Remaking the Working Class and its Power

Ian Allinson summarises the key ideas in this useful book about workers’ power.

Forces of Labor, Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870 by Beverly J Silver (Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Forces of Labor was greeted with positive reviews upon its release over a decade ago, but there has been little discussion of this brilliant book since, meaning many people will not have read it.

 

Silver’s book helps us think about what sort of power different groups of workers have and how vulnerable they are to different countermeasures from the bosses. Understanding this helps us work out what types of struggles might succeed in different workplaces and industries.

Silver offers a good understanding of the development of the global working class and its struggles over more than a century, which is a useful counter to fashionable overreactions to local, partial or temporary developments. It predicts possible future types and arenas of struggle.

Working class formation

Marx talked about capitalism creating its own gravedigger in the shape of the working class. Silver describes how this isn’t a one-off act, but a continual process of recreation of the working class. But there are periods when major changes take place in capitalist production, and consequentially in the working class. Such periods can first provoke defensive fights from established sections of the working class, threatened by the changes and the breaking down of old social relations and expectations. Think of craft workers threatened by production line techniques, or our reaction to the market forcing its way deeper and wider into our lives. For the newly forming sections of the working class, it can take time (and struggles) for them to establish a view of themselves, their relations to others, an understanding of their power and how to use it effectively.

The response of established sections of the working class can be progressive, such as when craft workers linked with semi-skilled mass production workers. But they can also be reactionary. Silver discusses the way that states, bosses and groups of workers use “boundary drawing” to protect their interests in different ways.

Established groups of workers may try to use divisions established by capital (such as nation, gender, race or skill) to try to make claims for special protection (for example “British Jobs For British Workers” or arguments around housing allocation). Bosses try to use such boundaries to their advantage by preventing key groups of workers being involved in and strengthening wider movements. Employers want to keep groups with strong grievances separate from particularly powerful groups of workers.

Silver discusses how the craft unions failed to prevent mechanisation, deskilling and wage decline. The rise of unskilled workers was accompanied with mass unemployment. To respond effectively, workers needed industry-wide unionisation. She argues that when there are big changes in production, the first significant victories often come at the site of innovation (i.e. in the more advanced economies), at the end of the innovation phase of the product cycle. A second wave of struggle often occurs in opposition to rationalisation at the end of the mature phase of the product cycle.

Late 19th century and early 20th century strikes often started over attacks on craft rights, but then spread to whole factories, which in turn spread action to other workplaces using marches and open meetings. This was aided by the fact that unskilled workers were often concentrated in certain neighbourhoods, had very similar working conditions and a sense of their common problems.

Throughout the book Silver uses two categories to describe struggles. What she calls “Marx-type” struggles are essentially over the rate of exploitation. “Polanyi-type” struggles are in defence of social norms against the extension and intensification of the commoditisation into life. While the labels themselves are dubious, the concepts do help her to discuss the dynamics of struggles by established and newer sections of the class in an insightful way.

Where does workers’ power come from?

Silver builds on Erik Olin Wright’s ideas about sources of power.

“Associational” power comes from workers organising to act collectively. This doesn’t just mean unions. It includes political parties, campaigns, community organisations, etc.

“Structural” power comes from the position of a group of workers within the economic system. Silver divides this into two subcategories.

“Marketplace” power comes from tight labour markets, scarce skills, full employment, or the availability of other sources of income. Few employers would want to pick a fight with workers who possess skills which are short supply, with low unemployment, with a good welfare state to fall back on if wages dry up, and with family they could live with if times were hard.

“Workplace” power is perhaps harder to grasp. It is about the strategic location of a group of workers. This might be within a particular corporation, key industrial sector, or within the overall social division of labour.

The usefulness of these concepts becomes clear as Silver applies them to specific industries. She looks in particular detail at textiles (the leading industry of the 19th century) and automobiles (the leading industry of the 20th century). Silver highlights the great workplace power that auto workers had compared to textile workers.

The amount of capital required to enter the textile manufacturing market was far lower than for autos. As a result, the textile industry had far more competing companies. Action in one company had far less impact on the industry as a whole. Lower investment in each workplace also made textile production much easier to relocate. On the other hand, smaller firms often had less resources to withstand a dispute, so could be under more pressure to settle.

Textile production had a number of distinct stages, often carried out in different workplaces or companies. Within each stage, workers worked in parallel – on large numbers of similar machines carrying out the same tasks. In contrast, the automotive industry was characterised by production line “flow”, with each worker carrying out tasks which depended on the completion of the previous stages. Action by relatively small groups of workers could bring the entire auto production line (or even the corporation) to a standstill, stopping the work of thousands of other workers.

