Do Workers Work for a Particular Employer or for the Class of Employers? Part One: A Limitation of Some Radical Left Critiques of Capitalist Relations of Production and Exchange (A.K.A. Capitalism)

While doing some research for a post on this blog, I became aware of how many Marxists claim that workers really work for the capitalist class or the class of employers rather than a particular employer. I asked my wife, who worked in Guatemala as a saleswoman, whether she thought that she worked for a particular employer or for the class of employers. She replied that she worked for a particular employer.

Although this is true in one way, it is also false in another way (I will elaborate on this below). Nonetheless, from the point of view of the experience of workers, they generally conceive of the relation between their working lives and their employer as a particular relation and not as a class relation. Marxists often ignore this concrete experience of workers and, as a consequence, limit their capacity to communicate with workers and to organize them.

First, I would like to provide quotes from several radical socialist sources to show that they often ignore the concrete experience of workers in relation to employers. All words in boldface are my emphasis.

From Alexander Berkman (2003), What is Anarchism, page 11:

Are you not compelled to work for an employer? Your need compels you, just as the highwayman’s gun. You must live, and so must your wife and children. You can’t work for yourself; under the capitalist industrial system you must work for an employer. The factories, machinery, and tools belong to the employing cl ass, so you must hire yourself out to that class in order to work and live. Whatever you work at, whoever your employer may be, it always comes to the same: you must work for him. You can’t help yourself You are compelled.

In this way the whole working class is compelled to work for the capitalist class. In this manner the workers are compelled to give up all the wealth they produce. The employers keep that wealth as their profit, while the worker gets only a wage, just enough to live on, so he can go on producing more wealth for his employer. Is that not cheating, robbery?

Again: From Socialist Party of America, National Platform, Adopted by the Thirty-Sixth National Convention, University of Akron, Akron, Ohio, July 18-23, 1983, page 1:

Under capitalism, society is divided into two principal classes–the capitalist class and the working class. The capitalist class consists of the wealthy few who own the means of production and distribution. The working class consists of the vast majority who own no productive property and who must in order to live, seek to work for the capitalist class, or for the present government it controls.

Another example is from Great Britain (from the website Socialist Party of Great Britain):

Today, a world working class is forced to work for a wage or salary, and confronts a world capitalist class who live off unearned incomes from rent, interest and profit.

This one-sided emphasis on the capitalist class also can be seen in the following 1904 report by James Moroney, Report of the Australian Socialist League to the International Socialist Congress at Amsterdam:

The Working Class, in order to secure food, clothing, shelter and fuel, must sell their labor-power to the owning Capitalist Class — that is to say, they must work for the Capitalist Class [my emphasis]. The Working Class do all the useful work of Society, they are the producers of all the wealth of the world, while the Capitalist Class are the exploiters who live on the wealth produced by the Working Class.

To be sure, there is recognition that the workers do work for a particular employer. From James O. Moroney (1904), the Australian Socialist League. Report of the Australian Socialist League to the International Socialist Congress at Amsterdam:

In most of the Australian States the railways, and in some the tramways, are owned and managed by the government on strictly commercial principles. In other directions the State has extended its functions and employs labor direct. But the worker remains in Australia, whether employed by the State government or the individual private employer, and exploited wage slave, as is his exploited fellow wage slave in other countries.

These two views are often not integrated in a coherent manner. Workers do both. The reality of working for a particular employer in the private sector hits home when the private employer closes shop for whatever reason–as the workers working for GM in Oshawa, Ontario, relatively recently experienced; around 2,500 direct workers were out of work due to the shutting down of the GM auto plant in Oshawa in December, 2019.

Workers who work in the public sector may also experience severance from their particular employer as government departments are down-scaled or reorganized. They do not just work for “the government,” but in a particular field, department or political division.

