Building power at the point of production: An update

Back in 2015, I wrote a detailed article about the strategic power and importance within the class struggle of workers in manufacturing and other related industrial sectors. The piece – “In Search of Workers’ Power” – was published in The North Star, a defunct socialist website that, for a time, became a reference point for some ex-members of the now-dissolved International Socialist Organization.  (The article is also available on my former blog, Red Atlanta.)

As I argue in the article, workers in the manufacturing industry still occupy a pivotal role within the class struggle in this country. And in the future, industrial workers must, by necessity, play a central role in the revival of the labor and socialist movements.

Nonetheless, as detailed in the article, in recent years, much of the Left, including the Marxist Left, has come to disregard the power of U.S. factory workers and the pivotal role they play in the capitalist accumulation process. Many socialists have, in this vein, come to subscribe, either explicitly or tacitly, to the erroneous thesis that the United States is “deindustrialized” and no longer has a substantial industrial proletariat.

Such a conclusion is, of course, false. As it stands today, the United States has the world’s second largest manufacturing industry. Only China’s is larger.[1] Moreover, nearly 12.7 million workers were employed in manufacturing last year, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Also, while U.S. manufacturing lost millions of jobs in the first decade of the twenty-first century, in the period since then, the industry has experienced continuous growth. Between 2010 and 2018, the manufacturing sector added some 1.15 million jobs – an increase of just under ten percent.[2]

In reality, the number of workers in manufacturing – and the number of jobs added during the current decade – is likely significantly higher than this since the BLS statistics for manufacturing jobs do not count temp workers that work in factories, who comprise a large and growing portion of the overall manufacturing workforce. Notably, a recent scientific study estimates that, in 2015, nearly 10 percent of the manufacturing workforce was comprised of temps.[3] Assuming that this same percentage of temp workers held true for 2018, then this means that, last year, there were just under 14 million workers employed in manufacturing. Notably, based on my own experience as a factory worker, I’d estimate that the overall percentage of temps in manufacturing was significantly higher than 10 percent last year. (For what it’s worth, the way that management in manufacturing and other industrial sectors use and hyper-exploit temp workers is not just a question of statistical importance – it’s also a core grievance for industrial workers in general.)

An uptick in struggle

This year, a minor but nonetheless significant uptick in strikes and struggles by factory workers has revealed some of the lasting power of industrial workers in this country. The most prominent such struggle was, of course, the 40-day strike waged by nearly 50,000 UAW workers at GM facilities across the country. While the ultimate outcome of the GM strike was mixed – the strike nonetheless clearly dramatized the power of industrial labor: In total, the strike cost the company an estimated $2 billion. Moreover, in addition to shutting down all of the company’s U.S. production facilities, the strike also led to widespread shutdowns and slowdowns stemming from parts shortages at GM’s other North American plants in Mexico and Canada.[4] In addition to the GM strike, other noteworthy manufacturing strikes to take place this year include the UAW strike of some 3,500 workers at Mack Truck plants in three states in October, as well as the United Electric strike earlier this year at the Wabtec locomotive plant in Erie, Pennsylvania.[5] Also of note, last month, workers at the General Mills cereal plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa were able to win a first contract and force the company to back off concession demands as a result of steadfast solidarity and a credible strike threat. At the culmination of the struggle at General Mills in early November, workers from the plant – who are organized through the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) – staged practice pickets throughout the Cedar Rapids area, including a picket in front of the plant manager’s house.[6]  

“Don’t Disturb the Worker Bees!” Workers from the General Mills cereal plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa engage in practice picketing outside the home of the plant manager in early November as part of their successful struggle to win a first contract and beat back company concessions. (Source: KGAN, CBS affiliate, Cedar Rapids)

This minor uptick in struggle has led some socialists not normally inclined to pay much attention to industrial labor to take note and point out the lasting power of manufacturing workers. A surprising example of this is a recent Jacobin article by Meagan Day, which emphasizes the importance of private-sector workers in general:

[W]hile public-sector unions have some unique capacities, so do private-sector unions, and we can’t build a strong and effective labor movement without them. While public-sector strikes can be effective by grinding essential services to a halt and creating political crises to which politicians and officials are forced to respond, private-sector unions have a grenade in their pocket. When private-sector workers go on strike, employers hemorrhage money. The six-week UAW strike this year cost General Motors nearly $2 billion.[7]

