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Farewell to the Working Class?

Argue that the Left should still privilege the working class as the most viable agent for revolutionary social change.
Anthony Arnove

Issue #21, October 1995

Well-paying industrial jobs are being exported and service industry jobs are taking their place. There's no more "working class."
— September 2, 1995 New York Times
The familiar image of labor these days is of a doomed relic of the industrial age withering away. But as Labor Day approaches, the state of unions in America is characterized by something unseen in many years: signs of revival. The number of union workers increased 3 percent over the past year to 16.7 million. ... [M]any unions are pouring resources into organizing campaigns. And they are targeting workers they have long ignored: low-wage service workers on the increasingly crowded bottom tiers of the U.S. economy — chicken pluckers, toilet scrubbers, street sweepers and the like.
— September 1, 1995 Wall Street Journal

The quotes above, which appeared one day apart, cite the common perception on the Left that the working class as it was described by Karl Marx no longer exists. Many Left intellectuals seem to have found something curiously in common with Texas Republican Senator and Presidential candidate Phil Gramm, who recently told reporters that "class" doesn't exist in the United States (as it happens, only one week after U.S. census figures showed that during the 1980s the U.S. became the most class polarized advanced capitalist country in the world and that the gap between rich and poor was growing faster than in any other country).

Or, if Left intellectuals acknowledge that class divisions exist, they are quick to add that we certainly can't privilege the working class as a revolutionary agent now that we have entered "post-industrial society" or "late capitalism."

In this paper I want to argue that the Left should still privilege the working class as the most viable agent for revolutionary social change. This argument is based on (1) the centrality of production relations (by which Marxists mean the way in which people are organized to meet basic human needs) to any society; (2) the _collective_ power that workers have to stop production along capitalist lines (their power at the point of production); and, (3) to ability of workers to reorganize the relations of production along truly democratic lines.

The Retreat from Class

Many commentators on the world economy today point to the recent decline of industrial jobs and the increase of service jobs as a reason for abandoning class politics. Often unemployment and the closure of manufacturing plants are treated as if they amounted to the death of organized labor, or the disappearance of the working class.

Arguments such as these confuse the working class with one particular kind of employment — blue collar, manual labor. But, for Marxists, the working class consists of all those who are compelled to sell their ability to work in order to earn a wage on which they can survive — in other words, the vast majority of the world's population, no matter what sector of the economy in which they work.

Far from the stereotype of the white male industrial worker in the West, the working class is composed of women, blacks, Asians, Latin Americans, Africans, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and many other groups. The only group the working class does not include is those who own and control the means of production — those who directly benefit from capitalist exploitation.

Service employees, poor immigrants, female domestic servants, and teachers are all workers, as unions in the United States are increasingly finding out. These workers all have the power to withhold their labor power through strikes, to organize to shut down the normal operation of capitalist production (and reproduction), and to challenge the basis on which the world economy rests: the drive for profit in the interests of the few, while the needs of the many are unmet.

The U.S. Working Class in the 1990s

Though it has eluded much of the Left, the leading papers of the U.S. and international financial elite have recently noted that class struggle is not something of the past and that the one-sided class struggle that characterized the 1970s and 1980s (class struggle waged from above, against workers) is not so one-sided anymore.

The Friday before Labor Day, the U.S. bosses' daily paper, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article with the headline "Signs of Revival: Some Unions Step Up Organizing Campaigns and Get New Members: In a Major Shift in Strategy, They Now Woo Workers in the Bottom-Tier of Jobs: Possible Parallels to the '30s."

If one considers the intensity of the struggles and the importance of the victories of the U.S. working class in the 1930s, it is clear that the Wall Street Journal doesn't draw parallels to the 1930s lightly. As the article points out, during the 1930s "millions of unorganized industrial workers, all but written off in the depths of the Depression, rose up in spite of intense employer opposition and created a militant union movement that, by the end of World War II, had organized virtually every major manufacturing sector."

Rather than writing off today's workers, the article cites Robert Zeigler, a labor historian at the University of Florida in Gainsville, who argues that "The low-wage service workers of today are the mass industrial workers of the 1930s."