This experience of working for a particular employer needs to be recognized when radicals write and give speeches. Marx recognized that the form in which workers work for the class of employers, which constitutes their immediately lived experience,  needs to be taken into account. From the notebooks Marx drafted in 1857-1858 called the Grundrisse (Outlines), in the Collected Works of Marx and Engels (Marx’s best friend and comrade), Volume 28, pages 392-393):

To start with, the first presupposition is the transcendence of the relation of slavery or serfdom. Living labour capacity belongs to itself and disposes by means of exchange over the application of its own energy. The two sides confront each other as persons. Formally, their relation is that of equal and free exchangers. That this form is mere appearance, and deceptive appearance at that, appears, as far as the juridical relationship is concerned, as an external matter. What the free worker sells is always only a particular, specific measure of the application of his energy. Above every specific application of energy stands labour capacity as a totality. The worker sells the specific application of his energy to a specific capitalist, whom he confronts independently as a single individual. Clearly, this is not his [real] relationship to the existence of capital as capital, i.e. to the class of capitalists. Nevertheless, as far as the individual, real person is concerned, a wide field of choice, caprice and therefore of formal freedom is left to him. In the relation of slavery, he belongs to the individual, specific owner, and is his labouring machine. As the totality of the application of his energy, as labour capacity, he is a thing belonging to another, and hence does not relate as a subject to the specific application of his energy, or to the living act of labour. In the relation of serfdom, he appears as an integral element of landed property itself; he is an appurtenance of the soil, just like draught-cattle. In the relation of slavery, the worker is nothing but a living labouring machine, which therefore has a value for others, or rather is a value. Labour capacity in its totality appears to the free worker as his own property, one of his own moments, over which he as subject exercises control, and which he maintains by selling it. [my emphasis] 

John Sitton draws out the effect of the immediate experience of working for a particular employer on individual members of the working class. From John Sitton, editor, (2010), Marx Today Selected Works and Recent Debates,  pages 19-20:

Since the wage-laborer must sell his or her labor to someone in the class of employers, Marx often states that this “freedom” is an illusion. “The Roman slave was held by chains; the wage-laborer is bound to his owner by invisible threads. The appearance of independence is maintained by a constant change in the person of the individual employer, and by the legal fiction of a contract.” But Marx himself admits that this “appearance” of individual freedom is reinforced by the fact that the worker, unlike the slave, is also an autonomous consumer. “It is the worker himself who converts the money into whatever use-values he desires; it is he who buys commodities as he wishes and, as the owner of money, as the buyer of goods, he stands in precisely the same relationship to the sellers of goods as any other buyer. Of course, the conditions of his existence—and the limited amount of money he can earn—compel him to make his purchases from a fairly restricted selection of goods. But some variation is possible as we can see from the fact that newspapers, for example, form part of the essential purchases of the urban English worker. He can save or hoard a little. Or else he can squander his money on drink. But even so he acts as a free agent; he must pay his own way; he is responsible to himself for the way he spends his wages.” Given this reality, Marx did not anticipate how class identity could be effaced by the status of consumer. The status of independent— although severely constrained—owner of the commodity labor-power, and of owner of money who can spend it as he or she pleases, makes it easy to see how in people’s minds class differences come to be considered as merely differences in income.

This “appearance” of freedom is bolstered in an additional way. As Marx acknowledges, although class situation greatly reduces the range, there are some differences in individual wages depending on skill. For a worker, there is therefore “an incentive to develop his own labor-power” so as to increase his or her wages. “[T]here is scope for variation (within narrow limits) to allow for the worker’s individuality, so that partly as between different trades, partly in the same one, we find that wages vary depending on the diligence, skill or strength of the worker, and to some extent on his actual personal achievement. Thus the size of his wage packet appears to vary in keeping with the results of his own work and its individual quality. . . . Certain though it be that the mass of work must be performed by more or less unskilled labor, so that the vast majority of wages are determined by the value of simple labor-power, it nevertheless remains open to individuals to raise themselves to higher spheres by exhibiting a particular talent or energy.” Marx is not explicit, but, combined with the possibility of changing one’s employer, this opens up the prospect of some, although small, measure of social mobility. Marx is correct that this does not abolish the essential nature of wage-labor as oppression. However, Marx greatly underappreciated the effects that even these limited opportunities have on an individual’s perception of life under capitalism and the sense of belonging to a class.