In addition to Day’s recent acknowledgement, an even more succinct analysis is offered in another Jacobin piece from earlier this year, this one by Alex N. Press, which points out that “Logistics, transportation, and manufacturing workers can inflict particularly high costs to capital if they withhold their labor.”[8]

These acknowledgements are somewhat novel coming from Jacobin. Along with their middle-of-the-road, pro-Democratic Party cohorts in the DSA Bread & Roses caucus, Jacobin has, for the most part, consistently adhered to the position advanced by labor-liberal Jane McAlevey that, during the current period, the education and healthcare industries are the key “strategic” sectors when it comes to building trade union power.[9]

The “deindustrialization” myth

Despite this, it’s clear that the spurious “deindustrialization” thesis still persists within much of the Left. Just to cite one particularly irritating case I recently came across, earlier this year, the usually thoughtful online publication Cosmonaut published a piece that makes the dubious assertion that “Production is largely gone from the West.”[10] Another article from Cosmonaut, this one by J.R. Murray, argues that “In the United States workers are no longer concentrated in factories where they can easily rub shoulders with Marxist organizers.” In response to this, I would simply point out that I am both a “Marxist organizer” and a factory worker. And contrary to this claim, I “rub shoulders” and work alongside large numbers of fellow factory workers – all day, every damn day.[11]

On a related level, portions of the Left have also come to adhere, tacitly or explicitly, to the largely false notion that “automation” poses a wholesale threat to the very future of the industrial proletariat – and, in addition, that “automation” is the force behind the major job losses in U.S. manufacturing that took place between 2000 and 2009. (This is a subject that I plan to take up in a future article.)[12] Furthermore, with relatively few exceptions, much of the socialist Left tends to completely disregard the struggles and issues of industrial workers. This is evident, for one thing, in the failure of the socialist Left to provide any substantive coverage of a number of important industrial strikes that have taken place this year.

As I explained in “In Search of Workers’ Power,” the persistence of the “deindustrialization” myth is related to the widespread restructuring of U.S. manufacturing in recent years. Specifically, the myth is rooted in the shift of many manufacturing jobs from urban to more peripheral locations, as well as the ongoing, persistent decline of manufacturing in certain geographical areas, particularly in New England and the Mideast.

To summarize, the article reveals that, between 2010 and 2014, a large majority of U.S. manufacturing job growth took place in just two regions – the Southeast and the Great Lakes Region. Connected to this, the overwhelming majority of job growth in this sector was also concentrated in right-to-work states.

On a conceptual level, the article argues that these trends in manufacturing growth are part of a broader pattern in development under neoliberalism, where the capitalist class has become increasingly diligent in using the selection of new sites for production facilities as a way to minimize labor costs (and other costs as well) and thus maximize profit. This increased diligence has, of course, been made possible by advances in communication and transportation technology. As I added in the article, “Such considerations are, of course, the central force behind the much-discussed phenomenon of outsourcing and offshoring. But by no means is this trend confined to instances where manufacturing firms relocate production overseas or across the border. The trend also takes the form of internal capital flight and restructuring within the United States (and, likewise, within other nations as well). It also manifests itself in terms of foreign direct investment into the United States (as well is into other countries).

As these trends have intensified, much of the Left (not to mention organized labor) continues to be hubbed in cities and geographical areas that have, in recent decades, experienced the sharpest declines in manufacturing employment. Conversely, the areas that have witnessed the strongest manufacturing growth have tended to be, as I put it in the article, “far removed, both in proximity and influence, from those areas with historically strong labor and Left-wing political movements. For its part, the organized Left in particular tends to be based overwhelmingly in major metropolitan areas and, in some cases, university towns – exactly the types of locations that the bosses consciously try to avoid when seeking out new sites of hyper-exploitation.”

This has had a distorting effect on how the Left collectively perceives the nature of the U.S. economy and the industrial proletariat. As I put it in the article,

[T]his dynamic does much to explain how so many cosmopolitan, college-educated Marxists and radicals have come to envision the United States as being fully “deindustrialized.” Since a large portion of Lefties tend to live in increasingly gentrified postmodern metropolises like New York City and Chicago[…] then the notion that the U.S. is “deindustrialized” inevitably tends to accord with their immediate surroundings and personal experience. And since so much of Left-wing media (not to mention mainstream media and culture) is based in these regions as well, then such assumptions have tended to become increasingly hegemonic in recent years.

