Palmer and the breweries). Then there are transport workers of all kinds (other than rail, included above under "new" industries); building workers; retail and wholesale; finance; education...
    Marx emphasises the huge number of domestic servants: "the extraordinary productiveness of modern industry... allows of the unproductive employment of a larger and larger part of the working class".
    He indicates, however, that the factory working class has a special potency. Thus the large role of textile workers, and later car workers - workers in the most dynamic highly-mechanised factory industries - in Beverly Silver's analysis of trends of working-class activity.
  • Marx discounts as numerically insignificant (for his day) three sections of the workforce (Ch. 15.6):
    • The technical staff - the "numerically unimportant class of persons, whose occupation it is to look after the whole of the machinery and repair it from time to time, such as engineers, mechanics, joiners, etc. This is a superior class of workmen, some of them scientifically education, others brought up to a trade; it is distinct from the factory operative class..." (Ch. 15.4).
    • The new industries which are not factory versions of old handicraft industries (clothing, food, etc.) but "entirely new branches" which could not even be thought of prior to the industrial revolution. Marx cites gasworks, telecoms, photography, steamships, and railways. This category of industry has greatly expanded, and it surely has a tendency to be more "technical" than the older industries, i.e. to have a larger proportion of design, maintenance, and repair workers. (In telecom, for example, the technical staff is almost all the manual workforce).
    • Office workers. (Not in these readings, but elsewhere, Marx indicates that he reckons their numbers negligible).
  • All these categories are hugely expanded. The "factory operative" category is still large, and likely to remain large indefinitely, but increasing automation tends to reduce it relatively. How can we define the new types of worker characteristic of the latest phase of capitalism?
    • Marx differentiates the handicraft workers working "over" their tools from the factory operatives working as appendages to, subordinated to, "under" a big system of machinery.
      In the categories which Marx perceives as new in his time, as yet too small to have much weight, but which have vastly expanded since then, there is a whole range of workers "beside" the machine.
      Repair, maintenance, and installation workers, like telecom engineers for example. And then a big range of others. Cleaners and security guards. What must in total be a huge number of drivers of all sorts (from vans through trucks to airline pilots and crane crews). Software engineers, designers. Most sorts of office workers. All these work "beside" systems of machinery, often very complex ones, but in a different relationship to the system of machinery from the worker on a production line.
    • Then there is a large range of "person-to-person" workers. Maybe no bigger a proportion than the total of the domestic servants of 1860s Britain plus the workers in shops, inns, and so on. But where the "person-to-person" workers of 1860s Britain worked in ones and twos, and often under "patriarchal" conditions, most "person-to-person" workers today work under entirely capitalist conditions, and some in sizeable units, often units which are part of large chains (fast-food chains, for example, or banks), or even in large units (supermarkets, hospitals, universities, large schools). The biggest workplace in Britain today is Heathrow Airport, with 100,000 workers. None of them is a "factory-operative" type worker. They are all "workers beside the machine" or "person-to-person" workers.
    • Less-capitalistically-developed countries characteristically also have a large proportion of the workforce in "services", suggesting that they also have a large number of "workers beside the machine" and of "person-to-person workers". The trend is not confined to the richer countries.
  • Questions to follow up:
    • Do these categories of "workers beside the machine" and "person-to-person workers" accurately describe the emerging new element in the workforce?
    • What are their characteristics? They seem to be involved in the same "variation of labour, fluency of function, universal mobility of the labourer" as characterised the factory operative of "Fordism". And the ability of capital to use machinery as "the most powerful weapon for repressing strikes" against them is probably less. On the other hand, the "levelling" tendency - the "tendency to equalise and reduce to one and the same level every kind of worker that has to be done by the minders of the machines" - applies much less. There is a redifferentiation of the working class, a re-emergence of a "labour aristocracy". There may also be more age-segmentation of the working class: there are now whole industries which operate almost exclusively with young workers, not a "collective working group being composed of individuals of both sexes and all ages". That indicates a special priority for organising in those industries.