The possibility of advancing one’s economic situation by developing one’s individual talents or simply through greater “diligence” encourages many members of the working class to believe that one can “make it” through hard work. It is no surprise that many people believe that an individual’s prospects are not determined by class structure but by individual virtues or the lack thereof. These facts of working class existence, raised by Marx himself, make the class analysis of capitalism, whatever its broader theoretical cogency, less convincing to great numbers.

In the Manifesto, Marx asks, “Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?” What Marx failed to understand is that freedom to choose employers, the equal autonomy of consumers, the limited but real possibilities for individual and generational advancement, and the limited but real political possibilities of democratically managing the economy are the lived experiences of individuals under capitalism. These shape how people today perceive their lives and how they perceive the legitimacy of the existing order. For the Marxian tradition to find a larger audience, it must be able to connect its broad theory of capitalism as a class-structured society with the actual experiences of individuals in capitalist society, rather than dismissing those freedoms as illusory. Workers do not experience them as illusory, and this makes it plausible for them to blame their economic situation on themselves, rather than on a class structure.

It is not only Marx who underestimated the importance of the lived experiences of individuals under capitalism. The radical left here in Toronto (and probably elsewhere) fail to take into account the importance of the often ideological nature of that experience and how it must be subject to criticism when any opportunity arises. The radical left here do not engage in any systematic recognition of the limited nature of the lived experiences of workers and the need to engage in criticism of such experience in order to connect up systematically the lived experiences of workers critically with the class structure. Often they call for revolution–without considering the need to engage systematically and in the long-term with the lived experiences of workers.

Alternatively, they indulge the beliefs of the workers (fearing to criticize them), practically becoming social democrats or social reformers, thereby failing to develop the critical capacity of workers and community members. Either way the lived experiences are not transformed but remain as they were before.

Indeed, social democrats and social reformers often limit themselves to focusing on the immediate exchange between workers and employers–as I pointed out in another post (see  Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part Two). The social-democratic or social-reformist left often pay lip service to class relations and workers working for the class of employers, but they then commit the opposite mistake to those among the radical left who one-sidedly focus on working for the class of employers.

I will address the issue of the one-sided error of focusing mainly on individual employers or group of employers while not really addressing the issue of working for the class of employers in the next post.

Review of Jane McAlevey’s “A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy”: Two Steps Backward and One Step Forward, Part One

Jane McAlevey is everywhere these days. Recently appointed a senior fellow at Berkeley’s Labor Center, she is now also a regular columnist for both the Nation and Jacobin. Her webinar (“Organizing for Union Power”) has a global audience. She continues to be called on to address unions and run training sessions in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Scotland, and Germany. In the midst of all this, McAlevey has just come out with a third book on unions and working-class struggles, A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing and the Fight for Democracy (and a fourth is not far behind).

So writes Sam Gindin in an article published on the Socialist Project’s website (“Workplace Struggles and Democracy: Challenges for Union Organizing,” December 13, 2019). Her popularity is undoubtedly due to her skills as an innovative union organizer and collective bargainer. It is, however, undoubtedly also due to her idealization of collective bargaining (and, implicitly, collective agreements)–which is a favourite tactic of the social-democratic left.

I reviewed Ms. McAlvey’s previous book, No Short Cuts: Prganizing for Power in the New Gilded Age before (see the section “Publications and Writings” on the home page of this blog). In that work, at least, Ms. McAlevey had an explicit section on the issue of the relationship between social structure and social agency (or conscious social action). I pointed out, in my review, that Ms. McAlevey, far from solving the problem, not only ignored the issue of the relationship between micro-organizing and the macro social structure but short-circuited the issue by identifying the solution to be micro-organizing at the level of the workplace. As a consequence, she idealized workplace organizing, collective bargaining and collective agreements.

In her latest book, she does not even seek to address explicitly the issue of the relationship between social structure and social agency. As a result, she continues to idealize local workplace struggles, collective bargaining and collective agreements. She also confuses the power of employers as persons and the power of employers as a class.

Rather than look first at some of the strengths of her latest book (which I already looked at in my review of her earlier book), I will look at the weaknesses of her book.