But while the notion that the United States is becoming “deindustrialized” might seem plausible to a Marxist in (say) Brooklyn – such an outlook is unlikely to accord with the experience of many people that live and work in industrial areas in the South, the Midwest, and elsewhere.

U.S. manufacturing employment, 2010-2018

All of these trends have continued and even intensified in the four years that have elapsed since I wrote this article. In order to back up my assessment, I recently conducted another statistical analysis of U.S. manufacturing job growth using BLS data – this one covering the period between 2010 and 2018. Here’s what I found:

  • In the period between 2010 and 2018, manufacturing job growth has been overwhelmingly hubbed in right-to-work states. (Notably, since early 2015, three more states have gone right-to-work: Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Kentucky.) In total, just under 74 percent of manufacturing job growth for this period took place in those 27 states that now have right-to-work laws.

  • Beyond this, just as was the case before, manufacturing job growth for this period has also been heavily concentrated in the Southeast region and the Great Lakes region (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin). In total, the Great Lakes added some 408,900 factory jobs – about 35.6 percent of overall manufacturing job growth across the country. Meanwhile, the Southeast added 347,400 factory jobs – 30.2 percent of the national growth. (See data for manufacturing job growth, 2010-2018, sorted by BEA region)

  • Another trend that is noticeable in manufacturing job growth during this period is the continual decline of industry in many of the largest cities in the country – even while the country as a whole has, of course, experienced overall job growth in this sector. Out of the ten largest metropolitan areas in the country, a full four of them have lost factory jobs during the period between 2010 and 2018. This includes the two largest metropolitan areas in the country – the New York City area and the Los Angeles area. In addition, the Philadelphia and Boston areas – that is, the two other areas in the top ten located in the northeast, broadly defined – also lost factory jobs during this period. (See data for manufacturing job growth, 2010-2018, top ten largest MSAs)

  • Meanwhile, all three of the top ten metro areas located in the Southeast experienced significant manufacturing job growth. The Atlanta area saw an increase of 19.1 percent in factory jobs; the Miami area, 18.1 percent; and the Dallas area, 9.4 percent.

These continuing trends thus further underscore the core arguments that I advanced in my 2015 article.

And just as was the case in 2015, the Left still is overwhelmingly hubbed in areas that are of declining importance for capitalist production. Indeed, a large portion of the organized Left is based in New York City, which has experienced ongoing industrial decline, coupled with a trend of gentrification in recent years. This includes Jacobin and the Democratic Socialist America, which has its national headquarters in New York City. It also includes the dynamic, if tiny, Left Voice group, as well as others on the revolutionary Left.

In making this point, my intention is not to write off places like New York City as organizing targets and places of potential advancements in the class struggle. Clearly, there needs to be a strong revolutionary Left in these areas that’s dedicated to winning people to socialism, fighting the bosses, educating the masses, and building working-class power. Clearly, New York City also has an importance for the Left stemming from its position as a cultural, intellectual, and media center. Beyond that, it’s also worth noting that the greater New York City metropolitan area – in particular in northern New Jersey and elsewhere – is a key hub for the logistics industry. Logistics and transport workers are, of course, part of the industrial proletariat – and they tend to have a tremendous amount of objective economic power owing to their ability to choke off the transportation of commodities that’s essential to the functioning of the capitalist accumulation process.[13]

However, based on trends of economic development, I would argue that those areas in the country that are likely to experience some of the most acute and impactful class struggles – and where workers’ possess some of the highest degrees of objective economic power – tend to be located away from traditional bastions of the Left. (Indeed, even in the New York City metropolitan area itself, the Left tends to be located far away from the most strategic concentrations of industrial workers in the logistics sector.)

This dynamic – the geographical separation of the Left from the industrial proletariat – is a byproduct of the unceasing attempts by the capitalist class to restructure industry in order to more effectively exploit and oppress the working class. Ultimately, this is a dilemma that will have to be overcome through the course of the class struggle.

Notes

1. See Michael Pröbsting, “Great Power Rivalry in the Early Twenty-first Century,” New Politics 18, No. 3 (Summer 2019).

2. In recent months, manufacturing – along with trucking – has shed some jobs. Manufacturing output has also begun to slip. Given the centrality of these industries within the economic system, this might be a sign of a broader downturn on the horizon. See Don Lee, “Manufacturing is now officially in recession, despite Trump’s vow to boost industry,” Los Angeles Times, October 11, 2019.

