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Building Power at the Point of Production

Many people on the Left believe that the United States is “deindustrialized.” In fact, the US has the world’s second largest manufacturing industry. In this guest post, a factory worker from Los Angeles argues that the Left needs to be part of the industrial proletariat. 

Ben Solidaridad

January 2, 2020
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Throughout its history, a foundational assumption of the socialist movement — and particularly the revolutionary socialist movement — has been that the industrial proletariat occupies a central role within the class struggle. While there are different ways to delineate this segment of the broader working class, the industrial proletariat has traditionally been understood to encompass workers employed in core processes of production — in particular workers in the manufacturing industry, as well as workers in construction, agribusiness, mining, and other extractive sectors. In addition, the industrial proletariat also comprises workers employed in the transportation and distribution of commodities, including those in trucking, logistics, longshore, railroading, transportation, etc.1The strategic importance of the industrial proletariat relates to the fact that it is this segment of the working class that produces the vast majority of the surplus labor value that is appropriated by the capitalist system. In this way, organized industrial workers have a crucial source of leverage in the class struggle as a result their ability to bring commodity production (and distribution) to a halt — and thus to throttle the capitalist accumulation process. In addition to this, another critical factor relates to the mass, collective nature of the labor performed by industrial workers — particularly in such critical manufacturing sectors as auto, steel, meatpacking, etc. This tends to endow industrial workers with a mass, collective proletarian consciousness that aligns with the socialist project. Finally, and particularly important for revolutionary socialists, industrial workers must, by necessity, play a central role in the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism since they alone have the ability to the lead the way in the seizure of the means of the production and the conversion of industry to socialist production. For additional analysis on the lasting importance of the industrial proletariat, see Kim Moody, “Why the Industrial Working Class Still Matters,” Against the Current 58 (September-October 1995). Adam Turl, “Is the U.S. becoming post-industrial?” International Socialist Review 52 (March-April 2007).

Despite this longstanding theoretical underpinning, in recent years, much of the Left, including the Marxist Left, has come to disregard the power of U.S. industrial workers and the pivotal role they play in the capitalist accumulation process. Many socialists have, in this vein, come to subscribe, either explicitly or tacitly, to the erroneous thesis that the United States is “deindustrialized” and no longer has a substantial industrial proletariat.

Such a conclusion is, of course, false. While the industrial proletariat in the United States is smaller in both absolute and relative terms than was the case in previous periods, the industrial working class is, nonetheless, still massive — and U.S. industrial workers still possess a tremendous amount of objective power. Indeed, as it stands today, the United States has the world’s second largest manufacturing industry. Only China’s is larger. Moreover, nearly 12.7 million workers were employed in manufacturing in 2018, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Also, while U.S. manufacturing lost millions of jobs in the first decade of the twenty-first century, in the period since then, the industry has experienced continuous growth. Between 2010 and 2018, the manufacturing sector added some 1.15 million jobs — an increase of just under ten percent.2In recent months, manufacturing — along with trucking — has shed some jobs. Manufacturing output has also begun to slip. Given the centrality of these industries within the economic system, this might be a sign of a broader downturn on the horizon.

In reality, the number of workers in manufacturing — and the number of jobs added during the current decade — is likely significantly higher than this since the BLS statistics for manufacturing jobs do not count temp workers that work in factories, who comprise a large and growing portion of the overall manufacturing workforce. Notably, a recent scientific study estimates that, in 2015, nearly 10 percent of the manufacturing workforce was comprised of temps. Assuming that this same percentage of temp workers held true for 2018, then this means that there were just under 14 million workers employed in manufacturing that year. Notably, based on my own experience as a factory worker, I’d estimate that the overall percentage of temps in manufacturing was significantly higher than 10 percent in 2018. (For what it’s worth, the way that management in manufacturing and other industrial sectors use and hyper-exploit temp workers is not just a question of statistical importance — it’s also a core grievance for industrial workers in general.)

An Uptick in Struggle

In 2019, a minor but nonetheless significant uptick in strikes and struggles by factory workers has revealed some of the lasting power of industrial workers in this country. The most prominent such struggle was, of course, the 40-day strike waged by nearly 50,000 UAW workers at GM facilities across the country. While the ultimate outcome of the GM strike was mixed — the strike nonetheless clearly dramatized the power of industrial labor: In total, the strike cost the company upwards of $4 billion. Moreover, in addition to shutting down all of the company’s U.S. production facilities, the strike also led to widespread shutdowns and slowdowns stemming from parts shortages at GM’s other North American plants in Mexico and Canada. In addition to the GM strike, other noteworthy manufacturing strikes to take place in 2019 include the UAW strike of some 3,500 workers at Mack Truck plants in three states in October, as well as the United Electric strike at the Wabtec locomotive plant in Erie, Pennsylvania. Also of note, in November, workers at the General Mills cereal plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa were able to win a first contract and force the company to back off concession demands as a result of steadfast solidarity and a credible strike threat. At the culmination of the struggle at General Mills in early November, workers from the plant — who are organized through the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) — staged practice pickets throughout the Cedar Rapids area, including a picket in front of the plant manager’s house.