From Chapter 1 of her book:

Despite the weakened state of most unions, workers today who are either forming new ones or reforming older ones point us in the direction of how to solve the crisis engulfing our society and our politics. In the midterm elections in 2018—dubbed the year of the woman—the misogyny oozing from the White House was somewhat rebuked at the polls. Yet the year before, working women scored a series of thoroughly impressive wins, just after Donald Trump lost the popular vote but eked out a win from the Electoral College. Many of those victories received far less media attention. As in the midterm elections, men contributed to these wins, certainly, but the central characters were women—often women of color—who waged tireless campaigns of which the outcomes would have drastic consequences. Chapter 1 discusses three such examples of women winning big.

The arena for these battles was the workplace, in the mostly female sectors of the economy such as health care, education, and hospitality, but also in the tech sector, where sexual harassment and the gender pay gap serve as a stark reminder that, despite the tech elite’s rhetoric of building a new society, nothing much has changed, unless you count the creation of the new generation of Silicon Valley billionaires as progress. Women worker-led policy changes included people wresting control of their schedules away from tone-deaf managers, most of whom have never had to pick up their kids at the bus stop; securing fair and meaningful pay raises; achieving bold new safeguards from sexual predators; and ending racism and other discriminatory practices in their salary structure. The mechanism for securing these victories was the collective bargaining process [my emphasis], and each involved strikes—the key leveraging mechanism of unions.

Strikes are uniquely powerful under the capitalist system because employers need one thing, and one thing only, from workers: show up and make the employer money. When it comes to forcing the top executives to rethink their pay, benefits, or other policies, there’s no form of regulation more powerful than a serious strike. The strikes that work the best and win the most are the ones in which at least 90 percent of all the workers walk out, having first forged unity among themselves and with their broader community. To gain the trust and support of those whose lives may be affected, smart unions work diligently to erase the line separating the workplace from society.

Strikes (and well-organized and well-strategized strikes at that) will certainly form a part of a movement for the creation of a different kind of society, but already Ms. McAlevey idealizes the collective bargaining process. She never specifies how the collective bargaining process actually expresses anything more than some gains made by workers in the face of the overwhelming economic (and political) power of the class of employers.

I have persistently referred to management rights clauses in collective agreements–and collective bargaining and the resulting collective agreement do not address this issue except as a limitation (and not as a negation) of the power of any particular employer as a member of the class of employers (and that applies to both the private and public sector). See the various management rights clauses on this blog (for example,     Management Rights, Part Eight: Private Sector Collective Agreement, Quebec).

This exaggeration of the efficacy of the collective-bargaining process forms part of the exaggerated rhetoric of the social-democratic left–such as “fair contracts.” It is a sell job in order to get workers to support unions. This may have short-term gains, but when workers then experience the day-to-day grind of working for an employer (even a unionized worker and even deeply organized workers), the rhetoric of “securing victories” starts to wear thin. So does such rhetoric as the following:

The women-powered collective bargaining wins described in chapters 1, 5, and 6 represent monumental improvements to worker and community lives[my emphasis]  that happened much faster than traditional policy changes—unless, perhaps, you are the billionaire class.

What are these “monumental improvements?” In her previous book she often refers to “good agreements.” I compared one of her “good agreements” with a collective agreement between the brewery union to which I belonged and the employer. I concluded that the brewery collective agreement was probably slightly better–but that it hardly expressed a “good agreement.”

The reference to the billionaire class sounds very “class-like”–but there are also millionaires who are capitalists, and of course there are many workers in the public sector, many of whose bosses are not capitalists at all in the strict sense.

Although it is certainly necessary to personalize the employer class rather than always referring to such generalities as the “capitalist class,” the “employer class” and the like, the problem is not just billionaires but the economic, social and political structures that constitute the mechanisms by which workers are maintained as employees (and as unemployed and underemployed for a section of the working class). To reduce the problem to the “1%” may be legitimate as a short-hand for those structures, it may also hide the need to challenge these macro structures at every opportunity. By idealizing collective bargaining and collective agreements, on the one hand, and by reducing the power of the class of employers to “the 1%,” on the other, Ms. McAlevey simply ignores the problem of the relationship between social structure and social agency.

