Unity Begins Somewhere

Against the Current, No. 64, September/October 1996

Kim Moody

INSOFAR AS MY article “Why the Industrial Working Class Still Matters (ATC 58) actually proposed a strategy it was a multi-organizational one similar, in fact, to what Milton Fisk advocates: Specifically, I proposed the “Latin American” or Brazilian multi-organizational model.

This idea was spelled out in more detail in a Solidarity discussion paper entitled “Pulled Apart, Pushed Together,” which was published in severely edited form in Cross Roads late in 1994. That article included a discussion of workers’ centers as one of the key elements of an overall approach to working class organizing in this period.

David Levin has done us the service of spelling out, from first hand experience, the significance and strategic direction of these community-based labor organizations. Since I agree with Levin, the bulk of this article will address Milton Fisk’s response.

What is most disturbing about Fisk’s critique of the importance of the industrial working class is not his rejection of the potential central role of industrial workers, but his rejection of strategic analysis altogether. Strategic analysis is based on giving greater weight to some factors and some groups of people than others.

If everything is equal or the same in its social weight and significance, the problems of strategy are, indeed, much simpler. If consciousness were even throughout the class, we would have no need to try to analyze what experiences move some sectors of the class before or differently than others.

While Fisk notes that different parts of the class move at different times, he seems to view this as a random phenomenon. In contrast, Levin locates the community focus of workers’ centers in the unstable working lives of immigrant workers. This is a controversial idea in labor circles, but it reflects a reality that workers’ center activists are not afraid to make central to their approach. The key to unity in this case, lies in the geographic concentration of immigrant (or other oppressed) workers in a recognizable community.

Fisk’s notion of unity, on the other hand, is based on two homogeneous concepts: the equal social weight of all sections of the class, and the universal impact of neoliberalism. Fisk makes a bow to neoliberalism’s particularly severe impact on women and people of color, but other types of differentiation within the class are dismissed as unimportant or insulting. Neoliberalism itself appears as an undifferentiated market force or policy package.

In fact, the transformation of capitalism in the last 10-15 years involves much more than that. Inextricably linked to neoliberal policy, market forces and globalization (and the crisis of profitability that drives them all) is the rise of “lean production”–the shorthand term for the new complex system of producing of goods and services. Like the rise of mass production, this “lean production” system first paralyzes much of the class and then drives more and more workers to action–but not necessarily simultaneously or cumulatively.

Like the whole neoliberal configuration, lean production’s implementation and hence its impact is stretched out in time and different from region to region and industry to industry. Its different shape, timing, and impact explain much about the different forms of class struggle today.

The forms include the rise of community-based workers organizations (at the low-wage, subcontracted end of the production chain as well as in the service industries that provide the better-off with affordable consumer services); the emphasis given to racial and gender diversity (as the tiers of the lean production chain take on racial and gender tendencies); the rise of extra-industrial tactics (corporate campaigns, community-labor coalitions); the strategic use of just-in-time production links by small groups of workers to achieve goals for larger groups; intra-union conflict (as unionists try to figure out how to deal with the new system); etc. Space precludes a full discussion of this.*

Neoliberalism, including its lean production and international aspects, may affect all sectors of the class, but it does so at different times, in different degrees, and in different ways.

At the policy level, where most of the left directs its attention, neoliberalism has its most ferocious impact on people of color, women workers, single parents and the poor. At the industrial level, even within the industrial working class, one obvious differential affect is that between relatively well-paid workers in production sites that produce a final good or service, and the workers in the supplier or contract sites down the production chain, where low wages and contingent work are prevalent.

Marxists cannot ignore the differential impact of neoliberalism, internationalization, and lean production on different sections of the class. In fact, we must understand it in enough details to forge a strategy. Constructing a strategy is precisely the process of making some things and some groups of people more analytically central than others.

This has nothing to do with creating inequality or leaving some people to “wait at home.” It has to do with recognizing that the impact of change is deeper, sooner and harder on some than others and occurs in specific sites or places, some of which are more central to accumulation (not just “the economy” as Fisk puts it) and/or lend themselves more to organization and mobilization.

We can, of course, argue over which groups and which sites are more strategic, but the idea that we just think of every group and site within the class as equal in the eyes of Marxism is counter-strategic.

As a new generation of “labor process” theorists and labor historians (e.g. David Montgomery) has reminded us since the 1970s, the experience of work is central to the motivation, consciousness and organization of the working class. This now extensive literature shows that behind all of the major periods of industrial militancy or class upheaval in this century were profound changes in the organization of capitalist production and hence of work.

The importance of this level of analysis is not that it explains everything, but that it is a key element in understanding why periods of intense class conflict and industrial militancy occur when they do.

Thus speedup and the intensification of labor, driven first by Taylorism and then by mass production techniques, explain more about the industrial militancy of World War I through the early 1920s, the 1930s, and the brief period of the late 1960s and early 1970s than income changes or unemployment. (Business cycle explanations of class conflict, like those employed by the British SWP school, simply don’t work.)

The significance of the industrial working class in this level of analysis is, among other things, that new production paradigms find their first practical application in the basic industries that are central to capitalist accumulation–the industries that define the industrial working class. Taylorism, mass production, and now lean production begin in the industrial core and move outward.

