The American Working Class Today
This is a companion piece to “Can the Working Class Change Society? Socialists Say Yes.”
While the composition of the working class has changed, it still remains the key force in U.S. society as a proportion of the overall population. The left-wing writer Kim Moody in his recently published book On New Terrain points out that transportation and warehouse workers are essential to the modern productive process. The total number of workers employed in “production, transportation, and material moving” in the U.S. at the last census was 19 million. Meanwhile, 13 million workers were employed in “extraction, construction, and maintenance.” These represented 19% of the workforce. 18% were in services and 24% in sales. This totaled 63% of the workforce. The remainder are 1% “capitalist class,” and 36% “managerial” or “professional.”
However, sections of workers in the “professional” category such as engineers, teachers, etc. are in the process of “proletarianizing” due to the increased regimentation and standardization of their work. In fact, many of these workers have been on picket line in recent years. These adds up to 8% of the workforce. When added to the 63% above you get a broader number of 71% of the workforce being classified as working class (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012).
The continuing strength of the working class is not just numerical. While capitalism has been restructured due to globalization along with new technology and lean methods of production which require fewer workers in manufacturing, Moody points to new choke points particularly in logistics. “Just in time” distribution networks used by big companies such as Amazon and Walmart rely on thousands of workers in warehouses, shipping, delivery, and transportation.
Historically, an essential aspect of the ability of the working class to cohere into a powerful force is proximity to each others’ struggles, either geographically or within larger workplaces. Success in organizing workers of different trades in the same factories into one union was crucial to the building of mass industrial unions in the 1930s. By uniting their struggles, steel, auto, and rubber workers were able to shut down U.S. Steel and other huge companies and force them to recognize the union and start to pay decent wages. These unions also united workers from different races and ethnic backgrounds into a united force.
The bosses succeeded in breaking up this concentration of mainly unionized workers in major industrial cities like Detroit after the 1970s by opening up plants in more rural areas. But, Moody describes how auto production is now concentrated more than ever in a belt in the Midwest and upper-South. In order to keep up with capitalist competition abroad, auto parts producers and auto manufacturers have linked up for an ever tighter production and delivery process.
A key development in today’s economy is just-in-time logistics supply systems. Moody writes: “The just-in-time (JIT) standard for the auto industry, and by implication most manufacturing, went from a three-day delivery ‘window’ to a ‘thirty-minute time frame.’” This drive for increased profitability has forced the big companies to streamline their operations to such an extent that they are now even more susceptible to strikes. Massive sprawling distribution centers have been concentrated in “nodes” or “clusters” in and around major cities.
Moody estimates there are over 50 such hubs in the U.S., with Chicago, Los Angeles, the New York/New Jersey port, and Memphis having concentrations of over 100,000 workers each – up to four million workers. The locations are based on their proximity to major urban centers (markets), docks, and airports. These are also areas with a high concentration of low paid-workers looking for employment, who are predominantly black, Latino and Asian.
While the driving force for this concentration has been capitalism’s insatiable lust for profits, the consequence has been to strengthen the cohesion of the working class. They work and live in the same neighborhoods, have similar types of work, and rely on each other’s labor in the productive system. It’s almost as if the factories of 1930s have been recreated in new form.
The potential for these workers to organize and to win real improvements in wages and conditions is huge. However, they will face ferocious resistance from big business. With the use of social media tapping into the anger at the billionaires, organizing drives can spread like wildfire to other workplaces. These struggles will have a huge galvanizing role in rebuilding the labor movement. One only has to look at how teacher struggles have spread to other states after the initial victory in West Virginia.
Moody points out that the biggest demographic change in the U.S. working class has been the massive growth of women and people of color in the workforce. This historic change highlights how the struggle against racism and sexism are not separate from the struggle to build a united working class movement against capitalism, but an integral part of it.
The workplace is more integrated now than ever before. Women are 51% of the total workforce and are employed in a much wider variety of workplaces that previously. Black, Latino, and Asian workers now represent 33% of the workplace. Forced to work in the lowest paid jobs, they will play an important part of the working-class fightback as it develops. Already largely female teachers and nurses are playing a vanguard role in rebuilding the labor movement.
Women make up 46% of union members, while black, Latino, and Asian workers now represent 33% of union members. These are all quite large increases in the last couple decades. This growing diversity of the union movement will greatly increase the ability of the working class and the oppressed to act cohesively and to build solidarity for struggles of the oppressed such as BLM, immigrants rights, LGBTQ, and the emerging women’s movement.
The potential for a new upsurge of labor is the most favorable in generations. Not only have workers’ living standards been driven down for decades, but teachers provided a reminder of the dynamism and fighting spirit of the U.S. labor movement, and demonstrated the power of the strike as means of struggle when backed up by support from the broader working class.