This “Fordism” meant deskilling and low marketplace power for auto workers, but increased workplace power. Silver gives the example of the 1936-7 UAW strikes at General Motors. An occupation led to a wave of strikes despite this being a time of high unemployment and weak unionisation. Workers relied on strong workplace bargaining power. A key group of activists got action in a key area which stopped every worker. These workers then joined the strike.

The result of these differences in power between textiles and the automotive industry was quite different patterns of struggle. All round the world the auto industry has been marked by stoppages by small groups, often with sit-downs or occupations, drawing in larger numbers and often winning. In contrast, the early attempts of textile workers to organise were often defeated. Only when they developed strong enough associational power to deliver region and industry wide strikes could they overcome their relative lack of workplace power.

Silver goes on to apply this model to a number of modern-day industries like transport (including aviation), education, semiconductors, “reproductive services” like fast food, and “producer services” (services to capital, not the public). I’m not 100% convinced by her understanding of the production process in all cases, which forms the foundation for her assessment of the power particular workers have. But the method is very enlightening. I challenge any activist to read this book and not think about what types of power their workplace has, or what that might mean for methods and prospects of struggle.

The Fixes

Silver sees a tension between crises of profitability on the one hand, and crises of legitimacy on the other. Every measure to raise profitability undermines acceptance of the economic system. Every effort to build support for the system undermines profitability.

A large part of the book deals with the different “fixes” that capitalists use in response to workers’ resistance and pressure on profits.

Her discussion of “spatial fixes” (moving work to lower wage locations with weak unions) is very useful. Her explanation of how companies pursued this fix provides useful ammunition against those who try to deny this reality. But she also shows the limitations of the fix. Time and again, companies relocate production to exploit unorganised workers in low-wage economies. In doing so, the companies also relocate power to those workers. Time and again, the workers organise and push up their wages. Silver strongly rejects the popular “race to the bottom” thesis. She also highlights other reasons why capitalists do not always pursue spatial fixes.

Silver sees spatial fixes as relocating power as well as production. But this does not simply mean that low-wage economies merely follow in the footsteps of the advanced economies. Trotsky would have recognised this as “uneven and combined development”i. New products and services tend to arise in the more advanced economies. In the early stages profits may be high, before investment and competitors pile into a new market. By the time production is relocated to lower wage economies, pressure on profits is increasing. Silver calls this the “product cycle”. Though workers in low-wage locations may inherit the workplace power with the work, they often face employers with less capacity to grant concessions without threatening their profitsii. Silver argues that this is the explanation for the constant “crises of legitimacy” in poorer countries and a heavy reliance on repression.

Particular fixes are more or less applicable to each industry or part of the production process. For example, it’s not possible to relocate transport or education to another city, let alone round the world. Workplaces in these industries are only subject to competitive pressure from others in the same area, unlike in manufacturing for example. Bosses have tried to intensify competition within each area to put more pressure on workers. They have also sometimes sought to bring migrant workers from other areas in the country or abroad to reduce marketplace power. This is easier to achieve in transport than in education where language and culture play a big role in production. Industries with little geographical competition and high migration could provide the strongest material basis for internationalism.

Silver discusses a range of other fixes. “Technological fixes” where bosses invest in changes to the production process to reduce the numbers or marketplace power of workers with strong workplace power. “Product fix” where companies try to move into newer products with less competition and higher profit rates. Both these factors can be used by employers as an alternative to spatial fixes – Silver is very strong in asserting that the fixes are choices made by employers, not inevitabilities.

The recent wave of “financialisation” is not the first. Silver draws a comparison with the late 19th century and calls what took place a “financial fix”. Capital was moved out of production and into financial speculation and investment bubbles. The effect was both to decrease competition in production by reducing productive investment, and to increase competition faced by workers. By the 1890s prices were rising faster than wages, there was persistent unemployment and a polarisation between rich and poor. Silver argues that the post-war boom saw extensive use of spatial, technological and product fixes. The move to adopt the financial fix meant a reversion to structural unemployment and rising inequality. She argues that both periods of financialisation began with anti-labour offensives and a decline in labour unrest.

Silver is very effective at showing how each “fix” the bosses try can relieve pressure on them and weaken workers for a time in a particular place, but builds up other problems.

Lean and mean, two-tier workforces

Japanese companies tried “lean” as a fix. They created a two-tier workforce, making concessions to the “core” in exchange for their cooperation in using technological fixes, while maintaining a large buffer of insecure workers. The relations between the two groups are contradictory. There is the potential for the core to support the insecure workers, or for them to see action as a threat and act to help discipline them.

Silver describes how companies tried to extend the model to other countries, but in conditions of downsizing where they were unwilling to make concessions to the core workforce, creating a model she calls “lean and mean” rather than “lean and dual”. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t get the same buy-in from the core workforce.

