Over the last three decades capitalism in the United States has seen dramatic changes in the composition and structure of the working class and the organization of capital. The initial fragmentation of production and loss of millions of production jobs in manufacturing through lean production, on the one hand, and the growth of “service” employment, on the other, seemed to announce the end of the traditional working class. Yet by the 1990s increased global and domestic competition forced a consolidation of capital along rational industrial lines through massive merger movements, while tech-driven just-in-time systems linked workers in production and the movement of goods in capital’s new and highly vulnerable supply-chain gangs. These are centered on giant “logistics clusters” that concentrate hundreds of thousands of blue-collar workers around the nation’s largest urban centers. These transformations opened new sites of power and potential organizing channels for the country’s increasingly diverse working class. Historic levels of work intensification resulting from lean production methods accompanied by declining wages and benefits produced a social and economic compression that has led to social upheaval in the past. While no one can predict such an upsurge, if today’s labor and social movement activists take advantage of the new terrain of class conflict in the US, the new conditions offer the potential for an assault on neoliberalism and capitalism itself.
In the recent revival of popular movements in the United States, one group that has been conspicuously absent is organized labor. This absence is only one reminder of the astonishing decline of the American working class as a social force; even though it never achieved the power of its counterparts in Europe or even Canada, it was still a force to be reckoned with until the 1980s. For much of the Left, therefore, the million-dollar question is: Can the sleeping giant awaken? Can the labor movement once again be at the core of a progressive social coalition? Or have the changes in the political economy since the 1980s been so deep that a revival of labor’s fortunes is out of reach — if not permanently, then at least for the foreseeable future?
Many analysts have settled on certain stylized facts as harbingers of a continued decline in labor’s fortunes. The combined impact of subcontracting, casualization, increased insecurity, a shrunken manufacturing sector, and the threat of offshoring is taken to have created apparently insuperable barriers to organizing. Indeed, it is hard to deny that these factors are operative to some degree. What is less clear, however, is to what degree they bear on the conditions workers confront. Part of the effort to rebuild the US labor movement must be a cold, sober look at the changes that have set in since the 1980s to assess how much the terrain has actually changed and how much of the current pessimism is due to an unwarranted embrace of popular myths. Conversely, we need to be aware of emerging possibilities and openings that may be underappreciated by labor and its allies.
I suggest in this essay that while the challenges labor faces are indeed daunting, they are by no means insuperable. Indeed, many of them are not even new. Capital’s offensive during the neoliberal era has indeed created a new landscape for the working class, but it is not quite along the lines of what much of the Left has come to believe. The popular tropes of a fragmented, atomized, casualized working class obscure the degree to which the last three decades have in fact created new zones of centralized production, new vulnerabilities for capital, and also underplay important elements of continuity in forms of employment. None of this is to deny that the terrain is still a hostile one, or to underplay the challenges. But I do suggest that significant new openings have emerged in recent years which, if seized upon, have the potential to trigger a revitalization of working- class power.
These changes are in the organization of production, of course, and in this regard they are fundamentally structural in nature. For them to become politically significant will require embracing a militant and ambitious campaign of organizing, one that is quite different from the kinds of strategies preferred by labor officialdom today. As it happens, in several sectors and in many states, there has been a turn to a more militant approach to organizing — one that seizes upon the structural openings created by the recent economic changes as well as the capacities and imaginations of individual workers. These campaigns offer positive evidence that a return to a more militant strategy is not only possible but also effective.