Working class and trade unions II: today

Submitted by AWL on 2 January, 2006 - 9:54

Working class and trade unions II: today
1. Fastest-growing categories of employment: USA

Henwood gives a list for the USA. None of the 30 top categories is a factory operative/ machine minder category. That does not mean that those workers are disappearing. There are as many car workers in the USA today as in the 1970s. But the fastest growing categories are elsewhere.

2. Poorer countries

Factory-operative/ machine-minder jobs are growing in fast-industrialising poorer countries. But Hampton's figures suggest that "service" jobs grow simultaneously and faster.

For example, Hampton's figures for 2000 show if we move from the less-developed poorer countries to the more-industrialised ones, the percentage of workers in industry increases (from 18% in India to 23% in Mexico or 31% in South Korea), and the percentage of workers in "services" increases even faster (from 22% in India to 54% in Mexico or 58% in South Korea).

Both "industry" and "services" expand as shares of the workforce while "agriculture" declines; when "agriculture" has become a small share of the workforce, "services" tend to expand faster than "industry".

3. Workers "beside" the machine, and "person-to-person" workers: analysis

Henwood's list of the 30 fastest-growing categories breaks down as follows:

  • 8 categories of "workers beside the machine":
    • systems analysts, engineers
    • repair
    • truckdrivers
    • cashiers
    • secretaries
    • cleaners
    • guards
  • 14 categories of "person-to-person workers"
    • sales
    • receptionists
    • waiters
    • social workers
    • 5 species of health workers
    • 5 species of education workers
  • Two categories of handicraft/ "manufacture" workers
    • Food preparation;
    • Hand packers.
  • Six categories of managers and supervisors.

There's some overlap between these areas of "workers beside the machine" and "person-to-person workers", and some categories could be put in one or another

4. Struggles

On a rough count, the categories of workers mentioned in Hampton's "recent struggles" surveys are as follows:

  • Factory workers - 30 mentions
  • Teachers - 8
  • Power workers - 4
  • Health workers - 4
  • Bus drivers - 3
  • Civil servants - 3
  • Oil workers - 3
  • Dockers - 2
  • Banks, telecom, hotels, shops - 1 each.

To judge from Silver's results from much larger research, this rough count underestimates the weight of transport workers in class struggles worldwide.

Both from Silver's results, and from this rough count, the category of factory operatives/ machine minders is still a very important one for working-class struggle, and sure to remain so for a long time.

"Person-to-person workers" and "workers beside the machine", the fastest-growing areas, are both important. Probably there are more differences of organisability and potential combativity between sections in each large area than between the two large areas.

5. Marx on workers "beside" the machine

In a passage from the Grundrisse (pp 704ff) Marx sketches in advance the expansion of the categories of workers "beside" the machine. His comments focus on what this evolution may show "objectively" for the capitalist system and its historic limits, rather than on the "subjective" qualities of this section of the working class as it evolves, which are our chief concern here.

But to the degree that large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labour time, whose 'powerful effectiveness' is itself in turn out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production... Labour no longer appears so much to be included within the production process; rather, the human being comes to relate more as watchman and regulator to the production process itself... The worker... steps to the side of the production process instead of being its chief actor.

In this transformation, it is neither the direct human labour he himself performs, nor the time during which he works, but rather the appropriation of his own general productive power, his understanding of nature and his mastery over it by virtue of his presence as a social body - it is, in a word, the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation-stone of production and of wealth. The theft of alien labour time, on which the present wealth is based, appears a miserable foundation in face of this new one, created by large-scale industry itself... [Then society can move to] the free development of individualities, and hence not the reduction of necessary labour time so as to posit surplus labour, but rather the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them.

Capital... calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value. Forces of production and social relations - two different sides of the development of the social individual - appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high...

Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. To what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process

6. Workers "beside" the machine, and "person-to-person" workers: conclusions

  • Despite all the talk of "flat" management structures and "teamwork", it looks like capital is employing more, rather than less, direct person-to-person supervision.
  • Not only are factory-workers/ machine-minders very far from vanishing, there are some fast-growing categories of handicraft/ "manufacture" workers.
  • The old, fundamental, long-term trend towards greater job mobility continues, though much less than commonly thought. Some of the fast-growing trades, like teacher and nurse, are trades which many workers stick with for a full lifetime. So do the trends towards greater urbanisation and a higher level of general all-purpose education being required for the workforce.
  • The new categories probably bring some increase in the differentiation within the working class. From cleaner and guard, through driver and repair person, to engineer, there is a differentiation which will not necessarily decrease as the technology around which they are organised becomes more advanced.
  • Probably there is also an age-differentiation. Some sections of the workforce comprise almost exclusively young workers. A lot of people who will later become relatively well-off workers start their working lives in low-paid jobs among other young workers in fast food, retail, etc. This argues for a strategic priority to organising workers, giving them experience of solidarity, making them union-minded, in those jobs while they are young. Even if organisation in such sections is hard to retain, and thus seems "uneconomic" from the standpoint of routine trade-unionism, it can have a huge reviving, inspiring effect over the years as young activists get older and scatter into other sections of the workforce - in the same way that IWW activity in the USA before World War 1, although notoriously unsuccessful at creating solid, permanent organisation among the young, transient, casualised, badly-off workers where it was mostly directed, had a big historic effect in laying the basis for industrial unionism there.
  • Most trade unions, even left-wing and militant ones, are however doing the opposite. They adapt passively to the differentiation of the working class brought about by the rise of "workers beside the machine" and "person to person workers". Putting other things in the "too hard" basket, they focus on organising among the more stable, better-off sections of the working class. They also focus on doing the things in those sections which can be done "for" the workers by representatives with a good command of industrial law and the text of industrial agreements, skilled and experienced at haggling with the managers. But that focus leaves the union floundering when the government changes the law or the bosses rip up the agreements.
  • As regards methods and approaches of union organising, the IWW's emphasis and tilt was at the opposite end of the spectrum from the habits of most trade unions today. We should look more closely at the relevance to today of distinctive IWW organising approaches such as:
    • low membership fees
    • low or no initiation fees
    • concentrated, high-intensity waves of organising
    • addressing workers in new areas with a set of demands to be won by the union once organised (developed after a lot of preliminary discussion with workers in those areas) rather than with general agitation about the advantages of having a union in the abstract; following up the recruiting drive with immediate preparation for action on those demands
    • organising areas by getting volunteers to go in and take jobs in those areas, then talk union on the job
    • using street corner agitation, and colourful, high-profile public agitation generally
    • trying always to make industrial action short, sharp, and decisive. If a dispute drags on regardless, constantly and imaginatively trying new tacks - never leaving the workers passive.