3. Matthew Dey, Susan Houseman, and Anne Polivka, “Manufacturers’ Outsourcing to Temporary Help Services: A Research Update,BLS Working Papers 493 (January 2017). See also, Dey, Houseman, and Polvika, “Manufacturers’ Outsourcing to Staffing Services,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 65, no. 3 (June 2012): 533-559.

4. Much of the coverage of the GM strike in the socialist press was, unfortunately, extremely lackluster and at times misguided. It is embarrassing to say that one of the most thoughtful general assessments of strike was provided by none other than the hilariously, pathologically sectarian Spartacist League: “UAW Holds Off GM Bosses, But Strikers Sold Short,” Workers Vanguard 1164 (November 2019).

In addition to the Spart article, other worthwhile socialist coverage of the GM strike includes a pair of on-point articles by Ben Fredericks in Left Voice and the detailed, ongoing coverage from Labor Notes. Ben Friedericks, “UAW workers need solidarity… and a strategy to win,” Left Voice, September 19, 2019. Ben Friedericks, “GM workers need international unity,” Left Voice, September 30, 2019. Chris Brooks and Jane Slaughter, “GM Workers Ratify Contract Though ‘Mixed at Best,’” Labor Notes, October 25, 2019.

The coverage put out by Socialist Resurgence, a recent split from Socialist Action, was also quite good. In particular, see Jim Farrell, “Is the GM contract a win for labor,” Socialist Resurgence, October 21, 2019..

5. Jon Harris, “As strike ends, Mack Trucks workers returning to a softening heavy-duty truck market,” Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania), October 25, 2019. Saurav Sarkar and Dan DiMaggio, “Erie Locomotive Plant Workers Strike against Two-Tier,” Labor Notes, March 15, 2019. Saurav Sarkar, “Erie Locomotive Workers Avert Strike with New Contract at Wabtec,” Labor Notes, June 25, 2019.

6. Katie Rose Quandt, “Cheerios Picket Line Averted: After Strike Threat, General Mills Workers Win Tentative Agreement,” In These Times, November 8, 2019. See also, Mary Green, “Amid contract dispute, union workers picket outside homes of General Mills leaders,” KCRG-TV (ABC affiliate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa), November 5, 2019.

7. Megan Day, “Once Again, Flight Attendants Are Leading the Way,” Jacobin, November 8, 2019.

8. Alex N. Press, “Forget Your Middle-Class Dreams,” Jacobin, March 29, 2019.

9. McAlevey is among those that seem to believe that the United States has become “deindustrialized” and turned into a “service-based” economy – a point she hammers home in her first book, Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement (Verso, 2012). McAlevey’s most clear statement on the centrality of education and healthcare workers within the contemporary class struggle comes in a 2016 article published in Jacobin:

Simply put, workers in some sectors are better placed to build working-class power than others. As power is what’s urgently needed, we need to be focused on organizing those strategically key sectors today.

The brilliant organizers of the CIO understood that within the industrial economy of the mid-twentieth century, steel, coal, and other key industries mattered more than other industries. Within the service economy today, education and health care are the strategic sectors.

For at least the next couple of decades, there can be no exit threat: Schools and colleges, nursing homes and hospitals, clinics, and many other components of the always-changing education and health care delivery system can’t be moved offshore, automated, or relocated from a city to its suburbs or from the North or Midwest to the Sunbelt.

Jane McAlevey, “Everything Old is New Again,” Jacobin, September 23, 2016.

10. Amelia Davenport, “Organizing the Class: Interview with Two Members of Target Workers Unite,” Cosmonaut, August 15, 2019.

11. J.R. Murray, “The Retrograde Left,” Cosmonaut, May 4, 2019.

12. For now, I’ll simply say that my thinking on this subject is influenced by the recent writings of labor economist Susan N. Houseman. See Houseman, “Understanding the Decline in U.S. Manufacturing Employment,” Upjohn Institute Working Paper 18-287 (2018).

13. See Kim Moody, On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017). Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Immanuel Ness, eds., Choke Points: Logistics Workers Disrupting the Global Supply Chain (Pluto Press, 2018).

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