Strong Unions Are the Best Hope inside Capitalism: Interview with Michael D. Yates

The San Jose Mine incident in Chile has brought back old questions about labor and capital.  About those questions, raised by the 33 miners’ struggle to survive, I interviewed Michael D. Yates, Associate Editor of Monthly Review.  Yates was for many years professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, USA.  He is the author of In and Out of the Working Class (2009); (with Fred Magdoff) The ABCs of the Economic Crisis (2009); Cheap Motels and a Hotplate (2007); Naming the System (2004); Why Unions Matter (1998); and Longer Hours, Fewer Jobs (1994).

Farooque Chowdhury: You know miners’ life well.  What’s your reaction to what the world witnessed in the San Jose Mine in Chile?

Michael D. Yates: There is a special solidarity in mining communities, because of the danger of working underground, where at any time you could die.  People live in constant fear of this.  My reaction was to assume that the owners were lax in terms of safety, and this appears to be the case.  Hopefully this episode will fuel more militancy among the miners and their communities.  On a purely human level, I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be trapped like that.  But now the men will be expected to work as always, and the fame they have now will soon enough fade.  They will be affected in many negative ways, psychologically not the least.  However, the media won’t be around to report on that, and the concern the world has now will disappear.

Statistically, mining is one of the deadliest occupations.  Why do people get into mining?

People work in mines because they need work.  Their mobility is not great, and if their communities have always sent men into the mines (I don’t know if women work in the mines there or not), then it is a natural thing for young men to follow suit.  There may even be notions that mining is a way to win your manhood.  Then too unions are usually strong in mining, so the pay, etc. are usually above average.  Working-class life is hard and full of dangers in any event.  It is not as if the average worker has unlimited opportunities.  Quite the contrary.

Looking into the pages of mining history, one finds that a lot of changes have taken place in mining and miners’ life.  On the other hand, a lot of things have remained the same.  What have changed, and what have not changed?

Mining technology has changed considerably, with a good deal of mechanization replacing hand labor.  Much more of this should occur, so as few people as possible have to be miners.  This won’t happen under capitalism, however.  What has remained the same in most of the world is the constant danger, the callousness of the owners, and the collusion between the owners and the government.  Where the unions of miners are strong, conditions are always better, but this is a constant struggle that waxes and wanes over time.

What are the reasons behind it?

Always the profit motive — the goal of accumulating capital is behind nearly everything that matters in working-class life.  You see what happens when capital is in charge in a country like China, where mining disasters are not at all uncommon, all the more so as the nation becomes increasingly capitalist.

Is there no way out from the life in which miners are trapped?

Strong unions are the best hope inside capitalism.  Only the abolition of capitalism can liberate miners and all other workers.

What are the obstacles to improving the working and living conditions of miners?

They are the same as for all workers: the power of capital, the power of the state, divisions of all sorts among the workers.  As miners overcome their divisions and come to see more clearly the root causes of their oppression, they begin to take actions to get out of the trap.

Is improving working and living conditions for miners costlier than the “price” of their lives?  How does such improvement affect productivity and returns?

Of course, a life is always worth more than profits.  The owners don’t see it this way, and that is why the miners must organize and force the owners to accept a different calculus.  Then the owners will try to keep profits up in the face of higher wages and better conditions, including safety.  The owners always have the upper hand at the workplace since they own the capital.  So miners have to organize politically as well.  In purely technical terms, union miners are probably more productive as they will be better trained, etc.  But they may not be more profitable.  Hence, there is constant class struggle.

In Capital, Marx refers to a note by Liebig that mentions the South American mine owners who compelled the miners to eat bread and beans though the miners disliked beans.  The owners did so because they, having “found out that the men cannot work so hard on bread [alone], treat them like horses, and compel them to eat beans; beans . . . are relatively much richer in bone-earth (phosphate of lime) than is bread.”  Marx observes with irony that “All the capitalist cares for, is to reduce the labourer’s individual consumption as far as possible to what is strictly necessary, and he is far away from imitating those brutal South Americans, who force their labourers to take the more substantial, rather than the less substantial, kind of food.”  Today, it seems, labor is less important than material.  The lives of miners in many lands — inadequate safety mechanisms at work; ramshackle, overcrowded homes, without running water, a sewage system, or a proper ventilation system; diseases; meager wages, constant fear of unemployment, abject poverty — are not different from the conditions of the working class in England that Engels described, or rather more miserable than them.  These are now better documented.  Even the mainstream media sometimes mention them.  Is it that miners’ living condition is no longer a factor for capital regeneration, unlike what Liebig suggests above, as there is a huge reserve army of labor now?

This may be true in many parts of the world.  We have to expect owners to calculate costs with no concern for the workers, as they think of the workers as implements of production, no different that the materials and machines used.  Whatever lowers costs and raises profits will be done, absent strong class organization.

And, has that intensified the rate of appropriation of surplus labor?

Yes, it always does.

We know the legendary John Henry, the “steel-driving man,” a symbol of humanity’s determination.  How shall the San Jose miners be remembered?

Unless the miners force the issue by radically strengthening their organization, they will be just another footnote in history.  As Mother Jones, the legendary miners’ angel and organizer, said, Don’t mourn, organize.

Thank you.

You are welcome!  Solidarity!

Farooque Chowdhury is editor of Micro Credit: Myth Manufactured. A different version of the same interview was first published in the 4 November 2010 issue of New Age, one of the leading English dailies in Bangladesh.

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