This minor uptick in struggle has led some socialists not normally inclined to pay much attention to industrial labor to take note and point out the lasting power of manufacturing workers. A surprising example of this is a recent article by Meagan Day in Jacobin, which emphasizes the importance of private-sector workers in general:

While public-sector unions have some unique capacities, so do private-sector unions, and we can’t build a strong and effective labor movement without them. While public-sector strikes can be effective by grinding essential services to a halt and creating political crises to which politicians and officials are forced to respond, private-sector unions have a grenade in their pocket. When private-sector workers go on strike, employers hemorrhage money.

In addition to Day’s recent acknowledgement, an even more succinct analysis is offered in another Jacobin piece, this one by Alex N. Press, which points out that “Logistics, transportation, and manufacturing workers can inflict particularly high costs to capital if they withhold their labor.”

These acknowledgements are somewhat novel coming from Jacobin. Along with their middle-of-the-road, pro-Democratic Party cohorts in the DSA Bread & Roses caucus, Jacobin has, for the most part, consistently adhered to the position advanced by labor-liberal Jane McAlevey that, during the current period, the education and healthcare industries are the key “strategic” sectors when it comes to building trade union power.3McAlevey is among those that seem to believe that the United States has become “deindustrialized” and turned into a “service-based” economy — a point she hammers home in her first book, Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement (Verso, 2012). McAlevey’s most clear statement on the centrality of education and healthcare workers within the contemporary labor movement comes in a 2016 article published in Jacobin: “Simply put, workers in some sectors are better placed to build working-class power than others. As power is what’s urgently needed, we need to be focused on organizing those strategically key sectors today. The brilliant organizers of the CIO understood that within the industrial economy of the mid-twentieth century, steel, coal, and other key industries mattered more than other industries. Within the service economy today, education and health care are the strategic sectors. For at least the next couple of decades, there can be no exit threat: Schools and colleges, nursing homes and hospitals, clinics, and many other components of the always-changing education and health care delivery system can’t be moved offshore, automated, or relocated from a city to its suburbs or from the North or Midwest to the Sunbelt.

The “Deindustrialization” Myth

Despite this, it’s clear that the spurious “deindustrialization” thesis still persists within much of the Left. Just to cite one particularly irritating case, the usually thoughtful online publication Cosmonaut published a piece that makes the dubious assertion that “Production is largely gone from the West.” Another article from Cosmonaut, this one by J.R. Murray, argues that “In the United States workers are no longer concentrated in factories where they can easily rub shoulders with Marxist organizers.” In response to this, I would simply point out that I am both a “Marxist organizer” and a factory worker. And contrary to this claim, I “rub shoulders” and work alongside large numbers of fellow factory workers — all day, every damn day.

On a related level, portions of the Left have also come to adhere, tacitly or explicitly, to the largely false notion that “automation” poses a wholesale threat to the very future of the industrial proletariat — and, in addition, that “automation” is the force behind the major job losses in U.S. manufacturing that took place between 2000 and 2009. 4This is a subject that I plan to take up in a future article. For now, I’ll simply say that my thinking on this subject is influenced by the recent writings of labor economist Susan N. Houseman. Furthermore, with relatively few exceptions, much of the socialist Left tends to completely disregard the struggles and issues of industrial workers. This is evident, for one thing, in the failure of the socialist Left to provide any substantive coverage of a number of important industrial strikes that have taken place in the last year.

So what’s the basis for the persistence of the “deindustrialization” myth within the Left? 

While the myth is no doubt connected to the overall drop in the size of the industrial working class since the late ‘70s, more pertinently, the prominence of the “deindustrialization” thesis has much to do with a widespread trend of restructuring in U.S. manufacturing that has taken place in more recent years. Specifically, the myth is rooted in the shift of many manufacturing jobs from urban to more peripheral locations, as well as the ongoing, persistent decline of manufacturing in certain geographical areas, particularly in New England and the Mideast. Perhaps most critically, the myth is rooted in the ongoing decline of manufacturing in a number of major urban areas that are key bastions of the socialist movement, in particular, New York City. Crucially, these trends of decline have persisted even while the United States has, as already noted, experienced significant overall manufacturing job growth in the period since 2010. This growth, however, has been heavily concentrated in the Midwest and the South — and, likewise, in right-to-work states. In sum, the U.S. manufacturing industry has undergone a significant, ongoing geographical shift in recent years. Connected to this, wages in manufacturing have been driven downwards and the sector has seen a major drop in union density.

