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Capitalist restructuring and working class resistance

By: 
Ritch Whyman

March 30, 2018

Kim Moody’s latest book On New Terrain: How Capital is reshaping the battleground of class war is a refreshing and necessary look at the debates around the shape and state of the working class today.

It is a wonderful tool for anyone struggling with the dire predictions thrown around about the restructuring of work and how precarious work has transformed the nature of workers struggle today. It is an antidote to the dire predictions about the death of the working class and the impossibility of workplace struggle spouted by some academics. It also points out possible ways and locations for struggle to re-emerge.

The book is broken down into three sections that deal with the changes that the working class in the US (and around the world) has undergone both recently and historically, then the changes in the locations of work and capital, followed by a section on the changing political terrain.

Capitalism and the working class

The first section breaks down, via labour bureau statistics and other studies, whether it is true that work has fundamentally changed—and if so, what has driven that change. Interestingly, statistics from the bureau of labour in the US show that the numbers employed by temp agencies hasn’t grown as many think it has.

Many workers find themselves in precarious positions and jobs—from construction workers to temporary agencies to university teachers. Kim Moody questions whether this is new and whether it as widespread as claimed. The seeming collapse of big industry in the 70’s and “deindustrialisation” along with an increase in the proportion of people working service jobs seems to give credence on the surface to the notions of the “precariat.”

He points out that many of these “new” jobs – freelancers, contractors etc. are not new and in fact in previous generations would have been seen as “moonlighting.” His statistical research shows that not nearly as many people are solely dependent on these jobs as is made out to be.

By weaving through statistics about production and jobs, Moody draws the conclusion that perhaps the root of change isn’t precarity or offshoring, but rather the drive to increase profits by cranking up productivity. He shows that speed ups in assembly lines and “total quality management” processes have enabled employers for the past 30 years to squeeze more and more out of fewer workers. This has meant that in many industries employment has sunk or stagnated while the amount of goods produced has increased.

In Canada an example would be the automotive industry. Roughly 70,000 jobs were shed in auto parts and assembly in Canada dropped during the 2008-9 recession. By 2016 production had grown by 109 per cent of 2009 levels while employment had only recovered by 34 per cent.  This is a clear example of business using a crisis (and bailouts by governments) to restructure parts of their business to squeeze more work out of less employees and therefore increasing their profits.

In one chapter the book goes through important changes that have occurred in terms of the working class—including the growth of service industries and the introduction of women on mass into the workforce. He explores the changing nature of who does what work and the role of people of colour in reshaping the working class.

Moody shows how this process took place throughout industries in the US. He also notes how capital has restructured differently at different times and how this affects the ability of workers to resist concessions. In previous periods business used capital to buy up other companies in different or related industries, creating huge conglomerates like GE, Nabisco, etc. These conglomerations meant that workers who were in unions based on industry, not company, lost some of the leverage as companies had multiple revenue streams even if one area was shut down due to strike action.

Today he argues capital has gone through a restructuring that has seen many companies sell off components and return to their core business. Examples are US Steel selling off its Marathon Oil division, auto companies shedding their financial divisions and others are leading to re-concentration and consolidation in some areas of the economy.

Struggle

The book looks not just at the changes but also where new possible locations of struggle can emerge. Although not touched on in detail, education workers in the US and elsewhere have been on strike. The education field is emerging as a site of struggle that has the possibility of re-invigorating working class struggles not just in the US but here as well.

Moody, following on others, points to and analyses the growth of logistics, transportation and warehousing and sees them as a possible site of future struggles. Around the world huge transportation and warehouse hubs have sprung up over the past decade to meet the increase in trade, just in time production and delivery. In Canada these can be seen around greater Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver areas. Linking rail, highways and ports these huge areas employ tens of thousands in various related jobs. Trucking, stocking, forklift drivers, admin and office staff, this doesn’t include the hundreds of trades jobs that support and repair machinery. A drive along the privatised 407 highway in Toronto is driving through a warehouse district.  The area from Pearson to just past highway 404 had over 130,000 workers employed in warehouse and transport jobs.

Critically the book points out the hubs are built around neighbourhoods and areas with large racialized populations, in the US primarily being Black and Latino communities. In Canada the same pattern is followed, with hubs being built near or in areas with large racialized populations. A quick visit during shift change to any of the thousands of warehouses and logistics depots in north Toronto or Vancouver will show one the demographics in the industry. These hubs are identified as not only places ripe for agitation and organising, but also central for challenging capitalism. The hubs are the chokeholds for modern capitalism. Striking them jams up the whole system and gives employees tremendous possibilities to win gains.

However for that to happen, we need a revolt from below, in and outside of the labour movement, to push aside the ossified official “leadership” of the unions and embark on audacious organising drives. Also vital is the movement outside of the official unions that raise demands across the whole of the working class, such as the Fight for $15 and Fairness movement.

None of that comes easily, as the author notes that in the US the unions are wedded to a dead end strategy of supporting the Democrats and lesser evilism politics, and on their own will not and never have moved to build a broader struggle. Importantly the author notes some of the rank and file initiatives such as Labor Notes and the work done in the teachers unions to create space for debates and organising for rank and file activists and leaders.

The book while US in content is an invaluable tool for all working class militants looking to challenge the pessimism of our leadership, who often hide behind radical statements about precarity—only to use those same arguments as reasons why we can’t fight. On New Terrain is a must read for anyone looking to understand the forces that got us into the mess we’re in, and to look at the forces that can get us out of this mess.

Register today for Join the Resistance: Marxism 2018, a two day conference including the sessions Workers Rising, The Changing Working Class, and Fight for $15 and Socialist Strategy

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