The Rise of the U.S. Working Class

E_P_Thompson_at_1980_protest_rally

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

By Jack Werner

When manufacturing jobs began disappearing from the American economy in the 1970s, the disheartening sense of loss for workers was felt; it was visceral. Workers who lived in Youngston, Ohio for example, known colloquially as Steeltown, responded to major plant closings in September 1977 with incredulity, “What is Youngstown now? If we’re not a steel town, what are we?” The massive exodus out of Youngston may provide an answer to that ominous question: from 1970 to 2007, the population declined by nearly half, from 140,000 to 74,000 people. The city became a specter of its former prosperity and a kind of coda for the last vestiges of the American labor movement. Labor lost; capital won (or so left-liberals have been telling themselves for the last forty-five years).

This historical movement of internationalization was so decisive that economists and social theorists coined a new name for it: “late capitalism” in Ernest Mandel and Fredric Jameson’s words. By “late capitalism,” Mandel denoted the shifting production lines of the world economy, how the United States started to no longer produce conventionally durable goods (apparel, shoes, plastic toys, steel, small appliances, and auto parts) and transferred these labor inputs away from the so-called First World to the Global South. For Mandel, this was the apex of the capitalist mode of production—the unrelenting search for the highest rate of return epitomized by Third World sweat shops—for Jameson, rapid internationalization bequeathed postmodernism—it was the necessary cultural logic for dealing with commodities that could no longer be assigned simple places of origin (if the local butcher could once show you the cow that your meat came from, the new industrial economy destroyed that relationship; if you could once see the factory where your GM car was made, late capitalism had obfuscated those origins). The only response in such a situation, according to Jameson, is to develop art, advertising, movies, and architecture that stress and accentuate this process. We stop believing in truth as simple and quantifiable (is that McDonald’s Big Mac real, or something else entirely?) and start parodying the anxiety produced by commodity enjoyment that no longer has understandable roots. In both cases, Mandel and Jameson realized that the service economy was the only part of the labor market that still retained backbone against the tide of late capitalism. Teachers, electricians, welders, mechanics, and yes, fast food workers—people who had to be on site for jobs—these professions stood the best chance of fighting the downward cycle of wages. So we live in the era of late capitalism, where every job risks being automated and every skill outsourced to a cheaper market overseas. Labor has begrudgingly responded by adopting new conceptions of time—the idea of free weekends and designated times of leisure are slowly eroding. Over the past forty years, labor has accepted higher working hours to maintain high standards of living. Late capitalism became American life.

Fast-forward to the aftermath of the Great Recession. Can we say that labor is now rising? Is the sight of the American worker in the painful drudgery of low-income jobs becoming recognized and felt? And are fast food workers finding class-consciousness, or was E.P. Thompson correct when he asserted in The Making of the English Working Class that consciousness itself is a precondition for class to exist? The simple answer goes something like: maybe, yes, and yes/no.

Here’s the more complicated answer: one group, fast food workers, are indeed gaining momentum with the movement, Fight For 15 (FF15). But I would hesitate to write their movement because whether this is a bottom-up or top-down project is not clear. Arun Gupta of In These Times summarized the situation: if you ask SEIU (Service Employees International Union), the ones footing the bill for strikes and organizing, the movement is organic; if you ask organizers, the movement was funded, directed, and controlled as early as 2011 by SEIU. The “spontaneous” uprisings of fast food workers in November 2012 were not spontaneous at all then, as SEIU maintains. Erik Forman captures this sentiment in Industrial Worker, the official newspaper for the IWW, “[According] to inside sources, the $15 per hour demand itself was thought up not originally by workers, but by consultants at the Berlin Rosen PR firm working with the SEIU brass.” What irks Fromm and Gupta, two lefties of respectable alternative news sources, is that these initiatives reek of union bureaucracy—top-heavy direction that ignores and sidesteps actual workers in favor of corporate power. Workers become pawns, secondary to what Fromm calls the “campaign’s media narrative,” in a larger scheme of neo-business unionism. Yet both of these accounts overlook and understate the value of changing the narrative that FF15 and SEIU have started with fast food. The Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign, Obama’s Laborfest Milwaukee speech in 2014 where he announced, “[If] I were busting my butt in the service industry and wanted an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, I’d join a union,” and finally the McDonald’s concession to raise wages to $9.90 an hour by July 1 for 90,000 workers in corporate-owned and operated stores; all of these moments are all symptoms of larger changes in the national public discourse surrounding the Occupy-initiated discussion of income inequality. They are symbols that the Left is reinventing itself.

Still, there is reason to doubt the possibility of success: how many people reading this knew about, participated in, or were even inconvenienced by the largest fast food protest to date on April 15, 2015, just a month ago? According to Democracy Now!, “60,000 workers [were] walking off the job in more than 200 cities.” How many people were bothered as they ordered their McDonald’s meal at the drive-in? If vast majorities of people not only ignore the movement, but more importantly, become simply unmoved by its prospects of success, is labor then rising? I’ll go with a definite maybe. Is the spectacle of the fast food worker changing presidential rhetoric and potential candidates? Yes.

Let’s go back to the question of class: Are fast food workers discovering class-consciousness and thereby class itself, or has it always existed in the tempo of capitalism? For New Left historian E.P. Thompson in the 1960s, the former was true. At the time of Making in 1963, Thompson was challenging classical Marxists for whom class was a relationship to the means of production, something structural or categorical that capitalism naturally produced in its creative and destructive processes. He argued against this formulation of class as a “thing” outside of historical experience and stated rather plainly that class was a relational phenomenon that could only be understood in time. Class relations could not be distilled to one select moment. Was Thompson right? Were the full-time fast food workers of America in the 1970s and 1980s a class all along, or have the latest reverberating demands for unionization sparked class formation? On the one hand, and in contradiction to Thompson, I would venture to say class exists outside of consciousness. On the other hand, and here’s where Thompson is useful, class has no political utility until workers come to articulate their identities based on that shared experience.

Most people with even a vague familiarity of labor history tend to forget that there was a labor movement before the Civil War, circa 1860, when 20,000 shoemakers in Lyn, Massachusetts went on strike for higher wages. Maybe history textbooks undersold this political moment, or perhaps the Civil War simply overshadowed these prewar movements in scope and importance. But I tend to think something else was going on: the lower classes didn’t have even the tepid approval and sympathy from what might have been called the middle class (or the lower substratum of the upper class). They did not represent a large enough share of the population, even though they did not have anything tangible to lose by striking. Today the working class can’t win this battle without awakening the political aspirations of the so-called middle class. FF15 needs to connect their struggle to the fortunes of the middle class. The only way forward is to upset the everyday flow of commerce. Make it more profitable to raise the wage to $15 an hour and allow unionization than for companies like McDonald’s to continue on their current trajectory. Only then will McDonald’s and other fast food conglomerates actually care—when the dollar is threatened. The other side of the equation is for consumers: boycott McDonald’s and actively inform corporate headquarters that they will lose profit until they acquiesce to basic union demands. The bad PR for McDonald’s has already forced their hand to make some concessions to FF15. Imagine if consumers actively organize—McDonald’s would have to at the very least initiate a counter-PR campaign.

So does the FF15 stand a chance against McDonald’s in a historical moment of late capitalism? I’ll let you know if I see you at the next FF15 protest.

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