These quotes come from the paper that for years has been leading the way in announcing (and hoping for) the death of organized labor. Rather than just issue abstract warnings, though, the article describes some very concrete examples of working class organization and militancy, including the successful unionizing drive of 600 manual workers in a poultry plant in Morgantown, North Carolina — primarily Spanish-speaking Guatemalan immigrants — which was won after a four-day walk-out to protest an incident where three workers were denied permission to go the bathroom by their boss.

The feeling of many low-wage, service workers interviewed by the Wall Street Journal is well captured by Gloria Nalls, a nurses aide in Clinton Township, Michigan: "For six years, I was scared of my boss — not any more. And why should I be? My job comes a dime a dozen."

A similar attention to U.S. workers' interest in unions and in fighting against bosses' attacks can be seen in the March 25 Economist. The 1990s "are proving rather different" than the 1980s, the article points out, as workers are becoming increasingly angry about layoffs, downsizing, and declining real wages. The reason that a number of recent polls have shown increased understanding of the need for unions is not hard to determine, The Economist explains: "Although corporate America's profitability is rising faster than it did even in the mid-1980s — net profits rose by over a third in 1994 — workers are getting little of the benefit."

Simply put, corporate profits are at their highest levels since 1945; productivity has been growing the past several years (which means that U.S. workers are producing more per hour); and the U.S. has been ranked the "most competitive" economy in the world for the second year in a row. Yet, despite gains in profits and productivity, real wages (wages adjusted for inflation) have declined 20 percent since 1973, and even more for less educated workers; for the first time in 150 years a recovery from a recession has not produced an increase in wages, as real wages continue to decline; and people are working much longer hours with fewer benefits. Simply put, the rate of exploitation is getting jacked up.

Indeed, it was the forced overtime and 12-hour shifts forced upon General Motors auto workers that led to one of the most important strikes and labor victories of the last year. The strike has many lessons about the power of the working class in the 1990s.

In September 1994, 11,500 workers at GM's Buick City complex in Flint, Michigan went on strike in protest to the company's policy of increasing overtime rather than hiring new workers to meet increased demand. Because of the way GM uses "just in time" production, workers were able to quickly idle and shut down plants across North America and Europe, which supplied the plant with vital parts. After only three days, GM agreed to hire nearly 800 extra workers.

The international links of production meant that the GM strike had an impact on production that was international, making the concrete links between workers across national borders that much more real than when Marx argued that workers share interests which transcend national divisions.

But divisions — national, racial, ethnic, sectional, or otherwise — remain the key obstacle to working class effectiveness. Overcoming them by making the fight against racism, sexism, nationalism, and homophobia a primary task of all trade union, working class, and socialist struggles is the key to turning the tide against the increasing barbarism of the capitalist world economy.

This point has not been lost on the bosses. In its July 17 issue Business Week noted that:

The sight of bulging corporate coffers coexisting with a continuous stagnation of Americans' living standards could become politically untenable. ... In the past few years... all but the most elite employees have ended up in the same boat. If they all come to stress their common fate more than their differences, it could spell trouble for corporations and politicians alike.

Class Struggle

Whether or not Left intellectuals are aware of it, class struggle is an everyday reality for billions of people throughout the world who are forced by economic necessity to work for wages, often under brutally inhumane, thoroughly alienating conditions — whether as slave laborers on Brazilian mines or in New York and Los Angeles sweatshops.

In many countries, including the United States, class struggle has been decidedly one-sided since the world economic crisis of the early 1970s. But the early 1990s seem to be showing signs of workers' fighting back and struggling from below.

Those of us who take seriously emancipatory projects and who would like to change the barbarism of the world as it currently stands — a world where third-world levels of poverty and malnutrition exist alongside the greatest concentrations of wealth in world history, where time-saving technology leads to longer hours and more drudgery, rather than freeing people to meet human needs and to use their free time to pursue their own desires and aims, and where war and famine continue without justification - should see that the class struggle from below is recognized, organized, and aggressively pushed forward.

Anthony Arnove is a member of the International Socialist Organization and a graduate student in English at Brown University. His e-mail address is

Copyright © 1995 by Anthony Arnove. All rights reserved.