Are industrial workers becoming irrelevant?
(Reply to a Reader column)
BY MAURICE WILLIAMS
Is it true that the working class in Europe and the United States is getting smaller, as bourgeois economists and professors often claim? What's the difference between "productive" and "unproductive" workers? asks Ernesto Oleinik from Stockholm in a letter to the editor that appeared in the October 26 Militant. "Are only those workers that produce surplus value 'productive'?"
The questions are welcome.
The working class is made up of those of us who are basically propertyless and who sell our labor power to a boss in exchange for wages—an income that on average equals our means of subsistence. In the United States, Sweden, and other imperialist countries the working class is the overwhelming majority of the population—from meat packers to farm laborers to casino workers (like the 10,000 who are on strike today in Atlantic City, New Jersey).
In contrast, the capitalist class is the tiny handful of billionaire families who own the factories, mines, most of the land, and other means of production. The middle classes are made up mostly of professionals and small and medium businesspeople. Working farmers are small property owners, but are exploited producers and an ally of workers.
Despite the self-serving "theories" of bourgeois "experts," it's not true that the working class is dwindling. To the contrary, as Jack Barnes, the national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, explains in The Changing Face of U.S. Politics, since World War II there has been "a massive increase in the size of the American working class, both in absolute terms and in relation to other classes." Our ranks continue to be swelled by the workings of capitalism and imperialism, which drive farmers off the land—especially in semicolonial countries—and into the cities. This process has fueled immigration into all the imperialist countries.
"Productive" is not a scientific term. Most workers, not just factory workers, have socially useful jobs. The one truly unproductive class is the bourgeoisie.
Industrial workers include factory workers, miners, transportation workers, and others involved in industrial production. Through our labor, we add value to raw materials and unfinished goods. The capitalist pays us a portion of that value in wages. The rest of the wealth that we produce is surplus value—which the boss pockets as profit, as Karl Marx, one of the founders of scientific socialism, explains in Wage Labor and Capital. Workers not directly involved in production receive wages, paid by the capitalist from the pool of surplus value produced by our class.
Industrial workers have always been a minority of the working class. In the imperialist countries, the number of service and clerical workers has sharply increased since World War II, and the relative size of the industrial working class has declined. At the end of the 1960s almost 29 percent of U.S. workers had factory jobs; today, 18 percent.
Since 1969, the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States has fallen by 2 million—in large part because of speedup and automation. But the overall number of workers in the labor force has increased by 46 million. According to a September report of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. labor force is 147.5 million—one of the largest working classes in the world.
The labor power in industries producing raw materials and manufacturing semifinished products or goods ready for the market—as well as in transportation, construction, and agriculture—is the main source of surplus value. Without these industries the entire economy stops, Barnes notes. In fact, the labor power of industrial workers and the surplus value we create is the source of the international power of the U.S. economy, the source of the American capitalists' exports of goods and capital.
This is why "the industrial workers who are a minority of the American working class, have such fundamental strength, such potential power" well beyond their relative numerical size, Barnes explains. "This also demonstrates the fakery of numerous academic theories about the 'post-industrial society' and the 'service-based economy.'" These "theories" that industrial workers and even the working class are disappearing—and thus becoming irrelevant—are simply rationalizations for accepting the capitalist status quo. And for refusing to join workers on the production line who are resisting the bosses' offensive and are offering hope for humanity in doing so.
Because industrial workers are the source of most of the rulers' surplus value, they are "the ultimate enemy that the rulers must defeat if the entire economic and social crisis of their system is to be turned around," Barnes points out. Today, one aspect of the bosses' assault is their use of bankruptcies to undermine the unions and squeeze more out of the hides of workers at coal mines, the largest U.S. airlines, and other industries.
Nonetheless, the social character of the industrial workplace, the large concentration of workers, and the extremely high division of labor are factors that give workers in industry an awareness of their collective power. Union-organizing battles like the one by the Co-Op miners in Utah, the farm workers' fight for a union contract in North Carolina, and others are examples of the resistance bubbling throughout the country. To reverse their declining profit rates, the rulers will have to take on and defeat the industrial workers. The decisive battles, however, lie ahead.