The impact of these new systems of production may be stretched out over time, but is felt earliest and strongest among industrial workers. As each of these production paradigms becomes widespread through the mechanisms of capitalist competition (see Howard Botwinick, Persistent Inequalities) they are stretched to their limits.

When the crisis of profitability intersects with this process, capital turns to labor intensification and the lengthening of work time. It may take years to figure out effective forms of resistance to the new system of work and its intensification, but resistance inevitably comes and large sections of the industrial working class are pushed to action.

This is precisely what happened throughout the industrial world in the late 1960s, by which time mass production methods had become widespread (still new in Europe). The crisis of profitability which began at that time provoked a global speed-up.

The worker reaction came quickly in that case. There is, of course, no guarantee such action will become politicized or spill over to other sections of the class–it did in France in 1968 and Italy’s “hot autumn” of 1969, but didn’t here and most other developed countries.

The December 1995 events in France are an illustration of both the positive and negative aspects of how the industrial working class responds to lean production and neoliberalism as well as the centrality of industrial workers in general class upheaval.

The massive strike of public sector workers was led by rail workers, followed by urban transport workers, airline and telecommunications workers, and then government clerical workers and teachers. Students and the unemployed were also incorporated into this movement.

This is how it was described by everyone I heard or read who was in France. The workers who led the strike were industrial workers despite their public sector status (here they would be mostly private sector). They are an example of the impact of the incorporation of service and “infrastructure” workers into the extended lean production systems (Fisk missed my point on this one).

Note that the part of the Plan Juppé for the railroad (SNCF) against which they initially struck involved cuts in rural passenger service, not in inter-urban or freight service, which is now essential to the lean system that has developed in France in the last five years or so.

The telecom and airline workers struck against privatization–as they did in 1993 and 1994. This privatization is a key part of the incorporation of transport and communications into the new production system.

My point is not that it wasn’t important that white collar civil servants joined the strike movement and that the unemployed and students were drawn in as well, of course it was; but they did not initiate it or provide a core around which others could rally. Unity begins somewhere with some group, it doesn’t spring up everywhere at once.

To take another example, Fisk talks about the Workers Party in Brazil as an example of the all-inclusive working class organization we need. No argument there, but where does he think this party came from? As everyone knows it came first and foremost from the metal workers of the Sao Paulo area and the powerful mass strike movements they launched in the early 1980s.

A party with the resources, social weight and outreach of the Workers Party could not have been launched in the first place by dispersed agricultural workers or unemployed urban slum (favela) dwellers. The industrial workers provided a center around which to rally these other sectors of the class and create real unity.

The same was true in the Nigerian general strike of 1994 (where oil workers took the lead) and the recent one-day general strikes in Ontario (where the auto workers were the leading force from day-one).

None of this implies, however, that the industrial working class is always ready to act or poised to mobilize everyone else (standing motionless only because of cowardly leaders). In fact, our understanding of the differential impact of lean production and neoliberalism has to recognize the paralyzing effects of these changes, particularly in their early phases.

This paralyzing effect, by the way, goes a long way to explain why some traditionally militant industrial workers like those at Renault (51% public owned) did not join the mass strike in France. Much of the private sector and the entire public and private auto industry had been through five years of the drastic restructuring and downsizing that comes with the introduction of lean production.

It is more than likely that the workers at Renault, having seen thousands of jobs lost through the closing of the old plant and the opening of a new lean one, were as reluctant as their union leaders to strike. This, far more than the conventional “leadership betrayal” thesis, explains why these workers did not join the strike.

An interview I did with Renault workers in 1994 revealed a drastic drop in militancy as a result of restructuring. It is important to keep in mind, however, that as the new system stabilizes and takes its toll in work intensity the militancy will return as it did at NUMMI, CAMI, Mazda, GM, Chrysler, Boeing, CAT, and Staley (even though these last two lost badly) in North America.

The lesson is this: though the industrial workers can be as paralyzed as any group of workers in the face of restructuring, though they can lose any particular strike, and though genuine class consciousness is never automatic; whenever there is a major working class upheaval industrial workers play a leading role.

They do so in part because they tend to be more concentrated and better organized at the point of production, but also because it is they who feel most severely the impact of capitalism’s attempts to deal with profitability crises by introducing new, intensified (often lengthened) systems of work–the convergence of capital’s attempt to increase both the relative and absolute rate of exploitation more or less simultaneously in the face of a persistent crisis of accumulation.

Their social weight allows industrial workers to be a rallying point for other sections of the class at those moments when conditions are forcing more and more of the class into various forms of resistance. This fact of life, in itself, is not a strategy, but it lays the basis for elaborating a strategy for class unity, solidarity, and the fight for socialism.

* For a partial discussion of the relationship of lean production to some recent struggles and consciousness, I recommend my “America’s Labor Wars” in New Politics, No. 20, Winter, 1996.  For a more thorough understanding of capitalist production’s shape today I recommend three books: Howard Botwinick’s Persistent Inequalities for both a theoretical and empirical grounding in actual capitalist competition; Bennett Harrison’s Lean and Mean for an excellent discussion of the structure of production and business today; and Mike Parker and Jane Slaughter’s Working Smart for the reality of the lean workplace.

ATC 64, September-October 1996