On a broader level, this trend is part of a broader pattern of development under neoliberalism, where the capitalist class has become increasingly diligent in using the selection of new sites for production facilities as a way to minimize labor costs (and other costs as well) and thus maximize profit. This increased diligence has been made possible by advances in communication and transportation technology. Such considerations are, of course, the central force behind the much-discussed phenomenon of outsourcing and offshoring. But by no means is this trend confined to instances where manufacturing firms relocate production overseas or across the border. The trend also takes the form of internal capital flight and restructuring within the United States (and, likewise, within other nations as well). It also manifests itself in terms of foreign direct investment into the United States (as well is into other countries).5For more on the nature of foreign direct investment into the United States during the current period and how investment patterns have followed neoliberal practices of seeking out sources of hyper-exploitable, non-union labor, see The Double Standard at Work: European Corporate Investment and Workers’ Rights in the American South (AFL-CIO report, October 2019).

As these trends have intensified, much of the Left (not to mention organized labor) continues to be hubbed in cities and geographical areas that have, in recent decades, experienced the sharpest declines in manufacturing employment. Conversely, the areas that have witnessed the strongest manufacturing growth have tended to be far removed, both in proximity and influence, from those areas with historically strong labor and left-wing political movements. For its part, the organized Left in particular tends to be based overwhelmingly in major metropolitan areas and, in some cases, university towns — exactly the types of locations that the bosses consciously try to avoid when seeking out new sites of hyper-exploitation.

This has had a distorting effect on how the Left collectively perceives the nature of the U.S. economy and the industrial proletariat. Since a large portion of Lefties tend to live in increasingly gentrified postmodern metropolises like New York City then the notion that the U.S. is “deindustrialized” inevitably tends to accord with their immediate surroundings and personal experience. And since so much of left-wing media (not to mention mainstream media and culture) is based in these regions as well, then such assumptions have tended to become increasingly hegemonic in recent years.

But while the notion that the United States is becoming “deindustrialized” might seem plausible to a Marxist in (say) Brooklyn — such an outlook is unlikely to accord with the experience of many people that live and work in industrial areas in the South, the Midwest, and elsewhere.

Manufacturing Job Growth, 2010-2018

These trends in industrial development are evident in a statistical analysis of manufacturing job growth for the period between 2010 and 2018 that I conducted using BLS data.

My analysis reveals the following:

Hubbed in New York City

Despite these trends, the Left remains hubbed in areas of the country that are of declining importance for capitalist production. In particular, a large portion of the organized Left is based in New York City, which has experienced ongoing industrial decline, coupled with a trend of gentrification in recent years. This includes Jacobin and the Democratic Socialist America, which has its national headquarters in New York City. It also includes Left Voice, as well as others on the revolutionary Left.

In making this point, my intention is not to write off places like New York City as organizing targets and places of potential advancements in the class struggle. There needs to be a strong revolutionary Left in these areas that’s dedicated to winning people to socialism, fighting the bosses, educating the masses, and building working-class power. Clearly, New York City also has an importance for the Left stemming from its position as a cultural, intellectual, and media center. Moreover, workers in New York City’s service and public sectors also have objective power — and strikes by workers in certain segments of these sectors, for instance in education and public transportation, do have the potential to become key focal points of class struggle. Additionally, it’s also worth noting that the greater New York City metropolitan area — in particular in northern New Jersey and elsewhere — is a key hub for the logistics industry. Logistics workers are, of course, part of the industrial proletariat, and they tend to have a tremendous amount of objective economic power owing to their ability to choke off the transportation of commodities that’s essential to the functioning of the capitalist accumulation process.10See Kim Moody, On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017). Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Immanuel Ness, eds., Choke Points: Logistics Workers Disrupting the Global Supply Chain (Pluto Press, 2018).

However, based on trends of economic development, I would argue that those areas in the country that are likely to experience some of the most acute and impactful class struggles — and where workers’ possess some of the highest degrees of objective economic power — tend to be located away from traditional bastions of the Left. (Indeed, even in the New York City metropolitan area itself, the Left tends to be located far away from the most strategic concentrations of industrial workers in the logistics sector.)

This dynamic — the geographical separation of the Left from the industrial proletariat — is a byproduct of the unceasing attempts by the capitalist class to restructure industry in order to more effectively exploit and oppress the working class. Ultimately, this is a dilemma that will have to be overcome through the course of the class struggle.

This article is based upon two previously articles written by the same author — “Building power at the point of production: An update” (2019) and “In Search of Workers’ Power” (2015).


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