Labor Movement?

The 2010 Statistical Abstract of the United States (and especially Tables 574 to 650), published by the US Census Bureau, provides many statistics that can update understanding of today’s working class and possibilities of its movement.  The Abstract counts 154 million people as members of the US labor force in 2008.  Of these, 129 million were wage and salary earners (the rest were self-employed), and roughly 15-20 million held managerial or supervisory positions.

The total working class rose dramatically from 83 million in 1970 to 154 million last year.  Women and immigrants were significant parts of this growth alongside a surge of younger people.  This massive entrance of new workers into US capitalism might have infused new energy, new militancy, and new victories for US workers.  Yet that potential has not yet been realized in the US labor movement.

We know (as MRZine has repeatedly documented) that real wages stagnated in the US since the 1970s.  Over the same period, workers’ productivity — the quantities of goods and services they produced for their employers to sell — rose consistently.  TheAbstract shows, for example, that real hourly output per worker rose 45 per cent since 1990, while total compensation per worker (wages and salaries plus all benefits) rose 25 per cent.  The difference between the two numbers — between what employers get from their workers and what they pay for their workers — accrues as rising business net revenues.  Out of those revenues, employers pay dividends to shareholders, salaries and bonuses to top managers, and funds to grow the businesses.  The last several decades of flat wages and rising productivity explain the growing distance separating the rich from the middle and the poor.

Workers, in short, failed to achieve rising incomes that matched their rising productivity.  They were, in short, increasingly exploited.  Their rising productivity fueled instead the exploding gains for top managers and shareholders.  Borrowing unprecedented sums only postponed facing up to what was happening while adding the burdens of rising debt to those of rising exploitation.  The current crisis represents the end of this line of “economic development” in the US.  It forces a time of reckoning for each overworked and overindebted family, but also for the labor movement.

Shrinking labor militancy and falling unionization of labor were both causes and effects of labor’s inability to stop, let alone reverse, the rising rates of exploitation and debt.  Consider the Abstract’s data on workplace stoppages — moments when workers militantly stop working, refusing to produce the commodities their employers sell and profit from.  The decline of US labor militancy is stunning:

Workplace Stoppages, 1960-2008
  1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2008
Number of stoppages 222 381 187 44 39 15
Workers involved (000) 896 2,468 795 185 394 72

Even in the crisis year of 2008, when millions of workers lost jobs and/or homes, workplace protests became still rarer; they involved a mere 72,000 workers.

The shrinking and changing composition of labor organization is also nicely documented in the Abstract:

Labor Union Membership, 1985-2008 (in millions)
  1985 1995 2008
Total wage and salaried workers 17.0 16.4 16.1
Public sector workers 5.7 6.4 7.8
Private sector workers 11.3 9.4 8.3

As the total number of US workers rose rapidly, the number of unionized workers fell, especially in the private sector (in both manufacturing and services).  Nonetheless, it remains extremely significant that 16 million citizens are members of labor unions.  They thereby constitute a social force of great importance and greater potential.

Among the many reasons for these statistics, one contributing factor to the labor movement’s decline has been unions’ inability to produce and persuasively project a vision and strategy adequate to gain support from old and new workers.  Over many years, anti-labor strategies have been perfected by US businesses — including the careful cultivation of anti-labor biases among most politicians and academics.  Those strategies focused effectively on labor’s traditional practices of organizing, collective bargaining, strikes, and worker mobilizations.  So, it will probably be necessary, in addition to those traditional practices, to forge a new vision and some new strategies and practices for the labor movement.

The current crisis provides an auspicious moment to do just that.  A new vision, strategy, and practice might begin with a campaign inside and/or outside unions to reorganize workplaces as worker cooperatives.  Their purpose would be to stop boards of directors and major shareholders from abusing and/or sabotaging government measures to end the current crisis.  The campaign would cite, for example, (1) using government bailout funds to pay top executives huge salaries or bonuses, (2) refusing to make loans needed to restart the economy, (3) moving enterprise jobs overseas, (4) lowering wages, etc.  Such abuses undercut government programs to rebuild average peoples’ buying power, cut unemployment and foreclosures, etc.  Boards of directors and major shareholders have largely disregarded government appeals to change their behaviors.

To change how business acts now requires the same democratic solution found in the past to change government activity.  The abuses of kings and emperors and Czars were not ended by appeals for them to behave differently.  Their positions had to be abolished and their powers transferred to different people in different positions that were to be democratically elected and responsible to their electors.

True, we have been disappointed with how incomplete political democracy has proved to be.  Yet that only reinforces the demand to democratize workplaces.  If the workers democratically decided business activities alongside democratically run politics, we might move forward to real democracy.  The undemocratically chosen boards of directors and major shareholders have used profits to thwart genuine political democracy in the interest of more profits.  Not surprisingly, they have cultivated and promoted ideologies claiming that the pursuit of profit is the surest road (the “invisible hand” leading us) to the best for everyone.

The current crisis exposes those claims.  It creates an exceptional opportunity for a labor movement strengthened with a new vision and strategy: to reorganize this society’s production system.  Such a movement could revive its strength by once again leading the way for democratic social change.  In our society, organized labor remains in the best position to do it.

Richard D. Wolff is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and also a Visiting Professor at the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University in New York.   He is the author of New Departures in Marxian Theory (Routledge, 2006) among many other publications.  Check out Richard D. Wolff’s documentary film on the current economic crisis, Capitalism Hits the Fan, at  Visit Wolff’s Web site at, and order a copy of his new book Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do about It.

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