How are we going to solve that problem and control our lives by ignoring such a problem? How are we going to do when we read such rhetoric as:

It is precisely because unions can produce these kinds of gains, even in their emaciated state, that they have been the targets of sustained attacks from the corporate class. Unions’ track record of redistributing power—and therefore wealth—and changing how workplaces are governed is what led to a war waged against them by the business class. In just twelve years in the private sector, from 1935 to 1947, with massive strikes at the core of their strategy, workers made huge breakthroughs that benefited most people and created the concept of the American Dream—that your kids will do better than you, along with home ownership for workers and a right to retire and play with those grandkids.

“huge breakthroughs?” Ms. McAlevey is prone to exaggeration–as are many social democrats. Improvements there were, and such improvements as a rising standard of living in various domains are to be welcomed through struggling against the employer class, but this reference to the “American Dream” was hardly generalized, and one of the reasons why this Dream has increasingly vanished for the working class is the exaggeration of the gains achieved through collective bargaining, collective agreements and the union movement. Workers were still used as things for the benefit of employers-something which Ms. McAlevey never addresses (see  The Money Circuit of Capital).

Ms. McAlevey’s standard for improvement is rather low. Workers deserve much better–they deserve to control their own life process, and no collective agreement can ever do that.

Ms. McAlvey exaggerates often:

The methods organizers use to achieve these kinds of all-out strikes require the discipline and focus of devoting almost all of their time and effort reaching out to the workers who don’t initially agree, or even may think they are opposed to the strike, if not the entire idea of the union. This commitment to consensus building is exactly what’s needed to save democracy. To win big, we have to follow the methods of spending very little time engaging with people who already agree, and devote most of our time to the harder work of helping people who do not agree come to understand who is really to blame for the pain in their lives. Pulling off a big, successful strike means talking to everyone, working through hard conversations, over and over, until everyone agrees. All-out strikes then produce something else desperately needed today: clarity about the two sides of any issue. Big strikes are political education, bigly. [My emphasis] 

Strikes can indeed contribute to political education, but since there is evidence that Ms. McAlevey’s political education is drastically incomplete (ignoring the issue of the relationship between social structure and social agency and how to bridge the gap indicates a drastic lack of political education–as does the idealization of collective bargaining), “big strikes” do not necessarily generate certain kinds of political education.

As for saving democracy–political democracy has more or less existed (although even that is debatable), but the dictatorship which characterizes most workplaces–even unionized and radical ones–forms part and parcel of political democracy (see, for example, my post Employers as Dictators, Part One on economic dictatorship).

Ms. McAlevey refers to “working through hard conversations,” but when I tried to engage in such a conversation about the reference to “decent work” and “fair contracts,” with what I believed were the radical left in Toronto, I was insulted and ridiculed. I decided that such “hard conversations” had to occur without such insults and ridicule. I also decided to start this blog because, when I submitted an article for possible publication to the Canadian journal Critical Education, three anonymous reviewers rejected the article as it was and recommended extensive revisions. Since I did not consider their criticisms to be valid, I sought an alternative venue for expressing my views–hence this blog. (I will be posting their criticisms as well as my critical analysis of their criticisms in future posts.)

Ms. McAlevey often refers to winning “big”–while ignoring the impossibility of really winning control over our lives unless we address the macro issue. It is a definite limitation of her approach:

Chapter 1 discusses three such examples of women winning big.

The first chapter’s title is “Workers Can Still Win Big.” Ms. McAlevey refers to the strike of Local 2850 of Unite Here against Marriott Hotels in 2018. I tried to find the collective agreement but was unable to do so (if someone finds it, please send a commentary with the link). I looked at the UNITE HERE Local 2850 website, the American site for private-sector collective agreements, the following site Collective Bargaining Agreements File: Online Listings of Private and Public Sector Agreements – OLMS (Office of Labor-Management Standards), Department of Labor, United States) and the UNITE HERE Local 2850 Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/UniteHere2850/.

On the Facebook page, one reference to the strike provides some idea of what was won:

Today members of UNITE HERE Local 2850 at the Oakland Marriott City Center ratified an agreement with Marriott and will end our strike as of tomorrow. We thank our allies who supported us in our fight for jobs that are enough to live on in Oakland.

The collective agreement, then, in this judgement, permits the workers represented by the Local sufficient wages to be able to live in Oakland.