She also discusses how two-tier workforces can interact with non-class boundaries such as race or nation, helping or hindering workers attempts to mobilise.

 

 

Cities

In her discussion of “producer services”, Silver raises some interesting points about cities.

Some workplaces, particularly offices, appear on the surface to be “hypermobile”. They have little physical input or output and no large or expensive specialist equipment. On the face of it, they could operate just as well on the moon. But Silver describes the tendency for such workplaces to concentrate in key cities. In reality they are dependent on a very large capital infrastructure to operate. Mobility of capital requires large fixed investment in transport and communications. These workplaces are reliant on large numbers of “blue and pink collar” workers, not just the more visible highly skilled ones. Such workers typically lack strong workplace power and have very little marketplace power. Where they have organised successfully (she cites the example of Justice For Janitors in the USA) they have relied on associational power, building coalitions at a community or city level.

Some of the locations for office work (e.g. data processing, call centres) are in low-wage economies. Silver highlights how vulnerable this makes them to disruptions to the telecommunications infrastructure, and asks how workers will learn to translate this into workplace bargaining power.

Personal or reproductive service workers are in a similar position but with less workplace power. Cleaners or security guards for a large firm can bring pressure to bear on that firm. Fast food chains have many outlets, and there are a number of alternative chains, so action in one store would have little impact on the food supply in an area or on the chain as a whole. Strong associational power at city level, possibly across multiple chains and in the community, might be needed to achieve significant successes. Silver argues that historically waves of struggle amongst hotel and restaurant workers have been associated with wider waves of unrest in their cities.

Political

There are interesting sections of the book discussing the impact of political factors on workers’ struggles.

In the first half of the 20th century, states were heavily dependent on workers for their ability to conduct warfare. Workers used this to extract concessions. This made me think about how states are currently using technological fixes (e.g. drones) to reduce the exposure of large numbers of workers to warfare alongside the propaganda efforts to build support for militarism.

The cold war created pressure for both protagonists to create a more attractive form of society for workers, affecting state attitudes to labour movements.

In many lower wage economies, the period of decolonisation strengthened associational power by linking workers’ movements to anti-colonial movements and helping mobilise. The level of hegemony or subordination of workers in those movements varied. Class divisions came centre stage after decolonisation, so workers’ movements had to establish new alliances and forms of associational power.

Silver sees the socialisation of the state (welfare state, public services etc.) as making workers feel their interests were tied to their state, breaking up internationalism. She thinks that the current de-socialisation of states through privatisation and cuts in services can open this up. However, she argues that it doesn’t necessarily mean a turn away from non-class boundary drawing by bosses or workers. It is still compatible with calls for import and immigration restrictions, for example.

The current period

Silver sees the last few decades as both another wave of globalisation and a “counter revolution” in terms of government policies. She identifies the role of a “world scale reserve army of labour” and attacks on welfare to reduce workers’ marketplace power. She sees reduced state sovereignty in relation to financial markets as undermining the associational power that traditionally exerted influence over states. But she also points out the limits of this – if governments can control movement of capital for anti-terrorism purposes, is it really impossible to do so for economic or social ones?

Rather than believing these objective changes in conditions make winning impossible, Silver argues that the main impact has been to puncture belief in workers’ power, and that the working class is going through another period of formation.

A number of industries with strong workplace power are now centred outside Europe and North America. We can expect to continue to see workers in the new centres discovering and making use of their power. She highlights China as a likely centre of workers’ struggle.

The industries seeing employment growth in countries like the UK have a mix of strong and weak workplace power, whereas in the 20th century industries with strong workplace power were dominant. It is therefore likely that workers will need stronger associational power, just as the textile workers of the 19th century did. This doesn’t just mean workplace organisation, but also involves links to other workplaces industrially and geographically, political and community organisation etc. Will those with strong workplace power use it narrowly, or to benefit the whole class?

Silver refers to EP Thompson’s argument that class consciousness emerges out of struggle, as the protagonists “discover themselves as classes”, but she asks whether changes in ideas need to take place before collective action can emerge.

The overall conclusion of the book is that the crisis of the labour movement in the late 20th century will be overcome by the consolidation of new sections of the working class “in formation”, and that this is taking place in the context of a crisis of social legitimacy for global capitalism.

 

ii I felt Silver’s discussion of the relationship between workers in high and low wage economies was weakened by an implicit acceptance of a kind of “labour aristocracy” theory (see https://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1957/06/rootsref.htm). Capitalists would not employ workers in high-wage countries if they were not extracting surplus value from us (i.e. we are paid less than the value we produce for them). I don’t think it makes sense to talk as if British or US workers benefit from the exploitation of workers in poorer countries.

 

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