She does refer to the persistent sexual harassment to which many hotel workers have been subject and the measures that have been taken to address the issue–as indeed the Local should. The Local, through such representatives as Irma Perez, has expanded its work to include organizing to push for (and pass) legislation that addresses sexual harassment at work.

In a footnote, Ms. McAlevey writes:

Irma Perez, author interview. Irma is what’s called a shop steward in her hotel, so she’s deeply familiar with her own contract and the standards in her area. She states, “We have to clean 15 rooms a day at my job. But at hotels that are not unionized, workers have to clean 28 rooms a day, or sometimes even 30.” From my time working in Las Vegas, the same union versus nonunion standard applied to number of rooms cleaned per day, fifteen in a unionized hotel versus upward of thirty in a nonunion casino.

Cleaning 15 rooms rather than 28 or 30 rooms is certainly a large improvement in working conditions for those who clean hotel rooms. I remember my mother, a small woman (4′ 9″ or around 145 cm) working at a hotel in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, at a hotel. She found it difficult. She finally quit when her supervisor (a Yugoslavian woman) slapped her in the face. A reduction in the intensity of labour by almost 100 percent indeed is significant.

However, let us not exaggerate such a change. The hotel workers still must do what management wants in general–there is no dignity in that–nor equity.

The strike, implicitly, was about better pay in order to eliminate the need to have two jobs to make ends meet:

has the kind of energy that can motivate everyone on the picket line for days on end, dancing as she’s [Irma Perez] chanting to remind the workers and their supporters that they are fighting for a better life, for the freedom from having to work two full-time jobs. Every picket sign has the strike slogan and the worker’s demand, ONE JOB SHOULD BE ENOUGH!

The standard of having only one job that pays sufficiently well to make ends meet is certainly a standard worthy to fight for. However, this does not meet that it is an adequate standard to justify writing such things as the following:

In addition to the wins I’ve already listed, the three unions in the case studies here have secured the right to affordable, high-quality health care; equitable pay [my emphasis]; pay policies that eliminate gender and racial disparities, and favoritism; the right to keep control over your own schedule; improvements in safety on the job, for the workers as well as the patients, students, or guests; effective tools to combat sexual harassment; advances in paid time off, whether to have and get to love a baby, to take vacation, or get sick and avoid getting everyone else sick by going to work. Part of what makes unions and collective bargaining so effective is that workers themselves pull up to the negotiation table to decide how to redistribute the profits they make for others and design rules that actually solve their immediate problems. No other mechanisms engage the ingenuity of workers themselves.

Ms. McAlevey now engages in social-democratic ideology–“equitable pay,” “fair contracts,” “decent work” and the like are catch phrases used by the social democratic left to hide the continued dictatorship of employers over the lives of workers–whether unionized or not.

I probably received higher pay in the unionized jobs that I worked than the UNITE HERE Local 2850 workers, but to claim that what I received was “equitable” in any way simply ignores the issue of how it is equitable. On what basis does Ms. McAlevey justify her claim of equitable pay? She simply ignores the issue.

Furthermore, her reference to “redistribute the profits they make for others” assumes that it is legitimate for employers to use workers to produce a profit in the first place; fighting for complete control over the workplace (and the massive class struggle that that would entail) is simply ignored.

Of course, Sam Gindin and other social-democratic activists consider such explicit aims as “taking control of the economy” (at the grassroots level) as unrealistic under existing conditions. They believe in some magical future where the issue of the power of employers as a class will be addressed–they will always push such an issue to the waited-for future.

How any aim is to be achieved except by using it in the present to organize our present activities is a mystery to me–for that is what a real aim is and not a pseudo-aim. (Among children, the inductive approach of realizing an aim less explicitly may be more appropriate, and adults may even formulate more explicit aims of what they are trying to achieve after engaging in practice for a certain time–but then again, they may never do so). This does not mean that the aim has to be clear from the outset–far from it since aims are often clarified as they are put into effect. Nevertheless, an explicit aim of eliminating the power of employers as a class is certainly a legitimate aim to be put on the agenda of the working class and discussing it in the present–rather than putting it off to the distant future that social democrats are accustomed to doing.

I will continue a critical review of Ms. McAlevey’s book in another post.